“A Quiet Place” Review

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Horror works best when it taps into real fears. A unique premise and creepy monsters work for momentary jumps, but to have a lasting effect a scary movie needs to explore the primal anxieties and concerns we all face day to day. This is exactly what John Krasinski taps into so well with A Quiet Place, which Krasinski directs, stars in, and co-wrote. On the surface it’s a clever and tense monster movie about a family struggling to survive in the wilderness while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound, but on a Meta level it allows Krasinski to explore his own insecurities about parenting in a way that only the horror genre can. The real-life relationship between him and his co-star Emily Blunt adds an extra layer to the mother and father roles they play, and their desperation to protect their children truly feels as though it’s coming from somewhere very real. Given that there a few moments in A Quiet Place where the characters are truly safe, and it all adds up to a filmic experience that is as emotionally engaging as it is terrifyingly tense.

It’s uncommon for the sound design of a film to be one of its most notable aspects, but when noise is as important to a story as it is in The Quiet Place every creak, footstep, and scuffle is cause for alarm. The Abbott family’s farmhouse is located within hunting range of at least three of the sound-sensitive creatures that have wiped out much of the population, and there may be more they don’t know about. This forces the characters to be so quiet when interacting with the world that their own heartbeats are often louder that anything coming from the environment, until something inevitably goes wrong and makes a sound that feels very, very loud. It turns the film into a masterpiece of tension, as nearly every scene can turn dangerous with no warning through something as simple as a dropped lamp. Special mention must be given to how important Marco Beltrami’s score becomes in a film with as little dialogue as this, with the music setting the tone for both the more peaceful, melancholic moments as well as the heart pounding sequences when the creatures attack. More importantly, both Beltrami and Krasinski know when to not use music at all, as the silent moments are the ones that had me holding my breath and leaning in closer to the screen in anticipation of what would happen next.

As clever as the central concept of A Quiet Place is, there have been plenty of horror movies with smart premises that weren’t able to carry them for a full cinematic runtime. It’s thanks to the strength of the performers and the constant twists of the script that A Quiet Place is just as gripping in its nail-biting opening scene as it is for the powerful final shot. Krasinski and Blunt are both experienced actors who clearly relish the opportunity to express their characters and emotions non-verbally, utilising a mix of sign language and facial expressions, but I was surprised by how well the two child actors manage. Millicent Simmonds’s own deafness is reflected in her character, adding an additional level of lived experience to the silence she lives in, but both her and Noah Jupe bring out an extraordinary amount of personality without needing dialogue. It’s notable that the writing of one brief scene between Jupe and Krasinski where they can share spoken words feels uncomfortably clunky and unnatural, particularly after how effectively the characters have used alternative means to communicate up until that point.

The screenplay keeps the narrative fairly contained to the Abbott family and their farmhouse, but a few nice little touches suggest a larger world that’s surviving against the creatures in their own way. I particularly appreciated a minor sequence where Lee (Krasinski) lights a bonfire that is matched by other unseen households in the distance, wordlessly implying the presence of other families with their own stories. I was a bit underwhelmed by the actual monster design of the creatures the more we see of them, which end up resembling the demogorgon from Strange Things and are more frightening in how their absence forces the Abbott family to live in a constant state of caution. The truly impressive thing about A Quiet Place, though, is how even in this tense environment Krasinski is able to develop the relationship between this family and explore what lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children. Another example of how a simple horror movie premise can be used to say something much deeper about the human experience.

4 and a half stars.

“The Death of Stalin” Review

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A tyrant as monstrous as Joseph Stalin isn’t the most obvious subject for a feature comedy, yet the circumstances surrounding his death and the ensuing power struggle do have a certain farcical quality around them. Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci provides the same satirical touch he applied to British politics with The Thick of It and American politics with Veep to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, deftly balancing the pettiness of the high-ranking members of the Communist Central Committee with the atrocities being done to the common people.

