Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: A QUIET PLACE

When I was a kid I would clench my teeth during tense scenes because I thought I'd bite the tip of my tongue off at a sudden scare. In this film if you make a sound you will be torn to pieces by an alien monster and eaten. My tongue started pressing against my top row of teeth and stayed there for a little over ninety minutes.

The Abbotts are surviving the invasion of the sound-triggered monsters with an advantage. Their daughter, Regan, is near deaf and they already could communicate in sign language. We see the consequences of not keeping to this rule early and it's nasty. From that point the moments of relief or more procedural narrative feel surrounded by danger. We need no reminder of this in a film whose dialogue is almost entirely silent and whose human sound we are constantly measuring against nature's lest the balance be ruptured. This, apart from anything else, is one of the most suspenseful family dramas I've ever seen.

Well, it is about family. There's favouritism, adolescent rebellion, miscommunication and conciliation but this is woven into the constant sense of hazard that threatens violent death ... so it never gets soapy. It also never gets easy. There's the stress of survival and the frustration of information poverty about the situation. The farm where they live is surrounded by cornfields through which cut paths of silent white sand. At night they play board games with cloth pieces and when the chance for the occasional two step presents itself with a pair of shared earbuds. And there's a pregnancy near term. Oh, and an exposed nail on a step in the basement.

We are observing a delicate scale that shifts between how to survive and what for which is tough enough until you remove not just the customary means of communication but also the release that loud human noise can deliver at points of stress or grief or pain (remember that nail? Well, it gets worse than you think). The despair of rolling that boulder up the hill over and over is centre screen. Is it worth it?

If I seem to be struggling to describe this film it's probably because its themes are not intended to be more remarkable than the jeopardy stretching each scene to snapping point. This is a film about tension. It is resolutely not an undeclared silent film as sound is the medium of its threat but the stress impacting its characters and their responses is dependent entirely on the cast's ability to act as though in a silent film.

Husband and wife team on and off screen John Krasinski (who also directs) and Emily Blunt credibly bring real shared parenthood to the table. Their primary focus is the children and it's not a stretch to consider the origin of this story as the anxiety created by a baby crying in public. As to the children we are given an impressively troubled teenager in Millicent Simmonds who's emotively driven judgement can cast safety by the way and Noah Jupe, the sole good thing about Suburbicon, who might not stretch his young boy coping with a weirding world but fills it believably.

Perhaps the best thing to do here is an unfair comparison. The film Descent played on the notion of the fatality of sound and effectively wasted the opportunity to compel prospective scream queens to scream silently. Was it the premise at fault there? None of the characters had to be where they were (part of the point as they were the invaders but still) and came across as bodies for the count. Here everything about life is at stake and, when really questioned might not be worth the fight.

That and the fact that when I wasn't guarding my tongue against my own teeth I was gaping and shrinking from the screen for almost all of the ninety-six minutes I was in front of it. This is cinema.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review: GAME NIGHT

Max and Annie met at a pub game night and competed their way to instant love. He proposed by charade at a home game night and their bridal waltz was done as an arcade game. Annie's getting clucky but Max's sperm count is down. Could it have to do with his alpha male brother being in town? Well, when he (Brooks) turns up for the next home game night it's in Max's dream car and he proceeds to barge in and take over, squeezing Max into a social corner in the process but then invites everyone to his own. There won't be any board games at that as Brooks has engaged a professional service of extreme role play involving FBI agents, heavies, rough and tumble, with the promise that it won't always be easy to tell game from reality. What could go wrong?

After twenty minutes of telescoping what does go wrong we're into it as the comedy collides with the thriller it's invoking and the blend that this movie is going for starts churning. Does it work? Mostly. The three couples and Brooks have a particular thread each that pretty much determines their various successes in getting through the game/heavy situation and this can disturb the surface slickness with its own variation of success.

