IFC Films

Backcountry (2014, Adam MacDonald)

Backcountry is all about this young couple who need a weekend in the woods to realize why they’re wrong for each other. She’s a lawyer who’s interested in playing on her smartphone with her friends. The movie’s from 2014; maybe it’s supposed to be Candy Crush? Is 2014 too early for Instagram?

Missy Peregrym plays the female lead.

Her Romeo is Jeff Roop, who acts like he once had an acting coach who really believed in him but it turns out was dead wrong about Roop’s abilities. Like, Peregrym’s flat. There’s a moment, late in the film, when she’s supposed to be on the brink of collapse, run through more than she ever thought she could survive, and she’s sort of scowl-peering like she’s trying to see what director MacDonald’s telling her to do. It’s even worse because we know by that time in the film… MacDonald (hopefully) isn’t giving his actors any direction.

The script he gets them to perform is bad enough.

Roop is a failed landscaper or something. He’s maybe going to get a friend of his to sell him a share in his successful landscaping firm or something. But he lives off Peregrym, obviously.

They’re going up to a provincial park–Backcountry isn’t ashamed of its Canadianity (I mean, it’s got “Da Vinci” Nicolas Campbell cameoing and it tries to pretend very American Eric Balfour is Irish)—but they still don’t draw too much attention to it. They never mention Toronto, which I vaguely recall was always the eighties giveaway.

Now, MacDonald’s got a problem with perspective. Almost throughout. But he maybe gets some first act forgiveness because most of it is him doing these rote montage sequences. The beginning is a bunch of shots of the car driving out of civilization into the wild—the Backcountry. Neither Roop or Peregrym’s likable during their car trip (it’s scary to think they’re supposed to be) and once they get to the park, we find out Roop’s got something special planned for their trip.

He’s very obviously going to propose.

Very obviously.

To the point it’s almost a surprise Peregrym isn’t supposed to know about it and just have ignored it while playing Candy Crush, which is what MacDonald thinks lawyers do. I mean. Sure, but she’s supposed to be a movie lawyer. She doesn’t seem lawyerly enough for “Night Court.”

Because she’s bad. It’s bad. Backcountry’s bad.

I mean, are the gore effects good?

Sure. MacDonald doesn’t know how to direct them—or anything else—Christian Bielz doesn’t know how to light them (though he’s better than expected during daylight scenes, nighttime no), and editor Dev Singh doesn’t know how to cut them. The editing is the least competent part of Backcountry but you can tell it’s MacDonald’s idea. Singh clearly had terrible footage to work with.

Vince Nudo’s score, which is kind of an eighties synth thing but restrained (Tangerine Dream meets Vangelis), isn’t exactly good or even interesting but it’s peculiar in a not bad way.

And peculiar in a not bad way is something special for Backcountry, which is otherwise entirely unremarkable in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adam MacDonald; director of photography, Christian Bielz; edited by Dev Singh; music by Vince Nudo; production designer, Pierre Bonhomme; costume designer, Ginger Martini; produced by Thomas Michael; released by IFC Films.

Starring Jeff Roop (Alex), Missy Peregrym (Jenn), Nicholas Campbell (Ranger), and Eric Balfour (Brad).


Frances Ha (2012, Noam Baumbach)

Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.

The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.

Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.

The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.

Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.

Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.

And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.

Truly awesome soundtrack too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; director of photography, Sam Levy; edited by Jennifer Lame; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Baumbach, Scott Rudin, and Lila Yacoub; released by IFC Films.

Starring Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Zegen (Benji), Adam Driver (Lev), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch), and Charlotte d’Amboise (Colleen).


The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005, Rebecca Miller)

So… what happened?

Sometime in the first four months of this year, I proclaimed Rebecca Miller the best new filmmaker since… shit, I don’t know, Wes Anderson or somebody. Sure, Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is the last great filmmaker. Or P.T. One of them, just not Paul W.S. Anyway, this conclusion about Miller was based on Personal Velocity.

I talk a lot–if not at The Stop Button, then in personal conversation–about artists shooting their wad. When they’re done, in other words. There are famous non-wad-shooters like Woody Allen, John Carpenter, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Stanley Kubrick and on and on and on. It looks a lot like an Owen Wilson-less Wes Anderson does not produce a wad… Anyway, Rebecca Miller appears to have shot her wad with Personal Velocity.

It’s not that all of Jack and Rose is bad. It’s not. Not all of it. Miller’s reliance on Bob Dylan songs, bad. Miller’s shot composition, excellent. Her dialogue and some of the scenes, also excellent. It’s just that it’s too long for her. I should have known after I read Personal Velocity, the book….

Anyway, there were four good stories in Personal Velocity, the book. Miller put three of them in the movie. The long stories in the book were painful and failed.

Kind of like Jack and Rose. I’m not as upset about the film as I thought I’d be, just because now I realize I should have seen it coming. I should have seen the long narrative as her undoing. Miller’s greatest potential appears to be in doing small stories, like a TV show. I can see her doing a really good TV show. But I’m not holding my breath for her next film.

I hope she proves me wrong.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Lemore Syvan; released by IFC Films.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Jack Slavin), Camilla Belle (Rose Slavin), Catherine Keener (Kathleen), Paul Dano (Thaddius), Ryan McDonald (Rodney), Jena Malone (Red Berry), Jason Lee (Gray) and Beau Bridges (Marty Rance).


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