There is something elegantly old school about the slow burn literary mystery afoot in Alice Troughton’s feature directorial debut, The Lesson. Its overt, unyielding structure suggests a familiar, even predictable thriller.
However zealously screenwriter Alex MacKeith subscribes to the traditional three act story, theme stated on page 5 and all that, Troughton and a superb cast still manage to mesmerize you. You’re given every piece of evidence you will need, and yet you’ll wonder ceaselessly where it will all lead.
Troughton’s direction evokes a tense thriller, even though the story itself never feels as if danger’s around the corner. Still, the camera angles and shot choices – gorgeous though they are – leave you on edge. With her creeping camera and gorgeous location Troughton blurs the line between intellectual drama and mystery thriller.
Her stellar cast helps. Richard E. Grant plays renowned writer J.M. Sinclair, whose son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) is in the market for a tutor to help prepare him for Oxford’s entrance exams. Aspiring writer and massive Sinclair fan Liam (Daryl McCormack, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) gets the job.
Julie Delpy also stars as family matriarch Hélène, whose aloof demeanor strikes the perfect chord against Grant’s vibrance. It would be wrong to say Grant chews scenery, but you certainly can’t look away from him. A charming narcissist, viciously insecure and competitive, his Sinclair is a big presence, which allows the balance of characters to quietly observe, connive even.
McCormack, who was so impressive in the two-person revelation of Leo Grande, delivers another introspective and surprising performance. At times Liam seems to mirror Sinclair’s insecurity and artist’s fragility, but this is not that story.
The conclusion feels a little tidy, but the intricate ballet of character study and mystery that precedes it is so tight you’ll forgive the minor misstep.
The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.
The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.
He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.
And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.
Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.
The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.
Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.
As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.
It’s that time of year! The Academy celebrates the best work in the industry and we celebrate the early, mainly terrible work of those same nominees. It’s Skeletons in the Closet season, people!
We will let you know up front that, because Sam Rockwell and Bradley Cooper have already been subjects of the program, we will not be discussing Clown House (Rockwell’s feature debut) or Midnight Meat Train (or My Little Eye, for that matter, though Cooper appears in both).
And let us also congratulate nominee Willem Dafoe for managing to make several decent horror films, and garnering his first Oscar nomination for his work in one great one—Shadow of the Vampire.
But enough about good movies. Here are the stinkers.
Dial up the full podcast, co-hosted by Senior Aussie Correspondent (and host of Golden Spiral Media’s Rewatch podcast), Cory Metcalfe.
5. Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part III
Viggo Mortensen has been a working actor for more than 30 years, which means bones in that there closet. There was the questionable Psycho remake, and his version of Lucifer in Christopher Walken’s dark angel camp classic Prophesy (featured on the 2018 Skeleton’s episode).
Let’s focus on his place with the inbred cannibal clan the Sawyers in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Directed by Jeff Burr (From a Whisper to a Scream, Stepfather II, Puppet Master 4, 5 and Blitzkrieg Massacre), it’s a competently made if inspirationally dry episode.
Viggo plays Tex, and unquestionably outshines all the rest of the talent in the film. He’s sneaky, snaky, sexy, and he loves his mama.
4. Warlock (1989)
There is something to be said for this oh-so-Eighties adventure. Steve Miner (Friday 13th 2 & 3, H20, Lake Placid) directs from a screenplay by David Twohy (Critters 2, Pitch Black, The Perfect Getaway). The film follows witch Julian Sands 300 years into the future to 1989 USA, where he’s followed by witchhunter Redfern (Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant).
There’s nothing especially interesting about the film, and Lori Singer could not be more annoying in the lead, but both Sands and Grant elevate the material. The two veteran low-budget, crowd-pleasing horror filmmakers know how to give you something.
The flight sequences are too lame—in fact, all the FX promise to make you cringe—and much of the humor dates horrifically. But Grant commits to his character and Sands’s wicked grin makes up for a lot of plot holes.
