Feeling Seen

The Invisible Man

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Leigh Whannell likes him some mad science.

Two years ago the Saw and Insidious writer found his footing as a director with the unreasonably entertaining Upgrade. In what amounted to Knight Rider as imagined by David Cronenberg, the film gave the old yin/yang concept a robotics feel thanks to the work of an evil genius.

The evil genius concept is back for Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. But the most interesting thing about this version of the old H.G. Wells tale is that the man—invisible or not—plays second fiddle.

Instead of the existential ponderings that generally underscore cinematic Invisible Man retellings, Whannell uses this story to examine sexual politics, abuse, control and agency.

It’s a laudable aim, but the reason it works is casting.

How fucking great is Elisabeth Moss?

Not just in this film—but make no mistake, she’s fantastic. Whether it’s her TV work, small bits in indies like The Square or The Kitchen, or leading film roles, she’s been brilliant in everything she’s ever done. (Last year’s Her Smell is making its cable TV rounds – watch it!)

Whannell’s script is smart, with much needed upgrades to the invisibility formula as well as the havoc wrought. There are a handful of unrealistic moments, mostly in terms of character development, but a game cast (including Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer and Michael Dorman) consistently elevates the material.

There is also an irritatingly convenient employment of security footage: there when it suits the film, but weirdly unmentioned when it would derail the plot.

The fight choreography, on the other hand, is evenly fantastic, and these one-sided battles had to be hard to execute.

But the success of The Invisible Man is almost entirely shouldered by Moss, who nails every moment of oppressed Cecilia Kass’s arc. And early on, Moss has to sell it – pardon the pun- sight unseen. We’re only told Cecelia is abused, but Moss makes sure we never doubt that it is so.

Cecelia’s desperation, her fear, her logic, self-doubt as well as belief—all of it rings absolutely true. When you’re building a fantasy film in which one character is invisible and most actors are responding to an empty room, authenticity is key (and often very hard to come by). Moss makes it look easy.

But beyond the sci-fi and horror elements, Whannell’s success at weaving this tale through a #metoo lens comes from our total investment in Cecelia as a person first, personification of a systemic problem second. Without that, the gaslighting is less resonant and the eventual payoff less earned.

The two-hour running time does come to feel a tad bloated, but this new monster vision boasts plenty of creepy atmospherics, controlled tension and – wonder of wonders – well developed jump scares.

At its core, The Invisible Man is an entertaining B-movie horror propped up by contrivance. Whannell’s aim is to give the story new relevance, and thanks to Moss, his aim is true.

KITT, Meet Stem

Upgrade

by Hope Madden

It’s a setup you’ll recognize. A man, doing man’s work, brightens when his wife arrives. Oh, they are really in love. Let’s just do this one thing before the romance, OK honey?

Minutes from now, she will be dead, he will be damaged, and eventually his suicidal melancholy will fuel revenge.

From Death Wish to John Wick to Death Wish (again), it’s a premise that never goes out of style and never, ever surprises.

Credit writer/director Leigh Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) for keeping you entertained for 90 minutes.

Marshall-Green plays Grey. While all the rest of the world relies on technology to drive them around, buy their eggs and dim their lights, Grey’s in the garage listening to blues on vinyl and rebuilding a Trans-Am.

After the aforementioned tragedy, Grey reluctantly turns to a Cyber Victor Frankenstein type (Harrison Gilbertson, a little over-the-top), who implants a chip to help repair the physical damage.

What happens from there is like Knight Rider meets David Cronenberg.

Right?!

Whannell freshens up the technophobe dystopian narrative with a few fresh ideas, a silly streak and serious violence.

This is the guy who wrote Saw, after all. Those who are surprised by the inspired bloodshed probably haven’t seen his canon.

Marshall-Green shines when he’s not morose and lovelorn, but rather tentatively administering “justice.” His physical performance and the action sequences are enough to keep you interested; the strangely comical tone rewards you for your time.

Aside from Betty Gabriel (always a joy to see her), the performances around Marshall-Green are serviceable: the devoted mom, the icy mercenaries, the boundlessly loving wife. Luckily, this is Marshall-Green’s show. Though he struggles (as does Whannell) with the emotional bits, he’s more than at home with the goofy and the violent.

Long live the flesh!





Don’t Open the Door

Insidious: The Last Key

by Hope Madden

The Insidious franchise—like most horror series—began missing a step about two films in. The fourth installment, Insidious: The Last Key, starts off with promise, though.

Thanks in large part to a heartbreaking performance from Ava Kolker, the newest Insidious opens with a gut punch of an origin story.

By Episode 3, we’d abandoned the core family of the first two films to follow ghost hunters Elise (Lin Shaye), Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also writes the series). As this film opens, we glimpse the beginnings of Elise’s gift, the troubles it brings, and the demon she unwittingly released into the world.

Though the minor characters are full-blown clichés, director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) and his young actors create a compelling opening.

