Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Horrible Bosses 2

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Since I missed the recent "Dumb and Dumber To," my review for "Horrible Bosses 2" can fill the vacancy for the fall's most obligatory comedy sequel. Yes, the gang - and then some - are all back from the original "Horrible Bosses," although I'm not sure that anything other than that film's $100-plus million gross justifies a second film.

In this one, the everyday schlubs portrayed by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day have created an invention that will make taking a shower easier. The laziness involved in the invention sort of parallels the lack of originality in producing sequels to comedies of this sort, but I digress. They are contacted by a sleazy father-son team (Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine), who operate a major distributor, for the manufacture of their product and, not surprisingly, get royally ripped off.

As revenge, the trio concocts a scheme to kidnap Pine's character, who eventually joins them in the plot to get back at his old man for various reasons. Naturally, nothing goes as it seems, leading to a few laughs and mostly lots of screaming at the screen to no avail.

The picture includes numerous subplots involving secondary characters from the first movie, namely Kevin Spacey as a former boss and now inmate, Jennifer Aniston as the sex addicted boss from the previous picture and Jaime Foxx as a low-rent criminal, of sorts, who assists the film's three leads for no apparent reason.

There are some uncomfortable attempts to litter the film with what could only be described as un-PC material and it's mostly not that funny, but simply squirm inducing. These sequences include Bateman's character getting roped into lying about his sexual orientation at a sex addicts anonymous meeting, the name of the trio's company, which raises some eyebrows from a black talk show personality, and some stereotypes involving an Asian maid.

Also, the picture ups the ante on its predecessor in terms of filthy conversations revolving around sexuality, such as Aniston's being forced to utter virtually every word imaginable to describe the male sex organ as well as her character's later near-involvement in a foursome with the three male leads. I say all this not to be prudish, but rather to once again point out that just because dialogue is taken to extremely profane levels, it's not necessarily funny. The film's screenwriters should take some lessons from Richard Pryor next time around.

"Horrible Bosses 2" is not a bad movie, but just a very mediocre one. Many of the film's jokes fall flat, leaving the talented cast to draw them out to their inevitable conclusions. And despite this being a comedy - a genre that has its own set of rules like any other - I couldn't get my head around the notion that these characters were as dumb as they were supposed to be. This is not, in fact, "Dumb and Dumber," so that these people would be so oblivious to any sort of typical human interaction struck me as unbelievable. Yes, you'll probably see worse comedies this year, but don't mistake that for any kind of endorsement.

Review: The Babadook

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
The past two weeks have seen the release of two of the year's very best horror movies and both of them were made by women. Last week's release was Ana Lily Amirpour's moody black and white Iranian vampire western "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and this week's selection is Australian Jennifer Kent's debut "The Babadook."

Kent's picture is one of the most thematically rich and outright scary horror movies of recent memory. I wouldn't dare give away its secrets, but suffice it to say it takes the type of story you'd typically find in a horror film and uses it to express something about the fragility of the human condition. And, yeah, it's pretty damn frightening in the process.

At the film's beginning, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis in one of the year's best breakout performances) is struggling to raise her rambunctious son Robbie (Daniel Henshall), who may at first appear as a nightmare child due to his wild behavior, constant screaming and crying and troubles at school, that is, until his mother takes a turn for the worse more than halfway through the movie.

Seven years prior to the film's beginning, Amelia lost her husband in a car accident as he was driving her to the hospital to give birth. She's never quite gotten over it and despite her love for him, Robbie reminds her of her dead husband. His birthday falls on the date of her husband's death, so they hardly ever celebrate it on the actual day.

One day, Amelia finds a children's book titled "Mister Babadook" that she reads to Robbie at night, but halfway through it, she finds it too macabre and tries to close it, despite Robbie's insistence on continuing. The book tells the story of the titular fiend, whom, once you have let him into your home cannot be gotten rid of.

Robbie begins to see the Babadook (which is named after the sound of his knocks on the door, "ba ba dook dook!") and Amelia becomes annoyed, thinking this is more of the child's erratic behavior. And then, she begins to see it as well. Mister Babadook, created through stop motion animation, is a tall figure with a hat, coat, creepy grin and long, sharp fingernails. He floats through the house and scuttles across the ceiling like a large insect.

