Foxcatcher

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FOXCATCHER
Director: Bennett Miller
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A great director, award-winning writers, a fascinating true crime story and an interesting cast – what could go wrong?  Unfortunately in the case of director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a lot.

Foxcatcher chronicles the true story of John Du Pont (played by Steve Carell), heir to the vast Du Pont family fortune, who wants to use his residence, Foxcatcher Farms as the premier training facility for the USA wrestling team.  In an effort to get “Team Foxcatcher” off the ground, Du Pont first hires Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), then his brother and coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), both gold-medal winning Olympic wrestlers to coach the team and compete in high-profile competitions to advertise the “Team Foxcatcher” name.  Unfortunately, Du Pont’s crippling sociopathy and other various mental health issues cause events to spiral out of control before finally coming to a deadly end.

I had read extensively about this bizarre story over the past several years, and with Bennett Miller at the helm, I was really excited to see Foxcatcher.  And yes, it is paced slowly and methodically like a Bennett Miller film (see also: Moneyball and Capote).  It even looked like a Bennett Miller film somehow, despite the fact that he doesn’t use the same cinematographer on his each of his films.  But unfortunately the only other thing in common Foxcatcher has with his previous feature films (that I loved by the way) is that they all have one word titles.

Foxcatcher is a slow-burn film that doesn’t ever ignite or explode, and that is super disappointing since for the first two hours of the film, you tell yourself that the agonizingly slow pace and disjointed progression from scene to scene is going to pay off in a big way, right?  Wrong.  Foxcatcher3Unfortunately, it’s just boring.  In conversation post-film I even gave Miller the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps this was a really bad adaptation of a complicated novel; but upon doing a quick IMDB search, I was shocked to discover this was an original screenplay, so there was really no excuse (and even more dismayed when I saw the company it holds with other Oscar-nominees this year – really, it’s compared in greatness to Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel?!).

Not only is Foxcatcher incredibly unfocused and criminally incomplete in terms of character development (no, “slow, methodical pacing” does not automatically build a character study) but it is jarringly vague when it comes to plot development as well.  When the climax of the film happens, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and I was left more confused than anything.  And then irritated, since the story should have been a slam dunk based on the intriguing source material.

One of the big stories about Foxcatcher is the acting, and I’m not going to say that any of the acting was bad – in fact it was pretty good.  But…not as deserving of all of the accolades the two Oscar-nominated actors have received.  Steve Carell was decent as John Du Pont, though I couldn’t help but compare this performance with possibly his best known role as hapless Michael  Scott in The Office simply because they were both pretty awkward.  Actually, come to think of it, Carell as John Du Pont was actually more like Ricky Gervais in the original British version of The Office: a lot more painful to watch.  I’ve seen Carell do drama so much better (he was amazing in Little Miss Sunshine) and while he was decent in his role, there was nothing transcendent about it.  In fact, a lot of his performance involved talking down his prosthetic nose with his chin up, and walking around in very upsetting little gym shorts.

Foxcatcher2Mark Ruffalo is also being lauded for his performance, and though he is practically recognizable with his added bulk and grizzly man beard, it all came down to him just being… Mark Ruffalo.  I’m not sure what it is about him – his voice, his mannerisms? – but he’s always Mark Ruffalo in his movies.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, I happen to like Mark Ruffalo.  I was kind of surprised by his Oscar nomination, but he actually has a pretty great scene in Foxcatcher where he’s being asked by a documentary filmmaker (hired by Du Pont, of course) to talk about how Du Pont is a mentor to him.  Watching him struggle with this, and then even blowing his lines when they are fed to him was a pretty great scene.  If there was any surprise I received from watching Foxcatcher beyond its mediocrity, it was the intensity of Channing Tatum’s performance.  I’ve probably seen a movie he’s been in, but if I have, I can’t recall it, I just know he’s a popular actor.  But based on what I know he’s been in, I didn’t have high hopes yet he was actually pretty good in his role as the underappreciated and insecure Mark Schultz.

Unfortunately as a whole, Foxcatcher was a big disappointment for me, and I’m pretty flummoxed by all of the raves and award nominations.  I’m a sucker for quiet, slow paced and deliberate films so there’s no reason I should have disliked it, yet here we are.  I guess I put a little more stock in execution and expect more of a coherent story to be entertained.

