Month: March 2017

Personal Shopper

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Maureen is a young American living and working as a personal shopper in Paris. She recently lost her twin brother to a heart defect that Maureen has as well. Also like her brother, Maureen may possess the abilities of a medium. As she attempts to contact her brother’s spirit she exposes herself to dangers she doesn’t understand. Someone, or something, is trying to make contact. Whatever is trying to reach out to Maureen will change her life forever.

The plot of personal shopper is relatively unique, but what makes it truly stand out is the way the film was pieced together. This isn’t a film that necessarily has a typical beginning, middle, and end. It feels more true to life in that there isn’t a linear story, instead the film flows with the ins and outs of Maureen’s daily life. There is also a lack of the expositional scenes audiences are used to when watching traditional narrative films. This style is very similar to what was done in the Golden Globe nominated film, 20th Century Women. Some may be put off by this style, especially since it does not lay the who, what, when, where, why out on a silver platter. I personally enjoy this method of storytelling because of the realism it adds to the film. This particular method also enhances the high fashion aspect. Maureen is a personal shopper for a high profile model, and that means she has access to fantastic haute couture clothing. When that is combined with the realistic storytelling the result is a raw and gorgeous film.

There is also a constant presence of death throughout the film, whether it be ghosts, thoughts of Maureen’s deceased brother, or her own impending mortality. Since she was a child, she has experienced the paranormal because she and her brother are mediums. Then when he dies of a heart defect that Maureen also has, death is brought into the forefront of her life. It is no longer static in the background, but something she has to face and learn to no longer fear. In a sense her brother’s death helps her to live her life the way she wants because there is no way to know when her time is up. She has to learn to accept and live with the idea of death because it is all around her.

There are a few downfalls to the plot. One scene is specifically bothersome. In it Maureen is having a conversation about her brother’s spirit with a friend’s boyfriend. The dialogue for this scene is choppy and sounds unnaturally forced. It is one of a few scenes where the dialogue sounds awkward. Additionally, there are a couple scenes that don’t make much sense or feel irrelevant. Some of this can be written off as part of the unique storytelling format, but one specific scene involves events implying a ghost is present. What makes it odd is that the ghostly presence is not explained or even acknowledged in any way. Again, this is likely due to the format of the film, but it definitely detracts a bit from the plot.

This film focuses almost solely on the protagonist. Many people will know Kristen Stewart as Bella from the Twilight franchise. In Personal Shopper she plays the complicated main character, Maureen. Historically the only film I have thought Stewart could act in was Panic Room. Luckily, Stewart seems to have broken the Twilight curse. Her performance in Personal Shopper is evocative, grounded, and she brings the character to life in a way I have not seen from her before. I will say there are times in the film where Stewart acts in stressful situations that gives me flashbacks to her Twilight days. Specifically, she tends to twitch and stutter to portray anxiety or fear much like she did as Bella. Not to say that these actions don’t work for the character of Maureen, but it still calls me back to memories of Stewart’s less competent performances. However, her overall portrayal carries the film and gives it life.

Since this is a film that is meant to feel as real as possible there is a minimal amount of effects. The only CGI effects in the film are used to create the ghosts Maureen sees. Most of the time it is just a glimmer in the darkness, but one scene involves a more full-bodied apparition. While the more minimalist CGI works well, the full-bodied work loses any sense of mystery and any chance of scaring the audience. This is a perfect example of “less is more” being the smartest route, especially in paranormal horror films. The cinematography works much better than the effects. Most of the shots, much like the story, are done in a way that makes the audience feel like they are peering into Maureen’s life. Yet there are still scenes that have a certain air of beauty. One specific scene that is masterfully shot manages to make a horrific event intriguing and bewitching. The audience is shown just enough to understand what is happening, without truly showing anything too disturbing. It fits with the overall themes of the film; sex, mystery, beauty, and death.

Personal Shopper is a film that has its flaws. If you can look past some of the less fortunate dialogue and lackluster CGI, then you will see the unsettling and seductive film that lies within. There is no one aspect of this film that narrates the story, except that it is Maureen’s life. Her life is revealed to the audience as she experiences events in an authentic portrayal of the darker side of humanity. The only theme that runs throughout the entire film is life in the fashion world and a sort of acceptance of death. If you enjoy fashion, intrigue, and the supernatural then this is a film you should seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Raw

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A young girl begins her studies at a prestigious veterinary school that her whole family has attended. She was raised as a vegetarian but is forced to eat raw meat during a hazing ritual at the school. Her body reacts to the meat in an odd way, but now she has had a taste for meat and wants more. Once she gets her first taste of human flesh, there is no going back. From that moment on the girl’s life spirals out of control as her hunger grows.

