The Big Short (2015)

 

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RB Score:  1/10

Given the subject matter of this film, I wanted to like it, in the worst way.  And in addition to its Best Picture nomination, Director McKay is up for an Oscar as well.   Hollywood pretentiousness aside, this steaming pile has no business being anywhere near awards discussions.

McKay’s talent is satire.  He did a good job with the likes of Anchorman, but he even then he could have used a better editor.  In The Big Short, he clearly wants to be taken more seriously, and he has certainly gotten that with multiple award nominations.  Yet, the movie does not succeed as either a comedy, or as a dramatic treatment.   Every once in a while you have to come right out and say that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  The fact that so many critics are salivating over this garbage is proof that Mike Judge’s 2006 film, Idiocracy, is becoming reality.

The subject matter of this film is important and no less relevant today than it has been for the last couple of decades.  However, there are absolutely no revelations to be had from this script.  The film’s premise is that an oddball character, Dr. Michael Burry (who works in finance, not medicine) has figured out something about the mortgage market that no one else has.  McKay and company lost me right there, because it wasn’t that everyone else in America was somehow blind to what was going on.  It was more than nothing was done about it.  There was a lot of water-cooler conversation about adjustable rate mortgages, and the bundling of bad loans.  People were asking the questions about what would happen when the loans obviously couldn’t be repaid.   The real question, which certainly could be addressed in a movie, is why all these bad loans were allowed to happen. in the first place, especially following on the heels of other financial disasters.

Having arrived at the conclusions he did, Burry and the other characters and their intersecting associations, become fixated on how they can make money from an impending market collapse.   Yet we are supposed to sympathize with them.

Given the strong cast, there are moments of enjoyment to be had from the performances.  Pictured above, Ryan Gosling plays a slick Wall Street trader type,  Steve Carrel plays a fund manager in a perpetual state of outrage,  Brad Pitt is a semi-retired eccentric former financier, and Christian Bale is Dr. Burry.  Sadly, the good moments are overshadowed by excessive use of gimmickry, including multiple voiceovers, that cloud any sense of a coherent point of view; loud jarring cuts to the metal music that Dr. Burry listens to, presumably to help him concentrate, and the completely irritating use of cameo appearances where the person speaks directly to the audience to explain financial terms in the most condescending way possible.  If you need a naked blonde model in a bubble bath to explain finance to you, then this is your film.

By implying that the audience won’t understand that rather simple concepts used in this movie, unless they are introduced by a celebrity using bad analogies, the film insults the audience.  If you’re still not clear that you’re being insulted, why else does Margot Robbie tell you to fuck off after she’s done favoring you with her pearls of wisdom?

And how about that camera work.   All the out of focus quick pans, with the camera lurching around, made me seriously question whether the camera operator was on quaaludes.   I  had to close my eyes for parts of this movie to avoid throwing up.   Incredibly for all this fast pacing, the movie also dragged in places.

We’ve all seen dull movies, or slow paced movies.  Good movies can also be slow paced.  I have never seen a movie that was both dull and fast paced, with camera work that literally made me nauseous at several points.

The Big Short’s biggest fail is that it unintentionally undermines its own themes.   It purports to be a champion of the working class, of everyday folk.  Yet, the most sympathetic characters in this film are the entitled, one-dimensional lead characters who are about to make their fortunes, from the collapse of other peoples’ dreams, jobs, homes and lives.  Yes, these are the film’s good guys. While marketing itself as a hard-hitting Wall Street expose, it comes across instead as a weak Wolf of Wall Street wannabe.  I didn’t care for WWS but at least, it was a bit more watchable.  After seeing The Big Short, and again, literally trying not to be sick, I walked out of the theatre to my car thinking I had just wasted two hours of a too-short weekend.

 

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She’s Funny That Way (2014)

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RB Score:   9/10

Peter Bogdanovich reportedly had this in the works for well over a decade before its limited release with cast changes along the way.  The final product boasts a plethora of talented performers, is smart and funny, and is a joy to watch from the opening credits all the way to the end.

I can understand, somewhat, why the audience will be necessarily limited.  There are no special effects, it’s very much in the style of a stage play and very dialogue-driven.   It’s a throwback to the screwball comedies of old – think French farce, but set in New York, with crazy intersecting relationships and the inevitable colliding of worlds.  Bogdanovich assembled an exquisitely adept ensemble of players to bring his script to the screen,  with a consistent level of pacing that complements the expertly constructed dialogue.

