REVIEW: “Prey for the Devil” (2022)

2022 has been a pretty lackluster year for the horror genre. It’s been a year where “big swings” by filmmakers have become more important than good stories or (dare I say it) actual scares. It’s been a year where several old franchise favorites have returned in what amounted to pretty dreadful reboots. Thankfully there have been a few welcomed exceptions such as “Pearl”, “Smile”, “Fresh”, and “Orphan: First Kill”. Otherwise it has been pretty unremarkable.

New to the fold is “Prey for the Devil”, a supernatural horror film from director Daniel Stamm and screenwriter Robert Zappia. Arriving just in time for Halloween, “Prey” doesn’t do much to change the course of the 2022 horror movie year. And while it might grab itself an audience who are hungry for some holiday frights, it’s unlikely to stick with you for very long afterwards. That’s because it plows some very familiar ground, and it doesn’t give us much that we haven’t seen before. Yet it has a few things going for it that helps make it fairly entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Jacqueline Byers plays Sister Ann, an ambitious young nun with a troubled past who finds herself face-to-face with a malevolent demon that’s had its eye on her since she was a child. Sister Ann grew up in a troubled home with an abusive mother (Konya Ruseva in flashbacks) who was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. But Ann loved her mother and was convinced there was something else wrong. That belief and her childhood trauma led her to become a nun where she began learning about possession.

Noting a sudden increase in possessions around the globe, the Vatican decides to reinstitute exorcism training. Sister Ann has an immediate interest, but women are prohibited from performing the rite of exorcism. But she finds an advocate in Father Quinn (a solid Colin Salmon) who admires her eagerness and recognizes her special gifts. He agrees to let her sit in as an observer as he trains a group of young priests. This doesn’t sit well with the stern Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) or the skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen). But Father Quinn sees something in our protagonist.

As expected, their training quickly turns into something much more sinister after Father Quinn and his group of exorcists-to-be encounter a 10-year-old girl named Natalie (Posy Taylor). Her family believes she may be possessed (I suppose sudden scars all over her body, the snarling voice, and ability to climb walls like Spider-man can lead to such suspicions). As the evil spirit starts manifesting itself in more violent ways, Sister Ann begins to suspect it’s the same demon that tormented her late mother. With the help of her friend and fellow trainee Father Dante (Christian Navarro), Sister Ann covertly bends a few church rules to prepare for what’s to come. It leads to an inevitable supernatural showdown that unfortunately fizzles rather than frightens.

Surprisingly, the movie’s strongest moments aren’t the one-on-ones with the demon. Those scenes are pretty by-the-book and come packaged with many of the usual tricks – milky eyes, gnarly body contortions, super-human strength, etc. Instead it’s the more serious-minded procedural aspect of the training, the church politics, the internal discussions over the Vatican’s process of handling “terminal” possession cases. There’s also an interesting consideration of the psychological versus the supernatural. Sure, all of these things could have been explored more. But they add some unique and compelling layers to the story.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

There are also things to appreciate about Stamm’s direction, such as his use of silence which leads to some legitimate edge-of-your-seat tension. And there’s a couple of good jump scares that actually don’t feel annoyingly cheap. Stamm also gets some fitting atmosphere from his Sofia, Bulgaria shooting locations. On a sad note, the brilliant Ben Cross who plays Cardinal Matthews passed away only ten days after finishing his scenes. This marks the final feature film for the talented English actor.

Interesting bits aside, “Prey for the Devil” still can’t quite get over the hurdle of familiarity. There’s just too much that feels rehashed from countless other films. And it’s not helped by a rather unsatisfying ending that doesn’t exactly provide the payoff the film needs. It’s a visually dark and murky climax by choice that, rather than adding atmosphere, just makes it tougher to decipher than it needs to be. Together, these frustrations are simply too pronounced, and the movie doesn’t have enough ingenuity of its own to overcome them. “Prey for the Devil” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “Pearl” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I had reasonably high expectations for “X”, an unashamed ode to slasher movies and grindhouse sleaze that released earlier this year. Sadly, it ended up feeling more like a trashy knockoff than anything remotely fresh. But then a prequel was announced titled “Pearl”, and its trailer offered a stylish and delightfully brutal blast of technicolor-soaked horror. I was instantly intrigued.

Because of “X”, I entered “Pearl” with a fair amount of caution. After seeing it, I left the film mostly impressed by what West had put together. “Pearl” is impossible to put into a single box. It’s an origin story, a rural horror movie, a psychological thriller, a pitch-black comedy, a gonzo exploitation flick. And while not all of it fits together seamlessly, West’s focus is tighter and he doesn’t stray off course or get bogged down in as much nonsense this time around.

