A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Leviathan” 2.8.15

It only seems fitting that my follow-up to my “Spotlight On” feature segment on Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev should be his latest film. A film as I mentioned in the previous article, that garnered some of Zvyaginstev’s best reviews to date worldwide. Taking home a plethora of different awards at many of this past year’s festivals. Including 1 win (Best Screenplay) and 1 Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, as well as being a Golden Globe winner here stateside and nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. I spent most of the weekend revisiting some of Zvyaginstev’s previous work – 2007’s lofty and ambitious “The Banishment” as well as 2011’s “Elena” so I could hopefully gain a clearer understanding of what exactly this director is trying to achieve. What I came up with is that he seems to be Russia’s counterpart or distant cousin to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s work pre-“Birdman”. Zvyaginstev’s films all seem to have a common thread that he likes to explore which I interpret to be how we deal with life’s many challenges and adversities, creating bleak dramas with an underlying element of social realism to them. However he, just as much as any other director I can think of at the moment, makes tepidly paced films which take their time to unravel that place much more of an emphasis on establishing setting and the characters that are contained within them than any other elements. His films are always weighty and dense, and are more in tune with what you make of them than what he wants you to make of them. This was maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date, and surprisingly his most accessible one, tying in themes of family, society, fate, power, and corruption that have become almost trademark in pretty much all his films so far to date.

The film opens with a series of gorgeous shots on the Russian coastal countryside that to me looked like what I imagine a country like Iceland to look like. Sparse, dreary, cold, and isolated, but also very beautiful. The story revolves around its protagonist, Kolya, and the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself in as the town mayor, Vadim, is going through the legal process of taking over Kolya’s property and abuses of his position of power to unfairly take it out from under him to build one of those new strip malls. But Kolya refuses to put a price tag on his beautiful coastal property, as both he and his family, as well as the families of both his father and grandfather have lived in it for generations it having being built more than half a century ago. His situation is further complicated by his increasingly distant and seemingly unhappy wife, Lilia, and troublesome teenage boy Roma. Kolya is a strong man though with high moral values and seems to juggle both his family situation and the process of his house being repossessed rather well. And even enlists the help of an old military friend of his now turned lawyer, Dmitri, who’s a prominent lawyer from Moscow. Kolya starts to build a case against the lecherous slime ball mayor Vadim citing violations of civil liberties and direct violations of the law. Though once a secret is revealed involving both his lawyer friend Dmitri and his estranged wife Lilia, things start to crumble and take a turn for the worse for Kolya’s situation, and he is confronted with challenges and moral dilemmas involving his family that he so desperately tries to hold onto as well as his property at whatever cost and whatever means necessary which, as the film ensues, his efforts begin to grow more and more increasingly dire and hopeless. Culminating into a tale of almost Greek tragedy-like proportions.

Like many of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s previous work before “Birdman” like “21 Grams”, “Babel”, and “Biutiful”, Zvyaginstev spins us another bleak, tragic family tale that mostly works on a lot of levels and not so much on others. Since I did “like” the film but can’t say I necessarily found it “enjoyable” (similar to my feelings after having watched “Foxcatcher”). I found myself marveling more in its technical achievements than I think I did most anything else. The film is exquisitely shot with much credit due to its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on every single Zvyaginstev film to date and captures some amazing back drops and portraits of rich symbolism. The acting felt real and authentic, despite many of the characters not feeling all that particularly likeable (to say Zvyaginstev has a pessimistic world view would be the understatement of the year). All of the characters are flawed in some shape or form. Alcoholism being an ongoing motif within the film with almost every character trying to hide their pain and sadness behind a vodka bottle. The story and narrative arch was also engaging and well crafted. With fully developed written characters and believable situations in which they find themselves in. My very few minor complaints of the film is that like the aforementioned “Foxcatcher”, it felt like a bit of an endurance test at a somewhat tedious 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. I thought some of it could have been trimmed down slightly and it would have still have had the same desired effect. Also, despite the very strong performances from each of its actors, I found the material to be a bit too cold and I had some degree of difficulty getting emotionally involved with any of its characters. The sole exception for that of maybe the central character Kolya, who you almost have to sympathize with as his world gets turned upside down and his situation is so tragic that as a human being you only can have empathy for him. But even despite those few criticisms of the piece, this was yet another lofty, rather ambitious, and fine example of the types of social dramas that seem to be coming out of this part of the world right now. Zvyaginstev gives us yet another rich story of people on the verge of desperation. I have a feeling this is going to be too bleak and too depressing for most, but it contains a deeply rich, personal, and moving story, that I for one am really glad I saw and will continue to see any Zvyaginstev film that he does from this point forward for the rest of his career. My only hope is that next time he will present us with something that is a little more hopeful and not as engulfed in sadness and tragedy.

[B]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]

Review: ‘A Field in England’ 3.18.14

This was one of my top 10 most anticipated releases of this year. For those of you who don’t know I am a huge Ben Wheatley (‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’) fan. I would say of all of the international filmmakers whose movies I look forward to most he would be in my top 3 along with Nicolas Winding Refn (The ‘Pusher’ Trilogy, ‘Bronson’, ‘Valhalla Rising’,’Drive’, ‘Only God Forgives’) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’, ‘Babel’, ‘Buitiful’). It had a lot of strong components, particularly the black and white cinematography which I thought lended itself nicely to the story which I believed took place during the Revolutionary War. Cinematically there was some unique camera framing and angles, an interesting use of an almost “strobe light” effect (there’s actually a disclaimer at the beginning that warns you if you have sensitive eyesight), and a solid musical score as it consisted mostly of what sounded like songs taken from that time period (either that or old Irish jigs) mixed in with some of Wheatley’s moody, almost haunting scores that he uses from film to film. As for the story itself, it involves a pack of Brits who basically band together and evade enemy forces in the opening scene. From that point they realize that one of them is actually a scholar who was sent out to find and rescue a nobleman. So that becomes their mission also with the hope that they might reach an alehouse (lots of nice puns surrounding that). Then about halfway in in usual Wheatley fashion it goes into absolute ape shit bonkers territory. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but what I will tell you is this…it involves eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and doing an unbelievable amount of crazy stuff. I had some degree of difficulty following what was going on, hence the lower grade below. So what I did was I began reading into other people’s interpretations of the film, not so much reviews, and correlated those who had the similar explanations or ideas to that of my own. After finishing it and reading those, I realized that maybe it was a brilliant film underlying that maybe I just didn’t look hard enough at. I also found out that Wheatley has said in multiple interviews that he intentionally wanted to make a film that would require repeated viewings on behalf of the viewer. So this film could get considerably better after another viewing or two. Still, worthwhile, especially if you have the slightest interest in one of the more innovative and incredibly unique auteurs on the film making spectrum today.

Grade: B-