This week’s huge release belongs to Bond, James Bond, but there are still plenty of other films on a smaller scale to check out. This set of write-ups includes a single-location drama, a wild ride of an arthouse body horror film, a single-location thriller, a solid western, a period genre flick, and a Clint Eastwood western. The following features reviews for Mass, Titane, The Guilty, Old Henry, Mayday, and Cry Macho.
The Setup: Years after an unspeakable tragedy tore their lives apart, two sets of parents (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) agree to talk privately in an attempt to move forward.
Review: This is the sort of film that I expect to be liked and have no real gripe against, even though I just didn’t really connect with it. It’s a well-acted feature that places almost all of the action in a single room. There are some stylistic touches (in a notably uncinematic location) that writer/director Fran Kranz uses in a manner certainly showing how the actor has a nice future as a filmmaker ahead of him. Plus, it takes on subject matter that has not really been addressed to this degree.
The fact that Mass is not based on a play is almost shocking. It’s perfect material for the stage, with each of the four main actors delivering what would be signature moments. The film explores this horrific past event (a school shooting) from various angles and what qualifies these parents to discuss it. That means looking at it through the lens of religion, science, and nature vs. nurture. Using these areas as a way to cut through human pain, anger, and grief means getting these actors to tap into a raw nerve that can fire up their emotions. Again, this is a well-acted movie (Isaacs feels like a standout, and Dowd is in a familiar role, but still pretty great).
However, whether it’s due to my own personal status or just not finding the film as riveting as the material suggests, I sit in a bit of a limbo. Perhaps that has to do with the film taking its time to get to its main point (we spend a lot of time setting up the church location before digging into what’s going on). Regardless, the attempts to make its message feel powerful are certainly handled in a manner I can see connecting with people. The fact that Kranz can hold back from making Mass feel like a direct sermon allows it to ultimately shine.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting October 8, 2021.
The Setup: Following a series of unexplained crimes, a father is reunited with the son who has been missing for 10 years. Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys.
Review: Titane is a bizarre body horror film seemingly designed to defy attempts at criticism. Emphasizing how insane the film is in its attempts to be unpredictable, uncomfortable, and surprisingly heartfelt can only make the curious more interested. Whether or not someone enjoys the film, they would be similarly hard-pressed to say anything to someone, who’s already intrigued, that would dissuade them from checking it out.
The more complicated component is assessing a film like this without diving into what’s really taking place. Treading carefully, the film revolves around Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a woman with a titanium plate in her head. She makes deadly choices that put her into a position living under the roof of a veteran fire captain (Vincent Lindon). Given what led to this scenario, the violence on display, and the results of specific out-there actions, it’s wild to know that Titane was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
With all of that in mind, I’d expect nothing less from director Julia Ducournau. She is following up her coming-of-age body horror film Raw with something similarly extreme. With that in mind, while clearly attempting to be daring, both films do contain a lot of sentiment for their characters. One certainly isn’t sympathetic for Alexia based on her actions, but there’s a lot of trust put in the audience to care about her situation. The same goes for Lindon’s role as Vincent, a man dealing with a lot and given something that could push him in a new direction that’s actually hopeful.
Both actors shine in this film, which is another key to its success. Not at all hurting is the incredible filmmaking on display. Terrific cinematography, an understanding of how critical sound design can be, let alone the mix of practical makeup effects, and other methods of camera trickery, all help build a surreal world full of surprises. Given how this film delves into Cronenbergian levels of cinema, while having plenty in common film modern filmmakers such as Nicolas Winding Refn, Docournau has a firm grasp of what she is after as a filmmaker. Titane manages to find the line between utter disgust and elegance, making the feature especially impressive.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters.
The Setup: Call operator Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to save a caller in grave danger-but he soon discovers that nothing is as it seems, and facing the truth is the only way out.
Review: Did I redial, or is this a wrong number? That’s the sort of thought I had while watching this American remake of 2018’s The Guilty (which is currently streaming on Hulu). The Danish film was a compelling thriller taking a fresh approach to the world of emergency call lines that I’ve seen explored in short films, but not like this. This remake is not inherently bad, as I’m willing to accept other versions of stories without having a default setting of disliking the idea. With that said, despite the talent involved, there’s a level of redundancy to the approach, let alone other issues with a modified screenplay that makes various plot lapses feel more apparent.
The setup is strong enough, as the visual of Los Angeles’ nearby wildfires both set a tone and provide an element to the story that will complicate things. Gyllenhaal is, of course, bringing his A-game as well. Watching him barely contain his frustrations (and we get a few outbursts) is the kind of thing he’s excelled at plenty, but understanding there are deeper reasons for why he’s so emotional goes a long way in a film that’s not quite able to pull it all off.
Part of the problem is the script by Nic Pizzolatto, who throws in many relevant topics in a way that has the film feeling overcrowded with ideas at times. Building off of the story through the use of a location as unique as a call center is something to expect, but when that has to balance a level of interest in our main character (who works hard to be unlikable), it means things can feel more shortsighted than they need to be.
