When I think of the term “white noise,” I think of some noise that just blends in with the rest of the background commotion going on at a given moment. Heck, there are machines that manufacture the sound for those that need it. For Noah Baumbach, one of the world’s best directors, his latest film attempts to tell a big story with his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name; mixing in some timely comparisons to recent pandemics and political agendas, Baumbach’s film, unfortunately, isn’t loud enough and ends up becoming, well, exactly what its title suggests: white noise.
White Noise follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) — a leading professor in an up-and-coming educational program (please catch the sarcasm), Hitler studies — and his family including his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) as they deal with a catastrophic “Airborne Toxic Event” that dominates the news and the world much like a very recent pandemic. In addition to the near extinction event, tensions rise between the Gladneys as Babette has some medication issues and her daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy). This leads down a path that can best be summed up by saying that men are vengeful creatures.
There’s something weirdly entrancing about the world that Baumbach has created. A prime example of this is the supermarket where Jack, along with everyone else in his town, does grocery shopping. It blends this weird fake aesthetic a la the grocery store on Guy’s Grocery Games but also feels like a real store. I know those statements contradicted one another, but you have to see it to believe it. The posters residing outside of the Walter Reade Theater shared this old-school aesthetic and are gorgeous posters.
This grocery store is also where Baumbach works in his metaphors subtly (in addition to his usage of ”Can’t Help Falling in Love”). This isn’t always the case, as will be discussed, but the motif of American consumerism — Jack only buys name brand products while his friend Murray (Don Cheadle) buys the store brand items such as “Pretzel Rods,” which are fitting stored in plain white bags and bold font.
In most other cases, Baumbach’s subtlety only goes as far as the conveyer belts in the supermarket. The film’s central plot revolving around the “Airborne Toxic Event” is a nifty metaphor for the pandemic that we’re still dealing with to some degree. And the film has nothing interesting to say besides calling for attention from its audience as they see images they surely remember (e.g. facemasks, hospitals and shelters being full, the spreading of misinformation).
I know it’s easy to poke fun at conservatives and talk about their spreading of misinformation, but couldn’t this have been done any more gracefully than having the kids of the Gladney family randomly constantly spewing “facts” that you can’t verify while in a movie theater? In fairness, another film I liked that had equal rhetoric, B.J. Novak‘s Vengeance, simplifies its targets to the burlesque extreme. However, in the case of Vengeance, the clowning makes sense because the film never tries to hide the fact that the overall message is that “conservatives are gun-loving morons.” Agree with the message or not, the film never runs from that. White Noise, whether due to the fact it was written many years ago or that Baumbach simply didn’t want to dig in that deep, never attempts to scratch below the surface.
This part of the plot also results in Babette becoming afraid of the outside world. The fearmongering has clearly set in after a while, but for as hard as White Noise tries to make its extinction event as much of a spectacle as the recent pandemic, it never hits that mark. The metaphor hits you over the head like a mallet and it’s really not that the film is speaking of the subject matter too soon, it’s just not done tastefully.
The only time where the pandemic metaphor is used effectively is in the touching existential crisis that the Gladneys face. The couple spends a lot of time worrying about their mortality. This could be due to the fact that Driver and Gerwig’s characters are both reaching an age where their children are going into their teen years right before their eyes and in most cases, that suggests you’re getting older. It’s natural to fear death, but what happens when a near extinction event occurs? While bleak, this is the most humane aspect of the film.
White Noise is a film that’s at its peak when it’s completely unhinged. There’s a dance number towards the end that’s the best of the film by a mile — though the Hitler-Elvis debate gives it a run for its money — and all of the performances are perfectly turned up to 11 — specifically from Driver and Gerwig. It’s moments like these that make the film watchable. The rest, however, is a different story.
