Be very afraid for the black protagonist who dates a white girl in Get Out, and the twin who is haunted by her dead sibling in Personal Shopper
Two writer-directors - one from the United States, the other from France - try to rustle up scares. One movie finds the creeps in the sunny suburbs of upscale America, the other in the creaky houses of old Paris.
There is a moment in writer- director Jordan Peele's terrific thriller Get Out(NC16, 104 minutes, now showing, 4/5 stars) that hammers home how scary everyday living can be if you are the wrong colour. The police stop a car driven by a white woman and her black boyfriend; the woman, Rose (Alison Williams), refuses to obey the cop, standing her ground as a citizen with rights. Boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is all exaggerated deference and friendliness. He is trying to de-escalate the tension, fully aware of how the cop reads his skin tone and frightened to death of it.
In a heart-stopping moment, the cop has to decide how to profile the couple: White (safe) or black (dangerous)? In an instant, the film's tone flips from social drama to something more sinister.
Peele turns the screws of racial anxiety to breaking point - for Chris, the world at large is a haunted house from which there is no escape.
There are plenty of movies that address racial inequality, many of them mirthless and preachy. Peele's achievement is remarkable for how the first-time feature film-maker (born of a black father and white mother) makes Chris, the victim, an easy protagonist to side with, and through his eyes, feel the creepiness just beneath the surface, waiting to pop out.
British actor Kaluuya is outstanding as the man whose life takes a horrific turn after visiting his girlfriend's liberal parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), at their leafy estate. Perceptions of his blackness are reflected back at him from Rose's extended family, but the comments intended as praise ("I admire your people's genetic gifts in sports," coos one person) take on a tone even sharper than the usual "articulate black man" variety of backhanded insult.
Peele's background in comedy - he is half the television sketch duo Key & Peele with Keegan-Michael Key - serves him very well. The jokes are never riffed, nor do they feel less than organic to the plot.
If the cop scene in Get Out is an inflection point, in Personal Shopper(NC16, 106 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) that moment might be when ghosts - actual spooks - appear. It signals that this is not going to be the usual arthouse drama.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas juxtaposes the shallow existence of an American in Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), personal shopper for a fashion star and social media icon, with the intensity of her real, otherworldly purpose.
Maureen made a pact with her dead twin brother, a medium, that if one of them died, he or she would contact the living twin from the afterlife. He died in Paris and, to stay in the country, she picks up the shopping gig, putting her keen eye for fashion to good use.
Assayas does the impossible: He proves that Stewart, often maligned for riding into stardom on the coattails of the tween franchise Twilight (2008-2012), is a fine actress.
Her Maureen is at first a typically Stewart-ish character - morose and prone to staring into distances. You imagine her biting her nails, even when she probably does not. But when the supernatural events happen, her acting snaps into focus and her terror is more than convincing.
Assayas, who first cast Stewart in his acclaimed drama Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014), won a Best Director prize and Palme d'Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival for Personal Shopper, but it is hard to see why. It is billed as "psychological horror", but little of either element can be found in this flat, emotionally detached study of a woman who has a sexual and spiritual awakening through what might be a haunting.
Those bits are interspersed with scenes of her performing menial yet glamorous errands in the haute couture houses of Paris.
Assayas achieves a frustrating vagueness in tone and story direction, not because it makes the viewing experience richer, but because he seems afraid to plant a flag on any particular idea.
Power Rangers(PG13, 123 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) is a reboot of the television show made in Japan, but first imported into the United States in the 1990s with scenes re-shot with Americans in lead roles.
In this origin story, five teenagers (Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G and Ludi Lin, playing the Red, Pink, Blue, Yellow and Black rangers, respectively) are recruited by ancient Ranger Zordon (Bryan Cranston, in a mainly voice-only appearance).
The teens have to battle eternal enemy Rita (Elizabeth Banks, doing a version of a cackling 1950s Disney wicked witch).
Director Dean Israelite, a relative newcomer, is fairly competent, in a by-the-numbers way typical of superhero movies - there are thumbnail character sketches multiplied by five, a few fan service scenes, with the bulk of the film's time spent on action.
The character sketches are neither witty nor original, but at least the creators try to make the teen troubles topical. One teen is bullied at school, another is from an immigrant family and another is struggling with sexual orientation.
The 2017 updates include plenty of backstory to make sure non-fans of the television series are up to speed and go some way to broaden the film's appeal beyond those watching for the sake of a 1990s nostalgia trip.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'When life is a horror story'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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