Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’

0 Comments 22 October 2014

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Welcome back, Michael Keaton.

Whether you remember him as the guy who threw away the Batman franchise before comic books were king, or the comic genius of Beetlejuice, Keaton is the crazy spinning center of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which closed the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival and exited Venice with massive buzz that may be tough to sustain.

Keaton plays aging Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson – see him remove his toupee to reveal a hairline that would politely be termed receding. The [oxymoron alert] self-absorbed actor is staging a Broadway comeback in his own pretentious adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories that Thomson also produced, directed and in which he stars. Thomson’s haunted by his past – he even hears voices – when he played a hooded, flying character named Birdman, with a very close resemblance to the Caped Crusader.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is wholly intentional.

The premise gives the Mexico-born Inarritu (Babel) the chance to poke fun at the Hollywood blockbuster machine – digs are made at Robert Downey Jr. and other thespians-turned-superheroes for fat paychecks. Additionally, it creates a swirling backstage story of intrigue, infidelity and decadence with a dash of Latin American magic realism.

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Inarritu’s direction is fluid and dynamic, the dialog alternately funny and barbed, and Antonio Sanchez’s score jazzy and unexpected. The heat rises when Edward Norton enters the scene as the egomaniacal Broadway actor Mike Shiner, a last-minute replacement for Thomson’s injured co-star. The stage is set for a battle of super-charged egos played out in front of a full house. This inspires a fantastic scene where Shiner gets drunk on stage and humiliates Thomson. And, in another, Thomson gets locked out at the stage door and returns via the audience, clad only in his tighty whities and wet toupee to deliver his best line reading ever.

Norton and Keaton have a bright ensemble dancing around them: Emma Stone as Thomson’s world-weary fresh-out-of-rehab daughter; Naomi Watts as the play’s sexy but insecure female lead and Shiner’s doormat; and a relatively subdued Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s lawyer/co-producer/enabler.

While I love all the smoke and mirrors, and Keaton’s herculean Oscar-bait comeback beside Norton’s ripping supporting performance, by the third act, I began losing traction. By the time Thomson throws a tear-down-his-dressing-room tantrum, along with a gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss, I began to wonder what was the there there? Where is this going and why?

As I found in Inarritu’s Babel, and then Biutiful, there is a brilliant talent hindered by an ‘I’m better than Hollywood’ smugness. He is, that’s true, but I want Inarritu to deliver all the way, to break every mold, to really take wing. He almost did this time.

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Festival Report: the St. Petersburg International Media Forum Makes a Bold Debut

0 Comments 09 October 2014

Stolen Kisses: Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Xavier Dolan's 'Mommy'

Stolen Kisses: Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’

Despite an acronym – SPIMF – that sounds like Sputnik’s baby sister, the First Annual St. Petersburg International Media Forum, which ran from October 1 through next Friday when it closes with the world premiere of Susanne Bier’s Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence period piece Serena is an unqualified success. The programmers have chosen to go bold, opening with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, a movie not intended to go down easy with opening night smoked fish and champagne at the city’s Old Stock Exchange.

The Media Forum’s General Producer Ekaterina “Katya” Mtsitouridze, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Variety Russia, told me she chose the movie with her gut. And, after seeing it a second time, I realized that I was emotionally gutted by the dysfunctional mother-son drama that is Canada’s pick for the Oscars in a way that few contemporary films deliver.

Bold, too, were the choices to screen two more Cannes favorites, both exploring gay themes despite considerable contemporary LGBT controversy in Russia. During the recent Olympics, the New Yorker‘s David Remnick reported “there reigns a disdainful and intimidating unanimity: homosexuals are a threat to morality, to the family, and to the state.”

But, in St. Petersburg, 440 miles NW of Moscow, Remnick’s blanket description did not cover the Russian premiere of Francois Ozon’s sophisticated and wry audience favorite The New Girlfriend. The charming French film about a woman’s intimate relationship with a cross-dressing widower played to an appreciative full house at the gracious art nouveau cinema Aurora on Nevsky Prospekt.

The New Girlfriend continues Ozon’s explorations of the many strange and beautiful ways men and women connect. The dramedy charts a growing bond between a bereaved young woman and her best friend’s widower – a situation complicated by the fact that the man has taken to wearing his late wife’s wardrobe. The filmmaker loves women – and overturning preconceptions about where masculine and feminine intercept – and this is among his best movies.

Another gala Russian premiere, the French Oscar selection, Saint Laurent, one of two biopics on the hedonistic gay designer Yves Saint Laurent encountered a bit more difficulty capturing the entire audience’s attention at its Saturday night showing at the Rodino Cinema Center. Whether this was because, after a late start and a 135 minute running time, it cut into the Saturday late-night dinner hour, or the images of rough trade and drug abuse and male genitalia offended some old-school audience members was unclear.

