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The Big Short (and the Enneagram)

If I were going to teach a course on the Enneagram, something I am not even remotely qualified to do, I might make the class watch “The Big Short.”  I would, at the very least, make all the Fives in the room watch it.  You might think this was a biting comedy about the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, and you might be right.  But it’s also a movie about us Fives, and what it means to be a healthy or unhealthy Five in this crazy broken world.

I’d guess that every main character in “The Big Short” is a Five.  This is possible, because they are all based on real people.  (I don’t assume every movie character has an Enneagram number; only the really well-written ones.) If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, one of a Five’s defining characteristics is the “need to see through.”  According to the Enneagram Institute, Fives “want to possess knowledge, to understand the environment, to have everything figured out as a way of defending the self from threats from the environment.”  In this particular case, what they’re trying to figure out is the American financial markt, and what they’re defending themselves from is its complete meltdown.

“The Big Short” is a little hard to follow because it follows so many people all at once.  There’s Steve Carrell, who has no problem telling people they’re idiots.  He has a crew around him, and they are all working with Ryan Gosling, who has considerably more polish than Carrell, but shares the same opinion of people.  There are two garage band investors who work with Brad Pitt, who gave up trading stocks in order to collect seeds and get colonics.  Then there’s Christian Bale, who invests a billion dollars of investors’ money while listening to heavy metal and wearing sweatpants. He’s a little odd, and a little brilliant. But who isn’t in this movie?

These three groups never cross paths in the movie, at least not significantly. They all figure out that mortgage backed securities aren’t as secure as they used to be, and that that’s going to cause a lot of problems for the financial mortgage when the default rate reaches a certain point.  (The film doesn’t try to cram explanations of the financial ins and outs into the dialogue; it straight up pauses, breaks the fourth wall, and introduces entertaining non-characters – like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath – to explain them to us in dumbed down terms.  It’s a risky strategy, but it works.) But instead of trying to alert — hell, I don’t know, somebody, anybody – that the whole thing is a jenga tower about to fall down, they find a way to make money off of it.  A lot of money.

Here’s why I think “The Big Short” is such a fantastic movie for us Fives: we tend to believe, deep down, that the world is full of idiots, and we cackle with glee when something happens to confirm that belief. That’s the first half of “The Big Short,” and it describes an unhealthy Five: we use the knowledge we’ve gathered to protect ourselves while remaining detached from others.  But the second half of “The Big Short” is about the long, hard road towards health and maturity: when the economy does crash, when the jenga tower finally falls, our characters get rich, but there’s no joy in it.  They see all the people around them losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions and savings. The world is in shambles, and it’s really no solace that they saw it coming, or that they profited it from it.  A healthy Five will use their ability to “see through” to advocate for others and bring about needed change.  The characters in “The Big Short” never quite get there, but you get the feeling that, the next time they see disaster coming, they’ll be thinking more about how to prevent it and less about how to get rich off of it.

At least I hope so.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Love & Mercy

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“Love & Mercy” is a biopic about Brian Wilson, the genius behind “Pet Sounds” and the Beach Boys’ best songs. It’s a lesson to aspiring filmmakers on how to make an emotionally resonant, powerfully engaging biopic; instead of proceeding chronologically and hitting the main points of Wilson’s life (that kind of filmmaking is called biopic-itis) it assumes that we are pretty familiar with the Legend of Brian Wilson. We know about the abusive father, the two years in bed, the Charlie Manson days – and focuses on two periods of his life: the year or so around “Pet Sounds” and “Good Vibrations,” and then the late ’80s, when he was rescued from the control of quack psychotherapist Eugene Landy by Cadillac saleswoman and his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter.

