Review: THE WIFE (2018)

A lesser known quote from Maryon Pearson goes: “Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman.” In The Wife (2018), Glenn Close is anything but surprised as the titular spouse of an American writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who wakes up to the news that his has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As the Nobel circus descends on the Castleman clan’s seemingly deferential Connecticut set of admirers and family and whisks them off to Stockholm, Close’s Joan is a myriad of emotions, all serenely displayed on her icon-making expressive face. At times she is demur and contemplative, and at others, cracking with bridled trauma and resentment. Jonathan Pryce plays the typical Great American Writer type and charming elder statesmen of literature, a sort of Philip Roth meets Alan Alda, still trying to seduce the impressed ingenue but now also worrying about the amount of butter in his diet.
He is erring on the side of simpering in his instance that is his wife the support that allowed his career to flourish, and its just off-kilter enough to want to peel back the layers to discover more about this marriage.

And peel it back it does, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, a writer ripe for adaptation and directed by Björn Runge, the action goes back to 1950s to see the genesis of their relationship, initially as college professor and pupil. Close’s daughter Annie Maud Stark impresses as the younger Joan, determined in her pursuit of a writing career despite abrupt advice to give up her dream in a male-dominated era: “Don’t ever think you’ll make them listen” Elizabeth McGovern’s resigned author tells her – a disturbingly relevant situation that could still play out today.

At times Joe’s ego infuses the stifling family unit, irritating their overshadowed and under-worked son, David (Max Irons), and causing Joan to constantly be in the role of subjugation. The direction is unshowy, the camera at all times drawn to Close, even as the rest of the cast steps up to her mark, especially in the two-handed scenes. Christian Slater appears to put his trademark Jack Nicholson smarm to work as a ruthless writer desperate to write Joseph Castleman’s biography, and letting neither fact nor fiction get in the way.

As can be expected, there is more going on under the surface than I can give away, but as events unfold and Joe gets closer and closer to receiving the Nobel Medal, now the film’s very own MacGuffin, the film remains focused on woman’s silent role in male achievements. Close says at crucial juncture “I am a kingmaker”, the real meaning of this statement still reverberating. In a climate where women seem unable make their voices heard, it’s a telling moment that will resonate.

 

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Review: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

Stifled characters imprisoned in a crumbing country estate battle demons both seemingly imaginary and mental in director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

The penultimate novel in Waters’ oeuvre and a move away from the hidden queer stories in period Britain, The Little Stranger is a more radical take on The Turn of the Screw-esque haunted house (see also: haunted family, or nothing at all?) stories popularised in throughout early to mid-20th century. A class-driven family drama set in a restrictive post-war Midlands during political and social upheaval, literary fans were riveted by the evocative ambiguity of the storytelling, if not delighted with the move away from what has now become Waters’ trademark of ‘lesbian historic romances’.

Dysfunctional aristocratic family, the Ayres: Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter encounter Dr. Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring provincial doctor haunted by his repulsion of his own class position and childhood memories of Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire estate, in its heyday. His ‘in’ with the Ayres family is his faltering and nervous exchanges with Caroline Ayres, played by an expertly cast Ruth Wilson, who is helpless in her Sisyphean task to repair the exposing cracks of the family’s reduced circumstances. Same goes for Will Poulter,  as Caroline’s veteran brother Roderick, physically and emotionally ravaged by service in the Second World War while the serene Charlotte Rampling is the coldy officious Mrs Ayres, a woman preoccupied in longstanding grief. The house decaying around them serves as a living tool of torment for each of the major players, from the admiring outsider to the intelligent but “unfortunate” Caroline.

Sure to frustrate the non-book readers who will not have been party to Waters’ trademark vivid scene-setting and characterisation, Abrahamson attempts to make up for this with sumptuous production design and cinematography choices. Certain moments are so crisp in beaming sunlight while others are murky and gloomy as the characters creak around the dilapidated family property that is as much oppressive as it is impressive.