Max and Annie whose competition theme is at the genetic level, fuelled by the sibling rivalry works best as they are given the sharpest writing. Kevin and Michelle's ongoing guessing game about a youthful sexual incident, while it can momentarily amuse, gets repetitive and irritating. The lunky character Ryan and his ring-in Sarah are the least resolved can be winceable. Is Ryan really as stupid as his dialogue renders him? When it's convenient the he be, yes. Is Sarah hiding some secret purpose in sticking around (they even ask her directly about this at one point) or is her stated list of reasons really the real ones? Is the creepy neighbour, a permanently grieving and uniformed cop, really just content to be excluded by Max and Annie's transparent lies to keep him from joining their game nights? Does he have a bigger plan of his own? You'll be asking those very questions and more as you watch and perhaps a further one of how much more of a writing exercise is this film going to be?

There are real laughs, though, don't get me wrong. An early practical gag gets a brilliant one liner that serves as the first of a long procession of cinema history jokes (even the film's title does this in the same way that a character describes something as Eyes Wide Fight Club). There is a lot of disarmingly arch dialogue as the driving competition between characters is sustained. But when this falls short of its intended power, often due to poor judgement in some of the timing, the saving grace of the whole thing comes to the rescue: the cast. Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Jesse Plemons et al. are all on game and manage to bring light to each creaky corner of lapse plotting or over stretched jokes (the self aware comment during the bribe scene comes across as one writer correcting another during an allnighter, rather than something more organic).

That said, this movie fulfils its poster promises. It takes the competition theme to reach for a life-lesson reconciliation through chaos that mixes reality with contrivance. What I was missing was the kind of edge that films of earlier times might have added. The Wars of the Roses, Little Murders or A New Leaf pushed a heightened competition into very dark territory, taking deals like romantic comedy to greatness with a mix of astute judgement and an eye for the forbidden in every joke. Here, we get a fun extension of a pub game night and a few tidy resolutions and even some convincing action sequences. Enjoy but enter with the bar set at a comfortable height. You'll laugh. You won't scream but you will laugh.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Lady Bird

Seventeen is a shaky bridge. We cross it juggling friendships, sex, drugs and education and hope we can get to the other side before everything crumbles and collapses. Christine has given herself the name Lady Bird which she will take out of her small town to a big city University on the east coast and there to a dazzling creative life beyond. Well, that's the plan. When she tells her mother any of this she gets a blast of verbal violence so powerful it makes her leap out of a moving car.

At school she's left everything too late. It's her final year and her indifference to her studies has meant that her dreams of a scholarship are routinely dashed by everyone who has the figures. Her father is laid off so the money will not be there for the humblest of higher ed solutions. A flirtation with theatre performance leaves her flat and an attempt at upgrading her friendship circles to a higher social stratum has a queasy end. When losing her virginity is disappointing her beau consoles her by saying she has a lifetime of unremarkable sex to look forward to. Yes, she has to get out but that just seems to diminish daily.

I'll admit it took some convincing for me to buy a ticket to this one. The trailer looked iffy and the pedigree was dodgy but too many critical responses were intriguing rather than just glowing. I felt like I was the only person on earth who hated Frances Ha. That indulgence-begging grind swore me off its director for life and I winced to see its star in the cast lists of other films. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are life as well as creative partners. Baumbach is also a serial offender in my mind by his frequent collaborations with the dependably off-putting Wes Anderson. What I feared was that Lady Bird was going to be a cover version of that.

It wasn't just the critics. It was also Soairse Ronan. The veteran screen actor at twenty-five is consistently impressive. The only time (this might make me sound obsessive) she hasn't been was in Grand Budapest Hotel where she was really only decorative. But that wasn't her fault. Here she must make a difficult character appeal to us without asking for our indulgence. Lady Bird is always a daydream away from chaos but unlike Frances Halliday and her aggressive pointlessness her dangers are not unbelievably self destructive. This is a fine blend of assured and detailed performance, writing that stops short of self-consciousness and a consistent warmth guiding the helm. Few will agree with me but I see this as Gerwig's redemption.

