Saturday, April 21, 2018

"GHOST STORIES" IS AN AMBITIOUS ANTHOLOGY OF GHOSTS AND THAT WHICH HAUNTS US


Are ghosts real? 

That question seems to be the central premise of the new movie GHOST STORIES as it starts. Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and available in the US on VOD, it tees up its premise with a character named Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman, yet again) who does not believe in goblins and such. He’s made a career out of debunking the supernatural, and as the story begins, he discredits a psychic who is right in the middle of a theatrical show. Goodman tells us, in the opening narration, that the mind merely plays tricks on itself and that there is no logical proof to support a netherworld. 

Pay close attention to those early words, however, along with the first images that appear onscreen during the credits too. They hold many of the actual answers to the query about ghosts that the film raises. In fact, it’s best to keep your eyes peeled quite close during the entire run of this 98-minute frightener. There are various clues to what’s going on in every scene. The real question posed by the film is “What haunts man?” Indeed, it is not just ghosts or things that go bump in the night. It could be a yellow dress, a hooded jacket, or even a dripping faucet. 

After boasting of debunking that theatrical charlatan, Goodman receives a summons to a dilapidated old trailer park outside London to meet with his hero, the long-lost ghostbuster Charles Cameron. Goodman is disappointed that Cameron is living in such an impoverished place, and the old coot’s hostile attitude almost sends him packing. But then Cameron informs him that ghosts do exist, usurping his life's work. The old man tells Goodman that's he got three cases that prove it and challenges Goodman to prove him wrong.

Goodman cannot believe that his idol now is a true believer, so he sets out to investigate the cases. Here, the film takes on an anthological structure. The first case concerns Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman who testifies that he’s seen ghosts perpetrating all sorts of chicanery at the derelict former asylum where he works. As he tells the professor his story in an empty bar, flashbacks show Matthews’ run-ins with the exceedingly mischievous specters. One seems to take the form of a young girl in a yellow dress as she runs amuck at the old asylum. If you’ve ever seen any of the Blumhouse horror films of recent, you know that there are plenty of jump-scares to be had in such dark places with all those corridors and doorways.

Next, Goodman calls upon Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a high-strung teen who claims to have run over a demonic goat creature while driving his father’s car through the woods. Again, flashbacks show us the story, and indeed, it appears the young man did run over something. The victim remains alive however and ends up planting itself in Simon's backseat. Dyson and Nyman do an exceedingly expert job of creating a real nail-biter out there in the woods and it’s probably the most exciting scene in the film.

The last of the three cases concerns a wealthy businessman named Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, playing so smug, he’d give Sherlock a run for his money here). The one-percenter is hastily preparing for a hunt out on the moor as Goodman struggles to keep up with the intense go-getter. In between snide comments about having children, and loading his rifle, Priddle tells of his horrific run-ins with a ghost at his elegant cliffside home. If you don’t think that flying diapers or stacked toys can be terrifying, wait till you see the scene where Priddle wades into the nursery awaiting the return of his wife and newborn from the hospital. The hairs on your arm will be standing on end just like those building blocks.
  
These three set-pieces are all exquisitely shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, edited precisely by Billy Sneddon, and scored with elegiac strings and brass by Haim Frank Ilfman. Arguably, the men at the center of the trio of stories seem to be haunted by something long before their ghosts show up. Matthews is an embittered drunk, Rifkind is a jumble of tics, and Priddle bullies to protect his insecurities. Goodman doesn’t find any proof to disprove their tales, and he seems discombobulated throughout all of them, so what's going on here? 

The film would be a success if the storytelling stopped there. But what happens after the three stories spool out is what will genuinely rattle your cage and have you talking about all you’ve seen for days. Again, it returns to the themes of haunting, yet not all the ghosts are of the metaphysical persuasion. 

GHOST STORIES may not be the instant classic that A QUIET PLACE is, and the little pieces of story and structure left dangling would give Robert McKee a heart attack. But damn if this film isn’t gangbusters at conjuring up genuine, honest scares, and at giving each of us a lot to think about while the end credits roll. The film ultimately argues that the real world is scary enough already without having to create monsters to add to it. Go and see for yourself, and oh yes, watch out for that yellow dress. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I HAVE BEEN HIRED TO BE THE FILM CRITIC FOR CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE ONLINE


It's hard to believe, but The Establishing Shot is in its eighth year. Thank you to you, all my followers in some 27 countries, for caring what I think about the world of cinema. Some others do too, and that's why I have some exciting news for you today.

I have just been hired by Creative Screenwriting magazine to be their film critic as they reboot online. (https://creativescreenwriting.com)

The magazine was founded in 1994 and quickly became an institution in the film community the world over. Now, it's started up again, and I'll be reviewing movies for them each week, along with some television shows as well. 

I will still be writing my movie blog here, but now you can look forward to reading my reviews at my new gig too. Additionally, I will still continue to host the podcast PAGE 2 SCREEN for the International Screenwriters Association. (https://www.networkisa.org/modules/curious/channel_list/41/)

Thank you again for following me here, and I hope you'll now subscribe to the magazine as well and read my reviews there too.



