Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Lock Up Your Pumpkins

Fall Movie Diary: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Date: October 28, 2014
Time: 12:20 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: No one

Food:  Coke, popcorn 
Runtime: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Quick Impressions:
Why did Michael Keaton disappear from starring screen roles for so many years?  (Was he waiting on a third “Beetlejuice”?  That can take a while.)  I have no idea where he went or why, but I’m glad he’s back.  I always liked his Batman.  He played Bruce Wayne as an actual guy instead of the virtual nonentity the character became in the late 90s after Keaton left the role.  (I’m not blaming Val Kilmer and George Clooney.  Frankly, I don’t know where to place the blame.  It’s like when Keaton left the franchise, they quit writing a part for Bruce Wayne, and instead focused on putting together an awesome bat suit and a teeming cast of villains.)

I’ve been bursting with excitement about Birdman all year, so kudos to its marketing campaign.  The film has been generating tons of early Oscar Buzz, and its previews make it look so cool.  (Part of the credit for that goes to the ear-catching, drum-based score.  Drums make anything seem cooler.  I would seem a hundred times cooler right now if I hired my own personal drummer to improvise jazzy background riffs every time I opened my mouth.)  

This fall our house seems to have become a revolving door of plague and contagion, so I wasn’t completely sure I’d be healthy enough to see Birdman this week, but fortunately, I found a time that worked.

And I liked the movie a lot.  Keaton certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here.  I would expect several Oscar nominations, in fact.  (It’s particularly outstanding in terms of cinematography and score.)  Picture and director nominations should certainly be in the discussion, too.  I liked Iñárritu’s earlier film Babel quite a lot, but I think I like Birdman a bit better, maybe because I found some storylines in Babel far more compelling than others.  (That bit with Adriana Barraza and the children I could watch again and again.)

Emma Stone gives the performance of her career in this film.  I’ve liked Stone since I first saw her in Superbad, but she’s never had the opportunity to give a performance like this before, and she’s pretty phenomenal.  Frankly I’d be stunned if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for this, and I could easily imagine her taking home the award.  (There are tons of performances I haven’t seen yet, of course, but Stone is really good here, and Best Supporting Actress often goes to an emerging female star about her age.)

The Good:
Visually the film is just stunning.  Not only is every shot beautiful (and doubly compelling because it’s slightly unusual), but Birdman is also visually rich because of some really fascinating symbolism. 

Birdman does so much with mirrors, and I’m a big sucker for shots involving mirrors.  On a purely aesthetic level, photography involving mirrors is just fun and cool. 

But in this film, there’s a reason for the mirrors.  We have a protagonist who hears and sees his alter-ego Birdman almost all the time.  So we have a protagonist with a split personality, giving rise to themes of doubling and duality throughout the movie.

Not only do we get lots of shots involving mirrors and numerous scenes of Keaton talking to himself, but Birdman also gives us several scenes of two characters in dialogue, and—even more significantly—entire scenes that seem to pair with other scenes.

Several times, as I watched the movie, I would catch myself thinking, This is a cool moment, only to discover another scene later on that served as that cool moment’s counterpart.

As I said, I love duality and doubling and mirrors, so this aspect of the film really worked for me.

The performances are all quite strong, too.  A number of them deserve some Oscar attention, and even the ones that don’t quite merit that are still fantastic.  (Amy Ryan, for example, is wonderful in a small role as the ex-wife of Keaton’s character Riggan Thomson, but the character probably isn’t on screen enough to get awards attention.)

And, of course, the casting is clever.  I would hope that I don’t need to say anything about Michael Keaton as Birdman.  And I think most people will also appreciate seeing Edward Norton cast as an actor who is “difficult” on set because he can’t resist rewriting all his lines and getting in arguments about how his scenes should be played.  Frankly I’m surprised they cast Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter instead of getting Lindsay Lohan.  (I love Stone’s performance, but Lohan’s presence would have been one more in-joke, and might have been particularly appropriate since she did appear as Michael Keaton’s daughter in Herbie Fully Loaded.  Maybe casting Emma Stone (who has often been compared to Lohan) still gets the point across.  (And Stone is phenomenal in the role.)

Maybe the best thing about the entire film, though, is the score.  The driving beat of the virtually non-stop drum solo sets the scene so beautifully.  We feel the frantic, frenetic energy backstage at the theater as everyone scrambles around trying to prepare for opening night.  Better still, the relentless drums give an urgency to all the action, and seem to mirror Riggan Thomson’s interior state of panic and distress.  The world is crowding in around him demanding results, and Thomson begins retreating into an interior world (which offers little comfort) in response to all the stress and pressure.  The drum score is perfect and pretty unusual.  I hope it wins the Oscar.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Michael Keaton/Emma Stone:
When Riggan and his daughter Sam take turns railing at each other, both Keaton and Stone do some of their best acting to that point.  I particularly like Michael Keaton here because in the presence of his daughter, Riggan becomes so stripped down and honest.  He’s admitting something true that he’s been holding back from everyone.  He admits it to Sam probably because he believes that when she understands that (the motivating secret truth), suddenly his behavior will make sense to her, and she’ll give him some of the sympathy he feels he deserves.  But that is not what happens.  Because he’s pushed to his limits, Riggan is very self-absorbed, and so is Sam.  When he bares his soul to her, he doesn’t begin to suspect that she may be in a similarly self-absorbed, distressed place herself and incapable of giving him the sympathy he craves.

Emma Stone, meanwhile, has never before had the opportunity to give a crazy, impassioned, raw, volatile speech like this, and she absolutely nails it.  (The odd camera angle helps, too.  She’s doing some great acting, but it seems even better because of the highly stylized presentation.)

I’d be surprised if Keaton doesn’t get a nomination for Best Actor, and based on what I’ve seen so far this year, Stone could actually win Best Supporting Actress (an award that often goes to an attractive star about her age).