I personally loved The Little Stranger’s more politicised backdrop, one oft-forgotten in favour of more patriotic mid-century stories that are ripe for historic writers. The advent of the NHS and a housing estate on the edge of the Hundreds estate is just as horrifying to the characters as the supposed presence of a poltergeist, expressing a societal anxiety of monetary upheaval and the destruction of the upper classes as they knew it.

Much like the original text, Abrahamson’s cinematic retelling of The Little Stranger (2018) is a claustrophobic and at times, grueling chamber piece, a classic psychological interplay that the director  showed considerable talent in handling while adapting Emma Donoghue’s Room for the screen. Marketing the film as an horror-inflected ghost story is bound to confuse those expecting some “quiet-quiet-bang” moments that have suffused the genre lately, but The Little Stranger does attempt to truly unsettle in its latter half, even if it takes a while to get there.

“It’s a curious, wanting thing”: Sarah Waters on screen (so far)

Tipping the Velvet

If you’ve ever seen Tipping the Velvet (2002) or read the novel, there’s a good chance it’s seared in your memory (it certainly was on mine, discovered as a secretive sixth form read). Outrageous, camp, brave and filled with vaudeville charm, the scope and scale of the story had the hallmarks of a Victorian romp. It emerged so fully formed into book lovers’ and queer lives that it was almost impossible to imagine that it was someone’s debut novel. It demanded attention, and attention it got.

Starring Keeley Hawes, the doyenne of Spooks at the time (and some really cool music videos for 90s faves Suede and James) and Rachael Stirling, shocked Daily Mail readers and delighted many. I’m still in a bit of disbelief that the BBC took a chance on this story, and for not compromising on some of the more eyebrow-raising aspects. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, no stranger to adapting period stories to the screen, can most certainly relied upon to emphasize the more sensational aspects of a story. The section that includes the dastardly Diana Letherby (Anna Chancellor) will never not be thrilling.

Watch out for a small role for future Sarah Waters’ lead, Sally Hawkins too!

Fingersmith

With Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, praise was rightly showered on the author for this ambitious tale of betrayal, love and greed, once again set in Victorian England.

The bravery to upend the narrative of a significant chunk of the novel will remain a literary ‘water-cooler’ moment for many, and the TV adaptation in 2005 had the unenviable task of recreating that shock factor on screen. Even Hitchcock might have struggled with such a twist! Leads Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy have incredible chemistry and are individually able to convincingly convey facades of naivety and cunning at various points of the story, vital for making the highly charged plot seem remotely plausible.

That challenge neither daunted lauded Korean director Park Chan-wook, taking the source material as a major inspiration for his latest film The Handmaiden (2016), which keeps all of the clever tonal and plot shifts intact, despite relocating the setting to Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea.

Affinity

Waters’ second literary outing is perhaps less-remembered for its televisual counterpart, but is worth a watch for completists all the same.  Affinity is a hearty nod to Wilkie Collins that won Waters the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1999, and the TV adaptation aired on ITV at Christmas nine years later. Once again with an adapted screenplay by Andrew Davies, Affinity (2008) a thriller set during a time when Victorian spiritualism was both feared as a dangerous view into other worlds as well as merely a fun palour game jaunt.

Though atmospheric and moody and lavished with a £2 million budget (quite a lot in the telly days before the likes of Game of Thrones),  Affinity doesn’t give viewers the time to really get to know the two characters – Anna Madeley (Margaret) and Zoe Tapper (Selina) – so much so that when the famous Waters’ twists take their turns, they don’t really feel like the discombobulating rug pull they did in the novel.

The Night Watch

The Night Watch (2006), which on the whole I believe was poorly served by the constraints of a feature length format and running time, was impeccably cast once again, starring some of the most high profile British actors working today,  including Jodie Whittaker and Claire Foy. Anna Maxwell Martin, who can never be accused of choosing ‘safe’ roles, is a swaggering ghostly figure haunting the streets of postwar London.

Sarah Waters’ once again experiments with the form, telling a story at the end and working its way back, and in the visual form it’s a striking and unnerving device to see unfold. The period is impeccably recreated, a struggle as the adaptation had the difficulty of depicting London before and after the Blitz, but on the whole succeeds in demonstrating how the ravages of war obliterated a city and relationships within it.

