Thursday, February 26, 2015

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is the best gangster film that never was, at least for a while. Upon its release in 1984, American studios were scared to death of the four hour running time, so they butchered Leone's vision. While the original debuted in Cannes to wide praise, the American version was chopped down to two-and-a-half hours, and was utterly baffling to audiences. Large chunks of the story which were crucial to the film - as literally every moment is crucial in the end - were cut, causing confusion and poor character development.

Eventually, the original version was released on home video, clocking in at 224 minutes. It clarified many things for American audiences and it was finally recognized as a great film. Now, a bluray version of the film, Leone's director's cut that he originally intended, clocks in at 251 minutes, and is the complete masterpiece.

The film is an odyssey of young boys who become young men, and eventually some make it to old age. All the while this crew of men seem hard-wired for violence, to run the streets of a prohibition New York, and to stomp out their competition. Robert De Niro plays Noodles, are entry into the story, whom we see near the beginning in an opium den while other men are employing violence to hunt him down. The opening sequence is virtuoso, with moments of shocking violence, and a phone which rings 24 times, brilliantly creating a thread between timelines.

James Woods is Max, the hotheaded hood of the group who, over the course of several decades, struggles with Noodles for power. All of the tropes of gangster cinema are here, including double crosses, speakeasies, and fast women of the twenties and thirties. But the film also has deeply complex characters, and it manages to create wholly despicable humans who keep the momentum of a four hour film going. Despite it's run time, Once Upon a Time in America never drags, it never feels that long.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Thoughts, Predictions

Two days away from one of my favorite nights of the year, despite the annual negativity surrounding the Academy Awards. Now, I understand everything at the Oscars is politically charged, and there are films and performances every year that may be arguably better than those nominated. I don't care, though. Part of the Academy Awards process is the bitching, the shock at snubs, the triumph of your favorite film getting noticed. 

Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar, neither did Cary Grant, or Alfred Hitchcock, the list goes on. But that doesn't take away from Oscar Night, not for me anyway. I take the Oscars as a celebration of the year of films, and I enjoy seeing who wins and what they say. It will always be important to me, no matter how little the snarky modern media dismisses the entire process.

This year, I feel especially excited, because personal favorites of mine are all over these lists. Let's take a look at who I think SHOULD win, and who WILL win Sunday night.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Emma Stone (Birdman), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Meryl Streep (Into The Woods), Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

I am convinced the Academy is now trolling the public with their Meryl Streep nominations. Streep has been nominated 17 times in her career, and I feel like the last half dozen, aside from her win for The Iron Lady, haven't been necessary. I was glad to see Laura Dern recognized for her heartfelt supporting performance alongside Reese Witherspoon, and Emma Stone is much deserved. Knightley feels like filler to me, and the frontrunner is, deservedly, Arquette. She delivers a performance that is untouchable, mature, and rich in depth and emotion. And, if the awards season to this point is any indication, Arquette will run away with this statue.

SHOULD WIN: Arquette     WILL WIN: Arquette


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Edward Norton (Birdman), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

I don't see an undeserving nominee on this list, except maybe Duvall, although his performance does elevate the otherwise standard The Judge. If J.K. Simmons weren't nominated, I could see any of the other actors winning the Oscar. But Simmons is there, and his electric performance in Whiplash is deserving of frontrunner status. Much like Arquette, Simmons has this thing locked up.

SHOULD WIN: Simmons     WILL WIN: Simmons 


BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

There is a wealth of wonderful performances this year in the Best Actress category, but it is already apparent that Julianne Moore is taking this home. I never saw Cotillard's performance, and many haven't, but both Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike are spot on in their roles. Of those two, Pike absolutely deserves to win Best Actress for her multi-layered, brilliant performance in Gone Girl. The film is nothing without her. Alas, this is Moore's year, and she deserves the award perhaps for her fantastic career and four previous nominations, which the Academy is want to do. 

