Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Birdman



Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's an early scene in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) runs down a list of potential names to replace an injured cast member in his ambitious Broadway mounting of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And they're all actual big name stars whose commitments to their blockbuster superhero franchises make them unavailable, even if the underlying feeling is that they'd never do it anyway. Twenty years ago Riggan was one of them, riding high on the success of his iconic Birdman role in a franchise he milked for three movies before the word "franchise" even entered the cinematic lexicon. But Michael Keaton is no Riggan Thomson. Well, at least not in reality. He is in the sense that he completely inhabits the headspace of this strange, self-obsessed character in the throes of a mental breakdown. Keaton was the only choice for this role not because he once played a superhero, but because he managed to escape just in time. One or two more Batman movies and this could have easily been a different conversation.

By all accounts of the man, the performance Keaton gives here is actually a massive stretch, as he never seemed at all vain, hung up on public opinion, or insecurely protective of his legacy. And he certainly doesn't appear to be a nervous wreck. But boy has he been missed. It almost seems unfair to affix the "comeback" label onto a performer who has been working consistently, if under the radar, for years, but we're selfish like that. In a good way. It isn't wrong to see our favorite performers being given the best material that will bring them the most respect and adulation. One of the big takeaways to come from the this film's release over the past few weeks is seeing everyone come to the realization that there are few actors more deserving of it than Keaton. It's something we've always known, but never really publicly acknowledged until now. Besides being a fascinating and funny meta commentary on the entertainment business, Birdman works as a satirical tragicomedy about a man who not only craves that validation, but desperately needs it for his life to mean anything.

On the surface, Riggan writing, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver adaptation appears to be a case of a faded movie star pathetically using Broadway to establish himself as a serious artist and gain credibility with the masses. Beneath the surface, that's also exactly what it is. And that deep, distinctive voice he keeps hearing in his head isn't afraid to tell him so. It's the voice of Birdman, telling him what a loser he is, and based on the evidence we have, he might not be far off. We find out he's already wrecked his marriage and career and now he's wrecking his play, produced by best friend and lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). His spunky, sarcastic daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, serves as his assistant while he's joined on stage by girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), called in as a last minute replacement.

With Mike, Riggan meets his match in a performer who proves to be even more self-absorbed than he is, and about ten times more difficult and obnoxious, hijacking the entire production to basically go into business for himself. But critics and audiences love him, which proves to be important as they struggle through previews and wait for the inevitable axe to fall from influential New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). It's make or break time for Riggan, who must also contend with the arrival of his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Birdman, who proves to not only be a voice in his head, but an actual superhero alter-ego with powers of telekinesis and levitation.

Form rarely informs function as it does here, with a technical approach that should generate as much discussion as the story or performances. Iñárritu's whole movie appears to have been filmed in one unbroken take, as scenes don't exactly end but rather bleed into each other as the camera follows the actors, swooping in (like a bird?) from one area of the theater to another, or even out onto the street when necessary. It'll be bizarre and sometimes off-putting for some, but there's no question it injects the action with this breakneck pace and makes us feel as if we're in the theater, backstage spectators to a train wreck we shouldn't be seeing. With most films there's at least a moment or two when you're taken out of it, made fully aware you're just engaging with a piece of entertainment. This shooting style makes such a moment of pause or reflection on the audience's part impossible. You're just completely lost in it, submerged too far down the rabbit hole to even contemplate the implications until the credits roll.

Hilariously sabotaging rehearsals and previews, without giving a second thought to that what's left of Riggan's career rests on a vanity project, Norton's Mike is a terror. If anything, he thinks he's doing him a solid by royally screwing with it. And it's sadder still that he could actually be right. We see many scenes from the play and even certain ones multiple times, but it's because of Norton that each one is more hilarious and energetic than the last. Whether Iñárritu's trying to play with the media's perception of Norton being "difficult" in the same way his script toys with Keaton's image, the actor far transcends that in-joke to deliver a performance that somehow, someway makes this unlikable jerk a relatable and complicated person. We anticipate every bit of mischief he causes since the movie feels most alive when he's sharing scenes with Keaton, who unlike his bizarro onscreen counterpart, has no problem ceding the spotlight to his co-star. Norton plays such a strong antagonist that the movie briefly suffers when he disappears and the third act kind of fly off the rails, if such a description can even apply to a project like this. Let's just say it doesn't fly off the rails the way you expect it to.

If the production's really all about Riggan, than the movie's all about Keaton, with the actor reminding us how equally adept he is at tackling anything thrown at him, whether it be comedic or dramatic. Here he gets the chance to do both, and a whole lot more, all at once. He's always been tough to categorize and even cast because of that flexibility, so this ends up being the perfect outlet for a performer whose onscreen persona always seemed a bit too crazy and dangerous to fit into the box of a conventional leading man. With this role, he finally doesn't have to be pigeonholed like that, given the opportunity to play a difficult, often unlikable protagonist wrestling with crippling fears and insecurities.

