Personal Shopper

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Grief is one hell of an emotion. For those who have ever had the displeasure of finding themselves coping with it, the feeling can quite literally be indescribable; like experiencing the infamous ‘five stages of grief’ all at the exact same time, and with each one constantly competing for the most attention. So, with cinema being the powerful tool that it is – one of its greatest capabilities being the potential for subtly instilling empathy within the viewer – there seems to be no better avenue for exploring grief in its entire confounding splendor. And out of some bizarre cosmic coincidence, there’s been an influx during the last year of grief and mourning-centered films that have been getting made and released (think A Monster Calls and Jackie, among others). Yet another one of the most recent followers of this trend would be the French produced yet English-language psychological thriller Personal Shopper.

This film reunites the acting/directing partnership of Kirsten Stewart and Olivier Assayas, whose previous team-up resulted in heaps of critical accolades and global awards prospects for the both of them, the film in question being the satirical dramadey Clouds of Sils Maria. With that in mind, this latest collaboration between the two had a lot to live up to, both for critics and audiences alike. So, in the humble opinion of this particular reviewer, they not only succeeded in matching their previous work, but might have even surpassed it with one of the most challenging and unusual horror genre hybrids we’ve seen in quite some time.

Plot-wise, I’m reluctant to get into it all that much. For the most part because there admittedly isn’t that much of a literal A to Z storyline going on here, but also because I wouldn’t dare reveal whatever surprises that the film does indeed hold in store. But to cover just the basics: the aforementioned K-Stew plays a young woman named Maureen living in Paris who works as a titular “personal shopper” (ask your hipster roommate who studied abroad in Paris for a year) for a fictional French celebrity. On the side, she also moonlights as a psychic medium who communicates with the spirits of the dead, and therefore hopes to make contact with the essence of her recently deceased twin brother. From there, Maureen finds herself getting involved with all manner of bizarre spiritual entities and things only proceed to get weirder, deadlier, and more supernatural as the film moves forward.

As indicated by my purposefully vague, brief plot summary, the impact and emotional toll of the grieving process no doubt plays a large role in the thematic elements of Personal Shopper. More than most films dealing with the subject matter, this one tackles it in a very understated, almost passive manner. So much so that it runs the risk of becoming alienating towards audiences less accustomed towards its slower, subtle direction; but the combination of intelligent screenwriting and cautious pacing allows for a lot of breathing room. The two manage to work hand in hand surprisingly well, making this one of the most unique and singular horror-lite films released this year.

Despite my raving about it throughout most of this review, I fully acknowledge that Personal Shopper won’t be for everyone. Most viewers will probably be drawn in by its slow, deliberate pace and be really impacted in the end, whereas others will might find it’s tone to be alienating and too languid to leave much of a lasting impact. The best suggestion I can give would be for you to find out for yourself and give it a shot if what I’ve described sounds in any way interesting to you. Even while recognizing how inaccessible it might be for some, there’s more than enough to recommend in here for even the most casual of viewers. Just don’t go in expecting a typical ghost story or some token weepy melodrama, and you should be just fine.

 

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Rough Night

A recent trend that seems to be flourishing in modern Hollywood is the R-rated, female driven comedy. There have always been films of that sort in the guise of popular culture for at least a couple of decades, but in the last few years there appears to have been a massive influx of these types of comedies. This was most likely prompted by the surprise hit of Bridesmaids back in 2011, and has continued just as recently as last year with the pleasant surprise Bad Moms. Among the most recent iterations of this trend is Rough Night, a lightweight but entertaining summer diversion that boasts a pretty solid cast and mostly utilizes them well, whenever the film manages to stay focused on the jokes and isn’t trying to aim for anything outside of its creative boundaries.

