The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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

Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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; www.chicago.suntimes.com

Malignant

Release: Friday, September 10, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Ingrid Bisu; Akela Cooper; James Wan

Directed by: James Wan

Starring: Annabelle Wallis; Maddie Hasson; George Young; Michole Briana White; Jake Abel

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Horror maestro James Wan returns to his stomping grounds with Malignant, an unabashedly strange film with a concept stretched like Playdoh to imaginatively icky extremes. Though featuring the gritty detective subplot of Saw, the creaky house tropes of The Conjuring and the mental trauma aspects of Insidious, the Australian has put together a delirious reel that feels different from the rest of his filmography (and more than a little David Cronenberg) with its spectacle of body horror.

The original story, a collaboration between Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu and one-time American Horror Story writer Akela Cooper, opens with a creepy, adrenaline-pumping prologue at a Seattle medical facility before seemingly ditching it for the present day. Madison (Annabelle Wallis — Annabelle; Silent Night) lives in the suburbs with husband Derek (Jake Abel). They’re trying to have a child but Madison is struggling with the pregnancy. It takes no time to learn Derek is not a good support system. Returning home early from work after not feeling well, her concerns are met with resentment and eventually violence, leading to Madison experiencing a series of troubling dreams that turn out to be anything but dreams; they’re visions of murders happening in real time, one even involving her husband.

After surviving an attack from what she believes killed Derek she awakens in a hospital to even worse news. Wallis does not miss the opportunity to sell a mother’s anguish. Yet Wan and company have much more suffering on their minds as they put their fully committed lead through the wringer, scaling up her torment and ratcheting up the tension in steady increments. Braving a return to the same lonely house despite the gestures of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and insisting it’s “the one thing that won’t be taken” from her, she continues to experience harrowing scenes of people — those in the medical field, it seems — being hacked to death in their own homes. And rather than sweaty sheets she’s constantly “waking up” in a dried pool of blood on her pillow.

Meanwhile the authorities are rubbing their eyes red trying to make sense of the attack, which has been labeled a home invasion. The problem is the lack of evidence of breaking and entering, and weirder things like fingerprints with impossible orientations. Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) may not quite appreciate what they have signed up for as digging into Madison’s apparently troubled family history brings about more questions than closure.

As they search for links between the victims and Madison circumstances only become more bizarre, each twist of the directorial knife getting more personal and . . . well, more twisted. That applies on an aesthetic level as well, the filmmakers deploying a number of creative camera stunts to pull us not so much into a world but a head space that’s never less than uncomfortable. Joseph Bishara’s shrieking score amplifies the mood. Transformative VFX early on not only communicate this uniquely cinematic sensation of being “there” with Madison, the motif helps prepare us for the full-on assault of insanity Wan commits to in the final stretches.

Marking a return to horror for Wan who has spent the last several years making big budget, commercial movies, Malignant proves he is not afraid of a little experimentation. It is also proof of the amount of goodwill he has built up in Hollywood. Original stories aren’t sexy anymore. Studios and ticket buyers have an increasing lack of adventurousness in common. It is difficult to part with your hard-earned cash on an unknown entity, even one helmed by an established director, when Marvel hardly needs the word-of-mouth to convince you Loki will be fun. Warner Bros. have gambled on Wan’s concept, itself a gamble on a modern audience’s willingness to go with the flow and to become absorbed in a singular experience.

Malignant is certainly an experience, one with a knack for tattooing its bizarre imagery into the back of your brain. Though the denouement leaves something to be desired, Wan unable to tame the beast as effectively as he builds it up, the majority of the film offers a unique challenge to viewers. This is a movie that you don’t watch so much as let happen to you. Like a freakish corporeal spasm the whole thing feels a little bit out of (your) control in the way a good horror should, twisting and reconfiguring into a pretty unpredictable beast. Those looking for something that feels grounded in reality, the door is right over there. 

“Who’s this joker?”

Moral of the Story: The most divisive horror movie I can recall in some time, Malignant goes for broke and very nearly breaks. Or for some viewers, it might be broken fairly early on. Either way, and despite my three-star rating (which I feel is strong, but not quite a rave) I would describe James Wan’s “new vision of terror” as a must-see. It’s in theaters and on HBO Max. For something so visually intense I’d highly recommend the theater setting. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s time to cut out the cancer.”

