Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Imitation Game"



 4 / 5 

If judged -- as Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing might recommend -- as a spy thriller, The Imitation Game is crisp, efficient, tense.  As a period piece, it's lush and detailed.  With almost stereotypical wartime British stoicism, it's an eminently polite and polished piece of entertainment that can hardly be criticized because it's just damned fine.

Only when it ventures into psychological territory, as perhaps befits a film about someone as precise and mechanical as Turing appears to have been, does it falter.  Though it presents itself as an incredibly true story about how a mathematician helped win World War II, it ends on a most unexpected and not entirely successful note of gay pride.  If this had been a movie about the heterosexuality of a prominent figure, The Imitation Game might be criticized for tiptoeing around the subject far too carefully, for being too, well, straight-laced.

But The Imitation Game is, in large part, about how being homosexual at a time when same-sex behavior was both illegal and immoral, and judged (again, as Turing himself would have suggested be done) in that way, it's so proper and stiff-lipped it hurts.  Sure, there's vague talk about some un-chaste things Turing might have had on his mind, but there's only one hint of his emotional relationships, and it's limited to two boys who pass notes in class and sit shoulder-to-shoulder under a shade tree.

Perhaps it's not fair to fault The Imitation Game for what it isn't -- that is, an effective exploration of how Turing's sexuality influenced his work.  But that tantalizing premise is just beneath the surface of a film that's otherwise terrific on every level.  The Imitation Game posits that Turing's entire work is based on the presumption that a machine and a person can be indistinguishable provided the machine can imitate enough patterns of a human being. (I'm paraphrasing wildly here; I'm no mathematician.) The implication: Turing could imitate a "normal" (his word, not mine) human being through imitation.

That's a fascinating premise for a film, but The Imitation Game only touches upon it briefly and tentatively.  More generally, The Imitation Game is a fantastically well-told story of the seemingly impossible effort to crack a Nazi code used to encrypt military messages.

It's brought to life with impeccable style and handsome earnestness by Cumberbatch, an actor who grows on me with every role despite his ubiquity, and particularly by Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a female codebreaker who is, generally, considered more suited to be a secretary.  Its a role that could have been overwhelmed by spunk and determination, but Knightley brings assured self-confidence to it.  She's the emotional center of a film that is generally devoid of human emotion.

Instead, The Imitation Game brings clarity and conciseness to an arcane puzzle, explaining just enough to make the less logically minded audience members (like me) feel they understand what's going on, offering a human face to the most formidable early technological challenge of the 20th century.  The Imitation Game does a fabulous job at telling a different kind of war story -- it carefully balances the machinations of espionage with the very real stakes, and marvelously showcases the politics of war.

It leaves behind, though, the nagging sensation that there was a lot left untold, deemed too scandalous or scintillating for the masses, ideas better left to intriguing end-title cards that hint at a deeper story of personal sacrifice and alienation.  It's like listening to a storyteller spin an incredible tale about a hero and the impossible odds he faced, then adding, with a suggestive wink and in a polite whisper, "And he was gay, you know."

The capper puts a completely different spin on the story, even if it doesn't detract from the intrigue that has come before.

Viewed Dec. 26, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Into the Woods"



 3 / 5 

"Then I went into the woods to get my wish," sings the witch in the stage version of Into the Woods, adding to her lament: "And now I'm ordinary."

The same could be said for Rob Marshall's long-awaited cinematic adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, for which Lapine wrote the screenplay and, unexpectedly, rid it of the heart that makes it work so effectively in front of a live audience.  And although it's produced by Disney, which famously strips its heroes and heroines of parents so they might be able to accomplish great things, the movie version of Into the Woods lacks one central relationship that generally makes the whole thing work.

The missing relationship is between the Baker (James Corden), a made-up fairy-tale archetype, and his father -- who, on stage, turns out to be the narrator of the show.  Perhaps the most crucial song to the entire show is the one in which the Baker reveals his biggest and most unexpected frustration about parenthood: It's too damned hard.  He and his wife (Emily Blunt) have risked everything for a child, and now that they have one all he can do is worry about it and fear he's a terrible, neglectful father.

The Baker's wish is the single most important wish in Into the Woods, but the movie version really only treats it as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin -- the thing that makes the story happen in the first place.  In this version, it is as dispensable as the microfilm or the secret plans of a Hitchcock film; it doesn't matter what it is, only that it's sought after in the first place.

Into the Woods begins with the Baker's wish, in a brilliant, jaunty opening that promises no end of mirth and malevolently tinged merriment that also introduces a handful of other key characters: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes so much to go to the ball; Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), who wish for wealth; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who wishes to see her granny in the woods; the charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), who wish for wives who will love and adore them; and the Witch (Meryl Streep), who wishes for her own daughter, Rapunzel, to love her with equal ferocity.

The musical montage that introduces them is promising, but it's not too long before all the characters actually are in the woods -- which are dark and glum, and not only in the metaphorical way.  Into the Woods has a generally joyless physical appearance, one that feels perpetually too dim and flat.  The woods are neither realistic nor stylized enough to be thoroughly engaging -- and with the large cast of characters, which seems oddly larger and more unmanageable than the stage version, it's sometimes a chore for the audience to keep up with exactly who is where and what they are doing.

Cutting the musical's lengthy book to a size that can accommodate five showings a day, Into the Woods pares down the roles of some characters and cuts out entire songs in ways that are mostly unobtrusive and sometimes even appreciated.  In trade-off, what it achieves is greater clarity of some key relationships and often chipper amusement -- particularly in the song "Agony," a terrifically shot duet between Princes Charming that has much of the airiness and joy that is woefully missing from so much of the film.

The actors, with the notable exception of Johnny Depp in a pointless cameo as the Big Bad Wolf, sing with gusto; there is rarely a moment in which the singing feels forced, and Sondheim's notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics work better in context than, perhaps, they should.  This isn't Rodgers & Hammerstein (or even Kander & Ebb), so don't come out expecting to be humming the big show-stopping tune -- in fact, there isn't one, which is bound to frustrate audiences not already familiar with the source material.

So, what it boils down to is whether the basic story and structure of Into the Woods work cinematically, and the unfortunate reality is: They don't.  It all feels unexpectedly off-balance, hesitant, an uncertainty worsened by the missing relationship between the Baker and his father.  Of the many, many characters here, the one whose actions and decisions matter the most is the Baker; a key decision he makes, one rife with consequences, gets much careful consideration on stage but is essentially thrown away here.  Whether the film works emotionally depends on how the audience perceives this particular decision; omitting the rationale for it reduces the entire affair to some clever theatrics.

In part, the excision of that key sone has been made to play up Meryl Streep's role as the Witch.  No surprise, she's quite good (and delivers two key songs with great gusto), but her presence can't hide that her only comments on, and doesn't drive, the action.  She appears and reappears intermittently, and the result is that neither she nor the Baker become the center of attention.  The film version of Into the Woods wants audiences to sympathize with everyone, but while that may be possible in a musical, it doesn't work in this film.  To make such a sprawling cast work together requires the finesse of someone like Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, it's not a touch Marshall has. Into the Woods ends up feeling like a musicalized 1970s disaster movie, moving from character to character -- only, in this case, without a real climax.

I don't really know what to make of Into the Woods.  I liked parts of it very much and didn't really dislike any element of it enough to be entirely disappointed.  (Notable exception: Johnny Depp's frankly terrible few minutes as the Wolf.)  Despite the inordinate amount of time I spent squinting through the murkiness, I laughed, my eyes misted up a couple of times, and I was undeniably entertained, especially by the fact that such fairy tale subversion comes from Disney.

