Exploring one’s potential in ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’

Rating 4/5

Birdman was released in 2014 and captured four Oscars during award season the following year. And is it me, or do a majority of the films that get nominated seem to come out towards the end of the year? Anyhow, the film won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Birdman also took home a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and Best Actor.

What captivated me most about the film were the style of directing and the use of the camera. Alejandro González Iñárritu has a directing style apart from other directors. Iñárritu’s creativity shines with this production and is particularly effective in bringing the character intimacy to each character throughout the film. His use of a continuous flowing shot to move through the scenes in this film added to the frantic mood the protagonist was experiencing. Some may have been put off by this technique, but I felt it brought me closer to the characters in their moments.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who played a fictional superhero, Birdman, years earlier. Trying to find what is important to him and to revive his career he writes, directs, and stars in a play about to open on Broadway. His co-stars Mike (Edward Norton), Lesley (Naomi Watts), and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) examine their lives as they prepare for opening night and spend their days navigating the complicated game of life and the theatre world. Emma Stone portrays Riggan’s estranged daughter, Sam, and offers a strong performance.

Iñárritu adds another player in the film with the music throughout the scenes. Drummer Antonio Sanchez underscored scenes revealing Riggan’s thoughts and feelings through the beats and rhythm of the percussion. It brings out Riggan’s struggles as he deals with money, critics and his own personal ego to make sure this project does not come up short of the success he needs.

Maybe that’s another reason why I was drawn to this film. It is about actors and their craft. It is about the theatre world. Just about any film that deals with actors being actors and the daily circumstances leading up to opening night holds my interest because I have been in that world (mostly on the collegiate level) as an actor and a member of the production team, including sound designer. So I know how important light, sound, and music can be to a show.

Theatre is a collaborative art. Birdman is collaborative too. It is a beautifully crafted film, rich with exciting performances and originality. It is based on the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver. From the writing by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, to the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman explores the inner dilemmas (particularly Riggan’s) and the struggle to become more than a mere mortal.

 

 

A murder mystery unfolds in ‘All Good Things’

Rating 3/5

The title of the movie comes from the name of a health food store that plays a small part within the film’s narrative. It seems to take actual events and puts them into this mysterious crime story written by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling and is directed by Andrew Jarecki. It moves along at a slow pace through most of its 101-minute runtime but picks up more in the final act.

The story revolves around David Marks (Ryan Gosling) who marries free-spirited Katie (Kirsten Dunst). They live a happy life in Vermont where they open the health foods store. All is well until David’s father, Sanford (Frank Langella), who owned valuable real estate property that included strip clubs, massage parlors, and so on, wants David to join the family business. After a while, David returns to New York to join his father, while Katie lives a quiet, unhappy existence. A little time passes and David begins to change from the person Katie fell in love with and married. The marriage begins to fall apart. Katie disappears. She is never found again.

The narrative begins in the seventies and goes through Katie’s disappearance in 1982 to the early 2000’s. Gosling does well here in the role of David, which is pivotal to the story. He plays the character with a low-key performance as needed at the beginning. So as we go through the story we can see his character’s transformation unfold through the years.

Katie struggles to see who David is and his dramatic transformation. Kirsten Dunst plays her as a loving, kind woman and changes to a quiet desperation as she attempts to understand her husband’s transformation until her disappearance.

It is through two separate murder investigations of Malvern Bump (Philip Baker Hall) and Janice Rizzo (Diane Venora) that David’s life is revealed. Looking into his life, through his relationship with his wife and her vanishing to his relationships with Bump and Rizzo, David is suspected of being involved with his wife’s disappearance and with the two murders, but is never charged.

While the film had a somewhat compelling story and varying characters, the ending seemed, to some extent, a bit confusing. I was unclear to the outcome of what actually happened to Katie and it left me unsatisfied on some level. Of course, maybe that was the film’s intent. At any rate, the story and characters held me enough to be entertaining and enjoyable.

