It Takes Evil to Write Evil. “Shirley” reviewed! (Neon / Digital Screener)


Backdropped inside the mid-1960’s of Bennington, Vermont, famed horror fiction writer, Shirley Jackson, and her husband, Stanley Hyman, a folk literary professor at the Bennington College, welcome a young newlywed couple, Fred & Rose, in their home, but the stay isn’t for social purposes as Fred stands to be the assistant professor aiming to achieve greater success under professor Hyman and Rose becomes the happy wife whose reluctantly willing to help with household chores as the surly Shirley flounders in a writer’s rut, sour around polite company, lethargic for most of the day, and at war with her cheating husband, but Shirley finds inspiration when taking a fascination to Rose, merging her with a news story of a missing local girl that leaves Shirley entranced, catatonic, and inhibited from writing her novel. Once disdained by Rose’s very presence, Shirley exploits Rose’s eager ambitions and trustworthy attributes by befriending her as an endless flood of literary muse offerings that breathe life into Shirley’s next masterpiece.

“Shirley” is a biopic allegory of half-truths and a tale of a grim waltz between common civility and the yearning, paralyzing pursuit of opus mastering from the “Madeline’s Madeline” director, Josephine Decker. From the creator of the “I Love Dick” television series, writer, Sarah Gubbins, who adapted the screenplay from the author of “Shirley: A Novel,” Susan Scarf Merrell, provides a textural interpretation of renowned horror and mystery fiction writer Shirley Jackson during the bitter final years of her and Stanley Hyman’s unusual, yet threadbare functional, relationship. “Shirley,” in itself, is like one of Jackson’s terrifically terrifying horror stories woven together with anecdotal fragments of Shirley’s flailing existence with the new energy of a fictional young couple to drain the life from for her own benefit and is cinematically arranged the story like a perverse thriller of intellectual capitalism. The Los Angeles Media Fund (“Dark Crimes,” “The Bye Bye Man”) and the biographical drama producing powerhouse, Killer Films (“Notorious Bettie Page,” “Infamous”) serve as the production companies behind “Shirley.”

Hot off her success in the gender-dystopian television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and in Leigh Whannell’s vision of a Universal monster classic, “The Invisible Man,” Elisabeth Moss embodies the titular role of Shirley Jackson with a fluid performance of a corkscrew soul. Moss aims to make Shirley as a detestable gorgon with nihilistic and agoraphobic intellect and a narcissistic view of her work she considers to be the holy grail. Moss is methodic and calculating in her character’s icy social skill set and floats half-seen above the water’s surface like an alligator hunting, ready to snap when a warm blooded meal doesn’t expect a thing. Shirley Jackson is only as interesting as her philandering other half, Stanley Hyman, who has a whole separate cache of quirks and callous intentions, though parading in a much more vibrant, lively, and gregarious manner. “The Shape of Water’s” Michael Sthulbarg has pitch perfect execution of Hyman’s managing tugboat who pulls and escorts this cruise liner-sized ego to port with an unorthodox show of a manipulation and affable disingenuous blend working tirelessly that ship to anchor after a long voyage on rough, stagnant seas. Fred and Rose enter like a parallelogram, a four-side rectangular where two sides pair together equally in length, of innocents wondering into a den of a pair of hungry lions. Then, the parallelogram flips and skews to form an twisted mirror of itself that has turned the sweet and loving Fred and Rose into a pair of awaken fragments of Shirley and Stanley. We don’t get to experience much of Logan Lerman as the assistant professor who shadows in Hyman’s overshadowing dominance, but we’re rather engrossed by Odessa Young’s onscreen reciprocity with Elizabeth Moss. Rose falls short of being the epitome of youthful innocence with a fast and loose shotgun marriage to Fred because of her pregnancy and her rendezvousing sexual appetite with Fred, but Rose’s delicate curiosity and naïve gives way for Shirley, Stanley, and even Fred to tread all over her. Young fully grasps Rose’s disadvantage in the viper’s pit that sizes her up for a great fall.

“Shirley” doesn’t bask in the spotlight of the biopic-ee’s celebrated work, like “The Lottery” or “The Haunting of Hill House,” even if it name drops the former; instead, Josephine Decker’s film is cut from the Susan Scarf Merrell cloth that disconnects and desensitizes intellect from moral conduct. Distinct lines are drawn between the couples Shirley and Stanley, whose dynamic teeters on alcohol, smokes, and a banter based on a fraction of love less, and Fred and Rose, who are teased with the taste of the good life, bow and scrape for the attention of their hosts. As the scrupulous infatuations begin to blur the lines and Fred and Rose become infected by Shirley and Stanley’s inceptive wicked cynicism, a metamorphosis occurs as the naïve newlyweds are now the bitterly tireless unable to cop with their shortcoming whereas Shirley and Stanley remain unaffected, if not, better off than from when they started, leeching the purity from the impressionable youngsters like a pair of scholarly vampires. Decker’s airy, dreamlike touch evokes another level of the already Freudian bombarded “Shirley” that’s laden with heavily schemed psychoanalytic foreplay and undercurrent human reaction to a string of unconventional occurrences.

