Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nightcrawler Review

(dir. Dan Gilroy)

Open Road Films/Entertainment One/Elevation Pictures

“If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

    Now is as good a time to ask as any: how much do you trust the news to give you the truth? For many, television news informs the basis on rational thought, of how we see the world on a local and global scale. It identifies who we should mourn, who we should celebrate, and who we should fear. So what happens when you peel back those smiling TV faces to find not flesh but hundreds of insects crawling over each other, biting, devouring what was once there in a bloody frenzy? These are the questions Dan Gilroy’s film poses. Nightcrawler is the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a jobless pariah who steps into the world of nightcrawling—filming footage of the aftermaths of brutal killings and car crashes for the local news. Aided by a young homeless man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and a news director, Nina (Rene Russo), who will do anything to hold onto her job, Bloom starts down a road toward becoming a self-made business man. It’s an American dream achieved through fast cars, fast talking, and blood, a whole lot of it.

    Jake Gyllenhaal has been on quite the hot streak of performances over the last few years, and his portrayal of Lou Bloom is one of his most impressive roles. Bloom is characterized by a lean, hungry look and odd facial tics (we only see him blink a couple of times in the entire film), but coupled with the physical distinctions, is an unsettling quality that’s hard to pin down. When he says he doesn’t like people, you believe him, and while we may hear people utter this statement from time to time, it has never been more stomach churning than it is here. We’re given next to no information about Bloom’s past. It seems that we as the audience almost stumble upon him the same way he stumbles into nightcrawling. Gyllenhaal has quite a way of crafting complex characters whose history we know very little about. Bloom is eerily polite, inquisitive, and his whole model for running a business seems to be gathered from internet pitch pages. He’s also carries a sense of disenfranchisement, a result of a job market and economy gone under. Thus, Bloom becomes a sociopathic mixture of ideals and flaws, America gone wrong in an exaggerated (if only slightly so) continuation of the mentality that has created so many reality stars and internet sensations who'll do anything for a buck. Gyllenhaal’s performance is supported by strong turns from Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and the always wonderful Bill Paxton who offer barely restrained parallels to Bloom. Nightcrawler is led by characters whose morals are easy to condemn, and even laugh at, but there’s a disturbing sense that they are not so far removed from people sitting just a couple rows behind you.
     Dan Gilroy, who makes his directorial debut with this film, crafts a stylish looking picture that contrasts dull colored daytime scenes, with striking night scenes. For film buffs interested in camera angles and lighting, the film plays a lot with both in terms of Gilroy’s filmmaking and Bloom’s nightcrawling. L.A. is no stranger to having its seedier side exposed, but in this film it seems even less glamourous than usual, unrecognizable at times. The screenplay, which Gilroy also wrote, is darkly humorous, sometimes to a guilt inducing degree because of its honesty. Gilroy confronts the local news’ penchant for instigating a fear of minorities, the focus on urban crime entering the suburbs, and the news anchors’ inane commentary and quick shifts between tragedy and fluff pieces (we’ve all seen a grisly murder or apartment fire being used a lead-in for a cute dog or baby of the day video). Yes, the depiction of the news in the film is a fictional exaggeration, but similar exploitation occurs in real life and Nightcrawler is nothing if not a reminder of that fact.

    Nightcrawler is battery-acid soaked satire, driven by strong performances and strong visuals. There are certain elements of horror in the film, but unlike horror movies, Nightcrawler is funny and chilling without being fun. It has a very real sense of weight that isn’t unshakeable. Nightcrawler doesn’t care about people because it operates under the notion that news doesn't care about people either. But we can laugh at parts of Nightcrawler, go home to watch the news and let the insects hatch beneath our faces, and feel queasy about it later, because what else can we do?

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Theory of Everything Review

(dir. James Marsh)

Universal/Focus Features

"One never knows from where the next great leap forward is going to come, or from whom."

