Review: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Amazingly, my local cinema was truly engulfed in silence on Sunday night. Despite the optimistic purchases of popcorn and other confectionery, they were all but forgotten once A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s (of The American Office, It’s Complicated and Away We Go) debut horror feature took hold.

The concept is gripping one: you make noise, you die, which is essentially a movie tagline writer’s dream, and follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. What we do know is that most of Earth’s human population has been wiped out by an invasion of alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

All of this is expertly told without over-explanation or exposition. The streets of an already sleepy town are strewn with undisturbed leaves from passing seasons, drugstores have been raided and trails of sand have been marked so that surviving inhabitants can creep quietly without fear of detection. One such band of survivors are the Abbott family. They talk in whispers, but mostly by cannily using American Sign Language, in part due to the fact that one of the children is deaf.

Scenes of the family attempting to go about their daily lives are still somehow fraught with tension. Even an innocent game of Monopoly is dicing with death. Our discovery that the mother, played with steel and gumption by the always brilliant Emily Blunt, is also pregnant is gut-punch of a plot point.  The camera pans over the wall calendar to glance at the due date, and a wave of dread hits. The family wouldn’t survive an inadvertent clink of plates on the dining table, never mind the arrival of a screaming newborn baby.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, the film makes quick use of the premise, turning even the smallest of drama into an opportunity for the family’s devastating annihilation. The protruding nail on the stair scene in family romp Home Alone will forever now send me screaming back to the gory horror of A Quiet Place. And when the father, also played by Krasinski, takes his youngest to a nearby waterfall, it is an understated scene of catharsis for both his understandably nervous son and the audience.

I’m not sure I want to put too much weight onto the allegorical nature of the film’s themes, but the best horrors have always played on societal fears. That’s just Film School 101, right? A Quiet Place is equally ripe for unpicking. Pressure to keep quiet and obfuscate, plus our increasing acquiescence about being ignored in a world of noise and fake news are flipped on their head in this silent wasteland. Expression, the act that differentiates us from animals, is somehow now the method of our own extinction. So when Blunt and Krasinski come together to share an earphone rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon,  it is a touching moment, but its one that disturbs the silence we’re now all too comfortably complicit in.

As expected, the good old-fashioned tropes kick in wonderfully and the Alien-style cat and mouse chase across the family’s farm makes for an unbearable watch at pretty much every beat of the action. With multiple perilous set pieces to grip the armrest through  and a monster that is seemingly unbeatable, A Quiet Place is a sweat-inducing time in the cinema. Nerves are shredded and nails are bitten and as soon as it ended, I wanted to do it all over again.

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Review: LOVE, SIMON (2018)

Occasionally, a film comes along that we not only want, but need. Love, Simon is such a film.

Watching this teen drama-comedy (more drama than comedy, but there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments), I wish I had been young enough to be the target audience. In my teens I made do with Napoleon Dynamite (genius), ripe-for-sleepovers high school slasher flicks and John Hughes’ body of work in the 1980s. But as fun and as formative as those films were, none of them were able to recreate or hold a mirror up to how it might be to go to school ‘in the closet’.

Without realising it for most of my youth, I was that closeted teen. I ‘admired’ my history teacher, I held Dana Scully up as simply a ‘great role model’ and saw Mamma Mia! three times because, well, ABBA plus Meryl Streep is just pure cinema gold, isn’t it? And I, like Simon, had a good group of friends who wouldn’t have cared at all if I was queer.

This is the point of the story where we meet Simon (Nick Robinson). He’s aware of his privileged home and school life, and isn’t particular ashamed of the fact that he is gay, but cannot quite bring himself to find the ‘right’ moment to relate this small aspect of himself. An amusing scene, doing the rounds on the trailers (SIDE NOTE: This film is being PROPERLY ADVERTISED! It’s a shame films like 120 BPM aren’t get the same time in the spotlight), imagines the heterosexual characters in the story having to ‘come out’ to their parents. It’s on the nose for sure, but it works, highlighting the ridiculous act we all still face, sometimes on a regular basis, no matter our age or circumstance.

As ridiculous as it is, Simon’s attempts to control how and when he comes out is a recognisable one, and is a privilege that is all too often taken away from queer teens or LGBTQ+ identifying people in the public sphere. I completely identified with Simon’s desire to wait until university, when are you are able to forge a new identity of your own and control the way you present yourself to the adult world for the first time. And in an amusing scene where Simon participates in a fantastical flash mob dance to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, we are witness to Simon’s adorable and completely relatable need to belong.

