Category: Movie Reviews

Nothing Compares 0

Nothing Compares

We expect a lot from our celebrities. We want them to edgy enough to make us feel special. But we don’t want them to be so edgy that they offend someone. And if, God forbid, they do offend someone, we are quick to cancel them. Until we un-cancel them. The cheekily offensive Sex Pistols was a group so edgy they turned down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But front man Johnny Rotten provided the voice of an Acoustiguide at the ultra-establishment Metropolitan Museum of Art’s British fashion exhibit. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” song was so controversial that then-candidate for Vice President Dan Quayle denounced it. He is now beloved by the grandmothers who know him from “Law & Order: SVU.”

Sinead O’Connor has not had a second act of that magnitude, perhaps because she was not just unprepared for massive pop stardom but not really interested in it. A new documentary about the Irish singer informs us at the end that her still-massively popular version of the song by Prince that gives the film its title was not played in the movie because the Prince estate declined to give them permission. 

No problem. That song is in our bloodstreams, and if we want to see the iconic video again we can always add to the over 300 million views it has on YouTube. It is more illuminating to see some of the outtakes and hear about what went on behind the scenes, including the director’s insistence on a woman cinematographer, Dominique Le Rigoleur, because he thought O’Connor would respond with more vulnerability looking at a woman. 

“You fell in love with that tear,” someone says about the video. Importantly, although the tear was real—O’Connor tells us she was thinking of her late mother—the words were someone else’s. The fans who loved the song and wanted to hear more of the same as the worldwide success moved O’Connor’s tour from theaters to arenas, found that performing the songs she wrote accessed the anger she was not able to express off-stage. She tells us about the repressive, church-controlled Irish culture she grew up in, with women told to be sweet and accommodating and everyone told they were sinners. 

She also tells us about her unstable and abusive mother, who beat her daughter and locked her out of the house, forcing her to be out all night, begging to be let back inside. O’Connor first began to sing as a way to “make the devil fall asleep,” to mollify and distract her mother. But she then declared her daughter “unmanageable” and sent her to the horrifically abusive institution exposed in the film “The Magdalene Sisters.” The nuns punished her by making her spend the night with elderly patients moaning for help that never came. Her song, “Troy” was inspired by her mother, “a testament,” she tells us, to work through her feelings until she will not have to sing it again.

O’Connor found success quickly. She had that extraordinary voice, with impeccable clarity and the ability to go from a whisper to a shout while staying in key. And she had that instantly iconic appearance, the androgynous contrast between her shaved head, leather jacket, and boots and her mesmerizing, long-lashed eyes. 

She also became pregnant at 20, just as her album was released. The discussion of the label’s response to her pregnancy and the design of the album cover(s)—a less confrontational version for the U.S.—is one of the movie’s most powerful revelations. 

This is not the typical “behind the music” documentary. It does not aspire to be comprehensive either as biography, as an overview of an entire artistic career, or as cultural commentary. There is no effort to cover O’Connor’s marriages, religion, name changes, her mental illness challenges, or even the last 11 albums she has produced. The focus is on what will be the first line of O’Connor’s obituary: on “Saturday Night Live” she sang a Bob Marley song about racism with lyrics based on a speech to the UN by Haile Selassie. And then she held up a photograph of the pope and tore it in half. The film reveals, as O’Connor did in her memoir, that her reason was as personal as it was political; that was the photograph that was on the wall of her mother’s home. 

It caused a furor. The audience applauded when subsequent SNL host Joe Pesci says he would have smacked her. “Saturday Night Live” also had Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra calling Jan Hooks as O’Connor a “bald chick.” Radio stations swore never to play her music again, and protests included a bulldozer running over O’Connor’s CDs. 

Director Kathryn Ferguson and her co-writers Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie want us to think about the way O’Connor’s influence is reflected in today’s outspoken female performers, a legacy they consider more significant than the Prince song about lost love. A compilation of quick clips at the end is not entirely persuasive about O’Connor’s impact, but her story and her voice are impact enough.

Premiering on Showtime on September 30th. 

Railway Children 0

Railway Children

“Railway Children” is touching and beautifully produced, but fans of the 1906 E. Nesbit book and the 1970 film need to know that there’s only the most vestigial connection to this latest film, which barely qualifies as “inspired by.” There are children and there is a railway and someone who is unjustly accused. The most significant consistency is the lovely actress Jenny Agutter, who appeared as one of the children in the 1968 mini-series and again in the 1970 film, the same character as a mother in the 2000 version, and the same character as a grandmother of one of the children in this one.  

The setting has been moved from Victorian times to 1944, near the end of World War II. The storyline is very different, and a new character has been added, a Black American GI named Abe. His arc is so clumsily constructed and resolved, at the same time both under- and over-written, that even the very appealing Kenneth Aikens cannot make it work.

The story opens at a Manchester train station. The Nazis are bombing English cities and parents are sending their children to the Yorkshire countryside to keep them safe. The children are confused and scared, and parents are trying to comfort them. One mother sobs and snatches her child back from the train because she just cannot bear for them to be separated.

