Tag Archives: Noah Baumbach

Being Alive

Marriage Story

by George Wolf

If plot is what happens and story is how it happens, there’s no better title for Noah Baumbach’s latest than Marriage Story.

For years, Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.

Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, an L.A. film actress who made the switch to NYC live theater when she married Charlie and they welcomed son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

We meet Charlie and Nicole in counseling, taking part in an exercise that reminds them why they married and reminds us how skilled Baumbach is at not only writing wonderfully organic dialog, but in bringing it to the screen with layer upon layer of authenticity.

Tremendous performances from Johansson and Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up.

Nicole hurts deeply but wears a brave face, unsure of how to approach a future without Charlie, but unable to deny that life with him has meant she “got smaller.” Johannson has never been better, successfully mining Nicole’s mix of pain and defiance with silent tears and impassioned outbursts alike.

Here’s something I’ve said a lot this year: Driver is one the most consistently impressive actors around. His skill at finding the human center of his characters is subtle but unmistakable, and here Driver never lets you abandon Charlie, most importantly when his refusals to face reality seem like cathartic soul-baring from Baumbach himself.

We see the details that make up the work of a marriage, and the subtle cracks that weaken the relationship and begin to pull two people apart. And with the break comes the battle for child custody and the business of divorce.

But even as their two opposing lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, Oscar-worthy herself) bleed the couple’s finances and turn the fight dirty, Baumbach never gets petty. When you think the film is taking sides it makes a subtle change in direction, slowly building toward the brilliantly executed emotional tsunami you know is coming.

Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.

Late in the film, Charlie’s out with a group of theater friends and ends up joining a pianist to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” So we have a theater guy going through a tumultuous divorce taking time to sing a Broadway classic about the risk of commitment. It’s a sequence that could have easily devolved into self-indulgent excess, but instead only confirms the depth of Baumbach’s reach.

He lets another writer’s words brilliantly refocus what Charlie and Nicole will always mean to other, and like everything else in Marriage Story, it feels real, true and necessary.

It feels alive.

Making a Scene

De Palma

by Hope Madden

What began as a project with the intended audience of two has rightly become a theatrical release because De Palma – a documentary on the polarizing filmmaker – can’t help but mesmerize.

Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow lovingly roll camera while seasoned filmmaker Brian De Palma, now 75-years-old, walks us through his catalog. He shares anecdotes, talks candidly about successes and failures, and complains about the studio system. All of this is intriguing, but it’s the documentarians’ clear admiration for De Palma’s style, and the filmmaker’s charismatic presence as he articulates his craft, that make this film fascinating.

Baumbach and Paltrow juxtapose moments from De Palma’s films with images from other, related works – most predictably and illustratively, Hitchcock’s. While De Palma has never shied away from his obsession with Hitch, the doc allows him to expound on his both his fascination and his reasons and strategies for using the cinematic vocabulary Hitchcock created.

De Palma’s career has been scattershot at best, four decades littered with artistic peaks and valleys (Carlito’s Way versus Bonfire of the Vanities) as well as box office successes and flops (Mission: Impossible versus Casualties of War).

Movie buffs will love the candor and in-the-know stories from a man who came up with a bunch of scruffy new directors including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. De Palma passed the script for Taxi Driver on to his buddy Marty thinking it was more up his alley; meanwhile, he and Lucas auditioned for Carrie and Star Wars simultaneously – same actors, same auditions, same time.

But for true cinefiles, it’s his talk of technique that will compel. Why the long tracking shots? When and why do split screens work? What is he looking for in a score and how does he achieve it?

There are so many other topics picked at because, love him or hate him, De Palma is a director with such a quirky, brazen style that the potential for analysis is almost unending. The one topic he seems a bit too canny about concerns criticisms that his films are preoccupied with sexual violence against women, a topic he shrugs off. And though Baumbach and Paltrow slyly pair the filmmaker’s words with an image of an 18” drill bit, shot from between a man’s legs as it penetrates his nubile victim, they do not press De Palma with follow up questions. Disappointing.

But it’s a rare misstep in a film that manages to capture so much from De Palma as a film historian, a Hollywood insider, and an iconic American director and storyteller.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





A Beacon of Hope for Lesser People

Mistress America

by George Wolf

If you thought director Noah Baumbach was turning all populist after While We’re Young, take heart! At my recent screening of Mistress America, five people walked out within the first twenty minutes, apparently put off by hilariously flawed characters who talk to themselves, but at each other, without mercy.

Their loss.

It’s a charming, wonderfully offbeat, fast-paced dialogue fest, and a perfect vehicle for Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach.

Gerwig stars as Brooke, a busy New Yorker who seems happy to get a visit from her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke – impressive), an 18 year-old student at a nearby college. Brooke bombards Tracy with stories of her exciting life and social calendar (“He’s the kind of person I hate – except I’m in love with him!”), instantly gaining an admirer. Tracy’s reserved demeanor is no match for hurricane Brooke, and soon Tracy and two friends are joining Brooke on a mission to persuade her rich old boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) into bankrolling her plan for a new restaurant/hair salon/cool place to be combo.

The gang ends up crashing a party hosted by Dylan’s wife (loves these names) Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire may or may not have stolen Brooke’s idea for a line of t-shirts, and the visit descends into a madcap frenzy of incidents and allegations. As characters move throughout the rooms of Dylan’s lavish house, Baumbach stages it to perfection, much like a high school play directed by a coked-up Woody Allen.

