Review: A Quiet Place

Horror appears to be undergoing a real renaissance recently, with some top drawer films giving us different genre twists (particularly the Oscar-winning Get Out). A Quiet Place is a fantastic continuation of this trend, with great acting, some incredible tension and a really unique approach to scaring audiences.

In the early 2020s, an extraterrestrial invasion has seen creatures that hunt based on sound decimate the planet’s population. Lee (John Krasinksi) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) live in near silence with children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), straining to keep quiet lest they be hunted down.

Krasinski (who most people would know from the US Office sitcom) directs, stars and had a part in writing A Quiet Place, and in all three areas proves a revelation. The movie feels assured, especially when reaching fever pitch, and his handle of the unique, mostly dialogue-less events onscreen (as well as his work with the small but brilliant cast) is a huge part of what makes it work.

The script, written by Krasinski, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, feels almost indie and quite brave – a big Hollywood horror with barely any dialogue whatsoever, outside of American Sign Language? It’s almost unthinkable that this got approved by the usually risk averse Paramount, but the scripting and staging is very clever, and poignant too.

More is said effectively in glances and facial expressions than pages of dialogue might have, while snatches of newspapers or evocative post-apocalyptic imagery fill us in on as much of the backstory as we need. What’s more important, and what comes across strongly, is the family’s bond, and their great strains to remain quiet but live as normal a life as they can.

The film’s rural American setting adds a great deal of depth, the archetypal corn fields and silos, lonely farmhouses and wildernesses accentuating everything and making the world feel tangible. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography embraces a bleak, outdoorsy feel, dramatic sunsets and sun kissed days alike paired with the constant, unrelenting stress of increasing tension, while the artificial tinge of salvaged Christmas lights starkly illuminate the perilous nights.

Tension – my god does this film have tension. The combined work of sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van Der Ryn, composer Marco Beltrami and Krasinki oppresses you in your seat, as the stakes rise higher and higher. Amongst the softer parts of the soundtrack and silent cast, one almost inconsequential sound signals potential doom, and Beltrami’s score shifts to wavering, bassy threats (a trend heard in Assassin’s Creed and Blade Runner 2049 – perhaps the new Inception “BRAAAAM”).

a-quiet-place-600x938Once these moments happen, everything escalates, and there’s a particular stretch in the middle of the film that is excruciating. It’s absolutely fascinating to perceive a coming together of these elements to create this, and shows how clever Krasinksi’s eye and ear for detail are. He had already made a couple of movies, but given how well this is doing on a tiny budget, expect to see much more from him.

The minimal, close knit cast is the final piece of the puzzle. Krasinski portrays Lee as a gruff but loving dad, a man driven to keep his family alive with ever more inventive schemes, practically burning himself out to find a way out of this mess, and having never seen him outside of a comedy I was very impressed with his intensity.

Emily Blunt (Krasinski’s real life wife) is however the star, and shows that even without dialogue, she is a fantastic actress. In that aforementioned tense stretch of the movie, she is the centrepoint, absolutely throwing herself into extremely stressful events and selling them without a doubt. In the smaller, quieter scenes she’s no less impactful, her expressive face switching in a beat (and doing much more than dialogue would achieve).

Young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds is also really impressive as Regan, the couple’s teenage daughter. She effortlessly conveys teenage angst and sadness, trapped in silence, with Aadahl and Van Der Ryn’s editing giving us her soundless perspective on everything befalling her family, and her frustrations and terror at being shut out.

Finally, Noah Jupe completes the cast as Marcus, the younger kid, a young boy with the world on his shoulders as he’s forced to start growing up and taking responsibility. The young actor’s scenes alongside Krasinki and Simmonds are very strong, and much credit again has to go to Krasinki for casting – which in a film this small could have gone very wrong.

If there is anything to knock, it has to be the CGI creatures. It’s obviously necessary once you see them, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Had the film allowed for practical monsters, it’s likely that it could have been even more tense and arguably more frightening (not to mention: the less you see in horror, the more frightening it can be, as your imagination fills in the gaps).

