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Kristen Stewart, as far as I was concerned, did not have a particularly auspicious start in films as an actress. She came to fame by making big movies. But I found the Twilight series, and her acting, impossible to watch (I couldn’t get through the first in the franchise). She followed that up with Snow White and the Huntsman, which I did manage to get through, but definitely no thanks to Stewart’s underwhelming performance.
Then something happened. She became good. I was astounded, but still it happened.
This came to pass around the time she made Still Alice and The Clouds of Sils Maria (for which she became the first American to win a César award for acting-here in the supporting actress category).
In many ways, I think it was because she found her niche. When she is asked to play just everyday ordinary people, there is something about her that comes alive on screen. She seems to be most superb in simply being herself or perhaps more accurately, just by being. And as long as little more than that is asked of her, she commands attention on the screen.
This is also true of her latest role, the title character in writer/director Olivier Assayas’ new film, Personal Shopper. Here she plays Maureen Cartwright, a young woman who hasn’t gotten over her twin brother’s death. Both are psychics, so she spends much of the film at her brother’s house trying to make contact with him. She is also a personal shopper for a celebrity who doesn’t have time or the privacy to shop herself.
Personal Shopper has some marvelous set pieces including an encounter with a malevolent spirit at her brother’s house and a cat and mouse game via texts as she travels from Paris to London via Chunnel to pick up some clothes for her employer. The first was quite unnerving and the second, though perhaps a little too long, a wonderful exercise in Hitchcockian suspense.
At the same time, I don’t think the sum of the parts make up a complete whole. The film feels disjointed and not to finally add up to anything that satisfying. It comes across as two different movies that Assayas tried to sew together into a single outfit, but just couldn’t do it. And at one point near the end, as the texting through line was resolved, it feels as if some scenes were left on the cutting room floor.
Stewart does a rather nice job of trying to hold it all together. Sometimes she can’t bring off the scenes requiring the most extreme of emotions. But again, when she’s just playing a regular person, just being on the screen, there is just something about her.
With Lars Eidinger as a man having an affair with Cartwright’s employer.
On occasion I get into one of those arguments with other film nerds about whether film is primarily a visual medium. My retort is that if film were primarily a visual one, we’d be watching nothing but silent films. But in 1929, the audience spoke and decided that the art form, to them, and quite rightly so, was a mixture of visual and aural and each film has its own individual ratio needed to make it work.
But those who feel that the visual is primary stand by their belief, claiming that the visual in film is always to be prioritized because it is inherently the superior way to convey what the movie is trying to say or make the audience feel.
I still call shenanigans. And as proof, I hold as Exhibit A the Hollywood studio tentpole film, a product that is primarily visual for two reasons: they have the big bucks to pay for CGI and other visual elements, and a movie that is more visual in storytelling sells better overseas where such things as dialog can alienate an audience.
And most of them are atrociously bad.
As further proof of my analysis, I hereby present Ghost in the Shell, one of the worst examples of visual storytelling as well as studio product since, perhaps, Godzilla, if not Pacific Rim.
The basic premise of Ghost in the Shell is that a person (here Major, played by Scarlett Johansson) whose body is so damaged it is rendered useless, has her brain installed into a cyborg type figure. The problem is that whoever did this seemed to have forgot to also install a personality.
Then someone or something starts taking out people who work for the company Major does one by one, or as many as can be taken out with a futuristic machine gun (and as is true in most movies like this, they only seem to be able to kill or miss people depending on how the filmmakers need the plot to play out or if they will be needed in the sequel).
There does seem to be a story here, as vague and as hard to follow and as emotionally uninvolving as it may be.
But my god, no matter what else one might say, it’s a visual stunner-so you win, those who think a film is primarily a visual medium. It’s a pyrrhic victory, but still.
Some time ago Johansson starred in the Luc Besson film Lucy. In that film, Johansson’s character (the title role) had her body transformed into some sort of machine as well. Now, Lucy was not a good film. My god, it’s by Besson which means pretty much by definition it ain’t going to make the list of Cahiers du Cinema.
But like most Besson films, it was highly entertaining and really gave you the bang for your buck. As silly as it was, it took non-visual time to create above average characters and set up the situation so that we cared about the outcome.
Ghost in the Shell makes Lucy feel like an Ingmar Bergman film.
The direction is by Rupert Evans, who also helmed Snow White and the Huntsman, which may explain a lot. It also has three writers, which may explain even more. I don’t know why producers thinking hiring as many screenwriters as they can to write a screenplay ever works out in the best interest of the film.
With Michael Pitt, wasted as much as Johansson is, as another ghost in the shell and Juliet Binoche, one of our finest actors, unsurprisingly being able to do nothing with the nothing role she was given. But I can’t blame her. This film and Godzilla should keep her in clover for a long time and since she’s not the star, also do nothing to her reputation.
Much has been made about the decision to cast a Caucasian actor in what is, in the source, an Asian one. Two thoughts. Yes, it’s racist. Ironically though, maybe actors of diversity should breathe a sigh of relief that they dodged a bullet by not starring in this horrendously awful movie.
Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. Possibly because Jean Cocteau’s version is one of the greatest films ever made. And possibly because it is one of the few where it’s not a woman under some sort of curse being rescued by a knight in shining armor, but about a man under a curse who has to be rescued by a woman.
I also very much loved Disney’s animated feature. The songs were wonderful and the filmmakers were able to create a story of rich emotion. Next to Fantasia and Pinocchio, it’s possibly Disney’s finest animated achievement.
Now, as they did with the somewhat limp The Jungle Book, Disney has created a live action version of the animated one. The result is something of a mixed bag. When it works at its best, it delivers an emotional richness higher than the original. But at other times, it’s more or less all right.
And to be honest, I’m not sure I can say why.
I don’t know whether it’s Emma Stone as Belle, who, though sound enough in the role, may not quite have the gravitas to pull it off as well as one might like.
It could be that the stop motion for the inanimate objects made the animating feel a little clunky or even off-putting at times.
It could be that the direction by Bill Condon is a bit uneven.
I don’t know. It still has the wonderful songs and the production numbers are bigger and more elaborate which benefits the story. It has some marvelous actors marvelously acting, like Kevin Kline as Belle’s father; Ewan McGregor as Lumiere; Ian McKellan as Cogsworth; and the legendary Audra McDonald as Garderobe.
It also has Dan Stevens and since he is mostly animated as the beast, his acting seems to be a bit more animated than usual. And with Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. She’s not quite Angela Lansbury, who is probably the most sorely missed from the movie, but she’s fine.
The film also doesn’t make some of the same mistakes as that other fairy tale musical Into the Woods, which is marvelous on stage, but didn’t quite make it as a film. Beauty and the Beast is much darker than …Woods (which softened the more serious aspects of the play).
In addition, Beauty and the Beast is more diverse than …Woods. One of the painful moments in …Woods was in act one, where nary a minority could be seen, and then at the beginning of act two there was a black actor standing next to the leads. The actor had nothing to say and nothing to do but stand there. The irony is that I might not have really noticed just how white …Woods was until they did something as insulting as this.
But Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has one of the most diverse casts in recent movie history and it’s rather a joy to watch from this perspective.
With Josh Gad as LeFou, as the second of Luke Evan’s Gaston. He’s very funny. Much has also been made of his character’s gay moment. One theater canceled showing the movie over it. Others said if you blink, you’ll miss it.
Just for the record, it’s queer, it’s there and it’s more than just a blink and you’ll miss it moment.
The screenplay is by Stephen Chbosky, who gave us the wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Evan Spiliotopoulos, who gave use Disney’s excellent Hercules.