Monday, July 27, 2015

Elementary, Dear MR. HOLMES

Sherlock Holmes is literature’s great noticer, wise for his powers of perception and logical reasoning. His long legacy of imitators – basically every detective since 1887 – can’t quite match him for suis generis deduction. Unlike some mysteries where you can feel the author stacking the deck in their lead’s favor with arbitrary observations leading to a solution, there’s something authentic about the original Holmes stories’ satisfying logic. I’ve always found them to contain a near supernatural sense that Holmes would be able to solve any mystery, not for any great leaps of intuition, but for his ability to process and interpret information. But what author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle giveth, director Bill Condon taketh away in Mr. Holmes, a slow, poignant meditation on aging that finds the great detective near the end of his life.

This film finds a good new perspective on an oft-adapted character. Its greatest mystery is his memory, as a 93-year-old Holmes (Ian McKellen, aged with convincing makeup and frail physicality) deals with his declining abilities decades after his retirement. It’s the late 1940s. He’s now a lonely old man. Watson and Mycroft are gone, as is his Baker Street home. Instead he lives near the sea in a distant country home with only his buzzing apiary, his stern housekeeper (Laura Linney), and her precocious boy (Milo Parker) to keep him company. Facing creeping senility, his memory is fading, and his mental agility has slowed. It bothers him. The very thing that made him useful, from which he derived his purpose and his fame, was his mind. What to do now that the most troubling unknowns he must puzzle out on a daily basis are names and places?

Screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, adapting a novel by Mitch Cullin, juggles three plotlines, as Holmes finds his mind drawn to his final case. He can’t quite remember the details, something about a man (Patrick Kennedy) worried about his wife (Hattie Morahan), but wants to write down what he can before he forgets entirely. All he knows is that it ended in a way that convinced him to retire. We’re drawn back into these flashbacks where a sprightlier McKellen puts a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye to play Holmes in his prime, which makes the sight of the stooped, slowed man in the film’s present all the more affecting. Interspersed with these two timelines are glimpses of a post-World War II trip to Japan where Holmes met with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) who promises to help him find a plant to help stave off dementia.

The way these plotlines interact is confused, and never quite reaches a satisfying convergence. But holding it together is Condon’s smooth and soft approach, which frames period detail in a comfortably handsome structure, emphasizing crisp British Masterpiece Theater subtlety and sturdy empathy. Best of all is Condon's focus on McKellen (the director and star of Gods and Monsters reunited) and his tremendous performance. The great actor capably plays different stages of Holmes life, both an aging charmer and a man dragged back into memory while still trying to be of some use. He lets us see every bit of the younger Holmes we know filtering through the older man's countenance, sparkling animated eyes in a dignified wrinkled face. In the film’s best subplot, he forms a warm, wonderful grandfatherly relationship with the housekeeper’s son. The boy is eager to learn from the great man he’s read about and whom he admires, and Holmes is happy to find someone who he can engage intellectually. It’s a sweet intergenerational friendship, where the young and the old bond over shared passions for learning, thinking, a sense of discovery, and mystery.

Mr. Holmes is a tenderly felt and delicately wrought film, crackling with a delightful lead performance, relaxed and complex. For a man defined by his intellect, it’s important to maintain his sense of educated perception. That’s what makes his mental slippage so devastating, something he fights against and tries to ignore. It speaks to a desire to stand near the end and look back into one’s life, trying to make sense of it while looking forward to the legacy one hopes to leave behind. The film compassionately imagines a graceful and wistful twilight for the great Sherlock Holmes, finding small surprises and resonant emotional detail in a man who has left his life’s vocation behind him but can’t stop noticing, piecing together old memories while forging new ones in the hopes of still being able to make a difference in another’s life.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Fight Night: SOUTHPAW

I suppose it was inevitable Antoine Fuqua would direct a boxing picture. The one thing that connects his diverse (and uneven) filmography – from fine genre fare like Training Day and King Arthur to lesser junk like Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer – is intense, gory, bruising violence. So when an early shot in Southpaw has Jake Gyllenhaal looking straight into the camera, howling in slow motion as blood and sweat rain off his straining muscles, it’s clear we’re in a place of macho intensity. Fuqua shoots the boxing matches with reasonable force, and wisely uses the camera to teach the audience how to read the strategies involved. But the story between the bouts is merely programmatic, a broad and bludgeoning collection of tropes. It’s a boxing picture. What do you want, a roadmap?

