Saturday, October 25, 2014

Birdman - Review

Birdman – Review
Imagine this. You are formally dressed while entering a room where you see one small table with layered linens and one matching chair. You proceed to sit down to examine what is in front of you.  You snap your napkin to your lap as you quickly discern with your educated eye that slightly towards your right is one empty crystal stemmed glass and a single corked bottle of Chateau Laffite Rothschild by its side; one of the world’s most expensive wines at $23,000 per bottle. You know now you must savor this experience.

Also, directly in front of you is one small plate of white fine china with four small gourmet appetizer crackers equally covered with appropriate thin slices of French Foie Gras and an equal accompanying of Norwegian thin slices of Sockeye Smoked Salmon, with all four appropriately covered with one teaspoon of $1,500 an ounce of Russian Beluga Caviar, topped with a modest amount of capers and a smidgen of lemon zest to round it all out. Doesn’t this all just sound deliriously delectable? Or maybe not?

You see, this imaginary scenario I concocted for you is about consuming something most 95% have never experienced on their pallets much less seen before. And no matter how specifically, in and of itself, something is uniquely different by its elements of wordy exclusivity or providing specific descriptive details of the exorbitant prices attached to it, there is nothing automatic about it that will usher in some universal euphoric culinary wave of delight for these creative tiny pricey morsels. To be expected, some will always find they love it and sing its praises; others will simply say they like it, others will say it’s just OK and finally some will simply they hate it and it is over rated from the word go. But as the old adage always states, whether it is art, wine, food and or personal taste, it is always in the eye of the beholder.  And after viewing actor Michael Keaton’s latest effort and genuine Best Picture contending film entitled “Birdman” in my estimation it will beckon a response more from a culinary point of view than an appraisal of established forms of art, touching on a range of possible palatable reactions from movie goers who will see and appraise it with a measured matter of their own personal taste.

First, going in to the theater to see this, know from the very get go it has moments of genuine strangeness to it. In the first few minutes you see Keaton’s character levitating in midair in his under wear having a conversation with his subconscious in the form of one his previous fictional character he use to play. He also apparently been able to mysterious secure in real life the same telekinetic power that character had to move objects around about the room (with no obvious explanation). Keaton’s role is of a man under duress and torment of his own making playing a man named Riggan Thomson who is a washed-up actor and who is slightly neurotic who once played an iconic superhero named ‘Birdman” in his youth. Older now in his sixties, he is consumed with his own ego and a myriad of family chaotic troubles. He is also simultaneously battling, while in the midst of all of this turmoil, the need to mount one last ditch new approach to his troubled career by financing and acting in a play on Broadway that he wrote as the final bid to reclaim his past glory.

Shot in what felt like real time from beginning to end we see Riggan battle with other actors egos, bitter critics, a daughter as his assistant who is in sobriety and a dysfunctional range of staff and production mishaps. Overall, thematically, “Birdman” is about something most people in their overall arch of real life will struggle with at some point, specifically their egos incased in an aging older body with worries of self-doubt while at the same time finding a need to secure a sense of ones’ own aging self-worth. In Riggan’s case, he believes that in spite of this gauntlet of naysayers and emotional impediments, his obsession to getting his play off the ground will somehow help find that magical path again of making him a national household name once again.

I found Birdman to be inventive, fascinating, refreshing, directorially wild, daring, ambitious and thought-provoking while trying to explore the differences in what constitutes too often ephemerally popularity verses what really lends itself to more meaningful prestige and lasting professional integrity. How this film takes us on this self-evaluation journey is at times a bit unusual for the almost 2 hours running time, but still nonetheless a fascinating and brilliantly acted journey in deed.

Shot with a documentary feel to it, we get to examine hour by hour under a visceral microscope the nerve racking anxiety that occurs for an actor seeking the glow of a successful finish stage production with a live albeit unaware audience underfoot. Actors do get paid (sometimes) lavish salaries, but here we get to see the stress they incur in finding that right mix of writing, directing, acting and assemblage of administrative support into pulling off a successful production that is compounded even more by Birdman’s Riggan angst debilitating travails and emotional frailties all the while he tries to make something gloriously imaginative.

