Friday, October 31, 2014

BIRDMAN: A Work Of Bizarre Genius That Will Blow Audiences Away

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)


Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much buzzed about fifth film BIRDMAN may be a comedy, but it’s as dark, layered, and intense as his dramas AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL, and BIUTIFUL.

It’s a stunning, magnificent motion picture – one of the year’s best films - that’s bubbling with energy as it juggles a slew of themes, along with excellently edgy performances, and tireless camerawork.

All this and it’s also a major comeback for Michael Keaton, in his first lead role in ages, as an actor who formerly starred in a superhero franchise who’s staging a comeback – how’s that for meta for the former Batman star?

Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, wants to prove himself, do “something that matters,” by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production, his adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The film, gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (GRAVITY, THE TREE OF LIFE, CHILDREN OF MEN), is structured like one long take – a continuous uncut flow that immediately catches you in its sweep. You’ll really get to know the hallways, dressing rooms, and all of the backstage nooks and crannies of Broadway’s St. James Theatre where it largely takes place.

The narrative is mostly from Keaton’s point of view – a sweaty, stressed out head space that’s bordering on insanity as he often hears the gravelly voice of his alter ego, Birdman, saying stuff like “You were a movie star, remember?”

Others snaking in and out of the storyline include Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter/assistant fresh from rehab, Zach Galifianakis as Keaton’s agent/lawyer/best friend, Amy Ryan as Keaton’s ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as Keaton’s possibly pregnant girlfriend/co-star, Naomi Watts (also currently appearing in ST. VINCENT) as the lead actress in the play, and Edward Norton as a hotshot stage actor, who’s a last minute replacement after a loose lamp injures the original lead.

The Birdman voice in Keaton’s head claims he made the light fall, because he’s not really just a Hollywood has-been, he has telekinetic powers and can fly – of course, only in his mind, but the film has a lot of fun going with this surreal mind frame.

The sequences concerning the disastrous previews of the play are amusingly nerve wracking - one stage-set scene involving Norton getting a hard on in bed with Watts is a hilarious highlight. At another performance, during the same act, Keaton gets locked out of the theater with his bathrobe caught in the door. In only his underwear, he runs through Times Square through the crowds of theatre goers, fan boys, tourists, and assorted New Yorkers and becomes a viral sensation.

It’s a funny statement on our fame obsessed culture, one that sharpens when a cruel critic (an acidic Lindsay Duncan) tells Keaton: “You’re a celebrity, not an actor.”

Duncan’s not the only one who takes Keaton down – Stone rags on her dad for being out of touch: “You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don't even have a Facebook page!”

Norton’s talented yet arrogant Mike Shiner threatens to steal the show from Keaton, but the actors’ scenes together show them matching each other’s intensity – both deserve Oscar nominations, or whatever awards season action they surely will receive.

Only Keaton’s inner Birdman seems to be there to build him up.

Iñárritu, who co-wrote the film with Nicolás Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., who collaborated with him on BIUTIFUL and first-time screenwriter Armando Bo keeps the visceral momentum going through the film’s two-hour running time. It never dragged or went off point, and when I wasn’t laughing, a wicked smile was curled up on my face. When Keaton’s delusional state takes over in the last third, with superhero special effects and crazy imagery such as a ginormous squawking bird-creature towering over the city, it’s a twisted Terry Gilliam-eque delight.

Keaton’s Riggan Thompson may be covered in flop sweat, but he’s got a smash on his hands here for BIRDMAN is a work of bizarre genius that will blow audiences away.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Keanu Reeves Racks Up Tons Of Deaths And Surprisingly Laughs As JOHN WICK

Now playing at a multiplex near you...

(Dirs. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, 2014)

About a third of the way into this film, there’s a phone conversation between John Leguizamo as a chop shop operator and Michael Nyqvist as a big-time Russian crime boss. Nyqvist sternly asks Lequizamo, “Why did you strike my son?” and he answers: “Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” After a very pregnant pause, Nyqvist responds “Oh.”

Up to that point, JOHN WICK had been a dark action thriller, but with the big laugh that bit received it became a dark action comedy, especially to a guy in the row behind me at the screening I attended, who loudly guffawed throughout. He wasn’t alone as the audience laughed lot during the movie, so much so that I wasn’t sure how much of what they found funny was intentional or not.