 

Deception prevails in ‘Basic’

Rating 2/5

A movie starring names like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson you think would deliver something more. I thought this would be a solid military thriller that would bring some decent action and story to the audience. While the film did have some action, a story, and varied characters, what was left was a contrived piece of film that didn’t reveal itself until the final few minutes of runtime in which I was relieved it was finally over. Deception prevails. Not just in the film’s storyline but for the audience as well.

I’m not sure what writer James Vanderbilt was trying to accomplish. I suppose it was an attempt to intrigue and entertain the audience, but this audience was not amused. It had a decent set up and got the story going into the second act but then slowly unraveled until the final, even more confusing (for lack of a better word), third act. The movie’s direction seemed instinctive, based on the material presented in the script, but director John McTiernan failed to give it any real life.

I don’t even want to attempt to give a synopsis or give away any plot, as I do not want to confuse myself or the reader. That is not to say I am easily confused, but as the story kept unfolding and revealed twist after twist, I became disengaged from the film. And then I found myself just waiting for the final act to complete so I could put away the madness. Maybe some people are entertained by that sort of thing. However, I like some plot twists and turns as much as the next eager movie-goer, but when it seems to go on and on as in this film, it just sort of takes me out. I mean it seemed like most of the second act had several surprising twists. And this went right on in through the third act.

The performances were nothing extraordinary, but catered to the needs of the film. Travolta played his character with energy and charisma as a DEA investigator. Jackson gave his usual commanding, foul-mouthed, performance as a military sergeant. Connie Nielsen, Tim Daly, Harry Connick, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt, Taye Diggs, Dash Mihok, Cristian de la Fuente, and Roselyn Sanchez round out the main cast and played their respective roles well, but there just didn’t appear to be anything that made these characters really stand out and care for what happened to them.

I gave it my best. Basic was released in 2003. I first saw this film maybe a year or so after it was released. I recently came across it and thought I would give it another viewing. I remember it having some twists in it but not like this. If I were to view the film again and again, there might be some subtle hints to piece together the story and plot, but I don’t think I could sit through another take on it. Most likely if it didn’t really catch my interest to begin with, then it would be likely it wouldn’t catch my interest for a third or fourth time. Even with the charisma and energy from the actors, seemingly confident production team, and experienced director, the film fell into a huge mess of a storm like the hurricane depicted in the film.

 

 

 

Feathers are ruffled in ‘The Angry Birds Movie’

Rating 2/5

In 2009, a video game application came on the scene available for download on your Smartphone – Angry Birds. It quickly became a popular download and has crossed into other platforms such as tablets and Facebook applications and has reached into other pieces of merchandise. And seven years later in 2016, it became an animated film.

Some may call it a cartoon. But it seems the term animation has come into play within the last several years and that’s exactly what it is – animation. This medium is very prevalent in today’s storytelling movie-going experience. And it can be an effective way to tell a story. That’s one strength with the film in that the animation is well done and there is nearly the look and feel of the video game. That being said, there are flaws with the film.

I’m sure most everyone is familiar with the game and this film version stays pretty faithful to it. It’s simple. Piggies come to Bird Island and offer peace and friendship. That is until they discover the birds’ eggs. The piggies hatch a plan to steal all of the eggs for themselves. So the birds attack the pigs to get their eggs back. This is the concept for the game and plays well for the latter part of the film, but for the 97-minute runtime it makes for a long exposition.

That exposition involves a basic backstory, some music, and some sight gags that give a reason for these birds to exist. It doesn’t seem this is enough to fill the needed time with satisfactory material for an engaging, entertaining film. It does have moments and the animation is colorful and is true to the game, but it does little to add to the overall enjoyment of the film.

