A Quiet Place (2018)

2018 #177
John Krasinski | 90 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / American Sign Language & English | 15 / PG-13

A Quiet Place

Not, in fact, the directorial debut of John Krasinski (aka Jim from the US remake of The Office, aka Mr Emily Blunt, aka Jack Ryan Mk.V later this month), but the first one that’s really gained any attention (to the tune of a sizeable $332.6 million off a budget of just $17 million), A Quiet Place is a post-apocalypse survival movie cum horror thriller. In the near future, the human race has been seemingly decimated by a race of aliens that hunt via sound. The film introduces us to a family — parents Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, kids Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward — who have managed to survive by living on an isolated farm and communicating via sign language, which they’re fortunate to know thanks to a deaf daughter. Naturally, their carefully-constructed safety is threatened when Something Goes Wrong and the creatures are attracted to the farm.

A Quiet Place’s USP is the “must stay quiet” aspect, which reportedly led to less chatter and popcorn-munching during cinema screenings. If only all moviegoing experiences were so blessed. Of course, a similar conceit was only recently deployed in Don’t Breathe, but here the threat level is upped by the almost supernatural enemy. The film’s PG-13 rating in the US means it occasionally pulls its punches on going all-out terrifying, but, as the UK 15 certificate may indicate, it’s still loaded with sequences of tension and suspense.

Fingers on lips!

Some have questioned the film’s adherence to its own rules, or the practicalities of the characters’ decisions, or the ‘luck’ of them having a deaf child and so being able to communicate via sign language. I don’t hold much truck with any of those criticisms. In the latter case, is it not logical that those who already know non-verbal communication have an advantage when it comes to silent survival? Maybe everyone who didn’t know sign language just got killed already. In the first, I think the film sticks closely enough to its conceit: small or disguised noises can go unnoticed, but anything big or obviously human is going to attract attention. Besides, there are only two or three of the creatures in the area — even with their super-hearing, surely some stuff is going to pass them by.

The issue with the characters’ decisions perhaps comes down to the fact that the film leaves a lot unsaid (ho-ho) when it comes to their relationships and thought processes. Big events and the emotional fallout have occurred offscreen, leaving the family in the position we follow them for most of the film. Those viewers demanding 100% foolproof logic from every aspect of the movie are clearly left out in the cold by the lack of exposition, but more creative minds can fill in the blanks. Arguably it leaves the film wanting as a character drama, even as it strives for the kind of subtly and understatedness that is usually lauded in such a genre.

The family that stays together fights sound-hunting aliens together

But, really, it’s a horror-thriller, designed to have you biting your nails and on the edge of your seat as you wonder where the monster will spring from next and whether the characters can survive the assault. As a genre piece of that kind, half the running time is the film’s climax, and it’s an effective one at that.

4 out of 5

A Quiet Place is released on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD in the UK this week.

Sicario (2015)

2016 #126
Denis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

SicarioFighting a losing war against Mexican drug cartels in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is keen to be enlisted to an interagency task force run by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Taken along for the ride but kept in the dark, Macer becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it seems — especially when it comes to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious task force member whose motives seem to be a big secret…

Much like his previous film, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve here takes a storyline that could fuel a run-of-the-mill genre picture (a war-on-drugs action-thriller) and instead turns it into something altogether classier. In this regard, I’m tempted to invoke the work of directors like Hitchcock and Fincher. Sicario isn’t necessarily a film I could picture either of them making (maybe Fincher), but the way it takes a “genre movie” and elevates it artistically has a certain similarity. That said, like those directors at their best, Villeneuve here works primarily with tension and suspense — words I’m about to thoroughly overuse in this review, but they encapsulate the feeling of watching Sicario so well.

Any viewers seeking simple action thrills will not be satisfied with the sequences offered here, but the way the scenes rely on suspense rather than bullet choreography makes for a supremely tense movie; one that can grip you like a vice and only occasionally let up, letting you catch your breath before it doubles down. As viewers, we’re positioned alongside Macer, kept out of the loop and so unsure who to trust and what exactly is going on for much of the movie. In that respect the plot demands a certain level of attention, because it isn’t always spelled out in nice bitesize chunks of exposition.

Arguably, the film loses its way a little when it does reach that point. Answers are forthcoming eventually, and the third act occasionally abandons the conflicted and complex world that came before it for more straightforward and satisfying turns of events. Fortunately, the film survives such wobbles thanks to the strengths it’s already established, and with an even deeper dive into moral greyness even while it seems to be offering a simplistically fulfilling climax.

