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Maps To The Stars (2014)

4 Mar

Ah, to be David Cronenberg.

The Provocateur’s 21st (!!!) feature film Maps To The Stars marks a true return to form for the director, after his previous film Cosmopolis underperformed critically and commercially back in 2012.  Ever since 2006’s excellent A History of Violence, Mr. Cronenberg seems to have abandoned his gore-filled fascination with bodily horror in favor of darkly and subtly examining the psychological horror embedded deep within ourselves. Maps To The Stars is no different. 

The Film focuses on an atypical hollywood family, particularly when Agatha Weiss (played brilliantly by Mia Wasikowska) comes back home from a mysterious Florida trip. Her mother and father (played by Olivia Williams and John Cusack) each have their own set of issues at play, most of which become increasingly complicated with Agatha’s unwelcome return.  Thier troubles don’t hold a candle to actress Havana’s (Julianne Moore) however, as she is on the brink of scoring the film role of a lifetime, and in a strange coincidence, hires Agatha as her personal assistant or self described “chore-whore”. 

One of Maps’ greatest highlights is in it’s casting. Appearances by Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon round out a wonderfully dark and amusing bunch of performances, and newcomer Evan Bird provides a very unorthodox look at child acting.  At times the script wanders aimlessly into rants about love, destiny, and forgiveness. At other times it divulges into vigana jokes.

Darkly bizarre and completely entrancing, Maps To The Stars certainly is poised to stir up quite the talk among hollywood circles, and deserves our full attention. Cronenberg has a knack for exposing and reveling in the hidden fears and desires of his characters and this film is one of his best examinations of the egocentric and conflicted mind at work. With an obvious distain (possibly even hatred) for the hollywood lifestyle Maps effectively disseminates the frail and futile search for personal fulfillment in a land riddled with commercial exploitation and extravagance.

This film is 100% Cronenberg at his most cynical best. The ugly characters manipulate, control and exploit one another, in the convoluted, erratic, and thorny environment that is the modern film industry. While the film does speak at multiple levels, it becomes clear early on that Cronenberg has developed a singular message: despite its glitzy and star-gazed appeal, there is a treacherous, cold, and violent facet of hollywood lurking just beneath surface.

Bottom Line: With an ensemble cast, Maps To The Stars makes for some ugly but fascinating viewing and a true return-to-form for Cronenberg.

Rating – 7/10 

Film Recipie: Cosmopolis (2012) + Nightcrawler (2014) + Mulholland Dr. (2001) 

 

A Most Violent Year (2014)

20 Jan

Director and screenwriter J.C. Chandor reaches auteur status with his latest drama featuring outstanding performances from Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and (should have been nominee) Oscar Isaac as a business couple facing increasing pressures during a desperate property purchase. The film marks Chandor’s third feature following 2013’s excellent survival drama All Is Lost

The year is 1981, and crime rates in New York City have just reached an all-time high. Our protagonist Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), is the proud owner of a Standard Oil branch and he is about to close on a very important piece of property that would connect and open up his business in a new part of town. Violent attacks on Abel’s oil trucks are becoming more and more common as he is reaching a settlement with the previous property owners, creating doubt and an uneasy tension between his business’ financial investors. Adding to the mix is the local District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), who has a serious determination to prosecute Standard Oil for fraud.

A Most Violent Year is a fantastic film that deeply examines one’s determination to make it to the top. In a brilliant character display, Chandor gives his audience a detailed look at the complex frustrations that make his characters tic while under enormous amounts of stress. It’s a brilliantly written piece as well with many unexpected moments that do not distract from the overall narrative. Isaac, (who proved himself a serious dramatic actor worth keeping an eye on in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis) returns in full force here with one of the year’s best performances. Jessica Chastain’s role is equally as impressive (a complete snub at this year’s Oscar Nominations) as Abel’s mysterious and calculating wife Anna who is in charge of the administration and financial side of Standard Oil.

As an introspective character piece that still manages to be grippingly tense, A Most Violent Year is one of 2014’s best films because of Chandler’s superb craftsmanship and his commitment to telling complex adult fare reminiscent of early Scorsese or Coppola. The fact that this film didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination still has me perplexed.

