Monday, March 27, 2017

Movie Review: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Maureen), Lars Eidinger (Ingo), Nora von Waldstätten (Kyra), Anders Danielsen Lie (Erwin), Sigrid Bouaziz (Lara), Ty Olwin (Gary), Audrey Bonnet (Cassandre), Pascal Rambert (Jerome).
Kristen Stewart is one of the great actors currently working – someone who is able to convey so much, while doing so little. Her best performance to date was in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria – where she plays the personal assistant to a movie star – but in her follow-up collaboration with Assayas – Personal Shopper – she may well have outdone herself. This is a brilliant performance, at the heart of a great film. Assayas himself has said he wouldn’t have made the film with Stewart – and that shows just how smart he is. This is a film that requires the type of screen presence that Stewart has, coupled with that acting ability that allows her to communicate her inner changes, while remain the same, placid version of herself on the outside. I hope these two make many more films together.
Personal Shopper is essentially a ghost story – the opening scene finds Stewart’s Maureen arriving at an isolated house in the French countryside which belonged to her twin brother Lewis, who has just recently died of the heart condition that he shared with Maureen. Like Lewis, Maureen is also a medium – although she isn’t sure she really believes in that, and it isn’t her passion or career right now. She walks around this dark house, looking for Lewis – who always promised that should he die first – he’d send back a message from the other side. This opening sequence is one of the tensest in the film – even getting under my skin, and I’m someone who almost never gets scared at ghost stories (mainly because, I don’t believe in ghosts). But it’s far from the only tense scene.
Most of the movie involves Maureen working for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten) – who is either a movie star or a supermodel, or some sort of other celebrity. She is, as the title implies, her personal shopper – whose job is to essentially drive around Paris on her little scooter, picking up expensive clothes and jewelry for Kyra to wear to various functions – and then drop them back off the next day (unless Kyra decides she wants to keep them – which is a giant pain in Maureen’s ass). This is somewhat of a ghost story as well – Maureen barely sees Kyra, who is always jetting off to Milan or London, or somewhere else – the pair passing like ships in the night, communicating via notes left for each other in Kyra’s apartment. Even when they do come face-to-face, Kyra barely acknowledges Maureen’s presence – she is someone Maureen doesn’t want to see or hear from.  It’s while working for Kyra than Maureen starts getting strange text messages – from an unknown number. Is it Lewis or someone just fucking with her? Or perhaps is it a ghost, but not Lewis? Or is it all in Maureen head?
Because this is an Assayas film, you’ll get answers to some questions, and not others – or at least not in the way you expect them. He has never liked providing all the answers to the questions his film raises, and it’s no different in Personal Shopper, which in some ways seems to answer everything, and looked at another, answers nothing at all. The constant in the film is Stewart – who is in pretty much every scene, and changes throughout the film, even as she continues to go about her job. Assayas’ filmmaking in impeccable (well, almost – I honestly don’t think he needs to visualize the ghostly presence at all, but maybe that’s just me). He is able to make those three dots on your iPhone – indicating someone is texting you – absolutely terrifying. He builds tension masterfully, and allows Stewart to hold the screen while barely uttering a word for minutes at a time – and the whole thing is mesmerizing.
At least for me – I already know there will be those (perhaps many) who don’t think much of Personal Shopper – who want it to be more overt, or answer more questions, or move at a quicker pace. Those people aren’t wrong – necessarily – but those people also have a lot of other movies, many of them very good, that they can go watch instead of Personal Shopper. This may well be the best horror film of the year – and I’m not even sure it is a horror film.

Movie Review: Life

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa.
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (David Jordan), Rebecca Ferguson (Miranda North), Ryan Reynolds (Roy Adams), Olga Dihovichnaya (Kat), Ariyon Bakare (Hugh Derry), Hiroyuki Sanada (Sho Kendo).
