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Top Five

Chris Rock has a reputation for brilliant, biting stand-up comedy and bad, boring movies. He’s certainly not alone; the list of brilliant stage performers who make terrible movies is a mile long (and includes Rock’s’ heroes Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy) but Rock stands out, if you can say that, because his are almost always just boring. When you watch Pryor in Superman III, or Cosby in Leonard Part 7, or Murphy in anything he’s made in the last ten years (except Dreamgirls) you wonder what the hell they were thinking. You watch Chris Rock in Grownups, and you wonder why he doesn’t bother with thinking.

All that changes with “Top Five,” and please God, let there be more where this came from. This is what fans of Rock have been waiting for. Like his stand-up routines, it’s smart, biting, insightful, the mood shifts from angry to resigned to satirical. It’s sexy and raunchy in turns, sad and thoughtful and hilarious. Everything Rock looks at he sheds light on. This is a fantastic movie.

Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, at times it feels like he best Woody Allen film in twenty years. Since Allen is probably the best smart/funny actor/director in the history of cinema, Rock’s decision to borrow from him instead of (or in addition to) guys like Murphy and Cosby feels like a stroke of genius. And Rock brings the kind of comic energy that Allen seemed to run out of a while ago.

The film consists of a lot of walking and talking. It’s a good thing Rock and Rosario Dawson are so much fun to listen to, as they riff on Planet of the Apes, Barack Obama, and reality TV. Rock plays a character a lot like himself, a little bit like Kanye West, and with more than a passing resemblance to Birdman (more on that later.) Rosario Dawson is a reporter assigned to interview Rock right before both the opening of his big serious movie about a Haitian revolutionary, and his TV wedding to a reality star. So they spend a day together, visiting his family, going to a press junket, and walking around New York City telling stories about their love life and alcoholic misadventures (both are four years into “the program.”) There’s chemistry between them, but he’s about to get married and she’s not exactly who she says she is. Things get complicated, then get sorted out.

There are a ton of similarities between this film and the one that won Best Picture this year. Both are films about a washed-up actor trying to get people to “take them seriously” by doing something completely different, something the critics think is out of their range. In my opinion, this film is hands-down the better one. It is better directed, better acted, funnier, smoother, smarter, and more satisfying. Why did it not garner a single Oscar nomination? “Top Five” might be the best argument out there that Oscar is whitewashed.

For what it’s worth, here are my Top Five:
1. Public Enemy
2. A Tribe Called Quest
3. Wu-Tang Clan
4. Kanye West
5. Ghostface Killah

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Foxcatcher

This might be the feel-bad movie of the year, but it’s also one of the best.  And it’s not one of those films that’s mean and nasty, like a Lars Von Trier flick (or that damn thing I watched last year with the electrocuted horse; I was so depressed after that I don’t think I could muster the energy to write a review,) it’s just a film where not a single good thing happens to anybody, from the first minute to the last.  Now, you’re sold, aren’t you?  You’re going to run out and RedBox this one right away.

But it is a very good movie, and one I’d recommend.  Even more than “Snowpiercer,” this one is about the way the upper class exploits and feeds on the lower class.  But this is based on a true story.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schulz, in an internal, brooding, intense performance that I previously wouldn’t have thought possible from Tatum, who always before exudes confidence and charm on the screen. That’s all gone here; he has always lived in his brother Dave’s shadow, and resents him for it. He’s a gold medal wrestler, but his brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) gets the speaking engagement and special meetings, and nobody knows who Mark Schultz is, despite the gold around his neck.

So when John DuPont (a completely unrecognizable Steve Carrell) approaches him about putting together a wrestling team to take gold at the next Olympics, he sees a chance to get out from under his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself.  DuPont and Mark Schultz set up Foxcatcher farms, a state-of-the-art wrestling facility, and recruit the most talented wrestlers to come and train there.  But something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  DuPont knows almost nothing about wrestling, but loves to take the credit for any success Schultz experiences; he writes speeches for his protege in which Schultz finds himself introducing DuPont as “the father I never had.”  DuPont also introduces him to cocaine, and Schultz stands by and watches and DuPont enters the wrestling ring himself, and his lackeys pay his opponents to let him win.

