Thursday, 31 May 2018

Other May viewing/reading

The Gilded Age (book; Karin Tanaba, 2016)
Inspired by the true story of Anita Hemmings, an African American woman who passed as white to attend Vassar University, The Gilded Age is a combination of 19th Century romance and thriller. It takes a bit of time to get going, but once Anita begins to be accepted by her friends' upper-class world, it becomes really suspenseful. Sadly relevant.

Seduction of the Innocent (book; Max Allan Collins, 2013)
A murder mystery set in the world of American comic books during the 50s, this is a fun little page turner. It's a throwaway book in the best sense of the word - Collins has a solid grasp of the idiom and cultural context, which gives the book a sense of colour.

Lovesick: Season 3 (Netflix)
An interesting impasse for the characters (and the creatives?).

The main focus has shifted to Luke, as he attempts a redemption tour of all the women he has been with. The big moment is Jonesy defending her choice to not be involved in a relationship. It's a POV you do not see enough of. Sadly the season ends with Jonesy throwing that away to give it a go with Luke. It's the one time the series feels really contrived - here's hoping it pays off.

Booty Call (Jeff Pollack, 1997)
One night, two pairs of friends go on a double date. Hijinx ensue.

I had heard about this movie years ago, but never had a chance (or the inclination) to check it out.

The movie is based on a fun concept that we have seen before: over the course of the night, the male  characters are forced to go on a journey through the city to find some condoms. Ala After Hours, during their quest they stumble into strange incidents and weird characters. 

Despite a good cast (Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, Vivica A. Fox and Tamala Jones), the movie is not that good. My main problem with the movie is that the guys are creeps, the women clock onto this, but then thanks to a series of contrivances, they end up together by the end. It's not terrible, but it just was not that funny.
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1962; Tom Shadyac, 1996)
After watching these two back-to-back, while the original is a better movie, I think I prefer Eddie Murphy's version of Buddy Love to Jerry Lewis's - he feels more antagonistic. The standouts in both movies are the university president, played by Del Moore in the 1962 version and Larry Miller in the 1996 version.

Zero Minus Ten (book; Raymond Benson, 1997
Re-reading for a secret project.

Colonel Sun (book; Kingsley Amis, 1968)
Re-reading for a secret project.

Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)
Re-watching for a secret project.

Fast Girls (Regan Hall, 2012)
A fun little sports movie about a runner from the wrong side of the tracks who learns to be part of a team. I caught this movie within a few days of starting The Expanse and The Girl With All The Gifts. All three feature Dominique Tipper in supporting roles - it was kind of unsettling to see her pop up three times in completely unrelated things

The Expanse (Netflix; Season One)
This is right in my wheelhouse - political intrigue, detective work and an interesting conspiracy involving three different societies. I think I might write something about this in the future. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2018


After a brutal attack leaves him disabled and his wife murdered, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) has nothing to live for - that is, until a reclusive tech genius offers him a chance to regain the use of his limbs. After the operation, Grey soon realises that the tech in his neck can do more than help him walk - it has given him the ability to hunt down the men who killed his wife... whether he wants to or not.

A contemporary version of the cheap-n-cheerful b-movies of yesteryear, Upgrade is an unpretentious action thriller that has a lot of fun with its premise. We have seen versions of this story before, where a man is horrifically injured or killed, is rebuilt as a robot/supernatural creature/superhero, and goes on to destroy his enemies (Robocop, The Crow, Spawn etc). What makes Upgrade stand out is the relationship between Grey and STEM, the computer chip controlling his body.

There is a cliché to these kinds of narratives that Upgrade thankfully avoids - usually the main character only needs the confidence of his new abilities to turn into an action hero. Grey, on the other hand, is always portrayed as an ordinary guy who is in over his head. Initially, he is content to use STEM's abilities to identify the culprits and give the info to the police. And when that investigation leads to a confrontation with one of the killers, he freezes.

It makes for a bigger distinction when STEM takes over and vanquishes his enemies. There is something blackly comic about these action sequences, as Marshall-Green's brutal actions are juxtaposed with his horrified reactions - the movie begins to feel like a buddy cop movie where the average joe and the bad ass are played by one person.

