A Perfect Allison Williams Double-bill

perfect2Allison who? I hear you ask. Well, that’s a very good question really. I was watching The Perfection last night, and you know how it is, you’re watching a film or tv show and you see a (usually pretty) face and you think, I’ve seen that bloke/woman (delete as appropriate) before, but where? I watch a lot of films, not as many as some, sure, but a lot, and this kind of thing happens all the time. Its what mobile phones and the internet are for, right, to avoid this kind of thing becoming a mental meltdown spoiling what you are watching, but I prefer it to be a bit of a game- pause the damn thing (it’s what pause buttons are for, right?) and just debating with your other half “what the hell have we seen her in? Its something recent, I’m sure, but…”

Too many movies/tv shows. Its all getting a blur at the best of times.

So anyway, this occurred watching The Perfection, a strange horror/thriller flick on Netflix- whenever Allison Williams was onscreen, and it was, like, all the time because she was the star of the damn thing and it was really bugging us. So twenty minutes in we hit the pause button and wracked our brains and eventually, as it does, it came to us- she was in Get Out, another horror/thriller film that we saw a few weeks ago but which I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing here.

So, probably an ideal opportunity to review both films, or at least offer a few thoughts about each whilst considering the artistic qualities of she who is named Allison Williams.

Now, Allison, let’s get this right off the bat- she’s pretty, and she looks an awful lot like Daisy Ridley (Rey from the latest Star Wars trilogy) and Keira Knightley (The Pirates of the Carribean and a lot of other more forgettable stuff) so I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking that she fits a certain casting profile of what’s trendy in films now regards female leads. Now, the spin here is that while I’d likely be correct in thinking that, I’d also have to admit, she’s pretty good, possibly even a better actress, although she comes from a television show background (not something that carries the stigma it used to in the 1970s, certainly) and hasn’t had the break into blockbuster territory that Misses Ridley and Knightley have enjoyed just yet. At any rate, she was pretty damn good in Get Out, and even better in The Perfection– maybe she benefited from limited roles but she manages screen presence and charm and carries herself pretty well. I suspect we may see more of her in future and in later years people won’t be stumbling upon this post wondering “Allison who…?”.

011641211.jpgSo anyway, let’s start with the film clearest in my memory because I saw it last night: The Perfection. This is a something of a revenge/horror thriller that delivers on the shocks and gore but also on the modern tendency of scripts to just break down under scrutiny. I have been reminded before that all film is like that- it’s the plot holes that are filled by the scripts that enable the drama and twists etc and that most films fall apart when really given consideration. So we can forgive all that to some degree. I mean, it’s a little like thinking back on all the carnage in the John Wick films and wondering where all the cops are, particularly in New York considering Wick leaves a wake of bodies akin to a terrorist incident and the frenzy of police and ambulance sirens would surely be up on live News casts etc while it’s still going down. So filmgoers should always suspend disbelief with the proverbial pinch of salt and consider it all part of the fun.

In the case of The Perfection, its perhaps to consider it a modern fable, a kind of adult morality tale, clearly something rather diverged from any reality any of us are familiar with. Its a b-movie posing as something more sophisticated, which it really isn’t, and in this way it reminds me of several other films, like Velvet Buzzsaw, for example, or the recent Suspiria. Child prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a budding master cellist who had to leave a prestigious musical academy when her mother fell ill, and now years later following her mothers death she reconnects with her old tutors and the academy and the star pupil that replaced her and has lived the fame and success that Charlotte was denied. There’s a similar jealousy/animosity/sexual tension that featured in the superior Black Swan, as Charlotte and new star Lizzie (Logan Browning) reconnect. They start an affair as Lizzie takes a well-earned break from performances but something feels a little ‘off’ and its soon revealed that Charlotte really has a few scores she means to settle before the film is over.

To reveal much more would certainly break into spoiler territory, and as I endeavour not to do that when posting about new or fairly recent releases, I won’t go much further here, except to say that it’s got a few left-turns and surprises and is pretty good, except that it really can’t resist going just a few steps too far. Its not a unique criticism, I mean its true of so many contemporary films and tv shows- the drive to shock and surprise and entertain in modern material just can’t help but stretch credibility. The Perfection is, ironically given its title perhaps (whoops, cheap shot right there) is, alas, far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good fun while it lasts. Best to approach it for what it is, a b-movie at heart, and accept it on those terms.

