Sunday, November 19, 2017

Available for home viewing: An Inconvenient Sequel Truth to Power ★★½

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) meets former Vice President Al Gore
during the Paris climate talks in a scene from An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
There is no guaranteeing that you watch a movie with a clear head anymore. If you check your phone before you begin to watch one, you're liable to read that a career senator took advantage of his office's health care plan, had a cancerous growth removed, then hobbled onto the floor of the Senate to cast a vote saying no other American deserves that treatment. How are you meant to feel anything but disgust when you then sit down to watch a movie about a lifelong environmentalist meeting staunch opposition from the planet he's trying to save? How is this movie not going to seem both more relevant and like a complete waste of everyone's time? An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (even the title screams for your attention over the horrifying din) chronicles a continuing and exhausting fight to get the world to stop destroying itself on purpose but it's also implicitly about the fight for your attention. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk do their utmost to make Al Gore's climate studies seem like the life or death struggle they are, but they're racing a news cycle and the real-time destruction of our civil liberties, and frankly they don't want to play dirty enough to win.

We join Al Gore in 2015, looking a good deal older and tired. With his slow, awkward gait, gray hair and dad jokes, he's out of step with American politics. He's still giving his PowerPoint presentation on the effects of capitalism on the environment, with updated information. He wants to come off folksy, another Jimmy Carter selflessly giving whatever he's got to give to the country that rejected him, but his anger occasionally gets the better of him. Frankly, if he was angry more often this film might not be necessary. He's outmatched and outnumbered, and the best that can be said about him is that he hasn't given up. Of course, he's got time and money with which to continue his crusade to curb greenhouse gases. What about the rest of us?

This is a film set largely in board rooms and hotel rooms while the most powerful people in the globe talk to Gore about considering cap and trade measures to stop their populations from rampantly polluting the planet. Shenk and Cohen make a handful of calculated risks showing us who's in these rooms. A few years ago, choosing to show Cory Booker listening intently to Gore at a Senate committee meeting might have seemed like a good sign. Now that his ties to pharmaceutical companies have been exposed, his attention is just another empty promise from a bought politician. Watching Booker pretending to listen to Gore in one of many silent reaction shots the editors throw around Gore to make sure we know people are moved by his words; I just kept seeing the Jersey democrat embracing McCain on the floor after he voted to kill Obamacare. With friends like these …

Gore lopes through flooded streets and cemeteries like John Wayne in The Shootist. He's got tokens of past failures all around him, and every victory is qualified. He knows how flimsy his future is, even if he heroically refuses to stop. Watching him take in the faces of Floridian public servants smiling nervously as they admit that conditions have never been this bad and then sit and change his wet socks like a man returning from a bad day of fishing show Gore at his most human. Seeing him on a Golden cell phone dropping Elon Musk's name in the hopes of shaking people into taking him seriously show him at his most out of touch and desperate (Musk, it should be said, immediately went to work for Donald Trump when the call came, even if he retired in June). The film basically breaks even in its portraiture of Gore and his reaction to setbacks. The Paris terrorist attacks postpone a call to action broadcast. A small Texas town committing to using 100 percent renewable energy is undercut slightly by listening to the mayor say, "leave the world in better shape than you found it" and realizing he doesn't mean human rights. Hell, I was offered a 30-page kit about the importance of recycling if I agreed to purchase this Blue-Ray. How are we supposed to think this planet has a chance? The final minutes of the movie show Gore, ashen-faced, as he tries to rally his courage and strength after the 45th President is elected. His grief is eminently relatable, even if his composure is not.

The film begins and ends with arresting footage of glaciers melting. The problem is that those images have never been enough, final and incontrovertible though they may be. It's been ten years since An Inconvenient Truth first told everyone in black-and-white how doomed we are if we don't shape up. A lot of people listened, but just as many mocked him and encouraged us not to care. An Inconvenient Sequel shows the twilight of one of our most coherent champions. The glaciers have not stopped melting, every day brings worse news, but Gore has never given into despair. "Despair can be paralyzing," he says at one point, accidentally but appropriately sounding like Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (a story of a man trying to save an arid planet from corpulent fascists). Despair is all we've got some days, and try though it might, this film can't curb it. The best An Inconvenient Sequel can offer is the formidable image of Gore, nearly 70, refusing to stand down. It's inspiring, but even the filmmakers have to know it's not enough. I was moved by the movie, but when it was over I looked at my phone.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Available for home viewing: Brigsby Bear ★★½

Kyle Mooney in Brigsby Bear
Released in the wake of Comic-Con, it’s impossible not to deeply consider the timing and subtext of a film in which fandom has a major role and Mark Hamill plays character that shapes that fandom. Such is the undercurrent of Brigsby Bear, the Sundance dramedy that pivots from a dark examination of a life lived in confined culture to a celebration of creativity spawned from that culture. Neither film completely works — and the mashing of the two feels incongruent at times — but there’s a lot to like here, particularly in the daringness of the concept. If anything, I wish that debut director Dave McCary and the team behind Brigsby Bear had embraced their film’s oddity a bit more instead of trying to bring it to a more traditionally heartwarming place. There’s a truly subversive film buried in Brigsby Bear — the kind of movie that Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman would have made with the same idea — and it shines through just enough to warrant a look but not quite enough to elevate this into the memorable experience it could have been.

There’s a mysterious danger to the opening scenes of Brigsby Bear. A young man named James (Kyle Mooney of Saturday Night Live) lives in a room filled with posters, toys, and other collectibles related to his favorite show, "Brigsby Bear." The program, which we see him eagerly watching on VHS tapes, looks like a relic of ‘70s or ‘80s Saturday morning television with low production values, full-frame format, and moral lessons told directly to the screen. It all looks relatively harmless, except James is way too old to be this obsessed with a kid’s show, there appears to be little else in his life, and there are no windows in his room. Something is "off." And even the routine over dinner with his parents (Hamill and Jane Adams) has an air of menace. When we see James and his father venturing out of their underground bunker of a home in gas masks, the assumption is that this is another post-apocalyptic tale — the story of a boy devouring the only pop culture left in a world gone mad.

