Category: 2015

While We’re Young

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Noah Baumbach (or Noah Bumbag as I like to call him) has gone a lot more mainstream with his latest film, which follows the wonderful Frances Ha. He’s still got his finger on the hipster button, but here his foot is firmly on the irony pedal. 

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are married without children and living a sort of in-between life –  great apartment, beautiful furniture and no ties but with no real focus. They’re both in their late 40s, at that age where you’re too old to be young and too young to be old. In your head you’re still 20-something, but in reality you look like schoolteachers on prom night.

When they meet actual 20-something hipsters Jamie (a perfectly cast Adam Driver) and Darby (underused Amanda Seyfried), they strike up a friendship that suggests all is not lost. Suddenly they’re out rollerblading, hip hop dancing and hanging out with the cool kidz. The culture clash prompts some gentle humour – not least the fact that all the things the older couple have replaced with hi-tech gizmos have been replaced in the younger household with the things they threw out on the first place. Hipsters, eh?

Complicating the mix is the fact that Josh and Jamie are both documentary film makers. Josh had one big hit and has spent eight years trying to follow it. Jamie is just starting out and appears to be keen to learn from his new mentor. But recapturing your youth isn’t as easy as wearing a silly hat, and when Jamie’s true intentions are revealed, things get messy.

Overall it’s an enjoyable look at middle age and rivalry with Stiller on good form, but for me it got a bit windy towards the end, particularly when the couples head off for a mountain retreat with some sort of hippy shaman. There’s a bit of a cheesy ending too which felt a bit tacked on.

In the main, though it’s not as whip-smart as Baumbach’s earlier films, While We’re Young is still very watchable and will definitely make you laugh, no matter what your age. (Also a bit of amusing casting in here for anyone who watches Million Dollar Listing New York.)

 

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Force Majeure

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A perfect-looking family of four go skiing in the French Alps – it looks like the ideal break, beautiful hotel, gorgeous slopes, everyone getting along. Then one morning, during breakfast, an avalanche crashes towards them. It’s a spectacular, terrifying moment. In that split second, is your first thought to save your family or yourself (and your smartphone)?

In Force Majeure, director Ruben Östlund asks that question of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and opens up a fair avalanche of family and gender politics. It’s no spoiler to reveal that as disaster threatens, it’s Tomas that reaches for his phone and legs it while Ebba clutches at their children. It’s a shocking and blackly comic moment that changes everything.

Once the danger is past, it’s time for the emotional fallout. Tomas’s children can barely look at him, and Ebba takes a more combative role as he tries to deny his actions in the hope that the confusion around the moment might save him. He knows he’s at fault, but there’s a part of him that can’t really acknowledge that. And there’s also a big part of him that resents it.

Both Östlund’s direction and all the performances here are very controlled, giving the film an air of quietness belied by the emotions coursing underneath the surface. There’s a definite sense that all is muffled, as if the snow was hiding everything – which makes the occasional outbursts from Tomas all the more shocking.There’s a superb scene where he’s at a bar with his hairy best friend Mats. You watch as they’re built up from invisible older men to hot sex gods, then brought back to earth again. What does make a man – is it that heroic nature or is it being attractive to women?

I’m fairly sure everyone left the cinema thinking ‘what would I do?’ – or more likely, ‘what would you do?’. Emotionally harsh, darkly funny and never anything but gripping, this is solid stuff.

Wild Tales

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With Pedro Almodóvar on board as co-producer, it’s no surprise that Wild Tales is a camp blast of dark hilarity from Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifrón. Full of sound and fury, it’s a collection of stories about people who are, for one reason or another, fully pissed off. And there’s nothing quite as funny as someone in full strop unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of it.

The first story suffers a bit from unfortunate timing – a pilot locks himself in the cabin and crashes his plane, exacting a terrible revenge on its passengers. As the scene revealed itself, there were some awkward gasps around the cinema from people who clearly hadn’t seen the Daily Mail moaning about it. It’s hard to watch in any other context now, although it’s stylishly done and a great opener.

Each of the six Tales introduces someone who on a normal day is probably a thoroughly charming person. But on this particular day, something gets so far under their skin that they’re overtaken with rage. Road rage, wedding rage, parking rage, it’s all here and in extremes. Things are broken – hearts, promises, windows – vengeance is taken in spades. It’s there in all of us, Szifrón is warning. And maybe not so far below the surface. So you know, you might want to stop rattling that sweet paper in the seat behind me.

Szifrón’s trick is to inject just enough humour to make you laugh even at the darkest moments. He takes you to the worst place, then drags you out of it with a moment of splintering humour – you’re open-mouthed with horror one minute and shaking with laughter the next. Plus there’s Ricardo Darin – you can’t go wrong with a bit of Darin.

Wild Tales is a whirlwind of spite with bursts of laugh-out-loud humour. A real joy.

Ex Machina

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Another outing for Oscar Isaac here, so again no complaints from me on that score. Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina takes us to some unspecified time in the none-too-distant future where Nathan (Isaac), a rich software genius, lives a reclusive life in a pretty spectacular home. He’s invited a lucky random employee to visit, which turns out to be Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a lonely geek who can’t believe his luck – especially when Nathan tells him he’s there to evaluate a special project: Ava.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a robot, the sort of robot only a man would invent – stunningly beautiful, great tits etc etc. To be fair, if I was going to invent a robot I’d probably make him look like ER-era George Clooney complete with built-in nespresso machine, so fair dos really. Ava does that thing that all robots do, and longs to be free from her robotty constraints, and who better to help her than poor gullible Caleb who has not surprisingly developed a bit of a thing for her.

The plot isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, though it all chugs along nicely, building up suspicion and mistrust between Caleb and Nathan. The three leads do well with this slightly clichéd material: Isaac is genuinely menacing behind a veneer of combative mateyness and Gleeson rolls out his confused young chap act as well as ever. And though she’s essentially just wank material, Vikander gives Ava enough intelligence to set her up nicely as a catalyst between ego and wannabe.

There are a lot of big ideas here, but no emotional touchstones, it left me a bit unmoved really. Apart from Isaac’s disco dancing – that is worth the price of admission alone.

A Most Violent Year

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Clearly Oscar Isaac is having a very good year at the moment, popping up all over the place. I have no objections to this, of course. In JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year he’s Abel Morales, a hard-working Brooklyn family man, running a heating oil supplier with the help of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is determined to keep his business on the straight and narrow, but that’s easier than it sounds in Brooklyn. Especially when someone – most likely one of his competitors –  is hijacking his trucks and threatening to destroy his livelihood.

Chastain and Isaac make the perfect early 80s couple – all hair and labels (there are some seriously good coats here). Anna has grown up with the mob, the heating oil business once belonged to her gangster father and she has no problem running things the way he did. But Abel wants a clean sheet and although he’s surrounded by violence, he wants no part of it. Especially as New York DA (David Oyelowo, wonderful as always) is breathing down his neck. But this determination not to fight back leads him into even deeper trouble, not helped by the fact that his wife is packing more than lipstick in her handbag.

Isaac is superb as Abel, a man driven to succeed but struggling under his compunction to do the right thing. Especially when doing the wrong thing would be so much easier. The strain on his employees and family weighs heavy, and his determination to expand the business at any cost could be the powder keg that destroys everything.

Chandor is in control here, giving us impressive car chases and moments of truly gripping fear. There was a long stretch towards the end when I don’t think I took a breath. It looks great too, with some beautiful shots of the New York skyline glimpsed in the distance, reminding Abel what he’s chasing. With hints of The Godfather, The Yards and Goodfellas (some of my favourites) this one was always going to be a winner.