St. Petersburg audiences themselves can be a challenge. Cell phones are ubiquitous and it’s common for them to ring mid-film. A polite talker will get up and walk across the row before continuing the conversation – others simply stage whisper while the movie continues. Similarly, chatting during the movie is not all that unusual, with the young women next to me keeping a running commentary during Saint Laurent, including giggles at the racy bits.

When asked whether it was bold for SPIMF to spotlight these openly LGBT films in light of Vladimir Putin’s 2013 law classifying “homosexual propaganda” as pornography and a tide of legislation criminalizing homosexuality, the sophisticated Mtsitouridze laid down a definitive “no.” She characterized the law as antiquated, and continued, “My answer is: come be in Russia with us. Help us to be open and to change attitudes. Because our generation, we’re called the Perestroika Children, we had never any problems to say something with freedom of speech. And, for us, it’s shocking, these kinds of rules, which don’t change anything, actually, except the reputation of the country.”

SPIMF, which also included a market and industry panels as well as showcasing television pilots like Showtime’s upcoming The Affair with Dominic West and Maura Tierney and screening the little-seen 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch film Wreckers, is rooted in Mtsitouridze’s contagious idealism – and reflects the cultural sophistication of St. Petersburg. “It’s a very intelligent city, it’s an intellectual city,” said Mtsitouridze. “They have huge traditions of culture and half of the great Russian writers and musicians are from this city. I mean, past and today also. That’s why, again, I decided to do the Media Forum here but not in Moscow…We’re not going to go back to the Cold War. The internet has changed everything.”

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Movies, Oscar Race

Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall: British Biopic Stars Own Best Actor Race

0 Comments 06 October 2014

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

It’s the British invasion of the Oscar race. It’s only October and three British actors – Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall – are already dominating the Best Actor race. And each of them comes carrying a biopic on his shoulders: The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing for Cumberbatch, The Theory of Everything about cosmologist Stephen Hawking for Redmayne and Mr. Turner, a drama about the master landscape painter aka J.M.W. Turner stars Spall.

Biopics have always been one of Oscar’s favorite genres: Consider A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Walk the Line, The Last King of Scotland and Milk. It may have been The King’s Speech that inspired this outpouring of veddy veddy English movie, but while the current crop is similar in genre, they are not the birds of one feather. The actors may play real-life public figures, but their approaches to their characters couldn’t be more different.

[RELATED: Lost Benedict Cumberbatch Drama Surfaces in Russia]

Redmayne, 32, fresh off awards buzz for his singing romantic hero in Les Miserables, takes on the brilliant yet physically challenged Hawking. He told Yahoo Movies that he believes biopics appeal to actors and audiences because of “the cult of celebrity…We see images of people like Hawking, or Turing, or Turner, and yet, because we are all human, we’re aware that it can’t be as simple as it looks on the surface. Biopics reveal what grounds these stellar individuals as human beings rather than just as achievers.”

In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking begins at Cambridge – also the actor’s alma mater — before illness sets in. On campus, Hawking romances the pretty scholar (Felicity Jones) who will become his wife. But very shortly, Hawking’s fingers have trouble grasping a pencil, he trips over his own feet – and it is one long spiral from cane to wheelchair as ALS changes the course of his life. Despite this, he still authors the bestseller The Brief History of Time. This performance could easily be compared to the one that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990.

[RELATED: Eddie Redmayne Talks About Meeting Stephen Hawking and Why the Role Terrified Him]

Cumberbatch, 38, gives a complex emotional performance, where the intellectual’s scars are largely internal. The actor expresses every glimmer of feeling in his blue-green eyes, delivering brilliant line readings from a sharp script. He slayed me. The Emmy-winner best known for playing the TV’s sociopathic Sherlock Holmes takes on a figure less known in America than Hawkings, in a story with a less traditional arc.

Alan Turing, a brilliant and difficult puzzle-solver and Cambridge academic cracked the German Enigma code, playing a major part in defeating the Nazis in WWII. A homosexual, his greatest personal tragedy occurred in 1952 when Her Majesty’s government arrested him for the crime of gross indecency. Turing accepted chemical castration to avoid prison, only to commit suicide one year later. The bitter irony here is that his genius preserved democracy, but his own society failed him less than a decade later.

[RELATED: 'Mr. Turner' Paints a Mesmerizing Portrait of an Obsessive Artist]

And then along comes Spall, 57, the classically trained character actor best known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter saga. (He also played Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech.) He brilliantly carries this Mike Leigh directed biopic of the Victorian landscape painter J.M.W.Turner. Spall has already won a Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal, an almost comic conglomeration of grunts, mutters, and grumbles roughly translated into English. While his Turner is far from eloquent or emotionally accessible – much less likeable – he is deeply human. Spall shows us a brilliant artist who creates transcendent work, even if his life is a patchwork of bullying and carnal urges and, now and then, genuine affection. Working in Leigh’s signature style, there is a feeling of improvisation to Spall’s performance, a looseness and spontaneity, as if the paint has hardly dried before they move on to the next scene.

