Tag Archives: Naomi Watts

Queen of the Mountain

Infinite Storm

by George Wolf

Just last month, The Desperate Hour showcased Naomi Watts in an almost one woman show. Infinite Storm adds a few more cast members, and this time Watts isn’t just figuratively carrying a film on her back, she’s literally carrying another human.

Based on the true life adventure that found search and rescue climber Pam Bales trying to descend New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington before a storm hits, the film leans heavily on Watts to make a rescue infinitely more emotional.

On her way down the mountain in Oct. 2010, Bales encountered a lone climber she called “John” (Billy Howle) immobile and unprepared for the bitter cold and biting, 50 mph winds. Risking her own life, Bales’s extensive training was often rebuffed by the uncooperative John as she tried to get them both safely home.

First-time screenwriter Joshua Rollins adapts Ty Gagne’s New Hampshire Union Leader article with added layers of sympathy designed to quicken our emotional attachment. Pam’s chosen to ignore the weather forecast and climb because it’s the anniversary of something traumatic in her life, and climbing “is cheaper than therapy.”

This isn’t a documentary, so bulking up the narrative is a smart play by Rollins and director Malgorzata Szumowska (whose excellent The Other Lamb was woefully underseen). Szumowska employs onscreen digital timekeeping to keep the pressure on, while deftly weaving Pam’s flashbacks into the harrowing, well-crafted set pieces filmed in the Slovenian Alps (cheaper than N.H.). Yes, we do eventually get to the source of Pam’s trauma, but the reveal is just slightly askew from what we’re expecting, which is welcome.

Watts again proves she’s more than capable of handling a film’s heavy lifting. She’s rugged throughout the physicality that’s required, and effortlessly human within the ordeal. Pam may not understand why John is acting the way he is, but her commitment never feels false or convenient.

And even if John is sometimes unresponsive, Watts has someone to talk to this time, helping Pam’s expressed inner thoughts feel more organic.

The common challenge for adventure films like this is to make an individual experience speak in universal terms. Watts pushes Infinite Storm past some by-the-numbers moments for a worthy reflection on struggle and healing.

Not to mention the value of a dry pair of socks.

Real Time Nightmare

The Desperate Hour

by George Wolf

With a main character spending most of the film alone, interacting with other characters only through a cell phone, The Desperate Hour (previously titled Lakewood) has the look of a production born out of quarantine.

But writer Chris Sparling is just returning to his framework for Buried from 12 twelve years ago, and tweaking the specifics with some sadly recognizable plot points.

Naomi Watts is Amy, a suburban mom who’s taken a personal day off from work as the anniversary of her husband’s fatal car accident approaches. Amy sets off on a long jog to clear her head, and as she winds deeper through the wooded area surrounding her neighborhood, multiple police sirens give the fist clue that another tragedy has occurred.

Veteran director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American, The Bone Collector) sets a nice hook, layering disorienting camera movements and increasingly frantic cell phone calls to convey Amy’s growing panic as more details become available.

There’s a shooter at her son Noah’s (Colton Gobbo) high school, the area is on lockdown, and the police want to know if Amy keeps any guns in the house.

It’s difficult to overstate how quickly this premise would collapse with a lesser talent than Watts in the lead. She’s emoting with a smart phone and voice actors, but damned if she doesn’t make Amy’s desperation downright palpable, subtly conveying the chilling realization that a uniquely American epidemic is no longer happening somewhere else.

As the real time ticks by, though, the organic tension gives way to increased contrivance and emotional string pulling more befitting a TV movie-of-the-week. And with a mid-credits epilogue that is well-meaning but simplistic and preachy, the final minutes of The Desperate Hour comes dangerously close to undercutting the seriousness of the film’s intentions.

But there’s no doubting Watts. It is her commitment that won’t let us turn away from Amy, or completely give up on this film.

Identity Theft


by Hope Madden

It’s appropriate that so much of the film Luce follows the titular character’s preparation for a debate. The film itself seems to beg for audience argument.

Luce is a bit of an American miracle. A boy soldier rescued from Eritrea at 7 by a wealthy white couple, he’s reinvented himself by the beginning of his senior year in high school, becoming the golden child: debate team captain, cross country captain, speech team captain and eventual valedictorian.

A sternly supportive history teacher (Octavia Spencer) raises questions, her goal to help ensure Luce understands that he “cannot fuck up.” It becomes the catalyst for a tense, borderline terrifying exploration of identity, preconceptions, race, refined society and who gets to take credit for what.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., so wounded and wonderful in It Comes at Night, holds all these puzzle pieces together as the enigma at the center of a mystery. His turn as the charismatic central figure in this highly polite and scholarly debate is fascinating, haunting and, in rare flashes, painfully vulnerable.

