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Posts Tagged ‘Kristen Stewart’

There was a time when I prided myself on seeing pretty much every interesting-looking film that came out. Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, released in 2015, didn’t make the cut: I wish I could remember why. Certainly, as a slightly batty-looking genre movie, it’s the sort of thing I would usually take an interest in. But there you go.  Finally seeing it now, do I regret not catching it on the big screen? (Bear in mind I have often knowingly turned up to see the most outrageous tripe at the cinema.)

The protagonist of the movie is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy stoner and general loser who at the start of the film is being questioned for his part in a series of spectacularly violent events in a small West Virginia town: most of the film is thus a flashback. It transpires that Mike has been living a quiet and unambitious life here with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart – and yes, you might be forgiven for thinking that Eisenberg is once again punching above his weight a bit) for as long as he can remember, although this is not entirely of his own choosing. Every time he tries to leave the area he suffers a crippling panic attack, which is a real deal-breaker when it comes to his desire to fly Phoebe to Hawaii so he can propose to her.

Unfortunately, Mike’s failed attempt to leave town still attracts the attention of elements within the CIA led by a man named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who decrees that he is in danger of breaching their security and orders that he be liquidated immediately. This goes against the grain as far as senior agent Lasseter (Connie Britton, in a role which feels like it was written for a bigger-name actor) is concerned: she gets to Mike first and gives him a code-phrase which just seems to him to be gibberish. Until two of Yates’ assassins appear and try to kill him, at which point his conditioning kicks in and he rapidly and spectacularly executes them both.

Yes, it transpires that Howell is a former subject of one of the government’s mind-control and conditioning programmes (the title of the movie alludes to MKUltra, a project along vaguely similar lines which ran for a couple of decades from the early 1950s): he has been trained as a covert operative and assassin, but has no memory of how or why this happened. Will he figure out who he is and how he got this way? And, more importantly, will he be able to manage this before Yates’ men kill Phoebe and him?

American Ultra didn’t make much of an impression on its release, and only barely recouped its budget – the dark arts of Hollywood accounting mean that as a result it actually lost the studio money – despite headlining two bright young things like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. This occasioned another notable person involved with the production, screenwriter Max Landis, to take to social media and publicly wonder whether it was possible for a movie which wasn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off, or adaptation to succeed in the summer marketplace – and given that some of the duffers outperforming American Ultra at the box office that year were films like The Man from UNCLE, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Terminator Genisys, one might concede he had a point.

It is a good question: only a tiny number of directors have sufficient clout to get original scripts made for a mainstream summer audience these days. What’s more debatable is whether Landis is the right person to be making this point, and American Ultra the right film to be making it on behalf of. Now, leaving the murky issue of Landis’ personal life to one side (google, if you really must), it’s not as if he’s been turning out great, underappreciated gems in the course of his career: he wrote Chronicle, which was very good, and was apparently involved with Power Rangers at some point (not enough to get a credit, though) – but since then, the movies with his name on them have been Bright (significantly flawed, at best), Victor Frankenstein (terrible), and this one. Which is…

Well, as you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for the lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulation, but American Ultra almost demands it – the basic premise is The Bourne Identity meets Clerks, the central gag the image of a slacker played by Jesse Eisenberg gorily disposing of large numbers of big tough enemies. It also almost feels like an Edgar Wright pastiche – it seems to be aspiring towards the same kind of twitchy energy and breezy cool, underpinned by genuine heart.

The problem is that however you slice it, at its heart it’s a comedy, and that as a comedy it just isn’t funny enough. The premise is sort of vaguely amusing, but it needs to be shored up with better gags than we get here. Instead of genuine wit and snappy dialogue we end up with a sort of splatstick, by I mean very graphic violence apparently played for laughs, some of it extremely cartoony (at one point Eisenberg throws a frying pan in the air and ricochets a bullet off it to dispose of a bad guy). For the most part, though, the action is just not expansive or inventive enough to make the film distinctive or enjoyable as a piece of kinetic art, and the characters aren’t well-drawn enough for even charismatic performers like Eisenberg or Stewart to do much with (and Eisenberg doesn’t quite have Stewart’s gift of coming across well even in a bad movie).

