Sunday, November 30, 2014

A BEAUTIFUL MIND: a review of "The Theory Of Everything"

Based upon the memoir Traveling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking
Screenplay Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by James Marsh
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In my recent review of "St, Vincent," which I felt was good but not great yet did contain one of the finest performances of Bill Murray's career, I remarked that sometimes all a film needs to do is to just tell its story as well as it is able, regardless of whether it pushes the boundaries of the movies any further or not. Yes, this year, my favorite films have essentially all included the very types of movies that have bravely pushed those boundaries, challenged me, upended me or made me think about what movies are able to achieve in new ways. But even so, there is indeed something to be said for the film that is more straightforward and relatively inoffensive but remains a first class production of high quality.

Director James Marsh's "The Theory Of Everything," a biographical romantic drama centered around the life of theoretical physicist/author Stephen Hawking is precisely that kind of a movie, an experience that will certainly not make you re-think the power of the cinema but one that is indeed fully and instantly absorbing, deeply emotional yet provocative in its concepts and themes and one that features two unquestionably outstanding leading performances, which equally demand awards season attention.

Beginning at the illustrious Cambridge University circa 1963, "The Theory Of Everything" opens the miraculous odyssey of Stephen Hawking (an astonishing Eddie Redmayne) at the age of 21, when he was rapidly on his way to revolutionizing our collective knowledge of the universe through the merging of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. At this same time, Hawking met and fell in love with Spanish/French student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a union that blossomed into a blissful romance.

All of life's elements seemed to be locked into its perfect place until Stephen Hawking's fateful diagnosis of a debilitating motor neuron disease related to Lou Gehrig's disease, an illness which initially gave him a prognosis of a mere two more years to live.

Battling the disease as well as his depression, Hawking, with Jane firmly at his side, continued to defy every single obstacle as his endlessly inquisitive mind produced new landmark scientific theories renowned the world over. But, even so, the struggle to maintain their love and marriage seemingly would prove to be even more difficult than discovering the possible beginning of time itself and the meaning of the universe.

"The Theory Of Every" is an exquisite production, lusciously filmed and lovingly executed with honest, probing and perceptive drama, as well as with a sweeping and rightfully painful romance housed at its core. In many ways, I felt this film to be precisely the kind of traditional yet first class motion picture that is bound to be recognized during awards season especially Oscar time. Much like Director Tom Hooper's Best Picture Oscar winner "The King's Speech" (2010), "The Theory Of Everything" contains such elegance to its aesthetics. The visual sheen by Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme is delicately superb, Anthony McCarten's screenplay is fiercely intelligent and all of the actors, who are excellent from top to bottom, are given much room to instill gravitas and spread their creative wings.

This feat is accomplished heroically by Eddie Redmayne who delivers a spectacular and enormously transformative performance as Stephen Hawking. Undoubtedly destined for Oscar recognition, I certainly wish to alert to you that I never felt for a moment that Redmayne's performance was self-congratulatory, histrionic or painfully melodramatic. Certainly, it is a performance of immense physicality as Redmayne, over the course of the film, begins to resemble the real world Stephen Hawking more and more (so much so that you may be performing double takes to ensure that you are witnessing the actor and not stock footage). It is so wondrous to see just how Redmayne has seemingly folded his entire body inwards to portray Hawking, an accomplishment which is more than fitting as his entire performance feels inhabited from the inside out. Redmayne's Stephen Hawking dials past the iconic status and never once do we see the "hero." Redmayne gives us a figure that is so recognizably human and knowable. Especially when his body begins to fail him.

The early sequences of "The Theory Of Everything" really struck a chord with me as Eddie Redmayne captured a certain and frightening fragility within the failures of the flesh. I think it would be hard pressed for anyone viewing this film to not place themselves into Hawking's shoes when the motions and movements our body undertakes, the very ones that we all indeed take for granted, are just not available to us anymore. In addition to just being housed inside of those thoughts in regards to our mortality, those feelings surfaced for me when I thought of what I go through whenever illnesses inevitably arrive, especially my bouts with minor vertigo, an ailment I have been struggling with for thirteen years. Dear readers, I must admit to you that I am not the best patient, as I am extremely impatient and overly anxious to return to the business of my life, from home and work responsibilities to writing on this blogsite. There is more than enough for me to do in a day, just as it is for all of you. Yet, I am not one to just take it in stride when I am forced into times of convalescence. And at times, it is very unnerving as I can never know exactly when I will be all of myself again. So, imagining a point when I would never be my complete self just terrified me as I truly have no idea of what I would do with myself if I could not be who I feel that I need to be.

Harboring those very thoughts and emotions as I watched this film made me wonder tremendously just how did the real Stephen Hawking force himself to continue onwards. Within the film, Redmayne presents no such easy answers within his performance as we see him exist through some extremely dark days and nights, signifying for himself, and for all of us, the painful but harsh reality that whether through science or metaphysics or both, we are not in as much control as we may think we are or wish to be. Nonetheless, "The Theory Of Everything" illustrates that Stephen Hawking carried onwards anyway for what else would he, or would we do in the same situation? Eddie Redmayne simply nails Stephen Hawking's relentless drive to keep probing for answers to the cosmos and existence itself while also depicting his frailties, his darkest fears, his human failings and most surprisingly, his sharply sardonic wit.

As brilliant as Eddie Redmayne is, he does not walk away with the entire movie. Felicity Jones is 100% Redmayne's equal and furthermore, she accomplishes this feat in what is arguably the more difficult role. Jones, as aided by the screenplay and James Marsh's expert direction gives us a performance, while less showy, that refuses to allow Jane Hawking to be swept into the background or reduce her to existing as the long suffering but endlessly supportive wife to the brilliant but ailing genius. Jones completely brings Jane Hawking to vivid three dimensional life because we are given a portrait of a woman who houses her own desires and educational pursuits as well as her own world and existential worldview that is just as rich and as intensely passionate as her husband's. For instance, where Stephen Hawking is an atheist who for a spell utilizes his scientific work to basically prove the non-existence of God, Jane challenges him fiercely time and again.

