Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons, and Willem Dafoe in Kinds of Kindness


Given that the director's most recent features prior to his latest were 2018's love-triangle subversion The Favourite and last year's sex-fueled empowerment fantasy Poor Things, you could hardly accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of going soft on us. Still, if you're a fan of the Greek auteur's earlier comedies of cruelty – a collection that includes Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – it was easy to wonder if Lanthimos' interests had turned toward Oscar-baity (and -winning) period fare for good. Kinds of Kindness is here to debunk that notion. A modern-day triptych of parables both ludicrous and resonant, and the filmmaker's first project set in the United States, the movie probably won't find Academy Awards in the offing. That hardly matters, though, for a work that delivers this many belly laughs, most of them accompanying dropped jaws, and this much thematic meat to chew on. Kinds of Kindness runs 15 minutes shy of three hours, and I wasn't bored for an instant.

Before diving into the details of Lanthimos' and frequent co-screenwriter Efthimis Filippou's new provocation, can I make a public request for more anthology films, please – especially if, like this one, they incorporate the same principal performers for each individual tale? As Wes Anderson's 2023 quartet of Roald Dahl adaptations for Netflix reminded us, these things can be fun. They provide compartmentalized entertainments of manageable length, so there's little time for narrative dilly-dallying, and if a particular piece isn't working for you, you can just chill and wait for the next one to get rolling. (Not that, for me, this was an issue with either the Andersons or the Lanthimos.) And it's a kick watching actors stretch their range by portraying multiple characters over the course of a single vision. The Anderson/Dahl experiment provided delightful, temperamentally diverse parts for Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Rupert Friend, and Richard Ayoade. All three of Lanthimos' and Filippou's Kinds of Kindness segments, meanwhile, feature roles for Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, and the director's current muse Emma Stone – plus Yorgos Stefanakos, who either plays three separate mute figures or the same one in three different time frames. (If you want to build an argument for the latter, be sure to catch the movie's mid-end-credits stinger.)

For each nearly-hour-long vignette, not counting the occasional sobbing breakdown, the cast enacts variants on the signature Lanthimos style pre-Favourite: a mildly zonked deadpan that underlines the absurdism by making characters appear to behave rationally in the face of utter lunacy. It's a tricky performance style to pull off. (Coincidentally, it's also a style traditionally employed for Wes Anderson films.) While Colin Farrell and Olivia Colman proved masterful at it in The Lobster, this less-is-more approach can sometimes make its practitioners appear disconnected to the material, and even somewhat amateurish. Here, only Athie seems hindered by the challenge, and that may have more to do with the native Mauritanian's unease in speaking with an American accent. The others, however, find reams of emotional diversity in their minimalism – particularly Plemons, whose portrayal(s) won him the Best Actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and who almost singlehandedly makes the first Kinds of Kindness installment a tragicomic morality fable as heartbreaking as it is hysterical.

Jesse Plemons in Kinds of Kindness

With Lanthimos' three mini-movies set in New Orleans and jump-started by the sizzling, thematically on-point synth-pop of Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the introductory piece is titled “The Death of R.M.F.,” and it finds Plemons' Robert a businessman whose entire life is dictated by the whims of his boss Raymond (Dafoe). Every morning, Robert receives a missive from Frankin telling him what to eat, what to read, whether he can have sex with his wife Sara (Chau), et cetera, and when he fulfills his obligations, Robert is routinely rewarded. Not only with employment and a beautiful house, but with items such as one of John McEnroe's busted tennis rackets and Ayrton Senna's bloodied Formula 1 helmet – objects of chaos, essentially. Our protagonist balks, however, when Raymond decrees that Robert not only ram his car into a fellow employee's vehicle, but that Robert kill the driver in the process. Refusing to commit murder, Robert turns his back on Raymond, and vice versa. That's when, for Robert, everything falls apart.

