Thursday, March 26, 2015

While We're Young (ish)

Back when millenials were pups, I was employed for a while developing largely formulaic thrillers for cable TV.  We had a lot of fun with them, but at the end of the day, they were just cheesy thrillers, with a few notable exceptions.  A sow's ear will never be a silk purse.  One afternoon a colleague walked into my office and, frustrated, tossed a script in development on my desk with a declaration:  You know we can easily write one of these together.

We had, in fact, on our first days on the job in largely deserted offices over Christmas break, been tasked with re-conceiving the problematic plot of a black widow story titled Praying Mantis.  We holed up in one office together; there was much giggling, and we couldn't believe we were getting paid to do this.  A couple of weeks later there was an excruciatingly uncomfortable meeting with the original writer; a convivial one one with the star and the director; one of the company's seasoned faves was later brought on to execute the rewrite.  As you can see from the poster, the thriller was made and the network was happy.  Icing on the wedding cake, the lead actress ended up marrying the director.

Fast forward a couple of years and several cheesy thrillers later to my colleague's proposition.  I declined for a few reasons, chief among them being consumed with Doing My Job (which now included shepherding the occasional highbrow movie, like an adaptation of Willa Cather's My Antonia, and activities like brainstorming classic thrillers to riff off with one of our best writers in the van on location).

And so we beat on in the development mill, cranking out about ten films a year.  One day the colleague came in gushing about a script she'd gotten and waving her coverage of it (yes, we did everything from reading and script coverage to overseeing production).  The story was right up our alley.  Our boss loved the basic script, and it was rushed into development and production.  And yes, not only had my colleague (with her husband) authored the script under a pseudonym, but she had pretended it had been a submission from an agent and had written rave coverage of her own screenplay!

I was aghast at this deception.  It seemed so unethical and manipulative. And unnecessary--the project fit our bill and we would have bought it anyway.

Which brings me to writer-director Noah Baumbach's latest film, While We're Young.


In the movie, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a childless couple in their 40s having trouble relating to friends with babies (not unlike Jennifer Aniston in Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money.) The couple encounters and are befriended by a twenty something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.  

The younger couple rejuvenates the older, and soon enough, Stiller is wearing a pork pie hat, Watts is taking a hip hop dance class, and all four go on a purging/bonding psychedelic trip.  So Baumbach takes the set up for a classic thriller (the strange couple insinuating themselves into the protagonists' lives), but fashions it into a comic love fest of manners, inverting expectations of the genre. 

But of course, idylls don't last forever, and reality bites (sorry, Ben Stiller; couldn't resist that).  Stiller's character Josh is a documentary filmmaker who's been stuck on his latest bloated project for at least a decade, and he pridefully refuses constructive editing feedback from his father-in-law Leslie, an esteemed documentary filmmaker played by Charles Grodin.  Instead, Josh puts his energy into mentoring Driver's Jamie, also an aspiring documentary filmmaker.  As the rejuvenated Josh and Cornelia (Watts) lose their forty something identities, they also lose the friendships of their procreating peers.  Add a little dramatic irony (Jamie's ever-recording mini-camera, seen on the dash in the first pic above, his staying behind in a restaurant to chat with Leslie after Josh leaves), and the benign comedy begins inversion back to potential thriller (or at least dark comedy) mode.  

The plot sickens.  Young Jamie has by now artistically ingratiated himself with Leslie, resulting in Leslie's (with daughter Cornelia, his long time producer) co-producing the documentary that Jamie's directing, while Josh finds himself reduced to camera operator and even--to Josh's chagrin--actor.  Jamie has effectively supplanted Josh, who finally puts it all together:  Jamie and Darby engineered meeting him and Cornelia to jump start Jamie's career.  Act 2 ends with Josh, mad as hell at the manipulation and not going to take it anymore, picking up his camera again to turn the tables on Jamie and expose him to Leslie and Cornelia.

Josh goes full throttle with his exposé of the young couple at an awards gala for Leslie.  It doesn't go well for Josh.  Moreover, Leslie, by this time artistically engaged with and invigorated by Jamie's project, is nonplussed by Jamie's chutzpah.  He shrugs it off; it's a DIY world now, after all.  And a seemingly innocent, puzzled Jamie reminds Josh that he did, after all, willingly act in a scene in the documentary.

Josh--chastened, wiser--finally opens up to Leslie's constructive criticism and starts cutting his own doc.  And the film ends with a coda that brings us full circle to Josh and Cornelia's classic comedic reintegration into their society and their marriage.

It's interesting to me how Baumbach plays with genre in this film, how adroitly he's able to invert expectations and then flip them again and later satisfy them in ways that are ultimately conventional yet still surprising.  In a recent Los Angeles Times feature, Baumbach noted that, with this film, he'd had "more of an idea of structure and story" than with previous films, in which he had let the characters lead the arc of the narrative.

