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The Royal Tenenbaums is a Weird, Wonderful Wes Anderson Great

Posted on | December 24, 2015 | Add Comments

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most personal, stylized, distinct film. In comparison to his other films, its even more outlandish than Rushmore, though it doesn’t have the fantastical qualities of The Life Aquatic. Sprawling, frantic, and multi-layered, the movie is an ensemble Hollywood comedy and a formally dazzling art piece. Above all, it is a peculiar, charming, tragic, funny, and beautiful look at the myriad complications of family.

The movie opens with an extended prologue that sets up the dysfunctional family of the title. There are three Tenenbaum kids, all child prodigies: playwright Margot, tennis star Richie, and finance whiz Chas. After astonishing success and great promise, “All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums [is] erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” So goes the narration of Alec Baldwin, which gives a warm, storybook undercurrent to the movie’s proceedings. Years after their childhood greatness, the siblings’ lives are in various states of disarray. Margot is stuck in a bored marriage with neurologist Raleigh St. Clair and hasn’t written a play in years. Richie retired from tennis after a meltdown at his career peak and now travels the world by boat. And Chas is a paranoid but loving helicopter father raising his two boys after their mother’s death in a helicopter accident. The trio’s mother, Etheline, is contemplating a proposal from her colleague Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). And Royal, their father and her ex, has suddenly announced he’s dying of cancer. His sickness brings the family, ever so reluctantly, back under the same roof (specifically the magnificent family home) for the first time in years.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)Royal, played by a sly yet soulful Gene Hackman, is the devious force that puts the film’s plot into action. He truthfully wants to reconnect with and rekindle the love of his family, but he is also broke, scheming, and motivated by his own interests. This film is populated by a huge, fascinating cast of characters, all vying for our love and attention like the needy, looking-for-love people they are. The cast is quite the star-studded line-up, but these are remarkably unusual performances. At first, the actors seem to be doing one-note caricatures. And, initially, that’s the point. Slowly, these wounded souls reveal their inner hurt. We know characters like the almost silent, solemn ex-tennis star Richie (a terrific Luke Wilson) are struggling with something, but we don’t what. When his pain is revealed, it’s staggeringly affecting.

There are so many characters with such disparate personalities, along with multiple converging story lines, that the film rarely has time to breathe. Every sixty seconds, it flips to a new exciting revelation or montage or conflict. Anderson always stuffs his films with eclectic soundtrack choices, jarring tonal shifts, show-topping displays of filmmaking talent, and thoughtful, surprising casting choices. He piles on the style heavy, but underneath there is always a wounded, beating heart. That very dichotomy – between look-at-me style and deeply moving substance – can work against the film but also makes it great.

At times, Anderson’s critics’ complaint that his films are mere doll-house visual playgrounds with knee-deep characters and flat stories begins to ring true. The Royal Tenenbaums can sometimes feel a little hollow, a little empty. Its flaws are hard to describe, but there are no doubt times when Anderson is working against himself, when his beautiful script and marvelous production are at conflicting odds.

Miraculously, all the parts of Tenenbaums fuse together successfully most of the time, and the result is stunning. Anderson is a terrifically confident director, as skilled at constructing a glorious set as developing a supporting character. Along with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, he likes to create frames bustling with action but also carefully focused on a character placed in the center. The movie’s production values are a step above Rushmore‘s, and Anderson makes use of it. Each scene is oh so carefully lit, shot, edited, and placed to a song.

This is a quirky, outlandish, often very funny film, with sharp dialogue that never loses its wit or charm. Underneath all that, the movie contains some highly dark themes. The shadow of death looms over and cuts through it all. Royal’s cancer gives him six weeks to live, and his impending death actually unites the family. Lethal sickness, along with a grieving widower and an attempted suicide give the film a haunting, deeply moving, and surprisingly realistic chill. As critic Mat Zoller Seitz pointed out, the divorce of Royal and Etheline, when the kids were at their prodigious peak, is the spark that lights the film’s out-of-control flame. Above all, this is a movie about a family: a big, highly dysfunctional but ultimately loving one. The movie doesn’t make grand attempts to uncover the complicated meaning of family, but by following the story of one it sort of does. Anderson portrays some pretty bizarre sibling relationships, a well-meaning father’s sly scheming, and the loving mother who cares for them all with equal care. Ultimately, the movie’s lasting message is a classic one: We will fight and grow apart and move away and fall in and out of love, but the bond of family is unbreakable.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)From the start, it’s clear The Royal Tenenbaums is a singular, special, very weird film. At times, it seems like it will suffocate under its own idiosyncratic flair. This is a wobbling tower of directorial showmanship, putting layer upon layer of artsy, immaculate craft on top of its scarred, still-hanging-on soul. And still that soul, that emotion, that heart.  There is grieving, broken friendship, a sibling affair, old (and new) love, and the splintered relationship between a father and his children. Tenenbaums doesn’t always work; Anderson is gunning for his masterpiece but doesn’t quite succeed (Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox are, in their own ways, as great). Yet this is still a terrific film, a classic of 21st century moviemaking, and a timeless piece of art.

Paper Towns is a John Hughes Film for 2015 (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Paper Towns (2015)When it was released in summer 2014, The Fault In Our Stars surprised audiences by being a smarter, and more honest terminal teen romance than expected.  For die-hard devotees of author John Green’s book, the movie was a different kind of experience: immense payoff after immense anticipation. The film was entertaining and emotional; exactly what it intended to be. In comparison to the book, the movie falters and its flaws are revealed; it lacked much of the sophistication and spontaneity that made the book so terrific.

