2021 Movie Reviews: The Eyes of Tammy Faye / The Many Saints of Newark / Titane / VHS94

Nothing terrible this week, but one thing that’s great.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Michael Showalter‘s biopic dramedy, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, tells the story of televangelist couple Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye Baker (Jessica Chastain) and their rise and fall from super stardom within the bubble of fear-based Evangelical Christianity in the 1980s. Here’s the thing, it’s a good enough movie wrapped around a phenomenal, breathtaking performance by Jessica Chastain. Chastain simply becomes Faye, with a physical and vocal transformation on par with what Charlize Theron did with Aileeen Wuornos for Monster. You barely recognize her and you actually end up empathizing with her the whole way through. On the other hand, part of that has to do with how the movie basically says Tammy Faye Baker didn’t know anything about the massive fraud Jim was committing and I truly don’t buy that, based on everything I’ve read and watched about these people. Actually, if they presented it as her knowing it would only better serve the vulnerability of her character and maybe even enhance Chastain‘s performance. As it is, we get a couple of laughs, a couple of ooooh snaps and the only thing we’re really left with is the power of Chastain‘s performance. The rest of the cast fares mostly well – Cherry Jones adds beautiful nuance to a character that could have been a real ham and Vincent D’Onofrio is perfect as the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a historically awful piece of shit who D’Onofrio makes look uncomfortable at every moment. It’s almost like the poor bastard didn’t know how to have fun. The main problem in the cast is Andrew Garfield who is sporadically good but mostly unbelievable, especially when paired with Chastain, which is, unfortunately, most of the film. He looks and acts like a kid in a high school play about The Bakers, even his makeup is poor. This isn’t close to the complete story of Jim and Tammy Faye, even from Tammy Faye’s perspective, but it houses a performance that transcends the material. Grade: B (In Theaters)

The Many Saints of Newark

HEY-O, GABBAGOOL! STUGOTS! SFOGLIATELLE and MEATBALLS! It’s The Sopranos: The Movie! Look, does The Many of Saints of Newark need to exist? Absolutely not. Does it existing ruin the legacy of the single most influential television show of all time? Of course not. Once you get over the fact this is absolutely in no way, ever The Sopranos, it makes it a little easier and less stressful to review. On its own, this is a really pretty bland, by-the-numbers historical crime thriller. One that’s critically lacking in character development and really just driving force, mostly in terms of plot. There’s definitely a plot here, but it’s often slow to get to the point because the movie keeps stopping for these gawdy, fan service parades that either gratuitously show scenes that were already covered more than adequately in the series or just characters coming in and being like “My name is Pussy” and then completely stalling out over an appropriate window to explain why this character we know from the show’s name is Pussy in the first place. I’ve heard Chase and even Michael Imperioli (Christopher from The Sopranos) say in interviews/podcasts that it’s because he was a fat cat burglar in his adolescent years, but I don’t think the show ever comes out and says that (and I’ve watched the whole thing nine times over). Speaking of Imperioli, his Christopher narrates the movie because the protagonist is his dad, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola – really solid here). I like the Imperioli idea but it becomes so referential to what ended up happening to his character on the show. I guess what I’m saying about all this is that The Sopranos was never this referential or wink-wink-y to the audience. It was almost like an anti fan service show, as evidenced in its, quite honestly, incredibly brave decision to never to tie up certain plot points. It was the show that proved you could tell intelligent, slow-burning, subtle stories even more effectively than you could with film. Above all, it showed that simply alluding to things or just talking about them, could be more impactful than straight up showing them. It was also the funniest drama ever to be shown on television, and all of the humor stemmed naturally from the way the characters were developed. The Many Saints of Newark is not funny at all, it seems way too buttoned up for its own good, almost like everyone involved was terrified of tarnishing the legacy of the best tv drama ever made. It does have a fantastic twist at the end that actually enriches one of the characters on the show. It’s also about the Watts riots and Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr., who never gets fully fleshed out? I don’t even know, it’s really all over the place, but that twist is a win!

Fans of The Sopranos will certainly understand pre-existing characters more than the newbies out there, in fact, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who hasn’t watched the show cause they simply won’t care enough about these characters. They really don’t develop the pre-existing characters and if you’re not receiving the fan service radio waves, it will feel totally awkward. The most interesting character this movie has is Ray Liotta‘s imprisoned uncle character who gives some key advice to his nephew, Dickie. I’d watch an entire movie about this guy and Dickie’s prison visits, but alas we get “Hey, I’m Pussy!”

P.S.: This is how I assess all the performances:

Alessandro Nivola as Dickie – really good

Corey Stoll as Uncle Junior – excellent, manages to channel Dominic Chianese with actual nuance

Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano – nothing wrong with the performance, she’s actually really good, it’s more the writing of this character doesn’t seem true to the character established in the show. She should be more manipulative but they try to give her this sympathy for the devil arc. She needed to be scheming something, more shades of Janice please!

Joe Berenthal as Johnny Boy Soprano – pretty solid, liked him more as it went along, at first I was like “This ain’t Johnny!”

Michael Gandolfini as Tony Soprano – really captivating, wished he had a bigger role, loved every second of this performance. JUST WANTED MORE!

