Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) written and directed by Noah Baumbach

 

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To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.

And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.

In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.

This, of course, is purely delusional.

Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)

Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.

In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.

Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, wearing a beard and newsboy cap, films 'The Meyerowitz Stories' in East Village

Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz            Picture by: Christopher Peterson/Splash News    photodesk@splashnews.com

Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch.  (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny  is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.

But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s

Sandler

Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz

son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.

 

The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.

And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.

So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.

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Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is  much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.

 

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing dir. Joss Whedon…another inevitable comparison

Claudio in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

The summer of 2013 began with the release of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and everyone was in a race to compare it with the Robert Redford version from the 1970s. To be truthful, I never cared for Redford as Gatsby, but thought the rest of the cast was spot on. The opposite goes with Baz Luhrman’s film, in which I prefer DiCaprio’s Gatsby to the rest of the cast.

Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby (1974)

Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby (1974)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby 2013

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby (2013)

But we forgot about all that–and rather quickly– before the summer actually began, and now we have a new version of another “classic” work of literature: Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon, which must undoubtedly be compared with the Kenneth Branagh version of 1993.

The story behind Whedon’s project is fun. It was something that he had long wanted to do, and finally his wife suggested that instead of going away on vacation for their 20th-anniversary, they make the film. And they did…entirely in their gorgeous home. Whedon gathered many of the actors who had played in his previous productions, and the first that Hollywood knew about the film was when they announced that photography had been completed. They had wrapped things up in 12 days.

Whedon chose to film in black-and-white which gives the film a stylish patina. And yet, I found it drained some of the emotion from the story. Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are likeable enough, and quite funny at times, but they shine mostly when they are apart…there are few sparks when they are together. Invariably, one has to compare them to Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson–whose fire (both on film and personally) was palpable. And the golden sunlight of Tuscany, the shimmering palette of the entire film, gives Brannagh’s version a much richer patina.

Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedck

Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedck

Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Kenneth Brannagh as Benedick (1993).

Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Kenneth Brannagh as Benedick (1993).

Whedon’s actors all handle the dialog well and naturally, and after a few minutes you might even forget you are listening to Shakespearean English.

In both films, the constabulary are very good–verbal slapstick and mental banana skins. Nathan Fillon’s doltish Dogberry in Whedon’s film is every bit as memorable–and laugh-inducing– as Michael Keaton’s dimwitted portrayal in the 1993 version.

And the performance of Clark Gregg, as Leonato, Hero’s father is likeable and believeable. Much of the audience will quickly forget that he is Agent Phil Coulson of the Avenger’s franchise (also by Joss Whedon).

Clark Gregg as Leonato and Jillian Morgese as Hero

Clark Gregg as Leonato and Jillian Morgese as Hero

However, there are a few choices that Whedon made that I am not so sure about. The character of Conrade, for example, which was played by Richard Clifford in the Brannagh version has now been changed to a female role, played by Riki Lindhome. This in itself is usually not a problem. For instance, in Michael Almareyda’s Hamlet (starring Ethan Hawke), Marcello was changed to Marcella and played by Paula Malcomson. But nothing is changed, the part is minor, and her lines are few. In Whedon’s Much Ado…, the Conrade character is quite sexy and there is even a bit of titillating bed-play between her and Don John (Sean Maher), although the words of the play would not lead us to think so.

There is also a scene that is not in the play–during the opening credits–where Benedick sneaks out of Beatrice’s bed in the early morn. Beatrice lies there feigning sleep, but slyly opening her eyes as he dresses and leaves. We are left with the vision of her wide awake in bed, with eyes that speak of her aloneness. If this scene is supposed to prepare us for the friction between the two when the play proper begins, it fails.

Whedon shares writing credits with William Shakespeare, and, to be honest, he does a very admirable job. He has cut judiciously, and the only time he has changed the language was in Act 2 where he excised an anti-Semitic remark and changed it to a statement about love’s foolishness. The new line flows seamlessly into the original.

In all, I prefer the Brannagh version, but that is not to dismiss Whedon’s, which also I like very much. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is inventive and imaginative and aimed at a whole new audience. The filming is crisp, fresh, and confidant–and quite stylish. Whedon has successfully taken Shakespeare out of the classroom and made it very hip, without destroying the story at all. It is certainly worth viewing…and more than once. If this was his gift for his 20th anniversary, I hope he tackles another Shakespeare title before his 40th anniversary comes around.