Get a taste of the absurdity in the Official Trailer #2 here! 

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

A Quiet Place Part II

Release: Friday, May 28, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: John Krasinski 

Directed by: John Krasinski

Starring: Emily Blunt; Millicent Simmonds; Noah Jupe; Cillian Murphy

 

 

 

 

****/*****

Speech is silver, silence is golden.

The old proverb has turned into a post-apocalyptic motivational poster in the brave new world John Krasinski has created with A Quiet Place, one in which survivors of an alien attack must mute their every move, their every syllable to avoid being gobbled up by these terrifyingly sound-sensitive invaders. When characters do communicate words and gestures carry weight. Sorry to the aliens, but it is the human factor — fear of failure, coping with loss — that is bringing audiences back for a second helping. The question is, was the prolonged wait worth it?

Short answer: an enthusiastic (but whispered) ‘Yes.’ The secret sauce may not have the same kick twice, for now we’re expecting unbearable silence, but Krasinski has great insurance against damages done by the element of predictability: He’s got strong characters (now handled by Part 1 scribes Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and the caliber actors to take those creations to an even higher place. Big Tuna’s genius stroke, though, is in shifting the perspective to the kids, turning Part 2 into a legacy film wherein the younger actors have much more agency and influence over events. If the original was an allegory for parental fears of failing your kids, Part 2 swings the other way — Regan’s fear of not measuring up to Dad coming through in her damn-the-torpedoes attitude as she increasingly takes matters into her own hands.

More or less picking up right from where we left off in 2018, barring a prologue that gives us the origins of the creatures in chaotic fashion, A Quiet Place Part 2 wastes no time in justifying the big-screen treatment while along the way introducing some new faces and new albeit not surprising threats. Krasinski, who returns as sole screenwriter this time (and for a brief cameo in the film), sacrifices the intimacy of Part 1‘s more insular location for a larger playing board loaded with even more hazards, some of which truly catch you off-guard, while others might have you cringe for the wrong reason.

Jump ahead 474 days and the Abbotts, the world’s most resourceful family, are now on the run, bereft of Dad and the relative safety of their farmhouse. They are down but far from out. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt — Edge of Tomorrow; Looper), with her surviving children Regan (Millicent Simmonds — A Quiet Place; Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe — Honey Boy; Wonder) and newborn in tow, is hoping, perhaps against hope, for someone out there to be kind enough to let them in.

They eventually come across a grizzled man hanging out in a dilapidated factory. It turns out to be an old friend from back in the day, Lee’s buddy Emmett (Cillian Murphy — Peaky Blinders; Batman Begins), now uncannily sporting a face covering and a shell of his former self having failed to protect his own family. Understandably he’s reticent to allow anyone else in to his safe space. Of course, uh, he does (otherwise this is going to be A Very Short-lived Quiet Place). It’s not long before the kids are getting restless and Regan, by way of Marcus, discovers there may well be other people worth saving out there. Maybe, upon uniting with them, both factions can help each other. Marcus, however, is not as willing to embark on a suicidal Stand By Me-esque venture into the unknown. And Emmett has made it clear there is nothing out there left to save.

A very likable cast goes a long way in offsetting some of the movie’s shortcomings. For example, it helps to have Murphy and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel; Blood Diamond) fulfill archetypes. While the latter is almost comically incidental to the plot, discarded in a third-act sequence that feels rushed at best, he at least brings a quality of calm to a movie where quietude usually does not translate to peacefulness. As a flesh-and-blood character Murphy fares better. His presence, which evolves from estranged, put-upon uncle to supportive father-figure, becomes integral to the sequel’s themes of perseverance and learning how to move on, especially when he begrudgingly agrees to return Regan to Evelyn.

Part 2 is certainly the louder film. That’s not a bad thing. As the narrative opens into a trident of nerve-racking objectives that finds each Abbott uniquely in peril Krasinski blitzes us with moments of pure thrill while never compromising the humanity at the heart of his story. In fact some of the best character work in either film can be found in Part 2, whether it’s Regan showing compassion for a man who clearly is not her father (skilled in nonverbal communication, possessed of the patience required to work through such difficulties in moments of high anxiety), or Marcus battling something more than monsters as he holds down the fort/furnace while Mama Bear goes searching for precious supplies of oxygen.

