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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Driver’

If you had asked me to come up with a list of actors I would expect to see pump-actioning and machete-swinging their way through a mob of zombies this year, I think it would be reasonable to say that neither Adam Driver or Bill Murray would have been particularly near the top of it, and yet this is what we find ourselves seeing during Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Is it therefore the case that this film is a particularly odd one, or simply the case that zombie films have become so ubiquitous everyone is bound to end up in one?

Well, I’m not sure about the latter part – it’s starting to feel a bit silly talking about ‘the current boom in zombie movies’, considering it’s been in progress for the vast majority of the current century, but on the other hand there hasn’t been a major English-language entry in the genre for a bit. The Dead Don’t Die is a fairly odd movie, though. Here is where I make one of my occasional confessions and admit that, feted independent American film-maker though he is, I have never seen a Jarmusch movie before. I think I came fairly close to seeing Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing films isn’t like playing horseshoes – ‘fairly close’ means nothing in this context.

Therefore I have no idea how representative the new film is of Jarmusch’s output, although I can at least be confident about saying that, up to a point, it does a reasonable job of looking and sounding like a movie by the late George A Romero (who is duly acknowledged in the credits). We find ourselves in the small country town of Centerville, apparently ‘a nice place to live’ according to its own publicity, in the company of police chief Cliff (Murray) and his deputy Ronnie (Driver). Something odd seems to be in the air – the times of the sunrise and sunset are a bit off, and Ronnie’s watch and cellphone have packed up too. Could it be connected to worrying news reports that fracking at both poles have accidentally thrown the Earth off its axis? (Shades of The Day The Earth Caught Fire.)

Well, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the dead start clawing their way out of their graves and attacking the living. One of the first to do so is Iggy Pop, who makes a predictably convincing zombie given that he has looked rather cadaverous for many years. The cops, along with various other town residents and visitors, find themselves taking cover from the shambling horde, wondering what to do next (Ronnie repeatedly opines that it’s all going to end badly). Could salvation lie with the town’s eccentric sword-swinging undertaker (Tilda Swinton)?

There are many perplexing and distracting things about The Dead Don’t Die, but the most perplexing and distracting one of the lot is Swinton and her character. Given that most of the film is a tongue-in-cheek cruise through B-movie tropes and other Americana, one has to wonder about the inclusion of a funeral director with a samurai sword, not really a stock character in this kind of film. But wait! It gets even more whimsical – Swinton doesn’t just play a samurai-sword-wielding undertaker battling the undead, she does it while deploying a Highland Scots accent somewhat reminiscent of Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter films, and a peculiarly formal mode of speech reminiscent of no person ever. And Tilda Swinton’s character is named Zelda Winston. It is enough to make one scratch one’s head at some length.

Still, if nothing else, it does reveal Jarmusch’s ability to get a good cast for this movie. Quite apart from Swinton, Murray and Driver, it also includes Chloe Sevigny as another cop, Steve Buscemi as a Trump-supporting racist farmer, Danny Glover as the local store owner, Rosie Perez as a news reporter (her character is named ‘Posie Juarez’), Selena Gomez as a visiting hipster, and Tom Waits as ‘Hermit Bob’, an unhinged fellow who lives in the woods.

So, a good cast, and the zombie apocalypse is one of those scenarios which will always have potential provided you approach it with a new spin in mind. However, quite what Jarmusch had in mind when he came to make this film is difficult to discern – given the background of many of the actors, and some of the character names, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s meant to be a parody of the classic Romero zombie film – it certainly cleaves particularly closely to the formula, virtually paraphrasing dialogue about how the risen dead are compelled to seek out the things that mattered to them when they were alive – thus we get the spectacle of zombies shuffling about muttering about coffee and wi-fi.

