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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘MaXXXine,’ ‘Fancy Dance,’ a Veronica Lake double feature, and more

Mia Goth plays an adult film star of the '80s in the final installment in horror auteur Ti West's "X" trilogy.

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As we head into Independence Day weekend, the two most prominent wide releases happen to mirror, in their own way, the country’s seemingly irreparable polarization. On one hand, Despicable Me 4 (yes, 4!) presumably offers a familiar array of candy-colored cartoon shapes, pre-verbal slapstick antics, and an excuse to get the kids out of the pre-apocalyptic heat wave and into an air-conditioned theater. On the other hand, MaXXXine delves into an ostensibly sleazy world of pornography, serial killers, and reckless ambition, all watched over by the loving eyes of Ronald Reagan. Animated inanity or fetishized decadence—those are your only choices. There is no middle ground. Sound familiar?

MaXXXine is the culmination of a linked trilogy by genre auteur Ti West, following X and Pearl, both of which were released in quick succession in 2022 and, like the new one, centered on characters played by Mia Goth who were desperate for fame. X followed a group of scrappy 1970s filmmakers who set out to film a porno on an isolated farm owned by a creepy old couple. Its prequel Pearl, set in 1918, explored how the female half of that couple rebelled against her restrictive upbringing by pining for a career in the nascent film biz.

Now it’s 1985, and Maxine Minx (Goth), a survivor of the events of X, has fulfilled her dream of becoming a star in the adult film industry. But now, à la Traci Lords or Marilyn Chambers, she longs to transition into mainstream roles. It’s the era, as West continually and excessively reminds us, of the Satanic Panic, the Moral Majority, and the Night Stalker, whose murder spree is underway as the movie’s events transpire, providing an undertone of menace on screen as it did in real life.

Maxine lands a role in the horror flick The Puritan II, whose director, Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), is the most fascinating character in MaXXXine. (And the notion of a female director helming a gory horror sequel is likely a nod to Deborah Brock and 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II.) Unfortunately, this is just as a killer, Night Stalker-style, begins bumping off Maxine’s friends in the sex industry. To make things even more stressful, a couple of LAPD detectives (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) and a drawling private eye (Kevin Bacon) start poking around Maxine’s past. The most offbeat performance comes from a hilariously toupeed Giancarlo Esposito as Maxine’s loyal agent.

Like its predecessors, MaXXXine is more simulation than substance. Despite Goth’s chutzpah and the supporting cast’s scenery-chewing, the stakes are low. Mimicking the visuals (including using era-appropriate cameras, etc.) and dropping endless references (Theda Bara’s star on the walk of fame, Crimes of Passion, the Black Dahlia, Dee Snider and the PMRC, etc.) is amusing as far as it goes, but West isn’t willing to take his satire nearly far enough. As with X and Pearl, the opportunity is there to make something truly dangerous and taboo-breaking, and the failure to do so is especially ironic in a film that purports to point out the hypocrisy of American attitudes toward sexuality.

A larger issue, to me, is the fatigue that I feel whenever a new “elevated horror” movie is announced by indie distributors such as A24 and Neon. It feels like barely a week can go by without a film like Longlegs (coming July 12), Cuckoo (Aug. 9), The Front Room (Sept. 6), or Heretic (Nov. 15) arriving, each billed as the most intense, inventive, twist-filled thriller of the year. The hyperbole rarely matches the reality, and MaXXXine, which is getting a wide release on a weekend with, as noted, very little competition, is only the latest example.

The absurdly aptly named Goth is primed for a rich and lengthy career, although it’s about time she try her hand at something more quotidian. The same could be said for West, who has established himself as a horror maestro, but whose bag of tricks seems nearly empty at this point. (Opening wide)

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The one new film this week that does have something substantial to say about America is Fancy Dance, the latest showcase for the talents of Killers of the Flower Moon Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone. On the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma, Jax (Gladstone) takes care of her 15-year-old niece Roki (Isabel DeRoy-Olson) while Roki’s mother is away. This apparently happens frequently, but her latest disappearance has now lasted two weeks and jeopardizes Roki’s plans to compete in the mother-daughter dance competition at an upcoming powwow. Jax’s efforts to enlist the help of tribal police and the feds to search for the missing woman are largely in vain, and after Roki is remanded to the custody of her (white) grandfather (Shea Whigham), Jax breaks her out and the pair hit the road to try to find Roki’s mom.

