Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“Before I Go To Sleep”– Movie Review

 

B4IGo

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new mystery, “Before I Go To Sleep”, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.

Synopsis

When a woman loses her memory after an injury, she tries to put the pieces of her life together – but in doing so, will she be able to trust either her therapist or her husband?

Story

To say that Christine (Kidman) is facing an uphill battle is putting it mildly.  When she wakes up, not only is she unable to remember what happened the previous day, she can’t remember anything about her life.  Basically, she has to spend the entire day attempting to re-acquire her memories – but when she finally does so by the end of the day, it’s time to go to sleep and she’ll have to face the same challenges again the next morning when she awakens.  Not even her husband Ben (Firth) seems to be able to sufficiently jog her memory. 

Christine is surprised to learn that she is under the care of Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a psychologist who has been attempting some unorthodox methods to treat her amnesia; one of which is supplying Christine with a digital camera that he instructs her to use each day to record videos in which she talks about the information about her life that she has learned that day.  One thing that puzzles Christine, though, is the fact that Ben and Dr. Nasch have given her conflicting information about how she came to be an amnesiac:  Ben informs her she had a car accident while Dr. Nasch insists that she was attacked. 

Soon, Christine is provided with another link to her past – her best friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), who tries to help her fill in the gaps in her recollections.  With new knowledge about her background, Christine is not sure whether she is being deceived by either Ben or Dr. Nasch.  Added to the mix are rumors about her son Adam, whom Christine is given to understand may have perished in the same accident that caused her amnesia and Christine becomes further confused.  After being inundated with facts about her history from various sources, will Christine be able to believe any of them or is she destined to forever be left in the dark?

Review

Here’s a question for you:  When was the last time you saw a dramatic movie in a theater and – in its final heart-wrenching scene that’s supposed to wrap up the story – hear a section of the audience laugh at its ending?  Well, while you mull that one over, perhaps seeing “Before I Go To Sleep” may be your next opportunity to do so.  At least, that is what happened at this evening’s screening.  To be sure, not everyone laughed; I certainly didn’t.  Neither did the guy sitting behind me; he simply snorted and exclaimed, “Oh, come on now!”. 

All of this should give you a reasonably good idea of what to expect from “Before I Go To Sleep”; not only is this not recommended to see in the theaters, it may not even be worth a rental.  If there’s anything good to say about this movie, it’s the fact that it’s thankfully short at only an hour and a half.  There is also a nude shot of Ms. Kidman early on, but given that we only saw her behind from her behind, it may very well be a body double.  Perhaps it may be best to leave that one for Mr. Skin to sort out for everyone. 

There is a direct correlation between the level of difficulty of writing a review and the quality of the movie being reviewed.  Writing these reviews gets more challenging the worse the reviewed film; at times like this, it can certainly turn into something of a chore, especially when you are passionate about motion pictures.  Enthusiasm rises when a particularly good picture is screened, making the review that much easier to write – and a considerably less sorrowful task, to be sure.  Fortunately, my duty for today has been fulfilled as my penance has been completed.   

 

Before I Go to Sleep (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“Laggies”– Movie Review

 

Laggies

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new romantic comedy “Laggies”, starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. 

Synopsis

When a young woman finds her life stalled, she befriends a teenage girl and winds up living with her and the girl’s father – but after an attraction develops between the woman and the father, how will this impact her relationship with the girl and others in her life? 

Story

A decade after graduating from high school, Megan (Knightley) finds her life at something of a standstill.  Despite the fact that she’s achieved an advanced degree, Megan has suddenly become directionless in both her personal and professional life.  Her friends are either getting married, having babies or deeply ensconced in their chosen career path.  Megan, however, doesn’t know what she wants to do; she’s in no hurry to marry Anthony (Mark Webber), her long-time live-in boyfriend, nor is she especially driven to pursue any particular line of work – her current menial job is for the accounting firm operated by her father (Jeff Garlin). 

Having seen her friends pass her by, Megan decides to attend an out-of-town seminar that she believes will get her life back on track; in truth, she mostly needs some time and distance from Anthony, who’s just proposed.  Her plans get derailed when she meets Annika (Moretz), a teenager who comes from a broken home.  After her mother Bethany (Gretchen Mol) took off for a modeling career, Annika is now being raised by her single dad, Craig (Rockwell), a lawyer.  Megan and Annika hit it off immediately; becoming friends, Megan hits her up for a very odd favor:  she wants to move in with Annika and her dad for a few days until she can figure out her life.  Craig reluctantly grants her permission to do so once Megan cooks up a fib that sounds remotely feasible. 

