Slow West (4.25/5):
The Western genre is known for its grizzled gunslingers, lawless lunatics, and scintillating stand offs. The only thing more raw and barren than the landscape are the characters themselves, as death and power coerce men into moral quagmires and duels. Slow West, writer/director John Maclean’s first cinematic effort, isn’t entirely dedicated to Western tropes. Rather, it’s a coming of age tale with those threats waiting in the margins. Our dusty tale begins with Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) innocently trekking west to find Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of his life. After finding himself in a pickle, Jay comes across a mysterious, devil-may-care bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender). Driven by the dollar, Silas leads Jay through America’s rugged landscape, encountering a collection of colorful characters that always have their trigger fingers ready to squeeze. At the outset, Jay and Silas formulate a professional relationship, but as time moves on and they slightly expose their past, they become oddly dedicated to one another. Which is not to say Silas loses track of Jay’s monetary value, but Jay’s romanticism almost wins the emotionless bounty hunter over. In many respects, Jay’s venture represents the West’s advertised reward: a hopeful journey.
The juxtaposition of reality versus expectations is an idea that is delicately threaded throughout Slow West. There are vicious scenes of gunshot wounds and carnage, but they’re reached through a deliberate pace. There are scenes soiled in darkness, but they’re often offset by illuminating humor. And there are desperate men who show layers of tenderness that’s been buried for years. There are many disparate parts in play here, but through assured direction, Maclean delivers a powerfully efficient film that miraculously mixes everything together without diluting the bigger picture. Helping tie it all together is another fantastic performance from Michael Fassbender. In spite of it being one of his more subdued roles, Fassbender is still magnetic, especially when he and Ben Mendelsohn- who plays a competing Bounty Hunter- chew scenery together. Speaking of the scenery, Slow West is one of the best looking films of the year. Shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, there’s an inescapable beauty to every frame. The last set piece is particularly stunning as a shootout erupts in the middle of a quaint, picturesque prairie. This is where the essence of Slow West sharpens, as the faint dream of the prosperous west collides with its harsh reality. Thankfully, in spite of reality winning out, Maclean never loses sight of the promise of a new beginning, a new frontier unexplored.
While We’re Young (4.25/5):
As I grow older it’s hard for me not to feel increasingly irrelevant. I don’t mean that my life is pointless, but as wrinkles and dull aches devour my body, I feel out of touch with the world at large and the trends that drive it. Adulthood, and all of its responsibilities, all but suffocate an aimless life style, a life style adorned by the youth. Our youthful cravings, in spite of their incompatibility with our adult lives, almost convince us that we can recapture the past in the present. We are a foolish lot, but that in ability to move on cuts deeper when regret and self-doubt sharpen the blade. This is the core conflict in Noah Baumbach’s astute While We’re Young. Taking place in New York City, While We’re Young centers around Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, respectively), a married couple struggling romantically and professionally. Josh and Cornelia are merely masquerading as consenting participants in adulthood. Their way out manifests in the form of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple that isn’t bound by expectations. Invigorated by their youthful counterparts, Josh and Cornelia jump head first into a new life style where hip hop dancing and new age cleanses become the norm.
Unfortunately, they can’t entirely keep up with Jamie and Darby, and they’re left to reconcile who they are with who they want to be. Noah Baumbach has proven himself a master when it comes to writing characters who think they know everything but lack the self-awareness to foster personal growth. The beauty of Baumbach’s writing is that his characters are rarely grating, with their charms overriding any form of alienating immaturity. Josh and Cornelia, though unable to see the obvious dilemma in front of them, are arguably his most relatable characters. Their middle-aged angst is understandable, especially when their attempts at living an adult life (for instance, having a child), are tragically undercut. Both Stiller and Watts are excellent, generating an impressive amount of laughs without sacrificing their character’s dignity or simmering pain. Driver and Seyfried are also sublimely funny as the detached youth who inspire our protagonists. Baumbach’s writing isn’t without its faults. The characters are wonderfully constructed and realized, but the screenplay mutates into a bit of an awkward mess in the third act, where it curiously plays off like a quasi-thriller. It’s a bizarre tonal shift but one that Baumbach redeems with a sharp, incisive last scene. While We’re Young isn’t Baumbach’s highest cinematic achievement, but it’s his most relatable; reminding us that we’re exactly as old as we need to be.