In the end it passes the time reasonably pleasantly, provided you can deal with the fact the story mainly progresses through outbursts of rather bloody violence. It’s not completely without laughs, nor is it without ideas, and there are touches of cleverness here and there in the script. Not enough, though: it doesn’t come close to the level of the films which appear to have inspired it. Given the actors involved, at least, one would have been forgiven for hoping for something a bit better.

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What do you get when you put an IT expert, a rocket scientist, an electrical engineer and an unemployed God-only-knows-what into a darkened room together? Either experimental theatre, or – as was indeed the case on the particular occasion I am thinking of – a night out to the cinema for my gaming group. This, I should make clear, is a fairly unusual occurrence: when we get together, it’s usually to play games, as the fact we are a gaming group might lead one to suspect. Our only previous outings of this nature were to see the two most recent stellar conflict movies, and this was simply because it is our shared love of the stellar conflict franchise (and associated entertainments) that originally brought us together. Needless to say, there was a similar rationale behind our decision to go and see William Eubank’s Underwater.

That said, I knew literally nothing about this movie beyond the title and the fact that it contained one particular story element, and was half-expecting something very low-budget and rough around the edges. It was therefore a fairly pleasant surprise when the opening credits indicated that leading the film would be Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, for these are both classy performers, and Stewart, in particular, has acquired that talent of always being impressively watchable even when the film she’s appearing in is not really up to much.

Underwater is very much part of Stewart’s return to mainstream entertainment. She (still with basically the same haircut as in Seberg) plays Norah Price, an engineer working at a deep-sea drilling installation at some time in the fairly near future. Pretty much the first thing that happens in the movie is that the station suffers a catastrophic breach, killing most of the crew. Stewart survives, obviously, and together with a couple of fellow survivors she makes her way to the command deck where she encounters the captain of the project (Cassel) and a few others. Something has gone horribly wrong – but what, exactly? It’s not at all clear. In any case, survival must come first and Cassel has a plan: all the escape pods in the station itself have gone, but if they descend through the wreckage of the rig to the ocean bed and then trek across it to what’s left of the drillhead, they may yet find the means to return to the surface alive.

This, naturally, involves clumping around in damaged deep-sea suits under pressures that would almost instantly reduce any normal person to mulch (and, this being a horror movie, that indeed happens to someone). But it gets better, by which I mean worse. Hostile and grotesque new forms of marine life have apparently been stirred up and are infesting the area around the station and the drill site. What exactly has the drilling project woken up…?

The first thing one should say about Underwater (not the most imaginative title, but accurate) is that it is a solid genre movie that understands and respects the conventions of the kind of film it clearly is, which is to say it is a horror-SF film. (By this I mean that you can guess more-or-less in which order the cast are going to get killed, you see progressively more of the monsters as the thing goes on, and there are various sequences in which Stewart and the other female cast member, Jessica Henwick, run around in their underwear.) However, this itself almost constitutes a surprise given William Eubank’s CV: he also made (though I had forgotten this) The Signal, an impressive piece of slightly experimental pure SF, stronger on visuals than strict narrative coherence. This film boasts the same kind of solid production values and impressive special effects, but it’s the kind of movie which you can’t imagine had its origins in anything other than the director watching a film they really enjoyed as a teenager and really wanting to do their own version of it.

Even the brief capsule synopsis I have provided is possibly quite indicative of just how derivative Underwater feels: the grimy, industrial aesthetic and some elements of creature design instantly recall Alien; there’s a sequence strongly reminiscent of Gravity; you can point out elements which have been pinched from everything from The Abyss to the 2014 Godzilla to DeepStar Six. New ground is not really being broken here.

Now, obviously I am not suggesting that derivative films are necessarily bad ones; you could possibly argue that genre movies are by definition to some extent derivative. Underwater indicates from the start what kind of film it’s going to be and then proceeds to be that film. It’s a solid, meat and potatoes piece of work: I can easily imagine it making regular appearances in the 9pm slot on the Horror Channel a few years from now, but possibly the only thing it will really be remembered for is the fact it was the very last film put out under the 20th Century Fox marque before Disney renamed the studio (sic transit gloria Mickey).

