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The Singer-Songwriter Romances of John Carney: Once and Begin Again

Posted on | November 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Two musicians (	Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) fall in love in OnceFor all their differences (in budget, star power, and setting), Once and Begin Again, both directed by John Carney, are remarkably similar. The two films each follow a singer-songwriter, post break-up, as they attempt to kickstart a music career, while bonding with a new friend/fellow musician/possible love interest. Do the two films prove Carney as the master of the modern musical? Seven years after it’s indie success, does Once stand up? And is Begin Again (now on DVD and available to rent) a promising follow-up?

You know the story of Once: a poor guitarist befriends a shy, Czech pianist and the two write songs and fall in love. It’s equally likely you’re familiar with the film’s success story: $150,000 indie manages to gross $1.9 million and win an Oscar. Watching the film for the first time, this year, I was surprised by all the acclaim for a enjoyable but modest film. While the songs (especially the beautiful “Falling Slowly”) are simply gorgeous, Once runs on humble charm rather than filmmaking expertise. It’s easy to see why audiences fell for the songs and the story, but Carney’s lack of directorial talent was too obvious for the film to work on me. Main problem: the over-used, almost infuriating shaky cinematography. Tim Flemming’s camerawork is rarely striking but constantly irritating; he moves the camera around so often, you get the sense he doesn’t know what to do with it. Carney’s script, meanwhile, is more premise than story but manages some raw, affecting moments of pure emotion. Luckily, leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, clearly unprofessionals, have some honest chemistry (especially when they’re performing). Maybe the Broadway show, with more music and less wobbly camerawork, would impress me more.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) record an album around NYC in Begin AgainBegin Again, meanwhile, takes the simple premise of Once and piles on more characters, subplots, and a layer of distinctly un-Dubline-like pop-star gloss. Gretta (Keira Knightley), heartbroken after her chart-topping guitarist boyfriend (Adam Levine) cheats on her, is a singer-songwriter who doesn’t quite know what do with her music. Then she meets a divorced, drunken producer (Mark Ruffalo), who convinces her to sign on for a record deal. The (laughable cutesy) twist? To make their album, they record around outdoor NYC locations. It’s all only slightly less predictable than you’d expect (like Once, the ending favors the bitter over the sweet). Light, amusing, and easy to please, with an undercurrent of heartache, things rarely stray far from a gentle, hopeful, hummable tone. The issue is there’s no “Falling Slowly” here, and Knightley’s singing skills are meager. It’s also hard to believe the plot, which assumes an irony-free, unoriginal folk-singer could make a splash in the era of EDM (electronic dance music). If you take the jump, however, you’ll enjoy some clever music industry quips, a satisfyingly disappointing ending, and Ruffalo’s likable turn as a failed father and once-great producer struggling against the music industry’s changing tides.

After two music-romances, you’d expect Carney to try something new… And you’d be wrong: Sing Street, slated for next year, will follow a Dublin boy as he starts a band in London. The film is currently in post-production, so it may be too late to offer advice but let’s hope the songs are memorable, the script not too predictable, and the camera steady. Or else I’ll just stay home listening to this.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 26, 2014 | Add Comments

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) pushes aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) past the limit in WhiplashDamien Chazelle’s Whiplash builds from a terrific opening and just doesn’t stop: it’s always moving, building, and occasionally erupting, as it rivets and shocks and enthralls, takes sharp turns and big leaps, then astonishes with a grand finale that’ll leave you immensely satisfied yet queasily uneasy. Like a great drummer, the film sticks to a tempo but throws in plenty of surprises and flourishes, and never plays a note off.

Whiplash opens with a black screen, as a drum roll builds from an unsettlingly slow pace to an exhilarating explosion of pure, refined noise. Then, as the tempo reaches an unbeatable high, a bass drum slams and then we cut, quicker than the climactic hit of a crash cymbal. In a wonderfully immersive shot, the camera glides through a hallway, towards Andrew Neiman, our freshman protagonist, who’s practicing away on his drum kit. Then Terrence Fletcher, the school’s highly respected jazz conductor, enters the room and tests Andrew on his skills. In a few days, he’s earned a spot as backup drummer in Fletcher’s highly elite band.

At first, Andrew is thrilled, and why shouldn’t he be? His college, the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, is the best music school in the country but, suddenly, he’s placed at the top. Maintaining that position, however, will cost him everything. Fletcher, it turns out, is no smiley inspirational hand-holder. Instead, he’s an exacting, nasty, practically abusive oppressor who feels pushing people not to but past their limits is the only way to achieve great art. In his mind: if we don’t try harder than our hardest, we’re denying the next generation a fresh set of cultural icons. Instead of giving up on this seemingly unattainable pursuit of perfection, Andrew persists, giving his all in hopes of becoming the next Buddy Rich, his idol. “I want to be great”, he tells his less focused girlfriend Nicole. “And you’re not?”, she asks. “No, I want to be one of the greats.” And so, testing all of his relationships and forcing himself to doubt his own motives and common sense, he practices and endures, struggling to persevere and surpass Fletcher’s twisty, twisted jungle of psychological manipulation, physical exhaustion, and verbal abuse.

