Thursday, 17 December 2015

Movie Review: While We're Young/Appropriate Behaviour (2015)



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As part of my going back and checking films that I should’ve seen earlier in the year, I am also spooling through the archives for films that I only saw segments of to complete. Back when I was doing some part-time work in movie theatre as ticket checker/clean-up crew, along with growing to hate Home even more because those sessions were easily the messiest of the entire day’s run, I also caught bits and pieces of today’s film. Something about a guy in a robe talking about his boat and David Bowie’s Golden Years playing over the credits; that’s pretty much all I know. Somehow, I’ve seen scenes from the actual film and this is still the blindest I’ve gone into a film all year. Well, hopefully Ben Stiller is still waiting to give a decent performance; considering Night At The Museum 3 and Little Fockers, I can’t be sure. So, as a sort-of road test before next year’s Zoolander 2… because, clearly, that needs to exist, let’s get stuck in today’s subject. This is While We’re Young.

The plot: Documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) live in New York while Josh works on his latest film, which has taken him 8 years and counting to complete. After running into young couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), Josh finds new drive to finish his film and subsequent questioning from Cornelia about why he likes them so much. However, when Josh and Jamie start working together on Jamie’s new documentary idea, Josh discovers that maybe he isn’t the greatest guy after all.

The acting from our main four is top-notch. Stiller gives Josh a real thirst for success, and a clear overabundance of creativity, yet grounds him through convincing self-awareness of his own actions. Jamie is an outright jackass, and pretty damn smug to boot, but Driver somehow keeps the character from being irrevocably unlikeable through a certain naïve charisma. Watts often has to play the voice of reason to Stiller’s antics, but she fills those shoes rather nicely while also portraying the pressures of wanting to be a mother very well. Seyfried is probably at the best I’ve seen her in her entire career, pulling off apathetic yet comfortable in her conversations with Driver, while also showing real understanding about the world as it exists today. There’s that self-awareness at work again. Other than the core group, probably the big name that comes to mind is Adam Horowitz AKA Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys as friend of the older couple Fletcher. In a film that’s all about the social effects of ageing, seeing a guy who’s a part of probably the only hip-hop group that has managed to age gracefully is a bit distracting, but his rapport with Stiller is breezily natural.

It seems like, no matter what age people are, they are never happy. Josh and Cornelia both mourn how they feel like time has passed them by when it comes to starting a family, yet they fit right in with the conveniences of modern technology. Meanwhile, Jamie and Darby are happy in their own skin, yet feel more comfortable with older technology like typewriters and vinyl. There’s a word for people like that, but it’s been so overused that it’s become one of those terms where people know the rough context in which it should be said but necessarily the meaning of it. Hell, I’m not even sure if I know what it means anymore. Still, regardless of the Starbucks-frequenting, irony-abusing subculture that they both seem to resonate with, how they influence the older couple makes for decent progression. Yeah, it sounds a lot like By The Sea all over again, except this is actually interesting. Josh finds new creative drive to finish his eight-year-running documentary project, and Cornelia gains a certain youthful invigoration and liveliness herself.

Using documentary filmmaking as the big cornerstone for showing how the world has changed over the years was a risky move, but one that ends up paying off. Basically, in their separate ways, both Jamie and Josh are at fault in their views. Josh’s creative ambitions are just far too great for his own good; as much as I want to hate Hedge Fund Dave (Ryan Serhant, and yes, that is his credited character name), the longwinded and formless description of Josh’s documentary makes it sound like it would be a disaster if it got a theatrical release. Jamie, while having reasonably smaller ideas that work a lot better, is rather unethical in his methods and his motives; basically, he has the lack of perspective and sense of entitlement that I’ve come to associate with most hipsters. The man is posturing incarnate… but that’s just the way things are.

I mentioned a little while ago about how so many people on this planet have access to cameras now; by that same token, all of them are documentarians. You could string together a single person’s Vine posts and have a feature-length presentation right there. When Josh finally tries to expose Jamie for his doings, it comes across like mouth-piecing for the director but with full knowledge about what the reality of the world is. Josh should be in the right, but ultimately comes across like the bitter old man that the film fully admits that he is. Jamie’s methods aren’t the most orthodox in the world, but it’s not as if this is the first time someone despicable has made apparently good art. He even mentions how that exchange went down a lot better in his head, envisioning it like an impassioned speech given in an Oscar bait drama.

