Capsule Reviews: Personal Shopper; Hounds of Love; Okja; What Happened to Monday; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule reviews of Okja, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

France. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lee, Nora von Waldstätten.

In case It Comes at Night didn’t slake your thirst for ambiguity, might I recommend Personal Shopper? Starring Kristen Stewart as a young American bumming around Paris, working as a PA to an obnoxious celebrity and waiting for her recently-deceased twin brother to contact her from beyond the veil—oops, I probably should have mentioned that the sibs are mediums—this film is harder to interpret than phone poll data for a special election in Alabama.

Stewart’s generally subdued approach to her craft serves her well here, manifesting in-character as disaffection and cynicism, and she particularly shines during a series of second-act sequences in which her primary co-star is an iPhone. This is actually a lot more gripping that it might sound. Indeed, without the supernatural element Olivier Assays (who previously collaborated with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria) has crafted a canny and effective thriller. But the ghosts add an extra dimension, and their presence makes Stewart feel haunted in more ways than one.

I do have to say that the final act presents a puzzle that continues to confound well after the film ends, and that while I like the interpretation that seems to prevail among the film’s fans, there is something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s not something that bugs me a lot in the end, however.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love

Australia. Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Currie, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas.

The tendency for male filmmakers to draw a line between “feminine empowerment” and “cheap exploitation” probably existed before I Spit on Your Grave. Ben Young’s nasty psych-thriller Hounds of Love works squarely in that tradition but the feminism just about overpowers the prurience. The setup is very basic: a serial-killing married couple, John (Stephen Currie) and Evie (Emma Booth, of Netflix’s excellent Aussie import Glitch), operate out of Perth in the late ’80s (the setting allowing for a montage set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” one of the weirdest clichés to manifest overt the past couple of years). Their latest victim is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teen with separated parents, who quickly realizes she needs to play her captors off each other to survive.

While several elements didn’t work for me—it seemed very weird that the killers would choose to target victims in their own neighborhood (they literally live two or streets away from Vicki’s mum)—what made the film was Evie’s characterization and Booth’s performance in the role. Evie is clearly damaged and disturbed but she’s also clearly a victim of John’s emotional and physical abuse. Vicki may be the film’s nominal Final Girl, but Evie is the character the audience roots for. I also liked how the relationship between John and Evie reflected dynamic between Vicki’s parents (note how much of an ass her father is).

Okja

Okja

United States/South Korea. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Ahn Seo-huyn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In theory, any director could make a film about a young girl’s quest to save her genetically engineered pet superpig from the evil multinational globalcorp that created her (the pig, obviously, not the girl). But only Bong Joon-ho could make that film in this particular way. By turns adorable and cynical, idealistic and fatalistic, Okja is a damn-near-perfect examination of life under predatory capitalism, where the difference between life and death can be found in the margin between profit and loss.

Bong pulls off a truly awe-inspiring juggling act. Tilda Swinton slips easily into the villain position, a dual role as a ruthless yet charming corporate CEO and the less-charismatic twin sister she overthrew, backed up by an opportunistic corporate weasel (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and a washed-up, alcoholic TV presenter (Jake Gyllenhaal). On the side of Good, Paul Dano leads a team of animal-rights activists who mean well but don’t always end up doing the right thing. But Ahn Seo-huyn provides the film’s heart and soul as Mija, whose bond with the superpig carries her through a whirlwind of exhilarating set pieces.

This is a lot for a film to take in, even a two-hour one, and it’s to Bong’s credit that he’s able to keep most of the pins in the air with grace. Gyllenhaal’s performance, an ugly mess of unnecessary hamming and funny voices, is the major flaw here, and yet he succeeds in lending genuine menace to the film’s most horrifying and heartbreaking sequence.

What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday

United Kingdom/France/Belgium. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pål Sverre Hagen, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe.

It would be hard to say no to seven Noomi Rapaces even in the worst of circumstances, and What Happened to Monday is surprisingly good. Set in a dystopian near-future where multiple pregnancies become more common, leading to rampant overpopulation, leading to laws limiting families to one child per, the film places Rapace in the roles of identical septuplets. Each named after a day of the week, the septs share a single legal identity (each one goes out into the world on her namesake day while the other six remain in hiding), a workable scheme until, as you can probably guess from the title, Monday goes missing.

It’s a lot of fun watching Rapace kick ass in seven different wigs, but what sets Monday apart is its commitment to its setting. Too many science-fiction actioners use their fantastical elements as little more than excuses to set up fights, chases, and explosions. Monday actually considers the difficult questions it poses. The Child Allocation Bureau and its supporters are evil, no doubt about that, with its policies bordering on eugenics. Yet the film consistently reminds the viewer about the overpopulation problem, and the final sequences explicitly address the consequences of nobody willing to make difficult decisions.

