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From a House on Willow Street
The "criminals who become victims" concept has always been popular in horror cinema (Don't Breathe is a recent example I liked), and that might be because it adds an unexpected moral ambiguity which questions our perception regarding "good" and "evil" ones. And, on a more visceral sense, it creates an "instantaneous karma" sensation in which the criminals receive their punishment... even though we would like to see them escape sometimes). From a House on Willow Street follows that formula, but its main problem is that co-screenwriter Alaistar Orr (who is also the director), Jonathan Jordaan (sic) and Catherine Blackman reveal the kidnapped girl's secret too quickly, decreasing the tension and taking us through a prefabricated route which doesn't adequately exploit the "surprise factor". Besides, it's too obvious who the default "hero" (heroine, in this case) will be from the beginning; fortunately, that character is played by Sharni Vinson, whose work in horror cinema during the last 5 years (Bait, You're Next and Patrick: Evil Awakens) has made her become a versatile "scream queen" with an adequate emotional deepness. Vinson's scenic presence and credible reactions keep us moderately entertained despite the questionable narrative decisions and weak coincidences in which her character is involved. I will probably end up forgetting From a House on Willow Street as soon as I finish writing this review, but it didn't bore me, and I can give it a slight recommendation, mainly due to the gore and the presence of an actress whose affinity for the horror genre can rescue mediocre movies, such as... this one. We are still on time to redeem the "scream queen" term, and Vinson is one of the actresses capable of achieving it (other good alternatives: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Anya Taylor-Joy).
I, Daniel Blake (2016)
I, Daniel Blake
Besides of being one of the most respected contemporary filmmakers, director Ken Loach has also become an important political figure due to the eloquent social commentary from his films, which tend to denounce serious problems in a supposedly progressive country like England. His movies are vehement messages which transcend their geographic setting (generally Newcastle and nearby places) in order to internationally resound due to the universality of the themes... and the unfortunate ubiquity of the problems portrayed. Having said all that... his films (at least the ones I have seen) don't leave me completely satisfied (with the exception of Looking for Eric). Don't misunderstand me; I appreciate Loach's dramatic talent, his solid instinct for the selection of actors and the social conscience dictated by the themes of his filmography. The problem is that his movies are almost always depressing and demoralizing. That is, obviously, what makes them important... simple but deeply human tales about common individuals facing injustices which might seem trivial in the global framework of a nation, but which still have the potential of ruining thousands of anonymous lives every day. They are undoubtedly relevant films... but they are so depressing... Anyway, I, Daniel Blake fits into all those descriptions, displaying the gradual dehumanization of the main character, who just wishes to go back to his work; but a serious heart condition avoids him from doing so (at least for a while), so he goes to the Labor Ministry to transact the economic aid which will allow him to survive while recovering his health. And there's no need to live in England to recognize the wall of requirements, excuses and contradictory instructions found by Blake. Any person from any country will probably have similar stories under his/her own experience. As I said: a transcendent and important film, but at the same time, depressing and difficult to "enjoy".
The Bye Bye Man (2017)
The Bye Bye Man
The first half an hour of The Bye Bye Man woke some optimism on me: the premise is moderately original; and director Stacy Title creates a good atmosphere. Unfortunately, the provocative central mystery of The Bye Bye Man loses coherence as the time goes by, until degenerating into the "haunted house" clichés we know by heart: inexplicable sounds, night explorations through dark halls, sinister shadows, nightmarish visions, etc. But, well, Title at least keeps a fluid rhythm which avoids the film from getting boring. On the negative side, I found it frustrating not to see an exact explanation of who the entity stalking the characters is. I don't know whether the producers had so much faith on the movie that they decided to leave the explanations for an hypothetical sequel; or if it was never planned to reveal the provenance of the ghost/demon/spirit because, after all, it ends up being nothing else than a "mcguffin". Anyway, the point is that the screenplay feels incomplete; however, I don't know whether a detailed "origin story" would have improved the situation. Regarding the cast, Title was able to gather some famous names (Leigh Whannell, Carrie Anne-Moss and Faye Dunaway), but they have a brief screen-time. In the leading roles, we have weak performances from Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas and Lucien Laviscount, who don't feel credible, and they aren't able to express the friendship which joins their characters. In summary, The Bye Bye Man is a mediocre and not very satisfactory movie; but I didn't feel it like a waste of time. It's just one of those films with a few positive aspects which are suitable to spend a moderately entertaining time which won't have any transcendence into our memory. A phrase which is repeated during the film many times is "don't repeat its name; don't even think about it". No problem; I will have forgotten it as soon as I finish writing this review.
