Review: ‘Things to Come’ (L’Avenir) (2016)

“The future seems compromised.”

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Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest directional accomplishment features none other than the esteemed Isabelle Huppert, proving that together they can do no wrong. Things to Come is an uncannily perceptible portrait of an aging woman whose domestic life is dramatically overturned. Hers is a transitional journey, marked by resilience in the face of an existential crisis.

The first thing we notice about our protagonist, Nathalie, is how much she values the study of philosophy. Academia gives her meaning, and her students gives her purpose. Notably, her house is littered with books – cramming the shelves, resting on cabinets, piled on tables. Yet her work is constantly interrupted by her unwell mother (played to perfection by Édith Scob) whose calls become increasingly frantic, increasingly frustrating, increasingly sad – until they finally cease. Then the husband is gone, and Nathalie is free, but alone.

The film is gently paced throughout. For instance, Hansen-Løve recognises that we don’t need to see the mother’s death – the look on Huppert’s face is enough. Show, rather than tell, seems to be the principle here. Nathalie grieves the losses in her life, privately, but refuses to be conquered by them. She focuses on other pursuits – bonding with her new grandchild and reconnecting with a radical ex-student of hers, refusing to fall in a heap. How impressive to be so strong, and how eye-opening that she had to be. Things to Come is a meditative reflection on middle-age, and, concurrently, a snapshot from the life of an intellectual. It remains confined to a singular vision; a vision which expands until it pulls us inside. This is a modern sensation, a tour-de-force from start to astonishing finish.

Review: ‘Colossal’ (2016)

Sometimes small actions create big ripples.

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Colossal is completely self-aware of the classic monster-movie format. It is humorously self-parodying, but wisely does not mock the genre. Instead, it chooses to redefine it. This time, audiences are not faced with a vengeful beast seeking to destroy a city, but rather a displaced giant unintentionally wreaking havoc. The giant is also, surprisingly, an unemployed train-wreck called Gloria (Anne Hathaway) – and what better way to humanise a monster than to literally render it as a person?

The film has an interesting definition of what it means to be hard-up – Gloria miserably wanders around a dilapidated-yet-impressive looking mansion, complete with a swimming pool – while Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Shake Sugaree’ plays unironically. Apart from this somewhat odd presentation of poverty, Hathaway is a believable alcoholic, complete with her slurred speech and washed-up appearance. There are a bundle of laughs to be had, mostly at her expense as she staggers hopelessly through each day, until a drunken display of bravado at the park turns tragic.

Tonally, Colossal manages to glide effortlessly from fun monster-rampage to sombre verisimilitude. Time is deftly telescoped, manifesting itself as changes in Gloria’s environment and attitude. This is a tale split between two worlds, each with an array of parallel consequences stemming from the same problem – an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. When Gloria does hold herself (and others) accountable, it is powerful, freeing and refreshingly feminist. For a film that supposedly revolves around a terrifying behemoth, Colossal stays sensibly grounded in the lives of its human protagonist. This is a film that knows people are much larger than giants – and more interesting, too.

Review: ‘The Neon Demon’ (2016)

As beautiful as it is horrifying.

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It’s an old tale from Greek mythology – when the handsome Narcissus saw himself reflected in the pool, he fell in love with his own image. In the twenty-first century, narcissism permeates our daily lives – in magazines, in selfies, in clothing. Somehow, vanity became a virtue – a concept that Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon brutally deconstructs.

Young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) is initially fresh-faced and eager, but is soon confronted with the bitter, sardonic personas of her new peers. It becomes increasingly obvious that the fashion world is one that fetishises youth, but Jesse quickly learns how to take advantage of her beauty. Indeed, her appearance is really all that she has – she is not particularly intelligent or skilled in any other way. In the world of The Neon Demon, beauty is truly all that matters, it is “the highest currency”. And from the establishing shot, beauty is interwoven with death – after all, what is dead can still be perfect to the eye, and the living counterpart is sometimes just as hollow. Men play a secondary role in the fashion industry – they are gatekeepers, photographers, but never the stars, and disappear entirely from the film’s second act. Women are allowed to triumph – but only if they fight tooth-and-claw in what is, transparently, a dog-eat-dog microcosm.

This is a surprisingly low-budget film, given the amazing visuals. Colour is used wisely; predominantly blue, like the pool of Narcissus, and red – the colour of menstrual blood and lipstick. And the entire film is held together by an exciting electro-synth score, designed by Cliff Martinez. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is also an amazingly dark sense of humour present, even if it is occasionally a little heavy-handed and overstated. We are never told exactly what the titular Neon Demon is, but we can ascertain that it has something to do with the cutthroat fashion industry, the lure of pride and the not-so-innocuous heroine herself. In the end, the real threat is posed by the other women, creatures of malice who would do anything to have Jesse’s enigmatic “thing” – the unattainable quality of innocence.

Review: ‘The Fits’ (2015)

A powerfully hypnotic debut from director Anna Rose Holmer.

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It is rare to see a film in which each sound feels so carefully produced. In the first few seconds of The Fits, we hear but a whisper – a whisper which later becomes a voice. There is little dialogue here, most of which comes from secondary characters, and not the near-silent protagonist. The result is that her voice, when it does speak, echoes through the building and reverberates off the walls.

Rhythm is a key component of this film. Music, sometimes non-diagetic, compels our heroine Toni to dance – quite badly, each limb spasming out of control, her body exploding in every direction but without form. Her movements mimic the real seizures that play out over and over again, somehow always in the corner of the frame, far away. Toni isn’t afraid of the eponymous epidemic sweeping across her community centre; after all, she doesn’t behave like the other girls. There’s a distinctly masculine energy surrounding her, from her enjoyment of boxing with her older brother to the subtle moment she expresses disinterest at being told to pose with hands on hips. She isn’t scared, or maybe she is. But what of? This film has no clear villain, no obvious threat.

