New To DVD/VOD And Streaming Platforms: Review – “White God” 9.12.15

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This particular Hungarian film had been on my radar for a while now, and was one that I waited much longer to see than most films I anticipate seeing. I first heard about it the same way in which I hear about a lot films – in doing my research in each of the year’s most prestigious international film festivals, and taking note of which films were well received by critics. “White God” (English translation of the film’s original title – “Feher isten”) created quite a bit of buzz when it first premiered at the Godfather of film festivals – Cannes – in 2014 (and like with most foreign films it took over a year before it found a distributor and was released stateside). It quickly caught my attention when I saw that it had won the Un Certain Regard award. An award that’s usually reserved for international films that tend to be a bit edgier which would in turn have a harder time finding a distributor without its nomination (or winning such as was the case with this film). Past Un Certain Regard award winners include Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” (Greece – 2009) (one of my top 10 favorite foreign films post 2000), Cristi Puiu’s brilliant “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Russia – 2005), and Marco Giordana’s 4+ hour epic – “The Best of Youth” (Italy – 2003)…to name a few. That’s not even scratching the surface of the films that haven’t won but have been nominated (it’s a rather impressive list I’ll just say that). So when a film takes home the award it’s pretty much stamped with a guarantee that I will flag it and I find a way to see it whenever it gets released here in the States. As was the case with this film, which just under a month ago became available on many (including Netflix’s) streaming platforms. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the information I’ve just shared with you, I was pretty excited when I finally got the opportunity tonight to sit down and watch it.

“White God” begins with the story of Lili, a young teenage girl riding her bike down the urban area cross-streets of a metropolitan area somewhere within Hungary followed closely by her dog subservient dog Hagen. Lili is the daughter of two parents who have gone through a recent divorce (this notion of “separation” is a constant motif throughout the film), and when her mom needs to travel out of the country for a few months, she rather begrudgingly agrees to go stay with her father. Her father works for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and is responsible for distinguishing between good and poor quality meat. He also happens to hate animals (not surprisingly given the grisly requirements of his job) so when Lili shows up with her beloved dog Hagen, he is reluctant to let him stay. That and in this particular part of the world, there’s a certain “tax” on dogs that are unwarranted, or rather “non-pure bred”. So when the inhabitants of Lili’s dad’s apartment complex begin to complain, Lili is left with no other option than to leave a home and after getting kicked out of the music program at a junior conservatory she’s involved in for bringing her dog with her, she flees with her dog and runs away from everything. This doesn’t last for long, as Lili is picked up by her father while searching for her, and he leaves the dog by the side of the highway alone and destitute. From this point on in the film, the story revolves around two story archs which jumps back and forth between both Lili and her dog Hagen’s separate journeys that follow.

This film wound up working for me on a number of different levels. It also wound up being one of those films that felt almost “meta” in that it reminded me of several other different works from pictures that I deeply admire. There’s the clear, obvious influence that is Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) in its depiction and metaphor for canines as a somewhat “lesser than” being, and how they’re terribly mistreated once taken away from their domesticated environments and thrown into a more oppressed section of society. Which to me seemed to metaphorically represent slavery, segregation, homelessness, and refugee people. Then there’s the story of Lili, who goes on her own personal journey through the dark rungs of society and urban living, as she is exposed to a number of different things that we wouldn’t wish any adult to see, never mind a young teenage girl. Equally as harrowing of a journey is the quest of her dog Hagen, who gets captured and is sold and trained into the ugly criminal underworld that is dog fighting (these scenes are definitely not for the squeamish). Or, if you’re a devout lover of dogs, you may not be able to endure the harsh and unforeseen circumstances in which her canine is forced into (imagine Pascal Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs” but replacing humans with canines). Then there’s what I call the grand finale or climax, which takes up the last quarter of the film and had me envisioning both Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) (replace “rain of frogs” with “rain of dogs”) and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2002) which presents us with something that resembles an end-of-the-world apocalypse as taken over by dogs. Does it sound strange to you yet? I’m not sure I would label it “strange”. But it surely was something both entirely unique and original to almost anything I’ve maybe ever seen. And depending on the viewer, this could be the film’s strong point or its downfall. I for one happened to fall into the former category, as even despite of its many influences it, at least for me, wound up being incredibly interesting and at the same time hard to look away from. The film’s director does a fantastic job in what must have been quite a difficult task in telling its two separate characters’ story archs and bringing you into their worlds. Never does it even in the remotest sense feel jarring as the story shifts with a confident sense of editing from dog to dog owner. It also contains a great musical store (Lili is a trumpet player and music is “key” to the story) that combines both classical with more contemporary, urban, club-like music. Lastly, were its two stellar performances by both the young Lili and her dog Hagen (I read somewhere that if there was ever the case to give an awards nomination to a dog than it was this film – and I couldn’t have said it better myself). This was yet another great example of foreign cinema worthy of its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes. “White God” should please those like myself of cinema that falls into the more wanting to be challenged mindset, but for a lot of other people, its the kind of material they just might have a hard time getting into.

Dog lovers beware.

