The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too). 

 

AFTER HOURS & being stressed out

Martin Scorsese’s new movie is coming out on Netflix, could you believe it?  The master of all masters relying on vomit-inducing exploitative true crime friends wanking twitter meme creating cinema killing Netflix to get backing to make what he wants to.  Uncanny and welcome to those dealing with French cinemas unpredictable schedules, and so myself, AND I’M SURE many others delve headfirst into one of life’s contradictions, watching an auteurs vision on your laptop, begrudgingly, as you stew in popular streaming hatred.  Can’t wait.  It has prompted a little look back on said director’s filmography, combing through the hits to find the ones that have been missed by my selective, compulsive brain.  After Hours, 1985, a cult hit known for being the Tim Burton debut that never was, taken on by a man who had won the Palme D’or with Taxi Driver and solidified bankable critically loved status with Raging Bull (he didn’t quite receive GOD-LIKE status until after 1990’s Goodfellas I should think).  At the time, the hacks probably saw it as a strange choice, however that could be the awful spin that Marty has of being a gangster man, I mean the guys made a musical.  In the 80s it could have been an obvious turn for a man with his hands in production companies’ deep pockets, back in the day when skillful filmmakers got access to trouser storage (WHERE ARE YOU DAVID FINCHER?).  Anyway, instead of contemplating on the OBVIOUSLY trampled on ground that is Scorsese’s career, why don’t I egotistically relate an odd movie from the 80’s to stressing out about logistical paperwork and phone sims, as a kind of self-therapy, repulsively introspective way of showing that I can only write about myself.

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The film is about a guy who meets a girl in a coffee shop, by her interrupting his reading to tell him how much she loves the book.  It’s an incel’s fantasy.  She covertly gives him her number, he calls her when he’s home, she invites him round, he accepts, and then a nightmare of a late-night ensues for the guy, Paul (Griffin Dunne), as he effectively bombs around Soho, NYC, trying to get his end away.  Actually, it’s more like he’s doing the exact opposite, but when the opportunity arises to get his end away, he certainly attempts to seize the opportunity.  After a while, he familiarly gets the feeling of just wanting to get home, because he gets stuck in a logistical misunderstanding dungeon whereby everyone in the neighbourhood hates him and the subway fare has suddenly increased.  Dunne is an everyman for sure, part of that beautiful era where leading men were 5 foot 7 twitchy dorks, crossing over from the seventies into a decade of muscle tight Stallone’s.  He can’t believe his luck that an attractive girl wants to hang out with him, until he discovers the catch, and tries to swiftly get away from her.  Kafkaesque would be an understatement and the horror of the uncomfortable situations are where the films protein is, yet it’s the latter stages when it becomes overwhelming where I found myself relating the most.  In the final third, Paul screams to the skies ‘I JUST WANT TO LIVE!’ and sat in my apartment I had a flashback break of trying to find a working printer in an underfunded French university, or filling out a grant form, or arguing with an American landlord over the phone, or panicking that I’m getting charged by the second for my English phone sim whilst living in a different country.