Spending a considerable amount of time together, Megan and Annika eventually develop an almost sisterly relationship.  Complications arise when Craig and Megan find they have an irresistible attraction to each other; unable to ignore the opportunity that fate has presented them, they begin to pursue a romance.  Ultimately, Megan realizes she must come clean to both Craig and Annika.  Predictably, neither are terribly happy when they learn that Megan has been deceiving the two of them all this time and their friendship is fractured.  Will Megan have to return to Anthony and reluctantly get married or can she somehow find a way to seek forgiveness from both Annika and Craig? 

Review

Although the genre of “Laggies” may be characterized as a romantic comedy, it might be more accurately described as a Young Adult Fairy Tale; there’s very little that occurs in this story that even remotely suggests verisimilitude, and would conceivably be a fantasy of the distaff segment of the under-30 market.  From a business standpoint, there is certainly nothing wrong with approach; it’s obviously proven financially viable, given the success of vampire flicks and “The Hunger Games” series.  Taking any of this film seriously, however, would be a mistake of immense proportions.

If “Laggies” had focused on male characters, it likely would have been made by Judd Apatow and starred Seth Rogan and would have instead been titled something like “Slackers”.  While “Slackers” would be more of a disparaging title, “Laggies” sounds almost cute and arguably less insulting; it suggests it’s more socially acceptable to be a “laggy” than a “slacker”.  Arrested development in females is apparently perceived as adorable in young women but buffoonish in young men.  Sexist?  Perhaps.  But this time at least, sexism works in favor of women instead of against them. 

“Laggies” was directed by Lynn Shelton from a script by Andrea Seigel.  Shelton’s previous directorial efforts in feature films earned a reputation of having more gravitas than “Laggies” possesses; by comparison, it seems “Laggies” is the soufflé compared to the director’s earlier work.  With that in mind, “Laggies” would either be a disappointment to fans of Shelton’s more serious films or a reasonably accessible entry-level introduction to her style for those unfamiliar with her movies.  By all accounts, Shelton appears to be a very talented filmmaker and hopefully, her next motion picture will be something more thoughtful. 

 

Laggies (2014) on IMDb

Friday, October 17, 2014

“Listen Up Philip”– Movie Review

 

philip

This week at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, I saw the comedy-drama “Listen Up Philip”, starring Jason Schwartzman and Elizabeth Moss; the film is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry.

Synopsis

When an egotistical novelist anticipates success with his latest book, he becomes even more impossible to live with – but after he suddenly finds himself friendless, will he change his ways?

Story

Philip (Schwartzman) is a jerk.  About to have his second novel published,  early signs indicate that it will be even more successful than his first.  Unfortunately, all of this good fortune seems to be going straight to his head; he treats his friends shabbily, ignores his girlfriend Ashley (Moss) and refuses requests by his publishing company to promote the book.  Because he’s being so self-involved and rude to everyone, Philip starts to find that they are all turning their back on him, which only supports his disdain for them.  He winds up blaming everyone else except himself. 

It is at this point that Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) reaches out to Philip; Ike, an experienced author with a long string of best-sellers to his name, befriends Philip and commiserates with him.  Although their friendship also includes some degree of Ike mentoring Philip, the problem is that Ike so sympathizes with Philip that he winds up feeding into Philip’s narcissism; this results in Philip feeling fully justified for his view of others, himself and the world in general.  With Philip experiencing greater isolation once Ashley has thrown him out of their apartment, Ike invites him to stay at his country house for a while. 

Ike suggests that Phillip take a job teaching creative writing at a nearby college; once Philip starts working there, however, he soon begins to develop the same set of problems all over again, but with a fresh set of people – he complains that neither the students nor the faculty like him very much.  One of the other instructors that indeed does dislike him is Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), also a young writer, who feels she is in competition with Philip.  As they get to know each other, Yvette softens her view of him and they become romantically involved. 

But when Philip’s naturally obnoxious behavior alienates Yvette also, will he finally learn his lesson?