Gladstone continues to impress in each recent role, from Flower Moon to The Unknown Country to the Hulu miniseries Under the Bridge. Here, she gives Jax, an unruly lesbian who’s not above enlisting Roki in her criminal schemes, the righteousness and humanity that make it clear she’s the best parental figure the girl could hope for. Director Erica Tremblay (a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation), making her narrative feature debut after several documentaries and work on Reservation Dogs, blends the personal and political with general success. The film draws attention to the plague of unsolved disappearances among Native American women, as well as a complicated and frustrating child custody laws that govern Native minors, but it also depicts two unique and empathetic characters on a journey toward acceptance. (Salem Cinema, also streaming on Apple TV+)

DISCS OF THE WEEK

Veronica Lake was one of the most visually striking Hollywood icons of the 1940s. High cheekbones, a petite frame, and memorable blond tresses made her a World War II-era version of, say, Anya Taylor-Joy. This reputation rests largely on only a few roles—Sullivan’s Travels, The Blue Dahlia, This Gun for Hire—but a pair of new Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber allow a broader appreciation of her talent.

1944’s The Hour Before the Dawn is a blatant piece of wartime propaganda, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who was famous enough at the time that he’s seen under the opening credits. Lake plays Dora Bruckmann, an Austrian who works as a governess for a British family in the late 1930s. When war breaks out, she becomes an enemy alien, but her marriage to the pacifistic Jim (Franchot Tone) prevents her from being interned as such. What’s obvious to the viewer, but not to Jim, is that Dora is in fact a Nazi agent who sees Jim as a useful idiot from whom she can collect information about a nearby secret RAF base. Jim ultimately learns that pacifism only gets you so far when you’re dealing with fascists. This is by no stretch a quality film, but Lake’s heel turn is fun to watch, and the audio commentary by film historian Paul Talbot does an excellent job of, among other things, relating the sad denouement of Lake’s career, which hit the skids quickly in the late ’40s. Alcoholic and broke, Lake ended up working as a cocktail waitress in Manhattan. In one hopefully accurate anecdote, Marlon Brando heard of her dire straits and sent her a check for $1,000, which she was too proud to cash but framed and hung on her wall. She died in 1973 at the age of 50.

Lake’s fourth and final pairing with co-star Alan Ladd is the least-heralded, but 1947’s Saigon has plenty to recommend it. One of the many Hollywood efforts dealing with postwar trauma, it also belongs to the largely bygone genre of movies about people who don’t tell their friends that they haven’t long to live because they don’t want to bum them out. In this case, Ladd’s demobilized Air Force pilot finds out that the shrapnel in his buddy Mike’s head is likely to kill him, but he keeps that to himself. Instead, he opts to take Mike on one last adventure, getting hired to smuggle a criminal profiteer and his contraband to Saigon. Things go awry, and Lake, the gangster’s gal, ends up onboard instead, and when they crash in rural Vietnam, the group is forced to hide out. Naturally, Lake’s character falls for the doomed airman, leading to nicely executed melodrama. On this disc’s commentary, historians Lee Gambin and Elissa Rose focus on the physical aspects of the production, especially Lake’s costumes, as well as the broader themes of postwar American cinema.

ALSO OPENING

Despicable Me 4: Gru (Steve Carell), Lucy (Kristin Wiig), Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Madison Skyy Polan) welcome a new member to the family, Gru Jr., who is intent on tormenting his dad. Gru faces a new nemesis in Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell) and his girlfriend Valentina (Sofia Vergara), and the family is forced to go on the run. (wide)

Escape: After completing his required decade of military service and being honored as a hero, a North Korean sergeant makes a sudden shocking attempt to defect to the South, risking life and limb for the chance to finally determine his own destiny. (Century Eastport Plaze)

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Kill: During a train trip to New Delhi, a pair of commandos face an army of invading bandits.

