Monday, April 20, 2015

While We're Young: Growing Older, But Not Growing Up

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts start in Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young"
The obvious irony of the title While We're Young is that it's a movie singularly fixated on the fear of growing old. Its hero is Josh (Ben Stiller), a fortyish documentary filmmaker who lives a life of relative comfort in New York City but is nevertheless plagued with anxiety, about both the specific utility of his work and his general place in the world. In other words, Josh is a lot like Noah Baumbach, the forty-five-year-old director of this bewitching, frustrating film. Like Josh, While We're Young is smart, and it posits a number of interesting and worthwhile ideas. And, like Josh, it cannot entirely escape the nagging feeling that it's just running in place, waiting for something to shake it out of its complacency.

In Baumbach's recent movies, that something has taken the form of Greta Gerwig, the fearless and funny actress whose luminous, achingly vulnerable performance elevated Frances Ha from a crisply amusing cringe comedy into a startlingly humane coming-of-age story. Before that, Gerwig poured her heart into Greenberg, playing opposite Stiller, who delivered a career-best turn as a prickly and altogether unpleasant neurotic. Sadly, Gerwig is absent this time around, while Stiller reverts to his bland, inoffensive screen presence. His lead performance here isn't bad so much as polite; an established star, he can coast on familiarity and charm, graciously ceding the spotlight to other, hungrier actors. In While We're Young, he makes room for the magnetic Adam Driver, who plays Jamie, a boisterous aspiring documentarian who seems to idolize Josh.

That adulation makes Josh feel awfully good, especially since he and his wife, Cornelia (a typically excellent Naomi Watts), are currently adrift. Their best friends just had a baby, an event they perceive with a mixture of envy (Cornelia suffered multiple miscarriages in the past) and horror. Spending time with Jamie and his own wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried), allows them to rekindle their sense of youth, and to feel energized when everyone else their age seems to be dull, placid, and respectable. Getting old is lame. Being young is cool!

Of course, Josh and Cornelia are neither young nor cool, and their time palling around with Jamie and Darby is often clumsy and awkward, even if it's invigorating. (For example, there's a cute running gag where Josh repeatedly volunteers to pick up the check after a meal, then reacts in numb disbelief when Jamie doesn't resist.) The couples' two-decade age difference presents obvious opportunities for embarrassment, and Baumbach—a master at mining social faux pas for laughs—is all too happy to expose Josh and Cornelia as poseurs. His actors are similarly game, and while it may feel cheap, it is nonetheless amusing to watch Stiller ride a bicycle while wearing a ludicrous fedora, and it is downright hysterical to see Watts shred all vestiges of dignity while gyrating her body spastically during a workout regimen set to hip-hop.

Naomi Watts shakes her ass and shreds her dignity

That's funny, but it also troublingly evokes the work of a director whose films (particularly Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale) are hostile toward their characters, to the point of being off-putting. Thankfully, While We're Young isn't exclusively concerned with mocking its protagonists' failures. It also seems legitimately sympathetic toward their plight, particularly Josh's inability to make a movie anyone wants to watch. His latest project, which has been gestating for eight unsuccessful years, is an incoherent mess of academic nonsense, a pretentious puddle that his father-in-law (Charles Grodin) describes as "a six-and-a-half-hour film that's seven hours too long". Again, the joke here is on Josh, but Baumbach nevertheless seems committed to Josh's artistic ideals even as he's eviscerating their stunted execution. And While We're Young, despite its lissome tone and low-key humor, feels like the labor of a man who's passionate about his art, even as he's also profoundly afraid of its insignificance.

This sense of ambition makes While We're Young interesting, appealing, and, ultimately, disappointing. Surprisingly enough, it's Baumbach's script that proves problematic; not content merely to observe his characters, he elects to load the film with plot. Josh, puffed up from Jamie's incessant praise, resolves to shepherd his protégé through his new project, a terrible-sounding exercise in which Jamie contacts old high school buddies on Facebook, then tracks them down and films them in person. The gambit proves an unlikely success, and as Josh grapples with feelings of professional jealousy, he also questions Jamie's filmmaking integrity. This leads to a number of revelations regarding Jamie, whose veneration of Josh may not be pure, and whose truth-seeking efforts may be compromised by those abhorrent temptations of fame and commerce.

The shirt is ironic, get it?

