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Interstellar, Nightcrawler and Whiplash

 

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2014 is shaping up to be a very good year for movies. I’ve seen three films in the past few weeks that I’m just getting around to writing about—Interstellar, Nightcrawler & Whiplash—and two of them blew me away. Wanna guess which one didn’t? The one that tried the hardest to blow me away.

Interstellar is nothing if not ambitious. It’s also brutally slow. It takes forever to get off the ground, literally and figuratively. Once Matthew McConaughey—who’s coasting on his McConnaissance momentum here (he’s just all right, all right, all right)—finally blasts off into space, nearly an hour into this nearly three-hour slog, the movie creeps to a crawl. On one of the planets he and annoyingly plucky fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway visits, an hour is said to last seven years. This movie feels the same way.

It helps when Jessica Chastain shows up more than halfway through, because, let’s face it, Jessica Chastain makes everything better. But while Christopher Nolan creates some stunning visuals, his script (cowritten with his brother Jonathan) reads like conversations one might have over a bong in a college dorm. Is love the only force stronger than time and space? Do we really need to hear Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” poem recited four times? Interstellar doesn’t go gentle, or quickly. By the end, it devolves into a puddle of metaphysical gobbledygook.

But I’m not a sci-fi guy, so maybe Interstellar‘s appeal was lost on me. I prefer realism—gritty, grounded realism, which is why I loved every minute of Nightcrawler and Whiplash. Both revolve around obsessive characters: a freelance videographer (Jake Gyllenhaal, never better) who will stop at nothing to get the if-it-bleeds-it-leads shot and an up-and-coming jazz drummer (Miles Teller, who may be America’s finest young actor) who plays til his fingers (and other body parts) bleed, all to please the most terrifying of music-school taskmasters (J.K. Simmons, in his scariest work since he played neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on Oz).

Both films, by neophyte directors (Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy and Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle), are every bit as visually intoxicating as Interstellar. But it’s the stories, and the characters, that really draw us in. Each one deals with a twisted kind of love affair—between Teller’s and Simmons’ hell-bent-for-glory hounds and between Gyllenhaal’s beyond socially awkward Lou and a barracuda-like TV news producer (Rene Russo, in a welcome and long-overdue return to the screen for real-life husband Gilroy).

The musical scenes in Whiplash are so thrillingly shot and edited, they play like action sequences. Nightcrawler has its share of action, but its most hypnotic elements are the eyes of its characters, all of which seem red-rimmed from lack of sleep and reflective, as if there’s no way to penetrate what’s behind them. Interstellar washes over you like one of those giant waves in the trailers, but it never grabs you and shakes you up like Whiplash and Nightcrawler do. They prove you don’t have to go into outer space to be truly out-of-this-world.

VFF ’14: Foxcatcher, The Humbling and 5 to 7

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I had the pleasure last weekend of returning to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to attend the 2014 Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. Though I was only able to stay for one day, I caught three outstanding movies at the beautifully restored Paramount Theater on the revitalized Downtown Mall.

The one you’ve probably heard the most about is Foxcatcher, which opens today in limited release and will be expanding across the country soon. It’s already generated tons of Oscar buzz for stars Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as well as director Bennett Miller—and with good reason. This movie—the tale of America’s richest man, John DuPont (Steve Carell, bringing new meaning to Despicable Me), and his tragic involvement with the gold-medal winning Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Tatum and Ruffalo)—pins you to the proverbial mat from its first scene and never lets up.

Combining elements of Miller’s stellar first two films—Capote‘s true crime and Moneyball‘s sports drama—Foxcatcher affirms Miller as one of America’s finest filmmakers. He’s working from a brilliant script by Dan Futterman (who also wrote Capote) and E. Max Frye (finally delivering on the promise of his debut screenplay, 1986’s Something Wild). The real test of the film’s Oscar strength will be if Vanessa Redgrave can earn a supporting actress nomination for her brief, almost wordless role as DuPont’s domineering mother. She’s absolutely riveting in only a few scenes, and the fact that Carell and Tatum can hold their own as dramatic actors alongside her is a measure of their surprising depth.

