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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mistress America - A Film Review



Mistress America is a 2015 comedy-drama directed by Noah Baumbach. It stars Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke. It is about the friendship between two soon-to-be stepsisters, one who is a sheltered college freshman (Kirke), and the other an older charismatic party girl (Gerwig). I haven’t liked Noah Baumbach's movies (both Kicking and Screaming for its pretentiousness and Margot and the Wedding for its depressing mood), but I thought a comedy would be different, and it wasn't.
Tracy (Kirke) is beginning her freshman year at Barnard in NYC, and is having a hard time adjusting to living away from home (New Jersey) for the first time, as well as making new friends. She has awkward fumblings with her classmates during group discussions; submits her story to the school literary society and scampers away like a scared kid when spotted dropping her story in the submission box (only to be later rejected as a candidate); begins a charming and blossoming relationship with a classmate(Shear), but is disappointed when he begins dating someone else; and eats alone at lunch, putting both a slice of pizza and a bowl of cereal on her tray, and avoiding sweets in order to fit in with her elite peers.
To combat her loneliness, she takes her mother’s advice and calls her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig) (after scrolling through a list of contacts on her iPhone with a broken screen), who is 31 and lives in the city. Brooke is a whirlwind of big-city chicness, a bon vivant Holly Golightly type who lives in a studio space in Times Square, sings in a band, hobknobs at parties, teaches spinning classes, and speaks of her romantic visions of what NYC should be, all while frequently talking about herself in one breath and captivating the starry-eyed Tracy, who takes notes and writes a story entitled “Mistress America,” starring a carefree and glamorous heroine based on Brooke.
Brooke was an obnoxious character to watch. Gerwig delivered a good performance, but she didn’t have the charm to pull off this selfish and bubble-headed bon vivant. Her character constantly talked at a busy pace that was irritating, like she wouldn't take a breath and let others speak, and she was grossly narcissistic and immature, especially in her 30s, which was pathetic. Although there is a revealing moment where Brooke shows emotional vulnerability while talking to her dad on the phone, it is a brief moment before she returns to her exasperating self.
In addition, there is an awkward and uncomfortable scene where Brooke is confronted in a bar by a former high school classmate who had been bullied by Brooke, and to see Brooke frequently dismissing the former classmate by innocently claiming she didn’t know her and insulting her for still being upset about this bullying was maddening to watch, as Brooke seemed entirely selfish to the point of not having empathy for anyone else and living inside of her own self-made bubble to protect herself from hurt.
Lola Kirke’s performance as Tracy was one of the most realistic in the film, and it was wonderful to see her character gain confidence in herself throughout the film and slowly realize that she is much smarter and much more together than anyone else in the room. Kirke previously excelled in playing a small but memorable role in Gone Girl as a thief, and was virtually unrecognizable in this film. So that is a testament to her versatile acting ability that she succeeded at playing both a college freshman seeing Brooke’s world through rose-colored eyes and a street-smart Louisiana thief who figures out Amy’s deceptive personality much more quickly than others. Tracy was a very identifiable character for anyone who has been a college freshman, for when she was feeling lost at school and trying to navigate the social scene and missing home, those were some of the most honest parts of the film.
The story escalates when Brooke, who dreams of opening a restaurant that is a trendy neighborhood hangout called Mom’s (“So that people can say, ‘Let’s go have dinner at ‘Mom’s’”), goes to Greenwich, CT to take care of unfinished business, namely to confront her former friend and her husband over a money dispute, and along with Brooke comes Tracy and her classroom crush and his insanely jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who arrive at the house, and the screwball comedy antics begins. People are coming in and out of rooms, doing callbacks to earlier lines, there are misunderstandings, and old issues from the past are dredged up. The sequence is an obvious attempt at screwball comedy, but the execution felt rushed and hammy, as if the characters knew what kind of movie they were in. It felt very fake and predictable, and got old and tiring to watch very quickly, especially since very few of the characters were interesting or had depth to them.
However, an enjoyable highlight of the film was the soundtrack by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. It sounded like authentic 80's synth-pop, but it was original music composed by them, and it added a special quality to the film, like romantic and happy and excitement over new adventures.
The film has mixed qualities. Baumbach has an eye for talented actors, comedic one-liners, and self-aware depictions of urban and upscale creative types. But the attempt at screwball comedy by both him and Gerwig came across as heavy-handed and obvious, and did not flow as naturally as it did in the films that they said was their inspiration, After Hours and Something Wild. The film is just under 90 minutes, but the premise and characters wear out their welcome within the first hour, and it gets tedious to watch from then on.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Short Thoughts on Magic Mike: XXL

Magic Mike: XXL was a lot of fun to watch. It cut out the melodrama from the first movie, got rid of Matthew McConaughey's creepy self, and put the focus on a group of friends taking a road trip to dance at a stripper convention, with awesome dance sequences along the way. Jada Pinkett Smith was really good as the emcee friend of Mike's, and I was happy to see more talented dancers added in, like Twitch and NYC voguers. And a woman choreographed the dances, which I was surprised but happy to see.
I could have done without the stripper dances by Kevin Nash and Michael Strahan, those were just creepy to watch. But everything else was good, and Joe Manganiello was surprisingly really funny in this. Tatum's dance scene early on was like a Flashdance/Footloose homage with a reprise of "Pony," it was awesome. I was happy to see a fun dance movie that cut unnecessary crap out of the way and reveled in itself.

