25 March 2017

Personal Shopper

An odd little film that was both an independent art-house thriller and a murder/horror mystery. However, Writer/Director Olivier Assayas eschewed Hollywood conventions and in the end, the film will leave you with questions as it lingers in your mind. But one thing for sure, this was a one-woman showcase for Kristen Stewart who although has not reached the heights of Isabelle Huppert or Assayas' ex-wife Maggie Cheung, but has now surely shown that she is one of the more underrated actresses of her generation.

Personal Shopper was essentially a simple story about grief and self-identity but Assayas had wrapped it up in a shroud of supernatural mystery and that oddly worked. He used the exploration of death and afterlife, and through Stewarts' nuanced acting, to examine the complex emotions of grief and how those emotions can affect one's rationality and action.

Assayas made many rather smart directorial choices in his storytelling, but his best decision was to have deliberately left many questions unanswered especially pertaining to the supernatural angle of the story. Yes, he does acknowledge the supernatural but he does not explain it and that actually stayed true to the spirit of the film.

However, the film was not without its fault. For one, Assayas may have found an innovative way to incorporate texting into a film, however that one long interlude of texting may have been too long. It did work thematically and narratively, but as it went on...and on...and on...our interest wavers and we slowly lose our connection to the character and the story. On the other hand, there was one use of texting in the Third Act that was pure, brilliant Hitchcockian tension.

Then there was also his decision to include Stewart's character's supposed boyfriend. Did he really served any purpose other than as an exposition tool?

This was Stewart's film and she was practically in every scene. And boy, does Stewart own it. She may still mumble through her lines but that worked here as her character's societal disenchantment and dissociation was in the fore of the narrative. As the story unfolds, and Assayas adds layers to her character, Stewart bravely embraced the complexities and her renowned resting bitch face gets a good workout as emotions flicker through and often within the same scene. She was actually mesmerising to watch.

Personal Shopper is an indie film at heart and for that, may not endear itself to a large audience, but it does tell a genuinely interesting story although it could have been tighter and less meandering/indulgent. But at least it respects the audience's intelligence.


24 March 2017

Life


A silly, ridiculous, check-your-brain-at-the-door, but yet highly efficient sci-fi/action/thriller. There was absolutely no intelligence nor logic in the story and every plot-point was telegraphed and derivative, but yet director Daniel Espinosa has managed to pull off an excitingly, brisk thriller. There is no doubt that this film has many moments, in terms of tension, thrills, scares and gore, and truly, as long as you can accept (and forgive) the eye-rolling plot and the ghost-walking actors, Life was a fun 103 minutes.

Espinosa started the film off with so much potential. The opening action sequence emulated Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity with its well- choreographed one-track shot. And it was done really well. Giving us both a sense of dread, uncertainty and claustrophobia. Throughout the film, Espinosa and his Oscar-nominated Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey managed to maintain that scathing atmosphere which really helped to sell the thrills.

Unfortunately, the other element of an effective psychological thriller - the music - was less effective. Composer Jon Ekstrand's score was really more in-your-face rather than creeping under the skin. The strings would come on in a frenzy and you would know what is going to happen.

Life was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and as old and as derivative as the story goes, there could have been so many ways the writing could have been better. Unfortunately, we get clunky lines, asinine character decisions and just plain stupidity all around. Perhaps knowing that, Espinosa chose to forgo logic and excel in the other facets of the film.

At least creature design was amazing. The alien was bloody creepy and terrifying.

This was obviously one of those films that Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds and even rising star, Rebecca Ferguson, did just for the money. Even the oft-reliable Gyllenhaal could not save it; Reynolds felt like he was ad-libbing mostly; and Ferguson was a pillar of British stoicism.

Then we have that ending, which oddly enough, if you know your geology, segues nicely into Legendary's Kong and its MonsterVerse. Maybe like Prometheus, it is all part of a larger story. One can only hope.