Another heavyweight Oscar contender, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, marks a long-overdue return to form for the filmmaker as well as for star Al Pacino. He delivers a tour de force as a suicidal stage actor in this darkly hilarious adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. The Bard of Newark has proven difficult to translate to the big screen (the last attempt was Robert Benton’s tragic-for-all-the-wrong-reasons The Human Stain in 2003), but the screenplay—co-written by Buck Henry!—departs from the book in significant and highly entertaining ways.

Shot in 20 days for $2 million, The Humbling may be overshadowed by the thematically similar Birdman, but it deserves serious consideration on its own for Best Actor, Director and Screenplay. The flawless ensemble also includes Greta Gerwig (whose appeal I finally understand) as a young lesbian who’s enamored with Pacino’s aging thespian, Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya as her baffled parents and the always-wonderful Charles Grodin as Pacino’s long-suffering agent. Plus, Kyra Sedgwick—who’s been doing amazingly diverse post-Closer work in Time out of Mind, Brooklyn Nine-Nine as well as here—Dylan Baker, Broadway babies Billy Porter and Nina Arianda and more.

The biggest surprise of my moviegoing day was 5 to 7, the big-screen directorial debut of Mad About You and Mad Men writer Victor Levin. On paper, it sounds annoying: the story of an aspiring NYC writer (Anton Yelchin, whose appeal I also finally understand) who falls in love with a French diplomat’s wife (Skyfall‘s Bérénice Marlohe) but can only see her between 5 and 7 pm, hence the title. MV5BMTg0MjM4NjQ3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjUwNzU1MTE@._V1_SY98_CR40,0,67,98_AL_

On screen, however, this is the most charming romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages. It’s completely unformulaic and unexpected, and it’s graced by laugh-out-loud turns by the great Frank Langella and Glenn Close as Yelchin’s parents. I don’t want to spoil any of 5 to 7‘s surprises, but suffice it to say there are many, and you should seek it out when it opens next year. As for me, I’ll be returning to the Virginia Film Festival next year—and I’ll be staying for more than one day.

NYFF ’14: Michael Keaton’s Birdman

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I’ve spotted Michael Moore shambling through the crowd twice during this year’s New York Film Festival, and the sight made me sad. Not only because he seems like he’s having difficulty walking—in both cases, he was accompanied by younger, more physically fit females—but because his presence reminded me of what the New York Film Festival used to be. Twenty-five years ago, soon after I first moved to the NYC area, I saw the NYFF premiere of Moore’s Roger & Me, which marked the emergence of a major new American filmmaker. In the years since, the Festival has turned into yet another arm of the studios’ marketing divisions, hoping to position their fall releases for Oscar consideration. (Consider: Last year’s “Centerpiece” was Ben Stiller’s middlebrow The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and this year’s Opening Night selection was the potboiler Gone Girl, hardly groundbreaking art films.)

So I was a bit skeptical going into this year’s Closing Night feature, Birdman. Like Gone Girl, it’s scheduled to hit theaters within days of its NYFF “premiere” (in fact, it’s already shown at other festivals), and the Oscar-buzz machine has already gone into overdrive with predictions that Michael Keaton will be up for Best Actor. As the film began, with an unbroken-take visual gimmick done before by Hitchcock in Rope and, on a smaller scale, Welles in Touch of Evil and Scorsese in GoodFellas, I feared for the worst: a showy stunt that keeps elbowing you in the ribs with its cleverness.

Once I settled into the film’s jazzy, insistent rhythm (powered along by Antonio Sanchez’s aggressively effective drum score), I found it to be a thrillingly audacious satire of celebrity culture. Keaton’s self-referential tour de force—he plays a former big-screen superhero who’s trying to remain relevant by staging a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway—should come as no surprise to fans who’ve felt he was capable of award-caliber work since his pre-Batman ’80s triumphs in Night Shift and Clean and Sober. (In one of the film’s many wicked in-jokes, the evil Birdman voice inside Keaton’s head sounds an awfully lot like Christian Bale’s gravelly Dark Knight.)

