Movie Review ~ Shirley


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Vinovich

Director: Josephine Decker

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems a little too easy to label Shirley Jackson a “horror writer” but that’s largely what many of the press clippings and mentions of the author have done over the years since her death in 1965.  True, a number of her works leaned toward the dark, supernatural, and unnerving, delving into psychological paranoia for good measure.  However, her short stories and novels have remained startlingly timeless because they regularly uncover the ambiguity of societies pleasantries and expose what’s underneath a pallid façade. I loved The Haunting of Hill House and it’s as much about the inner demons of the lead character as it is about any ghosts that may roam around the titular mansion.  Then, of course, there is The Lottery, a much discussed and oft-taught allegory of the deadly cost of following without questioning.

The Lottery is a good place to jump off for Shirley as well, as the movie begins just after Jackson’s short story was published in the late 1940s.  Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the issue of the New Yorker in which it appeared as she travels with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to Bennington, VT.  It’s here that Fred will serve as the teaching assistant to Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name)…who happens to be the husband of the reclusive and usually boozily bed-ridden Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man).  Rose and Fred wind up living with the older couple, with Rose tending to Shirley and the household duties as the men are teaching.  When a young girl on campus goes missing, Jackson is inspired to begin work on a longer piece which creates tension as her process is…intense.  The longer she writes, the more out of control the household becomes and the lines between reality and fiction are continually blurred.

It’s important to note that those approaching Shirley hoping to get a better idea of who the author was should look elsewhere for their fact-finding mission.  This movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, which fictionalizes the relationship between this younger couple and Jackson/Hyman.  From what I’ve inferred, the story has been further bifurcated by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins who changed the time, locale, and critical elements of Jackson’s family life to better streamline the story she and director Josephine Decker are trying to tell.  The result?  A movie that feels a lot like the author herself: initially interesting but eventually exhausting.

There’s always something intriguing about an alternative take on a real life figure and I think it’s curious that not only did Jackson become a character in Scarf Merrell’s book but that the same book itself had an alternative take.  That’s double (or triple?) meta for you.  The problem with digging down that deep is that somewhere you’re going to lose the focus and that’s what sadly happens about halfway through Shirley. No matter how many creative camera angles Decker’s cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen employs or how often the spikey music from Tamar-kali jangles us, it can’t keep our minds from drifting.  Instead of being swept up in the parasitic relationship that develops between Shirley and Rose (the sallow Jackson at the beginning seems to glow the more Rose’s complexion turns gray) the audience struggles to keep up with Decker’s paths that lead nowhere.

Jackson’s bouts with severe anxiety were well documented but they’re presented here as mental instabilities, given all the more strain by Moss’s mannered performance.  Though she’s made a career over the past few years of playing similar complex women proving there’s no tic she can’t tackle, she comes up short here.  The delivery feels like schtick, something planned instead of performed and while Moss working so awfully hard is to be commended, it leaves no room for anyone else to get a nuance in edgewise.  Not that it stops Stuhlbarg from trying, gnashing his teeth on the scenery as exactly the kind of pompous literate we think a collegiate professor worth his salt would be.  Lerman is mere set decoration so it’s up to Young to steal what moments she can from Moss and she takes what scraps are allowed and runs with them quite nicely.

I’ve a feeling there will be two camps where Shirley is concerned.  First are those that buy what Moss is selling and can forgive the film for its hazy gaze at history and eventual descent into drab psychological drama.  Then there are the others, like myself, who don’t mind a little revisionism…as long as its done with purpose or reflection.  The real Shirley Jackson wrote about things that scare us, the movie version doesn’t even know where to begin.

Movie Review ~ The Invisible Man (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 2010’s, Universal Studios saw the writing on the wall.  They didn’t have any true franchise properties left and even the recently resurrected Jurassic World would only take them so far.  With Marvel doing beyond spectacular business with The Avengers and all their spin-offs and after Warner Brothers got into the groove of their DC world with Wonder Woman, the once titan Universal was suddenly taking at least the bronze in the box office Olympics.  Then, some clever person within the company hit on something…the studio had a literal haunted house full of characters that had filled their coffers almost a hundred years earlier and had largely laid dormant for the last half century.  Why not resurrect Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein? Then they’d give them a modern twist to create what was to be known as the Dark Universe.

