Monday, April 30, 2018

CHARLIZE THERON GIVES ONE MOTHER OF A PERFORMANCE IN "TULLY"

Original caricature of Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis in TULLY

It’s very early in the year, but the Oscars very likely have their first Best Actress nominee. Charlize Theron gives such a commanding, blistering, and raw performance in the new dramedy “Tully” that the Academy would be fools to ignore it. The rest of the film is almost as strong as she is but make no mistake this is one complex and affecting film about motherhood. Directed by Jason Reitman, it’s the third film he’s made with screenwriter Diablo Cody after “Juno” and “Young Adult", and it’s clearly a sublime partnership. Their latest triumph explores the overwhelming job that motherhood is and showcases all sides of it, from the hilarious to the harrowing to the heartbreaking. 

Theron plays Marlo, a New York suburban mom with two kids who’s about to give birth to a third. She’s already struggling mightily to hold it all together. Every day there’s more to do, less time to do it in, and the ginormous stress starts eating at her soon as her swollen feet hit the floor. It doesn’t help that her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is of the old school variety, the kind of man who thinks he doesn’t have to do much around the house because he’s the breadwinner. That means most of the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the kids falls on Marlo’s shoulders. And it’s wearing her down, mind, body, and soul.

Marlo is at her emotional rope’s end because of it, and she’s always on the verge. Theron’s performance walks that razor’s edge, showing every frustration, each harried moment, and all the fatigue dragging down her character. Marlo is also a physical wreck, a woman who doesn't get enough sleep and is chronically fatigued. She shuffles around in sweatpants and baggy sweaters as the house gets dirtier, the kids get noisier, and her husband gets lazier. She’s about to give life to a new baby, and yet her own life force is slowly draining out of her altogether. 

Complicating matters further is the fact that son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is one handful and a half. He’s got emotional issues and may even be autistic. Marlo doesn’t know what to do about all his erratic behavior. Instead, she tolerates his kicking of the back of her seat while driving until she explodes at him. She also lets him scream at all of life’s petty irritations, but barely can summon the strength to soothe him. Marlo and Drew describe their boy as “quirky,” but he’s got real problems. He’s disrupting school as well as their lives on a daily basis.  

Everything becomes a battle for Marlo – keeping Jonah in school, putting a meal on the table, finding time to bathe, even getting her husband to talk to her. He shuts her out at night, retreating to the bedroom to play video games with headphones on. Drew’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) only adds to her consternation. Craig and his wife are wealthy, over-achievers who can’t help but look down at Marlo’s messy mothering. She always seems just one step away from having a total meltdown, and Theron lets her character’s eyes hint at the traces of madness seeping through the fatigue. 

Then her world changes after she gives birth to her third child. Craig generously pays for a nanny to come by each evening to help her out and it is a godsend. The 26-year-old nanny’s name is Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis of “Halt and Catch Fire” fame), and she’s a free spirit, albeit one with a serious work ethic. Tully instantly takes over the house, manages Marlo’s baby effortlessly, and starts taking care of mom too. Not only does she give her the precious “alone time” she desperately needs and craves, but Tully ends up becoming a sort of therapist to her, along with a best friend, muse, and a regular shoulder to cry on.

Tully seems too good to be true when she quickly organizes the home, cleans it from top to bottom, and finds a place for all the errant toys as well. She even makes cupcakes for Marlo to take to Jonah’s school as a peace offering. Ultimately, Tully becomes the ‘spouse’ Marlo really needs, and they even have a simpatico banter together, quipping back and forth in sharp, pithy dialogue the way only Cody can write for her characters. 

In Tully, Marlo starts to see the kind of caretaker she wants to be, and their bond becomes what keeps her going. As much as Tully turns into a super nanny, the real job she does is help return Marlo to a functioning, whole person. With the aid of Tully, Marlo learns to love her life again, live and let live each day, and kick the postpartum depression to the curb.

The movie struggles some in its third act, as everything is percolating, and Tully helps Marlo even bring Drew around to becoming a more active husband and father. The drama starts to wane until a shocking, out-of-left-field rug-pull occurs towards the very end that may leave audiences feeling a bit stymied. Still, the whole of this film is a smart and involving study of American motherhood, and it’s great that the story never tries to turn the two women against each other. That Hollywood cliché may have helped launch a number of thrillers and Lifetime movies, but it has no place here. This film is far more feminist and humanist. 

