Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”– Movie Review



On the closing weekend of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new war drama, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, directed by Ang Lee. 


When an American soldier is hailed as a hero, he’s invited to appear at a football game’s halftime show on Thanksgiving Day – but with the loss of his sergeant still haunting him, is he suffering a psychological trauma?


After a long, hard tour of duty in Iraq, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is finally back in his small town Texas home.  Thanks to a video being extensively repeated by the national news media, the American people see Billy as a hero because he tried to save his sergeant (Vin Diesel) during a fierce firefight.  The story being told was that although the sergeant ultimately perished, Billy risked his own life in an effort to attempt to rescue him.  But does Billy himself really believe this story?  Do his fellow soldiers believe it?  For the time being at least, it’s irrelevant since it wound up getting them off the battlefield. 

Billy and his squad are in Dallas to participate in the halftime show on Thanksgiving Day; they’re represented by a Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker) trying to work out a deal for turning their story into a movie that is expected to bring them all a tremendous payday.  Unfortunately, there are not that many fish biting, much to everyone’s surprise given how popular this story has become.  The only deal that seems viable at this point is one being offered by the owner of the football team (Steve Martin) who is lowballing all of the soldiers, despite his alleged patriotism and admiration for their service to the country. 

Meanwhile, Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is deeply concerned.  In their private chats, she realizes he’s still extremely disturbed and might benefit from professional help.  She convinces him this option is worth considering, but part of Billy feels that even though it might be of some use to him, he’s still got some unfinished business back in Iraq that he must confront.  Also, what is there for him to come home to aside from a fractured family and grim prospects for employment?  When time comes for his squad to be re-deployed, will Billy return to Iraq with them or will he take his sister’s advice and see a VA doctor?


There are two points worthy of discussion here:  one, of course, is the movie itself; the other is the cutting-edge technology used to shoot the motion picture.  Let’s take them on separately starting with “Billy Lynn” as a film:

The central question it appears we are left with at the conclusion of “Billy Lynn” is whether or not Billy will get the help he so desperately (and so obviously) needs.  Will he ultimately choose to return to Iraq for yet another battle (from which he may or may not return)?  On the surface Billy seems happy to be home because he’s with family and in familiar surroundings.  But have his experiences in Iraq changed him so much that home no longer feels like home?  Perhaps for Billy, “going home” really means returning to fight in Iraq. 

Much of the movie is told not only through Billy’s viewpoint, but also via his own personal flashbacks as well.  We see his recollections of the combat that made him famous and how it differs from the video of that same incident which was shown repeatedly on the news.  While we get a taste of how veterans are sometimes mistreated and given lip service for their sacrifices, the film lacks a significant emotional impact.  It might be that “Billy Lynn” is ultimately undone by its own equanimity; the motion picture is almost as impassive as a freshly lobotomized psychiatric patient. 

Now, for the technology:

“Billy Lynn” was shot in 4K, which is a first for a full length feature film; it is native 3D at the ultra high rate of 120 frames-per-second.  This was the first time ever that The New York Film Festival publicly screened a film in this format; 3D glasses were distributed to attendees.  For those of you who are interested in learning more about the background of “Billy Lynn” and its technology, please check out this New York Times article

Although the movie is merely good, the technology used to make it is much better – truly extraordinary, in fact.  It would in no way be an overstatement to call it groundbreaking.   The technology really makes you feel as though you are right there in the movie itself, standing next to the characters, effectively in the scene with them.  Without a doubt, it’s the most immersive experience you can ever hope to achieve as a moviegoer. 

After watching a film utilizing this technology, it makes you feel as though the use of 3D prior to this has been a complete and total waste of time up to this point.  However, 4K is no gimmick.  If you do go to see this movie, make sure you see it in a theater that supports this technology.  You definitely won’t regret doing so even if you have to pay a few extra dollars for the privilege – it is without a doubt worth it for the sheer other-worldly experience.  Even though the movie is a bit flat, “Billy Lynn” is unequivocally a superior technical achievement by director Ang Lee. 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“The Lost City Of Z”– Movie Review



On the closing night of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended The World Premiere of the new action-adventure “The Lost City Of Z” starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. 


When a British adventurer becomes obsessed with finding an ancient South American civilization, will it cost him his life?


Early in the 20th century, Percival Fawcett (Hunnam), a Major in the British military, is called upon for a special assignment by his country’s Geographical Society:  he is to venture to a remote jungle between Bolivia and Brazil where his experience as a surveyor will come in handy to map out the area.  Initially finding the assignment ordinary, Fawcett is informed that he’s actually doing much more – he’s staking out the territory for the British government.   It is believed that many rubber trees grow there and if the British can control access to them, it will bring great wealth to The United Kingdom. 

