movie reviews November 2014

birdmanintersellarnightcrawlerrosewaterThe hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1the theory of everything

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The Theory of Everything
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Before Stephen Hawking became a wheelchair-bound, best-selling theoretical physicist who communicates through a computer-based speech synthesizer, he was, in 1963, an awkward but very mobile and vocal doctoral student at Cambridge. It’s at this point that award-winning documentary director James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) begins this acutely chronological yet glossed-over portrait of Hawking’s life.

Adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten from the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking née Wilde, the film aspires to depict the courtship and marriage of Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) to Wilde (Felicity Jones), his first wife. But despite the first-hand source material, Wilde’s point of view is conspicuously absent. Hawking is the main attraction here, and Wilde merely his helpmate. In tight, centered shots, Marsh offers scenes of Hawking among classmates seated in train-seat arrangement in a blackboard-covered classroom, surrounded by bulky, early electrical equipment in an exclusive lab or sequestered in his claustrophobic dorm room.

Still, the lack of a serious discussion of Hawking’s theories and philosophies makes this a failure as straight biopic. The glib ways they are explained — there’s one using a metaphor about a potato versus a pea — dumb them down. In his portrayal of Hawking’s doctoral tutor Dennis Sciama, the jowly David Thewlis exhorts Hawking to work out the math behind his theories. The filmmakers would have done well to follow that advice.

Notwithstanding the many scenes that exclude her, Wilde plays a more pivotal role than this screenplay allowed. Had it been braver and told her story to the exclusion of Hawking’s, the film could have transformed Hawking’s legend and shed light on the man as scientist and husband, and delved into his stubborn non-acceptance of his condition, the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig's disease. And Redmayne’s brilliant contortions, frozen into various withered-looking positions, overpower Jones’ pale performance as Wilde. But her wan performance may not be entirely her fault.

A graduate student studying the Medieval poets of the Iberian peninsula is no match for a popular cosmologist who will go on to deliver punch lines during cameo appearances on prime-time sitcoms. So about Wilde’s motives for wanting to marry a man doctors have given only two miserable years to live, the emotion behind her struggle to raise their children while also caring for her wheelchair-bound husband in a pre-accessible Britain, and the transfer of affections from each other to a widowed church choirmaster (Charlie Cox) and a brassy in-home care nurse (Maxine Peake) — there can still only be presumptions. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/27/14)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the latest installment of the cinematic adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels, the games are finally over. Replacing the astonishing child-on-child violence of the first two movies is a war of agitprop, and who better to star in the rushes produced to unify the rebellion districts against the Capitol but Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen?

In her publicity appearances, Lawrence spends a good deal of her time reminding the public that she’s a regular person just like the rest of us, and the public adores her for it. She makes faces on the red carpet, cusses while holding her Oscar and during every single talk show interview — and there are a lot of them — insists her life is not one long Hollywood party. Whether this plebeian identity is the actual, authentic Lawrence or a carefully crafted persona isn’t integral to an understanding of director Francis Lawrence’s return to the franchise (He directed the second one, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.) but it does add a layer of post-modern speculation for those that enjoy meta-riddles concerning celebrity culture.

But this could be the reason why Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss has been so compelling throughout all three films. Lawrence understands the power of seeming genuine, and she imparts that to Katniss, who also knows how to stay grounded and dig in deep, or at least to appear that way. And that, above all else, is the essence of this third film.

Splitting the final book into two separate theatrical releases was an unwise decision. This first part carries all the hallmarks of being stretched on the rack for commercial purposes: It’s bloated and repetitive. There’s a real challenge in telling the rubble-strewn districts apart or feeling sadness for Katniss on repeated visits to pillage her former tribute’s residence for sentimental objects, including her sister’s puffed-up tabby. By stalling the narrative, what’s left on the screen is all mood.

And it’s not a pleasant mood. A stark contrast to the confectionary makeup and dress of the capital, the air is taken out by drab bunker life overseen by an austere new political leader, played by Julianne Moore in the same way all female leaders in dystopian futures are played: frosty, austere and just a little bit neurotic. Elizabeth Banks as a stripped Effie Trinket gets it right when she complains about being condemned to a life of jumpsuits. In this version, we all are. If the revolution is going to be televised, why wouldn’t there be better clothes?

