Whiplash – A Movie Review

Music is a strange world to me.  I have virtually no understanding, talent, or insight into the art.  However, like with movies, I know what I like.

I like Whiplash.  Very much.

The movie is about a young man named Andrew Neiman who attends one of the best music schools in the nation.  He is eventually discovered by Terence Fletcher. Terence leads a studio band, and he graciously invites Andrew to come audition to be an alternate for the drummer.  Andrew is very good, but Fletcher quickly becomes a monster when Andrew can’t satisfy his demands.  Fletcher demoralizes not just Andrew but his entire band; he verbally and physically abuses them; he spouts obscenities at them and calls them derogatory names.  Yet, Fletcher’s studio band is among the best.  Because of this, Andrew refuses to quit.

In fact, Andrew grows resolute with each passing day, enduring Fletcher’s brutal methods and, sadly, even adopting some of them.  The two men aspire to greatness.  One of them wants to inspire such greatness, the other want to be the greatest.

But as you can imagine such, a toxic relationship quickly sours.  The question is, will Andrew allow Terence to subdue his passion, or will Andrew overcome the vile conductor and achieve his ambitions?

I enjoyed three things in particular about his film.  First, J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher in such a charismatic, terrifying way that I couldn’t hate him, but I also couldn’t like him.  He was like a force of nature, a man who knows what he wants and is willing to destroy anything to get it.  There is something both horrifying and admirable about such a man.

Secondly, the music sounded amazing.  Terence’s studio band is all horns, piano, and percussion – nothing electronic – and it simply astounded.  Of course, Andrew plays the drums, and so we get to hear lots of him pounding away.  I’m always amazed how a talented drummer can make beautiful music.  As stated earlier, I’m no music expert, but what I saw and heard impressed me to no end.

Finally, the film’s tone resonated the most with me.  There exists in this movie a mostly unstated drive to achieve supremacy.  Sure, it is directly declared, at times, by both Terence and Andrew, but so much of this movie conveys the men’s hunger through their eyes, their face, their physical actions, and their (to be frank) outbursts, that it inspired me to try harder.  It reminded me that to stand out and to rise above takes blood, sweat, uncompromising time, and an unbreakable will.  I’m not sure I have it in me to reach their mania, nor am I sure I want to, but Whiplash certainly helped me remember that preeminence doesn’t just happen.

Whiplash delivers a captivating story, provides breathtaking music, displays a master in J.K. Simmons, and, in the end, plucks a primal chord within us all.

Birdman – A Movie Review

In my mind, there are two iconic actors who represent the performances when it comes to film super heroes – Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton.  So when I heard the premise of Birdman, I had to chuckle a bit to myself.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, Keaton’s character once played the world’s most famous cinematic super hero – Birdman.  And then, at the height of the Birdman craze, Keaton’s character walked away from it all.  Set in the present, Keaton’s character, Riggan, is trying desperately to star in a play he both wrote and is directing based on a work by the master of the short story, Raymond Carver.  For the past twenty years, his career has not achieved anywhere near the success of Birdman, his life has fallen apart, and he needs to prove to himself that he’s a “real” actor.  He must convince himself that he made the right decision so long ago.

Riggan has given this play everything, and we get to witness his odyssey as it unfolds a few days before opening night.  But even as Riggan tries so hard to make the play a success, he also must deal with his wayward daughter played by Emma Stone, a pretentious supporting actor played by Edward Norton, his ex-wife, his attorney who is also producing the play, his actresses, and the nagging voice of Birdman who regularly accosts Riggan for walking away from a multi-million dollar film franchise.

If it sounds like there is a lot going on in this film, there is.  Yet, by and large, the movie rarely leaves the theater in which the play is being produced.  The camera follows the actors as they weave their way through a labyrinth of backstage halls and rooms, and it is mesmerizing.  From a technical standpoint, Birdman is amazing.  I don’t know much about cinematography, but even I recognized the intricacy involved in the filming.

Quite honestly, though, when thinking only about this film’s story, it fell a little flat with me.  It’s not really a comedy, but it’s also not truly a drama.  It’s not satire, yet it’s also not critical commentary.  Does it hate social media, or does it love social media?  Is it parody?  It definitely isn’t farce.  For me, consequently, the film dabbled in all of these ideas.  Now I’m the first person to cheer any work that defies genre, but Birdman never felt quite comfortable in its own skin to me nor did it ever take a firm stance in terms of identity.  Later we’ll explore if this is meant to reflect Riggan himself.

