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.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up”

Kill Me Three Times

A derivative dark, violent comedy that mostly works thanks to Simon Pegg.

Australia. Directed by Kriv Stenders, 2014. Starring Simon Pegg, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown. 90 minutes.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve never asked yourself the question, “What would a Quentin Tarantino movie be like if Simon Pegg played the Samuel L. Jackson role?” Well, finally that question has an answer: it would be exactly like Kill Me Three Times.

This is one of those films that doesn’t progress in chronological order and you’re not supposed to go into it knowing how all the characters relate to each other, but I will muddle through as best I can. Pegg plays Charlie Wolfe, a hired killer stalking a woman named Alice (Alice Braga), a dental surgeon named Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), and Nathan’s receptionist Lucy (Teresa Palmer). Nathan and Lucy are clearly up to something, and it doesn’t look good for Alice. But what exactly is going on, and how it connects to drunken, bitter hotel owner Jack (Callan Mulvey), garage mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), and corrupt cop Bruce (Bryan Brown)…you’re not going to start finding these things out until the second act.

So, yeah, convoluted structure, snappy dialog, self-consciously retro soundtrack, stylized violence, awesome cars, hopelessly hip title sequences…have I compared this to Tarantino yet? I have? Long story short, don’t go into Three Times expecting something particularly fresh and inventive. The most original thing about it is that it takes place in Australia.

Well, that…and Simon Pegg. I like Pegg as an actor, but I do readily admit I find it easy to underestimate him. It’s not that I don’t think he has range; it’s more that his range often extends in directions I don’t expect it to go. He’s not an obvious choice for the charming, sociopathic Charlie Wolfe. Three Times‘s story and structure center around Wolfe although he’s very much a supporting character (if the film has a genuine protagonist it’s Alice, even though she doesn’t start taking the focus until the second act). Like Wolfe, this is a cynical bastard of a movie that’s never happier than when it’s hurting people.

Thus, the success of the entire film largely depends on Pegg’s performance, and he carries it off like Satan; Three Times works because he does. I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of the rest of the cast–particularly Stapleton, Palmer, and above all Brown, who’s probably the clearest villain in a film full of morally compromised figures. But most of the roles would work if the performances weren’t as good, because this is Pegg’s show.

Sadly, Pegg’s performance doesn’t quite counterbalance Three Times‘s biggest flaw, which is that it clearly apes the work of iconic, influential filmmakers such as (here it comes again) Tarantino or the Coen brothers without having the corresponding thematic depth. It’s a shallow film that’s perfectly happy operating entirely on a surface level, and I don’t sense any ambition stretching beyond being a dark, violent comedy with noir-ish elements.

And that’s perfectly okay; at the end of the day, there’s something to be said for pure entertainment value, something Kill Me Three Times has in spades.

KILL ME THREE TIMES poster

Plague

A dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon, but aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters

Australia. Directed by Kosta Ouzas & Nick Kozakis, 2015. Starring Tegan Crowley, Scott Marcus, Steven Kennedy. 84 minutes.

Another zombie apocalypse. (Okay, if you insist: another plague-that-makes-people-behave-like-zombies apocalypse.) Evie (Tegan Crowley) hides out with a small group of survivors at a rural farmhouse. Days earlier, they became separated from Evie’s husband John (Scott Marcus), and have been waiting for him to arrive at this prearranged rendezvous point. The others feel it’s time to move on, but Evie doesn’t agree. Can she make it on her own until John finally arrives? And can she trust her fellow survivors?

In terms of plotting and thematics, Plague doesn’t offer any bold twists on the zombie-apocalypse template; if you’ve watched your fair share of zombie movies, you will find very little to surprise you here. The one exception: writer/co-director Kosta Ouzas and co-director Nick Kozakis keep the zombies on the sidelines as much as possible, only appearing in a couple of scenes.

By doing so, Ouzas and Kozakis intensify the focus on the conflicts between the survivors, a staple of the formula since Night of the Living Dead. Not satisfied following the human-conflict tropes, the filmmakers put them under a microscope and examine them in detail. The grossest scene in the film–a film that deploys gore minimally but graphically–comes at the climax of a conflict between two uninfected characters, with nary a shambling flesh-eater in sight. That single fact, more than any other, defines the film. I can’t think of another zombie movie with so few zombies in it. They are almost incidental to the story.

