Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

February 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.

The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.

While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.

He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.

With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.

The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.

The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.

There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.

My rating: :D

Boyhood

January 30, 2015 by  
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Richard Linklater has a way of turning the mundane and ordinary into something fascinating and hypnotic. Whether it’s the sweet, comical “Dazed and Confused” or the more subdued “Before Sunrise”, Linklater can pull you into his narrative with his aloof style that somehow keeps you watching. Maybe it’s the engaging characters or the appealing dialog, but I’ve never sat through one of his films and felt bored and detached, even though the atmosphere sometimes brings those kinds of characters to life.

With “Boyhood”, Linklater really tests your patience because the film clocks in at almost 3 hours (2 hrs 44 min). It follows 12 years in the life of a family, focusing on Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) growing up–but even though the film is called “Boyhood”, I think it deals with life in general as well as adolescence and maturity.

The story begins when Mason is 6 years old, living with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) in an apartment. Olivia has a bachelor-like boyfriend who doesn’t like that she has kids and a lifestyle that doesn’t fit his, so the two breakup. She decides to move back near her mother, taking the kids with her, so they can start a better life. She wants to go to school and she wants the kids to be in a house. Their biological father steps back into the picture (played by Ethan Hawke), and he represents the cool, irresponsible life that Olivia’s trying to leave behind. Mason Sr. lets the kids have fun and tells them about current events and things, but has very little to share about what it means to be accountable for anything.

As Mason grows up, they move in with various families, and home situations that are less than ideal. One stepfather seems like a good guy and has it all together, but soon unravels and shows himself to be an abusive drunk behind the picket fence and pretty white house. There’s an ex-military stepdad who tries to be nonchalant about the kids’ lives, but he seems unhappy and uninterested in helping them out too. He also is keen on drinking. But the film doesn’t have big dramatic moments or steep itself in sentimentality or melodrama. There’s almost a lazy eye feel to the insight into the characters’ lives. It’s not unfeeling, it just doesn’t have an agenda of obligatory drama.

The film, while lengthy, never stays in one place too long–much like the characters. There are a lot of elements thrown into the story, moving at a pace that lingers just long enough to reflect on a situation. In some ways I felt like many of the little stories could have been their own movies. This could’ve been a miniseries.

It still works as a film, though. Mason’s life is interesting, and as he grows up, he does become a bit insufferable as the artsy, pretentious, hipster-like “intellectual”. The film begins with him being very quiet but ends with him always having something to say. I didn’t feel that Linklater was trying to make a point of saying Mason was “what you should be” when you grow up, or make some statement about how intelligent kids can be. This is what an adolescent does. His sister Samantha forms the same kind of life, shutting out most of her family as she grows up. And Olivia, being the wanna-be responsible but utterly hopeless nomad, seems to be stuck in the middle rather than taking control. While she seems to criticize Mason Sr.’s instability with his own life, she doesn’t show that she has much of a handle on her own.

The flaws of the parents can be seen as destructive to their kids’ lives–but this film is not about judging them. It’s not a judgment at all. It’s simply a glimpse into people’s lives. You can take whatever you want from their decisions, opinions, lifestyles, what have you. Many people won’t agree with how they go about their lives. But Linklater’s not lecturing or proving a point. Sometimes life is just about observing, and reflecting.

As Mason Jr. states, rather well, late in the film–“It’s always right now”. And this film is living in that moment throughout. It’s engrossing, sometimes chilling, sometimes funny, but always interesting; and in the end, satisfying.

