Monthly Archives: June 2013

Review: Frances Ha

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Frances is living off of friends’ couches, not speaking to her best friend and trying to be a dancer — so she’s your typical 20-something basically. Just when you thought Hollywood had produced enough navel-gazing films about post-grad ineptitude, Noah Baumbach had to show his take on the genre with the mascot for the awkwardness of the Millennial generation, Greta Gerwig. Add that it’s shot totally in black and white echoing “Manhattan,” and “Frances Ha” seems like it might just be the most insufferable film of the summer.

Except it’s not. It’s the most honest, realistic and charming portrait of 20-something ennui (okay, from a white affluent female perspective) out right now. As much as we love (or hate) Lena Dunham, even she couldn’t depict what this age is like as simply and effectively and Baumbach does. No one has to get hit by a car or suffer further melodrama to convey the tribulations of 20-something life. Instead, Baumbach is daring to say that something as basic as breaking up with your best friend is dramatic, and it is. The plot is in the daily nuance of Frances’ life: watching her rich friends “slum it” when she can’t even afford to pretend that, psyching herself up to ask for more at her job and the lies she tells her best friend.

The only reason why “Frances Ha” transcends its genre limitations is Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script. Previously she has been the mumblecore queen, winning over every male indie director with her “natural” acting abilities that always left you wanting more, but “Frances Ha” is her film where she can write a character as complex and compelling as she is. Gerwig brings an ebullience to Frances’ plight. Yet she doesn’t belittle Frances’ problems either; through the subtle tilt of her smile or anxiety in her eyes, we can see Frances struggle to maintain her composure as she must reconcile her dreams with the limits of her reality.

Gerwig is especially on point when Frances banters with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who is speeding into adulthood faster than Frances can keep up. Men drift in and out of the film like Frances’ day jobs, but Frances and Sophie prove with rawness and sincerity that sometimes the most complicated relationship is the friendship between two women.

Baumbach and Gerwig just might be the new Woody Allen and Diane Keaton — making timeless films that my friends and I can still relate to right now.

Review: The Bling Ring

I reviewed “The Bling Ring” for Vox Magazine. You can read my review there or below:

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“The Bling Ring” is a horror film about America’s celebrity-obsessed culture. The monsters are sociopathic high school students who steal from the rich and keep it all for themselves. To make it even scarier, it’s all true.

Sofia Coppola’s latest foray into the lifestyles of the rich and famous follows five Kardashian-wannabe L.A. teenagers, who break into celebrity homes to steal designers duds. The core team includes Rebecca (Katie Chang), the Lindsay Lohan-obsessed ringleader; Nicki (Emma Watson), the classic mean girl; and lonely new kid Marc (Israel Broussard).

The women are narcissists, whose over-the-top dialogue makes for excellent satire but zero likability. Coppola wisely tells the story from sympathetic Marc’s point of view as the outsider desperate to fit into Hollywood and his high school.

Despite our knowledge of the story from the Vanity Fair article, the casting is delightfully unexpected. Watching Hermione Granger expertly spin on a stripper pole is a little shocking, but Watson plays glassy-eyed Nicki with nuance, avoiding cheap shots at her vanity and seemingly vacuous personality; rather, she’s a Cher Horowitz and Bonnie Parker mash-up of carelessness and manipulation. From reckless teenagers to their clueless New Age parents, Coppola doesn’t leave any part of the Hollywood Hills untouched but doesn’t directly blame anyone either.

Although she covers the entire timeline from the first robbery at Paris Hilton’s to the trial, Coppola reserves her judgment. Like the endless frappuccinos the characters drink, the film’s neon pop/rap sound adds a buzz. Yet the camera sedately pans back from the break-ins, which avoids glamorizing the lifestyle without deliberately mocking it. It would be too easy to moralize, but instead her intentional ambiguity leaves it up to the viewer to criticize.

Like a tacky disco ball, “The Bling Ring” is garishy compelling and reflects our own complicity in the same celebrity obsessions the characters took to an extreme. We might laugh at their shallowness, but really, the joke is on us.

Review: Mud

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“Mud” is the feelgood film of the year. Not exactly what you’d expect for a movie about two boys aiding a fugitive, but “Mud” is full of surprises: Matthew McConaughey’s tender acting, the strong performances of the two 14-year-old boys and you’ll never think of The Beach Boy’s “Help Me, Rhonda” in the same way ever again.

The initial premise of the film is as murky as the man it takes its name after: two Arkansas teen boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland is as winsome as his character’s name), find an outlaw living on an island in the Mississippi. Mud (McConaughey) is an enigma with a friendly Southern drawl but a suspicious squint, which is enough to intrigue Ellis into bringing him back supplies despite Neckbone’s reluctance. The three develop a friendship that Mud uses to rope the boys into helping him win his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), back – a scheme that especially appeals to Ellis because his parents’ marriage is falling apart.

Although we wonder about Mud’s legal status, director Jeff Nichols is smart enough to avoid turning this into a cliche crime drama. Instead, the film is an unexpected but rich coming-of-age tale akin to Huck Finn. The film’s pace is as languid as a river and helps lure us in. “Mud” isn’t really about the man, but Ellis turning into a man as he learns both the power and peril of true love, and how adults are neither wholly good nor bad but not necessarily trustworthy either.

McConaughey, in one of the best performances of his career, has a natural rapport with the boys but leaves just enough mystery behind all of his charm to keep us guessing. It’s Sheridan, though, who really impresses with his honest performance that captures the struggles of a boy learning the ambiguities of adulthood.

If you’re looking for an action-packed thriller full of twisted secrets and dubious protagonists, “Mud” isn’t it, but what Nichols presents us with is so much better: a sincere, heartfelt bildungsroman as classic and pure Americana as Mark Twain.

Review: To the Wonder

I reviewed “To the Wonder” for Vox. You can read my review below or on their website.to-the-wonder-04

Like “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder’s” plot is also borrowed from director Terrence Malick’s biography. But “To the Wonder” is more accessible than its predecessor. A strong-but-silent type, Neil (Ben Affleck), meets a beguiling Parisian, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and brings her back to Tulsa. The honeymoon phase ends before they even unpack their boxes, and the couple must see if their love can survive Marina’s volatile emotions and Neil’s commitment-phobia. Marina consults a local Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) who is also suffering his own crisis of faith. It’s a story of lost souls desperate to connect but without the ability to do so.

The blank vistas of Oklahoma are a character in their own right. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can make even oil drilling look beautiful. His camera moves as fast as Marina’s moods; it can be jarring but also adds a sense of drama to the flat lands and explains the tumultuous nature of the characters who inhabit it.

Malick has a talent for capturing the body language of his actors in a way that illuminates more about them than a clever line of dialogue could. Indeed, most of the dialogue is in fragments of free verse poetry in the mother tongues of the film’s foreign characters musing on love, loss and faith. It adds an emotional depth to a film that could otherwise be dismissed as just a piece of pretty scenery.

“To the Wonder” is one of Malick’s most cinematically abstract films, but it’s also his most passionate and personal and, therefore, one of his best.