Reel Opinions


Friday, September 23, 2022

Don't Worry Darling

I'm trying to remember the last time an ending felt so uneventful that it caused me to groan out loud in disbelief.  Going through my memories and reviews, I believe it was The Turning from 2020.  Don't Worry Darling is a thriller that offers little during its roughly two hour run time, and then reaches a climax that makes you realize it had even less to say than you thought. 

Three years ago, actress Olivia Wilde made her directing debut with the smart and funny coming of age comedy, Booksmart.  Here, she reunites with that film's screenwriter, Katie Silberman, but the intelligence of their earlier movie is completely absent here.  Instead, we get a thriller that is supposed to be keeping us guessing, but is surprisingly easy to figure out.  Watching the film, I felt like I was witnessing a magic show where the magician thinks they're concealing the secret behind the act, but it's plainly visible for the audience to see.  I could list the other movies that Don't Worry Darling uses for inspiration, but it would probably be considered a spoiler.  All I will say is that while you'll probably see the reveal coming from a mile away, you will never guess how clumsily it's all handled in its final moments.

The movie is set in one of those "perfect" suburban towns that is modeled after 1950s pop culture and sitcoms.  Does Hollywood still think this idea is fresh?  We've had so many movies focused on "dark secrets of the suburbs" that use an intentionally ironic and over the top 1950s styling that I kind of wish filmmakers would find another decade of sitcom images to satirize.  It's the kind of place where all the men drive off to work everyday, and the women stay behind to run a perfect home, prepare a meal, and be waiting for them at the door with a drink in their hand the second they return home.  The men polish their cars, while the women are there to ask if there's anything they can get them.

One of those wives is Alice, played by Florence Pugh, who continues her reputation as being one of the best young actresses working today, even when she's stuck with material like this.  Like all the women in this town, Alice is dutiful to her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), and wishes only to please him.  But, Alice is starting to have visions she can't explain.  She randomly hums a melody that she doesn't remember ever hearing, and when she witnesses a plane crash off in the distance, she can't get anyone to listen to her.  When one of the other local wives starts to share her concerns ("This is wrong", she ominously tells Alice), the other woman suffers an accident.  However, Alice knows she saw that woman slit her own throat.

The town Doctor (Timothy Simons) prescribes pills to help her anxiety, and Jack reassures her that everything is fine, and that they should focus on starting a family.  But Alice can't shake the feeling that something is not right about this town, or her life.  The head of the community is the shady Frank (Chris Pine), who stresses order and control above all else.  Why is Alice not allowed to go too far out into the desert that surrounds their little "perfect" street?  What is out there?  The answers do eventually come in an ending that is such a non-event, it reads more like the screenwriter gave up and tossed their laptop out the window.  It's also bound to bring up more questions that the film doesn't bother to answer, and I can't go into, again at the risk of spoilers.

Don't Worry Darling has been handsomely shot, and Olivia Wilde continues to show her strength as a filmmaker.  It's the script that's at fault here.  Well, that and as good as Pugh and most of the cast are, Harry Styles lacks screen presence as her husband.  Yes, I understand that he is supposed to be distant and keeping secrets from her, but he's clearly phoning it in.  Outside of the rare off performance, this is a well-made bad movie.  You kind of have to wonder what happened.  The original spec script (credited to Carey and Shane Van Dyke, before Silberman's final rewrite) wound up on the Black List for the best unproduced screenplays, and the film apparently attracted a bidding war between multiple studios.  Why, exactly?  The movie ends up saying next to nothing, and closes on a note that will only leave a bad taste in the mouth of its audience.


The movie has been getting a lot of media attention, due to rumored clashes between the talent during filming and the press tour, as well as controversy surrounding the firing of its original male star, Shia LeBeouf (whom Styles took over for).  This gave me a bad feeling, as it seemed like people were talking more about what happened behind the scenes rather than the actual film.  Having seen it, whatever must have happened during filming has to be more interesting.  To quote Gene Siskel, "Is this movie better than watching a documentary of the actors involved eating lunch, and having a real conversation"?  The answer is, no.