My rating: :-)

Whiplash

January 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” says Terence Fletcher, a hard nosed, no nonsense but two-faced jazz teacher. Fletcher, played with vitality by J.K. Simmons (“Spider-man”, “Juno”), teaches at Shaffer Conservatory, and has the most talented musicians at his fingertips. He conducts the jazz ensemble like a drill sergeant, mocking his students when they mess up–even when they haven’t. He expects perfection, and is willing to squeeze every ounce of respectability out of himself to get it. He’ll swear, throw things, bark, threaten, whatever. But he demands the best, and it seems as though he gets the best, too.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young apprentice, an aspiring jazz drummer who has been playing since a young age, looking up to guys like Buddy Rich to inspire him. He plays with a certain drive and fervor that Fletcher likes, and invites him to be a backup drummer (basically turn the music sheets for the starter in the ensemble) to get a taste of being part of the prestigious Shaffer, boosting his ego enough to ask out the local theater girl (Melissa Benoist), and practice his skills. Fletcher seems impressed with his abilities, and he allows Neiman a shot at the drums after the lead drummer loses his music sheets (possibly a scheme hatched by Fletcher). He tells Neiman to “just have fun”–but Fletcher instantly turns on him when he doesn’t hear what he wants to hear.

Neiman is at first high on himself and egotistical for earning the first spot, and somewhat brags at the dinner table to his dad (Paul Reiser) and family members. He mocks a star football athlete at the table, since he’s only Division 3, and maintains that he will be one of the greats. He also breaks up with Nicole, the theatre girl, promising that as his drumming gets more serious, he will not have time for her.

Fletcher plays games with Neiman, allowing another alternate to take the first chair, and putting Neiman down in the process, knowing he’s hurting him. But Fletcher doesn’t care. Only in a very surreal moment when Fletcher stops practice to tearfully lament about a former student’s fatal car accident, do we ever possibly see a “softer” side of him.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle masterfully puts this story together, where it first seems like a standard “kid who really wants to make it and against all odds breaks through” story, it winds up going in a completely different direction. It’s refreshing to see a fresh spin on something seemingly predictable. While it still follows a formula and never strays from being a coherent narrative, there are surprises and climaxes that are exhilarating.

The last 10 minutes of the film had me holding my breath, clinging to my seat, as Andrew beats on drums so fast his hands bleed. He’s desperate…but he’s not desperate to impress anyone. This story is not about how a young kid became a great jazz drummer. It’s not even really a story about jazz. All of the jazz used (songs by Hank Levy and Juan Tizol) is aggressive, muscular…it’s not something to grab a cup of tea and relax to. There’s a fever pitch to the music, which burns inside Andrew and it burns inside Fletcher as well. The film is about obsession, mania, losing yourself to the work you are putting in. It’s not about practicing or rehearsals, or the big show, even though all of those elements are in the film. All Andrew wants to do is drum, and when he gets over his own ego, realizes that the whole world can disappear for all he cares as long as he’s finally “got it”. And Fletcher knows that.

There’s a story that’s passed along in the movie that is a bit made up but based on fact. It involves Charlie “Bird” Parker, where Fletcher relates the story as Parker was performing badly and a cymbal was thrown at his head by Jo Jones, creating the nickname “Bird” because of his reflexes. After that night, Parker never made a mistake again and became legendary. In reality, a cymbal was not thrown at his head. But the point of the story is not even about making a mistake and being punished for it. It’s the obsessive nature of having to be perfect–and not to perform. But to be within perfection itself. It’s so that you have total control over your art, or whatever you do. The film’s standard protagonist is Neiman, and people would say Fletcher is the antagonist. In a way I think both of them are protagonists, and I think the antagonist is the obsession, with the object being jazz. Sure Fletcher is a brute, but what lengths he goes to in order to teach perfection is no less than the lengths Andrew goes to achieve it. It’s compelling, but not preachy or moral.

And it’s certainly not easy listening.

My rating: :D

Nightcrawler

November 20, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

When you watch the news, you are not watching reality. You are watching a version of reality. You’re watching a story. You can only experience reality on a personal level–if you were there. But it’s not news when it happens to you, it’s your life. The role of media has always seemed to be to shape some kind of moral narrative arc to better ourselves by learning from it–if we take the right thoughts away from it. Like, if you see crime, and you see what happens to criminals, you don’t want to commit crime. Especially if you see how vile, violent, and devastating it can be. Of course, not all news is like this. And I may even be reading into it more than needbe–but if there’s one thing to take away from the film “Nightcrawler”, the directorial debut of a very promising young filmmaker named Dan Gilroy, it’s that exploitation in news media shapes the narrative more than anything else.

