It Follows

With a distinct absence of the bloodletting, boobs and beasts that typically populate a horror film narrative, It Follows is a simple yet scary story that draws upon typical genre conventions, but does so in new and interesting ways. Director David Robert Mitchell has somehow managed to bring some fresh ideas to a genre that has been churning out endless remakes and sequels for what seems like forever. Yes, having sex is what puts our teen protagonist in danger, but not in the way you might expect. In fact, even though most people will be aware of the basic premise of the film prior to seeing it, there are still plenty of fun/frights to be had as our victim struggles to come to terms with the consequences of her liaison with her boyfriend.

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Maika Monroe plays Jay, a typically disaffected teenager whose daily existence is as unremarkable as one might expect for somebody growing up in the suburbs. She hangs with her friends, swims in the pool (much to the delight of the young boys next door who spy from over the fence) and is in a relationship with Hugh (Jake Weary), whose presence proves the catalyst for the events that follow. Tension builds in conventional ways, such as when Jay is lying in the back seat of the car in post-coital bliss, late at night with both doors wide open, completely oblivious to any danger that might be lurking while Hugh has been conveniently removed from the frame under the premise of retrieving something from the boot. Completely vulnerable, we know that something is going to happen but, when it does, it is not what we expect. As it turns out, Jay has been infected with a sexually-transmitted hex (when you say that it out loud, it seems ridiculous and it is to Mitchell’s credit that he makes it work). By sleeping with her, Hugh has knowingly transferred to Jay a shape-shifting phantom presence that appears in human form but can only be seen by those who are afflicted. It is a threat that always knows where you are and never stops pursuing you – but never at anything more than a walking pace – until it has achieved its objective.  Much of the suspense comes from never knowing whether a person walking down the street is something altogether more sinister.

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Needless to say, Jay’s friends believe her story and set out to help her break the curse, the only possible solution to which seems to be having sex with somebody else and passing it on.  Of course, even though they know what awaits them if they do the deed, both Jay’s nerdy best friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) are more than willing to take on the task; they are teenage boys after all. Interestingly, despite the fact that sex plays such a pivotal role in the narrative, there is nothing salacious about this film at all. No sex on screen, no girls in skimpy bikinis (even when they hide out at the obligatory house by the lake) and, with the exception of a woman who appears as one of the apparitions, there is no nudity, which makes a refreshing change. There’s a deep and constant sense of unease that pervades every moment as Jay tries to stay one step ahead of the threat.  Much of the tension is due to the fact that everything is so normal.  These kids are a far cry from the wealthy, hyper-sexualised, irresponsible teens that often serve as the victims in such scenarios and whose demise we generally celebrate. Jay and her friends are typical and the suburban landscape in which they live is very recognisable, which enables us to connect with the characters and actually care about whether they survive or not.

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With It Follows, Mitchell has created an intelligent horror that relies on atmosphere to build tension. Monroe is solid in the lead role and the rest of the young cast, which includes Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe (the only real teenager of the group), are sufficiently serviceable as her loyal companions. Whilst the ending leaves the story open to a sequel, one can only hope that the originality and overall effectiveness of It Follows is not diluted by the endless succession of follow-ups that seem to invariably emerge in the aftermath of any successful new addition to the genre.

While We’re Young

The generation gap has been the premise from which myriad motion picture narratives have been constructed.  Such films usually feature a curmudgeonly senior citizen (think Walter Matthau, Olympia Dukakis or, more recently, Bill Murray or Jane Fonda) who, somewhat begrudgingly at first, befriends some young tyke who happens into their orbit and a fabulous friendship ensues. With While We’re Young, writer/director Noah Baumbach shies away from these more typical representations of generational disparity in a story that focuses on a friendship that forms between a 40-something married couple and a bohemian couple in their early 20’s. Sitting somewhere between Baumbach’s previous two films – Greenberg and Frances Ha – in tone, While We’re Young juxtaposes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments against a somewhat darker mood that permeates much of the film, with Ben Stiller’s Josh Srebnick playing much like Roger Greenberg in that he too is disappointed about the way his life has turned out and is a very difficult person to like.

