Thursday, 18 April 2019

IN THEATRES: Us

While on a family vacation to Santa Cruz, the Wilsons (Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) run into some trouble... (at this point everybody knows what this movie is about).

Hong Kong poster
Man, this sucker cooks.

I loved the precision of this movie - from the script to the technical execution, everything sings. Peele's record in comedy may cause people to see his success here as a surprise, but you can see the overlap in the way this movie is paced. This whole movie is orchestrated with expert timing - every scare and surprise in this movie hits like a punchline.

Some elements are pleasingly old school - Michael Abels' score, with its eerie choir recalling seventies horror icons like Jerry Goldsmith's theme from The Omen and Lalo Schifrin's The Amityville Horror; the framing of the villains are reminiscent of John Carpenter; even the movie's resolution feels like a play on the idea that evil has already won - but what I loved about Us was that it never feels like empty homage.

The cast are fantastic.

Lupita Nyong'o is incredible - Adelaide is agitated by past trauma, and is constantly on edge - while her performance as Red is uncanny - her physicality, at once robotic and graceful, is terrifying. Once their real relationship is revealed, Nyong'o's performance gains new dimension - there is a selfishness to Adelaide which is fascinating.

Is it even selfishness? She wants to protect her family - a familiar desire, that is here stripped of its traditional moral certainty. Adelaide loves her family - but she is also capable of doing terrible things. Red has been rendered evil by her actions, but does the same hold true for Adelaide? Her actions since childhood have not been particularly amazing - she leads a normal life.

Does that absolve her of kidnapping? Isn't she coming from the same place as Red? Wanting to escape?

Nyong'o's multifaceted performance provides no answers, and is even m ore interesting on a second viewing.

Winston Duke, in a complete inversion of his role from Black Panther, is a lame suburban dad who leans into the cheese, but cannot help but fall into the stereotype. His performance becomes even more impressive when juxtaposed with his doppelganger Abraham.

In supporting roles as their friends/neighbours/rivals the Tylers, Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss are also great. One of the most uncomfortable dynamics of the movie is the juxtaposition between the families - while there is a familiarity, there is an airlessness to their interactions. They feel more like neighbours than friends.

Peele's colouring of Gabe (Duke) and Josh's (Heidecker) relationship is hilariously uncomfortable. Their interactions feel more like a subtle game of oneupmanship - the Tylers feel more like a perverse ideal that Gabe is aiming for. In their own way, the Tylers are more dead inside than their Tethered counterparts.

I loved the twist in this movie - at the end of the movie it is revealed that Adelaide is actually one of the Tethered - she kidnapped Red and swapped places with her, growing up above ground to become a loving wife and mother while Red was forced to enact a parody of Adelaide's life.

The movie ends on a great beat, with Adelaide's son stares at her suspiciously. She offers him a half smile - to reassure him that everything will be okay? An acknowledgement of what he suspects? Or - my preference - both?

The ending of the movie presents a great conundrum: can good people be rendered evil by circumstance (Red)? Can people who commit evil acts be good?

There are no easy moral divides here - and the Tethered's final invasion of the surface world feels like retribution - like Red, they have been trapped in a system they have no control over, and now they have broken out.

Us is a great movie, and further evidence that Get Out was not a one-off.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we review the 1957 novel From Russia With Love, written by Ian Fleming. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

IN THEATRES: The Guilty

Asger (Jakob Cedergren) is a frontline officer who has been relegated to a desk job after an incident in his backstory. When he receives a call from a woman claiming to be kidnapped, he leaps into action.


As the case grows more complicated, Asger uses all of his skills (including a few dubious ones) that cause the situation to escalate even further.

    This is the kind of movie I would like to make.

    There is something about a movie in confined space that gets my gears running - so many of my favourite movies (narrow margin, rear window, knife in the water, die hard) involve characters in crisis in literal and metamorphic squeeze. 

