Cat Fancy

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

by Hope Madden

Did you know that there was a time, at least in England, when cats were not a popular house pet? And it wasn’t really that long ago. How weird is that?

Not weird enough to stand out in the highly unusual and very endearing film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, artist whose drawings of adorably anthropomorphized cats took Victorian England, and then the world, by storm. Will Sharpe’s biopic looks to introduce us to the eccentric, charming, and ultimately tragic world of this friend of the feline.

Sharpe’s film is a swirl of color and energy led onward by the droll musings of narrator Olivia Colman, who gets all the best lines. (“Aside from its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery.”)

As Wain’s life unravels before us, wonderful actors populate the screen: Toby Jones as the publisher who sees great, if unusual, things in Wain; Claire Foy as the governess-turned-wife whose love would bring Wain joy and scandal; Andrea Riseborough, as the eldest sister far better suited to the world of business and awfully frustrated with her unsuitable brother.

At the center of everything is Cumberbatch, more than up to the challenge of creating a lovable outsider, a man so full of something wonderful and so destined to be eaten alive.

Sharpe has trouble with that balance, even if Cumberbatch does not. While Wain’s talent brought joy to many across the world, his gullible nature, wild lack of business savvy and likely mental illness made him an easy mark in a callous world. Sharpe, who co-wrote the script with Simon Stephenson, has a difficult time conveying the madness that would be Wain’s undoing.

He keeps us at arm’s length from Wain, even as Cumberbatch repeatedly invites in. The actor and performance are wonderful, outdone only by an underused Riseborough as the one character even more shackled by the realities of the world.

But Sharpe’s vision is not sharp enough, and he ties up Wain’s frantic and messy life with far too much tidiness, a cinematic shortcut that doesn’t suit the film or the subject. Too much effort goes into wrestling Wain’s madness into a coherent, cinema-friendly plotline and it feels like the artist is being cheated once again.

Fear and Loathing on the Nile

Luxor

by Matt Weiner

Faulkner wrote that the past is never dead… it’s not even past. British aid worker Hana (Andrea Riseborough) is hellbent on putting this to the test in Luxor, a slow burn of a spiritual journey from writer/director Zeina Durra that brings together vibrant Egyptian settings and a remarkable, nuanced performance from Riseborough.

Hana, taking some time off from her medical work on the Jordan-Syrian border, returns to the city of Luxor. It’s a place that holds great meaning and memories for her, even if her PTSD has collapsed much of those memories into an unnerving fog of past and present events and regrets all confronting her at once.

Hana’s stay is further complicated by the appearance of Sultan (Karim Saleh), her ex-lover. Sultan is an archaeologist working on a dig, and it’s an irony that does not escape Hana’s notice that the two are back together in the ancient city to excavate their pasts—and come across a few noteworthy relics.

The collision between old and new is a recurring motif for director Durra, made physical with the temple ruins but even more poignantly through Hana’s fragile mental state. This is where the film’s evocative settings of the past come to life, powered by Riseborough’s urgent reveries that drag her from past to present, and finally force her to come to terms with the trauma she has fled.

Much of the film follows Hana and Sultan wandering the city, their conversations going around in metaphorical circles as Hana does her best to elide over any sort of catharsis. In a way, the film is like a spiritual counterpart to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series: those characters play their mid-life ennui up for laughs, but there’s an uncanny shared impulse to travel outside of one’s regular life to find whatever it is they think they’re missing.

It’s a journey that Durra treats with reverence, and with an emotional payoff that upends the film’s measured pace. Who knew archaeology could dig so deep?

Trying Not to Hold One

The Grudge

by Hope Madden

Any time a film is remade, you have to ask why. Not to be cynical, but because it’s a legitimate query. Is there a compelling reason to watch this new one?

Nicolas Pesce hopes there’s reason to watch his retooling of The Grudge.

The Grudge began in 2000 with Takashi Shimizu’s Japanese horror Ju-on, which spawned three Japanese sequels and now four English language reworkings, two of which Shimizu directed himself. His 2004 version starring Sarah Michelle Geller became a tentpole of our J-horror obsession of the early 2000s.

Pesce, working with co-writer Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train—that was your first problem), pulls story ideas from across the full spate of Ju-on properties and braids them into a time-hopping horror.

Is there room for hope? There is, because Pesce landed on horror fanatics’ radars in 2016 with his incandescent feature debut, The Eyes of My Mother.  He followed this inspired piece of American gothic in 2018 with a stranger, less satisfying but utterly compelling bit of weirdness, Piercing.

And then there’s this cast: Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Lin Shaye, Betty Gilpin, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, Damian Bichir—all solid talents. You just wouldn’t necessarily know it from this movie.

Pesce’s basically created an anthology package—four stories held together by a family of especially unpleasant ghosts. But that one sentence contains two of the film’s biggest problems.

Let’s start with the ghosts. Shimizu’s haunters—Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki—were sweet-faced, fragile and innocent seeming. The perversion of that delicacy is one of the many reasons Shimizu’s films left such a memorable mark. Pesce’s substitute family loses that deceptive, macabre innocence.

The way the film jumps from story to story and back again undermines any tension being built, and each story is so brief and so dependent on short-hand character development (cigarettes, rosaries, ultrasounds) that you don’t care what happens to anyone.

Jacki Weaver, who seems to be in a comedy, is wildly miscast. Go-to horror regular Shaye has the only memorable scenes in the film. Riseborough, who is a chameleonic talent capable of better things, delivers a listless performance that can’t possibly shoulder so much of the film’s weight.

