Friday, June 21, 2013

Film Reviews - Frances Ha, Stories We Tell and To the Wonder

Spoiler warning for all three films reviewed below.

Frances Ha

As soon as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha ended, my friend Mike Cheslik turned to me and said it was his favorite film of the year. I have to agree, although Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price are up there for me, too. I saw this film at the perfect time in my life. It’s amazing to me how many movies can inspire maybe only a few thoughts or feelings, and then one dense eighty-six minute film like Frances Ha can address so many of my anxieties and fears in such an artful and graceful way. This is the loveliest and most delightful film I’ve seen in a long time. What follows are our collective thoughts on the film, including many aspects of the film Mike noticed and admired. 

We both watched the movie nodding and smiling throughout, recognizing our own behavior in Frances, the wonderful lead character played by Greta Gerwig, an aimless and good-hearted post-graduate young woman moving from address to address in New York City, dealing with the changing nature of her relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and struggling to make her way into a dance company.

Where to start with what this movie gets right? There’s not a central romance in Frances Ha - we’re not given a lead character who is constantly successful in relationships. Frances is one of the most refreshingly honest and unconfident characters in a long time, apologizing for how she’s speaking while she’s still speaking and always openly critical of herself. Characters in films rarely talk like this or behave this way.

When Frances goes out to dinner with another, more successful dancer in her company, Rachel (Grace Gummer) and some of Rachel’s friends, someone describes Sophie as incredibly smart and brilliant. Frances laughs at this, pointing out that, having lived with Sophie, she isn’t really smarter or more brilliant than anyone else. Immediately, Frances feels guilty for saying this, and apologizes for talking poorly about her best friend. And you get the sense that Frances – one of the sweetest and most genuine characters in recent years – is going to spend the rest of the evening thinking about how she badmouthed Sophie, when the others probably won’t give it a second thought.

This moment is so wonderful because Baumbach and Gerwig let Frances express a common annoyance – when perhaps you know a friend well and someone starts going on and on about how “brilliant” and “smart” that friend is (when you know that there’s not necessarily an extraordinary brilliance behind your friend’s exterior) – and then immediately Frances becomes conscious of her own badmouthing and apologizes.

Baumbach and Gerwig take it a step further, though. Although we’re meant to see Frances as the awkward character at the dinner party making constant social faux pas, the filmmakers later give room for Rachel to tell an off-color joke that does not go over well at all with anyone. “Yes!” Mike shouted after the movie. The film allows for all of its characters to have social faux pas! How often do you see a movie that allows for so many of its characters to be, you know, human beings? Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret does it exceptionally well, but there aren’t many other great examples.

There’s a beautiful speech that Frances gives at the same party, in which she explains that what she desperately wants from a relationship is that feeling you have when you’re at a party, and you look across the room at your significant other. As you make eye contact with your partner, there’s a shared moment of contentment between both of you, the knowledge that you’re together even when you’re on opposite sides of the room. It’s the most moving and beautiful moment in the film. At the end, when the movie honestly and realistically fulfills that wish for Frances in a way I didn’t expect, tears came to my eyes. I felt as if Baumbach and Gerwig created a female version of the lead character in my senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory.

The music in the film is something else, too – I can’t explain why, but somehow Every 1’s a Winner by Hot Chocolate perfectly captures that ephemeral feeling of visiting a foreign place randomly and, instead of actually seeing the sights, just sleeping in and being alone with oneself. The section of Frances Ha in which Frances travels to Paris articulates that loneliness as well as any movie since Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003). David Bowie’s Modern Love is also well-used in sections of the film.

Frances Ha is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in some time, but the hurt that Frances experiences is still there beneath the humor – there’s a wonderful scene early on in the film where Frances knows she is overstaying her welcome at her new friends Benji and Lev’s apartment, but she can’t bring herself to leave, because the night isn’t over and she still hasn’t found the happiness she wants.

As much as I love The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Greenberg (2010), I think Frances Ha might be Noah Baumbach's best work yet. 

Stories We Tell 

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is one of the most amazing movies of the year. The film asks so many questions about how we document the past. For instance, by cutting together several interviews with different people and offering varying perspectives on an event or relationship, are you effectively getting a larger picture of what really happened? Or are you building a watered-down, generalized version of the story, when it might be more effective to simply hear an unfiltered testimony from one person who experienced it firsthand?