I’m sure the pitch for Life was essentially that its Alien meets Gravity – because that is pretty much what the film delivers. The plot outline isn’t an exact rip-off of Alien, but its close enough for government work. The killer alien itself is actually a wholly different creature than Alien’s xenomorph – and it a wonderfully weird creation, that grows into something quite scary – and that helps the movie a lot. The main thing Life adds to the Alien plot though is that most of it takes place in zero gravity – so everyone is floating around for the entire film, much like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Like its Alien comparisons though, the film suffers when compared to Gravity – it doesn’t quite have the same feeling as that film. Yet it’s also hard to complain too much about Life – because as much as it lifts blatantly from two other, better films – it does so in a fashion that is mostly well handled, legitimately scary, and technically adept. It isn’t a masterwork like Alien – nor a great thrill ride like Gravity – but it delivers what it sets out to do, you have to give it that.
The film takes place on the International Space Station (ISS). Its six member crew’s mission is to grab a capsule that scoped up some Mars dirt, than flung it into space or a predefined trajectory. Of, they grab it, and bring it inside, and of course, they discover a single celled organism in that dirt that proves, for the first time, life beyond earth exists. The creature ends up being named Calvin (which is an odd name, and made me anticipate it getting a partner at some point named Hobbes, which disappointingly, never happened – there’s always the sequel I guess), and grows at a rapid rate. The crew member in charge of the creature – Hugh (Ariyong Bakare) is fascinated by it to no end. Eventually, he screws something up though, and Calvin goes into hibernation. Rather than let Calvin wake up at his own pace, Hugh decides to literally prod it – which, predictably, is a horrible idea. Calvin wakes up and is pissed.
You know how this is going to go. The six member crew are basically sheep there to be slaughtered, one at a time, in increasingly gruesome ways. To be fair to the movie, it really does come up with some exciting and original ways to be killed by a creature who could be described as a fast moving space octopus. To be less fair to the movie, these six people are all supposedly pretty smart, but they all essentially make one stupid mistake after another, and I think it’s fairly easy to see the mistakes in terms of protocol that never would be allowed to happen in a real life situation. Then again, if there were real protocols in place, you don’t have a movie, and this space octopus doesn’t get out to kill people in strange ways, so maybe we should stop complaining, and just go with it.
Life is one of those movies you watch and enjoy as it plays, but basically forget about when it’s over. It is a horror movie exercise, that borrows shamelessly from Alien (and to a lesser extent, Aliens) – and Gravity, and others – but does so with style. If you like this type of sci-fi horror film – and I do – than Life delivers the goods you expect, and honestly, not much else. I wish the film were just slightly smarter or scarier, or, well, something. The film could have been better, but in general everyone took the path of least resistance. The movie works for what it is – I just wish it wanted to do something more than that.

Movie Review: Prevenge

Directed by: Alice Lowe.
Written by: Alice Lowe.
Starring: Alice Lowe (Ruth), Jo Hartley (The Midwife), Gemma Whelan (Len), Kate Dickie (Ella), Kayvan Novak (Tom), Tom Davis (DJ Dan), Dan Skinner (Mr Zabek), Mike Wozniak (Josh), Tom Meeten (Zac).
I liked so much about Prevenge – a strange British horror/dark-comedy, written, directed and starring Alice Lowe – which I’m somewhat disappointed that I didn’t end up liking the film as a whole more. It’s got a lot of great ideas, absurd comic touches, and Lowe herself is great in the lead role as Ruth – a (very) pregnant woman in her 30s who is about to become a single mother, but is currently going on a killing spree at the behest of her unborn child, who speaks to her not in a baby voice, but in the voice of someone who has never been around a baby doing a baby voice. Eventually we will, of course, find out the reasons why she is going on this killing spree – although, honestly, it isn’t all that interesting to find that out. The film is bizarre and funny and bloody as hell. But I’m not sure it every really comes together.