But Keaton’s isn’t the film’s only superheroic performance. Edward Norton (in a merciless portrayal of Keaton’s narcissistic costar), Zach Galifianakis (as a deeply shallow showbiz agent), Emma Stone (as Keaton’s raw, recovering-addict daughter), Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (as prototypically insecure actresses) and Amy Ryan (as Keaton’s sardonic ex) deserve supporting-category consideration.

Watts has worked with cowriter-director Alejandro González Iñárritu before, in his previous creative high-water mark 21 Grams, but Birdman marks an invigorating departure from his heavy earlier dramas like Babel and Biutiful. This daringly surreal fairy tale—along with other standouts Time Out of Mind and Inherent Vice—has restored my faith not only in the New York Film Festival, but in the possibility of films to take flight into the artistic stratosphere.

NYFF ’14: Richard Gere’s Time Out of Mind

Richard Gere and Ben Vereen spotted shotting scenes as homeless men for their upcoming movie 'Time Out of Mind' in NYC

It sounds like the the blueprint for a painfully mawkish movie: Richard Gere stars as a homeless man struggling to survive on the streets of New York City and reconnect with his estranged daughter. But Time Out of Mind, which has been making the rounds of the festival circuit (most recently in New York) in search of a distributor, is nothing short of a miracle.

That’s thanks in large part to cowriter-director Oren Moverman, who made my favorite film of 2011, the LAPD drama Rampart (which didn’t come out until 2012) and now may have made my favorite film of 2014, which may not come out until 2015 unless a company steps up and acquires this challenging yet deeply rewarding film.

True, Gere’s a little too good-looking to pass himself off as your average vagrant, but Moverman wisely addresses this directly, as a homeless-shelter intake worker compliments his character. “I’m not handsome,” Gere’s George demurs. “I used to be handsome.” He acknowledges that several women have taken him in, until they gave him the boot. But the movie intriguingly goes light on George’s backstory, instead putting you right in the middle of his disorienting, overwhelming world.

Shot by the great Bobby Bukowski with long lenses that allowed real-life passersby to pass Gere by without recognizing him (or the fact that they were serving as unwitting background actors in a movie), Time Out of Mind unfolds at a hypnotically deliberate pace. George tries and mostly fails to navigate his way through the city bureaucracy in search of a bed (“I’m addicted to sleep,” he tells one of the many clerks who inquire about his substance abuse, among other issues).

Gere leads an remarkable ensemble, including an Oscar-worthy Ben Vereen as George’s incessantly chattering shelter pal, Jena Malone as his brittle bartender daughter, an almost unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick as his homeless hookup and Boardwalk Empire‘s Steve Buscemi (as well as his lookalike brother Michael) and Michael Kenneth Williams as two of the many Manhattanites who hassle him.

What’s most amazing about Time Out of Mind, though, is its multi-layered sound design. As George attempts to clear his head, he’s constantly bombarded by the noises of the city—snippets of overheard conversations (some scripted, some captured surreptitiously by the filmmakers), sirens, construction work, and all varieties of music. It’s a symphonic cacophony, and it perfectly captures the chaos that surrounds its central character.

This may not be an easy film to watch—one New York Film Festivalgoer accurately called it “the antithesis of a date movie.” But Moverman and Co. should take that as the ultimate compliment. Time Out of Mind evokes grittily realistic American films of the ’70s like Scarecrow yet remains bracingly relevant. It’s both timely and timeless.

11 Things I Never Knew About Spinal Tap

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Never has the fine line between stupid and clever been so gracefully trod upon as in This Is Spinal Tap, which celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala screening at the New York Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with co-writer/costar Christopher Guest. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the film since its 1984 release, yet I still saw things I’d never noticed, and learned things I never knew. In honor of Nigel Tufnel’s amp, here are the top 11.

