Sunday, February 28, 2016

Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu                   Writer: Nicolás Giacobone
Film Score: Antonio Sanchez                              Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis

It had been a long time since it happened last. It was probably when Slumdog Millionaire won over Benjamin Button and The Reader the last time I felt that the wrong film had won for best picture. But it happened again last year. The Academy certainly took me by surprise when they chose Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as best picture, especially with films like Boyhood and American Sniper to choose from. But after finally watching the film, it all sadly makes sense. While it’s not as utterly offensive as something like Paul Anderson’s Magnolia, it still manages to measure pretty high on the pretentiousness Richter scale. The one good thing about Anderson’s film, though, was that it was completely ignored at Oscar time. Birdman was the big winner a year ago, however, because Academy voters were sucked into the cult of different-is-better, and didn’t look closely enough at what was in the film and what it was really doing. The premise is interesting, and the technical effort is laudable, but the actual product isn’t very entertaining, and that’s a shame. Iñárritu also won a statuette for his direction, and Emmanuel Lubezki for cinematography, both well deserved. But handing out Oscars to the writing team of Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Amando Bo, as well as Iñárritu for what is an incredibly pedestrian story, was the real low point of the last year’s ceremonies.

Michael Keaton plays a film actor best known for a series of films where he played the superhero Birdman. But once he had left the franchise his career had fallen on hard times. When the film begins he’s a few days away from opening a play on Broadway, one that he wrote based on the writings of Raymond Carver. When his co-star, Jeremy Shamos, is injured on the stage his female co-star, Naomi Watts, tells him that her boyfriend, Edward Norton, can play the part. Norton is a veteran New York actor and immediately begins shaping the material to suit him. Meanwhile the other female lead in the play, Keaton’s girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, tells him she’s pregnant, and his daughter who is acting as his personal assistant, Emma Stone, is spewing vitriol at him because of her unhappy childhood. Keaton’s lawyer, Zach Galifianakis, is attempting to keep the three-ring circus going so that they can put on a show, but the personalities involved aren’t making it easy. At one point, because Norton doesn’t have real gin in his glass, he tanks the preview and Keaton is ready to close the show. But Galifianakis is desperate not to lose the star’s money, while Watts is desperate to finally have a chance at some notoriety, and Norton engineers the press to make it seem that he’s the star of the show.

What critics liked about the film was primarily the gimmick of presenting the story in one sustained take, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. While the technique--with the aid of modern computer assistance--is interesting for a while, it soon becomes wearying as the camera chases characters through the hallways of the theater and out on the street. The camera is always moving, relentless, and in the pacing of the film there is absolutely no room to breath. But Iñárritu’s concept goes beyond Hitchcock, and also uses techniques explored, with better results, in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, where passages of time are also woven into the narrative without cutting away from the scene in progress. It is an impressive feat, with actors walking in and out of the scene seemingly in real time, but with no time for the viewer to process information it loses its impact rather quickly and turns into a narrative assault. More than anything else, however, the screenplay is the weakest part of the film. There is a tremendous feeling of having seen all of this before. The aging actor struggling to make something important of his career and the newcomer angling to steal his spotlight is straight out of All About Eve. And the dissolution of Keaton’s relationship with Riseborough, the dissolution of Norton and Watts’ relationship, and the burgeoning relationships between Riseborough and Watts as well as Norton and Stone seem so trite and overly familiar they are almost insulting to the viewer.

There are a few bright spots, however. The acting, for the most part, is quite good. It’s terrific to see Michael Keaton play a character that seems as if it could mirror his own journey. And Edward Norton is magnificent in the way he pushes everyone around him into doing extraordinary work. On the down side, most of the rest of the cast are interchangeable with other similar actors, and Emma Stone’s emotional rants are incredibly tedious. The one aspect of the film that is intriguing is that Keaton actually seems to possess some real super powers. But rather than do anything with it, Iñárritu lets it simply lie there without exploration, part of a magical realist sensibility that promises much but fails to deliver on that promise. Another missed opportunity is the subtle criticism of popular movie culture and social media. When Keaton talks about “missing” his daughter’s birthday party because he was videotaping it, there is so much more to be said that falls by the wayside. Even the incredible drum score by Antonio Sanchez is undercut by classical music selections later on in the film. In spite of all the negatives, it really is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but ultimately Birdman is a film that is less than the sum of its parts and is a disappointing best picture winner.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Taken (2008)

Director: Pierre Morel                                     Writers: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Film Score: Nathaniel Méchaly                       Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin and Maggie Grace