I can’t say “Nightcrawlers” is a full on satire; but it does exaggerate some truths and take liberties to get the point across. However, in most of what you see, it doesn’t seem far fetched to believe and the character of Louis Bloom absolutely seems like someone who could exist. Bloom is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in possibly his most engaging performance I’ve ever seen. He’s a dichotomy. He presents himself as very professional, speaks in a precise tone; while he’s verbose, he’s very knowledgeable and even clever. But he’s also a petty thief, a pathological liar and morally bankrupt. This seems to be the perfect blend for his new endeavor. He starts off as just a pilferer who wants to make a quick buck; but then he’s enticed to shooting footage for a news show after watching an amateur film crew cover a car accident. Bloom becomes obsessed, and buys a camera and a police scanner.

He hires a naive but desperate assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) to help him navigate to hot spots to get there before the other “nightcrawlers” do. One of his rivals, played by Bill Paxton, begins to take notice of Bloom’s rising success and competence with the camera. And his willingness to get really close to the story in order to shoot it. Bloom also gets a good reputation with the news station he sells his work to, headed by Nina (Rene Russo). Bloom declines Joe (Paxton)’s offer to join his team, and even does something rather extreme in order to keep an edge over them to get footage before they arrive.

It leads to the heart of the plot, in which Rick and Lou witness a break-in homicide that occurs before police even arrive. Lou enters the house and captures footage from the entire house before the police get there, and sells it to the news station. The story becomes a huge sensation, leading Lou to greater heights. But that’s still not enough for him. He has to finish the story. So he gets Rick to join him in actually following the murderers and tracking them before calling police, and setting up a potential shoot out.

The climax of this film is one of the most intense endings I’ve seen in a long time. It is on par with the level of suspense as “The French Connection”, and it’s refreshing to see a “car chase” that actually feels like you are along for the ride.

While you have to suspend disbelief in following Lou’s exploits (how does he never get pulled over for speeding or get in trouble with the law for impeding on their crime scenes?), Gilroy is not interested in the legality of what Bloom does.

In fact, what Gilroy may even be saying is…that’s what news is. It breaks the law, the boundaries, in order to shock you and entertain you. Because ultimately that’s what news is. It is not reality. Not completely. Because it’s not truly honest. And Bloom is the perfect representation of that. He will go to any length, sacrifice any moral path or sensibility to get what he wants. And what are his consequences?

Well, we get the story. We get the blood and gore and sad and tragic “truth” of the world. But while we see what he shows us and are shocked by the murders, we can’t be any less shocked at what lengths he goes through to get that footage of these horrible crimes. He is the ultimate media darling.

And that’s Gilroy’s ultimate message, and that’s why this is a very strong film. He knows what story he wants to tell and tells it concisely, pulling no punches, and leaving us breathless.

It’s something Lou Bloom would be proud of, if not for being caught in the headlights while he witnesses it.

My rating: :D

Gone Girl

October 27, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

Gillian Flynn could style herself as the 21st century’s “it” girl when it comes to writing flashy novels and even flashier screenplays, turning the movieworld on its head with some savage social commentary and sexy characters that actually make us tingle with excitement.

I’d buy that for a dollar.

In “Gone Girl”, Flynn’s third novel and her first screenplay, she shows she’s a bit green but fully capable of handling her material on the big screen. It helps tremendously to get a visual director such as David Fincher, who has had a very successful career in this century–and knows how to weave a spellbinding story into something timeless. He’s done that with “Se7en”, “Fight Club” and “Zodiac”. And here, in “Gone Girl”, he uses a big canvas with Flynn’s somewhat long and winding screenplay that delivers the goods–albeit the run time wears down its welcome in its closing moments.

