Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Theory of Everything - Review

The Theory of Everything – Review

Starring Eddie Redmayne ("Les Misérables") and Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), “The Theory of Everything” tells the story of one of the world's greatest living minds astrophysicist Stephen Hawking through a three layered prism of his intellect and ground breaking work, his marriage and personal life and the devastating illness that he was stricken with an early age in the form of ALS or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Based on the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the films begins in 1963 where we see a young and vibrant Hawking who is driven by the desires for a PH.D at Cambridge and his equally smitten desires for the attention of a beautiful fellow student named Jane Wilde that he met at a reception. But just as it appears young Hawking is to have both a bright and promising future academically as well as personally with his new love Jane he is found one midday unconscious after collapsing face down on the university grounds. It is soon after his doctors’ examination at the age of 21 that he‘s given the horrific diagnosis of his ALS illness with only two years left to live.

Running two hours, we see initially the Hawking marriage as both a parallel downward spiral due to his eroding health as well as an uplifting triumph of the human will through Jane’s determined stalwart support as the emotional driving force to making sure Stephen continues his academic work. She crams as much into Stephen’s remaining two years in the form of having a family as well encouraging him to continuing his life-long professional goal of finding the ultimate mathematical equation that explains where all life comes from and why our universe exist. The film also delves rather directly into the early complexities of his eroding battle with ALS that eventually robbed him of all of his motor skills and its impact on his wife, family and working colleagues. It also showcases ironically his eventual evolution and growth professionally as the world’s most renowned astrophysicist scientist of our time.

What I like first and foremost about “The Theory of Everything” are the performances. Redmayne is assured of getting a nomination for Best Actor as he makes you forget from the onset of the film you are actually watching an actor as he puts himself slowly through the physical contortions that we know the real Hawking is most known for sitting in his wheel chair. And while not letting the contortions becoming a visual distraction or some gimmick, he somehow manages to brilliantly keep the viewer focus on this unique man who has extraordinary layers of humanity in the form of a sharp wit, emotional passion and cutting edge intellect with the use of a sly smile, a discernable frown and impactful tears.  Redmayne also does an incredible job in letting you know what he was feeling, what pain he was experiencing and what he was sometimes thinking without ever saying a perceptible or audible word. His performance overall manages to pull off all of these confluences of acting demands while equally portraying a man literally and physically trapped in a body that you see is slowly from scene to scene, more than the last, betraying him to the eventually point of not functioning for him at all.

Felicity Jones is also up to the task and has a good chance for an Oscar nomination as well as she brings a compatible excellent performance to this film as Hawking’s then-wife Jane as she willfully navigates the direction of their marriage. Jones captures exceptionally well the more moving, tender and distressing periods of their 25 year relationship.

While the beginning of the film started out as something a tad hollow and light hearted, it quickly and eventually grew into something much more poignant in the form of genuine inspiration and admiration for this incredibly smart and courageous man. Besides having an extremely bright mind Stephen Hawking is revealed as a man who is deeply and sincerely honest; fully capable of real intimacy and kindness, especially towards those who were supportive and encouraging to him in his life.

In the end “The Theory of Everything” is not the best film I have seen this year but manages nonetheless to work well as promised allowing the viewer to be witness not to a dormant silent Stephen Hawking in a paralyzed body. Instead the film is a pleasant witnessing and visit into a vital inspirational Stephen Hawking who miraculously is now 75 years old. 

Hawking who lost his physical life almost a half a century ago without the ability to speak on his own or display any noticeable ability to move or convey feelings is no victim to be pitied or consoled here. He in fact is a man who is heroic, smart, brave and full of life as big as the universe itself.

3 – 3/4 Stars

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1

As a much weightier and more satisfying installment than its predecessor “Catching Fire" we see here in “Mockingjay” a far more focused hand in the directing chair in the third part of the THG franchise. “Mockingjay” has very little reliance (in my opinion) on the sometime overabundance of technical visuals, bells, and whistles gimmickry to keep pushing the film’s story along.  Instead we see in this Part 1 segment a film more emotionally grounded and more humanistic as it weaves itself into depths of genuine dire, dark and consequential events to the films’ overall plot and subplots.

