A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mistress America” 9.1.15

I admit I’ve always liked Noah Baumbach and his films and have been following him since his start. Like the Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas, he started his career as a writer director at a very early young age. He made his feature film debut at 26 with 1996’s “Kicking and Screaming”, an indie comedy about a bunch of upper middle class college post-grads, trying to decide what it is that they wanted to do with their lives. Then came the most passable work in his filmography, 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy”, a film that showcased the young filmmaker’s talent, but felt somewhat trite and slightly off-kilter in relation to his debut. Then at 36, came what I still consider his masterpiece, “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), that introduced the film world to Jesse Eisenberg, and was anchored by a career best performance by the seemingly odd yet perfectly cast Jeff Daniels. But let me backtrack a year in what I think was a pivotal and extremely important year in context for the writer/director, a year that brought both him, and one his other young contemporaries; Wes Anderson, together to co-write the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004). What’s so notable about this collaboration, is it’s become to me; only by mere reflection, how much of an influence Wes seemed to have had on his sensibilities as a writer. “The Squid and the Whale” which, as previously mentioned, came out the year prior to “The Squid and the Whale”. And while I consider it to be a masterpiece, it’s mainly more for its performances than for its technical or writing achievements. The reason being is that it felt very much “like” a Wes Anderson film, including Wes’ trademark style and Anderson”isms”. Fair enough given that he had just worked with him on a film the year prior. Reflecting back, 10 years ago, I saw its influence but was able to separate it as a film among itself. Baumbach then shifted gears a couple of years later in 2009 with “Margot At The Wedding”, a dark dramedy which like its predecessor, explored the dysfunctional side of family inter-dynamics. “Greenberg” followed in 2009 – which I thought was an admirable film but certainly not a great film. What it did do was introduce both him and the film-going audience to its star Greta Gerwig and now frequent music collaborator James Murphy from the electronic funk outfit LCD Soundsystem. His next film, 2012’s “Frances Ha”, was probably his most successful from both box office numbers and critical praise (including myself) and wound up on many best of end of the year lists. It reunited him once again with new muse Greta Gerwig, sharing both a writing credit and cast as the film’s main lead. Then, come 2015, I heard Baumbach was releasing not one, but two films. “While We’re Young”, featuring his most recognized cast yet with both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, but the film I was most critical of his. So I was very hopeful for his next.

In his latest film takes place in his usual setting of New York City. It opens with a young, privileged freshman in college named Tracy (Lola Kirke – if you don’t recognize her name don’t worry neither did I – she’s new to the film industry). Tracy’s mom, who we meet early on, a divorcee who is soon to be wed to her boyfriend. Through marriage, Tracy learns that she will now have a stepsister, Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, in her second writing and starring in collaboration with Baumbach after “Frances Ha”. Tracy is reluctant to get in touch with Brooke at first, as Brooke is almost 12 years older having just turned 30, and she seems to want to experience New York City and the college lifestyle on her own. But after that proves to be less than stimulating, she picks up the phone one night and calls Brooke, only to be quickly invited over to her house. From there the story line feels strikingly similar to “While We’re Young” except reversed as the younger Tracy being enamored by her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke. Everything about Brooke’s lifestyle, to her many creative interests, hobbies, pursuits, and knowledge of New York City, washes over Brooke and the two form a quick bond that reveals both sides of their characters over the course of the short, 80-something minute film.

This film was pretty disappointing as I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it just reaffirmed my belief that Baumbach is become a one-trick pony, much like his other contemporary, Wes Anderson. It’s essentially a mix between themes that were already explored in both “Frances Ha” (2012) and the film he made earlier this year – “While We’re Young”. Gerwig’s character lacks a certain depth and all of her substance lays on the outside (much like Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in “While We’re Young”). The story between soon-to-be stepsisters feels rehashed from out of “Frances Ha”. With newcomer Lola Kirke (the best thing about the picture) filling in for the best friend in that film. As the two mill about New York and try to fill their lives with everything it has to offer, only to expose how shallow that lifestyle really is. From a writing standpoint it feels more like any other Wes Anderson film (including “The Squid and the Whale”) in that it’s essentially filled with ruminations and quick punned one-liners, with every character introduced trying to be ironically witty and funny but all of whom contain a certain sadness underneath. The story arch itself never really does much of anything other than follow the two New Yorkers from setting to setting, and feels meandering throughout much if not all of its running time. To me, this seemed like a major step backwards for Baumbach, an indie writer/director who seems to be running out of ideas. I’ve always though his films were unique enough but now they seem like mere regurgitations. Sorry Baumbach, but this will probably be my last film I seek out of yours, unless your next film contains something that we haven’t already seen done over and over again.