Well… that said, there is of course still the question of just why this film lured four veteran role-playing gamers out to the late night showing which is the only one this film managed to secure. Here I am a little reluctant to go into much detail, although talking about ‘spoilers’ in this instance may well be pushing it: I’m not so much talking about plot points as a kind of massive in-joke or Easter egg. You’ll either get it or you won’t; my understanding is that it wasn’t in the original script and even the film’s producers weren’t really informed about it. Oh, well: word of the ‘twist’ in Underwater has spread like wildfire through certain sections of the internet so I expect most people who would be interested will already know. Nevertheless, ‘spoilers’ will follow the poster.

This is a horror movie; we are currently playing the world’s best-known and best-loved horror role-playing game, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft (there is perhaps something slightly ironic about the fact that Kristen Stewart’s famous ex is also appearing in a distinctly Lovecraftian horror movie at the moment). Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work will have a very good idea of just why it is a very bad idea to go poking around in the deepest, darkest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and just what it is you are likely to disturb. If you know your HPL you will now have a very good idea of who or what turns up in the third act of Underwater, and I have to say the realisation is pretty good (although everyone probably has their own idea of exactly what Lovecraft’s Dreamer actually looks like). Seeing ol’ squidhead on the big screen is certainly a memorable moment, but on the other hand it isn’t much more than the in-joke or Easter egg I mentioned earlier. I’m a bit of a purist about Lovecraftian horror (couldn’t you guess) and I wouldn’t really call this a Lovecraftian movie per se: the decision to include one of Lovecraft’s monsters was made during post-production, so it’s not like it’s strongly present in the script. Still, maybe if this film does good business, coupled to the decent notices received by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the Lovecraft story Color Out of Space, there may be more interest in doing this kind of thing properly – maybe even Guillermo del Toro’s long-mooted crack at At the Mountains of Madness. A man can dream (of weird, cyclopean architecture, with hideous, non-Euclidean angles, probably). As it is, this is a decent SF-horror film with a fun and quite cool treat for the initiated.

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When you give your movie a name like Chaplin or Ali, there is an implicit assumption involved that your subject is so famous and significant as to need no further introduction. There are multitudes of people in the world named Ali, and quite a few with the surname Chaplin, but it’s taken for granted that people are going to know who you’re on about. With both the films mentioned above, it’s a fairly safe bet, but there really are relatively few people with the same kind of mononymic recognition factor. It helps if you have a fairly distinctive name to begin with, of course.

Which brings us to Benedict Andrews’ Seberg. The name is certainly not a common one, but on the other hand its owner – the actress Jean Seberg – is a relatively forgotten figure these days, who stopped making movies in America nearly fifty years ago. I doubt many people could even name a Jean Seberg movie: I probably know a bit more about obscure old movies than the average person, and I would have really struggled. To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about Seberg (or Seberg) before going in to see the movie; I thought Jean Seberg was French, and that I would be in for something stylish and possibly a bit pretentious about French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.

Mais non. The film takes place about a decade later, in a milieu vaguely similar to that of Tarantino’s last movie (I would imagine; didn’t see it), primarily Hollywood in the late 1960s. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is flying back to the States from her home in France, ostensibly to make Paint Your Wagon – but, rather to the despair of her agent, she is tired of just being decorative in dumb commercial movies and wants to use her celebrity and wealth to achieve something more worthwhile. On the plane she encounters Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical civil rights activist and sometime associate of the Black Panthers.

Seberg is attracted to the cause – and, not to put too fine a point on it, Jamal himself – and becomes a donor to the various programmes and other good causes he oversees. The two also begin an affair. However, Seberg’s involvement with a political radical brings her into the crosshairs of the FBI, which is in the process of implementing J Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO programme of targetting and disrupting domestic political organisations deemed to be subversive. Seberg is initially surveilled, then later finds herself persecuted by the agency, even as the agent in charge of leading the surveillance against her (Jack O’Connell) finds himself doubting the morality of the orders he is given.