That’s not quite it. We quickly learn that James was kidnapped when he was just an infant, and has been held in this bunker and essentially brainwashed. Taking this dark set-up a step further, James discovers that the show that helped form his worldview was created by his father in a warehouse and that literally no one else has seen it. Even the people he thought he was speaking to on a Brigsby Bear forum were fake. So not only does he enter a real world that he doesn’t understand — including his real family played well by Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh, and Ryan Simpkins — but he does so without the support of the only thing he’s ever known. Imagine being the biggest Star Wars fan in the world and then being told that you have to go somewhere where no one has ever heard of The Force. It creates a different level of disconnect for James.

McCary and his writers (Mooney and Kevin Costello) aren’t really interested in that disconnect. Sure, there are a few scenes with a cop played by Greg Kinnear and a therapist played by Claire Danes that work James’ oddity for laughs, but that angle is quickly discarded for a film that’s primarily about the power of creativity. If you’re wondering how a film about pop culture obsession and kidnapping becomes an ode to filmmaking, it doesn’t quite do so successfully. Brigsby Bear becomes a film about a boy who doesn’t overcome his obsession as much as embrace it. That’s a fascinating message as well — it is not that our fandom will destroy us but that it will save us — but McCary and Mooney don’t embrace the stakes of the piece enough for it to register. I wanted more danger, more tension, more drama, and less "James having fun with his new friends." It often feels as if Brigsby Bear has such an "unusual" concept that the creators were then scared to lean into it, making everything about its delivery feel like it’s designed to soften the sharp edges and lighten its darker tones.

Brigsby Bear would be a tough tonal balancing act for anyone to pull off, much less a debut filmmaker, and it’s certainly unlike anything else you’ll see this year. It’s the kind of movie that’s easy to embrace for its unique subject matter, and hard to hate given how much it emboldens the creative spirit — it will make you want to draw, film, write, or create something when it’s over. These are the qualities that will make this an important film for people in the way the show-within-a-movie is important for its protagonist. It almost makes a critic who wishes for something more feel as villainous as the show’s bad guy, Sun Snatcher. Trust me, I wanted to embrace my inner Brigsby or even the kid within me once (and still kinda) obsessed with film, comics, games, and television like the loyal travelers to Comic-Con. I just needed more than whimsy to make that cinematic journey to pop culture nirvana.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Available for home viewing: Wind River ★★★

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in Wind River
Taylor Sheridan’s films take place in a mythical version of the American West that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever really did. It’s a place where there are no rules beyond the ones people invent for themselves to survive — stretches of Texas and New Mexico that are equal parts brutal and beautiful.

Sheridan previously explored this terrain as the writer of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now, he’s directing for only the second time as well as writing with Wind River, which feels very much of a piece with those two previous films, even as it distinguishes itself with a vivid sense of place.

Wind River is full of vast, scrubby expanses that give way to pristine blankets of white, interrupted only by a snowmobile slashing a solitary path. You can hear the crunch of snow and feel the bitter chill, which runs so deep that it can be deadly. Sheridan drops us in and we know this place immediately; his storytelling is meaty but efficient, and his pacing moves along at a steadily engrossing clip before ultimately exploding in a startling blast of violence.

A moody procedural, Wind River is heavy with symbolism from the start — perhaps, too much so. When we first see Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert, a tracker well-versed in the Wyoming wilds, he’s lying on his belly in the snow, camouflaged with his rifle, picking off wolves that have been preying on sheep. He’s a protector because it’s his job, but as we learn throughout the course of the film, that calling has become deeply personal.

There’s specificity to the way the characters talk, a poetry that can be quite moving or it can clang on the ear. But Sheridan’s script can be just as powerful in its quiet moments like these — in what the characters don’t say to each other.

On one of Cory’s hunting expeditions, he comes across the frozen body of a young woman; we’d seen her at the film’s start, frantically running barefoot in the middle of the night under a crisp, full moon. He recognizes her as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of his teenage daughter, who also died mysteriously a few years earlier.

Since the death occurred on the Wind River reservation — and Natalie, like Cory’s daughter, was Native American — the tribal police get involved in the investigation, led by the great Graham Greene as the dryly humorous, no-nonsense chief. But so, too, do the feds, in the form of newbie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s been sent from the Las Vegas office and is so ill-equipped for this place and this weather that she has to borrow snow gear — from the closet of Cory’s late daughter, which adds to the prevailing sense of grief.

"This isn’t the land of backup, Jane," Greene’s chief says to her in explaining life on the reservation. "This is the land of: You’re on your own."

And so as Cory works with Jane to unravel the mystery of what happened to Natalie in this remote, secretive land, he also must finally face what happened to his own child. (Cinematographer Ben Richardson, whose work includes the ravishing and dreamlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, helped create the richly atmospheric visuals.)

Sheridan handles the relationship between Jane and Cory deftly: They’re equals, but they also need and learn from each other. And while fellow Avengers Renner and Olsen have a natural, understated chemistry, Sheridan mercifully doesn’t throw their characters together in an awkward, needless romance.

Renner also has several powerful scenes with Gil Birmingham (who played a crucial supporting role in Hell or High Water) as Natalie’s grieving father, Martin. He’s all masculine stoicism and bitter swagger until he isn’t, and watching his proud veneer crumble is shattering.

At times, Sheridan has his characters spell out a little too clearly what they’re thinking and feeling, and that’s often the case in the exchanges between Cory and Martin. But the words are so beautiful and come from such a place of deep truth, it’s hard not to be moved, and they help give Wind River a simultaneous sense of timelessness and immediacy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My top 25 college football teams (week 11)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Alabama 10-0 (2)
2. Clemson 9-1 (4)
3. Miami, Fla. 9-0 (7)
4. Wisconsin 10-0 (6)
5. Georgia 9-1 (1)
6. Notre Dame 8-2 (3)
7. Oklahoma 9-1 (9)
8. Ohio State 8-2 (10)
9. Penn State 8-2 (5)
10. Auburn 8-2 (14)
11. UCF 9-0 (8)
12. USC 9-2 (13)
13. Oklahoma State 8-2 (16)
14. TCU 8-2 (11)
15. Washington 8-2 (12)
16. Michigan 8-2 (20)
17. Washington State 9-2 (21)
18. Mississippi State 7-3 (18)
19. North Carolina State 7-3 (24)
20. Stanford 7-3 (25)
21. Michigan State 7-3 (15)
22. Virginia Tech 7-3 (17)
23. Memphis 8-1 (22)
24. Iowa 6-4 (19)
25. LSU 7-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Iowa State


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Available for home viewing: Wonder Woman ★★★

 
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Ever since William Moulton Marston created her in 1941, Wonder Woman has always been at her best when her stories lean into the feminist ethos at her core. When artists treat her compassion as the key to understanding her — rather than her brutality in battle — viewers are privy to a superhero who offers what no other can: a power fantasy that privileges the inferiority and desires of women. But film rarely has made room for the fantasies of women on such a grand scale. And in comic adaptations, women can be tough, funny, and self-assured. But rarely are they the architects of their own destiny.