In the film, Lowe’s Ruth is adrift – she doesn’t seem to have a job, or much money, and is living in a cheap hotel – where every night she hears people fucking next door, as her baby – who seems like a bit of an asshole mocks her (“That’s how I was made – don’t expect that to happen again”). Occasionally, she heads out into the world – but only seems to have two purposes when she does – the first is to see her midwife (Jo Hartley) – who becomes increasingly concerned with Ruth’s behavior as her pregnancy progresses – and the second is to murder people. At first, we don’t know why she’s murdering these specific people, but we can figure out its not random. These specific people must die.
The plot of Prevenge is the weakest part, so it’s disappointing that Lowe spends as much time as she does as the film progresses explaining why Ruth is doing what she does, and who the people she kills are. Frankly, I didn’t care. What I did like about Prevenge is the utterly unique, dark take on impending motherhood that Lowe presents. Her frequent meetings with the midwife are a highlight – especially in the first half of the film, when Hartley is spouting out chipper clichés about pregnancy (“Baby knows best” etc.) – although I do think that Lowe returns to this well too often, especially once Hartley grows concerned about Ruth’s actions. Mostly, I appreciated the pitch-black take on being pregnant – and being a mother – and what that means. Lowe, who was pregnant when she shot the film, lays bare her insecurities, anxieties, etc. – and doesn’t relent, even in the final moments, by giving us the comforting view of pregnancy and motherhood we are used to seeing.
As a director, Lowe is still rough around the edges – this is after all, her first film – but at least she shows her influences are good. From definite callbacks to Zulawski’s Possession or Ferrara’s Ms. 45 – to others, Prevenge has almost as many references as Jordan Peele’s Get Out – and even if she doesn’t quite doll them out as effectively, it shows real talent. I want her to make another horror comedy – ASAP.
Prevenge is far from a perfect movie. I’m not sure it ever really comes together in any sort of cohesive fashion – either in terms of plot, or even theme. It’s a jumbled mess in many respects. But it’s such a consistently interesting jumbled mess that you cannot dismiss either. Lowe, who I thought was wonderful in the black comedy Sightseers directed by Ben Wheatley (which she co-wrote the screenplay for) – is a creative force I am glad is working, and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Movie Review: After the Storm

After the Storm
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda.   
Written by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Starring: Hiroshi Abe (Ryota Shinoda), Yōko Maki (Kyoko Shiraishi), Taiyô Yoshizawa (Shingo Shiraishi), Kirin Kiki (Yoshiko Shinoda), Satomi Kobayashi (Chinatsu Shinoda).
The films of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda are always quiet and subtle. He doesn’t seem to have much use for plot, and while he makes films that are essentially family dramas, he doesn’t like big, emotional breakdown scenes either. His films build slowly and quietly – and you don’t always see their cumulative effect until after the film is over. He has been compared to another Japanese master – Yasajiro Ozu – and the comparison works in a number or ways (not in others). Both filmmakers have spent their careers, not making the same film over and over again, but similar films again and again – so similar, and so unconcerned with plot in fact, that they almost start to blend together into one large, quiet work. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
His latest, After the Storm, is about a writer – Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) – who is unable to deal with the present. He lives in the past, and looks forward to the future, but in the here and now, he’s pretty useless. He wrote and award winning novel 15 years ago – and hasn’t been able to follow it up yet. He works at a low rent detective agency – he says he’s doing research for his novel, although there’s little proof he’s doing that. He’s gotten divorced from Kyoko (Yoko Maki), and now struggles to pay child support for his soon, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Sometimes he takes his partner at the agency, and follows his former wife and son – even on her new dates – which confuses his partner, who says he never mentioned his wife and son before the divorce. One night – it “happens” to be one of the days he has Shingo – he goes to his mother’s house, even though a typhoon is bearing down on them. Kyoko shows up to pick up Shingo, but is essentially trapped there overnight. During the course of the night – essentially the last half of the film – there are a series of quiet talks – essentially between every possible pairing of the four people there. There are no big moments, no big revelations, pledges, promises or tears. And yet, after the storm, things do seem at least slightly different – slightly more optimistic.