I can’t recommend A Quiet Place enough – it’s clever, very well acted and incredibly tense throughout its 90 minutes. If you’re lucky enough to have a popcorn or paper bag free screening, it’ll be even more of an experience, but don’t let that put you off! It’s a must-see on the big screen if you can handle it.

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Review: Ready Player One

Disclosure (though if you know me, it isn’t really): I am a massive nerd when it comes to various books, films, games and more, and I also own a virtual reality headset. So Ready Player One, Stephen Spielberg’s latest blockbuster focusing on VR, and featuring thousands of references to the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, was always on my radar! And despite some unexpectedly naff characterisation, it shows why the director is still the one to beat when it comes to huge, thrilling action movies onscreen.

In the 2040s, the USA (and by extension the world) is in a state of slum-like flux. With people living in near poverty and grim conditions, the highly advanced OASIS system gives all the opportunity to escape reality and live out their fantasies and dreams in a virtual world. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one among millions looking to solve late OASIS founder James Halliday’s hidden puzzles to win control of the OASIS, but is up against the corporate malevolence of IOI Corporation and slimy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want to monetise the system.

Based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 book, which I managed to read in about two days on holiday three years ago, the film couldn’t really have been directed by anyone else, having now seen it. Unashamedly a fusion of nerdy film and TV references, just about imaginable VR tech and a thrilling, gamelike plot, Cline’s novel is catnip for Spielberg, who of late has taken a more CGI based focus on action (see the TinTin film for evidence).

Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn cleverly adapt the book for cinema, cutting out quite a bit of the detail (and unfortunately some more interesting character notes), but I can see that quite a bit of this would have been requirements by Spielberg. The book is not backward in coming forward with its reverence for his movies, and while some references are clearly still present, many are traded out for others.

This gives the film a more comprehensive, multi-generational feel – there are far more modern references that younger audiences will grasp alongside the bigger pop culture nods. The one that surprised me the most comes about halfway through, and is not only a major surprise but also an incredible technical achievement. Suffice to say, Spielberg and the effects team effortlessly port our characters into a film you would never see coming.

To be honest, much like The Lego Movie, the joy isn’t in searching for the references but spotting them by chance. Some people will definitely watch this over and over and pause on blu-ray to identify everything, but it’s more fun spotting the odd one out of nowhere. Musically, Alan Silvestri’s score is filled with sweeping themes but nothing too memorable. However, the use of film and popular music here is brilliant, and Silvestri himself revives one of his most famous themes at one point to great, audience-pleasing effect.

Moving back to the special effects, these are the undisputed star of the movie. You quite honestly couldn’t have made this film even 10 years ago, and Spielberg’s eye for action is still keenly visible through the CGI. From the slightly photo-real characters populating the OASIS, through to its unimaginable worlds, Ready Player One is a visual feast. In fact, having seen it in 3D I would recommend this in the cinema, as the virtual world of the OASIS pops out and is accentuated by it.

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In contrast, regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has an easy job making the real world mundane but believably near-future, with a colour-drained, grubby aesthetic utilising our lovely Birmingham (yes, really) as the Ohio of the future

The acting is, however, quite mediocre – to the point that beyond some of the older cast, the in-OASIS, CGI avatars of our younger stars are more charismatic and engaging. Nowhere is this more evident that Tye Sheridan, as protagonist Wade/avatar Parzival. The actor was fairly naff in X-Men: Apocalypse, and doesn’t appear to have improved much here, his voice acting for the CGI much better than his onscreen appearances. When your CGI performance has more personality, that’s a worry.

 

Fortunately, Olivia Cooke’s diverse turns as both Samantha and Art3mis show the depths of the younger actress, to the point at which she is engaging as both person and effect. She represents the more human costs of the society’s changes, and I can’t help but feel – especially with the increased diversity coming cinema’s way – she might have been a better, much more impactful lead.