The thing is that if so, it’s a comedy where it feels like they’ve forgotten to include most of the jokes. There’s the odd good invariably deadpan moment, but the film mostly just trundles along being neither particularly funny nor really trying very hard to be frightening. Everyone knows how this story goes, and it unfurls here pretty much as you’d expect (the odd apparent nod to Plan Nine from Outer Space notwithstanding). It’s more like a pastiche than a parody or spoof – a technically competent one, but one with serious issues in the script department. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the different characters, which ends up more or less going nowhere – they tend to get the odd good moment, before the film seems to run out of things to do with them. One group of characters dies off-screen, another seem to get completely forgotten about. The film also seriously underperforms when it comes to the climax and ending.

The sense that this is a movie which has just been slapped together is only heightened by the inclusion of a bunch of jokes I can only describe as seeming lazy. There’s an in-joke about Adam Driver being in the stellar conflict movies. At one point the film’s theme song plays on the radio, and Murray’s character wonders why it sounds so familiar – Driver’s character tells him it’s because it’s the theme song of the movie. At one point Murray wonders about Driver’s weird prescience and is told it is because he has read the whole script of the movie, not just the scenes he is in. If this is supposed to feel knowing and witty, it does not; it just feels rather tired.

As I say, this is not a complete disaster, but the odd good moment and a generally well-staged zombipocalypse do not make up for a film which often feels stilted and self-conscious, narratively baggy and no real sense of what it’s supposed to be and why it’s here. I am assuming most Jim Jarmusch movies are better than this one; it’s certainly a disappointment as a zombie film.

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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Even in the rapid-turnaround world of mainstream Hollywood film-making, this is some going: having been miraculously revived by a four-leafed clover he picked up off-screen towards the end of the previous movie, everyone’s favourite mutant vigilante claws his way out of a shallow grave and shreds his way to vengeance, aided by a string of unlikely and serendipitous happenings…

This is not the premise of Logan Lucky, of course. (But if Hugh Jackman’s interested, I’m sure we can work something out.) The actual premise of the film is actually rather secondary to the fact that it marks the reconstitution of the remarkable filmmaking collective which likes to operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (look, have you seen the Soderbergh filmography? It can’t be just one guy). The Soderbergh announced a temporary dissolution – or ‘retirement’ – a few years ago, but now they have reconjugated themselves and, to judge from Logan Lucky, and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, who is experiencing some financial trouble after losing his job as a construction worker. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (the bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver), who himself lost a hand in Iraq, thinks this is because the family is cursed. Jimmy is not convinced of this, despite his various misfortunes. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Clyde embark on a rather ambitious scheme to rob a motor racing track on a race day, by breaking into the system the track uses to physically transfer cash to its vault.

The problem is that to do this they need the assistance of an actual bank robber and explosives expert, who goes by the name of Joe Bang (he is portrayed by that most uncomplaining and under-recompensed of movie stars, Daniel Craig), and Joe is currently in prison, where he is likely to remain throughout the window of opportunity for their big heist. And so an already convoluted scheme becomes practically baroque, as a means of springing Joe from the slammer in order to help with the robbery, and then reinserting him without anyone noticing his absence, has to be added to the plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, given the supposed family curse, just about anything. But, when the dust settles, will Jimmy be able to get to his daughter’s junior beauty pageant like he promised?

Seasoned Soderbergh-watchers – or perhaps that should be sniffers – have apparently smelled a rat with regard to Logan Lucky‘s script, which is credited to one Rebecca Blunt. No-one knows who Rebecca Blunt is, as she is a non-person as far her film-making history is concerned, and the only person who seems to have had any contact with her is Soderbergh himself. Soderbergh has form for doing multiple jobs on the same film under a variety of pseudonyms, and so some people are leaping to the conclusion that Blunt is actually the director or someone close to him, working under a false name. It’s such a polished and casually effective piece of work that this is very easy to believe, if such things matter to you.

One of the hallmarks of the first phase of Soderbergh’s career was the deft way in which he moved between smart, broadly commercial projects, and equally smart niche and experimental ones – thus, a moneymaking hit like Ocean’s Eleven would be followed by an audience-confounding bomb like his version of Solaris. Logan Lucky is definitely one of his commercial movies, being something of a variation on the theme of the Ocean films. It’s essentially another caper movie, albeit a caper executed by hillbillies and rednecks, and with the comic potential of that idea by no means under-exploited: most of the characters, one way or another, are comic caricatures or grotesques, and the actors attack these roles with considerable gusto.

