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03/27/15 6:26am
03/27/2015 6:26 AM |

while-were-young

Noah Baumbach’s first movie, the post-college comedy Kicking and Screaming, turns twenty this year. In it, the fussy character played by Carlos Jacott is described as “having two moods: antsy and testy.” Josh (Ben Stiller), the central character in Baumbach’s new While We’re Young, would have been graduating college around 1995, and though he doesn’t necessarily resemble the young neurotics of the earlier film, he does suggest their critical self-awareness when he describes his two primary modes, in middle age, as “wistful and disdainful.”

Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) would have been entering kindergarten around the time the Kicking and Screaming kids were set loose upon the real world, which makes them a potentially strange couple-buddy for Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who have tried to accept their childlessness while adjusting to the fact that their best friends (Elizabeth Reaser and Adam Horowitz) are now parents. When Jamie and Darby turn up at the continuing-ed course Josh teaches in documentary filmmaking, Josh is flattered into friendship with them, energized by their youthful hipsterism—their desire to “make things” (“for about twelve hours, I thought I could make a desk,” Josh notes—enthusiastically, not rueful, about his implied failure). Cornelia is skeptical at first, but goes along on their Bushwick barbecues and subway tunnel walks and shaman retreats.

Baumbach, then, after ably chronicling twentysomething life in Kicking and Frances Ha as well as middle-age fuck-ups in Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, mashes together his areas of expertise into generation-gap comedy.

(more…)

03/25/15 8:29am
03/25/2015 8:29 AM |

photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Serena
Directed by Susanne Bier
Opens March 27 at the Landmark Sunshine

Why did it have to come to this, Serena? The version of Susanne Bier’s Depression-era psychodrama released in theaters this week—by the barest of all possible minimums—is a guaranteed studio ribbon-job, the evidence on display suggesting each and every extremity shaved down to a nub. The picture is as indebted to the attractions of the Hollywood period melodrama as they come, pairing Bradley Cooper as George Pemberton, a dopey lumber prospector, and Jennifer Lawrence as his eponymous, power-mad young wife. Bier’s heretofore touch with actors glistens through some of the blemished passages, but the casting (rumored to have torpedoed the postproduction process, as Cooper and Lawrence became megastars and 2929 Productions duly pressured Bier to make a different film) is hardly inspired: Lawrence and Cooper’s performances manage the odd feat of canceling each other out, with the leading man cycling through different accents as if still demo-ing for the job, while Lawrence is relegated to a bland, pretty, tear-streaked widescreen visage.

The screenplay betrays a certain occasional appreciation for the esoterica of North Carolina history, but every shred of nuance finds itself at eternal odds with the outsize nature of the material. Bier has alleged that Serena was supposed to be a film about a woman suffering from a mental illness, but what she represents here is a childhood trauma and/or curse that’s (naturally) the key to her siren-like irresistibility, while George is manifest destiny writ sociopathic. Much of Serena consists of watching two attractive people make cataclysmically stupid decisions, torn asunder by psychosexual pressures left out of the patchwork man-meets-girl narrative. The film’s endeavors to get viewers to take George and Serena seriously—wherein their expository courtship is essentially a transitional montage, threaded with nocturnal sex scenes—can’t help but backfire from start to finish. The most entrancing thing Serena has going for it are its bookending vistas of mist-soaked mountains, ensconcing all the film’s whooping-and-hollering within an unknowable folk legend, the same way future cinephiles will look back and wonder: “Man, just what the hell went wrong with Serena?”

12/25/14 12:00pm
12/25/2014 12:00 PM |

Angelina-Jolie-on-the-set-of-Unbroken-2014-Movie-Image-2

Unbroken, the second film from Angelina Jolie, Professional Film Director, chronicles the ordeal of Olympic athlete and WWII soldier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who goes from scrappy troublemaker to Olympic track star to, eventually, prisoner of war after his plane is shot down in World War II. What might track as Zamperini’s character arc happens in an introductory rush: he learns to channel his anger over bullying into self-defensive aggression and then, after getting into too many fights, re-channels that aggression into athleticism. The rest of the movie is about his heroic suffering and survival, in both a liferaft and a series of Japanese POW camps, where he’s tortured by a sadistic guard. One of the most interesting details of Zamperini’s life—that he later returned to Japan and forgave his captors, except the most sadistic of the bunch, who refused to meet with him—is left to the post-torture credit crawl because the movie only depicts events that are physically amazing, not, despite its supposed inspiration, events that are internally or spiritually amazing.

That may be why Jolie doesn’t actually say much about those feats beyond, wow, that stuff that happened was amazing. But she sure has great taste in (and, clearly, access to) collaborators. Unbroken features lovely Roger Deakins cinematography, editing by Oscar-winner William Goldenberg, and a co-scripting credit from no less than the Coen Brothers. Goldenberg and Deakins help the movie look great, but that Coen contribution feels invisible beyond the story’s fascination with human suffering, which the Coens often find darkly funny and Jolie finds to be her everything. The starkness of the life-raft scenes give way to a static, nondescript triumph of the human spirit that Jolie treats as holy scripture—especially when glomming onto an aside about Zamperini promising himself to God when he’s in a particularly tight spot. We don’t see the even better man Zamperini becomes; it’s just implied by that credit crawl explaining that he stayed religious.