As a character study, then, Plague largely succeeds. Ouzas paints the characters in spare but broad strokes, leaving the main actors–Crowley, Marcus, and later, Steven Kennedy as Charlie, a survivor who comes upon the farm later in the film–space to embody their roles. This particular tactic doesn’t always work, but Crowley has the skill to carry the picture, and Kennedy plays his part so well that even though you should notice straight off that Charlie’s a total creep, the reveal contains a good deal of shock value.

As for Marcus, he doesn’t seem entirely able to keep up with his co-stars, but that could just be the nature of John as a character–the eternal beta-male, forever overpowered by the stronger personalities that surround him. It’s at the point when John finally decides to assert himself that Plague jumps the tracks somewhat, taking its focus off Evie for too long. From there, events progress to an ending I didn’t quite understand, from a dramatic point of view. (Or: I get what happened, but I don’t get why it had to happen.)

Even in its weaker moments, Ouzas and Kozakis keep the tension pegged at high levels, with enchanting yet lonely cinematography of stark rural Australian vistas underlining the desperation of the situation. I can readily believe that these might very well be the last people on Earth.

Plague is a particularly dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon; while zombie aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters, its unflinching depiction of emotional violence makes it worth seeking out, even with its uneven final act.

PLAGUE poster

The Babadook

The Babadook knows what the monster under the bed really means.

Australia. Directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney. 93 minutes.

It’s a thick “pop-up book” of the type we all read when we were kids, bound in red cloth, with the silhouette of a strange humanoid figure wearing a hat embossed on the cover. Above that, the title: MISTER BABADOOK. The book tells, in rhyme, the tale of the titular monster. Once you discover his existence, he enters your body through your mouth, forcing you to do naughty things, and never, ever leaving. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book,” reads the opening couplet, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to be a good mum, but she’s still haunted by the death of her husband Oscar, who died in an auto accident while driving her to hospital the night of her son Samuel’s birth. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, tries to be a good boy, but he’s impulsive, stubborn, eccentric and more than a little wild. Their relationship has been fraying for years. One night, Amelia finds a copy of Mister Babadook on Samuel’s bookshelf, and reads it to him before bedtime, inviting the Babadook into their home, and their lives.

Who–or what–is Mr. Babadook, exactly? He’s a metaphor, of course, for the scars we leave when we speak cruelly or thoughtlessly. Horror can be highly effective when it operates on that allegorical level, and The Babadook is as effective a monster movie as it is a dysfunctional family drama–a horror story that knows what the monster under the bed really means. Writer/director Jennifer Kent grounds the story with a keen sense of human nature, reminiscent of Stephen King’s best work (more than once the film reminded me of The Shining). All of us know families that treated each other like this, and some of us have been part of those families. That grounding allows the film’s fantastical elements to take flight.

The Babadook is a starkly and grimly beautiful film in both cinematography and design, evoking the feel of gothic picture-books filled with gallows humor by artists such as Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey. Mr. Babadook himself is a triumph of design, one of the most memorable movie monsters of recent years. The film’s atmosphere is as thick as petroleum jelly, but Kent proves as adept at shocking the audience as she does creeping it out.

However, as good as Kent’s story and direction are, the film requires crackerjack lead performances to truly succeed. Essie Davis truly knocks it out of the park (actually, this being an Australian movie, I guess she should do whatever cricket’s equivalent of “knocking it out of the park” is), ensuring Amelia’s sympathy and believability even when she’s not exactly at her best. I was highly impressed with Wiseman given his age, and although I occasionally found him grating or annoying, so is the character. (Also, I’m not always very good with kids.) Kent has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Hayley McElhinney as Amelia’s self-absorbed sister and Barbara West as a kindly neighbor.

In my review of The Taking of Deborah Logan I said that some of the best supernatural horror operates by helping the audience work through, and come to grips with, the terrors of real life, and The Babadook is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a story that works on multiple levels of terror. It’s a modern classic, and I’d not be surprised if in the near future it’s regarded as one of the seminal horror films of this era. An absolute must-see.

