The Electrical Life of Louis Wain


Artist Louis Wain paints what he sees.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman (voice), Jamie Demetriou, Sophia Di Martino. Directed by Will Sharpe

 

The line between madness and genius is a thin one indeed. It is often difficult to realize that the line has been crossed once we have moved to the wrong side of it.

Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) was a talented illustrator who worked in London in the late 19th century. In 1881, his sister Caroline (Riseborough) hired a nanny for her four younger sisters. Emily Richardson (Foy) came into the household and soon Louis was enchanted. The sole breadwinner for his family including his mother (Nicholls) and five sisters, he had never had a thought for marriage before, and this particular one was scandalous, seeing as Miss Richardson was about a decade older than he, and from a different class strata.

Nevertheless, the two were married, and although their happiness would be short-lived, she did give him a gift that would have repercussions long beyond her years; a stray cat named Peter, soaking wet in the yard of their cottage. As Wain struggled with his grief, he found himself becoming fascinated with cats as a subject for his work – anthropomorphic cats who frolicked on two legs, smoked cigars, served tea, and smiled with big eyes. The drawings and cards of Wain became unbelievably popular, and it is no exaggeration to say that his work helped change the minds of Victorian England as to the place of cats in their household; once thought useful only for catching vermin, they began to be considered as companions and pets, a position they occupy (but don’t necessarily enjoy) to this day.

In the meantime, Louis’ sanity was beginning to slip away. His obsession with electricity and its power began to color his thinking. He began to hallucinate, sometimes horrifically. Ass Louis, a somewhat naïve businessman, had never copyrighted his images, they were copied left and right, leaving Louis nearly destitute. He was committed to an asylum, although once the appalling conditions of his commitment became known, no less a personage than H.G. Wells (Cave) would lead a plea for funds to be raised so that he might live out the remainder of his years in nicer surroundings, which happily turned out to be the case (he would die on July 4, 1939).

Although Wain has largely been forgotten over the years, his images presaged the obsession with cats and their behavior which have helped make the Internet the gigantic waste of time that it is today (I write this unironically, knowing that you, my dear reader, are taking this in on the net). Still, his story is a fascinating one and his impact fairly important. In his time, he influenced cartoons, animation and even cinema. Some of his later images were almost psychedelic in nature, and pop art certainly owes him a debt.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain with an earnestness that would befit Hugh Grant, albeit with less stammering. The cast is impressive, in particular Foy, who gives Emily a certain radiance and who pairs well with Cumberbatch, and Colman, whose narration is at times hysterically funny.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson use a bright and colorful palette to frame their story, which is fairly unusual for movies set in Victorian England, which is often portrayed as grimy and grey. Sharpe also ratchets up the poignancy, particularly in the second half. I found myself well-affected by the film, although I would have liked to have seen a coda at the end and perhaps speeded up the pace a bit in the first half. This is definitely a film for cat lovers, as well as for fans of Cumberbatch, who is at his best here. I would daresay that also those who are interested in learning more about artists who have been shoved off to the side as time has gone by should profit well by watching this.

REASONS TO SEE: Highly recommended for Cumberbatch fans and cat lovers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic material, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Colman and Foy have appeared as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Munich: The Edge of War

Tombstone-Rashomon


You’re a daisy if you do.

(2017) Western (Tri-Coast) Adam Newberry, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Christine Dodge, Eric Schumacher, Benny Lee Kennedy, Richard Anderson, Jason Graham, Shayn Herndon, Michele Bauer, Haydn Winston, Bradford Trojan, James Miller, Callie Hutchinson, Rogelio Camarillo Brenda Jean Foley, Frank Gonzalez, Wade Everett, Pablo Kjolseth, Susan Sebanc. Directed by Alex Cox

 

One of the watershed moments in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory on October 26, 1881 has taken on mythic proportions in the annals of the American frontier.

What is not well-known is that a time-travelling film crew arrived in Tombstone to document the famous event. Unfortunately, they miscalculated and arrived in Tombstone on October 27. Although distraught at having missed the historic event, they chose to soldier on, interviewing the survivors and eyewitnesses.

Among the participants interviewed were Ike Clanton (Kennedy), J.W. “Doc” Holliday (Schumacher) and Wyatt Earp (Newberry). Also interviewed were Holliday’s common-law wife Mary “Big Nose Kate” Horony (Dodge), Sheriff Johnny Behan (Pacheco) and saloon keeper Col. John Hafford (Anderson). Each gave conflicting testimony as to what happened that day. We’ll never really know for certain what happened in those fateful 30 seconds on that cold, windy day but nobody will ever forget it.

Legendary cult film director Alex Cox comes up with an intriguing concept, but true to his ethos doesn’t really stick to it. Trying to put the events of one of the most famous events in the Old West through the same microscope as Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 samurai film Rashomon, we see footage of the events as told by the various interview subjects, although the title card at the beginning clearly states that the camera crew didn’t arrive until after that all happened. Cox might have been better served to either use animatics to illustrate the testimony (a fairly expensive proposition) or simply not state when the film crew arrived, although that might have messed with the whole Kurosawa angle.

I don’t know how much research was done into this – probably not a lot – but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies here. For example, the Hungarian-born Horony is confused as to grammar, referring to male subjects as “she” and “her” throughout. Although Horony had been in America for 21 years when the shootout took place. We also see the Earps arrive at the gunfight in a police SUV. I like goofy humor as much as the next guy, but I have a burr up my butt about anachronisms. It would have been just as bad if they had been singing a David Bowie song in the saloon.

