FlixChatter Review: The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (2021)

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Benedict Cumberbatch has built his career on quirky roles, and he once again plays an eccentric genius. This time it’s an English artist Louis Wain whose surreal cat paintings, um, catapulted his career at the end of the 19th century. Now, I never thought there was a time when cats weren’t household pets, well apparently part of Wain’s legacy was change the image of cats as distrustful creatures into something cute and cuddly.

Louis’ life however, isn’t quite warm and fuzzy. As the first of six children and the only boy, Wain ends ups supporting all his sisters and his mother following his father’s death. So undoubtedly Wain has a peculiar upbringing and he seems to be willing to put up with a lot, especially the constant berating from the eldest of his five sisters Caroline (Andrea Riseborough). But his spirits perk up upon meeting Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), a governess his family hired for his younger sisters. The romance is frowned upon by the family, particularly Caroline, as Emily is 10 years his senior. But despite their objections, the two are quickly married and moved to Hampstead. It’s there that his love for cats blossomed after they adopted a stray kitten they named Peter.

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There seems to be no shortage of amazingly-gifted artists with tragic lives, and Louis faces tragedy in both love and career despite reaching a certain degree of fame and notoriety. He didn’t get to live a long married life with the love of his life due to cancer, which made him even more prolific with his cat drawings during Emily’s illness. At one point she woke up to a room literally filled with cat paintings Louis had drawn. The relationship between Louis and Emily is quite sweet, and Foy has such a lovely presence on screen, so it’s too bad her screen time is pretty limited here.

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In terms of career, one can’t help but see the similarities between Louis and Nikola Tesla, one of the most brilliant inventors with the brightest minds who somehow didn’t have the business smarts and faced poverty during his lifetime. Louis confessed to his sisters that he didn’t sign copyright of his work, which caused him to constantly face financial difficulties. For a while Louis was employed at Illustrated London News by its owner, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), who became a close friend, but he became sort of a freelance artist throughout his career.

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As a narrative feature, director Will Sharpe (show-runner of the Flowers UK series) is a curious one with a rather bizarre directorial choices that feels experimental and at times psychedelic and overly sentimental. It also uses a narration by Olivia Colman, which feels like a crutch to help us understand what’s going on at certain points of Louis’ life. As the title suggest, there’s also Louis’ pre-occupation with electricity, which I find quite amusing given Cumberbatch played Thomas Edison in The Current War in 2017. Some of his electric-cat drawings reflects this period, shifting from the more anthropomorphic style where the cats are drawn behaving like humans. 

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The depiction of schizophrenia that plagued Wain’s family is at times too manic or too whimsical. Starting with one of his sisters who ended up in a mental hospital, Louis too, suffered from that chronic brain disorder, depicted vividly in the film where he imagines himself drowning and screaming for help from his father. Perhaps the frenzied style is meant to showcase Louis’ mental state, which also tends to succumb to sorrowful mood. Speaking of drowning, I feel like the film often drowns in sadness. The moment Louis lost Peter, the cat he and Emily adopted, Louis is absolutely crestfallen that he sobs for a long period of time as he’s lying on the floor. Then in his later years when Louis is in his 70s living in a mental institution, the gray-haired, weary-faced artist is visited by an old friend whom he first met on a train decades prior. He laments about the harsh life in the psychiatric hospital and how he misses his cats.

The performances are as uneven as the film itself. The usually terrific Andrea Riseborough delivers a strange one-note performance that’s almost grating as she’s screaming all the time, usually directed at poor Louis. Claire Foy has a nice chemistry with Cumberbatch and she has kind of a wide-eyed curiosity as his love interest. I enjoy seeing character actor Adeel Akhtar in a prominent role as Mr. Rider, one of Wain’s biggest allies who helps him secure a more pleasant place to call home, complete with a garden and plenty of cats. As for the two famous cameos, well Taika Waititi’s appearance is largely unmemorable, while Nick Cave’s H.G. Wells is also a blink-and-you-missed it moment.

As for Cumberbatch, though he’s played too many similar characters in his career, he’s still quite good in the role. In fact, he’s competent enough to rise above the uneven direction and still makes a compelling portrait of a true artist that you can’t help root for. I’m glad I got to know a bit about Louis Wain and his work/legacy. The biopic isn’t quite um, electric as it wishes to be, but there’s enough going for this to warrant a recommendation.

