Enter Sandman

Awake

by Hope Madden

There are so few things I enjoy more in this life than sleeping. Sleeping is the best. I love sleeping. This is one of the reasons director Mark Raso’s apocalyptic Awake got under my skin.

But it’s supposed to, after all. It’s not a comedy. It’s a spare, clever idea about some kind of celestial happening that throws off our hard wiring enough that we lose the ability to fall asleep. This power surge affects more than just our own circadian rhythms, though. It also shuts down all electric power, including car engines.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) was tired already. She just finished the late shift as security at a local hospital when she picked her kids up for their day together—her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos) goes more reluctantly than her young daughter Mathilda (Ariana Greenblatt). By the time Jill understands what’s happening, she realizes the kind of danger her daughter is in—from religious zealots as well as government officials—because Mathilda can sleep.

So, there you have it. There’s a fight against the clock (the film outlines in great detail exactly how this will disorient and then eventually kill you) for this mother to figure out how her daughter will 1) survive the apocalypse and 2) continue to survive once everyone else is dead.

Rodriguez drives the film with a believable mix of savvy, grit and growing brain dysfunction. Several of the population-gone-mad set pieces are eerie and smart, although others are underdeveloped and unsatisfying.

Raso, working from a script he co-wrote with brother Joseph as well as Gregory Poirier, picks at one or two modern-day concerns but truly breaks new ground only rarely. Moments from The Mist, War of the Worlds, and just about every outbreak movie make their way into Jill’s family adventure. Borrowed as much of this is, it still comes together in a way that feels fairly fresh.

Support work from Barry Pepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher and Shamier Anderson offers the adventure shape and character while Rodriguez gives it a pulse. And some really heavy eyelids.

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.

Repo Woman

Possessor

by Hope Madden

It’s been eight years since Brandon Cronenberg swam familiar family waters with his feature debut, Antiviral. He is back with another cerebral, body-conscious fantasy thriller and my first thought is dayyuuuummmmn…

Son of the master of corporeal scifi horror David Cronenberg, Brandon appears to come by his fixations naturally. With Possessor, he travels along with a high end assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses a piece of tech (inserted directly into the squishy brain, naturally) to body hop from one mark to the next. She enters one body, takes it over, executes the hit and moves on.

That last part has started to cause some issues, though.

As it was with Antival, much of the world building here is left to our imagination and the film is stronger for it. Possessor’s internal logic is solid enough to be the entire plot. The context is impeccably rendered, providing the most disturbing landscape for Riseborough and her primary avatar, played by the nicely understated Christopher Abbott.

All of it proves an incredible piece of misdirection for what the film is actually accomplishing.

For much of the running time, the chameleonic and underappreciated Riseborough’s Tasya Vos plays an observant interloper—exactly what we are in this weirdly meticulous and recognizable future world. Showy jabs about privacy, appropriation, gender definition and capitalism are simultaneously clever and intentionally distracting.

Cronenberg’s created a gorgeous techno world, its lulling disorientation punctuated by some of the most visceral horror to make it to the screen this year. There is something admirably confident about showing your influences this brazenly.

Credit Cronenberg, too, for the forethought to cast the two leads as females (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing Riseborough’s boss). The theme of the film, if driven by males, would have been passe and obvious. With females, though, it’s not only more relevant and vital, but more of a gut punch when the time comes to cash the check.

Possessor is a meditation on identity, sometimes very obviously so, but the underlying message takes that concept and stabs you in your still-beating heart with it.

Speak to Me

Anomalisa

by George Wolf

With Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s proposed animated short becomes a wondrous feature, utilizing a powerful subtlety to explore the challenge and the mystery of human connection.

Customer service specialist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is wilting under the weight of the mundane. Though he preaches about finding the individuality in each customer, he views each person he comes in contact with as interchangeable, hearing the same voice (the great Tom Noonan) each time anyone else speaks.

When Micheal flies to Cincinnati for a conference presentation, his rut continues until he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), who is staying on the same floor of his hotel. Though Lisa has traveled from Akron to hear Michael speak, it is Michael who is roused by the sound of a new voice – and by the possibility of rediscovering the joy in life.

Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay and co-directs with Duke Johnson, has created a kickstarter-funded marvel of complex simplicity. It envelopes you slowly, on an almost subliminal level, rendering Michael a sympathetic character as a simple matter of course. In doing so, the film touches on emotions so universal you may not even realize how loudly it is speaking to you.

There is a sly wit at work here as well. Michael checks in to the Fregoli hotel, a direct nod to the rare disorder in which one believes many different people are, in fact, one person in disguise. His trip down to meet the hotel manager is also a sarcastic hoot.

At times odd and imaginative, romantic and heartbreaking, Anomalisa ultimately feels like a gentle reminder about how much we need each other.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 





What’s Not to Love?

The Hateful Eight

by Hope Madden

“You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang.”

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but 2015 may have been the year of the Western. The brilliant, underseen films Slow West and Bone Tomahawk kicked things off, with the amazing The Revenant just around the corner. But it’s the latest from Quentin Tarantino that solidifies the theme, and something tells me The Hateful Eight won’t be counted in the underseen category.

Though not exactly the soul mate of his 2012 near-masterpiece Django Unchained, H8 is certainly a Civil War-era shooting cousin. Set just after the War Between the States, Tarantino’s latest drops us in a Wyoming blizzard that sees an assortment of sketchy characters hole up inside Minnie’s Haberdashery to wait out the storm.

Throwback stylings, wicked humor, a deliberate pace, and thirst quenching frontier justice mark Tarantino’s eighth picture – a film that intentionally recalls not only the more bombastic Westerns of bygone cinema, but many of QT’s own remarkable films.

Kurt Russell (sporting the same facial hair he wore in Bone Tomahawk) is a bounty hunter escorting the murderous Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang, but they won’t make that last stage to Red Rock because of this blizzard. Hell, they may never make it to Red Rock at all.

With the genuinely gorgeous wide shots of a blizzard chasing a stage coach through a vast Wyoming countryside, all set to Ennio Morricone’s loudly retro score, H8 opens as a true Western, but it soon settles into something closer to an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. Although I’m not sure Christie ever got quite so bloody.

Minnie’s Haberdashery is populated by a lot of familiar faces. Sam Jackson, who’s never better than when he’s grinning through QT’s dialog, excels in a role that keeps the era’s racial tensions on display. Meanwhile, Mr. Orange Tim Roth does his finest Christoph Waltz impression.

Walton Goggins is especially strong as Rebel renegade Irskin Mannix’s youngest son Chris, but it’s Leigh who steals the film. She’s a hoot in a very physical performance unlike anything she’s delivered in her 30 years in film.

Most of Tarantino’s career has been about re-imagining the films that have come before. With The Hateful Eight, he spends a lot of time rethinking his own work. Much of the film plays like an extended version of the “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, reconceived as a bounty hunters’ picnic.

As is often the case, QT breaks cinematic rules left and right. Sometimes these risks pay off, sometimes they don’t, but even at 3+ hours, the film never gives you the chance to get too comfortable.

This is not Tarantino’s most ambitious film and not his most successful, artistically, but it is a riotous and bloody good time.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnRbXn4-Yis