Imogen Poots plays a gorgeous call girl, Isabella, aka Glowstick, who is telling her story to a reporter (although it comes across like therapy) as the movie opens.  This conversation provides the narration for the film.   Isabella only works as a call girl to support herself while pursuing her dream, being an actress.  She lives in a working class neighborhood with her dysfunctional parents, in lesser roles but played with comedic perfection by Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis.  When director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is in New York working on his Broadway play, he checks in at his hotel and calls his favorite escort service, run by a low key but acerbic madam named Vicky (Debi Mazar).   Arnold, we discover, has an old-school romantic nature and likes to take the lady of the night out for a nice dinner, followed by a carriage ride in Central Park. After they spend the night together, he  offers her 30K if she will never do this again.

Of course it’s more complicated than that.  Isabella has a onetime client, a crazy but harmless old judge (Austin Pendleton)  who is obsessed with her, and Arnold has a wife named Delta, played by Kathryn Hahn.  Delta is also an actress, appearing in her husband’s play and will be arriving the next day.   Meanwhile, the lead actor, Seth, played by the versatile Rhys Ifans, checks into the same hotel and observes Isabella as she is leaving Arnold’s suite.  The next day, Isabella auditions for a role in the play and nails the reading with Delta, as Seth looks on knowingly.   One of the other actors attached to this project, and Arnold’s assistant, is dating a therapist, Jane, played by the always dependable Jennifer Aniston, who is hilariously lacking as a therapist, and we soon learn, only has clients because her mother, also a therapist, is in rehab and referred all her clients to her daughter.  One session with Jane, the audience can surmise without being told, is probably enough to send most normal people into therapy.  Jane’s boyfriend Joshua, a boy-next-door nice guy, played by Will Forte. is treated poorly by Jane, and thus we are inclined to be forgiving when he is smitten with Isabella at the audition and asks her out to dinner.

The only reason for the point deduction is that much of the hilarity  that ensues at this point, stems from the improbable scenario of almost all the characters in the film somehow all show up at the same Italian restaurant, at the same time, for dinner.  In New York City, really?  Jane is there with her client, the Judge, who sees the object of his affection, Isabella, and knocks over his water glass repeatedly, explaining distractedly that he’s very thirsty.  Jane also sees her boyfriend, at the same table with Isabella.  And of course Arnold and Delta couldn’t think of anyplace else to have dinner.  There’s also a private investigator hiding behind yet another menu.

I mentioned above that the various players are very adept performers – it’s really hard to find the right adjectives and adverbs to do them justice.  Consider Cybill Shepherd, in her small role as Isabella’s mom.  In a quick flashback scene where Isabella is describing her home life, we see the parents quarreling.  I don’t know how Shepherd does it, but when the husband says “Shut Up!” and she counters with “YOU shut up!”  there’s just something about the way her voice goes up just the right amount, and delivers the line with just the right amount of emphasis, that the effect is quite enthralling.  She can trade lines with the best, and has that instinctive sense of satire that fleshes out her roles as a higher comedy form.

The style of this movie has been compared to “Some Like It Hot” and even Woody Allen, but I think it’s more closely related to the comedic style of Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers in the  Pink Panther series of films.   This feeling might have something to do with the fact that Bogdanovich started working on this script in the 80s.  Maybe the 70s brand of creativity was still part of his mindset.

Jennifer Aniston, always shines in any ensemble she’s in.  She also has a knack that extends beyond the concept of comic timing, where she excels.  Aniston is a performer of integrity; she plays every character exactly as they seem to be written.   Because of that faithfulness to the source material, she reliably contributes a level of quality to the whole.

Owen Wilson is most suited to roles where he has a lot of dialogue, and he positively sparkles here.  Apparently, the late John Ritter was first envisioned as the lead; Bogdanovich did some revision to allow for more dialogue and less of the physical comedy that was Ritter’s trademark.  I’d have loved to see Ritter in this movie, he came across as a genuine person as well as performer.   Wilson’s Arnold is more subdued than we would have seen from Ritter, but he also interacts with the others in ways that elevate an already good script.

Rhys Ifans gives Seth additional dimension, pursuing Delta with sincere emotion that cuts through the character’s smarmy and manipulative nature.  Kathryn Hahn demonstrates her considerable skill in having Delta be similarly multifaceted.  Intense, vulnerable and wacky all at the same time.

With so much talent, good writing and even some interesting cameo appearances,  (including Tatum O’Neal and Quentin Tarantino) “She’s Funny That Way” is a welcome and delightful addition to the modern movie landscape.

