Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interstellar



For seven weeks now I have avoided reading any reviews of this film because I wanted to experience it with a clear and open mind. This would usually have been a film that would have been an opening night must for me, but circumstances have put it off for a substantial period. I can now add my two cents to the discussion, although at this point most of you will have formed your own opinions. "Interstellar" is maybe the most ambitious, intelligent and creative science fiction films made in the last fifty years. It has no fantasy elements to it, and it is deeply seated in the hard science realm of quantum physics, but it is more than anything a story about human beings rather than technology.

The Nolan brothers have a pretty clear opinion on how our science dollars are spent. The idea that short term objectives should take precedence over long term goals is an anathema to them. An early scene at young Murphy Cooper's school tells us exactly what foolishness comes from being narrow focused. It also shows how dangerous the conspiracy theories that thrive on the internet are. There is also a healthy bit of skepticism concerning federalization of the education process. Almost none of this is important to the plot but it is essential to the sensibilities of the film maker. This is a "can do" civilization and we need to keep that belief in something greater alive.

A seemingly terminal malaise has settled over the Earth as blight is decimating agriculture and the population of the planet has been diminished by a variety of  circumstances. Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, an engineer and former NASA pilot who has been relegated to the role of farmer, as has most of the world in trying to cope with massive famine. He and his ten year old daughter Murph, discover an anomaly with gravity that leads them to a secret plan to save civilization in one form or another. The team is lead by another father/daughter combination physicist Professor Brand, Nolan regular Michael Caine, and his daughter played by Anne Hathaway. They need Cooper to lead an expedition to a different star system that is being explored for habitable planets. Of the dozen scout ships sent forth only three appear to have survived and found somewhere promising. Because travel through a worm hole in space allows them to reach those destinations in relatively short times on a human scale, the passage of time on Earth will be longer and Cooper's family will grow old before he will ever make it back. This is the point where most of us who have only a passing knowledge of science need to have some exposition. The pacing of the first act is leisurely with a building sense of dread. Once the mission starts, there are some pauses in the action to bring everyone up to speed on the physics. This becomes a time travel story in the sense that different groups will be experiencing time in different ways during the course of the story. I'm sure there are experts out there who will nit pick the science here the way that was done for "Gravity" last year.  As a viewer of the film, I felt sufficiently informed to be able to follow the ideas up through the climax of the film. Once we arrive at the final explanation, I did feel a little lost, even though I could follow the story line. The pace of the movie picks up and with that urgency, the exposition becomes more visual in nature and as a consequence more abstract.

We are told early on that love is the only thing other than time and gravity that transcends space. The purpose of this movie is to show that this is true. Cooper undertakes this mission reluctantly because he sees it is the only possibility of saving his family. Saving humanity matters of course but it is the survival instinct and the love of one's children that drive us to reach a little further. It is a theory that is expounded upon by a late arriving character in the story. It is also told under harrowing and unpleasant circumstances, but it is nevertheless true as Cooper will reveal. The complexity of love and the ability of that emotions to drive our actions is front and center in the story and it usually makes sense. There are some places where the story telling depends on withholding love and then letting love solve a puzzle that don't always work but they still seem to be honest ideas.

In many ways this film is a counter weight to "2001: A Space Odyssey". Kubrick's view of space travel and human evolution is cold and calculating. In that story we seek knowledge because of our intellect, here we are doing the same thing out of desperation. In "2001" it is the machine that betrays us, in "Interstellar" the betrayals are human in nature. The Discovery travels through space without contact on another planet, The Endurance travels through time and space, encountering planets and other explorers in attempting to seed another galaxy. "Space Odyssey" begins at the dawn of man, "Interstellar" begins at what appears to be man's sunset. The psychedelic trip though time in 1968 was a metaphysical journey without any clear explanations, a similar event in the current film is all explanation (although admittedly not well understood). Human evolution in the Arthur C. Clarke story is a result of extraterrestrial intelligence intervening to make it possible, the Nolan brothers have the audacity to believe that human beings might be the ones who are responsible for our own advances. Both stories feature artificial intelligence in the form of on board computer systems, but "Interstellar" makes those characters, mobile and warm. The idea of sacrificing a computer is objectionable to Brand when faced with the need, because of the personification of TARS. Dave and Frank pay lip service (get it?) to HAL being a member of the team, but TARS and CASE participate in the actions and behave as team members, even to the point of making a "2001" joke.

