Maggie’s Plan

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Love is messy. An unoriginal observation, perhaps, but certainly right on the mark.

We fall in love. We fall out of love. We struggle to make it work. We mourn its passing. We take it for granted. We celebrate it. We covet it. And, at some point in our lives, we realize that love comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties, though we don’t always get to choose the how’s or why’s or when’s or who’s. Leonard Cohen might have put it best when he sang, “To every heart, every heart, love will come…but like a refugee.”

Maggie’s Plan is all about love:  messy, complicated, grown-up love.

Greta Gerwig’s 30-something Maggie wants a baby. But she wants it on her own terms, on her own timetable, and to her own particular specifications. So Maggie sets off to engineer the little miracle, an effort that is complicated when she falls for married John (Ethan Hawke). Eventually, she decides that she wants John, too. On her own terms. On her own timetable. And to her own particular specifications. Before long, lucky Maggie has gotten exactly what she wanted—the baby, the man, and the life—but then starts to realize that she just might want something else, instead. On her own terms, on her own timetable…you get the idea.

The marketing folks behind Maggie’s Plan have packaged it as a “screwball comedy”, and it most decidedly is not that. Maggie’s machinations might be the stuff of screwball comedy, especially in the film’s second half, but the pace, performances, and tone of the film never actually rise to that screwball pitch. Instead, the film settles into a comfortable, leisurely gait, delivering some laughs, for sure, but at last becoming much more affecting than you ever expect going in.

Writer/director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) has a lot to say about adult love and relationships. The film starts out a bit uneven, the characters clichéd and two-dimensional, but as the film presses forward the characters begin to come into more clear focus and their motivations and reactions become more complex. It may be that writer-Miller was ultimately rescued by director-Miller, whose ability to masterfully conduct her orchestra of actors allows the film to find its way.

Of the three leads at the heart of Maggie’s Plan, Julianne Moore starts off on the shakiest ground. Playing John’s intellectual, ambitious wife, Georgette—broadly drawn as a caricature, outlandish accent and all—Moore quickly pivots away from her early over-the-top take on the character and by the end delivers a fully-realized, three-dimensional performance.

Ditto Ethan Hawke, who—truth be told—is never so effective as when he portrays slacking, emotionally-immature, self-centered dreamers. In that regard, John is tailor-made for the actor: a philandering would-be-novelist who romanticizes his love affair with a never-finished manuscript even as it seduces him into neglect and abandonment of his real-world relationships.

The irresistible force at the center of Maggie’s Plan, however, is the utterly indefatigable Greta Gerwig, into whose orbit the other characters dance and play and come and go like shooting stars. In the six years since her career kick-starter Greenberg, Gerwig has come to define indie-cred and indie-cool. From Lola Versus to Frances Ha to Mistress America and now Maggie’s Plan, Gerwig has cornered the market on the existential angst of going from young adult to actual grown up. In Maggie’s Plan, she is educated, has a good job at the New School in New York, but struggles to achieve a degree of personal happiness to go with her professional success. And she makes a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way.

Despite Gerwig’s natural charm and irresistible charisma, even admitted Gerwig obsessives (and believe me, I know of what I speak) will find Maggie a tad off-putting. She is not a bad person, per se, but her tendency towards manipulation, duplicity, and self-deception—while making her very real, certainly—suggests caution before letting her get too close to your heart. Indeed, only during a handful of disarming moments with her young daughter Lilly does Maggie let her guard down and allow herself instants of genuine joy and love, but those are few and far in between.

Not that John or Georgette are such saints, either. It would seem that the central requirement for occupying a corner of Maggie’s love triangle is total self-centeredness and a lack of self-awareness. In fact, that combination may well have been the recipe for the “screwball comedy” that the marketers imagined.

Instead, though, after a few early bumps in the road and despite a bit of plot silliness here and there, Maggie’s Plan turns out to be an honest, engaging snapshot of yearning, aspiration, heartache, and—though the arrow never quite lands where it is aimed—that lonely refugee love.

Top 10 Films of 2015

With 2015 now officially in the rear view mirror, it turns out to have been a sneaky-good year at the movies. Despite The Force Awakens pretty much sucking all of the oxygen out of the cinema universe this year—even before its mega-debut in December—2015 gave us some quality films throughout the year.

The following Top 10 represents, in no particular order (well, in alphabetical order, in fact), my own personal “best of” list for 2015. Many of these will be found on other critics’ best of lists, and many of them will be awards contenders in the coming months. Some, however, simply struck a nerve with this particular critic and found their way onto the list. If you think there is movie missing that should be on the list, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t get to see it this year…or that it simply didn’t make my cut. That shouldn’t stop you from putting it on your own list, however!

