Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pretty Sure You're Gonna Like Birdman

Have you occasionally thought, "There may be a few too many superhero movies these days"? Do you ever wonder how this Hollywood madness all started? Well Birman's gonna sort of cover that... While also being a really good movie with just a wonderful cast of characters and a very intricate chip on its shoulder.
Certainly it helps that at least three of the leads have ties back to major superhero franchises but are no longer a part of that world. But that fact only informs the already meta nature of Birdman that existed in the first place. Michael Keaton (Batman) is Birdman... or rather he used to be. But now he's gone on his own path. He knows that he has ability, but everyone keeps pigeonholing him back into the Birdman corner. His life feels like a mess, but he's really not a bad guy. When all the chips are on the table, he's only ever wanted to do the right thing... he's just painfully ignorant as to what that could be. Enter his daughter played by Emma Stone (of recent Spider-Man lore). She's got her own troubles which are only excellerated by her father's lack of focus and the appearance of Edward Norton (the one time Incredible Hulk)... though neither of their characters have ties to superheroes in this flick...
Am I confusing you? Well I shouldn't be. Actually, I don't wanna break the plot down for you any further. I want you to go and experience this movie. Because that's what Birdman is: an experience. Within Alejandro González Iñárritu's expert vision, an amazing world is able to take shape... one that allows for each of its components to thrive and soar. Cinematography is sharp, precise, and at many times alluringly entertaining. The score is an absolutely unabashed love letter to a profoundly misunderstood and frequently underutilized instrument. And between all that, the writing and the acting, there's really not a single bad moment in this film.
Michael Keaton proves exactly what his character wants to... that he is an excellent actor with range. But he also shares the limelight well. You get a sense that every actor in this film is afforded the right to thrive in whatever special way they know how. Emma Stone does a bang up job playing an intentionally less charming character than we've come to expect from her short but very pleasant career so far.
And Edward Norton just seems to blow the doors off every scene he enters. He, much like Keaton, receives a great deal of jokes pertaining meta-specifically to himself... though I don't wanna ruin any of that. Zach Galifianakis fills a very critical hole with his presence, and does so with gusto. And with Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan (especially Amy Ryan) all filling out very crucial niche roles I honestly can't imagine a better cast for such an undertaking. Everyone seems to want to bring their best for this project, and in my opinion, they do just that.
Birdman does a hell of a lot right. It talks about something that most films aren't willing to discuss. And it never apologizes. The unrelenting nature of this film is something I don't think I've ever witnessed through the thousands of movies I've seen in my life. And it is absolutely worth your time and money to catch it on a big screen somewhere.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury: The War Film You Never Knew You Wanted

Fury is a tank movie!
No... wait a second. I don't mean Fury tanked. I mean, Fury is literally a movie about a tank gang in WWII. And as far back as I can remember, we've never had a war film so well informed by the linear nature afforded us when we watch a group of five guys rolling through Germany in one tank for two hours.
My usual criticism of war films doesn't apply to this one... because there's never a moment of confusion about who we're supposed to pay attention to or care about. Fury is war. But it's war as we should witness it on film... gruesome, but linear. Characters and their choices make sense and don't seem to come out of some random order. Strategies make sense and, yes, horrible things happen... but they happen for the right reasons. This is war and it ain't pretty. And Fury understands that.

David Ayer made an exceedingly good movie... I think his first actually good one. And I'm surprised and overwhelmed by his growth since... End of Watch only a few years back. Where that flick felt sloppy at best, this one feels well concentrated and threateningly tense.
Brad Pitt is just damn likable as Wardaddy. He may be playing something similar to his role in Inglorious Bastards, but this time he feels far more grounded. Shia LaBeouf managed to not annoy me. And that's saying a lot. Logan Lerman is passable with moments of great subtle quality. And Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal managed to keep me entertained... But at the end of the day, I don't know if this movie is as much about the cast as it is about the concept.
I say it's about damn time we got a movie about a tank squad. And fortunately, Fury is a damn good example of what that should be.