But it is through the love story where we truly see Stephen and Jane Hawking as flesh and blood human beings the most as their domestic hopes and struggles are again so instantly recognizable and therefore relatable. In fact, while watching "The Theory Of Everything," I was reminded of the love story contained within Director Steve James' "Life Itself," the wonderful documentary based upon the life of the late Roger Ebert as we were given front row access to the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz Ebert, most notably, during his own deteriorating health combined with his own unstoppable creativity and ultimately, his passing.

Here is where I felt "The Theory Of Everything" functioned at its most bittersweet and perceptive as Marsh presents us with this iconic figure who could figure out the mysteries of the universe, time and space but was still undone by the even more mysterious universes contained within the human heart. Felicity Jones shines especially in her role as we are given an explicit journey into the heart of the caretaker, a role that is often thankless and even moreso when the ailing partner in the relationship is globally famous and revered. Jones shows us through Jane Hawking how love and devotion can slowly transform into obligation, frustration, anger, resentment, loneliness, hopelessness and wanderlust (as represented by her return to the church to sing in the choir and her attraction towards church musician Jonathan Jones as played by Charlie Cox). which then continues to transform into guilt, remorse and regret and then, back to love and devotion all over again.

In some respects, this aspect of "The Theory Of Everything" also places this film somewhere in the same neighborhood as Director Terence Malick's controversial and majestic "The Tree Of Life" (2011), which also juxtaposed the birth, life, decay, death and rebirth of a family alongside the similar circle of existence as played throughout time, the cosmos and all living things down to the smallest molecule. But unlike the esoteric nature of that film, "The Theory Of Everything" is as accessible as it is artfully stately.

If I did have any flaws with the film, I wished for some key information regarding Stephen Hawking's health that the film not once touched upon. If you remember, when Hawking was first diagnosed, he was given a life expectancy of only two years. Now, Stephen Hawking has survived and thrived up to the age of 72! And yet, nowhere in the film were we given any medical and/or scientific information as to what procedures Hawking underwent to ensure his survival. I felt that just adding that crucial bit of information would have given this film a greater push over the top for me. But as it stands, and as strong as this film is, it still felt like a big black hole.

That being said, James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything" is a stylish, refined, sophisticated film front-loaded with two of the finest performances I have seen this year at the movies.  No, it didn't re-invent the wheel and nor did it have to. For when a motion picture is this exceedingly well crafted, what else could I really ask for?

Friday, November 28, 2014

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE (PARTIALLY) TELEVISED: a review of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1"

Based upon the novel The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong
Directed by Francis Lawrence
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Ah...what hath Harry Potter wrought upon us all...

I am remembering when I first read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The accompanying film series was already long underway and had, by that point, proven themselves to not only be faithful adaptations of Rowling's literary vision, they were gradually building themselves into being excellent films within their own right. Yet, as I read what was the final installment and imagining the film version to come, I was truly confused as to how the filmmakers would even have been able to stuff everything into one single film, even if that film happened to be a three and a half hour epic a la Director Peter Jackson's majestic "The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King" (2003).

Every moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows felt to be so important, so crucial and so integral to the over arching narrative that I was dumbfounded as to what could have been edited out of the story to make everything work as a feature film. And then came the announcement that the book would be cleaved into two films, a decision I felt was brilliant on an artistic level as well as a commercial level. For the fans and the story itself, the narrative would not be compromised and for the suits, those "Harry Potter" dollars would roll in for one more film. It was win-win for everyone.

Or was it?

After that unquestionable success, movie studios have been going more than a little haywire with the multiple, serialized film series format. Somehow, a trilogy just doesn't seem to be enough anymore as we are now receiving film adaptations of books and book series that are extended needlessly and to the point of exhaustion.

Just take a look at the "Twilight" film series (or better yet, don't), especially Director Bill Condon's interminable two part finale "Breaking Dawn" (2011/2012), whose lack of actual narrative explicitly showed the last film should have only been one film as well as the overall mercenary aspect of the project as a whole. Even moreso, is Peter Jackson himself whose devotion to all things Middle Earth has given us "The Hobbit" (2012/2013/2014) as a most unnecessary trilogy that sidelines its titular character and is, potentially, a full nine hours culled from one book (plus supplemental J.R.R. Tolkien material and Jackson inventions). And just this week, I read that the upcoming theatrical adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand will become...four feature length films. To that, I say the password is "overkill."

Now, we arrive at Director Francs Lawrence's "The Hunger Games:Mockingjay-Part 1," the beginning of the end as it is itself another adaptation of one novel being split into two films, the second installment to arrive this time next year. If you have been following my exploits on Savage Cinema, you would know that I have been an extremely enthusiastic fan of this film series as both of the previous installments delivered an elegant, compelling and brutal future vision of a world where the many are subjugated by the powerful few and children are forced to fight to the death on live television in the Hunger Games to further the political subjugation, that is until the arrival of teenage Katniss Everdeen as a defiant Hunger Games contestant who inspires rebellion and revolution.

Certainly, nothing would keep me away from this third chapter, especially as I have not read the book as I am not fond of author Suzanne Collins' writing style. But, I have to admit to a sense of fatigue with this trend of the extended concluding episodes and therefore, I have to say that "Mockingjay-Part 1" does suffer a steep decline in quality due to this elongated finale. No, it is not a bad film and also, it never loses its sense of purpose and intent. What it does lose is a sense of urgency and momentum because just as this series should be building up towards a towering, and inevitably cataclysmic conclusion, it remains stuck in neutral for far too long.

"Mockingjay-Part 1" begins not long after the events of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013) when Katniss Everdeen (again portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence)  destroyed the Hunger Games Quarter Quell arena and was rescued by the rebel leaders of District 13, a subterranean facility located deep below the ruins of the original District 13.

While underground, Katniss is not only reunited with fellow Hunger Games victors Beetee (Jeffery Wright), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the alcoholic but now detoxed Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and her former chaperone and PR rep Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) but also with her family and her closest confidant Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). She is addressed and recruited by rebellion leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Hunger Games
mastermind yet in truth an undercover rebellion leader Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) into serving as the "Mockingjay," the symbol of the political uprising now underway, a movement that has led to the full evisceration of Katniss' home of District 12.