As far as third-act twists go, While We're Young's is awfully limp. To be fair, Baumbach knows that any tension he generates is artificial, and so he shrewdly deflates it with chilly realism and trademark wit. But I have to wonder why he even bothered. Plot has never been a friend to Baumbach—he's at his best telling stories about dissatisfied people drifting aimlessly—and grafting such an engineered crisis onto the lives of such dynamic characters feels false and hollow. Worse, he sprinkles the movie with random rebukes of humankind's reliance on technology, especially during a weirdly tacky coda. Certainly, the paradox of how innovation both connects us and isolates us is worth exploring—as it was in the shining exemplars of The Social Network and Her, as well as the underrated Disconnect—but it deserves more texture and nuance than Baumbach offers here. (It doesn't help that the director himself seems technically limited; despite some Vivaldi concertos and original music from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, the filmmaking here feels blocky and staid, a regression after the sharpness of Frances Ha's black-and-white cinematography.)

Despite this, While You're Young is mostly an engaging film, with strong performances (especially from Watts and Driver) and smart, snappy dialogue. And as clunky and ill-fitting as this movie can feel, it is happily crammed with ideas: about art, life, parenting, and, most of all, aging. Though he is growing older, Baumbach recognizes that aging is not necessarily the same as maturing. While We're Young bears that out, to its creator's credit, and his shame.

Monday, April 6, 2015

'71: Behind Blurred Enemy Lines

Jack O'Connell runs for his life in "'71"

There is scarcely a glimpse of true color to be seen in '71, apart from the occasional piercing pop of Jack O'Connell's sky-blue eyes. Yann Demange's fumbling, gripping tale of a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, it takes place in a washed-out landscape of grimy greys, dirty browns, and burnt-out fire-orange. Unfortunately, that sense of abiding murkiness extends to Gregory Burke's screenplay, which assembles a motley bunch of Irish gangsters and does little to differentiate them. But even if '71's storytelling is muddled, its execution is consistently riveting. Directing his first feature, Demange has made a pulse-pounding thriller that demonstrates a bone-deep understanding of filmmaking suspense. It's scary to think of what he could do with a more attentive script.

The latter two-thirds of '71 are imbued with a feverish, exhausting tension, but it begins as something far different: a touchingly humane platoon picture. O'Connell stars as Gary Hook, a young private in the British Army who's going through the usual grueling training regimen, running great distances with a rifle slung across his back before crawling through the mud. But his commanding officers, rather than peppering him with the typical accusations of worthlessness (think Full Metal Jacket), preach loudly and encouragingly about the virtues of teamwork. "Help each other!" one CO barks as Hook and his comrades attempt to scale a mock wall. It's a seemingly straightforward command that '71, as it descends deeper into desperation, distorts and refracts with chilling ambiguity.

Hook's regiment gets assigned to Belfast, instructed to keep the peace between the warring Protestants and IRA Catholics. You don't need a doctorate in Irish History to know that that's easier said than done, but Hook's new commandant, the sweet-natured, open-faced Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid, very good), favors diplomacy over force. "We need to go out there and reassure people," he explains while refusing to equip his soldiers with riot gear. Is this a gesture of nobility or a blunder of naiveté? Did I mention that this movie takes place in 1971 Belfast?

It's a place that, as Demange shoots it, is synonymous with Hell, and it doesn't take long before all hell breaks loose. While out on some sort of investigative patrol—the details are never specified, nor do they matter—Hook and his cohorts quickly learn that, as much as the Catholics and Protestants hate one another, they aren't exactly fans of the British either. Things begin amusingly enough, with children mischievously lobbing plastic bags of urine toward the grunts. But when those bags are replaced by rocks, the laughter turns to screams, and suddenly the street teems with throngs of dissatisfied citizenry snarling at the panicky troops. In a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, Demange constantly cuts between the shouting factions, upping the jittery tension until it explodes into a riot. A soldier loses his rifle, and there goes Hook, first sprinting frantically into the crowd to recover the gun, then running like mad from two pistol-wielding teens. The foot chase is yet another breathless set piece, equal parts chaos and clarity; Demange uses a handheld camera to provide immediacy, but he nevertheless skillfully maps out the geography of the pursuers and the pursued. Hook eventually escapes, but he quickly realizes that his victory is Pyrrhic: His regiment has fled, and he's stranded in hostile territory, an unwelcome interloper in a strange, savage land.
A rare moment of rest for O'Connell's character

From there, '71 settles into rhythm as an episodic thriller. Hook, in order to make his way back to his barracks, must navigate a series of life-threatening challenges. Various people want him dead, whether it's an especially militant sect of the IRA or a less blusterous (but no less dangerous) band of bomb-toting Protestants. He's lost without help, and so he warily befriends a plucky young boy (Corey McKinley), then finds temporary sanctuary in the home of an elderly doctor (Fortitude's Richard Dormer) and his petrified daughter (Charlie Murphy). (As must always happen in a movie like this, there is a scene where Hook screams in agony as the doctor stitches up his wound without the benefit of an anesthetic.) He is never in one place for too long, and Demange mines enormous suspense from his predicament, most notably during an electric sequence of cat-and-mouse set on the balconies and stairways of an apartment building that concludes with a hauntingly intimate stabbing.

