Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review: It Comes at Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough.

Synopsis is here:

It Comes at Night has been marketed as a typical horror film. I’m sure that there were a few people who saw posters and trailers and assumed that it would be the type of bland, stereotypical nonsense that leaks out into cinemas at the arse-end of January or the back end of the Netflix new release queue. Not so.

It Comes at Night found itself referenced in Steve Rose’s Guardian article which tries to make that argument that the film is part of a newly termed (by Rose himself) post-horror movement, in which films which don’t run the course of a so called conventional horror film, like say The Conjuring (2013), are slowly taking over at the multiplex. The problem with a term such as post-horror is that quite simply, it's the type of term used by people, who don’t seem to be particularly interested in the genre. At one-point Rose states as a result of successful titles such as Split (2017) and Get Out (2017) means, as a result, there’s now a market for horrors with low budget and mass appeal. Most people who enjoy horror films know that this has been the case for decades and not just now.

The same goes for the very idea of post-horror. In the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon details many of the so-called aspects of post horror that Rose depicts. While true that a modern glut of films has brought around a sense of “refinement” to the ideas Rose describes. What Trey Edward Shults brings across in his second feature are the same types of concerns and societal anxieties that inhabit horror films since the likes of George A Romero appeared on the scene. Things don’t jump out at you during Romero’s Martin (1978), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), but we certainly accept the existential dread that comes with them.

Much like Shults first film, Krisha (2016) It Comes at Night is a film in which the horror comes from regular people reaching deep inside them to do horrific things. It opens with a family being forced into the difficult decision to extinguish the life of an elderly member suffering from an unknown epidemic which has – from what we know – ravaged America as we know it.  Shults opens his film almost exactly like his debut feature: with an older face framed in extreme close-up. Despite looking at a stranger, Shults manages to portray familiarity, uncertainty and fear in a few short moments. He also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The atmosphere is one of intense grief and paranoia as we follow a family struggling to survive a contagious disease which has taken hold of the nation. Tempers flare when a second family interrupt their secluded sanctuary.

It Comes at Night feels quite plain when laid out on paper. In execution, it’s an exceptionally deft piece of work from a filmmaker who has quickly developed an authoritative vision on screen. Much like Get Out (2017) or Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Shults is an auteur that understands and utilises the idea that what can destroy us is simple mistrust. The horror that unravels within the film comes from the simple fact that with the right amount of pressure, decent people will do horrific things.
Shults mostly eschews overt violence and, like his previous feature focuses fully on mood. Save for one sequence, there are no ‘BOO’ moments, merely a steady feeling of unease that parades throughout. The camera set-ups are simple. Nothing complex. But the use of slow foreboding zooms, tight close-ups and powerful use of sound help bring around an inescapable feeling of dread. Tension builds as we quickly realise that the events that occur could be easily avoidable, yet the very real craving for self-destruction makes everything seem unavoidable. The terror stems from our wish to pick at the frayed edges of our humanity. To tongue the cut roof of the mouth. To pick at the scabs.

It Comes at Night picks an exceptionally on point cast to bring the terror home. You can feel that both Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott’s father figures are striving to make things work for their families. You can really feel that search for catharsis through Kelvin Harrison Jr’s display as Travis. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are well drafted as the film’s motherly characters and each actor manages to tap into the right amount of feel to bring round the fraught and delicate bonds needed for such a story. Bonds which have their fragility heightened as uncertainty creeps in.

The beauty of the film’s ugliness lies in how well Shults navigates and toys with those processed ideas of the American family. This theme has lingered in American horror films since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1960). It’s apparent that it is these generational and social tensions which trigger something within the filmmaker. It also highlights why the idea of “post-horror” garnered such a negative reaction. It seems to be quite clear that Shults is updating tried and tested ideas for a different generation. For this writer, It Comes at Night works exceedingly well. Understanding the pitfalls of what could be considered “lesser” horror, the film manages to destabilise and unnerve viewers without the simple need to throw guts at the screen or use flagrant jump scares to catch the attention. It Comes at Night’s fears comes from the simple fact that the darkest monsters are the ones who we instil our trust in. When we look back at so much horror through the ages, we realise that it has always been that way.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: The Beguiled

Year: 2017
Director: Sophia Coppola
Screenplay: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning.

Synopsis is here:

The more I think about The Beguiled, the more I fear it might not have worked for me. While watching the movie, I enjoyed its opulence. I was occupied in that feathery, dream-like bubble that Sophia Coppola creates with her film. The Beguiled is no exception to Coppola’s ability to craft succulent images. This is southern gothic by way of Vanity Fair. It’s nigh-high impossible not to drink in the lavishness.