Friday, April 6, 2018

"BLOCKERS" RUNS INTERFERENCE ON ITS COMEDY WITH MAUDLIN MOVES


There is a moment in the new film BLOCKERS where you can visualize what the comedy could have been if it wanted to be smarter. Spying mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds herself stuck under the hotel bed where her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton) is about to loses her virginity to her boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips). Rather than listen to their lovemaking, God forbid, the embarrassed parent sneaks out in a contorted and sly way that feels like the best of a Blake Edwards comedy. She deftly hides behind the drapes, mildly electrocutes herself while managing to crouch behind the TV, as well as somersaults, rolls, and tiptoes past other furniture to escape out the hotel door. It is such sophisticated physical comedy, masterfully performed by Mann that it makes you wish the rest of BLOCKERS was just as smart.

As it stands, BLOCKERS is clever, but not nearly by half. It has a great premise in three panicked parents doing their best to keep their respective daughters from blithely losing their virginity after making a pact at prom. The film also has a strong cast with the previously mentioned talents, not to mention John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as the other two concerned adults, as well as younger stars Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Miles Robbins, and Jimmy Bellinger. The LOL script by Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe certainly has its pulse on many of the cultural inanities at play in our modern times including the hidden meaning of text emoji’s, teenage slang, and the variety of recreational drugs at society’s disposal. They also have a very game and nude Gary Cole playing a naughty sex scene with Gina Gershon, which is the comedic highlight of the film. So, why isn’t it better?

It lacks sophistication. It treads down the path of gross-out comedies that want to outdo the previous one. If AMERICAN PIE showed Jason Biggs humping a pastry, then THE HANGOVER must show Ken Jeong’s flopping genitals. Thus, here we get a full-frontal Gary Cole, and for good measure, a close-up on his package. Yes, it’s hilarious, outrageously so, but most of the film’s gags are similarly content to pull at the same low-hanging fruit. If only the film had more scenes as refined as Mann’s hotel escape. This is a sex comedy and an R-rated one at that, but it feels at times as if it wants to be smarter than all those crude gags, even while executing them with flair.  

Nowhere clearer is that conflict than in its back and forth between ribald comedy and self-righteous messaging. It wants to milk all of the lewd, crude, and sophomoric shenanigans that permeate such movies, yet continually weave throughout its narrative an unctuous sentimentality that plays as if it wandered in from THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Moralizing is fine in comedies, as the likes of Billy Wilder and John Landis proved time and time again, but not when it is repeatedly done, let alone juxtaposed against such ridiculous comic visuals as showing beer spray out of Cena’s glutes during an ass-chugging gag or the gratuitous shots of Cole buck naked.

Not only does the tone veer back and forth like that, far too wildly, throughout the long-feeling 102-minutes, but the characters are written just as inconsistently. The concerned parents behave like utter imbeciles one moment, but then experience psychological perceptions after every raucous scene that suggests they know how idiotic they are. Yet, they keep coming back for more hijinks. The movie also seems to want to scold us in the audience for laughing at the nincompoopery on display, especially when its characters confess their heartfelt hurt and blubbering self-awareness. It seems way out of character, yet the movie continually stops to moralize like that, and after a while, it seems like we’re being lectured. It’s as if the film was directed by John Belushi’s Bluto one moment and Dr. Phil the next.

The actors are all talented enough to handle such tonal shifts, even if they’re abrupt and constantly jerk the story around. Cena is a gifted comedic performer and knows how to be soft and subtle too, but he’s playing a character that makes little sense. His macho, upright dad Mitchell seems to have wandered in from a clichéd sports movie from decades ago. Are we to believe that a man who’s married an Indian woman and raised a daughter to be sharp, confident, self-aware, and an incredibly intuitive athlete, would burst down hotel door after hotel door searching for his trysting daughter? He may have the lats of a gorilla, but would he act that barbaric in a public setting, terrifying dozens of teenagers with such violence?

Or for that matter, if Barinholtz’s Hunter is such a dirty-minded man/child of a dad, one cut from the same cloth as characters played by the likes of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, why should we buy that he’s really a remarkably knowing and wounded fellow? Then there is Mann’s mom here, a shrewd woman capable of dropping F-bombs with aplomb, and able to talk sex trash with her two macho conspirators, but nonetheless one that freaks out that her daughter wants privacy when it comes to her date night. Her put-downs of her daughter after she’s accepted into a picky and prestigious college like UCLA play as particularly egregious and does nothing to draw us to Lisa’s side.