It starts with Gyllenhaal’s boxer at the top of his game – undefeated, even. Soon, he’s fallen on hard times due to a set of tragic circumstances and his own bad habits – temper, alcohol, and so on. He loses his wife (Rachel McAdams), is abandoned by his sleazy manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and has his daughter (Oona Laurence) taken away. Now he has to rely on a tough-but-fair wise old trainer (Forest Whitaker) to help him get back in fighting shape. If you already think this all ends with a big comeback fight against a perfectly loathsome rival (Miguel Gomez), you’ve definitively seen a boxing picture before. Besides, Gyllenhaal’s surname here is Hope. You’ve got to know where the symbolism is pointing. Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter’s screenplay plays every note you’d expect, doing so with a swaggering clobbering melodrama, confident in its ability to use an audience’s emotions as its speed bag. It thumps away.

Fuqua obliges the formulaic intentions of the material while keeping the visual interest on the performer’s bodies. He focuses attention on McAdams’ relaxed sensuality, Jackson’s broad-shouldered business posture, and Gomez’s slippery fighting stance. But most of all Fuqua takes in Gyllenhaal’s ripped musculature, a painful display of tense tautness. He clearly worked hard for this role, and is eager to show off every bit of the gain from the pain. But it also serves a purpose in telling us everything we need to know about this boxer. He likes the pain. Thanks to the announcers helpfully shouting out the subtext during the fights, we learn boxing fans know it’s not a Hope match until he’s bleeding. His wife tells him he needs to retire before he’s irreparably punch-drunk. But we soon learn how desperately he needs to keep going.

We get plenty of Hope’s frustration with his situation, followed by training montages as he works his way back to some semblance of normalcy. With a daughter’s happiness imperiled, it’s easy to root for him. But I appreciated the film’s ability to look somewhat askance at its protagonist, wondering if his cyclical bad behavior is something that can be fixed. But of course it can, and he can learn to control his temper in everyday life by learning to fight better in the ring. Instead of settling into the reality of its characters’ lives, the movie hops to the next expected beat. It never feels like a real situation, but an artificial construct built to fit the needs of its subgenre. It doesn’t breathe like the best of its brethren, where Rocky or Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby (or even Real Steel) color in the specifics of their environments.

Southpaw is on a one-way track to the Big Match. It’s an athletic, well-coordinated display. Gyllenhaal can land convincing blows, and, because the emotions involved are so big, heavy, and unsurprising, the stakes are completely clear. The result is a good replica of a boxing match. It’s exciting and visceral, punches booming so forcefully in the sound mix I wondered what the Foley artists had to do, every jab timed to the usual orchestra of crowd reactions. It’s well made without being completely involving. I sat admiring the technique more than feeling the tension. Because the way there is so pro-forma, it’s hard to stay invested. The movie remains a glossy, well intentioned, but over-familiar narrative beginning to end.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Space Invaders: PIXELS

Eighties nostalgia is weaponized in Pixels, a light sci-fi comedy that sees unknown aliens send giant arcade games to invade the earth. Why? Apparently they picked up some thirty-year-old signals and they took it as a threat. The attacks start with an enormous Galaga game raining destruction on an Air Force base in Guam, reducing everything in sight to glowing piles of multicolored blocks. It’s clearly a crisis for bumbling President Kevin James, who was once just a kid in an arcade cheering on his good buddies in their quest to be champion gamers. Now he’s a buffoon no one likes, with plummeting approval ratings. How he got to be president in the first place is anyone’s guess. And now there are these aliens threatening to destroy the planet. What follows is a nonsense adventure out to flatter every nerd in the audience for merely recognizing the references.