 

The best performance in this film (beyond the work of the visual effects artists) is another surprising turn from Mark Rylance. Having seemingly become Spielberg’s new muse after Bridge of Spies and The BFG, Rylance is both familiar and transformed as the awkward, eccentric James Halliday – the Steve Jobs of the OASIS. Boasting an excellent, drawly American accent, Rylance gives his enigmatic creator heart and a duality between real life and online. Without him, this film would lack a fair amount of humanity.

Ben Mendelsohn can feel a little robbed here, as his portrayal of antagonist Nolan Sorrento suffers from the streamlined script, and so we’re treated to another sneering, standard bad guy performance lacking much character (like his role in The Dark Knight Rises). Some rare but comedic asides show what Spielberg might have made of him and how the role could have been broadened out.

A couple of cameo performances see Simon Pegg ably contribute as the Steve Wozniak to Rylance’s Jobs, his Ogden Morrow more conscious of what the Oasis could be rather than the game it becomes. Pegg is quietly impressive in a few smaller scenes with Rylance too, a definite move toward more complex roles for him.

Previously comedic in Deadpool, T. J. Miller is (given recent accusations against him) thankfully only present in a voice role, his arrogant gamer dude I-R0k the quip-happy online muscle for Sorrento. Other small but notable roles include Lena Waithe’s Aetch, a clever commentary on online perceptions versus real life, while Win Morsaki’s Daito and Philip Zhao’s Shoto are quite good kid cameos in line with the Spielberg standard.  Finally, Hannah John-Kamen as the ridiculously named F’Nale is another stock evil henchwoman, neither here nor there and appearing bumbling at some points, efficiently brutal at others.

A certain type of cinema-goer is going to absolutely love this film, and anyone that’s read the book will definitely enjoy it. For the average cinema-goer, this I believe has enough about it to please everyone, though don’t go in expecting an acting masterclass. This is pure Action Movie Spielberg with a dashing of characterisation!

Review: Love, Simon

I explained years ago now how my Unlimited membership works, and I recently saw another of their secret screenings. These almost taunt you to go just to see what they’ll be, just in case you miss out on something good ahead of its general release. The latest – Love, Simon – wasn’t something I’d have gone to see, and while quite mediocre generally speaking, its central focus on a teenage boy coming out as gay and falling in love is groundbreaking.

Simon (Nick Robinson) hides his sexuality from his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and his three best friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr ), but an anonymous post on a school social network leads him to get in touch with another male classmate struggling to come out. Simon starts to fall for ‘Blue’, but has to deal with blackmail, confusion over Blue’s real identity, and his doubts over the reactions of those close to him learning his secret.

Writers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger adapt Becky Albertalli’s novel into what can mostly be said to be a standard teen drama/comedy about love and growing up, essentially. It’s sometimes quaintly sweet, though a little too like its many forebearers in other more mawkish areas (the usual emotional beats are hit, from betrayal to resolution and so on).

However, it feels like a step change in the way cinema depicts teenage life, depicting homosexuality as normally as it should be through the prism of a coming of age, romantic comedy-drama. Despite this element, its overall mundanity shows that whatever the sexual preference of the teens onscreen, these films are nearly always the same! A weak, underutilised supporting cast doesn’t help, nor some of the ways that it wraps everything up very neatly.

However – this is the first movie ever released by a major film studio that focuses on a gay teenage romance, and as mentioned above, the film’s main focus is one that really shouldn’t be new to us, but is – and it feels like that. There’s also an interesting element in that the film doesn’t fall into the trap of focusing too much on homophobia, though this is a double edged sword thematically speaking – we all know how pervasive this can still be, so I feel that some people might wonder why the film papers over this as it does.

Director Greg Berlanti gives the film a teen drama/comedy tinge but with some heavier notes later on, allowing the story time to breathe and comically even creating a sort of procedural as Simon tries to figure out who Blue might be. He also depicts their email conversations quite astutely and convincingly, where other films focusing on modern technology often fall down.

This movie is so quintessentially American teen that it doesn’t really have a distinctive look or feel, though the suburban town setting feels cinematically authentic (it just feels…right in terms of all the cliches, from the school stadium to the unrealistically huge homes for small families). The teen oriented soundtrack, to its credit, does feature quite a few older songs, with the modern vinyl revival offering way older tracks played in Simon’s room (again – so massive for a teenager!)