As is the case with most modern comedies, the specifics of the plot aren’t super important. But to summarize quickly, Rough Night involves a bachelorette party held for Scarlett Johansson’s bride to be, and attended by an old group of college friends (Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer, respectively). Soon after the festivities start, things go south pretty quickly, and the majority of the film’s plot, as well as the humor, comes in the form of how awfully things turn out and the ideas everybody involved has in trying to get themselves out of the increasingly disastrous situation. A lot of the film’s strengths rest on the chemistry between all five leading ladies, and fortunately they’re all up to the task. There really isn’t a weak link among them and each one is given plenty of humor to work with, and nobody given the generic ‘stick in the mud’ unfunny role. Each one fulfills their roles perfectly well, and no one person aims to steal the show out from the others, with each actress given their proper share of the spotlight.

For all that Rough Night relies on the charms and chemistry of its five leads, the film occasionally seems content to fall back on obvious gags and raunchy humor, much to its detriment. While these sections don’t necessarily derail the film to the degree of something like the recent Baywatch adaptation, they do stick out like a sore thumb amidst the otherwise low-key, character-based humor that most of the structure is built upon.

Another regrettable tendency in regards to Rough Night’s handling and delivery of its humor is that it has a lot of repeated jokes and over-explaining of some otherwise surface level, obvious humor. Listing a few examples here would be redundant and likely ruin the impact when the jokes happen, but just take my word for it. Another irritating repeated trend (though this is something that by no means only impacts this one film specifically) is the long stretches of strained, tiresome improv and ad-libbing, most of which isn’t terribly clever and usually just distracts from the stakes of the actual plot going on. Again, it’s not something that only applies to this one film, but it’s a lazy habit that most modern comedies seem to suffer from, and it always feels at odds with the tone and style of the rest of the film whenever it’s used here.

All in all, Rough Night is a pretty fun time at the cinema. It’s certainly among the better R-rated mainstream comedies as of late, and elevated by a strong ensemble cast. Nothing revolutionary within the genre, but it gets the job done well enough and provides enough midbudget entertainment for those who need a smaller-scaled alternative to all the multi-million dollar spectacles competing for ticket prices. It’s getting released at arguably the perfect time of year for this sort of thing, so go check it out while the timing still feels right.

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It Comes at Night

God bless A24. I don’t usually tend to put a spotlight on specific film studios and/or companies in my reviews, but in this case I feel as if it’s warranted. Now, think of any really interesting independent drama, or an original and unique low-budget genre film that you’ve seen in the past couple of years, and there’s a good chance that it was released by A24. Their output in regards to the horror genre has been particularly impressive, ranging from critical darlings like last year’s The Witch, to more schlocky, guilty pleasure fare like The Monster, and then there’s whatever the hell was going on with Kevin Smith’s Tusk. Point being, they’ve been responsible for getting lots of refreshing content seen and enjoyed by both critics and audiences, and here we have their latest offering with It Comes at Night, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror mashup that will no doubt leave most general audiences members scratching their heads, but will also satisfy those looking for something a bit more unconventional and singular for their viewing experience.

As with most of my horror reviews as of late, I’ll try to keep the plot summary as brief and concise as possible as to let the true impact of the film be felt as best as possible. But to just cover the basics, It Comes at Night centers on a family of three living in an unspecified time in the near-ish future after a vaguely apocalyptic event has wiped out most of humanity. The three of them try to keep busy during the day and maintain their home in the safest possible lockdown at night. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem and not everything can go according to plan all the time, hence some conflict and tensions must arise sooner or later, and ninety minutes later, we have a feature film on our hands. To sum it up in a more casual manner, think of this film as an expansion on this infamous one sentence horror story: “The last man on earth hears a knock on the door.”

With such a limited setting and by extension, minimal cast involved, nailing all the central roles here is crucial, and It Comes at Night does just that. By now, Joel Edgerton is a fairly well known leading man, and does a more than capable job as the central patriarchal figure of this twisted domestic family setting. Carmen Ejogo also fares well here, handily redeeming herself after playing one of film history’s dumbest characters in Alien: Covenant. Rounding out the central trio is newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr, who more than capably adopts the most empathetic role here. And while I’m hesitant to even mention whether or not more actors show up in this, let’s just say that if any others appear in this film, they all do a very good job and convincingly add to the central conflict at hand.