[B]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mistress America” 9.1.15

I admit I’ve always liked Noah Baumbach and his films and have been following him since his start. Like the Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas, he started his career as a writer director at a very early young age. He made his feature film debut at 26 with 1996’s “Kicking and Screaming”, an indie comedy about a bunch of upper middle class college post-grads, trying to decide what it is that they wanted to do with their lives. Then came the most passable work in his filmography, 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy”, a film that showcased the young filmmaker’s talent, but felt somewhat trite and slightly off-kilter in relation to his debut. Then at 36, came what I still consider his masterpiece, “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), that introduced the film world to Jesse Eisenberg, and was anchored by a career best performance by the seemingly odd yet perfectly cast Jeff Daniels. But let me backtrack a year in what I think was a pivotal and extremely important year in context for the writer/director, a year that brought both him, and one his other young contemporaries; Wes Anderson, together to co-write the screenplay for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004). What’s so notable about this collaboration, is it’s become to me; only by mere reflection, how much of an influence Wes seemed to have had on his sensibilities as a writer. “The Squid and the Whale” which, as previously mentioned, came out the year prior to “The Squid and the Whale”. And while I consider it to be a masterpiece, it’s mainly more for its performances than for its technical or writing achievements. The reason being is that it felt very much “like” a Wes Anderson film, including Wes’ trademark style and Anderson”isms”. Fair enough given that he had just worked with him on a film the year prior. Reflecting back, 10 years ago, I saw its influence but was able to separate it as a film among itself. Baumbach then shifted gears a couple of years later in 2009 with “Margot At The Wedding”, a dark dramedy which like its predecessor, explored the dysfunctional side of family inter-dynamics. “Greenberg” followed in 2009 – which I thought was an admirable film but certainly not a great film. What it did do was introduce both him and the film-going audience to its star Greta Gerwig and now frequent music collaborator James Murphy from the electronic funk outfit LCD Soundsystem. His next film, 2012’s “Frances Ha”, was probably his most successful from both box office numbers and critical praise (including myself) and wound up on many best of end of the year lists. It reunited him once again with new muse Greta Gerwig, sharing both a writing credit and cast as the film’s main lead. Then, come 2015, I heard Baumbach was releasing not one, but two films. “While We’re Young”, featuring his most recognized cast yet with both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, but the film I was most critical of his. So I was very hopeful for his next.

In his latest film takes place in his usual setting of New York City. It opens with a young, privileged freshman in college named Tracy (Lola Kirke – if you don’t recognize her name don’t worry neither did I – she’s new to the film industry). Tracy’s mom, who we meet early on, a divorcee who is soon to be wed to her boyfriend. Through marriage, Tracy learns that she will now have a stepsister, Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, in her second writing and starring in collaboration with Baumbach after “Frances Ha”. Tracy is reluctant to get in touch with Brooke at first, as Brooke is almost 12 years older having just turned 30, and she seems to want to experience New York City and the college lifestyle on her own. But after that proves to be less than stimulating, she picks up the phone one night and calls Brooke, only to be quickly invited over to her house. From there the story line feels strikingly similar to “While We’re Young” except reversed as the younger Tracy being enamored by her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke. Everything about Brooke’s lifestyle, to her many creative interests, hobbies, pursuits, and knowledge of New York City, washes over Brooke and the two form a quick bond that reveals both sides of their characters over the course of the short, 80-something minute film.

This film was pretty disappointing as I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it just reaffirmed my belief that Baumbach is become a one-trick pony, much like his other contemporary, Wes Anderson. It’s essentially a mix between themes that were already explored in both “Frances Ha” (2012) and the film he made earlier this year – “While We’re Young”. Gerwig’s character lacks a certain depth and all of her substance lays on the outside (much like Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried in “While We’re Young”). The story between soon-to-be stepsisters feels rehashed from out of “Frances Ha”. With newcomer Lola Kirke (the best thing about the picture) filling in for the best friend in that film. As the two mill about New York and try to fill their lives with everything it has to offer, only to expose how shallow that lifestyle really is. From a writing standpoint it feels more like any other Wes Anderson film (including “The Squid and the Whale”) in that it’s essentially filled with ruminations and quick punned one-liners, with every character introduced trying to be ironically witty and funny but all of whom contain a certain sadness underneath. The story arch itself never really does much of anything other than follow the two New Yorkers from setting to setting, and feels meandering throughout much if not all of its running time. To me, this seemed like a major step backwards for Baumbach, an indie writer/director who seems to be running out of ideas. I’ve always though his films were unique enough but now they seem like mere regurgitations. Sorry Baumbach, but this will probably be my last film I seek out of yours, unless your next film contains something that we haven’t already seen done over and over again.

[C]

Noah Baumbach’s – Mistress America – Starring Greta Gerwig

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM

Living Room Theaters
341 SW Tenth Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The newest from one of my favorite comedic directors – Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale”, “Frances Ha”) opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters. Tuesdays are $5 days at the Living Room!Synopsis: In this millennial comedy, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a mousy college freshman living on her own in New York City meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsist…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Blue Velvet” (1986) 8.30.15

In continuing my ongoing streak of seeing older films by American directors that I admire. Films from the 3 most important American directors, that, as I’ve said before, have and still continue to have such an impact on me that it’s almost as if I have a relationship with them (and no not just in the movie sense). Even despite my thinking I’m well versed in both American writer/directors and foreign ones equally. There still have never been a set of directors that had more of an influence on me in developing my own personal vocabulary in relation to film as who I consider the “quintessential three”. Those being Stanley Kubrick (okay, he’s from the UK, but I still in some sense consider him, at least in his later period, as an American director because many of his films were made in the English language starring American actors. Then of course there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, who many of you might know just based on the simple fact that I’ve done a complete career retrospective of his films over the course of the summer. And last, but not least, someone who I consider maybe the greatest of them all – David Lynch. Now Lynch might seem like an easy choice for a favorite as anybody who is versed well enough in film can attest to his utterly original, singular voice, whose films have impacted legions of filmmakers that followed to have reworked Lynch’s ideas, themes, and style into works of their own. Which to me has always been the trademark sign of a great filmmaker. I could go on and on and on about my love for David Lynch and how his films have impacted me on such a deep level. But then I’d be writing a totally different piece. Not a movie review.

