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Kristen Stewart

Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.

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Review: Café Society

Café Society

In Annie Hall, Los Angeles is “a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” That was 40 years and 40 Woody Allen movies ago, and the humor that worked back then—L.A.’s mind-set summed up thus: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and plate of mashed yeast”—has mellowed with time. For Café Society, Allen remains skeptical about La-La Land, but this portrait of a New York lad trying his luck in 1930s Hollywood is sticky with nostalgia: wrapped in lush costuming, honeyed by golden California light, and scored to the vintage toe-tappers that Allen continues to love. Satirical arrows are dutifully aimed, but the overall gorgeousness makes the target a soft one.

The lad is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), whose Uncle Phil (Steve Carell in a good turn) has become a successful movie agent. Bobby gets stuck with menial jobs, but he’s able to observe chic pool parties and meet movers and shakers.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Mississippi Grind’ – an American original, plus ‘American Ultra’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’

MissGrind
Lionsgate

Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.

These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).

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DVD: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

Olivier Assayas wrote this drama about a veteran actress facing a transition in her career after Juliette Binoche, arguably France’s greatest and certainly most ambitious actress working today, challenged him to write a film centered on women. It was a friendly challenge—she had already starred in two films he wrote for director André Téchiné and another, the lovely family drama Summer Hours, that he directed from his own script—and Assayas emerged with one of his most beautiful, nuanced, and complex films to date.

Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t open on Binoche’s Maria Enders but on her assistant, a worldly American twentysomething named Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who we meet juggling phone calls and scheduling issues in the noisy passageway of a train travelling through the Swiss Alps. In the midst of the journey—Maria is on the way to a tribute to the playwright who wrote her breakthrough part—they learn that the author, a lifelong friend as well as mentor to Maria, has just died. The story plays out in the shadow of his death and the memory of the play that launched the career of the then 18-year-old Maria over 20 years ago. A hot young theater director wants to restage the play with Maria in the role of the older woman, a 40-year-old professional destroyed by the vicious younger woman (it sounds a whole lot like something Fassbinder might have written), and she struggles with it. She can’t relate to what she sees as a pathetic, weak character, but is it because she can’t yet acknowledge that she’s aging out of the dynamic roles reserved for younger actresses? The director (Lars Eidinger) has a different take: they are two sides of the same woman. Maybe that’s what really bothers Maria.

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Videophiled: ‘Still Alice’

Still Alice (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Julianne Moore won her first Academy Award (after four nominations since Boogie Nights in 1998) playing a renowned linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and starts to experience her identity, her sense of self, slipping away. It’s the kind of performance that doesn’t just support a film, it gives the film its breath of life.

Dr. Alice Howland is in the prime of life: happily married to a fellow academic (Alec Baldwin), the mother of three grown children, an expert in her field, and a professor at a respected university where she enjoys teaching. It comes on slowly: losing a word while giving a lecture, misplacing items, forgetting appointments, and finally getting lost on a routine jog across the campus that’s a second home to her. When the worst is confirmed by a neurologist, the denial is replaced with coping mechanisms, though even those are a temporary measure as the decline speeds up and that sharp intellect softens and falters, along with her own body. As she loses her identity along with her memories and her attention span, her eyes start to fog over and her body seems to collapse into itself, deflating like fragile old woman aging before her time. She becomes something of a ghost of her former self and it is heartbreaking, thanks to the depth and nuance with which Moore inhabits the mental and physical deterioration.

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Film Review: ‘Camp X-Ray’

Kristen Stewart and Payman Maado

The best thing about Camp X-Ray is its almost palpable depiction of futility: Inside the featureless hallways of the prison at Guantanamo, guards make their constant rounds, peering through each cell-door window every few seconds, moving in circles around the rooms.

Soldiers compare their dismal work to their forefathers’ heroic duty in World War II, sardonically noting that the food given to their Muslim prisoners is better than the chow in the mess hall. But, as we learn early on, guards can’t refer to their prisoners as “prisoners” — that would make them subject to the statutes of the Geneva Convention. These are “detainees,” and they are never put on trial, and nothing ever changes, and the soldiers keep making their rounds.

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