If all of that seems a bit heavy, you can always sit back and watch the characters hit each other, shoot each other, and blow stuff up. Rapace gets a number of impressive action sequences while never coming off as a superhero (or septet of them), the villains are suitably nasty, and Willem Dafoe gets some tender moments in flashbacks. Pity director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t convince Glenn Close to pick an accent and stick with it for the entire film; she’s been on a roll lately.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

United States. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

The transition is complete. The Force Awakens reset the franchise, back to basics; Rogue One tested the boundaries of what a Star Wars film could do and be outside the framework of the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi progresses from these, in many ways inventing a new kind of Star Wars movie, one that acknowledges the Campbellian principles of the George Lucas films (and of Force Awakens by extension) while forging a new, modern mythic path, one more morally complex than we’ve seen in the series proper.

That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Everything you expect from this movie, it provides: exhilarating space battles, thrilling acts of derring-do, explorations of the outer space and inner spaces of that galaxy far, far away. Poe Dameron remains the hotheaded wisecracker, Rey the plucky, determined seeker, General Organa the grave tactician, Finn the reluctant hero, Kylo Ren the uncontrollable villain, General Hux the rabid ranter. Nor does the film neglect to riff on the series’ classic set-pieces, most effectively when it places Luke Skywalker in the role of reluctant teacher, the very position he thrust Yoda into in 1980.

But the film also challenges (an observation I must attribute to Channel Awesome’s Rob Walker). New character Rose Tico serves as the Resistance’s conscience. Luke has become a tragic figure in the classical sense. Fan complaints about the hypocrisy of the Jedi become canon. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in Canto Bight becomes an indictment of the Star Wars class system.

To observe that The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect film feels like dredging up cliché, but it must be admitted. Rian Johnson doesn’t integrate his visual style as seamlessly with the series’ visual grammar as J.J. Abrams did. Benicio del Toro needs to reign in his twitchier tendencies. And, of course, like every other tentpole picture of the last couple years, it’s just too damn long.

Yet ultimately The Last Jedi is a triumph: for Johnson; for the cast, especially Mark Hammill and the late Carrie Fisher; for Kathleen Kennedy and Disney/Lucasfilm as a whole. It will likely stand as the apex of the new trilogy, as it’s hard to believe the Abrams-helmed Episode IX will surpass it. My heart will always lie with The Empire Strikes Back, but in realistic terms, The Last Jedi is as good as a Star Wars movie can get.

Capsule Reviews: November 2017

This month: Justice League, Baby Driver, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and more

Justice League

Justice League

United States. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds.

I like grim, dark cinema as much as the next guy. Hell, probably more. But when your antagonist is named Steppenwolf, your monsters are called Parademons, and your McGuffins are the Mother Boxes…maybe you want to make sure you’re not taking things too seriously. Especially if your design is so ugly you’ve somehow managed to turn Amber Heard into an H.R. Giger sculpture.

Still, that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw. The big issue is that the arrival of Steppenwolf should be an awesome event, yet for all the film’s ponderousness, the stakes don’t feel any greater than a bunch of motion-captured CGI constructs punching each other in front of a green screen. And it goes on like this forever, until Superman finally gets his act together and joins the fray.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. The last-minute drafting of Joss Whedon provides the proceedings with a much-needed injection of levity. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman steals most of the action sequences, while Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash steal most of the dialog scenes. Most crucially, when Bruce Wayne states that Superman is “more human than I am,” one gets the sense that someone on the creative team has finally figured out what all these characters mean. Sadly, it’s all too little, too late.

But at least we’re inching toward the DC Comics crossover movie the characters deserve and the fans have been clamoring for.

Bitch

Bitch

United States. Directed by Marianna Palka. Starring Jason Ritter, Jamie King, Marianna Palka.

“Mothers are people too” shouldn’t really be a radical, subversive statement…not at all, especially not in 2017. But we have literal Nazis in the government and the President retweeting white nationalist groups, so we’re clearly living in Evan Dorkin’s Fuckworld (an alternate universe exactly like the one we used to live in, with the only difference being that everything’s totally fucked). So maybe it’s a good time to remind ourselves of things that are basically common sense.

Sadly, Bitch turns out to be less subversive than I’d hoped. I love the basic premise: Jill, a put-upon stay-at-home-mom to four adorable but unruly kids, whose philandering husband Bill refuses to let her take any other role in their relationship, finally snaps and takes on the personality of a wild dog. I had a great time watching the clueless Bill, who does not even know where his children go to school, flail (and fail) at the most basic tasks of child-raising.

Unfortunately, that’s just a series of jokes, not an actual narrative. When the story does develop, it coagulates around Bill instead of Jill; I understand why—the sudden absence of the glue that holds the household together is a great source of drama. This culminates in a redemption plot for Bill (which I felt he hadn’t earned) and something of a jarring happy ending. I, personally, would have found a comeuppance more satisfying.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver

United States. Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González.

