Saturday, September 17, 2022

Blonde is more draining than compelling

 


Andrew Dominik is not an upbeat filmmaker. His directorial works, up to this point, pretty much laugh at the idea of frivolity. That's not a bad thing, though. With The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik used this bleak outlook to undercut the various forms of mythologizing that had soaked through the reputations of James and Ford. Neither one was all good or all bad, they were people, not legends. Killing Them Softly was a grimy crime saga that spiraled into a warning that the problems with America were so deeply entrenched in this country that not even the "hope" of the Obama era could hope to rectify it. "In America, you're on your own," Brad Pitt gravely intones in the film's final moments, aptly and unforgettably summarizing its themes. "Now where's my fucking money?"

With Blonde, Dominik, who is adapting a book of the same name by Joyce Carol Oats, now sets his sights on applying this tone and atmosphere to the life of Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe. This performer's life was so riddled with tragedies that it's easy to see why the tone of Killing Them Softly would seem like the perfect aesthetic to tell her story. But something got lost in translation here. Dominik's earlier narrative films dumped a bucket of cold bleak water on less nuanced perceptions of history. By contrast, Blonde doesn't bring much new to the vast catalog of movies that explore how old-school Hollywood was not kind to women.

Blonde begins with the tormented childhood of Norma Jeane Mortenson (played as a kid by Lily Fisher, but largely portrayed as an adult by Ana de Armas). Living with an abusive mom, Gladys Baker (Julianne Nicholson), and always being told about an absent father who worked in Hollywood, Jeane's life is not off to the best of starts. Her hardships only increase once she pursues an acting career, which eventually entails a plan by Hollywood executives for her to perform under the stage name Marilyn Monroe. Jeane's fame begins to grow and grow, but she can't escape the misery that's plagued her from the day she was born. The life of the woman the world calls Marilyn Monroe is defined by brutal realities and suffocating fiction.

The dissonance between reality and the fiction we tell ourselves provides some of the most interesting moments of Blonde. A great instance of this comes as an adult Jeane is tending to her mother in a psych ward. This movie star is expecting a child and begins to talk to her mother about parenting, a task Baker undertook despite being single. "You did the right thing, not getting rid of me," Jeane says as the camera cuts to jagged and sound-free flashbacks of Jeane getting abused and terrorized by her mom. These memories have left a scar on Jeane, and yet, she still creates a justification that her mother was a good firm parent, just like every mother should be. It isn't just in her name that Jeane inhabits a fantasy. In trying to come to terms with her horrific childhood, she's also built up ways to defend her mom.

That's a fascinating way to explore her fractured psyche and Dominick finds other creative ways to blend fantasy and reality throughout Blonde. I especially liked the way the exploding bulbs of old-timey cameras function as something akin to the Jaws theme music, a warning of impending danger that can pop out of nowhere. Whether she's on a date or experiencing a medical emergency at the beach, Jeane has been so overwhelmed by the paparazzi that she hears those bulbs flashing and breaking wherever she goes. It's a great use of a period-specific sound effect and the way we're sometimes unsure if there are really cameramen nearby or if this is all in Jeane's head is well-played.

Unfortunately, too much of Blonde is more derivative and draining than insightful in terms of its depiction of Jeane's relentless suffering. Running for 167 minutes, Blonde keeps piling on one miserable event after another, to the point that its vision of the performer known as Marilyn Monroe sometimes doesn't even feel like a human being. She's often like the people in a Human Centipede movie, just a vessel for unique forms of torment. Her anguish reaches such extreme melodramatic heights that it often becomes unintentionally comical when clashing against the pervasively dour tone of Blonde. How else are viewers supposed to react to the sight of Monroe's fetus chastizing her for getting an abortion earlier in life, all played straight?

That moment exemplifies why Blonde, despite some interesting moments and a strong lead performance from Ana de Armas, ends up fumbling the ball. Its attempts at insight into the mind of Norma Jeane are just too heavy-handed and obvious for their own good, especially when executed inside such a dour production. If everything's going to be so serious and contemplative, shouldn't there be more interesting or original pieces of symbolism than a STOP sign inspiring Jeane to protest against an abortion? Aren't there more distinctive ways of depicting Jeane's constant anguish than just resorting to a succession of scenes where she gets brutalized by men on-screen? Also, returning to this again, must there be so many shots lingering on her fetuses like this is a Pure Flix movie warning of the dangers of abortions? 

When the material isn't thuddingly obvious, it's just derivative of other movies. Glossy scenes depicting the early happy days of Jeane's marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) prove especially distracting in how they take the lighting of a Terrence Malick movie combined with the stares into the camera from a Barry Jenkins feature. The constantly shifting aspect ratios had me thinking about how something like The Grand Budapest Hotel showed real thought when its framing was adjusted. Even two brief uses of what appear to be GoPro cameras strapped to people's chests just reminded me of everything from Pain & Gain to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It's one thing to be oppressively bleak. It's another to have that tone and also be frustratingly lacking in visual innovation.

You've seen what Blonde has to offer so many times before but often with a lot more depth. The one-note tone suffocates any chance of Jeane being seen as a human being, despite the game efforts of Armas. That's an especially strange flaw since Dominik's earlier movies did manage to capture recognizable human beings in the middle of tidal waves of misery. James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly, for instance, reeks of heartache and missed opportunity, there's a human being there informing all the torment. Blonde, meanwhile, is all anguish, all the time. It's fixated on the screams of a woman in pain, but not on the psyche of the woman herself. What worked so well tonally for Dominik's earlier works just proves ill-suited and oppressive in Blonde.

The Woman King reigns supreme as crowdpleaser entertainment done right

 

Director Gina Prince-bythewood knows how to make satisfying crowdpleasers. That's a much more difficult task than it may sound on paper. How many times have you watched a romantic drama that just laid there inert or just stared emotionless at the screen during a hollow action movie? By contrast, Prince-bythewood has often delivered the compelling character dynamics and creative manifestations of certain genre staples that make sure these films can live up to their potential. It's why her 2000 motion picture Love & Basketball was so absorbing or her 2013 romantic drama Beyond the Light was downright enchanting.  These titles delivered the emotions and narrative hallmarks you'd want out of these movies without coming off as mechanical or manipulative.

Gina Prince-bythewood is working with a bigger canvas than Beyond the Lights on The Woman King, but she's still got her knack for making features that leave your spirit stirred without sacrificing depth in the process. There are quibbles and nitpicks to be had here, but by and large, The Woman King is something quite exceptional.

