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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: A Pointles Farewell to Middle Earth (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2014 | Add Comments

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesAt 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie by fifteen minutes. That’s a puzzling fact, because of all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, none have been as deafeningly, tediously pointless as this one. It’s 144 minutes too long, and you’ll wondering what has happened to Peter Jackson, who so brilliantly pulled off the Rings trilogy but left audiences puzzled and exhausted by a numbing three-part Hobbit trilogy that dwindled in quality as it continued.

Jackson picks up right where we left off, with a dragon face-off that hits you over the head, sets the bombastically dull tone, and made me wonder why this scene wasn’t included in the last film. Perhaps Jackson was fretting over a lack of action? Nope. The entire film, as evidenced by the title, revolves around one long battle. After Smaug the dragon is killed by a shot to the neck from Bard the Bowman, the gold-filled lair of the dragon is up for grabs. Thorin, leader of the dwarves, is obsessively determined to keep it all for himself, but Bard and his group of humans from the recently destroyed Laketown, demand their fair share, which Thorin promised. The elves do too, and they have an army to back them up, which leads to (you guessed it!) war. How could I forget the title of the film? There are five armies, which means orcs and more dwarves and Gandalf and some other nasty creatures appear for the solitary reason of stretching the film’s running time to ridiculous lengths.

Throughout this Hobbit finale, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peter Jackson and his Hobbit trilogy has failed at nearly everything that made The Lord of the Rings great. Remember the characters (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir) and all the tiny moments of friendship and humor and bravery they shared? Remember the battle scenes, (Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields) which Jackson filled with a scope and seriousness lacking in most blockbusters? The trilogy wasn’t without it’s flaws (The Two Towers was a deeply overrated sequel), but audiences were left with unforgettable scenes (“My precious”; “Here at the end of all things”; “Not this day”) that put the series in the pantheon of blockbuster franchises that Star Wars reins over. Alas, Jackson followed in the footsteps of George Lucas’ galaxy too well. Not content with ending the series on a high note, he delivered his own trilogy of completely inferior prequels.

The dwarves in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesFive Armies puts Jackson’s two greatest weaknesses at the fore: dull, talky build-up and action sequences that just don’t stop. He has a self-indulgent penchant for relishing in every extraneous detail in Middle Earth (these movies involve excessive amounts of battle-planning, alliance-making, and fantasy politics). Worse, he expects non-Tolkien diehards to care (or so one would suppose, based on these running times). The previous Hobbit films haven’t held a candle to The Lord of the Rings with their action scenes, but Jackson had a big chance to stage some engaging, impressive fight scenes with this big finale. Instead, we get blurry, incoherent slashing, hammering, yelling, and crying involving characters we’ve barely gotten to know over eight hours. If the IMAX audio systems weren’t so deafening, you might fall asleep.

Jackson’s attempts at emotionally attaching audiences fail too. The film’s non-action scenes involve an awkward elf-and-dwarf love triangle, speeches of loyalty and courage, and many scenes of Thorin moping in the dragon’s lair. The script’s dialogue, never his strong suit, is clunky, obvious, and laughably humorless, while the ensemble cast of dwarf and elf actors blend into the hollow CGI universe surrounding them. Martin Freeman, who brought wit and charm to the other films, is relegated to the backround and refused opportunity to lighten up the film.

Too bad. The Battle of the Five Armies could’ve used some laughs, or some originality, or some intelligence, all of which it is lacking. There is one rewarding sequence, though. When Bilbo returns to his Shire home at the end of the film, you feel Jackson’s filmmaking muscles ease up with the familiarity of returning to a location often seen throughout the series. For a few moments, the film has the lovable warmth of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s early scenes. Ultimitaely, it just reminded me how much better those Lord of the Rings films were, and how much of a failed opportunity The Hobbit is.

The Theory of Everything (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 6, 2014 | Add Comments

The Theory of EverythingStephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS disease in 1963 but conquered his two-year life expectancy and became an influential theoretical physicist, is not your average scientist. Luckily, The Theory of Everything, which chronicles Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde and significant scientific achievements, is a more sophisticated, contemplative biopic than one might expect.

As the film begins, Hawking is a socially awkward, slightly clumsy, and rather directionless Cambridge undergraduate. He meets Jane Wilde at a party, and they’re instantly charmed by one another. Then, after an ugly fall, Stephen is diagnosed with “motor-neuron disease” and told his ability to talk and walk will quickly decline. He’s confused, he’s angry, and he wants to shut out Jane from his life. She won’t let that happen, however, and promises to help him through the challenges that lay ahead.

