Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts

March 9, 2015

Big Eyes Review (Tim Burton)

Amy Adams' Margaret Keane paints her signature paintings in Big Eyes.

Big Eyes and the Clash of Art and Commerce

A frequent topic in film circles is the role of criticism in a changing online world. It’s become a challenging profession with limited full-time positions, but many are still interested in the craft. Meanwhile, movies like Birdman depict a critic as a powerful villain who cares little for art. The argument that critics are failed artists remains prevalent despite having little connection to reality. This idea comes directly from the mouth of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. When the art writer John Canaday (Terence Stamp) questions Keane about the value of his paintings, he gets overly defensive and spouts the familiar rhetoric.

Of course, this situation is very different. Keane is a fraud who’s taking credit for his wife Margaret’s (Amy Adams) paintings and earning a fortune. Hearing this line from a masterful liar complicates its meaning from the usual attacks that filmmakers take at critics. Canaday is a snob with traditional ideas about what constitutes art. On the other hand, he recognizes something fake in Keane beyond not having the keys to the right social club.

Canaday plays a small part in Big Eyes, but his presence connects to the idea of art reaching a new stage of existence. Keane was a fraud yet knew how to sell Margaret’s work to huge crowds. Instead of letting it hang in art galleries for a select few, he sold her paintings in grocery stores and gas stations. That conflict between art and commerce is still present in our modern film culture. The Oscars claim to represent the greatest achievements in movies, but they’re really a commercial venture bought through expensive marketing campaigns. Rotten Tomatoes numbers are presented like sports scores and often lose sight of the words behind them. Gatekeepers at studios are still looking for the biggest commercial hits, regardless of the artistic merit. This is old news.

Keane is a marketing superstar who could find a job at any wealthy corporation; he just happens to be selling his wife’s art. The fact that he’s taken ownership of the material is a vain way to sell his self-importance. Keane isn’t content to be the man who discovered a new way to get rich with art. His goal is being recognized as one of the greats.

Christoph Waltz fakes his art as Walter Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes.

The interesting part is that Burton doesn’t seem that engaged by the themes I’ve just described. The ideas are present in the story of Walter and Margaret, but Burton prefers to tell a more personal tale. Margaret’s struggle to overcome her domineering husband and escape is the driving force. It’s a well-paced and lavish period piece that works because we’re invested in her success. The main reason is the fine work of Amy Adams, who injects so much heart into the timid character. She makes us desperate to see Keane get his comeuppance, and the reward is worth the wait. Adams finds soul in a character that could be frustrating.

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also worked with Burton on Ed Wood, and they ensure that we never stray from Margaret’s side. When she finally gets the chance to show her worth, it’s a well-earned victory against an evil clown. Waltz plays Keane as a man so committed to the lie that he seems to convince himself it’s the truth. He raises his voice and yells fiercely when questioned to ensure people won’t consider alternatives.

Despite passionate work from Waltz, there’s a risk this villain could become a cartoon. When he terrorizes Margaret and her daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur) in a drunken rage, the performance nearly goes too far. His drunken stupor channels Robert Stack in Written on the Wind, and this isn’t really a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Another challenge is the possible sitcom plot device of supporting characters venturing close to discovering the truth but never quite getting there. One scene with a suspicious friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter) becomes silly as Keane appears out of nowhere to angrily sell the charade.

Adams’ genuine presence keeps us on board, however. The questions never become too strong because she sells Margaret’s humanity. Waltz also finds clever ways to reveal the subtle manipulation from Keane, particularly in the early scenes. When he learns that Margaret has never been on a plane, he whisks her off to Hawaii and tries to make everything perfect. Once the trap is strung, it will take years before she’s willing to give up on the relationship.

Amy Adams and the real Margaret Keane meet at the end of Big Eyes.

Big Eyes is a surprisingly direct movie for Burton, who rarely takes a straightforward approach to any story. He’s surely faced the challenges of creating art in a commercial marketplace during his long career. It’s easy to identify with Margaret, who's betrayed in the most personal way imaginable by her own husband. He makes her complicit in the lie and sets up a scenario where coming clean isn’t easy. Their expensive home becomes her prison while he cavorts with stars and becomes a celebrity.

The shot of Jane discovering Margaret passed out on the floor beneath a giant painting says plenty about her situation. Her creative outlet is now a vice that keeps squeezing with every new scheme from her husband. Burton gives Adams room to shine and creates his most engaging movie in a long time. I knew little about Margaret’s real-life story before seeing this movie and am intrigued to learn more. She’s alive and well at 87, and this film presents her great triumph with charm and grace.

February 15, 2015

The Skeleton Twins Review (Craig Johnson)

Maggie (Kristin Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) in The Skeleton Twins.
Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader star as Maggie and Milo in The Skeleton Twins, directed by Chris Johnson.

Depicting attempted suicide on screen is a real challenge; it’s easy to lose the message. If the moment is too horrific, there’s a risk to lose the audience. On the other hand, making light could turn the scene into a mere device and betray the characters. A major factor is our investment in the story based on where the attempt occurs inside the film. Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins opens with a depressed Milo Dean (Bill Hader) writing a suicide note and preparing to slice his wrists in the bathtub. We know nothing about the guy, so it’s tough but less harrowing. The next scene reveals Milo’s sister Maggie (Kristin Wiig) preparing to kill herself with pills. It’s quite a coincidence of timing, but it also builds a connection between the twins that will only grow during the movie.

The title refers to a much happier moment from their childhood (revealed in flashback), and the past haunts Milo and Maggie. They haven’t spoken in 10 years, and their relationship hearkens to struggles from long ago. When their dad committed suicide, he placed their lives on a sour trajectory that continues well into their 30s. The twins were 14 at the time, and they’ve never recovered. Milo also reunites with his high-school teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an affair at 15. The adage that “the past isn’t through with us” rings true. The script from Johnson and Mark Heyman (Black Swan) shows the many ways Milo and Maggie are still coping with difficulties from long ago. Maggie’s husband Lance (Luke Wilson) is a nice guy with a stable life, yet his presence isn’t enough to bring solace. Instead, she’s actively sabotaging the relationship with lies and affairs.

It’s difficult to watch Maggie’s self-destructive behavior, even while recognizing that Lance is not the right match. He’s friendly and laid-back, yet there’s little spark between them. Even so, having an affair with a hot scuba instructor is not the right approach. Kristin Wiig’s likability makes it easy to root for Maggie; we sense that she’s a good person stuck in a terrible pattern. The same is true of Milo, who can’t seem to find real love. His dreams of being a famous actor in Hollywood haven’t gone well and are likely fruitless. Bill Hader injects a real longing into Milo that makes it easy to connect with him. The twins need each other to survive, yet there are so many emotional barriers.

Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig as brother and sister in The Skeleton Twins.
The camera frequently pulls close to the characters' tormented faces in shots like this one.

The Skeleton Twins was a festival hit and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year. The positive reception makes sense, especially with the raw emotions from Wiig and Hader. Reed Morano’s camera stays close to the actors’ inexpressive faces for extended shots. There’s little joy in the film’s washed-out look, which sells the ever-present sadness. Looking beyond the strong performances, the story feels less deep after some reflection. Milo and Maggie need each other to overcome their past, and that theme is everywhere. The final save in the pool makes it expressly clear. The low-key approach works for the material and suits the actors, but the resolution is pretty conventional.

