Tag Archives: Michelle Williams

Double Trouble

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

by Hope Madden

An unusual note about comic book movies is that the sequel is often, perhaps usually, superior to the original. Why? Because the original can be so burdened by telling an origin story – usually one we already know.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is one such film, superior to the original not because we already knew the symbiote antihero’s origin tale, though. Rather, director Ruben Fleischer’s much-maligned 2018 blockbuster suffered from a choppy first act and uninspired direction.

With director Andy Serkis (this guy knows how to motion capture) at the helm and a streamlined writing team (Kelly Marcel is the only writer from the original film to return, this time sharing the pen with star Tom Hardy), Let There Be Carnage determines its tone and pace from the opening scene and, for better or worse, rides that through to its concluding, post-credit moments.

The tone runs far closer to horror-comedy than the original, a theme that suits the story of frenemies, one trying to keep the other from eating human brains.

Hardy returns as Eddie Brock, a one-time superstar San Francisco reporter who ran afoul of his fiancé (Michelle Williams), his news outlet and the law last go-round, but found a life partner in the flesh-hungry extra-terrestrial parasite, Venom (also voice by Hardy). They have inadvertently infected cannibal serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) with symbiote blood, and now he, too, has a little voice and big alien inside of him.

Harrelson and his slightly digitally modified eyeballs offer villainous fun — though, to be honest, Riz Ahmed’s evil genius in the previous film was not only underappreciated but superior to Harrelson’s lunatic menace.

Still, Hardy is the reason to see the film. His Eddie is put upon and weary while his Venom is boisterous and often very funny. Through the two performances, Hardy delivers the type of lived-in animosity needed to sell any odd-couple story.

Though the CGI was sharper last time, the overall aesthetic Serkis creates is far campier and Goth, which feeds the film’s spooky season vibe. Williams, in a smaller role, finds her stride, though Naomie Harris’s underwritten character is a shame.

The result is a mish-mash of messy, frenetic fun with a higher body count than you might expect. Plus a post-credits stinger worth sticking around to see.

So Much Drama in the NYC

After the Wedding

by Brandon Thomas

The adult drama has all but vanished from American multiplexes. Sure, the occasional Oscar-baity title sneaks through around the holidays, but those mom-pleasing, bring your hanky dramas of yesteryear are pretty much a thing of the past. 

Despite the presence of A+ talent and an overall intriguing story, After the Wedding isn’t the shot in the arm the genre was looking for.

A retread of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar nominee for foreign language film, After the Wedding follows Isabel (Michelle Williams), who is living a fulfilling, productive life running a small orphanage in Kolkata.

After an extremely generous donation offer is made to the orphanage, Isabel travels to New York to meet Theresa (Julianne Moore), the benefactor. Unexpectedly invited to the wedding of Theresa’s daughter, Isabel finds herself face-to-face with a man from her past (Billy Crudup), and a 20-year-old decision that will shake her to her core.

After the Wedding trips up right out of the gate by leaning so heavily into melodrama. Instead of an emotionally weighty dramatic piece anchored by an amazing cast, this film latches on to genre cliches and doesn’t let go.

Deep, dark family secrets? Check. Mystery illness? Check. Sneaky motivations? Double check. The movie is one evil twin away from being a bad episode of General Hospital.

Did I mention the amount of teary-eyed yelling? There is plenty.

The only real sense of urgency comes from the movie being in a rush to get to that next dramatic reveal. The characters, and likewise the audience, are never given the chance to dwell on what just happened. The experience feels cheap and anticlimactic.

Moore and Williams continue to show that they’re national treasures, but even they can only do so much with the material afforded them. The two actresses share multiple scenes together, but any emotional weight is often deflated by the scattershot script—co-written by director Bart Freundlich (Moore’s husband)— jumping from one unearned character beat to the next. These people feel like a blended mix of every character seen in indie dramas instead of being fully-formed individuals.

Despite reeling in a Who’s Who of a cast, After the Wedding never becomes anything more than a Who Cares.