Taking place in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s, General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads the Agojie, an all-women team of warriors who protect their land on behalf of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca and her fighters are aiding Ghezo in a cruel system wherein they capture violent intruders from rival kingdoms and sell them to European slave traders. It's a cycle of brutality that has no end in sight. Nanisca wants to find another way to survive. Just as she's plotting an alternate course for Dahomey, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) arrives with a slew of other young girls to train as potential new soldiers in the Agojie. The path to fighting for Dahomey will be rough and Nanisca will have no mercy on potential new recruits. But soon, Nanisca will need all the help she can get as new evil forces begin to descend on Dahomey and its people.

The screenplay by Dana Stevens opts to capture the story of Nawi training with a classical story structure that evokes everything from sports movies to Captain America: The First Avenger. Any film about an underdog outsider having to come in and prove themselves on a physical level seems to have been a guiding star for the first-half of The Woman King. That may sound like a complaint, but it truly isn't. For starters, such plot mechanics endure for a reason, they can still be plenty stirring when executed right. Plus, they provide a familiar template for Stevens to establish unique character dynamics, such as the delightful rapport between Nawi and Izogie (Lashana Lynch).

Going this route narratively also allows for plenty of intimate sequences where we get to truly know these characters before they head out into battle against evil forces. Prince-bythewood's filmmaking, which has extensive experience with capturing low-key but important interactions between people, is especially solid here. She knows when to just let the actors, especially Viola Davis's rich performance, carry the scene while also understanding the need to make time for seemingly disposable moments, like Nawi bonding with two of her fellow trainees. What could've been observed as a throwaway moment by another director is rightfully seen by Prince-bythewood as critical to the overall movie. By the time we come to Nawi undergoing her final trial for a place among the Agojie (which is brought to life with some of the sharpest editing and camerawork in the whole movie), we're fully immersed in every step she takes. Such is the power of knowing how little character details add up to something big in terms of audience investment.

Admittedly, certain character beats work better than others. A prospective romantic bond between Nawi and an outsider to her society just isn't as rich as the scenes depicting her friendship with her fellow fighters. Whenever the two characters are talking, their dialogue feels especially predictable and I found myself squirming, wanting to get back to the kind of character dynamics The Woman King excels best at. 

On a more positive note, The Woman King fares shockingly well in tackling weightier issues, namely putting the complicity of the lead characters in slavery front and center in the narrative, without sacrificing moments of excitement. Part of that comes from how Gina Prince-bythewood's framing of the fight sequences has some fun flourishes but don't totally eschew reality. When it comes time for grander set pieces, they still feel at home with the rest of the movie. These fighters aren't moving around on the battlefield like Legolas walking on air in The Hobbit, which certainly helps. Once again demonstrating the importance of balance, these set pieces are still capable of engaging in exciting heightened touches when the occasion calls for it. My personal favorite is Nanisca and Izogie's simultaneous response when the former character gets her sword shot out of her hand.

Even beyond the touches Gina Prince-bythewood brings in the director's chair, The Woman King also functions as a great showcase for the talents of its cast. There's not a dud performance in here, with Davis being the perfect deeply human anchor for this story. Lashana Lynch may be the standout of the entire ensemble, though,  even just for her gift for unforgettable facial expressions alone. Also emerging as an MVP is composer Terence Blanchard. The subtle details of his score add so much to the sweeping scope of this historical epic. All these talented artists have been given the space to really flex their muscles and give 110% in The Woman King and the results are downright remarkable. 

It can be easy to take broadly-appealing crowdpleaser entertainment for granted, but with The Woman King, director Gina Prince-bythewood once again shows that it takes real craft to create something that makes you want to stand up and cheer. Oh, and having an actor of Viola Davis's caliber around doesn't hurt either.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Barbarian is an entertaining and chilling romp best experienced unspoiled


I don't really know where to begin reviewing a movie like Barbarian. Everyone whose already written lengthy paragraphs about this movie have been right to keep the surprises hidden since this is very much a horror film that thrives on shocking the audience with each new twisted layer in its web of scary storytelling. It's tricky to break down what makes Barbarian so good without giving away key surprises and reveals best experienced in a movie theater, but I'll try my best. But know this above all else; Barbarian is quite a good horror feature. It's always nice when a genre title comes out of nowhere from a lesser-known filmmaker to surprise us all with its wits and smarts, and that's just what's happened here.

Written and directed by Zack Cregger, Barbarian begins as Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her AirBnB in Detroit, Michigan in the middle of a stormy night. With rain pouring down, Tess is excited to get inside...only to discover someone else is in the house. Keith (Bill Skarsgard) has already claimed the house through another website. Here, Cregger's screenplay kept me on edge with uncertainty over where the horror in this horror movie was coming from. A strange man is unexpectedly in your AirBnB, that alone is enough to make you feel uneasy. There's a thousand ways to interpret every one of his lines and actions. Is he manipulating Tess? Is he trying to be nice? Is he working for somebody? There's enough vagueness surrounding this character (whose played by, of course, Pennywise the Clown) that it keeps you guessing.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that there is something wrong inside this house, specifically in the basement area of the place. A handful of strange incidents lead Tess to do some poking around and...well, that's where the spoiler sensitivity kicks in. To say anymore about what happens once she gets curious would spoil the fun. Whatever's going on here soon entangles AJ Gilbride (Justin Long), an actor embroiled in controversy. He has no idea what lies ahead in this domicile and neither does Tess or the viewer for that matter. 

Again, treading on eggshells here without giving away the game, but part of what makes Barbarian such an entertaining watch is something as simple as the wry fun Cregger has behind the camera with this premise. There's a cheeky sensibility, though not one that lapses into self-parody, to see doors slowly but surely close on people or the way the camera gradually pulls viewers deeper and deeper into darkened hallways. These unabashedly spooky touches keep you on the edge of your seat wondering just what's around the corner or when Tess will realize what's happening around her. These are simple details, but they're also the kind of flourishes so many lesser horror movies forget even exist. What a welcome surprise to see them executed here with such confidence as Cregger never demonstrates a rush to get to the punchline, instead drawing out the suspense for all its worth.

There's also a constant inventiveness in Cregger's screenplay that's extremely welcome. Movies that rely too heavily on twists can end up feeling like just a series of revelations without a proper story or characters to give these shocking developments any sense of weight. Here, there's a fine balance between us getting invested in Tess as a character while also making sure Barbarian is constantly throwing out one "wait, what?" turn after another. Just like in his measured camerawork, Cregger shows a thoughtfulness in his writing that doesn't distract from the chilling atmosphere on the screen. Like the best visual effects work, it's only after the credits began to roll that you appreciate the craft that went into the writing and directing of Barbarian.