I won't explain how or why he has come about, but when you figure out exactly who Mister Babadook is, you'll likely agree that it's a pretty bold move for a horror movie. Most films in the genre are merely meant to scare - or, in lesser case scenarios, gross out - viewers with little else in the way of purpose.

But "The Babadook" is a horror movie in the grand tradition of those that attempt a little something more, one which uses the horrors of actual human concerns to stand in for the evil lurking under the bed. It's a pretty creepy picture and one that has more going under its surface than your typical example of the genre.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: The Imitation Game

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
"The Imitation Game" should seal the deal for those previously unconvinced by Benedict Cumberbatch's quick rise and cheeky following (the self-titled "Cumberbitches"). As Alan Turing, an eccentric English mathematician who is credited with cracking the Nazis' Enigma code, Cumberbatch brings life and humanity to a man who, on first glance, may strike one as an arrogant, unfriendly prig, despite his genius.

Turing enlisted in Great Britain's war effort due to his knack for code breaking and went on to create a machine known as Christopher that would unscramble Enigma, the Germans' method of morse code during World War II that was thought impossible to crack. In the film, Turing is surrounded by a team of Brits assisting his efforts, including a cad and chess champion named Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and a female code breaker (Keira Knightley), which was virtually unheard of - or, at least, this movie allows us to think so.

The picture is an unabashed crowd pleaser, but I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. It's highly entertaining and filled with strong performances, from the aforementioned leads to Mark Strong's wry head of intelligence and Charles Dance's grouchy commander.

The plotline involving Turing and his team's attempts to crack the code is interlaced with another side story that only slowly reveals itself. It involves an investigation into Turing some years later and the discovery that he is a homosexual - a fact which he does not hide from his pals working with him on Enigma.

And so what begins as a crackling wartime thriller eventually morphs into a very sad story of how a brilliant man who played a significant role in Great Britain's fight against Nazism is rewarded with ostracization by his own country.

And while Cumberbatch does a fine job portraying Turing as the snippy mathematician who doesn't believe his fellow code breakers can keep up with him, he takes it to a whole other level in the film's final scenes as Turing faces melancholy prospects after having been arrested for indecency and realizing that his heroic wartime efforts will likely never meet the light of day (they do, in fact, but some 50 years later).

"The Imitation Game" is the type of film that could be labeled as "Oscar bait" (World War II? Check. Eccentric Historical Figure? Check. British Lead Actor? Check.),  but it does not deserve the negative connotation that typically comes with that phrase. It's an exciting, very well written and acted and ultimately tragic story of a brilliant man who likely saved many lives who was given less than a hero's welcome by his own country.

Review: Force Majeure

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Those who enjoy a bit of acidity in their comedy will not want to miss out on Ruben Ostlund's acerbically, hilariously on-point "Force Majeure," which breaks down male-female relations so bleakly - yet accurately - that it could make for the month's most uncomfortable date. But in the best of ways.

The picture follows a Swedish family of four - workaholic father who can't break away from his cell phone, frustrated wife and occasionally raucous, young son and daughter - during a particularly disastrous trip to a French ski resort.

All is going reasonably well until the family, sitting at an outdoor deck restaurant below a massive mountain, spot an avalanche heading their way. They panic as it appears that the snow slide will reach them (when, in fact, they are merely covered by a blast of snowy air and dust) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), in a moment of fright, grabs his cell and flees, leaving wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and his kids to fend for themselves.

The incident - which reminds me of a similar sequence of impulsive male behavior gone wrong in Julia Loktev's 2011 film "The Loneliest Planet" - goes unmentioned until the couple's friends Mats (Kristoger Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius) show up and it manages to make their way into their dinner conversation, which becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

Then, in the film's funniest scene, that awkward conversation drags over into Mats and Fanny's relationship as they bicker amongst themselves in their own room later that night. Hardly anyone in the theater where I saw the film could prevent themselves from snickering during their discussion in the dark.

What's so unnerving - and hilariously so - is how Ostlund near perfectly captures the way that men and women argue, rationalize their own behavior and ultimately snap. Ebba appears more angry at Tomas for the fact that his version of events doesn't quite gel with hers (he claims to not remember leaving them there, that is, until she reminds him that the entire incident was filmed on his cell phone) than his having fled his family. He continues to deny doing that of which he is accused, although it's clear to anyone watching that he's attempting to convince himself.