Can Insidious: The Last Key deliver on that promise?

No.

Is it the tedious jump-scare-athon with none of the exquisite delivery we’ve come to expect from James Wan (director of the original Insidious, and producer here)? Is it the mid-film move from spectral thriller to police procedural and back? Is it the creepy attention Elise’s goofball sidekicks pay to her young and pretty nieces?

Or is the problem that the whole cool sequence from the trailer—you know, with Melanie Gaydos and all the ghosts coming out of the jail cells?—is missing from the movie.

Yes—it’s all that and more. The film is a jumbled mess of backstory and personal demons, clichés and uninspired monsters. All of this is shouldered by the veteran Shaye, who is, unfortunately, no lead.

Shaye has proven herself to be a talented character actor in her 40+ years in film, often stealing scenes out from under high-paid leads. (Please see her in Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, she’s genius.) But she doesn’t have the magnetism to carry a film, and The Last Key feels that much more untethered and pointless for the lack.

Everything runs out of steam at some point. Here’s hoping this franchise has run out of doors to open.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xwMetjJVsE





There’s No Vaccine for This

Cooties

by Hope Madden

Welcome to the dog eat dog and child eat child world of elementary school.

Kids are nasty bags of germs. We all know it. It is universal truths like this that make the film Cooties as effective as it is.

What are some others? Chicken nuggets are repulsive. Playground dynamics sometimes take on the plotline of LORD OF THE FLIES. To an adult eye, children en masse can resemble a seething pack of feral beasts.

Directing team Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion harness those truths and more – each pointed out in a script penned by a Leigh Whannell-led team of writers – to satirize the tensions to be found in an American elementary school.

Whannell – co-creator of both the Saw and Insidious franchises – co-stars as the socially impaired science teacher on staff. He’s joined by a PE teacher (Rainn Wilson), an art teacher (Jack McBrayer), two classroom teachers (Alison Pill, Nasim Pedrad), and the new sub, Clint (Elijah Wood), in a fight for survival once an aggressive virus hits the student population of Fort Chicken.

School-based horror abounds – even Wood’s done it previously, having starred in Robert Rodriguez’s 1998 alien invasion fantasy The Faculty.

Cooties is also not the first horror film to mine tensions from the image of monstrous children turned against us. Come Out and Play (both the 2013 American version and its Spanish predecessor Who Can Kill a Child?) generate tensions based on the presumed difficulty an adult would have in slaughtering children.

Two things set Cooties apart. One: It is often laugh out loud funny. Two: It is willing to indulge the subversive fantasy of (possibly all) school teachers.

They kill a lot of children in this movie.

If Murnion and Milott couldn’t find the comedic tone to offset the seriously messed up violence, the film would be a distasteful, even offensive failure. But, thanks in part to a very game cast, as well as an insightful screenplay, Cooties comes off instead as a cathartic (if bloody) metaphor and an energetic burst of nasty fun. It might be welcome after school viewing in the teacher’s lounge.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Third Time Lacks Charm

Insidious: Chapter 3

by Hope Madden

Mid-budget, R-rated horror can land a surprising punch. Sinister, The Purge, Paranormal Activity and others benefitted from filmmakers’ dark imagination and the freedom to explore unsettling territory.

Similarly budgeted PG-13 horror is more of a mixed bag. The younger target audience frees filmmakers up to steal from older films, and the family-friendly rating sometimes means sterilized scares. There are exceptions: The Ring, The Grudge, Insidious.

The first film in this trilogy offered a wildly imaginative take on ghost stories and possession. A spooky if somewhat traditional haunted house tale turns insane as director James Wan articulated writer Leigh Whannell’s concept of “the Further” – the realm beyond ours where creepy spirits play pipe organs and tiptoe through tulips.

It is tough for a filmmaker to show us something that phantasmal. Generally, leaving it up to the audience’s imagination is the better bet, but Wan and Whannell took a chance and it paid off with disturbing success.

The two returned for a sequel, with lesser results. For the third chapter, Whannell – longtime horror writer, first time director – takes the helm for an origin story.

Elise (Lin Shaye) has retired from the psychic biz after a personal tragedy and a spectral scare, but she’s drawn reluctantly back into the game when spunky teen Quinn (Stefanie Scott) finds herself dogged by a nasty entity she’d mistaken for her dead mother.

As a director, Whannell relies heavily on jump scares, and his image of “the Further” lacks all the panache and terror of the original.

He’s replaced this with a hero/victim that better suits a younger audience. Rather than watching desperate parents struggling to save their children, we follow the increasingly more helpless adolescent as her angsty high school drama turns into something far more sinister.

There’s no depth to the emotional turmoil and the supernatural element is far less clever. This is not a film that will haunt you as you turn out the lights, but it will make you jump while you’re watching, which is sometimes success enough.

Verdict-2-5-Stars