Movie Review: What ‘Fresh’ Hell is This?!

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Fresh (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jonica T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Dayo Okeniyi, Andrea Bang, Brett Dier

Director: Mimi Cave

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Plenty of Blood and a Decent Amount of Flesh

Release Date: March 4, 2022 (Hulu)

Where do monsters exist in today’s society? If you look to Fresh for the answer to that question, you’ll be met with some terrifying, exhilarating results. To wit: modern dating sucks, but also: what’s in our food? It’s a lot to keep track of for someone who wants to live both deliciously and ethically!

For Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), she’s endured enough epically bad dates that you could easily imagine a Netflix exec hitting her up out of the blue and giving her carte blanche to produce whatever she wants out of all that raw material. Somehow, though, she’s actually in a headspace to accept a proposition in the grocery produce aisle. That’s where she meets a charming fellow by the name of Steve (Sebastian Stan), and next thing you know, they’re heading off for a weekend away together. This is the exact sort of meet-cute that tends to only happen in the movies, and everyone involved in making Fresh is trying to convince us that it should stay that way.

This is the point in my review in which I tell my readers that I am going to do my best to avoid specifics from here on out, as this is the sort of movie that works hard to keep its premise under wraps. The opening credits don’t even arrive until about a half hour in. (Perhaps starting a bit of a trendlet in that regard alongside Drive My Car.) I knew that the scares were coming, but if you go in completely cold, you might think that this is just a cynical comedy about the Tinder era. But everything is just edgy enough, and the colors are rendered in such vivid, bloody detail, that you can probably sense the horror lurking. But is it Noa or Steve pulling the strings as the puppetmaster behind it all?

Like so much great horror, Fresh zeroes in on an  examination of people who live beyond the morals of civilized society. It’s despicable, but also intoxicating to those who lap up these visions of monstrousness. I almost found myself rooting for Noa and Steve to end up together despite the massive degree of exploitation at the core of their connection, even as I was also rooting for the captive to escape in a cathartic turning of the tables. Rest assured, that comeuppance will come, and it will be glorious. In the meantime, we can revel in the bloody beauty from the safety of our viewing devices and maybe learn a thing or two about keeping that darkness cooped up where it belongs.

Fresh is Recommended If You Like: Raw, Promising Young Woman, American Psycho, Get Out, NBC’s Hannibal

Grade: 4 out of 5 Slices

‘The 355’ Features Lady Spies Fighting Off a Cyber-MacGuffin

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The 355 (CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Very Loud Guns and Some Torture

Release Date: January 7, 2022 (Theaters)

Like pretty much every other spycraft movie ever, The 355 left me reeling with bewilderment over my lack of understanding about what exactly was going on. About 20 minutes in, I wondered, “Did I miss something while looking down at my phone or taking a swig of water?” That’s pretty par for the course. What’s less par is the fact that this particular spy movie stars a quintet of ladies who have all garnered plenty of awards recognition over the course of their careers. The title, after all, is a reference to a code name used by a female agent during the American Revolution. But ultimately that feminine energy makes hardly any difference whatsoever.

The 355 (CREDIT: Universal Pictures)

Basically there’s some to-do about some MacGuffin that could apparently destroy the world if it winds up in the wrong hands. So a team of allies and former rivals from all around the world forms on the fly to ensure that this doesn’t happen. There’s also some business about Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent character being betrayed by her partner (Sebastian Stan). I couldn’t figure out what his motivation was. Ultimately I began to entertain the idea that perhaps these actors were just as oblivious as I was about the details of their characters’ mission. They never betrayed any doubt in their performances, but it’s kind of interesting to consider the amount of blindness that could potentially go into pulling off a plot this knotty. Also, Penélope Cruz’s character is a therapist, and it’s clear that she is not used to field work that’s this high-stakes. So I kind of wish the focus had been more on her.

There might be some readers of this review who are shouting at me, “What are you talking about?! This made perfect sense! I know exactly what happened!” But a comprehensible plot is only half the battle here. There also needs to be style and momentum. Alas, though, The 355 for the most part alternates between deafening gun shootouts and frequently whispered conversations. Oh well, that’s January cinema for ya. The nonsense has to go somewhere.

The 355 is Recommended If You Like: The promise of a “Dewey Decimal System for Cyberattacks”

Grade: 2 out of 5 Common Enemies

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Destroyer’ is Worth Admiring for Nicole Kidman Inhabiting a Detective Whose Soul and Psyche Are Paralyzed by Undercover Work

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CREDIT: Sabrina Lantos/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss

Director: Karyn Kusama

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for The Nasty Violence, Sex, and Drugs of Police Work at Its Most Unmoored

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

Destroyer plays a bit like Memento, with its irregular temporal structure and out-of-sorts lead character investigating some unsavory behavior in Los Angeles. But besides a few moments in which everything clicks into place, Destroyer‘s narrative approach is more maddening than brain-tickling. Where Memento‘s backwards arrangement was both revolutionary and strikingly purposeful, Destroyer‘s propensity towards flashbacks and withholding information just feels haphazard. Perhaps director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi had a clear purpose in mind, but that does not really come across in the final product. But at least they have a typically riveting performance from Nicole Kidman to hold everyone’s attention.

