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When I first started watching Frances Ha, the new comedy of quirkiness directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and its effervescent star, Greta Gerwig, I have to admit that my heart sunk a bit.  It had all the earmarks of one of those mumble core movies, that “hey, my uncle’s got a barn and my aunt can make the costumes, so let’s put on a show” movement that had nothing to say and nothing to offer and that seriously (I mean, seriously) bored the hell out of me.  At first Frances Ha seems like mumblecore prime, filled as the opening scenes are with annoying and self-absorbed people who think they are fascinating, but aren’t remotely, backed by cinematography in pretentious black and white. 
But it’s not long before something very odd, and maybe even ironical, happens.  The more annoying and unlikable Frances becomes, the more likeable and less annoying she becomes, which, as a friend of mine said, is a pretty neat trick.  And it’s not long before you’re won over and find yourself completely entranced by the Frances and her story.
Frances is someone who so thought she was going somewhere: she has the perfect best friend/roommate, someone who really gets her; she has a boyfriend; she is a dancer and teacher for a dance company that she thinks is going to be her future.  And then, as happens so often in life (which is a good thing for screenwriters or otherwise we wouldn’t have anything to write about), she loses everything in a quick succession of events.   And suddenly she’s left floundering.
And boy does she flounder, like a fish flopping around on a boat, she flounders.  The structure of the film is basically made up of a series of scenes that are defined by the many different locations she is forced to move to and from as she tries to figure her life out.  She has no stability and no future.  But she is Frances Ha, which means that no matter what else, she never gives up.  No matter how foolish and stupid she looks, she never stops trying.  And she never loses her most endearing trait: her sincerity.    In fact, it grows.  As she becomes more and more annoying and unlikeable, and becomes less and less stable (like panicking and flying to Paris on the spur of a moment’s notice—a wonderful set of scenes, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve done that), she just becomes more and more sincere.  Meanwhile all the people she knows, as they become more and more stable, they become less and less sincere, become as pretentious as the black and white photography used to film them.  And soon Frances becomes the most likeable and sympathetic character in the movie because she’s about the only one with a heart.  
There is a nice supporting cast here, with an always more than welcome Adam Driver (Lena Dunham’s sort of, kind of on again, off again boyfriend in Girls) and Michael Zegen as Frances’s callow second set of roommates as well as Charlotte d’Amboise as a choreographer who cuts to the chase like a knife (she’s the only other really likeable character in the story, probably because she is just as sincere as Francis—hell, she doesn’t have time to be anything but).  And on a bit of trivia note, Frances’ parents are played by Ms. Gerwig’s own.
But in the end, of course, it’s Gerwig who holds the movie together.   True, she exudes so much charm it might be wise to wear a radiation suit while watching the movie, but she is pretty marvelous, more than willing to let herself look foolish and unflattering.  At the same time, I’m not fully convinced that Frances has earned her happy ending (which is perhaps more bitter sweet than happy, but still, the point still stands).  There seems to be a step missing, the one moment where Francis realizes she has been backed into a corner and has to make a decision she doesn’t want to make; this seems to happen off screen.  At the same time, Gerwig has earned so much good will from the audience, it’s almost impossible to not want her to land on her feet.  Dramatically the movie may not have earned it, but Gerwig herself has and that’s good enough for me.
Tell me what you think.

BUT DO YOU LIKE HIM: Reviews of Greenberg and Harmony and Me

I often get into discussions with fellow writers over whether central characters of movies have to be likeable or not. To me it’s a ridiculous argument since there are tons of movies with not just unpleasant leads, but wholly repulsive ones. But I know someone who doesn’t want to see a movie with a central character he wouldn’t want to have dinner with. I never understood this, since for me, one of the great things about art is that I’m able interact with people I would never want to meet in real life or go to places, or become involved in situations, that I would never, ever want to outside the safe confines of the movie theater. But not everyone agrees. And two films opened recently with lead characters whom I wouldn’t, and I don’t think the someone I mentioned above would, want to break bread with anytime soon.

