Archive | December, 2015

Mistress America (2015)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Following my review of “While We’re Young,” this is yet another 2015 film from Noah Baumbach that left a weird impression on me—from confusion to praise in a matter of time. Baumbach usually writes his characters as ignorant, self-praising, gullible, and disagreeable. That, plus his biting dialogue, can throw moviegoers off, but when they, like me, can get past that in order to see the characters for who they are and what exactly Baumbach is saying with his direction, there is something fascinatingly insightful about much of his films. (And it also helps that he’s lightened up a little since 2010’s “Greenberg,” probably thanks to his collaboration with co-writer/actress Greta Gerwig.) That’s how I came to enjoy “While We’re Young” and that’s how I came to enjoy “Mistress America.”

If “While We’re Young” was Baumbach’s “Woody Allen film,” then “Mistress America” is both his screwball comedy and his “John Hughes film,” complete with lots of sharp dialogue, revelations about characters, intriguing but unusual detail, and even some unnecessary comic relief and a hollow tempo score.

The main character is a college freshman named Tracy (well-played by Elizabeth Olsen lookalike Lola Kirke), who has trouble fitting in at Columbia University. She feels overwhelmed by the college experience, doesn’t have anyone to talk to or connect with, and isn’t sure of exactly what she wants. She has some idea when she signs up for a campus literary magazine and writes a short story for it, but she’s not so sure she’ll get in. She meets a nice intellectual boy (Matthew Shear), but he gets a girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) soon enough. Then she meets Brooke, who is the daughter of the man Tracy’s mother is going to marry…

Greta Gerwig co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach after working together on “Frances Ha” and stars as Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker who has many ambitions…and will not shut up about them. She talks and talks and talks. She rarely listens to people even when they have something important to say because she’s too busy listening to herself. She wants to be influential and prominent and successful, like most young people aspiring for something great. But also like most young people, she has no clear (or at least realistic) plan to achieve her goals (and for that matter, it’s unclear if she truly has any particular talents anyway). She and Tracy meet due to Tracy’s mother’s insistence and belief that they’ll form a mentor/student relationship. Is she wrong or is she right?

The first few minutes of “Mistress America,” which show Tracy attempting to adjust at college life, are pitch-perfect, showing Baumbach is practically a master at satire, dialogue, and observation. You get the gist of Tracy’s plight by the time the opening credits are done; how often does that happen? It’s funny, observant, and even allows for empathy. As Baumbach showed with “While We’re Young,” his attention to detail is astounding, right down to the cracked screen on Tracy’s cellphone. Then along comes Brooke and the film turns into a madcap comedy, with lots of witty lines, odd attitudinal swings, and eccentricity. Yet the film still keeps a proper amount of authenticity that keeps it intriguing and strangely true.

I can understand why people would be turned off by the character of Brooke. She is constantly babbling about what may or may not happen if/when her dreams come true, and some of her eccentricities (like making up words for herself) are off-putting. A few minutes into getting to know her and you’ll find out pretty quickly whether or not you want to spend another hour with her. (The film itself is pretty short, clocking in at barely an hour and 24 minutes.) As for me, I didn’t have much trouble with her or the way Gerwig portrayed her, but I can see why some critics who panned this film did.

But what’s more interesting is the story with Tracy. She’s the “straight man” to Brooke’s “life force,” but this doesn’t turn out to be as predictable as I expected. There’s a parallel story in which Tracy is taking notes on Brooke’s speech and behavior in order to craft a short story about her (without her knowing it). She believes this story will give herself attention, as she would like to write realistic fiction. What she doesn’t realize is what she knows about Brooke is what she knows from spending only one night with her, and this can be seen as cruelty, especially since it would make Brooke uncomfortable if she reads the final draft. Tracy may know what we have figured out about Brooke, but she has even more to discover about her and about herself as well.

I can’t say the film is entirely realistic. Much of the dialogue can be very stagey, especially when the film takes us to a trip to a house in Connecticut where Brooke hopes to guilt a couple from her past into providing her with funds for a restaurant she’s planning. This whole sequence demonstrates what’s good about the film and what may be flying too close to the sun. (John Hughes, who I referenced in the first paragraph, was guilty of similar problems in his films too.) But there’s enough good in it that it doesn’t damage the film, even with the annoying characters of the deluded boy and his overly jealous girlfriend (who’s so pretentious that even Brooke tells her to stop sounding like an adult) and certain lines of dialogue that I don’t think would be said in real life.

