Friday, October 31, 2014

FURY review

It's hard to make a World War II movie nowadays and really have it stand out. There are so many WWII movies out there that if you watched all of them, you would probably understand the war from just about every angle imaginable. The era of WWII was a fascinating time. There were clear villains and clear heroes. It's a war that impacted the lives of millions of people all around the world and it exposed just how horrific and ugly humanity could be, in a lot of ways.

But WWII also symbolizes victory for the good guys. When it comes to war stories, documentaries, movies----we always come back to World War II and it's easy to understand why. After all, we won. It's always fascinating to hear stories regarding World War II, but it's telling just how much we dwell on the era. Sure, there have been plenty of movies made about Vietnam and several movies and documentaries have been made about the Iraq War and ongoing war in Afghanistan. But it's curious to see filmmakers continuing to mine stories out of the WWII era, considering the fact that we're well into the second decade of the war in Afghanistan. Is another movie about WWII really necessary?

Earlier this year, George Clooney made a movie about WWII from a much different perspective, the perspective of a group of men who are sent to Europe to preserve historical pieces of art. "The Monuments Men" was unfortunately botched in the execution, but at least the story was different enough to justify its existence. This month, writer/director David Ayer, primarily known for his films about the LAPD, has also decided to take a stab at making a WWII movie, this time from the perspective of a tank crew. We may not see as many movies made about tank crews in World War II, but is "Fury" good enough to justify its existence?

In terms of technology, Nazi Germany had America beat when it came to tanks. The Germans' tanks were much more advanced and more difficult to topple and that is shown here in "Fury," particularly in a scene where four American tanks go against a giant German tank and only one manages to make it out alive.

"Fury" takes place during the last few days of World War II, but you wouldn't know America was coming close to a victory by the attitudes of these men. Understandably. If you've been battling for over four years, constantly fearing for your life on a daily basis, you wouldn't hold much optimism for your future either. But these men, lead by Brad Pitt's character Sgt. Collier, stick together through thick and thin and it's through their camaraderie and experience that they're able to survive.

But not everyone in Collier's crew survives. When we first meet Collier, his assistant driver/bow gunner is already dead, and the Army scrambles to find him a new one. Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) has only been in the Army for eight weeks and has zero tank experience to speak of. But he's thrown in with the Fury crew anyway and he soon finds that his naivete and innocence has no place with this crew. Things get especially hairy when the Private refuses to shoot a teenage Nazi soldier and several lives are lost as a result.

In "Fury," it's either kill or be killed. And you feel that tension from beginning to end, especially when Pvt. Ellison shows up. The only thing that relieves the movie of that tension is the chemistry among these men. That's why it's too bad these main characters are all so one-dimensional. You have the deeply religious Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), whose nickname is literally "Bible." There's Cpl. "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Cena), who is the token minority. There's the overly-macho meathead, Pfc. Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal) who always seems eager to bust shit up. And rounding out the main cast are the aforementioned Sgt. Collier and Pvt. Ellison.

Brad Pitt's character, Sgt. Collier is the closest to having a real personality, but when I watch this stoic yet barely-keeping-it-together character on screen, I can't help but think of Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan." Logan Lerman is also not given much chance to shine, despite the praise that's been given to his performance. Private Ellison's character arc from scared newbie to trained professional just comes off completely flat and it's been done so many fucking times. And Ayer demonstrates no effort in making Ellison's character feel new and original.

Even in a 134-minute movie, Ellison's character doesn't appear to have much time to grow the way he does here. "Fury" is supposed to be set over the course of one month and it just seems highly unlikely that Ellison would, on one day, be so unwilling to kill a soldier that his superior officer literally has to pull the trigger for him... to, all of a sudden, being ready and eager to kill, all the while shouting "Fuck you Nazis!" in the midst of battle.

It's not that David Ayer doesn't give Ellison a reason for this shift in character, it's just that the reason he gives is so lame, so rote, so overdone that it just doesn't work. In one of the movie's quieter moments, Sgt. Collier takes the private to a frightened German woman's apartment. He and his men had just finished an excruciating battle and now it's time to relax. When the Sergeant discovers that there's a second woman hiding in the apartment, instead of losing his cool, he decides this is now the perfect moment for Private Ellison to "pop his cherry" so to speak. And, over the course of a couple of hours, we're supposed to believe that the private connects with the woman so profoundly that he actually, seriously, falls in love with her.

