Tag Archives: Mia Wasikowska

Family Matters

Blackbird

by Darren Tilby

Based on his own Danish-language film Silent Heart, writer Christian Torpe partners with director Roger Michell for the Anglo-American remake, Blackbird. You likely know the story already: an ailing matriarch invites her fractured family around to stay for one last weekend of joy and festivities before she plans to end her life through euthanasia. But, as is so often the case in films like this, everyone’s a long way from even pretending to play happy family.

Susan Sarandon stars as Lily, the head of the family unit. Sam Neill puts in a career-high as Paul, Lily’s husband, who proceeds with a stoic, removed air about his wife’s illness and impending self-death.

Kate Winslet’s Jennifer is the first to arrive, early, along with husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Johnathan (Anson Boon). Straight-laced and proud, Jennifer is the polar opposite of her younger sister, Anna (Mia Wasikowska); a flighty young woman who traipses in late, “looking like shit,” with girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow.

Completing the family unit is Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily’s oldest and dearest friend.

As you can probably tell, the film’s main attraction is its star-studded cast. A sea of riveting performances is what awaits us and Torpe’s well-written, character-establishing (and building) dialogue make these people come alive and feel genuine—even if some of their actions don’t. Indeed, Michell relies heavily on the strength of his actors to deliver the emotional clout the movie promises. There’s no denying the cast is up to the task, although other aspects of the film feeling like an afterthought.

The plot mechanics are hackneyed and unoriginal, while Peter Gregson’s score feels generic and uninspired. Mike Ely’s crystalline visuals, though, are an absolute delight, and effortlessly reflect the beauty and tragedy of both life and death.

It’s unoriginal, and it’s certainly not perfect, but this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking about the celebration of life, love and family, rather than the sadness of death and loss. And it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

Save a Prayer

The Devil All the Time

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“Lord knows where a person who ain’t saved might end up.”

Indeed. The constant fight to overcome the worst in ourselves lies at the heart of The Devil All the Time, director Antonio Campos’s darkly riveting realization of Donald Ray Pollock’s best-selling novel.

Bookended by the close of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam, the film connects the fates of various characters living in the small rural towns of Southern Ohio and West Virginia.

Arvin (Tom Holland), the son of a disturbed WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård), fights to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) while he ponders his future. Husband and wife serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) look for hitchhikers to degrade, photograph and murder. A new small town preacher (Robert Pattinson) displays a special interest in the young girls of his congregation.

It’s a star studded affair—Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett and Sebastian Stan joining as well—but every actor blends into the woodsy atmosphere with a sense of unease that permeates the air. No stars here, all character actors in service of the film’s unsettling calling.

Pollock’s prose created a dizzyingly bleak landscape where Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy might meet to quietly ponder man’s inhumanity to man. Campos unlocks that world courtesy of Pollock himself, who narrates the film’s depravity with a backwoods folksiness that makes it all the more chilling.

As rays of light are constantly snuffed out by darkness, Campos (who also co-wrote the screenplay) uses Pollock’s voice and contrasting soundtrack song choices to create a perverse air of comfort.

Redemption is a slippery aim in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, and grace is even harder to come by. With a heavier hand, this film would have been a savage beating or a backwoods horror of the most grotesque kind. Campos and his formidable ensemble deliver Pollock’s tale with enough understatement and integrity to cut deeply, unnerving your soul and leaving a well-earned scar.

Ouch

Piercing

by Hope Madden

There’s a lot that shouldn’t be said about Piercing, Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to his glorious 2016 horror, Eyes of My Mother.

Because the film’s tension relies on power exchanges, surprises and averted climaxes, the less you know about how the story progresses, the better.

Suffice it to say that new father Reed (Christopher Abbott), fighting a serious urge to stab his infant with an ice pick, concocts a plan. It involves that ice pick, a “business trip” out of town, and a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska).

The amateur murderer works out the perfect crime, practicing conversations and actions (decorated by Pesce’s remarkable knack for unsettling sound effects), only for the cosmos—or the filmmaker—to wreck those plans.