Short Thoughts on The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Last month, I watched The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, and missed Robin Williams. Besides his stellar career in standup and Hollywood films, he was really good in indie dark comedies, like this one and World's Greatest Dad. He could downplay his star self to play ordinary characters in offbeat, smaller films, and really was a unique talent in standup and comedic and dramatic films. It wasn't a major story, more about appreciating life while getting to be angry about death at the same time. It was enjoyable and touching and interesting.

Short Thoughts on Beginners

I really enjoyed watching Beginners last month. I thought it was a really good film about starting over in life, dealing with life changes, forming new relationships, and re-examining one's attitude in life. It just struck me as a special film and very touching and moving. It starred Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and a cute little dog. Bonus: my uncle Mike had a small part in the film as a priest.

My Most Influential Movies Growing Up


  • Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (it introduced me to absurd humor, and I loved the variety of characters during Pee-Wee's quest to get his bike back)
  • The Professional (it was the first "adult" movie I had seen when I was 12, and I thought the dialogue was fascinating, and I fell for the lead characters and their complexity)
  • Angus (one of the most real movies about high school that I have seen)
  • Beauty and the Beast (gorgeous animation, beautiful songs, and a female lead who is bookish and brave and smart)
  • Big (it made me want to grow up and join the adult world)
  • Clueless (sharp, funny dialogue that was quotable to me as a kid)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (it was one of the first "dark, gritty" movies I had seen, and it made me love movies in that style, as well as appreciating the maturity in the story when I was 7).

Until the End of the World and The Unbelievable Truth - Film Reviews

This past weekend, I enjoyed seeing two movie screenings for free.
One was a press screening of the Director's Cut of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, his 1991 sci-fi road trip epic. The theatrical version was nearly three hours long, but Wenders didn't like that version, calling it the "Reader's Digest" version. So in 1994, he released his five-hour version, with more extended scenes, more background on the characters, more comedic moments, etc. even with an intermission, it was long as hell to watch, but excellent. It was like a miniseries edited as one long movie. I could see why some parts were cut out (scenes that do not have to with the major plot, exposition scenes, silly comic scenes), but I still loved it, and think it is an amazing movie. Plus, the soundtrack is spectacular. smile emoticon
The other movie I saw was at BAM, from 1989, called The Unbelievable Truth, starring Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke, and directed by Hal Hartley. It is about a morbid teen girl and an ex-con who find kinship with each other in a close-knit working class Long Island town. I really liked it, and it was a lot funnier than I expected. It was a cool movie, with really good performances, and I was happy to see a really good indie movie from much maligned Long Island.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Faults - A Film Review



Faults is a 2014 drama written and directed by Riley Stearns and starring Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The film is about a deprogrammer (Orser) who is working on de-brainwashing a young cult member (Winstead).  The film is a serious drama, though has moments of black comedy that break up the tension, and give it a sharp and critical look at the nature of manipulation and brainwashing.

                Ansel Roth (Orser) is a famous cult specialist who had written a successful book about cults and deprogramming cult members to live healthy lives as their previous selves. His career and life was ruined by the death of a cult member he tried to save, whose demise the media blamed on him for both not saving her and exploiting her for book sales. He even is so pathetic as to reuse a voucher found in the garbage to get a free meal at a hotel restaurant, and is tossed out, later leading a speaking engagement at that same hotel. At the speaking gig, he has fallen from his former glory, and just pushes his book on the audience, requesting purchases of $15 per book, plus an additional $5 for signatures.

                A middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis, Beth Grant) approach him after one of his gigs, asking him to help them with their daughter, who has been brainwashed by a cult. He is reluctant, saying he doesn’t care anymore, but ultimately agrees to the job, in part because he owes a great debt to his manager. He kidnaps Claire (Winstead), using the help of a couple of hired goons, and holds her hostage in a motel room, giving himself five days to deprogram her. After that, if he cannot cure her, she is free to go wherever she pleases.


                Claire is a very self-assured and calm woman, and doesn’t believe herself to be brainwashed, seeing herself as “reborn” and “Claire” as her former self, who was weak and stupid, and is now her “true” self. She explains the cult Faults as “from the faults comes a change.” Orser and Winstead share an electric rhythm with one another, as Ansel prickles with nervous energy and desperation, while Claire speaks with a serene calm and a convincing manner of her cult’s teachings.

Winstead delivers a performance with depth and intelligence, as a perceptive woman who has been brainwashed by a cult, yet speaks of it with clarity and poise. Winstead is a talented and versatile actress, who often flies below the radar of mainstream Hollywood, yet is one of its underrated talents. Orser’s performance is solid, as a failure of a man trying to hide his desperation with an insistent tone of voice, employing his methods to cure Claire and absolve himself of his previous failures.


Faults is an interesting film that, while not perfect, is a unique blend of thriller and black comedy, with two commanding performances that carry the story into an interesting slow burn of a film. It is streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend it.