Review: ‘A Quiet Place’ is silent surprise

quiet

May contain spoilers

Ssshhhh…

The horror movie genre is the source of some innovative film making lately and, following on the success of “Get Out,” which picked up an Oscar for Jordan Peele’s screenplay, “A Quiet Place” is a taut and clever entry into the field.

Directed, co-written (with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and starring John Krasinski, the film opens with the Abbott family silently padding barefoot around an abandoned grocery store. A title simply states “89 days.” The youngest child, Beau, played by Cade Woodward, draws a rocket in chalk on the floor. He uses sign language to tell his father, Lee, that it will take them all away. On his way out he takes a toy rocket, complete with batteries, and the family head home.

It turns out toy rockets that make noise are a bad idea in this world. Moments later, boom! — we are all in.

Jump to just over a year later and we see the family in a farmhouse that is rigged to eliminate sound. Cloth dice knitted game pieces on a board game. The floorboards are marked to indicate which ones don’t creak.

quietposterLee has built a basement lab, complete with radio equipment, cameras that show grainy images of the surroundings, and news cuttings that scream “It’s Sound” and indicate that something has happened. On a white board there is a note that there are three of “them.” I love that we are not given a massive backstory. Something has happened. Some sort of threat is here. Our goal is to survive. Do we really care what came before? Does it even matter?

There is often a tendency for film makers to over-explain things, to bog the action down with backstory. We are given just enough info to establish that there are alien monsters who are blind but have super hearing. They are quick and lethal once they hear you. So shh….

The family, meanwhile, is trying to live as normal a life as they can. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee are affectionate, they eat family dinners, the teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is moody, and the son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is being a kid, albeit silently, and gives us a fantastic face that expresses fear with wide-eyed sincerity.

Regan is deaf, as is Simmonds herself, and her deafness is a strong component of the story. Presumably, the family being able to sign has helped their initial survival. Lee is constantly working to build a hearing aid for his daughter. Simmonds gives an excellent nuanced performance.

quiet2

Noah Jupe, left, Millicent Simmonds and John Krasinski in “A Quiet Place

 There is something inherently tense about the ongoing silence which draws us all into the Abbotts’ world, as we sit, mostly silent, in the darkened theater. Every footstep makes the heart skip a beat. Audiences have even taken to scolding people for eating popcorn to loudly. In order for a horror film to work, the audience must become part of the show and become immersed in the situation. “A Quiet Place” certainly brings us along for the ride.

Oh, by the way, Evelyn is heavily pregnant. What kind of people would bring a child into a world where the very thing that children do — make noise — could bring calamity on the whole family? And how is she expecting to give birth quietly? Children in a post-apocalyptic world are necessary if humanity is to survive, but they are always a huge problem in the survival stakes.

The subtle thread that runs through the film is the father-daughter relationship. It is not deafness that is the source of their inability to communicate, but rather how does a father show his love when his every effort is for survival? Ultimately, his love is expressed in a sound she cannot hear.

One could argue that the monsters are a little derivative, but this film is really not about them. They are simply something to overcome. The really scary thing is the silence. There is danger in everyday items, like a creaky floorboard, a rusty nail, a picture frame. When every sound can mean death, everything is a threat.

Krasinski’s direction wisely doesn’t overdo it. A less sure hand would have had kids running through wind chimes or some other contrived noise maker. By keeping it simple, he keeps it real. And that’s where the tension and fear lies.

“A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of storytelling. There is no real on-screen violence. The monsters are mostly just glimpsed blurs until the end, yet the film cleverly builds the suspense. It is a story of a family and every parent’s fear — that they cannot really protect their kids. And that’s the scariest thing of all.

“A Quiet Place” is rated PG-13. For best effect, see it at the theater, or at least somewhere really quiet.

Advertisements

Lies, lies … and great fun

earnest2

Shelby Dryden, left, Sydney Haygood and Emily Buesing rehearse a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Studio Theatre at Lamar University. Courtesy photo

Review: LU theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is terrific entertainment

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” is a farce about deception and triviality, but there is nothing deceptive or trivial about Lamar University theatre’s latest production. The excellence is in plain view.

Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy gets a fresh showing with an ensemble that is fits seamlessly together, under the direction of husband and wife guest artists Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, from Houston’s 4th Wall Theatre.