Blunt is excellent as Macer, an outwardly tough-as-nails tactical specialist who is hiding a less assured core. If that sounds almost trite then it doesn’t play that way, afforded greater subtlety by Blunt and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Macer is a capable agent, but is she capable of operating in Graver’s world? The only other character and performance that really stands beside Blunt is Del Toro’s Alejandro. Around 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue was cut by Del Toro and Villeneuve before shooting began, and it works to everyone’s favour. He’s an unreadable presence in his silence, seeming both brooding and almost bored, like he’s fed up waiting for the task force’s duties to get him where he wants to be. His silence is threatening, even after his demonstrated skill-set is (to Macer, anyway) a kind of comfort. It’s only fitting that the final scene — the real climax of the movie, hitting hard on its emotional arcs even after the plot is done — is a two-hander between Blunt and Del Toro, loaded with as much tension and suspense as any other part of the movie.

Brolin may be a headline lead alongside those two, but his character is given little to work with beyond being a son-of-a-bitch who keeps Macer onside with (deceitful) charm. He’s fine but unremarkable in that role. Perhaps the sequel will give him more to work with. More memorable is Daniel Kaluuya as Macer’s FBI partner, Reggie Wayne. More time spent with Macer and Wayne working together wouldn’t go amiss. Jon ‘the Punisher’ Bernthal also pops up in a small part, imbuing what could’ve been a sketchy plot-driver with more believability.

The film’s other real stars are behind-the-scenes. First, the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first, as the film starts in the flatly-lit daytime world of the Southern US / Mexico region. Not that it’s poorly shot, just that very little of it struck me as particularly remarkable. As the film transitions to more nighttime settings, however, Deakins’ work comes vibrantly to life, starting with some majestic golden-hour shots of ominous cloud-darkened skies, which seem to visually overwhelm Macer as she begins to realise she’s out of her depth. Later, the task force descend into tunnels, and the film presents a mixture of ‘regular’ photography — so dark that only certain things can be glimpsed in the patches of light — and both thermal- and night-vision shots. I guess it’s a cliche to say the use of headcam-type footage puts the viewer there with the characters, but here it really does. Most extraordinary are the thermal shots: captured for real with a thermal vision camera, rather than a post-production special effect, they look like some heightened-reality video game, their eeriness only adding to the tension.

Tension is definitely the name of the game when it comes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which was also Oscar nominated. Dominated by elongated, heavy strings and pacey, heartbeat-emulating percussion, it makes the threats lurking in every corner feel tangible; makes the sense that everything is doomed and liable to go south at any moment palpable. It’s a major contributor to the film’s mood.

It may have familiar genre building-blocks at heart, but between Sheridan’s focus on character, Blunt and Del Toro’s nuanced performances, Deakins’ fantastic imagery, Jóhannsson’s intense music, and Villeneuve’s skilful orchestration of every aspect, Sicario emerges as a film that exceeds the artistic and emotional effect you’d typically expect from a “genre movie” without sacrificing the thrills that should be inherent.

5 out of 5

Sicario is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 1st on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Looper (2012)

2015 #40
Rian Johnson | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

LooperWriter-director Rian Johnson re-teams with the star of his first movie for this near-future sci-fi thriller, hailed by critics as one of the best genre movies of 2012, though it seems to have been a little more divisive among audiences.

In the year 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed by the mob as a very special kind of assassin. 30 years in the future, time travel will have been invented and outlawed, leading organised crime to use it for murders: the victim is sent back in time and immediately killed by a so-called ‘looper’, leaving the future police with no body to investigate. Loopers know that, one day, they’ll have to kill their future self, in order to cover their tracks by “closing the loop”. So — and you’d know where this was going even if it wasn’t part of the film’s very premise — it’s not long before we meet Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis), who escapes, intent on changing the future so he can live. It’s up to younger Joe to stop him before the angry mob kills them both.

There’s quite a bit more to Looper than that — major characters aren’t introduced until a significant way through the running time, for instance. I’m sure some screenwriting gurus would have something to say about such a structure, but it helps make for a less predictable, more organic, more entertaining movie. One that, on occasion, plays about with its chronological structure. How apt. It does make it difficult to discuss in full without spoiling anything, mind, but as I’m posting this review in order to recommend the film just before it makes its TV debut, I shall endeavour to keep things newcomer friendly.