Review

Although “Listen Up Philip” is strongly recommended, it does come with an extremely severe caveat because this movie is definitely not for everyone.  It carries with it some very funny but very caustic and – what some people may understandably think – is rather cruel humor.  Simply put, Philip is not a very likeable character and there are certainly many people who have problems seeing a story about someone so bilious.  So why the recommendation?  The character of Philip is quite funny – albeit unintentionally – and thus is incredibly compelling to watch as he completely self-destructs.

From a technical perspective, it’s also an interesting film to watch because it very much has to it the look and feel of a motion picture straight out of the 1970’s.  Starting with the style of the titles at its opening to the grainy quality of its appearance, it could have easily been made as an independent movie back in 1972 or so.  This is because “Listen Up Philip” was shot using a Super-16mm camera, quite a bit of it being hand-held.  One criticism of this is the over-reliance on close-ups – in fact, extreme close-ups, quite often.  (With no zoom, some actors were reportedly slightly distracted by having the camera literally in their face)

Following the screening was a question and answer session with Schwartzman and writer/director Alex Ross Perry.  A young filmmaker (this is only Perry’s third feature), Perry admitted to modeling the Ike Zimmerman character after author Philip Roth. Schwartzman said that one of the reasons why he was drawn to play the role of Philip was due to being impressed by the fact that the character pretty much just said whatever was on his mind and didn’t particularly care what others thought about him. 

 

Listen Up Philip (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“Rudderless”– Movie Review



Rudderless

This week in my movie class, we saw “Rudderless”, a drama with Billy Crudup and Selena Gomez and Directed by William H. Macy.

Synopsis

When a man drops out of society after his son dies, he discovers the boy’s collection of music – but once he starts performing his son’s songs publicly, will this prove therapeutic or only serve to make his life even worse?

Story

Sam (Crudup) is hit with the news that his son Josh tragically died as the result of a shooting at his college.  Inconsolable, he self-medicates by binge-drinking, then quits his high-powered job as an advertising executive and moves out of his fancy house. Two years later, Sam lands a job as a house painter and winds up living on a boat.  After a while, he is found by Emily (Felicity Huffman), his ex-wife, who drops off some of Josh’s belongings – a bunch of music Josh composed and CD’s on which Josh recorded the performance of his own material. 

Sam starts listening to Josh’s recordings and is surprised to discover that his son was an extremely talented musician.  Inspired, Sam learns the boy’s songs and begins performing them before an audience at a local bar.  One night, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a young man who would’ve been a contemporary of Josh’s, hears one of the songs and is impressed; he invites Sam to join a band made up of some of Quentin’s friends and together, the group performs the collection of songs.  Now known as Rudderless, the band becomes so popular that they are hired to perform regularly at the bar; word spreads and soon the bar is filled with their new-found fans. 

When news of the band’s popularity gets out, Sam is visited by Kate (Gomez), Josh’s ex-girlfriend; she confronts Sam, infuriated he’s performing his son’s songs while passing them off as his own.  Angered at Sam’s deceit, Kate reveals Sam’s secret to the band, forcing Sam to leave the group.  Quentin and Sam are both at a loss; the band revived Quentin’s love of music while also providing Sam with some closure about the loss of his son.  With the two men now unable to act as each other’s emotional support system, will they wind up with unfulfilled lives or can they make something positive from this?

Review

Let’s just get this out of the way: An event occurs well into “Rudderless” – around the end of the second act – that alters the audience’s perception of certain characters and drastically changes the overall tone of the story. The above story description assiduously avoided including it to be spoiler-free; an earnest attempt is made to balance this against providing sufficient detail about the story. While other reviews may wind up including that “spoiler”, it does something of a disservice to people considering seeing the picture: it unnecessarily influences the experience of viewing the movie.

Writing about “Rudderless” while side-stepping that significant plot point may be a bit difficult since it directly impacts the review. When the movie does this big reveal so late, it is intentionally trying to pull a fast one; the way in which it does so is rather manipulative, to the point where the audience can feel understandably resentful for being sucked-in by the filmmakers. Why not provide the information up front? One possible answer is that they did not have enough faith in the material being presented in a more straightforward manner, so a better dramatic impact would be to pull the rug out from under the viewers.

