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.

    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 nondescript office space. Because the action happens offscreen the movie feels like radio play (another genre I love), but it never lacks a sense of pace or tension.

    The title becomes more important as the movie progresses, particularly when it comes to our protagonist.

    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 feels like a deconstruction of movie cop heroes - usually, these characters are presented as outsiders 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. 

    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, especially 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.