Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha (2012) movie poster

director Noah Baumbach
viewed: 12/01/2013

Greta Gerwig.  I’ve liked her from the moment I first encountered her in Baghead (2008).  I’ve liked her in (everything I’ve seen her in since then.  And I’m hardly alone in that opinion.  In fact, it’s her now boyfriend director co-writer Noah Baumbach who last worked with her in the less than great Greenberg (2010) who collaborated with her on this, her screenwriting debut, Frances Ha.

I still think that Baumbach’s best film is The Squid and the Whale (2005) though his collaborations on screenplays with Wes Anderson have also been some of Anderson’s best works.

Frances Ha is about a gal in her late 20’s in Manhattan, going through the ups and downs of life, career, relationships and self.  Shot in black-and-white, the film echoes other movies set in the Big Apple, paeans and odes to the city and its life.  But also a paean to a lovely young thing who has genuine charm and character, the character/actress as character.

Baumbach is my age exactly.  So, his relationship with a girl 14 years his younger, and thusly with the life of people in their 20’s is separated in time and life in a significant though not insurmountable way.   Gerwig is the real thing, someone with real elan and heart, so you can forgive anyone for sort of falling for her.  But there is this semi-vicarious, creepyish voyeurism into a period of life now departed from those of us in our 40’s.  I don’t know, but I’m sure this take is unique to me to an extent, but it’s really how I felt through the film.

It’s a likable film, with charms and moments.  The two things it reminded me of, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010) and probably her whole tv show Girls which I’ve never seen only read about and perhaps also Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).  It’s a good effort, not perhaps all too memorable, but good in its low-key, personal nature.

Side by Side (2012)

Side by Side (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Kenneally
viewed: 02/22/2013

Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Qu’est-ce que le film?

Film, at least, can be reduced to the literal.  It has been the stuff onto which images have been captured, developed, and then displayed.  As in “the movies”, it’s the stuff that runs through the projector, light shining through it, whose mechanized process has created an illusion of movement.  The photo-chemical process of capturing images in light onto the emulsion, the exposures that record the capture, the creation of the negative.  It’s a tactile, real thing, stored in reels, not in the least impervious to the elements.

And “film” as well is synonymous with cinema, a much broader concept, perhaps.

But the conundrum of the definition has been a key point of interest in the digital age.  Though it’s been decades in process, the digital technology has usurped “film” in its costs, ease, and abilities.  Director Christopher Kenneally and producer/interviewer Keanu Reeves pull together an impressive array of important Hollywood directors and cinematographers and put the questions to them about the death of celluloid, the industry changes, technical innovations, and the future of “film”.

We’ve got George Lucas, James Cameron, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez, and Christopher Nolan to name a few.  There are those among them who have been pushing digital’s envelope for decades, developing the technologies that shifted the market, visionaries who have shaped the present day reality and in part the discourse.  And it’s very interesting hearing from cinematographers, editors, effects people, whose relationship with the photographic image, the alchemy of traditional film, is the most directly impacted.

While the film Side by Side itself is not a great piece of cinema, it does have a few key aspects of serious merit.  They do speak to a good group of film-makers.  They also lay out a pretty easy-to-follow if not beautifully-rendered explanation of the technology, how it works and how it differs, which is no doubt a decent primer for many.  And thirdly, and perhaps the most underdeveloped and yet potentially interesting, is the history of implementation and adoption of digital techniques in major motion pictures.

From the digitizing of film that was first shot traditionally, to manipulate in computer later before returning to celluloid, it’s interesting to uncover digital’s “invisible” evolution.  While digital effects have become the modern norm, the steps to developing new cameras that record everything digitally from the get-go, is very telling.  It’s interesting how many film-makers reference Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film, The Celebration as such a liberating, influential film.  Because the technology is only getting better, in many cases cheaper and more accessible.

Keanu, bless him, shows his interest to be deep and significant.  It is very hard to hear that voice and take it one tenth as serious as one might take another actor.

What is cinema?  What is film?  The questions will continue to resound as a very technological medium becomes ever more varied and technologically profound.  And the photochemical images, shot today, in the 20th century, Daguerreotypes…  some aesthetics will never go away, they’ll just have to make room for other new ones.