 

Review: THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

Some films make you angry, some films make you cry, and some films make you squirm, and some of the best make you feel them all. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those films.

It’s a hard sell to a mainstream audience I suppose – the story of a young LGBT+ person’s experience of gay conversion therapy – but it’s a vital watch for anyone in doubt that these issues are no longer prevalent and affect lives daily. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, also out in cinema, both are period stories that starkly reflect the fractured and disturbing prejudices and methods of discrimination that still pervade throughout in the US today. It’s easy to factor in that this film was made during the 2016 presidential election, a putrid time that uncovered a swath of uncertainty and fear about how minorities, including the LGBT+ community, would be treated in Trump’s American nightmare.

The director of TMOCP, Desiree Akhavan first came to my attention with her writing/directing debut, Appropriate Behaviour (which may still be on Netflix if you have a quick search), a funny and seemingly personal tale of an Iranian-American bisexual person navigating the single life and familial relations in New York. The non-tropey bisexual on film is such a rare find, so Appropriate Behaviour was something of a revelation to me. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to take on this new story of another LGBT+ experience.

The 1993-set TMOCP is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, and the film takes the core plot of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who after being caught having sex with her best friend on prom night, is shipped off to a Christian camp called God’s Promise to be cured of her “same-sex attraction.”

The camp is an eerie place of fake smiles and hushed tones, where even Cameron’s cassette tape of The Breeders is even too risqué for consumption. We watch in disbelief as Cameron’s and the other camp members’ “sins” are explained away as symptoms of prior traumas. Being over indulged with sports by a parent is weaponised as tool for shame. Thankfully, the film creates moments that allow for humour, piercing what could be unbearable into a more manageable, if still shocking, world to witness. There’s a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Up’, as much an anthem for confused discontentment now as it was in 1993, that raises genuine smiles. And in case you wondered, ‘Blessercise’ is a real thing.

Moretz is excellent, her eyes are incredibly expressive as they scan the rest of her therapy group as she tries, or perhaps hopes to not, see herself in them. At times we’re unsure if the ‘therapy’ is finally working on Cameron, just as we are party to the devastating affects of what is essentially, sanctioned torture. My joy at seeing Jennifer Ehle (please cast her in everything please) was short-lived due only to her stand-out depiction of Dr. Marsh, a softly spoken Nurse Ratched, rigid in her belief of being on the right side of morality.  Co-stars Sasha Lane, winningly called Jane Fonda,  and Forrest Goodluck are Cameron’s cool-for-school kindred spirits as they come to terms with just how they got to God’s Promise in the first place and if indeed, they will ever get out as the same people. I particularly enjoyed Cameron’s assigned roommate, Erin, who easily could have been used simply as a mode of diffusing the tension, but like everyone in this film, gets a chance to show many facets of themselves.

Though the ‘doctors’ of God’s Promise attempt to reduce everyone down to their own  unique behavioral ‘iceberg’ diagrams, the characters constantly, with varying degrees of success, break free from their icy surroundings and assigned gender/sexual  straitjackets. I was reminded also of Todd Hayne’s Safe, another film that dealt with clinical psychologies and enforced communal life in the 1990s.

The final wordless scenes in the film are as optimistic as we can hope to expect in a tale that so rooted in realism, and though we cannot know what the future holds for these characters, the morning sun has never felt more liberating.

Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)

I broke the code to tell my cinema companion that the colon was in the wrong place on the BBFC titlecard, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this action ‘six-quel’ (which no one is calling it), Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

My relationship with the M:I series has been a rocky one. The first film was first viewed on VHS, thanks to a friend’s enviable video collection, while the second film lasted only in my memory thanks to it’s nu-metal soundtrack and for first making me aware of Thandie Newton. The Gillette advert opener with Tom Cruise scaling a cliff was not enough to save the rest of it. Fast-forward to the third installment, I eventually caught it on TV after an alarming number of people had claimed “it’s actually good, I’m promise!”

