Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: St. Vincent

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
This film's titular character is exactly the type you'd expect to see Bill Murray inhabit - a little bitter, pretty sarcastic, not too happy to suffer fools gladly and exhibiting room for improvement. The great actor has portrayed such a type on more than a few occasions, most notably in "Lost in Translation," "Groundhog Day" and "Rushmore."

So, while he doesn't exactly stretch himself and give a performance unlike any we've seen him give before in "St. Vincent," he brings the goods in that Bill Murray sense, sort of like how Jack Nicholson can sometimes be depended on to be, well, Jack.

"St. Vincent" treads some very well-tread ground - miser befriends kid, teaches some life lessons and becomes a better man in the process. In this case, Murray plays Vietnam Vet and all-around curmudgeon Vincent, who gambles, drinks, swears and can be a bit of a lout with those in his immediate vicinity. However, he also cares for his ailing wife who no longer remembers him and lives in assisted living, fusses over his adorable fuzzball of a cat and helps out a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) who is in the family way.

A precocious kid named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) and his single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, in a more serious role), who has just left her cheating husband, move next door to Vincent. Maggie works late nights at a hospital and Vincent, somewhat unwillingly, becomes Oliver's babysitter. Since this is a feel-good Hollywood movie, the grumpy old man will teach the kid to defend himself against bullies, learn life lessons through trips to bars and racing tracks and other semi-inappropriate behavior.

And yet, the film works because Murray is always terrific, even when he is playing a version of a character he's inhabited numerous times before, and the picture has a good heart. Towards its end, it gets sentimental, but by that point the film has earned the right to do so - and manages to get warm and fuzzy without being schmaltzy.

Murray has been in relatively few films in recent years and I yearn to see him more onscreen in the future. So, while "St. Vincent" is seemingly a walk in the park for the actor and I've love to see him once again take on something like "Lost in Translation," this will certainly do for the time being. This is a good natured and charming movie.

Review: Fury

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
David Ayer's "Fury" doesn't break any new ground in the war combat genre, but the bloody and intense film is a solid genre exercise. Set primarily within a tank, the film follows a group of four soldiers and their commander, Don Collier (Brad Pitt), as they trek through the German countryside, mowing down S.S. officers.

There's not a whole lot of characterization here, outside of what we see between the interactions involving the men in the tank. And yet, each cast member brings a little something to their roles, despite the characters being overly familiar archetypes, such as the gruff, but inspiring, sergeant (Pitt), the not-so-nice guy who turns out to be OK after all (Jon Bernthal), the religious platoon member (Shia LaBeouf, who's pretty good here), the not-yet-shell-shocked-newbie (Logan Lerman) and Michael Pena's character, who stands out solely due to the fact that he occasionally mutters in Spanish.

In terms of plot, "Fury" is, perhaps, at times a little far fetched. For example, would Pitt and his men in all likelihood take on a marching army of 300 or so Germans with just five men and a tank, especially considering that, at the time of their battle, the war is officially over and the Germans are on the retreat? Would Collier's company risk their lives just to gun down some more Germans?

Regardless, Ayer does a good job of creating a non-stop sense of tension as Collier and his men roll through seemingly abandoned towns and by burned out barns that just might have German soldiers lurking behind them. And there's a pretty convincing scene during which Collier and Lerman's rookie soldier, who sort of acts as the film's lead character, have a dinner with two German women, only to be interrupted by the other members of their platoon, whose manners are not as refined.

Ayer does not skimp on the grotesqueries. Legs and heads are blown off. A man's face is found inside of a tank. Throats are slit. And on and on. "Fury" is a grim movie, but I suppose the point here is not to shy away from the horrors of war as did Hollywood combat movies of the past, during which men were shot and fell down, but entrails were kept far away from the camera. The film's grimy sense of realism gives it a certain impact.

Needless to say, this is not a movie gunning for awards, but rather a solid action movie held together by the camaraderie of its cast and its unrelenting tension. Ayer's films have been a mixed bag so far - "End of Watch" was pretty good, while this year's "Sabotage" was just OK and "Harsh Times" was, in my opinion, not very good. "Fury" is his best film to date and, at the very least, a pretty impressive action/war picture.

Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
"White Bird in a Blizzard" is Gregg Araki's first serious film since 2005's powerful and haunting "Mysterious Skin," but the director's latest finds only marginal success in its tale of alienated youth.

Shailene Woodley gives it her best in the film's lead role as Kat Connor, a 17-year-old living in a suburb circa 1988 with her quiet father (Christopher Meloni) and drama queen mother (Eva Green). Then, one day, Eve (Green) disappears after a bout of some strange behavior - including sleeping in Kat's bed, wearing skimpy clothing in front of her daughter's friends and some peculiar outbursts - and never returns.

Kat is haunted by dreams of walking down a cold, snowy road, where she discovers her mother lying naked. Her shrink (Angela Bassett) has no easy answers for her predicament, while her pals (Gabourey Sibide and Mark Indelicato) suspect that Kat's father might know where Eve has gone.

Meanwhile, Kat's self described "raging hormones" lead her to jump into the bed of not only a dopey neighbor boy (Shiloh Fernandez), but also the slightly creepy detective (Thomas Jane) leading the investigation into her mother's disappearance.

Araki has made his stock in trade with tales of disaffected youth, beginning with his controversial 1990's films, such as "The Doom Generation" and "Nowhere," and eventually finding his way to "Mysterious Skin," which is easily his best and most mature film to date. His recent two pictures - "Smiley Face" and "Kaboom!" - were silly comedies, so "White Bird" marks his return to darker fare.

The film includes the candy colored palettes one might expect from an Araki film, but the picture also owes a small debt to David Lynch, from the occasionally surreal goings-on right down to the casting of Sheryl Lee (who played Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks") as a new love interest for Kat's father.

While Woodley gives a pretty solid performance as Kat, the supporting characters are more of a mixed bag. Meloni plays haunted pretty well, but his character is a little difficult to read, while Sibide and Indelicato's roles do not have much of a function in the movie. Lee's character is in the film too little to register, Bassett is given little to do and Jane's character is not always believable.

This, of course, leads me to Green, who is a fine actress, but is miscast here. Her character is supposed to be a depressive, but mysterious woman, but it appears as if Araki asked her to play Mommie Dearest, with several of her scenes bordering on camp.

While "Mysterious Skin" tackled difficult subject matter (child abuse) and crafted a very moving story out of it, "White Bird" is not as successful in its take on marital dysfunction and sexual awakening. There are many of the solid elements you might typically expect from an Araki film - moody atmosphere, good use of color and a terrific soundtrack - but this one doesn't quite add up.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Dear White People

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Here is a debut feature that is full of great ideas, a handful of strong performances, righteous anger, some pointed humor and a boldness that is not frequently present in American movies. And yet, Justin Simien's "Dear White People" is a movie that I admire more than love. For a first time filmmaker, Simien fearlessly tackles subjects that a majority of films made in the U.S. shy away from, but he also falls into some of the traps you might expect from a debut film.

There are many characters and their various stories taking place on the film's fictional campus of Ivy League-esque Winchester College, so I'll try to condense them as best as I can. The film, a satire, primarily concerns a protest by the mostly black members of a dorm hall after the school attempts to force diversification by mixing and matching students from various dorms.

Sam (Tessa Thompson), a revolutionary in training who inadvertently becomes the face of the protest, hosts a humorous campus radio talk show titled "Dear White People," during which she tells white students that she is raising the "quota of black friends" for whites from one to two people to not be racist and notes that "your weed man Tyrone doesn't count."

On another side of the dorm debate is Troy (Brandon P. Bell), Sam's ex-boyfriend, and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), two black students who prefer to fit in with the white crowd, which is led by the obviously bigoted Kurt (Kyle Gallner). Then, there's Lionel Higgins (scene stealer Tyler James Williams), a black student who is on neither side of the debate, other than his intention to write about it and gain a spot at the school newspaper. Lionel is gay and does not feel welcome with either the school's black students or white pupils, who taunt him about his sexual orientation.

Simien's film is being mentioned in the same sentence as Spike Lee, most likely due to the fact that that filmmaker's early "School Daze" also dealt with school housing. However, while certainly daring in its content, "Dear White People" is missing some of the ingredients that made some of Lee's best films ("Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "Clockers") so potent.

For starters, many of the characters feel more like archetypes that must exist to push the film's narrative forward than fully fleshed out characters, especially Sam's secret white boyfriend as well as her other beau who helps her with her causes involving the school housing program.

