Saturday, December 20, 2014

Nightcrawler



Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"I'd like to think if you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life."

Dan Gilroy's satirical crime thriller Nightcrawler is one of the better recent examples of preserving a central character's aura of mystery by letting the actor fill in the blanks. When an obsessive, ambitious L.A. drifter stumbles into the adrenaline-fueled world of recording violent crimes and accidents to sell to local news stations, it's obvious early on he isn't the type who "stumbles" into anything. He sets his sights. With a topic that's both curiously timeless and dated at the same time, it could have been a conventional thriller if not for the fact our protagonist becomes the antagonist, just as depraved as the criminals he furiously covets footage of, if not more so. While I often questioned the believability of events unfolding, the actor carrying them never strikes a false note. It's because of Jake Gyllenhaal's transformative performance that we never know where this guy's coming from or where his head's at. But wherever it is, it's a frightening place.

When resourceful but unemployed Louis Bloom's (Gyllenhaal) spontaneous plan to land a job at an L.A. construction site falls through when the manager discovers he's a thief, he realizes it's time to change course. After witnessing a film crew shooting footage of a horrific car crash, he gets the idea to become a "Nightcrawler," obtaining a camcorder and radio scanner to follow the action and shop the footage to the highest bidding local news station. After impressing KWLA News Director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) with his footage of a carjacking, he picks her brain for advice and hires a young assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), who's desperate enough for cash he'll do anything.

Nina's guidelines are simple: Record violent crimes in affluent neighborhoods. And get there first. As her ratings rise and Lou's fledgling business gathers steam, he gets more directly involved in the action, using illegal tactics to get the footage and manipulating events to advance his career. A lesser film  would be about whether he's willing to sell his soul for a future in broadcast journalism. But this character has no soul, and just as he obsessively captures these crime scenes, we compulsively anticipate how far he's willing to push the envelope.

Initially, it's hard not to at least begrudgingly respect Lou's tenacity and ambition, even if his philosophies seem to have sprouted from reading too many Donald Trump and Tony Robbins books. Reciting verbiage from business manuals and seminars to every prospective employer (or hapless employee) he encounters in a robotic, mechanical tone, He's very smart and knows it, but there's also something wrong with him, the extent of which doesn't completely reveal itself until someone finally gives him praise, and a chance to prove himself.

Journalistic integrity isn't high on Nina's priority list, so she's naturally intrigued by the newcomer's inspired work, which only feeds her cutthroat pursuit of ratings at any cost. "If it bleeds, it leads." It's a motto that would likely disgust her colleague, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), the lone vice of moral reason in the newsroom. While Nina's almost equally bad with people in a different way, Lou's the full-blown sociopath, especially during his disturbing diner "interview" with his future assistant, whose insecurity and desperation he sniffs out like a blood hound.

What's so interesting about Lou is that the more professional he tries to act, the crazier he comes off, and the scarier he gets. With Rick as his navigator, he races from one crime scene to to the next with camcorder in hand, hoping to beat out competitors like Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who want him on his team. But Lou's building an enterprise and unpolished hustlers don't figure into his plans and he's definitely not interested in sharing a piece of the pie. When he starts arriving at crime scenes prior to police and tampering with evidence, the possibility exists his moral problems could become legal ones.  

Whether this is the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal's career thus far is debatable, but it's definitely up there and easily the most deranged character he's had an opportunity to tackle. At first, Lou seems a little odd and mischievous. Then, a little weird. It isn't long before we're really worried about the guy, until realizing our concern should really be for anyone who gets near him, either personally or professionally. He's what author Bret Easton Ellis would call an "emotional vampire," sucking the humanity out of everyone he encounters, with maybe one exception, and only because she seems to have so little left. The most extreme, obvious comparison is American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, even if Gyllenhaal's physical transformation (a loss of over twenty pounds) more closely resembles Christian Bale's in The Machinist. For the first time, Gyllenhaal scared me, both in appearance and demeanor. Doing that while making the character not completely unlikable, and even at points charming and charismatic, would seem to be a herculean task for any actor.

