Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

2014 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): "I'm not an actor – I'm a movie star!" goes the classic line from My Favorite Year, and Birdman essentially delves into one man's attempt to prove the opposite. Birdman winds up being part character study, part backstage drama, and part meta-commentary on the creative process, with all its attendant insecurities, ego trips, inspiration and insanity.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging, fading movie star best known for playing the title character in the popular superhero franchise "Birdman," wants to prove he's a serious actor, so he bankrolls a theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." We're in Riggan's head from the start, and he's an unreliable narrator, so it's not entirely clear whether some of the weirder moments (telekinesis, levitation, the voice of Birdman) are fantasy or reality. The entire film, built of long, sinuous takes, is made to look as if it's been done in a single shot, and while it's impressive craftsmanship, it's more than a gimmick – it also helps build a sense of single-minded obsession and claustrophobia revolving around Riggan, even when he's not on screen. His daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), is a recovering addict and thinks the play is a desperate and foolish vanity project. His relationship with her is strained; he wasn't the best father to her, nor a great husband to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Three other actors appear in the play with Riggan, and Riggan thinks one of them doesn't get his concept; one of his other costars, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests bringing in her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement. At first Riggan is thrilled by Mike – he's a fine actor, quick study and critics' darling – but he's also a hardcore method actor and increasingly, a pain in the ass. Mike starts to challenge Riggan and upstage him. On top of this, Riggan's friend and manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), warns Riggan that he could go broke if the play is a flop, things aren't great between Riggan and his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and the most influential critic in town, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), threatens to give him a scathing review. An involuntary trip through Times Square captures an actor's worst fears, just as a cocky walk down the block exemplifies performer braggadocio.

Keaton's two films as Batman are obvious meta-references, but this is also the best work of his career – he's got quirky intensity down pat, but also brings a vulnerability, desperation and selective self-insight to Riggan that make him a compelling character. Emma Stone is good as always as Samantha, with her finest moment a blistering speech to her father that she almost immediately regrets – but only partially. Norton's performance is hilarious and self-mocking (he has a reputation for being difficult to work with), a perfect sendup of the serious "method" actor. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Amy Ryan as Sylvia especially impressive given her scant screen time – she's trying to be supportive of Riggan and wants to help him improve his relationship with their daughter, but it's only a matter of time until she's reminded of why they divorced.

I'm not entirely settled on some key ambiguities in Birdman, but director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu doubtless wants it that way (I'll have to see it again). Some viewers might dislike that uncertainty and what's arguably a magic realism aesthetic. (As noted in the year in review roundup, this is probably the most avant-garde movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and that's a minor coup.) I thoroughly enjoyed this film, with only a few quibbles (that subsequent viewings might change). I didn't like two moments involving the critic, Dickinson (her certainty before the performance, and her immediate yet expressionless reaction during it). I also wasn't thrilled about the climatic action, because it's easy to see coming – but González at least makes the aftermath less predictable (and then some). I'm not entirely sold on the film's subtitle, either, but I suspect it's intentionally and self-mockingly pretentious, and perhaps also indirectly references cartoon physics and the film's finale.

(Here's Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki on The Treatment, González on The Business, and Michael Keaton on The Treatment.)

Boyhood: Writer-director Richard Linklater has never been shy of experimenting, and here he follows one boy (and his sister, mother, and father) from elementary school to starting college, using the same actors and filming sporadically over 12 years. (The actors helped develop their characters and the story with Linklater.) As usual with Linklater, the performances are natural and believable, and the film has an episodic structure built of character moments versus a tight plot. Ellar Coltrane is a non-professional actor, but gives a plausible performance as protagonist Mason Jr. – mostly, like a real kid, he just tries to do his own thing and navigate the vagaries of the adults in his life, seeking to avoid their often unnecessary confrontations. His sister is played by the director's real-life daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and although the film and its title focuses more on Mason Jr., the film spends plenty of time on her coming-of-age as well. Patricia Arquette plays their mom, Olivia, who has an admirable self-improvement streak but questionable taste in men, as well as a tendency toward parenting meltdowns. Linklater regular Ethan Hawke plays the kids' biological father, Mason Sr., who flits in and out of their life and tries to be the cool dad, with all its attendant benefits and drawbacks.