Superficially Part 2 doesn’t offer a vastly different experience than what we went through in 2018. I’m not sure it is actually a superior movie but consistency counts for a lot here. Thus far we have two films whose structural integrity very much resembles that of the Abbott’s old farmhouse: Plenty of reliable, sturdy support beams in the form of well-worn genre tropes but also a few really neat, custom bits you won’t find anywhere else. It’s those little details, the way Krasinski and company relate the characters to situations, that will make A Quiet Place worth returning to again, hopefully sooner.

Ya did good, son.

Moral of the Story: The rare sequel that truly works on a conceptual as well as emotional level, A Quiet Place Part 2 welcomes audiences back to theaters in exciting, chilling fashion while laying a clear foundation for more to come. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Run!”

Check out the “nerve-shredding” Final Trailer here! 

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.buffalonews.com 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Harpoon

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited) 

→Showtime 

Written by: Rob Grant; Mike Kovac

Directed by: Rob Grant

Harpoon is a horror-comedy set at sea that is bizarrely compelling considering what actually happens in 80 short minutes. It’s a vicious little social experiment concocted by writer/director Rob Grant, who quite brilliantly uses little more than the bare essentials of filmmaking — a couple of good actors, a camera and a smart script — to hook you in to a situation that gets increasingly wild and unpredictable.

As a movie founded upon twenty-somethings dealing with hurt feelings and betrayals Harpoon totally overachieves in the entertainment department. Of course, in this movie backstabbings are refreshingly literal, and I am also skirting around some meta-textual stuff lashed onto the sides — an allusion to a certain Biblical story about a man-eating fish, as well as to some “silly” sailing superstitions.

That’s stuff best left for Brett Gelman to explain though, who serves as our delightfully snarky narrator. He sets up the scene and observes it with a cool detachment and from what turns out to be a safe distance, citing Aristotle as he launches into a foreshadowing spiel about the different types of friendship, their benefits, and which kind best describes the one we are about to witness fall apart spectacularly.

Harpoon begins with a punch — a sucker punch, straight to the chops. This is supposed to be a fun weekend where three best friends, Richard (Christopher Gray), the puncher, Jonah (Munro Chambers), the punchee and Sasha (Emily Tyra), the reason behind the punch, are getting together to celebrate Richard’s birthday. Plans change when Richard badly misreads a text message, assaulting his own best friend and doing something even worse to his parents. To make amends he takes everyone out on his dad’s yacht to celebrate/commiserate. Apparently the mobster life pays handsomely. And also apparently, Richard is just a chip off the old block, prone to violently destructive outbursts.

So obviously it’s not ideal when the least stable person on the open water A) has his suspicions confirmed that his “long-term partner” and his buddy are sleeping together and B) is gifted a friggin’ harpoon for his birthday. Making matters worse, something goes wrong with the boat’s engine, stranding the trio with a breezy afternoon’s worth of critical supplies but plenty of enmity toward one another. As days bleed into each other (and I do emphasize the bleeding), more revelations come to light and everyone’s true nature comes bubbling to the surface.

The screenplay by Rob Grant and Mike Kovac crackles with intensity, especially in the dialogue. Their approach is thin on backstory and yet you never doubt that these people have a history, that what you’re seeing is the weight of that history bearing itself in some savage ways in the present day. The young cast are 100% game for the roles they are to play in this farce that becomes fatal, whether it’s Gray fully embracing his inner loose-cannon frat-boy hothead; Chambers, thrillingly deceptive as a sad sack pushover; or Tyra, switching gracefully and gleefully between peacemaker and manipulator.