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Emma Stone/Edward Norton:
Although Stone’s rant at Keaton is great (and practically tailor-made to double as a clip at awards shows), I think I like her even better on the roof with Edward Norton.  It takes talent to make a crazy, intense rant work on screen, but sometimes it takes even more talent to bring the same compelling intensity to an ordinary conversation.  She’s immensely compelling in this scene, as is Norton, whose character reveals an unexpected side here.  These scenes also look fantastic.  They’re just beautifully framed and shot.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Edward Norton/Michael Keaton:
One of the film’s most striking visual sequences happens early when Mike and Riggan walk down the street together, and Norton’s character obnoxiously berates Keaton’s for not understanding/belonging in the world of the Broadway stage.  Norton dominates this scene.

Then later, we get a fantastically physical, energetic fight when Riggan attacks Mike.  This scene is like the early scene’s complement, and this time, Keaton dominates.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Naomi Watts/Edward Norton:
I doubt Watts will get a nomination for Best Supporting Actress (because of the way her character gets phased out in the last segment of the movie), but she’s quite brilliant in the sex scene on stage that takes an alarming, sinister turn.  Watts is fantastic in this moment, and in its aftermath.  (And, of course, the scene is quite brilliant, too, because the moment is supposed to showcase Riggan’s performance as a man who feels reduced to nothing,in part because of the actions of Mike’s character.  So it’s pretty great that Mike upstages this moment and makes it all about him.)  (There’s also some pretty great visual symbolism here if you consider how Mike’s character ruins Riggan’s character’s life, and how Mike manages to upstage Riggan.)

Best Action Sequence:
The off-stage fight between Mike and Riggan and the onstage struggle between Lesley and Mike both make for very compelling action sequences, as does the “Birdman” moment near the end.

But my personal favorite scene involving action is the moment when Riggan’s character starts smashing everything in his dressing room/office.  This scene is especially great because first we see how this all looks to Riggan, and then we get a slightly different take on what’s happening from the point of view of Jake.

Best Scene/Best Scene Visually:
The scene most destined to become iconic is surely Riggan’s desperate sprint through Times Square in his tighty whities.  Even in the film’s previews, this moment stands out.  It’s like a visual metaphor for Riggan’s entire dilemma.  A washed up movie star (known for making silly action blockbusters), Riggan is used to being in the spotlight.  People recognize him constantly and follow him around everywhere.  But what he wants is to be taken seriously as an actor.  He’s trying to reconnect with an important moment from his youth by pouring all his time, money, energy, and talent into an experimental play he adapted from a short story.  The play is now opening on Broadway, and Riggan is out of his element and feeling tons of pressure.  (He’s also losing his mind.)

The sprint through Times Square has a nightmarish quality.  In context, it’s every actor’s #2 nightmare (#1 of course, is forgetting your lines onstage).  And in general, it’s every human’s nightmare (to be completely exposed and, consequently, ridiculed).

(The scene is great, too, because of what happens with it later.  Riggan feels totally vulnerable, exposed, powerless, off-balance, here, and yet what happens because of this moment actually works in his favor (as explained by Emma Stone’s character).  This is a clear indication that Riggan no longer understands the world he’s in.  What means one thing to the outside world feels like something else entirely to him.  He’s drowning in life.  He doesn’t feel he belongs in the world.)

Taken together, this scene and the later “Birdman” scene through the streets of New York reveal the warring states of Riggan’s tormented mind.  At some times, the tighty whitie sprint  represents his self-concept.  But then at other times, he’s Birdman.  

Basically, you could juxtapose these two scenes (without even dialogue or context, although I’d keep the music because it adds a lot), and you’d have the entire film in miniature.

The Negatives:
This is the kind of film I’d want to view multiple times before taking it to task for any perceived shortcomings.  I’m not implying that it’s hard to follow or dense in terms of plot.  But (compared to what American audiences usually get) it is surprising and risky and outside the box.  I almost said that it’s not formulaic at all, but that would be massively overstating its originality because though Birdman features a novel and (deliberately) jarring presentation of elements, those elements are actually fairly familiar.  Just because we’re seeing them in kind of a scrambled up way doesn’t mean we’ve never encountered them before.

Imagine this.  You stroll into a restaurant expecting an ordinary, casual meal, and suddenly you’re ambushed by a mime on a unicycle shooting random stuff at you out of a miniature cannon.  Imagine how you’d react.  Lettuce?  What?  A slice of cheese?  How bizarre!  Pickles?  This is getting crazy!  A bun?  Tomato slices?  A squirt of ketchup AND a dollop of mustard?  Whoa!  It’s hard to keep up now.  I have no idea where this is going!  And then suddenly it finally hits you—an all-beef patty, right in the face, and you realize, Hold onthis is just a hamburger.

Birdman addresses themes, develops characters, and explores concepts that are familiar (nearly universally familiar).  But it presents them in novel ways, with jarring music, disorienting camera angles, surreal sequences.

To me it just seems like one of those films you want to watch more than once before you start making grand pronouncements on it.  I felt that way most recently after watching The Great Beauty.  Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing also demanded repeat viewings.  After watching it the first time, I thought in bemusement, “What?!!”  But after re-watching it countless times (sometimes with the sound off, sometimes with particular goals in mind), making up discussion questions and essay assignments about it, having exciting talks about it with students, I finally decided that it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.  But my immediate reaction to the first viewing was mute bafflement.

In Birdman, the last half hour of the film is by far the most challenging.  It definitely held my attention, and it also confused me.  As I first started watching the movie, I thought absent-mindedly, “This is interesting.  I wonder how it will end.  Surely it won’t do that because with a set-up like this, that would be way too obvious.”  But then as the film began drawing to a close I realized in surprise, “Okay, well, I guess it is going to do that, after all.  That seems like a surprisingly predictable move for such an off-kilter film, but at least it makes sense and will bring a sense of closure to the audience.”  But then I was wrong again, watching the screen and noticing in surprise, “I guess it didn’t do that, after all.  So what is it doing?  What will happen now?  Oh now is it going to…What?!!”

