Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Whiplash


**** out of ****


Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, studying at a prestigious New York conservatory under the cruel tutelage of an obsessive band director, played by J.K. Simmons. Nothing about this man’s reputation prepares this student for what he will endure. Just imagine R. Lee Ermey’s boot camp section of Full Metal Jacket being an entire movie… but about music.

Where do I start? Should I begin by saying, that I’ll be surprised if I see a better film than Whiplash this year? Yes. I think I’ll start there. I was prepared for a well-written heavy movie with great performances about the intense pursuit of perfection. I was not prepared for how this movie’s craft brings it close to perfection by complementing its content through meticulous cinematography, rhythmical editing and astounding sound design.

It didn’t take long before I was enraptured in the tunnel vision perspective of its characters regarding their world of musical precision. The film could have been about any kind of art. Hell, it could have been a sports movie about a tough coach, but lord knows we’ve seen plenty of those. Jazz is this movie’s choice of flavor and once you’re watching, you have no choice but to respect it.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said so in a previous review, but as a lover of movies, I don’t regard any movie, no matter how great, as perfect. This movie probably has one or two narrative flaws and its interpretation of the history of jazz mastery is sure to be contested by professionals of the subject. But it lives and breathes the world it creates. It is a piece of cinema with a voice and moves with tremendous energy in unapologetic fearlessness.

In the casting of its protagonist, Teller brings more than his already proven acting talent. His apparent abilities as a drummer escalate his character’s authenticity so much. I’ve liked this kid since I saw him in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. He has a very believable screen presence that has benefitted every film it’s graced.

J.K. Simmons has transcended from his scenery-chewing side characters, like the manic J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks, to a man who eats every mean person he’s played for breakfast. If you’ve ever had a teacher who won your simultaneous fear and respect, Simmons embodies the nightmare version of that teacher.

The film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle got the film funded by shooting a short film of the same name with Simmons and presenting it at Sundance last year. The full-length version was shot in less than a month, which is shocking. This is a film with a commanding pace that guides us from the innocence of passion to the darkness of obsession without losing our empathy for how badly this kid desires validation from someone who will not grant it.

Whether or not humiliation-driven teaching (which borders on sadism in this film) is effective, is beside the point for me. This movie is about the masochism in accepting this style of education and all the dehumanizing sacrifice that comes with it.


By the end of this film, I dashed to the men’s room. I’d been holding it somewhere past the halfway point and couldn’t imagine the thought of breaking the experience the film provided for even one minute. While leaving the theater, I shook with the exhilaration that one may get after a theme park ride, but I tend to get when I’ve seen a movie that I am absolutely sure, is great.

Rosewater


*** out of ****

Rosewater is the story of an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was arrested in Iran while covering protests after the 2009 election. To his surprise, he was held in solitary confinement shortly after participating in a satirical interview for The Daily Show and accused of being a spy. This film is about the endurance of his 118 days of imprisonment and cruel interrogation.

Jon Stewart's directorial debut is admirable but only so creative. While a comedic newscaster may be an unusual source for a serious movie, his work reminds me of films in the past which come from actors trying their hand in directing for the first time. The emotion is invested in the performances while gimmicks on the technical side of the process don't always sync up with that emotion.

In this film's case, there are maybe one too many special effects to feed us abstract messages, but not to a tasteless degree. I could have done without a shot of the hero walking down a Tehran street having memories of his departed father as images of the man are digitally superimposed on the window's reflections.

There is already the risk of a tired cliche when he imagines his father comforting him during solitary confinement. I was reminded of a similar scene recently in Orange is the New Black when a character in a similar situation hears the voice of an imaginary person through the wall, which was a much more psychologically effective approach. I understand that the character in this film needs his father, but I didn't need to literally see him.

I don't wish to continue nit-picking Stewart's choices in technique. This is a good movie with a good message about fear conquered by imagination. There's enough here to suggest that Stewart could find a career in directing, should he ever retire from his current position. With this being his first film, he's figured out a lot and chosen a great subject through an intense story that brings a western audience closer to understanding the humanity in a part of the world that it fears.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar


**1/2 out of ****


I’m actually pretty unhappy with this movie. In the days that have followed since seeing it, I’ve felt pretty down. The beginning is strong and fascinating. The middle is aggravating and stupid. The end is interesting but far from satisfying. Director Christopher Nolan has delivered a production solid enough to be remembered for years to come but he and his co-writer brother, Jonathan, constructed a story with an unmanageable amount of unpolished concepts –even for a three-hour movie. This is frustrating sci-fi, which reminds me of Zemekis’ Contact and Spielberg’s A.I.

Matthew McConaughey is continuing his hotstreak in picking ambitious material to work with, but the final quality of this project is problematic. The actors do what they can with the material, but many of their characters make choices, which baffle me.

The theme of love transcending time and space, challenged my ability to take its ideas seriously, but there was a breaking point for me far into the film, when a pointless conflict is mindlessly introduced, which provoked one very awkward spaceman fight scene, intercut with another issue taking place on earth. Both aspects of this story seemed needless and they didn't fit together well in the edit.

While I found a sequence near the end to be preposterous, it's surreal execution was undeniably gorgeous. The visuals are engaging through smart, high-end cinematography capturing brilliant design work and flawless special effects. Also, I can’t wait to own Hans Zimmer’s pipe-organ-filled score, which sounds like a callback to Philip GlassKoyanniqatsi score

There’s nothing forgettable about Interstellar. What really bothers me is its ambition in taking on a big idea, which happens to tap into our anxieties concerning humanity's future, and delivered something clumsy.

