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Mistress America

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I have a soft spot for films set in New York City, and what a surprise Mistress America turned out to be. Noah Baumbach’s second film this year, Mistress America makes great use of its protagonists in a film about female friendship and coming of age in an urban jungle.

When college freshman Tracy first reaches out to Brooke, she does so out of loneliness and sense of duty. Their parents are getting married, but she isn’t ready for what Brooke has in store for her. Tracy, played by wide-eyed newcomer Lola Kirke, is that awkward freshman that we all were. Not quite yet an adult, but full of ambition and desire. This ambition is mirrored in Tracy’s interactions with Brooke, an almost thirty-something who has dreams of opening a restaurant-slash-hair salon-slash-grocery store. Brooke is full of ideas, and you can literally see the spark behind Gerwig’s eyes. She fiercely steps into Brooke’s shoes, matching the role she took on in Frances Ha. Her confidence and ambition is contagious, and Tracy catches this. Baumbach has examined young ambition and vigor many times before, but not quite like this.

Mistress America is overflowing with quotable one-liners, mostly from Brooke herself. She’s straight out of the show Girls yet with more independence and likability. We all know someone like Brooke, a young someone who laments about the need to document our lives on social media yet would take more than five minutes to send out a crafty tweet. Someone who is full of ideas but not quite sure how to get there, instead harboring hatred at her rival for stealing her fiancé and her t-shirt line. Brooke spews out these truths like nobody’s business, and you wonder if Brooke is actually the prophet she claims to be or if it comes to her on the fly. The term “free spirit” is used a lot these days, often incorrectly, but Brooke Cardinas definitely fits the bill.

In Lola, we get the creativity of a young writer hoping to make it big. In this case, ‘make it’ means earning a spot in her school’s prestigious writer’s club. Her chemistry with Brooke is inspirational one moment, and self-reflective in another. It helps that Gerwig and Kirke have a natural rapport. The two feel like old friends by the end of the movie, despite only having a few months pass.

Mistress America is screwball at its finest, with a host of supporting characters adding to the zaniness of the whole affair. A lengthly sequence that plays out at Brooke’s rival’s suburban Connecticut home is a huge highlight in the film that puts such focus on the busy streets of NYC. It’s almost Shakespearian the way that the comedic beats keep coming one after another, barely giving you time to process before another character enters the room delivering the next witty zinger. Mistress America is Baumbach at his best. Two incredible young actresses play two different yet similar characters with some of the best writing I’ve seen this year.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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The best part of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the admiration and respect it has for its protagonist Minnie. While not a traditional coming of age tale, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is so in tune with Minnie’s thoughts and emotions that it actually succeeds in feeling like we’re diving into her diary. The film has an aura of maturity about it that allows its star Bel Powley to bring Minnie to life in an astonishing way. The result is one of the best films of the year.

We’re introduced to Minnie and her life in 1970s San Francisco. She’s quirky, alternative, and stuck in that period of sexual frustration that all of us know too well. After entering into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Minnie finds herself at the peak of her childhood and must navigate the murky waters of a complicated relationship and a frustrating emotional time.

Stylistically, the film takes the best parts of Juno and mixes them with a Noah Baumbach sense of bohemian creativity in the city. It is her diary, after all, and words and sketches literally pop on the screen as Minnie expresses them. It’s a cool way of putting us in her head without saying much.

Like I said above, the film respect’s Minnie’s authority to make her own decisions, and more importantly, make mistakes and learn from them. Her relationship with her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) gives us a mirror upon which to view these two women as contemporary equals but also as polar opposites. There’s some excellent characterization as Minnie unapologetically sleeps around with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and revels in her sexuality.

The film has such an authentic voice, an unflinchingly refreshing one for a young female protagonist. We respect Minnie, but we also grow frustrated with her at times. For such a morally complex film that deals with some intense subject matters, The Diary of a Teenage Girl never feels like it’s making a judgment call. It’s not shaming anyone, but rather celebrating Minnie and her newfound adult agency.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Ricki and the Flash

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With Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep shows everyone that she can rock out with the best of them. It’s not the best written film, or the most subtle narrative, but Ricki and the Flash is easily digestible entertainment with a great cast and a solid tone, headed by the always brilliant Streep and a good supporting cast.

Director Jonathan Demme, of The Silence of the Lambs (of all films), helms this late summer dramedy about an estranged mother-slash-rockstar who reconnects with her family after leaving them years ago. The catalyst for this is her daughter Julie’s (Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) divorce, and Ricki tries to right her wrongs and repair her relationship with her kids and ex-husband (Kevin Kline).

