A Quiet Place (2018): A masterful showcase of the power of silence

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Director: John Krasinski Writers: Bryan Woods (screenplay by), Scott Beck (screenplay by) | 3 more credits » Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds

“If they hear you, they hunt you”; the seemingly simple premise for A Quiet Place manages to bring out a lot of scares and a surprisingly engaging emotional drama to boot to what could have been a B movie horror.

John Krasinski is probably still best known for his role as Jim Halpert in The U.S Office, despite a turn as the TV incarnation of Jack Ryan, but this directorial outing (his second after the 2016 romcom The Hollars) will ensure he will be remembered for much more than the affable romantic lead.

A Quiet Place is set in a near-future where human-kind is being hunted to the point of extinction.

Day 89- The world we enter is near silent as Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) roam a looted pharmacy with their three children, barefoot, trying not to make a sound. We are shown that the eldest, Regan (played by the excellent Millicent Simmonds) is deaf which puts her in immediate additional peril as she is unaware of the sounds around her. Following the most harrowing opening 15 minutes since Up! it is revealed that terrifying monsters lurk all around, their attacks triggered by the slightest sound.

Day 472- We are then plunged into the day to day lives of the family one year on from the fateful trip to the pharmacy as they try to survive in the now silent world. Soon the camera pans down Emily Blunt’s body, revealing she is heavily pregnant. Synapses start firing as the concept of trying to keep a newborn baby quiet registers, not to mention actually being able to give birth silently. The pregnancy does, of course, become a key focus for the plot as we see preparations beginning and inevitably go awry.

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A Quiet Place is a neat and perfectly taut 90 minutes long, but it really packs a punch within that time. Despite the lack of verbal dialogue (much of the communication between the family is sign language, subtitled for the audience) Krasinski has elicited some great performances from the cast, particularly the younger cast members. So much is shown in one glance that dialogue becomes superfluous. A particularly touching scene involving real-life couple Krasinski and Blunt with just touches and glances, soundtracked by Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is a masterclass in both acting and directing- show, don’t tell. With a few deft scenes we begin to really become embroiled in the relationships of the family, their fears and hopes painted rather then explained. With this investment in the characters comes an added sense of peril as we become immersed in their world, flinching with every movement and potential sound.

There are of course some familiar horror elements; the cornfield outside the family home is the perfect place for unknown horrors to lurk, the “it’s behind you” jump-scares, the petulant teenager putting themselves in danger. The film is also oddly reminiscent of M. Night Shymalan’s much maligned Signs (a film I really like) both in terms of setting and tone. There is also a feeling of 80’s films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, innocence mixed with dread. Then of course there is a parallels with The Mist and The Girl with all the Gifts with their distinctly non-mainstream endings. While some elements are not wholly original the overall effect is unlike most horror films you will have seen before, as it manages to be smart, emotionally nuanced and terrifying.

The ‘show, don’t tell’ approach does become a little over the top at the film’s conclusion as the audience is practically spoon fed one character’s thought processes and there is an over-reliance on newspaper headlines, but this is a dumbing-down blip in what is otherwise a clever horror film.

A Quiet Place will see you tip-toeing out of the cinema, hoping those monsters don’t come to get you.

8 out of 10

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Veronica (2017) review: Claustrophobic and unnerving Spanish coming of age horror

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Director: Paco Plaza Writers:  Fernando NavarroPaco Plaza

Stars:  Sandra EscacenaBruna GonzálezClaudia Placer

Set in Madrid in 1991 and based (extremely loosely) on true events, Veronica tells the chilling supernatural tale of the 15 year-old titular heroine and a series of unexplained events taking place over a few days.

Veronica is the carer for her three younger siblings, while their mother is mostly absent, a fleeting figure in their lives who spends her days and nights working in a local bar since the death of the childrens’ father. While Veronica’s friends are experimenting with smoking and boys Veronica is left with the mundane role of young carer, cleaning, cooking and acting as babysitter to her siblings.

The film is set in familiar horror territory; an eclipse and a convent school. Scary nuns and the world being plunged into darkness provide a solid start for supernatural horror. Amidst this backdrop Veronica and her friend (with interloper to the friendship and experienced older girl Diana)  try to contact Veronica’s dead father through a ouija board in the basement of the school. Very quickly the seance takes an unsettling turn and Veronica has a terrifying seizure.

Veronica finds herself in the school nurse’s office where the event is explained away as anemia or low blood pressure, leading her to reveal she has not yet had her first period. Thus we stumble into the real main theme of the film, the changing pubescent female body, which has long been a source of great fascination and horror.

Paco Plaza keeps with the urban high rise setting of his previous films [REC] and [REC 2] (which are two films which I find genuinely chilling) to great effect. Employing a Rear Window approach to exploring Veronica’s own stunted teenage years he shows the stark contrast of a teenage girl in a neighbouring building who is enjoying all the normal teenage freedoms of dancing, making out and being looked after. Meanwhile our heroine slowly unravels under the weight of responsibility of being parent to her much younger siblings while tackling her own changing body, forcing her to straddle the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.