The first thing one is likely to notice about The Death of Stalin is the lack of Russian accents, with the opening sequence demonstrating some deliciously British cringe comedy as Paddy Considine attempts to restage an entire concert rather than fail to deliver on an unexpected request from Stalin himself. As the other primary characters get introduced performers like Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Simon Russell Beale all utilise their natural speaking voices – with Jason Isaacs in particular relishing in the opportunity to belt out his character’s crude and bombastic declarations in a thick Yorkshire accent. Whereas a film like Red Sparrow became unintentionally absurd through the number of European actors adopting fake Russian accents, the complete lack of dialect in Death of Stalin is a stroke of genius on Iannucci’s part. The contrast between the setting and the language adds another layer of lunacy to the proceedings, emphasising the human follies of figures like Stalin and his council despite the atrocities they commit. Major historical characters like Nikitia Khrushchev (Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), and Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) are introduced through slow-motion shots and dramatic blasts of Russian chorales even as they swap crude jokes over dinner at each other’s expenses, laughing uproariously like College frat boys. The grandeur of the regal environments and Chris Willis’s military-esque score serves to emphasise how childish the characters are being as they race (sometimes literally) each other to snatch whatever morsels of power they can acquire.

I was initially concerned that the comedic approach to Stalin’s regime and the aftermath of his death would make light of the crimes committed in his name, but Iannucci isn’t afraid to expose this uncomfortable reality. Jumping between exaggerated displays of mourning from the committee members to innocent people being lined up and shot can be jarring at first, but as the film progresses Iannucci displays a boldness in his approach to comedy by gradually stripping away the humour to confront the cruelty of the men we were previously laughing at. It’s not always an easy watch, and anyone expecting a simple satire may be confronting by the violence on display in certain scenes, but The Death of Stalin embraces its status as a black comedy of the darkest nature to expose a brutal truth. The laugh-out-loud moments, such as character trying to move Stalin’s body without kneeling in his urine, may be fiction, but the crimes these characters go on to commit are uncomfortable facts.

4 and a half stars.

“A Fantastic Woman” Review

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Films like A Fantastic Woman, which are so centred on a specific character and their unique experience, just can’t work without the right actor in the part. Fortunately director Sebastian Lelio had the insight to give Daniela Vega, who was originally hired as a script consultant, the lead role – and it’s the performance of a lifetime. As a trans woman struggling to deal with both the unexpected death of her partner and the judgement of his family, Vega’s character Marina accepts the abuse thrown at her with an unflinching demeanour and quiet strength. It’s through Lelio’s direction and the cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta that we see her frustration and the toll it’s taking on her. One brief moment features Marina walking down the street against the wind, the force getting stronger and stronger until it’s nearly blowing her off her feet. Throughout it all Marina holds strong and pushes through. It’s a wonderfully symbolic and understated moment that demonstrates A Fantastic Woman’s strength for drawing upon the audience’s empathy without feeling as though it had to force a message. It simply didn’t matter how different the life experience of a Chilean transgender woman may be from my own – we connect to her so deeply on a purely human-to-human level as an audience that all I wanted was for her to succeed.

As Marina’s partner, Orlando, Francisco Reyes makes the most of his limited screen-time to ensure that his presence is felt throughout the entire film. The relationship between the two is quickly and efficiently established as one of mutual love and acceptance, and I appreciated how Lelio depicts the opening scenes through Orlando’s perspective to create an immediate connection with the character before his sudden death. His presence or lack thereof is keenly felt throughout the rest of the film as Marina attempts to mourn him despite his family’s objections, occasionally appearing as either a memory or spectre to offer guidance and support. Unfortunately few of the other people Marina encounters are as accommodating, yet Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay finely balances both the blatant aggression with more subtle forms of discrimination. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) weakly prefaces her insults with “no offence” as she refuses to accept Marina’s identity, and even a detective (Amparo Noguera) who claims to be an ally assumes that Orlando’s relationship with Marina must have involved abuse of some kind. It demonstrates how while general public awareness and acceptance of trans people has come a long way, there’s still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Fortunately films like A Fantastic Woman are a good start, marking the first film lead by a transgender character to win “Best Foreign Film” at the recent Academy Awards as well as giving Daniela Vega the honour of being the first openly transgender woman to present.

Throughout A Fantastic Woman both Lelio and Vega are able to find moments of honesty and heart, no matter what trials Marina faces. Without giving anything away the film ends on a moment of serene beauty, with Marina in a state of almost serenity. It was a wonderful scene to leave this character on, demonstrating how this genuinely fantastic woman is strong enough to rise above all those who can’t understand her.

4 and a half stars.