But Into the Woods is in no way as definitive a musical adaptation as Marshall's incomparable Chicago.  It feels largely like one of NBC's notorious live productions: there's nothing specifically wrong to fault, the actors are all clearly game, and a lot of effort has been put into it, but it feels like a technical endeavor more than a passion project.

The formidable task here was to create a film version of a cerebral Stephen Sondheim musical -- as close to melodic a show as he is likely ever to create.  Into the Woods succeeds at translating a well-known musical to the movies and succeeding moderately well, but it doesn't do much more than that.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Catching Up: "Jodorowsky's Dune"


 4 / 5 

Jodorowsky's Dune (available on demand) is a terrific documentary for film lovers that saves its best, most impressive observations for the final few minutes -- observations that reveal why it's Chilean filmmaker's Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated adaptation of the Frank Herbert's novel Dune, not Star Wars, that may be the most influential sci-fi movie of the past 40 years.

Like many of those who worked on Jodorowsky's movie, I've never read Dune.  Though I saw David Lynch's maligned 1984 film version, that was no help -- I still know virtually nothing about the novel's plot, though it's impossible not to be aware of the ways in which Dune inspired a generation of readers.

According to Jodorowsky's Dune, the plot wasn't the point anyway.  The vision was the thing, and in that, Dune was a perfect match for the surrealist, anarchic filmmaker.

Beginning with his early films, little seen but widely admired among film cognoscenti, Jodorowsky's rise from obscurity paralleled the global auteur movement.  Well-represented here by numerous clips, his movies were the kind that make mainstream movie buffs itch: heavily symbolic, saturated with colors and clunky visual effects, they eschewed standard narratives and experimented with the nature of cinema in ways that Hollywood never dared.  The IMDB description of his 1970 film El Topo reads: "El Topo (the mole) claims to be God, while dressed as a gunfighter in black, riding a horse through a spiritual, mystical landscape strewn with old Western movie, and ancient Eastern religious symbols."

I'd like to be the kind of person who appreciates those films; maybe you just had to be there.

Yet, those films attracted ardent fans and propelled Jodorowsky to turn his attention to Dune. Flamboyant, truculent, free-thinking and filled with the sort of self-importance that is simultaneously infuriating and wildly endearing, Jodorowsky's Dune largely lets the filmmaker tell his own story, abetted by interviews with other artists he sucked into his orbit.

Chief among these are artist Chris Foss, designer H.R. Giger, late visual effects pioneer and writer Dan O'Bannon, and Jean ("Moebius") Giruad.

For those who grew up watching sci-fi movies in the 1970s, those names are legend, and if it weren't for Jodorowsky, many of them might never have crossed over into the Hollywood mainstream.

The film itself was a bloated, delusional, extraordinary mess -- a movie so simultaneously brilliantly and poorly conceived that it was doomed to failure.  Jodorowsky's vision was impossible to realize on film (among other problems: the movie would have been about 20 hours long), but got so far into development that a massive "look book" containing a galaxy of visual ideas and completed storyboards was widely circulated around Hollywood studios.

Jodorowsky's Dune uses many of these images to pull together a rudimentary sort of test reel of imagery, from the astonishingly complex shot that would have opened Dune to many of its key action sequences.

Whether or not you know Dune as a novel (or as that ill-fated David Lynch film), it's fascinating stuff for film lovers, and these newly constructed snippets of Jodorowsky's never-made film would be enough to recommend the documentary.

But director Frank Pavich goes a notable step further. Who knows exactly who saw those original Dune look books?  Certainly enough people, Pavich argues, that Jodorowsky's Dune became one of the most widely imitated, visually influential films of the 1970s.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 to Prometheus just a couple of years ago, the work that Giger, Foss, Giraud and others did on Dune seeped into the visual vocabulary of film, and in its final few minutes, Jodorowsky's Dune is revelatory in its side-by-side comparisons of the production designs for Dune and many of the films that went on to define science-fiction.

In that regard, Jodorosky's Dune is a can't-miss film for anyone who loves the movies.  It begins as a routine examination of a lesser-known filmmaker, and ends up making the compelling case that he may be the most imitated and most influential director whose movie never saw the light of a projector.

Viewed Dec. 20, 2014 -- On-Demand

"Wild"



 5 / 5 

Wild begins with the sounds of a woman in distress.  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is somewhere high in the mountains of California on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border.  Strayed has decided to walk most of it, and the distress and anguish she feels as the movie opens have as much to do with her physical state as her mental one.

She has decided to walk not to seek enlightenment, but to obtain release.  As the film, by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and British screenwriter Nick Hornby, gets underway, it proceeds along two parallel paths, telling the linear story of what happens to Strayed along the trail while revealing, slowly, what brought her to the point in her life that bodily suffering would be so vastly superior to emotional turmoil.

Cheryl has found herself so far from any vision she once had of herself that she is lost: Her last name is intentional, self-selected when she divorces from her husband, who has come to her rescue one too many times and cannot live with her anymore.

She wasn't always this way.  Her younger self may have been a little haughty, a tad too judgmental, but only because her mother (Laura Dern) promoted a strong sense of self-confidence.  Her eternally sunny, perpetually chipper mother -- who is well aware of the less-than-ideal state of her life and family -- was the foundation of Cheryl's life; her sudden, grim death at age 45 didn't simply rock Cheryl's world, it destroyed it.

The recitation of the facts leading up to Strayed's 1,000-mile journey may make Wild sound like an earnestly inspirational drama, and while it is undeniably inspiring, that is -- admirably -- not its aim.  Wild goes far deeper into the woods than that.

Deftly balancing gorgeous wilderness photography with satisfying scenes in which Strayed encounters others along her path, Wild is a specific story about a specific kind of grief -- a bone-crushing, soul-piercing grief whose outcome is destructive and tragic.  It descends with a magnificent fury and traps its sufferer.  Wild shows the extraordinary lengths one person goes to to defeat grief's equally extraordinary grip.

Wild is a movie of remarkable clarity, aware of exactly where it wants to head, even in the rare moment it seems unsure of how to get there.  It has a few false steps along the way (particularly its determination to depict some men as leering, sex-addled menaces), but none that distract for more than a moment.  More meaningful and impressive are the moments of sublime fascination, like the wounded fox that may or may not be as real as the fleeting hallucinations of her beloved mother.

While Wild may seem like a one-woman show, in addition to the exquisite, impassioned performance from Witherspoon, it contains some affecting and memorable supporting roles -- not just Dern, an actress whose smiling face always seems to be hiding an unspoken pain, but, in smaller roles, Thomas Sadoski as Strayed's deeply loved ex-husband; and W. Earl Brown as a lonely farmer whose own learnings form the backbone for much of what Strayed discovers herself.

Still, Wild is Witherspoon's movie, and she holds the screen at every turn.  Wild isn't just about her walking on the trail, and the film takes the steel-jawed, ebullient Witherspoon into emotionally stark territory.

Wild gets everything right that last year's All Is Lost got catastrophically wrong.  Strayed's journey is not one of hubris or pride, but of desperate need and intense loneliness.  As she tells another woman she meets along the way, "I feel less lonely out here than I do in the rest of my life."

