Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’

No 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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Criticism, Movies, Mystery

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

No 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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Criticism, Movies

St. Petersburg Diary: “Lost” Benedict Cumberbatch Drama Surfaces in Russia

13 Comments 03 October 2014

Benedict Cumberbatch hoards family secrets in "Wreckers"

Benedict Cumberbatch hordes family secrets in “Wreckers”

Imagine my surprise to be in St. Petersburg and see a Benedict Cumberbatch movie about which I knew nothing. I discovered that Cumberbatch, now headed for an Oscar nomination in The Imitation Game, starred in Wreckers. The British independent film directed by first-time Director D. R. Hood premiered in the UK in 2011 after the star’s first season playing the title role in Sherlock and around the time of stand-out supporting roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse. Following its British release in 2011, in Japan in 2014 and on television in the Netherlands in 2012. the film never made it to the United States.

In the intimate drama that The Guardian called a “sure-footed debut,” Cumberbatch plays David, a teacher who moves from London with his beautiful young wife Dawn (Claire Foy) to the rural village where he grew up with his young brother, Nick (Endeavour‘s Shaun Evans). Bliss ensues — chickens are raised, eggs harvested, old farmhouse rehabbed — until Nick shows up unexpectedly. The Afghan vet has a full duffel bag of difficulties from sleepwalking to PTSD, not to mention a bundle of family secrets that David has neglected to tell his bride. Nick’s presence starts roiling up the family mud beneath the deceptively bucolic surface of village life.

Foy, Cumberbatch spark

Foy, Cumberbatch spark

Cumberbatch is in fine form, working without the net of uber-brilliance that defines his Sherlock or Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, or the superpowers of his Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. His David is relatively normal, a decent husband with just a few human-sized skeletons in his closet. He’s softer here, a man in love romantically and fraternally. His character is emotional, sexy, and a bit rough under his posh pretensions as he tries desperately to keep his past buried.

Wreckers is not remarkable solely as a star vehicle for Cumberbatch. Fans of BBC’s Endeavour, the prequel to the long-running series Inspector Morse, will appreciate Evans who is currently best known as the awkwardly charismatic Oxford detective.

And then, as David’s sensitive wife, there is Foy. Remember that name: the freckled English beauty that resembles Karen Allen or Margot Kidder’s going to be big. She has the role of Anne Boleyn in the upcoming BBC/HBO miniseries Wolf Hall slated for 2015. For anyone that’s read the Hilary Mantel historical bestseller on which it’s based, you know that is one major meaty role, the kind of wily regal female that made Lena Headey’s career in Game of Thrones

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

St. Petersburg Diary: It’s Too Early to Start Narrowing the Oscar race

No Comments 01 October 2014

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

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

It was a crisp night in St. Petersburg as the city’s First International Media Forum had its gala opening with Xavier Dolan’s explosive mother-son drama, Mommy. The Cannes jury prize winner relates the tumultuous relationship between a sexy widow (Anne Dorval) and her troubled teen (Antoine-Olivier Dolan). Seeing it for the second time among a festive chattering audience at the city’s Old Stock Exchange that couldn’t quite sit still, I was taken again by the movie’s emotional power — it’s both freshly contemporary and Bergmanesque. I wept. Again.

Recently, while talking to Jessica Chastain about Bergman’s muse, Liv Ulmmann and Chastain’s Miss Julie director. Jessica described Ullmann as having no bones. In other words, she was all feeling, open to every possible emotion dark or light — which doesn’t make her fearless only brave. This echoed for me while watching Mommy, because the performances are so volatile and yet grounded in the real world. Both Dorval and Pilon change minute to minute, dancing to raging, hope to despair, violent to tender. You have to be extremely open to embrace this kind of movie. It’s scenes from a mother-son relationship that we haven’t seen before.

The magnitude of the performances reminded me of the single principal I have to live by this early in the Oscar race: before Thanksgiving is a time to expand contenders, to seek out those performances and movies that may not be obvious candidates but that deliver Oscar power. Let’s not ghettoize Mommy as a Best Foreign Language Film contender even if it is Canada’s selection; let’s bring those brilliant performances forward.

