Sunday, November 30, 2014

Quick Looks:

Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

     Some could easily call Birdman--directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, creator of thought-provoking woks like Amores perros and 21 Grams--a stunt: over half of the film (seemingly) consists of one single tracking shot with no noticeable camera cuts. But it's much more than just cool camera work. Starring Michael Keaton in one of the best performances of the year, Birdman's plot revolves around Riggan Thompson (Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor who once started the modern trend of superhero films with the Birdman Trilogy. Now, everyone thinks he is a joke: the public, his family...even himself. To try and do something meaningful, Riggan attempts to act, direct and adapt a Broadway play based upon a Raymond Carver story. Inarritu's direction works perfectly in these claustrophobic and confined spaces, tracking different actors in the play from dressing room to stage with time lapses and day changes seamlessly intertwined with the great set and locations. Familiar actors show up: Edward Norton is awesome as Mike, an actor with immense talent and a tendency to be a dick. And Emma Stone is transfixing as Riggan's out-of-rehab daughter. But it's Keaton that is a wonder: even when the film threatens to dive a little too deeply into a meta surrealism, our former Batman grounds Birdman with a wide array of perfect human emotions. His performance allows Birdman to fly as one of the year's best.    (A-)

Still Alice

     With Still Alice, we have another film that is completely defined by its starring actor's performance: this time it's Julianne Moore, who portrays Alice, an incredibly smart and successful Linguistics professor who begins showing signs of mental decline--she's forgetting the occasional word, various thoughts, and even gets lost jogging on the college campus that she has called home for years. When she eventually goes to the doctor, she gets some of the worst news possible: at age 50, she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and it's rapidly progressing. Still Alice is not  fun weekend movie entertainment--though Alice's decline is full of dignity, the film is still incredibly sad and heartbreaking, and Moore is such a good actress (like Keaton in Birdman, it may be her best performance ever) that you feel every lost thought, every grasp at a fading word as a punch straight to the gut. This is the type of story that easily could be lost in too much Lifetime-esque sentimentality, but the directors wisely keep it simple, focusing on Alice and her family and the toll the the harsh disease takes on the entire clan. Moore's performance is so astonishing because you can almost see her strip herself away from scene to scene, regressing from an incredibly charismatic speaker to a woman who has lost the most important aspects to her own identity--her thoughts and words.     (B+)

The Babadook

    The Babadook--a low-budget Australian horror film--is a satisfying and creepy entry into the supernatural hiding-in-the-closet monster movie. Some of it is pretty standard: there are possessions, typical "boo" moments and a creepy villain that looks like a top-hat-wearing ugly thing with sharp fingers, like Freddy Kruger's uncle. But unlike most corny, PG-13 American-made creepy-kid films, The Babadook deals with real issues of loss and grief. It makes the horror all the more real. Amelia's husband died tragically as they were going to to hospital to deliver their first child, and now years later, her son Samuel is having troubles at home and school, lashing out against nearly everyone. One night, he has mum read a mysterious pop-up book from the shelf called Mr. Babadook, and strange events begin occurring in their dark and dreary home. It follows a path that is predictable, but it has enough innovative moments and good performances by Amelia and Samuel to stand above American versions of similar stories.     (B)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Interstellar--2014: A Space Odyssey

