Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Avengers' strikes again -- but not as deftly

Still, summer's first comic-book movie probably will connect with fans.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first of summer's bona-fide comic book movies. As such, it surely will score with fans of the series, as well as with those who've awoken from winter's hibernation hungry for another helping of their cherished Marvel superheroes.

Here's a list for those keeping score: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

These are the same actors who helped turn director Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012) into an entertaining megahit.

This time out, Whedon and company provide a demonstration of what happens when a culture begins replicating itself, doling out the latest version of the same-old-same-old. The movie plays like an echo of its predecessor -- albeit a very loud one.

Also directed by Whedon, this edition alternates dull exposition with slam-bang action, some of it spectacularly created by the movie's welter of CGI geniuses. For my money, these unseen artists qualify as the movie's real stars, although they probably have been called upon to create more battles than any single movie needs.

The movie opens with an action-packed prologue set in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia. The commotion has something do with invading the headquarters of Hydra. If you're an aficionado, you need no further explanation. If you're not, you probably don't care anyway.

The story's stakes, of course, are both high and par for the comic-book course: Our superheroes square off against Ultron (voice by James Spader), a super-intelligent robot (or at least some sort of metalic creature) created by Tony Stark, who's also Iron Man.

Uninspired by what he sees of humankind, Ultron decides that he wants to wipe out all of humanity.

Although it has been engineered to give each superhero time in the spotlight, the movie ultimately delivers a message about the importance of team work. The superheroes must use their unique individual skills to accomplish a joint task; i.e., rid the world of Ultron -- while delivering one-liners, of course.

The movie introduces several new characters, two of them twins played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver is lightning fast; Olsen's Scarlet Witch has some kind of out-sized mental powers.

A few subplots also peek through the action, notably a digression into Hawkeye's civilian life and suggestions of romance between Hulk and Black Widow.

Paul Bettany shows up late the movie as a character named Vision: He reassures us that an invention with artificial intelligence can appreciate humans, despite not being one of them.

All of this tumult results in a somewhat confusing entertainment that still manages to wring a bit of sentiment out its finale.

Before the screening, I was mentioning to a companion that I'm starting to wear out on Robert Downey Jr.'s smart-and-smug act. Ultron did nothing to change my mind.

I enjoyed some of the big set pieces, but at 2 1/2 hours, my biggest reaction upon conclusion of Ultron was relief.

I also wondered whether Whedon and some the principal cast members might not feel the same way. These mega-productions definitely can wear you out.

Life is tough -- even for stars

Clouds of Sils Maria examines the woes of an aging actress.

There are two important characters in Clouds of Sils Maria -- and only one of them is human.

The latest collaboration between director Olivier Assayas and actress Juliette Binoche revolves around an aging actress who's being pushed from center stage. She's the obvious human in this drama.

Then there's the other character: time, a relentless accumulation of years that's pushing the actress out of the spotlight.

Binoche plays Maria, an accomplished middle-aged French actress who spends most of the movie in the company of her impressively efficient assistant (Kristen Stewart).

In addition to handling Maria's affairs -- everything from an impending divorce hearing to press requests -- Stewart's Valentine also interprets an increasingly youth-oriented culture for a skeptical Maria.

The movie opens on a train with Maria and Valentine headed for a tribute to the director who launched Maria's career. In the midst of the trip, they learn that the director has passed away, turning the pending tribute into a sad affair.

At what was to be a celebration, Maria meets an actor with whom she once had an affair, but on whom she has soured. The movie then slips away to Switzerland, where Maria and Valentine ensconce themselves in a mountain home owned by the late director's wife.

Clouds of Sils Maria has backstage allure. Assayas takes us into Maria's private world. She's capable of putting on good front, but her laugh reveals a bit of desperation, as well as the wear of too many cigarettes.

Despite various digressions, Clouds revolves around a single event. A hot-shot director (Lars Eidinger) offers Maria a part in a stage production of The Maloja Snake, the movie that established her career.

This time, though, Maria must play the older of two women engaged in a love relationship that falls apart as the younger woman becomes increasingly assertive.

The more incendiary role has gone to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moritz), a youthful actress who can't seem to keep her face out of the tabloids. Jo-Ann, who has appeared in sci-fi blockbusters, is either a Hollywood A-lister or about to become one.

Stewart's character occupies a middle ground between Maria and her youthful challenger. She respects Maria, but appreciates Jo-Ann's gift, an admiration that's revealed when Maria and Valentine go to a theater to watch one of Jo-Ann's 3D, sci-fi extravaganzas.

When Maria and Valentine run lines from the upcoming play, it becomes clear that they're also acting out portions of their complex relationship, sometimes in ways that seem too on-the-nose.

It may help to know that the movie has an insider component: Binoche and Assayas worked together on Rendez-vous (1985), an Andre Techine-directed movie that Assayas co-wrote and which helped bring Binoche to prominence. They also teamed for 2008's Summer Hours.

After her fine work in the Alzheimer's drama Still Alice, Stewart continues to impress. She plays the least defined and, therefore, most interesting of the three women.

Assays is no speed demon when it comes to pacing, and he isn't exactly breaking new ground here. Clouds sometimes seems to be drifting, and the insular world of these performers can narrow to the point of off-putting self-absorption.