That all sounds predictably inspiring, and it is, but the film reveals new layers as their marriage continues. As the years wear on, Jane endures alongside Stephen and suffers with him.  Eventually, she, and the audience, ask: how much of herself is she sacrificing? The youthful, unwavering love the couple initially shared becomes more fraught with tension, yet becomes something deeper, with the passing of time.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir, gives equal attention to both Jane and Stephen, providing a fleshed-out, two-sided relationship without male or female cliches.

It’s the performances that really make or break this type of film, and The Theory of Everything has two great ones. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne gets ample opportunity to display his acting talent, but it’s his subtlety that makes the role heartbreaking. As his eager, intelligent vigor fades into weary sickness, Redmayne undergoes a remarkable physical transformation. His head slumps down, his hands scrunch up, and his speech slurs. Remarkably, his intellect remains untouched. Jane’s confidence, however, does not. Actress Felicity Jones shows us all her roles: loving wife, persevering companion, and apprehensive, frustrated woman. Her role may be less physically demanding than Redmayne’s, but it’s just as emotionally testing.

Science geeks interested in gleaning some new information from a Stephen Hawking biopic will be thoroughly disappointed, but it’s hard to imagine others sharing such a sentiment (for those interested, there’s Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time”.) Director James Marsh is far more interested in complex relationships and the limits of love than he is in mathematical equations that provide a theory for everything. He’s clearly adept at working with actors, and creating a believable human love story. But, thanks to cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, the film also has a muted, lush beauty. Marsh and Delhomme are keen visual thinkers, and they imbue the soft, enchanting frames with a hazy warmth, universal grandness, and ravishing romance (as Jane and Stephen tenderly kiss, the camera lifts upwards and floats away).

That’s not to say The Theory of Everything is without it’s flaws. Some plot strands, while effective, are repetitive, and the film feels a bit slow. And the inspiring, against-all-odds story of triumph and romance, while historical and illuminating, has been seen before.

The Theory of EverythingStill, it’s easy to fall for the film which, while often hard to watch, leaves you with a sense of hope for mankind. Die-hard physicists may complain, but it’s hard to imagine a more compelling version of Hawking’s story, made within the Hollywood boundaries. Then again, you may leave the theater unsure about the “biopic” genre. How many more films about historical icons can we watch? Why do some celebrities of the past get the movie treatment and not others? The Theory of Everything is a fine film, and it gives us new insight into a famous figure. But sitting at the dinner table, you may tell your friends “I really didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking, and the film was quite informative. Oh, and the acing was phenomenal.” But didn’t you say the same thing about Lincoln? Saving Mr. BanksThe King’s Speech? Surely filmmakers have original, fictions stories to tell too? Coming soon: The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken… Hmm.

A Look Ahead: Bible Stories, Hobbit Conclusions, and…Angelina Jolies’s Breakthrough?!?!?!

Posted on | December 4, 2014 | Add Comments

With Turkey Day behind us and the first Friday of December nearly upon us, it’s time to look ahead to some of the films soon coming to theaters. This year’s winter crop of films is, as usual, one of the most exciting selections you’ll find all year long. There’s not quite as many Oscar contenders as usual; this year the award darlings were more spread out with Birman out mid-October, Foxcatcher in November, and Boyhood far back in early July. That being said, there is still a lot coming out in the next few weeks. So buckle up and prepare to head back to the museum, back to Middle-Earth, an escape from Egypt, the wacky ’70s, and into the woods.Screen-Shot-2014-09-30-at-10.23.02-AM-620x412

The Indie Darling: Inherent Vice 

Two years ago, P.T. Anderson’s The Master was one of the biggest Best Picture snubs. But that doesn’t mean that his latest film, Inherent Vice, is out of the race. Despite some negative reviews at festivals, any film with a cast that boasts Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, and more at least has a shot at a nomination. The story follows Phoenix’s detective, Lary “Doc” Sportello as he tries to find out why his former girlfriend has mysteriously disappeared. It all takes place in ’70s LA and it all hits screens on the 12th.

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The Actioneer: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott is by no means slowing down. He has 17 producing projects on the horizons as well as a film and a mini-series that he’ll direct. The Counselor, his film from last year, failed loud and hard with terrible critics reviews (a 34 on Rotten Tomatoes!) and no Oscar watch. But with a fantasy-action spectacle a little more in his comfort zone, Scott could be back at it.