Rating – 8/10 

Similar to: Mean Streets (1973), The French Connection (1971), Margin Call (2011) 

 

Foxcatcher (2014)

20 Jan

“Coach is the father. Coach is a mentor. Coach has great power on athlete’s life.” These words, uttered by John du Pont (Steve Carell) in the drama Foxcatcherecho with a slightly sinister tone in the minds of Olympic athletes Mark and Dave Schultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively).  The film follows the story of these two brothers, who both took home Olympic gold medals for the US Wrestling Team, as they encounter the enigmatic figure of du Pont, a millionaire wrestling fan and self-described patriot. Mark, who has long been struggling in the shadow of his older brother’s athletic achievements, is persuaded by du Pont to come and train on his private family-fun Foxcatcher Farms, in order to better prepare for the upcoming World’s Tournament and 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games. “I want to see America gain her roots back” du Pont says, as one of his many motivating monologues to help Mark reach another Olympic gold. Mark makes an agreement to train on Foxcatcher Farms under du Pont’s specific conditions, while Dave declines the invitation in order to spend more time with his wife and children. This creates an uneasy tension between the three characters, which ultimately escalates into one of the most bizarre true stories in recent sports history.

Directed by Bennet Miller, Foxcatcher is a deeply felt character-driven drama of an inexplicably strange relationship between coach and athlete. The film was originally slated for a 2013 awards-season run, but was ultimately shelved for late 2014 due to an over-crowded awards season. Oscar contender Steve Carell (who does a complete 180 here in a play against his typical comedic types) gives a frightfully convincing portrayal of the millionaire bird aficionado. A shoe-in for this year’s Best Actor in a Leading Role, Carell is meticulously good, nailing both the mannerisms and speech patterns of the late du Pont (go watch the real du Pont’s speaking videos afterwards, and you will be in awe). For the entire running time you can tell there is something off about his character, and his increasingly off-kilter behavior grows more bizarre with each minute onscreen.  Another well known comedy actor, Channing Tatum, also plays against type in a serious dramatic role. His performance is a bit more subtle than the eccentric Carell, but he effectively brings out the full physicality and explosive nature of competitive wrestling. And we can’t forget about Mark Ruffalo.  The long underrated actor gets his chance to shine more than once, and  100% deserves his Best Supporting Actor nom (though it’s looking likely the Oscar will go to JK Simmons at this point).

I haven’t been a huge of a fan of Miller’s work as the Academy, (both his previous films Moneyball and Capote were also Best Picture nominees) but I do think Foxcatcher is without a doubt his best film yet. The film showcases what Miller does best by taking nuanced and vulnerable characters and having them interact in unusual and explosive ways. Unfortunately, its 134 minute running time feels a little too lengthy and the action is often drawn out between ineffective long shots; shave off 20 minutes or so and you would have a near dramatic masterpiece. As it stands however, Foxcatcher is a solid film boasting some of the year’s best acting work, and will serve as a highlight and strong contender in this year’s awards season.

Rating – 7/10 

Similar to: There Will Be Blood (2007), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Master (2011) 

Predestination (2014)

16 Jan

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? It’s a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries, but never been presented quite so vividly as in the Australian thriller Predestination.

Directed by the Spierig brothers and starring Ethan Hawke, Noah Taylor and newcomer Sarah Snook, the film takes place at an unknown time in the future where time travel is illegal but certain men called loopers travel to the past in order to take care of crimes before they have been committed.  OK – wait, that’s a different movie – but the setup is the same. Ethan Hawke plays the unnamed time traveler who travels back to take care of one last job before retiring. A terrorist known only as the Fizzle Bomber has killed hundreds and it’s up to our nameless hero to travel back in time and kill him before he can strike again…  thus resolving a terrorist act before its even committed.

Despite its high-minded ambition and “R” rating, Predestination has the look and feel of a major studio blockbuster aimed at young adults. The film’s first act is set up through an unnecessary framing device which acts as an audience conduit for the tricky time travel puzzles that await the last half. It’s a cool concept (something Christopher Nolan would be proud of) that grips the audience’s attention in the moment, but it’s only when thinking about the film afterwards when one realizes how preposterous it all is.