Greenberg is the new film by the talented writer/director Noah Baumbach. Ben Stiller, who looks a tad emaciated and has a peculiar way of applying Chapstick to his lips, plays the title role, a dour, middle aged guy who has recently tried to commit suicide and slightly more recently just gotten out of the hospital. This is perhaps one of Ben Stiller’s finest performances; but then, I always much prefer him when he’s playing a real person rather than a cartoon (like Jim Carrey—Will Farrell, I can go either way on). Greenberg comes to L.A. to housesit his brother’s spacious Hollywood home and build a dog house while his brother and family are in Viet Nam on vacation/business. This gives Greenberg time to reconnect with old friends, none of whom want to reconnect with him, except for Ivan Shrank (Rhys Ifans), a sad, doe eyed and attractively scruffy Britain relocated to L.A. who is having marital problems. Greenberg, Ivan and others were all in a band at one time until Greenberg blew a record deal and dropped out. But that’s only one of the reasons his friends have no interest in him. Greenberg is also a self-absorbed narcissist who is prone to fits of anger. He has a sad affair of sorts with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence, played by an even sadder looking Greta Gerwig, a wilting flower if there ever was one. Florence is probably the weakest role in the movie, almost seeming more a device to reveal certain aspects of Greenberg’s personality that a real person in her own right. The character is never quite believable and her feelings for Greenberg grow at such an unnatural rate, one doesn’t know what to make of her, except to suspect a mental illness as the cause of her inability to control her feelings. Greenberg keeps treating her abominably, but there she is, bouncing back like one of those clown balloons kids sock. And she doesn’t just keep bouncing back, she comes to some insane conclusion that she and Greenberg have actually started a relationship and that he has feelings for her (she has battered woman’s syndrome without the battery). Is Florence Greenberg’s only hope for a normal relationship or are these two people so hopeless that if they end up together it will only be because, who else would have them? Baumbach, as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is credited with co-creation of the story), have an ending that wants to have it both ways or maybe they just didn’t know how to do the fade out thing. But now that I’ve probably made a bit too much out of all that, it must be said that Baumbach is one of our finest rising screenwriters. The dialog here is sharp and refreshingly rhythmic, full of welcome wit. Like Woody Allen, he’s a better writer than director, but like Allen he more than gets the job done. Greenburg is about as unlikeable an asshole as you can find, someone who you would never want to spend much time, let alone have dinner, with. But what’s more important is that he is fascinating. I don’t care how much I like a character on screen as long as I don’t find him boring, and Greenberg is not boring. Maybe this is because ultimately he has no illusions about himself. He knows he’s broken and he knows that he’s broken other people. He may be self absorbed, but he’s also fully self aware about it, understanding that he has his own part to play in his own self destruction. Greenberg is a moving character study of someone who is disconnected from the world and knows it, but also knows there is little he can do about it.

Harmony and Me also has an unlikeable lead in its title character. But there’s a difference here. Halfway through the movie, one of the characters, the ex-girlfriend of Harmony (well enough played by Justin Rice—that is, Rice plays Harmony, not the girlfriend; she’s played, also well enough, by Kristen Tucker), tells him why she broke up with him. “You know (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here) how you’re at a movie and you realize about half way through that the central character’s not very interesting?” This is the sort of scene a writer inserts in a film (screenplay here by director Bob Byington) because he knows that that this will be a criticism of the film and by calling attention to it first, he hopes to sabotage the audience’s reaction to it. It often works, but here it doesn’t. Harmony remains sadly uninteresting and the author’s calling attention to it doesn’t help; it actually just reinforces what the audience has been feeling. The odd thing is that at this point, Harmony does become a bit more interesting, mainly because he tries to kill himself by eating chocolate and ends up in a coma, thereby taking him out of the picture for a significant amount of time and the emphasis of the movie falls on his friends and relatives who are far more less boring (including Kevin Corrigan, whose shaggy dog way of speaking is an always welcome addition to a film). Like Greenberg, Harmony treats his friends very badly, so badly that it’s hard to believe they would all gather around his coma ridden bed to support him (in Greenberg, the only interest his old friends show him is the minimal amount required by social contract). But very unlike Greenberg, Harmony just isn’t very interesting, or at least as interesting as he seems to think he is. He comes out of his coma with no new insight into himself or his situation. His ex comes to visit him, but he pretends to have amnesia and not remember who she is. It’s a cruel thing to do. If it’s supposed to symbolize his ability to finally let go of this relationship, it doesn’t; it just symbolizes that he’s still the same old asshole he always was. Harmony has characteristics of many of the characters in what is termed “mumble core” films, people who are highly educated, but have no use for their education or don’t know what to do with it; people who think they are self aware when they really aren’t; and think they are interesting because of it, when they aren’t. The most interesting aspect of the film is the structure; the story is revealed in a series of vignettes in which Harmony hops from friend to relative to friend to relative, as well as location to location, often with no real set up and logic. But Byington is very skilled at making this sort of off kilter approach to storytelling work and make sense. It also ends with some funny, non sequitorial scenes in which Harmony becomes a parking meter attendant. All the evidence shows that Byington has an interesting vision and that he has an approach to movie making that could serve him in good stead and I do want to see more by him. But in the end, Harmony is a movie being touted by critics as a film that for some unbelievable and surprising reason can’t find a distributor. I don’t find it unbelievable and wasn’t the least surprised.

