“Frances Ha”: Finding a place of her own

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“Frances Ha” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:26, four stars out of four.

“How much longer?” Frances’ mother shouts through the locked bathroom door as Frances (Greta Gerwig) floats in the bathtub, unwilling or unable to move.

It’s a question that Frances asks herself, over and over, in Noah Baumbach’s beautifully funny ode to twentysomething uncertainty, a universe of unmade beds and house parties, casual hookups and platonic roommates. In addition to giving a sparkling and deeply-realized performance as Frances, Gerwig also co-wrote the film with Baumbach (the two are now partners in real life as well). The result is a film that bears all of the zingy dialogue and sharp characterizations of Baumbach’s other films (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg”) but with more of a generosity of spirit towards its characters.

It’s also one of the most insightful movies about female friendship to come along in quite a while. The movie opens with a glorious black-and-white montage of Frances and her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The pair are inseparable (“We’re like the same person but with different hair,” Greta tells people), and we see shots of the pair scampering through the streets, having philosophical talks on fire escapes, cackling at house parties. It’s like the dream every Midwestern liberal arts student has about what life in Brooklyn would be like after graduation.

But every dream ends, and in New York, real estate is usually the culprit. Sophie gets the chance to live in Tribeca, and takes it. The two vow to stay close, but a gulf slowly widens between them that can’t be spanned by the Williamsburg Bridge. Sophie, in publishing, starts growing up, getting serious with her boyfriend, making new friends.

Frances, meanwhile, is caught in stasis. Her career as a professional dancer has stalled out, and she starts bouncing from apartment to apartment, humiliation to humiliation, watching as Sophie and others slide forward on their moving walkways to adulthood while hers remains closed for repairs.

It’s a familiar arc for Baumbach, heaping self-inflicted punishment upon punishment upon his characters, as we see Frances blather at dinner parties, her self-deprecating monologues becoming less and less entertaining to her audiences. But there’s a lighter touch here, and a poignancy, especially watching Frances and Sophie drift farther away from each other. There’s a deceptively cheery phone conversation late in the film, where Frances is just piling lie on top of lie about how well she’s doing, that’s just so sad compared to how honest and inseparable they had been.

She takes an ill-advised trip overseas which has to be the worst cinematic trip to Paris every committed to film. Conversely, when she goes home to Sacramento for the holidays, we brace ourselves for condescending comedy about life in the suburbs. Instead, it’s a lovely montage of images as Frances reconnects with her loving parents and old friends; her look of longing as she rides up the escalator to her plane back to New York is piercing.

Gerwig is a tremendously acute physical and verbal comedic actress, capturing the mix of grace and clumsiness with which Frances navigates every aspect of her life; we can see her do a beautiful pirouette in the dance studio, then get her ring stuck on her thumb on the subway ride home. She’s an equally lovable and maddening character, and we root for her to clean up the messes she can’t help make.

And it’s that rare film in which the heroine’s happiness or fulfillment doesn’t depend on her finding the right guy or not. A couple of guys move in and out of her life, but they’re largely in the background, and when she seems to finally find the right one, it’s nice, but not a make-or-break thing. She’s already found a place of her own.

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What’s playing in Madison theaters, May 31-June 6, 2013

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For some, summer moviegoing means seeing the big blockbusters, the AC in the theater blasting. I’m all for that, but for me, quintessential summer moviegoing means being outside. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of being a Wisconsinite and being cooped up for so many months. But I have got to see something outdoors, whether it’s a cult classic on the Union Terrace or an avant-garde film on the roof of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. In that spirit, I wrote the cover story for 77 Square this week on the different al fresco movie options in Madison this summer, and the appeal of each.

Here’s the rest of what’s going on in Madison movies this week:

After Earth” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — M. Night Shyamalan needs to write a movie set in an alternate Earth where his post-“Signs” movies are considered his best work. In this one, though, he’s been on a precipitous downward slide in the last decade, and the reviews for this Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi action film aren’t kind. Also, weird that this isn’t in 3D, right?

Now You See Me” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — The trailer for this caper film about bank-robbing magicians didn’t work for me at all, but the cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson) definitely does. It’s certainly something a little different for a summer movie.