So, not so much a floaty art-house thing about the French New Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as something verging on being another movie about the Plight of Black America (I get the sense there are a few of these imminent). Some of the publicity for Seberg describes it as a ‘political thriller’, which strikes me as pushing it a bit, but there are political themes here, as well as story elements which are often to be found in thrillers. That said, it’s also about Jean Seberg as an individual, and key events of her life, handled very much in the time-honoured biopic fashion.

Whatever else we say about this movie, I think the time has come for the world to stop squabbling, take a moment, and agree that Kristen Stewart is a very capable and charismatic performer. Yes, she started her career in the Twilight movies, but everyone has to take the breaks they’re given: Steve McQueen was in The Blob, Sandra Bullock was in Bionic Showdown, and Scarlett Johansson was in Home Alone 3, after all. I have been as guilty as anyone of yielding to a little internal ‘uh-oh’ moment when Stewart’s name appears near the top of a movie’s cast list, but as often as not she has turned out to be one of the best things in it. The same is true here: this is a serious and committed performance. Stewart is perhaps lucky that Seberg has really slipped from the collective memory, so she doesn’t have to go all out and attempt an actual impersonation, but this is still good work.

Better, perhaps, than the movie deserves. This is a potentially very interesting story, still quite timely and yet (I would suspect) relatively obscure. The early sections of the movie, when it resembles a thriller much more strongly, are genuinely involving and well-paced, asking all kinds of questions – not least about Seberg herself and what motivates her. Is she really trying to use her fame to further the common good, or just a restless young woman making a rather oblique cry for help? (I have to say that if there is any irony in Kristen Stewart playing a photogenic movie star who eschews mainstream work in favour of more personal projects, the movie does not really seem aware of it.) To what degree is her fascination with Jamal political rather than simply physical? The movie leaves the question open.

However, as it goes on the film becomes much more internalised and also slower – definitely more of an autobiographical drama than anything else. It handles the shift in gears moderately well, but the film becomes a lot less engaging. Throughout all this there is also the subplot about O’Connell’s decent FBI agent and his wife (Margaret Qualley), and the strains his assignment – not to mention some of his colleagues – place on their relationship. It breaks up the narrative a bit but doesn’t feel like its contributing a huge amount. I should add that the performances here are never less than perfectly fine, and occasionally rather better than that: Vince Vaughn appears as a veteran FBI agent who is also a prejudiced thug, and is completely convincing in the role – his transformation into a reliable character heavy seems to be complete.

In the end, Seberg is a film with lots of potential that is never completely realised. Perhaps it just assumes a little too much interest in and familiarity with the main character on the part of the audience – there’s something a little odd about this, given that it’s the comparatively little-known nature of the story that provides much of the movie’s appeal. As it is, it’s well-played, but not especially well-written or directed, and ends up feeling a little tonally awkward as a result. But the first half is very watchable – it just runs out of steam as it goes on.

 

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As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

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Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

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Oh well, let us move on and roll the dice for this year’s Woody Allen movie: because, let’s face it, you’re never completely sure what you’re going to get from Allen these days. The odds of something on a par with Sleeper or Annie Hall are, let’s be honest, vanishingly small, but with a bit of luck you might end up with a Blue Jasmine or (I am reliably informed) Midnight in Paris. You would probably receive something along the lines of Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome with Love and not feel too disgruntled about it. But there is always the grim possibility of another Irrational Man or Whatever Works lurching onto the screen.

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It probably goes without saying that Allen’s Cafe Society finds him in familiar territory, primarily being a Jazz Age romance for which he has managed to secure another of his stellar casts. The film is set in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a well-brought-up New York Jewish boy from a fairly humble background who decides to move to California and seek his fortune there with the aid of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a successful agent. Possibly this strikes you as a surprisingly felicitous family connection, given the whole humble background thing; I know it did me.