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It’s not an anxiety issue or a mental problem, it’s the stuff that gets in the way of life and it is annoying.  Paul is dealing with suicides, burglars and pseudo Femme Fatales, I’m dealing with slow replies to urgent e-mails.  I think the term is subtext, and I AM absolutely convinced that After Hours is about being stressed about life, and menial irritating tasks that add nothing of value to comfort or satisfaction.  Paul has a boring job, he’s a word processor (RIP), and the one chance he has to do something exciting is crushed by dull problems, such as losing his keys or GETTING HIS HAIR SHAVED INTO A MOHAWK IN A TERRIFYING PUNK CLUB.  The razor blade to the skull is when it bubbles to a far greater worry, a far greater fear that definitely wasn’t in the zeitgeist back then like it is now.  Scorsese makes timeless, eternal works of art of course.  I’m talking about climate change, the planet is screwed with no-one making meaningful policy changes to stop it, thinking about a future of swimming to a job you don’t like rather than walking to it.  It’s compound stress on top of all the other pointless shit, and it’s about the only thing worth getting worried about.  The longevity of the human race and the legacy of what you leave behind trumps the fear of death, and what you’re going to do with a media degree when you hate journalism and working for other people.  It’s kind of a twisted relief, and with some complexity, the paperwork takes your mind off the graduating, then the graduating takes your mind off the paperwork, and then the polar bears going extinct takes your mind off the inevitable half of century in the workforce and then dementia at the end of it.  At least we have films by great directors about grimy city settings, and sub-cultures you’re not a part of, swilling at the bottom of a glass, created by artists that can develop these worlds in their minds and restrict access to those clad in a suit and tie.  After Hours is a film of its time, because I think New York City isn’t a constant crime-ridden Halloween anymore?  I don’t know.  The film can be attributed to representing those lovely first world problems, lovely privileged and BORED day to day issues that make living unbearable and the relentless end to it much more inviting.  Also, the lighting is gorgeous and it’s shot better than any film that has come out post 2000.

Five Inspiring First Watches of July

A few words on a few things that have inspired me in July…

 

Face PlacesAgnes Varda

Came out in… 2017

Watched on… Netflix

The first of two Agnes Varda films on this list, and truly a beautiful movie.  I will talk of my affection for Agnes later in this piece, for now, let’s focus on the film.  It is a categorically French documentary, blending soft reality techniques with staged narrative-driven set pieces, guiding us through small-town France meeting the people that actually live in this world.  Agnes and co-creator JR paste large photos on walls, building an adorable relationship, touching on aging, fame, art and the oh so sweet simple life that I am eternally jealous of.  The film is on Netflix, a French stroke of genius, that is incredibly watchable and universal right there waiting for everyone.

 

The Elephant Man

Came out in… 1980

Watched on… Mubi

I have had a level of trepidation about watching The Elephant Man for a while, mostly out of fear, and films don’t scare me easily, but David Lynch does.  He is one of my favourite filmmakers, because of his attitude to the process and the allure of his personality rather than his actual output, so why was The Elephant Man so intimidating to me?  Perhaps due to the image of the disfigured man, that everyone has seen, or the inevitable dull melodrama that a story like this brings.  I was wrong on the second point, and in the end this film might be Lynch’s greatest achievement as an artist, pragmatically at least.  He took the predictable tale of an abused misfit taken in, cared for, and transformed, and made it into a magical experience that is as strange as it is uplifting.  Legendary film critic Pauline Kael praised the film because Lynch created something marvellous from a zilch script, and of course I agree, however I would not recommend watching this at 10am on a Tuesday, it was a teary morning.

Midsommar

New release in cinemas

I wrote a full review of this here, so I’ll keep it brief.  The film is a fishless aquarium, with a breathing ecosystem waiting for it.  Sign me up.  Take your well-rounded characters and structured plot and throw it away, give me the green plant wrapping around the throat of the unsuspecting audience.

The Edge

New release

Rented on… Amazon, also available on YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

It’s very hard to write this without being incredibly biased.  This documentary is about the 2009-2013 England cricket team, a side that was the best in the world for a short time, a side that gave a lot of their life away to get there.  If you are a cricket fan, you will enjoy the film, because it highlights what makes the game special.  I love cricket, and I love that particular era of English cricket even more, so obviously I was gripped throughout.  However, there is space for the non-cricket fan, with the film focusing on the mental toll that the sport takes on a player, showing what it takes to achieve greatness.  Director Barney Douglas does a good job of presenting the mind games and struggles that many of that team went through by going away from archive footage to shoot staged scenes with the actual players.  The film leaves a lot out, and it’s tight in its execution, working for the uninitiated as well as the fanatic.