The play gets off to a rollicking start in the apartment of Algernon Moncrief, played superbly by Chris Shroff, who is louche and bendy, and positively exudes entitled irresponsibility. He is visited by his friend “Ernest,” played Ed Seymour. The contrast between the characters is well balanced, with Seymour acting as a low-key foil to Shroff’s outlandishness. As events progress, we discover that both men have created fictional excuses to be one thing in the country and quite another in town.

“Ernest” is , in fact, Jack Worthing, who, in the country, is the responsible guardian of his ward, Cecily Cardew, played by Emily Buesing. “Ernest” is Jack’s invented, far less responsible brother. Algernon has invented an invalid friend, “Bunbury, whose ailments require frequent trips out of town.

earnestThese fictions afford each man to have his cake and eat it, too (in Algernon’s case, quite literally, as he spends most of the play snacking on whatever is available).

Jack is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, played by Sydney Haygood, and is ready to kill his “brother” off and come clean so they can marry. The couple’s furtive looks and sly flirting are a delight.

This being Wilde, the course of true love is destined never to run smooth. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, will not agree to the marriage and Act 1 ends with Jack on his way to a business meeting, and Algernon secretly off to meet Cecily.

In Act 2, the action bristles as Gwendolyn and Cecily meet, both believing they are engaged to the same man — Ernest (whose name is signifies the “earnest” qualities they seek). Haygood and Buesing are quite a double act, shifting from sisters to rivals and back again as they exchange barely-veiled barbs. Haygood, as the sultry city girl, is hilarious, and Buesing’s almost cloying naïve sweetness is the perfect counterpart. Both women know what they want and will not be thwarted.

Dryden’s Lady Bracknell is domineering and overbearing. She almost barks her lines, leaving the others cowering before her, with a sense of absolute surety and entitlement that comes with her class. Wilde’s play is a commentary and indictment of the shallowness of high society. When Act 3 rolls around, we find she has family secrets of her own.

It would be unfair not recognize the other members of the ensemble, Austin Jones, Brianna Butler, Maddy Hightower and Josh Pendino. There was no weak link in the cast.

The direction is crisp and the three acts positively fly by. The staging, in the round, is wonderfully choreographed as the actors circle each other like predators going in for the kill.

Kudos also go to Cherie Acosta’s costume crew, who have come up with a wonderful color palette (the play is set in the 1950s).

Wilde’s play was first performed in 1895, but it is as funny today — and as biting a social commentary — as it was then. This production is a must-see.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” will continue tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 LU/LIT faculty and staff, senior citizens and Non-LU students and $7 for LU/LIT student with a valid ID.

Review: ‘Black Panther’ great entertainment for all

blackpanther

The latest entry is the Marvel Comic Universe is the highly anticipated “Black Panther.” While the character does not have the history of other high-powered entries such as Iron Man, Spiderman and Thor, its central hero is the first black superhero to take center stage. It is hard to imagine the pressure that director Ryan Coogler must have felt. Not only is this his first mega-budget project, but he also carried the weight of black expectations on his shoulders.

What a pleasure then that “Black Panther” is not only a box-office smash, but it is also really quite good — visually stunning with a well-written story (Coogler co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole). While I am no comic book aficionado, I do enjoy being entertained, preferably with some interesting subtexts, and Black Panther certainly fits the bill.

BlackPantherPosterThe story centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new ruler of the African kingdom of Wakanda, a country that to the outside world is poor and agrarian. In reality, it is far more advanced than any other country, both in terms of its technology and its utopian society, thanks to the reserves of vibranium, a mysterious substance that remains pretty much unexplained, but it’s a comic book story so who cares. Vibranium is a McGuffin, a device to allow the story to move forward.

T’Challa, his spy ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and General Okoye (Danai Gurira, Michonne from “The Walking Dead”), are on the hunt for Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who stole some vibranium in a violent attack that left many dead. Of course, it was an inside job.

That’s about as far as I need to go, there will be no spoilers here, suffice to say that Michael B. Jordan (who starred in the magnificent “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler’s directorial debut — if you haven’t seen it then you must), Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitacker, Angela Bassett and a host of other big names make up a wonderful ensemble. Special mention must be made of Letitia Wright who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and a tech wiz, who is all sibling sass and self-confidence.