Upon watching “Rudderless”, it may not be unreasonable for a viewer to feel a sense of betrayal by the filmmakers; a contract between them and the audience has been broken because the time and emotional investment in the movie has been misspent – while you may start out rooting for certain characters, you realize approximately two thirds of the way through the story that you may have made an egregious mistake. Everyone – not just the filmmakers, but the characters in the story – knew you were making that mistake all along and kept you in the dark until the last possible moment.


Rudderless (2014) on IMDb
 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

“Fury”– Movie Review

 

Fury

This week, The New York Times Film Club held a screening of “Fury”, a war drama starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf.

Synopsis

When a tank crew is sent on a mission to battle the Nazis deep in German territory during the end of World War II, will they be able to defeat their troops despite being outmanned and underequipped?

Story

In April of 1945, both Wardaddy (Pitt) and his tank called Fury are a little worse for wear after many battles; he and his crew have been fighting the Nazis in Africa, France and England – finally, they find themselves in Germany, with orders to go behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately, they lost a man in a recent fight and are now forced to train their new man, Norman (Logan Lerman), who’s only been in the army for about two months.  With Norman’s only experience being as a clerk-typist, he’s ill-prepared for the rigors of combat. 

When Norman accompanies Wardaddy and the rest of the tank crew on his first encounter with the enemy, his colleagues come to realize that Norman’s quite a liability.  Immature and something of a pacifist, Norman is both unwilling and unable to shoot at German soldiers.  Seeing that if Norman continues down this path he will endanger everyone in the tank, Wardaddy teaches him how to kill in the most brutal way imaginable; the intense instructions may not necessarily make a man out of Norman but they do wind up turning him into a soldier.  Ultimately, Norman is somewhat mentored by Wardaddy’s corporal, Bible (LaBeouf).  

Wardaddy is given an assignment to locate and rescue some American soldiers who were recently captured by the Nazis.  While en route to their whereabouts, other battles take place where soldiers die due to the superiority of the German tanks; as a result, Fury is the only tank left from that platoon and they must forge ahead alone.  Eventually, Fury breaks down just as a platoon of several hundred SS soldiers are headed their way.  Outnumbered and immobilized with their radio communications wiped out and ammunition running low, will Wardaddy and his crew be able to survive an attack by this platoon?

Review

As a war movie with plenty of fun and suspenseful fight scenes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Fury”; particularly interesting is the use of CGI to simulate the use of tracers during the gunfire exchanges.  That said, however, there’s nothing particularly special about “Fury” either, which means I can only give it a mild recommendation.  Guys will like the action scenes and the ladies will drool over the shirtless Brad Pitt; but whether or not it’s worth up to $15 to see it in a theater may depend on how limited your entertainment choices are. 

Much of the story in “Fury” centers on the character of the neophyte Norman, through whom we as the audience see and learn about war.  Between his education and maturation as a soldier, we are treated to many tank fights with a hint of romance thrown in apparently just to break things up a bit.  Other than that, the movie is fairly flat, plot-wise with very little in the way of momentum driving the story forward; it isn’t until Fury breaks down with the impending arrival of the SS platoon that we feel the stakes have been raised sufficiently to be drawn in emotionally. 

In many ways, “Fury” is less a war story than a coming of age story; not only does Wardaddy teach Norman about how to be a soldier, he also teaches him the nature of war (in order to appreciate peace, whenever it comes) and teaches him about love; in an unlikely moment, Wardaddy introduces Norman to a young Fräulein with whom there is the possibility of a brief romantic interlude.  While governments may send boys into the armed forces, it is men who fight the war; how,when and where that metamorphosis occurs is different for each of us, but clearly war expedites it, sometimes before you’re even ready. 

Fury (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Birdman”– Movie Review

 

Birdman

On the closing night of The New York Film Festival, I caught a screening of “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”, a comedy-drama starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton; it is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who also co-wrote the screenplay. 

Synopsis

When a once-successful movie actor tries to regain his popularity by doing a Broadway play, can he overcome personal and professional obstacles in order to attain his goal?

Story

Riggan (Keaton) finds himself at something of a crossroads in his life.  While once a successful movie star best known for his role of playing the superhero Birdman in a series of franchise movies, his career has been on the skids since that series concluded after three films.  Not only that, but his personal life went into crisis mode when his wife divorced him and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) was forced into a rehabilitation program for substance abuse.  Desperate, Riggan devises a plan:  he will adapt Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, as a vehicle for him to both direct and star. 