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Sunday, September 18, 2022

See How They Run


Some movies just give off a sense of fun.  You can tell that the cast had a great time making it, and it carries through to the audience.  See How They Run is a murder mystery comedy that gets a lot of joy out of playing with the cliches of the genre, some fourth-wall breaking, and an overall sense that everyone involved was having the time of their lives.  No, it's not as memorable of a mystery as Knives Out, but so what?  This movie is simply joyful.

The fun begins early on when the film's narrator openly dissects a lot of the cliches in the murder mystery format.  Not long after that, we learn that the person telling us this information is the initial victim of this film's killer.  That would be Hollywood filmmaker Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody).  Naturally, there's many who wanted him dead.  He was in London in order to discuss making a film out of Agatha Christie's murder play, The Mousetrap.  The movie is set in 1953, when the play has just had its 100th performance, and Christie has a clause in her contract that no film can be made until the show has been closed for at least six months.  For those who don't know, The Mousetrap is the longest running play in history, and is still playing in London's West End theater district to this day.  Something that nobody, not even the playwright, expected.

Apparently Leo angered a lot of people, including hired screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who was offended with Kopernick's desire to add more action to the play and change the ending, and even one of the play's original stars, the legendary Richard Attenborough (played here by Harris Dickinson).  With seemingly everyone involved with the play (and in Hollywood for that matter) having a motive to kill him, veteran Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and the ever-eager Constable Stalker (a scene-stealing Saoirse Ronan) are called in to solve the mystery, and unmask the identity of the killer.  And while the mystery is not exactly as riveting as one might hope, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the performances of Rockwell and Ronan who have wonderful chemistry.  His laid back and somewhat sloppy atmosphere is counterbalanced by her almost puppy-like eagerness and starstruck nature, as she can't help but let her fondness for Hollywood and celebrities show once in a while.

See How They Run is not the most airtight of mysteries, but I don't think that's what the filmmakers were going for.  The emphasis here is clearly on the humor from these oddball characters, which range from broad slapstick, fourth-wall breaking, to verbal puns. (When Stalker is describing that the victim was initially attacked by being struck with a pair of skis, she can't help but say, "It all went downhill from there".) This is a movie that has been written for fans of the genre, as there are a lot of knowing nods that reference elements of the genre, and more than a few references to the famous play that drives the film's plot.  Even if you're not familiar, you can still enjoy this, because of the film's overall joyful spirit. 

This is ultimately a very silly movie, but one that knows how to ground itself.  There aren't any big laughs here, but you're constantly smiling, and enjoying the non-stop energy of the cast and the movie itself.  Sometimes a film's energy is enough to carry it, and that is definitely the case here.  You have a large cast of talented actors who are clearly having fun with the material, and it's very easy to get involved.  Even if the final reveal behind the mystery is not as strong as I would wish, I still had fun getting there.  It's a movie that's obviously been made with very good spirits, and is a fun little film to sit through before the bigger Award hopefuls start rolling out over the coming months.


I can definitely picture this movie finding an appreciative audience long after its theatrical run, and will probably do great at home.  See How They Run will never be mistaken for a great movie, but it is a tremendously joyful one, and that is never something to ignore. 

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Saturday, September 17, 2022

Pearl


The story goes that Pearl (a prequel to the horror film X, which came out back in March) was dreamed up by director Ti West while he was shooting that movie, and was developed during the Pandemic lockdown.  How fitting that the Spanish Flu pandemic plays a small part in this movie's storyline.  I enjoyed X greatly, but Pearl is an absolutely wonderful film, and easily the best thriller I've seen all year.

West has stated that while the earlier film was a tribute to classic slashers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pearl is a different kind of thriller, and draws inspiration from old technicolor melodramas and even classic Disney films.  The end result is kind of a twisted mash up of The Wizard of Oz and Psycho.  Strange as it sounds, the combo does fit.  Imagine if little Dorothy Gale had an interest in torturing small animals while dreaming about going far away from her small farm life, and you'll have a good idea.  In the previous film, Pearl and her husband, Howard, were an elderly couple in 1979 who tortured the cast and crew who were trying to film a porno movie on their farm property.  Here, the action is set in 1918, and we get to see how Pearl's madness truly began as a young woman with big dreams of stardom.  

