REVIEW: “Mistress America”

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Noah Baumbach has a unique fascination with telling stories of high-strung eccentric chatterboxes who aren’t always the most likable people to be around. Some are airy and naive. Others are astringent and self-absorbed. But despite each of their quirks, annoyances, or repellent personalities, I’ve always found myself fascinated with Baumbach’s strange and often self-destructive creations.

Enter “Mistress America”, an unusual amalgamation of all of the above. It features most of the normal Baumbach signatures – neurotic and/or insecure people, a ton of hip rapid-fire dialogue, and a bustling New York City backdrop. As with every other film of his, a big part of your reaction will be influenced by your opinions of the characters and your tolerance levels for them.

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Baumbach’s favorite muse and girlfriend Greta Gerwig co-wrote the story and gets top billing, but the film is really about a girl named Tracy struggling to find her niche during her freshman year at college. She’s played by Lola Kirke who was very good in last year’s “Gone Girl”. Tracy feels like an outcast and can’t fit in with any of the typical college groups. Even the nerdy intellectuals pay her no attention except for a fellow writer named Tony (Matthew Shear). But even that relationship isn’t without its complexities.

Sensing her daughter’s melancholy, Tracy’s mom (Kathryn Erbe) encourages her to call up and connect with her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy is instantly smitten with Brooke’s panache and lively New York City lifestyle (stating in one scene “I can’t imagine the city without you”). Brooke talks a good game and seems to have her toe dipped in many of the city’s coolest waters. But as with many of these characters, there is reason for us to wonder if her life is truly all sunshine and roses.

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For the most part “Mistress America” succeeds on the exact same level as most of Baumbach’s pictures. The characters are interesting even in their peculiar states and the story could be called a simple platform for their idiosyncratic philosophizing, witty banter, and self reflections. Dialogue is always a focus and most of it works as quirky intellectual comedy and drama. But this also feeds into a couple of the film’s issues. There are moments where the back-and-forths between characters feel too scripted. Other exchanges work noticeably hard to be intellectually cool. I’m also not sold on some of the comedy angles we get later in the film.

Embracing Noah Baumbach means dealing with certain blemishes and minor frustrations. At the same time his unique characters, rich dialogue, and sharp wit is more than enough to make up for them. This particular dive into the fashionable problems of big city millennials may not measure up with Baumbach’s best. Yet it still manages to capture what I enjoy about his films and the uniqueness of his formula is always satisfying.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Frances Ha”

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“Frances Ha” is a movie that will either drive you insane or put you under its spell. It’s a movie filled with quirky conversations and some slightly eccentric characters each with their own set of problems. On the surface that may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea. But it really works because it revolves around a fascinating main character named Frances. She’s played by Greta Gerwig, an actress I really appreciate, and her central performance is what drives the film.

It could be said that nothing really happens in “Frances Ha”. The modest story follows Frances who at first shares a New York City apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances is a hapless struggling dancer who finds her circumstances more difficult after Sophie moves out. We watch her try to find an affordable place to stay. We watch her try to land a stable job. We watch her try and make new friends. But Frances could be called insecure and socially awkward. This leads her to try too hard to make impressions. This results in uncomfortable and often times embarrassing situations for her.

There is a big comedy element to this film so much of that is often played for laughs. But there is a subtle and sympathetic undercurrent that flows throughout the film. At times I genuinely felt for Frances as she stumbled over her words or didn’t know when to stop talking. One part of me was laughing while the other part felt guilty for doing so. Gerwig gets a ton of credit for that. She co-wrote the script alongside director Noah Baumbach and she has a real strength for playing this type of character. Sure, some may find her gawkiness annoying but not me. I truly found myself caring about this character.

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Baumbach does a great job contributing to the solid script but he also deserves credit for his direction. He chose to film in black-and-white and it really suits the picture. There are also numerous tips of the hat and homages ranging from Woody Allen to French New Wave cinema. For example, the black-and-white combined with the numerous New York City locales is an unmistakable tip of the hat to “Manhattan”. The film is also unique due to its rapid fire editing. It jumps from scene to scene, never staying in one place too long. But surprisingly it really works in this film and Baumbach is artful in his use.

