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Foxcatcher

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Bennett Miller has done a few fascinating things with Foxcatcher. He’s made a chilling, calculated drama with knockout performances all around. It’s unfortunate though, that the script leaves a lot to be desired. With minimal dialogue, Miller lets the camera do the talking, which provides for some solid characterization but little impact.

Foxcatcher tells the true story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who strikes up a friendship with millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) who is sponsoring Team Foxcatcher for the 1988 Olympic Games. Du Pont takes a liking to Schultz, and the two form an unlikely partnership. Du Pont is driven by his disapproving mother while Schultz is driven by his personal ambition and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic gold medalist. Du Pont and Schultz’s friendship goes to extremes, and there is exponential buildup to a great finale. It’s an excellent story that warrants being told, but Miller struggles along the way.

The fault lies in the script itself. The film is both exciting and drab, both harrowing and unaffecting. The problem is that Miller never delves too deep into the characters themselves, and instead wants us to conclude from what we see on screen. This is storytelling 101, and could work in the right hands, but the film has many discrepancies in its characterization, especially with the character of Du Pont. Not much “happens” in the film, and we are expected to connect with Schultz when he give us little to connect to. There isn’t much of a personality to the film; it’s personality is almost nonexistent. Dark and dreary films can have character, just look at the recent Gone Girl, but with Foxcatcher there isn’t much that stands out.

What does stand out, though, are the performances. Carell is indescribable. A force to be reckoned with as John du Pont. He’s one of the scariest villains of the year. The film’s little dialogue gives every line meaning, and Carell delivers. Physically, too, he’s fascinating. Some excellent cinematography from Greig Fraser gives us beautiful shots, and du Pont’s profile is astounding. The prosthetic nose added to Carell will make you forget he was ever the star of a popular sitcom for 10 years. That’s what roles like these should do, they should separate you from your prior work. A lot of actors struggle with this, but in Carell’s case he knocks it out of the park. Supporting roles from Tatum and Ruffalo are equally as good, especially Ruffalo. Tatum, not known for films like this, makes his case as a solid dramatic actor, but it’s Ruffalo who really stands out. While he isn’t on screen too much, when he is he’s great. It’s a subtle role, requiring tight intonation and Ruffalo nails it. A family man, he’s different from his ambitious brother, and the film keeps reminding us throughout.

Foxcatcher is a polarizing film. It tackles some great themes, but it’s a jack of all trades, master of none. The depressing mood throughout seemed to suck any character of the film right out, and we’re left with a weak and uneven drama. Sure it’s a great plot, but isn’t told in the best way. Worth seeing for the performances alone, Foxcatcher wasn’t what I was expecting. I wouldn’t call it a let down, but don’t expect to be blown away.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

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Let’s be honest, Mockingjay didn’t need to be split into two parts. I totally understand the reasoning ($$$), but I was worried Part 1 would be all exposition, and none of the good stuff. But I was pleasantly surprised by Part 1 of the final book in the Hunger Games saga. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig make do with the not-so-great novel, and deliver another exciting and well-made entry in the franchise. Bolstered by impressive performances that get better every film, and a sense of urgency that sets the film apart from the first two, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a big success.

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up after Catching Fire. The rebels have set up base in District 13, and are planning a revolution with this other districts against the Capitol. Peeta is still in the Capitol, being used to torment Katniss and the rest of the rebels. In District 13, Katniss is clashing with President Coin (Julianne Moore), and has agreed to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion, and participate in propaganda videos against the Capitol.

Mockingjay Part 1, like all of the Hunger Games, is all very topical, but Mockingjay is even more so. The script deals with some relevant issues we find in our society today. Katniss being the subject of propaganda videos, and her camera crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) give us a lot of interesting scenes. The scene in District 8 is a harrowing a torn-down war zone, and it’s all very dark and significant.

The first thing you’ll notice in Mockingjay Part 1 is that the tone is completely different. It takes about 30 minutes for the first joke to crack, and the film drags a little in the beginning. This is the theme with final novels, but with Mockingjay the split part tends to show its weaknesses. With Harry Potter, it worked. With Twilight, not so much. Director Lawrence makes it work somewhat with Mockingjay, but it isn’t without losses. The beginning is a bit of a mess, and it isn’t until Haymitch shows up that the film really kicks into gear. Some characters aren’t given much to do, and others a bit too much. There is about twice as much Gale as there should be, and the overemphasis of Cressida and Finnick is a bit strange. Obviously Part 2 will be better, but I would’ve preferred one big cohesive film that gave every character a chance to shine.

