Wednesday, April 15, 2020

For Those in Peril

Spoiler-free!

Continuing my mission to impart my strange love for random obscure films onto people who don't much care -- that would be you, so thanks for reading -- I now come to For Those in Peril. A modern folktale that straddles the psychological line between fantasy and reality. It tells of a small Scottish fishing village in the aftermath of a mysterious boating accident where 5 of the 6 crew members were lost at sea.

Written and directed by Paul Wright. Streaming free on Amazon Prime.

The survivor is Aaron (George MacKay), younger brother of one of the lost. While the village mourns and raises questions of a "Jonah," Aaron becomes consumed by the idea that his brother and the other men are not dead at all -- but that he can somehow get them back. This idea stems from a tale told commonly in the village of a Devil that lives in the sea, stealing people and happiness away, and must be killed to restore everything to the way it was before. Aaron believes he's right, but is he? Or is he simply going crazy, as the town, and even his mother (Kate Dickie) thinks?

Oddly, that's where I feel like leaving you. But I don't suppose I can fully recommend a movie on premise alone. For Those in Peril is a tough sell, though. Not for the easily bored, as it spends much of its meager run time crafting a tone almost separately from its plot. It compiles dramatic, artistic shots that don't convey much of substance, but do effectively bring a sense of the weird and the unsure which is greatly useful as we go deeper into the uncertainty that the plot brings as well. The movie is also small and small budgeted, though it doesn't lack anything for being so. It accomplishes what it needs to, and often accomplishes it beautifully.

I love when small movies know how to use a budget. There's no lack of style or impact here. 

If the film did have a bigger budget or loftier goals in its technical elements, I can only see that being a distraction, not something that'd do the story or characters any good. A handheld camera and rural Scottish landscape may have been all that is used, but many shots are stuck in my head, due to the raw impact they bring. There are also brief interludes of camcorder footage used for flashbacks, and the intentional low-quality becomes ingrained into the style of the picture. It's used at first alongside soundbites of narration to get information out. Then later, the grainy footage reveals information and connects dots in a more disembodied way that is eerily effective.

I found this one when I was on the lookout for George MacKay movies, and though this film impressed me and has stuck with me beyond his involvement, I think he is the standout, and the most important element. No one does the decent into madness deal like he does, and his extremely internalized performance here is both frightening and endearing. The balance is important. Kate Dickie as his mother is equally as strong, perhaps even more so, and with less than half the screen time. Together they carry the film, while Michael Smiley and Nichola Burley round out the vaguely recognizable cast.

The sea-themed hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save gives it its title: "Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!"

With a well of disembodied details to unpack at leisure, memorable imagery, two rich and feeling performances at the center, and a bold ending that doesn't hold back, one thing For Those in Peril manages without a doubt is to keep away from the middling. You might find it boring and bad, or you might find yourself thinking about it for days afterward as I did, pondering the questions it raises, and falling a little bit in love. I went out searching and came back with a gem; so who knows? You might could, too.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Onward

Spoiler-free!

In a fantasy realm where magic had faded from popular existence, two elf brothers, Barley and Ian, get a present from their father, who died before Ian was born. In the package, a wizard staff, a Phoenix Gem, and instructions for a spell -- a spell that will bring their dad back for 24 hours. Barley is a history buff and obsessed with magic, but it's Ian who makes the spell work... well, halfway. The gem explodes and their dad is just a pair of khakis, so the boys set out on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem and finish the spell before their time is up.

DID SOMEONE SAY "QUEST"??? SIGN ME UP.

I've been tired of Disney Pixar for about ten years, so it's about time for a revival! I knew the moment I saw the poster -- where high fantasy is blended with urban fantasy -- that I had a great chance of loving it, and I was right. Even if the story wasn't great I would have still enjoyed the distinctly fantasy world building, down to things like small dragons kept as pets instead of dogs, Valor being a van model, and angry fairies in motorcycle gangs eating Pixy Stix by the straw-full. That stuff was creative and fun, and the exact kind of attention to detail that I love to see in Pixar, but this is, in my opinion, the best Pixar fare since 2008, and has more working for it than an exciting and fleshed-out world.

Tom Holland plays Ian, and Barley is Chris Pratt. Two charming and talented actors, and their characters are the main reason this film works as well as it does. The way they're written and played. Pratt has first-rate hilarious line-delivery, and if anyone can make awkwardness likable, it's Tom Holland. The way the two characters' personalities clash and complement each other is heavenly, and you get lost in their easy conversations, whether they're arguing, having fun, in the middle of action, or anything in between. Ian is the main protagonist, and he makes a check list of things he wants to improve about himself.  Then, each stop along their quest pushes him unaware toward his goal.

I found it pleasantly predictable in many ways, but it had some wonderfully unexpected moments too, when it needed them.

And Barley could have easily fallen into the comic relief character trap (considering how effortlessly hilarious he is) but instead the character is fleshed out in some unexpectedly mature ways. He seems like the kind of guy that doesn't take anything seriously, but then there's the bridge scene -- or the hilariously epic "Rise to Valhalla" moment -- where his seriousness is truly serious, but still funny. Humor isn't something you turn on when it's comedy time and off when it's serious time. He's just genuine, and therefore can be both. And that's how the whole film is. It never announces it's time to switch gears; it's a constant flow of adventure, with all the ups and downs it needs present, but not showcased or ballooned to unnatural proportions.

Pixar has finally come up with an original story that appeals to me as an adult. Sure, it's still a kiddie film, not intellectually complex, and follows a basic and straightforward story structure, but every beat it hits is earned. It got a toe in the door with the fantasy world, then swept me up for the ride in a way I haven't allowed myself to go on with Pixar since Toy Story 3 introduced me to the gross feel of emotional manipulation. But Onward feels right in every way: The quest-style structure of little adventure vignettes built on top of each other... the way every detail is set up for later but not in an obvious way... a conflict that comes naturally from the core of the characters -- and a resolution that hits home because the story speaks for itself and doesn't need to be forced.

I see people dismiss it as "B-tier Pixar" and wonder when they forgot to value stories for the joy they bring.

I'm happy to know Pixar is still capable of winning storytelling along with its usual features of unique premises and beautiful animation. Onward is everything a great and worthy adventure should be -- full of Heart's Fire, you might say; and light, charming humor; and warm characters; and sweeping glorious fun; and inspired world building. And no, perhaps it won't appeal to everyone as strongly as it does me. But that, I think, is the great thing about Pixar. At their best, they send risky, niche stories out into the wild, and every once in a while, we wind up with something magical.