ALSO THIS WEEK

Forever Is Now: This film follows ten people who are Zion National Park’s keepers and caretakers at a time of increasing tension between recreation and environmental impact. Shot in all four seasons across fourteen successive months, the film captures Zion like it’s never been seen before. (Monday, Cinema 21)

Where Olive Trees Weep: This documentary follows Palestinian journalist and therapist Ashira Darwish, grassroots activist Ahed Tamimi, and Israeli journalist Amira Hass to offer a searing window into the struggles and resilience of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. (Monday, Salem Cinema)

Pixels of Eden: A collection of unique homespun filmmaking from Portland and beyond, from a Jell-o cave, to a Russian village, to the suburbs of Eden. (Monday, Clinton)

The Last 100 Miles: The Fight for the Lower Deschutes River: Produced by the Deschutes River Alliance, the film portrays the degradation of one of the finest trout and salmon sanctuaries in the world. The Deschutes River is fed by rain and snow from the rugged mountains of central and eastern Oregon. Dams built 60 years ago wiped out prolific salmon and steelhead runs, yet the remaining 100 miles of free-flowing river became one of the region’s beloved destinations for whitewater adventure and fishing. (Tuesday, Cinema 21)

Amphibian Man: In this 1961 Soviet film, people living in a seaside town are frightened by reports about an unknown creature in the ocean. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s really the son of Doctor Salvator. The doctor performed surgery on his son and now young Ichtiandr can live underwater. This gives him certain advantages but creates a lot of problems. (Wednesday, Clinton)

Mars Express: In this new, French animated feature set in the 23rd century on Mars, the plot follows the investigation on a murder case carried out by the couple formed by private investigator Aline Ruby and her android companion Carlos Rivera. (Thursday, Clinton)

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Inside the Soviet Circus: Behold the glittering jewel in the bakelite crown of a dying Soviet Union: The Moscow State Circus! Come one, come all! It’s entertainment every comrade can enjoy! Young or old, poor or poorer — the Soviet Circus inspired national pride in every citizen, and with good reason. After all, what’s more Russian than a seven-year-old tiger tamer? Join archivists Ioana and Garrett as we peek behind the curtain and meet the People’s performers and witness their incredible talent and lives of luxury — relative luxury, anyway. Featuring sing-alongs for the proletariat, state-sponsored animation, and other 16mm oddities from the Nyback collection, this show will prepare you to start a revolution, become a clown, or both. Trippy t-shirts and stickers for sale before and after the show. (Thursday, Hollywood)

REVIVALS

Friday

  • Action U.S.A. [1989] (Cinemagic, on VHS)
  • The Goonies [1985] (Academy, through Thursday; Tomorrow, Friday only)
  • Hundreds of Beavers [2024] (Clinton)
  • Jaws [1975] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Red River [1948] (Academy, through Thursday)

Saturday

  • Jaws [1975] (Tomorrow)
  • The Last Picture Show [1971] (Cinema 21)
  • The Matrix [1999] (Clinton)
  • Twilight [2008, Tomorrow)

Sunday

  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977] (various locations, also Wednesday)
  • Hackers [1995] (Clinton)
  • Jurassic Park [1993] (Tomorrow)
  • Twister [1996] (Tomorrow)

Monday

  • The Bodyguard [1993] (Hollywood)
  • The Killing [1956] (Kiggins)

Tuesday

  • Donnie Darko [2001] (Clinton)
  • Five Element Ninjas [1982] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

Wednesday

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  • Meet Me in the Bathroom [2002] (Salem)
  • Napoleon Dynamite [2004] (Hollywood)

Thursday

  • Hit Man [2024] (Tomorrow)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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