The second adaptation of a John Green novel, Paper Towns, now arrives only a year after TFIOS. While the film’s lack of heartthrob melodrama signals this won’t be the surprise smash its predecessor was, it’s actually the better movie.

While the best aspects of TFIOS were lost in its transition to the screen, Paper Towns plays around with decades-old high-school movie cliches in a way the book couldn’t. Its certainly doesn’t surpass its source material, but it both subverts and stays true to genre conventions in a satisfying and occasionally surprising way.

Paper Towns (2015)The movie begins when a gorgeous and slightly mysterious young girl named Margo moves in next to Quentin (Nat Wolff, who had a small but memorable role in TFIOS), who’s instantly in love. Flash forward to their senior year of high school, and the pair’s initial friendship has long faded away. The nerdy, affable Q hangs with the comically immature Ben and clever Radar. Margo, meanwhile, is the most popular girl in school. Q still pines for his childhood crush, but he doesn’t dream of his fantasies becoming reality.

That is until Margo crawls through Q’s window and enlists him as getaway driver/partner-in-crime for a wild, fantastic night of revenge pranks. It all seems too good to be true, and it is. Margo vanishes the next day, leaving behind an immaculately constructed trail of clues that Q obsessively pursues.

The director of the film, Jake Schreier, has studied the John Hughes classics and those film’s successors. Paper Towns has friendship troubles and blossoming romances. A jock throws a party at his parent’s sprawling house, and the expected excess occurs. There is suspense and mystery and twists, and then an enormously entertaining climactic road trip sequence.

Almost every actor slips perfectly into their role. Wolff’s monotone voice and tired yet energized expressions make him just right for the role of Q. He’s instantly likable, though his intentional boring-ness can get a bit tiring. His chemistry with Austin Abrams and Justice Smith (as Ben and Radar) is honest and frankly hilarious. Only supermodel-turned-actress Cara Delevinge seems poorly chosen as Margo. She’s not bad, and her free-spirited energy works well during the prank sequence. But this is a role that calls for an actress with enough charisma to captivate audiences even when she’s not on screen (which, most of the time, she isn’t). Delevinge simply isn’t bursting with that kind of personality.

Paper Towns (2015)Like TFIOS, the movie is visually kind of bland (though at least the soundtrack here is less imposing). Of course, no one comes to a movie like this looking for a technical masterpiece. They come looking for a good time. Like John Hughes, Schreier (or, to be fair, John Green) knows not just when to follow genre conventions but also when to play with them. After building high hopes, the movie’s inevitable third-act meeting comes off as touchingly bittersweet and also a hard slap of reality. The film’s message is about the complexities of teenage life, how the quirks and  personalities of adolescents can’t be defined by the tired stereotypes that kids and movies perpetuate.

That same idea was at the center of another teen film, released thirty years ago: The Breakfast Club. Inevitably, Paper Towns lacks that film’s freshness, and also some raw emotion. But this comparison got me thinking that the Teller of Adolescent Tales job once occupied by John Hughes has been passed to John Green. Paper Towns and TFIOS don’t just follow in the tradition of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. They are those films for the next generation. (Take the analogy further, and you could say Nat Wolff is a current Anthony Michael Hall.) I doubt this film will the have the enduring power of The Breakfast Club, but Green’s books will. Paper Towns is a terrifically entertaining teen flick, but turn to the book if you’re looking for something more substantial.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Comical and Touching, but a Little Thin (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 8, 2015 | Add Comments

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

 

Mild Spoilers!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and instantly began accumulating buzz. Critics either praised it or panned it, and a flurry of love and hate was bestowed upon the film online. It won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the fest, cementing it’s reputation as a must-see for movie-lovers. There’s no question that Me and Earl stirs emotions (strong tears and big laughs), but it’s a modest, moving little movie, neither marvelous nor miserable.

This is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature, but he’s a longtime member of the industry. He worked for years as an assistant to filmmakers like Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese, before moving on to direct episodes for various television shows. Grieving over the recent loss of his father, he found Me and Earl could be a way to come to terms with his personal struggles.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jesse Andrews (who wrote the script), the film centers around Greg Gaines, the awkward, self-deprecating “Me” of the title. Greg navigates high-school anonymously, attempting to stay on friendly terms with every clique but without actually befriending anyone. Anyone except Earl (though Greg only refers to him as a “coworker”). Together, the pair parodies their favorite films by shooting no-budget shorts with bad puns as titles.

Everything changes for Greg when his mom forces him to hang out with Rachel, a classmate dying of leukemia. Eventually, and rather unexpectedly, the two become close friends. But as their bond tightens, though, Rachel’s condition worsens. Against their will, Greg and Earl wind up making a film that is not a goofy remake of another film, but instead a gift for Rachel.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)The premise of Me and Earl (specifically the Dying Girl part) sounds heavy and a little depressing. Many moviegoers will need a pack of Kleenex. Despite this, the film is consistently clever and often undeniably funny. Gomez-Rejon balances the misery with movie references, sock puppets, stop-motion, and comic dialogue. It may be about a kid with cancer, but the film is often a joy to watch.

