Thursday, 16 April 2015

FILM REVIEW: WHILE WE'RE YOUNG



Roadshow Films

The synopsis for Noah Baumbach's latest film -- a middle-aged couple's career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives -- reads a lot like a 1990s sexual thriller. Far from it.

Baumbach is known for his smart, often caustic take on middle class, pseudo intellectuals and while the younger couple may not be all that they at first seem, the action in While We're Young remains out of the bedroom and relatively light on.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a documentarian and film producer respectively, though they never collaborate on the same project: Josh has been filming a doco on "power in America" for the best part of a decade now with little end in sight; Cornelia produces the films of her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian whom Josh none-too-subconsciously tries, and fails, to live up to.

Drifting from their friends who have recently had a baby, Josh and Cornelia fall in with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried); two 25-year-olds who are fun and spontaneous, and view the world as theirs to embrace and conquer at will. They collect vinyl records, watch "old" films on VHS and have beach parties in the street of their New York neighbourhood. Yes, they are hipsters (adjust your disdain accordingly).

Darby makes her own brand of ice cream while Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker, which sees Josh form a fast connection with the young man; reinvigorated by his energy and eager to become both a mentor and collaborator. Between dinners, night tours of train tunnels, trips to hip-hop dance classes and a suburban Shaman, the two couples become almost inseparable.

Josh and Cornelia also become unrecognizable. But are they losing themselves or merely rediscovering the passions and youthful zeal they abandoned when they moved from their 20s into their 30s and beyond? And are Darby and Jamie all sunshine and lollipops or are they too good to be true?

Noah Baumbach's characters often occupy a similar world to those of Woody Allen's: middle class, college-educated liberals (though mostly Gen X as opposed to Allen's baby boomers) who almost always work in artistic or intellectual fields. And they are almost definitely white. And in the case of Josh and Cornelia, and especially Jamie and Darby, they are insufferable.

But While We're Young is no less fun for that, so long as Baumbach sticks with the culture clash between Generation X and Generation Next. The ways in which the older couple try to imitate the younger's fashion and spontaneity, and how the young take everything from the older's youth -- movies, music -- and re-purpose it with all new meaning and no distinction between high and low art, makes for some amusing, if obvious, moments.

It's when the writer-director manufactures a conflict between the older and younger filmmakers in the third act that the film trades in its comic edge; taking on a semi-serious tone about truth and authenticity in art and life, and losing steam as a result.

Some species eat their young but in the human world, you either make way for them or you get eaten. And in While We're Young, hipsters are no less ambitious in spite of their laissez faire lifestyle. Not that the film condemns them for that, but neither Josh -- nor Baumbach -- is quite ready to secede to them just yet. The war wages on, amusingly so.

Monday, 13 April 2015

FILM REVIEW: IT FOLLOWS



Rialto Distribution

In the most creepily effective piece of safe sex promotion since the Grim Reaper campaign of the 1980s, comes writer-director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows: a creepy-as-fuck parable about the dangers of unprotected sex.

But Mitchell's young protags don't have to contend with chlamydia (pfft, they wish!) but something far more sinister. For in this instance, STD stands for Sexually Transmitted Demon and once you've been infected (via sexual intercourse with someone already carrying the bug) you have one course of action: pass it on ASAP and hope that person passes it on just as quick, or else the Demon will come and fuck you up.

After a couple of dates with the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), college student Jay (Maika Monroe) decides to go all the way. But her post-coital bliss in the backseat of his car soon turns to horror with the introduction of some chloroform. Thankfully Jay is neither raped nor murdered but she soon realises that what her beau has done to her is arguably far worse.

Jay is now infected with a relentless (though slow moving) demon, which can appear in any guise but only to the carrier, and which is only dangerous should it get its hands on you. Jay's best bet? To pass the disease on to someone else and hope they do the same. One willing recipient is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), friend to Jay's younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), who's had a crush on the older girl since childhood. Tormented though she is, Jay, unlike Hugh, is not so eager to pass on the disease so freely.

Kelly, Paul, their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and neighbour Greg (Danny Zovatto), rally to support the unraveling Jay, even though they can't see what she does. They also don't go to their parents or the police because who'd believe them? Also, you don't talk to grown-ups about sex!

Like the horror films of the 1970s-80s, It Follows -- which save for the use of mobile phones has a very 1980s aesthetic -- plays on the theme of sex as sin and death as punishment. Those teens who indulge in carnal activities are bound to regret it most painfully: punished for partaking in 'the original sin'; those who remain virgins get to live through the night. Ironically, sex is both the poison and the cure in It Follows, and like herpes -- or HIV -- the "disease" just can't be rid of.