The chills are plentiful in Barbarian, with many of them coming from a delightful disinterest in playing things "grounded" or "respectable." Blood doesn't pour out the rafts in every scene, but Barbarian is all too content to get gnarly when the time is right and it'll send you squirming at just the proper moments. It's not the next Hereditary or His House in modern horror, but Barbarian delivered just what I wanted from an entertaining horror movie, complete with extra touches of dark comedy to boot. If it looks remotely appealing to you, you'll probably end up enjoying yourself a lot in Barbarian, especially if you can guard yourself against getting spoiled on the movie's biggest secrets.  

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Don't Worry Darling is messy, but not without charms

As Don't Worry Darling begins, 1950s housewife Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) is playing a drinking game with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) and their assorted friends. There are laughs a-plenty at this shindig and, combined with just how passionate the sex life of Alice and Jack is, seems to indicate that everything is blissful in their life living in the company town known as Victory, California. Slowly but surely, though, Chambers begins to feel something is amiss. Maybe it's some of the words she hears over the radio spoken by Frank (Chris Pine), the leader of this community. Maybe it's the flashes of weird black-and-white imagery that spark in her head. Maybe it's the inexplicable plane crash on the outskirts of town that nobody else remembers. Whatever it is, Chambers becomes more and more convinced something is wrong here, despite every nearby man, and even her lady pals, telling her not to worry.

Don't Worry Darling follows a long tradition of media that wonders what kind of dark underbelly lied beneath the seemingly idyllic picket fence-lined world of America in the 1950s. Everything from the works of David Lynch to Far from Heaven to Pleasantville to even scenes in Joe Dante's Matinee have commented on how not everything was so rosy in an era that restricted so many rights for marginalized groups, especially people of color. Unfortunately, the long list of great films that have covered this terrain before means that Don't Worry Darling is working under a lengthy shadow it can never quite escape. Even if the likes of Blue Velvet didn't exist, though, there would still be some critical flaws dragging this enterprise down.

However, the presence of problems doesn't mean the absence of virtues. Don't Worry Darling has its fair share of commendable attributes, including whenever director Olivia Wilde indulges in explicable creepy imagery. Letting bursts of often-monochromatic puncture the typical color scheme and ambiance of an average scene without lengthy explanations as to their meaning provide plenty of eerie moments. Meanwhile, the way Wilde's camera lingers on shots of steaks covered in spices, runny eggs, or coffee getting poured so tight that we can see their every imperfection or the finer details of their textures effectively conveys a quiet sense of unease. Just as there's something uncomfortable or unsavory on this food if you look closely, so too is there danger hiding in plain sight in the life of Alice Chambers. Whenever Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman let Don't Worry Darling just be unnerving without holding the viewer's hand to explain why it's unnerving, it functions as nicely chilling.

Unfortunately, Silberman's writing eventually floods the screen with exposition and backstory in the third act. An avalanche of explanations just isn't as frightening as something perplexing. There's a reason something like Mulholland Drive ends on an ambiguous bang rather than a PowerPoint presentation breaking down what you just watched. This section of Don't Worry Darling also suffers from a strange decision to stop and start the basic premise of the entire movie. The pause doesn't last long enough to either leave an impact or justify its presence in the story. It's a strange move that just ends up disrupting the tension in the narrative.

As for storytelling problems plaguing the whole movie, Don't Worry Darling's stabs at social commentary could've used more bite and specifics. Without getting into spoilers, at times it almost feels like it's dancing around calling a spade a spade when it comes to misogyny in an effort to not alienate general moviegoers. The weird treatment of women of color characters (poor KiKi Layne has nothing to do with her disposable supporting role) also undercuts Darling's intended message of underscoring the humanity and complexities of women. Like many mainstream American movies trying to tackle weighty issues, Don't Worry Darling can't quite reach its most insightful thematic aspirations. 

If there's somewhere the film excels, it's in its performers. Shocking nobody, Florence Pugh once again crushes a lead performance. The woman responsible for those hauntingly powerful sobs in the opening of Midsommar puts that kind of talent to great use again depicting the pronounced anguish of Alice Chambers. Chris Pine, though not in the movie as much as one would expect, is also terrific, perfectly capable of conveying a commanding presence with an uneasy slimy undercurrent. A dinnertime tête-à-tête between him and Pugh is easily a highlight of the movie thanks to the terse rapport between the two performers. Unfortunately, Harry Styles is the weak link of an otherwise commendable cast. He isn't awful, but his penchant for big gestures and yelling come off as a touch ameteurish, especially when compared to the more subtly detailed lead turn from Pugh.

Composer John Powell also turns out to be a highlight of Don't Worry Darling with his unnerving score. While he's spent much of his time since 2011 concocting music for animated family movies (and typically doing it well, as seen by his unforgettable How to Train Your Dragon compositions), Powell's well-versed in adult-oriented cinema, like the Bourne movies. Those Paul Greengrass titles, all about cloud identities and ambiguous loyalties, seemed to have given him plenty of perfect experience for Don't Worry Darling, as Powell's score here conveys a gripping sense of frayed uncertainty. It's a great detail to have it become more and more prominent as the story goes on. The increasing presence of these paranoia-drenched orchestral tunes reflecting Chambers becoming more and more conscious that something is askew about the world around her.

Don't Worry Darling has a lot going for it, including some great performances, another commendable score by John Powell, and Wilde's chops as a visualist. Unfortunately, for every inspired element of Don't Worry Darling, there's something frustrating lying in wait, particularly in its flawed attempts at social commentary that lack vital originality or intersectionality. Don't Worry Darling can never quite escape the feeling of "I could be watching Pleasantville again right now", but it isn't a bad film and it's better parts deserve to be noticed more than its cursed press tour.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Micro-Reviews: Moving Edition

I'm moving into my first-ever apartment on Friday!

It's a very exciting moment, I'm so stoked that, after year of searching for the right place and concern over my readiness to live independently, this is about to become a reality. This whole week is kind of a whirlwind, just a lot of busy busy things. I don't quite have time to write a lengthy review for everything I've seen lately...but I do have some thoughts on the varied features I've managed to watch in the last eight-ish days. For only the fourth time in the history of Land of the Nerds, I'm here to do Micro-Reviews, small bite-sized versions of a typical movie review. Read on below for what may very well be my last post in my pre-apartment domicile!