The realism is the most interesting aspect of Boyhood. Mason Jr. doesn't have big screaming matches with other people, whether they're adults or surly teens; he tends to just shrug his shoulders and try to move on. (The film nicely shows that adults are often caught up in their own crap, which has little to do with the kids they interact with.) Mason's interactions with other kids are likewise plausible – occasionally contentious with his sister, impassive in the face of bullying, playing it cool with friends, sweet or petulant with a girlfriend... Olivia and Mason Sr. are refreshing as cinema parents in that they're clearly well-intentioned but often pretty bad at it. They're not horrible people and they don't do any irreparable harm, but sometimes they find themselves in over their heads and react self-indulgently or otherwise poorly. Linklater can be faulted for meandering too much, but the final 30 minutes or so features several of the film's strongest scenes – a parental freakout, a teenager's frustration with life but also insight into his parents, romantic relationship woes, plus new beginnings and a trip to nature. Linklater shows great instincts with his restraint in the final sequence, and it makes a nice cap to the film.

Boyhood has its flaws as well (although I found it worked better on a second viewing). At 165 minutes and with an unhurried pace, it's longer than it needs to be; some of the scenes get repetitive, and it would be easy to cut 20–30 minutes. It's true that this specific experiment in film hasn't been tried before, but several elements can be found elsewhere and deliver better results. Seeing how people change over time is better captured in the astounding Up series directed by Michael Apted for Britain's Granada Television, and has the benefit of being documentary versus fiction, following 20 children initially, and covering 49 years and counting. Éric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman both used some actors repeatedly over decades, so that an actress who was a supporting teenage character in one film winds up being a middle-aged lead in another – and these films often resonate off each other. (Meanwhile, Bergman's last film, Saraband in 2003, revisits the central couple from 1973's Scenes from a Marriage.) Mike Leigh develops the characters and story with his actors as well, building comprehensive backgrounds and improvising countless scenes before finally filming. All of this is to say that Boyhood is a genuinely good movie, but I found it overpraised and lacking the greatness of these other works. There's not the same depth of insight of the Up series or Secrets & Lies or the best of Rohmer and Bergman (Rohmer being a closer comparison to Linklater; see below). I'd rather see those films again. That said, Linklater's experiments are more interesting than plenty of mainstream fare, and there's plenty to like in Boyhood when taken on its own terms beyond the hype. (Side note: The extras on the disc are stingy — a behind-the-scenes featurette, but no commentaries, which would seem like a natural inclusion.)

(Here's Richard Linklater on The Business and Patricia Arquette on The Treatment.)

Gone Girl: Gone Girl is the best latter-day Hitchcock film of recent memory, with the material a great fit for exacting director David Fincher. Based on Gillian Flynn's novel (and adapted for the screen by her), Gone Girl centers on a seemingly perfect young married couple. (Her: "We're so cute. I wanna punch us in the face.") On their anniversary, the wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), goes missing, and the husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), becomes the chief suspect. Twists, reveals, reversals and ambiguities abound, and one of the great virtues of Gone Girl is how we're asked to reevaluate characters and events over time. (I haven't read the book yet, but the film seems to do a pretty good job of adapting unreliable narration, a tricky thing for film. Fincher's earlier film, Fight Club, cheats a bit despite its other merits.) Ben Affleck's real-life history as a target of tabloid gossip creates a layer of meta-commentary (and probably helped him prepare for the role). Rosamund Pike's given the juiciest role of her career, and makes the most of it. The supporting cast is superb in their roles, including Carrie Coon as Nick's sister and confidant Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as a shady ex-boyfriend of Amy's, Tyler Perry as a celebrity lawyer/PR expert, Missi Pyle as a Nancy-Grace-type TV personality, Sela Ward as a more upscale version, comedienne Casey Wilson as a neighbor, and Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the main cops on the case. (The comic chops of Pyle and Wilson serve them well.) It's hard to discuss much more without giving away crucial plot points (see the spoilers below). Gone Girl's leads aren't always likable, but they're never boring, and while the film does have its detractors, you can't accuse it of being forgettable. (SPOILERS)

Edge of Tomorrow: Edge of Tomorrow wasn't marketed well and it's a genre picture, so it didn't receive nearly the reception it deserved as one of the best films of 2014. The planet Earth is under attack by aliens called Mimics, and the war isn't going well. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a public relations officer with a keen streak for self-preservation who runs afoul of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), head of Earth's forces. Cage is branded as a deserter and assigned to combat duty under tough-as-nails Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, having a blast in the role). He's inept with his battle suit and a coward on the beach battlefield during a doomed attack, but manages to kill a Mimic, leading to him getting sprayed by its acid blood – and wakes up earlier that day, before the attack. This keeps occurring, and during one of his repeated days, he runs into celebrated soldier Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who figures out what's going on with him and tells him to 'find her when he wakes up.' It turns out he's caught in a time loop, as she once was, and they hope to exploit this not only to win the battle but also potentially the war. The problem is, this requires a painful process of trial and error, with Cage (and Vrataski, and those around them) dying over and over again to progress toward their goal. (This leads to plenty of dark humor as well as occasional poignancy.)