This extends to pretty much all the characters who get more than two lines. The alpha chick of the school is not a cardboard bitch but a life system around a selfish and ridiculing teenage centre. Lady Bird's granite mooded mother does have the big heart that others claim for her. The nuns and priests of her Catholic school are as likely to be benign as severe. The sex and drugs and rock and roll of the teens plays with neither sernsationalism nor cuteness. The priest directing the school play like a football game isn't just quirky it's funny, genuinely belly-laughing funny. Seeing an airliner takeoff from the window rather than the ground brings us gently in to where we should be. It feels real. So far from the feared Frances Ha origins episode, the care and craft of Lady Bird gives us a recognisable experience.

I'm not nostalgic as a rule, preferring to gather the circumstances around a revisited life event if only to stop myself from art directing it to make it comfy. I don't think it was nostalgia here but I was frequently moved to ride along with Lady Bird as she understands how she's wasted her schooling, learning to drive, investing such gravity into the escape of university, getting to the cooler parties, having tough conversations with her parents (played so beautifully by Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalf) and navigating that fraught last year of high school. A lot of films have tried to capture this. Some work efficiently (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and others poison your life force (Rushmore) but this one, despite a protagonist of the other sex and over twenty years beyond my year twelve, is the first that really felt right, the first that felt exactly as I felt it.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review: I, TONYA

Ok, young woman beats the odds, frees herself from an oppressive stage mother, survives the violence of a marriage and achieves athletic greatness. But the story doesn't end there. There was a crushing decline in performance and a public image that worked against her. And there was an infamous incident which implicated her in the serious injury of a rival which effectively aborted her career. She says that she went from being loved to being hated to being a punchline.

The ways into a historical story like this are many and the one chosen is by now one that borders on the cloyingly familiar: the mockumentary. To-camera testimony, action contradicted by voice-over by a whole cast of unreliable narrators, a strangely 70s-heavy jukebox source score, and a reliance on the unintentional comedy from rednecks bearing overblown witness or just sounding clueless as they evade personal responsibility. More on that later.

A bright pallette and a mix of staged interviews and sudden fourth wall breaks in dramatised scenes let you know that these filmmakers know their 90s and onward mockos like To Die For, American Hustle or Bernie. So do we but here, mercifully, we have some deviation. Not a hell of a lot but some and that is more than the usual.

The thread of Tonya Harding's career from childhood to Olympic competition is told with great energy and colour. The scenes in the rink of Harding in her most assured and adrenal context are thrilling. The encroachment of the various ugly edges of her life into this is also strong, waiting there in the dressing room and the corridors backstage. The precarious joints of her early marriage with its sudden, ugly violence is given a hand-held veracity. Every scene with her mother carries a dreadful weight. And through all of this the central strength of Harding develops to create a tough survivor.

But there are things that threaten the solidity of this core and they aren't pretty. The radio fodder on the soundtrack is 70s rather than 90s to suggest the kind of hits and memories that are good 'nuff fer rednecks. Elsewhere dramatic intros of things like Heart's Barracuda are used in lieu of scored music. This variously works and feels old hat. At its worst it sneers. And really, if you want to make a point about the cultural snobbery affecting the central character's career why risk expressing that snobbery? And what exactly is the point of a title card pleading that the film's sources include the "irony free" interviews of Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly, if not to invite us to laugh on cue?

The middle act drags as it attempts explanation of the miscommunication between the players that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and mires us in a fog of unreliable testimony. This is intentional but it is savoured until it is oppressive and energy sapping. It also burdens the running time.

This film could healthily lose a good thirty minutes. That's partly due to the mishandling of the central information miasma in the middle act but also partly due to a reluctance to murder a few darlings. Bobby Cannavale's role as tabloid tv reporter from the time adds nothing to the account that we don't already get from the well placed bites of contemporary media accounts. He does look very box-tickingly quirky and the proceedings would breathe a little better without his soliloquies.