Finally, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fidgety certitude as political strategist Plutarch Heavensbee serves as a sad reminder that this is one of the last chances to see the late actor onscreen in a new but familiar role. Hoffman portrays the media-savvy Heavensbee as a realist with a flare for the theatrical. He has great instincts. Had Hoffman’s Plutarch been around for postproduction he would’ve known where to cut for the final scene. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/26/14)

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Activist and documentarian filmmaker Michael Moore called Rosewater, written and directed by Jon Stewart, a film even Republicans would like. One could interpret Moore’s remark as either criticism of the film or a compliment to Stewart, or both.

Stewart’s freshman foray into moviemaking points to his talent and work ethic though reportedly he received plenty of advice and direction from more seasoned Hollywood directors. Something, many might argue, not available to lesser well-known and connected filmmakers trying to fund their projects. Not everyone has a popular and highly related cable TV show as a springboard into moviemaking.

Perhaps underlying Moore’s comment about Rosewater is his belief the film would stir up anti-Muslim emotions as if those feelings were somehow dormant in the non-Islamic world. The film shows both the heroic efforts of some Iranians during that country’s 2009 elections and paranoid, reflective response of a government feeling threatened by want of more freedom from its citizens. Many countries across the globe experience such political spasms of change, including America.

Rosewater is based on the memoir of Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy. Bahari was imprisoned by Iranian authorities and accused of working for the CIA. Bahari, a London-based journalist working for Newsweek, came to Iran to cover the elections. During his stay he was interviewed by one of Stewart’s so-called correspondents on the Daily Show, which led to Bahari being charged as working with a spy. Bahari also filmed the protests going on after the election results leading to the assumption that was the real reason for his imprisonment. Having not read Bahari’s book, I do not know if the film accurately reflects all the facts in his memoir.

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari with a sort of wide-eyed innocence that seems like a carryover of his role in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, which depicted Che Guevara’s early life and slow conversion into a leftist revolutionary. Bahari’s remark to his pregnant wife Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) that he would only be gone a “few days” strikes one as more naïveté than a husband’s reassurance to a worried spouse.

Bahari carries this sort of cluelessness into Iran, which is strange considering we learn his father was tortured by the pro-Western government of Mohammed Reza Shah as being a communist, and his sister imprisoned by revolutionary government led by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One would think Bahari would have a more realistic view of the government of Iran.

Introduced to the opponents of the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by taxi driver and activist Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Bahari is arrested soon after filming an anti-government crowd storming the headquarters of the Basij, the name given to street thugs used by the government against protestors.

Blindfolded and thrown into an isolated cell, Bahari comes under the control of Rosewater (Kim Bodnia), the name given his interrogator because of the habit of Iranians using the perfumed water to cover body odor because of their constant work doesn’t give them time off to take care of personal matters.

Rosewater is the consummate bureaucrat, wanting to fulfill his duty to the government he has allegiance to and to please his superior Haj Asha (Nasser Faris). Rosewater views breaking Bahari and getting him to admit that he is working for the CIA as advancing his career and (maybe) gives him a break from the relentless work and some time in a more ordinary existence.

Bodnia gives Rosewater an almost sympathetic presence as if he could be something else than a tormentor of prisoners. Rosewater is both a firm believer that the West is out to destroy Iran yet curious of its views and temptations. Rosewater is one who does not particularly like what he is doing but does it out of loyalty to his government and religious beliefs. His is a universal dilemma in what it means to be human within a structure that gives security.

Bahari’s fate never seems in doubt. He is eventually released due to pressure from the West and the want of the Iranian government to avoid any embarrassment considering Bahari finally does relent and confesses to his made-up crimes.

Rosewater is solid, well acted film, yet substitute any of dozens of other countries for Iran and one could have basically the same, tension-filled story. Political oppression, the lies that governments tell, the constant state of anti-Western sentiment and the suppression of freedom seem like permanent fixtures in the world. Stewart’s film adds to the question of why such conditions continue. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/17/14)

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Psychopaths, according to British journalist Jon Ronson in The Psychopath Test, aren’t all violent criminals. The hallmark traits — lack of impulse control, emotion and remorse — are just as advantageous for gaining market share and reaping profits as for killing sprees. In fact, compared to the population at large, CEOs are four times more likely to test positive for psychopathy.