There’s something slightly odd about the plot of Cafe Society: usually it’s pretty straightforward to give a quick indication of the set-up and a suggestion of what the central axis of the plot is, of what the main driver of the action is – the central conflict, if you will. But every time I’ve tried to give an indication of what the film’s about I’ve just found myself describing the whole plot, quite possibly because there’s nothing to suggest what’s going to happen next from one scene to the next. I’m not suggesting that the film is a chaotic, plotless shambles, because there is a logical sort of development of scenes and characters (well, up to a point), it’s just not clear until the very end what the story is actually supposed to be about.

Or, to put it another way, this is another film which feels like a first draft, and sorely in need of a good edit and polish. One of the more memorable scenes is an encounter between Bobby and a first-time call girl, which does not go entirely to plan – it’s more funny as an idea than in reality, and sticks out primarily because it is so incongruous, adding nothing to the main story. So what’s it doing in the movie?

You could say the same for a lot of the film. The story eventually settles down to being about Dorfman’s complicated romantic entanglements with two women, both called Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively), as he makes the rather unconvincing transition from being a go-fer at a Hollywood talent agency to suave man-about-about-town and night club manager in New York City’s underworld.

Now, there is potential here for a rather affecting story, as Dorfman and his first love meet each other again and reflect on how their lives could have gone differently: the stuff of a mature, thoughtful, bittersweet drama. Some of this indeed gets realised, primarily because of a rather good performance from Kristen Stewart. I’d only previously seen her in the Twilight movies, which may not have left me with the best impression of her abilities, but here she is genuinely affecting and natural; you can quite understand why men keep falling in love with her the first time they meet her. In fact I might go so far as to say that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie: Carell and Lively really don’t get the material they deserve, and Eisenberg is… well, everyone goes on about how Eisenberg is the natural latterday performer to serve as Woody Allen’s avatar in these movies, but I don’t really see it myself. Eisenberg never quite has that hapless quality that makes Allen such an appealing screen presence – instead he just comes across as a bit smug, somehow.

But the stuff about the romance too often gets shoved out of the way in favour of by-the-numbers routines about Jewishness and a dead-end subplot about Dorfman’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Sometimes these come together to produce one of the film’s funnier moments – ‘First a murderer! Now a Christian! What have I done to deserve such a son!’ cries the mother of a Jewish gangster on learning her boy has converted on the way to the electric chair – but on the other hand this is just getting in the way of what the film is supposed to be about. I suppose you could argue that Cafe Society is making some kind of point about how the movie business and the criminal underworld are actually quite similar, but if so it goes largely unarticulated.

To be clear, Cafe Society is not one of the very bottom-of-the-barrel Woody Allen movies, but neither is it likely to be seen as a return to form or a late-period classic. It’s fairly well-mounted (though clearly done on a low budget), but it either needed to be a much bigger, sprawling family saga taking place over a much longer running time, or to focus much more closely on the central relationships. As it is there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s trying to do both: at times it feels like a film which has been savagely cut down in the editing suite, with a voice-over filling in rather too many details of the story.

If you follow the career of Woody Allen, you know what to expect these days: the films are probably not going to be great, it’s just a question of how good the script is at the point when Allen has to take it in front of the camera. In this case the script is just about okay, and the film passes the time relatively pleasantly, but you are likely to have forgotten most of the detail by the time next year’s offering makes an appearance.

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So, I got in the other night and was greeted, as usual, by my landlady:

‘Hello! Been to the movies?’ (She knows I practically live there and get 25% off on Tuesdays.)

‘…yes.’

‘What did you see?’

‘(sigh)… Breaking Dawn – Part 2.’

‘Oh. What was it like?’

‘…Jesus.’ Much shaking of the head and despairing followed, the details of which I will spare you.

‘Oh. You know, I’ve got the first one on DVD up in my studio if you want to watch it. I’ve never been able to get past the first twenty minutes.’

What, watch another one? The first one? The fountainhead of this terrible scourge upon global culture? What kind of masochist did she take me for?

twilight-movie-poster

Ahem. The first Twilight came out in 2008, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and watching it, effectively, as a prequel to the end of the series is a slightly odd experience. One can definitely make out the warning signs that will ultimately lead to complete disaster, but at the same time this is – as I was assured by the person who bought my Breaking Dawn ticket – not nearly as bad a movie.

