Sundance Review: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” (2022)

If its title didn’t grab your attention the film’s two co-stars should. The always great (and in this case perfectly cast) Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown play a megachurch power couple in the upcoming “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul”. It marks the directorial debut for Adamma Ebo who gives us a biting and often hilarious critique of pseudo-Christianity and megachurch corruption. It’s a snarky satire that uses a mockumentary style to lambaste the lavish self-serving absurdity at the heart of these rackets.

From its opening moments, those familiar with the megachurch phenomenon will immediately notice the spot-on detail. Ebo has clearly done her research and she uses it to expose these wealthy scam-artists who put price tags on righteousness and sell their version of salvation for profit. And of course she delivers plenty of laughs, always at the hucksters’ expense. But Ebo’s craftiness shows in the glimmers of humanity she brings out of her characters, even amid their glaring over-the-top chicanery.

Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) is the pastor of Wander to Greatest Paths Baptist Church in Atlanta (how’s that for a name?). It was once a prominent megachurch with an estimated 25,000 congregants. He and his wife Trinitie (Hall), who’s proudly flaunts the haughty, self-aggrandizing title “First Lady” (not uncommon in these circles), live a opulent lifestyle complete with matching Ferraris, a helicopter, a palatial mansion, closets full of expensive dresses and designer suits, all in the name of the Lord’s service of course.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

You won’t find words like “humility” “moderation” or “contentment” in this couple’s vocabulary, with Lee-Curtis excusing his high-priced indulgences as “divine additions” while Trinitie buys $2000.00 hats at a boutique called Bathsheba’s Bonnets (the irony is both obvious and hilarious).

And then came the fall. Lee-Curtis found himself embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal which rocked his cash-cow empire, resulting in a mass exodus of church members and the eventual closing of the church. But rather than bowing out and slithering away in shame, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are prepping for their big comeback, marking down Easter Sunday for their church’s grand re-opening. And to help capture the occasion (and to shamelessly get as much publicity as possible), they’ve brought in a film crew to shoot a documentary.

And so we get the movie’s come-and-go mockumentary style which begins one month before their big Easter event. Ebo has her faux filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie over the next several weeks as they share their “vision” for the future of WGPBP. But instead of demonstrating remorse and repentance, we get the same two charlatans, still decked in Prada and still finding ways to rationalize their sin.

Though a bit uneven, the mockumentary conceit allows for many of the film’s funniest moments. Such as the various times the couple inadvertently expose their true selves in front of the camera. Or in the rivalry we see between the Childses and Keon and Shakira Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance), the husband and wife co-pastors of the bustling Heaven’s House Baptist Church. There are some shakier scenes where the movie drifts away from its whole mockumentary framing (one particularly cringy rap-song sing-a-long being a prime example). But it never takes it long to get back on track.

While the humor is a real strength, the movie often feels at odds with itself when it steers away from straight satire and ventures into more serious drama. That’s when its intentions get a little muddied, especially in its portrayal of Trinitie. At times it seems to paint her as both a hero and a victim. Not totally unlike last year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, another film examining a corrupt couple living large in the name of ministry. In that film, most of Tammy Faye Bakker’s wrongdoings were scrubbed clean in an effort to make her more saintly. Here we actually see many of Trinitie’s sins firsthand which makes embracing her as a victim lot harder.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

While she is clearly a victim of Lee-Curtis’ insatiable self-centeredness, Trinitie is no weak powerless damsel nor is she witless or gullible. In fact, you could say she’s the brains and the backbone of the outfit. So rather than a victim, this plays better as a redemption story of a woman who stood by her disgraced husband in order to protect her life of luxury. But as the only Childs with a sliver of conscience, she’s had enough and is ready to finally own up to her part in the hustle. I think that reading gives a more honest and cohesive image of Trinitie. I’m just not sure the movie itself agrees.

