Posts Tagged ‘Greta Gerwig’

Early-to-mid-December for the five years or so prior to the pandemic was always a promising time for documentaries and other films that would usually struggle to get a cinema release: as we have discussed before, no one wants to release a mainstream commercial film around the same time as a colossus from one of the big studios, and so smaller distributors would swarm in and fill the resulting gap in the schedule: nature abhors a vacuum, and so do multiplex chains. These days it doesn’t seem to be happening, however, which may be another fact of the new world order.

Nevertheless, there are still people around who are happy to take advance of the lull in business-as-usual which is preceding the arrival of James Cameron’s watery sequel, although this is perhaps something of a mixed blessing. I’m a fairly easy-going person, but I still can’t stop myself from emitting a groaning snarl (or perhaps a snarling groan) from the very pit of my soul when I sit down in a movie theatre and discover that the film I have paid to see is preceded to the screen by a big red ‘N’. Not that I have anything against Netflix; quite the opposite, in many ways, but that’s kind of the point. Fond though I am of the theatrical experience, it annoys me just a bit to realise I’ve accidentally ended up paying to see a film which is going to be free on my TV a few weeks later. Yes, I know, I should do my research – but the line between due diligence in the research department and actually spoiling a movie for yourself can be a vanishingly thin one sometimes.

Netflix are quite happy to release films into cinemas for periods of time which make a mayfly’s life expectancy seem like a geological age, and presumably don’t care whether or not anyone actually turns out to watch them. This is what makes them unlike a traditional movie studio: they’re not releasing films in cinemas to make money, they’re releasing films in cinemas so that their films play in cinemas, usually just long enough for them to qualify for the major film awards. The money comes afterwards, once the films have won various trophies and hopefully spurred a few people into getting (or reviving) a Netflix account. I suppose it’s a valid enough business model, but it still seems to me like trying to game the system. Whatever you think about it, it’s a tactic that Netflix are obviously very good at, presumably in part because they seem to have that bottomless well of cash to attract big-name and acclaimed film-makers.

Newly on the big red N’s payroll is Noah Baumbach, who these days is as close to being the acceptable replacement for Woody Allen as anyone. His new movie is White Noise, based on an acclaimed (but supposedly unfilmable) 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. The change of sponsor doesn’t seem to have resulted in a very different product to Baumbach’s back catalogue, however – his partner Greta Gerwig appears, as does Adam Driver, and it’s not like he’s suddenly decided to do an action movie or a superhero franchise film.

The movie opens with a scene in which Don Cheadle comes on as an academic who proceeds to give a lecture on the place of the car crash sequence in American popular cinema, urging his audience to appreciate this for the optimistic, positive trope it has become. Contemplation of whether this is all very tongue in cheek, or if the film is just weird, is dispelled, as we are launched into the lives of fellow academic Jack Gladney (Driver) and his wife Babette (Gerwig, almost unrecognisable under a Gorgon-like perm), not to mention their various children. Gladney is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies at the local college – ‘I teach Advanced Nazism,’ he tells a new acquaintance, in one of quite a few lines that feels ripped from the pages of a Woody Allen script – while Babette amuses herself as an exercise instructor for local senior citizens. All should be well but for the insidious dread the couple share when it comes to their own creeping mortality. Virtually the only thing they don’t agree about is who should be allowed to die first: and we are clearly intended to appreciate exactly how facile this particular discussion is (it did put me rather in mind of something from a Miranda July film).

However, they finally get something concrete to worry about when a petrol tanker crashes into a train carrying chemical waste, producing a vast toxic cloud blanketing much of the state and rolling implacably in their direction. The various Gladneys pile into their station wagon and join the exodus along with the rest of the town. As you can perhaps surmise, there is something a bit tonally odd about White Noise, and this sequence in particular did remind me of a late-70s Spielberg movie, with the minutiae of family life juxtaposed with huge, potentially world-changing events (or maybe I was just thinking of the fake chemical spill which is part of the plot of Close Encounters).