Big Hero 6


*** out of ****


While ambitious concepts are plentiful at the movies right now, I have to stop and acknowledge the pleasure to be found in the simplicity of a family movie that works. Disney’s latest is a delight. I had a very good time watching Big Hero 6, the story of a boy and a robot assembling a team of heroes in a futuristic japanesey version of San Francisco (It’s like a happy version of future L.A. in Blade Runner!) It's kind of interesting that this film and Interstellar both came out on the same day, and both feature a robot of unique imaginative design.

Loosely based on a Marvel comic, the movie is a very child-appropriate action comedy with a wonderful candy-colored palette and CG animation filled with lively characters. The good voice acting is an important contribution as well.


As always, don’t be late. The opening short is not to be missed.

Nightcrawler


***1/2 out of ****

This story is about the triumph of one sociopath in a dog-eat-dog world. He has the awkward personality of a strange outsider sticking his nose into the business of others with the insistence of a child, only to eavesdrop on their business tactics so that he can mimic them. He may look like a maladjusted loser, but he's a rare breed, methodically adapting to an ugly world in order to have power in it.

Jake Gyllenhaal puts more into this character than I would have ever expected. His frail figure, oily hair and gigantic un-blinking eyes amount to an unsettling screen presence. His character pursues the profession of paparazzi-like accident and crime videography in L.A. with no emotional response when approaching a gruesome scene with his camera. When socializing with others, he makes lengthy speeches, as though he’s been rehearsing them for a long time. This is an anti-hero that works without winning any of our empathy. His ability to succeed in the profession he’s assumed is simply fascinating, given how alien he seems.


Nightcrawler is Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, and as usual, the Gilroy brothers have much more to give when they get around to their passion projects. He is the brother of Tony Gilroy, who made the excellent Michael Clayton some years back before they worked together on the decent, yet pointless The Bourne Legacy. Here, Gilroy has a cynical, yet interesting –though sometimes heavy-handed commentary on a modern business world that encourages unconscionable actions.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


**** out of ****

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a zany dark comatic-dramedy about the crisis of a movie star trying to find a prestigious comeback in the spotlight of Broadway theater. He is played by none other than Michael Keaton, and in this universe, he is best-known as the guy who "used to be Birdman."

As chaos plagues his production, he drifts in and out of reality as a shadow version of himself, resembling this superhero he once played, tries to instill a sense of delusional confidence. Tonally, I would compare this film to P.T. Anderson's Punch Drunk Love.

Meanwhile his friends, family and colleagues follow him around the theater. His recovering addict daughter, played by Emma Stone, works in the theater as his angry personal assistant. Zach Galifianakis is his nervous Lawyer. Edward Norton -is a highly praised actor with a terrible reputation for his backstage behavior. Naomi Watts is an actress coping with the anxiety of her broadway debut. Amy Ryan plays his ex-wife, who visits occasionally. 


Behind all the madness of the content, there is an engaging method that makes it all worthwhile. The bulk of it is featured in TWO TAKES. The camera drifts in and out of rooms, buildings and even implies time-transitions without cuts. Every actor remembers their lines and hits their marks reminding us of the urgency in theater. 

This is not just the directorial ambition of Iñárritu, who is possibly daring the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki to outdo the work done for their friend, Alfonso Cuarón with Gravity and Children of Men -or capture the hallucinatory terror of the drifting perspective seen in Enter the Void -or even approach the monumental all-in-one-take movie, Russian Ark. He's trying to make the anger, anxiety and hilarity effective. It really works.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dear White People


*** out of ****


Like Do the Right Thing, Dear White People is an intelligent exploration of real race issues in today’s America, but discusses the sensitive material in the safety zone of satirical comedy with a slightly surreal detachment from reality.

First-time writer/director Justin Simien made a big impression with the film at this year’s Sundance film festival, winning a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent. The attention is well deserved and people should be open to seeing it regardless of their ethnicity.

The reaction, “Why doesn’t someone make a ‘Dear Black People’?” has been uttered by certain white people upon hearing this film’s title. Didn’t D.W. Griffith make that film in 1915? Besides, the movie’s title is trying to stir things up all by itself. The actual movie is a reaction to the ridiculous denial that racism is still prevalent today, but its voice is not particularly angry.

The principal black characters do not share a common perspective on their racial identity while residing in a mostly-white fictional ivy-league university. They range from a female radio D.J. -with a militant nit-picky attitude, to a sheepish gay nerdy guy -who senses intolerance from his fellow black students but feels like a token in white circles. The story covers many issues, such as the dilution of minority culture on campus -through randomized housing and openly offensive activities happening in today's institutions of higher education -like primarily white fraternities hosting a blackface party. This movie could have gathered enough material for a TV series.

Although, a T.V. show wouldn't have the same richness. This movie doesn’t have the aimless ease of a series with episodes to follow. It’s a structured and well-shot feature with a hypnotic quality. It’s not a preachy movie. It’s communicating ideas and trying to make points. Some work and some are pathetic misfires.

The bratty university president's son may be the embodiment of white ignorance and bigotry in this film, but the idea that he runs a satirical publication with the respect of other witty writers in Ivy League academia, feels rather preposterous. These characters all represent ideas, but I feel like there's a missed opportunity in this character, to show the closeted racism of those who rationalize their tendency to exclude.

In my opinion, this is a welcome return to the kind of thought-provoking African American cinema that found a big multi-ethnic audience in the nineties.