Wiener-Dog

Unlike many indie filmmakers who plied their craft in the 1990s era of uncomfortable humor whose grim laughs came from looking at the darkest parts of humanity, the films of writer-director Todd Solondz have retained a sort of unshakable relevance. Part if it comes from how he continues to follow certain characters, years later. But also, Solondz himself has grown as a filmmaker. He has a special knack to tap into the ineffable with a sometimes murky kind of storytelling that speaks to humbling truths in humanity that can range from embarrassing to terrible and always feel inexpressible in polite company.

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Eden posterAnyone who recalls the early nineties dance club era featuring chill rooms, breakbeats and jungle music, before EDM started to drive today’s bass-dropping, dub-stepping electronica and PLUR culture, understands the sudden tectonic shifts of the ever fluid scene of dance music. The scene feels so capricious that even referencing PLUR, much less dub-step, already feels dated. Though I’ve written about music for over 20 years and can say I saw Orbital play a nightclub in Miami Beach, I can’t relate to anything at the long-surviving Ultra Music Festival that my city is so well known for. It’s a whole other world now. It’s no wonder few DJs and electronic music acts have survived the gauntlet of time (again, see Orbital). They could either evolve, become nostalgia acts or worse, disappear into irrelevance.

Eden, the latest film by French director Mia Hansen-Løve, chronicles the path of a fictional DJ (Félix de Givry) in early nineties Paris inspired by the music scene of the time. It follows him over the course of a decade as he earns some recognition as part of a DJ duo and struggles to stay relevant in the scene’s casual drug-fueled atmosphere. Meanwhile, a parallel story line depicts how Daft Punk weaves in and out of his life. This movie is so much more than the simple logline following it around: “Paul, a teenager in the underground scene of early nineties Paris, forms a DJ collective with his friends and together they plunge into the nightlife of sex, drugs, and endless music.”

Félix de Givry in EdenHansen-Løve has a marvelously unglamorous, naturalistic style. What’s amazing about this movie is how slowly the characters come into their own through a rather difficult process: the bliss of music and the disillusionment of the cycle of that music’s scene — sex and drugs is but a footnote. Few can make such a lifestyle last a lifetime, and Hansen-Løve, who wrote the script with her brother Sven Hansen-Løvecaptures the futility of a young man’s attempt with a delicate, patient touch. The director finds an incredible balance that places music at the forefront, as characters are fleshed out through the more universal cauldron of time.

We first meet Paul against the sounds of “Plastic Dreams” by Jaydee. We are told it’s November 1992. He and Cyril (Roman Kolinka) wander into the woods after a night of clubbing, high on drugs and music. Paul is inspired, a vision of an animated bird — the film’s only betrayal of realism — portends inspiration but also false hope. His companion will also become a noted cartoonist who attempts to document the Parisian dance scene in a comprehensive series of graphic novels, which will turn out to be an even greater exercise in futility, something Hansen-Løve seems astutely aware of, as the film maintains a narrative focus on Paul, but leaves Cyril as a peripheral if more tragic side note. With her focus set on Paul, Hansen-Løve never resorts to a literal tight focus. She presents the world around Paul in mostly medium shot. The rest of the world and the people that come and go and sometimes return, including several girlfriends (among them Greta Gerwig), are essential.

Greta Gerwig in Eden

With Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) at his side, Paul seems on the right track toward success after forming the garage duo Cheers. They get some decent headlining gigs at clubs and earn radio appearances. Meanwhile, their friends Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (Arnaud Azoulay) and Thomas Bangalter (Vincent Lacoste), a.k.a. Daft Punk, get a few good notices, as well. The Daft Punk duo, however, like Cyril, are presented as a couple of oddballs on the periphery, who still have a hard time getting into clubs, even at film’s end, in “modern times” and riding a wave of many moments of Vincent Lacoste and Arnaud Azoulay in Edensuccess, all of which occur off-camera. But this is never presented as some kind of rivalry. Paul and Stan genuinely admire the early, French house developments of Daft Punk (which began as Darlin’ in 1992 with Phoenix’s Laurent Brancowitz on drums), and they continue to be friendly into the later years. This restraint is only part of the film’s natural unfolding. There’s no obligation to present the exact time where Paul is at in his life, though the film is presented chronologically and references to years appear, like one to 1995 in the early part of the movie. But it never feels heavy-handed. The demarcation of time is more clearly revealed in the changes of music, from recognizable tunes to the evolution of the scene’s sound, or the changes in Paul’s life, from girlfriends to his mother’s growing frustration with his obsession to make DJ-ing a career.

