Thursday, March 30, 2017


Hard to believe, but I'm writing about horror again, for the fourth blog post in a row. Horror seems to always be in vogue this time of year. Why? Perhaps it's an antidote to all the sweetness of the holiday season. Or maybe it's that chilling stories seem so perfect in the frosty months of winter. No matter, there is a lot of horror out there right now, and it's some of the most sublime we've seen in such a run in some time.

For five and a half years, I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner online, writing film reviews for the Examiner until it shuttered last spring. And after seeing so many entries in the genre, it became my cause celebre to highlight that horror is always better when it spends more time drawing out dread rather than throwing around buckets of blood. The fear that something bad could  happen is always more palpable, especially because it can take its time. Comparatively, death usually comes quite fast in film. THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER understands the power of dread, and serves it up deliciously throughout its entire 93 minutes. 

There is blood and death in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, but its true terror lies in the time it takes for such events to occur. And the film is so calm in its waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. There are no fake scares, or stray boisterous noises to make the audience jump. Instead, this film is really very quiet, subtly playing with us like a cat toying with a mouse in its grasp. 

And palpable, exquisite dread is there from the very start of the film, as the setting is identified as an all-girl Catholic school in the dead of winter. The behemoth is presented as a stark, cold, dark, and isolated 'haunted house.' The students are clearing out for winter's break, and its emptiness is chilling. This horror film doesn't attempt to create a normal world that will soon be compromised by evil. Instead, it showcases a setting that is already eerie, and the proceedings in it will soon dial it all up to a heightened level of terror. 

Doing so helps set up every shot in the place to be dripping with a sense of dread. Nothing can be taken at face value when the place already gives you the creeps. In fact, THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER instills its setting, not to mention its dialogue and action, with an innate sense of danger, foreboding and yes, dread. You’ll feel on edge just watching the establishing shot of each new location!

Not only is the school creepy, but frankly, so are the two students at the core of the story. They are a couple of girls who are stuck overnight in the school and its housing, unable to get away on break due to miscommunication with their parents on what day to pick them up. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a 15-year-old freshman who’s naïve and needy, and Rose (Lucy Boynton), is a smug and mean upperclassman who has just found out she’s pregnant from her teen boyfriend Rick (Peter J. Gray). Rose told her parents to come a day later so she could hash out plans on how to deal with her unwanted pregnancy with her beau. The delay in Kat's parents is more of a mystery, as is she. 

Played by Kiernan Shipka, Kat is a beautiful but morose girl who can’t help but give off a bit of a Wednesday Addams vibe. Shipka always conveyed a similar dark sensibility in her portrayal of Sally Draper on MAD MEN, and here again, the 17-year-old actress conveys trouble lurking beneath the surface of teen indifference. When she finds out that her mentor Father Brien will miss her recital the day before the school break, it could be sadness washing over her face or perhaps it's more like bitter disappointment. And is that gullibility we see in her eyes when Rose glibly lies to her about all the female faculty members being devil worshipers, or is it a sly sense of irony as Kat seems to sense something more within the creepy corridors?  

Speaking of ol’ Beelzebub, the demon does show up in a hallucinatory sort of way, but is it real or is it all in Kat’s head? One of the delights of the movie is that it doesn't tell us too much too soon. Instead, the film takes its time, spooling out its dread bit by bit, scene by scene. As the girls wait, the school turns into a vast, horror house, creaking with ominous echoes, endless shadows, and whistling winds. While the girls are waiting, we too are waiting, and the tension turns killer. 

A good 30 minutes into the story, a new character and storyline shows up, seemingly disconnected from the two girls. At first the appearance of Joan (Emma Roberts), a recent escapee from a mental ward, seems to suggest she will be the villain of the piece, someone who's being brought in to raise the stakes. But then her story takes up a great deal of screen time and seems perfectly content to resist dovetailing into the other narrative. Soon, the underdressed Joan is being picked up by a kindly, good Samaritan sort named Bill. He's played by James Remar who sometimes is heroic onscreen, and other times villainous. Here, he seems to be in DEXTER dad mode, as he kindly offers to drive her where she needs to go. It just so happens it's the same town where the school is, and that's where Bill and his cranky wife  Linda are headed. She's played by an almost unrecognizable Lauren Holly, about a million miles away from the kind and bubbly ingenue from the 90's PICKET FENCES and DUMB AND DUMBER. 

Even such secondary characters seem chock full of the possibility of being evil. Who is this couple? Why was Joan in that mental ward? Is Bill a child predator? Will they all run headlong into whatever atrocities are going on in that school? The film sets up a lot of shoes to drop and draws out the tension with relish until something has to give and an explosion is imminent. 