He has the ideal co-star in Rene Russo, who's given her meatiest, most complex role in ages. You can tell Nina's been through the ringer, perhaps having to prove herself in a man's world for too long, turning her bitter and hard-edged. Russo's careful not to make that the cliche it could have been and screenwriter and first-time director Gilroy treads carefully over their relationship. If anyone can respect Lou's ruthless ambition it's her, and while it's tempting to say she doesn't even know what she's gotten into, she completely does and loves it. Refreshingly, neither have a conscience and are drawn as entertainingly deplorable as possible. But the real star might be DP Robert Elswit's rendering of a decaying, grungy nighttime L.A. bathed in neon lights that's so distinctive it feels like the lost film in Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. James Newton Howard's score hums over the emotionally vacant, sometimes brutal action, creating a jarring contradiction.

Even within the boundaries of  media satire and social commentary it's intended, some of the events that occur while marching toward it's big car chase finale are almost to preposterous to take seriously at all, if we're even expected to. It's difficult to fathom that Lou could go as far as he does without being arrested or killed or that in this overly PC media age any news director wouldn't be immediately canned attempting to air what she does. This begs the question of exactly when these events are supposed to be taking place since I wavered on that issue at various points. It's easy to reimagine a far lesser version of this as one of those '90's direct-to-DVD thrillers. Luckily, it's not that at all and everyone involved skillfully sells it. Like Lou, we know what we're watching a crash, but it's impossible to turn away.
 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Foxcatcher



Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Gut Boyd, Brett Rice
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Every so often an actor crawls so far deep under the skin of a deplorable character that they almost make viewers ill with each on screen appearance. That's only magnified when the character in question is based on an actual person, or more accurately in this case, a real life monster. Steve Carell's performance as John du Pont, the man convicted of murdering Olympic gold medal wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, is so disturbing that "understanding" his twisted motivations and emotional instability doesn't help soften the edge. The more you learn, the more you'll hate his guts. Empathy isn't an option here. He's a sad, lonely sack of a man so desperate for respect and adulation that he's sure throwing his family's money around will earn him a seat at the cool kids' table. And for a little while it works, until his personal hang-ups and mommy issues start taking center stage.

Du Pont is the nightmare version of one of those isolated, rich sports franchise owners who get way too involved in an arena they know nothing about. And his beady eyes show no traces of the funnyman who starred on The Office or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, even as Carell and Moneyball director Bennett Miller force the audience to reassign the latter film's protagonist to a dramatic tragedy, making us wonder what happens when guys like him turn into psychopaths. Du Pont finds his star protege in someone who seems to share a similar philosophy and is almost as lonely, searching for a mentor and father figure despite already having the best one there is. Uncompromisingly bleak and unnervingly cold, Foxcatcher does manage to be darkly funny at times, but more often it's deadly serious, unflinchingly presenting its true crime story and the unusual circumstances surrounding it.

It's 1987, three years after brothers and training partners Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) both won wrestling gold at the Los Angeles Olympics. The older, more renowned Dave's career is continuing to thrive as both an athlete and a coach while the more uncertain Mark struggles to map out his future, relegated to taking speaking engagements where they mistake him for his brother. He knows he wants to compete at the World Championships and go on to win gold at the '88 games in Seoul, but isn't sure of the path that will get him get there. Enter eccentric millionaire chemical heir John E. du Pont, a self-professed "patriot" who offers to financially support him and his team, allowing them to board and train at his family's famed Foxcatcher Farm estate in rural Pennsylvania, where he's just built a state-of-the-art wrestling facility.

For the directionless Mark, the offer proves too enticing to pass up, but Dave is a much harder sell, refusing to uproot his wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller) and two kids for a big payday. Things start off well, until it becomes painfully clear John's a paranoid sociopath who's slowly breaking Mark down emotionally and using the team as a weapon against his disapproving mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Her equestrian pursuits a top priority, she views wrestling as "low" and her son's obsession with it ridiculous. The more involved John gets with his team, the more dangerous he becomes, pitting the brothers against each other in a desperate, pathetic bid to vicariously achieve the success he never had on his own, with tragic results.

The scenes between du Pont and Mark are so quiet and awkward you can hear a pin drop. From the beginning there's a tension as Mark tries to figure out what this strange man's motives are. But it is a generous offer, with John being legitimately sincere about his desire for Mark and Team USA to succeed, at least in his own mind. Like most delusional or mentally unbalanced people, he means exactly what he's saying, tricking himself before anyone else.