I must admit I worried her distinctive edges would be sanded off when it came time for her standalone film. It’s arguably easier to sell Wonder Woman as a vengeful heroine in the vein of countless others, but less distinctive. But early in the film I noticed the terrain that director Patty Jenkins turned to most often in order to create the emotional through-line. It wasn’t the glimmer of a blade or even the picturesque shores of Themyscira, the utopian paradise Wonder Woman calls home. Through moments of quiet verisimilitude and blistering action sequences, Jenkins’ gaze often wisely returns to the face of her lead heroine, Diana (Gal Gadot). At times, her face is inquisitive, morose, and marked by fury. But more often than not she wears a bright, open smile that carries the optimism and hope that is true to the character’s long history as well as a much-needed salve from what other blockbusters offer. In turn, Wonder Woman isn’t just a good superhero film. It is a sincerely good film in which no qualifiers are needed. It’s inspiring, evocative, and, unfortunately, a bit infuriating for the chances it doesn’t take.

Written by Allan Heinberg, with a story also by Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, the story uses a variety of inspiration culled from Wonder Woman’s 76-year history. As a young girl, Diana enjoys the loving protection of the Amazons of Themyscira, a secluded island paradise created by the gods of Olympus. No Amazon is fiercer or more protective than her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). But Diana longs to be trained in the art of war by her aunt, Antiope (a stellar Robin Wright). She grows from a kind, young girl into an inquisitive, brave, young woman who never hesitates to helps those in need. Even a man like Captain Steve Trevor (an endlessly charming Chris Pine), who brings news of World War I when he crash-lands on the island disrupting this all-female sanctuary, gets saved by her. Diana leaves behind the only life she’s ever known, heading to late 1910s London to stop the war she believes is influenced by the god Ares.

Cinematographer Matthew Jensen, production designer Aline Bonetto, and costume designer Lindy Hemming form Themyscira into a gorgeous utopia that utilizes a variety of cultural touchstones. It’s free of the Hellenic influence you’d expect from a story that takes such inspiration from Greek myth with the Amazons creating their home in a way that respects the lush nature around them rather than destroying it. It isn’t sterile either. The scenes set in Themyscira have a dazzling array of colors including the gold of armor, the cerulean blue of the sea that surrounds them, warm creams, and deep browns. Jenkins films many of these scenes in wide shot, reveling in the majestic nature of this culture. Similarly, the history of the Amazons, told in a dense but beautifully rendered backstory by Hippolyta, evokes a painterly quality reminiscent of Caravaggio. Having said that, while Wonder Woman has a lot to offer visually, what makes this film so captivating is Gadot and Pine.

Gadot wonderfully inhabits the mix of curiosity, sincerity, badassery, and compassion that has undergirded Wonder Woman since the beginning. Most importantly, she wears her suit, the suit doesn’t wear her. She evokes a classic heroism that is a breath of fresh air and nods to Christopher Reeve’s approach to Superman from the 1970s. Likewise, Pine matches her hopefulness with a world weariness and sharp sense of humor. He’s more than capable at bringing an emotional complexity to a character most aptly described as a dude-in-distress. There are particularly great scenes at the beginning, as Diana talks about men being unnecessary for female pleasure. Steve seems undone by her presence, which makes the development of their story authentic. Their chemistry is electrifying, making Wonder Woman a successful romance and superhero origin story set during one of the most brutal wars.

At their best, blockbusters evoke awe that can be both humbling and thrilling. Think of the first time you saw the T-Rex in Jurassic Park or the suspense that suffuses all of Aliens. Wonder Woman excels at this particularly in the earliest chapter set in Themyscira. I felt my heart swell watching Antiope smirk during an intense fight and Hippolyta’s tender scenes with Diana. Wonder Woman is like nothing that has come before it in how it joyously displays the camaraderie among women, many of whom are women of color and over 40. It's electrifying watching the Amazons train and talk with each other. These women are fierce and kind, loyal and brave. If anything, I wished the film dwelt in Themyscira a bit longer, since their culture is so poignantly rendered. Also, it was just awesome to see Artemis (Ann J. Wolfe) and Antiope in battle.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is uneven. The villains — an obsessive German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the mad scientist Doctor Maru nicknamed Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) — are painted too broadly and given too few details to have a lasting impact. Diana’s comrades that Steve rounds up are similarly crafted with little detail. Charlie (Ewen Bremner) is a Scottish sharpshooter, ravaged by what he’s witnessed in the war. Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) is a Native American, capitalizing on the war for profit. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a confidence artist of sorts. But the actors are able to give these characters enough sincerity and wit to make their appearances memorable.

While Wonder Woman is an overall light, humorous and hopeful movie, it isn’t afraid of touching on politics. The feminism of the film is sly. It’s seen in moments when characters of color comment on their station in life and Diana faces sexism from powerful men who doubt her intelligence. Of course, the feminism, charming performances, and delightful humor would be nothing without the direction by Jenkins.

Superhero films inherently carry the thrill of seeing these characters come to life and brandish great abilities, but far too often the fight scenes are neither epic nor engaging. So often they’re flatly lit, unimaginatively framed extravaganzas of characters fighting in airplane hangers and other drab surroundings. But what makes Wonder Woman so blistering is Jenkins’ distinctive gaze particularly in the fight scenes. Yes, the CGI is at times half-baked, which occasionally would snap me out of the momentum, but, overall, her voice as a director is so distinctive and her handling of the action so deft I was in complete awe. She shows off the great physicality of the Amazons, Diana's included, giving the action full room to breathe without being burdened by excessive editing or an over-reliance on close-ups. She treats action as a dance of sorts, with important characters having their own distinctive styles so that nothing ever feels repetitive. The sequences depicting Themyscira and Diana’s first entry on the battlefield of World War I are particularly exemplary.