There are those trademark Keaton moments where he flies off the handle and gets that manic look in his eyes, but his best scenes are the quieter, brutally honest ones Riggan shares with his ex-wife and daughter, the latter played by Emma Stone as you've never seen her before. Noticeably thinner an paler with her giant eyes eating up every corner of the frame, it's about as far a departure for the actress as it gets, abandoning her "good girl" persona to embody the angry and bitingly sarcastic Sam, whose real job is mostly to keep her father's raging id in check. And that she does, even when he doesn't want to hear it, facing off with Keaton and Norton and more than holding her own in an edgy performance few probably thought she had in her. In less showier roles, Watts and Riseborough are destined to be underappreciated, especially Riseborough, who's a feisty wonder in her scenes opposite Keaton. And who thought Zalifiankis would ever play the most reasonable character in a comedy? 

This is a film that makes no bones about calling attention to itself at every turn and is completely in love with its strangeness, rarely hesitating to remind you of it in every scene. Tolerance for that unsubtle approach will vary, causing a debate as to whether all these techniques truly inform the story or Iñárritu's showing off. It's probably a little bit of both, but there's no denying those creative choices make for a far more intriguing experience than if it were presented as a relatively straightforward dramedy about an actor coming to terms with his past and ego. A performance showcase above all else, it can't be a coincidence that three stars of huge superhero movie franchises were cast in it, and as someone completely burnt out by the genre, it was thrilling to see it skewered, while still being dealt a compelling character study in the midst of the craziness. Birdman almost defies categorization, as it takes a while to really wrap your head around, assuming you're even intended to. And that's always a great thing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm



Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Pitobash Tripathy, Rey Maualuga
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's entirely possible you've seen or heard Disney's Million Dollar Arm being described as "Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire." While that's understandable, a better comparison might be to feel-good throwback sports movies such as The Rookie, Miracle, Remember The Titans, Invincible, and yes, maybe even The Blind Side. Of course, the big worry going into something that wears its heart this proud on its sleeve is that it will come off too syrupy or more closely resemble a Hallmark movie of the week than a legitimate entry into the sports film genre. I can't claim this completely avoids that, but it's smart and enjoyable enough to make us fondly remember when these types of pictures were released regularly and the public actually went out of their way to see them. Lately, it appears they're having a bit of of a resurgence, as this, along with the slightly more cerebral Draft Day, deserves mention alongside the better ones. It's also well anchored by an actor few would expect to see in a Disney project, marking a highly anticipated big screen transition with his first leading role.

Big shot Los Angeles based sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has recently fallen on tough times, having gone out on his own with partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) to form their own fledgling agency. A dearth of clients and a failure to sign star football player Popo Vanuatu (Rey Maualuga) have left them bleeding money and in search of a game-changing idea. That idea comes to J.B. one night when flipping channels between cricket and Britain's Got Talent. Identifying an untapped market for baseball in India, J.B. comes up with the plan of holding a talent competition there called "Million Dollar Arm," in which contestants are scored on the speed and accuracy of their pitches, with the two winners receiving prize money and a trip to the U.S. to be trained as major league prospects.

But when eventual winners Rinku Singh (Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal) are flown to America to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), J. B. realizes he has a near impossible task ahead of him in both preparing them for the big leagues and helping them adjust to their new surroundings. With his business continuing to tank, he skirts responsibility on the latter, leaving his chatty tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) as their only moral support. With the deadline to have them ready fast approaching, J.B. may have to start realigning his personal and professional priorities, for both his sake and that of these kids.

Having limited familiarity with the true story from which Tom McCarthy's script is based, it's hard to say just how far it veers from the facts, but there was never really a moment where I was shaking my head with incredulity at the unfolding events. The movie wisely doesn't try to pretend these young guys are superstars in the making who happen to be "discovered" via the competition. They can basically throw a couple of wild pitches at a little over 80 miles per hour and that's it. They're pretty terrible and actually remain so throughout the film, seemingly struggling to grasp basic mechanics even as they put in as much effort as can reasonably be asked of them. This is a relief since it's apparent early on that this will achieve its PG Disney movie status with tone and presentation rather than concocting an unrealistic fantasy out of a true story.

Everything is sanitized, but not insultingly so, deserving credit for not ignoring the fact that these two kids are being taken from poverty and will experience extreme culture shock upon their arrival. Some of these moments are played for laughs (not knowing how an elevator works) while others (a party gone bad) are treated a little more seriously, with director Craig Gillespie skillfully alternating between the two. The meat of the story is not only Rinku and Dinesh learning to come into their own and succeed in an unfamiliar world, but J.B. morally evolving enough to actually think about some other than himself and his company's bottom line. These are obvious messages, but well delivered nonetheless. And for those wondering, J.B's extreme narcissism, womanizing and somewhat similar profession do invite modern day Don Draper comparisons. There's just no way around it, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing for the film.

Hamm has always seemed like a movie star despite only appearing primarily on TV, and that charismatic  quality is only magnified by the very essence of the character he plays on Mad Men. With that series winding down, the notion that he'd be making the jump was already a foregone conclusion so we may as well just prepare ourselves for the inevitability that none of the material he's given moving forward will contain the depth and complexity we've been spoiled with over the past 8 years. We get one of the better scenarios here, with leading role that plays to his strengths as a performer, while giving moviegoers who haven't seen the show a good inkling of why he's a big deal. Hamm can probaly do this in his sleep, but it's a credit to him that he doesn't and finds ways to constantly keep us interested in his character's rather obvious arc.

