From Filmmaking

INTERSTELLAR Takes Us on an Existential Ride Through Space & Time

Interstellar. 2014.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Jon Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, William Devane, David Oyelowo, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Topher Grace, and Leah Cairns.  Paramount Pictures.  Rated PG.  169 minutes.  Adventure/Drama/Sci-Fi

★★★★1/2

interstellar3I was excited to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for a number of different reasons. One of those being I have really enjoyed Nolan and his films since first seeing Memento, and then going on to explore the other films he would continue to make, as well as going back to his excellent feature length debut Following. Second, I’ve also always liked Matthew McConaughey.  Dazed and Confused was a staple of my first years at university, and no matter how many terrible rom-coms, et cetera, he went on to do before coming into his real own as an actor I could never get enough of his sly charm. On top of all that I’m a big fan of science fiction, so Interstellar looked from the beginning of its announcement to be something worth getting excited over in the genre.

The story of the film is similar to others, in that Earth has been devastated in the future, so scientists and great minds alike have been trying to figure out ways to either sustain the planet or find somewhere new to colonize and continue on with mankind’s ultimate fate. Ex-NASA test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), along with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), end up stumbling upon a top secret facility out amongst the desolate cornrows and dust storms of the now desert-like conditions near their home. When they do, it comes to their surprise scientists have been working on finding another planet so as to get human beings away from Earth, in order to try and avoid extinction. Cooper is recruited to go into space along with several others, and tasked with finding a planet suitable for sustaining human life.
interstellar-01I’ve really got to say, I was pretty bored for the first hour or so. However, once the mission sort of kicks into gear things got interesting. I’m not one of these people who needs constant action, of any sort, to keep me occupied. This is not my style. I just couldn’t get into the beginning of the film, honestly. Though, I enjoyed the characters, especially Cooper and his family; the dynamic between McConaughey and Foy as father-daughter was great, plus John Lithgow is always a damn treat for me.
interstellar01I like the character development in the family, particularly McConaughey – throughout the rest of the film after all the initial setup falls into place, his struggle is some of the most interesting stuff that’s going on. Nolan has stated this is very much a human film about families, in a sense, and I do not disagree with that whatsoever. Cooper goes through a great struggle, especially in the early part of Interstellar. It’s incredible, and heartbreaking, to imagine what things would have to be like for astronauts who will eventually have to deal with time shifts and other such problems – going into areas of space where one hour there equals a year or more on Earth. Of course, McConaughey does a fabulous job with the character of Cooper. He’s turned into one enormous, powerhouse of an actor.
o-jessica-chastain-interstellar-facebookThere are a couple other notable performances I did enjoy other than McConaughey. I usually love Jessica Chastain – here, no different. She provided just enough of what I hoped the character Murph would come to be, and once again proves she has real talent – some of the moments with her came off extremely emotional, very genuine. Aside from their physical resemblance, Mackenzie Foy and Chastain worked well as the same character, younger and older versions respectively; each of them carry the same adventurous and rebel charm.

A few of the smaller roles were done well. David Gyasi did a great job as one of the astronauts along with McConaughey’s Cooper – he kept me interested every time his character was in a scene; one scene I have to mention is after two of the other astronauts return after quite a length of time away, and the way Gyasi played this just felt perfect.
I was particularly surprised, in a great way, to see both Casey Affleck (as the older version of Cooper’s son) and Matt Damon as Dr. Mann. In particular, I really enjoyed Affleck. His voice has something about it which consistently strikes me as interesting, and in this role really fit well with that – though, his role is not exactly major I really liked the scenes he appeared in, especially the videos sent from Earth to his father in space. Excellent choice to include both Affleck and Damon as minor characters because they lend a lot of their excellent talent towards filling out an already pretty damn good cast.
interstellar-03What truly does Interstellar justice overall is the gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema whose work includes Let the Right One InThe Fighter, and Her. This is just truly beautiful stuff. Not only is the cinematography remarkably beautiful to look at, Nolan actually had some set pieces built; for instance, the interior of the space shuttle and such locations. I think this really worked well. Granted, right from the start of any science fiction film, for the most part, you know there’ll be at least a certain degree of computer generated imagery. However, Nolan helps make things a little more real by using these built locations. I loved the spaceship itself. The inside is really wonderful. There will be plenty of comparisons to some of the most famous science fiction films of all-time, and I’m sure Nolan included a couple bits in homage to those, but with the look and feel of the film Interstellar stands on its own. It is most certainly a modern science fiction movie, in terms of views (mostly scientific) presented, and the aesthetic look/feel reinforce this fact.
Interstellar-Matthew-McConaughey-850x560-600x357Added to all this is another fantastic score by Hans Zimmer. Lots of people like to say his composing sounds similar from film to film, and they do, but that’s part of a technique I believe he readily employs; he likes to work with patterns, repetitions, similar cycles. Regardless of that, I love his work, all the time.  He does a lot of great composing for Nolan’s films in recent years. This sounds so much different from those other works, and I love that it does because that aspect really sets it apart from Nolan’s other movies – especially his recent work on the Dark Knight trilogy. Zimmer is one hell of a composer. His music lifts so many moments above and beyond what they already were, and kept me so entranced at times it is wild. I really, really could not get enough of the final hour in regards to Zimmer’s score – there was this real fugue-esque sound he achieved, which not only brought the intensity to a higher level but also really made scenes feel incredibly ominous. Great music.
interstellar-1920Overall, I’ve got to say this an amazing movie. A definite 4.5 out of 5 stars. The only thing that holds me back from giving Nolan’s film a full 5-star rating is the beginning; I really found it lagged, hard. While it did keep me interested enough to stick with things, and it did not affect my overall opinion of the film too negatively, I still believe Nolan dragged his feet a little out of the gate. Mostly, there was just a bit more talk than I feel was necessary. I love scripts with a lot of dialogue. Here, I just felt as if there was almost too much an emphasis on worrying about explaining things – as if the Nolan brothers were anticipating the usual hordes of people looking to debunk every single sentence and bit and piece of a science fiction film. In lieu of including a lot of scientific talk about space travel, et cetera, I think the film could’ve cut out at least 15-20 minutes and not been hurt in any way. Despite that, Interstellar is a truly wonderful movie full of all the things I love about science fiction. It does have its own message, but I think one of the great things is the fact the movie addresses human intervention/the advances & mistakes of humans themselves into the whole concept of interstellar travel better than I could have imagined – especially once Cooper meets Dr. Mann, and the events that follow on to the end of the film. Nolan really has great ideas; very human, very existential. Not only the way he makes films, the way he writes and thinks of/explores themes is also pretty excellent. See this movie, enjoy it. There are great performances, a very nice script full of adventure, spectacular sound design and score, plus great imagery. This is one wild science fiction epic by a continually innovative filmmaker.