Despite its lean running time of about an hour and a half, It Comes at Night is a pretty slow burn throughout most of it, and for what the film was ultimately going for, both tonally and in terms of the subject matter and thematic elements, it more than earns it. While the rather deliberate, unconventional pace might rub general audiences the wrong way (I dare not guess what the CinemaScore rating for this will be – would a C+ be too much to ask?), those willing to give it a chance and who are probably more familiar with films containing this sort of unnerving, dread-induced crawl forward will likely find a lot to appreciate here. Director Trey Edward Shults is only on his second feature with this puppy, but already he’s proven himself to be a talent to watch out for, with a particular knack for being able to depict a rather uncomfortable social scenario grow increasingly problematic and even potentially dangerous as time moves forward. This was true for his equally impressive debut feature Krisha, and definitely carries over here as well. Now the question is, which multi-million dollar franchise offering is this guy going to get suddenly tossed into?

Overall, It Comes at Night is a damn fine piece of modern genre filmmaking, and a breath of fresh air in what’s thus far been a pretty safe, generic summer at the movies. If you’re in the mood for an intelligent, original viewing experience, rounded out by some genuine thrills and tension, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for. Smart, complex, and told in a very tight, lean fashion, this fits right in with the creative and business model A24 as perfected for themselves over the last few years. Give these folks all your money, because they’ve certainly earned it.

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Baywatch

*that awkward moment when your “job” of being a film reviewer begins to actually feel like a job*

We all knew this one was coming. In an age of constant reboots, re-imaginings, and basically any known preexisting property with a recognizable brand name getting the feature film treatment, it was inevitable that Baywatch would soon be getting re-adapted into film form. And follow the trend of self-aware, borderline parodies of recognizable properties like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, the 2017 big screen adaptation of Baywatch – of course adapted from the popular television series of the same name –  hopes to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned franchises. But while this particular attempt at a knowingly tongue-in-cheek franchise revival ultimately falls short of the cleverness and charm that it aspires to, it’s not without it virtues, and manages to provide a fair amount of lowest common denominator, guilty pleasure chuckles. Make of that what you will.

Far and away, the best thing about Baywatch is its assembled cast. For all the problems this film has (and we’ll get to those later), the one consistently praise-worthy aspect throughout the entire thing is how the chemistry between all the major players keeps everything afloat (pun optional). Surprising absolutely nobody, it seemingly remains impossible for Dwayne Johnson to give a performance that’s not utterly charming and charismatic, and former Disney Channel alumni Zac Efron continues his recent trend of capable, self-deprecating comedic turns. But perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how well the female cast members all manage to fare. Actresses like Alexandra Daddario, IIfenesh Hadera, and Kelly Rohrbach, while serving in fairly underwritten parts, each manage to inject their roles with their own likable, charming presences – apart from obviously just being there to fulfill the requirements of mere eye candy, though there’s certainly no deficit in that department either, be it for the men or the women in this. For all that the humor itself might not always work, these performers sometimes manage to elevate it due to a very believable, natural group dynamic between them all.

All humor is subjective, folks. What might leave one individual completely cold and unmoved might bring another person to tears due to uncontrollable laughter. But what’s not subjective are things like wit, cleverness, and style – none of which are present in the humor of Baywatch. Now, I’m not suggesting that every film aspire to be the sharpest, most challenging comedic tour de force imaginable, but it wouldn’t hurt for this film to at least attempt to have any of the smarts that it aspires towards. Rather, it opts for the easy gag every time, and even sometimes drags its more raunchy set-pieces out long past their expiration dates. And while making the viewer uncomfortable is surely its goal in a few of these cases, it would help if the jokes themselves were funny at all to begin with, which many of them regrettably aren’t.