My personal favourite was actually Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, probably thanks to going into the film with zero expectations, other than vaguely hoping to see Tom Cruise once again scaling a building, a plane or some other death-defying stunt. The story was spy-lit lite but easy to follow, the villain (Sean Harris) was genuinely creepy at times, and most surprisingly of all, we had an interesting female character to encounter – Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson. I could watch the scene in the Vienna opera house over and over again.

I was pleased then that this latest film, Fallout, continued the winning formula of the fifth, with Christopher McQuarrie remaining as writer and director (for the first time in the series) and hurrah, Ilsa Faust returning!

I’d recommend seeing Rogue Nation before tackling Fallout, but Fallout most definitely covers new ground, creating a whole new narrative despite picking up on tensions and emotional ties from previous outings.

The IMF spring into action again when nuclear weapons are stolen by a shady syndicate (of course) called the Apostles, hell-bent on chaos throughout the world in order to create a new world order. Ethan (Tom Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with reclaiming the bombs, taking them across Europe in quick lightning speed, and encountering a CIA operative (Henry Cavill) and a black market arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) along the way.

Everyone in the cast gets their share of scenery to chomp and the action sequences were relentless but ingenious. Wringing my sweating hands as I watched Cruise race to the Tate Modern or motorbike through famous Parisian traffic, I gave myself over to the mindless thrill of seeing accomplished action scenes click effortlessly into place as if operated by clockwork. So many action/thriller films rely on fast cuts and shaky camera work to obscure the action and disorientate viewers, but the fight scenes, particularly the one in the silent club bathroom, was like a ballet of sinew and white-tiled fury.

Six films in and the series is now attempting to reflect on the destruction the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), namely Ethan Hunt, has created in the name of keeping the world and the people closest to them, save. When so many of the installments in the series have been individual ventures – thanks to idiosyncratic directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo picking up the gauntlet – the era of ‘cinematic universes’ has forced the producers to attempt to weave these wildly varying films together to create a narrative arc for Ethan Hunt. I appreciate the effort… just maybe for the next one they could resurrect Kristin Scott Thomas and complete the circle?!

M:I works best when it acts as an heist movie in the spy genre. Seeing a dastardly plan be thwarted or Ethan Hunt attempt another daring escape has always been where M:I excelled, even if the characterisation and plot was lacking. Ethan Hunt, in my mind, is just a cipher for a more palatable Tom Cruise. Less jumping on sofas more running across the roofs of London please.

 

Review: MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! a tissue, because Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is making me cry just thinking about it.

10 years ago, an awkward teenager not yet the age of a Dancing Queen, saw Mamma Mia! three times at the cinema, made a Dynamos t-shirt and ticked off another film on her epic list to watch every movie Meryl Streep ever made. A decade on and understandably nervous about the prospect of a sequel, I’ve been setting my fears to one side (“WHERE IS MARY LOUISE STREEP?” “HOW IS ‘FERNANDO’ GOING TO FIT INTO THE NARRATIVE?” “WILL HARRY HAVE A HUSBAND?”), ready to wear the platforms once again and enjoy a thin story held together by some of the greatest songs ever written.

We return to the island of Kalokairi to see Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) renovating her mother’s (MERYL!) hotel in time for a grand reopening. Old friends of her mother’s Tanya (The Great Christine Baranski) and Rosie (DAME Julie Walters) come ashore, once again in fine form to help her realise her mother’s Grecian dream  under the sun. In between scenes of Sophie’s estrangement from her partner Skye (Dominic Cooper) and touchingly heartfelt moments with her step-dad, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the film flashes back to 1979, to see where Donna (Lily James) first got the idea to relocate to Greece and how she found herself enthralled by the three men who formed the dilemma of the first film – Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård)  and of course, Sam.

Ol Parker’s (Imagine Me and You) direction is spirited and fun manages to recreate the joy of the first film with added skill and panache. An early scene with Pierce had me welling up almost immediately, and it was then that a tidal wave of sentimentality rolled through to sweep me away. ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’ is briefly reworked in such a way that the lyrics take on a whole new meaning, proving the genius of a songbook that still enraptures the world over.