The filmmaker creating such exquisite thrills and chills here is writer/director Oz Perkins. He used to appear onscreen, making notable appearances as a character actor in the likes of films such as LEGALLY BLONDE and SECRETARY, but now he’s behind the scenes demonstrating a wonderful sense of the macabre in this, his feature debut. Perkins also happens to be the son of the late, great Anthony Perkins and indeed he’s learned how to essay chills in remaining calm, just like his father did as he played Norman Bates, the greatest baddie in the history of horror, in the Hitchcock classic PSYCHO back in 1960.

Filmmaker Oz Perkins.
The elder Perkins instilled every moment of his performance with an eccentricity that suggested something was a little off-kilter in Norman. The world may have seen him as an aging momma's boy but Perkins' tics and quirks subtly laid the groundwork for the bizarre split personality that would be revealed in the final reel. And Perkins played it with a disquieting eeriness. Even his smallest and seemingly inconsequential actions displayed subtle menace. Take the way Norman nibbled nervously on that candy corn in the motel's office. It was more than just a 'tell' of Norman's guilt, it was a way that the actor foreshadowed his 'devouring' of those who crossed his path. Perkins's son invests the characters he’s written in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER with similar 'tells' and warnings, and his thoughtful investment in them and the genre makes his film truly stellar. I think it's one that critics and fans will revisit again and again over the years. 

Oz Perkins devilishly infuses his film with a lot of details that one could easily miss too, but they cleverly foreshadow upcoming events. For example, why do Kat and Joan have hairstyles with such similar dark roots? And whose name was on that ID which Joan swiped? Is it just a coincidence that the couple trekking into town has a story about their daughter at the school? Oh, and did you notice that scar on Joan's shoulder? Is it from a bullet hole? Hmm.... 

Knowing such details will not spoil a thing. This film is a mood piece really, where the journey is more important than a plot slavishly connecting all the dots. This movie understands that horror doesn’t always need a big “A-ha!” moment or a labyrinth of a mystery to figure out to keep us involved. Instead, Perkins and his expert colleagues understand that things that go bump in the night are made tangible by the noise of such bumps and the darkness of such nights. This frightener might not be as socially relevant as GET OUT or RAW were, what with their respective commentaries about racism and sexism. It may not be as metaphorical as PERSONAL SHOPPER with its layered character study of a young woman suffocating from her aimless job and despair. Nonetheless, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER stands on its own unique merits, particularly its flair for creating an overwhelming sense of dread like few other films have from first frame to last, and thus it shrewdly takes its place as the fourth in a series of superb genre pieces out this season. Horror usually doesn't get it this good in a year, let alone just three months into 2017. 

Friday, March 24, 2017


Often the best monster movies declare that man is the truest beast. The shark in JAWS may have been feeding in the wrong waters, but it was the selfishness of the mayor that rang the dinner bell when he should’ve closed the beaches. Kurt Russell’s character kills a scientific outpost colleague in cold blood while trying to root out who’s being inhabited by THE THING. And even in ALIEN, the corporation sponsoring the Nostromo is willing to sacrifice its entire crew to ensure the safe return of the lethal creature they want to employ in warfare. As screenwriter Blake Snyder said in his “Monster in the House” description applicable to the horror and thriller genre, whatever the ‘monster’ is, it is always encouraged by man to do the utmost damage humanly possible.

Thus, it is with no fewer than six films about monsters currently in cinemas. The runaway hit of the winter season of course was Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, a film concerning a black man running afoul of a group of affluent suburban white supremacists who use young black bodies as vessels for the transplanting of aging white brains. In France’s RAW, the savagery of the collegiate hazing system at a veterinarian college stimulates the inhumane nature of one of its students and she develops a taste for human flesh. Since I’ve already reviewed those two superb films here and here,  respectively, I won’t dwell on them, but suffice it to say that they reinforce Snyder’s credo that man is the most dangerous animal of all.

For this post, I’m going to concentrate on three other monster movies currently playing in cinemas across the land and how they tell their ‘horror’ story. The first is LIFE, and its beast isn’t a man, but an alien life form that is determined to rob the human crew aboard a space station of their lives. The six members of the multi-racial cast include Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, and they were likely lured by the notion of doing a film that has an ALIEN-like vibe, one with auspices to be a horror classic such as that. This, unfortunately, never rises to the sublime skill and scares of Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough, but this one, directed with gusto by Daniel Espinosa, is a decent enough imitation of it. Still, this is all very familiar territory, as there have been many imitators of ALIEN in the past 30 plus years. To make matters even more difficult with this one, the monster here is a little too shrewd for its own good, or for the interest of the audience. Its ability to counter every human measure makes for too perfect of an opponent, and in doing so, the beast quickly becomes a bore. 

