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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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Trainwreck” 7.19.15

“Trainwreck” is the new Judd Apatow directed comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer. Like with any new Apatow comedy, I like so many others (evidenced by the sold out crowd at the showing I saw), share quite a bit enthusiasm for his work. After all, even though Apatow has his fair share in a number of Producing credits (“The Cable Guy”, “Superbad”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, “Pineapple Express”, “Get Him To The Greek”, “Bridesmaids”, and “The 5-Year Engagement”, to name a few. After working in television on both the short-lived “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared”, as a feature-length film director, he only has 4 films under his belt. First, what some consider to be his best, was “The 40-Year Old Virgin”, which made a then almost unknown Steve Carell into an almost overnight sensation. This followed by “Knocked up”, which was the launching pad for Seth Rogen’s career (prior to that he really was only known for starring in the two aforementioned Apatow TV series), to what I consider his best film to date – the Rogen/Adam Sandler comedy “Funny People”, to his last and probably most poorly received film “This is 40”. I was excited to hear that Apatow was returning without his usual cast – missing here is his real life wife and regular star of his films, Leslie Mann. Nor were his children cast (a move that I always thought was a rather narcissistic one on Apatow’s behalf). Also missing here was Rogen, who has starred in two of his three films prior (I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of us are kind of burnt out on Seth Rogen). What interested me most about his newest project was not only did Apatow seem to be branching out in terms of casting but even more so, that he cast the little known (to the film world that is) Amy Schumer, a stand up comic whose been creating quite a few waves on the comedy circuit for years. That and she penned the screenplay and got a sole screenwriting credit along with landing a role as the star of the film. It’s because of my love of Apatow comedies and the word-of-mouth buzz that Schumer absolutely knocks the role out of the park that once I saw the film advertised and opened to much praise from both users and critics alike that I rushed out to the theater to be one of the first to catch my first glimpse at the newest from the reigning and undisputed king of comedy.

The film opens with one of the stronger and funnier opening scenes as a father (Colin Quinn – expertly cast) tries to explain to his two young girls why he and their mother are getting divorced by using dolls as an analogy (“like kids do, adults eventually get tired of the same doll and want to branch off and play with other dolls”). Flash forward 23 years, and we are introduced to the two young girls from that opening scene. Amy (played by Amy Schumer) as she explains her life in voice-over. A late twenties/early thirty-something teenager stuck in an adult’s body. While she takes her job seriously as a writer for a popular New York magazine, her personal life is in shambles (well, according to the viewer anyway, though Amy would tell you otherwise). She sleeps with as many men as possible, and along with a montage of drunken one night stands where she plays by a set of rules (never sleep over after sex, no cuddling, fuck em and flee, the list goes on and on) we learn where her priorities lay (with the exception of work – mostly drinking and sex). This is counterbalanced by her younger sister (played by my favorite under 30 actress – Brie Larson, whose done some really strong work both inside and out of comedy) as well as her husband (“Sleepwalk With Me”‘s Mike Birbiglia) and her young nephew (one of those young Science geeks who their grandfather/Colin Quinn sums it up rather hilariously – “he’s the type of kid we used to beat up in school”). While Amy loves her sister, she is also somewhat disgusted of her domesticated lifestyle, which in some ways gives her own kind of self rationalization and justification to continue living the lifestyle that she does. That is until she is given the assignment of writing a piece on a young medical doctor who works with sports athletes (again, played by another one of my favorite comedic actors to perfection by Bill Hader). I won’t go too much further into it other than to say that she develops a relationship with him, one that even she never thought possible (is Amy actually capable of being able to “love” someone?).

In summary, “Trainwreck” works on a number of different levels but is also slightly flawed. Here, Apatow puts his best yet ensemble piece yet, with Schumer paving the way and bringing a certain likability and authenticity to her performance in what I thought was the best part of the film (believe the hype, she is nothing short of astonishing here). As was Bill Hader in the boyfriend role, Brie Larson as her younger sister, Tilda Swinton as Amy’s boss, Colin Quinn as her dad, Mike Birbiglia as her brother-in-law, and get this – both former WWE star John Cena as one of her only serious boyfriend’s prior to Hader’s character and who I had my doubts about but who puts in one of the best real life sports athlete performances by Lebron James (apparently he can play Basketball and do comedy). The story has a lot of heart. And the first half had the audience laughing so hard from minute to minute that I heard a lot of people around me ask – “what did they just say”, as they were still laughing from the joke that preceded it. It’s what Apatow does best. And similar to what Noah Baumbach has done with Greta Gerwig, it becomes quite apparent that Schumer acts as his direct source of inspiration for and muse here and is the comedic actress he’s been waiting for all along to do a project with as she really does hit all of the right notes. Here’s what detracted a bit from the film for me. Like “Funny People” and “This Is 40”, writer Schumer and Apatow tell a story that at about the halfway point, falls more into dramatic territory and while the jokes remain consistently funny throughout, I personally felt like the momentum of the film died down a bit in its second half as Amy goes through a somewhat predictable self-transformation from her former self into her new-found self as her relationship with Hader’s character gets more serious. That being said, there’s plenty of laughs galore here and as promised, Schumer is a revelation here as she puts in one of the stronger female comedic roles that I’ve seen since Jenny Slate in last year’s “Obvious Child”. At times a bit formulaic but consistently funny from start to finish. “Trainwreck” winds up being one of Apatow’s stronger efforts in his still small but expanding filmography in a film that marks Amy Schumer as one of the most exciting, new young talents in a film that should please almost any fan of feel good comedies even despite some of its flaws.