Varda by Agnes

New release in cinemas

Also available to rent on the BFI Player

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Started with Agnes, and now finishing with her, as she ends her career by creating a retrospective of her own work.  The film is basically the legendary director talking to crowds about her output over the years, and the process, whilst she plays around a little.  What is instantly striking is her genius as a filmmaker, someone who was always messing with the form, trying a new thing with each film.  She is an artist who makes me happy and now that she is gone, this film will stay as a reminder for how wonderful she and her work was.  The sweetest parts of the film are when she talks of her late husband, another French filmmaking hero, Jacques Demy, a man who after decades is still the most important thing to her.  Her friendships and collaborations are also striking, showing that human interaction and love will never be beaten by a camera lens or the relentless passing of time.

 

 

 

 

 

Midsommar – Film Review

American director Ari Aster has followed up quickly to his debut feature Hereditary, a cultural and monetary success, making a profit of almost eight times its budget.  The film performed particularly well in the UK, generating around seven million, after being marketed as the scariest movie since The Exorcist (1973).  Of course, like the seventies classic, Hereditary’s scares were not its greatest attribute, yet the film was cruel, despairing and different to most mainstream horrors.  The film played to big, multiplex audiences and was somehow successful with them, so Aster got bankrolled to try it again.  With Midsommar, the world and Boris Johnson riddled Britain may not connect as tightly.

The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who begins the film worrying about her troubled sister whilst worrying about her boyfriend dumping her.  That boyfriend is Christian (Jack Reynor), a grad student struggling to find a thesis subject.  He is planning a trip with his friends to Sweden, to visit fellow student Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) isolate home community during a summer festival that only happens every ninety years, but Christian has not told Dani about the trip.  Due to a traumatic event early on in the film, Christian is forced to bring Dani along and they head to Halsingland, Sweden.  The trip is part academic, with one of Christian’s friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) doing his own Ph.D. on the commune.  It is soon apparent the strange activities of the community, and Dani begins to relive her trauma, whilst the others study the celebration.

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The film opens bleakly, and before the trip to Europe, which is an interesting choice and it says something about what Aster was striving for.  It is common for a genre filmmaker to throw you right into the action, disregard what comes before, and after, to show the thrills of the main event without any baggage.  Aster decides to structure his films slightly different, by having relationship drama first, then a long moody build-up, then the main event, then catastrophic end.  His formula can be criticised because it feels almost like he has a deep set up, just to have an exclamation point resolution: sorrow, intrigue, flowers, MIDSOMMAR!   Aster has described Midsommar as a break – up movie, rather than a cult chiller, and perhaps the director could be running away from his own genre with this statement.  Aster does not have to be so pretentious in his estimations of his own work, sure there’s an impending break – up in there, but that’s not the film.  The film really isn’t anything, it’s a lot of good ideas expertly presented, that paints an intriguing surface.

It would be unfair to say that there is nothing beneath that surface, and in the time the film will be judged on its ideas of death and community, instead of break-ups and trauma.  The relationship between Dani and Christian is clearly flawed, and they are obviously a poor fit together, with the film being unambiguous in this.  Christian is impossibly absent of any actual care for Dani and his abrasiveness has made him a Twitter meme, which is surely not what Aster was aiming for if he wanted the pulling the apart of the two characters to be taken seriously.  That is the strength of the film, and why it is ultimately worthy amongst summer 2019’s abysmal cinema.  Midsommar throws away any attachments to message or plot about two-thirds of the way through, and honestly this was a breath of fresh air.  If you take the film as a total visual experience, which is a culmination of a collection of emotion transgressed through humour, stunning imagery, and shocking sights, you will be satisfied.  There is a sense of the levity to Midsommar and it has funny shots, and lines.  It would be wrong to label this film as a comedy, and it’s there to let the audience know that Aster’s aware it’s a bit bonkers too.  At least I hope he does.  The scariest part of the movie is when Christian effectively steals Josh’s thesis subject, and it’s a shame Aster didn’t explore it more.  And what do the cult believe?  That humans and nature are one presumably, life is a cycle of reliving through the environment around you.  Some subtly finally occurs in the climax, bizarrely and contradictory to what is happening in the frame, where questions are being asked on how far Dani has been enchanted by the cult, and how much control she has of her actions.  One thing that is picked at by Aster is the idea that Dani’s situation, and to a lesser extent Christian’s, is dictated by events out of their control that is epitomised by the peculiar routines and traditions of the community.