Andrew’s struggle in Whiplash has a constant sense of genuine immediacy, and there’s a reason. Director Damien Chazelle based the film on his high-school experience as a promising jazz drummer dealing with an abusive teacher. He wrote the script for Whiplash in 2012, then adapted it into a short film to attract funds for a feature. It won Best Short at the 2013 Sundance festival, and, when he returned the next year, the full length version garnered Best Film.

That’s a terrifically inspiring story of indie success, but it actually means something because Whiplash is a breathtakingly gripping, rush-out-and-see-it filmmaking triumph, with none of the amateurish shortcomings you’d expect from a director’s sophomore effort (his first release was the modest monochrome jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).

Chazelle’s style isn’t just polished and professional but also personal and distinctive. Working alongside cinematographer Sharon Meir and editor Tom Cross, he displays a masterly understanding of the camera and the edit, and how to fuse the two to create fireworks. To create a palpable sense of place, for example, he shows us the tiny details of a scene (the tightening of screws on a snare drum; the pouring of soda at the movies; a couple’s feet touching under the table) using just a few, carefully framed shots and some swift cuts. And during the performance scenes, particularly the finale, (the jazz soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling) he uses rhythmic bursts of cuts and angles to put us right on stage, behind the kit, with Andrew. While the musical prodigy plays stunning solos, the man behind the scenes is creating his own tour de force. (On a side note: while I’m no jazz purist, the soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling; the boundlessly energetic title track and sped-up Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” are highlights.)

The film may be a technical stunner, but it also proves Chazelle’s talent as a shrewd, thoughtful storyteller. His script, clearly a long-in-the-process labor of love, is brisk and sharp, laced with anxiety-inducing suspense, vile humor, and startling surprises. There’s not a wasted moment, and each scene builds upon the last, creating unbearably exhilarating tension. And the snappy, clever dialogue manages to be both honestly, awkwardly touching (Andrew asking out Nicole) and lightning-speed witty (a dinner table debate).

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) shows no mercy to his jazz band students in WhiplashThe characters of Andrew, a tenacious workhorse, and Fletcher, the vicious instructor, are rather unusual, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make them full-blooded, believable human beings. Watching Andrew’s innocent confidence transform into unstoppable determination is an awe-inspiring yet agonizing experience and Teller captures the youthful earnestness, insane drive, and unforgiving dedication with mesmerizing melancholy. Fletcher is a layered, difficult character, but Simmons nails the role. He’s ferociously intense, hurling wounding insults and music stands with unflinching brutality. But he also possesses an appalling, calculated cleverness that cuts deep (explaining what that means would ruin some great moments). And yet, for all his inhuman cruelty, there’s a bizarre reasoning to his methods of madness. Midway through, when he explains his reasons, the moment makes your jaw drop, because it’s not just impossibly despicable but also bizarrely rational.

That brings up the question that lies at Whiplash’s heart: in the quest for mastery, how much is too much? Undoubtedly, Fletcher’s tactics are nonsensical (in one scene, he repeatedly slaps Andrew to teach him to keep rhythm). Looking past his surface, you’ll find some debatable wisdom. Fletcher tells his class a story, often repeated though factually distorted, about a recording session during which Charlie Parker’s poor, off-key playing caused drummer Jo Jones to hurl a cymbal at his head. Parker was booed off stage, but he practiced mercilessly for the next year, eventually leading to his reputation as one of the all-time great saxophonists. “Imagine if Jones had just said, well that’s okay Charlie”, Fletcher tells Andrew. “Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. That to me is an absolute tragedy.” Legendary musical virtuosity certainly doesn’t come without hardship and hard work, but pushing students to such extreme lengths is unreasonably harsh. Where’s the in between? How do you achieve mastery without going past the limit? Is that possible? That’s a question that reaches so far past music, past art, it reaches almost philosophical heights. To achieve the highest level of expertise, you do have to give your all, but Fletcher’s expectation that everyone will do anything to reach the top is ridiculous. Whiplash doesn’t really have an answer for that question, but it shows us the lasting scars and wondrous talent that insane exertion can result in.

Andrew (Miles Teller) unleashes a tour de force drum solo in WhiplashAll viewers will be thankful for whatever hardships Damien Chazelle endured in making Whiplash, because the result is an astounding two hours. Thorny, thoughtful, and thrilling, with crafty filmmaking cleverness, intelligent storytelling, and two astounding lead performances, it marks the arrival of a bold new directorial voice (Chazelle) and a brilliant new star (Teller). And it does what every movie should: hook you with its opening scene, and leave you gasping for breath until the intoxicating finale. This is independent cinema at it’s most exhilarating.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Brilliant but Baffling, Beautiful yet Boring (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) pilots a space mission to find habitable planets in InterstellarWhen talking about Interstellar, you have to talk about Christopher Nolan, a director as singularly imaginative as any working today. With his latest daringly original blockbuster, he’s created what might be the most Nolanesque of all his films; an interplanetary mixed bag of all ideas, tones, and imagery that have filled his work, as well as plenty of new ones. It may reach farther than it can manage, but how many films even try to reach this far, crossing galaxies, traveling through wormholes, and touching on the big questions of life and death within the confines of a Hollywood budget?