“Pearl” truly is West’s baby. He directs, edits, co-writes, and co-produces. But most people will leave the film talking about its star, Mia Goth (who’s also credited as co-writer). The British actress pulls out her thick Southern accent and steps back into the skin of Pearl, a troubled young woman with a twisted imagination and big dreams of becoming a movie star. Goth played an elderly Pearl in “X”, but here she gets to put aside the heavy prosthetics to play a younger Pearl at a crucial point in her life.

Image Courtesy of A24

The movie’s sumptuous opening puts us right back on the farm from “X”. West starts us in the barn, swinging open its large double doors to reveal a sun-bathed yellow farmhouse surrounded by bright green grass. It’s almost Rockwellian in its presentation. Yet before the opening credits are done, West and Goth give us a jolt just to let us know there’s nothing idyllic about the world we’ve entered. And from that moment there’s a lingering sense of unease which West maintains to the film’s eerie final frame.

I can’t overstate how essential that uneasy feeling is to the movie’s success. West wants us to know from the start that Pearl is unwell. Sure, people who have seen “X” already have a good idea. But for those who haven’t, West makes it clear in the opening moments. With that understanding comes anticipation. We know bad things are coming. We know she’s going to break. The question becomes when and how? What drives her? How far does she go? West has us in the palm of his hand. It’s just up to him to deliver the payoff. For the most part he does.

While the ever-present simmer of dread is vital, Goth’s performance is the centerpiece. Aside from the hints of theatrics in a few scenes, Goth really sells us her damaged character. But what stands out most is her ability to make Pearl uncomfortably deranged while earning our empathy. Some of it is due to West’s script which gives Pearl room to develop and her circumstances time to metastasize. But most comes from Goth who captures every twisted facet of her character.

“Pearl” takes place as World War I and the equally deadly Spanish Flu were nearing their ends, yet the reverberations of both were still being felt across the globe. With her husband Howard away at war, Pearl is left to tend to her parents’ farm and help her stern German-born mother (Tandi Wright) take care of her wheelchair bound father (Matthew Sutherland). But Pearl’s heart is elsewhere. She has an unhealthy obsession with being a movie star. She sees it as her ticket off the farm, much to the chagrin of her cynical mother.

Image Courtesy of A24

ThAfter developing its setting and her circumstances, the movie simply follows Pearl over the next several days as she encounters people and situations that will ultimately play into her inevitable breakdown. Among the key players is a hunky bohemian theater projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows Pearl a stag film he picked up while in Europe (a lazy, wedged-in attempt at linking to “X” and the upcoming third film). And there’s Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), Pearl’s sister-in-law who accompanies her to a church-sponsored dance troupe audition.

This simple yet effective approach paints us a rich and detailed portrait of Pearl – one that grows more unsettling by the minute. Along the way, West uses his story to comment on quarantine life, pandemic era paranoia, and the damaging effects of isolation. There’s also a brilliantly layered examination of family dysfunction that shows how deep-seated pain can fester into something toxic and destructive.

“Pearl” is a deliciously unhinged slice of period horror that’ll have you chuckling one minute and squirming in your seat the next. It improves on “X” in nearly every perceivable way, yet it’s very much its own movie that feels plucked out of time. The visual craft, the ingenious score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, and of course Mia Goth’s next-level performance are all crucial to realizing West’s vision. And while there are reasons to be leery of the teased third film, it doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of “Pearl” which is plenty able to stand on its own. “Pearl” is now showing in theaters.


REVIEW: “Pinocchio” (2022)

Walt Disney teams with Robert Zemeckis in the latest iteration of Pinocchio, the classic children’s tale taken from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian book “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. More directly, it’s based on Disney’s 1940 animated feature film and follows their recent string of live-action adaptations that has included “Dumbo”, “The Lion King”, and “Aladdin”. (“The Little Mermaid” is next in line).

You could say Disney overplayed their hand, dropping four of these live-action adaptations in 2019 alone. Mixed box office results led to “Lady and the Tramp” and now “Pinocchio” skipping theaters altogether and going straight to their Disney+ streaming platform. It’s a shame because “Pinocchio” is a visual delight which would have sparkled on the big screen. And while many of us have seen and heard this story countless times, Zemeckis offers a heart-filled, semi-fresh, and reasonably sanitized take that maintains the charm of the original.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

In a small Italian village, a woodcarver and clock-maker named Geppetto (an unsurprisingly great Tom Hanks) runs a quaint little shop along the town square. He enjoys spending his time with his computer-animated kitty Figaro and goldfish Cleo, making toys out of blocks of wood and building cuckoo clocks that he can’t bring himself to sell. Yet deep down, the kindly Geppetto’s heart is heavy as he still mourns the recent loss of his young son.