To say that “Black Panther” is simply a black film would be to do it a great injustice. There are multiple characters but they all get enough time for us to get to know them. Even the real big bad (no spoilers) is nuanced and sympathetic. The action is tight and well done, but it is the interplay of the characters that is the highlights of the movie.

Okoye-Nakia-and-Ayo-in-Dora-Milaje-outfits-Black-Panther“Black Panther” is also heavy on feminism. In Wakanda, it is the women who are the main warriors, fierce and loyal to the country. The leading spy — a woman — is also an activist for the oppressed.

The movie touches on the dangers of colonialism, as well as the plight of minorities outside of the Wakanda’s borders. It is a film that discusses the relative merits of isolationism, the virtues of foreign aid, the radicalizing of disenfranchised youth, and the power of teamwork.

Past black superheroes have been side characters — X-Men” had Storm, but that character did not have the heft of “Black Panther.” Falcon and War Machine were not main players in the Avengers. Wesley Snipes’ “Blade,” for all his bad-assery, was hardly the positive role model. By contrast, T’Challa is a king whose main struggle is how to do the right thing with the gifts he has. He is noble, kind and trusts his friends.

“Black Panther” is the perfect superhero movie for our time The fact that there has been a backlash by some Alt-right idiots about it being “too black or “too militant” just shows how needed it is.

There is one other thing “Black Panther” has going for it — it is excellent entertainment.

Rated PG-13

Review: ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a languid romance

call-me-by-your-name

Armie Hammer, left, and Timothée Chalomet star in “Call Me By Your Name.”

May contain spoilers

“Call Me By Your Name” is supposed to come to Beaumont the first week in March, just in time for the Oscars, where it is nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Timothée Chalomet’s performance as 17-year-old Elio.

This coming of age love story is set in early-1980s Italy, and the scenery alone is well worth the price of admission. James Ivory wrote the script and the film evokes the feel of one of the classic Merchant/Ivory films like “A Room With A View,” “Howards End” or, more fittingly, “Maurice.”

When 24-year-old American graduate student Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, arrives to spend a summer as an assistant to Perlman, a professor of ancient antiquities, Elio, Perlman’s son, is whiling away the summer, adrift in a haze of burgeoning sexuality. Both have liaisons with local girls, but it is clear from the glances and furtive looks that they are destined to find each other.

Oliver initially comes across as an obnoxious American. Hammer plays him with a brash confidence that borders on rudeness, and exhibits a sense of entitled self-confidence. His voracious appetite is hinted at by the way he eats his egg at his first breakfast. His habit of leaving with an abrupt, “Later,” becomes a joke for the family. Elio’s initial reaction is to not like Oliver especially the way the girls of the village are obviously smitten.

callmeposterThe action, if one can call it that, moves slowly and languidly as their friendship develops amid bicycle rides through the hazy Italian summer. Elio is precociously gifted intellectually. In one scene Oliver asks him to play a Bach piece on the piano and Elio shows off his skills by changing it each time, all the while explaining the particular composer he is referencing.

As time passes, the two find each other. Elio is the aggressor, while Oliver, as he says, is trying to be good.

Chalomet would be the youngest Best Actor winner should he walk away with the Oscar, and although it is unlikely, his performance is striking for its complexity and nuance. He also plays a key character in “Lady Bird,” and he has announced himself as a major talent.

This has been hailed as a “gay” movie, and that is certainly there, although both characters could best be described as bisexual. What the movie really gives us is a love story that transcends mere sexuality. Director Luca Guadagnino doesn’t really show the sex, choosing to pan to an open window and show an idyllic landscape. It is as though he is telling us to look beyond the physical.

That is the strength of “Call Me By Your Name.” It is a love story. A summer romance that allows Oliver and Elio to find themselves in each other — hence the title — and it is rewarding for both of them.

The highlight of the film occurs late when Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, talks to his son, with text lifted almost exactly from André Aciman’s novel. Stuhlbarg is this year’s Oscar standard, appearing in three of the top films, including “The Post” and “The Shape of Water.” It is in this film that he best shows his range. The speech is beautiful and incredibly moving, and should be required viewing for everyone — gay, straight or anywhere in-between.

“Call Me By Your Name” is a beautiful, thoughtful and affecting film that unfolds like the novel on which it is based.