A young girl coming into adulthood and discovering her own sexuality can be complicated and messy all on it’s own. Add to that a burgeoning hunger for human flesh, and things can escalate quickly. What I most enjoy about this plot is how it amplifies what is a normal coming-of-age story by adding the unique cannibalistic element. This young girl, Justine, is already an outsider because she is younger than her veterinary school peers, and therefore still developing into the woman she will become. She is even more of an outsider once she discovers her own unusual eating habits. Justine is alone and has no one to relate to. Even with her own sister attending the same school, she still has no one she can confide in as she goes through her many changes. This can be seen as a metaphor, as the desire to eat human flesh directly relates to her burgeoning sexual desire. It is very fitting that this film was written and directed by a woman, Julia Ducournau, because this is a theme that can only be accurately conveyed by someone who has experienced the changes a woman goes through. Ducournau’s storytelling makes it so you feel Justine’s isolation and confusion on her journey. As a woman it is impossible not to empathize with her, even with the added oddity of her dietary desires.

Obviously the cannibalism, and how it acts as a metaphor for Justine’s developing sexuality, is the driving force of this story. Yet it is also very much about the relationship between two sisters. While Justine is going through her whirlwind of changes she has her sister, Alexia, as a constant presence. Much of what Justine is going through Alexia has herself experienced, so one would expect Alexia to be her sister’s guide and confidant throughout everything. Unfortunately, their relationship is very much the definition of sibling rivalry. While the two love each other very much, they also hate each other like many sisters do. There is a breaking point in every relationship, and yet again the cannibalism acts as the catalyst that threatens to explode their sisterly bond. Many of the themes in Raw, such as the female journey to adulthood and the sibling relationship, feel reminiscent of one of my favorite horror films, Ginger Snaps

The performances by both sisters are delightful. Garance Marillier (Mange) is absolutely marvelous as Justine. She gives the audience a complete transformation from a naive young girl to a sexual, hungry being in a way that feels natural and somewhat visceral. Marillier also manages to feel like a relatable character throughout her transformation. Considering the more eccentric aspects of her metamorphosis, that is quite a feat. Ella Rumpf (Tiger Girl) acts as an excellent counterpoint to Justine as her sister, Alexia. Alexia’s personality is an interesting juxtaposition compared to Justine’s in how differently she responds to various situations. Rumpf’s performance is surprising on more than one occasion and keeps the audience guessing what she will do next. Marillier and Rumpf together create an extraordinary duo that displays the many facets of human nature.

Raw is a very visually stunning film. Of course it is going to have great practical effects as it is a cannibal film. The practical effects in the cannibal scenes are excellent, but they aren’t quite as over-the-top as much of the early buzz for Raw would suggest. It is surely grotesque, but nothing that horror fans haven’t seen before. While the various gory bits were very well done, I found the practical effects used to create the animals to be especially impressive. Since Justine is in veterinary school she obviously will have to dissect an animal at some point. There is a scene where a dog cadaver is dissected in one of the classes. This dog not only looks real on the outside, but on the inside as well.  These effects are great, but I found the cinematography and use of color throughout the film to be the most beautiful aspect of Raw. Many shots are done in such a way where there is chaos concurring all around but your eye still focuses on Justine and the silence within her. These shots are typically used to emphasize her isolation, even when she is surrounded by others. There is also a heavy use of blue and red tones in many scenes. This colors add beauty to scenes that might not otherwise be considered beautiful.