“Frances Ha” certainly isn’t breaking new ground and some may not find its peculiarity all that entertaining. It does spin its wheels in spots and it may not blow you away with its ambition. But sometimes a movie doesn’t need to do those things to be successful. That’s the case with this film. “Frances Ha” works because of its intriguing central character, a great performance from Greta Gerwig, and a really interesting technical approach from Noah Baumbach. That was more than enough to make me really appreciate “Frances Ha”.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“DAMSELS IN DISTRESS” – 4.5 STARS

There’s few things better than being pleasantly surprised by a movie that you really weren’t expecting much from. Such was the case with “Damsels in Distress”, a quirky comedy written and directed by Whit Stillman. It’s almost impossible to put “Damsels in Distress” in a box or compare it to any other comedy out there. It’s an entirely unique movie that’s driven by its slick dialogue, cleverly constructed narrative, and its own special sense of humor. It’s not a movie that will have you constantly laughing out loud. But if you’re like me, you’ll be smiling all the way through it.

The story takes place at the East Coast college of Seven Oaks and focuses on a group of three eccentric girls with very unusual perspectives of college, boys, and life in general. Violet (Greta Gerwig) is the awkward and gawky group leader, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is Violet’s cynical long-time friend, and there’s Heather (Carrie MacLemore) whose peppy and agreeable demeanor fits perfectly with her two more verbal friends. The group finds fulfillment and purpose in things such as fashion and hygiene while making it their goal to enlighten and positively influence the degenerated student body around them. At the orientation for new students, the group almost forcibly takes a freshman, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), under their wings and makes it their mission to enlighten her on the keys to survival and achievement at the university.

The first thing I noticed about the film was the razor-sharp writing. This is most clearly evident in the dialogue. The girls converse about everything from frat houses to soap fragrances. So often their conversations wander off into hilariously absurd directions but Gerwig, Echikunwoke, and MacLemore deliver their lines with a deadpan sincerity that sell it completely. Most of the groups goals and perspectives come from Violet and stem from her need to be needed as well as her almost desperate pursuit of purpose. She heads the campus suicide prevention center. She prefers loser guys, or “doufi” as we come to know them, because they need stable and calming forces in their lives. She wants to start a new dance craze because of the emotional value past crazes have had on society. There is an almost sad undercurrent to the Violet character. In with the genuinely funny moments are scenes that show her to be a pitiful, sad, and sympathetic person. In fact, Stillman uses a clever trick of baiting the audience into laughing at the girls and then having us feel bad about doing so.

But there’s more going on that just this small group of eccentrics talking back and forth. We meet moronic frat guys who make the girls seem like Rhodes Scholars, a clinically depressed group who find tap dancing therapeutic, a self-absorbed Frenchman with a, shall we say, backwards religion, and several other side characters that work really well within the story. I also appreciated how this is a college movie that doesn’t cling to the conventions of most other college or frat films. I enjoyed the innocence and naivety that gives the movie a uniqueness and freshness that I haven’t seen in a while.

“Damsels in Distress” certainly can’t be called a traditional Hollywood comedy. But it’s certainly a good one. That being said, I can still see where it may not connect with some people. It’s quirky and unusual but also impressively intelligent in its silliness. I couldn’t get enough of the bizarre conversations, the straight-faced line deliveries, and the playful look at college life. But there is also some heart mixed with the humor that surprisingly works well. I’ve watched “Damsels in Distress” twice now and found that it only gets better. It’s a movie that has flown under many people’s radar but it deserves an audience. Especially considering the number of subpar films these days that pass as comedies.

“TO ROME WITH LOVE” – 2 STARS

I’ve never been a big Woody Allen fan. But my appreciation for his filmmaking grew with last year’s amazing “Midnight in Paris”, a fantastic film that was wonderfully written, genuinely funny, and purely magical. Allen’s European tour continue’s with “To Rome With Love” yet another romantic comedy taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. “To Rome With Love” is a collage of individual stories about a number of different people and their relationships, their predicaments, and their quirks. It starts by capturing some of that same magic that made “Midnight in Paris” such a strong film but the second half of the movie runs off the rails and the result is an uneven and ultimately disappointing result.

