Underwater 2020 ***

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‘You sweet, flat-chested elfin creature,’ is how Kristen Stewart gets described in Underwater, a slick, predictable but enjoyable horror/action hybrid that takes a lead from the highlights of the Alien franchise. Filmed in 2017, but sneaking out in 2020 as the last film under the 20th Century Fox banner now absorbed into Disney, it’s clear that Underwater’s belated release is a contractual obligation rather than a passion project; still, it’s a big film with a great star, and it’s far better than most of the misfits that appear in the January/February dump-slot.

It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Underwater is the big blockbuster of the year; about 1995 would seem like prime-time for William Eubank’s film, which hits the ground running as Norah Price (Stewart) struggles to protect the crew of the Kepler Minig station from a series of explosions, deep in the Mariana trench. Price manages to rescue her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and together they look for a way out, but there’s something in the water that doesn’t want them to leave. Before you can say Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six or any number of genre titles, Price finds herself embarking on a hazardous walk across the sea-bed, with all kinds of Lovecraftian creatures in wait for her.

Underwater is a cut above most creature features, and suggests a project that could easily have been released under the Cloverfield banner. The timing of the film’s release give Stewart an uneviable 123 combo of flops, with Charlie’s Angels and Seberg barely making an impression, and yet the mark of a real star is that they’re good in everything, and Stewart is terrific in all three films. An action woman who doesn’t need any help from men, she’s got this, and manages to be the Ripley that Underwater needs. The gear shifts might be generic, but the dialogue has the right salty feel; “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’ is a good way to describe the miles of bad road that Price has to navigate.

It’s a shame that Underwater is being so comprehensively buried, and that this is seemingly the last gasp of the Fox imprint; the consolation that that Eubank’s film is a good example of the kind of lean, futuristic action movie that Fox did so well, but it’s unlikely that Disney will want to do at all. With the number of action movies, teen movies, comedies and other genres decreasing at the multiplex, it’s a shame that this kind of tough action movie is an endangered species. Stewart will go on to bigger and better things, but Underwater gives a spirited last hurrah for a lock-and-load ‘soldiers vs monsters’ thrill-ride.

Seberg 2019 ****

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‘America is at war with black people,’ says activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) in Benedict Andrews’s Seberg, but he’s in the wrong movie here; on the evidence presented here, American was, and probably still is, at war with women. Jean Seberg’s life was not a happy one, and it’s a career that’s been lacking in prominence until now. Jean Seberg decided to use her fame for political ends, and came a cropper of the intelligence services, a series of events which makes her story well worth exhuming in 2020.

And the big news here is Kristen Stewart, an excellent actress and full-blown movie star, who puts everything into making Seberg, the character, into a three-dimensional, complex being. A seemingly chance encounter with Jamal on a flight encourages Seberg to use some of her pin-money for financing the Black Panthers, something that the film equates rather too easily with building children’s playgrounds. To allow us to see the complications of her actions, we have two FRI men on her tail, one a sexist, misogynist lump (Vince Vaughn), then other a younger, more impressionable figure (Jack O’Connell). Through the schism between the two men, we see how the issues divided Seberg’s tormentors; bugging her, harassing her and generally gas-lighting the star, it’s clear that their efforts get under her skin, and some kind of break-down seems inevitable.

Seberg had a distinctive look, and Stewart captures that. But what Stewart also goes after is a sense of agency in Seberg’s action, a longing for meaning and a frustration that her actions precipitate public humiliation in a way that, say, Marlon Brando’s did not. Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Seberg is driven to distraction, destroying her own life in order to uncover the manner in which she’s being interfered with by the authorities. Stewart nails all this effectively; it’s a great performance in a film that reins in potential histrionics.

The presence of Margaret Qualley links Seberg to Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, another film dealing with an actress circa 1069. Those who squealed with disapproval at the lack of dialogue for Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would so well to apply here; Seberg shows an actress full of complaint, and angry enough to articulate. The result, of course, is that the treatment of a hot topic means that Seberg will be one of the least seen of 2020’s awards hopefuls; Hollywood likes the idea of women more than it does the idea of listening to what they might have to say.

Charlie’s Angels 2019 NA (no award)

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How hard can it be to make a Charlie’s Angels movie? This 2019 version ain’t your momma’s Charlie’s Angels, in fact, is really isn’t anyone’s Charlie’s Angels at all; Elizabeth Banks’ continuation of the benighted franchise has been the very definition of a dud, an expensive, heavily promoted comedy/thriller that no-one outside of Variety’s critic seems to want.