But damn, how good of a performer is Jennifer Lawrence? She gets better as Katniss as the series as progresses. Lawrence is such a natural performer, and knows when she needs to bring it and also when she needs to pull back. In the book, Katniss is a bit of a mess, but luckily in the film she’s straightened out a bit. This characterization is well needed for a great finale where she struggles getting Peeta back. Josh Hutcherson has also stepped up his game. Although he isn’t given too much to work with, he has grown most as a performer out of anyone in this franchise. The rest of the cast is naturally great, especially Elizabeth Banks, whose character Effie has been written into the finale (to great effect, I might add).

Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, and Donald Sutherland round out the returning players and each gets their moment in the spotlight. New to the series is Julianne Moore as President Coin and while she is definitely chilling and a force to be reckoned with, she doesn’t hold a candle to the always-eerie President Snow.

Mockingjay Part 1 offers plenty of thrills, but it’s the subtle, quieter moments that really shine. A scene in District 12 where Katniss begins to sing might seem a bit out of place, but stick with it because it’s a great moment. Some of the monologues are great here, and the rapport between Katniss and Snow is better than ever. There’s some good writing here that borrows some important lines from the book but also keeps the film from ever feeling like other young-adult fare. What sets The Hunger Games franchise apart from films like Divergent or The Maze Runner is its attention to detail in world-building but also its believability and dialogue. We’ve been with these characters for almost three years now, and Lawrence has built upon what director Gary Ross started in brilliant ways.

While Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t as tight as it could be, and it doesn’t match the heights of Catching Fire, it’s still a great entry in the franchise that sets us up for one thrilling finale next November. Thrilling action but also great characterization highlight the third film in the series, with knockout performances from the always-great cast. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the franchise, which should tell you something about the success and excitement that these films can deliver.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything is a pretty standard biopic. It doesn’t take any risks with its structure, and it doesn’t challenge its audience. But what it does feature is a pair of performances that are so pitch-perfect that the unimaginative plot structure seems less of a complaint. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are simply incredible as Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane. It’s a pair of nuanced performances from actors that have never been given the chance to do so, and you owe it to yourself to see these performers shine.

Based on Jane’s memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with StephenThe Theory of Everything gives us a glimpse at the cosmologist’s life at Cambridge University, and his relationship with Jane all while battling ALS and discovering his groundbreaking theory in general relativity. We see his first encounter with Jane while at a mixer, we see his diagnosis with moto neuron disease, and we see his exploration of the universe with his class including professor Dennis Sciama.

The film gives us plenty of insight into the moments in Hawking’s life, but rarely do we get a glimpse at who Hawking is deep down. The brief moments of flirtation between him and Jane, and an awkward family dinner are not enough to give us a clear picture of who the man really was. Instead we get basic biopic material such as his ambition and his drive to succeed. This isn’t bad if it weren’t for the fact that Jane is more fleshed out than the man himself. Battling her husband’s illness alongside him, getting frustrated with her children, wondering if she should move on, these brief vignettes give us insight into the woman Jane really was. The film never seems too interested in exploring Hawking’s really great ideas, and the focus on his belief in the existence of God seems like a strange focal point amidst the romantic drama.

Rather than being an earth-shattering biopic, The Theory of Everything never throws any expectations of the genre out the window. The first 45 minutes are incredible. Each moment is carefully crafted to advance Hawking and Jane’s relationship, but after that we fall into a typical marriage drama. This isn’t bad, it just isn’t as watchable as the first half, and becomes quite contrived. One scene towards the end of the film finds Hawking envisioning himself walking and getting out of his wheelchair, but as we know it is just a vision. These scenes play with the audience, and it would’ve been nice to have had a few more unexpected moments like those.

Luckily, the film has a great sense of humor, and the dialogue and writing is sharp and quick. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten avoids cliche romantic gunk in favor of some well-written quips. The British humor is alive and well in The Theory of Everything, and we learn Hawking was quite the smart ass. Moments such as Hawking running around and getting into trouble with his school friends are well-placed and dispersed with the drama, giving the film a good balance.

