Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Oscar Wrap-Up

Here's the confession right up front.  For the first time in about two decades, I didn't watch the Oscars live.  I was simply too busy with other commitments to be able to set aside three hours for an awards show.  Instead I checked in on livebloggers throughout the evening and caught up on the highlight clips a few hours after the ceremony was over.  I have the whole thing recorded so I can fast-forward through it at my leisure over the next few days.  And the funny thing is, this really didn't hamper my enjoyment of the Oscars much.
The only major categories where there was any suspense about the eventual winner were Best Animated Feature and Best Actor.  In the former, I knew that my favorite, "Princess Kaguya," had no real shot at winning.  In the latter, all the really interesting contenders - David Oyelowo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ralph Fiennes - weren't even nominated.  The whole business of waiting in happy suspense for a winner to be announced has been off the table for years because I'm way too savvy to how the whole process works now.  If you follow the Guild awards, you know who wins long in advance.  The announcement of the nominations is a far more interesting event.
If you can put aside personal feelings toward who actually deserved what, it's still a lot of fun to follow the Oscar politicking.  This year, none of the Best Picture nominees got shut out.  Everyone went home with something, so everyone was a winner, even if some of those kudos were very minor - "American Sniper" left with Best Sound Editing, and "Selma" got Best Song.  The clear victor, however, was"Birdman," which carted off Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography.  "The Grand Budapest Hotel" also got a lot of love, winning four Oscars that covered the bulk of the design awards,  This year's scrappy underdog "Whiplash" emerged with Best Editing, alongside its Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor trophies.  The once heavily favored "Boyhood" clearly suffered a loss of momentum, coming out with only a Best Supporting Actress win for Patricia Arquette.
I had no particular issue with any of the winners this year.  Three of the four acting awards went to performers who have been around for a long time and were very worthy of the recognition.  Julianne Moore in particular has been overdue for her statuette for a while.  The exception was the Best Actor category, which was a mess this year, as previously stated.  I'm fine with Eddie Redmayne's win as he was really the least objectionable choice.  And while "Birdman" wasn't one of my favorites, certainly there were enough good things in it that make the choice a decently palatable one.  I could quibble about the outcomes of some of the smaller races like Song and Animated Feature, but it feels petty to do so when I liked all the winners to some degree anyway.
The ceremony itself had its ups and downs, as they usually do.  Neil Patrick Harris finally got the opportunity to host after years of giving us a reason to tune into the Tony's, and he ended up being merely okay.  Not as fun as Ellen Degeneres last year, and clearly not as comfortable delivering one-liners.  His big opening number was nothing to sneeze at though - not quite at the level of the epic Hugh Jackman opening in 2009 - but good enough.  I'd love to see him back for another round next year.  There were a lot of nice surprises among the other performances too - Lady Gaga, John Legend, and Lonely Island were all at their best.  I'm absolutely delighted that they managed to get Will Arnett into a Batman suit to growl "DARKNESS. NO PARENTS," at the assembled throng.  And an awful lot fthe speeches turned into platforms for various causes, but none egregiously so.
Getting down into the nitty gritty of the show, I thought the graphics packages looked great, the set design was a little lackluster, and the projected effects were awfully gimmicky but not bad.  Whoever was writing the jokes needs to be kicked to the curb, and whoever keeps choosing spoiler-ful nominee clips doesn't seem to grasp the purpose of the Oscars.  And who didn't cheer when Paweł Pawlikowski had his standoff against the orchestra and won?
All in all, it was an entertaining evening.  See you next year, Oscars.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Rank 'Em: The 2015 Best Picture Nominees