It's also not clear why Assayas made Binoche, who's 51, into a 40-year-old for his movie. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize that show business so values newness and youth that 40 is considered old for an actress.

As for Maria and Jo-Ann, they're jockeying for position -- not only with each other -- but, in Maria's case, with the inevitability of advancing time. Her tragedy, one supposes, is that she's smart enough to know that she's not going to beat the clock.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Does a robot have a mind of her own?

Ex Machina may not be great, but it has a lot going for it.

Here's a lesson Hollywood would do well to learn: Smarter trumps bigger when it comes to sci-fi films. For a long time, smart is precisely what we get from director Alex Garland's debut move, Ex Machina, the story of two men and a robot.

The movie begins when a computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to spend a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive genius who runs a Google-like internet company that has given him shameful amounts of wealth.

Reachable only by helicopter, Nathan's home seems to have been carved into the rocky cliffs of a lush landscape. The place is part retreat and part laboratory, a location that's at once ominous, alluring and so design-dominated that it seems to have had every ounce of humanity wrung from it.

It took me more than half the movie to remember that Isaac, an actor who manages to look different in every role, is playing Nathan.

In last year's A Most Violent Year, Isaac portrayed an impeccably dressed, upwardly mobile businessman who was trying to grow his oil delivery service amid gangster-like competition in the New York metropolitan area.

Here, Isaac portrays a billionaire recluse, a manipulative guy who throws off sparks of danger. Nathan works out on a heavy bag, and often wanders about his home shirtless. He regards himself not only as the smartest guy in the room, but maybe in the entire world.

In a way, Gleeson has the more difficult role; his Caleb is an open book, a normal guy trying to keep pace with a genius, a job that we sense may be beyond his skill-set.

Nathan tells Caleb that he wants help in testing one of his inventions, a robot named Ava. The task: To determine whether Ava has developed consciousness independent of her creator's programs. Can Caleb come to regard Ava as he would a human?

Played by former Swedish* ballet dancer Alicia Vikander, Ava seems to have her own personality. She's built to reveal the high-tech workings that keep her operating, but also to be subtly sexy.

Ex Machina isn't without deficiencies, but its setting and premise are so encompassing, we feel as if we've been transported into an alien world -- not exactly forbidden, but not entirely comfortable, either.

Garland -- who also wrote the screenplay -- gives himself lots to work with: That's hardly surprising because he also wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, all movies with juicy subtexts.

As the characters in Ex Machina interact, they keep us guessing about their motivations, but it's Isaac who gives the movie its tension: His Nathan can be hospitable, but he's controlling, secretive and scary.

As the story develops, Caleb begins to be drawn into Ava's world. This, of course, raises questions about what it might mean if he falls for Ava. Can man and machine find happiness together? Can Caleb get Ava out of what has become her mountain prison? Is Ava really a machine?

Directing with a sure hand, Garland keeps us off guard for a long time. In the end, though, Ex Machina can't quite carry its intelligence across the finish line for a truly resonant finale. At just the moment when the movie should enlarge, it seems to shrink and get smaller.

Still, the performances are strong, and at its best, Ex Machina serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men are left alone with their very expensive toys.
*In an earlier posting, I misidentified Vikander as Danish. My bad.

'Water Diviner' dilutes its power

Russell Crowe moves behind the camera for his first directorial effort.

World War I cost Australian farmer Joshua Connor everything he held dear. Three of his sons were killed in the Battle of Gallipoli. His beloved wife was so crippled by grief and shock that she took her own life.

Feeling that his existence had lost all purpose, Connor decided to travel to Gallipoli to search for the bodies of his sons. He had promised is late wife, he would bring the boys -- or at least their bodies -- home.

Russell Crowe found Connor's story interesting enough to move behind the camera and direct his first movie, The Water Diviner.

Perhaps knowing that Water Diviner would be a hard sell without a star, Crowe also plays the lead role. He's Connor, a character who appears in nearly every frame of a film that's trying to be ... well ... many things: a robust adventure, a grim story about the horrors of war, an encouraging look at friendship across a cultural divide, as well as a romance.

That's a bit much for any movie. The overload may explain why The Water Diviner turns into a mixed bag of movie that works better in some parts than in others.

Connor, by the way, gives the movie its title. He's unusually adept at discovering water, using divining rods to show him where to dig wells.

The story gets rolling when Connor reaches Turkey. The British army (hated in Turkey) doesn't want Connor to travel to the ravaged battlefield of Gallipoli to search for his sons' bodies. He must fight the military bureaucracy while dealing with the culture shock of being in a country that's entirely foreign to him.

Upon arrival in Turkey, Connor finds a hotel where he's befriended by the son (Dylan Georgiades) of the hotel's owner (Olga Kurylenko). Crowe keeps the romance between Connor and Kurylenko's Ayshe at subdued levels, but it's still a pro forma affair and not nearly as interesting as the brutal war footage (shown in flashback) or the adventure that ensues when Connor hooks up with a Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan) to travel deep into Turkey.

This Turkish officer helps Connor, and paves the way for the movie's big twist, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.

If you know nothing about the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, you may find the movie's politics a bit confusing. British and French troops fought at Gallipoli along with Australian divisions and the New Zealand Army Corps. The Ottoman Empire was allied with the Germans.

Whatever you know, you certainly can follow Connor on an adventure that's layered with grief over a war's massive casualties.