Become the fly trapped in a web of deceits with “Shirley” heading to Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and select drive-in movie theaters come June 5th, 2020 distributed from Neon. The rated R, 107 minutes quasi-biopic is presented a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, a digital screener doesn’t allow me to critique the A/V quality. However, composer Tamar-kali’s subdued score lingers on the right side of brooding without feeling overly dreadful and with feeling more horrifically intrusive, complimenting Shirley’s aggressive mind rape of Rose’s psyche. There were no bonus features included with the digital screener nor was there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. Unlike the sullen, reality bending state as the titular persona, “Shirley” is an entertainingly cathartic glimpse into the worst side of erudition plagued upon those lesser informed that builds lustrous works of horror on the backs of perfidy.

Purchase the poster with Elizabeth Moss!

A Child’s Dreams Can Conjure Evil! “Before I Wake” review!

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Grieving parents, Jessie and Mark, aim to heal the deep wounds of the tragic and accidental death of their young son by fostering an orphan boy named Cody. After the mysterious death of Cody’s mother and having been through two concerning foster parents prior to Jessie and Mark, Cody strives to be the most sweet and loving child to his new and pleasant foster parents, but Cody has a dark secret that keeps him up at night. When Cody falls into a dream state, his subconscious imagination manifests his awe-inspiring dreams and even his worst nightmares that become deadly with the presence of the malicious Cranker Man, a dream shadow who can pluck anyone into disappearance that happens to be near the slumbering boy.
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“Before I Wake” director Mike Flanagan labors over all that is supernatural, churning out more than his fair share of specter-centered storied films including “Absentia,” “Occulus,” and the more favorable sequel to “Ouija,” entitled simply enough “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” that was produced alongside “Before I Wake” in 2016. Flanagan’s knack for suspenseful tall-tale horror doesn’t pigeonhole the Salem, Massachusetts born director into producing the same terrorizing story over-and-over and while “Before I Wake” has undoubtedly a few heart-pounding horror elements, fantasy more than so strong arms the genre into a branding submission. If I may be so bold by comparing “Before I Wake” to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan Labyrinth” might be committing, perhaps, blogger career suicide, but the draw to resemblances can’t go ignored with what “Before I Wake’s” Cody creates from his overly stimulated dreams is much more familiar to what “Pan Labyrinth’s” Olivia character imagines when she escapes the horrors of a war bred sadistic maniac, if even only in a diluted version of events.
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“Superman Returns” actress Kate Bosworth headlines with co-star Thomas Jane (“The Mist,” “Deep Blue Sea”) as the unwitting foster parents who are forcing themselves back into the parenting game. I specifically was not coming to terms with Bosworth’s performance as Jessie; her facial expressions and body language, along with her tone and line deliveries, were too lifeless with rigidity and repetitiveness. So much so that I compared Bosworth to Suzanne Cryer’s impassive Laurie Beam character from HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Unless the inexplicable amount of grieving has voided her of all emotion, like the Borg drone from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the role of Jessie is written with a variety of mood driven circumstances that start with her insomnia, to her willingness to not leave their home, to being carelessly exploitive with Cody. Being a fan of Thomas Jane since 2004’s “The Punisher,” I might be a bit biased, but Jane had more range with the ability to switch back-and-forth between mixed attitudes and sentiments, making the dynamic between Jane and Bosworth clunky and awkward. To round off the trio of main actors, you might recognize the pint sized actor playing Cody as Jacob Tremblay from the 2015 Oscar Winning Brie Larson film “Room” portraying an innocently pitiful dreamer with an unquenchable thirst to be loved.
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The Flanagan and Jeff Howard co-authored storybook script, intentionally or not, borrows heavily from psychoanalyst Sigmund Frued’s dream interpretation theory that wishful fulfillments are more common in children. Previous day activity, or day residue, has influential properties on a child’s dream, much like with Cody in this story, and Cody’s dreams are written to be an exaggerated fruition, fulfilling his desires and illuminating his emotions to the brightest or the darkest extent. Like many other films that involve the misunderstanding of children, adults Jessie and Mark blindly understand all the possibilities of Cody’s uncontrollable gift, exploiting Cody’s powers for their own greed. I did find that I love Jane’s Mark character as he tries to show Jessie the errors of her reasoning as he’s a bit of a kid himself, living vicariously through Cody with the video games and with the pizzas as if husbands, or men in general, are actually children at heart. Cody’s gift becomes a power struggle with Mark caught in the middle and the consequences of this struggle result in being the catalyst to unify Jessie and Cody as a strong bond between Mother and Son. Men totally receive the shaft in this picture where both dominant adult male figures are reduced to a forgotten or humbling state, left behind because mother knows best when it was really mother who dismantles the situation.
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“Before I Wake” is a boogeyman fable of sleepless nights that independent Canadian distributor Mongrel Media presents on Blu-ray for the first time anywhere in North America on a home entertainment platform come January 10th. The film has been in a distribution limbo since U.S. theatrical distributor Relatively Media filed for bankruptcy, but, luckily for fans of the supernatural genre, Mongrel Media obtained home video rights. I was provided an online screener link, forcing my hand to not comment on the specs of the Blu-ray audio or image quality nor touch upon the bonus material, but what I can state is that the spin on the dream killer won’t stop here with “Before I wake.” Dreams, like conceptions of outer space, are vast with unlimited, unconstrained content that surrealist director Mike Flanagan has only partially tapped into by exploring the dangerously innocent perceptions fabricated from a child’s abstract mind.