The Meyerowitz Stories – Review

The work of Noah Baumbach is teeming with honest depictions of familial relationships. Baumbach has proven himself a master of all things bittersweet. The Meyerowitz Stories marks a new era in his development as a distinctive directorial voice. Baumbach once again puts family relationships under the microscope in this funny, touching and heartfelt study of one New York family. Teaming up with a stellar cast of Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel, Baumbach studies that most inevitable of hardships – the eventual decline of our parents.

Baumbach’s strength lies in crafting dialogue which realises on screen the complexity of real-life relationships. No one has a perfect relationship with their parents, least of all with their siblings, and when hard times fall upon us, the reaction is not always to band together in solemn solidarity. Baumbach’s interest lies in the reaction of these three siblings- Sandler, Stiller and Marvel, to their father’s failing health. Baumbach’s sharp dialogue is brought to life by three complex, thoughtful and often funny performances.

Sandler, in particular, steps up to the plate in a way we haven’t seen since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Employing his well-honed sad-sack shtick, Sandler drops some of that lovable everyman charm and adopts the worn-out demeanour of a man whose life has passed him by. The chemistry of the three siblings is intriguing, but is perhaps a little overblown during one explosive, and perhaps over-the-top, confrontation between Sandler and Stiller.

Stiller himself turns in a worthy performance as Matthew, the one sibling who has moved on from New York. He has built a successful and lucrative career for himself, but is unfulfilled in his personal life, and cold towards his father. Dressed in cold blues, opposed to his father’s ochres and burgundies, Stiller is somewhat of an outcast in his misfit family, a picture of capitalist conformity.

However, all are rightfully outshone by Hoffman himself, as the withering patriarch of the Meyerowitz clan. Hoffman turns in one of his best performances of recent years, his undeniable charm adding warmth to the somewhat callous nature of his character. Hoffman adds a vulnerability to Meyerowitz, a man who doesn’t know how to treat his relationships, and who feels he hasn’t realised all his artistic ambitions. In this respect, he and Sandler are two sides of the same coin- right down to the failed marriages and unfulfilled creative potential. Their performances are carefully crafted mirrors of each other, and each compliments the other wonderfully.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a funny, tender and poignant film which delves into the interactions of one very dysfunctional family. It is a film driven by its performances and its dialogue, with a stellar cast turning in a plethora of stellar performances. Noah Baumbach artfully balances humour and drama to create a family portrait which goes beyond the norm.

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Is mother! a masterpiece?

Darren Aronofsky’s latest, mother!, has become something of a talking point. There is, on one hand, the argument that it cleverly unpicks biblical, and human, issues using an ingenious allegory. On the other, some have called it ham-fisted and childish, a teenager’s attempt at being ‘deep’. This division has only served to add to the intrigue surrounding Aronofsky’s controversial biblical tale.

It must be acknowledged that Paramount were brave to give this film such a wide release. Mother! is unlike anything else that has been released in mainstream cinema this year, or perhaps ever. Now is the time for studios to be bold, and no matter our opinion of the film, Paramount should be applauded for having faith in such a divisive film. It is refreshing to see a film become the subject of such fervent debate.

However, it is also the manner of the debate that is of interest. Mother! has sparked a debate on where the line lies between genius and pretention. Many have argued that Aronofsky’s use of allegory is heavy-handed and malformed. Others argue that the allegory distils the story into something smaller, a house inside a snowglobe. I take a somewhat middling view. The use of allegory is highly successful in conveying the pith of Aronofsky’s meaning, but lacks a serious dose of refinement. Subtlety is tossed aside in favour of shock value.

It is difficult to form an opinion of mother! without understanding what it is trying to tell us, and what it is trying to achieve. There are numerous interpretations of the story. I first interpreted it as a feminist piece, picking apart society’s tendency to ignore women and their achievements while idolising those of men. More clear, though, is the biblical interpretation. The mother represents Mother Nature, her husband represents God, and the home she so tirelessly built for them represents planet Earth. There are numerous other biblical aspects, for example Harris’ and Pfeiffer’s Adam and Eve, but I wish to focus on the soul of the story, which lies in the destruction of the mother’s home and God’s inability, or unwillingness, to stop it.

Strip away the rest of the film, strip it back to these key elements, and you take away most of its problems. When distilled down to this simple tale of corruption, the film achieves its purpose. Everything else is window dressing. Aronofsky’s message is one that is intended to fill us with rage- and it does.