As said person Logan Marshall-Green is really good. There is never a point where it feels like he turns into a straight action hero - he always feels completely at odds with his actions. The rest of the cast are fine - this movie is really just a programmer, so there are no real flashy parts for actors to bite into. Betty Gabriel (Get Out) plays the cop on Grey's tail - she's good, but the role does not give her much to do. Considering how many movies she has done for Blumhouse lately, I'm surprised they have not given Gabriel her own vehicle.

Since the movie is based around a quadriplegic character, I was interested to see how this aspect of the character played out. To its credit, the filmmakers do not make Grey's disability the focus of his despair. His goal is always to get back at the people who took his wife away.

While it is not on the level of Blumhouse's more high profile offerings, Upgrade is a fun little movie that once again proves that you do not need hundreds of millions of dollars to put out an entertaining genre flick.


The Purge: Election Year

Get Out

Happy Death Day

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

NOIR WATCH 2018: Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)

When drifter Gino (Massimo Girotti) arrives on the doorstep of innkeeper Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), he expects a drink and a meal. Instead, he meets Giovanna (Clara Calamai), Giuseppe's younger wife. Soon they are involved in a torrid affair and dreaming of running away together.
Desperate to be together, the lovers kill Giuseppe. But once he is out of the picture, the pair's romantic fantasies are soon undermined by their guilt and paranoia.

Regarded as a precursor to Italian neorealism, Ossessione (or Obsession) is the first unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Visconti's adaptation is pretty faithful to the broad strokes of the story and themes, with some interesting additions that expand on Cain's story in interesting ways.

There is Gino's friendship with a traveling salesman who acts as a reminder of his past life, offering him an alternative to his relationship with Giovanna. There is a hint of a homoerotic subtext to their rapport - at one point, Gino refuses to share a bed with the salesman - which adds another layer to his dissatisfaction with Giovanna. With this addition, it reframes his obsession with Giovanna - is his love based on shame at his own repressed desires? This is left unstated, but adds a nice air of ambiguity to the character that does not exist in any other version.

It is easy to take the movie's title for granted, but it underlies every creative choice in the movie. In Cain's version, the husband's murder is pre-planned. In Ossessione, Visconti plays the murder of Giuseppe as a crime of passion - catalysed by their sudden reunion, the pair decide to kill the drunk man while driving back home.

The actual murder is left off-screen, and followed by a sequence of Gino awkwardly walking through the crime scene while he explains the 'accident' to sceptical police. This narrative ellipsis foils expectations, and re-cnetres the viewers' focus on the impact the event has on the perpetrators - it feels like an approximation of death. One second, Giuseppe was alive, and the lovers were innocent; now he is dead, and they have been transformed into different people.

The filmmakers intensify the focus on the lovers' emotional disintegration by excising the court case which takes up the middle of the novel, with greater attention paid to the breakdown of the central couple's relationship. Without the (relative) reprieve of the court case, we watch as Gino drifts about in a daze. Haunted by what he has done, he wants nothing to do with a dead man's business, and is
eventually drawn to another woman, Anita, whose purity an honesty appeals to his guilty conscience.

Aesthetically, the movie is stripped down and lacks the overt stylings of traditional Hollywood noir. Though Visconti employs chiaroscuro, the sources feel naturalistic to the settings. The lack of Hollywood gloss works for the story - the MGM version has always left me cold because of the house style (the lighting especially is so high-key that it kills any attempt at atmosphere).

Unlike the novel, which is from the drifter's POV, Visconti maintains an objective view of his characters, focusing on showing the mundane reality of the characters' predicament, and that directorial distance helps to highlight their growing disenchantment (the scene of Giovanna wandering through the deserted bar, surrounded by empty bottles, is quite haunting).

The two leads deliver naturalistic performances. I was particularly impressed by Girotti. He gives the role a youthful cockiness that cast the drifter of the novel in a new light - he comes off as a young and impetuous. He is never on-board with killing Giuseppe, and seems to recognise that he can never go back, reacting violently like a caged animal. Calamai comes off as an old soul, used to having life hit her in the face. While Girotti's Gino is impetuous and virile, Calamai's Giovanna is more melancholy. Her love for Gino is an externalisation of her deeper desire to escape her life.

