Movie Review ~ Personal Shopper

The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolves around a ghost story that takes place in the fashion underworld of Paris.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Anders Danielsen Lie, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Pamela Betsy Cooper, Benjamin Biolay

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I think we’re getting to the point where we can get past that Kristen Stewart headlined the Twilight franchise, right?  I mean, it’s time to recognize that she wasn’t the cause of all that misery she just collected a paycheck for it.  Sure, her off screen persona is decidedly aloof and she doesn’t smile a lot…but to deny admitting she’s a strong actress seems so very 2012.  After directing you to 2014’s Clouds of Sills Maria, I’d introduce Personal Shopper as Exhibit B in my defense case in the People vs Kristen Stewart.

While Personal Shopper is a lesser film than Clouds of Sills Maria (for which Stewart won France’s prestigious Caesar Award, becoming the first American actress ever to do so), this second collaboration between Stewart and director Oliver Assayas features the actress in nearly every frame of the movie.  Capably holding our focus for the entirety of its running length, Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) finally headlines a project that seems not only to be her cup of tea but one that plays a game she’s fully invested in.  She disappeared halfway through Clouds of Sills Maria and her absence was felt but she’s entirely captivating here as Maureen, an assistant to a tabloid-friendly superstar we barely see.

Scarier than you might expect with some legitimate jolts to your nerves, Personal Shopper is both a ghost story and a plaintive drama wrapped up in one Gallic package.  Opening with Maureen alone in a creaking manse as she tries to make contact with a spirit thought to be haunting the joint, we eventually learn she’s trying to make a connection to her recently deceased twin brother.  Both twins had a touch of the medium in them and with his sudden death, Maureen needs closure before she can move on with her life.

As she waits for another opportunity to locate his spirit, she spends her days traveling through Paris and beyond to pick up/out clothes and accessories for her employer.  The deeper she digs the more compact the movie becomes and before you know it, mysterious texts from an anonymous phone number tease of something sinister afoot and soon she’s involved with a murder.  To say more would spoil what Assayas has in store for you but it wouldn’t give much away to say that, in typical Assayas fashion, much of the the mystery is left for the audience to decode on their own.

Perhaps a bit too slow for most (I could see this being a bang-up 50-minute short film), I wasn’t ever bored by the movie and the performances (including Stewart) are off-kilter just enough to keep you guessing without dismissing them outright as merely bonkers.  Much of the movie is focused on the lengthy text conversation between Maureen and the mystery caller and this could have been an interminable bore had Assayas’s script not been so taut. I definitely was left with some questions but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the questions were far more interesting than the potential answers — that makes for an overall rewarding experience.

The Silver Bullet ~ Equals

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Synopsis: A futuristic love story set in a world where emotions have been eradicated.

Release Date: TBD 2016

Thoughts: Director Drake Doremus gave us a wonderfully realized love story in 2011 with Like Crazy so I’m hoping that Equals is, well, equal to the class and sophistication of that earlier film.  I’m getting a real Gattaca and The Giver vibe from this first look at Equals and that’s not a bad thing at all.  It’s hard to tell from this true teaser what exactly will happen with the relationship between Nicholas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Kristen Stewart (Still Alice) but it looks like their romance will be an uphill battle set against a monochromatic production design.  Though she’s always been a strong actress, Stewart continues to take roles that aim to rebrand herself after being so closely associated with the Twilight series of films. Let’s keep an eye on this one, shall we?

Movie Review ~ American Ultra

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale

Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.20/10)

Review: It’s hard to know where to start with a movie like American Ultra because the film itself is all over the map and hard to follow.  Woe be to the individual that opts to wait in the concession line for that vat of overpriced popcorn and misses the first few minutes of the movie…but then again it doesn’t really matter because there’s precious little to encourage you to carve time out of your late summer movie-going schedule for this half-baked stoner action comedy spy flick.

