Saturday, April 18, 2015

While We're Young

Noah Baumbach begins While We’re Young with lines from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, with two characters in dialogue about the promises and difficulties of dealing with the “young”. The epigraph signals a portentous film, maybe one about the relationship between age and power or between youth and creativity. In fact While We’re Young is the most light-footed film of Baumbach’s career and maybe his most purely entertaining film since he debuted with Kicking and Screaming in 1995. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a Brooklyn documentary filmmaker whose wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is the daughter of Leslie (Charles Grodin), whose own documentaries have rated a fete at Lincoln Center. Josh and Cornelia are drawn into the social orbit of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a mid-20’s couple whose affectation of pre-digital culture and “making” seems like something entirely new to two busy, post-40 New Yorkers. As Josh and Cornelia begin to embrace the world of their new friends, attending a “street beach” and taking hip-hop dance classes (Naomi Watts’s dancing may ensure she’s never cast in another period role), it emerges that Jamie’s easygoing demeanor masks a keen ambition. What indeed do the young want from their elders?

Ben Stiller was excellent in Baumbach’s Greenberg and he’s almost as good here, though he’s helped by the fact that the role offers chance for some broader comedy than we’re used to in Baumbach’s films. Stiller is particularly funny in a sequence where Josh receives the ministrations of a “shaman” (played by musician Dean Wareham) whose practice involves getting communicants to consume a herb that induces prodigious vomiting. The fact that the humor of the scene masks deeper questions about the marriage of Josh and Cornelia - about the degree to which the couple’s childlessness is a hole in their relationship - is a testament to the thought behind the writing. I don’t know whether sequences like the montage that cuts between Jamie and Darby listening to vinyl and watching VHS movies and Josh and Cornelia using their mobile devices were scripted or emerged in the shooting, but I very much appreciate that fact that Baumbach feels confident enough in what he’s doing to wring some humor out of the material. There’s also a very funny hard cut that puts Josh and Cornelia at a party thrown by their friends (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) which Baumbach uses to show just how uncomfortable the couple are beginning to feel in their 40-year old skin. All of these choices and more bring out the best in Stiller and also in Naomi Watts, who very much enjoys the chance to be funny, sexy, and nakedly emotional all in the same film. We begin to understand Cornelia’s struggle when she accompanies some friends who are parents to a children’s music class. Cornelia’s reassurance that she’s fine with no kids masks a deeper pain, and Watts also adeptly plays the cost of juggling the tension between her husband and her father. (While We’re Young is in one way a movie about a marriage with a third person in it.) Watts gives the kind of performance that deserves more acclaim but that will probably have to settle for being another line on a strong resume.

The most important line in While We’re Young is spoken by Darby late in the film. When musing on the way in which she and Jamie will grow old she says that it will probably be “just like everybody else”. It is allowed for Darby and Jamie (whom Driver plays with an odd, darting quality that speaks to his talents) to have ambitions just as it is for Josh and Cornelia to try new things and to speak honestly about the state of their marriage. That’s why even when the plot involving Jamie’s filmmaking efforts takes over we never view him as a villain. While We’re Young feels like a transitional film for Noah Baumbach, one made with both confidence in his own style and a new sense of contentment in his own life. (Ever since Frances Ha no self-respecting culture website has missed a chance to document Baumbach’s personal life at least once.) Baumbach’s career has something in common with the documentary that Josh labors over in While We’re Young: It could go anywhere from here.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Furious 7

Before seeing Furious Seven I watched the original Fast and the Furious for the first time, and seeing the two films back to back is an excellent illustration of sequel bloat. Fast and the Furious is a B movie in the best sense, 100 minutes of fetishizing cars and speed but also about people looking for an outlet. By the time we get to Seven the characters played by Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, and the rest have been rebranded as international operatives with unlimited access to the government’s toys. (Kurt Russell has a ball as the spy who recruits our heroes.) The centerpiece of Seven occurs in an luxury Abu Dhabi high rise where Diesel and Walker pilot a car through all three of the complex’s towers without it ever touching the ground. Talk about movin’ on up.

With all the stunts and action sequences - my favorite was a extraction that the team performs on a mountain road with the engines running - there isn’t much time for character. The Dominic Toretto (Diesel) of Fast and the Furious actually enjoyed being the leader of his loose gang of highway bandits, but the battles of sequels past must have weighed on him because here Toretto seems tired of the game, Whatever wit there was in Diesel’s performance is long gone and has been replaced more shots of the backsides of numerous female extras. But nobody goes to these movies for the characters, right? Diesel’s voice has become so low and rumbling that broadcasting it over a theatre’s sound system seems like a threat to building’s structural integrity. At least Diesel doesn’t have to say the lines written for Dwayne Johnson, whom I’m pretty sure may actually be a CGI effect. I was struck however by the fact that for all the elaborate action sequences no could think of anything for Toretto and his nemesis (Jason Statham) to do other than drive their cars directly at each other twice. Couldn’t they have at least raced? What emotion is called for is supplied by Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. The fancy dress fight between Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey is the one sequence that doesn’t choose directorial tricks over physicality; indeed the fight between Diesel and Statham feels like something out of a video game.

Furious Seven closes with an acknowledgement of the death of Paul Walker and an affirmation of the franchise’s emphasis on “family”, a word that applies even when the family in question is a gang of high end thieves. There will no doubt be more Furious movies, but the loss of one of the signature stars will put the series that much further away from where it started.

Thursday, April 02, 2015


Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is a punch in the gut to anyone who has even the slightest romantic notion about Russia or its people. This prize-winning drama (Best Screenplay at Cannes, Golden Globe, and Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film) is scathing about the relationship between ordinary Russians like Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and structures of power. Kolya's family home is about to be torn down to suit the corrupt Mayor of the coastal village where the the story takes place. That Mayor (Roman Madyanov) is open to be worked by anyone, including the Church, as long as there's something in it for him. The arrival of Kolya's lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) signals a chance for some justice, but this is a story of both personal and political tragedy and soon Kolya's situation is even worse. The most memorable performance in Leviathan comes from Elena Lyadova as Kolya's wife Lilya, a woman both exhilarated and terrified by the possibilities life opens up to her. Zvyagintsev uses his setting well; there's a feeling of the characters (and the country) having barely escaped an earlier, rougher time but still being on the edge of wildness. Kolya's fate seems almost preordained, but the irony and hypocrisy on display in the film's last scene is no less devastating for the sense that it couldn't happen any other way. Leviathan is an important work, and I'd very much like to discover Zvyagintsev's earlier films.