But this is a film of performances and, boy, do we get performances. Margot Robbie gives a solid electric centre with her short fused rage which even in maturity seethes with resentment. She gives us, through this maelstrom, the genuine exhilaration of the athlete who can forget all of her life's pain in the awesome flowing of her talent. She seems to give her character the break that the filmmakers did not afford. Staring out of the screen, almost filling it, applying gaudy makeup for her Olympic performance we don't need the information to explain the tears she cannot resist. It is a striking moment of sheer cinema.

Alison Janney delivers everything that this role that was written for her demands. From a younger mother to the dead bark crone of the present day she pumps into what might have been a one note portrait, the anger and contempt of someone incapable of seeing past the hurdles and the setbacks of her life. Like a stage mum imagined by Edward Albee she rages, cuts, slashes and burns every sentient thing around her, claiming the empire of her personal space and rendering it inviolable. The tiny glints of pride in her daughter's successes Janney allows through are drily private. Along with Tonya, her toxic resentment of the universe she was given, hardens her every line. Unlike the CGI that Robbie needed to emulate her character's sporting prowess, Janney's interplay with a real parrot is quietly stunning.

The rest of the cast cannot compete with these performances, everyone does a fine job, sometimes against the material, but I will mention Paul Walter Hauser. His sustained grating turn as the often disturbingly delusional Shawn is saved from being one note by the sheer ugly mystery his mental workings must call home. Again, we get the rednecks card as he emits such bizarre garbage guaranteed for laughs until we think back and realise that it is these very warped notions that might have done most to motivate the violence on Nancy Kerrigan.

What survives the shortcomings of the filmmakers, however, is a commitment to the theme of blame placing and its corrosive power. In a way this is a kind of Amadeus for our times as we, the non-famous audience, witness the struggle of greatness to burst through only to be constantly nibbled the very mediocrity that everyone on screen and in front of must avoid simply in order to keep living. It is simple notions like this that allow the triumphs of this film to pass through its wall of avowed cleverness (I, Tonya, indeed!). Go for Margot and Alison. They will not disappoint.


PS - Why, oh why, do we still have to suffer big endnotes telling us that this one is happily married and that one never strangled another chicken? This was only interesting once, when done in American Graffiti, a work of fiction from the ground up. It's 2018 and there is Google!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER

Guillermo Del Toro never seems to mind if you guess the end of his movies. He's a storyteller who is more about the travel than the arrival at port. So when you see the bad guy you don't just assure yourself of his likely end you begin to savour getting to know his darkness and his violence before that happens. And when the credit sequence travels through an old apartment underwater and we see our heroine gently descending to the couch where she will wake in a few moments we have almost all the information on her as well. We also know we want to follow her around.

So we do. Elisa is mute but not deaf and cleans at a nightmarish industrial research complex. It's the cold war and you don't want to know what they're doing in there. Well, unlike you, Elisa is curious and often needs the maternal wrangling of her friend Zelda to keep her out of trouble. One day she touches a grim looking metal capsule with windows and jumps back as a hand darts to the glass from inside. She is observed by the head of security, a bipedal contained volcano played by bipedal contained volcano Michael Shannon. He's curious, too. About Elisa, though, he already knows what he wants done with the thing in the capsule.

And Elisa? She is lonely and alien from almost all the people she meets in this world. She is happy to learn the dance steps from oldie movies on tv that her paternally older neighbour shows her while the cinema below her apartment shows cheddar-lite toga epics in Technicolor. Her simple mien masks a deep forlornness she has learned to live with. But here is a creature even more alien but strangely kindred. He responds to kindness and music and learns her sign language without effort. In her world it seems just her luck to be so magnetically drawn to a the creature from the black lagoon. But all she registers is joy. 