The story revolves around a married couple that is starting to fall apart in their relationship as their personal lives are following suit. Nick (Ben Affleck) was a somewhat successful writer in New York; Amy (Rosamund Pike) has grown up somewhat living off her parents’ wealth and a reputation built from a character that her mother created, Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy is a popular children’s book series, much like Ramona from Beverly Cleary. Amy of course lives in the shadow of Amazing Amy, and therefore we get our first glimpse into a dichotomy of character. Both of them lose their jobs and have to move out of New York to Nick’s home town in Missouri to care for his ailing mother, who dies of cancer. This leaves them in a big house and an empty lifestyle.

Amy has an enormous trust fund from her parents and uses some of it to start up a bar (called simply The Bar) with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). On the morning of their 5th wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing in a peculiar way. Nick cannot figure it out, especially since his wife was leaving “clues” for him leading up to their 5th anniversary gift (she did this every year for them). But the police begin to get suspicious of his odd behavior, and the media immediately is attracted to the story due to the profile of Amy being a young, blond beauty–and being based on a popular pop culture character.

As the plot continues, more themes emerge about the phoniness of humanity and the pressures the media puts on stories, making something out of nothing, wild accusations that lead the court of popular opinion to decide a person’s fate. But meanwhile, as the story unfolds, a few surprises change our minds about the characters in very distinct and severe ways.

One of the intriguing supporting characters is that of Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), who is surprisingly not a suspect but used to stalk Amy. Because Nick has garnered all of the negative attention, especially when it’s revealed that he had an affair while married, Desi simply exists as wallpaper until his character becomes very prominent in the latter half of the second act.

Nick also hires a high powered and highly successful lawyer (think Johnny Cochran) played inexplicably by Tyler Perry, and they try to find a way to save Nick’s life as it’s fairly imminent that he will be tried for the death penalty if everyone believes Amy is dead.

Flynn has a very sharp pen, and has a sharp and dark look on the world of marriage and relationships in general. I wouldn’t say she’s a full blown cynic–it’s just that we are talking about very superficial people to pick apart. That’s not too hard to do, but she uses them as a jumping off point. There’s also TV show hosts and the mob mentality of the public that seems to want to ruin other people’s lives without worrying about their own business.

There’s a joke at the end about being on a reality show that rings true to the characters–but I almost feel like that joke should’ve done visually to end the film on a slam dunk, rather than have it used as a throwaway line.

Most of the satire and social commentary is deliciously satiable. There are a few routes where it could have gone that may have made an even bigger point (it never really gets into social media, which would be a prime target right now); but overall, I found the film thoroughly enjoyable. The performances by Affleck and Pike are top notch–Affleck is perfectly cast as a somewhat aloof Everyman, and Pike has that little touch of elitism and snottiness that makes her appealing and revolting at the same time. Coon is also very good as the doting sister of Nick, and even Perry turns in a good performance as the lawyer.

As I mentioned, the ending drags on a bit longer than it needs to and I still think a visual comment about the status of phony people would have been more potent than drawing out the ending in exposition. By the last scene, however–which is a bookend and repeated from the first scene–it’s still palatable. There also may have been a  lot of potential Nick and Amy’s in the theater getting a kick out of this movie. While it certainly is entertaining and I think a married couple can have a good time watching it–it certainly can serve a purpose as more than just a movie about two people who probably shouldn’t have married each other to begin with. Maybe its larger point that people marry because of what society tells them than what their heart does that should stick with you–and hopefully does not get lost in an otherwise hoot of a film.

My rating: :-)

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 6, 2014 by  
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I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.

What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.

The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.

There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.

So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.

But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.

There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).

The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.

Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.

And I look very much forward to seeing them.

My rating: :D

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 23, 2014 by  
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I was not a big fan of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; however, I was not averse to the series being rebooted. I was hoping for something a little more brazen and daring, maybe. Like the original Rod Serling-penned film was. I know that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be and it’s harder for mainstream films to have a “message” that isn’t politically correct or sometimes downright cloying; but the “Apes” series was about change, and progression. It was a social commentary about race relations and bigotry–something that still and always will permeate society. “Rise” seemed to fall short on that, and the storyline just felt predictable and easy. That said, I did appreciate Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. He seems to be right at home as a CGI enhanced character.

