Saturday, 16 December 2017

IN THEATRES: The Last Jedi & Better Watch Out

 As a band of rebels fight a last-ditch battle to save the galaxy from an evil empire, a young woman goes in search of the one man who can bring hope to their cause...


It is rare nowadays to watch a big movie that manages to get the fundamentals right: story, character, and tone. There is always a sense of lack in certain areas (Spider-Man: Homecoming's weak character arc; Rogue One's more egregious lack of cohesive character or plot development). The Last Jedi is that rare beast that manages to feel like a fully developed dramatic narrative, with characters who grow and a story that has stakes and feels of a piece with itself.

Technically it is a middle part in a trilogy, but the best thing about this movie is that writer-director Rian Johnson does not care. He does not care about the plot strands and teasers from the previous movie, because those things are immaterial to the story he is telling. He takes all these hanging threads and elegantly ties them off. The Last Jedi does not feel like a sequel or an episode in a cinematic universe: it feels singular, and complete.

It also finds ways to take old concepts that have become esoteric and finds ways to deepen them, and to give them a universal applicability that feels almost... spiritual. There is a sense of empathy to the way that Johnson interrogates the concept of the Force, and strips it of the aristocratic, pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that George Lucas turned it into. In the original movie, the force did not require a bloodline -  it felt like something elemental that anyone can tap into. Johnson takes the concept back to that, but then finds a way to make it mean something. By the end of the movie, it is clear that the Force does not belong to a select few - it is for everyone.

Johnson deserves credit for coming up with a new plot that does not feel like a re-hash. This one actually feels like the first real 'sci-fi' premise this series has had, with a ticking clock scenario that forces characters to make real life-and-death choices. The move becomes a running (and shooting) debate about the true meaning of heroism, and that is often different from what it means to make the right choice.    

 It does everything you expect, but with an intelligence and wit the franchise has lacked since the original trilogy. You get great new characters (Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is the standout), set pieces that do not outstay their welcome (and don't feel like weightless CGI) and some fun world-building great world-building.

There is a sense at the end of this movie that the slate has been wiped clean. Sure, there can be another movie, but The Last Jedi never feels like it's saving anything for later. Everything is set up and paid off. The creative team behind the sequel will have a lot of hard work to do to try and match this.

Better Watch Out
So there's this asshole kid who really wants to bang his babysitter see? And so he and his friend/whipping boy come up with a plan to get her to fall for him by staging a home invasion. Great!


The message of this movie is that horror comedies are really hard to pull off. And it starts with the premise.

This movie is based on the POV of a 13-year-old psychopath who is trying to gaslight his babysitter into sleeping with him. To do this he is willing to kidnap her and (spoilers) kill the people who care about her.

If you cannot tell, I fucking hated this movie. Above and beyond the fact that it is neither scary or funny, there is a fundamental nastiness to the story, particularly in terms of gender relations, that does not work for comedy.

There appears to be a modicum of irony to the opening scenes between Luke (Levi Miller) and Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) as they talk about his crush on Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), but there is no real sense of critique or understanding of the expectations constructed by men toward female sexuality. There is no sense of awareness to the film. It just wants to push some taboos by having the villains as the baby-sat rather than external threats (ala Michael Myers in Halloween).

The movie wants to be Home Alone with Macauly Culkin's character from The Good Son. But the scenario the filmmakers have come up, with its creepy sexual undercurrent, requires a nuance and delicate touch that this film does not have.

As our villain, Levi Miller is a one-note bully who comes across as more whiney and petulant than a master manipulator. These kinds of movies require a charismatic villain with at least a degree of pathos for us to connect with. Take Tragedy Girls, which balances a high bodycount with a story about two best friends trying to figure out what their relationship means when they start to become famous. Luke is just a one-note psycho, with his only unique feature being that he is 13 years old.

I spent the entire movie trying to figure out if the filmmakers were trying to make some kind of commentary about rape culture and male entitlement about women's bodies, but I came out stumped. It is just an empty exercise in trying to be extreme, but with no real style or wit to make it worth watching.

Boring, stupid and nasty, Better Watch Out is an empty vessel of a movie.

Avoid.