Seeds of the millionaire's eventual psychotic breakdown are subtly planted from the moment Carell first shuffles onto screen, his face hidden behind heavy aging makeup and a bulbous prosthetic nose, which he seems be talking through while panting through his mouth. It all enhances the overall effect, even if it's present only supplement a transformation that's already creepy and masterful on its own. He's working from the inside out to create du Pont, or at least some version of him that rivals the insanity of the real man.

While it's tempting to label Mark as merely a musclehead from the get-go, there's no reason for him to doubt his benefactor's intentions other than that he seems like any other eccentric rich guy on the surface.  And therein lies that tightrope walk that is Channing Tatum's performance, which stands as the best work he's ever done, even when compared to the major creative strides he's made over the past couple of years.  He makes you think Mark isn't the sharpest tool in the box, and he may not be, but is careful enough to play him as lonely and slightly gullible. And yet he's still perceptive enough to sense when John's gone too far and it's time to leave.

If John has no friends then Mark has exactly one: His big brother. In an incredible early training scene you see the love and respect Dave has for him, yet also sense some of the resentment and jealousy coming from Mark. Du Pont pounces on that, but a switch flips when Dave rejects his offer to also train at Foxcatcher. Perceiving him as a threat to his "friendship" with Mark, he silently fumes when he seems to take over his role as mentor, father and coach. But it's a role that Dave always owned and any underlying tension between brothers doesn't come close to matching the tension present in every uncomfortable interaction du Pont has. But it's the eventual addition of Dave into the equation that really sets him off.

Scenes of John's creepiness and eccentricity border on the darkly comic, whether he's interrupting practice with a loaded firearm, buying tanks, or displaying the team's medals in his trophy room. It's especially evident when he convinces himself he's not only an inspiring leader, but a superstar wrestler, actually taking to the mat himself without any knowledge of the sport, nor an athletic bone in his body. One of the saddest and funniest movie moments of the year unfolds when he clumsily tries to advise and coach, with Dave looking on incredulously and his own mother pitying him from the sidelines. Dave senses something's off with him from the start with Ruffalo, ever so slightly implying those doubts on his quizzical face the entire time.

Ruffalo would seem to be an odd choice to portray the fallen Schultz brother, but he spends each minute of his screen time proving otherwise. Unlike Tatum, he doesn't look like a wrestler, but he captures the tenacity and methodical approach of someone who's risen to the top of their sport. The actor does so much by seemingly doing so little, making sure we know Dave has the missing piece of the puzzle his little brother, arguably the more natural athlete, lacks. It's in how he talks, walks and even thinks. Mark doesn't have that confidence and the problem is in where he goes to find it. Dave represents everything du Pont hates. Respected not for the size of his bank account, but his accomplishments, he's the guy this weasel has spent his life trying to be. He's a top shelf athlete and human being so completely sure of himself and committed to his family that no amount of money could lure him to Foxcatcher. It's his concern for Mark that ultimately gets him there. And it ends up being his last stop.

It's rare you find a picture this consistently dark and depressing, with hardly a moment of uplift to be found, unless you count some of du Pont's theatrics, but even that's tempered by the knowledge of  impending doom, omnipresent in Rob Simonsen's hypnotically sinister score and a dreary but beautiful Foxcatcher Farm that's permanently cloaked in darkness. Fog, rain, night or snow seems to engulf every other shot and once the film settles into its pacing it feels as if the characters and audience are taken on a long death march to the inevitable conclusion, with hearts pounding.

