Monday, November 24, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay ― Part 1 (2014)

When I entered that darkened theater two years ago to see The Hunger Games, I was unsure of what to expect. I feared that it would be another dull, dreary adaptation of a young adult novel in the same vein as Twilight and its damnable sequels. But when I left, I was not only pleasantly surprised, but actually impressed by how good the movie was. It's not a huge leap to assume that I'm not the only one that felt that way, as the movie did huge at the box office, as did its equally good sequel, Catching Fire. It was only natural that Hollywood would get around to turning the third book in Suzanne Collins's trilogy into a movie as well. And much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, the final Hunger Games novel would be turned into two movies. Because why make a ton of money off one movie when you can make twice as much with two movies? So since it'll be next year before we get to see the full novel realized as a film, let's go ahead and check out the first half of Mockingjay and see where it goes.

District 12 is no more. Bombed into nothingness by a vengeful President Snow (Donald Sutherland) after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) committed a blatant act of defiance to conclude the Quarter Quell. The few survivors seek refuge in the underground bunkers of District 13, the thought-destroyed district left isolated and independent from the rest of Panem. It is there that the fires of rebellion burn the hottest, and with Katniss among the refugees, District 13's president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), sees an opportunity to raise the stakes of their rebellion.

Katniss's actions during her actions in the Hunger Games arena have sparked angry riots across Panem, and Coin asks her to accept her role as "the Mockingjay" and become the face of their movement. Her answer is a flat no, refusing to associate with the rebellion because they allowed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) be taken into the Capitol's custody in the chaos following the Quarter Quell. Things change, however, when Peeta begins appearing on television extolling the virtues of the Capitol and pleading with the Districts to lay down their arms.

Convinced that Peeta is being coerced into these pro-Capitol speeches, Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay on the condition that Peeta be rescued. And with District 13's propaganda pieces making their way into the districts through a series of hijacked TV broadcasts, the civil unrest begins to grow even further. The citizens of Panem rising up against their oppressors, however, will make rescuing Peeta may be harder than it seems. Because if one thing is for certain, it's that President Snow is not a man to be angered or trifled with.

I'm not a fan of this recent trend of splitting the last book in a series into two movies. You're only getting half a story, and both halves run the risk of feeling bloated because having to make two movies means being unable to streamline the source material. And honestly, those are the biggest problems I have with Mockingjay ― Part 1. The movie isn't a bad one, but thanks to the novel's bisection, it feels woefully incomplete and far too padded out.

Director Francis Lawrence returns to the franchise's helm, and his work here is once again fantastic. He crafts something with a bigger, broader scope than one would expect from these "adapted from tween literature" movies. I also thought he did a great job making District 13 feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But the bad part is that the movie starts feeling sluggish and slow after a while. There are moments where the movie repeats itself or resorts to useless filler rather than eliminate the expendable fluff from the book and just give us one single movie out of it. For example, there's a scene where District 13's citizens must retreat to safety due to an air raid. The scene goes on for what feels like forever and it isn't really all that exciting to boot. Lawrence could have easily chopped a few minutes out of it and it wouldn't have hurt the movie in the slightest.

I also felt like the movie did not end with as big a bang as it could have. Thanks to a dull epilogue, it just sort of coasts to a stop. Had the epilogue been removed outright and the movie ended with the violent scene just before it, the cliffhanger would have been the right punch in the gut to make the "one book, two movies" thing worth it. Perhaps writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig wanted to use it to give us a few steps forward into Mockingjay ― Part 2? That sounds plausible. But all it did for me was just give me five minutes to cool down between what could have been a pretty great ending and the closing credits. It just feels like more padding in a movie already full of it.

The movie's cast, however, is so good that it makes up for nearly every flaw. Among the supporting cast, Liam Hemsworth does a fine job. I can't say I've ever really been a fan of Hemsworth before, but he's seriously upped his game here and actually provides one of the movie's most compelling moments. The same can be said for Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson. Claflin is really charismatic and likable, while Hutcherson's increasingly strung-out appearance and obviously intimidated behavior make him all the more sympathetic.

Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman all make impressive contributions, and while Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks don't get a lot of screen time, both are wonderful to have around. (The fact that the audience I saw the movie with loudly cheered and applauded when Harrelson and Banks make their first appearances says a lot.)