And several of the picture's plot lines are unnecessary and not quite believable, especially one involving the rivalry between the school's white president and Troy's father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Also, it's a little difficult to swallow that three of the main players in the school's drama just happen to be the children of these two men.

In other words, I think Simien has obvious talent and it's refreshing to see someone make a film about race in America - and, on top of that, how we talk about race in America (the school's president states that "racism is dead in America" with no sense of irony) - in a manner that is not watered down or afraid to push a few buttons. I can admire "Dear White People" and praise many of its elements. However, I feel that a stronger movie might have been made with this material and, perhaps, next time, Simien could be the one to do it.

Review: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ("Babel" and "Amores Perros") films, although frequently critically acclaimed, often get pegged as being downbeat and gloomy. So, it's a genuine surprise to many that his latest, the wondrous "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," is such a witty, often hilarious and even moving film.

There's been a lot of talk about Michael Keaton's comeback in the movie as Riggan Thompson, a washed up Hollywood star known mostly for his role as the film's titular superhero who is staging a resurgence by putting on a theatrical production of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. And, for sure, the role is Keaton's juiciest in some time. As Riggan, he is able to dig into a character who is equally flawed, poignant, goofy and, at times, borderline delirious. And Inarritu complements his character's moments of frustration and anguish with magical realist flights of fancy that would have made Gabriel Garcia Marquez proud.

But although Keaton is great in the movie, there's enough praise to go around for the entire cast, which includes a very solid Naomi Watts as a Broadway first timer, Emma Stone in her best performance to date as Riggan's ex-drug addict daughter who also works as her father's assistant, a very restrained Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's manager and friend and Amy Ryan as the former star's ex-wife.

Edward Norton nearly steals the show as Mike Shiner, the prima donna Broadway star whom Riggan calls in at the last moment to act in the play after a colleague is seriously injured by a falling stage light. Norton's always been a fine actor, but who knew how funny he could be? Shiner is a handful, trashing the stage's props during a preview show and then later taking a sex scene a little too far with a fellow actor.

One of the elements of the film that has drawn much attention is the way that Inarritu makes it appear as if the entire movie were one continuous shot. Obviously, it's not and the filmmaker employs some techniques similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." But the picture always feels as if it is in motion, following one character down a hallway, only to take up with another heading a different direction. Rather than feeling gimmicky, the technique creates the tension involved in a Broadway production's final hours before it is unveiled to the public.

Another aspect of "Birdman" that makes it unique is how it plays upon its actors' real lives to comment on their characters in the film. Keaton, as we all know, shot to fame playing a superhero and Inarritu's film is a comeback for him, much as the Carver play is for Riggan. And Norton has been known - on occasion - to be a high strung collaborator, although I'd be willing to bet his obnoxious Shiner is exaggerated for the sake of hilarity.

"Birdman" is, of course, also about the artistic process and the film's final frames struck a similar note to the finale of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," although Inarritu's picture ends on a more hopeful - rather than bleak - note. This has been a year for great final shots - "Boyhood," "Under the Skin" and "The Immigrant" come to mind - and "Birdman" has a pretty terrific one as well.

This is a thematically rich and extremely entertaining film with some pointed commentary on the process of making art as well as the modern methods of making it accessible to the public. Everything from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to smart phones and comic book movies come under fire. This is one of the year's best.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: The Judge

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
David Dobkin's "The Judge" is a mishmash of two genres - the courtroom procedural and the family mending melodrama - that have become rarer in recent years. While Dobkin's film relies on clich├ęs, which often come in abundance in the film's slightly overlong running time, this is a pretty decent character drama that draws some fine performances from its cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga and Vincent D'Onofrio.

The film's first few scenes did not convince me that Downey Jr. - a fine actor - was going to stretch himself much, delivering his typical rapid-fire dialogue delivery as smarmy Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer, who is in the midst of a divorce with his younger wife and estranged from his family. Hank has no qualms in defending people who are obviously guilty and helping them walk free.

He gets called back to his small Indiana home town after receiving news that his mother has died and is not so warmly greeted by his father, Joseph (Duvall), a judge of 40-some years with whom he has not spoken in a long while. His older brother (D'Onofrio) and mentally handicapped younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), are a little happier to see him. And because this is a Hollywood movie, there is, of course, the old flame (Farmiga), who now runs a cozy diner next to a waterfall. Needless to say, the visit does not go well.

