Friday, February 28, 2020

'The Invisible Man': #MeBoo

"It takes control and slowly tears you apart."

The Invisible Man, Universal's latest re-imagining of one of its classic movie monsters, couldn't be released during a more perfect time, the same week that Harvey Weinstein, a real-life monster, was  convicted of rape and sexual assault. Ironically, it's also his conviction that has me hoping movies like it won't need to be made anymore.

And that's not because the movie is bad! It's a very solid thriller. It's because the story is clearly influenced by the #MeToo movement, and serves as an elaborate bit of wish fulfillment fantasy for the untold numbers of women whose reports of rape and harassment are not believed. Perhaps now women's revenge can happen in the courtrooms and not on movie screens.

In the meantime, we have The Invisible Man, which wastes no time getting started, opening with an extremely well-executed bit of suspense, as we follow our heroine, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) creeping through a modern glass-walled, seaside mansion. She's drugged the man sleeping next to her, and it's clear she's trying to make an escape. A few things are established during that escape: whoever she's fleeing from is very rich, has some kind of high tech lab in his basement, and keeps a shock collar on his dog, so clearly, an asshole.

Once she's ensconced in the Oakland home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia is a bundle of nerves, too scared to even walk as far as the curbside mailbox. Her sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer) is finally able to get some of Cecilia's story out of her: her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), was controlling, manipulative, and violent. He would have killed her before letting her leave.

Cecilia's paranoia that Adrian will find her is temporarily relieved when his brother (and lawyer) Tom (Michael Dorman) informs her that Adrian killed himself, and has left her a small fortune. But Cecilia is skeptical. Adrian wasn't the kind of man to just give up like that. And what is that creeping presence she can't seem to shake when the house is quiet and she's alone?

A movie like this can be frustrating, as we spend a huge chunk of it waiting for Cecilia to figure out what we already know, but Elisabeth Moss keeps it from getting monotonous. She gives the kind of performance that, were it not in a horror movie, would get all the nominations and awards. There's absolutely no vanity in it; for the majority of the film she looks like hell, alternating between terrified and fight mode, pleading with everyone to just believe her, no matter how crazy her story may sound. (They don't.)

The Invisible Man runs the genre gamut, employing aspects of horror, science fiction, and suspense. The scares play out like a haunted house movie might, and director Leigh Whannell fills his widescreen image with plenty of spooky empty space that may or may not actually be empty. The booming soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch also amps up the terror (it literally made the seats in the theater vibrate).

Ultimately, the horror at the center of The Invisible Man is both primal and timely. What do you do when you are being terrorized by a monster no one else can (or is willing) to see? And what can you do when people start to believe you're the real monster?

You fight. With all the tools available to you.

Friday, January 10, 2020

'Underwater' Sinks

Note: Not a still from Aliens. Or The Abyss.

It's never a good sign when a film's release is delayed two years, and it's an even worse sign when said film is released in the month of January, the chosen dumping ground for movie garbage. But such is the case for Underwater, the new deep-sea monster movie starring Kristen Stewart.

Kristen Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer on a deep water drilling rig, and she barely has time to finish her inner monologue about pessimism, brush her teeth, and put on a shirt before the rig starts to implode around her. She finds a handful of survivors, including Vincent Cassel as the Captain, and T.J. Miller as an annoying crew member who thinks he's hilarious (aka T..J. Miller). While they suspect an earthquake may be the cause, the weird growls heard on the drilling crew's last transmission give them pause. Nonetheless, Norah and crew must find a way to the surface, even if it means walking a mile across the bottom of the ocean.

I complain a lot about the length of current films, and have a longstanding belief that most could be cut down by 30 minutes and be much improved for it. Underwater is perhaps the rare exception to this rule. Its brisk 95 minute running time leaves no space for character development, establishment of place, or, really, anything other than confusion. Disaster strikes literally minutes into the film, before we've met anyone but Norah, and all we learn about her is she has good oral hygiene, has probably lost a life partner, won't kill spiders, and wears glasses she immediately loses, and never mentions needing again.

There are some tense moments of claustrophobic crawling through crushed hallways, but having no idea what this big underwater station looks like or what its lay-out is, paired with some maddening jump cuts that omit long swaths of time, the crew might as well be trapped in a storage locker. Once they don their diving suits and hit the water, forget it. It's impossible to see what the hell is going on.

My reaction to Underwater probably wasn't helped by the fact that, by mere coincidence, I had re-watched The Abyss two weeks before, and sure that movie has its flaws, but at least you could see what was happening! I'm sure director William Eubank thought Underwater's murky sea was both creepier and more realistic, and there's probably no way the water that deep down is as clear and brightly lit as James Cameron made it look in The Abyss. But you know what? I'll take that clear sea and its technicolor aliens over Underwater's murky depths any day.

Friday, December 20, 2019

'Cats,' I Have Questions

That way madness lies; let me shun that. No more of that.

I spent the entire screening of Cats with my brows furrowed, though for different reasons. Sometimes it was because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. At other times it was because I really didn't understand what the hell was going on. But most of the time it was just because I had so many questions.