This is partly due to the trio of teen actors (who, in reality, aren’t in their teens) portraying the titular leads. Thomas Mann slips into the role of Greg, capturing the tics of the well-meaning, clumsy character. RJ Cyler’s performance as Earl is a frequent hoot, if a bit problematic. And Olivia Cooke, as Rachel, shows great range. She’s sunny and optimistic in one scene, then exhausted and tearful in the next.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)Jesse Andrew’s script has it’s faults, some of which have gained the movie understandable criticism. Take the character of Earl, who’s humorous and sympathetic but also a lazy stereotype. He’s the black best-friend to the white protagonist, talks in heavily-accented slang, objectifies girls, and ultimately serves to empower Greg’s third-act revelation. The other characters aren’t all simple cliches, but many of them are sketched a little thinly. There’s also not a lot of story meat on the film’s bones, which becomes obvious during the sudden finale.

Me and Earl undergoes a major tonal change in it’s last fifteen minutes, as it becomes the full-on tragedy you’ve been subconsciously expecting but definitely didn’t see coming. It’s a little over-the-top, though there aren’t a lot of other ways to deal with this material.

As a director, Gomez-Rejon hasn’t fully grown into his skin. The movie is plenty inventive, deftly weaving in and out of various genres, with snappy comic timing and some unusually clever cinematography. At other times, Me and Earl is Wes Anderson Lite; it has all the conscious cleverness and color-coordinated hipness of his films, but lacks the lived-in feel that pervades his stories and characters. For a director this early in his career, however, the movie shows true talent and an idiosyncratic style waiting to bloom. This is a very movie-y movie; it pulls on all our emotions, and isn’t afraid to show off it’s filmmaking tricks. There are some blemishes in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but it’s so frequently fun to watch and also intensely moving. Like it’s lead character, it’s humble, sometimes unintentionally offensive, but ultimately totally winning.

Catch Me If You Can is Top-Notch Spielberg: Breezy, Delightful, and Melancholy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Breezy and light but undercut with a stinging melancholy, Catch Me If You Can (2002; available on iTunes) finds Steven Spielberg straddling between drama and comedy, and creating a classy, perfectly constructed based-on-a-true-story 60’s caper. It’s seems like an odd choice for Spielberg to direct at this point in his career; it is neither an “Important” historical drama that reasserts his brilliance nor a fantastical adventure that again proves his powers as an entertainer. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful, thoughtfully made late-career film from one of our great working directors.

Adapted from the eponymous non-fiction memoir by the film’s subject, Frank Abegnale Jr., the film begins with a clever game-show scene that gives us our first glimpse of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a few scenes from 1969, which give us a look ahead, the film skips back to 1963. Frank is a teenager living happily with his loving parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) until money problems threaten their middle-class bliss. The family moves out of their spacious home and into a smaller apartment, and then Paula cheats on her husband. The two divorce and Frank, moody, confused, and horrified, runs away from home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)There are two early scenes in the film that hint at where Frank’s life is heading. In the first, his father gives him a cheque book as a birthday gift and tells him he can have anything he wants. Later, Frank is bullied at his new school. Then he walks into French class and convinces everyone he’s a substitute teacher, until his parents are notified. Yet these are mere glimpses of what Frank is capable of. After running away from home, he pretends to be an airplane pilot and gets a job at Pan-Am. Then he forges cheques listing the airline company’s name, and gets away with stealing millions of dollars. And then he gets a job as a doctor, saying he went to medical school. And then he gets a job as a lawyer saying he went to law school. The entire film has this absurd, but absurdly entertaining, “And then he did this” flow, partly thanks to the relaxed and entirely cohesive script by Jeff Nathanson. Within the space of a half-hour of screen time, we see him go from innocent, contented boy to a bittered son of separated parents to man of luxury, riches, and happiness. But is he really happy? Frank asks out a stewardess, spends a night with a prostitute, and occasionally meets up with his dad, but he never settles anywhere or with anyone. Things won’t stay like this forever, of course, and it’s not long before a humorless FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s trail.

Spielberg is on peak form here, swiftly switching gears from ridiculous rich-kid comedy to equally ridiculous cat-and-mouse caper comedy. He clearly relishes the chance to do a 60’s period film and the attention to detail (the Aston Martin Frank cruises around in, the Pan-Am clothing, the spacious suburban houses) is just right. So are all of the actors, especially DiCaprio. As Frank, he’s slick and crafty, a skilled smooth talker. But DiCaprio infuses the role with undertones of guilt, sorrow, and loneliness that make us feel sympathy with him to the end. Hanks has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it by taking the role of goofy government agent and going a little deeper. Walken is also great as the well-meaning but delusional father, and Amy Adams has a fine supporting part as an innocent love interest.

There’s top-notch work all around here, from cinematographer Januz Kaminski, who deftly switches from sunny and optimistic to cool and dark, from John Williams and his suspense-bulding score, and from legendary opening-credits designer Saul Bass, who has a great title sequence here.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Still, it’s Spielberg’s balancing of tones that keeps the whole thing marvelously afloat. There are moments of sorrow and depression and we do get our heartstrings sufficiently pulled. But Spielberg also knows not to dwell on the darker aspects of the story for too long. Instead, he keeps the movie flying smoothly and steadily, like one of the Pan-Am planes Frank pilots. Catch Me If You Can may appear to be a “minor” work by a great director, yet it entertains us (without dinosaurs!), moves us (without Nazis!), and holds us in utter fascination for it’s entire two-and-a-half hour length, not unlike Frank held bankers, pilots, doctors, and the government in awe.

