Quick Reviews: “A Ghost Story,” “Personal Shopper,” “Boomtown,” “Trumped,” “American Jihad”

By | December 26, 2017

Some very depressing films about ghosts, hard times in rural America, American-born Jihadists, and—scariest of all—Trump’s “surprise” election to the White House, which looks a bit more like a nightmare every day…[On the wish list of all Trump’s supposed down and out, blue collar voters probably wasn’t “Gee, I hope he ends net neutrality so my internet costs go sky high and smaller tech, media, or telecom companies can get put out of business by a handful of new monopolies.”]

A Ghost Story…Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are two actors that never look anything other than morose even during the best of times. [By now, I would get perverse pleasure in seeing them star in a terrible, broad kid’s comedy like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”] So if I told you they were starring in an indie film about a ghost who can’t let go–dressed in a plain white bedsheet–during long takes where Mara weeps, you might say “Of course, they are.” The first half of this film is unintentionally hilarious—like a five minute long scene where Mara eats an entire pie only to throw it up, all while Affleck’s goofy, wordless ghost watches her like something out of “You’re a Peeping Tom, Charlie Brown!”—but I was surprised at how much more I began to like the film during the second half. The “simple ghost” symbolization begins to feel less like a gimmick, and when we begin flying through time the film actually does land some of its more poignant points about loss, grieving, and why we can’t just let go. By the end, I was moved to tears which I thought a near-impossibile reaction based off the slow start. It just goes to show you can never fully judge a film by its first act…Grade: B

Personal Shopper…Case in point, this Kristen Stewart starrer which is also about the loss of a close loved one and some ghosts (though the ones here are more obviously menacing, but, paradoxically, more vague), but mostly squanders some promising set-ups. In two plot lines that never quite reach the allegorical significance Stewart’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” director hopes for, she plays the personal shopper for a major European star and a medium that can commune with ghosts; oh, and she’s trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother while receiving menacing text messages from some…thing, maybe a person or maybe a spirit. You might think “I’d rather a film have too many subplots than not enough going on,” and “Shopper” is a more lively outing than “Sils Maria,” but the threads don’t come together in a satisfying way. Still, some of the suspense scenes with Stewart getting harassing texts on a train or rummaging through a spooky house with a presence on the loose are just good enough to show you the prestige horror indie this could have been. Grade: B-

Boomtown…This small indie was filmed mostly by lesser known actors or actors who had yet to have their big breaks (Boyd Holbrook has one scene, and Rachel Brosnahan likely filmed her too-small role before her “House of Cards” episodes even aired), but there’s something worth watching here as a struggling, working-poor everyman has to move to North Dakota to find work, but the oil business isn’t booming quite like he’d been told. It strives to be an honest representation of its world, and I love any movie that’s making a sincere effort to capture rural life in 2017, but the non-professionalism of the cast can be occasionally jarring (the main character’s oil rig boss looks like he just strolled in off the set of a terrible local commercial for a business he owns), and Dwight Yoakam seems unreasonably pissed-off in his scenes as the lead’s asshole father. Grade: B-

Trumped: The Greatest Upset in Political History…If you like Showtime’s “The Circus,” you’ll probably like this hastily thrown-together cash-in documentary since it’s almost entirely made up of leftover “Circus” footage. You might not be too eager to dive back into 2016’s “shocking” upset, and I don’t blame you since this film barely provides context for what we’re watching. It’s mostly just a highlight reel of 2016 campaign moments political junkies (and people paying even halfway attention to the news cycle) have already seen. Even worse, the movie doesn’t just ask us to revisit things anyone with access to CNN had watched (and seen dissected) 60 times, but it keeps showing it through the spectator-perspective of the overrated trio of “political wisemen” (who take both sides of every prediction, saying “this may happen” or “the exact opposite may happen” so they can claim to be “right” in the new age non-sense punditry) Mark Halperin, John Heileman, and the ridiculous bastard Mark McKinnon, who helped give America George W. Bush.

McKinnon barely says a word in the documentary, falling back on wearing a stupid hat and grinning like a bemused, above-it-all jackass, but those of us familiar with him know he helped put W. in the White House, and indirectly pave the way for Trump. [I’ve never fully bought into the pearl-clutching that comes with the ex-W people who have bamboozled America into rebranding them as moderates, and now claim Trump is the antithesis of Bush.]

It’s also surprising that Halperin has been the one accused of sexual harassment since Heileman has always struck me as the bigger creep. Whereas Halperin seems increasingly unsettled at how well Trump is doing, and the prospect of him becoming President, Heileman seems only upset that he got his prediction that Hillary would win wrong. You can practically see the unspoken calculations: “If I get another big race wrong, will CNN still have me on?” Instead of “Did America just elect a Russian-sponsored psychopath with access to a nuclear arsenal and the power to single-handedly wreck the economy?” Grade: D

American Jihad…Another Showtime political doc this time probing the much talked about, but little understood phenomenon of American-born Islamic terrorists. It does have a few solid revelations, and does make an effort to dive deep into the psychology of someone that would be drawn to spreading the message of Jihad, but stops short of making a few necessary connections: the striving for not just “significance,” but what that really means–F-ame with a capital F, since these guys are less interested in being suicide bombers and a little more interested in picking up a megaphone. We now live in a world where there may truly be no bad way to get famous, or so people think (as evidenced by the multi-millionaire-turned-Vegas-shooter who picked up a weapon the second he hit a downturn), and the exploration of fame (or infamy) at all costs as a psychosis may be a more accurate depiction of why an American would want to “spread Jihad.” But “American Jihad” is too afraid to make the other side of that connection: that there’s really nothing all that appealing about Islam for those that haven’t been raised in it (“hey friend, I’ve got a religion where you never see women naked, can’t drink alcohol at all, have to pray five times a day, and the biggest celebration involves fasting during the month of October–hey wait, where are you going?”), and so it naturally lends itself to extremist converts. Although I did like that the movie didn’t waste a lot of time going the naive Jeremy Scahill route: hand-wringing over the “assassination” of Anwar Alwaki. Grade: B-

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