Birdman regularly ridiculed comic book movies, which is fine, yet it stars the biggest comic book movie actor still living, as well as one who got dismissed from the Marvel franchise and one who very much stole the show from a certain web-slinger.  It touted what serious acting should be, yet the “serious” characters in the movie were moronic.  The movie fought hard to revel in contradictions, yet it never struck me as more than simply indecisive.  There is a subtle mania to Birdman, but I’m not positive it existed purposely.

In my opinion, the movie best shined when we got in Riggan’s head and heard the schizophrenic Birdman relentlessly browbeating him.  Keaton still has great range, and I hope Birdman serves as a launching pad to a renewed career for him.  The gravelly voice of the profane Birdman proved both disturbing and hilarious, and those were the moments when we got a profound sense of Riggan’s uncertainty pertaining to both his life and career decisions.  When Birdman literally hovered over Riggan’s shoulder, all of the film’s paradoxical issues were all the more potent and, most importantly, worthwhile.

There are moments in the film when Riggan physically displays the powers of Birdman, yet it’s fairly clear those moments exist only within his own imagination.  However, the last act of the film relies completely on these “power” sequences, and, as one of my friends put it, everything finishes on a rather vague note.  I absolutely believe the ending was meant to be thought-provoking, although, for me, it wasn’t.  It was merely erratic.

We could easily make an argument about the subversive message of the film.  I  could write a hell of a paper about how Birdman reflects the discomposed nature of Riggan himself.  We could debate how struggling to perfect the Raymond Carver play is in fact the plight of Riggan to ultimately make peace with himself, and, when he realizes he is doomed to fail, he must “suffer” for his art in order to prove to the world he is a serious actor, as though the perception of an actor is more important than the actor’s own self-image, but that feels like a real reach on my part, especially because I get no sense the filmmakers purposefully intended such meaning.  I’ve developed an elaborate theory as to Riggan’s fate, his Birdman persona, and the film’s literal ending in contrast with the figurative ending, but I’m not convinced the filmmakers made any such theory valid.  In fact, I feel like I’m working pretty hard to make sense of the ending.  Elements lead me to my conclusion, but they were only fragments, nothing comprehensive.

Of course, this sounds like I didn’t like the movie.  I actually did enjoy it quite a bit.  I’ll watch anything with Michael Keaton, and it is an interesting, well-made film.  It’s not something I consider a stroke of genius or even terribly original, but that could perhaps just be me.  It did win “Best Picture,” after all.  It certainly seems to appeal to those in theater and cinema more so than the average person, which may be the most telling thing about it of all.

 

Neighbors – A Movie Review

There’s no way to avoid the obvious – this movie is hilarious.  Truthfully, I don’t ask much from my comedies, and Neighbors delivered.  The thing just spouted off one joke after another, one visual gag after another, and it kept me laughing throughout.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, a couple sink every penny they have into a new home in a nice, quiet neighborhood in order to give their baby daughter a proper upbringing.  Yeah, the parents have a wild side, and the “grown up” lifestyle is difficult for them, but it isn’t until a frat inexplicably buys the home next to them that they realize just how “old” they really are.  After initially trying to win over the frat guys, they call the cops when the noise doesn’t stop, and from that moment on, it’s war.

Sure, it’s Seth Rogen basically playing the same guy he always plays, but that guy is typically pretty funny.  Rose Byrne absolutely holds her own in the film and is even more funny than Rogen much of the time.  The two guys who really surprised me, though, were Zac Efron and Dave Franco.  They play the frat’s president and vice-president, and they were ridiculously funny.

This is not high-brow stuff, but who cares?  I love to laugh, and this one had me laughing nonstop.  Make sure the kids are in bed, though. You probably know this if you’re familiar with Rogen’s work, but there is major profanity throughout, lots of drug use and references, and plenty of explicit material.

But man, it’s funny.

Edge of Tomorrow – A Movie Review

There’s been a lot of hype concerning Edge of Tomorrow, and let me tell you, it’s all well deserved.

The premise is familiar, to be sure.  Tom Cruise plays “Cage,” an unwilling, inept soldier who is better suited as the military’s brilliant public relations man.  Cage pisses off the wrong superior and finds himself on the front line of an alien war.  He dies, and then he wakes up at a set point before leaving for the battle.  He goes to the front line again, dies, wakes up again at that set point, and this goes on for a bit.

After a while, he meets up with Emily Blunt’s “Rita,” humanity’s greatest soldier.  The two team up for reasons I won’t divulge, and Cage slowly but surely begins to learn from his mistakes with the help of Rita.  The bad news is, if they don’t destroy the alien leader, mankind is doomed.