I didn’t find the final scene very satisfying after one viewing.  (In fact, for me, the last half hour or so was the least interesting part of the movie.)  But this isn’t my first trip to the movies, and I can guarantee right now that after I’ve seen Birdman two or three more times, I will have a much more fully formed appreciation and understanding of what happens at the end.

The ending is not actually doing anything that strange.  It’s just that I don’t know quite what it’s doing or why it’s bothering to “do” anything.  Why can’t it just be normal like other movies?  (That’s not a flippant question.  There must be an artistically defensibly reason to incorporate the surrealism and the mystery because a similar story—albeit with a different feel—could be told in a more grounded, straightforward manner and probably with much less expense.)  So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not sure I get the ending of the movie.  I have the feeling that after I watch it several more times, I’m likely to either love or hate it, but right now, I’m only capable of staring out the window and going, “Hmmm…Well…????”

As Birdman started veering dangerously into Black Swan territory, I wasn’t sure what to do with the increasing surrealism of the film.  I neither loved it nor hated it…yet, but on a first watch I definitely preferred the first part of the film, the part that involved more characters, more humor, and (the way I see it) more hope.  Everything is open-ended in the beginning.  By the time we start heading somewhere and close off other options, Birdman started feeling a bit claustrophobic and desperate to me.  That’s probably deliberate, a mood cultivated to mirror the inner turmoil of the protagonist.  Still, in terms of simple enjoyment, I liked watching the first part of the film better.

As someone personally fascinated with metadrama, I also wish we had more of an idea of how Riggan’s play works as a whole, the shape of the play.  Do the characters’ roles in the play-within-a-play help us to connect the dots and realize things otherwise left unsaid about the movie characters?  (I suppose I need to read the short story.)  I feel like most characters in the film are so unrealized.  They’re tantalizingly fascinating, but largely incomplete.  We’re introduced to some fascinating people in well-acted, intense vignettes, but then we never really move closer to these characters, we never get to see them grow or to understand fully what motivates them.

Michael Keaton and Emma Stone have the best parts by far, and there's something delicious going on with Edward Norton's role.  (It's like Norton makes his character far more interesting and complex than he has any right to be, just as Mike (his character) does in the play).

Norton’s Mike doesn't seem like a supporting character.  Instead, he’s more like a competing main character that we see from afar because we're following the protagonist.  Mike is useful as a foil for Riggan, but the two never seem to be working together within the same narrative.  Mike is too big (in his own mind, at least) not to be the star of his own story.  Both Mike and Riggan are far too tormented and self-absorbed to care much about the other's story.  And ultimately, the story we are watching belongs to Riggan, so we move away from Mike.  This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but it does lead to some potential disappointment for the audience when the (rather fascinating) character of Mike is suddenly dropped (like many others) as Riggan's journey becomes too inwardly focused to bother with the concerns of people who don’t really matter to him.

Edward Norton has enough presence in the movie to generate Oscar buzz, so the phasing out of his character as the movie winds down is not really a problem, but other characters (most notably the actresses played by Naomi Watts and especially Andrea Riseborough) fade away before they've ever been properly explored.  I would call this less a failure of the film than a frustrating aspect since this shift of focus away from supporting characters happens for a reason.  The protagonist turns inward increasingly as the movie draws to a close, so of course we're going to see less of his lead actress and his girlfriend as he focuses increasingly on his inner self and the personally meaningful elements of his past (e.g. his memories of life with his ex-wife and his relationship with his daughter).

I was slightly disappointed to see the characters played by Watts and Riseborough so abruptly dropped.  (By the end of the film, I felt like I understood Amy Ryan’s character better than Riseborough’s.  I’m sure that’s because she means more to Riggan, but it still seems slightly odd because Ryan isn’t even in the movie that much.)  Obviously, the story is not about them, but they’re allowed a misleading amount of character development in the first part of the film.  Initially, Birdman gives us a hectic, backstage view of a troubled production, and we spend a fair amount of time with all the characters.  So when suddenly the movie becomes all Riggan all the time, the shift is noticeable and slightly uncomfortable.

Now granted, this movie is called Birdman, and it is clearly about Riggan Thomson and his (surprisingly complicated) relationship with Birdman, the character he famously played.  So I don’t fault it for becoming increasingly enmeshed with his point-of-view and shaped by his narrowing focus.  That’s actually quite well done.  We experience the story as Riggan does.  But at the beginning, before he’s completely withdrawn from the world around him, Riggan interacts with such interesting characters, and, in fact, the movie sometimes shows us entire scenes of them interacting when Riggan is not even present.  So it’s just mildly frustrating to see them all dropped in the final act.

Now some characters don’t need more development because we only really see them in their professional aspect, such as Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and the theater critic (Lindsay Duncan).  (For me, the theater critic was a slightly frustrating character, though.  It’s hard to figure out exactly what motivates her and what she’s all about since by the time we get a long speech from her, we’re seeing her from the point of view of Riggan, who clearly does not understand her.  By this point in the film, Riggan is definitely quite detached from everyone but his own concept of those who have meant most to him over the years.  His focus is inward, so, naturally his interaction with the theater critic is a bit bemusing for the audience.  She seems slightly odd, but I have a feeling it’s because the protagonist interacting with her is in such crisis at this point.)

Once again, let me be clear.  Focusing more on Riggan (to the exclusion of the other characters) is not really a flaw of the film.  It’s a deliberate and thoughtful choice.  I’m only talking about it in the “negatives” section because it is a choice that by necessity marginalizes some to-that-point intriguing characters, and for that reason, it may frustrate some viewers.  Not everybody is going to be able to love Birdman’s final act shift into full blown surrealism.  We’ve had hints of Riggan’s “powers” (or psychosis?) from the first scene, but in early parts of the movie we also see the play from  points of view other than Riggan’s, whereas by the final act, we’re really only left with Riggan and Birdman (and maybe some  token appearances by the actor’s ex-wife and daughter).

