Monday, November 24, 2014

Birdman Soars: A Multi-Layered Feast for the Mind.

Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Director: Alejandro Inarritu

Reviewed: 9 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I have so much good will built up for Michael Keaton that Birdman, Alenadro Inarritu's psychological exploration into the winding mind of a former caped crusader turned Broadway actor, just worked for me on multiple levels. Keaton is a smash as Riggan, struggling actor and father, desperately trying to finish his theatrical debut in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Yet, Riggan is haunted by his own demons, represented in a wonderful conceit by Inarritu, as he stalks the hallways and back alleys and rooftops of the theater in long, mostly unbroken takes. Riggan works with his cast including Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend, the mercurial Mike (Edward Norton), as well as his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone).

The film's mysteries are best left unexplored in this review as to not spoil the sheer joy of the film, but I found it exhilarating and incredibly fun. Everyone is delivering top-notch performances here with Keaton and Norton as standouts. There's magical realism, meta-Hollywood commentary, an abrasive New York Times Theater Critic, a treatise about the cinema versus the stage, a madcap run through Times Square, and more than enough to chew on after the film ends. I think the film has lived on in my imagination because of many of Inarritu's choices with the soundtrack, the unbroken nature of much of the film, and the breaking of conventions and expectations, in addition to its performances.

One of the reasons I go to the cinema is to be overwhelmed and surprised and amazed, and all of those descriptions apply to this film. The less I knew (and the less you know) about it, the better.

Birdman is one of the best films of the year.

The Creepiness Sticks: Nightcrawler.

Movie Review: Nightcrawler

Director: Dan Gilroy

Reviewed: 24 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Yeah, two and a half stars seems right.  Kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal for his supremely creepy and committed performance as Lou Bloom, the eponymous main character, a creature of the internet and worshipper of television news who finds himself drawn to police scanners and video taping gruesome scenes and selling them to the media. And, Robert Elswit's cinematography is remarkable and brilliant; the opening series of shots could be studied by itself in a film class as an examination of modernity and the eternal.

Lou Bloom is a robotic spouter of adages, positivity and business acumen. Yet, something is off.  He hunts down job opportunities until he stumbles across a guy with a camera filming an accident and selling the footage to a television station. He realizes that this is his true calling. Gyllenhaal's delivery makes Lou seem slightly alien and off-kilter, all the while observing and locating exactly what he needs to do to get ahead in his business. The idea of nightcrawlers is one that I was unaware of and found to be fascinating, though I never fully understood the legality of the act of filming without permission or the network's ability to play potentially upsetting and illegal footage. Nina (Rene Russo), a local television producer, becomes involved in the playing of said footage, finding herself increasingly addicted to the rush and ratings that Lou is responsible for delivering.

Nightcrawler is unique and has intense moments. However, I do not think director Dan Gilroy was up to the task. At times, he seems to want to make a Network level satire of rapacious news media salivating for the latest fix. At other times, he wants to make Lou Bloom a Travis Bickle type, marauding and stalking the streets with his own interior monologue of dementedness. And then there are moments of humor where it seems to be attempting to mock the business world and American Dream by spinning it on its head. All in all, the film presents an upsetting look at a dark character, but its lack of any sort of explanation or back story for Lou feels uninformed instead of mysterious. There are homages to The Usual Suspects and an ending with a profound sense of darkness, yet too much of the movie is spent with Lou and his partner Rick (Riz Ahmed) in a bizarre sort of back and forth. There is no conflict within Lou about the morality of what he does, and that sense of drift invades the film, making it a string of outlandish and perverse moments with some very gruesome images. There is much to think about here, and Gyllenhaal shines despite the script and the director.

Noah: Aronofsky's Portrait of Obsession

Movie Review: Noah

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Reviewed: 24 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

Director Darren Aronofsky continues his cinematic exploration of obsession with the retelling of the biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe), the visionary builder responsible for the survival of the earth's creatures and mankind. In an ambitious and often creative retelling of the Bible story, Aronofsky remains unafraid to put his own stamp on it, with fallen angels transformed into rock monsters and metaphysical miracles often performed by Noah's grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). A strong supporting cast of Jennifer Connelly as Noah's wife Naameh and Emma Watson as his adopted daughter Ila are given short shrift as the film touches upon how hard it would be to love a man like Noah or endure his fits of prophecy. However, Aronofsky feels mostly comfortable in building up a conflict between Noah and Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) representing mankind destined for destruction.

Aronofsky's boldness shines through this film, and the film stumbles when it tries to humanize Noah and explore his balancing of family and faith. I am not sure it all works. Crowe is his stoic, mighty best, but as far as depicting Noah's internal struggles, he fails. Does he fail because he cannot convey a character of this scope's inner dimensions? I have to say, with my unabashed admiration for Crowe, that it must be the script's fault. Aronofsky dabbles in magical realism, Anthony Hopkins, and rock-beasts, and I think that something had to give. No one else in the cast is given much to do: Winstone broods, Connelly stares, Watson cries and looks. The spectacle of the nature of the movie means that so much of it is spent waiting for the cataclysmic event. When it arrives, it does not disappoint.

Generally, I liked Noah, though I don't think it carries the day in terms of exploring its prophetic eponymous main character. No one in the cast stands out in a meaningful way, and part of me will always want more real animals, fewer CGI. Yet, I'm intrigued: Aronofsky wrestles with faith in film in a way that although less successful than his magnificent film The Fountainhead, but it reflects a genuine passion for the subject and a willingness to inject creativity and daring into some of the storytelling. From Black Swan to The Wrestler, he willing portrays characters in conflict with themselves in harrowing environments, and Noah is less successful only because he fails to make Noah as human as a disintegrating ballet dancer or a broken-down wrestler.