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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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St. Vincent

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St. Vincent screams “festival film,” but that isn’t a bad thing. While the script leaves a lot to be desired, Bill Murray is on top of his game here in a very endearing crowd-pleaser from first-time director Theodore Melfi.

Bill Murray is tailor-made for the role of Vincent McKenna, a drunken cynical Vietnam vet who is asked by new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) to watch her son Oliver. Like I said, it’s not groundbreaking stuff, but Murray works with some great writing here, nailing the deliveries and quick whips he is known for. The film gives the character Vincent maybe even more backstory than he needs, but Melfi nails the bond between Vincent and little Oliver. Another reviewer commented on how Murray’s films with kids tend to feature the man at his best, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Vincent is tragically sympathetic, yet we don’t find ourselves rooting for this old-timer ever. His “woman of the night” Daka (Naomi Watts) keeps him grounded, all the while he takes care of his dying ex-wife and runs into trouble with his racetrack bookie. These little quirks of Vincent give him outstanding characterization, and Melfi draws you in easily. Maggie and Oliver are instantly relatable, as well. Any kid who went through a divorce will tell you how hell-ish it can be, and St. Vincent does a great job with its accurate portrayal.

The problem with St. Vincent, though, is it requires too much buy-in, and then finishes with a whimper. The first two-thirds of the film are great, and I found myself laughing and crying at the great characterization and fun moments between Vincent and Oliver. But then the film takes a predictable and frankly boring route and ends with a cheap school report ending. Sure, it’s emotionally satisfying, but I’ve come to expect more from indie films like these, where it’s more about the experiences than the journey. St. Vincent is too slice-of-life to deserve a weak finale it is given.

But stick with St. Vincent because I’m sure you’ll enjoy its funny moments as well as its not-so-funny ones. A great vehicle to showcase Bill Murray, it’s a movie that won’t blow you away by any means with its contrived script. But St. Vincent is a satisfying tale with great performances that is a great fall sleeper hit.

 

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Marry Me

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Marry Me‘s opening scene is funny as hell. Annie (Casey Wilson) has waited years for her husband Jake (Ken Marino) to pop the question, and she unloads on him after he doesn’t propose after their vacation, only to learn that he was planning a proposal all along, with all of their friends and family in the room. It’s a hilarious scene, one that introduces you to the two leads and sets the stage for a pretty solid pilot episode. While not everything comes together, Marry Me is a very promising and likable show.

It’s Wilson, fresh off her role on Happy Endings, who grounds most of Marry Me‘s first episode. No one can blame her for waiting so long for Jake to propose, yet when he does, everything goes wrong and they try to propose again and again until they get it right – it’s pretty damn funny. Annie seems like a mix of Lena Dunham’s Hannah and Mindy Kaling’s Mindy, likable yet narcissistic, romantic yet crude, and she carries the show alongside Marino. Hopefully the writers give her more to do than be a bitchy fiancee, and it seems we’re headed in that direction with some romantic flashbacks, but right now I could see a lot of viewers being put off by Annie. And while Jake is a typical romantic straight guy, I hope we get to learn more of him. Hopefully he’ll be less Danny Castellano and more Jim Halpert.

Unfortunately a weak supporting cast and some writing issues hinder Marry Me from being the best it could be. Annie’s gay dads are some fodder for some cheap jokes, but they shine as probably the best part of the supporting cast so far. Annie’s unlikable and frankly strange friends feel too sitcom-y to even be real people and Jake’s single friend Gil (John Gemberling) is your typical fat sidekick, basically playing Bevers from Broad City all over again. I’m sure they’ll flesh out some more later on, but right now it just seems strange to shoehorn them into a pilot where they don’t fit.

While most of the jokes land (especially in Wilson’s opening tirade), some feel too easy. Comparing their inseparability to Paula Deen and the N-word seems like a rejected Jimmy Fallon joke, and “like Sandra Bullock in Gravity” has all the makings of a Family Guy cutaway. Fortunately the cast’s delivery is spot-on, often to the point of hilarity. Wilson and Marino are both sharp and quick, and Jake’s mother Myrna (JoBeth Williams) has a few gems of her own. Some physical comedy moments courtesy of Wilson will have you laughing hard, and I’m sure she’ll continue to be the shining light in Marry Me.