Here he returns as Caesar, but things have changed dramatically for planet earth. The virus hinted at in “Rise” has now wiped out a good portion of the human population, and apes are unaffected. They are, however, pretty smart and have evolved (oops, careful) into a healthy society. Caesar is their leader, with his old friend and wingman, Koba (Toby Kebbell) at his side. He also has a son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is suffering from an illness after the second son is born. The apes seem to be living happy as a tribe, until they are met with a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Koba hates all humans, but Caesar isn’t so quick to dismiss them all. He knows there is good in them, he just has a hard time trusting them. When it’s discovered that the humans need to access a dam to give power to their dwellings outside the forest, Caesar has to make a choice to trust them. The dam happens to be in their jurisdiction. The humans are desperate, with only enough fuel at their compound to last another week. The leader, Drefyus (Gary Oldman), doesn’t really have an opinion on the apes, he just considers them animals. But Malcolm has seen their intelligence and isn’t intimidated as much as he is fascinated. He and Caesar strike a bond, with Caesar most likely remembering his younger years as a subject with Will (James Franco, making a cameo appearance in an old video that Caesar stumbles upon when he is in his old abandoned home). Caesar lets the humans do their “human work”–then, Koba reminds him, in a well done scene, that he, too, has had “human work”. He points to his scars, and simply says, “Human work”. The apes can talk, but primitively. They can complete sentences, but they cannot yet talk as well as, say, Dr. Zaius.

The strongest performances come from Serkis and Clarke as Caesar and Malcolm. Director Matt Reeves is wise to allow the film to breathe once in a while and give some time to flesh out the characters. Malcolm has a son, but lost his wife to the virus. His love interest, played well by Keri Russel, lost a child as well, and tries to form a bond with Malcolm’s son, named Alexander. Alexander begins a bit of a friendship with the Orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). But it’s Caesar’s friendship with Malcolm that pushes this story along–although I will also mention that the story of Caesar and his son Blue Eyes is strong as well. Caesar finds that he can trust Malcolm, but not everyone. A member of his crew, Carver, hates the apes and plays one of the unfortunately strawman villains that is simply in there to stir things up. Koba, who is a stronger villain, somewhat dwindles into a stereotypical antagonist by the end as well but he does have some strong earlier scenes. I think the best scene with Koba involves him infiltrating the humans’ military compound where two moronic guys are testing guns. He acts like a dumb circus ape (a bonobo to be exact), and gets the guys to lower their defenses when he suddenly grabs their gun and “accidentally” kills one. The other one, terrified and astounded at the same time, suffers the same fate except Koba shows that he knows exactly what he’s doing this time.

The climactic battle between humans and apes is an exciting one, and impressive for it being almost entirely CG. Nothing looks phony or out of whack (although I wouldn’t recommend wasting the extra money to see it in 3-D, it does absolutely nothing). In the end, both Caesar and Malcolm know that no matter how much they want peace, it’s always the violence that wins out. Finally, we get a bit of that old “Apes” film feel when we know we’re just all doomed. The end certainly sets up another sequel, and I won’t give away how it all unfolds. But it is very strong, and very convincing, something that I just felt was lacking in “Rise”. This is a very well done sequel, and should be considered among the “better than the original” sequels like “The Godfather II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. It moves at a good pace for a film that’s over two hours, and the performances are all very well done.

If there was a necessary injection to give life into the franchise, this one delivers and is just what it needed, even after a soft origin film.

My rating: :-)

Godzilla (2014)

May 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I suppose it’s not really a necessity to have another Godzilla film, especially made in America–but if we were going to have one, this one is certainly passable. It has a very complex plot for a monster film (but then again, so did “Pacific Rim”), and it misses out on a few notes in its character narrative; but as a monster film, it’s pitch perfect. We don’t get to see the King of the Monsters in all his glory for a long time; but when we do, it’s pretty fantastic.