I can’t say much more than this, “Birdman” will be in fact nominated for Best Picture. I also can’t say it’s the front runner either, but it will surely get several nominations for Best Actor for Keaton, Supporting Actor for Ed Norton and Emma Stone respectfully, a Best Original Screenplay nomination and a nomination for its Director Alejandro González Iñárrituis as well.

If you decide to see Birdman, know going in, just like that imagining of you sitting at that table with those 4 small appetizers and wine for you to consume, it is an acquired taste going in to see it and probably an acquired taste evaluating what you saw coming out.

4 Stars

Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick - Review

John Wick – Review

“BOOM…………..BOOM – BOOM”. You hear a lot of that sound in the new action thriller genre starring Keanu Reeves entitled “John Wick” which is also the name of  its lead character as well. And with way too many “booms” to ever begin to keep any reasonable count, former stunt man turned Director Chad Stahelski uses his previous experiences of making the impossible look possible by providing us a movie that is dark but is also sly and fresh with just the right comic touch in this reimagining of the assassin hit man type. And while John Wick does not measure up to any of the Bourne films or Natalie Portman’s “The Professional”, Reeves and the Director together  create a singular new character who is exhilarating to watch in that metamorphic Bruce Lee, Sonny Crockett wearing thousand dollar Georgio Armani suits kind of way.

Early on with, we see John alone in a state of deep mourning, as the love of his young life has just died from a terminal illness. He spends his days being filled with nothing but emptiness and while he seemly has a very luxurious life in a very fashionable modern home, he’s still a man steep in raw grief.

One day a package arrives at his home where we discover inside is a Beagle puppy; a final gift from his wife who knew he would quote “need somebody to love”. It’s from this gift we see some measure of light and life return to Johns eyes. He is starting to move on with his life as he and his new friend begin to bond, especially with their daily morning excursion day trips in John’s prized classic Ford Boss Mustang 302.

While heading home one day he pulls into a gas station to refuel. Convenient to the story a car with some young men pull into the station as well that we soon discover are both the son and associates of a major Russian mobster in the local New Jersey area. They initially seem harmless, but we already know when one approaches John about him selling his car and John politely stating, “she’s not for sale”, we know from this point on things are going to get bad. And of course what ensues next you can see coming a mile away as out convenient Russian mobster did not to take John’s no for an answer. That same evening they break into his home steal his car and kill his dog.  What happens next is watching a man unleash a holy hell of pure unrelenting - uncompromising revenge violence to any and all those involved or who dares to get in his way.

“John Wick” the film show cases the lead character both as an assassin and a flamenco dancer whose physical moves in the numerous fight scenes are at times as equally lethal to his hyper flair usage of guns. And when he is “dancing” with his trusted 9MM in hand, together they offer up a series of stylishly pirouette moves meant to titillate and mesmerize as he shoots at an endless array of nefarious human targets to dispatch. John just doesn’t want to kill, he wants to end life sexy, with charisma, grace, style, panache and a bit of cheeky humor.

Let’s be clear, the violence in John Wick is raw and at time as visually sick as anything you will ever see in a film. But while this is make believe fictional violence and if fictional violence doesn’t rub you the wrong way, John Wick delivers huge big ups thrilling action beyond the typical run of the mill bang-bang shoot them up. John Wick is more like an extravaganza in violence filled with an abundance of credibility and gorgeous detail.

Reeves, while playing once again to simply lure us in the angelic exterior quiet type with an eventual volcanic eruption to come later, is awesome here. And while similar plot wise to Denzel’s Washington “The Equalizer”, Wick may seem withdrawn and reluctant as well, but once his blood has been spilled he runs cold with a focused stern determination. Not so much with a simple rage of anger flowing in his blood stream, but more as a stoic man whose hematological substance is much closer to being pure radioactive fuel. And just like radioactive fuel in its natural managed state can be a peaceful benign source for good, once spilled and unleashed to maximize the death of its designated enemies, it can kill with stealthy deadliness with designs to wanting to destroy the entire environment around its target as well.

