MONSTER (2003)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Patty Jenkins
CAST: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie Based on a True Story”

PLOT: Charlize Theron gives a searing, deglamorized performance as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, an intense, disquieting portrait of a profoundly damaged soul.

The first time I tried watching Monster, some years ago, I watched it with my girlfriend, but we never finished it.  The scene where Aileen Wuornos (Theron) is attacked and raped, leading to her first murder, was so visceral that my girlfriend had to leave the room before it had finished.  Since that time, she has watched hours and hours of “true crime” documentaries about Wuornos and Bundy and Manson and Speck and so many others.  Go figure.  Having finally finished Monster on my own this morning, I believe she could be ready to give this movie another try, although I’m not sure the version of Aileen Wuornos portrayed in the film will have much resemblance to the one seen in all those documentaries.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed movies like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs and even Zodiac, featuring implacable, inhuman murderers with unfathomable motives and blank faces.  I enjoyed David Fincher’s series Mindhunters far more than I thought I would, despite its disquieting subject matter, partially because the killers portrayed in that series may seem normal at first, but they are eventually revealed to have massive personality disorders, genuine sociopaths with little to no consciences to speak of.  But in Monster, director/screenwriter Patty Jenkins (who wouldn’t direct another film until 2017’s Wonder Woman) denies us the ability to pigeonhole Aileen Wuornos so easily.  She pulls a Hitchcock/Psycho on the audience: getting us to root for the ostensible villain even as she commits one murder after another.

Jenkins accomplishes this by showing how a dysfunctional home life and a sometimes apathetic and cruel society ground down a young girl with the same kinds of hopes and dreams we’ve all had into a damaged woman desperately looking for a connection.  One such apathetic soul in the film says what I’ve thought so many times in my own past about anyone who makes questionable life choices: “Lots of people have bad lives, and they still choose to move towards the light.  Otherwise, we’d all be hookers and druggies.”  Well, sure, that’s easy for me to say, with two loving parents, a private school education, living in a 3-bedroom house and a steady job, etcetera.  But what choices would I have made if my father knew his friend had been molesting me for years and not only did nothing, but beat ME up for it?  What if, in my first job interview, the office manager hadn’t taken a chance on a teenager with no job experience and instead berated me for not having a master’s degree or my own apartment yet?

Monster is not a typical serial killer movie because, while it absolutely does NOT approve of Aileen’s murders, it does not try to pretend she is a mindless, man-hating predator.  She is motivated by hopelessness and, as it happens, love.  Aileen meets and falls desperately in love with a naïve young woman, Selby Wall (Ricci), the first bright spot in her otherwise bleak existence, and will do anything to keep her in her life.  If “anything” happens to encompass hooking and murdering the occasional john, for her it’s a small price to pay for the happiness she has been denied for so long.

Monster has the look of a film shot on a shoestring, much like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which enhances its authenticity, especially when it’s clear the movie was shot in the real locations visited by Aileen and Selby in real life.  Having lived in Florida for over 35 years, I recognized the feel of the locations, the city streets crowded with convenience stores and car dealerships and seedy motels.  I’m pretty sure I’ve actually been to the “Fun Stop” where Aileen and Selby ride the Ferris wheel.  The usage of these real locations made everything feel legitimate, almost like a documentary.  (Full disclosure: Selby Wall is loosely based on Aileen’s actual girlfriend, Tyria Moore, but Moore refused to allow her name or likeness to be used in the film and divulged little-to-no information about her personal life, so Selby’s character is an estimation at best.)