Frances Ha” (Sundance) — Everybody’s favorite movie this year seems to be Noah Baumbach’s collaboration with writer-actress Greta Gerwig in this tale of a New York dancer hitting a quarter-life crisis. Supposed to be funny and sharp, and wise about female friendships in a way that movies usually aren’t. Pick of the week.

Not Today” (Point) — A different kind of Christian-audience film, a drama aimed at alerting audiences to the horrors of the sex trafficking trade, as a callow young man traveling abroad tries to save the daughter of a homeless man from being sold into slavery.

“Iddarammayilatho” (Star Cinema) — AMC Theatres seem to have really found a niche by showing films aimed at Indian audiences (sometimes without English subtitles). The strength of that audience is evident this week, as  the theater books a new Bollywood movie and this one, a Telugu-language romance.

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” (Star Cinema) — This is the Bollywood film, a lavish musical about lovers in love and, at 2 hours 48 minutes, rather brisk for Bollywood.

Monday

“Spaceballs” (9 p.m., UW Memorial Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St.) — Mel Brooks’ “Star Wars” spoof isn’t one of his top-tier comedies, but it’s perfect for the Terrace crowd, and the “Alien” sequence with John Hurt always has me on the floor. Free!

Wednesday

Jaws” (1;30 and 6:45 p.m., Sundance) — What’s summer without a nice swim? Sundance kicks off its Summer Classics series with Steven Spielberg’s relentlessly entertaining 1975 film. I wrote an appreciation when it was released on Blu-ray last fall.

“Arrested Development” rejects the money in the banana stand

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I haven’t written about television before on the blog, but I wanted to say a few words about the new “season” of “Arrested Development” on Netflix Instant. Maybe it counts because I write every week about the movies on Netflix in my Instant Gratification column, or it counts because this all seems to be building to an “AD” movie, or, why the heck not.

Anyway, I’ve only seen the first two episodes so far, so I’m in no position to judge how Mitch Hurwitz and crew have executed their vision for this fourth season, seven years after the beloved series was cancelled by FOX. What I want to talk about is that vision they had, and why I think it’s laudable, no matter how well you think they pulled it off.

First off, it feels like a misnomer to call this “Season 4,” any more than you would call a future movie “Season 5.” As you may know, Hurwitz decided to approach the “Arrested Development” universe in a very different way for these 15 episodes. Part of this was driven by the freedom allowed by the Netflix release model, in which all the episodes could be released in one glomp, and he didn’t have to adhere to the rigid 22-minute model of network television. And part of it was driven by the limitations of his cast — most have gone on to successful careers in movies and TV after (and because of) “Arrested Development,” so trying to get the whole ensemble to commit to a full season at the same time was impossible.

So, instead, Hurwitz has made a “Pulp Fiction”-style version of “Arrested Development,” in which each episode follows one of the main characters around through the same massive storyline. The episodes all fit together, so if you see an ostrich show up in Episode 1 (and you do), odds are it will be explained by someone else’s episode later in the season. “Arrested Development” always had complex storylines and callback jokes; this format makes the callbacks an essential feature of the complicated storyline.

Opinions differ widely as to whether this is working or not. I thought the first two episodes, one following Michael (Jason Bateman) in is descent into financial misery, the other following George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor) and his “sweat and squeeze” scheme to get rich.  I laughed; in true “Arrested” fashion, I’ll probably laugh more the second time I watch them.

But, even more than liking them, I appreciate that Hurwitz has tried something different. I think that’s almost noble in an entertainment age that seems built around franchises, and selling back to the audience what it already owns. You see that in films like “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which takes entire scenes and lines from an old “Star Trek” movie and repackages them for a new era. You see that in veteran bands, like the Rolling Stones or U2, who release new music that seems carefully crafted to sound just like their old music. All this rebooting and remaking can make for fine entertainment, but there’s always this nagging sense that we’re being pandered to a little.

In the hype leading up to the release of the “Arrested Development” episodes last Sunday, I was getting a little worried that the show would do that, use Season 4 as basically a victory lap of callbacks and “There’s always money in the banana stand” signifiers that served only to keep the franchises going, make the diehard fans feel clever and satisfied. However successful it ends up being, this season isn’t pandering to the faithful. It assumes that if you liked a show as groundbreaking as “Arrested Development” was on television, you would like to see it continue to break ground.

