Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (R)

9 Stars

The viewer is a salmon.

Swimming up streams of consciousness, occasionally leaping between parallel tributaries to follow movements of different characters.

That’s right, folks – the old head-hopping narrator.

Extra thought provoking because the voiceover only chimes in to pester the protagonist.

What’s most noteworthy about Birdman is exactly that: Creative and original storytelling techniques.

Another example is the stylistic editing: The film has the appearance of all occurring within one take.

Therefore the cutting is minimal. Which is incredibly refreshing.

Big names are visibly acting in the same space, oftentimes physically interacting.

There’s no ‘cut to close-up’ as characters deliver dialogue, which makes for a more organic viewing experience.

(Sidenote: Hollywood should ban the ‘cut to close-up.’)

Birdman isn’t going to be your favorite, but it’s still great.

The writing is strong; the protagonist’s plight is timely and moving. The characters interact compellingly. The subject matter is thought provoking.

Although this term is overused, it takes a ‘gritty’ in-depth look at stage acting.

The metahumor is consistent and pointed. Even the casting is ironic.

Michael Keaton playing the washed up retired superhero. Edward Norton as a pompous know-it-all veteran.

Wanna know who’s excellent? Naomi Watts.

She delivers a stellar performance as Lesley; in a role that somewhat calls back to Mulholland Drive, in which she plays a sexually conflicted up-and-coming actress.

Emma Stone is ten types of terrific, but they shouldn’t have spoiled her monologue in the trailer.

Turns out Zach Galifianakis can play off-type extremely well, which comes as no surprise.

Andrea Riseborough is lesser known, but holds her own.

Finally, Amy Ryan plays a totally different character from her role in Gone Baby Gone and fits in perfectly with a slew of other great performers.

Although the trailer spoils most, the special effects are decent enough.

The surreal portion is a welcome addition to the common cinematic experience, and contributes uniquely.

Birdman’s a visual treat, as they say.

People seem to enjoy this flick. After all, what’s not to like?

It’s still in limited release, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding a screening nearby.

Expect a moving dramatic piece about the thespian business and you shouldn’t feel disappointed.

As always, the best advice remains the same.

Be a salmon – expect nothing, and eventually, you’ll feel something.

Resonates nicely with the subtitle, no?

Nightcrawler (R)

10 Stars

Oddity is an antidote for the jaded.

The off-putting, unsettled feeling of irksome circumstance.

The exploits of nightcrawlers, independent salesmen collecting footage of post-crime carnage, bear much estranged fruit.

Second only to Gone Girl, Nightcrawler is the best motion picture released in 2014.

That distinction, however, is ultimately subjective. Both are must-see.

Govern expectations accordingly, because it seems folks are hoping for more action-packed horror.

Nightcrawler’s a dark dramatic thriller.

Expect twisted spookery, but in a more subtle and realistic manner.

Overall, this film is very smart.

It’s a tale of moral ambiguity about the mysterious creepsters who provide found-footage for nightly television news.

It’s set in L.A and completely divorced from the creative filming industries.

The very setting, albeit typical, is oddly off-type.

Which is similar to the pacing and scene construction. Dan Gilroy, the writer/director, displays an exquisite proficiency at defying narrative conventions.

Along with montage, time lapse and alternative credits sequencing, breaking cliché is a cinematic theme of 2014.

Another setting-based narrative strength is the relative lack of sunlight. The protagonist’s eyes are never naked to unfiltered rays.

The infrequency is certainly purposeful.

Another example of the writing strength is the humor: Subtle, unexpected and consistent.

This film’s success is also due (in part) to the spectral visual style.

The shooting, editing and cinematography is masterful.

On the flip side of sense perception, the sound mixing and score is excellent.

Nightcrawler owes a hefty portion of its success to the acting.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s unseemly characterization is fantastic.

Jake is one of our finest actors working today. Source Code, Donnie Darko and last year’s Prisoners are three of the best in cinematic history.

Here he crafts an original antihero in Louis Bloom.

[Quick side note: The similarity between the name of the protagonist in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, must be purposeful, no? Especially if one considers the nickname antics involved in the two stories.]

Louis Bloom embraces his role as an opossum, monetizing the carrion of human sophistication with the utmost efficiency.