It feels like the onset of the Airborne Toxic Event is the inciting incident for the rest of the film, but it only comprises a relatively small portion of the film: the disaster is resolved and everyone goes back to their business-as-usual, the only difference being that Jack has been exposed to toxic vapour and is told there is a high probability he will die at some indeterminate future time. This is a deliberately absurd and meaningless prognosis – the same could be said for literally any of us – but it doesn’t do Jack’s thanatophobia any good at all. The plot spirals off into an odd realm concerning drug trials and potential marital infidelity and the way in which the supermarket of the 1980s symbolises an intermediate realm between life and death…

I wanted to like it, honest, and some parts of it I really did – there are some very funny moments and sequences and some of the more absurd plot elements are almost Kafkaesque: it turns out the disaster of the toxic cloud is being used by the emergency services as an opportunity to practise their extreme disaster response techniques, in case something serious should happen in future. ‘But something serious is happening now,’ protests a character, when they learn about this. Yes, and it’s a great opportunity to practise, comes the response. But it still feels like a filmed piece of literature, if you know what I mean: it doesn’t have that driving sense of narrative nearly all mainstream films have – this feels much more interested in picking up ideas, playing with them for a bit, and then moving on to something else for a while, perhaps returning to an earlier point of interest later on. There are things which look like jokes, which are delivered as jokes, and meet every criteria for being a joke except for the fact they’re not funny in any intelligible way. (I know it sounds like I’m trying very hard to avoid saying this is essentially a failed comedy, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.)

Maybe this really is just a bad movie, but there are very successful moments scattered throughout it and Driver gives a fine performance – probably Gerwig too, though she seems a bit subdued, and possibly overwhelmed by her hair (and maybe the demands of doing the Barbie movie). Baumbach’s orchestration of such a diverse set of elements is probably deserving of much praise, too. But it didn’t quite click with me, or resolve itself into a film with a deeper thesis than ‘people often do weird things to distract themselves from the certainty of their own eventual deaths’.

This is a big, colourful film with some lavish set pieces – some might say extravagantly so, particularly with regard to the closing dance number (set in the supermarket, it is clearly a dance of dearth, given that consumerism is at least as much about not having material things as possessing them). And it may be that this is the kind of film which rewards multiple viewings and some cogitation. But on the basis of just the one watch, this is just an ambitious, oddball project which doesn’t quite come together in the way you’d hope.

Read Full Post »

I know one should judge a movie on its own quality, rather than that of its publicity material, but even so: something about the blurb promoting Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the local multiplex website smells awfully whiffy to me. ‘Greta Gerwig has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and… is both timeless and timely.’ Well, that ‘timeless and timely’ line must be a good one, because I used something similar myself a couple of years ago, but – ‘crafted’? Honestly? I know this is a prestige movie gunning for gongs – it’s that time of year – but the implication seems to be that while most of those non-award-contender films were just slapped together out of spit and bubblegum, Gerwig emerged, exhausted, from a shed, having painstakingly ‘crafted’ her movie single-handed, possibly using a chisel.

Well, you’re not responsible for what people write about you, so I should probably move on from reviewing a website advertising the movie and consider the film itself. This is, of course, an adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s classic and much-loved (not to mention much adapted) novel of the same name, a coming of age story set in the USA in the 19th century. It mostly concerns the siblings of one not-especially-well-off family living in Massachusetts: Meg, Amy, Little Jo and Hoss.

The novel was originally published in two parts (under different titles in the UK), but Gerwig (scripting as well as directing) has opted to tell the story out of chronological order. Thus it does take a little while for the shape of the story to become apparent, to say nothing of the difficulties one is presented with when trying to recap the plot.

So: the earlier part of the story is set during the American Civil War, with the father of the family absent and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. As noted, the March family are not exactly rolling in dough, and so it is important that at least one daughter makes a good marriage. But who is it to be? Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson), who seems to want to be an actress? Second daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whose mind is always fixed upon her writing? What about Amy (Florence Pugh) an artistically gifted but temperamental and sometimes difficult girl? Who will catch the eye of the somewhat feckless but wealthy boy next door (Timothee Chalamet)? Anyway, none of the girls seems to impress the family’s stern old matriarch (Meryl Streep)… (I presume Streep is in the role that Lorne Greene used to play in the TV series, though I could be wrong.)

Well, this may be a beloved piece of literature, but it’s also one aimed at young American girls, so I must confess to being almost wholly unfamiliar with it. If I wasn’t the kind of person who goes to the cinema as a matter of habit, then there’s a good chance I probably wouldn’t have seen this at all – hang on, though, perhaps that’s not entirely true. This is a Greta Gerwig film, after all, and while I am just as happy to see a movie with her as by her, I have been following her career with interest for years now. The same is true of Florence Pugh.