For all that Baywatch tries to be self-aware and constantly pokes fun at both itself and the source material that it’s based on, it does fall victim to what’s beginning to re-emerge as a problem for modern comedies once again, and that’s trying to force in a story that’s both serious and for the most part completely devoid of any attempts at humor. This is something that’s plagued most mainstream US comedies from the past couple of decades, where the actual comedy in the film sometimes comes across as window dressing to hang onto an otherwise completely predictable, uninteresting story – and Baywatch is unfortunately no different. While it makes sense to have some sort of meat on the bones of this flick, there’s a very noticeable separation between the ‘story scenes’ and the ‘comedy scenes’, each of which take on entirely different moods and styles, and neither of which fit in very well with one another. As I mentioned, this isn’t a problem specific to this one film, but it doesn’t make it any less distracting or unnecessary.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for with Baywatch. I’m not usually a fan of the whole “just turn off your brain and go with it” scapegoat, but if there’s anything playing in theaters right now that requires such a descriptor, it’s this puppy. While the film aims for 21 Jump Street levels of self-awareness and satire, its efforts are often stunted by the lousy writing and occasional over-reliance on crude and shock humor. But the assembled cast does one hell of a job picking up the slack from the storytelling and joke departments, and manages to just barely salvage the whole production. If this seems up your alley, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t please its target audience. Just don’t go in expecting anything other than exactly what its advertised as, and you should be good to go.

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The Promise

Time for a history lesson, folks. During the final years of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, the presence of the Armenian citizens was seen as undesirable to the forthcoming Republic of Turkey, which would lead to the deportation and eventual extermination of roughly 1.5 Armenians from 1915 until 1923. This is a fact that the nation of Turkey still denies ever took place, even to this day (this is at least according to the title cards at the end of this film). There’s quite a bit more to it than my brief summation, but for brevity’s sake and a point of reference, I’ve just covered the basics. Anyhow, this all serves merely as window dressing to hang a belated Titanic-inspired love triangle plot on in The Promise, a well-meaning and competently made, but ultimately misguided piece of historical fiction that seeks to wrap the awful history being depicted into a more accessible, easily digestible package; for both better and worse.

For starters, one cannot fault The Promise in the area of its casting. While there’s a revolving door of supporting characters constantly coming and going herein, the central three figureheads in the story remain the same throughout. In the lead role is Oscar Isaac as an Armenian man caught up in all the chaos (props to the film for actually having an Armenian protagonist to experience all the horrors with) and the very skilled up-and-comer adds another solid role to his expanding repertoire. Also present is the reliably charismatic Christian Bale as an American journalist covering the crisis while also contributing to the safe relocation of the refugees caught up in everything, because topical! And then there’s newcomer Charlotte Le Bon as the woman that both Isaac and Bale are equally striving for the affections of, amidst all the crisis. Of the three, she’s the one your average viewer has probably seen the least amount of work from (myself included), so it’s only natural that her performance would stand out the most from the leads, though the fact that she capably holds her own against two fairly well known co-stars is an impressive feat in and of itself.

For a film that covers such an expansive period of time (at least seven years, from what I was able to understand), the pacing of The Promise feels just a bit off for the most part. There’s a really complicated real life story happening within the film’s central narrative, but it’s all told in extremely broad strokes and Hollywood-like cliches, just to make room for not one, but two(!) love triangles that we keep coming back to. Add to that all the constant exposition dumps, as well as the occasional over-reliance on narration, used primarily to gloss over important events and character details. Elements like this can’t help but suggest the possibility that the film was probably meant to originally be closer to three hours in length, rather than the two hours and ten minutes it’s at now, probably due to a heavy editing process. This would help explain why it feels so choppy and rushed in certain areas, despite crossing the two hour mark in its final form.

As I mentioned earlier, much of The Promise comes across as a Titanic wannabe in regards of its blending of tragic romance and historical tragedy, and oh man does it ever come across as forced and wholly inappropriate at times. While I fully understand the purpose of a historical fiction is to provide a more easily accessible character-driven prism to view the events from, this film seems to take it a bit too far in some areas, and often gets lost in the minutia of the dueling romances amidst the literal holocaust that’s taking place right outside of the frame. Like, who the hell cares about Oscar Isaac’s blue balls and broken heart when his own people are being brutally massacred by the thousands? Granted, it’s not too distracting from the overall narrative, and the utter gruesomeness of the Armenian genocide is rarely watered down or not dealt with properly. But the constant shifting from one tone to the other gets tiresome at points, and runs the risk of diluting the overall impact of the story.

