Tag Archives: Michael Shannon

In This Housing Market?

Abandoned

by Hope Madden

Competently made and utterly unremarkable, Spencer Squire’s Abandoned still somehow managed to draw a top-notch cast. Huh.

Emma Roberts is Sara, a new mom battling post-partum depression. Her doting husband Alex (John Gallagher Jr.) thinks a change of scenery will help. Naturally, they purchase a beautiful, rustic farmhouse that was once the site of a massive family murder.

Will there be a creepy neighbor with intel on the crime? There will indeed, blessedly in the form of the always amazing Michael Shannon. Why he’s in this film is anybody’s guess (until you dig deeper into the credits), but he’s a welcome, fascinating presence.

Sara spends lonesome days alone with her baby while veterinarian Alex tends to the surrounding farms’ livestock. These follow sleepless nights, where creaking, stomping, and the laughter of children keep her awake.

Writers Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott conflate psychosis, post-partum depression and paranoia with a reasonable suspicion of a haunting. Is Sara overwrought from depression? Is the slain of the house trying to terrorize her? Is she actually just dangerously unstable from way back?

Options aplenty, none of them explored or particularly well established.

It’s a lot of weight on Roberts, who’s proven in films like The Blackcoat’s Daughter that an unbalanced horror heroine is well within her wheelhouse. Here she just seems lost.

Gallagher is wasted in yet another Good Guy Jim (Newsroom reference) role. But the supporting cast is excellent, beginning with Shannon. Kate Arrington (Shannon’s real-life wife who was so stellar in Knives and Skin) is perfection as the eager but judgy real estate agent.

Paul Schneider appears in an intriguing if underdeveloped role, one that appears to throw the entire film in a fascinating new direction. Sadly, Abandoned quickly reestablishes itself as the predictably middling supernatural thriller you knew it was from its opening minutes.

Parasites

Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

The Wizard of Meh-nlo Park

The Current War

by Matt Weiner

Isn’t there a rule that you shouldn’t make a movie about a subject that sets itself up for so many electricity-related puns if the final product is going to be so dim?

That’s the fate that befalls The Current War, a diverting but disjointed biopic that relies on an impeccable cast and flashy style to make up for its confused substance.

The bright spot: The Current War is much better than its protracted release history would suggest. After an expected holiday release in 2017, the movie was put on hold after the Weinstein Company imploded when news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s rape allegations.

Two years and a fresh re-cut from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon later, The Current War briskly takes us through key moments leading up to the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, excellent as always but maybe even better suited for Edison—or better still, just playing all the leading weirdos for an even more interesting gonzo edit) to power the Chicago World’s Fair.

The contest was the culmination of the War of the Currents, which pitted the world-famous inventor Edison and his direct current against the alternating current favored by Westinghouse, with an assist from Edison’s former employee and eccentric futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

The historical details alone should have made for an unusually exciting biopic. Edison might not deserve the blame for Topsy, but his animal body count is still high enough to start his own abattoir.

But whether it’s the invention of the electric chair or Westinghouse’s (stylized) backstory, the film lacks either the interest or the courage to pursue any of the subplots with any real depth.

Which would be surmountable, but the main action participants suffer the same neglect. As much as The Current War’s quick cuts and glassy sound effects try to ape the frenetic spirit of invention, the film is neutered when it comes to having anything of substance to actually say about these people and the trajectory they put the world on.

That’s a bizarre oversight for a script by Michael Mitnick that at least attempts some hand-waving toward a dark reflection of the very same world we’re now living in over a century later: a Gilded Age redux, the foundational mythmaking that has always been tied up between this country and the Great Men doing what it takes in the name of creation, even the vaporware of Silicon Valley (er, Menlo Park) luminaries.

But how about the powerhouse acting! That distraction alone coupled with the film’s tortuous journey to screens suggests that while The Current War isn’t the most insightful biopic, it has a good claim to the one we deserve at the moment.

Mission Control

12 Strong

by George Wolf

12 Strong tells a tale of extreme courage and heroism carried out by extremely courageous and heroic men. Like many films on a similar path, it sometimes struggles to navigate the overly familiar tropes that come with this territory.

In the weeks immediately after 9/11, the special forces team now known as the “Horse Soldiers” were the first deployed into Afghanistan. A dozen men, led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, charismatic as usual), joined the soldiers under Afghan warlord General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in an attempt to take back a Taliban stronghold.

Director Nicolai Fuglsig, helming just his second feature, teams with experienced screenwriters Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) to adapt Doug Stanton’s book with alternating layers of nuance and shallow cliche.

The men are tough, stoic, and bound by the brotherhood of battle. Their women and children back home must stiffen their lips and hold heads high while they long for their husbands and fathers to return. These traits are not weaknesses in the real world, far from it, but incorporating them into a big screen narrative without the essence of checking off obligatory character-building boxes has become a common obstacle that 12 Strong can’t overcome.