There are some half-hearted attempts to introduce some deeper material here, particularly with themes involving personal identity and gender roles, but they get washed out in the great semi-cerebral time/puzzle stuff. Your characters mostly exist for Inception-esc exposition; Noah Taylor’s character seems to pop up at just the right times to answer the audience’s questions and reassure everyone that what we are seeing does make logical sense afterall. Films like this always have their own set of rules and logic to follow and Predestination is no exception, and as with all time travel films, a great suspension of disbelief is required. It’s a fun trip overall, but there is some really interesting character material that should have been fleshed out more in the film’s third act. Despite it being mostly a surface level puzzle film that gains it’s awe from a cheap reveal (The Usual Suspects anyone?), Predestination is still a notable and ambitious film that showcases the talent of a new face (Sarah Snooke). It’s a good time travel film thats just teetering on the edge of being a great one – if only it wouldn’t pride itself more in its concept than execution.

Rating – 6/10 

Similar to: Looper (2012), Timecrimes (2007), Minority Report (2002) 

Inherent Vice (2014)

8 Jan

Paul Thomas Anderson, known for his recent exploration of introspective personalities with films like There Will Be Blood or The Master, returns to creating ensemble work with Inherent Vice, the first filmic adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Pynchon is known for his complex narratives with dizzying amounts of characters and Anderson does a great job letting that complexity come to the surface here. In fact it’s too great.

The convoluted story starts with a private investigator named Doc (played by Joaquin Phoenix) having a conversation with his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) about a Los Angeles real estate mogul named Wolfman. This evolves into a kidnapping conspiracy where Shasta plots to have Wolfman’s wife’s lover committed to an insane asylum in an attempt to take his money. And that train of thought dissolves into dope-riddled and paranoia fuelled investigation when Doc and his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) cross paths with a determined cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), an FBI drug junkie/informant (Owen Wilson) and his wife (Jenna Malone) and Doc’s DA girlfriend Penny (Reese Witherspoon) and her involvement in a sketchy dentist operation led by Dr. Blatnoid (Martin Short) and his 18-year old lover Japonica (Shasha Pieterse) and how her dad might have a connection with Bigfoot’s former partner, and something about a ship called the Golden Fang and lots and lots of hallucinogens. All the while, Doc’s experiences are being narrated to us by a character named Sortlilege (Joanna Newsom) who may or may not just be a figment of Doc’s odd imagination. I couldn’t spoil this film if I wanted to because I’m still not sure what happens.

Anderson’s seventh film really gives us a lot to chew on. Right from the offset, Inherent Vice never takes a break from characters spouting out information to each other in classic noir fashion. So and so has gone missing; so and so is protected by the aryan brotherhood; so and so has the cops watching their back. The movie makes a point to tell us we should be caring about what’s going on, but the quick pacing and sprawling stream-of-consciousness the film proudly demonstrates makes it so damn hard to actually pay attention. In his dedication to staying true to Pynchon’s signature narrative style and tone, Anderson has made us lose track of why we should even care. At a massive 148 minutes, the films far too long, even though the audience barely gets time to think about what’s taking place between the scenes of loaded dialogue.  The many bizarre characters give us something to giggle about from time to time, but Inherent Vice is far from a crowd-pleasing comedy and the narrative is composed of little puzzles stacked against each other.

The biggest puzzle of all might be that this is directed by the same man who gave us Punch-Drunk Love and Magnolia – two of the best examples of character examinations in modern cinema. Why then does everyone in Inherent Vice seem so distant an unrelatable? Perhaps in his uncompromising attempt to capture the multiple details of Pynchon’s web (that works so well in literally form) Anderson forgot his most important role is to please his audience.

It might be a misfire from the man Ben Affleck praised as “a modern day Orson Welles“, but there is still something entrancing about Anderson’s wacked-out period piece. Maybe it’s the groovy free-flowing style or stellar production design or the many sexy-but-subtle performances that make Inherent Vice worth the watch – just don’t expect to make sense of what you are actually watching.