This movie continually wants to have it both ways, with its contradictory characters and its zig-zagging tone. The movie tastefully keeps the bra on of one of the girls in bed yet has her prom date prematurely ejaculate all over her belly inspiring three jokes about his errant load. It has Mitchell throw Connor (Robbins) up against the wall after catching him half-naked with his daughter Kayla (Viswanathan), but it’s okay because the kid wasn’t hurt. And the three stalking parents nearly get killed in a car accident, that could’ve run the girl’s limo off the road as well, but everything is forgotten as long as the Uber arrives in time. The movie practically gives its characters and audience whiplash.

In comedy, exaggeration is necessary, and this one sails way over-the-top on numerous occasions, but the film wants to be able to sell its utterly serious, self-reflection as well and it’s hard to swallow when we’re watching ass-beer spray all over Barinholtz’s face like a hose was unleashed on him. If we are to believe that these irrational parents are as savvy as they all really are deep down, then why do they endanger so many lives and break so many laws during the story? Wouldn’t some soul-searching occur after events like that? And wouldn’t such sins put the kibosh on their selfish, interfering quest?

Granted, the comedy in BLOCKERS is often hilarious. The outrageousness of the set-pieces is such that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Not only is the nude scene with Cole and Gershon the film’s highlight but watching the two male parents get involved in the scene and whisper back and forth while subtitles translate their panic is as funny as any scene in a movie the last two or three years. It’s probably amusing enough just to see such a game cast playing out this farce. But all that confessional psycho-babble keeps intruding on the fun and dampening it.

Director Kay Cannon shows a lot of flair for directing here, and many have complimented her and the script for being a feminist comedy. That may be true on some levels, but she’s no Greta Gerwig. LADY BIRD was a far more serious comedy than this one that leans farcically, but Cannon peppers her film with preachy screeds that cloy in ways that Gerwig never did in her female-driven, coming-of-age film. Perhaps the real equality is in how Cannon is able to make a raw and rude comedy as outrageous as the likes of ANIMAL HOUSE or THE HANGOVER.

Kudos to Cannon and her Kehoe screenwriters for treating the coming out of the bespectacled Sam with the sensitivity and nuance that many male directors would have botched. Yet, Cannon fails to give some characters much character at all. Julie, the centerpiece of the story, has little discernable personality. Newton, who was so vivid in a similar role in BIG LITTLE LIES on HBO, has little to work with here compared to the better-written characters of her BFF’s Kayla and Sam. Julie’s boyfriend Austin gets short-shrift too, especially compared to the other dates Connor and Chad. That uneven development of the characters is in synch with the uneven tone throughout the story, and the director and screenwriters should have smoothed out such inconsistencies. 

Is it enough if a comedy film makes us laugh? On some levels, sure, but BLOCKERS wants to have it both ways. It wants to eat its serious cake and barf it up too, making the audience both laugh and cry. It makes for an uneasy mix, and despite the film’s unique focus on female sexuality, LGBTQ inklings, and showcasing adults who act more childish than their children, the film feels too often schizophrenic. Supposedly, the original title of the film was going to be COCKBLOCKERS until clearer heads at the studio realized that moniker would be a tough sell. Yet, right there is the problem with the film writ large. The very title wants to be ribald, yet sensitivity robbed it of its intent. If only Blake Edwards were still around to lend this kind of material some genuine sophistication.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"A QUIET PLACE" CREATES HORROR THAT IS UTTERLY DISQUIETING


So many horror films are filled with noise and bombast, they don’t frighten, they irritate. “A Quiet Place” scares with its silence, making for a frightener that is utterly disquieting. The loudest sounds you will hear while watching will be your own heartbeat or breathlessness or both.

Real-life married couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski play Evelyn and Lee, the married couple at the center of the story. They live on a farm with their three children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward). Regan was born deaf, and the rest of the family learned sign language to help her feel like less of an outsider. That comes in handy when they are forced to live in silence to avoid being attacked by extra-terrestrial invaders who hunt their prey via sound.  

This is a dystopian horror film, where most of the population has been wiped out by these monsters with enhanced hearing. Those humans still are around have learned to tread very, very softly. And that’s how the movie starts, ever so quietly, with Lee and Evelyn’s family venturing into their ghost town to pick up some supplies at the abandoned local store. They walk barefoot and move almost as if in slow motion. They’re aware that any loud noise could summon the beasts and their doom.

The dusty, unkempt store still offers various items to help the family survive. From canned goods to left-over prescriptions to various distractions like toys, they scavenge what’s useful. Little Beau, all of five or six, picks out a space shuttle toy to take home to play with, but before they depart, Dad wisely removes the batteries. One button would unleash all sorts of buzzes and beeps, but unfortunately, the patriarch doesn’t take the batteries with him. So, the intrepid tot retrieves them and places them back in the toy. Then, while trudging home, the toy goes off, and the youngest is attacked and killed by an alien in the woods who hears it.

It's a brave film that offs a small child so early in a telling. Most would start with the family pet, but it’s nice to see “A Quiet Place” avoiding such clichés. (It also avoids the cliché of having a family pet, waiting to be the first victim.) For the most part, the script written by Krasinski, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, works very hard at confounding expectations. It daringly puts the other kids in danger on numerous occasions without their parents around to defend them. The script also ensures that the creatures are smarter and linger longer than usual, ratcheting up the tension far greater than we expect in the attack set-pieces. And there are no new third act characters brought in to enliven the finale. The script is spare and surprising and does the genre proud.