My reaction to films like this is decidedly mixed. On the one hand it’s a tremendous action thriller. The recent trend in European stories and films that really began in earnest with Luc Besson’s The Transporter, have been thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s no coincidence that Besson is responsible for this film as well. On the other hand there’s the subject matter. Sex slavery and sex tourism have become a moral blight on our age. This should be a difficult film for anyone to watch, and if it isn’t then there’s something wrong with us that it’s not more disturbing. Taken deals with the abduction of young girls in Europe who are then drugged and used as sex slaves until they are no longer profitable and then killed and disposed of, vanished without a trace. In this respect it is similar to a number of modern films that have the same flaw. Of course it’s great to see someone rescued from a horrifying situation. 12 Years a Slave did it with slavery in the antebellum South, and The Monuments Men did it with stolen art works during World War Two. But what about the art that wasn’t saved, the slaves that weren’t freed, and the many young women violated in the most dehumanizing way of all? While we walk out of the movie theater buoyed in spirit, those real women the film was based on are still being repeatedly raped and murdered. Movies are a powerful art form, with the ability to shape the way we understand our world. Let’s just hope that in the process of being entertained that we don’t become inured to the real tragedies being portrayed in our fictional adventures.

Liam Neeson is a retired CIA operative who is divorced and trying desperately to hold on to his relationship with his teenage daughter, Maggie Grace, especially now that his ex-wife, Framke Janssen, has remarried and his daughter has a rich step-father. One of the things Grace wants to do is take a trip with her girlfriend, Katie Cassidy, to Paris, which Neeson says is out of the question. He doesn’t have any specific fears, but knows that teenage girls alone in Europe are in a lot of danger. But when his overprotective nature threatens to drive her away, he relents, against his better judgment. Of course, once in Paris the two girls are befriended by Nicholas Giraud, who shares a taxi with them and thus learns where they are staying and that they are alone. Before the two have even unpacked they are accosted by armed men who come to kidnap them. Grace manages to stay hidden long enough to call Neeson, and after she’s captured he has a brief conversation with her captor, Arben Bajraktaraj, to the effect that he has skills and will hunt him down and kill him. Naturally the Bajraktaraj thinks this is impossible and hangs up. But he doesn’t know Neeson is true to his word. Neeson gets help from his former CIA buddy Leland Orser, and then once in Paris from a police friend, Olivier Rabourdin. From this point on the film becomes a cartoon of impossibilities in which Neeson not only finds Bajraktaraj, but gets closer and closer to Grace without getting himself killed.

The story is an original one by Luc Besson. Director Pierre Morel was Besson’s cinematographer on the first Transporter film and on the fourth installment of his French Taxi franchise, and Besson’s company produced the film. Jeff Bridges was the original choice for the lead role, and when he backed out the film was offered to Neeson. Though the actor had worked in Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan, Taken was the first real action film he had appeared in. It was something the actor wanted to try, but it would then lead to a number of such films, including Unknown and The Grey, as well as two sequels to this film and a new direction in his career. As is the case in Besson’s action films, the pace is frenetic and the actions scenes, including car chases, are carefully edited montages that can convey anything from claustrophobia to desolation in Neeson’s pursuit of his daughter. Not unlike the character he plays, this is Neeson’s film all the way. He is relentless and he becomes more humorous as the film goes along. This is especially true in the scene where he tortures Bajraktaraj for information about Grace. The only other actor worthy of mention is Olivier Rabourdin, whose part in the plot is a nice twist. Mercifully, Maggie Grace is only in the first part of the film as she was already twenty-five when the film was shot, and it’s obvious. Her overacting trying to play a teenager is pretty bad.

One thing that’s incredibly refreshing about European action heroes is that there’s no moral angst or handwringing involved. Unlike the heroes in American films--Salt is a prime example, where Angelina Jolie never actually kills anyone--their European counterparts are only interested in getting the job done. Neeson is happy to shoot guys in the back to avoid being killed himself, or allow a subject to die from torture when he’s sure he has all the information he needs. But vicarious participation in revenge, I learned as far back as Frederick Barton’s review of Mississippi Burning, is not something that should sit well with us. Nor is the fact that, while Neeson is hell bent on getting his daughter back, thousands of girls are left to suffer a fate she doesn’t have to. And yet the film does nothing to acknowledge their suffering or even offer the slightest hope that the situation can be ameliorated by the authorities. Certainly good people in police departments all over Europe are doing everything they can to fight this pestilence. Or are they? Watching this film, it’s difficult to know. Increasingly, modern films are celebrating the individual rescue at the expense of the human cost of the problem. It’s too bad Neeson isn’t crying over the lost girls in this picture the way he did for the lost Jews in Schindler’s List. Nevertheless, Taken is an entertaining thriller that deserves its popularity. Let’s just hope we don’t forget the big picture in the process.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Looper (2012)