We open, cheerfully, with a young woman contemplating the circumstances of her own death, the exact circumstances of which do not become clear for quite a bit. She turns out to be Bella Swan (possibly so-named because she is a white bird with a long neck), played by Kristen Stewart. Stewart is perhaps a bit too pretty to convincingly play a somewhat-insecure teenage girl, but she is effectively gawky at least. Bella is moving from sunny Arizona to gloomy Washington state to be with her father.

Almost straight away she meets native American dude Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner. At this point, if Jacob is a werewolf, he’s not telling anyone, and he also has long hair and dresses quite differently. More startlingly, Lautner is not nearly as wooden as he will later become. Possibly discovering your werewolf heritage destroys your ability to act (or it may just be the haircut).

Anyway, we get a lot of new-girl-at-school stuff, which is fair enough, as Bella settles in to her new life. But there is a mystery at school! One which entrances and preoccupies Bella! And it concerns the aloof and enigmatic Cullen family, a family of pale students who keep to themselves and never show up while the sun is out. The mystery is, of course, why the Cullens are turning up to high school in the first place, given they are all obviously in their 20s.

Oh well. Amongst the Cullen clan is Edward, played by Robert Pattinson. Edward is very thin and pale, appears to be wearing lipstick, and there’s something weird going on on top of his head. All he needs is some green hairdye and he could play the lead in I Was A Teenage Joker. Edward is initially very off with Bella – but then his mood abruptly changes when he saves her life in mysterious circumstances. Further strange events lead Bella to make a startling discovery as to what Edward Cullen really is – yes, he’s a slightly effeminate non-threatening romantic fantasy figure for teenage girls to safely get fixated on!

And he’s a vampire too. This is basically the plot of the first half of Twilight, which I thought was by far the most interesting part of the film and arguably the strongest too (although I couldn’t figure out why the so-called vampires were so keen to keeping going to school, over and over again, especially since they made no effort to fit in there). One of my issues with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 was that it largely took place in a rootless, unidentifiable fantasy world where practically every character was a so-called vampire or werewolf. To start with, at least, Twilight is set in something resembling the real world, with recognisable human characters and situations, and this helps the story.

One wonders how much of this emphasis is down to director Catherine Hardwicke, who clearly has some kind of vision for the film – she seems to be going for something distinctively naturalistic, with slightly washed-out colours. Even here, though, I sensed a certain tension between this approach and the smoothed-over romance and superbland fantasy which is what the film is really about. Hardwicke was not retained for the next film, supposedly because she couldn’t undertake to deliver it within the required timeframe, but I wonder whether creative differences weren’t also partly involved – there’s a reality and a visual style to this film utterly lacking from the final instalment, and the former at least are at odds with the general tenor of the story.

Anyway, the second half of the film is much more concerned with the budding romance between Edward and Bella and the various doings of the Cullen so-called vampire clan. The Cullens themselves are colourless and creepy even on their debut appearance – not creepy because they’re dangerous undead predators, but creepy because they’re blandly attractive and weirdly wholesome one-dimensional cut-outs, more like a religious cult than actual vampires. The central romance simply doesn’t ignite, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the fault of script or actors. It is certainly written in a breathlessly earnest way – a teenager’s ideal of what first love should be like rather than the real thing.

Even here, though, you can sort of see why this series has picked up some criticism for supposedly glamorising an abusive relationship – not only is Bella an almost entirely passive figure, but at one point she gets a voiceover going (I paraphrase, but not much) ‘Edward is a bloodthirsty monster. Part of him wants to kill me. Ooohhh, I’m so totally in love with him!’ I guess girls love a bad boy – even when he’s prettier than they are and have weird stuff going on with their hair.

