1 star (out of four)
The entertaining, life-in-a-holding-pattern wisdom of “Frances Ha” curdles into something abrasive and phony in “Mistress America,” the second collaboration between star/co-writer Greta Gerwig and co-writer/co-director Noah Baumbach. What is he doing trying to make a farce? Watch “Damsels in Distress” (which also starred Gerwig) for a much, much, much better example of what’s attempted in “Mistress America,” which perpetuates the clueless pretentiousness it sometimes seeks to indict.
Gerwig plays Brooke, an extremely irritating person who thinks she’s self-aware but of course doesn’t realize how callously and selfishly she deals with people. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman at Barnard who soon will be Brooke’s stepsister, looks up to the 30-year-old aspiring restaurateur, but one of the many failures of “Mistress America” is that it never makes us see Brooke through Tracy’s eyes. The former is always just an unpleasant person to be around, and the admiration she receives couldn’t be less convincing or more frustrating.
It’s not that movie characters have to be likable. Around this time at Sundance 2014 I saw Jason Schwartzman as the obnoxious title character in “Listen Up Philip,” but that very well acted film is funny and pointed about the literary world it presents. The poorly acted “Mistress America” feels like an unintentional self-parody of what people can’t stand about New York-set dramas in which the only thing anyone wants is to be a writer or some other creative type.
What makes this all go down like a glass of rocks is the unnatural, awkward rhythm Baumbach
establishes, making the dialogue fly at hyper-speed as if this were David Fincher stuffing Aaron Sorkin’s words into two hours for “The Social Network.” Not even close. The only thing I liked about the self-congratulatory “Mistress America” is that it runs only 80-some minutes, and ended not a second too soon.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Before evaluating documentarian Alex Gibney’s (“The Armstrong Lie”) look at Scientology, it’s worth considering how challenging it can be to understand any beliefs that are different from your own, even if they don’t involve galactic overlords.
It’s also worth acknowledging that as compelling as it is to see vivid anecdotal evidence of the controversial organization’s sinister practices—who takes on the IRS and wins?!—it’s arguably more valuable to consider who joins this world, and how thousands remain despite reports of torture and intimidation. Gibney’s proven that he’s unafraid to go after big-time subjects (“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”), but he also again winds up with limited opportunity to really dive into the more veiled side of his subject. Most of the film’s talking heads are ex-members. What personality type joins Scientology, and if, as “Going Clear” seems to suggest, they are vulnerable people becoming victims to manipulation and brainwashing, why Scientology and not something else?
Gibney fails to address this, and a late-movie note about the accumulating power of the religion—by the way, it’s also worth considering how to define “religion,” as Scientology had to fight for that designation for tax purposes—doesn’t reconcile how declining numbers and bad PR can still lead to influence just because Scientology leader David Miscavige (who in his younger days sometimes kinda looked like Seth Meyers) has purchased property around the world. Though what “Going Clear” does very effectively in adapting Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name is identifying founder L. Ron Hubbard as a calculating, deceptive, ex-sci-fi-writer huckster who somehow converted a legion of followers, including stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and then used their own personal information against them. Billion year contracts? Planetary origins based on space planes? Um, to each their own. And Gibney also should have acknowledged that Scientology is hardly the only religion that seeks to garner money from its members and sometimes engages in questionable practices.
While there’s no denying the chilling implications of the film and this organization, it’s hard not to wonder about the many threads “Going Clear” leaves untouched. On a related note: “The Master” is sensational.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Is there anything new to be done in movies about unexpected pregnancy, which seem to come along as often as superheroes and sequels? (An exaggeration, of course, but you get the point.)
With “Unexpected,” Chicago filmmaker Kris Swanberg (wife of Joe) answers that question in the affirmative, though it’s a somewhat soft, quiet yes. Already stressed about losing her job when her Englewood school closes at the end of the year, CPS science teacher Samantha (Cobie Smulders) exclaims “[Bleep]!” when she learns that she’s pregnant. She and her boyfriend, John (Evanston native Anders Holm of “Workaholics”), quickly get engaged and married with an urgency that doesn’t really convince. (Also, why wasn’t Samantha taking birth control?) Then she discovers that Jasmine (Gail Bean), a student with a 3.8 GPA and hopes to attend college, is pregnant and considering adjusting those plans. On the plus side, it’s a friend to accompany Samantha to pre-natal yoga, but she’s concerned about teenager nonetheless.
Swanberg does a nice job establishing Jasmine’s family’s financial situation, and the movie’s best scenes deal with different expectations and flawed communication between Samantha and John regarding her post-baby career plans. He says he thinks being a stay-at-home mom will give her a nice break from working. Her perfect response: “You think that staying home with an infant is a break?”