With the warning that his trip may take a couple of years – after which he either may or may not return – Fawcett heads off, leaving his wife and young son home alone to fend for themselves.  He is aided by Henry Costin (Pattinson), a fellow officer, who helps him along the way by documenting their adventures and encounters.  While there, Fawcett stumbles upon something he hadn’t considered:  proof that these so-called “savages” may have an ancient civilization more advanced than anyone believes – and one which could possibly pre-date the existence of the English themselves. 

Upon his return to England, Fawcett is initially hailed as a hero – until he reports his findings about this ancient Amazonian civilization he may have uncovered, at which point he’s scoffed.  Despite this, he and Costin return a few years later to locate what Fawcett now refers to as “The Lost City Of Z”, but after a new member of his party derails the expedition due to his incompetence, Fawcett and Costin are forced to abort their mission before completion.  By now, The Great War has broken out and both Fawcett and Costin are sent to the front; they survive and Fawcett is promoted to Colonel.  But when his now-grown son Jack (Tom Holland) convinces his father to take him back to the jungle to find this civilization, will they live long enough to come back with their findings?


If you manage to see “The Lost City Of Z”, it is entirely likely that afterwards, you’ll utter something like, “Well, they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”.  A major understatement.  First of all, at nearly two and a half hours, it’s one of those epic action-adventures – a serious version of an Indiana Jones-type tale that demands a bit more from its audience.  For another thing, there’s the old-school shooting style:  unlike the overwhelming majority of movies, this one was shot on 35-millimeter film stock rather than on the more convenient (not to mention ubiquitous) digital video. 

In the digital age, labs that process 35-millimeter film are few and far between – over the past few years, many of them have simply gone out of business for lack of clientele.  This also makes for quite an experience when watching the movie if it is shown on a true 35-millimeter projector; it’s a genuinely nostalgic moment when you see cue blips flashing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, preparing the projectionist that one reel is about to end and the other projector must start rolling in order for the next reel to begin.  Another thing that will likely not be wasted on motion picture aficionados is the quality of the cinematography by Darius Khondji, especially in the lush jungle shots. 

But enough of the technical aspects of “The Lost City Of Z” – what of the movie itself?  Well, that’s where it’s slightly less spectacular.  Based on a true story – as recorded in the best selling non-fiction book of the same title by David Grann – the adaptation of this story does not entirely paint Fawcett as the hero viewers might expect him to be.  While it might be argued that he was a man preoccupied with his mission, he comes across as something of an egotist who abandoned his family and caused some resentment by his wife (a feminist who unsuccessfully argued to accompany him on his journey) and children.  Ultimately, the emotional impact of this motion picture is substantially more subdued than one might expect it to be, especially considering its length.    

The Lost City of Z (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Elle”– Movie Review



At the beginning of the final weekend of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the United States Premiere of the new thriller “Elle”, starring  Isabelle Huppert and directed by Paul Verhoeven. 


When a woman gets raped, will she bring her attacker to justice or find a different way to deal with him?


Michèle (Huppert) is a strong, smart and successful founder of a software company that develops computer games.  Divorced and with a grown son who has yet to find much direction in life, she always has plenty going on in both her professional and personal life – she is never without male companionship, even if that man may be married.  She is a powerful woman in total control of her life and largely unfazed by much of anything that life may throw her way.  However, her fortitude is tested one day when she is brutally raped in her own home after a masked intruder breaks in. 

Rather than report the crime to the police, Michèle instead chooses to ignore the incident and continue with the rest of her life, only revealing the truth to a few close friends; as shocked as they are to hear about what happened to her, they are even more shocked about her casual nature.  As Michèle tries to move forward, she is still haunted by her attack and the identity of her ski mask wearing perpetrator.  Was it someone she knew?  Or was the rapist a complete stranger?  Between all the men she knows in her life, she can’t rule out that she might know her attacker.  On the other hand, it’s entirely possible it could have been a stranger; Michèle is widely hated by her community because of a notorious crime committed long ago by a family member – a crime for which others insist she and her entire family must be ceaselessly punished. 

Other irritations serve as a distraction to Michèle:  her staunchly religious neighbors, the obnoxious employees at her company and her son, who’s moving in with his pregnant girlfriend (even though he may not be the father).  When Michèle suspects a seemingly-unlikely person as the one who may have raped her, she uses her cunning to play a potentially dangerous mind game with him – leading him to believe that she may in fact be in love with him.  But is she right about the identity of her attacker?  And even if she is, will he pay for his crime or will her attempts at manipulating him cost Michèle her life?


Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to make a black comedy about rape.  This might be one of the most controversial movies you’ll ever see on this subject.  “Elle” is sick, twisted, hilarious and tremendously fun.  Will it cause Verhoeven to be forgiven for “Showgirls” or further reviled?  Time will tell, but this is one of the more undeniably original films not only thematically but also because the director is so successfully able to combine genres; additionally, its plot is so intricately textured, each layer peeled back slowly.  The motion picture is over two hours long but you’ll find yourself so involved you likely won’t be looking at your watch. Finally, the cherry on top of this cinematic sundae is its deeply satisfying ending.

It’s noteworthy that “Elle” has an incredible soundtrack, particularly so with multiple uses of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”.  Verhoeven cleverly finds ways to resonate the theme of violence in various scenes – “Do you feel anger or fear?” one developer asks another after viewing a portion of their newest video game.  Michèle catches her cat attacking a sparrow and tries to come to the bird’s rescue (albeit too late, as it turns out).  Of course, there is always the violence inherent in video game they are designing.  Violence, it seems, is irrevocably in Michèle’s life forever – her past, present and likely her future.

As the secrets of Michèle’s past are discovered, it explains so much about why her actions and reactions are the way they are.  She utters the line that best summarizes the story:  “Shame is not an emotion that’s strong enough to prevent you from doing anything”.  The woman is no angel and isn’t making any apologies for that.  Michèle has brilliantly used men arguably more than they have used her and she’s all the better for that.  She stands her ground and remains in control at all times – in control of herself, her given situation at the time and in control of others, too.  She is not a victim of rape, she is not a survivor of rape, she is a conqueror of rape.  Huppert’s portrayal of Michèle is nothing short of perfection.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the movie’s star and director.  Huppert said that she had read the book a number of years ago and very much wanted to play the role, communicating this to the French producer.   Verhoeven said the producer gave him the book and he was interested in shooting it although it was a difficult novel to adapt for the screen.  He wanted to do the film in America but every famous American actress turned him down flat – Verhoeven is unsure exactly why but suspects that it is likely due to the many controversial aspects to the story.  Huppert mentioned that it’s very much a woman’s movie because the men are weak or failures.  Verhoven added the religious tones and imagery are intentional – he’s an atheist who admires Jesus so much that he once wrote a book about him. 

Elle (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Jackie”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the United States Premiere of the new biographical drama  “Jackie”, starring Natalie Portmanat The 54th New York Film Festival:  . 


Following the murder of her husband, can Jackie Kennedy figure out how to move forward in her life? 


In the days after President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was buried, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) consents to a print interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup).  With the horrifying events of her husband’s assassination still fresh in the country’s mind, she is obviously in a very delicate emotional state.  Chain-smoking, Mrs. Kennedy answers questions about herself and about the events of the past few days, but comes across as quite defensive while doing so.  Is she uncomfortable dredging up these memories, even though they are still rather recent?  Or was she always uncomfortable about having to be The First Lady Of The United States? 

Jackie, as she was frequently called, recalls her tour of The White House which was televised back in 1961; in this telecast, she was given an opportunity to show off how she’s customized her surroundings, despite being publicly criticized for spending so much of the taxpayers’ money.  As the interview progresses, she also remembers not only the shooting but its aftermath as well and how she felt belittled by her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who seemed not only overprotective but also trying to squeeze her out of some of the decision making process regarding the funeral and burial. 

As Jackie peels back each layer of her memory, she is also self-censoring – she reveals details to the interviewer, then tells him it’s not to appear in the final article.  But as painful as the incident itself was, the act of remembering it and being forced to deal with the aftermath are nearly as painful, if not equally so.  As she struggles to deal with the exigencies of the day, she also seeks solace from a Catholic priest.  Is it confession or merely to vent?  Not even they seem to know.  With her faith dwindling and her future and that of her children uncertain, can she successfully proceed with the rest of her life? 


While watching “Jackie”, there are two striking observations:  one is the movie’s soundtrack and the other is the performance by its star, Natalie Portman.  As far as the soundtrack is concerned, director Pablo Larraín (in his first English language film) makes an interesting use of combining both original score and source music.  Of particular note with respect to the source music is Richard Burton’s Broadway performance of “Camelot” in the closing minutes, effectively  providing viewers with the appropriate goose bumps moment many filmmakers seek but don’t always achieve.