The Big Short

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Corruption. Stupidity. Greed. Co-writer and director Adam McKay posits in The Big Short that it was the confluence of those particular sins that led to the global financial disaster in the first decade of this century; and he presents the lead-up to that meltdown through the stories of three teams of financial professionals who saw it coming and set out to profit from it. For a story that unfolds primarily through phone calls, in Wall Street meeting rooms, and around the analysis of mortgage documents and investment prospectuses, The Big Short bristles with creativity and energy. Not to mention moral outrage. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt headline the cast—with Carell and Bale delivering the most interesting takes on their real-life characters—but this is a movie that succeeds because of the collective. Lead actors and the supporting cast alike rivet from start to finish. There is nothing on Adam McKay’s robust comedy resume (the Anchor Man movies, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and more) to suggest that he could deliver a film of such incisive wit and moral weight, but with The Big Short he may have written and directed the best film of the year.

Ex Machina

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It’s no coincidence that Oscar Isaac appears in three of the films on this particular “best of” list. In 2015, he confidently staked his claim as one of the finest actors of his generation. In Ex Machina, he portrays a reclusive tech genius who just may have produced the world’s first sentient machine. He invites a star employee of his tech empire to his secluded island estate and introduces him to Ava (or is it Eve?), his latest version of sexualized artificial intelligence. Alicia Vikander slyly portrays Eva as Woman.0, and by the end of the movie we hear her roar. Ex Machina is a creepy, slow burn, and it lingers long after the final credits roll.

It Follows

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The most interesting and understated horror movie of the year was It Follows. Part supernatural horror and part surprisingly complex morality tale, It Follows both subverts and validates the genre’s conventions regarding sex, death, and punishment. After a young girl is seduced into a sexual encounter with a mysterious new boyfriend, she finds herself haunted and pursued by an evil demon that inexorably stalks her no matter where she tries to run or hide. She can’t destroy it, and she can’t escape it. Her only hope of surviving is to have sex with another person, which will then pass the curse from her to her partner. What could have been a clumsy, typical teen blood fest is instead, in the hands of writer/director David Robert Mitchell, a masterclass in mounting suspense and hair-raising imagery. Though it rattles off the rails a bit in its closing stages, the difficulties with its resolution are not enough to undermine the style and power woven into the rest of the film.

Love & Mercy

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Love & Mercy alternates back and forth between the two periods in life of Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind The Beach Boys. Paul Dano portrays a younger, faltering Wilson, and John Cusack fills the role of an older, emotionally broken Wilson. The unconventional approach—two different adult actors playing the same character at different points of his life—works in unexpected and riveting ways. After two decades of struggle with debilitating mental illness, drug abuse, and family turmoil, the fragile, dependent Wilson of the 1980’s indeed seems to have been a completely different man than the energetic, dynamic Wilson of the Pet Sounds era. Dano and Cusack famously did not coordinate their takes on Wilson and barely even met before or during the film’s production, and as a result their individual portrayals of the man are crafted and shaded in their own unique ways. And both deliver, as does a stellar Elizabeth Banks in a supporting role. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

Mistress America

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Indie actress-cum-screenwriter Greta Gerwig has emerged in recent years as a truly idiosyncratic cinematic voice, with her latest film, Mistress America, a minor-though-charming addition to her growing and impressive filmography. Mistress America, which Gerwig stars in, co-produced, and co-wrote with director and best beau Noah Baumbach, is an unexpansive meditation on loneliness, narcissism, and the cult of (failed) ambition. And, like much of Gerwig’s most personal work to date, it delights in the struggle of a generation desperate to find its place as it comes to terms with the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood. Gerwig’s cinematic baptism has come at the altar of filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Baumbach himself, and it shows in her scripting of Mistress America. And that’s not a bad thing. Though less self-conscious—but dramatically warmer—than movies like Metropolitan or Damsels in Distress (which Gerwig starred in, as well), Gerwig the writer shares a talky, erudite style with Stillman and Baumbach. But her earthy, human moments are significantly more impactful and resonant. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

A Most Violent Year

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Sidney Lumet was a titan of 1970’s filmmaking, imbuing his films with rich complexity and indelible style. Though his career spanned more than 50 years, in that one decade alone, Lumet gave us such signature films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, among many others. Lumet died in 2011, but director J.C. Chandor seems to have been channeling the great man’s spirit in A Most Violent Year. Technically released (limited) on December 31 of 2014, I’m going to count A Most Violent Year on this list, because it didn’t really hit theaters until the early part of 2015. And it would be a shame not to give it its due. With the look and feel of a 1970’s gangster film but the pacing of a deeply personal drama, the film tells the story of an ambitious Latino immigrant attempting to protect his business, his family, and his honor during the violence of 1981 New York City. Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year never combusts, but it smolders with quiet, restrained intensity in every frame.