Kill The Messenger Feels Like Another Unfortunate Misstep For Renner

Jeremy Renner has been billed as Hollywood's newest leading man for the last six years. But every chance he's gotten to prove he can carry a movie, it's gone bust. Kill the Messenger is just the next example of this very explainable anomaly.
Kill the Messenger is a true story about a small-time reporter catching a metaphorical tiger by the tail. Unfortunately for him, this tiger really does have teeth, and while he's completely new to this level of reporting, the CIA (or the tiger) is not. When it becomes apparent that the reporter isn't going to give up, the CIA ruins his life.
Not to give anything away, but that's literally the entire movie. And that's really the problem. Yes, the point exists in there... the messenger does get destroyed and those receiving the message don't really... can't really do anything with the information other than know that it happened. But the movie itself does not have enough content to warrant a full feature. Yes, the story is tragic, and people should know about it. But there needed to be another act in order for a feature to exist. And while the point probably lies somewhere within that fact, it doesn't excuse this final product's lack of content.
But let's get back to the first thought I had. Jeremy Renner has been surrounded by all sorts of quality here and in other flicks... and unfortunately, the more quality that's brought in to support him, the more it becomes obvious he's the weakest link. A movie starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta should not be boring. But because none of those actors is afforded adequate screen time or any kind of particularly interesting role... thanks to Renner's down-your-throat, screen-hogging Gary Webb (no offense to the real man), boring is exactly what this movie becomes.
Don't get me wrong. I actually think Jeremy Renner is a very talented individual... when given a minor role like we saw last season in Louie. His drug dealer performance in just a couple episodes of that show may actually be the best thing he's ever done... because he didn't have to carry the whole story by himself. When he is asked to be the next Jason Bourne, it fails because the movie requires too much of him. So ultimately I've come to the conclusion that Jeremy Renner is the most overhyped leading man who should actually be handling supporting roles. I think if studio execs and the creative community took a step back and recognized this, everyone would be better off. Renner movies wouldn't have to be just Renner movies, and audiences wouldn't have to suffer through them as they've been asked to do so many times of late.
So... this technically still being a Kill the Messenger review, I'm gonna end with this thought... Kill the Messenger misses the mark. It's still a story everyone should be aware of, but I would not recommend going to see the actual film. If you get a chance to read Gary Webb's original article (book), Dark Alliance, that's probably the way to go.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Go See Whiplash!!

Finally, a good movie!
Whiplash is the kind of mind-blowing, though provoking movie I can't believe no one's ever thought to make. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young drummer trying desperately to be the best in his craft. When Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) sees him practicing, he invites him to join his competitive studio jazz band... and of course Andrew wants to take that next step, so he joins. However, Fletcher's teaching methods are rather... controversial. And Andrew's world goes from exciting opportunity to living nightmare.
The tension Damien Chazelle has managed to create in only his second feature outing, is nothing short of amazing. I can't think of the last time a movie wound me up like this. Perhaps he just got great performances from his stars, but there's something else going on here. Chazelle understands the relationships between people and instruments. He doesn't shy away from giving us just the drum set when it's necessary. He allows us to witness a performance without breaking away to someone's reaction... unless it's J.K. Simmons' because, well, the audience just isn't going to have J.K. Simmons' perspective. It's too crazy. But for a young filmmaker to already know how to trust his audience to formulate their own opinion without needing the forced obligatory crowd reaction takes guts... it takes knowhow. And Damien Chazelle has both of those qualities.
Miles Teller is great as a not necessarily likable character. In many ways he makes himself the victim without needing help from Simmons. But in many ways I feel like that leads back to the greater purpose of the film. J.K. Simmons is electrifying in this movie. I'm just so glad I had a chance to see him give a performance like that, so distant from anything else he's every done, but so well communicated.

Whiplash is extraordinary. The soonest chance you get to see it, DO. If I'm being frank, this movies already in my top ten for the year. I don't care what else comes out. This is in.