Lily (Beau Gadsdon), a brave and resilient teenager, promises her mother she will take care of her dress-hating sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and their teddy-bear toting young brother Ted (Zac Cudby). When they arrive in Yorkshire, local families are told to pick the whichever children they are willing to take home. No one wants the three siblings who won’t be separated. Bobbie Waterbury (Agutter) persuades her daughter Ann (Sheridan Smith), the school headmistress, to take them. Her kindness makes the newcomers feel at home and they quickly bond with Ann’s son, Thomas (Austin Haynes). The children miss their mother. But they enjoy exploring the country with its fresh air and unobstructed starry nights. And they enjoy exploring the railyard, where Thomas has set up a secret headquarters for spying that he insists is helping the war effort. 

That is where they discover Abe, who tells them he is an American GI on a secret mission. In the grand tradition of “Great Expectations,” “Whistle Down the Wind,” “The Parts You Lose,” and others, he needs their help. He has been wounded. Lily agrees to bring him some bandages and he earns her trust by saving her when a bomb lands near them.

The setting, with many of the same locations from the first film, is used effectively; the peaceful, bucolic beauty of the countryside contrasts with the war news and underscoring the children’s adaptability and resolve. Kit Fraser’s cinematography has touches of nostalgic sepia in its color palette to evoke the past. The young actors give sensitive, moving performances, especially Gadsdon. Casting directors: put her in a movie with Thomasin McKenzie playing sisters who solve crimes or commit (not too serious) crimes. A sure hit.

There is nothing wrong with updating a classic story. But the storyline about Abe does not work nearly as well as the scenes of the children getting used to their new environment, responding to bullies, exploring, and coming to terms with a war that they cannot fully understand but accept because it’s all they’ve ever known. Abe’s situation is more compromised than it should be to provide the emotional weight the movie wants it to have. 

Abe’s character is based on real-life conflicts between Black and white GIs when the military was still segregated but found itself in a country that refused to accept Jim Crow rules, keeping Black soldiers out of bars and restaurants and sometimes abusing them severely. It’s a weighty topic that deserves more thoughtful treatment than a chase scene and a contrived resolution that includes a child’s unforgivably dangerous stunt being portrayed as heroic. The denouement is so rushed that “Railway Children” requires three mid-credit scenes to resolve everything that is left. It is a disappointing ending to a film that begins with great promise, and, more significantly, a disappointing treatment of an issue that deserves better.

Now playing in theaters. 

The African Desperate 0

The African Desperate

Any art student knows the dread of sitting in front of your professors to dissect and defend your work. The opening scene of “The African Desperate” amplifies this discomfort to 11, as Palace (Diamond Stingily) sits before her four white professors as they spout critiques riddled with obtuse language. 

The professors then begin a pissing contest of artistic grandiosity, all while Palace awkwardly tries to keep her head above the waters of their interrogation. This pace is maintained both thematically and symbolically throughout the rest of the film as we follow Palace in her final days on campus after wrapping up her MFA and facing her return home to Chicago. Martine Syms’ directorial debut “The African Desperate” is a coming-of-age story, a search for stability and identity after the security of school is lost. 

No student in the film seems to feel quite as displaced by their graduation as Palace does. With her being the only Black woman in the film, introduced in a scene where white academia is focused more on invading her identity than analyzing her work, we’re immediately faced with the confined feeling that comes with being a Black artist in the fine art sphere. 

Palace is wonderfully portrayed by Stingily. With the majority of her moments trademarked by a deadpan delivery, any emotional breaks are made all the more impactful as she encounters her emotional trials and tribulations. Stingily’s performance is tangible; her gruffness and prickly sarcastic humor are reminiscent of someone we know. 

The supporting cast, Palace’s friends Aidan (Cammisa Buerhaus) and Hannah (Erin Leland), as well as a sort-of love interest, Ezra (Aaron Bobrow), possess a similar emotional quality. They’re believable, each encompassing (to a distinct degree) various archetypes of art school students. Given that the actors are all working artists themselves, the strength with which their performances hit close to home is not only personal, but effectively feels so. Their roles perfectly serve to highlight Palace’s character. After all, this film is Stingily’s stage. 

“The African Desperate”‘s experimental soundtrack emphasizes its pacing, and maintains the film’s style in its more understated visual moments. In a party scene where Palace is DJing, the discordant rhythms and melodies she spins spotlight her battle to upkeep her own emotional equilibrium. It’s in sequences like these that Syms showcases her masterful consideration of a harmonious or jarring moment. No moments or elements are wasted; Syms’ hand is felt in every scene.  

The film rests on a foundation of a chaos and calm, as reflected in its cinematography. At times, its warm, faded glow evokes vintage photographs or impressionist paintings with modern subjects. Picturesque, romantic shots are like a breath of fresh air, only to be immediately followed with cold, off-kilter framing or the contrasted intensity of a world thrown under black light.

Martine Syms has a singular voice, flowing with creativity. Using her own background as an artist, Syms has taken artistic academia and the whiplash of exiting the comfort of school and churned it into a jungle juice of weed, ketamine, and self-discovery.

On MUBI today. 

Don’t Worry Darling 0

Don’t Worry Darling

Every lamp and ladylike cocktail dress, every convertible and clink of a martini glass is a perfect reflection of retro chic in Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling.”