The industry trade-paper generally aims for some kind of salty accuracy in their reviews, but it’s hard to match up the movie under discussion with this description ; ‘written and directed, by Elizabeth Banks as if she’d been making cheeky renegade action films all her life. The movie is relentless, it’s pulpy and exciting, it’s unabashedly derivative…rousingly of-the-moment feministic…ace car-chase filmmaking — breathless and ultra-violent, with big mounted weapons…awesomely elaborate action sequence that unfolds in a quarry…’ Instead, Charlie’s Angels has all the breathless, awesome action of Pitch Perfect 3 or The Spy Who Dumped Me, generic, anonymous fodder with phoned-in performances, dull green-screen punch-ups and no discernable flavour. It wouldn’t seem possible to disrespect such vanilla source material, but somehow Banks manages it.

The problem starts from the packaging. As a tv show, Charlie’s Angels made stars of the girls in the central roles, and they became household names. The cinematic reboot brought Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu to the roles, an update if not necessarily an upgrade. But how would you feel about the Angels being played by someone like, pause to consult notes, Naomi Scott? She was in Aladdin, right? Or what about, he googles quickly, Ellen Balinska? What would an actress whose claim to fame is brief appearances on Casualty and Midsommar Murders bring to the party? No pop culture frisson whatsoever is the answer. Charlie’s Angels needs three stars, big, or fading, or upcoming, just recognisable names. Would you fancy The Magnificent Seven with a cast of unknowns? Ocean’s 11 with a semi-professional cast? The producers on this film had one job, and they don’t seem to have taken it that seriously. Almost anyone would be better than the girls chosen here.

Kristen Stewart is the only element here that’s on point; she’s a big star who has successfully shunned blockbuster roles since Twilight in favour of great performances in small movies, and seems to have chosen unwisely here. She’s introduced as a swaggering super-spy called Sabina, and bonds with the other girls while on a confusing assignment situated in drag Hamburg dockland, one that involves the death of contact/wrangler Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) and a memory stick landing in a river. From there, the action flips to Istanbul, another locations worn smooth by spy movies, where a racetrack meeting provides the Angels with a chance at revenge. Another Bosley (Banks) is feeding the girls instructions, but could a third Bosley (Patrick Stewart) be sabotaging their mission?

Whatever the actual DNA was of the tv show and movies so far, Banks screws around with it to mind-numbing effect. How many Charlies are there? How many Bosleys? How does it help for us to see one Bosley cheaply photoshopped into still photographs from the previous Angels films and tv shows? Meanwhile Sam Clafin plays an Elon Musk-type zillionaire who has invented a generic McGuffin energy source that provides the uninteresting stakes for muddled punch ups and chases. The result is a movie that sinks like a stone, with some nice costumes about the only thing that passes muster.

Charlie’s Angels was, in its prime, a lazy chauvinist show that invited men (and women) to gawp at weapons-grade models under the guise of a detective thriller; somewhere between Baywatch and The Rockford Files. Re-nose this property with some girl-power feminism and you have nothing at all, two over-riding philosophies in chauvinism and feminism that simply don’t gel. New wine is old bottles is one thing, but the 2019 version of Charlie’s Angels is the weakest of weak sauce.

JT LeRoy 2018 ****

JT_LEROY_ONE_SHEET-1There’s plenty of films about hoaxes; the nature of a disguise works well in cinema. Savannah Knoop was the young girl who appeared in public as the reclusive author of three autobiographical works; as with other hoaxes, it did not end well, and she published a memoir explaining what she did and why. That memoir is now the subject of a sophisticated film by writer/director Justin Kelly, who manages to avoid any tabloid trashiness, yet still manages to evoke the personal, private horror of a private arrangement that explodes in the public eye. Sister of Geoff (Jim Strugess), Savannah (Kristen Stewart) arrives in San Francisco only to fall under the spell of his girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura has had literary success as JT Leroy, but needs someone to attend book-signings and literary events. With a blond wig and glasses, Savannah fits the bill, but once an actress (Diane Kruger) is wowed by Laura’s phone-sex skills, a mooted movie-version of LeRoy’s second book threatens to bring a spotlight that shines too brightly for the conspirators to hide from. That Kruger’s character Eva iseemsbased on Asia Argento (whose LeRoy adaptation The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premiered at Cannes) adds the further layer of notoriety; if nothing else, Kelly’s film illustrates William Goldman’s film industry maxim that nobody knows anything. Eva is presented in a very negative way, offering sex in return for the rights to the book, and then moving onto another relationship once they are secured.’ I made this film for you,’ Eva shrieks, while both Laura and Savannah come out of Kelly’s film with some bonds of friendship intact. Most films about the media have a tin ear; JT LeRoy feels painfully real, not least because Stewart is a great, vulnerable lead, but also because Dern oozes self-assuredness, not least when she’s playing Speedy, an invented personal manager and fixer for LeRoy whose strangulated English accent and colourful wig brings to mind perennial British media non-entity Janet Street Porter.