Part of what makes Kinds of Kindness such a brain-buzzing great time lies in your attempt to crack its codes, and to suss out what, beyond their principal casts, connects each disparate segment to the others. Because all of Lanthimos' features are fundamentally about control – who has it, who wants it, and what they'll do to get it – it's easy to view his latest under that thematic umbrella, as well. Yet while the KoK storylines are open to all sorts of reasonable interpretations, the underlying motif I'm sticking with on a first viewing can be boiled down to a song title from A Chorus Line: “What I Did for Love.” In “The Death of R.M.F.,” that can be more precisely stated as “What I Did for God's Love.” There are, I'm guessing, any number of biblical references in this opening saga that you could find if you actively looked for them. But I found it impossible not to equate Robert's unquestioning acceptance of Franklin's wishes with certain sects of humanity's unquestioning acceptance of their god's demands. Doesn't faith, and a yearning for God's love, routinely dictate what people eat, and what they wear, and what they read, and whom they hate? And don't people feel abandoned and lost when that love doesn't appear to be reciprocated?

In Plemons' brilliant high-comic performance that turns achingly soulful, Robert finds himself literally unable to function without directives from on high. Without someone to guide him through life, Robert can't order a drink at a bar; he can't feed or clean himself; he can't introduce himself to others without repeating the same shtick that initially got his wife to notice him. Without Franklin, his “god,” Robert is nothing, and Kinds of Kindness' opener is diabolically cunning in its examination of the horrific lengths that Robert – that any fanatically devoted acolyte – will go to get that love back. As a 50-minute analogy, this first vignette is spectacular – maybe the anthology's finest offering. As a standalone entertainment, it's equally sublime, especially when you consider that, in Poor Things, Willem Dafoe's mad scientist Godwin Baxter was nicknamed “God,” and the actor is basically playing God here. Emma Stone, meanwhile, played Godwin's loyal servant Bella Baxter, and shows up in this first KoK outing as Robert's principal rival for Franklin's affections. “The Death of R.M.F.” works on so many levels of symbolism, allusion, callback, and bone-deep understanding that it's practically dizzying.

Emma Stone in Kinds of Kindness

If Lanthimos' remaining short films aren't quite as successful, that says more about “The Death of R.M.F.”'s quality than any detrimental lack of it in the other two. Plemons takes on another central role in the second vignette “R.M.F. Is Flying,” in which he plays police officer Daniel, whose marine-biologist wife Liz (Stone), while on an expedition, goes missing for days and is presumed dead. When Liz is miraculously found and returns home, her uncharacteristic behavior – and her shoes no longer fitting – convinces Daniel that she's an impostor. And like Robert's attempts to prove his love for Franklin, this segment finds Liz forced to prove her love for her husband, and through increasingly queasy routes. Although there's not quite as much going on in “R.M.F.” deux as there is in the opener, “Flying” has more than enough to recommend it beyond the impeccable Plemons and Stone portrayals: a riotous punchline to the sad setup of Daniel's home movie; an upsetting act of debasement following a startling act of violence; Liz's beautifully recalled dream of a world where humans were the pets of dogs. It also boasts the second-best post-credits tag of the three KoK installments: a literalized interpretation of said dream, with canines partying and smoking and veering their car past the dead person at the side of the road. I laughed a lot during Kinds of Kindness. I roared at this bit.

The absolute best post-credits tag comes at the tail end of third segment “R.M.F. Easts a Sandwich,” so even if your bladder needs understandable relief after nearly three hours, don't even think about heading to the restroom when those credits land. (It's actually unthinkable that anyone would, as Lanthimos wisely places those credits over the image of Stone joyously dancing in a way that can only be described as “indescribable.”) Giving Plemons a break, Lanthimos casts him here as the supporting foil to Stone's Emily, a religious-cult member recruited to locate their savior: a woman, prophesied in the cult leader's dream, with the power to resurrect the dead. Because the details of her being are so specific – for one thing, she has to be the sole survivor of a pair of twins – it's astonishing to see how many candidates for the position are out there. (One of them is touchingly portrayed, in her only Kinds of Kindness involvement, by Euphoria breakout Hunter Schafer.) Yet Margaret Qualley's Rebecca is firmly convinced that her twin sister Ruth is The Chosen One, and would have a better chance of convincing Emily and Plemons' Andrew of that if Rebecca weren't, you know, alive. What follows makes “Sandwich” simultaneously the anthology's sickest and most darkly comedic offering, inviting you to gasp, giggle, and gag at its blend of bloody bodily harm, rape, canine mutilation, and thermoses filled with human tears,