Who wouldn’t want to live in the suburban Shangri-la of Victory, with its minimalist, mid-century modern homes and bawdy, booze-soaked dinner parties? Young, attractive families find their every want and need fulfilled under the idyllic shimmer of the Southern California sun.

But something’s not quite right here. That much is clear to us early on, and that nagging suspicion increasingly gnaws at Florence Pugh’s perky party girl, Alice. Sure, shopping all afternoon with her fellow housewives is fun, as is having her handsome husband, Jack, come home from a long day at work and service her on the dining room table before he’s even taken a bite of the roast and mashed potatoes. (We’ll come back to Harry Styles, and his many talents and challenges, in a bit.)

The revelation of what that something is, though, results in such a shrug of annoyance and disappointment that it very nearly ruins the entire experience in retrospect. I may have groaned audibly, “Ugh, really? That’s it?” at a recent press screening. Discovering what’s actually going on raises more questions than it answers, and it shines a harsh light on the half-baked notions in the script from Katie Silberman. She also wrote Wilde’s directorial debut, the delightfully raunchy comedy “Booksmart,” which had a focus and an emotional authenticity that are lacking in this thriller.

“Don’t Worry Darling” aims to explore the tyranny of the patriarchy, disguised as domestic bliss. This is not a new idea, but then again, there aren’t many new ideas here. You can see the various pieces being pulled together from better source material—a bit of “The Stepford Wives,” a whole lot of “Mad Men,” and a bunch of movies that would serve as spoilers to list them. Watching Pugh once again function as the clear-eyed voice of reason—and watching her get gaslit when she tries to warn everyone about the sinister undercurrents within a joyful setting—also brings to mind her visceral work in “Midsommar,” one of the key performances that signaled to the world she’s one of the finest young actresses of her generation. When will people finally learn to listen to Florence Pugh???

She is indeed a powerhouse, which makes it that much more glaringly obvious that Styles was not yet ready for this assignment. As an actor, he’s a terrific pop star. Granted, his character is meant to be empty and pretty, and he definitely looks the part with his slim suits and sleek, angular features. The camera loves him. But when it comes time for him to summon the emotional depth he needs for his more intense scenes opposite Pugh, he’s distractingly outmatched. (Interestingly, Shia LaBeouf was first cast in the role, but it’s hard to imagine him here as the earnest, young company man on the rise. His presence is too forceful, too unsettling.)

Styles’ appeal at least fits the premise of “Don’t Worry Darling,” in which a select group of forward-thinking families has moved to a planned Palm Springs community to create their own society in the mid-1950s. “It’s a different way. A better way,” Gemma Chan’s glamorous Shelley assures her guests at one of the movie’s many soirees. Her husband is the town’s founder, Frank, and he’s played with the devious purr of a self-satisfied cult leader by Chris Pine.

Every day is the same, and that’s meant to be the allure. The men leave for work in the morning, lunchboxes in hand, on the way to top-secret jobs at the Victory Project, which they can’t discuss with their wives. The wives, meanwhile, send them off with a kiss before embarking on a day of vacuuming and bathtub scrubbing, then perhaps a dance class, and definitely some day drinking. Wilde herself plays Alice’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Bunny, with cat-eye makeup and a conspiratorial grin. She brings some enjoyable swagger and humor to this increasingly creepy world.

But little by little, Alice begins to question her reality. Her anxiety evolves from jittery paranoia to legitimate terror the more she discovers about this place, and Pugh makes it all palpable. Images come to her in impressionistic wisps and nightmares that startle her awake in the dark. In time, Wilde relies too heavily on these visuals: black-and-white clips of Busby Berkeley-style dancers, or close-ups of eyeballs. They grow repetitive and wearying rather than disturbing. The heavy-handed score from John Powell becomes more insistent and plodding, telling us how to feel at every turn. Whatever you’re thinking might be at play here, it’s probably more imaginative than what it turns out to be.

Once Alice finds the courage to confront Frank about her suspicions, though, it results in the film’s most powerful scene. Pugh and Pine verbally circle and jab at each other. Their chemistry crackles. Each is the other’s equal in terms of precision and technique. Finally, there’s real tension. More of this, please.

What’s ironic is that Frank and Shelley’s mantra for their worshipful citizens is one of control: the importance of keeping chaos at bay, of maintaining symmetry and unity, of living and working as one. But as “Don’t Worry Darling” reaches its climactic and unintentionally hilarious conclusion, Wilde loses her grasp on the material. The pacing is a little erratic throughout, but she rushes to uncover the ultimate mystery with a massive exposition dump that’s both dizzying and perplexing.

The craft on display is impeccable, though, from the gleaming cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Darren Aronofsky’s usual collaborator) to the flawless production design from Katie Byron to the to-die-for costumes from Arianne Phillips. The excellent work of all those behind-the-scenes folks and others at least makes “Don’t Worry Darling” consistently watchable, all the way up to its non-ending of an ending. Let’s just say you’ll have questions afterward, and those post-movie conversations will probably be more thoughtful and stimulating than the movie itself. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Meet Cute 0

Meet Cute

“Meet Cute,” or “Live. Date. Repeat.” as I’m calling it informally, wastes a good time machine. With the bright flash of a blue light from a tanning bed, made by New York City nail salon owner June (Deborah S. Craig), one can be transported back in time for 24 hours. There’s so much that can be done, and June seems pretty open to letting anyone just walk in and use it. It’s a bummer that “Meet Cute” sticks us with such a ho-hum date.

