Friday, March 31, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Le Sang des Betes (1949)

Le Sang des Betes (1949)
Directed by: Georges Franju. 
Written by: Georges Franju.
Anyone who has seen Georges Franju’s infamous 22 minute short documentary, Le Sang des Betes (Blood of the Beasts) is unlikely to forget it.  After a brief prologue, in which Franju sets up the time and place – the outskirts of Paris, shortly after WWII – a calm, beautiful, even romantic place – he plunges us into a series of slaughterhouses, and his camera unflinching watches as a horse, a cow, a number of calves and finally a number of sheep, are killed, bled, skinned and slaughtered. It is a difficult film to watch for sure, yet it’s value goes beyond shock value – while some describe it as one of, if not the first “shockumentary” – this film is more than that – it’s more than a PETA film meant to bring attention to the suffering of animals (a worthy cause of its own – although perhaps not one that lends itself to art) – it exposes something deeper in humanity.
Part of its effect is due to that brief prologue – the setting up of the seemingly peaceful city of Paris, on the outskirts, a place for relaxation, fun and romance – tellingly, the last image Franju focuses on before cutting over to the slaughterhouse is a scene of young love – an innocent kiss between two young people. We then go inside the slaughterhouse, and with little warning or setup, we see a man put one of those bolt guns to the head of a horse and fire – the horse twitches, and falls to the ground in an instant. While this is largely a bloodless moment (that won’t last long), it is also clearly the film’s most shocking – the one most likely to cause you to gasp as you watch it because we’re not used to seeing that image. From there, Franju doesn’t cut away – he watches as the workers go about their work – slitting the throat of the horse, bleeding it out – because it’s winter, the blood steams as it comes out, as is either gathered in troughs or just let to run into a ditch. The workers are matter of fact about this – one smokes a cigarette as he saws an animal in half (as the narration tells us, in the time the clock takes to strike 12). This is common throughout the film – no matter what they are doing – workers go about it in an emotionless way.
It is those two elements – the contrasting of the bucolic splendor close to the slaughterhouses, where the people either don’t think about, or don’t know about what is happening in their neighborhood, and the emotionless way the workers go about their job, that I think make Le Sang des Betes more than a shockumentary – and something that is disturbing on more than one level. You can draw your own conclusions about what Franju is doing here – making a portrait of the banality of slaughter, in which go about killing animals as if it is a normal job – thus perhaps showing us a way in which, just a few years earlier, Germans did the same to Jews. When something is a job – when you do the same thing every day – it becomes banal, no matter what that is. It is also a portrait of how we are able to not think about the things we do not see – logically, we all know what happens in a slaughterhouse, and yet all of us who eat meat (and I do) are rarely confronted with the reality of it – we are the people at the outset of the movie. Franju – who made a series of these short docs before turning to feature filmmaking (his most well-known film is Eyes Without a Face – the shocking 1959 horror film) – was a surrealist, and did want to shock and disturb people. But if that’s all there was to this film, it would more than likely be forgotten by now, replaced by other, more shocking documentaries (that would almost undeniably be in color – the decision Franju made to shoot in black and white was deliberate, as it allows a just a little bit of distance from the action to be there – in color, that would be impossible). Le Sang des Betes is not an easy film to watch – and that’s a deliberate choice. But it is a great short film, in part because it is so difficult to watch, and on more than just one level.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Movie Review: The Most Hated Woman in America