    Stephen Hawking is unquestionably one of the greatest minds of our time, responsible for many of our theories on the universe and our existence as human beings. The Theory of Everything, based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, focuses its lens to explore Hawking’s private life and how all of his genius would have been for naught without the help of his wife, Jane Wilde. Unexpectedly, The Theory of Everything is less concerned with Hawking’s theories, influence, and rise to prominence than it is telling a love story fraught with tragedy and defined by a beauty that is anything but simple. While Marsh’s film has been publicized as the story of Stephen Hawking, it is equally (or perhaps more so), the story of Jane Wilde and how her selflessness helped change the scope of modern physics and cosmology.

     Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into Stephen Hawking is brilliant and a further reminder that this year’s Best Actor race may be even more stacked than the last. As he plays Hawking through several stages of his life, and the worsening of his Lou Gehrig’s disease, Redmayne maintains Hawking’s sense of curiosity and humor. But what’s truly remarkable is how successfully Redmayne alters his speech patterns and body language. Even once Hawking loses his ability to speak, Redmayne still successfully communicates all of Hawking’s charm, brilliance, and egotism.  It’s an extremely focused and imaginably taxing performance. While it’s impossible for Felicity Jones to compete with Redmayne’s more attention grabbing role, she gives an emotionally powerful performance that displays Jane’s strength in the sacrifices she chose to make on both a professional and personal level. Despite her youthful looks, Jones fully carries the strength and wisdom of an older actress while never losing the bright-eyed energy of youth that makes Jane such a compelling figure. The theory of everything is nothing without the strength of a woman.  

     Marsh’s direction is elevated from simply being a compelling biopic by gorgeous cinematography by Benoît Delhomme. I challenge you to find a more beautifully lit sequence in a film this year than the outdoor formal that takes place early in the film. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is concise, moving over large chunks of the Hawkings' lives, but zeroing in on the important emotional beats in their story. The film is also surprisingly and impressively funny. While I wouldn’t have minded a slightly longer movie, The Theory of Everything never feels rushed. While some of the film’s detractors have commented on that fact the film doesn’t spend enough time of what makes Stephen Hawking important and that his theories are inadequately summarized, I think they have missed Marsh and McCarten’s intent. The Theory of Everything isn’t concerned with the theory of the universe and string theory, but rather the connection between people. As tawdry as it may sound to some, I think the film makes it clear (it even hammers it home in the film’s final moments) that love is everything.

     I find it quite interesting that three of this fall’s best films, Birdman, Interstellar, and The Theory of Everything are inevitably about understanding what love is, what it costs, and ultimately what it creates. All three films deal with theoretical notions, and while Nolan and Marsh’s films owe a great deal to Hawking’s scientific work, neither film is actually about that work when all is said and done. Marsh’s film is clearly the least risky of the three and perhaps offers the least to grapple with after the credits roll, but in an awards season crowded with biopics, The Theory of Everything is a thoroughly satisfying and personal exploration into the man who sought to unravel the secrets of the universe and the woman who reminded him of his humanity.

Grade: A

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

(dir. Francis Lawrence)


“Fire is catching... If we burn, you burn with us!”

    In the third installment of The Hunger Games series, Katniss finds herself the symbol of the resistance movement started by District 13. Gone are the games, replaced by a civil war that places the violence and themes of the first two films on a much larger stage. While the splitting of Suzanne Collins’ novel into two films isn’t necessary, and ultimately hampers the story’s momentum, Mockingjay is filled with enough strong character moments and events to make the film a crucial entry.

    Even more so than the previous installments, Mockingjay really is Katniss’ film. Free from the adversaries that the games offered, and many of the supporting characters in reduced roles, the film allows the audience to get inside Katniss’ head and examine her choices (or lack of choices). The film really cements the fact that Katniss is a tool being used to ignite revolution, a distinction that makes her different from other heroes who are entirely agents of their own free will. Where the film’s themes really come across are not in the action scenes, but in the quieter moments and the discussions of politics and propaganda. Jennifer Lawrence seems entirely comfortable in the role, offering enough of herself to Katniss to make the character more likeable than the book. Her performance is aided by strong performances from Julianne Moore, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who even in a minor role reminds us why he was so celebrated a talent. Mockingjay is a film that is truly elevated by the power of its performances, which make the whole Part I detail far less damning.