Christopher Nolan is nothing if not ambitious. This is a story with creativity grounded in science. A fantasy writer can invent any kind of planet and populate it with whatever creatures they choose. "Avatar" is a good example. James Cameron makes dragons and tigers and bears of a different sort. Nolan has to conceptualize two worlds  for the explorers to visit that need to seem realistic and dangerous. Neither of the two planets is very hospitable to humans but not because the indigenous life forms are going to eat us. The ecosystems of the two worlds just are not going to work for human habitation. The water laden planet that absorbs so much of the time for our team is actually spectacular to look at and to contemplate. The frozen world that hides a secret is equally well conceived and  even more believable. Neither one will take us out of the science based story that we are in, they reflect the realities of our choices much more.

The human dangers are the one place where there might be some questions about the story telling. There are two different acts of humans that are questionable from a moral standpoint. I don't want to give away anything that could be a reason for suspense or emotional surprise to the audience but I will say that both of these choices seemed questionable to me. in a longer film, the ideas might be the basis for discussion and the central focus or theme of the picture, in this context they feel a little too much like plot bridges to create drama. They work, but they may do so at the expense of the heart of the real story here.

Cooper frequently jokes with the mechanical members of the crew over their honesty and humor settings. He turns them up or down as necessity dictates. Using a similar measurement, this film is near a ninety-five percent on the creativity and thoughtfulness scale and only slightly lower, say ninety percent on a story telling standard. The actors are all excellent and the cast is really filled with people who know what they are doing. A couple of the performers play against type and do well. Hathaway and McConaughey are the show and I thought they were both effective at conveying the characters, especially at moments of emotional depth. Jessica Chastain is usually excellent, here she was merely satisfactory, having been cast in the most thankless role in the film. Young Mackenzie Foy is the brightest spark in the movie although her character's truculence is a bit off putting, you can easily believe her intelligence. "Interstellar" was a wonderful experience and a great intellectual challenge that is carried off with authority.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken



When I first saw the trailer/interview preview for this movie almost a year ago, I made a bold prediction that it would be the Oscar winner for Best picture this year. I can't withdraw that prediction completely because the story of Louis Zamperini is still as inspiring as ever and the movie is very competently put together. There is however something missing from the film and as a result it does not live up to my lofty expectations. While it remains one of the few films this year to attempt to tell an adult story with an inspiring message, it is only in the last few minutes of the movie, when the coda of Zamerini's life is given to us that the emotions match the story.

The film touches on many of the key moments that make the story extraordinarily, but it misses a few moments that are also important in tone and spirit of the subject's life. The first thing I noticed was the lack of background on his friendship with fellow survivor and pilot Phil Phillips. Their earlier close call is shown but the relationship between them is hinted at rather than featured. The sequence by which they ended up in the plane they eventually crashed in does little to show how the flyers felt about the weapons that were being produced and the sense of fate that often accompanied their flights. The decision to tell the story as a series of flashbacks in the first half of the movie makes sense. An hour on the two rafts in the ocean without some relief would make the story feel slow. The structure robs the narrative of the drive and promise that Louis had as he climbed the ladder of track and field royalty and as the intervention of service in the military changed all of that. Not to mention that it left out entirely his time at U.S.C. where he encountered a Japanese student who would later come back into the story. All of the cuts are made to keep focus on the endurance of the survival story but it leaves that story without the emotional context it needs. The childhood thuggery was displaced by the sports enthusiasm but even that could not suppress the mischievous nature that Louis had, a nature that lead to a confrontation during the Olympics with his theft of a Nazi flag. 

The most successful sequence in the film concerns the crash of the plane and the extraordinary survival story on the rafts. The forty five days depicted here are replete with harrowing moments of physical threat from man and nature as well as the despair that anyone in those circumstances is likely to face. The crash itself is a piece of technical film making that rivals the special effects in large action pictures but is so much more meaningful because it depicts a reality rather than the fanciful. It does not involves elves and orcs dancing across a chasm over a collapsing tower. That fanciful image can be put together in a number of ways because it is a fiction. The B-24 crash that killed eight of the eleven crew members has to ring true and it does. The unpleasant six weeks that followed is visualized with accuracy, probably a combination of make-up special effects and acting talent. The interaction of the men as they cope with mind numbing tedium and spirit crushing fear was nicely detailed in small exchanges and moments. Those who have read the book know how they trio wondered at their ability to survive after breaking the 24 day record for being adrift at sea set by Eddie Rickenbacker and crew the year before. The degree of exposure, dehydration and malnutrition is had to imagine. All of this ends up being a prelude to the elements of the movie that Director Angelina Jolie, and the screen writers choose to focus on, the internment in the Japanese prison camps.