“Meet Cute” is a failed experiment of a time travel story, starting with how its titular moment and subsequent date rarely captures our imagination. Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) has stumbled across a time machine in a tanning bed at a nail salon, and she has been using its limited ability—only 24 hours in the past or future—to revisit a date with Gary (Pete Davidson). The date usually starts the same, with her approaching him at a bar, urging him to ditch the place and walk through the city to get dinner. She usually has a line about her father being a “traveling alcoholic,” and he makes a “Sophie’s Choice” aside when it comes to picking a restaurant. 

But the way the date ends can be a toss-up, especially when Sheila becomes more and more serious about being from the future, which he initially takes as a flirtatious joke. Sheila gets fixated with this connection, and sometimes she goes through the dates as if she wants to weird him out off the bat, telling him how long she has “known” him, even though it’s their first meeting. This fateful night, repeated with different variations because of some desperation that doesn’t come into genuine form, is the film’s main spectacle. 

Director Alex Lehmann has an eye for some opulent NYC dating spots—the two are covered by shimmering lights inside the Bangladeshi restaurant they always end up at—but their two-hander moments walking down the street create a bland intimacy. On a larger scale, “Meet Cute” doesn’t convey enough of the magic that its most intense character becomes addicted to, and despite Lehmann’s quick cuts and some dry humor from the original script by Noga Pnueli, there’s not much total charisma. Their date, however impromptu, just doesn’t have that certain zing of romance to wish we were on it, or had it, or could have it. 

Kaley Cuoco’s inner electricity powers much of this entire production, and it’s clear the shortcomings in her character and plot are not from the performance, but the script that gives us a challenging character but treats it too broadly. As she is written, Sheila is supposed to be pushy, electric, desperate, manic—she’s supposed to be too much. She’s also supposed to be a lot of dangerous, given how she has to kill her previous self when she steps back 24 hours to avoid a “Highlander” thing. Cuoco gets this all across well, and the performance is good for what it is. Next to her work in “The Flight Attendant,” one can appreciate how much she’s venturing to wilder, more freewheeling parts. 

But “Meet Cute” constantly is weighed down by one particular rhetorical question—it’s all for this guy? Almost like a joke from the script, Sheila’s fixation on Gary becomes ridiculous, and Davidson’s flat performance doesn’t make any more of a case to see what Sheila sees. They have decent enough chemistry in the different repeated chapters of this first date, but Davidson seems lost in how to handle this character without being monotone or too laid back. He’s relatively lifeless in the role, as if he were more here to fill in the New York-related scenery.

Only after its initial curious charm has worn off, does “Meet Cute” venture to how the time machine could be used to change the dating partner, and not just how they felt about you at the end of the night. It’s a general way of getting to how our partners come from previous formative relationships, but it’s too late, and it’s certainly too little. It might have been more rewarding for the story to show us more about what else Sheila has been doing while in the past, including killing an evil figure named “Smitson.” 

“Meet Cute” then winds these ideas about changing someone to make some pretty disingenuous emotional bids in its third act, to assemble a hollow message about choosing life because of a relationship. No, not even a relationship, a first date. With Gary. The romantic fantasies and the time travel plotting of “Meet Cute” are a total mismatch. 

Now playing on Peacock. 

Raymond & Ray 0

Raymond & Ray

How do we grieve people we never really knew? How do we get closure when the only thing that changed was the mortal status of someone who ruined our lives? It’s been a theme of all forms of drama for generations, and Rodrigo Garcia’s “Raymond and Ray” just doesn’t do anything memorable enough to stand out in this overcrowded subgenre. The actors who agreed to play the leading men do a lot of heavy lifting in character terms, but they just don’t seem challenged enough by the material to produce something truly memorable. Of course, not every film needs to be groundbreaking, but almost anyone who’s ever seen a movie could write the second half of this one after seeing the first, and the whole thing takes on a depressing fatalism. In the end, this movie doesn’t really get to know anyone, merely pushing them toward the inevitable finish line, where they can start their new life chapters with the father who defined them for decades in the rearview mirror.

Garcia’s film opens with Raymond Harris (Ewan McGregor) arriving on the doorstep of his half-brother Ray (Ethan Hawke). They haven’t seen each other in years, but Raymond has news—their horrible father is dead. His final request was that his estranged sons attend his funeral. Garcia drops in a few life-defining character beats in the film’s stronger early scenes—I actually would have preferred to watch Hawke and McGregor merely talking about dad in the former’s remote cabin than the machinations of the plot to come. Raymond has more than one ex-wife; Ray used to be an addict; dad was an asshole. Ray decides to go more for his brother than his father—Raymond can’t drive because of a suspended license—and the pair head off to meet the people who populated the last chapter of dad’s life, discovering that they all knew a very different man than the one who was so manipulative with his sons that he basically gave them the same name just to mess with them.

