Interstellar(11/8/2014)

Warning: This is a no-holds-barred spoiler-filled review that is primarily meant for people who’ve seen the film.  Read at your own risk.

The last time I reviewed a Christopher Nolan film I opened with a long-winded music metaphor in which I likened the making of The Dark Knight Rises to Michael Jackson struggling to follow-up his Thriller album and sort of being doomed to disappoint no matter what he did.   At the time there was something of a backlash brewing against Nolan and it’s only increased in the intervening years as critics have increasingly come out both against Nolan’s work as well as the various other films that his work seems to have inspired.  Now I’m less inclined to compare him to peak-era Michael Jackson and more inclined to compare him to Pete Townshend circa 1978: a man who tried tirelessly to elevate his lowly medium to the level of an opera only to then have his work and everything it represents dismissed and mocked in favor of a wave of engaging but simplistic work made by miscreants.  Of course the difference is that as simplistic as punk rock is, it was at least a genuinely rebellious and vital new form, the same cannot generally be said of the jokey and heavily test-screened films that people claim they’d prefer to Nolan’s more serious and grandiose style of blockbuster filmmaking.  I mention all this to make it clear that not only am I not part of this backlash but that I pretty actively hate it.  I’ve firmly been in the pro-Nolan camp, which is a big part of why I’m fairly disappointed with his latest film, Interstellar.

The film doesn’t give out a year, but it can be intuited that Interstellar is set in a relatively distant future (a good hundred year or so from now, maybe more).  This future is not quite post-apocalyptic per se, but it seems like that isn’t far off.  There are dust-bowl conditions and we’re told that various crops are being depleted and there seems to no solution in sight.  Our focus is on a former engineer/pilot turned farmer named Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  Cooper’s wife is said to have died years ago so now he and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) have been raising his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) on his farm.  This all gets upended one day when Cooper learns that NASA is actually still in existence and is asked to help man a mission into the deepest regions of space in order to find a new home for humanity.

In setting up the film, Christopher Nolan makes the conscious choice to give the audience a very limited view of what the future Earth is like.  We certainly get the gist of what this slow moving apocalypse is all about, but aren’t given many specifics about exactly why it’s happening or how fast it’s going.  In fact we have no idea what Earth is really like outside of the town that Cooper lives near or how this disaster manifests in other areas.  On one hand I can kind of see what Nolan was trying to do by rendering the future like this, it certainly a relatively believable version of the future that will probably age pretty well, but I don’t know that it really worked for me.  This apocalypse so closely resembles the 1930s dust-bowl (a crisis that was fixed over the course of a decade) that it just never really feels to the viewer like a permenant disaster that would require a drastic space mission to fix.  Again, I can intellectually see what they were going for: a gradual apocalypse that snuck up on the populace, but the movie never really shows this, it just tells it.

The problems with the film’s limited geography do go deeper than that as well, mainly in that it requires Nolan to indulge in a fairly ridiculous coincidence in order to kick his story off.  The film proper begins when Cooper receives a cryptic set of coordinates from an unseen, possibly alien force which leads him to the secret NASA base where he joins the space mission.  Now, I’m perfectly willing to accept the reasons he receives this message, the movie explains that perfectly well.  What I’m not so willing to accept is that this secret base just happens to be located within a short drive of Cooper’s farm, that the person running it just happens to be an old professor of his, and that they just happen to be planning to launch that mission very shortly after he arrives.  All that is just too much of a stretch and I find the notion that this Cooper guy is such an extraordinary pilot that NASA would drop everything and send him on the mission on such short notice.  This is, after all, a massive mission that must have been planned for years and the notion that they’d just change plans like that is a bit ridiculous.

All of that was of course done as a screenwriting shortcut. By making Cooper an outsider Nolan is able to explain to the audience through him what this mission is all about and how long it’s been going on, and Cooper’s status as a last minute recruit is used throughout the film to give the audience exposition.  Was this worth it?  I don’t think so.  Nolan was of course heavily criticized for employing an overabundance of exposition in Inception and I largely defended it in that film because there seemed like legitimate reasons for the characters in that film to be uninformed and the whole thing needs to take place over such a short period of time that it all made sense.  Here, not so much.  It gets to the point where someone is explaining wormholes to Cooper (using the same folded paper analogy used in the movie Event Horizon) while he’s sitting in a space ship that is about to be going through a wormhole.