I was also very impressed by how into his role Donald Sutherland has gotten. His President Snow is cunning, calculating, playing a mental game of chess where he is always two steps ahead of Katniss and the rebels of District 13. His coldhearted yet civil (almost unnervingly friendly) demeanor makes him off-putting and intimidating without him even really having to try. Sutherland makes Snow a great villain, one of the best I've seen in the last few years.

But as with the first movie and Catching Fire, the movie is once again owned by Jennifer Lawrence. My respect for Lawrence's talent increases with every movie I see her in, and I can say I was also impressed by her work here as well. She brings a heck of a lot more to the character than one would expect, a ton of nuance and depth that lends a lot more gravitas to Katniss. Katniss feels real because Lawrence makes her real. Every angry, impassioned speech, every overwhelming feeling of defeat and anguish and loss; they all hit the mark because Lawrence is that damn good.

The Hunger Games movies have never been completely perfect. Good as they may be, they all have their own flaws. And Mockingjay ― Part 1 is the most flawed of them all. I'm sure my appreciation for it will increase once I'm able to watch it concurrently with the second half next year, but the movie just seems like a step down from the first two movies. I will say I thought they were brave for making the movie more of a quiet drama rather than an action movie, but that isn't really what I wanted to see. But Mockingjay ― Part 2 is only a year away, right?

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

"If it bleeds, it leads."

If you've ever wondered why there are so many tragic and sensationalistic stories on every TV news show and every newspaper headline, those five words up above are the simplest explanation. Good news doesn't get the ratings that violence and scandal do. That idea serves as the core concept for the recently released flick Nightcrawler, a brilliantly done neo-noir that takes a look at the more lurid parts of broadcast journalism. And if you want my opinion, it's a hell of a movie.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unemployed petty thief selling stolen scrap metal for chump change in order to scrape together whatever cash he can. But steady work looks to be on the way for Louis one night when he passes a car accident on the highway. Among the police and EMTs is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who Louis notices filming the scene before calling a local TV news director to negotiate the sale of his footage. If legitimate businessmen won't hire him, Louis thinks to himself, then he'll just go into business for himself.

Pawning off a stolen bicycle for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis tries following Joe's lead but doesn't have much success initially. But when he gets a lucky break and lands some exclusive footage of the dying victim of a carjacking, he manages to sell it for an impressive sum to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director whose channel is struggling in the ratings. Louis and Nina quickly form a business partnership that sees Louis getting more and more successful. So successful, in fact, that he's able to hire a assistant in the form of a naïve young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to help him out. But the need for better, more intense footage soon gets to Louis, and reckless driving isn't enough to get him there. Soon he's tampering with evidence and staging crime scenes in order to get more dramatic shots, a path that will take Louis down a very dark, morally grey road.

Nightcrawler is not a particularly happy movie. It's a dark movie that has no problem following its lead character as he heads into some ethically questionable territory. Its critique of the salacious, overly sensationalistic parts of journalism that puts every tragedy that befalls every well-to-do white suburban family at the forefront isn't anything that hasn't been pointed out in the past. But by putting us right in the thick of it and using its lead character as a lightning rod for it, Nightcrawler constructs itself in a way that makes it absolutely fascinating to watch and hard to take your eyes off of.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn't really approach the material he's tackling with a lot of subtlety; I've read one review that compared Nightcrawler to someone taking Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell " monologue from Network and turning it into a feature-length movie. But that doesn't hurt the movie, as Gilroy still builds it into something special. I will say that I got the feeling while watching it that perhaps Gilroy might have studied a lot of Michael Mann and Brian De Palma movies while preparing to make Nightcrawler. His direction doesn't have quite the same artistic flair as Mann or De Palma's work (and I'd love to see how either of them would have tackled this one), but there's something about Nightcrawler that gives it a similar vibe. There's a certain grimy feeling to it, something inherently seedy, a grittiness that makes the gorgeous Los Angeles cityscapes we see feel more unsettling than anything else. It feels a lot like what Mann similarly did with the city in Collateral, or how De Palma framed Philadelphia in Blow Out. And that's actually not a bad thing at all.

Gilroy's script, though, is where the movie starts getting good. Like I said, there's not a lot of subtlety or nuance in how he tackles his subject matter, but it really works as a character study of those involved with it. The story itself is secondary; it isn't so much a linear narrative as it is a series of vignettes that show what Lines Louis will cross as he pursues his odd vision of the American Dream. He's a captivating character to watch because of how charismatic he is despite being a really unlikable person at his core. The flowery dialogue Gilroy has written for him sounds like cheap clichés that were stolen from some corporate motivational poster, something that works perfectly for the character. He's obviously putting on an act, hiding his ultirior motives as he manipulates people for his own gain.