And the film culminates with a sequence of equal peril during which the tables are turned, but only just slightly enough that you have to pay attention to watch how the various characters - all four of the adults, at least - act.

"Force Majeure" is a clever and frequently very funny movie, but it also works as a dour view of a relationship unravelling. The film takes its time to deliver its punchlines and ideas, but those with patience will be amply rewarded. It's the type of movie that will likely make for great conversation - and possibly - heated argument. You've been warned.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Make no mistake about it, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I" is a place holder - that is, for the finale, which Lionsgate has stretched into two films for maximum profits - but it's a good one. The film's success rides mostly on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence, who brings more life and acting ability to the role of a blockbuster heroine than any franchise movie typically calls for. Her Katniss Everdeen has more personality than your typical action movie hero and it's largely due to Lawrence, who is, not surprisingly, currently the actress with the largest box office draw.

There's a fair amount of plot and exposition in "Mockingjay, Part I," so I'll try to keep it at a minimum. Suffice it to say, Katniss is fairly shell shocked after participating in her second Hunger Games and struggling to overcome her experiences in an underground bunker provided by the rebellion.

Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, always an asset) is attempting to convince the rebellion's leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, bringing the necessary gravitas), to use Katniss as a figurehead for the movement and inspire the districts to rise up against the Capitol and the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Meanwhile, Katniss' pal Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being used by the Capitol as a propaganda tool, urging Katniss and the rebels not to start a war via television. Katniss, on the other hand, is filmed engaging in battle and rallying the troops in the rebellion's own propaganda films, a task about which she has mixed feelings. And speaking of mixed feelings - Katniss must juggle two suitors, the captured Peeta (who is mostly seen here on screens being interviewed) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her friend from back home.

One of the film's more intriguing elements is its portrayal of image making (in this case, propaganda films, which can be a stand-in in for television, film, the news, you name it) as a tool for winning hearts and minds. "Mockingjay, Part I" is not only a big budget action movie, but it also explores the way we interact with media and the obvious benefits and dangers involved.

And yet, the film is mostly a build-up to what is likely to be a clash between Snow's Capitol and the rebels led by Coin and Katniss. This picture is sprinkled with a few such scenes, involving a rebellion in a forest and the bombing of a dam. For a film with only moderate sprinkles of violence, "Mockingjay, Part I" is fairly fast paced and exciting.

But what it all adds up to remains to be seen with next year's "Mockingjay, Part II." Although I still contend that the first "Hunger Games" is the best of the lot, this has been a pretty successful Hollywood franchise that has left many of its ilk in the dust - cinematically, thematically and narratively.

And although she had already been nominated for an Academy Award prior to the release of the first "Hunger Games" movie, this has been a star-making role for Lawrence. However, as the series goes on, I think it's the filmmakers and studio who may owe her a debt of gratitude - she carries these movies.

Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Ana Lily Amirpour's debut "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" may take on the tired genre of the vampire film and its style may be reminiscent of early David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch films, but it's still a unique creation all its own.

The film has become known as the "Iranian vampire western" in the same way that "Brokeback Mountain" was the "gay cowboy movie." The western element is questionable, although the filmmaker fills the soundtrack with music that might have sounded at home in a Sergio Leone picture, but it's the horror genre that Amirpour is clearly turning on its head here and one could argue that the film is not only the first picture about bloodsuckers to be set in the Middle East, but is also the first feminist vampire movie in some time.

Set in a fictional ghost town known as Bad City (the film is in Farsi, although the movie was shot in California), the story follows two threads that eventually merge. The first involves a young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), who is overly protective of his car and cat and has a father (Marshall Manesh) who is hooked on heroin.

The picture's second thread follows a young woman known only as The Girl (Sheila Vand, in what has to be a break-out performance), who happens to be a vampire and spends most of her evenings strolling the streets of the fictional Bad City decked out in a black chador and stalking prey. Most of The Girl's victims happen to be men - and mostly sinister ones, at that.

There are plenty of bad men to be found in Bad City. Not only is there Arash's drug addict father, who mistreats a prostitute whom The Girl later befriends, but there is also the horrible pimp/drug dealer whom Arash's father owes money, leading to Arash losing his beloved car early in the film as a means of payment. There's also a nosy young boy who comes into contact with both Arash and The Girl and much like the film's male protagonist, he loses his mode of transportation - a skateboard, which The Girl then uses to eerily float through the night, her chador flowing out behind her.