With the last 20 minutes seemingly to run out of steam a bit, John Wick is still pure kinetic giddy visceral entertainment who becomes our hero measured by how much death he creates to entertain us. And while everything about John Wick is totally preposterously absurd given the level of carnage, it’s a fabulous absurdity with a wink – wink slickness to it.

This film’s plot is basically an “I must get revenge” thriller at all costs effort. The difference from previous films of this type is JW is an epicurean assassin; one devoted to the pursuit of killing with a quiet sensual pleasure as would any expert food critic who pursues similarly his passions for the enjoyment of eating good food. They both do their jobs with a comfort and ease of effort.  But to relegate John Wick with a title of being merely an expert killer would be an insult to this very satisfying film. Instead, just like a violin or piano virtuoso within the known arts or a mathematical prodigy or science wizard, John Wick was naturally born to end life like a maestro with a baton

“Boom……………Boom – Boom”. Do I dare say it; in a purely oxymoronic kind of way, John Wick is real entertaining homicidal fun.

3 - 3/4 Stars     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fury - Review

Fury – Review

Brad Pitt is once again leading a unit of Americans in their fight against Germans during World War 2. The difference from his Inglorious Basterds role is this story is a fully realized dramatic story of him and the four men under his command in the claustrophobic confines of a tank they call “Fury”.

Once again we are reminded that war is hell. It is also dramatically illustrated in this effort as a conflict surrounded by mud, filth, blood splattering at every turn, gore and death at every turn, gas and exhaust fumes suffocating the breathable air itself, bodies discarded, crushed, burned or mangled and soldiers with faceless expressions  that barely resemble anything being normal.

The film starts out rather impressive with I can only conclude was an homage to the film “Patton” as we see a lone soldier coming into view out of the fog. What transpires next is a stark reality reminder that no matter what we read or hear on the 6 O’clock news or hear from the accounts of soldiers returning home that overall once again war is hell, as well as being hell up close and personal.

With “Saving Private Ryan” as the template for war films Fury is unique in that it doesn’t really have much of a large moral theme or real sub plot mission to speak of. This film is dutifully dedicated just to the these five men in their tank they call home and how it has in some way made these valiant men both patriots and zombies to some degree. They know they are fighting for their country, but the ravages of war has crushed almost the normal life out of them. They (unlike Saving Ryan Ryan) intend to kill everyone with a ruthlessness that seems to step just a step beyond the role to fighting with honor and duty, resulting in them fighting a war that is hell and a manmade soulless hell of their own making. They both hate and love each other to some degree which is starkly illustrated with the displays of hate and conflict whenever they are all collectively outside the tank and love and affection for each other whenever they all are inside of the tank. In some ways the tank helps to provide them some solace as an obvious escape from civilization or lack thereof.

What’s good about the film first and foremost is Pitt once again as the Sargent gives a very fine albeit bleak performance as a man who has had his spirit stripped away. He’s on auto pilot and intends for his men to operate accordingly; if they are going to war with him they kill without question. Pitt also carries himself quite believable as someone who has natural leadership skills and while he initially seems very similar in many way to the soulless scared face Sergeant Barns character in the film “Platton”, his Sergeant “Wardaddy” on the other hand seems to be soulless only in certain moments, eventually showing what remaining vestige of humanity he has left bubbling up in the form of deep affection for the well-being and protection of his men.

What was a clear drag on the film was a 20- 25 minute scene involving Pitt’s men arriving in a small German town to what I can only describe as their breakfast at Denny’s moment. There were some fried eggs and coffee, two attractive German girls serving them, piano playing and singing and some light hearted discussions on sex, but beyond that this particular scene seemed so out of place to the rest of the film I’m still not quite sure what the director was trying to say there other than a possible momentary rewrite that did not really work.