“Mockingjay” worked for me much, much better as a 2 hour solid and well-rounded piece of entertainment even though it’s clear that this Part 1 effort was stretch a bit thin as a financial “money grab” by splitting “Mockingjay” into two separate parts.

Above all, it is abundantly clear since the debut of the original film “The Hunger Games” to now “Mockingjay Part 1” is that the essential strength of this entire franchise as a huge money maker is singularly derived and rest on the splendid acting prowess of Jennifer Lawrence. She seems uniquely gifted in being able to create far more genuine feeling, raw emotion and real passion for her character “Katniss Everdeen” than I believe few other working Hollywood actors could have done with the same material. And as if her winning the Academy Award Oscar as Best Actress in “Silver Lining Playbook” and another Academy Award nomination in “American Hustle” wasn’t already enough proof, Jennifer Lawrence proves once again here as well that she truly is the absolute real deal when it comes to being one of best natural actors and her uncanny ability to inhabit her roles.

I have no doubt she will be giving many fine performances in various film projects in a myriad of diverse roles for decades to come.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Whiplash - Review

Whiplash – Review

J.K. Simmons. Who? J.K. Simmons; you know the actor with the avuncular smile, somewhere around middle aged, always wearing wool vests with the clean shaven face and head who does the “Farmers Insurance” TV spots. You know the same actor who played psychiatrist Emil Skoda for five seasons on TV’s “Law and Order”. The same actor who played for seven seasons on TNT’s “The Closer” as the by the book Assistant Police Chief Will Pope. Who also had supporting roles in several successful feature films such as “Spider Man”, “Juno”, “Up in The Air”, and the recent reboot of “True Grit”.

Still don’t know who he is? Well you will know who he is and likely very soon when you see his picture and hear his name being announced twice in early 2015, once as the nominee for Best supporting Actor and the next time about 6 weeks later in the form of…….. “And the Oscar goes to”.

In the film “Whiplash” J.K. Simmons delivers what is assuredly the front runner’s performance as Oscar winner as “Best Supporting Actor in the incredibly entertaining, potent, smart, powerful, emotional piercing and most viscerally intense film you will see this year.

“Whiplash” feels like a high octane rhythmic action sports drama thriller. In reality it is more of a benign story largely revolving around two principle combatants - characters - actors. The first is by Simmons character a man named Terrence Fletcher, the musical teacher at a fictional highly prestigious New York school called Schaefer Conservatory where specifically he is in charge of its jazz band assemble class.  From the onset to say he is a “driven man” as a regimented task master is the understatement of the year.

Physically he is a mixture of Darth Vader in human form with taut fit muscles dressed stylishly in all black with a form fitting T-shirt and who has eyes that offer the most frightening glances you swear he could actually melt metal. His personality? Well to say he has a unique talent to use profanity in a myriad of creative ways would also be an understatement as well. For him political correctness has never even entered his brain much less been uttered by his lips. He is the General George Patton of music with a singular manic determination and focus to illicit the very best from his students to transcend perfection itself; even if it kills them. Summarily and metaphorically speaking, watching this film if one of his student were to die in practice you are not quite sure Fletcher would even show a single moment of concern. In fact Fletcher is probably more likely to stop conducting just long enough to drag the person’s body to the hall way and walk back in to continue practice as if nothing ever happened at all.  

The second actor and largely the lead character is actor Mile Teller, a 20 something ambitious musical jazz virtuoso on drums named Andrew Neyman. He too is obsessed with music as he wants to be exactly like his musical idol in the form of the real life legendary drummer Buddy Rich. He has practice and played to Rich’s music for years to the point he doesn’t have to read any sheet music to preform it as he can perform it all from memory.