In X, Pearl was played by British actress Mia Goth under heavy old age make up. (Goth also played Maxine, a young potential victim in that film.) Goth reprises her role here, playing Pearl as a young woman who feels trapped by a stifling home life.  One of the brilliant things West does is he shoots the film as a joyous, old fashioned technicolor film with rich, beautiful, vibrant and joyful images that goes against the inherent darkness of the film itself.  There are flights of fantasy here in the tradition of old Hollywood musicals, mixed with elements of a violent thriller.  As Pearl zips about the country on her bike or does chores on her family farm, the movie has a sunniness to it.  And yet, she is also clearly mentally unhinged, and on the verge of snapping at any minute.  

If she has been mentally unhinged for a long time (and the movie hints she has), her current life is not helping matters.  The Spanish Flu has created a pandemic in the world, and her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is off fighting World War I.  She has been left behind on a crumbling family farm where she is constantly under the domineering thumb of her German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), and care for her father (Matthew Sunderland) who has been stricken catatonic by disease.  To escape her dreary life, Pearl frequently retreats into fantasies inspired by the movies she sees at her local theater, and dreams of one day dancing in films as a chorus girl.  Her dreams of escaping her current life are further aided by a kindly projectionist at the theater (David Corenswet), who entices her with dreams of going off to Europe to chase her desire to become a star.  

Pearl's other source of hope in her life is her sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), who informs her about tryouts for a traveling dance troupe.  Pearl knows she's destined for fame and stardom, but when things don't quite work out her way, that's when the body count of the film begins to rise.  We see moments throughout the film when her madness is displayed, but eventually it becomes impossible to hide, and anyone that she sees standing in her way of her dream or "thinks she's weird" is most likely going to regret it.  Pearl is a fascinating look at the mental breakdown of its main character, and Mia Goth delivers a truly electrifying performance that is hands down the most disturbing and terrifying portrayal I've seen this year.  

The movie is also that rare thriller that does not sell itself on jump scares, but rather the slow gradual descent into madness of the main character.  Her fantasies start out innocent enough, but soon become more sinister, and the way even these darker moments are shot the same way as the initial lighter ones is compelling.  Also compelling is the screenplay credited to West and its lead star, Goth.  This is a movie that's not afraid to dive into these characters, and how they slowly start to realize that Pearl may not be all there.  It's also not afraid to give its star an electrifying and single-take monologue that goes on for six minutes straight near the end.  It's a masterful performance from Goth, and this is a masterful film in a lot of ways.


Pearl
is unsettling in a way that a lot of recent horror films are not.  It gets us inside the mind of its character, and shows reality crumbling.  In that way, it kind of resembles 2019's Joker, which was also about a character's mental breakdown.  Both films work in their own way of letting us get so close to terrible people, and both have the same effect.  This is a thrilling, uncompromising, and beautiful film.

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Friday, September 16, 2022

The Woman King


The Woman King
is a grand epic with a commanding lead performance from Viola Davis, some surprisingly intense action scenes for a PG-13-rated action film (though obviously censored and bloodless to earn that rating), and a strong visual style from director Gina Prince-Bythewood.  Even if the script does get loaded down with a bit too much plot, this is still a great entertainment.

The film is inspired by the real-life female warriors of the African kingdom of Dahomey, known as the Agojie.  Davis is their battle-hardened leader, Nanisca, who trains the women of her tribe, as well as women captured from other tribes, in the ways of battle.  Set in West Africa of 1823, we learn that Dahomey is at odds with the rival kingdom of Oyo, who have more advanced weapons.  The Agojie fought alongside the men in battles against the Oyo, and were some of the most respected members of the kingdom.  Despite the respect the female warriors hold within Dahomey, we learn that some women within the kingdom are still looked down upon, which brings us to our other heroine Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who as the film opens is being offered up to a wealthy man in marriage by her father, but she rejects being a wife to a man who is cruel to her.