“Blue Velvet” opens with one of my favorite montages in movie history – set to Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet”. Lynch immediately brings us into a world of red roses in front of a backdrop of a white picket fence house, a red fire truck with fireman waving at the screen, a set of upper middle class homes with their beautifully manicured lawns. But then the “contrast” begins, and he edits to a man watering his lawn who has a stroke and falls flat on his face. From there the camera zooms in underground, to what we “don’t see” from the surface. An underground severed human ear that’s infested with ants. To me, this opening sequence basically sets the tone for the rest of the film. As it is essentially a series of contrasts. You see Lynch knows it’s a beautiful world on the outside, and one gets the sense that it’s pretty genuine. But what’s so fascinating is his exploration into what lies underneath. The cruelty, sickness, perversion, and horror that lies beneath the surface of nice, clean, Caucasian, American middle class neighborhoods. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern play the two leads, whose discovery of the severed human year leads them on an investigative journey that involves a nightclub singer, played by Isabella Rossellini, in what must have been one of the most bravest and courageous performances by an actress to date. Rosellini’s character we come to learn is wrapped up in a precarious and dangerous situation by Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper (who by the way demanded the role to Lynch because he said he needed to play the role because he “was Frank Booth”). Hopper, or shall I say Frank, is depicted in the film’s most shocking, disturbing, and violent scenes because well, he’s clearly a sadistic, over-sexualized, misogynistic, and overall dangerous man (maybe the most dangerous villain we’ve seen in film history-?). The investigation of MacLachlan and Dern’s characters follow the trail of breadcrumbs that Lynch expertly sets up for you. And really, what we get here in the subsequent story that follows is an investigation into the darkness and depravity of the underbelly of society. As the investigation runs deeper and deeper until all of those involved immerse themselves into a dark, sinister world that they can’t get out of.

This was and still is a bold, gripping, stylish, and highly controversial film that’s really only for the hardest of film aficionado’s who can appreciate and admire (but certainly not “enjoy”, unless your some kind of sadist) such a singular and unique piece of work. It’s filled with graphic sexual violence, particularly in the scene stealing scenes by Hopper, that combines an air of twisted mystery with an ironic, satirical look into America with a light, sometimes fluffy, stylized tone. Which speaks to this “contrast” between good and evil that I hinted at earlier. It’s repulsively strange (as are many of Lynch’s films) though given his tastes of depicting the avant-garde (or what we know to be avant-grade in cinema), is congruent with almost all of his other work. Particularly in the films that followed like 1988’s “Wild At Heart”, 1990’s TV series “Twin Peaks”, “Lost Highway” (1997), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch doesn’t seem to care about what the audience thinks but more about his own instruction of them. It’s a masterful exercise in controlling the audience’s attention and planting a seed in their subconscious, which I think is at the heart of most of his work, and certainly in this film. It’s references are endless – to its “film noir” feel, to its Salvador Dali “look”, to the voyeuristic scenes involving both MacLachlan and Rossellini. Which to me anyway, seem like nods to Alfred Hitchcock (especially 1954’s “Rear Window”). It also features some of the most absurdist, iconic scenes ever imagined and put to screen (remember Lynch gets the majority of his ideas for his films from his subconscious and dreams). Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbinson’s “In Dreams”, the Hopper/Rossellini rape scene, Rossellini’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” at a local jazz club while Hopper chews on a piece of blue velvet, MacLachlan getting beat to a pulp also set to Orbinson’s “In Dreams” while a prostitute dances atop a car, to Hopper ridiculing MacLachan’s choice in beer – “Fuck Heineken! PABST. BLUE. RIBBON!” (which incited the biggest reaction/laughter/clapping from the Portland crowd). This film is littered with such scenes, but despite these iconic scenes, one never gets the impression that Lynch is somehow trying to please the audience or entertain them, which I think is the strongest component of his films. Lynch’s films seem to want to exist outside of what we consider more accessible cinema and shows us sides of human nature that we pretend we don’t want to know exist, or at least don’t want to believe actually take place in our own neighborhoods that we deliberately tuck ourselves away from in hopes of keeping us safe (classic bourgeois mentality). But in reality, situations like this occur all the time. Even if so many of us have tried to remove ourselves far away from them in our own closeted, middle class lifestyle. Lynch shows here that violence doesn’t discriminate against socioeconomic class, as danger is imminent to us all even if we try to not think about it or turn a blind eye to it when it actually happens (“well, at least it didn’t happen to me”). This is without a doubt Lynch’s masterpiece, and also one of my top 5 to 10 favorite films of all time. Its influence and relevance is just as important today as it was almost 30 years ago. I’ll end with a simple quote from the film that I think sums it up quite nicely – “it’s a strange world, isn’t it?”.

[A+]

David Lynch’s – Blue Velvet

Sunday, Aug 30, 2015, 9:30 PM

Laurelhurst Theater
2735 E Burnside St Portland, OR

4 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: Returning home to visit his father who is in intensive care at the hospital, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a human ear he finds in a field. With police detective Williams and the local police department unable to investigate, Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern), Detective Williams’s daughter decide to do their own investigat…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “There Will Be Blood” (2007) 8.22.15

This marked my fourth weekend in a row taking a trip out to see yet another in a list of seven films that falls into the complete filmography of American writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson which is being shown as a retrospective at the Portland Art Museum. I love pretty much all of Anderson’s work to date. And as mentioned in a previous review, I would consider both “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999) to both be 2 films that would take a spot in my top 10 favorite films of all time. And Anderson being the only director to have more than one film in my top 10. So with that said, of all of his films this was the one that I was the most interested in revisiting. Mostly because I remember being rather indifferent about it the first time I saw it on the big screen when I first moved to Portland over 8 years ago. Since then, my indifference has only grown. As I have refused to watch it on DVD or anything else other than the theater. And since it’s taken me this long to be able to do so. I have spent many years away from this film thinking of Anderson more in terms of his influence on me from the 2 other films that preceded it mentioned above. It’s almost as if my memory of seeing it that first time, it having been so long ago now, got shrouded and I could only remember certain key images and half scenes. So in walking into it today, with a chance to catch it in 35mm (the original print of how the director intended for you to see it – awfully rare now in the day of digital) I found myself both enthusiastic and also slightly not expecting of what I was going to find, several years later, with a fresh new set of eyes.