SHOULD WIN: Pike     WILL WIN: Moore


BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

I have been a cult fan of Michael Keaton for twenty years, and I'm not the only one in this fan club. Keaton absolutely deserves this award for an emotional and challenging performance in Birdman. It would make my night, because it would finally validate Keaton to the world as the great actor I always knew he was. But now, during awards season, there is a creepy, crawly outlier who seems to be stealing the spotlight from Keaton. His name is Eddie Redmayne, who took home the SAG Award over Keaton. Here's to hoping that is an anomaly. I believe it is, and I believe the likeability of Keaton the man will push him across the finish line. 

SHOULD WIN: Keaton     WILL WIN: Keaton


BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

I wonder what a director like Bennett Miller thinks, having gotten a nomination for his stolid direction of Foxcatcher, only to see the film he directed shut out of the Best Picture category. Weird. The race really comes down to two director, Iñárritu, whose camera works magic with Birdman, and Linklater, whose patience and will drove him to finish Boyhood after twelve years. I am torn on this, but I think Linklater and his film, despite the predictable negative publicity that always follows frontrunners this time of year, will take home the big prizes.

SHOULD WIN: Linklater     WILL WIN: Linklater


BEST PICTURE

Nominees: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

I love that Whiplash got a nomination, it's a great film. But it doesn't stand a chance. This race comes down to the same directors with the best chance to win Best Director. I absolutely love Birdman, and it is a great film. However, Boyhood is a timeless instant classic, something which transcends filmmaking, and touches the core of every person on the planet. If they allow it. Boyhood should win, and it most certainly will.

OTHER NOMINEES AND PREDICTIONS (in bold):

Animated Feature
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle
Original Screenplay
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy
Cinematography
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins
Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
Documentary Feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen
Film Editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross
Foreign Language Film
“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina
Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White
Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson
Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from “Selma”
Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn

“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois
Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts
Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins
Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
Sound Editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro
Sound Mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
“Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer

Friday, February 6, 2015

Jupiter Ascending



JUPITER ASCENDING: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, directed by The Wachowskis. (125 min.)

There are stages one must go through when they are dealing with a terrible movie that magically becomes greatness in its own whacked out way. The first stage is apprehension, which arrives when the lights dim and you are afraid of how bad the movie might actually be. Next comes realization, usually not long after apprehension; this is the point where you realize that the film is, in fact, garbage. The third stage is disbelief, as dialogue and actions fly at your face with such incomprehensible ineptitude that you simply cannot fathom what you are seeing. Stage three is often accompanied with "mouth agape" syndrome.

The final stage of the process is delirium, brought on by the film's unnecessary length and absurdity overwhelming you to a point where you laugh at times not indented to be funny. Eventually, the laughter comes fast and furious, and it gets audible in the theater by the end until you finally stumble back into the light of day, squint your eyes in the welcoming sun, and realize it is all over, and that it might have actually been worth it to see something so bad.

These four stages of the "so-bad-it's-good" affliction may not be more prevalent in any other time in my life than they were in Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowski's must have had a good time storyboarding the film and creating all of the elaborate visual sci-fi elements. Fun does translate to the screen, though not in the way I imagine the Wachowski's intended. There are some earnest attempts at a space opera here, but the absurdity overwhelms throughout, and one very special performance sends everything over the top.

Mila Kunis is the title character, Jupiter, your typical daughter of a Michael Bay-esque stereotyped Russian immigrant family who lives in a rundown Brownstone and cleans toilets for a living. Her and her mother and her aunt, or some other woman, have a cleaning business, but Jupiter seems to just clean toilets. This peasant of the planet is, of course, the reincarnation of a queen that rules the most prolific and wealthy family in the universe, the Abrasax clan, a family of three heirs who own planets and harvest them in order to keep their youth and live for centuries. The two male heirs, Titus (Douglas Booth) and Balem (Eddie Redmayne) are trying to get their hands on Jupiter for their own reasons, none of which are very clear because the exposition of the film is seemingly pieced together by a schizophrenic.

