Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Review: Personal Shopper





Personal Shopper
Cert: 15 / 105 mins / Dir. Olivier Assayas / Trailer



I like that thing where you see a location in a movie which you were at, less than an hour earlier. Granted, that doesn't happen very often, but the chances certainly seem to be increased by catching a film when you're passing through London. It's almost like Oliver Assayas' Personal Shopper took a (literal) five minute detour through London just to show me St Pancras station and make me smile. Almost like it had some kind of otherworldly, psychic power. Almost. But not quite.

Maureen*1, a young American woman working in Paris as a personal shopper to the rich and famous, is grieving the recent loss of her twin brother. Both had nascent paranormal abilities, and Maureen spends her downtime trying to make contact with her sibling, although this holds the door open to other entities as well. Also, there's a murder.

Well, then. Most movies revolving around the supernatural will begin with a layer of audience-oriented skepticism, gradually increasing the in-plot, coalescing evidence until the point where a pay-off can be reached that (hopefully) doesn't stretch narrative credibility. Personal Shopper is almost the exact opposite, having a concrete level of 'oh, ghosts are real btw' from act one, but introducing uncertainty through the events elsewhere in the plot. And the more this is applied, the more the whole thing becomes unstuck.

When Maureen begins receiving anonymous texts from someone (or thing) that apparently knows her*2, the film loses balance slightly and never manages to regain its footing. Personal Shopper isn't sure if it wants to be an unconventional ghost story, or a philosophical psych-thriller. As a result, it commits to neither and achieves results accordingly. The film is more about dealing with the PTSD of a close family bereavement than any exploration of spirituality, and Kristen Stewart's on very strong form as a medium who's terrified of the unknown. Although it perhaps says a lot about the script that her best scenes are essentially solo-performances. Marreen's backstory is teased out relatively naturalistically (for the most part), although the screenplay does seem to assume that no-one in the audience has any idea what a medium is, judging by how laboured that point becomes.

On the plus side, the film gains a point for being set largely in Paris without a single establishing-shot of the Eiffel Tower. Although to be fair, that's no less than I'd expect of an actual French production. That said, the point is instantly deducted for the occasional swathes of un-subtitled French dialogue (and at one point, Swedish). They're reasonably short in themselves, but I've no idea what was being said there, only that everyone looked very concerned. And I have to assume that this was a deliberate move rather than an oversight, but it's pretty rude either way; don't assume that your audience will be fluent in two languages. Either the content of your script is important to the film or it isn't*3.

Certainly an interesting film, by no means a great one. I'd like to have liked Personal Shopper more, but found the forced ambiguity unsatisfying.

Fair play for showing the ghosts, though. I hope The Vomiting Lady gets her own spinoff movie. We've certainly had worse.



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Wel, it's no Hereafter


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
You may as well, all atmosphere will be effectively lost on a smaller screen.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
For me? No.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Kristen Stewart is great.
But she's been great before and she'll be great again
.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Oh, probably not.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Kristen Stewart's in this, and she was in that Adventureland, along with Bill BB-8 Hader.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Yeah, the protagonist's name is Maureen. On Friday, I saw a film where it was Elaine. It's like the supernatural heroines of 2017 are friends of my Grandma. [ BACK ]

*2 Okay seriously, though. She's there with her phone and a text comes through with the number marked as "unknown". This means the phone and/or network has no traceability for the sender's number. Which means the text can't be replied to. When you receive a text from someone who isn't in your phonebook, the phone displays the raw-number, not just 'unknown'. There are apps you can use to block your number when texting, but in order to be able to reply to these, the carrier will need to figure out the number of the sender. Which will then display the number. Yet there Maureen is, having a lengthy anonymous conversation with appalling punctuation. And that's another thing we learn, that Kristen Stewart is the kind of person who'll finish a sentence in a text without any punctuation. Or worse, she'll use punctation with a space after the final word, but before the full-stop/exclamation-mark etc. Unforgivable. And don't get me started on multiple consecutive question-marks. [ BACK ]
EDIT: Very much aware that I've complained about a lack of realism in a film specifically featuring ghosts. Don't even care.