21 March 2017

Beauty and the Beast


Beauty and the Beast was a fun, nostalgic, live-action retelling of the beloved, classic animation but with 45 minutes more padding that added little to the depth of an already abbreviated fairy tale. Bill Condon’s remake was literally almost a play-by-play re-enactment and that led to the film being uninspiring and tired and – to quote itself – missing a certain je ne sais quois; the magic and joie de vivre of the original was largely missing. It also definitely did not help that Emma Watson, though physically well-cast as Belle, was otherwise horribly miscast and her lack of acting chops grossly magnified here, and the Beast’s mo-cap/CGI was terrifyingly plastic/wooden. Together, they lacked chemistry and could not sell the tale as old as time.

Speaking of CGI, this was nothing compared to the technological wonders of The Jungle Book. Our beloved Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, et al were rendered competently but lacked the fluid and artistry afforded by hand-drawn animation. This was never more apparent that the biggest disappointment of the film, the iconic, supposedly show-stopper, undeniable ear-worm, Be My Guest. Under Condon’s direction, this scene became a kaleidoscopic, cabaret-esque CGI spectacle that was neither amazing, wondrous nor fun. And it absolutely did not help that Watson was similarly unimpressed.

Our second biggest disappointment was in the classic Ballroom dance moment. There was no magic, at all, in that moment. No magic. No chemistry. No wide-eyed wonder.

As gorgeous as the Beast’s abode was, the provincial village itself looked exactly like a reproduced set. Unfortunately, the obviousness of that highlighted the artificiality of the story and only helped to distanced the audience.

Regardless, the film itself could still have been so much better – even with the same screenplay – if the casting had been better.

Watson is pretty and she looks intelligent. Physically, she looks like Belle and if this was just a series of photographs, Watson utterly impresses. However, this was a moving picture and Watson undeniably is not a strong actress, yet. Her intelligence shone through, but her Belle also lacked the charm, grace and innocent naiveté necessary to sell the eventual love story. Although yes, one must acknowledge the times (2017 is not 1991), but to sell a fantasy romance, certain aspects of a character must be present. One can accept that Watson is not a singer, but as an actress she never really possessed the spirit of Belle.

However, the most egregious sin with the casting of Watson, was that with seven  eight Harry Potter films under her belt, one would think that she is accustomed to, and even excels at, acting opposite CGI. But this was obviously not the case and with such a CGI-heavy film, her unconvincing reactions constantly breaks the spell. And since Stevens was acting, on stilts, opposite Watson, there should be no excuse for Watson to be so stiff in her scenes with him
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Speaking of Stevens, The Beast’s rather poor conception did not help things. This has got to be one of the poorest motion-capture performance/rendering in recent times. No offence to Dan Stevens, but mo-cap acting is a skill unto itself. Look at Caesar/Andy Serkis from the Planet of the Apes series. The Beast’s eyes betrayed the falseness of cinematic reality. And Condon’s brief moments into exploring his backstory was just that, too brief, to have an impact.

That is not to say that there were not any standout moments. Two of the best things of the film were the music by Alan Menken (with lyrics by Howards Ashman and Tim Rice) and Gaston as campily and gleefully played by Luke Evans.

Firstly, Evans. He can sing! And was possibly the best singer in the film. His ability to belt it out and his total embracement of his character allowed him to steal all his scenes up to a point that whenever he appears, the mood perceptibly changes. Coupled with Josh Gad – Olaf! – these two were a formidable comedic coupling and brought much needed levity to the film. Their (new) songs were welcomed addition to the film.

And then we have the music. The score by Menken survives through the times and remains as beautiful and enchanting as it had been. Both Josh Groban’s Evermore and Celine Dion’s How Does a Moment Last Forever worked a lot better in context of the film and one develops a new layer of appreciation for the tunes after having watched it. Stevens and Watson did a commendable job with their songs; Emma Thompson voiced Mrs Pots convincingly but her rendition of Beauty and the Beast lacked warmth and affection as compared to Angela Lansbury; Ewan McGregor can sing (see: Moulin Rouge) but here his show-stopping Be My Guest was lost in a frenzied CGI manipulation; lucky for Evans and Gad.