After watching mother!, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it could possibly be trying to achieve. I often take the view that a film is successful if it manages to properly convey the emotions that the director intended his audience to feel. Mother! made me feel a spectrum of claustrophobia, nausea, irritation, rage, pity and heart-pounding anxiety. In this regard, mother! is a masterpiece of nightmarish terror. Its slow descent into madness is accompanied by an overwhelming wave of anxiety that left me speechless. Mother! was entirely successful in making me feel.

So, with this in mind, is subtlety even a requirement? Or just a nice to have? In this case, some subtlety would have elevated this film to something greater. Mother! is a film which lacks any wit, any humour, any deft touches which take it beyond pure, red-blooded human emotion. After I left the cinema, and my heart stopped racing, I noticed that I felt differently about the film. I felt almost disappointed with it, as though the adrenaline of the mad rush had got me carried away.

Mother! has stayed with me. It will continue to play on my mind for the coming days. It is a film which swept me away but also left me infuriated. However, it is exactly the kind of film that we need right now, and I appreciate Darren Aronofsky’s fearlessness in bringing it to the big screen in all its madness.

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Uncertainty and The Graduate

Two days ago, I graduated with a first class degree. I have a graduate job locked down. I am moving into a flat with my boyfriend in a little over a week. I have the beginnings of a pathway laid out in front of me. However, like any recent graduate, I feel a nagging sense of uncertainty. Until now, my life had been a series of ladders; do well in GCSEs in order to go to sixth form. Do well in A-Levels in order to go to university. Do well in university in order to…

That’s where the ladder ends. And now I have my entire life in front of me, and I can do anything I want. But what do I want? The Graduate is a film which explores this sense of unease with a deft hand. And it is a film which, until now, I had never seen. Which, for a supposed film lover, I know, is a travesty. But we all have gaps in our knowledge (until last weekend, I hadn’t seen Dirty Dancing, either).

The Graduate explores the post-college life of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), as he returns home to his parents and grapples with the idea of having nothing, and everything, to do. It explores how he finds some semblance of meaning within his brief affair with Mrs Robinson, which gives him something, anything, to look forward to. His self-loathing afterwards is almost tangible. Braddock medicates his anxiety through this illicit affair, although in 2017 Mrs Robinson’s behaviour comes off as almost predatory.

Benjamin is different to the modern day graduate in many ways- he is innocent, a virgin, for one thing, and completely inexperienced. He is a blank page, and acts as though he has not yet become a man. Benjamin lives in a suspended state of adolescence, at the age of 21. On his return from college, he is treated with the revere of a hero returning from war. His parents, and their peers, congratulate him time and time again for his achievements (mirrored in 2017 by the adoring Facebook comments left by my mum’s friends on my graduation photo). This serves only to compound his sense of loss- the loss of student life. The loss of his sense of achievement, the loss of his extra-curriculars, and the loss of a world he had spent four years building around him.

There is also that almost too-real feeling of an ill fit between your aspirations and your reality. Benjamin is a man whose achievements in life, alongside his aspirations, have been built up to insurmountable heights during his academic career. Now, upon his graduation, he wants to be “different” from his parents. Yet he is pulled aside and told that “plastics” are the way to go. We all spend our years in education dreaming of how we might spend our lives afterwards, and for many those aspirations remain a pipe-dream. The Graduate is not afraid to confront that reality head-on. We will not become astronaughts, peace envoys or poets. For many of us, the future lies in plastics or something similarly disappointing.

Perhaps the bravest move The Graduate makes is to leave the question of Benjamin’s future wide open. Although he receives a part of his happy ending, we never learn what he actually finds to do with his life. Although he finds love and companionship, his path still escapes him. What The Graduate does well is to convey every graduate’s sense of uncertainty, despair and loss, coupled with the unending opportunity they are faced with, but can’t quite bring themselves to reach out and grab. I am a graduate with some semblance of a path ahead of me, yet The Graduate managed to leave me feeling more bewildered than ever.

 

It’s been a while…

But I’m back! For over a year I’ve willfully neglected this blog. Last year, I worked for a major studio and this meant that writing about film had to take a backseat. However, film is something that I will always love to talk about, and to write about, and I have decided to dust off this old blog and get things going again. Expect reviews, (unasked for) opinion and discussion in the very near future. I’m excited!