I liked the second half of the film more than the first. In the first, Koreeda seems slightly more adrift than usual – he has quite a few characters, all of whom have their own personal dramas, that come into contact with Ryota – cheating wives and husbands at the agency, or his shady boss, or his chatty assistant, the high school kid he tries to shakedown, etc. Koreeda excels most when he’s in the plotless moments- like the day Ryota and Shingo spend together before the storm – how Ryota insists on buying his son the “expensive” cleats (he doesn’t really need), then scuffs them to try and get a discount – or when he takes his son to the good burger place, but won’t get himself one (I’m not hungry, he lies to his son). He’s broke – he’s tried to scam money or borrow it from his sister, or find his mother’s secret stash, etc – but he doesn’t want to admit it. The whole second half of the movie – quiet conversations, in which people accept the reality they don’t want to be true, is tremendously moving – and healing.
The performances help a great deal of course – none more than Hiroshi Abe as Ryota. There is a way – perhaps an easier way – in which he could have made Ryota into a creepy bad guy – he does after all stalk his ex-wife, and try to steal from his mother, who already lives in a not very nice housing complex. Yet Abe makes him into something sadder – something slightly more pathetic – yet still allows you to see him as a good guy. He’s trying, even if he’s not always sure what he’s trying to do. He is more than ably supported by the two women in the film – Yoko Maki – as his tried ex-wife, who just wants some sense of normalcy in her life, and Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s mother – who both wants him to get back together with his ex, and understands precisely why she won’t (Ryota’s mother stayed with her husband – who was also constantly broke).
When I consider the work of Koreeda – and I will admit I haven’t seen them all (apparently, I really need to see After Life and Still Walking – which are among the film people claim are his very best) – I don’t know if I’d consider After the Storm to be among his best. It didn’t hit me quite as hard as the children in peril Nobody Knows, or the childhood swap of Like Father, Like Son – but as an ongoing continuation of everything Koreeda, it is another piece in a wonderful career.

Movie Review: Evolution

Directed by: Lucile Hadzihalilovic.   
Written by: Lucile Hadzihalilovic & Alante Kavaite & Geoff Cox. 
Starring: Max Brebant (Nicolas), Roxane Duran (Stella), Julie-Marie Parmentier (La mère), Mathieu Goldfeld (Victor), Nissim Renard (Franck), Pablo-Noé Etienne (Le 4e garcon), Nathalie Legosles (Le doctor)
I cannot deny the visual greatness of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution – which looks as great as pretty much any film made this year. There are moments here as stunning as anything you will see. AT its heart, Evolution is a horror film, set in a dystopian future (present?), about a society without men – although there are quite a few boys around. It centers on one of those boys, Nicolas (Max Brebant), and his odd journey, and relationships. Yet, it is a film that seems to want to be deeper than ultimately I think it is – a film that confuses long stretches of little to no dialogue, with subtlety and insight. For a film with a horror movie heart, the film never really gets under your skin, it’s a film to admire, while admitting that it never really gets under your skin.
The film takes place on an island populated only by sickly women, and seemingly healthy boys. Hadzihalilovic slowly introduces us to this world – one in which Nicolas doesn’t seem like he knows any more than we do. His relationship with his mother is the most important in his world – even though he doesn’t completely trust her, he loves her and submits to her will (he doesn’t believe, for example, that he – or any or the other boys are sick, no matter what they are told). Eventually he, like all boys, is brought to a hospital and abandoned – and it’s here where he develops another relationship – this time with a nurse named Stella, who becomes a surrogate mother to him, but in a more tender way than his own mother ever did.
The direction by Lucile Hadzihalilovic is brilliant – this is one of the year’s most visually stunning films, from its opening scenes under water, through the confines of the hospital, etc. there is not a frame of the film that doesn’t look stunning. Hadzihalilovic also uses visually cues to let the audience know more about the world she is creating – and to convey that Nicolas isn’t as naïve about his world as he seems, and that Stella isn’t as cold as she seems.