Perhaps a director with more touch and grace could have pulled this scene off, but David Ayer is not exactly a romantic-type. I'm withholding some key information about this scene so as to not spoil it, but needless to say, the sequence is supposed to be the turning point in which Collier is no longer a boy, but "a man." It's cliche, it's rushed, it's by-the-numbers. It just doesn't work.

There are some amazingly intense and extremely well-done battle sequences here and it's given the added touch of taking place largely inside a tank. The claustrophobic effect is palpable, but by the time we get to the film's rousing and bloody conclusion, we have been given nothing from these characters to elicit a true emotional response.

We're supposed to choke on our tears and have our hearts go out to these guys when they decide to take on an entire squad of German soldiers by themselves. They don't have to go out in a blaze of glory, but it wouldn't make for much of a movie if they didn't. So, they give everything they got until they run out of all their ammo and it's a thrill to watch, but those thrills ultimately feel hollow.

In the year 2014, at a time when America's war-weariness is perhaps at an all-time high, it's just impossible to watch a movie like this and not think about the fact that we are in our 13th year of war. It's understandable, surely, in the year 1945 to hear these soldiers proclaim that their job is "the best job" they've ever had, but it's weird hearing it in the year 2014 when, really, all we want is for our beloved soldiers to come home. You have to wonder what the motivations are for David Ayer to want to write a WWII movie like this. "Fury" has absolutely nothing new to say about World War II, or about war in general. Ultimately, it just feels generic.

Grade: C

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Long Take episode 1 - "Previous Channel"

My good friend Justyn Moore and I have started up a movie podcast called The Long Take. Every two weeks we will dive deep into movies that will be coming out soon and we'll talk about the directors who make them. Neither of us take ourselves that seriously though and we'll always spice things up to make our podcasts fun and enjoyable to listen to even if you don't always agree with what we're saying.

In this episode, we talk about Gone Girl as well as what are favorite movies were at ages 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25. Enjoy.

My audio isn't the best quality. That will be remedied by episode 2. And we'll keep adding and fixing things to the show and testing out the format and playing with the layout... needless to say, we really wanna have fun with this thing  and make it fun to listen. It should be interesting to see how it evolves; hopefully it'll get better with each episode.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BIRDMAN review

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is not exactly known for his sense of humor. So, in many ways, "Birdman" feels like a necessary breath of fresh air. It's an attempt to inject some new life into his career, into his filmography... which started to falter over the last 8 years. If you've been following this site for any length of time, you'd know I'm a huge fan of Inarritu's debut film "Amores Perros" and I very much enjoyed his follow-up film "21 Grams" as well.

But after "Babel" and "Biutiful," two films that seem to wallow a little too much in its misery and seem more concerned with its "message" than the characters that appear on screen, it seemed Inarritu had hit a bit of a crossroads. From the announcement of "Birdman," however, and to the unveiling of the first trailer of his latest movie, it soon become quite clear that this was going to be a very different beast. Is it a good kind of beast? Is it up there with his debut film? Does it show a lot of promise, a hint at a new and promising direction? Personally, my answer is both yes... and... no.

Yeah... unfortunately, a week after seeing it, I still have not been able to fully embrace "Birdman" in spite of my overall admiration of the film. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who's trying to get his career back on track by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, adapted from the work of Raymond Carver. "Birdman" is unique is that it was made to feel as if the entire movie was captured in one take. For long stretches, we are right up in Riggan's face. We are forced to be sucked into his world for nearly two hours (or, well, the movie spans over the course of 3-4 days). In that time, we're introduced to his stoner daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his agent/lawyer/assistant (Zack Galifianakis).

And then there are his fellow players on the stage, including Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike Shiner. Lesley catches a big break by starring in this play as it's her very first time on Broadway. Meanwhile, Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton in easily one of his best roles of the last decade) is her boyfriend, a method actor who is a natural on stage but a complete asshole in real life.

