Mighty Neighborly

The Woman in the Window

by George Wolf

The Woman in the Window is a testament to the power of “all in.”

Like if you’re spying on your neighbors, get a zoom lens, take pictures! And if you’re modernizing Hitchcock, embrace that shit from the opening minutes and don’t f-ing look back.

For director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, that’s the play as they adapt A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel. And it’s a smart one.

Psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, fantastic) has a shrink of her own these days (Letts), and plenty of prescriptions. Suffering from crippling agoraphobia, Anna will not leave her spacious Manhattan townhouse. She’s got her cat Punch and her downstairs tenant David (Wyatt Russell), but outside of occasional conversations with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie), Anna spends most of her time watching her neighbors and old movies.

Then the Russells move in across the street.

Jane (Julianne Moore) comes over for an enjoyable visit, has some wine and admits that Alistair (Gary Oldman) can be angry and controlling. A later conversation with the teenaged Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger) seconds that.

So when Anna sees Jane stabbed in her apartment, she’s sure Alistair is to blame. But with detectives (Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles) looking on, a different Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears, swearing that she’s never even met Anna before tonight.

For the entire first hour, Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour, Hanna), Letts (Pulitzer winner for writing August: Osage County) and this splendid ensemble put the hammer down on a delicious mystery ride. Putting stairwells, doors, railings and more in forced perspective, Wright intensifies our relation to Ann’s small world while Letts’s crackling script draws us into the mystery and Danny Elfman’s staccato score hammers it home.

Is any of Anna’s story even real, or is it her meds and fragile psyche talking? This question allows the direct homages to classics like Rear Window and Vertigo to be filtered through a movie-loving unreliable narrator, becoming a wonderfully organic device that feeds this intoxicating noir pot-boiler.

As events escalate and Anna’s plight becomes more overtly terrifying, the novel’s pulpy seams begin to show, and the film stumbles a bit in transition. But Adams is strong enough to keep us rooted firmly in Anna’s camp, long enough for the darker side of Hitchcock to wrestle control.

Taking a story like this from page to screen successfully requires a strong, confident vision and a committed, talented cast. The Woman in the Window is overflowing with riches on both counts, landing as immensely satisfying fun.

Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The Oscars are coming and we get to spend some time celebrating the worst of the horror movies made by nominees. Have they made great horror? Well, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) are nominees, so yes. In fact, there are a whole slew of horror films made by this year’s batch of nominees, most of them far too good to qualify for this list.

No, we want the skeletons. And every single year, nominees have them. Here are this year’s contenders.

5. Daniel Kaluuya: Chatroom (2010) 

What is the matter with this movie? Writer Edna Walsh, who’d go on to pen the excellent films Disco Pigs and Hunger, adapted her own stage play. Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) directed. The cast is exceptional: Daniel Kaluuya, Imogen Poots, Aaron Taylor-Johnson all play Chelsea teens who hang out in a new chatroom.

How did this to so terribly wrong? As five kids get to know each other online, it turns out that one is a predator looking for a very specific weakness and playing the others against each other. Not a terrible premise, and the overall design is surreal enough to avoid individuals at their laptops. Performances are solid as well.

But, ideas come and go, conflicts arise and disappear, characters appear without warning or introduction and vanish, and storylines fail to make any real sense.

4. Amanda Seyfried & Gary Oldman: Red Riding Hood (2011)

A two-fer! Truth be told, there were plenty of two-fer opportunities with Oldman on this list (he also co-starred with fellow nominee Anthony Hopkins in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal).

But this is the one, because it lets us talk about another time he co-starred with Amanda Seyfried. Both are nominated for their work together in 2020’s Mank. Neither were nominated for this.

Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke helms this fractured fairy tale, and it looks gorgeous. The story is overly complicated and stupid, but it hits all the important marks: Valerie (Seyfried) is loved by two potentially dangerous boys whose passion might actually kill her. Oh, it’s such an angsty YA dream!

Seyfried is fine. Oldman is a ham, and he’s such a joy when he’s a ham. There’s a fun cameo from Julie Christie as well. But the weak writing and utterly laughable performances by the two suitors (Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez) are enough to sink this one deep.