What the writers do best throughout is add more a ton more plight to the very simple plot. It’s not enough that the family has to mourn the loss of their youngest for the rest of the film, mom gets pregnant and will soon give birth. (And babies, as you know, make a lot of noise.) Regan not only is at a disadvantage from not being able to gauge any noise she makes, but she also is suffering from an inferiority complex which will endanger everyone before the final reel. And when it comes to a big escape scene high above on a silo, these clever scripters will make sure that the farm structure is dilapidated and made of racket-inducing metal.

Most of this plays like gangbusters in its ‘movie-movie’ kind of way, but a few motifs end up being misjudged. Framed pictures hang loosely on the wall, just waiting to crash. And surprise, they do. Mom inexplicably manages to sleep through a basement flooding. And while the family is smart enough to soundproof most everything, even laying soft sand on the routes they take, they all miss a large, errant nail protruding out of a wooden step. It’s so apparent, even Daniel Stern would’ve avoided it in “Home Alone.” Such blunders seem all the more glaring because the rest of the film is so wise in sidestepping such claptrap.

The best set-piece is one that plays wholly terrifying but incredibly smart too. Mom’s water breaks when she is alone in the house, and she struggles to keep her noise under control even though she must deliver the baby on her own. All this happens while a vicious alien comes-a-calling, but Evelyn is incredibly shrewd. She outwits it, bears down and delivers the child on her own, and even manages to keep the infant from squawking like a seasick parrot. Blunt performs this silent movie pantomime brilliantly, showcasing her character’s quick thinking, even while stifling absurd pain.

Krasinski directs horror for the first time here, yet he demonstrates an understanding of the genre that few newbies have. He realizes that the fear of blood is scarier than seeing buckets of it. The director never shows the monsters in their entirety either which makes them all the more mysterious. And he takes his time to develop each of the characters in the family, so we get to know them and care about each of their fates.

Best of all, the director keeps his movie modest in scope. Less is a lot more here as Kasinski keeps things controlled and primal. “A Quiet Place” doesn’t resort to unnecessary flashbacks showing how the aliens arrived and destroyed our planet. It doesn’t waste time with interfering neighbor characters brought in only to add more conflict to the story. And he never bothers explaining how the intruders live or communicate with each other. He keeps us in the dark about them, and he keeps them mostly in the dark too. Too much light would ruin the illusion. And too much talk would pander. This is a quiet, dark, and chilling film to experience.

What may be the most startling and unsettling about it all is how the filmmakers ask us to accept a movie that is so incredibly quiet. The dialogue is kept to a whispering minimum. The sound effects are dialed way down on the soundtrack. And outside of the attack scenes, there is precious little music. In fact, it’s a sign of Krasinski’s sublime discipline that he never lets composer Marco Beltrami blanket the film with an underscore. The director knows that silence can be deafening. And it speaks volumes throughout this superior horror film.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

WES ANDERSON’S WHIMSICAL “ISLE OF DOGS” HAS PLENTY OF LAUGHS AND BITE


Wes Anderson has earned quite a reputation over the last 24 years for making films packed with whimsy, eccentricity, and gentle humor. He is a very funny filmmaker indeed, and yet if you look closer at his past eight movies, you will see work tinged with melancholy and malice. Gene Hackman’s ne’er-do-well dad was an emotionally abusive ass in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off by irate farmers in THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, and even if THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was a pink-hued Valentine to a bygone era of luxury hotels, it was also a scathing indictment of fascism. (M. Gustave was killed by the gray-uniformed cadre at the end of the story after all.) Now, there is ISLE OF DOGS, his ninth film, and while its cast consists mostly of lovable dogs, it is easily the darkest of Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s animated, but it’s definitely not for the kiddies.

The poster, with its rows of canine characters all staring with deadpan expressions, may suggest that this outing is going to be cute as all get out, and some of it is, but most of it is a poisoned pen letter aimed at totalitarianism and all the ruin laid in the wake of such evil. And the beleaguered discriminated against group here are not Muslims or foreigners, but man’s best friend. Only here, the dogs in a futuristic version of Japan, are reviled for their overpopulating, their disease, and thus banned to an island until the brutal regime in charge of things can figure out what to do about the scourge of pooches.

Every dog in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki gets shipped to the nearby island that happens to be where all of the city’s garbage gets dumped. (A bit on-the-nose, but effective symbolism for sure.) There, the canines are left to fend for themselves, and no care is given to them to help them eat, survive, or even fight the “dog flu” or “snout fever” that ails them all. Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), the mayor of Megasaki, gives lip service to the idea that they’ll all be welcome back once the scientists find a cure for all the doggie ailments, but he secretly is working to annihilate the entire pooch population.

