Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review: It Comes at Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough.

Synopsis is here:

It Comes at Night has been marketed as a typical horror film. I’m sure that there were a few people who saw posters and trailers and assumed that it would be the type of bland, stereotypical nonsense that leaks out into cinemas at the arse-end of January or the back end of the Netflix new release queue. Not so.

It Comes at Night found itself referenced in Steve Rose’s Guardian article which tries to make that argument that the film is part of a newly termed (by Rose himself) post-horror movement, in which films which don’t run the course of a so called conventional horror film, like say The Conjuring (2013), are slowly taking over at the multiplex. The problem with a term such as post-horror is that quite simply, it's the type of term used by people, who don’t seem to be particularly interested in the genre. At one-point Rose states as a result of successful titles such as Split (2017) and Get Out (2017) means, as a result, there’s now a market for horrors with low budget and mass appeal. Most people who enjoy horror films know that this has been the case for decades and not just now.

The same goes for the very idea of post-horror. In the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon details many of the so-called aspects of post horror that Rose depicts. While true that a modern glut of films has brought around a sense of “refinement” to the ideas Rose describes. What Trey Edward Shults brings across in his second feature are the same types of concerns and societal anxieties that inhabit horror films since the likes of George A Romero appeared on the scene. Things don’t jump out at you during Romero’s Martin (1978), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), but we certainly accept the existential dread that comes with them.

Much like Shults first film, Krisha (2016) It Comes at Night is a film in which the horror comes from regular people reaching deep inside them to do horrific things. It opens with a family being forced into the difficult decision to extinguish the life of an elderly member suffering from an unknown epidemic which has – from what we know – ravaged America as we know it.  Shults opens his film almost exactly like his debut feature: with an older face framed in extreme close-up. Despite looking at a stranger, Shults manages to portray familiarity, uncertainty and fear in a few short moments. He also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The atmosphere is one of intense grief and paranoia as we follow a family struggling to survive a contagious disease which has taken hold of the nation. Tempers flare when a second family interrupt their secluded sanctuary.

It Comes at Night feels quite plain when laid out on paper. In execution, it’s an exceptionally deft piece of work from a filmmaker who has quickly developed an authoritative vision on screen. Much like Get Out (2017) or Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Shults is an auteur that understands and utilises the idea that what can destroy us is simple mistrust. The horror that unravels within the film comes from the simple fact that with the right amount of pressure, decent people will do horrific things.
Shults mostly eschews overt violence and, like his previous feature focuses fully on mood. Save for one sequence, there are no ‘BOO’ moments, merely a steady feeling of unease that parades throughout. The camera set-ups are simple. Nothing complex. But the use of slow foreboding zooms, tight close-ups and powerful use of sound help bring around an inescapable feeling of dread. Tension builds as we quickly realise that the events that occur could be easily avoidable, yet the very real craving for self-destruction makes everything seem unavoidable. The terror stems from our wish to pick at the frayed edges of our humanity. To tongue the cut roof of the mouth. To pick at the scabs.

It Comes at Night picks an exceptionally on point cast to bring the terror home. You can feel that both Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott’s father figures are striving to make things work for their families. You can really feel that search for catharsis through Kelvin Harrison Jr’s display as Travis. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are well drafted as the film’s motherly characters and each actor manages to tap into the right amount of feel to bring round the fraught and delicate bonds needed for such a story. Bonds which have their fragility heightened as uncertainty creeps in.

The beauty of the film’s ugliness lies in how well Shults navigates and toys with those processed ideas of the American family. This theme has lingered in American horror films since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1960). It’s apparent that it is these generational and social tensions which trigger something within the filmmaker. It also highlights why the idea of “post-horror” garnered such a negative reaction. It seems to be quite clear that Shults is updating tried and tested ideas for a different generation. For this writer, It Comes at Night works exceedingly well. Understanding the pitfalls of what could be considered “lesser” horror, the film manages to destabilise and unnerve viewers without the simple need to throw guts at the screen or use flagrant jump scares to catch the attention. It Comes at Night’s fears comes from the simple fact that the darkest monsters are the ones who we instil our trust in. When we look back at so much horror through the ages, we realise that it has always been that way.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: The Beguiled

Year: 2017
Director: Sophia Coppola
Screenplay: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning.

