Review: Lost River

With Ryan Gosling attached as it’s director, Lost River, previously title ‘How to Catch a Monster’, was always going to be enveloped by a certain level of expectation. The star of Blue Valentine, The Notebook, Place Beyond The Pines and Drive had a lot to live up to, and when the film premiered at Cannes the general mood was one of disappointment.

Released in cinemas and on VOD today in the UK, the buzz ignites once again and this time around the reception seems to be more generous. If not entirely coherent or consistent, at the very least, Lost River is a phatasmagorical adventure you’ll want to bear witness to.

lost_river_3

Gosling’s debut explores the turbulent journey of Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a young man who’s family is on the brink of eviction, whose mother (Christina Hendricks) is doing everything she can to pay the bills and who is pursued by a post-apocalyptic, microphone-brandishing tyrant named Bully (Matt Smith).

lost-river-trailer-christina-hendricksIt begins drenched in nostalgia, with dappled lighting, a lullaby song and meadows indicating the innocence of childhood dreams. An innocence which quickly gives way to a nightmarish vision of corruption. As the camera careens past abandoned homes and decaying neighbourhoods, weaving through scenes of violence, despair and destruction, Gosling injects the fabric of the film with bright neon colours, pulsating synth music, and fairytale imagery.

The result is something as visually arresting as it is atmospherically rich, evoking the 1955 cult classic Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum. Both have a sinister glow, intertwining thriller and fantasy elements to create something idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like, expressionistic and strange.

Early on, I felt that the jaunty camera movement and lighting gave the film a transient, watery texture; an intention seemingly confirmed in Saoirse Ronan’s Rat alluding to the town being “underwater”. Yet other directorial decisions felt unfounded or merely distracting. The editing is at times unnecessarily jumpy, whilst at other times incredibly meandering. There’s a very keen sense that Gosling is trying to show all of his visionary skills in one film, and it consequently suffers from a chaotic, erratic tone.

BTS_00175.CR2

Gosling is clearly a cinophile; absorbing and integrating a composite of influences and aesthetics into his ambitious debut. It has the eeriness of Lynch, the bizarreness of Malick, the flashiness of Spring Breakers, the neo-noir essence of Refn, and infuses the same desolate whimsicality as last year’s Beasts of a Southern Wild, all whilst invoking a sense of uniqueness. But this imagistic assemblage is also the film’s downfall; with the overarching stylisation coming so prominently to the fore it threatens to derail the narrative.

be783e9951e22422217984336f84d412_cannes-2014_4The characters are a colourful menagerie of villains, vagrants and victims. Christina Hendricks as single mother Billy does a great job of centring the film emotionally; a task the other ‘lead’ Caestecker in his detached delivery doesn’t quite manage. Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes meanwhile provide provocative cameos as both owner and star of a grotesque horror-themed nightclub Billy becomes embroiled in. Mendelsohn particularly elevates every scene he is in, oozing with a malicious lust and giving Michael Jackson a run for his money in the ‘moves’ department.

MattSmithLostRiver

Yet, for all the fleeting shots of brilliance – and there are plenty – alongside Gosling’s tendency to hone in on his actor’s face and let their expressions do the talking, there is a distinct lack of depth, motivation or grit to any of his creations. They are as desultory as the names they are given. Intriguing but utterly random.

Ostensibly, it tackles the Detroit foreclosure crisis and the damaging effect of the fiscal crisis on an already impoverished community. And it does so with sensitivity and an understanding that its residents are trapped in a nightmarish bubble – a theme lent authenticity by the presence of actual Detroiters – where bankruptcy, eviction and collapse ominously threaten. This portentous atmosphere looms throughout, frequently bubbling to the surface in macabre (and often random) exchanges. However, there’s something incomplete and unrefined about the film as a whole.

Lost River‘s strength like in its visual audacity and ability to conjure up a hallucinatory landscape, whilst  the phosporescent lighting and eclectic sound design are particularly reminiscent of Drive, (in a good way). It’s deviation from traditional narrative structures however won’t satiate everyone’s palate and there’s definitely a need for more substance behind the style.

Ultimately, Ryan Gosling continues to cast audiences under a spell, even from behind the camera and he shows great artistic potential as a director, but the overriding niggle is that his story got as lost as the river.

Verdict: Mesmerising, frustrating and bold. Gosling has splashed his cinematic canvas with as many colours as he could find, and it makes for a coruscating experience. Let’s hope his follow-up has just as much panache, but a little less abstraction. 

PS. I saw the actual Ryan Gosling and Matt Smith at a live Q+A hosted by Ritzy Picturehouse, and certainly hearing about Gosling’s intentions and inspirations for the film gave me an appreciation for it that might otherwise have been lacking. Then again, he did make eye contact with me, so I might have just been swayed by that.

20150409_190349   20150409_212109

Review: While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach has floated on the periphery of the mainstream for roughly two decades, and has done so with elegance, restraint and wry wit. 

