The Hunger Games is still the best YA franchise aimed at a female… MoreThe Hunger Games is still the best YA franchise aimed at a female audience (sorry Divergent) even if it does strain from being cannibalized from a score of dystopian fiction. Despite being about a leftist revolt against a totalitarian, top-down aristocratic dictatorship, it is probably the most corporately endorsed series out currently. That's a bit awkward. This installment, Mockingjay Part 1, mostly marks time with a couple of notable scenes and performances that save it from near mediocrity. Jennifer Lawrence throws everything into her increasingly schizophrenic and inconsistently written role. One moment she is compelling, shooting down gunships with explosive arrows John Rambo style, delivering moments of pure fury and fire with her perfect hair flowing in the wind. And the next she is crying behind some pipes, screaming at her comrades, and holding a rebellion hostage over her newfound love affair. The real heavyweight is Phillip Seymour Hoffman who shines as a clever propaganda artist and excellent manipulator. This guy was having fun. (Even in death, this man is winning.)
I enjoyed the brief glimpse of urban warfare and other moments of violence as war spreads throughout Panem. Not to mention the theme of propaganda and its manipulative influence on the course of history. And that is one advantage of this movie over previous installments - it feels a bit more weighty and dark. Yet, it lacks the element of fun that Catching Fire had going for it. For every scene that grabbed me, there were two more in which jumpsuit-clad characters sit in a semi-dark bunker and engage in a flat dialogue. There clearly wasn't enough plot for two separate movies. Hopefully the conclusion can knock it out of the park and elevate what has been an okay or decent series into a truly memorable or great one.
Oh and the entertainment media can officially stop sucking Lorde's dick for arranging the "official" soundtrack and that one blah, uninspired song that plays over the credits. I found the simple, folksy "The Hanging Tree" sung by Lawrence to be more moving and appropriate.
St. Vincent is a cute, well-acted comedy that showcases Bill Murray's… MoreSt. Vincent is a cute, well-acted comedy that showcases Bill Murray's talents as a character actor. This is a crude movie with a heart, but you can basically recreate the entire script just by watching the trailer or the first 3 scenes. A crass, gross, alcoholic Vietnam War vet babysits a smart, puny kid and they learn from each other while hijinks ensue. (See this basically writes itself.) It's also nice to see Melissa McCarthy in a non-comedic role; it shows she has some range. That being said it's worth a rental and probably not much else. The funniest gag is actually during the ending credits where we see Bill Murray listening to Bob Dylan on his Walkman and attempting to sing, while drinking and watering his dirt backyard.
"Theatrical" is the word I would use to describe Birdman.… More"Theatrical" is the word I would use to describe Birdman. ("Pretentious" is one that less impressed critics would give it.) Most of the action of this dark comedy takes place in a theater, as our has-been protagonist attempts to jumpstart his career on Broadway. But the reason I used this word is a result of the one camera focus - using one long, continuous take - and the almost improvised and organic feel to the dialogue. The soundtrack consists mostly of restless jazz percussion and the audience gets a real feel and flavor for Manhattan (which are two things the film has in common with Whiplash). Michael Keaton returns to a starring role as a sympathetic, humorous, and self-absorbed person. He seems to enjoy himself and all the neuroses his character carries with him. Honorable mentions are in order for Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Zach Galifianakis. There are also elements of magical realism, with flights of fancy and telekinesis showing up randomly. How literal these moments are to be taken is up to the interpretation of the viewer and this feeds into the ambiguous, but emotionally satisfying ending. This could well end up a best picture nominee with some nods for performances and more importantly, it is a pleasant character study unafraid to satirize the entertainment industry and artistic integrity.
One of the decidedly less visible movies this season, Whiplash proves… MoreOne of the decidedly less visible movies this season, Whiplash proves a well-directed and hard hitting surprise. It concerns a young aspiring jazz drummer who attends a prestigious music conservatory in the hopes of becoming the next Buddy Rich. Then he meets the instructor from hell in the form of J. K. Simmons. Whiplash morphs into the Parris Island scenes from Full Metal Jacket as Simmons channels R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. To put it bluntly he abuses the ever living shit of our young hero and his unfortunate classmates, both mentally and physically. There are multiple occasions in which chairs are thrown and people are physically assaulted while four letter words and homophobic slurs fill our ears. This is the kind of role I wish J. K. Simmons would perform more often, as I feel his incredible range and character acting are often wasted in the movies he finds himself in these days. Of course, Miles Teller displays uncommon valor and skill in this kind of low key, high intensity atmosphere and may be one of our new up-and-comers. It is also notable how many scenes successfully use The Social Network's rapid fire dialogue and green hued cinematography to highlight cold emotion behind a cerebral exchange. (The reach of that film has proven long indeed.) The musical segments are intense and compliment the emotions of the characters performing them - with literal blood on the drums in several scenes. I present this conflict-driven drama to you as an excellent example of why we still bother to make Oscar bait in today's cynical age.