We know what happens but we never really knew how, and the the film's filled with surprising little details along that journey, making us feel that this is a story that hasn't been told and needs to be. That few outside those following the sport even knew about Dave Schultz's younger brother or that the events surrounding the murder revolved around him, only further solidifies that. Watching Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo pull from each other the performances of their careers is the biggest revelation, but its cold, unsettling approach to an overlooked story is what will linger in your mind long afterward.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Giver



Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay
Running Time: 97 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Fairly or not, Lois Lowry's 1993 Newbery Medal-winning children's novel, The Giver has been both credited and blamed for ushering in the emergence of a genre that's come to be known as "YA." That Jeff Bridges has been trying to get the film version going for so long that his father was originally attached to the role of the title character speaks volumes about Hollywood. When things are popular and making money an entirely new genre can emerge out of thin air, making previously overlooked material seem "hot." Now The Giver, a fairly challenging story no one would touch with a ten-foot pole for the past two decades, is suddenly a "Young Adult Franchsie Property." It's the same categorization that befell Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, which was considered straight-up science fiction until producers realized it featured young characters. Between the controversy surrounding its author and the fact they were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, box office failure was a near certainty. So plans to make the next Hunger Games or Divergent out of Lowry's more philosophically dense material is definitely cause for concern, especially considering its shared plot point of an oppressive, dystopian future. Surprisingly, or maybe accidentally, this doesn't happen.

Director Phillip Noyce has made a restrained, meditative picture primarily concerned with ideas, sharing more similarities with Pleasantville than any of the aforementioned titles, with ambition that often exceed its reach. Better yet, the material doesn't feel dumbed down or sanitized to attract a broader audience, as YA adaptations tend to (with the exception of last year's Catching Fire, which really did it right). You can't ask for more than that, even if something's missing. It could be some logic holes in the plot or the fact that the bottom kind of falls out in the last half hour, but at least those are respectable flaws any movie could have.

When people are given freedom of choice, they'll almost always choose wrong. That's the rationalization the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) uses to govern a future society in which its citizens are indistinguishable from each other, all their emotions and memories vanquished. Everyone is the same race. The concepts of "family" and "love" don't exist. Homes are referred to as "dwellings," that are every bit as impersonal as the word implies. People aren't killed, but "released into elsewhere." The Receiver of Memory is the only community member possessing actual memories that are only used to advise the Chief Elder on decision-making and train the next Receiver. In a graduation ceremony where the community's children are ushered into adulthood with assigned jobs, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen as the succeeding Receiver, set to be schooled by the man currently holding that position, The Giver (Jeff Bridges).

While his assigned, nameless parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard) are proud, taking this important position is a sacrifice for Jonas, who's ordered to keep this new knowledge to himself, even as it tears apart his childhood friendships with Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). Now exposed to glimpses of the past both traumatizing and joyful, Jonas must decide whether the citizens of this sterilized future can handle the truth that their controlled utopia is really anything but. And whether it's his moral duty to enlighten them, despite the risks.

Whether the good is worth the bad is the central question the movie asks and the script, regardless of its faithfulness to Lowry's text, does go all in with those themes. But the big takeaway is the striking, crisply photographed black and white monochrome look of the community, impeccably lensed by cinematographer Ross Emery. The absence and eventual use of color does invoke literal and mostly positive comparisons to Pleasantville in that, besides looking sleek, it's actually functional and organic to the story. Even if the eventual incorporation of color is more gradual and less dramatically executed here, black and white's purpose in depicting a stark, washed-out world of boredom and sameness is similar. It's interesting to note that the 1998 film uses a colorless past to embrace the future while this does exactly the opposite.

The idea that our collective past informs our present, and without it, we're left with the nightmare depicted here, which is heady stuff, at least as far as YA goes. It's ironic that the opening hour, in which we're introduced to this bland, anemic society is the most exciting part of the film and far more entertaining than when the stakes are supposedly raised later. Far from being phoned in, it's an intricate and fully realized world, containing some elements that bare more than a passing resemblance to Fahrenheit 451. Jonas' training is the centerpiece, as he's slowly exposed, through The Giver, to a past the rest of his community has been  "protected" from. War. Death. Love. Snow. Sleds. It's what he chooses to do with this knowledge, The Giver's motivations for sharing it, and the Chief Elder's reaction, that forms the conflict, threatening to finally awaken this society from its cultural hibernation.

