Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Birdman (2014) – Review

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to some extent sheer madness. Also, it is a very funny and incredibly ambitious drama.

The film is about Riggan, a former movie star who came to fame through his portrayal of the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s. Now, Riggan is a washed up has-been. He is not satisfied with his dwindling career, however, engaging in a revival by way of writing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of a classic stage play. With the play just days away, Riggan begins to feel overwhelmed with everything, as the tumultuous play begins to resemble his own life and vice versa. Meanwhile, his Birdman character begins speaking to him. At first, Riggan just ignores this inner voice, but then he starts listening, as things just spin out of control.

The first thing that needs to be said about Birdman, and I would guess Michael Keaton was cast for this role because if the character’s similarity to his own background (in addition to Keaton being just right for the part), is that the character of Riggan is like an exaggerate version of Keaton, who played Batman for two films (Batman in 1989 and Batman Returns in 1992 – and really, Batman…Birdman…come on). Keaton is also known for playing his characters on the verge of a complete mental break (sometimes over the edge, in the case of Beetlejuice). Keaton, too, is looking for a career resurgence. He is brilliant in Birdman, hopefully spring-boarding his comeback.

The next thing that needs to be said about Birdman is just how insanely ambitious and aesthetically magnificent it really is with its long takes and ultra-kinetic style. It is utter madness, yet works wondrfully. Writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made something truly special with the film aesthetically. The film should be among the awards favorites in terms of directing, cinematography, and production design.

One last thing to say really quickly before diving more into an analysis of the film, Inarritu captures many of the best performances of 2014 in Birdman. It is a film that excels principally as art in many ways. The kinetic, yet highly structured shooting style seems to breathe so much life into the performances, allowing the actors to live in the moment, having the freedom to just perform without all the cuts. It is electric to watch (and it must have been incredibly stressful and difficult to produce). The whole film is made up of a series of long takes, in-between which time jumps forward, as the narrative progresses.

One reading of the film might see it as Riggan’s decent into madness. He is already on the edge as it opens, but as the narrative plays out he is pushed out further and further until he has no choice but to jump. Inarritu plays with his audience in this regard as well, making Riggan feel like he is on the precipice of suicide – that he could just end it all at any moment. This makes everything feel a bit tense. On top of that, Riggan is delusional, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad boyfriend (to his new girlfriend), a bad director, and probably even a bad actor. He begins to realize each of these things as he also realizes that he has no control of his own life. The play is everything to him. He has put everything he has and is into it in the hopes of sparking new life and it is a disaster. As he begins to accept he has no control, he gives up trying to fight the madness growing inside him, instead reveling it, encouraging the madness to come in and hand-in-hand leading it to the precipice, taking it all in.

Inarritu plays with parallels in the film: shared imagery or feelings that are later expressed visually. At one point Riggan is shown to jump off a building (playing on the feeling the audience has that he might commit suicide at any moment) only to soar through the streets of New York City unhurt, flying all the way back to the theatre (although, it is then revealed that he really just took a cab back). There is a similar moment later in the film that plays off this. In the play Riggan is putting on, there is a line of dialog early on about how Riggan’s character in the play cannot even commit suicide properly, shooting himself in the mouth but messing it up and not dying. This comes back into play again as well. All these similar images begin have the audience questioning what is real in the film.

Birdman opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room. He is also able to move things telekinetically. Yet, Inarritu undercuts these presumed superpowers, that the audience always sort of questioned anyway, by showing the cab as being what really returned Riggan to the theatre instead of him flying. But, does he really have superpowers? The film makes you think that it is all in his head, easily explainable. No other character sees him do anything incredible. But in the end, the audience is asked to question what they believe. Can Riggan actually fly? Is he really Birdman?

Another interesting aspect of the film is its commentary on contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, which is ruled by big franchises, mostly feeling like superhero sequel after superhero sequel, endlessly, crushing and minimalizing good work. The system is rigged to only make films that make money and appeal to the average theater-goer, who are often viewed as the lowest common denominator by the industry (based on the terrible, mindless stuff that is put out there in mass, and often does well; they probably are not wrong). The characters of highly acclaimed theatre actor Mike and theatre critic Tabitha represent this distain for what cinema has become, studios betting on franchise blockbusters and squashing originality, art and true emotional/dramatic resonance in favor of noise, explosions and mindless frantic entertainment. While this is not universally the case, as auteur filmmakers continue to thrive within the system making excellent work (Birdman is in part funded by New Regency Pictures, which is a medium sized studio and has a distribution deal and is owned in part by 20th Century Fox, for example). Many of the stars of the film have successful careers in Hollywood and themselves have starred in blockbuster franchises and big Hollywood films (as well as made superhero films) themselves (Emma Stone is in The Amazing Spider-Man series; Zach Galifianakis is in the Hangover series; Naomi Watts is in King Kong; Andrea Risenborough is in Oblivion; Ed Norton is in The Incredible Hulk; and Amy Ryan is in Green Zone). Thus, their condemnation of Hollywood feels hypocritical. But, like the film itself, these personas are much more satires of theatre snobs than a serious feeling of contempt for Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood churns out terrible films, but they also make spectacular films (the superhero genre alone has seen many brilliant releases lately with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel’s strong output during their MCU Phase II).