Unfortunately, there are several choices that prevent the film from fully inhabiting the unique, feminist aims presented at the beginning. Ares, when he’s finally introduced near the very end, at first seems to be a somewhat clever take on the God of War. He isn’t so much seeking to end the world as create a new one by influencing the darkest aspects of mankind. But then the story tips into being a far more traditional superhero film than it had been previously.

It’s in the third act that the constraints of being part of an extended cinematic universe become apparent. It’s as if the last 30 minutes were cut from another film altogether that sought to create the bombastic, confusing, fiery sort of finale that far too many superhero works hew toward. The third act's approach to Diana’s true origin creates a distinct schism between its sincere feminist aims and the desires of a company that often doesn’t understand why people are drawn to this character in the first place. But there are enough moving touches — like Diana’s last scene with Steve — that prevent the finale from weighing down the film entirely.

Despite its flaws, Wonder Woman is beautiful, kindhearted, and buoyant in ways that make me eager to see it again. Jenkins and her collaborators have done what I thought was previously impossible: created a Wonder Woman film that is inspiring, blistering, and compassionate, in ways that honor what has made this character an icon.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Available for home viewing; Spider-Man: Homecoming ★★½

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) scales the Washington Monument to rescue his high school decathalon team
Spider-Man: Homecoming is two movies for the price of one. The first is about a socially awkward high school sophomore navigating the difficulties of being a teenager while trying to hold onto his "internship". The second is about one of Marvel’s most beloved and iconic superheroes finally returning to the universe where most of the company’s other heroes reside. If Spider-Man: Homecoming had been released six months ago, I might have been more kindly disposed toward it. Since then, however, the super-hero genre has undergone a seismic shift resulting from two game-changing titles: Logan and Wonder Woman. Now, the generic material forming the whole cloth of Homecoming’s narrative just doesn’t cut it. It feels stale. While the Peter Parker stuff is enjoyable, that’s only part of what the movie is giving us. Every time Peter puts on the Spidey suit, we know exactly what we’re going to get, beat-by-beat. The movie lacks inspiration; even the big "twist" is more worthy of a suppressed chuckle than a dropped jaw — it’s like something pulled out of a bad soap opera.

This is the sixth Spider-Man movie. Marvel adherents will point out that it’s the first one to occur in the so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (MCU for short), which is true. As a result of a deal between Sony and Disney, characters can be "shared." That allowed this incarnation of Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) to be awkwardly shoehorned into Captain America: Civil War and presents an opportunity for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Captain America (Chris Evans) to show up in Homecoming. While Cap’s appearances are perfect (rivaling Deadpool for best post-credits sequence in a Marvel-based movie), Iron Man functions more as a deus ex machina whose presence appears designed to keep reminding us that, yes, Spider-Man has come home.

This is arguably the best Spider-Man movie since #2. That’s probably not saying much: Spider-Man 3 was a mess with studio executives undermining Raimi’s original intentions. The two Andrew Garfield reboots were ill-advised and poorly executed. So the bar wasn’t high and, fortunately, Homecoming cleared it, if only barely. But, compared to the first two Raimi films, this falls short. Raimi did a better job with the superhero material than Jon Watts (and the six credited screenwriters) does in Homecoming. Fans and critics have been mentioning the "John Hughes vibe" in this movie. It’s there but I would argue that Raimi nailed it as well in the first two productions. Do people forget how Peter pined for Mary-Jane and how that culminated in the iconic upside-down kiss in the rain? Homecoming doesn’t have that moment.

Tonally, the movie is uncertain, although it veers closer to straight comedy than any of the previous Marvel Studio movies. Only Fox’s Deadpool is more openly humorous. Homecoming contains its share of serious-minded scenes but the goal of restoring Spider-Man’s comic book flippancy gives the film a lighter bent. At times, it’s as if Homecoming, like Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, is a push-back against the clouds of darkness that have gathered over recent superhero films.

The traditional superhero movie has an uncomplicated structure. After scenes introducing the hero and the villain(s), we get the initial engagement, some narrative material explaining the villain’s nefarious intentions, usually followed by a moment of existential crisis for the hero, then the inevitable rematch. Good superhero movies embellish and deviate just enough… They give us moments that stand the test of time. Homecoming follows the template in a disappointingly straightforward manner and, as a result, is enjoyable in the same way that any overproduced seasonal movie is: disposable entertainment meant to give the most ephemeral of highs before dissipating.

Thankfully, we’re spared another telling of the origin story. Spider-Man: Homecoming opens with a recap of the title character’s role in Civil War. We learn that he’s a "ground level" hero who wears a homespun costume to foil minor crimes. Spider-Man is a YouTube star but he hasn’t yet broken through with the mainstream media. He has a (hot) Aunt May (improbably played by Marisa Tomei) and an annoying best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon). He’s a member of the academic decathalon team. His cluelessness is extreme when it comes to the opposite sex — he pines after longtime crush Liz (Laura Harrier) while ignoring Michelle (Zendaya), the girl under his nose. Tony Stark shows up occasionally, rushing in and out so fast we wonder whether Downey has another movie to make. He gives Peter a suit filled with gadgets (and a voice provided by Jennifer Connelly) and hands him over to Happy, who has better things to do than babysit a kid. So Peter is left to his own devices.

Spider-Man’s enemy this time around is a nasty piece of work called The Vulture (Michael Keaton). A scrap scavenger who has been lucky enough to come into possession of alien technology, The Vulture is a black-market seller of super-powered weaponry. Along with his henchmen, The Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) and the two Shockers (Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine), The Vulture prepares heists of high-value targets to increase his inventory. That’s when Spider-Man starts interfering and, because Stark is temporarily distracted, Peter is forced to battle The Vulture on his own.