One actor who actually does give a performance in his sleep is Alan Arkin,who plays a grumpy, aging major league scout constantly dozing off during try-outs. Considering how often he's been sleeping through this grumpy old man role lately it was nice to see him just go ahead and literally make it official. But his presence only belies the fact that this cast is deceptively stacked with talent, as both Sharma and Patel are extremely likable in the face of mostly unfounded criticism about this being another Hollywood story of a white guy coming to the rescue. They mostly prevent that hijacking each time they're on screen. While Lake Bell's Brenda is blatantly being set up as the quirky, free-spirited love interest for Hamm's character, it's hard coming up with another actress who would have been as enjoyable a fit. She makes it something and isn't underutilized, despite the standard girlfriend role being more than a few levels lower than she deserves. Amit Rohan steals some scenes as the kids' interpreter, working as comic relief that's more amusing than irritating, at least when taken in small doses.

Interestingly enough, ESPN's polarizing Bill Simmons is listed as a producer on the project and as much as it looked from its trailer like the kind of movie he would mock on his podcast, it isn't. And he does know sports films, so his involvement, no matter how limited, could have only been a plus from where I sit. Despite sharing a setting, an actor and even a composer (A.R. Rahman) with Slumdog Millionaire, it didn't really remind me of that as much as it did of the story behind the making of it, with poverty-stricken kids being uprooted from their home country and being thrown into the fast-paced lifestyle of America without preparation. It's still mostly mainstream fluff,  but it's good fluff that gets little things right and doesn't insult our intelligence. Disney has this uplifting sports movie formula down pat, but it's a rare case where predictability can be somewhat comforting.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Gone Girl


 
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Emily Ratajkowski, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, Scoot McNairy, Boyd Holbrook, Lola Kirke
Running Time: 145 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There's a certain amount of baggage that comes with arriving to a movie's party late. And while lateness, by today's standards, constitutes only about a week or two, it takes mere minutes for reactions to seep out and spoilers to leak. It seems in only a matter of hours, a movie's critical and commercial prospects are already written. A hardcover of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl sits on my bookshelf still unopened, with the plan always being to dive in only after I've seen the film. But trying to go in cold is a pointless exercise, as it wasn't long before I accidentally found out more than I wanted to know. And that's tricky, because with this film, ANYTHING is more than you want to know. But it's not because it's some twisty thriller that heavily relies on plot, as could have been with a director other than David Fincher behind the controls.

There are twists and turns in this for sure, but it never feels like it's at the service of something other than exploring the psyches and motivations of these characters, as well as the disturbing, sickening corrosion of outwardly normal relationships. It's easy seeing how such a dark movie has managed to strike this universal chord, but explaining how without spoiling it becomes trickier. What it will do is likely scare anyone in a committed relationship, and maybe even those who aren't .

On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Missouri bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. Signs of a struggle and blood at the scene shift a potential missing person case to a murder investigation with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) honing in on Nick as their primary suspect. And apparently for good reason. Interspersed  flashbacks and voiceovers from Amy's diary reveal how they first met and became engaged in New York. He, a laid back, corn fed mid westerner. She, an aloof, Type A city girl whose wealthy parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) created a popular "Amazing Amy" book series based on her life, or at least their rose-colored version of it.

We slowly discover why they returned to his Missouri hometown and what eventually caused the deterioration of their marriage. With evidence mounting and Nick crumbling under intense media scrutiny, he's rapidly losing the support of everyone but his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), signaling it just might be time for him to lawyer up. All that can be safely said is that Amy's disappearance and potential murder isn't the mystery it appears to be.

"Amazing" isn't likely to be the first adjective anyone besides Nick would use in describing the ice cold Amy, as it's difficult to decipher what he initially saw in her that went beyond looks and a somewhat alluring, sophisticated presence. For him, it was enough. Then again, we're given the impression she never really saw it in herself either, always failing to measure up to the idealized fictional book character her parents created and profited from. This could be why something seems really off with this woman right off the bat, making her almost instantly unlikable and aligning our sympathies with him before even knowing the full details of their relationship. Early flashbacks establish in our minds he's too nice a guy for her and will probably be eaten alive. Until we find out he's no boy scout himself, wrestling with his own issues after they've tie the knot. Our allegiances shift back and forth, with only Amy's diary as our guide post, despite her reliability always being in doubt.

That Amy's played by English actress Rosamund Pike is important in so far that no one seems to have any idea who she is, even with a handful of major screen credits to her name over a decade-long career. I'd have trouble naming a single one of them, which is exactly the point. There's a blankness and anonymity to her that Fincher uses to his advantage, even going so far as to claim in interviews it's one of the primary reasons he cast her. We know literally nothing about the actress, which lets no preconceived notions in, allowing Flynn's story to be projected on a clean slate.

If ever there was a case where a big name actress wouldn't work it's here since objectivity (or at least the illusion of it) needs to be retained. It's a casting choice in the vain of mysterious blondes like Grace Kelly or Kim Novak that would make Hitchcock proud, but Pike does the rest of the work, which is more than we imagine it will be when the film begins. And what is "amazing" about Amy is how much life the actress breaths into the character with often only her eyes. Regardless of anyone's familiarity with Pike, this does at least feel like we're seeing her on screen for the first time, with Fincher using that anonymity as a weapon to club unsuspecting audiences.