The bad news is that Edgar Wright’s latest film is a classic example of style over substance; the good news is, when you have style like this, you don’t need substance.

Baby Driver is probably the best car movie I have ever seen not directed by George Miller (although I must confess I have never seen any of the Fast and Furious series), with Wright staging his chase scenes like parkour with autos, set to the best assortment of vintage and retro-sounding classics this side of Quentin Tarantino. There’s also a story—a young driving prodigy (Ansel Elgort) seeks to get out from under the thumb of a controlling crime boss and abscond with the waitress he loves—but it’s little more than an excuse for the stunt sequences and a series of amazing performances from some awesome actors, such as Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, and yes, Kevin Spacey.

That’s not saying that Baby Driver is perfect. For example, Lily James (who plays the love interest) has charm to spare, but it takes more than charm to cover up the fact that her character is little more than a plot device. But Baby Driver is so awesome that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Probably my favorite film of the year, so far.

The Square

The Square

Sweden. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary.

The titular Square is an art installation, a square set into the floor with a nearby plaque explaining: The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligationsThe Square‘s writer-director, Ruben Östlund (who’s actually installed Squares in real life), describes it as “a symbolic place where you’re reminded of our common responsibility and the social contract,” and he’s populated his film with personalities who could use such reminders.

Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a Swedish museum who’s just acquired the Square, is one such individual. A friend of mine once told me that it was possible for a very likable person to be “nice” without necessarily being “good,” and that distinction fits Christian. He’s not an unpleasant man, and he certainly seems to mean well, but he also easily falls prey to the sort of selfishness that its practitioners find very easily to rationalize; they don’t even realize they’re not doing the right thing.

Östlund uses Christian’s moral fractures and his journey through the world of bleeding-edge modern art to explore one of my favorite themes, the difference between who we believe ourselves to be and who we actually are. The Square has a tendency to meander through its picaresque structure; for example, none of the main characters figure heavily in the film’s most widely-discussed scene (a performance artist doing an uncomfortably accurate impression of a monkey at a fancy-dress party). Put bluntly, there’s too much seemingly aimless drifting during the film’s two-and-a-half hours. In compensation, The Square offers up several moments of sublime absurdity that make the overall experience worthwhile.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

United States. Directed by Macon Blair. Starring Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, Devon Graye, Jane Levy, David Yow.

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin represented a breakthrough not just for Saulnier, but also for his lead actor and longtime buddy, Macon Blair. I found Blair’s own directorial début, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, heavily reminiscent of Blue Ruin, albeit not in a bad way: they both take place in similar environments and feature similar characters. Blair’s film, while somewhat dark, doesn’t borrow Blue Ruin’s bleakness, opting instead for a gallows humor not entirely removed from the Coen brothers’ dark crime-dramedies.

World-weary nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) and lonely weapons enthusiast Tony (Elijah Wood) experience the world’s weirdest meet-cute when the former takes the latter to task for allowing his dog to shit on her lawn. But they end up forging a surprisingly strong relationship when she asks him to help her track down the thieves (led by Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow) who burgled her house. To say they end up over their heads is an understatement.

Blair doesn’t always keep the tone on the right side of the humor-serious line, and Wood has trouble distinguishing between “endearingly awkward” and “creepily awkward.” But the milieu works, with the backwater setting serving as a character unto itself, a run-down slice of Americana that still possesses enough hope to get its inhabitants through the day.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

United States. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell.

If Three Billboards only consisted of Frances McDormand (as a mother frustrated with the lack of interest the police show in solving her daughter’s murder) squaring off against Woody Harrelson (as a popular sheriff whose force has been beset with allegations of racially-oriented brutality), it would be worth the ticket price.

But writer/director Martin McDonagh isn’t content with mere thespian fireworks. Three Billboards is an unflinching examination of rural Middle America, a community as familiar as the small Midwestern towns many of us hail from. Here, nobody likes change and the first rule is “don’t rock the boat.” McDonagh wears his themes a bit too obviously on his sleeve—Sam Rockwell’s character, a drunken, racist deputy and Harrelson’s Number Two, is named “Jason Dixon.” The subtext should be obvious.

But it’s ultimately all in a good cause, as the film forces the viewer to confront the possibility that the bad guy just might be as human as you are. And yes, McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all on fire, as are John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin (here playing a character not entirely removed from her signature role as Mrs. Mac on Always Sunny), and a dozen others.

The film cuts quick, and cuts deep, and it hurts more than we expect, because we recognize we’re looking at ourselves. Hands down, one of the top films of 2017.