It's helped by the fact that Gilroy has assembled a great cast. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton (whose role is too small and thankless, honestly) are good in their roles, while the fact that Riz Ahmed isn't given a whole lot to do actually makes sense since his character isn't either. But like how the story belongs to his character, Nightcrawler belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal. He's utterly fantastic in the role. The idea that Louis is putting on a façade that belies his amoral, greed-driven nature is made even more evident through Gyllenhaal's performance. He comes across like he's channelling elements of Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less blatantly psychotic but equally cutthroat and sociopathic. Gyllenhaal's Louis is constantly thinking, planning, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else. It's an amazing bit of acting that makes Nightcrawler worth seeing just for Jake Gyllenhaal alone.

I don't have any problem saying that Nightcrawler is right up there with Birdman as one of the best movies I've seen during all of 2014. It stumbles once in a whole, and there's a few scenes that run a little too long, but it still succeeds at being an exciting, entertaining thriller. Everything about it is crafted in such a way that keeps you from being able to take your eyes off of the screen. It's a unique take on a long-discussed idea, a neo-noirish flick that doesn't hold back. Nightcrawler is that kind of movie.

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."

This quote, apocryphally attributed to the late writer Susan Sontag, appears as a rather prominent piece of set design in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). While the idea behind that quote factors heavily into Birdman's plot, the irony of it is not completely lost on me either. Birdman is a movie that does not need me or anyone else to critique it, whether our reviews are either positive or negative. It simply is what it is. But if you want my personal opinion, Birdman is one hell of a movie. It flawlessly blends humor and drama into a movie that is worth your time and effort, because it's the best I've seen all year.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once one of the hottest actors in Hollywood, his career bolstered by his starring role as the winged superhero Birdman in a series of blockbuster movies. But when he stepped away from the role after Birdman 3 out of fear of being typecast, his career nosedived and he ultimately faded into relative obscurity. His only notoriety comes now from people vaguely recognizing him and telling their young children, "He used to play Birdman."

Twenty years after he left the Birdman franchise, Riggan has decided to make a comeback by adapting the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" for the Broadway stage. It's an ambitious effort, as Riggan is writing, directing, and starring the play. But with opening night looming, problems arise with enough frequency that the whole thing seems like a comedy of errors. They start off (relatively) simple: Budgetary woes threaten to cripple the production and nearly cause Riggan's producer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to keel over from the stress; his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) claims she's pregnant with his baby; lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nearly inconsolable bundle of nerves because this is her first role on Broadway; and all this as Riggan tries to get a handle on his rocky relationship with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and struggling to maintain her sobriety.

Things start snowballing quickly, however. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a last-minute replacement for another actor who was injured during rehearsals, is incredibly talented, but is also a prima donna whose obnoxious and volatile behavior puts him at odds with Riggan and the rest of the cast. Embarrassing moments from the disastrous preview performances start going viral. An influential New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) has already promised to absolutely murder the play with a negative review before she's even seen it. And in the process, Riggan's own ego and self-doubt manifest themselves as an inner monologue that speaks in his old Birdman voice, egging him on while slowly pushing his sanity to its breaking point.

Birdman is a deceptively deep movie. On the surface, it comes across as a movie about some washed-up actor trying to reclaim some semblance of fame and the misadventures that come from such an endeavor. That's how the trailers and TV commercials appear to be selling it, anyway. But there's so much more going on underneath the surface waiting to be discovered if one just takes the time to look for it. It's a tale of how popularity and love aren't always the same thing, that fame is fleeting and that reclaiming it doesn't guarantee happiness.

There are enough things contributing to how good the movie is that I don't know if I can give credit to just one person. But I will say that a good portion of that credit should go to director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. His efforts here are absolutely masterful, constructing each scene in such a way that you can't take your eyes away from the screen. Iñárritu's choice to have cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot the movie with handheld cameras and construct the footage such a way that it feels like the movie was done in one long take (akin to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or La Casa Muda/Silent House) makes the movie visually riveting. When you combine this with the intimate feeling created by it being predominantly set in the cramped dressing rooms and back hallways of a Broadway theater, it really sucks you into the world Iñárritu wants to create and into the mindsets of the characters.

Iñárritu builds his own little world here, one populated not just by the characters but by Riggan's hopes, fears, and inadequacies. He constructs Riggan's world around him, everything ebbing out from each decision he makes and every stumbling block he encounters. Iñárritu takes us right into the heart of it, lets us be privy to the existence of a man whose vanity project risks harming him just as much as it could help him prosper.

The same can be said for the script, penned by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo. They've crafted a story full of rich, engaging characters that are so fascinating to watch that you're pleased every time they appear and miss when they're gone. The characters feel like real people, each with their own motives, desires, and lives beyond what we're shown on screen. We can connect with them because we know people like them.

But like with Iñárritu's direction, the story centers around Riggan Thomson. Riggan is a man lost in his own indignities, staring irrelevancy in the face thanks to a daughter that resents him, a career that's been stalled for too long, and an industry that's moved on without him. We spend much of the movie peeking inside his mind, seeing things as he sees them, led by the sound of Birdman's voice into fits of anger and depression, along with the occasional flight of fantasy. It is these moments of fantasy ― where Riggan exhibits superpowers like flight and telekinesis ― that gives one the feeling that these are extensions of the character's desire to regain the fame and glory he had when he was a top draw in Hollywood. Riggan has put so much faith in himself that he fails to realize that he's making himself into a modern-day Icarus, continuing to build his wings of wax even as he gets closer and closer to the sun. It's a story that is humorous, heartbreaking, and compelling all at the same time.

But as fascinating as the story is, the telling of it would have been all for naught had the actors not been on their A-game. And personally, I thought Birdman's cast was amazing. Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Andrea Riseborough are all solid (with Galifinakis flubbing a few lines but doing so in such a way that it looks natural), but the supporting cast is held up by Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Stone's character tries hiding her heartache and anguish beneath a shield of jaded sarcasm, but the shield is cracked her inner turmoil shows through. Sam is a troubled young woman filled with pain, frustration, and resentment, wanting and needing a little love but struggling to find it. Stone plays this effortlessly, using it to portray Sam as having a glimmer of light at the end of the rocky path she's been traveling but being unsure of how to get to it.

It's a great performance from Stone, but with Birdman, the acting gets better as we go, as is the case with Norton. The irony of Norton ― an actor notorious for butting heads with directors when their artistic vision doesn't quite correlate with his own ― playing an actor who keeps undermining a director every chance he gets isn't lost on me. I can't say whether or not that factored into Norton's performance, but I will say that he's fantastic here. It's arguably his best performance since American History X. While he may be playing an insufferable prick and glory hog, Norton still brings a certain likeability to the role. You want to strangle and laugh with Mike Shiner at the same time. But Norton adds a depth to it as well. One gets the feeling that acting is all the character has, that it's his whole world. You never really know how much of his caustic personality is just an act to draw a reaction out of people, or if he's trying to cover up for some sort of inadequacy. Does Norton's character lose himself in his roles because being someone else is preferable to being himself? Norton accomplishes a lot here, and all the praise for him I've seen in various other reviews and critiques are on the money.

The entirety of Birdman, though, belongs to Michael Keaton. The movie has drawn a lot of attention because many see it as an allegory for Keaton's career following his departure from the Batman franchise, a viewpoint that is not without merit. Of the movies Keaton has appeared in since the release of Batman Returns in 1992, only a handful of them have been memorable and even fewer have been any good. Birdman has been hailed as something of a comeback for him, and whether or not that's true, Keaton still delivers the performance of a lifetime here. You can't take your eyes off of him. Keaton doesn't just play Riggan Thomson, he becomes him. He makes you feel every bit of emotional turmoil he's going through, all of his suffering, conflict, anger, and disappointment. All one can do is sympathize with Riggan as he teeters on the brink of a total breakdown, and Keaton makes it completely believable. It's a performance that, when it's all said and done, will be one of the true highlights of his career.

I've said a lot about Birdman. And while a thing may not be what is said of that thing, I feel confident in saying that Birdman is definitely one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time. Some might argue that it comes off as a wee bit pretentious at times, an argument that I'm not going to dispute. But I walked out of that darkened theater once the credits rolled feeling refreshed, because it was fun seeing something so far different from the fare I usually see. It's a beautiful piece of artwork that works on a multitude of different levels, and I couldn't enjoy it more. Birdman is most certainly a movie worth seeing, and any lover of movies in general is missing out if they don't give it a shot.

Final Rating: ****½