I did complain about the so-called vampires in Breaking Dawn – Part 2 being tedious superheroes stripped of any symbolic or metaphorical meaning, but in Twilight I can sort of discern what Stephenie Meyer was thinking of – the vampire has frequently been used as a symbol for immoral or deviant sexual practices – all those exchanges of bodily fluids, same-sex couplings, extra-marital goings-on, incestuous relationships and so on. In this film, at least, the vampire (as represented by Edward) just represents any kind of active sexuality, which is shown as dangerous and best avoided in favour of introspective romance. Bella and Edward’s relationship at this point is entirely non-penetrative: he refuses to bite her, even when she asks him to. I’m not sure how convincing this is as a moral message for the kids to take away, but it’s certainly a non-threatening one parents will approve of.

There’s some running around and shouting at the end of Twilight which is quite well-handled, but the more the central romance took centre stage the less engaging I found the entire film. The whole thing wraps up with the tacit promise of a sequel, which is fair enough: there isn’t a great deal of closure in the plot anyway. It’s well directed, especially in its earlier sections, and some of the acting is not too bad – but the creeping blandness of so many of the characters and relationships as the film progresses not only makes watching Twilight a distinctly so-so experience, but clearly indicates just what grim viewing future episodes are going to make.

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And so it came to pass:

‘Come to the cinema with me, you owe me a movie. I came to see Samsara with you, didn’t I?’ she said.

‘Yeah, but as I recall you really liked it -‘

‘And then you went and wrote about us going to see it on your blog and really misrepresented me. That conversation we supposedly had was completely fake. Please don’t do that again.’

‘As if,’ I said. ‘Anyway, it was sort of based on fact, you’ve got to funny it up so people keep reading… hang on, as I recall you didn’t have to pay to see Samsara.’

‘All right, so I’ll pay for you if you come to the pictures with me. It’s only fair you keep your side of the deal…’

‘I didn’t even know we had a deal.’

‘You keep saying you’ll go and watch anything, so prove it.’

‘Oh, all right. What is it you want to see so badly?’

This is how years of guilt-free avoidance of The Twilight Saga end, not with blissful ignorance but with a pester. Yes, I went along to see Breaking Dawn – Part 2, directed by Bill Condon – what can I say, it seemed like the honourable thing to do at the time. I was under orders to ‘keep an open mind’ as the film rolled, and for my own part had done my best to avoid doing any research into what had happened in the previous four movies. This promised to be an interesting experiment (the diaries of Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Oppenheimer probably contain similar sentiments). I would normally warn you that what follows may contain spoilers, but the word ‘spoil’ is sort of misleading in this context.

Anyway, the credits rolled, depicting rolling vistas of forests and mountains and the first thing to cross my open mind was ‘this is all a bit Lord of the Rings-y’. I was quickly introduced to Bella (Kristen Stewart, thin and pretty), a young woman who had apparently just been turned into a vampire by her husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, thinner and prettier) – funny, most men complain when their wives become life-draining parasites. I figured all this out eventually despite the fact that there is a long scene where the two of them are blatantly reflected in a mirror and they spend most of the film walking around in the sunshine. Hmmph.

Following a heftless CGI sequence which concludes with Bella chowing down on a defenceless cougar, I learned that her offspring was being looked after by a bunch of other so-called vampires, whose smug and bland wholesomeness put me in mind of a religious cult. They all live in very nice houses in the woods. Hanging around was a character called Jacob (Taylor Lautner, who comes across as a distinctively bad actor – no mean feat in this film) who turned out to be a werewolf. It seemed that Jacob had fallen in love with Bella and Edward’s baby, which was an eye-opening plot development to say the least.

Anyway, the creepy good-guy vampires gave Bella and Edward their own house, complete with bedroom, which was the cue for a brief bout of whoa-ho-ho for the new parents and quick game of Whose Leg Is That? for the audience. (Not bad for a series which I understand began as abstinence porn.) We were quite a way into the film by this point and the only properly scary thing in this vampire-and-werewolf movie had been Bella and Edward’s CGI baby, and even this was probably not intentional.

However, things perked up – briefly and mildly – as we had a bit featuring Michael Sheen and Maggie Grace, both of whom I normally like (for somewhat different reasons, admittedly). Sheen plays an evil Italian vampire – finally! Evil vampires! – whom Grace, apparently playing a conflicted vampire of some kind, tips off to the existence of Bella’s kid. The evil vampires think she is a vampire kid, which is apparently against the vampire rules. (She isn’t, being technically what’s known as a dhampir, but as the film seems to only have a nodding acquaintance even with the concept of a vampire, she’s never referred to as such.) And so Sheen musters his force of evil vampires (‘this is all a bit Harry Potter-esque’, I thought) with a view to creating all sorts of mischief for the two leads.

