Monday, November 17, 2014

St. Vincent *** - A Comedy with Heart

In St.Vincent, Bill Murray stars as a surly man who's much more than he appears.  St. Vincent owes much to the John Hughes/John Candy comedies of the 1980s. When a single Mom played by Melissa McCarthy moves in next door, she enlists Vincent to watch her son Oliver after school.  Vincent swears, drinks, and proudly wears his beer gut.  Murray has a great chemistry with the kid as he mentors him on handling bullies and placing bets at the track.  As the story unfolds we learn about Vincent and his eventful life.  He's not the type of guy to talk about what he's done. Vincent lets his actions speak for themselves.  First time director Theodore Melfi stays away from too much sentimentality and yet achieves an emotional resonance. Chris O'Dowd and Naomi Watts are strong in supporting roles. Bill Murray does a great job as usual and we're lucky he's still making movies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Courtesy Ryan Gajda
As Birdman soars towards its tragicomic conclusion, we hear a homeless man on Times Square delivering a drunken recitation of the famous monologue from Macbeth which claims life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.  Unfortunately, the same could be said of Birdman.  Compelling themes such as the creative tension between actors and writers, the clash between artist and critic, Hollywood turning its back on cinema in favor of banal comic book flicks, and the comeback of a struggling actor are all raised, but never addressed in a satisfactory way.

Birdman has dazzling visuals including long tracking shots immersing the viewer into its world and extreme close ups to achieve intimacy between audience and character. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a fading movie star mostly known for playing a superhero named Birdman in the 90s. Now 20 years later he's writing, directing, and acting in a play based on Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love." When a cast member falls victim to a freak accident Riggan replaces him with Mike (Edward Norton) an actor with an Orson Welles size ego. Emma Stone plays Riggan's daughter who's recently left rehab and looking like Lindsay Lohan.

As expected, things get crazier as the play's premier approaches.  Director Alenjandro Gonzalez Inarritu employs magical realism throughout the film, as Riggan's visons start to blur reality with fantasy, often involving visits from his superhero alter ego, the Birdman. Other films, with Woody Allen especially in mind, have more successfully used magical realism to advance the story.

Keaton's compelling performance will deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.  Not since Beetlejuice has he brought such manic energy to the screen. Coincidentally enough, Keaton had a similar role in small Indie film from 2005 called Game 6, in which he plays the desperate writer opposite a pre-Ironman Robert Downey Jr. as the acerbic critic. Keaton gave a heartfelt and honest performance, set during game six of the 1986 World Series.  The same idea worked much better without all the cinematic flourishes of Birdman.

Birdman has creativity and exuberance going for it, but lacks heart.  Watch enough movies and you start to see some synchronicity.  The night before seeing Birdman, I came across The Goodbye Girl.  From 1977, Richard Dreyfuss earned an Oscar for playing a struggling actor in New York.  Despite the sitcom setup, sharing an apartment with a woman and her daughter, Dreyfuss risked annoying the audience with his eccentricities and still managed to make an emotional connection.  Birdman will impress many, but will also leave them cold.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar *** A Spaced Out Epic

Chris Nolan's long awaited Sci-Fi epic Interstellar has finally arrived and while it has moments of true wonder, it's overlong and meanders in a netherworld of spaced out ideas. With a running time approaching three hours, Interstellar blatantly tries to top 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.  I'd compare the experience of watching Interstellar to the moment you realize your favorite band's double album would've worked better as single record.

The story is set in the mid 21st century as Earth is running out of food.  History textbooks inform students the Apollo missions to the moon were a myth.  Scientists make feeble efforts to solve the food shortage.  Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, widower and former test pilot who mysteriously stumbles upon a secret NASA base. Although technological progress appears to have stopped, NASA continued to build spacecraft designed to travel the Solar System. Without revealing more, they draft Cooper to lead a mission to save the planet.

I was lucky enough to see Interstellar on an IMAX screen.  The special effects depicting space travel are quite extraordinary, very much inspired by the IMAX films about the International Space Station.  If Interstellar was simply a film about space exploration, I see unlimited potential for an amazing, even cerebral masterpiece; however, the story line about saving the Earth really weighs the film down.

Back on Earth, Cooper left his two children behind and they resent him for it. Jessica Chastain plays Cooper's daughter (who happens to be a genius).  Nolan tried to make the father-daughter relationship the emotional core of the story, but it never quite gets off the ground.  And that goes for most of the supporting characters; they are functional and predictable. McConaughey has his moments, but the flat dialogue and talkie scenes make Interstellar seem dull in comparison to Guardians of the Galaxy or Gravity - two films alive with humanity.

According to IMDB, Interstellar has been in the works for years and it shows it.  Originally Spielberg was set to direct, but he passed it along to the Nolan brothers.  At times, Interstellar feels as if three films were sandwiched into a one script. When the ending finally arrives, it's more relief than catharsis.  

Don't get me wrong, if you like Sci-Fi films, Interstellar is a must see.  I liked the underlying theme about the joy of acquiring knowledge and the excitement of discovery. I'll get behind that movie any day.  Public enthusiasm for space travel has declined after Apollo 11 landed on the moon and NASA does face an uncertain future.  Maybe this movie will inspire a new generation.  Maybe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Nightcrawler **

In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhall takes a dark turn as Louis Bloom, a Dale Carnegie quoting misfit who finds his life's purpose in selling graphic videos to local TV stations. In what's framed as a devastating critique of the media, mostly just states the obvious.  Yes, if it bleeds, it leads. Nothing new there.  An excellent performance from Gyllenhall fails to redeem Nightcrawler.

When we first meet Louis we realize he's the type of guy who will do absolutely anything for a fast buck.  He sells scrap metal, commits petty thefts, and enjoys negotiating with pawnbrokers.  One night he witnesses a "freelance" video crew led by a haggard Bill Paxton tape the aftermath of a high speed car accident.  Seeing the money making potential and a chance to indulge his voyeuristic impulses, Louis decides get into the exploitation business, and finds a sponsor in a local news producer at a fledgling station played by Rene Russo (Nina).

Early on Nina informs Louis about what stories get ratings in LA: well off white people put in peril by a person of color or someone from the lower classes.  So he goes out and and records home invasions and the station's ratings skyrocket.  Anyone who watches the local news can attest to the shamelessness of their nightly coverage.  In a superficial way, the film points the finger at the audiences who thrive on it.

The changing nature of television news is ripe for a great film.  But Nightcrawler is too one dimensional and not on the same plain as Network or The Insider.  Gyllenhall's performance as a charming sociopath has a tinge of menace, but we never get to emphasize with him, so he's more of a caricature than a character. Bottom feeders will thrive in any economy during time period. I don't see any grand statement about our time, more of a confirmation if anything?