Not visually influenced by Blade Runner, honestFirstly, the less you know the better. I pretty much knew the above before I went in, and that meant the film had surprises from the get-go. For instance, the near-future world most of the action takes place in has been well-realised by Johnson and his design and effects teams, and time travel is not the only SF concept or imagery employed here, which I wasn’t aware of. Their vision is Blade Runner-esque in its decrepitude — this is a future where the global financial crisis has rolled on, so flying motorbikes exist but most people drive present-day cars retrofitted with solar panels, for example — but it doesn’t slavishly rip off Blade Runner’s style and imagery, as have so many other movies (both good and poor). The future concepts are also used economically when it comes to storytelling. Nothing is introduced merely for the sake of showing “it’s the Future, innit” — everything pays off in some way, but without the heavy-handedness normally associated with everything existing solely for a narrative purpose.

Once the genre-rooted concepts are established, the film morphs almost into a character-driven thriller. It’s one still absolutely grounded in ideas of future technology and its possible implications, but it’s what these particular people do in that particular situation that matters. A good deal of the second half is spent on a remote farm, for instance, where the extent of sci-fi tech is a self-piloting drone for watering crops. Some people didn’t like that; I thought it was fine. So too the action sequences, which are effectively put together and serve the story, rather than making this An Action Movie.

Lookie-likieHeading up the cast, Gordon-Levitt does a good Bruce Willis impersonation — believable, but not a slavish impression. That was probably quite necessary, because I don’t imagine Willis has the thespian chops to emulate an older Gordon-Levitt. Notoriously, the younger actor does the whole thing under prosthetics designed to make it more plausible he’d age into Willis. They’re a bit weird: not badly done — far from it, in fact — but you’re always kind of aware they’re there. A highly able supporting cast flesh out the rest of the characters, though most memorable is young Pierce Gagnon as an imperilled child you wouldn’t necessarily mind getting killed. And I mean that in a nice way; about the film and his performance, if not the character.

Time travel fiction is notoriously hard to get right because of the limitless potential for paradoxes, inconsistencies, and so on. Some reckon Looper has more holes than a golf course; Johnson has asserted it was incredibly carefully constructed and all of the criticisms are answerable. I’ve not listened to either of his commentary tracks (one on the disc, another made available for download while the film was still in cinemas) so I can’t really back one side or the other. Does it feel like there are issues? Maybe. But time travel is impossible, and probably always will be, so we can’t know how it would function. A fiction has to establish its own rules for what is and isn’t possible; what does and doesn’t happen. Looper doesn’t explain the nitty-gritty of everything it portrays — there’s even a hand-wave when talking about Old Joe’s memories of Young Joe’s current actions — but I believe there is at least some thought to how it all hangs together, just maybe not in the way some viewers would approve of. Well, you go write your own time travel story, then.

It's about timeEven if there are some logic issues, it doesn’t fatally undermine the movie. Looper comes with the joys of a well-imagined future, a captivating storyline, engaging characters, and enough twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing at the outcome. The best genre movie of 2012? That was a year of stiff competition among SF/F pictures, but Looper may have the edge.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Looper is on BBC Two tonight at 9:05pm.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aka Live. Die. Repeat.

2014 #102
Doug Liman | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Edge of TomorrowOf late there seems to have been a glut of sci-fi films with highly generic, near-meaningless titles — Oblivion, Elysium, Source Code, even Gravity, and so on. The latest of these is Edge of Tomorrow, based on the novel All You Need is Kill (you can see why they wanted a change), which the distributor had so little confidence in that even during its theatrical ad campaign they tried to sell it as simply Edge, and for the home ent release have mounted a semi-successful campaign to rebrand it as Live. Die. Repeat. — ironically, the most memorable and appropriate title of the lot.

Tom Cruise’s second sci-fi action film about alien invasion and a form of repetition in as many years (after 2013’s Oblivion, which I watched earlier this year), this one sees him cast as a coward in a multi-national defence force set up to combat an alien menace that has conquered mainland Europe. Following a hard-won victory against the aliens at Verdun, the force are planning a D-Day-style mass attack, and Cruise gets co-opted into fighting on the frontline against his will. During the assault, something happens that causes the day to ‘reboot’, and Cruise finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Groundhog Day with shoot-the-aliens bits.