"Birdman" features an array of colorful characters, but they're largely filtered through the eyes of Riggan Thomson. Everything's filtered through his eyes, as a matter of fact. And there are some fascinating sequences that show just how unstable Riggan Thomson's mind is.

The long takes are impressively made, exquisitely shot. There's no doubting that, but I can't help but feel that this method of filmmaking has some limitations. While the characters around Riggan are rather colorful, they are not as interesting when they are left by themselves. There is a subplot between Sam (Riggan's daughter) and Mike Shiner that didn't really fit, for me, with the overall scope of the film. Sure, you know Mike Shiner for a minute and you immediately understand that he should not be anywhere near Riggan's daughter and while the time Shiner spends with Sam does give the character some sense of humanity, he doesn't really reveal anything that we don't already know about him.

In other words, with a movie shot like this, it's very important that this story unfolds in a largely visual way. This is why long takes are so effective when they are used in certain films. But when the film is only a series of long takes, the dialogue doesn't really feel as cinematic or as vital as it should be. The characters, aside from Riggan Thomson, do not seem to matter as much.

So while I loved the way the film uses these different sets and locations inside this Broadway building that the movie takes place in, I am not quite sure the long takes services the story and these characters that well. It services Riggan pretty well and we certainly get to learn much about him, but even with him, when he reminisces about his marriage with his ex-wife, the emotional beats do not really have the same effect as they would have, if the dialogue was shot differently.

Long takes can be an immersive cinematic experience, but what I realized with "Birdman" is that it can also push you away from having a real emotional connection with the story. And while I certainly enjoyed most of this film and it has plenty of great, funny moments (including a fight scene between Norton and Keaton), I just did not connect with it. I say this knowing that many people will connect with this film and I know it's been getting mostly critical raves from many different sources, but "Birdman" is a case where I admired the makings of the film much more than the film itself.

As for Inarritu, this movie may show a lighter side of him, but there is a suffocating effect to this movie that is similar to "Babel" and "Biutiful." While the film mostly pokes fun at Riggan's self-seriousness and self-examinations, it's hard not to feel a little suffocated when you are strapped to such a self-absorbed character for nearly two hours. For some, this movie will be an incredible cinematic ride; personally, while I enjoyed the ride, it didn't exactly sit right in my stomach afterwards... and I'm not sure I'd get back on that ride anytime soon.

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Whiplash" review

There's a moment near the very end of "Whiplash" that confirmed to me that this wasn't just a good movie, but a great movie. JK Simmons's character Terrence Fletcher is conducting his band and Miles Teller's Andrew is on the drums. At this point of the movie, and this is not a spoiler, it's safe to say these two characters hate each other. But when Miles Teller wails away at the drums with perfect precision,  both characters realize something: they need each other. Finally, they've come to an understanding with each other and if they were to continue this relationship, there's no telling what they could accomplish.

"Whiplash" is not just about music, it's not just about the will to be great, it's about encouragement/discouragement. What's constantly recited in "Whiplash" is how famed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head by his teacher and it never phased him. Terrence Fletcher comes off like a mad genius, but in some instances he just seems mad (as in "crazy"). Andrew wants to be one of the greatest jazz drummers that ever lived and Fletcher challenges him at every turn. He slaps him, he promises him a spot in the band and then takes it away, and he makes him play for hours on end until his hands start to bleed.

Are Fletcher's methods outdated? Some would say yes, I would certainly agree that he crosses a few lines. But I certainly believe his sincerity when he says "The worst two words you could ever tell a person is 'good job.'" I believe that Fletcher believes that his methods are the only way you can turn a good musician into a great one. And perhaps he's right, maybe the world's lacking in truly great talent because nobody's willing to throw a cymbal at someone's head anymore.

Andrew is a completely driven individual and while Fletcher's methods aren't for everyone, they just might be suitable for Andrew. Andrew might cower at first when Fletcher first scolds him, but then he responds by practicing on his kit all night. He does everything he can to get better: he isolates himself for long periods of time, he breaks up with his girlfriend, he doesn't make any friends. Trying to become one of the greats is a very lonely proposition, but that's what Andrew wants. And thanks to Fletcher's volatile style of teaching, that's what he'll get.