In the strangest way, his attitude is highly admirable.

For example, his belief in honest negotiation and dedicated apprenticeship endears the viewer.

On the other hand (which I won’t spoil) some of his behavior may be considered reprehensible.

Who knows?

See it and find out.

As a final note, Bill Paxton is terrific. He plays a completely different character from his role in Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow, a July release which still remains one of my top ten movies of 2014.

Pax tears it up no matter what.

With too many great movies in his filmography to mention (including a number of classics from great directors like James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes) I’ll just say he first debuted in 1974.

So he’s been killing it for forty years. Keep it up, Bill!

Check out Nightcrawler if you dig smart flicks.

By the by, there’s an homage to The Usual Suspects.

High-fives for those who notice.

Gone Girl (R)

10 Stars

This doesn’t bode well for my reading career.

Gone Girl is spectacular. A strong contender for this year’s Best Picture.

I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Reading the book isn’t necessary.

The difference between the textual and visual is minimal. Reconsider the commitment lingering on your bookshelf.

This is one flick you won’t want to miss.

If you’ve got a better half, bring him or her along. Both men and women will thoroughly enjoy.

It’s long (145 minutes total) but should hold your interest throughout.

The screenplay for G.G. is by Gillian Flynn, the same woman who penned the novel.

If Gone Girl offers any qualitative inclination toward G.F.’s alternative texts, let’s hope Sharp Objects and Dark Places are green-lit.

Director David Fincher doesn’t have a distinct public persona like Tarantino, or an iconic physical appearance like Scorcese’s.

That doesn’t detract from his mastery of feature film direction.

Iconic motion pictures like Fight Club, Se7en, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo highlight his filmography.

If a story’s a stairway, Gone Girl is a multi-tiered double escalator.

It’s extremely well written, and the tension is like radio static, vibrating angrily amidst the coiling score.

The pacing is kinetic; the story constantly switching gears.

The humor is occasional in a realistic fashion. The self-awareness is pointedly subtle.

The characters are sympathetic and well rounded.

Is it even necessary to mention Neil Patrick Harris’s performance? Can’t we just assume he was fantastic from now on?

How about Ben Affleck, everyone’s favorite punching bag? Folks who doubted him should be flogged with a sofa cushion.

Upon recommending Gone Girl, a friend’s initial hesitation hinges on Affleck’s involvement.

First of all, that’s like saying you’re missing the N’SYNC concert because you don’t like J.T.’s pipes.

Benny was never ‘bad’ at acting, by any stretch of the imagination. Folks cite 2003’s Gigli and Daredevil as Fleck Daddy’s downfall.

I can’t speak to the former, but a final thought on the latter.

At fourteen years old, a group of friends and I thoroughly enjoyed Daredevil in the theater. Plus, it gave us a ‘walk in the shoes’ of a blind person. Whether we appreciated it or not; we were educated on a lifestyle none of us understood.

I can still cite multiple scenes in detail, and I haven’t seen Daredevil since that initial viewing.

My basic point is: Don’t skip Gone Girl because of a strong opposition to Affleck’s acting ability.

Rosamund Pike delivers a knock-out performance.

She’s a semi-unknown, but a glance at her filmography proves she deserves more notoriety.

I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.

The remainder of the cast is just as good, but too much detail may trigger a spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The warm weather left with the hummingbirds, but at least there are solid flicks repopulating theaters.

The Tree of Life (R)

5 Stars

I hate melancholy.

Floating in existential whispery sadness doesn’t warm the cockles.

I can’t believe The Tree of Life was nominated for best picture. Sure there’s good stuff in there, but it’s been a long time since I wanted a movie to end so badly.

Let me start out strong with my best argument.

The hushed tone head-hopping voiceover. It’s artistic, and perhaps it works well with this particular plot.

But I doubt it.

Terrence Malick used the exact same effect in his film The Thin Red Line from 1998. Thirteen years later, it’s still just as distracting and uninformative.

I watched Thin Red Line with my Dad a week ago. He seemed to enjoy it more, because I didn’t love it.

In fact, I found TTRL dull, preachy and heartless. More ‘technically’ good, rather than ‘unquestionably’ good. Throw enough dollars into the visual layout, build a bunch of tension and you’ve got a thumbs-up.