James recruits a goofy and improbable ensemble to fight back the aliens in elaborate large-scale replications of classic games. He finds his old arcade pals – now an AV technician (Adam Sandler), a conspiracy nut (Josh Gad), and a prisoner (Peter Dinklage, looking like Billy Mitchell) – and forces them to train Marines in video game strategy. The gruff general (Brian Cox) is hopelessly confused, but reluctantly lets a lieutenant (Michelle Monaghan) get special tech prepared surprisingly quickly. Soon the dweebs and the military have giant phallic laser guns blasting away at Space Invaders, Centipede, and the like as aliens demand three contests, winner takes planet. If you already find yourself asking questions like, “How?” or “Why?” or “Who cares?” this is not your movie.

The nerds, we’re told repeatedly, are the only ones who know how to play the games, and therefore the world’s only hope. This seems to me a misunderstanding of video games’ popularity. You’d think a group of Marines would know a thing or two about joystick-eye coordination, and could grasp the basic strategy of these old games, especially since it boils down in practice to shooting at large glowing objects. Plus, it sets up a dated nerds-rule/jocks-drool underdog fight that doesn’t make sense in our world of unfortunately male-dominated Silicon Valley and other bro-ish tech enclaves where the simple power categories of dorks and sports have scrambled. But I suppose this isn’t exactly the movie to go looking for logic or coherence. It doesn’t even bother to show us the aliens behind the DayGlo lightshow attacks, expecting us to enjoy the sight of it all while chuckling at its cast’s antics and not thinking about it too much.

The movie’s idea of nerds is as old as the games they’re fighting. But the action is rather well done, like a lighthearted riff on a Transformers plot structure in which incomprehensible extraterrestrial conflict tears through some major cities and their landmarks. I enjoyed seeing the vibrant geometric shapes colliding with earthbound obstacles. At least it is action different from what we usually see, collateral damage chaos smashing apart solid matter into bits of glowing blocks. There’s some charm to seeing a towering Pac-Man chomping through a maze of New York City streets, or cavernous red alien scaffolding arranging itself into a King Kong-sized Donkey Kong setup. But it goes on and on without feelings of real danger, and the characters just aren’t funny or interesting enough to earn our investment.

Remaking a French short film by Patrick Jean, writers Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling (frequent Sandler collaborators) create podgy connective tissue for silly spectacle in the form of limp childish comedy and halfhearted relationships. The jokes largely fall flat, without a sharp sense of perspective or humor. We’re supposed to care if these guys earn validation despite learning little more than that they’re good at thirty-year-old video games. And it’s yet another movie where goofy guys stumble their way to greatness while patient women stand next to the fun, scowling or smirking. This one goes the extra mile, casting people like Jane Krakowski, Ashley Benson, and Serena Williams (!) to show up in a few scenes and smile, like prizes to be won or symbols to be displayed. Playing into pessimistic nerd culture inferiority and resentment, the movie sets itself up as wish-fulfillment for people who wish playing arcade games could be enough to 1.) earn a living, 2.) make you an important public figure, and 3.) get you ladies to objectify.

So the human stakes are unconvincing and vaguely insulting. But at least the zippy adventure moments largely work. It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, which most definitely cannot be said for most Sandler comedies of late. The director here is Chris Columbus, whose work on the first two Harry Potter films shows his facility with bouncy effects work and convincing design. He has a competent eye for faux-Spielberg awe and workmanlike entertainment, and proves once more that, when given a director instead of an enabler, Sandler is a decent everyman. As a schlub shooting 8-bit aliens, we can almost believe it. The problem is only when he stands next to painfully wisecracking sidekicks, or when we’re asked to care if he gets to woo the lady in uniform, win over her moppet, and get the respect of the world. When the movie’s in motion, it goes down easily. But then it stops, and there’s that hollow aftertaste.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Paper Towns introduces us to an intriguing character and decides it doesn’t want to tell her story. She’s Margo, a high school senior who is charismatic and mysterious, the sort of teenager others gossip about, inventing crazy escapades that are almost believable just because she’s so unpredictable and unknowable. Carrying herself with the intense faux-literary soulful gazes of too-cool-for-school types, she’s a reader and a thinker, prone to waxing philosophical while pulling pranks. She has supermodel good looks (because she’s played by one, Cara Delevingne) and a sharp mind, intimidating all around. These are understandable reasons for Quentin (Nat Wolff), the shy nerd who lives across the street, to nurse an unrequited crush. The two teens each bring a particular flavor to the film. She’s a fully stocked spice rack. He’s a sleeve of undercooked Wonder Bread. Want to guess which one becomes our protagonist?