The one element that does not work is the score by Giuseppe Rosati. It is so melodramatic and on-the-nose in hitting the emotional undercurrents of scenes that it always feels like an intrusion. Thankfully, there is not a lot of it, and Visconti does not use the soundtrack as an emotional crutch, which (thankfully) lessens its impact.

A fascinating example of a familiar story made without the aesthetic or cultural context it is associated with, Ossessione is a terrific adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice that is far better than the official Hollywood version people are familiar with.


Sunday, 27 May 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Girl With All The Gifts (Colm McCarthy, 2016)

A fungal infection has caused an outbreak of zombies. In a walled-off facility, a scientist, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), oversees tests on a group of children whose mothers were infected while pregnant - unlike other 'Hungries', they display normal cognitive function but still have a taste for human flesh. Caldwell sees them as the source of a potential cure.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of these children. Bright and inquisitive, she is a favourite of the kindly Ms Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who tests the children when the facility is overrun, the human survivors and Melanie try to reach one of the remaining human outposts.

As the group treks through zombie-ridden streets, the humans struggle to figure out what Melanie's true intentions are... 

We have seen variations on the idea of a zombie exhibiting signs of its former humanity (Bub from Day of the Dead), or R (Nicholas Hoult) from Warm Bodies. What makes Melanie interesting is that she looks and acts like a normal child. And what makes Melanie so compelling is Sienna Nanua's performance.

Nanua's performance rides the line between empathetic child and stone-cold killer without tipping too far either way.  She is so sympathetic yet terrifying, and the way the dulling impressions mature and evolve over the course of the story are the movie's dramatic foundation. There is something so genuine about her desire to please, and her need to be accepted. She is totally believable as a child trying to figure out a logic problem, and eating a cat that she hunts down. 

Melanie is such a fascinating character because the movie is never completely aligned with her point-of-view. 

    While she is presented as vaguely benevolent, Melanie has her own motives that seperate her from the goals of her human companions, motives that are tied to both her being a child and a zombie. It is this combination which makes her so terrifying. Outside of her appetite for flesh, she is an orphaned child who has formed an emotional bond with a parental figure (Ms Justineau). 

    She is not old enough to grasp more abstract concepts like saving 'humanity'. She is focused on the humans that she knows, but aside from Justineau the other humans in the group (Caldwell, Sgt Parkes) treat her like a animal - Caldwell tries to dissect her, and Parkes tortures her after Melanie tells him Ms. Justineau likes her more than him.

    Otherwise, the story is pretty straightforward: military compounds and scientists trying to find a cure are familiar tropes of zombie movies. The other characters feel familiar, but benefit from the strong cast. The movie seems to acknowledge this, quickly setting up the world before destroying it and sending our main characters on their journey.

    The movie is well-shot with some great, creepy images: Melanie leading the group through a crowd of sleeping zombies; the wide shots of empty cityscapes (accomplished by flying drones over the abandoned town of Chernobyl, which adds a layer of verisimilitude).

    The one aspect of the movie that I would have liked a little more from was Melanie's bond with Ms Justineau. The movie teases a triangle with Paddy Considine's suspicious Parkes but it never really goes in the direction I expected (which is surprising, I guess).

    The third act is bleak for its human characters, but once again I was expecting some kind of surprise. There is nothing that wrong with it - it is clearly set up from the beginning, and the pieces fall into piece logically, but it ended up feeling a little neat.

    Ultimately, The Girl With All The Gifts is a original, economical little horror movie that feels just a heartbeat away from greatness. Though the set up is better than the finale, it is a still a worthy addition to the zombie canon.

    Friday, 25 May 2018


    The story of how Han became Solo, and Chewbacca became Chewie. There's more to it than that, but damned if I can remember what it was.

    I watched this movie last night and I am really struggling to remember what happened. My 12 year-old Star Wars-loving self (RIP) would be apoplectic at me for saying this but this movie was almost completely forgettable.

    It is better than Rogue One, in that it does a slightly better job of creating a clear narrative framework for its characters - whether those characters move and grow organically within that framework is another question.

    As our leading man, Alden Ehrenreich jostles. He constantly feels like a kid trying to do a Harrison Ford impression. He is supposed to be smart and pragmatic, but Ehrenreich just comes off as arrogant and over-compensating. This would be fine if his low-point was a humbling ordeal that forced him to starting thinking rather than relying on luck and bluster, but that moment never really comes. I never really got the sense that he was learning anything, and I never really felt like the movie was about what it wanted to be about i.e. Han learning not to trust anyone. I am not really sure exactly what he learned at the end of this movie - he has a completely un-earned 'Road to Damascus' moment where he decides to do something good for a band of 'proto-rebels'. I don't know why.