Cody’s writing and Reitman’s direction ensure that all the characters are vivid, and the performers excel. And in Theron, they have one of the best actresses in the world working at the top of her game here. Marlo is right up there with Theron’s best work, like that of Mavis Gary in “Young Adult,” Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” and Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And it sets the bar very, very high for any other actresses hoping to figure in film awards competition this year.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A TRIBUTE TO AGENT ORANGE, THE SWEETEST CAT WITH THE MOST UNUSUAL NAME

RIP Agent Orange, my best bud, and ever-lovin', number one companion.
The last time I wrote about something other than movies or television here at The Establishing Shot was when my cat Smokey Joe died from stomach cancer on December 30, 2015. I wrote a tribute to him then, declaring that technically I was still writing about entertainment because he was such an amusing pet for 13 years. Today, I am writing another eulogy for my other cat, Agent Orange, who passed away today after a long battle with kidney disease. He was a part of my life for over 15 years, and during that time he was my best bud and number one companion. And he too was as entertaining as any pet could be.

He came into my world when I was dating flight attendant Paige Carpenter. She would eventually become my wife, but before she moved in, Agent Orange did. He had been living with her dad David back in Madison after his original family rehomed him. They weren’t very good to him, hadn’t even given him a name, didn’t believe in keeping animals in the house so he would come to David’s house seeking shelter from inclement weather and a bite to eat. He was referred to by David, his wife, and Paige as “that orange cat,” then eventually addressed him as Agent Orange. An ironic name, as he never defoliated anything and wasn’t the least bit caustic. 

Agent Orange’s original owners eventually asked David if he wanted to make the cat his own. David took him in, but he already had a cat named Chloe to look after, and Chloe wasn’t too keen on sharing her home with another feline. That’s when Paige met me. When she told me of his plight, I suggested that she bring the orange tabby down to Chicago to live with me. I was a recent divorcee, my ex-wife had gotten custody of our beloved cat, and I missed sharing my life with a feline friend. So, she brought Agent Orange to my apartment down from Madison one weekend to see if we’d hit it off. Did we ever, it was love at first sight for the both of us!

Two cats in my apartment for Halloween...the one on the left is Paige.
Despite Paige giving him the name Agent Orange, a cheeky joke if there ever was one, this orange kitty was anything but destructive. He immediately struck me as being the sweetest little guy. He walked right over and engaged with me, meowing his hello’s. Then throughout the weekend he was avidly interested in all that was going on in the apartment, from the breakfast I was making to the laundry I was doing to the caricatures I was cartooning. He talked to me, always looked me in the eye, and wanted to be by my side no matter what I was doing. Naturally, he slept on the bed with me from the start too and regularly woke me up in the morning for some AM nuzzling.

We were thick as thieves for those months before Paige moved in. And when she made our family a trio, we all got along so well that you’d think he was our child. Pets are often anointed as “fur babies,” and Agent Orange was our pride and joy. Not too long after that, Smokey Joe joined the family, and he was immediately smitten with the Agent as well. They were now brothers and would quickly become best friends too. 

Smokey Joe was in many ways the opposite of Agent Orange. He was mischievous, droll and tentative around strangers. His disposition only enhanced the warm vibes Agent Orange gave in contrast to any and everyone who came into contact with our family of four. Agent Orange loved visitors and always came up to greet whoever came through the door. Smokey Joe would be affectionate if he deemed them worthy of attention. Often, friends and guests wouldn’t see all that much of Smokey Joe as he frequently stayed away from strangers, unsure if he wanted to participate. But they saw a lot of Agent Orange. He was always up for being sociable. 

Smokey Joe and Agent Orange, at each other's side through thick and thin.
He loved people and enjoyed being petted by any and all hands. The Agent loved sitting on the couch and being part of the conversation with us and everyone who came by. And if we were in the kitchen making food, Agent Orange just had to be a part of it. He was likely hoping for a few nibbles of human food too, but we were careful to not indulge him with a diet that didn’t suit his situation. Still, it was just one of the many behaviors of his that became routine and a big part of our daily existence. 

