Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review: Mistress America (2015)

Gerwig's College Years.

It's tough to recommend a film with a requirement of 'patience,' even moreso when we already know what getting fooled twice means. The first half-hour of Mistress America is a montage of incredibly short scenes with no punchlines (save for the immortal 'Why don't you put pasta up her pussy?'), showing step-by-step the construction of a new family relationship (step-sisters) around errands and social obligations. It doesn't seem to have much of a direction and it goes on long enough to put real fear in your heart. The whole film can't be this, can it?

Then the centerpiece cometh. A huge, snappy dialogue sequence in the center of the movie ropes everything into a tight ball and suddenly, it's working. All that seemingly meaningless shit that had a constant music bed under it like it was Six-String Samurai, that's where the setups were hidden, now getting paid off like dominos in a flurry of Howard Hawksian dialogue bullets. We are railgunned through a second act and before we know it, all we need are 20 more minutes to wrap it all up. AND WE CARE. Satisfaction!

It's good to know that, this many years later, he can still pull off the Highball trick. The Baumbach we know can succeed is alive in his partner. Here's hoping it lasts a little longer.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: While We're Young (2014)

Baumbach's Mid-Life Crisis.

An awful couple (thankfully, childless) reevaluates their existence after some young hipsters reawaken them with some terrible, out-of-touch internet monetization ideas and I guess eventually a second act turn happens to no one's surprise because they foreshadowed the fuck out of it. In between are Baumbach's usual- y'know, do I even need to say it at this point? I swear, his story-breaking exercise must consist of "If I were really in this situation, what is the worst possible thing I could do?" and mine those instincts for story beats. Or at the very least, he delights in portraying grossness not yet covered in film. Thus, a scene centered around group Ayahuasca vomiting.

Unfortunately, this is one of those times where Baumbach fails to come through in the zinger department, making this another chore with the occasional outstanding performance (Amanda Seyfried!). And where no overriding plot worked for Greenberg and Frances Ha, it becomes a real detriment with the illusion of stakes, stakes that in a normal movie would supply the third act with an Everest or a Hans Gruber. The momentum is then killed as quickly as it begins and we're to believe that the Kaiju Portal is thematic, that it was solely about Getting Older this whole time and that the Suicide Mission with a Nuke is just... realizing it after a public humiliation. What is this, Wonder Boys? Or Wanderlust? Or some other W film? Eh, get off of my lawn.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: Frances Ha (2012)

Gerwig's Post-College Years.

Life begins again. Our scientific observations of flawed creatures turns to the feminine perspective, which is a great way for Baumbach to avoid trampling over material already covered. Cultivating human relationships require different strategies, career choices fail for different reasons and anxiety is absorbed, rarely discharged.

It takes awhile for the film to reveal itself as a much simpler entity: a snapshot of a dying friendship. For a long time you are languishing in a stattaco series of (you guessed it) uncomfortable situations brought on by Metropolitan-tude and a simmering mess of a main character. New York City characterized in My Dinner with Andre as a concrete prison built and happily occupied by its prisoners seems especially true here, even more so when contrasted with a sunny second act trip to Sacramento, glimpses of fun quickly forgotten when the problems return. Will she ever... uh... what was the goal again?

The film is barely about anything else and doesn't possess much of a dramatic arc (absent even an 'ending' where the music rises and cuts to credits on a symbolic throwaway line), but it's delightful. It approaches a classicism that makes you long for an era where movies like this could just be made. I guess they still can be.

Review: Greenberg (2010)

Baumbach's Bitter Middle-Age.

Whatever happened to Grover, the main character from Kicking and Screaming? By now, he's probably a hopelessly adrift prick who owns, proudly, a do-nothing-say-everything attitude with no targeting computer, sometimes tragically blanketing people who don't deserve it and playing Jai Alai with the life of a beloved family pet. He'll have never learned that "doing nothing" isn't a solution, it's the fucking problem, and at this age it ain't cute no mo'. Greenberg resides in an unending hell and deserves it. And this time it's in Los Angeles!

For something that is only a series of uncomfortable situations queued together with little overriding plot to tie it all together, its focus on an insufferable main character, it works. Stakes are kept as low as Greenberg's ambition and he isn't much rewarded or punished for his behavior. Baumbach has reclaimed some of the magic concoction from The Squid and the Whale, only now he is (thankfully) returning to a more classical style of filmmaking after the deluge of low-fi hi-def video handheld shit. All those special effects artists making 200+ shots of a blue light shooting into the atmosphere has freed up the tripods. Good good. And because Baumbach's material is autobiographical, we can look forward to the film he makes about a character who writes a movie with his wife and then leaves her for the much younger lead actress.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review: Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Baumbach's Middle School Years.

