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Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: An Imperfect but Indisputably Powerful Tale of War (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (2014)Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s inconceivable based-on-a-true-story tale of WWII heroism and endurance, isn’t flawless but even it’s detractors must admit it is an indisputably wrenching epic. Jolie does fall into the cliche-pitfalls that plague the inspiring-biopic genre, but the film leaves a lasting sting that can’t be ignored.

It’s fitting that Unbroken opens with wonder that quickly dissolves into violence. The first shot, which begins with a lovely sky suitable for framing, is the start of a nerve-wracking plane battle that plunges us into World War II combat. For most of the men aboard these aircrafts, this is more than enough horror to endure. But one of the American bombardiers, Louis Zamperini, the film’s subject, is only beginning his story.

Interspersed with this jolting action set-piece are flashbacks to Zamperini’s conflicts with kid-bullies and police as a young Italian immigrant growing up in California. He’s hopeless and helpless, until his older brother gives him some inspiring encouragement. After that, he puts his liquor-swilling, money-swiping shenanigans aside, and commits himself to being a runner. By age 19, he’s achieving impossible feats of athleticism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Later, at war, one of his plane’s crashes and he finds himself at sea, accompanied only by two fellow survivors, a few pieces of chocolate, and an ocean of sharks. 47 days later, help comes in the form of hell. Taken to a Tokyo P.O.W. camp, he’s beaten, bruised, and bullied by Watanabe, a barbarous guard known as “The Bird”. All the sweaty triumph of his youth is knocked out of him. “You are nothing” he is told.

“Stranger than fiction” only begins to describe the implausibility, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini (enough material for three films). Jolie and her screenwriters, adapting from Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography, were wise to focus on the most eventful decade of his life. Of course, all that running, fighting, enduring, and triumphing leads to the expected moments of swelling orchestral heart-tugging and brotherly words of wisdom, and the early scenes suffer especially from some expected triteness. The running sequences, while exciting, are devoid of any danger, and the slightly ridiculous Olympics scene has an unauthentic CGI gloss. Once Zamperini moves past his pre-teen mischief, Jolie finds little imperfections to show us in the character. And the final scene, meanwhile, ends on an overly positive note.

As a director, Jolie has a tough time avoiding conventionality though her filmmaking style is admiringly old-fashioned, brawny and sincere in ways that recall classic Hollywood tales of heroism. Yet it’s hard to imagine a 1940’s film with prisoner-camp scenes of such bitter brutality and unflinching power. Much criticism has been heaped upon the scenes of Zamperini taking a beating, and then another and another. It’s a hard thing to critique. Zamperini suffered through a few years of being tortured and we spend a couple hours watching a movie-version of his ordeal from the comfort of our comfy, cushioned seats. I think Jolie’s inclusion of such extensive scenes of savagery is an attempt to make us feel a smidgen of what Zamperini felt, and she might’ve worried that couldn’t have been achieved with tamer, shorter scenes of violence. Ultimately, the 140 minute Unbroken is overlong, not in specific scenes but as a tiring, weakening whole.

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (2014)

Though it wouldn’t have hurt to have include some witty intelligence to even out the violence (what were the Coen brothers waiting for when they re-wrote the script?), there is much to admire. Jolie is as capable with tension-escalating action scenes as any seasoned male helmer, as proved by the rousing war set-pieces. But, amidst the not-too-amusing crew quipping, she also places in moments of uneasy apprehension to combat. And the sea-set scenes, which recall the recent Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi, are some of the most moving, thoughtful, and cleverly constructed in the whole movie. That’s due in no small part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose forceful frames beautifully capture the transition from sun-dappled optimism to watery isolation and later grimy gloom.

Jack O’Connell’s performance as Louis Zamperini, his first Hollywood lead after a few acclaaimed British dramas, has the charisma, grit, and sentimentality the role calls for. It’s a brazenly physical performance and we watch in awe as his taut physique, slick hair, and dumfounded smile fade away. The bones weaken, a beard grows messily, and his gaze loses it’s former spirit. But sheer commitment aside, O’Connell impresses most with his sheer acting chops. He’s cocky and troublesome, then thoughtful and tough, and eventually weak and frail and faded. Miyavi, as the vicious “Bird”, succeeds at getting us to plain hate him, without turning into an inane caricature. As Zamperini’s fellow survivors, Domnhall Gleason, Garret Hedlund, and Finn Witrock, bring heart-rending humanity to their vital roles.