The Deconstructed Life of BIRDMAN

Birdman. 2014. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Merritt Wever, and Edward Norton. New Regency Pictures. Rated 14A. 119 minutes.
Comedy/Drama

★★★★

2562232_bigBirdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who was once playing the superhero Birdman in big movies. Now, he’s doing the stage. He has adapted Raymond Carver, specifically. All this stems from when he was a young man and supposedly Carver attended one of his performances; afterwards, the famous author drunkenly scribbled a note to a young Thomson on a cocktail napkin. Unfortunately, his stage play is suffering under the weight of many things – his ego, a rough relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a new and cocky actor (Edward Norton playing a meta-version of himself), et cetera. All of these things threaten to tear him apart, so the question is – can he hold it all together?

Birdman1I’ve always enjoyed Keaton. I think he is generally under appreciated. While this movie is giving him a wave of high praise to ride on, I believe there are other performances before this which have solidified him as a wonderful actor – just a few are the Tim Burton Batman films, still my favourite BatmanNight ShiftBeetlejuice, and Jackie Brown. I do love his performance here in Birdman. I definitely would put this in his top roles of all-time, no doubt. I don’t take him to be much like his character in real life, though, I’m sure some of the character is a little relatable just in terms of how his career must have went initially after the fame of Batman slowly faded. Either way, Keaton puts a lot of effort into this movie. I thought it was a really full-hearted performance. He definitely put all he is worth into this character. It shows.
BirdmanThe other performances are really something, too. I enjoyed Norton, as I always do. He has a reputation for being somewhat difficult to work with, so I’m sure it was at least a little fun for him to fool around with this character. It’s like a meta-version of Norton himself almost.

Another person who I thought truly stood out was Emma Stone. She’s a really great young actress. Though, I’m not actually a huge fan of the movies she has done in the past, except for maybe Zombieland and her role in Superbad, I do think Stone has talent. In this film, she did a fantastic job with the character of Sam, Riggan’s daughter. There was something really vulnerable about the character, and yet also she came across as quite a strong woman. The relationship between Keaton and Stone worked real well, I thought. Both of them played great as a father-daughter duo who have seen hard times. A couple real great moments with them.
Birdman_teaserI am a big fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In fact, Amores Perros is the first non-english film I’d ever seen. I believe I was about sixteen years old. The film really moved me, so much so I had the title tattooed on my wrist. It’s a fascinating movie. Then later I saw 21 Grams, and then Babel, and Biutiful – I loved each of these. He is an interesting, unique filmmaker. I love the approach he has to subjects. This is one of the reasons Birdman is most definitely a real good film. Just the way Iñárritu shot everything here to look as if it were one long uninterrupted take is really innovative. Now, of course, you can find the meticulous little places where Iñárritu decided to hide his quick cuts, but you really do have to be paying full attention, as well as give a shit about such things. I really enjoyed this. It’s a wild way to make a movie, and it could have come off really terribly. That being said, I think Iñárritu pulls it off here in grand style.

All that aside, I don’t think Iñárritu’s film is a perfect and as amazing as the glorious reviews will have you believe. It’s ambitious, it has great performances, and a decent script. However, I do find at times the theme, or the message if you will, behind Birdman is a little too divisive. And not in a good sense, in the way of opinions. I think the message is really heavy handed. At one point, Birdman is telling Riggan how people want to “see action” and not this talk, talk, talk, philosophical stuff. It’s a great point to try and make, I just think it comes across really ham fisted. Like it’s saying if you enjoy action, you’re dumb. I’m on the side of the fence where I don’t care about Marvel – I don’t want any more superhero movies for awhile, even though I’m a huge Batman fan, in all forms of media, and have been for a long time – I just don’t want the market flooded with all this CGI-infested junk constantly. On the other hand, I also don’t want to be told that action, et cetera, is some sort of lower art form. I know there is black comedy in here, there are a lot of digs at the artists themselves, some of the material is no doubt pointed at artists in general – but still, I think this comes across as preachy to some. I love this movie. I just think some of these bits could have been toned down a little more, so as not to alienate people. Perhaps some might say “who cares about those people”, and that’s fine, but I think there was a way of achieving what Iñárritu wanted to do without being a bit snobbish. Just one man’s opinion. Or maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the point is that there is ego in all things, no matter if it’s an action-based superhero film or a stage play, or whatever – there is always an air of pretentiousness behind art, in whichever form it may come. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. I take it in the way I do, just as others will in their own way. I respect if others see the film in another light.
still-of-michael-keaton-in-birdman-2014-large-pictureThis is most definitely a 4 out of 5 star film for me. It is certainly a great movie, and I don’t doubt for a second this is on many Best Of lists from last year. Me – I didn’t love it as much as other movies. I really enjoyed it, a lot, and would watch it again. I will, absolutely. I just don’t think it’s as great as the hype will have you convinced. Definitely worth seeing. If not just for the fact Iñárritu does a fascinating job at weaving the camera in and around the locations of the film, from actor to actor, very naturally and beautifully. I’m in no way talking the film down, because if you don’t already know I have a few real unpopular opinions about some movies (I’m the kind who loves a few movies that are generally considered terrible – example: Exorcist II: The Heretic). This is merely my opinion. I still think it’s a fantastically honed piece of work. Destined to be a classic of cinema down the road, if not already with the praise it’s receiving. Keaton, especially, I really loved. Check this out – let me know what you thought about it in the comments!