A post-apocalyptic beach somewhere in a Lars von Trier film. We watch a bunch of awful human beings interact for a stretch, every once in awhile focusing on a bug flying into someone's ear or a dead rat at the bottom of a pool or a gutted pig falling onto a dirty kitchen floor... shit that can only make you feel sick, and no sum exists for the experience. Scenes are short, punctuated riffs on a diseased family and the film rots eternally -- The Squid and the Whale from Shadow-Shadow Earth, with familiar parallels to Spanking the Monkey, complete with the non-ending. Without help from Baumbach's normally on-point dialogue save for the immortal "You shit in your shoes and then you fuck 'em," there's very little reason to sit through it. Nicole Kidman is amazing in it and Jack Black gets to expand his acting palette slightly, but honestly, Baumbach is the person who probably got the most out of it, finally achieving sweet revenge on real life analogs by making their dirty laundry public. It is high time he took his own mother to task after all that weird incestuous shit in the last movie, but goddammit, could he have left us out of it?

Review: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Baumbach's High School Years.

It took almost a decade after Mr. Jealousy for Baumbach to learn how to rush headlong towards the exquisitely uncomfortable, his usual quickfire zingers now having to survive in a toxic pool of human waste -- two terrible people raising two terrible kids in the middle of a terrible divorce. The Royal Tenenbaum's from Shadow Earth. It's strange the cocktail works so well given the territory the film bravely dives into. Kids swear like sailors, talk about their mother giving blowjobs, wipe their cum on library books, try on condoms while pounding tequila, rip off Pink Floyd... y'know, all the universally relatable things. The film moves so fast that it doesn't seem like the director is wiping his cum on us, necessarily, and while the characters may not be particularly relatable, the pacing makes sure that they are not inflicting their shittiness on anyone except for each other. We are observers of these bizarre creatures, scientifically recording their self-destructive behavior. Kafka parallelllllllllll.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: Highball (1997)

Baumb- no, er, Ernie Fusco's Post-College Years.

A couple throws three uncomfortable parties on different dates in their cramped New York apartment and an astonishing amount of hilarity ensues. Cribbing from Whit Stillman does have its perks, it turns out, and not only can you prove yourself as a near-equal with quickly realized characters and tight rapid fire Beatles-level jokes, but you can actually end the movie with the most amount of accrued character dignity than anything you'll make in the future. Even with Carlos Jacott playing against type and Chris Eigeman playing exactly on type. The magic performed here cannot be undersold as it exists exclusively in writing and acting and was probably filmed secretly around the production of Mr. Jealousy (in only six days?!), explaining Noah Baumbach's name in the acting credit only. It exists nowhere in the cinematography, certainly -- the first sacrifice to the Gods of Completion demanded that only one incredibly hot light be used at any given time. The last sacrifice had to be its DVD release, the strangest media artifact ever, where the title of the film is upside-down on its spine, where a 'synopsis' counts as a special feature, where there is no artwork on its disc, where the film itself skips backwards two seconds with no interruption in the audio no less than five times. Highball still survives. It's the Primer of comedies.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Baumbach's College Years.

A comedy with a surprisingly strong purpose. Quirky twenty-somethings exchange hilarious barbs and make observations that hit a bit too close to home. Characters actively ignore the fact that the worst of all possible choices is marinating in the same water with people you used to like but now secretly resent as the protective womb of higher learning shrinks. They are the Cabaret in Berlin. Sure, we're having lots of fun, but staying and doing nothing could be the cause of all our problems.

The group's antics are broken up by flashbacks to a beginning of a relationship that ended when the film began. At first, they don't generate any justification for their existence and grind the film to a halt. It isn't until the fun moments between the characters get rarer and rarer and all we have left is this moment of beauty, the origin story of an insane fluke of a successful cooperation. Ending on this is a bittersweet affair, and reveals the main character as doomed to this formula of accidental joy for the rest of his life. "I just wish we were an old couple," isn't a sweet statement. He wants climaxes unearned. It's pitiful.

Kicking and Screaming joins, with Gilmore Girls, the club of owing absolutely everything to Whit Stillman. Baumbach in particular should thank him and, while he's at it, never stop.