I haven’t even talked about Redmayne’s performance, which deserves significant awards attention. Going in, I knew he would be excellent. He nails Hawking’s mannerisms, and the transformation throughout the film as his disease develops is simply astounding. But I was blown away with Redmayne’s subtlety; Hawking’s light nods, his smiles, his expressions give him a lot of character for someone who speaks for only 30 minutes of the film. When he first meets Jane, we see his awkwardness, his devotion to her, and how his life is shattered after his accident. One reviewer compared it to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, but Day-Lewis doesn’t compare to the display that Redmayne gives. It’s an impressive performance requiring a physicality that would be hard to learn simply overnight.

Felicity Jones, too, is outstanding. Often times in a biopic like this one performer outshines the other, but the two stand on equal ground here. She’s a firm, strong character that the audience will both root for and root against. Her commitment to Stephen, but also her commitment to her family gives her a deep characterization. When she falls for Jonathan, played by Charlie Cox, you can see in her eyes the struggle she is facing. It’s a nuanced performance that grows even more complex as the film progresses.

I rarely comment on direction and cinematography, but in The Theory of Everything it is a disservice not to. James Marsh employs brilliant camera work, and every shot has meaning. Thematically, The Theory of Everything deals with time, and how we deal with the passage of the clock. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme is smart with this theme, giving us some beautiful shots featuring the relativity of time. Jane running up a spiral staircase, Hawking’s coffee spinning. These aren’t exactly subtle, but they are brilliant. The score, as well, courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson is excellent enough that it warrants conversation. I’m a sucker for British period pieces that feature brilliant scores (The King’s Speech, Philomena), and add The Theory of Everything to that list. An affecting main theme, and some great cues throughout, the score is neither overpowering nor forgettable, something a film like this deserves.

I only wish the script were tighter. The Theory of Everything definitely deserves attention for its main leads, but I have a hard time believing its script and structure are anything worth mentioning. It’s an easily digestible film, akin to another recently easy biopics such as Get on Up. You can guess where it’s going, and while the film is definitely affecting and profound, it’s a pretty standard formula that we’ve seen too much of.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Comeback

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Valerie Cherish is back. Almost 10 years after its one-season run, The Comeback is back. When it aired, The Comeback wasn’t an instant hit, but over time people recognized it as being ahead of its time. With biting satire on reality television and featuring one of the most endearing characters in recent memory, The Comeback returns in an excellent premiere that doesn’t feel too foreign from its first season, despite the time gap.

Season two of The Comeback revolves around Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) navigating the new television landscape of 2014. She is being filmed by another camera crew, this time her nephew Tyler and others. In the past years, she’s worked on independent films and QVC appearances, mostly on the down low while the rest of her costars are enjoying the limelight.

The season premiere find Valerie reuniting with some of her old friends, including nemesis Paulie G (Lance Barber), who is creating a new HBO show Seeing Red about a self-destructive writer on the set of a sitcom he created, starring Mallory Church. That sounds awfully suspicious to anyone who watched season one, which followed Valerie on Room and Bored and her bouts with Paulie G. Eager to take action, Valerie confronts Paulie, only to be cast in the role after she learns they wanted her in the first place.

If this is your first episode of The Comeback, you might be lost. If that’s the case, watch season one and then come back. Season two features all the hallmarks of what made season one so damn good. Old favorite faces are back, like Mickey (Robert Michael Morris), Valerie’s flamboyant assistant. Even Juna (Malin Ackerman) makes a brief appearance, before being swarmed by paparazzi. Valerie’s husband Mark (Damian Young) is still sick of his wife’s reality show environment, and he urges her to call her lawyers.

The Comeback still works 10 years later, thanks in part to Kudrow’s outstanding performance as Valerie. Kudrow gives off such an earnest demeanor that you don’t pity Valerie, but rather you’ll find yourself actively rooting for her to succeed. This worked in season one as she clashed with her neurotic coworkers on Room and Bored, but it still works here as Valerie storms through the offices of HBO, only to be embarrassed in front of the Seeing Red crew. Painfully awkward but hilarious moments like these are where The Comeback shines.