Yet, to me, the film never really lives up to its visuals. The film doesn’t get under your skin, doesn’t truly unsettle you. It’s a film that you have pay close attention to, or else you will become lost – and yet, even if you do, I’m not sure you’re meant to fully understand everything.
There is no doubt that I will see anything that Hadzihalilovic decides to direct next (not to mention, that I should go back and see her debut film Innocence from 2004). If, in her next film, she figures out how to marry a narrative and characters as stunning as her visuals to those visuals, she’ll create a masterpiece. Evolution isn’t that film – it’s more of an exercise in style than anything else, and as great as that style is, it eventually gets dull – but it shows he has that in her.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Directed by: Mamoru Oshii.   
Written by: Kazunori Itô based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. 
I had not seen Ghost in the Shell since around the time I met my anime loving wife – and tried to impress her with my knowledge (which was limited then – but has grown since) of the genre she loved. I remembered liking the film – although for some reason, I hadn’t revisited it like I have with other anime films (Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika, Perfect Blue, all of Miyazaki, etc.) in years – so I was looking forward to reason to see it again before the live action remake hits theaters later this month. Watching the film again surprised me – it was slower than I remembered it being, and even after watching, I’m not sure I could pass a test on what exactly happened in it. It’s also odd to see it just in the contest of how far animation has come in the last 22 years – Ghost in the Shell was once lauded for its visuals, and while there is great stuff here, it’s not all great. While I mainly enjoyed the return trip to Ghost in the Shell – I was also at least somewhat disappointed.
The film is set in the future – some point at which humans and cyborgs live alongside each other mainly in peace. The protagonist is The Major – a beautiful, strong woman who spends a lot of time naked for some reason - who is more robot than human. She is a cop, assigned to investigate one potential criminal – but in the course of that, stumbles over the Puppet Master – the most dangerous cybercriminal around – a man who says he once had a body, but was tricked out of it – and no exists in the electronic universe exclusively – and perhaps wants the Major to join him.
There is a lot – at times seemingly endless – talk in Ghost in the Shell, about just want it means to be human, and the line between human and robots – what makes one human, and what doesn’t. In many ways, its biggest influence is probably Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – which has a lot of talk, and mixes in action alongside it as well. The dialogue is rather ponderous and philosophical – sometimes reaching for something profound, sometimes sounding like the rambling of pot addled university students.
The film was groundbreaking in many ways on a technological level – using cutting edge animation and sound techniques – and much of the film does look great. Yet, there is a reason why its animation style didn’t become the standard going forward either – and you can see the filmmaker hitting the limited of what they can do at times (there are a few odd scenes in which it doesn’t look like much of anything is moving- as long reams of dialogue are read).
Ghost in the Shell was meant to be a breakthrough when it was released in 1996 in North America – a coming out party for anime, which wanted to break into the theatrical marketplace, and not just exist on import VHS tapes. In that, it had mixed success – the film didn’t gross much when it was released, but more and more anime made its way to North America – legally (my wife complains that when she first got into anime in the early to mid-1990s – she had to work to find every book and tape she had – then they made it too easy). Ghost in the Shell is a good anime film – but it wouldn’t make my list of the best the genre had to offer – and oddly, it wouldn’t even be among the first I would show to people who are new to the genre. The film has its merits, but it’s also a little bit of a confusing mess.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. 
Starring: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Josh Gad (LeFou), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Hattie Morahan (Agathe / Enchantress), Haydn Gwynne (Cothilde), Gerard Horan (Jean the Potter), Ray Fearon (Père Robert), Ewan McGregor (Lumière), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Nathan Mack (Chip), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette).
