Wednesday, July 24, 2024

‘Kinds of Kindness’ (2024)

Yorgos Lanthimos goes all in on human misery with this triptych of tales that has different characters in each loosely linked chapter played by the same impressive ensemble (Willem Dafoe and Emma Stone, who paired with Lanthimos in last year’s “Poor Things,” Margaret Qualley, Jessie Plemons and Hong Chau). The bridge is a character with the initials RMF, a middle-aged, slightly balding, bearded man (played by Lanthimos pal Yorgos Stefanakos, who looks a bit like Stanley Kubrick). The speculation is that the initials stand for Redemption, Manipulation and Faith, which, given the sadomasochistic tenor of the film, makes absolute sense. In the first panel, “The Death of RMF,” a rising business associate (Plemons) is asked by his boss (Dafoe) to crash his company car into another car; it turns out Dafoe’s benefactor is close in kind to Al Pacino’s puppet master in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997). When Plemons’ obsequious wonk refuses to go to the next level – an act that would likely claim another’s life – matters flip in life-altering ways. Part deux, “RMF Flies,” ups the stakes, but is the least rooted of the three as we settle in with a police officer (Plemons) emotionally distraught when his wife (Stone) goes missing while on a biological research mission on a remote atoll. She’s rescued by a search party (RMF is the pilot) but Plemons’ cop believes the wife returned to him is not the one he wed – think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “The Stepford Wives” by way of extreme paranoia and some unsavory dining requests. The last chapter (“RMF Eats a Sandwich”) has Plemons and Stone paired again as husband and wife in the service of Dafoe’s omnipotent cult leader, not too far off from the CEO he played in the first yarn, on a mission to find a woman who is prophesied to have the power to reanimate the dead. A game Qualley plays twins with plucky verve, and Chau’s second-in-command can tell if a cult member has been contaminated by sex outside the cult or lost their faith by licking the sweat off their belly. The script, co-written by Efthimis Filippou, who worked with Lanthimos on such earlier dark fare as “The Lobster” (2015) and “Dogtooth” (2009), slides into some pretty shadowy and depraved places that include dismemberment, wife swapping, drink spiking, atonement by car tire, organ removal and demagoguery. Speaking of Kubrick, the score by Jerskin Fendrix, who collaborated on “Poor Things,” features a piercing piano sound akin to the one that was so effectively in Kubrick’s swan song, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). The cast is on the mark throughout, made even more impressive by their changeups. It’s a lurid, messy transmogrification of the human condition as the ordinary do the unthinkable. At nearly three hours, “Kindness” is long, but it puts its hooks in you from frame one and from there you can’t look away. It doesn’t all click, but it’s never not riveting. At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge, and Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square.

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‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F’ (2024)

Eddie Murphy is back as the wisecracking Axel Foley, which is good solid fun but not 1980s great. The 40th year victory lap (yup, the original “Beverly Hills Cop” was 1984), rolls out Glenn Frey’s classic “The Heat is On” as well as the series’ anthem, weirdly infectious synth music by Harold Faltermeyer that has aged shockingly well in this Taylor Swift-dominated pop era. Murphy’s Foley drops some “Raw” bombs of racial enlightenment too – this time on blue-on-black violence – that was always the series’ secret sauce. This redux covers all the bases. It’s also a touch formulaic and overstuffed for what it is. Murphy’s Axel here is not as punchy as the Axel of old, which is to be expected, and the film plays well with that (in age and years), but for all the reminders of the past that well up, you half wish you were watching those earlier flicks. How Axel gets from Detroit to Beverly Hills this time has to do with his estranged daughter Jane (Taylour Paige, so good opposite Riley Keough in the stripper road trip to hell “Zola”), a defense attorney being targeted by corrupt forces who want her to drop a case. Back in the fold are old friends Judge Reinhold and John Ashton as the L.A. cops Axel reconnects with, as well as Kevin Bacon as a smarmy department head and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, semi-wasted as another department detective with romantic ties to Jane. Despite occasional slogs, the film’s serviceably shot by Mark Molloy, who before this made “Apple at Work” shorts (so it’s a little unexpected that “Axel F” is streaming on Netflix and not AppleTV+). It’s unlikely there’s enough going on in “Axel F” to garner much generational crossover, but for those who dug Murphy’s cheeky, in-your-face schtick and Frey’s energetic fist pump, “Axel F” may not sizzle, but it is a nice nostalgic heating pad. On Netflix.

 

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‘MaXXXine’ (2024)

Speaking of Beverly Hills and Kevin Bacon (is he down to five degrees these days?), both are front and center in this sequel to Ti West’s lo-fi horror mash-up “X” (2022) that paid homage to ’70s horror and porn films; West is the scratchy VHS younger brother of Quentin Tarantino when it comes to iconic era rewinds wrapped in barbed wire. Lead Mia Goth, so gonzo and screen-owning in Brandon Cronenberg’s grim vacation nightmare “Infinity Pool” (2023), brings some of that brand of brazen bloody moxie to her reprise of Maxine, the lone survivor of the porn film crew from “X.” It’s now 1985, Maxine is in L.A. and still making porn flicks but harbors “All About Eve” aspirations to cross over into mainstream Hollywood. To set the table, we’re indoctrinated with classic ’80s ballads by ZZ Top and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and news clips of the real-life serial killer the Night Stalker terrorizing the area. Maxine is set to score the lead in a trending horror franchise, but just as that starts to come to fruition, people around her start dying – possibly the work of the Stalker or more likely, a copycat killer adding to the woes of the LAPD (with the unique and unlikely pairing of Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan as detectives on the case). The visceral re-creation of 1980s L.A. is up there with Tarantino’s late-1960s version in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (2019), and the cinematography by Eliot Rocket, who shot “X” and the series prequel, “Pearl,” has the kind of stark, on-the street grittiness that made “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Hardcore” (1979) so immersive and in the moment. Bacon’s in the film as a slimy P.I. on Maxine’s trail (he’s a total borrow of Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes from “Chinatown” – RIP Robert Towne), Spike Lee alum Giancarlo Esposito scores some cheeky punches as Maxine’s firewall of an agent and Elizabeth Debicki, who played Lady Di in “The Crown” series, takes a page from Katheryn Bigelow as the female director breaking into the boys’ club via horror (Bigelow did it with “Near Dark” in 1987). This, however, is Goth’s show, and she’s worth the price of admission, taking command of every scene she’s in (which is pretty much every one) even when the script doesn’t give her much to work with. This Maxine is no lay down-er. No, she’s a long way from the bandana-kerchiefed ingenue we first meet in “X.” In one scene, when trapped in an alleyway by a knife-wielding perp (a Buster Keaton impersonator, to boot), her payback’s a ball-busting that will have most gents cupping their lowers and wincing. It’s the tip of the iceberg as to what Maxine is capable of and how far she will go. That said, like “X” and “Pearl,” “MaXXXine” takes a bit of a dip as it veers into its final act – actually, this one’s fairly eye-roll-worthy. Still, Goth, the sets, the taut ambiance and the witty nostalgic Easter eggs that West lays make it near forgivable. I’m in for whatever Goth and West do next. At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge, and Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square.