large_u1b4fzVmGMg7SChNB5r7rAw8oZAResults is one of the most creative, honest romantic comedies made recently. It follows the story of personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), a driven and determined trainer who also has anger issues that are not quite under her control or even completely acknowledged by her yet. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce) the founder of Power 4 Life, a gym that fashions itself a lifestyle, complete with a philosophy for life, with Trevor at the forefront. Though he fancies himself a guru, Trevor also seems unaware of his character flaws. He believes so deeply in his own Soul 4 Life philosophy, he takes himself seriously to a fault.

Into this mix, arrives Danny (Kevin Corrigan, in a wonderfully tic-filled performance with excellent comedic timing), a New Yorker that has recently moved to Austin, Texas, after inheriting a large sum of money. Danny is an odd character but brutally honest and self-aware –a stark contrast to Trevor. Danny shows up at the gym, and he is unable to articulate clearly what he wants. His life seems to be out of control, and when asked by Trevor what his goals are, he just says, “I just want to be able to take a punch.”

Kat starts to train Danny, which soon becomes painfully awkward. Danny is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin but at least ties to connect with people. He quickly develops an attraction for Kat. Danny’s half-empty mansion and his own life philosophy creates a disconnect between him and Kat, who tries to encourage him during personal training sessions but makes no inroads with him. Coaxing her with a drink and some weed after a session, he steals a kiss. The next day, he finally goes after her, and she goes into a full-on anger fit, to which Danny responds, “This is not making me any less attracted to you.”

Results

Results is the latest feature-length film by Andrew Bujalski. After the trippy existentialist journey into vintage artificial intelligence (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber),  Results brings him back to exploring romance in all its awkward glory through intriguingly flawed characters. While he was known to be at the forefront of the mumblecore movement (An Essential Guide to Mumblecore), which now seems like a passé categorization, the writer/director has grown into an insightful storyteller with characters that resonate because of their failings. Previous films such as Funny Ha Ha (2002), featuring a young woman who stumbles to find meaningful connections in post-collegiate limbo, explored emotional struggles that were verbalized in less than articulate terms. Bujalski soon became more refined. Mutual Appreciation (2005), where an ambivalence about long-term commitment drove the action, still stands as one of his strongest works. It’s a perfect example of this subtle character-driven narrative.

In Results, the action is also driven by each of the characters’ own failings, which provides a sort of meta-narrative of the unspoken motivations that drive the action: confusion and love. While mumblecore was known for its natural acting, it is now clear that Bujalski is exposing something deeper than natural acting, he is showing the complex interplay between action seen, spoken and felt, through a patient eye that finds the humanity in people, even they’re gym rats.

results 3

This character-driven approach stands out in Results, and gives the movie an interesting shape, rather than the formulaic boy-meets-girl device so familiar in Hollywood films. Smulders and Pearce give magnificently modest life to Kat and Trevor. They spar, argue, get mad at each other but otherwise seem incapable of truly expressing what they feel for one another. It is suggested early in the film that they had a fling, although by the time we catch up with them, they seemed to have figured out that their liaison was unprofessional. However, their interactions are marred by that comfortable/uncomfortable dialectic that starts to really make sense the more we learn about the couple.

For a romantic comedy, Results is also very funny in a smart way. Bujalski has created a deep narrative about relationships that is character-driven. Bujalski’s approach is delicate and kind; the funny moments come from the collision of all three characters, as they stumble through articulating their emotions. For instance, when Danny meets Trevor, he notices a poster in his office and reads it out loud, “Fear, excuses, surrender.” Trevor seems perplexed. It turns out the poster was actually blocked by something else that Trevor removes revealing the full poster that reads: “No fear, no excuses, no surrender.” The contrast between the two characters is stark, and it foretells many obtusely comedic moments scattered throughout this subtle, yet powerful, film.

Ana Morgenstern

Results runs 105 minutes and is rated R (for weed use, sex, profanity). It opens in our Miami are on June 12 at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gable campus of the University of Miami. Results has already opened in some cities and is scheduled to open in select cities at later dates. For current playdates, visit this page. All images are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

As film genres go, mumblecore is as independent and obscure a label as it gets. Consider this post a guide to that film movement, which sometimes gets thrown about by the would-be hipster/film connoisseur.

Former SXSW producer Matt Dentler championed many of these films, which all characteristically had conversation-driven plots that often meandered and were not necessarily enunciated as best they could by the mostly amateur actors involved (Hollywood Reporter: How To Speak Mumblecore). It loosely describes some independent films that came about in the mid-2000s. The label, though, is not an accepted genre; filmmakers do not acknowledge it and some film critics hate it. In 2007, Amy Taubin, a member of the New York Critics film circle, famously once stated mumblecore “has had its fifteen minutes.” However, in order to appreciate many of indie cinema’s current working filmmakers, one should not disregard their roots in this oft-maligned but key and even sometimes entertaining moment in independent American cinema.