3/5 stars


What did YOU think of The Electrical Life of Louise Wain?

FlixChatter Review: Museum Town (2020)

Directed by Jennifer Trainer
Narrated by Meryl Streep

Museum Town is the first feature documentary from award-winning journalist Jennifer Trainer. It chronicles the history of Mass MoCA, the world’s largest contemporary art museum in the world and North Adams, the struggling Massachusetts town it resides in. Trainer herself is one of the co-founders of Mass MoCA. Narrated by Meryl Streep, it mainly focuses on Missouri-born artist Nick Cave (not the of the Bad Seeds) and his epic installation titled Until which involved large scale pieces of found and recycled art and contemporary objects. There are also brief cameos from other artists/musicians like David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Laurie Anderson.

In the early 80s as well as decades before, North Adams was a thriving factory town most well-known for housing Sprague Electric who manufactured electronic components such as conductors, semi-conductors, resistors/capacitors and ICs (integrated circuits). The factory was mostly a women’s workforce because of what was perceived as delicate detail work fitting small hands.

With a sprawling campus that encompassed 2 or more football fields, Sprague was a city unto itself and helped sustain the city’s economic growth into the 1980s. However, as component manufacturing gradually moved overseas, Sprague decided to cut costs and eventually closed its North Adams facility which put thousands of locals out of work. The connecting highway was also built on the town’s outskirts further debilitating its economic recovery.

Then in the mid 80s, Thomas Krens, an experienced museum director from Williamstown convinced the city’s leadership to convert Sprague’s abandoned buildings into what would become the largest contemporary museum in the world. The vastness of it gave some established and upcoming installation artists the opportunity to exhibit their work in a unique space. Mass MoCA as it was christened, partly rejuvenated North Adams and helped establish itself as a “Museum Town”.

As the film unfolds, we see the progression of North Adams’ history as thriving factory town to depressed city and Mass MoCA’s rise from conception to existence. While the museum continues to tread water in pursuit of financing, the town continues to be conflicted of its identity among the locals. While some have adapted to the museum’s high-brow reputation in the art world (some locals work for the museum) many more struggle to find their place as poverty and homelessness to continue to be problematic.

Though the film is honest about Mass MoCA’s relationship with North Adams, it’s unfortunate that the chasm between the museum and the townsfolk remain deep and wide. Being an artist, I personally feel there should be a common ground between art and audience. But in Museum Town, that seems to be a road less travelled. It’s a reality and perhaps the challenge of Mass MoCA – to reach a common appreciation, understanding and reflection of the people and the town of North Adams.

Museum Town is pleasant to watch but mostly feels like it’s confined within museum walls. And I can’t help feeling a certain detachment from the people of North Adams as if they are still being left behind. They need their voices heard too.

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So did you see MUSEUM TOWN? Let us know what you think!

Music Break: 5 Great Themes from 5 Favorite Action Flicks

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As an action movies fanatic, I also love the music that accompanies them. Here’s a list of some great themes from action movies throughout the years.

Black Rain
Chase to the Steel Plant by Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer has been the go to guy for composing big Hollywood tent pole pictures within the last 15 years or so. But he started out composing small movies and this was his first gig at composing a budget Hollywood film. It’s also his first collaboration with Ridley Scott. In this underrated buddy cop action thriller, his style really shows and I love this film’s soundtrack. Especially this particular track, it’s from a scene where two of the main characters chasing a suspect that leads to a shootout. The music works perfectly with the scene and I always get goose bumps when I watch this scene and hear the theme.

Heat
Unused Ending score by Elliot Goldenthal

I thought Michael Mann’s Heat is a nearly flawless masterpiece and the music by Elliot Goldenthal is just as good. To me the music in the film is timeless, you can still watch the film today and never thought it’s from the 90s. This track was supposed to be used at the film’s ending scene but apparently Mann wasn’t too thrilled about it and decided to use Moby’s God Moving Over the face of the Waters track instead. This of course angered Goldenthal and he and Mann didn’t work together again until Public Enemies. I love Moby’s theme but I prefer this one over the one that was used in the final fim.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Song for Jesse by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Technically this film isn’t an “action” picture because there’s only one shootout scene but I thought it’s one of the best westerns ever made and quite underrated. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was just stunning. There are many great tracks from the soundtrack but this one is my absolute favorite. The whole film felt like a dream and this theme enhances the mood.