I am happy to report that neither of them have proved my faith to be unfounded. I will admit to feeling a bit restless during the opening stages of the film, especially before the structure of the thing became properly apparent, but in the end it becomes a richly absorbing and impressive film: the staging is excellent, the ensemble playing is also very strong, and I did find the story genuinely touching in places. I get the sense that the film has been structured to retain the bits that people who have read the novel remember – there is some significant breakfast-donating, book-burning and hair-cutting, amongst other things – but Gerwig has structured the script with great intelligence and subtlety, creating resonances between scenes set years apart (presumably in different volumes of the book). The contrast between the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the girls’ childhood home and the somewhat bleaker tone of later years is also very well achieved.

With the father of the family absent for much of the film and Chalamet playing a slightly ambiguous character – charming, but also quite callow – this is, obviously, a female-dominated film. I sense that we are in for a lot of these over the next few weeks, for the great beast of capitalism has scented there is money to be made from the MeToo movement, gobbled it up, and is now in the process of selling it back to people in carefully packaged chunks. I really feared that Little Women would likewise end up as a piece of thudding agitprop – its own trailer is big on stressing that it is about how the March sisters are individuals with their own talents and dreams, rather than just wives and mothers in waiting – but once again Gerwig proves she is smarter than this.

There are certainly scenes which feel – how should one put this? – proto-feminist, or even feminist full-stop – the economic importance of marriage to women of this period is made quite clear, for instance. But these are not laboured and do seem to fit quite naturally within the narrative. There is also a moment where Emma Watson’s character is permitted to say that she does actually want to get married and have children, and that this is a perfectly valid life goal. Nevertheless, much of the film is about Jo’s desire to stay in control of her own life, which basically means remaining single. How, then, to contrive a happy climax to the movie, especially when the book does end with Jo getting spliced? The script manages to negotiate its way around this with some deftness and perhaps even a little impudence.

This is a solid and impressive movie, and very enjoyable. Ronan is customarily good, but she is at least matched by Pugh, who has a rather trickier role to contend with. None of the performances are what you would call weak, though. In the end it is Greta Gerwig’s script and direction which really make the movie what it is: charming and pleasant, but not without serious and moving moments, and perhaps even the odd life lesson. Little Women may do very well when the awards season properly gets going: I would not object if it did.

Read Full Post »

‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.


An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen all that often.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

Read Full Post »

I do find myself to be somewhat inclined towards a very unbecoming smugness: it is a dreadful flaw in my character, one that I do contend with as the years go by. Is it one of those truisms that a person’s predisposition towards being smug increases in inverse proportion to their actual justification for it? I don’t know: but it is nice, sort of, to occasionally feel pleased with yourself and know you have a very good reason for this.

Or at a least a half-decent reason. Unexpected delights are pretty rare when it comes to the Academy Awards (unexpected anythings are unusual in Oscars territory), but the nomination of Greta Gerwig for best director and best screenplay certainly qualifies. Gerwig has been on my own personal one-to-watch list for years now – mainly as an actress, but given she co-wrote two of the films she has starred in, her move into – how best to put it? – full-blown auteuseship is only the next logical step.

The film in question is Lady Bird, and it is not a political biography, nor a badly punctuated tale of children’s books or obscure superheroines. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Christine McPherson, a seventeen-year-old girl growing up somewhat restlessly in Sacramento, back in 2002. Not caring much for her given name, she has decided she wants to be known as ‘Lady Bird’, just one of many things which her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) finds rather exasperating. (Her father (Tracy Letts) is much more laid back about everything.)

The family is just about surviving, although times are tough, and Lady Bird’s determination to apply to (expensive) colleges on the east coast is another cause of friction between her and her mother – not that these are ever in short supply, it would seem: money, her behaviour around the house, her schoolwork, her general attitude…

Over the course of a year, the film follows Lady Bird as she embarks upon a brief theatrical career, launches into a number of possibly unwise romances, attempts to become one of the cool kids at school, and so on. Will she ever reach some kind of understanding with her mother? Is her life ever going to be less sucky and embarrassing?

Well, everyone goes through the same milestone moments in their life, and for some of us, another one has just arrived: this is the first film I’m aware of which treats the early years of the 21st century as the subject of genuine nostalgia. Greta Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is not specifically an autobiographical story, but it’s hard not to see how her own experiences haven’t informed this story, considering that she herself was graduating a Catholic high school in Sacramento at just about the same time this film is set. The noughties nostalgia is handled with a light touch, anyway – it’s certainly not the sine qua non of the movie.

I have seen criticism of Lady Bird suggesting this is just another by-the-numbers high school coming of age movie, with nothing new to offer an audience – well, I’m not sure how it compares to a lot of high school coming of age movies, as this is not a genre of which I regularly partake, but surely the point of this kind of movie is that it deals with universal rites of passage, those elements of growing up which are common to nearly everyone. Part of the charm of this genre is recognising things from one’s own experience, and I have to say I did find Lady Bird to be an extremely endearing film, regardless of how far divorced it is from my own experiences.