 

The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: John Hughes on Netflix (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 30, 2014 | Add Comments

John Hughes' classic teen dramedy The Breakfast Club (1985)For many, the holiday season means ample time for movie viewing at home and, in our digital world of always-on screens, on Netflix. Two teen classics from the 1980’s prime of writer-director John Hughes – The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – are streaming now, but only one is worth your time.

The Breakfast Club will turn 30 years old in two months, but, to the eyes of this thirteen year-old, the film’s biting humor, soul-bearing honesty, and wonderful ear for teen talk pack an uproarious, tear-jerking punch on first viewing. The film opens, along with the thumping drums and yearning vocals of Simple Mind’s hopelessly, delightfully cheesy “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, with Anthony Michael Hall’s voice-over: “You see us as you want to see us…In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” For the rest of the film’s pensive but goofy 97 minutes, the five students (nerdy but wounded Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); pressured jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez); lying loner Allison (Ally Sheedy), beloved rich kid Claire (Molly Ringwald), and rebellious delinquent Bender (Judd Nelson) perpetuate and then shatter these stereotypes during an 8-hour Saturday detention. They’re forced to write a 1,000 word essay, but they end up doing anything but. The kids get high, tell lies, wander the hallways (and the ceilings), share their deepest secrets, and wonder…when they come back to school on Monday, will anything be different?

For a star-studded Hollywood comedy, this is deep, dark, low-key stuff. The film, which revolves around five characters talking, owes much of it’s success to writer-director John Hughes’ fresh, authentic, insightful, and hilarious dialogue (legend has it he wrote the script in two days). What he lacks in cinematic style, he certainly makes up for with his singular, distinctive voice.

Luckily, he also found the right actors to bring that voice to the screen. The ensemble cast of budding Brat Packers have a surprising knack of comic timing, a keen sense of affecting but not sappy sentimentality, and genuine chemistry. The cast takes Hughes’ vibrantly written characters and gives them faces: Michael Hall and his injured geekiness; Estevez with his misleading shield of athletic strength; the unpredictable bizarreness of Sheedy; Ringwald and her privileged warmth; and, of course, Nelson’s teasing, alarming, utterly confident stare.

Five teens bare their souls in The Breakfast Club (1985)

For some, the kids may be too anti-authoritarian, or the humor too crude, or the film too sappy. But, for me, Hughes hits just one sour note (spoilers follow). In the final minutes of the film, Ally Sheedy’s Allison gets a makeup makeover from Claire; her dandruffy, Gothic strangeness dissolves into smiley lipstick gloss. She walks over to Estevez’s Andrew (who’s only talked with her briefly during the film) and he’s blown away, completely speechless. Kudos to Hughes for not predictably coupling up Estevez and Ringwald, but this spur-of-the-moment scene is at best a last-minute stretch, and at worst a way of telling teen girls: you’re not pretty if you don’t look like everyone else.

Everything great about The Breakfast Club (the cast, the dialogue, the humor, the heart) reaches a deeply poignant, but hysterically funny, high during the soul-bearing finale, as the five kids admit their reasons for getting detention. It’s a scene of heartbreaking confessions, but also riotously vulgar humor, and the actors improvised it!

Mathew Broderick crashes a parade in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985)The unpredictable comedy and honest emotion of The Breakfast Club is sorely missing from John Hughes’ cutesy, meaningless 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How has this shallow, trivial, largely not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is film achieved “modern classic” status? If you haven’t seen the film in a while, you may be questioning me. But the memories of over-nostalgic Gen-Xers shouldn’t cloud judgement of a film. A movie should be critiqued based on how it holds up today. By those standards, why are we even talking about Ferris Bueller?

“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller?” a dull high school teacher asks in a monotone voice. But Ferris Bueller is, of course, is sick. Well, not really sick. He’s tricked his doting, rich parents into letting him stay home for the day. And what a day he’s planned… After he picks up his troubled best friend Cameron and loving girlfriend Sloane, the trio embark on a series of wealthy adventures: speeding around in the pristine Ferrari of Cameron’s father; visiting a museum of fine art; eating at the fanciest restaurant in town; crashing a downtown parade; and evading the school’s scheming principal, Edward Rooney.

Honestly, the stakes couldn’t be lower, the characters couldn’t be simpler, and the story couldn’t be more banal, obvious, and unexciting. While The Breakfast Club was something of a social commentary on the American teenager, Hughes doesn’t seem to have anything to say here, except “Enjoy life, do expensive things, and avoid anything remotely difficult or demanding.”

The movie coasts by on Mathew Broderick’s assured, nonchalant charm. He’s completely convincing as Ferris: careless, likable, slightly irritating. His fourth-wall smashing monologues are the apotheosis of his slacker-king cool. The rest of the cast makes little impact, though they’re given broadly-drawn, one-note cliches to play.

Amidst the mildly worrying materialistic morals, there are moments of sheer, weightless joy. The showstopping parade musical number, during which Ferris lypsyncs to “Danke Schoën” and “Twist and Shout” may be the film’s peak. It’s meaningless, but good fun.

Ferris and his friends in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985)That’s the difference between Ferris and Breakfast Club. With the former, Hughes wants to do nothing but entertain us, and fails. But with the latter, he meshed comedy with drama, social commentary with character study, populist fun and frankly-stated big ideas. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with his films.