In recent years there has been an increase in horror films that provide an interesting take on the human experience. These films are intelligent, thought provoking, and often times focus on women and the trials they face. Along with the likes of It Follows and The Witch, Raw fits into this unique horror film niche. The coming-of-age story about a girl discovering her sexuality isn’t something one would typically consider horror, but horrific elements are added to the story as a mechanism to exacerbate emotions and events throughout the story. When you add the extra layer of cannibalism to the plot and use it as a metaphor, you get a horror film that forces audiences to see things in a new light. Raw is a beautifully told tale that is gruesome and, as a woman, very familiar. While this might not be what audiences typically expect from a horror film, it is what they should be asking for more of.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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The Belko Experiment

Eighty Americans work in a high rise building in a remote part of Bogota, Colombia. While the location is odd, the office setting is just like any other office. On one seemingly normal day the employees head into work where new security men check them in. Shortly into the day a strange voice comes over the intercom. All the employees have been sealed into their workplace, and the voice is commanding the employees to kill each other in order to survive. Who will kill, and who will be killed?

Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, Rogue) makes a return to what he does best with The Belko Experiment. While he made a rather unsuccessful attempt to dive into the supernatural sub-genre of horror with The Darkness, his home is definitely in the more bloody thrillers that are funnier than they should be. Writer James Gunn (Slither, Guardians of the Galaxy) also knows how to take terrifying situations and inject humor into them. Together McLean and Gunn make the perfect comedic thriller duo. In The Belko Experiment, Gunn and McLean introduce us to the mundane life of office workers, complete with all the personalities one would expect to find. As someone who works in the typical cubical office setting by day, I can relate to much of what is shown, and it was hilarious. When looking at the people you work with every day for weeks (or even years) on end you think you know them, but do you really know how they would react in stressful situations? Gunn and McLean bring this idea to life by throwing the employees of Belko into a fight for survival, and it definitely shows how different people can be when their own life is on the line. This concept is almost like a mashup of Office Space and Battle Royale, resulting in much slaughter and hilarity.

While there are a number of characters involved in this film and not a lot of time before things get intense, all of the characters are well acted and still feel complete. Even the ones that are not on screen for long feel like whole characters so you understand who they are and what their motivations are. While the entire cast is enjoyable, there are two people that make this movie great. The first is John Gallagher Jr. (Hush, 10 Cloverfield Lane) as Mike Milch. Mike is kind of a loser, but he is also caring and one of the few individuals that puts others before himself, even when things go from bad to worse. Gallagher has been in a few horror films over the past year, and I continue to enjoy every performance because he is able to completely transform into his character. The second actor that I love in this film is John C. McGinley (Office Space, Identity) as Wendell Dukes. Wendell is kind of the office creep, and his demeanor does not improve when the killing starts. What makes McGinley’s performance stand out is the amount of humor he brings to the role. He may be completely psychotic, but he has fun while doing it! Both of these actors are amazing, but so is virtually every other actor. There is one other character that I was disappointed with not because of their acting, but because the character gets killed off much too early on in the film. The Belko Experiment is a great example of the phrase “there are no small parts.”

This is a film that has really fun practical effects. You know there is going to be butchery as employees and friends begin killing each other. Most of the effects that jump out at you are ones involving injuries to the head. There is a bashed in skull where there isn’t really a break in the skin,  but there is clearly a dent in the head that looks grotesque and realistic. Another scene shows a close up of the back of someone’s head that has been blown away. The head, the open wound, and the close up of all the gross little bits look superb. While most of the effects are impressive, the same cannot be said for the CGI. In actuality, there are only a couple shots done in CGI that create the outside of the high rise. It is obvious a minuscule amount of the budget went into creating the exterior, which I didn’t mind until you see people walking outside the building on what is clearly a green screen. It takes away from what is otherwise a well done and intense film.

Of the horror films to come out so far in 2017 most have either been greatly lacking in a good story or they have been amazing, but more on the serious side of horror. The Belko Experiment gives audiences a delightful amount of carnage and mayhem in a humorous office setting. Most people can relate to one or more of the characters in the film because they have similar jobs and work with similar personalities. When thinking about the film my only true criticisms are the terrible use of CGI and the fact that an early favorite among the employees (or at least one of my favorites) gets killed off too quickly. Otherwise, I can say this is the kind of horror film that makes you gasp and laugh in turn, resulting in an exciting experience you won’t soon forget.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Kong: Skull Island

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A group of scientists team up with soldiers to travel to an uncharted island. Their goal is to use seismic charges to study and map the geological structures on the island. Little does the team know that this island is filled with mysterious creatures. Many of these creatures are larger than life and unlike anything the group has seen before. Unfortunately, their explosions have awoken the king of the island, and this is a king they do not want to cross.