Unbroken may be prolonged and predictably made, but Jolie’s unflagging commitment to this vast, incredible true story largely pays off. At once a predictably traditional Hollywood epic and a wrenching, undeniably powerful film of pulsing immediacy, it is an imperfect but inordinately affecting accomplishment.

The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch Amazes in Chilly, Cerebral, Cliched Biopic (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) creates a machine to stop a deadly Enigma machine

The Imitation Game, Morten Tydlum’s chilly, cerebral new film, is about one of history’s greatest enigmas. At first glance, the film is puzzling, too. Structurally, Tydlum’s film is a combination of the typical biopic, with revealing flashbacks and character cliches, and something more structurally paradoxical and politically progressive. It opens in 1951, as police investigate the house of British mathematician/computer-scientist Alan Turing, who’s recently been robbed. We then skip back a few years, to Turing’s job interview with the no-nonsense commander of group of codebreakers hoping to solve Enigma, a deadly Nazi machine. Turing’s personality becomes immediately clear: he’s prodigiously brilliant and blazingly confident, but his machine-like intellect lacks any basic understanding of humor and social norms.

Nonetheless, Turing wins the job and is soon seen frustrating his colleagues, including the prickly Hugh (Stephen Goode), who toils away at breaking the code while he builds Christopher, a mysterious early-computer that may offer the only chance of solving Enigma. But time is running out, and Turing’s big dreams are ruined when authorities shut down his dream projet. Not one to be thwarted so easily, he convinces his team and his commanders to give him one month to crack the code of Enigma and prove the 100,000 pounds poured into Christopher were worth it. Turing and his team, along with a new code-breaker, Joan (Keira Knightley), work against time and authority to stop the war. But there’s more to the man than sheer mathematical genius; his romantic relationship with Joan masks his closeted homosexuality. For Turing, keeping his colleagues on speaking terms and his sexuality secret is as much a challenge as winning the war.

At The Imitation Game‘s center lies Benedict Cumberbatch’s poised, posh lead performance. With his perfectly combed wisps of hair, frighteningly focused green eyes, and obsessive, stammering voice,  he’s captures the brainy, unstoppable intelligence and oblivious social awkwardness of a misunderstood genius. He’s adept at code-cracking, but irony confuses him. And if he has a chance of achieving greatness, why be kind to colleagues? Cumberbatch gets it all right: his pin-point braininess; his unstoppable perfectionism; his incompatibility with coworkers; his closeted sexuality. This is a flawed film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone giving a more perfect Turing performance.

Turing works with a team of several codebreakers, but director Morten Tydlum only attempts to distinguish one: Joan Clarke, played with surprising strength and compassion by Keira Knightley. Instead of playing the oblivious one-note love interest, Knightley matches Cumberbatch’s intelligence but has the humanity he lacks. Knightley proves she’s capable of emotional depth we haven’t seen from her before, the kind missing from the rest of the supporting cast.

Director Morten Tydlum has been directing film and television for two decades, and he capably mixes elements of the biopic, the thriller, the period piece, and the war movie to create a tension-filled, emotionally-complex character piece. Working with cinematographer Oscar Faura, he gives the film crisp, attractive, but rarely noteworthy Downton Abbey-like visuals (Downtown‘s Allen Leech adds to the vibe). For a period-film, Tydlum’s one is fairly progressive, particularly in it’s frank acceptance of homosexuality, and as historical drama, it’s never less than fascinating. The film’s framing device, while initially confusing, makes for an intriguing opening, and the scenes of code-cracking have an illuminating scientific seriousness missing from this fall’s other math-genius period-piece The Theory of Everything. For the average holiday filmgoer, unfamiliar with the story, The Imitation Game will more than suffice. But Alan Turing, with his intellect, social skills, work ethic, and sexuality, was a singular man at odds with the times. This is a film, fine though it may be, that is at times frustratingly adherent to the biopic in hypocritical ways; such an unusual man deserves a more unusual film. Imagine if Tydlum had gone darker and deeper (Turing’s suicide is mentioned as an after-note), and deployed his visuals to go further inside the man. Cumberbatch’s performance would fit nicely into such a murky psychological tragedy, but a director with more filmmaking sophistication would be appreciated.