*3 Any real supernatural tension the film managed to muster (and it is there) was offset by the light of the needlessly powerful bulb in the Fire Exit sign, bleeding directly onto the bottom-left corner of Screen 6. Obviously this is no reflection on the filmmakers, but the presentation of a movie is every bit as important as the content itself. Something you'd expect a cinema to be especially aware of. I know why the sign is there and I know it has to be illuminated, but it doesn't have to be visible from outside… [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Review: The Love Witch





The Love Witch
Cert: 15 / 118 mins / Dir. Anna Biller / Trailer



I'm not going to mess about, I loved The Love Witch. A unique film with an incredibly limited UK release window, I was lucky enough to catch it on a big screen. It's the story of Elaine, a practitioner of magic who's intent on using her not-inconsiderable skills to secure a partner she can truly love. But with the immaculately laid paving of good intentions, she finds that an outcome as complicated and fickle as the one she wants can't simply be conjured out of thin air. Long story short, death ensues. Obviously. And with amusing consequences. Not so obviously.

Director Anna Biller's master-stroke is drenching the film with the stylistic and visual aesthetic of the 1960s occult-horror genre, from the wardrobe and sets all the way through to the framing and colour palette, and then having a character pull up in a brand new BMW. Or sit in front of a TFT monitor. Or pull out a mobile. And when these things happen, they're not presented as any great Shyamalanian™ reveal, they're just part of the chronologically androgynous world we're visiting. I think what I love most about The Love Witch is the act that it exists; that it's been made in the twenty first century. I'm usually very wary of a project when it's written, produced and directed (plus set-designed, costume-designed and song-written) by the same person. But the strength and uniqueness of Biller's vision here is such I know it's that's the only way this project would have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Front and centre of the film, of course, is Samantha Robinson as the eponymous sorceress. She's every bit as beguiling and magnetic as Elaine needs to be, thanks to her ability to change the tone of a scene with the twitch of a cheek, and her invaluable counterpart in cinematographer Merritt Mullen. The supporting cast (lead chiefly by Laura Waddell) commit to the film with the same dramatic abandon, the end result being as camp as a row of tents and as arch as the Welland Viaduct. I basically sat and grinned with varying levels of intensity for two hours straight.

The pacing feels a little uneven as the film goes on, not quite as episodic as it perhaps needs to be and slightly to long for the story's own good. But every minute spent in The Love Witch's gothic, psychedelic world is an absolute delight anyway, and I still wanted more as the credits rolled. But I know that much of what I loved was down to the film's surface, and there's much, much more to the screenplay*1. I shall enjoy re-watching this many times.

Acerbic, sumptuous and utterly charming. In the face of such cinematic magnificence, this feels like a shoddy review. I can't do The Love Witch the justice it deserves. That's Anna Biller's job and one at which she's excelled…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
There are echoes of 1970's The Dunwich Horror, Hot Fuzz, Rocky Horror and Tarantino's Death Proof. Although The Love Witch is also completely its own thing.
But if you enjoyed any of those, you should love this
.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
The low-key release of this niche and future-cult movie means that you may not get the opportunity (I had to hunt it out at an indie cinema in the capital), but it's made for a late-night group audience.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Yes.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Anna Biller and Samantha Robinson will have to work pretty hard to top this. I'll be watching with eager expectation either way..


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Hell no, I'm already counting off the friends and colleagues I won't be able to recommend this to (or at least, the ones I know will take me to task afterward, if I do).


