‘Radioactive’ is a Curie-ous Biopic

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Radioactive (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Love and Some Death

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

Is there anyone who has been more iconic in the annals of both science and romance as Marie Curie? Her research has had far-reaching effects on human society, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and the first person of any gender to win a second Nobel), and she was married to a fellow scientist who by all accounts greatly respected and encouraged her work. Considering all that, a biopic about her ought to be pretty wondrous, and that does seem to be what the Marjane Satrapi-directed Radioactive is after. As Marie, Rosamund Pike delivers an appropriately ethereal and almost supernatural performance. But like many true life cinematic stories that cover a wide range of time, the film struggles to focus on its strongest elements.

The Curie love story is sweet as Marie and Pierre (Sam Riley) find their way to each other via their own peculiarities. Their courtship is marked by lines like, “How do I look at you? Like a fermenting brain?” She initially holds him at arm’s length, worried that he will expect her to be the sort of wife who gives up her own pursuits for the sake of marriage. Of course, dramatic irony and the historical record assures us that isn’t the case, and it is lovely to see how the mutual respect of these two played such a big part in influencing the future of the whole planet.

Alas, the Curies’ marriage lasted barely more than a decade, as Pierre died in an accident at the age of 46. That leaves a pretty good chunk of movie left, during which Marie and Pierre’s elder daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy), yet another scientist in the family, ascends to fill the role of her mother’s on-screen partner. During this back half, we get plenty of foreshadowing of the deadly fate that awaits Marie due to her years of exposure to radiation. Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne could have played up this element a bit more to achieve more of a horror bent. It probably wasn’t what they were aiming for, but it would’ve made the film more distinct.

Beyond all that, the most effective element of Radioactive is the handful of flash-forwards we get to demonstrate the influence of Marie’s work: a doctor employing an experimental treatment on a young boy with cancer, the bombing of Hiroshima, a nuclear test explosion in Nevada, and a visit to the Chernobyl disaster. I wish there had been more of these moments, as they’re where the message really hits home the hardest. If the movie were structured more thoroughly around them, it could have made for a fully affecting film instead of an intermittently affecting one.

Radioactive is Recommended If You Like: Science, Feminism, Colleague Spouses

Grade: 3 out of 5 Radiums

‘Emma.’ is Stylish, Bighearted, and Eager to Get Love Right

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CREDIT: Box Hill Films/Focus Features

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, Connor Swindells

Director: Autumn de Wilde

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Butt

Release Date: February 21, 2020 (Limited)/Expands March 6, 2020

In the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s meddling matchmaker, there are two moments that happen back to back in a pair of private quarters which really represent the power of this version. First we see Emma Woodhouse’s longtime companion and confidant George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) being dressed by his servant. The sequence begins with him stripped down to his birthday suit, giving us a quick peek at his bare behind. Once he is all set to o, it cuts to Ms. Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) receiving the final touches from her help, and while we do not get a full au naturel view of her, she does take a moment to hike up her dress and pose while placing her hands at her side. Taken together, it is marvelously striking how rarely we get to see bare legs like these in a literary English period piece, especially in one that is so otherwise bright and bold in its costume decisions, what with its feathers in caps and a mustard-yellow trench coat.

It makes sense that we get such a peek into private spaces, considering how much first-time director Autumn de Wilde has chosen to emphasize the vulnerability at the core of this story. It is no big surprise to see Flynn as Knightley cut to the emotional core of any conflict, but you might be taken aback by just how much we get to see his beloved open up as well. Emma presents herself as a know-it-all, but when she realizes that she may have screwed up, her worry about catastrophe is devastating (so much so that her nose starts bleeding at one point). Taylor-Joy and her big, expressive eyes are quite the casting coup here. There’s no way for her to fully hide what she’s feeling. When she discovers how badly she insults Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), and how wrong she’s steered her friend Harriet (Mia Goth), and how much she’s offended Knightley, the tears come flowing as she confronts the fear that she may have made herself the biggest pariah around.

