ARP IMDBAfter last year’s Listen Up Philip (‘Listen Up Philip’: one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies — a film review), who would have thought writer/director Alex Ross Perry would — just a year later — produce such a startling, tonally different work like the entrancing drama Queen of Earth. Elisabeth Moss once again returns to work with Perry after having such a great moment in his last movie. This time, however, instead of a character who works through her issues with a lover (the titular Philip played by Jason Schwartzman), she plays a woman who succumbs to a sudden sense of profound insecurity. Her character, Catherine, is dealing with two significant losses: the death of her father and a break-up with her boyfriend. She heads off to a lakeside house her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) has invited her to for a week of recovery. With those two relationships ended, the film focuses on the dynamic between these two women who know each other too well for their own good. Let the projection and anxiety commence.

Though Listen Up Philip was driven with a comic tone so keenly established by the film’s outset, Perry has shifted gears at an almost startling level. There is nothing funny in Queen of Earth, notes the 31-year-old filmmaker, speaking via phone from New York City. He says it was a conscious decision inspired by Woody Allen. “That’s why I was so excited about Interiors, which he made right after Annie Hall. I was thinking about how I could follow up Listen Up Philip because it was such a huge, sprawling complete movie, and I look at Interiors and I thought, ‘Well, that’s how you follow up a huge movie that really connects with people and changes the way that people look at your work is make this small miserable chamber piece with no humor and nothing that anyone likes about your last movie, and you just kinda get that going and you just try with something different.'”

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The only thing that isn’t different about this film and Listen Up Philip is returning actress Elizabeth Moss. Perry considers her a friend and says having her sign on involved a simple text message asking if she would like to play the role. “She perceived it as a challenging character, the likes of which she’d never done before, and she was really excited about that, to do something different,” he says. “She’d never really done anything quite so genre suggestive, and she just saw it as a really great character, and I knew if I was lucky enough to get her, then most of the hard work would be done, and no matter what, this film would have a powerful central performance that would carry most of the movie, and that’s the most important thing for a movie, especially a movie like this. It’s just two people sitting around in one location. I knew we needed someone of her acting caliber, and I hoped it would be her, and I was very lucky that she thought that way as well.”

Another, less obvious, carry over is Perry’s regular soundtrack composer Keegan DeWitt, whose abstract, moody music is also a big departure from the jazzy score of Philip. It’s restless, avant-garde quality featuring flutes and bells recalls Ligeti and plays a prominent role in giving the film an obtuse sense of disquiet. Perry says, Keegan came late into the process, after Perry had already begun editing early scenes to a temp score. “He had to look at that and conform his creation around the pre-existing rhythm of the edit,” notes Perry, “which is certainly not usually how that thing is done, but I’m such a fan of his work, and I was so blown away with what he was able to do.”

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In fact, DeWitt worked so quick, his music caught up with the production, and it even had an influence on Perry, to an extent. “I mean, he read the script as early as everybody else,” continues Perry, “and then he’s looking at the dailies, and he’s seeing footage by day four or five of the shoot, and he’s making music while we’re shooting the movie, and then he’s sending us his music while we’re shooting, and we’re listening to some of the music on set. Then on day one of editing, basically the final music is just in there, and the movie takes its shape, takes its form around the essentially finished score, and that makes the music a much more complete part of the finished film.” (You can listen to the entire soundtrack on Spotify)

As for the success of Listen Up Philip, which brought the indie filmmaker wider acclaim and notoriety — at least among cinephiles — he said it never tainted his independent ethos, despite riding a wave of buzz from Sundance to Los Angeles. “There certainly were no offers to do anything,” he reveals. “I was in Los Angeles for three weeks after Sundance with [producer] Joe Swanberg trying to find any offer for Listen Up Philip, which people really liked, and thatqueen poster whole time all he and I did was talk about making this movie. Now, here I am a year later, not a single offer and not a single meeting I had out there turned into anything at that time, except for all the time he and I spent dreaming of this movie, and now here we are talking about it, and it’s been released already. So that stuff is pretty elusive, especially when you’re alone with a strong enough perspective and viewpoint that it can’t just be squeezed into any random box, and yeah, it changed a lot in terms of the audiences that’s going to be interested in what the next project is, which is the best gift of all. I’d rather have that than being hired to direct some script that I don’t really sort of care about.”