Crowe's well-crafted period piece would have done well to dispense with elements that feel as if they've been added to make the movie more user friendly: The romance between Connor and Ayshe and the surrogate father/son relationship between Connor and Ayshe's son deplete the movie's power rather than adding to its richness.

Crowe isn't afraid to temper his portrait of Connor with bitterness, but as I watched The Water Diviner, I couldn't help wondering whether he too often flinches from the story's hardest truths with the introduction of obvious movie ploys.

'Age of Adaline' turns gooey and soft

Blake Lively holds this romance together, but the movie is too sentimental for its own good.
Soft and mushy, nearly everything in The Age of Adaline stands in stark contrast to the crisp performance given by Blake Lively, who plays the movie's title character, a woman who stops aging at 29.

This situation -- let's call it an "age freeze" -- arises after Lively's Adaline runs her car off the road during a rare California snow storm. With help from lightning, water and a half-baked explanation from an off-screen narrator, Adaline is reborn as a person who'll never see 30.

Age of Adaline is an adult fairy tale, but the movie winds up avoiding its more perplexing aspects, apparently so that it can turn out a conventional romance mixed with a bit of cheerleading about embracing life's greatest possibility; i.e., love.

Obviously, a woman who's never going to age must be wary about her choices. If Adaline falls in love and commits to a relationship, she's going to watch her beloved age and die.

Aside from a series of cute puppies, Adaline studiously avoids involvement. Adaline does, however, have a daughter from before the life-changing auto accident.

Director Lee Toland Krieger better hope that audiences fall in love with Lively because there's not a whole lot more to enjoy in a movie that eventually finds a wary Adaline establishing a relationship with Ellis, (Michiel Huisman), a wealthy San Francisco-based philanthropist who made his fortune in the high-tech world.

Of course, the relationship can't progress because Adaline refuses to tell Ellis (or anyone else for that matter) that she's approaching 107. Only her daughter -- now an aging woman played by Ellen Burstyn -- knows the truth about Adaline. Adaline works hard to keep it that way.

Whenever she thinks someone might recognize her from a past encounter, she bolts. Even if nothing like that happens, Adaline changes her identity once a decade, switching residences and taking on a new name.

About midway through, Ellis takes Adeline to meet his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker), where additional complications ensue.

The movie arrives wrapped in the gauze of a sentimental story that wants to reach a destination that was predictable from the moment Adaline and Ellis first exchanged looks across a crowded room.

Ford looks professorial and unheroic, which is of some interest, and Lively certainly holds the screen for the movie's 110-minute length.

Burstyn has a nice cameo as Adaline's daughter, a woman who's now old enough to enter a retirement community. The movie's mother and daughter exchanges are odd but convincing -- and something the movie could have used more of.

The Age of Adaline needed to get the stars out of its eyes, and wake up to what it actually might be saying, as opposed to the message it delivers, which is: Wake up and embrace life. Take a chance.

If you follow this advice, let me know how it works out for you. I'll be sitting in the safety of my room waiting to hear.

A movie or a sitcom episode?

Adult Beginners: Just one more indie comedy.
About half way through Adult Beginners, I began to wonder whether I wasn't watching a sitcom about a failed entrepreneur (Nick Kroll) whose reduced economic circumstances force him to move in with his sister and her husband (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale). To make matters even more humiliating for Kroll's Jake, his sister and her husband live in the suburban house where Jake grew up. Stripped of his upscale Manhattan lifestyle, Jake is asked to earn his keep by taking care of the couple's young -- and sometimes difficult son. The comedy revolves around various additional indignities that are heaped on Jake, who suddenly finds himself sleeping on an air mattress in his old room. Cannavale gives what's becoming a familiar performance for him, the gruff but good-hearted guy who's a little wayward. As the pregnant Justine, Byrne splits the difference between comedy and drama, and Kroll -- perhaps best known for his work on Parks and Recreation -- alternately annoys and amuses in a comedy in which director Ross Katz focuses on two siblings who re-establish their childhood bond. The movie's title stems from the fact that neither Kroll nor Byrne's character ever learned to swim. At some point, Jake must leap into the pool of adult responsibility and also get his priorities straight. Fair enough, but when it comes to expanding the world of indie-oriented comedy, Adult Beginners seems to be treading water.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The perils of life on-line

The unexpected results of cyberbullying.

If you spend much of your day staring at a computer screen, you'll either be put off by the new horror film Unfriended or sucked in by its user-friendly familiarity.

Set in Fresno, Ca. -- or rather in a variety of semi-sloppy bedrooms in Fresno -- Unfriended is an unapologetic gimmick movie that gets much further than you might have thought possible considering that the movie confines itself to a single computer screen.

The characters in Unfriended -- six teen-agers engaged in a SKYPE call -- simultaneously chat, send messages to one another, look stuff up on Google and show their dexterity at multitasking.

The amazing thing about the movie (which does, I think, eventually wear out) is that director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves actually keep you watching: Of course, they toss sexual tensions, jealousy, teen posturing, tech savvy and horror into the mix.

If you're looking to be scared out of your mind, you may be disappointed by what amounts to a horror sketch that takes place in real time, and which eliminates the need for great camera work. We are, after all, looking at SKYPE images on screens.

