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.

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.

 

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!

 

Weekly Round-Up: June 19-25, 2016

Last week I only saw three movies, as much more time was spent with family and friends (not a bad thing!) —

  • The Last Days of Disco (1998) – Whit Stillman is back with his fast-talking young urban professionals, who dress and look like the 90s but apparently are in the late 70s / early 80s. I had a hard time keeping all the names and characters straight, which might not have been of high import as the dialogue could have come from any of their mouths – each character was interchangeable. High marks for Kate Beckinsale playing a cold, oblivious roommate to Chloe Sevigny. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016) – This didn’t hit as well as it did when I saw this in theaters a few months ago, but this Old Hollywood comedy is still charming and inspired. The whole (a kidnapping plot by Communists) is eh, while the sum of its parts (Channing Tatum tap-dancing, and anything with Alden Ehrenreich) is pretty great. RECOMMENDED.
  • The In-Laws (1979) – Insufferable action-comedy about a mild-mannered dentist whose daughter’s future father-in-law is a CIA agent who gets them caught up in wacky adventures! The acting was fine, but nothing about this was funny or entertaining. Wish I had my two hours back! NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

Finding Dory (2016)

I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family. At least, I think it does….where are they?…

Dory’s introduction in the 2003 classic Finding Nemo can be taken, at first, as a purely comic device. Dory, the bubbly and determined Regal Blue Tang, is a fish without a past who knocks into Marlin the clownfish, and helps find his missing son Nemo. She enters the picture solo, and at its conclusion, has become a member of the family, living alongside them in an idyllic reef.

The highly-anticipated sequel Finding Dory pivots the tone and story into a wildly, and admirably, different direction. The beauty and wonder of the ocean is diminished, replacing vivid colors with duller, paler greens and blues. The loving piano theme of the original is foiled by a pained, longing solo violin cue. Finding Dory takes us on a much darker journey, into more devastating emotional pitfalls, for all the more satisfying a climax.

We flash back to Dory’s childhood, and are introduced to her kind parents Charlie and Jenny. She finds herself separated from her family, and pleads for help from passerby fish. Some try to help, but none really follow through. A montage of this pattern through the years transpires, as Dory grows from child to adolescent to the adult version we know. This brief scene is a powerful and horrible reminder of how we often treat those less fortunate.

She’s still trying to find her parents when she crashes into Marlin – coming full circle to the events of Finding Nemo. Flash forward a year later, she’s a well-known member of the reef community – even “helping” Mr. Ray as an assistant teacher. During a lesson on migration and instinct, she has a flashback to her parents, and feels an urgent calling; Dory insists that Marlin and Nemo help her, and so the trio journeys out to find them.

Dory finds herself in quarantine, and meets the septopus (octopus missing a leg) Hank – arguably the breakout star of the film. Hank is grumpy, slinky, and isolationist – like any good octopus should be. He agrees to help Dory find her parents, if she gives him her quarantine tag, his “ticket” to a life in a glass tank away from the real ocean. It’s a visual treat to see him transport Dory in various modes (a coffee pot, sippee cup, among others), all while camouflaging himself to his surroundings, constricting himself into a ball, and even wheeling around a stroller.

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Of course mayhem ensues, including: Dory and Hank ending up in a toddler-friendly “touch” pool (recalling the daycare scenes of Toy Story 3), Marlin and Nemo befriending occasionally aggressive sea lions, and whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey assist Dory’s search via echolocation. The zany cast of characters and outrageous situations make Dory an occasionally non-stop laugh-out-loud delight.

When it’s not, though, Finding Dory is a trying emotional journey on the level of BraveThe Good Dinosaur, and maybe even Inside Out. (For the record, it took less than five minutes for me to tear up in this one…) Its more muted, darker tone is an immediate cue that this journey is a heavier one than in Nemo. But going to those darker places and putting the characters in such dire situations, only make the happy endings that much sweeter. Finding Dory is a rich, complex story of the fish without a past carving out her own future.

 

Weekly Round-Up: June 05-11, 2016

This week had a few jumbled viewings, as I fell asleep and had to resume no fewer than three films. I watched:

  • Tangerine (2015) – Outrageous, hysterical, and ultimately moving story of friendship between two prostitutes in a sun-bleached vision of Hollywood. Fully fleshed out characters and strong performances anchor what would otherwise be a camp-fest, into a well-grounded window into another world. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) – Special screening at the Hollywood Bowl, with the music performed live by an orchestra with singing by Jodi Benson (the real Ariel), Rebel Wilson (as Ursula), and Darren Criss (Prince Eric), among others. Another highlight was the opening acts, of Brad Kane (the real Aladdin) and Susan Egan (the real Megara). Here’s a post reflecting on my experience. REQUIRED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – I’ve seen this four times now, and each time I uncover something new in this wonderfully rich film. It’s a heavy one thematically, touching on racism, sexism, discrimination, politics – but it balances them all beautifully in a labyrinthine mystery. REQUIRED.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Had a hard time getting through this one. A male outsider comes to a northwest mining town, followed by professional Madame, and they pair up to start a high-class whorehouse. I went into it with enthusiastically (I enjoy the other Altman films I’ve seen), but I cared little-to-nothing about these characters or their slow-moving plotlines. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016) – Spooky paranormal thriller combines standard “jump” moments with some creative scares, all enriched by a quality story and stylized visuals. The Warrens are back and taking ghost-hunting to an international level, traveling to London to help a desperate family rid their house of spirits. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Player (1992) – I’m still brewing about this one. I loved the first half of the film: a studio executive being pursued by a frustrated writer, all while balancing his paranoia with the chaos and cynicism of show business. I fell off during the second half, where it gets into an unnecessary love story, but it all circles around to a twisty ending I appreciated. So, opinion is still TBD…

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?