3. Anthony Hopkins: The Wolfman (2010)

Hopkins has a lot of horror in his closet, much of it bad. The Rite is the least watchable, but this is the one that’s the most fun to lambast. What a ludicrous waste of talent!

Sir Anthony bites through scenery (among other things) as Sir John Talbot, father of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro). Their background is murky, their property is foggy, their accents are jarringly different.

Director Joe Johnson likes stuff big and hokey. You’ll find that here. The film won an Oscar for its make up, which we cannot get behind. The final battle looks like two rhoided-up Pomeranians duking it out.

Still, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are good, and even though the great Del Toro sleepwalks through this embarrassment, Hopkins is always a bit of fun when he camps it up in a bad movie.

2. Gary Oldman: The Unborn (2009)

Oh, Gary Oldman, why do you so rarely say no?

He’s just in so, so, so many movies – mathematically speaking, it only makes sense that a lot of them will be terrible. Like this one, a film that feels less like a single cohesive unit and more like a string of individual scenes filmed as examples of cliches and non sequiturs.

Oldman plays a rabbi who works with a Christian minister played by Idris Elba to help an incredibly entitled young woman who looks like a blander version of Megan Fox (Odette Annable) exorcise a Jewish demon who likes twins.

Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, James Remar and Carla Gugino also co-star for no logical reason. Well, writer/director David S. Goyer is also writer David S. Goyer (Blade trilogy & Nolan’s Batman trilogy). This movie came immediately on the heels of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which explains Oldman as well as some unmet expectations.

1. Youn Yuh-jung: Insect Woman (1972)

Youn Yuh-jung is a treasure. Her fifty years in movies boasts dozens of remarkable performances usually marked by quirky humor that never feels gimmicky. She’s had a hell of a 2020, with pivotal supporting roles in Beasts Clawing at Straws and the Oscar-nominated Minari.

She does what she can in writer/director Kim Ki-young’s inexplicably titled Insect Woman.

Oh my God, what a trainwreck! What is going on here? Youn plays a teen with nowhere to turn once her father returns to his wife. Now her mother, older brother and she must fend for themselves. But how? Well, maybe she can be mistress to an impotent (or is he?!) high school teacher.

The film swings back and forth between highly irrational melodrama to profoundly unsexy eroticism to unconvincing gritty street indie. An hour or more into this, they introduce a vampire baby.

I swear!

Then it’s on. Who knows what the hell is happening or is going to happen or why it’s happening or what the film is trying to say. If it were a better movie I’d think Insect Woman was trying to make a point about misogyny and classism in South Korea.

It’s not a better movie, though. It’s very bad.

Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Shipwreck

Mary

by Hope Madden

I am having a hard time figuring out Mary.

Some of my befuddlement has to do with Gary Oldman’s involvement.

Is it just me, or is there a part of everyone’s brain that says, “Wait, Gary Oldman’s in this? I will definitely watch it!”

Gary Oldman is a tremendous talent. You know what he’s not? Choosy.

Here Oldman plays David, an aging boat captain carting tourists around for a fishing company. He has big dreams, though—dreams of owning his own craft. So naturally, when a ghost ship washes ashore, he cashes in everything he owns to buy her at police action. Then he promptly loads his squabbling family and a couple of deckhands aboard and sails toward the Bermuda triangle.

Of course he does!

What exactly happens once he sets sail is a mystery David’s wife (Emily Mortimer) explains throughout the film’s running time from an interrogation room.

The police interrogation framework is very tired at this point. It’s lazy. As are dream sequences and voiceover narration. They’re cinematic crutches, ways of telling the audience what should be coming organically from the narrative.  

Director Michael Goi (Megan Is Missing) relies on these devices to explain what the action should detail, just as he falls back on ominous music to create dread or signal character development. I’m not sure this script gave him loads of options, though.

Writer Anthony Jaswinski (The Shallows) sketches characters, action and a ghost story, but clarifies very little. His script is an unfocused mess and Goi’s pacing does not help. We skip CliffsNotes style through the family’s crisis, none of it feeling authentic, before discovering the hidden facts about Mary (the ship and, presumably, the ghost) sitting in a box in the hallway.