Oh yeah, the story:

It seems that a teenager named Laura committed suicide after being humiliated by the posting of an on-line video that went viral.

Early on, a stranger horns in what appears to be a typical on-line session of the movie's teen ensemble. The stranger says she's Laura, the kid who committed suicide.

This ghost in the machine is out for vengeance and even the most technically proficient of these young people can't get rid of her.

The way in which Laura (or whoever is behind all this) arranges for these youngsters to be knocked off are decidedly low-tech and not particularly inventive, even when judged by low-budget horror movie standards.

OK, I've told you the kids, who may be implicated in Laura's humiliation, are knocked off, but this information only can be regarded as a spoiler if you expected the departed Laura to provide her former classmates with links to scholarly articles on cyberbullying.

Credit director Gabriadze with being smart enough to hold his movie to an 82-minute length and for daring to do this at all. I've read about (but never seen) last year's Open Windows, which evidently used a similar gimmick to lesser effect, earning a paltry 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever you think of either movie, it's probably a good bet that we'll see more of this or at least some creative variations, providing, of course, that we can tear ourselves away from our computer screens.

Seeking the truth behind a murder

James Franco and Jonah Hill get serious in True Story.

In True Story, Jonah Hill and James Franco put on serious faces to tell a story about journalistic ethics and murder. But before we get to how well they do, some background may be helpful.

True Story is the big-screen adaptation of Michael Finkel's 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Let's begin with the "Mea Culpa" of Finkel's title.

Finkel's journalistic career hit a major snag when he was fired for fudging facts in a New York times magazine cover story about the use of slave labor on African cocoa plantations.

In search of a more compelling read, Finkel created a composite character without telling readers that he was combining the stories of a variety of young men who'd been terribly exploited.

Months after his New York Times debacle, Finkel learned that an Oregon man who had been arrested for murdering his wife and three children had been posing as Finkel while hiding from the law in Mexico.

Seeing a path to possible journalistic redemption and a book contract, Finkel visited Longo in jail, wondering why the accused murderer had tried to steal his identity.

Simple, Longo told him, he very much admired Finkel's writing. He was an ardent fan.

Finkel developed a relationship with Longo, who proceeded to tell him his story, claiming that he was innocent. But he also refused to tell Finkel what really happened, asking instead that Finkel teach him how to write.

For his part, Finkel thought he was a good enough reporter to induce Longo to spill whatever beans need spilling.

Although not without interest, the resultant movie never fully realizes the mind-bending possibilities that result when a journalist (Hill) whose work has come under question meets a prisoner (Franco) whose account of events immediately qualifies as suspect. Facing the death penalty if convicted, Longo had plenty of reason to lie.

British theater director Rupert Goold directs in competent but conventional fashion as he presents the story of a writer (with an agenda, of course) who collaborated with a prisoner (with an agenda of his own).

Hill and Franco worked together in the comedy This is the End, but are paired here in a dramatic effort that's sprinkled with brief flashbacks to the crime.

Franco brings low-key calm to the role of an accused murderer, as well as a bit of rumpled charm.

We know that Hill can act (see Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street), but I couldn't quite buy him as an avid, ambitious and ultimately desperate reporter, perhaps because the script makes Finkel too much of a one-note character. Having screwed up, he now wants to restart his career.

Almost everything that transpires between Finkel and Longo in the pivotal jail scenes clings to the surface; their one-on-one exchanges lack the kind of subtext that would have given the movie's ethical issues more dimension.

The screenplay by Goold and David Kajganich tells us that Longo's a horrible narcissist, but doesn't really dig into his personality. Half the time, the movie doesn't even seem interested in whether Longo actually committed the crime.

Felicity Jones appears as Finkel's wife, but doesn't have much to do other than pop up for a jail house visit with Longo, delivered with more conviction than anything else in the movie.

And that's the rub here. Goold's movie says many of the right things, but doesn't always dramatize them in compelling ways. The fact that both men are acting out roles should have resulted in a dizzying look at how men in high-pressure situations are called upon to create themselves. Besides, we needed to know more about both these guys.

True Story is a decent enough movie, but it should (and could) have been brilliant.

There's trouble in these woods

Backcountry succeeds by doing exactly what it's supposed to do.

Nothing in director Adam MacDonald's Backcountry qualifies as truly surprising. Then again, nothing in Backcountry has to be especially novel because it's a movie in which skill trumps originality of vision.

Set deep in the Canadian woods, Backcountry begins when a couple goes camping.

Let's be real here: When a couple goes camping in a movie, you can bet that they won't be spending their time enjoying the pleasures of forest solitude. Something awful's bound to happen -- and in Backcountry it does.

Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are the couple in question. Passing himself off as a skilled woodsman, Alex wants to impress his girlfriend by sharing the beauty of a spot he claims is worth any discomfort they might experience.

Jenn doesn't like being separated from her Blackberry, but she's game enough to give camping a whirl.

The first signs of trouble arrive when Alex and Jenn meet a loner (Eric Balfour) who's hiking through the woods, after what appears to have been a successful fishing trip.

It doesn't take long for Balfour's Brad and Alex get into a bit of mano-a-mano jostling over Jenn's attentions.

Brad departs, but he has shaken things up for Alex and Jenn and for us.