Hardy Boys

Venom

by Hope Madden

We don’t need another superhero. That’s what the Venom trailers told us, and it’s pretty true.

So, what Venom had to offer—an antihero, a Jekyll/Hyde thing starring a brilliant actor who excels with complex, dark roles—felt like a great change of pace.

Tom Hardy was the ideal choice for the dual role of Eddie Brock, semi-doofus reporter, and Venom, flesh-eating alien symbiote. This should have worked, partly because Hardy knows how to mine villains for their humanity, and watching him wrestle with the good v evil duality never ceases to be impressive.

What Venom suffers from more than anything is the expectations set by a Marvel release. Don’t be mistaken, were this the DC universe it would be the second best comic book film released since Christopher Nolan cast Hardy as a super villain.

But it is, indeed, Marvel. (If you forget, Stan Lee shows up to remind you.) And for that reason, regardless of the fact that Venom boasts superior acting, FX, story arc, action choreography and writing than anything DC has done this century besides Wonder Woman, its regrettably traditional execution makes it feel a bit stale. Because it is Marvel.

A characteristically committed Hardy elevates scenes, indulging a far more humorous tone than what we’ve seen lately from the versatile actor. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions) is a solid choice to play Eddie/Venom’s nemesis. Never campy or over-the-top, Ahmed evokes a type of lifelong genius who cannot be persuaded that his ideas are at odds with the ideals he alleges to support.

Michelle Williams is uncharacteristically flat, and the balance of the cast is mainly forgettable, but the real problem with the film rests on uninspired direction.

Ruben Fleischer showed a flair for action, colorful theatrics and humor with his 2009 breakout Zombieland, but the joy of carnage and camaraderie that infected that flick is sadly missing here.

Zombieland was aided immeasurably by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose irrepressible irreverence made the Deadpool films such a riot. It’s a tone sorely lacking in this screenplay, penned by a team of four whose output includes a Fifty Shades film, Kangaroo Jack and Fleischer’s abysmal 2013 mob flick, Gangster Squad.

Venom is not a bad movie. It’s fun, competently made entertainment.

And a disappointment.





Me Be Pretty One Day

I Feel Pretty

by Hope Madden

Trainwreck, the 2015 big-screen break out for comic Amy Schumer (and LeBron James and John Cena) offered a wise about-face for the rom-com.

Written by Schumer, the film simultaneously embraced and subverted tradition by basically casting a female in the traditionally male role of eternal adolescent who accidentally finds love and, therefore, adulthood.

She returns to the romantic comedy with I Feel Pretty, film that is neither romantic nor comedic, unfortunately.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a perfectly attractive woman.

So there’s your first problem.

I will give writers/directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein credit for one thing. When Bennett hits her head at a spinning class and wakes up believing she’s traffic-stopping gorgeous, at least the film does not stoop to showing us the flawless physical image Renee sees in the mirror. Thanks for that.

So, it’s only after a traumatic brain injury that Amy Schumer can consider herself attractive.

Now she has all the confidence she needs to go after that receptionist gig at the big cosmetics firm. (Wait! A romantic comedy where a receptionist can afford a small but cool NYC apartment? Yes, that checks out.)

Things take a turn for the better whenever CEO Avery LeClair (Michelle Williams) appears onscreen. Her weirdly spot-on performance as the baby-voiced heiress is a riot—and the only unpredictable moments in the film belong to her.

Schumer does what she can with this superficial, blandly rote script. She has excellent chemistry with her co-stars (Busy Phillips, Aidy Bryant, Rory Scovel), regardless of their underwritten roles. But when you have a comic talent like Schumer on the bill and you still cannot think of anything funnier than seeing a pretty woman fall down, your writing is weak.

Let’s not even address the fact that all Renee wants in life is to work for a cosmetics company and maybe, if we all dream big enough, she might be the new face of a cosmetics line!

Jesus.

In summation, I Feel Pretty is Big meets Shallow Hal, if those films suggested that all Tom Hanks needed was confidence enough to believe he should be objectified, then all would be well.

Can Amy Schumer just write the next Amy Schumer movie? Please?