With apologies to André Bazin.



Greenberg (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Noah Baumbach
viewed: 03/26/10 at CineArts at the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest film is a step up from his last film, Margot at the Wedding (2007), but it’s also not quite as fulfilling as his best film, The Squid and the Whale (2005).  And actually, Baumbach has struck a great partnership with Wes Anderson on some of Anderson’s best films including Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which I think has led to the best films between the two of them.  But ranking a film against others is not such a useful strategy.

Greenberg stars Ben Stiller, who I don’t always care for, in a role of the more “serious” and “actorly” than his broad comedies.  He is Greenberg, a 41 year old man who, following a nervous breakdown, comes to live in his brother’s house in LA while they are on vacation in Vietnam.  He’s a man “stuck” in himself, narcissitic, angry, bitter, and yet maybe an okay guy.  Stiller is quite good in the role, giving the character only the most modicum amount of charm.  He’s not easy to like.

Opposite Stiller is the polar opposite, Greta Gerwig (who I started liking from Baghead (2008) and The House of the Devil (2009)).  In many ways, she’s almost as critical to the story as Greenberg.  The film opens with her, after having walked a dog, her face fills the screen, looking to the right while she drives across Los Angeles.  She is the full picture and the background is zipping past her.  She has direction?  But she has a natural human loveliness of a girl that you met at a party and probably dreampt of all night.  She’s a beautiful girl, but a regular, real person, both physically and in her character’s demeanor.

She is Florence, Greenberg’s brother’s hired assistant, running errands, walking the dog, buying groceries.  And at 25, she’s a bit of a score for Greenberg, but he can’t hardly see that.  His issues, agoraphobia, self-loathing, misanthropy make him utterly self-involved.  It’s actually amazing that she likes him.  But her character has what his character utterly lacks, self-awareness of a sort and sensitivity to others.

Actually, her life is perhaps also a bit unsettled.  Having just ended a long-term relationship, her entire life is being a part of a family of which she is not family.  She is notably not invited on the vacation, but she does everything for them.  And her small apartment, small life, at 25, has yet to come to crisis about such a situation.  Her sensitivity and kindness will probably allow things to work out for her.

Greenberg, though, is stuck somewhere within himself, not really living in the past, but certainly not in the present.  He hides in the house from the neighbors, and when he digs up his old friends from a band he was in as a younger person, he manages to alienate everyone across the board.  The one creature that he seems to develop a caring for is his brother’s ailing German shepherd.  He’s living in the family house, but not within the family.

It takes pretty much the entire film for Greenberg to wake up at all.  And, if anything, the film’s wry humor bursts onto screen perhaps a little too infrequently.  It’s a detailed and dedicated study of a man, perhaps an age?, are we all a little Greenbergian?  But it’s kind of harsh and unlikeable.  In Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach made Margot such a bitch that her redemption at the end seemed a little too late and a little too trying.  In Greenberg there is more balance to the equation, but it’s still not a very happy film.

Gerwig is lovely.  She’s come up through the mumblecore movement and smaller independent films and this film will no doubt open doors for her.  Baumbach’s camera gives her the full breadth of the screen, and she is a tender, belieavable young California girl.

For Baumbach, it’s another good film.  But I have to say that I prefer the stuff that he works on with Wes Anderson.  Some mixture of the two of them bring out something much more lively, cheering, and significant.  Still, it’s interesting stuff.

The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Ti West
viewed: 02/08/10

The House of the Devil is an intentional throw-back horror film, set in the early 1980’s and using credit titles meant to look as though it was actually produced back then.  It had gotten some decent reviews, so I was game to check it out.

Writer/director Ti West sets things slowly into motion, building time and place, and characters, namely the heroine, the very pretty (and very skinny) Jocelin Donahue as the college sophomore who wants to get out of her dorm room and into a nice private apartment.  She’s given some emotional depth, given time to brood upon.  And her best bud, played by Greta Gerwig, who had caught my eye in the “Mumblecore” film, Baghead (2008), here with feathered hair and a cute, semi-dipsy conviviality.