The story starts with the space station crew rescuing a probe from Mars that has a sample inside that turns out to be the first proof of extraterrestrial life. They, and the world back home, celebrate the find via cameras aboard the ship, and one lucky child even gets to name the alien. She dubs it “Calvin.” But assigning it such humanity turns out to be a ginormous mistake. As the little bastard starts to grow, it becomes increasingly hungry and wouldn’t you know it, all the plasma and cell sources that he needs to consume to survive happen to be those that human beings carry around in their bodies. Soon Calvin is growing and acting like a superior intellect, constantly a few steps ahead of his earthling counterparts, and in doing so, he is able to turn one crew member after another into his lunch.

What started as an organism, shapeless and resembling a mere amoeba, continues to grow into a bigger and uglier creature. It looks like a cross between a stingray and the alien from PREDATOR. And indeed, prey it does. And like ALIEN, there is some surprise in who bites the big one when and how, but none of the characters have the moxie that Nostromo's crew did. And outside of the main stars, the rest of the cast is mostly defined by their accents. Ryan Reynolds registers, as he always does, because he knows how to be a compelling actor and a movie star, but then the film has him claimed as Calvin's first victim. It becomes a bit more about stunt casting than anything else, but no matter, losing Reynolds an hour into the film cripples it. His character's prolonged and brutal death doesn't help either. It would seem that Espinosa doesn't have a lot to play with here, so he overplays what drama there is. 

Then, to add insult to injury immediately following the Reynolds' character's death, the still famished alien devours the pet lab rat and turns him inside out while doing so. Watching that play out all too vividly onscreen as well is a buzz kill. No matter how the alien is killed now, and you know it's not going to as the studio would love a sequel, it won't be justice for those first two horrible deaths. From there on, the film becomes a mere guessing game of who will die next. 

There remains one twist at the end that frankly, I saw coming because I've seen too many of these kinds of movies, and the conceit is actually quite a cheat. It is a good scare, so that can be said about it, but it leaves as bad an aftertaste as all the previous deaths, including those first unfortunate two. If only the film was half as clever as Calvin turns out to be. Instead, his abilities are wasted on nothing more than a so-so sci-fi adventure that is little more than one long funeral dirge. 

Another monster movie still playing in the cineplexes and raking in the dough is the current reboot of the King Kong franchise entitled KONG: SKULL ISLAND. It too sends a crew of naifs into a confined setting where they’re picked off one by one by monsters, but this one has so much fun building its body count that it's really quite a hoot from start to finish. There’s nothing dour or serious about what they're attempting here. Unlike LIFE, which wants to have the gravitas of GRAVITY around its edges, this one only wants to a clever popcorn movie, and indeed it is. In fact, it might be the most enjoyable B-movie I’ve seen in decades. And I mean that as the highest of compliments. It’s what JURASSIC WORLD should have been, but couldn’t possibly be with Bryce Dallas Howard doomed to run around in those ridiculous white pumps for the better part of  two hours.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND thrills you with its chills, but also with its laughs. It doesn't take itself so seriously like Peter Jackson’s overlong and over-indulgent remake of KING KONG back in 2005. This one has an energy and verve to it. The action scenes are sharp and deft, never dragging out, and surprisingly, there aren't that many big set pieces. Most of the time is spent with the characters trying to avoid being casualties in the jungle. It also wisely lets Kong play the hero over and over again. Kong isn't really the monster here, it's those pesky humans invading his backyard, don't you know?

The human avarice that encourages the monsters, to Snyder's point in his Save the Cat screenwriting books, comes in the form of government intervention, circa 1973. John Goodman plays a special op who wants to investigate rumors of fantastical life amidst the unchartered Skull Island in the South Pacific. And his entourage is accompanied by a military man played by Samuel L. Jackson, who brings along his unit of soldiers fresh from defeat in Viet Nam. He's still smarting over that failure and would love a shot at redemption, particularly if he could bring down those he'll find in this jungle setting.

The rest of the entourage include Tom Hiddleston playing the ex-British intelligence officer who’ll serve as their jungle guide, and Brie Larson as a crack war photographer employed to capture images of what they find. (Did she pack her panoramic lens? I don't believe so.) Of course, the screenwriters make her a pacifist too so they can get in some fun digs at the war machine, anti-environmentalists, and perhaps even the macho western hemisphere sensibility about might always making right. Remember, every period piece is always designed to comment on our current world. 

The 20 odd characters here will start to be whittled down as soon as they fly their choppers into the jungle. The encounter the gigantic Kong right off the bat, all 10 stories of him, and he bats their threats  away like they’re pesky birds. He’s got enough problems on the island, staving off the threats from various oversized creatures that would like to eat his monkey brains, and soon enough, the humans will run afoul of these other beasts too.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who comes from the land of character-centric comedy on television, keeps his focus on his human players at all times, even during the big action set pieces. He keeps us invested in their fate, and he surprises us with who dies when and how. In fact, Vogt-Roberts is so adept with his cast too that he makes the unknowns register as well as the stars. He also wisely directs Goodman and Jackson to be less duplicitous then there characters are written. They are still the bad guys here, but at least these two accomplished thespians know how to add charm and nuance to their roles to keep them from becoming monstrous cliches. 