The film captures the essence of life as a teenager with great accuracy and skill – the soaring ups, the crushing downs, the unexpected pleasures and disappointments, the little moments of transition – and, particularly, the unintentional self-centred cruelty of which young people are particularly capable, along with their generosity and other virtues. You completely understand why Marion finds her daughter to be such a pain in the neck, yet at the same time Lady Bird never becomes actually unsympathetic.

For a film like this to focus primarily on the mother-daughter relationship is obviously kind of unusual, and this is another thing to make the film distinctive and (in its own subtle way) very much a film of our time. To this we can add a further innovation – if the film has an analogue from previous generations, it might well be Howard Deutsch’s 1986 movie Pretty in Pink, which likewise dealt with themes of popularity, class, and coming of each. However, the key difference here is that that Lady Bird’s realisation of herself as a person does not primarily revolve around getting a great boyfriend, which is the focus of Deutsch’s film. Instead, relationships with family and friends are presented as being of equal significance and value, especially that with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). It’s probably overstating things to say that this alone marks the film out as one about the female experience which has actually been written and directed by a woman, but it still seems to me to be significant.

Saoirse Ronan has been building a formidable reputation as a young actor of considerable ability for many years now – in a further sign of sensible career management, she appears to have gotten all the dodgy fantasy blockbusters out of the way already – and Lady Bird should do nothing but add to this, as she is effortlessly convincing when playing someone still in their teens. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Metcalfe and Letts – Gerwig shows every sign of having cast the film with enormous shrewdness, considering it features two young actors (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) who have appeared in other highly-acclaimed films recently.

As I say, Lady Bird feels very much like a film of the current moment, for all that it has a recent-past setting. For all that, it does not feel like an especially angry or openly political one, as throughout it is warm, charming, and often extremely funny. It would be great for such a positive and tender film to do really well at the Academy Awards this year; we can only hope the voters there are as won over as everyone else has been.

Read Full Post »

It’s the height of summer, with remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations pretty much as far as the eye can see, which means it must be time for some counter-programming (which is the ever-so-slightly-sniffy term used in some quarters to describe films actually made for intelligent adults). In the mix currently is Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, which does a pretty good job of looking like a low-budget indie comedy-drama, but…


Well, this is not the kind of film which flaunts the size of its budget as part of its marketing (which really does seem to be a genuine occurrence), but the presence in the cast of quite a few well-known faces suggests that this is not the teeny-tiny project you might think from the tone and subject matter (the fact that Miller is the partner of one of the world’s most celebrated actors could lead you to suspect she might have more pull than the average indie comedy-drama director, should she choose to exert it). Not that any of this really makes a difference, of course, except that right now there might be a virtue in appearing smaller and more independent than you actually are.

If nothing else, Maggie’s Plan marks another step in the ascendancy of the bodacious Greta Gerwig, and surely no-one can take exception to that? On this occasion, Gerwig plays Maggie, a young and single academic who has decided to take the plunge and have a baby, mainly because, as she says, she doesn’t want to leave her destiny in the hands of destiny. To this end she has made an arrangement with an up-and-coming pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmell) whereby she will make use of his reproductive material to conceive a child.

However, just as all of this is coming to a boil (as it were), her scheme is somewhat disrupted when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant and talented writer who is stuck in a chaotic marriage with the very demanding Georgette (Julianne Moore). Possibly to both their surprise, John and Maggie fall in love, get married, and have a child together.

And is this the happy ending everyone is surely rooting for? Um, well, no, for things get a bit complicated between Maggie, John, Georgette, and their various progeny. Maggie comes up with another plan to resolve everything (not including the pickle entrepreneur, sadly), but is she being a kind and helpful person or just a control freak?

Well, one thing you can certainly say about Maggie’s Plan is that it is really a very generous-spirited film: the characters may occasionally act in foolish or naive ways, but none of them are actually genuinely unpleasant. How much of a big deal this is will probably depend on the kind of film you usually go and see, but in this case I think it is important as it does give the film a certain kind of distinctiveness in the milieu in which it operates.

Or, to put it another way: this is a film where the main characters are usually preoccupied with all sorts of fairly rarefied social, ethical, cultural, and personal issues, never seem to have to worry about their means of support, and are generally a cerebral bunch. I mean, Maggie herself works at an university and decides to become a single mother without worrying at all about the financial and personal strain placed on her as a result. Not many real-world people think and behave this way. In short, in some ways the film is sometimes very reminiscent of Woody Allen when he’s in default mode.