I found “Mistress America” to be a very funny, observant film that shows a definite growth and relaxation in Baumbach’s work, compared to his scathing observations in films such as “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.” I’m excited to see what he comes up with next.

While We’re Young (2015)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I do not know what to make of this film. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know what to make of it but I felt I liked it. The second time, I noticed a couple more little things and liked it less. The third time, I noticed even more I didn’t catch the first two times and I find myself grudgingly giving the film a positive review because…I think Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is both ingenious and infuriating.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a middle-aged husband and wife living in New York. They admit they’re fine living the life of marriage without children and doing things their own way, unlike their friends (a couple played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) who have become boring since they started raising their child. Right away, this is an interesting idea that opens a door for character development; but then again, they’re so vocal about their situations that it feels like they’re complaining too much about something they chose for themselves and other things they claim to be focusing on but aren’t putting enough focus into. The couple meets a younger couple, in their mid-20s, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. They’re lively, opinionated, ambitious and definitely hipsters (though the word “hipster” is never spoken once, unless I missed it). Both couples form an unlikely friendship, and it’s here that Baumbach shows an interesting contrast between generations. The older couple has a lust for life but also many awkward moments, and the younger couple is into so many retro things (they collect records, VHS tapes, board games, etc.) that make the older couple feel even older than they are. There’s so much detail put into this contrast and it’s hard to fault Baumbach for accuracy; I wouldn’t doubt the New York hipster culture is like this.

Perhaps the biggest difference between generations is that today’s (in shape of the younger couple) seems to expect to have everything they want handed to them without having to work so hard to get it all. They’re actively nostalgic but perhaps lazily content with life. Stiller’s character, on the other hand, has worked so hard to get where he wants to be. He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent years on a project that he’s sure will be a milestone in capturing “life.” (The problem there is that it’s overlong and kind of boring; even he admits that.) His wife, played by Watts, is a producer whose father (Charles Grodin) is a pioneer of the genre whom Stiller aspires to be like. Then Driver’s character, also a documentary filmmaker working on an ambitious project, has this idea for his film that will mostly go places and jump-start his career, even with help from Grodin’s character. And Stiller becomes resentful that this kid is having the success that eluded him.

Maybe that’s what kept throwing me off the first couple times I saw this film. There’s too much to keep track of, whether it’s montage or production design or character or truth. It’s overstuffed… But then again, at the same time, it’s hard to criticize the film for that, especially when you see how much Baumbach was clearly paying attention to everything around him in his own life so he could properly portray it on film. He is trying his hardest to make everything work and most of it does work. In fact, this is why I had to see the film again: to catch something I didn’t catch before. And I’ll be honest—the second time I saw the film, I thought to myself, “Oh…*that’s* what he was going for,” as if he were making a smug commentary on something in particular. Then I really thought about it and realized maybe it wasn’t so smug as much as it was observant. I do recognize this behavior around me and at age 23, who am I to judge what a 45-year-old man sees, since the film is mostly told from the perspective of a 45-year-old man (the Stiller character), when even I don’t know much about everything I see in my own generation?

And this is why I give “While We’re Young” a positive review (maybe not so “begrudging” as I thought)—it kept me thinking. Why am I not giving it a higher rating than three stars then, you may wonder? Well…because of the last act. The last act tries to juggle ethical dilemmas and reveal the nature of “truth” in art and in life, as Stiller tries to use his newfound discoveries about himself and his friends (old and new) to prove his points in a climax. He desperately wants to prove to everybody that he’s right about Driver on numerous levels. Not that some of what he says are true, but the more he tries to prove it, the more pathetic he becomes, especially when it’s considered the age difference between him and Driver.

But then I realize as I write this review…I think I get the irony here—that Stiller has dropped to a point so low that he’s actually making someone half his age a central figure in his universe. He’s supposed to come off as sort of pathetic and he still doesn’t know what he needs to know in life. He’s almost as if he won and even then he won’t give up.