Abbott’s flat yet sympathetic would-be murderer helps Pesce achieve a peculiar, semi-comic tone, but it’s Wasikowska, playing wildly against type, who carries this film. The two share a mad and maddening chemistry, and even during moments of somewhat forced dialog, their commitment and spark keep you enthralled and guessing.

The film is an exercise in thwarted expectations wrapped up in voyeurism and lurid imagery.

The influences here are dizzying. Ryu Murakami’s source material obviously evokes his own Audition (director Takashi Miike’s classic in power shifting and poor romantic choices). The opening act wades through more modern indie sensibilities, but Pesce quickly overwhelms that flat grit with grindhouse thriller flair before simply succumbing to giallo (Goblin tuneage and all).

This drunken meandering through styles fits the narrative that forever questions the reality or unreality of each situation. Like the cityscape miniatures Pesce uses as the adventure’s out-of-town backdrop, Reed’s whole experience could simply be cool -looking but pretend.

Are those flashbacks or nightmares? Does Reed have a haunted past leaking its way into his present, or is he simply a psychotic hoping to overcome his problem by submitting to it just this once?

Pesce toys with our commitment to Reed’s reality, questionable from the moment his infant halts a crying jag to tell his father, in a demonic voice, “You know what you have to do.”

It’s not a film that will satisfy a lot of viewers, it’s more of a fascinating and forgettable sketch. Still, at under 90 minutes, it’s a weirdly fun little indulgence won’t hurt you. Well, not too much.





Heroes in Distress

Damsel

by Hope Madden

A lot of people headed west for a new start. Damsel, the latest quirky comedy from David and Nathan Zellner, doesn’t believe a fresh start is in store for any of us.

“Things are going to be shitty in new and fascinating ways.”

Like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter —the filmmakers’ high water mark—Damsel is a gorgeous film marked with visual absurdity that emphasizes the uniquely bizarre nature of the human being.

Unlike Kumiko, Damsel is a Western.

A dandy stranger named Samuel (Robert Pattinson) arrives at your traditional, sorry-ass Western town to find the parson (David Zellner). He has a deal set with the parson. But an amazing opening sequence brimming with the beauty, brutality and existential angst of the Wild West means that we know something about the parson that Samuel doesn’t.

Of course, Samuel knows some things he’s not sharing with the parson as well. Soon enough, the two are off, along with the miniature horse Butterscotch, to find and marry Samuel’s beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).

Into the utterly typical Western architecture ride characters entirely lacking that nobility and destiny of the Hollywood classic. The result is not a spoof, it isn’t wacky in the Mel Brooks fashion. It’s thoughtful and humorous, deliberately gorgeous and just a tad melancholy.

Recent years have seen their fair share of revisionist Westerns, but few truly tinker with that romantic nobility associated with every character in quite the way Damsel does.

Pattinson, continuing his streak, is a wonder. He steals every scene and scenes without him suffer from the loss.

Wasikowska is solid as not just the traditional butt-kickin’ Western woman, but a revelation of the status quo. It will be her character that carries us through most of the film, and that is both an intriguing and thematically strong decision. It’s just not as funny.

The film turns on a bullet from silly misadventure to something more profound: a glimpse into the historical constant of toxic masculinity.

As much as the second half of the film scores points for insight, the humor is more depressing and scenes lack the bright, shiny idiocy of Pattinson’s Samuel.

This is not a dooming flaw. The film’s deceptively whimsical comedy offers a biting criticism of traditional, romantically-masculine storytelling.





It’s No Tea Party

Alice Through the Looking Glass

by Hope Madden

One billion dollars. That’s global money, keep in mind, but still, who’d have thought Tim Burton’s utterly banal and forgettable 2010 acid trip Alice in Wonderland had made so very much money? Too much – and not just because the film had no genuine merit, but because that kind of sum necessitates a sequel, however wildly and wholly unnecessary – even unwanted – that kind of muchness must be.

And so, back to Underland we go, accompanying an adult(ish) Alice who returns from a stint as sea captain to find Victorian England just as restrictive as it had been when she was a child escaping into her imagination. And so, to her imagination she returns.

