Daily Film Thoughts: Dejection, Drugs and Dragons

It’s pretty apparent that my reviewing has become infrequent and sporadic, but polishing a script is taking a lot out of me and all that stuff; you know, life. Hopefully I pick up the reviewing pace when new releases become more and more appealing. But boy has the first quarter of this year been sparse with goodies.

In 2005, Noah Baumbach released a film called The Squid and the Whale – it was lauded for its melancholic outlook on the family dynamic and people in general. In 2007, he released Margot at the Wedding – many considered it a rehashing of his first widely acclaimed film in The Squid and the Whale and was subsequently treated to a backhand across the kisser from critics and cinephiles alike. In 2010, Noah Baumbach is back at it with Greenberg, but rather than attacking the formula that is family, he’s just sticking to the grassroots ideology that people are inherently unlikeable. Is this proving that Baumbach’s imagination is limited? I’d be inclined to agree, but it seems that the artist responsible for this would not because he views his latest feature as a parable of sorts, justifying his protagonist’s miserable existence by not-so subtly insinuating that he is an incarnation of a dog. And while I do agree that Greenberg is a dog, it isn’t a conceit on Baumbach’s terms, it’s just because Greenberg’s a bitch.

Between authorizing letters of annoyance to companies over minute flaws they possess (ie. ‘the reclining feature on one of your seats on a flight I took didn’t work’) and his haphazard carpentry career, Greenberg’s pettiness knows no bounds. There are moments where his unlikeable traits get out of hand and ruins a scene or two, but for the vast majority he’s charming on a level reserved for a sympathetic villain.

Looking at the film in retrospect, it appears as if Noah Baumbach heard someone say “someone has to vouch for the less likable people in the world”, too bad too because he’s a man who refuses to subscribe to the basic elements of storytelling. This makes his difficult characters even more difficult to interpret on a personal level and causes the film to be a more arduous viewing than it could be. However, regardless of his resistance, Baumbach does wind up telling this story within a three-act structure — much to his chagrin, I assume, given the overly peculiar final five minutes in the film and makeshift indie ending — which allots room for interpretation and allows for the film to be far less esoteric; palpable even. It’s as if Baumbach wrote the script, saw a recognizable pattern and went “Oh, goddammit” but was so absorbed with the greatness he’d scribbled (which it would’ve been if not for the following) that he decided to puncture the story with tenuous quirks in aspiring to make Greenberg more distinguishable as a Baumbach film.

Pieced together clumsily are the pathos of Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr – a construction handled almost as maladroitly as Roger handles cunnilingus. One is bitter because of his own mistakes, the other is easily compromised in all walks of life… just because. By viewing Florence in this film, you also view one of the greatest displays in human passiveness ever thought, let alone filmed. It is only because Greta Gerwig imbues the role with quieted empathy and the occasional uncertain smile that makes this least antagonizing antagonist worthwhile and if portrayed by a lesser actress, well lets just say this could have been Baumbach’s second straight critical failure.

By piling these grating and compliant characters on top of one and other, Baumbach is able to create a feature as frustrating as he wants it to be. This winds up being unfavorable because in the end it is only the director’s inability to restrain from shoving these unusual characters and their even more unusual traits down your throat that keeps Greenberg from feeling entirely natural. Or in this case, easy to swallow.

Florence is introduced as the caretaker of the Greenberg family (excluding Roger). Her kindness exploited at every turn, her soft voice afraid to shout, her adorable disposition ready to arouse – you know, the traits people slam Lars von Trier for equipping his female characters with. After the Greenberg family leaves for Vietnam, Roger comes and stays in their house with Florence left to cater to his every whim. From ice cream sandwiches to sex, nonchalance is the name of her game. Perhaps she’s too apathetic to care for on a perennially resonant platform, but caring for her for the duration is hardly strenuous. What is strenuous is interpreting why she is the way she is.

