RADIOACTIVE (2020)

July 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There can never be enough movies made or books written about remarkable people with incredible accomplishments. Marie Curie was certainly a remarkable woman and her accomplishments were such scientific break-throughs that we are still using them today. Director Marjane Satrapi’s (Oscar nominated for PERSEPOLIS, 2007) film is based on the 2010 book “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss, and the screenplay was adapted by Jack Thorne (THE AERONAUTS, 2019).

The film opens in 1934 Paris, and we see an enfeebled Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapse and get rushed to hospital – a sequence used by director Satrapi as a framing device. The film quickly flashes back to 1893 when a headstrong and brilliant twenty-something Marie Salomea Sklodowska gets kicked out of her laboratory for being … well … a bit too headstrong for the times. Soon she meets an equally headstrong and also brilliant scientist named Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Pierre recognizes the potential if they combine forces, while Marie initially demands her independence, having never found another scientist worthy of the efforts required for collaboration.

The initial flirtations between brainy scientists is as clumsy and awkward as one might expect. In general, the film struggles with how to best address Curie’s personal life with her professional life and the challenges she faced as a brilliant woman in an era when male scientists didn’t much appreciate a woman scientist telling them they have “misunderstood the atom”, as she and her husband announce the discovery of not one, but two new elements: radium and polonium. Romance and science and equality are a lot for one film to tackle, and this one flounders a bit.

As the film and science progress, director Satrapi intersperses flash-forward vignettes to show how Curie’s discovery of radioactivity is used in the future for both good and not so good. These dropped-in segments include cancer treatment for a little boy in 1957, the Enola Gay bombing Hiroshima in 1945, the Atomic Bomb test in 1961 Nevada, and of course, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The segments aren’t always a smooth transition from Curie’s story, but they make the point of how scientists don’t always have control over how their discoveries are applied. There is even a scene where Pierre shows Marie some comical uses entrepreneurs found of trying to capitalize on their discovery, and how their work might factor in to everyday life.

As a biography or profile of Marie Curie’s life and accomplishments, the film hits the high notes, though we do wish it dug a bit deeper. The gender prejudices of the times are somewhat underplayed, and even Marie herself claims lack of funds and the fact that she wasn’t a natural born Parisian held her back more than the roadblocks she faced as a female scientist. It would seem reasonable that those issues were likely tied together and should not be separated. She lashes out at Pierre regarding the Nobel committee initially keeping her name off the submission, but of course this anger is misplaced, as Pierre demanded she be included.

The historical aspect of her winning two Nobel Prizes is not treated as the astonishing accomplishment it is, but time is spent on a personal scandal that occurred after Pierre’s death. We do see Marie sleeping with a sample of her radioactive uranium, and watch her slow physical deterioration, including an incessant cough and damaged skin. Late in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy plays her daughter Irene, and we see the two of them head onto the battlefield to provide mobile x-ray devices for injured soldiers. The Curie family tree is filled with renowned scientists (Irene and her husband Frederick jointly won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for artificial radioactivity), and some of these discoveries literally changed the world – including cancer treatments. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect any movie to capture the historical importance of Marie Curie, but we are somehow left feeling she deserved better.

Premieres July 24, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video

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EMMA. (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Choosing Jane Austen’s beloved 1815 novel for one’s feature film directorial debut is an ambitious decision, and one for which photographer Autumn de Wilde proves she is up to the challenge. Ms. de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton may have added a period to the title to distinguish this version from the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, or perhaps it was a personal stamp proclaiming this to be the definitive version. Regardless, coming on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s superb LITTLE WOMEN, both films blend a timeless literary classic with contemporary talent and attitude. Additionally, viewers may note some tonal similarities to this and the 2018 hit THE FAVOURITE (for which Oliva Colman won an Oscar).

It’s one of the finest crafted and most famous opening lines in the history of literature: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The decision to cast mega-talented rising star Anya Taylor-Joy (THOROUGHBREDS, THE WITCH) as Emma provides a level of deliciously wicked entertainment that we can only hope Ms. Austen envisioned. Emma is spoiled and not really very likable, and though she sees herself as an all-knowing matchmaker, her family wealth and social status do little to override the quite common level of immaturity and faux-wisdom associated with her age.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, you may experience a slow build-up to connection with the characters … of which there are many who appear early on and with little introduction. Emma lives in her “comfortable” home Hartfield with her father (an offbeat and slyly comical Bill Nighy). Days are spent visiting and being visited by a community of folks who seem to have little to worry about in life other than who might marry whom. When young Harriet Smith (a terrific Mia Goth, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, 2017) comes to live with Emma, Harriet’s naivety causes her to easily fall under Emma’s matchmaking spell – resulting in some awkward moments and regretful decisions.

Interesting characters are everywhere we turn. Mr. Elton (an energetic and riotous Josh O’Connor) is the local vicar who is both amusing (“Inn-O-cence”) and a bit difficult to read, as Emma misinterprets his intentions causing one of the more startling developments. Frank Churchill (a stout and smirking Callum Turner) is initially one of the community’s more mysterious characters, and his looks and future holdings make him a desirable catch. Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) carries on a nuanced rivalry with Emma, and brings a new dynamic when she visits her chatty and ‘’try-so-hard” aunt, Miss Bates (a marvelous turn from Miranda Hart). As viewers we find Miss Bates to be at least as entertaining as Emma herself. Later in the film, Mr. Elton takes a bride (Tanya Reynolds), and her character provides a welcome and unsettling spark at just the right time.