I won’t spend time divulging into the film’s plot as like with many of these “trips back to the movies” I’m imagining many people who are going to read this have already seen the film and know what it’s about. But what I will do in the paragraph that follows is give a more fleshed out review. Of what I thought about the film this time around being in that it was my first time seeing it since its 2007 release.

“There Will Be Blood” winds up being an excoriating study of greed, the constructive and destructive powers of competitiveness, and people’s ambition. It’s a vastly cinematic, darkly personal tale of one man seemingly without one single redemptive quality. There’s a vague nuance in the way it’s filmed, which became much more apparent to me when seeing it this time around. Anderson decides to concentrate on long, almost silent-like passages and huge, open panoramic shots (from long time Anderson DP Robert Elswit, who provides some tremendous cinematography (which he got an Oscar win for) ) in both size and scope. It delves to the most painful depths of a man who, by some standards could be looked at as a success or maybe even genius. But Anderson seems to want to probe much deeper and deliver us a story about how this success and genius could lead someone so far down a path, that they wind up being what psychologists would call a sociopath.

But really, all I’ve talked about here so far are merely the great underlying messages and technical achievements that are contained within the film. The true brunt of the film is in Daniel Day Lewis’ methodical performance as an anti-hero oilman Daniel Plainview. A man who is willing to turn all of nature’s vast number of resources and turn them into monetary bounty, regardless of the cost it has on him, or the rest of the world for that matter. Day Lewis’s character becomes the poster boy for what has and still continues to hurt America and the rest of the world: oil. The greed, violence, and aggression that come from it, the religious fervor, the paranoia behind its policies, and the betrayal of our own people because of its Capitalist ideologies. All are brilliantly mirrored through one man, Daniel Plainview, and we as a viewer get to see in first hand account the harsh impact of what all these things can do to a man. Similarly to Al Pacino in Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (1983) but set around another boom-or-bust era, it looks at things from a different context but exposes the same universal truths. Both of these stories revolve around men who are so hungry, so lusting for wealth and power, that their quest in creating it for themselves makes monsters out of them. Day Lewis here was nothing short of memorizing in an almost “I want to look away but I can’t” scene stealing performance that I can honestly say, even having just seen the film, that it’s a career best one for the undeniably gifted actor. There were several moments throughout while watching it, in taking an intent look at his performance this time around, that allowed me to come to the conclusion that I did above. It’s an incredible feat from a still then young (32 years of age) writer/director in Anderson, who by this point had proven in less than a decade that he is one modern-day America’s true cinematic auteurs, while acting once again as a reminder to the true genius of Daniel Day Lewis, who eschews every frame and marches to the beat of Anderson’s drum in expert fashion. It’s a damn fine film and I can understand why people have and still do consider it to be Anderson’s masterpiece. However, I will take it one step further and call it not only Anderson’s but Daniel Day Lewis’ masterpiece too. Because well, this picture would only be half as great as it turned out being if it didn’t have one without the other.

[A]

Paul Thomas Anderson’s – There Will Be Blood – w/Daniel-Day Lewis and Paul Dano

Saturday, Aug 22, 2015, 4:00 PM

Whitsell Auditorium
1219 SW Park Avenue Portland, OR

2 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Another selection as part of The Portland Art Museum’s ongoing career retrospective of one of the greatest American directors in modern day cinema.Synopsis: Anderson’s features, while always sharpening their edges as they go, have never been hard-as-nails as this adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel OIL!. Academy Award winner for Best Actor Daniel…

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Two Trips To The Movies (One Back) – “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) 8.15.15 and “The End of the Tour” 8.16.15

This was my third consecutive weekend in a row where I visited the Portland Art Museum so I could catch yet another film in all seven films they are showing honoring one of the greatest American cinematic auteurs – Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve always considered “Punch-Drunk Love” to be somewhat of a minor work in the filmography of this undeniably talented and incredibly influential writer/director’s. Maybe, because at the time of its release, it seemed like a rather odd shift in direction for the director who was coming off the powerhouses of his three previous works – 1995’s “Hard Eight” (a.k.a “Sydney), 1997’s “Boogie Nights”, and 1999’s “Magnolia” (the latter two films as mentioned in previous reviews are up there in my top 10 films of all time). So coming off one of the strongest one, two, three debut punches of almost any other director I can think of in history. To say they would be hard acts to follow would be a grave understatement. That, and the casting of the then still funny Adam Sandler as the lead, whose previous work had only been in comedy, seemed to be a rather strange casting choice. Anderson still to this day when reflecting back on the film says “it was and will be the only art film ever starring Adam Sandler”. And while I remember liking the movie when it initially came out I can’t necessarily say I loved it, especially in comparison to the two films that preceded it. Though I still went into it feeling an almost moral duty or obligation to see it as part of this ongoing retrospective of the director. Because I, as do many others, feel that it’s incredibly important to look at a director’s entire body of work. Especially with writer-directors that I admire and hold in such high regard as someone like Anderson.

