“Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden”

No amount of anger can render the kind of violence shown in the film “Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden” without labeling the perpetrator a psychopath. Twenty whacks in the face with a hatchet done twice and once stark naked is more than even any abused “me,tooer” can conjure. Sorry, screenwriter Bryce Kass has taken the Lizzie Borden story into the modern era with no awareness of nineteenth-century repressive mores.

The nudity is over the top while it does show maniacal planning. Basically, Lizzie’s intellectual prowess slides into mind numbing revenge for tampering with her freedom. Lizzie is not to leave the house unaccompanied, and her inheritance is strictly controlled. In similar Victorian times, Emily Dickinson, remember, had to seek permission from her father to write at night. Victorian women’s  issues, the class divide, and gender repression were all better seen in the 2017 film “ A Quiet Passion” with Cynthia Nixon playing poet Emily. Not that Chloë Sevigny does not do an admirable job, but the motivation is just not extreme enough~and I argue can never be if Lizzie is to be anything but insane.

The film’s pacing is flawed, too. Except for the violence, “Lizzie” is a  painfully slow film. Even the Shakespearean sonnet reading by gaslights and candles does not make up for days going by petting pigeons and picking pears.

Hateful looks make the thirty-two year old Lizzie ( Chloe Sevigny) look like a rebellious teen. The lesbian sex in the pigeon-house and it’s subsequent thrusting against the hay stacks is for a sensationalized motive~ never proven . Yet, the flashback approach and the August 4th, 1882 beginning shot, that has us looking at the back of Lizzie’s fragile neck while we have thoughts of her step-mother’s soon to be severed, is promising. The screenplay just doesn’t deliver.

The film is well cast with Jaime Sheridan in the role of horny, miserly dad. He tells Lizzie that her epileptic seizures set the family up to ridicule. Denis O’Hare is overtly unctuous as the oily uncle, John Morse; and Kristen Stewart as Irish maid and sexual consort to Lizzie and Father dearest is fawn-like in her victimhood.  Actress Fiona Shaw is a long-suffering, though hateful step-mom. I  like how  she delivers her understated line to her husband, “…I am astonished at the endless ways you find to humiliate yourself and this family.” Kim Dickens is a credible older sister, who happens to be away at a friend’s house when the blood is splattered.

Director Craig William MacNeil can’t do much with a script that edges toward slasher/repressed lesbian suspense noir.

We do see Lizzie as whip-smart and sharp-tongued. When a taunting young woman asks why Lizzie’s family keep their house so dark, Lizzie retorts with the query, “ Are you an Edison? You seem  fixated with illumination.” When Lizzie’s father catches the maid, whom he has forced to have sex with him now with Lizzie, he calls his daughter an abomination. Lizzie coolly responds with, “ At last, we are on equal footing.”

But if you are seeing “Lizzie” to better understand her or to fill in the blanks of her history, you are seeing the wrong historical drama. Missives of the threatening sort, all in the same hand, bombard the family. Mr. Borden is not well-liked. He punishes Lizzie by having her pet pigeons served for dinner. Yet, it deference to their wealthy family, the murder trial is a closed affair. One will have to watch the History Channel to get the facts on these  unsolved murders. The psycho-drama in “Lizzie” did not enlighten or work for me.

“Personal Shopper”

French director Olivier Assayas directs Kristen Stewart in yet another film. Their link first being “Clouds of Silas Maria” ( reviewed May 2, 2015 ). Here, too, life is short, personal, and mysterious. And, here too, Kristen Stewart is a personal assistant. And, here too, the cell phone plays a central role. Stewart is no longer Valentine, but Maureen; and she still likes to imagine herself  in her famous boss’ clothing.

Stewart is in frame the entire picture. She plays haunty, fragile, and competent well. Her mannerisms can be similarly seen as she is being interviewed on Jimmy Fallon this week.  The same intense, jittery, leg and sweeping hand motions elicit fear, shame and grief. She is always on the verge of something.