Nick Robinson’s lead performance is probably the strongest on show, the young actor bringing a believable depth to Simon as he struggles with when and how to come out to his family and friends, and falls in love for the first time. He also effortlessly shows subtle shifts in behaviour as Simon tries to puzzle out who ‘Blue’ might be, as well as around his friends and family members as everything changes.

More than anything, Robinson is why this film worked for me, I think. Without him being as good, comfortable in his own skin and talented enough to give us a believable Simon, I’d be loath to give the film much more credit. This is largely down to the fairly awful supporting cast…

Katherine Langford (of 13 Reasons Why) is the stronger element of the three best friends, but her character is unfortunately largely ignored in favour of a more distracting love triangle involving the other two. As it is, the young actress doesn’t have much of a chance to show what got her noticed in the Netflix show, despite her character having interesting (and unexplored) depth in her friendship with Simon.

Alexandra Shipp and Jorge Lendeborg Jr are varying degrees of one note as the other two best friends, Shipp having a little more to do as the subject of another classmate’s affections (into which Simon is dragged) but is mostly underused otherwise, while Lendeborg Jr is like a lost puppy, wandering in and out of the film every so often as a pretty rote, sporty but friendly kid lost amidst the plot and more out-there characters.

The latter point comes in the form of the infuriating, bizarre Martin, played with insufferable snark by Logan Miller. As the kid who thinks he’s cool, but just isn’t, Miller’s performance is over the top, and yet where the plot takes Martin means that whatever the actor tries to do to stand out, something comes along to flip your view of him. He’s clearly trying hard, but the way the character is written means he ends up infuriating no matter how you end up feeling about him.

Garner and Duhamel managed to make me (and I imagine a lot of other viewers) feel old by playing the parents, quite well despite their poor characterisation. Garner’s mum is that sort of perfect liberal parent Hollywood loves to pretend exist everywhere, though she has a few touching scenes with Robinson, while Duhamel is clearly cleverly cast against stereotype as a seemingly macho dad with a lot of depth and sensitivity beneath the bluster.

One final mention ought to go to the disgraceful waste of Tony Hale as the principal – rare as it is to see Buster Bluth outside of Arrested Development, Hale is absolutely pointless here, saddled with terrible jokes (some that are really off-key given the film’s messages) and essentially dumb comic relief for any easily amused idiots watching.

I have definitely mentioned enough that Love, Simon is mundane, but at the end of it all it’s great that it has been made, and I hope it does well. It’s got a touching story for the main character that highlights the difficulty faced by so many young people just trying to be who they are, and regardless of its overall quality, it’ll likely be looked back on as a welcome first.

The Netflix Conundrum

Screen-Shot-2018-01-30-at-7.48.25-AMI wanted to move away from reviews for one post, just because of a quite recent and rather significant development in cinema, particularly relating to one of my most anticipated films this year: Annihilation.

A force for good?

Even those without it know what Netflix is, and the way it’s changing how we watch TV is probably a large part of why there’s been a bit of a TV renaissance as regards content. The platform’s exclusive shows (Stranger Things, the Marvel shows, Orange is the New Black for just a few examples) have been critically lauded or incredibly popular, especially given you can binge an entire series in one day if you’re mad enough.

Where Netflix is starting to affect cinemas and film in general is its move into movie making and distribution. It’s been making its own films just for its platform (the terrible looking Bright with Will Smith one of the most high profile so far), and early on quite a lot of these were decidedly independent, awards recognised choices – a welcome shift towards funding mid range movies, since Hollywood has gone largely for “go big or go home unless your film costs peanuts” as a strategy recently.

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However, in recent weeks huge changes have come our way. Duncan Jones, director of Moon and Source Code (or Zowie Bowie if you’re of an older generation) made his latest film Mute with Netflix, and it was released nearly entirely online with a small run in Curzon Cinemas. The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest in that franchise, created cinema history by being the first film released internationally, on Netflix, during the Super Bowl and at the same time.