In what seems like an act of therapy, Geppetto builds a marionette boy made out of pine wood who he (of course) names Pinocchio. After an especially tender wish upon a star, Geppetto retires for the night. As he sleeps, The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) grants Geppetto’s wish and brings Pinocchio to life, telling him that if he proves himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish, he’ll become a real little boy. The fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lost soul and the movie’s infrequent narrator, to be Pinocchio‘s temporary conscience which proves to be a tougher job than he bargained for.

Voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, the sweet and playful Pinocchio fills Geppetto with a happiness he hasn’t felt in while. But that joy is interrupted after Geppetto sends his wooden boy off to school. And so begins a day-long storybook adventure that sees Pinocchio being duped by a conniving Fox named Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), sold to a cruel and abusive puppeteer Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), picked up by the mysterious Coachman (Luke Evans), and whisked away to Pleasure Island, an extravagant theme park for deliquent children that turns out to be something shockingly more sinister. Meanwhile, along with Figaro and Cleo, a worried Geppetto sets out to find his lost boy.

Thankfully, Zemeckis (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz) has more to offer than a simple rehash of the 1940 film. It’s certainly not as audacious as Netflix’s “Pinocchio”, the stop-motion passion project from Guillermo del Toro due out later this year. And you can see where it takes a few shortcuts in its storytelling. But Zemeckis captures the sweetness and pathos of the original while also wonderfully mixing computer animation with live-action to give the classic story a zesty new coat of paint.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

It also doesn’t hurt to have Tom Hanks onboard. He and Zemeckis have previously worked together on “Forrest Gump”, “Cast Away”, and “The Polar Express”. Here Hanks falls into the role of Geppetto, bringing gentleness, sincerity, and a palpable sorrow. We also get good performances from Erivo, Evans, and Battiston. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a little shaky as Jiminy Cricket, but most of the voice-work, particularly from Ainsworth, is solid.

While it may not fully sell itself as necessary, “Pinocchio” has enough flavor of its own to stand on its own. There are some gorgeous visuals to go along with the heartfelt storytelling, and we get yet another fine performance from Tom Hanks who (unlike in “Elvis”) embodies every facet of his character. Mileage may vary depending on how ready you are for yet another “Pinocchio” adaptation. Personally, I wasn’t looking one. Yet I left Zemeckis’ film with a pretty big smile on my face. “Pinocchio” premieres this today (September 8th) on Disney+.


REVIEW: “Persuasion” (2022)

Yet another Jane Austen big screen adaptation arrives with “Persuasion”, a recent Netflix drama based on the 1817 Austen novel of the same name. The film is directed by Carrie Cracknell and stars Dakota Johnson who seems to be everywhere these days. Add to it a compelling supporting cast that features Henry Golding, Cosmo Jarvis, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Richard Grant among others. Those are a lot of good pieces. It’s too bad they can’t bring life to this mostly tepid affair.

Johnson does her best playing Anne Elliot, the middle daughter in a family of vain and incredibly shallow aristocrats. For eight years Anne has remained heartbroken over losing her true love, Frederick Wentworth (Jarvis). Anne was crazy about him, but was persuaded to turn down his proposal by her disapproving family who saw him as “a sailor without rank or fortune”. So Anne spends her time quietly moping while secretly keeping up with Frederick’s Naval exploits.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Anne is a baffling character. Co-screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass turn their protagonist into an impossible to read contradiction. In one sense she’s smarter and more grounded than anyone else we meet. She often clashes with her family’s unbridled vainglory, frequently breaking the fourth wall to point out their conceit or to give us a “can you believe that?” look. At times she seems incisive and self-assured – the kind of clear-eyed woman who sees through the societal nonsense of the era.

Yet all of that is undone by countless instances where she’s rendered weak and subservient. The sly and spirited Anne we see when she looks into the camera clashes with the one who doesn’t stand up for herself and lets her obnoxious family treat her like dirt. It’s even worse once Frederick inevitably comes back into the picture. It becomes one of those annoying movie situations where the central tension hinges on two people’s refusal to have one simple conversation. In this case, it’s Anne and Frederick’s unwillingness to express their feelings for each other.