The Abyss of Freedom

All the Money in the World

by George Wolf

The eleventh-hour replacement of Kevin Spacey wasn’t just a boldly genius play by legendary director Ridley Scott – it was the only play, a cinematic Hail Mary that elevates All the Money in the World as a curiosity, a statement and a filmgoing experience.

Christopher Plummer steps in as the legendary J. Paul Getty, delivering a terrific, gravitas-rich performance that anchors Scott’s dramatic retelling of events surrounding the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s teenaged grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer).

Scott digs in to a meaty script from David Scarpa (adapting John Person’s book) to deliver a highly engaging film filled with tension, insight, stellar performances and crackling relevance.

As Paul’s mother Gail Getty, Michelle Williams is award-worthy fantastic. Gail, no longer a “real” Getty after divorcing Paul’s father, must negotiate with both the kidnappers and her former father-in-law for her son’s safety, and Williams makes Gail’s mix of frustration, desperation and disgust emotionally genuine.

While refusing to pay the 17 million-dollar ransom, J. Paul enlists the help of former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to recover his grandson. As the hunt intensifies, Scott gracefully balances the extremes on opposing sides of the boy’s fate, each one consumed with profits and losses.

Wahlberg again shows how effective he can be under a strong director, and Fletcher’s search for Paul becomes a taut nail-biter while the elder Getty -“not just the richest man in the world but the richest man in the history of the world“- shells out millions on the black market for a masterpiece canvas.

Getty’s defense of his interest in things over people is just one of several passages from Scarpa that are weighty with resonance. His script is full of biting, memorable dialogue, such as Getty’s explanation of an “abyss of freedom” that comes from extreme wealth, without ever succumbing to grand speechifying.

The “erasing” of Spacey is incredibly seamless, but long after those headlines fade, All the Money in the World holds plenty of capital. As both a fascinating historical drama and a telling reminder of what we value, it’s a film that can stand with the best of Scott’s storied career.





Big Top PT

The Greatest Showman

by Hope Madden

In so many ways, The Greatest Showman is a wildly inappropriate vision of the life of PT Barnum—a politician, spokesman for temperance, abolitionist and, above all things, an outsized promoter and self-promoter. He’d been all these things for decades before he dipped his toe into the circus industry, but what fun is that story?

Let’s rewrite. We need romance, lessons, heartwarming children and resolvable, tidy drama. Barnum as a tot, working dirty-faced and split-shoed besides his father, tailoring for Dickensian clients and wages. But he has dreams. Big dreams.

Yes, the film simplifies the actual story of Barnum’s life to its barest lessons-to-be-learned minimum. The oversimplification spills into the core conflict (of many) in the man’s actual history: his presentation and monetization of “human curiosities.”

But maybe that’s where this movie is closest to the truth. It is selling you an enjoyable time, spinning your head with breathless setpieces, color, glamour, surprise, happiness. Sleight of hand. And at the same time selling the tale that, no matter how Barnum may have used these people for his own profit, this is really a story of empowerment.

“Some critics might have even called this show a celebration of humanity,” says Barnum’s harshest critic, New York Herald writer James Gordon Bennett.

As genuinely if superficially enjoyable as The Greatest Showman is, there is something unseemly in embracing so tidy a view.

Still, Hugh Jackman—maybe the most charismatic performer in modern film—is in great voice in yet another big, big musical. His earnest likeability and exuberance convince you to disregard your instincts on this film just as surely as his Barnum uses the same tactics to lure uncertain outcasts out of the shadows and onto the stage.

Michelle Williams fares less well as Barnum’s wife Charity, saddled as she is with the bottomless devotion and forgiveness that is the mark of the underwritten spouse character. Rebecca Ferguson mines for emotional clarity in a small role and a magnetic Keala Settle is a natural fit for the heart and soul of Barnum’s “curiosities.”

Director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, crafts a Moulin Rouge-esque vision that transports you, which is appropriate when tackling the life of PT Barnum.

It also works to convince you that all this—the spotlight, the manipulation, the exploitation, the laughter and the admiration—was the best possible thing for Barnum’s performers.