DVD review: “Life is Sweet: The Criterion Collection”

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When I first moved to Chicago in 1990, I remember seeing two movies that first year at the beautiful Music Box Theatre that changed my 22-year-old idea of what movies could be. The first was “35 Up,” which changed my idea of what documentaries could be. The other was Mike Leigh’s “Life is Sweet,” which showed me a new (to me) way of making dramas.

Leigh’s funny and touching working-class smorgasbord is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week in a new edition from the Criterion Collection. It’s the film that first put Leigh on the map, as he went on to make excellent films like “Another Year” and “Topsy Turvy,” and it has all the hallmarks of a Mike Leigh film, deeply-felt relationships between its characters borne out of months of preparation with the actors, a humane but not sentimental spirit, and an emphasis on small lives, quietly and unquietly lived.

The emphasis here is on a family, both ordinary and extraordinary. Andy (Leigh mainstay Jim Broadbent) is a chef who wants to open his own food truck on the side, while Wendy (Alison Steadman, then Leigh’s wife) teaches dance classes to children. They’re a fun couple — Andy is a dreamer and somewhat absent-minded, but devoted to his family, while Wendy is almost chronically daffy and exuberant. They have two children, twin sisters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Despite looking so much alike that, for much of the first time I saw the movie, I thought I was watching the same actress in a dual role, the two sisters are completely different. Natalie is good-natured and stable, Nicola is a twitching, angry, anxiety-ridden mess. I found her hilarious in 1990; now that I have two daughters of my own, not so much.

The film follows some of the family’s schemes, such as that food truck, or a family friend (Timothy Spall) whose attempt to open a French restaurant ends in disaster. (One thing you notice now is that the foodie dreamers in “Life is Sweet” are merely ahead of their time in 1990 — that food truck would have them lined up around the block today.) But the real heart of the film is that family, as the family members approach Nicola with a mix of caring and exasperation.

The title of the film is presented in a cheery font at the beginning of the film, but its life-affirming nature seems like more of a challenge. Is life sweet? How can two sisters grow up in the exact same circumstances and turn out so different? The key to happiness, the movie suggests, is to find sweetness in the sour as well.

The Criterion edition includes a new gregarious commentary track by Leigh, which he opens by listing all the things his movie is about in alphabetical order (“caring, catering, central heating, chips, chocolate. . .”) as well as an extended 1991 interview with Leigh. There are also five short films that Leigh made for the BBC back in 1975 that show his wry take on working-class interactions in nascent form.

Instant Gratification: “The Intouchables” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

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Sure, I’m watching the new episodes of “Arrested Development” on Netflix like everybody else is. But eventually, we’ll get through them, or at least need a break from binge-watching them. And when that happens, the Instant Gratification column is there!

Pick of the week: “The Intouchables”: My full review is here. Not the Eliot Ness gangster movie “The Untouchables,” but the highest-grossing film in France, a slick and charming comedy-drama about a paralyzed tycoon who hires a street-smart Senegalese man to look after him. It’s high-concept ripe for a Hollywood remake (which is in the works), but it’s a well-acted crowd-pleaser that ultimately earns its emotional payoffs.

Documentary of the week: “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” — My full review is here. Cinematheque first screened this documentary in Madison, a fascinating look at a visual artist who creates cinematic tableaux that look like key frames from movies that were never made, equally informed by David Lynch and Douglas Sirk.

Action movie of the week:Sleepless Night” — My full review is here. This 2012 French action film was a ton of fun at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival, all taking place entirely in a labrynthine nightclub as a desperate man tries to rescue his daughter from a crime boss.

Drama of the week:End of Watch” — A visceral action film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as L.A. rookie cops who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel, David Ayers (“Training Day”) made one of the sleepers of 2012.

Political film of the week:The Revisionaries” — Teachers, parents and others interested by where Wisconsin’s education system is going might want to check out this 2012 documentary, which looks at the war over textbook standards in Texas between creationists and, you know, science.

“The Iceman”: Diary of a cold-blooded killer

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“The Iceman” is now playing at Point and Eastgate Cinemas. R, 1 hour 46 minutes, three stars out of four.

There isn’t a character that Michael Shannon has played that it seems like a good idea to screw with. Even one of his most likable recent characters, the loopy uncle in “Mud,” seemed like trouble.