[B]

This Weekend! Judd Apatow’s new comedy “Trainwreck” – Sun, 7/19 350 @ Fox Tower

Sunday, Jul 19, 2015, 3:45 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

13 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

It’s never to early to start planning for the next movie meetup! In what looks like it’s gearing up to be the comedy of the summer. I for one am excited for the new film from the director who has brought us some of the best and most notable comedies of this century so far (“The 40-Year Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, “Funny People”, “This is 40”). The r…

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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+]

DVD Review: “Listen Up Philip” 3.13.15

This particular movie piqued my interest after having seen it wind up on many of last year’s top 10 lists from quite a few film critics. A movie that virtually seemed to fall under the radar by most yet even despite of its positive reviews. These are the exact types of films that I thrive on seeking out. As a lot of the time when I take a chance with something that I know little to next to nothing about, I sometimes come away feeling a great sense of having found that hidden gem that I can then spread the word about to the film aficionado friends that I know. If it winds up being disappointing…well, that’s not what really matters. It’s the hope of seeing something new and exciting that drives me to want to see a film that some may hold in a high regard that goes unseen by most if not all of the American public. Such was the case with this film. It played in a very limited release at one of our more local art house, independent cinemas here in Portland that only showcases the kinds of films that fall into this particularly kind of category. That and I’ve always been quite fond of the film’s lead, Jason Schwartzman, having feeling like I’ve almost seemingly grown up right alongside him when he wowed both audiences and critics a like with his breakthrough debut performance in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998), which was a major movie for me in terms of my starting to develop an appreciation for both the art of film and its language. I also was intrigued by the film’s supporting cast which boasted Elizabeth Moss (who seems to be showing up everywhere lately, most notably in last year’s trippy SciFi romantic comedy/mindfuck – “The One I Love”) whom I also loved in one of the most underrated, overlooked, and unseen made for cable miniseries – Australian filmmaker Jane Campion’s fantastic murder mystery “Top of the Lake” (2013) which gave me a much deeper appreciation for Moss who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries for her performance in it. Rounding out the impressive cast was the great Bristish stage and screen actor Jonathan Pryce, who has and will always stick out for me from his lead performance in Terry Gilliam’s undisputed masterpiece “Brazil” (1985). This looked to be one that had the potential to be of great promise, considering the actors involved and the great reviews I had glanced at about it.

The titular character, Philip (played by Schwartzman), is a New York City writer who at first seems so obsessed with himself, so self-absorbed, that he comes across as highly unlikable (think Jeff Daniels’ in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) ). He’s a bigot, arrogant, pretentious, and narcissistic. One of those better than everyone young writer types who on the heels of having only published one novel to date but who got critical acclaim for, thinks he’s gods gift to just about everybody he meets. But what’s different from his character than say the Jeff Daniels comparison, is that he’s well aware of all of these things, and we as the viewer are informed of this, throughout most of the film actually, in a brilliant voice over narration by none other than the Eric Bogosian (in what I found to be some of the better use of voiceover since Alec Baldwin’s work on another Schwartzman film – Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) ). It seems like every relationship, from Philip’s ex to his now current girlfriend (Moss) is doomed for failure. As he is not willing to recognize anybody’s else’s accomplishments rather than that of his own. Which makes him a likely candidate for most difficult person to be in a relationship with. He does however find solace in another writer Ike (played by the excellent Pryce), an aging writer who has seen his day, and who like Philip, is so selfish that he willfully seems to push away just about every person in his life. The two are almost mirror images of one another. And when Ike invites Philip to his summer home in upstate New York to escape the ever-growing and anxiety ridden demands of the big city life, Philip jumps at the opportunity to stay with his mentor, as he attempts to get his second novel published.

