PERSONAL SHOPPER***Fancy Dress Ghost Story


WHEN YOU WANT something badly enough and your belief that that something is but a grasp away, then perhaps all signs point to that which is so obsessively desired. So it is with Maureen, (Kristen Stewart) who has persuaded herself and her friends that she’s a medium and who is convinced that her recently dead twin brother is reaching out to her from beyond the grave…scarily.

The scenes of Maureen wandering around in the large, dark lonely house in which her brother died are very, hold-your-breath spooky. Indeed, much of this movie grips one with the iciness of good old-fashioned horror.
Maureen is also a personal shopper for a haughty, bitchy woman, for whom money is no object. She is partly a messenger, ferrying bags of couture from exclusive ateliers in Paris and London to her boss, and partly also the curator to how her boss is seen by the public.

Director Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria” also with Kristin Stewart) offers us these two worlds: one world – the world of fashion obsessiveness- is one of pure external surface. What you see is shimmering glam. It isn’t what’s real. The other world is the invisible, purely internal one. And what you’re allowed to see may perhaps actually be real. Or at least Maureen thinks it is…to the extent that she can’t tell them apart.

The initial signs of what might be her brother’s spirit (whispy zephyrs of smoke and odd noises here and there) seem to harden into a disturbing series of texts that know where she is and that begin to commandeer her actions. Her need to get a sign is so strong that she seems to put her rational, sensible self on hold in the belief that the texts really are coming from ‘the beyond’ and as a result going, alone, to strange hotels at odd hours. This is less about communicating with the dead brother than being haunted by him.

Driven by the need to escape the texts, her personal haunting, and by her penchant for the forbidden, she violates her boss’ restrictions and begins to model her clothes. The sloppily dressed messenger girl morphs into an elegant, sexy ‘other’…as if this ‘other’ is just a disguise she can hide herself in. But these ephemeral surface changes are no barrier to the internal demons that haunt her and that ultimately result in a ghastly murder.

Kristin Stewart dominates the movie – is in every frame. And she’s watchably, seductively engaging. Her acting style works so hard at stripping away any thespian exaggeration that, when it doesn’t come off (as in “Certain Women”) it just feels flat. But here, she absolutely makes watchable what’s really an entirely silly movie.

The movie is atmospheric, often creepy, often best seen through narrowly parted fingers. But it’s a movie that’s just OK and which could actually have been quite good (It certainly isn’t worth all those five star reviews). “Personal Shopper” suffers from a few glaring problems: the characters are woefully underdeveloped, especially one central character who we glimpse only fleetingly, but who turns out (Shazam, gotcha!) into a major catalyst. It’s the “huh? Really?” factor. The idea of an obsession with the spiritual world is gripping. (After all, millions of Christians have intimate conversations with a God who’s ever interested in all their sordid little thoughts and activities). But this world is never presented with any hint of artistic ambiguity. Like any B movie horror, director Assayas offers the world of floating spirits and glasses that levitate at face value. These aren’t Maureen’s fantasies. We’re to take them as real phenomena. Assayas’ big potential revelation at the end (which modesty prevents me from spilling the beans on) is just a cheap cop out. And, the focus on Stewart so dominates the movie that we have to work too hard to salvage scraps of information to piece together the why’s and wherefore’s.

it’s just not worth all that effort.

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER. Dir (and writer): Oliver Assayas. With: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger. Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)

 

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CAFE SOCIETY*** Good Company


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WARNING: PLOT REVELATIONS TO FOLLOW

IT IS THE thirties…a time when Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford were just two of the legends that lit up the glittering escapist fantasy of Hollywood. At the centre of this world of glitz, glamour and gossip sits super agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a deal-making, name-dropping master schmoozer. And into his crowded life comes his nephew, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a gauche wide-eyed young man, escaping the claustrophobia of the family jewelry business back in New York and in search of all the possibilities Hollywood has to offer.

He finds more than possibilities. He finds Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to whom he’s introduced by her boss, Uncle Phil (“go show the kid around” Phil instructs her) and with whom he is immediately smitten. But she’s reluctant; she’s “seeing someone else”. Alas, she’s exactly Bobby’s kind of gal: smart, unimpressed by the vulgar showiness of Holllywood, fabulously beautiful and fun to be with. The problem is, her “someone else” is her said boss, Uncle Phil.

She loves Phil, but still manages to fall in love with Bobby.

Complications ensue (natch).

