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+

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 18, 2016)

18 08 2016

IRMA.poster.1/2.output-finalMovies about movies are a dime a dozen these days, especially when three of the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture have centered on filmmaking. Understandably, many of these ultimately end up taking a stance or attitude that celebrates and valorizes the work done in the industry. (Otherwise, why make it – right?)

Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep,” on the other hand, is in a class of its own. The 1996 film plays like a backstage drama most commonly penned about the stage, but it highlights the inner workings and unglamorous minutiae of the collision of film art and commerce. There is far more discussion about international rights than talking through script mechanics, more trudging through the unglamorous technicalities of capturing image and sound than celebrating the magic of filmmaking.

Assayas does not resort to easy or obvious satire, either, that might lighten the blows he delivers. This pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is a scalding but well-considered dramatization of the issues plaguing French, American and world cinema in the mid-1990s. This time period is one where the Nouvelle Vogue began to fade, the blockbuster era in America began to crowd out artistry and the globalization of cinema spread more anxieties than ideas. “Irma Vep” captures a moment in high definition with the kind of clarity that usually comes only when examining a period retroactively.

Perhaps the situation at the center of the film was helpful in achieving such sharp commentary. Actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself, arrives in Paris to film an oddly conceived remake of a vampire-centric silent film. The role seems an odd fit for the actress, who prior to the film – both in the world of the film and reality – had yet to star in anything outside of her native Hong Kong. But it proceeds on thanks to the folly of over-the-hill director René Vidal (a perfect meta-textually cast Jean-Pierre Leaud of “The 400 Blows” fame) to hostility from the hard-working crew. The misadventures that follow raise fascinating questions about the state of cinema, many of which we have still yet to collectively answer – to our own detriment.





REVIEW: Summer Hours

15 05 2016

Summer HoursFrom the opening series of scenes in Olivier Assayas’ film “Summer Hours,” the direction of events appears quite clear. An ailing matriarch (Edith Scob) invites her three children – COUGH, heirs to the estate – to get her affairs in order. Her eldest son (Charles Berling’s Frédéric) stayed in France, while one daughter (Juliette Binoche’s Adrienne) went west to the U.S. and her younger son (Jérémie Renier’s Jérémie) headed eastward to China.

When it comes down to the inevitable decisions about what to do with her formidable collections of art and decor, guess who pulls rank and opts to donate/sell rather than keep everything in the family heritage? If you guessed the siblings living abroad, well … slightly obvious spoiler alert, if you catch my drift. “Summer Hours” is a simple yet effective rehashing of the dialectic between continuing a legacy and punting on one’s heritage.

It may seem familiar, in part because these questions are important. Every communal unit, from the family to the nation, must continue to ask itself what debt it owes to past ancestors and what paths it must boldly blaze for itself. In films as wide-ranging as Derek Jarman’s “The Last of England” and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (two extremely random examples but they were the first to pop into my head), we see such issues debated.

Assayas is a worthy artist to work through these conundrums, and he sets up the tensions quite deftly in “Summer Hours.” Problem is, by about halfway through the film, he seems to run out of new things to say. None of this discredits the fine work to begin with; it just softens the impact by the close. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Hitchcock/Truffaut

12 12 2015

Hitchcock:TruffautThough Kent Jones’ documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” may bear the name of two deceased titans of the cinema, but make no mistake about it: this film is focused on those still living and producing vital work.

Of course, the consummate critic and historian Jones does present the the subject in more than sufficient detail. French New Wave founding father Francois Truffaut idolized the British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, whose work was popular yet not necessarily given much clout as art. Truffaut set out to prove it was just that in a series of conversations with the Master of Suspense, which he later transcribed into “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The book became a seminal text in the field of film studies and, as Martin Scorsese personally attests in the documentary, inspired the next generation of filmmakers.

In recounting the making of the book and the influence which it exerted, Jones himself crafts a documentary likely to be studied as often as “Visions of Light.” (That reference means everything to anyone who has taken an Intro to Film class and nothing to everyone else, by the way.) “Hitchcock/Truffaut” provides an excellent primer on auteurist theory while also delving into Freudian, historical and economically determinist readings of Hitchcock’s work. If any of this sounds complex, it all feels effortless to understand when explained by today’s masters David Fincher or Wes Anderson.

The most exciting moments of the documentary come from hearing these contemporary filmmakers delving into the theoretical questions raised in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation. Plenty of times, these directors have to answer questions about the influence of cinema’s giants, but it is usually only in conjunction with how it manifests in their latest film. Here, people like Richard Linklater and James Gray, two directors who rarely make films that resemble Hitchcock’s suspenseful thrillers, can talk about the surprising ways in which his work and his methods affected the way they understand their own work.

This kind of in-depth discussion gives “Hitchcock/Truffaut” a profundity far beyond the sound bites we normally get from filmmakers on a press tour. At times, Jones seems to lose sight of the original conversation in favor of letting Scorsese geek out over “Psycho,” but these joyful nuggets prove his point that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s dialogue is one still worth studying. This celebrated past has clearly exerted its influence in the present, and now, thanks somewhat in part to this documentary, it will continue doing so in the future. A-3halfstars





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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