Still Alice

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STILL ALICE
Directors:  Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
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It can be argued that there are few ailments more horrible than losing your memory or sense of who you are and who your loved ones are.  But when the patient is 50 and a brilliant and renowned professor of Linguistics, it’s even more terrifying.  That is the basis of writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film Still Alice, which stars Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a professor at Columbia University who seems to have the perfect life: on top of her thriving career, she has a great husband, also a scientist (played by Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart.)

Alice has begun to realize that there’s something wrong with her, however – she has memory lapses more frequently, and one day she goes on her routine run through Columbia’s campus and realizes she has no idea where she is.  Being a scientist, she visits a neurologist and finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, a rare form of the disease that is rapidly taking away her faculties.  The diagnosis and its immediate ramifications not only have a devastating impact on Alice, but threaten the bonds of her close-knit family as well.

Still Alice3Just watching the trailer or reading a plot summary for Still Alice, you know that you’re in for a rough movie.  Despite this, I was interested in the film, but anxious that it could easily slide one way: a horribly depressing film where we’re watching someone suffer, or another: into a hokey, pseudo-inspirational film.  I wasn’t interested in seeing either of those, so I was glad to discover that Still Alice is a beautifully subtle film that doesn’t exploit or victimize Alice (though it sure would be easy to) nor does she have any false bravado.

Julianne Moore, who is arguably one of our best contemporary actresses gives an amazing performance that is nuanced, yet so layered.  She doesn’t strive to portray Alice as a hero, she’s a woman who is rapidly losing what she has always relied on and cherished, and it scares her to death.  As a scientist, there’s no denial on her part, and after her initial shock and bursts of emotion, she takes the next logical steps:  she visits a care facility in case it comes to that, she gives herself memory tests and she makes plans for the future when she knows she will no longer be able to think beyond the immediate moment.

Moore is so genuine in this role that it makes the film that much more heartbreaking.  There were several times during Still Alice when I teared up, but it was when she’s lost almost complete independence and is sitting with her husband, who is talking about when she was a professor and she says in a disconnected way as if she were talking about someone else, “I was smart.” I just lost it and sobbed.  Moore is simply amazing and really finds a beautiful balance between being a sympathetic and pitied character.

Still Alice2I also loved Moore’s scenes with Kristen Stewart, who plays her “unsuccessful” daughter Lydia, who has chosen to forego college and become an actress instead of an attorney or doctor like her siblings.  This has complicated Lydia and Alice’s relationship in the past, since Alice reveres education above everything, but it is Lydia who deals with Alice best out of her whole family, which strengthens their bond.  I never thought I would say these words, but I really enjoyed Kristen Stewart in this film.  (I just wish she would knock it off with all of the hair flips though – sheesh.)

As someone who has a history of Alzheimer’s and Dementia in my family, I was both curious and scared by Still Alice.  And I’m not going to lie, like some other films about Alzheimer’s (like Away from Her) Still Alice involves beautiful people with privileged lives who can afford the best care possible.  And unfortunately this is not the reality for most.  Despite this, Still Alice achieves some authenticity beyond the picture perfect setting:  people do get frustrated when they have to repeat themselves, and families do feel strained and spouses don’t know how to handle their relationship now and feel guilty about planning for the future without them.

The people and surroundings in Still Alice may be beautiful, but that does not make it an easy film to watch.  However, it’s not as maudlin as I expected it to be, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it (how can you say you enjoy a film like this) I do feel that it was very well written, directed and above all, well acted and an overall very good film. In a genre where this subject has been addressed in so many films,  Still Alice achieves the rare accomplishment of sensitively tackling it with a unique twist.

3 1/2 stars

Whiplash

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Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle
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It may be one of the most frustrating situations a film lover can find themselves in: effusively recommending a film to someone and when the inevitable question “What is it about?” is asked, all you can offer is a blank stare for a moment.  Even worse is when you then describe the plot, only you know you’re not sounding convincing but damn this movie is just really good – TRUST ME!

This is the situation I found myself in a few times this week while talking up director Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash: “Well, it’s about this 19-year-old kid who is training to be a jazz drummer at the most prestigious music academy in the country and finds himself taught by an incredibly intense and sometimes mean music instructor.  It was so good!”  After the inevitable crickets, you just hope that your enthusiasm (and reputation for recommending great films, natch) will push them over the edge and take a chance on an unusual film, like Whiplash.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

The conceit of Whiplash really is just as described, which makes the achievements of everyone involved in the film that much more outstanding.  The film is mostly character-driven, with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons doing the heavy lifting.  Teller plays Andrew, a dedicated first year student who has an amazing talent for the drums.  During a solo practice session, he catches the ear of Fletcher, the venerated and feared instructor that leads the school’s reputable jazz band.  Fletcher gives Andrew a spot in his band, which is the catalyst for the best, but mostly worst moments of his life.  Teller is great as Andrew; he portrays him as reserved, but somewhat cocky; he’s clearly used to being the best wherever he’s been, so Fletcher’s trial by fire comes as a shock to him.  He’s a sympathetic figure at times, but in others he’s just a cocky young adult that can use a few rounds in the ring.  Though apparently a body double was used at times during some scenes, Teller did most of his own drumming, a remarkable achievement considering the level of play.