I've barely managed to catch up on all the Best Picture nominees this year in time for the Academy Awards, so I'm way behind on awards season coverage.  So instead of the usual post on predictions and politicking, I'm going to rank the contenders and give my general thought about each.  And that's probably a better way to do it anyway.
Selma - I'm still stunned at how intelligent, how nuanced, and how effective this film is, the way it puts across its own, pointedly inclusive POV on history and takes pains to emphasize the humanity of every major participant. I was initially a little miffed at Oyelowo and DeVernay missing out on nominations, but as Scott Beggs over at Film School Rejects put it, "The Oscars need 'Selma' more than 'Selma' Needs the Oscars."  It has no chance at Best Picture, but that's okay.  I'm convinced that this will be one of the 2014 films that will still be talked about long after most of the other nominees are forgotten.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - On the other hand, sometimes the Academy gets it very right.  "Grand Budapest" is Wes Anderson's best film in ages, and I'm so glad he's getting recognition for it.  There's a real sense of purpose to all his usual stylizations and flourishes this time.  This one just misses out the top spot for me because I don't think the movie has quite the overall impact that "Selma" managed, but it's still exceptional from start to finish.  It isn't just a career highlight for Anderson, but for Ralph Fiennes, for Robert Yeoman, for Alexandre Desplat, and for many others. 
Whiplash - And here's to finding great human drama in unusual places.  "Whiplash" is a movie about a student-teacher relationship, about world-class musicians vying for status, and about an ambitious young man trying to acheive his dreams.  It's also one of the most jaw-droppingly intense, violent, and cringe-inducing movies of the year, with a supporting performance by J.K. Simmons that is already iconic.  Pigeonhole it in a single genre at your own risk.  What a magnificent debut for writer/director Damien Chazell, and hopefully this is just the start of a great career in film.
Boyhood - Richard Linklater couldn't have predicted that Ellar Coltrane would have less than stellar acting skills as a teenager, or that his daughter would lose interest in the project she was initially a big part of.  But he worked around those issues, and a thousand other little problems making "Boyhood," an experiment in filmmaking that nobody had ever attempted before on such a scale.  And by any measure, the end result is impressive, particularly the performances by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and Linklater's own evolving filmmaking style and sensibilities. 
Birdman - I had a very positive reaction to "Birdman," but it wasn't one of my favorites.  Lots of good ideas and performances, but it was missing a few vital pieces.  I have to put it ahead of the rest of the remaining contenders, though, for sheer degree of difficulty and cinematic ambition.  "Birdman" tries to do so much at once that it's incredible that it manages to deliver so well on almost every single level.  I didn't connect with it the way that others have, but if it does win Best Picture, which it's heavily favored to, I certainly don't begrudge it an ounce of success. 
The Imitation Game - Now here's the kind of movie that everyone expects to be nominated for an Oscar: a British biopic with a World War II backdrop, anchored by a charming performance from a talented male lead, .  "The Imitation Game" checks all the boxes, and it's entertaining enough that it's difficult to summon any real hard feelings against it.  However, it's also difficult to summon much enthusiastic praise.  I'm glad to see director Morten Tyldum and Benedict Cumberbatch are advancing their careers, but that's the extent of my appreciation.
The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do perfectly lovely work together as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, but otherwise this one fell pretty flat for me.  I understand that Stephen Hawkings' battle with ALS makes for more compelling drama than his work as a physicist, but I found that there was far too much romance and not enough science in the film.  It's a good effort, but I don't see anything here worth celebrating beyond the performances.  The bungled final act lands this in the second-to last spot on this list. 
American Sniper - I don't like it.  I don't get it.  I think a lot of the vitriol aimed at "American Sniper" is undeserved, but so is all the praise.  I can't find anything here that strikes me as awards-worthy, from the painfully jingoistic story to the oddly sub-par filmmaking from Clint Eastwood.  The marketing team should surely be handed all the kudos.  The silver lining here is that the film's boffo box office will mean that we'll see more mid-range films being made by the studios, and more films about the Middle East conflict. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Time is Right For "Fresh Off the Boat"

I finally found the time to watch the first couple of episodes of "Fresh off the Boat," the new ABC sitcom that has been trumpeted as the first Asian-American family sitcom in two decades.  This has been a banner year for minorities on television, and Asian-Americans are getting a second shot at the spotlight after the sad demise of "Selfie" a few months ago.  Based off the memoirs of Eddie Huang, we follow eleven year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), his parents Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu), two younger brothers (Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen), and their Grandma (Lucille Soong) after the family's big move from Washington D.C. Chinatown to Orlando, to run a cowboy-themed steakhouse.
Eddie's background matches mine pretty closely.  We both had families with Chinese immigrant parents originally from Taiwan, American-born kids, and a family business to keep afloat.  While I wasn't a fan of rap or hip-hop music, I sat next to boys who wore Wu-Tang Clan gear at school, and while I didn't have a Tiger Mother, several of my friends did.  Stories were often swapped about the various tirades they subjected our school principals to.  I can vouch for the fact that all the Chinese spoken in "Fresh Off the Boat" actually is perfectly comprehensible Mandarin Chinese, though the accents vary.  And despite various exaggerations and simplifications, I think the show essentially got all the important stuff about growing up Asian-American in the '90s right. 
I should point out that I haven't watched any family-themed sitcom regularly in a long while, so it's difficult to make comparisons to other current shows.  The dynamic of the Huang family is similar to "Malcolm in the Middle" - outsider main character trying to fit in, multiple brothers, and an overbearing but ultimately loving mother.  A lot is made of being Chinese-American in an overwhelmingly white Orlando neighborhood, but the characters' basic archetypes are very familiar ones, and the Huang family is easy to sympathize with.  They aren't exoticized much - Jessica is the only one who speaks with a noticeable accent - and the show pokes fun at a few of the Caucasians neighbors and stereotypical American culture too.  You can tell that the real Eddie Huang had a big hand in keeping the show as grounded in reality as it is.  I think it helps that more TV is high-concept these days and a certain style of rapid-fire dialogue has come into vogue, making it easier to add the necessary qualifiers and disclaimers when the show tackles potentially touchy subject matter.
I'm very heartened at how accessible the "Fresh Off the Boat" is.  I understand that Eddie Huang had some major concerns over how his family was depicted - father too milquetoast, mother too acerbic - but I like that the creators have figured out how to make the Huangs fit into the template of the usual sitcom family while still remaining recognizably Asian enough that they could have been people who I knew growing up.  Twenty years ago, Margaret Cho's "All American Girl" placed her as the normal, American-born girl trying to deal with all the wackiness caused by her Korean family.  This time all the Huangs are treated as the normal ones.  They're just a different kind of normal than what's usually found in Orlando.  Is it the American viewing audience that has grown used to Asian-Americans in the media enough for this to happen, or is it Hollywood that has finally realized that creating more realistic portrayals of Asian-Americans can attract an audience?  Probably a little of both. 
"Fresh Off the Boat" isn't perfect, but it's a major achievement already.  I especially like Constance Wu as Jessica, who humanizes the Asian mother with impossible standards and makes her funny too.  Randall Park hasn't had as much of a chance to show off his comedic skills, but there's a lot of potential there.  I really, really want to see what this show will look like in a couple of years with multiple seasons under its belt and the initial jitters behind it.  And a little part of me wishes I could have grown up with Eddie Huang on television to commiserate with.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Birdman" and "Inherent Vice"