The Girl with All the Gifts

I Also Watched…

The Girl with All the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy, 2016). It’s rare enough that a year gives us one good zombie movie, but 2016 gave us two great ones. While Train to Busan took a back-to-basics, balls-to-the-wall attitude to zombie mayhem, The Girl with All the Gifts is more thoughtful and less action-oriented. It takes the time to consider what might cause zombie outbreaks (although here they’re called “hungries” and they have more in common with 28 Days Later’s rage-zombies) and whether such unfortunates have a right to exist. Plus, it’s stacked with powerful performances, particularly Sennia Nenua as the titular Girl, whose biology may hold the key to defeating the “hungries,” and Glenn Close as a scientist willing to go to any length to find that key. Overall, a great film that wants to scare you and make you think in equal measure.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far.

A scene from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
United States/United Kingdom. Directed by Burr Steers, 2016. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Boothe, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Suki Waterhouse. 108 minutes. 5/10

The inevitable film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 cult novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally sees the light of day at the hands of writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). Jane Austen’s seminal tale of marriage and manners plays out against a Victorian Britain plagued by brain-eating undead, with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) leading a quintet of ninja sisters and Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, Control) serving the Royal Army “at large” by rooting out zombie infestations before they spread.

Like most notable zombie fiction, PPZ largely uses the undead as an environmental hazard, an important fact of life for the characters but not the source of the main conflict. As in Austen, the major narrative arc follows the headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Darcy as they gradually fall in love despite making a series of bad impressions on each other. The film reinterprets Austen’s battles of words as literal, impeccably-choreographed battles.

While Steers often develops his themes without subtlety (for example, when Elizabeth’s sister Jane predicts the former would “relinquish her sword for a ring” from “the right man,” she retorts, “The right man wouldn’t ask me to”), the film does contain some measure of wit, particularly in the form of supporting characters such as the vain and obsequious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who, in a bravura performance) and the legendary swordswoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones, sporting a strangely alluring eyepatch). The historical setting and period dialog brings out the best in the ensemble, which also features Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire), and Charles Dance (GoT again).

Other aspects of the production aren’t as strong. Despite its jump-scares and plentiful gore, the film lacks the conviction necessary to work as a horror story; by pulling a crucial early punch, Steers indicates that he has no intention of killing any of the major characters. When he focuses on invincible protagonists, throngs of nameless cannon-fodder extras, and massive battle sequences, PPZ feels more like a modern superhero movie (complete with mid-credit stinger) than anything else. Unfortunately, the editing and poor digital effects make action scenes look like they belong in a video game.

Similarly, the plot weakens when it emerges from its drawing rooms and cellars. The film fails to clearly convey how zombies and their plague operate in its fictional universe, the script mishandles an important and unusual subplot that develops across the second act, and the audience should figure out the big climactic twist at least half an hour before it shocks Elizabeth.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is great fun when its characters spar with words and weapons, but not so much when it strays from Austen’s original template. The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far, and the other elements can’t make up the rest of the distance.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES poster

Sicario

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama. It’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist.

United States. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2015. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya. 121 minutes. 9/10

I can’t think of any metric by which anyone can claim that the War on Drugs has been a success. The cartels, having expanded from South America into Central America and Mexico, are busy turning those countries into replicas of their homelands, corruptocracies ruled by whoever can afford to pay the powers that be to look the other way. Demand for the cartels’ product, driven by consumers north of the Mexico-United States border, doesn’t seem to have diminished. Nativist politicans trade on ugly ethnic stereotypes to gain popularity. American diplomacy works on the “son-of-a-bitch” system perfected during the Cold War; resentment towards our nation festers as we make alliances with what we hope is the lesser of two evils.

This is the backdrop of Denis Villenueve’s crime action-thriller Sicario. FBI Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a multi-agency taskforce led by military consultant (a fancy way of saying “CIA agent”) Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Latin American intelligence asset Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Their goal is to take down notorious drug lords Manuel Díaz and Fausto Alarcón.

Villenueve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan give their story a structure similar to Apocalypse Now, with Macer taking the role of the soldier who thinks she’s tough, but soon finds her perceived toughness inadquate for her survival. Graver and Gillick aren’t tough or hard men; they’re sociopaths and psychopaths, for whom the means justify the ends. In such an environment, idealism rots like the dismembered, defiled bodies she sees hanging from the viaducts of Ciudad Juárez.

The entire cast shines–even minor characters such as Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) as a CIA spook and Maximiliano Hernández (The Americans) as a cartel menial–but Blunt and del Toro command all the attention. Blunt perfectly embodies the balance of toughness and vulnerability that plagues too many actresses trying to pull off contrived “strong female characters,” while del Toro is one of the scariest dead-eyed psychos since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

The ensemble helps to keep the production grounded when Sheridan’s screenplay lapses too far into absurdist territory. The performances fit well with Villenueve’s brutal direction and stark yet beautiful cinematography courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provies a churning, queasy score that often induces feelings similar to nausea, all the better to maintain unease in the audience.

