A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

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A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Interstellar’ 11.8.14

In what I considered to be the second biggest movie release of the Oscar season behind the already released David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, the just released “Birdman” by director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (released next week), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “Inherent Vice”. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was, well, just like any other Christopher Nolan film in terms of my anticipation for it which was very high. I remember when thinking back to the build up and buzz of his 2010 mind bender “Inception” and seeing a preview for it during the 2009 Oscar season; a full 7 months before its release date, and from that point forward I tracked its every move. From filming, to post-production, to the months that Nolan’s films get marketed (due probably because he is the most successful director post-2000 and one of the only directors (truth) that doesn’t need to pitch a project to a studio. His films are so profitable they will just write him a blank check right then and there on the spot). But what’s even more important to point out, is that not only is Nolan the most bankable director currently working in the business, but he’s also the most artistically inclined commercial director in the business (think early to mid era Steven Spielberg). His films, even in being big budget studio films, are always something much more. Films that are always challenging comes to mind if describing a Christopher Nolan film. He basically reinvented the indie landscape with his 2000 game changer “Memento”. A film that was just as influential on the independent film movement of the nineties than was say Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). His follow up, the surprisingly mostly under seen and overlooked 2002 film “Insomnia”, which was a bona fide crime thriller that was equal parts mystery and suspense. Then came his widely successful Batman/Dark Knight trilogy which were and still are solely responsible for changing the superhero/comic book landscape. What’s so amazing about those films is they set the bar so unbelievably high for every superhero movie to follow. There’s a reason why the sheer quality of the genre became better after the Nolan Batman films. It’s because everyone who took a stab at the genre following it used it as a template in trying to hopefully make a film like it. That and he made the trilogy dark and challenging. Something that had been missing from the genre in the past. Enter 2010 and Nolan is back with a film that he somehow managed to squeeze in-between the second and third Dark Knight installments, “Inception”, which as mentioned above, was a mind bender that proved that Nolan could make genre films that were just as successful outside of the superhero/comic book box, and once again, make something for the audience that was both thought provoking and challenging. A trademark of all of Nolan’s work. Skip 2 years after his last Batman installment, in which he chose to hang the towel after, and we have a new Nolan film. One that promises to bring us to mankind’s next step in the universe, while also hinting that it could be our last.

“Interstellar” first introduces us to Matthew McConaughey’s (in yet another great performance) character, Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot who now is a widowed family man with two young children and who lives on a plot of land in rural America as a farmer who tends to his crops as a means of survival. A wind/sand storm hits, and within it there’s a revelation to both Cooper and his family that the dust that remains on the floor in its aftermath presents them with some sort of gravitational irregularity because of the pattern of its arrangement. This leads them to a NASA compound run by Michael Caine’s character. He talks of some kind of wormhole that is circling around Saturn, and states that the only way mankind is going to be saved by the growing weather and agricultural nightmare that has befallen on them is to travel through this wormhole to set up new worlds in other galaxies. As life on earth as we currently know it won’t survive much longer. Cooper meets Caine’s daughter (played by the not always consistent but serviceable Anne Hathaway). Cooper is in charge to lead this new mission, while being employed to carry out another mission to find out what happened to another spacecraft who made an attempt at their same mission to travel through the wormhole many years earlier and merely vanished in space. Cooper takes on the mission, much to the chagrin of his daughter, knowing that it might be the single most important thing to help save mankind. Both he, Hathaway’s character, a geographer played by the under appreciated and underused Wes Bentley, a physicist, and 2 robots who’s names I can’t remember at the moment, but who both play an integral role, as they embark on their space adventure.

