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Few films hang on to such threads of suspension of disbelief as Midnight Special. I’m even going to expect people to say the film fails for it, but its hook — the notion of faith — also applies to the audience. It is in this space of mystery that writer/director Jeff Nichols made his mark with Take Shelter (Take Shelter offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema), as a sort of art house version of M.Night Shyamalan. Take Shelter follows a man (Michael Shannon) whose visions could either point to his insanity or a gift to portend the future. The story walks a thin line to keep the audience doubting the lead character until the film’s final, eerie shot. Nichols’s next film, Mud (Film review: Mud makes for OK film but misses exploiting the power of mystery), felt less impressive. It spent too much time trying to spell out the feelings of a young boy (Tye Sheridan) who decides to help a killer (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island reunite with the woman he killed for (Reese Witherspoon). The film wasn’t bad, and it featured some strong performances. However, it felt over-long, dwelling on unnecessary exposition when Nichols already proved he could do a lot to propel a film by showing respect to the audience’s ability to infer while still tapping into its feelings.

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star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterTwo years ago, I wrote about the expectations I had for J.J. Abrams taking the helm of the new Star Wars movie (Film Review: ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ proves J.J. Abrams a better director than George Lucas). With a little weird sense of doubt, I think he has delivered.

Regardless of what is written here, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to break all the records that pundits have been predicting. There are too many generations of Star Wars fans waiting for this movie to come out already. This writer is of the first generation. As such, the experience of watching the movie yesterday afternoon was something akin to religious. This is where it becomes difficult to separate the film critic from the man who still remembers seeing the original TV commercial for Star Wars and wanting my father to take me to see this movie, not to mention the actual theatrical experience, the behind-the-scenes specials on TV and yes, even the Holiday Special.

I took it all in with nothing but awe, all the way to Return of the Jedi and its finale featuring singing ewoks. That said, I never liked any of prequels, which felt like nothing more than digital cartoons serving to explicate too much of the Star Wars universe. Lucas had lost touch, and the need for new blood was ripe. As a fan of what he did with Star Trek and Super 8, I could see why Abrams would feel like the perfect fit by the film’s producers. And his ethos does work … for the most part.

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There’s no reason to spoil the plot of The Force Awakens, but as a new beginning for the franchise it balances old and new brilliantly. The story, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote the scripts of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt, features some smart self-referential moments with refreshing efforts to ground the characters deeper than ever into this faraway galaxy, from a long time ago, without forgetting a delightful dollop of humor. The action, backed by that familiar John Williams score, will amaze, but it’s also thankfully not as breathless as the Star Trek movies. There’s an awareness to the original tempo of the earlier Star Wars films. So though there are plenty of intense battle scenes, dogfights between spaceships and several one-on-one confrontations, there are also quieter moments thick with character development that never slow down the movie’s momentum.

Though it is great seeing old characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) return to the Star Wars universe, it’s a relief to note how exciting and vibrant the new young leads are, which bodes well for the continuation of this saga. Adam Driver has an immense presence as the villain Kylo Ren. Even behind the battered mask he exudes a malevolent pathos of an upstart tangling with the ep7_ia_38176_dj_0ee5e1e5shadow within that is the dark side of the Force. The highlight of the young additions, however, has to be the fun, flirtatious and sometimes tender chemistry between Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Our new heroes captivate throughout the film and really give The Force Awakens its heart and soul. The biggest surprise in the character development arena, however, comes in the filmmakers’ humanizing of the Stormtroopers (just watch for the small moments featuring everything from humor to menace, plus it’s kind of refreshing to hear female voices coming out through those helmets).

Despite all this praise and so much more hyperbole you are bound to hear from others, I could not help but feel a bit of trepidation about some decisions in the filmmaking that only slightly drained some of the magic from the movie. As great as it might seem for the writers to find the right places for lines like “I got a bad feeling about this,” it gets a bit trite. One would hope that these films will rise above their own tropes and not turn into a lumbering ball of self-referencing with little substance like the Jamesep7_ia_34101_ee8800f1 Bond series. Then there are two mechanical problems in the script that stood out as rather weak when they shouldn’t have been. As it’s not fair to spoil these plot points this late in the film’s non-release, all I will say is that it involves a bit of precious and heavy-handed exposition involving a long-winded private moment between Han and Leia (they deserve better), and another scene involving one of these key figures that many might see coming. It’s a moment that’s a bit too eerily reflective of another scene at the start of the first trilogy of these movies. Though the scene is supposed to be a climactic moment, it feels eerily hollow in its inevitability, like a loose end that long needed patching up.

