A Trip To The Movies – Review: “St.Vincent” 1.4.14

I can’t say I had the highest of hopes for this one, despite knowing very little about it other than having seen what appeared to be a mediocre trailer for it prior to its release. However, once the 2015 Golden Globe nominations were announced, and I saw that it got a nomination for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) and more importantly a Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) nomination for Bill Murray. Anybody who’s anyone I would think would see a film just based on the mere fact that it’s a “Bill Murray film” that garnered him a nomination. As I think it goes without being said that he may not be the most gifted actor in the business, he’s certainly one of the more universally loved. Which is certainly the case with me. So with that in mind I decided to make it a point to catch the film while it was still in theaters.

“St.Vincent” starts by introducing us to Vincent (or Vin as he’s called) played by the ever so wonderful Bill Murray. Vin is a textbook degenerate – one who resembles something like a cross between Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” (2003) and Danny McBride in the TV series “Eastbound and Down”. He drinks too much, is disrespectful to just about everyone he meets including his new neighbor (played by Melissa McCarthy – my first introduction to her in a movie), and cavaliers around a stripper (played by Naomi Watts playing a Russian woman with a thick accent – which surprisingly works) so that he can use her as his sex slave. That is until one day by a matter of chance he winds up being asked to babysit the McCarthy character’s son Oliver (played by the excellent Jaeden Lieberher in his debut performance). Oliver is having quite a bit of trouble at his Catholic private school because he’s just one of those teeny, puny kids that are easy targets to get picked on. Vin begins to watch young Oliver after school, as his mother has one of those demanding jobs that requires her to stay late. Vin does this at first simply because he is a selfish old man who is quickly going broke. But as the two of them start to develop a relationship, with Vin’s crazy lifestyle and antics acting as an almost catalyst for Oliver to gain the confidence he needs, while also providing the change that Vin’s character can benefit from because it seems like all he may need is some company around. As this relationship blossoms so does the story, and we start to gain some insight into the man Vin really is on the inside and not just the out.

The film winds up being slightly predictable, formulaic, and follows Hollywood movie tropes a little too closely. But if you’re able to put that aside, within it contains a beautiful and deeply moving film about life and one man’s experiences that have made him into the man he is. Even if he he is a little bit rough around the edges he’s utterly human. This multilayered and complex role almost seems tailor-made for an actor like Murray. Who puts in a dynamite performance here which ranks up there with the best of his “rebirth” roles (the “rebirth” of Bill Murray is considered post-1998’s “Rushmore”). I would even go so far as to say he was better in this than he was in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003) and on par with his role in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). He is the meat and bones of the film and is well deserving of the Best Actor Golden Globe nomination he received. Also, his relationship with the Jaeden Lieberher character is heartwarming, funny, and touching, and a lot of credit needs to go to him as well as it must be hard to play so well as he does off an actor of Murray’s caliber. Melissa McCarthy, who as mentioned I was previously unfamiliar with, also did a pretty good job as the troubled mother hit with unforeseen circumstances. The movie takes a grand shift at about the middle point that took me by surprise and really shows why Murray is just as good of an actor delving into dramatic territory as he is comedy. I felt while the film was pretty standard fare up to this point, it really started moving and was both engaging and touching from then forward. Culminating in a climax that had me on the verge of tears I was so moved. Despite it feeling like a somewhat familiar story that we’ve maybe seen done before, if you can look past that you should see that the film’s got so much heart and soul and humanity for its characters that I was easily able to overlook its contrivances. Highly deserving of both its Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Actor, this is a worthwhile film that I can see being universally liked as it winds up being very effective on a lot of different levels. Up to and including the pitch perfect closing montage as the credits rolled.

[that sweet spot between a B and B+]

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Review: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]