When the play manages to reach Broadway, Riggan’s troubles are just beginning.  For one thing, one of the play’s stars is unable to make the beginning of previews when he’s injured during rehearsal.  Seeing he’s in a jam, Lesley (Naomi Watts), a fellow cast member, suggests Riggan offer the role to her boyfriend, Mike (Norton) to fill-in for the role.  Despite knowing Mike’s reputation for being a bit nutty albeit a good and popular actor, Riggan hires Mike to play the part.  From the moment Mike arrives at the theater for rehearsal, he begins a whirlwind of chaos with his egotistical behavior. 

Further complicating matters is Sam, who may be relapsing.  Although Riggan hired Sam to work as his assistant during the mounting of this play, she continues blaming her problems on the dysfunctional relationship she had with her father when she was a child.  The pressure is finally starting to get to Riggan; as he starts having delusions and engaging in conversations with an imaginary Birdman who continues to haunt him, it’s clear that he’s becoming unglued when beset by all of these problems at once.  With disastrous previews that may lead to negative reviews once the play officially opens, can Riggan keep both his personal and professional life together long enough for the play to be a success?

Review

Prior to the screening at Alice Tully Hall, Iñárritu said a few words, then introduced two of the stars of “Birdman”, Galifianakis and Keaton.  When Keaton took his turn at the microphone, he said, “I feel as though I stumbled into a masterpiece”.  Indeed you did, Mr. Keaton, indeed you did.  “Birdman” is, in fact, an unqualified masterpiece and a film very much unlike any other I can ever recall seeing, stylistically speaking.  Hilariously funny at times, yet deeply touching at other moments, Iñárritu has succeeded in creating a great work of art with “Birdman”. 

This then begs the not unreasonable question of whether or not a comedy can in fact truly be considered art.  In the case of “Birdman”, I would respond with a resounding “Yes”.  It has been the habit of Hollywood to consider comedies to be a trivial genre; with the possible exception of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”, they are rarely if ever recognized come awards time.  Certainly “Birdman”, is equally deserving of such recognition for a great many reasons.  Clever direction by Iñárritu, an outstanding performance by the entire cast (especially Keaton, who perhaps gave the best of his career) and a richly complex screenplay are easily sufficient justification. 

One of the things that makes “Birdman” so remarkable is the way in which it has been shot.  Most – if not all – of the film is done with a steadicam and the editing that was done is virtually seamless, giving the uncanny impression that all of the scenes occur in immediate sequence where the fluidity of time and space are used as a toy.  No less than a total of four people are given credit for this screenplay (including director Iñárritu himself).  Given the intricacies of the story, it is no wonder that it took such an unusually large team to put this work together.  Iñárritu has set the bar astoundingly high for aspiring filmmakers, who will either be inspired or discouraged when they see “Birdman”.

 

Birdman (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, October 11, 2014

“CitizenFour”– Movie Review

 

cit4

On the final day of The New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of “CitizenFour”, a new documentary about Edward Snowden, directed by Laura Poitras. 

Synopsis

When a documentarian is anonymously contacted by someone who claims to have information about United States spying operations, she agrees to meet with him to record an interview – but little does she know that her filming of Edward Snowden will result in a major news story worldwide. 

Story

At the outset of 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras was working on a movie about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  During that time, she started receiving anonymous e-mails from someone who identified himself merely as CitizenFour; this person claimed to have some degree of detailed inside information about the spying practices carried out by the United States.  Exactly how he knew about this wasn’t immediately clear to her, but since he was communicating with her in encrypted e-mails which she then needed to decrypt in order to read them, she felt that this individual had some degree of credibility. 

Eventually, after months of e-mailing, they agreed to meet for an interview along with Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger for the Web site Salon.com.  The interview would take place at the source’s hotel room in Hong Kong.  When Poitras and Greenwald meet him there, they learn his true identity:  Edward Snowden, an IT contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton who worked for the National Security Agency, an intelligence branch of the United States government.  Over the course of eight consecutive days in this Hong Kong hotel room, both Greenwald and Poitras would interview Snowden concerning what he knew about how the American government conducted its intelligence operations. 

When Greenwald started publishing his interviews with Snowden, they immediately made big news internationally, but especially in the United States.  Soon thereafter, it became obvious that Snowden’s cover had been blown and that these secret meetings would soon have to come to an abrupt end, else everyone would be in danger.  Through the aid of some lawyers who are advocates for victims of people who have suffered civil liberties violations, Snowden is whisked out of Hong Kong by way of Moscow.  However, by the time he reaches the airport there, he discovers that his United States passport has been revoked and he now finds himself stuck in Russia. 