Given this is the case, the fact that the film does have a current of warmth running through it – mostly down to Gerwig’s performance, for I’ve yet to see a film where she hasn’t radiated a sort of sincere decency – does set it apart from most of the Allen canon. It’s a little more willing to engage with matters on a more human level, too: I can’t imagine the notoriously fastidious Allen even considering a DIY impregnation scene, let alone putting one on-screen as happens here.

Of course, the jokes and script aren’t perhaps quite as sharp as they would be in an on-form Allen movie, but the performances are strong and the writing is intelligent and satisfying. Fimmel in particular is unrecognisable as the guy currently spending two hours covered in CGI in the Warcraft movie, though I suspect he has the same beard.

Maggie’s Plan probably won’t rock your world, but it tells its story well and engagingly, even if things do seem to get a little bit unravelled in the third act (at this point the plot becomes much less focused on Gerwig’s character, which may be the reason why). It is amusing and smart and engagingly good-natured, even if, if we’re totally honest, it isn’t that much closer to reality in some ways than the fantasies and action movies it’s presenting itself as an alternative to.

Read Full Post »

Some people have the kind of creativity and work ethic that leaves me slack-jawed and agog with incomprehension: I have spoken in the past of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy-trilogy-in-a-fortnight regime of decades gone by; then of course there is the film-a-year routine of Woody Allen: in both cases, never mind the quality, feel the heft. (Writing one bad short novel a year often places an insupportable strain on my own creative juices.) Making what looks like a bid for the same kind of bracket is Noah Baumbach, who is releasing his second film as writer and director in less than six months.

The comparison with Allen feels particularly appropriate, given that both men seem drawn to a particular type of low-key New York comedy-drama. Baumbach’s last film, While We’re Young, still had a flavour of that about it, even though it featured mainstream stars and was a comparatively broad comedy. The new film, Mistress America, is more of a piece with his previous work, especially 2013’s Frances Ha, and perhaps as a consequence feels even more Allenesque.

mist a

Like Frances Ha, Mistress America has Baumbach co-writing the script with his lead performer, Greta Gerwig (the pair have one of those enviable personal-professional partnerships), although this time the film is less self-consciously arty. Well, it’s not in black and white, anyway.

That said, it’s quite a long time before Gerwig turns up on screen, for the film’s viewpoint character is Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young woman who has just started college in New York and is finding the experience to be not all she had hoped for. On top of her various academic and creative struggles (she is an aspiring writer), her mother is remarrying, leaving her with the prospect of a brand new stepsister. Eventually Tracy decides to meet her, discovering her impending sibling to be Brooke (Gerwig), one of those irresistible free-spirited types, of no particularly defined career but with plans to become a bohemian restauranteur. Tracy finds herself drawn to Brooke and the two become close friends, but could it be that neither of them is being completely honest with the other about their motivations? A downturn in Brooke’s fortunes soon exposes the faultlines in their relationship…

Rather like Frances Ha, Mistress America has drawn glowing reviews that I can’t quite bring myself to entirely agree with. This is not to say that it’s a bad film or indeed that there are many bad things in it, just that it has the same slightly unfocused quality as its forebear. The structure of the film is interesting, if a bit odd: the bookending acts of the story ramble around between a university campus and various places in the city, but the second act is confined entirely to the interior of a swish upmarket house somewhere else entirely – for the duration of this segment the film adopts the style and conventions of a screwball farce, with anything up to eight characters wandering about in a scene rattling off snappy and arch dialogue at each other. It is a very distinct change of style, for if nothing else farce is a precision artform, while in every other respect precision is not really one of Mistress America‘s virtues.

For me it was never really clear exactly what kind of film this was supposed to be – a college-years coming of age tale? Another wry piece about boho New Yorkers? A comedy of manners? A character piece? A full-on farce? The script touches on all of these things, while the direction changes pace and focus with equal deftness: there’s a particularly noticeable 80s vibe about some parts of the film, especially the soundtrack. But the film has a contemporary setting, and isn’t about the 1980s in any real sense, so is this just because the film-makers thought it would sound distinctive and cool? You may be wondering just why the film is called Mistress America: well, it’s the title of a short story Tracy secretly writes about Brooke, based on one of her more off-the-wall ideas for a TV show. This is of some relevance to the plot, but it still feels like an oblique and slightly arbitrary choice of title – a placeholder name they never quite got around to changing.