Capitol President Snow (a silvery and demonic Donald Sutherland), in his pursuit of ultimate societal control, becomes more openly fascist with public executions of any and all who defy his leadership. To further his personal battle of wills with Katniss, he has also seemingly co-opted Katniss' Hunger Games partner and possible love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the process.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1," as with the two previous installments, continues its grim path with strong cinematic style, a further broadening and deepening of the story's canvas while cementing Katniss Everdeen as a teenage heroine to cheer and root for and follow straight into the mouth of Hell itself. Jennifer Lawrence again confirms that she was the absolute perfect choice to bring this character to three dimensional life as her steadfast empathy, churning inner turmoil and undeniable passion simmers powerfully from the screen, making it impossible to tear your eyes away from her.

While this installment offers no Hunger Games events as well as considerably less action as the previous two films, Jennifer Lawrence through Katniss is forced to rely less upon her physicality and more upon her mental athletics as she presents Katniss as a young woman struggling to maintain any sense of individuality as she quickly realizes that she is as much of a political pawn for the rebellion as she was for the totalitarian government. Francis Lawrence wisely utilizes "Mockingjay-Part 1" to serve as a treatise on the properties of propaganda as the rebellion creates and utilizes a collection of short guerrilla films (referred to as "propos") to further manipulate the masses into revolution.

I really loved the sequence where Katniss stood in front of a make believe background of war torn destruction while unconvincingly shouting scripted declarations of union and uprising as directed by Plutarch in a control booth. This is juxtaposed with a sequence in the Capitol as President Snow decides upon what would the proper vocabulary be in order to keep the masses in line. On both fronts, the rebellion and the government attempt to one up each other until Katniss is convinced to go directly into the decimated District battlefields, complete with a camera crew, acting almost as a front line war correspondent ready to relay messages through pirated frequencies.

With this, I felt that Francis Lawrence has again used the source material and has extended from any genre trappings by urging those of us in our theater seats to make the connections between this very fictional world and the real world we will inevitably return to once the end credits cease to scroll. For me, I could not help but to find my mind turn towards the tragic events in Ferguson, MO as well as how the events have been played out and represented within the media on all sides of the political aisle. Just listen to what words are said and how language and imagery are used for the police and the protesters as well as the deceased Michael Brown himself, and how each side has been characterized to produce an emotional response and strict opinions within viewers. The desire to manipulate is constant, ever shape shifting but with a clear end-game in mind and Lawrence is cleverly in tune with how propaganda is created and disseminated and how we all play into being players as well as being played.

As I remarked earlier, the issues I had with "Mockingjay-Part 1" really had nothing to do with the overall purpose of the film in regards to its themes and concepts, but with the purpose of its execution. Essentially what we have is only half of a film. Yes, with that "Part 1" in the title, I know that we will have a story that is unfinished but that doesn't mean that we need to have a film that feels so unfortunately incomplete and therefore padded as we are just marking time before the next film. Yes, I do realize that the events of this film are serving as a prelude for the next film but why make two films when there could have been just one tight, taut, and accelerating three hour plus film to serve as a grand finale? As it stands, "Mockingjay-Part 1" is a film that spins its wheels for far too long, slowing down when it should be revving up.

I will admit that the longer "Mockingjay-Part 1" runs, the better it gets. With a nighttime raid that felt like parts of Director Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), the cavernous underground escapes from the pulverizing bombings above, and a thrilling final few scenes, we get the film that we have needed "Mockingjay-Part 1" to be. However, the first hour or so of the film just drags and drags. While I am not able to think of actual full sequences that needed to be edited out, I do feel that the film could have easily been edited down a bit or at least a tad streamlined and still make the same points. Because watching a collective of characters wring their hands and furrow their brows in an underground world plotting and planning or having several other sequences where characters are staring sadly at above ground worlds of devastation can only be so visually and viscerally interesting for so long. Before you know it, you realize that we are all just being spoon fed a plot not to create suspense or dramatic tension but solely to justify the two hour plus running time and the subsequent two hours to come.

Which is a shame because I feel that even within a film series, it is up to the filmmakers to ensure that audiences are receiving as complete of a film as possible. I look back to something like George Lucas and Director Irvin Kirshner's "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), a film that begins and ends in mid-action and yet feels like a full, complete statement. For more recent examples, take The Wachowski's "Matrix Trilogy" (1999/2003) and even Director Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012) where they also accomplished the same feats of crafting an escalating drama where each section was fulfilling individually. And of course, returning to the "Harry Potter" series, we saw how each book and film contained a central story with its own concepts, themes and mystery all of which then served the on-going and larger story.

With "Mockingjay-Part 1," once it says what it needs to say, all we can then do is just wait and wait, a tactic that does indeed make me a bit nervous for "Part 2" which will undoubtedly be a film of all out war but potentially may have its power undercut. Yes, this first half will inform the second half, but for now, it just feels like a "half," one that left me unsatisfied and underwhelmed as it really didn't have that much story to tell. "Mockingjay-Part 1" is exceedingly well acted by the entire cast, beautifully visualized and does possess a creeping sense of all encompassing doom but once it was over, I indeed stifled a yawn.

Because for a movie that is boldly going to wade through the themes of totalitarianism and propaganda, how pathetic it is to be defeated by the mechanics of commercialism and commerce.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME!!!: a review of "Whiplash"

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
**** (four stars)

"Whiplash," the breakout feature film from Writer/Director Damien Cazelle is hands down the most electrifying film I have seen in 2014. This story of a 19 year old jazz drummer engaged in a ferocious battle of wills with his tyrannical instructor is exhilarating as it is exhausting, profound as it is pummeling, towering as it is tumultuous and even terrifying. Chazelle is, from the very first shot, a born filmmaker who somehow possesses a Scorsese-ian heft and fury to his storytelling that is blistering to behold. In a year and time period when CGI extravaganzas and costume heroes rule the day in our local theaters and cineplexes, it is truly a miracle to see a film about everyday human beings that carries such a tremendous amount of natural excitement. Trust me, dear readers, "Whiplash" is a knock out experience of agony, discipline and euphoria that showcases the power of the movies at its excellence. This one is NOT to be missed!

"Whiplash" stars Miles Teller from last year's wonderful teen drama "The Spectacular Now" in a sensational and feverishly intense performance as Andrew Neiman, the aforementioned 19 year old jazz drummer who attends the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory Of Music, who catches the eyes and ears of Terence Fletcher (a titanic J.K. Simmons), the school's infamous Studio Band conductor who is not only on the lookout for a new drum alternate, but a true musical phenom.