The story itself revolves around Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). He’s a single man who his self-employed and owns his own business selling novelty items. He has seven rather overbearing sisters, who we’re introduced to via telephone at the beginning of the film. Barry is a lonely guy, who one night decided to call a phone sex line and is put on with a girl named “Georgia” (drawing up comparisons to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) ). He winds up getting himself caught up in a scam, and Georgia and her shady, sleazy business partner (played in a small part but a scene stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry is overwhelmed with stress as a result of it. All the while thinking he may have found a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that offers frequent flyer miles (lifted from a true life story). Just when Barry couldn’t possibly be any more down on his luck in walks the beautiful (and very talented) Emily Watson’s character, Lena. The two fall for one another under some rather strange circumstances and well, the rest of the picture more or less focuses on how two people, who couldn’t be more different from one another, and under strange circumstances, fall madly in love.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is certainly far from being Anderson’s best work. But even as a standalone film, it’s a uniquely strange, bizarre, and often times funny one. It’s also the first film in Anderson’s oeuvre where he begins to branch off from his previous style and work and shift into new forms of storytelling. Which in looking at a director’s body of work, I think is the one of the most important parts – the ability to keep things refreshing and original while staying true to your craft. I remember at the time of its release thinking that as much as I loved his two films prior, I wished that his next piece would be a little something different from the ensemble driven dramas that Anderson had mastered and built his career on up to that point. And boy this couldn’t be any different from anything he had done to date at that point. Sandler puts in a rather impressive performance as a man constantly on edge who mind you also has a very (and I mean very) bad temper mixed in with aggression problems (providing some of the film’s funniest and classic moments). It utilizes his comedic talents rather well but placing him in a role with a bit more of a dramatic turn. And surprisingly he pulls it off quite nicely. But what was striking to me this time around as how great of job Anderson does at shifting into unfamiliar terrain and pulls off a rather charming, heartfelt, and well polished love story with a lot of heart. It’s a minor work in the scope of Anderson’s seven films to date. But even despite its minor flaws (it never really “takes off”) it still is an impressive take on what we know to be the American romantic comedy.

[B]

The next film of the weekend was the newly released “The End Of The Tour” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. Despite my not being too particularly fond of the film’s two leads (I really only liked Eisenberg in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network). Segel I’ve liked in a handful of work like in his earlier TV series “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2007), “I Love You Man” (2009) and still my favorite of his – “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2011). But after watching a trailer that piqued my interest mixed in with the based on a true life story that took place between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and famed author David Foster Wallace (Segel), who Lipsky gets put on assignment to interview the rather eccentric and immensely popular literary writer Wallace. It struck me as something that quickly caught my interest especially after seeing that it opened to rave reviews among critics, I thought it would be a great choice for my movie meetup group as it looked like something that had the potential to appeal to all tastes.

To expand on the brief synopsis of the film I hinted at above. We are first introduced to the up-and-coming, young, 30-year old Lipsky. A Rolling Stone journalist whose bogged down with covering stories he just doesn’t seem interested in and is looking for his big break. That big break comes when he is employed to cover an assignment where he would be invited into famed writer David Foster Wallace’s world for five days as he wraps up the end of his speaking tour advertising his new book that would go on to be his most popular and greatest literary achievement – ‘Infinite Jest’. Lipsky gets complete and total access to Wallace life and covers his day-to-day life through a series of candid interviews as they embark on the last few remaining stops on Wallace’s book tour. That’s essentially the film’s set up, as it becomes sort of “buddy road trip drama” that gives us insight into the world of one of the most famous and successful American authors of the 1990’s.

“The End of the Tour” sheds light on the literary world with what feels must have been a well researched story in recreating what it must have been like for its two central main characters during this short period in time. What I liked most about the picture was its take on the nature of celebrity, particularly with Wallace’s character, but as the journalist Lipsky spends more and more time with the beloved author. They begin to form a special kind of bond and friendship which comes across as totally natural and convincing, with each of its two leads taking up almost frame within the film, and their chemistry felt both relatable and authentic. Jason Segal puts on what’s probably his best real performance to date, as the bandana wearing, long-haired, unshaven author Wallace. It’s a rather impressive performance from an actor, who similarly to Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love”, shows that Segel can do drama and not just comedy like his cohort. It’s a believable and transformative role for Segel that shows he has quite a bit of range as a dramatic actor. Eisenberg on the other hand, feels out-of-place and miscast, and at least to me, plays the shaky, anxiety-ridden, unsure of himself character that he seems to become typecast in almost all of the work I’ve seen him in post-“Social Network”. Also, unlike Segel’s transformation into getting Wallace’s look and mannerisms down, Eisenberg looks exactly like he always does. And both my fellow movie meetup fans and I agreed and wondered, did he change anything outside of his usual persona and acting abilities to play this role? Well, it didn’t seem like it. Also, there’s some great in-depth, introspective talks that go on throughout the course of the film that play out almost like an homage to the great “Before Trilogy” films directed by Richard Linklater. Sure we get some great insight into the minds of the great writer and journalist, but at least to me, while I admired its exploration into them. It just felt a little too slight and somber throughout the entirety of its duration, sort of how I felt about Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (which I liked but thought it to be very average). And that’s more or less similar to how I would up feeling about this film. For fans of literature who are familiar with author David Foster Wallace and his rise to fame and unwanted celebrity, you might like this film a bit more than I did. But despite the impressive turn by Segel, it wound up being a slightly above average dialogue driven talk fest with plenty of insight, but just not enough feeling.

[B-]

The End Of The Tour – Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel

Sunday, Aug 16, 2015, 4:30 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Segel), which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Co-starring Anna Chlumsky and Joan Cusack.