Basically, this is another in a line of indestructible badass movies, in which an established actor portrays a highly skilled, trained killer who can take down legions of attackers. It’s a formula that’s given Liam Neeson a lot of work lately, and gave Denzel Washington a recent hit in THE EQUALIZER, so now Keanu Reeves tries on the tropes of the genre.

The directorial debut of veteran stuntman David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (a former stunt double for Reeves), JOHN WICK doesn’t have much in the way of plot, but it’s a stylishly violent experience that contains a Hell of a lot of amusement.

When the film begins, Reeves, a retired hit-man for the mob, is mourning the death of his wife, who we see played by Bridget Moynahan in flashbacks. Her parting gift for her husband is a cute floppy eared beagle so that he can have something to love. So when a group of lowlife thugs led by a suitably skuzzy Alfie Allen, as the aforementioned crime boss’s son, breaks into Reeves’ house, kills his beloved pet, and steals his classic Mustang muscle car, obviously there’s going to be hell to pay.

With a sledgehammer Reeves digs up his buried arsenal of weapons, and ventures into New York City, to track down Allen and his entourage. Reeves checks into The Continental, something of a surreal specialty hotel for hitmen, where we get an inkling of his old life via past acquaintances like Adrianne Palicki as a hot hitwoman, The Wire’s Lance Riddick as the smirking hotel manager, and Ian McShane as the hotel’s smug owner.

Fearing his son’s life, Nyqvist takes out a contract on Reeves that’s accepted by Willem Dafoe, as another highly skilled and incredibly confident assassin, and the hunt is on.

Chasing Allen through an exotic bathhouse, a Neon-lit club, and a church that's a money-laundering front, Reeves racks up a high body count on his quest for revenge with many foes getting their brains blown out immediately, but every now and then there’s somebody who’s harder to take out so fierce fist fights to the death result. Of course, there’s tons of property damage too.

Some of the tussles get tiresome, but the pace keeps it moving along with vivid visual stamina, though I must note that Jonathan Sela’s grey-toned cinematography looked a bit dingy at times.

These days it seems you can’t be too old to be an action star, and since the 50-year old Reeves looks like a spring chicken compared to some of his action genre contemporaries he breathes some fresh air into the familiar framework. Sure, he’s not one of the all-time acting greats but he projects an iconic presence that helps make JOHN WICK one of the better, and funnier, indestructible badass films of recent vintage.

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Bill Murray Brings The Mirth To The Likable Throwaway ST. VINCENT

Now playing at both art houses and multiplexes:

ST. VINCENT (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Bill Murray’s Vincent MacKenna is the latest in a long line of lovable losers that the actor has portrayed stretching back to his time as a Not Ready For Prime Time Player on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s. 

Vincent, a schlubby Brooklynite, is a boozing, gambling, politically incorrect curmudgeon, with an Irish-tinged accent who regularly sleeps with a pregnant prostitute, played by Naomi Watts. The character is a bit older than Murray himself – by 4 years, enough to make him a Vietnam vet, which we see in fleeting glimpses of old photos that look like repurposed stills from STRIPES.

The film, which is a bit schlubby itself, concerns Murray befriending his 12-year old neighbor, played by the predictably precocious yet still winsome Jaeden Lieberher. The kid’s mother, a much more subdued than usual Melissa McCarthy, is recently divorced and overworked as a hospital tech so she hires Murray to look after her son. This is indeed a very questionable decision, but what’s a stressed-out single mother in an indie comedy to do?

Of course, Murray teaches the nerdy Lieberher how to fight, takes him along on his daily trips to the race track, and favorite bar and strip club, while they form an unlikely bond. However, in the overly familiar world of this movie, it’s a completely likely bond.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature length film debut is working very much in the vein of ABOUT A BOY, BAD SANTA, BAD GRANDPA, GRAND TORINO, and even UP – you know, movies in which a curmudgeon finds redemption via a relationship with a needy kid.

That’s not to say that ST. VINCENT isn’t an entertaining and likable experience. It’s great to see Murray in a much juicier starring role than his last lead (in 2012’s HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON), and his tossed off delivery of such lines as “call a plumber” when Watts tells him her water broke is consistently amusing.