Speaking of the songs, we get a whole new collection of ABBA reworkings to enjoy, including what could have been an underwhelming interpretation of ‘Waterloo’, turns out to be one of the funniest set pieces in the film, while my disappointment at ‘The Name of the Game’ making an appearance on the first film’s soundtrack album but not in the final cut, was fixed with a dazzling rendition by Lily James. Fan favourite ‘My Love, My Life’ packs an emotional punch (well, more like a wallop across the head with the crying stick) and Cher doing a Cher version of ‘Fernando’ is surreal and absolutely fabulous.

But Lily James really is the stand out in this film. Having to convincingly bewitch all three potential fathers and embody the balls that would see a newly pregnant young woman stay in an abandoned farmhouse and transform it into a business…and after all the strange coincidences, unlikely situations and shoehorned ABBA songs, we just go with it. A special mention goes to Jessica Keenan Wynn who manages to exude the ‘big dick energy’ of Baranski’s Tanya, stealing nearly all over her scenes and has to be the best piece of casting in this sequel-prequel.

At the heart of this story has always been a loving, dysfunctional and unusual mother-daughter relationship and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes a long way to underline again that universal longing to understand where we come from and, most importantly, where we are going.  Seriously, MM!HWGA, just HOW can I resist you?

 

Review: HEREDITARY (2018)

When the posters proclaimed that Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was as terrifying as The Exorcist, my first thought was: “Is The Exorcist actually as scary as we claim it to be?”

Side note: A school friend of mine gave me a copy of the extended director’s cut to keep and I was too afraid to watch it for years. Mark Kermode, I can assure you, I have watched it since!

This provocative statement works only as a way to make us remember our own ‘horror’ surrounding The Exorcist, as a ‘do we dare?’ sleepover movie option, or as a way to boast to friends in the school playground that we’d seen the infamous spiderwalk with our very own eyes. The hysteria that existed around the film in someways was more influential than the film itself. If the execs could harness even at little of that hype for Hereditary, they’d be onto a box office winner. No wonder they put it on the poster.

Where the two films can be compared is in the overwhelming feeling of dread that pervades throughout both pictures. And while I never particular found The Exorcist to be ‘terrifying’ as such, just creepy and incredibly atmospheric, Hereditary did seriously spook me at several key moments.

Horror and the cinematic themes of motherhood go hand-in-hand, just look to the modern Australian classic The Babadook or return to 1960s to see how Rosemary’s Baby tells very different tales of terrorised young mothers. In this way, both The Exorcist and Hereditary are insights to parents increasingly distanced from their children, with seemingly supernatural intervention setting a course for the destruction of the family unit.

While Regan and her mother Chris (played with steel by Ellen Burstyn) appear to be close to begin with in The Exorcist, despite Chris daring to have a successful acting career alongside motherhood in the 1970s, the Graham family’s disharmony in Hereditary can be felt almost immediately from the first scene. Tension flares merely from forgetting to take shoes off at the door or from asking to borrow the car. When the terror kicks into overdrive, we are truly left to wonder that if this family do make it out the other side alive and sane, will they even make it out together?

Toni Collette is Annie Graham, once again putting in a bruising performance as a neurotic, anxious artist, understandably concerned about the influence her distant (and recently deceased) mother has had on her quiet daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Collette recently admitted that she had initially wanted to work on lighter project that required less crying for a change, but that she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in this film. And I am grateful she did. Whether it is a blistering rant at the dinner table that says so much about the way that grief can exacerbate unreleased anger, or her character’s faltering attempts to make herself understood to her family, Collette is stellar as an artist increasingly unable to occupy her stifling reality or find solace the artificial worlds she creates in her artwork.

Son Peter (Alex Wolff) appears to be a typical teenager, at odds with his parents, getting stoned at any opportunity and despairing at having to take his younger sister along to a party. When something horrible occurs that turns the family’s inner turmoil inside out, the Graham family is exposed to horrors that exploits their precarious power-keg existence to the limit.