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The big story is J.K. Simmons.  He’s all bald head, flashing eyes and sinew as Fletcher; alternately terrifying and fascinating.  Nothing escapes his eyes or ears, and Simmons, with his amazing face, goes from affable and supportive to literally in-your-face-rage within seconds.  He’s such a complex character that I’m still debating in my head whether he is dedicated to drawing greatness from his students and therefore will go to any length to achieve that, or if he’s simply a sadist or sociopath, though Simmons is too good and gives Fletcher too much depth to dismiss him as “a sadistic teacher.”  You get the feeling that nothing he does is without calculation, and you see that in Simmons’ eyes, whether as a flash or a seemingly benign stare.

As expected, a fantastic jazz score surrounds the characters, with some of the performances (particularly the final one) are exciting enough to make your pulse race.  This is in perfect concert with the unrelenting pace set by Chazelle; there is not one wasted moment in this film.  Whiplash is unrelenting, pushing toward its incredibly satisfying climax aggressively, yet there are so many subtleties in this film.  It is at times brutal and profound, but also moving and exhilarating.  I had such a visceral reaction to Whiplash, literally gasping at the end as a result of the emotions it evoked.  (And then saying “Holy shit!” to my viewing companion.)  The credits had just started, and so has this year, but I knew I had just seen one of the best films I know I’ll see all year.

(Actually 4 1/2 stars.  Really – SEE THIS MOVIE!)

The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game
Director: Martin Tyldum
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I’m a die-hard puzzle lover.  Like, I do anagrams in my head all the time, which I acknowledge is pretty weird.  And when it comes to solving jigsaw puzzles, word problems and especially crossword puzzles, I have been known to actually salivate when I’ve come across a particularly really challenging one, so when I heard about The Imitation Game, a film based on the true story of a puzzle that literally meant life or death, I was all in from the start.

The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, a professor of mathematics who becomes the leader of a group of mathematicians, linguists and even a champion chess player charged with the top secret mission of cracking Germany’s “Enigma Code” during World War II.  The task seems impossible, as the code is reset daily at midnight, rendering their previous work useless.  The film, told mostly in a series of flashbacks both to Turing’s World War II work and his days as a young student, is bookended by events in 1952 which saw Turing prosecuted for indecency by the British government because he was a homosexual.

The Imitation Game is a very straightforward film that works well with its historical storyline, but it’s anything but boring.  Director Morten Tyldum plows through the code breaking scenes with an excellent pace, moving back and forth between time periods when appropriate.  I’ve read elsewhere that the film is suspenseful, which I don’t agree with, though it’s not a criticism of the tone of the film.  The Imitation Game is more cerebral than suspenseful, particularly when it comes to making decisions that put lives at stake; essentially deciding who is going to live and who is going to die.  To me that is gut wrenching and thought-provoking, but not suspenseful.

Imitation2Just as gut wrenching is the British government’s treatment of Turing, who committed suicide shortly after being prosecuted for indecency and undergoing court mandated chemical castration.  Cumberbatch is outstanding as the complicated and conflicted Turing, who is a socially awkward clinical thinker without pretense who is criticized for an over-inflated ego but is really (justifiably) confident in his abilities.  With his posh accent, blunt demeanor and tunnel-vision focus, Turing is largely unlikeable until he goes against convention and hires Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) for his team, who helps socialize him.  The chemistry between the two actors is wonderful, and even though I personally can’t stand Knightley as an actress (you want someone to sneer at you during an entire film?  She’s your gal!) I can’t deny their scenes together were great.