We had to be careful with what Agent Orange ate as he had some minor health issues from the get-go. Because he had been an outdoor cat with his first family, he had developed an upper respiratory infection and had diminished lung capacity. He tended to have GI issues too. He was generally very healthy, but we always worried about how long he’d be with us. One of the things that made Smokey Joe’s death so shocking was that he had no health issues before his cancer showed up. We always worried that Agent Orange would go first, but alas, fate had a different pecking order. 

Even after losing his brother in the short two months it took that nasty stomach tumor to claim Smokey Joe, Agent Orange remained the most positive and good-natured of pets. He missed his brother but didn’t let it shunt the remaining years he had left. He was always exceedingly friendly to us and everyone. Always engaged, always purring, always happy to eat. And his enthusiasm for life was a constant inspiration to both my wife and me. 

Agent Orange playing "Hide & Seek" with us under the covers while we made the bed.
Agent Orange participated so thoroughly in everything and with such joy for all the 15 years he was a part of our daily lives. He loved watching the handyman fix the sink and sitting on the couch enjoying “Seinfeld” reruns with us. Our cat especially liked playing ‘Hide & Seek” with us throughout the apartment. He also loved to trek down the hallway during our walks to the garbage chute. And it was a real treat for him to be picked up and given a tour of the world five feet above his normal eye level. Every time we’d come home, he’d come running to the door. And if he thought we were taking too long to awaken on a weekend and enjoy the morning with him, he’d bat at our noses with the relentlessness of a boxer working the bag in a gym. 

In the last year, he became even more entertaining as he started to become a merry prankster.  Agent Orange loved to steal my place on the couch whenever I’d get up, but he wouldn’t do so until I was looking. It was almost like he was saying, “Hey bub, you didn’t want to sit here anymore, did ya’?” It made Paige and me laugh every time. Even when his health started to fail in the past months, he would still steal my seat. It never got old. 

I slept a lot on that sofa the past weeks as his health declined rapidly. After a visit to the vet on Monday of last week, she told us that his advanced age (estimated at 19 years) and his weak kidneys were getting the best of him. He wasn’t eating and needed to be on fluids. There was little we could do but keep him as comfortable and hydrated as we could. Paige and I wanted to be near him while he slept, and he usually split his time between the bed and his bean bag chair in the living room. Thus, Paige took the bed, and I claimed the sofa in case he needed us during the night. 

The Agent snuggling with yours truly.
While on the couch all those nights, Agent Orange would come over for a nocturnal visit. I’d pick him up, and we’d cuddle for 20 minutes or so, stroking his back to make him feel safe. This last Sunday evening, when he joined me on the couch, things were different. This time he faced me and kept eye contact with me the whole time. It was almost like he wanted to remember my face, and for me to see his before he had to say goodbye. 

Today, with the help of a loving veterinarian who makes house calls from a company called Lap of Love, we gently ended Agent Orange’s suffering. Yet even on his last day, he got up out of his bean bag to go over and greet her when she arrived. He walked with great difficulty, but that wasn’t going to stop him from being the head of the welcome wagon. In his last moments, as he quietly went to sleep, our beloved boy gazed upon Paige and me with love still in his eyes.

I’ve never met a soul as sweet as his. He was loving and friendly and always present, even in those final moments. Now, he’s in heaven with Smokey Joe and the many other cats and human friends who passed before him. My wife and I have holes in our hearts that can never be filled, but he was our precious boy for 15 years. Every single day with him was a gift. 

Agent Orange, stealing my seat on the couch.
Paige and I often laughed about the fact that we’d say “I love Agent Orange so much” as those words had probably never been uttered before by anyone else. If you heard such a statement at face value, you’d likely grimace and wonder how anyone could love such a weapon of mass destruction. But if you knew Agent Orange the cat, you’d not only understand the sentiment, but you’d agree wholeheartedly. He was just that kind of guy that summoned such affection. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

"GHOST STORIES" IS AN AMBITIOUS ANTHOLOGY OF GHOSTS AND THAT WHICH HAUNTS US


Are ghosts real? 

That question seems to be the central premise of the new movie GHOST STORIES as it starts. Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and available in the US on VOD, it tees up its premise with a character named Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman, yet again) who does not believe in goblins and such. He’s made a career out of debunking the supernatural, and as the story begins, he discredits a psychic who is right in the middle of a theatrical show. Goodman tells us, in the opening narration, that the mind merely plays tricks on itself and that there is no logical proof to support a netherworld. 