What’s this, ship ledgers and newspaper clippings? How convenient!

At 84 minutes (including credits), Mary feels simultaneously rushed and bloated. It’s a remarkable waste of both Mortimer and Oldman’s talent and the only true mystery—left unsolved, by the way—is how it drew these actors in the first place.

Gerard Has the Con

Hunter Killer

by Hope Madden

On a scale from Gerard Butler to 10, how bad is Hunter Killer?

It’s not London Has Fallen bad. Or Gods of Egypt bad. It’s not Geostorm bad, but what is, really?

But is it any good?

Well, no. Don’t get loony. I’m just saying, it could be worse. You know, because Gerard Butler stars.

That doesn’t make him the worst actor in history. It’s just that he’s not especially talented and he makes impressively awful films. And yet, the king of January inexplicably gets a prime October release with this one, playing Captain Joe Glass.

He’s not an Annapolis guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t successfully lead his first crew through Arctic waters to save the President of Russia from a botched coups attempt.

If you’re worried about subtitles—well, you’re clearly not familiar with the work of Mr. Butler. No, fortunately the Russians only speak Russian when it doesn’t matter if we understand what they say. The moment the dialog is important they switch (sometimes mid-scene) to English. How lucky is that?

I’m sure we’d never be able to follow this plot otherwise. It’s not like every scene is telegraphed in advanced.

Director Donovan Marsh’s film is not unwatchable. It’s shallowly packaged derivative entertainment, boasting passable water scenes and hand-to-hand action choreography that’s entirely adequate. It’s the drama that will make you wince.

There are three primary focal points. Firstly, the drama back in DC, where level heads try to outmaneuver war mongers. Gary Oldman plays a monger.

Everybody follows up their Oscar with garbage. Don’t fret for Gary.

Common plays one of those level heads. This is literally Common’s third film in three weeks. The prior two—The Hate U Give and All About Nina—were both very good. Nobody bats 1000.

The second dramatic focus takes place on the ground—thank God, because honestly, without the small military unit landing covertly on Russian soil with their drones, swagger and witty banter, this movie would never leave a confined area and you would feel even more trapped by it.

The highest drama is, of course, hundreds of feet underwater with noble everyman Cap. Glass. You know what he has? A level head.

Just not, you know, a ton of talent.





Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

You know what? This year’s batch of Oscar hopefuls have made some genuinely excellent horror movies. Richard Jenkins starred in not only the amazing Bone Tomahawk, but also the underseen Fright Club favorite Let Me In. Willem Dafoe took a beating in the amazing Antichrist and grabbed an Oscar nomination for his glorious turn in Shadow of the Vampire. Laurie Metcalf made us laugh and squirm in Scream 2 and Woody Harrelson led one of our all time favorite zombie shoot-em-ups, Zombieland.

But what’s the fun in talking about that when so many of the nominees have made so many bad movies? Here we focus on the worst of the worst, but if you check out the podcast we mention even more.

5. Halloween II (2009)

Octavia Spencer’s 20+ year career, struggling early with low-budget supporting work, guarantees her a place in this list. Indeed, she could have taken several slots (2006’s Pulse is especially rank), but we find ourselves drawn to Rob Zombie’s sequel to his 2007 revisionist history.

Zombie ups the violence, adds dream sequences and suggests that Laurie Strode (played here, poorly, by Scout Taylor-Compton) shares some hereditary psychosis with her brother Michael.

Spencer plays the Night Nurse, which naturally means that she dies. Pretty spectacularly, actually, but that hardly salvages the mirthless cameo-tastic retread.

4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola took his shot at Dracula in ’92. How’d he do?

Cons: Keanu Reeves cannot act. Winona Ryder can act—we’ve seen her act—but she shows no aptitude for it here, and lord she should not do accents. Anthony Hopkins has always enjoyed the taste of scenery, but his performance here is just ham-fisted camp.