Of course, Kobayashi is also a cat lover. As in any movie where the dogs are the heroes, filmmakers feel the need to portray felines as the enemy. It’s unsophisticated and beneath Anderson to represent such prejudices, but mercifully, he doesn’t belabor it. What he concentrates on instead are the politics on the island, as well as the rebels trying to save the dog population behind the mayor’s back. One of them is the evil mayor’s own ward and “distant nephew” Atari (Koyu Rankin). He manages to land a small plane he’s commandeered to “Trash Island” in hopes of finding Spots (Liev Schreiber), who not only is Atari’s companion and guardian, but he also was the first dog shipped over to Trash Island.

Atari meets the odd mix of dogs who’ve banded together on the island, and they become his friends and aids in the search for Spots. The pack consists of a self-described “pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs” voiced by many of Anderson’s favorite actors. The leader of the group is Rex (Edward Norton), an earnest, if not befuddled by leadership, hound. His cohorts include Boss (Bill Murray), a former team mascot; King (Bob Balaban), a former dog food commercial star; and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gossipy busy-body. The newcomer is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a mangy stray who reluctantly joins them after protecting them from a pack of ruffians on the island. 


The actors all voice their characters with the droll, understated delivery that Anderson prefers, and almost every conversation they have yields big laughs. Of course, the point of talking animals in any entertainment is to create a sense of anthropomorphic relatability, but it plays well here as the pack plays like a bunch of ‘freaks and geeks’ that are eminently human in their vulnerabilities and banter.

Even with all those macho sounding dog names, the only genuine tough is Chief, and with Cranston’s baritone burr, he sounds as masculine as they come. Still, Anderson and Cranston find many shades to this mongrel, and he becomes the de facto centerpiece of the story. Chief not only wants to help his friends survive, and Atari locate his best friend, but he wants to be loved himself. He also turns the search for Spot into a journey of self-discovery. Chief’s own history is a blur to him, ensuring that the truest character arc will be his.

There are many charms to this film in both its story and animation style. The dialogue between the characters is a hoot and a half, the droll delivery of the lines makes every utterance even funnier. And the deadpan faces of the dogs throughout is worthy of Keaton or Groucho. Anderson's film has gravitas too as the filmmaker makes pointed political commentary throughout the story. He savagely indicts politics and megalomaniac leaders, which plays as incredibly timely given our world of dictators and dictator wannabes.
  
The filmmaker also pokes a lot of fun at Japanese culture, as well as the American obsession with aspects of the culture, particularly in the character of Tracy, a foreign-exchange student from Cincinnati voiced by Greta Gerwig. She not only loves the country and tries to fit in through her looks and manner, but she has a secret crush on Atari and is avidly working to undermine the corrupt mayor and all of his minions.

The voice cast alone is one of the most star-studded ever assembled, and Anderson finds vivid roles for all of the following: F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Courtney B. Vance, and Anjelica Huston. Particular praise goes to Frances McDormand as the harried interpreter who breathlessly fills in the blanks for the audience by translating much of the Japanese dialogue, as well as young actor Koyu Rankin who voices the brusque and determined young Atari. Composer Alexandre Desplat, an Anderson favorite, should also be given high praise for his bombastic and funny underscore filled with timpani, gongs, and chimes. It’s both funny and angry, like much of this movie.


Anderson also skewers the worst habits of our society and our tendency to ignore problems or enable them, be they ecological issues or political tomfoolery. All of the actual monsters here walk on two legs. Even the dangerous dogs are mechanical ones, invented by the mayor’s forces to replace the flesh and blood kind. It all makes for a fascinating mix of comedy, pathos, and laser-focused parody. Not since WALL-E has there been a movie that was so sweet, as well as savage. In fact, the whole disposable culture we live in gets trashed here just as viciously, and some theaters will likely make that Pixar masterpiece and this Anderson one a double bill sometime soon.

Occasionally, Anderson makes his film a bit difficult to enjoy. The fact that the Japanese characters don't get subtitled seems exclusionary, and some of the portrayals of the nation’s hierarchy verge on racial stereotypes. It’s also hard to laugh at dogs getting their ears bit off in fights, no matter how nonchalant the victims seem to be about losing an appendage. And watching fleas and rats move around the perimeters of the screen is not for the squeamish, even if presented in stop-motion animation. Still, these are minor quibbles for a film that is bold, hilarious and devastating in targeting its blows.

