Wednesday, April 15, 2015

While We're Young

**** out of ****

Like many independent filmmakers, Noah Baumbach’s film career has typically strayed away from the sensational characteristics associated with the genre he’s working with in any given film. He mostly makes bitter dramas with dry comedy or dry comedies with bitter drama. In his latest film, he re-teams with Ben Stiller, with whom he worked in Greenberg, to make a much more conventional comedy –and it may be my favorite of his films.

Stiller and Naomi Watts play a childless couple in their forties, struggling to relate with the rest of the world, as they’re losing the support of their yuppie peers, who are now parents. Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker, stuck on a project, which is boring and has no end in sight. While teaching at the university, he is approached by a young documentarian (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) who express respect for his past work.

A friendship blossoms between the two couples, as the modern ironic hipster trends displayed by the young couple become a new interest for the older couple. What follows is a very funny movie, which functions as a love/hate letter to hipsters from an older generation.

I’ve often been critical of Baumbach for being another New York auteur, who embraces the motto, “write what you know” to an alienating degree. This film may still be aimed at white privileged people, but it has more broad appeal than films he’s made about self-destructive intellectual artists.

A lot of movies have been made about adults who think they’re “cool” –until they wake up on that dreadful day when a younger generation has redefined the word again. “Neighbors” is said to be a recent example of this, but this movie, possessing a similar rapid-fire humor delivery system, is a little more grounded by focusing on ideas, saving its only overt sight-gag for last. I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It Follows

***1/2 out of ****

It Follows is to horror movies, what Drive is to car chase action movies: A pleasant deviation. Sure, it contains a lot of the standard elements – or even clichés associated with the type of movie it is - but when these elements are put through the filtration system of a gifted cinematic mind with the will to take things at a slower pace, the results are more memorable than the clustered fast-paced garbage you might normally expect.

Like a lot of horror flicks, it’s about a teenage girl finding herself cursed, as if it is punishment for being sexually desirable. It’s the conditions of this curse and how she is supposed to deal with it, which feels original. She will be followed by some mysterious force, which always takes the form of a person slowly approaching, who is invisible to everyone else. It can be outrun or thwarted, but it will not stop returning until it successfully kills you – unless you transfer the curse to someone else. Her sister and friends, concerned for her state of mind, keep the terrified girl company, and it is not long before they believe her situation to be real.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) has made a film, which knowingly exists in its own movie world. It takes place present-day, yet it selectively chooses what kind of modern things (clothes, cars, technology) exist in it. The eighties-style synthesizer soundtrack is also worth mentioning. Something about its dated quality makes the atmosphere feel more haunting.

What’s most important to note, is that all of it is cleverly enhanced by the setting of realistic suburban decay captured by shooting in Detroit, Michigan. The movie often dares have some of its scariest scenes outdoors in broad daylight. With the dilapidated parks, homes and structures featured, there is an undeniable sense of dread present at all times. The film has a few clumsy moments, but it is astoundingly original in how it taps right into the essence of a nightmare.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


***1/2  out of  ****

’71 is a historical fiction film about a young British soldier, played by rising star, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken and Starred Up), who is trapped in the streets of Belfast following an upheaval against the troops during the worst year of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The film is an all-in-one-night thriller with the kind of immediate energy and handheld camerawork with tight editing, reminiscent of Paul Greengrass films, but is the first feature by French director, Yann Demange, who has already won awards for this film in the U.K. What’s remarkable about its look, is the use of Super 16mm and digital cinematography, timed to capture a washed-out aesthetic; similar to English cinema of the seventies.

Expecting to go to Germany, the main character is reassigned to the country in conflict between the Loyalist
Protestants and Nationalist Catholics (who included the I.R.A.). Assuring his young son that he will return safely, the soldier travels to Ireland without much concern. Even his commander (Sam Reid) would rather not intimidate the locals with riot gear and brings the soldiers in standard military guard to control crowds outside a home under inspection. Upon arrival, they receive more hostility than anticipated, but when an interrogation by carelessly brutal officers results in a beating out in the street, the angry townsfolk rise up against the unit.

The movie is engaging and nerve-racking, but it is not fun. Like the best films portraying real-world conflicts, it is immersed in the confusion and messiness of human beings clashing. The film captures a place where people look alike and speak the same language, but distinguish their differences with hateful determination. There are young I.R.A. extremists committing murders without the approval of their disciplined older leaders; loyalist bomb-makers working with undercover agents; and even double agents in the mix of this chaos. In all the confusion, there is no knowing whom this lone soldier can trust, in order to get out alive.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Still Alice

***1/2 out of ****

I feel bad that I failed to see Still Alice prior to Julianne Moore deservedly winning an Oscar for her superb work in the leading role. The only thing that dissuaded me from making it an immediate priority, was a review I heard, suggesting that the performance was the only thing notable about the film.

Based on the fictional novel by Lisa Genova, Moore plays Alice Howland, a successful professor in linguistic studies at Columbia University, who discovers, after an array of random memory problems, that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

With the support of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and grown children, she prepares for the inevitable deterioration of a mind once so committed to words and memories. Most of the story comes to focus on her troubled relationship with her youngest daughter, played quite well by Kristen Stewart (thankfully taking a role, which suits her), who has been pursuing a career in theater without a solid plan.

I feel like I was misled into assuming that the film was only performance-driven, when so much of it is tailored to compliment Moore’s portrayal of a woman dragging her awareness of an ailing mind to its furthest limits. As a drama, it isn’t astoundingly original (and it wouldn’t have been the same without Moore), but this is still a piece of heavy fiction that delivers a brutally difficult world of truth worth recognizing.

All The Wilderness

*** out of ****

New on digital download services, such as iTunes and Amazon, is a new movie for rent, called All the Wilderness, which is far from perfect, but is still worth seeing if you take interest in coming-of-age stories. Its Portland, Oregon setting functions, not only as a setting for Terrence Malick-inspired aesthetics, but as a symbolic backdrop for a troubled mind, who wanders through all the urban decay and wooded areas the outskirts of Portland’s metro area can offer.

It’s centered on a troubled teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose mother (Virginia Madsen) is sending him to a therapist (Danny DeVito) after the death of his father. The boy, unwilling to communicate with most people, except for claiming the supernatural ability to know when someone will die, sneaks out at night and explores the city, making unlikely friends.

I feel critical of some of the film’s eye-rolling winey teen clichés, but some of them seem kind of welcome, knowing the young audience this film wants. Regardless, it is quite emotional, considering its short 85-minute runtime. Its writer-director, Michael Johnson has made a decent debut film with enough eccentric details to leave a memorable impression for producers seeking competent directors with a voice.