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama; it’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning of what will come if we continue to course we’re on. It’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO poster.

Self/less

It may lack ambition and fail to follow up on its more intriguing premises, but as an action-thriller it’s entertaining and boosted by fine performances.

United States. Directed by Tarsem Singh, 2015. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber. 117 minutes.

Self/less stars Ben Kingsley as Damien Hale, a dying New York real estate mogul, who makes a Faustian deal with creepy Randian scientist Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright shares a dream with Steve Martin’s character in The Man with Two Brains, who foresaw “a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.” To this end, the scientist arranges to kill Hale’s diseased body but transplant his consciousness into the younger, sexier, more athletic, and less cancer-ridden body of Ryan Reynolds.

Albright assures his client than Hale 2.0 was grown in a lab–which, of course, means that it wasn’t. The new Hale realizes this when he starts having visions of being  War II vet with a young wife and sick daughter. On the plus side, it turns out he has access to his body’s former occupant’s élite military training, which will aid him in his quest to find out what the hell is going on, and, not incidentally, tear Albright and his organization a new asshole.

The bad news about Self/less is that it isn’t as thoughtful as I hoped it would be. The good news is that’s really not a problem, as the film has its own particular charms–and anyway, I already have a recent, intelligent “body-swapping to help a disadvantaged daughter” movie under my belt; that would be Advantageous.

Director Tarsem Singh (The CellThe Fall, and of course the music video for “Losing My Religion”) envisions the screenplay, by Spanish writers David and Àlex Pastor as a bit of a take on The Bourne Identity (hunky guy with a vague identity uses fighting skills he doesn’t quite know about to take down a shadowy agency who won’t leave him alone), with a bit of The Guest thrown in for good measure when Hale 2.0 tracks down the family of his former body. None of this is particularly original, admittedly, and the film’s plot development settles into a rote familiarity.

This didn’t surprise me. Singh doesn’t really do substance. This is, after all, the guy who asked audiences to accept Jennifer Lopez as a brilliant child psychologist with a minor in virtual reality mind-melds. What Singh does do is style, and he does style very well. Self/less is a gorgeous film, brilliantly designed and expertly staged action sequences. The car chases, in particular, are things of beauty. I do sincerely hope that the recent trend in coherent film action continues and overtakes the “if I shake the camera hard enough no one will notice that I never bothered to learn my craft” methods practiced by Michael Bay’s acolytes.

It helps that the filmmakers have assembled a strong cast well suited for the material. Kingsley gets Damien 1.0’s smug cockiness just right, even if he does struggle with an overwrought Brooklyn accent. Reynolds will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor, but he does provide a continuity of character with Kingsley, and every so often he shows hints of range one wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Goode understands he’s playing a Bond villain and adjusts his performance accordingly. The emotional heart of the film comes in two supporting performances: the great Victor Garber (Alias) as Hale 1.0’s longtime business partner and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Hale’s estranged environmentalist daughter.

Self/less is action movie comfort food. True, it lacks real narrative ambition and doesn’t follow up on its more intriguing science-fiction premises, jettisoning them in favor of more overt and predictable emotional manipulation. But sometimes a taste of the familiar is exactly what you need.

SELF/LESS poster.

The Guest

A fresh, exciting action thriller with a retro vibe

United States, 2014. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser. 100 minutes.

Filmmaker Adam Wingard began his career making so-called “mumblegore” films in the low-budget, naturalistic vein as his frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg, but 2011’s You’re Next saw him adapt a unabashedly “retro” and less lo-fi style similar to that of colleague Ti West. Wingard’s latest effort, The Guest, continues in the same direction.

The Peterson family are struggling with the recent death of their son Caleb, a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan, when a young man appears on their doorstep. He gives his name as David Collins and claims to have been a good friend and fellow soldier of Caleb’s, and was with him when he died. Caleb’s dying wish was for David to visit his family after his discharge, to look after them and tell them how much their son loved them. With nowhere else to go and no real plan for the future, the Peterson parents insist David stay with them for a few days, an offer he reluctantly takes them up on.

As David integrates himself into the family unit, befriending daughter Anna’s peer group and helping son Luke cope with bullies, it soon becomes clear that David is not what–or who–he seems. The Guest gradually escalates from family drama to suspense thriller to full-blown action movie, complete with explosions and fully automatic gunfire. But Wingard and longtime screenwriting partner Simon Barrett keep the scale low and the story grounded. Instead of delivering an over-the-top extravaganza, Wingard maintains a tight focus on the dynamic between David and the Petersons. This is a story not about the awesomeness of violence but its corrupting and poisoning effect.