This film is one of Anderson’s best, and the politics on display in his more and more of his work has become an elixir for our troubled times. He’s putting overt political commentary out there, and while he may crowd his stories with mostly male characters, just as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson does, he is lambasting the macho bullshit of men that continues to plague the world. Man is always the worst monster in almost any horror movie, and Anderson applies that same principle to his dark comedy cartoon here as well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

THE MODERNITY OF "THE ALIENIST" MADE FOR A TIMELY PERIOD PIECE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans in TNT's THE ALIENIST  miniseries.
(copyright 2018)
Fans of Caleb Carr’s bestseller The Alienist waited 24 long years to see it finally visualized onscreen. The period thriller, published in 1994, and set in 1896, was novel in its time for being one of the first works of fiction to examine the serial killer mind, as well as blend history and fiction. At the time of its creation, The Alienist was mostly compared to E. L. Doctorow’s book Ragtime, a sprawling tome with much in common with Carr’s titular work. Similarly, Doctorow too wrote “historical faction,” set his story in the sprawling New York of the late 19th century, and described in vivid detail the characters and settings of the city.

But now, almost a quarter-century later, there have been so many movies and TV shows about serial killers and profilers, how would THE ALIENIST not seem redundant when it finally made it onscreen? Could it reclaim the mantle after so many other profiler stories made it into movie theaters or on television first? What did it need to do to stand out and not feel “after the fact,” especially when there have been so many serial killer whodunits glutting our pop culture for years now?

For starters, the makers of THE ALIENIST wisely decided upon the long form of television to tell their tale. In the early years after the book became a bestseller, many in Hollywood tried to turn it into a film for the big screen. People like producer Scott Rudin and director Curtis Hanson took their crack at it, but the novel’s density was intimidating and not readily shrunk to a typical two-hour movie. Many came and went with the project, but when the production company Anonymous Content got their hands on it, they took it to the TNT network to ensure it was told in the long form. 

The scope of the narrative was equally as daunting to those in the 90's trying to get it made, especially since Carr’s prose veered from such a vast range of settings. The story covered a lot of ground, from gorgeous opera houses to the working-class slums to the heights of the Williamsburg Bridge. Waiting all those years helped THE ALIENIST as the advances in technology over the decades meant that so many of the settings could be rendered with CGI. It also helped that shooting far from LA soundstages made everything more economically feasible as well. Shooting in Budapest meant that a full, four blocks of NYC could be built for a fraction of what it would have cost in Hollywood.  

Finally, there was the subject of the murders. Even though THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS showcased a cannibal with a penchant for turning his murders into artistic tableaus in 1991, the idea of visualizing 13-year-old boy whores in the story of THE ALIENIST was deemed too unseemly for many in those early pre-production days in the 90's. But now, almost anything goes on television, and horror violence has been mainstreamed so that the gruesome content of THE ALIENIST would not be regarded as unfilmable. The story's gouged-out eyes and severed genitals are still shocking 24 years later, but many mainstream tentpole projects have shown a lot worse. 

As Anonymous Content and TNT charged ahead with their production, fans of the book could sigh with relief. Now, the weighty and detailed novel would not have to be condensed into Cineplex length, and all of the book's glorious detail and production value could live and breathe in a generously budgeted, 10-hour show. 

And indeed, one of the most significant parts of the miniseries is how much of Carr's descriptions have made it intact onto our TV screens. So many of the sights, sounds, and smells seemed to come right off the screen in this evocative production. It was an incredibly visual show, one that often lingered on the details of the production design to showcase the elaborate world that Carr wrote about. From the gorgeous tapestries and decorations of the home of Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl) to the ruins of the New York farm where the killer forged his modus operandi, the series brought it all to meticulous life. 

Great care and attention were given to the costuming as well, in ways that may not have been possible 24 years ago. The clothing was researched with painstaking accuracy and not only was specific to the trends of the period, but the fashions said so much about each of the characters. John Moore (Luke Evans), the dashing man about town and artist, dressed in bold patterns and a broader color scheme. The more reserved Kreizler was given a wardrobe favoring dark grays and charcoal-colored suits to essay the proper authority of his profession. And the lesser-off Isaacson brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) were dressed in more affordable fabrics, with a lot less dash than the likes of Moore, due to their modest forensic analyst salaries. It was all incredibly smart and on the money.

Most telling of all the costumes were those worn by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). Her trendy, puffy 'leg of mutton' sleeves helped the petite woman project a broader frame and strength to the world of pigheaded policemen she had to work with on a daily basis. And her daytime apparel contrasted significantly with her nighttime outfits. On the job, her color palette was all dark hues. Away from the office, Sara was able to indulge in more feminine fare like off-the-shoulder, cream-colored gowns that showed off décolletage.

Perhaps Sara’s best costume was the one she wore for her train trip to upper New York in episode eight. For that journey out of town, she dressed in an elaborate blue-striped ensemble with a matching, jaunty hat. It stood out as one of the few times Sara likely felt that she could choose to be more fashion-forward. She couldn't dare dress so provocatively in the testosterone-drenched halls of her employ.

Still, while THE ALIENIST on TV kept very close to Carr’s most minute details, as well as the specifics of his storytelling, it is the places where the series shifted in its telling that rendered it the most modern and relevant to our times. For starters, one of the ways this television adaptation separated itself nicely from similar types of stories that proceeded it was to change various specifics of the characters to make them more unexpected. In the book, Kreizler is a controversial figure just as he is here, but he's not as persnickety as the show made him. True, he's German in both, and strict in almost a cliche Teutonic way, but he's far less approachable in the television adaptation, and that made this lead as puzzling as the crimes he was investigating.

