REVIEW: Mistress America

7 09 2015

Mistress America posterThe lively creative partnership between writer/director Noah Baumbach and writer/star Greta Gerwig produced one perfectly pleasant piece of cinema in 2013’s “Frances Ha.”  That film appropriated the techniques of the French New Wave greats and applied their general vibe to an (un)happy-go-lucky New York twenty-something.

Their reteaming on “Mistress America” yields something both more ambitious and fulfilling.  Baumbach and Gerwig weave together elements from theatrical, literary, and cinematic antecedents to create one truly insightful comedic masterpiece.  The finished film is nothing short of “The Great Gatsby” for the Google generation.

New freshman Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) arrives to Barnard without a clue or many friends.  She aspires to write but cannot crack the top literary society nor connect with peers also in need of external validation.  The vastness of Manhattan nearly devours lonely Tracy, but before it can, she makes a last-ditch phone call to future stepsister Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig).

Brooke is like Tracy, a transplant in the city, but she seems to have found some way to fake it until she made it.  (Or, at least until she could pay some bills.)  On one wild night bopping across town, Tracy becomes fascinated with her future next of kin.  And given the way Gerwig plays Brooke, she would be be a fool not to get drawn into her larger-than-life personality.

Brooke is an odd hodgepodge of Williamsburg hipster, Silicon Valley self-help maxim spouter, and that newest breed of social media-crazed narcissism.  With her motormouth, she converses with her own train of thought first and others around her second.  Chief among her ramblings is rampant self-mythologizing to a disturbingly hilarious degree; perhaps Brooke fears that if her lips were to close, she might have to think through the words that come out of them.

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REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 26, 2014)

26 09 2014

Kicking & ScreamingIn a few weeks, I will turn 22, the same age as the characters in Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking & Screaming.”  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was getting a glimpse of my very own future.  Hopefully I’ll get my life in a bit more order than these washed-up college grads struggling to find direction after their paths are no longer pre-ordained…

Though the movie is nearing its second decade, it does not appear to have aged at all.  “Kicking & Screaming” provides a portrait of prolonged adolescence and delayed adulthood that is both entertaining and enlightening.  It takes the cake as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because my identification with the film went beyond just recognizing the characters.  I think I may be these characters.

Baumbach effortlessly captures the seemingly timeless sensation of emerging from college and knowing all the ideas that changed the world yet having very few ideas of one’s own.  (Or perhaps he was just one of the first people to observe what A.O. Scott recently lamented as “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”)  His film is less concerned with forward plot progression as a kind of stewing yet spirited stasis, aligning rather nicely with the disposition of the characters.

“Kicking & Screaming” presents the lives of four male pals from their graduation night onward, letting us watch as they bicker pithily at each other to delude themselves of their own importance while doing relatively little with their newly printed degrees.  Sure, the sniping is quite pretentious, but at least they are educated and self-aware enough to realize that.

As they continue to interact with the milieu of their university from the perspective of a lingerer, pathetic hilarity ensues with every remark.  So long as you can find their musings palatable, “Kicking & Screaming” will have you hooting and hollering.  And perhaps you might not; it’s entirely possible that I will no longer find the film amusing if once I move beyond the current stage in my life.  But I get the sense I’ll always enjoy this movie given its sharp understanding of a very specific condition.

(And just to clear the air, this is NOT the same “Kicking and Screaming” that stars Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Mike Ditka, and Josh Hutcherson.  Classic mixup.)





REVIEW: Frances Ha

16 06 2013

Frances HaFrances Ha” may be a comedy, but it’s a movie that gives me nightmares.  Along with the equally uproarious “Girls,” writer/star Greta Gerwig gives me little reason to be optimistic for the future.  Heck, after watching this movie, I wondered why I’d ever want to graduate college.  (Don’t worry, mom and dad, I’ll still be done in four years!)

This recent explosion in cultural narratives coming from frustrated twentysomethings has given me a new greatest fear that far exceeds needles and heights.  It’s the idea that my destiny is to end up overeducated and underemployed.  Especially now that everyone has pegged down us millenials as “entitled” and “narcissistic,” it’s like the walls are closing in on me/us.

Gerwig’s Frances, a 27-year-old still getting adjusted to the pressures and demands of adulthood, is a particularly aimless meanderer.  She knows that she needs to make major  changes in order to get her life together, but she lacks a lot of the drive or capacity to follow through on any of them.  As a result, she makes the best of the mess and lives to make the best of her situation with little regard for its future implications.

