The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

The Silver Bullet ~ Silence (2016)

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Synopsis: In the 17th century two Jesuit priests face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.

Release Date: December 23, 2016

Thoughts: Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Silence is a late breaking entry into the serious awards season discussion.  Buzzed about for months (years if you count its overall development time) but as yet unseen, you never can really tell where a Scorsese flick will land in the eyes of critics but Silence looks compelling from the outset. Tackling the not super blockbuster themes of Christian oppression in a foreign land, it certainly has the visual hallmarks of a Scorsese film…including a lengthy run time.  Stars Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Adam Driver (Midnight Special) are stars continuing to rise and if you believe early odds, Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) could net a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  We’ve got a few more weeks until Silence roars into view but count on this one to factor heavily in Oscar talk as the year concludes.  

Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Hot on the heels of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes another film where spoilers and too much information will pretty much ruin your enjoyment.  My best advice, dear reader, is to go in to Midnight Special with the least amount of knowledge available.  Even if that means you bookmark this page and come back to it after you see it, I won’t mind because I want you to get the maximum impact out of the newest feature from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

OK…you’re either brave enough to trust in my spoiler-free pledge or you’ve just returned from seeing Midnight Special…either way…thanks for being here!

Let’s start off with what I can divulge, which is that Midnight Special is one of those rare movie-going experiences where the filmmakers are wise enough to not let audiences get too far ahead of the events that transpire.  In fact, don’t be ashamed to admit when the movie starts you have no clue what’s going on…it’s ok…I felt the same way.  Nichols plunges you right into the middle of the cross-country pilgrimage of a father (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Aloha) that turns out to be a trek into the unknown.

Nichols draws on elements from old-school paranoid chase films and Steven Spielberg’s late 70s/early 80s sensibilities to fashion his tale of a boy who may or may not possess special powers that the government wants to exploit and who members of a religious cult in the Texas boondocks use to guide their sermons and instruct their belief system.  Shannon has taken the boy from the cult and roped in his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) to help transport them both to an unnamed location only the boy seems to know.

Picking up the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) and avoiding a curious NSA analyst (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) along the way leads to more unexplained phenomena that keep the military and spiritual disciples in hot pursuit.  Through it all Nichols never tips his hand as to what the outcome will be, throwing in multiple surprise moments that act as nifty curveballs in an already eventful ballgame.

Nichols is making his large studio debut with Midnight Special and it would have been easy to style an easily accessible commercial feature and pick up a swell paycheck.  Instead, Nichols has produced a crowd-pleasing sci-fi drama that’s exciting, entertaining, and downright refreshing in its execution.  Even the ending, which could have gone oh so wrong and still may be hard to swallow for the more jaded flock amongst us, feels just about perfect.

One of the nicest surprises here is Shannon’s sensitive turn as a father willing to protect his son at all costs.  Shannon tends to give me the willies but he’s arguably the least creepy he’s ever been here.  Edgerton continues his run as a dependable presence whether in a supporting role or as the leading man. He’s given a lot of good material here and makes the most out of what could have been a low wattage auxiliary role. Driver is well-cast too, though he tends to come up lemons when he’s asked to play overly nebbish and Dunst nearly outshines them all with her understated and delicate performance that’s believably maternal.  The film revolves almost entirely around Lieberher and he proves again he’s a young actor to watch, infusing every line or wordless moment with a truth that’s hard to fake.

They say the fun is in the journey, not the destination and that’s apropos here.  While the ending to Midnight Special is sure to divide audiences, there’s little denying that the events leading up to it are mighty captivating.  Definitely check this one out.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Crystal Clarke, Pip Anderson, Christina Chong, Miltos Yerolemou

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Hey all you spoiler-phobic Star Wars fans…you’ve come to the right place!  Have no fear, I’m not going to reveal any major plot points or ruin any of the surprises that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) has in store for you.  So I’m going to give you two reviews…one that is as spoiler-free as can be and another that will be slightly more descriptive (but still without any key points you aren’t already aware of).  Are you ready?  OK!