The final blow comes when, after a disappointing performance at Worlds, DuPont smacks Mark Schultz upside the head and then calls in his brother Dave to right the ship (which may or may not have needed righting.) Dave happily joins the team, helps his brother get cleaned up and focused back on wrestling, but there’s nothing he’s going to be able to do to repair the relationship between Mark and DuPont.

Dave Schulz is really the center of the film; he is essentially the guy that both Schulz and DuPont want to be.  He is the charismatic leader that Mark would like to be, he’s also the naturally inspiring leader and coach that DuPont would like to be.  So of course you know something terrible has to happen to him before the credits roll.

Everything about this film is top-notch.  It’s probably the best-acted film of 2014; Ruffalo, Carrell and Tatum all deliver career-defining performances.  The direction is subtle but effective; this is a deceptively complicated and difficult story to tell, but director Bennett Miller consistently makes choices to serve the story and stay out of its way.  I think this takes more skill than the kind of flashy direction that won Innaritu the Oscar this year.  From beginning to end, from top to bottom, “Foxcatcher” is quietly, devastatingly, one of the best films of the year.  Don’t overlook it.   

 

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Winter in the Blood

Based on the 1974 novel by James Welch, “Winter in the Blood” is a dreamy, often brutally dark film about an alcoholic on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.  Chaske Spencer plays Virgil First Raise, who lives his life in an alternating state of drunken stupor and hung-over bleariness. There’s not much that you could call a plot here; First Raise wakes up in a ditch as the film opens, discovers his wife has left him, heading into town with his rifle and his electric razor, and he eventually decides he ought to go after her, at least to get the rifle back. But even this quest doesn’t feel at all urgent; he seems to not really care if he gets her or the rifle back, and he’s not in a hurry.

Instead, this is a very wandering, impressionistic film.  Directors Alex & Andrew Smith do a great job of capturing how, if you live in one place long enough, almost anything can trigger a flashback to a powerful, often painful memory.  We learn, as the film unfolds, that Virgil has lost both his father and his older brother is traumatic and scarring ways.  We also learn that he’s basically a good guy who takes care of his silent grandmother whom everyone else seems to have forgotten about.  He is drowning in the pain of his past, and drowns his pain in drink, and meaningless sexual encounters.

Continued…

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Birdman

2014 is starting to look like the year of the movie gimmick.

It started with “Boyhood.”  All anyone wants to talk about is how it took Richard Linklater 12 years to make this film, what an extraordinary achievement.  Never mind that a) he’s not the first to film a series of characters over a decade long arc and b) what’s on the screen is barely watchable. And then “American Sniper,” which, based on the buzz, is more about America’s relationship with its soldiers than about what actually happens on the screen.  Right-wingers and left-wingers talk about “Sniper” so differently it’s hard to believe they watched the same film; after seeing it for myself, I have to wonder if either side was watching the film very closely.

And now here’s “Birdman,” another big mess of a movie, that everyone is raving about for reasons which have little or nothing to do with what is up on there on the screen.

Michael Keaton plays an aging, mostly forgotten actor who was once a big deal because he played a caped superhero.  This is interesting, because Keaton is an aging, mostly forgotten actor was once a big deal because he played a caped superhero. Edward Norton plays a notoriously difficult actor, which is interesting because Edward Norton is a notoriously difficult actor. Zach Galafinakis plays his level-headed, pragmatic lawyer/producer, which is interesting because I never thought I would use words like ‘level-headed’ and ‘pragmatic’ to describe a character played by Zach Galafinakis. Naomi Watts is neurotic and insecure; Emma Stone just got out of rehab, and looks like it.  You get the picture.

Keaton is staging a Broadway play as an attempt to revive his career, which is a bold, risky move away from what he’s known for.  (Director Alejandro Innaritu is staging an artsy comedy in an attempt to revive his career, which is a bold, risky move away from what he’s known for.  OK, I’m done.)  He is kind of obsessed with fame, and getting it back. He has almost no idea what love and admiration are apart from fame. He’s an absent-minded father and was once a terrible husband. There’s a voice in his head that alternately tells him he’s a genius and a total loser who has no idea what he’s doing. He may actually have superpowers, or maybe that’s in his head as well.  The directory plays coy.  I hate that.

Oh yes, and one more thing: Innaritu has structured the camera work to make it look like the whole thing happens entirely without a cut.  I remember another movie a few years ago that did this: it was a haunted house pic with Elizabeth Olsen in it. It wasn’t very good, either.

