Monthly Archives: December 2014

‘Listen Up Philip’ worth a listen and a look

There’s a moment very early on in Listen Up Philip that indicates the value of Alex Ross Perry’s direction and writing. Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a successful novelist, denies one of his exes the ‘gift’ of seeing his newly-published sophomore effort because she was late for their meeting. When he eviscerates her and storms out of the diner, she and the cook share a knowing, sister-to-sister glance. Thus, Perry’s thesis is born: the strikingly narcissistic Philip is at once entertaining and acidic, but because of his selfishness, the women in his life will always be one step ahead of him.

In a callback to Philip Roth, Perry has created a singularly tart comedy with an equally searing likability factor. This is due partly to the film’s construction. Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) finally allows herself to fall out of love with him just as he starts to become disillusioned with one of his literary idols. Schwartzman’s penchant for delivering Perry’s biting dialogue with unique and bittersweet flare helps us acclimate to Philip’s narcissism right off the bat. He takes a writer’s retreat at the second home of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an older author with a legacy Philip respects almost more than anything else. This vacation becomes a second life for Philip, whom Ike recommends for a position at a nearby university. The absence of Philip in Ashley’s life makes her question everything she once loved about him, even the charm of his boyish, careerist attitude. Moss shines in the role of Ashley, taking full advantage of a twenty-minute stretch of celluloid all about her. The movie sings in this segment, but even in the preceding and following minor notes, it’s an unforgettable character study.

Listen Up Philip is as multi-dimensional and polished as anything I’ve seen this year. Not only that, but it’s easily the funniest movie for adults I’ve seen in a few years. Philip struggles to connect with people because, as he says, he would rather be remembered as a famous author than as a real person. The movie almost becomes a nega-Forrest Gump as it unfolds, showing how he throws a wrench into the lives of everyone he meets, including Ike and his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). But it also takes us deep into his good side when he meets fellow English professor Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), who, after leading a workplace campaign against him, genuinely falls for him.

I would be remiss not to mention that one of the film’s best qualities is its even-handedness, even when it plays around with linear storytelling. For this I have to credit the fourteen-year dynamic duo of cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene.

-George Napper

‘Mr. Turner’ about a tremendous artist, told with tremendous artistry


“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.” -James Whistler

For years, I have not been able to warm to Mike Leigh’s vision of the world. His dramatic vignettes, while hitting varying degrees of poignancy, never added up to features that wowed me. But I must admit to being wowed by ‘Mr. Turner,’ his singular biopic about the last half of the life of British seascape painter J.M.W. Turner. It isn’t just Timothy Spall’s magnificent performance or even the jaw-dropping cinematography of Dick Pope that makes ‘Turner’ come to life – it’s the way that Leigh’s particular form of craftsmanship fits so well with the material.

As an audience, we’re often kept at somewhat of a distance from Turner. Pope’s early compositions often frame Spall with his back to us, only getting a brief glimpse of his reaction to conversation and events, which verbally isn’t much. But what Spall, Leigh, and Pope don’t say, they show. Very early on, there’s a scene at the Royal Academy in which Turner compliments a piano prodigy on her musical skills. She returns the favor by gushing over his visual artistry. It’s the one moment at the Academy – and one of the few in the first half of the film – where we really see Turner open up. He isn’t putting on a show of intellect or grace, it just flows forth naturally. Leigh contrasts this portrait with that of Turner’s disregard for hix ex-wife and children, which is contrasted even further by his heartbreaking grief over the death of his father (Paul Jesson).

still-of-timothy-spall-in-mr.-turner-(2014)-large-pictureEach of these moments varies in tone, atmosphere, and even lighting, suggesting the contradictory nature of the artist’s life. This is where the vignettes come in handy. Because the man was difficult to define, the film’s deliberate construction in Leigh’s hands seems apropos. But Leigh, partly by way of Gary Yershon’s layered score, does carry many things from scene to scene – chief among them Turner’s longing for honest human connection.

If this were a silent film, I’d still love it just as much. That’s not to say that Leigh’s dialogue is worthless, but Spall evokes everything this movie is trying to do without saying anything. ‘Mr. Turner’ wants to put us in the shoes of this cantankerous artistic genius, but not take us so far that we’re disturbed by what we find.