Of course the real victims are those who are swindled by these prosperity gospel peddlers who turn shepherding into a performance art and rake in the cash while doing so. Ebo uses some hilariously outrageous antics (which aren’t that far removed from reality) to pose the question, “Who would ever buy what these people are selling?”

Though a little messy, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” holds together thanks to a filmmaker’s keen understanding of her subject and two pitch-perfect leads. Hall especially shines, shrewdly navigating some sketchy character work to give us some semblance of a rooting interest. And while the film asks us to overlook much of what we’ve seen in order to feel a certain way about her character, Hall (miraculously) finds a way to not only earn our respect for Trinitie but also our sympathy.


REVIEW: “The Humans” (2021)

A24’s “The Humans” is a fascinating and impossible to pigeonhole drama and the kind of movie that can often slip under the radar. It’s written and directed by Stephen Karan and sports an eye-catching cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yuen, Jayne Houdyshell, and June Squibb.

Based on Karan’s one-act play of the same name, “The Humans” plays out in a single location and has a structure that clearly shows its stage roots. But to Karan’s credit, he uses that one setting to great effect, drawing his audience in and then leaving us with the feeling of being trapped in a place that steadily grows more unpleasant. That feeling partially comes from the stellar production design. But just as much is conveyed through the six beguiling characters we spend the running time with.

Image Courtesy of A24

The story is set around the ‘complicated’ Blake family as they gather together for Thanksgiving dinner. Brigid (Feldstein) and her boyfriend Rich (Yuen) are hosting her family for Thanksgiving at their new apartment in New York’s Chinatown. The dated fixer-upper with all of its creaks and cracks plays a pretty big part in Karan’s story. I’ve never seen the stage play, but here the apartment has a leering ominous presence that Karan’s camera conveys in a variety of crafty ways.

As Brigid’s family arrives and it doesn’t take long to notice that they aren’t the happiest bunch. We spend a lot of times listening to their individual problems and mining deep rooted issues between them. But this isn’t some dour study on family misery. Instead Karan gives us a family that is still bound together by their love for each other. But love and family can be a messy combination and the movie shows that with an affecting clarity. There are also slivers of dark humor that makes sure things don’t get too gloomy.

The top-to-bottom strong performances give us a good sense of who each of these characters are. Brigid is ambitious, but is stuck bartending to help pay down her student debt. The generally soft-spoken and supportive Rich has a history of mental illness. Brigid’s father Erik (Jenkins) comes across as preoccupied, often blankly staring down into the complex’s cramped interior courtyard. Her mother Deirdre (Houdyshell) feels unappreciated by her family and her job where she has worked for over 40 years. Her sister Amy (Schumer) has several health problems, is struggling with a recent breakup, and just found out she’s no longer in line for a partnership at her firm. Last is Brigid’s grandmother Momo (Squibb) who can barely get around and struggles with dementia.

Image Courtesy of A24

As their individual stories and the unearthed family drama plays out, Karan uses his camera to create the perspective of a guest. We’re constantly peering over shoulders, observing from other rooms, looking in through windows. His use of still shots through stationary cameras really hones in on his performers letting them do most of the heavy lifting. But Karan breaks up their scenes with shots that accentuate the apartment’s unwelcoming appearance. For a movie with such firm stage roots, Karan’s visuals really impress.

“The Humans” is a talky, performance-driven drama that asks a lot from its audience. It’s not easy to sit for so longing listening to a group of people talk about their jobs, the economy, their frustrations, and their ailments. You have to read between the lines and pay attention. You have to assume to role of the quiet guest, listening and learning who these people are and discovering what makes their lives so complicated. By the end, you’ll find yourself sucked in even as the story takes its more unsettling turn. “The Humans” is out in limited release and on Showtime.


REVIEW: “House of Gucci” (2021)

Ridley Scott’s second movie in as many months couldn’t be more different than the one that came before it. “The Last Duel” was a really good medieval period film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. Since then Scott has gone on to blame millennials, cell phones, Facebook, and so on. Without getting caught up in where he’s right and where he’s wrong, I’ll just say it’s a shame the movie didn’t get a bigger audience and you can’t help but theorize about the reasons why.