1. Guest and Michael McKean wrote serious songs years before forming Spinal Tap. The gifted musicians met when they were teenagers and had dreams of legitimate rock ‘n’ roll stardom before deciding to pursue careers in comedy. McKean was briefly a member of the baroque pop band The Left Banke in the ’60s.

2. There would be no This is Spinal Tap without Norman Lear. Guest, McKean and Harry Shearer had filmed some scenes of the band on their own but couldn’t get anyone to finance a feature until director Rob Reiner hit up his old All in the Family boss, who told him to go off and make the movie using his money. Reiner later paid it forward by giving Guest similar carte blanche to make Waiting for Guffman.

3. It took Reiner two years to edit 50 hours of footage down to the 82-minute film. And you can tell: There’s not a joke wasted, and despite the largely improvised scenes, the through-line about the break-up of best friends David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel proves surprisingly poignant. Some of the outtakes have been released on DVD, and while they’re very funny, you can see why they were left on the cutting-room floor, since they didn’t advance the story.

4. Spinal Tap wasn’t based on any one band. Despite musicians coming up to Guest for years claiming the movie was inspired by them (including Jeff Beck, who thought he was the model for Nigel Tufnel), the filmmaker insists it all came from imagination. Which came as a great disappointment to a festivalgoer who was convinced the ever-changing drummer gag was a nod to Uriah Heep.

5. Don’t call it a “mockumentary.” Guest doesn’t like that term, which was coined by a movie critic. While he claimed that This is Spinal Tap was the first film to parody the documentary format, I’d argue that Albert Brooks’ Real Life beat them to it.

6. Legendary session musicians rounded out Spinal Tap. Drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, two-thirds of the ’70s LA band the Section and backup band members for artists like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, appear in the film as doomed drummer Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs and original bassist Ronnie Pudding.

7. One of Spinal Tap’s drummers suffered a real-life mishap. During the band’s 2009 reunion tour, Ric Parnell—aka Mick Shrimpton—fell down the stairs at a concert venue and broke his leg. He finished out the tour while wearing a full cast.

8. Anjelica Huston’s name is spelled two different ways in the credits. She’s initially credited for her one scene as the designer of the ill-conceived Stonehenge set piece as “Angelica Huston,” but her surname is correctly spelled during the crawl. A year later, she made a name for herself by winning an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor.

9. Most of the songs were written by duos. While the tunes are all credited to Guest, McKean, Shearer and Reiner, the quartet tended to split off into twos to pen pieces like “Sex Farm” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.”

10. Jeanine makes a surprise early appearance. Before David St. Hubbins’ Yoko-esque girlfriend (June Chadwick) joins the tour in Milwaukee, she’s seen in a crowd shot while the band plays “Big Bottom.”

11. Nigel’s amp gag was one of the few in the film that wasn’t improvised. Because the special knobs that go all the way up to 11 had to be built in advance, that joke had to be pre-planned. But it’s still one louder, isn’t it?

NYFF ’14: Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner

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There are few directors I run hotter and colder on than Paul Thomas Anderson and Mike Leigh. Anderson made one of my 10 favorite films of the ’90s (Boogie Nights) and one of my 10 favorite films of the ’00s (There Will Be Blood), but also made my least favorite film of 2012 (The Master). Leigh, to me, is like the British Woody Allen: I like his earlier, funnier stuff (High Hopes, Life is Sweet) better than his more self-important later work (Vera Drake, Another Year). So I really didn’t know what to expect from their new films, Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner, at this year’s New York Film Festival. And true to form, I loved one and the other, not so much.

Inherent Vice marks the first screen adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, an author I’ve never read because even the people who love him don’t seem to understand (or at least don’t seem able to explain to me) why. I can’t say I fully understood (and I certainly couldn’t explain) the story of Inherent Vice, but with a movie this thrillingly weird, funny, vital and well-acted, it hardly seems to matter.