 

50th Anniversary of Dr. Zhivago

On many levels it is mind-boggling for me that the epic movie, directed by David Lean, was released 50 years ago this month. Not only has the film industry gone through staggering levels of change in that time, the very world we live in has become something people my age often don’t recognize.  That said, “Dr. Zhivago”,  released on December 22, 1965, winner of 5 Academy Awards out of a total of 10 nominations,  and solidly anchored into the  enduring landscape of classics, is one of those films that once having viewed, invites repeat viewings, at least, for the film student, and the romantic, in all of us. Also, it just happens to have a plethora of totally awesome facts you need to know!

Boris Pasternak’s novel of the same name had won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, and was subsequently banned in Russia at the time as being subversive, so the filming actually took place in Spain.   Dr. Zhivago the movie would not be seen in the Soviet Union until 1994, when Gorbachev agreed to the film’s showing as part of his Glasnost policy.

Set against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the central character Yuri Zhivago was played by Omar Sharif, and co-starred Julie Christie as Lara. Yuri is married to his childhood friend, Tonya, (Gertrude Chaplin) when, as a medical student, he first meets Lara.   His feelings for his wife are sincere yet the central relationship, and the emotional connection that anchors the movie, is the one Yuri has with Lara.

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Lara is a compelling character who exudes an innocent spirit, yet who is also part of a messy (not to mention, physically abusive) love triangle before she ever meets Yuri. She is the mistress of the well connected Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) who is also involved with her mother, who then attempts suicide after learning this.

“Messy” might be too mild of a term.  There are actually two intersecting triangles.  Lara–Mother-Komarovsky and Lara-Komarovsky-Pasha.  Pasha is an idealist-reformer who intends to marry Lara.  Although he is devastated to learn about Lara and Komarovsky, he marries her anyway.

When Pasha is reported missing in action, Lara enlists as a nurse to go look for him, and in the meantime, Yuri has been drafted and has become a doctor on the battlefield, where the two meet again.

The stirring melody of “Lara’s Theme” is featured in the track “Somewhere My Love” and recurs throughout the movie. An audience favorite, Maurice Jarre’s original score won the Oscar and is thought to have influenced the word-of-mouth factor that fueled a steady increase in ticket sales.  As recorded by the Ray Conniff singers, the single charted at 71 in the Billboard Top 100 Songs for 1966:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7GGJUHpUt0

Another popular version was recorded by Andy Williams in his 1967 Gold album, “Born Free.”

Strength and skill in cinematography has a major influence on the production’s elegant treatment of war and love (not necessarily in that order) of marriages, of oppression and human rights, of births and deaths.

Although this was an epic on in a similar scale as Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, it was not shot in Super Panavision or other large film format; MGM had refused director Lean’s request due to the cost. The 70mm prints were blow-ups from the 35mm negative. However, MGM did shell out a million on publicity when the original box office was less than epic.

Cinematographer Freddie Young had also worked with Lean on “Lawrence of Arabia”, just a couple of years prior in 1962, and won the Academy Award for both films.   “Lawrence” was also Best Picture that year and Lean took home Best Director.

Lean’s epic visions were captured beautifully in Young’s work.   Lean also used the same screenwriter and the same production designer for both films.  The best adapted screenplay award also went to “Dr. Zhivago”, for the work of Robert Bolt.

While the film has solidly maintained its place in both history and culture, not all the critics were impressed at the time of initial release. A common complaint was that the major historical events in the movie were trivialized.  Audiences were not swayed by this factor and “Dr. Zhivago” inevitably took its place among Lean’s many successes, still reigning today as the 8th highest grossing movie (inflation adjusted) of all time.

Omar Sharif was cast as Yuri after initially auditioning for the part of Pasha, played by Tom Courtenay.  Sharif had worked with Lean on the blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” which also starred Peter O’Toole.  Lean wanted O’Toole to play Yuri but O’Toole wasn’t interested.  Sharif, who had doubts about his ability to play the high profile role,  had to shave his head and wear a wig, as his naturally curly hair was deemed to look too Middle Eastern for the part of a Russian.

To say that David Lean was one of the most respected filmmakers of the time is an example of understatement. Lean was reportedly very exacting in his demands of the cast. He clashed frequently with Alec Guiness, who played Yuri’s half-brother KGB Lieutenant General, Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago, whose backdrop narrative describes the search for the lost daughter of Yuri and Lara).