His follow-up “House of Gucci” could spark some of the same reaction from the 83-year-old filmmaker. Considering the source material, I always expected the film to be a train wreck. But would it be the good kind or the bad kind? The early reactions didn’t clarify much, and since then moviegoers have pretty much remain divided. Well after sitting through Scott’s nearly 160-minute drama/satire, I’m still not sure what kind of train wreck this ‘based on a true story’ yarn is.

Ridley Scott has been hungry to make a movie about the renowned Gucci fashion house since the early 2000s. If you don’t know the wonky history of this Italian family owned empire, I won’t ruin it for you. Suffice it that greed, betrayal, and even murder all have parts to play in their story. Scott’s avenue into the family’s prominence and eventual disintegration is the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The movie opens in 1978 Milan where Patrizia works in the offices of her father’s smalltime trucking business. Our first glimpse of her shows a woman of ambition who has a taste for attention. Maurizio is the son and lone heir of Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons made up to look like death warmed over). Rodolfo owns 50% of the Gucci brand while the other half is owned by his brother Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino).

Scott, along with screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, begin the story by showing the unashamedly forward Patrizia’s pursuit of the bookishly awkward Maurizio. The ailing Rodolfo doesn’t like the budding romance and warns his gullible heir. But Maurizio rejects his father’s wishes (and his future inheritance) and marries Patrizia.

After showing how they became a couple and giving us a glimpse of their early days together, the movie spends the bulk of its time on how Maurizio and Patrizia made their way back into the Gucci ranks. Patrizia drives the burgeoning power couple to the top by first pushing the generally apathetic Maurizio (he’s studying to be a lawyer) into taking on a bigger role in his family’s company. But later, as her lust of fortune and fame fully reveals itself, Patrizia hatches plans behind her husband’s back to pit Gucci against Gucci. And while the couple eventually rises to the top of the fashion house, once the ever naive Maurizio gets wind of his wife’s manipulation, their marriage starts to crumble, much like Gucci family’s once prominent empire.

All of that makes for some batty yet undeniably compelling drama. Up to that point the story bops along at a steady pace and the inside look at this Italian family and their business is both interesting and comical. Scott spends a lot of time digging into the family dynamic and the shifting power structure. But he also pokes fun at the superficiality of their extravagant lifestyle and status. The cast is certainly in on the gag with Gaga leading the way. Parts of her performance is more caricature by design, plucking inspiration from the tabloids and running with it. But Gaga is so committed to details and in-tune with the material that she uses different scenes to rein in her character, revealing an emotional backbone that makes Patrizia real rather than a cartoon.

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Driver is also very good. He’s like the straight man in an absurdist comedy. Driver portrays Maurizio as stiff and sheepish, brandishing a thick comb-over and even thicker oversized glasses. He hardly ever gets above room temperature, but that’s part of the character’s strength, especially as he subtly transforms before our eyes. Pacino is clearly having a lot of fun, hamming it up in the early scenes while shattered and defeated in the latter. Jared Leto is a little sketchier. He plays Aldo’s buffoon of a son Paolo. On the other hand, you could say Paolo is the only forward-thinking Gucci of the bunch. Leto goes full…something, burying himself under layers of makeup and latex while doing a routine that can be hilarious yet utterly distracting.

But then we get to the third act which quite literally brings the film down a few pegs. The movie completely loses its footing as it bogs down in scenes dealing with control of shares and majority ownership. Meanwhile Patrizia becomes this impossible to read character. So much so that the the movie doesn’t even seem to know how to portray her. And then there is the woefully undercooked buildup to the big crime. We only get a couple of scenes to show the planning and the crime being carried out. Even less attention is given to the outcome. Just snap your finger and everyone is suddenly in court being sentenced…end movie.