Greenberg attempts to take a crack at deconstructing her psychology, “You’re only using me because you were molested by your dad and you need an older man to fill that void in your life”. “My dad didn’t molest me,” she replies with casual firmness, showing passion within her docility for once. Do we believe her? Of course we do because she’s never lied and seem so sure about her self. So what’s next in understand why she is the way she is? Nothing. All we know of this woman is that she’s easily taken advantage of and is rather chipper about it all at the end of the day. It’s one thing to exacerbate one’s personality, but refusing to justify it is flat-out unprofessional. If Baumbach doesn’t care for his characters enough to explain them, why should we care about them at all? I’m not going to blame you if you walk out of the film with an unenthusiastic temperament.

Only magnifying Baumbach’s supposed arrogance are the myriad of conscious moments that his screenplay so readily provides. Such moments include, but are not limited to: Florence saying to Roger about the dog she’s petting “Sometimes we (Florence and the Greenberg family, excluding Roger) think that he (the dog) is a person”, as well as Greenberg only being able to swim via Doggie Paddle, asking a doctor if he can catch the disease the dog has and so on and so forth. It’s a neat philosophy – that we are, or at least can be, parallel to animals in how we lead our lives – but one not pontificated with respect to viewers.

In the end, Roger hardly changes. His outlook on life alters enough to be acceptable as a hopeful note that this character is ready to grow into someone more compassionate and responsible for himself, but only after the 90 minutes of watching the man refuse to accept change into his life. It would have been more rewarding to see his assumed evolution as opposed to that not-so-tense slapdash climax tossed in near the end as a gateway to a better tomorrow. Early on he’s told that he can’t make fun of himself, but it’s only because he can’t do so that the spontaneous plan near the end falls apart for him. Are our flaws beneficial to our existence? Divulging into these clever quips more may have been what this film needed, but then again Baumbach’s most notable influence on the film is that he truly knows how to over saturate a nice sentiment.

In spite of the exasperating overflow that are Baumbach’s ideas and subsequent execution of said concepts, Greenberg is an appealing feature for unusual reasons. Insightful performances from the ensemble greatly help in putting together this misconstrued story and despite Baumbach’s malign direction, his script escapes great distortion and is unequivocally refreshing. However unsure the film is in being proud of the malcontents in the world or just plain frustrated by them, we are introduced to an array of particular individuals that solicit interest for the duration and then some. The jokes helped, but what would’ve been more beneficial is if our main characters were less enigmatic and more believable; it’s hard to care for what we do not understand and if we do not understand, should we really care? I did… barely, and Baumbach owes his cast great thanks for that one.

Next is a film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time – not because it’s a great film worthy of a perennial existence or because it’s a thoughtful exposition in teenage angst *laughs*, but rather because it’s the most lucid exhibition in exposed jailbait since Traci Lords’ pornographic debut. Leave it up to an Italian (writer/director Floria Sigismondi in this case) to make nudity such an unnatural and unappealing thing.

The Runaways is about a 70s band (called The Runaways) that was composed of Cherie Currie, Joan Jett and a few other misfits that were never popular; nor will be if this film has anything to say about their anonymity as none of theme are characterized well in this  adaptation of Cherie Currie’s autobiographical novel. Seeing as how the film is adapted from the former songstress’ book, it’s clear why nobody behind Ms. Currie in the band is truly shaped into a human, but then this doesn’t explain why Cherie Currie, too, is an individual beyond recognition.

The film is about, you guessed it, a band of naive but renegade souls who are taken advantage of by a megalomaniacal band manager. No, we don’t get insight into that individual Kim Fowley either, superimposing the exponentially aforementioned philosophy that band managers are all wastrels and never to be trusted. In this case you can tack on chauvinistic as well, but you’re still not introduced to anything new to his demeanor. Even Michael Shannon who is usually exciting in each and every role he tackles can’t overcome the brevity of insight he’s meant to shape a character with and thus is reduced to chewing some scenery. And though these are the scenes that are most entertaining, in this sea of tedium, even watching one of the girls get dressed rather than undressed would be a shocking turn of events. As would the cultivation of the film’s tension not being one band member’s diatribe against Cherie Currie for always being the center of attention. At least the film will make you feel clairvoyant with all the ‘called it’ moments it provides for. At least.

