Sunday, April 26, 2015

While We're Young

Noah Baumbach writes and directs smart and smartly observed small but meaningful films (Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale). His latest, While We're Young, is the story of a stagnating middle-aged New York couple, Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who meet a vivacious younger couple, Jamie and Darby, (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) whose lives seem to be embodiments of the older couple's fears and regrets. Alienated from their birthing peers, Josh and Cornelia gravitate toward the younger, childless pair and find themselves in hip-hop aerobics, bicycling and exploring abandoned subway lines -- and loving every exhausting moment. Josh and Jamie are both documentary filmmakers, though Josh appears blocked while Jamie has no off switch or internal edit. They seem to speak a common language and draw energy from one another. The early symbiotic relationship between them eventually, as they tend to do in film, takes on parasitic properties that reveal much about Josh and Cornelia's  relationship with one another and the world they thought they knew. Stiller, a spotty actor at best, gives a winning performance here and is matched by Driver's truly disconcerting affability. The film is funny and insightful, especially for those of us on the other side of youthfulness.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Furious Seven

The Fast and Furious franchise has always driven right up to the edge of sappy sentimentality -- amidst all of the trash talk and body slamming -- without going over the cliff. This time? Over the cliff it goes but it's understandable. When franchise co-star Paul Walker died in a car wreck near the end of the 2013, the future of Furious Seven (much less the film series) was cast in doubt. Director James Wan has crafted an enjoyable and reliably frantic edition piecing together what remained of Walker's scenes with post-production magic but leaving, one senses, a vacuum among the cast members. Co-star Vin Diesel (a close friend of Walker's) offers a genuinely touching moment at the film's ending, reflecting on the men's friendship and adventures. It's a nice coda to all of the usual jetsetting, high-speed, ballistic action that consumes most of the movie's 2-plus hours. The story, as negligible as they generally are, has occasional outlaws Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) enlisted by federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to hunt down the murderously vengeful Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a mission that has the guys' road crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Bridges and Tyrese Gibson) tearing up asphalt and throwing fists first in Azerbaijan then the UAE then back in Los Angeles. It's all wildly ludicrous (pun intended), brainless and enormously entertaining. Recommended.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina is screenwriter Alex Garland's directorial debut, and it is quite a film to ruminate over. Judging from his movies, Garland is not the cheeriest cuss on the planet. He wrote two annihilation films -- zombie feast 28 Days Later and the end of days saga Sunshine -- and his next movie is actually titled Annihilation. Ex Machina (as in Deus Ex Machina with God removed from the machine) is as gloomy as the others but leaves the viewer more to chew on. This is the story of a loner, billionaire programming genius dude (a terrific Oscar Isaac) who invites young Caleb, one of his company's underlings (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson), to his remote subterranean lair to drink beer and test his newest invention -- a semi-transparent (literally and figuratively) robotic woman named Ava (Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander) -- for true artificial intelligence. Signs of sentience, we're told through a series of interviews between Caleb and Ava, are self-awareness, self-interest and intent. And therein lies the movie's mystery. It's a cat and mouse game but we're never entirely sure who is the cat. Garland's framing, pacing and lighting are Kubrickian, and the final quarter of the film is as shocking and pessimistic as the best of the great master's work. What to make of this film. Maybe Garland regards human explorations in the cyberworld as hubristic and dangerous as the film purports or the movie might just be a reflection of the views of skeptics and paranoiacs. I suppose it doesn't matter because the three leads are superb, and the curious and provocative ending is fresh and not a little bit chilling. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Intolerance (1916)

The Birth of a Nation (1915) will stand as both D.W. Griffith's greatest cinematic achievement and greatest contribution to the nascent film industry, despite its incendiary depiction of blacks and the Reconstruction. Griffith's next film, Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages (1916), is a fascinating, poetical conceit of a motion picture that weaves together four separate stories, all of which relate in some fashion to persecution and, well, intolerance. The four tales -- the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and a contemporary story of class warfare and social injustice in America -- exist on that hoary and impressionistic plane that is silent film but are not lacking in dramatic pull or emotional currency. The film is compelling and cunningly crafted. Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Josephine Crowell and Lillian Gish star but Griffith paints on a large canvas, with enormous, elaborate sets and casts of thousands. The sweep of this film is indeed epic, with battling helmeted hordes and chariotted marauders. It is quite the spectacle. Still, I'm not entirely sold on the elegiac tone of much of the film; it seems too grandly earnest and it clashes with the elysian vision at the end.  Also, if this was indeed Griffith's response to charges he stoked the flames of oppression with Birth of a Nation, it strikes me as a little heavy-handed to use Jesus Christ as cover.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Waterfront

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) is a near perfect picture in tone and tenor, whose melodrama does not detract from its substantial artistry. Marlon Brando is Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who is now a New York dockworker and errand boy for the mob boss who runs the local stevedore union (Lee J. Cobb). Terry's brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the boss's right-hand and so the unskilled and dim Terry gets to count coffee bags and nap and tend to his racing pigeons. Terry, though a bum, starts to wise up after becoming a part of a hit the boss arranges against a longshoreman who plans to testify against the mob. The informant's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is intent on finding out who tossed her brother off the roof of his apartment building and suspects that Terry knows. Terry, who takes an immediate liking to the spunky schoolgirl, urges Edie not to pry but after more attacks decides to do what he can to set things right. The script by Budd Schulberg crackles with "wise guy speak" as it lays out a morality tale of conscience and corruption in the watery world of longshoremen. Brando and Cobb are beyond superb as flinty antagonists in this tale -- beautifully filmed in overcast grays -- that asks viewers to reflect on the price of one's soul.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...