The meta-ness has been cranked up to ten in season two, as well. Valerie meets with Andy Cohen and RuPaul, who convince her to go to HBO. Chelsea Handler and Kathryn Hahn are both auditioning for the role of Mallory. The celebrity culture remains unchanged in The Comeback, telling us something about the product of our time as well as how smart the show was back in 2005. Reality TV has come a long way, and The Comeback predicted that. Before Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, we had Real Housewives of Orange County.

So in summation, nothing has really changed. The reason The Comeback feels so confident and so seamlessly integrated is because we as a society haven’t. It honestly feels like season one could have aired in 2013. That’s a testament to the fantastic writing and how The Comeback snaps a portrait of Hollywood as it is. Still as funny and as cringe-inducing as ever, The Comeback returns even smarter and even fiercer, as Valerie plans to take Hollywood by storm.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2014 in TV Reviews

 

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Nightcrawler

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Jake Gyllenhaal is one of those actors who I consider to be “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He consistently delivers great performances year after year, but fails to garner any significant recognition. Prisoners, Source Code, and Enemy all in the past three years is an impressive filmography. Add to those Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal’s transformation into the outrageous psychopath Lou Bloom is a fascinating character study. The film accomplishes all of this while additionally offering a scathing critique of modern news reporting.

Gyllenhaal as Bloom is captivating. From the opening scene, we get an idea of his ambitious and driven personality, one who won’t stop to think about the morality of the situation. He’s quick, ruthless, yet still cares enough about himself and others not to be too brash or abrasive. As Bloom navigates the world of these “nightcrawlers” and enters into the territory of these news-hungry freelance crime journalists, it’s hard not to feel captivated. You’re glued to the screen as Bloom races to crime after crime, armed with his police scanner and assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). You feel upset when fellow nightcrawler Joe (Bill Paxton) beats him to the scene. All of this wouldn’t be possible without brilliant direction from first-timer Dan Gilroy.

On the other side of Nightcrawler what we get is a sharp and dark look at broadcast journalism. This is explored through Bloom’s selling of his crime footage to a local media station. He begins a professional relationship with Nina (Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife), as they negotiate payments and he leverages his position at the news station. It’s both funny and harrowing to see Bloom work his magic in the newsroom. As he starts out as a freelance nobody, he eventually works himself into a position where he can get what he wants. It’s fascinating to watch and at times unsettling, as he pursues a strange romantic relationship with Nina that doesn’t quite go where you would expect.

Excellent shots of Los Angeles paint the mood for a movie that can be beautiful at times, but also bleak in its worldview. The relationship with Bloom and Rick as partners is definitely an interesting study that is explored, but at times I wanted more backstory into Bloom. While he is definitely fleshed out throughout the 2 hour run time, I wished we had learned more about Bloom. Perhaps his upbringing or something. He kind of just jumps into the world of nightcrawlers with no prior interest and little introduction, but this is a minor complaint. It still makes for a captivating movie. While the ending is a bit rushed as well, it still wraps everything up nicely, with even a few shockers here and there. The last 25 minutes in particular are very suspenseful, and the film toes the line between perfectly intense and too exaggerated quite well, making for a comfortable balance that’s easy to watch.

While not everything is perfect, Nightcrawler is another notch in Gyllenhaal’s filmography that cements him as a quality actor who delivers almost every time. It’s a well-told, well-directed, and well-acted movie, one that can be darkly funny at one moment but then terrifying the next. It’s the perfect Halloween thriller.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Birdman

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Birdman is exceptional. It’s funny, dark, modern, and represents a sort of career-defining moment for Michael Keaton, who kind of dropped off the radar at the new millennium. A clever commentary on both the industry and Keaton himself, Birdman is wholly original, and you won’t see anything else like it this year.

Starring Michael Keaton, Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who used to play Birdman in a series of superhero films. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it’s representing Keaton playing Batman in the 1990s, when he dropped out after the third film. In Birdman, Riggan is attempting to write, direct, and star in his revival Broadway play, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, based on Raymond Carver’s short story. At first it can all be kind of confusing, but it comes together and makes for a deeply felt and humorous tale.

Riggan is internally conflicted by his two thoughts: his present thoughts and his Birdman-era thoughts. Birdman constantly torments him, and here we see the effects that Hollywood can have on certain individuals. Riggan is susceptible to fits of rage, media scrutiny, and all he wants to do is create a hit play. Getting in his way is a variety of characters who each have their own unique temperaments. Mike Shiner, played by the wonderful Edward Norton, is Riggan’s first choice for the lead role in his play. Initially, the two get along, with their playful banter and fun Hollywood chatter. But soon things spiral out of control and Shiner outshines Riggan and his ego gets the best of him. This culminates in an outstanding scene with Riggan walking naked through Times Square.