Apart from these frustrations (which are a product of the movie making a conscious choice—you can’t have your cake and eat it, too), I have only one minor complaint about Birdman.  The rehab toilet paper game rang rather false to me.  Then again, I've never been in rehab.  Maybe that's what they do there.  If so, I hope I never end up in rehab because I swear I would use that toilet paper to strangle the person ordering me to make little marks on it.  Is the idea that it gives you something to do with your hands and nervous energy?  It really seems like annoying busy work to me.  Then again, Sam definitely seems to find it useful, or, anyway, she keeps doing it on her own time.  I find that hard to believe, but I guess sometimes you've got to do something to fill the time.

Birdman is not a movie that everyone will love.  But I suspect that its distinctive, innovative visuals and score will get it plenty of Oscar attention.  Add to those marked strengths a number of superior performances (by established stars) and a storyline and themes that should really resonate with actors (particularly aging actors), and surely you’ve got a movie that the Academy will want to reward.

So I expect multiple Oscar nominations for this film, and it should also find favor among those who strongly prefer foreign and arthouse films because it’s definitely not a run-of-the-mill, by-the-numbers Hollywood blockbuster.

If you’re a fan of Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, or Edward Norton, you definitely need to watch this movie immediately.  It’s tremendously engaging and unusual, and even  its flaws are nothing but the flipside of its strengths.  After this, they should use CGI to make Michael Keaton look younger and actually make the original Birdman movie, complete with scenes showing the other characters’ reaction to that movie.  You know Edward Norton would want a part in that. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014


The Horrible Creature

Grayson's First Concert

A Good Horror Movie

Fall Movie Diary: St. Vincent

Date: October 22, 2014
Time: 12:00 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: No one

Food:  small Coke, small popcorn
Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Theodore Melfi

Quick Impressions:
I considered skipping St. Vincent, waiting until Friday, and reviewing Birdman this week instead.  Spending my time and money wisely is a big goal of mine this fall, and I know I want to see Birdman, so holding off on St. Vincent was clearly the practical choice.

The thing is, I’m not a very practical person.  (I’m also not handy, athletic, or reasonable.)  But I am fun at parties (if you’re the host’s dog). 

I tried to skip St. Vincent, but the Bill Murray fan in me got curious.  (Surely there’s a Bill Murray fan in all of us.)  Birdman can wait until next week, I finally decided.  Of course, my real mis-step was (no doubt) seeing Fury last Friday and skipping The Judge earlier that week.  What if Robert Duvall gets nominated for Best Supporting Actor?  (He will, now that I didn’t see the movie.  Watch.  I’m sure I’m helping his campaign by missing the performance.  It’s just my luck.) 

Fall always brings such tough choices at the box office, and making choices is not my strong suit.  (Seriously, I’m the type who always orders the usual every time I revisit a restaurant because if I actually take the time to examine the menu, I won’t be able to figure out what I want for breakfast until just before the place closes for the night.)

Seeing St. Vincent was a pretty good choice, though.  If I hadn’t seen it, I would watch the next Oscar ceremony, always wondering in the back of my mind, Did Bill Murray deserve an Oscar nomination for Best Actor this year?

St. Vincent is the kind of film you’d probably have to try to hate, though the only real reason to love it is Bill Murray’s performance.  It’s the kind of riveting star turn that gives purpose to the whole project.  Meryl Streep has done a lot of films like this recently.  If you reimagined them without her in the leading role, then the movies would just be mediocre (sometimes even odd), and that’s the case with St. Vincent, too.  It’s pleasant, occasionally funny, often touching (though manipulatively so), and easy to watch, but the only thing that actually makes it something special is Bill Murray’s performance.

The Good:
Bill Murray is quite captivating in the title role, and you can see why the performance has generated some Oscar Buzz.  I mean, 1.) He’s Bill Murray and yet hasn’t won an Oscar yet 2.) He’s not talking in his usual voice 3.) Some of the sufferings the character endures create additional acting challenges, ratcheting up the role difficulty significantly.

Murray makes Vincent a genuinely interesting guy (far more interesting than the movie he’s in, to be quite honest).  To be even more brutally honest, when you hear all the details of Vincent’s past, you start to ask yourself, And why exactly does the story start here?  If there’s a movie about this guy, why is this moment the portion of his life we’re looking at more closely?

But to be fair, that is the point of the movie.  The most successful thing about the project (aside from Murray’s compelling performance) is the message it wants to convey (and does convey rather successfully).  We cannot possibly know everything about other people the moment that we meet them, particularly not if we are completely wrapped up in our own problems.  The idea seems to be that in the world, there is such suffering and difficulty that even extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion sometimes go unseen and unappreciated, not because people are unkind but because they are self-absorbed and life is hard for everyone.

At first glance, Vincent doesn’t seem to possess too many fine qualities, but as we look closer we discover that all his life, he has been Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, and now he’s nothing more than a beaten down, worn out old stump (though, rather extraordinarily, when you think about it) he still gives, even out of his poverty.  He has rather questionable things to offer now, but he gives them anyway.  (If he were really just the rotten, selfish old bastard everybody mistakes him for, when people asked him for favors, he would give a firm no rather than an obnoxious, “Fine.”)

Chris O’Dowd is marvelous in this film as the charming, funny priest who teaches at the boy’s school.  I found myself looking forward to O’Dowd’s scenes the most.  For one thing, I find that I like him increasingly as an actor.  For another, this character and his agenda seem to be at the very heart of the movie.  I’m pretty positive that this delightfully laid-back priest is the one articulating for us the message that the writer/director hopes the film will convey.