The Babadook

Retro Review: The Cars that Ate Paris

Described as a “horror-comedy” but neither scary nor funny, it’s more of a relic from a distant place (Australia) and far-off time (the 1970s).

Australia. Directed by Peter Weir, 1974. Starring Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles. 88 minutes (Criterion cut).

Australia, the mid-’70s. The country is in the midst of an economic downturn. Unemployment is high and shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George travel the back roads in their automobile, moving from town to town, looking for work. One night, they decide to follow a lead and head to the rural town of Paris. George, the driver, never makes it there alive: he crashes the car and is killed instantly. Arthur, sleeping at the time of the accident, has only vague memories of what happened.

Once released from the Paris hospital, Arthur has nowhere to go and, the car having been destroyed in the wreck, no way to get there. He falls into depression, his survivor’s guilt compounded by phobia. Not too long ago, Arthur was in another automobile accident–one in which he struck and killed an elderly pedestrian. The jury acquitted him, but the incident left him with a fear of driving. If he didn’t have that phobia, it might have been he who died, not George.

The mayor (John Meillon) takes him in and gets him a job. But Paris is a peculiar little town. The hospital is very busy, as frequent automobile accidents ensure a steady stream of patients. Many of them are never seen again; others suffer unrecoverable brain trauma and become “vegges,” permanent residents of the hospital. The local psychiatrist employs unconventional methods of treatment. And the youths of the town are violent and unruly, prowling the streets in bizarrely-modified autos.

The townsfolk harbor a bizarre secret. All those car accidents aren’t accidents at all; the residents of Paris cause them and loot the wreckage. Survivors are murdered, incapacitated or absorbed into the community. Arthur’s new neighbors hope to do the latter, but they won’t hesitate to the first two options to keep their secret.

Expectations can be tricky to manage sometimes. Let’s say you see a film that both IMDB and Wikipedia describe as a “horror-comedy.” Assuming you put much stock in the accuracy of either of those sources, you’re well within your rights to be disappointed when the film turns out not to be horror or funny. But how much of that can you reasonably hold against the film? Which faults actually belong to the film, and which ones belong to its public perception?

That’s my dilemma with The Cars that Ate Paris. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how it ever gained a reputation as a horror movie. There are two creepy scenes and one shocking shot of gore, and that’s it. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to have the intent of a horror film behind it–writer/director Peter Weir doesn’t seem to be trying to scare the audience, and he doesn’t use much genre convention. Even the title is misleading: the titular cars don’t come into play until comparatively late in the film and never play much of a role. The spiky silver Volkswagen that figures in just about all of the film’s advertising and merchandising doesn’t appear until the movie is almost over and only appears in a few shots. It’s not the cars that are eating Paris, it’s the people.

The latter half of the phrase “horror-comedy” makes a bit more sense. Once one becomes aware of what’s happening in Paris, comparisons to Edgar Wright’s modern classic Hot Fuzz are obvious. Both films are social satires about insular communities going to extreme lengths to protect themselves and “the common good.” Late in the film, the Mayor and the town council installs Arthur in the newly-created role of town Parking Inspector, complete with uniform. (Arthur had a job as a hospital orderly, but struck out at that, so the town leaders need to find him something else to do if they’re not going to kill him.) But Arthur is passive to a pathological degree and turns out to be spectacularly unsuited to the position.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many laughs in the movie. Even the situation I just described elicited no more than a few amused chuckles. If much of the film is intended as outright comedy, I can’t see it. I’m not sure whether this might be because the film is rooted in a forty-year-old representation of a foreign culture and I just don’t get it, or whether it simply isn’t, in an objective sense, very funny. Ditto with the social commentary: I can tell that Weir definitely has a point to make, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of what that point is, but I don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the film is a tough slog. The characters and situations are engaging enough to keep me interested, and there are several fine performances, particularly from Meillon, Robertson and cult character-actor Bruce Spence as a deep-fried mechanic who builds wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments.

Ultimately The Cars that Ate Paris strikes me as a bit of an artifact, a relic from a distant place and far-off time. I just wish I could figure out what it has to say about that place and time. But I guess you can’t expect to win ’em all.

The Cars that Ate Paris poster