In Virginia, they meet dad’s last partner, a captivating woman named Lucia (Maribel Verdu), who introduces them to another half-brother in his son Simon (Maxim Swinton). It seems like Ray’s dad was happy in the end, maybe even finding a sense of calm and peace, at least according to his Reverend (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and a nurse (Sophie Okonedo) who befriended him. Although dad is still screwing with the sons he abused, insisting that they actually dig his grave. It’s a final act of control that pushes Raymond and Ray to the emotional edge they need in order to really find closure.

It’s nice to see McGregor play an ordinary guy after such iconic ones as Obi-Wan and Jesus in the last decade, and he has believable chemistry with Hawke, who is typically fantastic, adding depth and nuance to Ray that isn’t really there on the page. It’s in the way he overreacts when he sees that dad held onto his trumpet—Ray put his love for music in a mental box and resents that dad never encouraged it—or how he flirts with basically everyone, seeking connection. I’ve seen some people out of Toronto comparing this to a Sam Shepard work and that’s definitely in Hawke’s performance, but I think the comparison falls apart in the rest of the piece, which just feels too eager to connect dot A to dot B. It’s too clean-cut and too simple—the minute we meet Verdu and Okenedo, it’s obvious how they’re going to partner up with the leading men. Only Hawke finds the rough edges here and there that the whole movie needed a lot more of overall.

Garcia started his career as a writer/director who seemed keenly attuned to the human condition. I remember how much Roger flipped for his excellent “Nine Lives,” noting how Garcia, who is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “share’s his father’s appreciation of the way lives interweave and we touch each other even if we are strangers.” That Garcia influenced multiple episodes of “Six Feet Under” and the development of the original HBO Gabriel Byrne version of “In Treatment.” I kept looking at “Raymond and Ray” trying to find the same depth, the same human unpredictability, and the same empathy. There are glimpses of it in McGregor’s performance and enough of it in Hawke’s to make it an easy diversion on Apple TV+ next month, but Garcia’s work lately seems more resigned to repeating familiar themes instead of digging into why we keep telling these stories. Or finding a way to make them feel new again.

This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres on Apple TV+ on October 21st.

Pearl 0

Pearl

Something is not right with Pearl (Mia Goth), and she’ll never understand why. She’s too set in her ways, like her need to perform on haystacks while dancing with a pitchfork, or murdering animals when no one is watching. She wants to get out of her isolated farm in 1918 Texas, and experience the love that comes from performing, in being seen as an entertainer but not your truest self. It’s not likely her future star profiles would ever mention that she once impaled a duck with a pitchfork and then fed it to her best friend, an alligator (as we see when her name splashed across the screen in the opening credits). 

Ti West’s “Pearl” is about how frightening actors can be as they feed that corrosive need to be seen at all costs. So it’s fitting that this movie’s most brilliant moment, its final shot (not a spoiler, as we know she makes it to 1979 in West’s “X”), is from Goth using her face to disturbing ends. It’s a wide, forced smile; her teeth signal happiness, while her sporadically twitching facial muscles and welling tears say something much scarier, all while frozen in that desperation. West makes us stare at it during the closing credits. It’s all wildly, wonderfully discomforting, and one wishes this character study strove for that effect more often while telling a story that’s not as nuanced as its final, silent call for help. 

But for how obvious the plotting and dialogue can be from co-writers West and Goth in painting a portrait of a monster, it’s fun to interpret Pearl’s proclamations throughout her film as actor/serial killer double-speak: “The whole world is going to know my name,” “I don’t like reality,” “All I want is to be loved.” Goth makes these revelations count in primal showcases, expressed with a breathy, heavily accented voice that’s meant to make her sound kind of naive and very much innocent, a carbon copy of the countless Pearls out there. A long-running close-up of Goth later on takes us on a wild ride of her anxieties about not being loved, her fears of her true self, unaware that the sudden turn within her is near, especially after someone makes her feel small. Then they suffer for it. 

Those who remember this year’s “X” will remember the farm where a handful of adult film folk died, and Goth’s elderly version of Pearl, who was often naked and rebuffed and took it all very personally for a course of events a la “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The few kills in “Pearl” are more calculated, and come as climaxes to scenes of anger, rejection, and her own frustrations. West makes those moments count, creating dread out of a camera’s movement (slowly spinning at one point, waiting for Pearl to pop into frame), while his editing then has its own brutality. Usually taking place in daylight and within Pearl’s psychosis, they’re meant to be played as dark comedy. That very mix of tone doesn’t hit as poignantly as it wants to, but the kills are effectively bracing. 

The house is treated with similar shots as in “X,” but the cinematography by Eliot Rockett presents it in glowing Technicolor, a storybook world of potential—bright green grass, a blood-red farmhouse, blue sky overalls on Pearl as she dreams of getting away. Things are less luminous inside the home, where Pearl’s life of isolation and grave unhappiness is no anomaly: her father (Matthew Sunderland) is literally in a wheelchair, sick and wordless, and always needs tending to. And while “Pearl” is a monster movie, Goth’s character has a villain of her own, her mother Ruth, portrayed with haunting disgust this side of “Mommie Dearest” by an incredible Tandi Wright. 