All these films are dominated by talking. The plots are somewhat simple and acting is natural. Often, actors improvise dialogue. The term “actors” roughly describes the people in the films, as they are not necessarily actors by trade but mutual friends. The cast is then an amalgam of lesser-known people that have some sort of quick shorthand among each other. The films, shot with very small budgets, made the rounds at film festivals. Some were better than others.

It is safe to say that the wave of mumblecore films has ended, leaving a few good films behind and creating a crop of directors that have since created some great films with larger budgets. If anything, one can celebrate the movement as a training ground for the likes of Andrew Bujalski, who, last year, gave us the amazing Computer Chess (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), and the very talented Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in one of the best movies last year, Frances Ha.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

The characters in mumblecore films all seem stuck in a state of arrested development, partly imposed by a lack of economic opportunities but also self-imposed, as these twenty-somethings are marred by self-doubt, fear of commitment and what seems to be a prolonged adolescence. The films in this genre certainly capture the zeitgeist of being young and middle class in early 2000s America, and therefore, the self-conscious, distant, hesitant young characters in mumblecore ring true to life.

This attitude has recently been criticized by people like clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who called for twenty-somethings to reclaim their coming of age rather than continue to postpone it during a recent TED Talk. While Jay is right in stating that the decisions we make early on determine much of our lives, this very idea may be one of the contributing factors to indecisiveness, which is so aptly depicted in many mumblecore movies. Young people bombarded with competing messages on success, relationships and an obsession with being happy all the time boil under these pressures to the point that some may wish to avoid moving forward altogether. To me, it also portrays characters ill-equipped with disappointment-coping mechanisms and faced with too many choices, all of which are loaded with meaning and fate. Mumblecore should therefore be celebrated for its honest depiction of neo-slacker generational malaise that’s all too real in current American society.

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

Although this post does not exhaustively cover all the many movies attributed to this scene, I do wish to offer some highlights. Outlined above are several of the most salient players in the scene. The information in the infographic is not meant to be all-encompassing, rather the works listed pertain to the mumblecore movement. Some of the names and faces will look familiar, as these directors have recently been making great films with bigger budgets and trade actors. The Duplass brothers most notably have broken into mainstream TV with the likes of “The League” and “The Mindy Kaling Project.” Rather than outliving its “15 minutes,” mumblecore was a short-lived movement that— as does adolescence— must come to an end. Below is a list of my favorite films in the genre. All titles titles link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.

Short list: Some mumblecore films to watch

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Mutual Appreciation Official Poster

At the core of this film is a relationship between Lawrence and Ellie. They profess their love to each other, but the camera reveals uneasiness with settling into the relationship. Every awkward pause is long and full of meaning. The writing is smart and witty. Not a date movie but one to watch if you’re interested in the quintessential mumblecore film.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Hannah Takes the Stairs Official Poster

A Joe Swanberg film, Hannah Takes the Stairs follows Hannah and her relationship with men. Hannah falls for her office mates one after another while in a relationship that quickly goes sour. Greta Gerwig’s performance here is a revelation, a sweet characterization of trying to find love while finding yourself.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)

One of the best movies I’ve seen on sibling rivalry, ever. Aptly directed by the Duplass brothers, the “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” is a sort-of “Olympics” developed  by two brothers when they were young. Alas, as it happens with epic childhood battles, the score was never settled, fanning the flames of an already heavy competitiveness into adulthood. The brothers meet again in all their middle-aged glory to try and settle that unresolved score.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

It is the first film attributed to this genre. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is a story about Marnie, a recent college grad who is not quite sure what comes next in her life. She is shy, smart and unsure. There’s a lot of comedy involved, as the film depicts passive-aggressive behavior combined with the unaffected sweetness portrayed by Marnie. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a recent college grad, I highly recommend it.

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

computer_chess_posterA rather cute notion clouds the mystical existential drama of Computer Chess, the new film by Andrew Bujalski. Just before the dawn of personal computers, software programmers from schools like MIT and Cal Tech have gathered at a convention to test programs of computer chess against one another. Bujalski and his longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film with actual technology of the era, a Sony AVC 3260 tube-based camera from the ‘70s (See Grunsky’s blog post on working with the camera). However, the film stands as so much more than a retro-fetishizing of the past. Not only does the cinematography match the era in which the film’s drama unfolds, but it adds a rather preternatural atmosphere to the goings on between man and computer.

With his new film, Bujalski offers a statement on the dilution of the mysteries of the analog and the romanticism surrounding that, lost to a mathematical world that threatens living organically, as computing continues to confine humanity while defining life experiences with every new, so-called “advance.” Indeed, this film stands as a work revealing an evolved, sensitive filmmaker, beyond the narcissistic world of mumblecore, a film scene of the early 2000s Bujalski helped define with early works like Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005).