For a debut film, Aster’s direction is exemplary and confident, while cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera work is manipulative and hypnotic. Jump scares, the go-to weapon of choice for horror films of late, are dispensed with, instead the slow creep of the camera far more terrifying, and a clever use of the 90-degree camera-tilt is the choice of a director unafraid to delve into the box of tricks to make his mark on the horror genre. The tone is uncanny, nervous audience laughter is borne of strange silences, stilted conversations and bizarre imagery, while the score is minimal but affecting. I can’t wait to see what Aster does next, and would love to see him continue his experiments in the horror genre.

Upon reaching the conclusion of the film, you either go with it or you don’t. I personally find horror films more unnerving when things are left relatively unexplained, as a little moments exposition in the certain moments feel a tad unnecessary. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to scream by the end of Hereditary, and I have a shuddering, gnawing feeling that’s exactly the point.

Review: OCEAN’S 8 (2018)

To say I was anticipating this film would be an understatement. As a longtime fan of the first Ocean’s 11, well, Steven Soderbergh’s own reboot of the classic ensemble heist movie anyway, but less so of the subsequent sequels, an all-female spin-off was thigh-rubbingly exciting. And without the vitriol facing the all-female Ghostbusters film released the year Ocean’s 8 began principal photography, we were left to eagerly await the movie in peace. And quietly (or not so quietly, in my case) pray for the gay.

I’ve been always been happy to wallow in the subtext for my queer fix, whatever Ocean’s 8 would gift me, that’s just part and parcel of my film watching experience, and I was certainly happy to just enjoy an all-female cast in a big budget movie. And what a cast. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett is a combo I never knew I wanted, and as ringleader Debbie Ocean (George Clooney’s Danny’s sister and fellow swindler) and the effortlessly cool Lou, there was plenty to ‘squee’ over. Honestly, whoever decided to put Blanchett in all those suits deserves the Oscar for Best Costume Design. The collective sighs and swooning as set pictures were released during filming remain justified upon seeing the final film.

Making up the eight are Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna, Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina. I did get the impression that there was a lot that was probably left on the cutting room floor with this script, as each of the eight are given paper thin backgrounds and motivations, but once the heist gets underway, it’s all about the mechanics of the play at hand. The goal? To steal a diamond Cartier necklace from under the noses of security and celebrities at the New York Met Gala.

The motivation of Debbie, much like her brother’s in Ocean’s 11, and under the guise of it being “what’s she’s good at”, is in part to get revenge. While Danny sets his goal on reuniting with his ex-wife, it works less well in this instance. The greedy former lover is a distraction from the main narrative, and when Lou confronts Debbie about her need to balance the scales with the man who effectively put her in prison, you are never really convinced of Lou’s threat to walk nor of the plan being in jeopardy. It’s needless extra impetus in a film that is most successful when we get to see female con artists unable to resist the pull of doing what they do best, regardless of the possible gains at the end of it all.

Though an ensemble cast, Bullock and Blanchett do carry most of the film, as Clooney and Brad Pitt did in their first scheme together. Bonham Carter does great with what she’s given – another ‘kooky’ character, and Hathaway as the ludicrously annoying Daphne Kluger remains on the right side of believable. Rhianna, possibly the most surprising piece of casting, is great too, effortlessly snarking and hacking her way through tasks. Awkwafina and Kaling are instantly likeable, but again, many of the scenes that aren’t directly related to getting the heist on the road appear to be prematurely cut short.

And well, the gay isn’t overt, but Bullock and Blanchett do share enough glances and chemistry to make my heart flutter all the same. And not since Archie Panjabi and Gillian Anderson in TV’s The Fall did a motorbike scene scream: ‘GAAAAAAAAAAAAAY’…

Overall, Ocean’s 8 offers me everything I love about the franchise, but contains few surprises, despite a sprinkling of callbacks to the earlier films and a couple of heist-y (not a word) twists. The whole eight-sided package is watchable, popcorn, Saturday night entertainment that I can definitely see myself picking off the DVD shelf when I need a fun, girl-tastic, kick-ass caper to indulge in.

Ocean’s 9 anyone?

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.

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.