Lean and Guinness had previously enjoyed a history of arguing and bickering while working together, starting with their collaboration in “Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957, which swept the Oscars with 8 nominations and 7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Guinness. This time, the rift between Lean and Guinness lasted for years.  They did not work together again until the filming of “A Passage to India” in 1984.

Before Julie Christie was cast as Lara, Sophia Loren was being considered, as was Jane Fonda. Loren was married to producer Carlo Ponti.  Ponti had purchased the rights to Pasternak’s novel with his wife in mind.  But Lean felt that Loren wasn’t right for the role and in the end, his vision prevailed.

In 1965, “Dr. Zhivago” dominated the Golden Globes, but the Oscar take was split with “The Sound of Music”, which captured the Best Picture and Director awards.  Both films had a total of ten nominations with 5 wins.     Interestingly, Rod Steiger and Julie Christie were nominated for Best Actor and Actress – for their work in other films!  Steiger was nominated for his performance in “The Pawnbroker” (the award went to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou) and Christie won the award for her role in “Darling.”

The famously striking winter scenes, including the Ice Palace, were filmed in Spain’s warm summer temperatures and Sharif recalled how he and his fellow actors were sweating profusely in their costumes of Russian fur coats and hats. Makeup artists would dab the perspiration from their faces every few minutes.

For the Ice Palace scenes, the snow was made from beeswax and marble dust.

Interior of Ice Palace

Exterior

Yuri was married to a woman he cared for yet held a lifelong devotion to another.

Against this backdrop of war and oppression, however, being true to your true self transcends being true to social norms.  When you don’t know if you will live another day, the polar opposites of your psyche will both triumph in one way or another. And again, the cinematography of this magnificent film brings home both the national and personal perspectives.

When it came to capturing themes (individual vs state, peace vs. war,) the camera was wide.

When it came to capturing the human condition, Young shot closer in.

“Dr.Zhivago” is one of those movies that makes you feel, so acutely, what your place is in the universe, a small and insignificant place, against a vast universe that doesn’t care if you live or die.  Against that panorama of magnificent beauty and unfeeling, what is left but your own feeling, your very sense of being?  And exactly when did it become wrong to live in such a sentient state of mind?  After all, what often determines our fortunes, and misfortunes, but the haphazard fortunes of timing?  Through no fault of our own, many of us never get this quite right, and the somewhat exquisite nuances of timing have been enshrined in the art of filmmaking from the beginning.  To this day, few films have captured this balancing act in a more poignant way than “Dr. Zhivago”.

Happy holidays everyone, and happy golden anniversary, Dr. Zhivago!

Vacation (2015)

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RB score:  9/10

OK, I’ll own up to this immediately.  For me, a lot of this movie’s appeal was nostalgia-based.  I’ve so missed Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo that it was surprisingly emotional to see them appear onscreen, however briefly.  Yet, when the grown up Rusty Griswold announces to his family that he’s taking them to Wally World, adding “This Vacation stands on its own.”  I’m pretty sure that’s a strong signal that Ed Helms as Rusty, together with the second generation Mrs. Griswold, played by Christina Applegate, are making a statement that the movie’s creators are rebooting the franchise.  And I couldn’t be happier.  Carry on, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.  Whoever the heck you are.  I’m in your corner!

The 2015 version easily brings to mind the original Vacation, as it is meant to.  It’s a cross country trip to Wally World.  It’s an amalgam of bad vacation stills in the opening credits. The influences of the late John Hughes and the late Harold Ramis are very much in evidence, right down to the curiously dark moments together with other adult references that earn this film an R rating. There’s also the family vacation aspect that lets you enjoy large swaths of screenplay on that basis, and which the filmmakers clearly hope to leave a broader audience hoping for more, so they can launch a new series of PG-13 sequels.

Adult Rusty is a suburban-geek Dad, just like his own father.  He is a pilot for a small regional airline (“EconoAir”) and also like his dad, happily married.  He and Debbie have  2 sons, the eldest being a sensitive dreamer while the younger is an over-the-top irritating brat.  The second generation Griswolds are very much like Rusty’s parents in the way they hold a believable attraction to one other, even as they might disagree about things.   In many ways, as with the original Vacation, life itself as well as vacations are obviously more about the journey than the destination.

