Personal Shopper (2016)

Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.

Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.

This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.

On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?

I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.

Oscar Nominations 2017

This year’s announcements ceremony was, well, non-existent.

The nominations are typically announced as a big live press conference, with publicists and press agents gathered in Hollywood as the next year’s nominees are announced live.

Not this year – the event was scrapped and instead live-streamed from the Oscars’ web site. Most of the broadcast was pre-recorded interviews with past nominees (including Terrence Howard, Ken Watanabe, Guillermo del Toro) sharing stories from when they were nominated, and offering advice to this year’s nominees (“Don’t pop the champagne too early!”). Between all this was the actual listing of nominees by an (unseen) narrator. There was even a break between announcements, highlighting Jimmy Kimmel as he prepares to host this year’s Oscars.

Then the Best Picture nominees were announced by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

The full list of nominations are available here.

SNUBS & SURPRISES:

  • While certainly not traditional Oscar-bait, Deadpool had been gaining steam since its nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture at the Golden Globes. There was quite a bit of talk that it could land an Adapted Screenplay and even Picture nod at the Oscars, but it was not too be.
  • Lots of love for Hacksaw Ridge. This film was not really on my radar, nor is it really being talked about, but its nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director (among others) certainly make this a movie to consider.
  • Amy Adams not being nominated for Arrival. While the film itself performed well (earning Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods), her performance is the heart and soul of the movie. A surprise in the Best Actress category is Ruth Negga from Loving (another film that has been largely left out during the awards season).
  • Hidden Figures also picked up steam, earning nods for Picture and Adapted Screenplay, as well as Supporting Actress (a nomination Octavia Spencer also earned at the Globes).
  • Finding Dory shut out of Best Animated Feature. This has also been left out of a few awards this year, including the Golden Globes, but I’m still amazed that such an emotionally powerful film somehow didn’t move the voters.

What movies are you rooting for? Who was shut out this year? Reply below in the comments!

Arrival (2016)

Arrival is a perfectly realized, occasionally terrifying, and wholly mesmerizing high-concept sci-fi thriller.

It takes the question of “what if aliens landed on Earth?” to a remarkably layered and realistic level. Twelve massive spaceships land, in seemingly unrelated places, across the planet. Pandemonium, chaos, and the threat of global war soon follow.

Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US military to make sense of what the aliens want. She teams up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on a series of missions to meet and communicate with whatever is on board the space vessels.

This first half of the film recalls the deliberately paced sci-fi horrors of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Sequences of the military team scaling up a space craft, and monstrous figures creeping out of the mist, all set to a horrifying score, make for some of the scariest scenes since The Witch.

As with much sci-fi, and certainly non-fiction, however, much of fear comes from the unknown. As Louise and the team fall into a rhythm and break ground in their work, the aliens become less threatening and more friendly, striving to share their message with the human race.

Arrival’s approach to this more optimistic theme pivots the film into more Malick-ian territory, with lucid montages and non-linear narrative. This proves to be more than just a stylistic choice, and the film takes on a significant weight of emotion and meaning.

If ever there were a 2016 awards season contender that I wasn’t expecting to be a tearjerker, it was Arrival. On the surface, it may appear to be just another sci-fi flick, but its thoughtful storytelling and moving emotional elements elevate it to a sublime level of sophistication.

Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

La La Land (2016)

There’s a lot to love about La La Land.

You’ve probably heard how it’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals (and in many ways it is), but don’t let that discount the layers upon layers of passion and ingenuity that clearly went into this project.

Its terrific musical score, treading between big band jazz and melodrama symphonies, is one of the strongest of a non-animated musical in years. A recurring horn line, simultaneously building up in strength while an underlying minor chord wrings out the tension, is a perfect accompaniment to the film’s key conflict: balancing professional dreams with personal passions.

The visuals of the film, for both its musical numbers and dramatic spoken scenes, is also thrilling to behold. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and her roommates go for a night on the town hoping to be noticed by “someone in the crowd,” sporting different colored  dresses. From the costumes perspective, each young woman asserts her own unique identity, to catch the eye of someone who may help her career, while wearing a similar cut and complementary color to one another. Again, the underlying conflict of what must be done for one’s career, while balancing personal and social pressures, is illustrated, in visual film.

