Friday, July 17, 2015

The Thwarted Review

Earlier this year, a local startup (which shall *cough, cough* remain nameless) put an advert on craigslist looking for freelance reviewers of various things, including movies.  Though excited by the idea of it, I was pretty depressed at the time and talked myself out of applying to be a film reviewer because, as one does when one is depressed, I thought I sucked and everything sucked and they're going to laugh at me and who the hell did I think I was, believing I could write about anything at all?


I told mom about my brilliant rationalizations (see above), and she got all mom-ish and threatened to be very disappointed in me if I didn't at least try for the gig, so I did.  I put together a review of a movie we had just watched, submitted it, and was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they liked my sample and would like me to go out on my first "assignment".  Turn in a review, they said, and we'll do some edits and then post it. There was pay involved, but so negligible as to just distinguish it from volunteer work. But I wasn't doing it for pay. I was doing it for experience.  I was doing it for art, man. 

Kevin talked me out of going to Denver to review something bonkers playing at one of the Landmark theaters (good call; gotta play to the demographic), so I picked the most nonmainstream movie I could find in a two-county radius and took my notebook and my own personal pep squad, a.k.a. mom.  And goddammit if it didn't feel awesome taking notes during the film and thinking about what I was going to say. I spent a chunk of the weekend deciphering my scribbles from the darkened theater and putting together a review.  It was a challenge, but it also made me feel pure, unadulterated glee.

Anyway, blah, blah, blah, I turn in my review.  A week goes by.  Nothin'.  I e-mail the publisher to check in.  No response.  After a few weeks, I resign myself to knowing this won't go anywhere and realize I have two possible conclusions to draw from it:  (1.) They thought what I wrote was such monstrous rubbish that it didn't even warrant a "thanks but no thanks" message, or (2.) as a new startup, they are disorganized and my review was forgotten, or at least pushed off to the side until it was no longer relevant, perhaps pondered for a millisecond, and then forgotten.  The only clue I have into the mystery is that they have, to date, not posted any movie reviews whatsoever on their website. Call it ego, but I'm going with option 2.

At first I was a little hurt. If they thought it stunk, they could have told me.  I'm a big girl.  I can take it. In fact, I wanted the criticism so I can become a better writer. Time, however, has eased the sting of rejection/being forgotten. But it wasn't all for naught.  I really enjoyed this project, and I realized more than ever that writing is, for me, one of those things that makes the rest of the world fall away.

Here's my movie review below, just in time for, um, its release on DVD.

(P.S.  For some reason, posting this on my blog is a scarier prospect than putting it out there for a town full of strangers to read.  Eep.)

Generations collide with mixed results in While We’re Young

Independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s latest work, While We’re Young, is a dryly funny and poignant study of a hip, mid-forties couple who are struggling with the changes brought about by middle age and their increasing discomfort with their childless marriage.  Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian who has been spinning his wheels for nearly a decade, trying to edit and complete his film, and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) works for her father (Charles Grodin), himself a heavyweight in the documentary world, with whom Josh has a prickly relationship.  Their marriage receives a breath of fresh air after meeting impossibly cool twenty-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) in a film class, and they all begin hanging out after the younger couple heaps praise upon Josh’s little-seen work. 

Josh and Cornelia become enchanted with Jamie and Darby’s live-in-the-moment zest for life. Soon they are shopping for interesting hats, taking hip-hop dance classes (one of the highlights of the movie), and participating in ayahuasca ceremonies together, and as they continue to fall down the hipster rabbit hole they increasingly alienate and perplex close friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz), who’ve just had their first baby and are trying to persuade Josh and Cornelia to do the same.  In one particularly funny scene, Josh gushes over Jamie and Darby’s egalitarian approach to high- and lowbrow art, appreciating Citizen Kane as much as The Goonies.  Fletcher, unimpressed, says, “When did The Goonies become a good movie?”

Their burgeoning friendship with Jamie and Darby injects new life into Josh and Cornelia’s relationship and into their pursuits—even spurring Josh to finish his film—as much as it unearths the midlife crises simmering within.  Ultimately this is a tale about getting older and the wistfulness aging can bring, and this is where the movie’s strength lies.  Baumbach strikes gold when depicting the juxtaposition between Generation X and millennial hipsters, veering into Portlandia territory with Jamie and Darby’s affinity for artisanal ice cream, typewriters, and vinyl, but never becoming mean-spirited.  Threaded into the story is commentary about our relationships with modern technology and the alienation one can feel being childless amongst baby-worshipping peers, which dovetailed nicely with the main theme but were not explored enough to feel satisfying.

Alas, the film goes a bit off the rails in the second half as Jamie enlists Josh, and later Cornelia’s father, to help with his own documentary and his worship of Josh begins more and more to look like strategic maneuvering.  A heavy discussion about ethics and truth in documentary filmmaking ensue, which is not nearly as interesting a storyline, and though Ben Stiller gets to show more of his dramatic range, the denouement doesn’t quite reach the emotional depths that it could have had the story just been about getting older. 

Stiller and Watts do some great work here, as does Adam Driver as the alluring yet insufferable protégé; Amanda Seyfried isn’t let off the bench much except to convey a seething resentment just behind those luminous eyes.  It would have been great to see the friendship between the two women fleshed out a bit more rather than just set up as a backdrop to Jamie and Josh’s bromance. 

Baumbach could be called the spiritual descendant of Woody Allen, tending to focus on New York intellectuals and their neuroses.  Unlike some of his previous films, While We’re Young is relatable and less pretentious.  Unfortunately it has a bit in common with Josh’s sprawling, unfinished opus: it tries to go into too many directions at once rather than sticking with what is, at its core, an interesting story.

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