If you’ve seen Groundhog Day or Starship Troopers, this movie does not, at first, seem terribly original.  Yet Edge of Tomorrow inexplicably feels fresh, even unique.  I think it has to do with the editing in large part.  Though many of the scenes are similar by design, they always feel new, we always see Cage develop, and we always are awarded with new information, a killer action scene, or true gallows humor.

I haven’t seen Cruise this charismatic in quite some time, and I’m glad to have him back.  He was wise to pick a character who starts off as a real jerk, a guy you delight in seeing get killed time after time.  Emily Blunt is always great, and this movie is no different.  She’s tough, smart, and an action hero through and through.  Best of all, she and Cruise actually have chemistry.

I took issue with only one aspect of the film, and that was its very end.  I didn’t care for it.  It didn’t turn me off of the film as a whole, but I felt it pandered to the masses which disappointed because it previously blazed a trail all its own.  Otherwise, the movie delighted me from start to (almost) finish.

With lots of action, awesome special effects, a dark sense of humor, incredible editing, and a plot that manages to surprise despite its familiarity, Edge of Tomorrow really is a must-see.

Snowpiercer – A Movie Review

Primal, captivating, and unique, Snowpiercer is honestly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

The premise is simple.  Mankind, in an effort to reverse global warming, succeeded all too well – it sent the world into a deep freeze.  Snowpiercer is an incredibly long train that shelters the last of humanity.  The tail of the train houses the less fortunate, and as one progresses along the train, life gets more and more advantageous.

 

Chris Evans plays a character named Curtis who reluctantly leads his fellow impoverished in revolt through the length of the train.  No uprising has ever succeeded, but his mentor called Gilliam played by John Hurt assures him that they will experience success this time.  Curtis and his crew must first get past Mason, played by Tilda Swinton.  Mason easily steals the movie because she is one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen.

I won’t give away the ending, but there is lots of bloodshed, plenty of action, some unexpected twists, and even some pretty good acting.  In fact, this is probably Evans’ best role to date.  I love him as Captain America, don’t get me wrong, but Curtis is no Captain America, and Evans brought depth and validity to this character who is by no means a hero in the traditional sense.

Snowpiercer is not perfect.  There are several plot holes that still irk me, and you will definitely feel like you’re missing at least half of the overall story.  Yet, the film mesmerizes.  It has a quality that forces the audience to pay attention, to stay riveted, and to occupy the edge of the seat.  It forced me to ignore its flaws and instead appreciate the raw vitality displayed throughout.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – A Movie Review

So I’ll be honest – I never had much interest in the Spider-Man reboot.  I liked the original two by Sam Raimi, not so much the third, and I didn’t see much point in starting over with a new set of actors and a new director.

When Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man came out with Andrew Garfield as our favorite web-head, I didn’t rush to the theater, though I found myself intrigued by the inclusion of Gwen Stacy over Mary Jane Watson.

I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man more than I thought I would, and I really think Emma Stone made that film work.  Garfield is a good Spider-Man – funny, lanky, athletic.  However, it’s Stone’s Stacy that stole the show.  Much of the movie felt like a retread, but the Lizard and Gwen Stacy gave it a much-needed dose of originality.

Yet again, when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 arrived in theaters, I felt no urge to see it.  The reappearance of Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin really turned me off, and Electro never appealed to me much when I read the comics.

And, honestly, there was another reason I didn’t particularly want to go see it.  I’m thirty-seven and I’ve read comic books since the age of three, so I know Gwen Stacy’s story.  I know the circumstances of the character’s fate.  I truly did not want to see it happen, especially with Emma Stone making her the soul of the franchise.

But, when it recently came out on DVD, I couldn’t resist.  Guess what?  I loved it.  Putting Garfield in the classic Spider-Man costume made him seem more authentic, and Emma Stone delivered yet another magnetic performance.  Jamie Foxx was okay as Electro, but the special effects surrounding the character really and truly blew me away. The stuff they did with Electro looked amazing.  Dane DeHaan defied my bitterness concerning the overuse of Harry Osborn.  In fact, up until the moment he became the Green Goblin I found him extremely charismatic and I actually rooted for Osborn a little.  But then he became the Green Goblin and I stopped caring – I found him way too similar to what Raimi did.

I’ll be truthful – this was a great looking movie.  I loved the special effects, the costumes, the cinematography, the sheer scale – almost everything!  This is a big movie.  I really felt like I was in New York when Spider-Man hit the streets to battle the bad guys.  Webb got almost all of it right.  I’m not going to pretend the story riveted me, but it certainly kept my attention.  But the thing looked beautiful.  With Elector’s electricity and Spider-Man swinging through the city streets – it looked like a comic book come to life.