One of the themes weaving through the film is that Wilson always hears music; there’s a soundtrack to his life playing in his head, and in his healthier, more lucid moments, he’s able to get that music out for the rest of us to hear.  It’s also why Landy misdiagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia; he hears voices. Atticus Ross, who is one of the best composers working on movies right now (he’s most famous for working on the “Social Network” score with Trent Reznor) composed the score almost entirely bits and pieces that Brian Wilson actually composed — this actually is the music Wilson was hearing in his head.  It fascinating to hear and really adds layers to the film.

The scenes of Wilson creating “Pet Sounds” are exhilarating; Dano brings just the right kind of manic energy, and director Bill Pohlad has populated the scenes with actors who let us know, in little ways, that they know they are part of something special. On the flip side, it’s terrifying to see Landy and his thugs manipulate and control him. We draw the connection to Wilson’s father in the earlier sequences, and Landy in the later ones – though Wilson’s father (played by Bill Camp) is only in two or three scenes, and hardly ever raises his voice: the director doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with the connection.

Elizabeth Banks who plays Ledbetter, is at the heart of this movie, and she is fantastic. Paul Dano and John Cusack are fine, as younger and older versions of Brian Wilson, but I don’t think it’s really that challenging to play an eccentric genius. Every actor worth their chops does it at some point in their career, and more than a few make a career out of it.  Paul Giamatti is great as Landy, but Giamatti can play this kind of barely suppressed rage in his sleep; he used to be a more interesting actor, but unfortunately has become typecast in roles like this one. But Banks’ performance has to be carefully modulated. It’s would be so easy to see her as a gold digger, or a woman with a Messiah complex.  She also has to feel real, for the sake of the film, and not like some kind of idealized lover who can save the hero from himself, basically a non-manic non-pixie dream girl. Banks is one of my favorite actresses, and I think she’s criminally underrated; she makes everything she’s in a little better.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Money Monster

“Money Monster” is the cinematic equivalent of buying government bonds. It’s a low-risk, low-return venture, one that performs modestly but has no trouble meeting its goals and delivering a reasonable return.

George Clooney plays the host of a TV show a lot like “Mad Money;” one of those that looks like a silly game show but talks about stalks and bonds and securities instead. Julia Roberts is his producer/handler, feeding him cues and bits as well as telling him to shut up and stick to the script.

Then Jack O’Connell walks in and takes the live show hostage, strapping a suicide vest to Clooney and demanding that Roberts keeps them on the air.  He’s lost a lot of money following Clooney’s advice, and he really wants to hold someone responsible.  O’Connell seems miscast, though; he yells too much, and fails to display the kind of charisma and intensity need to make us sympathize with him and his plight.  He’s supposed to be playing working class and uneducated; he mostly just plays dumb.  Also, I’m curious why both he and his girlfriend have Boston accents, when the movie is set in New York.

So you can see that all of the ingredients are there for a decent thriller.  All of us want to hold Wall Street responsible for what’s happened to our country, though it’s hard to pin down the exact culprit. The movie has more than a few sarcastic things to say about our financial system, but it’ saying all the same things that have been said before. And let’s face it, when you strap a bomb to a guy, you’ve got an entertaining movie, as long as you don’t make any stupid mistakes. And “Money Monster” doesn’t; it hits its marks, for the most part, it’s paced well, and Clooney and Roberts can carry this kind of thing in their sleep.  It is at turns funny and tense, and it builds towards its big reveal in a satisfying way.  Watching “Money Monster” is kind of like watching a grade school gymnastics meet; nobody’s going to make your jaw drop, but you’re going to clap at the nicely turned cartwheels anyway.

It does stumble a bit at the end.  The second act sets up Dominic West as the bad guy who is responsible for taking O’Connells money; it looks increasingly like what he called a computer glitch is going to turn out to be a case of carefully concealed fraud. But then, suddenly, a ton of information is dumped to make it clear that what West did was both technically legal and standard practice; everyone is doing it.  I can see why director Jodie Foster decided to go this direction; it’s a way to indict the whole financial system instead of just singling out one bad guy and blaming him.  It’s a tricky move, much more complicated and subtle than anything else “Money Monster” has attempted, and it can’t quite stick the landing.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Jurassic World

If you were expecting the magic and wonder of the original Jurassic Park you will be marginally disappointed. I don’t say you will be fully disappointed but rather just let down only half way. Because I think any movie that has dinosaurs and some element of science fiction will be marginally good.