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This film's got Laura Waddell in it, who did voice-work for the Batman: Arkham Origins game along with Steve 'Zeb' Blum and Grey 'Ventress' DeLisle.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 I particularly liked the way the film gleefully plays with gender stereotyping, and it's too bad I never read Below-The-Line on review sites, as I'm sure The Love Witch has launched countless misguided and unintentionally-comical diatribes by basement-dwelling mansplainers worldwide. It's all I can bear that that shit's quote-tweeted into my timeline for systematic scorn and deconstruction, I certainly can't go actively seeking it out.[ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Review: Free Fire





Free Fire
Cert: 15 / 91 mins / Dir. Ben Wheatley / Trailer



While it's a long, long way from the heavy ordnance and monosyllabic adrenaline of the likes of The Expendables, the setup for Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is still reassuringly low-concept: an illicit gun-deal in an abandoned Boston (MA) factory between a couple of Irish buyers (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) and a South African seller (Sharlto Copley), brokered by a mutual contact (Brie Larson) and also attended by various henchmen on both sides. But when two of these subordinates recognise each other from an unresolved conflict, things quickly get out of hand. And when things get out of hand at a gun-deal, they're only heading one way...

As it goes, it's the second time in a week that I've watched Larson in a 70s-set flick featuring an overly-jukeboxed soundtrack. And the first of these didn't exactly leave a great taste in the mouth. Free Fire features a host of borderline-unlikeable, sketched in characters who remain barely developed for the most part, frequently mumbled and inaudible dialogue, a worryingly notable quantity of scripted 'quips' which left the audience silent though the subsequent laugh-gap, and a combination of lighting and editing that often makes it impossible to tell who's shooting at who (kind of the point of the film).

Also, I loved it.

The opposite side of the John Wick coin, the single gunfight makeing up the lion's share of the running time is the very antithesis of Hollywood Slick™. When bullets start flying, there are no trick-shots, gymnastics or one-hit kills. The shootout here is a long, drawn-out war of attrition with lucky hits and brute force doing most of the work and soundtracked (in this section where it matters*1) primarily by scuffling, breathless-complaining and fluent profanity. And that's not to say every line's a tightly engineered zinger (as I mentioned above), but it's certainly less of a sassy quote-fest and more representative of a deal between tired and angry middle-aged men, which began with poor organisation and went downhill from there.

From a writing point of view, it would have been very tempting to make at least one of the factions here the sort of loveable anti-heroes we've found in The Nice Guys. But writers Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump have kept in mind that these are people buying and selling guns, after all. The natural charisma of performers like Larson, Murphy, Smiley and Copley means they're inherently watchable without having the script cast too much judgement on them either way, and the humour veers between darkly-comic and violent-farce. Even that Armie Hammer's great fun in this, so the film's got to be doing a lot right*2.

Just what the doctor ordered after an emotionally taxing awards-season, Free Fire is a film that will bear re-watching because of the number of levels it works on. This is Ben Wheatley raising an eyebrow at the escalatingly ludicrous stream of action movies we enjoy, playing with the genre without being too acerbic at one end or getting too silly at the other. Nothing here is glamourised, but neither is it disparaged; the film takes its ridiculousness very seriously.

Because even if you examine the sandpit, you can still have a shit-ton of fun playing in it…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Inherent Vice, Hell or High Water, Reservoir Dogs.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
If the trailer looks like it your thing (and it's very much what the trailer's selling), absolutely yes.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Probably not, but only because everyone involved has such strong previous form.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shouldn't imagine so.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The new Dr. Evazan's in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 The main drag isn't completely music-free as there is some deftly inserted John Denver to be heard. But that's a set-piece in itself, so easily clears the Jukebox Soundtrack hurdle. [ BACK ]

*2 To be fair, that could just be because I enjoyed watching one of my favourite character-vacuums get shot at for about an hour. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Review: Kong - Skull Island





Kong: Skull Island (3D)
Cert: 12A / 118 mins / Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Trailer