3. Mary Reilly (1996)
Boy, there were high hopes for this bloated embarrassment when it came out back in ’96. Director Stephen Frears re-teamed with his Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter and stars John Malkovich and Glenn Close for a retelling of the old Jekyll and Hyde tale.
At the center, a plucky young housemaid named Mary (Julia Roberts).
Roberts’s career had begun its slide by this point, and this movie did not help things because she is just God awful. Oh my word, that accent.
Eight-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close plays Mrs. Farraday, proprietress of a brothel. Boasting gold tooth, smeared lipstick and sneer, Close camps it up with an accent a bit more bizarre even than Roberts’s.
There is so much wrong with this movie—its leaden pace, its inconsistent tone, its sense of self-importance, the fact that we’re supposed to believe no one realizes both guys are Malkovich, the idea of Malkovich in a sexy role, Roberts performance in literally every scene—it’s hard to know where to start.
Maybe just don’t.
2. Frogs (1972)
As the eco-terror flick from the Seventies opens, a handsome and manly brunette with no facial hair canoes through a swamp. He’s so manly!
Hey wait, that beardless brunette is Sam Elliott!
The manly Picket Smith (Elliott) ends up stranded on the vacation island of a wealthy family led by Ray Milland. He’s a dick. The frogs know it.
We get it, rich people who believe men are meant to rule the world will be the downfall of the planet. (If we didn’t know it in 1972, we know it now.) But couldn’t these scenes be briefer? Couldn’t there be any action at all?
1. Death Machine (1994)
Holy cow, this movie is bad.
And we had more than a few to choose from, because Rachel Weisz makes a lot of movies. The Mummy was not good. The Mummy Returns was worse. Constantine—yikes. Even Dream House, which had all the earmarks of a decent flick, chose not to be.
But Death Machine, which showcases the young thespian for maybe 45 seconds, sucks right out loud. Written and directed by Stephen Norrington (Blade, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), it follows a young executive (Ely Pouget) as she tries to end the evil inventing of a mad genius (Brad Dourif).
Weisz plays Junior Executive, and her scene is the one that doesn’t blow.
Dourif is so wildly miscast as the long haired, heavy metal misfit that you almost overlook the idiocy of every moment of screen time.
People forget that Melissa McCarthy was nominate for an Oscar. It’s a stiff year for female leads, but she might just nab another nom for her turn as a misanthropic writer in the true story, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A one-time best seller, author Lee Israel (McCarthy) is feeling her shelf life. Unwilling to conform to any kind of expectations—particularly those placed on females in the publishing industry—she finds herself facing the reality that no one wants a book on Fanny Brice, and no one wants a book by Lee Israel.
McCarthy’s socially inept and down-on-her-luck biographer sits in a dingy bar midday, drinking away her unemployability, her cat’s illness and her writer’s block when in beams a boozy ray of sunshine disguised as upbeat alcoholic hustler Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
It’s here that director Marielle Heller’s film hits its stride. McCarthy’s energy, her dimples and her infectious good nature have buoyed any number of mediocre films. But here, she carves a low key, solitary figure unable and unwilling to open up. It’s a fascinating about-face for McCarthy.
Set Israel’s curmudgeonliness against the unbridled zeal and charm Grant brings to his character, and a compelling odd-couple-on-the-skids is born.
To pay her bills and exercise her talent, Israel begins forging letters from literary icons and selling those forgeries at bookshops across New York. The wondrous respect this film has for writers, for the written and spoken word, and the nostalgia it has for a past when those elements were likewise revered generates a lovely, literary atmosphere.
Co-writer Nicole Holofcener again subverts ideas of entitlement and self-destruction with a screenplay so full of empathy it’s impossible to dislike the deeply unpleasant Israel.
A great deal of that success, of course, comes from McCarthy’s authenticity. The performance is nuanced and understated, as is the entire film, and aching of self-inflicted loneliness. She creates an believable and yet unusual character—one who embarks on a deeply strange yet somehow fitting journey.
The story of Lee Israel offers a weirdly optimistic if cautionary tale for misfit women. It’s also a great reminder that Melissa McCarthy can really act.