The different unconnected stories battle for screen time and all start on the right track. In one, Haley (Allison Pill), an American tourist visiting Rome meets, falls in love with, and is soon engaged to a local hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). After her parents fly over to meet his parents, her father (Woody Allen), who compares his recent retirement to a premature death, thinks his career is rejuvenated after discovering Michelangelo’s shower singing father (Fabio Armiliato). In another story, Roberto Benigni plays a mundane and predictable husband and father who suddenly becomes the object of immense fame and notoriety over nothing more than what type of underwear he wears and how he likes his toast.

In yet another story Alec Baldwin plays John, a middle-aged architect back in Rome visiting the neighborhood where he once lived as a young man. He bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Their relationship is strained when her best friend Monica (Ellen Paige) flies in to visit from the states. John follows Jack around everywhere sounding off warnings about his budding relationship with the flakey Monica. And then there are the reserved small-town newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome where the husband hopes to get a job from his wealthy family. Through several off-the-wall events, the two are separated in the city and each find their love for the other challenged by the people they meet including a  prostitute played by Penelope Cruz. This was easily the weakest story of the four.

These four storylines stay within their own individual walls and they never intersect with each other. As I mentioned they each start strong and Allen packs a lot of good laughs particularly the first half of the movie. At first I really thought Allen was doing something clever and crafty with the four stories. The film addresses an interesting array of issues and the characters are actually quite intriguing up to a point. But things begin to slowly turn sour and not only does Allen’s story fly wildly out of control but many of his characters become pretty pathetic individuals who depict the movie’s warped and cynical view of love, devotion, and relationships. Several of the characters are faced with sexual temptations and ultimately fall prey to them, some with almost no meaningful struggle of conscience. Other storylines become preposterous which is ok if you’re going somewhere with it. And while I definitely laughed at some of the over-the-top gags, keeping my loosely attached interest intact  hinged on the idea that Woody was doing more with these self-indulgent characters and outlandish situations than what we were seeing. As it turns out he really wasn’t.

As I’m sure you noticed, Allen still has a knack for attaching great talent to his productions. There’s not a bad performance in the entire film and the actors almost pull it off even when the material goes south. Woody Allen himself delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs while portraying the same neurotic and pessimistic character as in his other roles. Speaking of neurotic, but on a much smaller scale, I also really enjoyed Eisenberg’s performance as well. But the biggest star of the film may be the city of Rome itself. Allen truly has an affection for Rome and he goes to great lengths to show its history, beauty, and romantic charm. While Rome certainly doesn’t take on main character status as Paris did in “Midnight in Paris”, it’s still a key ingredient in giving the movie the romantic vibe its shooting for. In fact, for me the movie loses most of its sense of romance with the exception of the charming city that’s present in almost every scene. Even when I was growing detached from the stories, Allen’s camera would capture a location in Paris that sucked me back in.

“To Rome With Love” is truly a story of two halves. The first half of the movie was an absolute blast even though some of the four stories were more interesting than others. But in the second half of the movie I sat in the theater noticing that I hadn’t laughed in some time. As I slowly lost interest in the characters I began noticing that Allen really wasn’t going anywhere with the film. There’s no clever or memorable twist. It spits and sputters to its finale and by the end I was asking myself how Allen could have made two halves so totally different. I also wasn’t all that interested in Allen’s seemingly loose ideas of love, fidelity, and trustworthiness and in this case it hollowed out his characters with the exception of those in Haley and Michelangelo’s story. For some, the spectacular location and the number of funny moments will be enough to carry the picture. But for me it was terribly uneven and it ends up tearing down everything it itself creates. In fact, “To Rome With Love” feels like a film that needed another year of writing and production. The rushed results were nothing short of disappointing.