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Josh is a documentary filmmaker whose life and career are stalled at the crossroads. Married to Naomi Watts’ Cornelia, Josh doesn’t even start to think about being unhappy until he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young couple living a bohemian lifestyle. Both Josh and Cornelia are invigorated by their friendship with their younger counterparts, but it isn’t immediately obvious what Jamie and Derby might get out of such a friendship. Much of the humour derives from the efforts of Josh and Cornelia to emulate their new found pals, much to the chagrin of their existing friends.  The mood darkens as Josh realises that Jamie – who is also a filmmaker – has achieved more in a month than he has in a decade. As Jamie ingratiates himself into every aspect of Josh’s life, his real motivations start to emerge and it becomes obvious that this isn’t going to end well. Josh is his own worst enemy though and his stubborn refusal to accept advice or assistance from Cornelia’s father Leslie (Charles Grodin) – an acclaimed documentarian – is seemingly borne from insecurity and envy rather than anything that Leslie has done.

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Jamie is very much like Driver’s Girls character Adam in that he has little regard for how his own actions may impact upon those around him. The feelings of others are not his problem and Baumbach has constructed Jamie to symbolise the ‘me’ generation without a modicum of subtlety. There are some scenes that run too long, such as an extended sequence in which the foursome attend an ayahuasca ceremony, but generally things move along briskly enough as Josh and Cornelia attempt to re-invent themselves. The relationship between Cornelia and Darby is perhaps the most interesting but is largely ignored. Stiller has fashioned a career out of playing losers like this and he again masters the hangdog woe-is-me disposition that makes Josh and his ilk so infuriating. In this world, and perhaps in the real world as well, even if the mainstream media might like us to think otherwise, it is the malcontent 40-somethings who are addicted to Google, Twitter, Netflix and that latest fads, such as music classes for infants, while the hip young things are more interested in reading books and listening to music on vinyl; although Jamie using a typewriter instead of a computer is perhaps Baumbach trying a little too hard.  As such, there is an irony is seeing Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz – the epitome of cool in the eyes of many – as perhaps the most irksome character of all.

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Although this isn’t the best thing that Baumbach has produced – he set a pretty high standard last time out with the hilarious Frances Ha – it is amiable enough in its examination of how people change over time and the perils associated with trying to recapture past glories. There is a real dichotomy in the attitudes of the protagonists – careerism versus idealism – but this is about more than intergenerational discord. Funny, edgy and nostalgic at times, ultimately While We’re Young is about truth, authenticity and ethics.

Mommy

French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan is nothing if not prolific. The 26-year-old Dolan has written and directed five feature films in as many years, emerging as the darling of critics and festival audiences alike. His latest film Mommy, which shared the Jury Prize in competition at the 2014 Cannes Film festival, is a confronting journey into the trials, tribulations and torment of Diane Després, a mother overwhelmed by the difficulty of raising a teenage son prone to moments of violence and abuse. Anne Dorval plays the beleaguered Diane, a woman who acknowledges that her own shortcomings – such as a lack of education and financial security – leave her ill-equipped to cope with the demands of a son diagnosed with ADHD whose persona can change from angelic to aggressive in the blink of an eye. Antoine Olivier Pilon is remarkable as Steve, a young man incapable of tempering his behaviours even though he knows the damage – both physically and emotionally – he inflicts upon those around him. Whilst he is obnoxious, racist and utterly aggravating, he is a mesmerising presence.

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There are myriad moments of intensity as Steve acts, and over-reacts, to all manner of provocations and perceived injustices. When Steve is kicked out of a residential facility after starting a fire that left a peer with life-altering facial burns, Diane is left with little choice but to take him under her wing. Diane struggles to home school Steve whilst working at various jobs, so the arrival of neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) into their life proves a godsend, initially at least, as both Diane and Steve turn to her as a respite from each other. But Kyla is battling her own demons – a breakdown that is never explored in any depth – and whilst she initially finds her role as Diane’s friend and Steve’s teacher quite liberating, it isn’t long before the intensity of the situation in which she finds herself starts to take its toll.

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It is Dolan’s artistic flourishes that undermine a narrative that combines melodrama and humour to mostly good effect. A pre-title sequence serves no real purpose and actually had me questioning my decision to see the film, but thankfully things kicked into gear fairly quickly. Meanwhile, Dolan’s use of the 1:1 aspect ratio – which only changes when a skateboarding Steve throws his arms wide and pushes the frame open – just seems gimmicky. Yes, I get it, the square frame represents the financial, social and emotional constriction of the character’s lives and we are supposed to feel the weight lifted as the frame opens. It’s just a bit too obvious in its execution to really resonate. Furthermore, there are some scenes that linger far too long with nothing of consequence happening and a bit more ruthlessness in the editing room certainly would have made for an even better film. Most infuriating is the use of a fictional Canadian law that plays such a critical role in how events pan out. Knowing that no such law exists only serves to dilute the impact of what transpires, which is a shame.