Here is the very elegant and engaging trailer:

Poetry on TV: The Song of Lunch by Christopher Reid

Farewell to long lunches
and other boozy pursuits!
Hail to the new age
of the desk potato, …

Sometimes, though, a man needs
to go out on the rampage,
throw conscientious time-keeping
to the winds,
kill a few bottles
and bugger the consequences.

Ah, I too miss those boozy lunches. I worked for more than a decade in an in-house advertising agency, and some of our Friday lunches were both epic and legendary.  But I ultimately left advertising for the more sedate, sober world of academia–or at least the more sedate, sober lunches of academia.

The man who is lamenting the lost tradition of long lunches above is the rather bitter and sarcastic subject of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch. Yet on this particular day he sticks a note on his computer screen saying that he is headed out to lunch and that indeed it is going to be a long one.

Probably, unwisely, he has arranged to meet an ex-lover for lunch at one of their old haunts. He, a copy-editor at a famous publishing house; she, the wife of an extremely successful novelist, living in Paris. The novelist is also the man she left the narrator for.

He isn’t sure what he expects from this rendezvous but little of it goes the way he hopes.

Lunch has never been more poetic, or sexier, or frustrating.  The dance of tension and attraction between the two begins immediately.

There! she says, and smiles
Lips, eyes, eyebrows
and the new lines in her forehead
fill out the harmony.

Here! he replies.

She has just entered with “There” and he counters with “Here.”

He bemoans the fact that “their” restaurant has changed so much in the fifteen year interim: the menu features:

pizzas by the yard.
More pizzas than there should be.
And too much designer pizazz.

He turns it over:
choose the right wine
and have it ready breathing
for when she arrives.

There’s a mid-price Chianti,
which won’t come plump
in tight straw swaddling,

byt will do for auld lang syne.

In fact, it is for the “auld lang syne” that he is here, crumpled by the present, dashed in his literary hopes, and obsessed with a long-gone love.  This lunch is very much not the best idea of his.

But she on the other hand is charming.  Personable, open, interested, determined to enjoy the day.  But he cannot. When she asks about his life he goes on a rant about modern publishing:

Confessions of  Copy Editor ,
chapter 93.
It;s an ordinary day
in a publishing house
of ill repute.

Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy,
and writing-course prose.

In contrast, she is accepting and pleased with her life as:

Me? Oh, the good wife,
and loving mother.
That keeps me occupied.
I’ve no complaints.
And Paris is a fabulous city.
You really should visit.

(He has by the way, visited. Stalked her a while back but lost the nerve to ring the bell when he was at her door.)

Throughout the lunch, he observes her every move. He watches her daub her mouth with a napkin,  slice into her ravioli, ask the waiter for advice. And all of these observations are described in a rich language filled with a keen ache, for he remembers every whorl of her knuckles, every dilation of her pupil, every crinkle of her lips.

To deal with his ache, his confusion, his lust, he drinks.  Far too much.  Much more than she.

She had arrived at the lunch full of good will and charm, but his sarcastic, bitter demeanor pushes her away.

But, it is a narrative poem–it tells a story–so I won’t spoil the ending.

Now, in 2010, the BBC did something extraordinary.  Rather than digging in the vaults of the classics (there is an endless list of Dickens and Austen productions) or dramatizing the latest Scandinavian thriller or Scottish mystery, they decided to do something quite different.  They decided to dramatize a contemporary work of poetry.  And they did it well.

The BBC2’s production of The Song of Lunch–made to celebrate National Poetry Day in Britain– was genius simply in the choice of the actors.  Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  For who can better play a put-upon man, dour and drunken, and rising with lust and regrets better.  I cannot think of anyone else.  And Emma Thompson, literally shines in the role–literally that is. In one scene where Rickman is looking at her through his half empty wine glass she is glimmering.  There is a fresh aura of rightness about her that works in perfect contrast to the curmudgeonly Rickman.

The Song of Lunch is a strange one for me, for I saw the film production before I read the book.  In fact, it was BECAUSE of the dramatization that I got the book. “Making words come alive” is such a cliche, yet in this case it is very much true.  The tiny narrative of Reid’s is served quite well when animated by Rickman and Thompson.

I’ve read the poem several times now, finding something new to enjoy each time.  I You-tubed the BBC production and watched a few scenes, but the BBC came in and took certain “chapters” off, so one loses the continuum.

I do remember those long boozy lunches.  Though I wish at the time I was as observant as Christopher Reid.  His The Song of Lunch is as rich as the carpaccio and pumpkin ravioli that were ordered for appetizers and as heady as the grappa that finished the meal.