The title does not do justice to this spirit seeking drama. We begin in the Parisian fall, in a sparsely furnished villa with padlocks,  grilled French doors, small terraces, and smokey light. Atmospherically , we have a ghost story with moaning noises and creaky floors. We follow Maureen through almost every room as she whispers her dead twin’s name. ” Louis, are you here?”  Waverings of light play on the plastered walls. This is where the viewer will either buy into the spirit world or not.

Stewart in leather and helmet motorcycles to haute couture shops and Cartier’s. Her  busy, but bauble-loving boss, Kira, provides her with blank checks and admonitions not to try on her purchases. We shop with her as she easily picks out   Five-hundred dollar belts and two- thousand dollar purses. Kira ends up murdered, and we are back again to Maureen studying abstract art, mediums, and early spiritualists. We learn that Maureen has the same heart malformation that killed her twin brother. Vibes and Morse code-like rappings continue, and we have a second night at the villa with faucets turning themselves on full blast.

Another ghost portal produces vomiting ectoplasmic images. Maureen crouches in fear and leaves the villa peacefully to relatives. The most innovative spectral sightings may be the cell messages delivered to our ear-bud plugged luxury buyer. Thumbed texts fly like Caspar: “RU real?” “I want you, and I will have you!” “I suggest a game.” “I find Fear interesting.” ” No desire if it is no forbidden.” Can the undead use social media? Ummm.

We meet Louis’ wife, and learn that ninety-five days since his demise that she has a serious lover. Coffee and tea mugs move through the air. There is a shoot out at Crowne Plaza in London and Maureen ends up in Marrakesh . Whether you have ever felt presences or not, toying with the idea in Oman is psychically exotic. Maureen’s doctor has told her to avoid intense physical effort and extreme emotions. Could the light at the end be Maureen’s own unquiet soul ?




“Cafe Society”

“Cafe Society” was actually a legendary New York venue in the ’30’s. The first integrated club where jazz bloomed and Billy Holliday introduced the sobering “Strange Fruit”. Director and writer Woody Allen takes the name with its history and tries this time to mesh socio-economic classes. Sophisticates gather and network and glow. In this, his most recent film, he shows us that their longings are a lot like the rest of ours.  Now, acting on those yearnings may be what separates us again.

The film is about family, romance and one’s constant search for fulfillment. It is beautifully filmed in amber light by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and terrifically acted. The story is narrated, “There was this Jewish family.”  Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, our young Woody doppelgänger. His shoulders stoop like his , his fists clench like his, and his speech pattern mimics his. He is a romantic, doggedly so. Once smitten, the feelings last a lifetime. Moral ambiguity aside, viewers get it. ” In walked the past..”

Kristen Stewart does some of the best acting I have seen her do to date.  Her character, the first Vonnie, is open, practical, and still a tad unlikeable in her overt self-interest. Blake Lively, as the second Veronica and Ben’s first wife, lights up every scene she is in. I loved her in “The Age Of Adaline” ( reviewed  May 9th, 2015 ) , but here she has the most youthful sparkle and intuitive naïveté that I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.

Parker Posey in a blonde wig plays Rad Taylor, a older confidant to Bobby. Her role adds a Jane Austen mystique to the film and the era of white walls and cigarette holders. In sexual galavanting, things have not changed much.  Anna Camp is the “would be Jewish hooker” named Candy. Allen gets his “Woman In Red” old Barbara Stanwyck  movie clip in, too.

Bobby’s uncle is  a Hollywood magnate and his competitor for Vonnie # 1.  Steve Carell  affords Uncle Phil with just the right amount of narcissism and foiled longing to underscore the Woody persona that is always present. His sisters Evelyn (  Sari Lennick)  and Rose ( Jeanne Berlin) and mobster brother Ben (Corey Stoll ) fill out the family cast. Phil’s brother-in-law, the intellectual Leonard, ( Stephen Kunken ) has some of the best lines. ” You fall in love….you FALL.”

Allen assuredly is not the voice of moral clarity, but this film makes us believe he is trying. Families are messy. Rodgers and Hart’s songs say it all: think ” I’ll Take Manhattan”, ” You Took Advantage Of Me”, and ” I Wish I Was In Love Again”.

