Real-life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt make for a stellar onscreen couple as well.
It’s not easy to make an entire room full of movie fans scream in terror. But John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place did just that Friday, thrilling the SXSW crowd with impeccably crafted scares, surprisingly effective drama, and one hell of a satisfying ending.
By the time the credits rolled, my hands hurt from clenching them so tightly. I let out a long breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. And then I felt compelled to applaud, loudly, at what I’d just seen. Judging by the dazed looks on the faces of the critics around me, I wasn’t the only one. This is that kind of movie.
For the most part, A Quiet Place lives up to its title. Krasinski and Emily Blunt play the parents of a family living out their days in near-silent isolation, lest the slightest noise attract the monsters that have already demolished most of the rest of the human population.
The film’s genius is in the way it weaponizes that absence of sound. The quiet of A Quiet Place has nuances and textures – there’s a difference in the silence a father hears as his family tiptoes around an abandoned store, versus the silence his deaf daughter (Wonderstruck‘s Millicent Simmonds) hears when she’s in the same scenario.
When sound does intrude, it’s horribly jarring. My tension spiked with each crash or yell. When those noises attracted the monsters – which are so brutally efficient that they leave little more than a blood smear behind – that’s when the audience would start to scream.
Even more harmless, mundane noises take on an outsized significance. The roar of a waterfall starts to sound like comfort and liberation, because it’s loud enough that the monsters can’t hear over it. A song played on an iPod feels downright decadent, and almost unbearably loud. Dialogue starts to seem strange to our ears, after so many conversations executed via sign language. (The same applies, unfortunately, to the score, which feels unnecessary at best and overbearing at worst.)
All this tension puts us in the same mindset as the characters: They can never let their guard down, so we can’t either. Krasinski and his brilliant sound team even manage to turn our own bodies against us – I was acutely aware of my own gasps and signs, and frequently found myself covering my mouth so I wouldn’t yelp in shock.
Still, none of this would really matter if we weren’t at least a little invested in these characters’ fates, and here this cast does some of its most elegant work.
A Quiet Place doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on who these people are (if any of them have names, I don’t know what they are) but the actors capably convey their characters’ personalities in a few deftly sketched strokes. Blunt in particular shines, building an entire emotional arc out of an unguarded smile, a weary frown, a squaring of the shoulders.
In essence, A Quiet Place is a feature-length version of that scene in every horror movie where the protagonist creeps down a dark hallway toward an unknown threat, and we grit our teeth with a mixture of eagerness and dread.
Half the time, the payoff, when it comes, hardly seems worth the fuss. A Quiet Place is the all-too-rare movie where it does. This may not be the deepest or most ambitious horror movie in recent memory – there’s not much here beyond that brilliantly simple core concept. But as a delivery vehicle for sheer, visceral terror, it’s one of the most brutally effective.
Ready Player One review Spielberg’s shiny VR caper isn’t worth playing
Flashy adaptation of the book is full of pop culture references and striking visuals but a thin plot and shallow characters
With the help of Van Halens Jump, Steven Spielbergs Ready Player One launches its video game adventure story at full speed. The year is 2045; the place is Columbus, Ohio. Our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), fills in the details while climbing past his grungy homes of his town, the stacks, where trailer parks are piled on top of each other sky-high. Things are so miserable in Wades world, everyone escapes to play in an immersive virtual reality game known as the Oasis. Its Steve Jobs-like founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is worshipped like a god until his death some years before. However, before he left the mortal world, the benevolent creator left behind a series of games that would reward the winner with the Willie Wonka-like prize of the keys to his virtual kingdom.
Thats a lot of story to race through in two hours and 20 minutes, but Spielberg paces his movie to fly past the films explanations of events as quickly as possible. The conflict is straightforward and simple: our hero and his friends must outplay the corporate bad guys led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and beat him to the three keys that would control the game. Some scenes are just too bloated with with trivia to have any real weight. The information isnt given in a casual, conversational way, but in a pretentious manner, as if theyre trying to impress you with minutiae.
The Ernest Cline novel on which its based on is perhaps best known for its many pop culture references. The film follows suit with a soundtrack filled with an upbeat selection of greatest hits from the 80s, with a few interlopers from the 70s. The deepest cut is perhaps Princes I Wanna Be Your Lover, but the rest are songs you likely know the lyrics to. Its tragic that all history of pop culture post-1989 seems to have been lost, but anyone who remembers the 80s may feel nostalgic spotting artifacts from their past. A DeLorean! Theres Batman! Thats the … Holy Hand Grenade? Theres even a few nods to Spielbergs movies, like when a T-Rex chases a car in Jurassic Park. Its easy to get distracted by these cameos on the edge of the story.
The film mimics video games weightless camera, creating a floating point of view around fight scenes and chase scenes. While thrilling to watch, its a style that left me queasy from motion sickness. The spinning is sometimes so fast, its tough to figure out which player is winning or who is fighting who. With too much movement, momentum is lost. The audience has to regain its footing in the story before running off towards the finish line.
While the movie is visually whimsical with its design and neon colors, the weakness of the source material still pokes out. Plot holes remain, despite screenwriter Zak Penn and Spielbergs efforts to liven up the visuals and punch up the dialogue. Im not sure I have a great understanding of how the game mechanics are supposed to work. If movement is required to move an avatar in the game, how do people play in the Oasis while standing in their living rooms?