Edge of Tomorrow works decently just as an action film or thriller, but it's compelling for several reasons. Cage starts off pretty unlikable, but gradually and plausibly changes over time. Emily Blunt, while always good (often as a romantic interest), is convincing as a battle-hardened heroine. (Vrataski's not fond of Cage to begin with, and even if they develop camaraderie, she's not falling for him in some contrived manner.) They're also refreshingly smart about what they try, given their situation – you won't find yourself yelling at the screen, and will occasionally find yourself impressed by their cleverness. Although the external stakes are high – potentially saving the human race before Cage's special condition wears off, as it did for Vrataski – their internal turmoil naturally proves considerable as well. Dying again and again, watching one's comrades and loved ones die repeatedly, trying to make some small piece of progress despite constant setbacks – it presents quite the existential crisis.

Many reviewers have described Edge of Tomorrow as Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day or a video-game-inspired movie. These are decent descriptions, although it's adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill and sci-fi literature has plenty of partial precursors (Algis Budrys' 1960 short novel Rogue Moon and the short stories of Frederik Pohl come to mind). Still, Edge of Tomorrow is genuinely original in its combination and overall approach, legitimately superb in its execution and a master clinic in editing (and screenwriting and directing for continuity). There's a fair amount of violence given the storyline, but it's not gratuitous. I'm not the biggest Tom Cruise fan, but he's genuinely good here, as is Blunt, while Gleeson and Paxton are standouts in a solid supporting cast. Director Doug Liman has the reputation for being a perfectionist, and it pays off splendidly here. This is also lead writer Christopher McQuarrie's best work since The Usual Suspects. Unless you hate sci-fi and action, you should check this out.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: This may be Wes Anderson's best film to date. He has a tendency to be too precious and mannered for some tastes, but here, he delivers a delightful romp primarily set at the title location in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1932. (Some parallels to real life will become apparent.) As some viewers will note, the film is a story within a story within a story, and really gets rolling when a young "Author" (Jude Law) in 1968 visits the faded Grand Budapest Hotel and interviews its mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then tells the remarkable take of the hotel's glory days and how he rose from lobby boy to owner.

As usual, Anderson gathers an impressive cast (some famous actors essentially have cameos – I won't spoil the surprise), and the impeccable production design and Alexadre Desplat's playful score (including invented folk music from the fictional country) create a silly but plausible world and add to the fun. (It's not a world without menace nor heartbreak, though.) Selling the whole affair is a fantastic performance by Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H., the ridiculously debonair and cultured concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, especially beloved by the aging, rich women who frequent the venue (and his bed). Fiennes excels at playing villains and hasn't played a character like this in a while, so it's a real treat to see him employ his considerable charms as Monsieur Gustave. The emotional core of the movie is the relationship between Monsieur Gustave and his idolizing young protégé, Zero (played in 1932 by Tony Revolori), who's as deadpan as Gustave is effusive. Zero's budding romance with local girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) adds a sincere sweetness to the proceedings. The main plot, however, revolves around one of Gustave's elderly admirers expiring and bequeathing a valuable painting to him. This enrages one of her surviving family members, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who covets the painting, plots Gustave's ruin, and unleashes his vicious henchman J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to achieve this. (Be warned that The Grand Budapest Hotel has a few surprisingly violent scenes, mostly involving Jopling.) Really every character has at least one great scene, with one of my favorites involving Gustave realizing he's been an ass – it's funny, but a little biting, and possesses some depth. Likewise, The Grand Budapest Hotel is charming, delightful and drenched in wistful nostalgia, but also features a couple of meaningful tragedies that make it moving in addition to being entertaining. (If you don't like this one, I doubt you'll like any of Anderson's movies.)

Here's Wes Anderson on The Treatment.