It’s an ensemble piece, obviously, and Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for it – people like Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston turn out for what are basically quite small roles. And, to be fair, top-billed Channing Tatum recedes into the background for much of the film. Dominating the centre of the film, and delivering as big a performance as I can remember him giving, is Daniel Craig. Is he wildly over the top? It’s possible some people might think so. This is certainly big acting, one way or the other.

And on the whole it’s a rewarding piece of entertainment, although one which works much better as a straight-down-the-line don’t-take-this-too-seriously comedy than an actual comedy thriller. Quite apart from the general absurdity of the plot, there are some pleasingly unexpected jokes – there’s an involved Game of Thrones-related gag which I found particularly droll, though I’m not sure what future generations will make of it – and it is never dull or slow, even if at one point the final act of the movie shows signs of losing focus. On the other hand, there are a few dead wood characters – I’m not really sure what the characters played by Seth MacFarlane and Sebastian Stan actually contribute – and you really have to cut the film some slack in fairly essentially areas – given that Jimmy Logan can’t remember what day he’s supposed to be picking up his daughter, it seems pushing it a little to suggest he is the brains behind a ferociously involved and tricksy prison-break-stroke-robbery-stroke-spoiler-redacted. But this is the kind of thing you either go with or you don’t, and I expect most people will choose to go with it, as that option is much more fun.

There’s also something very slightly Coen brothers-ish about the film’s sardonic view of the details of lower-income mid-west life: it never seems to be outright mocking its cast of rednecks and hillbillies, but at the same time this is a comedy film, and many of its jokes come out of the presentation of this section of society. Mostly it seems entirely good-natured, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is, on some level, a group of well-educated and prosperous artists, some of them not even from the USA, who are choosing to tell a story about a gang of crooks and dimwits from the lower echelons of society, which is absolutely played for laughs. It’s not outright offensive in the way it’s handled, for the film is generally good-natured, but I was aware of it.

In the end, of course, Logan Lucky is simply one of Soderbergh’s more mainstream confections, and was it not for his recent lay-off it would probably be subjected to less critical scrutiny. And as such, there is not much wrong with it – it is consistently entertaining, and beyond that it is frequently interesting (which is not always necessarily the same thing), not afraid to surprise the audience or provide unexpected moments of ambiguity. Nice to have him back.

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One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

silence

Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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I realised from a comparatively tender age that I was destined to be one of those sci-fi types – BBC2’s run of classic movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on Tuesday nights in early 1983 probably did for me, if it wasn’t already the case – and so as I staggered into adolescence I diligently recorded and watched any movie which was tagged as even vaguely SF in the TV guides. Some of these I enjoyed (Westworld, Trancers, Teenage Comet Zombies), some bored me nearly unto death (Quintet), some freaked me out entirely (The Man Who Fell To Earth), and some I found totally unmemorable (…um, I’ll get back to you). And a lot of them were just really obscure and undistinguished (I expect I am the only person in the world who remembers films like Starcrossed, Cherry 2000, and Circuitry Man… actually, Cherry 2000‘s not bad). Nevertheless, I persisted, I stayed loyal, I always watched to the end.

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Young people of the future with similar tendencies would probably find themselves watching… (What am I thinking of…? Who patiently scours the TV guide for obscure SF movies any more? Sometimes I feel like a chunk of history that just hasn’t quite stopped moving yet) …speaking hypothetically, if Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special had shown up on BBC2 or Channel 4 when I was about 14, it’s exactly the kind of film I would have made a point of watching just for its genre elements. Would I have found it particularly rewarding experience? Well…

The film opens with two men, Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) on the run with a young boy, Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, and I don’t know how to pronounce that either). They are on the run from the members of a cult-like religious group, the police, and the government, all because Alton has unusual qualities, such as being able to listen in on satellite communications without the need of technology, although on the other hand he can’t go out in the sunlight without starting to explode and nearby machinery breaking down. The trio are on a mission to get Alton to somewhere in the vicinity of Tallahassee, Florida at a particular time.

