Monday, October 27, 2014

Listen Up Philip (**)

Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry


It's been speculated that writers hate clichés, and that's true in spirit but is often incorrect in practice. Listen Up Philip documents one young writer's journey, hurtling toward the self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness and bitterness. The film's lead is played by Jason Schwartzman, further sharpening the edges of his Angry Little Man routine into a monstrous character named Philip Lewis Friedman. The character of Philip could be a stand-in for a few different contemporary authors, but Listen Up Philip has little interest in slandering curmudgeons and more fun with seeing the role of the artist in the wild. Writers tend to be miserable people for a variety of reasons, the very nature of their craft causing them to keep those they should care about most at arm's length. But the character of Philip, at least as played by Schwartzman, isn't unhappy as a result of his literary success - he's unhappy because he's convinced himself that that is how literary successes are supposed to behave. The latest film from Alex Ross Perry is a handheld parade of egos so interested in romanticizing the asshole-ism involved in white, East Coast, male artistry that it's attempts at charm seem distasteful at best and downright uninteresting at worst.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (***)

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñarritú


There are four credited screenwriters for the script of Birdman which makes a whole lot of sense once you've seen the actual movie. It flies (bad pun, sorry) in a lot of different directions, it's incredibly self-conscious about itself and doesn't seem to care a whole lot about being too convoluted to follow. It's director is the infamous Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritú (though he shortens it in the credits to 'Alejandro G. Iñarritú', no doubt relieving those who have trouble with Hispanic pronunciation) who has said that his goal for this film was trying to visualize the neurosis and crisis of ego of the artist - the actor, specifically. Iñarritú is known for his multi-cultural ensembles delving into various forms of miserablism. He's never seen a metaphor he couldn't pound into the ground, especially if it stands for socioeconomic issues. But Babel and 21 Grams are both strong films, built around great performances from a lot of actors, too many to name. Any faults to be found with Iñarritú are usually taste related. Which is why Birdman is so fascinating. It's an incredible departure from his previous work, a piece so meta-textual and satirical, taking place in such a fabricated reality. It's a baffling film in many ways, but certainly worth observing.

Fury (**1/2)

Written and Directed by David Ayer


David Ayer makes Man Movies with a capital M. His films are a bit more cerebral than, say, the Expendables franchise, but in the end both selection of films are reaching toward the same core audience and have the same spiritual conscience. He wrote the screenplay for the first Fast and the Furious movie and Training Day, so we should know what we're getting into with all his films at this point. His best film, End of Watch, was a brilliant, cinema-verite style document of brotherhood between two LAPD officers (played wonderfully by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) facing great danger together in South Central. That film managed to find sympathy for police officers in a social climate that makes that incredibly difficult. Ayer taps into bromance in the most masculine way possible. It's homoeroticism for the homophobes, finding an almost philosophical wonder within male companionship. In Fury, Ayer takes these male relationships and places them into World War II, focussing on a tank crew that rides through Germany in the waning months of the war. The tank is striking, even amongst all the rest of them, with a cannon that sticks out like a giant erection and the word "FURY" written in white paint on the side of it. It is the home of the men that Ayer introduces to us here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Whiplash (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle


Whiplash was this year's Sundance darling, winning hyperbolic praise from nearly all who managed to see it and leaving Park City, Utah with the film festival's two biggest prizes: the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. That was in January, and Sundance hits have a way of fizzling out when it comes time to the actual release. For every Precious and sex, lies and videotape, there are dozens of prize winners from Sundance that you've never heard of. But Whiplash felt different; the praise was so effusive, it felt like a surer thing. As it stands, Whiplash probably isn't what many moviegoers would expect it to be. From first-time feature director, Damien Chazelle, the film is made with a stunning clarity of vision and filled with characters so fully realized. Its tale of a music student trying to make a name for himself in concert jazz is brutal, filled with the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that separates the good from the truly great. Whiplash is a film about aspiring to be immortal, about being so good that no one will ever forget you. It's about that one thing that a legend has that no one else does, and its about the methods that artists use to locate that one thing and bring it to fruition.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

St. Vincent (***)

Written and Directed by Theodore Melfi


We've seen this movie before. A rascal curmudgeon finds humanity in the form of a small child. Paper Moon may be the definitive example. Bad Santa gave that movie a holiday twist. But it's been done, over and over. And yet, it's never been done with Bill Murray, and for St. Vincent, that seems to make all the difference. The film is the feature debut from Theodore Melfi, who also wrote the script. The film has a soft touch, sharp dialogue and knowledge of when to play for laughs and when to ask the audience to take it seriously. For a screenplay that can be a bit of a minefield with tone, Melfi shows an impressive alacrity to handle it. But more than anything, the film has Bill Murray, one of the more consistently wonderful screen presences that we have in the movies today. Murray's transition from legendary funnyman to accomplished film actor began with Rushmore in 1998 and was cemented with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2003's Lost in Translation. The man doesn't have range, but he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He is, at the age of 64, a movie star, but what makes that possible is his uncanny ability to pick the exact roles that work for him.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Men, Women & Children (*1/2)

Directed by Jason Reitman


I remember being in college when Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air was about to be released in the Fall of 2009, and Reitman made a stop at my campus to talk with all of us dopey film students. I don't remember too much about that talk he gave us, it was mostly empty stories and non-answers. But I always remembered when he spoke about what inspired him to make Up in the Air. He went on a monologue about modern technology, and pulled out his cell phone as a personal Exhibit A of what's wrong with society. All of these things that we have - cell phones, Facebook, chat rooms, role-playing games - that are meant to bring us together, are actually pulling us apart, he felt. The reason I remembered this particular speech was because when I finally got around to seeing Up in the Air, that didn't seem to be the movie's thesis at all. Perhaps Reitman wasn't deliberate enough in his wanted mesaage. That's the only explanation I can think of for Men, Women & Children being his latest film. If people didn't understand how awful social technology was in 2009, they definitely are getting the hint now, as Reitman presents a film that's so self-righteous, the message is blinding.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Gone Girl (***)

Directed by David Fincher


Nobody does the major Hollywood thriller better than David Fincher. Perhaps Christopher Nolan comes close, but Fincher is less sentimental, his films are more sleek and unforgiving. There's a distaste for humanity in a lot of Fincher's best work, and he's able to translate that feeling to an audience without us realizing that it might be us - those watching - who Fincher really has the distaste for. His latest film is the adaptation of the best-selling novel Gone Girl. The book was a whirlwind success by Gillian Flynn, who has adapted the screenplay herself. The plot is labyrinthine, circling in on itself, purposefully suffocating. It creates all sorts of tension, wielding characters with all sorts of ulterior motives, specializing in highlighting the grey area of these people within the black and white world of mystery and suspense. The film enjoys the imbalance in which it keeps its audience, with Fincher and Flynn always one step ahead - well, at least if you're one of the few people, like me, who hasn't actually read the book. It's a pure Fincher vehicle, but Flynn puts her own stamp on this as well.