Friday, June 11, 2021

This Lady in Distress . . . is a Mess (“The Woman in the Window”)

Here’s a recipe for a hit movie: take a hot-selling thriller, part of the always-appealing “damsel in distress” genre, then add the choicest ingredients. Like an admired director (Joe Wright of Atonement fame), a screenwriter with a Pulitzer Prize to his credit (Tracy Letts, who also plays a key supporting role), and a full compliment of skilled craftspeople. Then stir in an A-level cast, including Oscar winners like Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore, headed by the always zesty Amy Adams. On top, drizzle a typically tangy Danny Elfman score. Serve luke-warm.

 I’m being facetious, of course, The most startling aspect of The Woman in the Window  is how many talented people contributed to what turns out to be a dish of leftovers. I haven’t read the popular novel, but the film wants to resemble something by Hitchcock, to the extent of borrowing telling shots from such classics as Vertigo and Rear Window. The plot borrows shamelessly from Rear Window too, combining the idea of a housebound person who witnesses (or maybe witnesses) a crime in the house across the way with that old chestnut: the lady in jeopardy. Since the very beginning of Hollywood, viewers have been titillated by flicks in which a lone female, under the direst of circumstances, must fight for her life against a home invader. See, for example, Barbara Stanwyck as a bed-ridden invalid in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number. Sixteen years later, it was Olivia de Havilland trapped in a home elevator in Lady in a Cage. Even in this century the trope has persisted: see Jodi Foster in 2002’s Panic Room. It can be argued that these films are a tribute to female strength in times of adversity: even the weakest, sickliest woman can rise to the occasion when circumstances demand. But The Woman in the Window starts with a woman who’s such a physical and psychological wreck that her eventual heroics are neither convincing nor interesting.

 Adams, who was also a painfully hot mess in last year’s Hillbilly Elegy, here plays a child psychologist with a broken family and severe agoraphobia. She takes plenty of meds (washed down with red wine) and has weekly visits from a shrink who makes house calls. And she’s obsessed with the new family across the street from her elaborately creepy Upper Manhattan townhouse. After visits from the weird mother (Moore) and weirder son (Fred Hechinger), she becomes convinced that the father of the family (Oldman) is a killer who’s going to strike again. Alas, no authority figure believes her, especially because there are some gaping holes in the story she tells of her own life. But wait! Why do disturbingly close-up photos of her in bed surface in her email? Maybe something evil DOES this way come. But maybe–just maybe—it’s not the person she suspects.

 In Act 3 of this creaky melodrama, there’s the inevitable (and almost endless) fight to the finish. After which a battered and bruised Adams, now cured of her agoraphobia, finally takes off her frumpy bathrobe and blossoms into a strong, whole woman ready to move out of her house of horrors and take on the world. I’m told this film was scheduled for a theatrical release, until the pandemic led it to be presented on Netflix. Under COVID conditions, a TV movie focusing on someone stuck inside makes a grim sort of sense. But frankly, I don’t choose to be confined with the whiny, dreary folks who make up this cast. The New York Times review of this film came up with a nifty headline: “Don’t You Be My Neighbor.”


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Moving from Back to Front in “Snowpiercer”

There was a time, before Parasite, when I had never heard of the Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. But 2019’s Parasite made such an impression on me – and on the film community – that I was eager to know more. Parasite, of course, was the first foreign-language film ever to nab the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as winning honors for its direction and screenplay. The film’s twisty look at the contemporary class struggle, one that swings between comedy and tragedy while encouraging us to continuously shift our sympathies between the story’s two main families, has made me realize that this is a film to be savored more than once, and perhaps viewed differently on each viewing.

 No, I haven’t had the chance to view it again. But recently I watched a Bong Joon-Ho production from 2013, one that I’d seen advertised on theatre marquees in far-flung cities, back in the long-ago days when travel seemed our birthright. Snowpiercer is in fact a film that depends on the idea of travel, but hardly travel for fun or cultural stimulation. The characters in Snowpiercer (based on a French graphic novel) travel ceaselessly because they have to. An ambitious attempt to stem global warming – certainly a hot topic at the moment – has backfired into a global ice-age so severe that no living thing can survive outdoors. Those people who’ve managed to save themselves are crowded aboard a long, powerful train that circumnavigates the earth without stopping. Its inventor and chief engineer, the mysterious Wilford, has become, in the seventeen years since the catastrophe, viewed as humanity’s benefactor and ultimate savior.

 The film’s opening scenes take place in the rear of the train, where an international group of passengers (mostly speaking English) suffer from malnutrition and other woes. Over the course of seventeen years, relationships have formed and babies have been born. But the squalor is intense, helped along by an ad hoc military clique that hands out grim-looking rations while stamping out any signs of plebeian rebellion among the passengers. The scariest figure, Mason, is played by Tilda Swinton, in a wig, false teeth, owl-eyed glasses, and a chest full of medals. She issues commands and threats, while sternly reminding everyone of Wilford’s benign generosity.

 Despite the dangers posed by open insurrection, a number of passengers (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and Octavia Spencer among them) are poised to fight their way to the front of the train. That’s when director Bong pulls one of his trademark surprises. The grimy, tightly-packed cars at the rear of Snowpiercer suddenly give way to a kind of fantasyland on wheels: a cozy schoolroom, a swanky beauty salon, an orchard in full bloom, an aquarium full of exotic fish, a sushi bar with all the trimmings. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is discovered by Evans’ character when he’s invited to meet Mr. Wilford in the flesh. At this point the tale becomes something of a philosophical treatise on class structure, one containing some revelations we doubtless didn’t expect.

 This is an ambitious and by no means perfect film, though seeing it on a screen much larger than my home TV set would certainly help. There’s so much going on here that it’s hard to keep track of the many characters and their situations, so that key basic plot points can be elusive. But Bong’s ironic affection for humanity – despite it all -- is very much intact, and the film’s ending, beautifully shot, lingers in the mind. This is a world of fire and ice I won’t soon forget.