As aesthetically ambitious and narratively unique as Birdman appears on the outside, in many ways it is simply a film about a man having a mid-life crisis that has been jazzed up with aesthetic bells and whistles. It is a film of relationships that Inarritu weaves together and in and out so well with his interlocking long takes. Riggan is at odds with his daughter, maybe still in love with his ex-wife, finding it challenging to be completely there for his girlfriend, and is completely overwhelmed by his play, especially managing an egotistical dramatic actor. Riggan has a hard enough time just taking care of himself. All the chaos in his life seems to push him over the edge, letting the madness consume him (yes we may have come full circle on this review). Although, it is also probably safe to say that he is already on the edge, ready to jump, before we even meet the character. Structurally, the film finds Riggan as a man who had everything and then lost it. Now he is trying to get it all back. But like many mid-life crisis narratives, he realizes that he cannot have it back – that the past is the past and everything has changed in the present; he cannot go back; he can only move forward – which means that he might just begin listening to the Birdman character voice in his head, for better or worse. Everything around him has changed, now he must embrace it and acknowledge that he too must change (or already has changed), or not and end it all rather than face the truth. Yet, the film’s ending seems to only raise more questions and can we even trust what Inarritu is showing us?

It might be too easy to just place this film into a nice neat narrative box. Inarritu plays around with fantasy to such an extent in the film that it begins to blend with reality. The film could all be a fever dream. It seems just as likely. How much of Riggan’s life is delusion? What is real? These are the questions that begin to populate the conversation when a narrative’s protagonist is unreliable. These questions also ultimately make Inarritu’s narrative all the more interesting.

Even with everything that works so well, Birdman is not without some minor faults. The first act is especially kinetic, aided by a score of nervous jazzy drumming that if nothing else builds tension, as Inarritu sets up the narrative and the character relationships. It is so flashy and vital as the camera floats effortlessly around the often claustrophobic theatre that when things become a bit more dreamlike in the second half of the film and the score becomes much more classical, losing the drums for periods of time, some of the narrative’s moment is lost. These slower moments take the viewer out of what is otherwise a very rich drama. As much as I love the aesthetic style of the film, in these slower moments it seems like it all suddenly collapses on itself. The great characters, tension and narrative flow keep the viewers engaged, despite this grand artifice being constructed around them; but in the slow moments, the artifice suddenly becomes much more apparent and even distracting.

There is also no real resolution between Riggan and Mike (who is maybe his greatest antagonist, though one might say that Mike’s nemesis role switches to Tabitha at the end of the second act). Mike is the element of chaos that seems to have finally pushed RIggan over the edge; yet in the end when our hero is revealed as such, the audience is never given closure to Riggan’s conflict with Mike (as we are with Tabitha). Thus, the ending feels ever so slightly incomplete, but then again that is life.

All in All, Birdman is a masterfully made film. It features many of this year’s best performances and is aesthetically one of the most magnificent things I have seen (in some ways it reminded me of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, another film I found to be aesthetically highly compelling). It is one of the few must-see film of 2014.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is part of the ‘Three Amigos’ with Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro – three auteur Mexican directors that came up together. Inarritu made his debut with the critically acclaimed Amores Perros. He has since tried to live up to the praise of that film with his work in Hollywood and then in Spain (21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful). While each is a good film in its own right, none quite reach the same level of cinematic excellence as Amores Perros. With Birdman, Inarritu has seemingly made his first comedy, or at least film that actively tries and succeeds at being funny. It is a very funny film, on top of being a great character drama. This change of pace seems to have given him new life, so to speak, as Birdman feels alive and vital. It is his best work in my opinion. The ambition and brilliance of his direction also reaffirms his place not only as an auteur but also as one of the best filmmakers currently working.

Newcomer composer Antonio Sanchez supplies Birdman with a score that is very different than what is typically found in such films. It is mostly made up of jazz drumming that seems to insistently be building towards something and thereby creates this sense of tension, only forwarded by the tension felt between the characters. The sound design also plays a role in this as well, as Inarritu uses a ticking clock at times to add an extra layer of tension to the film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seems to be on a mission to shame all other photographers with his work. Birdman has wonderful long takes (a specialty of Lubezki – who is a frequent collaborator with Cuaron, by the way) and Lubezki’s hand-held camera work is practically flawless as the camera seems to seamlessly drift between hand-held and crane shots. The technical quality of this film is maybe its chief achievement (though, its performances are a very close second). Lubezki’s lighting is also just right, as the film flutters between reality and fantasy. Kevin Thompson’s production design is also top notch. His theatre set is superb, as it mirrors many of the dramatic themes and emotions at play in the narrative with its claustrophobic hallways, dingy side rooms and rooftop that has beautiful view on the city.