As compelling as '71 is when it keeps its focus on Hook and his escalating fear, it stumbles whenever it tries to expand its scope, which it does all too often. Not content with merely making a spellbinding thriller, Demange also strives to create an underworld noir, one that explores the shifting allegiances and nefarious misdeeds of operatives on both sides of this catastrophic war. It's difficult to blame him for seeking to broaden his canvas, and certainly the IRA-Protestant conflict is rife with cinematic possibility, with its shadowy backroom dealings, its double-crosses, its traitors in the midst. The problem is that, as intrinsically appealing as these pulp elements may be, they're presented here with a sloppiness that borders on incoherence. It is not as though Burke needed to carefully concoct a specific agenda and backstory for each of his minor ne'er-do-wells, but their overriding blankness results in confusion rather than intrigue. (It also doesn't help that many of them look disturbingly alike, either mustachioed redheads or close-cropped brunets.) Demange cut his teeth making miniseries for British TV, and at times, '71 suggests it might work well on television, with particular episodes examining the corruptive antics of the British Captain Browning (Sean Harris) or the strained politics of IRA leader Boyle (David Wilmot). (To enhance this impression, one of Browning's thuggish subordinates is played by Paul Anderson, who portrays Cillian Murphy's doltish older brother on the BBC's Peaky Blinders.) As a movie, though, '71 can feel frustratingly, tantalizingly incomplete.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of this diffuse approach is that it robs us of additional time spent watching O'Connell, who has rapidly emerged as one of the more talented young actors working today. American audiences will recognize him as the sturdily heroic center of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, but his greatest performance to date is as the tempestuous convict in David Mackenzie's prison drama Starred Up, where he combined volcanic rage with suppressed, anguished melancholy. That ferocity makes his quiet work in '71 all the more revelatory. Hook doesn't traverse a typical emotional arc—he barely even talks—but O'Connell burrows into the role, expressing his green soldier's persistent terror with painful poignancy. It's a subtly powerful performance that provides this volatile, angry film with an achingly human center.

'71 is not a perfect movie. Its screenwriting is careless, and while it hints at themes of religious strife and fragmented loyalty, it never satisfactorily communicates them. It also should have ended five minutes before it does (though within those unnecessary five minutes, Demange pays striking homage to, if you can believe it, Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break). But it is a consistently emphatic and sometimes emphatically great work, and its messiness often contributes to its feral energy. At its best, '71's subplots and supporting characters melt away, and it becomes a simple story about a helpless, desperate man, scrapping and clawing to fight his way home. In this, Demange and O'Connell illustrate that directors and their actors, like all platoon mates, can help each other.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Insurgent: What's in the Box? It's the "Divergent" Sequel, Dressed Up and Crashing Down

Shailene Woodley stars in "Insurgent"
When did young-adult movies become so childish? Look, it makes perfect sense that adaptations of YA fiction have experienced a boom at the multiplex. Teenagers go to the movies in droves, and so studios are constantly scrounging for the next mega-franchise, hoping to transform fantastical allegories into real profits. And when done right—as in the Harry Potter movies (the subgenre's preeminent jewel) and, to a lesser extent, the Hunger Games films— these properties can be artistically valuable as well as commercially successful. The problem with Insurgent, the second installment in the Divergent series (based on a trio of novels by Veronica Roth), isn't that it's set in another futuristic dystopia or that it's populated primarily by blandly attractive adolescents. The problem is that it's dumb.

Part of my issue with Insurgent may be that I've never read any of Roth's novels. Perhaps if I were familiar with the source material, I'd be more responsive to the gibberish about "Abnegation" and "factionless" and "sims". But I tend to doubt it, and besides, it's the job of the screenwriter (or screenwriters, in this case, as the script is credited to Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback) to translate a novel's prose into the language of cinema. Here, the more the characters blather about the five factions (and the so-called Divergents who transcend their boundaries), the more infantile the whole thing seems. Worse, where Divergent at least indulged in some opportunities for dopey entertainment—like a nighttime game of "Capture the Flag", or a pedagogical knife-throwing session—Insurgent is aggressively dour, with a false sense of solemnity that stifles the storytelling. If you can't make your hapless tale of boilerplate heroism smart, at least make it fun.

