Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting of Bly Manor

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After an au pair’s tragic death, Henry Wingrave hires a young American nanny to care for his orphaned niece and nephew who reside at Bly Manor. But all is not as it seems at the manor, and centuries of dark secrets of love and loss are waiting to be unearthed because at Bly Manor, dead doesn’t mean gone.

Stars: Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Tahirah Sharif

Director: Mike Flanagan, Ciarán Foy, Axelle Carolyn, Liam Gavin, Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke

Running Length: 9 episodes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix debuted writer/director Mike Flanagan’s clever reworking of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House and it became the type of buzzed about show every streaming service dreams of.  Viewers posted about its spine-tingling scares, marveled at its creativity in taking Jackson’s novel concerning a spooky haunted house and turning it into a family drama masquerading as a horror series, and began dissecting the intricate ways Flanagan (who directed each episode and had at least some part their conception) had made it all fit together.  More than anything, everyone wanted more.  The trouble was, the story had been told and Flanagan was a smart enough filmmaker to know that returning to make a continuation would be a disaster.

Instead, the pitch to Netflix was to step back and see this as an opportunity for each season to be an entirely new “Haunting of” and so Flanagan the producer was given the green light (and lots of green, I’m sure) to explore a new set of spirits.  Here we are, two years after Hill House closed its doors and we’re standing at the front steps of The Haunting of Bly Manor which has arrived just in time for a chilly October welcome.  Taking inspiration from the works of Henry James (and not just the author’s celebrated and oft-filmed “The Turn of the Screw as you may have originally thought) Flanagan’s involvement in the second season is limited to directing the first episode.  As was the original intent on Hill House, Flanagan then hands the reins of the remaining episodes to four different directors and one directing duo.  This creates an unavoidable discord from episode to episode, which unfortunately holds Bly Manor back from reaching the same level as its previous season.

By this point, I’ve seen enough of the work Flanagan has done (Oculus, Doctor Sleep, Gerald’s Game) to spot his style so the season opener starts strong out of the gate.  A framing device reveals a narrator I was greatly excited to see, but I’ve been asked not to reveal who it is.  Though we see them briefly on screen in the first and final episodes that take place in 2007, their main contribution comes from a voiceover that gives a storytelling structure to the episodes.  They take us back to 1987 in London when American Dani (Victoria Pedretti, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) is hired for an au pair position with barrister Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, Fire in the Sky) to care for his niece and nephew at Bly Manor, their home in the English countryside.  Dani seeks solace away from the busy city and a glowing eyed figure that haunts her reflection and hopes Bly Manor will be a good change of pace.

Arriving at the well-kept estate, she meets the other staff.  Gardner Jamie (Amelia Eve), Cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) are all welcoming in their own way and instantly take a liking to the way she is able to communicate with the children.  Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) appear to be well-adjusted considering they’ve lost their parents and a previous caregiver in short order and under tragic circumstances but need Dani’s attention and even her discipline to remain that way.  They do have their own peculiarities though.  Flora’s dollhouse is a small scale replica of Bly Manor and is filled with crude dolls that bear an off-putting resemblance to members of the staff…and others.  The dolls seem to have a way of turning up in strange places and Flora is particular about who touches them and where they should stay at night.  Keeping Dani off balance becomes a game for Miles who appears to be bold with his actions one moment and less assured the next.

Over the episodes we come to learn more about Dani and what led to her leaving her home in the US and the secret she’s trying to hide from at Bly Manor.  Then there’s Wingrave’s former assistant Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) who was thought to have disappeared with a hefty sum of embezzled money but may have returned to the grounds for another sinister score.  We’ll also find out the full story about the children’s previous nanny (Tahirah Sharif) and how her time in the manor led to a destructive path.  More secrets are scattered throughout that I either won’t or can’t spoil for you at this time, but the fun in the show is gathering all the mysteries that Flanagan and his writers introduced and then waiting for the solutions to arrive.

The trouble with Bly Manor is, I think, that there are too many episodes.  Where Hill House made good use of its 10-episode arc, Bly Manor can’t exactly justify the nine full length chapters, many of which are excessively talky and meditative.  Audiences coming expecting another Hill House are bound to be disappointed with Bly Manor’s more arid setting and less intimate feel.  The writing also doesn’t feel as carefully crafted here and that’s a major problem for me.  You could tell that the script for Hill House was delivered nearly complete but I kept getting the impression Bly Manor began filming before the scripts for later episodes were done and that’s on account of those final episodes struggling without much plot mechanics to work with.  Hill House was such a thrill because it was solving its own mystery as it went along without you even realizing it…so that in the final episode it sort of went “Ta-Da!” and you suddenly realized what it had accomplished right under your nose.  In Bly Manor, the answers arrive without the same satisfaction.

Perhaps it’s because I didn’t warm to these characters in the same way I linked up with the family at the heart of Hill House.  Watching that show again in the days before taking on Bly Manor, I was struck not by how well it holds up on a second viewing (which it most definitely does) but how deeply emotional it is more than anything.  Though she’s playing another tortured soul, Pedretti manages to transform into a totally different person which is a complete 180 from the gentle Nell in Hill House. Aside from Miller’s uniformly excellent performance as the manor’s kindly housekeeper and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kohli’s cook working at Bly Manor while harboring dreams of opening his own restaurant, much of the cast stalls out when saddled with some of the expositional dialogue that starts to infiltrate the back episodes. when a lot of ground needs to be covered in short order.

Here’s the good news, though.  Forget about the long-winded speeches the writers start to favor near the end of the season.  Try to ignore the eyebrow raising accents from Americans going full community theater with their “veddy Breetish” patterns of speech. Pay no attention to the fact there’s a disappointing lack of ingenuity in the camera-work or hidden Easter eggs like last season which make future viewings more fun.  No, what you need to know is that with all the nitpicks I’ve picked at, I still think Bly Manor is well worth a visit.  One episode is downright great (sadly…or smartly, Netflix already asked me not to tell you which one) and there’s another focused on Miller that’s a definite highlight.  There are far too many shows that prove popular that don’t spend half the time this show does on how things fit together.  The production design is gorgeous, the ‘80s styles are chic but not gaudy or intrusive, and while I didn’t love the finale as much as I in particular should have, it’s a brave way to end things with a look toward a possible third residence to haunt.

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.