Despite the film’s over-the-top and comedic nature, there’s something endearing about the performances of Driver and Gerwig. For one, Driver playing a professor and a father that’s just a little bit dorky was a pleasant change of pace. It’s amazing that Driver, whom I first saw as Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens in middle school, is now one of the most versatile actors working. You also can’t go wrong with Gerwig in her husband’s films, and she gives a very real performance. I actually thought that she was Kristen Wiig in the early parts of the film. Regardless, these two are great. Add Cheadle to the mix and you have an excellent starring trio. Cheadle isn’t given a whole lot in the film, but the scenes and dialogue he shares with Driver are top-notch stuff.
From what I understand, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. I bought a copy in advance of the film but opted to read it afterward when I heard this. And now, days later, I can say that the film does adapt the pages quite faithfully from what I’ve read. The only difference I’ve spotted is the POV change (the book tells it from Jack’s perspective.). Regardless, it perhaps could have punched up the source material a teensy bit. I heard that the third act, or at least the climax, differs from the novel. Even so, the film takes a very conventional route to its end that is then prolonged like a Peter Frampton guitar solo.
To be clear, Baumbach is a wonderful filmmaker with the likes of Frances Ha and Marriage Story to his name. Those two films are so personal and feel real whereas White Noise feels distant. It’s like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which is a fine film on its own but it lacks the authenticity of his previous work and fails to live up to that standard. And sure, White Noise is a dark comedy/satire through and through — as evident in Jack’s inability to speak German as the dean of the Hitler studies program at College on the Hill — but the way it handles its subject matter that goes deeper than that begs the question of whether or not this really is satire, or at least an effective one. I certainly see how DeLillo’s book, assuming this is a faithful page-to-screen adaptation, is easy to translate into any era, but White Noise often feels like a misguided attempt at being relevant. It’s perhaps a tad more subtle than Don’t Look Up, but one is far more entertaining than the other.
And perhaps this is due to the fact that White Noise is the first project in Baumbach’s filmography that isn’t penned by him. The authenticity of his other films could be due to the fact that he’s wielding the pen and can tell the story his way.
All of this is sad to report because White Noise was a film that I was so excited to see that I jumped out of bed and got on a bus by 6:00 a.m. to be one of the first in line at Lincoln Center (I wasn’t even the first in line). After a near-three-hour wait — which is almost as much sleep as I got that night — I was so ready to once again be blown away by Baumbach. Unfortunately, you could really debate if the satire packs any punch at all. Outside of its aesthetics and perfectly overdone performances, White Noise is very little more than exactly what its title implies.
White Noise held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on August 31 and will be released in select theaters on November 25 and available to stream on Netflix on December 30.
The Fabelmans Review | For the Love of Movies
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make the best entry in the “kid who loves movies” subgenre.
It’s funny, it feels as though the “kid who loves movie biopic” trope has become a subgenre of sorts in recent years. I think in my mind, the likes of Belfast — a film that isn’t about a love for cinema — and Hugo — a film about a love for cinema — and Empire of LIght — which seems to be a film about a love for cinema — have overlapped. Sure, I know they are different, but it feels like every filmmaker aspires to make a film loosely based on their life and that really laments the fact they do indeed love cinema. Steven Spielberg’s addition to the genre, The Fabelmans, very well could be the best of them all but is not without its flaws. Do I understand the complete critical acclaim and most calling it a Best Picture shoo-in? I understand it, yes. The Fabelmans is the perfect critical darling about one of cinema’s most influential filmmakers yet it’s like Rolling Stone reviewing a Paul McCartney album. Will they give a negative review to one of the world’s greatest musicians? Hell no. The Fablemans isn’t as bad as McCartney’s worst album, but I also struggle to completely get on board with the notation that this is the best film of the year.
“Movies are a dream, doll — you’ll never forget them,” promises Mitzi (Michelle Williams) in an effort to calm her anxious young son who’s about to enter a movie theater for the first time. As they say, your mother is always right, and after Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in his younger years and Gabrielle LaBelle in his teenage years) is taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Mitzi and Burt (Paul Dano), his fascination with the art of filmmaking intensifies. Like a young child before they can speak, he just has a hard time expressing that. He watches The Greatest Show on Earth and the sequence where a train crashes into a car lingers in his mind well after the reel stops playing. This leads to an obsession until he receives some toy trains for Hannekah and it’s not until he films it that he finds some catharsis.