The malicious nature of the captors is well portrayed by Japanese musician/actor Takamasa Ishihara. "The Bird" as he was known by the P.O.W.s , had a sadistic nature that made him a sought after war criminal once the hostilities ended. The suffering that Zamperini especially endured at his hands makes the later story of Louis forgiveness and redemption more meaningful. The film however summarizes all of that in  some post script title cards rather than taking time to show us that transformation. Actor Jack O'Connell has to portray the physical strength and power of endurance that Zamperini displays but never gets much of a chance to connect with the spiritual. Emaciated, tortured, worked to near extinction, the body work is evident but the spirit is only shown in those contexts where abuse provokes it. The result is that the movie feels like a more brutal version of "Bridge on the River Kwai" or "King Rat" rather than the spiritual journey that the history really reflects. Domhnall Gleeson's Phil disappears from the story and the religious seeds that he plants are not show to sprout much in the duration of the war.

I suspect that the movie will be criticized by others for the same reasons I've made, regarding the film that it is not rather than the one that is given to us. There is so much promise in the way the movie is visualized and acted that it feels a shame that the ultimate emotional point only occurs when we see the real Louis Zamperini in some clips at the end . As a matter of heroism, "Unbroken" feels rich and well developed. The circumstances are set up and depicted with real honesty, it simply does not connect the way that the real historical figure managed to do with his own words and deeds.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

As You Wish: An Evening with Cary Elwes

When this book was first published a few weeks ago, it immediately popped up on my list of most desirable Christmas gifts to give or to receive. After all, "The Princess Bride" may be everyone's favorite childhood movie from the 1980s. It is beloved by millions and it is so endlessly quotable that it is probably recognizable, even to those who have not seen it, "Inconceivable."

My daughter Amanda is much quicker to act on some things than I am and she had the book ordered for her mother before I could say, "When I was your age, television was called books." We tried to keep it a secret from her that the book even existed. That was a tall task and it was likely she'd heard about it. Anyway, after the book arrived, my daughter received a Christmas gift from her friend Kili, a pass to a special screening of "The Princess Bride", along with a Q and A session with the man in Black himself, the star of the film and author of the book, Cary Elwes. "Lucky Kid" I cursed under my breath". Kili was going to go with her before she returned home to Hawaii to spend the holidays with her family. Unfortunately, the book tour schedule got changed and the date for the screening rolled back a weekend. Kili would already be gone and she offered Amanda her pass as well. Since it was a gift for her Mother, I insisted she take her Mom with her to the show.

My wife is a wonderful woman but she does have a couple of health issues that make some activities difficult. Vertigo, a bad hip and a neurological condition that influence her gait, make it hard to be as mobile as she would like to be. The screening was to be at an historic movie palace in downtown L.A., and they were not sure about the parking situation and the theater is not exactly handicapped friendly. They decided they would need some help, so they twisted my arm and forced me to buy a ticket to the event as well. Now they did not have to worry about parking and there would be back up on some of the hard to navigate parts of the evening.



So last night we went downtown to the Broadway district that the hipsters and others are trying to revive. I dropped them off at the theater, parked in a building structure that is part of one of the Jewelry Exchange buildings in the neighborhood and then i joined them in line to wait for admission. We got there early so the difficult issues could be managed, but the event did not open until 6 pm. A half hour wait was pleasant enough,and the busy streets at Christmas time felt very much like a Holiday evening.

The event is sponsored by a coalition of local eateries that sold their foods in the lower lobby of the theater. Wrist bands were provided for those who had purchased an advance copy of the book, which they received just inside the door, and then they were entitled to the priority line up to get their book signed. There was a second line for crashers like me who had only purchased tickets for the movie and Q and A. I had the copy that Amanda had bought for her mother and all three of us waited in two different lines.
The signing was to be done on the stage which meant that we entered on stage left, crossed the downstage area, got our signature and then exited stage right through the wings.The problem is that there is a set of narrow stairs leading from the auditorium up to the left stage area. The doorway at the end of the narrow passage is also undersized, this beautiful auditorium was built in 1911 and designed for Vaudeville before movies started playing a dozen years later. This was one of the tricky parts of the evening. The ladies with their priority wristbands went first and there were some especially nice volunteers from the organization that helped my wife navigate these obstacles with my daughter while I was far back in the other line. When I saw how much trouble they'd had getting up. I abandoned my spot in line and raced to the other side after they got their books signed and helped her get through an even smaller door on stage right.