    Francis Lawrence has a confident handle on the material and a cinematic eye that allows for some great moments of tension in the last half hour, as well as a few well-crafted scenes focusing on the revolutions taking place in other districts. Mockingjay, washed in grays and browns has the look of a war film. The lack of colorful capital costumes, holograms, and genetically engineered enemies ground the film. In some ways, Lawrence seems to emulate The Deathly Hallows Part I, in his focus on relationships and the cost of war. But unlike that film, some of Mockingjay’s moments, like the will they/won’t they relationship between Katniss and Gale, seemed like forced fan service, reminders that the story’s strengths are still pinned down to a willingness to fit inside the young adult box. While the flaws of the book remain the flaws of the film, Mockingjay’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

    While it's light on action, Mockingjay still has a number of pivotal moments. Fans of the book will likely be pleased and fans of the films will find this new entry consistent with their expectations. In the end, Mockingjay achieves what all installments hope to do from an artistic standpoint, it has impact. The emotional fallout of this film offers enough to keep you invested until next year’s finale.

Grade: B+

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interstellar Review

(dir. Christopher Nolan)

Paramount/Warner Bros.

“Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

     There are very few modern directors who can grapple with grand ideas on such a massive scale as Christopher Nolan. His newest film shows no suspension in his ambition, and while it’s not as readily digestible or quantifiably thrilling as his last few films, Interstellar offers some of Nolan’s most interesting ideas yet. Set in a future where Earth is beset by massive dust storms and blight has destroyed most crops, Interstellar follows a group of scientists as they enter a wormhole to another galaxy to search for a new home for humanity. It’s a film that is just as much a look at who we are as human beings at this moment as it a look towards the future of humanity’s evolution. Interstellar is also an evolution for Nolan as a director, and while it distinctly feels like ‘A Christopher Nolan Film’, he’s clearly shrugging off the notion that he is more concerned with ideas than people. Interstellar may be his weightiest and most scientifically minded film, but it’s also his most warmly human.

     There’s not a weak link in the entire cast, and though some of the actors don’t get as much screentime as I’d have liked to see, they all turn out memorable performances. Matthew McConaughey’s performance as father, and pilot Cooper is emotionally engrossing and he provides the beating heart of the film. Considering how unenthused I was when he was first cast in this film, it’s astounding to see how a string of performances over the last few years have completely sold me on his talent. Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain both do an excellent job fleshing out Cooper’s strong-willed daughter Murphy. Anne Hathaway’s layered-portrayal of scientist Amelia Brand also stands out as one of the best performances in the film. Christopher Nolan has been criticized before on the portrayal of women as plot devices in his films, but it should be noted that the most intelligent, and courageous characters in Interstellar are women.

     Nolan’s directorial skills are once again imaginatively innovative. The use of practical effects and miniatures really add a sense of realism to the space sequences. Before seeing the film, I was disappointed about cinematographer, Wally Pfister’s absence (especially since the reason for that absence was Transcendence) but Hoyte van Hoytema did such a beautiful job with both the earthbound and space scenes, that I’m torn about who I want to work with Nolan on his next film. Hans Zimmer also provides one of his best scores in years, a classically beautiful and haunting departure from the brassy and booming soundtracks he’s provided over the last decade. Though Interstellar has drawn many critical comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think it’s a disservice to both films to look at them in the same light. While Nolan clearly pays homage at times, his film tackles a different angle. No director can contend with Stanley Kubrick, and I think to fully appreciate what Nolan has to offer, it’s best to look at Interstellar in the context of his own filmography.

