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A Film Diary

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Olivier Assayas concocts a heady atmosphere here; Personal Shopper is spooky and cold throughout, thanks in part to its superb sound design (with all those bumps and smashes mysteriously occurring in a grand old mansion) and also thanks to the terrific central performance by Kristen Stewart. Her character, Maureen, seems oddly disconnected from the world; she is a clothes-purchasing assistant to a celebrity – an American in Paris – and we spend close to two hours in her company, but although we discover some things about her life and see interactions with friends, can we honestly say that we ‘know’ her by the end? She is nervy, grieving and in search of her own identity, and she doesn’t give much away. She is also intriguing: can she really communicate with the spirit world, and in particular her recently-deceased brother, who owned the mansion in question?

Personal Shopper is a difficult film to pin down, as it comfortably slips between genres, without much in the way of fuss. It is on the one hand an existential drama largely set within the fashion industry and the celebrity world, though it’s apparent from the off that Assayas wishes to deglamorise fashion, or at least the purchasing of it (if not the actual act of wearing). It’s also a chiller, a genuinely unnerving ghost story that leaves its fantastical phenomena unexplained – we see a wispy spirit and ‘hear’ the same things that Maureen hears, but even by the end it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe in these interactions or judge Stewart’s character as someone who is coming apart at the seams. The standout moments involve her text exchanges with an unknown person, which she believes is a spirit of some kind; as Peter Bradshaw rightly pointed out in the Guardian, one of these – in which a flurry of texts arrive after a phone is switched on – is the kind of thrilling coup de grace that Hitchcock would have been proud of, and genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, while the whole Eurostar section, when Maureen is first contacted, is surprisingly gripping given that we’re mostly watching someone send, receive and read text messages on a train. This is worth seeing simply on account of the superb central performance, but it’s well worth your time if you enjoy filling in the gaps around the edges of a story, and it’s another smart, intriguing film from this talented director. (****½)

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My Blind Spot choice for May was an excellent one, and as I write this a couple of weeks after watching Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the first time, I feel relatively confident in saying that it is now one of my favourite musicals – a vivid, colourful and bittersweet melodrama containing wonderful performances from Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo and an insistent, memorable score from Michel Legrand. Despite the film’s stellar reputation among amateur and professional critics – not to mention musical aficionados – I had wondered beforehand whether I was going to like the recicative dialogue; it’s not something I tend to enjoy and I thought it might be a stumbling block preventing me from connecting with Demy’s work. However, it’s so well-done here that I stopped noticing the device for a while, and at times it even seemed completely natural that the actors were singing their lines throughout. And bravo to cinematographer Jean Rabier, whose vibrant vision of the French port town makes the bad weather seem oddly warm and appealing. This is a masterpiece. (*****)

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The first of five semi-autobiographical François Truffaut films – also his debut – that star Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, a young Parisian boy whose journey from neglected, mis-treated youth to juvenile petty criminal is profoundly moving and wonderfully acted. The opening sequence sets 1950s Paris up as a kind of playground, and it remains as much for most of the rest of the film, with Henri Decaë’s camera wandering the streets in tandem with the latchkey lead. I first watched Les Quatre Cents Coups (sorry, I’ve always hated the badly-translated and comparatively clumsy English languate title) when I was a teenager, but I identify with and have way more sympathy for Antoine now than I did back then. It’s a film that’s ostensibly about a child, yes, but really Truffaut is holding up a mirror to adults, requesting them to think about their own actions and the society they have created. (*****)

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Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight is a 1952 film about a washed-up, alcoholic stage performer (Chaplin) and a suicidal but promising dancer (Claire Bloom), who he nurses back to health; to different extents they inspire and encourage one another to tread the boards once more. Chaplin’s own father went through similar travails as his popularity dwindled at the end of the 19th century, though the director always maintained that Limelight was to some extent based on the life and career of stage actor Frank Tinney. There’s something of Charlie Chaplin’s own ups and downs in there, too, with various nods toward his retired Tramp character and former glory days. The film certainly captures the tragic nature of a great performer as he nears the end, with Chaplin’s luvvie Calvero gamely carrying on despite changes in audiences’ tastes, as it’s the only thing he’s ever done. Chaplin only made two more features after this, his last Hollywood film (though it’s set in England), and although it’s a melancholic affair there’s still humour and energy and kindness emanating from the great star’s character. Bloom, here at the beginning of her long film and stage career, is good but occasionally required to be hysterical, and the washed-up star narrative is underlined by the appearance of Buster Keaton – who by 1952 had fallen on hard times – as Calvero’s stage partner. There are some splendid match cuts that take us in and out of Calvero’s dreams, some well-designed sets and, unfortunately, a bit of dodgy accent work that suggests the director had lost touch with his homeland and London specifically. It’s very good, though. (****)