The brutal beating of a security guard at the outset of Nightcrawler lets us know which type of psychopath we’re dealing with in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut. But Jake Gyllenhaal’s unblinking portrayal of the film’s heavy, Leo Bloom, also includes robot-like recitations of business jargon and corporate buzzwords, creating a monster more chilling than violence alone could spawn.

Forget anti-heroism: Bloom is a creep. His repulsiveness negates any argument about likability or anticipation of success in the central character. It’s to Gyllenhaal’s credit that even the guy who buys scrap metal from him can’t stand to be in the same room with him for long. He’s set on delivering a never-ending sales pitch, and his only commodity is himself.

A stroke of luck puts Bloom at the scene of a traffic accident where super-stringer cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) is filming the carnage. Bloom is intensely interested in the business model behind becoming a local news contributor, and Loder, badly underestimating Bloom’s opportunism and persistence, in his overly earnest explanation even trots out the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Soon after, equipped with a pawnshop camcorder, a police scanner and an intern (Riz Ahmed), Bloom is careening around DP Robert Elswit’s (There Will Be Blood, Good Night, and Good Luck) shadowy Los Angeles to grisly accident and crime scenes. Bloom’s unflinching drive and absence of any real human emotion or moral compass make him a natural, and Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the desperate producer of an early morning local news show, makes the mistake of putting her ratings at the mercy of the unmerciful.

To play Bloom, Gyllenhaal replaced 30 pounds with just as much intensity and ghoulishness, and at times he takes the stare and the concentration too far. But ultimately the character is static. His arc doesn’t include growth; its change comes in the form of degrees of success in his manipulations. The only surprise here comes from the extent to which Romina goes along with his blackmail when a meeting over margaritas at a Mexican restaurant takes a turn into a terrifying, one-sided negotiation. The scenes clocks in at six-and-a-half-minutes, but the entire film hangs on Romina’s reaction. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/13/14)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Over a career spanning from Memento to Inception, director Christopher Nolan's films have grown increasingly larger, louder and more obsessed with their own intellectual conceits.

The sci-fi epic Interstellar expands this scale on every level, moving beyond our world, our universe — even beyond our dimensions — in an attempt propel Nolan into the pantheon of Kubrick and Spielberg by providing a cultural artifact that transcends cinema. But where Kubrick and Spielberg invited audiences to share a sense of wonder in their personal visions, Nolan has churned out a long, lumbering mish-mash of science jargon, pseudo-philosophy and downright hokum.

The self-important tone is set from the beginning as a series of talking heads- — aged and weathered like the faces in Dorothea Lange photos — describe massive dust storms and the conditions of "the blight." These alternate with a camera panning around what could be a farmhouse right out of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, that is, until a hand reaches into frame to open a laptop.

It seems that on near-future Earth, we've wrecked the environment to such an extent that only a couple of crops will grow; as a result, careers in science and tech have been diverted to subsistence farming to feed the population. Among these repurposed workers is Coop (Matthew McConaughey), former NASA test pilot and engineer, now devoted to raising corn as well as two children.

While son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) is content with his lot as a farmer, daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is a girl after her father's heart. She has her daddy's inquisitiveness and analytical mind. She's also convinced a ghost is knocking books off her shelves and manipulating the dust on her bedroom floor.

With a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these mysterious events send Coop and Murph on a trajectory that will determine their life paths. Coop is recruited by a Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to pilot a secret NASA expedition to find a new home for the human race, leaving behind young Murph with a promise to return. NASA has been sending scout ships through a wormhole that fortuitously appeared near Saturn; Coop and his crew — Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and a sentient robot voiced by Bill Irwin — are to locate these scouts and determine which has found humankind's new home.

Surprisingly, once in space, the film quickly devolves into a rather generic trip: Coop and crew maneuver the wormhole, visit a water world and an ice world, skim the rim of a black hole (always a good source of momentum for the ever-necessary slingshot effect), all while discovering the mission's true purpose and uncovering (gasp) a traitor in their midst. The alien worlds are convincingly realized, but with current effects technology and a $165 million budget, that’s to be expected.

Nolan and co-writer, brother Jonathan seem far more concerned with the concepts of long distance space flight. As a result, characters are incessantly raising grand theoretical topics such as quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, singularities, gravitational anomalies and alternate dimensions; it’s like “The Big Bang Theory” without laughs, or any real explanations.