    The whole arc of Han's character in Star Wars was that he was a cynic who grew to believe in something. This creates a problem for the makers of Solo, since they can't push for a similar epiphany, yet do not want to make Han a straight-up criminal. They try to have it both ways, with Han helping the rebels against the villains, but refusing to join them after the battle is done. I was left confused because the movie gave me no strong sense of Han's motivations to either join the rebels or go it alone.  

    I really hope that this movie puts paid to the idea of Emilia Clarke as a movie star - she is not bad as Solo's first love, but the character - in both writing and performance - never feels fleshed out. The character is not that interesting, and Clarke's performance lacks anything that could flesh out the character emotionally. As far as Han's trajectory goes, this character is supposed to be a big deal. By the end of the movie I could not care less.

    Every piece of this movie feels like an idea retro-fitted to make sense as a box on the 'Han Solo origin story' checklist. You can figure out who each character is, and what their point in the story is fairly quickly. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the script does not do a good job of making these characters feel more than archetypes that shove Han toward his 'destiny' (did we really need to know how he got his gun?).

    As I said at the outset, the movie is not terrible. There are some things I liked.

    The way Chewie and Han meet for the first time is cool. And the way Han ultimately wins the Falcon is good. I just wish the movie around it felt more organic.

    Thandie Newton, who is scientifically incapable of not being great, is onscreen for minutes and together with Harrelson packs more history and charisma than all of the main couple's scenes in the rest of the movie. I would have taken a whole movie with her and Harrelson committing heists on military convoys.

    The movie is at its best when it is not worried about the origin story angle. The most obvious example of this is L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando's radical droid co-pilot, packs more laughs and flat-out weird ideas than anything else in the rest of the movie. When she turns up and starts talking about equal rights for machines, or how Lando has a crush on her, it brings home how horribly un-funny the movie is - whenever L3 is onscreen, it's like an oasis in the desert.

    The movie is not terrible, but ultimately it fails the test of most prequels. It is locked into an endpoint that dictates every move it can make, and Solo fails to live up to its name by striking out in a new direction. It's entertaining in places, and broadly watchable overall, but its most defining characteristic is how forgettable it ultimately is. And that is kind of depressing.

    It will be interesting to see how this movie performs. After the internet-stoked reaction to The Last Jedi, which dared to push the franchise in a new direction, it would be a shame if Solo's focus on nostalgia becomes the template for the franchise going forward.


    Saturday, 19 May 2018

    IN THEATRES: Deadpool 2

    Unable to come up with a satisfying emotional arc for Deadpool's second movie, screenwriters Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese and Ryan Reynolds kill his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Suicidal and looking for purpose, DP joins the budget version of the X-Men on a mission to stop the boy from Hunt For The Wilderpeople (Julian Dennison) who is trying to burn down his school.

    In an attempt to help out, Deadpool deploys his usual bag of homicidal tricks. Said bag gets him and Russell (Dennison) sent to the mutant prison known as the Icebox. From there DP has to contend with Cable (Josh Brolin), a man from the future who is out to kill Russell before he grows up to kill Cable's family and Cable turns into Thanos.

    To save Russell, DP enlists a team of super-powered folks (including Terry Crews, Pennywise the Clown, that Irish Boxer from Snatch and Van from Atlanta) and Peter (Rob Delaney), the best guy alive.    

    Will they be able to stop Cable, and save Russell before he turns into Carrie White?

    I was a little dubious going into this movie. You get this with any sequel - will we get a carbon copy of the first movie, or a complete break that tries something different?

    The movie is not a massive leap above the first movie, but it's no disaster. The big problem is that it is overstuffed - with characters, subplots and jokes that don't hit. Deadpool 2 is best viewed as a buffet - there is plenty of good on offer, not all of it good, but you can cobble together a filling meal from it.