"Whiplash" explodes with energy and intensity, particularly when Miles Teller and JK Simmons are acting opposite each other. This movie is very much a two-hander. Terrence Fletcher is the character JK Simmons has been waiting to play for his entire career and he completely nails it. A lesser actor could've made Fletcher go completely over-the-top and turn into self-parody, but JK Simmons instead plays the character with all the right notes.

And while he gets plenty of deserved praise, his co-star deserves just as much attention. Miles Teller has been on the rise the last few years, particularly thanks to his turn in last year's "The Spectacular Now," but he brings forth his best work here in "Whiplash" and reminds me a little bit of young, mid-'80s Tom Cruise (circa "Color of Money"), though he doesn't quite have Cruise's perfect blend of douchiness and charisma. Instead, Teller's character comes off as completely likable and sympathetic even when he coldly shuts down his girlfriend. While writer/director Damien Chazelle doesn't exactly give Andrew much to work with when it comes to character details, Miles Teller brings something to the character, non-verbally that tells you everything you need to know about him.

This was a very impressive movie indeed and just as much praise belongs to editor Tom Cross, whose handling of the big concert sequences are so exhilarating to watch. And while the film kinda loses a little bit of spark in the scenes where Teller is away from his drumkit and the characters who aren't Andrew or Terrence Fletcher are barely given much to do, because Teller and Simmons are so excellent, nothing else hardly matters. This is a remarkable debut film and the movie's final scene will rock your socks off (or should I say jazz your socks off?).

There's something to be said about the specificity of this movie. I've said it before, I love movies that show us a specific world in a specific place and time. For the rest of the world, nothing Andrew and Terrence Fletcher does particularly matters. But in their world, nothing could be more important. For 100 minutes, for me, nothing was more important than watching Andrew try to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. And the fact that this movie actually made me want to go out and listen to a few jazz records, that's an amazing accomplishment in itself.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gone Girl review (spoiler-free)

Note: I tried really hard to make this review spoiler-free, but there may a few little phrases here and there that give a little away. So, proceed with caution. And, for those who've seen the movie already, I'll be doing another, separate review filled with spoilers when I watch "Gone Girl" a 2nd time later this month. Carry on...

David Fincher's done a pretty good job of establishing his films right from the opening credits. Take a look at two of his most recent films for example: you had the black liquid oozing through keyboards (among other things) in "Dragon Tattoo" and who can forget "The Social Network" where we watch Mark Zuckerberg shuffle through Harvard University after getting dumped by his girlfriend. Both opening credits set the tone for what will follow and "Gone Girl" is no different. "Gone Girl" features quick cuts of a suburban neighborhood with the credits appearing and subsequently disappearing in a flash. Already, you know that something's not quite right. While it may seem like an ordinary view of a suburban town in midwestern America, the quick cuts suggest something quite unsettling is about to happen in this movie.

And it doesn't take us long to figure out what's wrong. Nick Dunne's wife, Amy, has gone missing. When he calls the police and they come over and see the house in near-perfect condition, they immediately have suspicions of their own. What's Nick hiding? Could he have killed his wife? Soon, Amy's parents are called into town and the media catches wind of the story. It's all over headline news. Nick can't escape the intense media scrutiny. The only solace he has is with his twin sister Go, but not even she can help him if the police put the handcuffs on him.

By now, you've probably heard a bunch of hubbub over this movie. If you have not read the novel, written by Gillian Flynn, I would suggest you keep it that way. Read the novel second, watch the movie first. How this story unfolds is so shocking to the uninitiated, I would need to write a completely separate essay in order to cover it all. Needless to say, the further we get into the belly of the beast, the more twists and turns we find. "Gone Girl," at one point, drastically switches from a police procedural to a pulpy, twisty, violent thriller. And you never really know what's about to happen next.

The believability of the first half is pretty much cast aside for the craziness of the second half. The reason why I was hooked from beginning to end is because of how masterfully crafted this film is. Like Fincher's last two films, it's incredibly slick, a well-oiled machine and its pacing is so on point, you'll hardly notice its 150-minute running time.