How Affleck's image and persona is subverted and twisted is an even better example of how Fincher (much like Kubrick before him) uses his actors, transforming their real or perceived weaknesses into strengths that fit the story. Correctly considered a superior director than actor now, Affleck the performer is at his best when playing against his pumped up superstar persona and inhabiting desperate characters whose backs are against the wall. Seemingly overnight, Nick becomes an infamous celebrity and proves as ill equipped at it as anyone else would be in his situation. Unfortunately in his case, this behavior makes him comes across as a guilty sociopath when filtered and magnified through the media's glaring lenses.

Watching Affleck squirm, panic and appear dumbfounded at each new development that further stacks the deck against Nick becomes as exciting as watching a sports event in which you haven't a clue of the outcome. At times it's even darkly hilarious watching this guy's reactions and comparing it to how you think someone in his shoes would behave. It's understandable the police immediately suspect him, and use his apparent cooperation as a means of manipulation. Kim Dickens is perfect as the cop who's perfectly logical and professional. She's really just doing her job, only exceptionally well.    

The worst thing about Neil Patrick Harris' performance as Amy's ex-boyfriend Desi is that I can't address it, as revealing anything would be a spoiler. What can be addressed is that his portion of the film is the strongest and most suspenseful, which is really saying something. His total screen time probably doesn't exceed any more than 10 minutes, but those curious to see how NPH would fare in a seriously dramatic role guided by a top tier filmmaker should prepare to be blown away. Consider this restitution for the actor having to suffer through the final season of How I Met Your Mother and a thrill for viewers getting to see him earn an opportunity he's deserved for a long time. And he absolutely nails it.

The eclectic casting even extends to Tyler Perry as high powered defense attorney Tanner Bolt. Yes, that Tyler Perry. Again a small role, but he's superb in it, proving to be the eyes and ears of the audience sitting in disbelief and shock at what's unfolding. In the midst of  this craziness, he's our voice of reason. Toward the end of the film he has a hilarious line that's just classic and will surely be quoted for years to come because of how perfectly it summarizes Nick's mess.

This third collaboration between Fincher and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is by far their most unusual in that there's a lot lurking beneath the surface, more specifically these weird, unnerving electronic sounds that fade into the background only to kick up again and accelerate during pivotal scenes, ratcheting up the suspense. It works, creating a nearly constant sense of impending doom in even the quietest moments. The tense atmosphere extends not only to the story and music, but its look as cinematographer Jeff Croneweth manages to makes even daytime scenes feel and appear as if they're occurring in the dead of night. You can almost think of Gone Girl as the twisted cousin of Zodiac and The Game, with the former's theme of obsession meeting the latter's clues and puzzles that similarly constitute the "game" destroying Nick's life.

The last act makes you wonder how something so sadistic could still be this much fun to watch without compromising any of the seriousness. This wasn't necessarily going to be a slam dunk for Fincher, since his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, also based on a best selling fictional crime novel, was a rare case of him being dragged down by the material. But this is nothing of the sort, instead returning the director to top form. It's impossible to know how much of the depth was fine-tuned by him and what originated from Flynn's screenplay, but the two prove to be a formidable creative alliance just the same.

There comes a point where it seems the narrative has written itself into a corner, with seemingly only one way out. "They wouldn't do THAT? Would they?" It's an ending that justifiably leaves you talking and thinking. Other directors would have just let the credits roll, but Fincher's smart enough to hang around a while and let the characters have that conversation themselves, and rub our noses in the aftermath. Just the idea that we never truly know who we're with and reveal only the parts of ourselves we want is frightening enough, but this ratchets it up to the most extreme level. After watching it, you'll come away contemplating a whole new meaning of being "trapped" in a marriage. 
            

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Boyhood



Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham, Charlie Sexton
Running Time: 165 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most amazing thing about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is how it becomes the story of whomever watches it, as viewers can't help but reconfigure it in their minds to fit the templates of their lives and memories growing up. Ask anyone about this movie and I'll guarantee that within minutes they'll be talking about themselves. That's just how hard it hits. While it'll probably strike the loudest chord for millenials or parents who raised a child in that age bracket, the story is universal, resonating just as much for those, like me, who happen to fall right in the middle. In seamlessly recreating the feeling of watching life unfold in front of our eyes, much attention has been paid to the fact that Linklater was somehow able to covertly shoot this over a 12-year period, allowing his actors to naturally age on screen. It's an authenticity that all the CGI and make-up in Hollywood can't replicate, but it's not a gimmick. You hardly notice it's happening and it rarely calls attention to itself, instead enveloping the story like a warm blanket.

Linklater uses this tool but never abuses it to weave a narrative that unfolds with all the realism of a documentary, while also making sure it never merely feels like an experiment. Until now, the closest we've come to this is Michael Apted's Up series, which followed its subjects as they aged and Linklater's own Before trilogy which followed its pair of leads over the years. But this is different in that it's one standalone fictional film, despite being at least partially inspired by the director's childhood and own experiences as a father. And as someone who really appreciates music and pop culture as time markers, nothing made me happier than seeing it expertly used in such a way here. Everyone will have their favorite moments and parts to which they most relate, regardless of age. For once, 165 minutes almost doesn't seem long enough, even if it ends exactly where it should.