When his identity is about to be revealed against his will, it kick-starts a domino effect of events that challenges Simon to question how far he is willing to go to come out on his own terms. When the pieces come crumbling down (this is a high school drama after all), we’ve become so invested in these ice-coffee drinking, Panic At The Disco-loving teens that the real prospect of finishing high school alone without lifelong friends in tow is a true narrative gut-punch.

Robinson is ably backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Gardner and Josh Duhamel as his liberal and soppy parents who both get opportunities to present a sympathetic portrayal of supportive parents who love their son, whatever the nature of his “secret”. The direction by Dawson’s Creek and Supergirl alumni Greg Berlanti gets the leafy, middle-class, middle-America down to a tee. All the characters reside in the kind of houses that LadyBird longed to infiltrate in Greta Gerwig’s vision of staid high school life. When Simon puts the record player needle down on The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, I couldn’t help but make a mental note to search for the pristine OST on Spotify. Millennial and proud.

The film’s tagline “Everyone deserves a great love story” could not be more apt. With Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country getting widespread acclaim, the teen movie deserved a chance at telling a gay love story, and Love, Simon is a confident and fun-loving success. It’s portrayal of an average guy that just wants to experience love for the first time is endearing and so tear-jerkingly touching that I couldn’t tell if my tears were tears of happiness of tears of relief at finally seeing a mainstream movie tackle this subject without any evasion or cynicism.

A film about trying to embrace who your are, pass your exams and all the while balancing the careful act of not getting your phone confiscated. Now if that’s not a universal teen experience, then I don’t know what is.

Love, Evangeline.

 

Review: ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

When a new film is helmed by an Anderson (Wes and Paul Thomas – sorry, Paul WS), it’s practically demanded that supposed film fans make a trip to the cinema to form their own opinion. And a new Wes Anderson film is just the sort of big budget ‘quirky’ film to whip us up into a frenzy.

Like the devotees of P.T. Anderson, Wes fanatics are a devoted bunch, declaring their favourite Bill Murray performance with ease and asserting that Luke Wilson is the best Wilson brother at the drop of a Steve Zissou red bobble hat. So upon hearing that Wes’s whimsical style has been shone through the prism of animation once again in the form of Isle of Dogs, I thought it better warrant a visit to my local cineplex (a shout out to Cardigan Fields in Leeds – leather-seated mundanity yet reliable as ever).

Isle of Dogs tells the tail (sorry) of a fictional Japanese city sometime in the future, where dogs have been outlawed and are infected with a debilitating flu-like disease known as ‘snout fever’. Mayor and angry-shouldered despot Kobayashi’s solution is to deport all dogs to Trash Island just miles off the coast – a festering waste land that acts as a rubbish-laden mausoleum to the city’s throwaway society.

We are introduced to a band of bedraggled canine characters, led by Bryan Cranston in a gravelly voice that rattles the speakers and is reminiscent of George Clooney’s own charismatic voice work in Anderson’s last animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). Anderson alumni Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum are Boss, Rex and Duke respectively – and though it is a delight to here them bicker as this mutt-ley (again, sorry) crew of dogs, it’s only Cranston who gets the opportunity to shine in the role and leave a lasting impression as Chief, the curmudgeonly stray. Once 12 year-old Atari Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island to find his missing and much-loved guard dog, Spots, action takes the place of character development and the focus is placed on Chief and the frighteningly determined Atari, a former ward to the mayor. As they are embroiled in a seemingly impossible task to reunite the boy with his animal companion, implausible hijinks ensue.

Anderson’s work has always delighted in throwing together characters that are finely drawn to cause conflict and eke out emotional breakthroughs, see The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited for examples of this (with varying degrees of success), and Isle of Dogs once again plays with this narrative trope.

Back in the city, foreign exchange student Tracy is on the brink of discovering the conspiracy that has caused the whole dog population to be exiled. Voiced with riotgrrl determination by Greta Gerwig, nothing will get in the way of Tracy leading a teenage rebellion, fuelled by chocolate milk and armed with a trusty tape recorder. It could be said that the film is less interested in this side of the conflict, but the unfolding drama is cleverly told via anime-style newsreels and the Japanese dialogue is translated by Frances McDormand, at her best playing a competent, if slightly exasperated English language interpreter tasked with relating the mayor’s increasingly alarming doctrines.

The film is also served well by a welcoming narration by Courtney B. Vance (known perhaps for most recently playing the outrageously savvy Johnnie Cochran in The People vs. OJ Simpson).

Like Fantastic Mr Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is stunning piece of artistry that can be admired even if the film is not loved by all. There are rare moments of stillness within scenes that allow you the briefest of chances to inspect the fine hairs that form Atari’s eyebrows or notice the shade of iris blue chosen to illuminate Chief’s frenzied stares. When the four-legged adventurers let their animal instincts take over, the animation doesn’t shy away from bloody horror of the Mad Max-style battle for survival Trash Island can be either. Puppet dog ears be damned.