By the very nature of its concept, the film isn't heavy in the romance department, using Jonas and Fiona's relationship to make a larger point about how their society suppresses emotions. That their deepening bond is an integral ingredient to the script rather of a sideshow distraction to reel in teen audiences is a relief and a credit to the likability of the leads. While strangely not a prerequisite for these roles, neither exactly oozes charisma, and even with the ages bumped up considerably from the novel, 25 year-old Thwaites is still a bit old for the part. But he makes it work and is easy to root for, as is Rush. Both are kind of upstaged by their co-stars, which makes sense considering those co-stars are Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. A bearded, warbling Bridges shares the most rewarding scenes opposite Thwaites, literally and figuratively giving color to a Giver that plays as the Dude crossed with his aging Flynn from TRON: Legacy.

One of the big highlights is a brief flashback entailing the disaster involving the Giver's disastrous training of the previously chosen Receiver, Rosemary, who's played by Taylor Swift in a cameo that lasts about a minute. Given her massive media exposure, it's a feat in itself her presence isn't an unwanted distraction that takes you out of this. Rather, the nature of the role does really suit her and Noyce wisely avoids testing just how much she can handle. From a thematic standpoint the part is actually important and you're left wanting more Taylor, which was smart.

Streep is perfectly cast as this authoritative figure and overlord of the society, even if the writing of her character eventually becomes a little cartoonish when she evolves into a sneering villain. Holmes and Skarsgard are given the difficult, but fascinating jobs of playing emotionless robots, which is sure to incite a bunch of jokes about those actors I don't necessarily agree with. An ice cold Holmes scarily slips into this disturbing dystopian "mother" role, frequently lecturing the kids on their word usage while Skarsgard is at the center of a shockingly dark and disturbing scene that really opens the flood gates of the story. With this intact I'm kind of amazed the movie escaped with a PG-13, as a good case can be made the MPAA has slapped films with an "R" for less. But at least this shows that everyone involved in this project took it seriously, rarely shying away from unsavory aspects to the material that could have easily been brushed under the rug.      

At a certain juncture in The Giver you realize it's gone as far as it wants and rest of the narrative will consist of checking off boxes and marking time. The last act is such a foregone inevitability that's it's really easy to just bail out and lose interest. Considering everything that came before, I was prepared to expect to unexpected, and while what we get is fitting and visually beautiful, it's certainly not surprising. The one big question bothering me was why this society even bothers having a Receiver. Isn't it too much of a risk? While their stated purpose is to advise the community, this seems like a lot of trouble to go through and too much temptation put on the plate of whomever is chosen to make it worth their while. But even that might be reading too much into it, as this is a great effort that comes close to transcending the genre's limitations by virtue of its big ideas.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything



Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake
Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"What about the brain?" That's the first question Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) asks the doctor who diagnoses him with ALS in James Marsh's biographical romance, The Theory of Everything. And as long as you know that Hawking's scientific breakthroughs and theories will be nudged aside in favor exploring his marriage and battle with this crippling disease, it's easy to respect what the film has to offer. Namely, two Oscar-worthy performances and an often uncomfortable, if necessarily detailed depiction of his physical deterioration. And that's the way this had to be since any detailed explanation of his work on film would have come across as dry or incomprehensible to even the most engaged viewers.

This isn't an adaptation of  his bestselling "A Brief History of Time," nor should it be, as anyone interested in digging further into his theories should probably just read that book or hunt down the many the documentaries covering it. The source is instead his ex-wife's memoir, "Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen," so it's unfair to criticize it for what it isn't, especially considering there will be some legitimate gripes with what it already is. And yet, it's still an effective, handsomely made film a lot of people will love for very valid reasons. Consider it a disease procedural about perseverance, with a love story as its backdrop.

We're first introduced to Hawking in 1963 as a 22-year-old doctorate student at Cambridge who's well-liked and intelligent, continually impressing his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). It's here where the initially uncertain young man immerses himself in his studies of physics and cosmology, challenging many previously held theories about time, the origins of the universe and black holes. The script digs about as deep as that broad description, instead shifting the focus to his courtship of an intelligent, pretty liberal arts major named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), whose religious beliefs often clash with Hawking's scientific ones. But they hit it off, each intellectually impressed with the other in spite of their differences.

While studying at Cambridge, what initially seems to be Stephen's natural awkwardness soon leads to the frightening diagnosis of ALS (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), a degenerative motor neuron disease that will rob him of his muscle control, speech, and then, eventually, everything else. Given only two years to live, he and Jane marry and have children, with Hawking continuing to defy the odds, while his books and theories cement his status as one of the most brilliant and respected scientific minds of the past century.