And God love him for casting John C. Reilly. The veteran character actor plays a WWII pilot who's been stranded on the island for 30 years, and he steals every scene he's in. Reilly knows how to play up the comedy and the pathos too. His character and Kong walk away from the film live and well, and if the denouement is any indicator, it looks like the big ape will be back to fight Godzilla or Mothra. The producers of that inevitable sequel would be wise to bring back Vogt-Roberts to keep the emphasis on the fun and the human cast. 

Finally, there is a monster in the new Terrence Malick film SONG TO SONG, but it’s merely an awful man. He's vain, ruthless, selfish, and treats everyone around him as disposable playthings. What's his job? Of course, he's an entertainment exec. Man oh man, Malick must hate the guys in the suits!  

The high-powered exec here is a music producer in Austin, Texas and he's played by Michael Fassbender, an actor known for playing such coldhearted snakes. Sure enough, most of the scenes he's in show him seducing others, like a spider inviting a fly into its web, or as a prowling figure with overt carnality. We get almost no indication of what he does as an actual music producer. Perhaps if we saw how terrific he was at that job, and how he emboldens great artists, it would add more dimension to this monster. Instead, Malick is only interested in painting him as a prick. Fassbender could do this role in his sleep, as he hoods his eyes, and serpentines as he makes his way towards the women he wants to screw. We long for some sense of him as a maker of music, for any music in this film, but little comes. For a town that has revolutionized the industry and does every genre from country to rock, it would have been nice to get a real sense of such things here, but they never really come.

Instead, the devil here seems to have an awful lot of time on his hand to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with him going in a recording studio and lay down some killer tracks. The baddie frequent diners, easily picking up the white trash help. He zips across the border in his personal jet to goof around with his friends. For a home he confesses to hate, he sure spends a lot of time roaming around from room to room, chasing women, and in particular Rooney Mara's singer character. In fact, he's constantly getting on his knees to be at eye level with her taut tummy and worship her Pilates preened stomach muscles. Is this what the character really is passionate about? Shouldn't it be the music he's getting her to make?   

It becomes laughable after awhile how shallow Malick dips his toe into the industry backdrop here. Does his main character do anything in the industry other than hobnob with Flea and Iggy Pop backstage? Where is the hours and hours of work that producers, artists and musicians put into making an album? None of that is onscreen here. But we sure get a lot of shots of minutiae like Fassbender tracing his fingers across a wall, or Mara playing peekaboo behind his curtains.

Malick wastes a lot of other terrific actors in equally one-dimensional or underwritten roles as well. Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Holly Hunter also have significant screen time without really registering as anything more than conceits of a character rather than flesh and blood individuals. And Malick gives them precious little to say to each other. Instead, most of their dialogue is voice-over narration as the main characters regale the listener with their thoughts about life, love and the pursuit of happiness in the Texas town. All the pontificating doesn't sound like different characters, it sounds like a screenwriter getting off on a philosophical jag. And an overly pretentious one at that. 

Emmanuel Lubeski’s cinematography is as gorgeous as ever here, and God knows the man can make anything look stunning, even the graffiti on an Austin underpass. But overall, the technical aspects that Malick applies to SONG TO SONG feel too reminiscent to his acclaimed THE TREE OF LIFE. The floating camera, the editing jumps through time and place, the meandering narration – they all worked well in that 2011 film because it was a memory play, the memories and recollections of a man (Sean Penn) as he looked back on his 1950’s childhood. But here, it seems like Malick is trotting out the same techniques for the sake of art rather than there inherent value to the story. This one should've been grittier, blunter...and filled with music. But it isn't and it comes off as a shallower work.

My final issue with SONG TO SONG is its unfortunate vein of sexism throughout. Some may have faulted THE TREE OF LIFE for its Jessica Chastain character who often seemed like an ethereal angel as much as an earth mother, but here Malick veers in the other direction. Mara voiceover early on exclaims that she is a woman who sought out dangerous sex to feel something.  And indeed, the character's sexual issues plague her throughout as she cheats on lover Gosling repeatedly, returning back to the mogul's bed, even when he's married. If it was just that one character whose sexual peccadilloes were so sadly prevalent, that's one thing, but Portman's waitress who becomes the producer's bride turns out to be an even more tragic and sexually abused character. Her husband ignores her, becomes abusive in the bedroom, and even bullies her into engaging sexually with the with prostitutes he brings home for four-way trysts. 

