thriller

REVIEW: Personal Shopper (2016)

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper in Paris, refuses to leave the city until she makes contact with her twin brother who died there. Her life becomes more complicated when she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number.

Personal Shopper is one of those films I’d recommend going into knowing as little as possible – and avoiding the trailer at all costs. All I knew about it was “Kristen Stewart played a personal shopper and things aren’t what they seem” and I had no idea the level of unnerving suspense that would be throughout this film.

Maureen, like her twin brother, is a medium and while she doesn’t necessary believe in the afterlife and the souls of the dead, she does believe she can feel presences. What worked really well was how her beliefs aren’t mocked by those around her. Some characters also believe and treat the idea of spirits as perfectly normal, and even those who are a bit dubious don’t laugh in her face or belittle her for trying to get a sign from her brother.

Personal Shopper is all about grief and trying to find connections. Kristen Stewart is fantastic here, playing Maureen’s search for any sort of contact with her brother with desperation, and when she starts receiving text messages that seem to know far too much about her, she’s close to tears but also has a steely determination to see things through. Maureen responds to the texts and things spiral as she tries to figure out what’s happening – could it be her brother on the other end of the phone? Stewart is in every scene of Personal Shopper and is just magnetic to watch, you can’t take your eyes off her as the camera lingers on her as she tries to process things, often while trying to stifle tears.

Personal Shopper is an unsettling blend of drama, horror and thriller. There are so many moments that can be left over to the viewers interpretation, making Personal Shopper an interesting film to discuss with others. There’s an eeriness throughout the film, and a tension that I wasn’t expecting. The sound, and sometimes absence of sound, in Personal Shopper gets under your skin, leaving you on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop almost constantly.

Personal Shopper really was an unexpected delight. I was captivated by its eeriness and by Stewart’s performance, how she can portray so much with so few words is wonderful. Personal Shopper really is a film that’s open to interpretation, what certain scenes mean, whether there are spirits, and if Maureen does the right thing. It’s an often creepy but always stunning film. 5/5.

REVIEW: Paradise Hills (2019)

Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in Paradise Hills, an apparently idyllic reform school for wealthy young ladies, but things are not what they seem.

Honestly, I was not sure what to make of Paradise Hills to begin with, but I slowly got captivated by the whole look of the film and that unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right at Paradise Hills.

Uma is strong-willed and opinionated – two reasons why she was sent to Paradise Hills as it’s where she can learn to become a better version of herself aka the version that her mother wants. At Paradise Hills she meets other girls who are in a similar position to her. Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina) and Amarna (Eiza González) are all there for different reasons but they are also all content with who they are.

The relationship that forms between them all is one of love and support. They are solid friends who look out for and help one another. The moments there are tension between them are not because of what one girl is thinking, but because of the situation they’re in and it’s circumstances that threaten to tear them apart.

There’s an other worldly beauty to Paradise Hills thanks to the art department. The production design, the hair, the make up and costumes makes Paradise Hills (the place) seem so far removed from what we know. It often gives off a twisted Alice in Wonderland vibe, especially with all the roses everywhere and the obsession with mirrors. To carry on the Alice in Wonderland analogy, The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who runs Paradise Hills, almost fills the Red Queen role. She’s in control of everything, though she can lose her cool in a spectacular fashion, she’s obsessed with roses and she’s the only person in Paradise Hills whose clothes are colourful, making her stand out from everyone else. Uma and the other girls always wear white dresses while the male servants, gardeners and attendants are also in white.

The beautiful costumes and location is a harsh juxtaposition to the thoughts and emotions Uma is going through. Paradise Hills is perfection and that’s what Uma is supposed to be learning to be, but she doesn’t want to. She knows who she is, who she loves, and she doesn’t want to change anything about herself.

Paradise Hills is so much more than I thought it’d be. The theme of women supporting women is so strong, as is the message that people (especially young women) should be happy with who they are no matter what pressures from family or society they might face. The whole production is stunning and that makes the dark underbelly of what’s really happening at Paradise Hills all the more affecting. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Djibouti: Passage of Tears by Abdourahman A. Waberi

Translated by David and Nicole Ball.

Djibril, a young Djiboutian voluntarily exiled in Montreal, returns to his native land to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. Meanwhile, a shadowy, threatening figure imprisoned in an island cell seems to know Djibril’s every move.

I’m not sure what to make of this book to be perfectly honest. It’s a whole mixture of genres and I’m not sure that works a lot of the time. There are elements of a spy novel, of epistolary novel with Djibril’s notes on his findings in Djibouti, and of political thriller and crime fiction.