Joan (Keira Knightley) and Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) hide their secrets in The Imitation GameInstead, we’re left with a riveting, informative, respectably crafted historical drama that ticks all the right boxes for an Oscar-baiting Weinstein crowd-pleaser. Benedict Cumberbatch’s phenomenal performance makes the film worth seeing on it’s own, but the polish-over-artistry filmmaking will leave some hungry for more. The Imitation Game breaks allthe codes to reach audience’s hearts and awards voter’s ballots, but a few puzzles remain unsolved.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: A Pointles Farewell to Middle Earth (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2014 | Add Comments

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesAt 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie by fifteen minutes. That’s a puzzling fact, because of all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, none have been as deafeningly, tediously pointless as this one. It’s 144 minutes too long, and you’ll be wondering what has happened to Peter Jackson, who so brilliantly pulled off the Rings trilogy but left audiences puzzled and exhausted by a numbing three-part Hobbit trilogy that dwindled in quality as it continued.

Jackson picks up right where we left off, with a dragon face-off that hits you over the head, sets the bombastically dull tone, and made me wonder why this scene wasn’t included in the last film. Perhaps Jackson was fretting over a lack of action? Nope. The entire film, as evidenced by the title, revolves around one long battle. After Smaug the dragon is killed by a shot to the neck from Bard the Bowman, the gold-filled lair of the dragon is up for grabs. Thorin, leader of the dwarves, is obsessively determined to keep it all for himself, but Bard and his group of humans from the recently destroyed Laketown, demand their fair share, which Thorin promised. The elves do too, and they have an army to back them up, which leads to (you guessed it!) war. How could I forget the title of the film? There are five armies, which means orcs and more dwarves and Gandalf and some other nasty creatures appear for the solitary reason of stretching the film’s running time to ridiculous lengths.

Throughout this Hobbit finale, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peter Jackson and his Hobbit trilogy has failed at nearly everything that made The Lord of the Rings great. Remember the characters (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir) and all the tiny moments of friendship and humor and bravery they shared? Remember the battle scenes, (Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields) which Jackson filled with a scope and seriousness lacking in most blockbusters? The trilogy wasn’t without it’s flaws (The Two Towers was a deeply overrated sequel), but audiences were left with unforgettable scenes (“My precious”; “Here at the end of all things”; “Not this day”) that put the series in the pantheon of blockbuster franchises that Star Wars reins over. Alas, Jackson followed in the footsteps of George Lucas’ galaxy too well. Not content with ending the series on a high note, he delivered his own trilogy of completely inferior prequels.

The dwarves in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesFive Armies puts Jackson’s two greatest weaknesses at the fore: dull, talky build-up and action sequences that just don’t stop. He has a self-indulgent penchant for relishing in every extraneous detail in Middle Earth (these movies involve excessive amounts of battle-planning, alliance-making, and fantasy politics). Worse, he expects non-Tolkien diehards to care (or so one would suppose, based on these running times). The previous Hobbit films haven’t held a candle to The Lord of the Rings with their action scenes, but Jackson had a big chance to stage some engaging, impressive fight scenes with this big finale. Instead, we get blurry, incoherent slashing, hammering, yelling, and crying involving characters we’ve barely gotten to know over eight hours. If the IMAX audio systems weren’t so deafening, you might fall asleep.