The ‘estranged relative’ genre has been through the wringer and back, so I’m not going to berate the predictability of the film too much. Sure, there are contrivances here and there, from Ricki’s cliched interactions with her ex’s new wife to a rock n’ roll performance at her son’s wedding (so out of place!). There’s even a scene where Ricki inappropriately smokes marijuana with her ex-husband, but the film works on the whole despite these unavoidable plot beats.

This is due to the well-developed characters and Streep’s chameleon-like ability to sink into the teeth of whatever the hell kind of character she’s playing this time around. As Ricki she’s very Americana-Los Angeles and her precocious kids see right through this facade, but on the flip side she’s empathetic and still loves her family very much. The script from award-winner Diablo Cody manages to make us appreciate Ricki yet still see her glaring flaws. Without much of a villain, Ricki and the Flash makes the character study work and keep the relatively low stakes rolling.

Despite a few plot-related hiccups and some stumbling dialogue, the cast is fantastic. The supporting cast doesn’t get too much screen time unfortunately, and the plot with Ricki’s daughter is kind of abandoned halfway through. But this was the least interesting bit and served its purpose by bringing Ricki back to the midwest and causing a ruckus. Mamie Gummer gets her deepest role to date as Julie, and she really shines especially with her on and off-screen mother. Another surprise is acclaimed stage actress Audra McDonald, who plays Ricki’s ex’s new wife in an underdeveloped role that I wish we saw more of. Like she says, her character “filled a hole” in their family after Ricki left, and she brings a warmth and practical wit to balance the more dramatic feel.

Some of the best scenes in Ricki and the Flash are the scenes with Ricki and her band just rocking out. Streep has noticeable chemistry with her boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield), and it’s fun to see the two on-stage together. A good soundtrack has Ricki covering everything from Dobie Gray to Lady Gaga, and I’m constantly reminded that Streep can really rock out. Remember Mamma Mia? Now you do. Ultimately, Ricki and the Flash is good stuff and overcomes its contrived premise with some unexpected surprises and a great cast.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Mission Impossible franchise has been getting better with age, but it has still struggled to find its voice. By changing directors with every installment – Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) takes the reigns this time around – the series hasn’t established itself as a substantial film series outside of some good old-fashioned spy fun.

Rogue Nation, the latest effort, does a fine job of building on the foundation laid by the previous installment, Ghost Protocol, and is brimming with spectacular action sequences. But despite tight cinematography and good supporting characters, the plot is inconsistent and the pace is dodgy, resulting in an uneven, albeit enjoyable film.

The problem isn’t the characters. Tom Cruise is charismatic as ever as Ethan Hunt, but he’s not the best part of the film by a mile. Whereas his other leading roles he tends to do most of the heavy lifting, such as Edge of Tomorrow or Oblivion, Rogue Nation feels less like a one-man show as any of the other previous films in the series. His crewmates Benji (Simon Pegg), IMF executives Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Hunley (Alec Baldwin) all match Cruise in charm and have their fair share of fun lines. But it’s new addition Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the elusive Ilsa Faust, who runs the show this time. There’s no forced romance, but there remains natural chemistry between her and Hunt. Their mutual admiration for each other allows them to get the job done and the writing still makes time to flesh out her character.

The plot of Rogue Nation is a bit uneven, with a forgettable villain who plans to create an “Anti-IMF” legion of terrorists. Hunt must prove to IMF that the Syndicate is real, all while going on the lam. I never get too invested in the plots of the MI films, I’m not exactly sure what it is. Spy thrillers usually grab me instantly, but Rogue Nation spends the first thirty minutes getting the promotional stunt out of the way and reacquainting us with the gang. This would be fine except for the fact that there’s nothing of interest nary any plot development until a terrific opera house scene ⅓ of the way in. While the action is rock solid with some outstanding choreography and sense of place, the pacing leaves much to be desired.

And damn are the stunts good. We’ve all seen the plane stunt many times in the trailer, but that isn’t even the best in the film. A beautiful highway chase sequence that could rival Mad Max and a stunning heist that involves a water chamber are just two of the many great sequences in Rogue Nation. Maybe that’s how we should be reading these films. They’re not tense espionage thrillers like Bond but rather fun bits of escapism to beat the summer heat. The plot may not sing, but the performances sure do and the breezy action will keep your heart beating.

 

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Irrational Man

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Woody Allen has experimented with so many genres throughout his years that most of his films essentially boil down to belonging in their own category. That is, a dramedy with romantic elements that gives the viewer an elusive sense of wanderlust upon viewing. Irrational Man is classic in all of Allen’s stylistic tendencies. It never goes above and beyond or has much to say, but it’s a breezy and light 90-minute affair that is still worth seeing.

