Tag: noah baumbach

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Comedies involving dysfunctional families are easy to make: throw in a bunch of superficially quirky personalities in a carbonated situation, shake it vigorously, and watch the reaction occur. But to make a good comedy that just so happens to focus on a dysfunctional family requires a bit more effort, some finesse, because the viewers are asked to attempt to understand how each mind is working, why certain personalities clash, and what present conflicts stem from which histories, real or imagined. Clearly, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, belongs to the latter because it concerned about mental machinations and acrobatics behind behavior.

The characters we are asked to observe have been touched by the art world one way or another. Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch, has two sons (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and a daughter (Elizabeth Marvel), none of whom have forged a career in the arts as he had once wished or expected. Harold the sculptor and former Bard College professor is an interesting specimen because although he does not mince words not once does he say outright that he is disappointed with his children.

Instead, the material and Hoffman focus on showing, occasionally underlining, what seeps through the cracks. We can catch the father’s regrets in the way he treats his children, one of them being the clear favorite but a disappointment nonetheless. Notice numerous instances in which he and his offsprings, as a group or one-on-one, are sitting on the same table but consistently talking through one another. Some may consider this technique as classic comedy trope but peer closer and realize that it is a symptom of passive aggression.

The script functions on this level of intelligence and realism throughout the entire picture. It is refreshing to hear the way people actually speak or behave with one another as we do in real life rather than yet another tired and true ideations gracing the screen. Although the dysfunctional family sub-genre is rife with clichés, Baumbach tweaks the formula just enough to keep the material interesting, whether it be in terms of characterization or how a scene is delivered. An example of the latter involves fading to black right in the middle of interactions, sometimes mid-conversation, when the punchline has been delivered.

Although the characters are well-drawn in general, I was less impressed by Sandler and Stiller’s performances, particularly when they revert to their go-to histrionics to wring laughter out of the audience. I enjoyed it best when they simply respond as real people when thrusted in certain situations. Yelling like madmen, destroying cars, and getting into a scuffle on a lawn, for instance, take us out of the situation. Right then we see Sandler and Stiller the comedians rather than Danny and Matthew the long-suffering half-brothers, the former currently unemployed and the latter a successful Los Angeles-based financial advisor.

Baumbach does not offer anything new in this project, but it is entertaining and honest about family dynamics and the shifts that inevitably occur when tragedy befalls a clan. Observant viewers will be rewarded because it is a picture that details information through subtle usage of words and body language.

Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

All is sparkly and happy between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend until Sophie (Mickey Sumner) confesses that she wishes to move out of their apartment and move in with a person called Lisa. The neighborhood is supposed to be nicer than the one they live in now. Sophie is Frances’ anchor and so when they no longer share the same space and have a chance to see each other all the time, Frances must get accustomed to being on her own. To Frances, losing Sophie proves more of a challenge than a recent breakup.

“Frances Ha,” written by Noah Baumbach and Gerwig, reminds me of a high school freshman assignment teachers like to assign in the beginning of the year: an “I Am” poster meant to illustrate the different aspects of oneself. Here, we get a real sense of the main character and I was surprised with how invested I was when it comes to every digression from the main plot. In a way, the film is not about plot. Perhaps it is meant to be a collage.

Gerwig is in every scene and there is not one moment where she fails to snag our attention. She can be jumping about and running around the streets of Brooklyn to search for an ATM or sitting in her apartment looking like her world is about to end. Either way, Gerwig finds ways to make us want to give Frances a big hug. Her positivity is infectious and so we sympathize when things do not go her way—even if she is to blame sometimes—and are uplifted when something nice happens.

Deciding to present the images in black and white feels right. Because the character’s personality is so extreme at times (either one is likely to find her lovable or downright annoying), along with the fluctuations in her mood, the lack of bright colors helps to neutralize or ground what we are experiencing. At one point I wondered if the images were meant to be a series of memories, the character looking back on a not-so-distant past. It might explain why characters we come to meet consistently have a quirk about them—filtered through the lens in which Frances processes those around her.