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The performances in Midsommar line up with the direction.  Pugh is given the most to do, and apart from some over-zealous screaming she is convincing and brings strong ecstatic energy during a dancing competition scene, which is the highlight of the film.  She manages to be uplifting and curious, amongst the community that is instantly seen to be dangerous, remained worried whilst also being courteous, where the American boys are mocking.  Reynor is playing a one-sided character and only gets to do something different when his back is against the wall towards the end of the film.  Will Poulter is the non-academic snide member of the group, there for the comedy and to push Christian further into egotism.  The rest of the characters are fairly shallow, which ultimately isn’t a total flaw because of Asters show don’t tell eyes.  It’s hard to understand whether he is actually ‘telling’ something or only ‘showing’, however the film has a good balance between giving the actors space to breath and letting them get lost in the impressive cinematography.  And Aster uses the Swedish characters as pawns to hold the shot composition together, as much as they are there to frighten.

Midsommar has already made a million in the UK, showing some steam, but it may still prove to be a flop.  The film will struggle to utilise the word of mouth power that Hereditary got, considering the film has zero attempts to pander to a wide audience.  Aster has this weird higher standard to which critics hold him to, possibly due to his quick success or the way his films are marketed as cultural events, and the remarkability of his movie’s technical achievements are forgotten.  Without him, there would be no salvage in the mainstream from franchise, conglomerate studio shite, and so he deserves a little appreciation.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.  Two and a half hours flew by, and it’s enjoyable whether you have the stomach for it or not.

 

 

 

Mid90s – Film Review

There are many reasons why smaller, independent movies are not marketed well, the two main ones being budget, and the obscurity of the film. This has not been a problem for Mid90s, all thanks to its writer and director Jonah Hill. The stardom of Hill has meant that he has been able to chat to the likes of Jimmy Fallon on late night American TV (and subsequent widespread YouTube audience) about his directorial debut, to really push the narrative of an actor learning from the masterful directors he has worked with. However this does not mean that his film isn’t a weird indie, it is, and it is actually quite mental.

The film stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a young teenager struggling to find his image under constant physical abuse from his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). He starts to hang out with a group of skaters, who are a small group of friends all with their own individual personalities, and issues. With these guys, Stevie gets a fast track through puberty, and he learns some truths about life.

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Jonah Hill is throwing everything in here, every kind of shot, cut, character motivation and music choice.  There is no single road that the film goes down, and it makes the film quite messy rather than artistic. For a majority of the runtime, it feels like a music video, and the soundtrack for the film must have forty tracks on it because the tune changes every scene.  It’s not a good music video either, I was expecting a rhythm between the action and the song choice, more connectivity with the beats and the skateboarding. After watching Minding the Gap a couple of weeks ago, where the skateboarding moments are stunning, Mid90s doesn’t come close to the melody that documentary has. It’s not all bad, some of the frantic cutting with the cycle of mixed songs works, particularly in a party scene where the edit is synchronised with the music. Most of it is jarring, and the biggest surprise of Mid90s is that it’s a scratchy independent movie, with rough edges and obvious signs that it is a first time director.  This is in complete contrast with Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born, which is a polished affair from a popular actor turned director, and honestly it’s difficult to decide which is the least obnoxious.  And that’s the thing, Mid90s is an unpleasant movie, without real drama or ideas to warrant its unpleasantness.