Now, the movie does certainly improve in my estimation once they finally escape from rural Americana and finally get into space, but I do still think the movie has flaws in this section as well.  In particular I found an early decision to go to a planet that’s so close to the wormhole that it distorts time so that every hour spent on the planet makes seven hours pass on Earth.  Given the time pressures of the mission, going to this planet at all seems like a rather absurd idea.  The best case scenario in that plan would have resulted in three or four years passing, which strikes me as a rather ridiculous sacrifice to make, and once they get to the planet they don’t seem like they’re rushing nearly fast enough.  They walk around on the planet when they should be able to just eyeball it and realize that it’s uninhabitable.  For that matter, I don’t really get why they need to be using an away team at all on this mission.  Would a probe of some sort not have been able to detect that the planet is almost all water and has twelve story waves crushing everything?  Also, if fuel is in such short supply how are they able to keep their mother ship in the air for the twenty three years this side trip apparently takes?

The next planet they go to is probably the most visually interesting location of the movie: a strange icy world with solid clouds.  Interesting as this place is, I still kind of feel like the story let me down at this stage.  We finally meet Kurtz… er, I mean Mann, and was pretty surprised to see that Matt Damon was in the movie.  I don’t know if that had been revealed in the film’s publicity campaign, but I certainly didn’t know it.  However, I found the twist that Damon was a deranged turncoat to be pretty predictable and kind of a cliché.  In fact, it reminded me a lot of the infamous ending of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.  Of course this movie probably handles the “evil previous astronaut” twist better than that movie did if only because it doesn’t suddenly become a slasher movie, but I still found it a little disappointing.

So far I’ve talked a lot about the various stages of the film, but I think I should take a step back and look at some of its overall components.  The film certainly has a pretty well stacked cast with some good work from Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in particular.  It was also able to get some pretty cool actors like Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, and Ellen Burstyn into small roles that do fill the movie out nicely.  However, there were some weak spots as well.  In particular, I found Michael Caine’s presence in the movie rather odd.  I commend Nolan for his loyalty, but there are other actors over sixty out there and I don’t think Caine was quite right for this rather gruff role that called for something a little different from what Caine had to offer.  And then there’s McConaughey.  In the last couple of years Matthew McConaughey has made a lot of inroads into respectability, but we aren’t really getting “McConausiance” McConaughey here.  Instead McConaughey is very much in movie star mode, and it was something of a reminder of what that McConaughey’s various limitations and annoying tics were.  The guy is a little too laid back at his core, and there’s still a little bit of that “alright, alright, alright” swagger here when I don’t think that was necessarily the best option.  I totally get why he was cast but I sort of wish they’d gone a different direction with the character.

This is of course a major blockbuster and there is certainly a good degree of spectacle here to admire.  Nolan certainly has a way of avoiding CGI as much as possible and then blending it in seamlessly when it is needed.  That said, there have been quite a few hard sci-fi space movies lately and I kind of feel like Interstellar’s impact is kind of dulled because of it.  The film has some really interesting planetscapes, but do any of them really compare to Avatar’s Pandora?  Or, perhaps a more direct comparison would be to the planetscapes we see in Prometheus, which really weren’t a million miles removed from what we saw here.  That movie’s spaceship sets were also probably on par with this as well and so were the spaceships in Sunshine, a movie that also did the whole “desperate mission to save humanity” thing at least as well as this movie did.  And the whole “robot companion you think will be evil but isn’t” thing was also done pretty well in Moon.  And then of course there is Gravity, which felt like a much bigger visual leap forward than anything in Interstellar and which probably works better as a deep space action film as well.  On a pure visual effects level, this kind of feels like a small but noticeable step backwards.