Religion is treated, weirdly, as either an abstraction, or a signal; it’s hard to tell. Though it began production well before 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture (including a statuette for Jolie’s husband Brad Pitt!), Unbroken feels almost coded as an alternative suffering-delivery system that doesn’t mess around with those tiresome complications of race in America. Why should we have to feel guilty or chastened to enjoy a movie about someone suffering terribly for a couple of hours? Finally, a harrowing tale of survival for us regular white folks! That’s more the movie’s marketing, of course—but marketing is about all this beautifully photographed, inert movie has to offer.

eastwood-cooper-sniper-on-set

With both her empathy and her Greatest Generation pandering, Jolie comes across as a Clint Eastwood conservative—that is, in style and interests more than politics (and, regarding the latter, setting aside her past-expressed appreciation of Ayn Rand along with Eastwood’s 2012 RNC performance as the indiscretions of the youthful and the elderly, respectively). The two worked together back when Jolie showed her interest in suffering on camera, during the want-my-kid-back melodrama Changeling, where Eastwood’s unfussy procedural trumped Jolie’s one-note anguish. Eastwood has his own true-life war history tale coming into theaters on Christmas with American Sniper, his second movie of the year after Jersey Boys and his fourth of his last five to look back on a period in American history. Sniper‘s story, mostly post-9/11, is too recent for Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern to go full-on resthome-mush sepia like many of their recent collaborations, though it still manages to look even more color-drained than the desert sand.

Just as Sniper is a bit less snoozy to look at than a lot of other Prestige Eastwood pictures, it’s also a bit fleeter of foot than anything he’s made in a while, perhaps better reflecting how he supposedly works on set. The movie, adapted from the book by Chris Kyle (the “deadliest sniper in U.S. history” per dialogue gracelessly preceded with “they say you’re the…”), ping-pongs briskly between Iraq tours and stateside breaks as Kyle (Bradley Cooper) becomes ruthlessly great at his job while trying to shake off the effects of same. Quasi-apolitical Clint happily conflates the second Iraq War with understandable 9/11 grief, but deserves credit for treating that job as such: a tough, psychologically demanding profession, not a series of victory laps. Kyle’s work in Iraq is threaded together by an ongoing pursuit of an enemy sniper, which results in some tense battleground duels that, even at their most exciting, feel both scary and elusive.

Kyle’s wartime experiences would have more impact, though, if the corresponding domestic scenes weren’t so routine, with poor Sienna Miller cradling a fake baby and informing Kyle that “even when you’re here, you’re not here”—in other words (seriously, why didn’t they use other words?), a lesser role even in the annals of worried-wife parts. Cooper, though, continues to cannily refute every bad thing I ever thought about him during those stupid Hangover movies: he’s a versatile and engaging actor, convincing here as a man whose lack of self-reflection starts to eat away at him. One of his best scenes has him encountering a military acquaintance by chance back home. As the other man speaks to him with reverence, Cooper slowly makes clear Kyle’s antsy discomfort when hailed as a hero.

Good as it is, though, Cooper’s performance still feels like a comedown after the high-wire trauma of his work for David O. Russell; no one expects Eastwood to go that freewheeling, but with his late-period seriousness has come a seeming pride in his workmanlike squareness—a resistance to anything either too refined or too loose. He further uncomplicates Kyle’s story by copping out of showing a key moment toward the end of it, downplaying the movie’s relevance about the way our country treats veterans. Which is to say: nod at their sacrifice, salute, and forget them as individuals. Both Unbroken and American Sniper veer uncomfortably close to this treatment—they’re singular stories turned solemnly generic.

selma-cast

Ava DuVernay’s Selma, on the other hand, takes cues from Spielberg’s Lincoln, depicting a historical struggle with an electric sense of detail. Not every character in this examination of the 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama is perfectly drawn—but Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), the man at the center of the film, comes through with greater clarity than he might have in a more traditionally sweeping biopic. Unlike Spielberg, DuVernay doesn’t move the camera much; she returns to similarly framed shots several times in a single scene and at some points the cuts feel almost metronomic. It’s intimate and controlled, if a touch less poetic than I expected from DP and natural-light enthusiast Bradford Young. Though the marches have great emotional resonance, particularly following the Ferguson and NYPD protests, Selma exposes the strategizing and dealmaking behind the iconic images—and among the various civil rights factions with different perspectives on how to accomplish their goals. The result is talky, but immensely moving. The environmental strife covered by the film is superficially less extreme than the prison camps of Unbroken or the unpredictable warfare of American Sniper, yet also, in this telling, more indelible. It’s the only one of the Christmas Day histories that feels fully alive.