Good Movie Redeems Bad Week

The headlines in politics and entertainment over the past several days have been disheartening – sometimes, downright maddening, And I know a movie can’t make the world go away, but a good one at least lets you think about something else for a couple hours.

Some weeks, it seems, can only be redeemed by a Friday night in with a glass of wine, your favorite takeout, and a good movie, and I was able to start this weekend by indulging in all three.

The movie I’m talking about is The Meyerowitz Stories, Noah Baumbach’s new film. Reading some Twitter conversation about the New York Film Festival on Friday (it played there), I was reminded that it was also watchable on Netflix – so that immediately became my Friday night plan.

I was predisposed to like Meyerowitz because I haven’t met a Noah Baumbach film I didn’t like. Frances Ha and Mistress America in particular are two films I could watch endlessly; as a young woman finding her way and making her life in New York, hardly a week goes by without something in real life echoing a moment from one of those movies.

Like those two, Meyerowitz is about Manhattan artist types, but I found its characters a lot more lovable. Especially Danny Meyerowitz, played by Adam Sandler, who’s perfect in the role. He’s warm, particularly in scenes with his daughter (played by Grace Van Patten, who I’d never seen in anything before this and also gives a fantastic performance). They capture a father-daughter relationship in which he’s clearly an authority figure and advice-giver, but they’re also friends, and he values her advice, too. I loved their scenes together.

Danny Meyerowitz is also too proud to ask for help, but not too proud to accept it. I liked that about him. I wouldn’t say this is a huge spoiler, but there are a couple instances in the film where Danny accepts help from his wealthy brother, Matthew (played by Ben Stiller). Given what you come to know about the brothers over the course of the film, I got the sense Matthew’s generosity is somewhat guilt-driven – he’s the sibling who escaped New York and got out from under the thumb of their difficult father (played by Dustin Hoffman), and is only beginning to understand the weight Danny bears in dealing with him day-to-day. But as the story progresses, their relationship deepens, and the film ends with Danny accepting a particularly special gift from his brother – one that would require more than monetary sacrifice on Matthew’s part.

Maybe I’m making it out to be too dramatic; it’s not like Matthew goes to the guillotine for him. But it was touching, and I felt as proud of Danny for accepting the gift as I did of Matthew for offering. And honestly, only now as I’m writing this am I realizing how much affection this film made me feel for its characters.

It may get lost in the shuffle of awards season because it’s a Netflix release, and it’s coming out a little before the crush of Oscar bait, but Adam Sandler deserves special attention. This is such a warm, wonderful film, though, that its awards potential shouldn’t matter. See it anyway and be moved by a great family story and a great New York story.

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Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.

“The End of the Tour,” “Trainwreck,” and a great summer for movies

This summer movie season is on point. Last year, I don’t think I saw a movie in the theaters between June and October. In 2015, I can’t keep myself away. And what’s better – everything I’ve seen has been terrific. Two movies I saw this weekend, The End of the Tour and Trainwreck, were especially satisfying, and they both inspired a lot of thoughts, so I’m just going to lay it all out. (Plus, one of the resolutions I made for my 25th year, which began last month, was to write about every new movie I see in that year. This post is relegated to movies I’ve seen in theaters, but I do need to get around to some new-to-me films I’ve seen recently.)

I remember thinking “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense” when I first heard Jason Segel was playing David Foster Wallace in a movie. Because it does make sense. Segel is not a dead ringer for Wallace, but he’s pretty darn reminiscent of him. Especially with the bandana. I was stoked for this movie from the get-go.

My first experience with David Foster Wallace came in college, when I was assigned part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a class on travel writing. I distinctly remember reading a couple pages and then skimming only as much as would get me through the class discussion. I’m not proud of that now, but the class at least put his name in my brain. Pastors at my church reference a passage from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech with some frequency (“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….”). Most recently, Vulture re-published a short story Wallace originally wrote for Playboy in 1988, in which he writes from the perspective of a middle-aged actress appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. I fell in love with the piece and reading it marked the start of a few-week span where I seemed to hear mention of Wallace everywhere I went. This was around the time I first saw a trailer for The End of the Tour, so I’ve been anticipating the movie for a couple of months now.

Primarily because of Segel’s performance, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. That is not to say it is only good because of Segel, but that his performance is the best element of the film. You watch it and think, oh, he can do *that.* Not just How I Met Your Mother. (Marc Maron interviewed Segel for one of his episodes last week, and I wouldn’t have anticipated the thoughtfulness he revealed in that conversation, either.) David Foster Wallace in the film is a lovable dude, someone you’d love to chat with about life, writing and the expectations you set for both. The only thing about the film that kind of disappointed me was I felt the truest or deepest, especially David Foster Wallace-y observations were already revealed in the trailers (“What’s so American about what I’m doing”-type stuff). But as I write this, I realize I probably didn’t need more of that from the movie, anyway. I needed to see him play with his dogs, or devour junk food en route to the Mall of America, or explain why he decided to go by “David Foster Wallce” instead of just Dave Wallace. And that’s what the movie gives you.

I might not recommend this movie to someone who’s never heard of David Foster Wallace, but for everyone with even a basic idea of who he was and what he wrote, I’d say go. The End of the Tour brought him to life for me. It made me want to have finished Infinite Jest by the time I see Jason Segel get his Oscar nomination.