Honestly the most amazing thing St. Vincent shows us is what an extraordinarily effective education the boy is getting at that school.  The mom definitely is not wasting her money there.  Her son is learning something and how!  (Hopefully, it’s what she wants him to be learning because the lessons there seem to be shaping his entire view of the world.)  The movie is pretty good, but the school gets an A+, no question.

The movie works mainly because Murray makes his character so interesting.  Even when elements of the story become a bit predictable or familiar, Murray makes exciting choices and finds novel ways to express the character on screen.  And as I’ve said, I loved Chris O’Dowd’s scenes, partially because of his performance, but mostly because the script seems very invested in showcasing that character and his message.  What makes St. Vincent unique is certainly not Vincent’s relationship with the boy.  It’s what the priest’s priming and the boy’s interactions with Vincent help the child discover.

Apart from Murray, Melissa McCarthy provides the best dramatic acting in the film.  It’s extremely refreshing to see her playing someone low key.  She does comedy well, but she’s so over-the-top in so many movies (so many movies) that playing a realistic, ordinary person in a sweet drama seems like a very smart choice for her at this point.  I’ve actually always preferred McCarthy’s dramatic side.  She does the same thing in like every movie, but it still always works.  She’s forever surprising us with moments where she unexpectedly opens up and becomes very vulnerable and increasingly distressed in a way that feels so natural and real.  One minute everything’s fine, and then as we watch, before our eyes she becomes gradually more and more overwhelmed, surprised and dismayed by her own negative emotions, the underlying, fomenting distress that she can no longer contain.  I’ve seen her do this in…well, like everything that she’s ever been in.  But she does it so well, and here she provides one of the film’s strongest dramatic scenes.

Naomi Watts’s presence is much more baffling.  At first, her character is hard to figure out.  We know who she is and everything, but why is she there, and why is Watts playing her?  Initially, the character seems too superficial, too much of a cliché.  But I will admit that Daka does grow on you.  By the end, I had definitely warmed to the character, and Watts and Murray have some fine moments together later in the story, particularly one very touching scene in the hospital.

Young Jaeden Lieberher is fantastic as Oliver.  Sometimes it seems hard to believe that a boy is so much smarter, more perceptive, and more well-adjusted than all the adults around him, but then again, that’s not uncommon at all in the movies.  Lieberher makes his character very likable and engaging and clearly has a lot of talent.

Also, I love Terrence Howard, and he has one especially great scene (one great moment, just the look on his face, his reaction).  I wish he were in the movie more.

Best Scene:
By the end of the movie, we’re totally expecting both the “fight” between Oliver and Vincent and the scene when what Oliver has learned from the relationship touches Vincent deeply.  Still both scenes really do (manipulatively) evoke an emotional response.

Best Scene Visually:
I love the scene when Vincent and Oliver ride away from the track luxuriantly celebrating their victory with soft serve ice cream cones.  The image captures the spirit of their relationship perfectly.

Best Action Sequence:
I love Terrence Howard, so I may be biased here, but I’m very fond of his scene in Vincent’s house.  What happens here adds another wrinkle of complexity to the story, so it’s already gripping.  But Howard plays the moment really well.

Murray also takes a rather impressive fall very early in the story that (for some baffling reason) makes us really invested in and intrigued by the character.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Bill Murray:
Murray’s most powerful scenes all involve the character of Sandy.  I like the moment when they sit together beside the pond, and she casually calls him by name, but even better is the scene with Ann Dowd and the box.

I must say, though, the moment when Vincent takes his time and quite deliberately tells Daka something from his hospital bed is very nice, too.

The bottom line is, Bill Murray is a great actor with brilliant comedic timing and a gift for more dramatic work, too.  I have a hard time right now believing that he will get an Oscar nomination for his work here simply because Best Actor is always competitive and his performance is more special than the film as a whole.  Still this is a fantastic performance, one more brilliant character from a man who has given us a lifetime of memorable performances.  If he does win awards for it, great.  Any accolades Bill Murray gets are certainly more than deserved.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Melissa McCarthy:
I’ve already touched on this, but I loved McCarthy’s meltdown in the principal’s office.  This type of “surprise, I have feelings, and I’m drowning!” thing is something McCarthy has always done particularly well.  But I especially like this scene because it feels so real, so authentic, and it illustrates a point I think the film is trying to drive home.  The mother is so upset that she assumes the son is upset for the same reasons that she is.  Instead of looking at others with clear eyes, she’s seeing everyone else in the world through the filter of her own particular unhappiness (which is what usually happens with all of us).

I doubt Melissa McCarthy will get nominated for this role, but the scene is impeccably played and a highlight of the film.

The Negatives:
The premise—I mean the really basic set up—of this movie reminded me immediately of About a Boy (less the movie with Hugh Grant than the much later TV spinoff with Minnie Driver, the pilot of which I watched because it came on after something with no commercial interruptions).  Seriously, St. Vincent opens in an almost identical way.  Not making the comparison will be possible only for those who have not seen About a Boy.

The kid and his struggling single mom move in next door to a seemingly lazy, unpleasant man who immediately gets off on the wrong foot with the mother.  Then the boy gets bullied by some kids at school and seeks refuge with the less-than-friendly man next door who takes him under his wing for mostly selfish reasons.

If I were writer/director Theodore Melfi, I would have rewritten the beginning of my movie.  As the film progresses, Vincent turns out to be a lot different than About a Boy guy, but the early similarities in the script are uncanny—unless of course, Melfi was inspired (consciously or otherwise) to write his film after watching About a Boy.  (I’m not kidding here.  As soon as the end credits rolled, I checked IMDB on my phone to see if Melfi had written the TV pilot for About a Boy.  The similarities are that pronounced.  I seriously thought it had to be somebody cannibalizing his own work.  As far as I can tell, Melfi had nothing to do with the script, but I did learn (to my surprise) that About a Boy is still on the air.  They put commercials in it now, though, so I'm unlikely to watch.)