    Because the action happens offscreen the movie feels like radio play (another genre I love)

    As Asger’s peril increases, his surroundings become more constricted - he moves into a darkened room, he closes the curtains for privacy and at his lowest point smashes a desk lamp, leaving the room cast in red by the sole light source - the red light above his console.


    With great use of (extremely) shallow focus and sound design, the movie always feels like it's on the move, even though it takes place in a non-descript office space.

    The title becomes more important as the movie progresses.

    Asger feels like a deconstruction of movie cop heroes - characters who go outside the law in pursuit of a higher (though undefined) sense of justice. 

    Even the way the character is introduced feels like a cliché - a street cop assigned to a desk, who finds himself in a situation that will validate his mind-set and tactics. 

    So many action movies are based not around the hero’s redemption, but on validating their violent methods (everything from Dirty Harry on down owes something to this trope). Of course in those movies, the hero’s violence is juxtaposed with a villain whose actions and depravity demand violence to expel. 

    Asger is itching to get out and thinks he is in such a situation and goes above and beyond to save the woman - even getting his partner to break into a suspect's house. 
    In The Guilty, such clear moral dichotomies do not exist. 

    The script is really good at sprinkling little details of his past and personality - there is a beat where he needs some info from a co-worker and apologises his past behaviour. Considering this is his last day that does not put Asger in the best light.

    Police action heroes are generally defined as loners - both a part of the system, but willing to operate outside of it in order to right a wrong. In The Guilty, Asger's isolation feels more selfish and (potentially) destructive. He is also dependent on others in order to achieve his goals (such as his put-upon partner).  

    Ultimately, The Guilty is not a story about an individual exacting natural justice when the legal system falls short - it is about a man reckoning with his own failures, especially the failure of his personal code.

    For Asger, the end defines the means - but in a brilliant reveal, he realises that he has misread the situation and made it even worse. In order to make it right, he has to honestly confront himself, and come to terms with how his actions got him to this place.

    The Guilty is a terrific movie, and easily one of the best movies I have seen this year. 

    If you are interesting in donating to the families of the victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, here is a link to the official donations page.

    Wednesday, 6 March 2019

    IN THEATRES: Greta

    After she finds a handbag on the train, Good Samaritan Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) returns it to its owner, lonely widow Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Having recently lost her mother, Frances sees an opportunity to reclaim something of what she has lost.

    But she quickly realises that Greta's needs are far greater than her own - and quite possibly fatal...


    I feel like the trailer really did not help this movie's cause - I have been avoiding trailers for the last year or so, and I caught this one in front of some other movie. The trailer reveals the hook of the movie, which is necessary to get the punters in. But sadly that hook is really the only thing movie has going for it.

    Neil Jordan is a great filmmaker, with a facility for taking genre templates and using them as the jumping-off points: the fairy tale revisionism of The Company of Wolves; the multifaceted relationship between a sex worker and her driver hiding in the crime structure of Mona Lisa; the IRA thriller that morphed into a love story in The Crying Game.

    There really is nothing going on this story. I spent the runtime waiting for something to shift, and for the movie to reveal what it was really about. Nada - the movie is literally what it is about.

    The closest the movie gets to feeling fresh is the way it visualises its villain's lair - one of this movie's most successful elements is the juxtaposition of Greta’s home, with its artefacts of another age - nestled in a side street, hidden away from the urban environment around it. There is gothic quality to the character's obsession with the past, but outside of this mise-en-scene, it does not really go anywhere.

    At a fundamental level, there is something not quite right about Greta. The big problem is the script - I could see most of the story’s moves coming, and the movie’s more traditional suspense elements feel undercooked. There are a few sequences where some new information is revealed which felt obvious, or were ruined by sloppy editing (the most egregious example is when Frances is surprised by Greta standing outside the restaurant where she works).

    There is a stalking sequence involving cellphones that is pretty good, and a murder involving a hypodermic and ballet which is just odd enough to stick in the memory. But rarely does it feel like the characters are in danger.