The Most Hated Woman in America ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Tommy O'Haver.
Written by: Tommy O'Haver & Irene Turner.
Starring: Melissa Leo (Madalyn Murray O'Hair), Josh Lucas (David Waters), Adam Scott (Jack Ferguson),  Juno Temple (Robin), Vincent Kartheiser (Bill, Jr), Rory Cochrane (Gary Karr), Michael Chernus (Garth), Brandon Mychal Smith (Roy Collier), Alex Frost (Danny Fry). Peter Fonda (Reverend Harrington), Sally Kirkland (Lena), Anna Camp (Mrs. Lutz).
In his comedy special Thinky Pain, Marc Maron says he doesn’t call himself an atheist, because he doesn’t want to be associated with all those assholes. That’s certainly how I feel as well – I call myself agnostic, even though I probably do lean more towards the outright atheist side of things – but I find the militant atheists to be as bad, and in some cases worse, than hard liners of any religion. No one was more of a hardliner in her time than Madalyn Murray O’Hair – who filed the lawsuit that eventually led to prayer in public schools being banned (people are still pissed about that one) – and eventually founded the organization American Atheists, which fought all sorts of atheists causes. This was in the 1960s-1990s – and yes, there was a time when she was a celebrity, and was hated, far and wide in America – and she didn’t care. Then, she went missing – and no one seemed to care about that. Her story seems custom made for a biopic – and Melissa Leo is well cast as Madalyn – but Tommy O’Haver The Most Hated Woman in America is pretty much as dull as biopics come. It hits every note you expect it to, in pretty much the dullest way imaginable – favoring a surface level exploration of her career as an atheist, intercut with the weeks she spent being held captive – alongside her son and granddaughter – by a trio of hapless kidnappers. The story is so insane, you would think it would be impossible to make it boring. You’d be wrong.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with Melissa Leo – who has been a fine character actress for years, but not even winning an Oscar for The Fighter (2010) seemed to really jumpstart her career, and give her better roles. She’s an actress over 50, not named Meryl, so the bigger budgeted movies slide her in for a few scenes in action films, and she has to go to Indies to do something interesting – and she usually is. She is in fine form in The Most Hated Woman in America – from the opening scenes as a woman in the 1950s, who already has one son and no husband, when she gets knocked up again – much to the chagrin of her conservative parents. She finds her purpose when she discovers her teenage son is being forced to say a “Morning Devotion” at his public school – and files a lawsuit. While most hate her for her stance – and her fiery personality – some don’t. And those people donate money – and so Madalyn figures out a way to make money, by making herself a pain in the ass to religious people. Not all of that money is, uh, properly accounted for. That is why a trio of kidnappers – led by David Waters (Josh Lucas) kidnap the now 77 year old Madalyn – alongside her son Garth (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter Red (Juno Temple). They want part of the money, and figure because Madalyn is hiding it from the IRS, she won’t report them. Of course, as with every kidnapping scheme in movie history, this one doesn’t work the way things were planned.
The problem with The Most Hated Woman in America is that co-writer/director Tommy O’Haver doesn’t seem to have a point of view – doesn’t seem to have any real opinion or insight on who any of these people were. What he settles on instead is a dry recitation of facts – first Madalyn did this, and then she did this, and then she did this, etc. What makes her tick, what drives her, doesn’t seem to be something he has considered – and he doesn’t seem to have considered it for anyone else either. This is a film with a talented ensemble cast – and yet O’Haver doesn’t really give them much to do. Leo is a pleasure to watch to be sure – but that just makes you wish the movie surrounding her was better. This is one of the most boring movies imaginable about kidnapping, murder and religion in America. This material is so rich, so ready for someone to make a movie about it – which very well could be relevant in Trump’s America, where everyone and everything is for sale. It’s too bad this is the movie we got out of it though.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Movie Review: The Blackcoat's Daughter