WHIPLASH: Two Jazz-Hands Up

Whiplash. 2014. Directed & Written by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, and Paul Reiser.
Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Drama/Music

★★★★★WHIP_INTL_1Sht_Lk2_LYRDI think one of the most incredible things about Whiplash is the fact it captures the blood, sweat, and tears which go into the making of a true musician so accurately that it’s almost a little scary. In fact, with J.K Simmons’ performance this really becomes a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the beating heart of music. While most people only see the surface of musicians, Damien Chazelle opens up the doors and shows the world what it’s like behind them. Now, not all musicians go through such strenuous training – many famous rockstars would have you believe they’ve run the gamut, however, the studied musicians who have trained for years and years, who have literally bled and spent hours grinding themselves into dust just for that extra bit of practice to get ahead, they are the true masters. I’m not discounting what famous bands, et cetera, are doing (there are absolutely famous musicians who’ve gone the hard road of classical training) – I only mean that the real tough and uniquely talented individuals are those who went through the trenches.

Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer named Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who attends a very prestigious music school. There, he comes face to face with a fearsome, well-respected professor, Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). The two butt heads. Andrew wishes to be one of the greats. While Fletcher initially seems to give him a positive response, soon Andrew finds himself at the mercy of a merciless maniac consumed by only one thing – perfect music. Continuously the two clash to more and more unexpected results.
Whiplash-4091.cr2One of the most obvious things that impresses most people about the film is Miles Teller. Firstly, it’s incredible to know he played the drums. I mean, if you pay attention to the film for more than ten minutes you’ll obviously realize it’s him – very hard to hide anything the way Chazelle shot the film. But it’s still mind blowing. There are some really tough scenes in here. I can imagine some of the blood, and no doubt every last drop of the sweat, were all Teller; one hundred percent of the way. This is a performance where an actor really dives in. Not only pulling off a complex emotional character, but additionally playing the music of the film. Apparently, Teller has played drums since the age of 15, and took more intense lessons to prepare for the role. It shows.
He also certainly did a great job while not on the drums. His performance reflected a lot of what I’ve personally seen in musicians over the years. Myself, I’d never strived to be anything more than a decent musician who could play for fun. I grew up with an aunt and uncle who both have their Master’s Degree in music – both of whom taught me, in one form or another, over the years. I planned piano and trumpet for a long time, fairly well I might add, but not at a truly competitive level other than music festivals throughout grade school. I mention this because I’ve come across a lot of people such as Andrew Neiman while coming up. They are determined. Some times to a fault. However, I’ve always been fascinated with their determination. Trying not to ruin anything, I think it’s the finale which really brought me around to believing Teller did a fabulous job. You really see the determination, the pain, the anguish of Andrew in these moments. The ending is really beautiful. Overall, and for the character of Andrew himself.
whiplash3The other undeniable aspect of Whiplash and what makes it so good is, of course, the always fascinating J.K Simmons. In him, the character of Terence Fletcher really comes alive and jumps out of the screen. I know he played this role in the short Chazelle did before getting the funding for the feature, so that certainly was good for Simmons as an actor; being able to live with a character more than just a small period of time while filming. Either way, I’m sure he could have pulled this off. He has a great knack for playing hard ass characters, however, I think this goes beyond that – Fletcher is a cruel, relentless savage who stops at nothing to secure the best performance possible from every musician under his eye. Again, while Andrew is a very real character to me, so is the character of Fletcher. I’ve known people who could really push the envelope, as far as what is or isn’t acceptable to say to a person in regards to conductors. Even my own uncle who has been conducting, writing, teaching musicians for several decades now – this coming from both his nephew and a former student – could be an asshole. This wasn’t because being an asshole got him any further. It was always in service of the overall performance. Not only him, but other band teachers I had in grade school were also intense. I’ve seen and heard some fairly foul stuff from these guys over the years. One of them actually smacked me on the top of my head lightly with a trumpet mouthpiece – if you’ve ever held one, you know it doesn’t take much to leave a nice goose egg on the top of a teenager’s skull. All that in mind, Simmons really pulled off a spectacularly villainous role. He’s probably one of the best film villains of the last decade, and this is purely a dramatic film about music. So, I really think the praise is deserved, as much as any other great performance from 2014 – if not more. A great actor who deserves the most recognition possible.