As stated many times above, the performances in this film are astonishing. Lindsay Duncan and Merritt Wever are very good in small supporting roles. Amy Ryan is good as Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia. She is very supportive and sweet, playing the victim of his past antics well. She is also his strength to go on, however. Andrea Riseborough is lost in the mix a bit playing Riggan’s actress girlfriend Laura. She does have some fantastic vengeful gazes when he says something despicable though. Naomi Watts plays Lesley an actress who always dreamed about being on Broadway and has now finally made it. I remember thinking that Watts was very good, but she too is a bit lost in the mix, especially since her character is not that interesting by comparison to all the deeply damaged people wandering around in this film. Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s lawyer and co-producer of the play. He has great comedic timing (something we all already knew) and some of the best lines in the film. His back-and-forth with Riggan reminds me of the shouting matches between Orson Welles and John Houseman (played by Angus Macfadyen and Carey Elwes) in Tim Robbin’s under-seen Cradle Will Rock. Edward Norton is extremely good as Mike, Riggan’s nemesis of sorts. He plays an actor who can only feel real on the stage, caring little for everything else. Norton is absolutely electric. He demands attention whenever he is on camera. It is the best performance I have seen so far this year. Emma Stone is also excellent, giving us her best work to date playing Riggan’s damaged daughter Sam, who has recently been released from rehab. Without Stone’s top performance, the film does not work. She is a key part to understanding Riggan’s current state and her wondrous eyes sell the final moment. And finally we have Michael Keaton playing Riggan, which could be called a warped version of himself (or at least a warped version of his public persona). Keaton is a master of playing characters on the verge of losing it. I am not sure anyone could have played this character better. The wild look in his eyes during the film makes everything believable, even as thing start to spin out of control and the narrative feel more fantasy than real. I will be shocked if Keaton, Stone and Norton miss out on Oscar nominations.

Summary & score: Birdman is just about everything a cinephile could want from a film: brilliant and ambitious aesthetics and directing, as well as an ensemble cast of excellent actors putting forth some of their best work, that all comes together in a dramatically interesting and challenging narrative. And, it is funny too. 8/10

Monday, October 27, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Man Who Wasn’t There

This week’s movie: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Ed Crane leads a simple life as a barber in 1950s small town America. He does not have much aspiration for anything more. He believes his wife is cheating on him with her boss, but does not much care. One day he hears about an exciting new opportunity: Dry Cleaning. Suddenly, he thinks: “Why not me?” To get the money for the opportunity, he blackmail’s his wife’s boss, threatening exposure of his affair; however, this sets off a chain-reaction of terrible events.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the lesser known film from the Coen Brothers; but, it is one of their best. They work with their usually collaborators on the film, including: composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose photography is astounding), and production designer Dennis Gassner.

The film features a great cast made up mostly of Coen Brothers’ regulars. Billy Bob Thornton stars, while Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, and Tony Shalhoub feature in support.

The Coen Brothers are best known for films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and more recently True Grit. The Man Who Wasn’t There is certainly among their lesser known films, if not completely forgotten among most fans. Like many of their films, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a weird blending of genres. It looks and feels like a noir, hard-boiled detective film, but the story is much more restrained than what is typically found in the genre. The film could be called a crime drama, but Ed Crane just sort of bumbles his way forward. In some ways, it is a comedy satirizing the hard-boiled detective noir style; yet, it is also in love with the genre too, stylistically speaking. The Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins shot the film in color and then processed it in black & white (in some countries you can actually see the film in color). It is fantastically photographed. The cinematography is easily among the decade’s very best. The film is a must-see just for the cinematography alone. The wry wit too is wonderful. The film is devilishly funny. I think it is well worth watching for fans of the Coen Brothers and those who enjoy the noir genre, as this is an odd and surprising entry.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fury (2014) – Review

Review: Fury is a graphic, gritty WWII tank action/drama that cuts through the typical nostalgia of the era and goes straight for the moral ambiguity of what actual soldiers faced.

The film is about the five-man crew of the Sherman tank ‘Fury’ commanded by a battle-hardened sergeant named Wardaddy. April 1945, nearing the end of the war, the tank is assigned desperate mission to protect the advancing Allies’ supply lines in Germany. Fury along with three other Sherman tanks set off to face an unknown number of troops marching towards the Allies’ position. For all they know they are out-numbered and out-gunned.

World War II era films are generally black and white morally. Adolf Hitler is a symbol of supreme evil to this day, which makes the forces that oppose him the forces of good, if not by default. Thus, WWII is regarded now with such a high level of heroic nostalgia that many often forget about what it was like for the actual soldiers. Simply portraying the Allies as the good guys and the Axis (Germany, Japan and their allies) forces as the bad guys is too easy. Yet, that is how the war is often portrayed, even in very good narratives like Band of Brothers (probably the best made war film/series, yet it too has a strong nostalgia to it). Films of the 1940s and 1950s, too, featured a high level of patriotism, heroism and nostalgia for the heroes and heroics displayed by the Allied fighting forces – because they needed to (the 1940s was a time of propaganda filmmaking and the 1950s needed to show that the sacrifice was well worth it).