I'll skip the obvious first question, which is just an incredulous "Why??" because I know the answer. It's the pervasive idea that anything popular that isn't a movie has to be turned into one. I believe Cats may be definitive proof that this should not always be the case.

I haven't seen a staged production, so I can't make comparisons. But I have seen the costuming--I think most people at this point are at least vaguely familiar with it, since the show ran on Broadway for decades--so I can at least compare the presentation of the cats in both, and let's just say one is a campy interpretation of feline physicality, and the other is the kind of thing you might see if you were having both a bad acid trip and a nightmare at the same time.

So that leads to another question: How could anyone think that was OK? The actors in the stage version don't really look like cats because realism isn't the goal; it's campy entertainment. But the cats in the movie don't look like cats either, yet it's pretty obvious a lot of time was spent on making their fur look real, even if nothing else about the cats does. They aren't shaped like cats! They're either painfully skinny (even the well-kept cats), or ridiculously fat (for "comedic" sake and the comedy that never materializes, despite those fat cats being played by Rebel Wilson and James Corden).

I also have absolutely no idea what size the cats are supposed to be. Sometimes they're seen on top of statues looking human sized, and at other times, they're wearing human wedding rings around their wrists. (I challenge you to fit a ring around a cat's paw. I'll wait.) Mice (with human faces!) are as tiny as mice would be next to an adult human, and cockroaches (also with human faces!!) are as big as mice. IT'S MADNESS.

What did the cast think they were getting into? Was there ever a point where they saw some digital mock-ups of their characters and thought "I've made a huge mistake"? I literally gasped in shock when the first cat appeared on screen, I can't imagine the reaction I'd have if it were my face on one of those freakish felines.

But enough about the cats, how's the music, you may be wondering. Fine? I guess? The quintessential 80's synthesizers remain, as does the inherent silliness of the songs. It's a musical where most exposition is given via song, and I'm not going to rehash the minute details of the plot, because I only half understood it. I think it involves the Jellicle cats (I don't know what that is), meeting for the once yearly Jellicle ball (which is maybe part talent show?), so that Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench!) can select the cat who will descend to the Heavyside Layer (which is maybe cat heaven, or maybe reincarnation, but apparently you get there via hot air balloon and chandelier). There's also a villain in the form of "Macavity" (Idris Elba! What are you doing?!) who can transport cats to a barge in the Thames, which seems like a pretty amazing talent for a cat to have, but for some reason he'd prefer to die go to the Heavy Side Layer? Or something?

Cats is a physical musical, with lots of dancing, and indeed there is a lot of dancing in the movie. Francesa Hayward, the newcomer playing the kitten Victoria, is actually a ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet. But there is so much digital manipulation going on with every performer in the film, you have no idea if the dancing you're watching is real, or digitally enhanced. Director Tom Hooper's insistence on cutting every two second doesn't help matters. (Which made me wonder if his maniacal editing choices are centered on a desire to never let the camera linger too long on the cats, because therein lies insanity.)

There is only one memorable song in the musical, despite Taylor Swifts attempts to usurp it with her addition, "Beautiful Ghosts," which is actually performed by the film's ingenue. Instead, Taylor Swift, as the only cat with both visible boobs and an hourglass figure, performs "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" with a bad British accent.

The good song is, of course, "Memory," sung by the aging, ostracized and bedraggled Grizabella the Glamor Cat, here played by Jennifer Hudson. This is the musical's showstopping number, and Hudson definitely has the chops for it. And yet...her vocals during the song are muddled, with lyrics hard to decipher at times. Her performance is definitely an emotional one, with lots of tears, but also lots of mucus, which lingers on her upper lip for the majority the song. They gave her digital whiskers, could they not digitally erase the snot? Or at least let her wipe her nose?

By the time Old Deuteronomy is addressing the audience, telling us "cats are not dogs" (!) I just had to put my face in my hands and close my eyes. At that point, the unintentional laughter in the audience had reached its peek, but I commend them for their restraint through most of it. (Judi Dench's introduction seemed to illicit the most chuckles).

This summer, while on vacation, I watched the trailer that shocked a nation, and I've joked that watching it almost ruined my trip. Now it's Christmas, but I'm not going to let Cats ruin that. The dread arrival is over. Cats is here, and now we can ignore it, and go back to living in a world where cats, while not dogs, are also not freaks.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Oscar Bait Lightning Round: Knives Out, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, The Irishman

As I'd feared, the amount of time I have had to spend watching movies--over 40 in the past month!--has meant I have had precious little time to actually review any. That doesn't mean I don't have opinions about them, because of course I do! So allow me to spew some thoughts about these currently playing Oscar contenders.

I'm not sure a movie as fun as Knives Out will get the Oscar attenton it deserves, but with the Academy nominating up to ten films each year, there's no reason it shouldn't. Every member of the knockout cast has their moments to shine, but standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as the de facto family matriarch, Toni Collette as the flighty but savvy daughter-in-law, and Ana de Armas as the nurse at center of the mystery.