In the end, I really think the best thing for me about Whiplash is the fact I really didn’t know where this film was headed. For a while, I sort of thought this might end up being a really cheesy music movie because of where I thought the plot might go. Luckily, was I ever wrong. Especially in the last third of the film. I really didn’t expect things to take the turns they did. Without spoiling too much, I think Chazelle made some interesting, non-typical choices. In particular, the very end played extremely well. I was expecting the film to end on a certain note, and while it did end in similar fashion to what I imagined, there was a distinct lack of ham. What I mean is, I really thought Chazelle might fall into the trap of lesser films where they go for sentimental conclusions which make me feel forced. I don’t like to feel forced to say “oh that’s nice a happy ending”. Whiplash ends on what I believe is a positive note, but doesn’t jam any sappy finale moments down your throat. It’s actually really intense. I found myself wide-eyed and wondering how things were finally going to clue up. I was impressed once Chazelle finished the film in the way he did, and walked away feeling great.
Whiplash-5547.cr2I can honestly say this is a flawless drama. It’s a 5-star movie about music. There is no doubt. While some might try and say it does no service to music because it seems to say practice can make anyone great, this is absolutely not the case. At one point in the film we see Fletcher’s only moment of weakness: a young musician he moulded, who went on to be a fabulous musician, dies in a car accident. Later in the movie, he explains a few things to Andrew. Fletcher ends up mentioning that even though he tried his best he never really “had a Charlie Parker” – right there and then, even if you know already, you realize this is not about saying practice can make anyone into one of the greats. Even this student Fletcher thought was the best he’d ever produced was not who he deemed to be “a Charlie Parker“. The point is, Fletcher pushed people to go beyond what was expected of them. He never guaranteed anybody greatness – only the opportunity to learn the tools through which greatness might then be attainable. The message isn’t wrong, but certainly will be misinterpreted. You won’t be great just because you practice yet ultimately, no one can be good without practice, and certainly not great – this is the message.

I highly recommend everyone see this film once they get the chance. It’s a great movie about music with incredible performances, lots of jazz, a bit of psychological horror in a few scenes, and always, always tons of heart. I enjoyed this every step of the way, and it defied a lot of the expected moments I anticipated to see.

BLUE RUIN’s Honest Amateur Revenge

Blue Ruin. 2014. Directed & Written by Jeremy Saulnier.
Starring Macon Blair, Tyler Byrne, Richard Peete, Vincent Savino, Alex Orr, and Anish Savjani.
Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Rated 18A. 90 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
blueruin-poster02 Personally, I love revenge thrillers just because they satisfy the real life need at times to dive into something similar to our daily lives. Many people can relate to the emotions of people who have family members, friends, loved ones killed or hurt in horrible ways. This is something we see in the news all the time. Even in our own hometowns. However, many revenge thrillers often push our limits of what’s believable. For instance, a lot of the lead characters in films of this sub-genre are often made out to be the perfect killing machine – even if they’re some mild mannered type before the events which change their lives, afterwards they become relentless, near superhuman people who can withstand any and all pain, as well as seem to automatically know their way around guns (including how to load them & et cetera) and have a plethora of unique ideas about how to modify simple everyday items into weapons. While I can get into some of those films just because they’re often good fun, when done appropriately and well-enough, I really respect a film that goes for a revenge thriller story but subverts what we’ve come to expect from other films of this sub-genre. This is one of those movies, which takes everything you thought you knew about the revenge thriller genre and turns everything on its head.

Blue Ruin is the story of a man who has nearly lost everything. Dwight lives out of his rundown old blue car (the titular Blue Ruin). He eats out of dumpsters, rifling through them to find whatever food he can that still smells edible. He takes a nice bath when he can – until the people who own the home he’s taking one in return. One morning he’s picked up by the police, however, they aren’t arresting him. An officer tells Dwight that Wade Cleland is about to be released; he is the man who murdered Dwight’s parents. After this, Dwight goes back to his home in Virginia. When Wade is released, Dwight follows him and proceeds to, messily, kill him in a bathroom stall. While escaping, Dwight drops his own keys in the bathroom, and ends up having to steal a limousine Wade was brought home in. The car itself is registered still under information leading back to his sister’s home. Dwight finds his sister, reveals what he has done, and begs them to leave in case the Cleland family decides to take their own revenge. Of course, this is what eventually happens. These events spark a brutal, raw war between Dwight and the rest of the Clelands, who will seemingly stop at nothing to avenge the death of Wade.
blue-ruin01The most excellent part about Blue Ruin, aside from Macon Blair’s absolutely phenomenal and subtle performance as Dwight, is the fact they didn’t try to make the lead character into some kind of ultimate assassin who has suddenly come into his own after deciding to take revenge. I mean, it’s awesome to see action, a bit of blood and guts, all that, but it’s nice to also see Jeremy Saulnier write a character who is very real and lifelike. Dwight only knows he wants revenge. He proves, time and time again, he does not know how to go about actually taking it – but still it drives him. Like any of us if our parents were murdered, Dwight is consumed by the thought of revenge. When we first see him try to kill Wade it is an absolutely astonishing mess. It really works because most of us would have no idea how to grab hold of somebody and cut their throat, other than to grab on and try, which is exactly how Dwight goes about the kill. This doesn’t go as planned, and things get really sloppy. I think immediately this shows us Saulnier’s revenge thriller is unlike most in the sub-genre. That’s a-okay by me. I think this is a really fresh film because it doesn’t fall prey to the same slips and traps as others in the sub-genre do. The market nowadays is flooded with tons of revenge thrillers, especially after Liam Neeson and Luc Besson’s Taken became a runaway hit.
blue-ruin04The acting in Blue Ruin is absolutely spectacular. Macon Blair has gotten a lot of praise for this role. Rightfully so. It is a real subdued performance, and you can feel the pain of Dwight coming through, radiating out of Blair at almost every moment. There are also times where you can just tell he is not equipped to deal with the murder coming along with his revenge – one scene, after watching a man get his face blown off, shows him on the side of the road by his car puking out his guts. In general, though, he really plays a broken down man here for the most of this film, and it is some of the finest acting in the last decade. Some of the best really in the entire revenge thriller sub-genre. Period – ever. I loved it so much solely because of Blair. It doesn’t hurt there are a few good supporting roles. Always awesome to see Devin Ratray – best known as Buzz from Home Alone. There is mostly focus on Blair, as he’s alone a lot of the time, or preparing himself for the revenge. However, there are small roles worth checking out here, and they fully round out the cast instead of just having Blair acting up a beautiful storm while no one else does anything. It’s nice to see even the smallest roles performed well.
blue-ruin05The cinematography in Blue Ruin is gorgeous. It really looks great. Especially when juxtaposed with all the grim scenes. Some of the effects are just as great. Right off the bat when Dwight tries to kill Wade there is a nice bit of savage practical blood work, and you know right from then there will be more and more of this to come. The brutality in this movie really fits because it’s very real. There are not a ton of situations where you just marvel solely at how impossible it would’ve been for one person to setup such a scenario. Instead, Dwight rolls through this movie very unprepared, and the gruesome, bloody scenes usually reflect this raw and real nature. I really loved a particular headshot that comes just after the last half hour begins – it looks amazing, and the sound design is incredible, as Saulnier easily and briefly represents how far away the bullet comes from. Very cool effect.
blue-ruin02Overall, this is a perfect film to me. Saulnier has created a very brutal, raw image of the revenge thriller. He takes it out of the ridiculousness of Hollywood and how big budget films treat the sub-genre. This is a spectacularly written, directed, and acted film. There’s nothing wrong here. I think this could’ve easily become generic fodder, like many of the Taken rip-offs (and also the awful Taken sequels themselves). Saulnier opted not to do anything like this. Blue Ruin is probably the best crowd funded film out there. He really put the money to great use. The cinematography makes the bleak & grim story come to life, and Macon Blair puts on a performance that should be nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Check this out. You will not be disappointed by this amazing modern revenge thriller.