Holland proves to be an excellent choice for Peter/Spider-Man. Reminiscent of the late Anton Yelchin, he embodies a teenager caught between the desire to reveal his identity and bask in the glory that would accompany such an action and the recognition that "with great power comes great responsibility." He handles the one-liners (of which there are a lot) with panache. He’s more believable at the young age than Toby Maguire and more suitable in general than Garfield. Keaton is an excellent foil, playing The Vulture as a man with a grudge who has turned to a life of crime because of a careless act on the part of Stark. With this role, Keaton advances his comic book legacy, adding a Marvel bad guy to his filmography.

Not all the casting choices are as good as Holland and Keaton. I found Batalon’s Ned to be as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard, although that’s probably as much a factor of the screenplay as it is the performance. And, much as I like Tomei, I simply can’t buy her as (hot) Aunt May. To me, Rosemary Harris was perfect in the role and Sally Field was adequate. But Tomei?? I guess that’s what it means to reinvent the character for a new generation (something they’re also doing with one of Peter’s girlfriends).

The battle sequences are less than impressive. Watts doesn’t have a good feel for how to choreograph them so they often come across as chaotic (borderline incoherent). Since the results are easy to predict, however, that’s perhaps not much of a drawback. The CGI is uneven — some is fine but there are some dodgy bits (an early shot of Spider-Man swinging and a crowd shot from the top of the Washington Monument) that look like video game outtakes. Michael Giacchino’s score is lazy and derivative. While I’ll give him credit for using an instrumental version of the animated Spider-Man song, his main theme bears more than a passing resemblance to the John Barry/Monty Norman James Bond Theme. (I guess it’s fair to ask whether that’s a bad thing…)

My guess is that Spider-Man fans will be so thrilled to have the Web Slinger back in the Marvel stable that they may not care that the narrative is threadbare with nary a moment’s innovation to be found. Maybe the problem is that there’s too much baggage or that the MCU has become too crowded. Whatever the case, although this Homecoming serves its purpose, it’s just a forgettable waystation on the MCU map, where all roads lead to Infinity War.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Available for home viewing: War for the Planet of the Apes ★★★½


Caesar leads his fellow apes into battle in War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is a film that unapologetically embraces the first word of its title. It opens with soldiers in a lush green forest with nicknames on their helmets, marching toward the enemy through the brush in a style that reminded me of Platoon. Over the next two hours, other war films will flash through your mind, most commonly Apocalypse Now, which Matt Reeves’s excellent blockbuster cribs from openly, even turning its villain into a Colonel Kurtz in the heart of darkness, complete with shaved head and rambling philosophy. (At one point, graffiti even reads "Ape-pocalypse Now," as if to make clear that Reeves and company aren’t stealing as much as directly paying homage.) So why turn a franchise about sentient apes into a war movie that echoes the stories of Vietnam? What can be gained from looking at the darkest side of humanity through the lens of a summer blockbuster? The answer is quite a lot.

After the traumatic infighting that served as the centerpiece for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes have become almost legendary, the animals in the woods that soldiers speak about with hushed tones. No one knows exactly where Caesar is or what his plans are, although we learn relatively quickly that his primary focus is survival. It’s an interesting narrative aspect of these films that Caesar so often seems to just be seeking peace, but he’s drawn back into conflict by human beings who refuse to allow co-existence with a species that may be their superior. That’s exactly what happens when a character known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attacks the apes camp, killing some of Caesar’s family. Now the ape learns another human emotion that often leads to tragedy: vengeance.

How War for the Planet of the Apes unfolds from here is relatively simple, especially for the often plot-laden genre of the. One of the many brilliant elements of the script by Mark Bomback and Reeves is its forced perspective. Other than that opening sequence, we stay almost entirely with only Caesar as he works his way to the mysterious human base with a few other simians and a mute girl they find along the way that they name Nova (Amiah Miller). For the midsection of the film, War for the Planet of the Apes also recalls a relative of the war movie in that it starts to feel like a modern Western, a road movie about a group of heroes riding to the town that has been overrun by the blackcoats. Again, the focus is remarkable. Dozens of other movies would have bounced us narratively back and forth between the Colonel and Caesar. It’s much stronger and easier to identify with Caesar because we’re on the journey with him, knowing only what he knows, but the pressure to bring the human star back before the hour-mark must have been high. It’s so smart of Reeves, a great director who also made smart decisions with the last film in this series and the woefully underrated Let Me In, to avoid it.

Reeves works masterfully here through all elements of the production, but his two smartest decisions may have been in hiring a pair of people you won’t see in any of the ads but who really help make this film the notable accomplishment that it is. The first is cinematographer Michael Seresin, who imbues War with a rich, natural color palette that defies what we’ve come to expect from blockbusters. The acclaimed cinematographer of films like Birdy, Angel Heart and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban finds a way to emphasize the natural world around Caesar and his traveling companions in every sequence. It’s a film that is inherently loaded with CGI and yet the images I think of when I remember it are built on foundations of snow, water, trees, etc. The second is bringing on the great composer Michael Giacchino, who arguably does the best work of his career here, recalling both war films and great blockbuster scores of the ’70s and ‘80s with compositions that become essential to the overall success of the film. A stunning amount of War is silent — more than any blockbuster I can remember — so Giacchino’s score becomes as important as the compositions for pre-sound films in the way it conveys emotion and even internal conflict. It’s phenomenal.

How do I convince home viewers who may be reluctant to see a movie about talking apes that these three movies have transcended their concept to become one of the best Hollywood trilogies of their generation? As with so much great science fiction — which is really what a movie about evolving apes is in the end — War for the Planet of the Apes is a mirror to what human beings are like in 2017 as much as anything else. It is about infighting and vengeance. It is about loss and the need for people to hold on tightly to that which keeps them going. When our support systems are wrenched away, we respond with anger and violence. And when there are things in the world that we don’t understand, we respond with fear and battles for control. All of this and so much more is woven through War for the Planet of the Apes in a way that often doesn’t hit you until hours or days later. While it may be a few beats too long, especially in its multiple endings, it’s a shockingly memorable movie, the kind that gets better as you dissect and discuss how much it does right after you’ve finished viewing it.