I only bring up these comparisons to other shows because Marry Me seems to borrow so much from successful sitcoms that it rarely feels like anything new. A little bit of How I Met Your Mother with the romantic flashbacks, and a little bit of Modern Family with the supporting cast, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s the reason the show works. The writing is quick and witty, and Wilson’s delivery is spot-on at times. The show is grounded in Annie and Jake’s love for each other, and it works. The supporting cast leaves a bit to be desired, but there’s only been one episode, so I’ll give it a chance. And you should too.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2014 in TV Reviews

 

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The Affair

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Showtime’s latest drama, The Affair, had an impressive premiere. Told from two different perspectives, the show charts the relationship of Noah and Alison after they meet on vacation in Long Island. Noah is married to his wife Helen, and the two have four bratty children. They go to Long Island to visit Helen’s father’s beach house, and along the way at a diner he meets Alison, a waitress who recently lost her child.

This is a great setup for a great cast of characters, in a show that throws your expectations out the window on an exciting and unique season premiere. For the first 30 minutes, we spend our time getting invested in Noah’s life, as he goes through these moments with his family. For the next 30 minutes, we switch over to Allison’s side, and we learn about her relationship with her husband Cole, and how she came to meet the mysterious man Noah.

It’s a careful and meticulous pilot, one that warrants repeats viewings. The “two sides to every story” device isn’t new by any means, but the writers have sprinkled in little tidbits that you’ll notice here and there, as we learn the discrepancies between Noah and Alison’s stories. For example, in the diner scene, Noah’s daughter begins to choke on her food. In Noah’s tale, he dislodges the food from her throat while Alison watches. But in Alison’s story, Noah is helpless and she saves his daughter’s life. It’s interesting moments like these that are shown from a dual perspective. It’s something we’ve come to see from a modernist marriage tale, what something like Gone Girl has given us.

Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are both underappreciated actors, and in Wilson’s case, hopefully this will put her on everyone’s radar. West plays a brooding yet empathetic father, one we want to learn more about immediately, in the same vein as Don Draper. He taps into Noah’s fatherly side but also his exotically romantic side, as he explores Long Island and meets Alison. Alison is a grief-stricken mother, caught in an abusive (I say abusive because their stories are contradictory as you’ll learn) relationship with Cole. Wilson is the show’s heartbeat, a character that almost everyone can see themselves in. A supporting cast is rounded out by the excellent Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson, and you’re looking at an awards-friendly, outstanding team of players.

So as the audience we are left to wonder what happened between Noah and Alison and why they are telling us this. Well, as we find out (semi-spoiler alert) at the end of the episode, they are telling these stories to the police, in an interrogation scene. It’s a chilling and great ending that gives the pilot even greater meaning. We are wondering what the hell happened to net these characters in a situation like this, and in True Detective-like fashion, this scene gives a framework to the previous 55 minutes of the show. It will be interesting to see how The Affair balances the two aspects that make the show tick: that is, its storytelling duality and its flash-forward moments. Right now, though, even after one episode, The Affair has me more excited than any other fall drama.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2014 in TV Reviews

 

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Gone Girl

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Gone Girl is a harrowing portrait of a marriage turned sour. From director David Fincher, whose last hit was another adaptation of a popular thriller novel, Gone Girl is the best movie of the year so far. With a breakout performance from Rosamund Pike, and another great turn from Ben Affleck, Gone Girl is a complete thrill ride, and makes great use of all of its 150 minute running time

Gone Girl is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn. The film follows Nick and Amy Dunne, a young married couple living in Missouri. On the day of the fifth anniversary, Amy suddenly disappears. The film traces Nick’s steps to figure out what happened, all while avoiding suspicion from the public eye and the police.

