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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Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

Conspiracy (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #20

One meeting. Six million lives.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English & German
Runtime: 96 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 19th May 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 25th January 2002
First Seen: TV, 25th January 2002

Stars
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Valkyrie)
Stanley Tucci (The Terminal, The Hunger Games)
Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary, The King’s Speech)
David Threlfall (Scum, Nowhere Boy)
Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Valkyrie)

Director
Frank Pierson (The Looking Glass War, A Star is Born)

Screenwriter
Loring Mandel (Countdown, The Little Drummer Girl)

The Story
1942, Berlin: a group of high-ranking Nazis gather for the Wannsee Conference, its purpose being to determine the method by which they will implement Hitler’s policy of making Germany free of Jews. Put another way, this is the meeting that created the Final Solution.

Our Heroes
I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — heroes are in short supply. That said, some object… just not very many, and not for long.

Our Villains
I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — there are plenty of villains. Chief amongst them, however, is SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Branagh), whose calm and charming demeanour hides a will of steel and a sure belief in their terrible purpose.

Best Supporting Character
There’s a strong cast of British character actors (as well as those mentioned above, we have Ian McNeice, Ben Daniels, Brendan Coyle, Owen Teale, Peter Sullivan, Nicholas Woodeson, and Jonathan Coy — you might not know all the names, but you’ll likely know the faces), so it’s hard to name just one stand-out. However, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth) is particularly memorable: he’s a nice guy because he only wants to sterilise the Jews. He’s also one of the few men in the room who’s aware of how the rest of the world will judge them if they proceed down a path of extermination.

Memorable Quote
Hofmann: “Evacuation to where?”
Heydrich: “Let us postpone that question for a while.”
Klopfer: “To hell, one hopes.”
Lange: “Many already have.”
Luther: “Do they even have a hell?”
Heydrich: “They do now. We provide it.”

Memorable Scene
Although it’s bookended by arrivals and departures, and occasionally broken up in the middle with pauses for food, etc, the film is essentially one long meeting. Which sounds incredibly dull, but of course isn’t.

Making of
Pierson chose to shoot the film’s meeting sequences in long takes, sometimes getting through 20 or more pages at a time. A highly unusual method for a screen production, so the fact most of the cast had a stage background must’ve been a boon. It was shot on Super 16 film for similar reasons: it has longer film magazines and smaller cameras, allowing the cameramen to get closer to the actors.

Awards
1 Golden Globe (TV Supporting Actor (Stanley Tucci))
2 Golden Globe nominations (Best Miniseries or TV Movie, Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie (Kenneth Branagh))
2 Emmys (Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Kenneth Branagh), Writing for a Miniseries or Movie)
8 Emmy nominations (Outstanding TV Movie, Supporting Actor (both Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci), Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing)
1 BAFTA TV Award (Single Drama)
1 BAFTA TV nomination (Actor (Kenneth Branagh))
Peabody Award

What the Critics Said
“What a week for thoroughly exceptional, audaciously gripping fact-based dramas. We had Bloody Sunday on Sunday and now here’s Conspiracy. […] The performances are uniformly outstanding, but out of all of them it will be images of Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich you will take away with you. They may even haunt your nightmares. Branagh, who won an Emmy for the role, is flawless, and in Heydrich this fine actor has re-created a monster. Just watch the iron come into his eyes when he is contradicted or questioned. Watch that smooth charm slip as he calmly threatens those who are not completely on his side.” — Alison Graham, Radio Times

Score: 100%
(Sort of.)

What the Public Say
“to see the planning of the Final Solution played out is chilling, to say the least. Obviously, it’s not an easy watch, but it’s an important film. If you’re at all interested in how scary and terrible things happen in this world, and how the death of millions can be plotted the same way your company runs a board meeting, this is definitely a movie to see.” — Dan Bergstrom @ Letterboxd

Verdict

“A group of men have an administrative meeting” is possibly the least exciting logline for a movie you could ever read, but when those men are Nazis, at the height of the Third Reich’s pomp and opulence, and the businesslike meeting is to plot one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by mankind, it becomes horrendously fascinating. For that we can also thank Loring Mandel’s precise screenplay, and perfectly calibrated performances from a magnificent cast of seasoned actors.

#21 will be… nothing to do with Phillip Schofield.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

2015 #32
Bryan Singer | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack the Giant SlayerThe influence of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings rumbles on with this attempt by director Bryan Singer to turn the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk into a fantasy epic.

In a plot that over-complicates the original tale to bulk up the running time, farm-boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy, Skins, the current X-Men prequels, etc) is entrusted with some ancient magic beans, which he accidentally drops and from them grow sky-high beanstalks. Unfortunately, the kingdom’s runaway princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, now known for Poldark) is with him at the time, and ends up at the top, kidnapped by giants. The king (Ian McShane, who I imagine is still Lovejoy to many) commands the head of the palace guard (Ewan McGregor) to lead a team up the beanstalk to rescue her, taking Jack along because… his name’s in the title? I forget. Anyway, they meet some computer-generated giants (the leader voiced by Bill Nighy, because of course), action sequences ensue, etc.

Despite being a moderately-starry big-budget Hollywood effort, Jack the Giant Slayer feels cheap as chips across the board. For starters there’s the woeful screenplay, with its first-draft-level dialogue and poor construction. We’re given little reason to care for quickly-sketched characters or the mission they set out on. The first act is rushed through, then unbalanced by an over-long and over-the-top climax. The quality cast ham it up, probably due to the under-written and over-familiar character types they have to work with.

Jack and the beanstalkA computer-animated prologue wants to be the one from Hellboy II, or the interlude from Deathly Hallows Part 1, but instead just looks like something from a ’90s kids’ CG TV series (think ReBoot, that kind of thing). The main film’s effects are little better — if you told me any of the CG-driven sequences were from a Syfy miniseries, I’d probably believe you.

Naturally the climax leans on these, for an epic-fantasy-wannabe giant invasion. The film would be so much better without this forced attempt to provide an epic battle — focus in on the quest to rescue the princess, which is the main story anyway, then end the movie with the beanstalk coming down and everyone returning home. Leave the giants up in their kingdom, leave the door open for a sequel — every studio exec loves the hope of a sequel, right? (I don’t think there should be a sequel, but that’s how you sell it.)

As a children’s movie, Jack the Giant Slayer would be passable. It should by all rights be a PG, but for some reason (well, for box office) it’s been pushed a little far (only a little far, mind) and insists on being considered as a 12A/PG-13. In that playing field, it’s not up to snuff. I don’t mean to imply kids only need or deserve sub-par entertainment — that’s certainly not true — but, for younger children especially, well-worn plots, They might be giantsoveracted characters, and bright-and-cheerful CGI are more or less acceptable, in a “it’s no classic but it’ll pass two hours just fine” kind of way. Produced on those kinds of terms, this might have passed muster for some. Might.

I didn’t enjoy Jack the Giant Slayer at all. I think I’ve given it a second star only because I like everyone involved and they have my sympathy.

2 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.