The film is a bit of an over-stuffed hodgepodge of different ideas and existential themes that are packed within its almost 3-hour run time. Now I don’t mean this to necessarily be a bad thing. It’s just of all of Nolan’s films to date this one feels the most substantial and headiest. Certainly his most challenging. For me personally, I always value substance over style. Which this movie has both of. However, I found it difficult to follow at times and dare I say almost found it too challenging. There was so much going on within the narrative that I often times was wondering if my mind wasn’t working hard enough that the movie demanded of me. Or if it was just something that was over my head. Whichever really was the case, I let that thought go about a third of the way through, around the 2nd act, which is when the space travel truly begins. And like the great Science Fiction films that have explored space and beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Philip Kaufmann’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine” (which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to), and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), it brings its own unique approach to how we look at space travel. Once Cooper and crew reach space, they go through a series of events that contain some of the most dazzlingly stunning images I have seen put onto film since Terrence Malick’s “creationism” sequence from “The Tree of Life” (2011). The first descreption of it that came to mind as I walked out of the sold out theater afterwards was a “visual splendor”. Nolan and his crew of special effects experts do a fantastic job at presenting us with some of the most spellbinding visual effects I’ve seen since James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). Besides the visual grandeur of the whole thing, it also contains a pretty authentic feeling and emotional subplot involving unforeseen time passing and Cooper’s 2 children, played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are always superb as they are here. In what at points almost falls into over-dramatic territory, Nolan and his writing partner brother John seem to think to know their audience is much too intelligent to allow that to happen. So besides the gorgeousness of the whole proceeding, this subplot was what I found to be the second standout. It tugs at the audience’s heartstrings without feeling contrived or trite. Lastly, which was my one biggest criticism of the piece, and one in which I think I hinted at above, was that it felt a bit overwrought in the ideas and themes in which it presents. Like it could have maybe been dumbed down a bit (and I almost never say that about a film) as I can imagine a lot of people who see this film, like me, are going to be slightly confused at times by the sheer amount of material and shifts in story that go on within it. I can imagine a lot of people will preach knowing what they thought the film was about but having a hard time articulating what exactly that is. But like I also hinted above, if you can leave out that element of trying to follow every little shift in the story or scientific jargon that is spoken (which there is quite a bit of), you should find yourself sitting back and marveling at the eye candy and incredibly innovative space thrill ride that only someone of Nolan’s caliber of filmmaker can take you on.

[B]

*Also, as an added disclaimer – I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this on the big screen. To not do so would be doing yourself a big disservice.

Two Trips To The Movies – Review: ‘Gone Girl’ 10.3 and 10.5

There is something special about seeing a new film on opening night by one of the most celebrated directors of the past 20 years. There’s a certain feeling or excitement that goes along with it that is difficult to put into words. Take for example when Martin Scorcese released “The Departed” in 2006. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and had been following the news on it through pre production, filming, and post production; and knew that it was filmed in/around the Boston area. Being in that Boston was 2 hours (only 2 hours) away, I knew right then and there that I would be making every effort to see it opening night in the city it was filmed in as I thought it would only add to the authenticity of the whole experience. Seeing a new Scorsese movie, one that was being hailed as a return to his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” roots, with a sold out crowd on opening night in the city it was filmed in? There really isn’t anything like it. At least for me anyway. Even if I did wind up ultimately being let down by it. It’s the waiting in line for over an hour with people who are equally as excited, to finally being let in by the usher who unhooks the rope, and then finding yourself a good seat. Only to sit back among the buzz of the audience and prepare yourself for something that you’ve waited so long to see. That exact feeling and experience is one that I’ve only felt and had maybe a half a dozen to a dozen times in my life. It’s like the rush of a drug, and one that I’m constantly trying to chase again. When I first heard about “Gone Girl” all I needed to know was that it was directed by David Fincher, and from that point forward I made a cognizant choice to close myself off from everything about it. I did however catch the initial trailer while seeing another film several months ago and remember thinking “huh, that trailer didn’t tell me anything. And I’m glad it didn’t. Because from that point forward I wanted to know absolutely nothing about it. Even going into the opening night showing I knew 4 things – that it was based on a New York Times Bestseller, that it starred Ben Affleck (who I had my doubts about) and involved a kidnapping (the only 2 things I could make out from the trailer). And, finally, that it was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is one of maybe 10 directors (Roman Polanski being another one that I mentioned in my last review) where I’ve seen just about every film he’s made. Going all the way back to his debut with the horrible 1992 “Alien 3” (I gave him a pass with that one – he was young and probably thought it would kick start his career ) to his groundbreaking “Se7en” (1995), to 1997’s smart and clever “The Game”, to 1999’s admirable but slightly overrated “Fight Club”, to 2002’s mostly forgetabble “Panic Room”, to what I still consider to be my favorite Fincher film – 2007’s “Zodiac”, to 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (a film where I’m in the minority but that I find comparable to “Forrest Gump”), to 2010’s remarkable “The Social Network”, and finally 2012’s solid and equally dark adaptation of the remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. David Fincher is one of those directors that my anticipation of seeing a new film of his is so great that I don’t even have to contemplate for a second whether or not I’ll be seeing it on opening night. That and I went to see it twice. Mostly because I owe it to Fincher in that I sometimes feel, like with other directors of his caliber, that his films often require a second viewing.