One of the biggest themes of any version of Emma is the power in allowing people to fix their mistakes. In this Emma., when those re-dos occur, the characters have big smiles on their faces, and I bet you will, too. It’s a lovely adaptation, and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a story I was already intimately familiar with, and yet it has somehow awoken previously undiscovered sections of my heart and subconscious.

Emma. is Recommended If You Like: Wit mixed with tears

Grade: 4 out of 5 Love Matches

Watch And/Or Listen to This: Hozier’s “Dinner & Diatribes”

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CREDIT: Hozier/YouTube

Here’s another great song/music video I discovered while walking around the Sony Building. Hozier vs. Anya Taylor-Joy is the Great Psychological Battle of 2019: who’d a thunk it? (I’m in love with the lone “ah” that Hozier lets out at 3:26.)

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Glass’ is an Off-Kilter But Rewarding Examination of Superpowered Beings

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CREDIT: Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Popping Veins, Sharp Objects, and Bodies Thrown Violently

Release Date: January 18, 2019

With Glass, M. Night Shyamalan is attempting a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Superheroes. According to this particular model, the stories told in comic books are based on the exploits of real people. We only think they are myths because they have had to live in the shadows. I’m pretty sure that Shyamalan does not actually believe that there are superheroes and supervillains in the real world, but the wonder that infuses those stories is very real. It is what drives us to understand the unbelievable. It is also what drives Shyamalan to deconstruct the entire superhero genre at its most atomic level.

Picking up nearly two decades after the events of Unbreakable and soon after those of Split, Glass kicks off with Bruce Willis’ super-strong guardian David Dunn tracking down James McAvoy’s ravenous multi-personality villain Kevin Wendell Crumb. They are both subdued by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients with delusions that they are superpowered, a condition that she assures us many people are suffering from. They end up at the same institution that has been housing Sam Jackson’s Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, the man who engineered a series of terrorist attacks to uncover a superhuman like David. Also returning are Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Kevin’s surviving kidnapped victim. Oddly enough, most of the film takes place within the institution, making this mainly a battle of wits between Dr. Ellie and her charges. It is a surprisingly talky approach to what is ostensibly an action film, but it is profoundly part and parcel of what Shyamalan is doing.

As Glass reveals what it is all about, much of the dialogue turns into language that only ever appears in comic books. That is to say, it is the language of comic book narration, of the variety that goes “the bad guys are teaming up” and “this is an origin story, but not for the character you thought.” Not only do real people not talk like this, neither do movie characters, and neither do comic book characters. The only actor who manages to deliver any of it with any gravitas is Jackson. Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, sound as unnatural as possible. However, as disorienting as all that is, I am not eager to write this element off as a failure.

The film’s structure also leads me to question some things, particularly the revelation of Dr. Ellie’s true nature. I did not find it to be a huge shock, and I wonder if Shyamalan would have benefited from revealing it to the audience earlier to really explore the consequences of what her character represents. But even with the reveal at the end, that point can retroactively click into gear. And as for all the unnatural acting, I could say that maybe that is the point, and that this is a highly affected world, or at least these are highly affected people. That would be generous, though, especially considering that Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy sounded like much more typical humans in Unbreakable and Split. But even if I choose to have the least generous interpretation of every questionable element, I remain utterly fascinated by Glass. This is not Shyamalan at his most straightforwardly powerful, but it is also not him at his most insufferable. He is on a cloud of thinking that most people would never think to go to, but he has found insights there that I am very happy we now have.