Fall

Two women get to the top of a tall radio tower, but end up getting stuck once the ladder to get back down collapses. It's The Shallows/The Martian/Cast Away/47 Meters Down, but super high up in the air. Another key difference from those movies? Fall isn't very good. Never offensively incompetent, Fall just never settles into a rhythm that would work best for its storyline. These kinds of plots are also made or shattered by their lead performers, and, unfortunately, leading ladies Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner just aren't quite good enough to hinge an entire movie around. Director Scott Mann gets some good vertigo-inducing imagery in there and there are a handful of moments (like Currey luring a vulture to its doom) that hit upon a successful creative groove. For the most part, though, Fall just reminds you of better movies.

Beast

Beast is the movie where Idris Elba fights a lion. That's it, plain and simple. Refusing to go even an inch deeper than that keeps Beast from being much more than an afternoon distraction. Thankfully, the movie has been brought to life by competent people, including director Baltasar Kormákur and leading man Idris Elba, who do know hot to wring entertainment out of such a straightforward premise. Elba especially does strong work delivering moments of actual gravitas and urgency while being chased by a CGI lion. It all moves quite quickly, the screenplay doesn't get bogged down by contrived subplots or extraneous characters, and the lion mayhem is crisply filmed and edited. It doesn't do much more than what it says on the tin, but there's something to be said for a movie like Beast that manages to deliver what it promises.

Flux Gourmet

I wasn't sure about Flux Gourmet at first. Initially, director Peter Strickland's latest exercise in bizarre storytelling told in a subdued serious manner seemed a bit too oddball, the kind of movie that would clearly be for somebody else's tastes but not my own. I'm not sure if Flux Gourmet won me over by the end so much as it browbeat me into submission with its constant adherence to escalating levels of strangeness...but I did grow to admire its commitment to the weird. The performances certainly help make things as engaging as they are, with Fatma Mohamed being quite gripping even when she's not saying a word while Richard Bremmer's facial expressions speak volumes. Bound to divide people and inspire one-star reviews on Amazon, Flux Gourmet isn't as good as Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy, but it might be worth tasting if only to see if such an unusual concoction tickles your own taste buds.

The Imposter

Bart Layton's feature-length directorial debut before he made the 2018 narrative title American Animals, The Imposter is a documentary recounting the story of Frédéric Bourdin. Specifically, it's about how this Frenchman decided, in 1997, to pose as Nicholas Patrick Barclay, a 13-year-old child who went missing in Texas a few years earlier. What follows is full of endless twists and turns all centered around Barclay's family welcoming a stranger into their home. Layton's decision to pepper Imposter with glossy filmed recreations of key moments in Bourdin's deceitfulness (like him impersonating a police officer to U.S. child serve representatives) sometimes feels like a minor mistake. These digressions feel too flashy for their own good, a story this preposterousness needs something more grounded and raw to work. But for the most part, The Imposter does click together and keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what on Earth could happen next. Does it offer much more than that? Maybe not, but you can get away with that you're a documentary that's this compelling. 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Holy shit, this is so much better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture! Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan moves at a good clip, and has actual tension, and a sense of bombast to its story about revenge that's been brewing for over a decade. It's just an exciting movie, the kind you want to see when you shell out a bunch of cash for a ticket to a summer blockbuster. Even better, the sincere approach to executing moments of pathos between characters like Kirk and Spock are handled exquisitely. In these interactions, the characters of the Starship Enterprise transform from caricatures of pop culture icons to discernible human beings. It's something both magical and only possible in a movie as good as The Wrath of Khan.

Samaritan

There's no question that Samaritan is among the worst movies of 2022 so far, down with Disney's live-action take on Pinocchio and Firestarter. But what specifically went wrong here? One would assume a gritty movie about a superhero past their prime played by Sylvester Stallone helmed by Overlord director Julis Avery would have some redeeming R-rated action elements. However, Samaritan takes its basic concept and creative team through run-of-the-mill PG-13 hijjinks. Worse, its tone is all over the map. Sometimes, our villains act like they're in a Robert Rodriguez kids movie while Stallone is always dropping pearls of wisdom for kids like he's in an after-school special. Other times, people are getting tortured or brutally beaten like this is something aimed exclusively R-rated audiences. More consistent is the terrible dialogue and drab cinematography, neither of which make Samaritan a pleasant experience. As a cherry on top, Stallone barely seems awake her and the editing does a dismal job concealing how an obvious stuntman is performing any task more physical than walking down a hallway. "They say that a hero will save us," Chad Kroeger once intoned, but I don't think he had the lead character of Samaritan in mind.

Stranger Than Paradise

It was a great joy to experience Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise without knowing anything about the plot first. The incidental nature of its ensuing plot (if you could even call it that) proved extra engaging, something I had no preconceived expectations for. An incredible restrained exercise, Jarmusch still grips your attention with quietly detailed characters and fantastic pieces of visual comedy, such as the arrangement of four characters in a movie theater. The lingering melancholy of the whole piece has also stuck with me long after the movie ended. This is a feature where its lack of a concrete plot is emblematic of how there's no set future or financial security for our lead characters. Their lives are aimless and unpredictable, right down to an ending that leaves everyone scattered and isolated, so why shouldn't a film chronicling them be similarly spontaneous? It's no wonder Jarmusch's career took off after this feature, Stranger Than Paradise, decades after its release, is still remarkable. 


Sunday, September 4, 2022

Regina Hall excels in the darkly comedic mockumentary Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul


Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) and Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) used to be on top of the world. The main subjects of the mockumentary Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., the duo led a Southern Baptist megachurch that drew people far and wide...until Lee-Curtis Childs got involved in a scandal that burned everything down. Save Your Soul begins as the duo plans a comeback for their church on Easter Sunday after a prolonged closing. Director Adamma Ebo shifts between faux-documentary footage and traditionally-filmed sequences to explore the inner lives of this fictitious duo and how much turmoil is barely concealed beneath the surface.

Of all the reasons to see Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., it's to witness the movie's lead performances. Nobody benefits more from how this film alternates between mockumentary and a conventional narrative feature than Hall or Brown. The duo do an excellent job forming vastly different personas for their respective characters depending on whether or not a documentary crew is capturing their actions. Hall especially excels playing Trinitie as somebody who puts on a big grin and the show of being a "proper" wife in front of the cameras while being torn between half-a-dozen impulses inside. There are so many shades to Trinitie and at times, Hall effectively makes you wonder if there's any real personality there anymore. Is she just a bunch of loosely-stitched together facades clinging to whatever power she can still wield?

It's a thoughtful exercise that dovetails into the quietly interesting way writer/director Adamma Ebo contemplates how and why we allow our actions to be filmed. There has been a deluge of documentaries over the years that involve powerful people inviting a camera crew into their lives only to unwittingly reveal a peek behind the curtain to their darker interior lives. The Queen of Versailles is a perfect example of this, a feature where a wealthy Floridian family doesn't seem to realize just how badly they come off while the cameras are rolling. What makes these people invite concrete video proof of their inevitably bleak lives? The prospect of getting even more money? Obliviousness to moral depravity? Maybe the allure of being on camera, of meaning something by being in the cinematic canon, is just too powerful even for the richest folks.

