True story: My most memorable Greta Gerwig moment involves Ben Stiller going down on her in Noah Baumbach's 2010 dark comedy, Greenberg. It was an awkward scene not only because of its context in the film (Stiller plays an Aspergian mental case who meets the sweetly naïve Gerwig and essentially mouth rapes her on their first date), but also because I was sitting next to a 12-year-old boy at the time. His mom, who clearly thought she was taking her son to see the latest Stiller yuckfest, was mortified -- though not enough to actually leave. It was weird.
Gerwig made an impression. Her off-kilter resemblance to Elizabeth Shue combined with her indie goddess resume reminded me of a softer version of Parker Posey. Better yet, she was amazing in Greenberg, delivering an effortlessly genuine performance that transcended Baumbach's often-pretentious character study.
Greenberg was annoying because of Greenberg's character. Male angst meets maladjustment. It's something you can already get in spades in real life. With Frances Ha, Baumbach (with Gerwig co-writing and starring) realigns his acerbic sensibilities and in collaborating with Gerwig crafts his most endearing film to date.
Frances (Gerwig) is an apprentice dancer who shares a New York apartment with her nerdy best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, The Borgias). They eat, sleep (platonically) and fantasize together, and their friendship is due to be renewed along with the lease on their tiny Manhattan apartment, causing Frances' boyfriend to dump her when she doesn't want to move in with him.
Frances' loyalty is not repaid when Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger, Black Swan), a straight-laced embodiment of emotional and financial stability. Frances, a slovenly slacker, enjoys no such prospects, moving in with a pair of entitled, rich-kid hipsters (Adam Driver, Girls and Michael Zegen, The Box) renting a room for $1,200 a month in the hopes that she'll get promoted to full-on dancer. When that falls through, Frances is forced to figure out how to live real life on her own two feet.
You Want A Piece Of This? Best friends square off for some hardcore ass- kicking in Frances Ha, now playing.
Of course, adversity (though not destitution) rears its ugly head. Forced into an ever-shifting series of zip codes, Frances decides to abandon her preconceptions of friends and herself and charge a two-day trip to Paris on a misguidedly issued credit card. Because, you know: existentially entitled malaise.
And it also looks glorious. Shot in black and white with long, gorgeously composed takes by cinematographer Sam Levy (Wendy and Lucy), Frances Ha purposefully emulates the look of Allen's Manhattan in all the best ways. Rich gradients of light and dark romantically define the life of our protagonist as she finds herself in emotional and financial danger while never really hitting rock bottom. "Don't call yourself poor," says Benji as Frances wonders how she'll survive when everything seems to fall through. "It's an insult to poor people."
Baumbach and the always-charming Gerwig nail the tone of the film and its gorgeous look, as well as the sense that real life just transpired before your eyes.
Of course Gerwig is perfect. Driver and Zegen, along with Mickey Sumner supply great supporting performances. Josh Hamilton (Margaret) stands out in a pivotal cameo.
That's Frances Ha's biggest strength. It's almost perfectly balanced by its characters and moments that bleed a New Wave aesthetic. Frances is a hero who has to evolve and who is charismatic enough for us to follow through her own indecisions, self-deceptions, hopes and unfulfilled dreams.
This is the feminine, more appealing version of Greenberg. Where Stiller was annoying, Gerwig is endearing. Where Baumbach indulged his worst whims, he's now tempered by someone who can write women. But best of all, Frances Ha takes us effortlessly into the void of 21st-century cynicism and shows us that life, friendship, and optimism are choices.
The best thing about The Purge is that it's not a particularly long movie.
Which is sad for such a neat concept: for one night each year, the law is suspended, and anything goes in the name of national catharsis. It's the kind of stoned idea that pops up at three in the morning and sounds great on the surface. Unfortunately, it feels like not much more thought went into the finished film.
The year is 2022, and America is damn near a utopian society thanks to the "New Founding Fathers" who have implemented The Purge. Crime is almost nonexistent, and unemployment hovers around one percent because on one night, for 12 hours, the law is suspended and anything goes, including murder. This, supposedly, cleanses the soul.
Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) is James Sandin, a family man with a wife, Mary (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones) and two kids, Charlie and Zoe (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane). They live in upper-middle-class, suburban sterility, James being a home security system salesman who has sold his wares to practically everyone else in the neighborhood with the assurance that their homes will be practically impenetrable during the night of chaos.
When the horn sounds, the lockdown begins, sealing everyone safely in for the night. But that veneer is broken when young Charlie, not particularly understanding of why the brutality is necessary, winds up opening the door to a destitute man who is being hunted by a bunch of private school douchebags. Deprived of their prey, they offer the Sandins an ultimatum: give up their quarry -- after all, the Sandins are a part of their same classist species -- or else they will break in and kill everyone.
Of course the Sandins (whose approval of the Purge is symbolized by blue flowers they keep in the yard) are on board, searching their house to find the stowaway and return him to the mob. But when their desperation reveals their own inhumanity, they are forced to question everything they know about their society and themselves.
It's a cool concept that is totally undercut by the writing. Penned and directed by James DeMonaco (Little New York), The Purge toys with concepts and surface ideas that never become fully developed.
There's a quasi-religious overtone to the New Founding Fathers and the idea behind the Purge -- a cleansing of the soul that comes with absolving man's inherently violent nature -- but it never gets any deeper than the exposition describing it. Nor does it make much sense why, after one night, society as a whole feels satiated from its bloodlust. As if human nature has such an easily flipped on-off switch.
There's a subtext of inequality that would also be interesting if the characters were any more than ciphers -- that the reason crime and unemployment are almost nonexistent is due to the well-off destroying the weak and less fortunate, the "takers." But The Purge only alludes to its most interesting ideas and instead forces us to care about the Sandins, who are so shallowly written and dumb that they seem almost like aliens.
Worse, it's boring. Once the angry mob makes its intentions clear, it's up to the Sandins to find the their quarry in their own house, which they seem inexplicably lost in, spending huge amounts of the brief run time sneaking around and getting nowhere. Once the bad guys get in, it doesn't get much better, as they never feel like a real threat (Hawke turns into Rambo anyway) because their leader, Rhys Wakefield (Sanctum) comes off like a grinning buffoon.
Hawke and Headey are fine enough, delivering decent performances that can't overcome their thinly written characters. The whole family feels fake, saying, doing things and reacting to situations in ways that don't resemble how people actually say or do things or react to anything.
The Purge is kind of a shame. There's a cool idea here, but its execution feels like it came from a first draft script. But since it made a mad profit this weekend, there's already a sequel in the works. Let's hope they give it more thought next time.
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