OK, yeah, I’ll admit, “Birdman” is better than that.  It’s miles away from being as good as it wants to be, and all that pretension is irritating, but it’s not a completely bad movie. It’s pretty fun to watch Edward Norton chew scenery. There are some decent sort of half-assed ruminations on the nature of fame, and the life of actors, and theater. Nobody’s really searching hard after truth, but hey, if it’s right there in the candy jar, nobody’s going to pass it up, either. There’s an enjoyable shagginess to it, and it avoids formula, giving it a feel of its own.  Though it did remind me of “Synecdoche, New York;” another, far superior film about a director struggling to mount a stage production.

It won’t make my top 10 of the year list, and this is very obviously a film engineered to make lists.  And, full disclosure, five or ten years ago, I probably would’ve been suckered in by all its meta-ness and put it on a list.  But now, I’m not even sure I’d recommend it (unless you were trying to choose between this and “Silent House.”) But if I was channel-surfing through late night cable, I’d pause.  I might even stay and watch it all over again, and marvel at what a mess it is.

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

American Sniper

I’m going to set aside most of my political opinions about the war in Iraq, and the American military in order to write a review of “American Sniper.”  I’m going to accept the premises that the movie puts forward — that the war is justified, that our troops were fighting to protect their friends and family back home, and that they were fighting against savages who had to be stopped by any means possible – because those are the premises the movie puts forward and asks me to believe. To criticize the movie because I don’t agree with them would be like criticizing the Harry Potter movies because I don’t believe children can fly around on brooms.

Bradley Cooper absolutely transformed himself to play legendary sniper Chris Kyle. It’s hard to believe this beefy, monosyllabic bullrider is being played by the same actor who wore a football jersey through most of “Silver Linings Playbook.” He looked like the opposite of a football player there, and certainly not a guy you would want on a rooftop with a high-powered rifle. But he embodies the character completely here, disappearing into the role. I liked Cooper as an actor before, and was impressed with his transition from “The Hangover” to much more complicated films and roles; I have a ton of respect for him as an actor now.

Continued…

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Locke

It’s a risk to limit a movie to one setting.  It’s an even bigger risk to limit a movie to only one actor on the screen, start to finish. But if you’re careful and you pay attention to details, these are the kinds of limitations that can bring a focus and sharpness to a project that elevates it to a work of art.

“Locke” is a work of art, and a thrilling, emotionally engaging movie. Aside from an establishing shot on a construction yard, the whole thing takes place inside a car, and the only actor onscreen is Tom Hardy. It’s a crime that Hardy wasn’t for a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars); I haven’t seen most of the movies that were nominated, but it’s hard to imagine a better performance in a more demanding role than this one.

I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice it to say that Hardy’s entire life threatens to unravel over the course of a two-hour car ride.  The has multiple phone conversations through his car’s bluetooth; with his wife, a desperate co-worker, and his boss, and another person. The film unravels its secrets at a leisurely pace, and I think you’ll have a better viewing experience if I don’t give away the details.  He is a careful man, with a lot of pride, trying hard to do the right thing by everybody. Except sometimes that just isn’t possible. You can’t be everywhere at once, and the choices are brutal. He has made a mistake, and is trying hard not to accept its consequences. It might end up ruining his life, but it will not change the kind of man he is.

The pace of “Locke” is perfect, and the way streetlights play off the dash and highlight Hardy’s face is reminiscent of Michael Mann; this is a film that makes digital video look good. A little more variation in the visuals seems like it could have been possible (the same two police cars go by with lights and sirens at least three times.  But then again, this might have taken away from the laser sharp focus on Locke’s face, which is the film’s great strength.

I wrote recently about how “Mr. Turner,” in refusing to limit itself in practically any way, becomes a boring, shapeless film.  ”Locke” is just the opposite.  The two are a great study in contrasts, and a testament to how limiting yourself in certain ways can produce better, clearer, more compelling art.  ”Locke” is one of the best movies of 2014.

 

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The LEGO Movie

You would expect a movie like this to be nothing more than a shameless attempt to sell more of the expensive little blocks. Instead, it’s probably the best kid’s movie of the year, and certainly one of the funniest and most enjoyable.