If this is meant to be a definitive experience of a twenty-something, I am a stranger to it. Maybe it is due to the fact that I do not live in a big city like NYC or LA. I never struggled to pay rent or had to borrow money from my parents. Perhaps it is due to the people I’m drawn toward naturally or a select few of whom I’ve chosen to keep in my life. Or maybe it is because I don’t know how it’s like to pursue a career related in the arts.

Whatever it is, in theory, I should not be able to relate to any of these characters—or at least not that much. But I do—with Frances anyway. I liked that she is a decent person who does not necessarily always do what is right—for herself and those she loves. Sometimes she’s selfish. She’s immature. But she’s learning.

Mistress America

Mistress America (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Mistress America,” written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, is consistently amusing because it manages to capture the ironies, confusion, and insecurities of a young woman feeling like she is floundering in life—and is helpless to do anything about it. Yet at times the picture is a great frustration, too. About halfway through, it shifts location from New York City to an affluent area in Connecticut and one wonders if it is the writers’ intent to satirize its characters rather than continuing to get us to relate to their challenges.

Gerwig plays Brooke, a woman in her thirties with many—perhaps too many—ideas and dreams. Although she starts to find ways to achieve them, it is almost a self-destructive habit that she consistently fails to follow through. This gives her a great unhappiness that she attempts to hide by acting hip, relevant, and fun. Brooke’s father is to marry Tracy’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) during the coming Thanksgiving. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is reminded by her mother to call Brooke so they can get to know each other more. After all, they are only a bus or a subway ride away from one another.

The film reaches the peak of its power as the two young women meet, attend clubs, party, and have sleepovers. Pay particular attention to the manner in which their conversations unfold—because these are often one-sided. They may share a table over dinner or drinks but there is a lack of genuine connection between them because Brooke is, essentially, a selfish individual; the conversations must always be about her problems and concerns about achieving some kind of success that she fails to realize that the person in front of her idolizes her so deeply.

Tracy and Brooke’s hangouts are appropriately shot with an almost dreamy, yellowish glow. And yet the various locations they visit look and feel genuine. For instance, when Times Square is shown, it is not some idealized version found in glossy magazines or more mainstream pictures. It shows a disorganized place, almost disorienting in the number people walking around and amount of traffic in the streets. Getting details like this correctly is most necessary because it pushes the point that both subjects hold such a high regard about the city that they have become blind to the fact that maybe NYC is not as wonderful as they imaged it to be prior to joining the hustle, bustle, and competition.

In scenes depicting the two spending time together, notice that the camera rarely lingers on a shot or a scene. There is an energetic youth about it that feels detached, unconcerned about portraying any trace of substance. One-liners are often funny so we snicker a bit—and yet the more we think about these lines carefully, we realize there is a lack of logic or substance to them. These passing words mean nothing—and Brooke is used to saying such nothings because she is not at all a good listener. We wonder if she is merely pulling out these lines from books she barely read and never finished.

Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Mistress America” loses some power as the story moves from NYC to Connecticut—not just because there is a lack of control when it comes to the type of comedy it wishes to show. The comedy feels forced; there is a great schism between a more natural approach, despite some level of quirkiness, during the first half and the unnatural confrontations in the form of whining and yelling during the latter half. Due to this confusion, one wonders what kind of message the writers hoped to get across.

While We’re Young

While We’re Young (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) meet a couple in their mid-twenties, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), an aspiring documentarian and an ice cream maker, respectively, and the former are reminded of their age—how they have lost track of the many things they wanted to accomplish because life had gotten in the way. Hoping to relive the spirit of their youth, the middle-aged couple spends more time with Jamie and Darby, unaware that these two are not exactly what they seem.

“While We’re Young,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a struggle to sit through not only because of its standard, dull storyline but also because of its sluggish pacing. At one point there is a scene in the film where Stiller’s character is pitching a documentary—one that is charmless, dry, and convoluted—to a potential financial backer (Ryan Servant) and the latter just sits there feeling bored and wanting to play around with his cell phone. I imagine that the audience, including myself, is that man personified on film.