Disney is in the process of doing live action remakes of pretty much all of their back catalogue – which is undeniably little more than a cynical money making ploy – a way to cash in on their existing properties instead of coming up with original ideas (a giant corporation, doing something purely for monetary giant? Try and hide your shock). But while that is true, that doesn’t mean that these movies have to be bad necessarily – last year their Jungle Book remake was a complete delight, and Pete’s Dragon was even better (even if it didn’t get the attention it deserved). Maleficent offered an alternate version of Sleeping Beauty (certainly preferable to the other story, which is painfully dull). The key to making these films truly good is to have a different point-of-view – something that sets it apart from the animated classic we all know and love. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, unfortunately, doesn’t really have that. Like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it is too faithful to the original version, which makes the film a little harder to defend. Still, though, I have to say that even if this Beauty and the Beast is merely a cover version to the 1991 animated masterwork – and one that feels the need to go on much longer than original – it is a very good cover version. The songs we know and love are all there, and (with one exception) are mainly a delight. The performances work – and in a few cases flesh out what were very broad characters in the original. And from the standpoint of costumes, production design, cinematography and visual effects, it really is hard to find fault. More important still – it satisfies its target audience – specifically, my five year old who calls the animated original her favorite movie (trust me, I’ve watched it about 12 dozens in the past year – including two days after seeing this one). Despite the two plus hour runtime time, she sat in rapt attention the whole time, and loved every minute. It’s hard to argue with that.
We all know the story by now – Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful young girl, living in the French countryside, who wants more than her small town can offer – especially more than Gaston (Luke Evans), the town’s boorish resident hunk, who is determined to marry her. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) heads off to market, gets lost in the woods, and comes across an enchanted castle – inhabited by talking furniture and a Beast – the beast was once a prince, who through his own selfish action got himself – and his servants (for some reason) cursed. Now, unless he can learn to love – and get someone to love him – he will be cursed forever. Belle shows up to save her father, ends up taking his place, and – of course – romance ensues.
This story has already inspired two cinematic masterpieces – Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, and Disney’s 1991 version (at the risk of having my cinephile’s card revoked, I’ll say I liked the 1991 version more). This new version, pretty much copies the animated version scene for scene, note for note, but adds some (mainly unnecessary) detours along the way. For the most part, all your favorite songs from the original are back – and they are delightful – my favorite remains “Gaston” – performed with appropriate aplomb by Evans (who surprised me by giving the best performance in the film) and Josh Gad as his sidekick Le Fou (the much ballyhooed “gay moment” in the film is so fleeting by the way, its barely there – I’d feel pretty stupid if I was that woman who cancelled my family’s trip to Disneyland – losing thousands of dollars in the process – because of Disney pushing a gay agenda – then again,. I’d feel stupid if I was that woman anyway). The other major highlight, of course, is Beauty and the Beast itself – a wonderfully romantic dance number. The one original song that fell flat for me was Be Our Guest – which was so over busy and hectic, it felt like an outtake from Moulin Rouge (and not in a good way). Apparently, there were also some new songs in the film as well – but two days later, I cannot remember a single one, so you judge for yourself what that means about them.
The film definitely has it flaws – it does go on too long, it does have too much unnecessary backstory, and it does have a weird rhythm to it that doesn’t quite work. All the actors playing the various talking furniture dial everything up to 11 – and while that’s okay when they’re say talking clocks or candlesticks, it becomes a distraction when they’re real people.
But the film gets the main things right. Emma Watson makes for an appropriately spunky heroine – and has a lovely singing voice to boot. Dan Stevens – currently doing great work in Legion – is fine under layers of CGI as the Beast, and that’s all he has to be. I’ve already sung Evans praises – and will say that Gad knows his job as a Disney sidekick well. The surprise is Kevin Kline, who makes the most out of Maurice’s additional screen time. As a visual spectacle, it’s tough to argue with the work on display here.
A part of me knows that the cynic inside me is always going to hate on a film like Beauty and the Beast. It is undeniably, for Disney, an act of cynical money grabbing – in this case more than most, since they have essentially pulled a Gus Van Sant remakes Psycho here. I also know that the film was not made with 35 year old cynics in mind. If that’s you, stay away. If however, like me, you have a 5 year old daughter at home, suck it up, and take her. To her, witnessing this movie is to witness movie magic – and that’s worth it, even if the film is flawed.