The similarities are beyond uncanny.  Seriously, even the neighborhood looks the same.  These ridiculous similarities are incredibly distracting and seem so unnecessary, so avoidable.  Why didn’t Melfi just rewrite the beginning of the movie (just the part introducing the neighbor and her kid)?  Tweaking the set-up just a smidge would have worked wonders for the film’s overall effectiveness.

There are also some practical things about the plot that don’t quite make sense to me.  I understand why Vincent needs money so badly, but has he tried getting a job?  (I’m not trying to be a jerk.  This is a sincere question.)  Possibly he’s psychologically damaged and can’t hold a job.  Possibly in this economy at his age, he can’t find a job.  But we’re not given any evidence of this.  He seems to be an intelligent and energetic man who is constantly up to something, full of schemes and plots and gambles that actually keep him incredibly busy.  He’s older, and probably diminished from his younger self, but he’s certainly not weak or lethargic.  He endures some horrible stuff, and near the end, there’s a rather considerable ordeal that he overcomes pretty quickly and with great focus and determination.  I wish we knew more about his present situation.  

Of course, first we have to care enough to want to know more, and that’s what this movie is about, so I can’t fault it too much.  Maybe if he gets a job he forfeits some kind of pension.  (My own grandfather faced a similar situation, so I realize the expense and difficulty of one element of Vincent’s life.  Care can be prohibitively expensive, and yet you can’t just stick your loved ones in the closet or something.)  I just wish we saw a reason that Vincent couldn’t find money through legitimate means (or even some evidence that he had tried).  And that reason can’t simply be alcoholism because he’s still functioning despite his drinking problem.

I also spent a lot of the movie's early scenes feeling very baffled by Daka, but then by the end she was practically my favorite character, and I totally adored her rapport with Vincent.  So while I think the character is odd, I cannot deny that in life there are many odd characters, and often our lives our richer for knowing them.

What’s hard to put into words, though, is this sense I left the theater with that something more should have happened.  (Or maybe something less.  Maybe there should have been fewer clichéd or trite story elements.)  Murray’s performance is great, but the film never rises to the same greatness.  It’s hard to say why.  It’s almost like it won’t let itself.  The message it wants to communicate is fantastic, but it chooses a really safe and formulaic way of presenting that story.  I liked the movie, but while certain moments were brilliant, overall I thought St. Vincent made safe, lazy choices too often.  With its talented cast and genuinely meaningful moral, this could have been a much, much greater film than it is, and it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by that realization.

Bill Murray fans definitely need to see St. Vincent.  As always, he’s very funny and gives a fantastic performance.  The supporting cast is great, too, and the story is reasonably uplifting and enjoyable (if a little bland).  I hope Bill Murray does get an Oscar someday because he deserves one.  In the meantime, we can all continue to enjoy the always captivating characters he consistently creates on screen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Movie Diary: Fury

Date: October 17, 2014
Time: 10:25 am
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: No one
Food:  Dr. Pepper, Greek wrap with chicken, no red onion, no dressing
Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: R
Director: David Ayer

Quick Impressions:
Fury is a good, old-fashioned war movie.  It’s really not, of course.  But it should be.  When Fury behaves as if it is a good, old-fashioned war movie, it succeeds brilliantly.  The film has one of the most gripping and satisfying third acts I’ve seen in a while.

It benefits from having a pretty novel subject, too, as World War II movies go.

Who knew that in 1945, after the war had ended, some Germans refused to stop fighting, so the U.S. army had to drive around in tanks engaging in pointless skirmishes and forcing every last man, woman, and child with a gun to surrender already? 

As I type this out, I think to myself, Surely you must have known that.  I guess it’s not that I didn’t know, more that I didn’t care.   For me, the actual fighting of World War II was always just sentences on paper.  As a kid, I was fascinated by the charismatic leaders—Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt.  And I was horrified by the Holocaust.  And I was familiar with the consequences of most of the big battles.  But I’m not action oriented, so I never really thought about the minutiae of the battlefield itself.

I guess I realized the Germans didn’t just all throw down their guns and reach for their white flags simultaneously.  But once Germany lost the war, the remaining efforts of the soldiers at the front were just sentences on paper to me, just an afterthought.  I never dramatized any of that in my head.

So Fury got my attention with its premise.  Tank movies are certainly not dime a dozen, especially not these days.

It held my attention thanks to its beautiful, haunting score, a superb “supporting” performance from Logan Lerman, and so many gorgeous shots of Brad Pitt striking a tormented pose atop his tank that I started to think the landscape would look naked without Pitt posing in the foreground.

The Good:
Nazis make such reliable villains.  As the movie opened, I thought, Wow, what a sad statement about our nation’s sense of self at the moment!  To make a war movie where we’re for sure the heroes, we have to go all the way back to World War II.  Throughout the film’s early scenes, we get this somewhat pathetic vibe of, Yeah we’re pretty sure that we were the good guys in this one.  Take that, Nazis!

No matter how deplorably the American soldiers behave, the Nazis are always right there when you need them, doing something 100 times worse.

In fact, the four letter dismissal of Nazis (well, really, six letters and an apostrophe) that Logan Lerman’s Norman gradually picks up from his colleagues ought to be put on the poster of every American War movie ever made.  Really, it’s what we should say now any time a foreign national skeptically questions us about our war mongering ways.  The best defense for anything is just to blame the Nazis because (almost magically) it is always their fault.

How we treated the Nazis is like the one bright spot on our otherwise very damning, blotted past.  Perhaps we Americans were wrong to kill and oppress and enslave and murder and con and swindle and cheat and belittle and betray and abuse like every other major group we ever encountered in our nation’s history, but doggone it, we were right about those Nazis.  That one’s on them.  They deserved all the stuff we did to them, and they deserved even more.  Nazis totally suck.  Everyone agrees (except Nazis).

(I’m being glib, but it’s really very sad that when we want to feel national pride and glory in battle, we seriously have to go back to the 1940s.)