    The main through-line of Deadpool dealing with Vanessa's death feels like a tired trope to give Deadpool a 'journey' (she gets fridged about a minute after they decide to start a family). It is so dark yet feels cosmetic when sandwiched together with the introduction of Cable, the birth of X-Force and all the returning players from DP1. Wade's relationship with troubled mutant Russell gets short shrift - their bond is established and broken so quickly that the final resolution does not carry the catharsis the filmmakers probably intended.

    The plot is so dark that there is a certain disjunction with the film's humour, which is so meta that the movie's attempts at real emotional weight don't really work.

    This movie made me wonder if Deadpool makes sense as the protagonist of a movie - does he really need to have an emotional arc? Does he need to grow?

    The best parts of the movie are where Deadpool has to bounce off other characters dealing with big emotional burdens - Colossus's earnest belief in being a superhero; Cable's single-minded desire for vengeance. I am interested to see where they take the character in future sequels. If they continue down the road of finding some area of personal growth for Wade, will he just end up like Jack Sparrow?

    Johnny Depp's character was the highlight of the first Pirates of the Caribbean because he was not encumbered by having to anchor the movie - he could float about doing whatever he liked. In the sequels, the filmmakers tried to turn him into a hero and whatever was interesting about the character was neutered.

    A big reason why these problems don't bother me as much as they probably could is Ryan Reynolds' performance: Reynolds is underrated as a comic and dramatic actor, and Deadpool gave him the perfect vehicle to show his range. The same is true of the sequel - he does so much heavy lifting that he makes the emotional stuff work, while being able to make the transitions to DP's pithy asides seamless. He has a lock on the contradiction between the character's fourth wall-breaking humour and his earnest sense of loss that I never felt whiplash.

    As the ostensible co-lead, Josh Brolin is a terrific straight man. The character comes off a little one-note at first, but that is the point. He is like the proverbial bull in the china shop, and most of the film's best moments come from watching the established characters try to get out of his way.

    Brolin is a great minimalist, which works for the character's pain, and his gradual softening as the story progresses. I am really hoping that the next movie ends up being some kind of buddy comedy between him and Deadpool. It would probably result in the kind of sweet and sour dynamic that would work for both characters.

    For a movie that delights in turning things on their head, it's a pity the marketing department could not  have done a switcheroo with these standee posters so Beetz was not doing this pose.

    Zazie Beetz - so good in Atlanta, and the saviour of the cinematic black hole known as Geostorm - is great here. She does not get a lot of to do here character-wise, but she gets so many great comic moments that she comes close to stealing the movie away from its ostensible leads.

    My bigger qualm was with the director - David Leitch's last solo directorial effort was Atomic Blonde, which I was not too keen on. Considering the tone established in the first Deadpool, I wondered if he would be able to juggle the violence and comedy as well as Tim Miller. All in all, I think he did a pretty good job.

    As far as the rest of the cast goes, they are all really good - although most of them end up just being set-ups and/or punchlines to jokes. The X-Force assembled here is a collection of sight gags - their horrific fates are one of the highlights of the movie, although I would have liked to see Terry Crews get more to do.

    As the movie's unorthodox villain, Julian Dennison is fine. His character is set up as a key part of Deadpool's arc, but he gets a bit lost in the deluge of gags and other characters. Speaking of jokes that did not work, the jokes about Russell's size just feel mean-spirited, and make Wade's talk of 'caring' about the kid feel superficial.

    Standee unavailable. For shame 
    The other standout for me - like a lot of people, I'm sure - is Rob Delaney as Peter, a regular joe who signs up to X-Force because it sounds exciting. Sure, the character is just a gag, but it is such a good gag I am completely onboard with Peter returning as a Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern character. The one bummer to his character is that it marginalises the already-established Dopinder (Karan Soni), who is already the regular joe in Deadpool's world. 

    It feels weird to call a movie 'cocky', but there are parts of this movie where it feels like it is in cruise control. The final scenes, in which Deadpool goes back in time to correct the past (including shooting Ryan Reynolds as he reads the script to Green Lantern), are funny if you know the references, but I'm not sure if anyone else is going to get them - also, didn't this get covered in the first movie?

    While it is a lot of fun I hope the next Deadpool slims down a bit, and does not get caught up trying to give him an emotional arc. Too many franchises feel the need to give their lead character emotional stakes, but it doesn't work because the next instalment will probably re-set the characters to their established persona (e.g. most Marvel movies). It would be fresh to just allow Deadpool to be Deadpool, without having to do all the heavy-lifting.