It is kind of remarkable how the internet nerd establishment has… MoreIt is kind of remarkable how the internet nerd establishment has largely turned against Christopher Nolan in the last couple of years. Perhaps it's because of his incredibly irritating fan base who worship at his altar nightly while listening to Hans Zimmer tracks ad nauseum. But I would wager that Nolan's style of dark, moody, and cerebral storytelling seriously clashes with modern nerdom's preference for all things quirky, colorful, ironic, and light-hearted. I don't have a problem with either - we need both to create a healthy diet of quality cinema - each style with its distinct place and purpose. But with us it is all or nothing, and Nolan lately seems to be on the losing side of this equation. Perhaps this situation pushed him to do something unexpected with his first experiment in space-themed hard science fiction, Interstellar. Here, he merges heartfelt melodrama with his usual commitment to cold, intellectual fiction for mixed results. I would argue that Interstellar succeeds as an effective, well made film that should receive credit for its high ambitions, but that probably doesn't mean as much as it used to.
The opening act of the film effectively grabs your attention and introduces the apocalyptic sense of dread which spurs the plot along, as well as sets up the core thread of the film - the love a father has for his daughter and her dreams for the future. Where Interstellar truly shines is in the middle third, in which we see a full-fledged homage to 2001 Space Odyssey. The pace of the film slows down and we are treated to the quiet vastness of space and slowly drifting spacecraft backed by a ballet-esque score by Zimmer. There is also an artificially intelligent robot named TARS who almost steals the show. It physically resembles the black monolith, while having the vast intelligence and wit of the infamous HAL 9000, without the cold, murderous streak and passive arrogance. But it is the vast alien worlds and the beautiful vistas of wormholes and the warping effects of singularities that will knock the audience cold. This section is hauntingly beautiful, and has etched itself into my brain in a way that few movies have. There is also a serious commitment to scientific realism and the explanations of how time and space (i.e. relativity) affect the astronauts are admirable, even if they overestimate the intelligence of the audience quite a bit. Then the last 30 minutes happens. It largely falls apart narratively and logically and will no doubt be mocked for its inability to provide a coherent ending. The hard science fiction goes out the window and the film settles for a schmaltzy, heartwarming way to resolve the main problem. (Was love confirmed to be the most powerful force in the universe or was it gravity? Or binary code on a watch's second hand?) Notably, film geeks and the internet have taken this ending to task for this tonal shift, but surprisingly audiences have given it a pass. Probably because it ends on a positive and emotionally satisfying note. And that was probably the audience Nolan was trying to reach. But overall this movie may be too weird and long for most of them to appreciate anyway.
Other notable problems include Casey Affleck's character which was little more than a stereotype. And a cameo from A CERTAIN A-LISTER was a complete waste of time not to mention his purpose was incredibly obvious. Also, the constant cutting back to events back on Earth broke the flow and mood, and was a poor artistic decision. But to the film's credit, this was a big budget science fiction film with an original script not based on any preexisting property. The only reason why a studio committed this level of resources in today's risk adverse industry was because Christopher Nolan's name was attached. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain work at great length to sell the hell out of this thing and they succeed. Everyone else is here for a paycheck.
It is in my summation that Interstellar was a near doomed effort from the start. The expectations placed upon it were unrealistic. This was never going to be the next Inception or 2001 Space Odyssey. The fact that it has performed ably at the box office and has received generally favorable critical reception is a testament to the filmmakers. Yet, I have to make one perhaps damning comparison. It is notable how Gravity had much smaller ambitions and a much shallower script but was rewarded with garlands and beloved by critics and moviegoers alike. You see that's the problem with high risk, high reward gambits - they imply the chance of failure is likely. Or in cases such as this, a mixed result. It was too long and weird for the average person, too stupid and loosely written for film geeks, not consistently cold and dark enough for Nolan's fanbase, not accurate enough for the scientifically minded, and the internet nerd community was ready for him to misstep and they have struck. In the end, Interstellar is not this year's Gravity, but its Prometheus - a beautiful, well made, well-acted, goddamn mess of a film that has been tried and sentenced by the very people it wished to reach and win over. But screw it. I still liked it.
P.S. If I hear one more jerkoff who headlines his review of this movie with some half-assed pun on the title along the lines of "Not very stellar!" or "Doesn't quite live up to its name!" I will geld you to death. You are not clever. Just a douchebag.