Thursday, October 30, 2014
Elements of Peeping Tom, Network, Taxi Driver and a powerhouse performance by Jake Gyllenhaal are all fused together by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy in his directorial debut, the jittery, sleazy Nightcrawler. A gaunt-looking Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a twitchy bottom-feeder with aspirations, but for what? Even he's not certain. At the start of the film, he is busted by a security guard as he steals copper wiring, scraps of metal, and even the guard's wristwatch after he manages to overpower the man. But a transaction for the stolen items sets Bloom on a different path after his polite eagerness isn't enough to convince the buyer to overlook his thievery and hire him, even for free. Before long Bloom has a chance meeting with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a scumbag who scans police airwaves to arrive first on the scene and shoot video he sells for top dollar to bottom-rated KWLA's news team. The entrepreneurial Bloom is soon teaching himself how to shoot and edit ratings-grabbing news packages for KWLA's ambitious director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo).
Monday, October 27, 2014
In recent years, the American independent film has become as much a genre onto itself as it is a label distinguishing it as a work made outside the Hollywood system. The Sundance Festival movie in particular was burdened with all sorts of expectations which over time created a stereotype called the "indie." Featuring a cast of young up and coming actors, peppered with a few veterans working for little pay in the hopes of breaking out of some sort of career rut, the worst kind of indie generally recalls a special moment in a young man or woman's life, weighted with a deep, life altering lesson, all under an acoustic score by some folkie/emo instrumentalist who possesses enough street cred to sell some soundtrack albums. Where "independent" once connoted originality, "indie" now simply means lo-fi. That's why Whiplash is so refreshing. 2014's Sundance U.S. Audience and Grand Jury Prize winner is a vibrant, jazz-inflected drama that's also an anti-indie. As it goes into general release this week, Whiplash is poised to take awards season by storm.
Friday, October 24, 2014
"Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see." That's a piece of advice offered in Stonehearst Asylum to the film's ostensible hero, Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess). It's also the most important suggestion made by author Edgar Allan Poe to his reader in the droll short story that the movie is loosely based on, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." Directed by Brad Anderson (The Call), Stonehearst Asylum is more clever than scary. But there's a lot to be said for a well plotted thriller in a time when too many horror movies hinge more on shocking their audiences instead of getting under their skin.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a rare and unexpected delight from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, a filmmaker who has made a habit of producing dense, multi-plot storylines that converge in their final moments to offer some Great Truth. Birdman somehow feels both narrower and more transcendent. When the score's percussion takes over, a stifling anxiety sets in. When its symphonic sounds take precedence, Birdman soars. There is no need to clumsily converge at the conclusion because the linkage between Birdman's subplots is already baked into its script, a tale of the backstage chaos that ensues when former blockbuster action star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts a serious comeback in a new venue, Broadway.
Friday, October 17, 2014
Many years ago, I made the mistake of dismissing The Nightmare Before Christmas as a visually spectacular but hollow animated musical. Yeah, I didn't get it. It isn't that nostalgia has made the movie feel closer to a classic or that over time its style has eclipsed its substance. In a fundamental way, I've come to realize, its style is its substance. I shall not make the same mistake with The Book of Life. While not the animation game-changer that The Nightmare Before Christmas may have been, The Book of Life perhaps has even more room to grow into a classic in the coming years. And curiously it has a similar pedigree.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Writer-director David Ayer crafts another fine look at the way shared violent experiences form a tenuous brotherhood among men with Fury. Set in the final days of World War II's European Theater, the movie follows a Sherman tank, christened "Fury," and its battle-hardened crew led by Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Among Wardaddy's crew are the God-fearing "Bible" (Shia LaBeouf), wisecracking "Gordo" (Michael Peña), and the crude "Coon-Ass" (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their drivers, the tight-knit unit is saddled with a virtual rookie plucked from the clerical corps, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Norman is our way into this predictably episodic depiction of the horrors of war, one that becomes a surprisingly stylish and at times contemplative suspense film punctuated by short, intense bursts of violence.
by Tony Dayoub
"Sayles could pull a performance out of a dog. I'm serious. He was just amazing. The world could fall apart and he remained on neutral."