My theatre

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (Martin Lawrence, 1996)

Darnell Wright (Lawrence) is a hotshot club owner with an eye for the ladies. He has a girlfriend (Regina King), but Darnell does not care. When he meets Brandi (Whitfield), an older woman, he finds his usual charms don't work. Determined to conquer her, he goes the extra mile to grab her attentions. After he finally seduces her, the tables turn once the lothario casts her aside. Brandi becomes obsessed with Darnell and begins a campaign to destroy his life.


In 1996, Martin Lawrence was on the way up. His show Martin was a success, and his team-up with Will Smith, Bad Boys, had been a hit the previous year. With his increased prominence, Lawrence got a deal to write and direct his own feature film. The result was the dark comedy A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, co-starring the great Lynn Whitfield.

Probably best known for starring in Eve's Bayou and the Netflix show Greenleaf, Whitfield is one of those actresses whose talent is greater than her number of credits.


This movie is like what would happen if Eddie Murphy's Boomerang character had gone on a date with Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. That description fits the tone pretty well too. It is really hard to tell if the movie wants to be a comedy, a thriller or a drama.

In the lead role, Lawrence is no Eddie Murphy. As written and performed, Darnell comes off as an insecure misogynist who sees any woman as fair game, and refuses to have his advances denied. The opening sequences show him breezing though various women with no care. While this montage is intended to set Darnell up for a fall, but for us to root for him there needs to be something redeemable about him - and there really isn't.

The one saving grace of this movie is Lynn Whitfield. Sometimes you watch a movie, and there is one performance that is not only good, but manages to give the movie a spine - unlike Darnell, Brandy has a genuine reason for acting the way she does, and Darnell is such a self-absorbed asshole that - for most of the second act - it is easy to see Brandy as the protagonist of this movie. Whitfield's performance provides the movie with its only sense of dramatic escalation, while Lawrence never manages to flesh Darnell out.


By the end of this movie, it becomes pretty clear that Whitfield is so much better than this movie. But because she is so good, she makes the movie far better than it has to be. It is also worth watching just for the spectacle of comparing Whitfield's nuanced, wounded portrayal of a woman scorned against Lawrence's cartoonish buffoon. It is as if Sigourney Weaver starred in an Adam Sandler movie - the disconnect between the leads is that stark.  

Maybe if Lawrence was not the auteur of this movie, it might have been more fully-realised. There is a good movie here, but it needed a different director, someone who could have figured out the tone and given Lawrence the space to build Darnell into a fully-realised character. 

The movie just have some good comedic beats - the scene where Darnell discovers Brandy has stolen his car tires is hilarious - but overall it is does not really work as a comedy. What's really strange is that it looks like a comedy, but most of the movie is basically a dramatic thriller. The aesthetic is so flat and airless that it is really hard to gauge the tone or intent of individual scenes.

My favourite scene in the movie is when Darnell confronts Brandy in hospital after she has made him out to be a woman-beater. Whitfield begins the scene indignant at her former paramour's disregard for her. Once the police arrive to take him away, on a dime she turns into a traumatised victim unable to let go of her abusive lover. As soon as he is out the door, she snuggles back in bed. It's brilliant, and the one time that the movie hits the darkly comedic tone that Lawrence was aiming for. 

Regina King is another actor who is better than this movie - she plays Darnell's one female friend, Mia. As with Whitfeld, she grounds her subplot and gives the movie some credibility. She's so good I actually bought her chemistry with Lawrence.

Because both female leads are so good, I just started reading the movie as a meta-textual hostage situation in which Whitfield and Regina King worked together to steal the movie out from under its star. 

The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. The recently departed Della Reese plays Darnell's mother. Apart from Brandy she is the one character to call Darnell on his crap, but she does not get much to do. RnB singer Bobby Brown plays Darnell's best friend, and somehow manages to be even more odious in his relations with women than his friend.

Overall, I cannot really call A Thin Line Between Love and Hate a good movie. But it is interesting to watch, particularly in light of the rape culture has finally breached the cultural zeitgeist. The filmmakers intended it as a response to Waiting to Exhale, but in the end A Thin Line Between Love and Hate feels just as self-righteous and ridiculous as a troll's response to a Roxane Gay tweet. The main reason to watch the movie is Lynn Whitfield - she picks it up on her shoulders and carries it the finish line. 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

NZIFF Documentaries

Here is the last of my retrospectives on the New Zealand International Film Festival. I generally catch a lot of the documentaries when I am ushering, and it always results in some interesting surprises.