Portman’s performance is truly remarkable; outside of clothing and hairstyle,  the actress doesn’t make an effort to resemble the protagonist but certainly does amazingly sound like her.  Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a physically beautiful woman, just as Portman is.  However, they don’t really resemble each other.  Nevertheless, Portman finds other ways to inhabit this character – or perhaps more accurately, to allow the character to inhabit her.  Either way, her portrayal of the woman’s understandably emotionally fragile state is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.     

Both the movie and the acting by Portman lend a deeply personal experience to the story, almost to the point the audience may feel as though they’re intruding on an incredibly private moment in someone’s life.  We see almost everything through Jackie’s eyes, even in the most intimate of times when she’s alone and self-medicating with bottles of wine as she tries on gown after gown as though she’s preparing for some kind of gala. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with Portman, Sarsgaard, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and Larraín.  Portman admitted that she had trouble with getting Jackie’s accent right.  In researching the role, she said that she felt overwhelmed by the extensive amount of material she uncovered; instead, she wound up focusing on watching a video of the former First Lady’s televised tour of The White House, which ultimately assisted her in nailing the accent.  Larraín said that director Darren Aronofsky, one of the producers, wanted to get “Jackie” made and sent Portman the script.  He added that the iconic shot of Kennedy’s son saluting his father’s casket as it rolled by was filmed but ultimately edited out precisely because of the fact that the image is so famous; the scene containing The White House tour was not originally in the screenplay – it was added later to show Jackie early in her uncomfortable role as First Lady.  Sarsgaard also had trouble with creating Bobby Kennedy’s accent; he finally got it down by listening to recordings of Bobby and JFK having a telephone conversation (apparently, the brothers spoke their own shorthand language to each other, which was difficult to interpret).  Oppenheim mentioned that his goal was to focus on just that specific area of Jackie’s life (rather than doing the traditional cradle-to-grave biopic) because he’s an incredible  political junkie. 

Jackie (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“The Accountant”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “The Accountant”, starring Ben Affleck. 


Once The Treasury Department pursues an accountant with underworld ties, he evades them by taking a legitimate client – but when he learns millions of dollars are missing from the company, can he uncover the culprit before the authorities catch up with him?


Christopher Wolff (Affleck) runs a rather non-descript accounting firm in a strip mall in the Midwest; it returns a modest profit, but where he really gets most of his extremely substantial income is by plying his trade for some very high-powered international criminals.  Wolff works for many dangerous men and given his own extensive training in martial arts and weapons, he happens to be pretty dangerous himself.  Why is Wolff able to command such high prices for his services?  Obviously, it’s because he’s quite good.  However, he’s so good at his chosen occupation because of his disability:  he’s a mathematical genius who’s been treated for autism since childhood.

But Wolff’s life is far from trouble-free.  The United States government is hot on his tail.  In order to prosecute these criminals, they have to follow the money – and all of their money leads to Wolff.  As a result, the Treasury Department is tasked with investigating; lead officer Ray King (J.K. Simmons) recruits Special Agent Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to head up the case, which could turn out to redefine their careers if it’s handled properly.  Medina immediately gets to work on trying to find who exactly is helping these malefactors launder their money. 

Once Wolff learns the government may be pursuing him, he tries to drop off their radar by taking a more standard consulting job at a robotics firm.  The owner of the company (John Lithgow) hired him to ascertain where and how millions of his organization’s dollars disappeared.  Helping Wolff in his research is an employee (Anna Kendrick) who initially reported the discrepancy.  But when Wolff figures out that the root cause of the missing funds is something more nefarious than just a simple bookkeeping error, will he be willing to risk his life to bring the real culprit to justice?    


There was a great outcry from movie fans when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman; some felt he would not be believable in that role.  It’s not unlike Tom Cruise playing the Jack Reacher character; in the novels, Reacher is supposed to be somewhere around 6’4” tall – Cruise, however, is a bit more vertically challenged.  Despite height discrepancy, the original flick was a success and a sequel is due out shortly.  So, is it any wonder that Affleck has now been cast to play an accountant?  Perhaps the film should have been titled, “The Bean-Counter With The Six Pack Abs”.

As a grown man struggling with autism, Affleck’s affect-free performance is sometimes reminiscent of a cross between Leonard Nimoy’s Spock from “Star Trek” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.  At least if critics say that Affleck’s acting is robotic, this time it’s a compliment.  There’s a hint of a romance with Kendrick’s role, but it never develops; sadly, her talent is wasted in “The Accountant”.  She’s supposed to be the character who mirrors the audience – seeing Wolff’s world as an outsider, but the actress is relegated to nothing more than a number of “Oh Gosh!” moments. 