Bill Murray in St. Vincent: Contrived but Wonderfully Hilarious (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 29, 2014 | Add Comments

Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) bonds with Vincent (Bill Murray) in St. Vincent)On paper, St. Vincent sounds like a contrived, seen-it-before sap-fest. Yet, while you have seen this boy-melts-the-heart-of-old-grouch tale before, it works. Why? Among other things, two words: Bill Murray. He plays Vincent (everyone calls him Vin), a bad-tempered misanthrope who enjoys smoking, sleeping, and getting drunk. He spends his days doing laundry for his assisted-living-bound wife, who doesn’t recognize him, and with his cranky Russian prostitute sorta-girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts). She’s pregnant, and, therefore, soon to lose her job (“Discrimination against pregnant woman!”, she gripes).

He’s woken up one day by the sound of a moving truck breaking off a tree branch… that falls on his car. That’s when he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, playing it straight) and her son Oliver. Megan, estranged from her husband and working late hours at a hospital, needs a babysitter for Oliver. After a series of events, that job goes to Vin. As he takes Oliver to gamble at horse races, hang out at bars, and teaches him how to fight, a reluctant but irresistible duo forms.

Murray, with his badly-kept goatee and a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth, imbues Vin with humanity and humor, turning a cliche into a human-being. His comedic timing is impeccable, but it’s the way he manges to make the character both likable and despicable that truly surprises. As Oliver, Jaeden Lieberher has the spunky-cute attitude you’d expect from a child-actor, but he’s more genuine than you might expect. McCarthy, meanwhile, is  convincing as a struggling single-mom and Watts is absurd but hilarious as her character transforms from stripper to mom. Chris O’Dowd, in a small comic role, steals his scenes as Oliver’s caring, witty teacher.

St. Vincent is director Theodore Melfi’s debut feature and he proves himself as a capable, clever, though thoroughly uninventive, filmmaker. His script, which falls somewhere between inspiring family drama and raunchy adult comedy, has some wonderfully comical scenes and a tearjerking emotional payoff, though it would be nice to see him make something a little fresher next time. Still, as the film cuts between Oliver’s bully battles at school and Vin watching a pregnant Daka dance at a strip club, the film manages a kind of bizarrely delightful charm that’s sure to put a smile on your face. Melfi, working with cinematographer, gives the film an attractive, if unoriginal, look, imbuing neighborhoods, horse races, bars, and classrooms with color and life.

A scene from the drummed St. VincentOf course, you don’t go to this movie to marvel at the visuals. You go because you want to have your attention diverted by the story of how a bitter grouch learns to lighten up. Yes, the plot relies on narrative stretches, and there’s nothing to surprise you. It’s also hard to imagine Murray, who’s become increasingly choosy with his projects, reuniting with Melfi film after film the way he has with Wes Anderson, a filmmaker with the ingenuity and invention missing here (Vin may remind of you of a much better Murray role in a much better movie: Rushmore‘s Herman Blume). While you’re watching St. Vincent, however, you won’t care. You might roll your eyes, or you may burst into tears, but you’ll certainly walk out of the theater with a goofy grin spread across your face.

Michael Keaton in Birdman: Daring, Different, and Unmissable Cinema (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 9, 2014 | 1 Comment

 

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shriner (Edward Norton) argue about art and acting in Birdman(For those wary of minor-spoilers, proceed with caution).

Birdman is about the truth; what it is and what it isn’t, how we mess with it and shape it to our liking, and the way it affects our perceptions of everything. In one scene, two characters, sitting on the ledge of a building, play a game of “Truth or Dare”. Later, a pair of rival actors share tales of heartbreaking childhood abuse, only to take them back and say “I made that up.” And, throughout, our notions of what’s “real” and what’s “fake” are being toyed with.

Most of all, however, this is a movie about art, which can never be “true”…or maybe, in some way, always is. The film, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, takes a deep dive into the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a has-been A-lister famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of trashy superhero blockbusters. Twenty years after he turned down the fourth installment, he’s lost everything: his success, his fortune, his marriage, and, most crucially, his relevance. Risking it all to rejuvenate his career, his life, and his cultural importance, he’s directing, writing, and starring in a serious, highbrow Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. There’s just one problem: everything. After a co-star suffers a serious injury, Riggan brings in Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), a conceited, cultured critic’s darling of an actor who’s in his element when performing but a wreck offstage. He also has a past with co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who’s dreamed of Broadway for years but feels hopelessly unprepared when she gets there. Another actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may or may not be pregnant with Riggan’s child, while Riggan’s twenty something out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) deals with life as the daughter of a celebrity. And then there’s his producer/lawyer/best-friend Jake (Zach Galifinakis), former-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and the stuffy New York Times critic whose review may decide the fate of the play. As egos clash, new tensions arise, and opening night draws near, it becomes unclear whether Riggan can survive torturous previews to pull off the production and prove himself to everyone.

This is a film like none you’ve seen before. The script by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobon, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo mixes satirical showbiz snark, cleverly nasty humor, and unflinchingly messy midlife gloom to create an enthralling, multilayered character study.

Birdman is very much an actor’s film, but Iñárritu deserves credit for his inventive, insightful, eccentric voice and daring directorial vision. For all the script’s wit and wisdom, this is a true technical marvel and Iñárritu accents the film with quirky, innovative touches that make this is a one-of-a-kind achievement.