And then, of course, there’s Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance as Aileen Wuornos.  Anyone familiar with the Wuornos story has seen her most famous photos.  Take it from me: the makeup department used every trick in the book to make Theron look like Wuornos’ double.  It’s uncanny, on par with Rami Malek’s transformation for Bohemian Rhapsody, down to the false teeth that subtly alter her profile.  She even shaved her eyebrows.  But those cosmetic marvels are nothing, nothing compared to Theron’s performance itself.  I recently watched Cate Blanchett in Tár and called that the greatest performance I had ever seen by a woman.  I must now amend that statement.  Theron completely sublimates her famously glamorous persona into a chaotic jumble of nervous speech patterns and a fake swagger and the rambling patter reminiscent of a junkie looking for her next fix.  The only time she ever seems at peace is in the arms of her lover.  This performance is even more remarkable considering how “non-flashy” it is compared to other movie killers like Hannibal Lecter or John Doe.  Sure, she has her outbursts, but rather than feeling like hammy histrionics, they felt raw, like watching hidden camera footage of someone genuinely losing their shit because of some deep personal loss and not because they got the wrong size coffee at Starbucks.  It’s a phenomenal performance.

Attention should also be paid to Christina Ricci’s performance as Selby.  It’s easy to lose sight of Ricci in a film that clearly belongs to Theron, but she pitches her performance just right as another needy soul looking for a connection and all too willing to overlook (initially, at first) the red flags of a girlfriend who comes home in a different car every other night.  Her home life may not have been as scarring as Aileen’s, but she will take any port in a storm offering relief from oppression.

I enjoyed Monster in almost the same way I enjoyed Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.  These people are not the most sympathetic characters ever, or the most relatable, or even the most likable.  But I see how their dysfunctional backgrounds brought them to their desolate situations step by step, and it makes me wonder whether I would have done anything differently in their situation.  I’d like to think I wouldn’t turn to murder and/or drug use in my despair, but Monster made me realize there’s no way to know for sure unless I walk a mile in their shoes.  The last lines spoken in Monster, which I won’t spoil here, lay out the kind of misery Aileen Wuornos seems to have faced at every stage in her life.  Imagine how things might have turned out if she had just been given a chance.


Best line or memorable quote?
“‘All you need is love and to believe in yourself.’  Nice idea.  It doesn’t exactly work out that way.  But I guess it was better to hear a flat-out lie than to know the truth at 13.”

After watching this film, did you want to learn more about the true story?  Why or why not?
I must be honest and say, no, I did not.  I do not claim that Monster tells the 100% true story from beginning to end.  It’s not a historical document.  It’s a piece of entertainment that strives for truth at the expense of slavish dedication to factual accuracy, and I’m okay with that.  I’m one of those people who believe JFK is a marvelous film, inaccurate though it may be, because it captures the feeling of what it was like during that timeframe.  The same with Monster.  I could watch however many documentaries on the life and death of Aileen Wuornos, and I can’t imagine any other piece of filmmaking approaching truth to any greater degree than this movie did.

FREAKS (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Lexy Kolker
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 87% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A sheltered young girl (Kolker) discovers a bizarre, threatening, and mysterious new world beyond her front door after she escapes her father’s protective and paranoid control.

In the tradition of one of my very favorite sci-fi films, Midnight Special (2016), Freaks is a sci-fi mystery that doesn’t pander, doesn’t spoon-feed (except when it HAS to), and doesn’t insult my intelligence.  It premiered in 2018 at the Toronto International Film Festival, was picked up by a distributor two days later, and surfed the festival circuit for over a year, winning multiple awards, before finally getting a US/Canada release in 2019.

The story opens with a young girl, Chloe (a brilliant performance from Lexy Kolker), who lives with her father in a ramshackle house with covered windows and locked doors.  She takes a peek out the window through curtains that have been duct-taped to the windowsill and sees an ice cream truck outside; in the sky above she spots birds that seem to be…frozen in place?  Hm.  THAT’S weird.

As the opening section unfolds, we learn that the father is doing everything in his power to keep his daughter safe from something dangerous in the world outside their front door.  (She has never set foot outside.)  The movie is cagey at this point about explaining exactly what that something is, and immediately I thought, “Aw, man…is this gonna be another rip-off of A Quiet Place?”  The father walks around the house performing maintenance on drapes and boards and locks, and constantly reminding her daughter how dangerous it is outside, and how he’s doing all this to keep her safe.  Shades of Stranger Things, right?

So the first couple of acts of the movie felt like rip-offs of…sorry, homages to previous contemporary sci-fi entertainments.  The girl portraying Chloe delivers a fantastic, natural performance, but that wasn’t enough for me to shake that feeling of, “Man, I’ve seen all this before.”