If any of you are on the fence about catching Lanthimos' latest, that last sentence may be enough – more than enough – to swerve you irrevocably into the “no way” category. But Stone, momentarily freed from the director's no-emotion-is-good-emotion decree, does her finest work in this segment, her devoted follower Emily resolutely terrifying in her single-minded pursuit of cult leader Omi's love. (It should go without saying that this vignette god is also played by Willem Dafoe.) But everyone here is scary, or more accurately scary/funny: Chau, as Omi's wife Aka, gauging cult members' “contamination” with her tongue; Qualley, blazingly effective as twins with matching looks and unmatched personalities; Joe Alwyn, whose Joseph – Emily's ex-husband – seems like the world's nicest guy before revealing himself as one of its more insidious monsters. And enough can't be said, and shouldn't be spoiled, about the climactic kicker – Lanthimos' and Fillipou's final, uproarious eff-you that hilariously demonstrates the futility in seeking ultimate control. You may have a plan, but God's plan will always trump it … and that's if there's even a God to begin with. Kinds of Kindness is the nastiest time I've had at the cineplex all year. It's also the most enjoyable. Heaven help me.

Mia Goth in MaXXXine


Is it possible that the Ti West triad boasting 2022's X, that same year's Pearl, and the writer/director's new release MaXXXine composes cinema's all-time-finest horror trilogy, if only by default? I'm not posing this notion because I consider all three films to be masterpieces; to my mind, only Pearl counts as one. But I've spent a couple days ruminating on the idea, and sincerely can't think of another set of linked fright flicks that deliver so much in the way of invention, energy, design cred, stylistic ballsiness, genuine scares, gory viscera, and first-rate performances, even if X and, especially, MaXXXine unfortunately fall apart by their finales. Yet even when West's latest disappoints, it disappoints with confidence and flair – you feel that you're witnessing West's exact vision intact, whether or not the movie as a whole fully works.

For most of its length, MaXXXine does, primarily because West again has that incandescent talent Mia Goth as his leading lady. As genre fans will remember, Goth played Maxine Minx, the Last Gal Standing, in X, as well as (under heavy prosthetics) the film's haggard, murderous crone Pearl. As genre fans will never forget, she also played a younger version of that farmhouse nightmare in Pearl, which swapped X's 1979 setting for 1918, and proved that Goth, and West, could seemingly, stunningly switch time periods and performance modes at will. Now, in MaXXXine, it's 1985, and we're in Hollywood, and Maxine is a big name in porn hoping to land her first gig in “respectable” movies – in this case, a trashy horror sequel titled The Puritan II. Her audition, one resembling Naomi Watts' out-of-nowhere transformation in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., nails Maxine the leading role. But there are a few hitches to her star ascendancy. The film's director (an ideally icy Elizabeth Debicki) worries whether Maxine has the required professionalism. Maxine is being followed by a hired private investigator (a fabulously skeevy Kevin Bacon), and potentially blackmailed by someone with proof of her involvement in X's murder spree. And as TV screens and newspaper headlines routinely remind us, there's a serial killer on the loose in the form of real-life serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, and a copycat seems to be restricting his victims to people in Maxine's orbit. Is she next on the chopping block? Does Maxine maybe know the perpetrator?

Kevin Bacon in MaXXXine

These are questions that have been asked of dozens of other heroines in myriad thrillers over the decades. And even though MaXXXine does a more-than-admirable job of replicating trash-cinema tenets of the 1980s (chiefly Brian De Palma's 1984 Body Double), it's not terribly interesting to watch Maxine Minx navigate them, if only because it has the unintended effect of sidelining the character. Among her many skills, Goth is a magnificent screen listener; when Maxine is taking in the conversation of others, you're always aware of her brain whizzing along, trying to determine how what's being said can best be used to her advantage, or ignored entirely. But West's latest gives its star too much listening, and not nearly enough doing. As enjoyable as the performers are, long sequences here are devoted to Goth enduring the tough-love moralizing of Debicki, and the Southern-fried hokum of Bacon's professed P.I., and the threats/pleas of Michelle Monaghan's and Bobby Cannavale's tag-team cop duo, and the brainless advice of Lily Collins' genre starlet. Goth sustains a beautiful, compelling quiet throughout. Only rarely, though, does Maxine get to be an active participant in the action, and while this silence-is-golden approach might be perfectly fitting for the tale of a desperate 32-year-old's rise to Hollywood glory (don't make waves and keep your moth shut), it doesn't do its gifted lead any favors.