Pay close attention to those early words, however, along with the first images that appear onscreen during the credits too. They hold many of the actual answers to the query about ghosts that the film raises. In fact, it’s best to keep your eyes peeled quite close during the entire run of this 98-minute frightener. There are various clues to what’s going on in every scene. The real question posed by the film is “What haunts man?” Indeed, it is not just ghosts or things that go bump in the night. It could be a yellow dress, a hooded jacket, or even a dripping faucet. 

After boasting of debunking that theatrical charlatan, Goodman receives a summons to a dilapidated old trailer park outside London to meet with his hero, the long-lost ghostbuster Charles Cameron. Goodman is disappointed that Cameron is living in such an impoverished place, and the old coot’s hostile attitude almost sends him packing. But then Cameron informs him that ghosts do exist, usurping his life's work. The old man tells Goodman that's he got three cases that prove it and challenges Goodman to prove him wrong.

Goodman cannot believe that his idol now is a true believer, so he sets out to investigate the cases. Here, the film takes on an anthological structure. The first case concerns Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman who testifies that he’s seen ghosts perpetrating all sorts of chicanery at the derelict former asylum where he works. As he tells the professor his story in an empty bar, flashbacks show Matthews’ run-ins with the exceedingly mischievous specters. One seems to take the form of a young girl in a yellow dress as she runs amuck at the old asylum. If you’ve ever seen any of the Blumhouse horror films of recent, you know that there are plenty of jump-scares to be had in such dark places with all those corridors and doorways.

Next, Goodman calls upon Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a high-strung teen who claims to have run over a demonic goat creature while driving his father’s car through the woods. Again, flashbacks show us the story, and indeed, it appears the young man did run over something. The victim remains alive however and ends up planting itself in Simon's backseat. Dyson and Nyman do an exceedingly expert job of creating a real nail-biter out there in the woods and it’s probably the most exciting scene in the film.

The last of the three cases concerns a wealthy businessman named Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, playing so smug, he’d give Sherlock a run for his money here). The one-percenter is hastily preparing for a hunt out on the moor as Goodman struggles to keep up with the intense go-getter. In between snide comments about having children, and loading his rifle, Priddle tells of his horrific run-ins with a ghost at his elegant cliffside home. If you don’t think that flying diapers or stacked toys can be terrifying, wait till you see the scene where Priddle wades into the nursery awaiting the return of his wife and newborn from the hospital. The hairs on your arm will be standing on end just like those building blocks.
  
These three set-pieces are all exquisitely shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, edited precisely by Billy Sneddon, and scored with elegiac strings and brass by Haim Frank Ilfman. Arguably, the men at the center of the trio of stories seem to be haunted by something long before their ghosts show up. Matthews is an embittered drunk, Rifkind is a jumble of tics, and Priddle bullies to protect his insecurities. Goodman doesn’t find any proof to disprove their tales, and he seems discombobulated throughout all of them, so what's going on here? 

The film would be a success if the storytelling stopped there. But what happens after the three stories spool out is what will genuinely rattle your cage and have you talking about all you’ve seen for days. Again, it returns to the themes of haunting, yet not all the ghosts are of the metaphysical persuasion. 

GHOST STORIES may not be the instant classic that A QUIET PLACE is, and the little pieces of story and structure left dangling would give Robert McKee a heart attack. But damn if this film isn’t gangbusters at conjuring up genuine, honest scares, and at giving each of us a lot to think about while the end credits roll. The film ultimately argues that the real world is scary enough already without having to create monsters to add to it. Go and see for yourself, and oh yes, watch out for that yellow dress. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I HAVE BEEN HIRED TO BE THE FILM CRITIC FOR CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE ONLINE


It's hard to believe, but The Establishing Shot is in its eighth year. Thank you to you, all my followers in some 27 countries, for caring what I think about the world of cinema. Some others do too, and that's why I have some exciting news for you today.

I have just been hired by Creative Screenwriting magazine to be their film critic as they reboot online. (https://creativescreenwriting.com)

The magazine was founded in 1994 and quickly became an institution in the film community the world over. Now, it's started up again, and I'll be reviewing movies for them each week, along with some television shows as well. 

I will still be writing my movie blog here, but now you can look forward to reading my reviews at my new gig too. Additionally, I will still continue to host the podcast PAGE 2 SCREEN for the International Screenwriters Association. (https://www.networkisa.org/modules/curious/channel_list/41/)

Thank you again for following me here, and I hope you'll now subscribe to the magazine as well and read my reviews there too.