The Imitation Game is not a regular biopic; it’s set apart from the genre.  While I think it was mostly very good, there were some moments that were fairly pedestrian that didn’t make sense within such a dry (in a good way) and cerebral film.  Between code cracking scenes, Tyldum inserted either World War II stock footage, or in one case, an extended scene of British people heading for bomb shelters and then sitting in them.  In both cases, it interrupted the otherwise great pacing and seemingly aimed to point out the obvious to the audience.  Yes, we know that the war is going on, that’s why we’re all here.  And yes, I can see stock footage of Hitler yelling and German soldiers marching on the History Channel in between episodes of Ancient Aliens.  The final act also seemed somewhat rushed, which left me colder about the film than I may have been had Tyldum concentrated more on Turing’s personal life, which a significant part of this overall story.  Beyond that, The Imitation Game is a good, solid film that tells a story that needed to be told about an extraordinary man.

(Actually, 3 1/2 stars)

Selma

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Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
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The various events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s have been told many times in many forms and both in narrative and documentary form.  It is a subject that has always fascinated me, and for more than 25 years of my life, I’ve read many books and seen many films that told many different stories about the movement, so while I was interested to see Selma I worried it wouldn’t bring anything new to the table because it takes a very well-produced film to stand out from its predecessors.  Selma met this challenge and under Ava DuVernay’s unique direction, nearly transcends the genre.

Selma stars David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and focuses on his 1965 campaign to gain equal voting rights for African-Americans in the south.  Remarkably, it is the first biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be theatrically released.  The film begins with three different scenes that don’t seem to have a lot in common, but their connection becomes quickly apparent:  MLK receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, four little girls are killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and Annie Lee Cooper (heartbreakingly played by Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote, but is denied after being asked unanswerable questions by a sneering clerk of courts.  MLK uses his influence to appeal to President Lyndon Johnson to pass a bill guaranteeing equal voting rights, and when this isn’t immediately accomplished, descends on Selma, Alabama to stage a number of nonviolent demonstrations.

selma2I love the fact that, though other events occur during the duration of the film, Selma is simply about one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, allowing the film to dig deep and get granular.  By focusing on these events, Selma is able to become fully-developed; there are asides about MLK marching in other states for other causes, and the assassination of Malcolm X is mentioned rather than dealt with.  The pacing is perfect, and despite being, for lack of a better word, a “small” film, it has an enormous impact.  As much as the audience may want it to at times, the camera does not blink or turn away from the atrocious treatment of the nonviolent demonstrators.

Selma has one of the strangest casts I’ve seen recently, which is only noteworthy because it works so well.  Every single central figure – George Wallace (Tim Roth), President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and Oyelowo – are all British.  I think this is pretty significant, particularly in Oyelowo’s case because his performance as MLK is not an impression, it’s an interpretation.  If you’re not American, as an “outsider” there’s perhaps less influence.  On a side note – only Wilkinson had the “I’m British but speaking American” weird accent – everyone else was impeccable, especially Tim Roth.  (I have a weird obsession with proper accents.)  Other than MLK, Selma contains a lot of small performance by an enormous amount of character actors, many fairly well known, and they are all great.

DuVernay has a very interesting eye, and Selma is filled with many quietly powerful scenes, including several curious shots filming Oyelowo from behind, with his neck at our eye level, presumably to keep him in the shot while still giving the audience the ability to see the action from his perspective.  There are a couple of moments that seem a little posed and overly dramatic – usually involving someone silhouetted in profile filmed for just a little too long – that are noticeable but don’t damage the overall impact of the film.  One of the many things I did appreciate was that MLK was not portrayed as infallible in the film.  Though brief, his widely-reported infidelities are addressed, and the voices of some of his detractors within the nonviolent movement are also heard.

SELMAThe one place where Selma falters is in its reinterpretation of historical events.  There has been a lot of chatter about Selma‘s journey into revisionist history when it comes to Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with MLK and his role in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In Selma, he’s portrayed first as an opponent, then reluctant participant when according to history, the opposite was true, including the nature of his relationship with MLK.  I don’t have an issue with films taking artistic license with facts, just see Oliver Stone’s amazing film JFK for a perfect example of this.  Unfortunately, Selma seemingly does this with a goal to making the conflicts more dramatic when this is wholly unnecessary; the challenges facing MLK and his fellow demonstrators were insurmountable enough without making LBJ into a villain.

These criticisms aside, Selma is an outstanding and important film.  Despite its angry, conflicted and dramatic subject matter, it is cerebral and understated (much like its protagonist) yet when it needs to, doesn’t shy away from shocking the audience and creating a visceral reaction with its unflinching look at one of the most terrible, yet inspiring events of the twentieth century.