“One-of-a-kind” certainly describes Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography, which creates the illusion of one breathless tracking shot. Lubezki has been praised for his incredible work, and he’s attempted long takes before (check out the 17-minute opening to Gravity). But here, he’s attempted and succeeded at creating something singularly spectacular. During production, takes lasted 7-10 minutes (a grueling nightmare for actors and everyone else involved), yet the cuts are never obvious and the result is a seamless experience. You are there, following around Riggan and his fellow actors as they navigate around the theater (and, occasionally, the streets and skyscrapers of the city). Lubezki’s camerawork is sometimes strikingly commanding, like a time lapse that segue ways from night to day or a shot that frames Riggan in a mirror as he talks to a costar. For the most part, though, we get a backstage pass down corridors, in dressing rooms, and onstage. It’s a more stunning visual effect than anything CGI-related.

As we float through the theater, Antonio Sanchez’s anxious jazz drumming provides the perfect soundtrack.  His unique, versatile rhythms provide both a sense of edgy unease and an underlying tempo.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) contemplates life in BIrdmanAnd then there’s the starry ensemble cast, stuffed with A-listers pushing themselves to do their best work. Everyone’s been talking about Michael Keaton’s performance and how it’ll signal a comeback for his career. That may not be true, but his performance here is undeniably impressive, and he dominates every scene he’s in. There are obvious comparisons between Riggan and Keaton’s careers; both scored big in comedic blockbusters and sealed their legacy by playing superheroes before saying no to sequels and falling out of the public eye. The stakes may be smaller, but Birdman is to Keaton what the Carver play is to Riggan, a big chance to tell the world “I’m still here” and, as Riggan says, “finally do some work that actually means something”. Keaton has claimed the role has little to do with his own life, but it’s impossible to deny the honest, naked emotion he displays. Riggan is irresponsible and plain messed up in almost every way; he’s ruined just about every important relationship he has. In one scene, he chides his daughter for smoking, and then precedes to light a cigarette for himself. Keaton’s performance favors rage over regret, mixing deep sorrow with bubbling anger. Like all of us, he has something to prove not just to everyone around him, but himself. He’s putting everything on the line for this play because he wants people to like him, to care about him, to applaud him. Honestly, that’s as basic a human desire as any. Keaton’s biggest achievement lies in how he manages to find the humanity in Riggan’s messy psyche and, against all odds, keep us rooting for him to succeed.

It’s a great performance that gives Keaton plenty of room to show off, but the world of Birdman is populated by all kinds of characters. Norton’s Mike Shriner makes for a fascinating flipped coin to Keaton’s Riggan. While Riggan poses for family photos and signs autographs for Birdman fans, Mike is gracing the cover of The New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section. He’s everything Riggan’s not: pretentious, artsy, relevant, popular, and prestigious (“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”, he memorably sniffs). Norton’s at the top of his game here, performing his lines with a perfectly-pitched pretension that masks the wounded soul that lies beneath. In his first script-read with Riggan, Mike already has his lines memorized, and by the end of the scene he’s acting as director. Yet, as revealed later, he’s hopeless when he’s not in front of an audience. As he later tells Riggan: “Long after you’re gone, I’m gonna be on that stage, earning my living, bearing my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions, ’cause that’s what we do”. It’s hard to imagine another actor so delightfully imbuing the role with such self-important, cultured sophistication.

Sam (Emma Stone) in the final shot of BirdmanAs Riggan’s equally messed-up daughter Sam, Emma Stone is all exasperated millennial frustration and bored, lingering cluelessness. Growing up blinded by the unwanted spotlight of the media has taken it’s toll on Sam, who’s just gotten out of rehab. Riggan’s misguided parenting (or lack of) may have caused many of her problems, and Stone unleashes all her character’s emotions in a miraculous minute-long rant. “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You don’t”, she yells at Riggan.

Stone isn’t the only one who turns in terrific work, despite a limited amount of screen time. There’s not a bad performance here, whether it’s Naomi Watts’ tender anxiousness as a Broadway rookie or Andrea Riseborough’s angry turn as Riggan’s girlfriend or the friendly ambition of Zach Galifinakis’s performance as the show’s producer. This is a film about performances, and filled with great ones.

As Riggan approaches the opening night of his play, it becomes clear things won’t turn out smoothly, and Birdman is too weird and twisted for a happy ending. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say this: the film’s finale is shocking, ambiguous, and, depending on your interpretation, either tragic or hopeful. Let’s just say it makes for good conversation.

Ultimately, Birdman can’t help but feel slightly dissappointing, for reasons I can’t quite decide. For all it’s brilliance, the film feels like one big illusion, a high-wire trick. Another viewing might be necessary.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) floats above NYC in BirdmanJust like Riggan and his cast and crew risk it all in the pursuit of great art, Iñárritu, Keaton, and the rest of them have created a bizarre, beautiful, and bold piece of filmmaking. It may be imperfect, but this is cinema as daring and different as anything else.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 16, 2014 | Add Comments

The team unites in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)“What should we do next? Something good or something bad?”, ask the roguish human protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. “A bit of both!”, he decides. Unfortunately, the film is more bad than good.

For most viewers, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be a new concept. This ever-rotating roster of intergalactic heroes debuted as a comic in 1969. James Gunn’s often tedious, sometimes amusing new film revolves around two MacGuffins (Hitchcock’s term for a desired object that everyone’s after). First is Peter Quill’s Sony Walkman, and the mixtape his mom made for him, which he’s listening to as a kid when the movie begins. He’s interrupted when his grandfather invites him to visit his dying mom, who hands him a mysterious present before her death..