Infused throughout the film, the trademark ‘quirky’ humour remains, even when annihilation is threatened. A pug, whose handful of lines are voiced by Tilda Swinton is a hilarious minor detail and well deserved the chance to prolong the gag of her supposed psychic abilities.

Isle of Dogs is a lean, mean and yet admirable adventure story that isn’t afraid to be decidedly adult in its execution and themes. It succeeds where Fantastic Mr Fox occasionally failed, in balancing the family-friendly credentials of its source material while creating a film that Wes fans and even sometime Wes skeptics (like myself) can get enormous pleasure out of too.

 

 

Review: BLACK PANTHER (2018)

When I went to see Black Panther, it had already had been announced as Marvel’s most successful superhero film and as of April, was still showing at various multiplexes despite being initially released in February. It was also to go down in history as the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia in 35 years.

Before it had even hit cinemas around the world it was marking its territory in our cultural history forever. Marvel, the comic book-film studio juggernaut that has currently 17 on-the-whole acclaimed film adaptations  in its ‘cinematic universe’ was considered to be at something of stalemate. Fans and cinema-goers alike were getting a tad battle weary from tireless Hulk smashes and clamours from Thor’s hammer. Though that didn’t stop us from flooding to the box office to witness the next installment.

The release of Thor: Ragnarok was a shot of much needed levity to the Marvel franchise however, bruised from an ambitious but overall disappointing Captain America: Civil War, and though it is naive to connect that the successes of Ragnarok had any influence on the universe follow-up, Black Panther, after post production on Ragnarok had barely begun filming, it did signal a left turn in Marvel’s cinematic journey.

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) tells the story of T’Challa (played by an effortlessly regal Chadwick Boseman), crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s death. His sovereignty is soon challenged by a new adversary, Killmonger, who plans to abandon the country’s isolationism and initiate global revenge. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan, is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic as a maligned Wakandan descendant who was left fatherless and abandoned in Oakland, California as a child – allowing for plenty of time to foster a loathing of Wakanda and yet fantasise assuming its throne and destroying the country’s idealistic policies. Occupying a secretive existence in the world has sheltered T’Challa and his subjects to entrenched racism across the globe. You might not agree with his methods but it’s practically impossible to not understand the reason behind Killmonger’s quest.

The temptation to keep the sanctity of Wakanda’s status as a supposed ‘third world country’ (though in reality is a society transformed by the discovery of vibranium, used to develop advanced technology) , weighs heavily on T’Challa’s shoulders, and though the film falls back on Marvel’s tried and tested formula of superhero showdowns in the final third of the film, the main conflict remains whether to make Wakanda’s true status known to the world. The debate of intervention and globalisation are political and ethical decisons that we and our representatives (hopefully) grapple with at the hit of every new headline…so what to do if a history of humanitarian intervention and occupation has never existed before? Does that mean you ought to intervene in global crisis and injustice because you have the powers to do so? Is it really our place? The dilemma to reveal Wakanda’s true powers is the age-old superhero crisis of whether to come out behind the mask, writ large.

And for once, this superhero romp doesn’t dispense with its strong female characters just as the action starts. Okoye, leader of the special forces played by a powerful Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o as spy Nakia and the adorable Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s mischievous sister and very own ‘Q’, Shuri, are a breath of fresh air. The Dora Milaje, the battalion of spear-wielding women led by Gurira are a breathtaking sight, while the female characters remain integral to the story and are empowered, both physically and intellectually. They know how to use their power and wield it accordingly, and rarely for blockbusters,  sex appeal is obvious but secondary to personality and skill. Neither Okoye or Nakia consider their roles and cause as anything another than the most important things in their lives and remain so, even in the film’s final act.

It would be remiss of me to not point out just how significant this film is, goodness knows there’s been plenty of think pieces about it, and rightly so. Black Panther has opened up the conversation proving that films with an African-descended casts and African (albeit fictional, though don’t tell Trump) histories are box office draws. It’s important to point out however, that these stories have always existed waiting to be told, African American lives on screen should matter, it’s just that the powers that be in Hollywood have only caught on to that fact. Even if it the mirage of dollar signs that tempted them, I’m grateful Black Panther was made. Meanwhile, Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele and the imitable Spike Lee are proving time and time again that box office and critical acclaim is in reach for black filmmakers. There’s still a long way to go to ensure that this becomes the norm, not the exception, but there is no better film than Black Panther to spearhead (pun not intended) this groundswell.