Sunday 25 March 2018

Mom and Dad by Brian Taylor

I almost missed this because, from the anodyne title, I assumed it was a comedy. 

Actually it's an action thriller, or horror movie. And a comedy. A very dark comedy.

It's a flip on the conventional zombie movie — there's a whole sub-genre of films which aren't actually about the dead rising and eating the living, but are much the same set-up with a more plausible plot: like The Rage or Rabid, or perhaps even The Purge trilogy, in which ordinary humans are turned, en masse, into relentless killing machines and nowhere is safe.

But Mom and Dad has a uniquely inventive – some might say sick — twist on this. One day, for no explained reason, parents start killing their children. This gives rise to large quantities of the blackest of black humour and Nicolas Cage as the dad in the title really rises to the occasion. 

This is both horrifying and hilarious. It’s a fabulous conceit. There’s a terrifically disturbing and chilling bit where the camera just moves past a row of men staring with blank hostility through a window into the hospital area where all the babies lie in their cots.

The movie begins with a wide viewpoint, as we see the entire community and (through television reports) the nation at large descending into this kind of mob bloodshed. Then it narrows down to focus on just one family, consisting of Cage plus Selma Blair as the mom and Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur as the kids Carly and Josh. 

And it becomes a tightly contained cat-and-mouse game in their home with the parents seeking to slay their offspring, who are understandably none too keen on the prospect.
Mom and Dad is written and directed by Brian Taylor, formerly of Neveldine and Taylor, the screenwriting partnership who wrote the Crank movies and Pathology. (As a solo act Taylor directed Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which starred Cage.)  

Neveldine and Taylor were a writing team which specialised in lurid pulp adventures characterised by ferocious energy and unashamed excess. They were also, less appealingly, all too often characterised by a willingness to sacrifice their story concepts and logic for the sake of plot convenience and cheap thrills — as in the case of Pathology. And now Mom and Dad.

At the end of this movie there’s a splendid gag where Cage and Selma Blair are finally about to finish off their kids... and the doorbell rings. Mom and Dad look at each other. "It's your parents," says Blair. "They're coming over for dinner." "That's tonight?" says Cage, in a classic dismayed domestic exchange.

But of course, as soon as Grandma and Granddad are through the door they set about trying to kill Cage. Which saves the kids' bacon. Wonderful stuff, And very funny.

However, at this point Taylor loses sight of his own logic — or perhaps deliberately abandons it for short term gains. Because while granddad — Lance Henriksen — goes after Cage, grandma goes after Selma Blair, i.e. her daughter in law. 

Which makes no story sense at all. This murderous plague, whatever it is, only affects parents in regard to their own children.

Instead, while her elderly hubby is trying his level best to murder their son, Grandma should have been saying to Selma Blair, “Oh I tried that meat loaf recipe you gave me and it was wonderful.”

Nevertheless this is a standout black comedy/horror movie hybrid. As a social commentary it isn't remotely in the league of Get Out, but it's nevertheless an audacious, over-the-top, furious and bloodthirsty little gem. 

(Image credits: thank you Imp Awards.)

Sunday 18 March 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh

Mostly I post about movies I like. Sometimes I dislike a movie so much that I feel have to post about it. Other times, I dislike one so much that I decide just to ignore it.

This was the case with writer-director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a great title, by the way. Although henceforth it will be shortened to Three Billboards). 

But the movie has received such acclaim that I've become rather annoyed, and decided to state my case for the record.

Let me start by saying that I thought Sam Rockwell's performance, as dumb-ass deputy Dixon, was outstanding, and I was delighted that he won an Oscar for it.

What's more, throughout most of the film I thought I was watching a masterpiece. It was hilarious, disturbing, emotionally complex... But then towards the end it fell apart so completely that the entire enterprise collapsed.

And revealed that the movie was a big bag of emptiness. It pretends that it is serious and deep and profound. Only to betray the audience by turning out to be shallow, phony and nothing but a gimmicky show-off piece of junk.