geto1It is also, in a way, reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone tv series, something I was also thinking of when I watched Get Out a few weeks back,  Both films can be considered as simple Twilight Zone-like pitches. In Get Out‘s case, its a film about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black guy whose relationship with white girl Rose (yep, Allison Williams) comes under some nervous scrutiny when he meets her family one weekend at their rural family home. “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house!” he is warned by Rod, his conspiracy theorist best friend, whose wild fancies are initially played for laughs but it transpires he’s right to be afraid for Chris. Its all a little like The Stepford Wives or Twin Peaks, regards a dark underbelly hidden beneath what on first glance is a pleasant, law-abiding if overly conservative white American community out in the sticks. I was reminded of some of H P Lovecraft’s stories, in which cultists would preserve their essences in ‘Saltes’ through which they might achieve some immortality or life beyond death by occupying the bodies of later descendants – Get Out chooses to follow a more scientific route to explain what’s really going on, but it’s essentially the same.  Its well acted and staged and is a pretty good thriller, and like the best Lovecraft fiction, it had me grimly pondering the really nasty undercurrent of what was really going on – on reflection it’s really horrible how people were being replaced by others in their bodies and for how long it had been happening (I prefer Lovecraft’s more fanciful somewhat mystical methodology than the brain-swapping silliness the film hints at, and I think the film would have functioned as  a great HPL film had it gone that way).

So anyway, there’s two films featuring Allison Williams. I’m sure there will be plenty more, and maybe with the next one I’ll recognise her straight away and won’t be distracted by wondering where I’ve seen that face before…?

Red Sparrow (2018)

redsp1Black Swan meets Tinker. Tailor… or Spies Like Us maybe. An old-fashioned cold-war spy thriller, surprisingly leaning toward the cerebral rather than the OTT fighting or stunts of films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick etc would seem right up my street, but something was wrong here. Maybe it was the strangely farcical plot, which is why I mentioned Spies Like Us. A renowned ballet star, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a concrete tenement block frozen in snow, is looking after her ill mother in-between ballet performances until during a ballet her leg is hideously broken when her dance partner misjudges a jump. Her career ended and her home and mother’s medical care (both provided by the Ballet company) under threat, she is approached by her uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be a leading Russian intelligence operative, seeking her help with a case, after which he forces her to be recruited into the Sparrow Academy, where beautiful young Russians are trained in the arts of sexual manipulation and…

Okay, I’ll spare you and stop right there. It really is as silly and coincidental and plot-holed as it likely seems from that attempt at a summary. I haven’t even mentioned a good-hearted CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian Mole (identity secret – a surprise twist later that seems one too many) who is being hunted down by the Russians following a messed-up rendezvous.

It seems well-intentioned and is indeed a return to old-fashioned spy capers but its just hamstrung by a crazy plot and awkward presentation. It just looks and feels wrong and none of the characters really convince- Lawrence’s frustrated Ballerina is just a mystery,  we never know what makes her ‘tick’, her dancing is quickly forgotten and in no time at all she becomes a hardened spy who can second-guess and manipulate and fight her way out of trouble when she needs to. There is a sexual undertone between she and her uncle that suggests a Black Swan-like darkness but its not developed, just hangs there, a plot-thread someone forgot or got embarrassed by or didn’t have the courage to develop.

So a frustrating (you should see the cast list- every few minutes it seems some other major actor appears, frankly the script is beneath all of them) film that I can’t really recommend. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly tries, is found wanting and alarmingly vacuous. Some films are just duds, no matter how fine the cast or how proficient the crew (director Frances Lawrence of three of the Hunger Games movies). If the intention was to launch a new spy franchise for Jennifer Lawrence, then hopefully its failed and this will be consigned to the box for unwise cynical green-lights. Its long, its baffling, its ridiculous. Quite bizarre, and I still haven’t seen Lawrence’s mother! yet (what is happening regards her choice of movies post-Hunger Games?)- I’m wary about that one.

Return of the Black Swan

blackswNo, it’s not a sequel where Natalie Portman’s Nina inexplicably returns from the grave for one last Ballet. Although that would make for a bizarre movie and you might feel guilty for wishing someone would make it. No, this is a return visit to the film Black Swan after watching it on a Lovefilm rental way back when, enjoying it and buying the blu-ray only to leave that blu-ray unwatched for years. Yes, it’s that pile of unwatched discs rearing its formidable weight again.