“Sweet Country” Review

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The Australian landscape is perfectly suited for the Western genre, with wide-open plains that suggest both exquisite beauty and dangerous inhospitality. Despite a string of bushranger films in the early years of Australian cinema, notably including The True History of the Kelly Gang (scenes of which are on display in Sweet Country), it’s less common to see Australian Westerns lately. Fortunately there have been two recent examples of films that utilises the outback to tell stories of crime, the police, and outlaws through the perspective of Indigenous Australians, demonstrating the rise of new voices to one of our oldest genres – first 2016’s excellent Goldstone (Ivan Sen) and now the poetic and artful Sweet Country, from Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton.

On paper the story of Sweet Country is remarkably simple, feeling frustratingly slow at times but nicely split into a clear three-act structure. We’re first introduced to Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal man working on a farm in the 1920s under the care of preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). When he meets veteran Harry March (Ewen Lesie), Sam is immediately wary of the man due to his alcoholism, unstable mental state, and clear racial prejudice. When March attacks Smith’s house in search of an escaped Aboriginal boy who had been working on his land, Sam is forced to shoot and kill him in an act of self-defence. The second act follows him as he attempts to escape persecution by fleeing into the wilderness, pursued by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), and the third act details his murder trial. Yet the simplicity of the story enables Thornton to put his audience into each moment by emphasising all the smaller, natural details of the world he presents.

Sweet Country is an extraordinarily sensorial experience, particularly through the soundscape Thornton and his team have constructed. With the exception of a single Johnny Cash song over the end credits there is no music throughout the picture, instead a soundtrack of harsh winds and the calls of nature permeate through every scene. It places the viewer firmly within each environment, with the camera emphasising the vastness of the outback. Acting as cinematographer as well as director, Thornton has created the best looking Australian film in years. He uses the natural beauty of his setting to contrast the rustic and dirty homes of the European settlers, demonstrating how they fail to tame and coexist with the land they’ve taken over. Sweet Country never fails to remind the audience how the white farmers are taking both the homes and culture of the Aboriginal people, and Thornton does it in a way that feels more like stating a fact than preaching a message. The indigenous characters seem sadly resigned to their situations, even as they struggle to understand the new rules that are being forced upon them. Morris’s performance as Sam demonstrates a weariness and ingrained understanding of the injustices facing him and his people, with his facial expression rarely changing from a look of profound sadness. For even if sympathetic characters like Fred Smith try to treat Sam as an equal, he is never able to forget the power imbalance between them.

By utilising classic elements of the Western genre and a simple story of a man fleeing persecution, Thornton is able to delve deeper into a powerful exploration of Australia’s darker past. At various points throughout Sweet Country there are flash-forwards to later moments in the film, ambiguous at first glance only to be given greater meaning later. I found that this works to remind viewers that these events, set in the 1920s, have already happened, and to suggest the importance of remembering our history even if we can’t change it.

4 and a half stars.

“I, Tonya” Review

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Since starting this website I’ve written reviews for a number of biopics, particularly with the rush of Oscar-bait pictures before the Academy Awards in March. I, Tonya sets a new standard against which they should all be judged, as director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers strive to reinvent the public perception of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding through a fast-paced, comically tragic feature that uses the truth as a toy.

Framed in a mockumentary style, Rogers’s script utilises interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona Fay Golden, and her coach Diane Rawlinson as they all share very different perspective on the events leading up to and including the famous 1994 attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The contradictory narration from each character provides a refreshing twist on a narrative technique that’s often used to hide bad writing, as the main figures of the story will interrupt their own scenes to defend themselves from more outlandish accusations or assure the audience that yes – some of these things did really happen. At times Gillespie’s direction seems to be paying homage to classic Scorsese works, particularly the fourth-wall breaking of Goodfellas or the in-the-ring camera work of Raging Bull, but to accuse him of simple imitation would be a disservice. There’s a tremendous speed to this film, with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis rarely keeping the camera still as it moves through the Harding household during one of Tonya and Jeff’s violent arguments or follows her through her routines. The camera work and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing operate in tandem to join together various moments of Tonya’s life, with days depicted in single unbroken shots and Tanya’s past and future intercut to demonstrate her highs and lows. Similarly, the comic and the tragic are balanced brilliantly, as the hilariously colourful insults the characters throw at each other turn dark as they move into physical and psychological abuse, or moments of genuine vulnerability are met with audacious responses.

