Monday, November 03, 2014

"Birdman" glides on Keaton's wings

BIRDMAN

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

Let’s face it: most of us will never know what it’s like to be famous. Most of us will also never know the strange joys and travails of putting on a professional theatrical production, much less a Broadway premiere. On the other hand, most of us do know what it’s like to have a relationship falter or fail, and to be haunted by whether we could have saved it.

Somehow, and for the most part successfully, “Birdman” brings together all of these disparate threads in the story of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star who’s staking what remains of his celebrity status on a self-written, directed and produced theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that's about to open on Broadway. The play, as Riggan admits in an unguarded moment, is more than a vanity project: it’s his last-ditch attempt to reassert his cultural relevance, which has diminished sharply since his decades-ago decision to walk away from the blockbuster superhero franchise that made his name.

Unfortunately for Riggan, the wheels seem to be coming off his dramaturgical bus as opening day draws near. One of his lead actors has to be replaced at the last minute by a brilliant but difficult theater star (Ed Norton) whose ego threatens to hijack the entire production. One of the female leads (Naomi Watts), who’s dating Norton’s character, seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the other (Andrea Riseborough), who's also Riggan’s girlfriend, informs him she may be pregnant. Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone), whom he’s ill-advisedly hired as his assistant, can barely speak a civil word to him; his anxious lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianikis, playing it completely straight) informs him they’re running out of money; and through all these setbacks, Riggan is repeatedly visited by the specter of Birdman, his superhero alter ego (voiced by Keaton, naturally, and hilariously), who mercilessly mocks the entire enterprise.

It's a potentially grim situation, but “Birdman” has a verve and comic energy that’s a welcome change in M.O. for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, up till now best known for the gritty “Amores Perros” and cosmic misery-fests “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Here, he vividly captures the peculiar behind-the-scenes universe of a Broadway play, its fluidity heightened by impressive camera technique (courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki, previously seen performing his magic for directors Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick) that makes the entire film look like it was shot in one long, continuous take. Iñárritu underscores that sense of hyperrealism verging on surrealism with moments in which Riggan, left alone to vent his frustrations, manifests seemingly superhuman (surely imaginary?) powers. Not coincidentally, Birdman almost always makes an appearance—vocally, if not physically—in these scenes. Are such moments signs of a mental crackup, or mental clarity, or maybe, paradoxically, both at the same time? Is anything we’re seeing actually happening outside of Riggan’s mind? The film resolutely, and maybe a little irritatingly for some viewers, declines to answer these questions.

“Birdman” has already been hailed as both a huge comeback for Michael Keaton and a meta-commentary on his own Hollywood career, even though Keaton has said in interviews that he doesn’t personally identify with Riggan, Batman/Birdman comparisons notwithstanding. That may be true. But it’s nice to see Keaton playing in the big leagues again—although, in another quirk of parallelism, or life-imitating-art-imitating-life, he’s very nearly upstaged by his co-star, Ed Norton, who’s a delight to watch as the prima donna Riggan comes to regard as an interloper trying to take over “his” show. Emma Stone, too, vies for most valuable supporting player, taking what could have been a thoroughly grating, clichéd character and rendering her unexpectedly sympathetic. It helps that she has great chemistry with both Norton and Keaton; but then Emma Stone seems to be one of those rare actresses who has chemistry with any co-star, whether it’s Jonah Hill, Ryan Gosling, or Colin Firth.

Still, the movie turns on Keaton’s performance, and Keaton delivers. However staunchly he may disavow the parallels between himself and Riggan, at some level he must understand – and certainly conveys – the bittersweet brew of feelings that drives any man who has lingering regrets as he approaches his twilight years. For all its high-wire technical virtuosity and flirtations with both fantasy and satire, the film’s emotional core is a familiar one. It’s not so much about fame as it is about mortality and its obverse - the desire to leave one’s mark, correct one’s mistakes, reaffirm connections with loved ones, before it’s too late. As such, it leaves open to interpretation whether Riggan succeeds in finding the validation he craves, in an ending that’s sure to divide audiences and that I had to think about for a while before deciding I liked it. It reminded me a little of the ending of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: In some dimension, on some plane of existence, in someone's (perhaps our collective) consciousness, the Birdman learns to fly.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Dear White People": Enjoy this movie. Really!

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

Written and directed by Justin Simien
Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert

Faced with a title like “Dear White People,” you—yes, you, dear reader and occasional moviegoer—are wired to react in one of two ways. To some degree, either you’re intrigued or you’re turned off. Piqued or pique: which is it gonna be? Sadly, the people who bristle the most defensively are the ones who most need to see this movie and, by the same token, are least likely to see it.