Synopsis is here:

The more I think about The Beguiled, the more I fear it might not have worked for me. While watching the movie, I enjoyed its opulence. I was occupied in that feathery, dream-like bubble that Sophia Coppola creates with her film. The Beguiled is no exception to Coppola’s ability to craft succulent images. This is southern gothic by way of Vanity Fair. It’s nigh-high impossible not to drink in the lavishness.

However, it was with a second viewing of Don Siegel’s original cinematic adaptation of The Beguiled (1971) that I found myself feeling a little duped. Thinking back to Coppola’s film, I discovered that I had found it lacking. Much was said about Coppola’s decision (and weak explanation) to “whitewash” her civil war film, by omitting the original feature’s only black character Hattie. After watching Coppola’s film, I was first of the opinion that this could have been merely the force of progressive politics imposing itself on to yet another film because it didn’t adhere itself exactly to how a particular left leaning audience would want it to. So often I often feel that we can, and will, find anything to criticise (read complain about) as it may not fit directly into our agenda. But that second viewing of Sigel’s film said even more than expected. Coppola’s film pales in contrast to it, not just because of its refusal to talk about race in a war in which race was a key part of. The Beguiled ’17 sands down more than race, but also the seedier elements which make the 71 version stand out.

Coppola is a director who knows her bread and butter and does well when she sticks to it. Here the girls of the school, like so many of Coppola’s doe-eyed, wonderfully dressed females, embrace the ritualistic elements of being in such a private school in that era, the prayers, the sewing, the music and the repression. Set it in the 70’s and we’re only a few steps away from The Virgin Suicides (1999) with the way these girls gated away from the evils of the world. That is until the devilishly handsome Colin Farrell shows up.

Where the original and remake diverge is in more than just the omittance of slave girl Hallie.  Gone is the more troublesome elements of Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother which draws a cloud over so many of the women previously. Also removed is a late-night sequence involving southern state soldiers who imply their wish to explore their desires on the girls. Another element which gives more reason to view John with mistrust. The inner monologue of the female characters, illustrated via voice over, also disappears. Something which was clearly used in the original novel, where the male character does not hold a point of view. This motif only enhances and highlights the agency between the girls and their relationship to John. Who is played with a far more predatory manner by Clint Eastwood than here by Farrell, who is given far more sympathy.

Coppola’s decision to omit Hallie from this updated version of the movie is a strange one. In doing so, Coppola dismantles some of the balance and richness found in Siegel’s film and stops from ever exploring some interesting dynamics. Farrell showcases his Irishness in the film and one could only imagine the conflict that could come from a black slave and an Irish soldier fighting for the north. But also, the conflict between Hallie and Eastwood are among the more potent exchanges in the film. Why deny us this? Instead, Coppola goes down a more swooning, safer route of “white woman feminism” which, shouldn’t really be a surprise to a fan of her films such as myself, but only highlights how superficial some of the films discourse can feel. Coppola makes her version of the tale a film full of lavish costuming, pinpoint blocking and near slavish ritualism but it never wants to challenge its viewer.

This causes a conflict. The Beguiled once again shows that Coppola is an auteur of a truly singular vision, observing womanhood in a way that only she can. Her dream-like visions still provide intriguing entertainment to those who are interested. Her cast and their performances are formidable (although 1971’s list of players is more alluring) and the film never outstays its welcome.
However, The Beguiled (race elements aside) holds no controversy, and Coppola is no radical. She never really has been. What we see here is a wonderfully framed period piece, but it has none of the rough edges that the film before it holds. Coppola has fun toying with elements of the women’s repression (Kidman’s face while washing Farrell is a picture), but the playing down and removal of the aspects which made the original so remarkable softens the blow considerably making The Beguiled feel like an entertaining piece but also a missed opportunity. You get the feeling that Sophia Coppola went out and does what she does. It’s just a damn shame it feels all so safe.

