Monday, April 09, 2018

Wonderstruck

Even if I walked into Wonderstruck without knowing who had directed it, I'm sure it wouldn't have taken me long to figure it out. Before the opening scene has elapsed the film has already cited Oscar Wilde's quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” and a character has put on Bowie's Space Oddity. The combination of these two icons immediately called to mind Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, which I think is one of his worst films, and for a while I feared that Wonderstruck would fail in similar ways to his confused glam-rock odyssey by telling too many stories, mixing too many styles, and allowing the thin characters to be swamped by the fetishistic evocation of a bygone era. Ultimately, my fears proved to be unfounded and Wonderstruck did enough to win me over, but it's an awkward and uneven movie that plays to Haynes' weaknesses as much as his strengths.

The film eventually finds its feet, but the opening scenes are disastrous. In trying to set up two parallel narratives, Haynes creates a clumsy cross-cutting rhythm that doesn't allow either of them to settle, and leaves both feeling strangely stunted. They are both stories about deaf children taking a daunting trip to New York in search of a lost parent, and they take place fifty years apart. In 1927, a girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) has little happiness in her life – we see her writing things like “Help Me” in her notepad – and so she often escapes to the movies, where she gazes upwards at the screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) in Daughter of the Storm, a silent pastiche that suggests both Griffith and Sjöström. When Rose emerges from the cinema, she sees posters announcing an exciting new development in the cinema experience – the talkies. With her one source of solace on the verge of being snatched away from her, Rose cuts her hair and heads to the big city, where Mayhew is performing on stage.

In 1977, we meet another deaf kid, although he isn't deaf at the start of the movie. Ben (Oakes Fegley) loses his hearing in a freak accident and then abruptly decides to run away from the hospital and take an overnight bus to the city where he thinks he might find the father he's never met. The only thing he has to go on is a note that he found in a book called Wonderstruck, which belonged to his late mother (Michelle Williams). He has asked her a number of times to tell him something about his father, even admitting that it was his wish when he blew out his birthday candles, but she always denied his request. My question is, why? When we finally find out who Ben's father was we discover that he wasn't a bad person, that there was nothing for his mother to be ashamed of. We even find out that she took Ben to his funeral when he was too young to remember, and that something he saw at that time has resulted in unexplained recurring nightmares. No, the only reason she doesn't share this information with him he because that's what is needed to kick-start the film's convoluted plot.

That sums up one of the major problems with Wonderstruck. The film has been adapted from a book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the source material for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and he clearly favours clockwork narratives that turn on contrivance and coincidence. We know that Ben’s narrative is going to intertwine with Rose’s story in some way but getting there requires a series of torturous plot devices that have a limiting effect on Haynes’ ability to tell this story in an elegant way. The sense of wonderment promised by the film’s title only occasionally flickers into life and Wonderstruck too often feels bogged down by incident, with Haynes’ focus fatally caught between the two narrative strands. When the director does choose to give certain scenes time to play out at length, I’m not sure he picks the right moments. A long stretch of the film’s second half takes place in the American Museum of Natural History – with both Ben and Rose having key encounters there fifty years apart – but there is an awful lot of faffing about before they make their key discoveries, and watching these kids run from one exhibit to another is nowhere near as engaging or magical as Haynes seems to believe it is.

And yet, there is magic in Wonderstruck. Haynes’ regular collaborators Sandy Powell, Carter Burwell and Ed Lachman are on prime form here, with Burwell and Lachman doing a great deal of heavy lifting given how much of the film unfolds without dialogue. It’s a gorgeous picture to look at, the golden hues of ‘70s New York contrasting with the grainy black-and-white of the 1927 section, and at its best – particularly in Rose’s strand of the story – it captures the enchantment mixed with trepidation that being alone in a big city for the first time can induce. Those transcendent moments are nowhere near as frequent as they should be, but by the time it drew to a close Wonderstruck had just about done enough to move me to tears. So much of Haynes’ work is about people yearning for a connection, and when he finally brings this film’s twin narratives together it has a heart-stopping emotional charge. The manner in which Haynes reveals all of the film’s answers – using a model panorama of New York and dollhouse-like recreations of Rose’s past – is an unbelievably beautiful sequence that recalls his own Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story, and there is a lovely sense of tactility throughout the whole film.

