Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Belated thoughts on the thrilling, terrifying pathology of Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler"



In my ongoing efforts to discuss as much of the year in film as possible before Top 10 time, I want to take another look back at a film from October, as I did with Birdman earlier. Like that film, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is one of my favorites from this past year. I actually saw it right after Birdman, on the very next evening, and it kind of killed me that I didn’t have time to write about either of them that weekend. These two films energized me at a time when I really needed it, when I needed to feel in love with movies again after months of work on a single, strenuous project. Honestly, I don’t know if my recent surge in productivity would have happened without these films. Before I saw them, I was ready to take some time away from writing about film, maybe skip the rest of 2014 and come back next year, but after being electrified by these two singular powerhouse works of art? There was no way I couldn’t stick with things, if I only so I could later make a Top 10 list featuring both titles (which it may or may not because, as I’ve said repeatedly, this year has been insanely rich with wonderful movies).

Nightcrawler is certainly worthy of the extra attention as, like Birdman, it is a film with an awful lot on its mind that also manages to be supremely entertaining, filled with haunting energy, provocative ideas, and one of the great modern character creations in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom. As with Birdman, I’m not going to bother avoiding spoilers here, as the film has been out for months, and as with that earlier piece, this analysis will be of most use to those who have already seen the film, and wish to discuss it further.

Read my thoughts on Nightcrawler after the jump…

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" sends the trilogy out on a rousing high note



It was eleven years ago this month that Peter Jackson wrapped up his first foray into Middle Earth with The Return of the King, and I can remember every detail of seeing that film with my family, on opening night in a packed and enthusiastic theatre, as though it were yesterday. The hallway at the Colorado Mills multiplex where we stood in line, and the enormity of the big, dual-purpose auditorium we all filtered into; if I went back there today, I could probably pinpoint the row in which we sat. I could tell you what the movie looked like to me as an eleven-year-old boy, the sheer enormity, grandeur, and grace of it – the way I felt, at the end of those three-and-a-half hours, that I had left my body behind and taken a life-changing journey to another world. I think I even remember the moment my father reluctantly left the theatre to use the restroom, defeated, for the first time over the course of the trilogy, by the film’s runtime.

Of course, every detail of every time I saw a Lord of the Rings film theatrically, on first viewing or on repeat, has stayed with me over the past decade. We don’t choose our favorite movies. It is not the sort of thing one has a say in picking, but an emotional reaction one feels in one’s bones, the sensation that, no matter how many movies one loves, this particular picture is the one that lives in one’s heart of hearts – the shining, internalized soul that fuels one’s love of cinema. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, collectively, is that soul for me. I have no say in the matter, and I haven’t ever since my life was changed by The Fellowship of the Ring thirteen years ago. The Two Towers only solidified things further, confirming that my love of Jackson’s Middle Earth was no fluke, and that the sheer, awesome power of cinema the director had introduced me to was not restricted to that first film. By the time that cinematic journey finished with The Return of the King, my own journey, as a film critic and scholar, was just about to begin; the impact of that final chapter was the ultimate push to send me off. There are no cinematic memories I treasure more than seeing The Lord of the Rings in theatres, and no films I hold closer to my heart than these, because my devotion to cinema is synonymous with their existence.

Eleven years later, Jackson’s second foray to Middle Earth concludes with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and the film arrives in an extremely different landscape. The euphoric anticipation that met The Return of the King does not exist for The Hobbit films, for unlike The Lord of the Rings, they have not been groundbreaking or transcendent. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, was an inconsistent, overlong return to a Middle Earth filled with too much CGI and not enough plot; yet the film exceled where it counted most, delivering stupendous portrayals of every major character – Martin Freeman’s Bilbo in particular – and nailing the big moments – ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in particular – even as I found the lack of central focus troubling. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more confident and enjoyable feature in many ways, with better set-pieces and superior character work, though the film’s structure seemed even more haphazard than it did the first time around. All the while, I found myself unwilling to make any major judgment on the trilogy, as so many were both before and after the films started coming out. I wanted to see how Jackson would wrap things up, to discover whether or not the final chapter would satisfyingly pay off on the two films preceding it, before deciding whether or not this second trip to Middle Earth was ultimately worth the voyage. Suffice it to say, I doubt there are many people out there more invested in the idea of Peter Jackson recapturing that Lord of the Rings magic than I am.

And in The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson has finally tapped back into it, one last time. 

Continue reading after the jump...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Belated thoughts on the existential majesty of Alejandro Iñárritu’s "Birdman (or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"



As we near Top 10 time, I am making an effort to see as many films as possible, and write about as many of them as I can. Today, though, I wanted to take a break from exploring the latest discoveries, and instead look back upon a film I neglected to write about upon its October release. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is one of my favorite films of the year, virtually guaranteed a spot amongst my Top 10, and it killed me that I was too busy with other projects to write about the film back when I first saw it. The film is too rich, fascinating, and accomplished to leave untouched, and since the film has been out for a few months now, I have not bothered trying to avoid spoilers in the following essay (an examination of the film’s finale forms part of the discussion). The impressions that follow are based on my notes from October, and while they are a little stream-of-consciousness in structure, I think they represent my experience with the film honestly (a topic we’ll get back to at the end of this piece).