Insurgent picks up shortly after Divergent left off, with sinister bureaucrat Jeanine (Kate Winslet, and I do hope she puts her paycheck to good use) having discovered a small rectangular box of mystical import. Because this mysterious MacGuffin can only be opened by a particular Divergent, Jeanine has tasked her army of totalitarian hunters, led by Eric (Jai Courtney, providing a pop of genuine danger), with combing the countryside in search of these unclassifiable troublemakers. That puts him on a collision course with the renegade Tris (Shailene Woodley, doing what she can), who's currently hiding out with her pouty boyfriend, Four (Theo James), and her timid brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort, looking like he'd rather be wooing Woodley as he winningly did in The Fault in Our Stars). Also present, happily, is Peter (the invaluable Miles Teller, who previously sparked with Woodley in The Spectacular Now), an unscrupulous antagonist who doubles as the most interesting character in the movie. But Peter isn't the honorable sort, so when Eric and his forces turn up—complete with "scanning technology" that, in the nuanced world of Insurgent, involves a soldier pointing a glowing, translucent plate at a suspect, followed by a pleasantly robotic female voice announcing, "Divergent"—he blows the whistle, and then Tris and the boys are on the run again.

This leads to the first of Insurgent's many action scenes, the majority of which are murky, stale, and sloppily choreographed. The director here is Robert Schwentke, whose faintly disastrous filmography includes the misbegotten Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan and the confused and confusing Time Traveler's Wife. There's a rote quality to his set pieces, which tend to feature characters repeatedly firing guns at anonymous extras, without any sense of who's where. This blandness isn't entirely Schwentke's fault, and it's not as though a different filmmaker would have been able to imprint such a heavily engineered studio property with his own personality anyway. (Roth's credit as a co-producer suggests that Summit and Lionsgate felt especially beholden to the author's text, and to servicing the book's legion of fans.) He's a competent enough hired gun, consistently putting his actors in rushing motion, as when Tris launches into a sprint in order to board a high-speed train.

A typical action scene from "Insurgent"

It's when the characters slow down and open their mouths that Insurgent craters. There's no harm in authors committing to their mythology, and it's only fair that they demand some suspension of disbelief from their viewership. But when that mythology is profoundly idiotic, and when the writing is just plain bad, a movie like Insurgent winds up sinking deeper into its own quicksand of illogic. Early on, Four debates his mother (Naomi Watts, who looks more like Four's sister, given that she's just 16 years older than James), the leader of the factionless, about military strategy and whether they have "the numbers", and the whole conversation rings false. Later, Tris injects herself with a truth serum and writhes in pain as she attempts to withhold damning information from an interrogator (Lost's Daniel Dae Kim); Woodley gives it her all, but the scene verges on self-parody, as does a latter sequence where Tris does battle against her doppelganger, babbling about self-forgiveness.

Thankfully, Tris eventually flees from her comrades and surrenders to Jeanine, agreeing to open the infamous box in order to stop her brethren's suffering. That's easier said than done, as it requires Tris to complete five different "sims", one devoted to each faction. These segments are as ludicrous as the rest of Insurgent, but they at least carry a whiff of creativity, not to mention a momentarily blessed respite from all the ponderous dialogue. They also feature the movie's most impressive set, a sterile white chamber in which menacing black tendrils descend from the ceiling and ensnare Tris with chilling remorselessness. But then that damn box actually does open—disappointingly, at no point does anyone scream, "WHAT'S IN THE BOX?"—and we're unpleasantly yanked back to the film's nonsensical story.

Kate Winslet tortures Shailene Woodley, for complicated reasons

Insurgent may be a mess, but it isn't an especially terrible movie. There are a number of appealing visual flourishes, such as Tris leaping in midair to catch a dangling rope, or that aforementioned torture chamber of technological terror. And there is always the pleasure of watching wildly overqualified British actors class up an American production that is thoroughly beneath them (in addition to Winslet and Watts, both Ray Stevenson and Janet McTeer have cameos). These mild diversions, along with some solid production values, can conspire to distract you from the movie's core inanity. In fact, Insurgent only really becomes problematic when you stop and think about it; as such, I recommend thinking about it as little as possible. That appears to have been the filmmakers' approach.