Folks toss around the word, ‘boring’ too much. ‘Boring’ is mostly for whiners. It should only be used to describe something that’s extremely dull.

The Tree of Life is boring.

It’s not better than The Thin Red Line, despite a similar visual format.

What is with the gospel music? Was the plot not dull enough?

The cast is excellent. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn are all very good.

With all the stylish editing, the movie’s very difficult to follow.

Half of The Tree of Life is nature imagery, and features footage from cosmic to microscopic, from water molecules to supernovae. I’m open to a more whimsical form of storytelling, but eventually it gets tiresome.

I disliked this movie because I think Terrence is saying a lot less than he lets on.

As a period piece and a study of a family living in Waco, Texas in 1956, I’m fine with it. But do we need all of this existential stuff, the intergalactic imagery or the vague timeframe?

It seems the puzzle pieces don’t fit together in any coherent fashion.

There are a couple things I’m confused about.

When the velociraptor removes its foot from the wounded dinosaur’s head, is that supposed to be the moment in Earth’s history when humans began evolving? That our greatest redeeming quality is the capacity for compassion?

Well, if so, then great! What’s it teach us about Brad Pitt’s family in 1956?

I’m not convinced the dinosaurs belong in the movie.

The Oedipus complex is also something I never connect with. Perhaps Terrence is trying to show how it manifests itself even in recent history.

I don’t know, and I guess I just don’t care.

The Tree of Life has a few good moments, however.

Young men will appreciate much of the father-son interactions between Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken.

Whenever Jessica Chastain’s on-screen is generally enjoyable.

At one point, she’s bouncing and twirling in zero gravity beside the tree and it’s enchanting.

If Terry cut out some babbling brooks and tossed in a bit more of Jessica dancing on air, The Tree of Life may have been great.

One Hour Photo (R)

8 Stars

Oftentimes the culprit of misinterpretation is expectation.

I don’t care how burly, I’d grapple with a coal miner if I overheard spoiled details regarding The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

Trailers are fun and all that, but time and again my theory’s proven: The less you know before seeing a film, the better.

One Hour Photo’s no exception.

Expect the unexpected.

Avoiding all synopses, an accurate prediction regarding a narrative arc is near impossible.

Since it’s a dramatic thriller, sinister behavior’s a sure thing. Perhaps you’ll find surrealistic mystery confusedly orbiting the central conflict.

Other than that, Fun Tower Koto unfolds in an unanticipated manner. Therefore, it’s difficult to draw correlatives without spoiling.

It’s written and directed by Mark Romanek; as of yet, the first in his two-feature career. The other is Never Let Me Go, released eight years later in 2010. I’ve never seen it and can’t speak to its quality, but judging by the current topic of discussion, it’s probably stylistic, clean-cut and quietly smart.

People seem to forget Robin Williams’s range as an acting talent. Aside from the voice of Genie in Aladdin, amongst a slew of other impressive roles, his achievements are featured prominently in Good Will Hunting and What Dreams May Come.

In Sun Power Moto Williams stars as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a photo booth attendant with a suspicious proclivity.

As a viewer, the knot of tension is a toiling veil, billowing from the menacing compulsions presumably lurking beneath Sy’s well-meaning façade.

Connie Nielsen turns in an excellent performance as Nina Yorkin, a frequent customer of the one-hour photo development lab. Nielsen’s had a long career in the film-biz. Unfortunately at first glance, her cinematic history seems unremarkable.

Her most noteworthy role is that of Lucilla, Commodus’s sister in Gladiator. Now that you think about it, she’s very good in that, yes yes?

See how easily the notion’s misplaced?

Nielsen’s acting chops really shine through here, but her performance is easily forgettable in the midst of a confusing tale, daunting subject material and a powerhouse protagonist.

On a final note regarding casting, Gary Cole plays Bill Owens, the manager of Savmart. He’s excellent as (ironically) an antagonizing boss, but one of a much different sort than Lumbergh in Office Space. His motivations are varied, complicated and sympathetic.

Sy’s workplace is a satirical version of Wal-Mart located in a suburban mall, but the setting’s of minimal concern.

[Side Note: If you can find me a Wal-Mart that’s half as clean, organized or well-staffed as this Savmart, I’d…well, I’d never believe you.]