I could criticize the film’s final act for being so broad, but even so, it has its own points to make and knew how to do it. So why the hell am I criticizing it?! I swear, this review sounded a lot better in my head, but actually typing it for this review is making me feel kind of pathetic. “While We’re Young” is a film that puzzles rather than satisfies. What is necessarily wrong with that? Many character studies (especially Woody Allen’s films of the 1970s) have provided commentary and humor by doing exactly what this film is. Baumbach is becoming a powerful voice in the modern-day independent-film scene and getting his points across in a non-commercial way that is sometimes welcome and other times pretentious. In this film’s case especially, the glass is either half-empty or half-full. Yes, I know this review is all over the place, and for me, writing about it helps me express my full opinion of the film. In the end, I can’t deny it—“While We’re Young” is a terrific film and one I’ll probably watch a few more times because I want to understand it more.

NOTE: The Smith’s Verdict rating was originally three stars. I immediately bumped it up to three-and-a-half after finishing this review.

Living in Oblivion (1995)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


I have somewhat of an understanding of the behind-the-scenes world of independent filmmaking. I document behind-the-scenes video footage of short films being made, I acted in a small role in an Arkansas indie production (Juli Jackson’s “45 RPM”), and I make my own short films as well. There’s still a lot for me to learn if I’m going to be an accomplished filmmaker (though, being an accomplished film critic would be nice too). Maybe that’s why when a film about filmmaking catches my attention, my curiosity and fascination are provoked. There are parts that feel familiar to me, others that feel new to me, and the rest of the material mostly captivates me. Two of the best films I’ve seen show that are Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” Then there’s Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion,” one such film about filmmaking that actually feels the most familiar to me. In my book (or blog), that’s an accomplishment.

What’s even better (and what would bring in those who aren’t that familiar with the craft) is that it’s also a comedy. It’s wonderfully written—the dialogue rings true in a funny way and the situations ring similarly true in a Murphy’s Law sort of way. Anything that can go wrong on a movie set does go wrong one way or another and it’s funny seeing these characters, a film crew, react to them. It’s lively, clever, and flat-out funny.

The film divided in three parts, each one showing the shooting of a different scene for an independent film. Director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is under stress trying to put together a film on a low budget and trying to get this scene complete. But the production is plagued by all sorts of problems—his leading actress, Nicole (Catherine Keener), is losing faith in herself and her acting career; his leading actor, hotshot Chad Palomino (James LeGros), has an ego too big for the production; his director of photography, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is suffering emotional problems; the technical crew is having problems with the new fog machine; actors can’t remember their lines; a pint-sized actor (Peter Dinklage) is angry at his role as a dwarf in a dream sequence; and more.

Good comedy is based on cause and effect; someone has to suffer and that’s where the laughs come from. “Living in Oblivion” has a great collection of funny moments in which this guy is trying his hardest to get these scenes off the ground and everything seems to be working against him, leading to further complications he has to keep getting out of. It’s a relatable conflict but also very funny.

They say “art imitates life.” In the case of this film (in addition to the film-within-the-film), it’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life by way of a perceptive, smart screenplay and even better (for me, anyway), instantly recognizable characters. I’ve come across at least some of these types of people on a film crew a few times before. Even if you don’t know about how the film world works, you can empathize with the issues being faced by people trying to get something done with their art. This goes to show that even with an independent feature film on a shoestring budget, there are as many problems to face as those you hear about in the makings of big-budget studio films.

But there’s a big problem I have with the film (and this is where spoilers come in) and it has to do with the segues into the next vignette (or “scene”). They’re dream sequences. A scene is shot, things go wrong, and a character wakes up from the experience, as it was all a dream. To me, this doesn’t work for three reasons. 1) It’s not clever when it happens repeatedly and it’s groan-inducing when you see that reveal, 2) these dreams are so damn precise and surprisingly accurate, considering the different people having these dreams, and 3) it’s not clear whether or not these scenes were even part of the film-within-the-film, so it left me confused. To me, it just came across a pretentious way to be “artful.”

Even with that distraction, I greatly enjoyed “Living in Oblivion.” It made me laugh with joy and it made me smile with recognition. I wanted more of this film actually! When it ended, I couldn’t believe it was really over. I wanted more of these characters and another scene for them to shoot together. That’s the power of this wonderful film about filmmaking.

