Frances Ha (2013)

★★★★

Frances Ha PosterDirector: Noah Baumbach

Release Date: May 17th, 2013 (US limited); July 26th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Greta Gerwig

There isn’t really a plot to Noah Baumbach’s low-key indie drama Frances Ha. Certainly not one of any conventional sort. We are thrown straight into the life of our central protagonist, the eponymous Frances (Greta Gerwig), without a proper introduction. From opening to closing she spends her time apartment hunting (this is the film’s central crisis), though Frances doesn’t seem all that worked up about her uncertain predicament. The screenplay, penned by Gerwig and Baumbach, is very loose — you get the feeling there was a lot of improvisation during filming.

And yet the whole thing bumbles along with excitable charm and an internal confidence born, perhaps, out of experience. It could be a Woody Allen venture: title cards pop up every so often detailing the various locations Frances attempts to settle (primarily around New York), and the nomad herself fits Allen’s ditzy mould. When she isn’t spending time with her best mate, who sports glasses with enormous lenses by the way, Frances is training to become a dancer. Unfortunately she ain’t quite up to the required standard and, in New York, triers don’t get paid: “I can’t even get outta the house on my feet”.

Characters often mumble incoherences, blabbing one minute about unaffordable rent bills and the next about finger injuries. In reality, despite what Aaron Sorkin would have us believe, we probably spend much of our time conversing in a similar fashion. Not that Baumbach’s film reflects real life: there is a scene where our luckless protagonist gallantly offers to pay the bill following a meal with a potential boyfriend (the body of her previous beau is still warm at this point), only for her card to be declined. Rather than letting Adam Driver’s Lev Shapiro — if that is his real name — do the honours, Frances bolts out of the restaurant and scampers around the neighbourhood looking for a cash point. She finds one eventually, reappearing at the table with some money and a randomly bloodied arm.

You laugh because the whole scenario is utterly bonkers, and it is one that cements the film’s reputation as a bible for clumsy folk. Frances Ha is like the Friends movie finally realised, only every character is Phoebe. This hodgepodge of kookiness is actually fairly endearing and lends itself to the overarching notion of misadventure. It transpires Frances is actually a pretty good dancer (“You were great tonight”), but her instructor opts to cut her from the Christmas play anyway. Is Frances the unluckiest person alive or is she simply too unprepared, her moment-to-moment style of living an inescapable and fruitless trap? Regardless, you stick with her because she refuses to give up her creative passion. That is admirable.

These underplayed indie outings are often left wide open when it comes to accusations of baselessness, and there is a sense that Baumbach only shot in black-and-white because there happened to be a spare roll lying around. But I don’t think the film aspires to be intentionally pithy. Indeed, there is a pithiness in the sense that it’s a quirky drama without an A-to-B plot and C-to-D script, but that’s just how it is in Baumbach’s New York. Another apartment dweller, Benji (Michael Zegen), wants to write for Saturday Night Live and suitably spends his days watching movies, presumably because procrastination is the key to comedic success.

Greta Gerwig plays Frances with a childlike innocence: she sleeps with the door ajar; she turns to her parents in a time of need; she engages in play fights with other resistant lodgers. There is even a moment where the camera cuts to her teaching a group of youngsters ballet, and she looks right at home. Grinning with a genuine smile, Gerwig superbly manages to captivate through a waft of potential annoyance, and as such you see and sympathise with the fragility bubbling beneath Frances’ surface.

Elegantly inelegant, the daydreamer relentlessly apologises to people when she’s probably only at fault two-thirds of the time. Solutions are right there at her fingertips yet she keeps washing her hands — a temporary job at the dance studio that would earn her some cash becomes available, but she is initially too impulsive (fed up with speculative opportunities?) to accept. The supporting players all contribute too, particularly Grace Gummer whose dissociative air is a terrific counterbalance to Gerwig’s friendliness.

Paul McCartney and David Bowie are part of a soundtrack that hops tactfully from in vogue pop to classical strings to early Hollywood-era romance. Sam Levy’s cinematography bears a trace of Wes Anderson — the camera often adopts a still frame that zips back and forth between characters in conversation. The film is generally mad, makes little sense, and exists in a hyper-surreal world where people do silly things and still manage to get by. But it is addictive and funny and sweet, and that’s all that matters really.

Frances Ha - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): ICF Films

Annie Hall (1977)

★★★★★

Annie Hall PosterDirector: Woody Allen

Release Date: April 20th, 1977 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Films are often categorised under the “escape” section of our everyday lives. We watch to disassociate with reality for short bursts of time, to be present only within the context of the tedious romcom playing out on screen. Or the spectacular science-fiction trek that hurtles us towards another planet. Or the not-so-scary slasher flick we’ve seen a hundred times yet whose economical frights we still get a kick out of. Every so often though, there’s a film that commands our attention and refrains from releasing its grasp even long after the credits have finished rolling. Woody Allen’s infectious romantic dramedy is that film. Presented in a simple-yet-effective manner, it’s the delivery of the piece that approaches astounding. Annie Hall truly is a hallmark of American cinema.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is an ardent New Yorker with a panache for eccentricity and a motor mouth to back it up. He’s also a comedian who plays doubles tennis every so often, and it’s on one of these sporting jaunts that Alvy meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The connection between the pair is palpable from the moment they first awkwardly converse.