While Andrew eventually impresses Fletcher enough with his percussive skills and proficiency during a band rehearsal session, he quickly realizes that Fletcher's teaching style, which is based in severe emotional manipulation and all manner of abuses and injustices, is not only the order of the day for the band but also the exact technique utilized to inspire young musicians to become greater than they ever conceived themselves to become.

Essentially, that is the plot of "Whiplash," a film which serves as a two character study that richly explores the themes of success and failure, as well as the aspirations and endless hunt for personal and artistic greatness even when that very greatness arrives at the expense of maintaining and retaining one's sense of humanity. The performances by both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are two of the very finest of the year and they each deserve every stitch of acclaim that falls at their feet, Your teeth will be gnashing together as you witness their struggles with each other as well as within themselves.

The characters of Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher are essentially cut from the very same cloth. For Andrew, he exists as a lonely, introverted and friendless young man whose only relationships of value are with his Father (beautifully played by Paul Reiser), a high school teacher and failed author, as well as with his drums, most notably contained within his obsession with the iconic percussive talents of Buddy Rich, the brass ring that Andrew hopes to reach. By the time he is under the feral tutelage of Terence Fletcher, and the abusive mind games continue to mount, Andrew is repeatedly forced to question not only why he would continue to endure such a despairing, straining existence within the band but are the punishing lessons indeed as useful as Fletcher clearly intends for them to be.

Miles Teller, who actually is a drummer, performs his role with such endurance and athleticism but he nails the psychological drama contained within the obsession and most importantly, the fear of failure and overall insignificance that fuels him. Andrew is a spirit that feels that achieving the level of notoriety where he has essentially created a certain immortality for himself  based upon his musical talent is worth living a life of loneliness and succumbing to a series of potentially compulsive behaviors, anxieties, and depression. This decision also makes scenes between himself and Nicole, a possible girlfriend (nicely played by Melissa Benoist) as well as those with his Father so heartbreaking as the trade Andrew is making between musical excellence and emotional stability is anguishing to watch as he is willingly placing himself in such harm's way every single minute he continues to remain with Terence Fletcher.

Just take the early sequence in the film which I will call the "Rushing or Dragging" sequence, where Fletcher continuously questions and then berates Andrew in regards to whether he is rushing or dragging the beat of the dizzying complex jazz composition "Whiplash." The sheer intensity between these two men during this section just emanates heat from the screen as Fletcher begins somewhat patiently yet uncompromisingly and then the scenes unexpectedly explodes into violence, with thrown chairs, a barrage of insults and public humiliations and finally, repeated slaps to the face.

And from that sequence, it only gets worse as Andrew, continuing to try and attain Fletcher's approval, suffers through more rehearsal sections that play and conclude like crime scenes. Fletcher weaves an environment where he pits these young musicians against each other in the classroom as well as during jazz competition performances, where there is no mercy for visible sheet music when it must be memorized, let alone the possession of out of tune instruments and God forbid, forgotten drum sticks. Hell's flames are pitifully weak when compared with Terence Fletcher's unrepentant rage.

Damien Chazelle also utilizes "Whplash" to explore the cycle of abuse as depicted within the classroom settings. We see how Fletcher's venom when inflicted upon his students carries over from student to student with a competitive outrage and also a certain self-infliction. A sequence where Andrew, running late for a competition performance and fearing he will lose his cherished drum part is equally combustible and draining in its unstoppable force. Chazelle structures this section as tightly as the best action thriller you could hope to see as it contains not only the requisite shocks but a white knuckle power that will have you grabbing and even pounding your theater seats. But Chazelle never exploits his material for cheap effect. He wisely and strongly allows the only exploitation to occur on screen as Fletcher is obviously a figure who is exploiting the talents of these young musicians in pursuit of his own elusive success and musical immortality, desires that are housed inside his own fears of failure.

J.K. Simmons is a revelation in his performance as Terence Fletcher as he has discovered the Machiavellian layers within the character as he is simultaneously seductive and encouraging as well as nightmarishly formidable and maddeningly unforgiving. Where perhaps other actors would just portray this figure as a monster and be done with it, Simmons draws you in closer and closer and just as rapidly blows you out of your seat. You will definitely attain a certain mental whiplash yourselves just trying to keep up with him.

Yes, Fletcher is a monster, precisely the type of teacher you would never wish for your child to have. But then again...

While Chazelle is rightfully critical of this character's tactics, with his rancorous temper, nearly inhuman demands and impossible psychological tests, he also delivers a challenging and provocative argument that suggests that perhaps Terence Fletcher's relentless teaching style just may be able to produce the next Charlie Parker by weeding out those who just cannot take his level of pressure and commitment. Throughout the film, both Andrew and Fletcher are equally inspired by the story of how Charlie Parker attained greatness after having a cymbal thrown at his head by drummer Jo Jones for a sub par performance (in truth, the cymbal was thrown at Parker's feet, a gaffe I think is intentional as Fletcher would obviously know the real story but augments it to further his manipulation of Andrew). Supposedly, as Fletcher explains, this was the fork in the road where Parker could have slunk away and given up forever or he could practice even more, which he did, and then returned one year later and emerged as Bird!!

This musical anecdote completely informs the characters of both Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher as it carries a weight that exists on the level of  Herman Melville's Moby Dick, as everlasting greatness and fame serves as the "white whale" for both men--possibly even moreso for Fletcher, who, the film implies just might be a failed jazz musician himself, for why else would he be teaching if he had not achieved the level of greatness he so doggedly pursues? Themes of exploitation resurface as we realize that he is just using the younger musicians to help him attain the success that he was unable to achieve on his own, all the while using fear and violence as the catalysts.

In the film's final concert sequence, "Whiplash" grows into a battle of power and control as Andrew and Fletcher go mano-a-mano in a virtuoso performance of the jazz selection "Caravan." Chazelle builds the sequence to an extraordinary yet seismically ambiguous conclusion for we are left with questions of what has been either gained or lost and as both men serve as each other's antagonist, we also wonder just who is using whom.