His manufactured persona, his carefully studied sincerity, emphasize an image that’s too good to be true. But Harrison Jr. brings so many additional layers—manifestations of survival techniques, an ability to read his environment and predict everyone’s behavior—that give his character needed complexity. Luce is not just a black student everyone can be proud of, or some wonderful example of how our system can work.

And that’s what makes him scary. So when he executes a history assignment too well—writing from the perspective of a historical figure who suggested violence as a moral response to colonialism—he freaks out a teacher (Spencer, wonderfully righteousness) who’d rather he embrace his favored status so she can bask in the glow.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Luce’s socially conscious parents, and the pairing makes it tough to keep your mind from recalling Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s grim picture of affluent familial catastrophe. Whether intentional or not, the casting adds an underlying sense of urgent dread—as does Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s discordant score.

Watts is particularly strong, and the who-knows-what dance she does with Roth as their son plays one off the other adds a queasying rhythm to the mystery.

Julius Onah’s direction sometimes betrays the stagebound nature of the source material. (J.C. Lee adapts his own much lauded play.) Too much is revealed through lengthy monologues and there’s little smooth flow from scene to scene.

But his film teems with provocation and his cast more than meets that challenge. Harrison Jr. in particular is a revelation, an image of a thing that doesn’t exist but is so true you’ll never know if anything else is really there.

Throwing Stones

The Glass Castle

by Hope Madden

I was excited about the screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Hers is a well-told, often jaw-dropping story of a most unusual family. Her telling is neither sentimental nor leading; she is both clear-eyed and forgiving of an upbringing that is eccentric at best, criminally negligent at worst.

Clearly destined for big screen treatment, the adaptation appeared to fall into the right hands considering the director – Destin Daniel Cretton, of the underseen gem Short Term 12 – and the cast.

Oscar winner and fellow Short Term 12 alum Brie Larson takes lead responsibilities as the adult Walls, while her parents are played by the always wonderful Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts.

That’s a pedigree right there. So what went wrong?

A lot – and the release date was the first clue.

August tends to be a dumping ground. If it didn’t have “summer blockbuster” written on it and it’s not likely to bait Oscar voters, it comes out now.

Presumably, Glass Castle was originally conceived as Oscar bait, and the performances are wonderful, to be sure. It’s really Cretton, along with Andrew Lanham, who adapted Walls’s text, who fell down on this one.

With Cretton, Lanham co-wrote the 2017 screen adaptation of The Shack, an inspirational drama in which a grieving man receives a letter, and then a visit, from God. And that may be all you need to know.

Between Lanham’s refocusing of the story, Cretton’s manipulative use of slow-mo and the emotionally leading score, Walls’s remarkably balanced portrait of wanderlust, addiction and damage is utterly lost.

In its place, you’ll find cheap sentimentality.

The volatile and life-shaping relationship between Walls and her mother is discarded almost outright and Watts is left basically sidelined while a more cinema-friendly arc is developed between father and daughter.

Harrelson has far more to work with, but the root of his troubling quest for freedom is pushed aside in favor of wise-yet-innocent monologues and general zaniness.

Do yourself a favor and grab the book instead.


Yo, Chucky!


by George Wolf

I remember the sweaty, battered face staring at me from the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1975, a face that had taken plenty of punches, and was lining up to take more at the hands of The Greatest.

It was face of Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, who was about to fight Muhammed Ali in the old Richfield Coliseum near Cleveland – then a sparkling new jewel – for the heavyweight championship and inspire a young Sly Stallone to write a screenplay about “The Italian Stallion.”

Chuck finally gets the story of the real-life Rocky on the screen, utilizing painful honesty, subtle humor and a compelling performance from Liev Schreiber to craft a touching look at hard lessons learned.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) gets the 70s period details just right, and surrounds Wepner’s shot at the title with cinematic versions of the cliched boxer looking for his chance to be a contender, sharply illustrating how much Wepner defined all that is celebrated about life in the ring.

As Wepner claws his way to the New Jersey heavyweight championship, he watches 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight and longs for respect, even as he continually takes his wife (a terrific Elizabeth Moss) and daughter for granted while following his love for “wine, women and song.”

Besting all expectations, Wepner’s plan to “wear (Ali) down with my face” lasted into the 15h and final round, and he became one of the few opponents to actually knock Ali to the canvas. His increased celebrity status, and the news that the Oscar-winning Rocky was based on his life, only fueled Wepner’s primal urges and accelerated a downward spiral that included drugs, divorce, and fighting live bears.