After his debut Kicking and Screaming, he arguably ‘broke’ onto the scene with ‘The Squid and The Whale’. Thereafter he has collaborated with Wes Anderson in a writerly capacity on two films, and has gone on to direct Nicole Kidman in Margot and the Wedding, Ben Stiller in Greenberg and his latest creative collaborator, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.

His latest offering While We’re Young is being described as his most accessible, genuinely funny and heartfelt film, and certainly seems to be the most critically well-received. It continues in the vein of Frances Ha, with a higher dose of conviviality than the bleak portraits Squid and Margot paint.

WWY centres around a generational collide between two couples; the 40-something Manhattanites Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), and the 20-something Brooklynites Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). It’s like a modernisation or inversion of the geographical conflict between East and West Egg and to quote Fitzgerald there is ” a bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them”.

while-were-young
Jamie and Darby are the glittering, fashionable inhabitants of East Egg, a.k.a. Brooklyn and rather than being grotesquely wealthy, they’re enviably unhindered by material posessions. Josh and Cornelia, meanwhile, jaded by their middle-class trappings and the complacence that comes with it are looking out across a bay, towards a green light, aspiring to have what they have. Reinvigorated by the presence of their underlings; they begin to (gasp) hang out with these bright, young things who have an infectious verve and energy for life.

What ensues as the two couples become more entwined is a sharply observed meditation on the alienation the middle aged can feel in trying to stay relevant.

No longer young enough to pull off certain looks or phrases, yet not quite of the original generation that has been visiting ‘vintage’ cafes and hangouts since their opening, Josh and Cornelia merely don’t belong. Feeling increasingly distanced from their baby-booming friends, they seek solace in up-tempo hip-hop classes and New Age holistic retreats (culminating in a slightly misjudged vomiting orgy). They have fallen through the generational cracks.

9bf27ec1-e6f0-4b29-8e44-3ad45d2f857f-620x372In one particularly illuminating sequence we see Josh and Cornelia’s lives dominated by the digital; relying on remote controls and laptop screens to quench their thirst for knowledge and entertainment. Contrastingly, Jamie and Darby play boardgames, listen to vinyl, throw street parties and basically do everything that their elders have cast aside. “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” observes Cornelia.

Noah Baumbach has his finger on the pulse and effectively traverses the line between what’s considered ironically and genuinely cool. Everything the 40-somethings attempt feels antiquated and try-hard (note – never ever think a trilby hat is a good look), where the 20-something pull it off with quirky effortlessness. Youth’s obsession with nostalgia and erstwhile eras is infintely relatable, and it’s a topic Baumbach navigates with great dexterity.

But as Josh quickly discovers, the underlings become usurpers, not content to learn from their predecessors they have designs to oust them, or such is the source of Josh’s anxiety. His position of status as a visionary documentarian is crumbling beneath him. He’s been working on a stale documentary on US power structures and political economy for a decade, and when Jamie’s success starts to ignite with comparable ease, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

27WHILE-articleLargeThe first half remains bubbly and laugh-out-loud hilarious, charged with quickfire dialogue and gratifying physical comedy. (Naomi Watts has indeed still got it). But as the drama of the plot kicks in, an anxiousness and overwroughtness seeps into the narrative. Baumbach has contrived the ending a tad too much, and there’s something incredibly uneasy and predictable about its resolution. Albeit funny. But in a kind of resigned, lopsided smile kind of way.

Another aspect of the film that began to grate was that of the female counterparts of the two couples paling into the background. They are companion pieces to the headlining male ego. Film producers and ice-cream makers they may be, but Watts and Seyfried are given little more to work with than an updated version of the disatisfied housewife, expressing discontent with their husband’s decisions.

The real couple of the film is Josh and Jamie; filmmaker and fan, artist and muse, creative collaborators and eventually sparring rivals. Ben Stiller does solid work as a paranoid, anxious cynic, something not at all dissimilar from Woody Allen in most of his films. Equally Adam Driver turns in an affable, and at times ominous performance, building upon the kookiness of his famed Girls character, with a sly vindication.

Baumbach’s film hangs on fairly obvious juxtapositions; young vs. old, dormant vs. nascent, hip vs. hip replacement, and it’s strength lies in its ability to reserve judgement –  it’s left ambiguous as to whether old and young can authentically integrate and happily coexist.

Yet there’s also an emotional vacuum at the centre of While We’re Young, because it’s hard to care about either generation. Jamie throbs with a cold-blooded ambition, Josh moans too much and everyone is a bit pretentious quite frankly. But perhaps that’s the point – they’re both as bad as each other.

OnlineQuad_WhileWereYoungThere’s enough keenly observed comedy and sublime witticisms to sustain one’s attention, so that some of the barbed, indelicate moments don’t entirely thwart Baumbach’s admirable efforts at lightheartedness. And if this becomes an anthem for making the most of youth, as opposed to One Direction’s similarly titled ‘Live While We’re Young’, then that’s something I’m all for.

Verdict: A refreshingly different Baumbach film. Some parts a tad didactic and over-done, other parts resonant, jaunty and incredibly funny. At the very least, it will have you ditching Instagram for the day and reaching for the vinyl. Also look out for a wonderful cameo from Charles Grodin.