Of course, it’s Mr. Knightley (played by musician Johnny Flynn, BEAST, 2017) who provides the moral backbone of the story. He seems to be the only one (other than her father) who recognizes the shred of goodness buried within Emma. Mr. Flynn gives a soulful performance, and is responsible for the single most touching scene in the film – a simple gesture of asking for a dance. Beyond that, his verbal sparring with Emma is usually morality based, or at straddling the line between politeness and rudeness. Ms. Taylor-Joy and Mr. Flynn and Ms. Hart are stand-outs in a superb cast that delivers the goods in each and every scene.

What makes the Austen novel, and the film, so captivating are the issues of romance, marriage, age, and social status woven into each moment – each dramatic turn laced with comedic undertones. Subtext abounds in every conversation and interaction, and words spoken do not always carry the same message as body language or a glance. To top things off, the film is beautiful to look at. The dreary lighting often associated with period pieces is non-existent, and the costumes and set design are extraordinary. The score from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer is a perfect fit, and allows us to recall that for the 1996 EMMA, composer Rachel Portman won the Oscar … the last female to win until this year when Hildur Guonadottir won for JOKER. It should also be noted that the 1995 film CLUELESS with Alicia Silverstone was a modern-day take on the Austen novel, and regardless of the format (or whether there is a period in the title), Emma continues to be “handsome, clever, and rich.”

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GLASS (2019)

January 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s pretty simple. If you are a fan of UNBREAKABLE (2000) and SPLIT (2016), then you need to see this finale to M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy. If neither of the two previous films tickled your creep fancy, then you’ll likely find nothing of interest here. The biggest fear is that fans of the first two (like me) will be disappointed and frustrated (like me) by the missed opportunity. Rather than real world super abilities clashing, we get what is mostly a silly letdown.

The set-up is outstanding. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) have teamed up for years in tracking down lowlife societal scumbags and teaching them a lesson. Mostly avoiding cameras (more difficult now than when he first realized his power), Dunn now has a nickname, The Overseer, and still dons his green poncho – though it’s now equipped with a headset for communication with Joseph.

The Dunn men have been tracking Kevin Wendell Crumb (with a Beetlejuice twist), who has kidnapped more teenage girls and is holding them hostage. James McAvoy returns as Kevin, and his 23 other personalities (referred to as The Horde), and early in the movie we get our first Dunn vs. The Beast battle. Unfortunately, it’s brief and ends in their capture and being locked away in an institution. And this is where the fun comes screeching to a halt.

It’s at the institution where we discover Elijah Wood/Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson) is also being held, and Dr Elle Staple (Sarah Paulson) is the psychologist specializing in treating those who believe they possess super human traits, be they good or evil. This misdirected plot line is our first real frustration, as we have already seen the super strength of Dunn, the massive transformation of The Beast, and the villainous mastermind of Elijah. By definition there is no suspense when we know the answer. Because of this, the entire treatment segment drags on far too long, and features entirely too much of Ms. Paulson, and too little of those we came to see.

Also reprising their previous roles are Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the only surviving former captive of Kevin, and Charlayne Woodward as Elijah’s mother. Ms. Woodward is given little to do, and Ms. Taylor-Joy’s strong acting almost saves her from the ludicrous script … a development we intellectually understand, but emotionally refuse to accept. In fact, the script is to blame for most of our frustration here. McAvoy is again tremendous in his ability to convey multiple personalities, and Jackson, once he is no longer catatonic (never a good use of a dynamic actor), relishes his return to evil. There is an interesting use of color for the three main characters: Dunn – green, Kevin – yellow, and Elijah – purple, and the cinematography of Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS) contributes some unusual angles and views.

Disney and Universal are to be commended for a rare rival studio collaboration, and M Night Shyamalan certainly deserves credit for being on the front end (with UNBREAKABLE) of the serious, dark, atmospheric superhero movie perfected by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but this film is nothing to be proud of. The film’s twist is easily predictable (and dragged out), and some parts are disappointing while some are an insult to our intelligence … and downright silly (the ending). Still, there is a certain value to closure, even if it’s a letdown.

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THOROUGHBREDS (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Each year provides us with (at least) a few hidden gems sprinkled amongst the superheroes and newfangled special effects displays, and although this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley is only now hitting theatres, it seems safe to say it likely won’t draw the size audience it deserves. If you enjoy dark, twisted, and devilishly clever films, you owe it to yourself to track down this one.

Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARLY AND THE DYING GIRL) stars as Amanda, someone who walks a miniscule line between neurotic and psychopath. The startling and quite ominous opening features Amanda, a horse, and a large knife. Next, and some time later, we see Amanda re-connecting with her childhood friend and boarding school brainiac Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, SPLIT and THE WITCH) in what appears to be a tutoring session being held in the palatial estate where Lily lives with her mother and “evil” stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks).