And Sammy has talent, wouldn’t you know! From his early days of filming his toy trains, he also exhibits a Roger Deakins-like ability to capture images on film. This continues into his formative teenage years, bringing joy and pride to his entire family as they watch the evolution of his craftsmanship at every boy scout meeting.
But like real life, there is a world outside of movies. Sammy’s parents, after initially settling in Phoenix, move to northern California where the Fabelmans are outcasts in the land of giants. Sammy is picked on by a group of jocks and it’s a miserable experience. Add to the fact Sammy holds onto a secret involving his mother and his “uncle” Bennie — who is not really part of the family and is only at family gatherings because he “works for” Burt, according to his mother.
All that critics have talked about are the performances of Williams and LaBelle. They’re both great — especially the former — but why are we overlooking Dano and Francis-DeFord? Considering that most of Dano’s roles consist of him breathing funny and whimpering in his speech, it’s weird to see him in such a humane role. It’s like seeing Tim Roth in films like Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight and then watching him play a screenwriter in Bergman Island. It’s truly remarkable. Francis-DeFord is just adorable as a younger Sammy and I wish we had gotten even more of him before advancing a few years. See the still below to catch a glimpse of the anxiety on his face while watching his mother watch one of his films. If you are close to your mother, you’ve likely had a similar moment at some point.
Williams is the emotional anchor of the film and is great on her own and in her scenes with LaBelle. As her life continues to derail along with her mental stability, Williams adds empathy to the character despite some shitty actions her character commits. Maybe it’s the “mama’s boy” in me but my heart just melted seeing her reactions to Sammy’s films, the pride and joy her son’s hobby — sorry, passion — brought her.
I know that we all love Rogen, but he’s surprisingly good in the film. Don’t fret, his signature laugh makes its way into the film on a handful of occasions, but despite shitty actions much like Mitzi, you can’t completely despise Bennie. Something about Rogen’s aura and connection with the Fabelman kids feels in line with that family friend whom you call your uncle. Bennie’s also the “cool uncle” who overshadows Burt at every point. Whether intentional or not, we all know how it feels to constantly be pushed down by your good friend yet you still can’t give them up.
It’s also great to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood scene-stealer Julia Butters in another role. She plays Reggie Fabelman, one of Sammy’s sisters, and it’s a great way of getting back on track after starring in The Gray Man (which is essentially shooting yourself in the foot). She has quite a turbulent relationship with Sammy and is always there to stick up for her mother when Sammy is being harsh.
Ironically, towards the end of what feels like the end of the film, Burt says to Sammy, “We’ve gone too far into our story to say ‘the end.’” The Fabelmans feels like it has finally reached its natural catharsis and while it always kept my attention up to this point, I felt we had emotionally peaked. Unfortunately for me, the film then proceeds to go on for another 15 minutes to utilize an admittedly great cameo from David Lynch that is equal parts brilliant and unnecessary. This epilogue wasn’t enough to completely sour my thoughts on the film but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth.
My biggest complaint, however, is with one particular bit in the film. Most of the humor in The Fabelmans was fine, but I want to preface this by saying that I think there are some tasteful ways of taking digs at Christians — just look at Honk for Jesus or The Eyes of Tammy Faye — but there’s a bit in The Fabelmans revolving around Sammy’s first girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East) that just didn’t land for me. I’m not posing as a “Holier than thou” Christian — I’m far from a practicing Christian — but there’s a recurring bit revolving around the term “praying” being used as an innuendo for kissing. Sounds harmless enough, right? The issue comes in the actual portrayal of Monica, which is reduced down to a caricature of a “Jesus freak” more than anything else. So yeah, Monica prays, she wishes for the Lord to “come inside her,” but it’s not until Sammy asks the Lord to “come inside him” that they can kiss. Again, I’m not saying Christians should be immune to jokes as they have been for years, but this bit felt weirdly out of place considering the fact that Monica acts relatively normal in any other scene. To her credit, East goes for it all.
