March was a mixed bag for movies and docuseries. Many of them sought to do more than entertain – they hoped to make us consider their subjects in different, often deeper ways. From an animated take on adolescence to the horrors of racism, rock n’ roll and dating, to intimate takes on two of music’s biggest names, these are the films that made the biggest impact on us as viewers, on streaming services and in theaters. This month’s Cinema Slush includes reviews of Phoenix Rising, Jeen-Yuhs, Fresh, Master, Turning Red and Studio 666.
jeen-yuhs- A Kanye Trilogy (Netflix)
Netflix’s three-part docuseries should have marked a redemptive moment for Kanye West, showing how talent, and faith in that talent, as well as a mind-blowing level of determination, can actually make your dreams come true. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. He was cyberbullying his ex, Kim, and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson, at the same time the three-part series was rolling out, ultimately earning suspension on Instagram. It was hard for a lot of us to give the rapper the credit he was due, while he was having mentally unbalanced fits online, which was just the latest in a long line of inappropriate and narcissistic behavior throughout his career. The series limply makes a case for this behavior as an overt aspect of his brilliance, but whether or not it succeeds depends on how you feel about the artist to begin with.
Co-directed and narrated by Ye’s longtime friend and collaborator Coodie Simmons along with cohort Chike Ozah, jeen-yuhs is an intimate portrait by the figurative fly on the wall, and there’s a lot in it that feels special, even historical. From the early days when the cherubic-cheeked Chicagoan was trying to get signed (and taken seriously as a rapper beyond producing) to the creative process and post car crash struggle that led up to The College Dropout and “Through the Wire,” to Grammy sweeping moments and beyond. There’s a lot to marvel at in the footage, running over a couple decades, and it’s almost enough to turn a hater into a fan. Almost. The scenes with his mother, Donda, are the best, conveying the deep connection between mother and son. She was his biggest supporter, but she also was honest enough to check his ego when necessary.
“The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” Donda tells her son early on, explaining how self-reflection can get lost in fame’s haze. Later, at the rapper’s epic listening party/fashion show (with his wife, daughter and famous extended family in attendance wearing fur and jeweled ensembles designed by him), mama Donda’s words come back, not to haunt, but to remind the rap superstar of where he came from. It’s also the purpose of Jeen-Yuhs as a bio-doc, to remind all of us of his journey to, well, genius. The doc does a good job in this regard, but it’s not enough to make Ye look like a good person. Clearly, Coodie’s camera does not lie.
Noa (Daisy Edgar Jones) is having some bad luck with love, especially when it comes to online dating and hookup apps. So when she meets a great guy in real life, in a supermarket no less, her story feels like a fairytale come true. Finally, a funny, nice, normal guy. Steve (Sebastian Stan, in a role that’s markedly different, though so less unlikeable, from his take on Tommy Lee last month) seems too good to be true – to Noa’s bestie and to the viewer. The film’s sense of dread never lets up, and when we finally understand the true nature of what Noa has gotten into, it’s both bizarre and believable. The film’s title kinda gives it away, but if you haven’t seen Fresh yet, let’s just say it’ll remind you of Hannibal with a dash of American Psycho.
As he did in Midsommar, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski gives the movie a bright, slick look while director Mimi Cave makes the most of her actors and the writing, which borders on corny at times, but seems intentionally so. Most of the reviews out there liken this one to a cautionary tale about modern dating, but that’s a stretch. Fresh is a reminder that putting yourself out there in any form, especially if that entails trusting a stranger, can bite you in the ass…. literally.
Phoenix Rising (HBO Max)
When Evan Rachel Wood became an activist working to extend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault, it was clear to anyone with eyes and ears who her alleged abuser was. Wood had been in a relationship with Marilyn Manson (MM) since 2006 (she was 18, he was 37) and near the end of their tumultuous union, he publicly said very disturbing things about wanting to kill her. Phoenix Rising details her claims of grooming, love bombing, and physical and mental abuse from the rocker, whose real name is Brian Warner.
It’s a very tough watch, especially if you were ever a fan of Manson’s music or image in any way. Anyone who’s gone through sexual abuse or abusive relationships in general may need to steer clear altogether, regardless of fandom. It’s that traumatic, and that’s the point. Wood shares in uncensored detail, not only what she went through during the relationship, including on-screen rape in MM’s video for “Heart Shaped Glasses,” but the aftermath as well – the going back to her abuser, the processing and acceptance of what happened, and the fight for accountability.