The film opens with its best sequence, an escapade that brings boy and girl together. One late night, she shows up at his bedroom window to conscript his assistance. Her now ex-boyfriend has been cheating with one of her best friends and no one told her. She’s out to prank them all. Margo gets Quentin to be her getaway driver, heading out in his minivan, sneaking into homes of her former friends and, say, leaving a dead fish in the closet, or shaving an eyebrow off a bad bro. It’s all in good fun, and of course Quentin falls even more in love with her as, finished with their mission, they watch the sun come up over Orlando while dancing to a Muzak version of “Lady in Red.” There’s a warm sense of discovery here. Who is this girl?

We don’t get to find out. The next morning, Margo has disappeared. She’s run away from home, seemingly leaving no trace. It’s not the first time, we learn. But this time, Quentin takes it personally. How could she flee after such a magical night with him? Sure enough, he finds some clues, making him a painfully bland protagonist for a limp scavenger hunt, while reducing her to a set of facile puzzle pieces. She’s gone and taken the film’s most intriguing character with her. Instead we focus on the vaguely defined Quentin and his dumb friends (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams, doing what they can with awkward and overfamiliar comic relief) as they talk about girls and prom and senioritis, while slowly trying to figure out where Margo went and why.

Eventually, the guys think they’ve figured out her destination and decide to road trip there, with two girls from school (Halston Sage and Jaz Sinclair) tagging along as well. What follows is standard teen movie shenanigans – social bonding, worrying about drinking and sex, pop culture references, partying, worrying about the future – strung along a mystery that never feels particularly urgent. Director Jake Schreier doesn’t do much with the camera beyond keep the proceedings slick and in frame, while coaxing decent work from underwritten roles as the group of characters never comes into clear focus. They’re background players for our plain, foolishly lovesick, lead. Meanwhile, the logistics of their plan (what about money? or parents?) never becomes a concern. And why doesn’t Margo’s family get more worked up about a clear missing person case. It’s waved off with an overly convenient explanation in half a scene.

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapted from a book by John Green, doesn’t have the same sharply drawn characters or well-earned sentimentality of their previous collaboration, The Fault in Our Stars. It may share the Green formula of moody kids and quirky habits, deep thoughts and hard emotions. But there’s a hollow feeling to this one, a flat, uncurious dawdling. It creates three stereotypical high school guys, a little dumb and a lot blinkered. They’re just not interesting or complicated, remaining thinly developed types. (The girls are instantly more remarkable without ever getting the chance to step into the spotlight and prove it.) There are some charming moments – an impromptu Pokémon sing-along, a coincidentally timely Confederate flag joke – but I never felt invested in these characters or their relationships.

An almost reasonably diverting road trip, the movie is nonetheless haunted by the one character who isn’t even around for most of it, who in her brief appearances is so much more interesting than the people we actually follow. By the time we learn what happened to Margo, it’s a let down, not because there’s no resolution, but because we’ve come all this way just to see her complete a transformation into a symbol. She makes such an impact in the opening, it’s hard to watch her end up not a character, but a lesson to be learned. She’s too cool for such a fate. The movie ends with Quentin narrating his epiphany, teasing us with info about what Margo was up to, and then saying, “That’s her story to tell.” Something tells me that would’ve been the better story.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Love and Other Drugs: TRAINWRECK

Trainwreck is a sweet and salty romantic comedy loaded down with endless digressions, smirking vulgarity, stand-up dressed up as dialogue, and sudden dips into sentimental drama. If you think that sounds like a Judd Apatow picture, you’re exactly right, all the way down to the over-two-hours runtime. But here he’s working from a screenplay by Amy Schumer, who also stars. She brings her sense of tart gender politics and sly observational ear, as showcased in her hit-and-miss sketch show on Comedy Central, folding them into a movie that’s both unmistakable from her voice, and undeniably part of the Apatow approach. It starts with liberal raunch, and ends with conservative coupling, locates what it judges immaturity in its main character and finds reason to induce what it thinks is emotional growth. But at least the movie, which could easily fit into his man-child comedies’ tropes, follows a woman, and commits to telling a story from her perspective.