The scenes that truly resonate are the rare moments where Milo and Maggie just enjoy the other’s company. An improvised sequence at a dentist’s office just lets the actors goof around. The chemistry between Wiig and Hader from years of working together makes the relationship feel effortless. Lip-syncing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” stands out because it’s such a rare scene. The pure joy (and Luke Wilson’s priceless reaction) sticks with you a lot more than the turmoil. It’s no surprise that it appeared on many lists of favorite scenes from 2014. This brief respite hints at possible happiness between the twins that’s barely seen in the film. Wiig and Hader do a lot with the material, and their work resonates more than the plot in the long run.

January 19, 2015

Calvary Review (John Michael McDonagh)

Brendan Gleeson has a crisis of faith in Calvary.
Brendan Gleeson is riveting as Father James in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.

Growing up Catholic, I viewed the priests as stoic men that stood on a pedestal far removed from the common parishioners. There were a few exceptions, but most didn’t seem like everyday people. Part of this feeling was due to the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Mass. The priests rarely went off script, and even the sermons didn’t connect too much with normal life. I only viewed a small part of their daily routines, however. The priests certainly spoke with many on a personal level each day. We observe that side of the job from Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary. He says Mass but spends most of his time just talking to people. There’s remarkable value in a guy who’s just there to listen. James is a good priest trying to help others, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect and has no doubts. The battle to keep the faith is constant, especially in the face of dour circumstances. 

On the surface, Calvary is the story of a priest dealing with a direct threat on his life during a confession. What’s surprising is how little time is spent on the impending murder; it hangs over every moment yet rarely makes a direct impact. Being told he’ll be dead on Sunday has affected James, obviously. How could it not? Even so, he goes about his daily work and tries to help residents deal with various problems. James listens to them and doesn’t judge, which is rare for anyone. He counsels a teen who’s frustrated with his struggles with girls and wants to join the army. It’s clear from the open way people talk to James that he isn’t your normal priest. He felt the calling after his wife died, so James isn’t a guy who’s never experienced anything. 

Father James struggles with the idea of sexual abuse in Calvary.
The sexual abuse scandals cast a pall over the entire story. 

Hanging over each interaction is the sexual abuse that went unchecked in the Catholic Church for decades. The death threat against James comes from a guy who was abused as a seven-year-old and has never recovered. People use the scandals to take shots at James and try to diminish his value. They know that it strikes a chord because it signifies a flaw in the vocation. James believes his good work is separate from the institution, yet he recognizes it’s hardly a flawless enterprise. He sees the lack of integrity in his counterpart Father Leary (David Wilmot) and lashes out in a drunken fury. James is an alcoholic who’s been sober for a long time, but the stress may be too much to take. When he slips off the wagon, it’s a long fall and reveals anger lurking beneath the surface. 

Brendan Gleeson has an imposing screen presence, and it’s a revelation to see him dial back the intensity. Calvary is his second collaboration with Director John Michael McDonagh; Gleeson also starred in his debut film The Guard. While that effort was more of a black comedy, both share an emphasis on character that suits Gleeson’s style. He deserves more starring roles, and it’s refreshing to see him lead such an intriguing story. The quiet moments where James walks in the gorgeous Irish countryside reveal plenty about his approach. He’s battling demons from his past, and the peaceful time keeps him on track. Gleeson might not seem right to play a priest, but it’s an easy sell given James’ genuine person. He experienced plenty before donning the vestments and brings that experience to his vocation.

Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly as father and daughter in Calvary.
Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly are easily believable as father and daughter.

A major difference with James is the fact that he was married and had a daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Following his wife’s death, he became a priest and drifted apart from Fiona. She returns to town after a failed suicide attempt, and it’s an important time to re-connect. McDonagh’s script avoids melodrama and underplays past difficulties between them. Fiona shares her father’s outspoken style, yet she’s broken and trying to recover. Gleeson and Reilly reveal the quiet bond of family that doesn’t require detailed explanations. James sees Fiona’s wrist and understands her trauma just by looking at her face. Fiona is a bystander to much of the action, but her presence sets the stage for his final decision. Making peace with Fiona ensures that James is ready to face the fate that awaits him.

Calvary feels lighter because of a stellar cast of supporting players that bring nuance to small roles. Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Domhall Gleeson, Marie-Josée Croze, and the great M. Emmet Walsh shine with minimal screen time and create a lived-in environment. A few eccentric characters are less convincing, particularly Owen Sharpe’s Leo and Orla O’Rourke’s Veronica. Even so, each has a brief moment where their character’s bluster is shown to mask other issues. Despite some heavy material, the tone stays light and avoids feeling like a funeral. The final scenes have a Western vibe as James steps onto the beach for the last stand. Gleeson’s face shows complacency that’s been missing until this moment. With the strikingly bleak landscape surrounding James, McDonagh creates a gripping finale. Gleeson delivers one of his best performances, and his convincing presence carries this engaging film. 

January 9, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

We Are the Best!

I’ve heard plenty of recent claims that 2014 was a disappointing year for movies, and the logic doesn’t compute. There were some generic blockbusters, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon. Hollywood is shifting even further into a franchise mode, and smart writers like Mark Harris are right to question it. Even so, that fact doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of treasures to find this year. The continued rise of VOD is making it easier to catch films with limited releases for surprisingly modest fees. I paid a mere $0.99 to watch God Help the Girl on Amazon, and it deserved a lot more. Despite missing significant titles like Birdman, Interstellar, and Inherent Vice, I’ve still caught a wide range of impressive films. If you’re decrying 2014 for its lack of exciting movies, you aren’t trying hard enough.

Ranking my favorites of the year seems foolish, but I’ve taken a shot to inspire discussion. Choosing an order helps with digging through what I really loved about each choice. It wasn’t easy to narrow the list down to 10 selections. I’m including films with 2013 festival screenings because they didn’t receive a general release until this year. This list is a snapshot of my feelings at this time, and my thoughts will certainly change down the road. Despite the challenges with comparing films, it’s still enjoyable to see how everyone ranks the hundreds of worthy contenders around the globe. It can lead to engaging discussions about divisive selections that will charm some while angering others. That’s the great thing about movies; you bring so much of your own background into every screening.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Begin Again

10. Begin Again
I hesitated to dive into this film despite my love of John Carney’s Once. It seemed like there was no way to avoid disappointment with his follow-up project. While it doesn’t reach the same heights, Begin Again delivers a similar emotional charm. There’s such a love of music and creating art that’s it’s easy to overlook the awkward scenes. Can anything beat the joy of walking around the city and listening to Stevie Wonder? I loved Mark Ruffalo’s nerdy charm and Keira Knightley’s heart-on-her-sleeve performance. I hope that we don’t have to wait another eight years for Carney to do something this cool again.

9. Ida
Two of my favorite performances this year come from Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. Agata Trzebuchowska is effective as the quiet title character, while Agata Kulesza’s fiery work as Wanda Gruz demands attention. The black-and-white cinematography and mostly static camera allow the characters’ search for truth to take center stage. Pawlikowski creates a striking look by using the unconventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and it never feels like a gimmick. The sharp composition of each shot aids the story, and I won’t forget it anytime soon.

