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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Two Trips To The Movies (One Back) – “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) 8.15.15 and “The End of the Tour” 8.16.15

This was my third consecutive weekend in a row where I visited the Portland Art Museum so I could catch yet another film in all seven films they are showing honoring one of the greatest American cinematic auteurs – Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve always considered “Punch-Drunk Love” to be somewhat of a minor work in the filmography of this undeniably talented and incredibly influential writer/director’s. Maybe, because at the time of its release, it seemed like a rather odd shift in direction for the director who was coming off the powerhouses of his three previous works – 1995’s “Hard Eight” (a.k.a “Sydney), 1997’s “Boogie Nights”, and 1999’s “Magnolia” (the latter two films as mentioned in previous reviews are up there in my top 10 films of all time). So coming off one of the strongest one, two, three debut punches of almost any other director I can think of in history. To say they would be hard acts to follow would be a grave understatement. That, and the casting of the then still funny Adam Sandler as the lead, whose previous work had only been in comedy, seemed to be a rather strange casting choice. Anderson still to this day when reflecting back on the film says “it was and will be the only art film ever starring Adam Sandler”. And while I remember liking the movie when it initially came out I can’t necessarily say I loved it, especially in comparison to the two films that preceded it. Though I still went into it feeling an almost moral duty or obligation to see it as part of this ongoing retrospective of the director. Because I, as do many others, feel that it’s incredibly important to look at a director’s entire body of work. Especially with writer-directors that I admire and hold in such high regard as someone like Anderson.

The story itself revolves around Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). He’s a single man who his self-employed and owns his own business selling novelty items. He has seven rather overbearing sisters, who we’re introduced to via telephone at the beginning of the film. Barry is a lonely guy, who one night decided to call a phone sex line and is put on with a girl named “Georgia” (drawing up comparisons to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) ). He winds up getting himself caught up in a scam, and Georgia and her shady, sleazy business partner (played in a small part but a scene stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry is overwhelmed with stress as a result of it. All the while thinking he may have found a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that offers frequent flyer miles (lifted from a true life story). Just when Barry couldn’t possibly be any more down on his luck in walks the beautiful (and very talented) Emily Watson’s character, Lena. The two fall for one another under some rather strange circumstances and well, the rest of the picture more or less focuses on how two people, who couldn’t be more different from one another, and under strange circumstances, fall madly in love.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is certainly far from being Anderson’s best work. But even as a standalone film, it’s a uniquely strange, bizarre, and often times funny one. It’s also the first film in Anderson’s oeuvre where he begins to branch off from his previous style and work and shift into new forms of storytelling. Which in looking at a director’s body of work, I think is the one of the most important parts – the ability to keep things refreshing and original while staying true to your craft. I remember at the time of its release thinking that as much as I loved his two films prior, I wished that his next piece would be a little something different from the ensemble driven dramas that Anderson had mastered and built his career on up to that point. And boy this couldn’t be any different from anything he had done to date at that point. Sandler puts in a rather impressive performance as a man constantly on edge who mind you also has a very (and I mean very) bad temper mixed in with aggression problems (providing some of the film’s funniest and classic moments). It utilizes his comedic talents rather well but placing him in a role with a bit more of a dramatic turn. And surprisingly he pulls it off quite nicely. But what was striking to me this time around as how great of job Anderson does at shifting into unfamiliar terrain and pulls off a rather charming, heartfelt, and well polished love story with a lot of heart. It’s a minor work in the scope of Anderson’s seven films to date. But even despite its minor flaws (it never really “takes off”) it still is an impressive take on what we know to be the American romantic comedy.

[B]

The next film of the weekend was the newly released “The End Of The Tour” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. Despite my not being too particularly fond of the film’s two leads (I really only liked Eisenberg in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network). Segel I’ve liked in a handful of work like in his earlier TV series “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2007), “I Love You Man” (2009) and still my favorite of his – “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2011). But after watching a trailer that piqued my interest mixed in with the based on a true life story that took place between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and famed author David Foster Wallace (Segel), who Lipsky gets put on assignment to interview the rather eccentric and immensely popular literary writer Wallace. It struck me as something that quickly caught my interest especially after seeing that it opened to rave reviews among critics, I thought it would be a great choice for my movie meetup group as it looked like something that had the potential to appeal to all tastes.

To expand on the brief synopsis of the film I hinted at above. We are first introduced to the up-and-coming, young, 30-year old Lipsky. A Rolling Stone journalist whose bogged down with covering stories he just doesn’t seem interested in and is looking for his big break. That big break comes when he is employed to cover an assignment where he would be invited into famed writer David Foster Wallace’s world for five days as he wraps up the end of his speaking tour advertising his new book that would go on to be his most popular and greatest literary achievement – ‘Infinite Jest’. Lipsky gets complete and total access to Wallace life and covers his day-to-day life through a series of candid interviews as they embark on the last few remaining stops on Wallace’s book tour. That’s essentially the film’s set up, as it becomes sort of “buddy road trip drama” that gives us insight into the world of one of the most famous and successful American authors of the 1990’s.

