Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman


There is nothing in the previous films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu to prepare you for the scene early in Birdman in which a man named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) uses telekinetic powers to make a paint can fall on someone’s head. Riggan is an actor, once the star of the “Birdman” superhero franchise, who in an effort to regain his reputation is on Broadway directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman follows the last few days before the production opens and Riggan and his collaborators face an assortment of reckonings. If Birdman (full title: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to be taken at face value then Innaritu means it as a critique of art-as-product, both in Hollywood and the most commercial American theatre. Innaritu has chosen big targets and brought technical virtuosity and an unimpeachable cast to bear, but finally I’m not sure that the arguments Birdman is making are either interesting or all that accurate.

 Much of Birdman takes place in a Broadway theatre, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) uses the set as his stage to give a performance that may win him a second Oscar. The bulk of the film appears to be one single take; Lubezki’s camera swoops around corners and inside dressing rooms with a breathlessness that is I think meant to invoke the onrushing opening night of Riggan’s play and the careening psychological health of its star. Riggan has extended himself both professionally and personally, risking his own money on the play and hiring his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as an assistant. Michael Keaton is more than game for what Innaritu asks of him, and he throws himself into the more surreal scenes with the perfect amount of dry wit. Yet I’m not sure Riggan - who hears a running interior monologue from his Birdman character - is quite the holy fool that Innaritu wants him to be. Riggan is meant to be reclaiming his soul as an artist, but he has been handed the keys (really, he has a key) to the summit of American professional theatre and given what appears to be unchecked creative control of a production that in the glimpses we get combines kitchen-sink drama with surrealism and the most awkward moments of actors walking downstage to deliver a Big Speech. There are no producers hounding Riggan to make cuts or cast changes, only Zach Galifianakis as a beleaguered flunky. Innaritu’s placement of Hollywood and “The Theatre” as opposite poles of artistic achievement doesn’t hold up when we see Riggan’s ego being fed at the theatre just as much as it would have been on a blockbuster film set, and that’s why when surrealism begins to take over there is a sense that the film is out of control. Indeed, what does the “Birdman” character represent? By Innaritu’s own logic he should be a symbol of Hollywood as a destroyer of art, right there with Iron Man and the Transformers who are seen in a fantasy sequence as fighting on the stage of Riggan’s play. Instead it’s when Riggan embraces Birdman that the film suggests he brushes against genius.

 It is too bad that the message of Birdman is so muddled because the cast delivers to a degree worthy of the filmmaking skill on hand. Edward Norton plays a vain stage actor who joins the production late and who is gradually revealed to be as bad at life as he is good at acting. Norton’s character is dating another member of the cast (a wonderful and raw Naomi Watts) and might make a better study of the sacrifices one must make for art than Riggan does. Norton is drawing on his own public image in the same way Keaton is, but I left the theater thinking about the women of Birdman. I’ve never seen Naomi Watts this earthy, and she is matched by Andrea Riseborough as her co-star and Riggan’s lover. Amy Ryan is touching as Riggan’s ex, but the movie belongs to Emma Stone as Sam. Stone is not asked to be charming for maybe the first time in her career and she runs with it, playing a messed-up young woman with untapped soul. (There is also Lindsay Duncan as a critic, but she gets saddled with a speech about how soul-killing Hollywood is.) If Birdman weren’t peddling such misconceived ideas then it could have been a glorious one-off about showbiz, the equivalent of finding a beloved book with illustrations you’ve never seen. Instead it ends up being a well-made curiosity best remembered for bringing Michael Keaton back where he belongs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar



Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an ambitious and at times unwieldy piece of work, a ragged but moving affair that puts a beating heart onscreen where Nolan’s previous films have often felt cold and overly determined. Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan have a great deal on their minds here, from the environment and single parenting to the ways that humans are connected across time. Though at 2 hours and 49 minutes Interstellar can feel baggy in spots, the unity of Nolan’s vision ultimately marks it as a step forward for a director who can still do anything he wants for a while longer yet.

