The triumph of Kristen Stewart’s highly-touted performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is both a result of great casting and Stewart’s pressure situation for having the film’s entire plot be dependent on her character’s emotional reactions to situations. Stewart plays Maureen, a “personal shopper” for an uppity French designer. Her monotonous job involves going from store to store picking out outfits that her boss wants for her next runway show. However the film’s meat comes from Maureen’s real reason for being in Paris… finding her dead brother’s ghost. Olivier blends the melodrama of familial relations with a supernatural thriller but the film maintains a fully character-centric focus. The plot chugs only as fast and as slow as Maureen wants it to, making Stewart the center of attention in virtually every moment of the film. This speed conditioning is manifested quite literally in the long sequence in which Maureen receives anonymous texts in riddles. Throughout these sequences our perception of “time” in the movie is dictated completely by the pace at which Maureen responds to the texts. Our emotions are dictated by her’s facial response to each one she receives and the wait-time between the anonymous texter’s responses. Assayas’s deliberate subversion of American horror film tropes also play directly into Stewart’s ability to act. Ghosts, sex, and murder are all siphoned through Stewart and the camera concentrates on her personal encounters with these instances more than the instances themselves.
The ending sequences concludes with a line uttered by Maureen which explains Assayas’s entire approach to the film as a pedestal for Stewart and her character: “Is it you… or is it just me”. The phantom thumps a “yes”.
I haven’t come across a filmmaker with an almost Ozu-like dedication to the static shot as Pedro Costa. Throughout his examination of the people and places in the Fontainhas Neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, we get an almost painterly experience throughout his films. A gallery of frames, sculptures, contained spaces with some moving parts, but mostly still, as they are, in real time, decaying before our very eyes. His characters too, hardly moving and even when in extensive conversation rarely looking at each other or at anything in particular really; mannequins, furniture, remnants of the slowly dying surroundings which they have inhabited their whole lives. Even the clean polished apartments, which Ventura, Costa’s central character in the beautifully understated film Colossal Youth, is being forced into moving into as his slum community is being demolished, look lifeless and dead. The white walls are not really that white, the clean corners are not really that clean. As the “realtor” explains the beauties of the area, Ventura quietly points to a cobweb near the ceiling and matter-of-factly states “there’s spiders everywhere”.
Costa is as much of a visual filmmaker as anybody, but his visuals are not really associated with what we normally see and are used to as ‘cinema’, but more a combination of performance art and modernist sculpture. Lighting plays a role almost opposite that used in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Kaurismaki puts spotlights on actors to illicit the feel of a theatrical performance, highlighting a dramatic space but then subverting it with a typical Finnish dead-pan subtlety. Costa’s lighting is simply part of the aesthetic. It isn’t highlighting the characters, but blending them into their surroundings. They are part of the scenery, just as much a piece of the greater painting as the furniture or walls they stand beside.
Even as characters shift around and pass by places, the camera and lighting doesn’t follow them. Our eyes and attention is constantly being guided to the details of the buildings, the inanimate monoliths, walls, staircases, roofs, street-corners, alleyways, and witnessing their death in real time. All the scratches, mold, chipped paint, dirt, mud, dust, everything signaling the passing of life. The only time the camera moves throughout the entirety of Colossal Youth is the two sequences in which Ventura sits in a park… the only two places he ever visits which exhibit a sense of vibrant living, a fight for life and against death… organisms, trees, birds, worms, nature at work constantly living, never stopping, never still.
The beautifully decaying images of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth:
It’s hard to judge this movie on cinematic terms because the issue and topic it deals with is such a devastating one and has such dire sociological and theological implications that it engulfs any dialogue of artistic merit with dialogue on social consciousness, faith, and morality. It’s really the perfect kind of “Oscar” movie because its contribution is towards a social discussion and making a “statement” which people can gravitate towards. It means that the movie is able to skate to victory on its mere competency. As certain critics have pointed out, it’s “just good enough” for the Academy Awards Best Picture, and when the topic of choice is so timely and the story one of triumph against evil, whatever flaws it may display cinematically and by form or structure in making its argument will be set aside and excused for the importance of its ability to make something horrifying accessible. We don’t nitpick a spotlight story on ISIS for its grammatical errors and questions about its rhetoric, and we don’t care of Spotlight’s level of artistic merit so as long as it gets its all important message out clear and light enough to carry and hold with us.
Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
The cliché “the higher they rise, the harder they fall” is a single sentence explanation which is supposed to be tacked on to every celebrity story like that of Amy Winehouse. We’ve heard it before and we will hear it forever. But Kapadia, with this documentary, attempts to examine the reason for the fall, what is the force of gravity which accelerated Winehouse from the tops of music stardom straight in a grave underneath the ground? Well, there isn’t a single reason, and like physics problems, Amy’s fall is acted on by a number of forces, those trying so desperately to hoist her up (her friends) and those accelerating her decline (media, critics). The “saddness” that we keep hearing about celebrity drug problems and their eventual deaths such as in Amy is not simply due to an addiction, but to the fact that it is never taken with the sort of grave seriousness that other diseases are. We see clips of comedian making fun of her, ripping her for her appearance, juxtaposed with images of her crumbling mentally and physically under the stress of her life. It’s not simply a mechanism of the media but of society as well. Our immediate reaction to celebrities expressing disatisfaction with their life is to ridicule them for feeling so because of their immense wealth, legitamizing the notion that money does by happiness of all accounts.
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)
The whole experience is very off-putting and that’s what makes Queen of Earth a fascinating drama. It’s entire duration evokes a sense of dread within you, and its horror is manifested in our own feelings of embarassment, frustration, betrayal, and lonliness. These are human emotions but they are what makes us afraid and what eventually, if we let them fester, can make us go insane. I would say that Queen of Earth is a psychological horror film in the same way that Charlie Kaufmann’s Synechdoche New York is one, where the central characters undergo an emotionally churning chapter of their lifes which makes them fear their own existence. The sequence where Catherine has a complete psychotic meltdown at the gathering of her friend’s house is similar to Caden being confronted with his stage cast and crew finally asking when the hell their production is actually going to be finished. It’s a realization of all out failure by Catherine, and having the last support beams of her sanity knocked to the ground. It’s horror without ghosts and demons… it’s the horror of realizing how vulnerable she is all of a sudden. A queen stripped of her throne.
Addicted to Fresno(Jamie Babbit, 2015)
Scripted incredibly amateurishly, with comedy which forces itself through sexual frustration and cursing. It’s the middle-schoolers brand of jokes with everything spelled out at the end and characters regurgitating information that in real life, they would simply already know and is useless information to us anyway. I’m not sure what Jamie Babbit is getting at with her film career, but even her so-called “cult” classic But I’m a Cheerleader was not shy on its heavy-handed symbolism, obvious in its construction and again, spelling it out every bit of commentary it chooses to make just to make sure we “get it”. Well, Jamie Babbit, if you had any semblance of an imagination, we would have gotten it simply through implication.
A Hard Day (Seong-hoon Kim, 2015)
Korean mainstream cinema is something I would recommend to a lot of my American friends because it is directly influenced by style and narrative structure of Hollywood’s mainstream cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which works on its own parallel plane only borrowing off the most rudimentary and simple of cinematic technique from Hollywood’s popcorn cinema, the Koreans go all out dedicated with a replica of which 99% of the DNA is the same. Seong-hoom Kim’s A Hard Day could easily be made into a decent Jason Statham January thriller and its cheesy but believable conundrum of a cop who accidentally commited a hit and run and now has to try and cover it up is ripe for directors to experiment with editing and tension building. Its this type of inspired, light-and-airy popcorn material, with ample cheese melted on top that delivers enough to pass the time while still being respectable. If you’re just lazing around on a weekend afternoon and need to kill some clock before heading out for the night, watch A Hard Day.