In Review!: “Personal Shopper”

Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is its own unique form of thriller, as much a Hitchcockian psychosexual mind game as it is a thoughtful meditation on grief and the afterlife. Supremely at home in Assayas’s singular and graceful style of his films slowly revealing themselves, Shopper is deceptively slight while being fully loaded. It’s tough to grapple with what the film is doing in the moment (and still tricky on the other side of seeing it), vacillating from genuine horror to depressive character study to something else entirely in short span – but the film casts an invasive and ethereal spell.

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In Review!: “Raw”

Crashing in on a giant red wave of French extremity, Raw is one nastily daring debut from Julia Ducournau. Hazing rituals of a veterinary college make for a morbid playground of sexuality, feminism, and subversion in this body horror wonder, as smart as it is profane. As freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) struggles to assimilate to the indoctrination, she feels a growing urge for human flesh – but is this born of stress or a dormant natural instinct? Is it a coping mechanism or an exercise of self-actualization?

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In Review!: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Opening with a patient, glistening beauty The Zookeeper’s Wife meets its World War II subject with an earthy passion. A familiar aesthetic is nevertheless enlivened by director Niki Caro. She quickly captures a sense of awe for the animal kingdom that is particularly attuned to a certain part of our humanity, a holistic eye that carries over to the human story at hand.

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At once a star vehicle perfectly suited to Jessica Chastain (if you forgive a few chapters that forget her entirely) and a stately untold true story, the film is more absorbing than its recent biopic contemporaries. Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, the wife and corunner of the warsaw zoo doing the Nazi invasion of Poland. They devise a plan to smuggle Jews out of the nearby ghettos, using their Nazi-overtaken grounds as a hiding place. Over the ensuing months, the refugees and rescuers develop something of a familial bond. For most of the running time, the Jewish struggles are given as much emotional consideration as Antonina’s terrified caregiving, the scattered focus still coherent thanks to richly composed feeling.

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In Review!: “The Blackcoat’s Daughter”

Oz Perkins delivers a creepy and contemplative debut with The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a horror film with familiar devices used in unexpected ways to establish its tone. Instead of pulse rushing thrills or stock jump scares, Perkins’s film is a melting glacier of encroaching dread, a slow build that denies catharsis. While the payoff isn’t completely satisfying, it does leave a lasting impact on the mind if not the nervous system.

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In Review!: “Wilson”

Woody Harrelson is one of our reigning underrecognized actors, versatile in hilarious and compassionate ways that defy easy typecasting. Craig Johnson’s Wilson, however, provides a showcase tailor made for the actor’s acerbic confrontational humor and brimming humanity – problem is it’s a vehicle all too unworthy of his gifts.

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As the central Wilson, Harrelson is game and at home in the skin of this foul-mouthed and off-putting loner. When his father passes, Wilson seeks out his troublesome addict ex-wife Pippi (an equally well-cast Laura Dern) only to discover she had kept their child he believed to be aborted. His journey to make a relationship with the now adopted child Claire (Isabella Amara) makes for inconsistent bursts of rancid humor and heart. Adapted from his own graphic novel, Daniel Clowes’s screenplay is a series of small bites that make for a messy meal. But the star does the heavy lifting, and Harrelson is aces.

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In Review!: “Staying Vertical”

With understated visual flair and sensual attentiveness, Staying Vertical is a bizarre and enthralling work from writer/director Alain Guiraurdie. Like Stranger by the Lake before it, Guiraudie explicitly depicts sex but to more bizarre effect, and with less aim to titilate. Get ready for a host of meditations and provocations on sexuality and, oh you know, human existence in a thoroughly intellectual, but unpretentious piece of auteur filmmaking.

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In Review!: “Kiki”

Personal, political, and built with indefatigable spirit, Kiki is a no bullshit, all ferocity documentary debut from Sara Jordenö. Following the current LGBTQ ball scene of New York City, the film is part baby cousin, part update to classic Paris Is Burning. If not as immersive as that landmark film, Kiki is populated with as many absorbing characters within its passionate world of outcasts.

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Comparisons to Burning will come easy to most, especially considering Kiki hardly shies away from recognizing that film’s impact on our understanding of the subject (and without hijacking Burning’s distinct visual identity). Despite existing in a post-MTV, insta-fashion era, Kiki feels unburdened by contemporary influences, defining itself by its youthful pulse whenever a moment seems structurally familiar. Even if the Category is not “Trendsetter”, it is still “Fresh As Fuck”.

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In Review!: “Beauty and The Beast”

Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s latest attempt and near greatest misfire at live-action recreation of their most beloved classics (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is still an impossibly low bar to dismantle).

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Despite the many positives going for it, Beast is an occasionally beautiful musical made with some truly monstrous attempts to diverge from the flawless simplicity of the original. When it rehashes images and iconic moments of the animated masterpiece, the results are watered down – but when it aims for reimagining the plot beats, it becomes silly and over-complicated.

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In Review!: “Split”

Twist meister M. Night Shyamalan is back in popular favor after a long string of disasters (and the modest success of The Visit) with multiple personality thriller Split. But the return to form is a somewhat measured success – miles from the gobsmacking stupidity of his greatest follies but still a far cry from his strongest, most beloved works. M. Night still just doesn’t understand how people think and sound, or how that basis in reality enhances his chilling moments. The more outlandish elements of Split are more believable than the necessary, the simplest dialogue or minor details archly silly. He’d do better to just listen to everyday conversations for his next film instead of thinking up new shockeroos – remember how understated and real the final car scene in The Sixth Sense was?

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Final Oscar Predictions!

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Happy Oscar Night everyone! Tonight, we’ll finally see if La La Land can match previous record holders after its record tie for nominations. God forbid the Twitter dissenters have even more grousing to do, but hold tight because its almost over. Before the big ceremony, let’s take a quick look at the night’s certainties, possibilities, and missed opportunities:

BEST PICTURE
Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Should Have Been Nominated: 20th Century Women
Again, La La Land is nowhere near as unpopular with the Academy (and regular viewers) than it is in the Twittersphere. With maybe a small chance for Moonlight to upset, this is the easiest call of the night.

BEST DIRECTOR
Will Win: Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Could Win: Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Should Have Been Nominated: Pablo Larraín – Jackie
Ditto – though I do wonder if a vote split could happen like in years past. But there would be some signs of a stronger play for Moonlight if that were the case, I think.

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