Much like "Dragon Tattoo," Fincher elevates the material. This whole thing could've easily fallen apart if it wasn't so brilliantly directed nor if it didn't have such a great cast. Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne is genius casting, flat out. He's so perfect for the role and while he doesn't get as many juicy scenes as Rosamund Pike, who plays Amy, he still manages to play Nick as enough of an asshole that keeps you from fully embracing and sympathizing with his character. And it becomes clear at a certain point, no matter how fractured their marriage became, Nick and Amy are most definitely perfect for each other.

Pike is a revelation. She plays Amy with a certain amount of iciness and unpredictability and showcases a remarkable amount of range for a role that requires so many different layers. This cast is filled to the brim with great actors aside from Affleck and Pike. You'll never look at Neil Patrick Harris the same way again, and Tyler Perry shows us just how great of an actor he can be when he's outside his comfort zone. You have Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit who play the detectives, and while they aren't given as much characterization, they certainly hold their own pretty well in their scenes with Affleck. Carrie Coon is also wonderful as Margo Dunne, Nick's twin sister.

But I gotta tell you, once the shit hits the fan in this movie, it's like a jolt through the system. I think that's why there've been such varying reactions to the movie as a whole. It's gotten mostly positive critical notices, but there are some very loud detractors as well. Ultimately, I don't think "Gone Girl" is quite good enough to be lauded as among Fincher's best. The craziness of the latter half of the film is entertaining as hell and it's a pure blast to watch, but it kind of takes the film down just a notch. As much as I tried to sit back and enjoy the ride, the tonal shift that occurs in the middle of the film was hard for me to swallow. As a result, I feel "Gone Girl" has two great halves of a movie, but as a whole? It's essentially a well-made B-movie. An extraordinarily well-made B-movie, granted, and I would love to fully embrace a B-movie that works on all cylinders, but it really feels like a tale of two movies instead of being one cohesive whole.

Consider this my spoiler-free review. There's so much more to talk about when it comes to this movie and hopefully I can find the time to really dissect the film. And who knows? Maybe a 2nd viewing would make me feel better about the whole tone shift thing. Nevertheless, ten films in, David Fincher is slowly becoming the Alfred Hitchcock of this generation. He has a style completely of his own and he explores themes that are much different than Hitchcock, but they both have the same twisted sense of humor. They both love to take on seemingly B-movie material and elevate it to something that's special. They both have an affinity for genre. Fincher will never have as extensive a filmography as Hitchcock does, but he's one of the few directors working today that even comes close to being on Hitchcock's level. Even though I would not rank this among Fincher's very best, I would not complain if he made movies like "Gone Girl" for the rest of his career.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 6, 2014

Obvious Child review

Believe it or not, I've been waiting for a movie like "Obvious Child" to come around for quite some time. We've had so many movies deal with unwanted pregnancies where only one outcome is considered: keep the baby. Juno and Knocked Up are two movies that come to mind and I enjoy those movies just fine, but it's kind of refreshing to see a romantic-comedy go the alternative route. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) has two choices when she finds out she's pregnant and she chooses to have an abortion. That's it. That's what going to happen. I love how "Obvious Child" deals with the subject straight on while still finding a way to mine comedy out of these characters and even allow time for some romance.

And of course, the romantic stakes in this film is much different than in your typical rom-com. Donna's a stand-up comedian who finds out her boyfriend's been cheating on her and Donna does not take this well. She takes out her frustration on the stage, through angry voicemails, some slight stalking, and yes, through alcohol. Of course.

During one of her drunken stupors, she meets a seemingly nice and charming man named Max (Jake Lacy). What I love about this character, Max, is that despite how kind, shy, and rather soft-spoken he is, you learn just enough about him to find him interesting, but not too much that you aren't privvy to what his next move will be. Max meets Donna at the bar where she does stand-up. Luckily for Donna, he hadn't seen her completely bomb while on stage. In fact, she's managing to kill it with Max despite her drunken ramblings.