CALL OF THE WILDS: Reviews of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Where the Wild Things Are had to grow on me. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally figured out what it was about: a character study of a young boy with a classic case of serotonin deprived depression. Max Records plays Max (well, wasn’t that convenient), a young boy with wild mood swings of grandiose highs and debilitating lows, all out of proportion to the circumstances surrounding him, though those circumstances (he’s new to a neighborhood; no friend; child of divorce; a sister too much older than him to find him nothing but an annoyance; his mother has a new boyfriend) do add to his problematic situation. His mother, played excellently as usual by Catherine Keener, doesn’t really understand what’s going on nor has the time to figure it out. After a particularly egregious tantrum, Max runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island of gigantic and somewhat weird puppet/animal like creatures, strongly voiced by such actors as James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. The film began working for me when I realized that these creatures all had similar, though even deeper and more irrational, emotional problems than Max. For the first time, Max gets to see himself as other people see him. He returns home, but it’s unclear whether this adventure has really helped him. The creatures are wonderfully animated, especially the mouths, and the music and songs are heaps of fun. The main drawback may be Spike Jonze (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers) who directs the piece as if he were Paul Greenglass doing a Bourne film. I found myself at times trying to fill in the blanks because Jonze had a yen for using jump cuts. But by the time it was all over, I was moved.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is well…fabulous (bet you thought I was going to say “fantastic”, didn’t you; please, it would be so obvious to include that word in this review). It’s as clever and fun and quirky as Babe, which is saying quite a bit. There is one rather odd aspect to it. Fox and his friends are animals who can walk, talk, reason, etc., basically humans in animal bodies. But they feed on other animals, like chickens, geese, turkeys, etc. This is rather creepy and almost comes across as cannibalism; it’s actually borderline disturbing. Of course, if one realizes that the original story is by Roald Dahl, whose stories always did have a unique and somewhat creepy aspect to them, I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising that this isn’t your typical everyday children’s film. The suave and debonair Fox is played by the suave and debonair George Clooney. He’s actually a character I would have little to do with in real life since he’s so incredibly vain and egocentric, running roughshod over everybody else, doing whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it and if anybody else has a problem with that, too bad (he’s also pretty rotten to his son). However, that is one of the great things about art—one can spend quality time with someone one would never have anything to do with in real life from the safety of a movie seat. His longer suffering wife is played by Meryl Streep (that makes three films in one year for both of them–aren’t they the busy little bees) with an appropriately long suffering voice. The screenplay (by director Wes Anderson and the tres droll Noah—Squid and the Whale—Baumbach) is witty, energetic and never runs out of cleverness. The direction by Wes Anderson is ever so much the same; no scene is complete with some extra bit of visual manipulation that just gives it that something…well, extra, to make it memorable. The animation is remarkable, down to the moving hairs on the characters’ face. It’s what is called sophisticated and adult; the question then is whether it will sell in the multiplex. One can only hope.