The cynicism of modern war does not creep into film until filmmakers begin tackling the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now look directly at the darkness within man; however, that same cynicism has not bled over into WWII for American filmmakers (as it certainly has for German, as seen in Downfall or Stalingrad, among others). With Fury, writer-director David Ayer seems like he wants to remove the nostalgia and heroism that represents the era and present the soldiers in a much more gritty and realistic light, allowing some of that cynicism to sneak into this heralded era.

The film is incredibly violent and graphic. Ayer does not want to pull any punches visually, allowing the horrors of war to take a central place in his visual narrative. In fact, I would say that he even goes out of his way to detail just how visceral and grotesque war really is with his visuals and thematic elements. He wants his film to be intense and feel overwhelming.

Ayer wants his audience to see the soldiers as they really were; men forced to become animals in order to deal with the carnage that they must face and reap. Mentally, the average man must make himself less of a man in order to compartmentalize the horror – the soldiers who did come back were not the same (post-traumatic stress disorder was found in something like 99% of all G.I.s returning from WWII). Looking at the war from high above it is easy to see who was right and wrong, good and evil, but on the battlefield, man against man it becomes much grayer.

There is a sentiment among many men who have served that they themselves are not heroes, but they served with many heroes who never came home. It is hard to feel heroic when you have seen, suffered through, and done what is necessary in battle to survive. Often, and simply, it comes down to one man needing to kill another man before that man kills him – and, he must do this by any means necessary, which can lead to some very dark places. Especially given the fact that really these soldiers on opposing sides are not very different. They want the same things for their lives; but to survive, they must convince themselves that the soldiers that oppose them are evil – how else can they justify the killing?

Ayer’s ambitious with Fury is to more accurately display this hardship and darkness within fighting men, allied forces or axis forces. Fury is primarily focused on the five men that occupy the tank, never really giving much thought to other soldiers and especially not the enemy (because really, they do not matter; not to these men; their tank squad is their family; they will do anything to keep each other alive). Ayer’s characters are also much more ambiguous morally (as is his narrative in general) and presented as being much grittier and dirtier than most WWII dramas have shown their characters to be. These men are not likable in the classical sense, yet the audience is behind them because they are just average men who are asked to do more than any man should need to do. No man should be asked to kill another, yet that is the way of man.

The audience has an in to the dirty, grimy world that Ayer has created with Norman Ellison. He, like the audience, is new to the world Ayer sets in front of him. He is a good man with a set of morals. Yet, his morals have no place in battle, as he indirectly gets other soldiers killed because he is hesitant to fire upon enemy troops (because they are just kids). He soon realizes, as Ayer hopes the audience will, that to be an effective member of his squad he must lose his former self and develop a battle persona (he is dubbed ‘Machine’ by his mates), mentally allowing him to do what is necessary, compartmentalizing the horror.

Ayer has not completely lost sight of what makes war films great, however. At its core, Fury is a film about the brotherhood that forms among fighting men – something apparent in every film (non-fiction and fiction alike) – and the impossible thing that these ‘brothers’ are asked to undertake. Here, the tank squad is asked to stop the advancement of a few hundred German soldiers essentially alone. It is a suicide mission. Their will to take on the odds and fight their hardest makes them heroic (much in the same way we champion those who fought at the Alamo again the Mexican forces of General Santa Anna). Ayer plays this grand finale for action and emotion. It works very well, as the audience deeply invests in these men because Ayer has made is clear just what they are doing and what it means.

Fury is a much darker and grittier (and probably more realistic look, to some extent) than most past WWII dramas, but it is also a Hollywood film in many ways. Norman is completely incompetent when he first joins the crew of Fury. He is only trained as a typist. Yet, within a few days he becomes a more than adequate soldier. This feels a bit unrealistic, especially given the fact that often replacement soldiers were not as well trained and would usually be killed in droves because they just were not ready to fight. Norman is thrown into the fire, so to speak. It is not impossible to believe that his instincts took over and his will to survive carried him through. Fury is not based on a true story. The realism of the odds they face in the film conclude in certain death, and yet they give the Germans a heck of a fight. It feels a bit exaggerated (but that is often the case with film, as it needs to be bigger to engage the audience). The graphic and violent nature of the narrative and the darkness and moral ambiguity that the characters are presented with gives the film a somewhat uncomfortable tone in the sense that the film is very intense and serious. Some filmgoers broke into nervous laughter throughout as a coping mechanism, while others found themselves in tears.