Rated R.

Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ is beautifully constructed cinematic garment

PH

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in “Phantom Thread.”

Warning; May contain some spoilers

The world of fashion is, by its very nature, a thing of beauty and elegance, which also perfectly describes “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece.

Set in the world of 1950s London haute couture, the film revolves around Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a celebrated designer with a high society clientele. He is as fastidious about his appearance as he is about the exquisite gowns he shows in the rooms of his five-story residence/workshop.

Reynolds is the master of his domain. The team of seamstresses, all clad in white coats, defer to him and the whole operation is run with cool, tight-lipped, regimented efficiency by his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. The entire operation is staged to coddle the brooding genius, it seems.

One morning at breakfast, his current paramour, Johanna, offers him an iced bun, which, of course, it simply unacceptable. It is not routine, and he loses his appetite, ruining his entire day. Later, Cyril says she will talk to the girl and, voila, she is seen no more.

Phantom_Thread_Poster-1Exhausted after a show, Reynolds drives down to the coast arriving in time for breakfast at a hotel. He spies the seemingly awkward waitress Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. His order is extremely specific: “Welsh rabbit with a poached egg; bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam (not strawberry); a pot of Lapsang souchong — and some sausages.” Then he asks her if she would have dinner with him. Such is the meet-cute of this unconventional romance.

Reynolds takes Alma back to his cottage where he makes her a dress. Despite Reynolds’ all-business demeanor, there is an erotic undercurrent to the scene as he measures her and gently calls out the numbers for Cyril, who has just arrived, to write down. Alma and Cyril eye each other warily, and Alma blushes as though she has been caught in some intimate moment.

Alma travels back to London and becomes Woodcock’s muse and model. However, the pair are rarely alone. Reynolds and Cyril breakfast together daily in near silence as he obsessively draws in his notebook. The film’s third breakfast is comical, as Alma disturbs the morning’s peace by, of all things, spreading marmalade on her toast. The sounds of knife, plate and toast are amplified as we see Woodcock wince at the disruption.

But Alma does not go the way of Johanna. She is made of sterner stuff.

For much of “Phantom Thread,” it seems to be a typical example of “Toxic Masculinity” with a dominating genius who expects everyone to bow to his whims. But who really has the power in the house? And to what lengths will Alma go to keep the relationship?

Reynolds, for all his dominance, is defined by the women in his life. He himself is dominated by the ghostly memory of his mother. As a child he designed the dress for the her second marriage with help from Cyril, and he has a lock of her hair sewn into his jacket.

He tells Alma, “You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat. When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments, things that only I knew were there, secrets.” The film deals very much with secret thoughts.

For all its seriousness, “Phantom Thread” is also quite funny. The dialogue is crisp and there are moments of banter between characters that are both witty and caustic.

This film is a slow burn in the best possible way, with Anderson constructing it with the same delicate precision that Reynolds constructs his dresses. As well as directing and writing, Anderson also worked closely with the cinematographers when his usual crew was unavailable, and the film is visually stunning.

Day-Lewis is magnificent. He is as far from his previous Oscar winning roles — Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” the eponymous president in “Lincoln,” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” — as it is possible to get, yet he smolders and broods with tight-lipped, dapper restraint. Nobody can say more with a simple curl of the lip or a gently-arched eyebrow. If this, as he has said, is his last film, then he can be satisfied that he is leaving at the top of his game.

Kriep is given short shrift by not getting an Oscar nomination. The young actress from Luxembourg is wonderful as she shifts from innocent waitress to wife and muse. It takes some doing to wrestle attention from such a legend as Day-Lewis, but she is every bit his equal. Look for good things from her in the future.

manville

Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread”

Manville is up for best supporting actor and it is well-deserved. A stalwart of English film it is good to see her getting wider acclaim. As Woodcock’s older sister she knows exactly when to assert herself, leaving him looking like a scolded child.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is stunningly beautiful. It is perfectly paced for the film and one could listen to it all day.

“Phantom Thread” has perfectly captured the essence of the creative process from Reynolds’ detached intensity as a collection comes together to the sullen deflation once it is completed. It is a cycle familiar to many of us in the arts.

The hardest thing about writing reviews is avoiding spoilers when, especially in the case of this film, the only thing one wants to do is talk about “that moment,” or “what about?” and I look forward to more detailed conversations about this wonderful movie.