The complications drive Bobby back to New York, back away from the false and superficial world of schmoozing and Hollywood to the false and superficial world of schmoozing and his gangster brother’s night-club. Both worlds exist in their own alien universes. These are worlds of wealth, beauty, haute couture, idle chatter, smart repartee, gossip, insider trading, gangsters and an ever-flowing stream of golden champagne. Here the only currency is the caliber of your contact list. Nothing else matters in these intersecting orbits of like-minded, nocturnal souls. Bobby, all grown up has become just another version of Phil.

The war, bubbling up somewhere far away in Europe barely merits a mention.

This is the universe of the café society; an artificial place far, far away from the real world of the Bronx, of grubby tenement apartments, badly fitting clothes and Yiddish. It is a world where the only – fleeting and genuine – escape comes from the honesty of love. Both Bobby and Vonnie marry –others- ‘happily’ (Bobby’s wife is not coincidentally also called Vonnie, or Victoria). But as they discover when they’re thrown together briefly once again in New York, theirs was a connection – a moment of something genuine in their worlds of artifice – they once had and now have forever lost.

It’s a tale of love won and lost and the melancholia of its lingering memory.

Café Society is a charming, lovely and slight movie that plays like a sort of Woody Allen greatest hits (not a bad thing) – the period settings lovingly shot (medium close-up) by Vittorio Storaro with Suzie Benziger’s sparkling costume designs. All his top tropes are here: the clarinets in the background, the angst about Jewishness, the gauche, nebbish protagonist who is irresistible to the prettiest dames on the block, the occasional lapses into philosophical musings and a well plotted story line that always veers away from cliché even when it seems to highlight it.

But this is no Blue Jasmine, with its thoughtful characterizations and compelling insights. Fortunately, it’s also no To Rome With Love either.

Jesse Eisenberg seems to have quickly become a type; his character is an imitation of Woody’s characters…with all their nervous tics and hesitations (so much so that we never quite believe in his so called pushiness or, really, his ability to run a gangster-controlled night-club). Blake Lively has a brief cameo role as Bobby’s wife. It isn’t much of a part, but she looks spot on: she shines as an embodiment of golden, bedazzling old time Hollywood star power.

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Steve Carell (who replaced Bruce Willis…who couldn’t remember his lines) manages great restraint in what could easily have been a caricature of the pushy Hollywood big shot type. But it is Kristen Stewart (again) who gives us a real person. She allows us to always glimpse two people vying for supremacy: the striving name dropping small town girl who landed the big fish and the sad, needy person so ripe for the pickin’

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As with anything Woody, there’s always much to discuss; more than this, even in such ephemeral fare as this, he’s worthwhile company… delivers a mood and an aura that’s a fabulous way to spend a few passing hours.

 

Café Society. Written and directed: Woody Allen. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Production Designer: Santo Loquasto

AMERICAN ULTRA** Sigh


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“AMERICAN ULTRA” WRITTEN, by Max Landis (John’s son) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (a British Iranian), is a confused, blood-drenched, humorless little movie. From the trailers, it seemed like a cliched but funny enough premise: a stoned, sleeper agent is activated, and, much to his surprise turns out to be a highly trained lethal weapon. Call it a pastiche of “Bourne Identity” meets “The Long Kiss Goodnight”.

But by reel two (to use an antiquated reference point) the comic vein dries up. Landis is a very young (he’s only 30), but prolific writer and he just didn’t have the experience or nous to sustain this one trick pony of an idea for the entire 90 minute journey of the film. So, in a movie that seems to have been written even as it was being shot, he segued away from absurdist humor to what feels like an homage to Robert Rodriguez in his “Machete” phase. It’s not a successful genre mash-up.

Alas, neither the nerdy charm of Jessie Eisenberg nor the low-keyed sparkle of Kristen Stewart, manage to rescue this farrago. Jessie has already settled into a cinematic ‘type’ and here he lives up to his own cliché of the bumbling nerd. He’s not alone. Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fawning, effeminate bag-man from “Veep” phones in his own cliche in a role as a fawning effeminate drone operator. Poor Kristen: she had the hardest job. With no character type to fall back on, she tries valiantly to make something of her underwritten mish-mash role – of loving supporter, come CIA operative.

In the end, “American Ultra” feels like something concocted after the pleasures of a large bong and directed while still stoned, with the ghost of Wes Craven hovering around and screaming for more blood, more spilt guts and more explosions to pump up the excitement. What started out as an ephemeral evening’s entertainment has clearly morphed into some crazed producer’s wannabe franchise with the new (and totally unconvincing) badass Jessie. Call him Jessie Stratham.

But perhaps there’s a bigger idea hiding here. Maybe someone should turn this ” amnesiac is really a trained killer” trope on its head. How about the trained killer that turns out to be an estate agent. Maybe from Foxtons. Or maybe there’s really no difference there.

Whatever. Give this one a miss