While the film does play on a bit of a bigger stage than it probably would have given a more realistic approach to the plot details, it is ultimately a very effective drama and compelling action film (assuming you are not off-put by graphic violence and gore, as some are). The gritty, dirty and morally ambiguous character approach works quite well in establishing characters that feel much more real than the heralded heroes that we are often treated to in WWII films. In Fury, these are real men, flaws and all, put in impossible situations, asked to do impossible things.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Ayer is known for writing and directing very gritty L.A. police dramas, his best probably being End of Watch (he also wrote Training Day). Fury, however, sees him take a big step forward as a filmmaker. It is his best film visually and emotionally. It gets at the heart of what it was like in the dirt and muck for the average WWII grunt. It is also thrilling and engaging as an action film. I look forward to what he does next.

Composer Steven Price’s score is fantastic. He completely understands and embraces the darker tone that Ayer hopes to achieve with the film. The score is unnerving as it seems to get right at the fear within each man’s heart as he goes into battle. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s work is also wonderful. His visuals are entrenched with bleakness and faded color. There is nothing bright or happy in this narrative. Andrew Menzies’s production design is excellent as well, capturing the look and feel of the era very well. He too contributes to the bleakness and darkness of the look and tone. The film just feels very dirty, completely erasing the gloss of heroic nostalgia usually associated with the era.

The cast is very good. Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Jason Isaacs, and Anamaria Marinca are all very good in small supporting roles. Alicia von Rittberg is excellent as Emma, a young German girl who Norman falls for after a brief encounter. Her scene is key to Norman’s transformation, and von Rittberg’s performance is fantastic as she entrances the audience. Jon Bernthal plays Grady Travis, maybe the most unlikable member of Fury’s crew. He is very rough, but completely committed to his fellow mates. Michael Pena plays Trini Garcia, the driver of the tank. He has some funny moments, but he too is rough around the edges. Shia LaBeouf (who is actually very good in the film) plays Boyd Swan, a man who like his compatriots has allowed himself to become very rough to deal with the war but is also deeply conflicted about what he must do (as he is a man of God). Logan Lerman is good as Norman Ellison. He feels very green when we first meet him, only to undergrown a transformation as he realizes what it actually means to be in war – his morals taking a back seat to survival. Brad Pitt is very good as Don Collier (Wardaddy). With Pitt, the audience is allowed to see a bit more behind the scenes character wise. He puts on a front as a very hard man, but behind that fa├žade the war is taking a great emotional toll. He knows, however, that he must be hard to keep his men alive, and in turn he must make them hard so that they can keep themselves alive, regardless of what it is doing to him and them emotionally.

Summary & score: Fury is one of the best recent WWII films as it takes on the era with grit and grim, effectively telling the story of the men on the ground (what they actually went through and faced) and not just labeling them heroes fighting the forces of evil. 8/10

Monday, October 20, 2014

Movie of the Week – Trading Places

This week’s movie: Trading Places (1983)

Two millionaire brothers make a bet for one dollar. The bet is if they reverse the positions of a street con artist and their trusted snobbish Wall Street investor, will the two men still be the same or do their surroundings define them. The two brothers carry out their bet, throwing Louis Winthorpe III into the streets, destitute, and giving everything to Billy Ray Valentine.

The film is directed by John Landis, who was maybe the best comedy director of the late 1970s and early 1980s (with films such as The Kentucky Friend Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, and Coming to America; he also directed Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video). Landis worked with great composer Elmer Bernstein, cinematographer Robert Paynter, and production designer Gene Rudolf.

The film stars Eddie Murphy (in his prime, with films like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop), Dan Aykroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis. There is also good supporting work from Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche (plus a bunch of cameos, like Frank Oz and James Belushi).

Trading Places is one of the great comedies of the 1980s. It is hilarious and Murphy and Aykroyd are on the top of their game. Trading Places was very successful critically and commercially, inadvertently launching a ton of sort of similar body swap comedies: Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, Prelude to a Kiss, and the remake of Freaky Friday (the first remake) – among others. Okay, so maybe there is no direct correlation between Trading Places and this string of terrible, terrible body swap movies, but it is always fun to go down memory lane. Anyway, Trading Places is one of the decade’s best comedies but also has some interesting social comments. First, the film seems to take a firm stand against the Wall Street greed that ruled the times, portraying all the ‘rich’ characters as being awful, snobbish people who could not care less about the common man. And second, the bet is a fun play on the nature versus nurture argument, seemingly siding with nurture. Trading Places is a must-see for comedy fans and those looking to see the best films of Murphy and Aykroyd.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TV Series of the Month – DuckTales

This month’s TV Series: DuckTales (1987-1990)

After Donald decides to take a job on a ship requiring constant travel, he entrusts his uncle Scrooge McDuck with the care of Huey, Dewey and Louie. McDuck is one of the wealthiest inhabitants of Duckberg. McDuck leads quite an adventurous life as he tries to secure and grow his wealth; and in turn, Huey, Dewey and Louie find themselves going on many grand adventures.