Whatever the reason, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. had me constantly thinking about this as the troubles for the Childs couple pile up and up. There's a bleak sense of comedy to our two lead characters trying to portray themselves as victims when Curtis Childs is accused of predatory behavior and this couple lives in a massive mansion. The subtlety of this hypocrisy fits right in with similar unknowing depictions of martyr complexes as seen in stuff like The Queen of Versailles. Ebo's restrained direction doesn't just make these dark gags work as standalone material, but they also show a deep knowledge of the visual language and hallmarks of documentaries about the rich and famous. 

Ebo's solid direction is also apparent in the best shifts between mockumentary footage and traditionally-filmed shots. The peak of these variations comes during a big third-act confrontation between Curtis Childs and a former member of his congregation, with the style of camerawork alternating as quickly as one shot to the next. The constantly fluctuating aspect ratios should induce a headache, but they instead accentuate the tension of this interaction and quietly suggest how many different perspectives are being juggled here in this one conversation. Even in an intimate conflict between people on a sidewalk, Ebo uses terrific visual details to suggest the sheer expanse of emotions being navigated here.

Less inventive are the more rudimentary camera set-ups in the non-mockumentary portions of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. while the eventual reveal of what Curtis Childs has done leaves something to be desired. Without getting into concrete spoiler territory, the storyline this film travels down, specifically in terms of a Pastor preaching intolerant things on the pulpit before acting a different way behind closed doors, has been done before. It's not like this element of the narrative is "offense," it's just that, if you're going down such well-trodden territory, you really need to bring unprecedented execution to the table. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. can't quite hit that mark.

Its shortcomings keep it grounded to Earth, but Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is still a largely engaging affair, particularly for those well-versed in the world of documentaries. Even better, the film functions as basically a 100-minute reminder of why Regina Hall is one of our best and most criminally underrated leading ladies working today. As if her lead turn in Support the Girls wasn't enough to reflect her talents, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is here to reinforce why we should all be singing the praises of Hall. The movie as a whole may not be as consistently good as her, but more often than not Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a fine home for such a superb performance.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

It won't be for everyone, but Funny Pages is a solidly-crafted dark comedy

 

Funny Pages, the feature-length directorial debut of Owen Kline, lets you know right away if this movie is going to be up your alley. We're introduced to our protagonist, High Schooler senior Robert Bleichner (Daniel Zolghadri), talking with art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), to discuss some drawings Bleichner has sketched. Katano is highly encouraging of his pupil, but the encounter takes on a new disturbing level once this middle-aged man volunteers to be sketched by Bleichner. The ulterior motives behind his support of this teenager become clear as he disrobes entirely in front of Bleichner. This is quickly followed up by Bleichner making a mad dash out of the classroom, Katano trying to force his student to get in his car for a ride home, and then a sudden car crash, all before the title of Funny Pages comes on-screen. Strap in folks, we're in for an especially grim dark comedy.

From there, Funny Pages settles into a groove in exploring Bleichner suddenly deciding he wants to never return to school again. He's going to set out on his own, eschew the prospect of college, and pursue his dream of being a cartoonist. Abandoning his parents and clingy pal Miles (Miles Emanuel), Robert gets a job working for a pro bono attorney, which leads to him encountering former Image Comics employee Wallace (Matthew Maher). In Wallace, Robert sees a potential teacher, a gateway to an industry he desperately wants to be a part of. But, much like anything in Robert's life, nothing turns out to be that simple.

Something that's immediately admirable about Funny Pages is how much it commits to a grimy aesthetic. This is happily reinforced by how the movies been shot on 16mm film by cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny. This lends an immediate tangibility to the textures in the frame, but there's also a welcome inherent imperfection to the images we're seeing. The cracks in the visuals make them feel like the perfect vessel to capture the tormented people and crumbling buildings on-screen. An imperfect world like this one would feel so inappropriate for the glossy sheen of digital cameras. Huzzah, then, that a more retro style of camerawork has been embraced for this story.

With a pervasive aura of scumminess coming from the 16mm cinematography, Funny Pages continues this aesthetic by featuring a screenplay (also penned by Kline) that never wavers from making the people we're seeing on-screen so thoroughly unlikeable. Too many movies of this ilk try so hard in the third act to offer a tidy "redemption" arc for our wayward hero, but the people who start out as unlikeable in Funny Pages tend to end that way. This leads to lots of quality cringe comedy, particularly a rendezvous between Bleichner and Wallace on Christmas involving the latter character getting unspeakably overwhelmed or Bleichner's misguided idea of how to provoke a pharmacist. There's also a shocking amount of resilience in the running gag of Miles being an encouraging light in Bleichner's life but always getting treated like garbage, probably because Bleichner's rejections of Miles are always nicely underplayed.

With wall-to-wall unpleasantness around, Funny Pages won't be to everyone's liking, but I found that, much like your average Far Side comic, it tickled my funny bone and kept my interest. Part of that was just the consistently interesting 16mm cinematography, but it was also Kline's commitment to always finding a new bottom for Bleichner to sink to. Like so many teenagers, Bleichner is a bit on the obnoxious side, particularly when he's talking about what comics you "should" like. Funny Pages makes this guy tolerable just by constantly throwing him through the wringer. This is not somebody that moviegoers should walk away admiring (though God knows some toxic dudebros online will probably think otherwise), but rather a much darker figure whose selfishness only gets him into even more turmoil. There's also a quiet sense of tragedy in how the only way he knows how to process the world (through rendering it through disturbingly-realized comics) is also a way that, thanks to the mocking caricatures he draws, constantly alienates people around him.

Kline's direction of all this disturbing mayhem is quite assured, particularly in guiding the performances of the actors. Under the direction of this filmmaker, for instance, Daniel Zolghadri lends distinctive layers to cinema's umpteenth portrayal of an angsty teenager. Meanwhile, Matthew Maher delivers a very compelling performance as Wallace that feels like a fascinating evolution of his usual persona in his character actor roles. Maher conveys a genuine sense of chilling unpredictability here, there's a volatile nature of his portrayal of Wallace that suggests he suffers from deep mental health issues he likely cannot afford to get treated properly. Maher can have you at once feeling sympathetic towards what's informing Wallace's actions while also fearing what he's capable of when agitated.