     The story, which Christopher Nolan worked on with his brother Jonathan and physicist Kip Thorne, is engaging, though it offers too many details and scientific jargon at times. This, however is not a fault of the film, but a reminder of my own scientific ignorance. I wonder if some of the film’s negative reactions stem from the fact that the film has a way of reminding us of how little we know. I think there are some, though certainly not all, who would rather feel intelligent by patting themselves on the back for understanding watered-down and apparent concepts than to admit what they don’t know and seek out or imagine answers. There is an interesting debate to be had about how much work a script should do for the audience and how much the film can extend beyond the screen. With Interstellar, Nolan is asking us to think, to learn, and to explore. I appreciate the fact that the writers of this film refused to go easy on us, and instead of feeling frustrated, Interstellar only peaked my curiosity. The emotions the film plays with, love in particular, is understandable at any level and it certainly pulls on the heart-strings. It’s a film working on two levels, and while the scientific and emotional do not always even out, they give the film an interesting texture.

     If you have the opportunity to see the film as Nolan intended on 70mm IMAX, I strongly encourage you to make that choice. It’s one of the most breathtaking theatrical experiences I’ve had. While the special effects are stunning (particularly that initial trip through the wormhole and a third act “set piece” that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen) Interstellar is not summer movie sci-fi (that’s not a criticism or commendation). You’re not getting large action sequences or space battles or alien creatures. Instead you’re getting science-fiction that you have to work for. Some of the film’s criticism is understandable and well-thought out, and despite my grade, Interstellar is not without its flaws. But I’m personally attracted to a surplus of big ideas that don’t always fully land because so few films actually even attempt to function on that level. It’s been nearly a week since I first saw the film, and I still can’t shake it. Interstellar deals with massive concepts and while it offers too much to properly digest the first go around (or even the second), how many big-budget films actually leave you wrestling with heavy questions and a desire to seek out more? 

Grade: A+

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Review

(dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)

Fox Searchlight

“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”

    It’s tough out there for an actor. Surrounded by the pressures of public image and desire to craft something meaningful, it’s enough to drive even the most confident of artists a little mad. In Birdman, Inarritu spins these pressures in wonderfully surreal, depressing, and comedic ways, crafting a film that provides commentary on the Hollywood and Broadway machines through a refreshing and sometimes opaque lens. Birdman follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor attempting to direct and star in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in the hopes to shake off the role of Birdman that defined his career. Beset with issues from an egotistical, high-profile Broadway actor (Edward Norton), a girlfriend who wants more than he can give (Andrea Riseborough), a loyal enabler of a best friend (Zach Galifinakas), and drug-addicted daughter (Emma Stone), Riggan struggles to hold onto his sanity and idea of himself.

     Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan, creating a complex character driven by naïve-pride, insecurity, self-loathing, and a love of the craft. He’s a product of the bad luck life has dealt him, and the bad luck he’s created for himself. While there are clearly some similarities between Riggan’s career after Birdman, and Keaton’s after Batman, this isn’t an instance of Keaton playing a fictionalized version of himself. Riggan is a man who is unable to let go of anything, which makes him frightening and unlikable at times, and comedic and sympathetic in others. Riseborough, Galifinakas, and Naomi Watts all deliver solid performances that further explore the pitfalls of show business. But Edward Norton and Emma Stone are truly phenomenal in their supporting roles, each facing a different kind of psychosis that make them wonderfully unlikable. Where Birdman really succeeds in its performances is not in creating characters who are endearing, but in creating characters whose desire to be loved (in the variety of forms this word means) makes them accessible.

     Inarritu has consistently proven to be one of the most original working directors, and Birdman is wonderful to look at. Using only a few cuts, Birdman is constructed as a seemingly single long take. It’s tracking shots get right up in the character’s faces, allowing them to fill the screen so that every emotion and external shift is given power. Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s use of lighting and color (particularly an argument between Keaton and Stone that’s painted a sickly yellow) may be his best work yet. Birdman is a reminder that the spectacle we so commonly associate with effects work, massive budgets, and plot twists can also be the result of sheer directorial confidence and skill.