Clearly, the platform is getting into films in a big way. What’s both interesting and concerning is that Netflix has all of a sudden become a big player, inherited films studios don’t want, and in the interim started to distort what we see in the cinema – not necessarily for the better.

Helping and hindering

Mute is a good example of the platform’s colourblindness when it comes to genre. The film is weird and odd and may well have struggled to make much money, so perhaps Netflix was its natural home. However, it’s this kind of strange, genre bending sci-fi film that I would love to see in the cinema. Netflix made this, so it’s ultimately their choice, and that’s fair enough given that they stumped up the cash, though it’s a damn shame.

The Cloverfield Paradox is the first troubling sign of what’s to come though. Originally a sci-fi film called The God Particle, it was reshot to fit into the Cloverfield universe by  Paramount. The studio then panicked they wouldn’t make enough out of it, and sold it quickly to Netflix. While it made history for being a trailblazer, regardless of its ultimate quality (it’s all over the place IMO), the fact is the studio handed the film off, and a huge sci-fi film is again bumped to your TV rather than being on the big screen.

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This has continued, most sadly from my perspective, with Annihilation, the new film from Ex Machina’s Alex Garland. Having read the book series and been thoroughly unnerved and excited by them, I was looking very forward to seeing how this excellent director would adapt a truly mind-bending sci-fi horror onscreen. But I didn’t anticipate it would be my TV I’d have to see it on.

Again, Paramount (I see a pattern here) abandoned the film to Netflix everywhere, except the USA (where you can see it in cinemas), and so for those of us looking forward to it, we’ll have to do our best to recreate the cinematic experience at home. Sure, I’ve got surround sound, but I don’t really want to piss off my neighbours – and a curtain can only do so much to block out light!

A loss of experience

What I’m facetiously getting at is that the experience of seeing a hugely anticipated film has been taken away, with the justification that I am now in control of when, where and who I watch it with. These surmised benefits are overshadowed by the loss of what makes going to the cinema so great – the atmosphere, the immense screen, the booming sound and an audience’s shared experience.

How do I go about reviewing a film, as with the many others I’ve reviewed here, when I can’t treat it the same way? The films of Denis Villeneuve, for example – Blade Runner 2049SicarioArrival – are some of the best I’ve ever seen because they are tailor made (from sound to visuals, from soundtracks to vistas) to awe, shock, terrify and move you and your fellow cinemagoers IN THE CINEMA.

You take this away from a movie that demands this sort of experience, and you leave viewers with a subpar experience of seeing such a film for the first time. That’s nothing against people who don’t get to see something at the cinema: I’ve enjoyed many a film on DVD – most notably Fellowship of the Ring – months after it was in cinemas, but removing that option for those of us who love the experience is a step change that I feel might be quite retrograde looking ahead.

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Netflix is not doing anything wrong – it’s building on its empire and in many, many cases – Mute particularly – giving directors creative freedom to make the films they want. Hell, Martin Scorsese’s new movie has been made by them, so it’s clearly popular with directors: more power to Netflix in that sense!

But these new releases trouble me as a film fan – as cinema trips get more and more expensive, and some staff or most patrons respectively couldn’t give two shits about their customers or fellow cinemagoers, what reason is there to go? And how will that ultimately affect the films released, their quality levels, and the unforgettable experiences when we see something truly great in the medium it was made for?

I don’t know what to expect and I certainly don’t want to predict what’s going to happen. The recent release of Annihilation just made me want to share my unease and disappointment – particularly that quality, anticipated movies will not get their time of day in the cinema. I wonder where this might take us next.

Review: Game Night

Recently, it seems to take a lot for a good comedy to appear at the flicks, after the Will Ferrell heyday (for me at least) and a general incorporation of comedy into other genres. Game Night is a great resurgence of dark humour and laugh out loud sketches, a clever, tight story starring some comedy veterans alongside some hilarious newbies.