Years later, Quill is a criminal space cowboy raiding the galaxy for cash, women, and Mysterious Objects of Extreme Importance to the Plot. Which brings us to the second MacGuffin, a highly dangerous silver orb. In a scene reminiscent of Raider’s of the Lost Ark‘s opening, Quill is about to plunder the orb when he’s caught by an alien baddie named Korath (Djimon Honsou), who working for Ronan (Lee Pace) who’s working for Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s out to destroy the universe.

Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)Anyway, Quill escapes from Korath and soon learns that the blue orb is no everyday blue orb. Quill, no with a bounty on his head, finds himself working with four bickering alien outcasts. They are: Gamora (Zoe Saladana), an assassin who betrayed her employer; Ronan; Rocket Racoon (Bradely Cooper), a mutated murderer of an animal; Rocket’s sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel) who’s vocabulary is limited to “I am Groot”; and Drax the Destoryer (pro wrestler Dave Bauitista), a brute force alien out to avenge the death of his family. The five some must keep the blue orb out of the wrong hands, in hope of saving the galaxy.

If this all sounds like a dense, exposition-heavy bunch of plot it’s because it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the planets of Xandar and Nebula. Director Gunn doesn’t shy away from introducing an audience to not just a world, but a galaxy. That he expects you to remember it all is ridiculous; the idea that he wants you take it all seriously is laughable.

It may seem foolhardy to hope for originality in a Marvel movie, but Guardians, with it’s fresh cast of oddball characters, looked like an enjoyably fluffy action-comedy. Too often, however, it’s a familiar, forgettable, slightly frustrating film. The screenplay, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is a hackneyed puddle of genre movie tropes: The Avengers meets Star Wars, with a side of Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the like. Opening with the dying-mother cliche basically sets the tone for the rest of the film, which gleefully rips off better ones. 

James Gunn, a B-movie hand who’s directed gory genre fare like Slither and Super, should’ve done more to differentiate the film from his influences. Sure, the characters are inventive and weird but the story (misfits overcome differences and unite to save the world) has been seen in everything from Seven Samurai to The Avengers. The space battles are no different; none of the action scenes are particularly thrilling. At least, the movie clocks in at two hours, a modest length compared to The Avengers.

That’s harsh, yes, especially because the movie could’ve been worse (and some of it’s Marvel relatives are). When the heroes squabble and quip in a way reminiscent of the all-star banter of The Avengers, Guardians becomes a light, goofy send-up of the genre tropes it’s suffering from. Standing on a balcony with a view of the cosmos, Gamora tells Quill, who’s fallen for her, she doesn’t dance. “Really?”, he responds. “Well, on my planet, there’s a legend about people like you. It’s called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, it’s the greatest thing there is.” Quill’s mixtape-from-mom (perhaps the film’s greatest pleasure) also provides some hilarious incidents of interspecies-misunderstanding, like when a puzzled alien thug picks up the Walkman and listens to Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. Moments, like this one, of riotous, pop-culture parodying, self-mocking stupid-fun liven up the whole film.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goes from jokey criminal to galaxy savior in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)So does Chris Pratt’s uproarious performance as Peter Quill. Pratt’s best known for NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and has had small roles in Oscar-bait like Moneyball (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Her (2013). Now, with Guardians, February’s The LEGO Movie, and next summer’s Jurassic World, he’s Hollywood’s next big leading man. Here, he sends up the conventional action-man with a goofy, charming brand of humor pitched between witty and dumb. Pratt is like a relaxedly comical Harrison Ford; a slacker-thief who’s as quick with a gun as he is with a quip.

Guardian‘s disappointing melding of cliches, stereotypes, and instantly forgettable chase sequences with something fresher and funnier makes for a frustrating film. It’s possible Marvel, the all-powerful movie machine of sequels and money, and super-producer Kevin Feige, keeps a steady hold on their directors’ creative freedom. Jon Favreau, with the first Iron Man, managed overcome the obstacles, as have some others. Yet too often do Marvel movies feel like overlong commercials for a comic-book universe meant to sell, sell, sell. What if Marvel is the auteur – albeit a crass, commercially driven one – behind their films. You can see the touch (or crushing, destructive stomp) of the studio in all their movies: similar story lines and themes marked by a goofy sense of humor and explosive action scenes.

Perhaps that explains why Guardians is so comical and fresh in some parts and dull and stale in others. The good parts (the team bickering, the soundtrack) make the bad ones (monotonous action, conventional plot) so much more infuriating. Marvel Studios is the guardian of one of Hollywood’s most important franchises, but it wouldn’t hurt if let in some more creativity.

A Hard Day’s Night (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

The Beatles perform in A Hard Days Night (1964)In 1964, The Beatles were still four best friends who had recently found themselves on the top of the world. Sgt. Pepper, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, India, Brian Epstein’s death; that was all to come. After all, Ringo had joined the band a mere two years before. To many adults, they were just the latest pop act unlikely to have any lasting influence. In epitomizing this moment in the band’s career and being a riotously enjoyable piece of art, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is practically perfect entertainment; a feature-length rock ‘n’ roll advertisement disguised as a cinema verite-style black-and white art film.