Review

While a captivating, gripping story, the main problem with “CitizenFour” has to do with its perspective – that is to say that it lacks objectivity.  Documentarian Laura Poitras clearly has her own personal agenda with this documentary and she makes no attempt whatsoever to keep it hidden.  Nor did she keep her politics hidden when she did her previous documentaries on the Iraq war.  Having a point of view on a documentary is one thing, but trying to pass yourself off as a news reporter is another, especially when it’s clear that you’ve got an axe to grind (which is why the government has made her life difficult). 

The fatal flaw in “CitizenFour” has to do with the lionization of its subject, Snowden, as well as his facilitator Greenwald, not to mention the self-aggrandizing attention drawn to the filmmaker herself while caught up in the midst of this catastrophic whirlwind of national security breaches.  Presenting the story the way in which it has been done, Poitras merely succeeds in preaching to a choir that is all too willing to buy whatever it may be she wants to tell them.  Ultimately, it would appear that the director will not be satisfied until and unless she has completely destroyed the United States of America. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director.  Poitras said that funders of the documentary had to travel to Berlin (where she lives and works) in order to see a rough cut of the film in order to avoid interference from the U.S. government.  They viewed that version without knowing what the final cut would be like – mainly done for purposes of security.

Regarding shaping the interview scenes in the hotel room, she deferred to her editor, who added structure to the footage.  During the course of the interviews, the editor said that they shot something like 20 hours of footage.  She found it hard to cut down because there was so much valuable information and was constantly perplexed about where to make the choices.  Ultimately, the decision was made to follow a very clear narrative line.  She could not get in certain interesting details, such as Snowden’s opinions which, while eloquent, were not appropriate for the narrative they chose to follow. 

When asked about why there was a sense of urgency to break the story during the interview process in the safety of the hotel room, Poitras  said that she didn’t know Snowden was leaving until he had already left.  Additionally, the NSA would notice his absence for such a long period of time; that alone made the matter of breaking the story immediately more urgent. 

Citizenfour (2014) on IMDb

“Foxcatcher”– Movie Review

 

foxcatcher

To start off the final weekend of The New York Film Festival, I saw the drama “Foxcatcher”, starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. 

Synopsis

When an eccentric multi-millionaire hires a pair of Olympic Gold Medalist brothers to create and train an American wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics, the brothers soon find their sponsor’s erratic behavior to be a distraction – but will it also endanger their lives?

Story

Mark Schultz (Tatum) should be proud of the Olympic Gold Medal he and his older brother David (Ruffalo) won as wrestlers at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.  But what troubles Mark is the fact that he can’t seem to figure out a way to get out from the large shadow his brother casts.  One day, he gets a telephone call that will change his life forever; a multi-millionaire wants to hire Mark to train a team of wrestlers to compete in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Seeing this as his big opportunity, Mark immediately accepts the job offer from John du Pont (Carell) and moves to the sprawling du Pont estate known as Foxcatcher. 

Once there, Mark starts seeing signs that he may have made a huge mistake.  For one thing, du Pont’s deportment grows weirder by the day; not wanting to ruin what otherwise seems like a pretty good arrangement, Mark chooses to ignore du Pont’s eccentricities for as long as he possibly can.  During this time, they initially seem to become close friends, but du Pont’s sudden personality changes eventually ruin both their personal and professional relationship; when du Pont finally loses confidence in Mark’s abilities, he hires David to coach his wrestlers, leaving Mark both humiliated and infuriated. 

While David shows he’s able to successfully build and train a team of wrestlers, du Pont really wants to take all of the credit for himself, mostly to impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who apparently doesn’t think much of her oddball son.  Once the Olympics are over, du Pont goes out of his way to make Mark feel unwelcome, so he winds up moving out.  With David and his family remaining at Foxcatcher, du Pont’s demeanor takes a decided turn for the worse, becoming disturbingly paranoid in the midst of his own irrelevance.  But should David and his family fear for their well-being amidst all of du Pont’s craziness?