While I was never completely sure what kind of film this is supposed to be, or indeed what it’s about, I did enjoy watching it a lot, in a sort of living-in-the-moment kind of way. I will happily watch Greta Gerwig in just about anything (has anyone thought about giving her the title role in the forthcoming Captain Marvel?), and she is on customarily fine form here, milking her big comic scenes for all they are worth, while still managing to extract pathos and poignancy from the film’s quieter moments. She is well supported by Kirke, who is just as good in what’s an equally demanding part, while the various supporting performances are all fine. The film is frequently amusing and actually made me laugh quite a few times.

So all in all I would say that Mistress America is pretty good, and certainly more accessible and funny than Frances Ha. It still has the same rambling, rough around the edges quality in places, but here there is more wit and colour, and more of a sense of fun. If Baumbach and Gerwig keep plugging away in this vein they may yet come up with something very special and genuinely accomplished, but until they do, Mistress America is a smart low-key comedy that passes the time very pleasantly indeed.


Read Full Post »

It sometimes seems to me that there’s no rational system responsible for determining which films get a full theatrical release and which end up languishing on obscure DVD releases. I mean, I know it’s the middle of summer, and wise counter-programming means that it makes sense to to release something quiet and quirky that will appeal to a more female-skewed audience than a muscular and loud comic-book adaptation, but there are surely lots of low-budget, low-fi, unconventional indie films contending for a theatrical run at any given moment – how do they decide which one actually gets a shot?

The lucky winner this weekend in the UK was Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote with the leading lady, Greta Gerwig. Given that this is a film of a type which actually feels terribly familiar regardless of the specific details, I suspect that it is in cinemas due to an incremental drip-drip-drip of minor points in its favour: Baumbach is a writer and director with a certain pedigree, both indie (The Squid and the Whale) and mainstream (Madagascar 3), while Gerwig has slowly been accumulating a solid CV as an actress in various comedy-dramas – I first saw her in Damsels in Distress, then again in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.


The Allen connection is perhaps pertinent, as Frances Ha at times seems to be consciously aping the great man’s work on a number of levels. This is the story – and I suppose you could say it’s only a story in the broadest sense of the term – of Frances (Gerwig), a not-entirely-successful ballet dancer living in New York. Her life is quite chaotic, but at least she knows she can depend on her best friend and flatmate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, sprung from the loins of Sting). But then Sophie decides to move out, and Frances can’t afford to pay the rent on her own.

So begins an odyssey of flatsharing and other temporary living arrangements, strained relationships and unwise snap decisions in all areas of life. It would be misleading to suggest that nothing actually happens in this film, because relationships break down, people go on impromptu weekend breaks in Paris, waste baskets are vomited into and dinner parties go awkwardly – but at the same time it doesn’t really cohere as a narrative or go anywhere except in the broadest terms.

The slightly disjointed storyline and focus on a certain kind of arty New Yorker do recall a Woody Allen film from the great man’s middle period, as does the black and white photography – Baumbach has admitted this is an homage to Manhattan, amongst others (though there is a level of frankness in the dialogue not to be found in your average Allen movie). That said, it differs from the best Woody Allen movies in the key respect that it is not nearly as sharp or funny or focussed.

Frances Ha is a movie which has enjoyed good notices pretty much across the board, being  acclaimed as ‘hilarious’, ‘irresistible’, and so on. I would tend to agree with these, with the proviso that this is a hilarious and irresistible comedy that didn’t make me laugh very much and didn’t effortlessly win me over, either.

I’m as surprised as anyone to be so lukewarm about this film, as I really do like Greta Gerwig as an actress and there isn’t anything about it that actually annoyed me. Gerwig’s performance is winning, but as this film is essentially a vehicle for her particular talents this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. And the story has a certain poignancy: it evokes the feeling of being stuck in a post-adolescent mode of life while all your friends have moved on into adulthood rather well, even if some of the set-pieces come across as a bit contrived.

I suppose my problem is that this film really exists as a character piece, a look at Frances and her life – and because she and it come across as so improbable, the whole enterprise feels a bit insubstantial. This is partly down to the script, which isn’t witty or tight enough to make you prepared to ignore the various improbabilities going on, and partly down to the casting. I like Greta Gerwig a lot. But I still think it’s a bit disingenous to cast someone so obviously bright, charismatic, and attractive as a ditzy, undateable flake. Then again, am I being too hard on the film? Hmmm.