Eden is not some survey or comprehensive account of the genre through the eyes of Parisians, however. That would prove detrimental to Paul’s story, as ironically demonstrated by the fate of Cyril. A film that would have focused too much on the music, would detract from the people in it. If that is all these people define themselves by, what else is there that matters? The film is focused on telling one man’s story and all the others’ lives are filtered through his eyes. In one scene he is rolling in bed with Julia (Gerwig), who is in Pauline Etienne, Félix de Givry in EdenParis on a student visa. A bit later in the story, he is catching up with her in New York City as a guest DJ at a museum rave in the daylight. At this point in our story she is married and pregnant. Paul’s journey as a person flows with the trivializing of a music genre that has to constantly adapt for relevance. This is how the world of electronic music shrewdly informs the film. Music becomes more than a sonic landscape that captures atmosphere and time changing over the course of the film. It is also presented as either a fit for our hero or a foil. The conflict is as much in his trying to fit in with the music as much as in the passive-aggressive dynamism between his girlfriends, pals and rivals.

Eden speaks to character flaws and humanity in a warm, relatable way. If all we have is a list of hits or notable touchstones in this music scene, where is a life lived within this world? Hansen-Løve is clearly more interested in creating a feeling for a life, above all. As she did with her stellar prior film, 2011’s Goodbye First Love, she creates a profound impression of living life and enduring its inevitable life-changing conflicts and surviving them to confront new ones with an informed, unshakable past. She harnesses all the power of the language of cinema, from framing to editing to writing to acting to tell a story without calling attention to the technique. Eden just happens to also have a pretty cool, eye-opening soundtrack that works incredibly well as a narrative device.

Hans Morgenstern

Eden runs 131 minutes and is Rated R. It came out on home video Tuesday, Jan. 20. Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon, via this link. Broad Green Pictures shared a preview link to this film last year when it almost hit theaters in Miami. It’s also on-demand on Amazon (follow this link).

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

image002Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s insights into human behavior seem to grow more astute with every film he makes. Somehow he finds charms in the flaws of people and transmits a keen sense of empathy to the audience. Baumbach and his screen-writing partner Greta Gerwig have crafted us a peculiar but endearing young woman with questionable social skills in Mistress America’s 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke). Speaking to her mom via phone not long after she has started class at Barnard, Tracy gripes about her difficulty making friends. “It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anyone all the time.”

“That sounds uncomfortable,” responds her mom. There’s something really funny in this exchange but also canny. The parent states something obvious, informed by experience. It leaves her daughter even more isolated and warmer to the audience. We also don’t understand Tracy’s troubles in making friends, which, as the movie progresses, will become more clear. But even in her social awkwardness she will continue to become more endearing, all the way up to a key confrontation that will have some questioning whether Tracy may be a sociopath.

Her mother suggests she call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry, Brooke (Gerwig), an older young lady (she’s 30) who may soon become her step-sister. One day, after eating an entire pie by herself at a diner, while Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” is spilling from a tinny speaker, Brooke stares down at the cracked screen of her iPhone 3GS. She dials Brooke and leaves a message. Brooke calls back seconds later and so begins a strange, screwy adventure about chasing dreams at oscillating levels of maturity.

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Baumbach is at the top of his game working with Gerwig. A lightness pervades this film, similar to their fitst collaboration, Frances Ha (Film Review: ‘Frances Ha’ reveals Noah Baumbach’s luminous lighter touch). So the script is smart, but it wouldn’t be a complete package without supporting cinematic elements. New collaborators include the duo Dean & Britta of Luna fame, who have produced a bubbly, new wave soundtrack for the movie. But he’s also working with Sam Levy again who lenses a gorgeous New York City. However, nothing is about the surface in a Baumbach film. There’s a reason it takes Brooke an uncomfortable amount of time to walk down the Times Square steps with arms outstretched to greet Tracy waiting below. It’s a quirky set-piece that speaks to shaking off illusions of romance that Baumbach traffics in so well.