What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road of us attempting to fit either or both of these characters into some “normal” category of human behavior. Instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. A plot to murder the stepdad is developed, and caught in the wicked web is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a dreamer and schemer who quickly realizes the trouble these two bring. This was one of the last roles Yelchin filmed before his tragic death. His brief time on screen here reminds us of his immense talent.

An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges. As Amanda explains she’s “not a bad person”, the line makes us chuckle, while also making us realize she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy.

Suburban Connecticut and its corresponding privileged life has rarely generated more queasy feelings, and with our hope for humanity in the balance, we watch Amanda and Lily bounce from plotting to problem solving and from conspiring to collaborating. The absence of empathy goes beyond disconcerting and into a feeling of resolved fear. The lack of emotions and empathy can be more frightening than vampires or fictional monsters.

Cinematographer Lyle Vincent does nice work displaying this world, and he will always deserve a mention after his sterling work on 2014’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. The dark, twisted work is well accompanied by the abrupt and jarring music, and filmmaker Finley deserves recognition for crafting this creepy corner of a universe none of us want to join. His film is in the vein of something Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) might deliver, and that’s quite high praise for oddity … in fact, Odin Impetus Lowe even gets a screen credit, and he’s the opening scene horse!


SPLIT (2017)

January 28, 2017

split Greetings again from the darkness. As a filmmaker, the public’s expectations become a burden rather than a blessing once you write and director back-to-back movies like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). M Night Shyamalan has never been able to replicate the box office or critical success that he enjoyed with those two films … but, oh how he has tried. It’s this latest that finally makes us believe he is at least having fun again.

James McAvoy plays Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and … well … he plays a guy with 23 distinct personalities. As you might imagine, some of these personalities are nicer than others, while some are stronger in their fight for the spotlight. As Dennis, a button-upped neat freak, he captures 3 teenage girls and holds them captive. At first, the purpose is a bit murky, but the delay does allow the girls to meet some of the personalities.

The girls are Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from The Bronze), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Claire and Marcia are the popular girls who react with typical teenage emotions, while Casey pushes for patience and observation. It’s Casey who may be the film’s most interesting character as childhood flashbacks occur that are first thought to explain her survival skills, but soon enough disclose a darker, more unfortunate past. The younger Casey is coolly played by newcomer Izzie Coffey, and holds her own with Sebastian Arcelus (her dad) and Brad William Henke (her Uncle John).

The always terrific Betty Buckley is outstanding as Dr Fletcher, the psychologist treating McAvoy’s character(s). Ms. Buckley adds class and a connection to the real world that gives us hope for the future of the girls being held. McAvoy really seems to be enjoying the acting challenge and shape-shifting that accompanies this mental disorder, and he will likely creep you out a few times. Cinematographer Mike Gioukakis was a key to the look and mood of It Follows, and his camera work here is superb in mostly confined areas. Sure, the whole thing is preposterous, but it’s fun and wicked … and with this director, you can expect a surprise or twist – even after all these years.

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THE WITCH (2016)

February 18, 2016

the witch Greetings again from the darkness. If your own nightmares have become less frequent, and you find yourself able to sleep peacefully through the night, writer/director Robert Eggers’ first feature film will likely fix that. Based in 1630 New England … a full 60 years prior to the Salem witch trials … much of the story and dialogue is based on actual historical documents corresponding to the fears of that era. It would be a mistake to head into this one thinking it’s going to having you covering your eyes or springing from your seat … it’s better described as unsettling and disquieting.

Religious fanaticism plays a key role here, and is actually behind a Puritan family being exiled from the community. They set up a home and farm on the edge of an ominous, heavily-wooded forest … and things start to go wrong. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are stern and stoic parental units to coming-of-age teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two spoiled and annoying twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and a new born named Samuel.

This is a slow-burn psychological horror film and it never relies on cheap jump-scares. Instead the eerie atmosphere, lurking Satanic evil, and unraveling of the family as they search for answers, all combine for a level of creep that’s not often seen on screen. Adding to our pre-conceived notion that things rarely end well for closed-mind religious zealots is the unsettling use of Old World English … it takes some time to adjust your ears.

Most of director Eggers’ background is in short films with an emphasis on Production Design and Costume Design. It’s interesting to note the gradual decline of lighting as the movie progresses … most notably on the opening and closing shots of daughter Thomasin, who faces the most backlash as a suspected (by her family) witch.

This was a time when people prayed for food and for God to have mercy … and to explain the unexplainable. No amount of praying can make sense of the titular witch (Bathsheba Garnett), or the family’s goat Black Phillip (voiced by Wahab Chaudhry), or an evil bunny that would make Monty Python proud. The dingo taking their baby might actually be a preferred explanation.

Eggers won the Sundance Award for a Director in Drama, and the film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Mark Korven’s score is unique and the perfect complement to the onscreen happenings of this poor family. The film stays true to the time period, which of itself, feels like a parallel universe unfamiliar to most of us these days. Young actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are real finds, and director Eggers will have a built-in and well-deserved audience for his next outing.

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