     The story is expectedly Carver-esque and many of the themes in his short story come into play in the film. Similar to Darren Aronoksky’s Black Swan, the narrative being produced within the film’s story transcends the stage and plays out through every facet of the characters’ lives. Carver’s story is an exploration into the meaning of love, of whether it’s something that be quantified or agreed upon and Birdman tackles this issue as well, marrying it with the struggles of public adoration or lack thereof. Carver’s story and Inarritu’s film offer few answers, but the film complicates the themes by distorting what can be taken literally or figuratively. Throughout the narrative, we see Riggan display a host of powers from levitation, telekinesis, and flight. These often happen at his lowest points (or perhaps highest if we believe Birdman is who he is meant to be) and occasionally we’re shown that these are in Riggan’s head but other times not. While I still remain unsure of what to make of these moments or the film’s ending, I suspect that like Carver’s stories it is the emotions that we’re witnessing that outweigh plot minutia. So my answer in terms of Birdman’s story is not so much what Riggan is doing or how, but why. Is Riggan’s Birdman persona the absence of love or the realization and acceptance of it? Perhaps us not knowing in the end, in being able to decipher for ourselves what love means or doesn’t mean in this story is the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

     The film does offer criticism of the blockbuster and superhero film genre (one I do not fully agree with, but find interesting nonetheless) and the pretension that can exist on the stage. It looks at the extremes of two art forms, showcasing the beauty and depravity of both. But the character moments and humanity of the film is far more important that its meta look at acting industries. While it’s at times too heavy, depressing (despite it being genuinely funny at times), and vague to be fully enjoyable from a story standpoint (I can’t picture kicking back with this for too many repeat viewings), Birdman is driven by the power of its breathtaking, hard-hitting performances and phenomenal directorial craft. It’s truly an actor’s film in every sense of the phrase.

Grade: A-

John Wick Review

(dir. Chad Stahelski)

Lionsgate/Summit/Warner Bros.

"People keep asking if I'm back — yeah, I'm thinking I'm back."

     This is the era of aging men once again stepping into the kind of action roles that defined their careers, and we’re all just along for the ride. This time up, it’s Keanu Reeves as John Wick. Wick is a retired hitman for the mob who is pulled back into action after his dog, a gift from his deceased wife, is killed by the son of the mobster he used to work for. Armed with a cool car, and a never-ending supply of bullets Wick kills his way to the top in a bloody path of revenge.

     Reeves portrayal of Wick is undeniably cool, and follows in the long line of mostly silent, brooding anti-heroes. He’s given very little opportunity to emote, but carries a smoldering rage just under the surface of his performance. The supporting roles, filled by Alfie Allen, Michael Nyqvist, Adrianne Palacki, and a criminally underused William Dafoe add little to a movie that isn’t concerned with character arcs or engaging plot twists. Nyqvist, who plays Viggo Tarasov, the film’s primary antagonist and head the New York Russian crime syndicate, has yet to make a compelling villain. His role simply exists as a stereotype and he never seems like an actual threat to Wick. Part of the film’s problem is no one seems to be a threat to Wick, a man the Russian Mob has deemed the boogeyman (but, as Viggo, tells us he’s not the boogeyman, but the man you hire to kill the boogeyman, whatever that means). Even when Wick’s life seems threatened, there’s no tension to the movie, no sense of weight to the action or kill shots. It’s like watching a video game where the player has unlimited ammo and lives.

     The action sequences are stylish and well-crafted but they’re not particularly unique or hard-hitting. It’s slickly choreographed to the point where it feels rehearsed. The action also falls prey to one of my biggest pet peeves: CGI blood. There were parts of the film where I just sat wondering why they couldn’t get a hold of any squibs. Honestly after Gareth Evans’s, The Raid:Redemption, most action sequences don’t hold up in comparison. The scene in the night-club The Red Circle is the best sequence in the film, and the action is heightened by some gorgeous lighting. The problem is that there’s no sense of progression to the action in the film. The best sequences are the first two action segments, leaving the later scenes and climax to feel particularly uneventful. The script by Derek Kolstad follows many action-movie clichés, though there is some interesting world-building by way of a hotel that acts as a safe-haven for hired guns. Unfortunately this world-building doesn’t pay off to anything unique. As a result, Kolstad’s script is so standard that anytime Wick isn’t coming in with guns blazing the film is a bore of banal exposition.