Director: Rian Johnson                                    Writer: Rian Johnson
Film Score: Nathan Johnson                           Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels

I had heard about Looper when it first came out, but I wasn’t prepared for how odd Joseph Gordon-Levitt looked, and it bothered me for quite a while . . . until I finally realized he was supposed to look like a young Bruce Willis. After that, the makeup seemed pretty impressive--though really, Bruce Willis always looked like Bruce Willis when he was young, and not a bit like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Writer-director Rian Johnson had done couple of minor films and directed a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but this is really his breakout film. What will become of him as a result remains to be seen. His science-fiction crime drama has a lot of problems in terms of the central conflict and understanding the narrative, but it is fun to watch. The film opens with Gordon-Levitt waiting in a field in front of a tarp spread out on the grass. After a minute he readies his sawed-off shotgun and suddenly a man appears, hooded and bound on his knees, whereupon Gordon-Levitt promptly shoots him and disposes of the body. The narrative begins thirty years in the future, a time when time-travel is not possible. But it is invented thirty years after that and immediately outlawed. So organized crime secretly uses it to get rid of enemies by sending them to the past where people like Gordon-Levitt dispose of them.

Along with the bodies are ingots of silver that the loopers--the hit men from the past--exchange at a pawnshop for the money of their day. The current time period is a dystopia of sorts, with the inhabitants of Earth mostly poor, except for the loopers. Gordon-Levitt picks up a fellow looper, the high-strung Paul Dano, to go out one night and he begins levitating a quarter, introducing another element of the plot: telekinesis. It’s something that comes into play later, but means nothing early on. Where things become complicated is the idea of “closing the loop.” The future mob knows that at some point the killers from the past will eventually age to the point where they coexist with the future timeline. To avoid that, as well as the ability of aging loopers to inform on their illegal activities, including time travel, they send the older version of the looper back to the past to be killed by themselves, thus completing the circle. Their “suicide” even comes complete with a large supply of silver to keep the looper comfortable until the future catches up with him. When a frightened Dano comes to Gordon-Levitt’s door one night he confesses that he let his loop “run.” The answer to that is simple for the mob, but it’s not killing Dano.

In the signature moment of the film, a really nice scene, Dano’s older self, Frank Brennan, is on the run and suddenly he notices his arm has been heavily scared with a message telling him where to be in 15 minutes. It means that they have his younger self and have cut him to convey the message. He doesn’t heed the warning and then notices that his fingers are vanishing one at a time. It’s a harrowing discovery about what is gradually happening to his younger self. Now driving as fast as he can to get to the meeting, he loses his nose and then a foot, causing him to crash. By the time he crawls to the doorway his legs and arms have disappear, and he’s shot by Noah Segan while a surgeon in the background finishes amputating Dano. When it’s Gordon-Levitt’s turn to have his loop closed, he hesitates because Bruce Willis isn’t wearing a hood. Willis gets his back turned in time and the shotgun blast hits the silver, then he throws a bar and reaches Gordon-Levitt and knocks him out. When he wakes up, he has a note from Willis on him telling him to hop a train and run. Instead he heads back to his apartment, but the mob has beat him to it and kills him trying to escape. But that is just his imagination wondering what would happen if he doesn’t kill Willis, and when he really does arrive he kills him, takes his money, and then begins to live out his thirty years.

But the story is only a half-hour old at this point and the remaining two-thirds of the film, while thrilling, is almost like a different movie when the two meet Emily Blunt and her son. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a passable job as Bruce Willis, though it must be said that there are long stretches in the beginning where it’s easy to forget that’s who he is. Some of the actors--like present mob hit man Noah Segan and especially the eye-roll inducing Jeff Daniels as the present mob boss--are not very good. But the dialogue is believable, for the most part, and the acting by all the principals is solid. Bruce Willis is in more of a supporting role, which is a good thing. Emily Blunt does a nice job with the American accent, and Pierce Gagnon does a magnificent turn as her telekinetic son. The story is an original one by Rian Johnson and, while the climax seems a little too reminiscent of Firestarter, the ending is breathtaking. It’s an impressive idea. Rather than spending a lot of time on the nuances of time travel, Johnson wanted to make a character driven film, and in that he succeeded. The images have some nice color tinting, washed out in the daytime but difficult to replicate in the night shots, and a serviceable but unmemorable score by Johnson’s cousin, Nathan Johnson. Overall, however, Looper is a tremendous accomplishment and one that gets even better on repeated viewings. It comes highly recommended.