Her father sees this as an insult, and sends Nawi to King Ghezo (John Boyega), where she is given the chance to join the Agojie.  During her training, Nawi finds herself often at odds with General Nanisca, but also bonds with some of her other hopefuls, as well as with the noble warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch).  There is definitely a theme of bonding as Nawi finds her place with the other hopefuls, and the Agojie who are training her for battle.  Meanwhile, there is some political intrigue, as both the Dahomey and the Ovo kingdoms rely on slave trade for wealth, having sold their prisoners to traders from Europe.  It's true that the screenplay by Dana Stevens does simplify things a bit too neatly when it covers this topic.  Despite their participation in the slave industry, the Dahomey are clearly the ones we're supposed to be rooting for, and the movie kind of brushes over this fact, and never really explores it like it should.

Instead, The Woman King wants to be a crowd-pleaser, and it succeeds on that level.  I just couldn't help but picture a more interesting movie that truly dived into the tricky morals that the script brings up, but does not explore very deeply.  Instead, the movie buries itself in a lot of melodrama and plots straight out of a soap opera, with Nanisca having a secret that might be connected to the past of one of the other women fighting alongside her, and Nawi having a potential romance with a young European man who grows to respect her.  It's very cut and dry, as the Dahomey are depicted as good and pure, while all the rival tribes are snarling murderers and rapists.  This kind of simplistic plotting is the only thing that turned me off.  I can understand it was done to attract as large an audience as possible, but this could have been so much more challenging.

With a running time of 135 minutes, the movie could have definitely used some trimming, and starts to feel bloated near the end, but that does not take away from why this movie still works, which is because of the performances, the well-staged action, and the sense of relationships that it creates among the Agojie warriors.  While these are not complex characters, they are given different sides to display, and are not just jaded female warriors out of a fanboy magazine.  They are compassionate, supportive, and it creates a likable sense of a sort of family throughout the film as we watch these women bond on and off the battlefield.

All of this comes through in the performances, especially from Davis, Mbedu, and Lynch.  There is a human quality to these characters that we don't get to see in a lot of action films, and their relationships (which range from open and patient, to more guarded) emphasizes this.  Not only are they human in how they interact with each other, but also when they are fighting.  Not once do these women come across as unstoppable superheroes.  In a current cinematic landscape that favors CG and digital effects for battle, these action scenes feel authentic, raw, and quite intense.  It's refreshing to see battles that actually sell the hardships and pain, not just showing off some cool stunts.  The training scenes are equally real.


My only gripe with The Woman King is that I wish it focused a bit less on the market tested plot elements, and a bit more on the tricky politics of the kingdom that it touches on, but never explores as deeply as it should.  That said, in terms of spectacle, action, and performances, it seldom gets better.

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Saturday, September 10, 2022

Pinocchio


Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.  I'm sure that this high tech remake of the 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio, was made with the best of intentions.  And while it follows the expected story beats of the Disney film, it still ends up being hollow, charmless, and about as unnecessary of a remake as that one time Vince Vaughn tried to step into Anthony Perkins' shoes and play Norman Bates.  

This is surprisingly the second of three Pinocchio movies we're getting in 2022.  The first was an animated film from earlier this year that featured 90s relic, Pauly Shore, as the voice of the wooden boy, and is one I will continue to happily claim I have not seen.  And at the end of the year, we're getting a stop motion telling from Guillermo Del Toro, which has been a passion project for the filmmaker for a number of years.  This remake of the Disney film has been helmed by Robert Zemeckis, a director who has been famous for pushing the boundaries of special effects and animation, sometimes to brilliant effect (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and sometimes to creepy, lifeless effect (The Polar Express, Welcome to Marwen).  His Pinocchio falls somewhere in the middle.  While the effects work here is impressive from time to time, it never quite seems convincing when the CG puppet, cat, fish, or whatever are interacting with human star Tom Hanks.  