Jump scares are telegraphed, CGI and practical effects are unimpressive, editing is uninspired and, worst of all, the sound design lacks any of that goosebump-inducing inspiration Shimizu used to such great effect.

So, no. There was no reason to remake The Grudge.

Surrender Mandy

Mandy

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

A hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Opening with bits of a Ronald Reagan speech about traditional values and a knock-knock joke about Erik Estrada, director/co-writer Panos Cosmatos drops us in 1983 as Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a secluded, lazily contented life somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

That contentment is shattered by a radical religious sect under the spell of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who takes a liking to Mandy when the group’s van (of course it’s a van!) passes her walking on a country road.

Jeremiah’s followers return to abduct Mandy but only leave Red for dead, a move they won’t live long to regret.

Like Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

Cosmatos blends ingredients from decades-spanning indie horror into a stew that tastes like nothing else.

Horror of the late 60s and early 70s saw hippies terrorizing good, upright citizens, perpetrating cult-like nastiness. Thanks to Charles Manson, society at large saw the counterculture as an evil presence determined to befoul conventional, Christian wholesomeness.

With Mandy, it’s as if the 70s and 80s have collided, mixing and matching horror tropes and upending all conceivable suppositions. In this case, zealots consumed with only the entitlement of their white, male leader wreak havoc on good, quiet, earth-loving people. The Seventies gave us some amount of progress, civil justice and peace that the Eighties took back under the guise of decency.

The fact that Red wears a 44 on his tee shirt and calls one baddie a “snowflake” shouldn’t be disregarded as coincidence.

But that’s not what you want to know. You want to know this: How bloody is it? And how insane is Nic Cage?

It’s plenty bloody (sometimes comically so), and though Cage is methodically unhinged, what Cosmatos is dealing makes Nic seem damn near understated.

Neither area disappoints, although the dreamlike pace leading up to the violence and the vividly Heavy Metal-esque visuals – including some animation and end credit shot- exacerbates the feeling that you, and quite possibly the characters, are only hallucinating all of this lunacy.

Mandy offers a commitment to vision above all.

Surrender to it.





Dead Body Politic

The Death of Stalin

by George Wolf

Opening with a madcap “musical emergency” and closing with a blood-stained political coup, The Death of Stalin infuses its factual base with coal back humor of the most delicious and absurd variety.

The film cements director/co-writer Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) as a premier satirist, as it plays so giddily with history while constantly poking you with a timeliness that should be shocking but sadly is not.

So many feels are here, none better than the sheer joy of watching this film unfold.

It is Moscow in the 1950s and we meet Josef Stalin and his ruling committee, with nary an actor even attempting a Russian accent. Those British and American dialects set a wonderfully off-kilter vibe.

Iannucci has a confident grip on his vision, and the impeccable cast to see it through,

Who else would play Nikita Khrushchev but Steve Busemi? Then there’s Jeffrey Tambor and Simon Russell Beale as committee members jockeying for power after Stalin’s death, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s manically desperate kids, and Jason Isaacs arriving late to nearly steal the whole show as the uber-manly head of the Russian army.

As enemies lists are updated (“new list!”) and constant assassinations whirl, the hilarious barbs keep coming in dizzying succession, each delivered with bullseye precision by lead actors and walk-ons alike. Monty Python vet Michael Palin is a fitting face in the ensemble, with Iannucci structuring a few bits (like Buscemi and Tambor trying to slyly switch places at Stalin’s funeral-classic) that recall some of the finest Python zaniness.

It all flows so fast and furiously funny, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to pull off such effective satire. We end up laughing through a dark and brutal time in history, while Iannuci speaks truth to those currently in power with a sharp and savage brand of mockery.

Stalin is still dead.

Long live The Death of Stalin!

 





Anyone For Tennis?

Battle of the Sexes

by George Wolf

A fight for equality playing out inside sports arenas. Sound familiar? Battle of the Sexes isn’t just an effortlessly engaging piece of entertainment, it’s a compelling reminder that the sporting world has long been intertwined with the social and political movements of the day.

In 1973, Billie Jean King was 29 years old and the leading name in women’s tennis. Bobby Riggs was a 55 year-old former champion who missed the spotlight. As the “women’s lib” movement grew, they met for three sets of tennis that was watched by ninety million people.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) choose wisely in running the soul of the film through King. Bolstered by Emma Stone’s gracefully layered performance, the film’s emotional connection comes from King’s dueling inner conflicts: the responsibility of carrying the women’s game forward and her growing attraction to the tour hairdresser (an excellent Andrea Riseborough).

A taut script from the Oscar-winning Simon Beaufoy finds marks that often speak directly to today’s “stick to sports” crowd. In one particularly biting scene, a defiant King argues for equal prize money on the women’s circuit, telling the condescending director of the tour (Bill Pullman) that he’s a constant gentleman “until we want a bit of what you’ve got.”

As he was in the actual ’73 event, Riggs is the film’s camera-loving ringmaster, a born huckster who tells a recovery group they don’t need to stop gambling – they just need to get better at it. Steve Carell nails the role, and not just because he has the look and the attitude. In the quieter moments away from the cheering crowds, Carell gives us a faded star in search of purpose, finding the authenticity that Riggs leaned on to remain endearing.

The period details are just right and, thanks to some nifty work by two athletic body doubles, so is the tennis. Faulting only with some fleeting moments of flippancy, Battle of the Sexes wins by serving up both a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the human drama than ultimately made it so much more.