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Personal Shopper (2016)
While I was watching Personal Shopper, I remembered a phrase from the film Crimson Peak: "This isn't a ghost story, but a story with a ghost". That is a perfect summary of Personal Shopper, with the exception that this tale includes two ghosts. Or more. Or none. I'm not sure, and I think that director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas wrote the screenplay with that intention. Even though Personal Shopper has abundant suspense, delicious shocks and disturbing events of a possible supernatural origin, it never feels like a conventional horror movie; on the opposite, the drama leads the story, focusing on the main character's frustration for being caught into a world of ostentation and elegance she doesn't share, and even though she would like to escape, she doesn't know how to do so. All that explains the obsession she has with the "spirit" which might offer the answers she's looking for... What's her destiny? Is there something beyond this life which will bring us peace? Or is this all we have, and we must learn to appreciate it? I someone interested in paranormal affairs, I have always been worried by the grey area between "evidence" and "coincidence"; Personal Shopper ventures into that uncertain region through a main character whose perspective might get distorted under the weight of the emotions she's carrying. But before this seems a "new age" pamphlet, I have to clear out the fact that Personal Shopper is a cynical and cold film, with that European style which discards any sentimentality and prefers a raw perspective of the characters and situations it examines... even if it's something as ambiguous as ghosts. The only movie I had seen from Assayas was Demonlover, in which he had portrayed a similar elitist environment, rotten in the inside, but attractive in the outside, in which things aren't what they seem (in this case, I can use that phrase without any sarcasm). The main character's work as a "personal shopper" might seem glamorous, but her daily reality is demoralizing, and it's slowly erasing her identity; so, with so many external and internal pressures (besides everything, she also suffers from a medical condition which worries her), it isn't strange for her to seek solutions in fantastic corners that are apparently more stable than her real life. Assayas piles up mysteries over mysteries, but they are somehow kept on the periphery of our attention, so, when we reach the enigmatic ending, we end up with more questions than answers. And even though Personal Shopper won't be everyone's cup of tea, I personally found it fascinating and hugely satisfactory, merging multiple genres under Assayas' dreamlike vision; and with excellent cinematography, music and production design, whose details complement the surrealistic atmosphere and locations. In conclusion, I went to see Personal Shopper with neutral expectations, but it ended up being an unexpected pleasure, much more intense than many Hollywood thrillers, and more disturbing than uncountable hollow and forgettable "horror" films. In summary: one of the most pleasant surprises I have had this year (and it doesn't matter that I say it in April).
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
Last year, the film Justice League Vs. Teen Titans didn't leave me very satisfied, mainly because its "formal" story (Raven's origin) degenerated into "spells" and hollow magical wordiness I couldn't swallow. Fortunately, the new movie Teen Titans: The Judas Contract keeps the story on an earthly level (with some spiritual touches), and it's fully focused on the development of the titans, exploring their personal problems, aspirations and internal doubts. All that happens inside the context of a dangerous mission which puts them in contact with Deathstroke, an absolutely deadly hit-man who has a personal issue against Robin (don't mix him up with Deadshot, the character played by Will Smith in Suicide Squad). In Justice League Vs. Teen Titans, Robin had darkened the rest of the team; so, in order to balance the things, he's left aside for a good portion of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, allowing us to fully appreciate the powers and personality from the rest of the titans: Beast Boy can become different animals... it sounds a bit ridiculous, until we see him in action during a frantic fight; Blue Beetle is symbiotically joined to an extraterrestrial "parasite" with an own mind; Raven is the sorcerer of the team with severe "daddy issues"; and the new member of the group is Terra, whose rebel attitude and distrust are due to the bad experiences she suffered when she was a child, when her powers arose in an extremely religious context. I had previously never known Terra (I haven't read a Teen Titans comic in more than 20 years), but I liked her story and eventual development inside the group very much. Nightwing and Starfire are appropriate tutors of the Titans, and they have their own sub-story which portrays the little seen domestic side of super-heroes; and finally, the sadly deceased Miguel Ferrer brings a perfect voice work as Deathstroke, making him a perverse and very dangerous villain. In conclusion, the action is exciting, the screenplay is very well written and the animation keeps a solid level; but what I liked the most was to feel the Teen Titans as an authentic team, well balanced and united despite their differences with each other. To sum up, I enjoyed Teen Titans: The Judas Contract very much, and I will now be expecting their next movie with enthusiasm.