At random intervals, Chloe starts to see things.  People in her room, in her closet.  Sometimes these people talk to her, and she talks back.  Are they ghosts?  We’ve learned that Chloe’s mother is dead…could one of these visions be her mother?  And what’s the story with that weird ice cream truck at the beginning, with the creepy, smiling old man who seems to know more than he’s letting on?

These are all threads that make you THINK you know where the story is headed, and you may or may not be right.  You may already think you know what the rest of the movie’s about just based on my description above.  Fair enough.

As for me, I was bamboozled when the true nature of the girl, her father, and the world outside her house was revealed.  I’m not talking about a Sixth Sense kind of reveal that’s kept a secret until the last 5 minutes of the movie.  This movie makes its “reveal” with about an hour left (I’m guesstimating), so I basically felt like I got two movies in one.  Or maybe two episodes of an EXCELLENT cable miniseries.  Once the “reveal” is, well, revealed, the movie shifts into high gear and doesn’t ease off until literally the final frame.

The joy of Freaks is that reveal at the halfway point, and what they do with it afterwards, so it’s extremely hard to know what else I can say without spoiling the fun of discovering it for yourself.  I could mention the visual effects, which are relatively minimal, but EXTREMELY effective, especially during the finale.  I could mention the screenplay’s deliberate attempts to make certain plot points analogous to the current immigration debate.  (I’m gonna mangle this, but one of the lines goes something like, “If you attempt forced relocation, that will only force them underground.”)  I could mention the way certain clues are hidden in plain sight, once you get to the endgame of the movie.

But you won’t get another word from me about the story.  You deserve to discover this one yourself.  I cannot recommend this highly enough.  It’s not quite a PERFECT film, but what are you gonna do, they can’t all be Midnight Special.  I never saw one trailer, not one Facebook ad or YouTube video about Freaks.  I only saw it by pure luck tonight because the showing was at a better time than Ready or Not.

I’m telling you.  Seek this one out. It’s a winner.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A fading television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s first Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is a little bit like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  It’s big, bombastic, and goes the long way around the barn to get to the finale, but in the end it all makes sense and is a transcendent experience.

Let’s see, where do I start?

First of all, the film’s evocation of 1969 Los Angeles is like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.  I’m no fashion scholar or visual historian, but every exterior shot of the city was pretty convincing to my layman’s eyes.  The movie theatres, the movie posters, the restaurants (anyone else remember “Der Weinerschnitzel”?), the cars, those HUGE sedans sharing the road with VW Bugs and M/G’s…it’s clear they did their homework.

There’s the performances by the two leads.  Tarantino once said he considered himself the luckiest director in modern history because he was able to get DiCaprio and Pitt to work on the same film.  Can’t argue with him on that score.  They carry the film in a way that few other tandems could have.  (Newman and Redford come to mind.) Mind you, DiCaprio and Putt don’t look much like each other, considering one has to be the other’s stuntman, but you get the idea.

Above all, there’s the story.  DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a former leading man from ‘50s TV westerns who is now playing colorful bad guys in ‘60s TV westerns.  Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the stuntman who’s been taking the dangerous falls for Dalton for years.  Dalton happens to live next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

All the trailers, and all the industry buzz, reveal that the Manson family and Sharon Tate play a part in the film.  That’s no spoiler.  Given what we know about those events, the movie plays like Gimme Shelter, the landmark documentary about the ill-fated concert at Altamont that was actually due to take place a few months after the events of this film.  It’s all very suspenseful, in the sense that we know what’s coming, but we’re just not sure how the movie is going to approach it.  So every scene with poor Sharon Tate in it is overshadowed by the fact that we know her ultimate fate in history.

It’s like the famous Hitchcock analogy of suspense.  Two people are eating at a restaurant when a bomb suddenly goes off under their table…that’s surprise.  Put those same two people at the restaurant, where the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table, but it doesn’t go off right away as the two people eat and converse and have dessert, and we’re wondering will they leave BEFORE the bomb goes off or not…?  That’s suspense.