Enter Caine Wise, a bounty hunter (I think) who saves Jupiter from certain death and fights the entire film to keep her out of the hands of the Abrasax brothers. Wise comes with some pointy ears, tribal tattoos, and a pair of gravity-manipulating roller skates. I promise. Caine Wise is somewhat of an outcast, as the hero will often be, and he is a "splice" who was bred with a dog. "I am more like a dog than I am like you," he tells Jupiter, even though he looks like Channing Tatum with pointy ears and a blonde beard and nothing at all like a dog. He was cast out of wherever for biting a guy. Again, I promise this is the movie.

So here are Jupiter and Caine fighting against all these creatures and alien figures trying to get her, but with no real motivation clear enough to care about. They seek the help of an old friend of Caine, played by Sean Bean. He turns out to be deceptive, then not deceptive, because he is Sean Bean so why else would he be here?

When filmmakers iron out a sic-fi universe, they often times overload the screen with critters and characters to a point of saturation, to create a viable other world. This worked in Star Wars, when the idea was fresh, but now all of these extemporaneous characters are nothing more than a distraction. There are CGI lizards (why are they lizards? Don't lizards need heat and sun? They are in space), aliens who resemble the alien sightings we all know from this planet's history, and humans in makeup with no practical application to the environment. I kept wondering, why do these people look this way? What is the reason for their appearance? It doesn't matter though.

The film reeks of an over-edited studio production that was delayed, as this one was. There are large gaps in the story where exposition was undoubtedly cut out along with action scenes to shorten the picture. There is an early scene where the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago is destroyed, but Caine assures Jupiter it will be repaired in minutes. Cut to a scene of the building being repaired, seen through the back of a car window about 100 miles away. It's impossible to even see what's happening, surely there was a scene close up that was edited out. Later in the film, Jupiter arrives at one of the many set pieces and threatens the heir, Titus, with legal ramifications and tax laws he has broken. Only, there is no scene explanation as to how or when Jupiter learned these laws so precisely. Those are merely one of a handful of confusing transitions.

Then, right in the middle of the film, this queen of the most powerful planet in the universe has to have her identification verified, so she has to go through a DMV/State employee bureaucracy system that resembles an annoying journey you might have going through a county courthouse to pay property taxes or something. The sequence is so out of place, so satirical, and so entrenched in American-esque problems (remember, this is another PLANET in an entirely different SOLAR SYSTEM, not Brooklyn), I felt for a moment I was in the middle of The Fifth Element.  

And I have made it far enough before talking about the real star of the show, Mr. Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne plays Balem Abrasax, the most wicked heir to the Abrasax family. This is some kind of amazingly awful performance, an acting job so astoundingly absurd it might have Nicolas Cage shaking his head. Redmayne speaks with some sort of raspy whisper, and his voice shakes as if his character is always fighting off the flu. But then, out of nowhere, he will shout, his voice will crack, and he will flutter his hands. There are also those moments in the film when he is trying to be tough, but a swift knee to the groin or a gunshot will send him crumbling to the ground, screaming like a petulant 10-year old. It is an amazing, hilarious performance from Redmayne, one that deserves audible laughter who must be praying that Academy members don't stumble into a theater and check out this thing before making their final Best Actor vote for the Oscars this month. There are big gaps in the film where Redmayne is absent, and I think the Wachowski's realized the turd that was floating in the middle of their Jupiter Ascending toilet bowl and edited out larger chunks of his performance. Too bad.

I feel strange giving Jupiter Ascending any sort of letter grade, because it deserves all of them. So let's just say if gets an F for being truly awful, but an A+ for being awful enough to be amazing...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

2014 was an uneven year. There were some great films out there, but they came at unusual times. Even though the summer movie season had its typical run of duds, there were some surprising gems in the hot months as well. 2014 also restored a little bit of faith in the power of creativity, as original films outshines remakes and sequels more prominently than in recent years. From big to small, fun to furious, here are the ten best of 2014, in my humble opinion...


10) Interstellar - Christopher Nolan's space epic has plenty of warts. But where it loses points in its faults, it gains just as many with ambition and awe. A film about the end of the earth and a search for a new one must be big, and Insterstellar carries breadth in spades. Matthew McConaughey continues to dedicate himself fully to his roles, and the moments of breathtaking action and suspense shine brightly.