There are a few problematic moments in the film. We discover very early on that Stevie self-harms, in any way that he can, and this is where the film falls down.  There is no problem in having this is in cinema, but Hill is resting on it to guide the film and Stevie’s character, and it was too much after he had already established the abuse he receives from his brother.  A lot of the film is too much, where Hill is almost writing to one-up himself with each scene, putting his characters through pointless recurring pain. Another problematic moment is during an intimate scene between an older girl and Stevie, and it’s not because of the content but because of the choices Hill made.  He chose to cast a child who looks young for his age, and he chose to cast an attractive actress, and he chose to shoot a close-up of them kissing.  The ‘what if the roles were reversed’ argument is stupid, and there is a defence for Hill on that, because of the obvious sexual maturity differences in an older guy grooming a younger girl compared to an older girl grooming a younger guy.  It’s the idea of this stereotypically beautiful woman wanting to have sexual contact with a younger boy because he’s innocent that makes it uncomfortable, and it would have been acceptable if Hill hadn’t moulded the scene to be so overtly sexual.  The scene comes across as sleazy, and perverse, instead of the intended intention of showing a natural part of growing up.

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There is an interesting film in there somewhere – one of the skater’s Ray (Na-kel Smith) is a lovely character with something to say, but as soon as he says something Hill seems to forget about it and go back to his child getting drunk or being abused.  Much of the promotion in this film has included the bond between Hill and Suljic, but Hill sure does put him through some trauma.  Katherine Waterson as Stevie and Ian’s mother is the best part of the movie, and she is an extraordinary actor when used correctly.  Her character’s mystery of whether her kids’ problems are her fault is actually presented in a nuanced fashion, dissimilar to everything else in the film.  My instant reaction Mid90s was probably harsh because I’d much rather be in a world where filmmakers are making trickier things like this over safer efforts, there is just a lack of execution.  Hill has taken on the teachings of the great directors he’s worked for (Scorsese, Coen Brothers, Bennett Miller, etc), but perhaps he could have left out a few lessons.  The film is not funny, exciting, emotional or profound like it thinks it is, and although some of the coming of age stuff is fine, it’s not good enough to carry the other themes.  Mid90s is irritating, brash and unpoetic, which earns Hill respect for trying, but leads to a movie that is hard to enjoy.
Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?
No.  It’s rubbish.  I’m not even sure you can sell this to the skateboarder either, Hill sort of loses it as a motif about half-way through. Watch Minding the Gap instead, which is a far greater investigation into masculinity, race, abuse, and friendship with skateboarding at the centre.

Us – Is Being Less Scary, and More Funny, a Bad Thing?

The short answer is no, of course not, and the short take on Us is that it is great – an accomplished piece of work and a crowd pleaser. Jordan Peele has proven himself to be a skilled director, but the man just can’t help but be funny. He’s got joke blood running through his veins, that is transforming into his screenplays, except that Us is certainly funnier than Get Out, so it must be a conscious decision on some level. The real question is how detrimental is this to the drama, or the emotional engagement of the film.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a member of constantly bickering but functional family, and someone burdened with childhood drama. She’s married to Gabe, the walking talking version of a dad joke, and is the mother of two idiosyncratic children. Whilst returning to the location where her trauma took place, she begins to relive her troubles, until her worst nightmare comes true when a doppelganger family appears to torment them.