I don't have to tell you that Hanks is one of the most warm and comforting presences in movies, but his portrayal of Gepetto here is the rare moment when a Hanks performance turned me off.  He's all forced whimsy as the kindly old woodcarver.  Hiding his face behind big glasses and a bushy white mustache, and with a wild mop of white hair on his head, he never comes close to giving a real performance.  He's just doing a goofy accent and an overly hammy portrayal, rather than creating a connection with the audience.  He has effortlessly pulled off portraying warm, iconic personalities like Santa Claus, Mr. Rogers, and even Walt Disney in the past, but here, he's gimmicky and overblown.  So is the movie itself, so maybe he's just playing along.  All I know is this counts as the only time I can think of when I wasn't happy seeing him on the screen.

Like in the 1940 film, Gepetto is a lonely old man who surrounds himself with toys and cuckoo clocks.  In this movie, the clocks all reference other Disney films, which is more distracting than funny.  He's been given a bit more backstory than before, as he has a dead wife and son that he pines for, but since the movie forgets about this as soon as its established, it may as well not have been added in.  Also here is Jiminy Cricket, whose voice is provided by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He does his best to mimic the original voice of Cliff Edwards from the earlier movie, but again, it just comes across as a rare performance from a talented actor that I quickly turned away from.  Old Gepetto makes a wish on the Wishing Star that the puppet he built could be a real boy, and this brings about the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo, making the most of very limited screen time), who grants his wish.

Pinocchio (voice by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is brought to life though advanced computer animation, and while his design is strong and he resembles the original animated look, there is something flat and lifeless to him.  I don't blame Ainsworth, as he's a good child actor, and sells his lines well.  His design just never quite blends in with the backgrounds well enough.  At least he comes across better than Gepetto's pets, Figaro the Kitten and Cleo the Fish, whom Hanks is forced to carry around at all times, leading to one of the movie's most unintentionally funniest images, which finds him walking through a rainstorm desperately looking for the missing wooden boy, and carrying a CG cat and fishbowl with him for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  

If you've seen the earlier Disney classic, you know what happens.  While heading off to school, Pinocchio comes across the devious fox Honest John (voice by Keegan-Michael Key) who now likes to make modern day references about social media influences and actor Chris Pine for some reason.  This leads him to perform in a puppet show where he meets the cruel Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), and a kindly little girl named Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), who is one of the few additions not in the original that works, as Lamaya gives the best performance in the film.  Pinocchio is then whisked away to Pleasure Island, where kids can break stuff and be naughty.  In the earlier film, the kids were drinking alcohol and smoking cigars.  That obviously wouldn't fly in 2022, so the kids here eat too much candy, smash stuff, and drink root beer instead.  Pinocchio and Gepetto are reunited when they are lost at sea, but then get swallowed by Monstro, who has been upgraded here from a massive whale to a sea monster that resembles a whale, only with giant tentacles growing out of it.  It's not an improvement.

Despite the similarities to the film so many grew up with, this Pinocchio just feels as unnecessary as a remake has ever been.  The few things that have been added don't improve the story in any way, and everything just has this obnoxiously whimsical quality to it that feels forced instead of earned.  The movie throws a lot of warm imagery and intentionally hokey dialogue at us ("What in the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks is going on?"), but it all just feels so desperate.  There is an emptiness here.  You know how you're supposed to be reacting to what the movie is showing you, but you don't, because it all feels so manipulative somehow.  Most of the songs you remember from the original are here, with a few new ones provided by Zemeckis' regular composer, Alan Silvestri, and songwriter Glen Ballard, but they are quickly forgotten.  The cast is energetic, and the budget granted to the film was obviously generous, but it just comes across as hollow instead of wondrous.  