Competitive gamers Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) host regular game nights with their friends. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) breezes back into town, he invites the couple and their friends to a new type of game night at his home, but things quickly unravel, and the group aren’t sure if they’re in a game or not…

I had been intrigued, given the reviews this was getting, to see what the fuss was about, and whether it was going to fall into the dumber (read: gross out) traps most comedies manage to. And Game Night is a truly funny film, toeing the line between dark comedy and thriller throughout but never far off another joke or set piece.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein utilise action movie beats and great suburban or inner city US locations to give a sense of place and roots for the outlandish comedy to take place. A lot of the situations are truly funny just for the collision of the mundane with the ridiculous, such as an impromptu gunshot wound surgery involving a dog’s chew toy and an iPhone that just escalates.

Writer Mark Perez does a particularly great job bottling the current zeitgeist around board games, escape rooms and the like – the game night is in resurgence, and so the situation the characters find themselves in is more relatable the thirst for harder games and that competitiveness that drives people to behave completely out of character.

In a way, this feels at times like David Fincher’s The Game but from a comedic perspective – that feeling of confusion about where the game ends and life begins. Here it’s often played for great laughs, though some jokes or situations end up being a bit less amusing due to either cultural differences (as with a lot of US comedies over here) or because something’s just a bit weak (and aiming for the easily entertained).

Game-Night-poster-2-600x889Jason Bateman stays comfortably within his archetype as a man child/confused bystander, though this is because he’s just the best at it. I love how he can project a resigned, upset feeling of inadequacy in just a couple of looks, and the film wouldn’t really be the same – or the character of Max – without him.

He works really well in a double act with McAdams because the characters fire each other up with enthusiasm, and so their scenes together are often more hilarious for this reason.She really ought to be in more comedies because she illuminates this one with a breathless excitement, almost manic, fittingly for one of an incredibly competitive couple.

New Girl’s Lamorne Morris finally builds on his background on the TV sitcom (as its best character, don’t question me) as cocky friend Kevin, again a man full of jokes (like the show’s Winston) but with a giant insecurity relating to wife Michelle, played with a sparky wit by Kylie Bunbury, and creating another of the film’s funny couples.

The third pair has Billy Magnussen go full dimwit as the shallow, idiotic Ryan, who gets most of the more stupid laughs, but is entertainingly depicted slowly understanding or misunderstanding any given explanation. His partner is the great Sharon Horgan, the Irish actress finally getting Hollywood recognition after the success of the hilarious Catastrophe, and more or less playing the same sarcastic, caustic character.

Kyle Chandler  exudes pure macho smarm as Brooks, that archetypal older brother with everything the younger brother doesn’t have. Danny Huston and Jeffrey Wright make odd little cameos as a rich scumbag and the “FBI” agent taking part, as does Michael C. Hall channeling his dark side again after Dexter. Chelsea Peretti meanwhile makes an oddly unfunny appearance that completely wastes her comedic talents!

However, the standout is Jesse Plemons, as the couple’s neighbour Gary. The actor has been building a steady career as an intense character actor, but here channels his intensity and odd demeanour into an absolute scream of a role. From the way he stares silently, holding his pet dog, through to his very considered and blank delivery, nearly every moment he’s on screen increases the laughter, and he’s inspired casting as the creepy, quite pathetic neighbour who just wants to be involved.

Not every joke worked for me, but then that’s down to comedic taste. On every other note Game Night works, and when it’s funny it’s absolutely hilarious. Well worth a watch, and if you can, go with friends, because it only adds to the experience!

 

 

 

Review: Lady Bird

A witty, modern coming of age story, Lady Bird is an assured directing debut from Greta Gerwig, led by a great performance by Saoirse Ronan.

In early 2000s California, Christine McPherson (Ronan) or “Lady Bird” (as she wants to be known) is nearing the end of Catholic high school, and chafes at living in Sacramento, lashing out at home and at school. Her frayed relationship with her mum (Laurie Metcalf) contrasts with her discovery of good boy Danny (Lucas Hodges) and bad boy Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

Gerwig, an indie film actress, writes and directs, and has noted that elements are derived from her own upbringing. When you watch, you’d be hard pressed to identify this as a first time movie. Gerwig’s sparky dialogue and hilarious scene transitions give it a comedic and speedy feel, and at the same time fills her lead character and cohorts with an authentically millennial, female voice.