DuckTales is the first of three fantastic animated shows that the newly formed Walt Disney Television Animation put out during the late 1980s/early 1990s (the other two being Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers and TaleSpin – both of which I also love).

DuckTales aired for three seasons. It is still my favorite cartoon. The theme song is great. The characters are fun and the adventures feature strong storytelling. DuckTales is a staple of many of our childhoods and well worth revisiting. The video game is also really good (it was recently remastered).

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD (Volume 1 and the Film that opens the series)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Bridge on the River Kwai

This week’s movie: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Taking place during WWII, the film focuses on a Japanese PoW camp. The Japanese treat their British and American prisoners horribly, but one British colonel stands up to them and eventually makes things better for the prisoners. Having settled their differences, the Japanese and the British colonel agree to co-operate to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai, as it seems mutually beneficial. The British take great pride in their work and strive to build the best bridge they can. Meanwhile, the Allies hatch and plan to destroy the bridge as it is a clear strategic target.

The film is directed by the great David Lean (who won an Oscar for his work). It is the first of his brilliant epic films (highlighted as well by Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). Lean worked with producer Sam Spiegel (who would help finance Lean’s biggest films), composer Malcolm Arnold (whose iconic score won an Oscar), cinematographer Jack Hildyard (whose work also won an Oscar), and art director Donald A. Ashton.

The film stars William Holden, Alec Guinness (a frequent collaborator with Lean, and he won an Oscar for this film), Jack Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest film ever made (making my list of the Top 100 Films of the 20th Century). The film won seven Oscars on eight nominations, including Best Picture. It is an iconic WWII film, that captures the corruption of one’s mental state when a prisoner of the enemy. Colonel Nicholson is a great and loyal British officer. He would never do anything to hurt the efforts of the Allies, and yet here he is building this magnificent bridge for the Japanese when they had utterly failed in their previous attempts. The bridge became a way for him and his men to cope with their captivity. It is not until later that he realizes just what he has done (played out in one of cinema’s truly spellbinding scenes). This is a must-see for fans of Lean, WWII films, and cinema in general. It is epic filmmaking at its best.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gone Girl (2014) – Review

Review: Gone Girl is a wickedly engaging mystery coupled with on point satire and black comedy.

The film is about Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who may seem perfect on the outside but has drifted apart due to financial and emotional difficulties. One morning, the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing. Their house shows signs of a struggle and there is blood splatter in the kitchen – and, Amy is missing. At first, Nick helps the police in their search for Amy; but as time passes, suspicions start to turn on him, despite his proclaimed innocence.

It would be difficult to really talk about what makes Gone Girl great without getting into plot specifics and spoilers. Thus, beware of spoilers from this point on. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (who, as many of you no doubt know, also wrote the novel on which the film is based) have crafted a film that both engages its audience, telling a very compelling story with great characters and big ideas, and takes on the ugliness of today’s news coverage.

In many ways the film can be taken as a satire, as it is portrays the news media as being soulless, story-chasing (if not story-fabricating) bloodsuckers. The news personalities the film presents us with are Ellen Abbott, who sensationalizes any and every element of her coverage, working her viewers into a hate-filled frenzy over Nick Dunne, and Sharon Schieber, who seems to ruthlessly want to take down Dunne for ratings (although, he wins her over during their interview). Abbott all but convicts Nick, while Schieber helps to exonerate him for the public. The amount of power the media seems to have over public opinion is frightening, as they clearly have the ability to sway opinion. The media so maliciously going after Dunne, while championing his wife, without any real proof that Dunne is in fact involved in his wife’s disappearance or murder (which the news media seems to be inferring), and having such influence over the general public opinion, flat out making things up to drive viewership and headlines (or sensationalizing any information they may have to an extreme degree) is what Fincher seems to be satirizing. The media also constantly hounds Nick with their attention and flashing camera lights, feverishly leaching onto anything they can get from him. His street is filled with news vans and press. His daily life is but a play for the public to devour and judge.

Yet, I do not really read it so much as a satire as merely portraying modern news media as it truly is, as it actually functions. Abbott and Schieber are not exaggerations of media personalities, rather they fit right into what we can expect from today’s news coverage of any major national story. This is a sad truth. Our modern news really is this despicable; and even more tragic, modern views not only expect this kind of coverage – they want it. Thus, this aspect of Gone Girl feels much more a shaming of modern news culture, both those who deliver the news and, more so, those who watch it. Gone Girl is more a satire of America and its founding moral ideas – given the way we grotesquely eviscerate those in the public eye (merely because they are in the public eye) and not only allow but encourage our news organizations to just lie to us perpetually, because we would rather hear what we want to hear than the truth. Watching the film it is easy to recognize how the story is seemingly spinning out of control in the media’s hands, because we are also shown Dunne’s perspective and we more or less are on his side (being that he is presented to us as the protagonist), but I wonder how many then realize that our own news media is even more ridiculous, that our own treatment of those in the public eye is often deplorable.