The Blackcoat’s Daughter *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Oz Perkins.
Written by: Oz Perkins.
Starring: Kiernan Shipka (Kat), Emma Roberts (Joan), Lucy Boynton (Rose), Lauren Holly (Linda), James Remar (Bill), Emma Holzer (Lizzy), Peter J. Gray (Rick).
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow burn of a horror film – a film of simmering tension for most of its runtime, who hides its secrets in its non-linear structure for as long as it can. The director is Oz Perkins (son of horror legend Anthony), this is actually the first film he made, although through one of those quirks in distribution, it’s actually arriving months after his follow-up – I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – was released. I wasn’t much of a fan of that film – while I found the craft of it to be wonderful, I thought the storytelling was too vague and enigmatic – and ultimately didn’t add up to very much. While The Blackcoat’s Daughter also wants to build slowly, and enigmatically – I found myself transfixed by this film, in a way I wasn’t in Perkins’ follow-up. I cannot help but wonder if he like what he did here, and decided to push harder in his follow-up – if so, he pushed too far.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter tells the story of two teenage girls and one young woman– the teens clearly interlock, and the young woman, not so much. At an exclusive, all-girls Catholic boarding school, winter break is arriving, and the parents of all the students have shown up and taken their kids. All except for two that is. Rose (Lucy Boynton) says to the headmaster that she accidentally told her parents the wrong day – so they’ll be late, but it really wasn’t an accident – she had to see her boyfriend and tell him some news. Then there is Kat (Kiernan Shipka) whose relationship with her parents is harder to get a hold of – and the cryptic flashbacks to wrecked cars, and her strange conversation with a priest, don’t help to clear them up. They are stuck at this snowbound boarding school with a couple of nuns waiting for their parents. The other storyline involves Joan (Emma Roberts), a troubled young woman, perhaps just escaped from some sort of hospital, and clearly traumatized by something, who is stuck at a bus station with no money – before a kindly man, Bill (James Remar) offers her a ride – much to the chagrin of his wife (Lauren Holly). “You remind me of our daughter” he tells her.
I won’t spoilt what happens from there – but will say that Perkins clearly knows his horror movie tropes, and certainly isn’t above trying to exploit them. Much like his follow-up – which was a haunted house film – it almost seems like Perkins is letting old horror movie tropes do some of the storytelling for him, as he’s much more interested in creating atmosphere, then telling a story. And at creating atmosphere, he is wonderful, as this simmering horror movie really does get under your skin – aided by two great performances by Boynton and Shipka. If you saw Sing Street – that audience pleaser from last year – you remember Boynton as the girl the main character falls in love with, who ends up being a real person underneath. Here, she again has an effortless cool about her  - although she’s so lost in her own, real world problems, she doesn’t sense what is going on right in front her. Shipka, best known for Mad Men, is even better – there is something off about her from the beginning, and Shipka intriguingly plays with that, without doing much. In much of her performance, she reminded me of Kristen Stewart – another actress capable of communicating a lot without doing much. In the end, the film does allow Shipka to cut loose a little, and she relishes that as well. By comparison, Emma Roberts is probably the weakest link of the three – but I think some of that is the role itself, which, even more so that Shipka, requires her to keep her cards close to her chest for a long time. James Remar, with his sensitive performance, pretty much steals that part of the film.
When I watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House last year, even though I didn’t love it, I did want to see what Perkins had up his sleeve the next time around. Watching what he did before that film, want to see that next film even more. Perhaps The Blackcoat’s Daughter is too heavily reliant on horror movie tropes, and Perkins could stand to pick up the pace just a little bit. If he does that, and adds it to his already impressive visual style, he’s going to make a truly great horror film. For now, the very good The Blackcoat’s Daughter, will do.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Movie Review: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper **** ½ / *****
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

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

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 *** ½ / *****
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.

Movie Review: Kong Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Written by: Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and John Gatins. 
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Preston Packard), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C. Reilly (Hank Marlow), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Tian Jing (San), Toby Kebbell (Jack Chapman / Kong), Jason Mitchell (Mills), Shea Whigham (Cole), Thomas Mann (Slivko), Eugene Cordero (Reles), Marc Evan Jackson (Landsat Steve) Richard Jenkins (Senator Willis).
I liked Gareth Edward’s 2014 version of Godzilla for many of the reasons others didn’t like it – I enjoyed the fact that the human characters were pretty much useless – coming up with one ill-fated plan after another, none of which ever end up working. I also enjoyed the fact that the movie played hide and seek with the monsters for much of the runtime – either showing them from a distance through news footage, or putting us on the ground with the humans, who are so dwarfed by the magnificent creatures, it’s hard to get a complete view of them. Kong Skull Island takes place in the “same universe” as that film did – and it shares a few things in common with it. In both films, humans are essentially to blame for what happens to them, and powerless to stop it, try as they might. But it does seem like the studio has in other ways taken the advice of the people who didn’t like Godzilla as much – this is a film that puts Kong front and center nearly from beginning to end – leaving its talented human cast as basically cookie cutter afterthoughts. The film, which is set in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War, also – oddly – plays a lot on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the greatest film ever made – in some ways that made me smile, and others that made me groan. I’m not sure the film really works – it certainly isn’t a match for Godzilla, one of my favorite blockbusters of recent years – but it is a hell of a lot fun – and that counts for a lot in a film about a giant monkey killing things.
The film is set right as the withdrawal from Vietnam is happening. Someone, the crazed Bill Randa (John Goodman) – the head of some weird, government agency whose job is apparently to hunt from giant monsters – convinces a Senator to send him and his team of scientists to the newly discovered Skull Island – which Randa thinks may prove his theory of giant pockets of hollow earth that would house giant creatures (some 40 years later in this universe, people still don’t believe this in Godzilla). Randa gets a military escort – led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) – a true believer pissed that they are “abandoning” the war in Vietnam, alongside an expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who corrects Conrad by saying she is an “anti-war” photographer – whatever the hell that means., They show up on the the island, drop depth charges so they can “map” it – and Kong show sup to discover their puny helicopters. The survivors now have a few days to make it to the other side of the island to be picked up – or presumably, they’ll be stranded forever. And considering Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly) has been stranded there since being shot down in WWII – and gone slightly crazy in the past 30 years – they don’t want that.
There are a lot of character in Kong: Skull Island – too many really, since the movie isn’t really interested in any of them. Only a few are memorable days after seeing the film – Samuel L. Jackson’s mad Colonel Kurtz like character, gone crazy in his mission to “not lose” this war as well, and kill Kong – even after it becomes clear he really isn’t the bad guy – and there are real bad guys there (they look kind of like the muttos in Godzilla – but only kind of). When John C. Reilly shows up, he steals the movie, with his crazed comic performance, whose every line reading is a delight. The rest of the cast though kind of blends into the background – both Huddleston and Larson are more than capable of being the charming leads at the center of the movie, but neither is given anything to do except the obvious – Huddleston’s job is to basically look ruggedly handsome (success!) and Larson’s job is to NOT be a damsel in distress throughout (again, success, I guess). This does point to something else the movie attempts to do – which is to go against the somewhat problematic history of Kong – seeing Kong himself as a “dangerous other” – a dark sexual predator after the pretty blonde, and the tribe on the island being complete savages. Kong Skull Island deliberately sets out not the do that – Kong himself seems to like Larson’s Mason, but their interactions are drained of those sexual under currents, and the islands natives are basically wordless and peaceful (does that fall into another cultural stereotype? Perhaps – but it’s not as offensive, so let’s chalk that up as a win).
Besides, Kong Skull Island knows that you’re there to see Kong smash things, and the film really does deliver the goods on that level. From the opening battles against the fleet of helicopters that come to attack, to various sequences on Kong battling his arch nemesis’ from beneath the island, to an amusing fight with a giant octopus, Kong Skull Island is a triumph of giant monster battling action. This Kong isn’t given the personality of Peter Jackson’s Kong (another film I like more than many) – but he battles wonderfully.
The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts – another of those indie directors given a couple hundred million to make a blockbuster after one indie hit (in his case, that would be 2013’s The Kings of Summer – a movie I remember not much liking the time). Unlike Edwards – whose indie film was Monsters, which was appropriately enough about giant monsters, why they thought of Vogt-Roberts to do this film is a mystery to me – but he mainly pulls it off. There are some clever jokes around the edges of the film – and some of the subtler references to Apocalypse Now are fun as well. No, Kong: Skull Island isn’t a great film – and perhaps if it was released in August, after months of weekly CGI-fests, I’d be harder on it than I’m being now. But it’s March, it’s been a while since I’ve seen some giant monsters do battle – and this film works on that level.