Of course all of these movies live in the shadow of the ultimate realistic space movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There probably isn’t a single movie in this genre that’s ever going to live up to Kubrick’s masterpiece, so that’s probably not exactly a fair standard, but Nolan does a lot to invite that comparison.  This is, after all a movie about a mission to go through a wormhole that appears near an outer ring gas giant as goaded on by unseen beings who are apparently interested in pushing humanity forward and which culminates in the protagonist in a mysterious room created by said beings where he’ll determine the fate of humanity.  Yeah, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  It’s not a flattering comparison because as much as the movie wants to be 2001 it couldn’t be more profoundly different in tone and form.  Where Kubrick’s film used mystery to build grandeur, Interstellar feels a lot more conventional and straightforward by comparison.  2001 wasn’t afraid of ambiguity and that’s a big part of why people have been pondering exactly what it means since it was released.  The message of Interstellar, by comparison is pretty clear: take care of the earth, don’t give up on exploring the stars.  It’s a movie that clearly wants to inspire people, but it also sort of undercuts that message by making most of the scientific accomplishments in the film impossible without the assistance of what are basically magical aliens.  One could argue that 2001 did the same thing, but it wasn’t necessarily trying to be hopeful and was as much about the dark side of progress as it was about its awesomeness.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about the film’s relatively long running time.  I’m pretty sure a lot of the film’s detractors will say it’s too long, but I disagree.  The movie paces itself out quite well and moves at a pretty brisk pace.  If anything, it’s too short.  It’s become sort of hackneyed to come out of a movie and suggest that it should have been a mini-series, but it really is true in the case even if such a thing would have probably been impossible given the budgets involved.  A longer format would have allowed Nolan to more effectively establish what future-Earth was like and the nature of the crisis on it, found a more organic way to get Cooper onto the mission, provided for more natural means of exposition, and may have even led to a more organic means of incorporating the Mann twist.  It also would have probably done something to remedy the film’s rather strange epilog, which almost feels like it should have been separated and expanded into an Interstellar 2 rather than awkwardly squeezed in at the end.

Alright, so I’ve outlined a lot of grievances against this movie, but I don’t want to give off the impression that I hate it or even dislike it all that strongly.  The movie is every bit as ambitious as anything Christopher Nolan has made, and this is the kind of movie that I would like to see Hollywood attempt more often.  It also does have a handful of highs that really do keep the audience interested.  Every time I thought the film had gone astray something cool would happen that would get me back on board at least for a little while longer.  I can see a good movie here that’s buried under a handful of poor decisions that keep weighing it down.  Ultimately, I feel like this movie has a lot of very good ideas that probably looked great on paper but which never really came together correctly.  Perhaps Nolan was just the wrong person to direct his own movie.  I’ve long thought that his reputation for being an over-serious stick in the mud was unfair, but it existed for a reason.  This kind of uplift does not come naturally to him and I don’t think he was ever really comfortable working with some of the schmaltzier Americana elements at the beginning.  Maybe he should have passed the project on Spielberg, or at least watched a couple of the guy’s movies before he embarked on this project.

**1/2 out of Four

Dear White People(11/2/2014)

When I was in high school I had this vision in my head that college would be a sort of intellectual paradise where everyone has scholarly pursuits on the mind all the time and you could spend every day engaged in stimulating discussions about academics and politics all day.  Boy was I disappointed when I actually got there.  As a result of the increasing demand on the part of businesses that their employees have a college education, universities are now flooded with people who don’t really care that much about having an education and who just want a degree to get a job.  As such I lost count of the number to times I’d mention that I was getting a history degree only to receive a blank stare followed by the question “what are you going to do with that?”  Don’t get me wrong, there were some genuine pockets of intellectualism, but the overwhelming impression I got was that college was over-rated as a place for minds to meet and discuss esoteric ideas.  However, I’ve also come to realize that college is different for everyone and the new film Dear White People looks at what the college experience is like for African American students.

Set in a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University, Dear White People concerns the lives of four African American students. The most prominent is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), an activist and host of a show on the university radio station called “Dear White People” which comments on the various forms of subtle (and not so subtle) racism that she observes among the white students at the college.  Her rival (of sorts) amongst the campus’ black community is Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean of student affairs (Dennis Haysbert) who generally tries to be diplomatic and amiable to white people.  Another of her rivals is Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), who is trying to become a Youtube personality and seems very interested in blending in with the white girls.  Finally there’s Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a shy homosexual who writes for a student paper and is something of an outsider amongst both black and white students.