At the end of the day, The Promise is a perfectly watchable and mostly harmless piece of historical romance fluff. At best, it serves as a solid acting showcase for its three central performers, and might make certain viewers become more aware of an attempted extermination that took place over a full century ago (I myself cannot claim total ignorance regarding the events taking place in the film, but that may not be true for everybody). But you just can’t help feeling like there was a lot of wasted potential here to either strengthen the fictional dramatic narrative of the film, or place more emphasis on the atrocities that occurred at the time. Instead, we have a final product that clumsily tries to balance the two, but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. A fine attempt, but it doesn’t quite get to either where it wanted or needed to go.

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Logan

Well everyone, it looks like we’ve finally reached the end of our seventeen year-long journey with the original X-Men cast. Over the course of I-lost-count-of-how-many films in the X-Men franchise, Fox finally gives fans the hard-R sendoff to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine that most of us didn’t even know we wanted, in the form of the brutal, unapologetic neo-Western Logan. Tonally and aesthetically, this film has less in common with any of the previous entries in the series and more kinship with the likes of Unforgiven – heck, the title itself (one word, name of the main character) is even a reference to the classic Western Shane, which is seen playing on television at one point during the film and is even quoted a handful of times. And perhaps most fortunate of all is how this film holds up as a standalone feature without any connection to the previous X-flicks, since the studio seems to have given up on keeping the continuity in the franchise the least bit sensible for what’s been at least a decade now. Just sit back and enjoy the ride without trying to think of how it fits into the larger X-Men universe and all that business.

Set in the not-too-distant quasi-dystopic future of 2029, Logan finds its titular antihero as an aging, barely functional loner that’s working as a limo driver on the US-Mexico boarder because topical!, and also as one of the last reaming mutants still alive, due to deliberately ambiguous circumstances. Soon enough, trouble finds Wolverine once again as he – along with an also significantly aged Charles Xavier, living in hiding from the government and in the care of Logan – is tasked with overseeing the safe, speedy transportation of a mutant child (known simply as X-23) to an alleged safe haven and out of the hands of a dangerous military organization that’s been seeking her out. Immediately queue dozens of expandable henchmen for Hugh Jackman to brutally hack and slash his way through, and we have ourselves a movie, folks – and a pretty darn good one at that.

Thanks to all of the success Fox’s own Deadpool enjoyed last year due to its much hyped R rating, the door has now been opened for Logan to take a crack at it, albeit with a more serious tone, and by God do they take full advantage of that. Nevermind bearing witness to seeing Patrick Stewart cussing like a sailor all throughout, Logan finally delivers on the promise of seeing some truly berserk, wrenching action sequences all centered around Wolverine and the damage his metal claws are capable of. But what’s most surprising is not just the degree of the action itself, but rather the weight and impact it bears. This isn’t just pithy, “awesome” gore-hungry nonsense, but at times seriously uncomfortable and messy to deal with. It subversively draws you into a more (for lack of a better term) “comic book” lite feel, but all the action turns out to be much more grounded and nasty than expected. The degree of which, mind you, brings us to the next section of the review…

While all of the hard-R carnage and more downbeat tone certainly aid in making Logan feel more distinctive and singular than its predecessors, I’ll be the first to admit that a little bit of that goes a long way here. Because there are times in here that, like a lesser season of Game of Thrones, everything starts to become a little predictable in how miserable it all gets. After a while, it gets to a point where a noticeable formula begins to emerge within the individual vignettes that arise from the film, i.e. every time a situation arises, just imagine the worst, most grim possible outcome for said scenario, and that’s probably how it’s going to wind up. Once you notice the pattern of “Logan, Xavier, & X-23 show up somewhere / the bad guys follow them and kill *everyone* in sight / main trio barely escapes with their lives / repeat”, it starts to wear thin just a tad. Also worth mentioning is how some of the earlier combat scenes can get a little over-edited and shaky-cam heavy on occasion. But then again, if we saw with perfect clarity each time Wolverine’s claws went through some poor asshole’s face, it might run the risk of getting stale, and fortunately the spectacle of seeing some seriously hardcore Wolverine violence never gets old, even with Logan’s near 2.5 hour runtime.