A few bits are amusing. Cornelia and Josh trying so hard to be young again is shot and performed with effervescence and a bona fide sense of humor. I never knew that Watts has a knack for physical comedy, especially the scene when her character tries hip-hop dancing. I can’t wait to YouTube that scene again. However, there are not enough of these surprising moments dispersed throughout the picture.

Pretty clever is the sequence that highlights the disparity between the two couples. For instance, Josh and Cornelia play games on their iPad while Jamie and Darby play board games. Jamie and Darby listen to records, Josh and Cornelia listen to CDs. The comedy works because we expect for the younger couple to lean toward technology while the other is more into “old-fashioned” things like reading an actual book than on a screen.

What does not work entirely is the forced drama between Josh and Cornelia. Just about every time they get into an argument, I noticed myself becoming increasingly frustrated because it almost always comes down to them not having much success with having a baby. Although Stiller and Watts try the best they can with the material, the lines often feel too script-like—which is not at all foreign to a Baumbach film but it is very jarring in this movie because the story is supposed to be a convincing comedy-drama.

Jamie and Darby not given depth prior to the turning point is a miscalculation. I was never convinced that they were as interesting a couple as Josh and Cornelia thought they were. This disconnect is a problem because the screenplay attempts to make them more human or relatable toward the end, but the entire thing comes across as disingenuous, all too convenient for the plot. These characters needed to be rewritten.

“While We’re Young” is likely to impress those who have not seen very many films— dramatic, comedic, or a mix of both—about aging as well as the concerns and awkwardness that come with it. The picture is not without good ideas but the execution lacks heft and power. Clearly this work is not made by Baumbach at the top of his form.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) were supposed to go back to New York City with the help the penguins, but an extended trip by the latter group in a Monte Carlo casino made the former grew extremely restless. Though the gang was able to follow the penguins and pry them off the casino tables successfully, a high-speed chase between the animals and an animal control personnel, Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand), left the city in ruins. In order not to stick out like a sore thumb in Europe, Alex and his friends pretended to be a part of a traveling circus. Based on the screenplay by Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” was neither impressive nor unbearably terrible although it did depend on putting all its eggs in one basket, the bulk of its cotton candy humor targeted toward children while the crumbs, not at all tasty, were left for adults. As usual, a lot of effort was taken to make the characters on screen look colorful in order to create an illusion of energy or spark between and among the characters. The picture was most enjoyable to watch during its chase sequences; defying the laws of physics left and right proved unpredictable and entertaining. There was a funky rhythm between wide shots, placing emphasis on the action, and when the camera zoomed in on the characters’ faces, underlining the emotions of the wild experience. I liked that Captain DuBois was established as a formidable villain very early on. This was a woman so obsessed with her job, she actually had the ability to detect and follow animal musk for miles. I believed that if she got her hands on the animals, she would hurt them and enjoy every second of it. The filmmakers wanted us to dislike her so much, it was pretty amusing how she had only heads of cute-looking animals, like puppies and kittens, hung on the walls of her office. However, when Alex and his friends were given a chance to speak, there was no depth from their interactions. They were supposed to have purpose but their determination to return to New York City was not given a chance to be felt by the audience through more complicated or subtle story devices. Therefore, for example, grand speeches that were meant to inspire felt completely forced and phony. The new characters such as Stefano the seal (Martin Short), Gia the cheetah (Jessica Chastain), and Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston) were not especially exciting. Stefano was the most interesting due to his inability to read sarcasm, flat-out lies, and compliments. I was tickled at times by his jelly-like movements because it matched his unrelenting eagerness. Meanwhile, Gia and Vitaly’s more relaxed energy made it feel like they were taken from another animated film. They weren’t given anything particularly interesting to say or do so we had to wonder why they were introduced in the first place. While understandable that “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon, aimed to entertain very young children, it would not have taken too much effort to break from the formula of introducing a problem in one scene and solving it within thirty seconds. It felt lazy. If anything, the filmmakers should have worked harder to keep and stretch children’s attention spans through consistent and varied creativity instead of resting on the same old song and dance.

I’m Still Here

I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.