City Lights (1931)

16 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There aren’t that many silent films I’ve seen by this point in my life. When I was a little kid, I was shown 1920s Little Rascals silent shorts; when I was starting community college, I saw “The Artist”; and when I was in film school, I was subjected to more classic silent films such as “A Trip to the Moon,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and “Nosferatu.” As my appreciation for cinema history continued to grow, there were others I felt I had to check out. For instance, I had never seen a Charles Chaplin film, but I knew I had to check one out. So I came across “City Lights,” one of Chaplin’s most notorious efforts that I heard a lot about from critics and film professors. How did I react to it? Well, let me get into a little background…

Around the time this film was released, films were breaking new ground (new for back then). They were using recorded sound, bringing about the end of the “silent era” and the beginning of the “talkies.” This transition ruined many careers and changed others, but one of the biggest talents, Charles Chaplin, didn’t back down so easily. He made more silent films, using his popular, beloved character of The Tramp, the unkempt figure with a paintbrush mustache and a handy cane, to continue his art. (He would then go on to make five talkies years later, without The Tramp.) “City Lights” was his farewell to the silent era before he made a hybrid out of silence and recorded sound (with “Modern Times”) before making the transition to full sound. In the late-‘20s and early-‘30s, Chaplin never felt pressured to give up on his silent pictures and he was so stubborn that even though talkies were growing in popularity, he would still put his all into “City Lights” just to remind audiences of what he can do with his craft and what they loved to begin with. Did it pay off? Yes, it certainly did. Not only was the film a success, but it would become known as Chaplin’s significant masterpiece.

Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred as The Tramp (of course) in “City Lights.” One night, he comes across a suicidal drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) and saves his life. The millionaire is grateful to The Tramp and decides to bring him home and also invite him to a fancy dinner party. But when the millionaire sobers up the following morning, he doesn’t recognize his new friend, though at night when he’s drunk again, they’re friends again. The Tramp uses his association with the millionaire to try and impress a blind, kind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) from whom he bought a flower with his last cent. Now he’s able to buy all of her flowers, drive her around in the millionaire’s car, and even manage to pay for her rent and pay for an operation to cure her blindness. In between encounters with the millionaire, however, he has to raise some of that money himself, getting a job that doesn’t last long and even putting himself in a boxing match to win prize cash.

So which should I talk about first? The dramatic elements of “City Lights” or the comedic ones? Well, since it is largely a comedy, I suppose I should start with the latter. It’s brilliant; Chaplin at his best. The film is pieced together like a series of comedic vignettes framed around a conflict of interest. There’s The Tramp caught asleep on a statue before getting stuck on its sword trying to get off; then there’s his rescue of the millionaire which involves both of them going for a sudden swim; and the funniest of them all, the boxing match in which The Tramp tries everything to keep from getting pummeled by his opponent, who’s twice his size. The choreography and the physical comedy in that sequence are definitely spot-on. It’s one of those rare few times when I’ve literally laughed out loud during a movie and I drew attention to myself. (That was when I decided to think of what The Tramp would do when confronted by a confused bystander—I jerked my head, smiled nervously, and tipped my (nonexistent) hat and moved on.)

In the meantime, there’s a lot of hinted pathos in the way the millionaire often doesn’t recognize who The Tramp is unless he’s drunk. It leads to a heartbreaking scene that even after the tenth time I’ve watched this film, I can’t watch anymore. But the film is also a romance, showing sweet moments between The Tramp and the Flower Girl. And I can’t finish this review without talking about the ending. I won’t give it away here for those who don’t know how this film concludes, but I will say that it is one of the most perfect endings in the history of cinema. Words can’t describe how sweet and effective it is, and it’s also a testament to silent-film acting as Chaplin and Cherill act with very few lines and mostly their facial expressions and body language. I will confess it even got me a little teary-eyed. It’s especially heartfelt in context of the whole film and in consideration of the characterizations of The Tramp and the Flower Girl—The Tramp is a naïve innocent who no one understands and the Flower Girl is a romantic whose perception of him only changes slightly when she sees him for who he is; she’s the only one who doesn’t judge him by his appearance.

Since I saw “City Lights,” I watched a few more Chaplin films, including “The Circus,” The Gold Rush,” and his most infamous talkie, “The Great Dictator.” Those films are good in their own way, but “City Lights” was the one that truly left an impression on me (and it still does, after at least ten viewings). There’s a great mix of humor and heart that can’t be matched or beaten. It’s a wonderful film that I’m sure I’ll treasure forever.

NOTE: I’m embarrassed to say that as of now, I still haven’t seen any of Buster Keaton’s films, but I thought I’d put that out there.

