The Week in Movies: March 25th-31st 2019

Braid

★★★★★

Dir: Mitzi Peirone

Petula and Tilda (Imogen Waterhouse and Sarah Hay), on the run from the law and saddled with a debt to their dealer, decide to rob an old friend, Daphne (Madeline Brewer). To do so they must fall back into the roles they played in childhood games, returning to a fantasy world in which Daphne still lives. It’s a slightly bizarre plot, but that summary only hints at the gleeful level of crazy that pervades Mitzi Peirone’s feature debut.

Braid is one of those films that presents a problem for a reviewer; there is so much to say here, but one of the great pleasures of the film is discovering how it unfolds, and so I don’t want to tell you much about it. Peirone is clearly a widely read cinephile. She nods in the direction of many filmmakers classical and modern, with styles as wildly differing as Hitchcock (a sinking car redolent of Psycho) and Vera Chytilová (an all candy meal that calls to mind the climactic feast in Daisies). Beyond these momentary nods are strong echoes in structure and approach of the likes of Lynch, Lanthimos and Sofia Coppola. However, Braid is not merely a magpie film feathering its nest with stolen images and ideas, indeed it’s a blazingly original work that establishes a strong and individual voice for its director.

The film pulses with visual energy. This is clear from the beginning, but it kicks into high gear with a PCP induced hallucination sequence in which the colours are pushed to cartoonish extremes and the sense of the characters becoming trapped in some nightmarish wonderland is ever more accentuated. Set against the manic invention of the production design and colour timing, Peirone’s shot choices are often classically composed. At points she uses stillness very effectively to force your eye on to how odd what you are seeing within the frame is. This is especially underlined in a shot of the three girls, two of them tied to chairs, their braids used as gags. This said, there is also invention in the framing and in the way Peirone and editor David Gutnik move between shots, such as the repeated use of mirrors. A large part of the confidence visible here is in the fact that everything is so detailed. The choice of the vintage costumes seems as important as anything else, far beyond the fact of how good they make the cast look. It all contributes to the sense that meaning is embedded in every corner of the film.

The performances of all three leads are top notch. There is a challenge inherent in that Braid is clearly set in the real world, so we require some grounding before it slides into the surrealism inherent in the games Daphne wants the others to play. Like the film, the performances are by turns disturbing and funny, and at their best when combining the two. Each actress hits a slightly different register, with Imogen Waterhouse’s Petula the most grounded, Sarah Hay’s Tilda by turns disengaged and annoyed at having to succumb to the rules of Daphne’s game. Madeline Brewer follows her breakout turn in Cam with a gloriously demented performance as Daphne- if she makes the biggest impression it’s because her character is the most extreme.

Having only seen it once, I’m not sure I can begin to tell you what, at the bottom of it all, Braid is about. On other occasions, I might mean that as a bad thing, but in this case, I know that there is something – many things – waiting to be unearthed, discovering this film is something I’m going to spend many more viewings on. This is the most confident and most interesting genre debut I’ve seen for years, which of course means it doesn’t have UK distribution. I hope people will discover Braid through its US ITunes release and that it will pick up enough momentum to get a proper release, but I promise you, you want to hunt this one down.

Triple Threat

★★★

Dir: Jesse V. Johnson

Let’s not even pretend, shall we? Nobody cares what the plot is here, not me and, frankly, probably not the filmmakers either. The entire point of Triple Threat is to get, Expendables style, as many of the most talented stars working in martial arts movies right now in a single film to beat each other up.

By that measure, it is a fairly consistent success. The cast list reads like a genre fan’s fever dream: Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, Jeeja Yanin and Michael Bisping – all of them getting to face off in a series of bouts fans have wanted to see for ages. What could go wrong? A fair bit, unfortunately. It’s to be expected that the acting would be ropey but, even with only a skeletal story to handle, on more than one occasion writers Joey O’Bryan, Fangjin Song and Paul Staheli miss opportunities to build an even more epic series of punch ups.

Several characters are short-changed, but none more so than Jeeja Yanin as Mook. Yanin is an insanely talented fighter, whose slight build and speed set her apart from the other fighters in the film – to say nothing of the fact she’s the only woman who gets to fight. I wish we’d seen Julie Estelle or Gina Carano added to the mix. Sadly, Yanin gets barely 90 seconds of actual hand to hand fighting in the film and is otherwise wielding a gun the entire time. The fight she has is awesome (yes, that’s a serious critical term), but it’s over far too soon. The issue of guns will come up in any modern set martial arts film, but I wish this one found excuses to throw them away sooner and more frequently. It’s not much fun watching people whose primary skill is hand to hand fighting shooting at each other in indifferently lensed action scenes. Jesse V. Johnson, for all his prowess with the martial arts fights, is no John Woo when it comes to gunplay.