Jackson’s attempts at emotionally attaching audiences fail too. The film’s non-action scenes involve an awkward elf-and-dwarf love triangle, speeches of loyalty and courage, and many scenes of Thorin moping in the dragon’s lair. The script’s dialogue, never his strong suit, is clunky, obvious, and laughably humorless, while the ensemble cast of dwarf and elf actors blend into the hollow CGI universe surrounding them. Martin Freeman, who brought wit and charm to the other films, is relegated to the backround and refused opportunity to lighten up the film.

Too bad. The Battle of the Five Armies could’ve used some laughs, or some originality, or some intelligence, all of which it is lacking. There is one rewarding sequence, though. When Bilbo returns to his Shire home at the end of the film, you feel Jackson’s filmmaking muscles ease up with the familiarity of returning to a location often seen throughout the series. For a few moments, the film has the lovable warmth of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s early scenes. Ultimitaely, it just reminded me how much better those Lord of the Rings films were, and how much of a failed opportunity The Hobbit is.

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.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 26, 2014 | Add Comments

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) pushes aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) past the limit in WhiplashDamien Chazelle’s Whiplash builds from a terrific opening and just doesn’t stop: it’s always moving, building, and occasionally erupting, as it rivets and shocks and enthralls, takes sharp turns and big leaps, then astonishes with a grand finale that’ll leave you immensely satisfied yet queasily uneasy. Like a great drummer, the film sticks to a tempo but throws in plenty of surprises and flourishes, and never plays a note off.

Whiplash opens with a black screen, as a drum roll builds from an unsettlingly slow pace to an exhilarating explosion of pure, refined noise. Then, as the tempo reaches an unbeatable high, a bass drum slams and then we cut, quicker than the climactic hit of a crash cymbal. In a wonderfully immersive shot, the camera glides through a hallway, towards Andrew Neiman, our freshman protagonist, who’s practicing away on his drum kit. Then Terrence Fletcher, the school’s highly respected jazz conductor, enters the room and tests Andrew on his skills. In a few days, he’s earned a spot as backup drummer in Fletcher’s highly elite band.

At first, Andrew is thrilled, and why shouldn’t he be? His college, the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, is the best music school in the country but, suddenly, he’s placed at the top. Maintaining that position, however, will cost him everything. Fletcher, it turns out, is no smiley inspirational hand-holder. Instead, he’s an exacting, nasty, practically abusive oppressor who feels pushing people not to but past their limits is the only way to achieve great art. In his mind: if we don’t try harder than our hardest, we’re denying the next generation a fresh set of cultural icons. Instead of giving up on this seemingly unattainable pursuit of perfection, Andrew persists, giving his all in hopes of becoming the next Buddy Rich, his idol. “I want to be great”, he tells his less focused girlfriend Nicole. “And you’re not?”, she asks. “No, I want to be one of the greats.” And so, testing all of his relationships and forcing himself to doubt his own motives and common sense, he practices and endures, struggling to persevere and surpass Fletcher’s twisty, twisted jungle of psychological manipulation, physical exhaustion, and verbal abuse.

Andrew’s struggle in Whiplash has a constant sense of genuine immediacy, and there’s a reason. Director Damien Chazelle based the film on his high-school experience as a promising jazz drummer dealing with an abusive teacher. He wrote the script for Whiplash in 2012, then adapted it into a short film to attract funds for a feature. It won Best Short at the 2013 Sundance festival, and, when he returned the next year, the full length version garnered Best Film.

That’s a terrifically inspiring story of indie success, but it actually means something because Whiplash is a breathtakingly gripping, rush-out-and-see-it filmmaking triumph, with none of the amateurish shortcomings you’d expect from a director’s sophomore effort (his first release was the modest monochrome jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).

Chazelle’s style isn’t just polished and professional but also personal and distinctive. Working alongside cinematographer Sharon Meir and editor Tom Cross, he displays a masterly understanding of the camera and the edit, and how to fuse the two to create fireworks. To create a palpable sense of place, for example, he shows us the tiny details of a scene (the tightening of screws on a snare drum; the pouring of soda at the movies; a couple’s feet touching under the table) using just a few, carefully framed shots and some swift cuts. And during the performance scenes, particularly the finale, (the jazz soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling) he uses rhythmic bursts of cuts and angles to put us right on stage, behind the kit, with Andrew. While the musical prodigy plays stunning solos, the man behind the scenes is creating his own tour de force. (On a side note: while I’m no jazz purist, the soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling; the boundlessly energetic title track and sped-up Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” are highlights.)