Because the truth is that “Dear White People” is not a polemical anti-white screed. What it is: a sharp but fairly gentle satire of the state of black-white relations among the educated class, as well as a smart, funny, and provocative conversation-starter for those willing to have an honest, open-minded conversation about race. It’s also a remarkably nuanced and self-aware portrait of black people’s conflicted attitudes towards the subject, as reflected—and refracted—in the intertwining stories of the four major characters, all black students at the fictional Ivy Leagueish Winchester University.

There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), film major and black rights activist who uses her radio show to campaign against the perceived tyranny of the white establishment, but whose own background and internal emotions betray much more complicated feelings about white people. There’s Troy (Brandon Bell), the affable president of the sole black-majority residential college within Winchester—the kind of black guy white people love, whose dad (Dennis Haysbert) also happens to be the dean of students at Winchester and is actively grooming his son to be the next Obama. There’s Coco (Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn on “Mad Men”), the outwardly dainty, inwardly hungry girl who’d sooner die than have people think she might be from the ’hood, but whose lust for fame proves stronger than her desire to fit in among her peers. And finally there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams, aka Chris from "Everybody Hates Chris"), the shy misfit with the giant ’fro who likes boys, sci fi, and white rock music but who can’t seem to find a group, black or white, straight or gay, or a house that will accept him without using or abusing him. All of them, in different ways, help set in motion a chain of events that leads to the climax of the movie: an epic fight at a racist-themed campus party (modeled after the real-life “Compton Cookout” party at UCSD in 2010) that’s billed as a race riot in the news.

I think it's fair to infer that the four protagonists, all well drawn and engagingly acted, embody varied aspects of writer-director Justin Simien’s own personal experience. What they share in common is a constant tension between who they are to themselves, in private, and who they are—the role they fill—in public. Such tension obviously isn’t restricted to black people or even minorities. But in this context, for these characters, it carries an unavoidable extra charge and burden from being black (and in Lionel’s case, gay as well). Which isn't to say that the movie is heavy in its tone; quite the contrary, it maintains a wry, clear-eyed detachment and lightly satirical wit, tempered by genuine compassion for all its characters, that somehow underscores rather than underplays the seriousness of the issues.

“Dear White People” isn’t without flaws. Perhaps deliberately, in a “shoe’s on the other foot” way, it features very few white characters, only one of whom is remotely sympathetic; the others are so one-dimensional that two of them verge on cardboard-cutout villain territory. That one of them is the president of a prestigious university and is simultaneously anxious about diminished funding and unabashedly, openly racist in front of his black dean and black students, stretches plausibility to the breaking point. So, too, does the lack of non-black minority students. As an Asian American, I couldn’t help thinking: come on, Justin Simien, what kind of Ivy League school is this, where the number of Asian faces can be counted on one hand? (Answer: a fictional one; Asians only go to the real thing. Boom!) Joking aside, there’s only one Asian American character with an actual speaking part, and it’s only a couple of lines; as far as I can tell, there are no Hispanic or Native American characters.

To be sure, this can be partly explained by the fact that most of the action takes place within the university’s black community. And it’s arguably not fair to fault Simien for being primarily interested in that community and how it deals with being coopted by white-dominated culture and power structures. He may have decided, understandably, that expanding the movie’s racial landscape would have muddied its focus. But the near-complete absence of other minorities leaves one to wonder what part, if any, they would have played in the lives of his characters. As friends, allies, strangers, competitors, opponents, all or none of the above? There’s a whole trove of potential material there, as rich, complex, and contradictory as that explored by “Dear White People.” Perhaps it just needs another movie to give it shape. Perhaps it’s waiting for the next Justin Simien.

N.B: Speaking of raising uncomfortable racial consciousness, I'm not sure what it says about me that while both Tessa Thompson and Kyle Gallner (who plays one of the obnoxious white characters) had recurring roles on the show "Veronica Mars" (Wallace's snooty girlfriend and Beaver Casablancas, respectively), I immediately recognized the latter but didn't remember the former at all; or that it wasn't until after I saw the movie that I realized where I'd seen Teyonah Parris before ("Mad Men"). At least I didn't have any trouble pegging Dennis Haysbert. Still, that's not a very impressive ratio for someone who prides herself on having an excellent memory for faces.

GRADE: B+


Also saw:

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Directed by Hossein Amini
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

If you're in the mood for a stylish Hitchcockian thriller, look no further. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, "The Two Faces of January" follows the strange and fraught adventures of a young con man (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s Athens who's drawn into the orbit of a well-heeled American businessman (Viggo Mortensen) traveling with his much younger wife (Kirsten Dunst)—first as a tour guide, then as an accomplice when the couple gets into a serious jam. The younger man’s motives for helping them remain enigmatic: he’s obviously a hustler, a kind of proto-Ripley, and seems attracted to the wife, but also comments that her husband looks like his estranged father (notwithstanding the lack of physical resemblance between Isaac and Mortensen). Viggo’s character is less of a riddle than Isaac’s, at least as written, but as played is far the more interesting of the two—turning on a dime from charming to brutish, from enraged to more subtly menacing, as only Viggo can do. He may not be as crafty as the other guy, but he may be more dangerous.