Well, I didn’t actually dislike it – quite the opposite, if we’re honest. I just didn’t have an uproarious, life-affirming time watching it. I suppose I’ve just seen a few too many New York-set slice-of-life character studies about quirky arty types. It is nicely put together, bits of it have a sort of overall ring of truth, and the performances are generally good. But it’s not one of the best films I’ve seen recently, nor really the most entertaining film I’ve seen with Greta Gerwig in it. I still think she is an actress to watch for, though.

Read Full Post »

It’s nice to see older folk developing a taste for travel far from their usual stamping grounds, although this usually takes the form of extended holidays. What’s slightly unusual about the ongoing Tour Grande du Woody Allen is that the celebrated director appears to be working all the way: having already made a number of films in London, Paris and Barcelona, Allen has now pitched up in Rome.

He claims this is simply due to the fact that he can only get funding for his films in Europe now, his American box office just not being strong enough – to be perfectly honest, I’m prepared to believe this, given the rather ropey quality of the recent Allen films I’ve seen. That said, I’m aware that Midnight in Paris was apparently something of a return to form – unfortunately I skipped seeing it in favour of Real Steel, which was probably a mistake. Nevertheless, the considerable success of Midnight has at least ensured that To Rome with Love (a lousy title apparently imposed on Allen) has secured a UK release beyond the confines of the arthouse. But does it warrant it?

Well, this film is a distinctly mixed bag, in tone if not in quality. The tendency towards multiple parallel plotlines which has distinguished many recent Allen movies has reached its logical conclusion, as this is a portmanteau film composed of four different stories which don’t intersect (and the intercutting between them seems a little disingenuous given they clearly occur in vastly different timeframes).

Most similar to recent Allen films is the story of Jesse Eisenberg’s character, who’s an architect living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). When they are visited by Gerwig’s best friend, an implausible free spirit played by Ellen Page, Eisenberg finds himself contending with an intense attraction to Page despite his existing relationship with Gerwig (this would have struck more of a chord with me had the roles of the two women been reversed – i.e. I’m developing a tendresse for Greta Gerwig – but there’s no accounting for taste). The story is coloured by a peculiar conceit where Alec Baldwin appears as a Greek chorus-like character who comments sourly on scenes and debates characters’ actions with them – but it’s made clear he’s not just a dramatic device but a character in his own right. What is clear is that, perhaps self-evidently, Jesse Eisenberg is uniquely well-placed amongst young performers to channel the spirit of Allen himself.

Elsewhere, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play young newlyweds in Rome for their honeymoon. Through a series of quirks, Tiberi finds himself having to pass off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride in front of his snooty family, while Mastronardi ends up being romanced by a famous movie star. This section is basically played as gentle farce, quite charmingly sexy in places, and also rather improbable – but engaging and funny all the same.

In perhaps the weakest segment, Roberto Benigni plays a middle-aged clerk who wakes up one day to discover he has inexplicably become a massive celebrity, his every doing now the subject of intense public and media interest. (This bit and the one with the newlyweds is actually performed in subtitled Italian, by the way.) Once again, it’s quite funny, but utterly insubstantial, and it quite clearly couldn’t support a whole movie on its own. Unlike the rest of the film, this part clearly has a message in mind, about the nature of celebrity: it’s not an especially profound one, but neither is it the one most mainstream films might choose to deliver.

However, best of all is a story starring Allen himself as the world’s least visionary avante-garde opera director, in the city to meet his daughters’ future in-laws. To his surprise he discovers that her future father-in-law (Fabio Armilliato) has an astounding singing voice – but only while he’s singing in the shower. The preposterous tale of how Allen sets about exploiting his fabulous discovery despite this trifling inconvenience is told deadpan: it’s utterly silly, but made irresistible by the presence of Allen himself, in his first appearance in one of his own films for ages. He’s as twitchy and neurotic and miserable as ever, and the talent for endless, off-hand one-liners is still there, such as when he frets about his son-in-law’s socialist politics: ‘I could never be a Communist – I can’t even share a bathroom!’ And many, many more. This is the strand of the film you’re always eager to get back to, almost solely due to Allen’s presence in it, and one wonders how much of the weakness in his recent movies is due to his decision to stay behind the camera.

As a whole the film is very entertaining and consistently funny, much moreso than any other recent Allen movie I’ve seen. It’s also flimsy, incredibly whimsical and frothy, with its origins as a marketing ploy for the Rome Tourist Board quite obvious. If you’re not a fan of Woody Allen already, then this is probably not the film to convert you to the cause: but if you’ve been waiting for him to produce another properly funny film, or indeed give another great comic performance himself, then To Rome with Love may be what you’ve been waiting for.