Rusty’s sister Audrey  (Leslie Mann) has grown up to be a stay at home Mom with a baby.  She is married to a successful TV weather man, (Chris Hemsworth), living in a beautiful house on a ranch, where Rusty’s family visits on the way to Wally World and which provides as much comic mayhem as did the visits to Cousin Eddie’s place, a generation ago.  On the surface, Audrey and her husband are happy together but there are seeds of discontent planted in the script, probably intended for future storyline material.  The two families vacationing together could be one such possibility.

Another stopover has the family visiting the Grand Canyon for a whitewater rafting trip, with the always engaging Charlie Day playing the effervescent tour guide.  Just before launching the craft he takes a call from his fiancee, who tells him she is breaking up with him, and he reacts with despair and suicidal statements.  This is the Griswold family so they are completely unaware of what the audience picks up on, playing the perfect straight men against Day’s zaniness.   Here, the film’s creators succeeded in providing more refreshed comedy, as they did with the Hot Springs stopover which has been featured in the movie’s trailer and is indeed a pretty hilarious scene.  More laughs ensue when the family stops by Debbie’s old college town and Rusty finds out that his wife was once known as “Debbie Do-Anything.”

As the series continues, I think one challenge to be faced by the screenwriters is how to parlay the Griswold Vacation formula into more contemporary material.  Part of the fun of the original series was that in the 1970s and 80s, family vacations really did tend to be more adventurous.  Without the Internet for up-to-the-minute research, you often didn’t know what you might experience on the road.  Print materials and word of mouth was about all anyone had when trying to plan vacations.  America had not yet become as corporate and brand-oriented as it is today, and travel publications were only as current as the publish date.  The original Vacation and European Vacation successfully capitalized on this unpredictability of good travel information.

In the 90s the Griswolds took us on new adventures where the writers effectively adapted to the changing times.  By this time, many viewers felt they had been on the road with the Griswolds more than their own families.  Christmas Vacation flipped the formula to a stay at home vacation with relatives visiting; and Vegas Vacation (a great movie and a gem of a travelogue that everyone should see).  Audiences and critics alike were not bothered that the kids didn’t age and were never played by the same actors.

in the 2015 Vacation, by returning to the original cross country adventure, we are reminded of this adventurous feeling and the lure of the open road with its many surprises. I thought the writers/directors were reasonably creative in finding ways to meld together the generations.  But this may work best with true fans of the series,  This “old vs new” factor, may contribute to critics grumbling that the movie is contrived in places.  For example, when the family’s money is stolen, a reviewer was dismayed that there didn’t seem to be much repercussion.  I didn’t find this to be any kind of plot hole, this being the credit card age.  Rusty’s well meaning cluelessness was overdone in a couple of places but maybe that’s because he isn’t Chevy Chase.  My hopeful prediction is that Rusty will continue to find his way, and that we will continue to learn more about Clark and Ellen’s retirement years, as owner/operators of a bed and breakfast in San Francisco.

Definitely recommend the movie to fans of the original series, honestly not sure how new viewers will react.  There’s a lot to enjoy.   Supporting players are solid, including Ron Livingston as a rival airline pilot.  The single point deduction is for the writers getting a little extreme at times, which seems to be a facet of modern screenwriting.  Chevy Chase was the master of all things comedy from the understated to the physical, today’s writers could learn a lot from him.  Still, this was a fun night at the movies, looking back and looking ahead.

Here’s hoping that Cousins Eddie and Katherine return for one of the sequels!

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

RB Score:  5/10

How could this not have been good?

The loveable goofy trio from “Horrible Bosses” have figured out that by marketing their new invention, the “Shower Buddy”, they will be able to go into business for themselves and never, ever have a horrible boss again!  What we all dream of!  Having an awful boss is the day to day reality of people in America and probably around the world.  Hence, the premise of the original HB can’t help but strike a chord among vast audiences.   And if people can sympathize with the black-comedy premise that killing your boss is an acceptable solution, imagine the possibilities if the three “average guys” actually start their own business.  If anything, the sequel should have been able to connect with an even wider audience.  Alas, it isn’t all that good of a movie.  It made money at the box office so what do I know,  but unlike the original, in this sequel, the often offensive humor also often misses the mark.

As the movie opens, our three heroes, played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis and Charlie Day, are preparing to guest on a segment of “Good Morning America” to promote their exciting new invention.  The scene is quite well done in terms of the line delivery, the comic pacing, and the setting.  Unfortunately, this opening is also the movie’s apex in both comedy and creativity.    In the moments prior to going live, the guys are nervously chattering about what might be the best approach for this national TV appearance and at first, it sounds like a good idea to … just relax, and be themselves.  Cue Jason Bateman, who comments drily what a mistake that would be:  “No, ourselves is a dumpster fire.”  All agreed.  BE ANYONE BUT OURSELVES!!  Nice, nice intro.  It’s almost cruel actually, because it sets up an expectation that the rest of the movie will also be good, as in, for example, “We’re the Millers” which also stars Jason Sudekis and Jennifer Aniston, which held its own for the length of the film.  Here, the cast can only do so much when the writing is so damn stilted.