So, after so long (hard to believe this film dates back to 2010) how does the film measure up? Pretty damn well. Portman’s performance is as remarkable and screen-melting as ever. Its career-best material, really, her descent into madness as fascinating and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen her do elsewhere. Funnily enough, my main observation about this film this time around is that it was really more of a horror film than the psycho-drama that I had considered it to be. This film is like a female version of Cronenberg’s classic sci-fi/body-horror Videodrome. In both films the human body is twisted and betrays the protagonist and in both films the very nature of reality, or our observation of it, is warped and subverted and questioned. Black Swan poses as a drama about ballet and stress and someone suffering a nervous breakdown, but its just as much a traditional horror movie. Or rather, its a horror movie dressed up as something more sophisticated.

At any rate, its a pretty damn fine movie. Maybe I should be brave and finally give Aronofsky’s mother! a try.

 

Noah (2014)

noahNoah is a remarkable, but rather flawed, film. For most of its running time its quite fascinating but also jaw-droppingly clunky and dumb, as if the sheer scale of the thing was too much for director Darren Aronofsky. Big budgets and huge scale can very often be at odds with intimacy and artistic vision. Everything seems huge and loud and spectacular, losing the focus of character and insight that made earlier films like The Fountain feel so personal. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the simple fact that it even got made, and then released in the version we now see -a case of a director getting away with a wildly ambitious project hot on the heels of a successful  release (in this case, Aronofsky’s hit thriller Black Swan).

The ecology/environment and religious dogma/mania, were major themes in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, and I think its a pity Aronofsky didn’t get to work out his anxieties on those subjects in a film of Dune instead of Noah. Because Noah is the Biblical story by way of a science fiction blockbuster. We are in a destroyed world with the existence of a Creator being Fact rather than any matter of Faith. Giant rock monsters walk the Earth, literal Fallen Angels, and the Wrath of God is Absolute and unwavering. There is no forgiveness or love from the Heavens, only a Divine Retribution for the transgressions of an entire species. Noah (Russell Crowe) acts as an unquestioning agent of God’s purpose, even to the point of  being willing to sacrifice his own family.

There is a subtext running throughout regards just how crazy Noah himself is, reminding me of the more successful/subtle depiction of madness in Black Swan, but its also clear that with a nominal reverence to the subject matter the film isn’t out to beat-up/character assassinate Noah to any great degree. Its notable that from the very start, Noah is one apart from the rest of his fellow men- he is alienated from common society, he and his family on the Outside. Is he chosen by the Creator because Noah is an environmentalist or because Noah is outside of the Common Man, a Biblical Travis Bickle? NOAHDisenfranchised, alienated, living a rather aimless existence of day-to-day survival, he is quick to seize the opportunity of Purpose, particularly Divine Purpose. I kept watching the film wondering if some comment was being made about Religious Dogma in our modern world and the resultant fragmented societies and violence we see on the news everyday, but I guess that’s some other, smaller-scaled movie less interested in assaulting our senses with spectacle. I certainly appreciated some of the commentary (even though its coming from crazed Bad Guy Ray Winstone and therefore not aired in positive light) regards Man’s relationship with the Creator and his place in a world abandoned by that Creator -its interesting, and somewhat telling,  that God is always referred to as the ‘Creator’ rather than as ‘God’ (as if its one of Prometheus‘ engineers doing some Monday afternoon terraforming causing the Flood),so as to perhaps not offend viewers of non-Christian faith.

The supporting cast is sadly wasted. Jennifer Connelly never convinces- she just doesn’t look right.  Its not really her fault; she’s just too beautiful, her teeth too perfect and white, she looks too much the modern Hollywood Goddess, less the long-suffering life-worn middle-aged mother of three in a blighted, desolate world. The years pass by and Noah goes grey and wrinkly but Connelly hardly seems to change at all, something that seems increasingly ridiculous as the film passes. Its like something out of Old Hollywood’s Glamour Days. Anthony Hopkins just seems to mildly ham it up as he does these days in any picture, while Ray Winstone seems to be reprising his  Beowulf.

I realise I may seem rather disparaging regards this film. It is by no means a bad film. It just might have been something more. Certainly there are some thrilling moments of genuine brilliance during the film. A section where Noah recounts the history of creation, voicing the Biblical story of Genesis whilst the imagery depicts our modern scientific view of it,  is a spellbinding sequence of almost storybook cgi. Personal highlight for me though is a sequence shortly after the storm has hit- Noah and his family are sheltering in the storm-tossed Ark, tormented by the screams of the thousands dying out in the ocean waste. An exterior shot of  thousands of desperate survivors clinging to a mountain top, assaulted by the maddened waves, is one of the most haunting visuals of any film I have seen this year or last and worth the price of entry alone.