However, the various government agencies interested in exploiting Alton’s powers have working the case top analyst Paul Sevier (that bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver, in a role which allows him to give free rein to his essential spoddiness). Sevier has figured out where they are going, but perhaps he sees Alton as something more than just an asset to be studied…

(Kirsten Dunst is in it as well, in a resolutely non-glam role as Alton’s mum, and she’s pretty good too. Shame she doesn’t do more movies.)

Midnight Special (no, the title doesn’t really get explained) plumps for a sort of in media res beginning, with the guys on the run from everyone, the FBI descending on the cult, Sevier already having done a lot of the spadework on Alton, and so on. This isn’t exactly an exposition-heavy movie, so I really had to figure out what was going on for myself, which wasn’t a problem at first. However, as it went on and on without very much really being explicitly articulated, I did find a certain sort of fatigue threatening to set in.

What is it with this current trend for genre movies without what I would consider acceptable levels of exposition? Here are some people. They are doing something. What does it signify? Why are we showing them doing it? We’re not going to tell you. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I’m not demanding every film have a super-simplistic storyline that’s slowly and carefully articulated in the foreground of the movie, but currently everyone seems to be trying to be Shane Carruth with a frankly quite variable success rate.

Well, in the end, it all turns out to be quite a lot like many other things you will probably have seen before – there’s a substantial dollop which could have come from any number of X Files episodes, more than a dash of John Carpenter’s Starman, and so on. These are very respectable sources, but the tone of Nichols’ film isn’t quite right to do them justice – everything is quite dour and restrained. Michael Shannon’s performance sets a note of sombre intensity which colours everything else on the screen. What we are watching is very serious and profound: there is no danger of anyone ever forgetting that. Important and meaningful things will be happening. Why they are important and what the meaningful things actually mean are questions that the film doesn’t actually get around to answering, unfortunately.

I mean, I can understand the urge to do a piece of serious-minded SF or fantasy – Midnight Special probably wants to be the former but is actually the latter, I would say – without surrendering to the perceived need to be all ironic or zany, but this film takes itself so seriously for so little apparent reason that it’s ultimately rather impenetrable: cold, austere, easy to admire but almost impossible to truly like. I suppose you could argue that the film is much more about important things like theme (paternal devotion, presumably) and atmosphere than ephemera like back-story and plot, but I think that other stuff is important and normally included for good reason.

I wanted to like it, for the subject matter is my sort of thing, the performances are strong, and the production values are excellent, but ultimately I found it all to be hard work. I know that Nichols and Shannon have very respectable indie reputations – presumably why Shannon has turned up in big movies, for example Zach Snyder’s festival of gloom masquerading as a superhero film – but this project really doesn’t do their talents justice.

 

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Once more unto the Phoenix, where – it would seem – the blight of allocated seating now extends even unto weekday evening screenings. The staff don’t like the policy, and I and apparently many other of the more vocal patrons of the joint don’t like the policy. And yet a poll of the membership has come down in favour of turning the getting of a decent seat in the smaller screen into a ruthless tactical exercise. Hey ho.

Luckily, there were only five of us in there when I went the other day, to see Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young. Baumbach is the kind of director whose name I vaguely know, and whose films I have have heard of, but I wouldn’t have been able to put those two bits of information together, and I was still slightly surprised to learn I’ve actually seen one of his other movies (Frances Ha from 2013 – and, of course, anyone who gets on so well with Greta Gerwig is clearly a good egg). Said movie struck me as a bit Woody Allen-esque in its subject and setting, and the same goes for While We’re Young, which is a comedy-drama about well-off metropolitan types.