8. Boyhood
It's a challenge to come up with new superlatives to describe Richard Linklater's remarkable project. There's such ambition to the fairly normal story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) that it sometimes feels like too much for one movie. Even so, Boyhood is filled with striking moments and interesting performances. Patricia Arquette's remarkable work as Mason's mom stands out and never hits a false note. Her character makes unfortunate choices in men, but she's always believable. Ethan Hawke's progression as the dad was surprisingly poignant as he evolved from estranged hipster to straight-arrow family man. It's interesting to note how the characters around Mason sometimes make a greater impression that the boy himself. This isn't a strike against Coltrane but more about the complex world that Linklater creates in this epic tale.

Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau

7. Chef
Jon Favreau built his reputation as a writer/director with heart that loved movies. Somewhere along the line, he lost something and seemed ill-suited for generic blockbusters. It was so refreshing to see the warm emotions back in place on a smaller scale with Chef. It’s the kind of movie that’s easy to love but rarely comes along. I expect Favreau saw a lot of himself in his tale of a chef that’s lost his mojo. The likable guy feels misunderstood by critics but needs to start over completely. Favreau’s doing a similar thing with this endearing film, and I hope that charm carries into his future work.

6. Edge of Tomorrow
Moving beyond the enjoyment of watching an ill-equipped Tom Cruise repeatedly die, Edge of Tomorrow was another summer movie that delivered great fun. Watching Cruise and a powerful Emily Blunt work together to solve problems is just part of the charm in Doug Liman’s sci-fi yarn. I love the time-loop premise, and the screenplay from Christopher McQuarrie and others expands the world of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel. It never feels repetitive, and that’s quite a stunning feat.

5. Only Lovers Left Alive
Sometimes you need a big budget and complicated plot to sell a story. Other times you just need to put Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in a room and let them dance. Few relationships felt as effortless as the one between Eve and Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They’ve been together on and off for centuries and share an unspoken bond that different than the human “zombies”. The actors understand what makes these characters tick, and the result is a riveting movie.

Stuart Murdoch's God Help the Girl

4. God Help the Girl
I called Stuart Murdoch’s debut “joyous” in my review, and I still can’t think of a better way to describe it. The songs function like music videos that move the story forward but succeed on their own. It’s a vibrant and colorful look at the ways people connect through the love for music. God Help the Girl is a precious and very cute film, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel has announced their slate for many years to come, and there’s a real chance of franchise fatigue. That fact makes the success of Guardians of the Galaxy even more impressive. It feels completely fresh and sidesteps the confines of the Marvel cinematic universe. I had few better times at the movies this year. Chris Pratt deserves to be a star, and the offbeat Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is the right guy for the job. It’s a team adventure with colorful supporting characters, over-the-top villains, and just pure fun.

2. We Are the Best!
Arguably my favorite ending for any film this year involved three girls sitting on a bus with huge smiles on their faces. Their first gig as a band was a disaster in conventional terms, but they don’t care at all. We Are the Best! tells a small story, but the friendship between the 13-year-old girls brings such heart that it sticks with you. Its emotional center is the fine work from Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, an intelligent girl who’s still adjusting to becoming a teenager. Lukas Moodysson presents these girls so warmly and delivers a story that feels more real than all the prestige pictures of the past year.

1. Snowpiercer
It’s easy to critique plot holes or heavy-handed themes in Bong Joon-Ho’s first English film, but none of that mattered while I was watching Snowpiercer. It’s an inventive thrill ride with a killer premise that rarely follows a predictable path. There’s dark comedy, wondrous action set pieces, and rampant creativity on an epic scale. Chris Evans is the perfect everyman to lead the revolution, while Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Ah-sung Ko, and Kang-ho Song shine in supporting roles. The seemingly endless train begins as a confining place and morphs into a world where anything is possible. Here's a quote from my original review that summarizes my thoughts:

"The screenplay delves into complex themes, but it's also rousing entertainment. The hatchet battle is possibly the most thrilling sequence that I’ve witnessed this year. Although it’s bloody and action-packed, there are small touches that separate it from the typical fare. In the middle of the fight, everyone stops for a brief New Year’s celebration. That brilliant segment is matched by a comic sequence involving a classroom of students, a history video, anthems praising Wilford, and machine guns. It’s ridiculous and represents a drastic shift in tone yet still feels right in this world. It takes major skills to get away with this move and keep the audience right with the story. I wasn’t budging for a second."

The following titles just missed the top 10 and could have easily made the cut. Presented alphabetically, they’re all intriguing films that connected strongly with me and deserve your attention.

Finding Vivian Maier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Life Itself
Listen Up Philip
Obvious Child
The One I Love

During the upcoming months, I’ll continue to dig into the films of 2014 and will certainly find other gems that would have found a spot on this list. I caught up with Her last spring, and it would have easily placed near the top of my 2013 list. The process of discovery never ends, and there are always exciting movies to catch up with down the road. No matter what Hollywood does with its search for interconnected worlds and franchises, there will still be interesting films to find in some part of the world of cinema.

What did you think of this list?

December 21, 2014

Begin Again Review (John Carney)

Keira Knightley shines as Gretta, a singer-songwriter in John Carney's Begin Again.
Keira Knightley shines as Gretta, a singer-songwriter in John Carney's Begin Again

It’s easy to get cynical when you’ve watched thousands of movies. You recognize the normal story beats and how filmmakers set up familiar conflicts for their characters. Even so, I've mostly stayed optimistic when it comes to films with the right heart. Can a song save your life? Probably not, but I love the sentiment. When Sonny proves his musical talents in the final concert of Honeydripper and saves the day, I'm right there with him. Jude singing “All You Need is Love” at the end of Across the Universe is obvious, yet it still gives me chills.

A perfect example is John Carney’s Once, a subtle love story where the Guy (Glen Hansard) and the Girl (Marketa Irglova) connect through the music. It’s quickly become one of my favorite movies, and a main reason is the sense that the songs mean something. They aren’t just pop tunes to play in the background. The music is essential to their lives, and Carney shows how powerful art can be to overcome heartbreak.

That positive feeling remains in Begin Again, his first major follow-up to the breakout hit. Carney played bass in Hansard’s band The Frames in the early ‘90s. He’s drawn to stories about tortured artists re-igniting their passions. This version of New York City is less gritty than the Dublin of Once, but there’s a familiar sentiment. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is struggling after breaking up with her boyfriend and music partner Dave (Adam Levine). He’s become a pop star and evolved into a different guy than the one she loved.

Gretta still believes in “authenticity” from artists despite the difficulty for anyone to maintain that standard. Even a guy like Bruce Springsteen is still putting on a façade for his audience. They aren’t seeing the real person, though it’s probably closer than it is with others. When Dave starts talking about pleasing fans and his bosses instead of himself, he sets a dangerous precedent. Judging by the slimy CEO (a Rob Morrow sighting!), it’s easy to see what Carney thinks of record label execs and their interest in creating good music.

The other major character is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an independent producer whose life is falling apart. After losing his family and his job, he stumbles into a bar with the intent to drink the night away. By pure chance, he hears Gretta perform “The Step You Can’t Take Back” at an open mic. This moment is replayed multiple times in the film and changes the course of both their lives. When we observe the scene from Dan’s perspective, Carney uses a inventive device that could so easily go wrong. Dan's mind brings the other instruments alive on stage to help Gretta deliver a sweeping pop version of the acoustic song (at least in his head). Dan’s imagination fills in the gaps, and it’s easy to see why he’s so inspired. Whether you buy this moment will say a lot about this film’s success. I was hooked and dove headfirst into the emotional sequence. Ruffalo plays the scene like a drunk, idealistic guy who’s mesmerized by hearing anything with a bit of substance. Beyond the individual song, this sequence is the mission statement for the mood that Carney sets with the entire movie.

Mark Ruffalo's Dan orchestrates the outdoor recording in a New York City alley.
Mark Ruffalo's Dan orchestrates the outdoor recording in a New York City alley.

It’s easy to overuse the word “charming” to describe this film, but that’s my best description. When Dan and Gretta recruit musicians for their outdoor album, there’s an endearing charm that’s hard to capture. It recalls the moment in Once when a serious loan officer breaks out a guitar and shows off his moves. There’s a fine line between cheery fun and painful sentimentality, and your bar for this type of material could vary substantially. Mine is very high when it comes from a guy like Carney. He use an effective structure that shifts around in time without feeling jarring. Gretta watches a video of happier times with Dave, and then we flash back to that moment and others that shaped their relationship. The editing slowly paints a picture of how she reached her current state without being confusing. Carney doesn’t get too cute and connects the dots like a skilled musician.

Begin Again really hits its stride during the outdoor recordings, which play like music videos in a similar way to Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl. The first band performance of “Coming Up Roses” culminates all their work to build the group. It feels like a triumph no matter what happens with the album. The upbeat “Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home” happens on a rooftop and strikes just the right emotional notes (along with a screaming neighbor). It reveals progress for Dan’s relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s a surprisingly adept guitarist. The group is more than just a loose collective and has become a real band. My cynic’s brain was totally shut off by this point. I was gliding along for the ride with a huge smile on my face. A main reason was Ruffalo’s joyous, dorky commitment to Dan’s enthusiasm. He loves the music so much and is feeling the magic once again.

Dan and Gretta just enjoy the music in a thrilling night in the city in Begin Again.
Dan and Gretta just enjoy the music in a thrilling night in the city.

I understand that it’s easy to dismiss this story as too precious. Despite the modest budget, it's a glossy production that makes New York City look gorgeous. The music industry scenes with Saul (Mos Def) and other executives are cartoonish. The third act re-introduces Dave as a potential romantic foil, though Carney sidesteps the obvious ending. Even so, how can I dislike a movie that loves music this much?

The scenes with Dan and Gretta strolling through the city and enjoying their favorite songs are thrilling. Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” is the centerpiece and impossible to resist. Dan and Gretta are kindred spirits with love for these tunes, and my resistance is futile. There’s no real villain in Begin Again; Adam Levine makes Dave endearing despite his evolution into a bearded poseur. People stumble and aren’t perfect, but there’s still hope through human connections and music. Carney reminds us that life’s pretty great, and art can bring us together like nothing else.

Related Articles (I'm With the Band Marathon)

God Help the Girl Review (Stuart Murdoch)
We Are the Best! Review (Lucas Moodysson)
Frank Review (Lenny Abrahamson)
Not Fade Away Review (David Chase)

December 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive Review (Jim Jarmusch)

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the year's most vibrant films.
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the year's most vibrant films.

Jim Jarmusch’s characters move slower than most people we see on screen. They spend time obsessing over Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” or discussing the use of nicotine as an insecticide. They love music and books but not with a glossy pop-culture fandom. They ride around in taxis and old cars at a time of night when few others are awake. Cigarette smoke fills their homes while blues and old rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. They’re content to lounge on the couch and play records while the world zooms into nothingness. Jarmusch is the right filmmaker to depict vampires who’ve been observing humanity for centuries. The beings in Only Lovers Left Alive recognize cycles of life and won’t exert much energy. It’s best to just enjoy the ride while the human “zombies” destroy the Earth.

A prime example is Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who lives alone in an abandoned part of Detroit. He’s surrounded by old photographs of figures like Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Billie Holiday, and Johann Sebastian Bach. These former contemporaries are gone while Adam’s life is static. His house includes assorted musical instruments and outdated devices retrofitted to stay functional. His FaceTime with Eve (Tilda Swinton) involves an old cordless phone and an antiquated color TV.

Adam’s a genius but avoids society. Music brings solace, yet even that can’t solve his loneliness. The only savior is Eve — his wife across multiple centuries. Her rampant curiosity offsets his dreary perspective, and they just work. Living amid a mass of books in Tangier, Eve grabs her favorites and journeys to Detroit. Once the pair re-connects, it’s difficult to consider them anywhere but right beside each other’s side.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) visit the remnants of the Michigan Theatre.
Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) visit the remnants of the Michigan Theatre.

It’s intriguing to watch the quiet comfort that Swinton and Hiddleston bring to their characters. She’s several decades older, yet they feel like equals. There’s no hesitation or nervousness between the pair. Eve and Adam are so familiar with each other after centuries that it’s easy to re-connect no matter how long it’s been. The actors sell this connection with little dialogue, and that’s where Jarmusch’s confidence in the languid style really works. He gives the characters room to breathe, and spending time with them is refreshing.

The film’s best sequence has Eve and Adam driving around Detroit and visiting the sights. There’s a wonderful moment at the house where Jack White grew up that epitomizes Jarmusch’s humor. It’s a quick scene yet totally fits with the type of guy the characters would love. The gorgeous Michigan Theatre (now a parking lot) provides a striking setting for pondering what’s been lost. We get the sense that the vampires recognize the impending doom of our decadent society.

Even a Jarmusch film sometimes has conflict, and that arrives with the tumultuous Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She’s more like a five-year-old than the wise veterans and acts without thinking. While part of me would have preferred just hanging with Adam and Eve, there’s a clear function to Ava. She reminds them that being a vampire isn’t always so glamourous. Without a supplier of pure blood, it’s difficult to avoid getting contaminated on the streets.

It’s clever for Jarmusch to show a different side of the ways we’ve poisoned ourselves and the Earth. Even the vampires don’t want us! Their night out at the rock club shows how cool these night owls remain in that world. Adam is an underground music sensation and barely realizes it, and the trio presents a striking image of hipness to the young club patrons. Those fans are embodied by poor Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s dim-witted connection to the outside world.

Eve and Marlowe (John Hurt) don't mind relaxing after living for so many years.
Eve and Marlowe (John Hurt) don't mind relaxing after living for so many years. 

Ava leaves while deriding Adam and Eve as “condescending snobs”, and that description is partially accurate. He only drinks the good stuff through his supplier Dr. Watson (an offbeat Jeffrey Wright). She prefers to hang with her pal Marlowe (John Hurt), who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. They’re upper-class vampires that are very particular about their associates. The final act breaks down this façade and reminds Adam and Eve about their true nature. They may prefer to live away from society, but it doesn’t take much to push them back to the streets. The good stuff is gone, and what’s left isn’t so clean. Hints of this real nature come with something as simple as a cut finger by a nearby passenger on the plane. They’re a different type of old-school creature, but the lust for blood still draws them closer to Ava’s approach.

What keeps Only Lovers Left Alive from becoming too static are Jarmusch’s stylistic touches, particularly the music. The opening credits appear in front of stars as the image spins in circles and morphs into a record album. Wanda Jackson sings “my head is spinning around and around” and the rooms spin right with it. Shots of Adam and Eve sprawled on their couches are our first looks at them while the circling continues. It’s an evocative way to begin the story that grabs you, and it’s hardly the only example. Another great scene has them listening to Charlie Feathers’ distinctive voice in “Can’t Hardly Stand It” at Adam’s house, and it’s a quintessential Jarmusch moment. His confidence about these characters shines through right to the final shot and delivers one of his best films.

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December 16, 2014

Ida: What Happened, Happened

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida
Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida.

There’s a grim uncertainty to the Poland People’s Republic of the 1960s that pervades through Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. After experiencing the horrors of Nazi occupation, the country fell under Stalinist rule until the late ‘50s when Gomulka took hold. The generations that remember the war and its aftermath still struggle to grasp what happened. Meanwhile, the young adults can live without the emotional turmoil of that experience. They’re becoming artists and musicians inspired more by John Coltrane than painful losses. Living on the sidelines is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman preparing to take her vows as a nun. She travels to meet her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) to understand her family’s background. Anna was orphaned at a young age, and her Mother Superior requires that she learn about it before the vows. What she discovers connects back to Poland’s darkest times during World War II.

The story begins at a solemn convent as nuns place a statue of Jesus in front of the building. Back inside, they eat their bowls of soup in silence, with only the clanking of utensils piercing the quiet. Shot in striking black and white by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, the cinematography revels in the snowy bleakness. You can feel the cold air coming through the screen. It’s a striking contrast to the life of Wanda, a judge who spends her days smoking, drinking, and sleeping with random guys. Despite the comfortable accommodations, Wanda’s existence feels much drearier than the convent. She joins Anna on a road trip where both learn plenty about their family history. Anna’s parents were Jewish and forced to hide from the Nazis during the war. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and the quest to discover her parents’ resting place won’t be uplifting. On the other hand, it also reveals a side of life she hardly knew.

Pawel Pawlikowski places Anna on the edge of the frame in Ida.
Paweł Pawlikowski often places Anna on the edges of the frame.

Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) uses a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and conveys a classic feel of the time period. The black-and-white format and static camera focus our attention on the composition of each image. The camera doesn’t move until a key moment, so only the cuts change our perspective. There’s no music beyond the sounds in the story, and this choice enhances the impact of each new shot. Anna frequently stands on the edges of the frame and appears uncomfortable taking up space. She lingers away from attention and hides behind her nun’s habit. Close-ups of her face reveal beauty yet little emotion, at least for a time. Anna’s an observer who moves slowly through life and barely injects her own feelings. You can already see the ways that she’s drifting towards the quiet lives of the older nuns.

Much of the on-screen vitality comes from Agata Kulesza’s sharp performance as Wanda. She’s trying desperately to push aside terrible regret while digging into events that caused the loss. Wanda was a prosecutor in the Stalinist regime and now works as a judge. Her distant look during the courtroom proceedings reveals how little her work means. Despite pushing Anna to experience life, Wanda can barely stomach it. She’s an imposing force during their search, yet it’s often bluster. They pick up a young saxophonist named Lis who’s performing at a nearby hotel, and he brings a different vision of Poland. Anna reads the Bible in her room, yet the music downstairs is too alluring. Her quiet interest in this guy and his different world starts to reveal the young woman beneath the nun’s garb. When Anna finally removes the habit, she looks so much younger than the serious girl we’ve seen to that point.

Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.
Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.

Ida is Agata Trzebuchowska’s first role, and it’s easy to see why Pawlikowski chose her. There’s a tranquil beauty to her face that fits a girl who hasn’t been worn down by sadness. Her parents connect Anna with her past, yet she has no physical memories. On the other hand, there are few positive emotions of love and happiness. The final act gives Trzebuchowska a chance to show more from Anna than her quiet demeanor. When she lets her hair down and visits a jazz club, it’s like her first day of adulthood. Dancing to Coltraine with Lis is a perfect moment, yet it’s fleeting. We see a rare smile from Anna in bed that shows forward movement, but the next steps aren’t clear. She talks of having been nowhere, and Lis gives her an opportunity. The shots of this scene are gorgeous and showcase her newfound beauty. The challenge is discovering how Anna feels about the whole experience. Is this a brief phase or an eye-opening event? The final scenes reveal her likely choice yet feel a little hollow because it’s all so sudden. Keeping her mysterious is okay, but a few more clues would have been more impactful.

There’s a telling moment after Anna returns to the convent where she simply says “I’m not ready” to the statue of Jesus. This scene makes sense given what she’s experienced, but I didn’t really feel it. The minimalist approach from Pawlikowski and Co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz brings charm to small touches like Anna’s brief smile during the quiet meals. It’s serene but keeps us at a distance from her. There’s no separation from Wanda, and Kulesza deserves awards consideration for her confident performance. It’s easy to see the growing burden in Wanda’s every move. Despite the title, we’re just as connected with Wanda as her niece. They form an interesting bond during the road trip, and there’s hope for a true friendship. Sadly, the trials of Wanda’s past remain despite the discoveries. Her terrible loss feels more present because it’s no longer repressed from her memories. When you hear about the killings from the murderer himself, it’s hard to forget them. Wanda has found closure, but a new future may be impossible.

December 10, 2014

God Help the Girl Review (Stuart Murdoch)

Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, and Emily Browning in God Help the Girl
Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, and Emily Browning in God Help the Girl

Back in 2001, I worked as a writer for a travel company and was returning from a two-week cruise around Japan. As fate would have it, the date was September 11th. Our plane was diverted from L.A. to Vancouver that morning following the attacks, and I spent a week wandering the city. Escaping the horrifying news on TV, I visited a local record store and saw a flyer about a Belle and Sebastian concert that night. It felt a little odd to buy a ticket given the awful circumstances, but the opportunity was too great to skip. I wasn’t a huge fan at the time but knew their music pretty well from a few albums. It was a wise decision. The show at the gorgeous Orpheum Theatre remains one of my favorite all-time concerts. The setting was the perfect spot for Belle and Sebastian’s sound, and the beautiful melodies delivered a magic evening that I’ll never forget.

I mention this experience up front to explain my obvious bias towards Stuart Murdoch and his band. It’s impossible to separate my feelings about God Help the Girl from my love of Belle and Sebastian. Murdoch’s debut film creates a very similar sensation to experiencing the best parts of his music. It fits a particular taste and may send plenty scurrying for the exits, but I’m not one of those people. Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty) stars as Eve, a young singer living in a psychiatric hospital. When she escapes and goes to Glasgow, she meets James (Olly Alexander) and moves into an unused bedroom in his flat. James is a singer and guitarist, so they’re kindred spirits. You could label them as hipsters, but that undervalues their talents. Eve has an incredible voice, and James' music style fits with her skills. They connect with his guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray) and become fast friends. The next step is forming a band, and the trio quickly becomes a large ensemble.

What a vibrant film this is! I was hooked from the moment that Eve climbed out her window and belted out the first notes of “Act of the Apostle”. While the opening credits roll, she boards a train and even does an impromptu dance at the station. The songs function more like music videos than your typical movie musical. There's a definite Whit Stillman vibe to the setting, particularly when compared to Damsels in Distress. The characters perform for the camera more than each other, and everything in the frame conveys that glow. When James, Eve, and Cassie sing together for the first time with "If I Could Speak", their choreography is like a well-rehearsed performance. Despite the theatricality, it feels natural because the actors sell it. The clothes and set design are so colorful that it doesn’t feel out of place once the singing begins. When a old-school dance party happens during the joyous “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie”, it works despite the shift from reality. Murdoch conveys such joy for the music that it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement. It’s like a Belle and Sebastian show from the early 2000s broke out inside the movie.

Emily Browning's Eve leads the band in Stuart Murdoch's debut film God Help the Girl.
Emily Browning's Eve leads the band in Stuart Murdoch's debut film God Help the Girl.

There are definite connections between this story and Murdoch’s life, particularly when you consider the origins of Belle and Sebastian. He wrote their early songs while facing a serious illness and built a large group that sounds a lot like the film’s band. Even so, it’s too easy to just connect each moment with Murdoch’s past. It’s a personal project inspired by his life, but it’s a lot more than a thinly veiled retelling. There’s plenty to enjoy within this story apart from its ties to Murdoch. Watching Eve succumb to depression is difficult and such a contrast from the exuberant music. Her well-being hangs by a string, and the songs are an outlet to keep her afloat. Eve’s a force of nature in her best moments, but that excitement masks a real melancholy that could return quickly.

A Kickstarter campaign helped to finance God Help the Girl, and it feels like a love letter to fans. A joy to creating art permeates the film. Dramatic conflicts arise, but what sticks is the idea that we can do amazing things. When the right people connect, there’s no limit to what they can produce. This hyper reality is cute and precious, yet that’s hardly a bad thing. There’s plenty of dreariness in real life, so escaping through beautiful music is just the right remedy. On that note, a subplot with the self-absorbed rocker Anton (Pierre Boulanger) feels like a misstep because it doesn’t share the same mix. He generates romantic troubles, yet it’s clear from the start that he’s hardly worth Eve’s time. When your main personality traits are a haircut and a smile, it is not a good sign.

I’d only seen Browning in a few previous roles, so I had no idea about her singing talents. Her voice is magnetic and far removed from common standards of skill from conventional pop music. Hannah Murray's style is so different, and their voices have such great chemistry. When the band takes the stage for their showcase performance to play "Down and Dusky Blonde", we can believe the crowd’s thrilled reactions. The moment feels earned and culminates the ups and downs for Eve and the group. There’s a great callback to A Hard Day’s Night with the prospective members chasing James through the streets. It’s like everyone's been waiting to join this band, and they’re fulfilling a gap in the music world. Their initial goals of adding drums and a bass player are expanded into a much larger ensemble. How could they let down such excited musicians?

What makes God Help the Girl click is the genuine friendship behind the glowing music videos. James has feelings for Eve, but the love story never dominates. They’re friends that enjoy hanging out together, and the emotional bond is there without the romance. A canoeing trip by the trio is just a fun adventure for young souls enjoying each other’s company. Murdoch excels at showing the performances, but he gives the characters time to connect. There’s a lightness that shouldn’t be confused with a lack of substance. It’s the type of summer that will probably never happen again. They’re becoming adults and will have to decide where their lives are headed. James can’t work as a lifeguard forever. His idealistic view of pop songs is endearing, but it’s just a piece of the puzzle. Eve recognizes that the band is amazing but isn’t enough to prevent her demise. It’s a difficult choice with possible flaws, yet her move is understandable. They’ve created something magical, but even the best intentions have their limits. It’s a telling reminder that Eve can’t avoid her demons, even when so much enjoyment comes from their music.

December 6, 2014

Bethlehem Review (Yuval Adler)

Hitham Omari and Shadi Mar'i clash in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem: An Endless Cycle of Violence

It’s difficult to understand daily life in a world filled with so much paranoia and anger. We’ve seen protests (justifiably so) here in Missouri surrounding the Michael Brown shooting, and there’s a next stage where sharp divides create a never-ending cycle. Violence is the primary method of communication, and each retaliation leads to more hatred. When you add religion to the mix, the chance for a positive solution becomes even lower. This toxic atmosphere pervades Israel in Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, which depicts two guys on opposite sides of the conflict that have made a connection.

Razi (Tsahi Halevi) is an Israeli secret service agent in Bethlehem, and he’s built a fatherly relationship with the teenage Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i). Razi’s primary goal is stopping the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but he has a soft spot for the boy. His concern for Sanfur is an emotional blind spot that hinders Razi’s ability to bring down enemies. Adler presents multiple perspectives and wisely avoids setting up one character as the hero. Tsahi Halevi makes us sympathize with Razi, who wants to do the right thing.

On the other hand, he risks his informants’ lives and looks for a weak spot to exploit and connect with them. He cares about Sanfur, but it isn’t just because he’s a nice guy. Razi has been pursuing Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim for a year, and this bond could pay dividends. Ibrahim is a leader responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks, so taking him out would be a major victory. On the other hand, there are plenty of lieutenants ready to step up and take their leader's place if he was taken off the game board. Ibrahim is the mouthpiece, and his face appears on a message following a suicide bombing that killed nine people. However, he needs a support network to keep attacking the Israeli system.

A telling moment occurs during Razi’s recovery at the hospital from a gunshot wound. He’s casually playing backgammon with an older Arabic man, but the tone changes when the guy recognizes him as an Israeli agent. The man tells a story of a neighbor who faced dire consequences after being discovered as Razi’s informant. This ugly tale reminds us that there are ramifications to Razi’s actions. He’s doing his job and taking down enemies, but there is collateral damage. The same fate could befall Sanfur, though the boy is hardly innocent. He isn’t a hardened fighter like Badawi (Hitham Omari), but he’s trying to prove his value. His dumb bet to take a bullet while wearing a vest puts Sanfur in the hospital with shrapnel in his side. Competing with his famous brother is impossible, and his dad believes he’s worthless. Despite informing to Razi, Sanfur’s still looking for an opportunity to escape his brother’s shadow.

The plot’s driving force is capturing Ibrahim, who doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into the film. The procedural aspects take over, and Razi and his associates devise a plan to stop the leader. The pursuit culminates in a tense standoff that goes sideways when a local crowd starts rioting. The camera moves inside the cramped attic while Ibrahim faces the hordes. It’s a claustrophobic moment that shows the lack of glory in Ibrahim’s fight. Even if the cops succeed, the anger towards them from local residents reminds us they’re losing the war of ideas. Killing Ibrahim will just make his partners even more dedicated. Badawi must do something big to respond, and there’s pressure from Hamas and his leaders on the next move. No one learns from a meaningless death. There’s always another enemy to capture, and there are an infinite number of targets for Al-Aqsa and Hamas.

Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar'i in Bethlehem

Despite the larger issues, Bethlehem is really about the relationship between Razi and Sanfur. There’s a true emotional connection that transcends the violence. Razi helps Sanfur recover from his injuries and sits by his bed like a family member. When the walls close on both of them, neither seems thrilled with betraying the other. Adler and Co-writer Ali Wakad give us multiple perspectives that expand the scope. It’s easy to sympathize with Razi or Sanfur while dreading the final outcome.

Badawi’s hardened approach and frustration towards politicians like Abu Massa (Karem Shakur) also makes sense. There are no true villains, and the frustrating situation makes it difficult for residents not to join the fight. Characters stroll into diners with machine guns on their backs, and it doesn’t feel that strange. The film’s opening shot reveals teens using a town sign for target practice. They’re preparing to take their place in the conflict, and there’s little else to do at this point.

There’s a fresh perspective to this story that comes from debut filmmakers. Waked is a journalist who’s spent years reporting on the conflict. This insider’s outlook keeps the screenplay from drifting into typical dramatic conflicts. Set during the second intifada in 2004-2005, the story reflects Waked’s time covering the struggle. Shooting in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and nearby locations ensures the material feels relevant. It’s an Israeli-produced film but doesn’t convey a simplistic ideology. We can sympathize with the Palestinians’ anger towards the occupation. Adler and Waked take a procedural approach that avoids giving a one-sided view of the issues in the West Bank.

The three leads are non-professional actors, and that’s remarkable given the confident performances from Halevi and Omari. They bring a quiet composure to adults that have already seen too much carnage. Razi has a solid family life with a wife and two kids, but there’s intensity behind his warm demeanor that reveals his focus. Badawi shares this fierce perspective and barely raises his voice except when absolutely necessary.

Trapped in the middle of this ideological struggle is the young Sanfur, and Mar’i’s lack of acting experience shows the young man's innocence. He’s transporting money from Hamas to his brother while informing Razi about other activities. A hardened veteran would recognize that his days were numbered in this role. There’s no end in sight for this conflict, and Sanfur must choose a side or fall prey to both of them.

November 17, 2014

Frank Review (Lenny Abrahamson)

Frank, starring Michael Fassbender

Anyone that presents their art on the public stage has a bit of insanity in them. It takes more than talent to risk audience rejection and not lose confidence. Plenty of well-known artists have struggled with mental illness. Robin Williams is a recent example of a guy who received the adulation, but it did little to save him. In the music world, performers have no leeway on the thankless stage. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) has a rare voice and talent, but I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a concert goes astray. In a certain way, it’s the same insecurities that deliver her best music. It’s all part of the package, and daily tensions drive the art to new heights. Would Kurt Cobain have delivered songs that we still explore today if he was a happy guy with few doubts? While there’s no clear blueprint for art, it’s hard to deny the connection between tormented geniuses and original music.

Questions of mental illness hang over Frank, which depicts an eccentric guy (Michael Fassbender) who performs with a paper-mâché mask over his head. In fact, he wears the mask all the time. Is this a piece of performance art or simply part of his being? Inspired by Frank Sidebottom — the comic alter ego of Chris Sievey — Frank never reveals anything funny about this choice. He goes to diners, performs at clubs, and just lives his life wearing the mask. The script is co-written by Jon Ronson, who played keyboard with Sidebottom’s band in the late ‘80s. We observe the story through the eyes of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young keyboardist whose experiences have some connections to Ronson’s real-life history. This mix of reality and fiction brings a strange charm to this film.

We begin with Jon strolling down the streets and looking for songwriting inspirations. It quickly becomes clear that his ideas are limited in this area. When the best subject he can find is a lady’s bag, we aren’t in superstar territory. Despite having few followers for his blog and Twitter account, Jon keeps looking for an opening. I can definitely sympathize with this experience. When you’re just starting a project, any glimpse of interest is a thrilling feeling. Through pure happenstance, Jon meets Don (Scott McNairy) and gets a shot to play keyboards for the Soronprfbs. The gig is one of those unseen indie rock shows where a few curious bystanders passively observe the mess. It only lasts for a few minutes, but there’s a glimpse at something brilliant within the chaos.

Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Watching the Soronprfbs try to record an album is something to see. Calling it a “disaster” wouldn’t go far enough. The band lives in remote cabins in Ireland and rehearses for nearly a year before they even record a note. Given some stories of bands spending years on a record, this depiction probably isn’t thar far-fetched. Our entry point is Jon, who tries to become one of them and even grows a scraggly beard. He’s the only person intrigued by the commercial prospects for such an odd group. In the world of viral videos and YouTube sensations, Frank wouldn’t be the strangest thing to build a large following. Of course, what he can actually do with that interest is a different question.

The conflict between commercial and artistic success is common for bands that begin with idealistic concepts about their music. Fans want their favorite artists to get a larger following but don’t always recognize what’s connected to that growth. The Goo Goo Dolls toiled for years in clubs and were an energetic (if fairly simple) live act. When they finally made it big, they morphed into something unrecognizable and entirely forgettable. While this fate isn’t likely for Frank, he can’t help but get excited when Jon nabs the Soronprfbs a slot at South by Southwest. Playing for people that actually know them at such a grand event sounds amazing. The danger is stretching too far and inviting destruction.

Michael Fassbender is well-known for big-budget productions like the X-Men films and Prometheus. He might seem out of place in Frank, but that isn’t really the case. Looking at Fassbender’s career, he’s thrived in unconventional parts in films like Shame and Hunger. Frank is different than those guys yet equally challenging. It’s thrilling to watch Fassbender hide behind a mask and continue to stretch his talents. Despite the visual barrier, Frank is a unique character who isn’t a gimmick. When we see his real face in the end, the moment feels earned and delivers a powerful conclusion. It doesn’t really explain the mask yet provides enough to make it understandable.

Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal

There’s a deft mix of comedy and tragedy within Frank, and it doesn’t always connect. Jon is such a dummy, yet we’re stuck with his perspective. His bandmates are standoffish, particularly Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara. They have little interest in commercial success and recognize the danger from Jon that Frank doesn’t see. There’s a risk for the filmmakers to create too much distance or make fun of the band. Neither really happens here, and that’s the reason the movie works. When the challenges arrive in Texas, there’s the risk the story will go off the rails. There are so many ways to go wrong, yet Director Lenny Abrahamson sidesteps nearly all of them. It’s an offbeat tale that won’t offer an easy conclusion, and leaving the characters in their rightful places is no easy feat.

The music is surprisingly brief throughout most of the film. We catch glimpses of rehearsals, or something frequently goes wrong to stop the momentum. The exception is the finale, which reveals the rare power that emanates from Frank’s mind. “I Love You All” is an incredible song that closes the movie on just the right note. Despite the artistic success, the band isn’t heading for stardom. Even so, they’re collaborating on the fly and building remarkable music. Frank’s powerful voice sounds clearer than ever, and we really hear him for the first time. The story closes on just the right note and reveals their strength as a unit, no matter what obstacles arrive down the road.

October 20, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

A quick glance at Tom Cruise’s recent projects might give the impression that his career is slumping. Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow all struggled to build a large audience in this country and didn’t match their reported budgets. Is the once bankable star losing his clout? Yes and no. It’s true that Cruise hasn’t been able to open a big movie in the U.S. without a connection to a larger franchise like the Mission Impossible series. That’s more of a symptom of current trends than anything else, however. Will Smith has also discovered that star power isn’t the currency it used to be. The worldwide box office is a different story, however. Oblivion more than doubled its domestic take in other countries, and Cruise is the main reason it sold well overseas. Franchise properties like Marvel have taken over here, but we’re just a modest part of the growing market around the world. 

I mention this topic because it helps to clarify the progression of Cruise’s career. He knows that his films will do well in other countries, so he can pursue unique projects. This isn’t more experimental fare like Magnolia, but it’s hardly mindless trash. Despite being a rich star with strangely young looks, Cruise conveys an everyman quality. The 52-year-old actor rolls out the winning smile in Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s undercut right from the start. Major William Cage is a cowardly military public affairs officer who sells the war yet avoids the conflict. His attempts to charm General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) put him on the front lines for certain death. This never would have happened to Cole Trickle! It’s interesting that our hero is hardly the courageous sort who will do anything to save the world. He’d rather blackmail someone than go near the fight. There’s plenty of room for growth for Cage, and that keeps him from being a one-note dullard.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

The story opens with a montage of news that introduces us to the situation of the Mimics threatening Europe. The barrage of clips is a clever way to introduce the setting without spending too much time on it. We don’t need to know every detail of how the enemy works or what happened earlier. Guillermo del Toro employed a similar strategy with Pacific Rim, but this approach works even better in setting the stage. The action moves briskly and barely takes a breath during the 113-minute running time. Edge of Tomorrow is directed by Doug Liman, and he used a similar approach with The Bourne Identity. Both films pack a lot of action and humor and don’t cross the two-hour mark. It’s a pivotal skill that should have been employed in bloated movies like The Amazing Spider-man 2. Liman recognizes the need to dive into the material without an unnecessary build-up.

It takes very little to get me excited about time loop stories, especially those that use the Groundhog Day premise. If done well, they can offer an interesting combination of ingenuity and humor. When Cage finds himself repeatedly dying in the same battle, it’s a scenario with no easy answer. Many have made the comparison to playing a video game, and I can’t think of a better description. Cage is playing a game with no continues and must start over every time. It’s like having to start at the beginning of the maddening NES Castelvania level with the Grim Reaper. What keeps this movie from getting tired is the humor, which finds the fun in watching Cruise keep dying. When Cage tries to be an action hero and roll under a moving truck, it’s fitting that he’s run over in his first try. He might knock a fellow soldier out of harm’s way, but he gets killed instead. Despite the significant amounts of death and destruction, there’s an airy feeling that’s hard to get right. Bill Paxton adds to the fun as a patriotic sergeant who hams it up to just the right level.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman

Another factor in the success is the work of Emily Blunt, who plays the film's real action superstar. Rita Vrataski has experienced a similar loop, and her no-nonsense attitude is just what Cage needs. She’s ready to pull out a gun and shoot Cage at a moment’s notice, and there’s great fun in watching her act so decisively. The highly entertaining training montage includes repeat examples of her penchant to shoot first and ask questions later. Blunt brought a similar weight to her role in Looper and is even stronger here as the ultimate warrior. The semi-love story doesn’t feel out of place because Cage has spent so much time with Vrataski. The hints at a similar partner during her loop also give them a unique connection. She understands what he’s experiencing and has developed the hardened shell to combat regrets about her failure to save the day. Cage is hardly the best guy to receive this gift, but it’s their only chance to avoid complete destruction.

Despite the fun approach, Edge of Tomorrow includes harrowing war footage that gives a believable portrait of the chaos. The Mimics appear out of nowhere, and death is only seconds away. The camera throws us inside the battle and rarely provides a warning before death arrives. Even with the futuristic weaponry, humans can do little against the agile foes. The creatures strike with tentacles and inflict major blows in a heartbeat. How can anyone defend against them? The best choice is to run, but that move offers little chance of survival. We rarely get a clear look at the Mimics, which adds to the mystery of the nearly unstoppable beings. How can you defeat an enemy that’s always many steps ahead of you? Of course, they also have a trump card for understanding human tactics.

The Alpha Mimic in Edge of Tomorrow

It’s unfortunate that Edge of Tomorrow didn’t find a larger audience. Most critics raved about it, but the unfortunate title and better-known competition led to the disappointing crowds. Warner Bros. emphasized the tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” to the cover to diminish the importance of the original title. The movie is based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and that title remains the best of the three options. I can understand why it wasn’t used by the studio, however. It sounds like the name of a cool genre movie instead of a summer blockbuster. Regardless of its initial results, this film should continue to build its reputation during the next few years. It’s hardly a throwaway blockbuster and delivers great entertainment that few big releases have matched this year.

October 13, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

It’s been interesting to watch how the second phase of Marvel films has moved into more distinctive genres. The first installments created the universe and introduced us to familiar super heroes like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. This world-building was important to the success of The Avengers because we knew the main characters. For Phase 2, the heroes could live more in their natural environments. Thor: The Dark World ventured into fantasy territory with dark elves, stone aliens, and more otherworldly beings. Iron Man 3 focused on Tony Stark and seemed bored with the robot fights. The game changer for Marvel this summer was Guardians of the Galaxy, which proved that you didn’t need household names to draw crowds. Tucked in the middle was a conspiracy thriller that cranked up the paranoia and packed a punch. Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived in April and delivered an engaging mix of suspense and charm that exceeded the genre.

What’s surprising is how engaging Chris Evans is as Captain America. He brought heart to the role in The First Avenger, but I didn’t expect him to work this well. Evans’ career includes an early performance as the Human Torch in the unfortunate Fantastic Four films and as a man with special abilities in Push. He’s comfortable within a big action film and makes the stunts believable. He’s also grown into the kind of guy who can sell the smaller moments, particularly with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. They spend the second act on the run in a story that wouldn’t feel that out of place in a Hitchcock film. Thankfully, there’s no romance to sidetrack the plot. Evans makes it easy to root for the hero, who recognizes shady justifications from his own government. The bureaucrats have drawn the wrong conclusions from recent crises, and evil schemes lurk behind the scenes.

An obvious connection to ‘70s films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. He brings immediate weight as a government official who doesn’t share the love for Captain America. It’s clear that he’s hiding something, and Redford’s scraggly face presents a guy who’s won his share of battles. Samuel Jackson gets a larger role as Nick Fury and thrives in it. Despite the lack of alien invaders or monsters in this film, you get the sense that the stakes are even higher. The menace comes from within our own systems, and fighting it may be impossible. I’ve yet to mention the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin who ensures the enemy’s success. He’s a flipside of the coin from Captain America and has become a deadly weapon through genetic enhancements. Their hand-to-hand fights are more down-to-earth and have added relevance because they were best friends during World War II.

This film helped to dramatically improve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That show was floundering creatively, and its connection with The Winter Soldier led to a stunning turnaround. Instead of making a few minor references, the series occurred simultaneously with the movie’s timeline, and it was a big surprise. I saw the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes before this film, and it spoiled plot points yet failed to diminish my enjoyment. It’s been interesting to watch the show act as a sequel and continue the Hydra story line into its second season. Captain America may stop the villains in the movie, but the struggle is far from over. I love the idea of an ongoing story that drifts from movies to television and remains interesting. If there’s any way to get Chris Evans to drop onto the small screen, it would be worth the effort to maintain the momentum.

The Winter Soldier was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who’d made their name on shows like Community after directing Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree. They craft a world that has giant airships yet relies more on practical effects. A standout moment takes Captain America and Black Widow into an old S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker in New Jersey to face off with an evil computer. The set design recalls an analog era of giant computers hidden away in underground sites. It’s a clever moment that springs from an old spy serial with the consciousness of a villainous German doctor (Toby Jones) predicting their doom. The stakes are high, but there’s a sense of fun about this adventure. We aren’t living in Man of Steel or AS2 territory in this thriller. Our heroes are constantly on the run from all types of bad guys, and discovering whom to trust is a consistent challenge.

One friend is Sam Wilson, who’s revealed as the Falcon thanks to high-tech military weapons. Anthony Mackie seems more comfortable than Don Cheadle playing a sidekick in the comic book world. The cast looks energized by getting more material than staring at a green screen. It plays to the strengths of guys like Redford and Jackson to get long monologues as all is revealed. Marvel’s had a remarkable year, especially because many looked past The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will take a a lot to surpass these films, which rank among the most entertaining releases of 2014. They’re different yet recall the best aspects of the summer movie season. Despite its April release, this film deserves that label and is one of the better recent blockbusters. I’m intrigued to see where Captain America will go in a third film.