The key is that the writers understand Legos. They know that, sure, each package comes with instructions about how to build some cool-looking doohickey, and you’ll do that (or get your dad to do it,) and you’ll even play with it for a while, but the real fun starts when it falls apart. Then you get to build something new. You get to combine the pieces from this Darth Vader camping set with those pieces from Ice Queen Barbie and create something entirely new. If all you ever do is follow the instructions, you’ve taken all the fun out of Legos. They are toys of endless reinvention.

Chris Pratt does excellent voice work as Emmett, a perfectly normal guy living in a perfectly normal Lego world. He’s such a perfect fit for this world that he’s not aware it’s a conformist dystopia run by President Business (Will Ferrell,) who ruthlessly destroys anything and everything “weird.” But Emmett literally stumbles into a Matrix-like prophecy that makes him suddenly very important and sought after, both by the resistance and Business, who sends Bad Cop to shut him down before he can foil the President’s plan to turn the whole world into a TACO, or something like that.

It is an absolutely standard plot, borrowed straight from the Matrix, which borrowed it from a dozen other movies. But nobody has as much fun with it as Lord and Miller do here. There are so many throwaway jokes, both visual and verbal, so many things turned sideways and on their head. Emmett is aided by a girl named Wyldstyle, who is not a DJ. Her totally serious boyfriend is Batman, who’d rather be on the Millennium Falcon. Green Lantern has a boy-crush on Superman, who avoids him. And there are two Michelangelos; one’s a turtle.

The whole thing is breathlessly fast-paced, funny, and gone before you know it. Every now and then a movie comes along that I don’t mind if my kids watch over and over again, and this is one of those. In fact, they’ve already moved on, and I’m still laughing at new jokes I missed the first two dozen times around.

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Into the Woods

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for Broadway musicals brought to the big screen. I loved “Les Miserables,” played “Chicago” in my car for months after I saw the movie, and might even go see this new “Annie,” which I haven’t heard a single good thing about. I’m still waiting for a screen production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I love big songs, big production, big performances. When it comes to big movies, give me a belting diva over a marauding robot or angry dragon any day of the week.

And so I was thrilled to go see Disney’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” I’ve never seen “Into the Woods” on the stage, and, as long as I live in Durango, I probably never will. But I’ve been familiar with the songs for a decade, since I saw the PBS Great Performances version, starring the amazing, inimitable Bernadette Peters. So I went into the theater already humming the songs.

Continued…

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Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho does a fantastic job of melding Korean-style action, over the top and uber-violent, with pure Western post-apocalyptic doom and gloom.

Mankind tries to fix global warming with a magic pill (lower our consumption? Steward our resources? You must be kidding! We’ll just SCIENCE our way to an answer!) that goes a little overboard, ushering in a new ice age that kills everything and everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except those aboard a train powered by a perpetual motion engine.

The train is structured just like a jumbo jet, with the wealthy up front, doing drugs and raves and eating sushi, while the destitute crowd into the last car, surviving on what looks like kelp gummy bars. Every now and then Tilda Swinton swoops down from the front to tell the poor how lucky they are to be on the train at all, and then steals their children for some unknown purpose (You find out eventually what they’re doing, and I was relieved to find out they’re not eating them.)

The first class passengers are full of exceptionalism and sanctimoniousness; they’re probably watching all three parts of “Atlas Shrugged” over and marveling at its truth and beauty. (That would be the longest train ride in the world.) But the passengers in the back keep attempting to storm the gates and get at the good stuff, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that this kind of social striation does not a stable society make.  Chris Evans (“Captain America”) leads the charge that finally makes it to the front, only to discover that everything isn’t quite what it seems.

Harvey Weinstein rather famously lost a fight to cut the film down to regular blockbuster size, but he lost.  Harvey Weinstein doesn’t lose very often, and the result is that this film was released with almost no publicity or promotion.  It’s one of the best-kept secrets of 2014, though I’m hoping that its presence on so many critics’ top 10 lists will garner it the audience it deserves.