In the beginning of the film we see the very first day when Fletcher and Teller have a chance encountered when Teller is practicing alone. With  what was an obvious effort by the film Director Damien Chazelle to mislead us just a bit, its clear Teller has heard of Fletchers tough reputation but who leaves from their first meeting with a sense of embolden confidence  things may be a little different with him and Fletcher as a potentially young gifted drummer. But when they finally do come together for the first time in a formal practice, the initial compliments and kindness were definitely misleading’ as the sparks fly literally across the room. Teacher Fletcher is in charge now and he makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in anyone who just wants to be the best. He wants flawlessness every single second.

“Whiplash” while it has some structural flaws, most notably there is simply no way that Fletcher could have gotten away with his teaching methods without serious legal or physical pushback long before Andrew comes to his school, this fictional drama film is still a brilliant piece of acting with amazing and incredible big band music with a crackling pulse pounding execution to it.

I (Lester) played five years in my high school marching band as first chair trumpet. This film took me back to that wonderful feeling I use to get when seven or more different instruments can come together to make a wonderful unified orchestral brass and drum beat  music sound; it got my juices flowing and yours too even if you are not a fan of swing jazz. 

For me words fail immensely to adequately describe just how everything down to the minutest detail converge into one of the best film climaxes I have seen all year. The last 20 minutes were exciting, bloody, sweaty, hot, sexy, stylish, scary, intense, joyous, heartbreaking, exhilarating, and altogether just simply powerfully to watch, hear and  experience. The ending will in deed leave you speechless.

J.K. Simmons has always been a very good actor in every role I have seen him in. But in “Whiplash”, he is nothing short of great acting brilliance. He singularly provides one of the best performances you will see all year regardless of the category. Also, Miles Teller as Neyman appeared to actually be playing a lot of the drum performances in the film as well and was equally great in measuring up to the task of being both a victim and emotionally driven as well.

Finally, the editing in this film is top notch Oscar quality as well as it more than matched up with the real jazz rhythms and the actor’s energy; there were several drum solos that were nothing short of being suspenseful. In short the editing coordination of screenplay words to the visual and music interplay was pure cool genius.

Whiplash" as a story is a metaphor for a persons’ religion verses what constitutes a persons’ addiction. And with that I highly recommend to you all very, very much that this film is well worth you seeing for its many virtues including its notable frenzied shotgun adrenaline story, as well as for its acting, action, strong direction and really crisp galvanizing music.

"Whiplash" is one of the top 10 films I have seen all year as it hits all of the right notes from beginning to end.

4 Stars

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar - Review

Interstellar - Review

Director Christopher Nolan makes a huge cinematic leap as he moves away from the fictional earth bound canvas of the tales of Gotham City and the Batman Trilogy to the mysteriously deep galactic travels of outer space in the highly anticipated mix of science fiction and science reality based film entitled “Interstellar”.

Starring Academy Award winners, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and one actor I won’t mention, the story of “Interstellar” starts out in the not so distant future in the agricultural bread basic region of the United States. We see a former test pilot turned corn farmer named Cooper working hard to earn a living with his two children and his father. What is apparent to him and other farmers in that area around him is that the land is rapidly devolving into a modern day “dust bowl” and the globe as a whole is moving towards total agricultural collapse. Also Murphy, Cooper’ adolescent precocious redhead daughter, keeps insisting there are mysterious ghosts in her room to make the family matters daily lives even more complex. 

What in deed they do soon discover is that it is not ghosts in her room but a mysterious code signal effecting their home – her room that later reveals itself in the form of a GPS coordinate to a Top Secret compound headed by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Brand played by Michael Caine and his equally brilliant daughter Dr. Brand also played by Anne Hathaway. Together they essentially sell Cooper on the idea that the earth is dying and that they have discovered a possible passage way through a worm whole that appeared outside the orbit of Saturn which by their calculations will catapult them to a galaxy far away to the real possibility of 12 sustainable planets for human to leave earth to repopulate itself and save humanity.  Cooper knows that it is a real chance he might not survive and if he should survive he may not make it back to his daughter who tearfully pleads with him to “stay”.  But Cooper is drawn to the risk as something worth taking to save humanity. And with that Cooper and his Chuck Yeager persona in tow, along with Dr. Brands daughter and two other scientist, collectively they saddle up to their rotating space ship “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. And it is what that decision the “Interstellar” space adventure begins.