Even though Listen Up Philip garnered him a new audience, Perry feels no urge to pander to them. Some may be startled by his shift in tone, but that does not bother the filmmaker. Asked how he felt about audiences who might be disappointed by the change he responded, “I hope so. That was my dream. That was what happened with Interiors from Woody Allen, and that’s what I wanted to really happen here. People are really into it, so I don’t know. I’m sure there are people that are disappointed, but it’s not like Listen Up Philip made $20 million or was nominated for Oscars or anything. Still relatively few people saw it, so I think the pool of people that can be disappointed is quite shallow, as well.”

Perry and I spoke much more in The Miami New Times, a publication I freelance for, about the themes of his films, questions he grapples with in his stories, influences and his filmmaking techniques, which embrace actual film. Jump through the newspaper’s art and culture blog logo below to read that article:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Queen of Earth opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Sept. 4. It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this interview. They also provided all images here, except the portrait of Perry. That came from imdb.com.

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

while-were-young-poster-700x1093“The younger generation — it means retribution, you see. It comes, as if under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”
—Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder

I don’t believe that was one of a series of too many quotes that popped up on a black background in silence at the start of While We’re Young, but it probably best represents the sense of dread the film was trying to capitalize on. In a society that has become so post-cultural and progressive, it gets a little hard to get old, and no one seems more obsessed with transmitting that than writer/director Noah Baumbach (follow my tag for the director on this blog to read reviews for Greenberg and Frances Ha).

For those getting a little tired of Baumbach’s recurring theme of the challenges of growing old and letting go of youth, While We’re Young may disappoint, but it is worth sticking through for a confrontation with reality that is powerful as Greenberg fishing out the unrecognizable dead animal out of a house pool as younger people reveled around him. In While We’re Young, however, the moment feels more grounded, less metaphorical and ultimately, more disturbingly real. Baumbach still has that special touch for capturing moments resonant with revelation without coming across as heavy-handed. It’s a special kind of moment in cinema that few writer/directors can pull off (his hero Eric Rohmer comes to mind).

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After the lengthy Ibsen passage, we meet middle age Gen Xers Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), as they struggle to tell an infant the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” When both forget how the story goes, they begin to argue about their memory of it. Meanwhile, the baby bursts into tears. The implication is that these two are parents, but the child’s cries rattle them. Soon, their friends, the babe’s actual mother (Maria Dizzia) and father (Adam Horovitz — Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys!), arrive to scoop their child up. It’s a cute play on perception and a quick, efficient device to establish these characters, who still haven’t found a way to come to terms with adulthood.

Though all their friends seem to be having children, it soon becomes apparent that Josh and Cornelia are in a mid-life crisis of arrested development. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with one well-received movie under his belt that’s out of print and so old that you can only find it on the secondhand market on VHS. He’s stuck in a rut with his follow-up, now about 10 years in the making and clocking in with a run-time of 10 hours that he cannot seem to pare down. Then he meets a 20-something fan, Jamie (Adam Driver), who melts Josh’s heart by admitting his fandom and saying he spent some stupid price on eBay to obtain an original VHS copy of the movie. They become fast friends.

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Josh finds new vicarious youth in Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and easily pulls Cornelia into hanging out with them. After all, Cornelia is stuck in her own rut. She still works for her father Leslie (Charles Grodin, in remarkable deadpan mode), a legend in documentary cinema who is more active than Josh. While Leslie accumulates awards, Josh struggles to find grant money to continue his work.

Stagnation is a big thing for the middle-aged couple, as Watts — stellar at balancing pathos and humor — reveals her character’s embarrassment about being in her 40s and working for her dad with leaden reserve. It’s a heavy regret, but she has found a way to live with it, yet you can sense her feeling that life has passed her by. At another point in the film she says about having a child, “We missed our chance … I’m fine with that.” There’s a sad acceptance to the statement. Thus, Josh and Cornelia embrace the vicarious opportunity that the millennial couple offers them as if they were salvation incarnate. Darby is an entrepreneur, marketing homemade ice cream featuring incongruous Ben & Jerry’s flavors of her own design. Meanwhile, Jamie aspires to make his own documentary films. The 20-somethings offer a new life. Who needs a baby when you have fully grown children to hang out with?