Irrational Man has the bare essentials of a plot, but it keeps these essentials close to its chest. We’re introduced to Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a new professor at a liberal arts university who is trying to give his life a new meaning. After hitting it off with one of his students Jill (Emma Stone), he hatches a murder plot that in all honesty sounds pretty realistic (even for Allen). What follows is a 45-minute romantic comedy mixed with a 45-minute murder mystery. It’s Allen in nature, but with bits of Hitchcock thrown in.

Abe is quite a downer, and he fits all the checkboxes for ‘philosophy professor.’ He spews Kant and makes his students look as bored as we are watching the beginning of this movie. This makes the first half of the film pretty standard and unexpected. He mingles with the faculty and turns heads with his age-inappropriate relationship with Jill, but he is tormented deep within and is searching for a deeper will to live. While the murder plot can seem ridiculous on the surface, it’s mostly used as a device to kickstart Lucas’s second coming, and the film gets significantly better following. After planning this murder and carrying it through, Abe is a changed man. Phoenix reflects Abe’s change and becomes much more lighthearted and seems very pleased with himself the rest of the film. It’s a day-night change that might seem hasty but makes sense given what we understand about Abe.

Luckily Irrational Man never gets too preachy with its philosophical genre conventions. But like Allen’s last film, Magic in the Moonlight, it’s pretty standard affair. While the finale is unexpected and there are little bits of humor sprinkled in, but there simply isn’t much here to recommend other than a rental. Even Stone gives an unimpressive performance as the wide-eyed hopeless romantic smitten with Abe but unsure how to move on from her boyfriend Roy. While I’m sure Allen has much to say about finding meaning in life’s mechanical course of procedure, he doesn’t quite get there in Irrational Man. 

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Trainwreck

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“I’m in love with you”

“Why do you keep saying that??”

The exchange above tells you just about everything you need to know about Amy, the protagonist in the latest Judd Apatow adult comedy, Trainwreck. She’s a commitment-phobe, after having her father drill the concept of monogamy being unrealistic into her brain as a young child. This sets the stage for a new kind of romantic comedy, one that is unforgiving yet still full of heart. Trainwreck, written by its star Amy Schumer, is smartly balanced and makes great use of its Apatowian running time, which could feel a bit long for some. With winning performances and an excellent original script, Trainwreck is easily the best comedy I’ve seen this year.

With a lot of romantic comedies in the twenty-first century, the expectation is that they diverge from the traditional formula. Rom-coms always fall prey to being too formulaic and predictable and as a result genre films either fall into quirky independent territory or go full-on Nicholas Sparks. The good ones are the ones that break free of these restraining tropes. But Trainwreck doesn’t set out to subvert your expectations, that’s not its goal. Amy is unlike any Apatowian leading lady we’ve seen before. Her commitment issues and lifestyle as a modern female in New York City lends itself to interesting conversations about modern dating and monogamy, all while breaking free of what might seem traditional by conventional standards.

While Trainwreck does follow a set of benchmarks that all romantic comedies tend to hit (there’s the love montage, the big fight, hell there’s even a musical number), it does so in a way that harkens back to earlier romantic comedies, where it’s not all sunshine and puppies. As Amy falls for sports doctor Aaron, we’re not necessarily rooting for the couple as we are rooting for Amy herself. The script shows us her sentimental side with her relationship with her sister Kim, but also shows us her risqué and brash side in her job as a magazine editor. Flawed protagonists are all the rage these days, but we’ve never seen one quite like Amy.

And what a star vehicle this is for Schumer. I’ve loved watching her Comedy Central series every Tuesday, as she manages to make self-deprecating humor less about making fun of the individual than it is making a social commentary. She plays a similar role in Trainwreck, as she is, in her words, a trainwreck. Schumer is an expert a comedic timing, and there are some hysterical moments in here. Her first relationship with cross-fit enthusiast Steven, played by none other than John Cena, is mostly played for laughs (a dirty talk sex scene comes to mind), but it does a great job at introducing us to Amy and is a great lead in for her follow-up as she falls for Aaron (Bill Hader). Schumer shines in every scene, whether its a tender moment with her father Gordon or a satirical quip at the writing industry at her job.