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The Career Restart: Top Five

Comedian Chris Rock is best known for satirical skits and trashy movie parts. He’s aiming to change all that with a new project that will not only find him in front of the camera but behind, as well. He plays a comedian who wants to be a serious actor. Things go downhill when his fiancée (who just so happens to be a reality TV star) announces she wants to film their wedding on her show. Whether things will go well for Rock is yet to be seen, but he has already made the cover of New York Magazine.The-Hobbit-The-Battle-of-The-Five-Armies

The Grand Finale: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson (finally!) closes the curtain (alas, probably not) on his six-part Tolkein epic. The new film may be short compared to the other films, but it’s titular battle is said to be forty-five minutes. Asides from that big battle, there is still a lot to be wrapped up with the many characters and plot threads left unfinished. Plus, there is a certain character’s death that is yet to be seen…Celebrity Sightings In New York City - December 2, 2013

The Show Stopper: Annie

Yes, another Annie. But, wait!!! The youngest Oscar nom ever, Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis is the red-haired wonder? Yes, although she isn’t very red-haired. She is, however, joined by Cameron Diaz as Ms. Hannigan and Jamie Foxx as Will Stacks.  The film is obviously aiming to corner the market on something the whole family can enjoy, but whether it will is yet to be seen.Into-The-Woods-Movie-Stills-Wallpaper

The All-Star Musical: Into the Woods

Meryl Streep. Emily Blunt. Chris Pine. Anna Kendrick. James Corden. Johnny Depp. All of these big names will step into the woods to dress up as storybook characters in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical. They’ll all be singing under the reins of Rob Marshall of Chicago and more recently the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean fame. Even though it comes out a day after Christmas and a week after Annie, it will certainly be butting heads with the previously mentioned musical. What will audiences be drawn to more: charming orphan girl or familiar fantasy creatures?unbroken-movie-angelina-jolie

The Director Breakthrough: Unbroken

Angelina Jolie may have directed In the Land of Blood and Honey, but that film went largely unnoticed. Unbroken will surely not. It tells the story of an Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini, who is taken captive by the Japanese during World War II. The trailer shows an inspirational story with peril in the seas, in the cold, and in prison.

Also Out This Month: Tim Burton tries (another) comeback with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Big Eyes, J.M.W. Turner is portrayed by Timothy Spall who has already gained Best Actor attention in Mr. Turner, Ben Stiller is back for the third and final installment this time in London in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Seth Rogen co-directs (with Evan Goldberg) and co-stars (with James Franco) in The Interview, Clint Eastwood tells the story of a Navy S.E.A.L. who has killed over 150 people in American Sniperand if this isn’t enough holiday spirit, Rupert Wyatt turns Mark Wahlberg into a gambling literature professor having an affair with a student in The Gambler. Happy Holidays!

Movie Lover Musts: A Holiday Gift-Guide

Posted on | December 3, 2014 | Add Comments

Boyhood on Blu-RayThe holiday season is (gasp!) here, which means it’s presents-shopping time. If one of your relatives/friends is a film buff, get them something from this list, which includes books, Blu-Rays, and more.

The Disc: Boyhood (Blu-Ray)

DVD/Blu-Ray company The Criterion Collection has earned a legion of fans with their terrific film releases, stuffed with special features and gorgeous artwork. Many film buffs were thrilled when, in a July interview with the website Hypable, director Richard Linklater confirmed and discussed a Blu-Ray Criterion release for his critically-acclaimed indie Boyhood. A month later, news surfaced: the film would not be getting the the Criterion treatment. Sniff, sniff. Now get the next best thing, by preordering the Blu-Ray release (which comes with a few featureless) just in time for the holidays.Linklater’s 12-year saga of 21st century childhood encourages repeat viewings and, with a nearly 3-hour running time, it’s the perfect choice for a Christmas-day adults movie night.

The Wes Anderson CollectionThe Coffee-Table Book: The Wes Anderson Collection

If you didn’t know this 336-page beauty was written by Matt Zoller Seitz, you’d think Wes Anderson made it himself. Like an Anderson film, the book has an impeccable visual sense, bizarre attention-to-detail, dry humor, and a gently quirky tone. Seitz, however, deserves enormous credit for making this immense, informative, and thoroughly entertaining tome. The book features essays on Anderson’s first seven films, as well as interviews with him about each of them. From the gorgeous color-photos to the revealing conversations, it’s my new favorite film book, period.

What I Love About MoviesAnother Coffee-Table Book: What I Love About Movies

This oversized book, from indie film mag Little White Lies, poses the same question to 50 of the film world’s best: what do you love about movies? Answers come from Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, the Coens, and many more. My only question: when do I get to read this book?