Some quick reviews of two of the most interesting and highly discussed films of 2014.  I admire both, but unfortunately don't have all that much to say about either.
Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" is probably going to win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, a black comedy about showbiz and a man at the end of his rope.  Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former movie star known for playing the superhero character Birdman, and now making a last stab at artistic credibility by staging and starring in a Broadway play.  As a potentially disastrous opening night approaches, Riggan grapples with his relationships with his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), recovering addict daughter (Emma Stone), a rival actor (Edward Norton), and the ghosts of his past, embodied in Birdman himself, who just won't leave Riggan alone.
There are several films this season that have been accused of being "gimmick" movies.  "Boyhood" with its long production time and "Grand Budapest Hotel" with its heavy stylization come to mind.  "Birdman," however, outdoes them all.  It's been designed so that the bulk of the movie appears to take place in a single tracking shot.  Things happen literally and figuratively at the same time to reflect our main character's state of mind, so Riggan Thomson appears to have superpowers and has face to face arguments with figments of his imagination.  There's the "Noises Off, " behind the scenes, play-within-a-play business.  And add the meta elements of the Hollywood v. artistic integrity conflict, with Michael Keaton fighting a thinly veiled Batman stand-in.  It's amazing that the final result is as cohesive as it is, and so jam-packed with clever little moments where you just have to sit back and admire the craft and artistry that went into pulling them off. 
I enjoyed "Birdman" thoroughly, but I didn't find myself engaged with it beyond the surface level.  I think it has to do with a script that was often juggling too many ideas and Michael Keaton's performance.  I never sympathized or felt I really got to know Riggan Thomson the way I did just about every other character.  It's really a knockout cast.  In addition to Stone, Risenborough, and Norton, we get memorable work from Naomi Watts, Zack Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan, and more.  Keaton, however, gets the lion's share of the screen time and the entire movie hinges on his ability to sell Riggan Thomson.  And I never quite bought it.  There's always been a distance I associate with Keaton, and it really undercut him in this role. 
Still, the rest of the movie is such a wonderfully weird, ambitious piece of filmmaking, with gutsy cinematography, gorgeous fantasy sequences, some great dialogue, and a smashing jazz drum score.  This is the last thing I would have expected out of Alejandro Iñárritu, who is usually the purveyor of much heavier dramas.  I hope we get to see this side of him more often.
And now let's move on to "Inherent Vice," the highly anticipated reteaming of Paul Thomas Anderson with Joaquin Phoenix from "The Master."  This time they've tackled Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice," a detective story entangled in the drug culture of Southern California in the 1970s.  Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, who is trying to locate his missing ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and a local real estate developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).  And that's about all I'm really sure about plotwise, because this is a Pynchon story, and coherence is not really the man's strong suit. 
I don't really know how wrap my head around "Inherent Vice," because to some degree you're not meant to.  It's designed to be a rabbit hole, down which the perpetually high Doc Sportello gamely flings himself.  The incredibly dense, convoluted plot is really beside the point, meant to push Doc from one strange encounter to the next.  I lost track of the number of familiar actors who show up for a scene or two, some of them great, some not so great, and some entirely inexplicable.  Special mention must be made of Josh Brolin as Doc's nemesis  Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, who delivers a comic performance you gotta see up close to really appreciate.  And then there's Joanna Newsome as Doc's confidant, Sortilège, and Hong Chau as Jade, a helpful reprobate.  And Owen Wilson and Benicio Del Toro and Jena Malone and Reese Witherspoon and Martin Short are in the mix too.
I've heard the suggestion that Anderson meant to capture the experience of being on drugs, which accounts for the atmosphere of itchy paranoia and spacey disconnectedness.  This isn't to suggest that "Inherent Vice" is some careless mess or a one-trick pony.  Far from it.  The filmmaking is very deliberate, with beautifully composed visuals, well balanced tones, and some downright effective humor.  It's also a love letter to a bygone era, a satire on conspiracy thrillers, and a wistful fin-de-siecle chronicling the end of revolutionary spirit of the 60s.  The film certainly doesn't lack for substance, and there are already various interpretations and analysis pieces floating around, written by viewers who have excavated all sorts of fascinating things from the movie.  I suspect that for the Anderson die-hards, "Inherent Vice" will be a treat. 
I, however, failed to find an entry point.  "Inherent Vice" was just too difficult and obfuscated for me to penetrate.  I wanted to like it after having had very positive reactions to "The Master" and most of the rest of Paul Thomas Anderson's filmmography.  I liked a few moments here and there very much, and I know that I would likely find more if I watched the movie multiple times and put some effort into untangling the narrative and interpreting its obtuse symbolism.  However, I just don't care enough to try at the moment.  The movie didn't give me enough the first time around to make me want to take a second look.  Maybe after some time has passed, I'll give it another shot. 
But for now, I have a lot more films to catch up on.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Trying to Be Fair to "American Sniper"

