The Silence (2019)

2019 #58
John R. Leonetti | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

The Silence

A 15- / PG-13-rated horror movie in which the world is under attack from creatures who hunt and kill via sound, and we follow a family who attempts to survive by hiding in a remote farmhouse, aided by the fact they’ve all learnt sign language to communicate with their deaf teenage daughter.

If you’re thinking “wait a minute, that’s a description of A Quiet Place,” you’re right, it is. It’s also a wholly accurate summary of this new direct-to-Netflix film.* Yes, really, they are that similar. At first glance it seems utterly ludicrous that Netflix would release such a blatant rip-off, especially just one year after the previous film; but, as ever, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye: The Silence is based on a novel published in 2015, and filming began back in September 2017. It seems it got unlucky, and is now doomed to be dismissed as no more than a shameless rip-off. But while it’s not The Silence’s fault that A Quiet Place beat it to the punch, it is the film’s own fault that it’s not very good.

The real problem here seems to be the screenplay. John R. Leonetti’s direction is fine, if unremarkable, and there are decent performances, particularly from leads Kiernan Shipka and Stanley Tucci, but they’re all saddled with a poorly rendered narrative. Early on, backstory is dumped via some random teenage-diary-level voiceover narration, making sure to shoehorn in some information that we then never actually need to know. One part of that asserts something along the lines of “everyone has a story of where they were when it happened; this is our story,” and then just minutes later we cut away to an event happening that’s completely unconnected to the main story. To make matters worse, it only does that once. It’s like they could only come up with one other idea for what might be going on during this disaster.

Just going for a nice family walk

The way The Silence handles its deaf character is another case in point, especially when contrasted with A Quiet Place. The latter embraced its deaf character and the family’s sign language communication (far more of the dialogue was signed than spoken), whereas The Silence sees to be doing its best to avoid or cover for that fact: she only went deaf when she was 13, so she still speaks, and she can lip-read so well people that other people don’t always bother signing to her either. There’s a bunch of little moments that undermine it as well. For example, at one point she has a video call conversation with her boyfriend, when for reasons of both situation (she’s sat in the back of the car with her family) and character (she’s deaf) it would make more sense for them to be texting. But later, the film flips all this on its head: once they full accept they need to stay as quiet as possible, they start mouthing things and signing all over the place, but the film doesn’t bother to subtitle it… although, ironically, if you turn on the hard-of-hearing subtitle track, it is subtitled. What a mess.

Even coming in the wake of A Quiet Place, The Silence had a chance to mark itself out by telling a slightly different story: here the event is just beginning, so we’re witnessing the stuff the other film skipped over. Except A Quiet Place skipped it for good reason: we’ve seen this “the apocalypse begins” rigmarole in many films before. The Silence doesn’t have any significantly new perspectives on it. Eventually it introduces a cult of religious nutters to threaten the family, but it does so with less than half-an-hour of the film left, consequently racing through to a conclusion at breakneck speed. It’s weirdly rushed after the almost methodical hour that preceded it.

It’s not an unmitigated disaster — there are moments that work, and Shipka and Tucci are both very watchable — but the overall concoction is poor, with shortcomings that are only emphasised by how well it was done in A Quiet Place.

2 out of 5

The Silence is available on Netflix now.

* Unless you’re in Germany, where it’s instead getting a theatrical release next month. ^

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The Shape of Water (2017)

2018 #256
Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

The Shape of Water

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
13 nominations — 4 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

Dreaming

Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

Toxic masculinity

So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

Something fishy goin' on

But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

5 out of 5

The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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.

The Silent Child (2017)

2018 #57a
Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

The Silent Child

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

Libby and Joanne

As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

4 out of 5

The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.

The East (2013)

2016 #30
Zal Batmanglij | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

In this atypical espionage thriller, Brit Marling is a private security employee sent to infiltrate an underground activist group who are exposing the illegal activities of mega-corporations. Faced with the group’s honourable intentions vs. her employers’ indifference, will she go native?

Moral messages about capitalist evils sneak in none-too-subtly under the aegis of a spy drama, meaning your political leanings may affect how you feel about the film: dedicated right-wingers will grumble; lefties will nod in sage agreement. That aside, it’s a down-to-earth thriller, surely closer to what real-life secret agents do than any Bond or Bourne ever has been.

4 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

2014 #121
Matt Reeves | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes surprised a lot of people by being an intelligent, understated blockbuster — that’s not something Hollywood makes any more, and certainly not when they’re rebooting a recognisable IP. It was born of some writers having a good idea, which just so happened to work when told within the Apes universe. The danger with a sequel, of course, is that it’s designed from the off to be a big tentpole franchise movie. Fear not, dear reader, because Dawn has taken its predecessor’s values to heart, offering another slice of character-driven science-fiction drama with lashings of big-budget action as a side dish.

