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Schultz reviews: ‘The Invisible Man’ & ‘John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky’

Schultz reviews: ‘The Invisible Man’ & ‘John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky’

Carl Schultz

 

“The Invisible Man” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 124 Minutes, Rated R, Released Feb. 28:

 

Those movie fans among us who grew up watching television reruns of the Universal library of classic horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s might remember “The Invisible Man” as one of the lesser monsters in the series.

 

With little of the sheer nightmare quality of, say, Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon and below even the dusty, slow-moving Mummy in basic costume and makeup appeal, the Invisible Man was on an approximate level with any of a half-dozen other crazy scientists in the Universal movies ... even though his voice characterization was supplied by superstars of the genre like Claude Rains and, later, Vincent Price.

 

That all might be about the change with Universal’s new reboot of the original James Whale horror picture from 1933. Released on Feb. 28, “The Invisible Man” turns out to be a first-rate, new age horror masterpiece that transitions the hoary old monster into a genuinely horrific walking nightmare, with an emotional resonance relevant to the era of #MeToo and filled with chills and suspense worthy of a latter-day Hitchcock classic.

 

In ”The Invisible Man,” after enduring for too long a dangerously abusive relationship with a brilliant research scientist conducting experiments in optics, a young architect manages one night to flee her controlling spouse. But when he commits suicide shortly after her escape, a series of small occurrences gradually cause her to suspect her former spouse is not dead, but disappeared.

 

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the Australian screenwriter of 2004’s “Saw” and the first two “Insidious” movies (as well as the writer/director of “Insidious: Chapter 3”), “The Invisible Man” has little more than a nodding relationship with either the original classic 1933 picture from Universal or the 1897 science fiction novel by H.G. Wells on which it’s based. Instead, the new movie uses the conceit of the title character’s invisibility to recreate in the viewer’s mind a little of the genuine, powerless terror of anyone who’s ever experienced a controlling and abusive spouse, or a stalker.

 

A unique type of horror picture, “The Invisible Man” is very aware of its incredible nature, and plays on the audience’s sense of disbelief to craft an airtight authenticity, with the result of instilling in the mind of the viewer a very real feeling of dread, helplessness, and paranoia. The horror elements are there, but during the movie’s first half they’re so unexpected, and delivered so swiftly, that they’re over before you’re even sure you saw them. The second half of the movie transitions into more traditional horror — the picture is a co-production of the Black Crypt of Blumhouse after all. But it’s all so expertly devised, and executed so breathlessly, that you likely won’t notice any difference until it’s all over.

 

“The Invisible Man” is anchored by a harrowing, heartbreaking, and surprisingly strenuous performance by Elisabeth Moss, also the heroine of TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as the hapless young architect. This is not a glamorous role or a movie star turn — Moss throughout the course of the picture is chased, terrorized, restrained, sedated, jailed, beaten, and pretty much everything else you might expect from the writer of “Saw.” But in a horror picture which in lesser hands might’ve used a second-string Scream Queen to provide gradually diminishing jump scares, Moss contributes an elusive element indeed — she’s a superbly talented actress, and invests her every scene with both empathy and dignity. Alfred Hitchcock would’ve been proud.

 

“The Invisible Man” also contains strong supporting performances from Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid as supportive friends, Harriet Dyer as Moss’ protective sister, Michael Dorman as the smarmy and manipulative brother of the disappeared scientist, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen of the web-based television series “The Haunting of Hill House” in a fairly brief characterization as the terrifying now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t title character.

 

“The Invisible Man” was originally planned as a project for actor Johnny Depp in Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe” series of motion picture reboots of its classic horror films from the 1930s and 1940s. But when the premier film in the franchise (the 2017 reimagining of “The Mummy” starring Tom Cruise) bombed at the box office and lost some $95 million of the studio’s investment, plans for the Dark Universe series were scrapped in favor of individual remakes of selected titles from the Universal library.

 

Incidentally, the magnificent clifftop home of the title character in “The Invisible Man” is not a movie set or a special effect, but Headland House, an actual holiday rental in Mt. Pleasant, Gerringong, New South Wales, Australia. With four bedrooms, 4.5 baths, a kitchen, gymnasium, pool, and spectacular ocean view, rental rates are around $2,246 per night. Just thought you’d like to know. 

 

Set in San Francisco but filmed in New South Wales, Australia, “The Invisible Man” is rated R for strong, bloody violence, and language concerns.

 

“John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” Distributed by Netflix Online Streaming Service, 89 Minutes, Not Rated, Streaming Now:

 

The entire world was on a first-name basis with John Lennon.