The story begins with a credit sequence that takes us through little snippets of classified documents that show pictures revealing something that looks like an island in the ocean. During the 1950’s the US tries to destroy it, identifying it as a monster, with nuclear weaponry. Instead of killing it, however, it is later revealed that these giant creatures actually feed off of radiation. When we first meet one of our main characters, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (well played by Ken Watanabe), the year is 1999, and he works on a project called Monarch after discovering fossilized remains of a giant creature, as well as two eggs. We also are introduced to Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, who work at a power plant in Japan that is reporting seismic activity. Something ruptures in the earth, and the core is shut down, but not before the plant collapses, and gases are released inside, killing his wife.

Fifteen years later, in present day, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is in the Navy, returning home from duty, when he is told his father has been arrested. His wife tells him to go visit since it’s been so long, and Ford reluctantly goes to bail him out in Japan. He leaves behind his wife and his own son, to help his father. When he gets there, he finds that the town he grew up in is still considered a danger zone with radiation; but Joe, after being released, takes him back and the two realize they do not need radiation suits. There is no radiation. Joe’s prediction is that the plant did not fail, it was something else.

We learn that Serizawa still has the eggs; and when one of them hatches, we are introduced to our first monster in the film: a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The creature has wings and can fly, and has burning red eyes, flashes of light. The creature destroys the base that was holding it, and we find that there is another creature that’s hatched as well. These two creatures are searching for radiation to feed off of.

Then, the big creature returns. Gojira. The rest of the film tries to balance a narrative between Ford returning to his family, his family surviving the destruction of the monsters attacking each other, and the military trying to take down all the monsters. Serizawa suggests to let nature take its course, let the monsters fight; after all, no blast will destroy these creatures and they will simply feed off any radiation of any nuclear bombs that are exploded on them.

The film does a great job showing the monster fights, although the MUTO’s leave something to be desired as far as creative design. I do like that they gave Godzilla real eyes that we can see into. There is a wonderfully subtle scene between Ford and Godzilla, when Godzilla has fallen to the ground, presumably to die, and just stares into Ford’s eyes. It’s almost as if Godzilla’s saying, “It’s a living…” before disappearing into smoke. But it also lets us know that Godzilla has no issue with us. We’re just in his way. He’s trying to kill the MUTO’s.

The other parts of the film don’t bring much to the table, however, which is a shame. I liked the set up of Ford and Joe being like mirror opposites, with Ford being much more family oriented. That would have to come from the fact that he believed his father was too dedicated to his work and that he wants to provide and be a better husband/father. But that never goes anywhere, and we never get to know the humans enough to really care much about them. I liked Cranston’s character, and really believe they make a narrative mistake by leaving him out of most of the film. I also enjoyed Serizawa’s character as well–that stoic, quiet, knowing and understanding person who seems to have a connection with the monster as well. But most of the human scenes come off as very thin and underdeveloped.

Overall it satiates the appetite of anyone who wants to see a good “monster movie” and it makes Godzilla an appealing screen presence again. Much like Peter Jackson did with “King Kong”, Godzilla isn’t just a city crushing behemoth. While there isn’t as much personality as there is in “King Kong”, Godzilla shows us a side that even makes us root for him. The climactic battle between the monsters is certainly worthy of a theatrical viewing, and some of the cinematography is very well done. Grab a bag of popcorn, nestle in your seat, and enjoy watching the King of the Monsters back on the big screen.

My rating: :-)

12 Years a Slave

February 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Those are words spoken by our film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) who was a real historical black free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film “12 Years a Slave” depicts his journey into that world, and his hope that he can return to his family. He is an accomplished fiddler and carpenter, and has a wife and two children and lives in New York. He is approached by two seemingly harmless men to join their “circus” as a featured musician. But we all know where this is going–he is given too much wine after celebrating a successful tour, and wakes up in a cell in chains.