Interstellar is set on a near-future Earth but Nolan cleverly sidesteps sci-fi cliches with a frightening yet familiar Dustbowl-like vision of our fate. Unpredictable weather, droughts, and famines have been causing the human population to dwindle for years; remaining families now hide from dust storms in their rickety houses and rely on corn, the sole remaining crop. One such survivor, Cooper (Mathew McConaughey, affecting but unconvincing) was once one of NASA’s most promising pilots, but he now runs a farm with his father in-law, while caring for his kids. His daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), thinks there’s a ghost in her room; that “ghost” leaves coordinates that lead father and daughter to a hidden NASA base led by Cooper’s former boss Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

When NASA’s small board reports that a past space mission has discovered a wormhole, and there are three possibly habitable planets orbiting a nearby black hole, you know what’s going to happen (even if you haven’t viewed the trailers). Brand wants Cooper to pilot a mission, find us a new home, and, if successful, save the human race. “I’ve got kids, professor”, Cooper reluctantly answers (McConaughey’s Texan drawl feels a little laid-back when delivering speeches about humanity’s fate). “Get out there and then save them”, answers Brand. Cooper agrees, but not before promising his enraged daughter that he’ll make it back. And so begins a mission which, depending on your tolerance for science-speak and improbable jumps in narrative, is either a thrilling intergalactic adventure or a plodding, patience-testing slog.

It’s a journey that quite literally reaches to the ends of the universe, and you’ll leave breathless, with your head spinning. There’s filmmaking ambition here that rivals anything with a big budget you’ll see this year, or any other.

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) comforts his daughter in InterstellarInterstellar might be the ultimate manifestation of Christopher Nolan: his qualities as a filmmaker, his unique fascinations, his favorite themes, his flaws. All of the little parts that combine to create his signature style can be found here, and he indulges in each and every one of them: a walloping, all-consuming Hans Zimmer score; jaw-dropping IMAX cinematography; an almost purely expository elderly father figure played by Michael Caine; bladder-busting running time; plot holes that will anger film fans; worm hole holes that will anger Neil DeGrasse Tyson; and an ending that will satisfy some, disappoint others, and confuse everybody. Some of these are one-of-a-kind pros, others frustrating cons, but they all form a wholly distinct (though aided by some influences) whole.

Classifying Christopher Nolan is a tough thing to do. Is he an exacting, flawless technician or an old-fashioned storyteller? Do his special effects-laden films make him another CGI-hack or does his love of film over digital make him a nostalgic man of the past? Is he a boundary-pushing innovator or a tireless recycler of better films? Does his heart lie in the expensive, expansive Hollywood productions he devotes himself to, or the microscopic indie films he began with? The answer is not a yes or no; what makes Nolan himself, after all, may be his spot as the enigmatic conundrum. One interesting analogy can be found in Interstellar’s pre-production phase, when Nolan took over the project from Steven Spielberg. That act could easily be read as a metaphor for Spielberg passing down the torch to Nolan, allowing him to join the exceptional and highly coveted ranks of Hollywood directors who use big-budgets to make original, personal projects. It’s a torch that few other directors have held (think of Nolan favorites like Hitchcok, Kubrick, David Lean) as Nolan has respectfully acknowledged. In his own words: “I think that Hollywood has always had and will always have tension between the desire to do something original and fresh, and the fear of alienating an audience and the commerce of it all. When you look at big budgets, it’s rare that filmmakers get the opportunity to pursue their passion and do something original, so when I get the chance, as I have a couple of times, I really get the chance to use that opportunity because it’s an opportunity that a lot of other filmmakers would kill for.”

Aside from links to cinema’s past, it’s not hard to connect the seemingly disparate dots in Nolan’s oeuvre. Take familial love, especially of the fatherly kind. It’s one of his defining obsessions, and it’s permeated throughout his work even if it’s never been as obvious or important as it is here. Like The Prestige’s magician Alfred Borden and Inception’s dream-stealer Dom Cobb, Interstellar’s Cooper spends the entire film trying to get back to his kids. Luckily, Nolan spends time developing the father-daughter on Earth to give Cooper’s mission some poignant personal resonance. Worm holes slow time (on one planet, each hour equals seven years back on Earth), which means Cooper’s kids are growing old while he’s still traveling through outer space. In the film’s best scene, Cooper watches decade-spanning video messages from his children. McConaughey underplays the scene, sitting quietly as tears stream down his face, while Nolan’s gives the scene a real, raw power that manipulates the audience in the best possible way.

Moments, like that one, of true emotional strength feel all the more precious amidst the rest of the film. Nolan’s script, while relatively clever and occasionally captivating, is a muddled mess. Many scenes (such as a subplot involving Jessica Chaistain as an adult Murph) feel forced and functional for the sake of plot, just so the story can move right along. Other sequences (one including a cameo from a famous actor) make me picture Nolan’s directing job as similar to that of a writer trying to cram in all of his thoughts into one long essay, only to give up and exclaim “Whatever, I’ll throw it all in” (not unlike me writing this review). Other than McConuaghey’s Cooper, the characters are broadly-drawn cliches (wise old man; young but spunky daughter; selfish partner) uttering bland, predictable dialogue.