Greenberg (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) visited Los Angeles to live in his brother’s home right when he just checked out of a mental hospital due to a nervous breakdown. Coincidentally, he started to have feelings for his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig) as the two of them took care of the family dog that was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. “Greenberg,” like its main character, tried too hard to stay away from the commercial offerings of pop culture. Sometimes it worked but there were times when it became borderline pretentious. During the picture’s mission to avoid attaching to the norm, I felt as though it built a wall around itself and I found it challenging to access its emotional core. Stiller did a good job playing an against type and I wish he had more characters like Roger in his repertoire. I enjoyed discovering the way he hid behind his sarcastic remarks in order to not deal with his insecurities, the way he constantly ran away from his past but at the same time unable to move on from certain broken relationships, and the way he dealt with aging and not having a career that he found meaningful or rewarding. It was easy to feel sorry for him but I was glad that the film made Roger somewhat difficult to like because there were times when he hurt those who genuinely cared for him for no good reason. Gerwig also did a wonderful job trying to find love in all the wrong places. What I enjoyed about her character most was the manner in which she told her quirky stories that led nowhere. This often bothered the lead character because he wanted to see purpose in everything. Some reviews from audiences claimed that they did not understand why this was supposed to be a comedy when there was nothing funny about it. I believe the film had a dry sense of humor which is sometimes inaccessible. I enjoyed its subtlety because it required understanding the characters a little bit in order to see the reason why something was funny when a character was placed in a specific situation. However, even I have to admit that I questioned where the movie was going or what it was trying to achieve. It had some brilliant moments that came few and far between. My favorite scene was when Roger talked about how different twentysomethings are nowadays compared to twentysomethings back in the late seventies or early eighties. The script was compelling because I felt a mix of bitterness, regret, anger and sadness in Stiller’s delivery, which I was not aware that he could pull off because I was used to seeing him in more obvious comedies. It would have also been nice if the film did not leave us hanging even if I understood why it ended the way it did. Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg” is a movie that is unpredictably bittersweet, sometimes challenging but often a frustrating to sit through. If it did not have so many walls and did not try so hard, I think it would have been much stronger and more memorable.

Kicking and Screaming

Kicking and Screaming (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

Four friends (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles) decided to move in together after graduation. The thing was, they still lived very close to campus because they couldn’t quite let go of college and they still weren’t ready to face the “real world” for various reasons. What I appreciated most about this film was its honesty. Although it had many quotable one-liners and very funny dry humor, all of it almost always felt secondary so it didn’t feel gimmicky. It felt modern but realistic. The core of the movie was always at the forefront: the four friends feeling lost and the way they tried to deal with the pressures of essentially getting stuck at a specific point in their lives. I liked the fact that the four characters were smart and had potential to be great yet they found themselves hanging out in the same places and having the same kinds of conversations about literature and pop culture. This was highlighted by a girl always telling them that they talked the same. There was a certain sadness about it all because the characters constantly avoided the main issue of lacking the motivation to pursue their potential. Instead, they distracted themselves by magnifying every small problem to instill some sort of meaning in their lives. Another element I thought was interesting was Eric Stoltz who played a tenth-year student. The four characters recognized that they didn’t want to end up like him yet time and again they made decisions that would most likely lead them in the same path. “Kicking and Screaming,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a story of postcollege angst for astute individuals who are willing to look past the surface and extract meaning from certain glances and dialogues. I read a review stating that this movie was simply a series of random scenes of twenty-two-year-olds being lazy and it didn’t come together in the end. I disagree in some ways. While it did feature random scenes that didn’t add up to anything, I think those scenes reflected the characters’ inner turmoil of not knowing what to do with their lives. After an expensive education, everyone sort of expected them to do something meaningful. Because of the paralyzing fear of living up to people’s expectations, they became stuck; each day blended against the other and the fact that they did the same thing every day didn’t help their situation. As for the way the picture ended, I thought it was borderline great. There was something heartbreaking about that scene in the airport yet something so sweet about the Hamilton’s conversation with the girl who liked to give people money if she believed she wasted their time. “Kicking and Screaming” is not for everyone because it’s heavy on dialogue and Baumbach lets the audiences derive meaning from it instead of spoon-feeding us what to think and feel.