The good guy so-called vampires rally round Bella and Edward, along with some faintly duff CGI werewolves (Count von Count from Sesame Street doesn’t show up, but two people with the same accent do). All the vampires have different special super-powers (‘this is all a bit X-Men-ish,’ I thought), such as being a bit sparky, seeing the future, causing massive earthquakes or being able to emit deadly toxic vapours (I have a similar ability after five pints of cider).

Eventually (finally!) the two sides face off in the snowy wastes. There is a great deal of chit-chat at this point. Will there be a big fight? Will the bad guys listen to reason? Ooh, ooh, they’re going to fight – oh, no they’re not. Hang on, it looks like they’re – oh, they’ve calmed down again. This goes on for quite a long time and is especially tedious as you know there’s inevitably going to be a big ruck. And so it proves. Much heftless CGI japery ensues, with many (I presume) much-loved and iconic characters meeting with spectacular ends. Crikey. But then – it turns out the whole fight never actually happened, and everyone is alive again, even the villains! (Well, someone who I quite like stayed dead, which annoyed me a bit.) And they all decide to settle their differences amicably and go home, which was a gobsmacking way of concluding an epic fantasy series.

(Stephenie Meyer, I am going to start a charity called Toffee For People Who Can Write. Here’s how it will work: it will find people who are writers and make sure that they receive toffee. If you can write, you will get toffee. But, Stephenie Meyer, no toffee for you! No toffee for Stephenie Meyer! Ahem.)

The End.

I was a bit worried about how I was going to discuss this film with my companion (who has seen the rest of the series)  without offending her. But luck was on my side.

‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry! That was terrible. I was afraid you were going to walk out.’

Hmm, well, to be honest that was never really on the cards – how often do you get a major studio release quite as astoundingly bad as this one? Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is very obviously aimed at the existing fanbase, for there are no concessions made to newcomers like myself, but this doesn’t excuse…

Well, the utter banality of most of the script, to be honest. This film makes being an immortal superhuman killing machine actually seem really boring. I find it difficult to put into words just how vapid most of these characters are. Meyer’s vampires are missing their fangs, but the absence of another pair of bodily items is more keenly felt.

The sole exception to this is Michael Sheen as the main villain. Now, I like Michael Sheen very much and have enjoyed his performances in many other films. Here, Sheen is given very little to work with, script-wise, and as a result clearly just thinks ‘Ah, sod it, may as well just have some fun.’ As a result his performance is so staggeringly camp and over-the-top it is probably best viewed via the Hubble space telescope. He is absolutely the best thing in this movie, but then again this is saying very little.

The fierce innocuousness of this movie means that, despite featuring more beheadings than Highlander and scenes of small children being hurled onto bonfires, it is still only a 12 certificate. Anyone much under 12 shouldn’t watch it, while I doubt anyone much over the age of 12 would really want to.

It’s just soul-crushingly pointless, utterly bereft of any kind of mythic or metaphorical power or texture. If you look at the vampire and werewolf movies of the 60s, as I was doing just the other night, the vampire is something alien and hostile: the menace, the threat to the established order. Apparently pretty much bereft of their need to drink human blood, and able to wander about cheerfully in the sunlight, what exactly are the Twilight vampires supposed to represent? Before seeing the film I was musing on how the vampire has gone from being a monstrous threat to a representation of the outsider, hence the rise of Goth culture and associated things. But the Cullens in this movie aren’t even that: they have nice hair, look like a bunch of models, drive Volvos and live in lovely countryside houses. All they represent is a kind of bland, affluent conformity for the young people watching this film to aspire to. For a fan of proper vampire, horror, and fantasy films, that’s possibly the most offensive thing about this dreadful, dreary film. But it’s up against some pretty stiff opposition.

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