Funny Pages may not add be a groundbreaking slice of American indie cinema, but if it hits your wavelength, you'll almost certainly walk away satisfied. In his first feature-length directorial exercise Owen Kline shows a remarkable ability to not bristle away from either following dark and disturbed characters to their inevitable endpoints or bold visual choices. Combining these unique traits with some humorous burts of dry and dark humor (Michael Townsend Wright slayed me with each of his quiet line deliveries as oddball roommate Barry) and a short and sweet runtime of 86 minutes means that Funny Pages is worth checking out if it seems like it'd be up your alley. To judge whether or not Funny Pages would be your cup of tea, just gauge your excitement over the prospect of watching comedy reminiscent of a Nathan Fielder show told through the cinematography of a Josh and Benny Safdie movie.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a flawed, but grand exploration of storytelling

 

Three Thousand Years of Longing may hinge its plot on wishes, but this is primarily a cinematic ode to the power of stories. The way we tell them or the types of characters who inhabit them may change over the centuries, but human beings are always entranced by a good story. Like so much of life, stories offer up a paradox. They're a retreat from the world we inhabit, yet the best ones tend to remind us of our experiences in everyday reality. There's often a very thin line separating the fantastical and the mundane, no matter what era you live in. Those seemingly disparate forces are comfortable bedfellows in director George Miller's new movie Three Thousand Years of Longing, which features wraparound segments reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre along with expansive flashbacks evocative of Cloud Atlas.

In this adaptation of A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (penned by Miller and Augusta Gore), Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an expert in narratives and literature heading off to a conference in Istanbul. While there, she stumbles on a trinket that contains a Djinn (Idris Elba). This being is prepared to grant Binnie a trio of wishes, but she's read a story or two in her life about wishes and is convinced only trouble will follow any wishes she makes. Since Djinn needs to grant three wishes to a mortal person to finally end his existence on Earth, he proceeds to recount to Binnie the stories of his various existences. This is all done in the hopes of making her see the problems with wishes they can now avoid. "We can control this story," he tells her, though this Djinn, more than anyone, should know that stories, much like people, can never be fully controlled.

With so much uncertainty plaguing the world of big-screen feature-length filmmaking every day, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing George Miller toss out an oddball entity like Three Thousand Years of Longing into the world. The very existence of this film seems to be a refutation to the idea that only pre-established properties and all-ages fare can now play at your local Cinemark. Of course, Longing is far from a perfect movie, but even its rough edges speak highly to what a personal and unique creation this is. Like when he decided to make Mad Max: Fury Road or the quietly devastating kid's movie Babe: Pig in the City, Miller is swinging for the fences here rather than sticking with the tidy and the familiar. This filmmaker would rather make something that's occasionally messy but memorable rather than a feature that's thoroughly cohesive but generic.

If there is one pressing issue here, it's that Miller's dialogue-reliant storytelling sensibilities are not quite as strong as his narrative impulses leaning heavily on visuals (as seen in Fury Road). Narration from Idris Elba makes up a good chunk of the screentime in Three Thousand Years of Longing while our lead human character also has recurring bouts of narration. At their best, these voice-overs serve as a perfect complement to the on-screen imagery. These words can capture a reflective melancholy over past transgressions or romantic bonding that could never be properly understood as these events were happening. In other instances, though, all those words are in service of ideas that could've been even more potently expressed in exclusively visual terms. Some dialogue exchanges, like a conversation in an abruptly introduced adversarial relationship between Binnie and her neighbors, also suffer from some strange phrasing.

An overdose of narration and occasionally clumsy dialogue cannot come anywhere close to suffocating what does work in Three Thousand Years of Longing, though. Chiefly, this is a film packed to the gills with imagination on a visual level. Splendor is the name of the game here, with the various time periods allowing the set and costume designers free reign to indulge in eye candy adhering to a range of visual influences. Bright colors drape the screen while, best of all, Miller and Gore's screenplay freely indulges in inexplicable imagery and details that make you immediately want to rewatch the movie to make sure you saw everything properly. I could've sworn I saw a monkey with tentacles just chilling in a scene where King Solomon tries to woo the Queen of Sheba while another scene has a humanoid seahorse just poke its head out of the shadows and then retreat into the darkness. You never know what unusual elements will pop out around the corner in Longing, even when the camera is just focused on Swinton and Elba chatting in a hotel room.

The willingness of Three Thousand Years of Longing to engage in the inexplicable without cynicism or wry winks to the audience to dilute the strangeness speaks to how much Miller and company want this movie to fit into the grand tradition of myths and fables. Binnie even says in her opening narration that the only way she can make her story coherent to viewers is by telling it "like a fairy tale." This carries through the whole movie and its approach to not just the fantastical, but also its grand displays of emotion or equally sizable depictions of sorrow. There's no desire to ground everything in realism and that suits the confident filmmaking tendencies of Miller beautifully. The sweeping visual scope and unabashedly sentimental qualities of the romantic elements may not work for every viewer, but they sure won me over more often than not.

George Miller has dabbled in the world of mythology and fables for his entire career, particularly when it comes to his Mad Max movies (which do play like post-apocalyptic parables). Now he's gone to the very source of this style of storytelling with Three Thousand Years of Longing, which looks at the way human foibles, the power of narratives, and feelings of passionate connection are eternal. Realizing that scope does result in some noticeable shortcomings, but even those are at least indicative of Longing trying something new and grand. It's not a new classic or anything like that, but Three Thousand Years of Longing is still a remarkable exploration of the power of stories.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Territory pulsates with rebellious and subversive vigor

 

"It's important to record, because then you have a weapon," - Bitaté

Within the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people have carved out a home for themselves. They want nothing more than to just be left alone, to not have to fight for the very act of existing. Unfortunately, "invaders" are constantly cutting into their rainforest to build new houses and cities. With government officials in Brazil, namely the President of the country, Jair Bolsonaro, refusing to help indigenous populations, deforestation and its effect on marginalized groups are only bound to increase. As captured on-camera in The Territory, activists like Neidinha Bandeira and members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau will do whatever it takes to protect these lives and this culture, even though the odds against them keep growing more and more momentous.

The Territory does not immediately conjure up memories of other documentaries dealing with deforestation or hardships facing the Amazon rainforest. Instead, what it most immediately echoes is Harlan County U.S.A., a deservedly iconic documentary that chronicled rebellion from everyday people in real-time. The determination of those striking coal miners crusading for their humanity seemed to emanate off the screen, as did the obvious dangers they faced in their battles. Director Alex Pritz evokes such captivating filmmaking by putting viewers right in the middle of the land the Uru-eu-wau-wau call home as well as the nuances of their everyday lives. What is now being dismissed by intruders as just a stumbling block to monetary gain is the focal point of the camera in The Territory and those stakes lend a sense of urgency to the proceeding.

