Movie Review ~ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: As has often been the cast for the past several years, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has two movies that are arriving near the end of 2021 that are playing at a number of film festivals.  One film is a bit elusive and hard to see unless you are attending one of the most prestigious events.  The other one is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  One film is getting the actor much acclaim and buzz about another Oscar nomination after his stoic turn in 2014’s The Imitation Game.  The other movie is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  Available at quite a number of film festivals over the past several months, you can see Amazon Studios and its other producers fighting a losing battle to get some traction on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the secondary Cumberbatch movie. However, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog readying for release on Netflix, it’s lights out for this twee bit of falderal that sparks early only to be undone by it’s overreliance on puffy artistry on the back end.

Look, before I saw this biographical drama, I had no clue the English artist Louis Wain played such an integral role in helping the domestic cat gain such popularity in Europe through his artwork.  As a dedicated cat lover (an animal that has a box for its own litter which it also covers for you, keeps it distance when it’s not in the mood to be bothered, and can tell when bad weather is approaching is A-OK in my book!) I am ever in his debt for normalizing the attitude toward cats in his country because many of those feelings became popularized the world over.  I was unfamiliar with his art before a viewing of director Will Sharpe’s film and the recreation of his style and technique through the screenplay Sharpe co-wrote with Simon Stephenson (Paddington 2) were fascinating bits of mechanics to watch – it’s everything else that surrounded it that became so befuddling.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that Sharpe was grasping for a style and tone that didn’t completely make sense all the time.  The opening stretch and final hour are flighty bits of quirkiness that feel curated and calculated, like what someone attempting to be irreverent with the life of a colorful character would put on screen.  By all accounts, the mental health issues that plagued Wain and various members of his family were present for a long while but only presented themselves rarely over the years until they became more serious in his older days.  It was during his romance of the family governess (Claire Foy, Breathe) when Wain found his true happiness and it’s also when Sharpe’s movie gets into its best and most easily accessible mode.

The early marketing materials and trailers I saw of the movie suggested the Foy/Cumberbatch relationship was going to be far more rambunctious, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Yet it turned out to be my favorite parts of the movie.  The two have such a natural ease of working together and I can’t help but think that it’s Foy that consistently brings out the best in her male costars, melting some icy actors down and letting audiences see the softer sides.  She absolutely lets us see another side of Cumberbatch, a far more tender one that finds himself caring for another when he previously felt like that part of his life would never come to pass.  These are the meat the film feasts on…but the meal can’t last forever and before too long it’s back to the same old ticks and tricks once more.

I’m all for biographies that color outside of the lines (and The Courier’s Suzie Davies production design along with Paddington’s Erik Alexander Wilson’s cinematography are never lacking for bold color choices) but it has to circle back to a point – something The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes an awful long time to get to.  Along the way Sharpe stops to create several beautiful moments (a shot of Foy and Cumberbatch sitting in a meadow is gorgeous) but it’s balanced with far too many repetitive scenes of Wain fighting with one or more of his disapproving sisters.

Controversially, I’m not as sold on Cumberbatch as most are.  I loved him for Sherlock but have since found him to be decidedly hit or miss with his work, feeling that perhaps he’s more limited in his range than we’d care to admit.  He’s not bad in this new film but he’s been better in others that are about far less important people and ideas.  Fans of his will want to check out The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, all others should save their Cumberbatch Cinema of 2021 for The Power of the Dog.   

Movie Review ~ The Night House

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Reeling from the unexpected death of her husband, a widow is left alone in the lakeside home he built for her and begins to uncover his disturbing secrets.

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  When it came time to review The Night House, I did something I rarely, if ever, do.  I watched it again.  We don’t always get this luxury as critics to just fire up a film once more on our own schedule but for this particular film I had it at my disposal and was interested enough after the first watch to give it another look.  This was partly due to my love for all things spooky, set in upstate New York, at/on a lake, and, like the titular dwelling, has more to it than you think at first glance.  And it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise anyway, because it stars Rebecca Hall from The Awakening, one of the best ghost stories of the last decade and it’s directed by David Bruckner who took audiences to The Ritual, a creepy forest-set nightmare that viewers continue to discover on Netflix.

We meet the house before we meet Beth.  It’s a modern designed feast for the eyes, not overly flashy but not exactly modest either.  Hand built and designed by her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, Together Together) and overlooking a serene lake, it was meant to be their dream home…and was until he committed suicide shortly before the film begins.  A teacher, Beth (Hall, Holmes & Watson) is adjusting to her new normal, but not easily.  It doesn’t help that she is awoken at night by strange noises and has picked up Owen’s old habit for sleepwalking, either.  Her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) is encouraging and tries to be hands-off in Beth’s healing process but isn’t above saying the wrong thing by mistake and feeling guilty about it after. 

Muddy footprints leading from a moored boat on their dock to the house are the first physical sign to Beth that something supernatural may be visiting her and the previous hardcore skeptic begins to doubt herself the more the signs point to a realized presence.  A chance glance through Owen’s phone lands on a picture of herself that she doesn’t recognize…because it’s not her.  This discovery opens Beth up to finding out more about Owen, and herself, than she could have ever imagined…increasing the intensity of the night terrors she is encountering and ramping up the danger closing in on her.

