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Jonah’s New York Film Festival Dispatch (Part 1)

Look, I like to think I know the current Hollywood landscape. I keep up with the industry and try to watch as many movies as I can, partially because I love it, and partially so that when I talk about a movie I can know what I’m talking about! But this will always be a losing battle, and there will always be artists whose work I am totally unfamiliar with.

Case in point: Alex Ross Perry, an indie writer/director with a half-dozen feature films to his name. And while you’re probably as unfamiliar with Perry as I was, you likely know his longtime collaborator, Elisabeth Moss, the Emmy-winning star of “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I caught “Her Smell,” Perry’s seventh movie – his third starring Moss – Sunday morning at the New York Film Festival.

“Her Smell” was… alright. The story of a rockstar on the brink of breakdown, Moss (who is magnetic) plays Becky Something, the frontwoman of the all female trio “Say Something.” The band has seen better days – mainly because Becky is a mess. In a non-stop first act, we get the sense of Becky’s situation: she’s recently given birth, her bandmates are getting sick of her, her tour and creative prospects are drying up, and she’s got all manner of substances in her system. In kinetic, longer takes, we see Becky’s undeniable talent as she performs to an adoring crowd (in a downsized venue), with Perry’s camera then taking us through a labyrinth of backstage corridors and spaces.

The director clearly has style to spare: Say Something’s opening performance is filled with murky, lens flared shots and dynamic close-ups. Working again (I learned) with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, there are a lot of gorgeous frames in “Her Smell,” and there’s some real momentum to the movie. If kinetic camerawork and tight close-ups in a grimy world ring a bell, that’s because Williams was also the cinematographer on “Good Time,” Robert Pattison’s intense detour that released last year.

Williams has refined his craft, and one of the side effects of his style is that it plays to the actor. Elisabeth Moss is fantastic as Becky, and wholly commits to the role. Even when she’s borderline nonsensical, Moss somehow sells this character, and combined with Perry’s direction she leaps off the screen. Beyond Moss herself, if the film gets one thing right, it’s the mid-nineties, rockstar atmosphere. The sound design and score help a lot here, packed to the brim with “Eraserhead”-esque ambient noise, the sound blaring out of the Lincoln Center speakers (where, I learned sadly, you are not allowed to eat a doughnut). In the Q&A afterwards, Perry said he told his composer “I just want this score to give people a panic attack.” Mission accomplished, I guess?

However, the sound direction frequently drowns out the dialogue. Then again, a lot of that dialogue isn’t very good (the exception being some of Becky’s lines). I suppose Perry has found an equilibrium here, but that doesn’t solve some of the structural problems that plague “Her Smell.” The film is divided into five scenes/acts, tracking Becky’s fall into her potential healing. This recalls the underrated “Steve Jobs” (a movie that wasn’t perfect but is definitely better than Aaron Sorkin’s next movie, “Molly’s Game”). Watching “Her Smell,” I thought I was crazy seeing the connection with “Jobs”– until Perry said it was an inspiration during the Q&A. Ironically, “Jobs” and “Her Smell” fill in each other’s flaws: one can only wish the former had more atmosphere and energy, while the latter could use some snappier, superior dialogue.

Perry bites off more than his movie can chew, trying to address Becky’s relationships with her parents, ex-boyfriend, daughter, manager, competition, and bandmates. Unfortunately, none are quite done justice. And while the auteur tries to weave broader themes of female solidarity and addiction, they all come off as clunky. By the final act, the script’s attempts to inject tension are trite. At least the film is far funnier than I expected. It’s also too long, a classic case of style over substance. “Her Smell” itself has a lot in common with its subject Becky: an undeniably talented mess – that’s not beyond redemption.

Anyway, then I met Ben Stiller.

I was walking out of Lincoln Center looking for a coffee shop, and I realized I was on Broadway instead of Columbus. I turned down a side street (maybe sixty-seventh street?) and there was Ben Stiller, just talking to his friend near the corner! I think other passers-by saw him as well, but were too polite to interrupt him. Not the case for Jonah! I ambled on over, thanked him for his work, etc.

Ben Stiller couldn’t have been nicer, asking me where I was from and saying he was around for Paul Dano’s movie (so was I!). I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, but I was able to tell him that “I love ‘Walter Mitty’ and ‘Meet the Parents’ and stuff, but my favorite thing you’ve done has got to be when you hosted SNL on Yom Kippur five years ago.” Then two bad Jews took a picture together, and I went on my way.

The rest of my day was pretty quiet until I saw “Wildlife,” starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. Adapted from a Richard Ford novel, “Wildlife” is a portrait of marriage falling apart in the early sixties. Directed by actor Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood,” Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse movie), “Wildlife” is a treat, and I highly recommend the film.

While Dano directed the film, what really caught my eye is that the movie was co-written by Zoe Kazan. Follow me here. Kazan’s biggest role thus far has been playing Emily Gordon in “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani (the real Gordon co-wrote “Big Sick”). But Kazan herself is also a writer, and five years ago penned and starred in the indie gem “Ruby Sparks.” For context, I saw “Ruby Sparks” at the start of the summer and walked away thoroughly impressed (I’d hoped to write about it a few weeks ago but college got in the way). Anyway, who was Kazan’s co-lead in “Ruby Sparks”? Her spouse, now turned director, Paul Dano!

Dano and Kazan are clearly interested in gender dynamics: “Sparks” was a thorough deconstruction of the “sad writer-boi” archetype and the manic pixie dream girl he generates. But instead of focusing on a couple again, in “Wildlife,” Dano and Kazan set their sights on a family.

We see the world through the eyes of Joe (a name chosen by his parents for its plain-ness), a fourteen-year old who has just moved to Montana with his parents Jerry (Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Mulligan). Establishing shots of the normative, nuclear family set the stage for the disintegration that’s about to follow: Jerry loses his job at at a golf course and quickly feels threatened by his wife’s eagerness – and ability – to find work. The wedge in their marriage continues to grow until Jerry decides to leave and join the firefighters combatting a raging wildfire nearby. Things between the couple don’t get better from here.

If “Wildlife” falters at all it’s in that second act, after Jerry leaves and things (almost) start to drag. Dano establishes a quiet-yet-distinct visual language, leaning heavily into blues and greys and shooting on digital to make a movie that looks clear and clean. Yet the cinematography in “Wildlife” always has texture, and Dano crafts a few stunning images.

But the real strength of “Wildlife” is in the performances. This is Gyllenhaal’s best work since “Nocturnal Animals,” and he easily makes Jerry’s predicament sympathetic. After all, the man is trapped in the same system as Jeanette, whether he notices or not. He doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but there’s a moment when Jerry holds his son close and tells him that men can “love each other too” that really works. But the real star of the show here is Mulligan. Backed by a script that gives her a lot to work with, we – alongside Joe – really come to see Jeanette as a full person. Mulligan has tremendous range, never losing the audience as her character makes a few questionable decisions. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t score a nomination come Oscar season – she certainly deserves it.

But going back to Dano and Kazan for a second, one of the most telling moments of the night happened early in the evening. Dano was on stage before the movie started, praising the Festival, and then took the opportunity to bring out a few members of the cast and crew. When it came time to bring out Kazan, Dano easily introduced her as “my partner.” Not “my co-writer,” not “my wife,” but as his partner. It’s a partnership I hope continues, because “Wildlife” is better for it: there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeing this story from the perspective of a young boy, but I genuinely feel that Dano could not have written Mulligan’s character on his own. Dano and Kazan are putting in the work, together, to talk about gender with the right amount of nuance. The quality of “Wildlife” is just further proof.

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