Friday, April 6, 2018

"BLOCKERS" RUNS INTERFERENCE ON ITS COMEDY WITH MAUDLIN MOVES


There is a moment in the new film BLOCKERS where you can visualize what the comedy could have been if it wanted to be smarter. Spying mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds herself stuck under the hotel bed where her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton) is about to loses her virginity to her boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips). Rather than listen to their lovemaking, God forbid, the embarrassed parent sneaks out in a contorted and sly way that feels like the best of a Blake Edwards comedy. She deftly hides behind the drapes, mildly electrocutes herself while managing to crouch behind the TV, as well as somersaults, rolls, and tiptoes past other furniture to escape out the hotel door. It is such sophisticated physical comedy, masterfully performed by Mann that it makes you wish the rest of BLOCKERS was just as smart.

As it stands, BLOCKERS is clever, but not nearly by half. It has a great premise in three panicked parents doing their best to keep their respective daughters from blithely losing their virginity after making a pact at prom. The film also has a strong cast with the previously mentioned talents, not to mention John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as the other two concerned adults, as well as younger stars Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Miles Robbins, and Jimmy Bellinger. The LOL script by Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe certainly has its pulse on many of the cultural inanities at play in our modern times including the hidden meaning of text emoji’s, teenage slang, and the variety of recreational drugs at society’s disposal. They also have a very game and nude Gary Cole playing a naughty sex scene with Gina Gershon, which is the comedic highlight of the film. So, why isn’t it better?

It lacks sophistication. It treads down the path of gross-out comedies that want to outdo the previous one. If AMERICAN PIE showed Jason Biggs humping a pastry, then THE HANGOVER must show Ken Jeong’s flopping genitals. Thus, here we get a full-frontal Gary Cole, and for good measure, a close-up on his package. Yes, it’s hilarious, outrageously so, but most of the film’s gags are similarly content to pull at the same low-hanging fruit. If only the film had more scenes as refined as Mann’s hotel escape. This is a sex comedy and an R-rated one at that, but it feels at times as if it wants to be smarter than all those crude gags, even while executing them with flair.  

Nowhere clearer is that conflict than in its back and forth between ribald comedy and self-righteous messaging. It wants to milk all of the lewd, crude, and sophomoric shenanigans that permeate such movies, yet continually weave throughout its narrative an unctuous sentimentality that plays as if it wandered in from THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Moralizing is fine in comedies, as the likes of Billy Wilder and John Landis proved time and time again, but not when it is repeatedly done, let alone juxtaposed against such ridiculous comic visuals as showing beer spray out of Cena’s glutes during an ass-chugging gag or the gratuitous shots of Cole buck naked.

Not only does the tone veer back and forth like that, far too wildly, throughout the long-feeling 102-minutes, but the characters are written just as inconsistently. The concerned parents behave like utter imbeciles one moment, but then experience psychological perceptions after every raucous scene that suggests they know how idiotic they are. Yet, they keep coming back for more hijinks. The movie also seems to want to scold us in the audience for laughing at the nincompoopery on display, especially when its characters confess their heartfelt hurt and blubbering self-awareness. It seems way out of character, yet the movie continually stops to moralize like that, and after a while, it seems like we’re being lectured. It’s as if the film was directed by John Belushi’s Bluto one moment and Dr. Phil the next.

The actors are all talented enough to handle such tonal shifts, even if they’re abrupt and constantly jerk the story around. Cena is a gifted comedic performer and knows how to be soft and subtle too, but he’s playing a character that makes little sense. His macho, upright dad Mitchell seems to have wandered in from a clichéd sports movie from decades ago. Are we to believe that a man who’s married an Indian woman and raised a daughter to be sharp, confident, self-aware, and an incredibly intuitive athlete, would burst down hotel door after hotel door searching for his trysting daughter? He may have the lats of a gorilla, but would he act that barbaric in a public setting, terrifying dozens of teenagers with such violence?

Or for that matter, if Barinholtz’s Hunter is such a dirty-minded man/child of a dad, one cut from the same cloth as characters played by the likes of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, why should we buy that he’s really a remarkably knowing and wounded fellow? Then there is Mann’s mom here, a shrewd woman capable of dropping F-bombs with aplomb, and able to talk sex trash with her two macho conspirators, but nonetheless one that freaks out that her daughter wants privacy when it comes to her date night. Her put-downs of her daughter after she’s accepted into a picky and prestigious college like UCLA play as particularly egregious and does nothing to draw us to Lisa’s side.