For about two-thirds of “House of Gucci” I was onboard, really enjoying the wackiness of the impervious rich and famous. I was into the film’s central relationship and was getting a kick out of the crazy contrast between both the characters and the performances of Gaga and Driver. But everything comes to a screeching halt in that third act and the movie suffers for it. I watched several people leave the theater during it. I was invested enough to see it through, but I can see why some were ready to check out. “House of Gucci” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “The Harder They Fall” (2021)

For those wondering (and I doubt many are), this isn’t a remake of Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 boxing drama. Nope, this is a stylish new Western from the folks at Netflix. Directed and co-written by singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel, this star-studded shoot ‘em up immediately grabs your attention for its predominantly black cast. But despite a strong start and the amazing talent on screen, the film sags in the middle before limping across the finish line with its predictable ending and head-scratching sequel setup.

“The Harder They Fall” tells a fictional story but uses real 19th century Old West wranglers, lawmen and outlaws. The story begins with a bang. In the tradition of some of the great spaghetti westerns, the movie opens with a fantastic credits sequence followed by a burst of violence that will define key characters moving forward. In this case a young boy watches his parents gunned down in cold blood. It’s an exceptionally shot scene that echoes the work of the genre’s two greatest Sergio’s – Leone and Corbucci.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Years later, the traumatized boy is now a man going by the name Nat Love (played by an exceptional Jonathan Majors). Marked by a cross carved into his forehead by his parents’ killer, the revenge-fueled Nat gets wind that the man he’s looking to kill, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), was out of prison. Helping him on his quest for vengeance is saloon owner and Nat’s former flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), dead-eye sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a young quick-draw named Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and Mary’s loyal saloon hand Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). Also joining them is seasoned lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) who has a bone to pick with Nat but wants Rufus more.

Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s very best scenes both visually and performance-wise, Rufus Buck faithfuls, the surly “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), the sly ruthless Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and a few disposables, bust their leader out of a prison train and then head for the town of Redwood City. Once there they kick out its crooked sheriff, once an old associate of Rufus’ named Wiley Escoe (an excellent Deon Cole), and set up shop. Sadly, it’s here where the movie begins to stall.

For some reason Idris Elba, bursting with charisma and brandishing a quiet menace, up and vanishes for a long stretch of the movie. He essentially stays shut up in Redwood City waiting for the inevitable showdown between gangs. The movie misses his presence. Majors is terrific and carries his gang’s load (he has some especially good scenes opposite of Beetz). But when it comes to Buck’s gang, King and Stanfield (both really good here) do their best but are stuck in one place basically spinning their wheels. It’s a shame, because together with Elba, the three make for a cracking combination. Each give us characters who grab us and leave us wanting more of them.

This is the feature film debut for Jeymes Samuel whose sure-handed direction and blaring style routinely gives us something cool to look at and admire. But not all of his choices work. For example, there are scattered patches of dialogue which sound plucked out of a modern day comedy rather than in the American west. There’s also a few scenes where Samuel’s ambition gets the best of him and he gets a little too carried away.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

A good example is a bank robbery scene in Maysville, a town exclusively populated by wealthy white folks. The entire town is quite literally whitewashed from top to bottom. Every building, every water trough, every hitching post. Even the ground. I won’t spoil any more, but the symbolism is pretty crafty. Unfortunately the execution is so glaringly on the nose and the town so brazenly fake that it yanked me out of the movie.

While the film sometimes feels a bit too polished, its characters are full of grit. The violence is probably best described as Tarantino-light. It can be brutal and rather gruesome and other times it’s almost cartoonish. But more importantly, it works well within Samuel’s world. And while the story can be pretty grim, there’s enough witty rapport to keep things from becoming too dry and dour. Yet with all of that, the style-over-substance story can’t keep its momentum. And rather than building up to a big finish, we’re left with an overly long middle that drains too much energy and leaves you wondering “Where’s Idris?” “The Harder They Fall is now showing in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 3rd.