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The film on a base level is terrific. It is a well-made, well-performed addition to the horror cannon and thoroughly entertaining. From the outset Peele replicates the energy from Get Out with fluid and rhythmic filmmaking, there is even a moment where Adelaide shows her son how to get in beat with a song, and as an audience you match that too. The film takes its time to get to the crux of the story, but it is not a slow build, thanks to some clever writing and interesting shot choices – Peele is putting things into place for later, such as Adelaide switching on the lights to cut to the room being flipped around. And when the plot gets going, we have spent enough time with the main family to care when their lives are in danger. The relationship dynamic between Adelaide and Gabe is a strange one, however possibly explainable. Gabe is wonderfully played by Winston Duke, and making his third only big-screen appearance he is the perfect nerdy dad. He’s cringe-worthy to his children, annoying to his wife, but likeable and endearing. His character as a whole though is basically a joke and around for much of the humour, even poking fun at Adelaide when she explains her trauma to him. They seem like a mismatched couple, because Adelaide is cool and reserved, while Gabe is a massive dork, and I know – opposite’s attract right? I was just thinking why on earth she would go for this guy. An answer could be that her lack of social skills goes well with is outgoing, loser attitude, but I think it’s valid to wonder if the intensity of the film is blunter because of their lack of a connection.
What the film manages to do is dodge the Gabe character being pointless, by making him genuinely hilarious. I’ve tried to tackle comedy before, and it’s tough, because how do you describe funny? Duke’s timing works, Peele’s a comic genius, and above all else people that are likeable and silly are funny. There you go. He’s not the only source of humour though, there are plenty of physical and musical gags as well, and these moments got the whole cinema laughing, so much so that there was an overlap to where they were still giggling when something more horror-fuelled was going on. Is that a bad thing? If you would have asked me that question after I saw Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, I would have said yes, totally the jokes take away from the emotion of that film. However with Us I didn’t feel that way at all, and I know why, it’s because of how funny the comedy is, and the competence of the directing. I don’t want to dog on Three Billboards too much, I’ve done that several times before, but the directing in that film is dull, and Peele’s directing in Us is precise and interesting. Even something as simple as the family walking to the beach was shot with style, choosing to take the camera in a god’s eye view position. The film is lit superbly, with the night time horror scenes not being so dark that we couldn’t get a good look at the action, and the editing really astounded me – the climactic fight was remarkable in the way that it was cut together. So my take is that when you have such expert film-making on the go, you can blend humour, and horror, and drama altogether, you’ve earned the right to do so. And when you have an actor at the top of the game like Elizabeth Moss in there as well, you’re really onto a winner.

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I think that overall the film is an entertaining thriller that has contradicted some of my criticism that you can’t put comedy and character drama together. The film doesn’t have any real scares, and it’s exciting rather than spooky, also Peele was skimping a bit on the gore. It’s gruesome enough but a couple of times he shied away from the violence, and it didn’t add anything, which made my sick side wish that I got to see the throat being cut open. I don’t come from a position where I can accurately pick apart the films underlying race themes, or its attempt to present the United States as a whole. What I can say is that the way it presented trauma through the Adelaide character worked for me, thanks to a pretty amazing performance from Lupita Nyong’o. She is a screen grabbing actor, almost ethereal and mystifying, in both of the roles she is playing in this film. Peele hasn’t created a ground-breaking movie that perhaps he did with Get Out, because everything is a little vague and the plot runs away with itself at the end. Get Out was more purposeful and despite my enjoyment of Us, some of the horrors were lost at the expense of humour, but the impression I got is that Peele was going for that. Instead of something profound he’s gone for something more genre specific, and punched himself into horror history.

Under The Silver Lake – Film Review

If there was a single, simple question that has been asked on this blog, it would probably be: how do people differently read movies? I have written several times before about how an individual’s enjoyment of a film is dictated by their own experiences, or what they had to eat on the morning they went to the cinema.  Mark Kermode is a legend of film criticism, and even though his views are becoming old, he is still of significant importance in the movie discourse in Britain.  I am writing this review as almost a reaction to his BBC Radio 5 Live one, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pcl3GAOyJSk

Under The Silver Lake is the third feature from American director David Robert Mitchell, his previous being It Follows (2014), a highly acclaimed pseudo-horror movie that earned him a bigger budget this time, and the ability to attract big star Andrew Garfield.  He stars as layabout Sam, who is first introduced as a peeping tom, spying on his attractive new neighbour (Riley Keough).  Inexplicably (though a key thing to remember is how good looking Garfield is), they quickly start a relationship, but she disappears the day after, which causes Sam to search for her, almost in sexual frustration at first.  The more he looks around, the more he gets lost in a strange series of events in the underbelly of Los Angeles.  And if you haven’t seen the film, trust me, you don’t want to know any more than that.