One of the many extraordinary space visuals in InterstellarThat said, there are moments of big-screen brilliance and beauty. Stepping in for longtime Nolan-collaborator Wally Pfister, Hoyte Van Hoytema crafts some of the best shots in a Nolan film yet (no easy feat). Shooting on 70mm IMAX cameras for much of the film, Hoytema gives Interstellar a tangible grit and grain that only film could provide.  Aided by countless technicians, he gives each of the space worlds a distinct, distinguishable feel. And his equally impressive camerawork on Earth brings a dusty, desolate, dejected beauty to the future.

Even if the film’s science may not measure up to fact (to those who nitpick both science and plot: it’s a movie) the visuals of blackholes and icy, barren planets makes an IMAX trip worth it. In what might be the most impressive scene, Cooper and crew make their first attempt at traveling through a wormhole. This is stunning cinema: vast, almost magical, and sensational in a way only movies can achieve.

Look up in the sky...it's InterstellarStill, one can’t help but one wonder if Nolan had achieved something greater. Imagining the film with a smarter script and tighter length makes me sigh in disappointment. And yet, if press interviews are any indication, it does seem like this is the film Nolan wanted to make. While Interstellar may be far from a great movie, it does reaffirm the power and possibility of a big Hollywood spectacle. And I can’t wait to see which corners of the cinematic galaxy Nolan brings audiences to next.

Michael Keaton in Birdman: Daring, Different, and Unmissable Cinema (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 9, 2014 | 1 Comment

 

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shriner (Edward Norton) argue about art and acting in Birdman(For those wary of minor-spoilers, proceed with caution).

Birdman is about the truth; what it is and what it isn’t, how we mess with it and shape it to our liking, and the way it affects our perceptions of everything. In one scene, two characters, sitting on the ledge of a building, play a game of “Truth or Dare”. Later, a pair of rival actors share tales of heartbreaking childhood abuse, only to take them back and say “I made that up.” And, throughout, our notions of what’s “real” and what’s “fake” are being toyed with.

Most of all, however, this is a movie about art, which can never be “true”…or maybe, in some way, always is. The film, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, takes a deep dive into the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been A-lister famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of trashy superhero blockbusters. Twenty years after he turned down the fourth installment, he’s lost everything: his success, his fortune, his marriage, and, most crucially, his relevance. Risking it all to rejuvenate his career, his life, and his cultural importance, he’s directing, writing, and starring in a serious, highbrow Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. There’s just one problem: everything. After a co-star suffers a serious injury, Riggan brings in Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), a conceited, cultured critic’s darling of an actor who’s in his element when performing but a wreck offstage. He also has a past with co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who’s dreamed of Broadway for years but feels hopelessly unprepared when she gets there. Another actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant with Riggan’s child, while Riggan’s twenty something out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) deals with life as the daughter of a celebrity. And then there’s his producer/lawyer/best-friend Jake (Zach Galifinakis), former-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and the stuffy New York Times critic whose review may decide the fate of the play. As egos clash, new tensions arise, and opening night draws near, it becomes unclear whether Riggan can survive torturous previews to pull off the production and prove himself to everyone.

This is a film like none you’ve seen before. The script by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobon, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo mixes satirical showbiz snark, cleverly nasty humor, and unflinchingly messy midlife gloom to create an enthralling, multilayered character study.

Birdman is very much an actor’s film, but Iñárritu deserves credit for his inventive, insightful, eccentric voice and daring directorial vision. For all the script’s wit and wisdom, this is a true technical marvel and Iñárritu accents the film with quirky, innovative touches that make this is a one-of-a-kind achievement.

“One-of-a-kind” certainly describes Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography, which creates the illusion of one breathless tracking shot. Lubezki has been praised for his incredible work, and he’s attempted long takes before (check out the 17-minute opening to Gravity). But here, he’s attempted and succeeded at creating something singularly spectacular. During production, takes lasted 7-10 minutes (a grueling nightmare for actors and everyone else involved), yet the cuts are never obvious and the result is a seamless experience. You are there, following around Riggan and his fellow actors as they navigate around the theater (and, occasionally, the streets and skyscrapers of the city). Lubezki’s camerawork is sometimes strikingly commanding, like a time lapse that segue ways from night to day or a shot that frames Riggan in a mirror as he talks to a costar. For the most part, though, we get a backstage pass down corridors, in dressing rooms, and onstage. It’s a more stunning visual effect than anything CGI-related.