REVIEW: “Halloween Kills” (2021)

When director David Gordon Green and his co-writing compadre Danny McBride jumped into the “Halloween” franchise it already had a messy and hard to follow timeline. Their 2018 film simply titled “Halloween” made it even messier much to the chagrin of many franchise faithfuls. Basically, the creative duo would be disregarding every movie that came after the original 1978 classic. They retconned its ending and made their film a sequel to the very first film. So if you have a scorecard, “Halloween” was the sequel to “Halloween”.

I poke fun at it because I’m hardly a “Halloween” diehard. That being said, I do have a soft spot for Michael Myers and his mythology which made Green and McBride’s neutering of the timeline seem like an odd choice. But to their credit the pair had a vision that both told a new(ish) story while staying true to the spirit of the franchise. “Halloween” turned out to be a big hit, grossing over $255 million against a modest $15 million budget. With numbers like that you know Blumhouse Productions would be quick to green-light a follow-up.

That follow-up comes in the form of the “Halloween Kills”. Hokey title aside, this direct sequel was set up for success. It’s predecessor left the storyline in a place ready-made for more Michael Myers mayhem. And Blum’s modestly budgeted blueprint helps to ensure these horror ventures can make money. And with Green still at the helm to keep his vision intact, franchise fans and genre enthusiasts in general had plenty to look forward to.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As it turns a out, “Halloween Kills” is both a fairly entertaining middle installment that packs a lot of what fans will want and a weirdly ineffective mess with some neat ideas that end up being fumbled terribly. While it just barely nudges its story forward, it does fill in some gaps that better connects Green’s films with the original John Carpenter classic. And for those in it to see Michael Myers do his thing, he gives you plenty of well shot carnage to relish.

But other than plugging some holes, Green doesn’t do much to progress his story. Instead he takes a couple of detours that look important at first but kinda fizzle out. Also, Green doesn’t make the best use of three of his biggest strengths – the Strode women: Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). All three return for the sequel, but rather than making them the centerpiece of the movie (as they were in the 2018 film), Green leaves Laurie stuck in a hospital for the entire movie, Karen bounces around from place to place with no real purpose, and Allyson takes off with a carload of uninteresting side characters (more on them in a second).

“Halloween Kills” opens with a terrific flashback to Haddonfield on that infamous Halloween night in 1978. Green and McBride show us what happened after Dr. Loomis emptied his revolver into Michael sending the killer falling over a balcony only to rise and vanish into the night. It’s a clever setup with a few surprises packed in that fans should enjoy. These are easily the film’s best moments.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From there it’s back to Halloween night, 2018. The previous film ended with Michael being left to burn alive in Laurie Strode’s booby trapped farmhouse. But apparently that message didn’t get to the incredibly prompt first responders who end up letting the care-free killer loose. Meanwhile at a local bar, we’re introduced to a handful of Michael Myers survivors from the 1978 killing spree. Among them is Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards reprising the role the played in Carpenter’s original). They’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Michael’s capture when they get wind that he is once again terrorizing Haddonfield.

Bringing back Tommy and Lindsey has a nice nostalgic ring to it. Unfortunately none of the new characters get any of the attention they need to be the slightest bit interesting. Tommy is especially bland and poorly written. While the police search for Michael, he organizes a posse of fed up townsfolk to hunt down Michael and kill him once and for all. But in his zeal he incites a full-blown riot. The idea is good – the notion of decent citizens turning into the monsters. But Green’s handling of it is simply too hard to believe. Tommy turns a crowd of people into a bloodthirsty mob with only a couple of sentences and a corny mantra “Evil Dies Tonight”. Of course, it doesn’t end well.

“Halloween Kills” is a hard movie to categorize. In one sense it offers plenty of splatter thrills that fans of this horror sub-genre pay their money for. It also makes an attempt at explaining Michael’s twisted motive (although I still don’t fully understand it). And this isn’t meant to be a fully packaged story. It’s a bridge to the third installment due out next October. But that doesn’t make the movie’s shortcomings any easier to look past. There simply isn’t enough story progression and too much time is wasted on shallow, meaningless side characters. Here’s hoping “Halloween Ends” puts the Strodes back in the spotlight and gives us a fitting finish to make it all worthwhile. “Halloween Kills” is now showing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.