This is the first time beyond Boyhood that I’ve seen a film like this in the decade in which I was a teenager, which is perhaps why I took to it quite quickly. Unlike that film however, Christine’s experiences feel both more realistic and mundane – that word might seem negative, but it’s really not what I mean!

It’s a pleasingly natural study of teenagers growing up, preparing to leave home and finding out who they are, and while this sort of film can easily lend itself to drama and anguish, what few scenes there are like this often interspersed or undercut by some great humour.

Gerwig’s direction utilises Sam Levy’s natrualistic lighting for a good looking film with a strong sense of place, Sacramento a sun drenched everytown a world away from most people’s perceptions of California. A largely forgettable soundtrack from Jon Brion doesn’t really impose itself, but then the dialogue is the main focus and it would distract if any more noticeable.

The depiction of Catholicism, through the sphere of the school, is surprisingly sensitive, offering an interesting view into the church’s educational institutions. Teachers and nuns are fleshed out as human rather than archetype, though the kids do largely seem to be going through the motions, as you might expect! It puts the place across as a community connected by faith, as opposed to oppressive, which I found unique compared to similar institutions in other movies.

Ronan’s lead performance is exciting, her flawless American accent only adds to her strong depiction. This character, written for another film, would be the archetypal “acting out” teen girl, but Ronan’s soulful acting and Gerwig’s characterisation mean that ‘Lady Bird’ is both bratty teen and a surpisingly innocent young woman, loathe as she might be to admit the latter.

What makes the character great is Ronan’s ability to present her growing awareness of herself, learning from her mistakes and of the impact her actions have on those around her, for good or for ill, and it’s no surprise she was nominated for an Oscar. It’s exciting to think of what she might do in future.

The other main performance deserving of acclaim comes from Laurie Metcalf as Christine’s mum, the actress portraying a more natural, strict ‘mum’ particularly in her passive aggressive, fraught scenes with Ronan. Their mother-daughter relationship as a result feels very real, especially in scenes where pockets of love or understanding are punctured by one or the others’ arrogance. This controlled, coiled performance is also notable for the few outbursts of emotion, Metcalf embodying a prideful but ultimately loving parent.

In another very naturalistic ‘dad’ performance, like Lion, Tracy Letts is sardonic and comedic, the actor giving the character a stoicism and a hold on reality that everyone around him seems to lack. The other notable roles go to the two boys, each different objects of Christine’s affection and different ends of the scale.

Lucas Hodges continues his run of impressive performances in critically acclaimed films, his Danny epitomising the awkwardness and nerdiness of teenage boys but also the repressive nature of a religious upbringing, with some surprising depth and emotion coming from his relationship with Christine and how it all pans out.

Another awards season darling, Timothee Chalomet, plays the bad boy Kyle with a hilariously douchey twist, as a self righteous kid who believes his own bullshit and can’t see how his class level and outwardly liberal yet extremely idealistic views are exactly what makes him unattractive. Finally, Beanie Feldstein quietly inhabits Christine’s more passive friend Julie, illuminating the shy girl’s angst and desire to leave the former’s shadow.

In essence, this is the sort of film that you might (if you were me) dismiss as an indie that’s not worth your time. However, I highly recommend Lady Bird as a newer, more interesting coming of age parable, and think we’ll see more exciting films from Gerwig and Ronan along the way.

Review: The Shape of Water

A top notch marriage of fantasy and heartfelt drama, The Shape of Water is pure Guillermo del Toro, and quite deserving of the praise it’s received.

In 1960s Baltimore, mute cleaner Eliza (Sally Hawkins) drifts through life working at a secret government laboratory alongside friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and living next door to friendly neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). The arrival of sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious humanoid creature from South America (Doug Jones), and Eliza becomes irrevocably attached to it.

The very premise of this (written by del Toro alongside Vanessa Taylor) is typical GdT – the director’s love of monsters and freaks is well known, yet it’s his ability to give them humanity that sets him apart (Pan’s Labyrinth the high watermark so far). The Shape of Water marries his love of fantastical beasts to his eye for character, utilising its period setting to create a sweeping romantic drama.

