Kristen Stewart

Personal Shopper

17/03/17

This dark and somewhat gloomy offering from director Olivier Assayas, chronicles the misfortunes of Maureen (Kristen Stewart) a young woman based in Paris who is the personal shopper for  super-successful (and barely glimpsed) fashionista, Kyra (Nora Van Waldstatten). Maureen’s life is an unrewarding succession of shopping expeditions for fancy clothing and footwear that she’s forbidden from trying on herself, even though she’s been chosen for this role because she’s exactly the same size as Kyra.

Maureen is also a medium, desperately trying to get in touch with her twin brother, Lewis, who died a year ago and who suffered from the same congenital heart condition as her. The opening sequence, slow and wordless, has Maureen wandering around a deserted mansion in the dark, listening to various bumps and whispers, a scene which leads us to believe that we are in for a traditional ghost story; but, half way in, the film switches abruptly into murder mystery territory and from there just seems to be become increasingly bewildering.

This is a shame because Stewart’s performance, as a downtrodden, scruffy girl next door, is rather good, a million miles away from her familiar Twilight persona. She skilfully portrays a character who is repressing her inner demons and who suffers from a crippling inability to assert herself. Sadly the story she’s starring in is rather less assured. Assayas seems to be riffing on the parallels between contemporary communication – texts, Skype calls, emails – and the world of the supernatural, but he doesn’t try very hard to inform the average viewer, leaving us to guess at his intentions. Long passages have characters speaking in French – and other languages – without the aid of subtitles. Worse still, the all important conclusion to the murder mystery element happens off screen, neatly destroying any suspense that might have been generated through the series of threatening text messages that Maureen receives throughout the story. Finally, the films denouement is so obfuscated,  I spent hours afterwards trying to work out exactly what had happened.

Some reviewers have praised the film’s refusal to ‘pin things down,’ but the elephant in the room here is that this is surely an example of poor storytelling. I’m all for allowing viewers to make their own minds up as to what the director was trying to ‘say,’ but it surely helps to give us something concrete to build our theories on. In the end, Personal Shopper is neither fish nor fowl – it’s not the affecting ghost story it might have been and neither is it a satisfying thriller. Instead, it exists in a nebulous world somewhere between the two.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

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Certain Women

08/03/17

Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.

There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.

The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.

The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.

This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

11/02/17

Let’s start with an admission: we’re watching Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2D, and at 24fps at our local Cineworld. So we’re not going to be able to comment on its technical wizardry, not on whether the 4K 3D 120fps makes Ang Lee’s experiment worthwhile, nor on whether we agree with the critics who claim it makes the film uncomfortable to watch. But, as only five cinemas worldwide are equipped to show this movie in its full glory, our experience is more likely to chime with that of our readers. And so we’ll focus on the film behind the tech.

Based on a novel by Ben Fountain, BLLHW tells the tale of a squad of young American soldiers, brought home from Iraq for a victory tour, following the circulation of video footage showing their doomed-but-heroic fight to save their sergeant’s life. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is struggling to cope, ambivalent about the war, and unsure of much except his loyalty to his squad. They are rewarded with a day out: they are guests of honour at a football game, trotted out to stand behind Destiny’s Child to wild applause during halftime. And there is talk of a film deal, too: they’ll be famous, wealthy, given everything they need.

Joe Alwyn’s performance is subtle and nuanced: his pain is palpable. The realities of his war are revealed through a series of short flashbacks, sparked by the flash of a firework or a poignant word. It’s a touching story: he hasn’t much to stay home for, but neither does he want to go back to Iraq. His sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), tries to persuade him to see a psychiatrist; she’s scared of losing him and can see that he has PTSD. And it’s heartbreaking to watch him struggle with the decision. There are no easy answers here.