With a pitch-perfect ending (something more and more movies find harder to pull off lately), Wild is a movie that may be off-putting to some.  It's emotionally brutal -- but also meaningfully specific.  It's Strayed's story, and she's not the easiest of people.  The film steadfastly refuses to make light of her more difficult side, and her behavior toward the end of the film at first surprised me -- and then made me admire her even more.  She may end her walk with more emotional awareness, but she isn't a miraculously changed person.

In that, and in its sometimes wearying physicality and emotional starkness, Wild may not resonate for everybody.  For me, it's the best -- and most affecting -- movie of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Monday, December 8, 2014

"Big Hero 6"



 3.5 / 5 

In ways that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the new Disney animated film Big Hero 6 one bit, I kept thinking back to Scooby-Doo.

Tens of millions of kids who grew up watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday mornings eagerly anticipated the moment when Scooby, Shaggy and the gang would unmask the villain.  They'd have him or her trapped uncomfortably and would remove the mask that had kept the bad guy's identity secret for the previous 20 minutes.  "Farmer Jenkins!" they'd exclaim in surprise, which would leave Farmer Jenkins kicking his feet and muttering with disdain, "You meddling kids!  If it hadn't been for you, my plan would have worked."

There's a moment just like that about halfway through Big Hero 6, when a group of college kids -- led by the young genius Hiro Hamada and his big, cuddly robot, Baymax -- confront the villain who, wouldn't you know it, is wearing a mask.  Finally, they catch him in a corner, rip off the mask and ... oh, you meddling kids!

It's nice to see a Disney movie perhaps unconsciously referencing an animated touchstone that doesn't involve singing princesses or dancing bunny rabbits, though Big Hero 6 goes a few steps further than that and begins doing something unexpected and, for me, a little bit uncomfortable: It reflexively comments on the superhero genre that Marvel Comics, which Disney itself famously purchased in 2009.  This meta-move is both refreshingly engaging and strange -- Big Hero 6 is a genuine hybrid of a movie, a cross between Disney's own animated legacy, its famously saccharine live-action movies from the 1960s, and the pop-culture mega-powerhouse it swallowed up whole.

The Disney parts are borrowed from previous animated movies (an orphaned hero -- here given the quite literal name of Hiro -- and his adorable sidekick), those Kurt Russell movies that took place at Medfield College, and The Love Bug's San Francisco locales, which in Big Hero 6 are reimagined as San Fransokyo, a visually arresting though geographically confusing Pacific Rim megalopolis.  But anyone who grew up watching Herbie cross the Golden Gate Bridge knows what makes San Francisco such a great place for light comedy, and Big Hero 6 knows it, too.  (Hint: It's not the stunning vistas, it's those treacherous hills that lead to white-knuckle car chases.)

The Marvel parts are grafted onto these tropes with surprising ease.  Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old super-genius, is like Disney's Dexter Riley for the 21st century: Anything he needs to do, he can. Back then, Dexter invented super-invisibility spray; now, Hiro invents a micro-robot so incredibly advanced that within moments of seeing it the founder of a high-tech company offers Hiro "more money than a 14-year-old could imagine." I fully expected Disney to reference its Star Wars acquisition by having Hiro answer, "I don't know, I can imagine quite a bit."

Hiro turns down the offer, and rightly so -- in just a few days, working in his garage, Hiro has created a game-changing technology so advanced it left me wondering why the university he desperately wants to attend wouldn't just have skipped the formalities of classes and given him an honorary doctorate and named a building after him.

Meanwhile Hiro's brother, who soon will face an ending nearly as tragic as Bambi's mom, has invented something of his own, an eight-foot tall Michelin Man-inspired robot named Baymax, whose job is to be a giant, cuddly, fully automated nurse.  Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) is a terrific creation, the personality of Pixar's Wall-E crossed with Eve from the same film.  You see where all this pop-culture self-reflexivity is heading?

While it never once reduces the sheer enjoyment of Big Hero 6, which is an immensely enjoyable and amusing movie, after a while it's hard not to think of the movie as a kind of robot creation itself, with almost every moment or character taken from other movies and animated pop-culture.  It turns in on itself further with an obligatory post-credits scene that exists for no other reason than to give fanboys a guffaw; it's a Disney movie made by, and for, Comic-Con lovers, and there's really nothing wrong with that, except that it leaves Big Hero 6 feeling so much like other things that it never quite feels like itself.  Even Baymax, as wonderfully droll and un-ironically literal as he is (and almost sublime when his batteries wear down), feels somehow familiar.

Big Hero 6 is a triumph of visual design, a skillfully entertaining and brisk joyride that tries to create a new type of animated film for a post-comic-book world but instead feels like the scattered pieces of other movies, comics and TV shows all came scurrying together, much like Hiro's mini-bots, to create something that looks original, even if it really isn't.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2014 -- DWA Theater

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Foxcatcher"



 2.5 / 5 

For a movie about a crime as violent and passionate as murder, Foxcatcher is a strangely detached affair, virtually devoid of emotion but filled with shots of chilly, foggy, icy surroundings.  It's so overloaded with technique that there's no room left for anything else.

At times, director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman seem to be aiming for a cynical commentary of the "patriotic" privilege of America's wealthiest citizens.  At others, it's a character study of lonely people isolated by money -- in Foxcatcher, the central characters either have too much of it or not enough.  And in other moments, it's a mildly interesting exploration of the mentally unhinged John Eleuthere du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune.

In 1996, du Pont shot and killed Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dave Schultz, whose brother Mark had been trained by du Pont at the family's vast Pennsylvania estate.

Though Foxcatcher ultimately leads up to the shocking shooting death, the movie isn't so much about du Pont and Dave Schultz as it is about the obscenely wealthy and emotionally stunted billionaire and his relationship with Mark, a withdrawn, socially awkward man who becomes, for a time, the center of du Pont's world.

Played by Channing Tatum, Mark Schultz is all instinct and brawn.  He's not a man who thinks much about anything, especially his station in life.  When he's supposed to be inspiring elementary school students with the story of how he became a gold medalist, Mark stammers and sputters and manages to spit out a few words about patriotism and American values, but not many.  He probably has never really thought too much about these things before.

He's neither unhappy nor content living in a squalid apartment, eating fast-food burgers and making Top Ramen in Tupperware containers.  His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), meanwhile, is trying to parlay his athletic success into something a little more interesting, and urges Mark to do the same.

One night, Mark's phone rings and a matter-of-fact man on the other end of the line says that John du Pont would like to meet Mark.  The wrestler, who walks with a hulking gait and punches himself as motivation, has no idea why, but he's whisked off in a helicopter to the rolling hills outside Philadelphia, where du Pont (Steve Carell) drones on with a poorly considered speech about American values and ideals.

Du Pont wants the U.S. to win another gold medal, and he thinks Mark deserves to be the best wrestler in the world.  He sets Mark up in "the chalet," a spacious house on the Foxcatcher Farms estate, and pays him $25,000 a year to train there.

Mark and du Pont develop the sort of emotional attachment that happens when two people, otherwise ill-equipped for the world, find each other.  It doesn't take long before du Pont is buying suits for Mark, encouraging him to attend State dinners, and offering him lines of cocaine (this is 1987, after all).

But du Pont has a bigger prize to try to reel in -- Dave, the more emotionally anchored, clearly more intelligent, of the brothers.  Dave has no interest in moving to Foxcatcher, Mark can't seem to persuade him, and the tension ratchets up a little bit in these moments.