And, let’s not forget this important factor, it’s wildly entertaining. It has comedic beats — many of them courtesy of Bad Ape, voiced memorably by Steve Zahn — to match its philosophical ones. It has action sequences, especially in the final act, to rival anything this year. And it closes out the Caesar Trilogy of Apes films in a way that feels rewarding and emotionally satisfying. Looking at Caesar’s face, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood’s aged visage in late-career Westerns, sternly looking at a horizon that he knows may be his last and allowing the ghosts of his past to play in his memory. I realized looking at that face that Caesar will be an iconic character, one that moviegoers watch for decades to come. And these films will only grow in esteem and acclaim. Greatness always does.



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My top 25 college football teams (Week 10)


Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Georgia 9-0 (1)
2. Alabama 9-0 (2)
3. Notre Dame 8-1 (3)
4. Clemson 8-1 (6)
5. Penn State 7-2 (4)
6. Wisconsin 9-0 (7)
7. Miami, Fla. 8-0 (10)
8. UCF 8-0 (8)
9. Oklahoma 8-1 (9)
10. Ohio State 7-2 (5)
11. TCU 8-1 (11)
12. Washington 8-1 (13)
13. USC 8-2 (15)
14. Auburn 7-2 (17)
15. Michigan State 7-2 (21)
16. Oklahoma State 7-2 (12)
17. Virginia Tech 7-2 (14)
18. Mississippi State 7-2 (16)
19. Iowa 6-3 (NR)
20. Michigan 7-2 (20)
21. Washington State 8-2 (24)
22. Memphis 8-1 (23)
23. Iowa State 6-3 (18)
24. North Carolina State 6-3 (19)
25. Stanford 6-3 (22)
Dropped out: LSU

Monday, November 6, 2017

Available for home viewing: Landline ★★

Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in Landline

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. Landline, a fairly genial, diffident comedy about diffident, fairly generic people, plants its flag in 1995 and surveys a landscape of indie rock, "Must See TV" and the high-waisted bluejeans that have recently started coming back into fashion. Hillary Clinton is on television, sporting a hairband and a pink suit.

Mostly, though, as the movie’s title whimsically suggests, the mid-90s were an era of adorably quaint technology. Characters make calls from pay phones and listen to messages on answering machines. They take pictures with boxy little cameras, rent videocassettes of movies and make mix tapes on actual cassette tape. The members of an upper-middle-class New York household share a single desktop computer, with a dot-matrix printer and a slot for floppy disks.

One of those antique data-storage devices provides the pretext for a bit of plot. Ali (Abby Quinn), the younger of the two Jacobs daughters, discovers a trove of erotic poetry her father has been writing to someone other than his wife. These proto-sexts are part of a small epidemic of infidelity among the Jacobses. Ali’s older sister, Dana (Jenny Slate), recently engaged to her live-in boyfriend, Ben (Jay Duplass), sparks up some action on the side with Nate (Finn Wittrock), a guy she knew in college. "We’re a family of cheaters," Ali says in disgust.

Landline was directed by Gillian Robespierre, who wrote it with Elisabeth Holm. They also collaborated on Obvious Child, which starred Slate, and which was notable for the mixture of sweetness and candor it brought to the subject of abortion. There was something bracing, as well as brave, about that film’s honesty. Oddly, the new one is much more cautious and decorous in its treatment of the emotional dynamics of a complicated family. For all the profanity and naughty behavior, it has the timid, ingratiating vibe of a television sitcom, sticking to safe and familiar emotional territory.

Or, more to the point, it might remind oldish viewers of a certain kind of observant, clever but unambitious independent film that came to prominence in the era it depicts. The characters are not badly drawn, but they stay within the lines. Dana is the flakier sister, and also the more responsible one. Ali is quiet, guarded and critical. She is both more reckless and more grounded than her parents suspect.

The parents, meanwhile, are near-caricatures of middle-aged compromise. Alan (John Turturro) clings to his literary ambitions and works at an advertising agency. His wife, Pat (Edie Falco), works in environmental policy but doesn’t talk much about it. They refer to a wilder life back in the ’70s, but, like much else in the movie, that feels more like a talking point than like an aspect of authentic experience.

Turturro and Falco, with their lived-in faces and deeply seasoned acting technique, provide Alan and Pat with more individuality than the script does. The filmmakers seem hesitant to make any of their characters too interesting. Each one is an assemblage of surface quirks and emotional responses, neatly inserted into a series of dramatic and comic situations. Some of these pay off nicely, in particular when Slate and Quinn share the screen and capture the jumpy, push-and-pull rhythms of loving but not entirely compatible sisters.

It’s strange to think that if Ali and Dana were real, they would now be in their early and later 40s. The fact that they seem so much like present-day young people is less an anachronism than an aspect of the film’s hopeful, soothing attitude. It’s a peace offering from Generation X to the millennials, a gesture of solidarity from one cohort of the metropolitan upper-middle class to another. We’re just like you, and we’ll all grow up eventually.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Available for home viewing: Lady Macbeth ★★★



Florence Pugh and Cosmo Jarvis are lovers in Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth has the refined, pleasing trappings of a tasteful period piece with the vicious, beating heart of a brutal psychological thriller. You can’t stop watching its beauty, even as you long to look away from its cruelty.

Much of the film’s allure comes from its central, powerhouse performance from Florence Pugh. In only her second feature, the 21-year-old actress reveals the kind of technical precision and command of the screen you’d see in a veteran. And in only his first feature, British theater director William Oldroyd is wise enough to keep the film’s tone and surroundings minimal to give Pugh maximum room to shine.

It’s a sinister light that radiates from her — although, not at first. Part of what’s so fascinating about Lady Macbeth, and its script from Alice Birch, is the way in which it manages to maintain Pugh’s character’s status as a strangely sympathetic figure, even as she commits increasingly horrific acts. She does it all in the name of liberation, but that freedom ultimately comes at a hefty price.

Lady Macbeth is based not on the iconic Shakespearean character but on Nikolai Leskov’s Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, which tackled the ways in which the female spirit could be stifled in the 19th century, particularly in rural communities. When we first see Pugh’s Katherine, it’s on her wedding day in 1865; just from this opening scene, Oldroyd efficiently sets the tone for the film’s prevailing austerity.

This should, theoretically, be a joyous occasion. But at just 17, Katherine is being forced into a marriage with a man more than twice her age: the emotionally withholding Alexander (Paul Hilton), whose wealthy father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), has purchased Katherine along with a plot of land. Katherine’s sole purpose is to provide an heir, but it’s clear from the couple’s cold, sexless wedding night that’s going to be a challenge.