While my Gold Derby colleague Pete Hammond argues persuasively that the Best Actor race should be expanded from five to ten, I think we should be looking even farther afield than Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Let’s throw Pilon in the mix. From mugging at the mirror in an homage to Home Alone to dancing seductively with his Mum and a middle-aged neighbor to exploding in intimate violence, this is a performance to watch and register.

And, in a year where Best Actress is looking a little thin, we’re calling on Quebec-native Dorval to join the fringe French speakers — Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) and Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria, which is also playing in St. Petersburg as well as the New York Film Festival) — to power into awards season playing thoroughly modern women of the world beyond Hollywood.

Pilon power.

Pilon power.

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Criticism, Movies

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ Delivers Eternal Love, Not Teen-Vamp Infatuation

No Comments 17 August 2014

To bite alone, or jointly....Nosferatu

To bite alone, or jointly….Nosferatu

Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance about night-owls-in-love Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) plants a stake in the heart of the popular “Twilight” teen-movie fantasy franchise. I can’t be the only moviegoer alive still left irritated by the notion that any being who had seen as much of the world as Robert Pattinson’s twinkly Edward Cullen, born back in 1901, would stick around for pre-calculus, “The Scarlet Letter,” and cafeteria flirtations with twitchy Bella Swan (Kirsten Stewart).

In “Only Lovers Left Alive,” hipster filmmaker Jarmusch (“Down by Law,” “Broken Flowers”) wonders what perfect love would be like if it spanned not years or decades but centuries. Well, first, the couple would be vampires, which makes for an intriguing premise — and not one that needs “Twilight” for inspiration when there’s already “Nosferatu,” “Let the Right One In,” and all that Hammer horror in the vaults.

[RELATED: My Personal Favorite at TIFF13: Jim Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive']

And so the nocturnal Jarmusch, 61, who has never seen “Twilight,” delivers a very personal long-distance love story, which could probably be interpreted as a note to his long-time partner, Sara Driver, 58. The pair met at film school at NYU and she produced Jarmusch’s early masterpiece, “Stranger Than Paradise,” in 1984, and they’re still together today. In show business coupling, that’s an eternity.

The couple’s on-screen alter-egos, Adam and Eve, give each other emotional space – that key ingredient to lasting love — by living worlds apart. Adam resides in “Omega Man” seclusion in Detroit; Eve lives in the literary Tangier romanticized by Paul Bowles. Still, through the wonders of 21st century technology, Adam and Eve can keep in touch – and when Eve senses her man’s emotional distress, she grabs her blood stash and hops the redeye for a reunion.

[RELATED: TIFF13 Q&A: Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska Open Up]

Once together, Adam and Eve fall into well-worn patterns. She nurses back his will to create — because for Jarmusch, creativity is life — and gets Adam out of the house for a change. Back at his place, they listen to music and entwine around each other like beautifully decadent figures in a Klimt painting. Together they weather the arrival of her disruptive and destructive sister (Mia Wasikowska) — what couple hasn’t handled the trials of unwanted in-law houseguests, even if they don’t all bite the help?

Deep into the night, the pair takes a long moonlit drive through the urban ruins of Detroit. They are like Sunday drivers sharing a day out together in tandem peace. Adam and Eve have achieved that calm after the storm. They have long passed the early throes of passion, the distractions of jealousy and infidelity that animates “Twilight” and keeps Bella’s human heart fluttering like hummingbird wings.

And, when the couple’s blood supply dwindles, Eve whisks Adam to Morocco. In the movie’s climax — no spoilers here — we see what long-term couples know. That the efforts to shield one’s partner from danger can inspire superhuman actions. To protect the beloved’s existence, one also ensures one’s own survival.

Now that’s a marriage lesson for you.

THR’s Critic Todd McCarthy archly, and aptly, described the movie as “‘The Thin Man’ with blood cocktails.” He’s comparing Adam and Eve to Nick and Nora Charles. While this supernatural pair is edgier than Nick and Nora, those icons of boozy wedded bliss, they’re no less engaging — or well-matched.

In “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch’s moody hero depends on a more-grounded spouse. She offers a mirror for his soul when he casts no reflection. Eve sees Adam for who he really is, warts, fangs and all, and still loves him.

It’s a vision developed not over a semester but over centuries.

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