It all goes slack again, even after one surprising moment that sets the rest of the story in action, when du Pont lets Mark see the bully he hides within, the spoiled brat who always gets what he wants.  But du Pont is Mark's only ticket to winning in Seoul in 1988, and without any other options, he stays on.

It doesn't go well.  Mark starts cracking up.  du Pont, upon hearing of the death of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in about three scenes), loses it, too.  The emotional stakes have changed.

Or, at least they've changed on paper, because nothing much changes at all in Foxcatcher.  The movie's languid, refined camera work floats through scenes and countryside, letting us see the surroundings without ever really letting us in to the motives or thoughts of the character.

By the time (and, as I indicated in the lede, this is not a spoiler -- the movie's about a murder) the gun fires and one character is on the ground bleeding, it's tough to know exactly what the motive might have been, even though we've been watching these characters for more than two hours.  Even on screen, no one seems to know quite what to do, because this critical moment is built on such little emotional evidence.  It just happens.

Foxcatcher left me intrigued to find out more about the real du Pont-Schultz case, to learn more about the drugs and, it seems safe to assume based on what is heavily implied here, the sex.  Something was going on up at Foxcatcher, and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they were training for wrestling, but that wasn't all they were doing, not by a longshot.

The actors are stellar across the board -- Ruffalo is more in command of his character than I've seen him in ages; Tatum finally rids himself of the hot-but-dumb stereotypes that have plagued him, and Carell is undeniably mesmerizing in every scene he's in (which is most of them), though anyone truly surprised by him here has clearly failed to take note of his work in films like Hope Springs, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (a remarkably under seen film) or Crazy Stupid Love.

Yes, he's a revelation in Foxcatcher, but no more so than he's been a revaluation to audiences for year who have only seen him as Michael Scott.  The man can act, and he doesn't even need the false teeth and prosthetic nose he wears here.  When it comes to leading actors who can do anything, Carell is clearly the real deal.

Foxcatcher itself, though, is decidedly less so.  It's not a film serious filmgoers should skip, by any means -- it's just the kind of movie that when the lights come up while the credits are playing, your instinct isn't to sit in your seat and honor all the men and women whose passions went into this project.  Mostly you just want to look for a good place to eat.  Foxcatcher doesn't register enough emotional or philosophical weight to make you care about much else other than whether sushi or a burger sounds better.

Viewed 11/29/14 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

"The Theory of Everything"



 4 / 5 

On the surface, The Theory of Everything seems safe and pretty, entirely proper in the way of beautiful British bio-pics that combine (could there be any better match?) the early 1960s and Oxford University.  Women wore dresses and gloves, men wore tailored suits and horn-rimmed glasses, and if lushly orchestrated music didn't really accompany them everywhere, it certainly should have.

Into this bucolic setting comes Stephen Hawking, played first with bumblingly intense sincerity and, later, with extraordinary clarity by Eddie Redmayne.  Before people like him were called science nerds, Hawking was the ultimate science nerd.

At a party, he meets a pretty, intellectual artistic type named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  They fall in love.  He proposes not marriage but a sweeping theoretical vision about time and life and understanding, the kind of theory that, underneath its mathematical density, cuts to the heart of what she cares about: It promises to explain everything, including, quite possibly, the presence and purpose of God.

Walking into The Theory of Everything, it's impossible not to know it is about Hawking, which makes it impossible not to know about Hawking's physical ailment, but what is most noteworthy about this frequently polite and lovely film is that it barrels head on into the conundrum faced not by Hakwing's battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but the effect it has on the woman who has pledged her love for him.

The Theory of Everything is not A Beautiful Mind set in the cosmos -- until the closing credits, its depictions Hawking's theories cinematically are brief and, with one exception, limited to chalkboards.  In this, the film struggles just a bit as it weighs the importance of Hawking's work with its primary concern: the toll Hawking's physical ailment took on those around him.

Audiences going into the Theory of Everything might be surprised at some of the questions it wrestles with: What happens when the sexual component of a marriage deteriorates, when the caretaker for an infirm spouse turns to someone else for companionship?  What is the price to a marriage when both the emotional and physical needs are unequal?

In that regard, The Theory of Everything might seem disappointingly narrow-minded -- it is not a movie about Hawking's theories, his work and his accomplishments; it is in many ways a more traditional marital drama.

But within that more familiar structure, it remains undeniably moving and unusually compelling, thanks in great part to Jones and Redmayne.

As Jane Hawking, Jones has the less flashy part by far; her physical transformation primarily involves the changing fashions and hair styles of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  (The time shifts are low key, the fashion changes subtle, so the film really does impart a wonderful sense of the movement of time as measured by outward appearance.)  Her emotional shift is slow, but steady.  Jones does a wonderful job at conveying the disappointment and anguish of someone who agreed to remain committed and loyal to her spouse -- but who didn't expect the struggle would be either as long or as exhausting as it turns out to be.

As Redmayne impressively conveys the personality and life behind a man trapped in a virtually unmoving body, Jones anchors the film with emotional honesty.  The Theory of Everything poses challenging, difficult questions -- not just mathematical and theoretical, but emotional and practical.

Stephen Hawking's theories describe the vastness of the universe, but The Theory of Everything presents a stark reminder -- presented in deceptively lovely ways -- that no matter what happens in the rest of the universe, what happens inside our hearts and minds is perhaps even more unpredictable and unknowable.

Viewed Nov. 23, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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"The Babadook"



 4 / 5 


As a horror film, I enjoyed The Babadook more than most fright-fests.  Director Jennifer Kent knows her way around the gloomy foreboding of an empty house filled with shadows.  She captures the dread that comes at night, when hallways and staircases traversed without effort during the day become places that hide unimaginable obstacles once the lights go out.

To that end, The Babadook is genuinely startling and unsettling.  Amelia (Essie Davis) is a woman who might be considered on the verge of a nervous breakdown if it weren't so clear that she is hanging over the edge with fingers exhausted from years of effort.

Seven years earlier, her husband Oskar died while rushing her to the Australian hospital to give birth to Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Neither mother nor son has fully recovered from the incident.  Samuel has led a short life so fraught with anxiety and fear over the mortality of his mother that he has taken to believing in every possible danger that could befall her -- most especially, imaginary ones.

His behavior has become downright dangerous: He creates elaborate, spring-loaded booby traps and complex weapons designed to stop in its tracks any being he deems harmful to his mother, and delights in showing these off at school.  Neither the school administrators nor his classmates are amused.

Samuel's insistence that something terrible will invade their home and take his mother from him is not played for amusement; this isn't Home Alone Down Under.  The disturbing psychological path her son is walking has left Amelia with sallow skin, sunken eyes, brittle hair and a desperation that seems almost sweet to her co-worker (Daniel Henshall), until he realizes the extent to which both Amelia and Samuel have been damaged.

If it's all manageable, though just barely, the calm curtain that just barely covers their lives is brought down catastrophically when Samuel asks his mother to read him a book that has gone overlooked on his shelf.  It's a strange, scary thing called Mister Babadook, and warns of a shadowy, sharp-toothed stranger with a top hat and a black cloak who will come calling in the middle of the night.

The more you deny his reality, the pop-up book claims, the more he's going to drive you insane.

The graphic black-and-white design of Mister Babadook utterly terrifies Samuel, who is immediately convinced that the Babadook is real.  Though Amelia tries to calm the boy's shattered nerves, it's not too long before the shadows at night seem to be darker and the harmless noises that fill the house seem to take on the sound the book promises the creature will make: "Ba-BA-ba Dook-DOOK-DOOK."