To me, this sounded like a heck of a lot of fun.  With The Mummy in production with Tom Cruise, the kernel of an idea started to grow into something interesting with the news that Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and other A-listers like Johnny Depp would be coming on board for various projects over the next several years.  Announcing not just the movies but also actual release dates along with a much passed around photo of these stars giving their best brooding monster face, the studio put all of their precious eggs in one mummified basket and the result…was a complete disaster.  Released in 2017, The Mummy had its moments but Cruise was too old for his role and the titular character (recast as a female and that’s where the creativity stopped) was largely absent.  While not a complete bomb, the box office returns were paltry enough to completely throw the Dark Universe off its axis, resulting in a humiliating about face for Universal, which eventually cancelled all of its gothically grandiose plans.  The Dark Universe was dead.

It was surprising, then, to see a new version of The Invisible Man quietly make its way onto the schedule for an early 2020 release.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), this isn’t a straight-up remake of the classic film from 1897 based on the novel by H.G. Wells but an original story that has more in common with the 1991 Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy.  What made The Mummy such a downer was how much it was clear it was trying to be this jumping off point for something bigger.  The Invisible Man doesn’t come with those extra trappings (at least not that I could immediately observe) so it has a freedom to be its own monster instead of being the first step in a full-blown creature crawl.

The first thirty minutes of Whannell’s movie is focused on establishing Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, Us), a woman putting her life back together after escaping (literally) her violent and controlling significant other, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven).  Fleeing from his impressively secure beachfront home in the middle of the night, she hides out with her sister’s boyfriend James (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) in the home he shares with his daughter (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time).  Fearing Adrian will find her and even though James is a police officer that isn’t rattled easily, Cecilia stays indoors and out of sight…until her sister (Harriet Dyer) arrives with the news that Adrian has taken his own life.  Now…Cecilia is truly free.

Adrian’s death brings Cecilia some emotional relief and a financial windfall after she’s named the beneficiary of his fortune at a meeting with his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales).  The calm is short lived, though, because soon she starts to get the strange feeling she’s being watched by an unseen presence.  Items start to disappear and events occur that can’t be easily explained unless…maybe Adrian isn’t really dead.  Perhaps his work in optics has given him a way to crack the code on invisibility and allowed him to stalk Cecelia, her family, and her friends.  Could that invisibility suit he was working on in his lab actually work to let him slip in and out of Cecilia’s new life unnoticed and enact psychological torture on her? Then again…with her already fragile mental state it could be that Cecelia is just imagining it all and she’s the one behind the violence that begins to occur?

At 124 minutes, Whannell definitely gives audiences a full movie experience with a beginning, middle, and an end and I appreciated the whole thing felt like such a complete package.  It absolutely has an old-school ‘90s vibe to it and that isn’t a bad thing in my book, though it may come off a little hokey for movie-goers used to seeing their foes instead of just imagining them.  Blessedly going light on the kind of visual effects that could have bogged things down, Whannell opts for practical methods to elicit good scares along the way.  I think there are a few too many one-person fights with an invisible enemy but they are staged with flair that keep you alert and engaged.  The final 40 minutes are a wild ride, yet Whannell makes a bold choice to end the movie on a quieter (but still effective) note than you may be used to.

Though she’s amassed a large fan following from her days on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve never totally warmed to Moss as an actress.  Her addled lady on the edge only goes so far with me and after 2019’s Her Smell was so widely embraced I sort of just couldn’t take it anymore. (I can’t believe how many people liked that movie – it’s just…blah…terrible and you can hate me all you want for saying it).  Here, though, all the ticks and quirks that Moss uses as calling cards work in her favor and she positively makes this movie soar on a different level than a conventional horror film.  She has the relatable “Anytown, U.S.A.” look to her so that when she turns around and surveys an empty room, unable to place why she’s uneasy but knowing something is wrong, you instantly understand the rising fear.  Her performance is so key that while the rest of the supporting cast is strong (Hodge, in particular, is becoming a value-add to anything he shows up in), they tend to fade into the background when sharing the screen with her.

If this is where Universal is going creatively with their intellectual property than I say more power to them because it’s an intriguing entry point into pulling from the past to create something new.  In November it was announced that Elizabeth Banks would direct and star in The Invisible Woman which thankfully isn’t related to this movie and they also have plays for a Renfield movie, taking a secondary character from Dracula off the sidelines and positing them at the forefront.  All interesting choices that I’m excited to see play out.  Right here, right now though…The Invisible Man is well worth getting a glimpse of.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Invisible Man (2020)



Synopsis
: When Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia’s works to prove she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Release Date:  February 20, 2020

Thoughts: In 2017, Universal Studios had big plans to create their own tentpole franchise by resurrecting their classic monsters in a new Dark Universe where stories/characters could crossover.  Announcements were made with A-list stars signed on and release dates staked out – this sounded like it could be something to get excited about and a nice alternative to the superhero series that had been dominating the box office.  Then, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise came out and completely tanked…uh oh.  As expected in this risk-averse era, everyone got cold feet and all the grandiose plans for the Dark Universe were scrapped.