At first, Josh and Cornelia are delighted by this new breed of human they have discovered: young, prototypical Brooklyn hipsters who have re-purposed the detritus of Gen X and curated it in interesting ways. When Josh and Cornelia, stop into the earthy studio apartment of Jamie and Darby, they are confronted with racks of vinyl records, albeit mostly thrift store throw aways from the likes of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. Cornelia observes, “It’s like their apartment is filled with stuff we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” It’s as though the new generation has co-opted their generation’s popular trash whose only merit is that it is “vintage.” Look, there’s a cassette of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell on the dashboard of Jamie’s old sedan. As any grounded member of Gen X should know, that album was never cool. However, Josh is too smitten to notice these clues of phoniness. When Jamie plays “Eye of the Tiger” to get Josh pumped for a meeting with a possible investor in his film, Josh tells Jamie, “I remember when this song was just considered bad.” But he starts bobbing to it, and adds, “but it’s working.”

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There’s a witty sort of dramatic irony going on here. The idea of sincerity is different for these two. While Josh says he is struggling to make “a film that’s both materialist and intellectual at the same time,” Jamie says he is looking to present “the truth” with his movie, which, as Josh will come to learn, does not necessarily mean being strictly honest in the literal sense. When Jamie volunteers to help Josh with his documentary, Josh will finally come to understand the gulf between them. Finally, he tells Cornelia about Jamie, “It’s all a pose. It’s like he once saw a sincere person, and he’s imitating him all the time!”

Josh is such a dynamically drawn character and Stiller brings an empathetic sincerity to his struggle via yet another richly written part by Baumbach. It’s a shame you cannot say the same about the women, who have issues and complexities of their own. Watts raises many small moments with Cornelia to impressive height, but the character’s standout moment with her friend/nemesis, Darby, happens during a hip-hop dance class, where she gradually finds her groove to awkward effect, played for cheap laughs. Even less fulfilling of a character is Darby whose character is hardly given a chance to transcend her artisanal ice cream flavors. Like Cornelia, it feels as though she is only along for the ride. That these women feel like supporting players in what should be an ensemble film is such a shame, especially considering how terrific the women characters were drawn in Baumbach’s previous movie, Frances Ha, featuring a screenplay he co-wrote with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig.

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But maybe this is Josh’s movie for a reason. The fact that our hero is a filmmaker and male and is even more sympathetic than Stiller’s last role in a Baumbach movie (Greenberg), will make some wonder if Josh is a surrogate for Baumbach (the Internet has theorized might Jamie be a stand-in for director Joe Swanberg? In this radio interview, Baumbach denied this). It also takes a certain sense of self-awareness to pull this kind of movie off. One has to be ready to laugh about oneself, and Baumbach has always been fearless about that. That’s why, when the end finally arrives and Josh finally confronts Jamie, the film offers a brilliant play on perspective. As Josh’s father-in-law becomes accepting of Jamie and his vision of “truth,” Jamie warps into a stranger to Josh. In this resonant penultimate scene, Baumbach reveals how both base slapstick and intellectual wit can work together so brilliantly by playing with audience anticipation and textured characters.

Despite a final scene that feels a bit too tidy, While We’re Young examines the complexity of change from one generation to the next as a vicious cycle that never releases its grip unless you learn to make yourself comfortable in it. After all, the next generation is pursing all of us … “under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”

Hans Morgenstern

While We’re Young runs 97 minutes and is Rated R (there’s cussing. Otherwise, teens can go and see what they have to look forward to at 40). It opened in the South Florida area on April 10 in many theaters. The indie cinema to support is O Cinema Miami Beach, which hosts the film until the end of this week. A24 Films hosted a press screening in Miami back in March for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans 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.)