The film may be a technical stunner, but it also proves Chazelle’s talent as a shrewd, thoughtful storyteller. His script, clearly a long-in-the-process labor of love, is brisk and sharp, laced with anxiety-inducing suspense, vile humor, and startling surprises. There’s not a wasted moment, and each scene builds upon the last, creating unbearably exhilarating tension. And the snappy, clever dialogue manages to be both honestly, awkwardly touching (Andrew asking out Nicole) and lightning-speed witty (a dinner table debate).

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) shows no mercy to his jazz band students in WhiplashThe characters of Andrew, a tenacious workhorse, and Fletcher, the vicious instructor, are rather unusual, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make them full-blooded, believable human beings. Watching Andrew’s innocent confidence transform into unstoppable determination is an awe-inspiring yet agonizing experience and Teller captures the youthful earnestness, insane drive, and unforgiving dedication with mesmerizing melancholy. Fletcher is a layered, difficult character, but Simmons nails the role. He’s ferociously intense, hurling wounding insults and music stands with unflinching brutality. But he also possesses an appalling, calculated cleverness that cuts deep (explaining what that means would ruin some great moments). And yet, for all his inhuman cruelty, there’s a bizarre reasoning to his methods of madness. Midway through, when he explains his reasons, the moment makes your jaw drop, because it’s not just impossibly despicable but also bizarrely rational.

That brings up the question that lies at Whiplash’s heart: in the quest for mastery, how much is too much? Undoubtedly, Fletcher’s tactics are nonsensical (in one scene, he repeatedly slaps Andrew to teach him to keep rhythm). Looking past his surface, you’ll find some debatable wisdom. Fletcher tells his class a story, often repeated though factually distorted, about a recording session during which Charlie Parker’s poor, off-key playing caused drummer Jo Jones to hurl a cymbal at his head. Parker was booed off stage, but he practiced mercilessly for the next year, eventually leading to his reputation as one of the all-time great saxophonists. “Imagine if Jones had just said, well that’s okay Charlie”, Fletcher tells Andrew. “Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. That to me is an absolute tragedy.” Legendary musical virtuosity certainly doesn’t come without hardship and hard work, but pushing students to such extreme lengths is unreasonably harsh. Where’s the in between? How do you achieve mastery without going past the limit? Is that possible? That’s a question that reaches so far past music, past art, it reaches almost philosophical heights. To achieve the highest level of expertise, you do have to give your all, but Fletcher’s expectation that everyone will do anything to reach the top is ridiculous. Whiplash doesn’t really have an answer for that question, but it shows us the lasting scars and wondrous talent that insane exertion can result in.

Andrew (Miles Teller) unleashes a tour de force drum solo in WhiplashAll viewers will be thankful for whatever hardships Damien Chazelle endured in making Whiplash, because the result is an astounding two hours. Thorny, thoughtful, and thrilling, with crafty filmmaking cleverness, intelligent storytelling, and two astounding lead performances, it marks the arrival of a bold new directorial voice (Chazelle) and a brilliant new star (Teller). And it does what every movie should: hook you with its opening scene, and leave you gasping for breath until the intoxicating finale. This is independent cinema at it’s most exhilarating.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Brilliant but Baffling, Beautiful yet Boring (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) pilots a space mission to find habitable planets in InterstellarWhen talking about Interstellar, you have to talk about Christopher Nolan, a director as singularly imaginative as any working today. With his latest daringly original blockbuster, he’s created what might be the most Nolanesque of all his films; an interplanetary mixed bag of all ideas, tones, and imagery that have filled his work, as well as plenty of new ones. It may reach farther than it can manage, but how many films even try to reach this far, crossing galaxies, traveling through wormholes, and touching on the big questions of life and death within the confines of a Hollywood budget?