However, it was with a second viewing of Don Siegel’s original cinematic adaptation of The Beguiled (1971) that I found myself feeling a little duped. Thinking back to Coppola’s film, I discovered that I had found it lacking. Much was said about Coppola’s decision (and weak explanation) to “whitewash” her civil war film, by omitting the original feature’s only black character Hattie. After watching Coppola’s film, I was first of the opinion that this could have been merely the force of progressive politics imposing itself on to yet another film because it didn’t adhere itself exactly to how a particular left leaning audience would want it to. So often I often feel that we can, and will, find anything to criticise (read complain about) as it may not fit directly into our agenda. But that second viewing of Sigel’s film said even more than expected. Coppola’s film pales in contrast to it, not just because of its refusal to talk about race in a war in which race was a key part of. The Beguiled ’17 sands down more than race, but also the seedier elements which make the 71 version stand out.

Coppola is a director who knows her bread and butter and does well when she sticks to it. Here the girls of the school, like so many of Coppola’s doe-eyed, wonderfully dressed females, embrace the ritualistic elements of being in such a private school in that era, the prayers, the sewing, the music and the repression. Set it in the 70’s and we’re only a few steps away from The Virgin Suicides (1999) with the way these girls gated away from the evils of the world. That is until the devilishly handsome Colin Farrell shows up.

Where the original and remake diverge is in more than just the omittance of slave girl Hallie.  Gone is the more troublesome elements of Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother which draws a cloud over so many of the women previously. Also removed is a late-night sequence involving southern state soldiers who imply their wish to explore their desires on the girls. Another element which gives more reason to view John with mistrust. The inner monologue of the female characters, illustrated via voice over, also disappears. Something which was clearly used in the original novel, where the male character does not hold a point of view. This motif only enhances and highlights the agency between the girls and their relationship to John. Who is played with a far more predatory manner by Clint Eastwood than here by Farrell, who is given far more sympathy.

Coppola’s decision to omit Hallie from this updated version of the movie is a strange one. In doing so, Coppola dismantles some of the balance and richness found in Siegel’s film and stops from ever exploring some interesting dynamics. Farrell showcases his Irishness in the film and one could only imagine the conflict that could come from a black slave and an Irish soldier fighting for the north. But also, the conflict between Hallie and Eastwood are among the more potent exchanges in the film. Why deny us this? Instead, Coppola goes down a more swooning, safer route of “white woman feminism” which, shouldn’t really be a surprise to a fan of her films such as myself, but only highlights how superficial some of the films discourse can feel. Coppola makes her version of the tale a film full of lavish costuming, pinpoint blocking and near slavish ritualism but it never wants to challenge its viewer.

This causes a conflict. The Beguiled once again shows that Coppola is an auteur of a truly singular vision, observing womanhood in a way that only she can. Her dream-like visions still provide intriguing entertainment to those who are interested. Her cast and their performances are formidable (although 1971’s list of players is more alluring) and the film never outstays its welcome.
However, The Beguiled (race elements aside) holds no controversy, and Coppola is no radical. She never really has been. What we see here is a wonderfully framed period piece, but it has none of the rough edges that the film before it holds. Coppola has fun toying with elements of the women’s repression (Kidman’s face while washing Farrell is a picture), but the playing down and removal of the aspects which made the original so remarkable softens the blow considerably making The Beguiled feel like an entertaining piece but also a missed opportunity. You get the feeling that Sophia Coppola went out and does what she does. It’s just a damn shame it feels all so safe.




Review: Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

Synopsis is here:

Now that filmmaking is so invested in the digital age, from creation to distribution methods, one thing I’ve found myself noticing a lot more is long tracking shots. A very good colleague and I found ourselves labelling the technique as the film equivalent of the guitar solo. We also certainly didn’t believe that all long shots are considered equal. While technically impressive, the tracking shot can easily lead to pretension. A flashy directional flourish which only asks the audience to look at the director as opposed to what’s in the frame. Since taking up photography and watching more older films (hence the lack of blogging on here), I’ve grown to appreciate a good cut even more.
This brings us to Edgar Wright, a director I’ve greatly admired since watching the sitcom Spaced (1999) on Channel Four all those moons ago. Wright is a particularly stylistic filmmaker, who utilises visual flourishes in a way that, like say, Spielberg, makes his films as instantly recognisable to audiences. The crash zooms are nearly always a dead giveaway. Another telltale trademark of Wright's is his love for the long tracking shot. Unlike many other directors, Edgar Wright apricates, and more importantly understands, a good tracking shot.