But almost every time you’re ready to give up on it, the film rebounds with a surprise. While there’s far too much exposition dialog, with the characters explaining things to the audience rather than talking realistically, there are also quiet moments that resonate. Dostum’s reminder to Nelson that he may already have a life “better than the afterlife” underscores the film’s success in showcasing the effective teamwork and diplomacy that emerged in the mission, despite the culture clash.

The ensemble supporting cast is loaded with strength (Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, William Fichtner, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes), and Fuglsig finds his footing after a by-the-numbers start, rolling out some tense, gritty, and well-plotted battle scenes for a rousing finale.

The Horse Soldiers earned their statue at the 9/11 Memorial site, and 12 Strong is a well-deserved salute. It’s always watchable but also muddled, and too often chooses broad strokes over finer, more memorable points.





Swimming in Romance

The Shape of Water

by Hope Madden

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.





Come Out at Night

Nocturnal Animals

by Hope Madden

Style, elegance and crippling loneliness – though Tom Ford’s two films seem to be wildly different beasts, the same solitude and heartbreak inform both.

Like George (Colin Firth) in Ford’s incandescent 2009 feature debut A Single Man, Susan (Amy Adams) is at a crossroads in life with a future that looks unbearably grim.

Nocturnal Animals follows present-day Susan, a successful gallery owner struggling to keep up appearances in her marriage and finances, who’s surprised to receive a manuscript written by her first husband, Edward. Alone in her austere LA home, she reads through the night.

We flash occasionally to the Susan of 20 years ago (also played by Adams), just settling into a nurturing romance with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – the sensitive writer dubbed “too weak” by Susan’s mother (played with bitter relish by Laura Linney).

But most of the film is dedicated to Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals.

Unlike the over-the-top style of the film’s “real world,” the novel-come-to-life has its own aesthetic – dusty, sunburnt and chaotic. As the novel’s hero Tony – also played by Gyllenhaal – drives through West Texas with his wife and daughter, he runs afoul of three not-so-good-old-boys.

Adams-lookalike Isla Fisher plays Tony’s wife, which hints at the themes driving the ex-husband’s work. The internal narrative plays like an arthouse twist on a traditional testosterone-laden revenge fable – and the film itself is about revenge, to a degree, just not the kind you might find in Charles Bronson’s Death Wish.

The world Ford creates inside the novel is its own surprising destination, playing with preconceived notions and haunting us with one startling image after another. The always wonderful Michael Shannon, along with a freakishly believable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, give the novel’s screen time a current of authenticity and terror.

Gyllenhaal and Adams – two of the strongest actors in film today – work wonders. Playing the same character caught twenty years apart, Adams reflects both the change the decades have left on Susan, as well as those elements of her personality that remain with her.

Gyllenhaal is likewise nuanced and powerful. While his two characters are separate entities, they are, in many respects, the same person. The strength across the film – and also its weakness – is the way the internal narrative informs and is informed by the real world of the characters.

The structure, the style, the sound – every aesthetic choice – is meticulous, but there’s a tidiness in the manufacturing of the movie that makes the way themes play out feel too orderly.

It’s a minor flaw, but it’s enough to keep Nocturnal Animals from reaching noir/pulp/arthouse mash-up heights of Blue Velvet or Drive. It’s not enough to keep it – particularly its many award-worthy performances – from being remembered at the end of the year, though.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





New Kid in Town

Complete Unknown

by George Wolf

If you’ve ever met someone whose grandiose stories didn’t always add up, you may think you know Alice (Rachel Weisz), a plus-one at an adult birthday celebration who charms the other party guests…until she doesn’t.

Alice is just the latest identity for a woman who is addicted to being a “blank slate,” abruptly leaving everything and everyone around her, traveling to a new locale, and becoming someone else. She might be a magician’s assistant in China, she might be researching frogs in Australia, or she might be making all of it up.

She’s finagled this party invite because she has quite a history with Tom, the birthday boy (Michael Shannon). “Alice” ghosted him some 15 years earlier, but now thinks she’d like to catch up, which isn’t quite the birthday surprise that Tom, or his wife, was expecting.

Director/co-writer Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) sets a very intriguing premise with precision and occasional sleight of hand, then can’t quite capitalize on the expectations he so skillfully crafted.

Weisz and Shannon are both…take a wild guess…fantastic, as they slowly reveal parts of their characters’ histories that only make you more interested in digging deeper. She is cryptic but hypnotizing, while he is wounded but dangerously curious about the strange habits of his old friend.

Complete Unknown feels much like the latest stage play Roman Polanski might have brought to the screen, minus the biting insight. Once Tom confronts Alice about leaving him, the film meanders as much as they do. We get plenty of conversation, obvious metaphors such as mirror gazing and metamorphic amphibians, but truly salient points about identity and limitation seem just out of reach.

Well-crafted and impeccably performed, Complete Unknown is never less than watchable, even if it peaks much too early.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

 

 





Elvis has Entered the Building

Elvis & Nixon

by Hope Madden

On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley made an unexpected visit to the security checkpoint outside the White House, hoping security would deliver his hand written letter to President Nixon.