If what I'm describing to you sounds strange, that's because it is - but in the best way. The film, which was shot in black and white, has an early 1990s feel to it and Amirpour fills the movie with unforgettable images of rolling clouds, The Girl rolling on her skateboard along a wall with her back to the camera, a man dancing in a Ronald Reagan mask, a drag queen dancing in the morning sunlight and a wonderful final shot involving Arash, his car, The Girl and the cat.

Some might argue that style wins out slightly over substance in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and this wouldn't exactly be an unfair argument. But the picture obviously takes risks. Amirpour's female characters enjoy more freedom in the film than they might in Iran, but it's because they struggle for their liberation, mostly against unsympathetic male characters, Arash excluded. And the film includes images - nudity and drug use, for example - you'd be very unlikely to see in an Iranian movie (and I'm certainly not knocking Iranian cinema, which has has given us some of the richest films of recent years).

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is a very good film - and an experience, if you know what I mean. Although it is stylistically similar to several American indie classics, it has a flow and a personality of its own. It's a moody reinvention of the vampire genre that could be a real cinematic discovery to those who are willing to give themselves over to its dreamy story of complicated relationships, cool cars, wicked men and empowered women.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: The Homesman

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" is a strange little movie in all the right ways. Both a feminist western and a tale of grueling life on the prairie - oh yeah, and also a character piece, although which character is given more emphasis goes back and forth - the picture proves that Jones is formidable both in front of and behind the camera.

The story is set in the Nebraska territory, where a single woman (Hilary Swank) must take on a task that the cowardly men of her hometown refuse - to escort three insane women in a covered wagon for hundreds of miles and drop them off at a church in Iowa that has agreed to house them.

On her desolate journey, Swank's Mary Bee Cuddy comes across a ne'er do well named Briggs (Jones), whom she saves from a hangman's noose on the agreement that he will help her with her errand. At first, Briggs is mostly along for comedic effect, but his relationship to Cuddy eventually deepens and so does his character.

For a western, "The Homesman" is relatively nonviolent. There is one encounter with Native Americans that is quickly defused. And the film's only villains are a group of men (led by James Spader) who lack character and empathy.

One of the elements that makes Jones' film work so well is its ability to surprise. As I'd mentioned, this is a strange film and there is at least one major shock you won't see coming. But rather using this scene, which I wouldn't dare give away, as a plot point, it is put to use to further develop one of the film's characters.

The movie's desolate mood and sequences of frightening behavior - a baby being thrown in a privy hole, an insane woman banging her head against a wagon wheel, a sudden outburst of violence over a doll - create a sense of unease, which is juxtaposed with the general goodness of the picture's two lead characters.

Jones, whose impressive debut "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" was also difficult to classify, has proven to be one of the greater success stories in recent years of actors trying their hand at directing. As a filmmaker, he has a distinctive voice as well as a favored genre ("Estrada" was western themed, while "The Homesman" is a straight-up western). And he's a great director of actors. Here's to hoping that he again steps behind the camera - only, this time, doesn't wait nine years to do so.

Review: Foxcatcher

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
On the surface, Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" is a riveting - if chilly - true crime thriller with some performances unlike any other previously seen by its cast. But the picture is obviously much more, using the story of the peculiar friendship between millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Olympic wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) that led to murder as a microcosm for the death of the American dream and the dangers of American exceptionalism.

For those unaware of this strange story, both Schultz brothers were Olympic gold medalists during the 1980s, although Mark - at least according to this movie - lived under his older brother's shadow. When Mark receives a call from du Pont, the obvious black sheep in his Pennsylvania family dynasty, he is curious enough to meet with the man, who immediately proclaims his love of birds and his conception of being a "patriot" with aims to restore the United States' former glory.

In a relationship bordering on homoerotic, Schultz moves in to a small home on du Pont's property - but first, in one of the film's rarely humorous scenes, must watch a dry video tape on the du Pont dynasty - and begins training in the gym constructed by the millionaire as a spot for U.S. wrestlers to prepare for the Olympics. At du Pont's request, Mark attempts to draw his brother to the Foxcatcher estate, but to no avail.