After the GMA appearance, there were other truly funny moments such as when they are hiring employees for their new production facility.  “Do you have any work experience?”  asks the Jason Sudekis character of each hot woman applicant.  When they answer “No” he says, “You’re hired!”  until Bateman’s character eventually explains to him why, as the employer, he can’t have sex with them.

Then…. well….  it’s like the writers gave up early.   Our heroes face endless obstacles.   The shock of being manipulated by a wealthy investor who turns out to be a cross between Gordon Gekko and Machiavelli sends the trio on revenge mission involving the kidnapping of the investor’s sociopathic son. Naturally, the scheme continually backfires, and there’s some comedy involved, but it also got tedious in places.  The 2 bosses that lived after the first movie and reprise their roles do so with differing results.  Kevin Spacey clearly relishes his role as the former dictator-boss now in prison, and speaks his lines with stage actor gusto.  Jennifer Aniston, on the other hand, was reduced into almost a cariacature of her previous role.   She’s now a recovering (sort of) sex addict who likes to “flip gays.”  I can’t make this stuff up.  In the effort to capitalize on her harassing aggressor persona, the writers seemed desperate. Lines such as “You’ve got three things sticking out, I’ve got three holes” should have never even made it into a first draft.    Poorly written dialogue appears to permeate the script throughout as the writers continued to take every gag to the illogical extreme.  This got old in the first movie, too, but it wasn’t as bad.  Even the way the three leads constantly trade lines and talk over one another to the point where it annoys the other characters onscreen… which is OK… is overdone to the point where it annoys the audience and not on purpose  which is not OK.

A couple of reviewers thought the script was lazy, but I can’t necessarily agree.  I didn’t see it as laziness, actually, the movie struggles under the weight of its needlessly convoluted plot.  There are still a few pearls in this sludge, if the viewer is patient enough to wash off the sludge in order to get the pearl, such as the illustration of billionare corrupt CEOS compared with the life of average workers in the US, or the fact that, the guys do not seem to ever learn anything from their misadventures.   Notably, when they go to visit Spacey again at the prison, we are reminded that they are still way too eager to seek approval from a bullying authority figure.

When the Jamie Foxx character makes the unsubtle point that they have crossed the line from being loveable goofs to actual criminals, the writers are either unwittingly or intentionally blasting a cannon sized hole in their own script.

I like some of what this movie is trying to say.  For example, the movie makes the point that everyone, no matter how rich and powerful, works for someone.   Let’s hope they get their act together for Horrible Bosses 3, because that will be coming.  RB is available to assist the writing team if needed.

Birdman (2014)

RB Score:  What was the Academy smoking?

Well, the critics too.  I’m at a total and complete loss trying to understand why the critics went crazy for this offbeat vehicle, when director Innaritu took shots at them right and left in the movie.   It was good, yes, but much like Spike Jonze’s “Her”, neither director really deserved the level of adulation they received.  For anyone who didn’t see this in the theatre and waited for DVD release, rejoice.  Last year’s Best Picture is now at Redbox.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning.  Best Picture and Best Director this is not.  Michael Keaton was likely robbed of Best Actor but I shouldn’t say that until I also see The Theory of Everything. Innaritu displays a bit of contempt for audiences too.  He’s got some good points to make about the moviegoing public and our often fickle tastes.  Now if that’s really a problem for someone who makes a ton of money from audiences buying tickets, it isn’t going to be solved with lazy filmmaking.  Yes, lazy.  I’ll get to why in a minute.

Remember when you were in college, or high school, and wrote an English paper you just thought was incredibly genius.  And the paper did start off strong.  Your friends read the first few pages and were intrigued.  As the due date became close, though, you didn’t quite know how to finish the paper and started running out of steam.  That is what happens to Birdman about half way through. Lacking any ideas for how to make the entire written project hang together, you end up with something that falls apart.  Similarly, Birdman starts to come off the rails when it starts trying to pretend it’s genius. The teacher returns your genius work with a B and some red ink comments about how you lost control of your structure.  But movie critics gave Innaritu all A+ reviews for a B- movie.