Schumer stars as a reporter for a magazine living a fun New York City life with lots of alcohol, pot, and a revolving door of quick relationships and one-night stands. Side-stepping the usual rom-com setup, she’s not exactly looking to settle down. Her latest sort-of-boyfriend was a hulking muscle man (John Cena) she never quite liked. So she’s as surprised as anyone else when she might actually love a sports’ doctor (Bill Hader) her editor (Tilda Swinton) has assigned her to interview. The following story finds Schumer and Hader cautiously moving toward a relationship, having fun hanging out, and eventually hitting every girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy beat you’d expect. But the melding of Schumer and Apatow’s comedic sensibilities makes the resulting film feel loose and shapeless, so that the big moments take a long time coming and approach from different angles, moments somehow fresh despite so retrospectively obvious.

Apatow has certainly never been a filmmaker who cuts out lengthy riffs or dawdling detours. (When it works best, like in his Funny People, there’s a fine lived-in quality.) And Schumer has never been a writer particular interested in holding back frank talk. (Her best sketches have a precise ear for unspoken assumptions.) Together, they find a nice groove, an appealingly shaggy amusement that’s always going where you suspect it is, but unhurried about getting there. This accommodates all sorts of digressions in a textured approach to what other films would play for easy shock humor or manipulative sentiment (although there’s that, too). Though Schumer and Hader have a warm, relaxed chemistry, which sells their rom-com paces, the film’s length and pokiness allows for a wider understanding of her character. We get just as much time with sneakily moving, and frankly more interesting, prickly relationships with her sick father (Colin Quinn) and married sister (Brie Larson).

Could every single scene be shorter, and cut more tightly? Yes. But then the movie would lose some of the rambling quality that drifts it away from formula and into its characters lives. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (HBO’s Girls) finds casual beauty to their New York existences, from spacious apartments to cramped subways, while the movie meanders along, exploring a deep bench of side characters, caricatures and cameos all. We meet a gaggle of magazine employees (Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, and Ezra Miller), a senile elderly man (Norman Lloyd), a homeless guy (Dave Atell), suburbanites (including Mike Birbiglia, Tim Meadows, and Nikki Glaser), and LeBron James (as himself). They’re all mostly inessential to the overarching narrative (especially an even weirder batch of celebrity appearances near the end), but irreplaceable for the windows into Schumer and Hader’s lives outside the romantic comedy world in which they’re living.

Because this is a more expansive ramble than most comedies attempt, there’s small disappointment in finding it settle back into formulaic moments. But how often do you get to see a rom-com these days, especially one so intent on fully fleshing in its characters outside their interactions with each other? And rarer still are the movies told so persuasively from a woman’s point of view, placing an obvious and welcome focus on her pleasure, her opinions, and her complicated evolving decisions. (It also flips the usual romance gender dynamics, making her the commitment-phobe, and he the one ready to settle down.) There’s a sting of earnest truthfulness in Schumer’s framing of familial and romantic relationships, tired wisdom where people grow together or apart for understandable, relatable reasons instead of flailing sitcom misunderstanding. Here’s a movie broad enough to support goofy sex scenes and big silly behavior, while containing it within a believable emotional world. That it’s uneven comes with the territory.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Small Wonder: ANT-MAN

The lightest and slightest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man steps away from the main Avengers for a pleasant diversion introducing a new superhero. It does so without the belabored setup, grindingly monotonous effects, and constipated cross-pollinated plotting that encumbers so many of its kind. Instead, it gives most of its runtime over to a simple, straightforward plot, embracing goofy comic book technologies and funny supporting performances. Turns out locating the inherent silliness in this material is exactly the right approach, even if it gets tangled up from time to time in its larger expanded franchise and caught flat footed with the creeping sameness in the flavorless look infecting all of these MCU projects. Still, for a big budget summer spectacle, this one passes by surprisingly quickly and does its best to avoid lumbering.

