Wednesday, December 3, 2014

October-November 2014



      Let’s face it; the world most of us live in is too small for Christopher Nolan. Like his obvious influences, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, he’s looking for answers to questions that can’t be contained in the dimensions of the natural world, which can only be found out there, far from what we know on Earth.

      I wouldn’t compare Nolan to these two extraordinary directors except that he’s made a film that deserves mention alongside their sci-fi masterpieces “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” While in some ways, “Interstellar” is nothing but an episode of “The Twilight Zone” imbued with all the razzle-dazzle of 21st Century computer-based filmmaking, it also presents an astonishingly complex, perfectly constructed great adventure on a scale rarely attempted.

      The film opens on a Nebraska farm where widower Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to raise his son Tom and daughter Murph amid a world gone environmentally bad. The human race faces dire straits as plants die and resources dwindle. Yet 10-year-old Murph (a very convincing Mackenzie Foy) is concerned about a ghost she says is haunting her room, warning her of something ominous.

      In fact, the apparition ends up leading the family to discover a research outpost of NASA in the middle of corn country and, for Cooper, a chance to revive his long-ago career as a test pilot (there’s a lot of Chuck Yeager in him). Though it’s a difficult decision, Cooper eventually decides that he must put the future of Earth ahead of his family and joins a mission with three scientists to the other side of the galaxy.

      Professor Brand (Nolan’s go-to authority figure Michael Caine) has develop a theory that involves traveling through a worm-hole—apparently the science of all this is somewhat legit, according to the film’s tech adviser and respected scientist Kip Thorne—to find a planet that can sustain human life. Among the other crew members is Brand’s daughter Amelia (a miscast Anne Hathaway) and a slab-like robot (voiced by Bill Irwin) that is clearly the most valuable member of the crew.

     There’s no need to get into the astonishing journey they take, except to say that the script (by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) makes it believably techie while still understandable to nonscientific types like me. At the same time, the movie keeps its connection to humanity by following developments on Earth and the life of Copper’s children. Those connections provide not only heartbreaking moments, but the quietly developing solution to the salvation of Earthlings.

     The images, mostly created by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Her,” “The Fighter”) are stunning, capturing both the beauty and the desolation of worlds beyond ours. While “Gravity” was a memorable story of the survival of one very resourceful woman, who desperately seeks to feel gravity again, “Interstellar” unlocks the secrets of gravity and moves on to the next level of dimensional understanding.

      McConaughey gives the film its heroic humanity, its symbol of integrity and heartland values; connecting back to the kind of performances—from the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart or Clint Eastwood—movies once were built around.

     The film’s other memorable performance comes from Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s grownup daughter, who holds the key to everything in the past and in the future. As she was in “Zero Dark Thirty,” she is superb at depicting the emotions behind being very good at your job.

      Though Hans Zimmer’s score (he also did “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for Nolan) will probably win an Oscar, it is so intrusive into the story that it makes John Williams’ work for Spielberg sound subtle. While I had no problem hearing the dialogue, many theatergoers around the country have complained that the sound mixing drowned out the words. 

     The 44-year-old Nolan has done challenging work in the past—“Inception” (a cousin of this time-shifting picture), the “Dark Knight” trilogy and the backward-told gem “Memento”—but “Interstellar” surpasses all; he has built a (literally) timeless endorsement of the truth of science and the overriding power of family, all wrap up in a rollercoaster ride for the ages. How it all comes together is simply breathtaking; it has that “we have seen the face of God and he is us” moment that makes smart science-fiction so exhilarating.  




    Mike Nichols directed just 18 feature films in a 40-year movie career—he always had one foot on the Broadway stage—yet he consistently delivered memorable, popular, often important films throughout those four decades. It seems crazy to think that the same director who made “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” his debut in 1966, also made “Catch-22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,”  “Birdcage” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

     While not displaying a recognizable filmmaking style that is usually the mark of greatness, as seen in his contemporaries Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman and Woody Allen, Nichols, who died last month at age 83, understood how to get the most out of his actors as well as any director in the past half century. He liked to put the camera right on the face of the actor and let them work, trusting them, as one does on the stage, to communicate the truths of the drama or comedy.