The premise of Marauders is too stale, and that's worsened by redundant characters, a story with no rhyme or reason and dialogues which consist of tedious arguments with multiple variations of the "F" word, because the characters are laughably tough. I have to clear out the rude language isn't the real problem, but just a symptom of the lack of imagination of the screenplay. Despite so many arguments and violent clashes between the huge egos of the characters, Marauders goes by with an unbearable slowness, revealing obvious "secrets" which don't draw the attention or form a coherent story. What is more, the performances from Christopher Meloni, Bruce Willis, Adrian Grenier and Dave Bautista feel poor and listless. Regarding the women, they are relegated absolutely generic roles; among them: policewoman with a horsetail; sick wife; and blonde reporter. As regards the action scenes, they lack any excitement or emotional context to bring them dramatic relevance. In summary, Marauders is a horrible movie, and an absolute waste of time.
For better or for worse, I.T. combines two archaic recipes from the '90s in order to a cook a dish as rancid as its ingredients. Yes, it was for worse. The "cyber thriller" and the obsessive maniac" were two very formulas which were very popular during the '90s, and they were represented by movies such as The Net, Hackers, Pacific Heights and Single White Female. And, for some reason, the producers of Voltage Pictures thought it was a good idea to resurrect both clichés in a single film, with a tedious and irritating result. The villain is one of those omnipotent hackers controlling everything and instantaneously penetrating any safe system in a matter of seconds; his lair has a dozen of monitors in where his magical operative system practically anticipates his wishes and displays exactly what he's looking for. The only positive thing I can say about this piece of junk is that Pierce Brosnan managed to bring a credible performance despite the horrible screenplay he had to work with. On the opposite, James Frecheville is laughable as the villain, Stefanie Scott is just employed as a pretty face and Anna Friel doesn't have too much to do (or even say) as the mother who keeps herself aside from the situation, until she becomes a hostage during the "exciting" (boring) conclusion. In summary, I.T. doesn't work as a retro tribute, and it doesn't add anything new to the two formulas it destroys; and I wouldn't even recommend it to those people who have never seen any similar films, because there have fortunately been much better things which updated those themes and found fresh and creative twists for this century. For example: the TV series Mr. Robot as regards "cyber thrillers"; and The Gift (2015) for the obsessive maniacs. Both are much better alternatives which achieved what I.T. didn't even make an effort in trying.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Alien and Aliens are two of my favorite films, and I think both are among the best fusions of horror and science fiction ever made. I also liked Alien 3 very much despite having been almost unanimously hated; and even though Alien: Resurrection offered some positive elements, it didn't leave me very satisfied due to its irregular tone. Then, we had the prequel, Prometheus, and I was one of the few persons who enjoyed it as a solid sample of "space horror" with grandiloquence moments which added the exact dose of "serious science fiction". And now, we have Alien: Covenant, which had the good intentions of tying loose ends, conciliating some contradictory points in this mythology and offering the fans what they are expecting. Could it achieve all that? I don't think so, even though I found it moderately entertaining despite its mediocrity. To start with, we have the unbelievable ineptitude from the characters of Alien: Covenant, as well as the sudden behaviour changes required for the story to move forward; for example: Where the hell are the strict "quarantine protocols" mentioned so often in the previous movies? Maybe, Weyland Corporation sub- hired the vessel Covenant with some other aerospace company with more flexible safety directives, but the space travel still seems too dangerous to face such absurd and unnecessary risks. Moreover, Alien: Covenant pretended to continue the story initiated in Prometheus, and I didn't like what was done in that regard either; there undoubtedly was potential in the exploration of "the Engineers", but they are quickly discarded in order to focus on a monotonous sub-plot of the android with "daddy issues" (example: there is a flashback which should have been an entire movie, and not just a 20-second disposable scene). Besides, Alien: Covenant continued the objective of unifying the whole franchise, trying to explain how we go from the year 2089 (the beginning of Prometheus) to the year 2124 (when the original Alien is set), and that's where I found the most important fails of this film. To start with, so much explanation about the