JT LeRoy is in UK  Cinemas and Digital from 16th August 2019.

Personal Shopper 2016 ***

Some films are deliberately challenging, some meanings are proposed to be elusive; Olivier Assayas should offer a cash prize for anyone who can confidently synopsise his supernatural thriller Personal Shopper. Twilight fans with a crush on Kristen Stewart will get more than they bargain for in this strange story set in the world of high fashion. Stewart plays an intern in mourning for her twin, who has recently died. After an ectoplasm manifestation which looks straight out of Ghostbusters, Stewart is menaced an unknown assailant by phone, via a series of cryptic messages. Do ghosts use social media? Or it the man who attack her boss after her?  A series of tense scenes further the story without ever explaining what’s happening, and scenes which feature an invisible ghost boggle the brain. Stewart is absolutely brilliant in this role, mixing movie-star looks like a fragile vulnerable character that generates huge involvement. If the climax doesn’t make sense, the coda further muddies the waters; Personal Shopping is a great, original film, just don’t ask what it means.

Cafe Society 2016 ***

cafe society.jpegEvery review of a Woody Allen film starts with a long précis of the writer/director’s career to date. Perhaps it’s understandable, since it’s often hard to see his films as individual pieces, and too easy to place them on a chart of the advance or decline of his storytelling. Café Society is a bitter-sweet romance which ably reteams Kristen Stewart and Jessie Eisenberg, the Hepburn and Tracey of the stoner generation from Adventureland and American Ultra, and builds around them a tragic-comic narrative in a F Scott Fitzgerald style. It’s a boy-meets-girl story in 1930’s Hollywood, with a neurotic anti-hero who briefly gets the girl only to see their relationship drift apart. With luminous leads and photography, Café Society is a strong and persuasive meditation of the fragility of love, and might just have some appeal to those unfamiliar with Allen’s back catalogue.

Camp X-Ray 2014 ***

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Kristen Stewart has made good ground in her efforts to escape the Twilight shadow, even if few of her films have been as widely seen. Writer and director Peter Sattler gives Stewart plenty to do as a Guantanamo Bay guard who strikes up an unlikely friendship with prisoner Ali (A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi). The minimalist drama than unfolds is quite theatrical, which much of the dialogue spoken through the tiny slot of a door. Both Stewart and Moaadi excel in their roles, and Camp X-Ray manages to avoid the usual war-is-hell platitudes to uncover a human story caught in the mechanism of political manoeuvres.

Adventureland 2009 ***

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Writer/director Greg Mottola’s follow up to Superbad doesn’t feature the same off-kiler, scabrous energy, but that’s no bad thing; the hero of Advertureland, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), is a much mellower character, and his ambitions go beyond drinking and partying. Back in 1987, his ambitions lie in trying to hold down a summer job at the Adventureland theme park, with romance with Em (Kristen Stewart) a welcome distraction for discovering that the skewed rules of nailed-down coconuts are representative of the school of hard knocks that life is to offer him. Despite support from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, Adventureland is something more sensitive than a knockabout comedy, a rites of passage drama that’s as authentic and slightly grubby as the theme-park T-shirt Brennan wears throughout.

Snow White and the Hunstman 2012 ***

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Kristen Stewart’s development as an actress was clear from her growing confidence in her portrayal of Bella in the Twilight films; her rise from virgin to vampire matriarch is quite a curve, and Stewart proved more than up to it. Casting her as Snow White gave her an ideal opportunity to demonstrate her range in Rupert Sanders revision of the classic fairy-tale, with Charlize Theron as the villainous queen and Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman she teams up with. The ads and publicity for the film emphasized the romance between them, omitting the dwarves with are superbly rendered and played by stalwart performers like Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins. Sanders works wonders with the effects, and the script (by Saving Mr Banks’s John Lee Hancock amongst others) is smart and intelligent; the final shot suggests’s that Snow White’s triumph may also be her downfall, but this is one of the few special-effects extravaganzas compelling enough to make a sequel a welcome prospect.