The effect is similar to John Carpenter’s low-scale action films such as Assault on Precinct 13, a parallel reinforced by Steve Moore’s arpeggiated-synth score and a soundtrack featuring Goth acts such as Love and Rockets, Clan of Xymox, and the Sisters of Mercy. (Even the titles join the fun, being printed in Albertus, Carpenter’s signature font.)

Apart from Wingard’s direction, The Guest also serves as a showcase for its lead actor, Dan Stevens (late of Downton Abbey). In playing David, he keeps a tight rein on the titular Guest’s emotions, always kind and smiling but occasionally showing glimpses of the violence roiling beneath the surface. This is best displayed in a chilling scene where David starts out telling Luke not to let bullies pick on him and ending with him advising his charge to burn his enemies’ houses down if defending himself doesn’t get them off his case.

Stevens provides the film’s center and anchor but all of the performances that orbit his are strong, especially Maika Moore and Brendan Meyer, respectively, as Anna and Luke. Also watch out for the great Lance Reddick (of Oz and Fringe) as a determined military officer and a brief appearance from AJ Bowen, the fourth member of the Wingard/West/Swanberg alliance.

The Guest is another excellent entry in Wingard’s increasingly impressive oevure, and it has much to offer fans of horror, thrillers, and action films. Indeed, I’d name it one of the best genre films of 2014. Look it up.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

Snowpiercer

If there’s any justice in the universe, history will remember Snowpiercer as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix.

South Korea. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2013. Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes.

Of all the possible ways the tattered remnants of humanity could survive a global Hoth-pocalypse, “on a train” doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option. But that’s the option Joon-ho Bong chose to explore in Snowpiercer, a very loose adaptation of an early-’80s French graphic novel.

Seventeen years after a botched attempt to counteract global climate change causes a world-wide ice age that kills almost every living thing on the planet, the last few living humans travel round the world on the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion locomotive. Society has degenerated to become a literal dystopia-in-a-box (well, series of boxes): a highly regimented class system with a place for everything and everything in its place. The poor live in squalor in the tail cars; the well-to-do dwell in the lap of luxury towards the front; and in the engine car, Wilford, the Great Engineer, rules over them all. The posh Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) periodically visits the train’s slums to dispense justice and tell the urchins who live there how lucky they are that they get to live here at all.

But rebellion is in the air, led by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and his protege Curtis (Chris Evans). They plan to abduct Namgoong “Nam” Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug-addled tech who designed the train’s security systems, and use his knowledge to force their way to the front of the train and finally depose Wilford.

Cinematic history, I’d like to introduce you to Snowpiercer, the film that will be remembered as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix if there’s any justice in the universe.

One of the axes you’ve probably seen me grind on this site in the past (and believe me, I plan to grind it even more in the future) is how Nobody Makes Science Fiction Movies Like They Used to Anymore. Science fiction was once known as “the literature of ideas.” Now it’s just a flimsy excuse for whatever hunk is fashionable this week to pop his shirt off and kick ass. Not that there’s anything wrong with action and eye-candy; I liked Godzilla and Pacific Rim and The Avengers just fine.

Snowpiercer looks similar on the surface. There’s plenty of effects work and gunfire and explosions and Chris Evans punching people. But this time those things serve the ideas and story instead of the other way round. Bong and screenwriting partner Kelly Masterson have actually put thought into the setting, how a society like this would sustain itself and what its leaders would need to do to keep the structure they’d imposed on it in place. The allegory is obvious, but it works because we can see ourselves responding to these situations in these ways. The answers it poses to its questions have a libertarian slant–part-and-parcel of the modern dystopia–but small touches keep the ideology at bay (Swinton’s performance, for example, which I’ll get to in a bit) and understands the price a revolution would have to pay for “liberation.”

Great ideas and a thoughtful plot are wonderful things to have, but audiences really like to have them married to good characterization and acting, and Snowpiercer offers us these as well. Both standout performances are supporting roles. Swinton’s Mason is a self-important, self-righteous latter-day aristo: try imagining a Tea Party caricature with a North of England Accent, or a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Pauline from The League of Gentlemen. Song is perfect as the unhinged Nam, a rogue who clearly knows more than he’s letting on.

Curtis is a bit of a cliché, the grim Byronic hero, but both the dialogue and Evans’s performance succeed in making the character engaging where so many other attempts have failed. It’s been said that Hurt has played the same damn character in most of his last ten movies and his Doctor Who episode, but here he demonstrates how he became the go-to man for this type of character. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and a gloriously goofy Ewan Bremner–there simply isn’t a bad performance in this film.

Bong’s masterful direction pulls it all together. Snowpiercer feels like an impossible environment, a place that shouldn’t work in as little space as it has, but he makes it work by starting off in an oppressively claustrophobic mode and gradually opening space up as he goes along. The editing and pacing are similarly effective, and the film benefits by cutting its dark tone with a healthy dose of satire.