[C]

Noah Baumbach’s – Mistress America – Starring Greta Gerwig

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM

Living Room Theaters
341 SW Tenth Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The newest from one of my favorite comedic directors – Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale”, “Frances Ha”) opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters. Tuesdays are $5 days at the Living Room!Synopsis: In this millennial comedy, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a mousy college freshman living on her own in New York City meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsist…

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Weekly Roundup DVD Reviews: “Hungry Hearts” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (6/8-6-12)


This was yet another film much like the “Seven Five” documentary that piqued my interest mainly because of the comparisons in which it compared itself to as read by the poster’s tagline. “Reminiscent of Hitchcock and the earlier works of Roman Polanski”. Which is a bit of a dubious endorsement indeed, but one in which I found myself drawn to. Anyone that knows me well enough knows that I think of both Hitch’s films of the 1960’s – “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963) and Polanski’s 1-2 punch of both “Repulsion” (1965) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) to be the “birth” of American horror (as was George A Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead”) (1968). So with that in mind I thought if this one lived up to half of the hype that it showed the potential to be, even despite its mostly less than favorable reviews, I almost considered it something just based on that alone to warrant my seeing it.

The film is a “meta-exercise” revolving around Adam Driver’s character falling in love with an actress who I was previously unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film, Alba Rohrwacher, who is really the star of the film even in spite of Driver’s great performance. It’s essentially a piece about mental illness and how the birth of a child’s couple can separate themselves from one another as each seems to have his or her own’s agenda of how it should be raised, in what starts off as a marriage that shows great promise which inevitably unfolds into two people who couldn’t be more different as told through their raising on the child, to a sort of cosmopolitan pseudo-horror film about the natures of inner fears and anxieties that drew a lot of comparisons, at least for me, to the two Polanski films mentioned above. Ti West used a similar structure beautifully in 2009’s “House of the Devil”. And while this film drew many comparisons, particularly to that and especially Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, I found it to be unique enough and singular to separate itself from those films. The story and direction by newcomer Italian director Saverio Costanzo should please film buffs and fans of earlier, more psychological horror, more than their contemporary counterparts. It’s greatest strong point (like the early Polanski films) depicting what it’s like to live in a big city (NYC) but one in which a very isolated world or bubble is created in which to protect your children (or in this case child) from. Driver, whom I was mostly unfamiliar despite his work in the past two Noah Baumbach performances puts in a rather performance here as a man on the verge of hysteria as he falls in and out of love with his wife (another great performance by newcomer Rohrwacher), in a film that probably was mostly misunderstood by critics, as it’s a nice companion piece to the psychological family horror films of old. Despite some low production value issues and choppy editing, along with a questionably predictable ending, this is one that’s definitely worth checking out even despite these relatively minor criticisms & somewhat jarring shifts in narrative tone. [soft B]

My second viewing of the week was the highly anticipated “rock-doc” about the life and work of Kurt Cobain – “Montage of Heck”. Admittedly I’ve seen just about every documentary, live concert, or stock interview footage of the late artist up to this point. However, seeing in that it was made and produced by HBO Documentaries and promoted itself as being the quitessential documentary on Cobain. An artist whose work, like legions of fans around the world, I deeply admire. As mentioned in the title of this piece, Kurt Cobain was without question Generation X’s version of John Lennon. Many people don’t realize this but Nirvana was the most successful band in the history of American music. And Cobain was their spokesperson. So to do a comprehensive documentary on an artist of his caliber must have been a daunting task to say the least. Especially considering how the media played such an integral role in how he was viewed and represented in the eyes of the public. So going into it I was a bit apprehensive and skeptical that they could possibly do justice to an artist whose like and work was and has been shrouded in such misrepresentation.