xenomorph dilutes the horror it should provoke, and ruins the mystery about its existence, biology and purpose on this universe. What is more, the screenplay deals with too many concepts it can't take advantage of due to a lack of time. If I had to summarize all the previously mentioned problems, I would say the following: Alien: Covenat includes enough material for two or three films, and the forced compression of so many stories into only one movie trivializes moments which should have been epic. On the positive side, Ridley Scott's direction keeps a fluid rhythm which avoid the experience from getting boring, and the special effects, production design and cinematography are very good. As for the monsters... I liked them, but I would have preferred a better defined and less arbitrary biological cycle. The actors do whatever they can with a weak and poorly structured screenplay. The Covenant vessel has 15 members, but most of them are anonymous victims, and only a few of them have some dimension. Katherine Waterston brings a decent performance in her role, but the screenplay doesn't make her character's sudden transformation into Ripley 3.0 (the 2.0 version was Noomi Rapace in Prometheus) credible; Billy Crudup credibly transmits the insecurity his character has; and Danny McBride brings an appropriate gravity as the pilot. So, there was potential in various individual components of Alien: Covenant, but I didn't like the chaotic way in which they were integrated. And even though I'm still interested in watching more installments of this saga, I think Alien: Covenant was a disappointment and a wasted opportunity. Anyway... let's see what the cinematographic and chronological future of this franchise will bring us. And, in the worst of the cases, we always have the alternative of re-reading the old Dark Horse comics.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Foremost: forget Lancelot; forget Galahad; forget Merlin and Guinevere. Well, even forget the Roundtable. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword took a few elements of the medieval legend, and filtered them until obtaining a tale of heroic fantasy which is completely different to any tradition of King Arthur. That will be good or bad, according to every spectator's taste. My experience to the legend of King Arthur is limited to the Disney film The Sword in the Stone and the partial reading of the book The Once and Future King (I tried to read it when I was a kid, but it was too dense for my young age). However, I know enough about the myth in order to wonder why the name of Arthur was used if practically everything was changed, not only the details, but also the tone and intention of the legend. But, well... I have to admit I enjoyed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword pretty much, mainly due to the post-modern sensibility employed by director Guy Ritchie. However, it took me like half an hour to assimilate the exotic combination of anachronisms which might not be swallowed by everyone. From the beginning itself, we realize the unusual road the movie is going to take: through an assembly of music and edition, the childhood and adolescence of Arthur are portrayed in two minutes, efficiently depicting his evolution from an orphan prince to a prosperous criminal, as well as the development of his nature and his ability with swords and martial arts (don't worry... there isn't too much kung fu or "wire work"). I have to repeat it: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is VERY different to any other epic film; it doesn't look like anything I have seen before... nothing to do with the digital epics of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the naughty humor of A Knight's Tale, or even less the anemic seriousness of King Arthur. The only movie I could partially compare it to is Sherlock Holmes (also directed by Ritchie), but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword feels more irreverent... more aggressive in its intentional subversion of heroic clichés, and more dynamic in its re- invention of medieval action scenes. Instead of big battles with hundreds of digital extras, we have "guerrilla wars" in the dusty alleys of London (I'm sorry... "Londinium"); instead of bombastic speeches to inspire the troops, we have heists, espionage and long-distance killings. As I previously said: this isn't fantasy like we usually know it. However, I liked it pretty much once I reconfigured my brain to adapt myself to what this film offers. Nevertheless, I suspect that many people will hate this movie, and compare it to... I don't know... The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing, or similar pieces of junk which abused the style over the substance. But I personally think King Arthur: Legend of the Sword includes genuine drama, solid performances and a fresh vision of a legend initiated more than a thousand years ago. And, as every legend, it evolves as time goes by. This is the current version; take it or leave it.