The Interview Suffers from Hype-itis

The Interview. 2014. Dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen. Screenplay by Dan Sterling; story by Rogen, Goldberg & Sterling.
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, and Diana Bang.
Columbia Pictures.
Rated 14A. 112 minutes.
Action/Comedy

★★1/2
the-interview-poster1 This film will no doubt divide people. There are a lot of people who want you to believe watching The Interview is some sort of patriotic act. Fact is, if Sony hadn’t initially backed down because of the threats over its release this would have just gone into theatre. Sure – the threat is what started it, but essentially Sony prevented everyone from seeing it by negotiating with terrorists. All that being said, you should see this just for the fact we should never let anyone tell us what to see, whether it’s a person, a government, our government, a foreign one, or anybody. Never. Now that Sony has decided to put it out, you can through Google, Xbox, and other outlets – plus, it’s a cheaper alternative than actually seeing it in theatre.

People need not be looking at this as some sort of way to take part in activism. It’s not. If the movie were a bit more satirical than outright foolish maybe I’d see it in more of a political light. This movie is in no way actually political. I’m sorry if you see it that way and disagree – I respect those opinions.
Personally, I just can’t enjoy this in any other way than a bit of stupid fun, as opposed to something like Bulworth, which on the surface feels silly at times but really has a true message behind things. The Interview has points it seem to want to make, claims about the way North Korea treats their people, et cetera. Unfortunately, there are less hits than the multiplicity of misses, and there’s mostly just a lot of jokes falling flat. While I love both James Franco and Seth Rogen, they’ve done much better before with This is the End and Pineapple Express.
1ac9e07d1c4826beee272a27e88c8dcb_imresizedEveryone knows the plot of the film because unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or living in North Korea (and not working for the Supreme Leader), you no doubt heard something about The Interview. Two trashy journalists, host Dave Skylark (Franco) and producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), similar to the type of guys and gals who populate TMZ’s “newsroom” (pains me to even call it that), end up scoring an interview with Kim Jong-un, who is apparently a big fan of their tabloid show “Skylark Tonight”. The CIA gets wind of their interview and taps them both to assassinate Kim. Of course things go wrong in, supposedly, hilarious fashion, as neither Rapaport nor Skylard are equipped, mentally or physically, to handle such responsibility.
the_interview_2014_photo_wallpaper-800x533One of the first parts I really didn’t enjoy was when Skylark feeds Aaron ecstasy. Now, it’s not because I’m afraid of drugs; on film, they can be especially hilarious when portrayed correctly. My problem with this quick little segment is that it feels like Goldberg and Rogen just said “hmmm we need a segue from one scene to another – let’s recycle”. It reminds me so much of This is the End when Jay Baruchel accidentally drinks a can full of ecstasy; it then kicks into a little montage of them all high as hell getting crazy. I enjoyed it the first time. This one just felt out of place. While I did laugh because I always find it funny in a movie or television show (never in real life – and that’s for fucking real – never do this to anyone) when someone ingests drugs unknowingly, it really is completely recycled from their previous collaboration.

This scene also just didn’t fit at all. They could’ve introduced Lizzy Caplan’s character in any other way. For some reason, they decided this little drug-fueled sequence leading to Franco & Rogen waking up in the same place was the best. Maybe it was to make room for the raunchy, but really hilarious, “dick stink” joke Franco plays out. We laughed pretty hard at this one, I have to admit. Overall, I just don’t think it played well. I know the point was to have the two main characters somewhere alone together, so as to allow for the secret CIA meet with Caplan, however, I have to imagine there was a better way to write this scene than the scene that exists.
screen_shot_2014-11-25_at_4.58.14_amMy problem with The Interview doesn’t lie with all the crude humour or any sort of perceived offensiveness. Not at all.  It’s not particularly a great comedy. In the slightest.
I do find Seth Rogen funny. I’ve honestly considered myself a fan of his ever since Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. I like more of his recent work, too.  For me, though, this is just not a good example of his best work. While Rogen is absolutely one of the funnier parts of The Interview, that isn’t to say it’s one of his funnier movies.
One example of a real good scene for Rogen is when he and Diana Bang share a “love scene” (you’ll understand the reason behind my use of quotation marks once you’ve actually seen the movie). It’s not just funny because of the physical comedy involved – Bang and Rogen are both really hilarious here. Genuine laughter. There’s also another very quick, crude little moment with the two of them I did not expect. The girlfriend and I laughed, as well as being generally surprised, when this happened. It’s quick, but an effective little gag.

I also like James Franco quite a bit. Maybe even more than I like Rogen. No matter how people view Franco I’ll always enjoy his performances because I usually find him pretty engaging, as well as a fairly interesting actor. On the other hand, there are a few of his movies where I don’t really enjoy him. Throughout The Interview I swayed back and forth between finding a few of his scenes funny, to being perpetually annoyed with his character; and that’s not in a sense that he was trying to be annoying. Certain jokes Franco tries to pull off here really aren’t funny. They verge on being worthy of a cringe or two. While I found some bits really funny (example: the bit with Eminem at the beginning was funny), others that were maybe not meant to be as funny (example: Skylark finds some fake fruit setup in a grocery store), certain scenes intended to play for outright laughs went over like a wet fart in church (example: “hate us ’cause they ain’t us” both in the earlier scene with Rogen & later in the scene with Randall Park were excruciatingly bad). There was just such a mix with Franco’s performance as Skylark. I don’t know if it’s how Franco played the character or how his character was written, but I just couldn’t get into him consistently enough to enjoy.

Some say Randall Park is absolutely hilarious in this, as if his performance was a revelation. He was competent enough, and yes, I absolutely did laugh at a handful of moments with him. Regardless, it wasn’t anything great. He looks a fair bit like Kim, though not at all identical, but the role itself (not Park – he did a decent job) isn’t exactly written well. I mean, the stuff with Katy Perry was funny during the tank scene. I laughed hard. Then, once they brought it back from the dead and beat it to death, I just got sick of the whole thing. The role of Kim could have been satirized much better. I don’t understand how anybody can’t see that – world leaders have been skewed with more clever wit in a movie like Dr. Strangelove, where even the Russian president’s role was hilarious while his dialogue is never actually heard, only second-hand through Peter Sellers as fictional United States President Merkin Muffley. That is not Park’s fault whatsoever. The writing for Jong-un’s character in the film was sloppy. They had a chance here to really knock it out of the park with a biting characterization. Instead they went solely for the slapstick comedy. While I do enjoy certain slapstick-style comedies, this just didn’t connect because it was really lazy, opting for silly jokes such as Kim Jong-il telling his son margaritas are “gay”.  On the surface they’re good for a chuckle, but little else.
theinterview01Honourable mention for Franco must go to – the end of the scene where Skylark busts into Aaron’s office to let him know about Kim Jong-un being a fan of the show. Another guy from the show busts in and claims there’s a possible video of Matthew McConaughey having sex with a goat, to which Skylark replies: “Get the goat!  Get the goat! (turns to Aaron) I got some questions for that goat.” Honestly, just the way Franco does the turn, looks at Rogen and delivers the line, absolutely slays me. There are some really great little throwaway lines in here like this. That’s perhaps the problem. There doesn’t feel, to me, like there is much of a constant throughout The Interview, but rather a ton of tiny jokes thrown together in a script. Worse still, many of the jokes, even some of the actual funny stuff, often rely solely on the bromance between Franco and Rogen. I do enjoy their hilarious friendship, I just don’t want to watch a movie where they’re not playing themselves and yet still playing themselves somehow.

While a lot of people have high praise for The Interview that is just one bandwagon I cannot jump on, even if I wanted to hitch a ride. While I found it funny enough to make it through the near two-hour running time, I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. I really wanted to watch it, and pay for it, because I do believe in freedom of speech. Although I don’t necessarily think this is the greatest representation for this particular right, people really should go see it just to make your own personal statement; you should never let anybody, as I mentioned earlier, determine what you can or cannot see in terms of art (I mean real art – pederasts unfortunately use this rhetoric to try and justify their sick visions of “art”).
sethrogenjamesfrancopuppy1201 On the other hand, don’t expect The Interview to really break down any sort of barriers or any new ground in comedy. This really is meant to just be a fun comedy. Due to all the controversy and the hackers, North Korean or otherwise, people want to give this movie more meaning than I believe it ever intended to convey. I expected more in that sense, however, in the end I’m just ultimately disappointed by the comedy itself. I’ve enjoyed lots of what some critics would like to call “low brow comedy” (for instance I love Dumb & Dumber and even lesser loved raunchy comedies like Kingpin), I don’t have anything against crude humour, dick jokes, anything like that – I’m 30 and I don’t think I’ll ever stop laughing at fart jokes. But even in the dirtiest jokes there’s still a way to tell them to ensure they actually make people laugh.
Basically, I just don’t think the performances, all together, add up to enough. Rogen is the only one I really found funny from start to finish. Some may even disagree with me on this point, too. Caplan and Bang weren’t in there enough to really be hilarious, and they were great female roles, which is sad; I particularly enjoy Caplan and wish her character was better. There are a lot of individual jokes I enjoyed (the honey pot/honey dick lines wore away my nerves after the numerous repetitions), but I can’t say this is anything more than a mediocre comedy at best. See it – only to say you didn’t like cyber terrorism ruin our collective right to see the movies we want. Otherwise, don’t expect much more than a few laughs and a lot of Franco hamming it up beyond belief.