The Babadook never doubts that the terror is real, and though the movie would have perhaps benefitted from a little more clarity around the creature itself -- which is effectively presented on the page as a cross between Murnau's Nosferatu and John Barrymore's fiendish Mr. Hyde -- as well as its nature and internal logic, the film excels at its not-so-hidden subtext.

"It is the aloneness within us made manifest," author Andrew Solomon wrote about the horrors of depression in his book The Noonday Demon, and those who have suffered from depression or its almost identical twin grief know too well the way depression is often described: as a terrifying monster of shadows, one that creeps up on you and is impossible to escape.

The Babadook brings a hideous and frightening form to the gloom, dread and terror of mental illness. The more Amelia insists The Babadook is imaginary, the more real it becomes -- and as it fulfills its promise to drive her completely mad, Samuel cowers in fear.  The Babadook is, in many ways, a smaller-scale and even more effective version of The Shining.

The Babadook will satisfy all but the most impatient or gore-loving horror fans, but more importantly will be alarmingly fulfilling and impressively layered for those looking for an unexpectedly satisfying exploration of the terrors and fears of ordinary life.

Viewed Nov. 22, 2014 -- VOD

Monday, November 17, 2014

Favorite Films: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"


Oh, they try. Do they try.

These movies made by jaded, embittered, downright hostile adults to appeal to innocent, still-developing, infinitely impressionable children try to create a sense of values that can help shape a future society, and maybe entertain the tykes a little in the process.

So, we get movies about kids killing kids for sport; we get movies about children who learn early in life that they have a secret power that will grant them instant success and turn them into legends; we get movies about kids who drive sports cars really fast so they can drive sports cars even faster; we get movies about boys and girls who put on musicals in high schools and teen vampires who fly in forests.  In almost all of them, the children are thrust into the roles of the adults, and the adults become the villains, if they're even around at all.

Now, there was a time not too long ago when we knew that kids were decidedly different than adults. It seems old-fashioned (not to mention curmudgeonly) to recall that children were meant to be seen and not heard.  They were trained to obey their elders, or, as Sondheim pointed out, at least to listen.  Children were taught that no one in life is entitled to anything, and that those who failed at the basics of understanding common manners and decency were going to meet a terrible end.

Just what that terrible end was, who knew?  But there was no plainer, more stark reality: Bad kids get what they deserve.  Before the days when a parent worried a spanking might throw him into jail or an angry letter written to a school principal might destroy the reputation of the child she was trying to save, long before 24-hour parents and helicopter parenting ... kids were kids.

Some kids were bullies and brats.  Some kits were whiners and complainers.  Some kids were fat.  Some kids were skinny.  Some were rich, some were poor, some had lovely manners, most had none.

If you wanted to see what the child would become, you looked at the parent. This was not just conventional wisdom in those long-ago years, it simply was the case.  Before flowers and hippies and mushrooms and folk music told us otherwise, the message was simple: The only way you could change, to escape from the crushing sameness of the culturally mediocre (which, the counter-culture said, was everywhere) was to take a risk and do something different.

It didn't mean you had to break the rules.  It didn't mean you had to engage in crime.  It means you had to do something more daring, more revolutionary, more inconceivable than anyone else: You had to appear be normal.  You had to be honest.  You had to be brave.  You had to be emotionally true.

In other words, Charlie Bucket won.  The lifetime supply of chocolate?  Yes, but that was only the beginning.

Willy Wonka was hardly normal, let's recall.  But ... under the made-up words, the frippery and frappery, the vermicious knids and Great Glass Wonkavators -- little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous! -- was the most unexpected magic:  Sanity.

Yes, Willy Wonka, delirious, mysterious, possibly dangerous Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) is not only the most sane person living among the Oompa Loompas -- once the greedy, thieving, spying, self-absorbed kids enter his factory, Mr. Willy Wonka searches for small moments of sanity wherever he can find them, sitting under a candy mushroom, wistfully singing of his desire for nothing less than "Pure Imagination," taking a moment to sip some tea before crunching the glass in his teeth. (It is candy, after all, nothing insane about that.)

He surveys the madness about him, retains his composure, and then -- because they insist (and they do insist) -- leads these children whose parents have taught them only to be selfish, spoiled, gluttonous little brats deeper and deeper into the factory to see where all of his dreams become realities and some of his realities become dreams.

The adults claim not to understand what Willy Wonka says: They have lost houses, children, jobs, ambition, so they can't understand the promise of fantasy.  And their children, raised to become as self-absorbed as they are, have no comprehension of the short homilies sung by the Oompa Loompas, imploring them to read more, to stop chewing gum, to quit staring at the TV and talking back to their parents.  None of the children can yet understand what they mean, none of the parents can remember.

So Mr. Wonka doesn't try.  He gives up on them, literally lets them go -- except for one.

Deeper, deeper into the factory until innocent, tow-headed Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) are the only ones left.  Even they, it turns out, are not completely innocent; who is?  But is there a crime in curiosity, in exploration of the fantastic?  For a moment, it seems even this most good-natured of transgression will be punished.

Their departure scene is one of the very best, most tense and borderline heartbreaking, in cinematic history as Willy Wonka appears, for the briefest moment, to be a monster.

With a complete lack of tolerance and tact, he screams at them that they have lost the contest that is at the center of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "You stole fizzy-lifting drink," he bellows. "You touched the ceilings, which must be washed and sterilized. ... So you get nothing! Good day, sir."

Then, the worst moment -- he turns his back on them:

"I said 'Good Day, Sir!' Willy Wonka ignores them.

But Charlie doesn't fall for it.  He returns the one item of trust that proves the pureness of his heart: Charlie gives back the coveted Everlasting Gobstopper.  Then, into this children's film, comes a line from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, not a story known by many eight-year-olds, though the sentiment knows no age: "So shines a good deed in a weary world."

Charlie has won.  Everything.  More than everything.  The chocolate, yes, but that's just the beginning.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has the happiest of endings because it is not achieved by fulfilling a goal, by vanquishing a foe, by doing the impossible: It comes about because Charlie has done the right thing, and for that, he gets it all.

In that moment -- though there were many that came before to indicate what kind of movie this -- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory moves from the category of supremely entertaining into genuinely great.

It's a vindication for everyone who has played by the rules, even when the rules got murky.  It is validation for everyone who made the right move in the end -- no matter how wrong the moves up to that point may have been. You can watch it when you're 5 and be happy for the other little boy; you can watch it when you're 65 and feel your heart lift because doing the right thing wins the day.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory isn't a movie for kids who need to learn lessons.  It's a movie for filmgoers of any age who need to be reminded that honesty, integrity and an innocent belief in the simplicity between what is right and what is wrong remain relevant, no matter how old our weary world becomes.

Earlier in the film, Charlie has visited his mother to explain why he won't win the prize. "Charlie," she sighs, "There are a hundred billion people in this world and only five of them will find Golden Tickets ... and after this contest is over, you'll be no different from the billions of others who didn't find one."

Charlie, distraught, near to tears, responds, "But I am different.  I want it more than any of them."

We're all different.  We want our Golden Tickets.  And even if we are one of those fictional five, what happens next?  The Golden Ticket may come our way, it may not.  "One day / sweet as a song / Charlie's lucky day / will come along ... 'Til that day / You've gotta keep on strong, Charlie / Up on top is right where you belong."