It’s interesting, then, to see this first trailer for The Invisible Man make its debut.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) and starring Elisabeth Moss (Us), it appears this was made by Universal Studios without any restriction on future sequels or how it might fit into larger plans for existing projects.  That means it could be a nice little mystery building off of the name of the novel by H.G. Wells, though it doesn’t seem to share many similarities to 1933’s The Invisible Man.  I worry the trailer is a tad too long and wish it left a little more to the imagination…but there’s something intriguing about this concept and it makes me think of those slick ‘90s thrillers we don’t seem to get on the big screen anymore.

Movie Review ~ Us

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother and a father take their kids to their beach house expecting to enjoy time with friends. But their serenity turns to tension and chaos when visitors arrive uninvited.

Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Jordan Peele

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I don’t think anyone expected 2017’s Get Out to be the massive critical and commercial hit it eventually became. Though the early trailers looked intriguing, it’s January release and low-grade buzz didn’t cause Hollywood to give it much more than a second glance. Besides, did one half of a television comedy duo have the goods to deliver a social commentary thriller in his first time out of the gate as a writer/producer/director? Well, a huge box office take, multiple memes, endless cultural analysis, and an Oscar later I think Jordan Peele proved he had more than an inkling as to what he was doing. So when his second feature, Us, was announced, everyone held their breath to see if the sophomore slump would strike someone everyone was now rooting for.

A mere two years after Get Out landed with a bang Peele is back with a film that’s bound to be compared to his previous work but is actually a different experience all together. Where Get Out was a slow-burn thriller, a clear (and clever) response to the then current political climate when it was made, Us is pure horror and doesn’t dig quite as deep into what divides us as a community but instead turns the attention into what defines us as individuals. It’s no less thought-provoking but is resolutely aiming for any exposed nerve where it can strike…and strike hard.

Arriving at their California lake house outside of Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Non-Stop) and Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther) are ready for a serene weekend with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). It looks to be an ordinary few days. The kids bicker like most siblings do while the parents settle in. Gabe has bought a boat he wants to take for a spin around the lake but first he has to convince Adelaide to spend the day at the beach with their casual friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss, The Old Man & the Gun) and Josh (Tim Heidecker, Ant-Man and the Wasp). Yet there’s something about the beach at Santa Cruz that puts a knot of fear into Adelaide…and we’ll soon find out why.

To give away much more than that would possibly delve into spoiler-territory and I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the secrets the film has been wisely holding back in its carefully curated promotional materials. What I can tell you is nothing the previews haven’t already given away. Another foursome confronts Adelaide and her family on their first night, a family that looks an awful lot like them, a family that may have a link to a traumatic incident from Adelaide’s past that has come to haunt her present, a family we come to know as The Tethered.  And they have a rather unique score to settle.

Peele drops clues to what’s happening along the way but most are only obvious in hindsight as you drive home or start to discuss the film in the parking lot with your friends and loved ones. Like Get Out, Us will be a movie that is fun to dissect long after it’s finished and already ranks high on the re-watchability scale. I also appreciated that Peele kept the movie mostly within the realms of acceptable reality. This is not a supernatural movie where people walk through walls or events occur that are totally unable to be explained. It amps up the tension and makes you feel like what’s happening could conceivably take place. Even if all the pieces don’t quite line up under our modern microscope, there’s enough giddy ways that things fall into place that I was able to forgive the elements that didn’t quite get resolution.

While Get Out was a fairly solid movie considering the budget and novice of those involved, Us represents a leveling-up of all elements. Peele’s already present confidence as a writer and director has grown even more, this is clearly an individual that knows his film history and respects the process.  He has an eye for what looks good and crafts several sequences that are not only technically difficult to construct  but are visually impressive as well.  Everything just looks wonderful in Us. The production design, costumes, cinematography, and score are all key players here and add to the overall effect the film has on its audience. If any of these areas were weak it would have left the film feeling off-kilter in unintended ways. So many horror films that take place in the dark are hard to see but even in dark settings you can follow everything that takes place (though you may be watching it from behind your fingers covering your eyes) and Peele blessedly sets many scares in the stark daylight.