The reaction to Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," about Iraq War vet Chris Kyle, is far more interesting that the film itself.  I don't think that this is one of Eastwood's more egregious misses like "J. Edgar" or "Hereafter," but it's certainly not one of his better films either.  I'm mystified by its high box office earnings and the multiple Academy Award nominations.  At the same time, I don't think it deserves to be the target of the vitriol it's received.  "American Sniper" appears to be a perfectly well-intentioned biopic of a good soldier struggling through adversities on the battlefield and at home.  It's just not a very good one.  
Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, who we follow from his pre-enlistment through four tours of duty and then a rocky return to civilian life.  He meets Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) midway through his training, and she becomes his girlfriend, and eventually his wife and the mother of their two children.  Much of the film is taken up by Kyle's time in Iraq, where he becomes one of the most successful sharpshooters in American history, and is hailed as a "legend."  Kyle's story plays out in the usual way - the combat takes its toll on him, his relationships with people back home are put in jeopardy, and transitioning back to normal life presents difficulties.  I appreciate that it's apolitical, focuses solely on Kyle's experiences from his point of view, and is very simple and direct.  It feels very much like recent documentaries on American troops in the Middle East like "Restrepo."    
There's no clear message in "American Sniper," which I guess is part of my problem with it.  The story of Chris Kyle is so generic and handled so straightforwardly, viewers are projecting whatever they want on it.  Bradley Cooper's performance is pretty bland, so he can be interpreted to be a hero or a monster.  No context is offered for Kyle's actions in Iraq, some of which are very troubling.  The violence clearly has an impact on his mental and emotional state, but his treatment is glossed over in an awkward third act.  Frankly, some of the filmmaking here is noticeably rushed and subpar, including the now notorious plastic baby who appears briefly as one of Kyle's infant children.  Eastwood has maintained that "Sniper" was intended to have anti-war messages and I believe him.  And I believe the people who saw the movie as blindly patriotic too.
I didn't enjoy "American Sniper," and I've come to the conclusion that a large part of that is because I simply don't like the film's version of Chris Kyle or the conservative  military culture that he inhabited.  I don't like the casual crassness of his behavior or his ability to shut off parts of himself that would have gotten in the way of his ability to perform in the field.  I don't like that he didn't question the war or his place in it.  And I found his relationship with his wife and kids as they were portrayed in the film downright cringeworthy.  The narrative felt more like a cautionary tale than a celebration of his life, which is not what I think any of the filmmakers intended. Whatever the movie actually intended to convey about Chris Kyle has gotten completely lost.   
I keep turning the film's particulars over and over in my head, trying to figure out what so many people saw in it.  The depictions of warfare were intense, and the behaviors of the soldiers were uncommonly candid, which I appreciated even if I found some elements repulsive.  The moral ambivalence that I found so troubling easily could have been seen as a positive by others, especially those who dislike anti-war messages.  Then there's Bradley Cooper, whose charms have consistently eluded me.  Is there something that I'm missing about his work here?  Or Sienna Miller's?  I'm aware of my own biases toward the material and trying to be fair to the film, but the harder I look, the worse it comes off.  
I'm afraid my initial impression is the one I have to stick with.  "American Sniper" has been accused of many things, but really the only thing it's guilty of is mediocrity. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Kids and Commercials