So the film’s ice-cold romance basically waits in the wings as Anne and Frederick mope around in various states of unhappiness. Henry Golding is supposed to add some complexity to the relationship, but he’s essentially little more than eye-candy. He plays Anne’s dashing distant relative who has one eye on his inheritance and one eye on his cousin. He brings very little to the story.

The same can be said for pretty much all of the supporting cast. Easily the most annoying of the bunch is Anne’s spoiled drama-queen sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). She’s a one-note irritation who wears out her welcome. As with most of the film, it’s not due to the performance. It’s just a case of McKenna-Bruce being handed a poorly written character who you quickly grow tired of seeing.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The one character who’s actually fun is Anne’s haughty father, Sir Walter Eliot, a man infatuated with status and his “exquisite jawline”. Richard Grant’s deliciously over-the-top performance brings several good laughs. Unfortunately, after some early scenes he pretty much vanishes until the final act.

I’m not a seasoned Jane Austen reader so it’s hard for me to compare her novel with the film. But from what I’ve read, this isn’t the most faithful Austen adaptation. Either way, “Persuasion” isn’t a very good movie. It’s flat and lacks the spark that it needs to make us care. As it is, nothing about the supposed romance keeps our interest, and the characters just putter along as we wait for something interesting to happen. Sadly, it never really does. “Persuasion” is streaming now on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Prey” (2022)

Ranking Arnold Schwarzenegger movies is hardly akin to examining fine art. Forgive me if that sounds condescending. It’s not meant to. I’m actually a fan of his movies. I was a teen during the 1980s and ate up every Arnie film that came down the pipeline. For that reason, his movies (even the bad ones) hold a special place in my heart. But that doesn’t permit me as a critic to overlook the obvious – Schwarzenegger movies (much like the ones from Stallone, Norris, and the second tier guys who came after them) are very much movies of their time. Undeniably fun for people like me, but admittedly silly, formulaic, and sometimes off the rails.

That being said, there are some standouts from Schwarzenegger’s action-heavy filmography. You have the obvious ones – 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian”, 1984’s “The Terminator”, it’s highly-acclaimed sequel 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. But my very favorite movie from the former California Governor and one that still holds up incredibly well today is his 1987 sci-fi action mashup “Predator”.

For years 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) has tried and mostly failed to replicate what made “Predator” such a beloved fan favorite. That is until now. “Prey”, the much anticipated prequel to the ‘87 film, is not only a worthy franchise entry. It’s also the best “Predator” movie since the original (by far). And it’s the companion piece many of us have spent years waiting for.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Now I don’t want to oversell it. “Prey” is very much a straightforward genre movie that happens to be very proud of its roots. Fans of the original film will find several smile-inducing callbacks, from simple lines of dialogue to how it gets back to the primal man-versus-beast basics. But while “Prey” has an undeniably cool nostalgic kick, it also manages to put its own original spin on the franchise in large part thanks to its period, its setting, and one lights-out lead performance from Amber Midthunder.

Set in 1719 along the Northern Great Plains, “Prey” follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Midthunder) who seeks to prove to her tribe that she is a capable hunter. Armed with a hatchet left to her by her late father, Naru trains herself in combat, in tracking, and in survival. She’s more than ready for her trial, but there’s one problem – hunting is reserved for the men. The women stay close to the camp, going out early in the morning to gather herbs, roots, and berries for food and medicines.

The headstrong and determined Naru would much rather sling her hatchet than carry a basket. So she tags along with her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who is the tribe’s best warrior. Taabe tries to discourage his little sister from hunting, but he also defends Naru from the other male hunters who give her a hard time and are quick to brush her off.

Disgruntled, Naru begins venturing further away from the camp where she starts seeing signs of a giant animal of some sort. Maybe it’s a bear; maybe it’s a cat. She warns her brother and the other hunters, but they immediately blow off her claims. So Naru decides to track down and kill the beast herself and in the process prove to her tribe that she’s a worthy hunter. But her prey is no bear or cat. It’s a bigger and more deadly predator. It’s not of this world and it’s here to hunt.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

From the very beginning, there’s one thing the film has working against it. Because of the previous movies, we pretty much know everything about the predator. We already know it’s from outer space. We know it has retractable wrist-blades, active camouflage, thermal vision, and a penchant for skinning its prey and collecting their skulls. All of that inescapably removes an element of suspense that was so vital to the 1987 film. But director Dan Trachtenberg clears that hurdle by immersing us into his world and creating a steady palpable tension. He smartly keeps things simple, developing a protagonist we genuinely care about and giving the alien antagonist plenty of moments to shine.