Ultimately, it is the screenplay that makes this movie, and I sense awards in its future (if there be justice). As delightful as these women sometimes appear, the script is quick to cancel out any charms, and this play never gets tiresome. Brooke is a great over-sharer and the embodiment of cognitive dissonance. She pauses in the street to write a Tweet about some inanity but gripes when someone snaps a picture of her being kissed by a friend. “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must WE?” she says in a declaration to the universe but to no one really.

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The dynamic between these two would-be sisters starts to knot when Brooke shares with Tracy her idea to start a restaurant in New York City called “Mom’s.” Brooke doesn’t know anything about cooking, but she has an array of mismatched plates in boxes at her studio apartment that exude the sort of ambiance she dreams of creating. It’s this sense of superficiality that fuels an insubstantial drive that begins to intrigue and delight Tracy. Tracy, meanwhile, is chasing her own dream, hoping to be accepted by a supercilious writer’s club at college who flaunt leather satchels and sit in a room discussing big ideas while sipping wine. It turns out Brooke, who refers to herself as “Mistress America,” could prove to be the real-life inspiration she needs for a short story that would impress the snobs.

“I think you can do anything” Tracy says, enabling Brooke’s ego as she meets with potential investors. There’s a sinister sincerity to the statement. However, the film only ever presents these characters as endearing. Tracy never appears ironically shifty. You have a sense she knows not what she is doing, as she co-opts her new-found friendship with little regard for Brooke’s feelings. Whether she can learn from this is not spelled out, but the bond between these two depends on something much more profound.

Hans Morgenstern

Mistress America runs 84 minutes and is rated R (adult talk and humor). It opens in our South Florida area Sept. 4 at the following indie theaters: O Cinema  Wynwood and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For screening dates hear you, check out a list of theaters hosting the film across the U.S. by clicking this link. O Cinema invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

As film genres go, mumblecore is as independent and obscure a label as it gets. Consider this post a guide to that film movement, which sometimes gets thrown about by the would-be hipster/film connoisseur.

Former SXSW producer Matt Dentler championed many of these films, which all characteristically had conversation-driven plots that often meandered and were not necessarily enunciated as best they could by the mostly amateur actors involved (Hollywood Reporter: How To Speak Mumblecore). It loosely describes some independent films that came about in the mid-2000s. The label, though, is not an accepted genre; filmmakers do not acknowledge it and some film critics hate it. In 2007, Amy Taubin, a member of the New York Critics film circle, famously once stated mumblecore “has had its fifteen minutes.” However, in order to appreciate many of indie cinema’s current working filmmakers, one should not disregard their roots in this oft-maligned but key and even sometimes entertaining moment in independent American cinema.

All these films are dominated by talking. The plots are somewhat simple and acting is natural. Often, actors improvise dialogue. The term “actors” roughly describes the people in the films, as they are not necessarily actors by trade but mutual friends. The cast is then an amalgam of lesser-known people that have some sort of quick shorthand among each other. The films, shot with very small budgets, made the rounds at film festivals. Some were better than others.

It is safe to say that the wave of mumblecore films has ended, leaving a few good films behind and creating a crop of directors that have since created some great films with larger budgets. If anything, one can celebrate the movement as a training ground for the likes of Andrew Bujalski, who, last year, gave us the amazing Computer Chess (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), and the very talented Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in one of the best movies last year, Frances Ha.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

The characters in mumblecore films all seem stuck in a state of arrested development, partly imposed by a lack of economic opportunities but also self-imposed, as these twenty-somethings are marred by self-doubt, fear of commitment and what seems to be a prolonged adolescence. The films in this genre certainly capture the zeitgeist of being young and middle class in early 2000s America, and therefore, the self-conscious, distant, hesitant young characters in mumblecore ring true to life.