Unsurprisingly the characters in I, Tonya operate in a fairly dark moral plane, ranging from the abusive to the dangerously dumb. The entire cast don’t hold back from showcasing the worst traits of their characters as their performances suggest how they came to get that way – particularly Margot Robbie and Alison Janney as Tonya and LaVona. This is easily the best performance of Robbie’s career, presenting the hard edge Harding has had to build as well as the desperation she feels to prove herself. Her expressions often say more than Rogers’ script ever could, looking directly into the camera in moments of ecstatic triumph, deranged determination, and broken despair. Robbie makes a woman who has been vilified by the media remarkably sympathetic without portraying her as an innocent; she’s not America’s sweetheart and she’s not a monster, but a complicated woman who has been abused much of her life. As she herself states, “for a moment I was loved, then I was hated.” One notable moment has Robbie decrying the media while speaking directly at the camera, and it was as if I could feel the real Tonya Harding’s anger extending out from beyond the movie. Janney, who has been consistently excelling in supporting roles since The West Wing finished, is finally given another part to display her considerable talents and range as she hurls out curses and cutting remarks to anyone who challenges her. Janney displays a world-weariness and anger that she takes out on Tonya with a weak excuse that it makes her a better skater, performed in a way that suggests she doesn’t even believe her own lies but can’t connect to her daughter any other way. Rounding out the cast is Sebastian Stan as Jeff, who alternates between doting on Tonya and beating her, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s deluded incompetent bodyguard who is so ridiculous that Gillespie has to show footage of the real man over the end credits to make it clear that they didn’t invent some of his more absurd claims.

I, Tonya does a remarkable job bringing together multiple perspectives and accounts of Harding’s life, presenting a multifaceted depiction of a woman who has been treated as a one-dimensional joke for much of her life, and yet there is a significant absence that can’t help but prevent the story from reaching its true potential. Nancy Kerrigan is barely featured at all, and spoken about by others rather than getting to speak for herself. It’s unclear whether this omission was due to a real-life refusal from Kerrigan to take part or simply a decision to keep the story centred around Harding, but a film that aims to redeem her can’t quite pull it off by brushing over a figure who is that important to her life. Admittedly I, Tonya never claims to be the absolute truth about Harding, and by presenting reality as the characters remember it Gillespie is able to make a biopic more entertaining and nuanced that most, but with so many voices being heard the absence of such a significant one is distractingly evident.

4 and a half stars.

“Paddington 2” Review

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There was some trepidation before the release of the first Paddington movie in 2014 from English audiences and those who grew up with the familiar bear in the red hat and blue duffle coat, as the character was so iconic and ingrained in British culture that there were concerns the film wouldn’t do him justice. Personally I never read Michael Bond’s original books growing up, but adored Paul King’s warm and charming film so much that my worries were instead reserved for the release of the sequel, which I was convinced would be inferior. To my utter delight and surprise King (and Paddington) have returned with a film that is just as witty, pleasant, and visually inventive as its predecessor – if not more so due to a wider array of outlandish characters and larger set pieces.

The plot is simple, and largely an excuse for Paddington to wind up in a variety of Chaplin-esque comedic situations. Paddington wants to buy his Aunt Lucy a rare pop-up book of London for her birthday, so has to find a job to afford it. Unfortunately the book has also caught the attention of eccentric washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who steals the book and frames Paddington. Paddington winds up in jail, and the friendly Brown family have to attempt to clear his name while uncovering Buchanan’s plot. A fairly standard story for a summer holidays release, and inoffensive for the kids in the audience, but what makes Paddington 2 truly special is the amount of heart and genuine goodwill it brings to every element of itself. Paddington is constantly quoting his Aunt’s belief that if you look for the good in a person you’ll usually find it, and it’s this attitude that prevails throughout King and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay. Early scenes demonstrate how Paddington’s selflessness has improved the lives of everyone around his home in Windsor Gardens, both returning and new characters, and even the grouchiest figures can’t maintain their tough and cruel exteriors against the bear’s relentless optimism and determination. When much of recent news and pop culture purveys a cynical outlook on the world it’s like a breath of fresh air to have something so unashamedly nice, with the film encouraging innocence without feeling naïve or ironic.