Up to now most movies and television shows about the black college experience like School Daze and the show “A Different World” have focused on historically black universities, but Dear White People sets itself apart by focusing on an Ivy League university where African Americans are the minority, in theory at least, and each of the main characters are defined by their ways of coping with their minority status.  Sam considers herself to be “one hundred,” which is to say that she leans into her racial identity and “fights the power” every chance she gets.  Troy is labeled an “oofta,” someone who code-swaps and panders to the white people.  And Coco is meant to be a “nose job,” someone who intentionally tries to “act white” to fit in.  The film does somewhat undercut all this by focusing so heavily on the black population that their minority status on campus is sometimes lost on the audience.  The student body of this campus is also seems largely devoid of other racial minorities like Latinos, Asians, and Africans but that is perhaps beside the point.

The film derives much of its comedy from Sam’s often witty and sometimes outrageous observations about post-Obama race relations.  She’s the kind of person who would submit a fifteen page unsolicited paper about her theory that the movie Gremlins is secretly about suburban fears of black invaders (“the gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken, and freakout when you get their hair wet”).  Pretty much all of the observations she makes (with a couple comedically silly exceptions) do have a kernel of truth to them, but she is prone to crying wolf at times and sometimes uses her preconceptions to midjudge people and situations.  She should not be mistaken for a mouthpiece whose every statement is endorsed by the film or its writer, she is a character and one who is just as prone to youthful confusion and overstatement as any college student.

It might be worth noting that I have something of a personal connection to this movie because it was filmed at my alma mater the University of Minnesota.  Seeing my former university double for an Ivy League school was both interesting and a little jarring, and it may have highlighted for me (in a way it may or may not for someone else) just how odd the film’s tone can be.  Its set in a world where everything everyone says or does seems to be rooted in race relations and there’s a definite unreality to that.  Of course the film is a satire, so to a certain extent it is supposed to be dealing in archetype and exaggeration, the problem is that the movie isn’t really as funny and as energetic as it needs to be to really back up the elevated tone that the script calls for.  As it is the film is more of a modern day comedy of manners when it should be going for rip-roaring satire.  There are certainly a number of amusing observations to be found in it but I’m not sure that writer/director Justin Simien ever quite found the right movie to fit them into.  I’m curious to see what Simien does in the future, but I don’t think his debut feature quite works.

**1/2 out of Four

Nightcrawler(11/1/2014)

I almost never watch local newscasts, and frankly, I don’t understand why anyone does.  The amount of important and useful information on a half hour local news timeslot is minimal and the rest of the time is taken up by barf inducing puff pieces, weather reports I can just as easily get online, sports reporting which I can just as easily get on ESPN, commercials, and of course lurid crime reporting which rarely serves any actual public service and mostly just gets reported because it’s sensational.  I get that these newscasts are pandering to people’s base emotions, but if you want your heart warmed or want the crap scared out of you there would seem to be better places to go.  And yet, it still seems like a fairly lucrative business.  Every single local affiliate has four newscast a day, each of them substantially and stylistically identical to their competitor’s, and presumably draw a pretty big audience for all of them.   Obviously I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of local news though and the new movie Nightcrawler seems to be similarly disgusted by the state of local news in this country.

Nightcralwer concerns a young man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who starts the movie as a sleazy copper wire salvager who’s looking to get his foot in the door of one business or another.  One night he’s passing by a firey car crash at the side of the road and sees a pair of cameramen pull up next to it and start photographing the wreck.  After a brief meeting with one of the men he learns that these guys are freelance crime reporters who spend each night chasing police radio chatter to crime/accident scenes and then sells the footage to local news stations.  Inspired, he decides that this is the business for him and buys a cheap camera and police scanner.  He doesn’t start as a particularly talented photographer but he does soon begin to get salable footage, in part because he’s willing to cross ethical lines and put himself in danger in order to get the most sensational footage possible.  He sells this footage to a struggling news station and begins a business relationship with their desperate news director Nina (Rene Russo), who encourages him to get more and more lurid video.

