It Comes at Night (2017)

2018 #55
Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Comes at Night

Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

Distrust

In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

4 out of 5

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Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

Bright (2017)

2018 #1
David Ayer | 117 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15

Bright

The director of L.A.-set crime thrillers Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch returns with another L.A.-set crime thriller, only this time with orcs. Yes, orcs. Also fairies and elves and dragons and all that.

But you knew that because you surely can’t’ve missed hearing about Bright these past few weeks. It’s Netflix’s first attempt at making a big-budget summer-tentpole-style blockbuster and they’ve been pushing it hard, but it was savaged by critics, only to then have proven immensely popular with viewers (it’s Netflix’s most-watched original production ever) and had a sequel speedily commissioned.

It’s set in an alternate present day where magic and the aforementioned fantastical creatures all exist. In L.A., humans are your regular run-of-the-mill people, elves are the well-off upper class living in a segregated oasis, and orcs are the poor underclass — a couple of thousand years ago there was a Lord of the Rings-style war to vanquish the Dark Lord, in which orcs picked the wrong side and still pay the price. Nonetheless, the LAPD has recently inducted the first orc cop (Joel Edgerton). When he and his partner (Will Smith) happen across a magic wand, a rare and immensely powerful device, they find themselves hunted by an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) who intends to resurrect the Dark Lord.

Orc of Watch

Bright is, straightforwardly, a mash-up of crime thriller and fantasy blockbuster. Visually and tonally it could be a sequel to End of Watch, were it not for the fantastical creatures. With them in the mix, the plot, creatures, terminology, etc, feels broadly familiar from other fantasy adventures. The unique point, obviously, is in combining these two disparate genres into a homogenous whole. In this regard, Max Landis’ screenplay is a mixed bag: I like the basic concept, and a lot of the ideas within it are decent too, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

For example, the alternate present-day L.A. is imagined just by switching out one real-life race for a fantasy one. So black people become orcs in a simple one-for-one switch. These race analogies are thuddingly heavy-handed, to the point where you wish they hadn’t bothered because then at least they might’ve done it by accident and it would’ve been subtle. Exposition is equally as on the nose, with characters spelling out world history and terminology to each other purely for the viewer’s benefit. It’s a challenge to convey this kind of information to the audience in a fantasy movie, but that’s not an excuse for doing it badly.

OWA - Orcz Wit Attitudes

Ayer seems an apt choice for director — of course he is, because he made End of Watch and Bright really is very similar to that movie. He doesn’t seem to have a complete handle on the material, though. The pace feels all wrong — not terrible, just slower than it should be, like scenes need tightening up, maybe a few more deletions here and there. It feels like it’s been mis-paced in the same way as many a Netflix original series, which makes you wonder if this is a problem with someone who oversees stuff at Netflix rather than individual film/programme-makers. Conversely, it could be because most regular people just won’t notice it — these productions aren’t slow in the way an arthouse movie is slow, they’re just not moving through situations and dialogue at the rate they should; killing time by letting scenes roll on that bit longer than they have any purpose to, that kind of thing.

As the film goes on, it trades this early wheel-spinning for other problems: choppy editing; disjointed storytelling; ill-defined characters and motives. Noomi Rapace is severely underused as the villain — she has so little to do that the role could’ve been played by anyone. Edgar Ramirez isn’t quite so poorly served as an FBI-type elf also on the trail of the wand, but one wonders if someone was already thinking about sequels when shaping these supporting roles. At least Smith and Edgerton make for decent leads, even as they battle against the script’s character inconsistencies and dead-end subplots (for instance, a chunk of time spent on Smith’s home life at the start has barely any baring on later events).

Urban elf

Bright is hampered not by its potential-filled genre mash-up premise, but instead by the filmmakers chosen to execute that idea. They fitfully realise that potential, but it’s diluted by a rash of clichéd or plain undercooked filmmaking. The final result is a long way from perfect, but it’s also pretty far from being the disaster of epic proportions that critical and social media reaction seems suspiciously keen to paint it as (the Cannes-like “Netflix make TV not movies” sentiment is strong in some quarters). It’s a middle-of-the-road blockbuster movie, with some very solid plus points that are let down by some irritating negatives.

3 out of 5

Bright is available on Netflix now and forever.

P.S. Random pointless thing of the week: there are British and American variations of the Bright poster. Spot the difference.

Midnight Special (2016)

2016 #145
Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13

Midnight SpecialI’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.

Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…

The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the I want to believestraight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.

In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.

That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. Nuclear familyI thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.

Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)

3 out of 5

Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.

* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^

Warrior (2011)

2016 #71
Gavin O’Connor | 140 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Two estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), who’ve taken very different paths in life to escape their alcoholic and abusive father (Nick Nolte), wind up entering the mixed martial arts tournament to end all mixed martial arts tournaments, their eyes on the unprecedentedly massive cash prize — one to save his house and family, the other to help the widow of his Army chum. As they separately go up against an array of more experienced opponents, who could possibly end up in the final bout? Hm, I wonder…

It’s a constant surprise to me that Warrior is on the IMDb Top 250 — and in a very secure 146th place, too — for two reasons: firstly because I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone actually talk about it, except in passing as part of “the rise of Tom Hardy”-type passages; and secondly because, from the outside, it doesn’t look like a very Top 250-y kind of film. Maybe that’s silly, because there are several other boxing-related films on that hallowed list, but they seem to come from a different pedigree. I guess I’m trying to rationalise a feeling: from the little I’d seen or (not) heard, Warrior just doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would garner enduring acclaim from a wide enough audience to maintain such a position. Having chosen to watch it in part to assuage that confusion, I still find its placement just as baffling.

Trying to find some explanation, I turned to reviews and comments on film-focused social media sites. It quickly becomes apparent that the love for Warrior doesn’t just come from some silent majority of non-film-fan film viewers. Indeed, it’s amazing how many people of usually sound taste are suckered in by this movie — and how many of them know they’re being suckered in but let it happen anyway. The weirdest thing for me is that this is the kind of film I regularly award 4 stars even while loads of other people are giving it 3 and I think they’re being a bit harsh but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m almost loath to give it 4 because I don’t agree with the consensus. And it’s a particularly strange consensus: everyone seems to acknowledge it’s terribly clichéd, but then give it a pass on that. Why? Why don’t you show the same leniency to the tonnes of other movies you rip to shreds for their clichés?

As I implied in my opening paragraph, you can tell how the climactic tournament is going to pan out before the film even begins. In a movie rife with cliché, the shape of that contest — who beats who and when — is the most clichéd part… and yet it also forms the climax. Surely the ending being the most rote bit should leave audiences with a sour taste? Yet they seem to become totally enraptured by it. “I knew I was being shamelessly manipulated by an overfamiliar story, but I loved it! Don’t worry, next week I’ll go back to completely slagging off every other movie that even tries to slightly manipulate me and has even the tiniest vaguely familiar aspect to it.” Presumably these people are even giving a pass to the film’s laughable training montage — I guess no one involved in Warrior has seen Team America.

Still, you could argue the film isn’t about the tournament — it’s about a broken family healing. But if you’re looking for exceptional quality in the dramatic stakes or performances, you’re still left wanting. The family drama is rendered in frequently familiar beats, and when it’s not dealing in clichés it’s dealing in cheap sentiment. Hardy’s character is a war-hero marine — for the American male audience Warrior is clearly aimed at, that’s basically hanging a sign around his neck that says “awesome guy” and letting it suffice for characterisation and backstory. Hardy is a good actor, but he’s not called on to do much more than glower. Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte gives an affecting performance, though I’m not sure his character arc actually reaches any kind of ending. The rest of the cast are adequate: Joel Edgerton is decent as an upstanding family man; Jennifer Morrison has little to do as his wife; Frank Grillo is convincing as a trainer who bases his philosophy on classical music; Kevin Dunn gets some amusing moments as Edgerton’s school principal. Other people sometimes say words.

Warrior is decent enough for a cliché-driven sports movie, and it certainly has all the attendant ‘victorious’ moments that make such movies feel good without having to try very hard, and at least the fight choreography is decent (I’ve no idea how faithful it is to real MMA, but it seems reasonably plausible to me), and there’s one pretty good performance… but Top 250? I remain baffled.

4 out of 5

The Thing (2011)

2015 #104
Matthijs van Heijningen | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Canada / English, Norwegian & Danish | 15 / R

The Thing 2011At some point during the process of remaking John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi/horror The Thing, someone clearly realised they were on to a hiding for nothing. (Why more remake producers don’t realise this is a whole other issue.) Fortunately for those that still wanted to make some money by exploiting a cult classic, the original film includes an in-built idea for a follow-up, and some wise (well, wise-ish) soul realised that was the perfect way in. And so the 2011 remake of The Thing is not a remake at all, but rather a prequel, depicting the events that occurred at the Norwegian base, seen only as a corpse-strewn burnt-out shell in the ’82 film. You’d best hope the remake-makers have some good ideas, because we all know how this Thing ends…

So our scene is set in the winter of 1982, when the crew of the aforementioned base stumble across a spaceship buried in the Antarctic ice. Nearby, they find a frozen alien lifeform, and excavation expert Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is flown in to help retrieve it. Once back at base, however, the thing wakes up, escapes, and all hell breaks loose.