9) Guardians of The Galaxy - This seemed like a risky proposition for Marvel, throwing a lot of money at a relatively unknown property like Guardians. But everything worked, from top to bottom, and the result was the biggest box-office hit of the year and a rousingly funny and exciting action flick. A perfect end to the summer.


8) Blue Ruin - The smallest and most intimate film on this list is simple at its core, a man seeking revenge. But Blue Ruin is executed with such minimalist focus and tension, it burns itself into your consciousness. Director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair take familiarity and tighten the screws on the suspense to create a seamless story, full of quiet rage.



7) Wild - Ever since her Oscar win in 2005, Reese Witherspoon has floundered through roles she has admittedly not been that enthused about. But with Wild, Witherspoon delivers her career best. As Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in order to regain control of her life, Witherspoon keeps the story grounded and emotional. Laura Dern also delivers a heartfelt performance as Cheryl's eternally optimistic mother, seen in flashbacks.


6) Gone Girl - The sensational story at the heart of David Fincher's film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's sensational novel feels ripped from the TV tabloids. I expected this story to pop up on 20/20 or 48 Hours. Rosamund Pike deserves an Oscar nomination for her role, and the film remains true to the source material while adding a whole new level of energy. Part media satire, part murder mystery, part gender role reconfiguring, Gone Girl is a salacious sensation.


5) Snowpiercer - Joon-ho Bong's visceral sci-fi action film takes the post-apocalypse and traps it on a speeding train where a caste system keeps the train society separated. The psychological unraveling of the people aboard this train is the most overlooked aspect of the film, an action film with plenty to say about society, and plenty to do in the realm of sensationalism. Action scenes are inventive and fresh, and Chris Evans gives the best performance of his career.


4) Whiplash - I didn't expect much from this film when I walked in, aside from a few memorable performances. What I got was a gut punch. Whiplash is a simple story about a talented young jazz drummer and the sadistic, borderline psychotic band leader at a prestigious New York music school (J.K. Simmons, Supporting Actor frontrunner) who pushed him to the brink. Whiplash is an intense experience, and Miles Teller, who plays the lead, is about to become a star.


3) Birdman - This is a film that grows on you as you watch it. the closeups and claustrophobia of the cinematography takes time, but a few minutes in you are used to it and the film blossoms. Michael Keaton delivers the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor trying to revive his career and find credibility on broadway. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt, Birdman is an unforgettable experience, a wonderful bit of magic realism in the end.


2) Nightcrawler - Slinking about like a sick coyote, Jake Gyllenhaal channels Travis Bickle in this LA thriller. Nightcrawler is a hypnotizing and unsettling look at the state of media these days, and Gyllenhaal's performance is singular. But what mustn't go overlooked here is the job Rene Russo does, revitalizing her career as Gyllenhaal's has-been boss. This is a quiet masterpiece.


1) Boyhood - What is so magical about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is the way it is so unassuming. The story itself does not force anything upon the viewer, it is observant, it simply watches as Mason (Ellar Coltraine) grows up throughout the 12 years the film was shot. There are no swelling melodramatic moments, no hard moments, just life unfolding. I recently watched it again, and was blown away by its omniscient genius. Boyhood deserves all the awards.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Inherent Vice



INHERENT VICE: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (148 min.)

I knew this was going to be a tall task, even for a director as gifted and, up to this point, as flawless as Paul Thomas Anderson.

I read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice in 2013. At least I think I did. The book was open, my eyes fixated on the page, reading the words in front of me, but to try and remember anything I read would require a feat of recollection of which I am incapable. The book is a muddled stoner masterpiece to some, but to me it was simply incoherent, impossible to follow, not nearly as funny as everyone said. And yet, when I heard Anderson was directing a film adaptation, I figured if anyone could iron out the kinks of the novel and make an entertaining picture it would be Anderson. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Inherent Vice is true to the roots of Pynchon's novel, which is its ultimate downfall. It captures the essence of the story, a pot-fueled post hippie California crime story that lives on the flip side of the film noir coin. The story's vessel, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a stoner private investigator played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is put upon by an avalanche of shady and increasingly grating characters in this southern California, a land reeling from the Manson murders and adrift in the years after the hippie movement began to unravel. Doc's ex flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his house one night, delivering an ominous tale of her lover, her lover's wife, the wife's lover, and murder. None of it is very clear, and that is merely a harbinger of things to come.