Perhaps Marvel has realized their best films in the franchise steer towards the casual and comedic. That’s why the best parts of the Thors, Iron Mans, and Captain Americas (not to mention Guardians of the Galaxy, which has yet to be Avengersed) take themselves lightly, with quipping banter and nice sight gags, and the worst parts are the endless bland action and portent. Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed (of Bring it On) and written by Edgar Wright (The World’s End), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Adam McKay (Anchorman) and star Paul Rudd, maintains its sunny tone and brisk high spirits, never giving itself over to thundering exhaustion. Rudd, one of the most charming actors working today, centers the movie on a tone of easy-going amusement, even when confronted with peril. It’s a nice change of pace.

Rudd plays a burglar whose attempts at going straight are halted when a wealthy retired tech genius (Michael Douglas) persuades him to help steal his shrinking technology from a cold capitalist (Corey Stoll). To do so, the inventor will let his new thief friend borrow his old top-secret superhero suit, a portable shrinking device that’ll turn its wearer into Ant-Man. The following is a loping heist picture as the two men look over blueprints, and engage in brisk training montages. But what good is it to be so small? Well, it gives Ant-Man super-strength, plus the ability to slip into a maximum-security research facility undetected. Rudd casts an amused skeptical gaze on the proceedings, quick with a fumbling everyman charisma. He interacts with Douglas’s stern mentor, as well as Evangeline Lilly as the old man’s no-nonsense daughter, by pinging off their seriousness with an irreverence obviously masking bewilderment.

By playing up the strangeness of being thrown into these circumstances, the movie finds an appealing groove. After all, it’s not every day you see the world from a bug’s-eye view. Reed has good fun conjuring the look of the everyday world towering over the miniaturized Ant-Man. It’s a likable callback to The Incredible Shrinking Man or Fantastic Voyage or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. There are immense blades of grass, cavernous vents, vast puddles, and, of course, large, lovable, trainable herds of ants. It has a chintzy matinee spectacle appeal togged up with digital gloss. Plus, it’s funny to see big, booming adventure intercut with humdrum still life. When Rudd first tries on the suit, he ends up hanging onto a groove in a record as it spins on a turntable. In sweaty close-up he grasps and gasps. Cut to a wide shot as the needle skips. There’s some wit to the staging, and it only escalates as the danger grows.

Even more so than in the similarly mildly flippant Guardians, Ant-Man’s comedic tone is maintained throughout. It’s stuck in rigorous franchise making, with the worst scene a shoehorned cameo from an Avenger. But it’s still just loose enough to accommodate the pleasures of letting the cast’s chemistry simmer. It helps that supporting roles are filled by the likes of Michael Peña (a delight), T.I., Bobby Cannavale, and (an underutilized) Judy Greer. Reed keeps the plot – a limber heist laced with family issues – hopping along, trusting this ace cast to maintain high levels of appealing personality. By the time we arrive at the inevitable climactic battle, it’s tweaked with real levity – actual funny throwaway lines and teasing use of effects – and allowed to end before overstaying its welcome. Sparingly and creatively deploying the unusual superpowers in clever ways for fast, lean setpieces, its motions don’t grow tiresome. There’s simplicity to this movie that allows it to remain light on its feet. Sometimes thinking small pays off.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest from French writer-director Olivier Assayas, is a beautifully textured film of austere natural beauty and complicated interpersonal relationships. Assayas films, even the bad ones, are closely attuned to the effect physical spaces have on character’s interior lives. It’s never more literal than the contested estate in Summer Hours, a space laden with memories for a family in mourning. But there are also the anonymous techie nightmare locales in Demonlover, analogue procedurals in Carlos, vintage French cinema echoes in Irma Vep, semi-autobiographical activist circles in Something in the Air, and more. His characters don’t merely play out their stories. They inhabit a space, creating a richly textured stage for their dramas.