It’s a babysitting gig, on the night of a lunar eclipse, that you can guess from the title of the film, The House of the Devil, is either some Rosemary’s Baby (1968)-type of babysitting gig or something with pentagrams and human sacrifice.  It’s the latter.

Way out in the countryside, Gerwig drives Donahue to the house, but the whole thing is suspicious from the start.  The older couple say that it’s not really a child they want her to babysit, but an elderly mother, who will be no bother.  And when she’s offered $400 for one night’s worth of work, it wouldn’t take Nancy Drew to figure out that something was really fishy.

A term that I find myself using often in describing films that “try” to do something interesting, unique, different, but don’t seem to have all the necessary talents or elements in place is earnest.  There is an earnestness to this film, a real attempt to give some verity to the humanity of the characters and to try to pose the story like one that’s not just totally insane.  It also attempts to build drama and tension rather than pop up with lots of shocking nothings (“what was that that just ran past the camera too close to see, but with the wince of a violin?”) that you see all too friggin’ often.

But still, it doesn’t add up completely, certainly doesn’t become more than the sum of its parts, nor, I fear, will seem very memorable.  While its aesthetics seem to call toward The Last House on the Left (1972) or John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the film lacks originiality.  Still, much more interesting, say, than all the re-makes of that period’s horror films.


Baghead (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
viewed: 01/06/08

Mumblecore, anyone?

I don’t ever claim to be “with” the times, in fact, one of my taglines is “several steps behind the times”.  And I don’t have any hardcore cineaste friends, none as “hardcore” as me, with maybe one exception or two.  But anyways, mumblecore, have you heard of it?  It’s a recent style/genre/movement/aesthetic that has produced a number of films from a number of producers, directors, writers, and actors.  It’s basically uber low-budget, digital video, DIY-style narrative films mad by and about “twentysomethings” and their relationships.  And the Duplass Brothers, who produced this film, Baghead, are veterans of this movement, having previously made The Puffy Chair (2005), which made the rounds at Sundance and IFC.

So this is my first mumblecore movie.  And I liked it.

Baghead, I guess, is a little higher concept than perhaps other films of this movement.  It’s a comedy and a horror film made on less than a shoestring budget.  The brothers claim that the film was made for approximately $1000.  This is insanely below the indie film movement of the 1990’s with films like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) (made for a reported $7000) or Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs (1992) or many of the low budget indies of the day.  The aesthetic is just to make a film and spend as little as possible, I guess.  I don’t know how they pay the actors.

The film actually opens in a small theater where the four primary characters are watching a mumblecore-like production, where the director comes out and fields questions about the means of production and the mantra about making “art” (also for a self-reflexively stated $1000).  The characters are struggling actors, mumblecore wannabes, who get the idea to hole up in a cabin in the woods and write themselves a script to get themselves some work.  Inspired by a nightmare, they decide to make a horror film about a guy with a bag on his head terrorizing a cabin in the woods.  But then, of course, the “baghead” actually shows up to torment them.

The thing that carries the film is the characters who are funny and believable.  The low-budgetness of the film is part of its aesthetic and works well most of the time.  There is an unfortunate The Blair Witch Project (1999)-ness that occurs when the action gets going and the scares are peaking out.  But otherwise, it’s quite successful at what it does.  It’s in a sense, the ultimate of the small movie.  And the aesthetic, like a gentle, even more extremely low budgeted Dogme 95, is effective.

It’s interesting.  Not surprisingly so.  But the means of production, using digital video (whose quality and costs have risen and plummeted almost proportionately, respectively) has become so accessible, and editing and the rest of production has become cheap and easy too.  The DIY aesthetic can reach into the area of cinema in a much more plausible way than ever before.  I wish it had been so when I was 18.  I’ve seen this in a number of documentaries, the volume of which has grown.  But this is in a sense an inevitable step in the evolution of cinematic production.

Luckily, the Duplass brothers do a good job at it.  And their cast is totally up to the task.  The whole cast is good, which is critical in such a small film with such a small number of primary characters.  I especially liked Greta Gerwig.  But that’s just because she’s incredibly cute.

So, anyways.  Mumblecore.  Now we know.