What I think most of the Ti West fans among us want from MaXXXine is Goth in her unhinged glory – evidence of the righteous psychopath we saw at the end of X – and on a few blessed occasions, we get it. Although nothing Goth does in West's latest is quite as memorable as that audition monologue, she's marvelous when busting Bacon's face open with a fistful of keys, and it's impossible not to grin when she pulls a gun on a knife-wielding assailant with the command “Drop it, buster.” (What makes the moment priceless is that her would-be attacker is in Sunset Strip garb as Buster Keaton.) It takes until the finale, however, for Goth to show the full extent of Maxine's determinism, and by then, the plotting has devolved into the ultra-silly, with the mid-'80s morality obsession personified in laughable fashion. Although it fits with West's themes, it also feels like a goofy cop-out in practice, and only connects the dots to the ending (that we all saw coming) through maximum contrivance. Still, with its engaging presentation and welcome visit to the Psycho house, I had a completely decent time at MaXXXine, and coming after the insane high of Pearl, a completely decent time was more than appreciated. Rumor has it that West has a fourth installment with Goth in mind. I'll forever be eager to see what they come up with, but a big part of me is making that silent request that accompanies any viewing of successful movie trilogies: Please quit while you're ahead.

Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F


When I first heard that Netflix would be debuting a fourth Beverly Hills Cop action comedy, I was utterly shocked … but only because I didn't remember there being a Beverly Hills Cop III. As Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database make clear, though, there certainly was one, and if the quick dig at that 1994 film in director Mark Molloy's third sequel is to be trusted, no one much cared for it. Had Eddie Murphy's new star vehicle premiered in theaters, it's hard to tell how much anyone would have cared about this thing, either. Yet even though it's impossible to determine what definitively constitutes a Netflix movie – “From the streaming service that brought you The Irishman and The Kissing Booth!” – I'd suggest that Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F is the ne plus ultra of Netflix movies. It boasts a big star, it speeds by quickly enough, it's visually unremarkable, a lot of stuff happens without anything of true import happening, and it's easy to watch in your living room, or even on your phone, while attending to other, more pressing matters. Composing a shopping list, say, or trimming your toenails.

Not that it matters, but the story sends Murphy's beloved Detroit detective Axel Foley out to California for, apparently, the first time in 30 years, this time to save his estranged daughter and criminal-defense attorney Jane (Taylour Paige) from those involved in another set of hijinks involving dirty cops and drug running and other genre inevitabilities. Well before Axel lands out West, the nostalgia factor on Axel F is almost crushingly oppressive, the soundtrack littered with Glen Frey's “The Heat Is On,” Bob Seger's “Shakedown,” and the Harold Faltermeyer instrumental even before the Pointer's Sisters' “Neutron Dance” makes its underscoring appearance. (I had totally forgotten that was once a Beverly Hills Cop tune – love that song.) Besides Murphy, we're quickly treated to the presences of series regulars Paul Reiser (Axel's former partner, now his chief) and the Beverly Hills law-enforcement two-fer of Judd Reinhold and John Ashton (the former looking and sounding the worse for wear, the latter looking and sounding almost exactly the same – which is to say awesome). As he must, I suppose, Bronson Pinchot shows up at that beam of swishy sunlight Serge. And the whole thing so eerily replicates the tone and questionable “style” of the BHC franchise from 30 years ago – by which I mean 40 years ago – that it was positively disorienting. Between the indifferently executed car chases, sense-defying action stunts, and needlessly convoluted narrative, I felt Bruckheimer-ed to death, and realized that I may have totally forgotten about Beverly Hills Cop III the way you instinctively block your memory of pain.