The documentary starts off strong presenting us with Cobain’s childhood in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. Through a series of interviews we find out quite a bit about his biological mother and father, both of whom I hadn’t really seen speak much of if anything at all about their son Kurt until this film. It does a nice job explaining how his mostly nice upbringing was shattered by his parents’ divorce, and how he never really recuperated from that part of his life. It then quickly skims (one of my critiques of the piece – they show his despair of being a teenager – an outcast if you will, most likely because of family problems, to his jump 5 years later being a guitarist for Nirvana when they were first starting out. I would have liked to have seen more footage from family and close ones who were around for that period about how he even became a musician. Instead of just focusing on the unhappy, rebellious child that the film makes him out to be. It then leaps ahead in its second quarter to show us Nirvana’s giant leap from club act to Geffen signed artists, and the enormous popularity that they earned by their debut album – “Nevermind”. Once we as a viewer understand the international impact that Nirvana had on the scene at the time, which I thought was nicely told, it delves straight into the relationship with Cobain and Courtney Love, lead singer of the rock band Hole. This halfway point basically sums up the rest of the documentary, as the filmmakers place (and understandably so), the impact that Courtney had on Kurt’s life. They were a match made in heaven. Both pissed off artists manifested from the troubles of their youth. Whose goal seemed to be some sort of side show freak show circus act to let the public know how really little of a fuck they thought about them. Becoming slaves to heroin and garnering a lot of negative attention from the press.

It’s about as comprehensive of a documentary as I’ve ever seen into the trails and tribulations of the late Cobain, with a major emphasis on his marriage and child who was born (sadly) addicted to drugs. It also does a great job in depicting Nirvana and Cobain’s rapid rise to fame. While also painting a rather sad, depressing portrait of a man who succumbed to his own personal demons in the end. Which the film takes an unflinching look at while not being afraid to show the dark side of both Kurt and Courtney’s relationship, but also that of Cobain’s tortured soul. Anybody that knows anybody that has an appreciation of music knows how significant Cobain’s contribution was to music. But in the end, despite his undeniable talent, fame, and popularity, really all he was was just another junkie. [B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “While We’re Young” 4.11.15

While We're Young Movie Poster

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has been on what many may consider to be on quite a bit of a roll lately, churning out one film after the next in almost Woody Allen fashion. Fans of his can almost look forward to a new Baumbach movie every 1-2 years these days, which is a far cry from the Baumbach of old (this is a guy that took a full ten years off between 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming” and still what I consider to be the best of his films – 2004’s “The Squid and the Whale”. That same year he also co-wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with fellow industry fan and friend Wes Anderson. Which, I thought with the exception of maybe the Anderson/Owen Wilson penned “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ) ranks up their with the best of any of Anderson’s scripts. Ironic because “The Squad in the Whale”, as mentioned which was made that same year, felt like the most Anderson influenced film that he’s done (and that’s meant as a compliment) . He then came back just a few years later with “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) which admittedly I didn’t love, but I can’t say I didn’t admire.

Then came what I consider to be the “new” Baumbach crop of films as he entered the start of the new decade with “Greenberg” (2010) and “Frances Ha” (2012). Which, content-wise, one could draw a lot of similarities between the two. They both follow an aging central character (in “Greenberg” a 40-something Stiller and in “Frances Ha” a late twenty-something Greta Gerwig). Though while I personally thought “Frances Ha” was a much better film and Baumbach’s second best film to date. It’s within these two films that he started to explore ideas about aging, our insecurities, our ability (or inability) to fit in with our contemporaries, not feeling as if we’ve lived up to our true potential, and how we measure success relative to those around us. Among many other themes but which, at least to me, seemed to be the major ones. Baumbach appears to have finally found his niche, much like Wes Anderson has, in terms of his films slowly starting to feel similar in content, feel, and tone.

