PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is quite probably the first ghost story where the most suspenseful moments center on the texts popping up on a smart phone screen. From writer/director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), this one is more than a ghost story – it’s also a story of grief, a search for identity, and yes, that desire or need to connect with the afterlife.

It’s important to note that the film kicks off not with Maureen (Kristen Stewart) carrying out her duties as described in the title, but rather by being dropped off at a once grand country home, now abandoned and the source of some terrific sound mixing. Creaking floorboards, squeaking doors and groaning walls all serenade Maureen as she spends the night in search of the spirit world. We soon learn she was actually hoping to connect with her recently deceased brother Lewis … a twin with whom she had a pact that whomever passed first (they shared a heart “malformation”) would make contact with the other from beyond.

Maureen then returns to her day job as personal shopper and all-around go-fer to her egotistical celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a high profile fashion model whose snooty ways have Maureen spewing hatred of her job during Skype sessions with her long-distance boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin). With incessantly slumped shoulders, Maureen zips around Paris on her scooter toting shopping bags filled with expensive dresses, jewelry and shoes. She’s on the outskirts of wealth and celebrity, but the to-do notes and lack of personal interaction with Kyra epitomize how far outside the circle Maureen really sits.

There are moments of acting support from Sigrid Bouaziz as Lewis’ girlfriend, and Lars Eidinger as a suspiciously low-key creep, but it’s Kristen Stewart who carries the full weight of the film, and continues her streak of very interesting work. She does so in a manner not shy about showing her body, but also with the authentic body language of someone whose frustration grows with each successive text from “unknown”. As a modern twist to the traditional thriller, the film also ties in the past with such touches as Swedish mystic Hilma of Klint and amateur spirit hunter Victor Hugo. It’s understandable how Mr. Assaya’s film received both boos AND a standing ovation at Cannes … no one is really sure how to react to the first texting ghost story!

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BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

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CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

October 13, 2016

certain-women Greetings again from the darkness. This is surely one of the most intriguing movies of the year that is about women and by a woman. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has adapted the short stories from Maile Meloy into a film with 3 segments focusing on the daily perseverance of three women in small town Montana (including a rare Wyoming joke).

The first segment has lawyer Laura Dern returning to the office after an … umm … “long lunch meeting”. Waiting for her is her client played by Jared Harris (“Mad Men”). The frustration between the two is palpable. Things take a turn for the worse as the sheriff calls Dern to the scene where Harris has taken a hostage at gunpoint. The issues on display here include the lack of respect for a female attorney, her unsatisfying personal life, and the one-way trust that can happen in times of desperation.

In the next story, we follow Michelle Williams and her husband James LeGros as they meet with a lonely elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonis) and offer to buy some limestone blocks that have been sitting on his property for decades. The subtlety of the conversation embodies the missing respect and power of Ms. Williams’ character.

Emotions are exploding beneath the surface in the third segment featuring horse handler Lily Gladstone as she stumbles into a class being taught by Kristen Stewart, and is immediately captivated by the smart young teacher. Where this attraction leads is further commentary on the challenges faced by those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives.

The above recaps don’t come close to capturing the extraordinary quiet and stillness that director Reichardt uses in an emotionally powerful manner. These three women are all intelligent and filled with both pride and visceral disappointment … each quietly suffering, yet trudging forward with the emptiness each day brings. They each have a feeling of isolation – even if they aren’t truly alone, and failed or lackluster relationships certainly play a role.

The acting and cinematography (film, not digital!) is as expert as the directing. Ms. Gladstone is truly a standout by saying few words out loud, but speaking volumes with her open and pleading eyes. The nuance of each scene is where the most interest is, and the overall mood of the characters and tone of the stories overcome the fact that we are plopped into these lives with little or no backstory. As each one softly crashes (two figuratively, one literally), we understand these are the faces of strong women who will continue to do what’s necessary … even if that’s shoveling horse poop. The film is dedicated to Ms. Reichardt’s dog Lucy (a key to her personal and professional life).

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

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ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

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CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2015)

April 25, 2015

clouds of sils maria Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t spend much time re-living our past, and we certainly don’t go through the emotional turmoil of analyzing our early lives from a different perspective. This story puts actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) in those shoes and then we watch as she fights, claws and battles her way through.

Maria is a well-respected veteran actress who has been offered a role in the revival of the play that made her a star more than 20 years earlier. The play was written by her mentor, who dies suddenly as she is on her way to visit. Hotshot director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria for the role of the older woman, and this is difficult for Maria to accept since she played what she considers the far more interesting younger woman in the first version. Internal psychological warfare breaks out.

Maria’s personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) struggles to keep Maria informed of today’s world – celebrity gossip is especially key in their conversations. They also run lines together, and the parallels between the play and their real lives are so prevalent that the lines are often blurred between written word and spoken word. Things get really dicey when Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters the picture as the talented, extremely popular, personally out of control actress slated to play opposite Maria in the play.

These three actresses are exceptional … yes, even you Kristen Stewart haters will be impressed. They each bring extraordinary depth to their role, and all are a bit outside of what would be considered their comfort zone. Their exchanges are fun, but what’s not said is every bit as exciting and key.

Filmed in the Sils Maria area of the Alps, the landscape is beyond breathtaking. Maloja Snake is the title of the play, and it refers to the fantastic cloud formations that snake through the peaks and valleys of this marvel of nature. The scenery is a nice complement to the emotional rides each of the characters take, and writer/director Olivier Assayas ensures that we have no shortage of talking points after the film.

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STILL ALICE (2014)

January 29, 2015

 

 

still alice Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never understood the phrase “cruel disease”. Are there diseases that aren’t cruel? One could say the level of cruelty is determined by how the disease affects you and your loved ones, but a stunning performance by Julianne Moore provides a glimpse of what Alzheimer’s does to those afflicted. She shows us what it’s like when we are robbed of what makes us who we are.  And yes, it’s very cruel.

Most “disease” movies spend a significant amount of effort demonstrating how this will affect the victim’s family and friends, but co-directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted Lisa Genova’s novel to focus on Alice (Ms. Moore) … her family is mostly trotted out to help the viewer understand how the disease has progressed. We first meet Alice on her 50th birthday, and soon learn she is a brilliant Linguistics Professor at Columbia and has 3 brilliant kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish) and a brilliant husband (Alec Baldwin). These are brilliant, successful and beautiful people. And that’s one of the points here … Alzheimer’s doesn’t pick on the poor, the slow or the weak. It doesn’t discriminate at all (other than a slightly higher rate amongst women).

Julianne Moore somehow is equally effective as the energetic, very confident professor and the shell of a person with vacant eyes who only periodically recognizes the face in the mirror or the faces at the family meal. This is a movie and a performance about moments … moments of panic, isolation, and one particular moment of unleashed emotion when Alice comes clean to her husband early on. We hear the fading of her verbal skills (in her speeches) and we witness the slow fail of her body (she was once a runner). It’s torturous to hear and see.

There have been other movies that touched on Alzheimer’s: The Notebook (2004), The Savages (2007), and Away From Her (2007), but Julianne Moore is the first to take us inside, to force us to feel the slow loss of self. It’s painful, and yes it’s cruel.

**NOTE: that is Julianne Moore’s son (with director Bart Freundlich) playing guitar on the park bench near the end of the movie

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a personal portrayal of Alzheimer’s rather than reading a brochure OR you want to see the likely Oscar winner for Best Actress

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you and your family have been touched by Alzheimer’s and you need no reminder

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