Unrest (dir. Jennifer Brea)
Directed by Jennifer Brea, Unrest chronicles her journey with chronic fatigue syndrome, from initial misdiagnosis through her activism to get the condition properly recognised.


Starting as a deeply personal narrative (complete with home movies and unvarnished footage of Brea's everyday life, Unrest quickly situates the viewer in Brea's mindset - perpetually exhausted and  sleep-deprived, she relays her feelings in some brutal to-camera reflections and equally uncomfortable conversations with her husband.

Once Brea reaches the point in her story where she began to learn more about her illness, the movie branches out to cover other people from all over the world with the same affliction but with very different experiences. This multiplicity of POVs gives the documentary a more rounded and frankly terrifying picture - not of CFS, but how various medical authorities around the world view and deal with it. 

There is no ego with Brea's approach - there are many sequences in which she shows herself at her worst: collapsing while dancing with her husband; her demand that he change clothes repeatedly; and the various testimonial scenes, in which she allows herself to break down. It is extremely unflinching and brave.

It is pretty strong stuff, but considering how misunderstood CFS is, it is worth tracking down.

House of Z (dir. Sandy Chronopoulos)

And now for a completely different kind of ego. 

House of Z chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the fashion designer Zack Posen. At the turn of the century, he was the talk of the town as the next big thing. Not only in terms of his designs, but the fact that he was only 21 when he 'made it.' 



A variation on the traditional heel redemption story, House of Z is built around Posen's final gamble to save his company, with flashbacks to his narcissistic early days. One of the most interesting aspects to his background is that his business was initially a family affair with his parents and siblings involved in various aspects of bringing his designs to life. As his success grew, he became more demanding and disconnected from his family, who eventually departed the company. 

While the documentary is interesting as a look at his process, for me it undermined the family aspect of the business. We see his family slip away but this story is only briefly touched on as the film resolves. I would have preferred a focus on how Posen was able to repair his relationships with his family, considering their importance to his career.

By focusing solely on his comeback, it almost feels like the film is contradicting the idea that his fall was due to his own ego. There needed to be a little more connective tissue in this aspect of the story so that his redemption connected. 

The third act, chronicling his latest show, is interesting for how it goes into the details of putting together a collection but the suspense that this sequence is aiming for never builds - the film has not  built Posen's character arc. Ultimately the movie just lacked emotional investment. 

If you are interested in fashion or not, House of Z is an interesting watch -  but it never rises above the level of 'interesting'. And the main reason it never rises beyond that is that I found it really hard to root for Posen. It is not necessary too like your subject, but since this documentary is structured as a comeback story, but I found it almost impossible to get invested in Posen's struggles. 

Politics, an Instruction Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa)

A ground-level look at the rise of Spanish political party Podemos, from the anti-austerity protests of 15 May, 2011 to the general election in December 2015, in which they won over 20% of the vote and 69 seats in the 350 seat parliament.



As a document of thew working parts of making a political party from scratch, this film is fascinating. You really get a sense of the often arduous process of democracy in action. From deciding what leadership model to follow, to deciding their position on Catalan independence, Politics... gives the viewer a sense of how pedantic, repetitive and exhausting every tiny aspect of politicking is. It helps that Podemos's leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión and his team are articulate and extremely well-versed about the machinations necessary to make a political party viable. 

Beginning with stock footage of the 2011 protests, the film ends with Podemos' triumphant entry to parliament four years later. It works structurally, even though it would have been interesting to see how Podemos' central figures (and the film's key talking heads) react to later events (the failed government formation and subsequent early election). 

This is not a fault of the film, more a case of wanting more. Because of the film's access to Turrión and his brain trust, I was really looking forward to hearing their perspectives on more recent events. Ah well, hopefully there is a sequel - it's not look Spanish politics have become boring in the interim between 2015 and now.

The documentary's perspective is not that critical or include any external perspectives, but as a look at  the business of politicking it is worth checking out.

Other festival reviews

Dramas

Live Cinema


Horror

Thrillers

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

IN THEATRES: The Disaster Artist

In 1998, aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Inspired by their shared desire to become actors, they become fast friends and move to Hollywood to pursue their dream.

Frustrated by his inability to make any inroads as a professional actor, Tommy decides to make his own movie, one that allow him to show off his creative talents, and salvage his fraying relationship with Greg.