Can we be Charlie?  Can we rip so many chocolate bars and never find the gold?  And if we did, might we find it's all just a sham anyway?

Yes, Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory is more than 40 years old, but it takes on greater resonance at a time of instant gratification, of kids who aren't given the chance to just be kids -- who don't automatically get to learn the hard lessons of disappointment and a job well done.

Most people never get into the Chocolate Factory, and of the few who do, many wish they had never stepped inside.

Ah, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- we've never had another film quite like it, and I imagine (incorrectly, I hope and pray) that in this time of franchise-management, tentpole films, focus-group and market testing, and marketing research, I imagine we never may.

I've been watching films for more than 43 years.  If I can find just one that comes close to the perfection (even in its occasional messiness) of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I will be a happy man.  I might, like Charlie, live happily ever after.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Force Majeure"



 2.5 / 5 

There's an avalanche at the center of Force Majeure, but despite a few heart-stopping moments surrounding that event, the movie plays out more like a glacier: It moves so slowly it practically stops, but there's clearly something fascinating going on. It's a film possibly best appreciated by those who found Amour a little too fast-paced.  

On a winter vacation to a ski resort in the French Alps, a Swedish family -- father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children Vera and Harry -- are caught off guard when a man-made avalanche goes wildly out of control and threatens to wipe them off of the terrace restaurant where they're lunching.

While Ebba rushes to protect her children, Tomas panics, and for the next few days the strain of the incident incites unexpected outbursts and emotional breakdowns.

Force Majeure is an uncomfortable movie, intentionally so, and as the days wear on so does the emotional fall out.  Both Ebba and Tomas have seen each other in ways they never imagined, and Tomas is particularly affected.  He should have stayed and protected his family, and finally, in a honestly raw moment, he acknowledges that the person he has become is vastly different than the man he imagined himself to be.

The synopsis reads better than it plays.  Director Ruben Östlund mostly employs a static, calm style -- punctuated by a few unexpectedly hyperactive moments -- that at first feels appropriately cold and clinical but becomes exasperating.  Force Majeure is like asking one of the pod people Invasion of the Body Snatchers to talk about her feelings: Extreme emotional detachment makes for unsatisfying storytelling.

Both Kuhnke and Kongsli, along with key supporting players, do a terrific job at conveying a creeping fear, not just of the natural disaster, but of the tenuous nature of marriage and relationships.  They're scared to tell each other what they really think, but alternately frightened of the emotions themselves.

From time to time, Östlund's script seems to be getting to the heart of the matter, then backs off.   Visually,  he showcases the folly of thinking the uncontrollable can be controlled. Wide shots of the precarious setting of the ski resort and close-ups of the potentially unreliable machinery that claims to tame the mountain convey an underlying ominousness.  But none of the visuals and little of the emotion ever pays off.

Watching Force Majeure is like being on a roller coaster that's all lift-hill and no drops. The anticipation of something thrilling is always there, but after a while you wonder if it's ever going to happen ... and, in the end, it never does.

The intention may well have been to be as cold and icy as the setting itself, as frosty and impenetrable as the snow-covered mountains.  And, in fact, Force Majeure turns out to be exactly that.  Though it has moments of pitch-black humor and attempts at emotional catharsis, it never quite finds the heart that would allow it to answer its questions of integrity, responsibility and bravery.

Viewed Nov. 15, 2014 -- Sundance Sunset

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Interstellar"



 3 / 5 

Of the many paradoxes and contradictions in Interstellar, perhaps the biggest is this: The movie works best if you shut off your brain, but if you shut off your brain you'll miss what makes the movie work.

Christopher Nolan's science-fiction epic consciously references Stanley Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over, but despite the visual majesty on display, it misses that film's cinematic poetry and ambition.  Kubrick and science-fiction Arthur C. Clarke contrived a story as simple as it was infinitely complex. Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan aim for something similar with "Interstellar" but can't resist doing exactly what Kubrick refused to do -- explain.

Interstellar spends a huge amount of time explaining mundane things while missing some of the bigger ones, so that by the time the film enters one of its climactic sequences (minor spoiler alert) inside a black hole, you understand way too much about what things are happening and just enough about why to make it all feel maddeningly insignificant and borderline silly.

Still, Interstellar has much to recommend it, and despite its shortcomings, do not let it be said that this is a film without ambition.

It begins sometime in the near future when Earth's wheat crops have been wiped out by blight, with corn as the only source of nutrition, which is the first of the many plot points in "Interstellar" that don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny.  Not just America but the whole world (though, the film seems to argue, mostly America since the old U.S. of A. is still the country that will save us all) has become a dust bowl.  People are starving.  They stopped fighting wars because they're so hungry.  And somewhere along the way some seriously warped revisionist history has taken hold, and NASA has been relegated to the status of a giant hoax.

All this sociological backstory turns out to have very little to do with the rest of the movie, but it establishes the character of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot who wants to instill his ambitious sprit in his daughter, Murph. The story kicks in when Murph starts seeing odd things happen in their old farmhouse. She chalks them up to a ghost.  Turns out, the source is even more fantastic -- and stretched my credulity to its breaking point.

With a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the father and daughter decipher cryptic messages and wind up in an old NORAD bunker now being used by NASA to spend untold billions on a spaceship that can take mankind to a wormhole that has opened up near Saturn.  (Why should such trivial concerns as how much money is being spent on the spaceship matter?  They shouldn't, but the screenplay raises questions like that at least tangentially, so they do stick in the craw.)

Lickety-split, Cooper turns into his namesake and becomes the fastest man alive by piloting the ship without much training, joining Anne Hathaway's Amelia Brand and two other astronauts who have so little to do it's hard not to correctly guess their fate.


From here, Interstellar achieves some wonderful moments as the spaceship, aptly named the Endurance, makes its way to the wormhole -- which, it turns out, they are not the first humans to encounter.  (For being highly secretive, NASA apparently has been spending a lot of time flying around in outer space.)  In the film's emotional high point, all the theoretical discussion about relativity becomes real when Cooper realizes he has been away for 23 years already and watches video dispatches his son has sent been sending him for two decades.


It's up to the intrepid crew of the Endurance to journey to three possible worlds that humans can populate now that they have thoroughly mucked up Earth.  Interstellar spends a mind-boggling amount of time trying to explain all the details of just how they will populate the selected new world, and those explanations are so detailed they begin to seem silly.  Watching Interstellar reminded me of listening to a habitual liar: As the stories become increasingly complex and detailed, you begin to doubt everything about them.


As they journey from planet to planet, the Endurance crew understandably frets about the passage of time and begins to wonder if they'll ever succeed.  But they farther they get from home, the less pressing the story seems.  Frequently, Interstellar cuts back to Earth, which seems, despite all of its crises, to have changed remarkably little in two decades, and Jessica Chastain has a lot of screen time as the grown-up version of Coop's daughter, Murph -- who, despite her anger at her absent father, has dedicated herself to the same cause of saving the planet.


Interstellar journeys across the cosmos, but stays rigidly true cinematic convention.  There's even a surprise mano-a-mano fight on one of the distant planets that is pedestrian and obvious; why bother create a whole new world light years from Earth only to have it serve as the backdrop for a fistfight?