The Palace theater is one of a number of old movie palaces in downtown that have been largely abandoned but for which a conservancy has struggled to save. There are a lot of restoration features to admire, and it has two balcony suite area above the main floor. There are some gorgeous old style paintings on either side of the stage and the proscenium is also very impressive.

There are several inserted pieces of art in circular cutouts on the ceiling as you can see here.

Another reason for my presence at the event came when my wife needed to visit the bathroom. It is not located on the main floor. There are bathrooms on the balcony level and in the basement area. Each choice offered two sets of deep stairways that are rife with danger for the vertigo afflicted, it was at least thirty steps regardless of which direction we chose and there is no elevator. We took the stairs down and it took a couple of minutes to get there. We also had to maneuver around the traffic of people purchasing and eating dinner and desserts from the restaurants that were participating that night. The Gentlemen's  room was large with marble stalls and modern fixtures, but my wife told me that she broke out laughing when the first stall in the ladies room was marked "Handicapped". Without an elevator, unless someone in a wheelchair can apparate as they do at Hogwarts, it is unclear who gets first call on that location.

When it was my turn to make way through the narrow left stage area and meet Mr, Elwes, I was happy that I decided to come after all (sarcasm is intended here). The line got shorter, my chance to shake hands and say thank you for all he did in the movie and for coming to the event arrived and he was charming as all get out. Maybe the British accent makes the common pleasantries we might exchange in a situation like this feel more significant, but it was still a fun moment.
My daughter user a better phone camera than I had to capture the moment from the audience perspective, so that is me in the burnt orange shirt, lumbering over to greet the Man in Black.As he signed I mentioned that I had heard him on the "Mark and Lynda" podcast and appreciated that he was using some new tools for reaching the audience he wants to connect with. He smiled and said thank you and the moment was officially over.


After a longer than expected break between the signing and the start of the program, Cary Elwes came back out on stage and showed again that he is quite the raconteur. I had listened to him promoting "Saw" ten years ago on the Mark and Brian radio show and he was hypnotic when he told the story of being a p.a. on "Superman" and essentially having to wrangle Marlon Brando. He was a guest on their show several more times was was always gracious and interesting. Last night was no exception.
Having chosen a very appropriate wardrobe for the evening, he answered a few questions from the Organization's representative for the evening. She wisely let him range all over the place as he told several interesting behind the scenes stories about the making of the film. 

Mr. Elwes frequently did spot on imitations of several of the participants in the movie, including director Rob Reiner and Co-Stars Wallace Shawn and Andre the Giant. If you read the book you will know the story of Andre the Giant's intestinal eruption on the first day he was shooting. Cary got at least five minutes of laughs from this scatological moment and no one seemed the least offended. If anything they were even more endeared with Fezzick after this.

A second story involved Andre the Giant in a more peripheral manner. He basically egged Cary on to take a ride on his three wheeled ATV on the set one day. That short moment ended up with an injury that might have threatened Elwes job and put the movie substantially off schedule. That it was all worked out with an amiable director, a paranoid actor and a somewhat understated set nurse is one of the miracles of "The Princess Bride".

Everyone enjoyed the stories he told of Billy Crystal's shooting days and the improvisational way that he made "Miracle Max" come to life. The fact that Cary and Rob Reiner basically got booted from their own set because they could not contain their laughter while Billy was riffing during his scenes is also very funny. The tribute he paid to Wallace Shawn was great and if you can imagine it, we were spared the sight of Danny DeVito as Vizzini because of costs but also because Rob Reiner just thought Shawn was funny in the way he spoke. The insecure Mr. Shawn it seems was told by his agent that they had originally wanted DeVito, and the specter of his ghost hung over Shawn's head for the whole time he was on the set.

Since the Interview started late and went longer than expected, there was not time to take audience questions but no one was grousing.  We had all been entertained by a masterful story teller about some of the episodes that occurred during the film of a favorite film. He closed and introduced the film by asking us all to "have fun storming the castle,".