In part two, it’s about actually getting the courage to name him as the person who did all the terrible things she’d detailed in her fight, and calling out the manipulations of a man who made shock rock his brand to the extent that it was hard to discern when the depravity was actually real and not some performance art-style statement on PC culture or censorship. We’ve interviewed and written about Warner a few times, extensively in 2012. However ‘no-duh’ it might sound, he was a completely bonkers interview. Maybe the weirdest we’ve ever conducted. Can’t imagine what he’d be like in a relationship, but thanks to Wood, we know now, and it’s horrifying.
In this well-laid out doc, Wood’s earnestness and Manson’s own words via his autobiography make a potent case for reconsideration of his actions on stage and off. The rocker denies the claims made in the film and responded to its release with a defamation lawsuit against Wood, which has yet to move forward.
Turning Red (Disney+)
Animated films with a message are having a moment, and led by Encanto, Disney’s making sure they don’t lose their whimsy. In Pixar’s Turning Red, an Asian teenager living in Canada discovers that along with the usual changes and problems of puberty, she transforms into a giant red panda whenever she gets upset or excited. Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a somewhat hyperactive 13-year-old girl with a tight-knit group of friends, all of them consumed by crushes on the boy band 4*Town that will soon be playing her town. Her family owns a temple in Toronto, which welcomes tourists with tales of the deity, “the red panda.” Soon she realizes it’s more than a myth. Meilin’s mother Ming (Sandra Oh) reveals that like she, and her mother before her, the young girl will go through something big in order to become a woman and the only way to control it is to stifle herself and her desires, basically. Yes, this one is metaphoric as f*ck.
Directed by Domee Shi, the film succeeds in conveying the emotional turbulence of adolescence and the burden women face once they realize they’re gonna bleed every month, but ultimately it’s a turn-off due to the mom character, who is so over-the-top protective, we found ourselves yelling at the screen for her to back off, several times. It’s hard to watch Ming’s messy and just mean mothering, even when the movie tries to redeem her with backstory. Still, Turning Red is great to look at thanks to Pixar’s latest technology, especially the panda, whose cuteness quotient is so big, it becomes a plot point and the high point of the movie.
The racially-charged horror of Master made an impression last month, not so much because of its compelling story, but thanks to its strong performances. Regina Hall plays Gail Bishop, the first Black “master” of a predominantly white New England learning institution. When Jasmine (played by Zoe Renee) moves into the dorms and gets “the room,” -a rumored haunted space- the story of a racist witch ghost and her menace unfolds. The white witch is known to drag (Black) victims to Hell. Mariama Diallo’s film earned raves at Sundance this year for its subject matter, cast and clever premise, and it resonates in the current climate of controversy and conversation about Critical Race Theory and Affirmative Action.
It’s not really scary per se (the reality people of color live with daily is what’s truly horrifying), but most of its points land hard. Still, one wonders what a filmmaker like say, Jordan Peele, might have done with the material in terms of tone and more nuanced ways of presenting terror alongside satiric cultural commentary.
Studio 666 (On Demand)
The Foo Fighters horror movie is as gory yet good-natured as any fan of the band might expect. It won’t be winning any acting awards, but then again, neither did any of the classic scary flicks it was obviously inspired by, from Evil Dead to Scary Movie. Though some have remarked that it’s a morbid experience now that drummer Taylor Hawkins has passed away, we don’t think so.
The Foo Fighters (Hawkins, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Rami Jaffee) share a brother-like ease and humor that invites the viewer into their rock n’ roll world, and watching the band members weave their very own wicked flick into reality is a lot of fun. It remains to be seen what will come of the band, but if it ceases to exist moving forward, this joyful piece of spooky shlock rock sees them at their most delicious and devilish (literally). When the Encino house the band set up to record their latest album starts to exhibit creepy phenomena, it’s a bit disconcerting, but mostly it’s a tease for what we know will be some good old-fashioned low-budget fiendom, complete with demonic possession and nasty kills. Directed by BJ McDonnell, Studio 666 offers cameos and bit parts by everyone from Whitney Cummings to Lionel Richie, and some droll humor about bands, rockstars and success. Nothing here is meant to be taken too seriously and even the bloodiest scenes come off more comic than actually creepy.
Ultimately, it’s the bond between band members that feels most real (‘cause it is). Harkening to rock n’ roll horror connections of yore, from Iron Maiden to Slayer to Kiss, and expanding on the Foos highly watchable music video turns, the hellish hijinx of 666 isn’t for everyone, but it’s exactly the killer camp it was intended to be.