- a humble but talented Elizabeth Peña on John Sayles, who directed
her to her best performance in the highly underrated Lone Star
her to her best performance in the highly underrated Lone Star
Recommended Films - They All Laughed, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, La Bamba, Blue Steel, Jacob's Ladder, Lone Star, Rush Hour, The Incredibles
And an even better list of titles I haven't seen but should - El Super, Crossover Dreams, *batteries not included, The Waterdance, Tortilla Soup, Transamerica, The Lost City
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Going in, documentary I Am Ali has two strikes against it. It tries to distill the entire life of boxing's best known heavyweight champion into a film with a scant 111-minute running time, and it depends too much on his closest friends and family to do so. On the plus side, it is the first film to revolve so heavily on personal recordings of interactions with his family made by Muhammad Ali himself. The result is a substantially whitewashed account of the life of the Greatest. At best, I Am Ali is a primer for the few that a long line of documentaries about this extremely well documented sports and Civil Rights figure has thus far eluded. At worst, I Am Ali is a forgettable CliffsNotes-style profile that hits many of the landmark moments in Ali's life while avoiding the dissenting points of view concerning his controversial stances on the Vietnam war and the Black Muslim movement.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Two of the best documentaries playing at the 52nd New York Film Festival couldn't be more different except that they are each by titans of their field, the creepy Tales of the Grim Sleeper by Nick Broomfield and the ebullient Iris by Albert Maysles.
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Inherent Vice is possibly the most confusing of all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films. That's saying something considering he directed the enigmatic The Master and Punch-Drunk Love. At least in the case of those films one feels like one can get some kind of a grip on their respective themes because Anderson is a pretty accessible person and wrote the material himself. Inherent Vice is a different animal altogether. Adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, one can guess (I haven't read it) that coherence was sacrificed in favor of faithfulness to the book's feel, consistency maybe never having existed on the page in the first place. In any event, the incoherence is the least of one's concerns. When Anderson makes a film, he plays the long game, knowing... no... insisting that one see the movie again and again. It's what makes Inherent Vice so compelling. One wants to wallow in its noirish, surfer-gone-to-seed, atmosphere and revisit the movie again and again, with the hopes that its central mystery might be clarified in an eventual viewing.
Friday, October 3, 2014
A tour-de-force performance by character actor Timothy Spall brightens the otherwise languid Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh's biopic of English painter J.M.W. Turner. Although filled with terrific performances from recurring members of Leigh's acting troupe, Mr. Turner revels a mite too long in the gorgeous landscapes that inspired Turner (as shot by cinematographer Dick Pope). At times, it allows one to consider the effect such vistas had on Turner's art. Often, though, the movie borders on the ponderous and only Spall's earthy grumbles and snorts keep us tethered to the movie's titular subject.
Controversial Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini finally gets a kind of a biopic in Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe. A journalist, poet, and philosopher among other things, the homosexual Pasolini is a tough subject to try to encapsulate in a film, especially one with as short a running time as this one's 87 minutes. Director Abel Ferrara, no stranger to controversy himself, wisely chooses to simply focus on the final days leading up to Pasolini's lurid murder. The resulting film is, like the director, a study of contradictions and not just a little perplexing.
by Tony Dayoub
Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion is the debut episode of the first Star Wars animated series to debut on Disney XD since its parent company acquired the Lucasfilm franchise. Think of it as a Firefly take on characters populating the fringe of the Star Wars universe and you'll get an idea of what it feels like. The irony is that Joss Whedon's short-lived Firefly was itself a western outlaw take on the original Star Wars that focused on a Han Solo-like smuggler and the crew of his ship (a Millennium Falcon in all but name). In Star Wars Rebels, young viewers are meant to identify with Ezra Bridger, a clever ruffian who scavenges his way through life on the Empire-occupied planet Lothal unaware that he has greater powers than he realizes.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Hungary's The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is another in a long line of films in which Nazi occupation is viewed through the eyes of children. The Tin Drum and Au revoir les enfants are two that have been reviewed here. Like with those movies, The Notebook is structured in an episodic fashion. Usually, this gives a clearer if somewhat simplified perspective on the horrors of war. But there's a sadistic streak in The Notebook's two central characters, unnamed Twins (László and András Gyémánt), that marks it as far more harrowing film contemplating how exposure to violence only begets more violence.