As we float through the theater, Antonio Sanchez’s anxious jazz drumming provides the perfect soundtrack.  His unique, versatile rhythms provide both a sense of edgy unease and an underlying tempo.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) contemplates life in BIrdmanAnd then there’s the starry ensemble cast, stuffed with A-listers pushing themselves to do their best work. Everyone’s been talking about Michael Keaton’s performance and how it’ll signal a comeback for his career. That may not be true, but his performance here is undeniably impressive, and he dominates every scene he’s in. There are obvious comparisons between Riggan and Keaton’s careers; both scored big in comedic blockbusters and sealed their legacy by playing superheroes before saying no to sequels and falling out of the public eye. The stakes may be smaller, but Birdman is to Keaton what the Carver play is to Riggan, a big chance to tell the world “I’m still here” and, as Riggan says, “finally do some work that actually means something”. Keaton has claimed the role has little to do with his own life, but it’s impossible to deny the honest, naked emotion he displays. Riggan is irresponsible and plain messed up in almost every way; he’s ruined just about every important relationship he has. In one scene, he chides his daughter for smoking, and then precedes to light a cigarette for himself. Keaton’s performance favors rage over regret, mixing deep sorrow with bubbling anger. Like all of us, he has something to prove not just to everyone around him, but himself. He’s putting everything on the line for this play because he wants people to like him, to care about him, to applaud him. Honestly, that’s as basic a human desire as any. Keaton’s biggest achievement lies in how he manages to find the humanity in Riggan’s messy psyche and, against all odds, keep us rooting for him to succeed.

It’s a great performance that gives Keaton plenty of room to show off, but the world of Birdman is populated by all kinds of characters. Norton’s Mike Shriner makes for a fascinating flipped coin to Keaton’s Riggan. While Riggan poses for family photos and signs autographs for Birdman fans, Mike is gracing the cover of The New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section. He’s everything Riggan’s not: pretentious, artsy, relevant, popular, and prestigious (“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”, he memorably sniffs). Norton’s at the top of his game here, performing his lines with a perfectly-pitched pretension that masks the wounded soul that lies beneath. In his first script-read with Riggan, Mike already has his lines memorized, and by the end of the scene he’s acting as director. Yet, as revealed later, he’s hopeless when he’s not in front of an audience. As he later tells Riggan: “Long after you’re gone, I’m gonna be on that stage, earning my living, bearing my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions, ’cause that’s what we do”. It’s hard to imagine another actor so delightfully imbuing the role with such self-important, cultured sophistication.

Sam (Emma Stone) in the final shot of BirdmanAs Riggan’s equally messed-up daughter Sam, Emma Stone is all exasperated millennial frustration and bored, lingering cluelessness. Growing up blinded by the unwanted spotlight of the media has taken it’s toll on Sam, who’s just gotten out of rehab. Riggan’s misguided parenting (or lack of) may have caused many of her problems, and Stone unleashes all her character’s emotions in a miraculous minute-long rant. “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You don’t”, she yells at Riggan.

Stone isn’t the only one who turns in terrific work, despite a limited amount of screen time. There’s not a bad performance here, whether it’s Naomi Watts’ tender anxiousness as a Broadway rookie or Andrea Riseborough’s angry turn as Riggan’s girlfriend or the friendly ambition of Zach Galifinakis’s performance as the show’s producer. This is a film about performances, and filled with great ones.

As Riggan approaches the opening night of his play, it becomes clear things won’t turn out smoothly, and Birdman is too weird and twisted for a happy ending. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say this: the film’s finale is shocking, ambiguous, and, depending on your interpretation, either tragic or hopeful. Let’s just say it makes for good conversation.

Ultimately, Birdman can’t help but feel slightly dissappointing, for reasons I can’t quite decide. For all it’s brilliance, the film feels like one big illusion, a high-wire trick. Another viewing might be necessary.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) floats above NYC in BirdmanJust like Riggan and his cast and crew risk it all in the pursuit of great art, Iñárritu, Keaton, and the rest of them have created a bizarre, beautiful, and bold piece of filmmaking. It may be imperfect, but this is cinema as daring and different as anything else.

The Zany Brilliance of an Underappreciated Animation Master

Posted on | October 8, 2014 | 1 Comment

What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones now at the Museum of the Modern Image

Generations have enjoyed the inventive, endlessly entertaining cartoon creations of Chuck Jones, the man behind Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. But the saying “You don’t know the name but you’ll know the work” unfortunately rings true about him. “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones”, a new exhibition that opened at NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image July 19 and ends January 19, finds the skill behind the slapstick. 

I recently got a chance to visit the exhibit, and can say it’s an illuminating, absorbing, and comprehensive must-visit that all animation fans will love.  Through a predictable but extensive collection of artifacts, writing, clips, quotes, and interactive touch screens, visitors learn Jones’ story starting with his groundbreaking work during Warner Bros.’ golden era of Saturday morning animation, onto his later work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Phantom Toolbooth, and, finally, his influence today. Prolific certainly describes the man; he directed over 300 films (most of them shorts, admittedly.)

Those who perceive Looney Tunes as a childish diversion (like I did) will reconsider after they’ve seen this show, which rightly heralds Jones as a true artist. The exhibit’s highpoint comes with a darkened screening room that shows some of Jones’ greatest work, with introductions from Pixar mastermind John Lasseter. The selected shorts, a kind of greatest hits collections, show impressive range, true skill, and infinite invention. It’s fun to see the advancements in his career by watching these films. Vintage Looney Tunes displays his knack for creating iconic characters (in Wagner spoof “What’s Opera Doc?” and Broadway comedy “One Froggy Evening”), while “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” shows his tender side, while remaining delightfully rewatchable. He was also a witty storyteller capable of clever, intellectual brilliance, as proved by the surprisingly sophisticated Oscar-winning geometrical love story “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics”.