One of the film's most interesting threads is how it juxtaposes du Pont - a seemingly aimless silver spoon-type whose attempts to fund a wrestling training site appears to be merely an attempt to impress his aging mother (Vanessa Redgrave) - with David Schultz. Du Pont inflates his own sense of importance to great magnitude, constantly lecturing Mark on the importance of American glory and - with no hint of irony - insisting that his friends refer to him as "Eagle... or The Golden Eagle." David Schultz, meanwhile, is a humble man who has worked hard to become one of the best at his sport and prefers to stay home with his family, rather than galavant around upper crust circles with du Pont as his younger brother does.

But eventually, du Pont convinces David to move his family to the Foxcatcher estate, where he will act as head trainer for the U.S. wrestling team. As David's star rises in du Pont's eyes, Mark's goes on the decline, pushing him into overeating, fits of rage and drug abuse.

Carell is impressive as he disappears - including physically as his character comes equipped with a fake nose - into the role of the frosty du Pont, but it is Tatum who is onscreen for most of the film's running time and he shows new depths as an actor. Gone is the friendly swagger of his Magic Mike as he painfully brings to life Mark's troubled soul. And Ruffalo, providing the most sympathetic portrayal in the picture, holds the whole thing together as David in an understated performance that should not get lost amid the award season hoopla.

At its heart, "Foxcatcher" explores the dangerous naivete of American exceptionalism, especially the type that brings together folks who have never known how to lose with those who must struggle to win. Tatum's belief in du Pont's absurd vision of success is tragic, while du Pont's own belief in it is outright disturbing. And a scene late in the film when du Pont himself takes part in a wrestling match clearly outlines which character has the most at risk.

I won't give away the end for those who are unfamiliar with the case - but, suffice it to say, it doesn't end well for all those involved. And Miller, whose previous films include "Capote" and "Moneyball," culminates the picture with a cynical - but deservedly so - take on what happens when you have to reconcile the American Dream with just getting by. The finale is complete with a chant equally as unsettling as the chest pounding and whooping rallying cry of last year's "The Wolf of Wall Street." This is a stark, powerful movie that ranks among the year's best.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Top Tens Archive

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Last fall, I finally knocked off a long gestating project to post my all-time lists of movies, music, books and TV shows and, now, I've finally found the time to put up my archive of top 10 lists dating back to the birth of cinema.

Every year, I will update this list with a new top 10 (this year, 2014, for instance) and I'll occasionally rearrange other years' top 10s as I see fit over time. You'll notice in some of the lists that I have included runners-up. I've primarily done this during years that had a number of great films that did not make it into the top 10, but I felt should be recognized.

So, below you'll find the lists. As always, I'd love to hear your comments.

Note: There are several films listed in a few of these top 10s that could be considered quite controversial, mostly due to issues of insensitivity. Those of you with a sense of film history will likely know what I mean when you see them on the lists. In those rare cases, it should be noted that the films are being judged based on their importance to film history and as works of art and not, I repeat, not due to the nature of their content. In other words, they are not among my personal favorite films - but I would be remiss not to recognize their significance.

Note, Pt. II: I'm an enormous fan of Michael Apted's "Up" series - but since they originated as a television series, I'm not including them in the list, mostly because each film adds to the sum of a whole rather than acting as an individual movie. Just in case anyone wondered where they were.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
It is just slightly ironic that the movie released this week about which Stephen Hawking might be most likely to relate is not "The Theory of Everything," a bio film about his life, but rather Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," an often wondrous sci-fi spectacle about intergalactic travel and black holes.

This is not to imply that "Theory" isn't good - it is, but in the way that most bio pics that aim to accurately capture the lives of their subjects are. Hawking - who authored "A Brief History of Time" and set forth a cosmology that combined the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics - is a brilliant man and a scientific innovator and James Marsh's film takes great pains to ensure us of this fact, but also to place a significant amount of emphasis on his unusual relationship with his wife.

The early scenes between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) are among the best as the two flirt and create a friendship that blossoms into romance. The filmmakers spend much time and energy chronicling Hawking's difficult existence as a result of his being afflicted with ALS. Jane is the stalwart wife and nurse, taking care of her husband and raising their three children, that is, until she falls for a male choir teacher and Hawking himself takes a shine to his speech therapist.

One of the film's faults is how it portrays the Hawking's romantic trysts as having worked out just peachy with little drama. The manner in which their foibles is handled is more suggestive of Hollywood screen-writing than real life. And there's a disconnect in presenting how the two no longer felt romantically inclined toward each other, all the while insisting on showing that they remained good friends.