How far would you go to achieve greatness? What are you willing to do? What lines would you continue to cross including the very ones that define your individual sense of self-respect and dignity? And even if you do compromise everything about yourself for greatness, would that even produce genus anyway? These questions and themes lie at the very heart and soul of Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" a film of passion, sweat, grit, and heaping amounts of boiling blood, fire and brimstone. Believe me, dear readers, there has not been even one CGI explosion this year that carries as much palpable force as what is witnessed and experienced within this film, one that will undeniably leave you shaken and reeling from its magnitude.

When it comes time for me to officially compile my top ten favorite films of 2014, I will certainly be struggling with what to place at the number 1 spot for this is the year that gave us all Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a film I consider to be his masterpiece, his greatest cinematic achievement.

Even so, the brutal beauty of "Whiplash" cannot be denied and refuses to be ignored. This film will hit you like a fist in the face, and trust me, you'll be eagerly waiting to take the punches again.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND: a review of "Interstellar"

Screenplay Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)

I wish I could just possibly understand just how Christopher Nolan accomplishes what he always sets out to do when he decides to craft another cinematic work. Each and every single time that I have had the pleasure to experience a Christopher Nolan film, I have been amazed, to varying degrees, how deeply he has been able to immerse me into a audio/visual journey, the kind of which where I feel a bit of internal transformation when I exit the theater.

To think, Nolan has taken all of us on enormously captivating yet deeply disturbing ventures through memories and madness with "Memento" (2000) and "Insomnia" (2002); competition, ego and violent hubris via dueling magicians in "The Prestige" (2006), the labyrinthine dream worlds in "Inception" (2010) and of course, his transcendent Dickensian presentation of the Batman saga with "The Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012), and all with a masterful filmmaking hand with weaving a collection of mind benders that also stirred the soul.

With "Interstellar," Nolan returns with what is definitely his most ambitious undertaking to date, as he charts a path from Earth past Mars and Saturn, through wormholes, black holes, time and space and a variety of astrophysical dimensions and back again while firmly keeping the love story between a Father and daughter at its core. This three hour experience truly provides Nolan with his most extreme sense of the journey one can have while sitting within a theater seat and while his ambitions sometimes elude his grasp here and there, the overwhelming effect of "Interstellar" made for one of 2014's furthest reaching films.

Set in an undetermined future, Earth's existence hangs in its most precarious state as natural resources have been depleted to the point where society has regressed to becoming a farming civilization. The presence of deathly dust storms have polluted to atmosphere to its most inhospitable state thus propelling the planet close to collapse.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a widower and former NASA test pilot, astro-physicist now turned farmer who lives with his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), his aging Father-In-Law Donald (John Lithgow) and his beloved 10 year old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper soon discovers a secret NASA installation community where is then is recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to pilot a space craft through a wormhole on the outskirts of Saturn to potentially find a new hospitable planet for humanity, a decision which causes a near irrevocable rift between Cooper and Murph.

With the aid of geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), Professor Brand's daughter and biologist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and an oversized sardonic boxy robot named TARS (Bill Irwin), Cooper departs Earth with the hopes of saving civilization, most notably his daughter, whose generation just may be the last to exist on earth should the team fail in their efforts.

While the plot itself may appear and lend itself to being nothing more than "Armageddon 2," Christopher Nolan clearly has conceptually much more on his plate. The titanic and towering shadows of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977) loom tremendously large over Nolan's proceedings and with dashes of James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989), Robert Zemeckis' "Contact" (1997), Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" (2013)  and Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972) as well. Even so, Nolan remains no cinematic copycat. Yet, what his film shares with those aforementioned titles is a more serious and therefore realistic representation of what the experience of travelling through outer space would be like combined with an equally serious and profound take for what the presence of interstellar worlds spell for our collective humanity itself.

All of that being said, the warmth inherent within the sense of discovery and exploration has been completely jettisoned for a more, and appropriately fraught landscape of feverish despair and desperation. "Interstellar" hinges much closer to Kubrick than Spielberg as the film is undoubtedly and defiantly a dark experience that proves to be Christopher Nolan's coldest and most clinical film to date. Yes there are action set pieces, otherworldly thrills and splendidly realized cosmic visions to be had, but Nolan has not crafted an escapade or space opera. "Interstellar" is a grim tale of survival and the often futile possibilities that success could even be reached in the first place.

Nolan gives us a complete collective of characters who are all caught within the encroaching claws of anger, regret, recrimination, depression, grief, failure, and decades long bouts of resentment, all qualities that certainly give the quest for survival an added weight, purpose and realism but I will say does make the experience of watching "Interstellar" somewhat joyless, especially as planetary extinction is imminent.  

To that end, Nolan also gives us a few characters who are dangerously duplicitous and incorporates them into a pointed cultural commentary about our political and even societal denigration of Science, which will possibly lead to our downfall just as much as our own sense of hubris that lies at the heart of our inflated perceptions of our own human intelligence and scientific capabilities. It is a particularly bleak future vision that Nolan, like Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995), just might be saying that human annihilation is simply inevitable.

Which makes the tension between Cooper and Murph that much more palpable and urgent because when Cooper leaves Earth, there are no guarantees that he will even return at all or that even she will be alive if he does. Their need to communicate and connect supplied the film with its turbulent soul, a film which showcases a universe that is as unpredictable and as unforgiving as the Earth has now become. Even time itself works against Cooper and Murph as Nolan, obviously extending his time altering landscapes of "Inception" even further, has created a story in which one hour spent on another world in another galaxy could be seven full years on Earth. As Cooper explains to Murph before he departs,"When I come back, we could even be the same age." Or the parent who only wants to save his child may even outlive that child simply due to time and space travel. There simply is no safe place anywhere and that's why the film's love story really moved me, despite some reviews that found any notions of emotional sensitivity laughable. The hope to see that cherished person for even just one more time carried a heartfelt fragility that for me, spoke to the central conceit of our collective existence and our relationships with each other. This was a hope that never felt to be a Disney-esque fabrication. It was the tether that provided the connective tissue to life and the endurance of the human spirit itself.