The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch
"Two hours!", I thought before watching The Love Witch. Most of the independent horror movies run between 80 and 90 minutes, and I usually prefer them that way, because they will probably won't have too much filler or irrelevant elements. However, two hours later, I ended up liking The Love Witch pretty much. Sure, the film still feels a bit longer than it should; however, on the other hand, the vision from director/screenwriter/producer/editor/decorator/costume designer/composer (I'm not kidding) Anna Biller requires that languid rhythm in order to establish the surrealistic "erotic horror" atmosphere cultivated during the '70s by European filmmakers such as Jean Rollin, Roy Ward Baker and Jess Franco. Besides, the slowness of The Love Witch allows us to admire the extraordinary Technicolor cinematography from that time, full of saturated colors, bizarre frames and long takes. Speaking of which, Biller composed a few songs for The Love Witch, but the soundtrack is composed by the work of masters such as Ennio Morricone and Piero Piccioni, whose scores for the films Il Diavolo nel Cervello and Le Mani sulla Città, among other ones, are a good complement to the dreamlike tone of The Love Witch. And I can't forget to mention the amusing performances from Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Jared Sanford, Jennifer Ingrum, Gian Keys, Jeffrey Vincent Parise and Robert Seeley; their works seem rigid and theatrical, but it's an intentional decision which solidly complements the creative alchemy offered by Biller. Regarding the previously mentioned "erotic horror", The Love Witch includes some sex scenes, but they are never as explicit as the ones from the films it emulates; and besides, their semi-humorous context makes them seem almost innocent. For better or for worse, The Love Witch is a clear style over substance case; however, the style is so attractive that it compensates the weak substance to a big degree, so I partially recommend this film for what it says, but fully because of how it says it. In summary: a very interesting work from Biller, which reveals her as a filmmaker with a potent vision.
Prevenge = Pregnant + Revenge. That subversive premise seems appropriate for a "neo-grindhouse" film... something like Hobo With a Shotgun, but with a "fragile" pregnant woman as the main character, killing people in "cool" scenes full of violence and special effects. However, director and screenwriter Alice Lowe (who also played the leading role) took a very different road, facing the story as a sober drama which isn't focused on gore, but the main character's growing obsession to make justice against the people she considers guilty of a personal tragedy... even though our perspective might change as more details about the facts are revealed. Having said that, "sober drama" doesn't mean that Prevenge lacks of humor; but the humor is twisted enough to generate nervous laughs every time the main character plans her next killing. Unlike the '70s tales about female revenge in which the victims were universally repugnant, Prevenge incorporates a fascinating moral ambiguity which makes us question the main character's reasons; some victims are certainly hateful, but other ones seem weak and even benevolent, making the justification of their deaths more difficult. Lowe was really pregnant when she shot this movie, something which makes her performance more authentic and more difficult the making of certain scenes, besides of revealing the huge commitment she had in her debut as a director (as an actress, I had seen her in films like Hot Fuzz and Sightseers, as well as the excellent TV series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace). In conclusion, Prevenge is a compelling psychological study which deserves an enthusiastic recommendation, specially to those who appreciate audacious and provocative independent cinema that refuses easy classification.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
The Edge of Seventeen
I liked The Edge of Seventeen very much, but I was initially a bit puzzled because of it being so far from the classic scheme of juvenile comedies. Fortunately, I eventually recognized that The Edge of Seventeen isn't really a "juvenile comedy", but a sincere "coming of age" drama which certainly has some humorous moments, but never for the sake of the realism in the situations faced by the main character. In other words, director and screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig never exaggerates in order to make the jokes funnier, the romance more idealized or the drama stronger (well, in the scale of a typical North American high school); she just limited herself to explore the main character's experiences, without judging her mistakes and bad decisions. If I wanted to make comparisons, I would say that The Edge of Seventeen is more similar to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Kings of Summer, and less so to Juno and Mean Girls (which I also liked very much, even though they can hardly be considered "realistic"). Sure, we aren't watching a tragedy in the vein of Moonlight or Kids either... after all, The Edge of Seventeen is another visit to "The Problems of Rich People", in which the main character's experiences don't reflect any authentic suffering, but the whims and setbacks of a Caucasian young woman in an affluent community of the United States. But I still found the film honest and hugely entertaining, due to the solid direction, intelligent screenplay and perfect performances from the whole cast. Hailee Steinfeld might never earn another Oscar nomination again (like the one she obtained during the beginning of her career with the remake of True Grit), but I have always liked her work; in The Edge of Seventeen, she displays her conviction and charisma once more. And supporting Steinfeld, we have the excellent performances from Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner and Kyra Sedgwick. Unlike other juvenile movies, the teenagers of The Edge of Seventeen aren't clichés, and the adults aren't ogres or clueless cretins; everyone is a fallible human being, dealing with their particular traumas and insecurities... in beautiful homes with swimming pools and schools lacking of any violence, apparently. But, well... as I previously said, The Edge of Seventeen is realistic only within its particular niche, and it achieved it with a brilliant result, in my humble opinion. In conclusion, a fascinating "coming of age" tale which captures a solid balance between the sanity of maturity and the chaos of youth.