But just as Hank prepares to head back to Chicago, he receives a call that his father has been involved in a potential homicide after allegedly striking a man on a bicycle with his vintage car. As it turns out, the man was a recently freed prisoner whom Joseph had sentenced years ago for drowning a young woman and not feeling remorseful about it.

You can probably guess what happens next. No? Well, Hank decides to defend his father, much to the paterfamilias' objection, and goes up against an equally smarmy - and somewhat self righteous - attorney played by Thornton.

So, "The Judge" does not win points for originality. In fact, down to its final scenes - other than a few hijinks toward the trial's end - you can see where the film is headed. However, the cast handles the material well and some of the numerous sequences aimed at being poignant manage to be so.

Downey may, at the film's beginning, hint at the type of performance you might expect from the actor, but then gives Hank a little more nuance and depth. Duvall does a fine job at playing the cantankerous old man, while Farmiga has her moments as the on-and-off romantic interest. And there's a pretty funny running joke involving her daughter's first encounter with Hank.

All in all, "The Judge" is a decent movie. It's not anything you likely haven't seen before, but rather a mostly successful cover of a familiar tune.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review: Whiplash

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
It never ceases to amaze me how people can get up in front of a group of complete strangers and either play an instrument or sing. I'd imagine it's a nerve wracking experience for novices. So, imagine how you'd feel if you were a music student and your instructor were R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket."

On the one hand, this sort of sums up Damien Chazelle's sophomore feature and Sundance sensation, "Whiplash," although I'm selling it short. The picture is brilliantly acted, but also so intense and fast paced that you'd think the picture were a thriller and not a story set in the world of music.

Miles Teller, continuing to stand out among his generation of actors, plays Andrew, a musician studying at a competitive New York music conservatory in the hopes of being a jazz drummer. Andrew has just the right amount of talent and cockiness to ensure that he might just make it. During the course of the picture, he grows a thicker skin, makes some mistakes in his personal life and goes head to head with a borderline sociopath.

His teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the type of instructor whom everyone wants to impress due to his ability to push his students to success. On the other hand, the man is a nightmare. During sessions, he barks all manner of insults - from the anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic sort to picking on students due to their weight or mistake of alerting Fletcher to their own personal backgrounds - and gets up in his students' faces. He slaps Andrew when he misses a note, humiliates students in front of his class and is prone to throwing chairs and all other manner of objects.

Chazelle appears to be drawn to the world of music. His first feature, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," was a breezy film that included dance numbers, but "Whiplash" is a beast - and that is certainly the appropriate word here - of a different nature. This is an assured work by a talented filmmaker and a deeply personal movie. And it's a prime example that a unique approach to storytelling can make any material gripping. It says something about Chazelle's capabilities that the film's finale, which involves an extended drum solo, makes for one of the year's most intense sequences.

"Whiplash" was one of the biggest critical hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival and it's easy to see why. This could be the film that solidifies Teller's status as a major actor, much like "Winter's Bone" did for Jennifer Lawrence. And I like how the filmmakers make his character likable enough that we want him to succeed, but also a flawed individual, which is most obvious during a dinner scene with his family and another during which he breaks off a budding relationship.

And those who think of J.K. Simmons as the kindly father from "Juno" will quickly put that performance out of their mind as they witness his transformation into the borderline psychopathic Fletcher. This is one the year's biggest surprises and one of its best films.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: Men, Women and Children

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
For some time now, I've felt that our constant need to plug into technology is causing a great disconnect in our society and I'm sure there's a great movie about that theme just waiting to be made. So, it's a shame that Jason Reitman's "Men, Women and Children" is not that movie. For a better example, check out David Fincher's scathing "Gone Girl," which opened this week, or Spike Jonze's recent "Her."

Reitman's film features a huge cast of character actors playing a variety of people whose lives are being damaged in some shape or form by the constant use of the Internet, video games, iPhones, YouTube, you name it.