For almost a decade Jame Franco has been writing and directing his own movies. I have not seen any of them. On this evidence, he is onto something.

Sure, it is funny - the story is bizarre - but the filmmakers have found a through line (the friendship between Greg and Tommy) that grounds the antics and the in-jokes in something profoundly relatable. 

The movie is about the desire to create, and particularly the work that goes into making movies - even if the people making the movie are going about it in almost the exact opposite way that you would expect. More importantly - and the reason why this movie is not just some cheap celebrity in-joke at Wiseau's expense is that The Disaster Artist is ultimately more invested in the friendship between Tommy and Greg.

The way Greg impacts Tommy is just as fascinating as the impact he has on Greg - while Greg respects Tommy's go-for-broke approach to acting and filmmaking, Tommy enjoys playing mentor to the young man. However, as Greg matures and begins to experience the things that Tommy cannot (especially in terms of relationships), their dynamic completely flips.

Greg and Tommy
As the main characters, the Franco brothers are terrific. James is completely believable as Tommy - Wiseau is such a specific and easily recognisable character, yet the elder Franco completely disappears into the role. There are points when he is wearing the glasses where it is almost impossible to tell them apart.

As Greg, Dave Franco is the heart and soul of the movie.  He is also the audience's way into Tommy's world, and as their friendship develops, it helps to humanise the auteur beyond the 'Oh Hi Mark?' meme.

The focus on the friends means that the rest of the cast do not get to make the same kind of impact. Seth Rogen is terrific as The Room's incredulous script supervisor Sandy - he basically acts as the straight man to the on-set chaos. It is not really a stretch for him, but he never overplays. The scene where Sandy cashes his first salary check is one of the funniest things Rogen has ever been involved with.

Because we only see them in the context of their roles during filming, the rest of The Room's 'cast' come off a little weightless - I spent the whole movie comparing Ari Gaynor, Josh Hutchinson and Jacki Weaver to their real-life alter-egos. A minor pleasure for me was getting to see the hosts of How Did This Get Made? show up as supporting players (I really hope Jason Mantzoukas and Hannibal Burress get a spinoff movie about their characters).

I don't really have much more to say about the movie. It is a really good, and I am very curious to see where Franco's directorial career goes.

Overall, The Disaster Artist is far better than it has any right to be. A funny but incredibly empathetic look at one of cinema's great outsiders, it is definitely worth checking out - regardless of whether you have seen The Room or not.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

One of the best blaxploitation movies ever made, Coffy was intended as a straight rip-off to MGM's Cleopatra Jones, a big budget follow-up to their previous hit Shaft. On release, Coffy ended up punching above its wait - becoming a huge hit and introduced the world to Pam Grier, the first true American female action hero.


By day, Coffy (Pam Grier) is a nurse. By night, she is a vigilante, hunting down the dope pushers and pimps responsible for killing her sister. One by one, she makes her way up the food chain, only to find that the corruption goes right to the top...

I'll be honest. I still have not seen Shaft. But I've seen Coffy so many times. Written and directed by Jack Hill, Coffy is far better than it has any right to be. AIP movies are known to be cheep and cheerful nonsense, but they rarely rise above the watchable. That's not to say they did not make some great movies, but like all studios, most of their output was garbage.

Though it is pitched as a cheap cash-in, Coffy never feels like it. The title character and her world feel fully realised in a way that few big budget movies are, let alone cheap drive-in fare. The story is fully fleshed out, and the characters feel three-dimensional. The action is on-point, and the plot is filled wiht twists and turns which further develop the central character, and force her to confront the injustice the system has imposed on her.


Pam Grier is magnificent as Coffy. Of course she is a badass, but Hill and Grier shrewdly make her feel like a real human being, rather than a total superhero. In the opening sequence, we witness Coffy use her acting skills and sexuality to get invited into a drug dealer's abode. Once inside, she kills him and his lackey. With most other action movies, the hero would move on with no emotional repercussions. But when Coffy tries to carry on and goes to her job at the hospital, she is too shaky and distracted to work, and has to take a break.

In another scene she goes to interrogate a prostitute about drug dealers. At first she is in complete control - but then the prostitute's bigger, tougher girlfriend turns up and Coffy has to leg it. It's hilarious.