Actually it does not begin and that is the problem. What does in deed begin at almost 3 hours running time is an endless dialogue involving quantum theories, string theories, worm holes and black holes, space-time continuum, transcending dimensions, rotational spins, Newton’s ideas on gravity, talkative plodding  concepts and finally endless passages that try to explain some connection of human’s innate love for one another with modern physics.  The result is a film extremely over burdened with a story line that should of had a prerequisite requirement for all viewers before spending $18 to see it in IMAX, they should all have to go to Oxford England to attend an entry level physics theory class headed by noted Professor Stephen Hawking’s on the “The Theory of Everything” just to understand what Nolan is trying to say here, which by the way is in fact the title of a movie coming out in the next few weeks that actually may be a better film to watch.  

Nolan’s Interstellar is so tightly undergirded with science talk that it is to the point of being something equivalent to intellectual strangulation on your ability to both breath and comprehend at the same time in such short order with its clunky screenplay. Sometimes, I felt my head was going to explode from just trying to follow along conversations that simply made no sense. Why? Because Director Nolan (in my estimation) invested way too much of his time and effort to tell you all of the science aspects of this story in the film, not realizing it would almost torture the life out of the film with this obsessiveness to provide every single theoretic detail, without giving as much a vestige of real weight to the human component of this story. Meaning? Specifically, what was missing from its plot was how does this story reassure me in as human my rightful place in an expansive endless universe to live – survive as a species. And unfortunately Interstellar does not do this at all.  And while Nolan has some moments that were to the naked eye visually fascinating, majestic and even awe inspiring the overall story of the film especially in the second half felt like science interstellar “hoo - haa” that simply made no connection to me at all.

Nolan was clearly inspired by “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but he should of learned from that effort and other science fiction greats like Alien, that sometimes moments of silence and not saying anything can make a film more intriguing. Here we are saddled with abundance of too much everything including too much loud music that at times overlapped the story to the point the music was more nuisance than pleasurable to my ear. Compounded all of this with scenes that over and over and over again try to explain every single thing the actors were thinking, that it far too often provoked a response from me that was "huh?" rather than “yeah”.

Ultimately, Interstellar has the scale of a blockbuster-sized film, but it simply does not have the written story to match this strong cast’s ability to deliver an emotional story and one that connects with its audience emotional needs intact to the real science that was put in play. 

So, you ask after all of that should you see “Interstellar?” My answer is an absolute resounding yes you should see it, just as long as the next two words behind its title say the words “Red Box”.
2 - 3/4 Stars

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Nightcrawler - Review

Nightcrawler – Review

Someone famous once said, “Sometimes greatness is achieved and other times it is thrust upon you. He should have amended that comment with, “sometimes it can make you a creepy video camera man for the eleven clock news”.  Such is the case in Jake Gyllenhaal’s nothing short of stellar performance as Lou Bloom in the psycho thriller called “Nightcrawler”.

The entirety of the film takes place in Los Angeles and mostly at night. At the onset we find the central character Lou Bloom; a young but physically gaunt man with his eyes that seem to be bulging literally out of their sockets engaging in what is clearly a petty crime of stolen construction tools and precious metals. He then proceeds to drive across town to peddle off his stolen merchandise to a construction site foremen who is clearly reluctant to buy them but does so at a “take it or leave it” price. Lou, who already has proven he has a charming gift for bartering and conversation seizes the moment to also ask that same foreman for the chance of a full time job, but with a role of his eyes the foreman sarcastically replies “why would I hire a thief?” 