Movie Review: Always Shine

Always Shine
Directed by: Sophia Takal.
Written by: Lawrence Michael Levine.
Starring: Mackenzie Davis (Anna), Caitlin FitzGerald (Beth), Lawrence Michael Levine (Jesse), Khan Baykal (Paul), Alexander Koch (Matt), Michael Lowry (Vic), Colleen Camp (Sandra), Jane Adams (Summer).
Always Shine is a fascinating horror movie about a Hollywood misogyny, toxic female friendships, and the blurring of reality. It owes a debt to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. – and while it doesn’t reach those heights (which would be hard, since they are two of the best films ever made) – it’s still a film that has an interesting take, and gets weirder and more surreal as it moves along. I’m not sure all the twists work – but they’re all interesting.
The film opens with two very similar scenes – of the two stars talking directly into the camera. First there is Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) – reading lines for what sounds like a rather lame horror film – and then having a discussion with the director and producer – who talk about how the nudity in this film will be extensive, but it’s vital to the project, as they want to shoot very “veritie” style. Next is Anna (Mackenzie Davis), and at first it seems like perhaps she is auditioning as well – as the shot in exactly the same – except it turns out that no, she isn’t – she really is arguing with a mechanic who is trying to rip her off. These two scenes establish both of these characters quickly – both are actresses, both are friends, both are “pretty blondes” – but Beth is pliant and amicable, and Anna is abrasive and unwilling to take shit. It’s no wonder Beth’s career is on the rise, and Anna’s isn’t – it has nothing to do with talent, but personality – and Beth has the personality that men want – and they’re the ones calling the shots.
The simmering tension of their “friendship” is at the heart of Always Shine. The pair of them head to a cabin in Big Sur for a mini-vacation – although the tension is there from the beginning. Anna resents Beth because her career is taking off, and Anna is struggling to get anything. And yet, Beth is so seemingly nice – seemingly considerate of Anna, it’s hard to get too mad at her, right? I mean, Beth doesn’t even share her biggest news with Beth – doesn’t tell her she’s going to be in a magazine’s “new Hollywood” issue, doesn’t tell her that she’s going to be a lead in a real movie (even if it does sound dumb) – a step up in her career. She really does try to not rub things in Beth’s face. Or, perhaps, is that just an act? Beth seems so nice and pliant, - but part of that is clearly an act. She clearly tries (and succeeds) to poach a man Anna has her eyes on (even if Beth has no real interest in him – she has a boyfriend at home), or doesn’t share other things with Beth either – like the possibility of a role in an Avant-garde short film, or Anna’s reel with her agent, etc. Anna is bitter and angry at Beth – but she really does have a reason to be.
The film runs 90 manures, and the first hour or so is pretty terrific. The two lead performances are great – FitzGerald, is perfect as the passive-aggressive Beth, and Mackenzie Davis – who has been doing great work for a while now – is even better as the more fiery Anna. The last half hour takes some surreal twists – it’s here where the film enters Persona/Mulholland Dr. territory – and while the performances never lag, and the direction remains top notch, the plot developments border on cliché – before jumping head first over that border.
Still, for most of its runtime, Always Shine is a terrific film – one that makes me want to seek out director Sophia Takal’s debut film, Green (2011) – and has me anxiously awaiting whatever she does next. Her direction is great throughout – and the point of view of the film is fascinating. This is an underseen gem.