The plotlines include a husband (Adam Sandler) who masturbates to online porn, his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) who considers hooking up with a stranger she met online, a father (Dean Norris) and his video game obsessed son (Ansel Elgort) who are down in the dumps after the lady of the house ran off with another man, a 15-year-old who has trouble getting an erection without the use of online porn, a mother (Jennifer Garner) whose surveillance of her daughter's online activities rivals that of Big Brother, a narrator (Emma Thompson) whose place in the narrative is never fully explained and - in the picture's most ludicrous plot thread - a mom (Judy Greer) who doesn't realize that posting semi-clothed pictures of her teenage daughter on the Internet not only won't boost her acting career, but is also kind of wrong and might attract creeps.

There's enough anxious technology-induced tension in "Men, Women and Children" to cause your iPhone to crack, but no story is fleshed out enough to help it rise from being generic and the material is all presented in a manner better suited to a late 1990s indie movie about dysfunctional families.

The movie is not as bad as I've made it sound. Most of the cast does the best they can with the material and there are some scenes that work, including one in which Norris and Greer attend a meeting with Garner's obsessed mother about the dangers of being online.

Reitman is a talented filmmaker and I enjoyed his "Juno" and "Young Adult" and thought "Up in the Air" was one of the best movies of 2009. His latest endeavors - the slightly overwrought "Labor Day" from earlier this year and, now, this - haven't worked as well for me. Hopefully, he will bounce back with his next film and may it not be so solemn as his latest two works.

Review: Gone Girl

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
David Fincher's "Gone Girl," adapted from Gillian Flynn's blockbuster novel of the same name, is a riveting thriller in the vein of the filmmaker's other whodunits, but the director has also used the novel's story to create a brutal portrayal of a toxic marriage and include somewhat of an indictment against the information age, from its round-the-clock news coverage to the constant technological plugged-in-ness of the American public.

The film opens with a shot of the back of the head of the titular woman, Amy (Rosamund Pike) is the spoiled daughter of two New Yorkers who have created a children's book titled "Amazing Amy" that left her with a sense of entitlement, but also the impossible task of attempting to live up to that beloved fictional character. As we see Amy's head, we hear the voice of her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), who tells us rather ominously how he'd like to crack open her head to see what she was thinking.

For those unaware with Flynn's novel, Amy disappears one morning and the first half of the novel - and Fincher's film - are a police procedural during which Nick attempts to help two detectives - Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), who is sort of sympathetic to Nick, and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), who is not - solve the case before then becoming the focus of it.

Nick's ability to charm the ladies and his stiff demeanor at press conferences calling for Amy's safe return certainly don't help his case much. And the news portrays Nick in the typical trial-by-media fashion that you might expect. But Fincher not only takes aim at the state of the media, but also those who engage with it. During one particularly telling scene, Nick drives by the tavern he runs with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) known as The Bar and spots crowds waiting outside of it and people taking selfies of the establishment possibly operated by a murderer.

During the picture's first hour, the narrative is split up between Nick's coping with Amy's disappearance and flashbacks to the couple's courtship, marriage, financial woes and move to Missouri to care for Nick's ailing mother. Some of the scenes are narrated by Amy from a diary she kept hidden that is later discovered by the police. By her accounts, the relationship took a turn for the sour once they arrived in Missouri and she left clues that her life might have been in danger.

There is a significant twist that occurs about halfway through the movie that I clearly can't give away. However, this twist also makes it difficult to discuss the perceived themes of the film and limits what I can say about the narrative. Regardless, it was a bit of a doozy when I read Flynn's novel about a year and a half ago and it's handled well in the film.

"Gone Girl" is a dark disturbing film, which should come as no surprise considering Fincher has specialized in sinister stories, including the brilliant "Zodiac" and "Seven." There are certainly some wicked characters in his latest picture, but "Gone Girl" is just as unsettling in what it implies as in what it shows. It's a strong thriller, but probably the worst date movie of the year.

Affleck gives one of his finest performances as Nick and Fincher plays upon the actor's laid back approach to great effect. Pike is pretty terrific as well and the picture is loaded with solid supporting performances, including Dickens' detective, Tyler Perry as a sleazy lawyer who gets some of the best lines and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's stalkerish ex-boyfriend.

On the surface, "Gone Girl" is a stylish thriller with a twist, but beyond that it's also a very dark comedy about failed relationships and the current state of the media. I know, that last one sounds like a drag, but Fincher's take on the information age might shock you in how precise it is.