Most audiences know the story of King Kong. It is a plot that has been redone several times, and the story is typically the same: a large gorilla-like creature rules Skull Island. He typically falls for a beautiful blonde woman who happens to be with a group of men exploring the island, then Kong gets captured and taken to New York, escapes, then climbs a tall building. This plot is usually set in the 1930’s. While some of these elements are present in Kong: Skull Island, audiences are (for the most part) given a fresh, unique take on the giant ape we know and love. The biggest difference is that the film is set in the 1970’s at the end of the Vietnam War. The filmmakers do a great job of creating the look and feel one would expect when watching a Vietnam War era film. They clearly draw heavy inspiration from films like Apocalypse Now, especially when looking at the color choices made throughout the film. Another substantial difference between the classic King Kong story and this film is that, while there is a blonde female character traveling with the group of men, she is by no means a damsel in distress. This female character, Mason Weaver, proves early on that she can tough it out with the best of them because she is an anti-war photographer in the trenches of Vietnam. These two differences alone make Kong: Skull Island stand apart from its predecessors.

When the first teaser trailer came out for this film I was very concerned about the size of Kong. I understand that Kong was enlarged to make him a more suitable foe to battle Godzilla, but taking him from 50ft to 100ft seemed like a bit much. He doesn’t scale tall buildings anymore, he’s the size of a tall building! Luckily the filmmakers manage to make Kong’s size work along with the other plot changes. Taking into consideration we will eventually have a Godzilla vs Kong film, one of the most successful aspects was how the filmmakers connected King Kong to the same universe as Godzilla. In King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) the two monsters are haphazardly thrown together in Tokyo to have an epic battle without much explanation. Kong: Skull Island clearly establishes the existence of an extensive underground system of caverns that are inhabited by all sorts of giant monsters including Kong, Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. The audience is given a great Kong story while also getting a taste of what future Kong and Godzilla films will have in store.

This is definitely an action packed monster flick, but it is also driven by the human characters. With the likes of John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak), and John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) you know  you’re in for a treat. While the dialogue does leave a bit to be desired, there are many amazing performances that make up for it. One of the more interesting roles is played by Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight). He plays Packard, the leader of the group of soldiers. What makes his performance truly stand out is how his actions seem to directly mirror Kong’s. Both of them seem crazed and animalistic at times, but really their only goal is to protect those they care about. As I mentioned earlier, this film has the perfect strong female character in photographer Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson (Room). There is something about Larson and how she portrays this character that makes her a true role model. In all honesty, there are so many fascinating and likeable characters that my biggest qualm with this film is that there are almost too many characters. I also wish many of the characters had been given more backstory, especially Goodman’s character.

Both the cinematography and special effects elevate the film to another level. Many scenes are so beautifully shot you almost forget you are watching a giant monster movie. One scene that stands out for its cinematography is the iconic shot when we first get a glimpse of Kong with the sunrise behind him. More gorgeous and thrilling cinematography is seen when Hiddleston runs through bright green smoke while using a sword to cut down flying monsters. In these two scenes and many others the use of vibrant color adds beauty to perilous situations. The CGI creatures are incredibly well done. With Kong, he is clearly a gorilla-like creature, but unlike gorillas Kong stands upright. This gives the perception that Kong may be somewhere between man and ape. There are various other creatures inhabiting Skull Island. Each one has a unique and beautiful creature design. The “skull crawlers” are particularly disturbing in their odd shape and the way they move, yet their features are logical for being underground lizard-like beings.It is clear that a lot of thought went into the creation of the many giant beasts.

Kong: Skull Island is my favorite giant monster film since Cloverfield (2008). It makes up for many of the mistakes that were made with the recent Godzilla film, especially in that there are more compelling characters and Kong is more prominently featured. That being said, this film does repeat some of the same mistakes. With such a star-studded cast, it is impossible not to enjoy each and every performance. Unfortunately there are simply too many characters and not enough time to really dive into each of their histories, and often the dialogue between them can sound uninspired. Despite that, audiences still get an exciting monster movie that has great creature designs, breathtaking cinematography, and a story that instantly grabs your attention (all the way through to the end of the credits). You will walk out of the theater eager to see what comes next in this epic universe of giant monsters from the depths of the earth.

OVERALL RATING. 8/10