This isn’t a complicated film. Sure, it gets caught up in a barrage of intellectually stimulated dialogues echoed by apparently complex characters but that’s wholeheartedly where the fun lies. And it really is fun. Alvy is an erratic guy who just about holds it together by way of his methodological consistency. He wants to know the who, what, where, when, and why about everything because this allows him to pick apart and challenge. (“Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.”) Maybe it’s the comedian in him, but one gets the sense that his mannerisms have been ingrained since childhood — Alvy alludes to the adolescent trauma enforced by the roller coaster that often rattled above his house.

On the other hand there’s Annie. Not quite carefree but certainly free-spirited, Annie is bubbly and bumbling. The chipper lass ain’t entirely sure of herself when we first meet, though she steadily gains resolve and direction alongside the spitfire that is Alvy. They’re quite different people and share a relationship that invariably teeters between effusive and choppy. She’s Los Angeles, he’s New York. Certainly, their premier interaction post-tennis match embodies the joyous authenticity of the couple. The scene is awkward and endearing and hilarious, and from then we can’t take our eyes off of pair’s dynamic nor remove our permanent smile induced as a result of their witty banter. The film is all about them, fortunately. In some ways we feel unduly cut short at 93 minutes, but in others the hour and a half feels like a perfect summation of director Woody Allen’s vision. For a film so focused on two people — it does flirt with a variety of issues, but hones in on their relationship — Alvy and Annie are perpetually watchable.

Aided by semi-prominent collaborator Marshall Brickman, Allen’s original screenplay ensures his characters’ long-term watchability is a certainty. It’s outstanding. The film is bookended by two Woody Allen (or Alvy, but we get the sense they’re the same person) monologues, both of which represent the writer — and actor and director — at his most prosperous. Endlessly quotable (“Joey Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols!”) and unafraid to tackle a whole range of affairs from 70s New York culture to drug use to the US East/West divide, Allen and Brickman’s screenplay rightly bagged an Academy Award at the organisation’s semicentennial ceremony. The narrative never suffocates its characters; even on the odd occasion when an overly vague cultural reference escapes Allen’s cerebral pen, the film skips along unscathed, our viewing experience likewise resilient.

This might also be one of the filmmaker’s funniest outings. With light-hearted subtlety often capitalised on by Allen and his acting partner Diane Keaton, Annie Hall never stops short at provoking laughter. Whether it’s a character living up to expectations — in the case of psychiatric results, it’s two characters — or a swivel away from narrative convention, humour is always lying in wait and we’re eternally willing to guzzle. The latter of these two examples sees Alvy accuse a pompous cinemagoer of being too indulgent. Allen, in this instance himself a quasi-critic evaluating the pretentious kind, is also poking fun at himself and the plethora of ‘don’t sneeze or you’ll miss the point’ diatribes he has written into the film.

As previously alluded to, the piece is shot abiding by a mantra of simplicity that serves to position the spotlight on its characters and accentuate their presence. The camera lingers on conversations for a long period of time because it knows it’s peering into aural gold. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy springs to mind, a romantic moment in time that shares many intricacies with Annie Hall and was undoubtedly influence by Allen’s effective candour. Periodically we do see a few neat tricks play out, such as Alvy and company breaking the third wall or random subtitles translating small-talk for real thoughts, but these aren’t just pithy inclusions. Rather, they serve a purpose, be that to inject amusement or make a specific point about life.

The performances from Diane Keaton and Woody Allen ought to speak for themselves, but it’s worth noting that they’re wonderful. Annie Hall plays out in a non-chronological fashion. We already know the ending because it’s also the beginning, but that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s the journey that counts, and this journey is one of the very best.

Annie Hall - Woody and Diane

Images credit: IMP Awards, Total Film

Images copyright (©): United Artists

Midnight in Paris (2011)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.

For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.

Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.

Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.

Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.

The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).

Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.

Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard

Upon its release Blue Jasmine received rave reviews from viewers and, after a few months hovering around cinema screens and iffy online streams, is variably considered a return to form from the eccentric Woody Allen. I’m not extensively versed in Allen-lore, not nearly as much as i ought to be considering his lofty status in Hollywood and abroad. That being said, whilst his newest offering brims with scintillating performances (two Oscar nominated deliveries stand out in particular) the content, narrative and direction all add up to something a bit… bland. It’s a difficult story to consume and a tricky one tell, a story that shouldn’t insist on generating humour as often as it tries, particularly when there’s non to be shared. It’s possible that I just don’t get it; that the quirky, erudite versus blue-collar joust is something not entirely compatible with this 20-year-old. More than that though, Allen seems to be trying overly hard as he attempts to deliver on one too many fronts, leaving the intended humour absent and the compulsory drama simmering. But only just simmering.