This is a well-constructed film built from solid material and I think the second watch of mine only confirmed that.  While getting nitpicky could have you asking where Beth’s relatives or extended family are during this significant life crisis or if she has any other friends that would be stopping by aside from Claire, the intimacy of the small cast make the action that happens within the running time that much more tense.  “Everyone’s got secrets.” says Claire to Beth after she shows her the picture of the woman (Stacy Martin, Archive) on Owen’s phone and often during the film you aren’t sure who is holding something back…making it hard to trust anyone.

The entirety of The Night House hinges on Hall’s ability to carry a woman already teetering on the brink of darkness through this trial of faith in her lost loved one.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hall’s rounded performance is spot-on and, while often making the less-obvious choice, is consistently giving some kind of energy back out into the space she inhabits.  The same goes for Goldberg who takes the best friend role to a more complex place than I’ve ever seen it.  We’ve all been in a place where we struggle to express our true feelings to a friend and often that wears on us, coming out in strange ways.  Goldberg harnesses this range so believably and with such naturalism that I think I would have been as interested in a movie just about the two women taking a road trip together. Completing a triumvirate of strong female performances is Martin’s skittish other woman. I’m not all together sure that Martin is destined for lasting greatness in this biz but she’s wonderfully cast her, especially against Hall’s disbelieving wife with shell-shocked eyes.  

What makes The Night House so ultimately rewarding is the resolution and what kind of message its sending, but to go into those details I’d have to drop a spoiler or two, so we’ll hold back for now.  Just know that while the finale starts to descend into your typical scare fest (and the movie is often quite scary throughout), the true meaning of it all is contained in a picture that’s far bigger than you think.  When it’s revealed, for once it isn’t a letdown but a surprisingly touching bit of harmony between mind and spirit – and how often does that occur in genre films such as this?

Movie Review ~ Archive


The Facts
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Synopsis: Two and a half years into a three-year research contract, George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough working on a model of a true human-equivalent android. His prototype is almost complete. But this most sensitive phase of his work is also the riskiest.

Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones

Director: Gavin Rothery

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Remember how we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover?  The saying that just because something looks a certain way at first glance it may hold something completely different if you dig deeper?  How we’re supposed to look inside for what makes it special?  All that applies to movies as well.  Used to be that it was just the poster/video box that you could loan that tried and trusty saying to, then it applied to previews when an early trailer would give the impression a movie looked particularly bad, and now it’s graduated to those thumbnails we see when scrolling through streaming content.  These quick glimpses have to catch the eye of a potential viewer and entice them not just to explore more, but to commit the time to see what’s inside.

Your first impression of Archive (as was mine) could be that it looks an awful lot like 2014’s Ex Machina, the Oscar-winning sci-fi flick that gave Alicia Vikander an extra boost of star-power.  It wouldn’t be totally off-base to say the two films share some small similarities.  Both deal with chilly inventors creating lifelike robots that just happen to look like beautiful models.  That’s where the similarities end, though, because Archive has less of the slick thriller elements that made up the bulk of Ex Machina’s final act and more of its heady dive into the wonders and dangers of advancements in artificial intelligence.

Taking place in a future not so far removed from our current time, scientist George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is working at a decommissioned science lab in the mountains of Japan to develop the next generation of robotics.  After three years living in near solitary confinement with no one but his earlier less refined models to keep him company, he’s come to a critical phase of his research that must be handled delicately. His boss (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man) wants faster results but George is holding back giving her the full details for personal reasons that will become clearer as writer/director Gavin Rothery’s sparse but impactful plot develops.

By the time J3 (Stacy Martin, All the Money in the World) comes online, George is already at odds with the J2 model that begins to exhibit signs of jealously toward the upgraded machine replacing her as well as the man that created them both.  The more attention George pays to J3, the more willful J2 becomes which leads the film in unexpected directions finding strangely effective emotions along the way.  Throughout, we piece together the life George led before he arrived at the testing site, the pain he has been carrying for years, and how he intends to use boundary pushing technology to make his family whole again.

It should come as no surprise that Rothery was in the art department as a conceptual designer for 2009’s Moon, a moody mostly one-man show that had similar themes of solitude as a substitute for grief.  He’s made his film in familiar territory and for a first time director I think that’s a wise decision.  Sticking with what he’s comfortable with allows him to ease up on overthinking the plot and overdesigning the laboratory.  Not that the visuals and special effects aren’t handsomely rendered and the story doesn’t have some heft to it – it’s that they don’t feel so overbaked with the earnestness of a novice filmmaker.

I haven’t had the chance to take much note of James up until this point but he turns in a level performance as a man looking to science to help him through an emotional journey.  He’s equally good working with straight-up humans (Toby Jones, The Snowman, shows up in a typically wormy cameo) as he is sharing the screen with different robotic co-stars.  Tasked with the hardest job is likely Martin who has to sell quite a lot of looks to the audience throughout, starting with a full body robotic suit that viewed close up exposes the budget limitations the film was working with.  Yet Martin achieves high marks for keeping us engaged and convinced that she’s a well-oiled machine.

A rare film that maintains it’s energy and suspense until the very end, Archive is one of those films you’d stumble over by accident and then recommend to your friends as a nice surprise.  It’s not going to make a huge mark like Ex Machina did because aside from its achievements in finding root emotions in unlikely places, it doesn’t have anything that stands out and above the rest.  What it does have going for it is a consistency of tone and more emotional weight explored than many of its genre sisters and brothers.