 

Mr. Turner

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Mr. Turner
Director: Mike Leigh
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The beauty of watching a biopic about the life of someone whose life you’re not very familiar is that you can be immune to the natural tendency to criticize and second-guess whether you’re seeing something true or revisionist history.  The bummer of watching a biopic about the life of someone whose life you’re not very familiar is that if it’s not that interesting, the film can be pretty dull.  Unfortunately, this is an affliction writer-director Mike Leigh’s latest film Mr. Turner suffers from.

Mr. Turner stars Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner (known as J.M.W. Turner), arguably one of the greatest landscape painters of all time.  The film chronicles the last couple of decades of the eccentric artist’s life, which includes a rise to great prominence (and the inevitable fall from fashion), loss and finally, love.

First, the bad: Mr. Turner is a two and a half hour long film that could have been at least a half hour shorter (a keen editor could lop off even more time, I think).  It’s a very slow film that plods from scene to scene without the benefit of a cohesive story line.  It also is difficult to understand the dialogue at many points, especially in the beginning (I turned to my boyfriend about ten minutes in and laughed, “I have absolutely no idea what anyone is saying…”) but this improves slightly as the film progresses, probably because the viewer adapts.  Truthfully, by the end of the film, I was really ready for it to be over because the slow pacing and overall non-story line that was making me impatient by hour one had me really squirming in my seat after two and a half hours.

mrturner2And there’s the “okay”:  Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner is certainly impressive – at first.  But after a while, you get that the gist of his characterization involves him walking around (looking remarkably like a toad in human form) and grunting constantly while breathing loudly through his nose.  I felt like this could have been an outstanding performance, but when you’re given little more than bodily sounds to work with, after a while it becomes less sublime and little more than annoyingly repetitive.

But then there’s the amazing:  It may only be the third week of the year, but cinematography/photography-wise, I already know that this is going to be one of the most beautiful films I’ll see all year.  Mr. Turner was shot by Dick Pope, Mike Leigh’s go-to cinematographer, and who also shot The Illusionist, one of the most visually breathtaking films I’ve seen in the last twenty years that doesn’t have Roger Deakins’ name on it (remember that amazing early shot of Edward Norton sitting in the chair onstage in darkness except for his illuminated hands?  Ahh… sorry, film nerd stream of consciousness).  There are so many shots of incredible landscapes, purportedly seen through the eyes of Turner, which made me audibly gasp.

mrturner3Pope also takes the elements of Romanticism (the art movement in which Turner was most prolific) and transfers them to the screen, showing enormous landscapes, with Turner a mere speck among them.  A few times, the photography is so lush that at first you think you are looking at one of Turner’s paintings, until you realize that no, it’s the next scene, and it’s live-action.  I also loved that the film seemed to be shot using only natural light, which created some really profoundly gorgeous interior scenes.

I generally enjoy Mike Leigh’s work, but I think it’s because the films I’ve seen that he has written and directed tend to be dialogue and character driven, and Mr. Turner is neither of those.  I didn’t profoundly dislike the film, but I didn’t really like it either; instead I admired some things about it.  I find it interesting that on the website RottenTomatoes.com the critic rating is 97% and the audience rating is 60%.  I don’t obsessively watch movie ratings on that site, but I do look at it enough to know that it’s not often that there is such a disparity between the two votes.  It makes me wonder if I missed something profound about the film, or if perhaps it’s more critically fashionable to praise this independent period piece than pan it.  Either way, Mr. Turner is a gorgeous film that I’m glad I saw, but I don’t need to see it again.

Birdman

Birdman

Birdman
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
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Director AGI (I’ll go crazy messing with all of the symbols in his name so he’s henceforth known as “AGI” in this review) and I have a complicated relationship.  What I mean is, I either like his movies, but with reservations, or I can’t stand them, or just plain won’t watch them.  I’ve seen all of them except Amores Perros, which I refuse to watch because of some of the subject matter (dog fighting), and while I actively hated 21 Grams, both Babel and Biutiful were good films, but dreary and real downers.  (Yes, those of you who know me and my tastes read that right – I actually found movies that were too much of a downer.)  So it was with cautious optimism that I saw AGI’s latest film Birdman, and it ended up being possibly the best film I’ll see all year.

Birdman stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomas, a past-his-prime actor whose glory days playing the superhero “Birdman” in the 1990’s are long gone.  In an effort at a meaningful comeback, he has risked all of his savings (and then some) staging, directing and starring in the Raymond Carver play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway.  Unfortunately, like many things in Riggan’s life, nothing goes as planned, and between the stress in both his personal and professional lives (which are completely interchangeable) he finds himself succumbing more and more to the strange voice in his head, which is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman.