For some reason, in this examination of love amongst the world of artists, it would seem that Malick chose to portray his female characters as tramps, weaklings or victims. Where is the Mara’s character’s art, her singing, her talent? Something is wildly amiss when we in the audience get a better bead on Patty Smythe playing herself as she pontificates about love and life and loss better than the main characters whose motivations, actions and arcs seem as difficult to pin down as Lubeski’s constantly moving camera.

Perhaps the most disappointing element to SONG TO SONG is that after decades in show biz, Malick has nothing particularly profound to say about the industry. Powerful men abuse susceptible women and those same monsters never can be satiated. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Fassbender’s record exec lost interest in Mara because her talent couldn't hold his attention? Or what if he  took her on because he thought she could be great but then she was  never able to live up to her potential or even his standards? That could’ve served as his rejection of the Gosling songwriter character too. If his standards were that high, wouldn't that have been a more interesting villain? 

This monster just isn't complex enough. But a youngish exec (Fassbender is only 39) who's that successful with the big house, the wide-ranging influence, and the demonstrable bank account should make for a more interesting center of a film. Instead, he's just another dick thinking with his dick. I think the alien from LIFE would've eaten him first just to get such an asshat out of the way. 

By the way, there is another movie with a monster theme currently scoring at the box office as it did with critics, and that is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I'll write about that soon, and do a caricature too. It honors the classic 1991 Disney cartoon, yet also forges its own way too. Plus, it honors Snyder's theory about monsters too. There's a monster on the prowl here, but it isn't in the house, or even the castle for that matter. It's in the village and as you probably realize the true beast of the story is the one who uses antlers in all of his decorating. 

To be continued…

Saturday, March 18, 2017


There is a horror renaissance of late, with the genre moving away from the overly cynical, cheaply made, “found footage” style that dominated it for a decade, and more towards that which is truly well-made, and character-driven. Shrewd storytelling seems to be trumping cheap thrills and jump-out-of-your-seat shocks. Movies like THE CONJURING, THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, DON’T BREATHE and this year’s GET OUT have elevated the genre with true artistry in the past few years. No longer can those sloppy and silly movies like all those slapdash sequels to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and THE PURGE be regarded as good enough for the genre. Not when you have people like Jordan Peele showing how horror should be done.

This horror renaissance is a worldwide phenomenon too, and France’s latest entry into the mix stands with the best of the past few years. Petit Films’ RAW opened across the USA this weekend, and while it may have an arthouse veneer to it because of its European heritage, it is a film that should have broad appeal in this country. It is both sophisticated in its droll, French sort of way, but it also serves up a generous helping of gore for those who like their film-going filled with overt bloodletting. One might have to go back to Eli Roth’s HOSTEL films to find a major release with as much eye-covering, cringe-inducing set-pieces. Still, if audiences can stomach some of the graphic gore here, they will ultimately experience one truly outstanding horror film.

What makes RAW so terrific? For starters, writer/director Julia Ducournau’s story is a monster movie that wisely recognizes that the greatest monster in horror is always man. And here, those monsters roam all too freely amid the bullying and dehumanizing fraternal system plaguing higher education these days. Justine (Garance Millier) is a freshman enrolled at a French veterinarian college, and she’s a seriously smart young woman dedicated to following in the family tradition of expert vets. Mom and Dad are her roles models,  and sister Alexa (Ella Rumpf) is on her way to the family vocation too, as she just started  her second year at the school. All of them respect animals so much that they’re also strict vegetarians. In fact, the introductory scene of the film showcases Justine’s protest to a local eatery when she finds traces of meat evident in her mashed potatoes. Eating meat is not healthy for her, physically or mentally. In fact, it’s amoral.

Garance Millier and Raban Nait Oufella in RAW.
And in her first weeks at school, Justine impresses with her discipline towards her studies and her wise-beyond-her-years maturity. She finishes a tough exam in no time which unfortunately discombobulates her sexist and patriarchal professor. Nonetheless, Justine is a bright-eyed and studious girl, concentrating with laser focus during all her classes and through every experiment conducted on live or dead animals. She’s even crafty enough to win over her self-absorbed gay roomie Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) and find a budding friendship with someone who's almost her polar opposite. 

What she doesn’t adapt to very well is the school’s ruthless fraternal indoctrination. The hazing of freshman is truly horrific as presented here, with upper classmen abusing plebs by pelting them with garbage, destroying their property left and right, even gleefully drenching them with buckets of animal blood in a series of sadistic rituals. Such atrocities rub Justine the wrong way and she even dislikes the weekend parties. They're too loud and too crass for her with their overt displays of carnality and casual drug use. 