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I wish I had roommates like this.

Where the film disappoints, sadly, is its story. There are great nuggets and scenes throughout, but I never really bought the love story between Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), so the abstract, extended dance sequences felt less like organic, romantic movement and more like forced choreography. The musical numbers were great on their own terms, but as the film dragged on (and frankly stopped being fun after a while) I was ready for things to wrap up.

I wouldn’t call La La Land the modern musical masterpiece many claim (or hope) it to be, but it is a great step in a positive direction for imaginative, strong staging of musical sequences within a setting as (typically) unromantic as Los Angeles. The pure heart and love that went into this film is evident in every frame. Pictures like La La Land make the movies a better place.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!

Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.

Weekly Round-Up: July 10-16, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Her (2013) – The instant the film ended, my friend asked, “And why isn’t this Criterion?” Her is nothing short of brilliant, exploring universal themes of relationships and connection set in the not-too-distant future. In a similar level to Inside OutHer is a profound and emotional statement on the human experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Le Amiche (1955) – I love movies about rich people, but I’m still brewing about how I feel on Le Amiche (I’m always iffy with Antonioni). Five girlfriends, including one newcomer, in postwar Turin share gossip and boyfriends. Each is well defined, and her intentions made clear to the audience. The story felt a little slow and directionless, but was also true to life…. yeah, still out on this one. TBD.
  • Ghostbusters (2016) – I almost liked this one. I really wanted to like it. Kristen Wiig is the standout comedy actress of our time, and the rest of the gang all has done solid work in the past. As the movie went on, certain elements just started chipping away at my overall enjoyment – lines would misfire, we’d revert back to lazy “jump” scares, and worst of all, cameos/throwback moments thrown in for… what exactly?  To elevate the quality of the film? (This Dorkly post on the continuity of ghosts didn’t help either.) NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Armageddon (1998) – This big-budget disaster movie is a bona fide disaster, with director Michael Bay either unaware or unwilling to bring it down. From the opening titles literally exploding to Liv Tyler & Ben Affleck embracing in a NASA rocketship, everything in Armageddon is laughable. I’m amazed this hasn’t become a camp classic a la Mommie Dearest or Valley of the Dolls, but we need to make that happen. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about the new Ghostbusters?

2016 Check-In

2016 in film has been an interesting year to say the least.

This summer is all but cursed, with disappointing sequels and lackluster starts to would-be franchises opening nearly every weekend. The term “box office poison” was used to describe Hollywood stars of the 1930s, but one could almost apply it to the bizarro movie season we’ve had lately.

In between the weeds, however, several sequels and original stories are making an impact among audiences and critics alike. Some of my favorites from 2016, in order of release, are:

  • The Witch – An early American horror film with arthouse sensibilities. This wasn’t for all audiences (I recall a fella in my crowd declaring “This some bullshit!” as the house lights came back on), but The Witch is just the right pace for the set who prefers slow-cooking scares over a torrent of “jump” scares.
  • Zootopia – For a film buff, the best kind of movie-going experience is getting to revisit a classic and uncover layer upon layer with each additional viewing. Zootopia is one such film, and after four viewings (in less than one year, mind you) I always find something new in this remarkably mature, complicated take on inequality and prejudice in the animal kingdom (which isn’t too different from ours). I’m still amazed, but greatly pleased, that this dialogue-driven, morally challenging animated flick has been such a hit with audiences.
  • Finding Dory – I’m too in the “honeymoon phase” to say whether this sequel surpasses its classic predecessor, but Finding Dory offers a substantially different and more emotionally resonant story than Nemo did over ten years ago. Similar to Zootopia, this movie about talking sea life is an often upsetting look at how we treat nature and each other.

I’m also just now realizing that my three favorite films of 2016 all feature talking animals.

What are your favorite movies of 2016 (so far)? Reply below in the comments!