Djibril has returned to his home country about fifteen years after he left and made a life for himself in Canada. He’s had little to no contact with his family in all that time. Now back in Djibouti, he’s researching the political landscape for his firm as it’s an area of strategic importance for the transportation of the world’s oil supply.

There are little insights into what Djibouti and its people are like, however at the same time it feels like it could be any impoverished country. Djibril reflects on what the country was like when he was growing up and what he’s seeing now, but it’s written by and for someone who already knows the place. I’m not saying every book that’s set in a different country to my own needs to give a lot of descriptions or back story, but having gone into Passage of Tears knowing nothing about of Djibouti, it feels a shame that I have learnt nothing about the country – or at least nothing that has stuck with me.

I think it’s Passage of Tears’ writing style that I struggled with. The chapters alternate between Djbril’s point of view where his thoughts often jump back and forth between what he’s looking into now for his company, and his childhood memories, and an unnamed person who is imprisoned and appears to be talking to the reader, or Djibril. As the story progresses you can piece together who the imprisoned person is likely to be, but he too starts to go onto different tangents and it’s hard to focus in on the present narrative and what is supposed to be happening in this meandering plot. Extracts of writing about Walter Benjamin appear in the imprisoned man’s section and Walter Benjamin is a name I recognised but didn’t know who he was so that was a bit confusing as well, especially when towards the end of the book, half of each chapter seemed to be about him, not what’s currently happening in Djibouti.

I think they’re themes in Passage of Tears, but they often seemed muddled due to the characters voices not being strong. Themes of the effects of post-colonialism, terrorism and globalisation are there but the only one that really stood out is how America has historically meddled in so many countries history’s and politics that it’s no wonder there’s reactionary action from extremist groups.

Overall for such a reasonably short book (just over 200 pages), Passage of Tears was a drag to read a lot of the time and didn’t have characters that were easy to engage with.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.

REVIEW: Runaway Jury (2003)

The biggest court case of the century is taking place in New Orleans and it’s against one of the biggest gun manufacturers in the country. But this case can be bought thanks to man on the inside Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) aka Juror Number Nine, and his woman on the outside Marlee (Rachel Weisz). As the case heats up with the defence doing anything to make the juror’s follow their game plan, Nicholas and Marlee, along with the other juror’s, get in increasingly dangerous situations.

Having read and really enjoyed The Runaway Jury by John Grisham earlier this year (my review is here if you’re interested) I thought I’d give the film adaptation a go. And all in all, it’s a fairly decent film though naturally a lot is left out to make adapt the over 500-page novel.

Runaway Jury is a decent courtroom thriller. It follows the standard format for the genre, with twists and turns, some are predictable while others not so, but it never really over does them. It’s the central performances which are the really good and interesting thing about Runaway Jury.

Gene Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, a shady jury consultant who will use any means necessary to get the verdict to go in the favour of the defence, the gun manufactures. Fitch is ruthless and the way Hackman plays him makes him more than the moustache-twirling villain he could’ve been. On the other side of the courtroom is Dustin Hoffman playing prosecuting lawyer Wendall Rohr. Rohr is more affable and charming than Fitch but doesn’t make him any less smart or competent at his job.

There is just one scene Hackman and Hoffman have together and it’s possibly the most intense and electric scene in the whole movie. As they verbally spar over the morality of what each of them is doing to win the case the tension is palpable and it’s one of the few times either character seems to be close to breaking point.

Cusack and Weisz making a dynamic duo as they play cat and mouse with the lawyers and the other jurors. Weisz especially stands out as she holds her own in confrontations between both Hackman and Hoffman.

Runaway Jury is standard courtroom thriller but thanks to the compelling performances of the four central actors it becomes an entertaining film. 3/5.

REVIEW: Joker (2019)

In Gotham City, wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is disregarded and mistreated by those around him. As he embarks on a downward spiral of violence and crime, he comes face-to-face with his alter-ego – “Joker”.

There’s been much debate and “controversy” surrounding Joker long before it was released to the general public, and to be honest it wasn’t high on my list of films I wanted to watch. But when a friend from work said he wanted to see it, and I’m not someone who needs much of a push to go to the cinema, I said “Sure let’s go.”

