Movies: The Sense of an Ending, Beauty and the Beast and Personal Shopper

 

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending has many of my favorite British actors.  Jim Broadbent stars as Tony Webster a divorced retiree who lives a quiet existence.  He is on good terms with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and his daughter played by Michelle Dockery but there are hints that he hasn’t always been a great guy. Tony receives a letter saying that something has been left to him by the mother of a girlfriend from his youth.  We see flashbacks to his former girlfriend Veronica and her brother and mother as we start to see the story of his life being pieced together.

It turns out that the thing that he was left, is a diary of a fellow student who dated Veronica and committed suicide shortly thereafter.  Tony goes in pursuit of what is rightfully his but comes up against a stalwart Veronica, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is not willing to give up the diary to him.  The movie kicks into high gear once Rampling is introduced and the back and forth between the past and present intensifies.

In this low-key psychological thriller, we uncover deep secrets as the dualing themes of the cruelty of youth and how our memories become unpredictable as we age, collide.  Tony has clearly altered some of his memories to blot out his questionable actions. Jim Broadbent is excellent as Tony and captures his complex personality perfectly.  Rampling is Rampling and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Dockery and Walter are also very good.  The Sense of an Ending reminds me somewhat of Atonement having some of the same themes but not quite as dark.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.  While Emma Watson’s singing is fine, she is clearly an Actress who can sing rather than a singer.  The same for Dan Stephans although he only has one song and that one sounds digitally altered.  Luke Evans who plays Gaston, however, has pipes and he nails his performance. Audra McDonald in a brief role delivers a stunning aria.

There are some new songs in this version of the classic but it is the old ones that you will be humming leaving the theate including Belle, Be Our Guest and Gaston.  There are also wonderful cameos by Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen.  This film version with live actors is in capable hands with Watson.  It is a big ask to have her star in such a blockbuster but she succeeds admirably.  You won’t be disappointed if you spend a few bucks and see this film.

Personal Shopper

I have seen most of Kristin Stewart’s performances from Twilight to Personal Shopper and I think this is my favorite performance of hers.  In my opinion,  she is even better in this one than Clouds of Sils Marie for which she won the Cesar – the French equivalent of an Oscar.  Nowhere in this performance did I see those peculiar little facial twerks that seemed to plague her for most of her career.  She is great in this film which is a good thing as the camera never leaves her.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright who lies in Paris and is a personal shopper for Kyra, a celebrity of some sort.  Maureen’s twin brother has recently died of a heart ailment that she too suffers from.  Both he and his sister are mediums and Maureen goes to his house to try and contact her dead brother.  They had made a pact that they would contact each other from the beyond if one died.  There are clearly paranormal creatures at work as Maureen continues to try and contact her brother.  That is the ghost story part of Shopper.

Then there is the murder mystery plotline.  Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown person (or spirit) that get progressively creepier. The texts get her to  go to Kyra’s apartment and try on her clothes in an erotic sequence.  Later, Maureen returns to the apartment to find that Kyra has been murdered.  Stewart is mesmerizing in this very weird (but good weird) film that has been seen by about fifteen people in the USA.  It isn’t playing in very many places but I highly recommend it.

 

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Movies: Certain Women and Captain Fantastic

 

Certain Women

Whenever you have an almost 40% difference between the Critics Score and the Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes, you know there is a big problem with the movie being reviewed. That is definitely the case with Certain Women, which has a 90%, Critics Score and a 53% Audience Score. The Critics obviously found much more than the audience in this art-house film starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristin Stewart.  I really admire the work of these three actresses and they were quite good in this film but it wasn’t enough to cause audiences to enjoy this slow burning Indy. Some of disparity in scores might be attributed to the fact that this is a chick flick and RT is dominated by males but even the “chicks” I know who have seen the movie didn’t care for it.

The film is adapted from a series of short stories. It has a couple of very loose connections between a couple of characters but basically the stories stand-alone. All three take place around Livingston Montana as winter closes in on this small town. The first stars Laura Dern as an attorney unable to help a client with a workplace injury because he had already signed away his rights. He becomes violent and she deals with it in a compassionate but distant way. The second story is about Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband who are building a house outside the town and their teenage daughter. This is the least flushed out plot of the three as we learn virtually nothing about the source of her flawed family relationships or why this causes Gina to pursue getting a pile of sandstone for her house. The final story is the best and depicts Kristin Stewart as an attorney (Beth) who takes a gig teaching school law to some teachers in a town four hours away. She meets a young woman played by Lily Gladstone who is mesmerizing in her role as a caretaker for farm horses that becomes enamored by Beth and seeks a relationship with her.

