Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

To The Wonder by Terrence Malick

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (played by Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (played by Rachel McAdams).

To the Wonder is the most Terrence Malick-y out of all the Terrence Malick films I have seen (The Thin Red LineTree of Life thus far). The tranquil characters run around playing with each other or stare angrily at each other to give the silent treatment. Every action, expression or object is an inner feeling, trying to evoke sense memories like a glossy choppy nonsensical Prada perfume commercial. For example, a couple racing through a grass field playing tag evokes one kind of feeling, whereas the same couple embraced looking at each other grimly by a living room window evokes another. People in real life do not behave this way but it doesn’t matter. It’s the overall sum of how everything feels.

The way To the Wonder is told makes it impossible to say anything about the cast or performances. The actors are mere colors being applied on a bigger canvas. Malick’s trademark whispering voice-overs are our only true source to what these characters are feeling.

To go off a tangent for a second, the use of voice-overs is usually frowned upon in screenwriting. Screenwriters are often snotty about this, but Terrence Malick applies them well. Yes, it’s an easy device to telegraph how a character is feeling at any point in the story and that can easily be cheapened. However, god is in the details and one should access thesubtextual use of voice-over in contrast to the supertext. The actors are all taciturn and physically performing their emotions to the point that the voice-over is the dialogue. It’s that combination of choices that creates the ephemeral feeling that we’re seeing inside the character’s souls. So I don’t have a problem with that at all.

The plot summary above is pretty sums up the entire story, but that’s not the point. Malick is solely interested in the human soul, not character or plot. It is a film about how people cyclically seek love and faith, lose them and have to find faith to believe in love again. Priorities shift, desires change, and people are ever-changing. I liked that core message. Malick himself seems to place more hope on faith. I connected more to the love part than the faith part.

I stayed with To the Wonder till around the 90-minute mark out of its 112-minute running time, and then I started to tune out from fatigue of having to feel so deeply into an empty canvas. The more you want to walk into Malick’s abstract world, the more experiential the film will be. However, the audience must take that very first step. So for that, it’s more appropriate to view this at home where you can rewind in case you drift out of the film.

In context to Malick’s filmography, I would have preferred something to happen in the third act for something to lift itself to somewhere else. Comparing it to his last film Tree of Life, his directorial voice seems to growing more raw and barebones. And for that, my favorite Terrence Malick film remains The Thin Red Line. For anyone who hasn’t seen Malick’s work, perhaps they can start with that one. To the Wonder is definitely not for everybody, but I recommend it to any Malick fans. 

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I’m a loyal Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and Stardust Memories. Even the so-called bad Woody Allen (I didn’t think Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else was terrible, I thought they were still funny) films manage to entertain me. I like that he’s disciplined and a no-nonsense writer and director.

I’m currently battling the cliche of whether I should make a Top Ten List of 2011. I wasn’t going to write a review for Midnight in Paris as I saw the film months ago. But watching Hugo and seeing it’s attempt at trying to enchant me reminded me of how Midnight in Paris did it so much better. Hugo did it with the use of space, but Midnight in Paris does it with space and character. This movie truly enchanted me. So I figure instead of writing a top ten list, I’ll just write reviews of the films that I liked in 2011 instead. So on with my thoughts…

If there’s anything Woody Allen does well, it’s casting (also to the credit of Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor). He find the right people to do the job through spotting the distinct characteristics in actors and susses out their aura to tell a story. This is the best use of Owen Wilson in a role that I have seen. I never knew what was unique about Owen Wilson till now. And here’s what it is: Owen Wilson embodies a sense of wonderment (“Wow, look at that.” “Gosh, that’s amazing!”) and he  acts as an avatar for the audience in experiencing Paris’ beauty. Yes, of course, we know Paris is beautiful and enchanting but it’s through his energy that the viewer can feel enraptured by everything around him.

That also said, I also think this was my favorite Adrian Brody performance as well. This was another actor that I never could tell what his strength was, but too like Owen Wilson, he shines in Midnight in Paris. I know of Salvador Dali and seen enough of his photographs to know his physicality and the specific way he stares at people. I do think Brody captures that precisely in this small role. It’s also refreshing to see Rachel McAdams play a bitchier character. If there’s an award for best ensemble cast, Midnight in Paris  should take the cake. Also noteworthy performances were Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (who recites all his dialogue in Hemingway-like prose). Through the scope of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, who is currently writing a novel about nostalgia, every artist’s appearance is a delightful joy. It’s like crashing an old costume party and meeting all your idols.We see how he’s excited to be amongst these people and as the audience is seduced to wanting to hang out with the Lost Generation as well.

Paris is a major character in the story. The opening montage of Paris evokes a similar stroke Allen did in the opening montage in Manhattan. It captures the energy of the city and it embodies a personal love for the place. We see the streets, the restaurants, the book stores, the cafes and we imagine what we would do there if we were there. The film takes it to almost a jokey tongue-in-cheek level since you have the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni, whom I also like her music) as the local French tour guide.

The film charms you and you can’t help but fall into it and be whisked away to a fun joyful place. This is easily going onto my favorite movies of the year and now officially one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures.

What else can I say? Woody Allen, give me a hug!

Related Reviews
Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.

For Lovers Only by Michael Polish

For Lovers Only (film)

For Lovers Only bb Mark Polish

A reporter chances upon a former lover while on assignment in France.

Have you ever strolled with your girlfriend down the street in the perfect mutual moment and wished somebody photographed the both of you at the right angle and turned it into a postcard? That’s what this film feels like from beginning to end.

For Lovers Only is a completely intoxicating assault on the senses. They completely capture the intimacy of human touch; someone stroking your hair, nibbling your ear, the saliva strings between kisses, stroking their fingers across your back while clamping their legs around you in a deep embrace. It’s every picture-perfect chocolaty moment that any hopeless romantic would love to experience.

Stana Katic looks divine; her beauty makes me want to cry. Suffice to say, she gives a good performance. Mark Polish is fine but his performance is hidden beneath his sunglasses. Together they both make a believable couple and most importantly create the mutual overwhelming rush of passion. Also noteworthy is the film’s sensuous soundtrack, of which I listened through the film’s closing credits.

Romantic as it is, the Polish brothers also present an insightful examination of love. Relationships are spatial and temporal, and we are confined by how close we are and how much time we have. It’s always in moments of ecstasy where time zips by, you begin counting the seconds before the moment is gone. For Lovers Only incorporates this into its film language, most notably in its montage sequences.

Here we see how love amplifies everything up to eleven, how everything becomes life and death (which justifies the dreamy black and white cinematography). And how there is only one person for you in the entire world, right before you wake up and snap out of it. Through the sweet and the sour, we realize Sofia and Yves are intertwined in this moment of passion because of their past relationship and by the romantic excitement of their chance encounter. It’s suddenly romantic when they’re reminded how they are so used to each other. But does familiarity make a lasting relationship? That becomes the film’s central question, but they leave it up for the audience to answer themselves.

In the end, unlike the typical Hollywood romance, this film chooses the emotional journey of love over the final result of whether love is obtained. For Lovers Only is a bittersweet dark chocolate of a film and I recommend every romantic couple have a 89-minute affair with it. And for that, it seems appropriate to recommend this for Valentine’s Day as well.