    Throughout the viewing experience, it felt like the movie was in neutral - I kept expecting something nasty to happen. But until (SPOILERS) Greta kidnaps Frances, nothing really happens. There needs to be a death or something. The movie is attempting to be a slow burn but it ultimately feels like slack pacing. Sadly for Jordan fans, even Stephen Rea’s obligatory role feels unnecessary (he’s basically playing Martin Balsam’s character from Psycho).

    Greta is not a chore to get through, but there is a lack of escalation to the way the movie builds tension that makes it feel a bit pedestrian. The fact that Frances does not play a significant part in her escape, and this experience does not fuel any kind of character development - the back third of the movie just feels like a collection of plot points.

    On the plus side, the acting is good. Moretz, Huppert and Maika Monroe (as Moretz’s best friend) make the movie more watchable than it otherwise would be. Moretz is just terrific - I am really hoping she gets more leading roles off of this - she is so understated and empathetic, but never overplays the sadness that motivates the character to reach out to Greta. Even though the movie is pretty conventional, Moretz's Frances never feels like a cliche - she is a genuinely good person trying to get out of a bad situation on her own terms. On a slightly different note, based on her rapport with Monroe, I would totally be into a buddy movie with them as besties going on a caper.

    Huppert has been an institution for decades, and she is on good form here, but I really wish the script was more original. Greta is just a garden variety psychopath (she even gets one of those last-minute resurrections ala so many hackneyed thrillers.

    There is a good story in Greta - but the execution never rises above its familiar parts.

    If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

    In the latest episode we review the 1968 novel Colonel Sun, written by Kingsley Amis. Subscribe on iTunes.

    Monday, 4 March 2019

    IN THEATRES: Lords of Chaos

    Lords of Chaos charts the early years of Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, from their humble beginnings with original singer Per "Dead" Ohlin (Jack Kilmer) through the addition of  Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen), the band members' descent into church burnings and murder, leading up to the murder of band founder Euronymous (Rory Culkin) in 1993.


    I have a feeling  I am a little more positive in my feelings toward this movie than the critics I have read. Part of the reason may be that I was only vaguely aware of Mayhem beforehand, so the story's various twists really got to me.

    That being said, I was impressed with how unvarnished the portayal of the group is - at no point do their various antics - from Dead's onstage wrist-cutting to the church burnings and murder - feel like they have been glamorised. At no point does the movie buy into the cult of Mayhem.

    Initially it was hard to figure out what the focus of this movie was - in the first 20-ish minutes, we blast through the beginnings of the band, the addition of Dead as vocalist and his subsequent suicide. Though Rory Culkin's Euronymous, is the narrator, he feels like a side character in the story for the first half.

    Once Varg (Emory Cohen) enters frame, the story comes into focus - the film becomes a bizarre game, as each member of the group begins to one-up each other in an increasingly grim game of oneupmanship but who can be the most authentically 'evil'.

    The shift toward making Euronymous more sympathetic comes across a little awkward - the way he gets into a relationship with a photographer feels too fast.

    The movie's tone is awkward - it oscillates between grim docu-drama, black comedy and, most bizarrely, fantasy (Euronymous's visions of Dead in the woods). When the movie focuses on the conflict between the band's self-image and reality, the movie really connects.

    One of my favourite scenes in the movie is Varg's decision to meet with a journalist to declare the existence of the Black Circle. This sequence is great because it is the first real collusion point between the fantasy the band have built around themselves and its own contradictions. When Varg runs through a list of the Circle's beliefs, including their desire to return Norway to paganism WHILE also being Satanists, the interviewer points out the contradiction.
    The performances are the thing that makes the movie work. Ackerlund's direction gets moments, esp when highlighting contradictions: The cutaways to the band when Dead cuts his arms open onstage; Dead’s suicide is treated in stark wide shots. 

    But in other scenes it’s difficult to really identify power relationships - it is really down to Culkin and Cohen to supply those dynamics. Throughout the film, I found myself hooked by the story but only intermittently invested.

    As Euronymous, Culkin is great - from the beginning his posturing always feels like a front. There is a vulnerability behind his bluster that makes the character so much more interesting (and infuriating).