Schreiber is transformational, adopting the voice, gait and body control of a lumbering man with a good heart and great survival instincts, but a child-like self control that often betrayed him. Schreiber commands the screen without ever being showy, blending easily with an outstanding supporting cast that includes Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport and Morgan Spector (as Stallone).

Familiar in theme but illuminating with its intimacy, Chuck is a fascinating glimpse at life imitating art imitating life.


Drowning in Sap

The Sea of Trees

by Hope Madden

In 2002, filmmaker Gus Van Sant released one of his more polarizing and thoughtful films. In Gerry, two guys named Gerry (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) hike ill-prepared into the desert to find themselves fighting for survival.

A quick glance at The Sea of Trees suggests that perhaps Van Sant returned to these themes. Matthew McConaughey loses himself in a Japanese forest, befriends another wayward traveler (Ken Watanbe), their treacherous journey offering life lessons aplenty.

Because horror writer Chris Sparling penned The Sea of Trees, I was kind of hoping the film would be a cross between Gerry and The Blair Witch Project.

It is not.

No, it’s an overtly sentimental, culturally patronizing waste of one Oscar winner and two Oscar nominees.

We wander Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest,” with McConaughey’s Arthur Brennan. Brennan’s a scientist, and you know that that means. That’s right – atheist.

Van Sant falls back on the crutch of the flashback to help us understand what this handsome scientist is doing in the suicide forest. It’s in these segments that we meet Naomi Watts’s Joan Brennan and begin to unravel the mystery behind Arthur’s trip into the woods.

Watts suffers most from Sparling’s hackneyed dialog. Her few scenes need to be pivotal and weighty – we know this because of her utterly unrealistic speeches as well as Mason Bates’s condescending score.

Van Sant is no stranger to schmaltz. As great a filmmaker as he has been, sentimentality tripped him up in Promised Land, Finding Forrester and others. His career is peppered with other writers’ projects, many of them with a point to make, and those statement films tend to be Van Sant’s weakest.

Perhaps it’s because, rather than finding his own language for the story via camerawork or score, he relies on an existing style. The Sea of Trees certainly suffers from a heavy handed score. Van Sant also misses opportunities to create a sense of foreboding, claustrophobia, isolation or even redemption with the forest itself, Kasper Tuxen’s photography instead offering irrelevant yet lovely images of windblown treetops.

Trees can definitely be sappy.


Talkin’ Bout My Generation

While We’re Young

by George Wolf

So far, Hollywood’s attempts to address the social media revolution have fluctuated between lackluster and downright embarrassing (Men, Women and Children? Yikes). While We’re Young gets it more right than most, thanks to less of the usual microscope and more of a layered, universal narrative.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach is able to weave the contrasts between older technology “immigrants” and the younger tech “natives” into a larger, utterly charming overview of shifting generations and the humor in realizing you’re not so young anymore.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cordelia (Naomi Watts) are a happy, childless couple in New York who suddenly become friends with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of hipsters about twenty years younger.

In an instant, Cordelia and Darby are taking hip hop dance classes and Josh is shopping for fedoras with Jamie, then cranking “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up for a business meeting (even though he admits listening to the same song back “when it was just bad”). They ditch their longtime friends who now have young children, and convince each other they are free spirits blessed with limitless opportunity.

As Josh slowly begins to look a bit deeper into Jamie’s motives for hanging with him, their interplay comes to resemble Baumbach confronting his younger self, along with the futile anxieties of growing old “gracefully.” Baumbach seems perfectly comfortable in this new skin, crafting a film that is often smart, funny, and bittersweet all at once. His work has never been more accessible.

The characters are all sharply drawn and relatable, fleshed out by a talented cast that lets Baumbach touch on a variety of serious topics with a confident blend of laughter and nuance. The performances are all dead on, with Driver shining in the film’s most complex role.

Baumbach does risk a cop out with the convenient plot turn that comes near the finish, but it’s not nearly enough to derail the knowing smile that While We’re Young is bound to leave you wearing.

And that looks better than a fedora on almost all of us…of a certain age.



Look! Up in the Air!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

by Hope Madden

You’ve heard the buzz. It’s loud and merited. The sharp and beguiling Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) sees a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at the height of their creative powers.

Playful and dark, the film follows a washed up Hollywood actor best known for a superhero franchise (an Oscar bound Michael Keaton, who certainly resembles that description). Struggling to regain relevance, he writes, directs and stars in a Broadway play. Meta from the word go, Birdman’s incisive exploration of the entertainment industry and the compulsion to perform couldn’t be more spot-on or more imaginative.

Director/co-writer Alejandro González Inárritu and his fluid, stalking camera ask a great deal from this ensemble as together they dissect fame – its proof and its power – in the digital age. From first to last, they are up to the task and then some.