    Wednesday, 16 May 2018

    NOIR WATCH 2018: Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

    Directed by Jules Dassin with the heat of the Blacklist on his neck, Night and the City tells the story of Harry Fabian, an American grifter living on the edge of London's seedy underbelly. Harry is always on the lookout for the easy buck, but his latest scam might also sow the seeds of his downfall: after he gains the confidence of a former wrestling star, Harry thinks he has found the key to controlling the city's wrestling scene. However, his plans are based on stolen money, multiple double crosses, and a promise from a business partner who believes Harry is cuckolding him. With so many variables, it is only a matter of time before Harry's luck runs out...

    My local art house theatre is running a festival of film noir and noir-adjacent movies from around the world. Though I am a fan of the genre, there were quite a few movies on the schedule I have not seen. These movies are best seen on the big screen, so I have held back on watching a lot of these movies until opportunities like this (see my Joseph H. Lewis reviews from last year as examples).

    For me the essence of noir is a central character who is caught up in a series of events that they cannot break out of. Harry Fabian's trajectory is a sterling example of this theme. From the start of the movie (he is introduced running from creditors), Harry is constantly working angles to keep himself above water. Harry is basically a home fatal who preys on anyone who gets in his way. He figures out what their weakness is and turning that to his advantage.

    In the lead role, Richard Widmark is great. A few years from his breakout as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, he gives Harry a similar level of nervy energy. His character comes off as cocksure and reckless - a consummate performer who is totally comfortable when playing people for his own ends. Though he displays a fleeting self-awareness, he is addicted to his delusions of wealth and power. Every time he catches a whiff of an opportunity, he jumps without thinking - a testament to his arrogance, it is the quality which ultimately leads to his downfall.

    Admirably, this movie does not resolve with a happy ending - Harry's luck runs out, he loses the one person who loves him, and he dies.
    In fact, nobody leaves this movie in the black - Kristo (Herbert Lom) keeps his empire but loses his father; Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) loses his wife and shoots himself; his wife Helen (Googie Withers) tries to make it on her own and discovers she has been betrayed. The movie's overall message is extremely nihilistic: no matter what you want - you will not get it.

    In this respect it is easy to see this movie as an allegory for what was happening off-screen: director Jules Dassin was a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee for his supposed communist sympathies, and was blacklisted from Hollywood while he was shooting the film in England.

    Max Greene's photography of London locations is terrific - you really get a sense of the post-war cityscape, a scrap heap fought over by scavengers. The movie is filled with great visuals: Nosseross's darkened office, shot from low angles as the owner gloats over his domain; the way light plays across Richard Widmark's sweaty face as he hears the footsteps of his pursuers approaching. It is incredibly claustrophobic and oppressive, reinforcing the sense that the city is suffocating everyone living in it.

    All the characters are defined by their inability to escape: with Harry, it is his own nature; with Helen, it is her economic dependence on other people; her husband cannot live without Helen, despite her open disdain. The one character who manages to break free is Harry's on-off girlfriend Mary, played by Gene Tierney. And that is because she gives up the thing (Fabian) that she desires. 

    Of the supporting cast, the standout is Googie Withers. Beneath her tough veneer, Helen is just like Harry. She wants her own piece of the pie. Unlike Harry, she does not have alternatives (i.e. his relationship with Mary). While we do not get a lot of backstory, the implication is that she used to be a hostess who struck a rich man's fancy. Her motivation is financial independence for survival. Harry  has opportunities (both past and present) to have a better life - Helen never does.

    Filled with great sequences, and an incredibly bleak tone, Night and the City is a great noir based around a turbo-charged lead performance and the unique atmosphere of its main location.

    Saturday, 12 May 2018

    IN THEATRES: Unsane

    Recovering from recent trauma, Sawyer (Claire Foy) has moved to a new town and started a new job. Despite her new surroundings, Sawyer is struggling to move on and seeks treatment at a local facility.

    Everything is going fine - until she is prevented from leaving...

    Man, you have to love Steven Soderbergh. No modern mainstream filmmaker has displayed such a consistent hunger to try new things. He may not have cracked the box office in a while, but Soderbergh is so eclectic and self-aware that only a fool would count him out.

