REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan

23 05 2016

Maggie's PlanNew York Film Festival

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” makes for the kind of madcap, ensemble-driven romantic comedy that Woody Allen has not churned out since his relationship with Mia Farrow turned sour. And it’s certainly the kind of screwball comedy abandoned by studios altogether. But lest this review devolve into nothing but comparison to other works, it must be said that this is a wonderfully crafted and involving film in its own right.

Miller is the first person not named Noah Baumbach who seems to have a clue what to do with Gerwig’s considerable charm. Beneath her hip, ultra-modern exterior and droll delivery lies reservoirs of deep feeling and humanity still largely unexcavated. Miller might be the figurative Daniel Plainview to figure out the means to pull it out of the ground and siphon it to power other characters.

Gerwig stars as the titular Maggie, who might think she has a plan – but then life happens. Or fate happens. Or, heck, Maggie happens! Some odd mixture of time, self-realization as well as cosmic meddling seems to guide the proceedings of “Maggie’s Plan” as she stumbles and soars through a unique romantic escapade.

While trying to become pregnant to raise a baby alone, she falls in love with Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a nebbish professor who feels like a wallflower in his marriage to Julianne Moore’s Georgette Norgaard. He struggles to complete a novel long in the works yet faces nothing but stern rebukes at home from his critical theorist wife. Both John and Maggie seek to seize the narrative of their lives … so they begin a relationship together.

Unlike so many stories involving older men who fall for younger women, Maggie never loses her agency in the courtship. In fact, it is far more often she who levels with John than the other way around. So it should come as no surprise that whenever things take a turn for the worse, it is Maggie who takes the initiative to grow out of their relationship.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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REVIEW: Freeheld

19 10 2015

FreeheldFreeheld” is the most unfortunate of contradictions.  This weepie issues drama about the dark age known as 2002 wants to applaud all progress achieved in the past decade for LGBT Americans.  Yet when it comes time for the film’s chief characters, partners Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), to show affection after securing a domestic partnership, their kiss literally makes no noise.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner love having a good round of self-congratulatory outrage and inspiration for lesbian couples like Laurel and Stacie.  They just don’t really care for gays as people all that much.  If they did, they might realize that the battle against discrimination and stigmatization is not over just because of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Obergefell v. Hodges.

“Freeheld,” perhaps from bad storytelling but also likely because of bad marketing, wants to insert itself in the debate on marriage equality.  This might make the film appear more “timely,” sure, but it is completely incorrect.  Laurel and Stacie’s battle was never about marriage.  It was about equality under the law, even though their legal union was the 21st century equivalent of “separate but equal.”  To redirect the righteous outrage of a woman who fought for her rights even on her deathbed for pure opportunism feels disgraceful to her memory.

Laurel remained closeted as an occupational hazard on the New Jersey police force, fearing that any strain of moral indecency would only enhance the sexism she already faced.  But once stricken with late-stage cancer, she risks backlash in order to secure the transfer of her pension to Stacie.  The law covers domestic partnerships, yet that does not stop her county’s board of freeholders from refusing her request.

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REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

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REVIEW: Still Alice

16 02 2015

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapted “Still Alice” from a novel by Lisa Genova.  But had I not known that going in, I would have assumed the film was based on a play.

The directors shoot the film with a gentle, soft, and unobtrusive light.  The lines flow nicely.  The scenes feel distinct and compartmentalized.  Heck, the film even ends by literally ripping out the final page from “Angels in America,” one of the American dramatic classics!

What ultimately separates “Still Alice” from the stage, however, is the masterfully detailed performance of Julianne Moore.  She stars as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the camera-eye of the cinema is necessary to observe her slow deterioration.  Since seeing the decay of her brain is impossible, her illness has to manifest itself in the tiniest twitches of Moore’s face.

Like fellow 2014 release “The Theory of Everything,” which followed a physical rather than a mental degeneration, “Still Alice” derives its very narrative motion from discerning which faculty will disappear next.  In other words, the filmmakers invite gaping and marveling at the technically proficient acting on display behind the figurative glass cage of the screen.  The film plays almost as suspenseful in its measured anticipation of a firm break from reality by Alice, and credit Moore for turning in a performance so gentle and full of integrity that her character’s normalcy inspires unease.

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REVIEW: Don Jon

28 01 2015

Don JonFor all those who might have found Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” too intense in either content or form, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comedic “Don Jon” may provide the perfect vehicle for discussing the same issues.  The film acknowledges many of the ills facing men in the age of internet pornography, such as the objectification of women and the notion that sexual satisfactions is deliverable on demand at the leisure of a Google search.

“Don Jon” will prove enlightening for anyone who has never thought deeply about masturbatory pleasures, especially because Gordon-Levitt’s script telegraphs his social commentary through heavy-handed voiceovers from his lead character Jon.  Anyone who has ever taken anything more than psychology or sociology 101 is likely to find the film’s observations shallow and skin-deep.  But if it gets people talking and consciously reconsidering their habits, then the movie at least serves some purpose.

And in case someone tunes out during Jon’s long-winded (and perhaps somewhat implausibly aware) confessionals on his porn addiction, the plot also effectively echoes the simple yet important message.  Though the womanizing, GTL-exuding Jon lands a smoking hot girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), she quickly flees once she discovers the extent of his dirty secret and leaves Jon a wreck.  Only when he heeds the learned wisdom of Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Esther, who reminds him that sex is about satisfying two people, can he regain the same pleasure in the orgasm.

Though “Don Jon” may not speak fluently on matters on sexuality, Gordon-Levitt certainly understands gender politics quite well.  The film really nails some of what needs to change in our current conception of masculinity, and he begins to tackle the way that females reinforce that.  At one point while shopping, Barbara insists that Jon cannot, as a man, clean his own house because it clashes with the performance of manliness that she expects.  That, unfortunately, proves the extent of glancing at the other side of the gender divide, yet there is always time to explore further.  Gordon-Levitt ought to make a “Don Joan” movie to examine femininity as well since a little too much was left on the table in “Don Jon.”  B2halfstars