At The Movies

Female-driven films in the spotlight

(From left) Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall in Breaking News In Yuba County.
(From left) Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall in Breaking News In Yuba County.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

NC16, 83 minutes, opens today

Rating: 4/5

Soldiers-versus-monsters flicks tend to be unapologetically cheesy. Too often, they get lazy, with the irony curdling into insincerity and the gore becoming just another overused prop.

This movie sets a higher goal. It features a group of Allied airmen - and one airwoman - battling a creature without embracing cheesiness, jump scares or wanton violence.

New Zealand director and co-writer Roseanne Liang not only delivers thrilling action minus the B-movie cheese, but she also slips in themes of misogyny and the erasure of the contributions of women from popular accounts of World War II.

Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards a bomber in Auckland, New Zealand, as a passenger on a hush-hush mission. The men on board, miffed at playing bus driver for a mere woman, are immediately hostile and put her in the Sperry, the transparent machine-gun dome in the belly.

From her vantage point, she sees a creature intent on destroying the aircraft. Her attempt to warn the crew is dismissed. Soon, she finds herself fighting two enemies - the beast trying to kill her and the crew, who believe she is hallucinating and lock her in.

The story was rewritten by Liang following the departure of co-writer Max Landis, a fantasy-action specialist removed from the project following sexual-assault allegations. It blends ideas from monster-hunter hit Aliens (1986) with those from a classic episode of the original The Twilight Zone series (1959 to 1964), in which an airline passenger sees something on the wing.

Liang's firm handling of the paranoia and claustrophobia make this movie all her own, however.

For much of its brisk 83-minute running time, she puts the audience in Garrett's cramped ball turret, trapped and bracing herself for the next attack.

BREAKING NEWS IN YUBA COUNTY

M18, 96 minutes, opens today

Rating: 2/5

It has been a long time since there was a movie like this - a character-driven black comedy aimed at grown-ups. It is with a heavy heart that one must report that while it scores well on acting, it falls down on everything else - editing, pacing and, most of all, comedic bite.

Sue Buttons (Allison Janney) is a doormat. The help-desk operator is cursed at by callers, ignored by colleagues, bullied by shopkeepers. Worst of all, to husband Karl (Matthew Modine), she is disposable.

After Karl disappears, Sue gets what she wants most in life - to become visible. Helped by her glamorous newscaster half-sister Nancy (Mila Kunis), Sue finds herself the news media's flavour of the month. Soon, Sue's half-truths and lies run away with her after she runs afoul of local gangster Mina (Awkwafina).

Director Tate Taylor is something of a specialist in female-driven movies that win acting awards (thriller The Girl On The Train, 2016; period drama The Help, 2011). There are plenty of good, controlled performances from Janney, Kunis, Awkwafina and others. But their efforts cannot save the screenplay from Amanda Idoko.

It does an admirable job in making the point that white respectability, especially when worn by a middle-aged woman, is a double-edged sword. It is a mantle that grants her immunity from police suspicion, but also renders her as just another face in the crowd.

But the story needs a thorough going-over to cut its sprawl and sharpen its weak satirical edge. Screenwriter Idoko is clearly fond of the Coen brothers' brand of tragic-comic, absurdist crime story (Fargo, 1996; Burn After Reading, 2008) and, occasionally, there are glimpses of the tougher, grimmer film it should be. But director Taylor is unable to find that much-needed touch of bleakness.

THE LITTLE THINGS

M18, 90 minutes, opens today, not reviewed

Set in the 1990s, the crime thriller sees small-city sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) travel to Los Angeles on a routine assignment. He meets detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and the two become involved in a hunt for a murderer, one that will shine a light on events buried in Joe's past.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2021, with the headline 'Female-driven films in the spotlight'. Subscribe