Totally spoiler-free review:

The wait was worth it and Star Wars fans finally have the sequel they’ve been waiting for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  The effects are marvelous, the script tight, and the score by John Williams returns the sound of the series back to its grandly epic origins.  In short, it’s a film that knows where it came from and has a vision for the future.

Now…for some more descriptive musings on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There’s a moment in the silent moments before Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins when my heart started to beat a little faster, my breath started catching a bit.  After all this time, a direct sequel to the original trilogy of the operatic space odyssey created by George Lucas was waiting mere frames away.  The time to hold grudges against the weak prequels vanished when those familiar words came up on screen… “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” and then…the logo, the music, the opening crawl that lays out what’s been going on since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and other creatures great, small, or mechanical.  I gotta admit, I had goosebumps from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

With the Sith destroyed and the Empire fallen, a new enemy has surfaced that threatens the peace the Resistance has tried to bring to the galaxy.  The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire with a new leader (Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a new General (Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, About Time), and a new commander (Kylo Ren, Adam Driver, Frances Ha) strong with the force with ties to Darth Vader.  The First Order is searching for a warrior gone missing, tracking an ace pilot for the Resistance (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) to a planet where he’s meeting with an elder (Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close) who holds a key to the warrior’s whereabouts.

In a nice tip of the hat to the original Star Wars, this important piece of information is hidden within a droid and soon finds itself in the hands of Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), an otherwise ordinary civilian that must travel from her planet via a familiar ship long since left for junk.  Accompanied by defecting Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) before being joined by Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Expendables 3) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), all are thrust into an adventure that hops planets and light years.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd (thereby acquiring the rights to the Star Wars franchise) for a cool $4 billion there was a general discomfort that the House of Mouse wouldn’t do right by the characters.  But Disney has delivered, and delivered in a big way.  The $200-million-dollar film looks amazing with top-notch special effects seamlessly blending with live action to create 135 minutes of thrilling sequence after thrilling sequence.  Not all thrills come from special effects though; just try to stave off the chills of hearing John Williams stirring score or deflect the rousing excitement of Han Solo reuniting with Princess (now General) Leia (a marvelously sanguine Carrie Fisher).  When Ford and Fisher are on screen together the decades absolutely melt away and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams have wisely kept their banter appropriately campy and fun.  Ford in particular looks like he’s having more fun on screen then he’s had in years, reminding us why he’s a movie star.

Speaking of stars, Abrams has impeccably cast the film’s two leads with Ridley being the clear stand-out.  Reminding me of a younger Keira Knightly, Ridley ably handles the range of her arc which puts her in numerous precarious situations.  Boyega, too, is a welcome presence and while early on the actor tries a bit too hard, he’s redeemed by the end once he relaxes into the role.  Both actors bring an energetic vibrancy to the screen, we’ve just met them yet we’re on their side from the beginning.  They mesh nicely with the returning cast members and other new faces (including 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as a kind of next-gen Yoda), making this an easily accessible film for longtime fans or those new to the franchise.

If I had one gripe, it’s a small-ish one and it has to do with the Serkis’ realization of Snoke.  The one effect that comes off as too CGI, I wished that the larger than life baddie was introduced on a more practical level instead of being motion-captured to the high heavens into a shadowy evil from the Dark Side.  Still, it’s a small complaint for a film that’s overwhelmingly enjoyable.

Before seeing this seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, I was planning on re-watching all of the films (which I hadn’t seen in, gulp, nearly a decade) to bone up on the story up until this point.  Time constraints made that impossible and in a way I’m glad that I hadn’t inundated myself with previous installments because it helped me take in The Force Awakens for what it was, the beginning of the next chapter of Star Wars.  And what an impressive beginning it is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas set thirty years after The Return of the Jedi.