Not surprisingly, the story soon focuses on the dynamic between the two men (somewhat at the expense of Dunst, who’s adequate but not given a lot to work with), each trying to gain the upper hand even as they remain inextricably connected, like the two faces of Janus. There isn't anything especially shocking in the way their Freudian struggle plays out, but what it lacks in mystery it makes up for in good old-fashioned suspense and drawn-out tension, with two particularly standout sequences set in the tombs of Knossos and the Athens train station. The film’s also worth watching for its cinematography alone, as it deftly captures not only the surface beauty of the scenery and the actors, but also the fundamental duality of the characters and their growing sense of entrapment. Overall “January” is a polished, assured work that hearkens back to a bygone style of filmmaking - not at all a bad thing when it’s done this well.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Gone Girl" hits nerve, does justice to book

GONE GIRL

Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick F
Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

Like the book, “Gone Girl” is a hard movie to talk about without giving away too much. Suffice it to say that the dark, twisty bestseller about a marriage gone bad and a wife gone missing, possibly murdered, has been deftly adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, and directed with style to burn by David Fincher. It helps, of course, that both Flynn and Fincher have plenty of experience painting the blackest corners of the human soul. The film also benefits from excellent casting not just of the two leads, Nick (Ben Affleck in hunky lunk mode) and Amy (Rosamund Pike, in a career-defining role), the former golden couple who’s fallen on hard times, but the key supporting players who elevate what could be stock roles: the supportive sister (Carrie Coon, in her breakout role), the slick defense lawyer (Tyler Perry, surprisingly good), the world-weary, appealingly down-to-earth cop (Kim Dickens, unsurprisingly good); even Neil Patrick Harris, who initially seems miscast, manages to convey a convincingly creepy vibe as the ex-boyfriend who’s still obsessed with Amy. Other characters, while more thinly drawn, contribute amusing shots at our national fixation with violent crimes involving photogenic white women, aided and abetted by social media and the 24-hour infotainment industry.

But make no mistake, this is first and foremost the Nick and Amy story—a fairy tale turned nightmare long before the day Nick comes home to find Amy has disappeared. Their relationship is the core of “Gone Girl,” which shifts at about the halfway mark from unsettling mystery to lurid, increasingly preposterous thriller, and their relationship is what keeps the material a cut above pure pulp. In this, the film is faithful to its original source, preserving the basic he-said, she-said counterpoint structure of the novel (in part by relying on voice-over narration from Amy—a device I normally dislike but that’s unavoidable in this instance and, to Fincher’s and Flynn’s credit, used as effectively and as sparingly as possible). It should shock no one that neither Nick nor Amy, nor their relationship, turn out to be exactly as first presented; what is shocking is the lopsided imbalance between what they’re each hiding, as well as their respective abilities at hiding it. That imbalance is a fundamental weakness of the narrative that the film can’t quite finesse, and undercuts any meaningful discussion of the potentially fascinating gender and power dynamics underlying Nick and Amy’s battle for the last word. Even so, none of these flaws dilutes the movie’s impact in the moment, no matter how much they may bug the viewer on later reflection. Like the book, “Gone Girl” is the kind of movie that gets under one’s skin.

GRADE: B+


Also saw:

THE SKELETON TWINS

Directed by Craig Johnson
Starring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell

More a dramedy than a comedy despite featuring two well-known former SNL stars, “The Skeleton Twins” may be the best American movie to focus on a brother-sister relationship that doesn’t involve Laura Linney (“You Can Count on Me,” “The Savages”). Kristen Wiig steps into the Linney role as the sister who outwardly seems to have it together but really, really doesn’t, while Bill Hader reveals impressive dramatic chops as the screw-up brother who comes back into her life, after a decade of never-fully-explained estrangement, when he botches a suicide attempt. Although it never quite reaches the sublime heights or depths of YCCoM, a film it borrows heavily from, “The Skeleton Twins” offers a surprisingly poignant, emotionally rich, and wryly funny portrait of two deeply damaged but deeply simpatico individuals linked by both blood and shared psychological baggage. It wouldn’t work as well as it does were it not for the terrific chemistry between Wiig and Hader. One can easily believe they were siblings in another life, and it’s a tribute to both the actors and the writing that one quickly ceases to see them as anything else in this one.