This immersive quality to The Territory is only enhanced in its final half-hour, where the on-screen indigenous subjects get to really control what gets filmed. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bitaté, a lifelong member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, decides it's time that he and his people have more say over how their lives are framed in the media. Bitaté and his allies proceed to chronicle the everyday lives of the Uru-eu-wau-wau extensively, with this footage making it into the final feature. The very existence of such footage serves as a refutation of the concept of an Ethnographic film, or a documentary of non-Western people by Western filmmakers. The sense of othering that can come from this style of filmmaking is fascinatingly absent from the images captured by cameras operated by indigenous hands. It's a subversive approach to documentary cinema that also results in some of the most intimate and memorable images of The Territory.

Combining different types of camerawork captured from varied perspectives lends a subtle sense of scope to The Territory without making the film either too bloated in scale for its 86-minute runtime or feel like it would be better served in a longer-form narrative. Fritz even finds time to interview the workers who've taken it upon themselves to start chopping down the wood that belongs to the Uru-eu-wau-wau. In their words, there's a quiet tragedy to their motivations that these interview participants don't even realize. In feeling desperate enough financially to harm this sanctioned territory, they're demonstrating how capitalism (a political and economic system constantly championed by Bolsonaro) turns members of the working class against one another. Their problems with monetary issues lie with powerful government forces, not indigenous populations just trying to survive. This discrepancy doesn't make the "invaders" sympathetic. However, it does make them fascinatingly oblivious examples of how capitalism leads people to demonize marginalized groups rather than focusing on fixing larger systemic problems.

The fact that the interview segments with the Invaders in The Territory carry so much underlying power speaks to how quietly detailed this entire documentary is. Pritz has created a consistently layered film rich with details, including in its depiction of the varying perspectives and personalities lying within the Uru-eu-wau-wau community. This subtly thorough nature even extends to how this film is captured in a 2:39:1 aspect ratio. An unusual (though, as the likes of Boys State show, not unprecedented) framing choice for a documentary, going this route allows The Territory to occupy the same visual style as classic narrative films that have offered up harmful depictions of indigenous populations. Just as Bitaté is reclaiming the media image of his people by filming his friends and neighbors, so too is The Territory reclaiming visual facets of cinema by using them to tell a story that's about humanizing native lives.

Thankfully, The Territory maintains its thoughtful nature through its very last frame. Any concerns that the feature would resolve itself in a tidy fashion that makes it seem like the hardships of the Uru-eu-wau-wau are in the distant past are proven wrong by the feature's final melancholy scenes. This includes an unforgettable moment where activist Neidinha Bandeira sits in a pond as raindrops fall around her. It's an evocative image on its own, but it gets even more powerful through her short bursts of narration. Here, she comments, in voice-over, that "I don't have a lot of time left, but I will use what I can to bother those who hurt the Amazon." In her words, we hear a quietly poignant reflection on the finite nature of existence. These lines also convey a recognition that the crusade for this land and its people is bigger than one person, not to mention a fighting spirit that defines the very heart of the powerful documentary The Territory

Monday, August 8, 2022

Bullet Train is a bumpy, albeit occasionally fun, ride

Imagine you're eating a meal that, while it's sliding down your throat, tastes really good. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it hits the right notes as your taste buds first get a hold of it. But in the back of your brain, something's off. There's a teeny tiny voice in your head saying "the flavor's off, the texture's weak." As the minutes pass, and the dish becomes more and more of a memory, those imperfections become increasingly sizeable in your mind. You don't hate what you just ate, but it's not quite as good as when you were chowing down on it. That's what Bullet Train is. There's enough razzle-dazzle and movement on-screen while it's playing to keep you reasonably satisfied. However, once I left the theater, I found myself fixating on how it could've been better rather than focusing on my favorite funny lines.

There are a lot of diverging plotlines in Bullet Train, but our lead character is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), an assassin that's been looking to put more peace out into the world. That's why he didn't bring a gun for his newest assignment, a snatch-and-grab mission revolving around a briefcase aboard a bullet train in Japan. The case belongs to a pair of British assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who has a deal to finish up with the extremely dangerous gangster The White Death. Simultaneously, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) hops on to this train to take out The Prince (Joey King), who claims responsibility for pushing this man's adolescent son off a building. Turns out, though, that The Prince has her own scheme that she'll need Kimura for. 

All these storylines begin to gradually collide, sometimes amusingly, sometimes dangerously. As Ladybug deals with one new assassin after another, one thing becomes clear: this train is bad news. Oh, and that things are gonna only get worse as the train gets closer and closer to the end of the line.

In only his second screenplay credit, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz executes Bullet Train, an adaptation of a novel by Kōtarō Isaka, with an eye toward mimicking a lot of different styles. The gangsters with heavy British accents who can't stop chatting and engaging in non-linear digressions immediately evokes the works of Guy Ritchie. Meanwhile, lots of the wry dialogue evokes the style of comedy from Deadpool 2 (among other contemporary superhero movies), which shares director David Leitch with Bullet Train. Obviously, it's never inherently bad to make something that owes a debt to older pieces of cinema. Every movie is working in the shadow of older features, you can never divorce the medium's present from its past.

But Bullet Train would be better if its swirling storm of influences resulted in a mega-entertaining standalone film rather than something that constantly reminds you of other motion pictures. Part of the problem is that it's never quite as dangerous or innovative as it needs to be. Bullet Train thinks of itself as wildly unpredictable, yet the plot ends up resorting to dead wives to motivate characters so often that I half-expected this to culminate in a big final gag involving Christopher Nolan. The two big celebrity cameos have been done better with the same actors elsewhere, the barrage of needle drops (particularly a climactic use of "Holding Out for a Hero") aren't especially imaginative, while several gags (like a moment where Ladybug comments on how "weeeeeiiiirrrd" Japanese toilets are) feel about as stale as milk left out in the sun. The self-aware comedy and atmosphere of Bullet Train suggest something that's too hip to be predictable. Unfortunately, Olkewicz's script indulges in too many trite elements to be truly subversive.

The screenplay also runs way too long at 127 minutes, a tighter 80-minute edit would've made the familiarity of the proceedings significantly more forgivable. It also has to be said that, yes, Bullet Train does not do right by its Japanese characters, reducing three of its four most notable depictions of people from Japan to a mean conductor, a car attendant who has maybe two lines, and poor Andrew Koji being held for ransom. This is already a disappointing choice on its face, but it's especially weird since Kimura and his father, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), feel like they should be the leads of the movie. They're the characters with the most emotional stakes in the plot, most rooted in the central backdrop, and both Koji and Sanada are enormously charismatic. Bullet Train isn't a mixed bag because it isn't that alternate movie, but it's rarely a good sign when a summer blockbuster has you thinking about alternate cuts that could've been superior.