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Two Trips (Back) To The Movies: Reviews – “Magnolia” (1999) 8.8.15 and “Short Cuts” (1993) 8.9.15

This was the second film I saw as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to the works of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson titled “The Art of Reinvention: Paul Thomas Anderson & His Influences”. As mentioned in my last review of the last film I saw as part of this tribute – “Boogie Nights” (1997), this great auteur just may be the single most important writer/director to have had as much influence on my developing my own vocabulary in relation to film as an art form. Both “Boogie Nights” and this film, “Magnolia”, have had such a residual impact on me over the years since they came out that even as a I get older and both I and the films age, they still after repeated viewings to this day stand the test of time and are two films that I would still place in my top 10 favorite films of all time. Along with that I should also note that no other director in this history of cinema other than Anderson has more than one film that remains in my top 10.

“Magnolia” still remains the most ambitious work in the films of the Anderson cannon. It’s a sprawling, tapestry woven, 3 hour plus ensemble piece that looks into the lives of a dozen or so characters that inhabit the San Fernando Valley area of California (an area which plays host to almost all of Anderson’s work to date). Many of whom meet by mere “chance” under circumstances that seem purely coincidental. There’s the sleazy, misogynist motivational speaker (played by a career best, Academy Award nominated Tom Cruise); a lonely child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman); an elderly, dying, misanthrope (Jason Robards, in his final performance which seems fitting but also incredibly brave); his cheating, much younger trophy wife (played by Julianne Moore); their at-home nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) assigned with the arduous task of tracking down Cruise’s character; A boozing, cocaine addled young woman (Melora Walters); a long stand running TV show host (Philip Baker Hall) who also happens to be dying as well; a bumbling, lonely, big-hearted cop (played by John C. Reilly in a role that incited the most laughs of all of the film’s characters); and a former quiz kid superstar, now middle-aged and tormented from the years of disappointment that followed (William H. Macy). The various connections between these people and the coincidences and twists of fate that link them, are what drives the rest of this epically structured film.

Along with biblical allusions, “Magnolia” makes no secret of grappling with a plethora of large themes and issues such as the meaning of life, the nature of evil, chance, strange encounters, intersecting paths, and the ties of human connection. To me, what makes such a hugely ambitious film work so well, is Anderson’s ability to portray these themes by staying focused on the minute details of all of his characters’ bruised, tormented, inner lives. While also maintaining an unwavering empathy with all of them, no matter how broken they are. Anderson humanizes the film’s villainous-like characters but doesn’t necessarily side with them, that he leaves for the victimized and misunderstood characters. It’s a revealing portrait of the interrogation of family and it seethes with anger, pain, and sadness. But in doing it’s also presented with an underlying feeling of each of them staggering towards something like hope or redemption. Which why I’ve always referred to it as “the most depressing feel good drama ever made”. And then of course there’s “the scene” that had everyone scratching their head the first time they saw it – the remarkably photographed “rain of frogs” sequence. Which the young quiz kid Stanley/Jeremy Blackman sums up rather nicely – “this is something that happened”, that speaks to the philosophical tone of the film. A sequence that further drives home Anderson’s point that permeates itself throughout much of the film that there are infinite possibilities in life. “Magnolia” still had the same effect on me now, 16 years later, as it did on me in my late teenage years. And this revisit of the film proved once again why I hold both it and it’s predecessor, “Boogie Nights”, as two of my top 10 favorite films of all time. Not just because I’ve formed somewhat of a “relationship” or “identity” with them over the subsequent years since their release. But because I can still see myself within them just as much if not more now as an adult than I could back then when they first came out. And that’s really saying something.

[A+]

Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” seems almost like the perfect film to follow-up “Magnolia” with. As the two share a lot in comparison. So much so that one could say Paul Thomas Anderson took a lot of the same ideas that Altman played with just 6 years prior, but presented them in an entirely different way. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise given that Anderson cites Altman has one of his top 5 greatest influences. I had seen “Short Cuts” years ago on DVD and even though it came out before “Magnolia” I hadn’t watched it until after. That said, it felt like a companion piece in many ways, which is only befitting being in that it was playing as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to Paul Thomas Anderson and his influences. Whose lineup basically each weekend shows one of the seven of Anderson’s films along with the films that both inspired and influenced him most. With this being the only other film playing over this 3rd weekend where they screened “Magnolia” just the day prior.

Like “Magnolia”, Robert Altman’s opus, is also one of the shortest-seeming long movies of the 1990’s, clocking in at just about the same running time as “Magnolia” in just over 3 hours long (but boy do the hours breeze by). And also like “Magnolia” (or shall I be saying “Magnolia like it”?) it follows a rather large plot and character thread that also focuses on the lives of number of different characters living in Los Angeles, where everyone is on the point of cracking up and random tragedies and/or events seem to be taking place among them. Like Anderson did with “Magnolia”, Altman assembles a once-in-a-lifetime cast: there’s the late Jack Lemmon as an estranged father, a young Julianne Moore, a painter whose marriage to her suspecting husband (Matthew Modine) seems to be in the fringes. Another couple’s lives, played by Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, is immediately thrown for a whirlwind as they face an unsuspecting event that shocks them with grief. Then there’s the relationship between both the late Chris Penn, a blue-collar worker, and his wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who runs a successful phone sex business (which the audience seemed to laugh at every time she was on-screen) and their married friends played by both a rather young and very funny Robert Downey, Jr., a Hollywood special effects make up artist and his significant other played by Lily Taylor. Tim Robbins is equally as great as the sleazy, police officer husband (one can only imagine Anderson’s cop character in “Magnolia” played by John C. Reilly was inspired by this, but written in a much different way) who cheats on his wife with Frances McDormand’s character (who’s ex-husband of her own, played by Peter Gallagher, seems to still want something from her). And then lastly we have the drinking, trailer park couple, played by both the great musician and actor Tom Waits and comedic actress Lily Tomlin, who share some of the best chemistry and scenes together.