Lieberher’s career as a child actor is off to a good start here as he works well and has a good believable chemistry with Murray and McCarthy. It’s great as well to see McCarthy playing a reasonable, real person and not another over-the-top comic concoction (*cough* TAMMY).

Watts’ Russian hooker character is initially pretty broad, but gets more and more depth as the film goes on. Her accent isn’t very convincing, but since Murray’s accent itself slips in several instances, it’s not really an issue.

The rest of the supporting cast is well chosen, especially Chris O’Dowd as a deadpan Catholic school teacher, and a subtly menacing Terrence Howard as Murray’s bookie. 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit also appears as McCarthy’s ex-husband, but I don’t recall if he even said anything significant.

ST. VINCENT’s soundtrack is cool too. Two catchy songs, “Everyone Hides,” and “Why Why Why,” by Wilco founder/front man Jeff Tweedy’s solo project Tweedy are prominently featured, along with apt tracks by Jefferson Airplane, The Webs, and The National. One of the film’s highlights has Murray singing along to the Bob Dylan classic “Shelter From the Storm” while tending to his yard, but not in a Nick the Lounge Singer way at all.

Millennials may think of the art rock musician, St. Vincent (who headlined the Hopscotch festival here in Raleigh last September), but the title refers to the premise of Lieberher being assigned a school project about modern saints in which he picks Murray’s Vincent to profile. This involves a very standard ending involving Murray getting applause by a packed church after the build up by quite a snazzy power-point presentation Lieberher somehow put together.

There’s an article in the latest Rolling Stone about how cool Murray is because he’s so beloved that he can get away with almost anything. And yeah, it does look like the man is living it up from the reports of party crashing, photo bombing, and other assorted shenanigans I seem to hear about daily, so much so that his film career feels secondary to his life just “Being Bill Murray” (the title of Gavin Edward’s RS piece).

So a film like this is a fine albeit formulaic showcase for Murray, but it’s nowhere near a great movie. It’s a likable throwaway best for a matinee. The late, great movie critic Gene Siskel often said when evaluating movies: “I ask myself if I would enjoy myself more watching a documentary of the same actors having dinner.”

The answer for ST. VINCENT in that regard is definitely that a documentary of Murray and his co-stars dining would be much better than this. A documentary about following Murray around for a while, a week, a month, a year, whatever, would also blow this away I bet. Somebody should get on that.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

FURY Finds Brad Pitt Back In The Nazi Killing Business

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

FURY (Dir. David Ayer, 2014)

Business is again booming in the Nazi-killin’ business for Brad Pitt, but David Ayer’s World War II epic FURY is more SAVING PRIVATE RYAN than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

Pitt plays U.S. Army sergeant Don “War Daddy” Collier, who leads a five-man crew and their Sherman tank (the name “Fury” is crudely painted on its cannon) through the heart of Germany during the dying days of the war in 1945.

Pitt's crew consists of a mustached Shia LaBeouf as Grade Boyd Bible Swan, Michael Peña as Trini Gordo Garcia, Jon Bernthal as Grady Coon-Ass Travis, and Logan Lerman as Private Norman Machine Ellison.

Lerman, as a wet-behind-the-ears Army clerk yanked from his cushy desk job and thrown into battle having never seen the inside of a tank before, is the film's real protagonist. 

It's Lerman's coming-of-age story, not unlike his part as a high school freshman trying to get in with the cool kids in PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, but, you know, obviously under much more extreme conditions.

Basically the plot is Pitt's crew making their way through enemy territory, and getting into violent skirmishes every so often. The combat sequences are incredibly compelling - an open-field showdown with a German Tiger tank especially is a searing set-piece, and an ambush that has a screaming man on fire shooting himself in the head is not something I'll soon forget.

There is a downtime interlude between the battles, in which Pitt and Lerman discover two attractive German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding in their apartment in a bombed out town that's just been captured by the US troops, and they sit down to have a nice meal, but it gets interrupted by the drunk, rowdiness of their fellow crew members. It's a standout scene that almost feels like it could be a short film on its own.

The chaotic climax, which pits Pitt's crew against 300-strong German army after a mine destroyed one of their tank's treads, is a spectacle of nighttime warfare, impressively captured by cinematograpHer Roman Vasyanov, who also shot director Ayer's great gritty 2012 thriller END OF WATCH.

