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.

Salander. Lisbeth Salander.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

by George Wolf

This far along, it’s no surprise some freshness has wilted from the Lisbeth Salander franchise. But now, as the fourth book in Steig Larsson’s “Millennium” series makes it to the multiplex, some of its identity seems to be slipping away as well.

Claire Foy hops on the speed bike as the latest Lisbeth, Stockholm’s most infamous hacker/vigilante/all around badass. Her latest impossible mission is to recover a top secret computer program known as Firefall.

Developed by a weirdly tall code wizard (Stephen Merchant), the program can breach all missile defense systems and put them under the control of a single user. Though the program can’t be copied, it can be moved, and when the Americans steal it, Lisbeth is contracted to steal it back.

The job comes with plenty of attempts on her life and open wounds from the past, and as Lisbeth is pursued across Sweden by a Washington NSA agent (Lakeith Stanfield), her old pal Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) tries to help sort it all out.

Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead) trades the cold, sterile atmospherics that marked the previous films for a more standard thriller tone. Despite a few nifty sleights of hand, the film always seems to be working from another’s playbook.

It’s less grisly, less ambitious and more comfortable settling for overly convenient plot turns and painting the female action hero in more of a male fantasy world. Salander has been an anti-Bond since book one, making this shift particularly disappointing.

For her part, Foy is a serviceable Salander but more of a blank slate. While Noomi Repace brought more instant menace and Rooney Mara more mystery, Foy can’t define her turn much beyond hurtful stares and beatdowns.

Spider’s Web is always watchable, and engaging enough to keep you invested. But Lisbeth became memorable by being uniquely compelling, not merely satisfactory.





If You Believed

First Man

by Hope Madden

We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the US space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.

Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.

The director’s La La Land lead Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this biopic of the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface. It’s another of Gosling’s impressive turns: reserved, with an early vulnerability that hardens over time to a protective stoicism.

A no-frills Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, and the characters the two actors carve share a bristly chemistry that adds to the film’s committed authenticity. It also provides some kind of emotional center for the story.

Chazelle’s observational, unhurried style doesn’t draw attention to the drama. There is nothing showy about this film. That understatement allows the most startling, horrifying and awe-inspiring moments their own power. The approach also quietly reminds you of the escalating pressures shouldered by Armstrong as he and NASA faced tragedy after tragedy in the name of space exploration.

Gosling shares screentime with an enormous and talented ensemble boasting many fine performances and just as many welcome surprises. Though most roles are very small, Shea Wigham, Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll stand out.

Stoll, playing a socially obtuse Buzz Aldrin, offers an enjoyable foil to Gosling’s composed Armstrong, sparking one of the film’s only real grins.

Though Gosling’s distant performance and Chazelle’s near-verite style mirror Armstrong’s increasingly walled-off psyche, it becomes difficult to connect with characters. First Man deposits you inside the action but keeps you at arm’s length from Neil Armstrong.

As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully.

Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, queasying and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.





Unsafe House

Unsane

by Hope Madden

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is living your worst nightmare.

Having recently moved 400 miles from Boston to suburban Pennsylvania to escape her stalker, she begins seeing him everywhere. Shaken and without a support network, she visits an insurance-approved therapist in a nearby clinic.

She’s grateful for the ear, but upon completing her paperwork Sawyer finds that, due to the therapist’s diagnosis that Sawyer is a danger to herself or others, she is held involuntarily for 24 hours.

After punching an orderly she mistakes for her stalker, that 24 hours turns into one week. And now she’s convinced that the new orderly George is, in fact, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard—you know, doomed Josh from The Blair Witch Project!).

There a number of factors hard at work in Unsane‘s brisk 98-minute ride. Director Steven Soderbergh, by way of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, lays bare some terrifying facts about our privatized mental health industry.

Seriously and deeply alarming.

He structures this critique with a somewhat traditional is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy storyline. Anyone who watches much horror will recognize that uneasy line: you may be here against your will, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here.

And the seasoned director of misdirection knows how to toy with that notion, how to employ Sawyer’s very real damage, touch on her raw nerve of struggling to remain in control of her own life only to have another’s will forced upon her.

Part of the film’s success is Soderbergh’s ability to put you in Sawyer’s headspace, which he does primarily through the use of iPhone 7. He claims to have filmed entirely on these phones, and whether or not that’s true, the shallow, oversaturated aesthetic creates the sense of delusion.

Foy’s performance is refreshingly unpleasant. Sawyer is tough to like, but she’s damaged and savvy in a way that feels authentic.

Leonard’s cloying neediness and bursts of violence match Foy’s formidable if brittle performance and a strong supporting cast including Juno Temple, SNL’s Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving and a spot-on Polly McKie.

Soderbergh relies on familiar tropes to say something relevant and in doing so creates a tidy, satisfying thriller.