It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed the novel. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and I had the privilege of meeting Flynn last spring. It’s expertly written, with tense dialogue and twists and turns that keep you engaged. Flynn returned to penn the screenplay for the film, and she nails it. It gets the tone of the novel just right, the atmosphere, characters, and everything is on point.

The film is expertly plotted, and makes perfect use of of its long run time. Flynn and Fincher do a great job of keeping you guessing at every time. Even having read the book, I still had many “oh shit!” moments. It was like I was reading the novel again, and that’s a good thing.

Gone Girl has such an eerie atmosphere to it, it’s almost scary. A thriller for the 2014 audience, Gone Girl is both a marriage thriller and a media satire. The film tackles things like the economic recession, critiquing suburban WASP-types and the pervasiveness of news media in a small Missouri town. It asks us to question how much we really know about our partners, Both Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators. We find more out about each spouse as the film progresses, and we find ourselves picking sides early on and going back and forth throughout the movie. The film makes expert use of flashbacks and narration from Amy’s point of view, and the first half of the film is dedicated to flashbacks about how Nick and Amy first met, and their transition from New York newlyweds to out-of-work homeowners in Missouri. It’s a cold, calculated film, one that won’t make you scream out of terror, but might give you a panic attack. It never seems formulated to shock, but when it does, Fincher will shock you.

The performances are spot-on all around. Ben Affleck is phenomenal as Nick. It’s not the best performance of his career, but Nick doesn’t demand that kind of a performance. Just take a look at the scene where Nick and Amy’s parents announce her disappearance. His smug smile to the camera is exactly what you’d expect from someone like Nick. He does his best to put on a good show for the cameras, all while doing his own thing behind their backs. He runs a bar with his sister, Margo, played by the wonderful Carrie Coon, in a performance that should put her on the map. Margo is our entry point into the story. She’s Nick’s voice of reason, and the two are a great pairing on screen.

But it’s Rosamund Pike who shatters our expectations as Amy Elliot Dunne. I’m not a huge fan of over-narration in films, but her chilling voice and flashback intonation will keep you enthralled. She’s such a well-written character, and Pike easily deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. Other supporting roles come from Tyler Perry as Nick’s attorney Tanner Bolt. He does a great job despite a choice that might make you scratch your head. Tanner understands Nick, and trains him how to act in front of the camera, in front of talk show host Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward). Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy also appear as Amy’s former love interests, and it’s Harris who gets a considerable amount of screen time as the creepy stalker Desi Collings.

One thing I love about Gone Girl is that the police force is not incompetent. It would’ve been easy to make a critique of modern detective work, but Gone Girl’s police team, comprised of Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as Rhonda Boney and Jim Gilpin, respectively. Dickens is a considerable force, a southern, small town girl who for the most part is on Nick’s side. But as the public turns against him when dark shadows from his past resurface, Dickens and Gilpin find themselves challenged by what they themselves believe and what the public thinks. As they follow Amy’s treasure hunt of clues that she leaves behind, they start to reconsider what they believe about the case.

Throw in a chilling soundtrack from Fincher’s favorites, Trent Reznor and Attticus Ross, and you have such a well crafted, ingenious thriller. It’s smart, provocative, and will make you question things about the people you hold dear. Affleck and Pike are outstanding, and the cinematography and atmosphere surrounding the film is just perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a more spot-on adaptation of one of my favorite novels, from one of my favorite directors no less.

 

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Series Finale

Originally posted on PROutlook:

Photo credit: eonline.com

Photo credit: eonline.com

March 31, 2014 12.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the HIMYM finale, and many were left disappointed. To be honest, I was one of them.

As the credits rolled out, several questions ran through my head, ‘Why did they kill off The Mother?’, ‘Why did they spend the entire season building up to Barney and Robin’s wedding and then made them get divorced?’, ‘How come Ted got together with Robin again? and ‘Wait, what about the pineapple?’ I felt what many people felt: I felt I was cheated on.  I was totally pissed.

I also have to confess: I could not help crying. Crying over a sitcom, really? Not many movies or books can make you cry, not to say alone a TV show. But it was a sign of something done right.

The next day I was still thinking about it, and the day afterwards (and yes…

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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 
 
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