When the film finally gets where it's going, what happens there feels cliche: Cooper needs to emotionally connect with his daughter in order to save the entire world.  The on-screen action begins to beg some uncomfortable questions: Why is his story more important than the stories of the other astronauts?  Why does the entire story, in all of its elaborate circularity, hinge on the action he takes here? Nolan is trying to make a grand (literally universal) statement about love and family, but set against this impossibly giant canvas of the entire cosmos, of all space and time, it seems trite.

That's not to say Interstellar isn't impressive, but its long running time seems determined less by having some wonderful things to show us than by having some sentimental things to say.


It's a big, long, visually splendid, sloppily emotional shaggy dog story that could have led its audience down a remarkable rabbit hole instead of taking them to the ends of the universe only to remind us that love is important.  There's nothing wrong with that message, of course, but a movie that calls itself Interstellar seems to promise so much more.

Viewed Nov. 9, 2014 -- TCL Chinese Theater

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Nightcrawler"



 3 / 5 

"Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit," the news director of a struggling L.A. TV station says to Lou Bloom the first time they meet.  Bloom smiles broadly at the thought.

He has just brought in some graphic footage of bloodied, dying man, and the news director has paid him a couple of hundred bucks for the video.  It's like offering a little bit of blood to a shark -- and though Bloom's eyes nearly pop out of his head, if you look closely you can see that they resemble a shark, just as Bloom never sleeps but is always moving and never staying still as he roams the streets of Los Angeles looking for more blood.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou is the kind of guy who Norman Bates might have hired to work the night shift at the motel.  The moment we first see Lou, he's committing a petty crime that quickly escalates into a major felony.  The thing is, no one else on screen knows what we know about Lou, and that turns Nightcrawler into a crafty, intense character study that's anchored by Gyllenhaal's mesmerizing performance.

Between this and 2012's End of Watch, it's impossible not to consider Gyllenhaal one of the best actors working on screen today; he has transcended his looks, but still uses them to his advantage -- and in Nightcrawler, his mild and ingratiating outward appearance hides the truth that Lou is an amoral, sinister creep.

Nightcrawler follows him from being a nearly homeless, uneducated loser with no clear-cut abilities to being the most successful "professional news gathering service" in L.A.  That means Lou will get footage of the unthinkable, the nightmarish, the shocking, and he'll never flinch while doing it.

But there's something even more deeply disturbing about Lou -- he's a true sociopath, unable (or unwilling) to respect another human being.  In one remarkably unsettling scene, he manages to persuade Renee Russo's news director to have dinner with him, and while the meal is being served, Lou performs what can be best described as an act of verbal rape, smiling the entire time.

As he learns more about his sleazy profession, Lou teams up with a $30-a-night assistant -- an equally dead-end loser named Rick (Riz Ahmed), and from their first moment together, it's clear that Lou's endgame isn't professional success or financial gain, it's the ability to control and manipulate his world.

Racing from car crash to car crash, from fire to fire, Lou distinguishes himself by his ability to get to the scene of the grisly crime faster than anyone else -- so fast that in one key scene, he arrives before the police do and obtains footage so violent and disturbing that the station has no choice but to package it with its own logo and theme music; this is stuff that will frighten and unsettle the people of Los Angeles so much, they'll practically be obligated to tune into KWLA to see more.

Nightcrawler is cynical and downbeat and downbeat about the lack of journalism in local news, but it's also scornful of the world at large.  Not for nothing is the film set in an eternal darkness, because it doesn't seem to feel there's anything worth shedding light on.

Yet, for all its downbeat misanthropy and worthy exploration of a troubled soul, Nightcrawler never becomes more (or less) than a blacker-than-black film noir rather than compelling social commentary.  That's not to say it's not well-crafted -- indeed, it's impeccably crafted, with particularly fine camerawork by Robert Elswit that makes L.A. look both ethereal and sinister, and a highly synthesized '80s-throwback score that propels the action.

Though it's fascinating and edgy, Nightcrawler remains aloof and distant, a film that impresses with its technical prowess and compelling performances more than it engages the emotions.  It's as soulless yet intriguing as a shark ... or as Lou Bloom.

Viewed Nov. 8, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Friday, November 7, 2014

"Birdman"



 2.5 / 5 

Nested uncomfortably between genius and crazy, Birdman feels as uncomfortable as the winged Spandex suit worn by the title character.  Sometimes it works, often it doesn't, in its attempt to graft magical realism onto a backstage Broadway drama.

Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) used to be a billion-dollar-grossing action star, but he's through with all of that.  Now he just wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and has sunk every bit of artistic ambition he has -- not to mention ever dollar -- into writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

When we first see him, Thomson is literally floating on air as he gets ready to put the play into previews.  It's not long, though, before everything starts going awry.

First, one of the supporting actors, who's not matching artistic expectations, gets knocked out of commission when a light conks him on the head.  In short order, a replacement with serious acting chops (Edward Norton) replaces him -- but he's a loose cannon who's also involved with the leading lady (Naomi Watts).  The show's producer (Zach Galafianakis) is putting pressure on Thomson to make the play a hit, and the constant presence of Thomson's sullen daughter (Emma Stone), just returned from rehab, isn't helping things.

Through it all, Thomson is losing his grip on reality.  He's hearing voices in his head that sound suspiciously like the Birdman character he used to play on screen and that taunts him with accusations of artistic fraud.

Then there's the matter of the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to bring the box-office-superstar-turned-serious-actor to his knees and ruin his show.

It's enough to make a guy go nuts, and that's exactly what seems to be happening to Thomson.

But it's not enough for director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who begins the movie by showing the fiery descent of a meteor (or maybe it's the Space Shuttle Columbia breaking up?), a visual symbol he  repeats throughout the movie.

Seeing a man descend into madness, to succumb to artistic ambition or commercial pressures, is enough for Keaton, who reminds us what a seriously edgy and unpredictable actor he was before he donned his own rubber suit.  Keaton knows what he's doing in Birdman, and he does it well -- so well, the movie feels substantially less interesting and too literal when he takes off on flights of fancy.

The bustling, supremely well-choreographed backstage drama (Iñarritu has shot the film to appear to be mostly one long take, even though it is set over three nights) touches on the stories of its actors and their relationships -- then abandons them, leaving the audience with only Thomson to focus on.

He's not an un-interesting guy, but the truth is: When he starts flying (not a spoiler, look at some of the posters) or practicing super-powers that he may or may not have, Birdman abandons the multi-character story it's worked so hard to establish and focuses instead on Riggins' flights of fancy.

The Broadway story works surprisingly well.  The magical realism looks and feels splendid.  But Birdman too frequently feels like shots from one unrelated film were grafted onto the core Broadway opening-night plot.  It doesn't feel cohesive, and sheds little light on Thomsan's mental state.

Is he really cracking up?  Or is he just experiencing momentary fantasies?

The best scenes are the ones that happen on-stage and in the hallways of the theater (including the lobby, in a terrific scene that fins Thomsan locked out of the theater during a production).  They're bold and energetic, they tell a strong story.  It's the rest -- the flying, the Birdman suit, the super-powers Thomsan seems to have: They don't add up.  They're nice touches, but belong in a different movie. Fantasy sequences in a drama are one thing, but when they comment on a character's state of mind, it's better if your audience enjoys them rather than walks away feeling confused.

Birdman is filled with astonishingly good actors.  It tells a good, worthwhile story.   And then, as soon as it gets off the ground it comes crashing down again.