The power of this movie is showing uncertain women going about their daily lives in quiet desperation without achieving the respect they should from their families and business relationships. The Director gives us just a quick glance into these lives without providing any kind of history or resolution to their stories. The first story is ok with Laura Dern lovely to watch as she struggles with her existence. The second story is the weakest but the third story about unrequited love is moving due primarily to the understated acting of Gladstone in a breakthrough performance. Stewart plays her role perfectly and again reminds us how far she has come since Twilight. The cinematography is fantastic as it captures the bleakness of winter descending on this bleak Montana town. Kelly Reichardt , the Director, has created a quiet, subtle film with beautiful scenery, wonderful acting and a plot that will cause most people to go running away from the theater in pain.

Captain Fantastic

I missed this terrific film this summer due to my schedule but it is now available on Video on Demand through all the regular services. This is a movie, unlike Certain Women, that the critics and the audience completely agree on and they all like it. It is the story of Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen who is bringing up his children in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. They hunt, read whatever they can and eschew traditional religions, modern society and Corporate America. Ben’s wife has been institutionalized for mental illness and subsequently commits suicide, which sets the story in motion. He takes his kids to their mother’s funeral in New Mexico and his wife’s family is not particular welcoming of his alternative lifestyle and threaten to take the children away.

Ben has to deal with his uncompromising personality when it becomes clear that his lifestyle choices have a negative impact on at least some of his children and his wife. Mortensen is superb in this role which he displays the conflicting emotions of tenderness, fierceness and an unyielding dedication to his philosophy. Also great is George MacKay who plays his eldest son Bo. You may remember him as Billy in Pride. The rest of the kids are also quite good. Of course the supporting cast of Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn and others are all heavy hitters who nail their small but important parts. The ending of the film doesn’t quite hold together as there is no reason to believe that Ben’s wife’s family isn’t going to further pursue him but other than that, Captain Fantastic is a great little film that just about everyone should enjoy.

 

Movies: Cafe Society

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Café Society

I’m not a big Woody Allen fan and his personal life is certainly a big reason why. I saw this movie for my film club and it was pretty good.  Having not seen many of his films, I am no expert on the themes or techniques he typically uses and how they compare with this movie.   For example, I can’t really comment on the blue vs. amber cinematography  that is apparently utilized in his films or the impact of his new cinematographer (it is unusual for Allen to change his personnel) but I did find some of the scenes breathtaking in both the California and the NY sequences be them “blue” or “amber” – however they came about.

Café Society is the story of Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx, who travels to California in the 1930s to find a better life. He goes to work for his uncle Phil played by Steve Carrell, a big Hollywood agent who is cheating on his wife with Kristin Stewart. That in and of itself is a bit creepy given the age difference (there was also a really off color joke around Errol Flynn’s interest in underage girls to provide further “ick”). Unfortunately, there isn’t really any chemistry between the two so it isn’t ever clear why Stewart’s character is so enamored with him. Perhaps the actors also felt the “ick” factor.

Of course Bobby falls in love with Stewart and we have the proverbial triangle. Eisenberg and Stewart have worked in several films together and are at ease with each other on screen. Stewart’s facial expressions, speech pauses and other mannerisms that she brings to all her roles are not as pronounced as in the other 6 or 7 films I have seen from her. This probably has to do with the fact that her character actually smiles and is happier than in her usual angst filled roles. She does a good job and is believable as Vonnie but her motivations are really never explored. Eisenberg is also fine although after he returns to NY and ages, it is mostly the clothes rather than his persona that changes.  Neither character was  particularly well developed but the actors did the best with what they were given.

Café Society has many humorous moments and the crowd I was with laughed out loud several times. Bobby’s Jewish family finds humor in Jewish stereotypes and Allen clearly enjoys poking fun at the Jewish experience.   Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s mother is excellent and really funny. Jewish insecurity is a primary theme in this movie and you see it in all the characters in the Doorman family as they use humor and other techniques to camouflage it.

In the end, this film is a nice little period piece that won’t stretch your imagination or intellect. Allen could have taken the movie to other more interesting places but I wonder if the 80 year old Director has run out of gas.   The movie has its strengths and plenty of weaknesses but 96 minutes in an air conditioned theater watching this film isn’t the worst way to escape the summer heat.