The fact that Coffy is human pays dividends as the story develops. In the end, Coffy discovers that the big bad is her boyfriend, a wealthy man who has sold out his community for a piece of the pie. In typical seventies fashion, Coffy is forced to kill him and then, emotionally destroyed, wanders off into the night.


Coffy is so much more than just an action picture with a female lead. It juggles action with well-developed characters, an interesting plot and a suitably cynical political subtext. It moves fast, has a great sense of humour and a killer soundtrack by Roy Ayers, which literally narrates the movie ('King George, he's a pimp!'). It's amazing.

If you haven't seen Coffy, check it out.

Related

Jackie Brown

Thursday, 30 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Ingrid Goes West & The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It has been a while since I did one of these, and for once both movies are great!

Ingrid Goes West
After her latest crush lands her a stay in pysch, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) becomes fixated on an Instagram celebrity living in California, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). With the money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to the coast with dreams of becoming Taylor's best friend.

After stalking her and kidnapping her dog, Ingrid is able to worm her way into Taylor's life. Now it is just a matter of time until Ingrid's scheme goes down in flames...


This movie is like a knife with no handle - no matter how you hold it, you are going to get cut.

This movie could have been broader, with characters drawn in primary colours. But such a treatment would have created a distance between the character's antics and the viewer. The element that elevates Ingrid Goes West is that the minds behind it are not interested in sparing the viewer from their own obsession with social media.

Ingrid never comes across as a villain. She is a woman struggling to find emotional connections online that she is incapable of finding fulfilment online. She has constructed a version of herself that does not exist.

By refusing to categorise its characters as good or evil, the film emphasises the omnipresence that social media has had in the way everyone relates to each other. This is not a context specific to Ingrid and Taylor. The film is a skewering of our relationship with social media and the way it has distorted the ways in which we interconnect, and how the superficiality of these platforms has permeated the real world.
In a world grappling with the effects of cat-fishing, cyber-bullying, and a reality TV star is the US president (to say nothing of his Twitter account), Ingrid's scheme feels worryingly pedestrian. The ease with which she ensconces herself into Taylor's life is not so much a testament to her abilities as a manipulator, but a side effect of how easy we find it now to include strangers into our lives.

There are no easy ways out here. You can see the outcome coming from the beginning, and the filmmakers offer no cop-out plot twists or character shifts. Eventually, Ingrid recognises that Taylor is not the person she thought she was, and Taylor finds out what Ingrid has been up to. Their final confrontation does not lead to some kind of catharsis - their friendship is not restored, and neither is Ingrid ceded the moral high ground by the revelation of Taylor's superficial existence.

Ingrid does not gain some new appreciation for real friendship - instead, she records a video and then tries to kill herself. She fails and then has her confidence boosted when she sees that her video went viral. While the ending validates Ingrid's sense of self, the fact that she is still receiving validation through the vehicle that led to her decline remains disquieting.

Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen are great. Plaza has never been this empathetic or exposed in anything I've seen her in. It never feels like she is making fun of Ingrid's compulsions, and she is unafraid in pushing the character's tone-deafness and willingness to appease others. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, and Plaza's performance embodies that ambiguity.

Likewise, Olsen manages to push Taylor's pretentiousness without making her a two-dimensional hipster. To do so would unbalance the movie and make Ingrid more sympathetic (thereby derailing the movie's point about the pervasiveness of social media). Taylor can be unlikeable, but it is never enough to justify her stalker's behaviour.


Following his work playing his own father in Straight Outta Compton, O'Shea Jackson Jr is hilarious as Ingrid's unsuspecting landlord-turned-boyfriend. Like the other characters, he is living a fantasy - obsessed with Batman, he has written a spec script for a Batman movie that he believes will be his ticket to fame and fortune. Even the focus of his fandom ties into the movie's treatment our obsession with fame as an equivalence for a better life: he is a big fan of Batman Forever, a film with a plot that echoes Ingrid's scheme - an isolated loner (the Riddler) seeks to become one with his hero and ends up trying to destroying him.

Hilarious, excruciating and painfully on-point, Ingrid Goes West is one of the most savage and uncompromising satires I have seen in years. Its commentary about our relationship with social media, especially the false sense of intimacy and kinship it can create is terrifying.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
After he kills a patient, Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) finds his life literally plagued by the dead man's son (Barry Keoghan). As his family falls apart, he is forced to make a decision to save them before it is too late.