Paul Reiser and Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F

That said, this is A Netflix Movie, which means you're not trapped at it the way you'd be at the cineplex. When I got bored on a first watch, which happened not long after Pinchot exited the picture, I simply turned it off and picked up my home viewing the following day, when I knew I only had 45-or-so minutes left to endure. And to be honest, “endure” is hardly the right word, because Murphy, thankfully, looks like he's having a blast here, and Axel's unexpected turns of phrase and put-downs elicited from me at least a dozen out-loud laughs. With the possible exception of Pinchot, I'd argue that no one else, not even the reliably solid Reiser and Ashton, is allowed even one, and Paige is legitimately awful, playing Jane's abandonment issues with such dead-eyed realism that she's a constant blight on the film. (In the same weekend that he was joyously hammy in MaXXXine, Kevin Bacon is a slightly lesser disappointment, as he's stuck playing one of those obviously corrupt law-enforcement smilers whose villainy is apparent in his first two seconds on screen.)

But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Jane's ex and Axel's unwilling partner, is pleasant enough, and Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F ultimately skates through on Murphy's inarguable charisma. He's wholly in his element, and he looks great, and he has no compunction about reminding others that he looks great. “You see this guy?” Murphy asks a bystander when pointing at Reiser. “We're the same age. We're the same age.” Reiser, who's actually Murphy's senior by five years, shakes off the insult. We lap it up. This completely unnecessary followup may be a wash as a franchise extender, and even as a movie for humans who aren't viewing it simply as background noise. But every once in a while, and on more than a few occasions, its star did get me to put down my shopping-list pen and nail clippers and watch.

Despicable Me 4


Over the five-day Fourth-of-July holiday weekend, director Chris Renaud's Despicable Me 4 netted just north of $120 million domestic, which I'm thinking averages out to about $5 million per storyline. I'm exaggerating, of course. But only a little, because in the six-film history of Illumination Entertainment's collective Despicable Me and Minions franchise, no other animated release has featured quite this many subplots and diversions and narrative detours that might easily have merited films of their own. Renaud's movie is fun, but at 94 compact minutes, it's also kind of exhausting fun. Just when you're settling into a winning comedic groove, the rug is pulled out from under you, and a whole new groove appears to have taken its place.

Our through-line involves former villain, now villain-catcher Gru (reliably voiced by Steve Carell), his wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), their new baby Gru Jr., and their adopted daughters Margot, Edith, and Agnes as they're whisked into witness relocation following the vengeance-vowing prison escape for Gru's childhood nemesis Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell). This setup is already more than enough to sustain an hour-and-a-half of animated amusement. Gru has to act as a prototypical, stay-at-home suburban dad; Lucy gets a job as a beautician; middle-daughter Edith contends with junior-high meanies; the girls take a self-defense class. But the relocation is only the tip of Despicable Me 4's narrative iceberg, We spend inordinate time with the evil machinations of Maxime and his equally sinister girlfriend Valentina (Sofía Vergara). Gru has a tennis match against his preppie next-door neighbor (Stephen Colbert). Said neighbor's tween daughter (Joey King) blackmails Gru into getting her set up in the über-villain field, and recruits him to help steal school's feral honey-badger mascot. Plus, naturally, there are antics involving the Minions, five of whom are transformed into power-wielding superheroes, one of whom spends nearly the entire movie in the confines of a vending machine, and two of whom spend the movie's running length pulling pranks on the one stuck in the vending machine. I smiled throughout. I also couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

The films in Illumination's Despicable Me/Minions series are like the ice-cream headache of animated releases: You hurt, but you're not altogether sorry for the reason you hurt. And Renaud's sequel, with its script by that endlessly clever White Lotus creator Mike White (alongside Ken Daurio), does a largely excellent job of disguising the fundamental sameness. Carell's vocals seem newly energized by the opportunity to voice-act opposite his longtime comedy partners Ferrell and Colbert, and the animated effects are occasionally astounding in their expansive detail. Plus, maybe from 2010 to the end of time, Minions will forever be creatures of mirth, with Pierre Coffin's babbling vocals endlessly imaginative and ticklish enough to delight newborn babies and grouchy, late-middle-aged movie critics alike. I have no doubt that these entertainments will exist on Earth longer than I will. But I beg the franchise's brain trust to spread the wealth. Despicable Me 4 is fine. Turning this charming little money-grabber into Despicable Mes 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 is definitely overkill.

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