What makes Hawking such a fascinating subject, despite the relatively straightforward approach to telling his story, is just how little we actually know about him. Aside from those familiar with his life's work, I'm willing to bet few had any idea he was married twice and had three kids. That he's probably known by most casual moviegoers as that guy in a wheelchair who speaks through a computer makes the need for a biopic long overdue. What the uninitiated won't walk away with is any clue as to why he's so revered or what he specifically accomplished. The few scenes touching on it are necessarily explained in layman's terms and some may even find themselves perplexed by those.

The movie goes out of its way not to turn into a physics lecture, as Anthony McCarten's script finds the right balance and tone in presenting the work in the context of his personal life, with Benoît Delhomme's cinematography aiding in creating a vivid, dreamy atmosphere. Had Marsh decided to go further with the science, he would have not only lost the audience, but probably damaged the flow of the film, which is deliberately paced as it is.

The focus is primarily on the ALS battle and it's an eye-opening look at a disease that's recently gotten a lot of attention without much knowledge or education. This at least provides that and Hawking's fight delivers the conflict, despite the heavy, but clumsily handled implication that both Stephen and Jane carried on extra-marital affairs. She with church organist and Stephen's eventual caretaker Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and he with nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). But the film goes to such great lengths to deny either cheated during their marriage that it's almost comical. It's as if the producers knew they wouldn't get Hawking's full endorsement unless they tip-toed over it, resulting in extreme vagueness.

Jane's pseudo-affair plays better, as she has to fight her emerging feelings for a kind man taking care of her husband and teaching their child, but the script's treatment of Stephen's relationship with that nurse (a late development) is flat-out strange. Perhaps unwilling to compromise Hawking's virtuous reputation, the affair is begrudgingly included, to the smallest extent possible. There's no risk of anyone confusing his personal or moral failings with Steve Jobs' anytime soon, but if the filmmakers weren't going all in and felt that uncomfortable, it probably should have been excised altogether.

While it may be a long-running joke that the quickest way to an Oscar is playing a real-life figure or someone with a debilitating disease, there's a real reason for it. It's extremely difficult. Redmayne does both, and is equally brilliant at it. Besides the subtle physical performance he has to pull off when Hawking first shows ALS symptoms, the most impressive work comes later, when confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak on his own, Redmayne maintains the spark and intelligence of that Cambridge student who first fell in love with physics and Jane. Besides the uncanny resemblance to the real man, there's very much a personality in there that's still shining through, even during Hawking's lowest health moments.

As the rock of the story, Felicity Jones embodies Jane with a strength that's startling, but not completely unexpected knowing how long she cared for her now ex-husband. But it's another thing to see it and witness how Jones presents it. Almost out of pure stubbornness and steely resolve she refuses to give up, answering a firm, certain "No" when frequently confronted with the possibility that she should. She just keeps chipping away to maintain his quality of life and add days, with Jones completely dialed in to this aspect of the character. Everyone will justifiably rave about Redmayne but the movie is as much Jones', with implication being that Hawking is alive today because of Jane. And based on what's presented here, it's difficult to argue that point.

Supposedly, Hawking has already seen and loved the film, but his most revealing comment was on its accuracy. "Broadly true," he called it. With those two words the real-life subject may have offered up a better review of the The Theory of Everything than anyone else possibly could. The whole thing does feel broadly accurate in the sense that Marsh gently brushes over the important moments of his life, touching on key events without stirring up too much controversy, and in two instances, actively avoiding it. It wouldn't be completely inaccurate to label it a "paint-by-numbers" biopic even if I detest the term, but thankfully the subject and acting highly elevate the material.

It's practically impossible not to get caught up in this, just as it's impossible for Hawking himself not to love it given his saintly depiction. That it manages to do this without coming off too saccharine or syrupy, at least until the final scenes, is more than commendable. That he miraculously exceeded doctors' projections by a good forty plus years is the ultimate irony considering his belief in science over faith. While both undoubtedly played a big role, much of it had to do with his wife's refusal to throw in the towel. That and the performances make for a lasting experience, despite the nagging feeling there's a little more to the man than what we got.
      

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.