Is the plot necessary to elaborate on? I say no. You get what you pay for, dinosaurs and spectacle. However the plot can summarized as, Dinosaurs escape, Park goes wild, people get eaten, running and screaming and plenty of CGI. Chris Pratt is on the movie, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan too!

The special effects were solid and Chris Pratt adds an amount of fun into the movie. But his charisma only goes so far.The worst sin of the movie was that it was surprisingly boring. The most fun I had when seeing it in theaters was tearing the movie apart. There are a lot of clichés and just dull moments which made better jokes after the movie rather than during. I think the biggest complaint I have with this movie is that they treat me like an idiot. I felt there were a lot of cheap tricks to try to make me like the movie. Like how they include a lot of winks and nods to the original Jurassic Park. I noticed them and I was still bored.

Hollywood is now making formerly good franchises into chintzy junk; however, that makes these movies really fun to watch with friends and mock endlessly. This movie has it all! Evil Southerners, Irresponsible Scientists, Latinos and Fat People and British Assistants all being mercilessly eaten by the CGI dinosaurs, bit players from the predecessors making an appearance, unfunny Jimmy Kimmel cameos, raptors with cute names, awful sexual tension, and running in high heels. I have learned that this movie’s director Colin Trevorrow will be driving Star Wars into the ground next. That’s okay I don’t care anymore. I am taking the advice that was in the animated TV series The Critic, “If the movie stinks just don’t go”. I think my dissatisfaction and annoyance is shared by many. I think that’s the reason the new Ghostbusters has garnered such bad press.

The good news is that someone will grow up loving this movie. I love a lot of marginally good sci-fi movies from the 70’s. Jurassic World will become one of those movies doomed to the daytime schedule of the movie channels. The talented cast of the movie will move on and so will we. The important thing is that we all survived it.

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins.

The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling is an actor of many talents, on display in movies as diverse as “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Blue Valentine,” and “Drive.”  But who knew he could do physical comedy, too?  Is there anything this guy can’t do?  I haven’t heard him sing.  Can he sing?

In “The Nice Guys,” Gosling is a detective with a daughter(Angourie Rice)  who serves as both a partner and a conscience.  He drinks too much and cheats his clients, and the movie plays coy as to whether he’s actually a talented detective or just occasionally lucky.  Russell Crowe is a tough who’d really like to be a good guy, but finds his talents are more valuable to the other side of the law.

The live in a version of L.A. that is somewhere between “Chinatown” and “The Big Lebowski,” and nowhere near reality. Black peppers the establishing shots with astonishing period detail – Tim Allen is shown twice on the marquee of the comedy club, and I lost about ten minutes of the movie wondering just what kind of material Tim Allen would be delivering at the Comedy Club in the late ‘70s.  It’s that period of time when porn was briefly considered an art form, and according to movies like this one, every pretty young thing wanted to be a porn star.  The movie opens with a  porn star named Misty Mountains dying in a car accident that may not have been an accident after all.

This is one of those movies where it’s probably best not to try too hard to follow the plot and make sure everything lines up just so. (I still don’t know who killed the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep.”  Doesn’t matter.) It has something to do with an electric car, a homemade porn flick, and the Justice Department.  Gosling and Crowe are trying to find a missing actress/activist, but when they do, that’ really just the beginning, or maybe the middle, of their troubles. There’s a hit man named John Boy, and wouldn’t it have been cool if they’d gotten Richard Thomas to play him?  Kim Basinger is pretty awful as the shady D.A. who is behind it all.