The film opens with six-year old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lying on the grass staring at sky as the strains of Coldplay's "Yellow" blast over the soundtrack. The year is 2002 and Mason lives in Texas with his single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is largely absent, occasionally dropping in on weekends to take the kids bowling or to an Astros game. Taking classes and hoping to start a career as a psychology professor, Olivia struggles to provide for the kids while introducing a series of abusive men into their lives, each of which fail as suitable replacement for their real father.

With the family moving more than a few times, we follow Mason as he grows up and attempts to adjust, only to be uprooted again as Olivia tries to find herself. He says goodbye to close friends, makes new ones, faces off with a vicious stepfather, gets his first job and girlfriend, experiments with drugs and alcohol and eventually heads off to college. It all occurs as his relationships with his parents and sister evolve, set against the backdrop of key cultural events.

If someone told me this boy was being played by the same actor over the years I'm not sure I'd even believe them because he looks and acts so different at each life stage. With growth spurts and bad haircuts, it's as fun to watch the character evolve as it is to chart Coltrane's progression as an actor for over a decade, but condensed for us into feature film length, which only magnifies the impact. Thanks to Linklater and editor Sandra Adair the transitions between time periods are not only seamless, but invisible, often causing me to do a double take just to confirm we've moved on to the next stage.

As difficult as it may have been to keep the shooting of this project under wraps, you'd figure it had to be even harder to edit it all into a cohesive whole. While it sometimes meanders as life literally does, there was never a point where my attention was diverted or found the protagonist irritating, even when entering an angry high school phase that Coltrane infuses with heartbreaking sincerity. What doesn't change is that Mason is basically a shy, quiet kid throughout, challenging the notion that all movie leads must drive the action. Frequently, the action's happening to him as he sensitively responds to all that occurs, and is constantly changing as a result.

Certain movies can allow us to sympathize with those we wouldn't even try to defend or understand in reality because judgment gets in the way. That's the power in Patricia Arquette's career-high, award worthy performance as a single mother who seems to makes all the wrong choices for herself and her kids, at least a couple of times putting them in harm's way for the sake of trying to create a stable home life. Inadvertently, she does just the opposite, to the point that it would be very easy to call Olivia a terrible mother, and at times maybe even a selfish one. But Arquette changes the conversation, simply playing her as a desperate mom who screws up a lot, but has her good qualities as well. While we never see or hear exactly what happened to cause the deterioration of her marriage to Mason Sr., it's easy to put the pieces together from their brief, contentious interactions with each other regarding his visitation and frequent unemployment.

Hawke (who barely even looks to age throughout), appears more sporadically than Arquette, but his role in Mason's life is crucial, only increasing in importance as he enters adolescence. Of all the characters, he's the one who changes the most, but I liked how they committed to making him a good guy despite some maturity issues many would relate to. Far from a deadbeat dad stereotype, it's fascinating to watch Hawke believably play the evolution of a guy completely unqualified at giving any relationship or life advice to a full-blown expert by the film's end. Even at his worst, he's better than a couple of nightmare father replacements Olivia brings into their lives, one of whom is the centerpiece of the film's most uncomfortable section.

As Olivia's second husband Bill, character actor Marco Perella steals the show with a terrifying depiction of an abusive alcoholic who wrecks havoc on their new blended family. He starts out as a seemingly mild-mannered college professor, but Perella is brilliant as he slowly reveals the cracks hinting that something's really off with this creep. First it's a couple of drinks. Then a few passing comments to the kids hinting at his temper. Before long, he's like Bill Parcells on a bender. Then finally, his transformation into full-fledged monster is complete. He makes it happen so subtly and surprisingly that there's hardly a moment to come up for air.

Lorelei Linklater's work as Samantha can't be overlooked given how groan-inducing it can often be when directors cast family members in key roles, especially their offspring. A complete natural on screen, there's good reason to think she'd beat any young actress out for the part anyway. As we watch her evolve from a little girl to sullen young adult before our eyes it's remarkable just how much of her offbeat personality is retained over that twelve year-period and how naturally she interacts with her onscreen parents and brother. 

The look on Mason's face when he realizes his dad traded in his souped up Pontiac GTO for a minivan says it all. The past is the past. We grow old. Time marches on with or without us. And it's scary. Linklater knows that nostalgia can be the most powerful feeling there is, as well as our biggest obstacle in moving forward. If it's not a valuable possession, then often it's music invoking an emotional connection to a specific time and place. Boyhood's soundtrack is more than just a collection of songs, but a document of a specific year, associating music with milestones.

Featuring everything from Bob Dylan to Wilco to The Black Keys to Arcade Fire, it's definitely one of the most stacked compilations of recent years, but more rewarding because of the context. And at the risk of spoiling it, I won't even go into what's done with The Beatles and how their catalog is, but actually isn't, incorporated into the film. It would be interesting to find out how much of the music was chosen at the various shooting times versus what was added recently in post-production. The script takes a similar approach with cultural events, taking us from post 9/11 to the Obama's election to the rise of social media, giving us the opportunity to open up a time capsule exposing the attitudes and feelings of the day. At one point Mason and his dad have conversation about the Star Wars franchise that's almost eerie given current developments.

