Review – Safety Not Guaranteed

Looking to fill a blank space in the September 1997 edition of Backwoods Home Magazine, employee John Silveira wrote a pithy classified ad as a joke.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed – “there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits”

The ad stated: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”.

Little did Silveira know that his throwaway paragraph would prove the inspiration for the low-budget Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy-drama equal parts whimsical and melancholic from the mumblecore stable of American independents.

Disconnected and disillusioned Darius (Aubrey Plaza) interns at a Seattle magazine and volunteers with fellow staffer Arnau (Karan Soni) to assist writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) in tracking down the ad’s author in a sleepy seaside town. This turns out to be Kenneth (mumblecore alumnus Mark Duplass), an eccentric and paranoid supermarket employee who deals in conspiracy theories and is convinced secret agents are out to get him.

She poses as an applicant with her own reasons to want to travel back in time and wins the trust of the slightly obsessed, but kind-hearted loner, who sees in Darius a kindred spirit and someone who’s not afraid “to stare fear and danger in the eye and say ‘yes'”.

Darius at first indulges the child-like Kenneth’s plan to build a time machine, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, but as they spend more time together she finds herself increasingly attracted to the fellow misfit and starts to wonder if what he’s claiming is actually the real deal.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed brings to mind the offbeat 1980 film Somewhere In Time, in which Christopher Reeve’s writer becomes so obsessed with a picture of an actress (played by Jane Seymour) that he travels back in time to 1912 to be with her.

Memory, in particular the desire to recapture and revisit a specific moment in time, is a prominent motif throughout the film. Darius, who has resigned herself to simply “expect the worst and try not to get my hopes up”, would rather return to when life was easier and made more sense.

According to Kenneth, the whole point of building his time machine is to prevent a tragic event from occurring, although as he lets slip to Darius, it’s actually more “about a time and a place” when he believes he was happiest.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), Arnau (Karan Soni) and Jeff (Jake Johnson) try to track down the mysterious author of an unconventional ad in Safety Not Guaranteed

The melancholic yearning for younger, less complicated days is also present in the character of Jeff, who uses the assignment to look up his first love, whom he has reminisced about and wondered ‘what if?’ for years. He also urges Arnau not to waste his youth and, in scenes reminiscent of Roger Dodger prises the young intern away from his laptop to introduce him to the world of girls.

Director Colin Trevorrow gives the film a lightness of touch that dilutes the sadness of Derek Connolly’s script. Duplass, who has made a career out of directing inward-looking adults with arrested development excels as Kenneth, bringing the right mix of oddball innocence to the role.

Plaza (from TV’s Parks and Recreation) has the face-slapped-with-a-wet-fish look down to a tee, but finds an endearing sweetness in her scenes with Duplass. Indeed, the moments when the two are training for their ‘mission’ are the highlights of the film.

Whether you buy the ending largely depends on how invested you are in the characters. Trevorrow for one tries his best to sell it, as do the cast, and while it doesn’t entirely convince there’s enough heart here to earn a smile come the closing credits.

Review – Berberian Sound Studio

There’s something wonderfully outrageous about fruit and vegetables being used by serious, technically-gifted individuals to represent the sound of a body slamming onto the ground or a neck being broken.

It’s a side of filmmaking normally hidden from the audience, a process that takes place long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the actors have moved on to other projects.

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – “a masterclass in sustained dread”

In director Peter Strickland’s astonishing Berberian Sound Studio, this is turned completely on its head, wherein the mechanics of sound reproduction (known as foley) take precedence. Moreover, Strickland sets the film in the 1970s, when warm and fuzzy analogue equipment like tape recorders and magnetic tape was used, in contrast to the clinical digital apparatus employed today.

Strickland used a modest inheritance and relocated to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, a striking, outré revenge drama that marked him out as one to watch. The writer/director has taken a massive leap forward with his sophomore feature, a head-spinning psychological horror-thriller that plunges buttoned up sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) into a frenzied whirlpool of his own making.

Gilderoy has flown from Britain to Italy to work on The Equestrian Vortex, what he assumes is the sort of nature documentary he has made his stock in trade from his garden shed in Dorking.

Unbeknownst to him, The Equestrian Vortex is in actuality a sadistic, stomach-churning giallo horror film, the sort of supernaturally-charged splatter-fests made famous by such maestros of the genre as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

As the images of torture, rape and mutilation are projected to Gilderoy for the first time, we see his facial reaction contort between voyeuristic intrigue and disgust. All the audience sees of the film are its opening credits, with its blood-red palette and shots of terrified women.

Sitting alongside the film’s irritable, unforgiving producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) in the claustrophobic sound studio, he goes to work recording marrows being hacked to pieces, cabbages being stabbed and radishes having their tops violently ripped off (all of which are left to rot in a none-too subtle moment of symbolism). He also records the bone-chilling screams of several women, in particular the paranoid Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), who is angry for allowing herself to be exploited by the film’s suave, oily director Santini (Antonio Mancino) and warns Gilderoy against making the same mistake.