Joaquin Phoenix, an actor fully in tune with Anderson’s warped vibe, stars as a P.I. in 1970 L.A. As he investigates the disappearance of an adulterous real-estate tycoon (Eric Roberts!), he runs afoul of neo-Nazis, Reaganite Republicans, a syndicate of drug-smuggling dentists (led by a deliriously loopy Martin Short!), and the LAPD, personified by a frozen-banana-fellating crewcut named Bigfoot (the terrific Josh Brolin). It’s Chinatown meets China White—an addictive noir funhouse ride.

The teeming ensemble encompasses everyone from Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life wife) and Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam, who was seen beaming with pride after the NYFF screening; I just hope he covered his eyes during her prolonged nude scene) to a trio of performers long-overdue for creative comebacks: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Benicio Del Toro. Shot on grainy film for that gritty ’70s feel, Inherent Vice also benefits from a groovy soundtrack, including two tracks by Neil Young, whose mutton-chop sideburns seem to have inspired Phoenix’s look.

Timothy Spall rocks some serious sideburns as 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner in Leigh’s Mr. Turner. I just wish the film had one-tenth the energy of Inherent Vice. At times, it feels like you’re literally watching paint dry as Leigh and Spall create a portrait of the artist as a grunting old man. It’s a finely etched rendering, but the problem with portraits is: They don’t move. And neither does this movie.

Leigh’s trademark improvisatory style seems at war with the very concept of a biopic: Mr. Turner is all pic and no bio. The filmmaker refuses to try and shape his subject’s life into a coherent narrative and the result is a shapeless mess. We learn a few things about Turner: He had huge appetites for women, food (including a pig’s cheek, in one meaty scene) and art. But the story goes nowhere very, very slowly.

The film does have a distinctive painterly look. Cinematographer Dick Pope used vintage lenses (that had been employed to document the first successful trip up Mt. Everest as well as on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic Spartacus) to create the antique visual style. If only the script were so masterfully focused. When it comes to Leigh (and Anderson, for that matter), one of his earlier titles sums up my reactions to his films: it’s All or Nothing.

Til Death: Gone Girl and A Good Marriage

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I should probably recuse myself from reviewing Gone Girl—not only because I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but also because I (briefly) worked with Gillian at Entertainment Weekly. Then again, I didn’t really know her. In fact, the only memory I have of speaking with her was when she asked to borrow a copy of a Showtime movie I had recently reviewed, 2001’s Things Behind the Sun, because she was a fan of its star, Kim Dickens. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dickens co-stars in the David Fincher film adaptation as the cop who investigates suspected wife-murderer Ben Affleck. (No spoilers here: I didn’t know the plot’s twists when I went to see the movie, so I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.)

Dickens gives one of the film’s best performances, along with—shockingly—Tyler Perry as Affleck’s defense attorney, and Affleck himself, who makes good use of his natural smarminess. My biggest problem with Gone Girl was the Girl herself. I’m not sure if it was the character or the actress, Rosamund Pike (or both), but I didn’t buy her motivations for a minute. Fincher sets an aptly creepy mood, and the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—who won an Oscar for Fincher’s The Social Network and also scored his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—nails the disquieting tone.

As for the vaunted plot, well, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” kept running through my mind, at least until two hours into this 150-minute slog, at which point, I started counting the endings. I stopped at five, and none were satisfying. But maybe I’m just jealous because Gillian is now a gazillionaire and I’m still writing this blog for free.

I’ll give her this: Gone Girl works better as a portrait of a terrifyingly dysfunctional marriage—and the terrifyingly dysfuntional media—than it does as a mystery. And it works better as a mystery than Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, a straight-to-VOD snoozer that shares some of the same themes. Nothing wrong with the cast: The always-great Joan Allen stars as a New Hampshire housewife who suspects her seemingly mild-mannered accountant husband (Anthony LaPaglia, another reliable pro) may be a serial killer.

The trouble is, as opposed to the overly plotted Gone Girl, there’s just not enough story in King’s short story (which he adapted himself) to sustain a feature-length film. Lifetime’s upcoming version of King’s novella Big Driver suffers from the same shortcoming. The best thing I can say about A Good Marriage—and Gone Girl, for that matter—is that it made me oh-so-blissful to be single.

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