They clearly relish a script that has such an insider’s perspective, skewering the self-absorption, insecurity and need for attention that fill the business. The performers embody these weaknesses and still create a tenderness for their characters. The comedy isn’t mean, though it is dark and edgy.

Edward Norton is hilarious in a bit of a self-parody as the true talent who pushes boundaries and strives for honesty – on the stage, anyway. He’s hardly alone. The entire ensemble – Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan and Amy Ryan – impresses.

Each has his or her own story, conflict, world, and Inárritu allows that to enrich the world he creates, but it’s all in support of Keaton in the finest turn of his often underappreciated catalog of performances.

He never falls back on the ticks and gimmicks that mark most of his comedic turns – quirks that made efforts like Beetlejuice so enjoyable. This performance is volcanic and restrained, pitiful and triumphant. His desperation is palpable and his madness is glorious. That Keaton can hit these disparate levels sometimes simultaneously inspires awe. Keaton has long been a unique talent, and while this role seems almost awkwardly custom made for the former Batman, the performance still could not have been less expected.

Inárritu, master of beautiful tragedy (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), may be in impish humor with this effort, but Birdman is as dark and poetic as anything he’s created. Impeccably written, hauntingly filmed and superbly performed, Birdman is the first real contender Boyhood has faced for the best film of 2014.


Adventures in Babysitting

My theory is this: first time feature filmmaker Theodore Melfi is a wizard. It seems improbable, sure, but I can think of no other explanation for St. Vincent.

A newly single mom hires her curmudgeonly neighbor to babysit for her precocious son. As obvious as it sounds – and is – somehow Melfi creates surprises in the territory he treads and the performances he draws. Had Charles Bukowski starred in About a Boy, this is the film it would have become.

Melfi’s genius with dialog and his light touch when directing together create an atmosphere that allows actors to breathe. Even the cast members with the least screen time – Terrence Howard and Chris O’Dowd, in particular – have the opportunity to fill out their characters, and they do.

Imagine what Bill Murray can do with this kind of creative atmosphere. Murray reveals layer after believable layer in his performance as Vincent. There’s not a moment of schmaltz in this performance, and there are moments of real genius.

And what about young Jaeden Lieberher as Vincent’s charge Oliver? Melfi obviously created him from some sort of spell. There really is no other explanation. This kid is great – deadpan when he needs to be, and otherwise the natural mixture of wisdom and naiveté that suits Oliver’s peculiar circumstances. The performance is dead on perfect.

Melissa McCarthy gets a couple of good lines in, but her performance is more restrained and internal than what we’re used to from her. It’s a nice change of pace.

Naomi Watts struggles more with the almost cartoonish character she lands, and not all the youngest actors are very strong, but acting is rarely St. Vincent’s weak point. The plotting, on the other hand, needs some work.

Scene after scene is utterly contrived. Many plot points are conveniently forgotten, the climax is obvious and the happy family ending is simplistic given the circumstances of the film on the whole. And yet, somehow the whole is thoroughly enjoyable.

It has to be the fullness of the characters, and the interaction between talented performers. That or the moments of genuine surprise peppered throughout a well worn storyline. Or maybe it’s some kind of sorcery.

What else could explain how well this film works? Because it has no business working at all, yet somehow it’s one of the more memorable and moving dramedies you’ll see this year.



Your Scary-Movie-a-Day Guide to October Day 3: Funny Games


Funny Games (1997, 2007)

Michael Haneke, an amazing creator of both tension and soul-touching drama, continues to prove he is a filmmaking genius. From the creepy, mysterious Cache (Hidden), to The White Ribbon – his incandescent and terrifying pre-WWII  masterpiece – to last year’s Oscar-nominated Amour, everything Haneke has done deserves repeated viewing. This is a bit easier with Funny Games, as he made it twice.

A family pulls into their vacation lake home, and are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.

Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.

Asks the victimized father, “Why are you doing this?”

Replies the villain, “Why not?”

Haneke is hardly the first filmmaker to use adolescent boredom as a source of frightening possibility. Kubrick mined Anthony Burgess’s similar theme to icy perfection in A Clockwork Orange, perhaps the definitive work on the topic, but Haneke’s material refuses to follow conventions.

His teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains rather insist that we play, too.

Once Haneke’s establishes that he’ll break the 4th wall, the director chooses – in a particularly famous scene that will likely determine your overall view of the film – to play games with us as well.

His English language remake is a shot for shot repeat of the German language original. In both films, the performances are meticulous, realistic, unnerving. The family is sympathetic, but not overbearingly so. They’re real.

But in both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.