There’s an intrinsic magic within the confines of the 150-minute runtime of The Fabelmans and you just know you’re witnessing something special. Spielberg is one of the most influential figures in all of cinema, and while I may not be the world’s biggest Jaws or E.T. fan, this is a filmmaker that brought the Indiana Jones series to life and made my childhood. Perhaps this is why I’m lenient enough to ignore some of the cliches in The Fabelmans. I also found that Spielberg subverts expectations in his own subtle ways. For example, Sammy gets bullied by the jocks — namely Sam Rechner’s character — but Spielberg found a way to subvert expectations in this cliched subplot. It’s not that Spielberg completely flips the expected outcome on its head. Rather, he finds a new route to get the characters to the same endpoint most of these coming-of-age films come to. That final scene between LaBelle and Rechner is admittedly great and this is where I really would have liked the film to commence
While this subgenre of “directors making movies about loving movies” is on the verge of becoming cliche, I think Spielberg’s message of creative expression and doing what you want is valuable. The Fabelmans isn’t perfect, and I fear its reputation will become tainted in the coming months should it be the Oscar front-runner everyone expects. As of now, it’s the perfect Thanksgiving film for you and your family and as vulnerable as a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature will be.
The Fabelmans is playing in select theaters now.
The Wonder Review | Florence Pugh Carries a Film That Leaves You Hungry For More
The film hits Netflix this Friday.
There haven’t been many films with a viewing experience as frustrating as The Wonder, a new film starring one of the world’s finest actors, Florence Pugh. The Wonder is a film that has practically everything going for it from solid performances, amazing behind-the-camera and a plot that sounds interesting on paper, yet, something’s missing. Perhaps due to pacing or runtime issues, it’s truly a wonder (I’ll see myself out) that I didn’t fall asleep during this film.
Opening with a spinning shot in what appears to be a rehearsal space for a stage production, The Wonder quickly brings us back in time as Lib Wright (Pugh), a young nurse, is sent to a small village in Ireland to watch over a young girl who hasn’t eaten in months (four, to be exact).
This girl, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), and her entire family swear on the fact that she has not eaten anything since communion in church four months prior to the events of the film (those thin wafers smack, to be fair). However, one thing leads to another, a journalist gets involved, and above all else, Lib begins having suspicions that this miraculous case is closer to a scam that is well short of a miracle as big as The Second Coming.
But if only it was that easy! Lib tries her best to plead her case to the committee that placed her on this case to no avail. From there, she’s basically gaslit until taking matters fully into her own hands.
There’s no better place to start than the below-the-line work on this film. The cinematography beautifully captures this dreary island in Ireland in an oddly similar fashion to The Banshees of Inisherin. The film also appears to be shot on film — or my stream was buffering that much — and features an ethereal score composed by Matthew Herbert. The set and costume design is simply wonderful. All of the behind-the-scenes work is a large part of why any part of the film works. There’s such simplicity in all of it, but there are qualities that make a film about a girl on an infinite fast seem grounded. The craftwork also goes a long way in making the film feel like a part of the time era and pulling you into it. The film supposedly takes place in 1862, and aside from the opening and closing shot (which ties the opening in a neat bow), there’s no doubt that this film takes place in that time period. It’s truly amazing how great the sets and costumes look; and I love the subtlety of visual cues such as the line of the table, perfectly placed in the center of the frame, lining up perfectly with the line on Lib’s dress. It’s such a small detail that Wes Anderson fans would likely appreciate with all of the perfect symmetry found in his films.