Dracula Untold: I Weep For Universal's Monster Project

Dracula Untold is supposed to be the beginning of a new line of Universal Monster movies. I say "supposed to" because this flick destroys all confidence I had in anything of quality coming out of that stream.
Dracula Untold tries to tell the story of Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) after his years at war. He comes home and soon learns that Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), his emperor wishes to force all of the young boys of his country to join his army. Well that ain't cool. So Vlad seeks out a power that will help him to take on an army that is far too massive for his own meager forces.
This movie's biggest issues come out of a lack of pacing and purpose. If this is truly to be an origin story it needs to start earlier to get us involved in the world. I would love a sprawling Vlad the Impaler war epic that returns back home for its third act... But studios don't know how to make that kind of movie anymore because they're too invested in common tropes. The kind they think get larger appeal from audiences, but really just dumb down movies until they become rather easily forgotten in the annuls of history. Dracula Untold eschews a meaningful first act thus forcing onto us several annoyingly useless plot points that could have been avoided had the film not been in serious jeopardy of coming in under its necessary run-time. 92 minutes for an epic Dracula origin story? Are you kidding me??
This flick does however host a number of very bright up and coming actors. Luke Evans is a really solid choice for the role of Dracula and does his damnedest to make this script sound somewhat meaningful. Likewise, Sarah Gadon has been proving herself of late. Her performance in Belle earlier this year definitely outshines this outing, but she still affords the role of Mirena far more quality than the script deserves. The greatest disappointment here is Dominic Cooper. I have enjoyed him in one or two films, but this cheeky Mehmed comes across as meh as the character's name. Easily one of his most forgettable roles to date. I like Charles Dance, and for a moment he pulled this movie away from its more tedious segments almost proving there is life after Game of Thrones...
But the ending left my jaw on the floor. That Universal thought this conclusion made any sort of sense or was at all good enough to start a massive serialized franchise bewilders me to no end. Dracula Untold is a failed experiment. It's abominable that a studio intends to make more productions of lacking quality like this or could ever set out to make something of this mediocre quality in the first place. Long gone are the days of David Lean, and with them, that epic quality that used to make films of an older world great. I'd love to see a Vlad the Impaler movie in the epic style of Lawrence of Arabia. I'd love to see that much effort put into the production. But this crap will not sate my appetite for good movies. It won't even come close.

Cuban Fury Didn't Exactly Set The World On Fire

One day, Nick Frost had a weird idea to make a salsa movie. And this is what came out of that.
A pretty corny little film with a few very notable names who probably just showed up on set to shoot the shit with some people they'd always wanted to work with. It's mediocre, but gives just enough to maybe keep you vaguely interested.
Essentially, Nick Frost plays Bruce, a guy down on his luck... and down on his life, who used to be really into salsa dancing but through bullying decided not to pursue that path any longer. One day, Rashida Jones shows up as his new boss Julia and lets slip that she's into salsa. Bruce's old passion is suddenly reignited for better or for worse.
The cast is honestly the only thing that kept me around till the end. I like Nick Frost, though it's strange to see him as the leading man. While I never like to pigeonhole anyone, he's just never proven himself capable of carrying a film. Rashida Jones does her usual thing, sort of but not really that witty girl you can get along with. And Ian McShane shows up and clearly just wants to have fun. He's been such a strange actor to me, because he's exceptionally talented, but rarely seems to do films that showcase his abilities. I like that he goes to set to enjoy himself, but I guess I still want to see more out of him. Then there's Chris O'Dowd... who's been making some very odd choices. Since his success with Bridesmaids, it seems he's decided to go out and just play despicable character after despicable character. And I bet he's having a blast doing it. Perhaps I'm just looking at what he's done in 2014, but between this and Calvary I'm not exactly sure what (if anything) he's trying to say.
I know I'm sort of blasting this cast a little, but it mostly comes from a knowledge that they have a lot of talent and seem to just be materializing into second-rate productions like this one. Cuban Fury doesn't do or say anything new. Its message is well-meaning enough. But at the end of the day, it's not  gonna change your life and it may not even be able to hold your interest through a pretty short 98 minute run-time. So take that for what it's worth.

Annabelle Doesn't Deserve Your Time... And It's Probably A Racist Film

I liked The Conjuring. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. There was something so wonderful about the way they bottled the style of the 70s and just let the story speak for itself. In some ways I don't even think of that movie as a horror flick because the best elements of it aren't even there to try and scare you... rather just to get you interested in the real life people who were supposedly involved in the incident.
So when the prequel, Annabelle, came out, I was naturally curious. It's not like we needed to know more about the doll, but a lead up to the first movie could have been somewhat interesting. Only problem is, Annabelle doesn't work. It's a %100 fictional concept of where this doll (what was really a Raggedy Anne doll) may have been before the events we saw in the first movie. And it completely missed the mark. The time period doesn't really come through all that well, and the characters are wishy-washy archetypes with no subtext or sign of growth.
The most flagrant misstep of the whole production is the semi-racist anticlimactic finale, wherein Alfre Woodard literally sacrifices herself for the white couple she's befriended. I don't think I'm reaching when I say that if a film only has one black character and that character decides his or her life is somehow less meaningful or important than the white characters', it could psychologically damage the minds of teens who are definitely going to see it. This is part of what I really disliked about RED, and it only continues to prove how some studios haven't wised up. With Exodus coming out, I feel race issues in film are about to reach a new head. Unfortunately for anyone involved in Annabelle, this flick could easily be thrown in with that pile... that's of course assuming anybody cares that it exists at all.