'The Woman in the Window' Review
Plus: Why China remains a bigger story than the MGM-Amazon or Warners-Discovery deals
I don’t know that The Woman in the Window is a particularly great piece of cinema, but it’s rarely visually uninteresting or narratively dull and it features a handful of our best actors and actresses really hamming it up. Plus: It’s only 100 minutes long! What more could one want from a movie?
All of which is to say that I’m slightly surprised by the drubbing this flick has taken from critics and audiences alike: Three-quarters of critics have given it a thumbs down, and audiences haven’t been much kinder, according to Rotten Tomatoes. (Metacritic’s score is a bit more mixed, but still far from positive.) People seem pretty excited to take a knife to the latest from director Joe Wright and star Amy Adams.
And in a way I get it. The Woman in the Window is a movie that makes itself easy to laugh at because it’s a bit flashier than your standard streaming fare, a bit more self-aware. Despite drawing obvious inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window—the agoraphobic Anna (Adams) interacts with the world by staring out her window and into the brownstones of her neighbors—this feels less like Wright doing Hitchcock and more like Wright doing Brian De Palma doing Hitchcock, throwing split diopters and frenetic-yet-precise editing and flashes of older movies up on the screen willy-nilly.
The effect is to mimic Anna’s state of mind, a disturbed mix of manic and paranoid that is made worse by her aggressive combination of wine and psychiatric meds. We, the audience, are kept off kilter; it will take a keen eye and a patient ear and a knowledge of cinematic tropes if we are to successfully sift through the clues that will unravel the mystery Anna witnesses.
The mystery is murder. Whether or not it even happened, for starters: Anna insists that she saw Jane Russell (Julianne Moore), the mother of possibly abused neighbor boy Ethan (Fred Hechinger), murdered. But Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is very much alive and very much annoyed that this drunk cat lady is spying on her and her family. Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) isn’t much happier, nor is Anna’s basement tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), who gets dragged into the mess.
The whole thing offers a lot of fine actors a lot of opportunities to really overact. I found myself thinking there’s something deeply theatrical about the whole production—at one point, Adams backs away from a group of people and starts monologuing and the light dims and a spotlight is thrown on her and, just to the side, there’s a tableau from outside the house that we understand only she can see. Let’s just say I was not shocked to see playwright Tracy Letts’s name pop up as the credits rolled.
Again, I can understand why folks might be turned off by the picture. Letts takes some chances with the screenplay, turning a potboiler airplane novel about a crazy woman into something a bit more heightened and arch; Wright shoots it with flair and lets Oldman and Adams off the leash, letting them really get ahold of the scenery with their teeth. But even when I occasionally guffawed at what was happening on the screen, I was never bored by what was transpiring. And while “not boring the audience” is, I suppose, the bare minimum a film should aim for, you’d be surprised how many pictures fail to clear even that incredibly low bar.
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Warner, MGM, and China: The Future in Flux
There were two big pieces of Hollywood news this week. Well, one piece of news, and one rumor. But neither the news nor the rumor represents the industry’s biggest problem.
Here’s the big news: AT&T is offloading Warner Media by arranging a merger with Discovery, a move that will, as the Ringernotes, put together a library of brands and content that can easily compete with any other streaming service. The combined company will be a potent mélange of a deep library (WB’s vaunted back catalog pooled with HBO’s decades of greatness, to say nothing of Studio Ghibli and Adult Swim) and winning unscripted content (Discovery’s HGTV, Food Network, and Animal Planet, etc.) that provides something for everyone, man or woman, young or old.
Here’s the big rumor: Amazon is reportedly in the midst of putting together a $9 billion offer for MGM. This would give BezosWorld a 50 percent stake in James Bond as well as the rights to a bunch of properties (like Robocop, the Hobbit, Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed) that could be mined for Prime Video series and movies, in addition to MGM’s large catalog of films. Combined with Prime’s already formidable penetration (Amazon claims 175 million Amazon Prime members have used Prime Video in the past year), it would instantly make Prime Video a legitimate competitor to Netflix.
But these sorts of shufflings are nothing new. As the great Richard Rushfield noted in his must-read newsletter, The Ankler, AT&T is just one of many big brands that has jumped feet-first into Hollywood and whimpered away following a change in leadership:
Let us bow our heads to remember all those brave companies that came before them to our shores, arriving hale and hearty and full of Tinseltown dreams. … We speak your names: Vivendi, Seagram’s, Coca-Cola, Gulf and Western, Decca, Matsushita, General Electric, The General Tire and Rubber Company.