There are so many things that make Birdman is an incredibly sublime film, but the two main things are AGI and his cast.  AGI filmed in long, uninterrupted shots edited together seamlessly to appear as one take, which gives the film a breathless fluidity and highlights the surprising intimacy of the backstage space of a large theater.  The camera twists and turns through narrow hallways, either following actors or serving as their point of view.  It is an absolutely astounding feat and so perfect for this film.  Much of the film is also scored with a fantastic jazz drummer, which is a perfect accompaniment on so many levels and overall just really freaking cool.  Even the opening and closing credits are jazzy and cool.

Birdman 2And the cast… the cast is completely perfect.  I’ve said before (probably several times) that nothing thrills me more than seeing actors successfully playing against type.  With the exception of maybe Edward Norton, who has a great meta moment playing a well respected actor who is difficult to work with, we get to see actors (pardon the pun) stretch their wings in some unexpected roles.  I’ve seen Zach Galifianakis play indie dramedy in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but he puts in a (mostly) subtle performance in this film as Riggan’s best friend (and attorney and producer) Jake.  Emma Stone, often cast in “sweetheart” roles is all huge eyes and tight clothes as Sam, Riggan’s rough, recovering addict daughter.  Even Naomi Watts, who I normally actively avoid is really great as Lesley, Riggan’s leading lady in the play, who has finally achieved her goal of acting on Broadway, but is so fragile she looks ready to crack at any minute.  (Apparently she can act when she’s not directed to snot all over herself – who knew?)  And Michael Keaton is transcendent.  Having grown up watching him in movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, it’s so great to see him in this dark, desperate role which sees him struggling with inner demons (and probably certifiable mental illness) that never once veers toward the cliché.  But the truly important thing I realized after seeing the film is that I never once pitied him.  In films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, I was sobbing by the end of the film because I had so much sadness and pity for the main character.  But Keaton’s Riggan, while he has problems (many, many problems) you still have the sense that he’s a fighter.

Birdman comes as close to being a perfect film as it possibly can, with only a couple of nit-picky things that crossed my brain (like how Riggan made it to Broadway right out of the gate).  It is an exciting and intelligent film, and above all, absolutely delicious to experience.  Though I can’t forget how I feel about AGI’s past films, now that I have seen that he can direct a true, exciting masterpiece, I will look forward to seeing his work instead of enduring it.

Gone Girl

gone-girl-01_1485x612Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
2014 • USA
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Gone Girl has a couple of strikes against it right out of the gate:  It’s based on a beloved best-selling novel, and therefore will be held up to intense scrutiny to the millions of people who read the book.  It’s also a film that deals with relationships, a theme that has been seemingly addressed in millions of films (usually not so well).  Director David Fincher had a tough task when he took the helm of Gone Girl, but successfully delivers a  pitch black drama that not only transcends the genre, but for the most part stays true to the book, thanks to a screenplay written by the book’s author, Gillian Flynn.

The film stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, a former writer who moved he and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) from New York to Missouri when he finds out his mother is battling stage 4 cancer.  Two years later, Nick is running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), his mother has died and his relationship with Amy is falling apart.  On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home to an empty house that shows evidence of a struggle and more importantly, Amy is missing.  When the police get involved, events begin to snowball until the case becomes national news and Nick finds himself the main suspect.

Gone Girl is a dark, dark film, with very few characters that are beyond reproach in some way or another, and that is one of the most delicious things about it.  Even Amy’s parents, successful children’s book authors that based their heroine “Amazing Amy” on their daughter take the opportunity to capitalize on their daughter’s disappearance by promoting their books in press conferences.  Rosamund Pike, who is probably best known as Jane Bennet in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice holds her own with a challenging and pivotal character, but it’s Ben Affleck who surprised me the most.  After he began a career as a fairly successful film director, I believed he should probably just stick with directing from now on, but his natural blandness actually works to his advantage in Gone Girl.  (That sounds like a slam, but I really mean it as a compliment!)  Nick is actually a fairly complicated character, especially the more you learn about him and the further the film progresses, but on the surface, he’s just a shallow lunk of a guy who gets in way over his head, partly precipitated by his own actions.  The supporting actors are also excellent; Carrie Coon is nearly unrecognizable from her character on HBO’s The Leftovers, and is at times heartbreaking as Nick’s de facto conscience.  And you’ll probably never read these words from me ever again, but I thought Tyler Perry was perfect in his role as Nick’s defense attorney, Tanner Bolt.  He was smooth, sharp and most of all, really likeable.