Sometime in the near future human society has all but fallen apart. The first image we seen in Interstellar is of a woman played by Ellen Burstyn who is part of a group older people talking about the present of the film we’re watching. Blights have put the food supply in peril and geopolitical conflicts have turned the world back towards an agrarian society. The American government is strong enough to determine which children will go to college and which (most) will become farmers, but this America seems to have no plan to help families fleeing a second Dust Bowl. There is an early scene, the film’s strangest,  in which a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) attends a conference at his daughter’s school and we learn that the idea of a fake moon landing as a stunt to bankrupt the Soviets is now a part of our history. This early world-building contains some shaky exposition, and I didn’t understand why when Cooper stumbles upon NASA headquarters it appears to consist of eight people hiding out in a bunker. Cooper is asked to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole in an effort to find a new habitable world, and he agrees over the tearful objections of his young daugher Murph. (MacKenzie Foy).

Interstellar is exquisitely shot (by Hoyte Van Hoytema) and designed. Though the emotional tenor of the film bears no resemblance to that of 2001 the shots of spaceships framed against huge planets and docking sequences owe something to Kubrick. Nolan’s best and most refreshing joke is the creation of helpful robots that look like walking monoliths, the most prominent a dryly funny unit called TARS voiced by Bill Irwin. Cooper and his team (including Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) have three planets to visit and these scenes are among the film’s strongest, especially on a water planet on which the astronauts suffer their first casualty and realize the difficulty of their mission. It’s on the water planet that the idea of “time slippage” comes into play. You’ll have to have a good ear to catch the details, but for every hour that Cooper spends on the planet Murph (who grows up to be a scientist played by Jessica Chastain) will age seven years back on Earth. Nolan keeps cutting back to a deteriorating Earth to find Murph working for the professor (Michael Caine) who organized the initial mission. The motives of Caine’s character are rushed through in order to motivate the film’s climax, which involves an encounter with a survivor of a previous mission.

Your tolerance for the ending of Interstellar - which actually feels like it ends a few times -  will depend on how you feel about Nolan’s belief in the limits of human possibility and in our collective ability to pull ourselves together as a species. Of all the themes in play it might be said that the greatest of these is love, as a speech by Hathaway’s character earlier in the film is referred to when Cooper is confronted with his chance to save the world. Our sense of the film working to resolve itself is at its strongest here, but though things could get sentimental they’re redeemed by the wit of McConaughey (who plays Cooper like a Right Stuff character alive at the wrong time) and some splendid visual effects. Interstellar is the kind of film one leaves with questions about plot holes and logic, but it also feels like a sort of personal notebook of concerns over how to be a good father, a good citizen, a good man. If Christopher Nolan can keep working at a pitch that combines the grand and the intimate like this, then he has something truly epic in his future.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kill the Messenger


The new drama Kill the Messenger is a jolt, it’s a welcome example of the movies reminding us of something we should have known all along. Director Michael Cuesta has filmed the story of the late journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) with a large dose of paranoia and an urgency about the need for a vigorous and independent American press. Kill the Messenger takes place in the 1990‘s, a time when media outlets (even that phrase) weren’t as conglomerated or as interested in playing to an ideological base as they are today, and one of the most surprising things about the film is just how long ago that time feels. Webb was an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News when the girlfriend (Paz Vega) of a drug dealer on trial shows him documents proving a key player in the California drug scene was a government informant. Pursuit of the story leads to the publication of Webb’s “Dark Alliance” stories, which reported that in the 1980’s  the C.I.A was aware of drug trafficking into the United States and that the profits were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. (U.S. funding of the Contras had been outlawed under the Boland Amendment.) The script by Peter Landesman (based in part on Webb’s book Dark Alliance) is equally detailed about the steps Webb took in reporting the story (trips to Central America, confrontations with government agents) and about the slowly unfolding nightmare of its aftermath.

Gary Webb isn’t portrayed here as a man motivated by a desire for attention. Landesman writes him and Renner plays him as a man who when he wasn’t working was focused on his wife (strong Rosemarie DeWitt) and children. Jeremy Renner is very good here, he doesn’t make Webb a white knight but rather a flawed man tasked with extraordinary work. Indeed the energy and specificity of the film is served by a very deep cast. Andy Garcia and Michael Kenneth Williams turn up as drug dealers, and there are also Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and a superb cameo from Ray Liotta. After publishing his story Webb was unprepared for just how thin the support from his own paper (represented by Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) would be, not to mention the attacks from larger rivals. Kill the Messenger speaks to how invested the mainstream media was and is in not offending the power structure, and it’s at its most shocking in scenes where editors at  The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times are shown working to push back against Webb’s reporting. A key moment is actually one of the film’s briefest scenes; it’s a too-chummy conversation between a C.I.A. public affairs officer and a Post editor (Richard Schiff). It’s almost a throwaway moment in a busy film, but it’s “Inside the Beltway” illustrated if anything ever was.  As the government’s interest in him mounts Webb is eventually forced off the investigative beat even as confirmation of his reporting arrives too late. The saddest truth of Kill the Messenger arrives just before the closing credits. Gary Webb, who never worked on a daily newspaper again after resigning from the Mercury News, committed suicide in 2004.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ferrara on Pasolini