While the film could be viewed as another ouija board driven supernatural horror, an alternative explanation for events is firmly apparent, making Veronica far more compelling viewing than many of it’s horror counterparts. Veronica’s mother uttering ominously “I need you to grow up” framing the narrative for the rest of the film.

Sandra Escacena is mesmorising in the title role, managing to capture both child-like innocence and a building anger and passion, all the torment of hormonal teenage years coming out in rage filled bursts, which may or may not be related to a summoned demon. Her siblings  are also superb, with the two bickering twin sisters  Irene and Lucia (played by Bruna Gonzalez and Claudia Placer) displaying sass and verve, while young Antonito (Ivan Chavero) manages to be supremely cute without being irritating.

The special effects are largely practical and in-camera, which is when the projection of Veronica’s haunting is at it’s most effective. Indeed the appearance of the children’s father is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Some appearances of the spirit are a little hokey, but these are always the moments when we see the horror through the childrens’ eyes.

The real test of effective horror isn’t so much the experience while viewing, but what it does to you afterwards and somehow Veronica got firmly under my skin, making me sure I’d firmly locked my doors before going to bed.

Like The Babadook and Rosemary’s Baby before it, Veronica works best when it is rooted in the claustrophobia of family life and the terror of both childhood and adulthood. The hokum of being based on true events should remain secondary to what is an excellent piece of coming of age horror.

8.5 out of 10

 

 

Baby Driver (2017) review: Car Car Land*

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Director: Edgar Wright Writer: Edgar Wright Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm 

*I thought of this pun during the film, then was disappointed to discover Edgar Wright had already used it for an event he curated at the BFI. GREAT MINDS is what I say. It’s not stealing. Really.

Synopsis: “A talented, young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to be the best in the game. But after being coerced into working for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey), he must face the music when a doomed heist threatens his life, love and freedom.”

Sometimes you go into a cinema showing with your expectations so high you inwardly know you’re sabotaging what you’re about to watch. I LOVE Edgar Wright. Everything he has done to date has been funny, clever, witty and all with an unmistakably Edgar Wright feel.  You can spot his hyper-pop, music-loving, rapid-fire style a mile off, and that’s not an easy feat. He’s also read my blog, so that clearly means he’s a man of taste.

Here comes the but… I found myself mildly disappointed in Baby Driver. The reviews from friends who’d seen previews were glowing. In a they’d-bought-the-soundtrack-and-were-champing-at-the-bit-to-see-it-a-second-time kind of glowing. In a summer that has so far has given us stinkers like Pirates 5 (I can’t even be bothered to check if that’s the correct  number, that’s how much I care about the Pirates of the Caribbean films). Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy reboot, it seemed no Rotten Tomatoes score would edge over 30%. Baby Driver appeared like ray of light beaming down on the cinematic universe sewage. An original film with a great soundtrack, great cast and director with a lot to prove.

The opening 20 minutes are stunning. From the tinnitus that accompanies the studio logo and first few frames, to the carefully choreographed ballet of the opening heist, to Baby grabbing a coffee and singing along while the lyrics play out in graffiti and signs on the street behind him, this is an all-time great start to a film. Every step, every shot, every extra conveys something. It’s clever, it’s cool and it filled me with joy. I was fully prepared for Baby Driver to instantly go into my top ten films of all time. However it just didn’t quite keep up that glorious early pace.

We start the film firmly in Baby’s world, witnessing events from his point of view, from the glorious heist set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ (if you don’t own it already you should check out Orange) to the charming scene with his foster father Joseph demanding his peanut butter be spread right to the edges.

By the time Baby has witnessed the first on-screen death (there have been so many previous heists the assumption is this isn’t the first one there has been) the pace starts to slow. We start seeing how the world sees Baby and the initial joy starts to fade. No longer do we have Baby singing and dancing, instead we’re given his passive facade behind shades, looking increasingly moody and uncomfortable with the situation he has become trapped in, leading to a dramatic and tense conclusion.

The music and the visuals are so much fun, and the film really could have been dubbed ‘Car Car Land’ (see above for credit to Edgar Wright) for it’s marriage of car chases and classic musical elements, but it was the narrative which let it down a little for me.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) is a wonderful hybrid of John Hughes and Quentin Tarantino. Baby’s relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones) is sweet and touching. There is something about his interactions with the criminal gang of Doc (Kevin Spacey on fine Spacey-esque form) which just didn’t quite ring true.

The female characters were also somewhat underwritten. Debora is very charming, but she very much falls into the good old manic pixie dream girl trope, and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) could be summed up as ‘hot drug-addict, lapdancer and wife’. Some of the decisions the characters make also seem to be somewhat pulled out of a hat. But then I guess heist films aren’t subtle, so maybe I am asking too much for the characters to be given nuance or subtlety when so much of the film is so very loud, and extended backstories would undoubtedly have slowed the pace.

Of special note is the fact that Jon Hamm somehow remains attractive in the role of Buddy, Darling’s husband, despite the dodgy haircut and neck tattoos. He also seems to be having the time of his life playing the role, which makes it a joy to watch.