At this point, because the structure I parked in closed at ten and the difficulty of exiting while the movie ran because of my wife's walker and vertigo, we decided to skip the screening of the movie. I walked her to the foyer and told her to wait while I got the car, our daughter went downstairs to use the bathroom, and Dolores was standing there alone. Sure enough, while the movie was playing inside, Cary Elwes came out front and saw her standing there and started talking with her. He was incredibly kind and she told him how she reads the novel of the book to her students in the third and fourth grade classes she teaches and then how the kids write letters to the characters. "Buttercup" is frequently told she can trust the Man in Black in those letters. He was amused and quite impressed with the activity. He thanked her and another teacher who had come out to the lobby and came up to them while they were speaking. That woman also taught in the same city as my wife although in an adjoining district. He said he really appreciated the hard work that teachers do and wished them both a nice holiday as he left. Of course my daughter and I only saw him walking away, so this turned into a very special moment for Dolores, which is what got this Christmas present started in the first place.

"Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

It was a wonderful evening.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



This movie provides a very satisfactory conclusion to a trilogy that could easily have been a single long film. Despite the bloat and excess and labored weaving of the story here with the later "Lord of the Rings" films, fans of the children's adventure novel that this is based on will recognize much of what takes place. The visualizations are spectacular as is standard at this point and the action is furious.

The first correct step that Peter Jackson took in starting off the film was to return with Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug (and Sauron). The tidbit of conversation that Smaug engages Bard the Bowman with, is a little extra touch to the character. There are also some flashback scenes where he provides an ominous warning about the power of the dwarf's  gold to corrupt Thornin, much the way theRing of Power works on other beings in the story. This adds some of the gravitas that the series continually seeks in these new films. While such seriousness was the subject of the Rings trilogy, it has always felt as if it was being shoehorned onto the current project. At least in some spots like this, it feels like it fits rather than cramping our toes into a narrow pont.

It would be an easy warning to anyone who is not interested in long sequences of warfare, to simply point to the title and ward them off that way. This movie revels in the variety of dismemberment and violence the sides can bring to one another. Be-headings, sword penetrations, skulls being crushed all roll across the screen on multiple occasions, sometimes with sweeping moments of slo-motion photography to bring it all home. Many times it is accompanied by the quick cutting shaky cam process we have seen in so many other films. The grandeur of some of those sequences demands it. As Legolas stands off against the major domo of the white orc Azog, Bolg, there are arrows flying and swords crossing against a mountain backdrop and a crumbling castle tower that looks incredible and does defy the laws of physics but works anyway. It's not clear why there is a frozen pond for Thornin and Azog to navigate through their fight but it adds some tension and fills the movie with a series of multiple climaxes.

Bilbo, as he did in the book, mostly gets lost in the crowded battlefield but did have his chances to shine as a character. His decision on the Arkenstone is clearly conveyed and his conflicted loyalty is shown to be motivated by the right instincts. Thorin's redemption is a lot more appropriate in this film than it might have been in a short version of the movie. It is a little histrionic but that builds the climax of full engagement on the battlefield so I could accept it.  The romance between Kili and Tauriel is effective even if it is part of the extra stuffing the movie does not really need.

I had to remind myself that Christopher Lee is 92, but then I also had to remind myself that most of his appearance is CG enhanced combat so it is not quite as impressive as it would seem. Still he holds the screen when he is on, although the sequence with Cate Blanchet and Hugo Weaving feels like an out take from "Return of the King". When Billy Connelly's voice boomed over the speakers we all had a good laugh and cheered, he brought a little more of the charm of the novel with him. Once again, most of the Dwarfs get short shrift but there are also some excellent scenes for the four or so who do get a little more screen time.

I've said it before in the other two reviews in this series, someone will cut all of this material together into a coherent two and a half hour film, and we will see something like what J.R.R.Tolkien had in mind. For now we can wallow in the excess and glory of Peter Jackson's version of the story. A fitting end to our time in Middle Earth.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Foxcatcher



There is a lot to admire in this film. The performances are excellent, the story is compelling, and it is beautifully shot. There are several reservations that I have with the film and they are likely to be director's choices. The movie is deliberately paced. The music is designed to emphasize the pacing, and there needs to be a little more of a point of view as to what is going on. I know it is based on real events, but the subjects that get focused on never stay targets for long.