Doc gets into, or falls into, the investigation surrounding Shasta's lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate magnate who is nothing more than a human MacGuffin for the film. Wolfmann disappears, everyone wants to find him or one of his associates, a mysterious ship on the coast is brought in, women come and go... Along the way, Doc runs into characters on every corner of the hippie lunatic fringe. The oversexed, overmedicated, smoke filled crooks and miscreants drop their own little bits of information into Doc's clouded brain, thickening the investigation and confusing things even more.

There is Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, the flat-topped detective played by Josh Brolin, who takes joy in harassing the dirty hippie Doc. Reese Witherspoon shows up as an FBI informant, I think, who also enjoys slumming it with Doc to get a little high and watch political coverage on TV. There is Owen Wilson, who plays a heroin-addicted musician drawn into this convoluted plot of missing persons and shady real estate deals. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc's counselor of sorts, a casting choice I feel was deliberately made to harken back to Del Toro's turn as a whacked out lawyer to Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Martin Short plays a shipping magnate who enjoys cocaine and women, and none of them really even matter in the end.

Inherent Vice is meant to be seen as an episodic tale, a series of little vignettes that don't even make an effort to pay off in the end. Segments work individually, sometimes, and sometimes they go on much too long and the dialogue drowns into noise. Meant to be comedic most of the time, the laughs become increasingly sparse as the film drones on and on, well past two hours. Everyone does their best job with the characters they are given, a testament to Anderson as a director. But the film becomes an endurance test, losing steam rather than gaining.

I never knew what was going on in Inherent Vice, but I don't think the intention of anything in the film was to be clear. Anderson takes an un-filmable work, films it, and the result is about what one would expect.

C-

Sunday, December 28, 2014

American Sniper



AMERICAN SNIPER: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, directed by Clint Eastwood (134 min.)

American Sniper tells the fascinating and unbelievable story of Chris Kyle in very conventional ways. There is some wonderful tension in a few scenes, moments that are hard to watch, and Bradley Cooper absolutely shines in the role of Kyle, a man conflicted about where he belongs. But Eastwood's direction feels uninspired at times, and tension is lacking where it should be palpable. I enjoyed certain elements of the film, no doubt, but it could have been better.

Cooper packed on some pounds to portray Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was credited with 160 kills by military officials (although the real number is probably north of 200). Eastwood, going off the book written by Kyle and Jason Hall, paints a picture of the solider as a man who yearns to help people in every avenue of his life. It is what drives him to the Navy, where he joins the SEALs and blossoms as a sniper. In the meantime, he meets Taya, a headstrong young woman played by Sienna Miller in a sturdy performance. Taya and Chris fall in love, marry, and start a family right about the time he is called into active duty.

The film then falls into the conventional back and forth between Kyle at home and his four tours in Iraq. In Iraq, Kyle becomes a legend as a deadly assassin. "Men feel invincible when you're up there," a solider tells him. But when he returns home, he feels lost, ordinary, not like a legend. Eastwood doesn't drive home the isolation he feels at home quite as much as he should, instead he has Taya chastise hime for not talking enough. Taya tells where the film should show. I would have liked a few more scenes to open up the domestic segments. Instead, we return too quickly to the battlefield where the tension is too sporadic.

There are true moments of exhilaration when Kyle is leading his men into battle. There is a sandstorm near the end that is as well executed as anything of its kind, and a brutal shootout near the middle involving a child that I would rather not see again. But, as a whole, the sequences in Iraq are unremarkable. There is a glaring need for a stronger supporting cast around Cooper. Kyle's friends are forgettable as actors where they should have stronger more memorable personalities. The stakes do not feel as high as they should feel given the situations. Outside Cooper's performance as Kyle, there is not enough emotion driving the film.