After the success of the first Paddington movie it seems that British actors were clamouring over one another to be involved with the sequel as nearly every role is filled with a recognisable face, from Brendan Gleeson to Jessica Hynes with delightful cameos from Joanna Lumley and Richard Ayoade. Ultimately, though, it’s Hugh Grant’s film to steal. I’m unsure whether the part of Phoenix Buchanan was specially written for him or simply genius casting but it allows him to parody his own extensive career while demonstrating his considerable talents, and it helps that it looks like he’s having the most fun of his life doing so. Regularly holding conversations with himself as different characters in room decorated with his real-life headshots and wearing a new flamboyant costume in every scene, it’s a completely unabashed performance that he relishes in with all the energy of a classic vaudeville star. Rather than the other actors being overwhelmed by such a performance, he’s frequently balanced by Sally Hawkins’ somewhat floaty Mary Brown and Hugh Bonneville’s sternly exasperated Henry Brown. Throughout it all Ben Whitsaw’s calm and gentle vocal performances as the titular bear maintains the sweetness at the core of Paddington 2 no matter how crazy the story gets.

The term “children’s film” is often used dismissively, but Paul King blends the real and the imaginative to visually reflect that sense of wonder associated with the mind of a child. London is transformed into a living storybook, toy houses open up into real ones, and the soundtrack is often played on-screen by the returning street band from the first film. Despite being a big-budgeted summer release Paddington 2 feels as playful and intimate as a passion project, and is one of the most irresistibly charming films in a long while – whether for children or adults. Also the film opens with a flashback to Paddington as a cub and it was so cute I nearly burst into tears right then and there.

4 and a half stars.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Review

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Almost as soon as the audience is introduced to Mildred Hayes, the protagonist of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s clear that she is not a woman to be trifled with. Framed from behind as she strides into a room, taking charge immediately as Carter Burwell’s commanding and almost heroic theme plays, she almost resembles the lone gunslinger of a classic Western – the one who would stand up for their cause against anyone who got in their way. Yet the more I saw of Mildred Hayes the more I felt that Three Billboards is demonstrating the folly of such a figure, and how fighting against the world does more harm than good.

Hayes has a good reason to be angry, though – her teenage daughter was violently murdered not far from her own home and seven months later the police still haven’t made any arrests, prompting her to hire out the titular billboards to hold them accountable and remind them of her daughter’s case. She’s a harsh woman who swears up a storm and doesn’t care what anyone thinks, completely willing to ruin her own reputation and the reputation of anyone who gets in her way as long as it means her daughter’s killer can be found. It’s a dangerous role that verges on being unlikable, but Frances McDormand delivers a career-best performance to suggest that a lifetime of pain and loss has forced Mildred to never acknowledge her own vulnerability again. McDormand commands every scene she’s in, overpowering and single-minded in her determination to get someone to listen to her. Where Mildred is assured and uncompromising in her belief that she is in the right, Sam Rockwell’s performance as the racist and violent Office Jason Dixon is unbalanced and volatile – lashing out whenever someone accuses him of being wrong. They’re two completely different figures yet the actors compliment each other perfectly, with both finding moments of tenderness in characters that push the boundaries of how far one can go while still being sympathetic. Somewhere between the two is Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the primary focus of Hayes’s ire despite being deeply respected in town. Willoughby opposes Hayes’s accusations while begrudgingly respecting her strength, with writer-director Martin McDonagh’s script critiquing aspects of the police institution while also acknowledging the difficulty of the job.

While the humour in McDonagh’s previous films was as black as comedy can get they were undoubtedly still comedies – even if they did explore topics such as hitmen, psychotic murders, and dog-nappers. With Three Billboards the writer-director employs the strengths that made his prior scripts so entertaining – vulgar wit, politically incorrect dialogue, and frequently absurd conversations and scenarios – while still telling a dramatic and morally conflicted story of a mother’s frustration and fury over her lost daughter. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny but never feels as though the situation at its core is being made light of, and it marks McDonagh’s most confident work as a filmmaker yet.

They say drama comes from conflict, and there’s a considerable amount of conflict between the characters in Three Billboards. A powerful sense of anger can be felt throughout much of the film, and nearly every player in it either yells curses, insults, or actual punches at one another before it’s all over. What surprised me, though, is how despite this the story promotes the message that hatred never really solves anything. There aren’t any easy answers to many of the questions on offer within Three Billboards, and some who may not deserve redemption still seek it before the credits roll, but it’s a film that demonstrates how anger can’t fix a problem – just start new ones.

4 and a half stars.