Movie ticketsThe No-Brainer: Movie Tickets

It’s what every film fan wants, and the new year promises plenty cinematic treats. With new installments in all of Hollywood’s major franchises (Star Wars, The Avengers, Jurassic Park, James Bond, The Hunger Games, and even the Peanuts), 2015 might be the biggest year for blockbusters…ever? On the other hand, the more sophisticated film fan will appreciate new releases from auteurs like Spielberg, Tarantino, and the Coens.

Criterion DesignsThe Splurge: Criterion Designs

All die-hard movie aficionados love Criterion’s carefully crafted DVD releases. Now you can drool over their packages’ beautiful cover artwork with this 300-plus page coffee-table extravaganza. Collecting three decades of artwork, the book showcases designs for releases ranging from Seven Samurai to Safety Last and Rushmore. (Granted, you’ll need to shell out $60.)

The Filmmaker Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of WisdomThe Stocking Stuffer: The Filmmaker Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom 

A pocket-sized must for aspiring filmmakers, this book collects tidbits from Charlie Chaplin, Kathryn Bigelow, Akira Kurasawa, and more. Here’s a featured quote, from Frank Capra: ”No saint, no pope, no general, no sultan, has ever had the power that a filmmaker has—the power to talk to hundreds of millions of people for two hours in the dark.”

Star Wars: The Complete SagaThe Preparation: Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Blu-Ray)

Episode IIV is coming. Get ready.

Bill Murray in St. Vincent: Contrived but Wonderfully Hilarious (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 29, 2014 | Add Comments

Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) bonds with Vincent (Bill Murray) in St. Vincent)On paper, St. Vincent sounds like a contrived, seen-it-before sap-fest. Yet, while you have seen this boy-melts-the-heart-of-old-grouch tale before, it works. Why? Among other things, two words: Bill Murray. He plays Vincent (everyone calls him Vin), a bad-tempered misanthrope who enjoys smoking, sleeping, and getting drunk. He spends his days doing laundry for his assisted-living-bound wife, who doesn’t recognize him, and with his cranky Russian prostitute sorta-girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts). She’s pregnant, and, therefore, soon to lose her job (“Discrimination against pregnant woman!”, she gripes).

He’s woken up one day by the sound of a moving truck breaking off a tree branch… that falls on his car. That’s when he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, playing it straight) and her son Oliver. Megan, estranged from her husband and working late hours at a hospital, needs a babysitter for Oliver. After a series of events, that job goes to Vin. As he takes Oliver to gamble at horse races, hang out at bars, and teaches him how to fight, a reluctant but irresistible duo forms.

Murray, with his badly-kept goatee and a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth, imbues Vin with humanity and humor, turning a cliche into a human-being. His comedic timing is impeccable, but it’s the way he manges to make the character both likable and despicable that truly surprises. As Oliver, Jaeden Lieberher has the spunky-cute attitude you’d expect from a child-actor, but he’s more genuine than you might expect. McCarthy, meanwhile, is  convincing as a struggling single-mom and Watts is absurd but hilarious as her character transforms from stripper to mom. Chris O’Dowd, in a small comic role, steals his scenes as Oliver’s caring, witty teacher.

St. Vincent is director Theodore Melfi’s debut feature and he proves himself as a capable, clever, though thoroughly uninventive, filmmaker. His script, which falls somewhere between inspiring family drama and raunchy adult comedy, has some wonderfully comical scenes and a tearjerking emotional payoff, though it would be nice to see him make something a little fresher next time. Still, as the film cuts between Oliver’s bully battles at school and Vin watching a pregnant Daka dance at a strip club, the film manages a kind of bizarrely delightful charm that’s sure to put a smile on your face. Melfi, working with cinematographer, gives the film an attractive, if unoriginal, look, imbuing neighborhoods, horse races, bars, and classrooms with color and life.

A scene from the drummed St. VincentOf course, you don’t go to this movie to marvel at the visuals. You go because you want to have your attention diverted by the story of how a bitter grouch learns to lighten up. Yes, the plot relies on narrative stretches, and there’s nothing to surprise you. It’s also hard to imagine Murray, who’s become increasingly choosy with his projects, reuniting with Melfi film after film the way he has with Wes Anderson, a filmmaker with the ingenuity and invention missing here (Vin may remind of you of a much better Murray role in a much better movie: Rushmore‘s Herman Blume). While you’re watching St. Vincent, however, you won’t care. You might roll your eyes, or you may burst into tears, but you’ll certainly walk out of the theater with a goofy grin spread across your face.

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.

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