2021 Reviews: Freaky/Judas and the Black Messiah/Saint Maud

Back for another round of reviews.

Freaky

Filmmaker Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U) returns for another teen horror riff on a classic movie formula, this time setting his sights on Freaky Friday. Kathryn Newton is a high school senior who magically switches bodies with a forty-something deranged serial killer (Vince Vaughn – in of his best performances in a while). What ensues is a mostly enjoyable, mostly dumb and refreshingly violent (but in a fun way!) hour and forty minutes. Most of the characters are pretty insufferable and one or two dimensional, but that just makes it less hard to say goodbye to them when they are axed to the face or split in half by a circular saw. Kathryn Newton is solid, but you want to know more about her character and Vince Vaughn is funnier than he’s been in a hot minute. You definitely get to know Newton‘s character more through Vaughn‘s lens than you get to know Vaughn‘s character through Newton‘s lens. If this had spent more time developing its central leads as well as some of the stereotypically drawn supporting characters it would have been so much better, but as it stands this is a perfectly enjoyable light-hearted, gore-heavy teen slasher for a Sunday afternoon. Grade: B- ($5.99 Rental on Amazon)

Judas and the Black Messiah

Writer/director Shaka King deploys a strong and assured visual style as well as two of the best actors currently working in the film industry (Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya) to tell an important and powerful story about the misinterpretation of 1960s civil rights activist, Fred Hampton, as a violent domestic terrorist that couldn’t be more prescient. Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a small-time but clever stick up man who uses a fake F.B.I. badge instead of a gun to get leverage over his targets. When he’s inevitably caught, a real F.B.I. agent (Jesse Plemmons – PERFECTLY cast) recognizes his cunning and decides to place him undercover in Chicago’s Black Panther chapter so they can get enough dirt on chapter leader, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) because he’s black and causing a ruckus. Shaka King makes no effort to downplay the inherent racism of almost all of our long-standing government institutions, and the film is most of the time, better for that. However, Martin Sheen appears in goofy, SNL prosthetic makeup as J. Edgar Hoover, a performance and visual representation that seems to be over-the-top in a way the other performers are not. Stanfield, Plemmons and The Deuce‘s Dominque Fishback are all great in their roles, but the film is never better than when it is tracking Daniel Kaluuya‘s Fred Hampton speaking to the public or isolated and grappling with his beliefs. This is truly a nomination worthy LEADING performance. My biggest complaint about the film is for all its style, performances and greater ideas, it ultimately devolves into a pretty standard spy movie plot formula which can make it feel super generic at times. I wish the story structure could match what King is doing with his visual style and what the actors are doing with their roles. Still, this is a really good film and one of the best mainstream civil rights movies we’ve ever gotten. Grade: B+ (HBOMax)

Saint Maud

I was really disappointed I didn’t see a truly great horror movie in 2020. Films like Possessor and She Dies Tomorrow seemed so wrapped up in visual style that they paid no mind to character development or in an attempt to tackle too many ideas, left us without any indication of what they were actually trying to say. Enter Saint Maud, writer/director Rose Glass‘ shocking and unnervingly realistic portrait of an isolated loner, Maud. A sort of shy version of Annie Wilkes, Maud is a deeply religious hospice nurse who while taking care of a bitter former dancer dying of cancer, believes God is communicating with her and wants her to self-flagellate to be more Christ like or something. While this sounds like a typical A24 horror picture complete with all the spooky/stylistic bells and whistles on a tight budget, Saint Maud succeeds in focusing mostly on the relationship between its two central characters. Jennifer Ehle is brilliantly restrained as Maud’s patient but the highlight of the film is Irish actress Morfyyd Clark as Maud, one of the best performances of the past year. It’s a tight 84 minutes of both intelligent and thrilling psychological terror that almost reaches the heights of such modern horror classics as Hereditary, It Follows and The Witch. You can watch it on EPIX with a 7 day free trial through Amazon, and I strongly recommend you do that. Don’t forget to cancel though, the streaming selection on that channel is rather limited. Grade: B+ (EPIX/Amazon Prime)

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