If only the movie felt as full as that moment, or several instances of characters doing things (Samantha feeling sad at a pep rally and later inventing a method for fastening pants while pregnant; a student accidentally hitting herself in the face while standing to acknowledge her college acceptance during an assembly) that make them feel like real people. But Swanberg isn’t particularly attentive to the actual fears and lessons of the pregnancy process, leaving Samantha and John’s relationship a bit under-examined--though it’s more fully realized than the unfinished look at Jasmine’s relationship with her baby’s father. And while it would by no means be easy to incorporate a discussion of violence, it’s notable that the filmmaker avoids any acknowledgement of that aspect of life in Englewood.
Yet even if “Unexpected” doesn’t have a knockout performance like “Obvious Child,” Sundance 2014’s great movie about unexpected pregnancy, the intimacy of its relationships and sense of scale mostly work in favor of a story about decisions and compromises. By the way, there aren’t a lot of Chicago spots mentioned, though Hopleaf gets a name check, and there’s an early shot of the Western Ave. Blue Line stop with a RedEye box on full display. Would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy that.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Like the waves of the ocean its characters occasionally and semi-fearfully embrace, “The Strongest Man” continually goes in and out, connecting and drifting away. It’s the low-stakes story of a Cuban man named Beef (Robert Lorie), whose life in Miami takes a major hit when his bike is stolen. Not that this has much of an impact; he’s just upset about it. He also struggles to articulate his feelings for Illi (Ashly Burch) and mildly resents his best friend Conan (Paul Chamberlain) for bringing him to the street where the bike was ultimately taken.
Writer-director Kenny Riches has a unique eye for depicting personal relationships and crafting a tone; he refuses to mine laughs from irony, crafting endearing characters and an offbeat story that’s elusive but never mean-spirited. That said, an oddball yoga teacher (Patrick Fugit) doesn’t fit, and it’s one of several ways in which the film’s bizarre, dreamlike elements (monsters?) clash with everyday realities (like Beef’s ignorant, bigoted coworkers on a construction site) and charming details (Beef needing to borrow $1 after giving $1 to a person in need). There’s a certain lyricism in its breeze, depending on which way it’s blowing.
Viewed via screener before the festival
Jake Johnson quotes the best movie ever.
The best pickup line Andrew Bujalski has heard. #Sundance #results
3 stars (out of four)
Call me surprised: The breakout part for Cobie Smulders at Sundance isn’t her lead role in the Chicago-made, just-OK “Unexpected” but as Kat, an intense personal trainer in writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s minor but consistently amusing “Results.”
Whether Kat’s angry or vulnerable—and it’s awesome to see Smulders get furious and profane like this—the actress commands the movie, a strong character to offset a number of more restrained ones. She begins working with a new client named Danny (Kevin Corrigan), who’s recently divorced and has little to do with his riches and no one to do it with. He’s bad at working out and lazy enough to post an ad offering to pay someone $200 to come figure out how to turn the TV on. (The guy who arrives mostly instructs Danny on the on/off button.)
Danny’s also the kind of guy that posts a selfie of himself eating a slice of pizza while shirtless. This is a sad man in need, and his trainer tries to help him. But it turns out she’s missing something too, complicating their relationship as well as Kat’s with her boss/fellow trainer, Trevor (Guy Pearce, who Bujalski says was a teen bodybuilder, FYI), with whom she has a history.
This is the first Bujalski (“Computer Chess,” “Beeswax,” “Mutual Appreciation”) movie I’ve liked, partly because “Results” actually has pacing and a way into a story that actually goes somewhere. The laughs may be small, but sometimes it’s all right for a character-driven comedy to hold your attention and make you smile/chuckle rather than crack up at its wackiness. All of these people have something attainable that they want, but none of them really know how to get it, and they usually focus more on what they don’t have (a different body, money, sex, opportunity or otherwise) rather than what they do. Bujalski injects the truth that having or not having certain things, particularly money or the body you want, sometimes comes from a result of arbitrary elements people don’t decide.
Not every motivation really makes sense here, and “Results” kinda moves in fits and starts. Yet what begins as a study of potentially hopeless self-improvement becomes a funny, appealing look at loneliness and the motivations behind life’s little fixes.
Patrick Wilson, playing another guy who can't resist. #Sundance # zipper
John Cho's tips for politicians thinking of sleeping around. #Sundance #zipper
John Cho quotes a movie he loves. #Sundance #groundhogday #zipper
Richard Dreyfuss' tip for resisting temptation. #Sundance #zipper
Dianna Agron on resisting temptation. #Sundance #zipper
John Cho ponders the future of relationships. #Sundance #zipper
Penelope Mitchell quotes a movie she loves. #Sundance #zipper
Alexandra Breckenridge on scandals involving escort services. #Sundance #zipper