It’s all a very personal film, one that taps into Riggan’s inner demons. Here’s a character injured by his selfishness and those around him, one who is both deeply sympathetic and loathsome at the same time. You meet his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and his daughter and assistant Sam (Emma Stone), both who turn in excellent performances, especially Sam. The familial interactions are both cold and harrowing, but have an aura of patriarchal love as Riggan tries to reconnect with Sam, who is fresh out of rehab.

All of this comes together through phenomenal camera work from Emmanuel Lubezki, hot off his win from last year’s Gravity. The film is shot in only a few number of takes, with excellent tracking shots and great angles that actually mean something. Birdman is a great example of how the cinematography can elevate a good film into a great one. Scenes with Riggan’s inner demons battling within use great use of narration and score. Antonio Sanchez delivers a Broadway-esque score with blaring horns and light percussion, one that I hope gets awards recognition down the line.

In fact, the whole film deserves awards recognition. Keaton is amazing and gives his best performance ever here. Emma Stone and Edward Norton are also scene-stealers. Many scenes in Birdman I think will be all-timers, from Shiner and Riggan’s fist fight to Riggan’s flight through New York City. It’s a testament to Innaritu’s great direction that I think Birdman will stand the test of time. It’s one of the year’s best, and a great revival for an all-time great actor.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Whiplash

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How far will you go in your pursuit of perfection? That’s the question that Whiplash poses for the audience. Featuring a pair of outstanding performances, Whiplash is a fantastic and chilling film about one drummer’s journey to be the best.

Written and directed by first-timer Damien Chazelle, Whiplash Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, who enrolls at a prestigious music school in New York City. It’s here where he sparks the interest of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a cutthroat jazz conductor who pushes his students to succeed and realize their potential. Fletcher is terrifying, reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. He’s loud, he’s crass, he goes too far, he instills fear in his students as he recognizes that those with the potential to succeed will not be intimidated by him. He strikes up a relationship with Neyman and pushes him to the brink. It’s tough to watch, but it’s also enjoyable to watch.

Teller, a great up-and-coming young actor, is great. A natural drummer, he’s a gifted student who has the drive and ambition needed to attend this school. Teller has been making great choices in his career so far, and Whiplash is one of his best. It’s Simmons, though, who’s the breakout star. He hasn’t been best known for starring roles, and is most likely known for his role in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy as J. Jonah Jameson. It’s great that Simmons is finally gaining recognition for his excellent acting ability, and I hope he scores a nomination for this terrifying and excellent performance. I actually felt scared when Simmons would stare down Neyman and instill fear in him. You won’t want to look away.

Neyman is instantly likable in his drive and his talent, and the audience will definitely be able to connect with him. Everyone knows someone like Fletcher in their life, good or bad, and Chazelle wants to tap into that mentorship that everyone has had some sort of experience with. The film seems more or less interested in destroying the conventions of the musical prodigy dramas like August Rush and The Soloist by presenting a dark and gritty look at the collegiate music scene. Fletcher is borderline insane, and the film doesn’t let him off the hook. He throws chairs, he screams at his students, going so far as to scare a student out of the room when he does not play in tune. This is an unhealthy relationship, and the film recognizes that but that doesn’t stop Andrew from pursuing his dreams. In a great dinner scene with his family, Andrew grows frustrated with his family as they fail to realize his success and instead praise his sports-playing brother. It’s certainly representative of how we measure success as a nation.

The drumming scenes additionally are outstanding. Director Chazelle employs brilliant cinematography in those exciting and breathtaking sequences. The first scene in the film is excellent with its slow build-up to Neyman and Fletcher’s first meeting. All of this builds to an exhilarating finale that will leave you speechless. The music of course is great, with great jazz standards courtesy of a groovy band.

Whiplash is the best horror movie I’ve seen this fall. I kid, but this is one electrifying film. Boasting brilliant direction and a pair of awards-worthy performances, Whiplash is a great movie that will inspire you and make you forget everything you know about the music genre.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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