    Once the movie tries to make him more sympathetic, the movie’s lack of focus really starts to jar - Euronymous’s shift in character lacks insight. He meets a woman and has his moral compass re-oriented? 

     There is something missing from the filmmaking when it comes to the characterisation. Occasionally there is a sequence that works: the brief flashback to Euronymous crying over Dead's body is a great juxtaposition, retroactively puncturing Euronymous's earlier callousness. 

    But it is hard to figure out whose story this movie is meant to be.

    As Varg, Cohen gets more of a transformation - Varg starts out as a hesitant kid named Chrisitian who is anxious to join Euronymous's band. Cohen lends the fledgling metalhead a lack of spine that is a great contrast to Culkin’s steel facade. There is a hunger to his performance - a constant sense that Varg is trying to find an identity to replace his own.

    Once he has found a way in, Cohen gives Varg a mania and focus that is terrifying - while Euronymous is playing a role, Varg has anchored his whole being in his idea of what he thinks his mentor believes.

    When this conflict between the leads is established, the movie gains a sense of focus that overrides the listlessness of the middle section. 


    While it suffers from a lack of focus, Lords of Chaos is worth checking out for the lead performances - without Culkin and Cohen the movie would not work as well as it does. A flawed but ultimately compelling watch.

    If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

    In the latest episode we review the 1968 novel Colonel Sun, written by Kingsley Amis. Subscribe on iTunes.

    Saturday, 2 March 2019

    IN THEATRES: Escape Room

    A group of strangers are invited to take part in a contest. Lured by the promise of $10,000USD, they accept.


    Altocelarophobia: the fear of large enclosed spaces.

    As far back as I can remember I have had a fear of high ceilings. You name it: churches, gyms, pretentious living rooms. If I am moving I can work through it, but if I have to stay in one place (like school assemblies, where you have to sit on the ground) then the world flips upside down and it feels like gravity is going to cease and I'll plummet to my death on the ceiling above.

    I have not had a bad experience with it in years (and I only found out it had a name just before I wrote this review), and I thought I had grown out of it - until about halfway through Escape Room, when our heroes enter an upside-down bar.

    And then the floor-ceiling starts falling away in sections and our heroes have to cling to the walls, bar and - in one case - the pool table, to stop from plummeting to their deaths.

    Watching this nightmare visualised on a huge screen triggered that old fear, and I was soon crouched over in my seat, rocking back and forth, squeezing my knees, trying to regain my bearings. Of all the movies, I had to get a full-on panic attack in the middle of friggin' Escape Room?!?

    Long story short, Escape Room is not a great movie. It's a fun movie at times - and damn terrifying in that one scene - but watching it did feel like a very specific kind of cinematic comfort food (aside from the upside-down hell scene):

    Take a fun premise, spruce it up with some cool ideas, include one terrific set piece, and top it all off with an underwhelming third act burnished with a couple extra endings.

    The cast are good - it’s always good to see Tyler Labine in something - though the characters are stock: Zoey (Taylor Russell) is the shy student; Danny (Nik Dodani), the game nerd; Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the ballsy woman; Mike (Tyler Labine), the blue collar guy; Jason (Jay Ellis), the slick business shark; and Ben (Logan Miller), the burnout, who nobody believes in.

    While the script does deploy some interesting reveals, there’s no real sense of that change as they attempt to escape their predicament.

    The main problem with Escape Room is that its concept should have either been expanded in a way that truly foregrounded the characters' fears, and forced them to overcome them; or push the concept to its most ludicrous extreme.

    Escape Room has some good ideas for the characters and their relationship with the game, but the way it deploys these ideas comes off as either a cheat or super-predictable.

    And while it goes for broke with the frozen cabin environment and Tim's Upside House of Terrors, the set pieces fall off in terms of peril.