Director James Bobin (The Muppets) has the unenviable task of following Burton into the rabbit hole – not unenviable because he may suffer by comparison, but because his options are somewhat limited based on the film’s predecessor. Expect garishly overdone visuals that offset weekly drawn characters.

Familial tensions are at the heart of the tale, penned by Linda Woolverton and based on some of Lewis Carroll’s most dreamlike and incongruous storytelling. Too bad Woolverton and Disney insisted on hemming Carroll’s wild imagination inside such a tediously structured framework.

The Hatter is depressed to the point of death and Alice has to go back in time to save him. Basically. But you can’t change the past – a lesson she’d allegedly learned in her first fantastic voyage, but I guess it didn’t stick. So, let’s learn it again, with the help of Time himself, as played by Sacha Baron Cohen with a Schwarzenegger-esque accent.

Aside from that new face, the same forgettably wacky group returns to the future/past. The talented Mia Wasikowska struggles to find life inside the bland Alice while Helena Bonham Carter pointlessly chews scenery.

An underused Anne Hathaway brightens certain scenes, and Johnny Depp – reliable as ever inside a fright wig and exaggerated make up – does bring a wistful humanity to the otherworldly events.

But imagination and tiresome capitalism butt heads from the opening sequence, and without the foundation of compelling characters or the requirement of engaging storytelling, Through the Looking Glass proves to be a pointless, though colorful, bore.

Verdict-1-5-Stars





Missed Opportunity

Crimson Peak

by Hope Madden

A quick scan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s work emphasizes his particular capacity for creepiness. His success likely lies partly in his visual flair and partly in his patient storytelling, but it’s his own mad genius that pulls these elements together in sometimes utterly brilliant efforts, like Pan’s Labyrinth.

That’s a high water mark he may never reach again, but his latest, Crimson Peak, can’t even see that high, let alone touch it.

Del Toro has pulled together the genuine talents of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska – as well as the questionable competence of Charlie Hunnam – to populate this diabolical love story.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is wooed away from home and childhood beau (Hunnam) by dreamy new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), regardless of his sister’s unpleasantness or her own father’s disdain. But the siblings may have dastardly motives, not to mention some rather vocal skeletons in their closet.

All four actors struggle. Hunnam has little chance with his underwritten sweetheart role, while Hiddleston is wasted as a spineless yet dreamy baronet. There is no chemistry between Wasikowska and anyone, and while Chastain is often fun to watch as a malevolent force, the cast can’t congeal as a group, so much of her bubbling evil is wasted.

Characteristic of a del Toro effort, however, the film looks fantastic. Gorgeous period pieces drip with symbolism and menace, creating an environment ideal for the old fashioned ghost story unspooling.

But where certain monstrous images blended nicely into the drama of Labyrinth, here they look and feel a part of another film entirely. The garish colors of a Dario Argento horror bleed into the somber gothic mystery. Edith’s ghastly, yet utterly modern, visions not only break the bygone feel the film develops, they awkwardly punctuate Peak’s tensely deliberate pace.

Tonal shifts between lurid and subtle only compound a problem with weak writing, and del Toro struggles to develop the twisted love story required to make the murky depths of the villainy believable.

In the end, Crimson Peak is the sad story of great resources but wasted effort.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Hatin’ on Hollywood

Maps to the Stars

by Hope Madden

Who but David Cronenberg could take the bubbling Hollywood cesspool that is Maps to the Stars and create from it a chilly but fascinating snapshot of industry dysfunction?

The truth is that Bruce Wagner’s screenplay requires Cronenberg’s anthropological approach and perverse sense of humor. Without it, he’s written a vulgar soap opera. With it, he’s written a revoltingly compelling, oddly austere essay on the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, fraudulent, repugnant, insecure insanity that is Hollywood.

The story itself couldn’t be more lurid, which is why Cronenberg’s peculiarly distant style is so effective. Some elements of his direction have changed little since he was bursting heads in Scanners.

What has changed over the decades is his ability to draw talent to his projects, and few of his casts have been as stocked as this one. The great (and finally Academy-acknowledged) Julianne Moore steals every scene as the prototypical damaged, aging starlet. Needy, vulnerable, charming and venomous – Moore hits every note on time and in tune.