When I was a small child, the rule at home was that my younger brother and I were only allowed to watch shows that aired on PBS unsupervised.  The main reason was because these were educational, but looking back I think another big reason was that "Reading Rainbow" and "Ghostwriter" only ran with the most minimal and unobtrusive advertisements, if at all.  Anti-ad sentiments were common.  I had friends who were allowed to watch network television, but had to mute the commercials.  Other parents used VCRs to time-shift programming and edit the commercials out.  Some ignored broadcast television completely in favor of videos borrowed from the local library. 
My parents were never that extreme, and watched plenty of television themselves.  As long as they were around to explain things, I was allowed to watch a lot of things in the evenings that weren't age appropriate.  Eventually, around age eight, I had complete unrestricted access to cartoons on most afternoons.  I wasn't the type of kid to fixate on certain toys or breakfast cereals, and never whined for them, so my parents eventually stopped worrying so much about what I was watching.  However, the ads definitely still made an impact on me.  I still remember many of them better than the programming that they ran with, since some campaigns and characters persisted for years.  I remember Fred Flintstone from the Fruity Pebbles commercials more than I remember him in "The Flintstones."
So I find it absolutely fascinating that the kids growing up now in cord-cutter households have much less exposure to traditional commercials.  Netflix and Amazon Prime offer big libraries of children's programming without a single ad-break.  You can find a lot of the old cartoons I used to watch on other ad-free platforms.  And since kids put much less of a premium on watching new and recent shows, is it any wonder that  these services are now taking a huge bite out of cable and traditional television viewership?  Recent ratings numbers show that kids' programming is suffering some of the worst drops in viewership due to cord-cutting.  Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel have been feeling the impact the most heavily, and it's no surprise that Nick recently announced that they'll be launching their own streaming service in the near future.  
This doesn't mean that kids aren't still being bombarded by advertisements though, especially online.  Some parents may end up missing the days of TV commercials, because digital advertising can be much more pernicious and difficult to spot, requiring more vigilant monitoring.  Think about the amount of spam, clickbait, and viral videos in circulation that are really just thinly-veiled ads. Mobile games are notorious for pushing in-app purchases.  Heck, think about the new "My Little Pony" cartoons and "The Lego Movie."  There are always going to be companies trying to sell kids their products in some form or another.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Commercials may have been an annoyance, instilling questionable messages, and ensuring a disturbing degree of brand recognition in our young minds ("cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!") but they were also our earliest lesson in media awareness.  Being exposed to them taught me to differentiate between different types of content and to identify different advertising tactics.  And those are vital skills in the information age.  So I don't think that a commercial here and there, clearly marked, is as harmful as some paranoid parents think.  I mean, every so often even "Sesame Street" was obliged to cede some air time to PBS pledge drives. 
Digital media offers more control than parents had in the analog era, and some services have format and content options for advertisements.  I can imagine at some point, conscientious parents will be able to pick and choose what kind of ads their children can view.  "Frozen" dolls and Tonka trucks, yes.  Cinnamon Toast Crunch, no.  However, I imagine that most cord-cutters will be trying to avoid ads entirely, and raising kids who are not just cord-nevers, but commercial averse ad-nevers.  And that's where things get interesting. 
Exposure to commercials will happen eventually of course, but think of a world where the default assumption is that kids don't see their first McDonalds ad until they're eleven or twelve, when they can think and reason more carefully.  Think of kids who never develop a fondness towards cereal box mascots or display Pavlovian responses toward branding jingles and catchphrases. 
Think of a whole generation of them.       