Wonderstruck is a film obsessed with the expressive, totemic properties of objects, sounds and faces and – for all of its narrative problems – it has a level of craftsmanship and ambition that comfortably eclipses most current releases. All of this in film aimed at younger audiences? Perhaps it's churlish to complain. I’d certainly encourage every parent to take their child to see Wonderstruck before any of the soulless blockbuster franchises that dominating our cultural diet, and I hope they’ll be transported by Haynes’ vision, filled with wonder as they gaze up at the stars.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Quiet Place

There's a wonderful purity about the premise for A Quiet Place. Set in a world where the population has been decimated by alien creatures with ultra-powerful hearing, it all comes down to one simple rule: make a noise, and you're dead. How long do you think you could survive under these conditions? When the film begins we're told it's Day 89, and we are immediately given a sense of how one family of survivors lives day-by-day in this post-apocalyptic landscape. They creep barefoot around the abandoned stores, stockpiling necessary medicines and supplies, and they don't even dare to speak in a whisper, communicating instead in sign language. When one of the children accidentally knocks an object from a shelf, his mother swoops desperately to catch it before it hits the floor. If this seems a little over-dramatic, we soon see what happens when they slip up, with the family's youngest child being snatched away moments after unthinkingly turning on an electric toy.

Thus begins an agonisingly tense waiting game. We know that somebody, at some point, is going to stumble, to drop something, to emit a scream; but until that happens we can only sit there gripping the arms of our seats in the silent dark. A Quiet Place reminded me of the famous Hitchcock quote in which he defined suspense, using the example of a bomb being hidden under a table where two people are talking – “In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!'” In the case of this film, the bomb under a table becomes the upturned nail in a staircase. You want somebody to pull that nail out – you want to shout at the screen – because you know that inevitably a bare foot is going to sink down on it and the unfortunate soul will have to silently swallow their howls of pain. But director John Krasinski (who also stars, alongside Emily Blunt) teases out the moment, finding the perfect point in the narrative to subject us to this horror.

Who knew Krasinski had this in him? At ninety minutes the film, co-written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, is stripped to the bone, minimising exposition and backstory to just a handful of glimpsed headlines and focusing intently on these four characters. Despite the taut nature of the film, what really elevates A Quiet Place is the way these actors are given the time and space to convince us with their portrayal of a co-dependent family unit. Each of them has their own vital role to play in the drama, notably the deaf daughter Regan (the hugely impressive Millicent Simmonds), who feels a sense of responsibility for her younger brother's death and is desperate to prove herself in her father's eyes. As I watched A Quiet Place I thought of the similarly styled Don't Breathe, but whereas that picture was defined by its sadism and sleaziness, Krasinski's picture allows us to form a connection with this family and each member of it, which lends their scenes of peril a powerful emotional charge. “Who are we if we can't protect them?” Blunt asks at one point, having just complicated matters further by giving birth to the couple's fourth child.

This particular plot detail gave me pause. There are many logical questions that A Quiet Place raises (it's simply impossible to believe that the family's current domestic setup and security measures were all assembled soundlessly, for example), but the pregnancy of Blunt's character may be the trickiest one to answer. When a single sound can mean death for the whole family, would you risk having a baby? Even if it is intended to assuage the couple's guilt and grief over losing a child, it just seems like an inexplicably poor character choice. But then Krasinski and Blunt pull off a pregnancy sequence that is so intense and riveting, all such questions suddenly feel meaningless. A Quiet Place may not stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of day, but what really matters with a film like this is how it plays in the dark of a cinema, where you can feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath, listening to every single sound, and jumping out of their seats when they hear something they don't want to hear.  In those moments, it works like you wouldn't believe. I had little hope for John Krasinski as a director based on the messy Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the generally tepid response to his 2016 film The Hollars but – whisper it – his third feature feels like an instant genre classic.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Journeyman

Journeyman is clearly a passion project, but it’s all misplaced passion. It’s as if Paddy Considine’s burning desire to tell this story led to him rushing into production with a script that was at least a couple of drafts away from being fully realised. This is Considine’s second film as a director following 2011’s Tyrannosaur, which layered on the misery too aggressively but at least boasted performances that felt lived-in and full of authentic anger and heartache. In contrast, Considine struggles to give his actors in Journeyman more than a single dimension to play, including himself. The director stars as Matty Burton, an ageing middleweight boxer preparing for one final championship bout before retirement, but his opponent is a dangerous young fighter who snarls, “This will be a life-changer for you” at Matty during the pre-fight press conference. His words are horribly prophetic.