Jasmine (that’s Jasmine, not Jeannette) Francis is an upper-class socialite from New York who finds herself mentally, physically and financially drained following separation from her unashamed husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). She isn’t used to earning, to maintaining herself and her life outwith superficial externals such as high-brow struts and an aristocratic ambience. Only it’s not an ambience, it’s an annoyance. An annoyance that has haunted her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) ever since childhood, when their foster parents favoured Jasmine’s superior “genes”. In her time of need, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live and survive by Ginger who remains frustrated over a misshaped business deal proposed by Hal, amongst a number of other issues related to her now spiralling sister.

Evidently there’s a lot going on, yet too often the happenings are overly trivial — discussions reigned in on antiques for example — and therefore aren’t substantial enough to fully engage the viewer. Perhaps that’s the point, that Jasmine is such a one-dimensional and flawed character, therefore the film should be too. This approach doesn’t catch on though as Jasmine and many of the other people on screen are very difficult to relate to. At one point Ginger points out the obvious: “When Jasmine don’t wanna know something, she gotta habit of looking the other way.” In a sense the narrative follows this mantra too — just when there’s a glimmer of something intriguing on the horizon the road suddenly detours back to stagnant repetitiveness.

And it certainly is repetitive. As their lives together progress and various agents enter and exit (boyfriends mainly), Jasmine constantly scalds Ginger for her poor taste in unworthy men. First it’s Augie, a working-class and slightly optimistic guy held down by the harsh realities of life. Chili follows, a mechanic who unlike Augie treats Ginger with respect even if at times his exuberance gets the better of him. Jasmine relentlessly disapproves, neglecting her own prior misdemeanours when it comes to settling with the right partner. In fact, her wrongful rejection of Chili is probably the only time Jasmine is not thinking about herself: she often reminisces about sailing around San Tropez in front of her less fortunate sister who has hardly travelled America never mind the world; she flies first class on her way to Ginger, even though she has no money, which is the main reason for her relocation; in fact Jasmine removes herself from all tasks unbecoming of her (“I never pay attention to house business affairs”). Combined, this makes it incredibly difficult for the viewer to like or even sympathise with Jasmine, which is essentially the downfall of the film as the camera stalks her every move and not much else.

Allen juxtaposes the past and present as life events interchange; from detailing the breakdown of Jasmine and Hal’s marriage to the breakdown of Jasmine herself. Occasionally happenings on screen are tough to watch, but it is often the case that these demanding moments are followed by attempts at humour thrown in as the embodiment of a panicky life-jacket, almost as if the film is fearful of advancing that extra step into Jasmine’s oblivion (which would’ve worked better than the half black comedy, half drama on show). For example, after a tortuous altercation pitting Ginger and Jasmine against an enraged Chili, Jasmine is seen quickly shaking off any resultant cobwebs as she searches for her ringing phone in a nonchalant manner. This woman has recently lost the love of her life in onerous circumstances — wouldn’t she be affected more by this attack with potentially mirroring connotations on her sister?

There is success emitted from Allen’s alternating timeline approach though, as the method distinctly displays the degree of culture clash between Jasmine and Ginger. Jasmine has had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Now that life has crumbled, her anxiety over what’s next conveys exactly how behind she is in the experience of every day normality: she wants to return to school (to study what?); will study fashion or interior design (can’t use a computer); takes computer classes (has no money to afford); accepts the “medial” job that she never wanted, the job that the vast majority of those around her do on a daily basis.

As average as the film is, there’s absolutely no denying the power and sheer struggle evoked by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s not even a case of the film’s downfalls making her performance glow even brighter, no, Blanchett’s display would stand out in any offering. Even though you don’t really like the character, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Blanchett’s depiction of painful demise as Jasmine slowly loses all sense of wherewithal and dignity. The portrayal is uncomfortable to watch at times and it should be that way. Without Blanchett at the helm, the film might have teetered worryingly close to Diana territory.

Sally Hawkins also deserves plaudits for her starkly contrasting role as the less fortuitous sister; likeable and empathetic as she establishes and maintains a strong sense of empowerment throughout the film’s progression. In an abnormal role from his usual work, Peter Sarsgaard is astute and pompously slick as the yin to Jasmine’s yang. Their first meeting is actually one of the film’s better moments, where the pair enter a self-congratulatory word-off as they divulge many an “I” and “my husband and myself”. It’s arrogant and self-absorbed nonsense, and it completely works because these characters come across as utterly undesirable just as they are supposed to in that moment.

Blue Jasmine is a film where nobody really seems to be listening to each other (“Pay attention Augie”), where characters are solely focused on getting their two — or 20 — cents in, meaning proceedings feel too feeble. The darkly comic moments don’t really fit in, and the emotionally wrought sections seldom have the desired effect. It’s no surprise that that actors are receiving awards nominations left right and centre as opposed to the film itself. While it is far from terrible, there’s a lot of onus on Cate Blanchett to make the picture worthwhile. Thankfully, in doing her worst, she does her absolute best.