Barnum might have liked that spin, too, but maybe that’s the problem.





Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet – Oscar Edition

It is that time again – the time of year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the best of the best, and we honor the worst of those best.

Yes, Skeletons in the Closet: Oscar Edition is back. It’s the day we dig around in Oscar nominee closets to find those low budget, horror bones hiding behind the fancier schmancier stuff.

And we can always find them. The great Viola Davis wasted her talent in the Rear Window/Fright Night knock-off Disturbia. The also-great Michael Shannon spent some time early in his career in the actually quite decent Dead Birds, while Ryan Gosling co-starred in the intriguingly titled Frankenstein and Me. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer slummed it up in Pulse.

But there’s worse – and yet, somehow better – material to discuss. Here are our favorite not-good horror hiding in these A-listers’ closets.

5. Denzel Washington: The Bone Collector (1999)

Denzel! Just a year after the serial Oscar nominee and winner made the dark action thriller Fallen – not good, but not bad – he returned to the land of CSI with The Bone Collector. Must’ve had an itch to scratch.

In Phillip Noyce’s grim police procedural, Washington plays a quadriplegic homicide detective helping beat cop Angelina Jolie track down a serial killer who’s leaving grisly victims and frustrating clues.

Plus, Queen Latifah!

The film is bland, Noyce never able to focus on a physically immobile hero and still create an exciting pace. And yet, Washington commands your attention no matter how listless the scene or unlikely the rest of the casting.

4. Michelle Williams, Halloween 20: H20 (1998)

It’s been 20 years since Michael Myers escaped his confines and slaughtered all those people in Haddonfield. Thousands of miles away in a private school in Northern California, Laurie Strode and her brother come face to face again.

Who was excited? Back in 1998, we were. Jamie Lee Curtis was back, and we were allowed to forget Halloweens 3 – 6 ever happened. Plus – though he’s no John Carpenter – director Steve Minor does have a history with horror, and Curtis’s iconic mom Janet Leigh popped by.

The result was slick, and boasted a great deal more talent than the others: Alan Arkin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and 2017 Oscar nom Michelle Williams. The 4-time Oscar nominee was saddled with the one-dimensional sweetheart role, and though you’d never have known she’d one day be among the most talented performers in film, you knew she was too good for this movie.

3. Jeff Bridges: The Vanishing (1993)

In 1988, co-writer/director George Sluizer unleashed a daring, meticulous and devastating film on an unsuspecting world. Spoorloos asked you to follow a grieving boyfriend down a rabbit hole – one with no escape.

Five years later, Sluizer returned to the scene of the crime, current Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges in tow. Bridges plays just an ordinary guy indulging a particular fantasy. Unfortunately, Bernrd-Pierre Donnadieu played the same ordinary guy to far, far more believable and therefore chilling effect back in ’88.

Worse still, the fantasy itself is gutted with an “America’s not ready for the real thing” ending that just makes you want to kick a guy. Infuriating!

2. Viggo Mortensen: The Prophecy (1995)

This is one of those bad movies that is fun to watch. Somehow the unusually talent-stacked cast doesn’t feel wasted as much as it does weirdly placed.

There is no question this film belongs to Christopher Walken – as do all films in which he graces the screen. His natural weirdness and uncanny comic timing make the film more memorable than it deserves to be, but when it comes to sinister, Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen cuts quite a figure as Lucifer.

Unseemly, gorgeous and evil, he seethes through his few scenes and leaves the celluloid scorched.

1. Casey affleck: Soul Survivors (2001)

Good God, this one’s bad.

Writer/director Steve Carpenter – auteur behind such classics as The Dorm that Dripped Blood – somehow convinced talent to join this cast. Who? A post-American Beauty Wes Bentley, an established Luke Wilson, and pre-Oscar nominee Casey Affleck.

Affleck stars as the tragically dead (or is he?) boyfriend of Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) an awkward runner. (Yes, it’s tangential to any reasonable conversation about the film, but she runs in nearly every scene and I have never seen a more awkward runner.)

