Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Get These Monkeys Off My Back

As a super important future famous blogger, I've been attempting to up the ante with my movie reviewing over the past year, providing a frankly ridiculous amount of content on the off-chance that somebody wants to read 2,000 words about the splendors of The House on Sorority Row. But loath as I am to admit it, I am a fallible human. And the daunting list of movies I have yet to write about is weighing on me like the Earth's globe on Atlas' back.

What follows is four capsule reviews for films that I've seen over the past month but haven't had the time (or, frankly, the interest level) to fully explore in a broader article. You know, it might actually do me good to explore a shorter form of review writing. Consider this an experiment should I ever become the next Roger Ebert.

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year: 2014
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A washed-up movie star attempts to revive his career with a Broadway play.

Countless films have worried at the edge between reality and fantasy like a dog with its favorite bone, including two of my very favorite horror films, so Birdman is in good company. But, and I say this without even the faintest whiff of sarcasm: Birdman ain't no Wes Craven's New Nightmare

The cardinal sin of the "comedy" Birdman is that it takes itself far too seriously. Many of its core scenes and conceits are pitched up to a more over-the-top register that would best function as laugh-out-loud comedy, but there's only one single line in the film that is obviously intended to elicit a chuckle. The rest is as dour and self-serious as the rest of the Oscarbait in the worm bucket, and that weighs down the film like an anchor.

There is some interesting material to chew on about how social media is shaping our generation's perception of art and reality, as well as how actors can get so trapped within a famous role that it casts a shadow over their entire lives. This is interesting to film enthusiasts and (more importantly) members of the Academy, but it's remarkably separate from the reality of the average American filmgoer. It absolutely doesn't need to play to the lowest common denominator, but Birdman's sense of what "reality" actually is, is already so mired in artifice that the film loops around itself uselessly like when I try to put the garden hose away.

In the process of all this philosophizing, Birdman loses itself among a pile of heaving, exhausting Important Movie cliches, like the Inexplicable Lesbians, the Real Life Connection, and the All in One Shot gimmick. Slathered with some improperly proportioned magical realism, a variety of subplots that utterly fail to go anywhere at all, and an astonishingly artless ending, Birdman is a frustrating nut to crack.

But when you finally break through to that sweet sweet nut meat (I am writing this very late at night), there's something special in there. Birdman is a film with an impeccable sense of rhythm, a variety of delectable lighting arrangements, and a series of off-the-wall performances pulled from actors who really have no business being in a movie like this. Emma Stone rips a nothing part to pieces with a spiky vulnerability, Zach Galifianakis tones down his usual energy to become a wonderful straight man, and Edward Norton shines as a loose cannon actor with a feeble grip on his own humanity.

And, after all, Michael Keaton has been getting all the awards buzz, so let's not forget to mention him. Although he gave a Brave performance more than he gave a Great one, Keaton carries the movie on his back across the finish line. His imbues his character with a wild-eyed animalism that propels the narrative through its illusion of a single shot without a single hitch or draggy moment. 

For my purposes, it is not a truly remarkable film, at times veering into an immensely irritating one. But for art cinema-inclined viewers, Birdman is one to RedBox before it's too late.

Rating: 6/10

Edge of Tomorrow

Year: 2014
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An unwittingly drafted soldier finds that, every time he dies in battle, he wakes up the day before only to repeat his misery.

Edge of Tomorrow represents everything that's wrong with Hollywood today. 

By that I mean that it's a fantastic original movie, but it was misrepresented in advertising, brought in only slightly more than half its budget in box office, and was scuttled away to home video with a confusing new title to perish in ignominy.

It's a real shame. An adaptation of the manga All You Need Is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow presents a fun, fresh, sci-fi fueled twist to time loop storytelling, pitting Tom Cruise's eternal movie star glamor (which, as this movie proves, can survive even the weirdest twists and turns of his personal life - hail Xenu) against the endlessly unappreciated high caliber efforts of Emily Bunt. Blunt takes on the most kinetic, action-packed role of her career with aplomb, dragging a loopy sci-fi plot headfirst into gritty, believable reality.

On top of all of this, Edge of Tomorrow is, like, unbelievably funny. I'm serious. The film takes the notion of comic relief and stretches it liberally throughout the entire film like that Bible story with the fish. It's just shy of genuinely being classifiable as a "comedy," but it's a raucous good time all the same. The best part is that the humor bubbles up naturally from the situations and characters instead of being imposed upon the film by some unseen, arbitrary entity like certain of the more dour sequences in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The endless repetition of plot points that comes with the territory of time travel films is treated with fleet footing, capturing the highlights while always furthering its central story arc. Between the repeated story beats with ever-changing perspectives and the secretly pretty cool alien tentacle CGI, Edge of Tomorrow feels like a particularly difficult video game level and captures the intrinsic joy that comes with solving an intractable problem while simultaneously having a great time shooting bad guys into piles of goo.