There are moments of artistic inspiration and extraordinary accomplishment in Birdman.  There are quite a lot of them, actually.  They just don't quite blend with the magical story elements, and while Keaton is undeniably good, the rest can't be said for the whole film, which walks when it should soar -- and soars at precisely the moments it probably shouldn't.

Viewed Nov. 6, 2014 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Whiplash"



 5 / 5 

Whiplash is the first genuinely great movie of 2014, a film that presents a story so familiar it's almost trite and fills it not simply with new life but with resonance, intensity and ferociousness.

The story: A young, ambitious music student with enormous talent is trained by a bitter, caustic teacher, who makes the student the focus of his pent-up frustrations and hostilities.

Accustomed as we are to the happy colors of a movie like Pitch Perfect or a TV series like Glee, the idea of a movie set against the backdrop of high-pressure music competitions seems hackneyed.  We've seen all this before: The student will practice, practice, practice and never quite get it right until the teacher pushes harder than ever and the student's brilliance shines through in the climactic performance. Yawn.

I'm not going to kid you, most of that happens in Whiplash, but writer-director Damien Chazelle and especially the two main performers, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, turn it into something completely new and utterly disarming.

Whiplash is about jazz musicians, and I know as much about jazz music as I do about Antarctica, which is basically that it exists.  I couldn't tell you the first thing (despite eight years of piano lessons) about the mechanics of music, especially drumming.  I may be the most rhythm-challenged person in Los Angeles.

But Whiplash gave me a thrill.  It refuses to play dumb; I knew no more about jazz coming out of it than I did going in.  But that's not what Whiplash is about, even though its filmmakers seem to know the setting intimately.

Whiplash instead focuses its passions on exploring the intersection between talent and perseverance, saving what's really on its mind until late in the story, when Terence Fletcher, the gnashing, lashing bully of a music teacher played by Simmons reveals what sound like his motives: Truly great people aren't created that way -- it takes someone who recognizes their greatness and will push them, exhaust them, challenge them to be better than anyone else.

Simmons plays the role with such intimidating perfection that he makes complete sense -- he makes indefensible behavior seem not simply defensible but requisite.

Watching him, listening and judging his explanation with a knowing smirk is Andrew Neyman (Teller), the student who has been the object of his obsessive wrath, and whose career ambitions can be made or shattered by a simple word.

Neyman doesn't want to be a drummer, he wants to be "one of the greats."  He is as single-minded in his determination as Fletcher, and with these two actors the relationship never feels contrived -- it is urgent and necessary; in each other, they have found the person who gives them purpose.

At home, Neyman has a father (Paul Reiser) who's as kind-hearted and nurturing as anyone could ever want a father to be.  That's the last thing Neyman wants.  At school, he's found a girl who's as sweet on him as he could ever wish.  He doesn't want sweet. Neyman wants to be pushed, and he's found someone happy to do the pushing.  When Fletcher takes things too far, Neyman dares him to go further.

Neither actor shies away from the challenge -- both are staggeringly good, and to call Simmons "better" than Teller is at once impossible and unnecessary; if Simmons garners the lion's share of the praise, it's only because Teller is fearless.  Chazelle, meanwhile, offers up a storyline that's as simultaneously loose and tight as a piece of jazz, combining it with the tools of cinema to create as closer to a masterwork as we might be likely to see this year.

Like the music at its core, it feels spontaneous but its construction is sublime and its execution is close to flawless.  There aren't many movies that can't be missed. Whiplash is one of them.

Viewed Nov. 1, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood

1730

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Men, Women & Children"



 1.5 / 5 

"In this dirty-minded world," fictional feminist Jenny Fields famously observed, "you are either someone's wife or someone's whore."  The two aren't necessarily exclusive in director Jason Reitman's wild-eyed anti-Internet screed Men, Women & Children.

The film starts in outer space, referencing Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" essay as Emma Thompson's unseen narrator explains how small and meaningless human existence really is.  Men, Women & Children starts with the really big question: Why are we here?  Then, for two hours, it offers one possible answer: because loose, sex-crazed women are a danger for all right-thinking, emotionally centered men in the world.

What's that, you say?  The answer isn't related to the question?  The filmmakers don't seem to mind that little problem.

In Men, Women & Children, one woman takes quasi-pornographic pictures of her daughter and sells them online.  A 15-year-old girl will do anything to lose her virginity to the high school's bad boy, and pays the price with the blood of her unborn child.  A prudish mother obsesses over every keystroke her daughter makes on the computer, fetishizing her concern and spending her time constructing a digital chastity belt, while desperately imploring, "You have no idea how dangerous that is," waving hysterically toward the computer.  Another woman has grown distant from her husband and realizes she can only come alive when she meets up with a stranger in a hotel and loudly exclaims how badly she needs his penis inside of her.

The men, meanwhile, may be clueless but mostly because they're trying to figure out these crazy women, who tease them and play with their emotions and cause all sorts of sexual dysfunction.  The men aren't to blame for the apathy and disconnection that is sweeping the earth, according to the movie -- they are just the victims of the women who can't keep their panties on.

Men, Women & Children might be the most staggeringly misogynistic movie yet made in the 21st century -- and I'm writing that just hours after having seen Gone Girl.

Astonishingly, a woman co-wrote the screenplay with director Jason Reitman; a woman was at least partially responsible for a movie in which 15-year-old nympomaniacs are seducing 15-year-old boys, who are so sexually frustrated by spending hours with Internet porn that they have to practice having sex with Nerf footballs.

Yes, there is a scene in Men, Women & Children in which a 15-year-old boy tries having sex with a Nerf football, and no it is not played for laughs -- even though, unintentionally, it gets them.  I laughed a lot in Men, Women & Children, but I don't think the film was intended, at any level, as a comedy.

There's another scene in which Adam Sandler, in full sad-sack schlump mode, hires an $800-an-hour prostitute, then expresses disbelief when he learns his wife is having an affair.  Of course a man may need to turn to a hooker to meet his sexual desires, the movie seems to indicate, but only because his wife isn't able to satisfy him anymore.

Ostensibly, Men, Women & Children wants to explore how we've become so addicted to social media and the Internet that we can't relate to each other anymore.  There are scenes that are live-action equivalents of those shots in Pixar's Wall-E where all the people are floating around staring at screens, unaware of the world around them.  In Men, Women & Children, that vision isn't a futuristic one, it's an observation of what's happening today.

In that, Reitman has a fair point and a valid subject for a movie, but between the pseudo-intellectual references to "Pale Blue Dot" and a prurient fascination with the sexual lives of 15-year-old kids, Men, Women & Children spectacularly loses its focus and turns into a screeching, overwrought insistence that the world is falling apart at the seams.

Weaving together a half-dozen intersecting stories, Men, Women & Children has aspirations to be a Grand Statement like Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious Magnolia or Paul Haggis's astonishingly overrated Crash, but can't come close to managing it.

In Up in the Air, Reitman memorably and sweetly captured the widespread anxiety and concerns of the moment.  He wants to do the same thing again here, but instead of seeming wise and prescient, Men, Women & Children manages only to be breathlessly, sometimes hysterically, paranoid.

The large and impressive cast, including Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, J.K. Simmons and Dennis Haysbert really do their best -- but did they read the script?  One key plot point has a character attempting suicide over a video game, while another key moment comes when a mother tries to justify her own kiddie-porn pictures of her daughter.

If only those harlots would stop leading such virile, virtuous men astray.

Viewed Oct. 5, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1910