I am not opposed to Disney doing remakes of their animated classics, and have even enjoyed some, such as Kenneth Branagh's take on Cinderella, or the remake of Pete's Dragon from 2016, which remains the very best of these kind of films.  But so many of these simply try to recreate the original only with more expensive visuals that strangely wind up looking more lifeless than the original animated drawings.  2019's The Lion King  immediately jumps to mind, or Beauty and the Beast from 2017.  Just like those films, Pinocchio simply draws upon audiences' memories without giving them a worthwhile experience, and while the efforts are noble, they end up being heartless and lacking any emotion whatsoever.  I end up watching these films in sadness, because I want to be swept away, but end up with a lessened experience thanks to the lifeless special effects.


It's ironic that a film about a wooden puppet who longs to be real and learns to love ends up being so dead inside.  Here is a movie that wants to warm our hearts, but is so mechanical in its manipulations, it ends up being artificial and completely unnecessary. 

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Friday, September 09, 2022

Barbarian


Nightmares can come in different varieties.  They can be embarrassing, scary, or downright silly the more you think back on them.  Barbarian is a skillful mix of these different kinds of nightmare scenarios.  Even if the final outcome doesn't quiet live up to the expectations of the set up, this is still a great deal of fun.

The film is written and directed by Zach Cregger, a comic actor known for his work with the group The Whitest Kids U Know, and whose previous turn behind the camera was the forgettable 2009 sex comedy, Miss March.  Here, he shows a brilliant knowledge of getting under the audience's skin in different ways.  He starts with a domestic nightmare.  A young woman named Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) has come to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker, and has booked an Airbnb for the night.  She arrives to find it in a neighborhood that is virtually run down and abandoned, save for where she is staying.  Even worse, someone else is already staying there, a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), and Cregger shows a deft hand at playing up the uncomfortable situation for both.

Both are upset about the situation, and not sure what to do.  Of course, Tess has more to worry about, as she's sharing this place with a strange man she knows nothing about.  He seems courteous to her, but of course, that could all be a ruse.  The screenplay, and even the casting of Skarsgård, plays with our expectations.  Of course, we remember him as the demonic Pennywise from the It movies just a few years ago.  He offers her wine and the bed, saying that he will sleep on the couch.  There's a lock on the bedroom door, but in the middle of the night, Tess is awakened by her door being opened.  Going to investigate, she finds Keith asleep and making strange noises as he dreams.

Again, we're not sure what's going on, and for once, the trailer's ad campaign has been wonderfully vague.  Slowly but surely, the movie morphs from a domestic nightmare to a completely different kind, and I will have to tread carefully here in order to avoid spoilers, as the less you know walking in the better.  There are strange noises throughout the house when Tess is alone within it, mainly coming from the basement.  She goes to investigate, which brings about one of the key problems of the film.  As skillful as it can be, it's still a thriller, and must come up with convoluted and often idiotic reasons for its characters to poke around in dark tunnels that they obviously should not be.  What Tess discovers down there, I will leave for you to discover.  I will also let you guess how a spoiled Hollywood star who is facing down a career-ending sex scandal (Justin Long) figures into all of this.

Barbarian is the kind of thriller that knows its familiar, so it tries to throw you off with multiple plot points where the action and narrative switches between different characters.  How everything is connected is part of the fun of the film, and it's overall been thought out pretty well.  Less successful are the moments when we start to get answers to everything.  Like a lot of thrillers, I was having more fun guessing than when the movie is bending over backwards to explain the madness at the center of it.  I will say that even if the outcome is not successful, it's appropriately disturbing on a basic level, and the movie finds the perfect classic "oldie" song to play over the end credits.  

And even if Cregger does not stick the landing completely, he still knows how to capture and hold our attention through the entire running time.  He shows a certain playfulness here, using a subtle sense of humor, while also knowing just when to go for the big shocks.  Sure, he leans a bit into the jump scare territory from time to time, but he mainly favors quiet suspense for most of it, and the reveal of the basement is quite chilling.  His story morphs from one nightmare scenario to another.  Just when we think this will be the story of a woman trapped by a man she can't quite fully trust, it morphs into something else entirely, and continues morphing with the introduction of the Long character, who would normally seem out of place in this movie.