Despite all these complaints, Bullet Train, believe it or not, still registered as a perfectly fine distraction for me, at least in the theater. The movie does what it says on the tin in terms of putting a lot of big-name actors playing people with violent tendencies into one cramped train and it often works decently in that regard. The film especially works well when it dials back the dialogue and relies on physicality and visual humor to carry the day. A skirmish between Ladybug and Lemon in a quiet car has some fun sight gags, for instance, while a character's comically accidental death by way of a briefcase is dark but highly amusing. The R-rating also allows for some enjoyably over-the-top demise, with our hero's lack of a gun meaning they have to come from much more creative places than just a bullet to the head. My personal favorite? One goon that just gets pulverized while trying to attack one of the heroes on the roof of the train.

The actors deserve much of the credit for making this material largely diverting, especially since director David Leitch doesn't bring his eye for incredible fight choreography like he did on John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Brad Pitt sometimes struck me as a bit miscast, but his extensive experience playing chilled dudes serves him well in someone trying to find inner peace among a steadily growing pile of corpses. Brian Tyree Henry stands out as the best of the ensemble cast, though, as Lemon, which shouldn't be a surprise given that Henry has managed to deliver the best performances in everything from If Beale Street Could Talk to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He's a lot of fun on his own, but Henry also excels in his scenes with Aaron Taylor-Johnson (hey, he's a lot of fun here too, good for him). The duo has an entertaining rapport that manages to work even when the script's dialogue beats Lemon's initially humorous fixation on Thomas the Tank Engine to death. 

Bullet Train has its charms and serves as a good acting showcase for the likes of Brian Tyree Henry and Hiroyuki Sanada. As something to watch in August that'll get you out of the heat for two hours, you could do worse. Unfortunately, it's also a heavily derivative exercise, one whose gags and action beats feel too familiar to be as shocking as they should be. With so much talent assembled, you'd think there would be more creative sparks flying. I can't say I didn't have a decent time while I was in the theater with Bullet Train, but it's also not a ride I'll remember long into the future.

Bodies Bodies Bodies isn't a perfect horror/comedy, but it is a fun one

 


Some of my favorite Far Side comics involve drawings of two places or organizations that should never be next to each other (like individual gatherings of falcons and poodles) with the caption "trouble brewing". The horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies evokes these wonderful comics by immediately tossing viewers into a social situation that's clearly just a powder keg ready to go off. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) has brought her girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to meet her longtime friends, including Jordan (Myha'la Herrold) and Alice (Rachel Sennott), at a massive house owned by the dad of the obnoxious David (Peter Davidson). Though everyone greets Sophie with open arms, there's hostility brewing under the surface. Lots and lots of hostility.

As everyone reunites, a hurricane hits the area that forces everyone to get inside. Once there, lines of cocaine get snorted, subtle microaggressions get thrown toward newcomer Bee, and everyone starts playing Bodies Bodies Bodies. This variation on a traditional party game where somebody's secretly a killer and everyone has to figure out who eventually culminates in somebody winding up murdered. There's a killer on the loose. All those hostilities won't stay capped for long under all this pressure. Like Gary Larson once said..."trouble brewing."

Whoever did the sound design of Bodies Bodies Bodies deserves some kind of medal. Once the power goes out in this house, there's no A/C or other electronics to make noises on the soundtrack. All we hear is the jangling of bracelets and beads on people's bodies or feet crunching against the mud. Sarah DeLappe's screenplay begins with a bunch of rich twenty-somethings partying up in a lavish environment seemingly detached from anything resembling reality. This grimy sound work emphasizing everyday noises effectively brings the Bodies Bodies Bodies characters back to reality. There's no escape from all this natural hubbub clanging against the deafening emptiness around him.

That's one of the more interesting ways elements related to class manifest in director Halina Reijn's filmmaking. It's a good way to remind viewers of this detail, especially since the sociopolitical commentary of Bodies Bodies Bodies sometimes gets lost in its script. If there's a primary complaint to be had with this movie, it's that its second and third acts lose track of seemingly important characters and thematic details. While an ensemble movie like this one will always be shifting around in the perspectives it chronicles, I did find myself yearning for more time exploring Sophie's point-of-view, for instance, smack dab in the middle of the story. Meanwhile, the commentary on class and exorbitant wealth has only a sporadic presence in the story, committing to these details more could've given the proceedings extra bite.

Still, overall, Bodies Bodies Bodies does entertain one for 90 minutes and that means a lot when it comes to this kind of movie. Part of the consistent entertainment comes from nearly everybody on-screen being just...so irredeemably bad. Almost no tragic backstories are here to justify why people act like as do, they're just messy and often cruel people. Turns out, there's a lot of fun dark comedy to be wrung about these kinds of individuals navigating an Agatha Christie mystery for the TikTok age. Plus, both DeLappe and Reijn do a good job of making these characters feel and sound like modern-day Generation Z kids without it coming off as grating or straining to be relevant. In other words, they never fall into the "How do you do, fellow kids?" trap.

It doesn't hurt that Bodies Bodies Bodies serves as a solid showcase for the acting talents of its various leads. The standout of the bunch is handily Rachel Sennott, whose the Roman Roy of the group in how she's a chatterbox that always just goes along with the group consensus rather than take the trouble of boldly establishing her ideas. It's an immensely amusing persona that Sennott delivers with comedic franticness that's worlds away from her lead role in Shiva Baby. What a transformative performer! Maria Bakalova also does strong work as something resembling an audience point-of-view character in all this neon-colored mayhem while Pete Davidson is getting better and better as an actor with each new film he appears in. 

Cinematographer Jasper Wolf's imagination got fired up in thinking up ways to frame all these assorted performers as they navigate a massive house for a killer once the lights go out. Flashlights from cell phones provide the majority of our lighting in Bodies Bodies Bodies, but, impressively, the frame is never incoherently darkened, we always see what we need to see. It's a fine line to walk, balancing rampant darkness with visual coherency, but Bodies Bodies Bodies manages to deliver. It's one of several aspects of the movie that's unique and fun enough to make Bodies Bodies Bodies worth a watch. The script is overstuffed and slasher movie devotees will be able to see some of the twists and turns coming, but there's enough entertaining chaotic mayhem here to deliver a good time. In other words, let the Bodies Bodies Bodies hit the floor.