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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Movies, Oscar Race

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

No 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, 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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Movies, Oscar Race

On the Oscar Trailer: ‘The Homesman’

No Comments 31 July 2014

Tommy Lee Jones has directed a Western so profound that you may need to see it twice. While he plays a claim jumper that makes beef jerky look soft, the movie really focuses on Hilary Swank’s frontier spinster and the fate of women in the West. It’s more feminist than Kelly Reichardt’s poky Meek’s Cutoff, and definitely more about real women than Clint Eastwood’s hooker-heavy Unforgiven. We are so far away from telling all the stores of women in the West — and this is a great one. Also, Jones has learned a few things since his brilliant and trying Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: keep the movie at two hours and give it a pronounceable title.

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"The Homesman"

"Boyhood"

"The Grand Budapest Hotel"

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