It all begins with setting atmosphere for Bujalski, and he uses the vintage filmmaking technology and all its quirks to his advantage. Along with the ghosting from lights burning too long on the mostly black and white images, the movie also has a flat sound quality to its audio track. computer-chess-3There are also explorations in archaic spilt-screen effects and some witty supers on teletype during the conference’s opening statements. The film’s slower pace also harkens to another time, if not the early 1980s, then certainly a sort of indie-film aesthetic defined by an elder Austin indie film pioneer: Richard Linklater. Characters talk over one another and during one marijuana-induced scene, reveal various ideas and fantasies about exploring what was then the very new world of artificial intelligence, from cold war concerns to existential entanglements.

The characters spend most of their time in a hotel of appropriately vintage quality. From the lamps, to the cheap dressers inside the hotel rooms, the film’s production designer, Michael Bricker, deserves extra acknowledgement. computer-chess-1He seems to have put great effort  into recreating “vintage banal,” as well as costume designer Colin Wilkes, who gets everything from the corduroy suits to the raggedy Polos and T-shirts that right sort of disheveled that would never pass in today’s hipster geek scene.

These superficial aspects aside, the film soon rises above its gimmick to enter a brilliant territory beyond nostalgia. It opens with a roaming camera as the nerds gather, awkwardly commenting to the camera. During an opening panel with the stars of this conference, the camera pans to the audience. One guy quietly but sternly shakes his head in disagreement while someone else nods off. It all seems rather candid and indulgent in its own “vintageness,” as if looking to create a faux document of a lost era. However, it soon becomes apparent that Computer Chess would like to offer much more than this. With hindsight perspective from the 21st century, the filmmakers choose to focus on whether humanity did the right thing to venture into this wormhole of artificial intelligence that now seems to rule our lives.

At the heart of the film, though by no means the film’s only level of drama, is Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), two young programmers who have an easy chemistry in their mutually awkward attraction to one another that never moves beyond brief glances. computer_chessMore pressing matters are at hand, as Peter appears more concerned about his team’s computer, TSAR, which only seems to follow disastrous moves against other computers. However, when Peter asks Shelly to play the computer, TSAR seems to make an effort. This quirk inspires Peter to think the computer was acting out and has an innate desire to play the game with a human.

This projection of a personality on TSAR by the sensitive Peter while he fails to connect with Shelly is just the tip of the iceberg. Bujalski spreads his ideas among more than this couple. There is the cocky human chess master Pat Henderson (played with deadpan bravado by Boston film critic Gerald Peary) boiling over with repressed anger at the notion of irrelevance. Then there’s the enigmatic “independent programmer” Michael Pappageorge (a charmingly quirky Myles Paige), Andrew-Bujalski_web1who may be programming in Sanskrit and seems to be haunted by fluffy cats. Acting as Peter’s foil and grounded mentor, family man Tom Schoesser (real-life University of Chicago computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann indulging in the film’s soberest character), would never dream of anthropomorphizing computers, as he casually but determinedly pioneers this new virtual cyberscape.

Even outside this group, other layers of the film’s concerns come to light. The fact that the tournament shares a conference room with an “encounter group” concerned with communal “rebirthing” experiences has a resonance far beyond the wink implied at the past. This is only another way humanity struggles to find the transcendental experience in a world that continues to work to rationalize existence while inching further away from the powers of mysticism.

One of the ways Bujalski maintains the mystical, beyond several strange scenes that seem downright Lynchian best left to surprise, is his inspired choices for the film’s soundtrack, specifically, his unearthing of the obscure folk singer Collie Ryan. The film features rather gorgeous musical interludes of Ryan rambling on guitar and warbling poetic lyrics that have a loop-like quality. computer-chess-2Her voice twitters like Kate Bush as she sings about nature and man’s futile role to do nothing but learn to flow with it. During one particularly powerful moment, she sings, “And the rain comes down easy/But the minds of men take longer,” against a montage featuring droplets of rain nourishing some small leaves, while the programmers hustle to cover up and protect their equipment from the casual wrath of nature. It’s raw, organic and positively stirring in an understated way.

Ryan comes from obscurity and is far from the mass media viral hype of today’s popular music artist who needs technology to achieve any sort of relevance in contemporary pop culture, from social media marketing to the computer programs used to “co-write” songs. Ryan came to the project because Bujalski wrote her a letter, of all things. She was an obscurity during an era that had long grown past folk music, in the early ‘70s. Bujalski only learned of her through a friend (reference). It’s a rather organic and pure word-of-mouth experience far from Google filters and Spotify suggestions, and it resonates against the images and concerns of the film as far as adding yet another layer to the montage.

With Computer Chess, Bujalski presents the beginning of an end. It chronicles the dawn of the digital world from the analog. But it’s so much more. This is the awakening of another consciousness, outside humanity’s. These are people toying with the latch of Pandora ’s Box.

Hans Morgenstern

Computer Chess runs  92 minutes and is not rated (language and sexuality). It opens in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Sept. 14, which provided a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. Nationwide, the film might already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon, see full screening dates (that’s a hotlink). Yoga Records has provided a bandcamp page to stream the entire soundtrack for free here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)