Underneath the inspired insanity, though, lies a love letter to the written word. Tracy desperately wants to join her school’s literary club, and she uses Brooke as the basis for a short story that she hopes will be accepted into their magazine.

As the characters’ continue their rapid fire, often non-sequitur dialogue, it’s offset with Tracy’s voiceover reading of the measured, wonderfully flowing prose of her short story. This not only puts a spotlight on the art of writing, it cleverly reinforces the film’s undercurrent of self-delusion.

Brooke lives to define herself, as Tracy so eloquently puts it, as “a beacon of hope for lesser people,” regardless of how well her definition aligns with reality. “Lesser” people’s descriptions aren’t as welcome, a fact beautifully illustrated by a scene where Brooke is recognized by an old high school classmate. Gerwig is a true wonder in the role, combining comic timing with the depth needed to make Brooke sympathetic no matter how much you want to dislike her.

Will Mistress America be the movie where the masses (minus those five party poopers from my screening) get hip to Gerwig’s unique talents?

Let’s hope so.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 





Talkin’ Bout My Generation

While We’re Young

by George Wolf

So far, Hollywood’s attempts to address the social media revolution have fluctuated between lackluster and downright embarrassing (Men, Women and Children? Yikes). While We’re Young gets it more right than most, thanks to less of the usual microscope and more of a layered, universal narrative.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach is able to weave the contrasts between older technology “immigrants” and the younger tech “natives” into a larger, utterly charming overview of shifting generations and the humor in realizing you’re not so young anymore.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cordelia (Naomi Watts) are a happy, childless couple in New York who suddenly become friends with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of hipsters about twenty years younger.

In an instant, Cordelia and Darby are taking hip hop dance classes and Josh is shopping for fedoras with Jamie, then cranking “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up for a business meeting (even though he admits listening to the same song back “when it was just bad”). They ditch their longtime friends who now have young children, and convince each other they are free spirits blessed with limitless opportunity.

As Josh slowly begins to look a bit deeper into Jamie’s motives for hanging with him, their interplay comes to resemble Baumbach confronting his younger self, along with the futile anxieties of growing old “gracefully.” Baumbach seems perfectly comfortable in this new skin, crafting a film that is often smart, funny, and bittersweet all at once. His work has never been more accessible.

The characters are all sharply drawn and relatable, fleshed out by a talented cast that lets Baumbach touch on a variety of serious topics with a confident blend of laughter and nuance. The performances are all dead on, with Driver shining in the film’s most complex role.

Baumbach does risk a cop out with the convenient plot turn that comes near the finish, but it’s not nearly enough to derail the knowing smile that While We’re Young is bound to leave you wearing.

And that looks better than a fedora on almost all of us…of a certain age.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





Two Indie Gems for Your Queue

Earlier this year the indie gem Frances Ha was released, not that the world noticed. Well, world, here’s your opportunity to make amends, because this loosely articulated but deftly crafted character study of a New York dork could come home with you today on DVD.

The creative pairing of unrepentant misanthrope, writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and unabashedly likeable writer/star Greta Gerwig, the film gives Baumbach the opportunity to explore the lives of damaged neurotics, as usual, but gifts us with a protagonist we cannot help but love. As Frances tumbles, limbs akimbo, out of her arrested adolescence and into her long-dormant adulthood, a delightful journey emerges.

For something as impressive, if not quite so effervescent, you must see Baumbach’s masterpiece of awkward family dysfunction, The Squid and the Whale. This dark, semi-autobiographical comedy follows a self-absorbed adolescent, his divorcing narcissist parents, and his perhaps irrevocably weird little brother. Baumbach’s wicked writing created endless opportunities for the film’s dream cast, boasting, among other triumphs, the most brilliant performance of Jeff Daniels’s career.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQEnAtMxVXw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpg1f6ZVxh0





Settle Down, Frances

Frances Ha

By Hope Madden

As a filmmaker, Noah Baumbach tends to bombard an audience with characters he dares you to find sympathetic. From The Squid and the Whale to Margo at the Wedding to Greenberg, Baumbach has filled the screen with damaged, self-absorbed neurotics. But his casual misanthropy met its match when he cast the effortlessly likeable Greta Gerwig in Greenberg.

The two team up again for Frances Ha. They share writing duties and Baumbach directs while Gerwig stars as a far cheerier spin on the helmsman’s typical protagonist.

A loosely sketched character study, the film relies heavily on Gerwig’s talent and honesty as she portrays Frances, a free floater who’s trying to change that about herself. Frances is a 27-year-old modern dance intern whose shelf life is becoming too apparent. Her BFF Sophie (an agreeably natural Mickey Sumner – Sting’s daughter) has even moved on to career and commitment.

Suddenly Frances feels she’s outworn the welcome of her carefree youth, and as Frances tries to shake free from her own arrested adolescence, a delightful journey emerges.

The film is far less structured than anything Baumbach’s done to date, feeling a bit closer to Gerwig’s mumblecore roots. But in sometimes subtle ways, Baumbach’s craftsmanship shines. This film is a carefully articulated idea masquerading as improv.

The result is equal parts Woody Allen, French New Wave and Jim Jarmusch, and amazingly enough, it never feels too hip for its own good. That’s likely because, swimming in Brooklynite hipsters, Frances is an adorable dork.

Gerwig says she and Baumbach began with snippets of conversations and small encounters, pushing those little moments to grow into a full picture. The result is as loose and musical yet precisely choreographed as a dance.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars