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Saturday 10 December 2016

Movie Reviews: While We're Young and Fast & Furious 7

Ben STiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young
Ben STiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young

This week it's While We're Young and Fast and Furious 7

While We're Young

(Drama, Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Dir; Noah Baumbach, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz. Cert: 15A)

You may well have heard of the film genre 'mumblecore', but if you haven't, here's a quick intro.

It's a style of arthouse, low-budget film in which everything is hyper-natural, often depicting the plainness of adult experience. Anyway, director Noah Baumbach is sort of a high priest of mumblecore.

His films Greenberg and The Squid & The Whale are uncompromising and slow, possibly best described as 'an acquired taste'.

Frances Ha (2012) was much more warm and charming, but was still a film about very little - two friends drifting apart and finding apartments in New York.

While We're Young continues in a similar enough vein, charting as it does the angst of Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a creative fortysomething couple starting to feel their age.

Happily, While We're Young is Baumbach's most conventionally 'Hollywood' film to date.

Their pals (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) have a baby and start spouting on ad nauseum about contentment, unconditional love and the like.

This prompts the couple to retreat to their fancy apartment, pour themselves a pricey glass of wine and declare their own joy for their unfettered existence ("we could go to India in the morning if we wanted," they reason).

But their chatter rings hollow as they Facebook, Twitter and Candy Crush their way through life. Often without each other.

A chance meeting with fellow documentary maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) is the game-changer.

Jamie and Darby are idealistic, ambitious, engaged with life … and the worst kind of Brooklyn hipsters you're ever likely to encounter.

They're not on Facebook (or at least they say they're not), play board games, have a pet hen in a cage in their loft, bow at the altar of vinyl and listen to power ballads with a studied lack of irony.

Typical 'grow your own granola' carry-on that would make any sane fortysomething roll their eyes … but not Josh, who is entranced. Before long, Josh is buying into their faintly ridiculous lifestyle - complete with shamanistic rituals - wholesale.

Next thing, he's popping down the street wearing a retro fedora (for some reason, Stiller always ends up playing these 'heyyy, I'm down with the kids, no really' types to perfection).

While We're Young is certainly a more accessible comedy than its predecessors, but few films take the temperature of an entire generation quite so well.

Where Josh and Cornelia are clearly trying very hard to stay culturally relevant, Jamie effortlessly free-wheels through life.

Yet like many of his age, Jamie is spoiled, entitled and overly confident, which nicely sets the scene for an All About Eve-style career eclipse.

There's a sub-plot here about the authenticity of documentary making that Baumbach is clearly using to make some kind of point.

But for the rest of us, it's interesting to note how Jamie, who likely grew up breathing in the fumes of the Real Housewives and Kardashians, won't let the truth get in the way of making a good documentary.

You'll probably eye-roll at Jamie and his wheaten-haired boho babe Darby, and that's exactly the point of the film.

Never mind the inspired casting choices; this engrossing script is packed to the gills with home truths and sword-sharp observations. Without offering spoilers, the action is tied up in rather too neat a Hollywood happy ever after, which takes the edge off the realness of the rest of the film.

Still, whether you're a fortysomething still trying to get your Netflix to work, or a kid who is only discovering Billy Joel for the first time, you'll find plenty to love here.

Rating ****

Fast & Furious 7

(Action, starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell) Director: James Wan Cert 12A)

Next up, a shameful confession: I have never seen the previous six Fast & Furious films before.

If you've seen one high-speed car chase, you've seen them all, right? Eh, wrong.

By all accounts, Furious 5 was the zenith in the franchise, thus putting to bed the idea that all Hollywood sequels are pretty much running on empty.

No-one would likely have predicted in 2001 that the first Fast & The Furious film would spawn such a mega franchise or create such a dedicated following. But against the odds, here we are.

What sets Furious 7 apart from the pack, however, is tragedy.

The franchise's star Paul Walker died in 2013, setting the production back nine months as filmmakers battled through to complete the making of the film without him (using CGI, stand-ins, and Walker's own brothers, at a reported additional cost of $50m).

Here, the four main brothers have used their pardon to return home to LA, and Brian (Paul Walker) is struggling to get used to the settled life.

But the quietude is short lived as Deckard (Jason Statham), the brother of the last film's adversary (Luke Evans) shows up.

Statham, as you might expect, brings no small amount of grizzled menace to his role as the baddie.

The crew reunite to save themselves … and so it goes.

The car chases and overblown stunts come in quick succession once the niceties of a plot are laid out, and the pace is fairly unrelenting.

The film opens with a battery of fancy cars being parachuted out of an aeroplane, and somehow land on four wheels on the road below.

Impressive stuff.

Later on, cars fly from skyscraper to skyscraper with fairly breathtaking accuracy.

You'll pay for the whole seat, in other words, but use only the edge of it.

One question though: did the previous six films boast as much eye-popping female flesh as this one does?

Either way, the camera has no problem having a good old ogle on its endlessly glamorous female characters.

That aside, we are talking one giant gulp of weapons-grade testosterone here.

Certainly, a working knowledge of the first six films would likely be an asset when it comes to picking up on the chemistry, underlying intimacies and tensions between characters.

Alas, they're all lost on greenhorns like me.

The film's star Vin Diesel has declared that he predicts Furious 7 will be in the running for Best Picture at next year's Oscars.

While I wouldn't quite go that far, I would wager that, in an industry where many action films have become bombastic, fantasy-led capers, Furious 7 feels gritty, stylish and real.

There's even a hint of - whisper it - a soul in there. And that's even with Iggy Azalea showing up in a faintly ridiculous cameo.

It's also a more than fitting tribute for the late Walker.

It's been a hell of a ride, in other words.

Rating: ***

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