REVIEW: Personal Shopper

9 04 2017

Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” bills itself as a ghost story, and that moniker applies to just about every facet of the film. Yes, there’s the obvious – Kristen Stewart’s Maureen considers herself a medium, and she looks to commune with the spirit of her recently departed twin brother Lewis. The first to leave the land of the living was to leave the other a sign, so she relocates to Paris in order to make contact. But mostly she’s just “waiting,” as Maureen describes it.

The apparitional element extends beyond the supernatural and the spiritualistic, though. Maureen pays her way in the City of Light as a personal shopper, a go-between for the producing and the consuming class. Her employer, the socialite Kyra, sends out Maureen as a phantom presence to select, purchase but never try on clothes for future engagements. The two scarcely ever have physical interactions, leading Maureen to approach her vocation with a deepening sense of estrangement and alienation. Not unlike with Lewis, it’s like she must communicate with and channel the spirit of a ghost.

Practically every aspect of “Personal Shopper” sees Maureen in contact with some kind of reality removed from her own, be it her boyfriend over Skype or a mysteriously probing and knowledgeable unknown number via text in the film’s centerpiece. As Maureen travels round-trip from Paris to London for the sole purpose of picking up a dress for Kyra, she feels an other-worldly gravitational pull to return to this persistent phantasm. As much as her thumbs may quiver in response, she keeps the conversation going for the cross-country train journey, revealing truths about herself to a person whose identity she cannot even verify.

There’s so much to unpack here, so much so that it feels wrong to even take a stab at the deeper meanings of “Personal Shopper” after just one viewing. Further watches will likely further illuminate just how carefully Stewart dances along the line of channeling someone and desiring to become that person altogether. Her ethereal performance does not so much power the film as she haunts it. Like a ghost, she’s diffuse, elusive and difficult to pin down and describe. B+

REVIEW: Certain Women

5 11 2016

certain-womenKelly Reichardt’s richly detailed cinematic canvases have changed little in composition in her two decades of filmmaking. The world in which that art gets displayed has grown increasingly fast-paced and task-oriented. Each successive Pacific Northwestern-set film with its unhurried pace and character (as opposed to action) driven story feels slightly more rebellious than the last.

An well-known dictum from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” often gets deployed when describing the kinds of people on screen in Reichardt’s latest film, “Certain Women.” As the great American wordsmith put it, “The mass of [wo]men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Each of the four primary characters in the film’s three segments appears calm and relatively nonplussed by their circumstances. But beneath the stillness, a river of malcontent flows.

We do not spend but a brief episode with each of them, though their silent struggles are wholly realized. “Certain Women” lingers in the dead space between two questions Stanislavsky says all actors must answer for their characters – “What do I want?” and “What do I do to get what I want?” Reichardt never plays a story with as vague an objective as happiness or contentment, either. Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer working with an obstinate and entitled male client, wants relief and understanding her trying scenario. Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, the yoga pants-clad mother and wife, wants the kind of satisfaction that can only come from swindling an elderly man into selling them sandstone at a cheap price.

In the most devastating portion of the triptych, the shy farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) desperate for connection makes feeble attempts to befriend a community college adjunct professor, Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis. For whatever reason, Beth has decided to take on an eight-hour roundtrip commute to teach a class which brings her no obvious intrinsic value or monetary gain. They share many a dinner but precious little of themselves.

While moving at a speed that many would compare to molasses, Jamie and Beth seem like they could use the kind of diuretic that “Certain Women” provides. By focusing on the small gestures, the simple systems governing our livelihoods, and the moments between moments, Reichardt creates a space to simply stop and live. Once you locate the rhythm of the film and arrive on its wavelength, the atmosphere of striving slowly amidst disappointment becomes gloriously overwhelming.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

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REVIEW: Equals

27 07 2016

EqualsDystopian sci-fi often tends to paint in broad strokes as it outlines a vision of an alternate reality. But in Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” however, the focus is on the minutiae and the barely perceptible.

Though its color-drained, emotionless milieu exists somewhere on the spectrum between “Pleasantville” and “The Giver,” the pleasures hardly derive from the gradual revelations of the imagined premise’s limitations. In fact, the film often stumbles when it ventures into thriller-style intrigue around the “escape” from oppression. “Equals” soars when Doremus allows the incredibly specific, gently realized acting of stars Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult to shine.

As cogs in an industrial machine that has sought to biologically eliminate emotions in the name of productivity and peace, Hoult’s Silas begins to feel the stirrings of affection for Stewart’s Nia after observing – ironically enough – her distinct mannerisms like lip biting and unusual eye movement. In these initial flirtations, their attractions scarcely register as the most minor of gestures. Doremus shows an eye for the subtle, the virtually unnoticeable that proves so unique to the cinema.