Their chemistry is critical because in Harpoon the bad guys outnumber the good guys 3-0. These are not likable people and yet throughout, as events take one ridiculous turn after another, the movie has a knack for getting you to invest — perhaps more like a rubbernecker than an audience member — in what crazy, terrible thing happens next. Despite being shot under the blazing sun, Harpoon starts off as dark comedy and trends darker until it reaches a place of legitimate horror. It’s a whacky indie production perfectly content to fly under the radar or at most be a blip on it in terms of 2019 releases — a genre offering very much defined by its own uniquely crazy energy. I, for one, define my relationship with this movie as purely pleasurable.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but it is worth repeating. To get on this movie’s wavelength it helps to have a weird, possibly morbid sense of humor. For higher budget, more recognizable faces and more action, there’s Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. More in its vein though is E.L. Katz’ supremely entertaining Cheap Thrills, low-budget and all indie and stuff. If your reaction was positive to either or both of those films, you’ve gotta check this one out. 

Rated: NR (but let’s call it R)

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, let’s make a deal. I grovel, and pamper you guys unconditionally, and you just try to remember a time before I went apesh*t.” 

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

The Lighthouse

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Max Eggers; Robert Eggers

Directed by: Robert Eggers

In 2016 Robert Eggers transitioned from production designer to director. Even then it was clear he was a filmmaker with uncommon confidence and intelligence, concocting a truly unsettling period piece in the supernatural horror The Witch. His experiences designing the look and feel of a variety of short films served him well in a feature-length format and he combined his obsessive attention to historical detail with a command over story and performance to produce one of the year’s most discussed and divisive films and one of my favorites.

Very loosely based on a real-life tragedy Eggers’ second feature film The Lighthouse is uncompromisingly strange but also a beautiful synthesis of technical elements, committed performance and mind-bending mystery. It is time we start having conversations about him being among the most distinct directors working today. Harkening to early sound pictures of the late ’20s and early ’30s the movie is shot in stark black-and-white and framed in a near-perfect square (1.19:1) aspect ratio and relies as much on its unique presentation style as it does some wicked narrative sleight of hand.

The story is written by the director and his brother Max. It’s a fairly simple conceit — a tale of possession and/or chronic cabin fever; of lonely men succumbing to their baser instincts before falling apart completely as much darker forces take hold. In playing with increasingly unreliable perspectives the screenplay spins out a web of unexpected complexity, a descent into psychosis that’s evoked by arguably career-best turns from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. They play adversarial lightkeepers running on dwindling supplies of alcohol and sanity when their four-week station on a remote island gets prolonged indefinitely after a bad storm hits.

Set in 1890 The Lighthouse is a period piece that slowly evolves into a fever dream that draws upon Herman Melville with pinches of H.P. Lovecraft. As such, the production is even more reliant upon visual technique and precision-tooled editing than Eggers’ previous throwback to primitive living. The camerawork becomes freakishly kaleidoscopic as time goes on. The visual language is arguably more important than the actual dialogue, which often comes across as prosaic babble delivered in foreign tongues — especially when the characters get epically liquored up.

The deeper we go the more Eggers seduces with his technical prowess, introducing more flash-cuts, more jarring juxtaposition and emphasizing the ornate, brass and wind-instrument-heavy sound design — both ominous and period-accurate — to encourage the vicarious feeling of losing your mind. That damn foghorn! Haunting hallucinations (or are they?) obscure what’s real from what’s imagined: Anatomically correct mermaids (Valeriia Karaman) and tentacled monsters derived from some depraved fantasy serve just as well as the basis of my own personal, ongoing nightmares.

While you could certainly write essays on the specific design of the movie, The Lighthouse owes no small thanks to the thunderous performances. Pattinson’s stock just keeps rising, here playing a young man with lots of buried secrets. Ephraim Winslow is a former lumberjack now learning the “wickie” trade who claims he’s attempting to make a fresh start. He’s sentenced to the most unpleasant, physically taxing duties in the daytime all while contending with some pesky seagulls who just won’t leave him be. Dafoe essays another iconic role in Thomas Wake, a cranky sailor with a penchant for cryptic messaging; an old fart who gets his jollies criticizing the young lad, barking orders and engaging in some weird behavior during his night shifts. He has, for example, an affinity for stripping naked at the top of the lighthouse, enrapt by something the light provides beyond warmth.

Though it is a rather bewildering journey, one that ends in an insanely dark place, the tension — at least, for the moments when Eggers and company might still have been sane — rides on some amusingly relatable dynamics. There’s a passage around the midway point that plays out like Animal House stuck in the 19th Century — aye, pre-plumbing, pre-electricity, pre-a-lot-of-damn-comfort. We all grit teeth at our roommates for their worst habits but because this is a Robert Eggers movie, everything is elevated to extremes.