    The movie also makes the mistake of starting with a flash forward to the final set piece - while it gets the audience into the world of the story and sets up the rules of the scenario, it also neutered the drama by turning all bar one of the cast into dead bodies. While there is a certain suspense to be gained from knowing of the danger, the audience’s awareness of the group’s fate, combined with the stock nature of the supporting characters, lowers the stakes.

    Escape Room is a totally serviceable thriller that does not stick the landing. 

    If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

    In the latest episode we review the 1968 novel Colonel Sun, written by Kingsley Amis. Subscribe on iTunes.

    Wednesday, 27 February 2019

    THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR: License to Kill & Colonel Sun

    The James Bond Cocktail Hour is back, with two episodes of 007-flavoured awesomeness!


    In the first episode, we are joined by comedian Tom Sainsbury (Kiwis of Snapchat) to talk 1989's License to Kill, starring Timothy Dalton, and the novel Colonel Sun. The first novel to feature Bond that was not from the pen of Ian Fleming (who died in 1964), Colonel Sun was the only Bond novel written by Booker Prize-winning novelist Kingsley Amis.

    Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or alternatively, at the links below.

    Timothy Dalton returns for his second and final appearance as James Bond. After his friend Felix Leiter is brutally attacked by drug baron Frans Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond goes rogue to destroy the villain's empire from the inside...


    When his boss M is kidnapped, James Bond heads to Greece to rescue him - only stumble into the middle of an invisible war between the Russians and a mysterious mastermind known as Colonel Sun...

    You can find the James Bond Cocktail Hour on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe and leave us a review!


    Friday, 22 February 2019

    IN THEATRES: Alita: Battle Angel

    Re-activated and re-built by a kindly inventor, the cyborg 'Alita' (Rosa Salazar) is on an abortive quest to find out who she is...


    I remember hearing about this movie in 2003 in an Empire magazine feature on unmade movies that were stuck in development hell. I cannot remember all the titles, but I remember it included Darren Aronofsky's The Fountainhead (made in 2006), The Gemini Man (a project mooted in the mid-90s for Mel Gibson, now due for release in October starring Will Smith) and a little movie called Avatar.

    Every interview I’ve read with James Cameron mentioned his obsession with bringing this property to the big screen. After all this time, it has finally been brought to the screen under the stewardship of  Robert Rodriguez.


    According to the credits, Cameron was a co-script writer (with Laeta Kalogridis). Apparently the script Rodriguez used was assembled from an initial draft of 186 pages and 600 pages of notes. You can definitely feel that bigger story in the movie's ever-shifting narrative and lack of focus.

    Criticising this movie is fairly easy (the plot is labyrinthine, the characters lack clear motivation, and the whole movie feels like a couple of different plots stitched together). The movie had a 170 million dollar budget yet it feels like a TV show - the compositions lack depth (probably an affect of green screen) and the lighting feels flat.

    In re-watching Avatar, one of the big takeaways was how Cameron’s camera obeyed the rules of physics- his camera follows characters and never feels free-floating, so when a CG character stumbles while walking across a gorge, or is flying another CG creature through the sky, there’s a sense of depth and tactility to the images which makes the experience more immersive.

    The problem with Alita is that the rules of how physics in this world works make no sense. Furthermore, it never really feels like Alita can lose.

    The movie’s major saving. grace is Rosa Salazar, and the motion capture team who bring the title character to life. If she was not in it, the lack of character development would have been far more grating.

    But I have to say (write?), I had a pretty good time. This movie is silly - it is almost on the level of Valerian and the Cornucopia of a Thousand Inanities. At points the movie verges on Axe Cop in terms of the way the plot is constantly resolving and then veering in a new direction (the beat where Alita gains the warpaint is almost comedic in how arbitrary it is). These story points probably made more sense in the manga (and the 186 page script) but in this movie they feel pleasantly haphazard (It probably helped that I have not read the manga, and had eaten an entire bag of sour worms).

    Definitely one for a late night on Netflix.

    If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

    The latest episode is out today - to get in the holiday spirit, we review the 1987 film The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

    Related

    Valerian and the whatever the hell the rest of the title was