The chaste, hidden-in-plain-sight romance that plays out in public possesses a truly beautiful nuance and a wonderful correlation to the world all of us inhabit. The small graze of a crush’s hand or the intercepted glance often packs the most profound emotional wallop. It’s a shame that when their relationship moves into the more physical, sensual realm that “Equals” loses this bliss. In their fumbling for sexual intimacy, Doremus presents Silas and Nia as darkly silhouetted and reduced to mere grunts, gasps. Yes, they are discovering sexuality on a primal scale. But there has to be more to it.

Actually, there is more to it, as Hoult and Stewart so clearly demonstrate. With each passing scene, we can see the gradual expansion of the emotional pallets available to Stewart and Hoult – mostly in the latter. Stewart maintains a primarily leveled tenor as Nia, but Hoult grows into an emotionally sensitive character on par with his deeply empathetic turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Warm Bodies.” Doremus may spin in circles doing a kind of Harmony Korine-esque haze of words, fragmentary shots and trance-like score, but the actors of “Equals” keep the film centered. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Clouds of Sils Maria

2 05 2015

Clouds of Sils MariaBackstage-style dramas about actresses are common enough nowadays that an elided shorthand could almost certainly be employed to convey background information about the character in the spotlight.  In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” however, writer/director feels the need to relish the viewer with a whopping 36 minutes of exposition before getting to some real forward motion.

This gesture ushers in not only an aura of tedium but also an attitude of hubris.  Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders, a star of stage and screen resisting a natural aging into a new generation of roles, is hardly a novel creation for cinema lovers.  Heck, just four days before the premiere of “Clouds of Sils Maria” in Cannes, David Cronenberg unveiled his “Maps to the Stars” with Julianne Moore playing an actress in an almost identical career conundrum!

Assayas’ film, on the whole, most closely resembles a Cannes competition entry from the year prior, though.  Like Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” much of the action (and inaction) consists of running through lines for an upcoming production and shifting imperceptibly in and out of character.  Maria, banishing herself to a Swiss mountain home with personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), must now get inside the headspace of the mother character in the play that made her famous for her interpretation of the daughter part.

The concept is certainly intriguing but is executed rather marginally.  Had the play “Maloja Snake” been real and not a fictional invention of Assayas, watching Maria struggle with the text might have been riveting.  Without a point of reference to the play, her verbal exercises benefit the character far more than the audience attempting to understand her.

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REVIEW: Still Alice

16 02 2015

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapted “Still Alice” from a novel by Lisa Genova.  But had I not known that going in, I would have assumed the film was based on a play.

The directors shoot the film with a gentle, soft, and unobtrusive light.  The lines flow nicely.  The scenes feel distinct and compartmentalized.  Heck, the film even ends by literally ripping out the final page from “Angels in America,” one of the American dramatic classics!

What ultimately separates “Still Alice” from the stage, however, is the masterfully detailed performance of Julianne Moore.  She stars as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the camera-eye of the cinema is necessary to observe her slow deterioration.  Since seeing the decay of her brain is impossible, her illness has to manifest itself in the tiniest twitches of Moore’s face.

Like fellow 2014 release “The Theory of Everything,” which followed a physical rather than a mental degeneration, “Still Alice” derives its very narrative motion from discerning which faculty will disappear next.  In other words, the filmmakers invite gaping and marveling at the technically proficient acting on display behind the figurative glass cage of the screen.  The film plays almost as suspenseful in its measured anticipation of a firm break from reality by Alice, and credit Moore for turning in a performance so gentle and full of integrity that her character’s normalcy inspires unease.

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REVIEW: Camp X-Ray

10 12 2014

Camp X-RayWriter/director Peter Sattler tackles some big topics in “Camp X-Ray,” and I certainly admire his streak of ambition.  A drama set at the high-stakes location of Guantanamo Bay certainly should not settle for anything ordinary, after all.

He explores the effects of callings inmates “detainees” rather than “prisoners,” a system that seems designed to entrench hostilities between captors and captives.  The film also looks at the other major force at the prison, the guards who oversee it, through the eyes of Kristen Stewart’s Cole.  “Camp X-Ray” shows the distinction between being a “soldier” and being a “female soldier,” an unduly additional burden that Cole must shoulder.

Yet Sattler never really puts these issues in service of the plot, which hardly feels strong enough to sustain a two-hour feature.  “Camp X-Ray” feels neither expressly political nor earnestly personal; as a result, it just comes off as rather nondescript.

Sattler does a commendable thing in defining Cole away from her job, where she must check her emotions at the door.  What exactly she is doing in Guantanamo provides an interesting existential dilemma for Stewart to play.  Thankfully, it cannot all boil down to something hopelessly anti-feminist as she expressly states that she is not in the military to hunt down a husband.

For all the scenes of Cole outside the barbed wire, though, “Camp X-Ray” explores her character the most when she converses with a particularly intelligent and loquacious detainee, Ali, played by Payman Maadi (the superb leading man from “A Separation“).  These exchanges are the center of the film, and while they may not significantly advance events or provide dramatic escalation, the cross-cultural chats feel worthwhile just … because.  C+2stars