Nightcrawler: (No, it's not a film about the X-Man, although that would have been cool. It's still a good movie, though.) Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) can be called the protagonist of Nightcrawler, but he's not really a hero – he's more of a sociopath, albeit a fascinating one – unflinching, single-minded, hustling and hard-working, and a quick study. He always has his own agenda, but in his own weird way he's occasionally more honest than some of the sleazier people he encounters, in that he likewise considers human relationships transactional, but drops the pretense. Louis witnesses a flaming car accident late at night, and shortly thereafter, a freelance camera crew arrives that films it and talks about selling it to the local news. Louis becomes fascinated, and decides to try to break into the business, at first with only pretty lousy gear – but his first footage pays decently, and he finds he's got a knack for the work, which can be exciting. "If it bleeds, it leads," the old TV news adage goes, and Louis quickly learns that the more sensationalistic the footage, the better the payout – especially given how competitive the local news business is, with bumps or drops in ratings helping or damaging careers. In time, Louis recruits his first employee, the overly trusting Rick (Riz Ahmed, who's very natural and plausible in the role), and has a few clashes with rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the best local provider of freelance footage. Louis also seeks to become cozier with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a veteran of the business who's the head of a local morning news show. At times, you may wonder what the hell Louis is doing – and be amazed and appalled by the results. At other times, you'll probably be able to anticipate what's going to happen, but will be transfixed nonetheless. The extended climatic sequence probably amounts to about 20 minutes, and is masterfully put together – thrilling, disturbing and memorable.

As a critique of the seamier side of TV news, Nightcrawler is on point but exaggerated, and I watched it primarily as a character study. Louis Bloom is a weird mix of charisma and creepiness, made sharper by Gyllenhaal's unblinking stare and gaunt appearance (reportedly he ran to and from set every night to keep thin and hungry). It's probably Gyllenhaal's best performance to date. Writer-director Dan Gilroy is an experienced screenwriter (and brother to fellow writer-director Tony Gilroy), but this is his first feature. Kudos to him for recognizing that "interesting" isn't the same as "likable" and for fully exploring the premises of his own story.

(Here's Dan Gilroy on The Treatment.)

Special Mention: A Summer's Tale: Éric Rohmer's 1996 film finally received its official U.S. release in 2014. I had seen the other three "season" films as part of a wonderful National Gallery of Art retrospective on Rohmer, so it was nice to round out the set (The Winter's Tale is one of my favorite Rohmer flicks). Rohmer's subtleties and unhurried pace are not for all tastes, but those who like him will treasure his work; he's the cinematic equivalent of an Anton Chekhov short story (if cheerier, being French) in that he captures real life in art. His films typically feature non-professional actors, and the naturalness of their performances and the authenticity of the moments in his films make a refreshing change of fare.

In A Summer's Tale, as usual, Rohmer offers up a slice of real life with a simple plot. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is a shy math student and decent amateur musician, spending his vacation at the beach in Dinard, a resort town. He doesn't know anyone, but his semi-girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) told him to meet her there. (She runs with the popular crowd.) In the meantime, he meets the low-key and sweet Margot, who works in her aunt's café. They hit it off quite well and spend time together, but she's got an out-of-town boyfriend herself. (Margot is played by Amanda Langlet, who also was the title character in Rohmer's 1986 film Pauline at the Beach.) Meanwhile, Gaspard exchanges meaningful glances with Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), who's attractive, sensual and risk-taking – and with Lena increasingly looking like a no-show, he gives things with Solène a chance. They have a grand time, including writing and performing silly songs together. But then Lena might be arriving after all, and Solène wants an exclusive commitment from Gaspard – she's offended by the idea of being anyone's second choice. Gaspard is a decent guy who winds up way out of his depth as he somehow finds himself juggling three women. He thinks he loves Lena, but she can go extremely hot or cold toward him; Solène is exciting but a bit possessive (not entirely without reason); Margot is probably the best of the bunch, but seems unavailable. Gaspard makes for a likable protagonist because he's not trying to play anyone and he's stuck in some amusingly impossible but entirely plausible situations. (This isn't one of Rohmer's "morals" or "proverbs" films, but if there's a moral to this one, perhaps it's: love is a puzzle; when in doubt, bet on the arts.) My favorite Rohmer films are probably still Claire's Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon, The Green Ray and The Winter's Tale, but this makes for a lovely summer treat and aesthetic change-up from big CGI blockbusters.

(My remembrance on Rohmer, who died in 2010, is here.)

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