This movie continually wants to have it both ways, with its contradictory characters and its zig-zagging tone. The movie tastefully keeps the bra on of one of the girls in bed yet has her prom date prematurely ejaculate all over her belly inspiring three jokes about his errant load. It has Mitchell throw Connor (Robbins) up against the wall after catching him half-naked with his daughter Kayla (Viswanathan), but it’s okay because the kid wasn’t hurt. And the three stalking parents nearly get killed in a car accident, that could’ve run the girl’s limo off the road as well, but everything is forgotten as long as the Uber arrives in time. The movie practically gives its characters and audience whiplash.

In comedy, exaggeration is necessary, and this one sails way over-the-top on numerous occasions, but the film wants to be able to sell its utterly serious, self-reflection as well and it’s hard to swallow when we’re watching ass-beer spray all over Barinholtz’s face like a hose was unleashed on him. If we are to believe that these irrational parents are as savvy as they all really are deep down, then why do they endanger so many lives and break so many laws during the story? Wouldn’t some soul-searching occur after events like that? And wouldn’t such sins put the kibosh on their selfish, interfering quest?

Granted, the comedy in BLOCKERS is often hilarious. The outrageousness of the set-pieces is such that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Not only is the nude scene with Cole and Gershon the film’s highlight but watching the two male parents get involved in the scene and whisper back and forth while subtitles translate their panic is as funny as any scene in a movie the last two or three years. It’s probably amusing enough just to see such a game cast playing out this farce. But all that confessional psycho-babble keeps intruding on the fun and dampening it.

Director Kay Cannon shows a lot of flair for directing here, and many have complimented her and the script for being a feminist comedy. That may be true on some levels, but she’s no Greta Gerwig. LADY BIRD was a far more serious comedy than this one that leans farcically, but Cannon peppers her film with preachy screeds that cloy in ways that Gerwig never did in her female-driven, coming-of-age film. Perhaps the real equality is in how Cannon is able to make a raw and rude comedy as outrageous as the likes of ANIMAL HOUSE or THE HANGOVER.

Kudos to Cannon and her Kehoe screenwriters for treating the coming out of the bespectacled Sam with the sensitivity and nuance that many male directors would have botched. Yet, Cannon fails to give some characters much character at all. Julie, the centerpiece of the story, has little discernable personality. Newton, who was so vivid in a similar role in BIG LITTLE LIES on HBO, has little to work with here compared to the better-written characters of her BFF’s Kayla and Sam. Julie’s boyfriend Austin gets short-shrift too, especially compared to the other dates Connor and Chad. That uneven development of the characters is in synch with the uneven tone throughout the story, and the director and screenwriters should have smoothed out such inconsistencies. 

Is it enough if a comedy film makes us laugh? On some levels, sure, but BLOCKERS wants to have it both ways. It wants to eat its serious cake and barf it up too, making the audience both laugh and cry. It makes for an uneasy mix, and despite the film’s unique focus on female sexuality, LGBTQ inklings, and showcasing adults who act more childish than their children, the film feels too often schizophrenic. Supposedly, the original title of the film was going to be COCKBLOCKERS until clearer heads at the studio realized that moniker would be a tough sell. Yet, right there is the problem with the film writ large. The very title wants to be ribald, yet sensitivity robbed it of its intent. If only Blake Edwards were still around to lend this kind of material some genuine sophistication.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"A QUIET PLACE" CREATES HORROR THAT IS UTTERLY DISQUIETING


So many horror films are filled with noise and bombast, they don’t frighten, they irritate. “A Quiet Place” scares with its silence, making for a frightener that is utterly disquieting. The loudest sounds you will hear while watching will be your own heartbeat or breathlessness or both.

Real-life married couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski play Evelyn and Lee, the married couple at the center of the story. They live on a farm with their three children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward). Regan was born deaf, and the rest of the family learned sign language to help her feel like less of an outsider. That comes in handy when they are forced to live in silence to avoid being attacked by extra-terrestrial invaders who hunt their prey via sound.  