If I have any complaints, it’s with the massive fight sequence that comes about halfway through the film–it does its job well enough, but it feels more “awesome” than credible and at any rate it’s not the sort of thing I’m much into. Your mileage may vary.

Every so often a movie comes along and somehow, against all odds, manages to get everything right. Strong plot, thought-provoking story, memorable characters, terrific performances, exhilarating action, beautiful design and effects…a movie that is, in short, all things to all people. Snowpiercer is one of those movies. Treasure it.

Snowpiercer poster

Oldboy

The bad news is that Oldboy is a typical pointless American remake. The good news is that it’s a decent one–not remarkable, but at least entertaining, particularly if you can keep yourself from constantly comparing it to the original. Which, let’s face facts here, you’re not going to be able to do.

United States. Directed by Spike Lee, 2013. Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlo Copley, Samuel L. Jackson. 103 minutes.

Remaking Oldboy in English is an odd proposition. The original garnered critical acclaim and a cult following, but not widespread notoriety or huge bank. On top of that, it was released in 2003, so the bandwagon ship sailed years ago. So what’s the point? I don’t have an answer to that question; more importantly, neither do screenwriter Mark Protosevich and director Spike Lee.

The idea of Lee directing isn’t as bizarre as you might think, considering his filmography also includes the likes of Clockers and Inside Man. (And not Rounders, as I said on the yet-to-be-released podcast.) But at least I expected the film to bear some sort of personal stamp, and…

…it really doesn’t. It’s a typical American action-thriller.

First, the characters. Dae-su Oh becomes Joe Doucett, advertising douchebag turned avenging angel douchebag. Mainly he goes around clenching his jaw and beating the shit out of people. It’s harder to feel for Joe, because his ordeal hasn’t made him reflective, only mean.

Meanwhile, Woo-jin Lee has been transformed into Adrian Pryce. You know he’s the bad guy, because he’s got a British accent. Even though his sister seems to be American and his parents German. And even though the actor is actually South African. He’s a Bond villain with a mind-bogglingly complex plan and he insists on taking Joe through every step of it during their confrontation. His lead minion is a hot Asian chick who’s also a master of martial arts, because in Asia if you’re a girl and it looks like you’re going to grow up to be a babe, they put you on the martial arts fast-track in school. It’s a fact.

The adorable Mi-do is represented by the glum Marie Sebastian, the sort of world-weary young woman who’s lived a hard, shitty life and wears it on her face like an actress playing a world-weary young woman who’s lived a hard, shitty life. If you somehow manage to miss that, her male BFF will emerge from the friendzone to tell you all about it.

And then there’s Mr. Chaney, the remake’s equivalent of Mr. Lee. He’s played by Samuel L. Jackson and by God nobody is ever going to let you forget that, let alone Mr. Jackson himself. Every time he’s on-screen you expect him to belt out “I’m sick of these muthafuckin’ oldboys in my muthafuckin’ prison!

The action sequences. Oh boy, do I ever want to tell you about the action sequences. Dae-su Oh spends 15 years in captivity and turns into a proficient hand-to-hand fighter. Okay, that’s a bit outlandish but I can buy it because the fights are realistic. Joe Doucett, on the other hand, spends 20 years in captivity and turns into, I don’t know, the Incredible fucking Hulk or something. It’s something I’d have trouble buying in a Zack Snyder film, let alone a Spike Lee film. At one point he punches a football player’s leg so hard that it literally breaks and you hear the snap and I think I saw the bone punch through the flesh.

In the original film, the fight in the hallway was creative and actually kind of funny. Lee turns it into something that looks like a platform fighter, like Lode Runner or something. I kept wondering if Joe was gonna fall into a pipe and end up in the minus world.

And yet–I’m as shocked as you are on this one–the remake has its upsides, enough to make the viewing experience a net positive.

The cast is stronger than I expected. If you need a chisel-faced, beady-eyed actor to clench his jaw and stoically beat the stuffing out of nameless goons, you can do a lot worse than Josh Brolin. Sharlto Copley understands that he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie and attacks his role with gusto. What do we say to the God of Not Enjoying Watching Sam Jackson Play Jules from Pulp Fiction in 75% of the Movies He Makes? “Not today.” The real revelation, though, is Elizabeth Olsen, who rolls all of Marie’s damaged-girl clichés into a ball and fashions a real character out of them.

Meanwhile, Lee’s direction is taut, suspenseful and effective, with a number of beautiful compositions. (Admittedly, he’s at his best when he apes Park.) Protosevich’s script preserves the sensitive treatment of the film’s main twist, which I was absolutely sure would be watered down for American audiences. I also really liked the ending, which is more cynical and less hopeful than the original’s.

Yes, Oldboy is a typical pointless American remake. But it does exist, and since it does, we might as well give it a fair shake. It’s not remarkable, but it is entertaining, particularly if you can keep yourself from constantly comparing it to the original.