Joker is the origin story of perhaps the most famous comic book villain. But really, it’s more of a character deconstruction than just an origin story. You see Arthur get beaten up multiple times and he’s lied to and made fun of – it’s tough to see a character being ground down so much and so often. Slowly, Arthur is pushed to the edge, and when he finally puts on the Joker makeup (which is different to the clown make up he wears for work) he becomes a whole new person.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic performance. His whole physicality changes bit by bit as he becomes closer to the persona of the Joker. The camera lingers on Phoenix’s body when he’s half-dressed, making his unhealthy skinny body on full display and an uncomfortable image. Phoenix’s “Joker” laugh is different to a lot of the iterations that have come before it. It’s unsettling as it goes on far longer than you’d expect, and it’s an uncontrollable and almost painful thing for him.

This film doesn’t have much action with the Arthur going crazy and causing chaos, instead the moments of action and violence are used sparingly which amps up the tension and makes the whole experience more uncomfortable as you’re never sure when Arthur is going to snap next.

Arthur is an interesting and flawed character and as everything in Joker is from Arthur’s point of view, pretty much all the other characters and their actions are window-dressing to the downward spiral of his life. The same can be said for the films setting. There’s brief mentions of the huge divide between the rich and the poor, and the cutting to funding for mental health and social services, that’s present in this Gotham City and how it affects Arthur and the city’s population. However, these themes are never fleshed out fully, and are instead a backdrop and a potential reason for Arthur’s issues.

Joker leaves you a lot to think about, but upon reflection, it might not say as much as it thinks it does. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience and for the most part that is down to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He is great, but the film he’s a part of is perhaps not as deep as it thought it was. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

In 2011 Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani man, tells his story to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). How as he chased corporate success on Wall Street, he found himself caught up in the conflict and tension in a post-9/11 world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told through flashbacks. In the present Bobby tries to figure out whether or not Changez had anything to do with the kidnapping of an American academic as tensions rise between Pakistani students and police and the CIA are never far away. And in the flashbacks Changez is living the American Dream, he has a lucrative job on Wall Street and he is dating photography artist Erica (Kate Hudson), until that dream starts to crumble after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The harassment that Changez goes through in New York just because of the colour of his skin is tough to watch and is a harsh reminder that little has changed in the world today. It highlights how people are so quick to judge and make assumptions and how dangerous those assumptions can be – not just for the target of those assumptions, but the people around them too.

Riz Ahmed is brilliant as a young man, struggling to consolidate the different sides of him. He has such a strong presence and nearly every single shot of the film has him in it. You find yourself hanging off his every word as he tries to explain himself and find what makes him happy.

The story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is all about ambiguity, but the execution can be a little heavy-handed especially in the beginning. Still, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gripping drama with a great central performance from Ahmed and supporting turns from Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland who plays Changez’s Wall Street boss. 4/5.

REVIEW: In the Line of Fire (1993)

Veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is haunted by the fact he couldn’t save Kennedy in Dallas, and now thirty years later a man who calls himself “Booth” (John Malkovich) threatens the life of the current President and Frank is determined not to fail a President again.

In the Line of Fire is a film where it wastes no time setting up the characters and getting straight into the main plot. You learn as much about the characters as they share with each other, and when Booth starts to make his presence known, it takes the time to tease the character with extreme closeups on his eyes or mouth.

Eastwood’s Frank is a veteran of the Service. He’s a good agent but not the man he was, something he and everyone else knows, but he’s not willing to accept that yet. Eastwood’s performance is full of charm, but he also presents an uncompromising figure especially when others start to believe he’s not fit for the Presidents protection detail and should leave the case alone.

While Eastwood is certainly the lead of In the Line of Fire, it’s Malkovich who steals every scene he’s in. Booth is an incredibly cunning man and knows exactly what buttons to press to make Frank go off his game. The phone conversations between Booth and Frank are the epitome of cat and mouse as they each try to learn things from one another, though Booth always seems to be one step ahead. Malkovich give a performance that’s cool and calculating one moment, and then full of fury the next. As Frank digs deeper into who Booth is or was, he starts to become an almost tragic character.

In the Line of Fire is a smart thriller. While there are a few chase sequences and scuffles, it’s how Frank and the other Secret Service agents work through the limited information they have to catch a potential killer that’s so gripping. The score, the editing, and the cinematography all work together to rack up the tension as Booth gets closer to his goal of killing the President, and Frank gets pushed closer to the edge.

In the Line of Fire is a tense thriller with gripping performances. It’s only shortcoming is the romance between Frank and fellow Secret Service agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) which feels awkward, rushed and just unnecessary. 4/5.