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Whiplash" Starts a Fight

When considering the portrayals of student-teacher relationships on film, particularly regarding music, the default is the uplifting, "Mr Holland's Opus" model.  Though there's often initial reluctance, the relationship is largely a nurturing one, full of positive reinforcement, creative solutions to obstacles, and feel-good messages.  "Whiplash" does not have any of those things.  Rather, it portrays a student-teacher relationship with all the sentiment of a barroom brawl, one full of provocation, violence, threats, abuse, and a worrying amount of blood.
Drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a student at the best music conservatory in the country, and has caught the eye of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the notorious instructor who conducts the school's prestigious competitive jazz band.  Andrew wants to be one of the greats, and believes that Fletcher's tough-love methods can get him there.  But as Andrew becomes more obsessed with achieving perfection, Fletcher keeps pushing his limits to dangerous extremes, to the dismay of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) and new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist).  
It's so rare to find a film about artists that's actually about the pursuit of the art itself - not their romantic relationships, not their ability to overcome personal adversity, but the artist's active pursuit of bettering their craft.  "Whiplash" puts the conflict between Andrew and Fletcher front and center, but it hinges on Andrew's intense drive and desire for greatness.  The situation wouldn't keep escalating to the extent that it does otherwise.  J.K. Simmons has rightly won heaps of praise for his performance as the sadistic, manipulative music teacher from hell, but "Whiplash" owes just as much to Miles Teller.  It's Teller embodying Andrew's glory-seeking self-destructiveness combined with some seriously impressive drumming skills that sells the whole conceit of the picture.
Of course, the bulk of the credit for "Whiplash" goes to writer/director Damien Chazell.  Despite few credits to his name, his work here is incredibly assured and effective.  I love that he strips down the narrative to the absolute essentials, resisting the urge to add unnecessary context or to flesh out the little side relationships that might take attention away from the main event.  There's a romance, yes, but it's always put in service of the larger story.  Chazell isn't afraid of treating the drumming like a life-or-death battle, and parts of the movie are structured like a thriller or horror film, much like what Darren Aronofsky did with ballet on "Black Swan."  He shoots the final performance like an action sequence, and it's electrifying.  And I love the way  the whole movie is steeped in the culture and the craft of playing music.  I've never seen it done better.
I should clarify that "Whiplash" is not a candid look at this particular corner of the music world - the movie is clearly an allegory that  stretches the limits of believability toward the end.  If you think about the sequence of events, there's a lot that doesn't make sense.  But because the director took the trouble to get all the little technical details right, it's so much easier to buy into this story, and to appreciate the level of musical talent on display.  It's difficult to imagine the movie without the music - I have no particular fondness for jazz, but now I want the "Whiplash" soundtrack.
And I suspect that many a viewer with no interest in drumming, in teacher-student stories, or even music films would enjoy "Whiplash."  And ironically, audience members looking for the typical, feel-good movie about musical education might be blindsided by J.K. Simmons' expertly deployed vitriol and Miles Teller's descent into percussive madness.  The drama is intense, the performances are perfectly pitched, and the director takes some considerable risks that pay off in spades.  I'm hesitant to call this a great film, but it's surely close enough to be up for debate.     

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2015 Films I'm Anticipating, Part II

And here are the films with smaller profiles that I'm looking forward to seeing in 2015.  Please note that in some cases, the films are projected to be released in 2015, but may end up being delayed.  Four of the titles from last year's list, "The Voices," "The Cobbler," "Ex Machina," and "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" have yet to become available stateside.  As I've already written about them, I'm leaving them out of the lineup below. 
"99 Homes" - Deadline Hollywood has been pushing hard for Ramin Bahrani's drama about the foreclosure crisis over the past few months, which premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival.  I've heard very mixed reactions since, but Bahrani's done some great work in movies like "Man Push Cart,"  and "Chop Shop," and I've been curious about his recent shift from stories about immigrants to to stories about working class white Americans.  Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, and Michael Shannon headline, and I like all of those actors so I'm definitely on board.
"The Ferryman" - A Wong Kar-Wai romance with Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Wei Tang?  Yes, please.  I've seen nearly everything Wong Kar-Wai has made, but I haven't been too fond of his last three pictures, including the highly lauded "Grandmaster."  They felt like Wong trying too hard to be someone other than who he is.  "The Ferryman," however, seems to be a return to the themes of his earlier films, which makes me very excited.  This is the film on the list most likely to be delayed until next year or beyond, but at the time of writing it's still scheduled for 2015.
"The End of the Tour" - One of the most promising titles that's emerged from Sundance this year.  James Ponsoldt of "The Spectacular Now" and "Smashed" chronicles the travels of journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on his book tour for "Infinite Jest," right as Wallace was becoming famous and grappling with that shift.  Segel's been getting great notices for his work, and Eisenberg's been a dependably strong performer, but it's Ponsoldt who really has me interested.  He's been getting better and better with every film he's made.  
"Sicario" - Here's the brief synopsis: "A police officer (Emily Blunt) from Tucson, Arizona travels across the border to Mexico with a pair of mercenaries to track down a drug lord." Denis Villeneuve is directing.   Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin have supporting parts.  I am sold.  I've been waiting for Emily Blunt to sink her teeth into some more challenging roles that could catapult her profile higher, and this sounds like a promising one.  I feel like Villeneuve is still finding his footing after making one great film and a couple of very good ones, but he's definitely got it in him to knock this out of the park. 
"Queen of the Desert" - Werner Herzog is making a Gertrude Bell biopic with Nicole Kidman in the lead role.  Good grief, do I really need to say anything else?  Okay, biopics are usually a minefield and "Grace of Monaco" was a clear misstep for Kidman, but with Werner Herzog at the helm, all bets are off.  This is the man whose idea of remaking "Bad Lieutenant" involved a crazypants Nicholas Cage and imaginary iguanas.  "Queen of the Desert" will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in a week or so, and hopefully hit theaters Stateside before the end of the year. 
"The Lobster" - Remember "Dogtooth"?  Well, its director Yorgos Lanthimos has decided that his English language debut will be a dystopian science-fiction film starring Colin Farrell, playing a man who has 45 days to make a love connection, or he'll be turned into an animal and exiled.  Yep, that sure sounds like something the director of "Dogtooth" would make.  The cast also includes Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw, so Lanthimos definitely has some good talent to work with. My hope is that he doesn't compromise an inch on whatever insane vision he's got in his sights.
"Spotlight" - Thomas McCarthy's last film, "The Cobbler," was not received well and it may be a long time before we're able to see it.  I hope this doesn't hurt the fortunes of McCarthy's next film, about the 2013 Boston Globe coverage of the emerging sex scandals involving the Massachusetts Catholic Church.  Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton will star.  This will be a departure for McCarthy, who has stuck to small scale, gentle comedy-dramas so far.  I'm very curious how he's going to do with this kind of material, and where that might lead in the future.
"The Other Side of the Wind" - And finally, a little curiosity for my fellow film geeks.  Orson Welles' final unfinished film has been rescued from legal limbo, and is being edited and prepared for release this year to celebrate Welles' 100th birthday.  I've seen enough of these unfinished projects and Welles' own later work to know not to expect a masterpiece.  However, it's sure to be an experience worth having.