It's this boldness that ultimately won me over, even if the decisions of the characters didn't always make sense, and seemed to be at the mercy of the screenplay.  For his first horror feature, he shows a confidence here.  Barbarian works in the moment you're watching it, and though you shake your head a lot thinking back on it, it holds an undeniable spell as it plays out.  That can be a lot of fun, and this movie is certainly a lot of fun.

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Friday, September 02, 2022

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul


If there's an MVP within Honk for Jesus.  Save Your Soul, it is definitely Regina Hall, who lifts up nearly every scene of this largely hit and miss satire on religion.  She plays the disgraced wife of an equally disgraced pastor (Sterling K. Brown, also very good), and commands the screen whenever she's on, especially during the film's final act.

One of the last shots of the film is her simply staring directly at the camera and the audience, and it so perfectly capsulizes everything that her character must be feeling, and holds immense power.  It makes me wish that the movie had focused more on her struggle, rather than saving most of her best moments for the final half.  In adapting her short film for feature length, first-time writer-director Adamma Ebo fires a bit too broadly and plays it a bit safe when she tries to go after corruption in the world of megachurches and those who preach God and love, but have more than a few secrets that threaten their life of privilege.  It's a ripe subject for satire, which the film finds little new to say about.  What makes the movie worth seeing are the scenes later on that explore Hall's character, and her conflicted feelings about her husband, herself, and almost everything in her life.

The film is mostly shot as a "mockumentary" in the style of Christopher Guest (Best in Show).  I say mostly, as there are some bizarre moments where obviously there is no camera crew, like when the main characters are driving and singing along to rap music, or an extended sex scene late at night, which kill the "camera crew is always present" feel that the movie is obviously going for.  Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) and his wife Trinitie (Hall) have for years run the successful Southern Baptist megachurch, Wander the Greater Path.  People once flocked in the tens of thousands to listen to Lee-Curtis preach his sermons, but a scandal involving some young boys came to light, attendance dried up, and Trinitie was forced to go into defense mode, standing by her husband, despite the allegations, which got covered up in payments.

A year later, the Childs are hoping to reopen their church on Easter Sunday, but they now find themselves in direct competition with a new megachurch run by a young couple (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) that has stolen most of their followers who used to flock to them every week.  The rival pastor and his wife is an idea that the film doesn't do nearly enough with, and could have added a unique angle.  Instead, the film follows an off camera film crew that follow Pastor Lee-Curtis and Trinitie as they set up to hold onto the fame and the lifestyle of material excess that they have become accustomed to.  These are not exactly fresh ideas for satire, but ones that could still work, but in her film debut, Ebo doesn't cut deep enough or hit hard enough with the topics she's going after.

Again, it is in the last half when Honk for Jesus.  Save Your Soul truly begins to find its footing, and it all boils down to Trinitie questioning everything.  She spends a majority of these moments dressed in mime makeup (and yes, there's a reason), and it's during these scenes that she has an emotional breakdown that is beautifully acted by Hall.  It's been leading up to this, as she's been clutching onto the life that her husband and her once enjoyed, and she's been doing her best to ignore reality, but standing there in that make up, trying to promote her church and trying to block out what everyone is saying about them, she just finds herself in a moment where she can no longer be the "stand by your man" image that her husband needs her to be.

Hall's performance and the handling of these dramatic moments work better than when the movie is trying to be a broad satire.  Another great moment is when she comes upon her husband chatting up one of the young men working on the film crew shooting the documentary about them.  It's these scenes that gave me a sense of what the film was going for.  The satire never quite hits, but the quiet and more honest moments did.  And it all closes on that long look at the camera that Hall gives that really grabbed me.  The lack of consistency throughout gave me the impression that maybe this idea should have stayed as the short where it originated, rather than a full-on feature film.


This is a movie that works from time to time, but the performances are what hold your attention.  I admire the entire cast for their efforts, and I hope for Ebo's next movie, she finds a subject that hasn't been mined so much, and finds a lot more to say.

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09/01/2005 - 10/01/2005
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12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006
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