The latest joint from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a perversely understated
 nightmare. From the beginning, the viewer is off-balance - people react to tragedy with nonchalance,  intimidate each other with dinner invitations, and make small talk by revealling extremely personal information.

From the first image of an exposed heart beating in extreme close-up, the viewer is immersed in a world of life in all its messiness and an underlying sterility. This is a world of vapid people who consider a conversation about watch bands as a symbol of personal interaction. These people go through the motions of life, but at the end of the day they believe in nothing.

A better title for this movie might have been The Living Dead.

Farrell and Kidman's characters are the ultimate hypocrites, unwilling to recognise how little control they really have over their lives. And when confronted with a way off, albeit with a price, it does not take long for them to start quantifying the fallout and preparing for the future. The ultimate truth of this movie is that these people only care about themselves, and they are willing to rationalise their way out of any situation that requires them to confront their own feelings.

Ever since Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a movie star, he has become more relevant, vibrant and just fascinating to watch. Following his work on Lanthimos' The Lobster, Farrell is doing something very special here.


His character, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, has the emotional range of a rock. Where his performance in The Lobster was based on the repression of empathy and emotion, in this film his character views the world through the same clinical frame as he does his patients. However, once confronted by a figure who embodies a chaos he cannot control. As a man who believes he knows everything, Farrell's performance is a struggle not so much to react to inexplicable events, but failing to know how to. It's an incredibly subtle and sophisticated performance that I am still trying to puzzle out. Anyway, he's great.


Nicole Kidman is just as good as his wife. Honestly, these two were so in sync and of a piece that I feel like I'll just be repeating what I said about Farrell's performance here. There is a difference - Kidman's character, Anna, is more aware of the emotional expectations around being a parent and a spouse, but once the situation escalates she reveals a cold-hearted pragmatism that matches her husband's. 

Playing the interloper who destroys the bourgeoisie family, Barry Keoghan is fantastically deadpan. Unblinkingly earnest, he never gives his victims or the viewer a break - there are no cracks in his blank facade or parting of the curtain. All you are left with is a dead face and a basilisk stare. His performance is so underplayed it feels like the set up to a joke, and we spend the entire running time waiting for a punchline that never comes.


Yorgos Lanthimos' direction is as poised and ambiguous as his antagonist. Every element of the film, from shot choice to blocking to sound design, is designed to keep the viewer off balance.

There are shades of Stanley Kubrick to his style - the cold, objective wide frames and the extended tracking shots that isolate the characters from the viewer are the most overt examples - but the biggest similarity is thematic. Kubrick's films are based around characters caught in systems or a cosmic order that they cannot comprehend or control (his noirs of the fifties; 2001; The Shining; heck, even Spartacus fits the bill). 

Lanthimos appears to follow a similar idea - the movie is framed like a documentary, with the camera following these characters and their eventual demise with the clinical interest of an ethnographer. It is terrifying, surreal and hilarious, often within the same shot.

I feel like I have missed a million things. I'm probably going to have to watch a few more times and see how it works on re-watch.


One of the most terrifying films of the year. Check it out.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Everything, Everything (Stella Meghie, 2017)

Based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, Maddy (Amndla Stenberg) is a young woman confined to her air-tight home by SCID, a condition that means her immune system is too weak to handle the outside world. With only her mother Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) for company, Maddy yearns for a chance to experience the outside world.

When Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, Maddy's desire to escape gains a newfound urgency. But will love trump genetics?





Growing up, I was voracious consumer of anything my parents were into - so when I wasn't watching Arnold Schwarzengger wiping out whole countries or reading Robert Louis Stevenson I'd spend time watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my mum and poaching whatever romance novel she was reading (Chocolat and Bridget Jones' Diary). I caught the bug. There is something about a romantic melodrama, particularly one with a contrived premise like this that always pulls me in. 


While I was totally game for this kind of potboiler, going in there was something I was worried was going to happen.

Every time one of these movies come out, where someone with an illness or disability (e.g. A Walk To Remember; last year's Me Before You) is involved in a romance, they are never the central character and their role is to act as a catalyst for their non-impaired paramour to learn something profound about life and loss and blah blah blah.

From the jump, this looked like another one of those stories. But to this movie's credit, it does not follow that template too closely. Whether it plays into the underlying ideology of those stories - well, we will get to that.  