     Like most artists, his most impressive work came early. He had just one directing credit to his name, the stage play “Barefoot in the Park,” a huge hit that ran from 1963 to 1967, when he was tapped to direct the most volatile actors in the business, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in the film version of the most volatile play in the American repertoire, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The result was an explosive, uncomfortably frank film, at that time the most devastating look at marriage ever put on screen, earning Oscar nominations for all four actors.

      But it was his second film, starring an actor no one had ever heard of, which establish him as one of the most important filmmakers of his time. “The Graduate” officially reintroduced the disaffected youth, not as the typical 1950s delinquent, but as a college educated, well-to-do future CEO who just doesn’t care. 

      Home after graduating from a prestigious East Coast school, Benjamin Braddock (that unknown, Dustin Hoffman) wants to be anywhere but at his parents’ welcome-home party. Nichols shoots the scene in tight close-ups, as friends of the family seem to suffocate Benjamin with their inane questions and hallow praise. Then, a friend of his father pulls him aside and offers advice in a single word: “Plastics.” This, Benjamin realizes, is the world that he studied so hard to prepare for, that he’s now about to step into.

      When he’s not at the Taft Hotel having mechanical sex with Mrs. Robinson, the married friend of his parents, he’s lounging in his parents’ pool, drifting without a purpose, without a hope. Then hope arrives, as he falls helplessly in love with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Few things in life inspire hope more than a pretty girl, but then what? Benjamin is headed straight for a life in plastics.

     “The Graduate” was instantly acknowledged as one of the key films of the era, winning Nichols the Oscar for best director and scoring six other nominations, including best picture. It remains both hilarious and insightful, a timeless commentary on sex, love and the American dream.

      He followed his first two remarkable films (maybe the best one-two punch since Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”) with his take on novelist Joseph Heller’s dark, sarcastic and disturbingly funny vision of a war that had previously been portrayed nearly exclusively in noble terms. “Catch-22,” adopted for the screen by Buck Henry, who had also scripted “The Graduate,” matches the book’s condemnation of military bureaucracy and the pure absurdity of warfare.

     But the real companion to “The Graduate” was Nichols’ fourth feature, “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), an uncompromisingly brutal examination of male sexuality as it evolved from the 1940s to the 1970s.

     At the film’s center are the biting, truthful and revealing conversations between Jonathan (a quietly brilliant Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) starting when they are college roommates and continuing, off and on, into their 40s. To watch “Carnal Knowledge” today, a 43-year-old picture, is to be reminded of the shrill clichés that pass for honest in contemporary films. When I first saw it as a college student, it hit me like a brick across the back of my head; who would have known the complications of sexual relations?

     I could keep writing all day about Mike Nichols films, but I’ll finish by saying that his version, for HBO, of Tony Kushner’s riveting epic about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, “Angels in America” is about as good as television gets. The director manages to make the story both personal (aided by some brilliant performances) and political, filled with heartbreak and anger. Few filmmakers have been better at getting to the heart of human relations; digging into both the beautiful and the ugly, revealing the lies we tell and the desires we hide.      




     With blistering sarcasm and outrageous physical humor, “Birdman” portrays, like few films ever have, the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of the life of an actor.

     There’s a feeling of frantic desperation that pervades the film, not just for Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an aging Hollywood star trying to revive his career on Broadway, but for the other players too; it is as if everyone’s lives depend on the success of Thomas’ play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” And while “Birdman,” a movie about acting, revels in its dialogue— bitingly hilarious, heartbreaking and childishly ridiculous—director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) brings a visual style that intensifies every aspect of the film.

      Essentially, the ever-moving handheld camera becomes a character in the picture; daringly bringing the audience right into the story, into the moment, putting us on stage and in the dressing rooms. Filmed almost entirely inside the legendary St. James Theatre, the movie is photographed as one continuous shot, without a single edit, until the final few minutes. The camera winds through the narrow hallways backstage of the St. James, following the characters as they interact with one another, and, by smoothly fading from one day to another, prepare for opening night of the play.

     Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the great cameramen of the past 20 years (“The New World,” “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and, taking home the Oscar, “Gravity”) takes the kind of camera movement made famous by Welles and Scorsese to a new level without letting it become a distraction. Perfectly complimenting the intense camera work is the score, one long, dynamitic drum solo by composer Antonio Sanchez.

     The film’s title refers to the superhero franchise that made Riggan famous, but, at the same time, turns him into an easy target as he tries to write, direct and star on the Great White Way, where “Hollywood” is considered an obscenity. “Birdman” is also the voice in Riggan’s head (and occasionally in his dressing room) that he battles with as he nears opening night. If there’s a comparison to be made, it’s to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” and its unblinking look at a deeply damaged man of the theater. Riggan shares similar fears and insecurities as Fosse’s alter-ego Joe Gideon.

     The production turns absurd when an acclaimed but unstable stage actor joins the company (played at full throttle by Edward Norton), increasing both the interest in the play and Riggan’s blood pressure. At the same time, Riggan is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone, nailing the pseudo toughness of her generation), who is working as an assistant on the production.     

      This is the defining performance of Keaton career, which, in retrospect is pretty interesting. After his early, star-making comedy roles in “Night Shift,” “Mr. Mom” and “Beetlejuice,” he added to his box-office clout with solid work as the first “Batman” in that early franchise and then followed with a smart turn as a frustrated editor in “The Paper.” Dumb comedies like “Multiplicity” and “Jack Frost” sunk his stardom, but he continued to do good dramatic work, twice as Ray Nicolette, a federal agent, in “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.” At 63, even an Oscar win for “Birdman” (certainly, a possibility) might not bring him more good roles, but based on what he does here, he seems poised for greater things.

      Keaton expresses the angst, aimlessness and unabated ambition that marks contemporary America, while still being just a regular guy trying to get his screwed-up life on track. The dark irony of how he finds salvation shows the utter foolishness of grand gestures; the pointlessness of turning life into a stage play. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” a street performer emotes, reciting “Macbeth.” 

       Every performance is priceless, including Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s devoted manager, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, Naomi Watts as the play’s shaky co-star and, in a small but crucial role, Lindsay Duncan as the arrogant New York Times theater critic who savors her power to crush a Broadway show.

      Iñárritu’s films—from his Spanish-language debut, “Amores Perros” to “21 Grams” and “Babel”—are all about how interconnected we all are, even as we fail to hear or understand what each other are saying. But those earlier films were just warm-ups for this superb piece of iconoclastic filmmaking that digs into the heart and soul of an actor (who better to represent us all?), rips into both Hollywood and Broadway and cuts open the insecurities that are central to what makes us tick.  

      The cast of “Birdman” takes this wickedly smart, multi-layered, but also rambling and messy, script, by the director and Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, and turns it into a deeply felt, painfully honest motion picture that’s not to be missed.




     For all the ballyhoo leading up to this third installment, there’s little to really say about it; the film is but an intro with no climax, no resolution—a war film that ends before the real battle begins. The reason we’re still watching is for Jennifer Lawrence’s gloomy, feisty, magnetic Katniss.

     Picking up where “Catching Fire” stopped, the film opens as Katniss awakes following her rescue from the Games by rebels from District 13, where she, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her family have been taken. Within this impossibly huge militarized bunker, hundreds, if not thousands, of rebel forces are preparing for a faceoff with Capital forces and President Snow (the ever sneering Donald Sutherland).

     “Part 1” focuses on the propaganda aspect of the battle, as rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore) and her right-hand man, former games maker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convince Katniss to be the face of the revolution and star in videos to inspire the other districts to join the fight. At this point, Katniss remains just a chess piece in this strategic war being planned and fought by others. (I’m guessing that may change in “Part 2.”)

