Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie Review: "Birdman"

Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone
Rated: R for language throughout, some sexual content, and brief violence
Famous (now Oscar-winning) director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always made a cannon of films that depicts man's struggle for meaning, and his latest film Birdman is no exception. From washed action star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is trying to find purpose in his life by producing and starring in a critically acclaimed play, to his drug-rehabbed daughter (Emma Stone) who is trying find a reason why her life is better without her addiction, to his leading actress (Naomi Watts) who believes this play will make her finally feel validity and happiness, to the critically-acclaimed actor (Edward Norton) who has lost all identity in life outside of who he is on stage, this film is nothing but a search for meaning and identity.  It's so heavy handed on the nihilism that, at one point, Riggan's daughter yells at him "You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it."  That might as well be the tagline of the movie.

The film is technically brilliant, where scenes flow as one massive take, as if we're watching the most advanced theatrical play of all time.  The script, albeit harsh and R-rated, is well crafted.  And the performances, especially Michael Keaton's, are simply fantastic, making it one of the best ensemble pieces of the year.  Yet, it was still hard for me to appreciate anything beyond that; everything's so over-the-top nihilistic that you don't care about anything because the film tells you there's no reason to care about anything.  I was even a little relieved as the credits rolled; they were, by far, the most uplifting moments of the film.

Movie Review: "Calvary"

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dwod, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen
Rated: R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use

At the opening of John Michael McDonagh's film Calvary, an unidentified troubled man tells a priest, Father James, in a confessional that, within a week, he is going to murder him.  "Not because you're a bad priest.  What would be the point in that?  But killing a good one?  That would be a shock!"  From that point on, we expect to find a detective thriller where Father James, played wonderfully by Brendan Gleeson, goes around, trying to stop his murderer before the eventual date arrives.  But that's not what happens.  Instead, we get a priest trying to minister what may be his final week on earth to a despicable and fallen community, full of adultery, domestic abuse, excess, drug abuse, and just a world (and church) void of integrity.  Father James does not piously sit on the outskirts; he gets his hands dirty with it, he seeks people who hate him, he tries to deal with sin head on, and he has no use for people who simply want to use him or his church.  That's not to say he's a perfect man; he falls into sin, just like the rest of his community, but he passionately seeks restoration and redemption, because he truly sympathizes and pities them.  This is brilliantly pictured when Father James visits a tourist who has just lost her husband in an automobile accident.  Out of all the characters in the story, she is the one facing the most shocking pain in the film, yet she confesses that, despite the accident, she doesn't feel their life was unfair, because she and her husband got to experience love and happiness.  "But many people don't live good lives. They don't feel love. That is why it's unfair. I feel sorry for them,"  Those people that she is referencing are not only the despicable characters in Father James' community, but the very killer who is planning his death.

Without spoiling the film, that last montage is powerfully moving, and brings a wonderful resolution to an overall harsh and upsetting film.  With brilliant performances (particularly from Brendan Gleeson) and boasting my favorite cinematography of any film from 2014, Calvary is a picture about reckless forgiveness in the face of reckless hate, which is about as close of a picture of the true Calvary as one can show.

Movie Review: "Locke"

Directed by: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy
Rated: R for language throughout

No film last year depended more on a performance than the independent British film Locke.  The film literally is one man driving, making phone calls throughout the film's 82 minutes.  Yet, thanks to the captivating performance by Tom Hardy, you are riveted to your seat the entire time.  The film follows Ivan Locke, a hard working family man whose life somewhat spirals out of control during one fateful night.  What makes Locke so compelling as opposed to other one-man films (like the Ryan Reynolds movie Buried) is that it's not based on a gimmick; Locke honestly feels like it's a better film by not showing the world around Ivan.  We're stuck with him, just as he is stuck with himself and his situation.  However, the more we learn of Locke, the more we are mesmerized by him.  He is definitely a fallen character, but he also has the integrity and determination to own up to them.  Similar to John Proctor in The Crucible, Ivan is determined to regain his integrity, even if it causes more harm to him then good.  "I will do what needs to be done," he says, "even if they hate me or love me.  You have to be solid; it makes no difference what they think."