We are introduced to the three protagonists – Red (Jason Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad), and Bomb (Danny McBride) – who lead the attack on the pigs. Other big names lend their voices to the birds and give them personalities and somewhat entertaining characters. A few of those names are Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage, Sean Penn, and Keegan-Michael Key. To lead the pigs is Leonard (Bill Hader), who is the most distinct pig character as the rest lack individuality. For the most part, these characters seem to be the only lively thing in the film.

Co-directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly do what they can with the material presented in the script by Jon Vitti. So while the premise works well for a game, it doesn’t do so well for feature length animation. I’m not sure if there would be anything else one could change or add to the script to make it more enjoyable, but it seems this was a futile attempt in trying to capitalize on the franchise.

 

 

 

‘Super’ tells crime to shut up

Rating 3/5

I had reservations while viewing this film. Like a previous statement I made “You can’t judge a film by its trailer,” so it is with this film. It seems to be billed as a comedy, but plays out in an entirely different way. I can see where some might be turned off and find it unlikable. But if you put away any preconceived ideas and expectations you may have (like expecting something funny and upbeat) and open up to what the film is, it might just be bearable, or even enjoyable. And, despite its themes and explicit action, Super does have its merits.

With this film, writer-director James Gunn appears to ask the question, “What lengths would go to if your wife fell under the influence of bad people?” He takes a real situation and turns it into a somewhat authentic reality. There is some humor in the film, but again, the trailer seemed misleading here. I don’t think Gunn intended this to be a straightforward comedy, or even a black comedy. And while the film turned a corner and strayed off the comedy path, the characters stayed true to themselves and played through the story’s action throughout the film.

While themes may be blurred and the film’s purpose may be unclear at times, it does have varied and somewhat interesting characters. And since the characters are more or less drawn into a seemingly real situation, one might wonder what someone else would do in a similar situation. Maybe not to the extent our main character goes to in the film, but some other similar action.

Super is a character driven film and seems to be driven by the lead character, a short-order cook, Frank (Rainn Wilson). Frank is an average guy and is married to, what he thinks is the woman of his dreams, Sarah (Liv Tyler). Sarah is a recovering addict and is then caught up in the hands of a slick drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). When Sarah goes missing, Frank is determined Jacques had something to do with that and is determined to get her back. While watching a Christian cable channel, he gets a notion to emulate a superhero that stops evildoers with the power of God. Looking for more inspiration, Frank goes to a comic book store where he meets Libby (Ellen Page), a lively clerk who knows her comic superheroes. To get to Jacques, Frank dons the identity of a masked superhero, the Crimson Bolt, and takes the motto, “Shut up, crime!” Armed with a large wrench, he takes on evil wherever it may be by hiding behind dumpsters all day waiting for crime to happen.

What Frank becomes seems more like a mad man beating people senseless over petty things. But ultimately what drives him is stopping the ultimate evil, Jacques, and getting Sarah back. Libby finds out Frank is the Crimson Bolt and then becomes his junior sidekick, Boltie. She then helps Frank take on crime and go after Jacques.

The performances here are nothing stellar, but they do provide interesting enough dynamics in their character relationships that add enough to the story that kept me involved. As I said earlier, the film takes the audience for a ride by teasing one type of film and then exploding in a different direction. That may be off putting to most people, including me. But as a viewed the film, Frank became a character I connected with and wanted to see the outcome to the end. Super is not your ordinary superhero movie. Nor is it a laugh-a-minute riot. It may not be super, but it does have some merit.

 

 

 

 

Some laughs in ‘Daddy’s Home,’ but don’t stay long

Rating 2.5/5

It feels like we were led to believe that Daddy’s Home was going to be a crazy, wildly funny comedy from the previews. Like the saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the same goes for films I suppose in that “You can’t judge a film by its trailer.” I like both of the lead actors, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, as actors. But in this film, they play as most of Ferrell’s other “screwball” comedies.

