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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Frances Ha, Stories We Tell, and The Place Beyond the Pines

As often happens in the post-Oscar hangover, my blog drops off a little.  Never fear-I'm still here, and I've even seen a few movies worth seeing.  Here are some quick thoughts on 3 recent movies I've seen, all well worth checking out.

Frances Ha

Frances Ha is a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig.  How you feel about Frances Ha will probably come down to how you feel about the actress Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig started in various "mumblecore" movies before coming to prominence in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, where she more than matched her co-star Ben Stiller.  I find Gerwig daffy, genuine, charming, and a totally unique screen presence.  I'm more than happy to follow her in this sort-of-autobiographical movie.

Frances Ha is basically about that time in your 20s when you're trying to find your way into yourself as an adult.  Frances is a dancer who has an intense friendship with her roommate Mickey.  When Mickey moves on to more adult pursuits, Frances feels left behind, and we follow her through various misadventures through Brooklyn, Manhattan, and other locales.  Did I mention it's all in black-and-white, hearkening back to both French New Wave films and Woody Allen's Manhattan?  After Baumbach's caustic former movies (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding), it's really nice to see him breathe and take a gentler approach without losing his wit.

Is this movie weighty or life-changing? No, but it's about a very specific person making her way in the world, and she's a joy to watch.

Grade: A-

Stories We Tell

In her first two directorial features, young Canadian actress Sarah Polley gave almost shockingly mature depictions of passionate and troubled marriages both old and young in, respectively, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, both movies I enjoyed and admired immensely.  In this documentary, Polley turns the camera onto her own troubled family history.

To tell too much of this movie would be to spoil so much of the discovery.  Polley interviews many members of her family, as well as others, to come to essential biological truths about her own past.  As she gets to these truths, however, we notice how many emotional truths are so much more important.

While this is a very specific movie about Polley's own family, it's also about how we tell and remember stories, and who has the right and privilige to tell them.  In the film's final scenes, Polley quietly chooses to put one person's story at the forefront, and not another person's, and that choice is brave, personal, and moving, just like the film.  See it.

Grade: A-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Director Derek Cianfrance made his feature debut with Blue Valentine, one of the best movies of the past few years with masterful performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

In The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance reunites with Gosling for a different type of story.  While Blue Valentine zoomed in on one troubled marriage, Pines follows troubled characters across generations.  If Frances Ha is as light as a feather, The Place Beyond the Pines is a heavy load, where every character's decisions will inevitably have intense and long-lasting repercussions.

The movie is kind of a triptych, with a different character's story taking center stage in each third of the movie.  The best third is certainly the first, where Ryan Gosling stars as a traveling motorcycle stuntman aiming to provide for his son and the mother of his child.  At this point I think its undeniable that Gosling is one of the most talented and charismatic actors of the modern screen.  He does so much that you miss him when he's not the central focus of the movie.  The other sections are good, but not as enthralling as the first third.  All in all, this was a solid and engaging movie worth seeing for its directorial vision and weighty themes. While some parts work better than others, it's a solid piece of craftsmanship the whole way through.

Grade: B

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