Repression is evil’s trick in “X” and now “Pearl”; it makes connection, pleasure, and so much that is fruitful all the more out of reach. It gets people killed. Ruth helps make sense of the horror in this world, in a staggering centerpiece scene that lays it all out on a dinner table: she rips apart Pearl’s hopes of ever leaving, projects comments of failure onto her, and screams about her own immense dissatisfaction with life that she has accepted. Her words are visceral, and they seem to control the thunderstorms that boom from the outside. It’s an apt turning point for Pearl, and an excellent display for both Goth and Wright. 

Pearl finds an escape from all of this in the movies—even just the thought of being in one. When her father needs more medicine, she goes to town and gets to actually watch one, inspiring her dreams of being the smiling dancing woman in the frame. She also meets a dashing projectionist (David Corenswet), who makes her feel like she could be a movie star, although she later finds out what kind of movies he means, and what he wants from her. Pearl remains as naive as she is needy as she tells him in wistful terms about wanting to be a star. It’s here that we simply have to trust Goth and West’s dedication to this character and believe that they’re rooting for her in the end.  

West’s film takes place in a world that is sick, as the Spanish Flu has reached the states, causing people to wear masks and be isolated. That’s a stronger period element than the movie’s presentation; there’s a nagging effect that in spite of the production design—those cars, dresses, and even a full-out dance sequence—that the movie is so self-amused it’s practically baiting people who go to old movies in theaters to laugh at the niceties and mannerisms of earlier eras. It can be accomplished in other facets, like the gorgeous wall-to-wall score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams that kicks off with a sumptuous main theme, but the aesthetic gambit of “Pearl” registers more as being cute than immersive.  

There are just too many moments in which the sincerity of “Pearl” is questionable. Yes, it gives Goth a compelling chance to nurture a fascinating character, to show a performer’s heart and needs, for us to clock her emotional reactions like the steps of a slasher. But the execution of “Pearl” is shakier in what it wants us to take from her delusions, her violent outbursts, her yearning for love. “Pearl” gets a little too close to letting you simply laugh at her. We know she wouldn’t like that.

Now playing in theaters. 

V/H/S/99 0

V/H/S/99

“V/H/S/99,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before a Shudder drop next month, is a vicious, angry movie. Perhaps it’s merely coincidental, but it feels intentional in the manner in which these found footage short films all seem to feature people, well, “f**king around and finding out.” Some have suggested that the film should have been called “V/H/S/Y2K” but I think it’s not for a reason. This is not about the launch of a new millennium—it’s about the end of an old one, a slammed door on irresponsible idiots, mean sorority girls, manipulative TV personalities, and more. As an overall film, I found it more inconsistent than the stronger reboot “V/H/S/94” as a few of the segments just don’t work, but I admired the angry yell that this film resembles as a whole, and I’m still in the camp that hopes they make a new one of these like every year.

The latest “V/H/S” opens with its worst segment—never a good thing for something trying to reach an audience on a streaming service like Shudder because they may jump off to something better quickly. Maggie Levin (“Into the Dark: My Valentine”) directs “Shredding,” which documents in nauseating shaky cam style a ‘90s group of troublemakers—think the pop-punk bands of the day with “Jackass” aspirations—who decide to break into an abandoned venue where a band named Bitch Cat was trampled to death a few years ago. One guess how that goes. It’s a cluttered, inconsistent, merely loud short that exists on the bottom tier of the “V/H/S” segments over the years. It has nothing to say even as it’s screaming.

Things improve greatly with “Suicide Bid,” helmed by Johannes Roberts (“The Strangers: Prey at Night”), the title referring to a sorority wannabe named Lily (Ally Ioannides) as she applies to only one Greek organization on her new campus, and it’s populated by just about the worst people in the world. They tell Lily that she has to survive a night buried in a coffin, relaying the legend of a girl who did this before and disappeared, taken off to Hell by a demon. The first half of this one is a little silly, but I really like the creature design in the second half as Roberts and his team have crafted a practical demon that’s pretty legitimately terrifying.

Flying Lotus takes over for the centerpiece, which feels like it will appeal enough to fans of the artist (and his previous work “Kuso”) enough to make it the fan favorite of this project. “Ozzy’s Dungeon” is the name of one of those abrasive kid game shows like “Double Dare” but with a twisted, violent edge. When a girl named Donna (Amelia Ann) is injured on the show, her mother (Sonya Eddy) kidnaps the host (an excellent Steven Ogg) and forces him to run a brutal gauntlet himself. Something about the pacing in this one feels off to me as the gimmick wears off before it ends, but those who like their horror particularly grotesque should be entertained.

Tyler MacIntyre (“Tragedy Girls”) helms the modest but forgettable “The Gawkers,” which takes the concept of suburban perverts to extremes—again, almost all of these shorts feature someone who messed with the wrong person. In this case, it’s a bunch of sexually overcharged teens in an average cul-de-sac who lose their mind over the beauty of a new neighbor (Emily Sweet). They keep amplifying their voyeurism to the point that they literally install spyware and discover, well, she’s not your average girl next door. This segment is fine but surprisingly forgettable, lacking the energy of the best “V/H/S” chapters.