“Short Cuts” is an interesting counterpart to both “Magnolia” and also a film that Altman did just a year earlier in 1992’s “The Player”. While being like it, it more or less cuts away from the movie business whereas that film focused solely around it. But both of which probe into the strange lives of other Los Angelinos, with its equally as intricate, inter-woven plot lines and focus on too many characters to count. “Short Cuts” stands out because it is what one would call quintessential Altman as it mirrors the “template” of films like these that he is most well known for starting with 1975’s “Nashville”, which some still consider to be his best work, which I can’t certainly argue against, but the film’s template arguably paved way for other films like it that Altman would go on to explore late into his career like “The Player”, this one, and what would ultimately be Altman’s last film – 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion”. Altman is somewhat of the master at juggling various story lines among a bevy of different characters (like Paul Thomas’ earlier work) and there is no finer example of this, at least in the humble opinion of this writer, that shows the different, sometimes unfortunate circumstances, that bring seemingly desperate characters together who on the outside reflect a facade but when given access to who they really are on the inside, we get to see something far deeper.

[A-]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Boogie Nights” (1997) 8.1.15

The Portland Art Museum is showing a career retrospective of a writer-director whose work was single-handedly responsible in my formative years as a young teenager in my quest of developing my own vocabulary of film. THE Paul Thomas Anderson (who I still call by his original name). To others he goes by PT Anderson, or simply PTA. “Boogie Nights” and Anderson’s follow-up “Magnolia” (1999) I consider to be my generation’s “Godfather Parts 1 and 2”. I vividly remember seeing “Boogie Nights” for the first time after taking my first ever film studies class at the age of 16. While I liked it at the time, I could never imagine that over the years, as I got older and grew to understand it more (that and being infatuated with it from a film lover’s standpoint), the impact it would have on me. Like with maybe a dozen or so other movies that I hold in such a high regard as it it’s almost as if, through time and various re-watchings of it, I’ve developed almost a “relationship” with it. One that I mean in the utmost literal sense of the word. As I continue to grow older and time passes it’s become one of those films that when I revisit it from time to time, I get flashbacks from my childhood along with a constant reminder of why I developed such a deep appreciation for film in the first place. This screening of it was one of the most “special” in that it was playing as a retrospective honoring Anderson and his body of work at one of the most state of the art theaters in Portland at an auditorium that sits inside of the art museum. Not only that, but it was my first time seeing it as an adult with a meetup group I started (click on the link below the review for more details). All of whom are big time movie buffs, some even more so than myself, and I was interested to find out if it had the same kind of impact on them as it does and still has on me. Which became apparent with this viewing, my first viewing of it on the big screen since it came out 18 years ago (can you believe its been that long?). After an introduction by the museum’s curator, seated among a half to two-thirds 375-person capacity theater, the house lights went down and a feeling of euphoria rushed over me as I buckled myself in for the next 2 and a half hours. I’m guessing that most of you have seen the picture, whether it was in the nineties when it first came out, or like me, have continued to revisit it over the years.

So I will keep the synopsis brief. The story revolves around the adult film industry covering from the mid seventies through the mid eighties. Through the film’s incredible opening tracking shot through a nightclub we meet the film’s many colorful cast of characters (still in my opinion the best ensemble cast ever assembled on-screen). There’s the film’s patriarchal porn director Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds who won a deserving Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his performance), the matriarchal mother figure and porn actress (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress Julianne Moore), porn stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), as well as a number of others involved in Horner’s production company of X-rated films. Buck (Don Cheadle), Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), among a slew of other notable character actor’s who are interwoven into the story like Thomas Jane, Paul Thomas Anderson regular Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Luis Guzman, Macy’s wife – real life porn star Nina Hartley (who scenes produce some of the films more funny moments). But at the epicenter of the film is Eddie Adams (aka “Dirk Diggler”) played by the relatively new at the time (at least in the film industry) Mark Wahlberg (still his best performance to date imo). Reynolds’ Jack Horner “discovers” Eddie one day and realizes he possesses “a gift” that could elevate both of their careers in terms of what he could potentially offer the adult film industry. That’s basically the setup. And the film goes on to explore Eddie’s subsequent rise and fall to fame.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is still just as relevant and influential as it was at the time of its release 18 years ago. And I’ll tell you why – first and foremost – it was the film to launch the careers of almost every actor involved in it (with the exception of Burt Reynolds of course). Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, etc. It launched all of their careers and made many of them household names in the years that followed. It’s also the strongest debut from a writer-director (Anderson was only 27 at the time he made it) who would go on to be one of the most revered and beloved filmmakers in the independent film movement (second to maybe Quentin Tarantino). It’s one of the few films that has the PTA’s signature stamp on almost every shot of the film. The second thing I want to point out is that the film’s soundtrack composed of some of the best and most recognizable songs from the eras in which it portrays, really adds a nice component as it makes you literally almost feel like you’re living in the period in which the film depicts. It’s also one of the few films, at least to me, that perfectly represents the “rise and fall” genre of films, even taking into account films that preceded it almost in the decade before it like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) or Brian DePalma’s version of “Scarface” (1983). As well as it being a critique on the nature of celebrity with Eddie Adams’/Dirk Diggler’s rise in the seventies as a young up-and-comer (no pun intended) to his fall in the early eighties when his celebrity leads up to become a narcissistic bigot. A man so in love with himself that he doesn’t see the world crumbling out from underneath him. It’s a great character study with a spectacular performance by Wahlberg that’s only matched by Anderson’s pitch perfect recreation of the time in which he depicts. “Boogie Nights” has been embedded and etched into my memory forever, and from time to time will continue to pop up as it has over the years as a constant reminder of why I fell in love with film as an art form in the first place. In a film considered by many, including myself, to still be Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest masterpiece.