Sunshine
Surface of the Sun by John Murphy

I wish more Hollywood directors would hire John Murphy to compose their films, he’s one of my favorites, I thought his work in Mann’s Miami Vice was excellent. He and Danny Boyle has collaborated in many films together. This track from Sunshine has been used in many movie trailers and it’s a great one.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
We Have All the Time In World by John Barry

I can’t leave a James Bond flick out of a list about action pictures. John Barry’s excellent and timeless theme for one of my favorite Bond flicks. I can listen to this theme and the song by Louis Armstrong over and over again. I know for years many so called Bond fans hated this flick, but ever since Christopher Nolan said it’s his favorite Bond film, they have changed their tune about the film now. I’ve always been a fan and had Connery returned as 007 or Timothy Dalton accepted the role, it would have a been perfect Bond film to me. George Lazenby wasn’t bad as Bond but I couldn’t really accept him playing a super spy. But Diana Riggs was an awesome Bond girl.

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These are some of my favorite action themes, feel free to share yours in the comments section.

300 & Gladiator sequel talks? Oh, please don’t!

Maximus & Leonidas might be back!
Maximus & Leonidas – seconds from being resurrected!

All the rumors swirling about a sequel/prequel of 300 just got a new boost now that director Zack Snyder told IGN at the Comic Con this weekend that he’s basically just waiting for Frank Miller’s draft of the comic. Snyder said that there’s a lot of Spartan history to draw inspiration from. He also hinted that even though his character King Leonidas died at the end of the movie, he doesn’t rule out Gerard Butler coming back in some form. Ha, if that’s true, Gerry better starts training pronto to get his 8-pack back. He’s been kind of plump lately, even on CNN’s review of The Ugly Truth, he’s called a ‘potato-faced Russell Crowe with a lot less charm.’ Ouch!

Speaking of Crowe, have you heard of the rejected Gladiator 2 script that was uncovered this past May? Apparently Crowe himself enlisted a fellow Aussie goth rocker (and sometimes screenplay writer) Nick Cave to write it. The supernatural-themed script has to be one of the most bizarre and preposterous scripts ever written. For those of you who haven’t seen Gladiator (would you just put it on your Netflix already?), Crowe’s character Maximus died at the end, but Cave’s script resurrected him by having the Roman gods reincarnate him and send him back to Rome. But it doesn’t stop there, according to the detailed review of it by Gone Elsewhere blog, the century-spanning script has Maximus stood up for early Christian rebels, as well as taking him to WW II and modern day Pentagon! [shakes head] No wonder the studios dismissed the script, deeming it too over the top despite thumbs up from Crowe and the original director Ridley Scott. The script itself seems like a hoot and craftily-written, but I can’t imagine it working as a sequel to such a classic film. I couldn’t even finish reading it, I mean I LOVE Gladiator and Maximus is one of my favorite cinematic characters, but what Cave wrote is just too out there and weird for my taste. Check it out for yourself (download the PDF) and let me know what you think.

I personally think they should leave masterpieces alone, why mess with perfection, you know? In the history of sequels/prequels, only a tiny handful of them actually works (The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story) but most sequels are craps driven merely by profits. Alas, they probably will do a sequel to both of them in the future, those suits in Hollywood just can’t resist it with the popularity of swords & sandals flicks popping up again (see my previous post). In fact, I just saw a promo shot of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia on the latest EW magazine at Barnes & Noble today. Jake’s looking very Ryan Reynolds-like with his new buff physique, but sorry I just don’t see him as a bad @$$ hero the way Crowe in Gladiator or Butler did in 300. It’s more than just the body IMO, it’s the panache/charisma of the actor that makes the character believable.

Anyhoo, enough with the sequel talks. I think Hollywood ought to invest in a fresh new crop of writers instead of doing the same thing over and over again.