Those who came from a single parent home or were shuffled  from school to school as a child will connect to that section the most. A single father around Hawke's character's age will likely find a lot to connect to there, as would any single mother who even remotely went through anything close to what Arquette's Olivia did. The last third of the picture resonated strongest for me, as Mason prepares to head off to college, questioning everything and unsure of his place in the world. We've seen this kind of story arc before, but rarely presented so authentically and impactfully in such a compressed time. Mason and his first serious girlfriend, Sheena (an excellent Zoe Graham) stumbling and bumbling through their feelings for each other is a high point, as every interaction between them just seems so real and natural. There's a big rant from Mason about modern technology and an inspirational speech he receives from a teacher, but it's a soundtrack choice during this section that's most unforgettable, with Linklater unearthing a very recent gem that's somehow slid through the cracks, going unappreciated until that moment.  

It's logical to think of Mason as Linklater's surrogate in much the same way William Miller stood in for Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous. Inspired by its writer, but very much his own character, he's stated in interviews how he was torn between using his jock or artsy side growing up as the template for Mason. The latter proved to be the right choice, both for the character and the actor, especially considering the dramatic possibilities it opens up in the third act, as an introspective loner looks for answers. It ends up being the culmination of not only Mason's story, but his parents' as well.

Whatever perceived mistakes the parents made in raising these kids, they must have done something right since both turned out better than okay despite the obstacles. Or maybe even because of them. And then comes the perfect closing scene, that creates the spontaneous feeling of arriving out of nowhere when in fact it was waiting for us the entire time. With a filmmaker digging down deep to pull out something we didn't know he had, in both concept and execution Boyhood accomplishes the special feat of depicting a coming-of-age story in a way we've never seen before.
 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Carrie (2013)



Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Let's just get it out of the way now: Yes, Chloe Moretz is too pretty to play Carrie White, the role originated by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 Brian DePalma film. It's a statement you've heard and read a lot from everyone leading up to release of a remake most would consider pointless anyway. But whether or not it's actually pointless is up to the filmmaker remaking it, and sometimes that's not even true as they're often just following the marching orders of the studio. While we'll never know for sure, that seems to be what happened with director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss), who's as good a choice as any to make this work. And there are some moments when it almost does, in spite of all the obstacles put in front of her.

The question of whether Carrie has to have a certain look in order for Stephen King's story play believably on screen is a good one since the character's supposed to be an outcast on every level. While Spacek would never be considered "ugly" by anyone's standards, she did have an unconventional appearance that made her stand out from the pack, allowing the narrative of a shy, creepy misfit and social outcast to take flight in a way it wouldn't if another, more conventional "movie star" were cast. It's a case where looks matter. The same description even applies (to a lesser degree) to Angela Bettis in 2002 TV remake. Because the last thing Moretz can be described as is "unconventional," she's already at a deficit before the cameras start rolling. No one's denying her talent and despite being miscast she does a commendable job under thankless circumstances. Unfortunately, she just has to work harder to do it.

Shy outcast Carrie White (Moretz) is tormented by her classmates at Ewen High School, while at home she's emotionally bullied by her borderline psychotic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), whose religious fanaticism prevents her daughter from leading the life of a normal teen. But at school Carrie finds a confidante and mentor in gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), who seems determined to punish the offenders, most notably popular ringleader Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). Also feeling sympathy is classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) whose guilt over joining in the teasing leads her to urge boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. Needless to say the invitation doesn't go over well with mother Margaret, whose daughter is now just starting to realize her telekinetic powers. And that means trouble for everyone.

What's most bothersome about this reimagining is how it almost seems to draw attention to the miscasting by overcompensating, both with Peirce's direction of the actress and some of the goofy creative choices early on. Exaggerated mannerisms and costuming choices are used to accentuate the fact Carrie is a weirdo since that's really the only viable option. She mumbles, she slumps, she walks with her arms folded. All of this screamed acting with a capital "A" to me and altogether doesn't seem like the wisest route to take, but perhaps predestined considering the casting.

Moore's take on Margaret is campy to say the least, chomping on every scene in a performance that feels like an audition reel for Mommie Dearest. The only good thing is that it's clear early on the tonal direction they were going with this and the performance works as that. Whether it's the direction they should have gone with the material is another argument altogether, but unless memory fails, the original didn't feel quite this over-the-top and silly in its first half. Carrie's discovery of her "powers" also isn't handled as well, making the original seem like a telekinesis documentary in comparison. The presentation seems off, as if the screenwriters saw one too many episodes of Heroes, as opposed to attempting to organically incorporate it into the story.            

A web video on a smartphone and some texting represents the script's stabs at contemporizing King's first novel, but given how much of a timely, hot-button topic school and cyber-bullying has become, I expected a little more. But maybe it's for the best that they didn't at the risk of it feeling like just another teen horror movie, which it kind of already does. But the scenes involving Carrie's abuse at school are some of the strongest, especially that infamous shower scene with her cluelessly experiencing her first period as classmates ridicule her. One would guess this is primarily what earned the film its "R" rating, although you can't help but think the end product still strangely feels like a "PG-13."

The two strongest performances unsurprisingly come from Judy Greer and Ansel Elgort. As Miss Desjardin, Greer is asked to do some pretty ridiculous things for a gym teacher and yet she's completely believable doing every single one of them. She's an actress who can just slide into any role and do anything so it's not a shock, but when her character hits and curses at students, I actually believed an administrator wouldn't even think of firing her. It's one of many instances of her impressively covering up the script's flaws.