Walking away from the show, you’ll be left with a deeper understanding of the painstaking work that goes into a 5-minute animated short, and discover one of foremost masters of the trade. Chuck Jones’ skill for creating layered plots and stunning visuals may be often mimicked today, but his hand-drawn style and simple comic timing may remains wholly unique.

For more info on the show, click here.

Good Morning Vietnam (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | August 18, 2014 | 1 Comment

With Robin William’s death still in sight (as well as Flack’s tribute post), now is the time to delve into the comic genius’ trove. I’d never seen Good Morning Vietnam before, but I certainly will see it again. Five years after Mork and Mindy, the first of his projects that really got him noticed, and only two years before Dead Poets Society, one of his popular and powerful performances, Williams began what many describe as his “golden age”. From Hook to Hamlet, Ms. Doubtfire to The Birdcage, Jumanji to Aladdin, and of course Dead Poets Society to Good Morning Vietnam, he displayed a variety of talents and the true span of his acting capabilities. In Good Morning Vietnam, he showcases it all.

The basic plot: Williams is Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey who is sent to host a segment of AFR’s Saignon radio shows. What rivets you to the screen? William’s all-out performance. Director Barry Levinson allows him large chunks of time to improvise as a radio host would. And in those moments we see Williams overflowing with humor, constantly joking and constantly one-upping himself with a line rivaling the last.

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Asides from Williams, the film is solid. Never wandering too far onto the tearjerker side, Levinson weaves a story that seems simply a comedy set during and referencing the Vietnam war. An hour in and a twist involving Cronauer being thrown into the midst of a bombing sets the film on a new path. As the films starts to get more serious and the humor less frequent, we are drawn into an equal parts-suspense-war film drama-and still comedy that manages to make everything seem okay through the lens of Robin Williams’ mouth.

Levinson does make the mistake of sometimes playing it too safe with a “villainous” Sgt. with very little making him menacing, other than the fact that he does endanger Cronauer. A romance has really nothing to it other than “she looks nice” and because much of the film’s second half revolves around it, it does become tedious. And yet, the moment you notice these flaws, Williams is back on the air, the camera displaying nothing more than a shot of Williams yelling into a microphone.

The structure of the film is very different than other comedies where there are a few stars, all equally funny. Instead, William’s easily steals the show. Yes, a young Forest Whitaker in is in the secondary role. Yes, the story is tragic and funny at the same time. And yes, all in all it’s a great film. What brings it together however, and what you’ll remember is Williams performance.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 16, 2014 | Add Comments

The team unites in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)“What should we do next? Something good or something bad?”, ask the roguish human protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. “A bit of both!”, he decides. Unfortunately, the film is more bad than good.

For most viewers, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be a new concept. This ever-rotating roster of intergalactic heroes debuted as a comic in 1969. James Gunn’s often tedious, sometimes amusing new film revolves around two MacGuffins (Hitchcock’s term for a desired object that everyone’s after). First is Peter Quill’s Sony Walkman, and the mixtape his mom made for him, which he’s listening to as a kid when the movie begins. He’s interrupted when his grandfather invites him to visit his dying mom, who hands him a mysterious present before her death..

Years later, Quill is a criminal space cowboy raiding the galaxy for cash, women, and Mysterious Objects of Extreme Importance to the Plot. Which brings us to the second MacGuffin, a highly dangerous silver orb. In a scene reminiscent of Raider’s of the Lost Ark‘s opening, Quill is about to plunder the orb when he’s caught by an alien baddie named Korath (Djimon Honsou), who working for Ronan (Lee Pace) who’s working for Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s out to destroy the universe.

Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)Anyway, Quill escapes from Korath and soon learns that the blue orb is no everyday blue orb. Quill, no with a bounty on his head, finds himself working with four bickering alien outcasts. They are: Gamora (Zoe Saladana), an assassin who betrayed her employer; Ronan; Rocket Racoon (Bradely Cooper), a mutated murderer of an animal; Rocket’s sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) who’s vocabulary is limited to “I am Groot”; and Drax the Destoryer (pro wrestler Dave Bauitista), a brute force alien out to avenge the death of his family. The five some must keep the blue orb out of the wrong hands, in hope of saving the galaxy.

If this all sounds like a dense, exposition-heavy bunch of plot it’s because it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the planets of Xandar and Nebula. Director Gunn doesn’t shy away from introducing an audience to not just a world, but a galaxy. That he expects you to remember it all is ridiculous; the idea that he wants you take it all seriously is laughable.

It may seem foolhardy to hope for originality in a Marvel movie, but Guardians, with it’s fresh cast of oddball characters, looked like an enjoyably fluffy action-comedy. Too often, however, it’s a familiar, forgettable, slightly frustrating film. The screenplay, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is a hackneyed puddle of genre movie tropes: The Avengers meets Star Wars, with a side of Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the like. Opening with the dying-mother cliche basically sets the tone for the rest of the film, which gleefully rips off better ones. 

James Gunn, a B-movie hand who’s directed gory genre fare like Slither and Super, should’ve done more to differentiate the film from his influences. Sure, the characters are inventive and weird but the story (misfits overcome differences and unite to save the world) has been seen in everything from Seven Samurai to The Avengers. The space battles are no different; none of the action scenes are particularly thrilling. At least, the movie clocks in at two hours, a modest length compared to The Avengers.