The versatile Mia Wasikowska – who played Moore’s daughter in The Kids are All Right – here plays her newly hired personal assistant, or “chore whore” as she so delightfully puts it. Wasikowska’s Agatha is the vehicle for chaos in the film, although given the temperament and predilections of the characters involved, chaos is probably never far away.

Agatha wants to make amends for something she did to her family (Olivia Williams, Evan Bird and a gleefully toxic John Cusack) – something related, we assume, to the scarring on her face and neck. Meanwhile, she falls for a sweet but opportunistic limo driver (Cronenberg favorite Robert Pattinson).

Though the actions, reactions and eventualities are never entirely clear, there’s nothing convoluted about this film. Behaviors and reactions feel insane but never ridiculous, as if every self-serving act – no matter how vile – feels natural in this hotbed.

Maps to the Stars is unforgiving, yet somehow weirdly watchable. Cronenberg’s films can be a challenge – not that they’re necessarily tough to understand, just sometimes tough to stomach. Maps to the Stars is certainly not his most violent, although the violence here is tough and surprising. What makes his latest so startling is that, though these characters are as horrid as those found in his best horror and SciFi, they belong right here in our own world.

No wonder he makes independent films.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





For Your Queue: These Kids are Not All Right

 

If box office numbers are accurate, you did not see the film Stoker. You can remedy that today, its DVD release date. Filmmaker Chan-wook Park’s gorgeously filmed English language debut plays like a fractured version of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, boasts an excellent cast – Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman – and surprises with every scene. It is worth a look.

If you haven’t seen Oldboy, you are probably sick of people telling you you should see it. So…perhaps you should just see it. From 2003, it is Park’s gripping tale of a man held prisoner by a mysterious captor for 15 long years, then suddenly released. His search to find answers reveals haunting twists and unforgettable moments of tension, heartbreak and perversion. Even if Spike Lee’s upcoming remake is worthy, the original Oldboy should not be missed.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQcEeBV0iMQ





Not So Sure the Kids are All Right

by Hope Madden

If you haven’t seen Chan-wook Park’s twisted revenge fantasy Oldboy, do so immediately. I’ll wait.

Amazing, isn’t it? Hell, his whole Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) inspires awe. Wildly inventive, punishing and entertaining, the films mark a director with a talent for subversive action.

For the Korean filmmaker’s English language debut, he turns his attention to a dysfunctional family drama/mystery. But even a softer Park offers surprising punch.

Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right) plays India Stoker, an odd girl, pensive, in a Wednesday Addams kind of way. A car accident kills her father on her 18th birthday, leaving her to contend with her chilly mother (Nicole Kidman, wonderful) and the surprise, lengthy visit from an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew she had.

Wasikowska treads the uneven ground of this character quite well. Never entirely sympathetic, her India strikes the necessary chords to keep Park’s twists believable.

Goode’s an underrated performer. His dreamy good looks and big-eyed eagerness belie a particular kind of weirdness perfect for the role.

The film, quite intentionally, plays like a fractured take on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie and all. There’s something weirdly amiss – sinister, even – in this house, and the handsome, attentive uncle is clearly not what he pretends to be.

But Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller have a different tale to tell, one whose lurid details are suggested from the onset with saturated colors, evocative sounds, and the peering camera of Chung-hoon Chung (Park’s regular collaborator). As he slides around corners and crawls along pathways, his camera forever heightens tensions as well as a sense of puzzlement.

Solid performances across the board anchor a story that missteps once in a while. This is the first screenwriting credit for actor Miller (Prison Break), whose efforts were aided by contributions from Erin Cressida Wilson, the pen behind the dark indie flicks Secretary, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, and Chloe.

But it’s Park who makes the film, an effort that could easily have faltered under the weight of style over substance. In his hands, each scene is meticulously crafted – every color, every sound, every glance – to lift the already capable performances and solid script to something better than it should be.

Provocative, slyly funny and a bit twisted (you can expect nothing less from Park), Stoker represents a quietly fascinating image of a twisted family dynamic.

3 1/5 stars (out of 5)