Movies like this work best when its protagonists work least – when the whole thing feels somehow inevitable and effortless, when a little bit of curiosity and sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong brings the whole house of cards down. “Chinatown” is the best, clearest example, and “Inherent Vice” pulled it off admirably two years ago. “The Nice Guys” doesn’t manage that simplicity. It grinds its gears once in a while, maybe paying too more attention to its plot than it really needs to.

The tone is interesting – it’s not reveling in the sleaze or clucking its tongue at it. Maybe it’s looking for, and believing in, decency in a world where nearly everything is indecent in one way or another. There are shocking moments and graphic violence in “The Nice Guys,” but in the end, it’s what the 12 year old thinks that really matters.

 

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Great Movies Roundtable: Toy Story

Courtland and I are starting a monthly roundtable, discussing the films on AFI’s 100 years… 100 movies list.

Our second entry, number #99 on the list, is Pixar’s first film, “Toy Story.” Released in 1995, it was the first film from Pixar, setting up a decade-long run of excellent movies that raised the bar for animated entertainment.  It was also the first movie made completely on computers.

Pixar started out as a visual effects department, first for George Lucas and then for Disney, and in their early shorts, you can see the ways they are showing off their recent innovations in computer animation.  But it was their commitment to characters with real emotional depth, with honest arcs and truly relatable problems and circumstances — that set them apart in the ’90s and ’00s – and continues to do so in films like “Inside Out,” though they’ve become a bit less consistent in recent years.  Ah well. Golden ages have to end some time.

I think that “Toy Story” is on the list as a stand-in for all 3 Toy Story movies — in the same way that “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” won all the Oscars for all three movies.  Having said that, which is your favorite Toy Story movie?  Which, if you had to pick just one, would you put on this list? 

WK: In my mind, they just get better and better.  “Toy Story 3” is my favorite. That ending scene at the garbage facility… how do you top that?

What is your favorite scene? 
CRH:  I love it when Woody says that Buzz should just flee and leave him so he can make it. He looks back and sees that Buzz is gone in the next shot Woody looks downcast, resigned to his fate and lo and behold to our surprise and Delight Woody and Buzz will now attempt to escape together!  Catastrophe  at its finest.
WK: Mrs. Nesbitt.

What works for you/what doesn’t work? 

CRH: The thing that is so fun to revisit about this movie is the sheer amount of craft the film which gives all the tiny moments a special poignancy. (Like Woody leveling with Buzz.) The voice acting is excellent and the writing is very good. (Joss Whedon and Joel Cohen did rewrites on them.)

WK: I think it’s a stroke of genius that Toy Story took what is the major liability of CGI animation and turned it into a strength.  CGI characters look plastic-y; that’s okay, they’re made of plastic. It’s that kind of creative problem-solving that made Pixar the dominant animation studio for more than a decade.

I had a really hard time with Buzz this time through.  It’s a major plot hole in my mind that he continues to think he’s not a toy even though Andy clearly plays with him regularly. Hey Buzz, if you’re not a toy, why do you go all stiff and blank every time a human walks in the room?  What’s that about?

For what it’s worth, that detail was added AFTER Tim Allen had done all the voice work, in response to the way he played the character.  Tim Allen’s career is a wasteland of bad ideas and terrible projects.  It’s somehow appropriate that he’s responsible for the worst part of the best thing he’s ever been in.  (In a related note… I just watched “Money Monster” and caught myself thinking, “man, George Clooney sounds a lot like Buzz Lightyear.”  Which makes me wonder – how would this whole franchise have been different with George Clooney instead of Tim Allen?  Mind blown.)

Also, I think Sid is a really interesting, though problematic, character.  He talks like a TV show — usually a late night TV show not for kids — but we never see him watching TV.  He’s clearly not at all supervised by his parents, but his room/workshop is equipped with so much fancy equipment that his parents MUST be paying attention somewhat.  If I remember right, I think Sid becomes a garbage man in future movies.  I’d love to see a short about the brilliant art he’s making out of garbage somewhere.  The kid has potential.