Screenwriter Max Landis’ last big screen effort was the surprisingly slick Chronicle but he trips here with a mulligan stew of ideas and jokes that never gel into a satisfying meal.  I actually can imagine that Landis turned in a worthy, readable, screenplay that just didn’t translate well as it made its way on camera.  The central plot of a government agent/experiment suffering from memory loss living life as a stoner mini-mart worker in a dead end West Virginia town called into action when a rogue CIA sector marks him for death doesn’t have the stench of an also-ran and maybe could have worked (whew…I’m winded after that description…let me take a breath).  But in the hands of director Nima Nourizadeh it suffers from cinematic inertia and a curious lack of any committed tone…not to mention a whole host of casting problems.

I continue to fail to see the appeal of Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me).  He seems only able to play one type of role, a mumbly meek milquetoast and while the film attempts to counteract that with the character’s deadly force training it can’t escape the fact that Eisenberg is terribly miscast in a role he seems uncomfortable in and too old for.  Put him in a dime-store wig with a part that keeps changing sides at random and a lumpy flannel and the ho-hum make-under is complete.

Lucky for Eisenberg he has a game co-star in Kristen Stewart (Still Alice), rejoining her Adventureland co-star and saving his butt in every scene (again).  Stewart feels much more at ease with her role, Eisenberg’s sweet girlfriend that supports his slacker ways and actually loves him in spite of it all.  As the film progresses, we see there’s more to Stewart’s character than we originally were led to believe, allowing the actress some good moments to continue to prove she’s able to play more than a moony vampire lover.

As much as I love Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You) I find that once again she’s used incorrectly as a top CIA operative with ties to the experimental program Eisenberg was once a part of.  Not surprising, she’s the third actress signed to the role after Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone dropped out.  Britton can play a steel voiced authority figure no problem but in chunky boots and wool ensemble she always feels like she’s pretending to be a CIA agent rather than really embodying the role.

At least Britton fares better than Topher Grace (Interstellar) who has managed to remain ageless over the years, even though his eyes are seeming to bug out more than ever.  The worst example of miscasting, Grace parades around as a snobby CIA agent that opposes Britton wearing twice as much rouge as her and not looking remotely aware of it.  Every line reading rings false and he acts without conviction or motivation in a series of scenes that look like deleted skits from the MTV Movie Awards.

In fact, from the astoundingly cheap looking sets, the overall appearance of the movie feels like a late night talk show sketch that runs too long.  The lighting is either brilliantly bold (as in a black-light set action sequence where Stewart and Eisenberg’s teeth glow as bright as the whites of their eyes) or murky and flat.  Several action scenes look like they were culled from the 11th or 12th take based on the exhausted look of the actors and worst of all the film has nothing really solid to say when it reaches its conclusion.  An animated sequence over the end credits is perhaps the most creative thing about the film…but that too is spoiled by an obnoxious score that sonically seems meant to induce dry heaves.

Amidst bloody violence there are some all too brief flashes of what the film could have been, a subversively smart action thriller with a dark comedy slant…but that would have required more effort from the director not to mention a major cast overhaul.

Movie Review ~ Still Alice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s happened before…actors have been nominated for Oscars, deserved to win, and lost.  The next time they’re nominated maybe they win…but often it’s not for the movie that they really earned their Oscar gold for.  I could give examples (coughcoughRusselCroweinGladiatorareyoukiddingme?coughcough) but I’ll instead just say that though she’s been nominated for an Academy Award four times before, if Julianne Moore wins for her work in Still Alice (and she really, really should) it wouldn’t be for any other reason than her performance is worthy, moving, and delivered with a fierce honesty.

As a brilliant linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Non-Stop, Don Jon) takes us through the stages of denial and acceptance as her character fights to maintain the life she’s led and the future she so desperately wants to keep intact.  With her husband as supportive as he can be and three children to think of, Alice charts a new course to a future while it’s still within her control.

As adapted by co-writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, Still Alice doesn’t pull any punches nor is it a downer of a film.  By dealing with the illness head-on, it breaks down the walls of mystery that surround Alzheimer’s disease, allowing for the truth about its effects on families to come through.

Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine) is a bit of an odd presence here.  Though Baldwin and Moore have a generally believable rapport as married scholars that can wax on about textbooks till the sun comes up, there’s something slightly missing from Baldwin’s overall presentation of the healthy spouse gradually realizing his own limitations to fully assist his ailing wife.  Kate Bosworth (Homefront) is the oldest child trying to start a family of her own and Hunter Parrish is the son that turns up with a new girlfriend for each family occasion.  Both roles aren’t as well-defined but Parrish and especially Bosworth admirably make the most of their time onscreen to not simply be reactionary to the catalyst of the disease.

Then there’s the youngest child, played by Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) in a turn that makes you forget the Twilight movies ever happened.  Stewart isn’t a bad actress, just the unfortunate victim of hitching her wagon to an oft-reviled series of films that opened the door for numerous treacly imitations to clog movie houses.  In Still Alice, we get to see Stewart back in fine form as the rebellious child that doesn’t see a lot of herself in either of her parents…especially not her mother.

It’s Moore’s film, make no doubt about that, but her generosity is such that every other actor she comes in contact with is made to look that much better because they have such a great scene partner.  As her character begins to forget more and more, we see her frustration manifest itself in small ways that become more heartbreaking as they get increasingly personal.  The first time Moore forgets one of her children (albeit briefly) nearly sent me over the edge but it’s when she stands in front of a conference for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and states “I’m not suffering, I’m struggling” that you’ll want to have a Kleenex on standby.

It’s interesting to note that co-directors Glatzer and Westmoreland are married in real life and that Glatzer suffers from ALS.  During the making of Still Alice Glatzer’s condition got so bad that he had to direct part of the movie using a speech-to-voice app on his iPad.  Considering the couple behind the scenes making the movie may be going through something similar to what Moore and Baldwin’s characters are experiencing help to give the film a real sense of dignity and unwavering grace in the face of a degenerative illness.

Is it Moore’s year to win her Oscar?  I sure think it is and even if some have said the Best Actress category is weak this year (um, did you see the impressively varied work of the other nominees?) there’s no denying that Moore’s performance stands tall above the others.  It’s also nice to report that the film itself is quite good, a bonus when you consider how many Oscars go to strong performances in otherwise weak films (coughcoughMerylStreepinTheIronLadycoughcough).  Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to get this cough looked at.

The Silver Bullet ~ Still Alice

still_alice

Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Will this be the year that four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore finally takes home the trophy? Even turning up in the silly Non-Stop hasn’t seemed to hurt her chances at making her way to The Academy Awards come February. Between the buzzed about performances in Still Alice and Maps to the Stars (not to mention a nicely nuanced turn in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), Moore is having a killer 2014. Odds seem to be good she’ll be nominated for both films but even money says Still Alice is a lock and after a look at the trailer showing Moore as a successful woman coming to terms with her early onset Alzheimer’s it’s easy to see why. Co-starring Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine), Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), and Kate Bosworth (Homefront), it’s sure to be Moore’s show but she seems to be in good company.

The Silver Bullet ~ On the Road

Synopsis: Dean and Sal are the portrait of the Beat Generation. Their search for “It” results in a fast paced, energetic roller coaster ride with highs and lows throughout the U.S.

Release Date:  December 21, 2012

Thoughts: It may be hard to believe, but I’ve made it nearly 33 years without picking up a copy of Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel on which this is based.  I know it’s a staple of many an AP English program and the frequent item in backpacks across this great country – but I’ve yet to be taken in by it.  I’m trying to fit in a read before this long in gestation adaptation comes out but then again I don’t want to be one of the people that suffers through a disappointing big screen version of a book many are inspired by.  Life is full of decisions, indeed.  Packed with Hollywood up-and-comers and directed by Walter Salles I’d expect this one to be a popular choice in the art-house cinemas this holiday season.