High-Rise is basically an adult version of Lord of the Flies. Instead of kids abandoned on an island, we have multiple social strata living into a high-technology (for the standards of the '70s) building in which everything works perfectly. Everything, but human nature, which quickly divides the tenants into hierarchies that degenerate into the exploitation of the "poor" and the exaltation of the "rich". I use quotations marks to divide the "rich" and the "poor" because everyone pays the same rent; so, why do some ones live in the superior luxury floors, while other ones barely survive in the filthy basements? That might sounds like an archaic communist fantasy about war of classes and the uprising of the proletariat... and that's very probable, because High-Rise is based on a novel written by J.G. Ballard, the subversive author of other similarly transgressor books such as Crash, The Drowned World and the anthology The Atrocity Exhibition. For better or for worse, the ideals of High-Rise represent the "progressive" British thought from the '70s, and that justifies the wonderful retro atmosphere achieved by cinematographer Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley. Unfortunately, the message "the humans are animals ready to return to savagery as soon as the electricity is interrupted" has been repeated too many times... and in more interesting ways. The main problem of High-Rise is that its second half gets repetitive until getting a bit tiring. Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump rejoice themselves portraying uncountable manifestations of cruelty and barbarism, whether in the shape of grotesque orgies, beatings against the ones aspiring to become revolutionary leaders or the killing of an innocent dog (unfortunately, High-Rise isn't a "pet friendly" film). The message had been left clear since the first half of the movie... but Wheatley and Jump repeat the same ideas over, and over, and over again. High-Rise is a film intended to make us think... but sometimes, it thinks for us, instead of bringing us the tools to draw our own conclusions. On the other hand, it managed to hold my interest, the performances are brilliant, and I also appreciated Clint Mansell's score and the attractive images. Maybe deleting half an hour, High-Rise would have been a potent punch to society's stomach. But with its 120-minute running time, it ends up being as accommodating as the high classes it pretends to denounce.
Many Korean films I have seen during this decade have been recreations of North American formulas applied to diverse styles; for example, disaster cinema (Ta-weo, a copy of The Towering Inferno); creature features (7 Gwanggu, a pastiche of Alien, Leviathan and DeepStar Six); and zombie cinema (Busanhaeng, a combination of Dawn of the Dead and World War Z -even though I still liked it very much-). That's why I expected something similar from Goksung: an adaptation of the typical cop thriller which Hollywood has been producing in an almost industrial way since mid-20th century. However, Goksung ended up being something very different, fresh and innovative, proudly carrying its Korean identity, and absolutely unpredictable on its shape... but easy to assimilate due to the universality of the themes it handles, as well as the emotional realism from the characters; oh, and it also combines the cop thriller and the horror genres with an extraordinary expertise. The final result is one of my favorite Korean movies. The 156-minute running time is translated into a paused, not not boring in the slightest, narrative, which allows an organic development of characters and the gradual exposition of a fascinating mystery, in which each new detail inspires more questions than answers. Needless to say, I won't reveal the secrets of the big mystery; I will just say that director and screenwriter Na Hong-jin keeps us on a constant doubt through good part of the film, throwing false clues which deliciously confuse our expectations, while resulting logical when the complete puzzle is finally revealed. Hong-jin's direction is deceptively simple, without too much stylistic ornaments, but achieving a perfect harmony between movement, image and symbolism; the production design is so natural that I couldn't notice where the set ends and where the Korean cottage begins; and the actors make an excellent work in their roles, highlighting Kwak Do-won, who makes the main character's evolution completely credible, and the girl Kim Hwan-hee, who faces physical and emotionally difficult scenes with a devastating aplomb. As for the horror... the least the spectator knows, the better; it's horror on human and spiritual levels, portrayed in an artistic way, but so spontaneously that it's easy to get carried away by the screenplay and forget its fictitious nature. In conclusion, Goksung is an amazing experience: a horror film which doesn't look like horror, and a cop thriller in which not a single shot is fired, and nobody says "Go, go, go!". However, the policemen definitely enjoy saying profanity... the only cliché the movie allows itself to employ, and only to remind us that, below their uniforms, they keep being human beings.