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 01, 2014

Fall movie preview

Labor Day has come and gone, the kiddies are back at school, but somehow it doesn't feel like summer is really over. Meteorologically, of course, it isn't fall yet - and on the movie front, Hollywood hasn't yet shaken off its late-August doze. But it will soon enough.

If the recurring theme of last fall's movie lineup was "based on a true story" (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, even American Hustle to a degree, sort of), this fall looks to be particularly packed with movies based on bestselling books. Or maybe I'm just noticing it particularly this year since I've read a fair number of the books and am interested to see how they've been adapted.

In order of release date, here are the ten films I'm most looking forward to this fall:

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM (Sept. 12) and HIM/HER (Oct. 10)
directed by Ned Benson
starring Jessica Chastian, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds

Originally conceived as a pair of films chronicling a relationship from first the guy's and then the girl's point of view, "Rigby" has since been reworked into a single movie - but the "combo" version apparently isn't going to be the only or even the last word on the subject. "Them" will be released first, in September, followed by "Him" and "Her," to play together, in October. I have several issues with this approach, namely, (1) I'm not sure the world needs three different versions of the same movie, (2) given that the juxtaposition of the male/female perspectives is what attracted me in the first place, I'd rather see "Him" and "Her" before "Them," but (3) not necessarily in one 3+ hour sitting. However, I'm curious enough to give it - them - a try.


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (Sept. 19)
directed by Shawn Levy
starring Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton
based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper

I remember thinking, when I read this dysfunctional-family comedy for my book club a few years ago, that it felt more like a movie than a novel, would probably work better as a movie, and played like a movie in my head. But whether it actually works as a movie will depend on how appealing the actors can make their characters, who were funny but not always all that endearing on paper, and how much chemistry they have together. The quality of the cast has me reasonably optimistic on both points.


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY (Sept. 26)
directed by Hossein Amini
starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac

I don't know much about this film except that it has a stylish noir vibe, is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and features three excellent actors, one of whom is Viggo Mortensen. That's enough to get my attention.


GONE GIRL (Oct. 3)
directed by David Fincher
starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, Kim Dickens
based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

If you've read the book, you know why I want to see the movie. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?


INTERSTELLAR (Nov. 7)
directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, others

Nolan & co. have been pretty tight-lipped about this one, and the teaser trailers haven't revealed much except to confirm that the movie stars McConaughey and Hathaway as space explorers, appears to take place in the future, and involves traveling through wormholes. Here's hoping it's more "2001" and less "Contact," though my guess is it will be not much like either film - except in that it's probably more interested in metaphysics than in space battles.


FOXCATCHER (Nov. 14)
directed by Bennett Miller
starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

A hit at Cannes, this strange-but-true story features a nearly unrecognizable Carell as an eccentric millionaire who sponsored a pair of Olympic champion wrestler brothers (played by Tatum and Ruffalo) and (spoiler, but not really unless you count history as a spoiler) eventually killed one of them for unknown reasons. Looks rather dark and a bit creepy, but Miller has proven to be good at capturing dark, creepy true stories without sensationalizing them (see, e.g., "Capote").


THE IMITATION GAME (Nov. 21)
directed by Morten Tyldum
starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode

The star of BBC's "Sherlock" and unlikely Internet heartthrob takes on the meaty, Oscar-baity role of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who helped decrypt the Nazis' communication codes during WWII and lay the foundations of modern computer science, only to be later convicted of (and punished for) homosexuality. Cumberbatch is probably hoping the film meets with a warmer reception than last fall's "The Fifth Estate"; it should help that Turing is a much easier figure to root for than Julian Assange.


WILD (Dec. 5)
directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
based on the book by Cheryl Strayed

The title of the book is a bit clunky - Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - but the story it recounts is surprisingly compelling, a kind of mash-up of Eat Pray Love and Into the Wild, only with a more sympathetic protagonist. Fundamentally it's as much a tale of letting go of real, palpable, soul-crushing grief (as opposed to the usual vague, diffuse malaise/white First Worlder discontent with modern society) as it is of surviving in the wild despite a woeful lack of preparation. I'm not sure how effectively Strayed's spiritual journey can be conveyed on film, but Reese, a capable actress who hasn't been challenged enough lately, should give it her best shot. At the very least, the scenery should be beautiful.


INHERENT VICE (Dec. 12)
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short
based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon's brand of southern California noir is one of a kind, as is the hero he created for Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello: think Philip Marlowe reimagined as a permanently stoned hippie. As an actor Phoenix seems a bit too introverted for the part of Sportello, but I've no doubt he's got the chops to make it his own, and Josh Brolin is pretty perfectly cast as his nemesis, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Can't wait to see what director P.T. Anderson - who lord knows has plenty of experience filming oddballs and misfits - will do with them and the rest of Pynchon's wacked-out characters, not to mention his byzantine Chandler-on-acid plot.