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Well, probably more of a full-on comedy, I suppose. Regular readers will know my aversion to most mainstream American comedies, on the grounds that they are – erm, how can I put this? – not funny, but the fact that While We’re Young opens with an extended quote from Ibsen should tip the attentive viewer off that this is not a typical mainstream American comedy.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily-married couple in their early forties (as the theme of acting your own age is central to the movie, I feel obliged to mention that Stiller is not) who believe themselves to be happy with their lifestyle. Both are film-makers, one way or another, and they have accepted they’re not going to have children. This puts them rather at odds with most of their set, whose lives essentially revolve around grappling with infants of various sizes.

The plot proper gets underway when they encounter another couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are twenty years their junior and Josh and Cornelia find themselves rather captivated by the passion for life that the young people have – the fact that Jamie is a fan of Joshua’s back catalogue may have something to do with it, as well.

But is everything quite as it seems? Could it be that Josh and Cornelia have simply embarked on a futile attempt to cling onto the vestiges of their own youth? And is Jamie’s interest in Josh quite as straightforward as it seems? It soon becomes apparent that the generation gap is still in existence, and before too long someone’s going to come a cropper falling into it.

Fans of the bodily-fluids-and-profanity school of humour may not find much to attract them here, but While We’re Young made me laugh a lot, particularly in its first half. There are few more reliable sources of comedy than people failing to act in an age-appropriate way and the sight of Ben Stiller attempting to bond with hipsters and Naomi Watts tackling a hip-hop dance class provides many opportunities for proper laughs. The film has a nice line in sharp, deadpan dialogue, too: ‘You’ve made a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels seven hours too long,’ someone tells Josh of his latest opus, while a scene in which he is diagnosed with arthritis by his doctor is also extremely droll: ‘Arthritis arthritis?’ he yelps, distraught. ‘I usually just say it the once,’ replies the physician, unflappably.

Above all, this part of the film is a smart and insightful comedy of manners and social embarrassment with some great set pieces and moments of real perceptiveness: there’s a nice sequence quietly drawing attention to the way that middle-aged people are more likely to adopt new technology than the young. And it does address what seems to me to be a problem for the childless thirty- and forty-something: what exactly do you do with your life to give it value, without either seeming self-indulgent or looking like you’re in a state of arrested development? I’ve seen plenty of people in this situation who wind up taking refuge in the dreaded Ironic Sensibility.

However, there’s not a great deal of scope for plot here, which is probably why the second half of the film concerns itself with knottier and less universal issues – namely, the values of the different generations and whether a lack of commonality here is a serious problem, or only to be expected (or perhaps both). Baumbach’s line of approach on this is the question of authenticity in documentary film-making, which has been a live issue over the last few years in the wake of films like Catfish and Searching For Sugar Man, which were accused of either manipulating the truth or being out-and-out hoaxes. There’s what looks very like a gloves-off swipe at Catfish in particular here, but Baumbach’s attempt to tie this in to the theme of generational difference feels just a little laboured. It’s true that many younger people nowadays interact with culture in a wholly different way to how things were in the pre-digital age, but then so do quite a few older ones as well.

It’s also perhaps a little disappointing that the second half of the film is centred so firmly on Joshua, while the first part was told at least partly from Cornelia’s point of view. This is not because of any weakness in Ben Stiller’s performance – he is as accomplished an actor as ever – but simply because it turns the film into a piece about a middle-aged white guy possibly heading for a mid-life crisis, and we are not short of iterations of that story. It makes the film a little more conventional than it perhaps needed to be. (When it comes to the younger couple, the film gives much more prominence to Adam Driver, too: apart from a couple of scenes, Amanda Seyfried really gets quite little to do.)

The same is true of how the story resolves itself. To be fair, the film is largely built around the premise that a refusal to admit you are ageing is going to result in you looking increasingly foolish as time goes by, but this isn’t quite the same thing as the whole-hearted endorsement of thorough-going normalcy that the end of the movie actually feels like. Then again, this is ultimately still a mainstream film on some level, so I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised. While We’re Young  is at least a mainstream film with some intelligence and wit about it, and one which made me laugh a lot despite my ultimate misgivings about parts of it. Worth seeing, especially if your fortieth birthday is not too distant a memory.

 

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