Elgort shows signs of the talent he'd later emerge as in The Fault in Our Stars with a similar but not identical performance. He exudes a laid-back confidence and likability as Tommy, going a long way to transcend material that wants to paint him as a one-dimensional high school jock. He and Sue going out of their way to help Carrie just might the most compelling sub-plot, if only because there's legitimate doubt as to their intentions the entire time. While Gabriella Wilde comes off as a blank slate as Sue, what Portia Doubleday does with Chris is great, as the character is less a school bully this time around than a full-fledged sociopath. It's a wise decision that only enhances our sympathy for Carrie and has you anticipating the moment when Chris get hers.

When Moretz transforms from ugly duckling into beautiful swan for prom it weirdly feels like the equivalent of Rachael Leigh Cook removing her glasses in She's All That, to the point that I half-expected Sixpence None the Richer to start playing. Nonetheless, this is the point where Moretz's performance really comes alive, as she's freed to play a more realistic teen instead of sulking as a weirdo. With the exception of maybe a little too much CGI, Peirce nails the big bloodbath of a finale, which was high on the list of things she absolutely had to get right.

There were plenty of stumbles along the way, but the staging of the famous ending is an exciting recreation, even making a couple of minor changes to the action in that gym that seem creatively defensible. What isn't is the final image, which reminded me of what Tim Burton did in his disastrous Planet of the Apes remake: Take an iconic closing shot and unnecessarily tweak it while winking at the audience. This isn't as bad an offender, but you have to wonder why they made it a point to change one of the few things that should have remained untouched. And are all horror remakes now required to close with a hard rock song, regardless of whether it fits?   

Since it clearly isn't strong horror, you have to wonder if Peirce had abandoned all genre trappings in favor of a coldly realistic dramatic tragedy, this would have turned out better. Sure, it would have alienated horror audiences, but that's a demographic you could argue is dwindling in theater presence anyway. There's little doubt that approach would have made for a better film, but I'm not sure it would have been as fun to watch.  This latest King interpretation certainly doesn't rank amongst his worst, but it's a missed opportunity, eventually finds its footing in time to deliver a gripping third act. But by then, the damage is already done.There's no problem in remaking Carrie, but if they're not going to change anything besides the cast, it's perplexing just how inferior this turned out with all the talent involved.
   

Friday, October 10, 2014

3 Days To Kill



Director: McG
Starring: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Richard Sammel, Tómas Lemarquis, Eriq Ebouaney, Raymond J. Barry
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The best thing about the otherwise unambitious but fairly enjoyable McG action thriller 3 Days to Kill is Kevin Costner's performance. It continues what has to be considered somewhat of a late-career resurgence for the actor who's as good as he's ever been lately, this time as a veteran CIA agent dying of cancer. The set-up is both more and less interesting than it sounds, with a script that sometimes cleverly blends the main character's professional and personal lives, while delivering few surprises. That means it's all up to Costner to carry this, which he does, playing a two-sided character that isn't completely unlike the one we saw him portray in 2007's overlooked Mr. Brooks, with the key difference being that this murderous character is a legally contracted one. And yet the two movies are nothing alike and his work impressively not even the slightest bit similar. But even that's not enough to save what ends up being a fairly routine action outing well disguised as something more substantial.

CIA agent Ethan Renner (Costner) probably won't live to see Christmas, having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that's already spread to his lungs. When he returns home to Paris from his latest assignment, he sees the diagnosis as the final chance to repair his damaged relationship with estranged teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen). Instead, he's greeted with a proposition from CIA assassin, Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) to find and kill a dangerous arms trafficker known simply as the Wolf  (Richard Sammel). In exchange he'll receive an experimental drug that could possibly prolong his life, giving him extra time to reconnect with his family. But its hallucinatory side effects cause him to wonder if it's worth the trouble, while also making it extremely difficult to complete the task at hand. Hardly in top form but with nothing left to lose, Ethan's in a race against the clock, but the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to be a dad to a rebellious teen.     

To its credit, this is actually a pretty compelling premise, muddled by some of the usual cliches found in hitman movies. That's tempered slightly by Costner's work as a dying man trying to do right by his daughter. He makes it clear that Ethan is weakened and on his last legs, but doesn't overplay it either, showing shades of an agent you'd imagine as a force when he was at the top of his game. His best scenes are opposite Steinfeld, whose Zooey is not only at the age where she's mortified to even be seen with her father, but actually has a good reason since he's been selfish and absent most of her life. It's not groundbreaking material and I'm still on the fence about an actress of Steinfeld's caliber being burdened with having to flesh out a whiny teen in an action thriller, but if it has to be played by anyone, it may as well be someone talented.

How their relationship develops beats anything having to do with the actual assassination plot or whatever tasks Ethan must complete to extend his life. Their arc may be predictable, but in the hands of these two actors it manages to at least feel somewhat fresh. As entertaining as it is watching the action jump back and forth between Ethan's bumbling attempts to connect with Zooey and his assigned kills, the two never really merge in a satisfying way. The lone plus on the professional end of the narrative is Amber Heard at her most seductive as Vivi, injecting a decent dose of deadpan humor and energy into each of her appearances opposite Costner, even as Ethan injects the drug that could potentially extend his life.