The tank battle and close encounter fighting scenes were very impressive, though I had a real problem with the visual tracers of the armament fire looking more like something more suited to a laser gun burst from a George Lucas Storm Trooper in “Star Wars” with their unique red, green and blue after glow. Also the director does manage to give the entire film a feel of authentic detail and real war weight.   

Ultimately, Fury is good looking, well-acted and keeps you drawn and connected to these five brave souls plight of trying to stay alive in a war that is just weeks away from ending. Where it misses its mark a bit is the story construct doesn’t always seem emotional connected to some greater good in the form of a final victory. These five men will have to be dragged out of their tank and convinced at gun point the war is actually over, otherwise they probably will never stop killing and fighting, which is duly illustrated by a common line uttered by all one time or another in the tank, “Sergeant, this is the best job I ever had”.

3 -1/2 Stars

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – Review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – Review

Starring one of my favorite actors Jessica Chastain, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is lot less a story about a couple simply being in love and more of a focused story on the heavier and weightier aspects of being a couple in a relationship. And in this film we get to examine them thoroughly as if we’re looking with the meticulous intricate detail of a tiny organism under a microscope. Watching and observing the subtle nuance and dynamics that makes them unique, especially when they have to conspicuously and emotionally navigate mutual heartache to order to save that relationship. The story is made even more compelling when those typical matters of money, infidelity and abuse are not the explanation of why this relationship is terribly broken.

In the very first scene in the film we see Eleanor (Chastain) and her lover Conor (James McAvoy) out one evening in a restaurant being unabashedly flirtation with one another. They are a giddy and frolicking type of young couple as they remind themselves with kisses and touching how much they truly love each other, how enamored they are with each other and how passionate they are for each other. At that moment their life seems to be great and the world is their oyster.

But in very short order the next day we see a more somber looking Eleanor walking across a large suspension bridge with her bike in hand and without missing a stride she drops the bike to scale the metal security fence to take a leap off the tall bridge into the waters below. And while it’s clear Eleanor tried to commit suicide we are left to ponder why? What suffering came to her so quickly since he night before to have her make such a grim emotional choice?

Eleanor obviously physically survives but she is also emotionally transformed as well as she makes it clear to a concerned and loving Conor she wants nothing to do with him now. It’s here where the films proceeds to take us down a slow peeling path to finding out exactly why such a vibrant woman would want to end her life and end what appeared to be true love.

The performances are uniformly strong in Rigby and some scenes are heartfelt and powerful, but what is missing is any empathy. I wanted desperately at some point to care why Eleanor was in so much pain. I wanted Conor to figure out a way – any way of winning back her love and trust. And while Chastain and McAvoy did a great job in executing their roles in this film, the written material they were working with felt and sound less believable with each passing scene. Its only to the very end of the film do we find out why Rigby jumped, but by then it was like wading through 2 hours of way too much over affected dialogue to make too many esoteric obscure points that ultimately did not give me any real reason to care.

“Rigby” could have been a really great film but instead it was like watching an ensemble of great actors attempting to be more somber and depressing than the other. I kept waiting for someone to breathe just a bit of normal vitality life into this film, so much so that at one point I began to wonder if the movie could had been a better effort if Eleanor had actually died in the beginning.

Again “Rigby” is very well acted, but it’s totally emotionless with way too much despondency and unhappiness that in the end did not entertain me very much at all.

Denmark is a country that ranks highest in terms of suicide rates, mental illness and depression. Watching, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” I wondered if this film shed an untended light on what the world would look like if the Danes took rule of the world.

2 – 3/4 Stars


Gone Girl - Review

Gone Girl - Review

Webster dictionary defines the word “hype” as to promote or publicize a product and or an idea very intensively, often exaggerating its overall importance or benefits. After watching “Gone Girl” last night I have to say the film’s positive “hype” is well deserved and splendidly so. “Gone Girl” takes us on an imaginative ride in story, in atmosphere, in acting, in writing and directing that culminates with all of these components working wonderfully well together as a well-crafted piece of movie making at its finest. With many of its subcomponents that are creepy, slick, mysterious, villainous, suspenseful and gripping, all the while oozing with a raw sexual intimacy “Gone Girl” makes the early case that is it is one of the best movies of the year.