What this film does have is a solid soundtrack and two leading performances that you’re bound to respect on some basis despite the inconsistencies in their portrayals. Throughout the film, a romance brews between the teenage Cherie and Joan which results in more ostentatious camera tricks and forced sexiness that watches more like a girl dressing up in big girl clothes rather than respectable sexiness. However in this bath of crudeness lays an emblem of sorts for the actresses – or to be more specific, their performances – in this case.

Dakota Fanning, who plays Cherie, has always been good at crying on cue and hitting a great range of emotional notes, however here she cannot pass off for brooding or malcontented on the most elementary of levels. The opposite is true for Kristin Stewart who plays Joan Jett – she’s had a tendency of being gawked at for forcing tears out of her presumably inert ducts, but does bad rather well. It’s in this regard that the two actresses form their bond; an almost romantic one as together they solicit a refined and perfected performance, while as individual components they’re missing crucial elements to make it all work.

So what are you exposed to in watching this shake’n’bake biography? Nothing you haven’t seen from better films about music – even Amadeus was more risque than this; nothing of insight into the introversion that is teenage angst – even MTV provides more of this on The Hills; and certainly nothing to write home about – well maybe a letter to Penthouse for the naughty and illegal thoughts that sprung to mind while watching this. The Runaways is cinematic equivalent of pouring slime on a mannequin; sure, it may look grotesque on the outside, but anyone with functioning comprehension skills knows that beneath the appearance lays no heart, no brain and perhaps worst of all, no soul.

Last but not least – or rather, last and best – is Dreamworks’ latest in How To Train Your Dragon. As all 3D films have become in the past five months, ‘Dragon’ has sustained great interest for its visual element and has raked in a healthy box office given the two weeks its been released. However, unlike every other 3D film released in that span, this one is actually good.

Set in a society overrun by pesky dragons, a village of vikings and children aspiring to be vikings lays an appetite for violence, fantasy and a frequent allure of slain souls. Houses have to be rebuilt on a weekly basis, livestock runs into short supply if the fending off the dragons goes awry and all awhile the protagonist, a weary youth named Hiccup only wishes to do his father proud. Unfortunately in wishing to capture dragons he destroys plans and is a hindrance on the community.

Of course children’s films begin with easy plots such as these – a kid wanting to do right by his next of kin – and evolve into just as easy narratives – that same kid finds a better way of doing things for his people and is scoffed at *cue tension* – but seldom so well. Yes, Pixar has a strangehold on what we hold dear to our hearts as adults and children alike, but Dreamworks has worked up a dream in their latest. Not only is its visual prowess the nearest to cinematic euphoria displayed this year, but the story itself — despite its rehashing of others — interchanges dulcetness and melancholy so seamlessly that, while it may be too palpable to be revolutionary, it is the human condition materialized into media accessible to all ages. Not an easy thing to do.

However, the film has a tendency to pander to its Santa Claus believing audience a bit too much which diverges from the heart and whimsy that the story provides. The arbitrary “WOO HOOs” amidst tacitly breathtaking flights haunt the potential, holding it back from completely flourishing. And yes, we could all do without the ease in which the story organizes itself with predictable tension and romance, but the directorial duo of Chris Sanders and Dean DuBois play ignorant to all preconceptions of past family friendly films and arouse bliss through every orifice that is the feature.  While it may be a tad frustrating in retrospect, during the film you’re prone to be enveloped in the wist of it all.

Atop this you’ve voicework that doesn’t command your attention which allows the atmosphere to incite the senses more readily and music that only adds to the stimulation of it all. John Powell proves himself one of the most under appreciated in his craft with his sometimes jubilant, sometimes downtrodden exacerbation of the fantastical temperament that is inherently the film; like a cherry on top, but placed in the center as it doesn’t just standout but flows through the veins of it all.

How to Train Your Dragon takes the road least taken to achieve a cosmic aura that exists as our own world does. Sometimes it’s insightful, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, but it’s never false and despite its preexisting narrative, it feels a far cry from convoluted in its contrivance. Pixar, it’s your move.

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