Interstellar is set on a near-future Earth but Nolan cleverly sidesteps sci-fi cliches with a frightening yet familiar Dustbowl-like vision of our fate. Unpredictable weather, droughts, and famines have been causing the human population to dwindle for years; remaining families now hide from dust storms in their rickety houses and rely on corn, the sole remaining crop. One such survivor, Cooper (Mathew McConaughey, affecting but unconvincing) was once one of NASA’s most promising pilots, but he now runs a farm with his father in-law, while caring for his kids. His daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), thinks there’s a ghost in her room; that “ghost” leaves coordinates that lead father and daughter to a hidden NASA base led by Cooper’s former boss Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

When NASA’s small board reports that a past space mission has discovered a wormhole, and there are three possibly habitable planets orbiting a nearby black hole, you know what’s going to happen (even if you haven’t viewed the trailers). Brand wants Cooper to pilot a mission, find us a new home, and, if successful, save the human race. “I’ve got kids, professor”, Cooper reluctantly answers (McConaughey’s Texan drawl feels a little laid-back when delivering speeches about humanity’s fate). “Get out there and then save them”, answers Brand. Cooper agrees, but not before promising his enraged daughter that he’ll make it back. And so begins a mission which, depending on your tolerance for science-speak and improbable jumps in narrative, is either a thrilling intergalactic adventure or a plodding, patience-testing slog.

It’s a journey that quite literally reaches to the ends of the universe, and you’ll leave breathless, with your head spinning. There’s filmmaking ambition here that rivals anything with a big budget you’ll see this year, or any other.

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) comforts his daughter in InterstellarInterstellar might be the ultimate manifestation of Christopher Nolan: his qualities as a filmmaker, his unique fascinations, his favorite themes, his flaws. All of the little parts that combine to create his signature style can be found here, and he indulges in each and every one of them: a walloping, all-consuming Hans Zimmer score; jaw-dropping IMAX cinematography; an almost purely expository elderly father figure played by Michael Caine; bladder-busting running time; plot holes that will anger film fans; worm hole holes that will anger Neil DeGrasse Tyson; and an ending that will satisfy some, disappoint others, and confuse everybody. Some of these are one-of-a-kind pros, others frustrating cons, but they all form a wholly distinct (though aided by some influences) whole.

Classifying Christopher Nolan is a tough thing to do. Is he an exacting, flawless technician or an old-fashioned storyteller? Do his special effects-laden films make him another CGI-hack or does his love of film over digital make him a nostalgic man of the past? Is he a boundary-pushing innovator or a tireless recycler of better films? Does his heart lie in the expensive, expansive Hollywood productions he devotes himself to, or the microscopic indie films he began with? The answer is not a yes or no; what makes Nolan himself, after all, may be his spot as the enigmatic conundrum. One interesting analogy can be found in Interstellar’s pre-production phase, when Nolan took over the project from Steven Spielberg. That act could easily be read as a metaphor for Spielberg passing down the torch to Nolan, allowing him to join the exceptional and highly coveted ranks of Hollywood directors who use big-budgets to make original, personal projects. It’s a torch that few other directors have held (think of Nolan favorites like Hitchcok, Kubrick, David Lean) as Nolan has respectfully acknowledged. In his own words: “I think that Hollywood has always had and will always have tension between the desire to do something original and fresh, and the fear of alienating an audience and the commerce of it all. When you look at big budgets, it’s rare that filmmakers get the opportunity to pursue their passion and do something original, so when I get the chance, as I have a couple of times, I really get the chance to use that opportunity because it’s an opportunity that a lot of other filmmakers would kill for.”

Aside from links to cinema’s past, it’s not hard to connect the seemingly disparate dots in Nolan’s oeuvre. Take familial love, especially of the fatherly kind. It’s one of his defining obsessions, and it’s permeated throughout his work even if it’s never been as obvious or important as it is here. Like The Prestige’s magician Alfred Borden and Inception’s dream-stealer Dom Cobb, Interstellar’s Cooper spends the entire film trying to get back to his kids. Luckily, Nolan spends time developing the father-daughter on Earth to give Cooper’s mission some poignant personal resonance. Worm holes slow time (on one planet, each hour equals seven years back on Earth), which means Cooper’s kids are growing old while he’s still traveling through outer space. In the film’s best scene, Cooper watches decade-spanning video messages from his children. McConaughey underplays the scene, sitting quietly as tears stream down his face, while Nolan’s gives the scene a real, raw power that manipulates the audience in the best possible way.