Leslie Odom, Jr. – good for being fairly two-dimensional

Ray Liotta – best performance of the film

John Magaro as Silvio Dante – ridiculously over-the-top, too much so, even though Van Zandt was pretty over-the-top. This is the only characterization that feels like a MadTV sketch. Pitiful, and I loved First Cow.

Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts – Appreciate the restraint here (we often don’t become caricatures of ourselves till we’re 40+), but I wanted a little more. I bought him more than Silvio.

Pussy – love it.

Grade: C+ (In Theaters and on HBOMax)

Titane

Opening wide in theaters this week is French filmmaker Julia Ducournau‘s Titane, an endlessly fascinating, extremely disturbing and surprisingly hilarious 2021 Cannes’ Palme D’Or winner that’s basically about a car expo showgirl/dancer, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) who for some reason has wild, insane and athletic sex with a car and gets pregnant. It’s also revealed that Alexia is a sociopathic serial killer and is also part machine herself, because of a metal skull implant she received after a horrific car accident as a child. Alexia, pregnant, vulnerable and murderous as ever, goes on a road trip journey across France, hiding her identity and trying to evade police. She eventually, and I won’t spoil how, crosses paths with Vincent (celebrated French actor Vincent London), a French Fire Captain, reeling from the loss of a child and suffering from a serious steroid addiction. If this all sounds insane, it absolutely is. If this all sounds just randomly out there for no reason, ehhhh, it is and it isn’t. Titane much like Ducournau‘s stunning college cannibal debut, Raw, is more of an experience than a traditional story, and while that sounds pretentious, it’s where a lot of modern film, great modern films, are heading. Strattling or more accurately, twerking, the line between art and trash, Titane is first and foremost an experience for the senses, both visual and sometimes even emotional. It moves you in ways that you don’t expect and it always keeps you guessing, it’s filled with thought-provoking metaphors and yet it never seems stuffy or pretentious because it is wholly invested in the emotional journeys of its two central characters. As Alexia, Agathe Rousselle is excellent, but the performance of the film belongs to Vincent London who mesmerizes with every scene. We actually become more invested in Vincent’s journey as the more focused second half takes hold. This is an exceptionally hard movie to right about because 1) it’s so out there and 2) it’s something you simply need to experience yourself. It’s graphically violent, but not in the classic modern horror torture porn type of way. No, it’s much more realistic than that. This is somewhat restrained but wholly effective body horror theatrics, characters breaking their noses on bathroom sinks in real time, nipple rings being stretched to the furthest possible point before ripping through the nipple, characters self mutilating with sharp chop sticks. This is body horror that manages to out Cronenberg, Cronenberg, and it all hinges on the promise of the birth of a baby that is equal parts human and equal parts Chrysler. It’s totally insane but this is the type of shit I go to the movies for – to have an experience I could never otherwise conceive of having. Grade: A- (In Theaters)

VHS94

The latest installment of the wildly uneven and frequently bro-y horror anthology series is perhaps the most consistent offering of the series. With no segments that are abysmal or borderline unwatchable, VHS94 succeeds in creating a breezy hour-forty that doesn’t blow the lid off of the genre but never makes you reach for your remote either. It’s also the least mean-spirited entry, which means we don’t get a gaggle of white guys sexually assaulting women in parking garages for laughs or getting drunk and calling each other the n-word, ironically. It also means we only have to put up with one defenseless animal death. Relax though, it’s done in a less horrifying way than that poor yorkie falling to his death in V/H/S/2 or that gang member’s Dalmatian getting an axe through its skull in V/H/S Viral. The first segment, “Storm Drain”, written and directed by newcomer Chloe Okuno, is simple, intriguing and quite funny. Sure, it could have been funnier with a quick script punch up, but it’s so short we don’t really mind. The second segment, “Empty Wake”, is far and away the weakest because it feels unfinished. What’s most surprising is that this sloppy half-idea masquerading as a segment comes from the most accomplished filmmaker attached to the VHS94, Simon Barrett (The Guest, You’re Next, Blair Witch, the wrap around segments from V/H/S and V/H/S/2). The third segment, “The Subject”, is the most imaginative but falls immediate victim to its lack of budget. Sequences that should look bad-ass looks cheap and silly, and not in a fun way. Overall this is the first or second best of all the segments and comes from Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto, who wrote and directed the 2018 Netflix Original The Night Comes For Us, as well as the very best bit from V/H/S/2 and the entire franchise, “Safe Haven”. Finally we have Ryan Prows‘ (2017’s Lowlife) closing short, “Terror”, a watchable but all-over-the-place satirical Proud Boy send-up about a bunch of survivalists, during the Clinton administration, trying to explode libtards with vampire blood. Basically it’s a supernatural riff on the Oklahoma City Bombing, which I’m not sure we need…The wrap around portions, by award-winning indie filmmaker Jennifer Reeder, are probably the weakest of the franchise and try to send things off in a profound and meta fashion but end up just making us cringe. The important thing here is that a VHS movie held off on making us cringe till the final thirty seconds of the movie. That’s maybe the greatest achievement of the entire franchise. Grade: C+ (Shudder)

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