LFF REVIEW: Serena

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A movie is a tangled mass of hundreds of variables. Even those that seem like a sure bet- acclaimed source material, tried-and-tested pairing of A-list actors, Oscar-winning director- can end up being an utter disappointment. In the curious case of Serena, a film riddled with problems, signs of trouble arose when it appeared that no distributor was willing to touch it. Production on Serena finished in 2012; yet it limped along for nearly two years, unseen, before finally clawing its way into the London Film Festival. This is what sparked my curiosity- how could a period drama, once tipped for awards-season success, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper- not be snapped up right away? What could have gone so horribly wrong?

The interesting thing to note with Serena is that it’s not a complete disaster- it has its problems, sure, but I still found it to be, at least for some of that bloated runtime, an engaging romantic drama. Lawrence’s titular performance, while not her best work, is still convincing, if slightly patchy. It is Cooper who turns in wooden, uncharacteristically lazy work. The pair still have the chemistry that worked so well in Silver Linings Playlist, but some of that sharpness has been lost along the way.

It is hard to like, or even pity, any of the characters we meet in Serena’s depression-era logging camp. Serena herself is complex, outspoken, charismatic- your typical Jennifer Lawrence character reincarnated into the early 1930s. She is an orphan, after losing her entire family in a terrible accident. She is cool, with her bleached tresses and icy gaze, and Cooper’s George Pemberton tells her that he wants to marry her on their first meeting. This film tries so hard to make Serena intriguing that ultimately the audience loses all interest, or in the case of the audience at LFF, burst into laughter. That’s right, some moments in Serena are so unintentionally ridiculous that the audience, on several occasions, couldn’t help but laugh.

The film’s frequent use of ham-fisted metaphors is another problem to attribute to the script. Serena is likened to a white horse, then an eagle. Then a wildcat. Serena exhausts itself by trying to be profound when all it really needed was to find a rhythm. The editing and the script are disjointed, rushed in places, stretched out in others. Serena is a film that cannot decide what it wants to be. In parts, I felt truly gripped by Serena. Lawrence was at least partially captivating, and the plot, although a slow burn, was periodically thrilling. Here lies Serena’s fatal problem- with so many promising variables, it is not enough to be only periodically thrilling, and frequently exasperating. Serena is as inconsistent as they come.

MINI-REVIEW: The Double

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Last weekend, I sat down with my family and watched The Double. Often, our views on films comprise a spectrum of various opinions, ranging from “that was AMAZING” to “that was so BORING” (for those who are interested, the former is usually exclaimed by yours truly, the latter by my stony-faced older sister). In the case of The Double, my mother and sister had left the room by the time the end credits rolled, leaving my father, perplexed, and myself, completely absorbed.

So, given this wide range of reactions, I will give you two different viewpoints on The Double. For those who, like myself, loved it, The Double is a nerve-racking, claustrophobic and atmospheric drama with excellent (really excellent) cinematography and strong central performances. For those who, like the entirety of my family, absolutely hated it, The Double was an uninteresting, uneventful and unfunny waste of a very long 90 minutes. Much like the film’s central doppelgangers, The Double can leave its viewers in two minds.

What I loved most about The Double was how it looked. I don’t adhere to the view that a film that places style over substance is a bad film- not that The Double is lacking in substance. Evidence of The Double’s beauty can be found on FilmGrab. DoP Erik Wilson’s use of light is absolutely stunning. The Double is a film of beiges, yellows and blues, and it is through this use of light and colour that Wilson and Ayoade create a quiet and claustrophobic dystopia in which very bizarre things can happen.

Jesse Eisenberg has made a name for himself as Hollywood’s resident smart-arse through performances in The Social Network and Now You See Me. For Eisenberg, The Double is a gift. His two roles allow him to explore the familiar and break new ground. He can be snarky and scathing as James Simon, yet meek and cowardly as Simon James. Without his strong central performances, The Double would have lost much of is effectiveness. Mia Wasikowska is radiant as Hannah, whom Simon pines over from afar, one eye to a telescope, as his doppelganger James moves in on her unabashedly. James goes on to terrorize Simon, taking from him everything he’s too cowardly to reach for himself.

Wasikowska is on a terrific streak of late, working with every director from Jim Jarmusch to David Cronenberg. She is understated and nuanced in every role she undertakes, and The Double is no exception. Her performance has a subtlety to it which adds a balance to Eisenberg’s polarised near-charicatures.

In The Double, Ayoade has once again proven himself to be an accomplished director with a keen eye for visuals and a real talent for storytelling. I, for one, cannot wait to see what he does next.