Everybody is talking about Steve Carrell in this part and we should begin there. I have always thought that he was a solid actor and I have seen some films where he is not a very nice character. Best known for his comedic roles, he is of course getting acclaim by stepping out of that comfort zone. I thought his desperate turn as a cuckold husband in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" was effective enough to show his acting chops, but because it was a comedy based drama, he got a little overlooked.  This film will not be mistaken as a comedy. Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell smile like twice in the two plus hours this movie runs.  Carrell's main technique is to keep his face impassive for 90% of the story and to keep his chin and nose up in the air. It feels a little mannered, but along with the make-up work it is an amazing transformation.

Tatum also has a surly expression for most of the film. In fact as a character, we know that there is something wrong with him when his look is relaxed and easy going. The story takes several turns that allow him to  show off something other than his dance skills and physical training. I could have lived in ignorant bliss without having to watch the vomiting that takes place at a dramatic turning point for the three main characters. Everyone else is getting attention but it is his character that is the center of the story and he acquits himself very well.

Once again, Mark Ruffalo shows why he is a splendid addition to almost any movie. His natural ebullience is kept in check and his usual low key manner fits the character he is playing perfectly. His best scene is an awkward moment recording a short interview piece for a documentary produced by the would be coach and millionaire played by Carrell. His character, David, struggles with the words he needs to say what is in his heart about John du Pont. Ultimately his in-articulation may be the straw that breaks the camel's back in the story. We know that there is something not quite right about the millionaire wannabe wrestling coach, and we spend two hours waiting for the eruption. When it occurs, it is sadly sudden and mundane in spite of our horror at what took place.

Sometimes the movie seems to be about the emptiness of du Pont's life. For long periods it looks like the film is going to focus on sibling rivalry that is secretly felt. I guess that the truth is that the film maker's want us to know that our unstable rich guy had mommy issues but without her presence, he has no anchor to keep him from drifting off. I certainly hope that the message was not to suggest that the values the killer espoused were insincere or wrong. They represent the one thing about du Pont that makes him less of a monster. His needy narcissism is what lead to the tragedy, not the desire for excellence and restoring values to the sports world.

"Foxcatcher" will get many award mentions but it is not a film that reaches high enough to be "the Best". It is well made but as compelling as the story was, the lethargy it employs in it's telling makes it much less effective than it might have been outside of the performance categories.
 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Octopussy in the Movie Rob James Bond Blogathon

http://movierob.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/007-december-octopussy-1983-kirkham-a-movie-a-day/
Click on the poster to visit the post on Movie Robs site. Thanks for letting me play.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nightcrawler



This is a sad, sick, twisted story. The morality level of the people it depicts is zero, the light it sheds on the news gathering business is harsh and it makes the City of Angels look like a pretty awful place to be. All that aside, the movie is brilliant at building tension, compelling us to watch those things that are not pleasant, and it contains an amazing performance from it's lead, Jake Gyllenhaal. Along with "Whiplash", we may have a candidate for the worst creature pretending to be a human being in a movie this year.

Louis Bloom is an intense young man. He appears to be maladjusted and if you looked at him closely, he might be a high functioning sufferer of Asperger syndrome. He is socially awkward with a very distinct manner of speaking. He is also lightning quick at learning things and he is smart enough to know where to find the information he needs or the pressure points to push to get what he wants. He also has no scruples whatever. He steals as is necessary, he lies when it serves his purpose and he has become a manipulator of the first order. It is not a life of crime that he excels at however. He dreams big and with the shortcuts he is willing to take, in his new avocation, he might very well be the next media king.

Gyllenhaal has the mannerisms and quirks of this character nailed. It is a very different performance from him than we have expected over the last few years. He is usually the quiet brooding type. I have not yet seen "End of Watch", but his performance in "Prisoners", "Zodiac" and "Brokeback Mountain" are very different from what he does here. He looks like he is maniacal at times. His eyes are wide, there is a slight sheen to his skin, his hair appears to be slightly greasy. Louis also dresses like a guy who wants to fit in, not like one who actually does. The thing that most distinguishes the performance though is the control he manages over his voice. The cadence of deliver suggests a degree of energy that he is suppressing at all times.  His language is calculated and measured. The script by Dan Gilroy, sounds like it was written by someone who has absorbed the lesson that Quentin Tarantino has been sharing for twenty plus years, talk can be fascinating. This is not the verbal poetry of a Tarantino character per se. Louis barely utters a pejorative or curse word in the story. Yet you know his mind well from the way he phrases his negotiations with various characters. There is a degree of earnestness that comes out very clearly. Not the friendly form of sincerity, but the deadly serious determination that goes with his madness.