Matthew McConaughey's re-invention of himself as an actor has continued beautifully. Within "Interstellar," Nolan has essentially taken McConaughey's devil-may-care persona and then propels him through time and space itself yet always keeping him firmly grounded to just seeing and saving his daughter. Some astoundingly presented sequences very late in the film (and of course, I will not describe) showcase McConaughey's newfound sense of gravitas and for me, the effect of his completely physical and psychological performance was primal. And Anne Hathaway, along with strong performances by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, aided and supported McConaughey with confidence and grit. 

From a visual standpoint, "Interstellar" is a sumptuous presentation, all the better when screened on the luscious and grainy warmth of 35MM film as opposed to digital. Awards season has better give much acclaim and accolades to Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for the gorgeous visual design as well as for Nolan's special effects team who utilizes physical objects and landscapes as a preference to the rampant CGI technology. And while it may have been irritating to some, I was thoroughly engaged with Composer Hans Zimmer's innovative score which prominently featured the pipe organ to grandiose effect.

But I do have to make note of my issues with the film's sound, issues that I have been reading about over the pas week. Now initially, I was very concerned about the film's volume as I had read that some IMAX screenings had their speaker systems blown out, thus prompting me to bring a pair of ear plugs just in case. turns out that I never needed them as he sound was indeed not unbearably loud at all. In fact, there were many portions of the film, especially during the film's surprisingly quiet as a tomb middle hour, where I was just straining to hear actual lines of dialogue which seemed to be whispered. Another moment, this time featuring Michael Caine, was practically unintelligible as it was a collection of barely audible mumbles. Yes, I understand that Nolan thinks that audiences will be able to understand the gist of what is going on and that he is possibly using dialogue as more of an Robert Altman-esque effect but even so, the technique did irritate me at points, especially as the actors are giving performances that suggest the most crucial information is being given...if only we could hear it,

Yet, those issues did not deter the overwhelmed feeling I experienced at the conclusion of "Interstellar," a film which indeed make me feel as if I had extended my consciousness to the furthest reaches of the universe. I am gathering that within subsequent viewings over the years, the greatness of "Interstellar" will only continue to reveal itself to me as the mysteries of the universe as well as the soul continues to merge together.

While some may scoff at the actual science of the film, I hate to break it to you, "Interstellar" is not a documentary. But what Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker who only continues to push, challenge and just flat out try in ways that most filmmakers have long forgotten, has achieved with his remarkable and wide reaching film is a meditation about how the science informs the spirit and how the spirit informs the science, making the two inseparable and essential partners as we navigate our place in the universe.

And how hope and love remain, even when human beings may soon cease to be.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

THE SAD MAN: a review of "St. Vincent"

Written and Directed by Theodore Melfi
*** (three stars)

"No one knows what it's like to be the bad be the sad man..."
-The Who ("Behind Blue Eyes")

Believe it or not, dear readers, there was once a time when I did not care even one bit for Bill Murray.

Granted, I was a young child at the time, very young, but I was already a devotee of "Saturday Night Live" and anarchistic spirit of the original cast of "Not Ready For Prime Time Players." So when Bill Murray arrived in the second season or so of the series, thus replacing the presence of Chevy Chase, whose star was rapidly ascending, Murray just gave me a skeptical to negative knee jerk reaction that I would imagine is akin to greeting a new kid in school. I just didn't like him and could not understand why he was even there n the first place. But soon, Murray starred in a sketch where he addresses the camera and the audience and then apologizes for not being funny on the program. It was a sly, sharp move that was not only very funny, it instantly made me love the man. In a flash the new kid in school became the big man on campus and I was ready to follow him absolutely anywhere.

It is truly amazing to have had a front row seat to the evolution of Bill Murray on screen for most of my life as he has seemingly created a certain persona that fits so beautifully within certain specific life stages and to that end, how we have all witnessed how that persona has grown, while also keeping the real world Bill Murray as somewhat of an enigma.The devil-may-care, gentle anarchist who is armed with the always perfect quips he characterized in the late Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack" (1980) and Ivan Reitman's "Meatballs" (1979),  "Stripes" (1981) and "Ghostbusters" (1984) all seemed to grow into the early middle aged existential crisis of Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993) which then settled into the later middle aged ennui and melancholy of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" (1998) and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004), Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" (2005) and most certainly Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003).   

With "St. Vincent," the debut feature from Writer/Director Theodore Melfi, Bill Murray has advanced into the twilight years and true to form, he is not about to settle into this next life stage quietly. For a figure who has become even more publicly beloved as he ages, Bill Murray could have easily taken the big paycheck, performed in "Ghostbusters III" and called it a day. Thankfully, he did no such thing and only continued to challenge himself and raise his own bar, thus ensuring creative evolution by delivering yet another career high performance that gives audiences everything we have loved about Bill Murray but in a most compelling package that finds him encased in a newfound gravitas. So, effective is Bill Murray in "St. Vincent" that he essentially saves the film itself from drowning in a morass of easy sentiments and unquestionable predictability. "St. Vincent" is a case of a great performance being housed inside of a pretty good movie, a movie that could have been better than it was. From a plot standpoint, there is essentially nothing in "St. Vincent" that you haven't seen before, which means that the writing, direction and performances had better be on point and then some.  And to that end, with Melfi's sensitive work behind the camera and the film cast's strong work in front of the camera, "St. Vincent" gently succeeds through its empathy and soulfulness.

"St. Vincent" focuses on the cloudy life and times of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a sixty-something retiree who is an embittered and relentlessly acerbic, alcoholic Vietnam war veteran living in an increasingly dilapidated home in Brooklyn, New York. When he is not waging war at the local bank over his dwindling funds, or perpetually losing at the horse racetrack, Vincent passes the time by engaging in weekly sexual favors with his friend, Daka, the pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts).  It is an endless cycle of disappointment and emotional emptiness that undoubtedly fuels the anger and recklessness that just may play out in the entirety of his final years. But then, new neighbors arrive in the form of the newly divorced Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), who move in next door.

Oliver is also facing difficult times and life transitions as he is not only dealing with being a child of divorce, but also the experience of gaining an education within a Catholic school where he is simultaneously taunted by bullies and guided by the wry Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd). Due to Maggie's work schedule, Vincent reluctantly agrees to become Oliver's babysitter in the afternoons after school, a daily period where he then introduces Oliver to a most unorthodox tutelage in the "school of hard knocks" as the twosome visit bars, racetracks and strip clubs together while somehow discovering an inexplicable symmetry that just may assist each of them with moving forwards in life.