REVIEW: “Holler” (2021)

Nicole Riegel makes her eye-opening directorial debut with “Holler”, a richly textured movie with a deep personal connection with its creator. Riegel grew up in the American Rust Belt and shot “Holler” in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. While the town and the characters in the movie are fictional, they’re very much inspired by Riegel’s own lived experience growing up in Jackson. And the lead character (wonderfully played by Jessica Barden) is a reflection of Riegel’s youth where as a young woman she worked hard to break a cycle and make it out of the crumbling town she came from.

But everything came full-circle when she returned to Jackson, this time as a young woman who had made it; as a filmmaker with both the opportunity and the perspective to tell an authentic and thoughtful story about growing up in a struggling Southern Ohio community. It’s something movies have often touched on but rarely with the lived-in point-of-view that we get from Riegel. Her touch can be felt throughout the film and while not perfect, the truth she conveys on screen makes for some riveting viewing.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Riegel opens her film with a quick introduction to the story’s central character Ruth Avery (Barden), a smart and resourceful high-school senior. It doesn’t take long to recognize how the deck seems stacked against her, and in many ways she seems resigned to her fate. There’s no sign of a father and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is in the county jail for refusing to go to rehab. Ruth lives with her well-meaning older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) who does his best to provide for his sister but can’t afford to keep the water turned on and is constantly dodging foreclosure notices from the bank.

Riegel wrote the screenplay (which is based on her own short film) and she makes the brother/sister dynamic a key part of her story. Blaze wants his sister to have a better life and to go to college, something none of their family has ever done. Ruth has a strong loyalty to her brother and the idea of leaving him behind on his own is out of the question. This conflict, while centered around the sibling’s love for each other, stretches through the entire film and intensifies as their circumstances worsen.

The supporting characters are just as important and play a pivotal role in filling out the story and the town. Tops on the list is Austin Amelio as Hark, a local junkyard owner who hires a desperate Blaze and Ruth to collect scrap metal that he then sells on the side. Hark is an intriguing presence – a product of the town who always has a sly way of rationalizing what he does whether it’s legal or not. Yet it feels like there is so much of his story that’s left out making him a hard character to figure out. Becky Ann Baker adds a welcomed warmth to every scene she’s in playing Linda, a close friend of Ruth’s family. She too is a character we’re left wanting to know more about.

But it all mostly comes back to Barden who’s actually 28-years-old yet is utterly convincing as a high-schooler. She gives us glimpses of Ruth’s youthful spirit – a young girl full of potential, bouncing around in her red knit toboggan and full of curiosity. Yet we mostly see is a girl mature beyond her years, forced by her circumstances to grow up early and reflecting the hardships that have been a part in her life since she was a child. It’s a remarkable performance and Riegel is smart to lean into her talented star.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

DP Justin Lane shoots a lot of scenes in somber blue tones emphasizing the misery and the despair. At this point it’s a technique that has been done so much you almost expect it. Lane’s camera really shines in the more intimate and personal moments where the characters are the focus. He also does a great job capturing the town and grounding us in the setting which is such a vital component to the story. But the visuals stumble a bit in what you may call ‘action scenes’. Mostly shot at night, these few scenes can be dark and murky to the point of being indecipherable. It’s more frustrating than problematic.

“Holler” ends up being one of those rare movies that doesn’t just talk about small town life. Instead it offers a clear-eyed undiluted vision of living under the poverty line. It’s gritty, authentic, and without a ounce of pretense. And not only is it an impressive feature film debut for Nicole Riegel, it also highlights Jessica Barden whose thoughtful and layered performance drives much of the movie. Both are immensely talented women and you can’t help but be anxious for what each will do next. “Holler” hits theaters June 11th.