After an uneasy night, Alex and Jenn move deeper into the forest. Already warned not to leave well-marked trails, an overly confident Alex veers off the path as the couple heads toward Alex's supposedly idyllic destination.

MacDonald does a good job of keeping us on edge. Understanding that we already know something terrible will happen, he astutely plays with our expectations, attuning us to the potential danger in the crack of every twig and the darkness in every shadow.

At 92 minutes, Backcountry isn't over long, but the movie takes its time bringing Alex and Jenn into contact with the danger that awaits. All I'll say is that we're talking about a large and extremely unfriendly animal.

MacDonald eventually doles out an appropriate amount of gore, which I mention here because Backcountry may challenge the sensibilities of those who are squeamish.

It's not fair to say much more. MacDonald effectively pushes the right buttons, creating a good deal of anxiety as he takes us on this bare bones, stomach-tightening walk in the woods, which (a title card tells us) was based on a true story.

Real or imaginary, Backcountry did enough to persuade me to avoid camping, which (to be perfectly honest), I've had little trouble doing for most of my life.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Generations mix in 'While We're Young'

A semi-sharp comedy of manners from director Noah Baumbach.

There's a point during Noah Baumbach's While We're Young when one of the characters, a frustrated documentary filmmaker, refers to himself as an old man. Even as a comparative statement, it's a stretch. Played by Ben Stiller, the "aging" documentarian is in his mid-40s.

For those of us for whom the mid-40s long ago have slipped into (or perhaps out of) memory, Stiller's statement may prompt involuntary snickers.

But then Baumbach, 45 himself, isn't necessarily interested in actual aging. Among other things, his movie is about losing touch with the promise of youth. What happens when one realizes that the salad days are over and even the most exotic dressing can't put the crisp back into life's lettuce?

It's a potentially rich subject for a director who has been making films since 1995's Kicking and Screaming and whose filmography includes The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, and Frances Ha, as well as the upcoming Mistress America.

With age 50 in sight, does Baumbach worry about reaching his full potential?

While We're Young can be seen as a zeitgeist comedy set in New York City, a place where success and failure tend to exist in dramatic counterpoint.

When things aren't going well, New York is an easy place to feel small and failed. That makes it an ideal spot for a character played by Stiller, a self-conscious sad sack who's flirting with defeat.

I had a conflicted response to While We're Young. I didn't care much about the concerns of its principal characters, a middle-aged couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) and a couple still in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

At the same time, I found some of Baumbach's observations about these characters to be amusing and, on occasion, pointed.

Baumbach spends a good deal of time playing with generational styles and tastes, sometimes flip-flopping them between his middle-aged and the still youthful characters. The older characters, for example, are Google obsessed; the younger ones don't Google because they take pride in not knowing things. Why bother?

Stiller's Josh hasn't come close to fulfilling his potential. He's been working on his second documentary for 10 years, and can't get beyond a six-hour, sleep-inducing rough cut.

Watts' Cornelia frets about being childless. She works as a producer for her father (Charles Grodin), an acclaimed documentarian who's at a stage where he's receiving lifetime achievement awards. He's the worst possible father-in-law for Josh, a constant reminder of what Josh hasn't accomplished.

Driver's Jamie and Seyfried's Darby latch onto Josh at a film class he's teaching. Gradually, the tables turn, and Josh and Cornelia begin clinging to this younger, free-spirited duo.

Jamie's so unconcerned about being hip, he's actually hip. And unlike Josh, he's far too young to fear making fatal mistakes.

For her part, Darby dabbles with entrepreneurial craft projects: She makes ice cream.

Watching Josh and Cornelia try to turn back the clock can be amusing -- in a painful sort of way. They attempt to keep pace with the younger couple, most ludicrously at an Ayahuasca get-together where everyone ingests a psychedelic brew before barfing out inner demons.

Baumbach sticks fairly close to the surface as he allows these characters to reveal their inner preposterousness, Cornelia's laugh-out-loud foray into hip-hop dancing, for example.

It's not entirely surprising to learn that Jamie may not be living in the moment as much as he pretends to be, a development that dominates the movie's third act.

The story pretty much derails when it gets caught up in ethical issues involving a documentary Jamie is making (yes, he's a filmmaker, too).

While We're Young proves entertaining enough, but its many small observations don't add up to anything bigger.

By the end, I found myself wondering whether the plights of these self-absorbed characters could have been reduced to one perceptively amusing New Yorker cartoon. Put another way, I had a few good chuckles, and quickly turned the page.

A startling and strange 'White God'

A disturbing movie that goes to the dogs -- literally.
The Hungarian film White God easily qualifies as one of the most disturbing films of the year. I'll go one better: It might be one of the most disturbing films you'll ever see, a revenge movie in which Budapest's mixed breed dogs take vengeance on those who treat them cruelly; i.e., just about everyone in the city.

Because director Kornel Mundruczo tells his story using real dogs -- lots of them -- it's fair to say that White God has no precedent in film history.

Uniqueness alone wouldn't necessarily elevate White God into anyone's upper echelon, but Mundruczo's movie is as riveting as it is novel, a sobering look at what happens when the natural world turns on those who abuse it.

It's possible (perhaps even advisable) to view White God as an allegory, but that doesn't mean that its vividly realistic style won't knock you for a loop.