Enjoy the denouement which features a signed love letter fron Rudoph Valentino”. ( First year paper anniversaries may never be overlooked again. And unexpected flowers hold their warnings. )  Enjoy the Bronx chenille robes and period furniture, as well as, the cocktails and cream linen suits and the satin underwear of the Hollywood set. ( Can one  still find dotted Swiss?  ) The mob violence and cheap euphemisms ( cranial ventilation) get as tiresome as the egos, but “larger than life” has us all happier with just being ” life-sized.”

Poking fun at Jewish angst is best coming from Bobby’s mother’s mouth. When bemoaning her gangster brother Ben, ” a murderer and a Christian ( he converts in Sing-Sing) , what did I do to deserve this!” My favorite line leads us right back to Woody. When Leonard spouts that the “unexamined life is not worth living”, we get ” the examined one is no bargain”. This may be the only apology we get from Woody.

I enjoyed the film immensely, and think it adds much to the Allen oeuvre.

“Clouds of Sils Maria”

Olivier Assayas’s film “Clouds of Maria’s Sils” is a slow, layered meditation on living life in the moment, without discounting the past or the future. At times it is like watching sand filter through an hourglass, rushed yet somehow wasted. Time is the centering theme and the clouds’ movements life’s metaphor. Sils Maria is a place name. High in the Swiss Alps southeast of Switzerland, .it becomes a retreat for the famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Binoche, always a favorite of mine, is easy to identify with as she prepares to give homage to her first director at a Zurich award ceremony. The seventy-one year old Wilhelm Melchior commits suicide before the tribute can be given. The first layer of sand is sprinkled. Life is short, personal and mysterious.

This is a film for people who want to discuss film as a life-recording vehicle akin to the novel. Images will not be forgotten. We begin with a dark, shaking train ride where all are on cell phones. We meet Maria’s personal assistant,easily played by Kristen Stewart,and learn that Maria is negotiating the terms of her divorce. Window reflections mirror the transience of relationships while we hear Maria bolstered by “You love him. Words will come. You will be true to him”. The second layer of this story within a story is laid by watching Stewart meet every need and whim of Maria. No fruit basket, no tv, less Internet, less regret, more nature, exercise and line practices. We learn how much Maria is invested in her career and how seriously she inhabits her characters. M. Enders at the close of her career is not ready to end anything.

The clouds bring sadness, but joy, too. And no one can light up the screen with their laughter like Binoche. We see her skinny dipping and cavorting in unctuous praise. We see her enjoying a warm sun nap on a cliff’s edge, and we see her scream “I can not accept it” with equal relish. This women knows how to live in the moment. I strongly imagine Binoche does,too. She is just so good at being present. She fills the screen.

Part Two introduces us to the Maloja Snake. I thought this cloud formation more resembled a dragon as it moves and encompasses every craggy crevice of the river valley below. It is a perfect metaphor for time’s passage. Much more beautiful than the fragile, contained hourglass.

After her tribute, Maria is asked to play the part of Helen, an older lesbian who commits suicide when she is left by her young lover, Sybil. At eighteen, Maria starred as Sybil, and Maria is not keen about changing places as the less free-spirited woman. The role scares her. She is superstitious. The last “Helen” died in an accident. We know that the youth culture will still see Sybil as the brightest role. Older woman falling for scheming girl reprised may wound Maria’s spirit.

Claus,bthe director of the bleak play “Maloja Snake” has changed the play’s ending. Maria does not read the last three pages, and we surmise that there will be no suicide. We end with a fade out of Maria in London on stage looking every bit the corporate controller. She will age gracefully and powerfully.

All the cast members are good, but Binoche still shines the brightest. Chloe Grace Moretz as the new Sybil is a starlet one loves to hate. Scandalous and dismissive of everyone ,Moretz would be over the top if it were not for the tabloids
we know so well. Kristen Stewart won the Cesar Award for her assistant performance as Valentine. She plays an intelligent foil to Maria. She exits when she feels her views are discounted. She is replaced as easily as the Maloja Snake fills the gaps. A lesson for us all.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. The five bars of Handel serve as the “om” that will focus your meditation on acting and on life, on what is fiction and what is truth.