Archive for November 2014

Birdman

November 28, 2014

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Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

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The Theory of Everything

November 23, 2014

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Pop culture has its way of gentling great minds for the masses. To paraphrase Us magazine’s popular and frequently mocked feature: “Scientists — they’re just like us!” Those eggheads want, lust, love, and consume the same as any regular jerk. I imagine it’s one of the secrets of The Big Bang Theory‘s success: the characters may look to the stars, and even escape to them at times, but mostly they’re mired in grungy physical Earth. The nice thing about The Theory of Everything, which serves up a touching account of the love life of Stephen Hawking, is that Hawking’s cosmological curiosity seems to issue from the same place that likes booze and girls. We meet him, after all, as a gawky college student encountering his future wife Jane for the first time. Soon enough, Hawking will be as grounded as a human can be.

As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne stubbornly refuses to solicit our pity even as Hawking’s affliction, a motor neuron disease, erases his ability to walk and then to talk. Redmayne conveys some of the horror of a mind that faces being closed off from communication. But mainly he is astringent and witty, a brain too active to be distracted by mundane physicality for very long, because he has bigger fish to fry — you know, time and the origins of the universe. Redmayne’s skill at replicating the ravages of Hawking’s illness may threaten to overshadow Felicity Jones’ delicate work as Jane, but it shouldn’t; for a while, based as it is on the actual Jane’s memoir, the movie becomes about Jane and her inner life, and Jones puts across why Jane was drawn to Hawking’s intellectual gaeity and the toll his illness took on her despite her love.

Together, Hawking and Jane dramatize the Cartesian split: mind and body. A bitter irony of the movie is that Jane, pursuing her own academic career in literature, becomes essentially little more than a body: producing three children for Hawking, whose coital ability seems unaffected by his disease. The film sketches in Hawking’s relationship with his nurse, for whom he left Jane in 1995 after thirty years of marriage, but doesn’t tell us that he divorced the nurse, too, in 2006. The movie winds up saying that when you marry a scientist like Hawking, you take a back seat to what’s in his head. It’s a dynamic familiar from decades of absent-minded-professor entertainment, up to and including Sheldon and Amy on Big Bang Theory (where Hawking did a cameo, making Sheldon faint in shame over a math mistake). The Theory of Everything tries to soft-soap what should set it apart: the difficulties of being, and living with, a genius. The progressive, scene-stealing nature of Hawking’s illness cloaks the probability that he would be hard to live with even if he were able-bodied.

Still, the acting lifts the highly fictionalized story out of the realm of banality and bromide. Moment to moment, what we’re watching is the effort of two people to make things work, and this extends to the actors’ struggle to make the characters’ struggle fresh. Redmayne sneaks in the interesting sense that Hawking is spiritually and intellectually freed by his ailment — that he literally becomes a brain in a jar, a very fragile jar, and leaves the realities of dealing with his physicality to others. On the opposite end of the axis, Jones gives us a Jane who fears losing her mind, and though the movie short-shrifts Jane’s own intellect except for a scene or two of her jotting down notes, Jones makes sure we understand what it was like to be a woman in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, living in the shadow of an egghead titan who, liberal as he may have been in some areas, probably had no idea he was reducing his first love to a baby machine and unpaid nurse.

Interstellar

November 9, 2014

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Is it possible to make a big science-fiction film these days that doesn’t bathe in banalities and sap? Smaller films like Looper or Moon or Under the Skin manage it, but the more a movie costs, the more it has to appeal to the mass audience or risk fatal word of mouth. Christopher Nolan probably commands the most clout of all the big-movie directors, after having made skillions of dollars from his Batman movies and from Inception, and his big new one, Interstellar, cost $165 million and runs 169 minutes — or about a million dollars a minute. Interstellar tries to tackle one of the biggest (and oldest) questions sci-fi has to offer: What will the human race do when Earth becomes uninhabitable? The answer is surprisingly nihilistic and cowardly: Abandon ship. We’ve ruined this planet, let’s go find another to ruin.

I doubt Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, considers Interstellar in those terms. Indeed, the movie stays resolutely apolitical about the dusty dystopia it depicts: nobody says that our crops are blighted and our land assailed by dust storms because of man-made climate change. This, remember, is the director who tapped into Occupy anger in The Dark Knight Rises only to wimp out of it. Nolan, then, is politically unconscious and perhaps conscienceless, a slick imperialist imagemaker who feels the masses are fairly dumb. In the future world of Interstellar, brains no longer matter; people mostly are groomed to become farmers, who work the dry land to grow corn, the only crop that can still grow (though not for long).