Moments, like that one, of true emotional strength feel all the more precious amidst the rest of the film. Nolan’s script, while relatively clever and occasionally captivating, is a muddled mess. Many scenes (such as a subplot involving Jessica Chaistain as an adult Murph) feel forced and functional for the sake of plot, just so the story can move right along. Other sequences (one including a cameo from a famous actor) make me picture Nolan’s directing job as similar to that of a writer trying to cram in all of his thoughts into one long essay, only to give up and exclaim “Whatever, I’ll throw it all in” (not unlike me writing this review). Other than McConuaghey’s Cooper, the characters are broadly-drawn cliches (wise old man; young but spunky daughter; selfish partner) uttering bland, predictable dialogue.

One of the many extraordinary space visuals in InterstellarThat said, there are moments of big-screen brilliance and beauty. Stepping in for longtime Nolan-collaborator Wally Pfister, Hoyte Van Hoytema crafts some of the best shots in a Nolan film yet (no easy feat). Shooting on 70mm IMAX cameras for much of the film, Hoytema gives Interstellar a tangible grit and grain that only film could provide.  Aided by countless technicians, he gives each of the space worlds a distinct, distinguishable feel. And his equally impressive camerawork on Earth brings a dusty, desolate, dejected beauty to the future.

Even if the film’s science may not measure up to fact (to those who nitpick both science and plot: it’s a movie) the visuals of blackholes and icy, barren planets makes an IMAX trip worth it. In what might be the most impressive scene, Cooper and crew make their first attempt at traveling through a wormhole. This is stunning cinema: vast, almost magical, and sensational in a way only movies can achieve.

Look up in the sky...it's InterstellarStill, one can’t help but one wonder if Nolan had achieved something greater. Imagining the film with a smarter script and tighter length makes me sigh in disappointment. And yet, if press interviews are any indication, it does seem like this is the film Nolan wanted to make. While Interstellar may be far from a great movie, it does reaffirm the power and possibility of a big Hollywood spectacle. And I can’t wait to see which corners of the cinematic galaxy Nolan brings audiences to next.

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.

Boyhood (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 9, 2014 | 6 Comments

Boyhood charts Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18SPOILERS!

With Boyhood, a childhood saga that follows a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, director Richard Linklater has pushed the capabilities of film to the fullest. For a couple of days a year for 12 years, he shot the same cast and tracked the growth of his child star Ellar Coltrane with genuine, unprecedented truth. This couldn’t have worked with another medium; it works because it is a film. Boyhood is a cinematic triumph that reaffirms the power of the movies. If that sounds like hyperbole, go watch it.

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky, backed by the sounds of Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”. Cut to Mason, the boy we will follow for 12 years (or 165 minutes), lying on a grass field and looking at the clouds. His mother, Olivia, tells him it’s time to go.  We soon learn Olivia is a struggling teacher and that he has an annoying, star-student older sister named Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, daughter of Richard and appropriately irritating). Mason spends his time with neighborhood friend Tommy, doing graffiti, biking, and flipping through a catalog of barely-clothed women. He moves to Houston, where he reconnects with his liberal musician father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who weaves in and out of Mason and Samantha’s lives. Olivia gets remarried and divorced, and remarried again. Mason finds new friends, faces bullies, experiments with drugs and drinking, and suffers break-ups. He tries to figure out what he wants to spend his life doing and looks for the meaning of it all. We watch him grow from being a bored gamer who could care less about school to an angst-ridden rebel to an endlessly chatty shutterbug slacker. Life goes on.