I think what they got particularly right from a character standpoint is Peter and Gwen’s relationship.  These two have real chemistry together, and they were a lot of fun to watch.  I won’t get into Gwen’s fate, but I am so glad they didn’t just make her a damsel in distress.  She played every bit as much the role of hero as did Peter Parker.  If they ever introduce Mary Jane Watson, they will have a hard time making the fans forget Gwen Stacy.  There were rumors Watson would make an appearance in this movie, and I’m so glad they decided against it.  It would have been undignified.

Webb also made a hopeful movie. Spider-Man has gone through some serious shit since 1962.  Life constantly beats him up, yet he keeps putting on the costume and trying to do the right thing.  Webb captured the essence of that optimism.  Like in the comics, every good thing Peter tries to do usually backfires on him, yet he knows people count on him to be the hero, and he lives up to that responsibility.  In a world where Batman is dark as night and Superman would rather punch a villain in the face than save a crumbling city, it’s nice to see Spider-Man still saving the innocent while making quips.

Finally, I think they nailed Spider-Man’s relationship with New Yorkers.  He’s about as New York as they come, and he’s their hero, through and through.  In fact, Webb made a genius move by having Spider-Man interact with New York children, and it could not have been more heartwarming.  I won’t give it away, but there’s a final scene with a little boy that about had me in tears (the happy kind).

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had far more heart and originality than I expected, especially when compared to its previous installment.  There are rumors that they are going to make a Sinister Six movie, and if the groundwork they laid in this movie is any indication, it actually might be pretty good!  Paul Giamatti is in this film for about eight minutes, but his Rhino character looked awesome.  If they get actors of his caliber to work alongside DeHaan’s Green Goblin, they might have something inexplicably interesting.

So, if you’re like me and sort of ambivalent about the Spider-Man reboot, I do recommend you check out The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  It’s exciting, looks beautiful, has some seriously emotional moments (both happy and sad), and for Spidey fans, it does not disappoint in that it felt pretty true to the source material.

 

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel – A Movie Review

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of movies.  I don’t completely understand how movies are even made.  I do know this, though: I like weird, I like original, I like passion, I like real characters, I like visual stimuli, and I like unpredictable plots.  Because of this, I like Wes Anderson.  A lot.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has all of the above qualities.  It’s a story within a story within a story, but the third “within a story” is really the core of the film.

I won’t bother trying to explain it other than by saying it’s about a charismatic concierge who finds himself in the mix of a murder mystery.  But it’s actually about so much more than just that.  Seriously.

Though the movie is pretty typical Wes Anderson, that fact makes it no less lovable.  Nobody does Wes Anderson better than Wes Anderson, so I don’t fault him for maintaining a certain status quo.  His status quo, by the way, is much more innovative and novel than anyone else in the industry.  I think that may be why almost every new Wes Anderson movie becomes my new favorite Wes Anderson movie.

Anderson does dive into some slightly darker material with this film.  I think I’ve seen most of his work, and while I wouldn’t describe the movie as violent by any stretch of the imagination, it has a little more edge when it comes to the grotesque than is standard for him.

Also, The Grand Budapest Hotel utilizes far more star power than any of his previous films.  Look for appearances by Jude Law, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, and Owen Wilson.

Four people, though stole the show.  Ralph Fiennes delivered my favorite performance of all time by the man.  His concierge is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Fiennes, and I’m frankly shocked he could pull of such unique comedy.  His character is notorious, tough, flamboyant, dainty, verbose, and charismatic beyond belief.  It’s his greatest stretch, and his best work.  Totally serious, by the way.

Adriene Brody played sleaze like I’ve never seen from him, either.  His part was pretty small, but he owned every scene in which he appeared.

Much like Brody, William Dafoe rocked.  I bet Dafoe didn’t have fifty total words in the movie, but he brought an extraordinary level of creepiness to his character through sheer body language and facial expressions.

Of course, I should say that Dafoe and Brody were hilarious nonetheless.  Creepy, deplorable, but hilarious.

Finally, Tony Revolori’s “Zero” cannot be resisted.  As a young man who takes his role as “lobby boy” deadly serious, I dare anyone to dislike his character.  Like Fiennes, Revolori brings an aspect of toughness to his part, but also infuses a magnetic innocence as well.

While the dialogue and visuals are in tune with Anderson techniques, I’d say The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlike his other movies due to a deeply layered plot, lots of movie stars, and probably more action than we’ve seen before.  Anderson should not be underestimated as a director (and I don’t think he is).  Beyond all the humorous pranks and visual oddities, this man can draw out fantastic performances from his actors.

This is a delightfully weird movie, and that’s why I love it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Poster