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…

Check out this Meetup →

Advertisements

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.

Check out this Meetup →

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]