That’s harsh, yes, especially because the movie could’ve been worse (and some of it’s Marvel relatives are). When the heroes squabble and quip in a way reminiscent of the all-star banter of The Avengers, Guardians becomes a light, goofy send-up of the genre tropes it’s suffering from. Standing on a balcony with a view of the cosmos, Gamora tells Quill, who’s fallen for her, she doesn’t dance. “Really?”, he responds. “Well, on my planet, there’s a legend about people like you. It’s called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, it’s the greatest thing there is.” Quill’s mixtape-from-mom (perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure) also provides some hilarious incidents of interspecies-misunderstanding, like when a puzzled alien thug picks up the Walkman and listens to Blue Swede’s ”Hooked on a Feeling”. Moments, like this one, of riotous, pop-culture parodying, self-mocking stupid-fun liven up the whole film.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goes from jokey criminal to galaxy savior in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)So does Chris Pratt’s uproarious performance as Peter Quill. Pratt’s best known for NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and has had small roles in Oscar-bait like Moneyball (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Her (2013). Now, with Guardians, February’s The LEGO Movie, and next summer’s Jurassic World, he’s Hollywood’s next big leading man. Here, he sends up the conventional action-man with a goofy, charming brand of humor pitched between witty and dumb. Pratt is like a relaxedly comical Harrison Ford; a slacker-thief who’s as quick with a gun as he is with a quip.

Guardian‘s disappointing melding of cliches, stereotypes, and instantly forgettable chase sequences with something fresher and funnier makes for a frustrating film. It’s possible Marvel, the all-powerful movie machine of sequels and money, and super-producer Kevin Feige, keeps a steady hold on their directors’ creative freedom. Jon Favreau, with the first Iron Man, managed overcome the obstacles, as have some others. Yet too often do Marvel movies feel like overlong commercials for a comic-book universe meant to sell, sell, sell. What if Marvel is the auteur - albeit a crass, commercially driven one – behind their films. You can see the touch (or crushing, destructive stomp) of the studio in all their movies: similar story lines and themes marked by a goofy sense of humor and explosive action scenes.

Perhaps that explains why Guardians is so comical and fresh in some parts and dull and stale in others. The good parts (the team bickering, the soundtrack) make the bad ones (monotonous action, conventional plot) so much more infuriating. Marvel Studios is the guardian of one of Hollywood’s most important franchises, but it wouldn’t hurt if let in some more creativity.

Robin Williams: Teacher, Alien, Nanny, Legend

Posted on | August 13, 2014 | 3 Comments

John Keating (Robin Williams) inspires and surprises his students in Good Will Hunting (1989)After hearing the tragic news of Robin Williams’ death at age 63, I wanted to watch one of his films. My pick was Peter Weir’s high school tear-jerker Dead Poets Society (1989), about a group of boarding-school boys inspired by their unconventional English teacher (played by Williams). The film, though sometimes cliched and sentimental, is inspiring, witty, and thoughtful, not unlike William’s character. In the last stretch of the film, director Weir truly transcends the feel-good genre and creates something deeply poignant, heartbreaking, almost lyrical.

Despite a shortage of screen time, Williams steals all of his scenes as the quirky, Walt Whitman-quoting, John Wayne-imitating hero who influences his students. Clearly a skilled actor, Williams makes every moment count in an inspirational, drily funny performance. Reaffirming how unforgettable the role is, Apple featured his “What will your verse be speech?” in a memorable iPad ad, last fall.

Alien Mork (Robin Williams) and human Mindy (Pam Dawber) in Mork and MindyOf course, this was only one terrific performance in a career full of them. A star was born when audiences saw his bizarrely hilarious breakout performance in ABC’s alien-out-of-water sitcom Mork and Mindy. After four years, the show was canceled and Williams moved onto film roles, like The World According to Garp (1982) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which garnered him his first Oscar nomination. He continued his string of drama-comedies with two more Oscar noms: for Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King (1991). He eventually won, for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting (1997).

Though his most revered roles were his dramatic ones, Williams (originally a stand-up comic) could always make an audience laugh. His high-pitched voice, zany facial expressions, and rapid comic timing made him a distinct comedian with a unique brand of big-screen humor.  Who could forget his performance as divorced-dad turned cross-dressing nanny in the hilarious Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)? Or his voice role as the pop-culture referencing Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992)?

Mrs. Doubtfire is not your normal nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)No one will forget those performances, or Robin Williams himself. We’ve lost a legend but we still have his body of work to make us laugh, bring tears, and remind us a true great’s talents. Nanu, nanu.

Boyhood (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 9, 2014 | 6 Comments

Boyhood charts Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18SPOILERS!

With Boyhood, a childhood saga that follows a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, director Richard Linklater has pushed the capabilities of film to the fullest. For a couple of days a year for 12 years, he shot the same cast and tracked the growth of his child star Ellar Coltrane with genuine, unprecedented truth. This couldn’t have worked with another medium; it works because it is a film. Boyhood is a cinematic triumph that reaffirms the power of the movies. If that sounds like hyperbole, go watch it.