The intriguing thing about The Fits is the suggestion that the seizures are not out of the girl’s control. They somehow become a rite of passage, a test of one’s ability to belong to the selective clique of womanhood. Without this hint, the film would be an uncomplicated thriller; with it, the film treads a delicate line between ambiguity and reveal. The final moment of surrender is breathtaking and resonant. This is a film that hits every beat, and throws a few punches in along the way; a tale that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

Visually exquisite, but haunted by its origins.

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What makes us human? Is it our thoughts, our sense of self, our mind? Or is it our bodies, our physiology? Ghost in the Shell (2017) touches on these questions in a superficial way, while delivering incredible action sequences set in a visually sublime postmodern Tokyo.

It is necessary to acknowledge the political shadow that has been cast over this film since the early days of production. Happily, the majority of the cast is international; there is a fair amount of japanese dialogue and the acting is engaging – from Kuze’s pitiful twitches to The Major’s intense stare. Mamoru Oshii, director of the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) believes that Johansson was right for the role. And yes, the fictional landscape of Ghost in the Shell complicates the idea of racial representation – bodies are just vessels to be modified, mechanical and almost obsolete. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is one in which race does matter, where lack of visibility continues to marginalise outsiders, and where representation becomes important. It is an issue which cannot help but leave an uncomfortable mark on an otherwise well-presented film.

Ghost in the Shell is also a remake. This inherently requires it to walk a delicate line between paying tribute to the source material and reinventing it. This is done quite well – die-hard fans will appreciate the nearly identical scenes taken from the first film, such as the garbage-truck shootout – and the new choices feel natural and build upon existing lore. With a saturated colour pallet and a techno-dirty aesthetic, Ghost in the Shell is thrilling and beautiful. Its weakest point is the plot, which requires a few leaps of logic and feels somewhat oversimplified. It lacks the intriguing philosophy that fans of the franchise may expect. Regardless, the development of a classic revenge-based narrative fits with the style of the film and delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell survives the remake process mostly intact. It stands alone as an action-thriller with an intrinsic backdrop and well-choreographed fight scenes. It is a must-see for cyberpunk enthusiasts new and old.

Review: ‘Personal Shopper’ (2016)

A genre-defying masterpiece.

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Death is often about bodies. In accordance, Personal Shopper first shows us, medically, the body of our protagonist – a fundamentally weak body. Bodies are dressed, undressed, posed and brutalized. Nothing is left unchecked in the latest film from director Olivier Assayas and starring Kristen Stewart. Personal Shopper weaves together several distinct plot-lines into a singular, cohesive narrative exploring everything from our relationship with pretty clothes to the afterlife.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Personal Shopper is its refusal to be defined. Not quite a ghost story, not quite a fashion walkway – it thrills, it chills and it puzzles. The mansion which we are introduced to is grandiose, creaky and terrifying, especially as Stewart’s barely audible whispers drift down its dilapidated halls. And then the real thrills begin – a series of mysterious messages from an unknown sender add another dense layer to the mystery. One of the most sublime elements of the film is Stewart’s waltz with the designer dresses of her client; an exploration of her desire, her self-confessed fear of the forbidden. All of which is set against the backdrop of Paris and London – with their cobbled streets and dusky skies presenting an earthy, handsome landscape.

Impressively, for a film that explicitly shows us supernatural figures and occurrences, it remains starkly ambiguous whether anything is real or imagined. This is the film’s centre, its equivocal metaphysics create an aesthetic of enigma. Never is this more clear than in the climatic hotel scene – shots of corridors, empty lifts and gunshots are mashed together brokenly. Yet, for a film which so overtly lacks definition, it is hardly unsatisfying – a cinematic feat given the abundance of unpredictable, inconclusive narrative threads. Stewart’s own dialogue is relatively minimal, but when she does speak, she delivers utterly poignant lines. Her final question is the one that viewers will have imprinted on their minds long after they’ve left the cinema. What remains is an homage to grief – with all its complexities, sensitivities and inexpressible pains.

Review: ‘The Greasy Strangler’ (2016)

Disgusting and brilliant all at once.

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Not all great movies are beautiful. None less so than The Greasy Strangler, a relentlessly oily horror-comedy. Surprisingly, the schlockiest film of the last few years might also be one of the most accomplished cult sensations. This is truly a cult film in every sense: the grease is less bearable than the gore, and permeates every scene with dripping delight.

The production design is incredible. From the grey skies to the blaring disco, colour is used strikingly. Ugliness becomes woven into the film’s identity, from the unappealing bodies of the two protagonists to the ritualistic greasy murders. Even the genitals of Brayden and Big Ronnie are comically shriveled and lumpy (and forever on display). There’s an aesthetic of isolated madness – none of the residents of this small town behave ordinarily, and dialogue is stilted, repetitive and mind-numbing – like putting an ear to the wall of a lunatic asylum. And speaking of ears, the soundtrack is equally revolting, featuring odd baby-like chatter and evoking a demented nursery rhyme.

Nothing could be more appropriate for a film that is so purposefully childish. Crass humor, fart jokes and bizarre chanting abound. And yet, lurking behind this veneer of senseless absurdity is a surprisingly touching story about love, family and identity. Perhaps this is what gives “The Greasy Strangler” its edge – the poignancy of Brayden’s awkwardly lost virginity, the tragedy of Big Ronnie’s fear of loneliness. Or maybe it’s the exploding eyeballs – either would suffice. Not for the faint-hearted, The Greasy Strangler is definitely worth seeing.