Certainly from that description, you may already have an idea of exactly what may happen throughout the course of "St. Vincent" as well as its outcomes and I would say that you would be right. As I stated earlier, there is essentially nothing in this movie that you have not seen before from a plot standpoint and in some respects, the familiarity and overall predictability does hinder the film from becoming an experience that is truly unique. Characters behave as you would expect them to (although the"hooker with a heart-of-gold" character is never a good sign) in situations that are just prone to over-sentimentality but again, it is thanks to Theodore Melfi's sensitivity and willingness to take all of the cliches and treat them with a most humane presentation, a tactic that elevates it from a smarmy TV movie of the week on the Hallmark channel.

First and foremost, Melfi ensures that all of the characters and situations within "St. Vincent" remain emotionally true to their experiences, which allows all of the actors to hit the proper emotional notes that will keep the film grounded overall and is also often a quite dark experience that never falls for easy laughs. In a strange way, when you watch "St. Vincent," just imagine if John Hughes' "Uncle Buck" (1989) was not a comedy but actually more of a stark drama that explored Buck's loneliness, arrested development and middle aged ennui, and that just may give you a sense of what "St. Vincent" is like.

In a year when comedians are delivering some of the finest and most surprising dramatic performances of the year, from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Craig Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins" to Michael Keaton's high wire performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman," "St. Vincent" continues this very effective trend. Melissa McCarthy, a comedienne whom I adore for her fearlessness, but whom I fear is succumbing to a series of increasingly vulgar, freak-show caricatures on screen, is especially effective in her role as a single Mother and Chris O'Dowd also exudes a warm yet knowingly adult presence in his role as an educator.

But, "St. Vincent" is indeed Bill Murray's show and he truly makes the most of his leading performance which finds him mining a new existential pathos, rage and sorrow that merges with deepening levels of tenderness, poignancy, as well as his trademark humor, classic asides and one-liners. But make no mistake, Murray treats the character of Vincent MacKenna as a real pained soul, a deeply sad man growing sadder by the day of his miserable life, never knowing or feeling the actual value that he has within the world. There are many sequences within the film, especially during one honestly surprising turn midway, where Bill Murray reaches some acting notes that I have never seen him pull off before and he meets the challenges as if he had just been waiting to at long last tackle them.

As for the film's core, Vincent's relationship with Oliver, and therefore the acting relationship between Murray and the skilled and understated Jaeden Lieberher, every moment feels completely naturalistic, unforced, entertaining and honestly heartfelt. This is especially true by the film's very touching conclusion, which would otherwise be nauseating due to any sense of being cloying or painfully forced. For as much as I had wished that the film had been more original and more unpredictable, sometimes a simple story well told is indeed all you need to just make a good movie, With Bill Murray in the lead, we are indeed given just that. A good movie that is well told but with the added bonus of an excellent performance that I sincerely hope is remembered during awards season. Yes, Bill Murray is indeed that strong.

About a month ago, I stumbled upon an on-line article from the Vulture publication entitled, "Bill Murray Should Hire An Agent Already," during which the writer took Murray to task for his film choices over the last ten years or so, choices due to him famously not having an agent and being notoriously difficult to locate, pin down and hire to act in a film. Truthfully, I really have no idea of why this writer would spend the time attacking a process that Bill Murray clearly is happy with, a process that truly allows and affords him to make the films he wants to make and work with the people he truly wants to work with while also extending his enigmatic and rebellious public persona of a man who still marches to the beat of his own drummer, in ways that leave us as happily envious as gleefully mystified.

Whatever the means or reasons of his process and motivations, Bill Murray, through "St. Vincent," has beautifully found the next logical step in his career and legion of characters with class, dignity, a continuously inquisitive creative spirit and an almost punk rock attitude to movies and movie making. Unbelievably, that Vulture writer complains and laments in his article that "it would be nice to love him in movies again." 

Brother, I've never stopped and with "St. Vincent," I really believe that you will love him even more as well.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

ENCORE!!: a review of "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)"

Screenplay Written by Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexandar Dinelaris Jr. & Armando Bo
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
**** (four stars)

Welcome to the vibrant theater of the mind or an artistic life of tumultuous anxiety or even both occurring simultaneously.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)," the latest film from Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is far and away one of 2014's highest achievements. It represents not only a career peak for Inarritu, who has already delivered the wrenching, puzzlebox dramatic features "21 Grams" (2003) and "Babel" (2006), but also for Michael Keaton who digs deeply and soars in a role that seemed to just be waiting for the perfect time to enter Keaton's creative life.

Awards season is tailor made for a film like this one, as far as I am concerned, as it not only displays a level of cinematic excellence that cannot be ignored, it is also one of those films that forces you to re-think exactly what the moves can actually be from storytelling structure, cinematography, a nearly live theatricality to the performances all the way to the film's innovative drum score by Composer Antonio Sanchez, "Birdman" is high wire, virtuoso filmmaking that is as story driven as it is psychologically harrowing and euphorically self-congratulatory. And hey, if you are able to pull off making a film as well as Alejandro  Gonzalez Inarritu has just accomplished, you would be crowing too...and as well as you would so richly deserve. BRAVO!!

"Birdman" explores the creative and increasingly fractured mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a now struggling actor who once ruled the box office as the titular hero of the "Birdman" superhero movies before leaving the franchise after the third installment. Now 20 years later, Riggan hopes to re-invent and completely revitalize his acting career and cultural relevance with a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an undertaking Riggan is writing, directing and acting in himself.

If only it were remotely that simple.

Throughout the troubled production and progressively turbulent preview performances, Riggan is confronted by the ferocious spirit of his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is now working as Riggan's assistant while recovering from drug addiction in addition to the vehement demands of the ferociously aggressive actor and rival Mike Shiner (an extraordinary Edward Norton) who consistently challenges Riggan's sense of artistic authenticity, re-writes Riggan's dialogue and is within near id levels of sexual activity towards Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress in the play, as well as with Riggan's daughter.

Further complicating matters are Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan's overly anxious best friend/attorney, actress and Riggan's girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who just may be pregnant and the vitriolic rage of theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who despises movie stars attempting to pass themselves off as legitimate actors and pledges to destroy Riggan's play with her review, regardless of the actual quality.