I enjoyed this film a lot, and not just because of the novelty of seeing Vin Diesel in a role where he’s required to act. It’s not action-packed, and there are no clichéd moments of wonder or revelation. It’s a slow, wordy piece about ambiguity, about what we ask young men to do, and how little we know of the toll it takes. The response to Bravo Squad on their return to the US is confused: they’re heroes, but they’re ordinary. They’re revered, but they’re mocked. They’re film worthy, but no one will pay them properly. In the end, they only have each other, and their instincts – and, if that’s not enough, well that’s too bad. It’s a fascinating story, and well worth two hours of your time.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

American Ultra

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05/09/15

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a small-town guy, stuck in a dead end job at the local convenience store. He spends his spare time smoking dope and doodling ideas for a comic book featuring a space travelling super monkey called Apollo Ape. Luckily, he’s in a long term relationship with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who seems to be his perfect soulmate and who tolerates the fact that Mike has crippling anxiety attacks whenever he tries to travel. Most recently, a long-desired vacation to Hawaii is nixed, when he finds himself running to the john to vomit. As is so often the case in movies like this, all is not what it seems and circumstances conspire to reveal that Mike is in fact, a brainwashed undercover CIA operative, who has been waiting for a certain sequence of words to reactivate him.

Eisenberg is, as ever, a likeable screen presence and Kristen Stewart was always a better actress than the execrable Twilight series allowed her to demonstrate. The first third of this movie is great fun, as Mike realises that he has the potential to be a highly skilled assassin – but once those talents are acquired, the film loses some of its appeal as it becomes a series of ever more complicated Heath Robinsonesque  murders. All manner of gadgets are utilised in Mike’s struggle for survival – mallets, screwdrivers, frying pans and claw hammers – you get the impression that here’s yet another film that must have been sponsored by B & Q. The action is unflinchingly bloody, but shot with enough cartoonish relish to just about excuse its most brutal excesses. Topher Grace and Connie Britton as two warring CIA honchos add depth to Max Landis’s script and there’s an appealing cameo from Bill Pullman as their ruthless boss, but the conviction remains that this could have been better if it had managed to maintain the more appealing elements on show in the first half hour.

American Ultra is eminently watchable, but could easily have been something more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Still Alice

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16/3/15

Still Alice is of course, the film that secured Julianne Moore a well-deserved Oscar and this tale of a fifty year old Professor of Linguistics, struck down by Early Onset Alzheimers, becomes even more poignant with the news that writer/co-director Richard Glatzer, died just two days after the Oscar ceremony. (He suffered from the rare but equally debilitating condition ALS.) The film is surprisingly understated, avoiding the excesses of so many other medical issue dramas and it could be argued that it cuts away before things get too messy, but the enterprise is held together by Moore’s extraordinary performance, which instills a kind of creeping terror in the viewer; we’ve all experienced many of the  problems she encounters here. Who hasn’t found themselves walking into a room and then drawing a blank as to why we’ve gone there? Could what we’ve dismissed as mere absent-mindedness be something more sinister?

We first encounter the eponymous Alice at a University lecture where she momentarily forgets what she’s about to say. A little later whilst jogging around her hometown, she suddenly discovers that she doesn’t recognise her surroundings, even though she’s right outside the University where she works. (This scene is terrifying.) Alice’s husband and fellow academic, John (Alec Baldwin – don’t be afraid, he’s quite good in this) tries to do what’s best for his wife, but the demands of his own career cause complications and there are more of those too for Alice’s children, when it transpires that the rare type of Alzheimer’s she’s suffering from is familial – it can be passed on to them. This is devastating news for eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) who is trying to start a family of her own, while flakey youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) ironically manages to grow closer to her mother as her condition advances. From here, we witness the gradual disintegration of Alice’s life as with each successive day, a little more of her memory is eroded and irrevocably lost.

Still Alice isn’t a great film – indeed, with a lesser performance at it’s core, it could easily have stumbled and fallen, but it does have Moore’s intelligent and heartfelt input and that’s enough to kick it out of the stadium. I was warned that I would need a box of Kleenex for this one, but though I sat there consumed with dread throughout (my own Mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life) I managed to stay resolutely dry eyed  – a testament, I think, to the fact that the story never panders to histrionics and presents a realistic portrayal of an illness that surely does require more research and investment than it’s currently receiving. Worth seeing? Yes, but mostly for Julianne Moore at the top of her game.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney