Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” 2.1.15

This was a film that I had been following throughout the festival circuit as it had opened to mostly positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Shown as a 2-part film at that festival with the same title but differentiating each part by “Him” and “Her” it wound up popping up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival put together as one film – “Them”, for reasons I can only speculate on but can imagine the Weinsteins felt a 2-part film would be much more difficult to market and turn off audiences by the daunting task for watching (for further proof see Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Che” which was shown in 2 parts but was virtually unseen as it clocked in at just about 4 and a half hours). So here we have the 2 films packaged together in one part that I almost considered seeing in their original 2 parts, but decided to forego the idea and see the version that was released this year on DVD. I wanted to see this film for 2 major reasons, both of them having to do with the fact that I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I thought I had read a Stephen King book by the same name years back and without having researched it though it might be an adaptation of it. That and I really really like Jessica Chastain, who won me over in a number of recent films like “The Tree of Life (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and last year’s “Interstellar” (I’m also really looking forward to seeing her in the recently released “A Most Violent Year”). She almost never seems to disappoint and is one of the best actresses currently working in the film industry working today. I’m also a fan of James McAvoy. Liking his career trajectory and his choices of films he’s made with movies like “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), “Atonement” (2007), “Trance” (2013″), as well as his TV work in the original BBC version of the show “Shameless” (2004-2013). So not knowing much about it added to the fact that I really admire the 2 leads, was the real reason that led me to want to see it.

The film starts out by introducing us to its 2 leads – a woman named Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and her husband Conor (McAvoy). The two appear to be madly in love which is seemingly quite apparent from the start. However, soon after, we find Eleanor jumping off a bridge and plummet to what we think is her demise. Though she lives the fatal accident, and returns home to her family, who don’t seem to know how to act or what to do or say since their daughter has just attempted to take her own life. Her father (played by the always excellent William Hurt) encourages her to go back to school to get her mind off of things and gets her back into a program she once dropped out of (for reasons that is uncovered as the story unravels) with the help of a professor (“Doubt’s” Viola Davis). Meanwhile James McAvoy’s character Conor, who runs a restaurant that’s a sinking ship, too goes home to his wealthy but distant father and receives little to next to no compassion other than a place to stay. He does seek solace in his best friend, the chef at his restaurant (Bill Hader, who I loved in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”), but even he can’t seem to be capable of giving the help Conor seems to so desperately need. Conor begins to track down his ex-wife Eleanor as he appears to want nothing more than to have a conversation with her. Though Eleanor is completely shut off from both him and her family, but finds a bit of sympathy in Viola Davis’ college professor. The film then rears its head and gives us a bit more back story into what event ultimately led to the couple’s decimated marriage. Which is when we as the viewer are entered into a heart-rendering story about grief, loss, and the devastating effects it can have when people are confronted with it.

I wound up being slightly mixed about the film but thought it had more pros than it did cons. First off, it totally went against my expectations of being a mystery, suspense, or horror story and winds up a more conventional and straight ahead drama. Throughout it I couldn’t help but think about other films that I’ve seen that deal with similar themes like death, loss, the grieving process, and failed marriages like Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” (2001 – one of my top 25 favorite films of all time) as well as 2 other films from 2010 – John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine. All of which came to mind while watching it. The acting here, as one would expect from both of these two brilliant young actors, is top-notch. Chastain once again puts on a performance that’s a sight to see beaten down by her loss. McAvoy was also almost equally as good as her grieving ex-husband who has his fair share of demons. I also really liked its ruminations on grieving and how everybody deals with it differently, which is a credit to the writing team. Where it fell a bit short with me was its sometimes slow pacing in which it’s a bit confusing as to why Chastain’s character Eleanor or her ex-husband are in grief and mourning until about halfway through, when I personally thought the revelation could have come much sooner and been just as effective. It also felt a bit too familiar as the majority of us have probably seen this same subject depicted and explored before like in the films I mentioned above. Lastly, the ending felt a bit anti-climatic, that left me thinking what the overall message was that the writer and director wanted me to take from it other than grief and the coping of a loss can be incredible difficult. That being said, the two performances, at least to me, were both good enough and the story though a bit trite, was engaging enough that I’d consider it at least a worthwhile watch. Even if the end result leaves a little bit left to be desired.

[B-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Whiplash” 11.13.14

Winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival 29-year old wonder kind writer/director Damian Chazelle knows his music. Having been raised in a musical family himself and joined the band in high school. It would only make sense that his debut feature; given that he’s so young, would have something to do with music. I had heard about this one following the Sundance hoopla, and noticed that it had taken home the 2 coveted awards that I had mentioned above. So based on that and that alone I knew I was going to see it. Then I saw a trailer for it that pretty much knocked my socks off it looked so good. I did however think for a second that it looked strongly similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010) about a ballet teacher who pushes one of his students too far. Except here it looked like a musical teacher who pushes his drummer student too far. Which left me slightly skeptical. That and while I’ve liked some of the work of its 2 leads in J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, the former of whom is one of the better “character” actors of our time but one whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a lead role from what I can recall. And the latter, Miles Teller, who prior to this I was only familiar with in his small but memorable role in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” (2009) and as the lead in last year’s mediocre “The Spectacular Now” (2013). A film in which I thought got more credit than it deserved. But after hearing such good things about the film following the festival circuit, particularly that of the 2 actors who received a lot of buzz for their performances, I decided to check it out. What sealed the deal for me was having a lengthy discussion about it with one of the theater reps who spoke incredibly highly of it and who books movies at one of our commercial theater chains that tends to show a lot of the Academy bait-type movies early in the Oscar season. Before those movies get catapulted out into wide release later in the year as they start to get noticed via word-of-mouth. So, I went to see it and just barely chose it over Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Birdman” (a hard decision to make let me tell you). But one that I had nothing but the utmost confidence in.

The opening shot introduces to our first of 2 main central characters, Andrew (played by Miles Teller), in a pan in shot playing a drum solo that tips off the audience right away to the fact that he’s some sort of prodigy of sorts. Which is confirmed soon after when we find out that he is currently enrolled in a prestigious (though fictitious) music conservatory college in New York City. One in which even Andrew himself claims is “the best in the country”. Andrew, like most people who devote 100% of their life into honing their craft so that they can be the best, is a bit of a ghost to most of his classmates who seem to be able to maintain other interests outside of their area of study like most college students. He’s got no friends, is painfully shy, and spends his free time going to the movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). He’s a second year, 19-year-old, back up drummer in class. Who basically just flips pages in the second seat waiting for his chance to be a core player. That chance comes one day in the form of the school’s most prestigious musical teacher, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who also happens to teach the most reputable musical group in the school. One in which every student’s lifelong dream is to get into and play for him. Well, Andrew gets such an opportunity which elevates his confidence to ask out the attractive young girl who works at the movie theater he goes to with his dad. Everything seems to be going good for Andrew. At least for a short while until he gets his first crack at performing for the infamous Fletcher, and soon learns that there’s a method to his madness. The two then go on to develop a teacher-student relationship. A dynamic in which I haven’t seen since R.Lee Ermy’s Sargeant to Vincent D’Onfrio’s Private in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) or more recently Vincent Cassel’s dance troupe instructor with Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). Can Andrew rise to the challenge to fulfill his passion of becoming the best drummer at the school? Maybe one of the all times greats? Will Fletcher help bring this young prodigy get to the top? Or will his perfectionist and unorthodox methods of teaching act as a roadblock to him achieving his dream?

What can I say about this film other than that it was nothing short of exceptional. Easily the best part of it for me were the 2 very fine lead performances on display. It’s refreshing to see such a great script whose characters get played by 2 actors – one who’s relatively new to the game in the form of the young Miles Teller, and the other by a veteran actor like J.K. Simmons whose been in the business for years but mainly as a character actor in bit parts. Both are outstanding, particularly that of Simmons, and both of whom should get some serious awards attention as the critics and Academy start rolling out their nominations in the next few months. Secondly, like some of my favorite films do, it plays into several genres. It contains a sports drama element like 2002’s “Drumline”, part musical, psychological thriller, even at times borderline horror film like the aforementioned “Black Swan” (2010). Though don’t be fooled – at its very center it is first and foremost a concert film, and one of the very best I’ve seen about music in as far back as I can remember. The way the script and cast of professional jazz musicians bring the music to life really needs to be seen to be believed. At its core it’s really a film about the love for music and the lengths some people will go to be the very best. Which zips, booms, and bangs music and breathes new life into the genre with its great jazz, swing, and bebop score. The last thing I think is important to point out, is the testament to the truly great script which never panders to the audience, even if in the first third I thought I had the rest of the film figured out. The way in which it shifts gears in plot and keeps the audience guessing the 2 lead characters’ motivations to me was executed perfectly. Did I also mention it’s incredibly intense yet also an incredibly confident story and assured piece of filmmaking? And one that will have you on the edge of your seat from about a third of the way in until it’s wonderful grand finale. Don’t be surprised if this picture winds up being a dark horse for Best Picture, and one or both of the 2 leads gets Oscar nominations as the year comes to end. This is a smart, well executed and acted sports drama/thriller, about one very unique relationship between mentor and pupil. Which also happens to be one of the year’s best pictures that should easily land a coveted spot on my list of the top 10 films of 2014.

[A-]

Review: ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ 9.2.14

(The following is a reprint of my review written on 3.28.14)

First off, let me just say I wanted to love this movie. It had most of, if not all of the elements that I look for in a movie. A good story, rich script, and fascinating characters. It also felt really raw, and took me on an emotional rollercoaster, while also feeling very human in its treatment of its characters. Where it fell a bit flat was in the execution which didn’t really work that well for me. The structure of how it was told was in a flashback, fragmented, back and forth style, which I can honestly say I couldn’t quite understand why they choose to do it that way. I thought it would have been a lot more effective had it of just been told in a linear narrative. That aside, I was very engaged in the story of 2 lovers; one a tattoo artist and the other a Bluegrass musician, who meet, fall in love, and start a family; only to have their entire world swept out from underneath them. Other strong points were its bold, heartwrenching performances by the 2 main leads, a great Bluegrass score (this coming from someone who doesn’t even like Bluegrass music mind you), and the way in which it had the ability to reel the viewer into this deeply complex and emotional story. I geniunely felt strongly for these characters and when they felt happiness or pain, so did I. I also think it did a great job depicting how people manifest tragic life events. Similar to how they did in John Cameron Mitchell’s superb “Rabbit Hole” (2009). I felt myself thinking of both that and Derek Cianfrance’s equally superb “Blue Valentine” (2010) as reference points throughout. A really great story that will have you hooked from start to finish. If it weren’t for my feelings on the execution and the fact that it felt a bit too melodramatic at times, this would have been graded much higher because there really was so much it had going for it. Definitely worth seeking out, as there are a few people I can think of who liked it considerably more than even I did.

Grade: B

To Note: Nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film (Belgium)