Release Date:  December 18, 2015

Thoughts: If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I love a good, old-fashioned teaser trailer.  Lately, a “teaser trailer” has been more along the lines of a 2:30 (or longer) appetizer to share rather than the kind of amuse-bouche executed so skillfully during the late 80s/early 90s.
Blessedly, our first look at the hotly anticipated next chapter in the Star Wars franchise harkens back to those fondly remembered days of yore when brief glimpses whet the whistle of movie audiences everywhere.

Directed by J.J. Abrams (who successfully rebooted another Star franchise with Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness) and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan (continuing his long history with the franchise after scripting The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) it’s an understatement to say that whatever countdown fans have had for a new outer space adventure has officially started now that this satisfying peak has been released.  My only concern as of now is that with Abrams on board it will look similar to the Star Trek films and rely too much on the director’s flare for the, well, solar flare camera work he’s become infamous for.

Grumble grumble quibble quibble…right?  When all is said this, along with Jurassic World, are two of my most anticipated films of 2015.

Movie Review ~ This is Where I Leave You

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I suppose I need to start my review of This Is Where I Leave you by coming clean and saying that I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel on which his screenplay is based and hated it. Filled with endless turns of cliché situations and characters that seemed discarded from NBC’s 2004 pilot season, the book never made a case for its popularity in my mind. Still, based on the cast director Shawn Levy (The Internship) assembled I hoped the film adaptation would be able smooth out some of the book’s trite developments and be that rare unicorn where the movie was better than the book.

Alas, while the film does ultimately fare better than its source material, it remains a painfully laborious affair with no family squabble left un-squawked and no amount of gooey angst left un-squeezed. While Tropper has streamlined his novel for the big screen, he winded up throwing out more than a few interesting elements that provided these characters with what little interest they were sketched with in the first place. Particularly disappointing is the full-scale lobotomy performed on eldest brother Corey Stoll’s (Non-Stop) backstory, robbing the actor and the audience of some meaty insight into why the man is so gruff and glowering.

Returning home to sit shiva (a Jewish mourning period of 7 days where the family receives guests and remembers the deceased) the Altman children come back to the family homestead with baggage both physical and emotional. Cuckolded brother Judd (Jason Bateman, Bad Words) is dealing with his marital woes, unhappy sister Wendy (Tina Fey, Muppets Most Wanted) juggles scampering children and a non-present husband, responsible brother Paul (Stoll) can’t seem to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers) pregnant, and free spirit Phillip (Adam Driver, What If) speeds into town with his older fiancé (Connie Britton, The To Do List) in tow.

Living under the same roof again with their famous child psychiatrist mother (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding) could have made for a much more interesting mix of comedy tinged with pathos but Tropper and Levy hardly let a moment go by without a joke involving Fonda’s silicon-ized breasts, even sacrificing a hugely emotional scene near the end of the film to get in one more boob joke.

It’s time for Bateman to hang up this exasperated character he’s been playing for several decades now. He’s interesting enough of an actor to take some stretch opportunities but he’s returned to this well one too many times. Though he creates some nice sparks with Rose Byrne (Insidious) as his high school sweetheart, the rest of his performance seems flat and workmanlike. Hahn is mysteriously underused here, like Stoll she suffers from Tropper’s slicing up of her story arc…though it must be said I’m glad he removed one particular turn of events that would have had audiences furious. Britton barely makes an impact and while Fonda gets some of the best scenes in the movie, she looks like she’s going through the five stages of Botox as the film progresses.

Driver may be the next big thing but I’m yet to be sold on his charm – still, in his own way he gives the role some needed charisma, however oddly he delivers it. Though it pains me to say it, Fey is the real mistake of the film. She probably should have swapped roles with Hahn because her attempts to dig deep find her in shallow waters that she just isn’t yet capable of navigating.