     Back in the Capitol, her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, still looking, and acting, like a middle-school nerd) is being used in the same way, urging the rebels to lay down their arms in televised interviews with Caesar (Stanley Tucci).

     Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) are back to keep Katniss on the straight and narrow, but they’ve been marginalized once “Games” became war.  Hoffman, whose final film appearance will continue in “Part 2,” offers the films only hint of humanity; everyone else is so downtrodden you wonder how they could possibly win this revolution.

The film, or should I say, half-film, makes some interesting points about how 21st Century “wars” are fought, how the spin and manipulation of opinion becomes just as important as bomb tonnage. But, overall, it’s a rather dreary, plodding beginning of this franchise’s conclusion. Ask a friend to give you a two-minute summary right before you see next Fall’s finale and you wouldn’t have missed a thing. 




      What’s not to like about a movie about jazz? Well, I’ll get to that later, but for a fan of this underappreciated music, currently barely stirring on its death bed, it was invigorating to see college musicians worshiping at the feet of Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich.

     The film, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s second movie, has a spare, documentary look and narrow viewpoint of a indie picture, never trying to turn its simple story into something more than one person’s experience.

      That person is Andrew (Miles Teller), a student at a prestigious New York music school, who desperately wants to impress the school’s jazz band director, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and become the band’s No. 1 drummer.

      A soft-spoken, pleasant young man, Andrew, somewhat of a loner, is intently determined to be a great drummer. Fletcher thrives on verbal abuse, leveling multi-adjective profanities—most of a homophobic nature—to push his young musicians to hit the notes and keep time to perfection. His young students both hate him and want to please him with the same intensity.

      Simmons, who became one of the cinema’s most interesting supporting players since establishing himself as the forensic psychologist on the original “Law and Order,” gives a gut-wrenching, spit-flying performance as the manipulative, dishonest and despicable Fletcher. He makes Hannibal Lector seem like a pleasant-enough dinner companion. 

      From my point of view, Chazelle turns Fletcher into such a monster that I stopped believing in the story’s reality. I seriously question whether the continual verbal abuse displayed in the film could go on in 2014 at a high-regarded academy. He’s a combination of a basic training drill sergeant and Bobby Knight.

      Teller, who was also quite effective in “The Spectacular Now” and “Rabbit Hole,” is definitely a young actor on the rise; as Andrew he shows how an unassuming, nearly invisible student can also burn with ambition. Adding to the authenticity of the film are Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad and Melissa Benoist as his sometime girlfriend. 

       What the film does best is show the incredible time and energy required to become a top musician and for an ensemble to master a piece of music. For fans of swinging, up-tempo big band jazz, the film is heaven sent. I just wish the filmmaker had put a mute on Fletcher.




     I thought I had seen or, at least knew about, every interesting newspaper movie Hollywood ever made, but this Edward G. Robinson gem caught me by surprise when it popped up on the TCM schedule.

      Robinson plays Bruce Corey, a returning GI from World War I who, rather than continue his newspaper career at one of the New York dailies, decides to create a new kind of American paper—the tabloid—already popular in Europe.

      Corey, fast talking and full of confidence, ends up receiving his financial backing from a notorious mobster (superbly played by veteran character actor Edward Arnold), who has his own reasons to “own” a newspaper. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long before the owner is tired of seeing his associates’ names in the paper and gives Corey an ultimatum.

       Director Mervyn LeRoy, whose career spanned from the silents to the 1960s, had made Robinson famous with “Little Caesar” (1931) before directing such hit films as “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932), “They Won’t Forget” (1936), “Random Harvest” (1942), “Madame Curie” (1943) and “Quo Vadis” (1951).

      Though not usually remembered as a stylist, the director brings some dynamic energy to “Unholy Partners,” with interesting camera movement and angles—LeRoy’s director of photography was George Barnes, who shot “Rebecca” and “Spellbound” for Alfred Hitchcock and was one of the most in-demand cameramen of the 1940s. While watching it I suspected the film had been strongly influenced by another newspaper movie, “Citizen Kane,” until I saw that the LeRoy picture was also released in 1941. For both style and subject matter, the films would make for a good double-bill.