Nyong’o already has an Oscar for her devastating work in 12 Years a Slave and if I had any say in the matter she’d be in the running for another one for the stunning work she turns in here. Playing a dual role that requires her to play two very different sides of a complex coin, she separates the characters so much that when she shows up for the first time as her other character I actually didn’t believe it was her at first…even though I knew it was. It’s a total transformation and though through the wonder of special effects she can share the screen with herself it feels like there are actually two actresses on screen with one another at the same time. Both roles are infinitely challenging and tightrope walking in their level of skill and I can’t imagine any other actor working today who could have done what she did with them.

As he did on his first film, Peele demonstrates a keen eye for casting and has filled the rest of his cast with standouts from top to bottom. Duke is a great match of Nyong’o, he’s a laid-back dad and supportive spouse that holds his own with his formidable co-star. Joseph and Alex make good on going the extra mile in difficult roles for young actors and complete a convincing family unit with Duke and Nyong’o. In their small supporting roles, Moss and Heidecker are appropriately awful in their triteness. Moss especially seems to enjoy basking in her California housewife attire and saying things like “it’s vodka o’clock”…something you know the actress has never said (and would never say) in her entire life.

A huge part of the fun in Us will be for audiences to experience it in theaters with a crowd. While Get Out worked like gangbusters on the big screen for an initial viewing, it’s thriller nature leant it to play just as strongly if you saw it for the first time at home. Yet I think Us will best be enjoyed first and foremost if you’re shoulder to shoulder with another person getting the same jolt you are.

Movie Review ~ The Old Man & the Gun


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Forrest Tucker and his audacious escape from San Quentin at the age of 70 to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public.

Stars: Robert Redford, Casey R, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Tom Waits, Elisabeth Moss

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Hollywood legend Robert Redford has decided to call it quits (at least in the acting department) so The Old Man & the Gun can safely be considered his silver screen swan song.  And what a way to go.  Redford (The Company You Keep) stars as Forrest Tucker, a career criminal working with two other men (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) responsible for a series of bank robberies.  When he wasn’t breaking out of prison he was eluding the authorities, all while keeping much of his personal life a secret.  We meet up with Tucker in his later years as his bank robbing days are drawing to a close and he’s contemplating hanging it all up for good.  Helping him with this decision is a burgeoning romance with Jewel (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) who presents an alternative future for him that doesn’t have to involve constantly being on the run from the law.

Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours) is the police detective assigned to the case and we get a peek into his life at home as well, a nice benefit audiences usually aren’t afforded in these quiet types of movies.  Usually, if the family of a police officer is featured prominently in a movie it means they are in some sort of danger down the road but writer-director David Lowrey (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) has them in the picture to help give Affleck’s character the same depth afforded to Redford’s.

Redford skated so close to an Oscar nomination for All is Lost several years back and it’s looking likely he’ll miss the cut again this year.  His work is so good in The Old Man & the Gun that it would be a shame for it to go unnoticed because the film and the actor have quite a spring in their step.

The Silver Bullet ~ High-Rise

highrise

Synopsis: A big screen adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel centered on a new residential tower where one man finds himself in the middle of mounting violence. Violence that he also finds emerging in himself.

Release Date:  March 18, 2016

Thoughts: I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t yet heard of director Ben Wheatley.  The Brit director isn’t well known in the states, having yet to make a commercial cross over hit that would get him the attention he deserves.  His 2011 film Kill List remains one of the most deeply frightening films I’ve ever seen and now he’s movin’ on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky with High-Rise.  A nicely done true teaser of a trailer, there’s lots to see but little explained…just like I like it.  I’ve a feeling the finished film will be less straight-forward than it appears but I’m trusting in Wheatley to lead me down a worthy less traveled path.  Starring Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), and Jeremy Irons (Beautiful Creatures), this is popping up first in England but should make its way to our coast sometime in 2016.

The Silver Bullet ~ On the Road

Synopsis: Dean and Sal are the portrait of the Beat Generation. Their search for “It” results in a fast paced, energetic roller coaster ride with highs and lows throughout the U.S.

Release Date:  December 21, 2012

Thoughts: It may be hard to believe, but I’ve made it nearly 33 years without picking up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel on which this is based.  I know it’s a staple of many an AP English program and the frequent item in backpacks across this great country – but I’ve yet to be taken in by it.  I’m trying to fit in a read before this long in gestation adaptation comes out but then again I don’t want to be one of the people that suffers through a disappointing big screen version of a book many are inspired by.  Life is full of decisions, indeed.  Packed with Hollywood up-and-comers and directed by Walter Salles I’d expect this one to be a popular choice in the art-house cinemas this holiday season.