The film winds up being a mostly enjoyable dramedy, with elements of both dark humor and serious drama as the screenplay really attempts to give us, the viewer, full access into the world of Philip and the two different sides in which he projects – his overly confident, cocky exterior as well as the self loathing and deprecation that’s going on in the interior. Schwartzman handles the role rather deftly, and proves to his once again why he has the residual staying power that he’s had as an actor, despite having a number of notable films under his belt and still being as young as he is. The script and story itself reminded me of something out of the Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson cannon. In that there’s a sad, underlying tone with moments of great comedy on display. Juggling several genre elements all jumbled up into one rather remarkably. Which is a testament to its writer director, Alex Ross Perry, who has a couple of features under his belt but this seeming like essentially his debut film, which is mightily impressive given that he is barely 30 years old. The script is razor-sharp, smart, witty, and darkly funny. And came across as being more deeply rooted in reality than a lot of the other increasing number of films that I’ve seen from this genre as of late. While we look at Philip’s character with disdain, there’s also a human element that resides within him that comes across as universal, authentic, and real. This wound up being a mostly rewarding experience, even if it did wind up feeling slightly familiar at times to films like the ones of early Woody Allen. Recommended for those interested in the independent, romantic dramedy genre looking for something new and fresh and for fans of Schwartzman. As this one should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did, and at least to me, seems like it should have gotten quite a bit more attention than it ultimately wound up getting.

[B]

Review: ‘Obvious Child’ 10.11.14

It’s interesting that I should come off a new Woody Allen film with this one up next in the cannon. The reason why I say this is because Allen is considered the first writer/director in American cinema who really started writing strong female characters in film with Diane Keaton acting as his muse. Which is one of the many things I admire about him. If you think about the entertainment industry its always been a predominately male driven one. If you want proof of this look no further than even to this day where there are just a handful of well known women directors. That and when most people talk about or list off who their favorite “actor” is (yes people women are considered actors too) they usually list off a group of men. That’s why I always become interested when I see a movie come along that boasts a mostly female cast (1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” being one of the all time greats). Or in the case of this film, focuses primarily on the trials and tribulations of one woman. Being in that I am a member of the opposite sex, I find it’s important to seek out films that identify with the experience of being a woman. So often in film women are put on screen only to be objectified (see Megan Fox) and reduced to mere eye candy. Which I think is really rather unfortunate. When I first heard about this film, like with most films, it was by seeing a trailer for it before another. I didn’t really recognize anyone in it other than Gaby Hoffman, who I had recently seen and absolutely loved in last year’s “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus”. That and it looked like it had the potential to be really funny. What sealed the deal for me was the fact that it not only looked like a lighthearted comedy, but one with true spirit; and most importantly, one that focused on a strong central female character. Having not gotten the chance to see it in theaters I put a high priority on seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

The film first introduces us to Donna (played by Jenny Slate), a young woman in her late twenties who moonlights as a comic in Brooklyn while she works at her day job at a local bookstore. After a performance one night she is approached by her boyfriend who explains that he’s been cheating on her which completely overwhelms and devastates her. To top if off the following morning at her day job her boss tells her that he’s closing shop. So in a span of 24 hours she gets dumped and her only steady source of income is gone. Donna seeks solace in her best friend (played by Hoffman), her supportive and understanding father, as well as her not so supportive, higher standard, but equally as loving mother. She appears to be going through some mid quarter life crisis and falls into self deprecation. Then on one drunken and off performance night out she meets Max, a guy who while although isn’t really her type, conveniently shows up at a time when she’s most vulnerable. She winds up going home with him (in a dance party sequence that’s pure gold) and has a one night stand, which at that point the central plot of the story begins as she becomes faced with one of life’s most difficult decisions.

This is a wonderful film that I had really good time with. It left me feeling similarly to how I felt after 2012’s brilliant film by Noah Baumbach – “Frances Ha” which also focused on another strong female central character played by the superb Greta Gerwig. Like Gerwig, Jenny Slate is mesmerizing in her role here, and also like Gerwig in that film, plays the character with an authenticity that really comes through in her performance. I also thought it was raw, heartfelt, and tenderly funny, without feeling melodramatic or too full of sentiment. Donna is equally as funny in both her on and off stage personas. The conversations she has with her friends and family as well as her audience produces some genuine laughs about her ruminations on life. Also, the relationship that unfolds with the unassuming Max feels real in a way that is often times hard to capture in similar type relationships I’ve seen depicted in other movies of its kind. There’s also a great bit part featuring David Cross which I was surprised by but I thought fit perfectly in the context of the film. My only couple of minor criticisms is that there’s a coincidence that turns up involving Max that to me seemed a bit far fetched. Very similar to how I felt about the coincidence involving both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in last year’s “Enough Said”. Also, I felt like the story could have been expanded on a little, which felt a bit short and breezy as it zipped by at a brisk 80 minutes. But despite those two pretty minor critiques, this is a film bursting with energy and real true human feeling and emotion. That and as mentioned above, and what I think deserves to be noted twice, it features a bravura performance by the little known Slate who I can potentially see gaining some awards attention at the year’s end by some of the smaller indie-friendly critic’s circles. This is a smart, honest, feel good film which is one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen all year. I’ve already added it on my list of Honorable Mentions that should survive and wind up on my end of the year list. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out. I can assure you that it won’t disappoint.

Grade: B+