As the weeks pass, initial tensions give way to a mutual respect for one another’s specific code of conduct. A night of drunken revelry suggests the two may have more in common than they previously thought. When an inevitable act of rage triggers a second storm, a tempest of fear, distrust and contempt to rival the whipping winds and salt-lathered waves threatening to sweep the men to the briny deep, it seems everything is conspiring against their best efforts to coexist. The actors play off each other with such ferocity, Dafoe and Pattinson seemingly intoxicated by one another’s manic energy and feeding off of unique and reportedly exhausting work conditions.

Crucial to Eggers’ brand of storytelling is setting and how he manipulates the natural to turn something entirely unnatural and yet chillingly authentic — not to mention uncomfortable, and not just for us in cushy recliner seats taking in some seriously disturbing imagery and deranged behavior. As The Lighthouse was filmed on location budgetary constraints weren’t really the issue but rather being able to endure what Mother Nature threw at the cast and crew. They not only endured, but used foul weather to further enhance the exhibition of suffering in the space of the movie. Over a month-long shoot a series of nor’easters blasted the small fishing community of Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia. For a particular scene Pattinson had to wade into the freezing sea more than 20 times as cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also shot The Witch) battled with lenses overcome with fog. Reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant the actual misery bleeds into the fabric of the movie itself.

With The Lighthouse Eggers proves that his Puritanical nightmare was no flash in the pan. It also proves the then-33-year-old had room to improve. His sophomore feature is simply spectacular. How early is too early to label someone an auteur? Perhaps two films in to a directorial career is premature. It might be a good idea to hold off on that before seeing what he does with The Northman, a tale of revenge set in the 10th Century, involving Icelandic Vikings. I have to be completely honest though, I’m predisposed to loving what he does next and it’s barely in its pre-production stages. What makes me so excited is how this man clings to his vision like few filmmakers currently working. He creates experiences that are the epitome of what cinema is: getting lost while sitting in one place, stolen to somewhere else that’s both right in front of you and deep in your head.

Welp, honeymoon’s officially over

Recommendation: The movie to beat this year for me, The Lighthouse is an even greater achievement from rising talent Robert Eggers. The cumulative weirdness slowly frays the mind, morphing into something it wants to forget but won’t be able to. It was met with near-universal critical acclaim during the film festival circuit earlier this year, and deserves those plaudits. It’s an experience unlike anything you’ll have this or any other year. However I won’t hesitate to throw in the caveat that this old, creaky seafarer’s yarn is not for the mainstream crowd. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here seeking rational explanation.

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK!”

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 ’19

(Flicks a cockroach off keyboard) God! Leave me alone, Wounds!!!!

October was certainly bloody and gutsy. I made a conscientious effort to increase the posting frequency while keeping the reviews tailored to the genres of horror/psychological thriller/gross-out (is that a genre? It feels like it should be a genre.) It was a risky approach, because while I did find a film or two that were quite fun and things I would return to again, I certainly didn’t find any horror ‘classics’ through the avenues I chose — Hulu and Netflix. I’m tempted to join Vudu, though the fact it’s currently owned by Wal-Mart makes me wanna Shudder (rate that pun in the comments below). However, that might be changing.

There have also been a few additions to the site here, and I’ll draw attention to them below. Without further waffling, here’s what went down on Thomas J for the past month.


New Posts

Streaming: The Perfection; Wounds; Fractured; Little Monsters; In the Tall Grass; In the Shadow of the Moon

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse; Short, Sweet and Screamy: Huluween reviews


New Additions to the Blog

Given that this entire month featured nothing but streamed content, I decided to create a menu/page titled Reviews By Streaming Service. Hopefully this will be a more convenient way for readers to find those sorts of things, all in one place. It’s a work in progress so as of this posting I only have Hulu reviews accounted for. But look out for a LOT of Netflix reviews in there as well. Of course, you can always scroll through my Film Index for all titles.