The Void (2016)
As part of the creative group Astron-6, Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie collaborated in films which made tributes to slasher cinema (Father's Day), post-apocalyptic science fiction (Manborg) and Italian "giallo" (The Editor). But more recently, Kostanski and Gillespie co-directed The Void, which has nothing to do with that naughty sense of humor in order to present a somber tale, undoubtedly influenced by '80s horror, but with enough originality in order to earn an own voice. Well, "original" is a relative term. The Void is obviously inspired by director John Carpenter's filmography (with some touches of David Cronenberg also), employing the structure of Assault on Precint 13 (1976) (a group of strangers cooperate to survive the attack of an external force), thematic elements of Prince of Darkness (my favorite film from Carpenter, by the way) and the grotesque practical effects of The Thing (1982)... keeping proportions, of course. The result is a hybrid of horror and science fiction which isn't totally satisfactory, even though it's entertaining enough to justify the investment of our time. The Void establishes an interesting mystery whose gradual development generates continuous questions throughout the movie: Why is the hurt youngster scared? Who are the hooded people observing the hospital? Why does nurse Beverly behave in such a strange way? The screenplay barely reveals the necessary, appropriately handling the suspense in order to create a good atmosphere of paranoia. However, some details of the mystery degenerate into clichés and arbitrary rules which cause inconsistencies in the story, while snatching the dramatic potential of some characters in order to make them become cannon fodder... easy victims of the horror infesting the hospital. Fortunately, The Void is still able to hold the audience's interest, mainly due to the ability from Kostanski and Gillespie to orchestrate tense scenes; but when the gears of the screenplay start to squeak, we notice its elementary tricks. On the visceral side, we have the excellent special effects; when they aren't involved in "retro" tributes, Kostanski and Gillespie work as graphic artists in high-profile movies (for example, Suicide Squad, Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, among many other ones), something which explains the visual exuberance of The Void, whose gore scenes and "para-genetic" atrocities evoke the aesthetic of the '80s, with the benefit of digital retouches which increment the scale of the horror. And finally, the actors make a decent work in their roles, highlighting Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe and Ellen Wong. In conclusion, it isn't a very memorable film, but The Void made me have a good time, and I can give it a moderate recommendation as a competent combination of the old and the new.
Going in Style (2017)
Going in Style
Actor Zach Braff (best known for his work in the excellent sitcom Scrubs) had a very promising debut as a director in 2004 with the film Garden State, an emotive and sincere "slice of life" which deservedly earned the attention of the followers of independent cinema. 10 years later, he made his second movie, Wish I Was Here, and even though it was interesting, it was very inferior to Garden State. And more recently, Going in Style unfortunately continues his downward spiral. On the other hand, it can be said that Going in Style discards Braff's "indie" intentions, and places him in the category of an efficient director-for-hire, with little creative vision, but who knows where to point the camera, and how to extract even the last drop of humor from a mediocre screenplay lacking of ambition and ingenuity. Despite Braff's apathetic direction, Going in Style counts with a cast headed by three veterans whose presence guarantees honest and enthusiastic performances, which are enough reason to bring this film a slight recommendation. There's no need to explain why it's a pleasure to see Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin together on the screen (or even separately), exploiting the incongruity of their actions, gently laughing at their age and forging honest emotional bonds with each other. In supporting roles, we find various solid actors such as Christopher Lloyd, Matt Dillon, Peter Serafinowicz, Ann-Margret and Kenan Thompson; they all take advantage of their brief screen-time in order to improve the experience and season its vapidity to a certain point. In fact, Going in Style doesn't have any fatal fail... its problem is just a lack of dramatic ambition which makes it appeal to bland comic formulas, while refusing to explore any of the provocative tangents suggested by the story; for example, the economic abuse against senior citizens and the subtle discrimination against them in every aspect of society... in summary, all those things which would have brought deepness to the movie. To be fair, Going in Style is the remake of an homonym 1979 film I haven't seen, so maybe, it fulfilled with its intention of updating the story, and period. Maybe, if I hadn't known Going in Style was directed by Braff, my expectations wouldn't have interfered with my perception so much (I would have probably assumed it was directed by Dennis Dugan, Shawn Levy or some similar mercenary). As I previously said, I can still give Going in Style a slight recommendation because it managed to keep me moderately entertained despite its mediocrity; however, I would have definitely preferred something much audacious or intelligent, which would have genuinely taken advantage of the talent of the actors. As for Braff... work is work; but it works better with ideas.