He really, really wanted a badge.

It’s a profoundly absurd story – the drug addled King of Rock and Roll hoping to meet Nixon and become a Federal Agent at Large, going undercover to infiltrate different groups (like Beatles fans) who were “bringing down the country.”

Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) celebrates the absurdity by taking the driest approach to telling the story.

First of all, Michael Shannon plays Elvis. Now, Shannon is undeniably talented – he’s among the most reliable and impressive actors working today, capable of comedy, drama, and everything in between. But the tall, hard, grim looking actor is not a top-of-mind prospect when casting for Elvis.

Likewise, Kevin Spacey makes for an unusual choice as Nixon. These are two of the world’s most imitated, most recognizable presences. Kudos to Johnson for kicking the wicked comedy off before the opening credits even role with casting choices that seem like a clever joke.

Both actors are fun to watch, especially as they play off each other and off Nixon aides Elgin and Dwight Chapin, ably handled by Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, respectively.

Shannon, in particular, gives a nuanced and dialed-down performances as the King, both comical and sad.

Alex Pettyfer’s character, Elvis’s longtime friend (and film executive producer) Jerry Schilling, is meant to flesh out Elvis’s loneliness and offer a regular man’s point of view inside this relentlessly weird story.

To be fair, Pettyfer is better in Elvis & Nixon than he has ever been. Keep in mind, the actor has sucked out loud in every film up to now, so that is not necessarily high praise. But he does keep the film tenderly grounded.

The screenplay remains somewhat superficial, though. It leaves the film feeling like an overly long, if abundantly amusing, sketch. The fact that this all actually happened is genuinely amazing, which begs the question, why does the film settle for wryly amusing?

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Everlovin’ Light

Midnight Special

by Hope Madden

Get to know Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas native is batting 1000, writing and directing among the most beautiful and compelling American films being made. His latest, Midnight Special, is no different. But then again, it is very, very different.

You should know as little as possible going into this film because Nichols is the master of slow reveal, pulling you into a situation and exploiting your preconceived notions until you are wonderfully bewildered by the path the story takes.

Suffice it to say, Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon, as well as Joel Edgerton, are armed men in a seedy motel. They have a child in tow (Jaeden Lieberher – wonderful). Local news casts a dark image of the trio, but there’s also a Waco-esque religious community looking for the boy, not to mention the FBI. So, what the hell is going on?

Nichols knows, and he invites your curiosity as he upends expectations. The film toys with the clash between logic and the supernatural, not unlike the themes of Nichols’s masterpiece Take Shelter (also starring a magnificent Shannon). While moments of Midnight Special will feel more reminiscent of memorable films in the SciFi vein, what this filmmaker does with his subject is beautifully novel.

The film, like all of Nichols’s work, is deeply rooted in traditions and atmosphere specific to the American South, and the filmmaker boasts a deep and easy skill as a storyteller. He’s also truly gifted with casting.

Lieberher, who showed amazing natural talent in 2014’s St. Vincent, again offers a beautifully restrained central figure. Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst are likewise wonderful, both turning in nuanced performances that reflect Nichols’s uncanny way of dealing with the extraordinary in the most naturalistic way.

But Michael Shannon, a remarkable talent no matter what film he graces, anchors the film with a heartbreaking, award-worthy performance.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.

Verdict-4-5-Stars





The Weed of Christmas Present

The Night Before

by Hope Madden

It was fun spending the apocalypse with Seth Rogen and his friends, so why not Christmas?

The Night Before gives you that chance. Isaac (Rogen) and BFF Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent Christmas Eve with Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) every year since his parents died. They have the same routine, hit the same spots, seek the same elusive party. But the tradition’s getting a little pathetic as the trio heads into their mid-thirties, so this is their last holiday hurrah.

It’s a lame set-up about embracing adulthood without abandoning your true friends, but there’s magical Christmas weed and a slew of hilarious cameos, so maybe things will work out OK?

JGL is reliably likeable, Rogen is – well, you know what you get with him. Mackie is no comic genius and his performance feels a bit too broad. But the secret here is in the supporting players.

Jillian Bell is characteristically hilarious, as is Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, but the way Michael Shannon walks away with scenes is tantamount to larceny. He doesn’t do a lot of comedy (unless you count that sorority girl’s letter online), but his deadpan performance is easily the highlight of the film.

It’s hard to tell whether the film is too silly or not silly enough. It has its laughs, raunchy though they are, but the adventure feels simultaneously slapped together and formulaic.

Director Jonathan Levine (50/50) and his team of writers (including Evan Goldberg, natch) dip a toe in schmaltz rather than investing at all in actual character development, preferring to string together episodes of goofball fun.

The zany misadventures aren’t enough to carry the film, and lacking depth of character creates a “holiday spirit” climax that is tough to care about.

Verdict-2-5-Stars