     Christopher Nolan began his career with a couple of low budget films that were noticeable in their skillful direction and unique story-telling devices: the good Following and the modern classic Memento. Then, as we all know, he branched out into super-hero territory with the new Batman trilogy, making most every other superhero quiver in the darkness and realism of the new and dangerous Gotham. Between the second and third Dark Knight films, Nolan created Inception, a complete and utter mindfuck about dreams, the subconscious, and futuristic espionage. It was filled with hokey dialogue and sometimes-absurd plots twists: and I absolutely loved it. It was one of the best science-fictiony movies in years. In fact, there's never been a Nolan film that wasn't completely transfixing. He's not the best at dialogue and has a tendency to turn towards corniness in emotional moments, but his films are novelistic rides that are nothing if not entertaining. That's what movies are for (escapism), and Nolan's Interstellar is--yet again--no different: it's corny and laughable at certain moments, but it's a damn amusement park ride into the unknown, and I enjoyed every second of it.
    Interstellar takes place in the near future as Earth is beginning to show signs of being done with the human race: vicious dust storms run rampant and food crops are slowly starting to die off. Farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer, is trying to sustain his family, most notably his daughter, Murph, who is whip-smart and curious about science like her dear old dad. Weird anomalies begin to happen around the Cooper household, and a sequence of events better left unexpected cause Cooper to be Earth's last great hope to find a distant planet that can sustain a surviving population of humans.
     Interstellar is full of scientific and space travel jargon about worm-holes, the space/time continuum, black holes and 5th dimensions. It even has that standard sci-fi discussion involving folding a piece of paper to explain space travel through worm-holes. And I couldn't tell you if any of the plot points are based in fact or fiction (many of them, according to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are mostly based in truth). But the thing with Interstellar and most sci-fi space-based epics, is that being preposterous can sometimes be a virtue: letting go with reality and suspending your disbelief just gets you invested in the ride even more. If you do that with Interstellar, there's no way you're not entertained.
     Nolan has a knack for setting up big sequences that have a tendency to make your jaw drop, and Interstellar is no different: like in Inception and each of the Batman films, he sets up a couple of scenes that can leave your breathless. And unlike Inception, this new Nolan film actually has a more human emotion that is much easier to relate to. A lot of this has to do with Matthew McConaughey's performance: this dude has been knocking it out of the park lately (namely in Mud, Dallas Buyer's Club, and HBO's epic True Detective), and the nearly 3 hour run time of Interstellar gives him plenty of room to run the gambit of emotions.
     Yeah, it's easy to snicker at some of the plot jumps in Interstellar. Especially during the first third of the film, a couple of coincidences and unexplained happenings bugged me a little bit. But knowing Nolan, I should have assumed that things will connect in the end--and they did in a completely unexpected way. And yeah, some of the dialogue feels hokey and forced, trying to incite an emotional response (particularly with a certain poem) in the viewer. But it didn't matter: Interstellar is an entertaining film filled with massive ideas about the future of the human race, parenthood, love, and human nature. It has space action that rivals Gravity and intimate moments that can bring tears to your eyes. Above all, it's a great success in a year that's almost completely devoid of anything to get excited about.     (A-)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Nightcrawler: Crawling Under Your Skin

     Five years ago, if you heard Jake Gyllenhaal's name, you'd either think about his then-risky portrayal of gay cowboy Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain or his role as the freaky titular character in the teenage cult classic Donnie Darko. Like many actors, he was slowly gaining popularity and also had roles in some less-then-stellar efforts. But starting in 2011 with the slick sci-flick Source Code, Gyllenhaal has redefined his career and turned in some incredibly nuanced and haunting performances: his LAPD cop in End of Watch, his double-identity confused state in Enemy, and--most notably--his awesome turn as Detective Loki in last year's debatable best film, Prisoners. He continues his streak of impressive performances with Nightcrawler, a creepy and tension-packed film that is merely okay if not for Gyllenhall: but because of him it's almost great.
     Gyllenhaal portrays Lou Bloom, a scumbag sociopath weirdo who is trying to find a job. He doesn't have a set or morals or an ethical code, so when he witnesses the aftermath of a violent car wreck on an overpass and sees an independent camera crew filming the carnage to sell to the morning news, he comes up with the idea to start his own business. He buys a camera and a police scanner, and he methodically learns every police code for the city so he can zoom to dangerous crime scenes. Lou doesn't care about human beings or acting like a functioning citizen, so he gets good camera shots and fakes interviews. The morning news channel, led by Nina (Rene Russo: where has she been?), loves his footage and his go-get nature, and they start paying him more and more. And when sweeps week comes, they want more dramatic footage, and Lou isn't too concerned about how he is going to get it.
     Things escalate quickly in the second half of the film. I won't give away too much--but Lou isn't the type of person who abides by a few feet of yellow police tape that say "Do not Proceed." He hires an assistant, a down-on-his-luck dude who works for less than minimum wage and is frightened of Lou's personality, and they traverse the city searching for the most violent, shocking and exciting images to film. And like the images that Lou films, we--the viewer--keep diving down into depths of tension and excitement, wonder if Lou's downfall will ever come. Gyllenhall is not a likable person as Lou, but in the context of watching Nightcrawler, he's an extremely likable character for the viewer because he's so damn weird and interesting and will do anything for a better camera angle and more news recognition.
     Nightcrawler surely touches on the 24 hour news cycle and it's portents of immense fear: they pay far more for footage of violent crimes that take place in the white and wealthy neighborhoods. A carjacking in "the hood" doesn't equal ratings--a murder in a mansion does. This also ties into the exploitation of crime and victims in a world only looking for the next image to shock. But these metaphors aren't what sticks with you for the next couple days after Nightcrawler: it's Gyllenhaal as Lou, his gaunt features behind the hand-held camera, filming a bloody mess until he moves onto the next.     (B+)