Monday, February 2, 2015

2015 Films I'm Anticipating, Part I

It's time again for my list of my most anticipated films of the year.  I split this up into two posts, one for the mainstream would-be blockbusters that are released on three thousand screens at a time and enjoy massive marketing blitzes months in advance, and one for the smaller, more specialized films that are harder to keep track of.  We're doing the big boys first.  2015 was at one point overscheduled with huge titles, creating several potential showdowns between massive properties.  Things have calmed down, but there are still plenty of familiar names in play.  In the past I tried to avoid putting too many franchise films on the list, but I've given up this year, because it feels like nearly everything is a franchise film.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" - Have you seen the trailers for this thing?  I wasn't much of a fan of the original Mad Max movies, but I always admired their anarchic spirit and grungy post-apocalyptic style.  "Fury Road" introduces a lot of modern pyrotechnics and big budget production values, but it's still got the same attitude.  Tom Hardy is a great choice to fill Mel Gibson's shoes, and I love the descriptions I've heard so far of the plot - no frills, little dialogue, and almost entirely comprised of one big, accelerating chase.  Now that sounds like a summer action movie.
"Tomorrowland" - We've been hearing about Brad Bird's top secret 1952 science-fiction themed project for a long time now, and I'm glad we'll finally be able to see the finished product after a couple of delays.  The teaser featuring Britt Robertson and George Clooney was great, revealing very little, and I'm doing my best to stay in the dark about any plot details.  Such scant information might normally be cause for doubt, but this is Brad Bird, who has never made a movie I haven't liked.  That it's a passion project of his is all I need to know to have "Tomorrowland" on my list.
"Fantastic Four" - 2015 will be fairly light on superhero films.  I'm ambivalent on "Avengers," honestly, and I have little interest in "Ant-Man" since Edgar Wright left.  That leaves "Fantastic Four," which is being directed by "Chronicle's" Josh Trank and stars Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan coming off "Whiplash" and "Fruitvale Station" respectively.  I'd want to see anything with that kind of talent involved.  The first teaser trailer just came out, pointing to a much more grounded, less campy take on the property than the Tim Story films offered.  Frankly, anything would be an improvement on that last sequel. 
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." - Originally this adaptation of the '64 spy series was to have been Steven Soderbergh's swan song, starring George Clooney.  Now we've got Guy Ritchie directing and Henry Cavill in the lead role, with Armie Hammer as his partner.  That still sounds like a pretty promising combination to me.  I liked what Ritchie did with Sherlock Holmes, and thought Cavill and Hammer did well as the leads in the less-than-stellar "Man of Steel" and "Lone Ranger."  I love a good spy romp, especially the ones with a lighter touch, and I'm really hoping that this one hits the spot.
"Crimson Peak" - This is Guillermo Del Toro's haunted house movie with Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston, and it promises to be one of those lovely, atmospheric, phantasmagoric horror projects that he's so good with.  I love that it's also got shades of "Jane Eyre," which Mia Wasikowska  was already in an excellent version of a few years ago.  Sure, I'd be happier if this was "At the Mountains of Madness" or the last film in his Spanish Civil War trilogy, but after the massive break he took between "Hellboy 2" and "Pacific Rim," it's a relief that Del Toro is working steadily again. 
"Spectre" - I loved "Skyfall," and I'm very excited to see much of the same creative team onboard for the follow-up, "Spectre," which will introduce modern versions of some of James Bond's most famous adversaries.  The cast list is fantastic.  Lea Seydoux and Monical Bellucci as the new Bond girls! Christoph Waltz as the Big Bad! - and Christoph Waltz was born to be a Bond baddie.  Alas, Roger Deakins has moved .n, but we can't have everything.  There have been some rumbles here and there about worrying budget numbers since the Sony hack, but I really don't see how this one can fail to knock it out of the park.
"The Martian" - Ridley Scott has been incredibly hit-or-miss in recent years.  Frankly, I don't think he's had a real winner in about a decade.  I've got a good feeling about his latest gig, though.  Matt Damon will star as an astronaut stranded on Mars, so this is a survival story first and foremost, and Scott's always been better when he's handling simpler stories like this than his grandiose epics.  Also, he's directing off of a screenplay by Drew Goddard, of "Cabin in the Woods" fame, which should help avoid the narrative loopiness that plagued "Prometheus."  Fingers crossed.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"  - Because really, who isn't looking forward to this?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Interstellar" is Less Than Stellar

