Famous Women, played brilliantly


* * * *

Michael Showalter’s dramatic adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary about Tammy Faye Bakker and her entrepreneurial evangelistic husband Jim Bakker is fuelled by fantastic performances. Jessica Chastain declares her intentions (to be awesome!) in a single, long close-up that opens the film, and she doesn’t disappoint, giving one of the great turns of 2021. But Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the deeply complicated Jim sneaks up on you; as Jim ages, Garfield’s interpretation grows more intriguing, sly and effective. This is a film that becomes more compelling as it goes, saving its best ammunition for acts two and three, and if you had pre-conceived notions of Tammy Faye – as I did – it’s an eye-opener.


* * * *

Pablo Larraín’s ‘fable inspired by a true tragedy’, fantastically and poetically imagining a version of three days over Christmas spent by Princess Diana at Sandringham, sits thematically comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside his Jackie from 2016. Both films intimately examine the most famous women in the world at the peak moments of their fame, and how that intense glare affects them. In Diana’s case, played exquisitely by Kristen Stewart, we are on the edge of existential despair and mental illness.

The film is stunning to look at and, with Jonny Greenwood’s score, dreamy, evocative and haunting. Indeed, at times it feels like a horror movie, a Polanski-like mental descent. Don’t come for any kind of history lesson; come for the vibe.

Midway and Seberg (Movie Reviews)

MIDWAY * * * 1/2 and SEBERG * *1/2

I tend to love a late-60s Hollywood biopic and not a WW2 strategy battle epic, so two new films have my expectations flummoxed.


Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not a remake of the film from 1976, though it certainly could be, and it is in spirit. Like that film, Emmerich’s massive adventure – a one hundred million dollar indie produced primarily with Chinese capital is an “all-star” epic following many storylines and aiming to portray the actual strategies and tactics involved in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 as much as possible. It is resolutely old-fashioned and surprisingly compelling; I enjoyed it far more than I expected to.

The 1976 Midway was essentially a sequel to 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicted the attack on Pearl Harbor (Emmerich’s film handily includes that attack, saving us from having to watch Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor from 2001). Both films came in the wake of other star-studded battle historical epics such as The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Battle of Britain (1969); these films inevitably had their multitudinous male stars’ faces in little boxes covering much of the poster, and ultimately became Sunday afternoon TV staples, where, with ads, they could stretch well into a third hour. Once most of the big WW2 battles had been portrayed, or war-weariness had set in, the template simply pivoted to become the ‘disaster movie’, and films like Earthquake, Airport, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure replaced war with catastrophe but told their stories the same way – big stars (and lots of them), multiple storylines, long running times, short scenes leading up to the ultimate conflagration.

Roland Emmerich became the new ‘disaster movie King’ in the 1990s and 2000s with a string of films that followed the 1970s template, including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. So coming full circle to Midway feels like a natural move for him (if insane for anyone else): he’s simply returning to the source of his style. And Midway is unmistakably in the Roland Emmerich style, down to the captions constantly alerting us to the day and date (and, as we reach the main event, the time of day).

Unlike the 1976 Midway, Emmerich has access to newer information: that published in 1985 as And I Was There by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, portrayed in the new movie by Patrick Wilson. Layton and his colleague Joseph Rochefort broke Japanese code that led to the US’s victorious strategy at Midway, and this storyline – necessarily absent from the ’76 film – gives Emmerich’s version more strategic depth.

Depth is not the strong point of the dialogue, which is often jingoistic and artificial: “Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war.” But that’s Emmerich, and, indeed, the genre. The film is at its worst – as genre examples ever were – when trying to depict the warriors at home, with their spouses or kids. I’m going to shatter all my politically correct credentials by suggesting that films like this shouldn’t even try to include ‘domestic scenes’ (and, therefore, female characters). Those are the “go to the bathroom” scenes. Everyone knows why we’re here: to see the strategy and then see the battle.

This is a film free from dramatic nuance and irony; it’s about as subtle as the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. But (dialogue aside) it’s a very good history lesson in movie form; you’d be a Pacific War geek indeed to not come away with at least a couple of new nuggets.


Dialogue is the worst part, too, of Seberg, but there are other problems. On paper this film had every possibility of working: Kristen Stewart is absolutely the right actor to play iconoclastic Hollywood / French New Wave actress Jean Seberg, and this period of Seberg’s life – 1968-1971 – is absolutely ripe for dramatisation.

Like Seberg, Stewart was given massive Hollywood exposure in a huge tentpole film while still a teenager, then found greater artistic value in smaller, more director-driven films in France, before returning to work in the US while stirring the celebrity gossip pot with (vaguely) unorthodox sexuality. Unlike Seberg, Stewart was not targeted by the FBI for her involvement with a civil rights activist – Hakim Jamal – and her donations to the Black Panthers.

So Seberg’s story is a great one, and Kristen Stewart, a truly magnetic actor, is a great Seberg. But the dialogue is excruciating, and it makes the actors saying it look bad: you can’t act this stuff properly. Also, the film, directed by Benedict Andrews (Una), while theoretically on Seberg’s side, spends half its time on a made-up FBI agent played by Jack O’Connell as he struggles with his conscience and considers subverting the agency. This is a massive dramatic mistake. O’Connell’s character is meant to represent the FBI, and there is no historical evidence that the FBI ever softened its stance on Seberg, but the film seems to be saying, ‘don’t worry, there were some good guys spying on you, hounding you, trashing your reputation and destroying your life, too.’ Also, O’Connell’s scenes require a fictional wife, wasting Margaret Qualley in ‘domestic scenes’ as dramatically lame as those in Midway.