Trainwreck’s script is brilliant at navigating the murky waters of dating in the modern world. Schumer wrote it herself, and she draws mostly from life experiences and her observations in the city. It’s smart, but never preachy, and simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt. It expects more from us as an audience to judge our flawed heroine while still reflecting on our own personal lives. As Amy struggles to see how she can have a life like her sister Kim with a white-picket fence and a suburban cottage, she not only grows but she evolves. In a not-so-subtle conversation with her Minecraft-loving nephew, Amy sees how she can plan out her life as much as she wants, yet still fill it with the things she loves. This “early adulthood” stage is a new term coined for the awkward transition into adulthood and for some like Amy it lasts longer than others. Apatow and Schumer have made an extraordinary comedy about surviving this life stage, and its full of heart, humor, and brimming with insight.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Penny Dreadful Season 2

Last night the Showtime gothic drama Penny Dreadful wrapped its second season, and it continues to be quite an under appreciated prestige series that I looked forward to every week. Season two found the gang being haunted by all sorts of demons, internal and external, all while the show maintained the excellent mythology and world behind the characters. The Victorian London setting is beautiful like always and the production is breathtaking at times. It’s the kind of series that rewards patience, but can be enjoyed nonetheless to see Ethan Chandler go full-werewolf and tear shit up.

This season, Vanessa Ives, the protagonist of the show (if there is one), finds herself possessed by demonic witches, courtesy of last season’s Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole. The decision to make her a primary villain this season was a good one, as Helen McCrory steals the show in some outstanding sequences that are chilling to the core, including a doll-making montage at the end of episode 2, definitely a highlight. Eva Green continues to shine, and she has her fair share of memorable moments as well. While there’s nothing here like Season One’s “Seance,” Green puts on a more subtle face as Vanessa confronts her inner demons and has to make all kinds of difficult choices. We learn more about Vanessa in a few flashback as well, including the third episode “The Nightcomers,” and while they might be an awkward break in the pace of an excellent season, these moments help flesh out our characters and we get to see their true selves.

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Sir Malcolm, however, found himself in a joyful mood amidst all the terror, as he fell head over heels for Madame Kali. But he quickly gets in too deep after being put under her spell and is forced to face his past and his regretful choices we learned about last season. While Malcolm has the least to do this season in terms of plot, he’s still a very well-rounded character and acts as an old sage of sorts. His mentor relationship with Vanessa is great this season, and after the finale in which the gang all but parted ways, I’m excited to see where his journey will take him.

Penny Dreadful has always done a fine job of balancing the demonic storylines with the mythology of others, such as Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, and this has always been one of the show’s strongest suits. We all know the story of Frankenstein and his monsters, but the show manages to make everything that’s old new again, and it remains exciting and full of surprises. After creating a love interest for his creature John Clare in the form of Lily (ex-Brona Croft), Frankenstein finds himself in the position of playing god, and faces the consequences as Lily and Dorian strike up a relationship antithetical to what Victor was expecting. While these plots might get a bit messy at times, and Dorian’s side chick Angelique feels underused and a bit out of place, it’s all in service of the world-building. This leads up to an outstanding sequence in which we finally learn Dorian Gray’s secret (as if we didn’t already), but once again Penny Dreadful makes this as riveting as if its new to everyone.

American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has always been my favorite character, as he serves as our entry point into this crazy British world, and he has plenty to do this season as his past catches up to him and he faces the fallout of his bar massacre last season. An investigation led by a Pinkerton agent hired by Ethan’s father manages to track Ethan down, and despite him going into hiding with Vanessa for a two-episode arc, he still finds himself imprisoned and on his way back to America come the season finale. Ethan’s plot provides most of the emotional foundation for the season, and he and Vanessa strike up the sort of romantic relationship that fans have been craving for since day one. If anything feels contrived, it’s this, but I still appreciated the effort to make them end-game. A beautiful moment in the finale features an alternate universe in which Vanessa and Ethan are married and have two children, and I teared up at the thought of them finally escaping this haunted world, but we know this will never be reality.

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The last scene in the season has Vanessa looking thoughtfully out the window as the gang part ways, and we wonder if they will ever see each other again. It’s a depressing thought, really, and the finale isn’t a rousing winner despite a few knockout scenes early on, but Penny Dreadful has always been just that, dreadful. There isn’t much that is pretty here, but the characters manage to find beauty in other ways. There’s still some lighthearted humor, such as a fun scene in which Vanessa helps Victor go shopping for Lily (why exactly? But it’s still fun), but Penny Dreadful still nails its eerie atmosphere and bleak universe. Brilliant production gives us great sequences like a literal bloodbath in Dorian’s home, and great action scenes with Ethan, Sembene (always a delight) and Kali’s witches. Creator John Logan has taken all of these historic properties and made something beautiful, and the show keeps you on your toes thanks to some frustrating cliffhangers, and this is a credit to the excellent characterization for these characters over the course of just 18 episodes. The show has already been renewed for a third season, and as it looks now we might be looking at self-contained storylines set across the globe. Whatever the prospects, I’m excited, because I know it will never be dull.

 

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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