Truth be told, she's right. It's all too aggressive and intimidating. Most of the hazing rituals truly qualify as assault. The freshmen are forced to do things like strip down, get covered in paint, and fornicate. The innocent newbies are also ordered to eat raw animal guts and that truly drives the rigid Justine apoplectic. She looks to her sister to defend her vegetarianism at that moment, but instead Alexa bullies her younger sis into swallowing the meat. Justine does but becomes horribly ill, vomiting and breaking out in nasty hives. The red and raw rash sends her to the sick ward. Thus starts a steady and damaging body metamorphosis that will change Justine for the worse. Eating meat will soon start arousing her senses, turning her into something more animalistic than human.  Even the aroma of raw meat and fresh blood will soon start to intoxicate her, and such carnivorous urges will turn into ravenous hunger.

Justine fights it, trying to concentrate on her studies, but the upperclassmen constantly distract her from her purpose with their dehumanizing games. Make no mistake, this film's theme is about such dehumanization and how it turns even good people into mobs of monstrosity. The bullying of the freshman will take its toll on Justine, splitting her in two, almost like she's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She wants to be the good doctor, but she will find it harder and harder to fight the more primal urges of her more base self. Soon, the beast within will no longer be able to be contained. The savage will be unleashed and forever quiet the sprite young innocent.

Ella Stumpf in RAW.
Alexa may be the worst of all the bullies that Justine encounters, indicting family as an institution as well here. She constantly chides and derides her younger sister at every turn. Alexa is especially brutal in how she mocks her sister’s virginity and her unshorn pubic region. Reluctantly, Justine agrees to let Alexa wax her genitalia to make it more "attractive" to boys, but when a pair of  scissors are needed to assist in the trimming, Justine panics and ends up causing her sister to lose half a finger. Alexa faints at the sight of her severed digit but Justine doesn't ring for help. Instead, she approaches the finger as a new delicacy to try, finding the aroma of her sis's flesh and bone too inviting. Justine starts gnawing on the finger, rendering it unsuitable for surgical reattachment. In doing so, she succumbs to her taste buds, as well as trumps her sister in their power struggle for the very first time.  

Soon, Justine is experiencing literal bloodlust and it starts her on a course towards cannibalism. It's a course that she will find out that her sister is charting too. Then the freshman girl will follow suit in other ways, acting more and more like her immature and brash older sibling.  Justine hungers for more, and even decides to give up her virginity to Adrien, of all people. Their sex act seems more like a vicious attack, and it's the first time that Justine seems all too learned in following the grotesque acts of her upperclassmen.  As she writhes wildly atop her lover, Justine bites into her own flesh, drawing blood. It appears to be a riff on the cliché of pillow biting during orgasm, only here Justine chews on her own flesh to add more pleasure to the moment.

With all that bloodletting, and impending scenes of more overt cannibalism, watching RAW can be a gruesome experience. When the film premiered at Cannes last year, some audience members ran out of the auditorium straight to the toilets to throw up as a reaction to the grosser sequences. But make no mistake, despite a few gut-wrenching moments in the film, this is not exploitative cinema like those grind house horror shows in the 70's. It’s incredibly thoughtful filmmaking about a tawdry subject in its way, yes, but mostly, it truest shocks are in portraying how vicious supposedly respectable society can be. This film adamantly indicts modern society’s growing preponderance towards bullying.

Filmmaker Julia Ducournau
It’s quite a political film. Amongst the freshmen degradations, the female newbies get it the worst. They're treated like sexual playthings, forced to parade around in their underwear and overtly sexual clothing. This film is called RAW not just for the edible themes but for the tangible themes showing women being treated like so much raw meat.

Still, even with such savage commentary, the film is never a downer. It actually has dozens of moments of levity that will have you laughing out loud. In fact, the film delights in letting us in on the joke as its sense of humor revels in its darkness. When Justine and Alexa have a knock-down, drag-out fight on campus, they literally bite and claw at each other. It may seems like just another cat fight, but the chunks they take out of each other are quite substantial. These girls have an appetite for destruction, and each other!

Ducournau loves symbolism and not for nothing are Adrien and Alexa shown constantly delighting in drawing blood via first-person shooter video games. Justine’s rash just can’t be scratched enough, and her attempts to relive the itch resemble throes of ecstasy. And when Alexa covers for her sister’s eating of her finger by blaming it on the family pooch, she dooms the unfortunate dog to euthanasia. Later, when he's shown in his state of rigor mortis, the poor thing is now just another animal on the slab to these cold, killing sisters. They’ve completely lost their empathy for animals, be it the four-legged kind, or those that walk upright on two.

From its stark and chilling cinematography by Ruben Impens, to its insinuating score by Jim Williams, to its precise and bold editing by Jean-Christophe Bouzy, Ducournau is making an intricate and elegant film despite its outrageous subject matter. She’s aces with actors too and the performances seem all too real, thereby making their outrageous actions play as even more terrifying.