CRH: I agree with you that Sid is a bright and imaginative kid. I was myself a kind of mix between Andy and Sid as a child adoring certain toys and blowing others up with fireworks (which is really fun) burying them in the yard (Which I am sure they are still there) and overall playing with the toys in my own way. Sid is not the villain. I heard on the movies commentary actually that most of the makers of the movie where more likes it then Andy.

WK: I have a theory – one that I suspect John Lasseter and co. would laugh at – that all 3 Toy Story films are, in a way, about God’s love.  Andy represents God; he is the center of the toys’ universe, and their relationship to him is what gives meaning to their existence. Any thoughts on that? 

CRH: I think great stories have an, as Tolkien called it, ‘applicability’ to our lives and beliefs. A good story means something to everyone. Could it be about God? Yes is it atheist friendly? Yes. I think the Toy Story movies all deal with deep parts of the human experience and digest them in a way that a child and an adult can understand. Toy Story 2 deals with grief and loss as well as the inevitable pain of growing up. Toy Story 3 I think really flows nicely on the themes Toy Story 2 was building towards.

Like the Apostle Paul said, I have become an adult and no longer think like a child or act like a child. But we don’t become dour Scrooge-like adults; rather we learn what Andy learned and that is we never leave Wonder and joy behind. We don’t know how the future will end up but our virtue will carry us through. I think that’s why I loved that scene in Andy’s room so much is because finally at the end of their rope are two characters become vulnerable with each other. They share the truth of their worries insecurities and fear.

 In light of that, what are your other favorite Pixar films?  Where does Toy Story rank?  

CRH: Toy Story is probably my favorite Pixar film. Though I personally think “Wall-E” is a science fiction masterpiece. Toy Story has that wonderful story which moves me every time.

WK: Well, seeing as this is my third-favorite “Toy Story” movie, maybe it’s not surprising that it doesn’t crack my top 5.  Those would be:

  1. The Incredibles
  2. WALL – E
  3. Toy Story 3
  4. Inside Out
  5. A Bug’s Life

Buying or selling? 

WK: I think Toy Story is likely to rise on future lists — it’s just getting old enough to be considered a classic.  And I expect we’ll see a few other Pixar movies on the list in the future.

CRH: I agree that Toy Story is a modern classic that will evolve into a classic. It is a strong clever heartfelt story about friendship. I think a movie’s status as a classic is dependent on whether you can still elicit strong emotions long after it has been made. I am amazed that still how much reaction friends have when we get together to watch classic black-and-white movies like “Casablanca,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Night of the Hunter.” A good story is timeless and I think Toy Story has all the ingredients to be a timeless story. Because that’s what people really want to see they don’t want to see what’s necessarily in fashion they want to see a good story that arises into them good rich feelings and is able to help them process the events of their lives through the magic of storytelling. I am quite confident I will be showing this movie to my children. So instead of the kids complaining about black and white movies will be complaining about old style CGI!

Up Next Month: #98 Yankee Doodle Dandy

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

Spy

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With “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig have made a fine, mostly well-observed movie that is both a spoof of spy flicks and a functioning spy flick itself.  I think it works because it doesn’t just satirize the obvious tropes of spy flicks, but goes after the deeper assumptions and foundations of those kinds of movies, and really, most movies. McCarthy does the best work of her career playing a woman who gets passed over again and again because she’s not one of the beautiful people – like Jude Law, Morena Baccarin, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne, who surround her in the spy business. And the movie business.

McCarthy plays Jude Law’s handler, feeding him vital info from a (rat-infested) basement office so that he can look cool taking out the bad guys she just told him we’re coming. She’s also got a bit of a crush on him, of which is, of course, completely unaware.  But then something goes south, all the good-looking agents are exposed, and it’s up to McCarthy to get out from behind her desk and into the field to save the day.