Who’s alive? Who’s dead? What’s happening? Well, in case you’ve been lobotomized and can’t keep up, luckily Father Jude (Wilson) will literally explain everything.

Still, Affleck is somehow not terrible.





All in the Family

Manchester by the Sea

by George Wolf

Manchester by the Sea will put your emotions in a vice and slowly squeeze, buffering waves of monumental sadness with moments of biting humor and brittle affection. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a film so deeply felt it can leave you physically tired. A very good kind of tired.

Casey Affleck is a sure Oscar contender as Lee Chandler, a quiet, moody soul content to live in a one room apartment and work as a janitor in suburban Boston. When the call comes about the passing of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee heads to Manchester to attend to family business.

His brother’s will specifies that Lee is to be guardian of Joe’s 16 year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges in a crackling, breakout performance), a responsibility Lee is not expecting nor seemingly interested in.

Questions on this family backstory abound, and Lonergan takes his sweet, beautiful time in answering them. After his stellar 2000 debut You Can Count on Me and the ambitious mess of Margaret a year later, with his third feature Lonergan displays a form of storytelling masterfully rooted in subtlety and realism.

Sketches of a narrative take shape without regard for any strict linear structure, and the dense fog of grief within the Chandler family becomes palpable, anchored in Affleck’s tremendous performance. More than just a moody loner, Affleck crafts Lee as a soul unsure if he seeks punishment or absolution, and seemingly content to remain undecided.

The sudden responsibility of Patrick forces Lee to face things he’s run from, and Affleck’s scenes with the young Hedges are filled with wonderfully restrained moments of tenderness and anger. Even better are the sudden bursts of piercing humor, as Lonergan is always two steps ahead of where you think a scene may be going.

The entire supporting cast is uniformly excellent, highlighted by an unforgettable Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Despite limited screen time, Williams makes Randi’s own pain visible through her facade, finally airing it in a shattering reunion with her ex husband. A masterclass in film acting from Williams and Affleck, these are moments so full of ache and humanity you’ll be devastated, yet thankful for the experience.

Williams’s small but mighty performance pierces the film’s admittedly male-centric worldview. The other female characters are more broadly drawn in negative lights, yet this reinforces the sad cycle of emotional immaturity in danger of being passed on to another Chandler man. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a hopeful ode to breaking these barriers, and enduring in the face of the worst that life can bring.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

 





Portraits and Landscapes

Certain Women

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt sees something extraordinary in the simple daily struggle of ordinary people. Her latest film, Certain Women, again observes with genuine interest the (mostly) routine choices and sacrifices that quietly shape lives.

Weaving together three separate tales, each with just a whisper of a connection to the next, she tells of the isolation and disappointments coloring the lives of certain small town women.

Laura Dern stands out, exasperated but compassionate, as a rural Montana lawyer contending with a confused and obstinate client (Jared Harris, wonderful). Their story crescendos with uncharacteristic (for Reichardt) drama, but even here, the intimacy and understatement highlight something far more human than the tale itself predicts.

Reichardt regular Michelle Williams leads the second story, one full of understated moments echoing with regret and longing. The third, starring Kristen Stewart as a new lawyer teaching a class and Lily Gladstone as the desperately lonely ranch hand she befriends, is the most hushed and heartbreaking.

Stewart, who’s been so strong in recent roles (Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, Equals), falls back a bit on her trademark angst, but Gladstone’s aching loneliness balances it out.

It isn’t simply the characters, beautifully wrought as they are, that carry these loosely braided tales. Reichardt’s eloquently captured Montana landscape, lovely but hard, both informs and reflects each of the leads.

She’s working again with regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and together they let the rugged landscape speak as loudly, or as quietly, as the cast.

Few filmmakers – if any – can create such texture in a film. Reichardt rushes nothing, letting every scene breathe, every performance matter. There’s no shorthand here, and viewers thirsting for clear-cut drama and momentum may be uncomfortable with her choices. But those familiar with her work – Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), in particular – will embrace the quiet intimacy of the portraits.

Verdict-4-0-Stars