When we finally come to the climactic setpiece(s): Adkins and Jai-White on one side of the battle; Uwais, Jaa and Chen on the other, the fights are as you’d expect – brilliantly choreographed and executed. The performers allow their styles to complement each other and there are more than a few ‘holy SHIT’ moments you’ll want to rewind. There is perhaps too much cross cutting between the fights, but the action in each is allowed to play out in intelligible shots. It’s a pity that the film never quite delivers the team up suggested by its title, but the individual fights largely make up for that. Adkins’ face off with Jaa is a particular highlight, as is Jai-White’s brutal punch up with Uwais and Chen.

The overriding problem throughout is that between the fight sequences, there’s not much going on, most of it playing out in broken English as we wait for the next bit of ass kicking to begin. The plot is fairly dull, and Celina Jade is reduced to little more than a very pretty prop.

For action fans, Triple Threat doesn’t entirely deliver on the promise of its outstanding cast list, but the fights still shame almost everything the Hollywood mainstream pumps out and even if the acting isn’t great, most of the cast get their share of comically ‘badass’ dialogue to chew on. When it’s on form, this is a storming success, but there’s also the ever-present feeling that it could have been so much better.

Now on Video On Demand

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

★★

Dir: Fede Alvarez

I haven’t thought much about Lisbeth Salander since I finished my review of David Fincher’s quite astoundingly pointless remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Before that, I had enjoyed the first and second of the books and films in the series about Steig Larsson’s creation, and trudged my way through the third largely out of obligation. The most valuable thing to come out of the whole enterprise was clearly Noomi Rapace, whose fantastic performance as Salander led her to a Hollywood career and me to discover her brilliance in previous and subsequent European films. With Larsson’s sad death leaving the book series at just three and the US film series stalled, I assumed we were done with Salander. I’d have been perfectly content with that.

Based on David Lagercrantz’ continuation of Larsson’s characters, The Girl in the Spider’s Web picks up Salander (Claire Foy) as she is hired to steal a file that allows anyone who has it to access and control the world’s nuclear arsenal and return it to its creator (Stephen Merchant) with the help of her journalist friend Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) she must again steal the file back when it is taken from her and protect a boy who is the only person who can unlock the file.

Things start poorly, with a title sequence that tries to recall that of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo (the only part of that film I’d consider rewatching), but has none of the same style, sorely misses Immigrant Song (which the score nods to in the climax) and rips off an even better credit sequence – that of the original Ghost in the Shell. It didn’t put me in a hopeful mood.

To give some credit where it is due, The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t a total disaster. It does have some strong images. Many of these are courtesy of the stunning landscapes of Sweden, but every now and then Fede Alvarez will hit on a compellingly fucked up image, like that of Lisbeth sealed in an airtight suit, slowly suffocating. There are also qualified successes in the film’s casting. For instance, Lakeith Stanfield is charismatic enough to make a largely functional role more watchable than it should be and Stephen Merchant works well enough as a nerdy tech genius. Another of these qualified successes is Claire Foy. Foy is comfortably the second best incarnation of Salander, she never gets truly inside it as Rapace did, but she’s infinitely more convincing than Rooney Mara, who for me always seemed to be playing dress up in the role. Tellingly, Foy is best in the silent moments, her face imparting much more than her dialogue.

This brings me to the film’s issues, and language as one of the major ones. Because its story was so wrapped up in Swedish history, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo never made sense in English. This doesn’t have the same problem, but still, in this day and age it’s weird to spend most of a film listening to conversations between characters who would speak Swedish to one another, but in English. Foy’s accent is solid enough and Sverrir Gudnason and the other non-native English speakers in the cast do fine with the language, but it means there is something at the centre of the film that simply rings false at every turn.

I never mustered any interest in any of the characters and the Bondification of Lisbeth removes any and all peril from proceedings. We never spend enough time with anyone but Lisbeth to get much of a handle on them beyond how they function in the plot, and that is sometimes forced, even in the case of Blomkvist. Besides being miscast (a young looking 39 during shooting, he’s too youthful for the part, meaning the sense of history between the characters is lost) Gudnason is saddled with having almost no function in the film. He facilitates a couple of things, but there is no reason either for him to be along for the ride afterwards nor that it should need to be him in the moments he does help Lisbeth. For all its incident, the real crime of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is that it’s dull. The action, while competently shot, is limited and there is a sense that much backstory is lost, not helping the already underwritten characters pull us into the story.

Once again, if this is the last we see of Lisbeth Salander, I won’t be sorry.

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