One of the best films of the last few years, and arguably one of the greatest indie films of all time, Frances Ha sparkles because of the kooky, infectious joy of Greta Gerwig’s greatest performance. Frances is a twenty-seven year old dance apprentice, living in New York. We follow her as she moves from apartment to apartment trying to find her way in life. Friendships are born, others fall by the wayside, as she tries to earn enough to pay her rent. It’s a twentieth-century tale for those who don’t quite fit into the stereotypical model, for those who want to carve their own path. Gerwig’s Frances is a once-in-a-lifetime character, so full of enthusiasm at times, and yet with a certain underlying sadness. Unlike other Baumbach creations though, the sadness is not as prominent as the obvious joy of the character. That is thanks to Gerwig who just exudes awkward charm as Frances. There is also the not insignificant addition of a fabulous soundtrack, which adds an impressive extra layer, somehow giving the film even more warmth than Gerwig had already infused in it. There’s no great set pieces, there’s barely even any big arguments, it’s just the everyday life of a pretty regular person, and yet it is completely addictive viewing. It is in fact essential viewing. Somehow, using good ol’ fashioned simplicity and charm, Noah Baumbach and Gerwig have created a great monster of an indie movie that all others must now try and equal. A joy to watch from beginning to end, Frances Ha is the birth of a star.
In Mistress America, as in everything he writes, Noah Baumbach has crafted complex characters who are deeply flawed. Most are rather self-centered, obsessing over their image in society whilst only half-listening to the issues of their friends, and so could really be ripped straight from Lola Kirke’s sister’s show Girls. Here, Kirke’s Tracy is a freshman in college who befriends her older future step sister Brooke (played to perfection by an as always on-form Greta Gerwig). The growing friendship, despite the evident narcissism, is warm and it’s beautiful to watch Tracy’s growing admiration for this quirky all-rounder. At the same time though, Baumbach implants a certain sadness to the happenings, which eventually explodes in a magnificent third act. Although Tracy, like the audience, admires and enjoys her time with Brooke because it is pure screwball fun, she also understands that Brooke’s way of life is lacking because of her constant need to jump around. She’s destined to fail. Ultimately though the friendship is one of great benefit to Tracy despite the drawbacks, allowing her to grow and develop and learn about who she is as a person. It’s a very human comedy drama, that expertly satirises today’s youth culture and brilliantly narrates the maturation of a shy, lonely freshman. Some may find the main characters grating, but many will cherish the realism that surrounds the friendship between Tracy, the shy want-to-be-author, and Brooke, the eccentric screwball.
Maggie’s Plan focuses on the titular character’s struggle (Greta Gerwig) as she hopes to have a child through artificial insemination but at the same time falls for a married man (Ethan Hawke). Describing some of the rest of the plot would give the game away, but just know that the ‘Plan’ of the title isn’t quite what it first seems. Instead it becomes a much more outlandish premise for a film as it shifts gear around the half an hour mark. Despite this originally seemingly inconceivable plot development, Maggie’s Plan does have real heart, and for the most part it is a believable story with real characters. At one point, just as you feel it is about to fall into farce, and it certainly toes the line, Hawke brings proceedings crashing back down to earth with a powerful moment.
It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, particularly because the change in plot brings about a jarring shift in tone too. It does however, have three great leads, in Hawke, Gerwig and Hawke’s (ex)wife Julianne Moore. Three superb actors who navigate expertly the rocky terrain at times created by the screenwriter. There are other smaller gripes too, such as the fact that every character seems to need a pseudo-intellectual monologue no matter how out of character it may seem, and a certain major moment does not feel quite as affecting as it should, and yet the leads manage to make this bizarre tale, for the most part, work.
Unfortunately like Maggie herself, the film’s writer doesn’t really know how she wants it all to end and so the film slightly overstays its welcome trying to find a solution. Sadly, the conclusion they decide upon is too rom-com cliche to feel particularly satisfying or fitting for such an unusual and mostly enjoyable movie.