INTO THE WOODS (Dec. 25)
directed by Rob Marshall
starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt
based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim

Confession: I've never seen Into the Woods. Assuming the movie does at least reasonable justice to the musical, it seems like the easiest way to address that deficiency. Plus Meryl Streep is awesome.


Other movies I'm keeping an eye out for: BIRDMAN, wherein confirmed miserabilist Alejandro González Iñárritu (aka man whose films make me want to shoot myself) tries his hand at comedy - or at least dramedy - with help from Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone; ROSEWATER because it's Jon Stewart's labor of love; THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 because the first two movies were good, even though dividing up the last one into two parts still annoys me no end; SELMA because we need to be reminded of that history; UNBROKEN because I heard the book was good, even though I never read it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer movie roundup

After a slow start, it turned out to be a pretty good summer for movies. For the second year in a row, an unusually strong showing on the indie/arthouse front counterbalanced a weaker than usual slate of franchise blockbusters ("Guardians of the Galaxy" being the notable exception to the latter). Here are my top five films of summer 2014:

1. LIFE ITSELF

Based on Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, this isn't so much a documentary as a lovely, well rounded portrait of a lovely, well rounded man - and no, I'm not making any cheap fat jokes here. As a movie lover who grew up watching Siskel & Ebert "At the Movies" I'm clearly the target audience for this film, engagingly directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"). But even those who don't share my bias should find it exceptionally well made, equal parts humorous and poignant, though shading more to the latter as it explores Ebert's final years struggling with the debilitating medical problems that he eventually succumbed to last year. Ultimately, however, it's an uplifting tribute to...well, life itself. Best part: the clips of Siskel and Ebert sniping at each other between takes of their TV show. GRADE: A

2. BOYHOOD

The ever-experimental-minded Richard Linklater shot this film over the course of 12 years, using the same actors, to depict a boy growing up. It may sound like a gimmick, but the end result feels remarkably organic. Like most of Linklater's previous work, it's rather loosely knit and, with a few exceptions, doesn't follow the usual narrative or dramatic beats of a "coming of age" film; rather, it's content to take a snapshot approach to the boy's life, showing as much interest (if not more) in the incidental and liminal moments of childhood as in the more conventional milestones. But that's a big part of what makes it ring so true emotionally - that, and the wholly natural screen presence of Ellar Koltrane, a non-actor who literally matures before our eyes. GRADE: B+/A-

3. THE IMMIGRANT

James Gray continues to be one of the most underrated American directors working today, as evidenced by how little attention his latest film received - sadly far less than it deserved. Part of the problem might be that Gray's style feels more European than American (there's a reason his work has been more acclaimed in Europe than here): his films tend to focus on the unspoken undercurrents of ambiguous, often messy relationships and how these dynamics are affected by subtle social and class differences; despite recurring elements of violence, they have a quiet, almost muted tone and color palette, and they're usually anchored by Joaquin Phoenix in full-on enigmatic mode. All these features are present in "The Immigrant," which stars Marion Cotillard as a beautiful, much put-upon Polish immigrant trying to find her way in 1920s New York, with Phoenix as her dark but not quite evil angel and Jeremy Renner as his slicker, more extroverted rival. What could have devolved into trite melodrama becomes a fascinating study of outsiders trying to fit in, and Cotillard delivers a compelling performance despite - or perhaps because of - a sometimes frustratingly (I think deliberately) opaque affect. Her final moments with Phoenix are some of the most powerful I've seen all year, as well as the most visually stunning. GRADE: B+/A-

4. A MOST WANTED MAN

Amid pop culture's perennial oversupply of espionage thrillers, there's no one quite like John le Carré for conveying the gray, morally enervating universe that real spies occupy and attempt, with varying degrees of futility, to manipulate in the service of an illusory greater good. Though set in post-9/11 Hamburg and definitely contemporary in its specific political concerns, "A Most Wanted Man" feels like vintage le Carré, and director Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American") is the perfect match for his bleak yet gripping world view. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last movie roles, is excellent as Gunther, a jaded German intelligence operative who painstakingly sets up a web to trap a suspected terrorism financier. The supporting cast, too, is solid, with Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright as particular standouts. The film moves at a deliberate pace but never drags or loses its overarching sense of anxious urgency, and the ending, while abrupt, is also devastating. GRADE: B+/A-

5. BEGIN AGAIN

Yes, this is basically "Once" refitted and glossed up for a broader, American audience - relocated from Dublin to NYC, and re-cast with high-prestige actors like Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Catherine Keener, plus pop music A-listers like Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Mos Def (or whatever he calls himself now). The engaging scruffiness of the original is completely scrubbed away, and the music isn't nearly as good. Yet the basic formula - two emotionally wounded souls find platonic solace making a record together - still works, and the film has a surprising freshness and breezy, unforced charm, thanks in large part to the appealingly low-key chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo and the easy rapport among all the actors and musicians. GRADE:B+