My favorite is probably “To Hell and Back,” from Vanessa & Joseph Winter, who directed the SXSW hit “Deadstream,” which lands in theaters soon. The manic, Raimi-esque energy of that project is on display here in the tale of two filmmakers (Archelaus Crisanto & Joseph Winter himself) who decide to document a demon-summoning rite on New Year’s Eve and end up going the other way instead. In other words, instead of a demon coming to our world, these two mopes go to Hell. “A found footage movie set in Hell” is too clever a pitch to deny and the Winters have a blast in Satan’s realm, fueled by a fun performance from Melanie Stone as a tour guide of sorts through the insanity they find there.

“Suicide Bid” and “To Hell and Back” alone make “V/H/S/99” worth seeing for anyone who’s a big enough horror fan to subscribe to Shudder. In the end, these films are perfect for a streaming service, bite-sized jolts of genre entertainment that aren’t ever long enough to be truly annoying, even when they’re not working. While I think they could be more refined, I admire the go-for-broke DIY nature of these shorts and their quirky charms. Even when they’re this pissed off. 

This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival. It drops on Shudder on October 20th.

Riotsville, USA 0

Riotsville, USA

“Riotsville, U.S.A.,” the title of director Sierra Pettengill bleak and intense documentary, sounds like a provocation on the filmmaker’s part. Then you realize it refers to the actual name of a fictional place the U.S. military created in the 1960’s. On two bases, both named for racists, a series of staged activities were performed against a fake backdrop created to look like the inner city. These exercises were supposed to mimic rioting and the recommended police and military response. Soldiers played the parts of law enforcement and “troublemakers.” Not only did the performers have a live audience, the drills were also recorded for posterity.

Using only archival footage, Pettengill and her editor, Nels Bangerter fashion a searing indictment of the militarization of the police force as a response to civil unrest. The material comes from the military’s recordings, shows on a precursor to PBS, footage of community hearings and news reports of the 1968 Republican Convention. Most of the time, it is presented as it was recorded, but on occasion, the director intentionally blurs or obscures footage as if inspecting it under a microscope. The result draws even more attention to Charlene Modeste’s haunting reading of writer Tobi Haslett’s masterful narration.

“A door swung open in the late ’60s,” Modeste tells us. “And someone, something, sprang up and slammed it shut.” In 1967, President Johnson created The Kerner Commission, named after the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner. The commission was made up of “political moderates” whose job was to discover the reasons for civil unrest. By that time, the U.S. had been privy to numerous rebellions; that year saw major uprisings in Newark and Detroit, and two years prior, the Watts Rebellion happened in Los Angeles. These were Black areas where the lack of sufficient housing and employment, and the surplus of police violence, predicated the responses of people fed up with these situations.

In his 1968 speech, “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The unheard were finally raising their voices, and the government felt pressured to listen. However, LBJ had an ulterior motive in that he hoped his commission would conclude that “outside agitators” were the reasons for cities burning. As if the denizens were too stupid to see the injustices all around them, and therefore needed a more intelligent and sinister agent to stir the pot.

Instead, the Commission’s report was a 700-page published bestseller that concluded “our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White. Separate but unequal.” Their solution to rectify that would cost $2 billion a week, about the same amount LBJ was spending on Vietnam. H. Rap Brown, who was in prison on an inciting to riot charge, responded that “the Kerner Commission people should be in jail with me, because they’re saying what I’ve been saying.”

Of course, this was not the desired answer. However, the Kerner Commission did provide an out of sorts, and it’s the one thing the government decided to latch onto as a means of action: Increase the budgets of law enforcement in major cities. This leads to police officers driving military tanks and even a boxy, armored car that shot enormous amounts of tear gas. There’s also footage of little old White ladies going to target practice to protect themselves from that evil Negro menace should it come to their pristine little towns. “I don’t like the idea of shooting anybody,” says one bespectacled woman, “but if I have to…”

Meanwhile, “Riotsville, U.S.A.” splits its narrative between scenes of the titular location and footage from a progressive precursor to the Public Broadcasting System that was ultimately defunded by the Ford Foundation for being too incendiary. The latter features community meetings between Black people and White cops. It’s no surprise that the cops swear up and down that there’s no racism amongst their forces. It’s even less of a surprise when the Black folks angrily counter that with proof. “We’re getting our asses kicked out here by the police,” yells the preacher of the church that participated in one such round table.

Over at Riotsville, a group of all-White spectators watch the soldiers play cops and robbers, with Black participants screaming “I’ll be back to get you” as they’re arrested. The audience cheers as these play-acting rabblerousers get violently flung into cop cars and wagons. There’s even a re-enactment of the Watts Rebellion, for entertainment purposes only. The footage is jarring and garish, but the filmmakers can’t be accused of shooting it to look this way. This is the way it was shot by the U.S. military. There’s also constant mention of snipers running rampant during riots, a falsehood disproven by Kerner’s commission that kept getting repeated anyway as a form of gaslighting people into believing it.