Gary Oldman Fights for Innocence in BackWoods

BackWoods. 2006. Dir. Koldo Serra. Screenplay by Serra & Jon Sagalá.
Starring Gary Oldman, Virginie Ledoyen, Paddy Considine, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Jon Ariño, Lluís Homar, and Kandido Uranga. Lionsgate.
Rated 14A. 97 minutes.
Thriller

★★★★ (Film)
★1/2 (DVD release)
tirtle-backwoodsThis is one of those films I may never have heard of, if only maybe for a late night search spree on lesser known Gary Oldman flicks, except for the fact I stumbled across it in a $5 bin at a local rental place a few years back; in fact, the disc still has the store’s sticker on it to this day. I saw it, realised that not only was Oldman in it but also Paddy Considine of whom I’m a really big fan, and snatched it up quickly. Turns out it wasn’t just a decent little snag for five bucks. It’s a quality movie. An old school backwoods style thriller. There are times it not only feels set in the 1970s, I truly felt a lot of moments could’ve almost been filmed back then, as well. There’s certainly moments of homage towards both John Boorman’s classic Deliverance, as well as Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 dramatic revenge thriller Straw Dogs. Mainly there’s just a really great nostalgic feel about the story and the setting, which comes across quite well.
BackWoods sees two couples, Paul (Oldman) and Isabel (Sánchez-Gijón), as well as Norman (Considine) and Lucy (Ledoyen), venturing into the Spanish back country. Paul and Isabel now live in the Basque region after they married. Norman, and his young wife Isabel, are heading to visit. An idyllic vacation in the forest turns to a nightmarish situation when Paul and Norman stumble across a deformed little girl who has been locked up in a small shed-like structure, pad locked and hidden away. They bring her back to Paul and Isabel’s home in the woods. But not long after, local men from the village show up looking for the girl, and all is not as it seems in the quaint little pocket of Spain. Paul and Norman find themselves facing a desperate and brutal situation, fighting for their lives, as well as those of their wives.
This goes down some of the same roads we see in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Specifically, the character of Norman is really pushed to his limits here. Initially even the sight of a rabbit being killed by Paul is shocking to him; there’s a lingering shot of Considine looking fairly troubled by watching the rabbit die. However, Paul tells his friend something which resonates through the whole film – “there are hunters and prey, Normanits the only fucking truth in this world.” While Paul understands the human nature of hunter and prey, Norman doesn’t quite get it. His rude awakening comes later in the film when the men coming to look for the deformed girl appear to be more ruthless than he could have ever imagined. It’s a really great way to introduce these themes, all starting with just a tiny little rabbit. Nice touch.
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I really enjoy how this film stayed mostly as a dramatic thriller. It had a few little elements of horror (the backwoods ‘battle’ between city folk & villagers + the deformed girl locked away in the woods/ et cetera), but it didn’t stray into full on terror or anything. This works really nicely as a 1970s style thriller.  It’s also particularly performance driven, as opposed to plot. While the plot is deceptively simple, the characters here are rich and very full.
For instance, Oldman’s character Paul is a pretty diverse character. There is a lot to him. I get the feeling he sort of went out living in the forest with his wife as a kind of challenge. One aspect I enjoyed once the villagers lay siege on Paul and the others is how there was so much tension between the two sides. On one hand, Paul feels he belongs there, and he does because he already lives there; he made it his home. The other side, the villagers, see him still as an outsider. Worse still, he has clearly wandered into their world. He is not one of them, regardless of how well he hunts and navigates the male-dominated world of the villagers.
This leads me to another part of BackWoods I enjoyed a lot. Whereas a lot of films might have taken up a portion of the running time drawing out the deformed girl’s story, rounding things out and maybe giving her some kind of history, Koldo Serra leaves intrigue to spare. We don’t get any definitive answers on what exactly the deformed girl is doing out in the woods, in the sense of who she is or where she came from – it’s simply a plot element. It sets up the city versus nature theme running throughout the film, which ultimately drives Oldman’s character. Norman, Considine’s character, is also affected by this theme, as he is even less of the “back country” type than Paul. He is even more thrown into chaos because of how far removed from that lifestyle living in the city keeps him. There’s even a scene where Norman raises his gun to kill a rabbit of his own – ultimately, he is unable to actually pull the trigger. This sets the stage for the real burning question to come later – can he pull the trigger when it’s more than a rabbit staring down the barrel of his rifle? We get the answer later in a very tense, horrifying scene. Of course, what happens then sets off a whole other chain of events.
The entire presentation of these themes is really well done, and made the film more than just a backwoods thriller. It lifted this from out of simple genre fare. This could very well have been some exploitation film, a cheap grindhouse style movie. Instead, it becomes a tension-filled dramatic thriller.
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For the most part, a lot of BackWoods surprised me. I figured it might go down the same road as similar films. Instead, it subverts a few of my expectations. For instance, the scene where Norman is finally forced to either pull the trigger, or else face possibly terrible consequences, I really didn’t expect it to pan out the way it ended up going. I was happy because I thought Norman wasn’t going to change whatsoever as a character. His actions both change him and create more issues for his character to deal with. It’s really great stuff.
The ending, as well, was not something I particularly saw coming.
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This can safely be categorised as a 4 out of 5 star film. There isn’t a whole lot wrong with it, but it’s not perfect whatsoever. I think Gary Oldman and Paddy Considine did a really wonderful job fleshing out the characters they portrayed. Particularly, Oldman gives a strong and emotional performance, unlike a lot of the roles I often enjoy him in, and I don’t know how more people don’t talk about this one, or at least mention it in passing – solid lesser seen role by Oldman. There are also a couple excellently paced chase sequences which help move the film along nicely.  The pacing was helped by how the plot never gets too bogged down in one area, however, that’s also a drawback – I wanted to know more about Paul and Isabel because it seemed there was more to their relationship than what we were given. While sometimes it’s nice when less is more, there are case, like BackWoods, where I could have even done with an extra few scenes just to really give us a portrait of their lives. Oldman does such a spectacular job with his character, I feel even more justice might’ve been done to the film in general had they provided more insight.
Regardless, BackWoods is a pleasant surprise. When a lot of tripe gets doled out in terms of thriller films, this is a refreshing little movie that doesn’t go down all the expected routes.
While the DVD is fairly lame, providing only the film itself (though the picture/sound is beautiful & it looks gorgeous in widescreen) and a trailer, I highly would recommend anybody who can get their hands on a copy of the film do so – it is worth your time. I don’t watch it often, when I do I’m always impressed with the thrill it provides. If you’re a fan of Oldman, Considine, or just those gritty 1970s revenge thrillers in the vein of Straw Dogs and the backwoods city versus nature themes found in classics like Deliverance & even less praised titles like Southern Comfort, this will no doubt quench your thirst. You can do far worse for a movie night than BackWoods.