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You can see what George Clooney was trying to do with The Monuments Men. On paper it looks like a modern day Kelly’s Heroes, or some other war caper movie from the 1970s featuring an unconventional cast made up of normally serious actors, bankable stars, a couple of non-Americans – to pay lip service to the other nations who were involved in defeating the Nazis – and a few comic players for light relief. Joining Clooney here are Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, and their collective job as part of the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program is to locate all of the precious artwork the Germans looted during the Second World War and locate it before the retreating, nearly-defeated enemy soldiers torch the lot. There was a chance to create an interesting story, here, and Clooney has evidently tried to make something different to the norm, but it all feels so flat and dreary and there’s very little drama. The decision to make a couple of the characters oddly fixated with just one artwork, as if to inject the narrative with some purpose, is a total mis-step. And just look at the charismatic figures within that cast! Not one of them comes away with any credit, though it’s hard to blame them individually; they’re all working with a turgid, dull screenplay. Balaban and Murray draw the shortest straws as they should be the most entertaining; they share lots of screen time and, bizarrely, when they appear it’s so turgid you feel like you’re watching in slow motion. A pity. (*½)

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I still think of Peter Berg as being a half-decent 90s actor, as opposed to his new guise as a director of macho, artillery-heavy blockbusters, simply because I haven’t bothered to check out many of the films he’s made. Those that I have seen – Hancock, Very Bad Things – just didn’t seem to work, despite Berg’s attempts to try something a little different within two genres that seemed quite tired at the time. I might start paying a tiny bit more attention, though, having now seen 2016’s disaster movie Deepwater Horizon, which tells of the 2010 oil rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are faults with this film, for sure. The screenplay largely neglects to cover the aftermath, including most obviously the massive environmental impact of the oil spill, save for one scene in which an oil-covered bird runs amok on a ship’s bridge, smashing into windows and machinery; there’s a brief mention of the long clean-up process at the end, which to date has apparently cost BP more than $54 billion, and very little regarding the lawsuits and criminal cases that ensued in the wake of the disaster. The focus here is almost entirely on the men and women who worked on Deepwater Horizon at the time of the accident, with emphasis on Mark Wahlberg’s electronics technician Mike, Kurt Russell’s supervisor Jimmy, John Malkovich’s BP manager Donald and navigation officer Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Wahlberg’s a good fit for the lead role: here he’s playing a skilled employee and all round likeable guy who acts heroically in the face of extreme danger and just wants to get home to his wife and daughter. Russell is great to watch, as usual, and has a good part here. Malkovich overacts in order to establish quickly that he’s the villain of the piece. Rodriguez doesn’t get as many lines as the men, but is OK.

There are maddening cliches here: Kate Hudson is handed one of those thankless wife-left-dangling-at-the-end-of-the-phone (well, Skype call) roles, hundreds of miles away from the action when the power on the rig suddenly cuts out; later, as huge fires burn on the rig, a lone, defiant American flag billows in the wind before it is subsumed by the flames; and there’s absolutely no lingering on the trauma experienced by any of the survivors – Mike’s is quickly dealt with in about ten seconds flat before a typical (but understandable) syrupy reunion with his family to round things off. However, despite all of that I was engrossed in the story and the action; the actual mechanics of the rig and cause of the explosion are explained in enough detail that even I – a man who shrieks and runs away at the prospect of a bit of DIY – understood what had happened. And I can’t imagine how difficult it is to recreate this huge, terrifying accident, with all the fires raging and explosions taking place and huge pieces of metal falling in such a cramped space, but Berg and his effects team carry it off with aplomb. So this is another disaster film in which the disaster itself is the real star, but Berg manages to choreograph the chaos so that it’s easy to follow (yet still utterly terrifying), and, most importantly of all, he shows respect towards the 11 men who died on board the rig. (***½)

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The narrative in this excellent new film by Katell Quillévéré, written by Quillévéré and Gilles Taurand, drifts from one character to another, all of whom are linked together in some way by a dying patient in a hospital and his heart. You could argue that there are three specific threads: a teenager is left brain-dead after a car accident and his parents must decide whether to donate his valuable organs; the staff at the hospital are tasked with persuading the parents and must successfully transplant, if they are allowed to proceed – an ordinary day’s work, amazingly; and a woman on a waiting list for a new heart remains hopeful despite her faltering condition. Quillévéré never settles on a lead character, following at various times incidental figures as well as those we may see as being conventionally ‘important’, and offering us brief glimpses into all of their lives: time is spent with the boy’s shell-shocked parents, as you would expect, but also with a nurse on her first day in the brain injury ward, the girlfriend of the boy injured in the accident and a couple of people who I assume are medical students, who are tasked with safely transporting organs from Lyon to Paris. The film never has to rely on any strange circumstances or chance encounters to tie all the characters together – instead we see how they all relate to one another and nothing unusual is fabricated in order to link them or bring them into the same space. There are excellent performances and some very persuasive sequences that indicate the strange state that exists between dreams and reality, which are beautifully shot by Tom Harari, and a really lovely soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that contemplates the images and the delicate nature of the film. All-round excellent performances, too, that ensure Heal The Living is a moving, well-considered, subtle study of life, death, grief and hope. (****½)