Review: Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

Synopsis is here:

Now that filmmaking is so invested in the digital age, from creation to distribution methods, one thing I’ve found myself noticing a lot more is long tracking shots. A very good colleague and I found ourselves labelling the technique as the film equivalent of the guitar solo. We also certainly didn’t believe that all long shots are considered equal. While technically impressive, the tracking shot can easily lead to pretension. A flashy directional flourish which only asks the audience to look at the director as opposed to what’s in the frame. Since taking up photography and watching more older films (hence the lack of blogging on here), I’ve grown to appreciate a good cut even more.
This brings us to Edgar Wright, a director I’ve greatly admired since watching the sitcom Spaced (1999) on Channel Four all those moons ago. Wright is a particularly stylistic filmmaker, who utilises visual flourishes in a way that, like say, Spielberg, makes his films as instantly recognisable to audiences. The crash zooms are nearly always a dead giveaway. Another telltale trademark of Wright's is his love for the long tracking shot. Unlike many other directors, Edgar Wright apricates, and more importantly understands, a good tracking shot.

What’s this got to do with Baby Driver? A vibrant modern take on the heist movie? Well, it’s all to do with the film’s giddily delirious introduction to its main character; Baby (Ansel Elgort). After a breathtaking opening chase sequence, perhaps Wright’s most technically proficient of his career, Baby Driver decides to give us a breather, without giving us a breather. We are given a beautifully choreographed tracking shot that introduces us not only to the character of Baby but also how he sees the world. One full of music and movement. Wright has pulled this trick on us before in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) but never has he done so with such joy. Like with previous sequences of Wright’s, the moment is packed with so much visual information, that it will most likely take a third viewing to pick up on everything that it’s packing. However, such a moment also builds upon its character. While it looks cool, it’s not done just because it is cool. It’s a truly harmonious blend of sight and sound. Dare I utter the words pure cinema?  I will. But perhaps only in my point of view.

The opening moments of Baby Driver are so joyous, that the film, almost never truly recovers. Nothing afterwards really tops what occurs in the beginning. Wright’s film soon becomes a more typical affair, which reminds high on fun, despite its problematic narrative. It is in here in which the argument of Wright has a director of style over substance becomes more apparent, particularly when it comes to his portrayal of women.

Much like the hyperactive Scott Pilgrim (2010), the love interests within the films universe come across more like prized trophies than characters with agency. Where Baby Driver throbs with the same kind of kinetic vivacity which made Scott Pilgrim so enjoyable, by the final act, both films feel uninterested in the plights of their female leads, this is despite their solid performances. The females in Baby Driver, as with Scott Pilgrim, feel more like extensions of the men they love and fully formed characters. This doesn’t take away from Lily James’ delicately vulnerable display, but the films development of character, or rather lack of, stunts what the films love interest could have been.

The same goes for an awkwardly placed motivation of a character during the films third act. Said character, decides on a noble act from out of nowhere which feels false and unbelievable. Annoyingly, said moment slowed the momentum and had me start of question more of the film. It rather unfairly made me wonder just how important cornetto trilogy writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are to Wright’s creative process. Said character twist was so out of the blue, I can imagine a DVD extra of the three of them explaining the screenplay moment, a la Shaun of the Dead. With Pegg and Frost missing a second-time round, one wonders what they would do if they could have had a hand in crafting the screenplay.

Such negatives do not detract from the fact that Baby Driver is a whole heap of fun. Its action sequences are key to this, running at a blistering pace, yet maintaining a solid sense of space. Baby Drivers set pieces are also wonderfully varied. A mixed blend of car chases, foot chases and shootouts. No sequence feels repetitive. Nothing outstays its welcome and everything is crafted to the rhythm of whatever is playing in Baby’s ears. Musical organised chaos.