But there's something pulsing beneath the surface, too. Both characters are recognizably human and have fully developed arcs. This is something that shouldn't even technically make sense considering that Emily Blunt's character resets at the beginning of each day, but the film is so invested in its storytelling that it works no matter the obstacle.

There are some technical difficulties that derail the film slightly, like an undercooked third act and a severe lack of proper lighting during several key sequences, but Edge of Tomorrow is wicked fun, and worth a watch from anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Which is pretty much everyone, because the world is a terrible, unfair place.

Rating: 8/10

Groundhog Day

Year: 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A curmudgeonly weatherman gets trapped in a time loop and is forced to repeat Groundhog Day endlessly until he becomes a better person.

Two guesses as to how I decided to pick this one.

Groundhog Day is an indisputable classic of the 90's comedy genre, one for which I have an immense amount of esteem and absolutely nothing new to say, so this will be my shortest review yet. Depending on your inclination, you may either cheer or jeer here.


Alright, we're back. Set in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxatawney, Groundhog Day is more than just the story of one man finding his inner Samaritan. It's about the clash between the town and the city folk, and the lack of respect for others that the city garners in otherwise good people. 

As Murray's weatherman discovers the better person inside of him, he simultaneously develops a working interest in the lives of those around him. It is these people more than anything who help make him better rather than any supernatural force or deus ex machina. And Bill Murray is at the top of his game, giving his sardonic bastard a likable humanity without letting his brittle exterior of the first act show any chinks in his armor. 

Subtextual undercurrents, Bill Murray being pitch perfect... Throw in a lush, reactive score, an inventive visual schema, and a hard-hitting lesson about the fact that, sometimes, bad things are destined to happen and there's nothing we can do about it, and you've got yourself an unforgettable comedy with real heart.

Oh, and Andie MacDowell is OK, but her accent is ridiculous.

Rating: 8/10


Year: 2014
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The true story of Cheryl Strayed, a kind of annoying hipster who decided that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail would solve all of her personal problems.

The next breadcrumb on our trail of Oscarbait leading us out of the 2015 Academy Awards is Wild, the first outing for Reese Witherspoon's new production company, Pacific Standard. I daresay, it's in good company with Birdman because it has several shining glimmers of pure cinema sandwiched in between what ends up being an immensely frustrating, self-indulgent project.

The biggest flaw of Wild is unfortunately inextricably attached to it: the subject matter. Based on the popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, the film necessarily must take on her character and situation at face value. The only problem is that, at all times, Cheryl Strayed can be relied upon to be the most douchey, irksome person in the room.

Now I'm not even referring to her backstory, which involves biblical amounts of heroin and cheating on her husband. That's par for the course in this kind of Find Your Clarity picture. What I'm referring to first and foremost is her habit of quoting famous authors in this manner: "I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost (and Cheryl Strayed) Like, what. Were you there helping him write his magnum opus, Cheryl? No you weren't. Now stop prancing about like you're so much better than everybody else and crapping all over authors you've never even read. So there.

I'm sorry. I just really despise Cheryl Strayed. At least as portrayed in the film, she is the worst kind of pretentious hipster and could hardly care less about the plight of other people, although her mind-altering journey is ostensibly about coping with the loss of her mother, played by Laura Dern over what adds up to about a minute of screen time. But enough about that.

I will give Wild this: When it makes an effort to be an art film, it really rises to the challenge of creating something visually stimulating. The rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness editing patterns link together disparate images in a reckless collage of life, at least in the patches where they crop up.

And Reese Witherspoon really does a terrific job here, for better or for worse, taking a physical challenge and inhabiting a role that drags her straight out of her comfort zone to expose some really raw, true emotion. She is also essential in providing the film's infrequent undercurrents of humor, which are a welcome presence in the midst of such a straightforward story.

I have my doubts as to whether the conclusion of the story is as clear-cut as screenwriter Nick Hornby seems to think it is, but when it comes amidst such a magnetic performance and easy, beautiful visuals, it's not hard to ignore. All in all, Wild is a plus, but for a great deal of the time it wastes a lot of its energy pushing against that current.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 2007

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