Patriots Day (2016)
In the films Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg displayed his talent to depict real catastrophes with a good combination of drama and visceral impact, creating very interesting thrillers which never neglect the human factor. And the same can be said about his most recent movie, Patriots Day, which illustrates the complexity of a big-scale investigation, which didn't only affect the citizens of Boston, but also its multiple institutions; a good example is the debate on whether to publish the photos of the suspects... Will they help to their capture, or will they just cause paranoia and violent reactions against the Muslim community? In other words, every step of the operation requires problematic decisions, false traces and the constant risk of making mistakes which will be reflected on the government. But that's just the sociopolitical frame of Patriots Day... what I liked the most about it was the scenes which portray the human hunt scenes, both due to Berg's solid direction and the meticulous screenplay which integrates real material and dramatizations with absolute realism. And we also have the competent performances from Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Jake Picking, Michael Beach and the great J.K. Simmons. Unfortunately, the female cast (Michelle Monaghan, Rachel Brosnahan) is relegated to generic "suffering wife" or "romantic interest" roles... with the exception of Melissa Benoist (Supergirl!), who brings an excellent performance in a disturbing role as... well, I prefer not to ruin the surprises of the movie, even though it portrays events we all saw in the news just 4 years ago. In conclusion, I undoubtedly appreciated Patriots Day as a historical chronicle and a sincere tribute to the policemen and citizens who joined together in front of a big tragedy; but I liked it more as an intense and efficient thriller, very well structured, full of suspense and with exciting action scenes. I definitely consider it worthy of a recommendation, except to those people who can't stand the excessive North American patriotism... or that characteristic Boston we have been listening so often in cinema in recent years (for example: "Red Sahx").
Final Girl (2015)
The title "Final Girl" suggests a connection to the slasher cinema from the '80s, but it's in fact another visit to the "human hunt" concept, which has inspired many variations both in cinema and literature since it was popularized by the short story The Most Dangerous Game, written by Richard Connell in 1924. I initially found it a bit strange that screenwriter Adam Prince reveals that premise from the beginning, because he intentionally eliminates the potential of suspense the story could have generated; but I eventually understood that he decided to take an unusual road, revealing the "secrets" from early on in order to focus on the psychological combat between the main characters and her attackers. And that's why Final Girl might disappoint the spectators who were expecting a typical revenge tale. It undoubtedly includes a bit of violence, but Final Girl is more focused on externalizing the psychology of the characters, from the "hunters" to the deceptively frail main character and her mysterious mentor. The establishment of the nature and dynamic guiding the behavior of all those characters occupies most of the movie, leaving the "action" (limited but satisfactory) to the last half hour... and even that moment is full of introspective flashbacks in which we see (or intuit, because they aren't particularly explicit) the origins of the traumas and mental disturbances which lead to the situation. As I previously said, I was initially a bit puzzled by that curious creative decision... but once I understood Prince's intention, I ended up enjoying the pseudo-philosophical narrative of Final Girl pretty much, as well as the elegant and surrealistic visual style employed by director Tyler Shields. And I can't forget to mention the solid performances from the whole cast, highlighting Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley, whose chemistry with each other is so good that I was even left with wishes to see sequels with these two "avengers" facing diverse criminals and dangers. So, Final Girl isn't a horror film like its title suggests so, but quite an interesting psychological thriller (with the emphasis on "psychological"), whose strange texture requires some patience from the spectator, but it's eventually rewarding.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
It's convenient not to know too much about The Autopsy of Jane Doe before watching it; I will just say that the film is based on a fascinating mystery, whose logical development takes us through unexpected roads which end up being more disturbing than any cliché of contemporary horror. And besides, we also have the excellent performances from Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, who are absolutely credible in their roles while having a perfect chemistry with each other, creating a solid affective basis which highlights the horror while creating anguish about the destiny of their characters. However, the most difficult role corresponds to Olwen Catherine Kelly as "Jane Doe"; it might seem easy to stay still and naked while the "doctors" perform the autopsy on her, but it must have been physical and emotionally exhausting; and even though the corpse is obviously a latex and silicon creation most of the time, there are many scenes in which its manipulation required the presence of the real actress. Needless to say, director André Øvredal respected that commitment shooting Kelly in a sober way, without the slightest trace of morbidity or sensuality. As for the autopsy scenes, they are undoubtedly raw and realistic, but they don't feel like the casual gore we usually see in horror cinema, but as a melancholic glimpse to the organic mechanism keeping us alive, and which we normally prefer to ignore; fortunately, Øvredal knows that what we do NOT see is more important (and more shocking) than any physical illusion created by special effects. The only small complaint I have against The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a slight loss of dramatic focus during the third act, but, fortunately, co-screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing quickly recover the control in order to hit us with an ingenious and very satisfactory ending, which doesn't require any tricks or manipulation to affect us on an emotional level. In conclusion, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a brilliant horror film, whose excellent screenplay and perfect performances are efficiently conjugated by Øvredal's direction in order to bring us an intelligent and genuinely frightening experience, with a visual style which brings a perverse beauty to the horrors we witness.