Kidman plays LAPD detective Erin Bell, who is basically the epitome of someone whose life has been destroyed by working undercover. The events cut back and forth between her time infiltrating a criminal gang and nearly two decades later when the leader of that crew re-emerges. With perpetually puffy eyes, chapped skin and lips, and dusty hair, she is a walking husk of a person, and you get the sense that she has been that way every day for quite some time. The message seems to be that the lying and identity warping of undercover work cannot possibly be worth whatever good it accomplishes, to which I say: you didn’t have to make an entire grungy movie to convince me! There are a few pleasures to be had when you finally realize why certain memories are as traumatic as they are for Erin and why the opening scene is what it is. But it is a big ask to go down into the muck with Kidman for two hours, although she is at least decent company.

Destroyer is Recommended If You Like: Appreciating the full range of Nicole Kidman’s oeuvre, The dry skin-cracking Los Angeles sun

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spoiled Relationships

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘I, Tonya,’ You, Enthralled Audience

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CREDIT: Neon

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Canavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: R for Rinkside Potty Mouth and Redneck-Style Violence

Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)

Every story needs a villain, but that’s not always how life works. Even when somebody gets clubbed in the knee leading up to the Olympics, separating the good guys from the bad guys is not always so clear-cut. This is all to say, Tonya Harding has lived a very colorful life, and some pretty illuminating details often get left out in the telling, so she deserves for us to hear her out. It would help, though, if all the parties involved could actually agree on what happened. Nevertheless, I, Tonya, the spirited biopic pieced together by director Craig Gillespie is a record of fantastically entertaining recent tabloid history that is can’t-look-away tawdry but also fair-minded and humanizing.

Harding is one of the all-time greats in American figure skating, but her reputation has forever been marked by the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics. In the popular imagination (and in a gleefully sadistic fantasy scene in the film), Harding was the assailant herself, but it was actually some guy hired by her ex-husband and her bodyguard, and it is questionable how much she ever knew about it in the first place. All of I, Tonya is building up to “The Incident,” but it takes up a relatively small portion of the runtime. After all, Harding’s life was enough of a whirlwind before then for her to already be the wild child in the public eye.

Betting that his big hook is conflicting testimonies and fluffing of image, Gillespie frames the film as a mockumentary consisting of interviews with the principal actors in character, disputing the accounts of the others as they see fit. This is a recipe for raucous storytelling, as every character is oozing with personality to spare. Margot Robbie is dangerously feisty and undeniably winning as she absolutely gives Tonya a chance to redeem herself and just let her voice be heard. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), accompanied with a parrot on her shoulder (credited as “LaVona’s Sixth Husband”), is a piece of work, egging her daughter on with profanity-laced tirades and motivational negging. Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) has mellowed a bit in the present day, but his fiery, mustachioed presence of yore gets a lot of mileage. And an unnamed producer (Bobby Canavale) of the ’90s tabloid news show Hard Copy fills in the blanks with maximum slickness. Not interviewed, but looming large, is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff’s close friend and Tonya’s supposed bodyguard, who earns the biggest laughs of the film, occasionally by just repeating verbatim some of Eckhardt’s most ridiculous claims (like how he is an expert in counterterrorism).

According to Tonya’s telling, there is one big constant: nothing is ever her fault. And certainly she has been a major victim, suffering at the hands of an abusive mother, an abusive husband, and a father who left her. Plus, there is the figure skating establishment that never accepted her, that would never hold up a white trash girl who performed to ZZ Top as their crown jewel. But for all the ways she has been wronged, it is so clear that she needs to shoulder some responsibility herself (as does anyone who wants to have peace). Yes, her ex beat her up, but she also pulled a shotgun on him (though she disputes that part). And sure, the stuffy figure skating establishment probably never gave her a fair chance, but she was intimidating and probably scared a few judges away from reasonability. Ultimately, Tonya implicates everyone watching in creating the monster she has come to be. To which I say: I don’t think you’re a monster! If Margot Robbie has portrayed you accurately, then I like you, Tonya! Chances are I won’t be the only one, as we all get to see the human within this crazy delicious mess.

I, Tonya is Recommended If You Like: The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Tyson, Thelma & Louise

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Triple Axels