Speaking of Nick Dunne being presented to us as the protagonist, this is what makes the film so engaging. The first section is structured as a mystery/thriller (though, light on the thriller aspects). Nick is really our only source of emotional information, his relationship with his twin sister Margo is done really well, and he is charming. Thus, we like him even though we are not one hundred percent sure he did not kill his wife. Fincher does an excellent job keeping this balance – Nick is likable and always the protagonist, but there is just enough mystery to him that makes us suspect that maybe he did do it. This balance is key to the film working, at least in the first section. It also drives the story of him becoming the prime suspect in the police’s investigation and public enemy number one in the media. Amy on the other hand is presented as being incredibly charming and committed to the relationship. She loves Nick and he loves her. Yet, from the beginning, Nick has a different opinion of Amy (something that comes out of his interactions with his sister). Nick seems to hate Amy, in fact, which only presents her more as a victim and Nick more as a suspect.

This idea too is key, and Fincher lays it out perfectly in the film’s narrative. The idea that Amy seems like the perfect wife from what we are shown, but Nick hates her and feels like she is awful and controlling/belittling – there is a disconnect. We see none of this, but again we like Nick and we relate to his relationship with his sister, so we believe him (or at least we are not completely sure Amy is as good as we are lead to believe). Fincher puts doubt in our mind. Maybe Amy is not what she seems. This sets up the second part of the film.

Amy being revealed as the mastermind behind her own disappearance in a plot to seek revenge on Nick for cheating on her with one of his students is one of the greatest reveals in cinema history (although, I do realize that this reveal is greatly lessened for those who read the book). It is darkly smile inducing, because, while we did suspect that something was not right in her disappearance (we still thought maybe it was Nick or maybe she was just taken by someone else that the mystery would eventually reveal), Fincher did enough to distract us away from the possibility that it was Amy. The details of how she staged her disappearance are all wonderfully delivered with a vengeful glee. Amy is suddenly revealed as a fantastic villain. And yet, Fincher has also made her much more relatable and even puts her in danger (drawing the audience in, garnering sympathy for her current plight). There is an interesting feeling/question that begins to happen for the viewer: do we want Amy to succeed or not? She is a villain, but Nick is not blame free either (but her punishment is quite extreme). Fincher gives us a great antagonist in Amy, one that might even become the protagonist for some. She is also one of the best female villains of recent memory.

Amy’s plan to destroy Nick’s life in a cold-blooded and decisive way brings up another interesting question about Gone Girl. Is it misogynistic? The film can be read as the ultimate male nightmare. Nick marries a beautiful, charming woman who then turns out to be a crazy, evil bitch set on ruining his life. She seemed so cool, what happened? In our culture, it feels very easy to dismiss women who do not act as men expect them to as crazy or hormonal or something else derogatory. Women are seldom allowed to just plainly be villains. There is always some contributing factor that feels degrading: they were scorned in a past relationship, they were not as pretty growing up, or other such nonsense usually attached to female antagonists in film. Here, Amy is just plainly a sociopath, who takes revenge on those she believes have wronged her (and her revenge is very severe). Maybe it was the emotional toll of growing up second to her parents’ Amazing Amy character, or maybe there was some other traumatic experience that contributed, or simply maybe she is just this way. Fincher and Flynn do not hate women, that is clear from Margo Dunne and Detective Rhonda Boney being maybe the film’s most complete and self-assured characters (Boney, for example, is really the only member of law enforcement that seems to be good at their job, while Nick would be a complete disaster without his sister). Dismissing Amy just another creation aimed at degrading women is unfair, and does a disservice to the potential for female characters going forward. She is, simply put, a great villain, densely constructed and wonderfully fleshed out. And, she wins in the end.

The honesty of relationships is another aspect that is explored by the film. It asks the question of whether we will ever really know our partners, what they are thinking, how they feel, and what they will do (or in turn what we will do to them as a result). The film presents maybe the worst possible relationship dynamic with Nick and Amy. Everything about their relationship is a lie. They both pretend to be someone different than themselves to appeal more to each other (something we all do to some extent – though, there seems to be a lot more cultural and societal pressure on women to make themselves more likable in the eyes of men – something the film punctuates with Amy’s “cool girl” journal entry and in Desi’s controlling gaze upon Amy, wanting her to be just as he imagines she should be, like she is a doll). While Nick and Amy’s situation seems extreme, it also hits home, maybe a little too close to home. It leaves us to question everything about our partners and ourselves. Is it real? Are we kidding ourselves? Do we really know them at all? We want to believe that it is real and that we know them, but really we do not know for sure. If we were really ourselves all the time, would our partners still like us, let alone love us? We would like to say yes to this as well, but again we all try a bit more when we are first in love. As time passes, we tend to slide back into ourselves, becoming more comfortable and feeling like we do not need to try as much; but now that we have become more ourselves (trying less to be our best selves or even a fictional version of ourselves), do we still attract each other? It is true that we do not often know what we really need. We think we know what we want, which we confuse with what we need or what is best for us. To get what we want, we play the game. Gone Girl examines the game, and finds that mostly it is all just a big lie. That may sound cynical, but then why does the film seem to connect so much with us on a personal level and find us questioning our own relationships (even just a little) on some level. The film is quite ambitious in its depth.