On a less important note, if you’re ever browsing through the main page you might notice a few new banners have been added into the mix. I currently have 38 rotating banners, the likes of which I’m just going to guess most people haven’t noticed. I realize most of my traffic is here because of specific links, not so much to peruse my Main Page (and if you do — cheers to you!) If you’re curious, there’s at least 8 new ones added this past month, many of them instantly recognizable, big-time movies. Though I did make a conscientious effort to select scenes from them that are perhaps “less recognizable.”

I have also recently joined the Letterboxd community and have provided a link to my page on the right sidebar. Come see what’s going on there, and if you have an account, feel free to add me/let me know what your handle is so I can add you!


It’s not a horror film, but for Halloween this year I sat down with Dolemite is My Name — what a fantastic experience! 

The Perfection

Release: Friday, May 24, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Eric C. Charmelo; Nicole Snyder; Richard Shepard 

Directed by: Richard Shepard

Thanks to Twitter, The Perfection will be remembered more for its gross-out moments rather than what it’s actually about. The notorious Netflix horror/thriller certainly does get messy and intense, but it is more skin-crawling in terms of its thematic content. The outpouring of “I’m physically ill” tweets has you believing it’s a new Tom Six offering (of The Human Centipede infamy), when really this is closer in spirit to Kill Bill — only with cellists, meat cleavers and gorgeous dresses instead of assassins, katanas and yellow-and-black jumpsuits.

So, what is it about? The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard and written by himself, Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, is essentially a revenge tale about two exceptionally gifted musicians who come to terms with what they have had to sacrifice for the perfect performance and embolden themselves to seek justice against those responsible for ruining their lives.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) was once a promising talent; in fact she was the very best cellist the Boston-based Bachoff academy had to offer. She withdrew from the program to take care of her terminally ill mother. After her passing Charlotte reconnects with the academy’s leader Anton (Steven Weber) in Shanghai to help him and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman) select a new student. There she meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a prodigy who apparently “replaced” Charlotte, and two shooting stars collide. A night of passion begets a seemingly genuine friendship, with an insanely hungover Lizzie insisting Charlotte join her on a trip through rural China to clear her head.

(Here’s where Twitter goes berserk.)

The admittedly pretty unpleasant bus ride scene is where the writers really begin playing with the fabric of reality, where we learn something new (and again in seemingly every other scene henceforth) about the central dynamic binding Charlotte to Lizzie, and the two to Anton. Where the tango between admiration and jealousy begins. Where, depending on how critical you are of a moment or two of histrionic performance, you either lose your trust and/or interest in the narrative completely or dig into its sordid twists and turns with fervor. The dueling performances of Williams and Browning are the best things about The Perfection, though they’re not perfect.

Though that might be debatable in a psychological thriller that increasingly becomes about the message. As the hysteria leads to an impressive amount of body parts being sliced and diced Williams and Browning ratchet up the intensity to match the environment. Your sympathies are constantly — and compellingly — reconfigured on one side or the other. The subtext is of course less about the historical significance of music than it is about men controlling, dominating and abusing women, and their subjugation to if not irrelevance then Second Place (it is no coincidence — at least, I hope not — that the movie samples/references Mozart, Bach and Handel as opposed to Kassiani, Mendelssohn or Schumann).

In The Perfection a woman’s gotta go to some pretty gnarly extremes to break free of her literal shackles. This is not a subtle message movie, but given its timeliness perhaps we are well past the point of being subtle. However the stylistic flare is sometimes laid on too thick, particularly with the tape literally being rewound to update you on specific developments. Triumphing over the flaws is the intensity of the protagonists’ rage, specifically born out of the roiling, woke wake of serial sexual harassers Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Larry Nassar (anyone else I’m forgetting feel free to add — and curse as you see fit — in the comments below). For all of its narrative gimmickry and occasionally OTT acting, it would be me lying bald-faced to say the violent comeuppance isn’t perfectly satisfying.

Silence is golden.

Recommendation: So the hysteria surrounding the film itself proves to be, once again, ridiculously overblown. Yeah, it features some gross-out moments in the beginning but more so at the end but I wouldn’t say the aesthetic punishes without purpose. The Perfection is very entertaining, and disgustingly timely. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I made a mistake.”

“Yes, you did.”

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