There's a lot of plot to go with this and you can see that for yourselves. Again, the joy Del Toro offers is in the travel. And what a carriage he invites us to. He has long struck his own flag in the same style continent as Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro and Tim Burton and his films always give us gorgeous worlds where even the ghastly and the terrifying have a clear appeal. Elisa's apartment is all rich wood panels and vintage for the era. In contrast, the American dream home that Strickland rules over like a Don Draper trogladyte is all Sears Catalogue, too new to be dirty, murmuring with old tv shows and covert sex. It's the same world that's squeezing Giles and his meticulous artwork out of his profession. He, too, is alien. When we discover why his fridge is filled with slices of indigestible assembly line pie slices, we see a spark flash up from the collision of it. But that spark is a bad one, ill tasting and poisonous. 

And between these conflicting worlds lies the fable. If you are tempted to think of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast you're getting close but there's a lot more on the table. First, this is a grown ups version. Remember the masturbation at the start? There's much more on that level of candour. Strickland's sexual predation is both fearsome and timely. This is not only intended exclusively for an adult audience it feels as though Del Toro has accepted this side of his mythmaking more gravely than in Pan's Labyrinth. The bad guy in that was already marked by being a Falangist monster. He wasn't going to get an ethical lift at any point. We don't expect this of Strickland, either, but we do get deeper into his thinking. We don't hate the snake for biting but our caution at the sight of it is the lesson. Strickland is as much corporate man as he is aparatchik. On the right side, he's the good guy. A late dialogue with his military boss reveals as much about his place in the order as it does about his motives. Michael Shannon (who has only disappointed me in the strained cuteness of Pottersville but everybody else did, too) delivers a constantly threatening force to his character. His craft has the same artisanal finish as Giles's painted ad.

Finally, there is the central pair. Sally Hawkins commands us without speaking a word through almost every scene in the film, drawing us into her alienation and membrane of cope. Doug Jones as the unnamed creature has an equally difficult task as a performance from within a suit (Del Toro, tellingly, chose an elaborate costume over pure mocap and CGI). His performance, for all of its detail, is doomed to be qualified as being against the odds of disguise. Nevertheless, his physicality is there on screen, athletic and balletic, genuine.

Del Toro has served us another adult fairy tale, this time with the extra flavour of his experience with his own vision and how to work that within the larger industrial system (more than a little of what we see on screen feels like his own commentary on this). He was notable as being among the one for them and one for me auteurs. That Shape of Water lifts the game from the misstep of Crimson Peak so very high that the pressure (with added Oscar murmurs) must feel intense. I cannot wait for his next.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Review: LUCKY

Lucky, a rake-thin man in his nineties, wakes in the big light of his western town to a morning ritual of yoga, coffee, milk and yoga before going to the diner to do the crossword and strolling back home for his game shows, pausing to swear into what from our point of view looks like a tunnel tiled with gold discs. At home, he will call information to help with the crossword and then go to a family Bible sized dictionary on a lectern to learn the definition, savouring the words out loud. We'll will see him do many of these things again and again throughout this film, following him on slow thoughtful walks through his Arizona town that has both the kitsch and real beauty of a thrift store painting. He likes his life well enough, it's the world that bugs him, and knows it is soon to end.

Doesn't sound like much? Well, add to that a cast of characters who are encountered like figures from a pilgrimage but sound, dress and drink like western USA, add too a handful of the most poignant spoken confessions you are likely to hear in a cinema for years and the convergence of Lucky's mortality with that of the man playing him, Harry Dean Stanton.

Lucky's monastic humility is overbalanced by the grumpiness expected of him by the townsfolk who greet him warmly but sigh to remind him everyday that he can't smoke indoors. A mark of quality of this film is that we don't just get a parade of golden hearted rednecks letting him get loud and ornery. Sometimes his verbal attacks are just plain wrong. Sometimes they're right but misconstrued. In one simply staged but beautifully bizarre sequence he is led into a demonstration of mortality where his own puzzlement stops him in his tracks. There's one part of life he now knows he doesn't have an answer to.