Read my thoughts on Birdman, with spoilers, after the jump…

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review Round-up: Snowden film "Citizenfour" and Ebert tribute "Life Itself" offer an informative contrast in documentary filmmaking



As explained in this post from Tuesday, I’m seeing a wide swath of films right now in preparation for my year-end Top 10 list – which you should expect next week – and I am trying to write about as many of these movies as I can along the way. This means that not everything will receive a full review; films that I am either getting to late, or which I feel don’t necessarily warrant a full review, will be grouped together in multi-review posts, which will allow me to cover more films in a shorter amount of time.

Today, that effort continues, with thoughts on two documentaries that came out earlier this year: Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks from 2013, and Steve James’ Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert. I think these two documentaries offer a fascinating contrast. They are both absolutely worth watching, but where one – Citizenfour – takes a subject I would call essential and crafts a fairly loose, mediocre film around it, the other – Life Itself – tackles a much less ‘pressing’ or ‘significant’ topic with absolutely extraordinary grace, intelligence, and cinematic power. Even in the realm of documentary filmmaking, what a film is about matters less than how the film approaches its subject, and these two movies are a prime lesson in that fundamental tenant of cinema.

Continue reading after the jump…

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley elevate mediocre "The Imitation Game"



Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a fundamentally flawed and mediocre film elevated by some great performances, lovely cinematography, and a gorgeous musical score. In the strange chemistry that determines a film’s overall effectiveness, I found it enjoyable enough, though even the impressive contributions of artists like Benedict Cumberbatch and Alexandre Desplat are inadequate to make me ignore the shortcomings of Graham Moore’s woefully inadequate script. Moore has distilled the life of British mathematician Alan Turing – who broke Germany’s Enigma code and, in so doing, did a great deal to help the Allies win World War II – into a familiar exercise in Biopic 101, a film that is on the nose, overstuffed, structurally awkward, and with a certain whiff of fiction (or, at least, dramatic oversimplification) about all of it. Turing was a fascinating man, and at times – largely due to the acting and crafts work on display – The Imitation Game lives up to the legacy of this great and tragic figure (Turing, a gay man, was prosecuted for his homosexuality after the war, and committed suicide at the age of 41). More often, the film feels like a lot of passionate, earnest work being done in service of a middling, unexceptional core, and while the film is never less than agreeable, it ultimately never rises above disappointment.

Continue reading after the jump…

Review: Reese Witherspoon stuns in Jean-Marc Vallée's poignant "Wild"



The real-life story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is the sort of subject I could easily see being destined for simplistic Hollywood schlock. There are so many obvious avenues a studio could follow to wring all the humanity out of this tale, to exploit every ‘inspirational’ moment or personal triumph for maximum emotional manipulation, and to turn Cheryl and her story into a symbol or stereotype rather than a genuine human journey. Indeed, the most impressive thing about the film Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon have made is that it takes none of those easy paths. Wild is an insightful, deeply felt chronicle of a complex protagonist on a compelling, multifaceted journey, a modest and dignified film about overcoming grief, guilt, and other internal barriers. The film is emotionally rich, and absolutely inspirational, but it comes by these sensations honestly, only occasionally overplaying the story’s strong dramatic core, and always approaching the material with sensitivity and intelligence. As stories like Strayed’s go, I cannot imagine a more effective cinematic rendering than this.

Continue reading after the jump…

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" delivers an intense cinematic high



Is it possible to love a movie and have no idea what the hell any of it is about? Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful, woozy, delightfully confounding Inherent Vice seems tailor-made to test such a strange cinematic paradox. After a single, hopelessly inadequate viewing, I could sooner learn and explain quantum physics than I could untangle the labyrinthine depths of the film’s drug-addled narrative web – and I could not have felt any more elated by the experience. Inherent Vice is an absolute embarrassment of riches, an assortment of gorgeous photography, evocative production design, beautifully haunting music, and more terrific performances than one film should be able to contain, all adding up to an immersive ride so dizzyingly unique that, even at two-and-a-half hours, I never wanted it to end.

In a sense, it doesn’t – this is the sort of film that exists far beyond the confines of the theatre (or DVD screener, as it were for me), a movie that hits you with its full, thoroughly beguiling force and then lingers, evolving and transforming into something increasingly different, challenging, and fascinating the more one ponders it. Paul Thomas Anderson has long since proved himself a master at making films where the surface is only one small part of the experience; here, the surface just happens to be richer and more rewarding than just about any film in recent memory. What is Inherent Vice? I’m not sure, but I know that I adore it – and that any and all reactions I offer towards it now are only going to evolve in the months and years to come.

Continue reading after the jump…