Director Antoine Fuqua does what he can to embrace the challenge of building a film around a single location. Still, there’s only so much being done in a movie that already walks in the shoes of a superior version. Without getting too far into the resolution, I’ll just add that seeing an Americanized version of The Guilty means taking a chance on a concept that may or may not succeed for a viewer. Given its exhausting nature, I can only hope those who see this version first are not too worn out to go for the other.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.
The Setup: A widowed farmer (Tim Blake Nelson) and his son (Gavin Lewis) warily take in a mysterious, injured man (Scott Haze) with a satchel of cash. When a posse of men claiming to be the law come for the money, the farmer must decide whom to trust.
Review: I was impressed by this feature. As a modern western that’s clearly informed by Unforgiven, among other revisionist takes on the genre, it’s not necessarily doing a whole lot that is new. Nonetheless, give the film an actor as talented as Tim Blake Nelson and a menacing Stephen Dorff as the film’s villain for good measure, and Old Henry finds ways to deliver the goods.
Part of what I liked was the way the film played with western history. Depending on what someone knows about the old west, there’s a chance a viewer could pick up on what this film is attempting to do. That doesn’t make it more or less rewarding, but as a means to dismantle certain myths and dig into the state of being certain characters exist in, I found the approach to be a fascinating one. On its surface, however, this is just a solid story of a man caught in the middle of a situation he didn’t want any part of.
Writer/director Potsy Ponciroli does an excellent job of maintaining a solid level of tension as the film switches up the power dynamics in its different phases. There’s a nice bit of trickiness to what’s at play, which keeps the film’s momentum high enough, even while operating like a western with its choice in visuals, approach to dialogue, etc. As for the expected climactic shootout, I’ll just say the way the film reveals what it’s up to allows for a sort of payoff that is a lot of fun. That’s especially given the general stature of Nelson when seen in other films, compared to his opportunity to shine here as a lead character. Old Henry may not be young, be he is reliable.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and on VOD.
The Setup: Ana (Grace Van Patten) finds herself transported to a dreamlike and dangerous coastline. Once there, she joins a female army engaged in a never-ending war where the women lure men to their deaths with radio signals, like 20th century sirens. Though Ana finds strength in this exhilarating world, she comes to realize she is not the killer they want her to be.
Review: What if Alice in Wonderland, but the fantastical world is an older period of war? Mayday presents an interesting setup, and there’s enough to chew on as far as the various ideas loaded into this feminist revenge fantasy. It’s just a shame the story doesn’t have enough going for it to match up to its concept.
This is the type of film that wants the viewer to stick with it and try not to think too hard about the logic of what is happening. Granted, there’s a fantastical element to it all. However, even with the explicit references to Alice or The Wizard of Oz, one still has to wonder if the film could have been better off fully embracing the weird (such as the insertion of a random dance sequence) or leaning harder on the ugliness of the violence fueling the female agenda.
As it stands, writer/director Karen Cinorre’s debut feature is full of ambition and yet can’t lock down the substantive level of the themes being addressed. The style could make up for it in a more consistent movie. Still, all that’s left to really rely on are the performances that range from assured confidence found in Mia Goth’s Marsha to Juliette Lewis’ brief appearance as June. Mayday doesn’t come up lacking in bravura, effort, or concepts, but it doesn’t quite hit the target either.
Where To Watch: Now available digital and on VOD.
The Setup: Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood), a one-time rodeo star and washed-up horse breeder who, in 1979, takes a job from an ex-boss (Dwight Yoakam) to bring the man’s young son (Eduardo Minett) home from Mexico. Forced to take the backroads on their way to Texas, the unlikely pair faces an unexpectedly challenging journey, during which the world-weary horseman finds unexpected connections and his own sense of redemption.
Review: Eastwood is 91 years old, and I have no complaints about a guy whose heart is still into making movies. Yes, he’s slowed down, and perhaps his features lean too hard on sending specific messages in recent years compared to his more nuanced work of the past. However, even if he still likes to give himself plenty of credit as a man people can’t help but throw themselves at, there’s a nice level of professionalism on display in his features. This rings true in Cry Macho, a quieter yet affecting story serving as another stage of evolution when it comes to Eastwood’s thoughts on western heroes.
While the devices used to set this plot in motion feel like they come out of a Telenovela, the road movie aspect of this film is quite enjoyable. Yes, the film takes its time, and if the viewer is not locked into the sweet nature of this film or its sense of humor, I can see boredom washing over certain audiences. That said, I liked what Eastwood was doing here, back in front of the camera. Once again, he doesn’t push too hard on his young co-star, which means the film’s dramatic weight sometimes feels off-balance. However, as a film that seems targeted at Eastwood’s older fans as well as perhaps families in a way, there’s just something here that fits for a pleasant Sunday afternoon watch.
That said, I was fascinated by his approach to the western at this stage in his life. He’s not necessarily subverting expectations, but this is a film that finds Eastwood talking about masculinity rather than going out of his way to provide physical examples of it. Even when considering the notion of who’s a good guy and who’s bad, things don’t go as they would in the past. A sequence staged as a stand-off toward the end of the film would have played out way different in the 70s. Here, Eastwood is more geared towards making clear choices that allow characters to carry on, hopefully finding the true meaning of being macho. That says a lot when looking at the man’s incredibly cinematic history.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and on HBO Max.