When Actors Direct could be the title of a tv clip show aimed at the cringe-hungry millions. It's often like the older guys dancing at office parties: too little or too much. Some actors at the helm want to show us how cinematic they can be with needless camera gymnastics or gruelling single take acting workshops. John Carroll Lynch (who has a long and impressive rap sheet as an actor) has debuted as a director with a dignity appropriate to his subject. The desert exteriors are beautiful but always practical. The performances never stray from believable (not even Stanton himself gets an indulgence) including (perhaps in the interests of balance) the director turned actor David Lynch in a significant role. John Carroll Lynch (no relation to the Eraserhead guy) has given us a film with a leanness both pragmatic and rich, like a classic American short story.

Lucky has been tagged as the spiritual journey of an atheist. I appreciate the soggy irony of the paradox but can't agree. Spiritual is a word I find so over relied upon that is has become meaningless. All too often it's offered as a conversational patch for people who don't want to appear mundane by talking about consciousness, emotion, ethics or whatnot. Lucky (and perhaps Stanton himself) shouts one of his fellow drinkers down when they refer to the soul. He means it.

He does look for meaning. Those crosswords aren't just a few idle strokes of the biro and his glacial ambles through the town and desert are only quiet on the outside. Spiritual, pah!, this is a philosophical journey through tangible reality. But that doesn't rule out one kind of levitation as we hear when he confronts the entire bar with his life's M.O. and later proves as he smiles at us directly before wandering off, only slightly faster than the tortoise we also see on its own journey.

And what does it all mean? Meh, its life: you live it, it ends. If you see this expression of it you will be happier than you were, however fleetingly, and it is one group of eighty-eight consecutive minutes you won't want refunded.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Mildred taunts local police by renting some billboards that challenge them to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and burned alive. The cops push back with community support. The rent is expensive and the pressure to take the billboards down is mounting. Something's got to pop. Or does it?

A hefty talent lineup is hauled up to make this work. Frances McDormand leads with a bludgeoning tongue and the kind of lead-eyed stare when on the attack as sharks do. Without this fierce energy at the centre this film it would collapse. The part was written for her (that's not hyperbole, it really was). Supported by the likes of Woody Harrelson and his down home gravitas, and Sam Rockwell's violent and flailing hick cop Dixon might provide all we need but the good parts and performances are poured out like diner coffee.

And there is a real underlying sadness of the setting and the good-old-boy atrocity with its unavenged silence in the community. When Dixon says to his mother that the south "isn't like that" anymore it's a resignation that he can no longer freely strut and punch that way that old cops could. The lush surrounding landscape and picturesque town begin to feel like camouflage netting.

But this is a Martin McDonagh film and if you've seen others or at least the trailer to this one you should be expecting a lot of humour. Well, just as in the trailers for the others there's a lot of fun but it's never all laughs. In Bruges is one of my favourite films of the last ten years for its blend of tailspin humour and grimness and magnetic performances. That film felt overlong, however, and to my mind it was due to leaving its central gravity as a reveal rather than allow it to work beside the levity so that when the odd fourth act begins it feels like a job we had put off. This time there's no mistaking the atrocity nor its seriousness. Its constant presence in Billboards lets the humour (and there is a lot of it) weave with the crime and sense of stasis so that if there is to be resolution it must be made of all those threads. It does, it's still longer than it should be, but it works.

It works because McDonagh can write up a storm of hilariously point-missing characters, sharp wit that would seem so if spoken off screen, and constant engagement with characters. And a kind of soft-edged twist: at one point I noted some fatigue with the violence that was mounting and felt like I was rewarded for my concern when the violence that did ensue had a hitherto unaired motivation. It felt like relief.

Another scene features a deer that other filmmakers might allow in as a kind of reincarnation moment. Mildred dispels all such notions with another slashing tirade that turns poignant on a dime as character and audience alike recall the single scene that features daughter Angela. It isn't maudlin in the least. In this story of painful grief and inert justice the scene sobers rather than inflames or saddens. Like the conclusion and the Townes Van Zandt song that plays it out we recall the lack of control that grief and the most energetic fury cannot reverse. McDonagh's best yet.