Honorable Mentions:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Who'd have thought this band of second-tier Marvel misfits would turn out one of the biggest box office hits and most widely liked movies of the summer? Not me. But count me among those won over by their Hollywood debut. It's fast-moving, light-hearted fun, and gets great comic mileage playing off the character contrasts between the Guardians. Occasionally it tries a little too hard to be funny (Chris Pratt, I'm looking at you), but for every line that misfires there's at least a dozen guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. While the movie knows not to take itself seriously, it also knows when to be serious and mostly pulls off those moments as well. It's not quite the best superhero movie of the year ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier" still holds that honor in my book), though the truth is "Guardians" is far closer in sensibility to goofy space-opera serial adventures like Buckaroo Banzai and OG "Star Wars" - and not just because it features not one but two Han Solo characters, one of whom happens to be a talking CGI raccoon. GRADE: B/B+

FRANK

Why would you cast Michael Fassbender as a lead character and then cover his face with a giant paper-mâché head? Maybe because Fassbender, apart from being a stud, is also a damn fine actor who can convey volumes through body language alone. In this offbeat British indie production, he plays a gifted, mentally troubled musician who's not quite ready for the 15 minutes of fame that an ambitious but talentless bandmate aggressively pushes on him. The film bears the tricky task of balancing quirky comedy and sensitive treatment of mental illness - and for the most part succeeds. But the main reason to watch it is Fassbender, who does some of his best work without showing his face - no mean feat. GRADE: B/B+


The rest of the movies I saw this summer, in roughly descending order of preference (even though they're all bunched pretty close to one another):

22 Jump Street
It won't win any awards - but what can I say, I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed its predecessor. Better in some ways than "21 Jump Street," as the last 20 minutes didn't drag as much. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill continue to be one of Hollywood's funniest and unlikeliest comic duos, and Ice Cube is a hoot, too. GRADE: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Solid, serviceable installment in the franchise that makes good use of its two generations of actors playing Dr. X and Magneto; James McAvoy is particularly good as a disillusioned young Charles. The parts set in the past (the 1970s) are stronger and more entertaining than the parts set in the future. Oh, and any movie that features a gratuitous Hugh Jackman-as-Wolverine bare butt shot gets an automatic grade hike from me. GRADE: B

Chef
Essentially the same movie as "Begin Again": dude in mid-life and mid-career crisis rediscovers his love of his calling by making a fresh, personal, totes realz product he really believes in (here, Cuban sandwiches from a food truck) - and in the process, reconciles with his estranged family. Of the two, "Begin Again" is by far the better movie; but as romantic fantasy, food porn, and travelogue, "Chef" goes down perfectly easily. GRADE: B

Edge of Tomorrow (now called "Live. Die. Repeat." WTF?)
In the words of an Internet wag, think "Groundhog D-Day," with Tom Cruise playing the role of the less-than-sympathetic protagonist who must live the same day over and over again until he gets it right - only here he's a soldier at war, so we get to see him offed repeatedly. A well-cast Cruise evolves from overly slick, hollow-patter salesman-Tom Cruise to earnest, clenched-jaw action hero-Tom Cruise, with an able assist from Emily Blunt as a celebrated female warrior who knows his secret. Their choose-your-own style adventure is fun enough to watch, though the ending feels like a cop-out. GRADE: B

Snowpiercer
A wacky multicultural mélange of a film (Korean director, French source material, mixed American, British, and Korean cast) that hasn't entirely blended its disparate elements. Inventive it certainly is; thoroughly reasoned, not so much - though what can you expect from a movie about a class revolt on a train of the Future that circles the globe endlessly, carrying the remnants of humanity after a climate change catastrophe? Up till the ending, which just went several steps too far into the realm of implausibility for me, it's pretty trippy fun - if you can deal with the wild tonal swings and somewhat jarring juxtaposition of naturalistic and highly mannered actorly turns (Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton representing the two extremes). GRADE: B

Get On Up
A biopic that tries to shake up the standard biopic formula by jumping around chronologically between different stages of James Brown's life. The results are mixed, as the final product feels like a handful of great scenes interspersed with biographical filler. Still, Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in last year's "42") is dynamite as the late Godfather of Soul. The movie's worth seeing for him alone, as well as for the nicely drawn relationship between Brown and his friend/collaborator/upstaged bandmate, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, also terrific). GRADE: B

Lucy
Passably entertaining, though it gets pretty loopy (Luc Besson style) and is not at all what the previews suggest it to be. It also suffers from the fact that Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) abandons her humanity early on, making it next to impossible to empathize with her, and the fact that the whole "humans use only 10% of their brains" myth is total crock. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

Before last night, I hadn't thought about Robin Williams - really thought about him, for more than a passing moment - in years. I certainly hadn't seen him in a movie in over a decade, and I hadn't bothered to check out his recently-cancelled TV show.