Noah Baumbach does not write simple, one-dimensional characters. Each and every one of his films is filled to the brim with complex characters who are not simply there to be the traditional likeable protagonist. His films and thus characters occupy that much murkier grey area, which whilst certainly more realistic, makes his films marmite to cinema audiences. Greenberg is no different. If you enjoy Baumbach’s deeply flawed central characters, then you’ll enjoy this tale of Ben Stiller’s failed musician Roger Greenberg who agrees to dog-sit for his brother in L.A whilst he goes to Vietnam with his family.
If you are looking for an immediately likeable and relatable lead man, then perhaps this isn’t for you. For Greenberg can be quite an unpleasant human being at times, whether that is to his to0-loyal-for-his-own-good friend, Ivan (a brilliant Rhys Ifans) or the mostly chirpy, equally lost Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant. Greenberg is struggling to readjust having been released from hospital and finds an almost kindred spirit in Florence, who feels, particularly in love, like she is floating in the wrong direction. Their friendship is no walk in the park and we get many moments where Greenberg is quite simply in the wrong. Yet somehow Ben Stiller (working with a tight Baumbach script) manages to make him sympathetic despite his many drawbacks. Gerwig is equally fantastic, never putting a foot wrong in playing Florence. Whilst Stiller’s is the marquee performance, Gerwig’s understated work almost steals the show from beneath him. Her struggle is less marked and yet almost as affecting as Greenberg’s in the end.
It is a fascinating watch overall, thanks to the central pair in particular. The script works with a lot more strands than perhaps most thought it would, and for the most part addresses them all well before the close. Yet really it’s not that type of movie to tie everything nicely into a bow at the end. It would have felt like a cheap ending for this aesthetic.
There is a great underlying sadness, as there is with many a Baumbach film, but it constantly manages to sustain some levity and whilst there is no emotional catharsis in the same way as that found in other movies about similar subjects, there is a some muted pay-off which feels fitting for such a unique movie.
This week, here at matt’s nerdy life, we have been watching the films of the incomparable indie darling Greta Gerwig. Her new film Wiener Dog has just been released in select cinemas so we thought it would be the perfect time to celebrate her work so far.
In the last half a decade Gerwig has exploded onto the scene with her instant likeability and kooky charm and looks set to rise straight to the top. Despite her relative newcomer status there are still a handful of great performances to get stuck into, and some that have been left off this list because they may be used in future Actor/Director Appreciation weeks (I’m looking at you Joe Swanberg). She has found work with some of the best directors around today, from prolific collaborator Noah Baumbach to big shots such as Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. May her meteoric rise long continue.
The films this week are:
Maggie’s Plan (2015)
Mistress America (2015)
Frances Ha (2012)
How did it go so wrong?
After the disaster that was DC’s Batman V Superman earlier this year, many thought August’s Suicide Squad would bring back some much needed cinematic quality to the comic behemoth. Instead, the DC Extended Universe has been plunged further into the darkness than ever before. Audiences thought Batman V Superman was terrible, well they haven’t seen anything yet.
Suicide Squad is a complete mess. The plot is much simpler than that of BVS and yet the film seems even more muddled than that particular comic-book movie failure. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller convinces the government to put together a team of the worst of the worst, in order to protect the world from a potential, perhaps inevitable, evil metahuman. The way she proves this is by bringing Dr June Moon (Cara Delevingne) into the fold. Moon is an archaeologist who has been possessed by an ancient evil witch. Waller controls her by keeping her heart in a suitcase. Waller also has sway over Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a military expert and the soon to be leader of the Suicide Squad, because of his love for Dr Moon. She plans to keep the Squad in check through the promise of reduced sentences, and a teeny-tiny bomb placed in their necks, allowing her to blow their heads off without a hesitation if they try and escape. Needless to say, something goes wrong, and the Squad are sent in to Midway City to save the day.