Directed by David Fincher who has built a rather impressive filmography over the last 20 years with such notable films as “Alien 3”, “Fight Club”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, “Seven”, “Zodiac”, “Panic Room”, “The Social Network” & “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, he once again takes his talented penchant of delving masterfully into dark twisted territory, in this case with a classic standard story structure of “who done it” and delivering on the big screen something overall that is modernly shocking, cerebral, alluring and mesmerizing. And with a scene to scene style of detailed execution, Director Fincher’s work here can only be best described as uniquely inventive in its manner for all of its 2-1/2 hours running time. “Gone Girl” at its core is a theatrical palatably delicious film to watch each and every moment you are there, leaving the viewer with an eerie unnatural emotional sense of systematically being filled with an intravenous adrenaline IV drip of genuine dread and appropriate subtle humor.

Based on the Gillian Flynn’s successful novel of the same name, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, “Gone Girl” takes place in the suburbs outside St Louis Missouri. We find the two key story principles recently transplanted from New York in the husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), making what appears on the surface to be the quintessential glamour good looking couple. We like them because they look good and what’s not to like about them or not be envious of - they just look perfectly suited together.

At the onset of the film we see it’s the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary when on that same day Nick reports that his beautiful wife Amy (I would say exquisite looking wife) has all of sudden gone missing without as much of any early physical clues or fathomable logical explanations why. Under pressure from the police and the growing media frenzy, Nick's early portrait of his blissful marital relationship begins to be slowly peeled away from something less than perceived.  Soon his lies, deceits and strange behavior have everyone asking the same dark question: Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?

“Gone Girl” largely has the feel of a four act play. The first act portraying the young and flirtation couple when they first met and how almost predictably ordinary in some ways they are. They are just a young couple in love. The second act is more about Amy being missing largely through the story of Nick and his insistence of projecting the perception of how much he loved Amy verses some of the slow dripping details of the reality of their relationship. It also shows in this same act, quite glaringly I may add, how the modern  American media has way too much influence on the public and the law in shaping both the perception and the reality of someone especially when that someone is under the hot light of suspicion as the so call ‘person of interest” in potential criminal cases.    

The third act is more of the story from Amy’s point of view, also dealing with her perception verses her reality leading up to her disappearance. The fourth act, well you are simply going to have to go to the movie to see it for yourself, but it does bring the other three acts into much greater focus with a stylized touch seen often by the great Director Alfred Hitchcock who use to deliver so many times in his filmmaking career a story involving human frailty, mystery and intrigue.

“Gone Girl” bathes itself in why men and women work so hard pretending and living in a charade swirl of lies, sometimes for privacy sake, even if it makes them miserable. For some reason, giving up a detailed false narrative give lots of people some comfort simply for the sake of not being judged by others and especially so in their personal intimate relationships. For some, image is everything – it is the relationship.

Applause for all the actors involved across the board, but a special acknowledgement of   Rosamond Pike who has been in previously other good films like “Barney’s Version” and “An Education”, who in my estimation in “Gone Girl” gives a star is born making performance, not only for her acting but also how she uses her physical looks, the way she looked at you with her glances and the luring intimacy she generated with just her eyes without even saying a word. Her eyes at times seemed more like props she used to draw you in so deep that in one swift moment her nature was someone who is sweet, passionate and naïvely innocent that you yourself would be drawn to kiss her and a split second later someone cold, aloof and deviously detached that would make you leave that room. I see a good chance that come next January no one should be surprised if you hear her name as one of the nominees in the Best Actress category. Also, praise for actress Carrie Coon who plays “Margo Coon” the feisty, loving and immensely loyal sibling twin sister to Nick Dunne. Her supporting performance could and should be worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration as well.

“Gone Girl” is why 30 years ago I went from being a fan of movies to loving them. It’s my annual pilgrimage quest to find imaginative gems to exalt their cinematic excellence. “Gone Girl” delivers that gem.

4 Stars