A loose synopsis of the film is that it revolves around Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who at first appears unhappy with his life and the way in which it’s heading. He owns a bar in which his sister whom he’s close with works at. He has a father in an assisted living home who he’s not so close with. Through a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards we are shown how him and his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) came to meet. Amy writes for a magazine in a column where she goes by “Amazing Amy”, and through a series of journal entries we are told the story of how they came to meet and fall both in and out of love. But then it flash-forwards to Nick coming home to find his wife missing and it appears as if a murder may have taken place. Did he commit it? The detectives assigned to the case certainly think he did. He’s completely solemn and well composed about the whole thing. This augmented by an interrogation where we learn that he really doesn’t know much about his wife other than that she “was really complicated”. Which might have to do with the fact that despite their having fallen madly in love with one another, they also show how their love unravels to where they wind up loathing and having nothing but the utmost disdain for one other. So much so to the point where she feels so threatened by her husband that she purchases a gun in order to protect herself. Flashing forward again all eyes are on Affleck’s character, as everyone from the police, local townspeople, to the eventual press and national media, wind up being convinced that it could have possibly only been him who did it.

The film winds up being a mixed bag. There were elements about it that I loved greatly and other elements I had some serious problems with. I really liked Fincher’s vision and take on the story (though admittedly I haven’t read the novel in which it’s based on). It’s unbelievably dark and psychological in all the best ways. He has a knack for creating a mood and tone that’s uncanny to almost any other film maker around. The way in which he shoots the film with blueish and cold color filters gives it an almost dream-like quality at times and a nightmarish one at others. That and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score really accentuates the material nicely. Similar to their work on “The Social Network” and like the electronic scores of recent years by Cliff Martinez. All three composers whose music is almost like a second character in the films they write for. I also liked the second guessing element to the whole proceeding. It’s a constant game of asking yourself questions and following the trail of bread crumbs that are effectively laid out for you. And Rosamund Pike gives a mighty fine performance here. One that I can potentially see her getting an Academy Award nomination for for Best Actress come Oscar time. Where its greatest weakness lies is in its inability to feel even remotely authentic. To me it felt incredibly sterile, transparent, stagey, and at times similar to that of a TNT movie of the week. All of the performances besides Pike’s felt awkwardly wooden. Even though I’m told it’s fitting that Affleck’s character comes across that way as it’s more faithful to the novel. But casting Tyler Perry as the lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s ex’s, and Patrick Fugit as one of the detectives was a total misfire and all three of them seemed totally out of place. I thought none of these or any of the other performances stood out even in the slightest other than Pike’s. I also felt that the pacing felt a bit uneven and jarring at times. One scene would grab a hold of my attention and then the flashback or flash-forward following it would lose my interest. Lastly, there were quite a few plot holes throughout the story that the writer and director ask the viewer to take a pretty considerable leap of faith with. Still, it had a fair amount going for it. So for some of the more positive reasons I mentioned above I would definitely recommend seeing it. That and I can also see it being a really divisive film. But for people like me, it is and always will be looked at as a minor Fincher effort in his ever expanding body of work.

Grade: First time: strong B / Second time: C+ / Overall: B-