William Friedkin’s Cruising: Serial Murder on the Margins

Cruising. 1980. Directed & Written by William Friedkin; adapted from the novel by Gerald Walker.
Starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, and Joe Spinell. Warner Brothers.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Mystery

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★1/2 (DVD release)
bg65bhnsgOK0thCxspXXbOkUqXgCruising came about for William Friedkin in a number of ways: through his own observations about the gay bar scene, Gerald Walker’s novel, and his own link to a man convicted of murder (an extra from The Exorcist during the medical scenes). Listening to him talk during one of the featurettes on the making of Cruising, Friedkin really found something to connect with in the story. There is a sense he had a real interest in the whole social scene of the gay bars, as well as a grasp on the danger a lot of these men were in during those times being susceptible to abuse from all sides – not to mention the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

Cruising is about a young police detective, Steve Burns (Pacino), who is recruited by a police captain (Sorvino) to go undercover into the gay clubs of New York City, specifically the underground S&M clubs where some wild stuff goes down. There is a serial killer out cutting up young gay men and dumping their body parts into the river. Fairly on his own both as a cop and mentally, unable to tell his own significant other exactly what he’s doing undercover, Burns starts to find the assignment wearing and tearing down his psyche; he starts to change.
We watch as Burns goes into the underground of gay New York, the hardcore clubs, and we watch as the work starts to infringe on his personal life. It’s a great character study wrapped up in a murder mystery, and with slightly subdued horror undertones. For instance, in one of the first scenes we actually see a really vicious knifing; it plays out tense and mysterious, and then quickly becomes brutal with some brief shots of blood spilling all over the place. I love how Friedkin sort of weaves between genres, mixing them up together into a single, great pot.
cruising4Some of the moments we see here with the killer are really the stuff of amazing psychological horror. Yet there’s something very real about it all, too. Friedkin has a great sense for things which horrify us, and yet even though he has made one of the greatest horrors of all time I still wouldn’t classify him whatsoever as a horror filmmaker. He is most of all great with personal drama; the study of characters. Even in The Exorcist, one of the best things about that story is Ellen Burstyn’s character and her own personal journey amongst all the terror she and her daughter experience. Here in Cruising, for all the interesting bits in the creepy parts of this story, the main meat of what’s here is the character study of police officer Steve Burns, and what the work he’s participating in is doing to him. The murder mystery elements are simply a great backdrop for all of this character work to take place.
Cruising 1980 Al Pacino pic 3There is a lot to enjoy visually in this movie. Friedkin used a lot of dull tones, in the sense there isn’t much colour in the film. I like that because it makes things sort of blend together. This works together with one of the themes being transformation; from one place to the next, all the locations almost feel as if they bleed into the next. Just as we start to wonder who the killer really is, over and over at times (another trick Friedkin used was multiple actors playing the actual killer – the DVD lays it out very well which points out how much work went into the red herring effect they achieved here), and certain characters feel as if they bleed into one another, so does the look and the colour of the film. It’s really excellent. Also works to make things feel more grim and gritty.

The soundtrack of Cruising is spectacular. Pairs nicely with the look and feel of the film. Especially the stuff in the gay bars – really rocking soundtrack. Then there’s the score behind a lot of the scenes, which helps to set the mood along with all the colour palette choices. Very good instance of a lot of different aspects working together to create a fuller portrait of a film.
CRU5Al Pacino, as he is in many films, is really great here. He does a lot of interesting and subtle work here. Many people seem to often play into the idea that Pacino only does the loud and brash dialogue, or over-the-top type characters. I couldn’t disagree more on the whole, but in Cruising he absolutely shows his chops. Yes, there are times here when he does go into a rage; one moment in particular is a real outburst. Though, it works. The disintegration of this character’s psyche really starts to show in the way Pacino looks, as well as how he starts to treat those around him. He did an amazing job, and his performance is one of those in his filmography people really overlook time and time again. That may have more to do with the controversial nature of the entire film more than with his acting on this occasion, but regardless people shouldn’t skip this over so much. Awesome performance by one of the best actors in film.
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Many people probably see too much controversy in this movie to enjoy it. Or at least I can see how some people, specifically in the gay community, might misunderstand William Friedkin’s intentions here – it could be seen as making the gay community, certainly the earlier communities in the late 70s & 80s, look bad. But that is certainly not what he means to do. This is an exploration of a murder mystery, as well as a character study. Friedkin himself says, in the audio commentary & the special features, the gay scene (et cetera) is all about backdrop; he says it was “an interesting background” in which to set this specific story. Add in the novel, as well as Friedkin’s own visit to meet the extra from The Exorcist who bludgeoned a man to death, and you can see why he just found all of this interesting. I absolutely understand how certain people might take this film the wrong way, however, if you really give it a chance, and look at what it’s all about underneath, Cruising is an amazing thriller with horror and mystery elements thrown in for good measure. This is one of Friedkin’s most underrated movies, in my mind. It’s my favourite of his films.|
Both the DVD and film are great. Though, I wish the DVD had more features, it’s still a great release. Certainly for a film that had so much trouble getting released, and after its release. I would love to see this on Blu ray, packed with as many extras and additional cut footage Friedkin could drum up. For now, this DVD will do.
Incredible film. See it when you can, and check out this DVD if you find yourself becoming a fan of this lesser known, amazingly executed film.