And this betrayal is utterly fatal because the movie needs to be serious and deep and profound, since it is dealing with such grave material.

It tells the story of Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother dealing with guilt and grief after the horrible fate of her teenage daughter ("raped while dying").

It also delves deep into human suffering elsewhere, tenderly depicting the terminal illness and suicide of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

This is such serious subject matter that you can't afford to fuck it up. But fuck it up Martin McDonagh does, and pretty spectacularly, too.

The movie crashes off the rails when Deputy Dixon is apparently released from hospital a week after being admitted with serious burns. And it fails beyond redemption when Dixon and Mildred set off together on a cross-country revenge spree.

They're going to kill this guy who they know was not the attacker of Mildred's daughter. But they've decided he's a rapist — plus he beat up Dixon in a bar fight — so they're going to kill him anyway. 

Or maybe they won't. 

Who knows?

Certainly not Martin McDonagh who seems to have forgotten the first rule of screenwriting. Movies are all about endings.  
Indeed, some people believe that you should start writing a movie with the ending and work your way backwards.

That sure as hell didn't happen here.

What Three Billboards does succeed in doing — laudably and superbly — is setting up characters whom we expect to be unlikable and unsympathetic, and then utterly reversing our feelings towards them. It does it first with Willoughby and then, in spades, with Dixon.

Indeed the characters in the film are excellent, and McDonagh's ability to write characters — and dialogue — are his great strengths. What's more, I entirely agree with McDonagh when he says (in this interview) "The character begins from the dialogue."

Which makes it all the more of a pity that the movie fails to live up to its promise. I think the problem is simply that McDonagh leaned too heavily on his skill at dialogue and character (honed in his stage plays) and did too little work on the plot.

Millions of people like, revere — even love — Three Billboards. I was about to make a crack that none of them are screenwriters, though...

However, I realised that I know this to not be true. My dear friend Rona Munro is an amazingly gifted screenwriter. And she adores Three Billboards.

So maybe I'm completely wrong.

But I don't think so.

(Image credits: Seven billboards at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 11 March 2018

The Shape of Water by del Toro and Taylor

I've seen most of Guillermo del Toro's output: everything from his debut feature Cronos in 1993 through to Pacific Rim 2013. Then, after twenty years of disappointment, I pretty much threw in the towel.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. I really liked Blade II... But such widely loved and highly regarded works as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth just left me cold. And I particularly detested the Hellboy movies (what a waste of Ron Perlman...).

I mention all this so you will know it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I'd love The Shape of Water. But love it I did.

The movie was written by del Toro in collaboration with Vanessa Taylor. Taylor has a background in television writing, ranging from Alias — an old favourite of mine — to Game of Thrones (which I currently think is the greatest TV series ever made). She also scripted Divergent, but we won't hold that against her.

Because The Shape of Water is terrific. It tells the story of... well, you know the story: basically a deaf female janitor at a secret government research facility falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who is being held captive there.

It's like a super-deluxe, full colour, full length version of a 1960s Outer Limits episode, made for adult audiences.

The janitor is Elisa, portrayed by British actress Sally Hawkins with great subtlety and considerable courage. She unflinchingly appears nude, and performs, ahem, acts of auto-eroticism in the bathtub in scenes which cleverly set up the film's theme of associating sexuality and water.

Octavia Spencer is great as fellow janitor (janitress?) Zelda. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who was splendid in Steve Jobs, is good as a sympathetic scientist.

The bad guy is military stooge Strickland played by Michael Shannon, who is very effective but is basically reprising his uptight fed from Boardwalk Empire, right down to making love to his wife with his socks on.

However, besides Sally Hawkins, it is Richard Jenkins who really impresses as Elisa's kindly neighbour Giles, a commercial artist whose cat Pandora gets eaten (with hideous skull-crunching sound effects) after they help the creature escape and give him sanctuary.

Oh, and the creature, called Amphibian Man, is played by Doug Jones in a superb monster suit which is iridescent, with beautiful colours. He also has really cool feline eyes (you'd have thought he could have spared poor Pandora out of intra-species loyalty...).