     While there are some standout scenes that will make entertaining views when they’re placed on YouTube in a year, the movie as a whole is rather dull. John Wick is a case of the trailer being more exciting than the movie. While it’s received positive reception from many, I wonder if some people are so starved for an R-action-movie not starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or ‘Hollywood’s hot new action-star’ that they’re willing to put such positive word of mouth behind something that’s an enjoyable rental at best. Perhaps I came in with my expectations too high after all the praise. In any case, action movies can be responsible for far more enthralling stories than John Wick.

Grade: C

Horns Review

(dir. Alexander Aja)

Dimension Films/RADiUS-TWC

“Damn right they’re horns.”

    Imagine you were to wake up one morning to find two horns growing out your head. Then imagine that those horns made everyone you talked to tell you their darkest desires, their secret sins. This is the situation Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself in in Alexander Aja’s Horns, based on the Joe Hill’s wonderfully imaginative and heart-breaking novel. Accused of murdering his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), Ig Perrish uses his newfound abilities to solve her murder, but each step he takes brings out more of the demon in him. Ig Perrish discovers there’s a fine line between salvation and damnation.

     Daniel Radcliffe gives a terrific performance as Ig, capturing the character’s vulnerability, and later his mirth when his abilities are put into action. Ig is a sharp contrast to the clean cut heroes Radcliffe usually plays, but in some ways the performance feels more honest. His arc feels like a natural progression to the idea that sometimes it takes becoming a devil to do the right thing. Juno Temple delivers a solid performance as Merrin, but I wish she’d been given more to do as her story has been sadly truncated compared to the novel. The underrated Joe Anderson gives a memorable performance as Ig’s drug-addicted brother Terry, and once again I was reminded of the fact that he should be getting more roles. The weak-link in the cast is Max Mingella as Ig’s best friend Lee. His acting ability isn’t the problem, rather he was miscast in a role that demanded a presence he couldn’t deliver. As a result, one of the most important roles in the story falls flat and takes some of the wind out of the film.

     As someone who loved Hill’s novel, I was admittedly concerned when Aja was chosen as the director. Make no mistake, I’m a fan of his work, but The Hills Have Eyes and Pirahna 3D didn’t give any indication that Aja was capable of handling the emotional honesty of Horns, which is far more fantasy than horror. But Aja delivers a beautiful looking film with a great sense of atmosphere (there’s an excellent contrast between the natural and unnatural). He also shines in the dramatic scenes (far more than in the scenes of horror, actually). There’s a flashback scene in a diner between Ig and Merrin that captures all the incredible emotional power of some of the best dramatic directors’ work. But for a director who has delivered some absolutely grotesque and shockingly brutal scenes, it’s surprising how tame the film is when compared to the book. Screenwriter, Keith Bunin’s take on the story is more humorous, but lacks the sense of unease and darkness that Ig confronts when faced with people’s unfiltered thoughts.  Even with an R-rating, Horns feels surprisingly neutered at times, particularly for a film that isn’t a mass-market release that needs to cater to a wide-audience.

     The major story beats of the novel are left mostly intact but Aja falters in the pacing, though this is also the fault of one-named editor, Baxter. Even at its two hour runtime, Horns feels rushed in places. The scenes are given very little room to breathe which dampens some of the emotional impact and character work. Parts of the film seem hastily cut together, and flashbacks are delivered in odd lumps that seem desperate to deliver exposition without attention to how those scenes fit within the narrative.

     As a whole Horns is a pretty good film, that is a few cast and crew decisions away from being really good. Daniel Radcliffe delivers his best performance and if you’re a fan of his, the film is worth seeing for that reason alone. Horns is an incredibly imaginative take on body-horror and the morality play of genre films. While it doesn’t push itself far enough, Horns offers a unique, and memorable experiment with tone and the idea of redemption.

Grade: B