THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MIST (2007)

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My two favorite works by Stephen King are his novel Salem’s Lot (1975), which I read when it first came out when I was eleven years old, and it scared the crap out of me, and his novella The Mist (1980).

So, when the movie version THE MIST (2007) came out, I knew it would be hard-pressed to meet my expectations because I enjoyed the novella so much, and while I generally liked the movie, I didn’t love it.

Part of this is because of my love of the novella itself, but another more important part is the movie version simply isn’t as intense as King’s original story, even with its infamous changed and much darker ending. Having re-watched the film for the purposes of this column, my opinion remains unchanged.

In THE MIST, a mysterious mist covers a small Maine town after a ferocious thunderstorm, and a group of townspeople including David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son find themselves trapped inside a supermarket with giant carnivorous insects and other unseen nasties hovering outside in the fog, creatures that are not only waiting to eat people who venture outside, but also that are actively trying to break through the glass of the market and get inside.

It’s a great premise for a story.

THE MIST was written and directed by Frank Darabont, who also successfully adapted a couple of other Stephen King stories for the big screen, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) and THE GREEN MILE (1999). Darabont is also the man who developed and created the TV show THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2022). THE MIST shares a common theme with THE WALKING DEAD, as both stories follow a group of survivors as they try not only to deal with the supernatural threat in their world, but also the threat from other humans who lose their sh*t when the world as they know it comes to an end. They even share some of the same cast members, as Laurie Holden (Andrea), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale), and Melissa McBride (Carol) all have roles in THE MIST.

But THE MIST is not as intense as THE WALKING DEAD, nor is it as intense as the novella on which it is based, which has always been my problem with this movie. It’s generally enjoyable and scary, but it never really gets under your skin or goes for the throat, with the exception of its chilling conclusion. But so much before that, like the all-important sequences in the grocery store, is talky and drawn out.

The most frightening part of the movie version of THE MIST is not its monsters, but human character Mrs. Carmody, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who delivers one of the best performances in the movie. Mrs. Carmody believes the mist and its monsters have happened because her Old Testament vengeful God is angry with humanity and is exacting revenge. To appease her God, she begins to seek followers inside the supermarket, and there’s talk of offering a sacrifice to God to show him that they are faithful. This character remains frightening today as in recent years both religious and political extremism has grown more aggressive and violent.

Also memorable is character actor Toby Jones as Ollie Weeks, the supermarket employee and character audiences probably most identify with, as he is just an everyday loyal worker who finds himself stepping up and taking on a leadership role. I always enjoy Jones’ work, and his credits are too numerous to list here, but his performance is one of my favorite parts of THE MIST.

WALKING DEAD veterans Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurie Holden are also really good here in their roles, which almost seem like warm-ups for their roles on the blockbuster TV series.

Andre Braugher is fine as the annoying Brent Norton, and in the lead, Thomas Jane is okay as David Drayton, but I’ve always found his performance, with the exception of the ending, to be, like the rest of the movie, lacking in the necessary intensity. Supposedly, Frank Darabont wanted Jane to star as Rick Grimes in THE WALKING DEAD. Based on his performance here in THE MIST, I’m glad the lead role of that zombie series went to Andrew Lincoln instead.

Of course, you can’t talk about THE MIST without talking about the ending. The ending to the novella simply had the characters exiting into the mist, and their fate was left for the reader to decide, which was something that worked for me. Darabont famously changed the ending, which gives the film an incredibly dark finish, which for many fans, made this movie something extra special. Indeed, even Stephen King is on record as saying he loved the ending to the movie and wishes he had thought of it. As endings go, it is incredibly grim, and again, since I loved the entire novella so much, I prefer its original ending to the one in the movie. Let’s put it this way. It’s the ending which prevents me from wanting to watch this one over and over, as it’s such a complete downer.

But there is one positive that I took from this depressing ending as I watched the movie again here in 2022, a time when extremism is running rampant throughout the world. On the one end in THE MIST, we have the extremism of Mrs. Carmody, which is easy to see, and on the other end, at the film’s conclusion, we witness an extreme decision made by David Drayton, which at the time, seemed like the best decision, in spite of how excruciatingly painful it would be, to make. But moments after pulling the trigger— eh hem— on this decision, Drayton sees that it was so very wrong, and he falls to his knees and screams in agonized horror. So, the ending, in spite of the fact that I don’t really like it, does speak, like the rest of the film does, to the importance of avoiding extremism, whether that be extreme beliefs or actions. If Drayton and those in the car with him, had only expressed a bit more faith in humanity, their fates would have been different.

THE MIST is a well-made, frightening horror movie. For some, it’s an exceptional horror movie. For me, it remains just very good, because its source material, Stephen King’s novella of the same name, is far superior.

Either way, THE MIST is worth a look, and its ending is one you definitely need to experience at least once, and then as you walk away from the end credits, you can ask yourself, would I have done the same?

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021) – Benedict Cumberbatch Performance Lifts Uneven Bio Pic

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021), an original Prime Video movie, is an elegant and colorful bio pic of Louis Wain, a 19th century English artist famous for his drawings of cats. Wain is played here by Benedict Cumberbatch.

And Cumberbatch is the reason you want to see this one. He delivers a great performance as he always does, although truth be told, Claire Foy is equally as good as Wain’s wife Emily, but she is in the film far less than Cumberbatch. Still, these two powerful performances carry this movie, which is a good thing, because the rest of the movie is rather uneven.

Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a kind soul and a bit of an odd duck. As depicted in this movie, he’s definitely on the spectrum, possibly schizophrenic or autistic, but one thing that is indisputable is he is an extraordinary artist and can sketch animals in seconds. In 1881, his father dies, and Louis is left to provide for his ailing mother and five sisters. He secures a full-time position as an artist for a major English newspaper, as its editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) is fascinated by Wain’s work. Over the years, Sir William serves as a mentor for Wain and remains a constant friend throughout his life.

The family also hires a governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) to help care for the children. Emily and Louis instantly share a connection, and not too long afterwards, they fall in love and get married, which causes a stir since Emily is not of the same social class as Louis. The two share a wonderful life and inspire each other to create art as they both see the world the same way. It’s also during this time that they find a stray cat and welcome it into their home, which begins Louis’ obsession with drawing cats.

But when Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer, their magical life comes to an end. After Emily’s death, Louis struggles to keep himself together, and from here on out his life is one tragedy after another, but he finds that the harder and more horrific his life becomes, the more brilliant and vibrant his cat drawings become. He is able to turn pain into art which while providing the world great beauty, drives his own mental health deeper into despair.

The “electrical” in the film’s title refers to Louis’ unique take on electricity. He views it as something more than just a mysterious power source for lights. He saw it as a power source for people, something that could be harnessed artistically, and he would have electric moments where he would feel the electricity and use that power to create his art. Emily was one of the few people who understood what he meant by this. As a fiction writer, I can’t deny that when I am in that “zone” where words fly easily, it does feel like an outside force like electricity has entered my brain, because often I write things which I will read later and say to myself, “I wrote that?” so it’s a concept that I definitely understand.

As I said, while I enjoyed THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it is a rather uneven film. I definitely enjoyed the first half more than the second. The first half of the movie which depicts first the courtship and then the marriage of Louis and Emily is lively, entertaining, and fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy share a warm chemistry and really bring these two characters and their love for each other to life. When describing the first half of this movie, words like “delightful” and “charming” come to mind.

But once Emily falls ill and eventually passes, the entire tone of the film changes, as Louis is assaulted by one mishap after another, some small, others tragic. And this part goes on for quite a while, and it’s simply not as satisfying as the first half of the movie.

And while the screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, who directed, does a nice job depicting Louis Wain the man, one thing the film surprisingly does not do is offer much insight at all into the cat drawings. I mean, the audience gets to see plenty of these drawings, but no light is shed on Wain’s thinking behind them, and perhaps this is so because we might not know his thinking behind them, but the film doesn’t offer anything that speaks to this other than that Wain can draw cats and here are the drawings. There’s also not much insight into his relationship with cats. So, if you love cats, you might enjoy this movie, but I would argue that strangely cats really aren’t featured all too prominently here.

What is featured is yet another tremendous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. He is the reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. He portrays Wain as a stand-up decent man, and his initial awkward attempts to woo Emily are fun to watch. Later, as Wain becomes more and more haunted by his own mental demons, Cumberbatch captures this part of the man as well. The make-up here is also topnotch, and Cumberbatch looks believable as Wain as both a young man and a very old man later in the movie.

The last time I saw Cumberbatch, he played Greville Wynne in THE COURIER (2020), and he provided another fascinating performance as another real-life figure. I enjoyed THE COURIER somewhat more than I did THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, but in terms of acting, I thought Cumberbatch was even better here as Louis Wain than he was as Greville Wynne. And every time Wain mentioned electricity, I couldn’t help but think of another amazing biographical performance by Cumberbatch, as Thomas Edison in THE CURRENT WAR (2017). Benedict Cumberbatch seems to excel at playing these historical figures.

Claire Foy is also wonderful as Emily Richardson. She plays Emily as quite the eccentric character in her own right, the perfect match for Louis, and as I said, Foy and Cumberbatch are electric together. Had Foy been in this entire movie, I’d list her right up there with Cumberbatch for being the main reason to see this one, and up to a point she is, but her character dies midway through.

Foy is a wonderful actress, known for her work on the TV show THE CROWN (2016-2020), but she’s turned in some memorable movie performances as well. She stood out as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet in FIRST MAN (2018), as well as in the Steven Soderbergh thriller UNSANE (2018). I first noticed her as the fiery “girl” in the Nicholas Cage action/fantasy/horror movie SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011).

Veteran character actor Toby Jones adds solid support as newspaper editor Sir William Ingram. Jones has been in a gazillion films and adds quality support to each and every one of them. And I always like to point out that he’s the son of actor Freddie Jones, who got his start in Hammer Films, and debuted as one of the more memorable Frankenstein “monsters” ever, in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) with Peter Cushing.

Director Will Sharpe achieves mixed results here. At times, this one looks like an authentic period piece, while at others, the sets look cheap and backdrops phony. Now, I realize this may have been on purpose, to match the look of Wain’s drawings, but I can’t say I was convinced that this was the case. Had the entire movie owned this look, then I would have bought that premise more readily, but as it stands, it doesn’t. The film also doesn’t do the best job balancing its two moods, light and fun during the first half, and dark and tragic during its second.

But most disappointing of all is the lack of insight on Wain’s famous cat sketches. Little time is spent on what was going through Wain’s mind when he sketched those cats or his feelings towards cats in general. And no light is shed whatsoever on how he drew his art. There’s no depiction of any artistic process. The one time the film does this is Wain’s advice to Emily about her own art, where he tells her that there’s really only one rule to drawing, and that is to look. That is a notable moment in the movie, but it needed more of these.

While I did enjoy THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, it did struggle to hold my interest the longer it went on. Keeping it together and the main reason to see this movie is the fabulous work of Benedict Cumberbatch with his portrayal of Louis Wain.

The first half of THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN is indeed electrical. The second half barely purrs.

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