Oldboy poster

Attack the Block

Clever dialogue, well-drawn characters and a vivid setting help create an action-horror-comedy that works

United Kingdom. Directed by Joe Cornish, 2013. Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail. 88 minutes. 8/10

Bonfire Night in the South London district of Brixton. Nurse Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), returning to her home in the Wyndham Estates council block, encounters a group of five local youths. The gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), attempts to mug Sam, but she escapes when a meteorite strikes a nearby car. As the kids investigate, some sort of large, wild animal attacks and injures Moses; it runs away, but Moses and his friends give chase.

They run it to ground and discover that the animal isn’t like anything seen on Earth: pale and hairless, with bioluminescent jaws. Moses makes quick work of the monster. The kids, hoping to get rich and famous off their adventure, take the corpse to local weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping.

More meteorites rain down on the neighborhood; the kids arm themselves and go in search of more alien monsters to fight. But these “alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” are larger and tougher than the first, and don’t go down so easily. More complications arise. The police (having been called by Sam) arrive at the block, seeking to arrest the youths. Attempting to flee the monsters, Moses and his friends run afoul of the block’s drug kingpin, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).

More and more monsters descend upon the block, the kids must enter into an uneasy alliance with their erstwhile victim Sam if they expect to evade both Hi-Hatz and the coppers while fending off the alien invaders. The fate of the Wyndham Estates rests entirely with five tough inner-city kids, armed only with baseball bats and knives.

Action-horror hybrids tend to work best by subverting action tropes. The two examples I always use are Aliens, in which all the film’s toughest characters (save one) die in a single scene, and Predator, where a stroke of dumb luck allows Dutch to avoid meeting the same fates as his fellow soldiers.

Attack the Block, the début directorial effort from British comic actor Joe Cornish, is the modern equivalent of Alien and Predator in this sense. Moses and his mates might think themselves tough guys, and put into the context of the Wyndham Estates, they probably are. They certainly scare white ladies like Sam.

But Cornish consistently reminds us that they are also kids, and their desperation shows. Their mums call them on their mobile phones, and none can afford unlimited voice or data plans. They zoom around the grounds on scooters and bicycles; they steal a car, but don’t have drivers’ licenses. Their weapons are mêlée weapons, and even the most impressive one–a katana–is a display piece, not actually meant for real combat. Only the grown-ups, like Hi-Hatz, carry guns. When Moses tells Sam he’s fifteen years old, it’s meant as a big revelation–but, truth be told, while he certainly looks older than that, the context of the film doesn’t tell us he’s much older.

Of course, deceptive appearances also work the other way round. The gang marks Sam as a target because they figure she’s posh; little do they realize she’s one of their neighbors. This serves as part of the film’s social commentary, which, for the most part, is very subtle, coming to the fore only in a couple of instances. At one point, Moses theorizes that the powers-that-be “bred those things to kill black boys.” Just as telling is Pest’s (Alex Esmail) criticism of Sam’s absent boyfriend, working for the Red Cross in Ghana. “Why can’t he help children in Britain?” Pest asks her. “Not exotic enough, is it? Don’t get a nice suntan?”

Cornish bulks up his setting and themes by applying memorable dialogue seasoned with authentic (or at least authentic-seeming) British urban slang; non-native speakers might have to consult the Urban Dictionary to understand terms like “wagwan bruv.” This also strengthens characterization, and each faction of characters has its own particular dialect. Compare the kids’ language to that of working-class white girl Sam, Ron the dealer who smokes a bit too much of his own stash, or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a “profoundly stoned” slumming uni student. And let’s not forget Probs and Mayhem, the pint-size gangstas in training.

Of course, such dialogue requires a great cast to make it work, and a great cast is what this film has. Boyega is the film’s breakout performer; he emits charisma like light from a bulb. The other gang members–Esmail, Howard, Leeon Jones and Franz Drameh–each get several moments of greatness, as does Whittaker. Frost (the closest the film has to a big name), Treadaway and Hunter steal every scene they’re in.

The film’s direction is superb, with plenty of exciting and clever action sequences. The film cost a relatively modest $13 million to make but looks like it could have been five or six times more expensive. The cinematography and editing transform a series of disparate locations into the Wyndham Estates. As for the monsters, their design is delightful, the effects work solid and Cornish wisely keeps them in shadow or darkness for most of the film. Comparative newcomer Steven Price supplies a terrific score and the soundtrack features a new song from Basement Jaxx alongside some modern hip-hop and reggae classics.

Attack the Block is exhilarating, thrilling, hilarious and frightening–everything you could want from either a modern horror movie or a modern action movie. With its infectiously quotable dialogue, well-drawn characters and vivid setting, it’s destined to become a cult classic–if it hasn’t already.

Attack the Block poster