It would be totally possible to appreciate Fury in a completely earnest and uncomplicated way.  War is hell, but to win it, you have to man up and kill the Nazis.  When you’re a fresh faced boy, there are certain terrible things you don’t understand, but time at the front transforms you into the kind of man the world needs (even if it destroys your innocence).  You can watch this movie and get this message from it, and honestly, I think the movie works best when viewed this way.

But of course, this is 2014, and we like all our war movies nice and complicated.  Nowadays, we know, there is no right thing, just a lot of wrong choices that always screw somebody over.  So you can never possibly “win.”  All victories in war are Pyrrhic, not worth the cost of the lives and souls lost.  Plus the people we consider “heroes” are villains to somebody else and probably psychologically damaged by what they experience at the front.  We also like to savor the idea that we’re very smart now for knowing all this when our unsophisticated grandparents and great grandparents had no idea (unless they happened to read any twentieth century literature, which is overwhelmingly dominated by these themes).

Fury actually gives us the story of a boy becoming a man under the duress of the battlefield more convincingly and intelligibly than just about anything else I’ve encountered.  Usually I don’t connect to stuff like this, but this time, I totally got it.  The journey of Logan Lerman’s Norman “Machine” Ellison is captivating, satisfying, thoroughly engaging cinema.  It resonated with me so much that I felt I’d become a man by the end of the last battle.

The thing is, there’s another movie going on at the same time.  Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier's story is so much grimmer, more complex, and troubling.  Through the character of Wardaddy, Fury raises the question, If war makes a boy into a man, then what does it make a man into?  That’s a much more problematic question.  We get the sense that for Norman, what happens at the end is like the Alamo.  But for Wardaddy, it’s more personal than that.  He does want to hold off the S.S., to do his job.  But that last stand is something else, too.  He knows he can’t win, but can anybody who has seen and done so much evil ever win?  Wardaddy is obviously very attached to his Sherman tank, and he’s experiencing the day quite differently than Norman.

The tension between the two characters’ views of the day is what makes the film something more than a simple war movie.  Still, I think that in the moments when it seems like a simple war movie, it works best onscreen. 

The performances overall are pretty good.  Lerman is such a good actor, and this part is perfect for him.  If anyone gets an acting nomination for this film, it will definitely be him.  (It helps him tremendously that Brad Pitt stars because otherwise we might mistake Lerman for the lead actor.  He has one of those “supporting” roles that is larger and more substantial than some leading roles, the kind of role that helps actors win Oscars.)

Brad Pitt is pretty good, too, though he plays the character with such grim stoicism that it’s hard to imagine him getting any Oscar recognition.  I’ve seen him give several more captivating performances than this one.  He definitely looks good sitting atop his tank, though.  They should make a series of tank billboards featuring Brad Pitt gazing wistfully into the distance.  I guarantee you they would sell a lot of tanks.

The non-stop off camera shenanigans of Shia LaBeouf make it easy to forget that he’s actually a good actor with a lot of talent.  (He and Lindsay Lohan should start a club for legitimately talented child actors whose adult lives went desperately wrong.)  LaBeouf is quite good in his role here.  He has a wonderful moment in the scene when Norman gets his nickname.  LaBeouf has always been good at emoting, and his performance here gets stronger and stronger as the dramatic tension builds.

Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal are good, too.  Peña makes a guy with a lot of faults seem incredibly sympathetic, and Bernthal makes a guy with a lot of skills seem incredibly creepy.

Jason Isaacs is in the movie, too!  It’s a fairly small part, but I could not recognize him immediately, and it drove me crazy.  I remember thinking, It’s harder to place his face because he’s doing an American accent.  Then I thought in outrage at myself, If you don’t know who he is, how do you know he’s doing an American accent??????

I should also mention that I absolutely love Steven Price’s score, so ethereal (almost creepy) and eerie and utterly perfect for the film.  If Fury actually wins an Academy Award, I’m sure it will be for score because the score is conspicuously good.  (At least I think so.  I will admit, though, that I know nothing about music.)

Best Scene/Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Brad Pitt:
Pitt won’t be nominated for this film, but the scene with Emma and the eggs is phenomenally intense.  The early scenes of the movie passed by without leaving much of an impression for me.  But the part with the eggs got my attention.

What I love about this scene is that eventually it brings all principal cast members together (as well as two female co-stars), and every character present is experiencing the moment differently.

What happens here means a lot to Wardaddy and to Norman.  It shapes them both, and gives us (the audience) a bit more insight.  It also raises uncomfortable questions (for the characters and for us).

The sequence in the house with the eggs is actually so tense and unsettling that it’s unpleasant to watch, yet it’s the most riveting thing that’s happened in the film to this point.

Best Scene/Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Logan Lerman:
The moment in the tank when Norman finally gets his nickname is absolutely phenomenal filmmaking.  I loved this scene so much.  I cannot heap enough praise on it.  So often I’ve read stories about boys becoming men through the camaraderie of battle, but I’ve always come away with the feeling that I’ve missed something, that I really didn’t “get it.”  I got this.  What a well done moment!  It makes the whole movie, actually.  Sadly it’s the kind of moment that can only exist under those extreme circumstances.  It’s not sustainable.  Afterwards, real life intrudes again, with all its problematic complexity.

Best Scene Visually:
I wonder if the working title for this film was Brad Pitt:  Tank Model.  They could collect various stills of all the times we see Pitt sitting prettily atop his Sherman tank and have plenty of material for a sixteen month wall calendar.  He looks great up there, and all the shots are framed beautifully.  It’s not just that Pitt is handsome.  In this film, in fact, he looks quite weatherworn.  But Wardaddy is a part of that Sherman tank, and that tank is a part of him.  Rolling around the countryside atop that Sherman tank feels like home to him by now.  We definitely get that when we see him up there, posing like a Calvin Klein model, again and again and again.