Harvey’s loss is our gain. One of the joys of the film is that it isn’t in a rush to get to the front of the train. Each car functions as its own little microcosm, and we take the time to eat sushi and to experience a bizarre and wonderful history lesson with a crew of third graders along the way.  I suppose these changes in pace should feel jarring, but instead they’re exhilarating.  Too many action films are a race from beginning to end.  This one takes the time to look around, and finds some truly bizarre stuff to look at.  It makes it so much more fun to watch.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Mr. Turner

I am a fan of storytelling. I love a good story. When I watch a film, I want to be told a good story. All of the elements of filmmaking — the acting, direction, cinematography, set dressing and mise en scene — all should serve the story. Story is the reason I love movies and books more than paintings and sculpture.

A good story is a powerful, almost mythical thing, and cultures all over the world and all through time recognize this. One of the things I love about Jesus is that he was a master storyteller. He knew, as did Mohammed, Buddha  and many others, that you can embody an entire universe in a story. Philosophers and theologians fill volumes with explanations of stories the masters told with a few words.

You don’t have to look very long to find critics and/or film school graduates who complain about the constricts of plot, which is to say, story. They love formless movies, impressionistic movies, the kind of film that is more interested in evoking a mood or a feeling instead of telling a story.

To me, critics (and filmmakers) who talk like this remind me of, well, myself when I was in college. I was studying literature, and writing a lot of poetry. I complained about the constricts of conventional forms of poetry, like the sonnet. I pointed to the free verse of Milton, and idolized e.e. cummings. (Man, that guy didn’t even use capitals in his name. That’s art, baby.) And I was writing a lot of bad (really bad) poetry.

Along the way, I learned that the constricts of conventional forms are great teachers. By limiting what you’re able to do, they make you a better writer. Milton wrote in free verse only after writing sonnet after sonnet after sonnet — and getting really, really good at writing verses that rhymed. Form is ultimately freeing, opening up possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Back to film. I watch a lot of films that try to eschew the constricts of storytelling, and 95% of the time, I wish they wouldn’t. It is possible to make a great film without telling a story (the prime example that pops to mind is Beau Travail) but it’s really, really rare, and most films that attempt to climb that summit fail – and fail hard.

Which brings us to Mr. Turner, the latest film from Mike Leigh, who has never had much interest in storytelling. I find his movies very hit-and-miss: some of them (like Happy-Go-Lucky and Secrets & Lies) I really enjoy; others (like Vera Drake) I really hated. Leigh is famous for operating without a script; he finds actors he trusts, gives them the outlines of a scene or a situation, and lets them improvise their way through it. I guess this could be called operating outside the constricts of plot, but I think in his best films, his actors stumble across a story in their character explorations and thus supply what the director is lacking.

But because(like Vera Drake) Mr. Turner is a biopic, Leigh isn’t able to do that. Timothy Spall, great actor though he is, can’t just stumble upon the character of the great British landscape painter. There are beats that need to be hit, information that needs to be communicated. There is a story that needs to be told. Unfortunately, Leigh steadfastly refuses to tell that story, or a story of any kind. Indeed, there are points in Mr. Turner where it seems like a story is about to develop, and then the film stubbornly steers away from those moments.

What’s left when your director steadfastly refuses to tell a story? A series of barely connected scenes. And that’s what Mr. Turner is. There are at least a dozen scenes in this film that seem to have no relationship with anything else in the film. There are another set of scenes that really ought to convey important information about this historical figure, but fail to do so (I had to look up his daughters, after the two completely befuddling scenes with them in them.) Nothing comes together. No bigger picture comes into focus. We watch this movie for three hours — which feels like even longer — and come away knowing almost as little about its main character as we did when we started.

There are some nice things about Mr. Turner. Timothy Spall delivers a very good performance; it’s amazing the number of things he can communicate through a varied series of grunts and growls. I don’t know why he’s crying in the scene with the prostitute, but his performance in that scene is powerful, anyway. It is an excellent performance; I wonder if Mr. Spall is disappointed his director couldn’t work it into a better film.

It’s also a very pretty, very painterly film. Hardly three minutes goes by without some sort of composition that resembles a painting; often one of Mr. Turner’s paintings. There are lots of pretty pictures in this movie.

I can’t recommend this film. I love story. There’s no story here. And three hours is a long, long time to listen to Mr. Spall grunt and mutter.

 

Random Notes: 

For those who have seen the movie — A short list of the scenes I mentioned, that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the film

1. the scene with the piano player.

2. the scene with the natural historian.

3. the scene with the art admirer that ends with a joke(?) about kidney pie.

4. the scene with the prostitute.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.