What’s this got to do with Baby Driver? A vibrant modern take on the heist movie? Well, it’s all to do with the film’s giddily delirious introduction to its main character; Baby (Ansel Elgort). After a breathtaking opening chase sequence, perhaps Wright’s most technically proficient of his career, Baby Driver decides to give us a breather, without giving us a breather. We are given a beautifully choreographed tracking shot that introduces us not only to the character of Baby but also how he sees the world. One full of music and movement. Wright has pulled this trick on us before in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) but never has he done so with such joy. Like with previous sequences of Wright’s, the moment is packed with so much visual information, that it will most likely take a third viewing to pick up on everything that it’s packing. However, such a moment also builds upon its character. While it looks cool, it’s not done just because it is cool. It’s a truly harmonious blend of sight and sound. Dare I utter the words pure cinema?  I will. But perhaps only in my point of view.

The opening moments of Baby Driver are so joyous, that the film, almost never truly recovers. Nothing afterwards really tops what occurs in the beginning. Wright’s film soon becomes a more typical affair, which reminds high on fun, despite its problematic narrative. It is in here in which the argument of Wright has a director of style over substance becomes more apparent, particularly when it comes to his portrayal of women.

Much like the hyperactive Scott Pilgrim (2010), the love interests within the films universe come across more like prized trophies than characters with agency. Where Baby Driver throbs with the same kind of kinetic vivacity which made Scott Pilgrim so enjoyable, by the final act, both films feel uninterested in the plights of their female leads, this is despite their solid performances. The females in Baby Driver, as with Scott Pilgrim, feel more like extensions of the men they love and fully formed characters. This doesn’t take away from Lily James’ delicately vulnerable display, but the films development of character, or rather lack of, stunts what the films love interest could have been.

The same goes for an awkwardly placed motivation of a character during the films third act. Said character, decides on a noble act from out of nowhere which feels false and unbelievable. Annoyingly, said moment slowed the momentum and had me start of question more of the film. It rather unfairly made me wonder just how important cornetto trilogy writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are to Wright’s creative process. Said character twist was so out of the blue, I can imagine a DVD extra of the three of them explaining the screenplay moment, a la Shaun of the Dead. With Pegg and Frost missing a second-time round, one wonders what they would do if they could have had a hand in crafting the screenplay.

Such negatives do not detract from the fact that Baby Driver is a whole heap of fun. Its action sequences are key to this, running at a blistering pace, yet maintaining a solid sense of space. Baby Drivers set pieces are also wonderfully varied. A mixed blend of car chases, foot chases and shootouts. No sequence feels repetitive. Nothing outstays its welcome and everything is crafted to the rhythm of whatever is playing in Baby’s ears. Musical organised chaos.

While the basic plot doesn’t much stray from the usual “one last job” narrative of so many heist movies, the real glue that connects the wild set pieces is the cast who are more than up to the task of keeping up with the film. Ansel Elgort does more than enough to show off his star quality. Much like Scott Pilgrim, this boy with the “hum in the drum” is socially awkward but particularly skilled. Baby Driver gives Elgort a film that allows him to let him run a little wild with his charm. While the whole white slightly stunted man child isn’t in vogue in certain circles, Elgort clearly has a good time with the material and it shows. The same goes for the likes of John Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. All solid comic performers when they want to be. It seems that all three were chomping at the bit to be let loose on a film like this. Each performer has a chance to shine and does so with the type of panache you expect from them. It’s a shame that the screenplay lets the likes of Lily James and Eiza Gonzalez, down. They do very well with what they’re given. Special credit should go to deaf actor CJ Jones who provides the film heart as Baby’s foster father.

Baby Driver is a juvenile delinquent of a film and I mean that in a somewhat good way. It shows that despite its faults, Wright’s departure from Ant-Man was probably a good thing. The fact that afterwards, he can brush off a decade's old script get it financed for less than $40 Million and make one of the more eye brow raising summer films of 2017 is quite heartening in more ways than one. It’s a film that reminded me of the same blend of chaos and crooning that made The Blues Brothers 1980’s such a delight. Times have changed, and Baby Driver isn’t as anarchic as Landis’ irreverent musical comedy. It’s clear however that its heart is in a similar place.