Month in Review: November ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

the cast of Thanksgiving Day 2018

With Thanksgiving behind us, let us also hope the cinematic turkeys are too. As we head down the final stretch of 2018, I plan to resume a steadier pace — no promises, but that is the goal. That shouldn’t be too much to ask given the slate of films that sprawls out in front of us. Here’s a brief rundown of what I am most feverishly anticipating, loosely organized based upon what it is that draws me to them.

Director(s)

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster); If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, Moonlight); Climax (shield your eyes, kiddies — it’s the new film from the polarizing Argentine Gaspar Noé)

Cast(s)/Character(s)

The Beach Bum (Matthew McConaughey as “Moondog” — watch out 2019, ‘Moondog McConaughey’ is totally gonna be a thing); Vice (Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as Dubya, and Steve Carell as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — that is just ridiculous casting, all of it!); Serenity (Matthew McConaugh — hey, I see a pattern emerging, plus Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane)

Story

Welcome to Marwen (from the director of Forrest Gump, starring Steve Carell) — Mark Hogancamp, a victim of an attack so brutal he loses most of his memories of his life before, constructs a miniature World War II village, called Marwen, in his yard to help in his recovery; Vox Lux (read Cinema Axis’ early review here) — An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star; Mary Queen of Scots — pits the mighty Saoirse Ronan against the equally powerful Margot Robbie, as Mary Stuart (Ronan)’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I (Robbie), Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

That’s 10 titles, a list to which I could add twice as many but I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, I think the next coming weeks are going to be very exciting. With that established, here is what has been going on on Thomas J this past month.


New Posts

New Releases: Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Widows; The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Other: Avery


Around the Blogosphere 

Maybe old news now, but whatever happened to the remade Suspiria? There was serious buzz about it in the months leading up to it, and then that just . . . fizzled out. The film never entered my area. The few reviews I did read were rather negative. Here’s CC Pop Culture’s take on this (apparently unwanted) retread.

Jordan of the one and only Epileptic Moondancer has an interesting review of a new Robert Redford flick that I truly wanted to see, but missed out on. Check out this hot take on The Old Man and the Gun. Shots fired! 😉

In my lamenting-of-bad-weather post (Avery), I said I was going to throw up a review of Nic Cage in the insane revenge thriller Mandy. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. To tide you over, here’s what The Ghost of 82 had to say about it. (This is a thoughtful review that only makes me more annoyed I haven’t gotten around to it yet.)


What films are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks/months?

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA


New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween? 

First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Unsane

Release: Friday, March 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan Bernstein; James Greer

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is to date the most recognizable filmmaker to have publicly touted the virtues of making movies using your own smartphone. We aren’t talking Instagram videos of course, but full-length feature films. In this case, a gritty horror film about a young woman who can’t get away from her stalker. The director behind popular, lavish productions like Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic has now come to embrace the increasingly popular backpack-style approach to filmmaking as a means of avoiding unwanted financial headaches and focusing upon that which matters most — the actual making of the film.

Unsane was filmed entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Unfortunately the final product ends up being an indictment on that particular choice of tech. Much like our possibly mentally unstable protagonist, the film simply does not look well. The color scheme is pallid, almost sick-making in light-starved environments and the claustrophobic spaces into which we are forced do nothing but bring attention to the inferiority of smartphone cameras. I’m no expert on photography or cinematography, but as I understand it the iPhone does not give the user the option to adjust aperture (the hole in a camera lens that determines how much light will be let in) and Unsane‘s ugly aesthetic attests to these limitations. The story itself is not all that engrossing, but the entire enterprise suffers on a technical level to the point where the low overhead becomes very difficult to ignore, much less defend.

Unlike Sean Baker, who found great success in his 2015 street drama Tangerine, interestingly among the first few feature films to dabble in Apple, Soderbergh’s implementation tends to draw attention to style and like the worst of found-footage (which this film mercifully isn’t), ends up more as a gimmick than the product of creative budgeting. That’s an issue made more apparent by the fact that Unsane doesn’t move us the way it should, particularly in post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood. The performances are strong, especially that of star Claire Foy, but Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay doesn’t develop into much more than a fairly standard psychological horror in which the viewer’s perception of reality is constantly being challenged. Only, it isn’t constant. In Unsane, we are only for a brief moment unsure whether to trust the ‘hero’ or the needle-wielding orderlies against which she constantly rebels.

The British actress plays a driven businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini. The promise of a new, less complicated life awaits her in a new city, some 400 miles away from her hometown, her mother (Amy Irving) and her ridiculously maladjusted man-child of an ex, one David Strine (Joshua Leonard). But when one of her first attempts to truly move on turns south thanks to unwanted and repressed memories rising up at a most inopportune moment, Sawyer finds herself turning to a local mental health facility for answers. During the course of a promising discussion with one of the experts, Sawyer confesses she has contemplated suicide in her past. The next moment she is being admitted as a patient, apparently against her will. Her privileges and personal items are quickly forfeited at the door to some decidedly unsympathetic staff.

Unsane starts strong, but the disorienting effect created by a series of personal invasions quickly disintegrates like a pill in water. Chalk that up to how impatient Soderbergh is in steering the film to its bloody and predictable conclusion. The best part of the film is simply getting settled in at this really creepy, depressing joint. A 24-hour watch becomes a weeklong stint as Sawyer’s aggressive self-defense mechanisms are used against her as proof of her instability. In that time she meets a few of the patients, many of them wretches, like Juno Temple’s Violet. But then there is also Nate (Jay Pharaoh), who appears to be the only person willing to listen. More importantly, she also begins experiencing what may or may not be hallucinations of her ex, which sends her into more apoplectic fits that in turn send her into solitary confinement.

Sawyer’s descent is undoubtedly disturbing, even difficult to watch at times for reasons beyond the fact it is literally difficult to see what’s going on. The film touches on certain disconcerting realities of the social media age in that invisibility and anonymity are precious commodities, especially when you are the target of a stalker. (And not to keep pouring it on, but I really wish this dynamic wasn’t introduced by a needlessly distracting cameo.) Foy is a force to be reckoned with in her character’s darkest moments — and I hope this is what we are witnessing; I don’t know how it gets any darker than what goes down in the rubber room. And the fact she isn’t an entirely sympathetic individual gives Unsane more of an edge. There is such a lack of comfort everywhere you turn.

Indeed, those anticipating a Soderbergian take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Shutter Island would be better off re-watching those films and just imagining what they would be like with someone else at the helm. In fact they would be even better served going back to Side Effects, a film that spun a similar tale of corrupt institutions in cahoots with special interest groups — another in which we couldn’t ever be sure who was telling the truth. That film may have been convoluted and ultimately confusing, but given that both films deal in issues of mental health and the real-life nightmares pharmaceutical companies often induce, Unsane gives us the ability to compare. And it is the weaker film, even ignoring Soderbergh’s attempt to thematically merge grainy footage with his character’s fraying mentality.

And in case you want to know, I have a Samsung Galaxy S7. And I love the way it makes me feel like a pro when I take pictures.

Recommendation: Familiar B-horror filtered through a rather off-putting visual aesthetic makes for an iffy recommendation. If you support everything Steven Soderbergh has ever done there is a great chance you’ll like this more than me. I’m not subscribed to the thought he is a particularly original filmmaker, and that may have hurt me here. With all my issues with the way the film appears, it is still impressive what these guys are able to do in 10 days with a phone on what basically amounts to a selfie stick. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com