Thursday, September 19, 2013

I'm way behind #5: Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

This light, charming, black-and-white homage to the French New Wave films of the 1960s opens with a scene that made me immediately hostile to the film and its characters, even as I admired the shot composition and B&W cinematography. I braced myself for a grating, irritating 90 minutes, but I should have known better. I'm a fan of the three previous films I've seen by Frances Ha writer/director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell little league soccer movie), The Squid and the Whale, and Greenberg) and the two Wes Anderson films he cowrote (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox), so I should have trusted his instincts. That "asshole" (according to the world's most insane film critic, Armond White) Baumbach took me from hating this movie to really liking it within 20 minutes. What sorcery is this?
To be fair, my initial hatred of the film may stem from my premature fogeyism and aversion to the stereotypical Williamsburg (or at least, the media-created fairytale version of "Williamsburg") hipster and all local and regional versions of this partially fabricated beast. The film opens with Frances (Greta Gerwig, also the film's cowriter) and her BFF and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, fruit of the loins of the artist we all know and love as lute-playing boner-killer Sting) sharing Frances' bed as they peruse the Internet on a laptop and engage in too-clever banter these young women seem to have absorbed like water from the comments sections of Gawker, the AV Club, and Brooklyn Vegan. It's a more naturalistic but just as annoying post-collegiate version of Diablo Cody's Juno irritations. Good work on nailing the way these people talk, Baumbach and Gerwig, but why would I want to spend a movie with them?
Here's why. We've seen far too many movies about aimless, inarticulate young people wandering through bohemian urban milieus, but they've all been men (or man-boys really), their childish aimlessness is romanticized, and they are usually saved by a patient, kind woman who's got her shit together but wants to help because of aimless boy's sexily hip charisma. This time, the aimless slacker is a woman, her lack of motivation and direction is seen as a negative and is a constant source of anxiety for her, and the movie is about her growing up and pulling her own shit together. Also, she's actually likable when she's being herself. Baumbach and Gerwig have fun making fun of the hipster man-children whose parents pay for their spacious New York apartments and who Gerwig has to crash with after her BFF and roommate moves into a nicer place with a different roommate. There's some very funny stuff here about the cultural differences between the aimless-by-choice trust-fund early twentysomethings and the employed yet aimless-by-circumstance Frances, who is approaching thirty and is seen by these guys as some hilarious, hapless eccentric from an earlier generation.
Baumbach and Gerwig mildly and comedically subvert expectations for this type of story. I like how Sophie is a picture postcard Williamsburg hipster archetype, but her boyfriend is a fratty jock who works in business. He's also a nice, likable guy but is a little bit scared of her and does what she says. I've seen this kind of relationship in life but never in a movie before, this coldly intimidating hipster/kindly dude-bro couple. Also, through a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedic chain of uncomfortable events, Frances flies to Paris by herself for a very brief and very expensive two days, and spends a miserable weekend alone. Boy, I made that sound hilarious. It is, and it's the only time I've ever seen Paris represented on film as a cold, depressing, alienating, average metropolis, where magic does not appear on every corner, and where the atmosphere is unforgiving if you don't know anyone and don't have any plans.
I also like how Baumbach's take on New York in the present evokes moments from the '60s French New Wave films without explicitly referencing them, with the exception of the soundtrack, which features several excerpts from those films' scores. The black and white is gorgeous, and the cast is natural and sharp. The happy ending was too sugarcoated for my tastes, I don't understand friendships like Frances' and Sophie's, and that opening scene still bugs me, but everything else charmed me.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I'm way behind #4: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater has a knack for using actors I normally dislike, find boring, or enjoy only in small doses (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Jack Black, Marcia Gay Harden, Wilmer Valderrama, Bobby Cannavale, post-1991 Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, post-1980s Winona Ryder, Zac Efron) in mysteriously pleasing ways that bypass my usual issues with them, but he had to put all his English on it to make me stomach Ethan Hawke, probably my least favorite of all the actors Linklater has used. I don't know how he did it, but he did it. Hawke, an actor I find unbearably smug in everything except Explorers (he was a little kid), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (his character was too desperate to be smug), and the last two parts of Linklater's Before trilogy (the Linklater voodoo) and who seems like a smug, arrogant prick in every interview and talk show appearance I've had the misfortune to see (especially his thankfully brief moments in Abel Ferrara's Chelsea Hotel documentary Chelsea on the Rocks), has a genuine chemistry with Julie Delpy in these films and knows this guy he's playing inside and out. Something wonderful and a little bit scary is developing with this series, which started as a slight but enjoyable twentysomething romance and picturesque Europe-as-seen-by-an-American slideshow and has become a melancholy, funny, sad, and tough look at aging, relationships, love, and the passage of time. (The European backdrops are still ridiculously postcard pretty, though.)
Three films, three days, separated by nine years. The couple, in their early twenties and just out of college, meet and fall in love in Vienna in Before Sunrise but have to separate when Hawke's character returns to the United States after his vacation ends. They agree to meet again the following year. That meeting, we learn in Before Sunset, never happened, but the pair reconnect in France nine years later. Now in their mid-thirties, they find they still have the same chemistry. Again, we're left with an open ending. Will Hawke stay with Delpy or go back to his family in the States? Before Midnight is a darker and tougher film than its predecessors. Hawke's and Delpy's characters are now deep into a long relationship, with twin daughters, and some major tension is simmering over Hawke's desire to move the family to Chicago so he can be near his son from his failed marriage with Delpy wanting to stay in Europe.
It's impossible not to be charmed by Delpy, but I pushed back against Before Midnight at first. This is a film about good-looking people with great careers living and vacationing in the most beautiful parts of Europe, and so much of the first part of Before Midnight is a glimpse into a fabulous life I'll never have. It seemed like a softer, more domesticated retread of the great second film, and a few of the long conversations pushed the themes a little too neatly. (I also don't buy Hawke as a writer, even though he is a published author in what we call "real life." Reading three pages of one of his novels in a bookstore convinced me he would never have been published if he weren't a famous actor. Maybe the terribleness of his actual writing makes me doubt the veracity of his being a critically acclaimed author in these movies.) An easy film to enjoy at this early stage, but a hard one to admire or respect. That soon changed. Things start to get really interesting when an almost tossed-off line of dialogue reveals that Delpy's and Hawke's characters still haven't married. The tension about the proposed move slowly increases, and the film's final third is one of the rarest things in film, an explosively accurate and honest depiction of a major fight between a couple with a long history. They know just how to hurt each other with the most carefully placed insults, and the hotel room war of words is one of Linklater's greatest moments as a filmmaker. It's also the best thing I've seen Hawke do. Delpy nails it, but I never had any doubts about her. This scene hurts, it's so true. If you've ever had a long, brutal argument with your significant other (and I wouldn't trust anyone who hasn't), you will recognize parts of yourself here, and you will cringe, laugh, and take an emotional beating. It's a rough watch, but it's full of humor, too, and it ebbs and flows and stops and starts and quiets down and explodes again in noise like the real epic fights do. It's a scene that turns an almost good film into an almost great one. Where will they be nine years from now?

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