Regardless, while "The Theory of Everything" is a by-the-numbers bio in its presentation, the performances are strong. Redmayne has mostly played supporting roles - most recently in "Les Miserables" - but here he makes a strong case for leading man material. It's a very challenging role and Redmayne not only gets Hawking's physical tics down impressively, but he also brings a level of humanity to the role, which includes little dialogue during its second half. And although Jane Hawking becomes a bit of an under-written character during the picture's later scenes, Jones does her justice.

"The Theory of Everything" may end up being just be a good movie about a brilliant man, but the people inhabiting its characters are exceptional. And for them alone, it's worth a watch.

Review: Interstellar

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
You can't fault Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" for lack of chutzpah. The film has its flaws, but it's bolder in vision than virtually every other blockbuster released this year and has more than a few moments of greatness in it. If it doesn't quite rise to the level of a great movie, it's certainly a very good one and fill with fascinating ideas.

In the picture, Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer who is trying to help his family survive somewhere in the American Southwest at a time in the not-so-distant, bleak future. When he and his daughter stumble upon a project to send explorers to the far reaches of the universe in order to find a new home for humanity, he is enlisted to be its pilot.

While "Interstellar" is a science fiction drama - with a heavy emphasis on the science, which is often laid out in overly descriptive detail - it is also a movie about a dysfunctional family. McConaughey's daughter, Murphy (who grows up to be Jessica Chastain and then Ellen Burstyn), resents her father's leaving her, her brother (who grows up to be Casey Affleck) and grandfather (John Lithgow) behind for his mission, which is organized by an aging scientist (Michael Caine) and carried out by his daughter (Anne Hathaway).

If I were able to further explain the film's concepts about black holes and wormholes, I would. Suffice it to say, it's a heady experiment that occasionally mingles in emotional turmoil and includes some stunning visuals, especially during a sequence on a planet filled with tidal waves.

McConaughey carries the film and proves that his terrific work of recent years need not only be saved for independent films, but also for big budget extravaganzas. Chastain and Caine nicely fulfill the obligations of the human drama down on Earth, which is being engulfed by dust and fires.

For a point of comparison, last year's "Gravity" was much simpler - at least, narratively and scientifically - but it is a better film in its execution. "Interstellar" occasionally stumbles, especially during a later sequence in its near three-hour running time during which Cooper discovers a betrayal on a distant planet, which is intercut with Chastain's attempts to convince her bull-headed brother to move off his farm. The editing is a little jarring and, at points, the loud thrum of the film's soundtrack drowns out the voices.

That being said, this is a monumentally ambitious sci-fi spectacle. For my money, "Memento" is still Nolan's greatest film, but "Interstellar" rivals "The Dark Knight" for second place. Much like that Batman film, his latest is a little too long and, on occasion, a little clunky in its exposition.

But on the whole, there's nothing else out there like it this year and there are few filmmakers who can get the green light in Hollywood for movies as full of ideas as this one. "Interstellar" may not be perfect, but it's occasionally full of wonder and spectacular vision.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Goodbye to Language

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The title of Jean-Luc Godard's latest film could refer to any number of things, including the possible retirement of the 83-year-old French cinematic pioneer as well as a farewell to cinematic language as we know it and the death of communication in the information age.

"Goodbye to Language" is pretty similar to most of the films the prolific filmmaker has made during the past three decades and it's not likely to sway the opinion of those who have long held the belief that Godard is taking the piss, so to speak, at the expense of his audience. It's just as enigmatic as his most opaque work of recent years, but slightly more lively than the dour "In Praise of Love" and better than "Film Socialisme" - oh yeah, and it's in 3D.

In his latest film, Godard is having a little more fun than in previous exercises and he uses the 3D technology both to create some pretty memorable images, but also to poke fun at modern cinematic techniques. There is one explosion in the film, but most of the images that pop out during its brief running time include flowers, windshield wipers, water and Godard's beloved dog, Roxy, who acts as a stand-in for the filmmaker much like many of the lead male protagonists do for Woody Allen in his films.

As always, it's a little difficult to parse exactly what Godard is going for here and the picture is, to quote Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But it seems clear from the film's semi-ironic title, the director's use of 3D and a sequence during which several characters communicate by merely typing into their iPhones and passing them back and forth to each other that the goodbye to language references a communication breakdown, of sorts.