The plot is so basic that it lacks any twists or shocks or packs any real punch at all. It all feels very flat throughout. There appears to be very little stakes, despite the fact the world is supposedly in danger. This is because the villain has a weak motive and an underdeveloped plan. The so-called weapon that they are forging is never truly explained and we only see glimpses of what it means for humanity. It turns out its cliched comic-book villainy. The tone of the movie too is all over the place. It feels like two movies smashed together at times, and if recent reports coming out of DC are to be believed, that is indeed true. There is the lighter tone that prevails the majority of the time, but then every so often the dark underbelly rears its head in jarring ways. What is worse is that the lighter tone does not bring much fun at all. The fights are by-the-book and completely unspectacular and a large majority of the jokes and quips fall flat.
Like previous DC movies, pacing is also an issue. The first half an hour feels like an elongated trailer, jumping from present day to back story continuously throughout. This wouldn’t be such a problem is the backstories actually fleshed out the characters. Instead we get brief choppy glimpses of the main character’s tales and then it’s back to Waller and her boardroom. There’s such a great story to be told about Joker’s manipulation of Dr Harleen Quinzel that is completely passed by here. After the flashbacks, Suicide Squad ramps up the pace with back-to-back set pieces which ultimately all feel rather samey. Then suddenly when a burst to the finale is perhaps needed, the ‘bad guys’ take a time-out. It reeks of a muddled production, and conflicting views.
Whilst the plot leaves much to be desired, some actors do leave the crash-site with some credit. Not least is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. She embodies the ruthless co-ordinator of the Squad and steals every scene she is in. Will Smith as arguably the main character, marksman Deadshot, is also an enjoyable presence. In a movie where few jokes land, Smith delivers the best of a tepid bunch. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg is also a passable addition, and his interactions with Deadshot are some of the best in the movie.
Arguably the two main attractions though going into the film were Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn (her first time on screen) and Jared Leto’s take on the Joker, a character some would say was perfected by the late great Heath Ledger. It’s hard to say who comes off worse, although neither actor can really be blamed. Robbie’s Quinn certainly isn’t dreadful, it’s just that she is given poor dialogue, and at times she appears to be present merely as a sexual object. I really want to praise Leto’s Joker, because there are flashes of brilliance. However, due to what seems like heavy editing, he is barely in the film, flitting in and out at various points and disappearing entirely in the second half. When he does appear he is a modern day gangster-type, which may be jarring at first but is an intriguing (if currently underdeveloped) take on the Clown Prince.
Leto’s Joker is much more sexual and much more in love with Harley than classic interpretations. It’s a lot to take in for long-time fans of the character, who are more used to a more aggressive and one-sided relationship. That aspect seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. That may not be a bad thing, because the love story between Quinn and Joker is one of the stronger aspects of the film. Once more, the issue is how little screen time they are given to build their characters and relationship. That being said, putting this Harley and Joker centre stage as adversaries in a Batman solo film, would allow them both to be fleshed out more and would likely be a thrill to witness. Seeing how they would mix with Ben Affleck’s excellent take on Batman in more than a thirty second snippet is arguably worth the price of admission alone.
The rest of the cast are given very little to do, which highlights one of the integral issues with the film. There are almost no character arcs. The most defined are that of Deadshot and supporting character El Diablo (Jay Hernandez). The likes of Killer Croc, Boomerang and Katana are left with little more than scraps. Even Enchantress, supposedly so important to the plot, is left wanting. Nobody goes upon any real journey and certainly nobody changes in any meaningful or believable way. The only time change happens is when members of the Squad act out of character in the third act, allowing the film to fall into comic-book movies cliches.
Suicide Squad doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. After the disaster that was BVS and the continuing success of Marvel movies, and now Deadpool, it appears the DC executives threw everything at the wall in the hope that something would stick. Bits and pieces intrigue but underdevelopment means they rarely excite. Instead Suicide Squad is left with a jumbled plot, weak characters and heaps of wasted potential. It’s an original premise, which in a 21st-century comic-book movie, is hard to come by, and yet an hour in, it has fallen into cliched territory, and by the third act, plastered with poor CGI in the inevitable boss fight finale, it is little more than run-of-the-mill.
Wonder Woman it’s down to you to the save what is left of the DCEU.