So the basic plot, incorrectly hailed by some critics as original, involves a former Hollywood action star trying to resurrect his career.  Critics, this is not actually original.  When did Hollywood first take this painful look at itself, was it in the 1950s, 40s… maybe even 30s?  In any case, not new.  That’s not to say the premise isn’t perpetually teeming with good script possibilities, because it certainly is.  And this isn’t a bad script.  There is actually a lot of decent writing here, and the roles for Keaton and his castmates are meaty and filled with dialogue.  I can imagine actors must love getting their teeth into roles like these.

The movie opens with Keaton sitting in his actor’s dressing room in his underwear, seemingly levitated, introducing the audience into the character’s fragile mental state early on.  This, for me, was among the positives as Innaritu does a commendable job of showing us the character’s progression down the road of a disassociative personality disorder of some sort.  Keaton’s Riggin is banking everything on the success of his new Broadway play, although he yearns inwardly to return to his Hollywood days.  His mental illness combined with the stress of his play opening start to take a heavy toll on his functioning; yet in his theatre world, he is often the most sane person in the room.

The cast is rounded out with the costars to be in Riggin’s play: Edward Norton, as the self absorbed and charismatic Mike; Naomi Watts as a beautiful yet insecure actress whose lifelong dream is appearing in a Broadway production; and Andrea Riseborough, a more grounded actress and Riggin’s love interest.  Zach Galifiankis plays a somewhat different role from his usual type as Riggin’s friend and agent.  Emma Stone plays Riggin’s formerly estranged daughter, a recovering addict.  Riggin’s ex-wife is played by Amy Ryan in one of the movie’s more underplayed roles.  The ex-Mrs. Thomson is noticeably older amongst all the young actresses in the film, but still attractive in a more world weary, compassionate way.  With a dynamite cast like this, you really don’t need showoff camera techniques or CGI for that matter.  I can’t comprehend why the director just didn’t let these actors do what they do best.

Speaking of the camera work, much has been written about the “long, continuous take”.  It can be very effective, for example in the opening sequence of Brian DePalma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” but for an entire movie it doesn’t seem to have the same impact, maybe because the novelty wears off, maybe because not all the scenes can possibly be unfolding in real time.  There are a few places where it does work, such as outdoors with the nightfall and sunrise, even then it’s not clear to me why that replaces a traditional cut as we all know that night doesn’t last for two seconds.  The following of people as they walk down the hall is an irritant.  Reportedly, Innaritu was very disdainful of audiences who didn’t appreciate how his movie was more than technique.  I can’t image what words he’d have for me as I don’t even appreciate the brilliant distraction of his technique. Where the film gets lazy is in its refusal to craft an ending that makes sense – in either direction.

The movie builds towards the ambiguous ending with several ambiguous scenes leading up to the conclusion (if you can call it that).  I read a review where the critic noted that for anyone who had worked in the theatre, they would totally understand the ending, but for the rest of us cretins (I’m paraphrasing) we are just too unenlightened to get it.  Yeah, okay.  Innaritu could have chosen to either make the imagery a reality (as in the ultimate imitation of art, by life) or, alternatively the culmination of a depressed mental state.  The latter would require a reworking of the ending where Emma Stone looks out of the hospital window.  The former would require several earlier scenes being revised.  Apparently Innaritu was either too lazy or too consumed by his own perceived level of brilliance.  I use the word “perceived” because there is nothing brilliant about trying to copy the swamp trash that was “Black Swan.”   It’s easy to see the elements of Swan that impressed Innaritu and how he then endeavored to incorporate them into Birdman.  I guess it worked for most in order to win Best Picture, but I’m thinking the director owes this entirely to his very talented cast.

EDIT:  After a couple days of pondering this film, which is more than I wanted to spend on doing so but it got under my skin, I’ve come up with something that makes sense, to me.  I did not read any online commentary prior to watching or posting my review, in order to keep the review honest (it may not be great but it’s honest) so I’ve been reading enough to know there are different accepted interpretations and that the writers themselves aren’t giving anything away.  I still find that more of a pretense than a device, but here goes. (Spoiler Alert but I’m probably the last person in the continental US to see it anyway)

Birdman more than likely dies on stage.  Yes, I know there are funeral images earlier in the film, but that could be foreshadowing the actual death instead of representation.  I think that the many images and clues have to do with the fact that Riggan is a man who died many deaths.  Part of him died when his marriage fell apart.  His career death was another of his many deaths.  The scene with Emma Stone where she really just tears into him, was another.  My reaction when watching that scene was “Oh my god, she is killing him.  She is killing his soul!”   When his girlfriend loses their baby and informs him of the loss, still another.  The run in with the critic, another.  Both Keaton and Norton play scenes in their underwear which brings home in a very stark way how actors are exposed as part of their job, when most of us have nightmares about such a level of emotional vulnerability.