And, by casting the enigmatic Bruhl, an actor who wisely knows to hold back when needed, the series ensured that the character would never be too cuddly or lovable like so many sleuths on television. Bruhl played much of Kreizler either staring at his colleagues or facing away a bit from them. This illustrated both the doctor's relentless badgering of others, as well as his shame in noticing them eyeing his handicapped arm. It made him almost mercurial, hard to read from scene to scene, and that made for more unexpected and exciting television. Even at the end, when all of the secret sleuths were safe and together, the warmth Kreizler projected was at best a mid-boil.

It was also shrewd of the series to change John Moore from a New York Times crime reporter to a police sketch artist. For starters, making his occupation more of a visual one allowed for his illustrations to show what might have been too grisly for the camera to linger on. The horrifying mutilations of the young boys looked disgusting enough in his charcoal sketches. The change in Moore's profession also allowed for him to be more of an odd man out. Moore became the more naive eyes, the conduit of the audience.  And the ever-charming Evans made Moore relatable and likable even in his more befuddled moments.

Most importantly, the character of Sara took center stage on television much more than she did in the novel, easily equaling the importance of Kreizler and Moore onscreen. Benefiting from the lens of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, her character ultimately becomes the de facto centerpiece this time out. Sara is the only character who each day had to venture into a career where she was not welcome by any of her colleagues except her boss, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Fighting against all those prejudices and 'male gazes' helped Sara become the central hero in the story. And Fanning did her best screen work to date in the role, worthy of an Emmy for playing Sara so strong, yet subtle. We knew everything the character was thinking, even if she had to maintain an implacable poker face around her male counterparts in the NYPD.

Finally, in many ways, the most authentic narrative at play here is the one written between the lines. At the beginning of the book, and at the start of each episode, the term alienist gets explained as such: In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. The alienated here are Kreizler's patients, indeed, and the boy victims as well, but main characters are alienated as well. Including Kreizler. 

The secret sleuths are alien to the murderer's world and have been ostracized by the regulars in the police department, outside of Roosevelt. Also, Kreizler is a German immigrant, handicapped with a bum arm, and a doctor not given the respect he deserves. All that makes him alien to the world around him, even if he is an entitled man on other levels. Moore, of course, is an artist, a step down from a crime reporter, and he's a bit of a cad, too. Even though he cuts quite the figure, he is hardly the conservative gentleman of means like most of his contemporaries in the one percent. Sara is alien to just about everything, due solely to her sex. Even the Isaacson’s are odd men out being Jewish, as well as scientists in an overtly masculine profession.

These themes of diversity were what made this miniseries so utterly contemporary and relevant, no matter if its serial killer story felt a bit old hat. As Roosevelt said in the show, “You can’t hold back the future.” The fact that America seems to be going backward today, what with the tin-eared machinations in D.C., helped underline the themes of THE ALIENIST and make the series incredibly relevant. 

And while it struck some as unsatisfactory that Kreizler et al. were not able to keep the murderer of all those young boys alive to ascertain more about his motivations, that ending is there to remind us that our society still had so much work to do then. And now. The story's thuggish cops get away with their transgressions in the book and the show because the white, male patriarchy controls the world. Isn't that still all too true today on so many levels? This message is what helped ensure that THE ALIENIST played with a vital immediacy, even 24 years after the book. The series made a blatant bid for the inclusion of all those on the outside looking in. And in doing so, the show could not have been timelier or more modern or wholly necessary.

Monday, March 26, 2018

CLAIRE FOY PLAYS SMARTER THAN THE REST OF STEVEN SODERBERGH'S "UNSANE"



Sometimes the right actor can make slight horror material work like gangbusters. Think how Vincent Price so often made lesser cuts of the genre seem like prime filet. Such is the case with Claire Foy and the new horror/thriller UNSANE. She elevates the clichés in this material that moviegoers have seen a thousand times before, that of the wronged woman incarcerated against her will. She’s a thousand miles away from her acclaimed portrayal as Queen Elizabeth on Netflix’s THE CROWN and this film should confirm that she is a talent who can play all kinds of material, even the lesser cuts.  

Much is being made out of the fact that the film’s director Steven Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone. (Albeit a fancy 7 model.) He’s a director who serves as his own cinematographer, and it’s impressive to know that he’s doing such, in addition to calling all the shots on set, and coaxing the best performances out of his cast. Still, even though the camera’s fish-eyed angles and ‘in-your-face’ close-ups add effective creepiness to the proceedings, the iPhone use is mostly gimmickry. Perhaps Soderbergh is trying to suggest that filmmaking needn’t be more complicated than grabbing your own cell and telling your story, but the lack of a professional camera is more hindering than helpful. The picture is grainy, and the color is often dulled to the point of distraction. (The whites of the eyes all look incredibly gray.) The iPhone usage story here also cannot mask the film’s inferior narrative.