In the end, does it deserve all this talk about awards? Though there are solar systems at stake, the urgency still doesn’t match that of Mad Max: Fury Road (Overturning Patriarchy in the Post-apocalyptic World:Mad Max: Fury Road – A Film Review) or even Spotlight. As they finally get their chance to mess around in this world, you never get the sense that Abrams and co. are trying to do anything more than make Star Wars fun again, and there are indeed plenty of occasions to make it fun, from crafty new uses of lightsabers to more tie fighters going through the ringer than I would have ever expected to see in one Star Wars movie. Thus, The Force Awakens does deserve its own hype as a Star Wars film. The cynic in me would say, please, let the hype stop at that, but there’s no denying this strange sense of reconnecting with my childhood and watching the sequel that I had always yearned to see for more than 30 years. That it does live up to that hype should be reason alone to say this is the film that indeed I had been waiting for.

Hans Morgenstern

Star Wars: The Force Awakens runs 135 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Thursday night with options to see it in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Disney Studios invited me to a 2-D preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of www.starwars.com.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

while-were-young-poster-700x1093“The younger generation — it means retribution, you see. It comes, as if under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”
—Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder

I don’t believe that was one of a series of too many quotes that popped up on a black background in silence at the start of While We’re Young, but it probably best represents the sense of dread the film was trying to capitalize on. In a society that has become so post-cultural and progressive, it gets a little hard to get old, and no one seems more obsessed with transmitting that than writer/director Noah Baumbach (follow my tag for the director on this blog to read reviews for Greenberg and Frances Ha).

For those getting a little tired of Baumbach’s recurring theme of the challenges of growing old and letting go of youth, While We’re Young may disappoint, but it is worth sticking through for a confrontation with reality that is powerful as Greenberg fishing out the unrecognizable dead animal out of a house pool as younger people reveled around him. In While We’re Young, however, the moment feels more grounded, less metaphorical and ultimately, more disturbingly real. Baumbach still has that special touch for capturing moments resonant with revelation without coming across as heavy-handed. It’s a special kind of moment in cinema that few writer/directors can pull off (his hero Eric Rohmer comes to mind).

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After the lengthy Ibsen passage, we meet middle age Gen Xers Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), as they struggle to tell an infant the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” When both forget how the story goes, they begin to argue about their memory of it. Meanwhile, the baby bursts into tears. The implication is that these two are parents, but the child’s cries rattle them. Soon, their friends, the babe’s actual mother (Maria Dizzia) and father (Adam Horovitz — Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys!), arrive to scoop their child up. It’s a cute play on perception and a quick, efficient device to establish these characters, who still haven’t found a way to come to terms with adulthood.

Though all their friends seem to be having children, it soon becomes apparent that Josh and Cornelia are in a mid-life crisis of arrested development. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with one well-received movie under his belt that’s out of print and so old that you can only find it on the secondhand market on VHS. He’s stuck in a rut with his follow-up, now about 10 years in the making and clocking in with a run-time of 10 hours that he cannot seem to pare down. Then he meets a 20-something fan, Jamie (Adam Driver), who melts Josh’s heart by admitting his fandom and saying he spent some stupid price on eBay to obtain an original VHS copy of the movie. They become fast friends.

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Josh finds new vicarious youth in Jamie and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and easily pulls Cornelia into hanging out with them. After all, Cornelia is stuck in her own rut. She still works for her father Leslie (Charles Grodin, in remarkable deadpan mode), a legend in documentary cinema who is more active than Josh. While Leslie accumulates awards, Josh struggles to find grant money to continue his work.