A young mason (Ellar Coltrane) at school in Boyhood (2014)Watching Ellar Coltrane grow up as Mason is a revelatory experience.  It was a considerable gamble on Linklater’s part, casting a kid who could grow up to be anyone. That’s what makes Coltrane’s performance so uniquely impressive. We’re there, watching, as he grows taller, his voice deepens, and he, ultimately, arrives as a powerful screen presence. It’s a terrific performance, made up of twelve terrific performances. Coltrane smartly shies away from overacting and the spunky, perky attitude of typical child actors. He makes Mason a quiet and timid youngster, then a chatty creative type. It’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and realistic kid performances ever.

Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) high-school graduation after-party in Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are no less powerful as his parents, wisely underplaying two realistic roles. As a single mom trying to go back to college, raise two kids, and get remarried, Arquette is subtly remarkable. Olivia is a nuanced character, who reveals layers of sophistication, sorrow, and love throughout the film. Arquette has a particularly poignant scene with Coltrane near the end of the film that may reduce many viewers to tears. Hawke is just as wonderful but gets some more lighthearted moments as Mason Sr.: a compassionate but often absent dad, an angry ex-husband, and a musician who’s forced to move on to other work. Whether he’s having fireside conversations about Star Wars or discussing the meaning of life with teenage Mason, Hawke is understatedly funny and unexpectedly wise, despite his modest screen time. Arquette and Hawke’s underplayed skill dawns on you as the film draws near it’s end, just as Mason realizes how important his parents have been in his life.

Boyhood is very much an actor-centric film, but it’s also a landmark directorial triumph for Richard Linklater, who mixes indie aesthetics with documentary realism. At the start of filming, he had no script for the film, preferring to come up with new ideas each year. Linklater was also wise to focus not on coming-of-age film cliches but smaller, more meaningful moments like camping trips with dad, a high school graduation after-party with family, and a symbolic, spiritual hike that ends the film. Actually, Boyhood, like life, is a whole made up of lots of little moments that cumulate into something meaningful over time. Linklater doesn’t make his thoughts on growing up too obvious, instead letting you develop your own take on the film’s messages. Yet there’s a profound beauty in how he deals with the fleeting nature of childhood and the idea that life is just a bunch of seemingly unimportant moments that add up to something greater. There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end of the film where Olivia, talking to Mason before he drives off to college, comments on how her life is one big chain of events that goes by too quickly. After three marriages, going back to school, and sending her kids to college, the only major event left in her life is death, she tells Mason. Capturing small yet significant memories of childhood and turning them into a thoughtful mediation on life isn’t an easy task, but Linklater has succeeded.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with Olivia (Lorlei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar coltrane) in Boyhood (2014)

Charting Mason and his family’s story over the first decade or so of the 21st century, Boyhood also functions as a reflection on the 2000’s so far. Historical and cultural milestones can be seen throughout the film: Mason and Samantha attend a party celebrating the release of the latest Harry Potter book, their father talks to them about the war in Iraq, and Mason is always playing with the latest video game console. In the film’s funniest scene, Mason Sr. has his kids put Obama signs on their neighbors lawns – and even snatch a McCain sign from one house. Adding to the nostalgia-inducing time capsule element is the wonderful 00’s-spanning soundtrack, which includes The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Wilco, and others. Years from now, the film will serve as a seminal snapshot of 21st century life.

Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood (2014)

Has there ever been a movie like Boyhood? Michael Apted’s documentary 7 Up documentary series and Francois Truffuat’s fictional Antoine Doinel films have followed kids as they grow older over many films. Yet Boyhood is so remarkably specific in telling the story of Mason’s family and so universally relatable in charting a child’s growth that it manages to create one of the most believable portraits of childhood, family, and life ever captured on film. It’s also one of the most funny, reflective, beautiful, tragic, and absorbing movies you’ll see all year. The hype about it has been towering, yes, but believe it. By following a boy from 6 to 18, Richard Linklater has created an entertaining, heart-rending portrait of 21st century family life in America. It forces you to think, moves you to tears, compels you to laugh, and encourages repeat viewings. An enthralling, unforgettable triumph of cinema as original, engrossing, delightful, and heartbreaking as anything in recent memory.

Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

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