The final few moments are strong, as Kyle leaves the military and eventually finds a place in the real world helping returning soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As most know by know (spoiler for anyone who doesn't), Kyle was killed by one of those very soldiers he was trying to help in February 2013. The most heart wrenching moments of the entire film are the last moments with Cooper as Kyle, and the subsequent credit sequence where we see the real memorial for Kyle stretching down miles of highway, filled on every side by supporters waving American flags.

Psychologically, American Sniper doesn't do the conflict in Chris Kyle justice in my opinion. Atleast, not on an even basis. The most fascinating element of Kyle's personality comes in the battle scenes, where his ego drives him back for more in order to hunt down and kill a sniper working for the Iraqis, and the moments in the end when he is adrift in the real world. But then again, what is real? To Kyle, reality may have been on the other side of the world.

B-

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings



EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS – Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, directed by Ridley Scott (150 min.)

There is an ill wind blowing in Exodus: Gods and Kings very early on, when John Turturro appears as Seti, father of Ramses    (Joel Edgerton). Now, I am aware of the controversy surrounding the whitewashing of a film set in the Mediterranean and focusing on Egyptian and Hebrew characters who would most certainly not be Caucasian, but that wasn’t my issue with Turturro in this role. My issue was, well, it’s John Turturro! He has no business playing dress up in Egyptian garb, supposedly being the leader of one of the most powerful kingdoms in World history. Turturro is a great actor, but in the right roles, and here he stuck out like a sore thumb.

Maybe I am getting sidetracked with the casting of Turturro, whose role is small in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic. But it is just the tip of the iceberg the film crashes into early and often. Exodus is a complete mess of a film, despite the best efforts of Christian Bale who plays the hero, Moses. The casting might be the least of its problems, as the screenplay and the flow of the film and just the overall look and feel is all wrong.

Let’s start with the script and work our way through the wreckage. The story is familiar to just about everyone, focusing on Moses and Ramses and an Old Testament God who brings a plague upon the Egyptian people and picks Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves to freedom through the Red Sea. This is a story set, here anyway, in 1300 B.C. And yet, this screenplay, apparently written by four adult human beings, reads like it takes place a month ago in California, not in ancient Egypt. The dialogue is one-hundred percent contemporary, and a complete distraction as such. I cannot believe four people collaborated to do absolutely no research regarding the rhythm, the speech patterns, or the vocabulary of an ancient civilization. This is just one of many obvious cases of studio interference, as they feared any sort of real language from 1300 B.C. as a hindrance to audiences and box office numbers.

Did I mention the film is a carbon copy of Scott’s far superior Gladiator?

Now, as I take a deep breath, let’s look at this cast. Whitewashed, yes, but any Egyptian or Mediterranean actor who was passed over should consider it a blessing in disguise. While Christian Bale once again shines, as he always does, and tries to save the whole endeavor, he cannot carry the weight of the entire film. Edgerton is fine as Ramses, I suppose, but is non threatening as antagonist. He does a lot fo walking around lighting things with his torch. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver plays his mother in the film, but she is on camera less than five minutes and has maybe two lines. Why hire Weaver and have her do absolutely nothing?

Exodus looks and feels completely packaged by Hollywood. It is glossy and homogenized to a point of being embarrassing. Very little dirt and grime exudes from the screen, and all of these actors (except Bale) look like they are playing around in costumes. I never once believed anything in the film, and never felt any connection to the actors. The consequences of the characters mean nothing.


Ridley Scott needs to sit down, take a deep breath, and really think about his next film. I have heard it is going to be an adaptation of the novel The Martian. In my opinion, he needs to work hard at this to make it something special, or the great films of his past will become harder and harder to remember.

D

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Foxcatcher



FOXCATCHER: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, directed by Bennett Miller (130 min.)

