War for the Planet of the Apes(7/14/2017)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little.  When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes.  However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.”  This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole.  It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus.  Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are.  This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone.  Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead.  Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted.  As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place.  These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.

As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper.  I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them.  I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys.  Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren.  There’s almost none of that here.  I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human.  With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain.  To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.

On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better.  This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point.  Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera.  This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths.  So the film is great visually but what about the substance?  Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception.  The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.

For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end.  I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea.  That’s not a huge deal though really.  My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t.  Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say.  Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow.  Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.

The Beguiled(7/4/2017)

This review contains spoilers

I think it’s fair to say I’ve had something of a hot and cold relationship with the work of Sofia Coppola, one that has not always been in line with the rest of the critics.  I liked her debut feature The Virgin Suicides plenty and like most people I liked her breakthrough film Lost in Translation quite a bit though I maybe don’t quite put it into the same lofty realms of greatness that some of its bigger fans have placed it in.  I was not, however, a fan of her 2006 film Marie Antoinette at all and while I haven’t revisited it in a while I don’t think my opinion on that would change much.  I got even less out of her follow-up film Somewhere, a film I have actually never finished watching, so I’ll refrain from further comment about it.  Oddly enough though, I actually liked her last film The Bling Ring more than a lot of critics did, possibly just because my expectations were maybe a little lower than a lot of people’s.  Truth be told, I think the expectation game has frequently worked against Coppola.  People expected Marie Antoinette to be an attack on the vapidity of the upper class, it instead ends up being a defense of its protagonist’s naiveté (one that doesn’t even end with a beheading), and people are disappointed.  People expect The Bling Ring to be an attack on teen celebrity worship, it ends up essentially being a more traditional look at millennial ennui, and people are disappointed.   Coming out of Cannes there seems to have been a similar complaint against her latest film The Beguilled, in part because critics seem to have wanted something a bit pulpier and more outrageous than what we got.

The film is set in Virginia in the middle of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school that has been largely abandoned save for the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), one teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five pupils.  One day one of the younger students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is scrounging in the woods when she stumbles upon a Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who is wounded and separated from his troops behind enemy lines.  She decides to bring him back to the school and Martha agrees to patch him up and make sure he’s healed before they attempt to turn him in to the local confederates.  Realizing that he’s something of a captive McBurney starts angling to manipulate his captors and find ways to endear himself to them.  It doesn’t go smoothly.

The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel called “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan, which more than likely would have fallen into obscurity had it not been previously adapted into a film in 1971 (also called The Beguiled) which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood in the role now played by Colin Ferrell.  That original film is not a great film or even a particularly good one so much as it’s an interesting artifact or sorts and it’s not overly popular and is mainly just discussed as a stepping stone in the evolution of Eastwood’s onscreen persona.  This would in many ways make this an ideal subject for remake as it isn’t an untouchable classic and there’s certainly room for improvement.  On top of that this is a story with a certain set of… let’s say “sensitive themes” which could make for an interesting update.  The original film is, after all, the work of two of the most masculine people in film history in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the very same people who would later that same year make Dirty Harry.  As such it would seem that, in the hands of a director who has been widely praised for adding a distinctly feminine touch to cinema, a remake of such a film would be a noticeably subverted adaptation.  There is indeed a little of that here, but I was actually surprised at how much Coppola actually didn’t change.

The crux of what makes this story interesting is that it inverts the usual gender power dynamics.  In this house, which seems almost entirely isolated from the outside world, the man present is wounded, outnumbered, and in a position where he’ll be sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp if he displeases the women.  In his desperation he’s left with the one option that women are often left with in literature: to use sex appeal as a weapon.  McBurney quickly assesses that the women in this school are rather thirsty and quickly engages in a degree of flirtation with them, especially with the relatively age appropriate ones.  It’s not particularly clear how much of this macking is done because of his own sexual desires and how much of it is done out of self-preservation but as the movie goes on all the games he plays with these women’s emotions become increasingly high stakes and start to backfire and he eventually tries to take back power in more direct ways, which also backfires eventually.  All of this is true of both the 1971 version as well as the remake, the differences are mostly a matter of focus.  Specifically the love triangle (love square) between McBurney, Martha, Edwina, Alicia is actually expanded on in the original film and because of this it’s less ambiguous (though not entirely) that Martha’s decision to amputate McBurney’s leg was out of jealousy rather than medical necessity.  This subtle shift has the effect of making the movie a bit less salacious and also justifies some of the women’s actions, but also makes the revelation that McBurney is sleeping with Alicia (who’s named Carol in the original) kind of come out of nowhere.