This attitude has recently been criticized by people like clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who called for twenty-somethings to reclaim their coming of age rather than continue to postpone it during a recent TED Talk. While Jay is right in stating that the decisions we make early on determine much of our lives, this very idea may be one of the contributing factors to indecisiveness, which is so aptly depicted in many mumblecore movies. Young people bombarded with competing messages on success, relationships and an obsession with being happy all the time boil under these pressures to the point that some may wish to avoid moving forward altogether. To me, it also portrays characters ill-equipped with disappointment-coping mechanisms and faced with too many choices, all of which are loaded with meaning and fate. Mumblecore should therefore be celebrated for its honest depiction of neo-slacker generational malaise that’s all too real in current American society.

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

Although this post does not exhaustively cover all the many movies attributed to this scene, I do wish to offer some highlights. Outlined above are several of the most salient players in the scene. The information in the infographic is not meant to be all-encompassing, rather the works listed pertain to the mumblecore movement. Some of the names and faces will look familiar, as these directors have recently been making great films with bigger budgets and trade actors. The Duplass brothers most notably have broken into mainstream TV with the likes of “The League” and “The Mindy Kaling Project.” Rather than outliving its “15 minutes,” mumblecore was a short-lived movement that— as does adolescence— must come to an end. Below is a list of my favorite films in the genre. All titles titles link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.

Short list: Some mumblecore films to watch

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Mutual Appreciation Official Poster

At the core of this film is a relationship between Lawrence and Ellie. They profess their love to each other, but the camera reveals uneasiness with settling into the relationship. Every awkward pause is long and full of meaning. The writing is smart and witty. Not a date movie but one to watch if you’re interested in the quintessential mumblecore film.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Hannah Takes the Stairs Official Poster

A Joe Swanberg film, Hannah Takes the Stairs follows Hannah and her relationship with men. Hannah falls for her office mates one after another while in a relationship that quickly goes sour. Greta Gerwig’s performance here is a revelation, a sweet characterization of trying to find love while finding yourself.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)

One of the best movies I’ve seen on sibling rivalry, ever. Aptly directed by the Duplass brothers, the “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” is a sort-of “Olympics” developed  by two brothers when they were young. Alas, as it happens with epic childhood battles, the score was never settled, fanning the flames of an already heavy competitiveness into adulthood. The brothers meet again in all their middle-aged glory to try and settle that unresolved score.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

It is the first film attributed to this genre. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is a story about Marnie, a recent college grad who is not quite sure what comes next in her life. She is shy, smart and unsure. There’s a lot of comedy involved, as the film depicts passive-aggressive behavior combined with the unaffected sweetness portrayed by Marnie. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a recent college grad, I highly recommend it.

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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The other day, I ran a review of one of only a few films I have seen this year that I would already consider among the best of 2013: Frances Ha. It’s also one of those movies worth re-watching during its theatrical run, which began on Friday. But between writing the review and fretting about other writing assignments, I decided to squeeze in one more project: talk to the filmmakers behind the movie. When I inquired, it would turn out the studio, IFC Films, had been lining up phone interviews for the near future with the film’s star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. A few pitches later, and I found myself second in line for a 15-minute chat with her. “Miami New Times” took the feature piece I wrote as a result. You can read it by jumping through the logo for “Cultist,” the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog; here’s a the link:

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Of course, I am always left with extra bits of my conversations with my subjects, so here are some outtakes that cover how she and Frances Ha director/co-writer Noah Baumbach started writing the film, her feelings about being one of the pioneers of the mumblecore film scene and a little exchange about Whit Stillman, who directed her in Damsels In Distress, and was one of my more recent subjects (A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’).

Hans Morgenstern: Is it accurate to say that you and Noah began writing this script when he sent you some emails asking you about your generation after you had completed Greenberg [their previous film together; Read the review here: Greenberg: The Great Projector]?