I can’t say that I ever put a whole lot of thought into how the local news gets their video footage, but Nightcrawler does work pretty well as a sort of chronicle/expose of the process.  It turns out that it’s not an overly elaborate job: it mostly just requires a steady hand, a strong stomach, and a reckless willingness to break traffic laws.  The film’s procedural elements are pretty interesting just the same.  You see how Bloom prioritizes various police calls and rushes to the scene and then how he sells the footage after the fact to Nina.  Nina is herself a rather ruthless character who makes no bones about the fact that she profits off of sensationalism.  She explicitly tells Bloom that the stories that get the best ratings are the ones about crime happening in affluent neighborhoods, advancing a narrative about inner-city crime spreading into wealthy areas.  I don’t doubt for a second that this is an accurate description of local media’s priorities, but I also suspect that an actual media producer would have a little too much self-awareness to actually say something like that out loud.  Nina is in fact a rather satirical figure in a movie that is in its own dark and not overly comedic way a satire.

The fact that Nightcrawler involves a guy driving around Los Angeles at night will probably draw a lot of comparisons to Drive and Collateral, but the movie really has a lot more in common with a movie about a guy driving around New York at night: Taxi Driver.  Like Travis Bickle in that Scorsese classic, the main character here is a strange loner, and not the quirky misunderstood kind.  You can tell almost immediately that Bloom is basically a sociopath, but not the charming and manipulative kind.  He doesn’t seem to really understand other people or how they perceive him; instead he looks up career advice from self-help books and robotically quotes what he’s “supposed” to say to potential business partners almost verbatim.

When you first see Bloom quoting all these career advice manuals you think he’s kind of clueless, someone who doesn’t really understand what he’s saying and who will soon come to learn that all that stuff works in theory better than it does in practice.  However, the other shoe never really does drop on bloom.  In fact, the more successful he becomes the more you begin to wonder if maybe this guy does know what he’s doing, maybe it’s not him that’s evil, maybe all this amoral behavior actually is what all this capitalistic business dogma does call for.  Perhaps the movie has more to say about that dogma than it does about the character quoting it?  After all, we’re used to seeing the Gordon Gekkos and Jordan Belforts of the world say things like this, but their businesses are so complicated and abstract that you never really see the fallout and even if you did those guys have a knack for hiding their bullshit behind a veil of respectability.  This guy doesn’t.  We see in him a sort of naked Machiavellianism and I think the film works a lot better when it’s exposing this than when it makes its rather obvious points about the worthless crap that pollutes the local news.

Nightcrawler was directed by Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony Gilroy and of John Gilroy, who have producer and editor screenplays here) and as far as debut films go it’s fairly impressive.  I wouldn’t say that the style here is overly unique, but he knows how to shoot a scene and does a pretty good job of juggling the film’s dark but heightened tone.  I’m not so enamored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s work here, in part because I feel like he’s a little old for the part. The character is supposed to be a young guy looking for an entry in the workforce, which is a bit undercut when he’s being played by a thirty-three year old man.  Still, Gyllenhaal does do a pretty good job of making this intensely unlikeable character watchable, but it is still going to be pretty hard for a lot of audiences to accept a movie about a guy like this.  Frankly, I’m kind of surprised that this is getting a wide release at all given how biting it can be, but I’m glad it did.  This is a smart film that finds a unique way to make a point about certain truths about modern American society.

***1/2 out of Four

Whiplash(10/26/2014)

Confession: when it comes to music I’m kind of a neophyte.  I know good music when I hear it and I think my knowledge of popular music is certainly above average, but if you ask me something about a time signature or the number of measures in a line I’m pretty clueless.  I tried learning the saxophone when I was in grade school, but I wasn’t very good at it, in part because I completely lacked the discipline to practice every day and in part because I was never quite able to grasp a lot of the necessary concepts.  I’ve never really known much of anything about classical music to speak of, and while I do have a working knowledge of jazz history I’ve never quite been able to appreciate it on a very deep level and believe me, I’ve tried.  I even took a jazz appreciation course in college and while I was always interested in hearing about the various musicians and their role in the evolution of the form I was never really able to figure out what syncopation was or what the hell differentiates modal music from music rooted in chord progressions.  As such, I have a special degree of respect for people who not only understand music but who are driven to master an instrument or compose transcendent tunes, and the new movie Whiplash is about that drive and the type of people who have it.