The script starts out well with Foy’s character of businesswoman Sawyer Valentini demonstrating her strength as a go-getter seemingly in control of her life. She’s remarkably shrewd at her job and has recently reconnected with her mom (Amy Irving) after years in the wilderness. Sawyer is a touch brittle, still struggling to overcome bouts of paranoia brought on by recent history with a stalker. The bearded and bespectacled wimp David Strine (Joshua Leonard) fell for her when she helped his invalid father during his last months’ alive and he fell head over heels for her during that time. Upon her rejection of his advances, he went after with such velocity that Sawyer not only had to invoke a restraining order, she had to move to another city as well.

When Sawyer worries that she is imagining David is in the new city with her, the young woman visits a psychiatric facility to polish off some of the edges driving her fears. Unfortunately, the institution commits her for observation, as if determining someone is a danger to themselves and others could be diagnosed so rapidly. She's incarcerated for a week, placed in a room with half a dozen other patients that even ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST didn’t traffic in some 40 years ago. And her lack of rights and options only get worse from there.

All films require suspensions of disbelief, especially horror, but in this day and age, such a mental institution rings irrevocably wrong. Even if Sawyer did check herself into an institution and signed an agreement that inexplicably imprisoned her, she’d still have plenty of rights and outs to her predicament. She most certainly would not be treated with such overt skullduggery by administrators and the entire staff.  

No one listens to her, the staff is belligerent and uncaring, and drugs are handed out like it’s milk at recess. These are hoary clichés from every incarcerated woman film from the past 50 plus years, be it Susan Hayward in 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE to Carol Lynley in 1965’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Yet, here are these older-than-the-hills tropes being shot with a cellphone to make it seem contemporary and modern. Sorry, but seeing every freckle in Foy’s face doesn’t make any of this clichéd portrayal of mental care seem even remotely realistic.

Arguably, the film never really recovers from here, yet Foy and Soderbergh do their damnedest to try and make this material work. Even when Sawyer is digging herself into a hole deeper and deeper, Foy still makes her sympathetic. And even though the film wants to play the “is she insane or not” ploy, Foy’s too smart to make us believe she’s crazy. Her large, expressive eyes may project abject vulnerability, but they do not convey anything close to insanity.

In fact, the script quickly does away with any question of her sanity by showing Sawyer exhibit shrewdness at every juncture. The story also showcases the return of David in the guise as a new orderly, and it's made abundantly clear almost instantly that Sawyer's fears are not in her head. Within a few scenes, the villain is whispering taunting asides at her, as well as tormenting the woman with stolen letters from her mom, and spiking her drugs. Wouldn’t there be at least a doctor around to control such matters and give Sawyer an opportunity to gain an audience? Instead, the film conveniently keeps any kind of authoritative presence other than cretin orderlies virtually offscreen.

Worse yet, the film too often fails to match the intelligence that Foy projects. For instance, why doesn’t Sawyer walk or run out of the facility at night? Within her legal battles combatting a stalker, wouldn’t she have more acumen when it comes to navigating or negotiating her rights as a patient, let alone dealing with David? The institution has to be a haunted house in its way, but the lack of guards, doctors, or anyone for that matter other than the scant set of patients, seems dunderheaded and lazy on the screenplay’s part.

Despite these flaws, UNSANE does manage to be fun for a lot of this up and down ride. Comic Jay Pharaoh plays Nate Hoffman, the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ patient whom she bonds with, and he’s terrific in the role. Hoffman has not only snuck in a cellphone that he loans to Sawyer, but he is kind, warm, and explains a lot of the exposition while making it sound conversational.

Amy Irving lends some dignity and grit too when she shows up as Sawyer’s concerned mother. Unfortunately, she’s brought on as more sacrificial lamb than protective mama bear. If she received a call from Sawyer that she was being held against her will, wouldn’t mom show up with the authorities? Again, characters act less than bright because the script hasn’t found a way for them to be thwarted even when they’re acting smart.  

As David escalates his pursuit of Sawyer, the film spirals into something unseemly more than thrilling. The stalker turns into a supervillain, capable of outsmarting everyone in the institution, having access to anywhere he wants, and killing a number of people with too much ease. There is one long scene where Sawyer is being kept in a padded room when he comes to visit her. Her attempts at rational conversation seem utterly misplaced, but even when she finally finds a way to stab him later on, she doesn’t do an efficient job, and that enables him to rise from the dead like Jason Voorhees. Aren’t we past that cliché in horror? Isn’t it more than a little nutty to employ such a cornball trope, particularly from a filmmaker as sublime as Soderbergh?

UNSANE can be viewed as an economically shot, down and dirty chiller whose only desire is to provide some jumps and jolts at the Cineplex. Yet with such talent involved, more must be demanded. Foy and Soderbergh make a lot of it work, but the script needed an upgrade. Badly.