As discussed, The Thing 2011-variety is not a remake of The Thing 1982-variety because, primarily, it takes place before The Thing ’82, and also because of drastic changes like making the lead character female and having some of the cast speak Norwegian sometimes. Other than that, what unfolds is just a variation on a theme. While it isn’t a scene-for-scene type of remake, it’s near enough to the ’82 version — including sequences that directly emulate similar counterparts from the previous film — that, were it not for the whole “it’s a prequel” aspect, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a post-millennium-styled do-over; a “reimagining”, to use Tim Burton’s fun phrase.

Shining a torchOf course, it isn’t as good. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that, because they haven’t just remade the other film, every homage/rip-off they come up with is inferior. So the blood testing scene from the ’82 film is replaced by shining a torch in someone’s mouth to see if they have fillings. God help you if you’ve taken care of your dental hygiene. The climax is typically overblown — this isn’t a spoiler, I’m preparing you if you’ve not seen it: the survivors venture into the alien’s spacecraft to stop it taking off. Some people get a kick out of getting to see inside the ship, and I suppose you could say that at least the remake-makers are trying to offer something new. Unfortunately, new is exactly what it’s not. The Thing is a bizarre creature, growing and morphing and warping in disgusting ways — what strange kind of spaceship would it call home? A bog-standard metal-corridors kind of one, apparently. The lack of imagination is staggering.

But hey, at least the remake-makers committed themselves to replicating the ’82 film’s notorious practical effects — after all, that film is one of the pinnacles of effects filmmaking, the sacred text of the creature maker, and so its methods should be honoured. The Blu-ray special features talk about how they wanted to make full use of effects technology, combining practical and digital effects to get the best of both. The featurettes even show off the incredible animatronics that were built, the level of skill and detail, how well they performed on set… and completely ignore the fact that those animatronics were, infamously, all ‘painted’ over with CGI. To rub it in, as any film fan would expect (but as every movie producer seems utterly oblivious to), most of the animatronic models do look better than the CGI in the finished film.

Hot.The other element the making-of material is keen to underline is just how much effort was put in to make sure this ties back to its predecessor. Essentially, they looked at what was revealed about the Norwegian base in Carpenter’s film and used that to reverse engineer the events that had to occur in this film. However, the final result could’ve made some of these connections more explicit. For example, we don’t see when the guy who slit his throat performs that act. The moment is actually included among the disc’s deleted scenes, but why did they cut it?! The movie’s final scene, which directly links the two films, is intercut with the end credits — why?! It comes across as apologetic, like they’d rather it wasn’t there but feel it has to be. Either put the scene in the film proper, or put it as an after-credits easter egg for die hard fans; the halfway-house used in the final cut is just messy. If someone’s argument was, “casual viewers will find those linking scenes meaningless”, then watch your own movie! The helicopter being away for refuelling is referenced earlier in the film; Joel Edgerton’s character says they didn’t kill Lars but never says what they did do with him; and the last time we see Colin he’s alive (until a single shot of his frozen corpse, that is). To put it another way: they’ve done a bang-up job of making those things matter within the film itself, as well as in the context of linking up to the ’82 film, so why were they deleted or included only as an embarrassed afterthought?

But hey, odd choices abound. I mean, they only kept the same title because they couldn’t think of a subtitle that sounded good. Once again, it displays a lack of imagination that made a rod for their own back: many people thought this would be a straight-up remake, which turned them against it from the start; but if it had always been clear it was a prequel, designed to complement the original, maybe (some) viewers would’ve been kinder.

A rare practical effectOr maybe they wouldn’t, because The Thing 2011 is a lesser film than the original. It does still offer some suitably gross effects work, albeit lessened by it being obvious CGI rather than gruesomely physical constructions, but there are still some resultantly tense sequences. Heck, it’s the first film in I-don’t-know-how-long that actually made me jump, once. Some viewers complain that there’s no “who might be an alien?”-type tension because the characters aren’t well-drawn enough, but I had that problem with Carpenter’s film too.

Ironically, considering it’s the lesser of the two productions, I think this Thing might fare better if viewed in a double-bill immediately followed by its predecessor: all those thoroughly-considered links would pay off clearly, and you’d get the better film second, to end on a high note. Viewed by itself, at least The Thing 2011 isn’t that bad; a somewhat entertaining hour-and-a-half-or-so offering passable thrills.

3 out of 5