FURY has so much going for it as WWII film full of bombastic action, blood, and male bonding that I'd definitely recommend it, especially to fans of war films, but I wish it had more character development and more of a layered narrative. 

The 50-year old Pitt is perfectly grizzled for the hard-as-nails part, he looks like he stepped right out of the pages of “Sgt. Rock,” but we learn next to nothing about his character. Lerman has the most fleshed out role among the other's army guy stereotypes (LaBeouf puts in a solid performance, but it was no revelation), but his arc is really standard and predictable. At least Pitt doesn't tell him to “earn this” at the end a la SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. 

In many ways FURY is a war movie like they used to make, except grimmer, less glorified and with a lot more guts - in both definitions of the word.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jason Reitman's Misguided And Meaningless MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

Opening today at an indie art house near me…


(Dir. Jason Reitman, 2014)

Jason Reitman’s (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, YOUNG ADULT) latest film, a comedy drama (hate the word “dramedy”) examination of relationships in the age of the internet based on a 2011 novel by Chad Kultgen, is easily his worst film. It’s even worse than LABOR DAY, and I hated LABOR DAY.

Just about every bit of it is misguided and poorly written, a pretentious attempt at cultural commentary that comes off like a guy complaining about everybody being addicted to screens and social media, but has nothing to say about it to say but ‘look at all these people on their devices, it’s awful.’ A rant by Bobby Moynihan’s SNL character Drunk Uncle is more profound than this.

It starts with voice-over narration by Emma Thompson telling us that while the Voyager satellite, which we see via CGI, is venturing through space carrying international music, pictures and greetings to extraterrestrial life, back on Earth, Adam Sandler is having trouble masturbating to internet porn.

Sandler, following the Robin Williams handbook by having grown a beard for this dramatic role, is an unhappily married family man who has to use his son’s computer because his computer is too infected with malware to use. Finding that his son has his own secret sex site fetish, Sandler reminiscences about how he discovered porn in his youth. Yeah, pretty creepy so far.

From there we head to the local high school (the film was shot in Austin, Texas) where we meet Kaitlyn Dever, whose mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors every instance of activity on her phone and PC, Elena Kampouris an anorexic high-school girl pining to be popular, Olivia Crocicchia, whose mother (Judy Greer) is always taking pictures and videos of in hopes of making her a star, and Ansel Elgort who gave up football for online gaming (in particular, the game “Guild Wars,” which I hadn’t heard of before).

Garner’s character is the film’s heavy, a cold, self righteous control freak who hosts an Internet Safety Parent group meeting in her home and deletes messages on her daughters account before she can see them.

While these threads weave in and out of each other, Sandler and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), both inspired by a commercial for that turns their heads away from their laptops in bed, begin affairs at exactly the same time, but luckily at different hotels. While Sandler hires a high price escort (Shane Lynch), DeWitt arranges a date with Dennis Haysbert, credited only as “Secretluvur.”

Meanwhile, Sandler’s son (Travis Tope) is itching to have sex with Crocicchia, who’s his partner on a class project about 9/11 (yep, they went there too), while a relationship blooms between Dever and Elgort, who’s dealing with learning (from a social networking site, of course) that his mother is remarrying. But that’s good news for Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as Elgort’s father, who begins dating Greer. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is also on hand as the anorexic girl's kindly father.

There’s a lot of internet meddling by parents – Greer decides that selling soft-core pictures of her daughter online isn’t such a good idea after it gets them rejected by a reality show, Norris cancels his credit card so Elgort can’t play “Guild Wars” anymore, and Garner freaks out when she finds the one site that Dever had secret (Tumblr), ransacks her room, and drives Elgort to suicide by intercepting his messages to Dever and telling him she’ll block him if he texts again.

It’s all so heavy handed and incredibly cringeworthy in its whole ‘internet bad’ statement, and overuse of bubbles for texts (or sexts), and blocks of chat cluttering up the screen. Yeah, I get that its point is that these things are cluttering up our lives, but with its flashy aesthetics and Voyager imagery, something seems off in its thematic ideal that too much technology is threatening our interactions with other people.

And Thompson’s narration so much recalls her writer role in STRANGER THAN FICTION, that I wanted the characters to yell to the heavens for her to shut up.