The film was shot around Arizona although not in Tombstone itself, which is understandable since modern Tombstone is a tourist mecca and doesn’t really lend itself to filming movies anymore. The costuming is mostly authentic, although the clothes are much cleaner than they would have been in the 19th century.

The performances by mainly unknown actors are solid and believable. My one issue is with the interviewer (Sebanc) who speaks in a flat, emotionless and almost robotic voice. Something tells me that was the direction that Cox gave the actress, but it sounds like the interview is being conducted by Ciri or Alexa.

The movie is interesting enough to watch, but the little idiosyncrasies end up doing it in. Cox has a pretty legit resume and has continued to make flawed but fascinating movies since his heyday in the 80s, and this is another one of those.

REASONS TO SEE: Solid onscreen performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The interviewer is robotic and stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Cox is best-known for his mid-80s cult hits Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandor
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Widows

Hysteria (2011)


You'll find this in the dictionary under "knowing look."

You’ll find this in the dictionary under “knowing look.”

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Felicity Jones, Gemma Jones, Anna Chancellor, Malcolm Rennie, Kim Criswell, Georgie Glen, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Linda Woodhall, Kim Selby, John Overstall, Ann Comfort, Jonathan Rhodes, Leila Schaus, Ellie Jacob. Directed by Tanya Wexler

Medicine is a field of study that is ever changing. What we KNOW for sure one year is medieval foolishness the next. The human body is a mystery that we have yet to get a real handle on.

In Victorian times, medicine was positively barbaric. Going to a doctor was just as liable to get you killed as the illness or injury you had. Still, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Some scientific sorts were challenging widely-held beliefs through research and the scientific method. Things we today take for granted – the changing of bandages on wounds to prevent infection, the washing of hands before examinations and surgeries, these things were brand new then.

Given the Victorian view on women, it is unsurprising that their mood swings, feelings of frustration and general anxieties were all lumped together not so much as female foolishness but as a catch-all diagnosis – hysteria. Women could be committed to asylums or jailed because of it, or if criminally charged could have forced hysterectomies performed on them (and yes, that is where the term comes from).

However, there were doctors who treated that sort of thing. Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce) was one. He had discovered that women with these complaints (and other similar ones) often found relief by a technique that involved manual stimulation of the genitalia. With a discrete tent-like curtain up, he would let his fingers do the walking and soon enough the woman would experience what he called a paroxysm. It’s what we today call an orgasm, although it was thought at the time that females didn’t experience sexual pleasure. Medieval foolishness, remember?

Anyway, his practice is getting so large that he needs to take on some additional help and it looks like Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) is just the ticket. While he has a tendency to question the methods of established physicians which has basically put him in a position where nobody is willing to hire him, he manages to convince Dr. Dalrymple that he will behave himself. Seeing as Dr. Dalrymple is desperate not to mention that his field of expertise is frowned upon by the medical establishment, it seems they both need each other.

Granville being young and handsome soon becomes a hit with the female patients, but also with the residents of Dr. Dalrymple’s home including Emily (F. Jones), Dr. Dalrymple’s youngest daughter and a proper Victorian lady at that; and Charlotte (Gyllenhaal), his oldest who is the source of all the good doctor’s grey hair. Miss Charlotte you see is a non-conformist, a sort of pre-feminist who runs a shelter paid for by dear old papa who more than likely is happy enough to get her out of his sight. There’s also the randy young maid Molly (Smith) who flirts outrageously with the good Dr. Granville.

Dr. Dalrymple is having none of that however. He feels that Dr. Granville is a fine catch, someone who can partner with him in the practice and marry his youngest to seal the deal. However, Dr. Granville is becoming a victim of his own success; he has begun to develop muscular cramping and pain – most likely what we would call Carpal Tunnel syndrome. However his good friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Everett), a kind of brilliant slacker, has invented an automatic feather duster, the movements of which remind Dr. Granville of the same motions he uses to stimulate his patients. Thus, the vibrator is born.

Female sexuality is still largely taboo in many ways even more than a century later. Our country is just as prudish as Victorians when it comes to women having sex, let alone enjoying it. Even discussing the subject is thought to be perversion. I personally don’t get why but I guess that I’m just slow on the uptake. The movie has a wonderful opportunity to talk about this subject and give it some weight.

Sadly, the filmmakers choose to make it more of a lighthearted farce than an examination of the attitudes towards women in general and their sexuality in particular. Still, the movie does at least invite conversation on the subject which is at least something. It also has the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal who takes a movie that occasionally loses focus and gives it life and energy. While occasionally the role of Charlotte becomes strident, Gyllenhaal gives her enough soul to make her sympathetic rather than irritating.

Everett and Pryce, both veterans who are normally counted on for fine performances, give a decent go of it but Dancy who has had some pretty good turns on both the small screen and the big is largely colorless here which is kind of odd for him. If he’d had half the energy Gyllenhaal did this would have been a movie contending for year-end awards. As it is, it is a movie that has some moments both of pathos and humor with a modicum of thought-provoking on the side. Even despite the movie’s flaws that’s still a recipe for success in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Gyllenhaal is likable indeed and Smith is fabulously sexy here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Trivializes the subject a bit. Too low-key.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would guess from the subject matter, there is plenty of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original electromechanical vibrator was portable but required a wet cell battery that weighed 40 pounds.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An abridged documentary on the female orgasm as well as a Q&A session with Dancy, Wexler and Pryce at the Tribeca Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Real Genius