A man and a woman sort of act as the film's central characters, prancing around (mostly) nude in their home and failing to adequately communicate with one another. Roxy, when not prowling around a colorful field or walking along the shores of bodies of water, sits observing these humans as they speak in tongues to each other. One day, the woman tells the man, everyone will need a translator to communicate with one another. During another sequence, she bemoans the uselessness of words.

There are a few incredible sequences in "Goodbye to Language," most notably one in which Godard places two images - of a man and a woman taking part in an interaction - on top of one another, but then the two split off and move in different directions before meeting up once again. During this sequence, you can close your left eye and see the man on the right and then close your right eye and see the woman on the left. It's pretty visually incredible.

That being said, I still prefer the Godard of old - that is, virtually all of his work from the 1960s and some of his early 1970s movies. I appreciate some of his pictures from the 1980s and 1990s, but find just as many of them enigmatic in a calculated way. His films since the turn of the century have been scattershot ("Notre Musique" is probably the most complete and "Language" the most unique). And yet I'm always fascinated to see what he will come up with next.

I hope this is not his last film, although I get the sense that it could be. Towards the film's end, Roxy wanders away from his human masters and plays by a stream. It's as if Godard is saying he's had enough of humans and their language and would prefer to engage with something less convoluted.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: Nightcrawler

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
If 2013 was all about Matthew McConaughey's reinvention, then this year is the one in which Jake Gyllenhaal took his career in an exciting new direction. Technically, the Gyllensaince began in late 2013 with the criminally underrated "Prisoners" and, to be fair, the actor has always had a knack for landing roles in thoughtful films by great filmmakers ("Zodiac," "Donnie Darko" and "Brokeback Mountain," for example).

This year has so far seen Gyllenhaal's disturbing double take in Denis Villeneuve's creepy "Enemy" and, now, his knockout work as Lou Bloom, the sociopathic news cameraman in Dan Gilroy's debut, "Nightcrawler."

Many of this fall's most talked about movies have, in some form or fashion, taken a stance on the current state of our nation and the role that the media has in it. "Birdman" tackled social media and criticism, while "Gone Girl" presented a cynical, but well earned, vision of a world constantly plugged in, whether it's to exploitative talk shows or taking selfies in front of an establishment possibly owned by a murder. And Jason Reitman's "Men, Women and Children," which was ultimately unsuccessful, tsk-tsked about the internet's role in our lives.

"Nightcrawler" follows Bloom's story as he makes a name for himself as a night-time cameraman who understands that if "it bleeds, it leads." Using a police scanner and, eventually, the assistance of a down-on-his-luck man named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Bloom pops up at the scenes of fires, traffic accidents and horrific crimes, documenting it all with his camera and then selling the footage to a local news station.

Rene Russo is the news anchor who is enticed by Bloom's capacity to be first on the scene and how his lack of ethics allows him to get gruesome footage through means that are not always legal. Her fellow producer - Kevin Rahm ("Mad Men") - on the other hand, sees through Lou and is somewhat repulsed. One of Gilroy's talents as a filmmaker is his ability to convince his audience to be somewhere in between. Much like Bryan Cranston's Walter White, we find Lou's behavior abhorrent - and yet, we don't want to see him get caught.

Gyllenhaal disappears into the role with frightening intensity. Lou strikes a resemblance to Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, but he also has the psychotic tendencies of Travis Bickle. He is the monster our society encourages - he delivers the gruesome goods for those who believe that the news is meant to be a form of grim entertainment and he takes pride in his work ethic and sense of entrepreneurship.

At the same time, he does not lack in self awareness, noting to Russo (also great here) how her late night program devotes 22 seconds to education, government and other facets of the news and focuses primarily on the grotesque. "Nightcrawler" is pretty on-point in its portrayal of the TV news, although it's obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect and there are a few scenes that are not entirely believable - most notably, Russo's outright admittance to Lou that crime coverage's most important angle is that of white people being attacked by minorities in white neighborhoods.

The film has been labeled as a satire and it is occasionally funny, but you can detect a sense of outrage in its pitch black humor. "Nightcrawler" is also creepy, intense and thrilling and a terrific showcase for its cast, which also includes Bill Paxton and Ann Cusack. Much like its disturbed protagonist, the picture is pretty unforgettable.