Where I think he succeeds is in this balance between the fantastical and human – the monster is unable to communicate, but so is Eliza, while its perceived monstrosity and alien nature leads the humans and scientists to become animalistic and violent in trying to understand and dominate it. These constant intersections between what is human and what is monstrous knit the film together.

The love story seems so far fetched and yet del Toro’s eye for strange yet beautiful creations, and his handling of the silent “conversations” between Eliza and the creature, fill scenes with a romantic tenderness other films struggle to create with two humans! The larger plot also has much to say in smaller doses about the inequalities of the time, both Spencer and Jenkins’ characters not defined by their poor treatment but characterised by their human and affecting responses to it.

MV5BNGNiNWQ5M2MtNGI0OC00MDA2LWI5NzEtMmZiYjVjMDEyOWYzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjM4NTM5NDY@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_It must be said that the practical effects for Doug Jones’ performance are spectacular, meaning you largely buy into this “merman” as a tangible character and not another bloke in a naff suit. Added to this are the expertly contrasting sets, and lighting from Dan Lausten. The two connect to evoke a sense of place and time, the colourwashed labs and ’50s/’60s apartments accordingly lit, with Eliza and Giles’ homes above a cinema lovingly recreated from the period (grimy tiles and all), and the austere, militaristic facility evoking the Cold War in colourless, concrete oppressiveness.

Alexandre Desplat’s period soundtrack is also perfectly gauged for the setting, with a memorable central theme that could have been plucked from a ’60s film. It also sweeps up and down along with the scenes of dramatic tension or quiet, tender interactions, and I can see why it has been so acclaimed.

The performances are what gives this movie its class, however. Sally Jenkins is unforgettable as Eliza, using her expressive features to bring a mute character to vibrant life, and taking us from rage to sadness and tenderness in a heartbeat. As mentioned, her scenes with Jones are silent but affecting to watch, and Jenkins manages to do so much with so little that I’m not surprised she’s been nominated for Best Actress.

Jones and Shannon deserve to have their performances compared and contrasted, the former our main modern day monster man like Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff in the past, and the latter an always reliable and gripping character actor. Jones brings the tangible yet fantastical monster to life, his unique frame and dancer’s gait once again giving a seemingly horrific creature humanity and sensitivity, alongside a flourish of animal violence and unpredictability.

Shannon meanwhile is the monster’s human mirror, a man with a seemingly perfect American life but for whom violence and brutality are too easily undertaken. His distinctive granite-like features are an edifice behind which true horror lurks: however, the actor’s strengths in depth are expressed via the character’s zeal to discover a conspiracy, his attempts to blend into society (despite the bubbling, all too human monstrosity within), and his disregard for his health as the plot progresses. He’s an uncomfortable yet talented performer making the most of a great role.

Octavia Spencer slightly falls into the trap of “sassy black friend” as Zelda, but the actress has plenty of opportunities (that she seizes) to show a hidden steel, a forceful personality and a fierce loyalty. Jenkins is luckier as a kind of father figure for Eliza, and has a quite affecting plot where he tries to deal with society’s view of him as gay, and how that affects his work and his romantic life. Both actors here play to their strengths from other roles (Spencer’s steeliness and Jenkin’s old, tired stoicism), but together present a bit of colour and life to the supporting cast.

Finally, Michael Stuhlbarg grants the at first officious Dr Hoffstetler with a surprising level of complexity, the bit part character’s motivations and reasons for his actions unpredictable, and the actor conveys a man trying desperately to hold everything together for just enough time, but ready to unravel at a moment’s notice.

I was quite surprised with how taken I was by The Shape of Water. You’ll know what you’re in for if you’ve seen a del Toro movie before (well, those that are slower and more dramatic, not action packed bonanzas).It’s initially quite surprising that this sumptuous film is somehow nominated for and winning so many awards, but watching it, you can see that the director’s love for the maligned and odd has here been made into something special.