Pros: Gary Oldman, who can chomp scenery with the best chewers in the biz, munches here with great panache. He delivers a perversely fascinating performance. His queer old man Dracula, in particular – asynchronous shadow and all – offers a lot of creepy fun. Plus, Tom Waits as Renfield – nice!

Still, there’s no looking past Ryder, whose performance is high school drama bad.

3. Clownhouse (1989)

There are several fascinating pieces of information concerning the derivative yet uniquely weird Clownhouse. These range from odd to awful.

1) The Sundance Film Festival somehow found this film—this one, Clownhouse, the movie about 3 escaped mental patients who dress as clowns, break into a house where three brothers are home alone on Halloween night, and commence to terrify and slaughter them— worthy of a nomination for Best Drama. If you haven’t seen this film, you might not quite recognize how profoundly insane that is.

2) The great and underappreciated Sam Rockwell made his feature debut as the dickhead oldest brother in this movie. The clowns themselves—Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo—are genuinely scary and garishly fascinating, but outside of them, only Rockwell can act. At all.

3) Writer/director Victor Salva would go on to create the Jeepers Creepers franchise. But first he would serve 15 months of a 3-year state prison sentence for molesting the 12-year-old lead actor in this film, Nathan Forrest Winters.

So, basically, this film should never have been made. But at least Rockwell got his start here.

2. Margot Robbie: ICU (2009)

Margot Robbie is a confirmed talent. Underappreciated in her wickedly perfect turn in Wolf of Wall Street, she has gone on to prove that she is far more than a stunning beauty (though she certainly is that).

Not that you’d realize that by way of her early work in this low-budget Aussie dumpster fire.

The then-19-year-old leads a cast of unhappy teens vacationing for the weekend with their estranged dad, who’s called into work yet again. To entertain themselves, they peep on their neighbors through the facing skyscraper windows.

Robbie showers, swims and changes clothes at least 3 needless times within the film’s opening 10 minutes, which makes a film that wags a finger at modern voyeurism feel a little hypocritical. But to even make that statement is to take writer/director Aash Aaron’s film too seriously. Heinously acted, abysmally written and tediously directed, it amounts to 50 minutes of whining followed by utterly ludicrous plot twists, unless Australia boasts the largest per-capita number of serial killers on earth.

But the point is this: Robbie would go on to deliver stellar performances, so this is just something we all need to shake off.

1. Frances McDormand: Crimewave (1985)

Is a horror film really a horror film just because imdb.com says so?

Well, anything as bad as Crimewave is a horror, that’s for sure. The fact that it’s a slapstick crime comedy at its heart hardly matters.

Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Sam Raimi and co-starring Bruce Campbell, this film has a pedigree. And we love them all so much we can almost forgive them for this insufferable disaster. But we suffered through it for two scenes—one at the beginning, one at the end—involving a nun who’s taken a vow of silence.

Frances McDormand, what the hell are you doing in this movie?

No, no. We get it. If we were duped into optimism by Coen brother involvement, what hope did you have? You couldn’t have known that the result would be a tiresome, embarrassing, un-funny, painful waste of 83 minutes.





The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Fightin’ Words

Darkest Hour

by Hope Madden

Back in the day—before the mustachioed Commissioner Gordon or the bewitching Sirius Black—back in the way back of the 80s and 90s, Gary Oldman was known for disappearing into real-life characters. Whether it was his Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald or Ludwig Van Beethoven, Oldman could cease to be, leaving nothing behind but the most amazing reimagining of true life.

So the fact that he’s magnificent in Darkest Hour should come as no surprise.

Besides his physical transformation, thanks to what may be the single greatest achievement in fat suits in all of moviedom, Oldman convinces by capturing the spirit of Winston Churchill.

In retrospect we know Churchill’s fighting spirit was desperately necessary— his nation was facing unfathomable odds and dealing with an establishment’s inclination toward surrender. But it’s Oldman’s performance that makes us understand why so very few were able to trust not just Churchill’s vision, but Churchill.

With the aid of an excellent turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine, Oldman makes the Prime Minister knowable: driven, insecure, passionate, drunk, uncertain, romantic and somehow lovable. The performance is effortlessly layered and authentic and honestly the best work the veteran actor has done in decades.