It all leads up to footage of the 1968 Republican National Convention. The Democratic Convention  got all of the press that year, but “Riotsville, U.S.A.” shows that the GOP’s Miami-based convention was a real-life test run of the concepts crafted in Riotsville simulations. The Black denizens of Liberty City, many of whom protested the GOP’s nearby presence, were the recipients of this gruesome show of force. This footage is supplemented by coverage of NBC reporters covering the convention telling boldfaced lies about the protests before pivoting to introduce ads from Gulf, one of the manufacturers of the tear gas being used outside.

“Riotsville, U.S.A.” is certainly not an objective documentary. It’s angry and it dares the viewer to argue back. The freeform nature of it may seem faulty, but I felt it served the purpose of forcing me to interrogate what I was being shown. The smartest thing Pettengill does is to stay rooted in this past footage while not making a single comparison to events of today. She doesn’t have to; when a Black woman says, “if we were being told to arm ourselves the way those White women are being told, the response would be different,” her comment makes any contemporary references redundant. Then, as in now, rebellions were judged by what color the participants are.

Goodnight Mommy 0

Goodnight Mommy

Produced in 2014, “Goodnight Mommy,” an Austrian import from co-filmmakers Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala, was a diabolical and queasily effective item that took one of the most primal of fears—that the people that we know and love have somehow been replaced—and filtered it through an examination of the societal belief in an unbreakable bond between a mother and her children that took things to often ghastly extremes. The result was a strong, stylish and often unnerving genre that actually lived up to the hype that it had generated amongst horror fans. Perhaps inevitably, the film has now been given the dubious honor of an Americanized remake and, perhaps just as inevitably, it is a staggeringly pointless endeavor that replicates the basic story beats of the original but leaves out all of the tension, ambiguity and nasty invention that made that earlier effort so effective in the first place.

As the film opens, young twin brothers Elias and Lucas (Cameron Crovetti and Nicholas Crovetti) are being dropped off by their father at the isolated country home belonging to their mother (Naomi Watts), their first time seeing her in apparently some time. It turns out that Mom has secretly undergone some kind of medical procedure that has left her head completely swathed in bandages. That is disconcerting enough but as the kids settle in, they begin to sense that other things about her are not quite right—she is quick to get upset, she now seems to be a smoker, she refuses to sing the song that she used to do for them at bedtime and she forbids them from going into the barn out back. Oddest of all, she seems to be directing most of her attention towards Elias while barely acknowledging that Lucas even exists.

To the brothers, these bizarre developments can only lead to one conclusion—the person they are staying with is actually an imposter who has done something terrible to their mothers. Increasingly frightened by Mom’s seemingly irrational behavior and unable to contact their father, they try to flee to safety in the middle of the night. When that doesn’t work out, they become determined to get the apparent interloper to admit that she is a fraud and to reveal where their mother is. And yet, even after being duct taped to her bad and doused with ice water, she still insists that she really is their mother. Although Lucas remains firmly convinced that she is not who she is, Elias finds himself torn between his doubts over her identity and the lengths that he is willing to go to in order to prove it.

As I said, this version conforms to the basic parameters of the original film but mucks about the details in ways that prove to be disastrous. For starters, the often cruel and brutal means employed by the brothers in order to elicit the information that they want (including some particularly nasty uses for superglue, scissors, and a magnifying glass) have been eliminated, which considerably lowers the horror quotient. That would be acceptable if the film had bothered to replace them with anything interesting but it doesn’t. Screenwriter Kyle Warren and director Matt Sobel seem weirdly determined to strip away the ambiguous nature of the original narrative that proved to be just as unnerving as the more overt violence in order to give the unfolding events a far more literal and much less interesting interpretation that plods along before arriving at a startling twist that now proves to be anything but in their hands.

One could argue, I suppose, that as someone who saw and greatly admired the original film, my perspective on the film will inevitably be different from that of someone who never saw the previous version and who is coming into this one with fresh eyes. That said, my guess is that even newcomers to the story will be left cold by this version. The story is clumsily handled, the suspense is practically nonexistent and the vibe that it evokes is more idiotic than surreal. More damaging is the fact that the film never convincingly establishes the terror of the situation because at no point do we ever care for a moment if the woman is indeed their mother or not or how far the brothers will go to confirm their belief. 

The closest thing to a saving grace is the performance by Watts, who gives it her all but who is eventually undone by the cloddishness of the screenplay. (That said, between this and her appearance in the remake of the equally nasty “Funny Games,” I would gently suggest that she try to avoid appearing in any further American takes on sadistic Austrian cult films in which her character undergoes extensive torture at the hands of a pair of young sadists within the confines of her coldly sterile and decidedly isolated home.)

For those who saw the original “Goodnight Mommy,” this version will seem like an unforgivable botch that will go down as a quintessential example of what comes out when an offbeat foreign film is put through the American filmmaking apparatus in the hopes of attracting viewers who are more afraid of subtitles than sadism. Newcomers are likely to find it a crashing and crashingly obvious bore that will leave them wondering what all the fuss regarding the original was about in the first place. At least both groups will be able to come together in the end in the shared realization that this “Goodnight Mommy” is one of the most patently unnecessary films of the year.

Now playing on Prime Video.