And that’s the genius of this movie, with Tarantino’s sprawling, winding screenplay.  We get to know Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth intimately, we get the rhythms of their relationship, of Dalton’s mood on set, of Booth’s quiet acceptance of his role as Dalton’s sole support system.  We are treated to lengthy scenes showing Dalton at work on the set of a TV western, so we can appreciate the vast differences between an actor and their characters.  There’s a brilliant backstage scene between Dalton and a child actor who is impossibly, hilariously advanced for her age, and who winds up giving Dalton some goodhearted advice.

And interspersed through it all is Sharon Tate.  Sharon Tate bopping to music at home.  Sharon Tate picking up a female hitchhiker on her way into town.  Sharon Tate almost passing, then backing up to admire with youthful excitement, her name on the marquee of a movie theatre, right next to (gasp) Dean Martin’s name!  Sharon Tate dancing, walking, smiling, drinking…living.  She’s the diner at the restaurant, and the Manson family is the bomb we know will eventually go off.  It casts a pall over the proceedings, but not in a bad way.  It’s an interesting way to bring the reality of the situation into focus from time to time.

And now I have to end this review before I inadvertently give away certain, ah, plot elements that elevate Tarantino’s film from a mere character study or period piece into the heady heights of cinematic transcendence.  I have not myself read any reviews of the film, so I can only guess that whatever negative reviews are out there probably center on the film’s finale, or perhaps on its meandering script.  All I can say, or will say, is that I am firmly on Tarantino’s side on this one.  The way the conclusion was written and filmed is the kind of thing that people will still be talking about years from now.

So just take it from me.  If you’re a movie fan, and ESPECIALLY if you’re a Tarantino fan, this is right up your alley.  It’s easily his most slowly paced movie since Jackie Brown, but that just gives you time to e-e-e-ease into the characters, like putting on a tailored suit piece by piece.  This film, like Beethoven’s Ninth, is a masterpiece.


By Marc S. Sanders

The morals of Senator Ted Kennedy were tested in July, 1969. While under the influence, he drove his car off a bridge that overturned into a pond. The Senator survived. Over 9 hours later, he reported that a passenger he was with drowned in the accident.

It’s terrible to think about the trust he retained following this incident. He was re-elected to office, and went on to become the 4th longest running Senator in American history. The parents of Mary Jo Kopeckni (Kate Mara) lost a daughter with a promising future.

Jason Clarke is excellent as the insecure son of an intimidating stroke stricken Joseph Kennedy Sr (Bruce Dern, effectively overpowering with paralyzed limitation), forced to walk in the shadows of his brothers John and Robert, both assassinated prior to this occurrence. Clarke is great as someone we are to be disapproving of, but for me personally I’m that much more disgusted by the Senator’s response.

Ed Helms is Ted’s cousin Joe who makes all efforts to make this right following the foolhardy actions that occur. Senator Kennedy tries to pride himself as a martyr for the state of Massachusetts, appearing as a victim with a false neck brace, claiming a concussion, hiding left over alcohol and sympathizing with the Kopeckni family. He identifies himself as a “moral compass.” Cousin Joe knows differently as the truly authentic moral character, yet he’s merely disregarded by the army of Kennedy spin doctoring.

Director John Curran will have you believe more of this story and it’s longevity in history did not amount to much considering this all occurred while Neil Armstrong was making his historic walk on the moon, ironically initiated by President John Kennedy. It’s a reason I believe the Senator sustained quite a successful career. Maybe not totally successful. I don’t recall another President Kennedy.

Curran maintains a picturesque image of Martha’s Vineyard and the slow gradual response of all the players, including a police chief who has no scuba gear and must resort to getting down to his skivies to search through the submerged car. The chief is also quite comfortable with accepting an eventual prepared statement followed by a release so the Senator need not concern himself.

None of this was pretty. None of this was Camelot. John Curran’s film reminds you of a young woman helplessly drowning, while the perpetrator did nothing but consider his chances at a Presidency from that point on.

Chappaquiddick is a must see film.