While the basic plot doesn’t much stray from the usual “one last job” narrative of so many heist movies, the real glue that connects the wild set pieces is the cast who are more than up to the task of keeping up with the film. Ansel Elgort does more than enough to show off his star quality. Much like Scott Pilgrim, this boy with the “hum in the drum” is socially awkward but particularly skilled. Baby Driver gives Elgort a film that allows him to let him run a little wild with his charm. While the whole white slightly stunted man child isn’t in vogue in certain circles, Elgort clearly has a good time with the material and it shows. The same goes for the likes of John Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. All solid comic performers when they want to be. It seems that all three were chomping at the bit to be let loose on a film like this. Each performer has a chance to shine and does so with the type of panache you expect from them. It’s a shame that the screenplay lets the likes of Lily James and Eiza Gonzalez, down. They do very well with what they’re given. Special credit should go to deaf actor CJ Jones who provides the film heart as Baby’s foster father.

Baby Driver is a juvenile delinquent of a film and I mean that in a somewhat good way. It shows that despite its faults, Wright’s departure from Ant-Man was probably a good thing. The fact that afterwards, he can brush off a decade's old script get it financed for less than $40 Million and make one of the more eye brow raising summer films of 2017 is quite heartening in more ways than one. It’s a film that reminded me of the same blend of chaos and crooning that made The Blues Brothers 1980’s such a delight. Times have changed, and Baby Driver isn’t as anarchic as Landis’ irreverent musical comedy. It’s clear however that its heart is in a similar place.   

Monday, 29 May 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2

Director: James Gunn  
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell.

Synopsis is here:

After the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I remember being placed under interrogation for not proclaiming my undying love for the first film. To not place the film in you top ten of the year/all time, meant there was something wrong with you. I remember sitting at a BBQ and trying to explain that I found the first film to be rather forgettable. People could bend their head around it. Why wasn’t I like everyone else? Why didn’t I fall into line like a loyal foot solider?

I enter Guardians Vol 2 with a sense of optimism, despite my quiet apprehensions towards the approach towards the modern franchise. Again Guardians is quick with the gags, packed with set pieces and the characters still have a lot of colour (set aside how it leaves its female leads floundering). These come in thick and fast and yet this also does well to remind me that narratively, I found Guardians Vol 2 a haphazard affair. One pivotal point has a character ask why doesn’t (redacted Guardian name) want to be special. Said Gaudian obliges with an answer that basically suggests that he wants to conform like everyone else. This should really play in the mega-franchise world, where passive protagonists are simply issued with extraordinary powers and ushered to be “special” merely because they are. This sits uncomfortably within Guardians Vol 2. Our characters are meant to be a certain type of renegade. Why are they so down with a certain type of conformity?

Much like the first film, Guardians Vol 2 works best when it knocks out silly visual gags (the opening fight without Groot is wonderful) or when it’s more secondary characters get their time to shine (I really love Bradley Cooper’s voice work again). However, the films main plot point, which drearily comments on fatherly sins, feels dry and uninvolving. Gunn’s visuals capture of the world punctuates the bold colourful landscapes with neatly captured moments of isolation but struggles with a screenplay which does little to excite.

The whole thing does little to carry any weight. This is a creeping feeling that film writers get with a lot of modern mainstream fare, but certain features make it hard to make a fighting case against this. Guardian Vol two is not an exception. The secondary antagonists are considered so perfect genetically, that they do not go into battle, they fight via automated space drone which is controlled like a video game. It makes a cute gag but eliminates feeling even more that the CGI hordes that litter other comic book movies. A shallow criticism, but one that feels valid to a film in which it’s anti-heroes bode no real consequence. Hell, they want to be family, just like us.

This is, of course, a family who wish to kill in glorious slow motion (even the baby!) to 70’s pop classics a la Tarantino. Again, this probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if Guardian could drop its 12a rating and really let loose, but alas no. Guardians titters perilously between gleefully subversive (was that a sly S&M joke just then?) and tonally frustrating. We might be a little so happy to see Baby Groot become a killer so easily for instance. These guys are badass but bloodless. These are bandits that just need to be hugged. Amidst all this, there’s still a feeling of incompleteness about proceedings. Everything rumbles on with the knowledge that this is (again) leading up to the next episode, so there’s little time to really take on board what’s happening. In-depth analysis on if a baby plant should care about its sins maybe far-fetched, however, the film’s more prominent relationships also feel short changed. There always feels like there’s more to say about some of the dynamics at play. Every character gets their time to quip and wisecrack, and they do so with gusto. It’s just hard not to wish for a little bit more in their development. There’s little to unpeel, which something like Guardians may not really need as a summer flick, but for this writer, again, there’s no real desire to go back for a second viewing. Easter eggs are fine for the well initiated, but they may not work for everyone.  