This is a dystopian horror film, where most of the population has been wiped out by these monsters with enhanced hearing. Those humans still are around have learned to tread very, very softly. And that’s how the movie starts, ever so quietly, with Lee and Evelyn’s family venturing into their ghost town to pick up some supplies at the abandoned local store. They walk barefoot and move almost as if in slow motion. They’re aware that any loud noise could summon the beasts and their doom.

The dusty, unkempt store still offers various items to help the family survive. From canned goods to left-over prescriptions to various distractions like toys, they scavenge what’s useful. Little Beau, all of five or six, picks out a space shuttle toy to take home to play with, but before they depart, Dad wisely removes the batteries. One button would unleash all sorts of buzzes and beeps, but unfortunately, the patriarch doesn’t take the batteries with him. So, the intrepid tot retrieves them and places them back in the toy. Then, while trudging home, the toy goes off, and the youngest is attacked and killed by an alien in the woods who hears it.

It's a brave film that offs a small child so early in a telling. Most would start with the family pet, but it’s nice to see “A Quiet Place” avoiding such clichés. (It also avoids the cliché of having a family pet, waiting to be the first victim.) For the most part, the script written by Krasinski, along with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, works very hard at confounding expectations. It daringly puts the other kids in danger on numerous occasions without their parents around to defend them. The script also ensures that the creatures are smarter and linger longer than usual, ratcheting up the tension far greater than we expect in the attack set-pieces. And there are no new third act characters brought in to enliven the finale. The script is spare and surprising and does the genre proud.

What the writers do best throughout is add more a ton more plight to the very simple plot. It’s not enough that the family has to mourn the loss of their youngest for the rest of the film, mom gets pregnant and will soon give birth. (And babies, as you know, make a lot of noise.) Regan not only is at a disadvantage from not being able to gauge any noise she makes, but she also is suffering from an inferiority complex which will endanger everyone before the final reel. And when it comes to a big escape scene high above on a silo, these clever scripters will make sure that the farm structure is dilapidated and made of racket-inducing metal.

Most of this plays like gangbusters in its ‘movie-movie’ kind of way, but a few motifs end up being misjudged. Framed pictures hang loosely on the wall, just waiting to crash. And surprise, they do. Mom inexplicably manages to sleep through a basement flooding. And while the family is smart enough to soundproof most everything, even laying soft sand on the routes they take, they all miss a large, errant nail protruding out of a wooden step. It’s so apparent, even Daniel Stern would’ve avoided it in “Home Alone.” Such blunders seem all the more glaring because the rest of the film is so wise in sidestepping such claptrap.

The best set-piece is one that plays wholly terrifying but incredibly smart too. Mom’s water breaks when she is alone in the house, and she struggles to keep her noise under control even though she must deliver the baby on her own. All this happens while a vicious alien comes-a-calling, but Evelyn is incredibly shrewd. She outwits it, bears down and delivers the child on her own, and even manages to keep the infant from squawking like a seasick parrot. Blunt performs this silent movie pantomime brilliantly, showcasing her character’s quick thinking, even while stifling absurd pain.

Krasinski directs horror for the first time here, yet he demonstrates an understanding of the genre that few newbies have. He realizes that the fear of blood is scarier than seeing buckets of it. The director never shows the monsters in their entirety either which makes them all the more mysterious. And he takes his time to develop each of the characters in the family, so we get to know them and care about each of their fates.

Best of all, the director keeps his movie modest in scope. Less is a lot more here as Kasinski keeps things controlled and primal. “A Quiet Place” doesn’t resort to unnecessary flashbacks showing how the aliens arrived and destroyed our planet. It doesn’t waste time with interfering neighbor characters brought in only to add more conflict to the story. And he never bothers explaining how the intruders live or communicate with each other. He keeps us in the dark about them, and he keeps them mostly in the dark too. Too much light would ruin the illusion. And too much talk would pander. This is a quiet, dark, and chilling film to experience.

What may be the most startling and unsettling about it all is how the filmmakers ask us to accept a movie that is so incredibly quiet. The dialogue is kept to a whispering minimum. The sound effects are dialed way down on the soundtrack. And outside of the attack scenes, there is precious little music. In fact, it’s a sign of Krasinski’s sublime discipline that he never lets composer Marco Beltrami blanket the film with an underscore. The director knows that silence can be deafening. And it speaks volumes throughout this superior horror film.