That same night while heading home he comes upon an auto accident where his innate curiosity causes him to pull over to see what has happened. As he walks towards the car he notices a cameraman named Joe Loder filming the event while the two police officers try to extricate a woman from a burning vehicle. When the ambulance arrives Lou walks back with Joe to his media van where he learns Joe is a freelance cameraman for local media. Joe explains that his line of work can be a good job for the right man as long as you got the right equipment and you get there first to secure the “if it bleeds it leads” kind of video. It’s at this moment in the film and its overall plot the words “happenstance”, “coincidence”, “luck” and or “fate” never becomes truer. Joe has an epiphany; the once a few minutes ago Lou the petty thief has now become Lou crime scene videographer.

After securing a cheap camera and reading ferociously anything about doing his new line of work on the internet, Lou goes from being a crime scene annoying nuisance to cleverly being the one guy who is now getting the cutting edge kind of video. He is especially valued by a flailing local network that Lou also coincidently chose to sell his prized nightly crime scene videos to. It also helps in the story that the news director named Nina (Rene Russo) is both as aggressive as Lou is but is also struggling in her job with low ratings. Over time they both see in each other the potential in getting their careers on track with Lou’s relentless aggressive ability to get the video first better than anyone else.

From here on, the film’s story evolves into something more than watching an ambitious cameraman. What we see in Lou is a highly intelligent man who is learning his craft in leaps and bounds. He also start to learn that sometimes he can be both the first on the scene as well as the one who can help “shape” the story more dramatically when no one is looking to secure higher ratings and ultimately making himself more indispensable as someone to be trusted and reliable.

“Nightcrawler” overall transpires into the realms of the power of cerebral manipulation and the dysfunctional ethos of modern media. And through both of these elements we see how it affects the principles Lou, Nina and Joe together, but also a young unemployed naïve man named Rick who Lou manages to cleverly convince he could use him on the sly cheap as an intern for $30 a night.

The movie overall itself is good with a few moments of greatness. Clearly, first time Director Dan Gilroy borrows heavily stylistically wise from Director Michael Mann with his expertise of filming people, crime and night time in big city Los Angles (i.e. Collateral and Heat). He also, with a few moments early in the film, writes as well as his brother Tony Gilroy who directed one my favorite films of all time “Michael Clayborn” which was nominated for Best Picture in 2007. The writing screenplay for the most part is highly cerebral, top notched and eerily fascinating to hear with the one exception of the film seemingly getting a little flat for a few minutes around the 40 minute mark.  But what stood out for me more than anything structurally was what Director Gilroy delivers in the last 30 minutes of the film that in my estimation was some of the most suspenseful and spin tingling work I have seen all year. I literally had goose bumps on my arms from the slow buildup of tension.

In the end, the star of this film is glaringly obvious in its 2 hour running time and it is the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s. He is eerily powerful as he channels some unusual inner charisma that I have rarely seen in any young actor before. He is audacious, mesmerizing, powerful, and while sometimes his Lou felt like a bit of a farce, he always manages to keep his character tightly wrapped in an acting canvas of being creepy, amusing, smart and all too real. He also used his bulging eyes as a subliminal prop giving off the appearance of some nocturnal predator who never sleeps, always looking at you for a weakness – always on the prowl.  And it with those eyes you can never tell as a viewer of this film when listening to what Lou had to say was it something you could trust as being true. Was he lying to you or was he simply someone who doesn’t like you. Ultimately, his character is emotionally incapable of revealing anything about himself through his eyes because he doesn’t want you to know; it’s just naturally who he is.

Obviously I don’t have a vote for the academy award nominations, but if I did (as it stands now) Gyllenhaal would be the first name I would write on my 5 name ballot for Best Actor. He gives the best performance by an actor I have seen this year and dare I say it, you will not find a better performance for all of 2014 – Jake is just that good here.

3 – 3/4 Stars