Watching Seberg is to become increasingly disheartened, as it strays deeper into bathos, incredulity and cliché as it goes on. It’s very disappointing. Who knew that the film I had high hopes for, a film that had all the ingredients I liked, would be such a bummer, while a film made in a genre I couldn’t care less about, by a director I generally find crass, would prove so relatively rich? C’est le cinema.

Personal Shopper


Personal Shopper 2

**** (out of five)

Kristen Stewart is now Olivier Assayas’ muse, and he is now her most important director. They collaborated for the first time on 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria; Stewart took home the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the personal assistant to a film star played by Juliette Binoche. Now Stewart plays the assistant to another powerful and celebrated European celebrity – not entirely defined, but either a model or a bigwig in fashion – but very much takes the leading role in Personal Shopper. She’s in every scene, and the movie is all about her. It’s her finest performance to date and the film is the equal of Clouds, and up there with Assayas’ best work.

The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision. When Maureen leaves the haunted house and returns to her job, shopping for high-end clothes and jewellery for the aforementioned fashionista, the film slides securely back into territory we’re familiar with from Clouds, and Maureen could almost be Stewart’s character from that movie; it would make sense, to leave Binoche and find a new, younger and more distant boss to service, and, if Assayas had made this a sequel, I would have bought it.

PERSONAL SHOPPER 9945B (c) Carole Bethuel LIGHT

Halfway through, the third element – the thriller – enters the fray, and infects both the exotic workplace and the haunted house. The effect this shift has is electrifying, and the extended sequence on the Eurostar, where Maureen is stalked via text, will be deservedly admired and discussed for years to come. Stewart’s complicated emotional and psychological response to this series of events represents new levels of intimacy and vulnerability in her work, which some critics, in the past, have found cold and remote.

Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoot Stewart, Eurostar, Paris, Europe, everything magnificently. Nobody shoots daily contemporary urban life like Assayas, with its bustling beauty, havoc and disparity. You don’t necessarily notice the camerawork – it’s not like a Scorsese picture – but the moves and, in particular, the framings are quiet perfection.

I will be telling my filmmaking students to see this movie, not only for its general quality, but specifically to appreciate its approach to ambiguity. Easy answers to any of the film’s threads are not readily apparent by the end credits, yet the whole is immensely satisfying. It is a rich and hearty stew, nourishing for mind and soul.

Personal Shopper 1

Café Society



Café Society is arguably Woody Allen’s best-looking movie in colour. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and production design by Santo Loquasto depicting the mansions, offices, restaurants, bars and cars of 1930s Hollywood (and, to a lesser degree, an apartment in the Bronx and sundry other NYC locations) combine for a ravishing visual feast. If nothing else, you can just revel in Art Deco for ninety-seven minutes and have a good time.

Luckily, this time around there’s also a cohesive narrative (even if it feels like Woody’s done it many times before) and some zippy one-liners (even if they feel like they’ve been lifted wholesale from early Woody scripts). The script really does feel like it’s been cobbled togther by a computer program, but at least a computer program with access to the Woody archives: if nothing else, there’s no doubt this is a Woody Allen movie.

Jesse Eisenberg does a “7” on the 1 to 10 scale of how much Woody to do as the lead male in a Woody film, a refreshing step-down from the 9 he gave in To Rome With Love (2012). Like John Cusack and Larry David, he’s a good Woody substitute, and this time he doesn’t yammer and stammer. He plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx who’s sent to learn from his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a top of the game Hollywood agent. When he falls for Phil’s secretary, complications ensue.

Besides the terrific cinematography (even better than that of Midnight in Paris), the performances are a delight here. Eisenberg’s character actually gets an arc, gaining confidence and sexual chutzpah in a story that spans years, and Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, as Uncle Phil and his secretary Vonnie, are both terrific. Carell gives the kind of multi-layered, complicated performance that people like Michael Caine were once able to give in Woody films, when the scripts supported them. And Stewart, often shot in close-up with 30s movie-star intensity, not only nails the material but also a huge and difficult character leap.

It may be Woody coasting on a textual level, but the fact that he’s gone out of his way to make such a technically assured movie is refreshing. I enjoyed my visit to his Café.

Still Alice


*** (out of five)

Julianne Moore is nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for Still Alice, from screenwriting and directing partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. She plays Alice Howland, an extremely intelligent, beautiful and successful linguistics professor, who, upon turning 50, becomes afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film is tasteful, controlled, quiet, almost stately; it’s beautifully shot in New York mainly in autumn and winter, features precise characters and perfect performances, particularly from Moore, who should and will get the Oscar. It is also a slog, hampered by two script-level fundamental flaws.

The first is that, playing its schematic early, the film becomes a sort of inevitable death march. Once Alice’s disease is discovered, we anticipate – not with pleasure – that the rest of the running time will essentially be a series of worse and worse symptoms on display, and that is precisely what we get. Although Moore performs each stage of Alice’s degradation exquisitely, it is not only an extremely depressing ride but a predictable one.

The other challenge is the film’s almost high-concept conceit: having Moore as a world authority on linguistics, and the disease gradually robbing her of words, is simply very, very contrived, and the concept is hammered to death. It’s too neat and it becomes grating.

Alice’s family are beautiful, smart and wonderful like her, and if they weren’t played by such excellent actors they would be insufferable. But Alec Baldwin, Kristin Stewart, Hunter Parrish (what a great actor’s name!) and particularly Kate Bosworth bring them all to life with precision. The Howlands are of a particular New York academic upper class, and they’ve got rigid spines, stiff upper lips and emotional resilience. This, at least, stops the movie from being mawkish – there are no scenes of anyone losing it, screaming, weeping uncontrollably or generally getting all tragic with it. But there is no denying that the film is depressing from the outset and never lightens up. While a fine showcase of a great screen actor’s talents, and an admirable depiction of an all-too-common disease, it is a grind, and one wonders if the filmmakers had an audience in mind.