Spotlight

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An example of your classic late-year prestige picture, Spotlight checks off all the right boxes to make it a serious Oscar contender: great ensemble cast, important subject, quality script and direction, and pretty much everyone involved putting their best foot forward. Directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight chronicles the months-long quest by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team to draw back the curtain on Boston’s massive clergy-abuse scandal in the early 2000’s. The film functions not only as a scathing indictment of the role of the Catholic church in covering up and perpetuating the abuse, but also as a testament to the importance of a strong, healthy free press in exposing and challenging the wrongdoing of the most powerful institutions in  society.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The story and thematic parallels between this film and the original Star Wars have been much remarked upon in recent weeks and in some quarters roundly criticized, but for the most part, The Force Awakens actually delivers on the year-long hype and decades-long anticipation that ushered in its arrival. “It’s true,” Harrison Ford’s Han Solo assures us at one point. “All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.” That’s how we felt watching Star Wars for the first time nearly 40 years ago, and that’s how this movie makes us feel once again. The Force Awakens is the movie we’ve been waiting for since 1983, and you come away from it reassured of one thing: The Force will be with you. Always. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

Steve Jobs

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Deconstructing Apple co-founder Steve Jobs through an interesting, practically theatrical 3-act structure, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle paint a portrait of a self-righteous, morally fallible genius who is wrong more than he is right. But when he’s right–whoa!–he’s really right. Sorkin’s crackling script, Kate Winslet’s Oscar-worthy second banana, and a host of solid supporting turns (Seth Rogan and Jeff Daniels, among them) take a backseat to Michael Fassbender’s intense, penetrating portrayal of Jobs himself. Fassbender has been putting some riveting work on film the last several years, and here he is alternatively seductive and repugnant. In berating loyal employee Andy Hertzfeld before the launch of the Apple Macintosh computer, Fassbender’s Jobs hisses, “You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.” Without skipping a beat, Hertzfeld replies, “Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” And that’s Steve Jobs in a nutshell.

What We Do in the Shadows

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Released in the United States in early 2015, What We Do in the Shadows succeeds due in large part to its palpable love and appreciation of the horror classics. Its humor may be modern, but its roots and inspiration burrow through more than a century of classic horror cinema. More Young Frankenstein than Scary Movie 5, Shadows’ affectionate take on the horror comedy offers equal parts satire and homage, with dashes of genuine melancholy and dread thrown in for good measure. It’s an instant classic. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

Mistress America

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Who would have guessed that we might start to recognize a distinctive “Greta Gerwig” style of cinema?

Filmic sensibilities are an odd and difficult thing to define, but we know them when we see them. Woody Allen has a distinct sensibility and so does Martin Scorsese…and those two are in no way similar. Some films—whether tied to their namesakes or not—are easily catalogued as Capra-esque or Hitchcock-ean. And pretty much anyone who sees more than one movie a year can spot a Quentin Tarantino movie before the opening credits are done rolling.

But Greta Gerwig?

Indeed, the indie actress-cum-screenwriter has emerged in recent years as an idiosyncratic cinematic voice, with her latest film, Mistress America, a minor-though-charming addition to her growing and impressive filmography.

Mistress America, which Gerwig stars in, co-produced, and co-wrote with director and best beau Noah Baumbach, is an unexpansive meditation on loneliness, narcissism, and the cult of (failed) ambition. And, like much of Gerwig’s most personal work to date, it delights in the struggle of a generation desperate to find its place as it comes to terms with the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood.

Tracy, played with compelling angst by Lola Kirke, is a lonely college freshman, an eager fresh face in New York City. She dozes off in class. The school literary society rejects her. And the boy she’s crushing on finds another girlfriend. Not an auspicious start to the rest of her life. But on a whim she calls up Brooke, her soon-to-be stepsister, who is ten plus years her senior, lives in Times Square, and leads an impulsive and adventurous city life. Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and although the two girls have never met before, they immediately bond…and Tracy’s whole existence transforms from still-life black-and-white to full-motion Technicolor.

Theoretically, this is Tracy’s story, but the movie—like everyone who comes in contact with her—is drawn to and fueled by the ultra-charismatic Brooke.

Gerwig writes and plays Brooke as a narcissistic force of nature: a whirlwind of egocentric observations, insights, schemes, and dreams. She survives on pure brute force of personality, living off of a combination of odd jobs and utilitarian relationships. And despite a nearly clinical case of self-absorption, Brooke appears to be the only one in her orbit who fails to see that—regardless of her magnetism—she is completely and utterly doomed to failure. She fails see it, yes, but you get the sense that deep down she is beginning to suspect it.

Regardless, Brooke is madly in love with Brooke, even though Brooke is the kind of person who would absolutely hate Brooke if she wasn’t actually Brooke. But maybe that’s how we all really feel about ourselves.

Gerwig’s cinematic baptism has come at the altar of filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Baumbach himself, and it shows in her scripting of Mistress America. And that’s not a bad thing. Though less self-conscious—but dramatically warmer—than movies like Metropolitan or Damsels in Distress (which Gerwig starred in, as well), Gerwig the writer shares a talky, erudite style with Stillman and Baumbach. But her earthy, human moments are significantly more impactful and resonant.

When Anna, a forgotten high school classmate, approaches Brooke in a bar and confronts her over an episode of emotional bullying from years gone by, Brooke is bewildered. She dismisses Anna’s condemnations with a casual, callous rebuke, and then later laughs off the incident and catalogues it as a story to share with friends.

Or maybe just a tweet.