Read Full Post »

For some reason I’m always surprised when I turn up to the local arthouse and find the screening I want to attend packed out. I suppose this is because part of me still associates the idea of arthouse cinema with minority interest. Now, this may still be the case, and it’s simply that the arthouse management is just very good at maximising their return on a single screening: one day this week, for instance, it’s showing six different films at various times on its two screens. Most of these are only showing once, which will obviously lead to a good turnout for those particular showings. But I still wonder if the multiplexes might not benefit a little from casting their nets a little wider. (One should not complain too much: the coffeeshop has relented on its No Jason Statham policy and is showing one of the great man’s films for the first time since the summer of 2010. But more on that in a couple of days.)

So I arrived quite late and was forced to sit right at the front, and so received the closest thing to the IMAX experience you’re likely to get in suburban Oxford. (Given the rather inadequate rake of the smaller screen at the Phoenix this does have things to commend it.) The film which I saw at such close quarters was Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Formerly a critical darling after films like Barcelona and Metropolitan, Whitman has spent thirteen years making this film. Well, probably more like a few months actually making, after over a decade finding-the-financing. Is it a surprise that this particular film struggled to find funding? Well…

This is a comedy set on an American university campus, and like most films with this kind of setting it is concerned with the lives of students who spend lots of time in various bars, restaurants and bedrooms but apparently hardly any studying. It is somewhat distinctive, however, in that the bars, restaurants and bedrooms in question exist in a world which has only a nodding acquaintance with the one in which we live.

Upon transferring to Seven Oaks University, Lily (Analeigh Tipton) finds herself adopted by a clique of fellow students, led by Violet (Greta Gerwig). Violet and the others are not simply concerned with the sort of empty hedonism so much of university life revolves around. They have resolved to do good works and bring about the betterment of their fellow students. If you think this sounds wacky and unrealistic, you ain’t seen nothing yet: the kind of good works they are engaged in include helping suicidal and depressed students by giving them free doughnuts, going out with plain-looking and generally useless men as a sort of charitable venture, and attempting to launch their own dance craze.

This is mostly going on in the background of the story of the various romantic and emotional travails which beset Violet, Lily and the others. Pertinent features of these include fictitious careers in Strategic Development, the peculiar sexual practices of heretical mediaeval cults, oddly-scented soap, and some really atrocious spelling.

If, by this point, you find yourself thinking ‘Good God, this sounds like the most whimsical movie ever made!’, you may not be that far from the truth. However, Damsels in Distress produced a rather unusual response in me: after seeing a film I am generally very secure in my opinion, often to the point of blinkeredness. I can’t honestly understand why anyone seeing Quatermass and the Pit wouldn’t love it as much as I do, or at least appreciate its obvious virtues, just as I honestly can’t get into the same headspace as someone who didn’t consider Bruce Almighty a horrendous waste of time, money, and talent.

Now, I enjoyed Damsels in Distress rather a lot: it looks very nice, skips along perkily and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it’s engagingly played by the young cast. Greta Gerwig in particular gives a terrifically well-rounded performance with obvious star quality, and I look forward to seeing more from her in future. There are some extremely sharp and funny lines in Stillman’s script and I laughed a lot. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that the film bears virtually no resemblance to reality. The young women speak in such an affectedly mannered way and behave so improbably, and the young men are so ludicrously incompetent (one of them has managed to get to university without knowing the names of colours) that it’s impossible to take any of it remotely seriously. This is so obviously the case that it’s clearly a choice on Whitman’s part – the whole film has a deeply ironic sensibility.

On the other hand, Damsels in Distress is so obviously and completely detached from the real world that I can totally understand the objections I recently heard from someone who’d seen it (for free, no less) and come to the conclusion that it was one of the most intensely irritating films he’d ever seen. It is so mannered, so knowing, and so relentlessly quirky that I suspect it could rub anyone up the wrong way if they didn’t come to it in the right frame of mind. In short, there’s a strong case to be made that no matter what its virtues, Damsels in Distress is also colossally smug and annoying.

I don’t really know. I think that, either way, Damsels in Distress is attempting to walk an incredibly thin tightrope in its attempts to be intelligent and emotionally involving and yet at the same time exaggeratedly frothy and ironic. To what extent it succeeds is, I think, up to the individual viewer to decide. Certainly I don’t think it has anything of very great import to say about the university experience or relationships in the real world, except in the broadest and most epigrammatic terms. But as a slightly silly piece of entertainment, and something refreshingly different from anything I’ve seen in years, I thought Damsels in Distress hit the spot very agreeably.

Read Full Post »