Like the secret messages Reynolds sews into his garments, “Phantom Thread” weaves an intricate story full of surprises.

Rated R.

Review: ‘I, Tonya’ a tale of white trash, white ice

itonya

Margot Robbie plays Tont=ya Harding in “I, Tonya.”

Warning: May contain spoilers.

The latest based-on-a-true-story movie to hit Beaumont’s screens is “I, Tonya,” the sordid tale of Olympic ice-skating gone bad.

Tonya Harding, wonderfully played by Margot Robbie, is not your typical waif-like, adorable teenager that one normally sees on the ice. She is muscular and athletic, with a somewhat abrasive personality.

The movie, based on interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, intersperses the action with confessional-type monologues. They offer insights into the characters’ motivations, with Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, cutting a particularly obnoxious figure reminiscent of a cold-blooded, chain-smoking pirate complete with a bird on a her shoulder.

I-TONYAposterIn another world, “I, Tonya,” would be an inspirational story. Poor girl lifts herself up through hard work and the sacrifices of a loving mother to become a champion. However, this ain’t that world and this ain’t that kind of movie.

LaVonda never misses a moment to remind Tonya of that sacrifice, often with a good backhander. Her “loving support” is abusive both physically and mentally. As a result, Tonya falls for the first person to show her any kind of affection, the gormless Gillooly, played with the required dimness by Sebastian Stan.

As Tonya rises through the ranks, she is repeatedly beaten — not in competition on the ice, but by Gillooly (one of those I-love-you-too-much scenarios), as well as her mother and the whole U.S. skating hierarchy.

In many ways, she is inspirational. She fights the authorities who think she doesn’t fit the right image (and skating, with its subjective scoring is ripe for bias), she makes her own outfits — she literally fights her way to the pinnacle of the sport.

In today’s world, she would not have the financial hardships. The Olympics allowed professional athletes to compete in 1986, and today an elite athlete would have a team of handlers to give them the best chance at a medal. Poor Tonya didn’t have that opportunity.

Ultimately, this is a tale of stupidity. Gillooly and Shawn Ekhardt, Gillooly’s friend and Tonya’s bodyguard, hatch a plan of “psychological warfare” to distract her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to Olympic qualifying, but things do not go as planned.

Ekhardt, wonderfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, is a complete idiot. A self-proclaimed counter-espionage expert, he is a cartoon character — amazingly, he actually is an idiot in real life, as anyone who saw the interviews at the time can attest. Hauser’s portrayal is marvelous, all sweat and self-delusion.

3--lavona-golden-allison-janney-and-her-pet-bird-in-i-tonya-cour

Allison Janney plays Tonya Harding’s mother LaVona Golden in “I, Tonya.”

Director Craig Gillespie does a marvelous job keeping the story moving along, with an undercurrent of black humor, and the ice skating sequences are brilliantly done, with the camera swirling around Harding as she pulls off the triple axel. The look on her face as she lands and hears the cheers is priceless. For this one moment, at least, she is loved, and Robbie’s face is a picture of triumph.

Did Harding know about, what the characters all call, “the incident?” The film leans toward her not knowing about the initial plan, but she was complicit in the cover up.

At the time, Kerrigan was the portrayed as a victim and became more of America’s sweetheart, while Harding became the villain, and “I, Tonya” has been accused of trying to make audiences feel sorry for her.

But we should feel sorry for her in some ways. We see the “support system” she was surrounded with and it is hard to see how things could have turned out any other way.

Make no mistake, “I, Tonya” is a movie about class. She didn’t have the right image. She was not from the right sort of family. Therefore, she didn’t fit into the skating club. Instead of being heralded for her skill — and make no mistake, Harding was world-class — she was forced to fight every step of the way. Unfortunately, she lacked both the education and the guidance to make the right choices.

Harding is a tragic figure, a victim of her own poor choices to be sure, but tragic nonetheless.

“I, Tonya” is a black comedy populated thoroughly unlikeable characters, but it also has a heart. When the world encourages you to be a fighter, we can’t complain when it gets a little bloody. Harding is the villain the world wanted, unluckily for her, but lucky for us, it makes for a terrific film.

“I, Tonya” is rated R.