It doesn’t help that these characters are the kind of gross oversized family unit that only can be displayed on the big screen. My movie companion thought that I missed the point because, as an only child, I may not be as in tune with the family dynamics that exist within a large household. This could be true but my problems lie not with the device but with the execution. Worse, the film introduces these messy people and then dares to provide the tidiest of wrap-ups without earning it. Instead of feeling sympathy for the misery everyone is enduring (of which none is related to the death of the patriarch, by the way) I felt like everyone got what was coming to them in one way or another.

The large ensemble family dramadey has been done so much better before in films like Parenthood – leave this one alone and take another look at that film instead. Not much to see here.

The Silver Bullet ~ This is Where I Leave You

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Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve read Jonathan Tropper’s book that inspired this big screen adaptation and I can’t for the life of me see what would attract such appealing comedic names like Jason Bateman (Bad Words), Tina Fey (Muppets Most Wanted), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), and Kathryn Hahn (We’re The Millers). The novel, transparently written with a movie deal in mind, reminded me of a lackluster mid-season replacement pilot that NBC would have burned off in the dog days of summer. While occasionally funny in a depressing way, I couldn’t get past the workmanlike comedic set-ups and generic character sketches Tropper etched for readers. Here’s hoping director Shawn Levy (The Internship) and a cast that also includes Jane Fonda (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) and Adam Driver (What If) can make something of it all.

Movie Review ~ What If

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Wallace, burned out from a string of failed relationships, forms an instant bond with Chantry, who lives with her longtime boyfriend. Together, they puzzle out what it means if your best friend is also the love of your life.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Oona Chaplin

Director: Michael Dowse

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though I am appreciative that Daniel Radcliffe (The Woman in Black) continues to push himself out of his Harry Potter comfort zone, I’m less inclined to think of him as a romantic leading man…especially after seeing his awkward effort in the daffy rom-com What If. Points for trying, though.

Radcliffe’s off the mark performance isn’t the only thing wrong with What If, an adaptation of the play Toothpaste and Cigars, but it is the most troublesome in comparison. Romantic comedies live and die by their casting and if you don’t believe in one or both of the leads, the film has an uphill battle to climb. Reminding me more than a little of the breezy charm of (500) Days of Summer, What If tries to capture that same tone but only half makes it…succeeding (like Summer) mostly on the strength of its female players.

As is standard, Radcliffe’s Wallace meets cute with artist Chantry (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks) at a party thrown by his friend/her cousin Allan (Adam Driver, Lincoln, with his Salvador Dali face). He’s heartbroken and single, she’s sorta happy and dating (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) yet a friendship blossoms. With a dash of trying to buck the When Harry Met Sally… stereotype that men and women can’t be just friends, Wallace and Chantry somehow make it work…until both are honest with themselves to see that there may be something there.

There’s a good nugget of a film here and I honestly think if Radcliffe and Driver had switched roles the film would have been better for it. Not that I’m a fan of Driver at all, he’s essentially playing the same obnoxious character from Girls, but at least he’d have been able to make Elan Mastai’s script hum along better than Radcliffe’s forced conversational approach.

As it is, Radcliffe is lucky that he’s paired with Kazan. Though I haven’t seen her in much, I was struck by how perfectly cast she was for the role. Showing that flawed and vulnerable doesn’t equate to weak, Kazan makes the character charming and offbeat enough in that twee sort of way that isn’t aggravating but earnestly winsome. She saves the film every chance she gets.

As Chantry’s sister, Megan Park is a nice dose of comedic relief and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) actually convinces us that Driver is appealing as the yin to his yucky yang. Spall gets the raw end of the deal playing the boyfriend with an arc that reads like a laundry list of bad boyfriend clichés (jealous, manipulative, etc)…it’s so much more interesting if the girl isn’t choosing between a louse and a Lancelot, right?

Another thing to note is that though the film has a playful edge as evidenced in a nice opening and closing animated sequence, it’s obsessed with toilet humor in a way that becomes unnerving. With its multiple references to excrement in various forms and textures, I half wondered if the original title wasn’t Everyone Poops.