The story begins when 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog Hagen arrive to spend time with Lili's father (Sandor Zoster). Lily's mom and her current husband are off to Australia for a conference.

Zoster's character does not want to take care of both daughter and dog. Driven by frustration and anger, as well as by the trumped-up complaints of a neighbor, Dad wants the dog out of his apartment.

In Budapest -- at least in the movie version -- owners of mixed breed dogs must pay a heavy tax; it's a pure-bred dog world in Hungary. If you wish to draw larger, metaphoric conclusions about racism, have it. They're there for the taking.

Eventually, Dad forces Hagen out of his car, abandoning the poor animal to life on the streets.

It's instructive to note that Dad's job involves inspecting slaughterhouses, a touch that brings even more emphasis to the uneasy relationship between animals and humans.

Hagen isn't a cute or cuddly dog, but he's loyal to Lily, and she loves him. Fair to guess that the dog has become the main object of Lily's affections at a time when she badly needs to be loved and her parents aren't up to the job.

Dad's heavy-handed attempts to control of his daughter turn Lily into a surly teen-ager. Lily starts spending time with an older boy from the school orchestra in which she plays trumpet.

Remember that trumpet, Mundruczo will make moving use of it before the movie's done.

The film follows Lily's progress in searching for her dog and immerses us in Hagen's adventures, which -- dog-centered or no -- are thoroughly Dickensian. A thug turns Hagen into a fighting dog. He's brutalized and becomes brutal in scenes that are difficult to watch, even if you're not a dog lover.

We all know that animals have been trained to do lots of different things on film. But to make his film, Mundruczo had to train large packs of dogs to act in unison. The sight of what looks like hundreds of wild dogs racing through the streets of Budapest isn't something you'll soon forget. No digital dogs here.

Two dogs (Bodie and Luke) split the chore of playing Hagen; they acquit their species well.

It's not easy to believe that dogs would be able to dole out so much specific retribution, and by the end, Mundruczo has you wondering whether he'll be able to bring this war between humans and dogs to a satisfactory conclusion.

I think he does.

No fair telling more, but the final image of White God is unsettling and strange -- quiet, but also tentative and fraught. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what's going to happen in the 10 or so minutes following Mundruczo's amazing closing shot.

You'll need some of the information in the closing credits (no dogs were harmed, all dogs were adopted after shooting) to restore your sense of balance. But don't expect Mundruczo to bale you out during the film: He's not one to let an audience off the hook.

So here's a question to ponder: Dogs may be our best friends, but are we really their's?

Friday, April 3, 2015

A filmmaker's story continues

Director John Boorman's Queen and Country is a belated but agreeable follow-up to his 1987 Hope and Glory.

Near the beginning of John Boorman's Queen and Country -- a much-belated sequel to the director's 1987 Hope and Glory -- a young man watches as a small crew films the shooting of German soldier who's trying to cross a river, presumably on the run from Allied forces.

The movie ends with that same young man doing his own filming in the very same spot. Boorman's final image: A picture of what appears to be the young man's 16 mm Bolex camera, its winding crank dutifully turning before the credits roll.

These scenes take place on an island in the Thames in the town of Sheperton, home to a famous film studio, which explains why the German soldier met his doom in a river more associated with London than with his homeland.

Although Queen and Country can be viewed as a semi-autobiographical look at Boorman's life, little else about it directly involves filmmaking,.

Still, aspiring film students could do worse than spend a couple of hours with Boorman's film, which takes place during the 1950s as opposed to the war years chronicled in Hope and Glory.

The reason I suggest young filmmakers take a look has nothing to do with stylistic breakthroughs or insider insights. This story about a clever but callow young man can be seen as a necessary prelude to a filmmaking career.

At 18, Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) is on the verge of being drafted. Bill hopes to avoid conscription, but -- alas -- the fateful day arrives. He's drafted into the army.

The military that Bill discovers is quite different from the one that he probably fantasized about as a kid in London during the Blitz. Neither Bill nor any of his fellow recruits seem to take the army seriously, and Britain itself isn't under attack.

Bill finds his immediate supervisor, Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), to be small-minded and laughable. He's also at odds with another sergeant major (Brian F. O'Byrne), a career soldier who loathes conscripts and believes in the letter of military law.

Richard E. Grant appears as a major, who seems to regard military affairs as an intrusion into whatever passes for his life.

Bill and his best pal Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) aren't exactly living the warrior's life. They wind up teaching typing to other soldiers, a task which they find mildly risible, a sentiment most of their students share.

Of course, typing beats service in Korea, which is where those who get crosswise with the base leadership are sent.

Pat Shortt plays Pvt. Redmond, a soldier with a strong aversion to finding himself in Korea, where the weather is frost-bite cold and soldiers are getting shot.

Because Bill is a teen-ager, part of his evolution naturally turns to love. He falls for a beautiful, upper-class woman (Tamsin Egerton) he meets in the town where he's stationed. She likes him, but she's involved with someone else.

Percy is taken by a more attainable romantic target, a nurse played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards.

It's not necessary to have seen the first movie to appreciate this one. Queen and Country functions on its own, but it may mean more if you remember from Hope and Glory that Bill's mother (Sinead Cusack) didn't marry for love, that her husband (David Hayman) fought in the war, and that Bill's older sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) got pregnant during the war and married a Canadian. She returns to England while Bill's still away from home, and seems hellbent on trying to be uninhibited when he returns on leave.