    Following the interactive project Mosaic and the redneck heist comedy Logan Lucky, Soderbergh is back with the shot-on-an-iPhone horror movie Unsane, starring Claire Foy and Jay Pharaoh.

    By the way, there will be spoilers in this review so stop reading now.

    A down-and-dirty companion to his 2013 thriller Side Effects, Unsane is a gloriously unpretentious potboiler - boosted by Soderbergh's aversion to obvious genre tropes and use of editorial ellipses, which turn a silly premise into an escalating nightmare as Sawyer - and the audience - begin to question her sanity.

    The unusual camera (which has been augmented by rigs and lenses, give the movie a claustrophobia and intimacy that works as Sawyer's world gets smaller and smaller. 

    While the camera is an interesting bit of trivia, for me the most interesting aspect of the film was Foy's character. Unlike most thrillers, Sawyer is never shown to be obviously likeable. By that, I don't mean unsympathetic - it's that Sawyer is not out to sugar-coat things and is not given to overt displays of empathy. A rarity for a female protagonist in a (semi) mainstream movie, Sawyer is smart, blunt, and can spot bullshit a mile away. While her accent wanders all over the place, Foy is really good.

    Sawyer is also dealing with trauma, and is choosing to tackle it head-on (until she heads into the facility). It makes a neat change of pace from the usual character set-up of most genre movies which try to give their central characters a 'save the cat' moment to bring the audience onboard. 
    Foy's performance (spiky and withdrawn) also works as a neat misdirect for the film's big twist. It becomes very easy to start believing that she is an unreliable narrator who really does need treatment.

    As far as the supporting  cast go, Jay Pharaoh of SNL is great as a fellow patient who shows Sawyer the ropes. While it is great to see Amy Irving in something, there is something a little odd about her performance. Maybe it was a choice, but there is something stilted about there delivery that made me think she was in on the plot.

    The movie is really a triumph for Soderbergh's aesthetic choices. In the past he has spoken of how his natural approach works to inhibit melodrama and easy emotional responses, and it gives his more genre-specific films a pleasing unpredictability - with Unsane, he knows the aesthetic of this type of thriller (fisheye lens, super-impositions, extreme low angle close-ups and disjunctive edits), and deploys it with economy. Even an average viewer develops a subconscious understanding of cinematic vocabulary, and to its credit, Unsane is always working against visual and aural choices that a viewer can use to start putting the story together. 

    It might be a little too cool for a lot of people (my theatre was almost empty) but if you are in the mood for it, Unsane is worth a look.


    Logan Lucky & The Informant!

    Thursday, 10 May 2018

    AFS Screening: Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

    While spending time with his nephew Gerard, M. Hulot (Tati) finds himself at odds with the ultra-modern home of his in-laws.

    The story of a simple man in world moving too fast for his liking, Mon Oncle is the second film to feature Jacques Tati's character M Hulot (played by Tati himself). It is also the first Tati movie I have seen. And after watching this, I'm keen to check out more of his movies.

    This movie took a little while to get used to - because the movie's basically based on physical gags I was expecting grander set pieces - but once you get on its wavelength it is a joy.

    There is not much in the way of plot or character - on top of being a comic picture in the mould of a silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, Mon Oncle is also an instalment in a series, based around an iconic archetype: M Hulot.

    Hulot is no acrobat, but physicality is key to the role. He is not even that clumsy - there is an understatement to Tati's performance that was a breath of fresh air to a layman familiar with the more extroverted hijinks of other physical comics (Keaton, Carrey, Lewis). Hulot is a simple soul who has an affinity with children and dogs and is justifiably confounded by the futuristic technology that his in-laws, the Arpels (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) insist on using.

    I felt there were some thematic similarities with the work of Frank Tashlin, who is famous for his satirical views of fifties consumerism, but I frankly laughed harder at this movie. The key difference is that Tati's style is mostly physical and not tied to specific contemporary references (Tati is also less inclined to mug like Tashlin's frequent leading man Jerry Lewis).

    While it is funny, the subtext if this movie is terrifying - Hulot is an outsider in a mechanised where every human (inter)action has been reduced to empty ritual. Hulot's brother-in-law works for a company that makes plastic. In one scene, a company man brags about their plastic homes (including lawns).