There is no doubt that much of the criticism laid at this film was because of a familiarity – and affection – for the original animation. And unlike Disney’s prior live-action outings like Cinderella and The JungleBook, there were no significant changes to the original story to give it a fresh perspective. The tale may be as old as time and Disney chose to keep it as such, and although it translated decently well, the cinematic magic of watching something new unfold is lost. 


18 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island


An unabashedly popcorn movie that was high on both entertainment and ridiculous jocularity. Decent acting, great scenery-chewing, exciting CGI action and a story line that was believable as long as you can check your sensibility and all reality at the door. More Kong here than in the travesty that was Godzilla and at least Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) were more believable than Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was quick to get into the premise and action, which was really what the target audience really wants in this show. Although the prologue had so much more potential than the actual narrative itself. The plot moves steadily along and the eventual survivors are broadly characterised and introduced, although it did make for good fun to guess who is going to die next (good job on making some deaths emotionally resonant).

Casting was a double-edged sword in this case. We have a great cast here of big-name, marquee actors and they all served their roles well, but the script and the story did them no service - except for Jackson.

Jackson has got the crazy-eyed psycho guy role down pat and he chewed his scenes for all its worth. And even though it was at times so over the top, it worked here because this was the sort of film for it.

Larson on the other hand should really not have chosen this film post-Room. She was almost as un-feminist as Bryce Dallas Howards was in Jurassic World. And although there were two women in the cast, neither of them barely spoke to each other. An absolute Bechdel Test fail.

Speaking of which, I understand the need to a) pander to the Chinese market and b) especially since one of the financiers is a Chinese film, but the character and casting of actress Tian Jing was superficial at least and redundant/extraneous at worst. And see above.

Then we have Hiddleston. If this was another of his audition reel for James Bond, then I would suggest that he submits The Night Manager instead. This role was a cake walk for him and we know he is capable of so much more. Nothing in the script/directing allowed him to convince the audience of his character. And he and Larson lacked chemistry, even the non-sexual kind.

Luckily we had John C. Reily and John Goodman.

Stay till after the end-credits for a stinger introducing the next entry in Legendary's Monster-verse.




14 March 2017

Logan


A strong film on its own and even one of the best comic-book film in a long time. Director and co-writer James Mangold smartly crafted a superhero film that was character and story driven rather than spectacle and action-led. A road trip, buddy movie masquerading as another entry in the X-Men canon. But at least Hugh Jackman finally gets to flex his acting chops again, and this time with the stellar Patrick Stewart as his more-than-worthy sparring partner.

By limiting the scope of the film to just Wolverine, the script really allowed us to delve deep into the psyche of this man. It is his emotional journey and growth that really drove the story, with Stewart and the young Dafne Keen serving as effective springboards in exploring deeper layers.

Having Logan rated M18 was definitely a smart choice. Wolverine is a violent character, and the sanitised versions of him in the past just felt weird. And he is not only violent in action, but also emotionally and psychologically. The M18 rating really let him be him. whereas Deadpool used its M18 ratings more for laughs and gratuitous gore (which was appropos for the character too).

Jackman lived up to the challenge and this was possibly one of the best roles he has inhabited. Over the years he embodied this character, but it is only in this film that Jackman could really bring him to life as a real character rather than a caricature/superhero.

Truly, throughout most of the film, one forgets that this is another entry in the superhero franchise. Even the bad guys of the film is not as ridiculous and outlandish as in others superhero films. There was actually a moment (or moments) where our protagonists were so beaten that even we wonder how they can get back up (which we all know they will eventually).

The emotional beats were all well earned and the final pathos was deserved. Logan was not what I was expecting and the unexpectedness of it made it refreshing and exciting.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...