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky, backed by the sounds of Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”. Cut to Mason, the boy we will follow for 12 years (or 165 minutes), lying on a grass field and looking at the clouds. His mother, Olivia, tells him it’s time to go.  We soon learn Olivia is a struggling teacher and that he has an annoying, star-student older sister named Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, daughter of Richard and appropriately irritating). Mason spends his time with neighborhood friend Tommy, doing graffiti, biking, and flipping through a catalog of barely-clothed women. He moves to Houston, where he reconnects with his liberal musician father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who weaves in and out of Mason and Samantha’s lives. Olivia gets remarried and divorced, and remarried again. Mason finds new friends, faces bullies, experiments with drugs and drinking, and suffers break-ups. He tries to figure out what he wants to spend his life doing and looks for the meaning of it all. We watch him grow from being a bored gamer who could care less about school to an angst-ridden rebel to an endlessly chatty shutterbug slacker. Life goes on.

A young mason (Ellar Coltrane) at school in Boyhood (2014)Watching Ellar Coltrane grow up as Mason is a revelatory experience.  It was a considerable gamble on Linklater’s part, casting a kid who could grow up to be anyone. That’s what makes Coltrane’s performance so uniquely impressive. We’re there, watching, as he grows taller, his voice deepens, and he, ultimately, arrives as a powerful screen presence. It’s a terrific performance, made up of twelve terrific performances. Coltrane smartly shies away from overacting and the spunky, perky attitude of typical child actors. He makes Mason a quiet and timid youngster, then a chatty creative type. It’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and realistic kid performances ever.

Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) high-school graduation after-party in Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are no less powerful as his parents, wisely underplaying two realistic roles. As a single mom trying to go back to college, raise two kids, and get remarried, Arquette is subtly remarkable. Olivia is a nuanced character, who reveals layers of sophistication, sorrow, and love throughout the film. Arquette has a particularly poignant scene with Coltrane near the end of the film that may reduce many viewers to tears. Hawke is just as wonderful but gets some more lighthearted moments as Mason Sr.: a compassionate but often absent dad, an angry ex-husband, and a musician who’s forced to move on to other work. Whether he’s having fireside conversations about Star Wars or discussing the meaning of life with teenage Mason, Hawke is understatedly funny and unexpectedly wise, despite his modest screen time. Arquette and Hawke’s underplayed skill dawns on you as the film draws near it’s end, just as Mason realizes how important his parents have been in his life.

Boyhood is very much an actor-centric film, but it’s also a landmark directorial triumph for Richard Linklater, who mixes indie aesthetics with documentary realism. At the start of filming, he had no script for the film, preferring to come up with new ideas each year. Linklater was also wise to focus not on coming-of-age film cliches but smaller, more meaningful moments like camping trips with dad, a high school graduation after-party with family, and a symbolic, spiritual hike that ends the film. Actually, Boyhood, like life, is a whole made up of lots of little moments that cumulate into something meaningful over time. Linklater doesn’t make his thoughts on growing up too obvious, instead letting you develop your own take on the film’s messages. Yet there’s a profound beauty in how he deals with the fleeting nature of childhood and the idea that life is just a bunch of seemingly unimportant moments that add up to something greater. There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end of the film where Olivia, talking to Mason before he drives off to college, comments on how her life is one big chain of events that goes by too quickly. After three marriages, going back to school, and sending her kids to college, the only major event left in her life is death, she tells Mason. Capturing small yet significant memories of childhood and turning them into a thoughtful mediation on life isn’t an easy task, but Linklater has succeeded.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with Olivia (Lorlei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar coltrane) in Boyhood (2014)

Charting Mason and his family’s story over the first decade or so of the 21st century, Boyhood also functions as a reflection on the 2000′s so far. Historical and cultural milestones can be seen throughout the film: Mason and Samantha attend a party celebrating the release of the latest Harry Potter book, their father talks to them about the war in Iraq, and Mason is always playing with the latest video game console. In the film’s funniest scene, Mason Sr. has his kids put Obama signs on their neighbors lawns – and even snatch a McCain sign from one house. Adding to the nostalgia-inducing time capsule element is the wonderful 00′s-spanning soundtrack, which includes The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Wilco, and others. Years from now, the film will serve as a seminal snapshot of 21st century life.

Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood (2014)

Has there ever been a movie like Boyhood? Michael Apted’s documentary 7 Up documentary series and Francois Truffuat’s fictional Antoine Doinel films have followed kids as they grow older over many films. Yet Boyhood is so remarkably specific in telling the story of Mason’s family and so universally relatable in charting a child’s growth that it manages to create one of the most believable portraits of childhood, family, and life ever captured on film. It’s also one of the most funny, reflective, beautiful, tragic, and absorbing movies you’ll see all year. The hype about it has been towering, yes, but believe it. By following a boy from 6 to 18, Richard Linklater has created an entertaining, heart-rending portrait of 21st century family life in America. It forces you to think, moves you to tears, compels you to laugh, and encourages repeat viewings. An enthralling, unforgettable triumph of cinema as original, engrossing, delightful, and heartbreaking as anything in recent memory.

Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 2 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

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