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I have seen it so many times that I have learnt to ignore its small problems of tone and edition; besides, I keep enjoying the irreverent sensibility from director James Gunn (to whom I have admired since he worked as a co-screenwriter of Tromeo & Juliet), as well as the excellent chemistry between the characters (perfectly characterized from the first time they show up on the screen), very much. So, my hope was for the sequel to be even better, solving the small cons of the original movie, while creating more complex humorous and dramatic situations to keep exploiting the personalities of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket. On some way, those wishes came true... but unfortunately, new problems came up, making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 very inferior to the original film and not completely satisfactory. To start with, the screenplay deals with excessive elements and sub-plots which end up affecting the rhythm of the movie. Besides, Guaradians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 dedicates a long initial period in which the pieces are accommodated with a surprising lack of dynamism; for approximately 90 minutes, I felt that the Guardians were acting too passively, waiting for things to happen, instead of making them so. And I didn't like what was done with one of the most bizarre creations from Jack Kirby, reducing it to a generic and predictable character. On the positive side, the actors continue the development of their characters with conviction and enthusiasm, and I liked the addition of a certain band of pirates who offer interesting possibilities for future sequels... unless Thanos ends up interfering (no, Thanos doesn't show up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2... I'm just speculating about the future of Phase 3). And even though the soundtrack feels occasionally cloying, it solidly complements the tone of the scenes most of the times. The original Guardians of the Galaxy was an anomaly in Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues that tendency, moving away from super-hero formulas in order to establish its own fantasy style, closer to the "pulp" space opera of Flash Gordon and Starcrash... something I want to take as a justification of some exaggerated scenes which break the already fragile "reality" created by Gunn as a frame of these picturesque anti-heroes (example: the rebellion of the Ravagers, and its eventual consequences). As I previously said, I liked the original film much more, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 still made me have a good time, and I can give it a moderate recommendation because of that. However, I keep wondering... Where are the Kiss songs?
The Blackcoat's Daughter
I tend to like slow and ambiguous films, but only when there's a firm creative purpose for that. The Blackcoat's Daughter counts with that quality, making it a mature and intelligent movie which refuses to fit into any specific genre; in other words, a rich and fascinating experience which makes us think while keeping us on the edge of our seats with all its connotations. The Blackcoat's Daughter tells us a captivating mystery presented in an ingenious way which makes us doubt about its authentic nature. The non-linear narrative plays with time and confuses our perception, through "chapters" dedicated to the three main characters (Kat, Rose and Joan); so, some scenes are repeated from different points of view, adding new dimensions to the story. And we also have the brilliant performances from the three leading actresses, transmitting everything we need to know about their characters with every minuscule expression and movement. I think I only knew Kiernan Shipka from her brief participation in the TV series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (I have never been a fan of Mad Men, in which she played Don Draper's daughter), and it was a very pleasant surprise to see such an intense and even touching performance from her in The Blackcoat's Daughter. Lucy Boynton finds a perfect balance between her character's maturity and vulnerability, and I think Emma Roberts brings the best performance of her career so far in this film, displaying an amazing combination of melancholy and emotional frailty. I know that this review might sound a bit vague, but I don't want to ruin the best moments of The Blackcoat's Daughter. So, I will just conclude saying that I liked it very much, and I enthusiastically recommend it because of the extraordinary performances, frightening atmosphere and the ingenious and deliciously unpredictable screenplay. To sum up: a combination of psychological and visceral horror which will remain in my memory for a long time due to its creative structure and unusual compassion.
Imagine Gummo written by David Cronenberg and directed by John Waters, and the result is Antibirth: a simultaneously interesting and repellent experience which combines black humor, social commentary and grotesque scenes which might be metaphors of something more complex, or simply tasteless grovels designed to defy the audience's sensibility. It will definitely not be everyone's cup of tea, but I personally liked Antibirth pretty much mainly due to its portrait of a sub-culture generally ignored by cinema, in which drugs and alcohol aren't "vices" which should be battled, but a natural part of daily life in order to forget the raw reality of a bad economy, wrong personal decisions and simple bad luck to find a worthy place in modern society. Described in broad terms, the screenplay of Antibirth might seem like a depressing tale about an abuse victim ignored by society and exploited by small-time criminals; but director and screenwriter Danny Pérez didn't seek the audience's compassion, but the expansion of our minds with surrealistic nightmares, government conspiracies and a clear message of distrust against the public institutions who attempt to limit the liberties of individuals... even if those liberties lead to their destruction. So, if you find the idea of watching decrepit (but endearing) characters facing insane (but with a twisted dreamlike logic) situations into a colorful rural environment, I can recommend Antibirth as an interesting antidote against the general stagnation of independent horror and the pretension of dishonest and artificial art-house cinema.