And then, there's the matter of Riggan's inner voice, the growling demon of Birdman (voiced by Keaton) who taunts and torments our hero into unhinged flights of fantasy, threatening to unravel Riggan completely.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman," while functioning as a blistering dark comedy and almost harrowing backstage drama, transcends those genres and scales to new heights as Inarritu has fashioned what could be a dissertation about success and failure in the 21st century, a cultural commentary about the nature of reality in the Twitter age, the inspirational and destructive uses of the ego and hubris, plus the validity and existence (or even non-existence) of art during a period when superheroes and toys rule the day, making all of the characters in the film to all of us sitting in the audience complicit in our artistic and societal downfall.

Inarritu has fashioned a film that feels equal parts the savage self-laceration of Director Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979), the high artistic hopes and ambitions that threaten to crumble into crippling failure in Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) and the hallucinogenic psychological madness of Director Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (2010) while carving out fresh new cinematic territory of its own and the effect is breathlessly exhilarating.

There is absolutely no way to even begin describing this film to you without giving mention to Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who seriously deserves any awards attention that is more than certain to be showered in his direction.  The ecstatic visual presentation of "Birdman" is one of seamless fluidity as Inarritu and Lubezki have delivered a film that is created out of a series of long takes, sequences of film that are completely unbroken with any editing. Certainly, there must have been some edits within this film, but the entire experience of the "Birdman" looks as if the complete two hours was performed in one unaltered shot!

Inarritu takes us from Riggan's dressing room, which is at times altered through his telekinetic delusions of grandeur, to the stage, to throughout the theater and into the streets of New York City and back again with an elegant, pristine flow that gives "Birdman" an increased sense of urgency combined with the feeling that we are indeed watching a live play, yet filtered through the language of cinema. You watch the film knowing fully well that if even one element was out of place--from any flubbed lines of dialogue to even background actors not being in the right spot at the right time--that the entire sequence would be ruined thus forcing every single participant to do it all over again. No editing coverage is available whatsoever, creating a heightened intensity to what we are viewing and believe me, dear readers, it is electrifying movie-making.

While there may be some that might feel that Inarritu is just showing off, I wouldn't necessarily disagree but I do think that it is entirely purposeful for the reasons I just described. Additionally, I do think that he is quite possibly using his techniques and cinematic razzle dazzle to give a fraternal poke in the creative ribs of both Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, filmmakers who have shared a deep friendship and artistic partnership with Inarritu. For del Toro, Inarritu may be imploring him to put away the comic books of "Hellboy" (2004) and box up the mega robots of "Pacific Rim" (2013) for more triumphant and riveting artistic pursuits like "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006). And as for Curaon, who has already displayed his own virtuoso usage of the long, unbroken, unedited sequences in both "Children Of Men" (2006) and "Gravity" (2013), Inarritu may be using "Birdman" as one mighty trump card! If the act of "showing off" forces filmmakers to raise their own personal creative bars and force themselves to push themselves in new invigorating ways through healthy competition, then so be it as the results, if handled well, are just as invigorating to witness.

All of this praise leads me, of course, to Michael Keaton, an actor I fell instantly in love with through his razor sharp comic performance in Director Ron Howard's "Night Shift" (1982), so explosively vibrant that he all but leapt from the screen and out into the audience. Despite his lengthy career and some very strong work in films like Director Glenn Gordon Caron's "Clean And Sober" (1988), Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" (1997) and of course, Director Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) I always felt that somehow, Michael Keaton was never quite used to the absolute fullest of his capabilities, thus making him less celebrated of an actor as I always felt that he should have been. Hopefully, "Birdman," like the play inside of the film for Riggan, will remedy this predicament for Keaton handsomely as he is clearly tapping into his own life as an actor, and his time as Batman in particular, to probe into some quite uncomfortable territory about the professional and artistic choices, successes and failures that have brought him to this very moment in time. For Keaton, his performance is as much of a high wire act as Inarritu's filmmaking as the entire escapade could have easily fallen tremendously flat or perhaps Keaton and Inarritu would be so creatively out of step with each other for this film to work properly. Thankfully, Michael Keaton is working in complete lockstep with Inarritu as he delivers a knockout performance that is wholly sympathetic, dangerously funny, and psychologically troubling all in one.

Dear readers, throughout the existence of Savage Cinema I have been trying to urge you to please take chances on movies that are outside of the norm and off of the beaten path. While I have nothing against comic books movies, especially as I am seeing them just like you are, I do have a problem and growing fatigue with their frequency and how they are seemingly being made at the sheer expense of other types of films being made that may not be nearly as lucrative at the box office. "Birdman" speaks precisely to that quandary during this exact point tn time in the history of the movies by giving us a motion picture that is profoundly not one to be experienced passively and it will defiantly not be forgotten once you leave the theater, for better or for worse. For that is exactly what "Birdman" is: an experience! One without capes and superpowers and one that is about the nature of art, life, love, fragility, triumph and despair and one that is presented as if living through a fever dream.

Bold, breathtaking and brilliantly conceived and presented, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)" is one of 2014's very best films.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


I am already finding it difficult to keep up!

After a few dry weeks of seeing next to nothing at all in my local movie theaters, the floodgates have opened themselves up again, especially as we are gearing up for the annual holiday and awards film season. Yes, these next two to three months are going to be very busy indeed!

This weekend, I am hoping to see "Birdman" and I still have to somehow find time to see my main man, Mr. Bill Murray in "St. Vincent," especially as "Whiplash" just may be making its long awaited Madison debut shortly as well. In addition to those three films, November will also offer the following features that I am most anxious to see.

1. "Interstellar," the latest widescreen extravaganza from Director Christopher Nolan has already garnered some rave reviews and of course, that film is sitting highly at the top of my must-see list.

2. Near the end of the month, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" will arrive as well.

3. My curiosity is definitely piqued for "Rosewater" the debut and dramatic Writing and Directing feature from comedian Jon Stewart.

4. Finally, we have the arrival of "Foxcatcher" from Director Bennett Miller and starring Steve Carell in an already celebrated dramatic performance.

Seven films in four weeks? I am not certain if I can accomplish this feat but I will do my damnedest, that is undeniable. So, I had better get cracking.

Wish me luck and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!