"I’m thick-skinned," she proclaims in the darkness of their bedroom, defiantly. And she’s going to need that.

She slogs around the joyless house, day after day, with her ever-present maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), serving as the main witness to her boredom and frustration. (As showy as Pugh’s performance is externally, Ackie does just as much mostly wordlessly with just her eyes and her presence, especially as the situation grows more extreme.) But when both of the oppressive men in her life are forced to leave the family’s remote estate on business, Katherine takes the opportunity to begin exploring the outside world — which prompts an awakening inside her.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner gives the wild, sprawling grounds a grimy, tactile quality that’s bleakly beautiful. It matches the sound design, which is spare but intense. Such an approach is fitting given the fascinating contradictions of our heroine. Pugh has a bracing naturalism within this chilly, restrained setting, making her a force of nature unto herself.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the passionate, ill-advised affair Katherine hurtles headlong into with the estate’s groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). A strong and handsome man of mixed race, Sebastian shows Katherine zero deference, which naturally drives her wild. (And yes, I realize this all sounds like the stuff of cheesy romance novels, but rest assured that Lady Macbeth is deadly serious.)

The less you know about where the film goes from here, though, the better. Suffice it to say that the mushrooms that worked their magic in the patriarchal pressure cooker of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled are just as effective here, across the Atlantic, during the same time period. Both are horror movies brilliantly disguised as genteel dramas, with prim women resorting to drastic measures to assert their identities.

As fascinatingly flawed as Katherine is, though, the source of her treachery remains a mystery. We don’t really know who she is before her dreaded wedding day, which perhaps lessens the enormity of her arc. Similarly, Sebastian is sexy and powerful but there’s not much to him beyond the external manifestation of his masculinity. He is a concept, a catalyst.

Still, the fate Katherine shares with him remains devastating. Hers is a damned spot that nothing could rub out.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Top 25 College Football Teams (Week 9)

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Georgia 8-0 (3)
2. Alabama 8-0 (1)
3. Notre Dame 7-1 (4)
4. Penn State 7-1 (2)
5. Ohio State 7-1 (8)
6. Clemson 7-1 (5)
7. Wisconsin 8-0 (7)
8. UCF 7-0 (10)
9. Oklahoma 7-1 (14)
10. Miami, Fla. 7-0 (9)
11. TCU 7-1 (6)
12. Oklahoma State 7-1 (11)
13. Washington 7-1 (12)
14. Virginia Tech 7-1 (13)
15. USC 7-2 (18)
16. Mississippi State 6-2 (23)
17. Auburn 6-2 (20)
18. Iowa State 6-2 (25)
19. North Carolina State 6-2 (15)
20. Michigan 6-2 (21)
21. Michigan State 6-2 (16)
22. Stanford 6-2 (19)
23. Memphis 7-1 (NR)
24. Washington State 7-2 (17)
25. LSU 6-2 (24)
Dropped out: South Florida


Sunday, October 29, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominations Predictions


* Designates predicted winner as of today

PICTURE

Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
* Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


DIRECTOR
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
* Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Steven Spielberg, The Post
Joe Wright, The Darkest Hour

ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
* Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

ACTOR
Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
Tom Hanks, The Post
* Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Melissa Leo, Novitate
* Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

SUPPORTING ACTOR
* Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
* Call Me By Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Last Flag
Molly’s Game
Mudbound

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
* Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

CINEMATOGRAPHY
* Blade Runner 2049
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water

COSTUME DESIGN
* Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
The Greatest Showman
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
Possible: Victoria and Abdul
 
FILM EDITING
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
* Dunkirk
Get Out
The Shape of Water

MAKEUP AND HAIR STYLING
Beauty and the Beast
* Darkest Hour
The Greatest Showman
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
The Shape of Water


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Available for home viewing: “Beatriz at Dinner” ★★★


Selma Hayek, Jay Duplass and Conne Britton in Beatriz at Dinner

Since the early ‘90s, Salma Hayek has carved quite a niche for herself as an actress with a serial array of singular spitfires. She’s been a gunslinger’s sultry squeeze in Desperado, a blood-sucking stripper in From Dusk to Dawn, a fierce one-of-a-kind painter in Frida and the voice of slinky Kitty Softpaws in Puss in Boots. Hayek on screen can be a formidable heat-radiating presence when given the right material (aka not an Adam Sandler comedy), and knows precisely when and how to turn it on.

But in Beatriz at Dinner, Hayek turns down the thermostat and assumes a cool, calm and, yes, beatific demeanor as an L.A.-based Mexican-born masseuse with magic fingers and holistic healing abilities whose connection to her ailing clients at a touchy-feely cancer clinic is almost empath-like. She is also at one with the universe, as signified by the dogs and bleating goat (the better to protect it from an angry neighbor) that crowd her bedroom at night or the image of the Virgin Mary and a toy Buddha that decorate her car. With a fringe of baby bangs, minimal makeup and a functional wardrobe, Beatriz obviously values the spiritual over the material. The serene sight of a de-glammed Hayek, beautiful and miraculously youthful at age 50, is a compelling one indeed.

Her Beatriz seems uniquely weaponized to pull off a one-woman rebellion against a walking, talking emblem of the toxic political climate that continues to pollute our world in what is essentially one of the first blatantly intentional culture-clash allegories for our Trump-ian times. As directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White, whose previous envelope-pushing partnerships include Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and TV’s Enlightened, the pair provides the circumstances for a dinner party from hell at a generically showy Newport Beach seaside mansion, the sort of a place where champagne popsicles on solemn holidays of remembrance would feel right at home.

The story fully kicks in when Beatriz, who makes house calls, ends up getting stuck in a wealthy client’s circular driveway when her clunky Volkswagen breaks down. Cathy (welcome-sight Connie Britton, resurrected from her country superstar’s demise on TV’s Nashville as the only other sympathetic character) considers Beatriz one of the family after she did wonders for her now-cured college-age daughter during chemotherapy. She naturally asks Beatriz, who has to wait for a mechanic friend to show up, to join the fancy gathering she is hosting that night.