[A+]

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights @ Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium

Saturday, Aug 1, 2015, 4:00 PM

Whitsell Auditorium
1219 SW Park Avenue Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The Portland Art Museum is doing a career retrospective of who is arguably one of the greatest directors in contemporary cinema – THE Paul Thomas Anderson. Starting this weekend with “Hard Eight” and ending in September with last year’s “Inherent Vice” along with a number of other different films from some of his biggest influences. Of all of them …

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Review: “The Skeleton Twins” 12.13.14

I guess I wasn’t entirely sure what drew me into wanting to see this film. Other than that I had heard and/or read mostly positively priases and it scored well on the various movie review sites that I visit. That and coming off the heels of two dark films that I watched last weekend in the form of both “Calvary” and especially “Nightcrawler” I think I was in the mood for a bit more lighter-fare. But even more so, I’ve particularly always been a fan of Bill Hader and often feel as if he’s much too underutilized in films and mostly plays bit parts. So the promise of seeing him in something where he played the leading man in piqued my interest from the start. Being in that I’m really a Saturday Night Live novice post anything 2000, I can’t say that I’m familiar at all of any of his work on that show. Along with co-star Kristen Wiig. I know neither of them from their work on that show, but rather from supporting parts in movies I’ve seen like 2011’s “Paul”, a movie in which both of them starred in. I also liked Hader in comedies like “Superbad” (2007), “Knocked Up” (2007), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Adventureland” (2009), and “This Is 40” (2012). Also, a lot of people don’t know this, but Hader was employed as one of South Park’s head writers for a couple of seasons. There’s a great “making of” South Park documentary that I caught on Netflix streaming awhile back. That shows Hader in his element as they give us a glimpse into the writing and making of a South Park episode. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, regardless of what you think about their show, are so unbelievably successful that they can pull in guys like Hader to write for them. And it’s through this documentary that I found myself developing a deeper respect for him as both an actor and writer. His sheer talent is undeniable. As for Wiig, I can’t say I’ve really seen her in anything outside of the afore-mentioned “Paul” (no I have not seen “Bridesmaids”) and in her hilarious supporting turn in the often much too underrated “MacGruber” (2010). So just based on word of mouth and the fact that I was looking for some lighter fare with a couple of young comedic actors I thought I would give this one a whirl.

The film opens to a rather coincidental and tragic event, both which take place on opposite coasts by 2 siblings – Bill Hader’s Lou and Kristen Wiig’s Maggie. It is through this mere act that the brother and sister are reunited after 10 long years of being estranged from one another. Lou, who seems to be in a very dark place and in desperate need of some much-needed love and support, gets an invitation by his sister Maggie to come stay with her and her husband (played by Luke Wilson, in a great supporting turn) in rural upstate New York. he takes her up on said offer and moves from his dismal life in Los Angeles to her much more suburban-esque home and lifestyle in upstate New York. As is with a lot of siblings, both on-screen and off, they seem to click almost right away and pick up right from where the beat left off. Lou hesitantly acclimates himself and is brought into both his sister and husband’s seemingly domestic home life, and given that she still lives in the same hometown in which they grew up on, starts to revisit some of his past. Facing past failures upfront and face to face, and we begin to learn a bit about his back story. Though while Maggie’s lifestyle seems to be idyllic from the outside. She too is also plagued with her own past failures and her inability to be the wife that her husband, Luke Wilson’s character, appears to deserve as he is a kind-hearted, compassionate, and loving husband. Who also seems invested in his brother-in-law Lou’s recovery from some of his past failures. The two siblings begin to learn that they’re really not much different from one another and are plagued by the same events that happened to them as kids, which makes things rather difficult and opens up doors to facing some of their let downs and disappointments from their childhood. It is through this bonding which things begin to resurface and they begin to realize that they’re not much different than one another. Even despite of them having spent so much time apart.

“The Skeleton Twins” winds up being one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year in terms of its genre. It’s a very sad but honest look at two siblings so troubled and scarred from their childhood that even while in the comfort of one another’s presence, their past seems to catch up with them and makes them face their true fears and disappointments about the flawed adults in which they’ve become. The film brough a lot of my own personal feelings to light, having lived a similar, somewhat tumultuous childhood. The way in which the two siblings’ bond is portrayed is spot on and both Hader and Wiig give complex, layered performances that felt sincere, real, and truly human. It just goes to show that two actors who are better known for their comedic work in, if given the right material, can truly shine as dramatic actors. In fact, I was so impressed by their performances, that I found myself totally immersed myself in the story and emotionally invested in their 2 characters, that I was taken by quite a surprise. There was a certain rawness, a certain authenticity if you will, that I have to say I didn’t think these particular leads could pull off. But they do and then some. Anybody with a sibling or siblings should be able to identify with a lot of the themes explored in this film. As it really does a great job at depicting the ties that bind while also acknowledging that the past may be through with us, but we are never through with the past (a quote lifted from Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) ). There’s an emotional core to the story that seemed totally believable and had me invested from start to finish. Nevermind that I counted maybe 3 or more scenes that were so raw, so poignant, and so heartfelt, that I found myself either being completely moved by them or evoking a beaming smile. This is one of the saddest feel good movies that is executed almost perfectly along with being incredibly well acted, that I’d be hard pressed not being able to recommend it to just about anybody. This is a film that totally took me by surprise, and one that I would employ you to see as its maybe one of, if not the best, dark comedies that I’ve seen all year.

[B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]

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]