One such farmer, a former engineer and pilot known here only as Cooper or Coop (Matthew McConaughey), makes his way to a super-secret fragment of NASA, which shoots him out into space to find, via wormhole, a more hospitable planet. This mission takes longer than Cooper anticipates: over the course of the film’s two hours and forty-nine minutes, no fewer than three actresses play the role of his daughter Murphy at various ages, while Cooper, in an inverse of McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, stays the same age. (I’m sure I’m not the first to make that joke, but I couldn’t resist.) There’s much chat about the fifth dimension and the singularity and other recitations from the higher-mind quantum-magick grimoire. What there isn’t is much excitement, either narrative or cinematic, until Nolan tries to work some up by throwing in a bad-guy character whose only function is to try to get Cooper and his crew killed a few times. Pretty much everything to do with this character is terrible, especially when he and Cooper are in a death-grapple on some ice planet.

Nolan usually has too much masculine weight on his mind to bother with decent female characters, but such actresses as Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and Louise Fletcher sneak in some of the emotions the film’s conception is sorely lacking. The Big Truths we’re meant to take away from Interstellar are the usual bromides about humanity and love finding a way (do we care about saving any other species, by the way? On this topic the movie’s silence speaks damning volumes). The movie isn’t very well thought out or deeply felt; there’s no passion in it. Nolan just wanted to make a big epic sci-fi number, and doesn’t seem at all interested in its implications.

The movie has an unacknowledged rotten core of cold nastiness. But that’s what keeps it bearable during the lengthy tech-geek scenes, wherein buttons are pushed and switches are flicked and directives are issued to robots with a humor level of 75% (which puts them at least 25% ahead of Nolan). Interstellar is good on all the same stuff that The Right Stuff and Contact and Apollo 13 were good on, the nuts-and-bolts Popular Mechanics stuff. But it doesn’t earn inclusion in the same sentence as 2001 or even Gravity, a minimalist masterpiece that focused on survival and left the cosmological woolgathering out of it. The movie doesn’t even leave audiences with bothersome questions on the level of the spinning top in Inception. Christopher Nolan, like David Fincher, is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose. And his ideas are very much stale farts wafting through the deep library of speculative fiction.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

November 2, 2014

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The broad black comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas was one of the last movies Robin Williams completed before his suicide in August, and it’s difficult to watch it with this in mind. Williams plays Mitch Mitchler, a bedraggled Wisconsin old-timer who used to be a drunk and emotionally unavailable dad to his son Boyd (Joel McHale). Quite a few scenes show Mitch sitting in his truck or on his son’s front steps looking devastated and depressed. I don’t think Mitch’s demons have much to do with Williams’, but it’s impossible to see Williams in this state without being taken out of the movie — and the largely feeble comedy — on some level. Past a certain point, Williams is expressing desolation and shame and seems all too well-acquainted with them. It casts a sad pall over everything else in the film.

Boyd takes his wife (Lauren Graham) and two kids to the old house in Wisconsin, because his mom (Candice Bergen) wants a family Christmas get-together. Boyd is obsessed with keeping his young son’s innocence about Santa, since Mitch so rudely and drunkenly disillusioned Boyd one Christmas decades ago. Maintaining the kid’s naivete involves spending most of Christmas Eve on the road back to Chicago, where Boyd has stupidly left the kid’s presents. It also involves no fewer than three run-ins with an unfunny highway cop and a near-disastrous encounter with a homeless Santa (Oliver Platt) that really should’ve been fully disastrous if there were to be any point to it, this being a supposedly dark comedy.

Television director Tristram Shapeero (who helmed twenty-some Community episodes, among others), making his feature debut, doesn’t sustain much of a style or a tone; the movie will replace Scrooged or The Ref in nobody’s heart, despite a cast full of ringers (including Clark Duke, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tim Heidecker). The satirical shots at dysfunctional family gatherings are so tired as to be nonexistent, and at about the halfway mark the script just spins its wheels, going back and forth between Williams, McHale and Duke on the road doing unfunny things and the rest of the family back home doing unfunny things — there’s a drunk-dancing scene with Bergen and Graham sure to mortify fans of both actresses, and there’s pointless gross-out ancient-pickle-eating.

Meanwhile, Robin Williams shuffles around looking angry and depressed — more so than the script would justify. More than once I felt I could sense him thinking “Is this it? Is this what it was all for, me doing a TV show that gets cancelled after one season, and then doing low-budget weak tea like this that’ll barely get a theatrical release? And stuff like this is what I have to look forward to getting up in the morning to act in, until the Lewy body dementia takes me apart piece by piece?” I submit that in a better movie none of these thoughts would have been relevant; I would only have been glad to see Williams again. But the man, great as he was, did not always have the greatest judgment in selecting projects. This, sadly, is one of the final examples.