Best Action Sequence:
The last action sequence is obviously the best.  The whole movie builds to that moment.  I’m not big on action, and I hope never to be in combat, but even I found the last big shoot out riveting and enjoyable.

The Negatives:
Three huge drawbacks of the movie spring to mind immediately.

I’ll start with the least consequential and most annoying thing.  The beginning of the movie drags.  Now some might argue, “No, it doesn’t.  It doesn’t drag at all.  Drag implies that the movie slows down and backs away from development.  Actually, this movie builds.”

Okay then, I’ll give you that.  It builds—very, very, very slowly.  (Imagine listening to the classic rock ballad “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” on an old record player, and just as REO Speedwagon’s lead singer gets closer than he ever thought he might, someone lifts the needle and starts the first verse over again (maybe a couple of times).

I didn’t dislike the first third of Fury.  (Let’s say the part up to the scene with Emma and the eggs.)  The cinematography is pleasant, and the score is superb.  Easy-on-the-eyes Brad Pitt provides steady, smoldering star power, and the talented Logan Lerman gets ample opportunity to emote.  

Still the pace is not exactly jaunty.  I kept zoning out, getting off on tangents in my mind—Is it right to say that you’re blessed when good things happen to you?  Does that imply that others are cursed?  Are you actually blessed or just lucky?—and returning to wonder, When is something going to happen?

Now admittedly, action scenes are not my thing, which is why I kept reminding myself as I watched, Stuff probably is happening.  It just doesn’t seem like that to you because you like more dialogue and story building.

The eventual payoff makes up for this slow start, though.  The final act has such energy, intensity, and focus that even I will admit that the slow build up is worth it.  I also think the feeling of aimlessness or pointlessness of the first portion of the film is generated deliberately to show us the frustration Brad Pitt’s character feels at the war that drags on and on.  (I had a very similar reaction to the The Sun Also Rises.  The thing is, just because you can tell something is being artfully cultivated doesn’t mean that you enjoy experiencing it.)

My second big complaint about Fury feels petty and misplaced to me, but I can’t get over it, so I’ll go ahead and mention it, I guess.  Who is telling this story?  Is this based on a true story, and if so, how can we verify what actually happened?  Or is Fury a fictional story, and if so, how can we verify what actually happened in the fictional story?  What we see feels so pointed and selective that I think the audience deserves to know who is telling us this tale and with what motivation.  For a minute there, I got swept away in the intensity of the final act, but then I found myself detaching, unable to shake the gnawing worry, How can I verify this account?

These anxieties about the story’s murky source bleed into a third problem about the film, a huge issue that will probably spoil the movie for some viewers (though it’s perhaps not as obvious as the less significant early pacing problem).

Is this movie celebrating the actions of the crew of the Fury, or is it condemning them?  Is this a “soldiers are heroes” movie or a “war is evil” movie?  (Of course, those two positions are far from mutually exclusive.)  But I honestly think some audiences will watch and think, What a great depiction of the brave heroes who fought for our country in World War II, a simpler time when right was right and wrong was wrong!  And then others will watch and think, How debased and corrupting is war!  What a toll it takes, needlessly destroying body and soul!

I very much had the feeling that this was a seemingly pro-military movie made by people who actually think war is always evil and soldiers are usually deplorable and disgusting. 

The thing is, for a while, Fury has this kind of endearing Red Badge of Couragey quality.  You watch and think, Aww, this new recruit is so wet behind the ears.  Oh, but being at the front is changing him.  He’s becoming more like them.  And it sure is a good thing that he’s adapting to be more like the other soldiers at the front because…

And then it hits you, and you’re like, Ohhhhh.  This is an anti-war movie.  This is a movie that wants the audience to ask, “Is that what it means to be a hero?  Is that what heroism looks like?”

The whole movie is slightly frustrating to me because it refuses to play fair and tell us how it feels about war.  Must it be so disingenuous at every turn?  You know how sometimes a book or movie seems like a familiar friend willing to share secrets with us?  Well, this movie seems more like a smug jerk, silently judging us and finding us laughably naïve no matter how we respond to its little tests.

I think Fury would work better if it were less complex ideologically.  If it were simply a movie that depicted how war can shape the adolescent human psyche and lead to bonds of brotherhood and make boys men and stuff like that, it might be less smart and honest, sure, but it would be a way more satisfying movie.  Honestly Fury only becomes completely engaging (and something special) when Norman realizes he is one of them and faces the last big battle with his brothers in arms.  The scene of bonding before battle is hugely captivating filmmaking.  But the movie doesn’t let us lose ourselves in that.  It insists on pulling us out and forcing us to look at the events with more distanced, clear-headed perspective.  That’s morally commendable, I suppose, but the thing is, the movie is better when it lets us lose ourselves in the heat of battle and the camaraderie of the tightly knit group.

Usually, movies are better if they go for greater intellectual complexity, but Fury is that rare case when sticking with illogical emotion is the more cinematically effective option.

Also—this should be obvious given the rating and subject matter, but—don’t take kids!  In a very early scene, we see someone encounter half a human face while cleaning up (like just the face, ear to nose).  Fury is about war, and it is very gory, in a pragmatic, realistic, no-nonsense way, not an over-the-top, pulpy, silly way.  It is not a movie for children.

Before watching Fury, I gave little thought to how Germans continued to fight even after losing World War II.  That’s such an obvious thing to do.  (What conquered people wouldn’t continue to fight once foreign soldiers are on their land?)  But honestly, I never thought about all the brave soldiers who gave their lives after the war was already basically won.  What a scary and frustrating situation!

So honestly I found the movie eye opening on a very basic level and in many ways an enjoyable watch.  Logan Lerman gives a great supporting performance that could get Oscar attention, and Steven Price’s haunting score is absolutely outstanding. 

If you like movies about Sherman tanks or Brad Pitt sitting on top of stuff, then you’d better by a ticket for Fury right away while it’s still in theaters.