A homesick stranger in a strange land, he gradually finds himself being dragged deeper into the cesspool of moral filth and degradation that is playing out on screen and clings onto letters from his mother describing the untainted day-to-day mundanities his increasingly fractured psyche is losing a grip of.

Gilderoy allows his work to overwhelm him, in much the same way as Gene Hackman’s suveilance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, and before long he’s no longer able to differentiate between reality and his nightmarish paranoia where each disturbing sound is amplified and the silence is almost as deafening.

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Strickland fearlessly takes his protaganist  into a vortex of his own making and nods to David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the way he portrays Gilderoy’s mental breakdown on screen. It’s deeply unsettling stuff, rivetingly played by Jones in a career-best turn. Jones has one of those faces that can exude gentility and cruelty at the same time (if ever a remake of 10 Rillington Place was made, he would be perfect as unassuming serial killer John Christie) and we’re left to make our own mind up as to whether Gilderoy’s experiences have corrupted him or merely held a mirror to the darkness he (and we) fear has always been there.

The process of producing the sounds are as lovingly shot as the equipment on which they are recorded (Strickland holds the camera on tape spools or the analogue sound desk). In spite of the film’s suffocating grip, there are many moments of black humour and scenes of real beauty, in particular when Gilderoy shows his colleagues how he can create the sound of a UFO by scraping a light bulb against a wire brush.

For a film where sound is everything, foley artist Heikki Kossi must get special mention, while ethereal electro band Broadcast provide a suitably haunting score.

Utterly unique, Berberian Sound Studio is a masterclass in sustained dread and the first of what could well be a slew of masterpieces from this vital, gifted filmmaker.

Review – Beasts Of The Southern Wild

New Orleans and the wider gulf coast of Louisiana have been forced to endure more than their fair share of disaster, grief and suffering since the terrible devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The impact of the hurricane has been the foundation of numerous documentaries, including Spike Lee’s exhaustive When the Levees Broke and the superb TV series Treme.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild – “a gothic fairytale of real beauty”

The city was front and centre of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, while other films have used the area’s devastated locations as backdrops to the story they are telling, whether it be the moral decay that permeates the Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly or the apocalypse in The Road.

However, none have found such beauty in decay as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beguiling, magical fairytale that must count as one of the most striking directorial debuts of recent years.

The film follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a strong-willed six-year-old girl who lives with her ailing, hard-drinking fisherman father Wink (Dwight Henry). The two live hand-to-mouth in separate rickety shacks that look like they’re about to collapse, surrounded by a menagerie of animals.

They live in a tiny bayou community of eccentric souls called the ‘Bathtub’, so called because it has been cut off from the outside world by a levee, with the “dry world” as Hushpuppy calls it on the other side. Hushpuppy and the other children are taught by the charismatic Miss Bathsheba on how to survive in the face of impending global warming, a consequence of which, little do they realise, will be the release of the giant prehistoric boar-like Aurochs from the melting ice caps.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) out-guns her daddy (Dwight Henry) in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Miss Bathsheba points to her cave painting tattoos of the Aurochs, something that inspires Hushpuppy to draw her own images so that “in a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”.

When a giant Katrina-style storm floods the Bathtub, the resilient Hushpuppy realises the universe as she knows it has been thrown off balance and she must do all she can, including searching out her mother, to save her dying father.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is as beloved to some as it is infuriating to others. Although entitled to hold their opinions, the naysayers are missing the point.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) comes face-to-face with a prehistoric Auroc in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Any film featuring a child as the protaganist and narrated by that same youngster will instrinsically be equal parts illogical and fantastical. In the wrong hands, a film such as this can bury itself under an avalanche of too-cute whimsy, but Zeitlin admirably walks the tightrope and produces a gothic fairytale of real beauty.

The world of the Bathtub is so convincingly realised by Zeiltlin, you can almost smell the cajun spices and feel the water lapping under your feet. When you’re removed from it, as the characters are against their will by the authorities following the storm (evacuated to the ironically-titled Open Arms shelter), you feel as desperate to get back as they do.

Wallis is a force of nature as the headstrong, enchanting Hushpuppy, more adult than the grown-ups at times, in other moments a needy child who wants nothing more than to be held by her father, or mother if she can find her. You accept without reservation the father-daughter relationship she has with Henry, a non-professional actor who owned the bakery Zeitlin would use for breakfast while casting the film. Henry gives a raw, heart-breaking performance as the weakening Wink who loves his daugher dearly but struggles to find the proper words or deeds.

Credit must also be given to the wondrous score, heavily influenced by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, which serves as another way into this magical kingdom.

Does everything work here? No; the whole side narrative involving the Aurochs feels like a step too far, while some of the characters are a little too eccentric for their own good.

However, Beasts of the Southern Wild remains a bewitching, poetic fable, a real one-off that, as Hushpuppy puts it is a “little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right”.