The film seems to oddly elaborate on a joke in Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar winning classic ANNIE HALL in which a flashback has the 9-year old version of Allen’s character Alvy Singer explaining to his physician and mother that “The universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” His mother says that because of this, “He’s even stopped doing his homework,” to which the young Alvy replies “What's the point?”

Blending that cosmic comic comment on insignificance with Carl Sagan’s “Tiny Blue Dot,” which both Elgort and Thompson quote in the film, must’ve seemed like a poetic notion to Reitman, but his awful, drawn out, and uninspired execution here makes for an excruciating experience. Come back, Diablo Cody! Everything is forgiven. (YOUNG ADULT, which I was a bit mixed on initially is looking better and better every day).

In its wanting so desperately to be a movie of the moment, as well as an ensemble rom com, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a dreadful mash-up of AMERICAN BEAUTY and CRAZY STUPID LOVE. It’s for sure, the most meaningless and hard to stomach 119 minutes I’ve spent in a theater this year. 

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Monday, October 13, 2014

KILL THE MESSENGER: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Michael Cuesta, 2014)

This thriller/biopic, now playing at an indie art house near me, comes off a bit like JFK Jr., and I’m not talking about John-John, the late offspring of John F. Kennedy. 

KILL THE MESSENGER plays felt like a lesser offspring of Oliver Stone’s 1991 classic of political paranoia in its depiction of a story based on real events involving a truth-seeking everyman uncovering a vast conspiracy involving a powerful governmental agency that could squash him like a bug. 

Here, a scruffy mustached Jeremy Renner passionately portrays investigative reporter Gary Webb, who caused quite a stir in the mid 90’s when he exposed the CIA’s involvement with the U.S. crack epidemic in a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News.

The first half of the film, scripted by Peter Landesman (PARKLAND) has Renner's Webb following leads about drug trafficking through interviews with Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) as infamous '80s LA drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Tim Blake Nelson as Ross's lawyer, Robert Patrick as an accused drug dealer whose property was seized by the feds, and Andy Garcia as an imprisoned drug lord who Renner travels to Nicaragua to speak to.

The second half deals with Webb publishing his story and initially being hailed as a hero, on both the homefront with his wife Rosemarie DeWitt and kids, and at the office with his editors (Oliver Platt and North Carolina native Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but then getting investigated and gradually discredited by the CIA. 

These sequences of Webb's decline, involving his estrangement from his family and being holed up in a sleazy hotel room with its walls lined with photos, newspaper articles, strings-tying-suspects-together, etc, (you know, like crazy yet righteous people like Carrie from Homeland do?), are tedious in their over familiarity. 

The case that the CIA worked with Central American drug dealers with profits from cocaine sales in the U.S. used to arm the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua is a compelling one, but we're never given more of a breakdown of the mechanics that were at play. We, like Renner, are just supposed to take folks' words on these things, but a scene that intensely takes us into the operation would've been nice. I don't feel like I learned anything more about the inside workings than I did seeing the trailer.

Director Cuesta, who’s produced and directed episodes of Homeland, Dexter, and Six Feet Under, gets a good gritty mood going, but the power of the material dims as it tracks Webb’s decline. It sort of peters out.

And, again, like JFK, it has a scroll of text at the end that tells us that this guy was right about everything all along.

On the surface, this adaptation of Nick Schou’s 2006 book “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Web” and Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series of articles, is a solidly structured film with a powerful lead performance by Renner (possibly his best to date), but its overdone conspiracy thriller framework renders it into just a cinematic footnote to what really went down.

At least this'll have moviegoers looking up stuff on the real guy online. Maybe there they'll actually learn something.

More later...

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Got a few new release Blu rays and DVDs to babble about, so let’s get right to ‘em:

(Dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2013) 

This sweet Swedish film, which dropped last month on Magnolia Home Entertainment, may the most punk rock movie I’ve seen in ages. Based on a graphic novel by the director’s wife (“Never Goodnight” by Coco Moodysson), it concerns a mohawked-haired Mira Barkhammar and a short curly-haired Mira Grosin as 13-year old best friends in 1982 Stockholm, who start a punk rock band despite not being able to play any instruments (just like real punk rockers!). They recruit the long-haired blonde Liv LeMoyne, a talented classical guitarist, who endures her band-mates mocking her Christianity force-cutting her hair because she just wants to belong.

So the girls bash their way through their one gloriously crude song (“Hate the Sport,” an attack on their gym class), ignore their uncool parents, while hoping to attract the attention of some punk rock boys. Barkhammar, Grosin, and LeMoyne may make messy music together, but they hit all the right notes acting-wise in this spirited and funny depiction of friendship, rebellion, and growing up. Sadly, neither the Blu ray or DVD editions of this film have any Special Features. In Swedish with English subtitles.

WRINKLES (Dir. Ignacio Ferreras, 2011)

Another film based on a comic book (“Wrinkles” by Paco Roca), this Spanish film is one of those animated Foreign films that features name American voices in its English language version (see: THE WIND RISES). Martin Sheen plays the protagonist Emilio, who is placed by his son (Matthew Modine) in an elderly care facility where he rooms with a charming yet cunning codger voiced by George Coe (okay, not really a name but a respected character actor of many credits including SNL and KRAMER VS. KRAMER). 

WRINKLES, which released last summer on DVD only, is a sad and poignant adult story that never gets too schmaltzy, though Nani Garcia's score does skirt that line. Sheen's voice-work is impeccable, most notably in scenes in which he's learning that he's experiencing early symptoms of Alzheimers, but Coe steals the show, and the film's perspective in the final third. There's a lot of heart in this depiction of old folks' home living, even if the animation is Beavis and Butthead-ish at times. Special Features: Behind the Scenes (production drawings and storyboards), Feature-Length Animatic, and Theatrical Trailer.

A LONG WAY DOWN (Dir. Pascal Chaumeil, 2014)

I loved Nick Hornby's 2005 novel, and looked forward to a film version, but despite a stellar cast this production by BBC Films (released on Blu ray and DVD on Sept. 9th) may be the worst adaptation of the British author's work yet - no, I'm not forgetting FEVER PITCH

Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, and Imogen Poots play four strangers who happen to meet on New Year's Eve on the roof of a tall building where they each individually came to commit suicide. They form a connection to each other and go about helping one another confront their problems - TV chat show host Brosnan had a career ending fling with an underage girl; Collette is lonely with only her mentally challenged son in her life; Paul is a failed rock musician recently diagnosed with cancer; the hard partying Poots has a horrible relationship with her politician father (Sam Neill). 

But much like its flighty characters the film just goes through the motions. The foursome take part in a media-driven cover story that they were saved from killing themselves by an angel that looked like Matt Damon, then they go on a tropical vacation together, for some reason, and somewhere along the way they make a pact to not take their lives until Valentine's Day.

Throughout, Chaumeil displays the same sunny cheesiness that he employed in 2010's HEARTBREAKER, and the same unfocused and fluffy feeling results. Worse yet, the screenplay by Jack Thorne has completely lost the book's thoughtful thread and rendered its insights into meaninglessness. A real missed opportunity. Special Features: Deleted scenes, and Theatrical trailer.

More later...

Monday, October 06, 2014

WWII Drama THE NOTEBOOK Not Worth Noting

Now playing exclusively in the triangle area at the Raleigh Grande:

THE NOTEBOOK (Dir. János Szász, 2013)

As every review surely has to note, this World War II drama is not to be confused with the Nicholas Sparks weeper starring Ryan Gosling from a decade ago. An adaptation of a 1986 novel by Agota Kristof, this NOTEBOOK concerns two 13-year old boys (real-life twin brothers András and László Gyémánt) in 1944 who are sent by their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) to live with their grandmother (Piroska Molnár) who resides in the Hungarian countryside not far from a German concentration camp, mind you.

Earlier, the twins were given a blank notebook by their father (Ulrich Matthes), a German officer in Hitler’s army, in which he tells them to “Write down everything that happens.” Throughout out the film we see them add drawings, cut-up photos, and tons of labored text detailing their dreadful existence to its pages.

Molnár, their mean vodka-swigging grandmother, only refers to them as “bastards” as she works them like slaves, starves, and beats them daily. But what’s worse is the pain they inflict on themselves – beating each other with belts while hurling harsh insults, fasting for several days – in order to harden themselves so as to be able to take the abuse without crying.

A neck brace-wearing Nazi officer (Ulrich Thomsen) from the nearby camp moves in to a cottage on their grandmother’s farm, and watches with admiration, and more than a little bit of lust, as the brothers whip each other. Alongside their strenuous self-training, the pair spy on their grandmother and learn where she hides her valuables. They themselves are hiding a stock of grenades that they took from the body of a dead soldier in the woods. They also befriend a neighbor’s thieving daughter (Orsolya Tóth) who they call “Harelip” because of her cleft-lip, and an old friendly shoemaker (János Derzsi) who provides them with new boots.

The Gyémánt twins have piercing stoical stares, and impressively often appear as a singular presence with one mind, but looking into their dead eyes in such dark, drab settings, really took its toll on me over this film’s dragging running time.

So did the extreme unlikability of nearly every character, and the numbing dreariness of the tone, especially embodied in the monotone voice-over narration by whichever twin it is that’s speaking (they are only credited as “One” and “The Other”). 

Of course, there are scores of horrific stories of suffering through wartime, but this one never takes hold or makes you feel as if there's any greater meaning to any of this torture.

It’s a well acted, and well shot film (by cinematographer Christian Berger, a frequent Michael Haneke collaborator), but it’s as cold and grimly detached as the kids are as they beat each other senseless. And definitely don’t go if you are expecting any kind of uplift.

More later...

Friday, October 03, 2014

GONE GIRL: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

GONE GIRL (Dir. David Fincher, 2014)

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel is a great, gripping piece of cinema – one of the year’s best. It’s an immaculately crafted thriller that will throw you for many loops throughout its twisty narrative, while at the same time it provides a chilling commentary on the troubling impact of public perception, and how matrimony can drive one mad.

Ben Affleck, in perhaps his most layered performance, plays Nick Dunne, who finds on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary that his beautiful blonde Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing, and there’s a broken glass table and traces of blood around the house to suggest foul play.

Affleck calls the cops, and a pair of detectives, Kim Dickens (THE BLIND SIDE, Treme) and Patrick Fugit (ALMOST FAMOUS), begin investigating the disappearance. Through flashbacks we see the young couple in their early courtship as young idealistic magazine writers that are “so cute I want to punch us in the face,” as Pike puts it.

We learn that after the recession left them both jobless, the married couple moved to Affleck’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri to help take care of his dying mother. Affleck opens a local bar with his twin sister (Carrie Coon) with Pike’s trust fund money, and teaches community college, while unhappy housewife Pike, heard in voiceover, details the deterioration of their marriage in her diary.

Led by Missi Pyle as a Nancy Grace-style cable TV pundit, the media scrutinize Affleck and Pike’s relationship, with suspicions from all quarters coming in that he’s responsible for her death, even though there’s been no body found.

There’s so many tasty twists that it would be wrong to go any deeper into the ins and outs of the plot, I’ll just say that halfway through this film’s two and a half hour running time you’ll get the first of several satisfying shockers.

As somebody who has been hated in real life (see: GIGLI), Affleck nails his part as the “a corn-fed, salt-of-the-earth Missouri boy” who’s grown cynical with his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to cameras at the first press conference and his nervousness towards the crowd at a candlelight vigil are dead-on. He pulls off the attempts to take control of the situation with mighty aplomb as well.

Pike, who should be a household name after her sharply focused work here, gives us a character with whom we initially trust and sympathize, but the more we learn, the less we like.

But as Affleck and Pike are perfectly cast, so are Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) as a slick Johnny Cochran-ish lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as a creepy ex-boyfriend of Pike’s, and Casey Wilson (SNL, Happy Endings) as a ditzy neighbor claiming to be Pike’s best friend, and David Clennon and Lisa Barnes as Pike’s rich parents who had co-authored a series of childrens’ books inspired by their daughter (“Amazing Amy”).

Author Flynn has refashioned her novel into the film’s sprawling yet concise screenplay, which is laced with wicked wit, as well as some grotesque touches that moviegoers won’t soon forget. Fincher’s procedural skills have been well honed in films such as SE7EN and ZODIAC, and they’re on vivid and immersive display here.

GONE GIRL is Fincher’s best film since 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK (his 2011 version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGO TATTOO wasn’t bad; just a bit redundant, since the Swedish original pretty much covered it), and it’s the most solid, intelligent thriller I’ve seen in years.

Its haunting ending had me trembling, and thinking, even though I know my marriage (coincidentally also at the five year mark) is on much better ground than theirs, that I should better watch my step.

More later...