Of course McCarthy is just as competent, and often more competent, as the rest of them, but when everyone — especially her boss, Allison Janney — looks at her, they see a cat lady, a Mary Kay mom, a grade school teacher or a telemarketer.  I’d like to say there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but the movie makes it clear that being a spy is way cooler.  The movie finds a balance – woozy at times, to be sure — between slapstick physical comedy rooted in McCarthy’s size, and portraying her as actually pretty good at this spy thing. I could have done without some of the fat jokes:  McCarthy on a Vespa is not nearly as funny and McCarthy telling Jason Statham what a jackass he is.  It’s pretty obvious that, just as her character is competent in spycraft, McCarthy is a gifted comedienne; she’s funny, and she’s plus size, she’s not funny because she’s plus size.  The movie sometimes gets that, and sometimes forgets.

Statham is fantastic as a dim-witted agent who excels at the physical side, but can’t tell the difference between a lake and the ocean.  Rose Byrne is great, in a risky performance, as, well, excuse the language, but a complete asshole. She’s funny because she’s not trying to be cute. But the movie belongs to McCarthy, who brings both an energy and intelligence to the role that’s absolutely vital, and an anger and weariness to the way she’s treating that gives her performance dimension — and makes it that much funnier.  I wonder how much of this movie is autobiographical. I wonder how many of this character’s experiences are pulled from McCarthy’s experiences in Hollywood.

There are a few places where the film seems to be trying to make things funnier, and just falls on its face. The primary one is the infestation of — bats or mice or whatever — in the CIA basement.  Not needed, not funny.We also don’t need the gore, or the puke.   Just distracting.  But when it sticks to comedy rooted in character, it succeeds.  It’s easily one of the funniest, warmest, smartest movies of the year.  Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 8.35.14 PM

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Captain America – Civil War

Of all the individual Marvel titles, “Captain America” was probably my least favorite origin story. “Iron Man” introduced us to the lightness and wit that would come to be a Marvel trademark (DC wishes they could manufacture an iota of it,) as well as a character with a believable arc. “Thor” was plenty of fun because director Kenneth Branagh made it feel like Shakespeare. I even liked Hulk – both of them. But “The First Avenger” just didn’t work for me, and still doesn’t. It’s too hokey, too romantic, too forced in its plot and pacing.

The funny thing is, all the others got worse, but Captain American got better. The bottom of the list of Marvel movies has to be Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World, the order doesn’t matter, they all suck and I’ll never re-watch them.  But “The Winter Soldier” was really, pretty good.  And now “Civil War” – which is both a Captain America movie and another team-up – is even better.

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Phoenix

It’s difficult to find a new angle on the Holocaust.  Seems like every year there’s a new movie, or three, that features the Holocaust in some way. I think we return to the same well because we are fascinated by the depths of human depravity.  And yet we keep returning to Germany, 1942, as if it’s the only event of its kind, ignoring or forgetting about events like the Sikh holocaust of 1762, the Ukrainian holocaust of 1932, Cambodian genocide, Armenian genocide in 1915, and many others.  Examples of human depravity on a mass scale are, sadly, not hard to find throughout history, and sometimes it feels to me like our cinematic focus on this one particular example dehumanizes and disrespects the memories of those who were slaughtered in the others.

And yet, “Phoenix” does manage to find a fresh angle, a new patch of ground to explore, and perhaps one that is more universal that some of the others.  Set just after the liberation of Germany by the allies, Nina Hoss plays a woman who miraculously survived the concentration camps, despite being shot in the face and left for dead by the Nazis. Reconstructive surgery on her face is successful, but she is upset, because she doesn’t quite look like herself.  She is the same, but different.  You can see the metaphorical value of that.

Nina Kunzendorf is her friend and caretaker, and she believes that hoss was betrayed and handed over to the Nazis by her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld, who looks a lot like Russel Crowe.) Kunzendorf wants to leave for Palestine and start a new life there, but hoss can’t quite believe that her husband would betray, so she starts looking for him.