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To put it crudely, much as the film does, there are two lanes that you can go down with this one.  One takes the Mark Kermode road where the film is utter sexist nonsense, and the other takes you on a road of weird sub-reality paranoia.  I took the second road, and with trepidation, as the film takes a little while to settle you in because some of it is properly bonkers.  In an early scene Sam is confronted by a dead rodent that seems to be trying to communicate with him, and from there I was asking myself, how much of this is actually grounded in reality?  There are definite dream sequences, where Mitchell flexes his horror muscles, and it’s unclear when these sequences end.  It would be wrong to say that the entirety of the film is fantasy, because it’s more dreamlike filmmaking, in the same vein of a David Lynch production, and the Lynchian references are frequent.  Often the film has call-backs to Lynch’s style, and themes, in a kind of a mix between Blue Velvet (1986) (Sam’s wandering suburban investigating) and Mulholland Drive (2001) (the false hopes of an eerie Hollywood setting).  Patrick Fischler even makes an appearance as a complete crackpot, his eyes the same wideness they are in the diner scene from Mulholland Drive.  Lynch is not the only reference Mitchell uses, the film is cluttered with pop culture, and technically the film resembles a Hitchcock piece, we’re talking Vertigo car follows and Rear Window long shots, and the female characters have the overtly sexual, mostly blonde look from Hitchcock movies as well.

The women in the film have been a talking point because they are solely presented as objects of desire, ignorant and all willing to have sex with Sam.  However the world is viewed through the eyes of Sam, who is a leering, undesirable pervert, and Garfield plays that well – his dorky run in particular is hilarious.  The only issue that comes with this, is that Garfield is a handsome chap, and has a good physique that can’t be hidden, despite their attempts to give him a bit of beer belly.  For the most part, this doesn’t deter from the female characters being projections by Sam, we see the film through his eyes, not the directors and it’s clear from the outset that he’s not a good guy.  An unsympathetic protagonist is totally captivating to me, and I think it would be easy to dismiss the film because it is not straight down the line with its political standpoint.  A lot of the film is played for laughs, and though the screen I saw it in stayed pretty quiet, there are plenty of moments when I was thinking, should I be laughing at this?  Mitchell is unapologetic and self-referential, with the autobiographic nature of the film painted right there for you to see, so the increasing ridiculousness of the story turns somewhat endearing.  Sam’s postmodern poking at the culture beast, finding meaning in randomness, going on a never-ending adventure into the Illuminati void is both sickening, and understandable, Mitchell mocking this pursuit whilst creating an absurd romanticism around it.

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Subtleness is tossed out of the window here, and the film is obvious and open in its message, or the distraction of the message.  Much of the plot is delivered aggressively through Sam talking to himself, or news programmes on the TV in the background, and this can be off-putting.  You just have to go with it, and take the road that Mark Kermode avoided, understand that the film is about Sam’s inadequacies and the fallacies of conspiracy hunting, mainstream media shunning and boredom of the modern white man.  Is it toxic masculinity, white privilege or the capabilities of an intelligent loser with a lot of time on his hands?  Or all three?  What it certainly isn’t, is boring.  David Jenkins, the editor of Little White Lies, wrote in his review that as much as you might be outraged by the film, you can’t help but admire Mitchell’s ability to get this story funded, and have the bravery to go through with complete conviction in his vision, and I agree with that.  As a film lover, you must be happy for this film’s existence, where we live in a cycle of dull Hollywood biopics, endless superhero movies, and remakes, Mitchell has created something that is reflective of RIGHT NOW, as putrid as that is.  And whilst I’m trying not to spoil anything, my instant take away is that for the majority of the 139 minute runtime, Sam might just be masturbating, deluded in his quest to save womankind from the patriarchal movie industry, worried about being forgotten in a new ambivalent, melancholic and distant society that is STILL obsessed with pop music and being the brightest star in the room.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes, but go in as blind as you can, and enjoy the ride without other thinking it too much.

 

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