    The Arpel's house is a cubist nightmare of metallic grey and harsh angles. For a family home, it looks like a child's play-set or a mockup for an atom bomb test. The lack of music during these scenes plays a big role in evoking the sterility of this environment. All diegetic sound has been done in post-production, making it feel stark and distended from the image - footsteps and giggles echo unnaturally, making this place feel like a tomb.

    By contrast, M. Hulot's home in the outside world is more earthy and lived-in - there are people everywhere, rubbish clutters the streets and there are few vehicles. The colour palette is also the inverse of the Arpels' home: worn browns, yellows and greens. Unlike the cold, sterile future-house, Hulot's space is bustling and chaotic, a mess that no one can be bothered to clean up. Life seems to carry on regardless (by contrast, when something goes wrong at the in-laws' house, everything grinds to a halt). 

    Despite the film's favour for this environment, Tati makes plain it is not impervious to change: everywhere, there are signs of that this world is under threat - in the background, old buildings are being destroyed to make way for the new, clean empty future.  

    The film's best gags are based around the cash between old and new - change is inevitable, but Tati has great fun ridiculing the Arpels' self-satisfied belief in the efficiency of modern technology. Rather than catalysts of order, this tech - the Arpels' new car; the garden fountain; the garage door - are agents of chaos that do not work for the people they are designed for. They are needless complications, making the simplest tasks more arduous.

    In contrast to the Arpels, the film's genius lies in its simplicity: my personal favourite set piece was the protracted standoff between M Arpel's car and an old man trying to cross the street. Captured in an overhead wide shot, the scene goes on for a few minutes, and just gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.

    I could go on, but there is something kind of horrifying about dissecting why something is funny. Mon Oncle is a really funny movie that you should check out. I'm kicking myself that it took this long for me to see it.

    Previous AFS reviews

    Purple Noon (2015)

    The Servant 

    Eyes Without A Face 

    Night of the Demon (2016)

    Grand Central

    Tales of Hoffman


    The Last Command & Ministry of Fear

    The Adventures of Prince Achmed (2018)

    Sunday, 6 May 2018

    IN THEATRES: The Breaker Upperers

    Mel (Madeleine Sami) and Jen (Jackie Van Beek) run a business providing 'break-up' services for people who are too scared to do it themselves.

    When Mel gets too close to some of their recent clients - including James Rolleston's Jordan - her crisis of conscience threatens to destroy their business and friendship.

    Written, directed by and starring Madeline Sami and Jackie Van Beek, The Breaker Upperers is a new comedy from the producers of Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (as you can see on the poster). I think a lot of people are going to go into this movie thinking it will be a similar experience to those movies - off beat humour underpinned by a bitter-sweet foundation of emotional truth.

    While it makes a good fist of balancing the laughs with the relationship between our anti-heroines, this movie is at its best with offhand inanities (the Rainbows End line had me crying) and gobsmacked bystanders (if there was an award for 'mass stupefaction', the extras in the rugby club would win).

    As the leads, Madeleine Sami and Jackie Van Beek are great. They have been doing great work in supporting roles for so long, it's about time they had their own vehicle. Together, they have a sweet-and-sour dynamic that carries the movie through some of its lulls.

    Sami gives Mel a goofy warmth and a sense of child-like fun that softens the cynicism of what the pair are doing. You feel like she really enjoys the play of their masquerades, while Van Beek is more interested in their ruses as a means to an end.

    James Rolleston is pretty funny as Mel's dim bulb love interest, Jordan. Maybe it is just the nature of the role, but I was a little bummed out that Rolleston didn't get more to do. Ana Scotney is also a lot of fun as Sepa, Jordan's firebrand ex.

    The real standout was Rima Te Wiata as Jen's mother. After great supporting roles in Housebound and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, someone needs to give her a movie to headline. She appears for minutes here, and steals every scene she's in.

    My one problem with the movie was that it wasn't as funny as I thought it would be. It is consistently amusing, but some of the big set pieces didn't quite hit for me. The highlight is a sequence in which our anti-heroes have to take their police impersonation into a police station. The problem is that this scene takes place about midway through the movie and no sequence really hits that high again.

    Overall, The Breaker Upperers is a solid comedy that should act as a calling card for Sami and Van Beek to get more and bigger opportunities.