The action sequences are excitingly filmed by McG, with everything eventually coming to a head in a bullet-heavy finale that concludes exactly as you'd expect. If anything, you'd figure the added drama of having a dying protagonist working against the clock would organically inject the script with an urgency, at least leaving the door open for possible surprises. Instead, it seems the filmmakers were content just letting this predictably unfold. That it was co-written and produced by Taken director Luc Besson should have been a hint to expect something a little meatier than a run-of-the-mill thriller but both installments of that franchise were considerably more suspenseful and exciting than 3 Days to Kill, despite having seemingly less to work with. Trying to turn Costner into the next Liam Neeson isn't the worst idea in the world, but he's going to need a much better project to fully pull it off.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow



Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

"Live. Die. Repeat." That's the catchy tagline for Edge of Tomorrow, and it's hard to accuse the studio of false advertising. But for the first half of its running time, the film feels like it's going to aspire for more than that, only to take a promising premise and one of the more interesting protagonists Tom Cruise has played, and instead settle into a routine action vehicle indistinguishable from his other recent offerings. And the set-up really is great, casting the actor in his familiar alpha male power position, only to pull the rug out and expose the character as kind of a bumbling fool, ill-equipped for the situation he's been thrust into. Initially, it could be described as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets Metal Gear Solid, as everything surprisingly fires on all cylinders for a while. At least until a key reveal that causes the movie to go on autopilot.

When a race of alien Mimics take over Europe, public affairs officer Major William Cage (Cruise) is unexpectedly ordered by United Defense Force head General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) onto the beaches of France to suit up for combat. As a high ranking official whose position is limited to a desk job motivating those in battle, rather than engaging in it, the terrified Cage objects to the assignment, even threatening to use his media clout to blackmail Brigham. Instead, he awakens in handcuffs at Heathrow Airport, discovering he's been labeled a deserter and is now being prepped for combat under the gruff Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton).

It's a losing battle, not just for the inexperienced Cage, but all the humans involved in the invasion. Only he's the one who has to continually repeat it, waking up each previous morning after dying in combat, hoping to eventually gain enough experience and information to defeat the Mimics. His ally is Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who agrees to train him, immediately recognizing the rare phenomenon he's experiencing and how they can use it to claim victory.

Right away it's apparent that the film is bucking more than a few trends and at least attempting to deliver something a little different than we've come to expect from the current onslaught of overblown action spectacles. When we meet the protagonist he isn't very likable at all. In fact, he's smarmy and egotistical, fully deserving of the "transfer" he's about to receive. That he also almost wets his pants at the thought of battle is just icing on the cake. Think of it as an extended feature length episode of Undercover Boss in battle, if the supervisor in question is forced not only to do the grunt work, but demoted against his will. None of these soldiers know who this guy is and at first glance understandably find him to be a real idiot.

What's surprising here is how good Cruise is at playing against type, excelling even when not cast as the smartest, most physical guy in the room. Through this Groundhog Day scenario, Cage is suddenly given more than enough opportunities to gather information and figure out how to defeat the alien race, with the script effectively exploiting every one of them. That Emily Blunt's Rita isn't a sidekick or love interest, but a fierce warrior guiding Cage every step of the way and training him for battle. They lose a bit of that heading down the final stretch, but Blunt's believability in the role never wavers and is easily the film's most valuable asset.

To say a movie looks and feels like a video game would in most cases be disparaging, but director Doug Liman invites complimentary comparisons to that medium for a change with some excitingly choreographed action sequences. And while slugging around a heavy, armored metal suit wouldn't seem to lend itself to the most practical or mobile means of combat, it manages to look a lot less silly on screen than you'd picture it described. More importantly, it's fun, and despite doubling as a virtual advertisement for Hollywood's over-reliance on CGI, the technology at least looks good this time, making it easy to get pulled in, even while watching on the small screen.

The eventual disappointment is only that much greater when the overexplanatory reveal kicks in and Liman hits the default button, making clear his intentions to cruise (sorry) along to the finish. Really the whole last 45 minutes or so are mind-numbing, as the characters go through the requisite motions of blowing things up and getting killed over an over again to take us to the thoughtless place we feared we were going before the opening credits started rolling. While it's unfair to necessarily expect deep introspection from an action spectacle, teasing us with it, only to then cop out, is a far worse offense. The blame could lie at the feet of the source material, author Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese young adult novel, All You Need is Kill, which was the film's working title before common sense (and maybe fear of a possible Beatles lawsuit) prevailed. But is calling it something as bland and forgettable as Edge of Tomorrow really that much of an improvement?

For a while there, this really looked like this was actually going someplace intriguing. It's difficult when a film has a great concept but the writing feels forced to over-explain it, causing considerable disappointment. What the approach does provide is a definitive end point with numerous explosions along the way, and despite an opening that wisely teased the opposite, an opportunity for Cruise to further extend his decades-long run as a kick-ass action star. At least this time he's spreading the wealth with a co-star capable of matching him in an arena he usually dominates. Liman probably accomplishes all he can with the material he's working with, and as far as big action blockbusters go, you could definitely do worse. Far worse.