Creed (2015)

6 Dec


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2015 has had its share of reboots, with the majestic uprising of “Mad Max” and the tragic downward spiral that was “Fan4stic.” Now comes the return of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century: Rocky Balboa. Originally brought to life by writer-actor Sylvester Stallone in 1976, his first film, “Rocky,” was the “little film that could,” beating the odds with audiences and critics and even going on to achieve the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, the film’s sequels have been hit-and-miss, but the truth was the power of the original film could never be matched…until now.

29 years since the original film and nine years since the decent fifth sequel, “Rocky Balboa” (released 16 years after the disastrous “Rocky V”), filmmaker Ryan Coogler (whose previous film was the great 2013 drama “Fruitvale Station”) has brought Rocky back to life in the seventh (and possibly last) entry in the franchise: “Creed.” Only this time, Rocky (Stallone, of course) is not the boxer training for a fight; instead, he’s the trainer for a champion-in-the-making, a 28-year-old boxer named Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who happens to be the son of Rocky’s late opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed.

Times have certainly changed since 1976 and we have to see Rocky the way he is now rather than what he used to be. We may always remember him as the underdog who came close to beating one of the world’s greatest boxers, but that’s not who he is anymore. He doesn’t throw a punch in the whole movie. His body is failing him and his loved ones are no more (either dead or moved on in life). He owns a restaurant (called Adrian’s, named after his late wife) to make ends meet and possibly to distract himself away from the sport. Things change when Adonis shows up in his restaurant, looking for him.

Adonis was the product of an affair with Apollo Creed and abandoned by his mother. He’s been in foster homes and juvenile halls until Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), takes him in. Over a decade later, Adonis works for a financial firm in Los Angeles while secretly fighting in brutal Tijuana matches on weekends. But despite Mary Anne treating with the proper education and looking out for him, Adonis prefers to fight due to anger and resentment built up inside him. He quits his job and decides to move to Philadelphia to make a name for himself as a professional fighter (and not with the name “Creed,” as to not be cast in his father’s shadow) where he hopes he can find Rocky Balboa and persuade him into training him. It takes a while ton convince him once he introduces himself to Rocky, but soon enough, he does decide to train Adonis for bigger fights with ranked opponents. But when it becomes revealed to the media who Adonis really is, he is forced to face a tougher challenge: prove everyone that he is who he is and not who his father he never even knew was. He and Rocky figure the best way to show that is to train hard and go up against a seemingly indestructible champion: “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), a British brute who wants one last fight before he goes to prison.

Oh, but that’s not all. I know that sounds strange, but “Creed” is actually full of story. It manages to sneak in a sweet romance between Adonis and a pretty neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is a musician about to go deaf; scenes of pathos such as when Rocky confesses how he’s given up on life now that his wife and friends are long gone; and even a subplot involving Rocky’s deteriorating health and whether or not Rocky wants to get treatment for it. All of these elements come together so well, creating a solid tale of life, strength, companionship, and self-respect, with appealing, well-rounded characters and an emotionally involving story. It was a heavy responsibility on Coogler’s part to bring back familiar elements from the previous “Rocky” films while making the film his own at the same time, and he pulls it off successfully. There are also some neat references and in-jokes going back to the other films, as well as a wonderful moment that brings Rocky back on top of the steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (There’s even a final answer as to who won Rocky and Apollo’s private third match behind closed doors at the end of “Rocky III.”) Coogler brings a unique style to the franchise that makes it a welcome return to greatness, including an impressive sequence midway through the film that shows a boxing match inside the ring done in one entire take. It’s like Coogler knew we saw the typical “Rocky” formula and visual style, and so he decided to change things up a bit for purposes of tension and proximity.

Michael B. Jordan is one of my favorite actors working today and delivers a terrific performance, handling himself effectively in dramatic scenes as well as in the ring. Stallone, who is often mocked for his one-note depictions, turns in some of his best work here, bringing sincerity and loneliness to the new side of Rocky Balboa.

I truly do believe “Creed” is a great film; the best “Rocky” film since the original. Yes, it’s a boxing movie and we get the feeling who the winner’s going to be in the final round. But like the original film, it’s about so much more than boxing. The performances are strong, the characters are well-developed, the fights are well-staged, the dramatic scenes are handled terrifically with quietness and subtlety, the Rocky/Adonis relationship is engaging, the rousing training montages are suitably cheerful, and I truly admire the bold move on Coogler’s part to truly go down the road and assume accurately where Rocky’s life is now compared to where it was back in 1976. I think it’s safe to say that it’s the sequel to “Rocky” we’ve all been waiting for.