What follows is a very emotional story, anchored by one of the strongest performances of the year by Chiwitel Ejiofor; however, some of the film’s weak points distract from what could have been an even more powerful film. Northup is given a new name upon capture, Platt, and told he is a “runaway from Georgia”. His first experience as a slave is on a slave ship heading down to Louisiana, and witnesses some of the real brutalities of slavery immediately. He is sold by an indifferent slaver (played by Paul Giamatti) to a rather nice plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But one of Ford’s carpenters, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), wants to make life a living hell for slaves (as if life weren’t hard enough). This is where the film is weak, and I’m a bit disappointed in Paul Dano for choosing such a caricature role. It’s easy to play the hilljack Southern racist who mugs the screen by licking his chops at any chance to yell out racial epithets and use a whip. I think we get that these people existed…but this character could’ve been played by anyone and been just as shallow and useless as an ancillary background role. Northup doesn’t back down, however, and when he fights back, he is hunted by Tibeats and even strung up, about to be lynched. Tibeats and his crew are fired by the overseer, who leaves Northup hanging, although the rope hasn’t been fully discharged, so he still can hardly breathe and dangles helplessly as a slew of people come out and do their normal routines as if nothing is happening to him. This is one of the better scenes in the film because it’s a continuous shot that continues to unfold and pretty much symbolizes what we thought of slavery and blacks at the time.

Ford is unable to protect Northup and so he sells him to another plantation owner who is far more cruel (of course) and pretty much insane. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the new owner, who runs a strict cotton plantation, and treats his slaves as if they were animals–except one slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for whom Epps has obvious feelings for, and is resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson). While Epps is another white guy with a whip, Fassbender brings another dimension to the character, showing him to be more of a controlled coward than just your average racist. He is consumed with wanting power, but is powerless when it comes to his wife, and he does whatever she tells him to do. She is hard to figure out–but she isn’t exactly high on the slaves, either. In a way Epps’ character reminds me of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” (although I think that character was better written). Epps also has a strange ritual in the evenings, to order his slaves to dance to happy music with him. Since Northup can play the fiddle, he is spared the dancing, but still has to watch it. Patsey is the most skilled picker on the plantation, bringing in over 500 pounds daily, but deep down she is consumed with wanting to be set free from the plantation, even if it means leaving the physical earth completely. At one point she asks Northup to end her life, to which he cannot bring himself to do.

Eventually a white criminal joins the group of slaves and Northup sees this as an opportunity to get out; but he is betrayed by the man and has to talk his way out of giving a letter to the man that would have reached New York, and notified his family of his predicament. Epps believes Northup’s story that the man wasn’t to be trusted anyway and just wanted to become an overseer, and this was just a tactic of his to manipulate the situation. But later, another white character is introduced–a Canadian carpenter and friendly to slaves, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass is a bit of an arbitrary character, seemingly on brought to screen for exposition and being preachy–another weakness of the script. Pitt is a fine actor but it seems like his presence in this film was screaming “I produced this, so I’m going to put myself in the film as the most sympathetic white character.” Northup again has to try and trust this man, knowing what he is risking. But to the audience, it’s pretty obvious what will happen.

Overall, there are powerful moments in the film, especially in its climax, and thanks to Ejiofor’s incredible performance, the film works. The other strong points are the soundtrack and the cinematography. There are a lot of shots of trees, seeming to represent constancy, and even when the trees look like they’re dying or somehow suffering, they still stand strong. The backdrops of dusk and dawn show a representation of the passage of time, and how these points of day symbolize death and life. It isn’t just about surviving, as Northup points out, it is about living. This is a part of our history, whether we want to bring ourselves to accept it or not. I think the film could’ve presented a statement in a more clever way at times; but sometimes it needs to be blunt. It’s not a film you would necessarily want to watch over and over again; but for one viewing at least, it is certainly worth the time and will definitely move you.

