Monday, May 27, 2013

FRANCES HA 5/26/13

Finding roommates in NYC, “the city of all possibilities” to share your space and often your innermost dreams and insecurities is the backdrop of the eccentric, sometimes annoying comic/tragic film FRANCES HA, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written with Greta Gerwig who plays the Frances of the title. The Ha part will be wittily explained in the final frame. The movie is shot in a sepia tone – no color to distract from our fundamental human needs – finding a home, finding love and/or companionship, realizing our ambitions, and finding the economic means to do so, in this case preferably in the arts, covering the wide gamut of the “creative” spectrum. No character is a day-laborer - all come from the subculture of talented, yearning, touching on 30 year olds that populate our fair city moving from Chinatown to Washington Heights, and even dipping a toe into Brooklyn. But things are not always black and white – luminous grays make the city and its characters both more depressing and also more transparent.

We meet Frances (Greta Gerwig) and the beloved roommate  Sophie (Mickey Sumner) acting a bit bizarrely “mock fighting” on the streets of NYC, but then falling into one another’s arms in laughter. This scene encapsulates the intensity of their relationship as most adored best friends who can communicate, understand and accept one another – no “guy” intrudes on this special bond. NOT until Sophie announces that she is going to leave and move into another apartment with her boyfriend aptly named Patch. This shocking announcement leaves the loyal Frances at very loose ends. An aspiring dancer, and not a very good one, (but a much better choreographer,) she spends the rest of the movie wildly searching for a Sophie substitute – not only to live with, but to rekindle what was once a cherished kinship. Platonic vs. romantic love, the deeply affecting roots of each are explored.

My movie mate observed (and I agree with her) that Greta Gerwig is an actress who is always Greta Gerwig – like the Diane Keaton of Woody Allen films is always Diane Keaton. There seems to be a cult following for this lovely actress who through her body gestures proclaims contradictions. Tall, lithe, slightly awkward, and overtly “bouncy”– skipping and running like a gazelle along the streets of NYC, as if the sheer beauty of movement can overcome despair.

Throughout the film, Frances is so vulnerable, dependent, and oblivious to social cues, that I cringed and squirmed uncomfortably, watching how she talked too much, desperately searching to communicate – “searchers” who are too obvious are often avoided because they embarrass others – until she finally settles down within herself after a brief not-the-usual-kind of interlude to Paris. From being irritated with her character, I gradually, and surprisingly, found myself touched by Frances to the point of feeling tender affection for this fragile, oddball spirit, and was disconcerted to find that I was holding back tears.

Frances’ “coming of age” story involves a trip back to her family home in Sacramento where we experience her role as daughter with both parents (acted by her actual mother and father) in a caring environment, and a short but revelatory stint back to her Vassar College haunts. An oft-explored idea is revisited - sometimes we have to go away to come back and re-connect with our lives afresh.  I have known people like Frances who are earnest and ambitious, tender yet steely and ballsy enough to discern what is needed to take what little control they can over their lives. Director Noah Baumbach skirts the all-too-familiar tightrope of clichés to make FRANCES HA worth viewing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I am NOT a Baz Luhrmann fan with his self-conscious overindulgence in excess. Lately I have been paying more attention to the opening credits (down to the fonts that are used) shown at the beginning of a film, giving me a glimpse into what I will have to look forward to for the next few hours. So from the start, my aesthetic taste was being tested as I inwardly cringed at a movie that straddled comedy and tragedy ending up being a burlesque parody.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby has been laying on my night table ready to be picked up and read for about a month, but if I were to judge the original book by this adaptation, I would toss it into the garbage. I love a unique literary voice – and language – but this flat lusterless cinematic interpretation could not be saved by the glitter and gloss which screamed out at us with every frame – no cake under all that icing.

Despite Director Baz Luhrmann’s cast of fine actors, they were unable to breathe life into this romantic fable of deception and obsessive love set in the “free-spirited” postwar 1920’s “Flapper Era.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, portrayed by Tobey Maguire, is the linchpin of the story that begins and ends with worshipful utterances about his mysterious, wealthy, ostentatious party-hosting neighbor - the flamboyant Jay Gatsby (a preening Leonardo Di Caprio,) who adores Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) a daughter of “old money”, married to a racist, womanizing “lout.”  The plot thickens when we find out that Daisy and Jay were once lovers  - the re-telling of an oft-told tale.

This film version of The Great Gatsby never convinced nor touched me. Why did Gatsby merit such fascination, unless it was the allure of the  Horatio Alger myth  reaching for the dream of America’s unlimited opportunities in a society that claims to eschew class distinctions?

If you love spectacle this is a movie for you. I found it visually boring and commonplace. 

Monday, May 6, 2013


Indian director Mira Nair’s new film THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST  based on Mohsin Hamid's novel short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, literally collides with current events and the ethos that perhaps formed the psychology of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. This is a movie about desire, disappointment and disillusionment between two worlds that are harder and harder to keep separate, hurtling towards one another with a speed that seems unstoppable. It is also about the “roots” of the formation of one’s basic ideology, and how “beliefs” can blossom and decay via explosive circumstances. We see the intersection of two vital individuals, each embracing their expatriate countries, whose lives are pulled in opposite directions, based on the events of September 11th 2001 and their own personal collision course toward catastrophe.

The movie titles appear on the screen from the last letter of a name spelled in reverse – an indication of the back and forth in time and the cultural breakdown between two changing societies – America and Pakistan. We first meet Changez  (complexly portrayed by Riz Ahmed) in 2011, ambitious, and self-confident in a café in Lahore, Pakistan talking with an American journalist/author named Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a man ingrained enough in this region to speak fluent Urdu. Bobby is there to interview Changez about the recent kidnapping of a respected American professor in the school where the young man teaches. This abduction turns out to be the catalyst that moves the film’s plot, giving it a sense of tension while merging with the Pakistani protagonist’s interior and exterior moral conversion. Through the recording sessions we travel back ten years and experience this brilliantly original young man – a Princeton graduate complete with a lovely artist/photograher girl friend (Kate Hudson,) living a privileged life in his adopted homeland and his transformation into a “reluctant fundamentalist.”

Ten years before, Changez was a Wall Street analyst mentored by Jim Cross (a terrific Kiefer Sutherland) whose robotic body movements are in perfect synch with the conglomerate that he leads, its powerful global tentacles dug into corporations all over the world. We also are witness to Changez’s own ruthlessness in business and his indifference to the livelihoods of the workers his expediting cost-cutting decisions affect. Changez’s conduct propels him to greater success in his grasp for the “American Dream.” But everything changes after the horrific attack on the World Trade Center Towers, launching a xenophobic response from some of Changez’s colleagues as well as public service employees that he encounters on the streets of NYC and at airports while traveling for business. Racism, the abrogation of civil liberties, and profiling intrude on Changez’s idyllic corporate environment as well as his intrinsic values, and he eventually returns to Pakistan - too smart to be conscripted by any "terrorist" group though his political sympathies have been inherently altered.

Music and song – voices filled with longing and poignancy are also at the core of this film and contribute to its enigmatic surroundings. Contrasting visual environments - the dark and mysterious ambiance of Pakistan vs. the clear, brisk light of New York City felt too pat and obvious, but I was moved by the story of this sensitive young person whose life is shattered by unforeseen violence, and the impact it made on his belief system. I cannot help but think of the prisoners who have been locked up in Guantanamo Bay prison camps for 10 years and how those years of confinement, without a trial, have radicalized those who might have been innocent. The ideas in this movie are worth pondering over and over again. The tragedy continues.