The introduction of John du Pont might make him seem like an eccentric Bond villain. At least it did to me. He lives in a mansion near historic battlegrounds in Pennsylvania, on hundreds of acres with prize-winning horses, his aging mother, and a collection of military equipment he purchases because he is a self-proclaimed “patriot.” He travels primarily via helicopter, and is the only son of America’s wealthiest family. However, John du Pont was a real man, and his story in Foxcatcher is a true story, which rids the film of any satire or fun that might come along with a Bond villain. Instead, Foxcatcher is permeated with uneasiness and discomfort, which hums below the surface of the events like the buzz of a broken stereo speaker. I was uncomfortable from the very beginning, and grew even more so as the film unfolded. It was undoubtedly the desired effect.

It is a story so bizarre and disturbing it could only be true. While du Pont eventually becomes the focal point of the film, we begin with the story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who won Gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) also won gold, but the trajectories of these brothers could not be more opposing. Where Mark is alone, introverted, lost, Dave is an outgoing personality with a wife and children who has become a wonderful wrestling coach. Mark has very little in his life; Dave has everything he needs.

Mark gets a phone call from Jack, a spokesman for John du Pont played by Anthony Michael Hall. Jack invites Mark to du Pont’s estate, Foxcatcher Farms, where we finally meet this strange and ultimately pitiful man. Steve Carell disappears into the role of John du Pont with short graying hair, a hawkish nose, and poor teeth. Du Pont wants Mark to lead a team of wrestlers who will compete in the World championships and the ’88 Olympics. He pays Mark a considerable amount of money to move to the du Pont estate and train on site with a team. Mark, who sees this as an opportunity to get out of his brother’s shadow, jumps at the chance.

Things are clearly not what they seem early on at the du Pont estate. John du Pont has no athletic ability and no knowledge of wrestling whatsoever; he simply wants to be given credit for assembling a championship wrestling team. He lives in crippling, emasculating psychological fear of his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who sees no value in wrestling. Before long, du Pont seems to lose real interest in being a coach as he gets Mark hooked on drugs. The story takes a strange and disturbing turn once Mark becomes a sort of servant to John, dying his hair blond and cutting John’s hair. The late-night “practice sessions” are equally as unsettling. There is a hint of sexual attraction, even obsession, on John’s end, though that is not ever truly explored.

Eventually, John throws enough money at Dave to get him to move his family out to Foxcatcher Farms and train the team. Dave immediately notices something is amiss, but tries to make the best of it because he is a good person and he is worried about his less-intelligent brother. Pay attention to the way Mark and Dave carry their bodies, a great indicator of their personalities. Mark plods along heavily like a gorilla, and Dave floats and bounces, his ankles and wrists turned in slightly to give him a childlike, generous posture.

As the story progresses, Mark becomes more withdrawn and less concerned with wrestling. Du Pont is destroying him systematically, and Dave steps in. Director Bennett Miller never intensifies the tension, because the subtleties in the three brilliant performances make all the tension arrive easily, and at the right moments, without enhancement.


Much has been made of Carell’s performance, as it should be. Carell creates an aura of discomfort and unease with his performance, showing what John du Pont is thinking without saying a thing. But let’s not get away from the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo as Mark and Dave. This is Channing Tatum’s best work to date, and Ruffalo is equally as compelling as Dave. I fully expect Carell to grab an Oscar nomination for his work and be the favorite going in, but I also hope Tatum is noticed for his supporting work. And while there may not be room for Ruffalo, in a perfect world he would get a supporting nod as well.

There is a murder, and du Pont is arrested and sent to prison where he died in 2010. As far as acting is concerned, Foxcatcher hits all the right notes with a trio of brilliant performances. But as an overall film, I’m not sure Foxcatcher completely works. Certain scenes end before they should, and Miller’s direction sometimes suffocates. The final scene doesn’t work at all for me, it feels tacked on and unnecessary. I’m not sure we needed a follow up to the character as his exit from the film was fitting in an earlier moment.


Foxcatcher is a thriller so strange it can only be true. It is an exercise in disturbing drama that effectively made my palms sweat throughout, despite the fact that the structural suffocation might hold the film back from being something great. See this film to celebrate these three great performances, but don’t expect to be feeling good walking out of the theater.

B