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment with plenty of violent fight scenes and explosions, then “The Accountant” could be just as good a popcorn movie as any.  On the other hand, if you expect to find an interesting story, it might be a bit of a disappointment.  While the film tries to be mysterious by withholding information until late, it only winds up making the story as a whole a bit of a challenge to follow at times.  It could successfully be argued that Affleck is once again being fobbed off to the public as another type of super hero character.  If that’s the case, however, it appears that we’re given to believe Wolff’s true super power is his disability of autism. 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

“20th Century Women”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece of The 54th New York Film Festival, screening the World Premiere of “20th Century Women”, a new comedy-drama starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. 


A pair of young women collaborate to help a mother raise her teenage son – but can this form of group female parenting succeed?


In 1979, 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is trying to grow up under some less than ideal circumstances in Santa Barbara, California.  For one thing, his mother, Dorothea (Bening) gave birth to him when she was 40; at 55, she’s having a particularly difficult time keeping up with all of society’s changes.  Also, she and her husband are divorced; he moved to the east coast and remains both geographically and emotionally distant from Jamie.  Despite the fact that a boarder named Willie (Billy Crudup) is there to help with renovations on her house, Dorothea is concerned that her son has no male role model around to help him reach adulthood.

Inspiration strikes Dorothea through two unlikely sources:  Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning).  Abbie is an aspiring photographer in her mid-20’s who also rents a room in Dorothea’s expansive house.  A punk rocker, she is a grown woman still young enough to mentor Jamie in male-female relationships.  Julie, however, is closer to Jamie’s age – in fact, they have known each other since childhood.  Given Julie’s friendship with Jamie, Dorothea believes she would also be an ideal choice to lend a hand.  Dorothea asks them both to help her with an increasingly aloof Jamie – they agree, albeit reluctantly. 

Over time, it appears Dorothea’s plan is working – but maybe a little too well.  For one thing, Abbie introduces Jamie to a world he may not yet be ready to deal with; she’s taking him to punk rock nightclubs and has him read books about feminism and female sexuality.  Julie, on the other hand, may be a different problem altogether.  It turns out that she has her own issues with her mother and winds up sneaking into Dorothea’s house to spend time with Jamie – in fact, Julie sleeps with Jamie in his bed, despite the fact that they have a platonic relationship (and despite the fact that she otherwise leads a rather promiscuous lifestyle).  With Jamie under the influence of all these women, will he turn out a well-adjusted man or has Dorothea made a huge mistake? 


In a way, watching “20th Century Women” recalls some of Woody Allen’s movies – specifically, “Radio Days” and “Hannah And Her Sisters” come to mind.  Although “20th Century Women” is set in Santa Barbara, it’s like “Radio Days” in the sense that a narrator reminisces fondly about his youth; the similarity to “Hannah” is clearly because it’s a story about women, lovingly told from a man’s perspective.  The film is more episodic than plot-driven – a risky undertaking which only works in this instance because the audience can find authenticity in both the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.

The excellent cast of “20th Century Women”, headed by Bening, is worthy of boasting; the finely crafted screenplay by director Mike Mills gives them rich characters on which to build their superior performances.  Both the times and the narrator’s memories of these women are highly romanticized, but things are not always rainbows and lollipops; health scares, political problems, cultural evolution and feminism’s societal impact add textured overtones to the story.  These are welcome additions – without them, “20th Century Women” would almost be mistaken for a fairy tale. 

What’s so striking about this movie is how adoringly and respectfully the narrator recollects the women who had a strong hand in raising him to be the man he became.  The film, at its essence, is basically a tribute to women – especially, women who served as a support system during the crucial period in the time of an adolescent young man.  Sometimes, the timing of when you see a movie can be an interesting coincidence.  Given fairly recent events by the Republican candidate for president, it’s reassuring to remember that some men do indeed appreciate women for who they are rather than simply how they look.      

20th Century Women (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, October 08, 2016

“Personal Shopper”– Movie Review



This week at The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the U.S. Premiere of the new mystery Personal Shopper , starring Kristen Stewart. 


When a woman tries to contact her recently-deceased brother, she is instead haunted by a ghost – but is she really being pursued by someone else from the afterlife?