Yet the news of his death carried all the impact of a personal loss. And judging from the reactions of my friends and peers, I'm far from alone. For my generation, Robin Williams was like that uncle who you thought was the coolest, funniest man in the world when you were little, who might have begun to seem less cool and a bit corny as you grew older, but for whom you always had a solid core of residual affection and who you assumed would be around forever. Until he wasn't.

I knew him better as an actor than as a comedian. I was a little too young to have watched him as Mork, and I didn't see any of his stand-up routines. Still, it didn't take much exposure to his comic personality to get a good sense of its feverish exuberance - the almost manic energy that sometimes came off as too much of a good thing. Sometimes he managed to channel it into his movie roles ("Good Morning, Vietnam" being maybe the best example, and of course "Aladdin"; unlike many, I never did care much for "Mrs. Doubtfire"). But what struck me early on was his ability to dial back and play it completely straight, whether as a dryly sardonic ex-shrink ("Dead Again") or a shy, earnest doctor learning what it really means to be alive ("Awakenings"). [Note: I have not seen "The Fisher King," though I just bumped it up on my Netflix queue.]

For me, though, and undoubtedly for many others my age, his signature role will always be Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society." I haven't watched that film since VHS tapes were still widely available, and I suspect I would find many more faults with it now than I did as an adolescent or a twentysomething. But I have no doubt that Robin Williams' performance still holds up. What remains with me most clearly and poignantly isn't so much Keating's classroom lessons in yawping and seizing the day as a quieter scene in his office, when he tries to persuade Robert Sean Leonard's budding young actor to be honest with himself and with his father. Gone is any hint of playful posturing or pontificating to make a point; this Keating isn't there to inspire but to inquire, and to draw out his student's innermost fears. In this respect, it was a dry run for the movie that finally won Williams the Oscar, "Good Will Hunting." He was great in that. But Dead Poets came first, and will always have pride of place in my heart.

"Good Will Hunting" arguably marked the apex of a career that ranged wildly in quality; even after becoming a huge star, Williams made a good deal of dreck that hardly matched his talent or his Juilliard training. While he continued to be effective in roles that tapped into his dark side ("Insomnia," "One Hour Photo"), he was also drawn to movies that seemed to wallow in the most cloying kind of sentimentality ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Bicentennial Man," admittedly none of which I've actually seen). Looking back, I can't help seeing this dichotomy as a manifestation of the tension within Williams himself, even though I ordinarily resist inflicting dime-store psychoanalysis on people I've never met. It's something of a truism, after all, that comedians struggle with deeper depression and darker demons than most people; comedy is their defense against the darkness. In Williams' case, though, the truism seems especially true: even the bathos, as well as the madcap comedy, embodied a palpable desire to connect, to love and be loved.

Which brings me back to why so many of us felt so hard hit after the initial shock of his death. Whatever you thought of his comic persona(s) or his movies, it was almost impossible to feel anything but good will towards him. The man exuded benevolence - a rare quality in most comedians, who tend to have at least something of the asshole about them - and was by all accounts a mensch in real life as well. I don't pretend to know whether or why he took his own life, and I don't presume to know. All I know is that whatever misery he may have endured, he contributed great joy to the world, and I hope he took some comfort in that.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mad Men 7-7: Waterloo

More and more in recent years, "Mad Men" seems to delight in up-ending its viewers' expectations, and the "mid-season" finale of its final season was an especially pointed example of this trend. I'm not talking about the Ghost of Bert's little song-and-dance routine (though I'll get to that in a bit). I mean, more generally, that the episode took a number of turns I did not see coming, and that every time I thought I knew where it was going it would move in another direction entirely. It zigged where I expected it to zag.

As I watched, I thought the narrative was about moving on - that it was building towards Don's finally leaving Sterling Cooper and resigning himself to that fact, as evidenced by his handoff of the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy. I thought Ted, too, would leave the firm to lick his emotional wounds in peace. When Roger picked up the phone and his face registered bad news, I thought something had happened to his daughter - not Bert Cooper. I thought Sally was going to kiss the hunky college-bound son of her mother's friend, not his geeky star-watching younger brother.

Above all, I most certainly did not anticipate that Roger's power play against Cutler would succeed. Or that it would result in Sterling Cooper getting absorbed into McCann, after so deftly avoiding the larger firm's clutches just a few years earlier.