The film begins ten years on from the end of Rise, with the apes having established a life in the forests near San Francisco — they hunt deer in packs with spears; they have a kind of ‘ape city’; there’s a sort of school of youngsters; leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a wife and a couple of kids; etc. Humanity, meanwhile, has fared less well: the virus from the end of the last film has all but wiped them out, and the apes haven’t seen or heard from Man in years. That is until a party of survivors arrive, searching for a hydroelectric dam they intend to fire up. When one of them shoots an ape in fear, the stage is set for all kinds of conflict…

From here, Dawn continues on in various interesting directions. This isn’t the kind of blockbuster that sets out a simple premise then follows it up with half a dozen action sequences, possibly with a twist at the end. No, this is the story of Ape and Man learning to interact and coexist — or, rather, failing to. Political machinations abound — and that’s just in the Ape camp. Indeed, we spend most of our time with the apes, CGI having now evolved to such a point where it can truly create Characters, not just, y’know, Jar Jar Binks.

The Big (Ape) SocietyA heady mix of solid writing from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, peerless motion-captured performances from the likes of Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and first-rate CG magic from Weta, brings us a set of characters who are compelling and believable. Here is a society trying to define what it wants to be, battling old prejudices in the hope of a peaceful, secure, happy future. If you want to draw analogies to almost any real-world political situation, I’m sure you could.

What’s perhaps most fascinating is that it’s the apes’ future we’re most invested in. It’s not that they’re the Good Guys and humans are the Bad Guys — there are heroes and villains on both sides, just another aspect of the film’s relative maturity — but that we care more about what happens to ape society than human.

In fairness, that’s in part because the human side of the equation is a bit of a damp squib. Jason Clarke is an adequate but blank lead; as his new love and son-from-before, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee have an aimless subplot; Gary Oldman is an excellent ‘villain’, in restrained “trying to do the best for his people” mode rather than the all-out-loon he’s best known for, but is sadly underused. Some people have found this to be a major problem with the film; honestly, I don’t. The apes are the focus and that’s fine. It would work better with even less of humanity, in fact — as I said, the wife-and-son subplot adds nothing, and the screentime could be better spent elsewhere.

Ape assaultLest you get the wrong impression, the film isn’t all talk. For various spoiler-y reasons, the fragile relationship between Man and Ape breaks down, and the apes stage an attack on humanity. Here we get perhaps one of the best siege action sequences I can think of, with mankind holed up in a half-constructed skyscraper that sits conveniently at the end of a long street for the apes to charge down. Reeves’ direction is virtuosic here, crafting an epic and exciting sequence even when most of the film’s major players are busy elsewhere. And it’s not even the climax.

In some respects that’s a bold move — the action is story-led rather than scale-led, meaning the big memorable action sequence is at the end of act two instead of the climax. The downside is that someone seems to have realised this, forcing the film to climax with a punch-out atop a crumbling skyscraper — so far, so superhero blockbuster. I can understand the impulse to make the finale a big action-based number, and at least they didn’t go for some kind of rehash-with-bells-on from what worked earlier in the film, but — unlike that earlier sequence — it doesn’t offer anything terribly fresh. Still, in a film that’s more about its story than the originality of its action beats, perhaps we can let that slide.

Said story has been labelled predictable by some, which is a tad harsh. Of course the apes and humans are going to come into conflict — that’s kind of the point. We all know where this ends up, after all. It’s the journey that’s interesting, and Reeves and co make it so. This is a major turning point in ape-human relations, and therefore in the Apes saga. That makes it a story worth telling, even if the import is undersold occasionally Caesarthanks to some surprisingly small-scale narrative choices (the whole thing with the dam doesn’t feel nearly as vital as it should) and Reeves’ direction sometimes being a little straightforward and almost TV-ish. I know I’ve said I hate when people use that as a derogatory comment nowadays, but some repeated locations and shot choices make the film feel cheaper than it was.

It’s difficult to say whether Dawn is a better movie than Rise (and I’ve seen people argue both sides unequivocally) because they’re actually quite different styles of film. That, surely, is a good thing — as I said before, this is now a franchise driven by the story it wants to tell, rather than a need to repeat old glories or offer a certain quota of adrenaline. Sit me down in front of Rise again and I might change my mind, but, with its intelligent depiction of an ape society, constant tension, and one absolutely first-class battle sequence, I’m tempted to declare Dawn the victor.

5 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

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