For a movie about the heros journey, theres no arc for any of the characters. Theyre all already heroes, the big bad is evil from start to finish. Sheridan isnt given enough to act on. Wade and his teammates are almost interchangeable, save for a few differences in height and race. The grown-ups seem to enjoy their roles a bit more than the very serious group of young gamers. Mendelsohn has some fun playing a slippery villain, and Rylance is reliably childish as the Wonka/Jobs hybrid.
Critics are into ‘Annihilation’ even though it’s not perfect
If you were disappointed by the promised sci-fi thrill and star power of something like Cloverfield Paradox, you might be in luck with Alex Garland’s Annihilation, due in theaters on Friday. The Ex Machina director returns to the genre, this time with a winsome cast of women (and his constant, Oscar Isaac) to adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel.
Early reviews of the film are positive, particularly in regard to how Garland builds suspense and uses his cast. For more on what critics thought of Annihilation, read on.
An unconventional adaptation
The annihilation of the film’s title is the self-directed kind, and it’s working on a molecular level, even when the Hollywood narrative trappings of the film let it down. The film is drastically different from VanderMeer’s book, but it’s also about something that can’t be uttered, and, accordingly, Garland goes silent for the film’s stunning finale. Something at the intersection of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and modern dance, it left me breathless with its unforgiving depiction of the relentless weight of depression; the impulse to self-destruct.
To call “Annihilation” an “adaptation” doesn’t really do either the book or the film justice. Written before the sequels even existed, Garland’s script seizes on key ideas from VanderMeer’s novel, but spins them in entirely new directions, using the source as a kind of leaping-off point (even the opening meteor detail is a bit of a departure, albeit one with rich other-worldly implications) from which five tough women have a chance to make first contact with this alien presence, and perhaps save the human race in the process.
While reportedly taking giant left turns from its source material, there’s still something admirably uncompromising about Annihilation. The well-trodden formula of a group of experts/soldiers/horny teens being picked off by a malevolent force is structurally present but it’s not presented in the same generic package we’ve grown tired with. Garland has far more on his mind than how to creatively dispatch a list of ciphers and his film is wonderfully unknowable, a crackling tension underpinning the unpredictable narrative. There’s an unnerving chill about the horror that lies ahead because we’re never really sure what form it will take.
The killer cast of ladies
All the characters get a chance to make a strong impression. Leigh, last prominently seen on the big screen spewing obscenities and blood in The Hateful Eight, could scarcely be more different here as the tough, watchful, oddly edgy group commander, while Thompson gets a few good verbal licks in.
But Portman remains the chief among relative equals, both because she’s the star and because her character has the connection to the only known survivor of the Shimmer to date. The actress may not be the physical equal of some of the others, but she compellingly conveys Lena’s fierce determination to both figure out what happened to her husband and solve the mystery of this colorful but terrifying unknown force of nature.
Portman is a strident, fiercely compelling presence, investing us in both her mission and her interlinked marriage (flashbacks to her relationship with Isaac are surprisingly sweet, witty and sexy), providing an emotional center without the need for sentimentality. As the secretive psychologist of the group, Leigh proves perfectly cast, hypnotically hard to read, a performance so well-measured and tantalizingly restrained that it’s criminal we don’t see her on screen more often. There’s also great work from their other crew members played by Gina Rodriguez, so charming in Jane the Virgin and so striking here, Tessa Thompson, quietly affecting and deserving of her Bafta-nominated rising star status and Swedish actor Tuva Nuvotny who makes a piercing impression in a small role.
The cast is solid, especially the core group of actresses — Rodriguez, especially, is noteworthy as a complicated butt-kicker who’s a welcome departure from her good-girl Jane the Virgin role. The women…are all broken in some way, and their quest is a therapy session of sorts that unveils emotional and physical wounds. The talent provide the needed emotional center in this scientifically bonkers scenario, and while the movie doesn’t make a big deal of it, a band of very capable scientists who happen to be women is a welcome sight in the mostly male-dominated sci-fi genre.
The end result
It’s a smart approach that rewards the audience’s intelligence, rather than overwhelming them with conventional exposition, and keeps viewers leaning forward in their seats, searching for clues as to what the Shimmer represents — when in fact, its effectiveness will vary wildly according to how different individuals choose to interpret it…by leaving things open-ended, Garland raises questions beyond those of VanderMeer’s novel, shifting the focus away from hard science toward the psychology of his characters, and introduces a compelling dilemma, à la “Arrival,” that gives the film a welcome philosophical depth.
In the much-anticipated follow-up to his auspicious debut feature Ex Machina four years ago, writer-director Alex Garland shows an unerring hand in building a sense of unease about what evil lurks in a forest that’s been taken over by some kind of “other,” and then making it pay off. Fright fans as well as connoisseurs of seriously good filmmaking should turn this finely tuned thriller into a much-needed hit for Paramount and, as the remaining two entries in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy have already been published, the studio should get the next film installment rolling post haste.
Garland’s plot is relentless with its terror and deep immersion in a familiar world that’s been tweaked into something else altogether. There’s almost no levity, other than some happier times spent with Lena and Kane during the film’s non-linear narrative. Things also get a little muddled heading into Annihilation‘s climax, but it’s forgivable in a story so admirably confident in its outrageousness.
Annihilation hits theaters Feb. 23.
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