That’s a change but not really a major one.  Instead it seems that the appeal here is less a personal or political shift and more just the usual coat of paint that modern remakes of older films are given.  Were I of the belief that the 1971 version of The Beguiled were a particularly well-crafted movie to begin with I might have been less receptive to this, but that movie feels less “vintage” than simply “dated.”  Coppola ups the production values noticeably for the sets and the photography that she and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd bring to the film is excellent.  The movie was shot on 35mm and a lot of the scenes in it are lit by candlelight very effectively.  The casting is also an improvement this time around.  Clint Eastwood was probably miscast in the original movie and he’s said as much in interviews about it and Colin Ferrell probably works a little better in this role.  The women are all a little better here as well with actresses like Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Elle Fanning all bringing a lot to their roles and the younger actresses also doing well in the movie.

The Beguiled is an interesting case in that one’s enjoyment of it will likely be dependent in what you expect from it and your willingness to let it operate on its own terms.  Given that this source material with a rather loaded premise that’s rife for dramatic revision I suspect a lot of critics are going to go in expecting something a little more radical and will be disappointed as a result.  Those going in expecting something that operates on the same salacious and borderline trashy wavelength of the original film will not really be getting what they want either.  This is in fact something a little more straightforward than that: an adaptation that simply discards some of the bullshit from its source material and delivers a better told and more streamlined story and does it pretty well.  That’s not something to be completely overlooked and given that this is in many ways the closest that Sofia Coppola has gotten to making a more accessible genre exercise I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(5/6/2017)

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On my Letterboxd page I have this running list ranking every Marvel/DC superhero movie I’ve seen including almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s got almost 50 movies on it at this point but one movie I haven’t included on it is the original The Guardians of the Galaxy for the simple reason that, despite have the Marvel logo in front of it, that movie is not a superhero film.  None of the characters really have “superpowers” with the possible exception of Groot, they don’t have secret identities, they aren’t really vigilantes, in fact they’re barely even heroic.  They really don’t fit any definition of “superhero,” rather the movie was a straight-up space opera.  With the possible exception of Groot none of the characters really had any superpowers beyond some science fictiony gear, they didn’t have secret identities, and they also weren’t really all that heroic.  If these are superheroes then so are the crews of the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity, and Moya.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it was pretty refreshing.  Marvel has more than enough superhero stories under its belt and being away from the web of cameos that characterize the Avengers theater of the Marvel world gave the filmmakers freedom to sort of do their own thing.  Sure they were still chasing around and infinity stone and the film’s irreverent tone maybe wasn’t as unique as some people made it out to be but for the most part it did sort of seem like its own thing and the film’s entertainment value was there.  Audiences seemed to agree and made what was thought to be a relatively risky venture into one of Marvel’s biggest hits.  Now the crew is back for a sequel and one with much higher expectations to boot.