I'm having trouble articulating my reaction to Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar."  On the one hand, it's this big, grand, lavish piece of epic, high concept science-fiction filmmaking that makes no apologies for its nerdy technical jargon or its overt sentimentality.  And I love films like that, even when they're terrible.  I'm one of the few people who really enjoyed Wally Pfister's "Transcendence," for example.  "Interstellar" is certainly better than "Transcendence" on just about every level, but at the same time it's a very flawed film, and those flaws are more frustrating and the film overall more disappointing because they could have been fixed more easily.
"Interstellar" opens in a declining world suffering grim food shortages, where former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has become a farmer like most of the population.  A series of strange phenomena discovered by Cooper's young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) lead Cooper to the remains of NASA, who are mounting a last-ditch effort to find a life-sustaining planet that humanity can be relocated to.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) asks Cooper to join his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) on a journey through a wormhole to explore a planetary system with three of their best candidates.  However, the realities of space travel mean that Cooper would be separated from Murph and the rest of his family, possibly for good.

Christopher Nolan has been accused of neglecting the humanity of his characters.  That's certainly not the case here, where everything hinges on the relationship between Cooper and Murph.  All the sequences of space travel and exploring alien world makes for great spectacle, but the story only has the impact that it does because the stakes are established early and established well.  The characters' various attachments to each other, or the lack thereof, are ultimately what drive them and inform their decisions.  It's a lovely sentiment, expressed very well.  The characters are fairly flat, but the performances by McConaughey, Hathaway, and spoilers, were enough to get me properly invested in their fates. 
My biggest issues with the movie have to do with the plotting, which is ironic for a Nolan film.  Despite employing many complicated concepts, his scripts usually run like clockwork.  "The Prestige" and "Inception" both had to juggle far more plot with minimal lag.  "Interstellar," on the other hand, feels a little shoddy in construction at times.  There several developments that require massive logic leaps, buying into a "love conquers all" rationale, and accepting a huge deus ex machina - or rather a deus ex tesseract.  There are individual sequences that are set up and executed beautifully, such a docking sequence that owes a lot to "Gravity," but also several places that could have used some trimming or rewrites.  I suspect that the Nolan brothers ran out of time and couldn't quite get all their pieces to fit, so they ended up fudging a lot things that they shouldn't have.
There are some very minor fixes would have made a huge difference in clearing up confusion - an extra line or two of exposition here, turning up the volume on the dialogue there, or just abandoning all pretense of realism and going full "2001: A Space Odyssey" when necessary.  There's no doubt that there was a ton money and effort lavished on this movie.  The visuals are gorgeous.  The story is massively ambitious and full of details that could only have been the result of extensive, earnest research.  I especially liked the mission's robot teammember TARS, which has a unique design and personality.  And Hans Zimmer is doing his best Phillip Glass impression to great effect.  There are a lot of little bits and pieces that contain fascinating stuff, but the whole is less that the parts.  
In the end, sadly, "Interstellar" feels like a compromised version of something originally bigger and stranger, and I can't help deducting points for that.  Darren Aronofsky's  "The Fountain" is a similar film I didn't particularly enjoy, but it felt entirely true to the director's vision.  "Interstellar," on the other hand, often feels lost.  It evokes so many great science-fiction films and stories I love, but it can't quite figure out how to get where it needs to go.