What I also loved about the film was its tone--its ability to both poke fun at and convey affection for the mores of both generations:  the millennials who, without irony, eschew technology (Jamie uses an IBM Selectric and has a wall of vinyl; Josh, admiring the records, notes that he has a lot of the same albums...except his are all on CDs).  Josh and Cornelia's friends gush insufferably about the joys of parenthood, but Josh's best male friend (played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) can also admit that he's bored being a stay-at-home dad--and he has a mini-meltdown over a missing Wilco CD.  (The film also has a terrific soundtrack scored by James Murphy.)

Speaking of times and changing mores, in a Q & A after a screening of the film, Baumbach talked about having 80s films in mind while making this one--Kramer vs. Kramer in particular, in which Dustin Hoffman plays a career-centric man who expects wife (Meryl Streep) to stay at home to take care of their son--until she can't take it anymore and leaves.

Baumbach said he'd had costume designer Ann Roth put Stiller in the army jacket reminiscent of Hoffman's and had Watts's hair styled like Streep's.

Even in this homage, Baumbach is underscoring that that was then; this is now.  Every generation has to find its own way, and perhaps we all need to accept, adapt, and sometimes to just...adopt.  

Maybe my former colleague was a millennial before her time.  Maybe she gave me a life lesson:  you can't get no satisfaction from being a dedicated worker bee alone.   Baumbach's last two films suggest a possible hopeful balance between the exigencies of life and our aspirations:  as Greta Gerwig puts it in her and Baumbach's Frances Ha, "Sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it." Frances takes the desk job and she gives up the dancing she's not really doing to become a choreographer.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscar Picks 87th Academy Awards 2015

Best Picture

Of all the contenders in this category released this year, Richard Linklater's is indelible.  Twelve years in the making.  The focus may be on one character, but it's really about the whole family, about all of us, and how we manage not only to abide but to evolve.

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

I tend to admire directors who are visual stylists (Nic Roeg, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow), and was impressed with Alejandro González Iñárritu's bold choice to make Birdman look as though it were filmed in one continuous take.  But I ultimately felt that his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was a kind of co-director as the architect of this vision.  Linklater's unobtrusive style suits the story, resulting in a perfect marriage of form and content.  (Of course, one could say the same of Birdman; its non-stop movement reflects character Riggan's manic train wreck of a project--and himself--winding about, out of control).  But Boyhood represents more of a singular vision (Linklater did not have three other writers, after all).  And Linklater is a far more experimental filmmaker than he's been given credit for.  So I'm giving him the edge over Iñárritu.  For the record, I also think that young Damien Chazelle did an outstanding job of directing in his first feature, Whiplash, which isn't nominated in this category.

Lead Actor
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

All of the actors up for this award were fantastic, but Redmayne really nailed it, IMHO.  Michael Keaton was also very good in Birdman, and it's likely he'll win.

Lead Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

No other actress in this category gave a performance of this caliber. Moore never disappoints, but boy, was she superb in this film, which might otherwise have been MOW fodder. 

Supporting Actor
J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

Simmons' was the performance of a career.  For me, Edward Norton in Birdman came in second, and then Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher.

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Will anyone ever forget her in the scene depicted above?  Ellar Coltrane's Mason may be the lead, but Arquette's character is the heart and soul of the movie.

Adapted Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

There's no way PTA will win, but he should.  Adapting Pynchon's novel was a feat (Anderson started the process by typing out ALL of the dialogue from the novel!).  If PTA can't win, I guess my next choice would be Graham Moore for The Imitation Game.

Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Not as affecting as Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, for me, but more ambitious in scope and tone.  Reads like a piece of literature.

Animated Feature
I don't do animation (or musicals) and could care less.  But those who do say How to Train Your Dragon 2 deserves to win.

Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida

Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski (left) teamed with young Lukasz Zal, who had never DP'd a film before, but took over (he had been camera operator) when Lenczewski left due to illness (and reportedly was not fully on board with Pawlikowski's intent to employ unconventional framing). Lubezki will probably win for Birdman, but he's my second choice.  Every frame of Ida is jaw-droppingly composed and lit.  I have a feeling that this director and DP will be working together again.

Costume Design
Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

It's hard even to imagine Wes Anderson's film without its distinctive colorful costumes.

Documentary Feature

I didn't think much of Laura Poitras' filmmaking here, but Snowden and what he discloses in the film are riveting.  

Sandra Adair, Boyhood

While Tom Cross's editing in Whiplash dazzled me (and the film was cut in just 10 weeks after only 19 days of shooting!), Adair (Linklater's long time editor) is the winner for me, given that she had 12 years of film to cut (the published script came in at 181 pages!).  Linklater has said that she also contributed much to the story through the years.