“The End of the Tour” sheds light on the literary world with what feels must have been a well researched story in recreating what it must have been like for its two central main characters during this short period in time. What I liked most about the picture was its take on the nature of celebrity, particularly with Wallace’s character, but as the journalist Lipsky spends more and more time with the beloved author. They begin to form a special kind of bond and friendship which comes across as totally natural and convincing, with each of its two leads taking up almost frame within the film, and their chemistry felt both relatable and authentic. Jason Segal puts on what’s probably his best real performance to date, as the bandana wearing, long-haired, unshaven author Wallace. It’s a rather impressive performance from an actor, who similarly to Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love”, shows that Segel can do drama and not just comedy like his cohort. It’s a believable and transformative role for Segel that shows he has quite a bit of range as a dramatic actor. Eisenberg on the other hand, feels out-of-place and miscast, and at least to me, plays the shaky, anxiety-ridden, unsure of himself character that he seems to become typecast in almost all of the work I’ve seen him in post-“Social Network”. Also, unlike Segel’s transformation into getting Wallace’s look and mannerisms down, Eisenberg looks exactly like he always does. And both my fellow movie meetup fans and I agreed and wondered, did he change anything outside of his usual persona and acting abilities to play this role? Well, it didn’t seem like it. Also, there’s some great in-depth, introspective talks that go on throughout the course of the film that play out almost like an homage to the great “Before Trilogy” films directed by Richard Linklater. Sure we get some great insight into the minds of the great writer and journalist, but at least to me, while I admired its exploration into them. It just felt a little too slight and somber throughout the entirety of its duration, sort of how I felt about Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (which I liked but thought it to be very average). And that’s more or less similar to how I would up feeling about this film. For fans of literature who are familiar with author David Foster Wallace and his rise to fame and unwanted celebrity, you might like this film a bit more than I did. But despite the impressive turn by Segel, it wound up being a slightly above average dialogue driven talk fest with plenty of insight, but just not enough feeling.

[B-]

The End Of The Tour – Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel

Sunday, Aug 16, 2015, 4:30 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Segel), which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Co-starring Anna Chlumsky and Joan Cusack.

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Review: ‘The Double’ 8.31.14

If Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ is the best movie about middle aged adults falling in love, and Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” is the best set of films about twenty/thirtysomething’s falling in love, then Richard Ayoade’s 2010 remarkable debut – ‘Submarine’ (which made my top 10 films of that year) has got to be the best film about teenagers falling in love. I remember being so moved by ‘Submarine’, so touched, both in its humanity and the way in which its characters were treated. I remember thinking “who is this Ayoade guy”? But at the time I didn’t really care. What I did know is that I just lay witness to one of the most refreshing young talents who made one of the strongest debuts in as far back as I can remember.

So it was only fitting that I would be heavily anticipating Ayoade’s sophomore effort. Especially because from the little bit I read I heard it was more or less an extension of his singular style, his ability to create something new and inventive, while also not conforming to any of Hollywood’s typical movie tropes. All things that were apparent if you saw ‘Submarine’ (and if you haven’t I would highly encourage you to do so). This, co-written and directed by Ayoade, with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother also getting a co-writing credit), and based loosely on a novel penned by the famous 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Plus starring both Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska (is there anything this talented young actress isn’t in?). I thought this had the pedigree to be a great film. And for the most part it is. Set in the future, or a setting that gives no indication of space or time, and the story taking place below ground (at least it appeared to me to), following the central character, Eisenberg, who plays his usual awkward, unconfident, nervous self, but which in this case winds up suiting the material well. Who witnesses an attempted suicide while spying on his love interest through a telescope (a nod to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’), here played by Wasikowska, only to show up the next day to work and there’s a carbon copy of himself, a doppelganger, and that’s where things really start to get interesting. Throughout, I couldn’t stop thinking of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece – ‘Brazil’, as this film felt a lot like it in both feel and tone. It’s peculiar, quirky, and very bizarre. It presents the viewer with a lot of questions – are the 2 Eisenberg’s switching identities? Obsessions? Are they both the same person just different versions of one another? This is a film, much like ‘Enemy’, that will have you asking yourself a lot of similar questions throughout. It’s a completely original, highly unique, and singular work. And proves once again that Ayoade is one of the more fresh, talented, and original voices on the filmmaking scene today. This is one that will most likely wind up on my list of Honorable Mentions (#’s 10-20) by year’s end.

Grade: strong B