On her best days, Frances is a joyful opportunist.  Meanwhile, on her worst days, she’s a sloth that borders on being completely unsympathetic.  Perhaps why I had trouble embracing Frances is that she does hit rather close to home.  Unlike the characters on “Girls,” who often find themselves thwarted by unfortunate circumstances or society as a whole, “Frances Ha” is a grimly humorous reminder that many of our issues are thanks to our own doing.
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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.





REVIEW: Greenberg

17 01 2011

Noah Baumbach set the bar sky-high with his incredibly personal and deeply moving 2005 movie “The Squid and the Whale,” a very funny but very serious look at divorce from the perspective of the affected children.  Ever since then, he’s struggled to raise that bar.  It’s hard to live up to expectations when they are so big, and because comparison is inevitable, every Baumbach movie to follow his Oscar-nominated effort will have to live in its shadow.

Greenberg” isn’t terrible, but it’s a confused mixture of comedy and drama that strikes strange and unpleasant chords one too many times.  The movie emulates the mayhem of the mid-life crisis as 40-year-old Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) pathetically wanders through life without aim.  His brother tries to get him on track by letting Roger housesit while his family relocates to Vietnam to open a hotel, and the escapades that follow boil down to the misanthtropic Roger running in circles around his own neuroses.

He tries to make peace with his past, particularly an old love (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the movie).  He tries experimenting with a relationship again, and it’s thankfully with someone off-color enough to tolerate his antics (Greta Gerwig in a charming breakout role).  He stupidly indulges in his own self-pity and self-centeredness.

Roger Greenberg is an unpredictable and volatile character that Ben Stiller plays with a fair amount of pathos and humor.  Yet there’s little development of the character and an even smaller arc, which could be the point.  Even with Stiller trying his best, he can’t keep “Greenberg” from being a barely likable movie about unlikable people.  Try again, Noah Baumbach.  C+





What To Look Forward To in … March 2010

12 02 2010

There’s more to March than just the Oscars.  Finally, March arrives and we can stop dwelling on 2009.  In my opinion, March is usually a pretty decent movie month.  This year’s crop looks especially promising with new movies from Tim Burton, Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”).

March 5

After almost 3 months, “Avatar” will have to cede those illustrious 3-D and IMAX screens to Tim Burton’s twist on “Alice in Wonderland.”  The titular character is played by relative newcomer Mia Wasikowsa, who will look quite a bit older than the Alice you remember from Disney’s 1951 animated classic.  If that’s not a big enough draw for you, surely Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (who will hopefully channel more of his glorious Jack Sparrow than his Jacko-esque Willy Wonka) will suffice.  No?  How about Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts?  Or Anne Hathaway as the White Queen?  Perhaps Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar?  No doubt about it, this is one exciting cast, and I’m sure Tim Burton won’t have any problem distinguishing himself from the numerous “Alice in Wonderland” rip-offs that have sprouted over the past few years.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is directed by Antoine Fuqua, helmer of “Training Day,” which was enough to get me interested.  However, it really looks to be little more than a mash-up of every cop movie ever made.  But hey, that may be your thing, which would make this your potpourri.

March 12

I’m excited for “Green Zone,” which looks to be a smart political thriller. See my previous post at the release of the trailer for more info.

On the indie side of things, Noah Baumbach looks to return to Oscar form after “Margot at the Wedding” underwhelmed with “Greenberg.”  The movie stars Ben Stiller as Greenberg, the grouchy misanthrope who finds a reason to be pessimistic about everything.  However, a special woman comes along and begins to melt his heart.  I’m looking forward to a double-edged performance from Stiller, one that can show off his dramatic chops but also give us plenty of hearty laughs.

Seth Rogen’s four roommates in “Knocked Up” were equally as funny as he was. Each of them have slowly gotten their “moment”: Jonah Hill in “Superbad,” Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now, it could be Jay Baruchel’s turn. “She’s Out of My League” pits him similar situation: the uncomely guy getting the smoking hot babe. Hopefully Paramount gives this the push it deserves, maybe making Baruchel a breakout comedic star of 2010.

Could “Remember Me” get Robert Pattinson the Razzie for Worst Actor? After narrowly missing the cut for his two performances as Edward Cullen, this could finally be the one to get him the kind of awards attention he deserves.

Forest Whitaker is an Academy Award winning actor. What on earth is he doing in “Our Family Wedding?” For that matter, America Ferrera has won SAG and Golden Globe awards, and Carlos Mencia was once actually funny! This looks not only insufferable but almost racist. Plus, didn’t I see this movie in 2005 when it was called “Guess Who?”

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