And Pugh is expectedly the standout of the film that does a majority of the hard carrying. However, Kíla (her real-life mother, Elaine Cassidy, plays her mother in the film as well) also holds her in. Specifically, there is a scene where Anna really opens up and shares a traumatic experience with her brother with Lib. While the camera does shift between Anna and Lib throughout the scene, Kíla really delivers a heart-wrenching monologue a la Rebecca Hall in Resurrection. There’s little to no score in the background, so the weight of the scene is really on Kíla’s shoulders; who knocks it out of the park.
This traumatic experience also blows the film’s most intriguing theme wide open. This idea of Christian guilt and the morality of Christian worldviews. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal the contents of Anna’s story. What I will say, however, is that what happens would be considered “unethical” in any religion. But because of the fact that Anna is a girl, there are certain expectations placed and she’s seen as a disappointment as a result. Does someone really deserve to die when they are the victim? This moral conflict that mixes misogyny and religion together is by far the most interesting thing presented in the film. If only it delved deeper into it.
As the film progresses, Anna’s condition worsens — especially after Lib catches on to one potential theory that would explain how Anna can live for all of this time. It’s no secret that it’d take a miracle big enough to feed five thousand to be able to live off of no food for a third of a year, and once Lib begins sniffing around, Anna begins to get worse. As a nurse, what do you do? Generally, your mission is to serve and aid your patient. In Lib’s case, her mission was the watch over Anna with little interference. Strange, right?
The Wonder has an intriguing premise and is well-crafted. Its biggest faults come in the pacing of the film, which makes it a slog to get through it. Pugh and Cassidy are a great pairing and both give good performances, but the film is far from memorable otherwise. Ultimately, the lack of movement in the plot will leave you hungry for more.
The Wonder is in select theaters now and is streaming on Netflix now.
Spirited Review | An Instant Christmas Classic
A festive must watch packed with a star studded cast, gut busting humor and catchy musical numbers.
It’s not very often a brand new Christmas movie becomes an instant classic, but here comes Spirited offering all the festive magic you could wish for and more.
Spirited comes with a wholly fresh and original story despite the infamous material it’s based upon. Stacked with a stellar cast, gut busting jokes and catchy tunes, Spirited is a Christmas movie that deserves a watch every Christmas season.
A musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol, Spirited follows the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrel) who attempts to redeem an unredeemable (Ryan Reynolds).
It’s safe to say that there is no shortage of A Christmas Carol adaptations, from the classic 1951 A Christmas Carol, to Bill Murray’s Scrooged and even one involving the Muppets (my favorite). Spirited decides to take the familiar Charles Dickens tale and turn it on its head, making the film feel completely fresh and original despite the material it’s based upon, and results in an adaptation that is easily among the best.
Delivering a story that is so refreshing, Spirited excels in its own original plot, making each twist and turn feel earned and truly unpredictable. These twists are brilliantly executed, and are undeniably impactful. Forcing audiences jaws to drop to the floor as well as hitting them right in the feels in some very emotional moments that are sure to make audiences tear up.
The comedy is pitch perfect, each joke is hilarious and are expertly executed by the film’s cast. The musical numbers are just as funny as they are lavish, excelling the films comedy. Spirited all in all comes together to deliver one of the funniest Christmas ever.
Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrel are unsurprisingly dynamite on screen. Hilariously bouncing back and forth from each other whilst also hitting on all the emotional moments that will be sure to make you shed a tear or two. When you put two brilliant comedic actors, possibly two of the best in the genre on screen together what else could you expect. Similarly, the rest of the supporting cast is brilliant with Octavia Spencer once again showing the world why she is one of the best in the business.
Spirited offers many catchy songs, of which you will find yourself singing or humming along too long after the film has finished. The musical numbers are big, exciting and infectious, that are excelled by the cast, who all deliver surprisingly brilliant singing voices. I know I will be adding each song to my playlist.
All in all, Spirited is a must see Christmas film that is sure to become an instant classic. Offering a new and genius take on Dickens beloved tale, packed with gut busting humor, catchy musical numbers and a stellar cast.
Spirited release on Apple TV+ this Friday, 18th November.
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