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It is a terrific performance from Pilon that counterbalances some of the less successful elements and, despite Dolan’s indulgences, Mommy definitely deserves to find an audience. It is powerful and provocative and, to Dolan’s credit, he doesn’t shy away from the real ugliness that this condition can often engender in those afflicted. Steve is not a bad person, he just doesn’t know how to temper his emotions. Dolan makes no attempt to deliver an overtly happy ending, delivering a somewhat ambiguous final moment that has a sense of inevitability about it yet provides the audience with the faintest flicker of hope. Although heavily populated with explosive moments, nerve-jangling subject matter and characters about whom we learn very little, Mommy is a serious story that veers hilariously out of control on more than one occasion.

Infinitely Polar Bear

A portrait of a family coping with mental illness, Infinitely Polar Bear is, it seems to me at least, a movie constructed with a mainstream audience very much in mind. Written and directed by Maya Forbes and apparently drawn from her own experiences as a child, Infinitely Polar Bear offers a somewhat rose-tinted view of the characters and their plight. Mark Ruffalo throws himself in to the role as Cameron, a father of two living with manic depression and bipolar who is desperate to reconcile with his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and children. With autobiographical stories such as this, it is hard to know how much of what we see is real and how much has been exaggerated, or underplayed, at the hands of the filmmaker.  In this instance, the issue is explored with a light touch and I couldn’t help but feel as though the reality of this situation would be much more difficult than what transpires here. However, that is not to say that the film doesn’t offer some insights into a familial dysfunction that the vast majority of us will never experience or truly understand.

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When we first meet Cameron and Maggie, they seem to be enjoying an idyllic life in Cambridge, Massachusetts with their two daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Cameron presents as eccentric (but not overly reckless or dangerous), taking the girls out of school for the day to go wandering in the forest. Then, without warning or any real explanation, Maggie is bundling the girls into the car in a bid to flee the family home. Cameron, needless to say, is understandably upset when he arrives on the scene and a stand-off ensues; Maggie huddles with the girls while Cameron pleads for her to reconsider or, at the very least, explain why she is taking this action. This is an explanation that the viewer needs as well because the lack of context makes it hard to reconcile with what happens later on. If Cameron is some kind of threat to Maggie or the girls, we are yet to see that and it makes her behaviour difficult to understand, particularly when Cameron is carted off to a mental hospital and the next time we see him he is a zombie-like figure doped to the hilt and unable to engage with his family.

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Everything happens so quickly it seems as though the filmmakers were more focused on keeping to a 90 minute running time rather than fleshing out the events in sufficient detail.  One minute, Cameron is incommunicative in hospital, the next he is living by himself in a small apartment and the next he is being asked to take responsibility for parenting the girls while Maggie heads off to Columbia Business School in New York. The same woman who believed he was too dangerous to stay with the family at all now deems him responsible enough to take care of the kids. Obviously, the haste with which all this transpires is to get to the “fun” as Cameron tries – with varying degrees of success – to manage his illness whilst caring for the two girls, although there is a distinct reversal of responsibilities much of the time as the kids try to reign in Cameron’s more outlandish impulses.

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Ruffalo is equal parts delusional and delightful in the lead role, making his character sympathetic and believable. His erratic behaviour is often more amusing than troubling, even if the girls are mortified by his eccentricities. Saldana is also fine enough as Maggie, a character whose treatment of Cameron makes her very hard to like, and both Wolodarsky and Aufderheide are impressive in their first film roles. The film touches on issues such as racial identity – at one stage the light-skinned Amelia seeks assurance that she is black after being taunted at school – and is stinging in its critique of the American public education system as Maggie’s primary motivation for attending Columbia is to be able to afford to send the girls to a private school where they will, apparently, be assured a better education.  Is her absence justified simply in order to send the children to an elite school? Was she not able to attend college much closer to home? Told in such a concise and somewhat simplistic manner, Infinitely Polar Bear is entertaining enough but ultimately emerges as a feel-good picture that lacks sufficient depth to really have a lasting impact.