When she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her.  He thinks his wife is dead, but he does see a woman who resembles his wife – only her voice, her gait, her mannerisms are all different (death camps will do that to you.) With a nod to “Vertigo,” he convinces her to play the role of his wife — with his coaching – so that they can collect her sizable inheritance.

Now, granted, that’s a bit contrived. It suffers from While You Were Sleeping syndrome, where characters can only keep on believing what they believe if nobody ever says the wrong, and often the most obvious, easy thing to say. But man, if you are going to use a hokey contrivance in a movie, this is the way to use it.  It sets up a fascinating exploration of memory and identity, of guilt and complacency.  Perhaps most of all, it makes “Phoenix” an examination of past and present.  You can never go back and make things right; what has happened has happened, and trying to recreate what was is a fool’s errand.

In that way, this film feels a bit more universal than other Holocaust films have.  Art is about telling the truth, and surely every survivor of every trauma – as massive and unimaginable as the Armenian genocide or as small and personal as a sudden and surprising death of a loved one – can identify with what Hoss is feeling and struggling her way through.  The world has shifted on its axis; there is no going back to the way things were. For some, there may be no way forward, either.

 

 

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach somehow managed to make two movies in 2015.  “Mistress America” is a great example of the things I don’t like about Baumbach’s films. It features angular, difficult to like characters riddled with insecurity. Smart, witty dialogue that doesn’t sound like anything I could imagine a real person saying. It feels like a rough draft of “Frances Ha” – the characters Greta Gerwig plays in both are very similar – and “Frances Ha” makes it feel mostly unnecessary.

“While We’re Young,” on the other hand, is my new favorite Noah Baumbach film. It’s broader and funnier than most of Baumbach’s films, and while “broader” is usually a knock against a comedy, here it’s a mark in his favor.  Baumbach’s particular frequency can be awfully narrow and hard to find; I liked that this movie had some easier, more obvious jokes, some bigger laughs and goofier setups.  Not everything– in life, or in film — needs to be difficult to be good.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple of New Yorkers who watch their best friends transform in front of their eyes from hipsters into parents (though still hipster parents.) Feeling stuck in life — he’s been working on the same documentary for years, she’s been trying to be pregnant but feels the time has passed — they befriend, or really, are befriend by — Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfriend, who are younger, more energetic, and somehow seem to be living the Bohemian life that somehow passed Stiller and Watts by (in spite of their earnest pursuit of it.)

This is a movie with multiple layers. On one, it’s a comedy of manners, satirizing the “creative class” of two generations, poking fun and the often ridiculous things they say and do. (For instance, Stiller thinks it’s fantastic and a bit odd that Seyfried and Driver are married at 25 – no one in his generation (and social station) did that.  Seyfried tells him they got married in an abandoned water tower with a mariachi band and a slip n slide.  “Some things are traditions for a reason,” she says with a straight face.) On another level, it’s a critique of millenials by a Gen Xer – Stiller as a stand-in for Baumbach. “It’s like he met a sincere man once and has been imitating him ever since,” Stiller complains of Driver, once the bloom is off the rose.”  (I confess I drank that Kool-Aid being an Xer who works every day with millenials.)  On yet another level, it’s a lot like “Frances Ha,” about aging and realizing all your dreams aren’t going to come true, spinning your wheels for a bit and trying to relive the past, then finding ways to modify those dreams without compromising or giving up on them, ways to continue doing what you love and makes you happy, even if it doesn’t make you rich and famous.

It’s also acutely observed, clever, funny, melancholy, heartfelt, and somehow, finally softer, and more forgiving and compassionate that Baumbach’s previous films. It’s a fine piece of filmmaking, a movie I keep thinking about after watching it, and one that reveals new things with each new viewing.  I’ve seen it twice in the last few months; I’d be excited to watch it again tonight.  That’s the mark of a well-made movie.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.