In Run Sour Risotto the scenery, the geological location, and the exact timeframe are almost inconsequential. The only necessary contextual reference is the plot’s unfolding upon the cusp of digital photography. Sy’s occupational necessity teeters on irrelevance.

There are two types of people that will enjoy this movie: Film buffs and psychology scholars. As a piece of commercial art, it’s impossible to ignore the story’s merit.

This is a tight, well-crafted ninety-five minute film. Priority lies with painting a clear picture of a character coping with a contemporary existential crisis, not with polishing the narrative veneer. Although the story’s told completely, it’s very dissimilar to traditional processes of character transformation.

But, should you see it?

Why not?

You may not enjoy it but it’s a visually gripping tale of moral ambiguity and establishes a relevant window into a particular lifestyle of modern insecurity.

So from now until the end of my review, I will be less careful about spoilers.

Smart subtlety and several fantastic sequences make for the most riveting visual imagery.

In particular the photo development process is masterfully shot and edited beautifully. The sequence shimmers as a fountain plume of knowledge, and a cornucopia of succulent eye candy.

Speaking of ocular capability, the disturbing nightmare remains a mystery to me. The scene’s certainly there for a reason; I simply can’t discern the purpose at present. But Romanek’s first feature’s such a sterile and meticulous craft I don’t need to revisit the material. Its purposeful placement is fairly supposed.

Nuance glimmers in the details, after all.

And that’s what I like about this movie; the hint of fairy dust twinkling amidst shadowy corners.

During an early moment, Nina comforts her son Jake (played by Dylan Smith) who voices concerns about Sy’s loneliness. Lying on his bed, Nina reassures him by suggesting they close their eyes and generate good thoughts on the photo attendant’s behalf.

While the scene unfolds, Jake fiddles with an ‘expanding sphere’ toy, and it resonates thematically with the larger narrative. As the boy expands and contracts the plastic mechanical star, their positive energy’s injected into the metaphysical ether. Isolated from Sy’s physical presence, the pair still generates good will for him, when nobody else is.

The cosmic microcosm resonates with the later discussion of Deepak Chopra and the expanding/contracting of the universe.

The character of Jake is of superior significance than he seems at first glance. So along with the previous example, another revelatory moment takes place when Sy walks the boy home from soccer practice.

In this scene, Nina’s son illustrates a mature level of even-handedness most adults can’t muster. Without a trace of judgment, Jake accepts Sy’s gesture of friendship. The boy welcomes the attendant’s company, just like he would a schoolmate.

Now. In the grand scheme, the moment before they part ways is crucial. Subjective audience members are acutely aware of the danger in Jake’s actions because of potential instability in Sy’s mental faculties. Stepping back and ignoring that bias reveals no immorality or cause for suspicion in the protagonist’s actions.

Up until Sy offers the action figure, he hasn’t technically committed a moral transgression. But Jake’s refusal of the gift draws a line in the existential sand. The boy’s commitment to honesty is of significantly less concern than the alternative implications.

In a way, this choice to decline is the catalyst allowing Sy’s ultimate redemption. The film culminates in a realm of moral obscurity; perhaps otherwise, that wouldn’t be the case.

The action figure represents an unspoken power shift. Instead of being two human beings standing on equal footing; Sy tempts the boy with an unachievable material gain. You might call it ‘forbidden fruit.’ No matter what the phrasing, a ‘gift’ still represents a tangible exchange.

And I’d also argue it shows Sy at his weakest. Luckily for him, Jake makes the correct decision on both their behalves.

A refined detail is the framed mirror with the reminder to ‘Check Your Smile’ in the Savmart locker room.

Even the means of self-evaluation, the lens through which Sy can inspect himself, lies in the shadow cast by the judgmental puppeteers of higher-tiered society.

There is one misleading scene and it’s probably the strongest sequence in the entire film. The reveal at the culmination of Sy’s mental fantasy is truly unnerving. In this veiled depiction, the filmmaker builds tension like a circus carpenter installing a tightrope.

I never do this but I’m going to cheat by parroting the conclusion of another reviewer.

Because, hey, it’s succinct.