 

Already a European sensation by the end of 1963 as a result of a relentless recording, touring, and performing schedule with his rock ‘n roll music combo The Beatles, John along with his bandmates Paul, George, and Ringo (no last names required) burst onto the world stage on Feb. 9, 1964, while America was still reeling from the recent assassination of a president. The Beatles performed a total of five songs on America’s coast-to-coast Sunday night television staple “The Ed Sullivan Show” that night ... and just like that, the official mourning for President Kennedy was over, global Beatlemania had begun, and the world was never the same again.

 

Unlike every other rock ‘n roll phenomenon in entertainment history, the only way for John Lennon to go was up — “to the toppermost of the poppermost,” as he phrased it to the other Beatles: Global adulation, hoards of hysterical fans, critical legitimacy among classical music’s elite, a composing partnership with bandmate Paul McCartney that soon rivaled, and then exceeded, the cultural impact of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a retreat from the stage in pursuit of studio recording perfection, a quest for spiritual enlightenment at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, eventual disenchantment, and finally an acrimonious breakup of the band — all a day in the life of John Lennon.

 

Throughout his life, the one element fans learned they could always expect from John was simple, uninhibited, unembellished truth. While the world occasionally wondered whether Lennon had lost his mind, he never quite managed to lose its grudging affection, often similar to that between a bewildered family and an eccentric uncle — an ability which enabled John to weather PR crises that would’ve ended the careers of other pop stars: The “butcher” cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday ... and Today” in 1966, the unguarded musing that same year about the relative popularity of Beatles and Jesus that created a tsunami of controversy in America, the nude portraits on 1968’s “Two Virgins” — all pure, unadulterated Lennon.

 

Directed by filmmaker, writer, and producer Michael Epstein, the Netflix documentary “John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” purports to take up John’s story from the breakup of The Beatles forward. Originally broadcast on the A&E Network in March 2019 and reportedly augmented with new footage for streaming on Netflix, “Above Us Only Sky” uses old archival footage and new interview materials with musicians, friends, and collaborators to create an insider’s account of John at home with his controversial second wife and artistic collaborator, Yoko Ono.

 

Part of the trouble with the picture is that more than a profile of Lennon’s artistic partnership with his second wife, “Above Us Only Sky” becomes a critical reevaluation of the legacy of Yoko Ono.  Already a presence on the avant garde New York jazz scene prior to meeting Lennon (as the filmmakers emphasize more than once), the picture seems to subtly suggest Ono might have gained more gravitas as a legitimate artist without the distraction of her sometimes turbulent relationship with John. Epstein actually unearths an audio clip from one of John’s final interviews in which he acknowledges Ono’s participation as the co-composer of “Imagine,” the gentle, wistful Lennon song which over the years has become a sort of anthem for world peace.

 

Even with new talking head footage of Lennon friends and collaborators such as bass player Klaus Voorman (an old friend from the early days, predating success or fame), drummer Alan White, and Lennon’s oldest son Julian, “John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” ultimately seems more about Yoko than John. Rather than The Woman Who Broke Up The Beatles, as posterity doggedly continues to view her, this revisionist account might’ve been more accurately titled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.”

 

But the most perplexing component of the documentary is the filmmakers’ steadfast refusal to include more than tantalizing snippets of John’s music. Despite having cast one of the longest shadows in all of pop music history, Lennon made only a small handful of live appearances on his own, and never embarked on a concert tour as a solo performer, without The Beatles. For that reason, any footage of Lennon performing his own compositions is pure, solid platinum ... and almost completely absent from “Above Us Only Sky.”

 

One truncated interlude depicts Lennon recording (with fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison) the exquisite virtuoso guitar introduction of his minor post-Beatles masterpiece “Oh My Love,” but the clip arrives and departs so swiftly, and without fanfare or explanation, that the viewer can’t help feeling ... well, cheated. And containing few such nuggets of gold, the rest of “John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” is mostly yesterday’s news. In a film about the enduringly fascinating John Lennon, the documentary manages to achieve the impossible — it’s boring.

 

While it’s always a pleasure to spend some time with John, almost without exception the archival footage presented in “Above Us Only Sky” is recycled from “Imagine,” the 1972 account of Lennon’s signature post-Beatles record album directed by Lennon and Ono themselves, and the similarly-titled “Imagine: John Lennon,” filmmaker Andrew Solt’s vastly superior 1988 documentary covering much the same period.

 

Future generations unfamiliar with Lennon’s enormous legacy might come away from “John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” scratching their heads in puzzlement, wondering, “Who was this guy, and why was he special?” As an artist, John Lennon’s most brilliant and enduring masterpiece was his life. This film should’ve included more of it.

 

“John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” is not rated, but is PG-13 in nature.

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