The story involves Louis climb into the local news business as a provider of video images to a local channel. He falls into the business but he quickly learns the ropes and reads the trades and researches on line. He has a devastating piece of dialogue that summarizes how local news processes all of the material they present on a daily basis. His calculation of the amount of time devoted to local crime stories is enough to make you want to scream any time a news program comes on, because he is balls on accurate.  Any of you reading this from somewhere other than L.A. might be surprised to learn that Kent Schocknek, Pat Harvey, Rick Chambers, Rick Garcia and Sharon Tay, are all real local news personalities. They are not acting, they are simply playing themselves in the movie. It floors me that they would agree to appear in a film so clearly condemning the business they are in. Bill Paxton is a cutthroat competitor in the same business and he ends up being someone you sympathize with. Rene Russo plays a news producer and her fierce persona and professional insecurities may be the one element of the story that I doubt, but not for any reason in her performance. She bravely plays her age and status in in the world of
media entertainment and news. She is past her sell by date and her character is struggling to maintain a foothold in a very competitive business. I'd say her performance is also noteworthy and again, not very inspiring for future journalists out there.

There are two extremely harrowing scenes in the film, one action based and the other suspense grounded. The crime scene filming has only an off screen piece of action in it but it creates an aura of dread that is thick. That same type of dread comes back as Louis and his assistant begin to follow a pair of criminals, waiting for the right video moment. The climax to this storyline is horrifying and action packed. The movie is mostly a slow burn with a great script and an amazing performance anchoring it. You may want to bathe after seeing this film, but you definitely want to see it. 

Hector and the Search for Happiness



If you saw the Ben Stiller version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", you will find yourself experiencing a strong sense of deja vu when watching this film. The concept is very much the same. A man who leads a good but maybe not fulfilling life, sets out to discover what is missing. It involves a lot of world travel and adventures and ultimately it leads back to love. I do want to give a shout out to the AMC Stubbs program for providing a coupon for two free tickets. Word of mouth will probably not turn this into a huge hit, but the offer did a good job filling up a theater for an early afternoon screening.

Simon Pegg has been in some of my favorite films in the last few years. He is comic genius in the Star Trek films and also Mission Impossible series. He is also the lead in the so called "Cornetto Triliogy" of "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End". He is able to mix his low key humor with a certain amount of pathos and channel it well in this film in which he is the principle character and on which the film focuses for it's entirety.

The movie does not break any ground but it is shot in some nice creative ways. There is a subtle use of animation for transitions between the episodes and the camera usually holds steady instead of floating around as it did in the Walter Mitty film. A combination of video screens, skype, CCTV also add a little bit of creativity to the way the movie is told. However, the movie is a very straight drama with some big slices of humor and there is nothing too surprising in any of it.

Hector's trip to China starts things rolling with a canard that everyone will be familiar with, befriending a lonely rich guy. Hector being naive in the world does not see the twist in his story that we see coming. His take on love ends up being sadder than he expected, but exactly what we expect. The most mundane part of the film involves his seeking enlightenment at a monastery in the lower Himalayas. This section has one of the two best jokes in the film, let's just say, check your calender before you climb the mountain. The most surprising section of the film involves his time in Africa, where he goes from supreme satisfaction, to fear, joy terror and joy again. The shortest segment and the one that works the best actually takes place on a plane. Even though the idea seems to be a stretch, it plays as the most thoughtful moments in the film.

The cast is full of names and faces that you will recognize.   Stellan Skarsgard is a banker, Jean Reno a drug lord, Toni Collette a lost love and Christopher Plummer is a fellow psychiatrist studying the same issue as Hector but with a very different approach.  Rosamund Pike is Hector's long suffering girl friend and she is lovely as usual but not nearly as compelling as she was in her other film this fall, "Gone Girl". The platitudes are nicely revealed and undermined and then confirmed as the story demands. It will leave you mostly satisfied, although not nearly as nourished as you would hope.
 


Thursday, December 4, 2014

SPECTRE Announcement







A Year from now. Something to anticipate with relish.