This interview with Abel Ferrara is mostly about his new Pasolini, but anyone working as an independent filmmaker in 2014 might also do well to learn from Ferrara's pragmatic can-do spirit.
Q: There’s an incredible parade of logos at the beginning of the movie. It seems like you got a little bit of money from a lot of places.

A: Well, that’s film financing in 2014, you gotta get money from—from the government, actually. Not corporate, but government—something that doesn’t exist in the United States. For me to go to my government and think that I’m gonna get money to make a film is absolutely the most avant-garde, outrageous concept. I wouldn’t dream of it in a million years. Call up Obama and say we’re making a movie? But in Europe they do, they support the arts. The city itself, the country, the campagna, the county, the state, the whatever. And we did it with three countries. France was a big supporter of the film, Belgium, and Italy is his home. I know, it looks a little funky at the beginning, but hey, whatever it is. Sometimes you get one guy to put up all the money, you got one name, sometimes you got 10 different people put up one-tenth of the money, you got ten names. But, hey, we got a movie, I ain’t bitchin’.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Skeleton Twins


The Skeleton Twins is a closely observed family drama for adults that feels like it must have fallen through a time warp from the 1990's, a time when such things could still be found at movie theaters with some regularity. The film, directed by Craig Johnson, probably wouldn't have been made at all without the post-Bridesmaids influence of its star Kristen Wiig. Wiig plays Maggie, an unhappy wife in upstate New York whose is contemplating suicide just at the moment she learns her estranged brother (Bill Hader) has tried to take his own life in Los Angeles. Maggie brings Milo, a gay actor without an agent, back home to New York and the guest bedroom of the house she shares with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie and Lance are still living in the town where Maggie and Milo grew up, and as the siblings return to old patterns The Skeleton Twins winds up being a well-done story of reconnection and acceptance.

Kristen Wiig's performance as Maggie is a continuation of Wiig's exploration of unhappiness. Even in Bridesmaids Wiig's character behaved out of a half-understood disappointment, and in other other film roles (including this) Wiig seems drawn to women whose lives are incomplete or unsuccessful. In The Skeleton Twins Wiig turns mannerisms that could be comic into expressions of her own frustration at her inability to understand herself. Why does Maggie not share Lance's desire for children, to the point that she covertly takes birth control? Why does she sleep with her scuba diving teacher (Boyd Holbrook)? There's an explanation in the script, which Craig Johnson wrote with Mark Heyman, but pleasure of the film is watching Wiig's carefully worked out journey to Maggie's bottom and the beginning of her climb back. Bill Hader is good in a less complicated part, the reasons for Milo's depression are much clearer and there's a plot about an older ex-lover (Ty Burrell) that goes in circles. There's some humor in Hader's awkwardness in their small town's gay bar and a lip-sync sequence that might have been made just to fill out the film's trailer, but the rawness of the final, secret-spilling argument is the place The Skeleton Twins is trying to get to and it does so very well. The Skeleton Twins offers a simple recipe for how a small-budget drama can get attention: address adult concerns through the lives of well-written, unfamiliar characters, and hope that someone from Bridesmaids likes the script. I'll settle for more movies that get even part of that list right.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Gone Girl


How do we talk about Gone Girl? The new David Fincher film arrives with bestseller pedigree and it fulfills our need to find cultural relevance in our big-ticket movies. The novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is popular enough that online outrage erupted when rumors emerged that Fincher might change the book’s ending for the film. Though the story has the framework of a mystery it’s Flynn’s portrait of a marriage in recession-fueled crisis that’s the real engine of the story, and it’s what allows an audience to feel they’re watching something more substantial than a well-shot potboiler. That’s the parlor trick that Gone Girl almost pulls off; the film is a grabber (two and a half hours go quickly) that for a while makes you think it should be taken seriously.