Maureen (Stewart) is mourning the sudden loss of her 27 year old twin brother Lewis who died three months ago as a result of the exact same congenital heart defect from which she also suffers.  Journeying to Paris where he lived, she meets with Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), her sister-in-law and Lewis’ widow, where Maureen agrees to oversee the renovation of the house that Lewis purchased.  The only problem is that once Maureen inspects it, she discovers it’s haunted – but is that ghost Lewis or someone else?  Given the fact that Lewis was a medium who was known to conduct séances, Maureen – who shares her late twin’s belief in the supernatural – believes that it may indeed be him. 

Since the renovation will take a while, Maureen seeks out employment while living in Paris, so she takes a job as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a high-profile woman in the fashion industry who is currently undergoing a bitter divorce while also dating Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a mysterious man who claims to work for a fashion magazine.   As Maureen runs errands for Kyra, she finds herself being stalked on her cell phone by a stranger who seems to know her.  Is this Lewis trying a different means to reach out to her or is someone actually trying to mess with her mind?

While Maureen attempts to solve two mysteries simultaneously – the haunted house and her cell phone stalker – she unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of a criminal investigation:  Kyra is brutally murdered and the police suspect Maureen is somehow involved, despite the fact that she is the one who reported the crime after happening upon it while dropping off purchases at Kyra’s apartment.  But who is truly the culprit here?  Was it the ghost who has been haunting her?  Its presence was revealed to her in Kyra’s apartment.  Was it her stalker?  Or did Maureen herself commit the crime unknowingly?


If it’s possible to describe a movie as a “hot mess”, then that may be how “Personal Shopper” might be characterized.  At times a horror flick and other times a murder mystery, it seems truly schizophrenic, not knowing itself exactly what it is in fact supposed to be when it conflates genres.  Initially, it presents itself as a horror film, given how the apparition scares the daylights out of Maureen.  Then, part way through, it suggests that it has evolved into a murder mystery.  But which is the plot and which is now the subplot? 

Generally, subplots are of secondary or even tertiary importance, subservient to the main plot.  In “Personal Shopper”, however, these concurrent plots feel as though they are of equal weight and it’s unclear which is where the audience’s time and attention must be invested.  The screenplay, director and film itself all appear to be equally confused.  (It might be worth noting at this point that “Personal Shopper” was both written and directed by Olivier Assayas, who worked with Stewart on a better picture, “Clouds Of Sils Maria”, which appeared at The New York Film Festival a couple of years ago). 

Thematically, “Personal Shopper” openly borrows from Hitchcock, but visually may borrow more from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (at least in some shots).  It’s hard to make sense of much in this story and reasons for the events are never sufficiently provided.  In the end, we are left with a deeply unsatisfying conclusion where the audience can only infer answers though many loose ends are dangling.  Also, its title seems weak and arbitrary, rendering it difficult to market, from a business perspective. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with “Personal Shopper” writer-director Olivier Assayas and its star, Kristen Stewart.  Stewart and Assayas first worked together on “Clouds Of Sils Maria”; she said that she would like to do a third movie with him, noting that “things happen in threes”.  Comparing the two films with Assayas, Stewart observed that “Clouds” was a role she felt comfortable playing “in my sleep” while Maureen left her somewhat perplexed and as such, presented with this challenge, she  was unsure exactly how to approach.  Assayas remarked that he was intrigued by the idea of combining genres, so that was what he tried to do here, making what he called a “collage” in this picture. 

Personal Shopper (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, October 06, 2016

“The Birth Of A Nation”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new historical drama, “The Birth Of A Nation”, written, directed and starring Nate Parker. 


Can a slave in the 19th century United States lead a successful rebellion against brutal and oppressive owners?


Early in the 19th century, a small boy from a family of slaves in Virginia had it drummed into his head how unique he was and that someday, it would be revealed what his special purpose would be.  When it was learned just how bright he was, the wife of his owner decided to mentor him by teaching the child how to read; she used The Holy Bible to do this.  Not only did he learn how to read, he also became very religious and could easily quote any part of the The Bible.  Unfortunately, his education came to an abrupt end when the plantation owner died and the little boy was forced to work in the cotton fields. 

A quarter century later, this child, Nat Turner, became a man (Parker) who still toiled in those very fields.  The only difference is that now, he also serves as a preacher for all of his fellow slaves on that plantation.  The son of the plantation owner is informed he can monetize this situation by “renting” Turner out to serve as a preacher on other plantations throughout the area.  This works well for the owner, who uses these funds to subsidize his own business.  It doesn’t work out so well for Turner, who doesn’t see any of that money.  What Turner does see is considerable mistreatment of slaves by other owners.