Baby Driver is a fun, fast-paced, popcorn flick that shows Edgar Wright is a director at the height of his game (and clearly has a kick-ass music collection), the narrative just tends to rely a little too heavily on familiar tropes when it could have been as original and exiting as the audio and visuals.

8 out of 10

 

 

I, Daniel Blake (2016) review: a passionate and gut-wrenching look at modern Britain

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Director: Ken Loach   Writer: Paul Laverty (screenplay)

Stars: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy

Ken Loach has long been a fearsome and tireless campaigner for political change, giving a voice to those in society who might otherwise be overlooked, through films which merge drama and reality. When ‘I, Daniel Blake’ won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film Loach took the opportunity to thank the Academy for endorsing the truth of the film “which hundreds and thousands of people in this country know, that the most vulnerable and poorest are treated by the Government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful”.  ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the best kind of cinema, one that entertains but that could also enact social change.

Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shake the Barley, My Name is Joe), I, Daniel Blake focuses on the life of 59 year old Daniel. Daniel is a carpenter, living in Newcastle, who has recently had a series of heart problems that have meant his doctors have ordered him to stay off work. Having worked in manual labour his whole life Daniel find the transition difficult and finds himself having to rely on help from the State to see him through. The film follows Daniel in his battle to negotiate the welfare system and keep himself going.

Along his journey he meets up with Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother to 2 children, who has had to move out of London when the benefit caps meant they could no longer afford to live anywhere other than a one bedroom homeless hostel. Wanting some space and freedom for her family (with her son displaying some worrying behaviours) she has taken the plunge and moved away from everything she knows to give her son and daughter a better quality of life. Now desperate to be able to go back to college Katie tries to keep up appearances for her children as her life slowly unravels.

Both Daniel and Katie find themselves at the mercy of a benefits system which seeks to meet arbitrary sanctions targets, driving them both beyond poverty and desperation and into very dark territory.  They form a kind of surrogate family and help support each other in their darkest times.

The film looks at the benefit system through the lens of a country which has been brain-washed by a media intent on propagating the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor and is unflinching in it’s portrayal of a system set up solely around numbers and absent of humanity.

As one of those hundreds and thousands of people who has seen the cruelty of the benefits system I can also testify to Loach’s truth here. I have seen first-hand the arbitrary decisions that are made in order to fulfil an imaginary quota of ‘undeserving’ poor which in turn leads to callous abandonment of those in our society who are the most vulnerable. The tale told here is not one that has been exaggerated for dramatic purpose; this is happening every day.

However, if politics isn’t your thing, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a masterful piece of film-making, as you would expect from someone of Loach’s standing. Despite the subject matter it never lectures, allowing the viewer to be caught up in the story at hand. It manages to balance warmth, humour and hope against the bleakest of backdrops and makes you truly care about Daniel, Katie and all those who have found themselves either trapped in or cast out by the system.

A rare mix of the passionate and human, the gut-wrenching and the comedic, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is an absolute must see and one of the most important films of recent years.

9.5 out of 10

The case of the disappearing film rating; or Why I’m adding ratings to reviews again

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What is my blog for? Who reads it? What do you want to know when I write about a film? What the hell do I know about films anyway?

Like many bloggers, and indeed writers in general, I have been grappling with the issue of why I write about films. Or more to the point, what you, the readers want from my reviews.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that when I started out I didn’t give my reviews a score or grade, then started marking them out of five, then stopped again. More recently I have been dabbling with the school grade system, as being able to award plus or minuses to a grade seemed to give me more freedom. Why did I do it? What is going on?

Well, in short, I wasn’t really sure what I was rating. Was I rating as if I were a serious movie critic, rating the artistic merit of a film? Was I just letting you all know how much I enjoyed what I had watched? Or was I assessing it’s merits as a product, like grading the handling of a car or durability of a mop? Taking the ratings off seemed the simplest option to me, as then my words would, hopefully, get across what I wanted to say about the film, without reducing it down to a number.

The problem, I discovered, is people like numbers. “Yes, but what would you give it out of five?” came the comments on Facebook. People didn’t really seem to care what the five represented, they just wanted a number that could help them decide whether it was a film or TV show that was worth giving up their money and time for.

So, to satisfy the needs of people who just want to know whether to go and see a film or not, and to make me feel better about attaching an arbitrary grade to something, I have decided to do the following: give it a  grade out of ten. Yes, it’s reductive and annoying for anyone who had put their all into a creative piece, but it’s easy for readers.

Grades will broadly mean the following:

10- Practically perfect in every way, see it immediately

9- One extra shy of perfect

8- Solid and worthy of a trip to a real cinema

7- Entertaining, but wait for the blu-ray

6- Lacklustre, but has it’s moments so catch it on demand.

5- Wait until it’s on TV

4- Their mums probably still loved it

3- Their mums might still love them

2- Avoid like the plague

1- The plague was probably more pleasurable

I won’t be awarding zero as a score as ultimately someone, somewhere will have put their heart and soul into whatever is on the screen, even if it does turn out to be as awful as Only God Forgives.

I can then look at re-ordering my archived pages so I can group films by rating, making it easier for searching for something fun to watch.

Do let me know what you think of my new system, or indeed grading films in general.

Abbie