I ask this question because, of all the fascinating characters in this film, I was most intrigued by Harry Gulkin, who is revealed to be Polley’s biological father midway through the picture. Polley’s late mother, Diane Polley, had an affair with Harry while performing in a play, but the love affair was kept a secret from Polley’s family.

In an attempt to shed light on the identity of her biological father and the mysteries of her mother’s past, Polley asks Harry if he is comfortable participating in a project that includes testimony from the surviving members of her family. Harry says that he is not. He believes that his love affair with Diane is his and Diane’s story to tell, and because Diane has passed away, he should tell it alone. His resistance to others telling pieces of the story makes sense – he worries that by cutting up interviews with members of Sarah’s family into a two-hour movie offering everyone’s varying perspectives, Sarah will not be receiving a singular truth.

Instead, he worries she’s mashing up a general idea of the whole affair, rather than giving one unfiltered testimony from someone who experienced it firsthand. To really experience how it was, the story has to be told by the directly involved parties – otherwise, you’re just grabbing bits from other people’s testimonies, offering a kind of hodgepodge of the experience, watered down by everyone's differing opinions.

Polley defends herself by saying that the film is about the whole nature of storytelling, and she wants to capture the memory of her mother and the contradictions that arise in everyone’s stories when trying to recall the past. We’re all unreliable narrators, in one sense or another. Harry replies that he may misremember some things, but he does not lie. It’s tough, because although I think the number of voices and opinions in this picture gives me a greater understanding of this fascinating story, I have to agree with Harry - but it's not a notion I had ever considered before seeing this film. 

Watching Stories We Tell, I again marveled at how Polley’s movie allows each person to be so complex – even though I surely do not understand all there is to understand about these people. One interviewee in the film says that she felt Diane confessed everything to her and felt like she understood every intimate detail of Diane's experience. But as it turns out, Diane was only revealing half of what was really going on, never mentioning her affair with Harry.

There’s part of me that longs to make a documentary about my own family in this vein, although I worry it wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating as the story Polley presents here. Each of her family members are so open and honest about their mistakes. Harry mentions at one point that when he was younger, he wanted there to be witnesses to his relationship with Diane to confirm that it happened. By watching Stories We Tell, we are all now those witnesses.

To the Wonder

Everything I loved about The Tree of Life (2011) is amplified in Terrence Malick’s new film To The Wonder. Don’t mistake the film for having an absence of narrative – rather, there’s an absence of narrative identification. We’re given access to beautifully private moments with characters, and very little access to any kind of plot development that would be the concern of most other filmmakers.

Both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder offer the viewer a rare creative opportunity to bring our own meaning and understanding to events and encounters that are sometimes left unclarified by the filmmaker. Watching the film, I felt more engaged than I have been with any movie in the past few months, because I was constantly being presented with familiar imagery – the suburbs of rural America, of fast-food drive-thrus, of grocery store aisles that seem enormously large – and I felt the presence of these places, and felt deeply what they might mean for the characters.

Malick’s movies are treasures because he opens them up to you. They are full of his theology and beliefs, but open enough for yours and mine, too. Watching one of his films is such an individualistic experience. In an age where most movies aim to have the same effect on mass audiences of people, how cool is that?

I didn’t hear Ben Affleck speak very much in this film, but that’s perfectly okay, because I felt so much watching him – not just his face, but his body language. His Neil is such a strong, silent character, and yet I felt I understood multitudes about him.

When Neil and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) fight with each other at a Sonic drive-thru, I observed Neil’s quiet desperation and sensed Marina’s deep sadness, and I found I didn’t need a word of dialogue. I needed the openness Malick gave me to experience this scene in my own world, with his characters in my mind, bringing to the scene a whole host of personal experiences at fast-food drive-thrus. I believe, in the end, you feel what Malick intends in a given scene (I feel Olga’s isolation from the other neighbors in the small town, for instance). But Malick allows me to feel it in my own way.  

To the Wonder is the first non-period Malick piece and, unsurprisingly, he finds the beauty in small-town Oklahoma, on the sides of the road alongside shopping malls, inside of Laundromats. When I visit the film for a second time, I’m interested to pay closer attention to the sections of the film involving Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, who, like Marina, seems to wander alone in the American Midwest while longing for his home in Europe.

Frances Ha, Stories We Tell and To the Wonder are three of the year's best films. 

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