Max and Donna eventually leave the bar and things get pretty hot and heavy when they head over to Max's apartment. As you might expect, this leads to a one night stand which leads to the unwanted pregnancy. And once Donna makes the very painful decision to have an abortion, she spends the rest of the movie trying to find a way to tell Max.

I don't know, I loved this movie. I loved Donna so much. I know people like Donna. And I know people like Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), who plays Donna's super supportive friend who helps guide Donna through this extremely difficult process. Donna's a comedian. She deflects everything through comedy. The movie makes a point not to let the heaviness of this abortion affect the tone too much. The conversations with Max, with Donna's mother, the stand-up set she does the night before Valentine's Day (day of the abortion)---all of these scenes have a degree of weightiness to them, to the point where there's no need to make it weightier. The comedy that's mined from these situations is both funny and poignant. If the movie played up the dramatic aspects of this situation, it could've easily become unbearable to watch. It would've just turned into a Lifetime movie of the week. I applaud writer/director Gillian Robespierre for the amount of control she shows in both her script and in her directorial choices. This is a movie that both plays it as straight as possible, and with a lightness to it that, honestly, is pretty realistic.

So the movie kinda has a rom-com formula going on, but it works for me because there isn't another romantic comedy out there that deals with an issue as real as this. When Donna is having a nice date with Max but can't seem to find a way to tell him what's really going on - I felt that. I understood that innately. Despite the fact that the movie has a clear formula, a clear arc, at no point did I feel that any of this was contrived. And when the movie turns sweet at the end, considering the events that had preceded this final moment, a sweet ending just felt right. In "Juno," Michael Cera and Ellen Page are fucking singing to each other via acoustic guitars. Why can't the same scenario play out here?

What really moved me about this film was just how alone Donna feels throughout the film, but slowly she realizes she's not alone. There are several women out there who've been in situations just like her. She has nothing to be ashamed with. And yes, it's an event that she'll remember the rest of her life, but it doesn't define her. Just like it doesn't define any other woman who've gone ahead with this decision.

Agh. It was hard to write this review because, obviously, abortion is such a hot-button issue and I didn't want this review to veer off too much into politics. But I'm just so glad this movie exists, I really am. I think this is what movies are made for, in a way. I've said it before in my "Boyhood" review: people have no empathy these days. Through facebook, twitter---it's very easy to cast judgments on people because you don't have to meet said people in real life. Movies force us to at least try to empathize. Even if you don't agree with Donna's decision, can't you just take 85 minutes of your time and at least try to have some empathy? This movie forces you to understand the perspective of the other side of this decision-making process. Because the truth is, either decision is the right decision for that particular person in that particular time. And for the young women who are going through this very situation now, or in the future, they now have a movie that tells them that, whatever your decision is, you're not alone.

"Obvious Child" is not perfect. Who would expect it to be? After all, it's the directorial debut for Robespierre. The movie does fit a little too neatly within its rom-com constraints and I think it would've been nice to see Max and Donna have a real conversation about what's going to happen. I think there were a few too many cases where real drama could've been played out between these characters, but the writer/director eschewed that, perhaps consciously because of the seriousness of the subject matter.

Still, this is a remarkably confident and assured film that's capped off by beautiful performance from Jenny Slate. I hope this is a star-making performance because Slate is enormously talented and after seeing her play such wacky characters on "Kroll Show" and "Parks and Recreation," it's nice to see that she can dial it down and still be interesting to watch on screen.

But, again, Gillian Robespierre deserves the bulk of the credit for the relative ease in which she constructed the movie. "Obvious Child" has a very low key, unassuming feel that's digitally shot, but there's not much hand-held. Save for one painful, yet funny scene where Donna awaits the results of her pregnancy test (the only scene where we get an exclusive look inside Donna's thoughts), Robespierre pretty much lets the actors do their thing and the results are top-notch. I never thought I'd say this about a movie that deals with abortion but... I would happily revisit this movie. It's only 85 minutes long, yet these characters are so lovable and well-written that I feel like I really got to know them in spite of the brisk running time. And while it took me a few months to finally catch "Obvious Child" on Itunes, I will be sure to be there opening weekend whenever Robespierre gets around to making a second feature. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Grade: A-