Rating – 6/10 

Similar to: Boogie Nights, The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski

 

Birdman (2014)

28 Nov

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige” remarks Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a method actor recently hired to play a key part in Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Directed by veteran dramatic director Alejandro Inarritu (21 Grams, Amos Perros, Biutiful), Birdman follows a Broadway stage production over the course of several days, capturing the cynical characters of it’s production. The film’s titular character is actually the superhero alter ego of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up, aging actor set on reclaiming his past glory by directing and starring in his own play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Riggan has faded from glory since his role in the blockbuster Birdman films, and though his influence in the artistic community is waning, Riggan is committed to becoming the Next Big Thing. Living partly in his fame-seeking fantasy world guided by the Birdman character from his films, Riggan’s desperate attempts at producing an authentic work of art collides with disillusionment with reality and increasing disconnect with those around him.

Despite Inarritu’s affinity for the bleak and somber, Birdman is incredibly upbeat and vibrant. Keaton is fantastic as the leading role, and gives a performance that is both inspiring, bizarre and desperately meta (Keaton himself was the star of Tim Burton‘s successful Batman films from the early 90’s). Norton’s performance of Mike Shiner is also fantastic as he is essentially playing a younger, more successful version of Riggan. The rest of the all-star cast is composed of Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/agent Jake, Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam, and the always-excellent Naomi Watts as Lesley, the actress and former lover of Mike.

Birdman is entirely shot in one simulated take, giving the audience a feel that we are watching a play-within-a-play unfold as characters come and go on set and in between acts. The camera acts as a sort of character itself, swooping in and out of scenes at will, sometimes tracking characters for 20 minutes or more. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch, and should make for a shoe-in Best Cinematography nominee come Oscar time.

Though Birdman makes a point to capture various points of view, most of the drama revolves around Riggan’s denial of reality and constant distance from those closest to him – namely, his daughter and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Though I was expecting a bit more laughs in something billed as a “Dramedy Satire”, Birdman provides some incredibly thought-provoking commentary about fame, relationships, and staying relevant in an increasingly disconnected world.

Rarely is the existential crisis this cool.

Similar to: Adaptation (2002), Magnolia (1999), Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Rating: 8/10 

Nightcrawler (2014)

16 Nov

Jake Gyllenhaal has hit a hot streak.

Coming fresh off a “renaissance” period of high-profile roles (Prisoners, Enemy, End of Watch, and Source Code), Gyllenhaal plays our leading man in Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom, an unemployed LA native looking for his next gig.  Circumstances allow him to become a self-employed photojournalist, capturing horrific and often gruesome incidents on video which he then sells to the highest-paying news station.

Like its title would suggest, Nightcrawler is a dark, slimy film that brings out the best acting work from Gyllenhaal. His performance as a self-motivated entrepreneur is no doubt the film’s highlight, though the story also provides some pretty fascinating commentary on the seedy activity of modern city life.  The script is mostly dialogue-driven, and director Dan Gilroy keeps the few action scenes tight and suspenseful. Darkly-lit cityscapes and warbling guitars add to the film’s pervasive atmosphere and create a drab background for our characters to fill. Supporting Gyllenhaal are Riz Ahmed as Lou’s assistant Rick, and Rene Russo in an excellent role as Nina, the egotistic head of a local news station.

Despite the great performances, the script does feel a bit chunky at times; exchanges about the narcissistic nature of capitalism start to lose their edge about halfway through. The prevailing themes about power-hungry corporate culture become less subtle and more satiric as the film progresses.

Thematic elements aside, Nightcrawler moves at a fast and fluid pace. Audiences barely have time in between sequences of brutal news footage and car chases to comprehend the full weight of Lou’s gutsy (and often unethical) actions.  The film has it’s moments of dark humor too, most often with the contrast of charismatic Lou and his passive sidekick Rick.  A scene where Rick tries Lou’s negotiating tactics against him is particularly brilliant.

Visually, the film looks incredible; gorgeous shots of nighttime city streets give the film a slick, noir feel reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. It becomes clear by the end of the film however, that even the most glitzed and stylish among us have a dark underbelly waiting to be explored. Or Exploited.

 

Rating 7/10 

Similar to: Taxi Driver, Killing Them Softly, American Psycho