So, back to what I said about Queen and Country being valuable for aspiring filmmakers.

It's just this: It takes a bit of living to become a good filmmaker, and that includes the kind of exposure to reality that Bill faces as he leaves home, presumably for the first time.

Before the movie's done, Bill begins to understand what made some of the soldiers he so disdains into the people they are. He realizes that not all love is requited. He learns important lessons about friendship and loyalty, and living with imperfection. He's a lot less smug.

I'm an admirer of Hope and Glory and of much of Boorman's career, which includes movies such as Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972), Zardoz (1974), Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985) and The General (1998).

I wish I could say that Queen and Country was a masterpiece, a summary work by an 82-year-old filmmaker who has matched and even exceeded what he accomplished 28 years ago.

That's not the case. But if Queen and Country isn't a great movie, it's an agreeable one, a reminder that it's best if artists live a little before they think about unleashing themselves on the world.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Those awful upper-class Brits

At an exclusive Oxford club, privilege and cruelty have become second nature.

Having never visited Oxford, one of the world's most prestigious universities exists only as figment of my imagination. In my mind's eye, I see bespectacled dons in flowing robes strolling across a fabled campus, beacons of erudition and discernment.

Like all fantasies, mine probably is way off base. And if I had any doubts about that, they were dispelled by director Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club, a big-screen adaptation of a Laura Wade play called Posh.

So what kind of place is the Oxford of Scherfig's movie?

Scherfig narrows her focus until she sees Oxford as a brutally uneven playing field that helps breed a class of privileged Englishmen whose money and/or blood lines establish them as men for whom ordinary rules don't apply.

Members of this detestable aristocracy have benefited from years of expensive education, learning -- among other things -- how to use money to cover their callous misdeeds.

These upper-class twits seem to believe that their lives have value way beyond those who dwell "beneath" them.

Moreover they know that someday soon, they'll be sitting behind big desks. They won't be part of the system. They are the system.

The Riot Club that gives the movie its title is so exclusive that its limited to 10 members. Each year, the club holds a dinner, a wanton mixture of drunkenness and cruelty that provides the movie with its core event.

Dressed in formal attire, members assemble at a country inn that will be wrecked before the night is through. The club's commitment to indulgence makes the fraternity brothers of Animal House look like teetotalers.

Among the stand-outs in this rancid group are Alistair (Sam Clafin). A legacy member, Alistair needs little encouragement when it comes to tapping into his worst self.

Then there's Miles (Max Irons), a student of more modest background, who can't resist the siren call of elitism. Sadly for Max, he still has a semblance of conscience.

An Oxford coed named Lauren (Holiday Grainger) offers Miles a chance at a more normal collegiate existence. Poor, deluded Max. He thinks he can maintain a relationship with Lauren and also be a member of the Riot Club.

Scherfig lets us know that the shield of privilege offers an enduring form of protection. One of the club's alumni (Tom Hollander) shows us where these young men are headed. Quietly and over drinks in clubs, they'll preserve the bond of privilege which they see as a birthright.

At first, I was put off by The Riot Club's lack of subtlety and nuance. There's little doubt about where Scherfig (An Education) stands when it comes to this kind of men-only preserve.

But if you're going to make a point, you might as well make it emphatically. Scherfig does. These British one percenters (actually, it's probably a fraction of one percent) are exposed, indicted and vilified.

They're in a class by themselves -- at least one hopes they are. They all deserve to be throttled.

A disturbing look at rape on campus

The Hunting Ground is an eye-opening documentary about a serious problem.

You don't see a documentary such as The Hunting Ground for entertainment purposes. You see it because the movie will alert you to an important issue, the devastating impact of sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses.

The crime of campus rape often is compounded by the way institutions treat rape victims, who -- the film suggests -- can challenge a school's carefully constructed view of itself. With reputations on the line, the urge to minimize embarrassing crimes can be difficult to resist.

Director Kirby Dick (The Invisible War and This Film Is Not Yet Rated) and producer Amy Ziering introduce us to many women, but two stand out: Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark, both from the University of North Carolina.

Both rape victims, Pino and Clark have pooled their efforts to counsel college women about what to do if they're raped and to create awareness among members the general public.

They've also filed a Title IX charge against North Carolina. Their complaint is built around the idea that equal access to educational programs -- the overall purpose of Title IX -- is impossible if women don't feel safe enough to move about a campus.

According to at least one survey, one in five women are victims of sexual assault. Although not everyone accepts that statistic, there's little question that those who are assaulted face a rough go.

Alcohol and fraternities can figure into the picture. If Sigma Alpha Epsilon -- the fraternity recently in the news for a racist episode on a bus -- didn't have enough trouble already, it turns up in Kirby's film. We're told that many women refer to SAE as Sexual Assault Expected.

Parents will (or at least should) be shaken by The Hunting Ground. No one sends their kid to college to be sexually assaulted by a fellow student, and it's impossible to listen to the stories told by the women in this documentary without being angered and moved.

Clearly, the problem should be a source of shame for every institution that doesn't respond fairly, forcefully and with more concern for finding the truth than for upholding an image.