First the good stuff. Number one is that this is a mainstream movie directed by and starring WOC, based on a book by a black female writer. It was also a hit, so hopefully we shall see some ripple effects for other YA movies featuring people of colour both in front of and behind the scenes. 

Stella Meghie's direction is really good, especially considering the limitations of the story: as well as the focus on single location, the central relationship is dependent on conversations via text message. Most of Maddy and Olly's early text interactions are dramatised as Maddy's fantasies of meeting Olly in the model environments (a diner, a library) that she builds for school.



These sequences are probably the best thing in the movie, as they allow the viewer to identify with the characters' growing attraction without having to wade through endless shots of text bubbles covering every line of dialogue. Because they are so dramatically satisfying - the actors have good chemistry - this stylistic choice never comes off as contrived.

Meghie is aided by DOP Igor Jodue-Lillo (The Kids Are All Right and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who gives the movie a warm, rich colour palette that leans into the movie's heightened sense of melodrama. It could have been overdone, but with a movie as earnest as this, it works.  

One of the key reasons why I liked this movie is that, despite her physical immobility, Maddy is the prime mover of the movie's plot. The movie is rooted in her POV, and she never allows herself to be defined by her disability. While looks play a part (duh), it is to see why Olly falls for her. She even calls him out when it looks like he is pitying her. 

Another thing I liked about this movie was the fact that the movie does not end with Maddy dying. I was afraid that was going to happen, and while I have some problems with the way it was done (see the next paragraph), the fact that we did not have that trope was  a plus.


But that is where we get the final twist - haunted by her husband and son's deaths, Pauline faked her daughter's condition to protect her from the world. While it feels like an extreme extension of Pauline's over-protectiveness, I did not know what that turn meant in terms of what the film was trying to say.

Maddy wants to experience the outside world, but I could not track any big difference in terms of how this twist reveals what her character really wants. All it does is give Maddy another reason to become independent, but she already wants that. While it is not as egregious as a few twists I could mention, it does not feel that natural - it just felt like a way to get the characters together in a traditional happy ending.

If the movie's focus had been on the relationship between Maddy and her mother, then the twist could have been used as a catalyst for Maddy's breaking away on her own. But the movie is more interested in the love story, and leaves this relationship to one side. Basically, the twist ends up feeling underwhelming, because it feels like it is the culmination of a different movie. Pauline ends up as a minor obstacle - one that is too easily overcome.

So in a way the movie does fall into the ableist trap - it's just instead of the message being 'life is too hard to live', it is ' good thing you are not sick so you can have a happy ending'. It is not a killer blow  but does strike a bit of a bum note.



As far as the acting goes, Anika Noni Rose steals the show. Even with the plot twist, she never comes off as a villain. Even when she is putting the kibosh on Maddy's dreams of romance, she remains incredibly empathetic - it never feels like Pauline is operating from a sense of malice. It is always from a place of love. 

The scenes where she talks to Maddy about her infatuation are great, as she navigates between motherly affection for this milestone in her daughter's life, and her own need to protect her from these attachments. The moment where she tells Maddy that Olly will never be 'hers', and that he will eventually move away and find someone else never feels cruel (at least not until the twist) - Pauline is just trying to protect her daughter from the heartbreak she knows is coming.  

When the movie is just about a woman trying to help her daughter navigate the world, while also shielding her from it, Everything Everything feels wonderfully complicated. When the twist comes, all those complicated feelings are thrown out in favour of a simple 'gas lighting' narrative.

As far as the lead performances go, Stenberg and Robinson and suitably winsome. The only thing I had seen Stenberg in was Colombiana - this is a far better vehicle for their talents. Stenberg gives Maddy a a sense of intelligence and self-possession that ensure that when the movie demands that she leave her house, Maddy never comes off as an innocent waif. She knows what things are, and the joy comes from watching her get to experience them in a visceral way (such as riding in a car, or swimming in the ocean). Hopefully this movie's success (it made about $60 million in the US, off a $10 million budget) gives Stenberg more leading roles.

Robinson is also good, but because the movie is anchored to Maddy's perspective, we do not get as much character development as the lead. Although that is a nice a change from most movies, where the female lead feels like an afterthought. 

Overall, while it does fall down a bit in the third act, and it ultimately does not deviate from Hollywood's penchant for ignoring/marginalising disabled characters, Everything Everything is a nice addition to the recent trend of YA romance movies, and is definitely worth a look.