Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Grandma (***)

Written and Directed by Paul Weitz


I can't think of a better time for Lily Tomlin's performance in Grandma to present itself to us. She's reached the beloved third act of her career, has come out on the other side of the I Heart Huckabees portion of her persona which now seems almost endearing. She has a popular Netflix show, Grace and Frankie, in which she stars with Jane Fonda (and for which she was very recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy), and people are ready to see her in the kind of film role that really showcases all of her most outlandish quirks. Who better than a low stakes filmmaker like Paul Weitz - someone who's always been more 'director-for-hire' than auteur - to craft a screenplay for her? Someone who doesn't need to stretch too far, or get in the way of the greatness of his film's star? Grandma has that indie charm, but it only works when Tomlin is given free reign to perform her career-long schtick in a story that truly knows how to utilize it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mistress America (**1/2)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach's image of New York is as romantic as Woody Allen, but he's willing to admit that there are cracks on the infamous visage. He does not treat New York as a place that can do no wrong, and usually the blame falls at the hands of people. There are terrible people all over the world, but Baumbach seems to have an understanding that New York City has a way of producing the kind of terrible people on all levels and classes. His latest Greta Gerwig collaboration, Mistress America, is basically a spiritual cousin to their previous, Frances Ha. Ha was shot in black and white, alluded often to the French New Wave, and showed Gerwig as a twenty-something whose entire idyllic Park Slope existence goes down the toilet when her roommate moves out. Mistress America ponders what would have happened Ha's protagonist were more manipulative, was able to spin her fable of a lifestyle into at least partial success. In Mistress America, Gerwig's Brooke is the quintessential, millennial New York Girl: in her thirties but still single, getting by on a variety of patched together version of employments, and living in a space marked as commercial. She's literally living out a fantasy of most twenty-first century white kids, and yet she still has room for unhappiness. Of course she does, it's a Noah Baumbach movie.

Ricki and the Flash (**1/2)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Diablo Cody's preoccupation with outcasted women trying to fit into Middle American normalcy has given us Jason Reitman's two best films, Juno and Young Adult. Her collaborations with Reitman have been the best thing for the two of them. Neither has really amounted to much without the other. You'd think that Cody getting a chance to work with one of the best living American film directors, Jonathan Demme, would count as an upgrade. Not to mention casting the lead in the film with Meryl Streep, an actress whose reputation is so absolutely adored that she can probably die without a single meaningful performance going forward and still be considered the greatest of all time. This seems like such a great mix, and indeed, I do think the level of the talent does help rise what could have been a pretty unspectacular premise toward watchability. None of the players here are swinging for the fences. Ricki and the Flash is a pretty low-stakes film with a lot of emotional fireworks and crowd-pleasing one-liners. Demme views Cody's sardonic humor through a more sentimental lens and strips away all of Reitman's inherent cynicism. And yet, the film works for me. All of its frills and overeagerness paid off as I watched a rather half-baked film evolve into a pretty effective - albeit hackneyed - story of redemption.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Phoenix (**)

Directed by Christian Petzold


The roots of the Holocaust are felt deeply in Christian Petzold's Phoenix, a quaint tale about a Jewish woman named Nelly (Nina Hoss) who survived Auschwitz, but not without suffering wounds so devastating that she requires facial reconstructive surgery. After the procedure - she asked to look exactly as she one had - she still feels like her identity has been wiped clean; her home has been bombed to bits, her face is like something completely different, and her loving husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is nowhere to be found. Searching for Johnny, she finds him bussing tables in a club in the American sector. Despite the warnings of her loyal friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, Nelly still comes face to face with her husband, who doesn't recognize her. Upon seeing her, Johnny finds her similar enough to his wife to propose a plan: pretend to be his deceased wife in order to secure her financial assets. What follows is a twisted narrative of a man transforming a woman into his wife, a woman he does not realize is already his wife. Hoss' performance as Nelly is profound, haunted and painful. Nelly's progressive knowledge of the moral corruption of the husband she used to love is the rock that this narrative is built on, but outside her performance, Phoenix has an austerity that's hard to puncture. Other than a dynamite closing scene that packs an emotional punch unlike anything in the film previous, Phoenix is a droll affair without much to separate it from the dozens of Holocaust-themed films we see every year. It's obvious that Hoss and director Christian Petzold have a great tandem going - this is their fifth film together, and their fourth consecutive - but this is far from their best collaboration.

The Look of Silence (****)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer


When I saw Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing in 2012, it completely transformed the concept I had for what contemporary human beings were capable of. That film explored the killing of one million Indonesian 'communists' (pretty much anyone who even appeared to threaten the new military regime) in the span of a year. It focused specifically on the men directly responsible for the slaughter, and it's main star was Anwar Congo, an elegant self-proclaimed gangster who not only personally killed hundreds of people, but did it in horrifically grotesque ways, speaking of it proudly. The ending of that film - with Congo finally, in advanced age, coming to grips with the absolute horror of his actions and literally retching on his own porch - is one of the most powerful images I've seen in any piece of nonfiction filmmaking. The Look of Silence is another film from Oppenheimer, a companion piece and a film that takes less of an objective glance of the killings, and becomes actively confrontational. When we meet Adi, a 44-year-old ophthalmologist, we learn that he was born only a year after the killings, and that his brother Ramli was one of the victims. Ramli's death, a death that took place over several days and included particularly brutal details such as the extraction of intestines and castration, we understand why the intellectual Adi would want to seek an explanation. Adi visits the numerous men who played a part in his brother's death, asking only for a small gesture, an expression of regret or even an apology. The responses he does receive are both fascinating and sobering, a bleak picture of humanity's ability to distort history to comfort their own demons.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The End of the Tour (***1/2)

Directed by James Ponsoldt


The concept of David Lipsky's 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself always felt a little gross to me. The book consists solely of a weekend-long interview between Lipsky and legendary author David Foster Wallace toward the end of his epic book tour after the release of his brilliant, maddening, excessively long novel Infinite Jest. The interview was meant to be part of a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine, Lipsky wanted to capture the zeitgeist that was Wallace at the height of that fame, but the magazine dumped the story and this interview didn't see the light of day until after Wallace's suicide in 2008, over twelve years later. The whole thing felt like an exploitation of a tragedy, like when Riverhead Books decided to publish Kurt Cobain's agonizingly personal journals and distribute them for all the world to see. Lipsky's book has now been transformed into The End of the Tour, the latest film from indie director James Ponsoldt, and has morphed into a surprisingly poignant view of one of our most fascinating writers. The script, written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Donald Margulies, finds pockets of humanity and moments of tension within Lipsky's interview, drafting a view of two different kinds of writing celebrity: the moderate success story who wants to be a rock star and the rock star who wants to be anything but.