The particulars are well known: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne fall in love and marry in New York but are forced to return to Nick’s Missouri hometown after losing their jobs to the recession. Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary, with signs of a struggle left behind at the Dunne home. The initial wave of sympathy for Nick doesn’t last long. When the cops and media get involved Nick’s private foibles are exposed to the world and he becomes this week’s cable news object of derision. Neither Fincher nor Flynn can do much with the too familiar media subplot; there’s a Nancy Grace-like host (Missi Pyle) who fuels the outrage on her show and Sela Ward (who fares better but isn’t onscreen enough) as the interviewer who snags Nick’s I-didn’t-do-it TV appearance. The police procedural scenes are livened up thanks to an excellent Kim Dickens as the lead detective. Dickens gives her Detective Boney a wit and native intelligence that energize scenes that could otherwise have been formulaic. Two other supporting performances stand out: Carrie Coon is bracing as Nick’s twin sister, who gets to speak most of what the audience will think about her brother. Tyler Perry has a ball as Nick’s high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt. Perry seems to understand exactly what kind of film he’s in, and  every time Tanner comes onscreen there’s a welcome burst of urgency.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay toggles between the aftermath of Amy’s disappearance and the couple’s early days in New York. Nick, whom Affleck plays with some repressed anger and just the right swagger, is immediately taken with Amy after a chance meeting at a party . If Gone Girl is a hit then Rosamund Pike will be a star; Pike is asked to play an astonishing range of emotions. Amy’s parents (David Clennon and Lisa Baines) have cannibalized her life for a series of children’s books, and Amy is looking to be swept away by someone who doesn’t already know her history. She falls for Nick’s confidence but (as we hear in the diary that is used as narration) becomes afraid of his disappointment and anger after the couple’s fortunes take a turn. There is a central idea at work in Gone Girl that the film keeps working, which is that changes wrought by time and circumstance can be irreparable fault lines in a marriage. That isn’t an uninteresting subject, but Fincher gets stuck having to service Flynn’s plot and after a while hearing the theme stated again becomes too absurd to bear. If we’re meant to find the final revelation (involving a well-used Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex of Amy’s) and the film’s last act darkly humorous then that’s fine, but Gone Girl has chosen sides in the marriage and we’re left with a half-baked ending. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn are in their way as shaky a couple as Nick and Amy. By committing to Flynn’s baroque plotting Fincher has undone any chance of Gone Girl cutting as deep as he would like it to. Enjoy your popcorn.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones


Liam Neeson almost certainly didn’t have to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he did and it’s to Neeson’s credit that he could tell the difference between this lean and mean detective story and the recent spate of movies in which all he’s asked to do is be tough. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on a Lawrence Block novel, one of a long-running series about a P.I. named Matthew Scudder. Neeson is very well cast as Scudder, besides the obvious physical menace he always looks like he either wants a drink or just had one and he seems perfectly at home on the streets of New York. Writer/director Scott Frank puts us in a New York we don’t usually see at the movies, an outer borough, late-’90s streetscape (it’s 1999 and Y2K is in the air) that’s as blasted out and deserted as a European war zone. This setting is home to a cast of characters living on the city’s margins. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, is an unlicensed P.I. and his client Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Kenny wants Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and murdered his wife so that he can take his revenge, and soon enough Scudder discovers a pattern of killings involving the family members of others in the drug life. No fuss is made about the identities of the killers or about making them funny; they’re two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who appear to enjoy the terror in their victims’ eyes more than the money they collect. After another kidnapping Scudder lures the two into a confrontation and the last act of the movie is a piece of superbly sustained tension.

Describing the plot reduces A Walk Among the Tombstones to a set of genre conventions. The drama lies in watching Neeson uncover new levels in Scudder, not just at the climax but in his relationship with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is a homeless teen and would-be detective, and it’s the kind of role that could have been a cliché but is turned into something real by not overdoing it. There is also a terrific supporting performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as the man who gives Scudder his first real lead. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a very satisfying film that’s also a fine vehicle for its star, and I would be up for seeing Neeson return to this role.