It’s easy to be cynical about Edge of Tomorrow — it’s a mega-budgeted Tom Cruise actioner that sounds like a semi-rip-off of several other movies and was perceived as a flop (it wasn’t, at all) that no one knew how to sell. In fact, it’s a very entertaining movie — Cowardly Cruisesuitably exciting, surprisingly funny, and actually quite clever. It’s also boldly standalone. OK, so it’s an adaptation, but the book is hardly a Hunger Games-style huge literary hit. Producing the film surely isn’t an attempt to turn a print success into a cinematic one, nor is it trying to launch a new franchise — indeed, it’d have to really jump through hoops to even attempt a sequel. No, this is that quite-rare thing now: an original, one-off, blockbuster.

That key ‘original’ element, the repetition (‘original’ in quotes because, yes, it’s from Groundhog Day), is used to good effect, playing variations on things we know but also keeping others secret so as to afford surprises later on. Then, just when you’re beginning to think, “oh God, here we go again”, it moves the story along — after all, just because a day’s repeating doesn’t mean you have to keep going to the same places during it. This leads to the filmmakers sort of playing a clever game with the viewers: just because we’re seeing something happen for the first time doesn’t mean the characters are. Neat.

Are there logic holes? Undoubtedly — it’s a time travel movie. How fundamental are they? Depending on your level of sensitivity, you’ll be bothered by somewhere between “hardly any” and “none” during the film itself. It’s made as blockbuster entertainment, and it works as such. Hello.Reflect too heavily and some bits may begin to crumble more but, for me, not too severely.

The weakest part, sadly, is the climax. It’s alright in itself, but (as Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes cover so eloquently), it doesn’t feel quite right. (Vague spoilers follow.) Abandoning your movie’s defining high concept in order to up the stakes for the finale is a cop-out. Instead, it needs a new twist on the concept that also ups the stakes. That’s harder to come up with, which is probably why they haven’t bothered, but what we do get reduces a clever and borderline-innovative movie to a rote race-against-time overwhelming-odds shoot-out.

As for the post-climax ending, which some have complained isn’t dark or gritty enough… Were those people watching the same movie as me? “Dark and gritty” has its place, and there’s certainly a few ‘nasty’ bits earlier in the film, but the overall level of action and humour is more mass-market. That’s not a criticism, just an observation — this is not actually a dark-and-gritty movie that demands a dark-and-gritty ending. The final scenes fit tonally with the rest of the film. I liked that.

Edge of... a fieldEdge of Tomorrow isn’t an unqualified success, but more than enough of it works to make for a well-above-average modern blockbuster. Excellent action sequences, plenty of amusing asides, and a couple of solid sci-fi concepts to chew on combine to render it quality entertainment. Bonus points for being a true original in a sea of remakes, sequels and spin-offs.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

2008 #54
Robin Swicord | 101 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Jane Austen Book ClubI like to think I have a fairly high tolerance for ‘chick flicks’ — over the years I’ve rather enjoyed films such as Love Actually or Bring It On, and not just because of the male-friendly porn-stand-in scenes or cheerleader costumes — but even I was a bit uncertain about this one at first. However, as it progressed, gradually revealing more about the characters, their lives, and how they cope with what the world throws at them, I found myself increasingly enjoying it. By the time we had to pause it twenty minutes from the end, I found myself itching to continue to find out what would happen.

Inevitably, it’s not flawless. At times it feels like a collection of subplots linked only by the monthly book group meetings, with whichever plot thread is the focus of a scene becoming the de facto main story… until the next scene begins, of course. A working knowledge of Austen’s novels is helpful too. I presumed the film (and book on which it is based) merely invoked Austen’s perennially popular name to boost sales, but there’s actually a fair bit of analysis of the books thrown in, which often reflects what’s happening to the characters. You can get by without an Austen familiarity, but I found the Pride & Prejudice segments made more sense than the others thanks to my (marginally) increased understanding of that particular text.

It would be very easy to pigeonhole The Jane Austen Book Club as a ‘film for women’… and, to be honest, that wouldn’t be at all unfair: it’s as squarely aimed at a female audience as Die Hard is aimed at blokes. It’s also ultimately disposable, apparently with nothing new or revelatory to say about womankind. In spite of all that, I enjoyed it more than I probably had any reason to — and not just because of the male-friendly lesbian character.

4 out of 5