Set shortly after the events of the original film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our roguish heroes on a mercenary gig on behalf of an alien race called the Sovereigns in exchange for the custody of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who they have apparently captured after the events of the first film.  The mission is a success but soon they find themselves on the outs with the Sovereign when its revealed that Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has stolen from them.  Soon they’re chased across the galaxy and crash land on a random planet.  Fortunately they soon find themselves saved by a stange guy named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains that he is Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long lost father and the two of them along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to go off to Ego’s homeworld while Rocket and Groot (who’s taken the form of an infant after the events of the first film but is still voiced by Vin Diesel) stay back and repair the ship while guarding Nebula.  While staying back Rocket and Groot encounter Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang, who capture them after Yondu himself finds himself the victim of a mutiny.  Meanwhile back on Ego’s planet the rest of the crew start making some disturbing discoveries of their own.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like a lot of Marvel movies recently, is one of those movies which in many ways doesn’t really feel like it needs to be reviewed.  I feel like I could save a lot of time and effort by just saying “Did you like the first movie?  Yes?  Then you’ll probably like this one too.”  I guess that hasn’t always been true about Marvel movies.  In fact in most of Marvel’s franchises the second movie has been the big stumbling block.  The second Iron Man movie was pretty widely disliked and for my money the second Thor is the worst movie that the studio has ever put out, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron also kind of sucked if you want to view that as a second movie.  I think the issue with these first sequels is that they want to be as breezy as the original films but they don’t have origin stories to hang on like their predecessors and they can just seem kind of like aimless movies treading water.  It’s no coincidence that the one sub-franchise to really avoid that sophomore slump was Captain America, in part because the original in that case was set during World War II and by shifting time periods the first sequel had to kind of re-invent the series rather than rest on its laurels.  In a number of ways Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does have the same problem as some of those other marvel sequels but silly aimlessness is almost the point of the GoG series so that doesn’t seem as egregious.

If there’s a real problem here it’s probably that some of the crew, particularly Peter Quill, is kind of starting to buy into the notion that they’re heroes rather than scoundrels.  In the first movie Quill famously described himself as “an ‘a-hole’ but not one hundred percent a dick” but here he seems to be at most 10% a dick and not really much of an “a-hole” at all outside of a few quarrels with Rocket.  You’d hardly know he was raised by pirates at all despite the film revisiting that aspect of his life in more detail than you’d expect.  Rocket still has some of his original edge to him but the rest of the crew seems to be rapidly moving away from the notion that they’re thieves and mercenaries at all.  That’s not a huge problem given the particulars of the story that’s being told in this particular installment and it’s not necessarily something you’re going to be noticing while watching the movie, but if you go away from it thinking something was missing it might be that.  On the other hand the movie does start to establish constructed family of the Fast and Furious variety as the running theme of the series, which, is fine I guess.  Not exactly the world’s most original focus for a movie like this but it works I guess even if they start hitting it really really hard toward the end.

Oh, but here I am something like a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even brought up what people actually care about in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie: the soundtrack.  Once again the film has assembled a collection of 60s/70s classic pop songs to populate the film with.  This time around the music selections are pretty much in line with what we saw before except that there are fewer kitschy choices like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” that serve to be enjoyed ironically.  Most of the songs here do seem to be music I can imagine director James Gunn pretty genuinely enjoys and wants to bring to his audience’s attention.  The musical highlights are probably the sequences set to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electronic Light Orchestra and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & The Americans.  However I will note that the conceit from the first film that these songs are all coming from Quill’s Walkman and that he’s sort of imposing them on the aliens around him against their will is increasingly thrown out the window in this movie and there are some slightly off scenes where characters like Rocket and Yondu seem to be digging into Quill’s collection unprompted.

So I guess we’re back to the “if you liked the first movie you’ll probably like this one” stance I took at the beginning.  The movie is basically more of the same with minor tweaks and adjustments, which maybe speaks to how effective that first movie was because there are definitely franchises out there that would not be able to get away with a retread like this as effectively as this one has.  Will they be able to do keep on doing what they’re doing for a volume 3 without shaking things up a little?  I don’t know.  Apparently the Guardians will have a part in the next Avengers movie, not sure how that’s going to work out.  Personally I’d like to see what a Guardians movie where the crew goes to Earth and gets their “Voyage Home” on would look like, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Your Name(4/9/2017)

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I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

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Personal Shopper(3/26/2017)

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Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not.  To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler.  That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface?  Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other.  I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.

The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities.  For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf.  As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has.  She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign.  That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.

The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent.  Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person.  Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well.  Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s.  Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film.  Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different.  In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak.  Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper.  The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.

I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it.  Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film.  The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways.  Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off.   The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy.  Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier.  I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.