       It’s one of Robinson’s best performances; his character is deeply conflicted even as he presents himself as a decisive, tough-talking editor. He remains one of the most underrated actors of his era, too often pigeonholed as “just” an effective bad guy. Sure, he could chew scenery with the best of them, but his performances as innocents swept away by lust in both Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” show his impressive range.




    I know they don’t make animated films for 58 year olds, but this attempt to revive two beloved characters from my childhood made me cringe.

     As part of the company of cartoons that appeared in Jay Wards’ masterful “Bullwinkle and Friends” (later “Rocky and Bullwinkle”), “Peabody and Sherman” was a clever, sarcastic and puny gem that used historical events (which the dog and his human son time-traveled to) as social criticism.

    The new movie fits the characters into contemporary clichés and uses their Way-Back machine for a lifeless adventure tale. The puns are still there, but aren’t earned; they lack the eye-rolling pleasure of 50 years ago.

     While not as bad as the live-action “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” (2000), there is little here for fans of the TV show. They tried, as Bullwinkle would say, pull a rabbit out of their hat, but came up empty handed.



VENUS IN FUR  (2014)

     Like Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, as a child, escaped the Nazi regime of the 1930s to become one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. Also like Nichols, he has consistently produced first-rate movies since the 1960s; Polanski’s first great film was his 1963 psychological drama “Knife in the Water” made in Poland.

      I recently re-watched Polanski’s 1971 take on “Macbeth,” which is a model of how to make Shakespeare vital and understandable for any audience. Even without a great performance at its center (Jon Finch plays the disturbed king), the movie is brings 11th Century Scotland alive along with the Bard’s study of unabated ambition. 

     The now 81-year-old filmmaker continues to work at the highest level—his previous two movies, “The Ghost Writer” (2010) and “Carnage” (2011)—stand just below his masterpieces, “Repulsion” (1965), “Chinatown” (1975) and “The Pianist” (2002).

     Like “Carnage,” his latest is a stage play adaption (with no attempt to open it up visually) centering on volatile male-female relationships. I’m not sure what the director could have done to improve “Venus in Fur,” which, as a stage production, received good reviews on Broadway, but I found it tiresome, repetitive and sadly dated.

      The play presents yet another metaphor for the ongoing power struggle between men and woman, sexual and otherwise, a subject that has been given thorough examination by Polanski, Nichols and dozens of playwrights and filmmakers over the past 40 years. This 2010 play might have had something original to say if it had been written in the 1960s or ‘70s, but hardly in 2014. Not that the issues don’t still exist, it’s just that David Ives’ play has little new to add to the debate.

    Set on a darkened rehearsal stage, the play opens with Vanda (Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner) bursting into the theater, late for a casting call, and then spending the next 20 minutes trying to convince the director (Polanski look alike Matthew Amalric) to hear her read for the part. 

     The play within the play, much of which is recited by the two actors, is based on the assignations of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who first wrote about the psychology behind S&M in the 1870s. As it is played out on stage by Vanda and director-playwright Thomas, their lives and the characters in the play begin to intermingle. Not only does Vanda know the role and the play, backwards and forward, but she has insight into Thomas that is otherworldly. Clearly, we are meant to wonder if she might be the reincarnation of Leopold’s long-ago lover.

     This two person dance is well acted by Seigner and Amalric. It’s probably Seigner’s finest performance, as she manages to play a mysterious seductress at age 48; previously she did excellent work in “Bitter Moon” (1992) and, opposite Amalric, in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

       Amalric is one of the most in-demand French actors, known in this country for his Bond villain role in “Quantum of Solace” and as one of the crazies in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” He was brilliant as the paralyzed editor in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

    In “Venus in Fur,” it becomes a bit of a distraction that he looks so much like the young Polanski, especially playing opposite Mrs. Polanski. Something weird is going on here (not a surprise for a Polanski film), but it’s not weird enough, or interesting enough, to make for a good film.