Gone Girl is also very entertaining. Fincher crafts his narrative to briskly move forward, never feeling slow or long despite its 149-minute runtime. The film is often very funny as well, deploying well delivered black comedy (given the film’s violence and depressingly cynical view of marriage – well, at least that is a take away from watching Nick and Amy’s marriage, built on lies and deception). The tone is surprising, and I am not sure many could have pulled it off (yes, yet another nod to the quality of Fincher’s direction). The film is very dark, yet funny (with many giggle-worthy moments). Fincher handles everything with such a gleeful stroke that despite the soul-crushingly awfulness of Nick and Amy’s relationship by the end, we still cannot help but laugh.

The film ultimately works, however, due to its great characters. Fincher, Flynn and the film’s cast create rich and engaging characters from top to bottom. The big ideas, the black comedy, and the plot all work so well because we care about the characters and enjoy watching them interact with each other. We want to see Nick exonerated. We want to see Amy get her comeuppance; or, we want to see her win (depending on our emotional attachments to Nick and Amy). We love the banter and bond between Margo and Nick (without Margo, I am not sure Nick comes off nearly as charming or likable). We enjoy the dynamic between Detective Boney and Officer Gilpin. And, Nick’s lawyer Tanner Bolt is just so much fun.

All in all, Gone Girl is precisely crafted in every way. It is a film that tackles the foundation of modern relationships and the state of modern news media (or media in general), while giving us one of the better female villains of the last decade (I actually cannot think of another great one, but I am sure there are a few – most of the ones I can think of are from much older films like Nurse Ratched, Annie Wilkes and Mrs. Danvers). It is quite funny and entertaining too. It is a great film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Fincher is one of our greatest filmmakers working today (I think he is in the top five directors working right now). The films he made in the 1990s made him a recognizable auteur, but his craft is even better and more refined now. His more recent films The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and now Gone Girl are all so diverse and yet Fincher makes them all his own, and each is superb. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fincher again works with the same team as his last two films on Gone Girl. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver yet another fantastic score that both supports and heightens the emotional interaction the film has with the audience. Their work also gets at the subliminal feel that the film has, the creepiness and darkness that lurks over the comedy. It is great work. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is also stunning. There is a scene in which Nick kisses Amy in an alley in New York filled with powered sugar floating in the air. It is incredibly beautiful. Donald Graham Burt’s production design is also top notch, informing many of the relationship dynamics simply by how and where the characters live. Desi’s lake house is particularly telling (in terms of how he wants to control Amy). Aesthetically, as is true of all of Fincher’s work thanks to his great collaborators, the film is among the very best of 2014.

The performances in Gone Girl are also excellent. Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Lola Kirke, Sela Ward, and especially Scoot McNairy are fantastic in small supporting roles. Kim Dickens is very good as Detective Boney (leading me to say: casting roles with actors from HBO dramas is always a good decision). She is so good that I want to see her play a detective on a series now. Tyler Perry seems like an odd choice to play Tanner Bolt at first, but then he wins you over with his brilliant line delivery and charisma. He is in fact a perfect fit for the role. Neil Patrick Harris is very creepy as Desi Collings (an ex-lover of Amy’s). He just oozes an off-putting feeling, which fits the role very well. Carrie Coon is having a breakout year. She is maybe the best part of HBO’s The Leftovers, and now she turns out a scene-stealing performance in Gone Girl as Margo Dunne. As I said in the review, she is an essential component to making Nick a likable character, as she plays his sounding board and support group. Yet, she is not one-dimensional. She also sticks up for herself and tells Nick when he is being a jerk. Her emotional connection to Nick is very important to the audience getting to know Nick. Rosamund Pike is brilliant as Amy Dunne. She displays incredible range as the character, playing Amy at each stage. Pike has been acting for over a decade, but her performance in Gone Girl feels special and career making. She uses her face wonderfully in the film, managing to maker herself both the villain and a victim. She even seems to get the audience on her side at times. Ben Affleck too is very good, playing Nick Dunne. His role is not very glamorous in terms of big dramatic moments, but for his character to work he needs to nail many subtle ones (which he does). Affleck can be a very good actor given the right role and film; here, he reminds us of his talent. He is able to create a man in Nick who is charming, a bit of an oaf, and sort of mysterious/disconnected pretty much all at the same time. While Pike has the more exciting performance, the film would not be the same without Affleck’s great work as well.

Summary & score: Gone Girl is a phenomenally crafted, acted and written film that features great black comedy, engaging drama, tantalizing mystery, and shocking violence all while still feeling narratively and tonally intact. This is certainly one of the best films of 2014. 9/10