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Director: Kevin Spacey                                    Writers: Kevin Spacey & Lewis Colick
Film Score: Christopher Slaski                        Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Bob Hoskins and Caroline Aaron

There were two major musical biopics that came out in 2004. The first was the most successful, Ray by Taylor Hackford, the story of Ray Charles. The second . . . not so much. It’s not as if it didn’t have potential, but Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, the story of the life of Bobby Darin, just isn’t very good. And that’s not necessarily a knock against the film. In many ways it’s an impressive endeavor and the screenplay itself should have been nominated for an Oscar that year, especially considering the winner was the rather lame Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Spacey wrote and directed, both of which he does an above-average job on, but where the film really fails is in his taking on the lead in the film playing Darin. The film apparently took five years for Spacey to get the financial backing to produce, but in that time he aged another half a decade. Never a young looking man even in his youth, by this time Spacey was an already ancient forty-five years old and every year showed on him, especially as he was attempting to play a man in his mid-twenties who died at age thirty-seven. Even the Golden Gate Bridge couldn’t suspend that much disbelief. And there were some great actors cast in the film along side him, but the fact that the story is told exclusively from Darin’s point of view meant that he was in every scene. The irony is, the gorgeous Gretta Scacchi was cast as the mother of Darin’s wife Sandra Dee, and yet she is actually a year younger than Spacey. It’s a lamentable Achilles heal in what otherwise could have been a fascinating picture.

The film begins with Spacey as Darin backstage at a performance at the Copacabana. He is announced and begins singing “Mack the Knife,” but when he sees a small boy behind the rear curtain he inexplicably tells the band to quit. In front of a roomful of people he says he wants to do it again, something never done in nightclub performances. Only gradually is it revealed to the audience through his agent, John Goodman, that this is actually a film production, Darin telling his life story, a film within a film. The boy is William Ulrich as the young Bobby, telling his older self that he needs to start the film earlier, as a child. Born in New York, Darin’s mother encouraged him to be a performer, and looking out into the street he sees himself as Spacey dancing a production number. Later, he works his way up from the bottom, with the support of his brother in law, Bob Hoskins, treading a fine line between sycophant and supporter. At Atlantic records he scores a couple of late-fifties teen hits like “Splish Splash,” but dreams of bigger things, being a performer in the Sinatra mold. His early success leads to film roles and he meets Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee on set in Italy and falls in love. Eventually his success lands him at the coveted Copacabana and several residencies in Las Vegas where he becomes a headlining entertainer. But when Robert Kennedy is shot, and he learns the secret about his real parentage, he tosses everything to embrace a late-sixties ethos that bombs on stage. Eventually, however, he returns to his nightclub performances, singing his protest songs to the end.

Throughout the film, Ulrich appears as his alter ego and their brief conversations center around the crises in his life, including a weak heart which he had since childhood. The idea for a film on Darin’s life had been in the works for twenty years, but the rights finally ended up in Spacey’s hands and he immediately began rewriting an earlier screenplay by Lewis Colick, which he sanitized greatly by eliminating all of the darker episodes in the singer’s life. But the conceit of the film is it is the story that Darin himself is filming, so it works as something of a surrealistic look at the entertainer. There are still the soap opera episodes with drugs and Dee’s alcoholism, but unlike most biopics it’s a welcome relief not to focus on them. Two other production number grace the film, but again it is Spacey himself--a solid dancer and singer--who ultimately doesn’t work. The musical arrangements are good, based on Darin’s original stage shows, but Spacey also does the singing himself as well, which fails to capture the excitement of Darin’s voice. And all the while there’s still simply no escaping the fact that Spacey is TOO OLD for the part, something he’d been hearing since 1994, when he was only thirty-five. Of course the family of Bobby Darin had nothing but enthusiasm for the film, which makes sense considering how uncontroversial Spacey made it, but generally audiences and critics were luke warm. Beyond the Sea is a fascinating idea, and the screenplay is ingenious, but ultimately Spacey’s triple-threat performance was just one threat too many.