Visually, “Prey” is a stunner. While the CGI wildlife can occasionally look a tad off, overall the movie is an eye-popping collage of images both beautiful and bloody. As far as the setting, Trachtenberg and DP Jeff Cutter surround us with jaw-dropping skies, cascading streams, lush forest canopies, and gorgeous mountain backdrops. And then there’s the dazzling action sequences which are fueled by some fierce combat and plenty of gnarly kills. Trachtenberg knows what fans are looking for, and he delivers it through some remarkably inventive framing and deliciously brutal encounters.

To my surprise, “Prey” was everything I hoped it would be plus a little more. Going back in time to show our planet’s first encounter with the alien predators turned out to be a great move. And while it offers a cool twist on the franchise, the period setting isn’t just a gimmick. There’s a bevy of themes (both cultural and historical) that seep from the story, and we get a hero (played by the superb Midthunder) we’re excited to root for. But fear not fans. The alien predator is as brutal and calculated as ever, and there are moments where you’ll actually find yourself rooting for him. It’s one of several wicked twists that make this such a welcomed surprise. “Prey” premieres this Friday (August 5th) exclusively on Hulu.


REVIEW: “The Princess” (2022)

Don’t let its name fool you. The new Hulu Original “The Princess” is no bubbly family-friendly Disney fairytale. Nope, this proudly bloody and brutal medieval action-thriller goes out of its way to buck every possible expectation people usually have for ‘princess movies’. Director Le-Van Kiet goes for the jugular (quite literally) and his star Joey King is certainly committed. But it’s hard to get past how silly and simplistic this girl-power period piece turns out to be.

Calling the film “silly” seems trivial considering at times the movie itself not only acknowledges its silliness but embraces it. But the “simplistic” part is harder to shake. There’s very little character-building (and what we get never gets beyond surface-level) and there is no world-building whatsoever. An unnamed princess trying to save an unnamed kingdom from a remarkably bland villain (but hey, at least he has a name).

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In reality, all of that story stuff is simply there to serve the movie’s greater interest – scene after scene of hack-and-slash action. It’s like “Tangled” meets “Die Hard” but minus the interesting characters and entertaining hook. “The Princess” feels like one single act of a movie stretched out to feature length. Admittedly, it has a fun bit or two and there’s nothing inherently wrong with one-note movies like this. But “The Princess” simple doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to give this attempt at an empowerment tale any substance.

In a chamber high atop a giant tower, the eponymous princess (King) wakes up in a white silk wedding gown with her hands shackled. Over a series of convenient flashbacks we learn that she refused to marry the power-mad Julius (Dominic Cooper) to whom she was betrothed. After leaving him at the alter, our princess (who the movie goes to great lengths to show is no damsel in distress) is kidnapped and locked in the tower. Meanwhile, her father the King (Ed Stoppard), who is benevolent towards everyone other than his eldest daughter, watches as his crown and family are taken captive by Julius.

After waking up, breaking free from her shackles, and violently dispersing of the first of many medieval meatheads, the princess begins her descent down the tower, offing foes and symbolically tearing off strips of her dress along the way. There are some good fights. There’s one against a horned gladiator; another versus a gold-armored knight. And there’s one set in the castle’s kitchen against Julius’ whip-cracking consort, Moira (Olga Kurylenko in a thankless role). But as we venture down the tower, the fight scenes tend to get clumsier and cornier (there’s one involving a string of pearls that’s so utterly ridiculous you can’t help but roll your eyes).

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

And that’s really all there is to the story. Co-writers Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton attempt to add a little depth by showing how the princess became such a capable fighter. But it’s hard not to laugh at the hilariously bad flashbacks especially when the hokey talk of “a warrior’s heart” begins. Yet there’s so much the movie doesn’t reveal. Take Julius, how did he gain so much power? How did he amass such an army? Or why did he even want the throne (other than the generic lust for power)? None of it is ever addressed.

While its blood-splattered, patriarchy-pounding energy carries “The Princess” for a while, its barebones story eventually runs out of gas. So it ends up hinging on the combat which ranges from occasionally electric to flat-out goofy. Sadly that’s not really enough to recommend this movie of moments but little else. Kudos to King though. This may not be the grandest introduction to the action genre, but she shows some chops. Enough for us to be curious for what her future in the genre holds. “The Princess” is now streaming exclusively on Hulu.