Best, ahem, digested with an at-home viewing, What If is a pleasant flick to be sure but is unfortunately hampered by a miscast lead, an obnoxious supporting character, and fecal humor more suited for an Adam Sandler film. Will leave you asking “What if this was a better movie?”

Down From the Shelf ~ Frances Ha

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer, Michael Esper, Charlotte d’Amboise, Michael Zegen, Patrick Heusinger

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I love a good indie film like every other nerdy movie fan but there’s a point when you have to draw a line in the sand and separate the good indies from the bad indies and not apologize for your feelings.

Frances Ha is one of those preciously darling films that critics fawned over and film aficionados loved to analyze over their fat free mocha lattes while combing their tiny moustaches…and I find myself wanting to call bullshit on all of them.  For Frances Ha is nothing new, nothing special, and nothing memorable when all is said and done.  It’s actually a very frustrating experience because it’s so mundane and ordinary that I started wondering if all the reviews telling me I had to see this weren’t part of some elaborate scheme to keep me occupied for 86 minutes while thieves bought Kit Kat bars in bulk with my stolen credit card.

Being fair to the film means pointing out that the reason I kept watching it was for the dynamic lead performance of co-writer Greta Gerwig who has become the Parker Posey of her generation after starring in several acclaimed indie features (we’ll just forget that she c0-starred in the Arthur remake, a certified bomb before retreating back to indie village).  It’s Gerwig that kept me from giving up on the film (and her character) and its why the movie winds up with a score higher than it probably deserves.

Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach, Gerwig collaborates with him on the script that sees the titular character bounce from one apartment to another as she struggles to make ends meet in her quest to become a reasonably famous modern dancer/choreographer.  She seems to be on some path…just not the right one or the one of her choosing so she’s constantly rebelling against it.  I find these movies (like the similarly themed Inside Llewyn Davis) wearisome at times because we can all see that the only thing standing in the way of these characters is their own ego and all they need to do is acquiesce to where they are headed and we can all get on with our lives.

But noooo…we need nearly 90 minutes of crisp black and white photography and a host of episodic encounters with the people Frances meets to finally arrive at that destination only to find that the resolution is better than we (or Frances) could have ever imagined.

This being a very low budget film, scenes were shot on the fly, which seems to support my theory that the mantra on the set was ‘absolutely no 2nd takes whatsoever’.  Most of the actors involved can work within that limitation…save for Mickey Sumner as Frances’ best friend.  I’m not sure what Sumner had on Gerwig/Baumbach to get them to cast her in such a pivotal role but she’s completely out of her league…which becomes painfully obvious with each tortuous scene she’s involved with.  Reading her lines like she’s reciting the back of a macaroni and cheese box, Sumner sucks the blessed life out of everything when she’s onscreen.

That leaves talented supporting players like Adam Driver, Michael Esper, Michael Zegen, and Broadway’s Charlotte d’Amboise to pick up the slack and they can only do so much.  The rest is up to Gerwig and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the actress is quite engaging and energizes much of the film with her zeal and zest for life…clueless as she is to how much she’s messing it all up.

At 86 minutes this isn’t something you’ll be checking your watch through, but it’s also nothing that demands your attention either when there are so many other independent features that have the script, performances, and insight to give you better bang for your buck.

The Silver Bullet ~ Frances Ha

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Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Release Date:  May 17, 2013

Thoughts: Is Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig the Parker Posey of this generation?  Gerwig has cut a nice swath for herself in the past few years with indie performances while occasionally appearing in a big-budget studio picture.  Like Posey, she’s adept at playing a range of characters without making them all feel like variations of the same shtick.  I still find that Posey is a more interesting actress overall but Gerwig is absolutely on the right path.  Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach (they also collaborated on the script), Frances Ha is presented as art-house indie through and through with its B&W photography and culturally observant/oblivious dialogue.  I find Baumbach and Gerwig to be hit or miss but applaud them for pushing themselves outside of the box they’ve created for themselves.