Max Steel (2016)
My only reference of Max Steel were the shelves full of toys I had occasionally seen in shopping malls. In other words: I didn't know anything about this character. However, I still had the impression that I had already seen the film Max Steel, because the screenplay is a laughable pastiche of clichés and scenes recycled uncountable times in cinema and TV. There isn't the slightest trace of originality, ingenuity or the most minimum effort to do something interesting with the premise of Max Steel: a typical misunderstood young man who ends up being "special", and discovers his potential with the help of a mysterious entity, while being chased by anonymous agents of an uncertain origin. The main character is a bad copy of Peter Parker; the extraterrestrial robot Steel is unfunny and hateful; and Dr. Miles Edwards is a typical generic villain. I'm sorry! Have I just accidentally revealed who the villain is? Believe me, from his first scene, it's obvious that Edwards hides something; even before seeing him in person, we can guess he's the villain, due to the elegant car parked outside the house in which the main character and his mother live. In conclusion, don't waste your time with this piece of junk. I even doubt that the fans of the toys while find anything to enjoy in this horrible confection.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts
The Girl With All the Gifts takes one of the most trite sub-genres of fantastic cinema, and without re-inventing it, it makes it feel different and quite interesting due to its solid exploration of the scientific, military and even humanitarian aspects of an overwhelming and deadly situation. In other words, the diverse points of view of the characters are complemented with each other in order to present a simultaneously objective and emotional vision which will be interpreted by every spectator according to his/her point of view. That's how we have the soldier who inflexibly follows orders to protect the scientists; the doctor who seems insensitive because she can't let any feelings interfere with her vital investigation; the teacher trapped between her rational mind and the compassion she has for children who are (literally) treated like laboratory rats; and, finally, the "girl with all the gifts" who challenges the perceptions from all the previously mentioned characters with her attitude. Glenn Close brings a brilliant performance as the doctor, playing her with a delicious coldness and terrifying pragmatism. Paddy Considine solidly handles the dramatic aspects of his character as well as his small touches of humor, while the great Gemma Arterton expresses the ethic disjunctive her character faces without the need of words. But the one who steals the movie is the girl Sennia Nanua; her performance required displaying maturity and tolerance without losing her childish innocence, and she perfectly achieved that. On the negative side, The Girl With All the Gifts feels a bit longer than it should, with some repetitive elements which don't add anything substantial to the narrative. But, for the rest, I found it a very competent film which handles horror, drama and science fiction with equal ability.
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.
In a Valley of Violence (2016)
In a Valley of Violence
Director Ti West has earned a deserved reputation with his horror films (The House of the Devil, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, The Innkeepers and The Sacrament), whose screenplays were complemented by a "retro" sensibility which distinguished them from more conventional fantastic cinema. And, for his most recent movie, West decided to extend his vision to a simultaneously different and similar genre: the western. Of course, "cowboy" cinema is very different to the horror both thematic and stylistically, but both are based on perfectly defined stimuli and reactions, which don't require too much innovation to please the followers... just an efficient execution which respects the tradition and doesn't scatter talent both behind and in front of the cameras. In a Valley of Violence fulfills with those conditions... however, its premise is SO traditional that I wasn't able to feel any suspense, excitement or even interest in something so simple and predictable. Besides, the release of hugely superior westerns during the last 5 years (such as Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained and the remake of The Magnificent Seven) put this movie in quite a disadvantage. Even though I didn't like In a Valley of Violence, I still have to admit it has a few positive elements, such as some good performances, beautiful cinematography, perfect locations of the authentic North American southeast and a charming dog (who unfortunately gets killed quite soon). Ethan Hawke brings a solid performance in the leading role, transmitting his character's motivation without the need of words. The villains are quite poorly written, but they earn some humanity due to the competent performances from John Travolta and James Ransone. On the other side of the coin, Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan bring forced and excessively artificial performances; both are generally good actresses, but their work in this film is pretty bad, and they are among the elements which most substantially damaged this movie. As for the violence, there is some blood, but it still feels quite shy; maybe, with more exaggeration in that regard, the film would have earned at least a little bit of personality. In conclusion, despite offering a few positive elements, I can't recommend this listless and boring version of a classic revenge tale which wasn't able to reach its potential. I just hope West goes back to horror soon; or that he has learned the lesson, and he will display more personality and energy in his next venture into other genres.