While at first glance it would seem unusual to end such an otherwise lightweight and kid-friendly film series like X-Men with such a glum, brooding closer like Logan, it’s all well-earned and appropriately handled enough that it ultimately feels right. Much like the audience that’s grown up with this series, the characters in the films themselves have also grown up and matured right alongside of each other. If you’re just in the mood for the exact same thing you’ve seen dozens of times before at this point, the you’re better off just re-watching your Blu-Ray of X-Men: Apocalypse again, since this film really caps the series off in an unconventional yet effective route. At a time where it seemed like we might be starting to really get sick of this series, Logan gives us the catharsis that such a long-running series truly deserves, and we as audience members needed from it.

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Get Out

Fuckin’ white people, man.

When it was first announced that Jordan Peele, of the comedy duo and hugely enjoyable Comedy Central sketch comedy series Key & Peele was going to tackle a low budget horror-comedy for his directorial debut, many people were understandably curious about its prospects, considering Peele didn’t seem to have a wealth of experience behind the camera, at least from what it widely known already. Fast forward to a year and a half later and we now have Get Out, which proves to be not only a solid standalone film in its own right, but also a startlingly fresh and wonderfully unusual genre outing, and from a creator that many people were not expecting.

The plot concerns the interracial couple of Chris and Rose (played with a considerable amount of chemistry by Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams), who are going on a trip to introduce the African American Chris to Rose’s family.  This at first is only met with a slight amount of hesitation, but grows into more of a pressing concern for Chris, as some well-meaning yet uncomfortable pleasantries at first eventually give way to more dire circumstances – and if that extremely vague summary leaves you confused, then all the better, since going into Get Out with as little knowledge as possible will only enrich the experience of watching it. Casting-wise the film doesn’t have a weak link, with the aformentioned couple really lending a solid anchor to the sometimes outrageous proceedings. And while the film is pure horror from start to finish, Jordan Peele’s background in comedy – particularly of the satirical brand – allows him to insert some pretty amusingly uncomfortable and well-handled setpieces of a more comedic nature. Normally these types of moments might grind the pace of the film to a screeching halt, but Peele is skilled enough to have it all flow together nicely, and the contrasting moments of fear and humor compliment one another very well.

As lofty as the ambitions Jordan Peele is aiming for with Get Out are, it does at times suffer from a lot of problems which many first-time features are inflicted with, in that it sometimes bites off more than it can chew thematically, or suffers in a few technical areas. Namely, a slightly jumbled pace heading into the third act, and some of the more action-heavy moments during the climax coming across as rushed or not entirely well handled. That, and some extremely out of place jump scares early on – granted, those might’ve been placed there intentionally, as a sort of parody of that type of thing. But if that was the intention, it really isn’t communicated well enough and those moments do stick out in a film that otherwise does such a good job of avoiding those kinds of groan-worthy tropes. Of course these are all minor criticisms for sure, but these are smaller details that with Jordan Peele will almost certainly be able to improve as he gains more experience directing in the future.

On the whole, Get Out is a pretty solid piece of pulp-horror filmmaking, and a damn intriguing debut feature by Jordan Peele of all people. Who knew he had it in him? While it’s not perfect, there’s a lot more on its mind than most films of this sort ever dream of aspiring towards, and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing whatever Peele is able to conjure up next. If this film is any indication, he has quite a few truly outstanding films in him somewhere, and while Get Out just falls short of greatness, it still hints at something greater to come from this fresh new voice the filmic world has just been introduced to.

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