Then again, in a film that is all about fiction, reality and the nature between films and the real world, Baumbach has a habit of having his cake and eating it too. His espousing about objectivity vs. subjectivity and what truly is the ‘reality’ that we end up seeing on the big screen would be a lot easier to take if he didn’t keep betraying his own word. Aside from Josh’s expectations of a more cinematic outcome to his scenario, we also have Darby talking about how rom-com clichés aren’t how the real world works. Clichés like having a character go to a dance class and ‘hilariously’ fail to keep up with everyone else in the room, or someone saying that they won’t do something then the film smash-cuts to them doing it, both of which this film partakes in. Not that it stays secluded to the entirely comedic moments, as even some dramatic horses are trotted out to fill in the blanks. A boiling tea kettle being heard over a heated argument between Josh and his father-in-law is weak but ignorable. Josh saying out-loud that he is an old man which then proceeds to echo in the room around him, something that it is painfully clear was done in post-production, on the other hand? Seriously, with how disarmingly relatable a lot of the material and the character troubles are, it’s insanely distracting how often Baumbach will go for the decidedly ‘movie’ moments.

All in all, this film is basically one big impotent roar against modern-day hipsters, and yet it doesn’t come across as pathetic in any way. Rather, through its effective acting and incredibly self-aware script, it deals with the subject matter expertly, even considering the clichés it frequently digs itself into. Bonus points for an ending that does an amazing job at defining the entire film’s crux in a single image. It’s better than Sleeping With Other People, as this film is a lot more direct and laser-sighted when it comes to what message it wants to make. However, because of the rather bizarre editing and numerous self-sabotaging moments of hackery, it falls short of the more structurally sound American Ultra.

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Don’t really have anything to preempt this review with. This is Appropriate Behaviour.

The plot: After breaking up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), Brooklynite Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is trying to put her life back together. As she reminisces over her life of contentment with Maxine, she tries to put herself back on the market while also trying to find work. And while all of this is going on, she keeps trying to psyche herself up to finally come out to her family.

I’ve mentioned indie-quirk before, but what this film contains is of a slightly heavier dosage than Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. There’s a brand of indie-quirk that pushes past the idea of trying to portray reality in all its idiosyncrasies and instead embodies the feeling of awkwardness that so pervades life. The most popular purveyor of this style would be Lena Dunham, particularly through her HBO show Girls. This film follows in that same vein, taking uncomfortable social graces into the realm of hyper-realistic in the way that only seems to crop up in stories about New York. I mean, joking about out-there performance art and ‘intestinal vaginas’ is one thing; it’s quite another to feature characters who legitimately do those acts. The main difference here being that not only is Shirin not a complete sociopath, nor are the people around her, she also isn’t played by a sexual predator… far as I know, at any rate. The run-on tangent-filled conversations (sounds familiar, for some reason) get more than a little bizarre, even in their occasionally weed-influenced circumstances, but I’d be lying if I said that they didn’t come across as some form of reality. Specifically, director/writer/star Desiree Akhavan’s reality and, in the context of just her everyday life, it’s a little too Wonderland to really connect with at times.

When in the context of her everyday life as it involves her sexuality, that’s when the film hits its major strides. Shirin and Maxine make an incredibly cute couple, even during their less-than-glamourous moments. Their banter and chemistry with each other results in probably the most realistic on-screen romance I’ve seen all year which, given how one scene involves discussing safe words for fantasies about tax brokers, is definitely surprising. Actually, maybe it’s because of weird little moments like that that make their relationship feel as stable as it does. As a result, the core conflict about Shirin trying to get over her break-up with Maxine hits deep emotionally because it genuinely feels like these two belong together. When dealing with Shirin as a single bisexual woman, it may delve into the promiscuity angle a little too much but offers some decent portrayals of dating-based humour. This film is home to the single most awkward threesome scene outside of porn, but the reason why it’s so awkward makes it weirdly identifiable. Then we get into her confronting her parents with the reality of who she is sexually and this is also portrayed rather realistically, only in the most dishearteningly way possible. Unfortunately, all of it ends up leading into a conclusion that feels rather empty, like Shirin was supposed to have grown stronger but we see no real evidence for why aside from it’s the end of the film.

There’s a school of comedy that specializes in being random and uncomfortable to sit through. I would normally just classify as yet another “It’s funny because it’s _______” sub-effort at humour, but I hate to admit that it actually works on occasion. When faced with something that makes no logical sense, a perfectly rational response to it is laugh. It’s the ultimate example of how laughter is just a normalized form of hysteria. I bring this up because, even though the bizarre nature of the scenes does make the more emotional moments difficult to sink in, the funny moments still hit home. Whether it’s the cringe comedy involving Shirin poking fun at her own Middle-Eastern heritage, and I specify Middle-Eastern because that’s how far its reach goes), or seeing the film classes being taught to five-year-olds and the differences between both of them, the film somehow kept me giggling throughout.

All in all, this is the kind of random indie humour I can get behind. While it can get a little too weird in places, Desiree Akhavan still delivers both emotional drama regarding her own sexuality and surprisingly good comedy based on just how strange the situations she finds herself in are. I would normally say that I recommend this to people who like Lena Dunham, but then again I don’t and even I could get into it. Regardless, it’s worth watching. It’s better than Black Mass as, for all the script’s weirder moments, its structure held together far better in the long run. However, despite the overly romanticized moments, The Age Of Adaline made for a more satisfying watch out of how strong its writing could get.

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