Stagnation is a big thing for the middle-aged couple, as Watts — stellar at balancing pathos and humor — reveals her character’s embarrassment about being in her 40s and working for her dad with leaden reserve. It’s a heavy regret, but she has found a way to live with it, yet you can sense her feeling that life has passed her by. At another point in the film she says about having a child, “We missed our chance … I’m fine with that.” There’s a sad acceptance to the statement. Thus, Josh and Cornelia embrace the vicarious opportunity that the millennial couple offers them as if they were salvation incarnate. Darby is an entrepreneur, marketing homemade ice cream featuring incongruous Ben & Jerry’s flavors of her own design. Meanwhile, Jamie aspires to make his own documentary films. The 20-somethings offer a new life. Who needs a baby when you have fully grown children to hang out with?

At first, Josh and Cornelia are delighted by this new breed of human they have discovered: young, prototypical Brooklyn hipsters who have re-purposed the detritus of Gen X and curated it in interesting ways. When Josh and Cornelia, stop into the earthy studio apartment of Jamie and Darby, they are confronted with racks of vinyl records, albeit mostly thrift store throw aways from the likes of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. Cornelia observes, “It’s like their apartment is filled with stuff we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” It’s as though the new generation has co-opted their generation’s popular trash whose only merit is that it is “vintage.” Look, there’s a cassette of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell on the dashboard of Jamie’s old sedan. As any grounded member of Gen X should know, that album was never cool. However, Josh is too smitten to notice these clues of phoniness. When Jamie plays “Eye of the Tiger” to get Josh pumped for a meeting with a possible investor in his film, Josh tells Jamie, “I remember when this song was just considered bad.” But he starts bobbing to it, and adds, “but it’s working.”

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There’s a witty sort of dramatic irony going on here. The idea of sincerity is different for these two. While Josh says he is struggling to make “a film that’s both materialist and intellectual at the same time,” Jamie says he is looking to present “the truth” with his movie, which, as Josh will come to learn, does not necessarily mean being strictly honest in the literal sense. When Jamie volunteers to help Josh with his documentary, Josh will finally come to understand the gulf between them. Finally, he tells Cornelia about Jamie, “It’s all a pose. It’s like he once saw a sincere person, and he’s imitating him all the time!”

Josh is such a dynamically drawn character and Stiller brings an empathetic sincerity to his struggle via yet another richly written part by Baumbach. It’s a shame you cannot say the same about the women, who have issues and complexities of their own. Watts raises many small moments with Cornelia to impressive height, but the character’s standout moment with her friend/nemesis, Darby, happens during a hip-hop dance class, where she gradually finds her groove to awkward effect, played for cheap laughs. Even less fulfilling of a character is Darby whose character is hardly given a chance to transcend her artisanal ice cream flavors. Like Cornelia, it feels as though she is only along for the ride. That these women feel like supporting players in what should be an ensemble film is such a shame, especially considering how terrific the women characters were drawn in Baumbach’s previous movie, Frances Ha, featuring a screenplay he co-wrote with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig.

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But maybe this is Josh’s movie for a reason. The fact that our hero is a filmmaker and male and is even more sympathetic than Stiller’s last role in a Baumbach movie (Greenberg), will make some wonder if Josh is a surrogate for Baumbach (the Internet has theorized might Jamie be a stand-in for director Joe Swanberg? In this radio interview, Baumbach denied this). It also takes a certain sense of self-awareness to pull this kind of movie off. One has to be ready to laugh about oneself, and Baumbach has always been fearless about that. That’s why, when the end finally arrives and Josh finally confronts Jamie, the film offers a brilliant play on perspective. As Josh’s father-in-law becomes accepting of Jamie and his vision of “truth,” Jamie warps into a stranger to Josh. In this resonant penultimate scene, Baumbach reveals how both base slapstick and intellectual wit can work together so brilliantly by playing with audience anticipation and textured characters.

Despite a final scene that feels a bit too tidy, While We’re Young examines the complexity of change from one generation to the next as a vicious cycle that never releases its grip unless you learn to make yourself comfortable in it. After all, the next generation is pursing all of us … “under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”

Hans Morgenstern

While We’re Young runs 97 minutes and is Rated R (there’s cussing. Otherwise, teens can go and see what they have to look forward to at 40). It opened in the South Florida area on April 10 in many theaters. The indie cinema to support is O Cinema Miami Beach, which hosts the film until the end of this week. A24 Films hosted a press screening in Miami back in March for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)