Nick_Dunne_protests_his_innocence_in_dark_Gone_Girl_trailerFincher, a master at sleek filmmaking is in his element with Gone Girl.  Filmed with his recent go-to cinematographer Jeff Cronenwith, who creates soft, rich and atmospheric shots, he presents a beautiful film that is in stark opposition to its sometimes seedy subject matter.  When a film is so exquisitely presented, it’s hard to pick out the most exciting and “Fincheresque” scenes, but keep an eye out for two in particular:  one features the lead detectives on the case exploring a house’s basement, and the lighting and juxtaposition of other simultaneous scenes were fantastic.  The other is a graphic, but amazing scene involving a bed, and a lot of blood that was jaw-dropping.  He also turns to old colleagues, Oscar-winners Trent Reznor (my former 18-year-old Nine Inch Nails self still has a hard time typing those words) and Atticus Ross for the music, which, as usual, is atmospheric, haunting and absolutely perfect for the film.

Of course, the subject of book to film has to be addressed, and full disclosure: I read the book when it came out and loved it.  Knowing what was going to happen didn’t diminish the impact of the film, though I was surprised by the elimination of a couple of small but what I thought were essential characters in the book.  I also felt that the book did a better job of building suspense and throwing curve balls than the film did.  Having said that, I think it was a true and an incredibly successful adaptation, no doubt because of Flynn’s involvement.  I also thought it was a wise choice to honor the book by using essentially the same ending, an ending that polarized so many people, and has polarized viewers as well.  Personally, I thought it was a brilliant ending, and truthfully, the only way it could successfully end, but then again I’m one of the weirdos who loved the ending of The Sopranos, so what do I know?

A friend mentioned about Gone Girl that “David Fincher having nothing but fun is a sight to behold” and I couldn’t agree more.  My boyfriend was musing about when he was going to go back to original material, but he has created such iconic films based on books like The Social Network, Fight Club and to a lesser extent, Girl With a Dragon Tattoo that I welcome any more adaptations he wants to film.  (Where’s the rest of the Dragon Tattoo series?)  Fincher is one of my “must-see” directors – when he releases a film, I go see it, I’m never disappointed, and Gone Girl is another masterpiece to add to his oeuvre.

1971

1971_web_11971
Director: Johanna Hamilton
2014 • USA
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Director Johanna Hamilton’s feature debut 1971 is an exceptional documentary about the theft of files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, perpetrated by the activist group Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.  The group, originally made up of 9 members but later lessened to 8, hatched and executed a plan to steal all of the files from the FBI office in the hopes of finding some paperwork they could send to news outlets to expose government corruption.  What they discovered was documentation of profoundly illegal activities that so outraged the American public it led to further civil actions and ultimately, the first U.S. Congressional investigation of a U.S. intelligence agency.

1971 is a fascinating film that benefits from the cooperation of 5 of the 8 members of the group.  Their first-person accounts of the climate of the era of anti-war demonstrations were accompanied by a huge amount of archival photographs and news footage, many containing the subjects themselves, and what caused each decided to make the transition from “non-violent protesting to non-violent disruption.”  [mantra-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]“I saw how fear within the resistance community can break the movement.” [/mantra-pullquote] All were white, middle-class and educated, but their ages ranged from early twenties to mid to late-thirties, with different experiences and motivations.  (For example, one of the subjects was a participant years earlier on the second Freedom Ride in the south, and after seeing so much hatred and corruption finally reached the point of tangible action.)  But the ultimate reason grew as a response to the growing violence within the protest movement, and the increasing number of FBI involvement, including informants and agent provocateurs planted within protest groups.  Hard evidence was needed to convince the public that the FBI -which was at the height of its popularity during that time due to television shows and favorable press among other things- was not working in the public’s best interest.   Draft Board offices had been disrupted in the past, but this group’s plan was to go another step higher.

background-girlThe film really kicks into high gear once the plan to break into the office is created, planned and ultimately, executed.  Hamilton uses reenactments to show the preparations of the very organized group, including having one of the members  posing as a college student interviewing one of the agents for the purpose of “casing the joint.”  These moments and the immediate aftermath of the break-in are harrowing and really suspenseful at times, calling to mind the Oscar-winning film Argo but without manufactured drama.  Once or twice I had to remind myself that this really happened as it is being shown.  With excellent composition and pacing, from there 1971 turns to the investigation and ultimately, the aftermath, which was a public debate on the role of the FBI and what its methods should be, though the outrage was overwhelming, leading to the Congressional investigations.