The film is set in the early 1960s and nominally takes place in Baltimore, but it was shot in Toronto (the Toronto crew came in for particular thanks at the Academy Awards ceremony). 

It's visually splendid, with a nice period feel and a lovely score by Alexander Desplat — who won an Oscar for it.

The film also won — astonishingly — Best Picture. I say astonishingly because the Academy is notorious for its dislike of science fiction del Toro got Best Director and Paul Austerberry won for Production Design.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins were all nominated for Oscars but failed to win. Spencer lost to Allison Janney in I, Tonya and Jenkins to Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In both cases I'd go along with that.

Hawkins lost to Frances McDormand in Three Billboards, and here I beg to differ. Not least because Three Billboards is so much weaker than The Shape of Water.

And del Toro and Vanessa Taylor were also nominated for their original screenplay, but lost to Jordan Peele for his script to Get Out. And in this case I can't fault the academy. 

Both are wonderful movies, but Get Out is deeper, more important and profound and subversive.

The Shape of Water has moments which are silly and unbelievable, but this mattered not a jot because the movie was so appealing and won me over so completely. And I'm going to give you a soft spoiler here by telling you that it has a happy ending.

Grisly cat-eating scene aside, I enjoyed every minute of The Shape of Water. It's a lovely movie, touching, exciting and satisfying.

(Image credits: just a handful (with webbed fingers) of posters available from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 4 March 2018

Triggerman by Matz, Hill and Jef

Triggerman, like Peepland, is another entry in the outstanding new Hard Case Crime series of graphic novels. It's drawn by Jef and co-written by Matz and Walter Hill.

Walter Hill is a highly regarded director and screenwriter. As a writer he had a hand in creating the Alien franchise, but he is better known for his work on Westerns (Deadwood) and particularly crime dramas (48 Hrs.).

In 2012 he directed a thriller set in New Orleans entitled Bullet to the Head. The movie wasn't particularly memorable, but it was based on a French graphic novel (Du plomb dans la tête). 

And on the set of the film Walter Hill met Matz (a pseudonym for Alexis Nolent) who had written Du plomb dans la tête.

Hill recalls that Matz "asked if I had any scripts or stories that could transfer to comic book form. I told him I had about thirty of them."

And Triggerman is the result. Set in America in the 1930s, it is a vivid, violent and compelling tale of Depression era crime. A classic story of Prohibition and gangsters, it focuses on a gunman called Roy Nash.

Nash is a hardened criminal and a hired killer — a standard character from film noir and pulp fiction. 

What makes him distinctive is that he is on a quest — for a woman from his past. He is motivated not by money or the thirst for revenge, but by love.

This a simple and strikingly effective plot device, but I don't recall it ever having been used before. Hill himself says, "The story is driven by Roy's nostalgia for a lost love. I thought that was an interesting departure point for a gangster character and story."

It certainly is, and thanks to the exemplary art by Jef (aka Jean-Francois Martinez, aka Nino), Triggerman comes powerfully to life. Jef's illustrations are gritty, dynamic and strangely elegant. 

In particular I was knocked out by the magnificent shots of the launch heading out to the gambling ship. This sequence is all the more effective for being entirely wordless. Indeed, the use of silent images is one of the great and distinctive strengths of Triggerman.

Jef contributes to the sense of period which heightens the pleasure of this tight, terse action thriller which is populated by intriguing characters. 

(There's one called Eddie Marz, which must be a cheeky homage to Chandler's The Big Sleep, which features a crook called Eddie Mars, who runs a beach side gambling house.)

Triggerman was pure pleasure for me. Dark, terse, grim and relentless. But also beautifully drawn and tremendously evocative.

As a comic book writer myself, though, I have to add that during the grave robbing sequence on Page 99, Panel 5, I think the word balloon is wrongly positioned. I think it should be coming from Roy, who is out of shot.

I really like these Hard Case graphic novels. I can't get enough of them. More, please.

(Image credits: Once again thanks to Will O'Mullane at Titan for providing all the art.)