His new film takes place in Sils Maria, a small town in the Alps where, from the right scenic view, you can see the clouds sit majestically below the surrounding peaks. They come rolling in over the landscape, with the snowy mountaintops above, a green valley below. A shift in perspective can change an overcast day to one where the clouds snake low elegantly across the horizon. The story that takes place there carries inescapable comparison to Ingmar Bergman, spending the majority of its time with two women at a small house in the Swiss countryside, dealing with their personas and how they confront the existential questions of their lives. The wide-open spaces contrast with the cramped quarters as the women find themselves stuck together while heavy ideas threaten to weigh them down.

But where Bergman finds spiritual concerns at the center of being, Assayas here deals with art. They’re not debating the existence of God. They’re wrestling with textual analysis, competing interpretations of a script that just might define their relationship, their careers, maybe even their lives. This a gripping psychological dynamic wrapped around an invigorating academic exercise. The women are a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her younger assistant (Kristen Stewart), who are staying in the isolated town while prepping for a new project. It’s a play about an aging businesswoman and her relationship with her young assistant. The actress made her debut in this play two decades earlier, in the role of the assistant. Now the playwright has died and she agrees to be in a new staging, taking on the other role.

The connection between past and present, life and art, is made clear, then underlined. It’s a moment of professional crisis for the actress, as Binoche subtly lets showbiz fears and artistic frustration mingle with a determination to do right by the play that gave her a start. She has memories of how old the other actress appeared to her back then, and now can hardly believe that she’s that age herself. It certainly doesn’t help her state to be staying in the house of the dead man, running lines with her assistant, who Stewart plays with a congenial disaffectedness sliding into unexpected passions. Their employer/assistant relationship drifts closer to a friendship, mirroring the similar dynamic in the play, which there ended in tragedy. Assayas will often start scenes without cluing us into whether or not we’re hearing lines or what these characters actually are. In this way, the play blends with life, as a fluid exploration of what life brings to art and vice versa.

Lightheaded in the altitude, they engage in long discussions of the play, about the text as an object, while the clouds roll through a pale blue sky. There’s a sense that they’re helping each other look into the haze and pull out an interpretation. The older woman can’t stop worrying that her character is thinly drawn and pathetic. The younger woman sees the same character as containing hidden depths. They’re both right, and wrong. There’s a terrifically unsettling sequence with footage of a winding road playing over images of Stewart, a woozy abstract symbol of the film’s hazy doublings. Because the play isn’t real in our world, and because we only glimpse it through their dialogues, these scenes play out like going to a great class without having done the reading. It’s fascinating, and also easy to get a little lost.

But this only adds to the mystery and gravity of this drama, in which every character is a reflection of the actress’s past – an old co-star (Hanns Zischler), the playwrights’ widow (Angela Winkler) – or a future she can’t quite imagine herself fitting in. We meet a wild young Hollywood actress (Chloe Grace Moretz), introduced through glimpses in YouTube videos and a scene from her franchise picture, then in scenes of icy recognition of the way the world restricts starlets’ choices. There’s an undertow of Hollywood commentary, reflected even in the careers of the three actresses. But in a film Yorick Le Saux shoots with cool calm, filled with palatial landscapes – rolling mountainsides, lush green hills, still waters – and lush classical music, Assayas locates a meditative edge to what could’ve easily been All About Eve or Birdman territory. This isn’t a movie about a desperate artist trying to prove her relevance, or fending off hungrier youth. It’s merely one trembling emotional current running beneath its iced-over surfaces.

There’s an absorbing charge to the leads’ relationship, an interdependence and emotional vulnerability as their isolation forces them to confront core questions about how they see the world and where they’re headed in life. In the process, Binoche and Stewart deliver a wonderful acting duet, playing off each other in ways that break down intermingling professional and personal angst with the feeling of a complicated, lived-in, in some ways unknowable, relationship. It’s a film about fighting insecurities and how unmerciful the world can be in leaving behind those who succumb to theirs. And yet together they make it a warm, sometimes funny, often casually incisive character study about two people who fear they’ve lost sight of who they want to be, and lean on each other while trying to move in the right direction, or at least change their perspective to see something wonderful.

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