Daddy’s Home has a decent message about family and the value of special bond between father and son and husband and wife. Indeed, there are some comical moments and tension between the two characters as they vie for the affection of the children and the mother of those children. For that message, the film seems to achieve some success but falls flat with the comic bits and performances.

The story seems simple enough. Brad Whitaker (Ferrell), a radio executive is married to Sara (Linda Cardellini) who has two children, Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), and tries to fit in with the family. Enter the biological father Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg), who comes in for a visit and stays longer than expected. He left the family because he couldn’t handle doing the “father” thing. He comes back and declares he has changed and wants to be part of the family again as he sees Brad moving in on his family.

Director Sean Anders tries his best with the material in which he co-wrote with Brian Burns and John Morris. The direction seemed to lack the energy needed to make the film’s action come to life. It almost seemed like he wasn’t sure what the film was supposed to be, a raucous comedy or a light-hearted comedy about family values and fatherhood. The film had its potential, but not even the big names of Ferrell and Wahlberg truly save the film. Not even the supporting cast like Thomas Haden Church as Brad’s boss or Hannibal Buress as a handyman, who begins living with the family for some reason after being fired by Brad, appear to really add much to the film, although there were a few moments here and there. But these moments seem to come too little too late.

This film was released at Christmas in 2015. Although it did have a Christmas scene, it fails to deliver much Christmas cheer as it surely hoped to reach.

 

‘The Magnificent Seven,’ a classic story of good and bad

Rating 3/5

I’ve said many times that they just don’t make movies like they did in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I mean I haven’t come across too many (from the films I have seen) that have not delivered in some fantastical way to say, “That was a great film.” And while this film was a great film and I did enjoy it, something missed for me in its final production.

Some may say this is one of the greatest films of all time. They may even say it’s one of the best westerns of all time. Either way, I can’t really argue. What missed for me were parts of the first act and small portions of the middle seemed to drag a little, which then threw the pacing off for me. Not enough to take me out of the film entirely, but just enough skew my impression of the film. But I figured with the recent remake released, I would take a look at this one (which is an Americanized version of the Japanese film, Seven Samurai).

The story is set in a small farming village, just south of the border. A bandit named Calvera (Eli Wallach) rides in with his army of bandits and steals most everything he can get his hands on. The villagers decide they should fight back. A few head north to buy guns so they can fight back. Instead, they meet Chris (Yul Brynner), a gunfighter who recommends they hire men to help with their problem rather than buy guns. Chris then agrees to help, recruiting six other gunfighters, each with different backgrounds. He ultimately rounds up the six others and together they ride back to the village. The odds seemed stacked against them, but with faith and determination on their side, well…odds be damned.

The acting lineup was superb and each actor brought his own to the characters and commanded the use of dialogue from writer William Roberts. Most of these actors were relatively unknown at the time, with the exception of a few. But they played their roles well and commanded the screen with their presence. Brynner leads the cast with Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, and Horst Buchholz rounding out the Magnificent Seven. Taking his turn as the antagonist is Wallach. These character portrayals are genuine and bring individuality, which adds to the unique chemistry between them. They don’t really have any other commitments. They go along from job to job just living their lives, which propels them to do the best job they know how.

Director John Sturges blends together the action, dialogue, and story into a thrilling, nearly linear, adventure (except for those aforementioned parts of the film). This straight forward approach to the film brings the characters to the forefront that much more with each character’s varied and interesting backgrounds. The story, character interactions, and the gun fights are what kept me wanting to see the film to the end. The cinematography and music, helmed by Charles Lang and Elmer Bernstein respectively, added much to the film while underscoring key elements such as the gun fights or the lower, deeper music played when the bad guys entered the frame. And the fact the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Musical Score, proves the great effect it had on the film and audiences.

The Magnificent Seven runs 128 minutes (which might account for some of the slow pacing moments), but it gets into the story and characters quickly and gives the audience what it needs to go along for the ride. It might be just shy of magnificent, but it holds its own and has become an instant classic.