Review

Creepy is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe “Foxcatcher” – likewise, it is both inadequate and insufficient for the accolades of its star, Steve Carell.  In all of his make-up, Carell is almost unrecognizable – upon initial glimpse, you have to actually squint a bit just to make sure it’s really him.  But be sure, Carell does not let his prosthetics do the acting here – his mannerisms, his speech, all of his body language capture the sociopathic du Pont making this film scary from the first time you see him on screen; “Foxcatcher” comes closer to being a horror movie than most horror movies do.

Don’t be misled by the characterization of a horror movie – much of the credit to its success in this regard must be given to the director of “Foxcatcher”, Bennett Miller, who lays it out before us in a very Spartan, understated style that totally works for a story that is based on true events.  From the moment that the character of Mark arrives at Foxcatcher, there is an impending sense of foreboding, raising overall questions about whether or not things will end well.  Perhaps the scariest part of this story remains the fact that it’s all too believable and that it really did happen. 

Other members of the cast – namely, Tatum and Ruffalo – are excellent here; Redgrave, unfortunately, has a small part and as a result, doesn’t have very many scenes in “Foxcatcher”.  If there is a mistake in this film, it could be that relationship; clearly, du Pont had issues with his mother, but this is never fully explored or explained in “Foxcatcher”.  Allusions to their problems are definitely made, but where and how it developed remains a mystery; perhaps, for the sake of brevity, it may be better that the movie never went down that road – but it would be a compelling story on its own. 

Foxcatcher (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

“The Judge”– Movie Review

 

Judge

This week, the Fall Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new drama, “The Judge”, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall.

Synopsis

When a defense lawyer’s estranged father is accused of murder, the lawyer agrees to represent him at his trial – but will their long-unresolved differences prevent him from keeping his father out of prison?

Story

As a successful defense attorney in Chicago, Hank (Downey) makes a great living for himself and his family – but his marriage is falling apart once he learns his wife has been cheating on him because he spends so much time working. When Hank is notified that his mother has passed away, he must return to his home in Carlinville, Indiana to attend her funeral; to make matters worse, this means he’ll have to deal with his father Joseph (Duvall), a powerful and well-known judge in that town, from whom he has been estranged for many years. Hank’s plan is to attend the funeral and return to his Chicago practice as soon as possible in order to minimize contact with his father.

Just as he’s about to leave, the local police inform Hank that Joseph is now the subject of a murder investigation. The previous night, a man on a bicycle was struck by a car and killed; with evidence on Joseph’s car strongly suggesting he was involved in the incident, the police officers wish to question him. What further points to Joseph’s possible guilt is the fact that the victim was an ex-con who got a light sentence by Joseph when he was originally convicted; shortly after his release from prison, the man murdered someone else and Joseph has long since regretted the light sentence he had previously given.

When Joseph hires a local lawyer who lacks significant courtroom experience (Dax Shepard), Hank becomes concerned that his father may not be getting the best defense possible, especially given the fact that the slick prosecuting attorney (Billy Bob Thornton) appears to be acquiring mounting evidence indicating Joseph’s guilt. As a result, Hank convinces a reluctant Joseph to allow him to be co-counsel on the case so that Joseph can at least have a decent shot at earning his freedom. But when Hank becomes aware of his elderly father’s increasingly failing memory that produces certain lapses in his alibi, will even he be able to keep his father from a long prison sentence?

Review

With a fairly high-powered cast (including the luscious Vera Farmiga who plays Hank’s ex-girlfriend and Vincent D’Onofrio as Hank’s older brother), it’s a shame that the script isn’t better; at nearly two and a half hours, “The Judge” has far too many scenes that telegraph events that are going to occur further down the road. This predictability detracts from some really fine performances by the talented ensemble. “The Judge” might be better appreciated as a rental, but it’s in no way a must-see unless you are curious about what the actors can do with these parts (Downey’s separate scenes with Duvall and Farmiga are particularly good).

One thing some viewers might find fairly annoying – it’s certainly something that gets under my skin whenever I watch one of these crime dramas – is the phoniness of the courtroom scenes. Basically, the Hollywood set that’s built for the courtroom is usually not an accurate representation of what they resemble in real life. Specifically, what’s missing here is the podium at which the attorney stands when addressing the individual in the witness booth. The way it is portrayed in most movies – including “The Judge” – is that the lawyers are standing directly in front of the witness and we are expected to believe that everyone else in the courtroom (including and especially the jury) are able to hear the conversation.

Following the screening, David Dobkin, director of “The Judge”, was interviewed by our instructor. Dobkin said that the film was considerably longer – nearly four hours once he was ready to start editing – and what was particularly painful for him was that he needed to cut some of the actors’ best performances from the movie (including a scene between Downey and D’Onofrio which he felt was especially powerful). According to Dobkin, Duvall didn’t want to take the role of Joseph due to a scene in the bathroom where he gets sick and Downey’s character has to take care of him. Ultimately, Dobkin was able to convince Duvall that he would shoot it in a way that would not make him feel uncomfortable, so Duvall changed his mind and accepted the part.

 

The Judge (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

“Whiplash”– Movie Review

 

whiplash

This week, The New York Times Film Club screened “Whiplash”, a drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. 

Synopsis

When a promising young drummer is selected by one of his school’s toughest teachers to join a group to compete in music competitions, he works hard to earn his teacher’s respect – but after the teacher’s intimidation tactics prove a bit too rough for the young man, will he quit or does he have what it takes to stay with the band?

Story

At the tender age of 19, Andrew (Teller) already has his life’s career path planned:  he’s going to be a jazz drummer – in fact, not just any jazz drummer, but the very best jazz drummer, rivaling his hero Buddy Rich.  Towards that end, he has enrolled in New York City’s Schaeffer Conservatory, which many consider to be the best music school in the entire country.  While practicing his drumming in an empty studio, Andrew’s talents are overheard by Fletcher (Simmons), a notorious teacher within the school; Fletcher likes what he hears and invites Andrew to join his jazz ensemble, comprised of other students at Schaeffer. 

From his first day in the group, Andrew begins to wonder if he made a mistake; Fletcher turns out to be a tough taskmaster, being emotionally and sometimes even physically abusive towards the students.  Tormenting his students to the point that they burst into tears, Fletcher is very competitive – the school regularly sends his music groups to competitions and he hates not coming in first place.  Fletcher’s philosophy is that if these young men really have what it takes to be great, then they will put up with even his most outrageous tactics. 

When Fletcher humiliates Andrew at a public performance, the young man erupts and attacks the teacher, which results in his expulsion from the school.  Later, he learns that he can get revenge on Fletcher and winds up having him fired.  Some months thereafter, Andrew learns that Fletcher is playing at a small jazz club in Manhattan and stops by to hear his former mentor play; the two chat after his set and Fletcher offers him the opportunity to be his drummer at an upcoming jazz festival.  But when he realizes Fletcher has tricked him, does Andrew have the courage to hang in there and do his best to prove his worth or will he concede victory to Fletcher?

Review

Despite having seen a good number of movies thus far at this year’s New York Film Festival, I somehow managed to miss “Whiplash” when it played recently in late September; that was my loss, but now I’m glad I had the opportunity to make up for missing it previously.  It is rare when I can still get excited over a film, but that’s precisely how I reacted to the very intelligent and enthralling “Whiplash”.  Excellently conceived and executed, some critics understandably referred to it as “Full Metal Juilliard” when it was originally screened at The Sundance Film Festival. 

Enthusiastically, I can recommend “Whiplash” for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the performances by its two leads, Teller and Simmons; Teller supposedly wound up learning a bit of drumming for his role and Simmons is perfectly cast as the sadistic teacher.  In this movie, Simmons may have given the performance of his career and it would not surprise me if he was nominated come awards time; he is most certainly deserving of winning for his portrayal of Fletcher.  Obviously, credit must also be given to the film’s writer/director Damien Chazelle, who created a fascinating screenplay with many clever plot twists; his direction is also quite commendable as he is unafraid to move the camera to create dramatic effect, not unlike Scorsese. 

“Whiplash” asks quite a few valid questions:  “What price is success?”, “Where does commitment end and obsession begin?” and “How far can talent alone take you?” are just a few.  I would suggest that another question would also be if the character of Fletcher is really the bad guy here?  It might be a facile response to answer in the affirmative, thinking it through a bit more before replying may be in order here.  Arguably, Fletcher could be seen as being on Andrew’s side, trying to wring every drop of talent out of this boy’s body.  Likewise, one could make a case that Andrew is his own worst enemy as he makes sacrifices for his art that immensely diminish his own humanity in other ways. 

 

Whiplash (2014) on IMDb