Cinematically, these discussions have little impact. When the landing party returns from a scouting mission, the only indications that the trip has lasted mere hours for those on the planet’s surface but more than a decade for the member left behind are his five-day beard and plaid flannel robe.

At other moments, however, these same scientists posit that love is quantifiable and the only thing that transcends dimensions, or some such malarkey.

And that’s Nolan’s problem: he wants it both ways — Kubrick’s cold intellectualism and Spielberg’s warm populism. Ultimately, he manages neither. The fact that the action devolves to two guys in spacesuits head-butting each other against a majestic planet-scape suggests the film has lost its way.

Trying to satisfy both visions and neatly resolve this Pandora’s Box of loose ends, the Nolans ultimately wind-up in eye-rolling M. Night Shyamalan territory. No mind, though. Just toss in yet another plangent Michael Caine recitation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and crank up Hans Zimmer’s stately organ music to counteract any urge to giggle. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/13/14)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In the deliriously entertaining Birdman, director Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu may not have much to say that's new about America's celebrity culture, digital obsession, conflict between art and commerce, or about the never-ending human struggle with the ego, but for two enthralling hours, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki filter these topics through a lens of magical realism, making what is essentially a tragic story feel downright uplifting.

The story, at its core, is simple and familiar: actor Riggan Thomson, who rose to super-stardom decades ago playing iconic superhero Birdman but walked away from a third sequel, is attempting to resuscitate his career and reputation by directing and starring in his own stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. In a bit of self-consciously ironic casting, Thomson is played by Michael Keaton, who found superstardom as Tim Burton's version of Batman then walked away from a third installment.

The theater setting allows Gonzales Iñárritu (along with fellow screenwriters Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) nods to venerable theatrical and cinematic tropes, including the backstage farce, the bitter theatre critic, and the dim-witted yet fawning audience.

Gonzales Iñárritu also surrounds Keaton with a strong cast. Zach Galifianakis, for once, actually seems to be acting and is almost unrecognizable (in the best possible way) as Jake, Riggan’s friend and producer, who nearly single-handedly keeps the production from collapsing before its debut. As Mike Shiner, a celebrated and notorious Broadway star brought in to replace an injured cast member, Edward Norton brings to life yet another theatre trope: the enfant terrible. Shiner is a method-acting nightmare, willing to put everything and everyone at risk in the name of art, and Norton strikes sparks off of Keaton every time they share the screen.

The center of this story, however, is Riggan Thomson. The film follows the last few days of a man whose life and mind are spiraling out of control. And Gonzales Iñárritu tells it from inside that mind. Tour-de-force camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men and Gravity) presents the film as one continuous take; people and events bustle on all sides as the camera follows up and down stairways, in and around the labyrinthine St. James Theater. Reminders of Riggan’s past and present populate this insular world: new girlfriend and cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough), ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and recovering addict daughter (Emma Stone).

The ghost that looms largest in Riggan‘s universe, however, is Birdman — the character. Staring out from a “Birdman 3” poster on the wall of Riggan’s top floor dressing room and voiced by Keaton in a version of his stoic Batman intonation, Birdman is the voice of doubt and despair, the voice of age and regret, reminding him that he could have stayed a star and that it’s not too late to cash in.

We don’t just hear Birdman. We watch these inner struggles as they pass across Riggan’s face. Keaton’s vulnerability here — the age lines, the jowls, the receding hairline — all speak to the fight with time, a fight everyone, even Birdman, is destined to lose.

When these inner and outer pressures become too much, some heroic inner Birdman stirs. In these moments, sometimes in his Birdman garb, at others in street clothes, Riggan flies, levitates, moves objects through telekinesis, shoots fireballs.

Is he really Birdman or is he losing it? Gonzales Iñárritu really doesn’t leave much room for ambivalence here.

Following a near-death experience on opening night, Riggan, left alone in a hospital bed, spots birds soaring outside his skyscraper window, climbs onto the sill, and leaps. On returning, his daughter runs to the open window, stares down expecting the worst, then looks up and radiantly smiles.

Reality? Deus ex machina? Or the last fantasy of a dying man?

The image that both opens and closes the film — a fiery comet plummeting to Earth — seems to provide the answer.

Gravity wins. Time ultimately prevails. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 11/03/14)


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