Sunday, November 30, 2014


 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Dave Schultz as it is about the obscenely wealthy and emotionally stunted billionaire and his relationship with Mark, a withdrawn, socially awkward man who becomes, for a time, the center of du Pont's world.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


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


"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


Sunday, November 9, 2014


 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


Saturday, November 8, 2014


 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


Friday, November 7, 2014


 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


Sunday, November 2, 2014


 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