"Mark my words", John Goodman's faintly shady conspiracy-theorist character opines in the film's opening moments, as his cab pulls up outside the White House in 1973, "there'll never be a more screwed up time in Washington". A customary beat is left for audience chuckling, during which I thought Oh, so that's how this script is going to be, bringing the razor sharp jibes that only a $185m, 12A-rated, studio blockbuster with three screenwriters would even dare…

Yeah, in case you hadn't heard, Kong's back. And aren't Warner Bros happy about that? Their marketing campaign of having our eponymous primate fully appear in pretty much every trailer, robbing the film of any Reveal™ it may have thought about, is matched only by the decision to have him also appear about three minutes into the movie itself. Of all the criticisms which can be levelled at Skull Island, 'seeing too little of King Kong' will not be on the list, at least.

So, something-something-Unchartered-Island™, something-something-Government-Backed-Hand-Picked-Expedition-Team™, something-something-Secret-Agenda™. You know how this works, you've seen pretty much every monster flick of the last thirty years, right? The script sasses its way along, the first act writing cheques which the second and third won't be able to cash. Every six minutes or so the movie will drop its smartassery to lay some exposition, every bit as hackneyed and/or mechanical as the situation requires. Meanwhile, Henry Jackman's hastily reworked Winter Soldier score is punctuated all too frequently by a Needle-Drop™ soundtrack of conveniently iconic early 70s hits. Often this is literally the case as the gang of hardened Vietnam veterans and survival experts have brought a portable record player onto their expedition. As well as, y'know, records.

The soldiers, the scientists and The Girl One™ go deeper into the jungle, slowly realise that Kong probably isn't the bad guy, and find The Crazy Old Man One™ en-route (John C. Reilly being inexplicably the best thing about the film, despite being the worst in the trailers). By that time there's trouble in the group and armed bickering ensues. They then try to get out of the jungle anyway, and monsters start fighting each other in earnest. And the more monsters appear on screen, the the less any of it matters. An incredibly strong cast and occasionally fantastic cinematography are wasted on a slightly camp, borderline-animated farce. And don't even try to frame the events against any kind of logic or reason*1.

Despite being meticulously designed and detailed, there's a weightless quality to the Skull Island's non-human inhabitants which echoes the screenplay's lack of emotional engagement. There's no danger to be felt here, no joy, and despite the heavily applied 3D, certainly no depth. Rarely have creatures so definitively wild felt so utterly harmless.

To be fair, the film is fairly competent at what it does.
I just found what it does to be fairly boring.


Oh, and there's a thing after the credits, to add insult to injury.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The Lost World, Aliens Vs Predator, Independence Day, Godzilla.
Although if you enjoyed those, you don't need to watch this
.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
You may as well, it'll have even less impact on your TV.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
…be a hundred-foot tall rights-grab and franchise kick-starter?
Yep
.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
No.
This has got Brie Larson in it.
She was in Room, for crying out loud
.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Oh, probably not.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I didn't hear one, although I could well have missed it.
There's a lot of shrieking in this movie
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Mace Windu's in this, hamming it right up.
And so's that additional voices guy from The Old Republic.

Although credit where it's due, it's more impressive that the film's got Nick Fury, Captain Marvel and Loki on the same call-sheet…


And if I HAD to put a number on it…
And that's being kind, frankly. This is a film which I know will go down in my estimation, over time.


*1 I'll ask the questions so you don't have to:
• Reilly's Marlow says that Kong is still growing, but when we see the skeletons of his monkey-parents, they're only about 100ft, the same as Kong. Is this a throwaway line to explain why the ape will have to be bigger, if he's to rumble with Godzilla further down the line?
• How come we have a misty and overcast day on the river, as a flock of pseudo-pterodactyls snatch then tear apart a hapless explorer, all artfully silhouetted against a golden sunset which clearly isn't there?
• Why do we have vintage-effect footage of [REDACTED]'s tearful return home at the end of the movie, but with camera angles from inside the house as well, even though it's meant to be a surprise reunion?
• Why did I bother to remember these questions when it's clear that nothing in the film actually matters? [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.