REIVEW: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

When Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is framed for the attempted assassination of President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) he’s forced to go on the run, avoiding his own agency and the FBI, to uncover the truth and prove his innocence.

If you enjoy the previous films in this somewhat unlikely trilogy about a Secret Service Agent who is really good at killing people and rescuing Presidents, then there’s a good chance you’ll know what you’re getting into with Angel Has Fallen and will like this film too.

In comparison to the previous films in the series, Angel Has Fallen is noticeably less racist as it’s not outside forces that are out to get the President, and Angel Has Fallen attempts to be critical of America’s historic desire for war instead of using other methods when dealing with conflict first. President Trumbull wants to use military force as an absolute final measure in conflict, whereas other people in the White House take a different stance and that causes tension in Trumbull’s cabinet.

Angel Has Fallen is more character driven than the previous films in the series as it delves into Mike’s past and fleshes out his character more. The Mike Banning in Angel Has Fallen is an older, wearier Mike Banning than we’ve seen before. Mike has insomnia, headaches and dizzy spells as everything he’s put his body through over the past few years starts to catch up with him. But even though Mike has a wife and young daughter he loves very much, he doesn’t know how to quit the Secret Service and stop doing what he knows how to do best – killing people and protecting the President.

As Mike has nowhere to turn, he ends up finding his father (Nick Nolte) and their interactions are often very funny as they make a rather odd pair. They have so many similarities that they end up clashing often, and it’s these moments of levity that make the violence more affecting.

The “twists” in Angel Has Fallen are rather obvious and the CGI is notably ropey at times but with a compelling lead and solid action sequences with lots of explosions (the final act is fast-paced and thrilling), it is easy to overlook the flaws in Angel Has Fallen and have a good time with it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

They are the twelve men and women at the centre of a multimillion-dollar court case. They have been watched, assessed and manipulated by high-priced lawyers who will stop at nothing to secure a verdict. Now the jury must make a decision in the most explosive civil trial of the century – a precedent-setting lawsuit against a giant tobacco company. But this jury has a leader and it is Nicholas Easter, Juror #2. He has planned every detail and, with the help of a woman on the outside, will bend the jury and its verdict to his will. As a corporate empire hangs in the balance and as a grieving family waits, the truth about Easter is about to explode in a crossfire of greed and corruption – and justice fights for its life.

John Grisham is known for his gripping legal thrillers and that reputation is well earned with The Runaway Jury. This is the first book by Grisham I’ve read, but I have seen and really enjoyed The Pelican Brief starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts which was adapted from his book of the same name.

The Runaway Jury is a riveting read. Considering it is about a court case and has a lot of characters with the twelve jurors, their family and friends, the lawyers on both sides and the judge and his court staff, it never feels overwhelming or boring. There are a trio of main characters really. Easter, the juror who knows more than he lets on, Marlee, the woman on the outside who appears to be calling the shots, and Rankin Fitch, a consultant for the tobacco companies who is known for using unethical schemes to win trials. These three are the ones who drive the plot forward and the verbal sparring between Marlee and Fitch as they each try and get what they want is brilliant.

The other jurors are featured to varying degrees and each have their own side plots as people with connections to the lawyers put pressure on them through their families to vote a certain way. These characters are juggled very well and while some of them you only spend a few pages with at a time, they all tend to have strong personalities and are easy to distinguish from each other.

Fitch is the kind of character you love to hate, while Marlee is smart, strong and resourceful. There are so many twists and turns as Easter, Marlee and Fitch try to manipulate one another and everyone around them, but nothing feels unearned or having a twist just for the sake of it. Considering how much legal jargon there is in The Runaway Jury there’s some surprisingly funny moments in it. A lot of that comes from how events are described in a very to the point manner, so the writing almost feels like it has a sardonic sense of humour.

It is funny reading The Runaway Jury over twenty years since it was first published because in some ways it is so incredibly 90s – especially in how it talks about smoking. A lot of the people giving evidence in the case are doctors. The ones on the plaintiff’s side describe in great detail how smoking is bad, causes diseases including cancer, and nicotine is addictive, while the doctors and researchers on the defences side dispute those claims, saving there’s not enough evidence for all that. It’s fascinating that something that is a fact now, smoking can and does kill, was something that was so heavily debated twenty years ago.

The Runaway Jury is a compelling courtroom drama that has humour and suspense in it too. The way all of the characters and plot threads are deftly handled is to be admired and it’ll keep you guessing characters motivations and the outcome of the trial to the end. 5/5.