Movie Review: "Magic in Moonlight"

Magic in Moonlight
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden
Rated: PG-13 for brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout

In the latter stages of his career, writer/director Woody Allen's films have been a complete mixed bag.  Some of his films, such as the charming comedy Midnight in Paris, are wonderful.  Others, such as his latest film Magic in Moonlight, are not.  This film also takes place in France during the roaring twenties, but follows Stanley (Collin Firth), a jaded illusionist who is hired to unmask a spiritualist named Sophie, who can reveal the past and predict the future.  As time goes by, and Stanley is not only unable to find a flaw in Sophie's magic, but he starts to fall for her, as well, sending his entire rationalist worldview and bachelor lifestyle into question.
The first problem with Magic is that it's simply a bad film.  The script is poorly written, and the actors share absolutely no chemistry (maybe because Firth is nearly 30 years older than Stone?)  However,  the most upsetting aspect of Magic is it's heavy-handed philospohy yet lacks the rationalism that it boasts, to the point where one questions what Allen was trying to communicate; a story or a sermon?  Without spoiling the film, Stanley realizes that the only true magic (or spirituality) in the world is love, and not some deity or spirituality.  This glosses over the fact that this rationalism still can't answer basic human questions, such as "why is there something rather than nothing", as well as the fact that love often never sustains or truly satisfies, which is why so many people spend their life searching for it.  In the end, Allen lacks any magic, as both his film and and worldview fall flat.

Movie Review: "Begin Again"

Begin Again
Directed by: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld
Rated: R for language

Even though it's not technically a remake, the movie Begin Again shares so much with the movie Once that it almost could be classified as one.  It has a similar plot, structure, and uses musical numbers in the same way.  It was even was even made by the same guy, John Carney.  Despite a few musical changes, A-list actors, and New York City setting, it's a very similar film.  Thankfully, it also share's some (not all) of Once's charm and magic, as well.  This is mainly due to a genuine performance from Mark Ruffalo, who soars as the films co-protagonist. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movie Review: "American Sniper"

American Sniper
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Rated: R for strong disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. 
Bradley Cooper's passion project American Sniper is soon set to be the highest grossing war movie of all time.  Since the book's release, it has been surrounded by intrigue, conflict, and controversy.  Several different directors, from David O. Russell to Steven Spielberg, were set to direct the film before finally landing with Clint Eastwood.  There were a variety of issues, from Chris Kyle's death to lawsuits against the book, that took place during the film's production.  Upon it's released, the buzz has been huge, the turnout was overwhelming, and the film wound up nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  However, when you watch the film, it's hard to understand what all the hype and controversy is about. 

It's not that Sniper is a bad film, just one that doesn't really stand out and say much.  It doesn't have the drive or dignity of war that last year's film Lone Survivor had, nor does it have the voice of caution of the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker.  It has very little to say about the issues facing post-war veterans (though it spends some time showing them) and almost nothing about the politics of it's story, leading me to wonder if it's the same film that everyone is talking about.  What I saw was a movie chronicling Kyle's tours of action and then problems upon returning home.  The scenes move at such a quick pace that they sometimes feel more like montages than scenes.  You are brushed along from this segment of Kyle's life to the next which, after you've seen the first thirty minutes (his first full tour), you've pretty much have experienced the entire film.  The only overarching story is Kyle's quest to kill a one-dimensional enemy sniper who is so stereotypical that he actually ties a Rambo-like skull cap around his head at one point.  And don't even get me started about the baby doll used at one point in the movie.

The redemption of American Sniper is Bradley Cooper; you can tell he believed in the story, and his performance not only brings it to life, but makes you actually care about the man, himself.  He's completely engrossing, maybe more so than any other protagonist has been in a war film.  He gained 40 pounds to play Kyle, and his uncompromising performance to depict him, warts and all, is captivating.  When the credits rolled silently with the actual footage playing from Kyle's funeral, there were very few dry eyes in the theater.  However, I'm not sure it was because of the power of the movie, or just the respect that we have for service men and women and their families, who have given up so much for our country.  


Monday, January 19, 2015

Movie Review: Boyhood

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Rated: R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
The 2014 film Boyhood is one of the great achievements in filmmaking. Since 2002, director Richard Linklater has been filming his fictional family (Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater) every year, to make a coming of age film of epic proportions; you literally see his cast age and grow up in front of you, from a six year old boy to a high school graduate.  It's a huge undertaking, both technically and cognitively.  Yet, somehow, Linklater not only weaves the years of the story together, but also a consistent and interesting theme throughout. 

While the movie has a pretty relaxed pace that requires some stilted dialogue to progress the story, it still has a strong voice about life and growing up.  In one of the opening scenes, Mason sees his mother confess to a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend that being a mother was not the life she longed for; she wants to be free, to do things for herself. From that point on, we see Mason constantly trying to find freedom and control from people or situations throughout his life, whether it's when his drunken stepfather cuts his hair without his permission, or when a group of high school boys who berate him with a false standard of masculinity, or when his teachers or bosses see a different future for Mason that he doesn't want.  In the end, however, Mason learns that the point of your life isn't about trying to control the flow of time, but simply to watch how it shapes us and embrace whatever freedom we are given within it.  Or, as the film beautifully says it, it's not about seizing the moments but letting the moments seize you.