Fed up, Turner goes to his colleagues on the plantation and tries to convince them enough is enough and it’s time to revolt.  Some are reluctant to join Turner because they fear retribution by their owners if their attempt at an insurrection fails.  Others don’t care; after all that they have endure – or witnessed family and friends endure – they are willing to seek revenge, even if it costs them their job or their life.  Together, they join Turner as he visits each brutal plantation owner to mete out their own form of revenge.  But will they succeed in getting their freedom? 


First off, let’s talk about The Elephant In The Room in order to get that out of the way.  In watching Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation”, it’s hard not to think of filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen.  The reason why is because it is possible to admire them artistically enough though one might vilify them for their personal conduct (one due to politics, the other due to romantic pursuits).  So, with the highly-publicized background of Parker coming to light with the release of this movie, one is forced to compartmentalize and subjugate feelings about the man in order to assess the artist. 

Having said all of that, the film itself can be encapsulated as follows:  “The Birth Of A Nation” is the story of an extraordinary man told in an ordinary fashion.   Nate Parker is clearly a talented filmmaker, both in terms of his acting and directing ability.  As an actor, his countenance speaks volumes in the close-up reaction shots during scenes where Turner witnesses harsh behavior towards slaves.  Regarding his choices as a director, he uses visually compelling shots and isn’t afraid to move the camera when it will add to the scene; Parker also breaks up some talky scenes by intercutting to condense time.  His skills as a screenwriter, however, are less stellar than those other gifts.

The screenplay also suffers from its over reliance on spirituality.  True, Turner was a preacher-slave, but the film is overwrought with religious imagery and allusions to the point that it seems like Parker is trying to say that God is on the side of the slaves.  While this may be intended to resonate Turner’s story, it really just serves to undercut his accomplishments; at the end, when Turner has a vision of an angel appearing to him, that’s really laying it on a little thick – perhaps to the point that you may feel the urge to suppress some unintended laughter. 

The Birth of a Nation (2016) on IMDb

Monday, October 03, 2016

“Paterson”– Movie Review



During the opening weekend of The New York Film Festival, I attended the U.S. Premiere of the new comedy-drama by Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson”, starring Adam Driver. 


A week in the life of a married New Jersey bus driver whose hobby is writing poetry.


Paterson (Driver) is a bus driver who likes to write poetry during his spare time.  Coincidentally, he also happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey.  By an even stranger coincidence, one of his favorite poets is William Carlos Williams, who wrote an epic poem by the name of “Paterson”.  His wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is very supportive of his poetry and has aspirations of her own – ones that change from day-to-day, if not moment-to-moment.  At first, Laura seems like she wants to be a designer, then she wants to be a baker, then a country-music singer (despite the fact that she has no musical talent). 

Despite the fact that Paterson feels loved by Laura, Marvin absolutely hates him.  Marvin, by the way, is their English Bulldog.  The petulant pooch goes out of his way to find things to do that will get on Paterson’s nerves; Marvin, however, seems to get along well with Laura.  One of Paterson’s chores is to take Marvin out on a walk every evening; he does this begrudgingly but in order to make the task more palatable, he pauses the walk mid-way through to stop at a neighborhood bar where he can hang with some of the locals.  While there, he meets a motley collection of individuals just as colorful as the ones he encounters on his bus. 

One weekend, Laura takes her home-baked cupcakes to the local flea market where she hopes to sell them.  Surprisingly, they turn out to be an enormous hit and she scores a tidy profit.  Wanting to celebrate her success, she talks Paterson into treating him to dinner and a movie.  After enjoying an all too rare evening out, they return home to find that Marvin has crossed the line:  the dog found Paterson’s notebook where he writes his poems and completely chewed it to pieces.  With the notebook beyond repair and all of his poems lost forever, will Paterson be able to recover from this or will he give up writing poetry forever?  


Will “Paterson” be known as one of those movies best seen while high?  We may not know the answer in the short term, but it would certainly seem that while director Jim Jarmusch crafted his screenplay that he may have been under the influence of some kind of mind-altering substance(s).  Regardless, “Paterson” can be enjoyed on its own terms for viewers partial to character-based films.  However, for those who prefer more of a plot-based motion picture, you’d be best advised to look elsewhere as this is one of those features that has a tendency to meander for quite a period of time; if you’re looking at your watch waiting for something to happen, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Being a character-based story, the audience must feel deeply invested in the protagonist and his outcome in order for the movie to work.  Are these people likeable?  It depends on where you land on their personalities.  Laura can challenge your patience; Paterson himself is somewhat more likeable, if for no other reason that he is more willing to deal with the real world whereas his wife stays home and dreams.  That said, is he an admirable protagonist?  On the one hand yes – Paterson is a loving husband, devoted to his wife, even when she asks him to buy her an expensive (on his salary) present.  But this also shows him as a bit weak, as well.  Is Paterson following the “Happy Wife, Happy Life” philosophy?  Or is he too timid to object?  When Laura prepares an utterly inedible dinner based on a recipe she invented, he prefers to silently suffer. 