So again, I brace myself for the BBQ inquisition. More probing about why I don’t conform and indulge in killer Baby Groot like everyone else. I’ll probably come up with a cumbersome analogy of a certain fruit-named company, which asked everyone to “think differently” before drowning the market quite considerably with its slightly varied but very similar toys. I’ll bemoan that we all think differently like everyone else. Like Guardians Vol 2, which rebels with one eye on its parents (think Disney). Then I’ll continue with my plate of special recipe wings.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Review: Logan

Year: 2017
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen.

Synopsis is here:

I cannot say I loved Logan, although I do admire it. The superhero movie that’s making grown men cry has gained many apostles, but I’m just not a devout follower. I fear part of this may be down to how I feel about The Wolverine character as a whole. There’s also the issue of how we finally got to a Wolverine film that’s actually interested in the character. If the other films had done their jobs fully, I could feel myself having more resonance with myself. For that, we could blame some poor choices on Fox’s part. Getting James Mangold to take the mantle a little earlier could have helped amongst other things.

Logan’s stripped down, 90’s road movie aesthetic is actually quite appealing after the overtly slick, all spectacle approach of X-men: Apocalypse. Marigold’s intention to make something that is clearly set within the world, yet not of the same style is the approach that has been deeply needed in the growing hemogenic realm of the “superhero movie” sub-genre. The irreverence of Deadpool and the cynical nature of Logan are steps in the right direction. Not just a refreshing change of pace but a change of focus. By sliming the stakes and adding finality to proceedings Logan doesn’t feel like yet another piece to a needlessly complicated puzzle. It finds a solid reason for a viewer to care about what’s on screen. We might not see everything reset itself two years down the line. Even though as I say this, words about the future of these characters have already been hyped.

For now, Logan appears to be a somewhat fitting conclusion to an awkward spin-off series. It plays with meta well and doesn’t feel the need to aim towards humour to keep things interesting. It’s also generally quite upsetting. Death follows our characters throughout this movie. Unlike the shallow lip service paid to the likes of Ironman 3 (2013), there’s a true feeling that regret weighs heavily on Weapon X. That everything he touches simply makes things worse. A tragic sequence during the second half of the movie is particularly despairing for this very reason. When Logan lets his guard down. There’s a good chance that innocent people could get hurt.

The film is a rather crowning achievement for its main star; Hugh Jackman. After 17 years of inhabiting this character, Jackman’s performances have always remained relatively consistent even if the film’s stories and plots have not. In Logan, Jackman infuses his character with far more bitterness and resentment than before, but also more pathos. Some of the films more compelling scenes come from the now fraught relationship that is held with Logan's former mentor; Charles Xavier (an on-form Patrick Stewart). Again, seeing the tension displayed here is as frustrating as it is entertaining. There’s a dull ache that resides in scenes in which they talk about what could have been. It’s painful not only because of the strength of the performances, but because there’s always the slight feeling that it’s a meta nod to the incoherency of the X-men film series itself.

The big question for some is whether Logan is better than The Dark Knight (2008). Not in my eyes. While it’s easier now to see flaws with Nolan’s comic book hero works, I still find The Dark Knight a better-paced blockbuster, featuring a stronger antagonist and set pieces which stick in the mind long after the film finishes. In terms of personal taste, I also found Logan’s cynicism harder to contend with. It’s a film in which death weighs heavy on the shoulders and even the outcome of secondary characters is tough going. One can’t help but think that some of the plaudits are simply because we see more bloodshed. If that is the case, it is somewhat troubling as Logan never truly feels cathartic.
Let it be said, however, that Logan is one of the more notable Superhero movies of this cycle as it dares to be different. The film’s finality is a shot in the arm for the superhero genre in general. The film’s grim tone, may not be for everyone, but this third and possibly final entry in the wolverine series does well to remind the audience that the stakes don’t always have to be saving the world. They can be about saving one soul.