Was it a victory? A hollow victory? Just another corporate reshuffling, with an even bigger payout for its partners? Hard to say at this point, though on the whole it felt like a muted and ironic echo of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" (still my favorite MM episode ever). Any thrill we might feel in seeing Roger and Don outmaneuver Cutler has to be weighed against the final word on their move: Don's vision (hallucination?) of Bert cavorting and crooning "The Best Things in Life Are Free." As commentary goes, it was as oblique as it was surreal. It could be a warning - a reminder that money isn't everything. Or it could just be a cute nod to the actor playing Bert, Robert Morse, who had a storied career on Broadway long before we knew him as Bert, including a Tony in 1962 for the lead role in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. No question it's that, and yet the tie-in of the song to the moon landing, the event that formed the linchpin of the episode, makes me think it's more than just that.

"The moon belongs to everyone," so the song goes, and so it does - but in the world of Apollo 11, it isn't free, as Sally's rejected boy toy snarks, a party-pooping complaint that seems as insufferable and small-minded today as it probably did back then. Or does it? Given that the moon landing arguably marked the apex of the U.S. space program, rather than the beginning of a major ascension, it may sound a cautionary note for the next phase of Sterling Cooper. "It's a lot of money," as even the defeated Cutler admits, but it's no guarantor of the firm's future. Like the space program, Sterling Cooper may never be valued as much as it is at this moment.

That said, for most of us, at least, what happens to the company itself is less important than what happens to its individual members, particularly - and I never thought I'd say this, given how much he's exasperated me over the years - Don. And it's not all dim there. Just because he's staying rather than moving on doesn't mean he hasn't learned to value what really matters: Loyalty; good work - the kind that matters to him; his family. It was lovely to watch him encourage Peggy to step up and assure her she could do it, and even lovelier to watch her go on and prove him right. I also liked that he called his kids while watching the moon landing, and that he indirectly helped turn Sally's attention from the meathead to the budding astronomer. And even though he clearly had self-interest at stake in persuading Ted to stay on, too, the thrust of his pitch ("You don't want to see what happens when it's really gone") rang true - which is why Ted bought it.

So in a sense, Don has made progress, even if it's still halting and fragmented. It's been a slow journey, but it's almost over - and I can't wait to see how it ends.

Random observations:

-The episode is titled "Waterloo," which strikes me as a bit ominous, especially with Bert's admonition that even after a deposed Napoleon won back his throne, he still ended up back on an island. The analogy was directed at Don, but one can't help wondering if there are implications for Sterling Cooper as well. Then again, per Roger, it could just have been a sign of Bert's imminent demise.

-Gotta hand it to Roger for pulling off the coup, even if it ultimately leads to the death of SC as we know it. I did not think he had it in him. Neither, apparently, did Bert, which might have been precisely what drove Roger to pull it off.

-Of course even an imaginary dancing Bert would still be in socks. Of course.

-I've enjoyed the dynamic between Peggy and Julio, even if the latter felt more like a device/lens for her character than a character in his own right. I did love how Peggy seamlessly incorporated him into her Burger Chef pitch as the "ten-year-old boy" waiting for her at home. That was Peggy to a T - brilliant, almost ruthlessly pragmatic in her calculations, and yet, at bottom, undergirded by sincere emotion. I also liked the bemused reactions of Don and Pete, who probably thought she was making it up.

-But speaking of Peggy and Pete and ten-year-old boys, wouldn't their kid be about that age by now?

-Pete's unshakeable faith in Don is rather touching, even if he sees the man primarily as a high-priced, "very sensitive piece of horseflesh."

-I shouldn't take such joy in Roger's constantly screwing over Harry, but I do. I'd feel bad about Harry losing his partnership, on top of getting divorced, if he weren't such a douche.

-Speaking of the ever-expanding Divorced Mad Men's Club, I also loved that scene in the plane when Pete divines that Don and Megan are splitting. There's a moment of shared, glum commiseration between the three men (Don, Pete, Harry) before Pete spits out, "Marriage is a racket."

-I don't know if this is the last time we'll see Megan. If it is, I have to give props to Jessica Pare, who's really knocked it out of the park this season, even if her character's storyline has never been as compelling as the others'. The whole gradual, gentle decline of her marriage to Don has been quite well done. I appreciate that it's basically been without rancor, in contrast to his split with Betty.

-This was a great episode for Priceless WTF Looks from Don Draper: there's his reaction to dancing Bert, of course, but almost better was his response to ditz queen Meredith's advances. ("Tell me what I can do." "You can get my attorney on the phone.")

-For anyone else who thought Betty's friend (the mother of the two boys Sally flirted with) looked vaguely familiar, that's Kellie Martin, who had a recurring role on "E.R." (as Lucy, the ill-fated med student) and, before that, "Life Goes On." Way to make us thirtysomethings feel old!

-Line of the week: Telescope boy, after Sally kisses him - "What do I do now?"