Friday, October 31, 2014

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr, and Armando Bo


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 20, 2014  5:20PM


"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", the twisted, backstage comedy, handled deftly by co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, will be best remembered as the film that rightly put Michael Keaton back in to the spotlight as it displays his exceptional and undervalued abilities as an actor. He's been kicking around for a while, first breaking out in Ron Howard's initial box-office hit comedy, "Night Shift" in 1982 before moving on to film stardom with "Beetlejuice", "Mr.Mom" and the first two of Tim Burton's re-imagined "Batman" that helped usher in the cinematic era of the super-hero. He hasn't done much to note of late but Mr. Keaton delivers one of the finest performances of his career playing Riggan Thomson, a washed-up film actor who was once famous playing a masked crime fighter, Birdman. As he tries to rebuild his career with a Broadway-bound play he has written and plans to direct, an adaption of a Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", Riggan is haunted by his past. The voice of Birdman keeps tormenting the actor, reminding him what a failure he has become and how doing this play is pointless. Keaton is completely in his element here as he is able to use both his comedic gifts and sharp dramatic skills.

During rehearsals, Riggan realizes that the lead actor hired is wrong but a stage mishap conveniently creates an opening for the role. Jake (Zach Galifianakis), a friend and producer of the show, suggests that Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) would be a perfect replacement and his name could even boost the box-office. Riggan agrees and with Mike dating fellow Hollywood star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who just happens to be the female lead of the play, this rocky production might finally be turning a corner. However, Mike is a highly temperamental, egotistical method actor who sees no issue with drinking real gin on stage as it will only serve his performance. After Mike breaks character to reprimand Riggan for removing his booze during a preview, he wants him out. Jake reminds him that the show is now sold-out and they can't afford to lose this difficult actor.

If the play wasn't enough, Riggan has to contend with an actress (Andrea Riseborough) in the show he's been sleeping with who may be pregnant. He also wants to repair his damaged relationship with his sullen daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab. As an attempt to bring them closer together, Riggan has hired her as his assistant but this plan has made them grow even more distant. His ex-wife (Amy Ryan) has come to the opening of the play to lend support until she finds out what he's done to finance this dream project. And a New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) has promised to close the play with her poison pen, mainly because she resents the trend of movie stars coming to the theater and taking jobs away from real actors.

The truth is, Riggan isn't much different from Mike. He's a self-centered, manipulative jerk. He's also a talented thespian who has always, and continues to put his work first. This former action star is at a crossroads in his career as well as with his life. With the sound of Birdman growing louder in his ear and the pressures of the show mounting, Riggan begins to unravel, losing a grip on reality. No longer knowing where he begins and his costumed alter-ego ends, Riggan is convinced that he's using his super-powers to trash his dressing room in a fit of frustration or blissfully flying across the Manhattan skyline.

Iñárritu, after a series of thrilling but challenging Academy-Award nominated dramas including "Amores perros", "21 Grams" and "Babel", has decided to lighten up with "Birdman" as his first comedy, sort of. There is certainly some quirky humor to be found here but more serious moments involving anxiety, melancholy and fear is what actually drives the film. "Birdman" soars thanks to the impressive camerawork of cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the Oscar last year for "Gravity" and is sure to be nominated once again for his work here) as the film appears to be one continuous take. The camera follows tightly along as the actors travel throughout the majestic St. James Theater in New York, zips out in to the street and darts back inside.

The director has assembled a perfect cast, using these actors in ways we don't ordinarily see them. Norton is wild and hilarious with his runaway ego mowing down everyone in his path. Mr. Galifianakis, who came to fame with his over-the-top wackiness in "The Hangover" films, delivers a restrained performance that surprises with it's sincerity. Ms Stone abandons her sweet and sunny disposition while effectively snarling and seducing with raw passion.

With Iñárritu's inventive direction, "Birdman" takes flight as this offbeat satire examines the trappings of Hollywood fame that reduces sad and desperate people to behave quite badly. The highlight is the extraordinary work of Michael Keaton who is memorable as the tortured artist who just wants one more opportunity to prove to the world, and to himself, that he's able to create something of true value.

Friday, October 24, 2014

2014 AFI FILM FESTIVAL PRESENTED BY AUDI


The lovely face of screen legend, Sophia Loren graces the poster for this year's American Film Institute Film Festival presented by Audi running November 6th through November 13th. The Italian actress is being honored with a special tribute to her luminous career on November 12th with screenings of the 1964 classic, "Marriage Italian Style" with Marcello Mastroianni, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow", the 1963 film directed by Vittorio De Sica and her most recent work, "Human Voice", a short directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.