This horror movie, like GET OUT, is an “instant classic.” To have such genre gems come out in the same month, just three months into 2017, is an embarrassment of riches. Can it continue through the next nine months, and turn this year into a banner one for horror?  We shall see, but make no mistake few films will will go down as uneasily as RAW, but this is nonetheless a very special film to savor.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


Original caricature by Jeff York of Kristen Stewart in PERSONAL SHOPPER (copyright 2017)

The audacity of PERSONAL SHOPPER announces itself in the very first scene. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) enters an abandoned old house in the Parisian countryside and attempts to contact the ghost of her deceased twin. He used to be a medium, and she dabbles in such hobbies as well, plus her sibling promised her he’d give her some sign from the other side within three months of his passing. Maureen goes about looking for him, opening various doors and windows in the home he used to reside in, calling out his name. Audaciously, the scene goes on and on, almost interminably, until after what feels like an eternity, there is the suggestion of a vague mist convalescing above her. But it peters out and the scene seemingly doesn't come to much. Ah, but it does. And that is what makes this strange and prolonged scene so remarkable and the film so fascinating. It is a scene about time and waiting, perfectly announcing the theme of the story and its central character.

To many in the audience I watched it with at an advanced screening this past Monday night, the scene seemed to play almost as an editing mistake, or the sign of an inept filmmaker who lost control of pacing in his very first scene, but that's not true in the least. Writer/director Olivier Assayas was not being absurdly self-indulgent here. Instead, he was merely illustrating the passage of time and how it frustrates Maureen. His scene is actually creating vivid empathy for his film's central character as time eludes her and may even be laughing in her face. 

Maureen felt that nothing came from her efforts there and the same could be said about most of the things she experienced in the rest of her life too. The opening sets up her existential crisis. She doesn’t know where she fits in the world or exactly what she wants from it. Thus, she's marking time, and is lost or bored. She can't conjure her brother's ghost any more than she can conjure an ideal life for herself. 

Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, trying on her client's clothes in PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Rarely do movies with auspices of horror traffic in such themes as existentialism and moral decay, but this one does. It has been sold as a psychosexual thriller too in some circles, and it certainly ticks many of both those genre boxes, but this is more than just a sum of those parts. This is a coming-of-age saga combined with a ghost story, as well as a searing indictment of celebrity culture. It's hard to simply pin down, and much of its tone veers from scene to scene, but what Assayas is telling us is a story about demons. The personal kind, as well as the supernatural kind - they're haunting Maureen. And lingering far beyond her comfort. That's what is the linkage in this multi-tiered film. Some may find that too ambitious, and at Cannes some booed Assayas' audaciousness. Still, he was awarded the festival's best director prize, so he had many more fans than detractors. But complicated art isn't always embraced by all. 

Just as audacious as Assayas' storytelling and shifts in genres and tone throughout is the commitment of his star Kristen Stewart. She has been incredibly forthright and courageous in the projects she's taken on, and in choosing this one she showed a bravery that most actors simply wouldn't have. It's great that she did as she gives a wonderful performance and is clearly becoming one of our best working actresses today. 

Her acclaimed path started with the hit thriller PANIC ROOM back in 2002 where she starred as Jodie Foster's daughter in David Fincher's tightly wound puzzle piece. From there, she grew into a beautiful woman and achieved worldwide acclaim playing Bella in the spectacularly successful TWILIGHT franchise. In those films, she brought a sullen intensity to the romantic horror yarn, seeming to suggest that her character's inner angst was as ripe a battlefield as the one being fought over by vampires and werewolves. To me, her Bella never seemed to wholly buy into the vampire world despite all the efforts of "Team Edward." Maybe she was winking to the audience that it was hokum, but no matter, better things awaited her.  Since then, her fame and fortune have allowed her to be very particular with the projects she chooses and she has, by and large, chosen spectacularly. She's wholly rejected blockbusters and franchises, instead preferring to make movies that contain much more meaning. She's done significant work on the arthouse side of cinema for the past few years now, and has enjoyed being employed by the likes of Woody Allen and Ang Lee. She even won the Cesar, France's Academy Award for Best Actress, in 2014 for her role in Assayas' CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.

Stewart's careful career choices suggest a definitive theme involving characters who are fraught with inner turmoil. Once again, as Maureen, she has found a character that spends most of her arc battling within herself. She is stuck in a world that she's not sure how to get out of, that of a personal shopper to a snooty, rich French model named Kyra. In the story, Maureen often slanders the world of fashion and the silly need to show off the right glamorous look for this event and that, but she's surprisingly good at her job of loathing her client. The tasks may go completely against her Emo girl aesthetic, but she's superb at getting the right outfits for her demanding "monster" of a client, as she's fond of referring to her as.  

Kristen Stewart as Maureen, dressed down, in PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Maureen is shrewd beyond her years as she navigates and negotiates her way through haughty clerks and fashionistas, as well as the winding Paris streets she travels from store to store on her moped. She has great taste, a keen eye, and even an ability to predict what her moody client will relish or find disagreeable. But why does she stay working for such a monster? Here, Assayas connects his disparate tiers into one. Maureen is surrounded by monsters, and ironically, they're really all of her own doing. She could walk away from such that she despises, but she doesn't. 

