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!


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 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.


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.