The impact of the actions of the group profiled in 1971 resonated immediately and loudly, certainly beyond even their own expectations.  Within that same year, a plan by the Camden 28 to break into another building was foiled, but despite a huge crackdown by the justice system, the jury acquitted the group, almost certainly as a result of the FBI leak.  It also started a chain reaction of journalists conducting deeper investigations of the FBI, uncovering documents describing actions including the anonymous mailing of letters to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife abstractly suggesting he commit suicide before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  The actions in 1971 occurred before Wikileaks, Snowden and even Watergate; and it’s up to the viewer to decide if the actions of the CCIF (who were never caught) were heroic or illegal.  But in an age of rapid-fire information gathering via social media and the Internet, it’s easy to forget that we used to rely on old-school print and television investigative journalism, and that it was profoundly effective, keeping our nation at rapt attention.  1971 is a profound film that will possibly have you debating the merits of civil disobedience, but certainly considering the realization that the political and social climate of 1971 were not much different in the decades that followed, including the Patriot Act, hailed at first but later vilified.  Draw your own political conclusions, but be sure to see this film.

 

The Milwaukee Show (Shorts Program)

themilwaukeeshowii_photofrommilwaukeefilmfestival.wideaThe Milwaukee Show (Shorts Programs)
Various Directors

The following are brief reviews of a selection of shorts from the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival’s two shorts programs The Milwaukee Show, which features short films made by Milwaukee filmmakers.

‘Tis the Season
Animated manipulation of classic Christmas postcards turn classic images into something subversive and hilarious.  This one was crazy and I loved it.

This is Jackie
Vintage footage (looks like from the 1950s – 1960s) starting with “Jackie”, an elderly woman and featuring a chain of several people connected to one another, narrated by a bizarre Stephen Hawking-sounding computer voice.  Strange and awesome.

Balloons
A van drops off a huge bunch of colorful balloons for a little girl having a bad day, making her feel better, so she walks around the city distributing them to abandoned and sad things she sees around her.  Super sweet and really colorful, I liked this one a lot.

Years
A bunch of beautiful shots of nature up north (filmed in Land O’ Lakes) over a Bon Iver soundtrack.  It’s gorgeously shot, but there’s not a lot there.

Settlers
A group of beautiful women go into the forest and knead bread dough in sync before planting the loaves into the ground.  Again, gorgeously shot, and obviously trying to convey a message, but it was beyond me.

Glider
Beginning with a child’s view of an airplane mobile that is extremely out of focus, this is an avant garde film that has disturbing imagery at times.  I actually really liked this one; it brought me back to film school and was experimental without being pretentious.

Little America
A mini-documentary about Little Amerricka, a small amusement park near Madison.  I remember seeing signs for this when I was a kid, so it was fun to see, and also interesting to see that this labor of love is still in operation.

Geoffrey Broughe Handles Confrontation Poorly
A man is interrogated by a detective about an incident involving a robbery at a Mexican grocery store, and it doesn’t go very well.  This was a hilariously dark short that was really high concept and entertaining.

Give it up for the Girl
On New Years Eve, three friends get together to write a play by midnight, but not a lot of writing occurs.  Unfortunately, not much of anything else occurs either.  Muddy, unfocused and just not good, but I did like the black and white photography.

The Kenny Dennis
A guy becomes an exotic dancer so his son can go to a Montessori school.  I get that it was supposed to be funny, but because of its two main characters, it was just unbelievably annoying.

To Hold in the Heart
Three Hmong women talk about their experiences immigrating from Laos.  Told through interviews and reenactments, it’s interesting and their stories were compelling, but I found it to just be kind of boring.

The Harpist
A touring harpist pines after a departing member of her crew, then wanders around the city, eventually encountering a mother and her son.  The film was implausible, but well-meaning.  And it was beautifully filmed; everything looked like an Edward Hopper painting.

New Planet
Aliens crash land in two separate areas of Milwaukee and attempt to blend in while they try to find each other.  It had some visual humor (there was very little dialogue) but overall it was just okay.

The Death of Corey Stingley
An examination of the 2012 death of 16-year-old Corey Stingley, who, after attempting to shoplift some wine coolers from a convenience store, was restrained and ultimately choked to death by three men in the store making a citizen’s arrest.  Though his death was ruled a homicide, no charges have been brought against the three men, leading to yet another incident of racial injustice in Milwaukee.  This is first-rate short form documentary film making and was excellent (and enraging).  This should be turned into a full length documentary feature.