And as the story goes on, Maureen will brush up against a lot of other monsters too. She returns to that same old house to try to contact her dead twin again, but instead arouses a different spirit, one that is vicious and bullying. The monstrous visage howls at her, chasing her around the place, and clawing at a drawing she was doodling. The ghost then pins Maureen against the wall, and as she  cowers, the spook lingers. 

This is where Assayas frames his best shot in the film. He shows just the feet of the specter entering and hovering over her in the scene. Maureen doesn't see it, but we do. It's a stunning CGI effect, one equal to that in tent poles, and it in itself is particularly audacious for such a modest arthouse effort. Especially chilling is the ghost's parting shot as the apparition vomits ectoplasm above Maureen's head. The ghost finally leaves her, but the lingering of other monsters will continue to plague Maureen's days and nights.

The third monster that appears in the film is a stranger who suddenly starts texting Maureen. While making a day trip to London to procure a special outfit for Kyra, Maureen starts getting anonymous texts on her cell from someone who knows an awful lot about her. Is it a friend, a secret admirer, or a deranged stalker? Could it be the fashion reporter she met who's having an affair with Kyra? Or is it possible that it's her dead brother, and this is the ersatz way he's chosen to communicate with her? Maybe it's all just Maureen's inner monologue, part of her ongoing battle within herself to sort out her life. Part of the fun of the movie is that it doesn't tell us who it is for a long, long time. Again, there's audaciousness in refusing to spoon feed the audience. 

It is also quite audacious to have such a scene as this introductory texting one with the stranger go on for a good 15 minutes. It's really only Stewart onscreen the whole time. Her smart phone is virtually her only costar for it! It's the sign of a great actress if she can hold the audience in the palm of her hand while so little is visually occurring onscreen, and Stewart does just that. And of course, it's another demonstration of Assayas using real time to show how much of it Maureen is wasting. 

He also ratchets up the tension exquisitely once Maureen arrives in London and exits the train. She's constantly looking over her shoulder while shopping for Kyra, trying to see if someone is following her. She starts to worry that her life may be in danger, and we in the audience are searching for him too. The scene plays like modern day Hitchcock in its cool terror. It's probably one of the most prominent reasons Assayas won that directing award at Cannes last May. 

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas on location shooting PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Assayas sympathizes with Maureen, as does Stewart, but they both indict her for her continuing inability to seize proper control of her life as well. The truth is, Maureen's a hypocrite. Sure, she cultivates an anti-fashion vibe, and a painfully self-conscious one at that as she chooses for herself a wardrobe consisting mostly of shapeless sweaters and boyish jeans, but the little girl inside can’t help but be drawn to playing dress up within the artifice of the fashion world. She secretly tries on Kyra's pricey shoes and cozies up in her chic frocks while her boss is away. She tries things on and marvels at how elegant they make her feel, as well as how she can so easily fit into the same clothes as her supermodel client. Maureen may think she loathes that world of appearances and glamour, but she certainly enjoys giving into it at every turn. 

Why, at one point in the story Maureen even settles down on Kyra's bed in one of her gowns to masturbate to an intense orgasm. Is Maureen's euphoric release due to a deep sense of frustration in her life and a need to expunge some of the pain? Or is it perhaps a display of how she is living out the fantasy of herself being such a celebrated and special person like her client? The film keeps the answers hidden there too, but the scene shows once again that Maureen is an utter contradiction. She continually slams her "monster" of a boss, yet Maureen can't help but wallow in the model's sumptuous lifestyle.  

Maureen is hypocritical elsewhere too. One moment she’s a committed medium, the next she's belittling such work and expressing regret at frittering away her time obsessing over her dead brother. She also fancies herself an independent woman who can coolly reject her boyfriend's generous and loving invitation to travel with him to exotic locations, but then has no problem turning around and letting herself fall victim to a taunting, texting cyber-stalker. 

As the film reaches its final reel, Maureen makes some truly heinous decisions and her secret stalker's threats manifest. Without giving anything else away, let me just say that in the last 15 minutes Maureen must work to unravel a murder mystery, and Assayas' film enlists yet another genre of film. It's audacious and shocking again, and another example of the stunning filmmaking at play here.

At the end of it all, the problem with Maureen is that despite her efforts to find a meaningful existence, she's not all that different from the state of her brother. She finds herself in a veritable death spiral,  continually engaging in that which is killing her, from her soul-crushing job, to smoking cigarettes, to rubbing up against wayward ghosts and guys who want to do her harm. Maureen is really shopping for herself here, but tragically doesn't like much of anything she's tried on.