So, The End of the Tour was Friday. Saturday was kind of an aimless day and my roommate and I thought we’d try our hand at the lottery for a couple of Broadway shows. We struck out there and with rush tickets, so we wound up seeing Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s new movie. By virtue of appreciating Amy Schumer, knew I would like Trainwreck, but I wasn’t sure if I would just like that it existed, or if I’d legitimately like the movie. I’m happy to report my feelings definitely fall in the latter category.

Amy Schumer is a gift to us as a culture. She’s hilarious and smart. Seems lovely and genuine. And now she made a terrific comedy that is packed with spot-on cultural references and finds delightful cameo roles for SNL stars. Not sure what’s not to love there. I know Trainwreck isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too long and sometimes makes awkward jumps. But that’s not the point. The point is that she shouts things like “You’re losing us the right to vote!” at basketball dancers, and makes an homage to Manhattan but with a serious bite, and describes her fear of someone seeing a “crime-scene tampon.” It all adds up to a comedy unlike one I’d ever seen before, and I loved it. I can’t wait to see what Amy Schumer does next.

Bill Hader deserves praise, too, for playing the doctor Amy reluctantly falls in love with. Give this man more leading movie roles! The review on Roger Ebert’s site makes a comparison between Hader in this film and a young Jack Lemmon. Thinking back on the film, that comparison is spot-on.

I’ve been seeing new stuff at a pretty good clip this summer (at least by my standards), and The End of the Tour and Trainwreck are more than worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I still need to unpack my copy of Infinite Jest. 

Musicals are Fun!

A couple months ago, I watched a trailer for an upcoming film adaptation of The Last Five Years, a popular Off-Broadway musical. I had never heard of the show but was taken by the music, particularly snippet of one song, “The Summer in Ohio.” The few lines featured in the trailer stayed in my head, and I indulged in the whole song once the soundtrack was released.

I watched the full movie tonight (I rented on iTunes but it’s also showing at some theaters), and looooooved it. Given my previous life as a small-time community theater kid, I’m a sucker for a good musical, and I’ve really been craving that kind of music this winter; I’ve caught myself nearly singing “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” aloud more times than is probably healthy. Maybe, subconsciously, I’m using song-and-dance numbers as a way to cope with this brutal cold. They put you in an undeniably good mood.

Whatever the case, I’m loving musicals right now, and I devoured The Last Five Years. I can’t compare the film to the stage version, but all 90 minutes of the movie were entertaining, and I’m not sure what more you could ask for.

Really, it’s all about Anna Kendrick. She’s incredible. I know nothing intricate about music and can’t say anything articulate about why she’s so great in this, but I just love her voice (“On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods has also gotten a lot of play in my world this season) and I think she’s an incredible performer. The music in this movie is fantastic, and Jeremy Jordan makes for a great co-star, but Anna Kendrick’s performance is the heart of it all.

anna kendrick1 anna kendrick2 anna kendrick3

So as winter wears on, if you see me roaming the streets of New York with my headphones in, maybe mouthing the words, maybe letting a few sounds pass my lips…I’m just trying to memorize The Last Five Years‘ soundtrack.

*Fabulous gifs from Tumblr.

When Life Gives You Lemmon

Whenever I’m not feeling well, I have this compulsion to watch old movies. I don’t know what it is. An expected level of comfort, of relatively uncomplicated plot? The idea that something might remind me of a happier time? I can’t diagnose it. But I know I felt pretty awful on Sunday, so I watched an old movie.

Said movie was The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film. I don’t know why I chose that title specifically for my sick-day viewing, but I’d scrolled through it on Netflix so many times and always said, “oh, I’ll get around to it.” Sick days are made for watching the stuff you never otherwise get around to.

I absolutely loved every second of The Apartment, and it was pretty much all because of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It was a sight to behold.

When I think about why I love the movies I love, I gravitate toward a film’s overarching theme, or a certain funny scene, or a quirky character, or the way a movie channels history. I’m trying to get better at appreciating performances – recognizing when an actor is just going for it, and it is not the character I love but what the character is because of the performer.

Does that even make sense? Well, it’s all I could think of when watching Lemmon play C.C. Baxter. I loved his physical comedy, not just the way he moved about a space, but his facial expressions, too, and quick gestures. And I loved the way he played Baxter’s sweeter, softer side. That it never came on too strong, but was always a believable part of his whole character.

Actually, I loved that about Shirley MacLaine’s performance, too. Sometimes with older movies, it’s hard for me to buy the way characters turn on a dime to realize this person they despise or simply tolerate is actually the person they love. With Kubelik and Baxter, I totally believed it. I’d seen them weather enough together and apart to believe their story could happen.

Watching The Apartment made me realize how long I’ve now been cheated out of appreciating Jack Lemmon. I think I have a pretty solid knowledge of old Hollywood stars, but Lemmon actually falls outside the window of time inhabited by the ones I knew best, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. If Jack Lemmon came up in conversation before Sunday, I could say, “Oh, yeah, I know who he is,” but I couldn’t have pointed to his photo.

But now I can, and I can’t wait to become well-acquainted with his work. Actually, when I reading about him after the movie, I realized that day – February 8 – would have been his birthday. I’m choosing to view that as a sign from the movie universe that I need to watch more of his stuff. And I will, once I’m recovered from my obsession with The Apartment.

Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.

The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.

Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.

But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.

He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”

I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.

This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):

To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

 

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.