My rating: :-)

Her

January 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

We live in a very interesting time when it comes to social interactions and relationships. With the advent of social networking through this Technological Age, it seems as though we can be impersonal and personal at the same time without it being a dichotomy or contradiction. In Spike Jonze’s “Her”, we are taken through a very personal journey for the characters that is as real for them as it can be for the viewers watching. It doesn’t try to stand alone as a statement of what technology is doing to us as people, however, nor does it make some kind of general social statement about humanity devolving in any kind of way.

It tells the story of a seemingly lonely guy named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who may seem detached but is able to successfully write love letters for clients at one of the most curious companies ever. It may be arbitrary but it certainly serves as a good purpose for the theme of the film. In some cases he’s known his clients so long he can actually come up with thoughts of theirs that they may not have even told him to put down in writing. He’s lauded for his efforts by a co-worker, Paul (Chris Pratt), and he seems to be happy with the job. But he has an emptiness in his life that we learn comes from the impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he’s known since childhood. Fragments of their relationship are spliced throughout the film, giving us a glimpse into their happiness, and demise. We’re not exactly sure what broke down between them, but it becomes more apparent as we get to know Theodore more. He is immersed in technology. He’s one of those guys who will always have the latest tech gadget–but instead of being introverted about technology, he seems to use it for social reasons. He logs into a one-night stand hotline to have phone sex with strangers (sort of like Chat Roulette) and has a rather amusing if over the top encounter with a random girl (voiced by Kristin Wiig). He is turned onto a new kind of AI operating system that grows in intellect the more you use it, and Theodore decides to invest in one, choosing a female voice that names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

Her relationship with Theodore starts off more like Siri for iPhone but quickly develops into a more familiar one, and then a romantic one. Theodore is instantly hooked, but has some distractions…such as a first date with a girl his friend has set him up with (played a little too convincingly by Olivia Wilde). His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is in a relationship herself, married to a somewhat inauspicious guy, Charles (Matt Letscher) who is never afraid to criticize her even when she’s showing a film she made to Theodore. The date starts off well but goes awry and Theodore confides in Samantha, drawing them closer together.

This is where the film really becomes absorbing. Once they fully accept being in a relationship together, all of the parallels of what a relationship is are explored. He calls her his “girlfriend”, even to his soon to be ex-wife, who mocks his relationship and tells him he can only have a meaningful relationship with “his laptop”.

But things aren’t so rosy for Theodore and Samantha. There are jealousies, accusations, things that happen in a normal relationship, that begin to challenge their situation. It’s all very natural–but it’s all very synthetic at the same time. In a way, Theodore is Samantha, programmed to be a way that cannot change. But can he accept himself being alone, and not being lonely?

This sort of plot is not exactly wholly original. We’ve seen stories of Artificial Intelligence being used as characters in relationships. Spielberg’s “AI” and Andrew Niccol’s “S1m0ne” come to mind. But I like that Spike Jonze makes this a very intimate, personal story. One that you become so wrapped up in because you start to put yourself in Theodore’s place. And Johansson’s performance is so instantly appealing, you start to fall for her as well. Every jolt of something unpleasant between them is felt, and when you feel something is slipping away, you get that same feeling you would if you were going through the same thing with your significant other.

Even though it sounds a bit heavy, it’s emotional impact is embraceable, rather than something that weighs it down. It gives the film so much more depth by exploring the ups and downs of a serious relationship. In a way, it’s more powerful than some films about two actual human beings in a relationship. Never seeing Samantha allows our imaginations to conjure up what she’d look like, what her expressions were, and I didn’t necessarily actually picture Johansson a lot of times. There are some laugh out loud moments, too, such as when Theodore is stuck at a certain point in a video game he’s playing. The character he interacts with (voiced by Jonze) is very funny, if a bit obnoxious and rude.

The film is very satisfying, and I think it could pass as a date movie. Not a first date movie, though. That may be a little much…and a bit too revealing. It’s like going to a palm reading for couples on your first date. You want to have a little mystery.

But even watching alone, it can be greatly appreciated. The performances are very strong, and credible, and the journey is one that’s very sweet and endearing throughout. Try not to hit on any computers on your next visit to Fry’s, though. May be a little awkward.

My rating: :D

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