Credit a crisp screenplay by Anthony McCarten for providing context by way of illuminating points of view, each one deftly animated by an understated ensemble delivering nuanced performances. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, in particular, quietly but assuredly manifest the uneasy but shifting perspective of a nation on the brink of possible annihilation.

Joe Wright’s direction sometimes feels fanciful given the seriousness of the story, but he works mightily with his poetic camera to enliven what could otherwise have been a claustrophobic chamber piece.

Instead, he’s crafted a fine bookend to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Darkest Hour glimpses the backroom politics that led to the ingenious and breathless rescue of England’s armed forces the summer of 1940. It lacks the gut-punch or cinematic mastery of Nolan’s film, but it does boast one hell of a performance.





Badass Bromance

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

by Hope Madden

Who remembers Safe House, the passable 2012 action flick that sees Ryan Reynolds in over his head trying to keep an international assassin, played by Denzel Washington, safe?

Well, lobotomize Safe House, swap in Samuel L. Jackson for Denzel, trade grit for humor and you have the mid-August version of an action comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Jackson is Darius Kincaid.

No he isn’t. He’s an underwritten tough guy, filled out with characteristic Jacksonisms: foul language and swagger. He’s Samuel L. Jackson, motherfucker.

Likewise, Reynolds may go by Michael Bryce, but this is prototypical Reynolds, all sarcastic charm and self-loathing.

Bring them together: glib meets badass. They take a bullet-riddled road trip, Bryce trying to keep Kincaid safe long enough to testify against the former president of Belarus, a war criminal and all-around evildoer, played, naturally, by Gary Oldman.

Of course he is.

No, not a lot of acting muscles are being overworked in this one.

Writing muscles either, for that matter. The film coasts on mostly ludicrous but sometimes fun set pieces energized by the silly sniping happening as the Jackson/Reynolds bromance blossoms.

Director Patrick Hughes (Expendables 3 – did we know there were 3?) relies heavily on his cast and their individual brands. It’s like shorthand. No reason for character development, which is a good thing because scribe Tom O’Connor isn’t strong.

Hughes has trouble balancing the action, humor and unexpected romance. Reynolds’s security expert pines for the Interpol agent that left him; meanwhile, Jackson’s assassin misses his Mrs. (Salma Hayak, funny).

But, hey, do you like Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Gary Oldman? Because the three of them play the three of them in a disposable action comedy coming out this weekend.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Battle Scars

Man Down

by George Wolf

Before it makes a hard left turn down Lifetime Lane, Man Down sets a decent hook. The cast is uniformly splendid, while director/co-writer Dito Montiel displays some effective understatement in the early going, establishing a confidence in the destination that he can’t quite reward.

Shia LeBeouf is outstanding as Gabriel Drummer, a Marine searching for his son in a near future ravaged by some manner of deadly outbreak. Teamed with fellow Marine and boyhood buddy Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), Gabriel scours the terrain for any survivor who might have seen his little boy.

Slowly, Montiel weaves in the backstory, with flashbacks to bootcamp, a happy home life with wife Natalie (Kate Mara), dangerous patrols in Afghanistan and sessions with a Marine counselor (Gary Oldman) who gently pushes a shaken Gabriel to talk about “the incident.”

LeBeouf, regardless of his personal antics, can deliver the goods. Though his character’s arc isn’t presented in linear fashion, LaBeouf mines the resonant layers. Gabriel’s early naivete, hardened intensity and haunted conscience are all fleshed out, while the separate angles LaBeouf  employs in intimate scenes with Mara and Oldman (both stellar) buoy all three performances.

Montiel (Fighting, Robin Williams’s final film Boulevard) again has fine intentions, but is too content to satisfy them with dated predictability. What he’s saying isn’t new, and how he’s saying it is even less so. You’ll most likely guess one major plot revelation early on, then sense the other coming with an “are we going there – yes, I guess we’re going there” type of dread.

There are interesting characters here and fine actors to inhabit them. They just need somewhere equally interesting to go.

Verdict-2-5-Stars