And like the best horror films, the protag is female. Maika Monroe's Jay may not be as kick-ass as say, Neve Campbell's Sidney in the Scream films, or Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien, but she is strong-willed with a functioning moral compass (though it does divert from true north on one occasion). She also gives great cry face.

Monroe, strongly resembling Brie Larson, also has a passing resemblance to a young Chloe Sevigny. This in turn recalls Sevigny's character in Larry Clark's Kids (1995), who spends the entirety of that film trying to prevent the boy who infected her with HIV from passing it on to another unsuspecting girl. Intentional or not, it adds another layer of interest to a horror film that is already operating on a more intellectual level than your average teen slasher flick.

It's an impressive and mostly assured second feature by David Robert Mitchell but by no means perfect: the score by Disasterpeace is often just as distracting as it is effective, and just what was the motivation behind going to the old swimming pool in the third act?

Others have taken issue with the film's ending, which isn't a climax (no pun intended) so much as open-ended. But that's more in keeping with the theme of sexually transmitted infections, particularly if you want to read It Follows strictly as AIDS parable.

Either way, It Follows will leave you unnerved and feeling uneasy long after the house lights come up. But maybe don't see it on a first date; that could kill the mood whilst also provoking some awkward post-film chat.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

FILM REVIEW: SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE



StudioCanal

You don't have to be familiar with the television adventures of Shaun The Sheep to enjoy the woolly little guy's first big screen adventure. Given that Shaun is a stablemate of Wallace and Gromit, that is to say Aardman Animation, you can rest assured you're in reliably safe and entertaining hands (directing duties performed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak).

A mischievous sheep who causes his owner, The Farmer, and the farmer's dog, Bitzer, no end of trouble, Shaun is always leading his flock astray. This time, it's off the farm and into the big smoke following a series of events -- set in motion by Shaun's eagerness to upend the monotony of day-to-day life on the farm -- which has seen The Farmer stranded in town and without his memory.

So begins a near dialogue-free (fans of the TV show will know that no-one speaks in actual words) escapade where sight gag upon sight gag, and many a film reference fly by as Shaun, his fleecy friends, and Bitzer must somehow recover their human (who finds 15 minutes of fame via the social media maelstrom) whilst evading capture by the maniacal animal control guy.

Charming, funny and moving at a cracking pace, Shaun The Sheep Movie should delight young audiences, as well as those adults who are attuned to the Aardman sense of humour.

As always, these school holidays will be full of loud and colourful studio computer animation competing for your child's attention but in his own quiet way, Shaun is the one guaranteed to give you the most bang for your (jum)buck.

Monday, 23 March 2015

FILM REVIEW: CINDERELLA



Walt Disney Studios Films

Everyone loves a princess, most especially Disney; their empire is built on them: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and of course, Cinderella. Classic animated films which have been adored for, and by, generations.

Now, in a bid to make what is old new again, Disney have begun making live-action versions of their back catalogue of animated classics, beginning last year with a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty; viewing the action from the point of view of that tale's villain, Maleficent (Angleina Jolie in fine form even if the film was not).

And now comes the turn of Cinderella -- directed by Kenneth Branagh and penned by Chris Weitz, best known for his gross-out work on the original American Pie -- to go to the live-action ball. And Branagh's certainly got the storybook look right. Shot on film (by Haris Zambarloukos), he captures every production (Dante Ferretti) and costume (Sandy Powell) design detail, while CGI fills in the magical blanks; turning pumpkins into stagecoaches and mice into thoroughbreds (thank you, Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)).

But technological magic can't do much to enliven proceedings. For all her beauty, Lily James' Cinderella is a bit of a pill. Not nearly as docile as Elle Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, she still views the world through rose-tinted glasses even after the death of her beloved father (Ben Chaplin), and her enforced servitude to her step family.

'Have courage and be kind' Cinderella repeatedly tells herself, so often in fact that you wish her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett, not nearly chewing enough of the scenery) would just drop the passive-aggressive routine and go all-out aggressive on her stepdaughter's petticoat-ed behind.

For strangely, and sadly, this Cinderella is much more classic than expected. Absent is any hint of feminism, the kind which propelled Frozen, that more recent of Disney princess animation, and Maleficent: no man was going to get the better of Jolie's lover scorned (Fanning's Sleeping Beauty, on the other hand, only ever had one fate).

Even 2007's Enchanted, where Amy Adams played a storybook princess come to modern day New York, knowingly played with the Disney fairy tales' antiquated notions of princesses, Prince Charmings and inevitable wedded bliss.

But marriage to a prince (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) is all that awaits Cinderella in 2015. Sure he disappoints his court by marrying below his station and for love, and little girls, for whom this film is squarely aimed at, will eat it up with a spoon. Tweens and older, however, will be well aware that it's Cinderella who's being sold short, even if she -- and this gorgeously mounted production -- looks like a million bucks.