One can only be left to speculate on the theme of twins throughout “Paterson”.  Is it nothing more than Jarmusch’s idea of a joke or is there some deeper meaning behind this visual imagery?  If there is in fact a deeper meaning, what could it be?  This movie played previously at the Cannes Film Festival this past Spring; in reviews, analyses by critics have ranged from this being an internal rhyme scheme (like a poem) to Laura’s repetitive requests resonating in his mind (i.e., she beseeches him to  make copies of the poems in his notebook).  Lacking an explanation by the director himself (assuming he ever gives one and if it’s a serious answer), we may never know for sure.  

Paterson (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, October 01, 2016

“13th”– Movie Review



On the Opening Night of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new documentary “13th” by Ava Duvernay. 


Despite the fact that the United States abolished slavery long ago, is it using the prison system to wrongly enslave its African American citizens?


The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery; it states as follows:  “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”.  But just as it can be argued that the first two Amendments to the Constitution can be abused, so can the 13th, which was found to contain a major loophole.  With the clause pertaining to conviction of a crime, racists found a way to maintain the slavery of African Americans who were legal citizens of this country. 

After the end of The Civil War in The United States, an odd coincidence began to occur in the South:  a significant number of Black men were being convicted of crimes and sent to prison.  While doing their time, they were put to work at various tasks of manual labor.  Why did this happen?  Southerners feared that their economy would collapse without slaves tending their farms; in a clandestine move, their leaders decided that they could still legally continue slavery despite the 13th Amendment by imprisoning Blacks and forcing them to toil in their fields as part of their “punishment”. 

It didn’t end there; this revised form of slavery continued well into the 20th century, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Johnson.  Along the way, however, various other United States Presidents had a hand in perpetuating this new slavery:  Nixon’s War On Crime, Reagan’s Southern Strategy (as articulated by his political consultant Lee Atwater) and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Law Enforcement Act (including The First Lady’s assessment of the so-called “super predators” that some felt was a coded message for Black Americans).  Although The United States represents only 5% of the world’s population, it boasts 25% of the world’s prisoners.  With prison populations increasing exponentially (providing a high profit for corporations associated with serving these prisons), can this trend be turned around? 



When was the last time you saw Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis agree on something?  If your answer is never (which, by the way, is the only correct answer), then the documentary “13th” is a must-see for you.  Duvernay’s explosive film is illustrates a devotion to its subject matter by virtue of its extraordinarily detailed research.   Once the facts are presented one by one, there is no denying the evidence before you – especially with the recent spate of Black executions by police officers around the country.  The director does an outstanding job in laying out her case before the audience. 

Having seen “13th”, it is difficult not to feel shaken; it is, without a doubt, a disturbing view of our home and one that may have not been considered if you haven’t lived in this country as a Black American.  One can understand why other countries denounce the United States when criticized over issues concerning human rights.  In this regard, America seems hypocritical because it cannot first clean up its own house before criticizing the mess in other nations.  Deservedly, the U.S. shares both blame and shame when it comes to human rights violations. 

If there are any criticisms about “13th”, it would be the following.  First, it suffers from the bane of most documentaries, The Talking Heads; even though it’s slightly over an hour and a half, it can get a bit tiresome, despite the fact that the director uses some animation and graphics to break up the interviews.  Second, it was mentioned above the degree to which it contains detailed research; this works to both its advantage and disadvantage because the viewer feels so overwhelmed with facts, it’s ambitious to process everything in a single viewing.  Lastly, despite the fact that it calls out The Clintons for their role in contributing to this situation, it ultimately morphs into a commercial for Hillary Clinton – a clip is shown of the former president admitting his Crime Bill goofed, along with one of the Republican nominee being compared to those who would advance the cause for imprisoning Blacks.   

Sadly, this film may ultimately be preaching to the choir.  It remains to be seen if anyone whose beliefs would be challenged by this documentary would even view it, much less be changed after seeing the movie. 

The 13th (2016) on IMDb