A brilliant piano teacher at work

Actor Ethan Hawke moves behind the camera for Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about a great piano teacher. Seymour Bernstein, now in his 80s, quit playing piano in public at the age of 50. Bernstein was talented and his performances were well-received, but he had grown tired of the commercial trappings that surround even the world of classical music. Bernstein, who also suffered from stage fright, wanted to play because he loved music and because he believed that getting deeper into music was a way of getting deeper into life. Bernstein left the stage and turned to teaching, which he clearly loves. When Hawke, who appears briefly in the film, met Bernstein, he shared some of his concerns about acting and life. Hawke says Bernstein was more helpful to him than anyone in his own field. That's not surprising because Bernstein seems to be an exceptional sort, instructing both at the technical (craft) and artistic (life) levels required by those who want to push themselves musically. Hawke watches Bernstein teach and arranges for the pianist to play in public at Steinway Hall, but it's Bernstein's reflections that give the movie its life -- not only because he's a master teacher, but because he enhances our understanding and appreciation both of music and of what might be called "a musical life."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bold 'Furious 7' races into theaters

Spectacular set pieces carry this latest installment of car chaos.

The latest installment of the Fast and Furious series turns the words "beyond belief" into feeble understatement.

Oblivious to the laws of either script logic or Newtonian physics, Furious 7 makes no bones about trying to win audience favor by packaging action set pieces that go so far over-the-top, they beg to be watched with open-mouthed wonder.

The most spectacular of these high points takes place in starkly modern Abu Dhabi. There, Vin Diesel's Dom and Paul Walker's Brian drive a sleek Lykan HyperSport -- lipstick red, of course -- through an upper-story window of the city's Etihad Towers. The car flies across a terrifying chasm and slams through the window of another tower.

Clearly, we're meant to marvel at the sheer excess and spectacular audacity of such bits. We do -- or at least I did, even when I first saw it one of the movie's trailers.

But, hey, it's not all pedal to the metal. It should be noted that Furious 7 concludes with a touching tribute to Walker, delivered in the bros-forever style that has characterized the series from the start.

If you didn't know that Walker's death in 2013 occurred during the shooting of Furious 7, you might conclude that director James Wan (The Conjuring) was downplaying Walker's contribution to add a bit of freshness. No big deal.

For the record: I've read that the filmmakers used Walkers' brothers -- Caleb and Cody -- as stand-ins to finish shooting. It's not easy to tell where one Walker left off and another began, but I couldn't help trying. Every time Brian appeared on screen, I wondered a little about how he had gotten there.

Each installment includes new characters, inserted the way car dealers try to pile on options.

Added to this year's model: Kurt Russell, no stranger to action movies having escaped from both New York and Los Angeles in John Carpenter movies, plays a character called Mr. Nobody, head of a private army.

Djimon Hounsou shows up as a scowling bad guy with terrorist inclinations.

British actor Jason Statham also joins the fray; he portrays Deckard Shaw, a man seeking vengeance for damages done to his younger brother in the previous movie. Deckard wants the Fast and Furious crew to pay dearly.

Although his facial expression never seems to vary, it's safe to assume that Deckard enjoys blowing things up. What, after all, would a movie titled Furious 7 be without a few flaming fireballs and a bit of flying debris?

Nathalie Emmanuel, familiar from HBO's Game of Thrones, signs on, as well. She plays a gifted computer hacker who knows all about a program that enables people to track and follow anyone in the world, providing he or she is carrying some sort of electronic device.

Lots of folks want to get their hands on this program, but the story -- if it can be called that -- doesn't build anything like traditional suspense: Rather, it has the feel of something written in the back seat of a speeding car on a bumpy road. It jars, bounces and sometimes even splatters.

Oh well, when things become too ragged, you can count on Diesel to deliver the kind of line that seems designed to remind the audience that mayhem isn't the only point.

"The most important thing in life will always be family," says Diesel's Dom, evoking a recurring theme.

The regular crew members return, and -- in varying degrees -- receive their moment in the spotlight.

Of these regulars, I'd rank Ludacris's Tej as my favorite. Playing smart in a series such as this is no small achievement. Way to go Ludacris.

You probably should also know that the amnesia-afflicted Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) gets into a knock-down, drag-out battle with a character played by Ronda Rousey, a champion ultimate fighter in her non-movie life.

Oh, I almost forgot. Dwayne Johnson appears again, although we don't see much of FBI agent Hobbs until he rises from a hospital bed at the end of the movie so that he can tote a major weapon into the streets of LA and spray bullets at a menacing aircraft.

I don't want to sound like a spoilsport, but frenetic editing sometimes gives the action a near-haphazard feeling, so much so that during the movie's prolonged finale, it's not always possible to tell who's fighting whom.

Still, it's difficult to watch a movie such as Furious 7 and not be amazed by the heights (sometimes literally) to which the car chaos has been taken, and there's enough globe hopping -- from the United Arab Emirates to Azerbaijan -- to create yet another level of diversion.

We all know the drill. A Fast and Furious movie exists to deliver out-sized action, cool cars and an occasional display of female body parts, curvy as a polished fender. One imagines that there are at least three general kinds of scene headings in the script for Furious 7: interiors, exteriors and posteriors.

And don't think that just because Walker's gone, the series is done. Trying to stop one of these franchises is like trying to halt a speeding semi-truck. Either get out of the way or go along for the ride. Resistance, I'm afraid, is pointless.