Foreign Language Feature

Quite simply, Paweł Pawlikowski's minimalist masterpiece.  Really, the best film of the year.

Makeup and Hairstyling
Frances Hannon and Julie Dartnell, The Grand Budapest Hotel

I mean, come on, look at Tilda!  It is possible, though, that Guardians of the Galaxy or even Foxcatcher could win--I thought the make-up for Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo was amazingly good.

Original Song and Original Score
I can't really recall any of these, other than the fact that I really disliked Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar.  The one I do recall that I liked is Antonio Sanchez's score for Birdman, which wasn't nominated

Production Design
Adam Stockhausen (Set Decoration:  Anna Pinnock)

Meticulous, imaginative, playful.  The design of the film is crucial to Anderson's vision.  I particularly appreciated the sad, stark transformation (or devolution) of the hotel, depicted above in its lobby.

                                                     * * *

As for all of the other categories left--sound editing and mixing, visual effects, shorts, I have no strong opinions and haven't seen any of the shorts.  So I'll go with Birdman for sound (to my lay ear, the editing and mix were excellent), and Interstellar for visual effects.

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Sunday, February 8, 2015


Ida is a static road movie.  And yet it is dynamic.  A novice (or "nun-in-training," as a friend referred to her) who was raised in the convent is told by her Mother Superior that she must meet her sole surviving family member, an aunt unknown to her, before the nun can take her final vows.  So, the young nun and her aunt, Wanda, head out on a journey to dig up their past.  In more ways than one.

Ida is also an artful take on the "buddy" movie, in which polar opposites are thrown together on a quest.  Wanda has no faith; she's a "burnt out former [Marxist] believer," as writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski has described her.  She drinks too much and serially beds men.  She asks Ida if she's ever experienced carnal love.  When Ida says she hasn't, Wanda responds, "You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?"

Shortly after this exchange, the two drive through a desolate crossroads (how could one not be reminded of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil?); Wanda smokes as Ida kneels and prays at a lone shrine at one side of the road.

We sense where all of this is going...and yet we don't.  But it seems inevitable that Ida's faith will be tested.

To summarize the film this way makes it sound schematically familiar.  Yet it isn't.  It is, rather, stunningly minimalistic (imagine Hemingway as a filmmaker--but with more soul).

The film has a squeezed 4:3 aspect ratio, like old TVs--perhaps like the ones in Poland in 1961, the year the film is set.  Pawlikowski has said that this choice, as well as the choice of black and white, was "instinctive," and perhaps a desire to "frustrate" the audience.  In any case, it seems to heighten the sense of "sky" created by the director's choice of highly unconventional framing.  (As another friend of mine quipped, "God is in the sky.")  Pawlikowski also felt that the framing contributed to his desire to tell the story elliptically:  "The whole film works by not showing things rather than showing things."  He generally shot only one angle of each scene, with no coverage, ultimately writing and editing in the camera.  "I didn't leave myself any escape," he has said.

The framing came about when Pawlikowski tried tilting up the camera one day--and felt it looked right to give the film more "air."  Room for the spirit, no doubt.  Characters move in or out of the frame, or exist largely at its borders.  In an interview at the London Film Festival, the director expressed his preference for life lived on the borders.

That was a big part of the appeal for Pawlikowski of Poland in the early 60s, when Communism was on the wane and pop and jazz music made a huge impression on him.  I visited Poland in 1968 with my parents and watched a Beatles cover band (replete with black turtlenecks and Beatle haircuts) in a sad nightclub, and I have to say that the director captured that moment in time so well--and, with the help of his production design team, imbued it with the beautiful clash that he as  a teen experienced.  (Note the cool, deco-Cavern set.)

Pawlikowski perhaps has indeed succeeded in frustrating some viewers who have openly asked him after screenings why the nun makes the choice she does at the end of the film.  Is it a failure of these viewers' imaginations or is it the result of Pawlikowski's refusal to spoon feed and "show everything...and give you all the information you need"?  I imagine that the director might shrug and invoke, as he has in a couple of interviews, Jean Renoir:  "Everyone has their reasons."

One cannot talk about this film without mentioning its extraordinary DP, Lukasz Zal, at the time of filming a 29-year-old who had only previously worked as a camera operator and who took over when the original cinematographer became ill in the first few days of filming.  Zal's work resulted in Ida's being nominated by the Academy for Best Cinematography.

Also contributing to the writing of the film was actor/playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz.  Wanda is played by seasoned Polish actor Agata Kulesza, Ida by Agata Trzebuchowska--a non-actor discovered in a café.

Ida the film is nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.  It should win.  Had I seen this film before I had made my top ten of the year list, it would have been number one.  It left me slack-jawed with awe.

Here's the trailer for Ida: 

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