Once again, AFI will be offering free tickets to all of the screenings beginning today in addition to festival packages and passes for purchase which offers various privileges to films, presentations and events. The gala screenings will be held at the home of the Academy Awards in the Dolby Theatre while regular screenings will be shown in TCL Chinese 6 Theatres and the Egyptian Theatre .

The Opening Night Gala will be "A Most Violent Year", the latest film from writer/director, J.C. Chandor. This will be the world premiere and stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as a 1980's New York couple trying make a better life for themselves while wading through the crime ridden streets of the city.



Another world premiere will be "The Gambler" which is the Centerpiece Gala. Mark Wahlberg stars in this remake of the 1974 James Caan film as a college professor who gets in way over his head in the world of underground gambling. John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams and Jessica Lange also star.



"Foxcatcher" has been selected to close out the festival. This fact-based drama directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote") has been receiving plenty of buzz due to the amazing, transformative performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo

The festival will present special screenings which includes Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" and "Inherent Vice" as well as offering a wide selection of programing ranging from world cinema, American independents, new auteurs, breakthrough filmmakers, short films, midnight screenings and cinema's legacy. For the complete list of films, please click below:

AFIFEST 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GONE GIRL (2014)

Written by Gillian Flynn


Directed by David Fincher


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA October 6, 2014 5:35PM



I think "Gone Girl" is the first film I've ever seen that begins as a tense, foreboding mystery and as the story unfolds, evolves in to an outrageously deranged satire. But in the masterful hands of David Fincher, this transformation is seamless and absolutely perfect. Based on the mega best-selling book by Gillian Flynn, the director audaciously examines the explosive sexual politics of marriage, especially in these modern times where the role of women is constantly in flux between their traditional position and a more complicated, liberated role in the relationship. The film also takes a look at our preconceived ideas on guilt and innocence and how the media now has the power to shape these opinions.

On the morning of his fifth anniversary to his lovely wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins the day very low-key by visiting the under performing bar he owns with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). When he returns home, something seems strangely amiss. The door has been left open and the furniture in the living room is shattered yet Nick doesn't appear overly concerned. He calls the police and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) arrive to investigate. With a coffee cup never leaving her hand, the detective goes through the house, marking suspicious areas with yellow post-its, and peppering the missing woman's husband with a barrage of questions.

Days go by, a search party is formed and Amy's parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) go in front of the cameras to beg for their daughter's safe return. Nick, at the press conference, comes across as passive and oddly detached. Once television crime evangelist, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle doing a spot-on Nancy Grace type) goes in front of her large-scale audience and proclaims Nick must be guilty due to his strange behaviour, he soon becomes the only logical suspect. But is he actually responsible for his wife's disappearance? If you have read "Gone Girl", then you know exactly how guilty Nick Dunne actually is. If not (like myself), then you will be able to savor all of the surprising twists and turns without any expectations. Nothing in this apparent crime, nor the couple's marriage, is what it appears to be on the surface. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn more about Nick and Amy from their early courtship to the more challenging marital times when Nick loses his job as writer and the couple having to move from New York to a small town in Missouri to care for his ailing mother.

Ms Flynn, a one-time film critic for my favorite magazine about entertainment, "Entertainment Weekly",  was lucky to get the unusual opportunity to have a hand on the screenplay and creates a solid adaption of her work. The author was also fortunate enough to have arguably one of the best film makers working today to be involved on the project. With a history of tackling stories that explores the darker side of human relationships which includes "Fight Club", "Zodiac" and "The Social Network", Mr. Fincher is in his element and brings his somber visual flair to these proceedings. The director receives invaluable help from his long-time crew who all have been recognized numerous times by the Academy for their work with him. This includes cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, editor, Kirk Baxter and the eerie musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Mr. Affleck has become a well-regarded director with the films, "Gone Baby Gone", "The Town" and the 2012 Best Picture, "Argo" but as an actor, he's been adequate but never has done anything particularly noteworthy. That is now in the past as the Oscar-winner gives an impressive full-bodied performance that is sly, edgy and unpredictable. As more evidence piles up against his character, he makes you begin to doubt his involvement yet still never seeming to be completely guilt-free.