So it’s something to say that Richard Kuklinski, the hitman Shannon plays in Ariel Vromen’s fact-based crime drama “The Iceman,” is one of his most fearsome characters. The post-title cards say that Kuklinski is thought to have killed over 100 people in the ’70s and ’80s, and in looking into Shannon’s cold, dead eyes, you wonder if that’s lowballing it.

Kuklinski led a double life, both as a busy employee of the mob in New Jersey and as a loving husband and family man. We get a sense of that duality in the movie’s opening scene. In the first, he sweet-talks his future wife (Winona Ryder) on their first date; in the second, he slashes the throat of somebody who insults her in a pool hall.

Once local crime boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) catches wind of Kuklinski’s “aptitude,” he brings him in as a contract killer. The film follows Kuklinski’s 20-year career, shooting, stabbing, poisoning a long list of victims. He approaches every job with a businesslike precision, his face betraying only a slight irritation at the the pleadings of his victims, like he’s remembering he forgot to pay the water bill. When one victim (James Franco in a cameo) prays for God to save him, Kuklinski sneers. “I don’t feel anything,” he says. “God must be busy.”

The case is peppered with good supporting work from actors who we both expect to see in a mob drama (Liotta, Robert Davi) and some we don’t, including David Schwimmer as a sad-mustached, jumpsuit-wearing rival hitman, and Chris Evans (“Captain America”), almost unrecognizable under scraggly facial hair as a freelance hitman who Kuklinski partners with.

Although “The Iceman” has a high body count, Vromen doesn’t wallow in the blood, focusing more on the characters than the violence they do. There’s no honor or nobility in this rogues’ gallery, just a parade of sociopaths and opportunists feeding on the innocent, and eventually each other. I don’t know that we root for Kuklinski to survive them, but we’re undeniably fascinated at his ability to do so.

We know the arc of “The Iceman” from “Goodfellas” and a hundred other mob movies. Things are good for a while, and Kuklinski is able to keep his life compartmentalized. But the syndicate starts to crumble, with the police closing in and mobsters plotting to whack each other before they get whacked first. The pressure starts getting to Kuklinski, most notably when DeMeo shows up at his daughter’s 16th birthday party.

It’s a testament to Shannon’s raw, gritty performance that even though we’ve seen him kill dozens of helpless people up until this point, we still feel for him a little as his family starts to see him for who he really is. Shannon could have gone for a much more showy performance, but he keeps Kuklinski largely reined in, the fury that occasionally ignites in his eyes more than enough to chill us. He’s not a psychopath, he tells himself. He’s a guy doing a job he seems frighteningly well-suited for.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, May 24-30, 2013

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This is the first week where more than one summer blockbuster sequel is duking it out at the box office for those Memorial Day dollars. Who will win?

All week

Fast & Furious 6″ (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — My review is here. Vin, Paul, the Rock and the rest are back in another case of vehicular mayhem. Loud, dumb fun.

The Hangover Part III” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe, Sundance) — While the F&F franchise seemed to hit its stride in “Fast Five,” the “Hangover” seemed creatively exhausted by “Part II.” Maybe that’s why they’ve ditched the “What happened last night?” structure and insisted this will be the last one.

Epic” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — Movies for little kids are few and far between until school gets out, so they’ll have to be satisfied with this all-star fantasy about a girl who gets shrunk down to the land of insects.

The Iceman” (Point, Eastgate) — Michael Shannon looks appropriately menacing as the title character, a mob hitman with hundreds of kills to his credit, in this fact-based thriller.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (Sundance) — My review is here. Mira Nair has made a thoughtful and complex post-9/11 thriller, about a Pakistani man who goes from Wall Street financier to radical Muslim.

Friday

The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (8 p.m., Majestic Theatre) — The very definition of a cult classic, the 1975 musical gets the full treatment here, including appearances by the Velvet Darkness cast in costume and a “virgin sacrifice” before the show. Tickets are $5, which also gets you admission to see the band The Human Aftertaste at 10 p.m., describe as “the only live band and meat canning company in one!”

Monday

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (9 p.m., Memorial Union Terrace) — Even though Steven Spielberg’s enchanting classic just played at Olbrich Park last week as part of the Moonlight Movies series, it’s a fitting kickoff to the Lakeside Terrace “Outta This World” series of outer-space and alien movies. The full schedule is here. Free!