Greta Gerwig: He emailed me, and he asked me if I wanted to write something together that I could play and that he would direct. And that was the first interaction. Then I sent him a list of ideas that I had, which weren’t specifically about my generation. They were just character ideas, moments, small exchanges of dialogues or scenes or something I thought could go into a movie and some of those made it into the final movie and it was about three pages long, and he liked it. He added to it, and we just started writing scenes, and that was really how it began and how it developed. Most of it was written apart, in terms of the actual writing. It was sort of scene by scene, and we switched them off, but it was a slow process. It was about a year, and then, once we had a script, we did it as perfect as we could get it. Then we went figuring out how to shoot it.

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You had your start in some of the indiest of indie films, which even frustrated some art film critics. I remember [“Film Comment” critic] Amy Taubin said she hated mumblecore (“Mumblecore: All Talk? Pros and Cons of the Much-Hyped Neo-Indie Movemenr”)

(Giggles) Yeah, she did not like it, but we’re friends now.

Did she revisit her analysis of those films at all?

No, I think she still hates those films, but she likes Frances, so she’s come around, I guess. But I think she still hates those films, which is totally fine. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.

My wife likes them, but I too don’t care for them, I have to admit.

That’s the thing about this, you’ll never make anything that will get a hundred percent approval, as much as you might want it (laughs).

Then you worked with Ti West and Noah. Did you feel you were on another sort of playing field with these directors?

It definitely felt like … it was such an interesting process of how I got to have the career I have, and I’m so grateful to all these different people at different moments I worked with who’ve taken me on as an actor and really taught me a lot. I feel very lucky. I would say the biggest difference is that when I was doing movies with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, they were so improvisation heavy, the Duplass brothers a little less so than Joe, Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairsbut those movies, I was almost writing while I was speaking, I was figuring out what the scenes should be and then executing them while I was playing with scenes and that was actually great because it felt really free, and it felt like I got to work out a lot of ideas, and see how things played and almost experiment on camera, but then with Ti and with Noah and with Woody Allen and with Whit Stillman and Arthur and all the other films that I did since, as soon as I had a script-script, that was the departure and executing jokes and getting rhythms perfect, really find the art in the structure, and I think I really— at this point— I enjoy that a lot more. It’s not that I’ll never do the other thing again. It’s just I feel like I really did it for a while, and I just kinda wore thin on it, and I feel like, right now, as a writer, I like to make things as perfect as they can be, working with great writing, and as a viewer I like to see great actors execute great writing, but that might change for me. I might step back from that later and feel I like another thing, but I feel like one of the nice things of getting to do this for a while is I feel like I passed through a phase of my artistic interest, and I’m not as interested in that anymore.

I recently had a nice long lunch with Whit Stillman when he was in Miami.

Oh, I love Whit!

We had a fantastic couple of hours where we discussed my mixed review of “Damsels” which I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for over time.

Yeah, he’s great. He reads every single review, so I’m sure he read yours (laughs). He’s very, very engaged with his own critics, which I think it totally suits him. He’s good at that.

* * *

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach. IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. It arrives in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray. Late next month, it will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

frances-ha-posterDirector Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.

Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.

With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) frances-ha-still-3while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.

Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, 87the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.

More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.

Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. frances-ha-580Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.

As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.

The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come). Update 2: Frances Ha will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, July 5. Update 3: Frances Ha finally arrives in Broward County thanks to the Cinema Paradiso starting Friday, July 12. Update 4: Frances Ha has also made its way to O Cinema beginning Thursday, July 4.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.

In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.

I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.

damsels-in-distress-poster-500x739With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.

After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.

Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:

Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.

Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.

But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?

Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.

But is distraction really the cure for their problems?

Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. Gerwig and Adam Brody in 'Damsels in Distress.' Image courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsSo I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.

Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…

How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?

It was a press screening at a cinema.

Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?

Rene was there.

Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.

We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?

Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.

Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.

And she just saw it this past week?

A few weeks ago.

Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?

Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.

What’s Bonsai like?

Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, Bonsai poster artand he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).

Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.

Yeah, I tend to get that.

Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).

I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.

Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],

D06_IMG_1265.jpghe’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls

Iconic ones.

We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.

It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.

That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. lola-montes-criterion-collection-coverI love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.

But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?

Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.

Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?

It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?

I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.

No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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