Reese Witherspoon is a producer of the film and flirted with the idea of playing Amy. While she may have been perfectly fine in the part but Mr. Fincher had another thought and that's when Ms Pike enters the picture. The British actress has been around for a while, making supporting appearances in films such as "Die Another Day" and  "An Education" but never made much of a solid impression. Clearly the director saw something in her and his instincts have paid off. Much like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction", Ms Pike's performance in "Gone Girl" will completely alter her career. She is mesmerizing as a woman caught between struggling to be the good wife and wanting no part of that role. To simply state she displays a crazy range of emotions would be a true understatement.

The supporting players are uniformly excellent with surprising nice turns from actors far better known for their comedic roles, Tyler Perry as Nick's lawyer and Neil Patrick Harris perfectly creepy as Amy's old flame but special mention must be made about Ms Dickens and Ms Coon. These actresses have made their mark previously on television (both on popular HBO shows; Dickens on "Deadwood" and "Treme". Coon in the recent hit, "The Leftovers") and the stage (Coon was a Tony nominee for the recent revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe") but their juicy roles here give them a shining opportunity to play a strong, fully-developed female character which, sadly, is rare these days in cinema.

Sure, a few of the plot points, while quite clever, don't hold up under closer scrutiny but "Gone Girl" is so good that it's hardly a distraction. The combination of Gillian Flynn's deft skills as a storyteller and the stylish artistry of David Fincher has made this film one of the very best of the year. They have managed to take a unsettling subject matter and make it highly entertaining and thoroughly unforgettable.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

Written by Jonathan Tropper


Directed by Shawn Levy


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. September 22, 2014 5:40PM



"This Is Where I Leave You" is a dysfunctional family comedy with dramatic elements. The film is very funny, in fact, hysterically at times. However, whenever any melodramatic moment creep in, it simply distracts, throwing things out of whack. The broad humor makes it very hard to take any of this clan's problems and anxieties seriously.

Shawn Levy, who helmed the "Night At The Museum" franchise and the low-brow remakes of "Cheaper By The Dozen" and "The Pink Panther", has no clue on how to find the right balance. He has taken the dark themes of the story, based on the book by Jonathan Tropper (who also had a hand on the screenplay) smoothed out the sharp edges with a breezy, sitcomy sense of humor. Appealing TV comedy vets, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and "Girls" quirky heartthrob, Adam Driver are also on hand to make all these complex situations go down easy.

Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda), a noted psychologist has assembled her adult children to return home to upstate New York after their father has died. Her son, Judd (Bateman) who works for a shock-jock (Dax Shepard) is struggling to hold himself together after he has caught his wife (Abigail Spencer) cheating with someone he knows quite well. Wendy (Fey), saddled with a workaholic husband and two hyper children, is still haunted by the neighbor boy (Timothy Olyphant) she loved as a teen but left after he became injured in an accident. The no-nonsense Paul (Corey Stoll) has to deal with his anxious wife (Kathyrn Hahn) desperate to get pregnant while also bitter that he stuck around to work with their father in the family business of sporting goods. Phillip (Driver), the wild-child, baby brother, arrives to the service with his latest girlfriend in tow; an older woman (Connie Britton) who also happens to be his former shrink.

Hillary informs her children that their non-practicing Jewish father's dying wish was that they sit shiva in his honor. Reluctantly, the brood agree to remain in their childhood home for seven days to mourn. This situation manages to stir up plenty of old grudges and petty bickering among the siblings. Some of their hostility is directed at their unfiltered mother who became a best-selling author on child-rearing which used her own as prime examples. Sharing their private adolescent challenges to the world still doesn't exactly sit well with them.

Each member of the Altman family struggle to work through their complicated issues within themselves and with each other but none of these characters are fleshed out nearly enough to offer a convincing resolution. This isn't for a lack of trying from the film's highly distinguished cast of actors which includes stage actress, Debra Monk as Hillary's close neighborhood friend and Rose Byrne as Judd's chatty high school crush.

While the heavy family dynamic in the really scary, dark comedy, "August: Osage County" was unbearable, "This is Where I Leave You" is unbelievable. You won't buy for one second that any of these people could possibly be related. That doesn't mean you won't have a good time and quite a few laughs. The real issue is that the film is trying much too hard to be something it's not. Which is any type of drama. Embrace the comedy and move on.