God save her, the English monarch plays a role in all three features: Queen Victoria turns up at one of Turner’s art exhibitions only to fling insults at his canvases, Queen Elizabeth bestows an OBE on Hawking at the end of The Theory of Everything and, in 2013, she posthumously pardoned Turing from all charges of indecency.

Cumberbatch who, following rapturous reviews, will now be launched by The Weinstein Company on a Best Actor campaign, confided to Yahoo Movies: “The thing I’m interested in is that the buzz creates and generates an audience…I want a lot of people to understand Turing. Any attention that encourages people to get to know, understand and marvel and thank Alan Turing — at that whole strand of his all-too-brief life — is justification enough.”

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Toronto Critic’s Pick: Benedict Cumberbatch Bristles with Brilliance in ‘The Imitation Game’

Comments Off 05 October 2014

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Taking its place among those handsome biopics the British do so well, The Imitation Game tells the fascinating (and ultimately tragic) story of mathematician Alan Turing. A day after the UK enters the Second World War, the Cambridge-educated Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives at Bletchley Park, a top-secret center for breaking military codes used by the Germans — and is soon put to work on cracking a heretofore impenetrable code called Enigma. As presented by director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the mercurial Turing is impatient with social conventions and the accepted chain of command. And he is harboring his own risky secret: he prefers bedding boys to girls, resisting even the charms of Joan Clarke, a particularly fetching fellow code-breaker (played by Keira Knightley).

Cumberbatch, as you might expect, bristles with brilliance in the role – and should be considered an Oscar frontrunner. We’ve seen him as Sherlock Holmes, so we never doubt that he packs more brainpower than anyone else on the Enigma-busting team. But, unlike the emotionally cold sleuth, Turing is a real-life historical figure, sensitive and troubled. He feels deeply and passionately for his life’s work, and tears often flood his eyes, a repressed stammer forcing itself on his lips. The performance bears so many shades of varying emotion, on the surface and deep below, that it is nothing short of miraculous.

Among Turing’s many challenges, so vividly embodied by Cumberbatch, is one of identity: who he is, must remain an enigma. The mathematician and crossword-puzzle fanatic cannot make public his proclivities, no more than he can share who he fully is: A genius of visionary foresight into the still-embryonic field of artificial intelligence, and one of the pioneers behind the development of the modern computer.

While ultimately breaking Enigma, and turning the tide of the war in the Allies favor, Turing did not survive to enjoy the ascendance of democracy in his post-war life. In 1952, the police charged him with gross indecency after he acknowledged that he was in homosexual relationship. A judge imposed a sentence of chemical castration. He committed suicide a year later.

Some may know Alan Turing from the play turned TV film Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, or the movie Codebreaker or even the recent musical, A Man from the Future,composed by two members of the Pet Shop Boys. Yet, with cult-star Cumberbatch in the lead, the Turing triumph and tragedy will reach a much wider audience. Hopefully the film’s message of hard-won tolerance, and the sacrifices made by lesser-known martyrs to the cause, will bolster the continued struggle for equality for all.

The Imitation Game opens in theaters on Nov. 21

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Criticism, Movies, Mystery

Gone, Baby, Gone: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike Kiss Deadly in David Fincher’s Killer Thriller

0 Comments 04 October 2014

Pike's Peak with a side of Affleck

Pike’s Peak with a side of Affleck

There hasn’t been a soignée blonde so flat-out hate-able since Gwyneth bitched about the burdens of motherhood. Welcome to the A-list, Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike! The tall, slender, Oxford-educated actress who made her feature film debut in Die Another Day in 2002 would have made a great Hitchcock obsession, pecked by birds or poked in the shower.

Pike escapes playing go-to girlfriend roles (Jack Reacher opposite Tom Cruise) to rule as the title anti-heroine in David Fincher’s highly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s marriage-gone-wild thriller, which opened last Friday following its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Flynn, a former journalist, also scripted, tweaking an ending that never quite satisfied on the page.

For novel fans, there will be few surprises (read here for my review of the book on Goodreads: Amy Dunne (Pike), whose parents irksomely exploited her childhood in a profitable children’s book series titled Amazing Amy, disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck doing an Affleck). Nick, who has retreated with Amy to his Missouri hometown after they both lost their Manhattan writers’ jobs, is at first the bereaved and befuddled husband. And then, thanks to some helpful clues, and the doggedness of Detective Rhonda Boney (a tart Kim Dickens), the trail begins to point at imperfect Nick and suggest foul play.

Out, out damn spot for Pike's Appalling Amy.

Out, out damn spot for Pike’s Appalling Amy.

As Amy’s parents arrive from New York and generate a media frenzy to find their daughter as much as whip up flagging book sales, Nick begins to appear increasingly suspicious. Continue Reading

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