When I first saw the trailer for “While We’re Young” I was excited as it seemed to be an extension of his exploring the similar themes that he did in both “Greenberg” (2010), and “Frances Ha” (2012). With Baumbach returners Ben Stiller (“Greenburg”) and Adam Driver (“Frances Ha”) both playing starring roles, while also welcoming stars Noami Watts and Amanda Seyfried into the mix. It also marks his third original musical score in a row with James Murphy, ex-frontman of the funk/electro outfit LCD Soundsystem. Whose own music and extensive record collector knowledge of music I’ve always thought worked well within the Baumbach framework. My only bit of skepticism going into the film was that, at least by the trailer, Baumbach was working within familiar ground here. That and it looked like his most commercially viable film to date. With A-list starts Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts playing the two lead roles. However though with any Baumbach feature my anticipation of seeing it was rather high, considering myself to be a great admirer of his work.

“While We’re Here” stars Ben Stiller as Josh, a mid forty-something documentary filmmaker working and living out of New York City with his wife, Cornelia (played by Naomi Watts). The two spend most of their time with their seemingly only friends Fletcher (played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia). Who, like many of their contemporaries, just had a baby (interesting how in Baumbach’s world, people don’t seem to have children until they’re in their forties). Josh is a continuing education instructor at an unspecified school who teaches some sort of film class to pay the bills while he works on his sophomore documentary, one that’s he’s been filming for almost six years now but just can’t seem to complete. Until one day he finds two new faces sitting in one of his classes played by newleyweds Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who just so happen to be a fan of his previous documentary that he so desperately for many years has been trying to follow-up on. He instantly forms a bond with the two twenty-something’s who, he and his wife admire for their youth, as do Jamie and Darby admire them for their age and success (if you want to call it that) and Jamie’s dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker himself. The two couples start to spend a considerable amount of time together much to the chagrin of their other best friends Fletcher and Mariana, who think they should be settling down and having a baby. But Jamie and Darby have brought them a new zest to life, a rejuvination, where it feels good to be hanging around young people who seem to be doing fun things all the time and who have openly embraced them as one of their own. This gives them a new-found sense of purpose and meaning to what up until that point seems like a meandering existence.

I walked away from this film feeling both a bit conflicted and indifferent about how I felt about it. In my “Ten Most Anticipated Films of the Winter/Spring Movie Season” section I published awhile back, I wrote that I felt like Baumbach could be delving into familiar territory here after having seen the trailer. And for the most part that’s more or less kind of how I felt about the film. It does live up to its promise and presents us with a story about two forty-somethings who seem to be experiencing somewhat of a mid-life crisis (which in many ways felt like Baumbach’s last film “Frances Ha”) except for in that film he depicted Greta Gerwig as someone going through a “quarter-life” crisis. Baumbach does a great job with the script in hitting all the right notes about what it really feels like to go from late early adulthood to middle-aged adulthood, while desperately trying to hold onto one’s youth. His ability to make his themes seem relatable and universal has always been a strong suit of his and once again mostly works for him here. The central idea of the two couples (Stiller and Watts and Driver and Seyfried) and the juxtapositions of how they live their lives, and the cross-generational appeal is examined as smart, funny, poignant, and cute. But within this examination it doesn’t really offer us any deeper insight into what many of us already feel, like we’re big kids trapped in a little person’s body. Sure there are some genuinely funny moments that produce quite a few laughs and its treatment of its characters is both real, undeniably human, and at times heartfelt and touching. What didn’t work for me which has become apparent in a lot of Wes Anderson’s work as of late, is that Baumbach has seemed to have found a niche, and in a sense it feels like he’s rehashing the same formula that’s worked for him before. I personally feel like it’s important for an artist to step out of their comfort zone and try something new and interesting that they haven’t done before in order to remain fresh. But to me this film just seemed like “another” Noah Baumbach film. With the same sense of what I call “hipsterdom” which I feel like he’s trying almost in a sense to pander towards a specific target audience. Which ultimately I felt like was the film’s greatest weakness in its inability to feel like anything new or original from the writer/director. Let’s hope the second film that his next project promises, “Mistress America”, which opens later this year and reunites him with “Frances Ha” co-star and real life girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig, finds him exploring something new and not so all too familiar.

[C+]