The Beatles goof around in A Hard Day's Night (1964)50 years after it’s July 6 release, the film still exudes the sincere spontaneity of the Fab Four with classic songs, indiscriminate wittiness, and an irreverent sense of what’s real and what’s plot. Lester, then an obscure British director picked by the band because of a Peter Sellers short John Lennon loved, has said the film’s on-the-go nature is due much to The Beatles’ inability to remember their lines. “The structure of the script had to be a series of one-liners,” he has said. “This enabled me, in many of the scenes, to turn a camera on them and say a line to them, and they would say it back to me. There was very little structure that was planned, except that we knew that we had to punctuate the film with a certain number of songs.” So unscripted was the film, that when filming was over there was only one song left to record- the title track, though the film didn’t have a title. (In the end the term a “hard day’s night” was a Ringo phrase that Lennon told Lester about at lunch, and then went to record afterwards). Turns out the approach worked just fine. When the group meets Paul’s “grandfather” on a train, the moment is so downright amusing and random that it seems like the band made up the entire scene right then (some of it they probably did).

Central to the appeal of the film, is, of course, The Beatles themselves. Whether they’re performing, dancing, or being interviewed, the four come off as goofy, surprisingly regular pranksters who want to escape the confinements of celebrity life and just party. Lester doesn’t do a lot to differentiate the group but the differences are there already. John is the cheeky bad-boy who happens to be leading the band; a sly jokester, yes, but also the one with the most obvious musical talent. Glad to simply party, Paul is the fun-loving pretty boy with the strange “grandfather”. George, comical but often quiet, might be the hardest to categorize but always seems to be having a good time. And Ringo is Ringo: droll, lonely, soft-spoken, and possibly the most distinct of them all.

John pokes fun at Paul's grandfather  (Wilfrid Brambell) in A Hard Day's Night

In limited re-release now, the film sports a spiffy new restoration, taken from the original 35mm negative, reverted to it’s original ratio, approved by the director, cleaned up by innumerable digital tools, and scanned in glorious 4K. And you really can tell the difference. The whole film has a newfound visual clarity, without totally altering the vintage, grainy beauty of Gilbert Taylor’s raw and real cinematography.

It’s a testament to the film’s power that the songs never overshadow the other scenes.With songs like these, that’s no easy feat. Cleaned up with a 5.1 Dolby mix, those gorgeous pop harmonies have never sounded so infectious, nor has the simple, iconic instrumentation sounded so musically brilliant. Apart from the title track (possibly music history’s greatest single chord) and the wonderfully danceable “Can’t Buy Me Love”, few of the songs are the type of Beatles classics that anyone on the street would recognize, which makes rediscovering the soundtrack such a joy. John’s harmonica part on “I Should Have Known Better”, Ringo’s punctuating drums on “I’m Just To Dance With You”, Paul’s beautiful, surprisingly melancholy “Things We Said Today”, George’s gorgeous guitar on “And I Love Her”: rarely is pop this infectious, influential, and flawless.

The Beatles are chased by a mob screaming fans in A Hard Day's Night (1964)The classic songs, the extempore hysterics, the raw cinematography…it all comes together in A Hard Day’s Night, one of the most delightful and important moments in the last of fifty years of music, movies, and culture. For proof, see the opening-credits scene. John, Paul, George, and Ringo flee a mob of screaming fans, as they dodge girls, run through cars, and hop on trains, all to the sounds of “A Hard Day’s Night”. Some things come and go. The Beatles isn’t one of those things.

Poignant Family Dramas and a 3-D Food Adventure at TIFF Kids 2014: Flack’s Day 2 Report

Posted on | April 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Lauren and Harvey are on-the-run-siblings searching for a lost grandfather in Side by SideA heartrending family adventure, raining hot dogs, and shorts from up-and-coming (kid) filmmakers rounded out our second day (April 19) at the Toronto International Film Festival Kids. Here’s my thoughts on everything I saw.

Side by Side 4 1/2 Arthur Landon’s coming-of-age family adventure, is easily one one of my favorite films of the year so far. Lauren, a skilled runner, and her younger brother/obsessive gamer Harvey, are tired of their mundane and tragic lives. When their elder grandmother moves to a retirement home and Lauren enrolls in a distinguished running university, Harvey runs away. He’s soon joined by his sister-and a life-changing adventure begins. Filled with Scottish vistas and wonderful cinematography, Side by Side is a poignant drama that’ll have you laughing, crying, and smiling in equal measure.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) realizes his food making machine actually works in Cloudy With a Chance of MeatballsTIFF Kids isn’t just about “watching” movies; it’s about thinking, enjoying, and connecting with film on many levels. Storymobs, a Canadian organization where “great kids’ books meet flash mobs”, worked with families to create costumes and props for an exuberant reading of Judi Barret’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. During the final performance, kids and adults took turns reading, as the audience looked on with hunger. Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s zany 2009 blockbuster adaptation was screened (in mouth-watering 3-D) later that day.

Films like Side by Side and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs are made for children but the Jump Cuts Young Filmmakers Showcase: Grades 7 and 8 featured films made by children. The featured shorts were all over the place, from a claymation commentary on global warming to a live-action zombie thriller. Some were made by schools, others by individual kids. The range of themes, stories, and mediums was incredible and a joy to watch. Precious Cargo, a touching tale about an elder man contemplating his future, had stunning cinematography and a thoughtful plot that could have you convinced the film was made by a professional. Safety Man and Man VS School were also standouts, with inventive, amusing stories signaling a bright future for film.

It was an impressive day at TIFF but there’s still more to come…

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