Like many a classic Whodunnit, the death takes place in a mansion filled with the usual suspects, with almost everyone but a butler represented. Rian Johnson's clever screenplay goes back and forth from a Did Someone Do It? to a They Said They Did It! to a Wait, Did They Do It?, and for the majority of the movie you may be wondering if you're watching a Whodunnit at all.

If the film has any flaws, I'd say it's Daniel Craig's Foghorn Leghorn-accented Detective Benoit Blanch, but I just chose to pretend his awful accent was a long con and the detective's real identity will be revealed in a coming sequel. Fingers crossed.

Had Dark Waters come from any other director than Todd Haynes, it would be your standard "based on a true story" drama about the little guy fighting the powers that be. And in all honesty, it is that, with the added puzzlement that comes from knowing this came from Haynes, and yet contains none of his trademarked attention to setting or style.

It could be argued that this story of a corporate lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who decides to go after DuPont, the type of business he usually represents, makes a good companion piece with Haynes's 1995 drama Safe. Both deal with the impact of environmental pollutants. But the subject matter is basically where the similarities end. Where Safe felt weird and unpredictable, Dark Waters isn't innovative in any way. Which isn't to say the story isn't important. I just think you'd get just as much entertainment value reading the New York Times Magazine piece it was based on, and without the obligatory "wife yelling at her husband for doing his job" scene from Anne Hathaway.

When I was a kid I saw Kramer vs Kramer and loved it, mainly because it was an adult story with a child at the center, and being an only child myself, I often felt like a child living in an adult's story. But that's pretty much where the identification ended, since my parents weren't in the middle of divorce (and are still married; congrats!).

Marriage Story, like Kramer vs Kramer, is actually the story of a divorce, with a young child at the center, but in this case, a little less focus is put on the kid. It's his parents' story, and at times, it broke my heart. It's certainly one of the best acted movies of the year (though Adam Driver's performance is a little stronger than Scarlett Johansson's) with one tour de force argument so intense and cathartic it brought me to tears.

I've often felt a little distanced from Noah Baumbach's films. They can be as stiff as Wes Anderson movies, but without the beautiful production design that can warrant the "these aren't actors, they're dolls" feeling. Marriage Story is the first Baumbach movie where the characters feel completely real and fully alive.

Through this awards season my main complaint has been that movies are too damn long, and then Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors, has to come along and release a three-and-a-half hour epic.

But here's the thing. It's on Netflix, and I'm not going to begrudge the length when its available via a medium I've spent six hours or more in front of when binging a series. Which actually leads to a common complaint lodged against The Irishman: that it should have been even longer, and a Netflix series.

Ah, but then it wouldn't be Oscar Bait, would it?

I was never bored through it's three plus hours, and in fact watched it in one sitting. I feared the CGI de-aging might be distracting, and perhaps on a big screen, it is. But I got used to it pretty quickly (less so Robert De Niro's freaky blue eyes). One thing they couldn't de-age is the fact that these guys are all in their 70s, and try as they might to look like spry 40-somethings through half of it, they don't always succeed, still beating up guys like the 70-somethings they are.

Scorsese doesn't have to make another gangster movie ever again as The Irishman is the perfect coda to his wise guy oeuvre. It's both a greatest hits album and a melancholy meditation on mortality, guilt, and regret.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Oscar Bait: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

No, seriously, PLEASE won't you be my neighbor?

Based on Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Fred Rogers, or more accurately, based on the writing of that profile, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is more about the emotional journey of a journalist than it is about Mr. Rogers.

And I suppose that's fine, if the movie wasn't being marketed like it's some kind of biopic, which it definitely is not (not of Rogers nor of Junod, since his story is highly fictionalized). If you want to learn about Mr. Rogers and really understand what he was all about, just watch Morgan Neville's brilliant 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?. If you want to see Tom Hanks doing a serviceable impersonation of Fred Rogers, albeit one with limited screen time, see A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood.

Matthew Rhys plays the fictionalized journalist, now named Lloyd Vogel. He and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are new parents. After bringing the baby on its first family outing to Lloyd's sister's (third) wedding, Lloyd has a run-in with his estranged and alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Jerry wants to reconcile; Lloyd wants to hold on to his resentment; things turn violent.

Naturally, Lloyd's editor (Christine Lahti) decides this is the perfect time to send Lloyd on an assignment: write a profile about Mr. Rogers for Esquire's issue about heroes. (A bitter cynic meeting Mr. Rogers? Why, that should be the plot a movie!)

As cliched as that set-up is, director Marielle Heller at least frames it in a unique way, echoing the tone of the original magazine piece by setting up the film like it's a long episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, complete with that familiar living room and closet, a miniature version of New York City, and appearances from Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin.

Tom Hanks, who could perhaps be seen as the most "Mr. Rogers" of actors because of his reputation for decency and niceness, is probably the perfect choice to ably portray Fred Rogers' guilelessness, even if sometimes he comes off more eccentric than simply earnest. (Though I suppose in a world filled with cynics like Lloyd Vogel, earnestness can be seen as the ultimate eccentricity). A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood isn't a bad movie, it's just a predictable and common one that doesn't do justice to a person who turned out to be one of world's most uncommon heroes.