The most important story of the week—and the one with the biggest influence on Hollywood’s future—is in the Hollywood Reporter, and it’s about the increasing tensions between the United States and China, and Hollywood’s increasing difficulty finding a foothold there.
There are many interesting nuggets in the Hollywood Reporter piece, including the drama surrounding Chloé Zhao and the hypocrisy of an industry that declares as outrageous things like voter ID laws in the state of Georgia while also clamoring to do business with a country that is running literal concentration camps.
Those who have read this newsletter or Chris Fenton’s book, Feeding the Dragon, will likely know some of the story. As China’s market opened slightly, Chinese money poured into Hollywood, and Hollywood set its sights on creating films that would appeal to that growing market. But it all fell apart when China became more interested in developing its own domestic market. To get a sense of just how rapid this rise and fall was, and how much money was involved, consider the following:
A flurry of new ventures were formed: Jeffrey Katzenberg partnered in 2012 with state-backed firms China Media Capital and Shanghai Media Group to launch Oriental DreamWorks, an animation company based in Shanghai that promised to produce animated features in English and Chinese for the world. In 2014, [Jeff] Robinov was promised his cool $1 billion by Fosun Group and made his ambitions abundantly clear by naming the new outfit Studio 8—as in the coming eighth major. China’s longest-standing private studio, Huayi Brothers Media, meanwhile, co-bankrolled the first 18 films from the much-ballyhooed Hollywood startup STX Entertainment. In 2016, former Paramount motion picture group president Adam Goodman joined Chinese company Le Vision Entertainment as the president of a new venture set up to produce English-language features with Chinese capital. That same year, sibling directors Joe and Anthony Russo, then sitting at the pinnacle of the industry thanks to their wildly successful work on Marvel’s Captain America and Avengers franchises, were spotted in Beijing on an almost monthly basis, taking meetings across the Chinese industry in the hopes of setting up a Chinese studio to produce Chinese-language films.
Jump-cut to today, and every one of the above ventures is effectively defunct or unrecognizable. Oriental DreamWorks is now a fully owned Chinese company called Pearl Studio; STX failed to go public in Hong Kong and instead resorted to a diminished merger offer from Bollywood studio Eros International; Le Vision Entertainment was starved of the Chinese cash it was promised and crumbled; Studio 8 is looking for new investors; the Russos stopped visiting Beijing and focused on their U.S. venture Agbo Entertainment (although they did score some seed capital from Huayi Brothers Media); and Wanda sold every offshore entertainment asset it could find a buyer for—offloading tens of billions in assets to avoid a full financial meltdown.
The biggest movies in China are now generally Chinese productions. Disney, whose MCU pictures are among the biggest American success stories in China, has found itself more and more iced out of the market; neither Zhao’s The Eternals nor the forthcoming Shang Chi were featured in a list of U.S. movies getting a release in China, a potentially enormous blow to the House of Mouse if they can’t smooth the waters.
In the end, Hollywood losing access to the Chinese market—or the Chinese market losing interest in Hollywood’s wares—is a bigger deal than which streamer is offering which studio’s back catalog. It means a radical rejiggering of priorities, one that places a greater emphasis on appealing to domestic audiences in particular and Western audiences more generally.
Hopefully it also means a reorientation away from easily translated spectacle and back toward better storytelling and greater human connection.
Assigned Viewing: The Maltese Falcon (HBO Max)
This week I had the pleasure of talking to Eddie Muller, the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation and the host of Turner Classic Movies’ “Noir Alley,” for my podcast The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood. He offered up a handful of suggestions for folks looking to dip their toes into the world of film noir; I strongly recommend taking him up on them!
I would like to recommend The Maltese Falcon, which is streaming via HBO Max’s TCM hub. The debate over whether or not the film is truly noir—whether it accepts the worldview of noir; whether it bears the visual hallmarks of noir—is a long and complicated one. Suffice it to say, it’s a good starting point for the noir-curious. As the great Roger Ebert succinctly put it twenty-some years ago, “some film histories consider The Maltese Falcon the first film noir. It put down the foundations for that native American genre of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames.” And what could be better than that?