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The Salesman(2/26/2017)

2-26-2017TheSalesman

2011 was kind of a crappy year for movies.  I mean there were certainly some good and even very good movies that came out that year but there was almost nothing that really inspired a really strong reaction from me and by year’s end nothing had come out that really seemed worthy of being called “best of the year” and that was kind of depressing me.  Then, almost like a miraculous deus ex machina, I found myself going to see one last movie before locking in my top ten list: an Iranian film that had received a lot of critical buzz called A Separation.  Needless to say that became my favorite movie of the year, and while it would be a big exaggeration to say it restored my faith in cinema it certainly made me feel a lot better about the year.  The film, which took a deep dive into a moral quagmire surrounding a pair of families, did not revel in Metatextual cleverness like the most famous Iranian films and instead defined itself by its humanity and insight and managed to be this amazingly accessible but incredibly deep film that was engrossing to watch.  Clearly a new master had emerged and yet I somehow found myself missing his follow up film, the French language The Past, in theaters.  I don’t remember all the details, I think it just came out late in the year during the Oscar logjam and reviews weren’t as strong as they were for his previous movie.  When I finally caught up with it and found it was really good too that seemed like a very bad choice.  I was not going to repeat the same mistake with his new film The Salesman.

The Salesman concerns a literature teacher/semi-professional actor living in Tehran named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) who are currently staging a Persian production of Arthur Miller’s landmark play “Death of a Salesman.”  They’ve also recently moved into a new apartment in a building owned by someone in their theater troupe.  It’s not the nicest apartment but they don’t plan to be there long and they think they can make do.  The biggest problem is that the previous tenant has apparently been evicted and she hasn’t yet returned to pick up some of her belongings.  Eventually the landlord simply removes the items and leaves them there for her to pick up, but everyone starts to wonder just what it was about this woman that has caused so much notoriety.  Then one day something awful happens.  While Rana is going about her daily routine a man comes into their apartment and attacks her.  It’s left vague what the full details of this attack are but it’s clearly a major violation and it leaves Rana with a big gash on her head.  Emad is consumed with rage and Rana is in a state where she doesn’t know what to think.  She doesn’t want to go to the police (too much trouble and she worries they will be unsympathetic) and Emad has no real idea how to support her.

I’d like to say that the traditional animosity between the United States and Iran wasn’t in the back of one’s mind when watching Asghar Farhadi films, but one can’t help but view them as an antidote to the one-dimensional view that Hollywood usually provides of Iranians and Muslim countries in general.  Of course most Iranian movies will have non-stereotypical characters in them so why do Farhadi’s films work so particularly well in this regard?  Part of it is that the characters he chooses to depict tend to be young to middle aged intellectual and essentially secular urbanites, which is more or less the demographic that will most closely match up with Western art house audiences.  Really though, I think it mostly has to do with just how much detail and humanity Farhadi injects into his characters and the situations they find themselves in.  They’re pretty much the most relatable movies set inside of repressive theocratic nations that you’re ever going to see.  I do think Farhadi knows at this point that he has an international audience and is trying to reach them and the fact that his latest film involves people who are performing one of the most famous works of American literature is probably not a coincidence.

The main theme in this movie is ultimately that of revenge; whether it’s an appropriate response and who has the right to seek it.  On some level this was also the theme of A Separation but that film was largely on the side of the avengee rather than the avenger and it looked at it in a less traditional way.  I’m probably not spoiling anything by saying that the movie ultimately comes down on the side of revenge being empty and unsatisfying in the long run, which is not a terribly original message at this point.  I’m also not entirely clear on how “The Death of a Salesman” fits in with all of this.  Granted it might have been a little on the nose for the theater troupe to have been putting on a production of “Hamlet” or “Elektra” while all this angst was going on, but Arthur Miller’s play has almost nothing to do with revenge and is about a guy who would probably be too meek to seek out revenge for much of anything.  Perhaps the theme that  Farhadi is trying to highlight is less the revenge plot and more the challenges of trying to build an ideal middle class life and how easily that can go wrong down the line.  Either way there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, but Farhadi’s grasp of human nature remains firm and he once again creates a situation that allows for deep empathy.  Of the three Asghar Farhadi movies I’ve seen this is clearly the third best, but it’s still a Farhadi movie and it’s worth seeing.

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