But the true moment of death arrived when he shot himself.  In the following few seconds, his brain activity reflects what would make him feel loved and admired.  It has to be brain activity because none of it makes sense, starting with the standing ovation.  Someone shoots themselves on stage, the reaction is not going to be a standing ovation.  It will be screams and people rushing around and calling 911.  Yet, it was a standing ovation and the NY Times critic runs out of the theatre – an image that would make Riggan happy.  In the hospital, reconciled with his ex wife and daughter, then his agent comes by to tell him what a success he now is… it’s all there.  Finally he sees Birdman, in the toilet, humbled now, and leaves him there, because Riggan’s soul is now free to fly away. That’s my take and I think it adds up as well as anything can in this movie.

Boyhood (2014)

 

 

Boyhood

 

RB score:  8/10

 

Much has been written, and the critic ranks salivating, over the real time filming and aging of the entire cast. It is a remarkable technique. Because the children are so young when filming starts, we have a beautiful platform on which to observe how their acting skills contribute more to the picture as they get older. It’s more than a technique, it’s probably the single most brilliant element of this movie as a very subtle yet effective reinforcement of how kids are first a blank reflection of their parents and then grow to become individuals in their own right.

Mom Olivia, and Dad Mason, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette similarly start out the movie where we see much more of their screen presence and then over time began to appear in less screen time as the lives of their children Mason Jr. and Samantha, figure more prominently in the story.  It’s a story without any real plot, and no real beginning or end either.  This is not to imply that the scenes are bland; far from it.It’s riveting enough that most viewers may not even notice the almost 3 hours running time.  And you’ll find yourself wishing for another chapter.

Certainly it’s one of those recognized cinematic accomplishments where you won’t get the sense from reading the summary that it‘s something you should rush out to see. The bland, Hallmark like cover showing the cute little kid laying on the grass, also gives zero insight into the movie’s strengths. It is a whole lot of blank canvas that director and writer Linklater gives the viewer on which to paint.  Ellar Coltrane as Mason, through whose eyes the movie develops, delivers a somewhat passive performance, providing yet another canvas for the viewer.

Hawke gives a skilled, Oscar worthy performance as the sometimes there, sometimes absent Dad.  The actor benefits from being able to showcase the nicely detailed development of his character.  However it is Patricia Arquette who really carries the film with her performance, always struggling and always focused on doing right by her kids.  We are drawn closer to her character yet we have almost no window into her thoughts and feelings.  Linklater never tells us the reasons for Olivia’s bad men choices, and Arquette’s nuanced performance paves the way for numerous interpretations, or judgments.

The character of Olivia provides a key moment of directorial brilliance that occurs in about one second of film, when we see Olivia’s third husband sitting on the front porch of their home, waiting for Mason to come home.  In that second the viewer sees “CORRECTIONS” emblazoned on the back of Jim’s shirt. I will bet MY house that you are supposed to realize, if you didn’t already, that Olivia trades living in one man’s prison, for another, as a pattern in her life.  She has to move several times while her kids are in grade school, uprooting them and incurring much resentment, but always with the intent of seeking a better life for the family. Despite her determination in going to school at night and eventually landing a stable career as a teacher, you never get the sense that Olivia is really fulfilled by any of her accomplishments other than how she is able to provide for Mason and Samantha.

What surprises me most about the critic reaction to “Boyhood” is how many of them have grown to detest romcoms for being formulaic; I find most “coming of age” movies to be much more rigidly formulaic than most romcoms. Yet critics tend to adore them.  One of the few weaknesses is the same tired coming of age formula used in “Boyhood.”   It would be nice to see something on screen where it isn’t part of the formula that every kid experiences sex, alcohol or drugs or all three by the time they are 15. Many do, many don’t.  At least with this movie, the specific events are less the main story than they are more of a backdrop for the often gripping exploration of human connections. There are a couple of overly specific scenes that should have been edited out, but on the whole the vehicle really works.

8/10 for some minor quibbles I have.  “Boyhood” is now available on DVD; see it before Oscar night and let’s have a conversation.