Elaine Cassel concludes,“Movies could play a more productive role in explaining psychopathology if the sources of twisted behavior were explained realistically and compassionately, as they are here. One Hour Photo is a rewarding study of abnormal behavior and one that psychology students should appreciate, if not enjoy. It leaves us wondering, and caring, now that we know what’s wrong with Sy, what will happen to Sy.”

Brief, yeah?

Hopefully that clears up any remaining confusion.

I still can’t explain the unsettling nightmare.

But maybe I don’t need to understand.

Obscurity can keep some details.

Mud (R)

10 Stars

Mud is not a ghost.

I promise.

Thought I heard that on a podcast before seeing the movie, and turns out, it’s a complete fabrication. Made the whole damn thing up.

Myself and I, we really had a good laugh.

It actually jives with the story for awhile…but I digress.

Don’t waste your time focusing on homemade red herrings. Pop the disc in with the expectation of a complete story told quietly well.

Talk about a nomination snub.

I’m surprised the Academy didn’t glom onto Mud.

Then again, it’s an April release. Oscar doesn’t check his radar until May.

Even though it’s only #11 on my ‘Top Films of 2013’ list, it still deserves the nod more than half the B.P. nominees.

This film written and directed by Jeff Nichols scores on both ‘ocative ots.’

Provocative thoughts and evocative shots. Hah! What more do you need?

If you want to talk well-deserved spotlights, Matthew McConaughey will be at the forefront of the dissertation.

He’s the award winning lead in Dallas Buyers Club. Turning in a magnificent performance, he cameos as a broker; a character who inspires DiCaprio’s in The Wolf of Wall Street.

He’s cleaning up the small screen in HBO’s True Detective alongside Woody Harrelson. The new series (just concluded last weekend) is pretty much an eight-hour movie, and an excellent one at that.

Matt’s also in The Butler, but I refuse to see that movie, or refer to it by its listed title. It’s a shame, I would probably enjoy him as John F. Kennedy.

What a 2013. Keep it up Mr. McC!

The best way to describe Mud is delightful. It weaves a quietly cool narrative, with a heart-wrenching conflict at its center.

There seems to be a trend in adventures by the Louisiana Bayou.

This is a similar setting, but different, and you’re racist for mistaking the two.

Those of us who aren’t bigots know the plot unfolds in a small riverside Mississippi town.

Although Matt’s credited for the lead, I’m pretty sure Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) has more screen time. And the narrative seems to swivel primarily around his perspective.

Never the mind.

Both turn in excellent, astonishingly true performances. Neckbone, Ellis’s best friend and cohort’s (played by Jacob Lofland) about as hard and crass as they come in the realm of moral children.

Hey guy, don’t see this Dramystery with your bros if you’re easily moved to tears. Okay?

It’s a touching romp full of beautiful imagery and a well-crafted simplistic story.

I think this film’s more suited to adults, despite the nature of the narrative. The transformations come thru both Ellis and Mud, and the juxtaposition of their romantic conflicts is excellent.

My love for the film stems from admiration for the writing.

This is an all-around fun story that everyone can connect with, no matter your age or gender. What’s great is considering how far removed it is from the realm of personal familiarity. I’m not going to run into a boat caught in a tree anytime soon.

The film may be mostly about growing up and broken love, but set in the Mississippi context, and with such devoted attention to physical detail, it might appear a waterlogged portrait of, “two boys who learn things.”

And it is; but it translates onscreen in an enchanting fashion.

There are minors who use swear words in this film. So if cursing gets you queasy, get the fuck over it, and go see the movie anyway.

Ellis’s blind devotion to Mud, whom he believes to be a good man (despite the protestations of everyone around him), is the catalyst allowing their ultimate redemption. That rapport, that silent understanding between two honest and good people; it’s a distinct enigma, and the film captures it perfectly.

It’s the complete opposite of disheartening. It’s heartening.

What an ending, huh? I was sure it was going the other way.

But I’m all too pleased with what we’re given.

Like I said before, Mud is definitely not a ghost.

Ironically, the actor portraying the role couldn’t be more alive (in this writer’s heart, at least.)

Really, I hope he retains this aversion to phantasm in his professional career.

I’m just happy I don’t have to write any more letters begging for Sahara 2.

Don’t miss Mud!