Glass is Recommended If You Like: The Village, The Happening, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Grade: 4 out of 5 Origin Stories

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Thoroughbreds’ is a Psychopathic Murder Scheme with Primary Color Flourishes

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CREDIT: Claire Folger/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift

Director: Cory Finley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for a Psychopathic, Clinical Approach to Blood and a Little Bit of Language and Upper Middle Class Drug Use

Release Date: March 9, 2018 (Limited)

As as I became acquainted with the premise of Thoroughbreds – Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) team up to kill the former’s stepfather (Paul Sparks) – I of course had to ask: what is it that drives Lily all the way to murder? But alas, that is not really a question this film cares to answer. It is not exactly ignored, but you would expect a grave decision like this to be given more consideration than Lily gives it. If he were abusing her in some way, you could understand why she would go to such an extreme. But the conflict basically boils down to: he wants her to stop freeloading and she thinks he’s a jerk. It is totally understandable why they have such a chilly relationship, but it hardly justifies murder.

It should be noted, though, that that shallow decision-making and outsize retribution is kind of the point. This is a bloody satire in the vein of Heathers. But the whole affair is so underplayed that you never feel the over-the-top nature of the premise. There is a matter-of-fact presentation that makes it hard to peg what writer/director Cory Finley wants us to conclude about Lily and Amanda’s motives and machinations. Since one or both of them is in essentially every scene, we are immersed in their perspective to the point that what they are scheming seems like so much less of a big deal than it obviously is.

Thoroughbreds works best as a showcase for its two leads. Amanda is some sort of sociopathic or psychopathic, unable to intuit the meanings of facial expressions, but practiced at faking emotions. Cooke nails a combination of off-putting but somehow friendly. Lily is the apparently more “normal” of the two, but that description really only fits insofar as how she is more adept at displaying and interpreting typically genuine emotions. She is prone to moral slipperiness that reads as inherent to her nature. The title basically refers to how these two have been groomed by nature to be the perfect criminals. Anton Yelchin (in one of his last roles) shows up as a drug dealer to privileged kids who Lily and Amanda hire to help them carry out the deed. He puts his own spin on the “you’re all blind sheep” shtick, but mostly he just serves a plot convenience.

These off-kilter individuals get their very appropriate soundtrack in the form of Erik Friedlander’s weird percussive score. It is so lacking in melody or any aspect of musical structure that I wonder if what I’m recognizing is actually just part of the sound mixing. Either way, it is an appropriate fit. It is a cold and clinical soundscape that is fit for me to love, while that same approach with the narrative has more modest results.

Thoroughbreds is Recommended If You Like: Heathers, The Loved Ones, American Psycho, Avant-garde percussive scores

Grade: 3 out of 5 Practice Smiles

This Is a Movie Review: Split

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split-james-mcavoy

Split is basically M. Night Shyamalan’s version of an X-Men movie. Kevin (James McAvoy), with his 23 personalities (X-23?), is like Legion crossed with Wolverine, and “the Beast” is about to emerge. And let’s throw some Professor X in for good measure, since McAvoy plays both after all. (BTW, Legion is Prof. X’s son.)

The last X-Men film, Apocalypse, was not that well-received, but I liked it a lot, and the similarities are instructive. Just as that mutant film was, for better or worse, unapologetically over-the-top, so is Split relentlessly blunt with its dialogue. Sometimes that means characters thuddingly explain exactly what is happening and exactly how they are feeling, and we say, “Nobody talks like that.” But then, that is also the appeal. Kevin talks and acts like nobody else, and that is what makes him so spellbinding.

There is a series of flashbacks from the childhood of the main kidnapping victim (Anya Taylor-Joy, always a wonder to behold), which is largely unnecessary. The point they make is demonstrated more subtly and just as effectively towards the end, but they are compelling and in keeping with the unsettling tone.

Yeah, there’s a twist (or two). There are hints that we should have seen all along, but also plenty of misdirection, so it works, beyond all odds and all sense.

And for my Early 2017 Oscar Wish List, I of course like McAvoy for Lead Actor, Mike Gioulakis for his expressionistic Cinematography, are opening and closing credits considered part of Production Design?, and Shyamalan himself for Supporting Actor in the best one-scene performance I have seen in some time.

I give Split 20 out of 24 Personalities.