Movie Review: Creepy

Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Chihiro Ikeda & Kiyoshi Kurosawa based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa.
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima (Takakura), Yûko Takeuchi (Yasuko), Teruyuki Kagawa (Nishino), Haruna Kawaguchi (Saki), Masahiro Higashide (Nogami), Ryôko Fujino (Mio), Takashi Sasano (Tanimoto), Masahiro Toda (Okawa).
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Creepy is a film that returns the Japanese director to his J-Horror roots – particularly his 1997 serial killer drama Cure – which was his breakthrough film. Kurosawa would make a few more J-horror films (notably Pulse in 2001) – before starting to make more traditional dramas – but with Creepy, he returns – however briefly – to the genre that launched his career. Like Cure, Creepy is a masterclass is film style – a slow burn of a film that goes from police procedural in the first half to something much darker in the second. Also like Cure, the film is marred by some sloppy storytelling and some huge leaps in logic the film requires the audience to make. If you can accept those however, than Creepy really does deliver.
The film is about Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) – a criminal profiler, who starts the movie as a talented, but arrogant, man who doesn’t see the danger lurking directly in front of him – and that leads to tragic consequences. As a result, he leaves his job, and moves to the suburbs, taking a job teaching criminology at a university, as he tries to repair his marriage to Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi). His is slowly drawn back into police work –through a cold case in which an entire family – save for one teenage daughter (now an adult) went missing. That daughter claims she doesn’t remember anything, but Takakura isn’t sure he believes her – and starts pushing her, more and more, to remember – and bits and pieces do eventually start coming. There is also the issue of their new neighbor, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) who is, well, creepy. But perhaps she’s just socially awkward and weird – nothing criminal about that – although the fact that his wife remains little seen is strange, and his relationship with his daughter is also weird – but not in a way that you can really put your finger on. Yasuko is more creeped out by him that Takakura – who, once again, may not see what’s lurking under his nose.
Kurosawa’s strength in these thrillers has always been in his ability to create mood and atmosphere – and not so much in his narrative abilities. That’s true in Creepy as well – which is a masterfully made film in many respects, slowly ratcheting up the tension for more than an hour, before twisting itself into something much more horrific (the fact that it’s so normal, makes it more horrific still). Kurosawa, unlike other directors of J horror, never overdoes the blood and gore in his films – he knows, ultimately, he doesn’t need to. He is also capable of getting wonderful performances from his cast – here in particular Nishijima is excellent as the expert profiler, who becomes so obsessed with one case, he cannot see what’s right in front of him, and especially Kagawa as Nishino, who goes from weird to creepy to something else gradually, but wonderfully.
What doesn’t work as well is some of the plotting. While the film is masterfully directed, I do think it takes too long to get where it’s going – it has a tendency to repeat itself. It’s also a plot that relies so heavily on coincidence that even a generous audience member is going to question just how much it leans on it – and just how great of leap of logic the film requires. As well, Yasuko, the protagonists wife, is not as developed as she needs to be to make a late film twist work - seriously the film, which runs over two hours, could have easily found time to make her into more than the main characters wife, which is what was needed to make the twists work.
Still, it’s nice to see Kurosawa step back into the genre that made his career – and show off the old chops again. I wish he’d do it more often, because he really is great at it. Maybe, next time thought, he should get someone else to write the screenplay. Creepy is a good movie that with a together screenplay, could have been a great one.