Trouble is, it is a crucial business function for her brusque husband (David Warshofsky), one that includes his boss — real-estate tycoon Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow, who manages to ooze menace, condescension and charisma in equal measure as an obvious though more socially adept Trump surrogate) — and junior associate Alex (Jay Duplass, in full-on entitled jerk mode), along with their shallow couture-bedecked spouses (Amy Landecker as Strutt’s third wife and Chloe Sevigny).

You might be thinking you don’t want to witness a darkly humorous yet disturbing re-enactment of what we see and hear on cable news every hour. And it’s true that White’s script often creeps a little too close to being what it intends to satirize. But Lithgow’s smartly modulated performance as Strutt (got to love that name) is the key here, since the actor allows us to observe just how such a vile, egotistical-yet-ingratiating captain of industry could easily manipulate others to do his bidding while justifying the often-deadly sins against humanity and the planet in general.

Combustion between the smirk-prone privileged few and the selfless if somewhat naïve health-care worker is inevitable, but the filmmakers wisely allow it to simmer, with the assist of way too much alcohol. Eventually Beatriz — not used to drinking wine — finds she can no longer remain silent and begins to overshare her own history. That causes the rich folk to gradually expose the cesspool depths of their corrupt lifestyles while celebrating their financial gains at the expense of other living beings. When Strutt boastfully shares a photo of bloody rhino he shot on an African safari, matters reach a breaking point as Beatriz exclaims, "Are you for real? This is disgusting."

Arteta and White are aware enough to tap into the discomfort of those who are appalled by our country’s sudden turn of events and the self-satisfaction of others who find themselves with greater license to exploit their worst impulses than ever before. After the loud confrontation, an already tipsy Beatriz retreats into her room for the night with a bottle of wine and a joint she has found in a dresser while the others launch fire-powered paper lanterns into the sky as they make wishes. And the filmmakers then engage in a more violent form of wish-fulfillment before leaving us dangling with a more open-ended closing sequence — which seems about right when we don’t know which way the tweet wind will blow day after day.

Yes, this type of dinner party scenario could have benefited from a bit more nuance on the menu as the filmmakers are too on the nose as they ape the national debate, the shift in priorities and general unease that has consumed the citizenry since the presidential election. But Hayek turns Beatriz into her own breed of wonder woman, Lithgow’s Strutt is definitely a super villain of sorts and their head-to-head battle is clearly worth seeing even if, in real life, it has only begun.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Available for home viewing: Personal Shopper ★★★


Kristen Stewart tries on her client's dress in Personal Shopper

This review contains spoilers. Oblique spoilers, but spoilers nonetheless.

Although technically classified as "horror" or a "thriller", Personal Shopper works best when viewed as a mood piece. There’s something hypnotic about the way writer/director Olivier Assayas has filmed the movie, employing point-of-view shots and long takes to draw us into the world of the main character, Maureen Cartwright (played by Kristen Stewart, who appears in every scene except one critical omission). Not a lot happens; Maureen is stuck in limbo and the tone reflects this. Because of the nature of the story, however, Assayas infuses the proceedings with a gradually building sense of tension. It starts out small and reaches its crescendo 90 minutes later with an incredible sequence that generates more suspense from a series of text messages than I would have dreamed possible.

It takes viewers a while to figure out what’s going on. The movie doesn’t spoon feed us background. It drops us into the middle of the action and lets us gradually fill in the details by observation. Maureen, it turns out, is a medium who is spending time in Paris trying to connect with her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis. In the three months since his death, Maureen has been searching for signs of his presence while financing her stay in Europe by working as a "personal shopper" for high profile fashion model Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She’s neglecting her boyfriend, Gary (Ty Olwin), who she only occasionally contacts by Skype, and has become enmeshed in a bizarre "relationship" with an anonymous texter who asks her a series of personal questions. Dissatisfied with her job, Maureen begins to break the rules — starting small (wearing some of the shoes and clothing she purchases for Kyra) and getting bigger (masturbating in Kyra’s bed while wearing one of her expensive dresses) — but it’s unclear where all this is headed until things take a brutal and unexpected turn.

Kristen Stewart was easily the most beguiling thing about Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, so much so viewers really felt her absence when she was gone from the film’s narrative. For Personal Shopper, the filmmaker isn’t faced by the dilemma of coping with her disappearance because his lead actress is never far from the camera’s gaze. The word "unforced" applies here. Stewart never seems to be acting. Her distracted, aloof performance is perfect for a character who is more interested in the next life than this one. She drifts through her existence on Earth, aware that the same genetic condition that killed her brother might soon claim her, and never seems to connect with anyone. Stewart is unafraid to be shown in unglamorous shots (there are times when she is wearing little or no makeup and has stringy, messy hair) and allows Assayas to shoot her topless for a couple of non-sexual scenes.

Then there’s the ending. It would be easy, I suppose, to gloss over Maureen’s final words and accept everything at face value. I think the truth (and I’m getting into spoiler territory here) is deeper and less obvious. In piecing together what happens in the final 15 (or so) minutes, it’s necessary to consider the sequence I mentioned earlier — the one in which Stewart doesn’t appear. There are subtle cues in that scene that point to what’s really going on. That’s all I’m going to say. The ending works best for viewers who put in the effort to arrive at a resolution.

Despite containing some of the trappings normally associated with "horror" films, there’s nothing scary or disturbing in what Assayas brings to the screen. He’s not interested in jump scares or "boo!" moments — there’s not one of either to be found. There are, however, things that go bump in the night (some of them do this rather loudly). There are strong indications that the ghostly apparitions sensed by Maureen are more than figments of her imagination but Assayas provides enough ambiguity to make the viewer ponder. Although Personal Shopper occasionally evidences a slow, almost meandering pace, there are times when it turns the screws and ratchets up the tension.

Thus far, 2017 has been an atypical year for horror. In addition to Personal Shopper, we have also seen Raw, Get Out and It Comes at Night. None of these four movies follows the rules and provides the clichés one expects from a genre production. But, although Personal Shopper offers ghosts and seances, it is first and foremost an Assayas film and that means it will have a stronger appeal to art house viewers than those who frequent mainstream multiplexes. The production is in equal parts mesmerizing and perplexing, intriguing and frustrating. Focusing on Maureen grounds the narrative … until it doesn’t.