A few hours after winning the bout, Matty is found by his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) slumped over the coffee table, and after an emergency cranial operation he returns home a changed man. Already busy raising a newborn baby, Emma now finds herself taking care of her once-formidable husband, suddenly reduced to a childlike state. With an ugly scar across one side of his head, Matty has to relearn the basics of life – walking, talking, feeding himself – while also trying to remember the man he was and the life he once had. It’s undeniably wrenching to watch Emma and Matty struggling through this painful situation, particularly as they are completely alone, but the absence of anyone else in their lives for long stretches of the film tests the boundaries of credibility. They appear to receive no visits or offers of help from healthcare workers or from friends and family, and there seems to be no media interest in the decline of this British boxing champion. Where is everybody?

The whole film smacks of underdeveloped writing. Jodie Whittaker is a fine actress but she has been given no character to play here. Who is Emma Burton? Does she have any friends, any interests outside the home? When she finally takes her baby and leaves Matty, after he has lashed out violently at her, we briefly see her walking alone and sitting in a house alone. It seems inconceivable that she wouldn't turn to her family or friends in this time of need. When she leaves the picture (a critical misstep the film never recovers from), Matty's longtime corner team, who abandoned him when he became incapacitated, reunite to help him on the road to recovery, but they also only exist in order to serve their function in this straightforward narrative arc. The most well-developed character in the whole film is Matty's opponent on that fateful night, Andre 'The Future' Bryte (skilfully played by Anthony Welsh). So arrogant and aggressive in the build-up to their fight, Andre is one of the few people who visits Matty at home and he appears stricken by the damage he caused.

Considine remains a compelling screen presence and he carries Journeyman with a performance that boasts a number of keenly observed details; I particularly liked the way he often had his hand resting up by his chin, an unconscious sense-memory of the defensive stance he'd take in the ring. But Considine the director keeps letting Considine the actor down. The second half of the film takes the short cut of montage sequences to show Matty getting stronger and returning to something like his old self, and the mawkish finale attempts to wring tears out of the audience by abruptly dragging Emma back into the picture. Considine has done nothing to earn this redemptive ending, he has given us no sense of how she now feels about the husband who she deemed too dangerous to be around just a few weeks earlier, it's just all too easy. Considine wants to hit the audience hard but he's straining for effect without putting in the work between these big moments, to make us believe in these characters, in this situation. If Tyrannosaur was a little too tough to take, Paddy Considine has swung too far in the other direction with Journeyman. This film is so soft and thin it has turned to mush.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg obviously loves working with Mark Rylance, but does he actually know how good an actor he is? “Whenever I mention the other films I’ve made to Steven Spielberg, his eyes go a bit glazed,” the actor told The New York Times in 2016. “Because in his mind he’s rescued me – rescued me from the slums of the theatre! You know, discovered me, bless him.” Considering the fact that Rylance gave one of the most ferocious and commanding stage performances I've ever seen in Jerusalem, or that he was willing to have real sex on screen in Intimacy, we should all be aware that there is no limit to his range or his courage. And yet, Spielberg keeps him at a distance. In Bridge of Spies he was a quiet, deadpan presence wearing a mask of ambiguity, and in The BFG he was a twinkly, bumbling figure of innocence and benevolence hidden behind a cartoon. At the start of Ready Player One, he has the added distancing effect of being dead.

Rylance plays another big friendly giant in Ready Player One – an entrepreneurial giant rather than a literal one, in this case. His James Halliday is a small, timid, emotionally stunted man, but he created The Oasis, making him God to the millions who lose themselves in his virtual reality universe every day. The year is 2045 and the future is bleak. We are long past the point where “People stopped trying to fix problems and just started trying to outlive them,” with existence in the shiny world of The Oasis being understandably preferable to this grim, dusty reality. Some people enter The Oasis with a sense of purpose, though. Wade Watts (Tyler Sheridan) is an egg hunter, or “Gunter”, searching for the clues that Halliday left after his death, with the first person to claim the hidden Easter egg winning sole ownership of the creator's entire kit and caboodle. Wade dedicates himself to learning everything there is to know about Halliday and the 1980s pop culture ephemera that dominated his life, and in his virtual guise he chooses to go by the name Parzival, rather implausibly evoking the Arthurian knight who sought the Holy Grail.

This isn't the first time Spielberg has taken us on a Grail-hunt, but the sense of genuine wonderment and awe that I felt in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sorely lacking here. Ready Player One is spectacle without meaning; a world where “the only limit is your own imagination,” but a world that critically lacks any tangible stakes or consequences. Get killed in The Oasis and you'll lose all your coins and weapons and whatever else you've gathered, but then you can just start again. The only notable real-world deaths that occur in the film are Wade's aunt and her deadbeat boyfriend, who are killed in a botched attempt on Wade's life that he witnesses, but he doesn't take a moment to mourn their passing before the plot rushes onwards. (And we get the impression that he didn't like living with them anyway, so whatever...) It's not like Spielberg to drop the ball on these integral dramatic elements. Think of the family units at the core of Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. or Jurassic Park; think of the child yearning for a family in A.I. or the grieving father in Minority Report. What drives Wade Watts? Aside from his obsession with finding the golden egg and therefore controlling The Oasis, he's a complete blank whose most critical decision comes when he has to actually kiss a girl. This is not a particularly strong hero narrative on which to hang a 140-minute movie. I kept hoping that Olivia Cooke – a breath of fresh air every time she appears – could somehow take the reins from this insipid protagonist and become the film's chosen one instead.

But there are precious few surprises in Ready Player One. This adaptation of Ernest Cline's book, written by the author himself and Zak Penn, is one of the worst scripts Spielberg has ever handled, jumping haphazardly from one challenge and riddle to the next, and leaving no room for character or emotion. It's rife with nonsensical plotting (I refuse to believe that anyone in 2045 (a) uses passwords and (b) writes anything down on paper), and Cline frequently resorts to arbitrary devices to leap out of the narrative corners he has painted himself into, such as the Zemeckis Cube (which allows composer Alan Silvestri to pay tribute to himself). Some will be delighted by the Back to the Future references, of course, and for many viewers the multiple layers of reference and homage will be the biggest thrill Ready Player One offers, but it feels like empty name-dropping and cheap nostalgia. The Iron Giant, King Kong, Chucky, something called a Gundam (which gets an inordinately long build-up to little effect), Akira, Marvin the Martian...they all just become part of the digital noise. The one homage that Spielberg takes his time with is one that will surely be his most contentious, with an extended sequence being set in the Overlook Hotel. Would an artist as fiercely protective of his work as Stanley Kubrick have consented to one of his films being turned into a garish haunted house video game? What on earth was Spielberg thinking?

While I groaned at the misuse of The Shining I had to applaud the skill used to incorporate these characters so seamlessly into it. Ready Player One is undeniably an astonishing technical feat and  Spielberg being Spielberg  it's more fluidly and intelligently directed than it would have been in the hands of almost any other filmmaker. Who else could have kept the action so clear and coherent with so much stuff flying at the screen from every angle? In many ways, he is the only man who could have directed this film. He is one of the fathers of the blockbuster age and Ready Player One represents a large part of his legacy, but he is unwilling or unable to interrogate this pop culture obsessiveness or his own relation to it in any interesting way. It might seem churlish to attack an effects-driven popcorn movie for lacking complexity or depth (and Spielberg has insistently defined this as a “movie” rather than a “film”), but we hold Steven Spielberg to a higher standard than other blockbuster directors because he is the standard for other blockbuster directors.

What's ultimately missing from Ready Player One is a sense of the world beyond The Oasis. My interest perked up whenever we left the virtual realm, but everything about its portrait of 2045 USA is so sketchy. How did “the bandwidth riots” affect the existence of The Oasis? What exactly is corporate villain Ben Mendelsohn planning to do if he gets his greedy hands on Halliday's egg? Does anyone have jobs in this dark future or do they all live in The Oasis for free? Is the entire economy built around this VR world? Ready Player One eventually takes a shift towards a cautionary tale about the limitations and dangers of spending your entire life immersed in video games and pop culture, but it doesn't offer us a convincing alternative. At one point Wade even suggests turning off The Oasis twice a week, but what are these people supposed to do then? “Reality,” he tells us in the film's final scene, “is the only thing that's real.” Hollow words from a film that has spent the previous two and a half hours blithely ignoring the complexities of the real world.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Unsane

When Steven Soderbergh makes a movie, he never just makes a movie. Last year's comeback film Logan Lucky acted as the test case for a new means of distribution, and he followed that picture with Mosaic, a six-part HBO series that also functioned as an interactive app-based experience. The goal for Soderbergh in all of his post-retirement filmmaking appears to be to innovate, to experiment, and also – crucially – to have fun doing it. He has often spoken about his lack of interest in making anything that could be deemed an 'important' film, and his latest effort Unsane is about as far from prestige filmmaking as one could get. Apparently shot in ten days for $1.5 million, Unsane is pure B-movie pulp in the Sam Fuller mould, and it's Soderbergh's most invigorating work in years.

The experimental component of this film is Soderbergh's decision to embrace the iPhone and to shoot the whole film using that device. This isn't exactly a major artistic breakthrough in itself – Sean Baker's Tangerine set the standard for iPhone cinematography in 2015 – but utilising this shooting method has given Soderbergh what he always seems to be chasing: liberation. Soderbergh gets close to his actors, circling them, shooting them from unexpected angles and utilising the camera's depth of focus purposefully to accentuate the paranoia of his anxious protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). She's a bank analyst in Pennsylvania, having moved there from Boston with the intention of starting a new life. Her old life had been all but destroyed by the determined affections of a stalker, and a restraining order hasn't done enough to heal the emotional and psychological wounds that David Strine (an excellent Joshua Leonard) left behind him. She still thinks she sees Strine in every bearded male who crosses her path, and when a casual Tinder hookup leaves her shaking with fear in the bathroom, Sawyer decides she needs professional help.

The paperwork snafu that sees Sawyer voluntarily committing to 24 hours under psychiatric observation initially seems like a bad joke – how many of us happily sign 'boilerplate' agreements without reading the small print? – but as one day extends into two, and then a week, Unsane starts to feel like an endless nightmare. She tries calling 911 to report that she is being held against her will, but a nurse informs her that they receive such calls every single day – “But those are from crazy people,” Sawyer responds, her eyes wild with panic. Claire Foy's eyes tell us a lot in Unsane, particularly as the director frequently asks her to stare directly into his lens. Sawyer is an abrasive, forthright character and it's a struggle for her to play nice, to be the good, docile patient that everyone tells her is the key to her release. We can always see her calculating her options, looking for ways to manipulate those around her to her advantage, while struggling to maintain her increasingly fragile grip on her own sanity. It's an electrifying performance, and one that's crucial for keeping us invested in a film that is always teetering on the edge of absurdity.

Is Unsane a silly movie? Yeah, it kind of is. You need to swallow a lot of implausibilities and look past a number of clunky plot details to enjoy it, but then the film offers so much to enjoy! Unsane has some of hysterical energy of films like The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor (the character played by an affable Jay Pharoah feels like a nod to Fuller's film), and Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here. I loved the simple but brilliantly effective use of multiple exposures to share Sawyer's subjective experience of a hallucinogenic, while a climactic confrontation between Foy and Leonard in a padded cell is intense and brilliantly acted. The film slips gleefully from comedy to horror, and while it perhaps teeters too far into traditional slasher movie tropes in its overextended final moments, Unsane always feels thrillingly alive.

Those final moments take place in the woods as night falls, and a deep blue pall is cast across the film. Soderbergh's iPhone camera sometimes struggles to make out the distinguishing features of the actors in such an environment, and while the director has been full of praise for this gadget as a filmmaking tool, its limitations are often glaringly evident. Unsane is full of crude, overexposed lighting and flat colours, but I found it refreshing to see a digital film that actually looks like a digital film. I've always had a fondness for the digital cinema of the late '90s and early 2000s, films that had their own distinct look and texture, before digital cinematography evolved to become a cheaper, lesser substitute for celluloid, and Unsane feels like a throwback to that visually fascinating era. iPhones won't replace movie cameras, but they will offer an alternative method of production that has its own aesthetic virtues and flaws, and it will be fascinating to see how more directors utilise it. By the time they do, Steven Soderbergh will surely have long moved on to his next experiment.