The film is set in a present day music conservatory in New York which is supposed to be a testing ground for the best of the best.  Our protagonist is Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a freshman at the academy who aspires to be the greatest jazz drummer this side of Buddy Rich.  Somehow or other Neyman catches the eye of the school’s most prestigious jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who directs the academy’s traveling jazz ensemble.  Fletcher asks Neyman to join this ensemble, which is a huge honor but also something of an ordeal.  It quickly becomes apparent that Fletcher has an instruction style that sits somewhere between Bobby Knight and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.  He’ll shout profanities and homophobic slurs at his pupils when they make mistakes, make personal insults, and make a point of kicking people out of his ensemble for minor slip-ups just to send a message.  Despite all of this abuse he still inspires intense loyalty from the people in his ensemble and there’s a lot of pressure to impress him and Neyman is more than willing to give everything he has to do just that.

The central question of the movie is whether Fletcher’s classroom behavior is purely toxic abuse or if there is some justification to be found for it and the movie does seem to argue both sides of that debate.  On one hand, the audience is allowed to witness the effects of this extreme tutelage on Neyman.  This kid ends up practicing until his hands bleed, brutally eliminates “distractions” from his life, and nearing a nervous breakdown towards the end very nearly gets himself killed because of the pressure being put on him.  However, the film also makes it clear that there is a method to Fletcher’s madness.  Early on he tells a story about a young Charlie Parker being driven to greatness because he was “gonged off” and humiliated at a gig when he was a young man.  Taking this story to heart, Fletcher has been doing this stuff not because he’s mean but because he genuinely believes that this kind of pressure is what’s needed to hone a talented musician to reach his full potential.

The film doesn’t really articulate the argument, but one is left to ponder if this same conduct would be as shocking if it came from a football coach or for that matter from a drill sergeant.  I suppose a drill sergeant could be excused for his cruelty simply because his instruction could literally save lives, but what of the football coach?  Do we not have the same need for great musicians that we have for great athletes?  Then again I’m not sure if Fletcher’s instruction would really give us that either.  He isn’t teaching these students how to compose music or improvise lines, in fact there’s not really much creativity at all going on in what they’re doing; they’re just learning to do note-perfect renditions of big band standards.  At one point a friend asks Neyman something along the lines of “how can a jazz ensemble compete like that, isn’t the music subjective?” to which Neyman simply says “no” without even the slightest bit of hesitation or self-awareness.  Still, there is a debate to be had about whether or not what he’s doing is necessary and you are left to wonder if part of the problem is that this is simply a problem of a younger generation being less able to handle pressure and if perhaps this new era of pampering will give us a generation of well-adjusted mediocrities.

Miles Teller plays the film’s main protagonist, and does a serviceable job potraying a young man desperate to please, but the film’s real scene-stealer is almost certainly J.K. Simmons, who is perfectly cast as this explosive middle aged music instructor.  Though Simmons is pushing sixty there’s still an explosive personality that he is able to unleash at will.  When this guy is getting intense you can literally see the veins popping out of his head, but there is a softer side to the character and Simmons is able to show that this rage is actually controlled and calculated rather than impulsive.  The two actors are also very good at making themselves look like actual musicians; Simmons seems very authentic when he’s conducting the ensemble and Teller certainly looks like he has some actual skill behind the drum set.  For that matter, just about all the musical elements of the film feel very realistic.  Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has a background in high level music tutelage and certainly seems to have a strong grasp of musical terminology and in the various practice rituals of for ensembles like this.  He also picks some very appropriate songs to show off the role of the drummer in these sort of bombastic big band performances and does a good job of making it clear to the audience when Neyman is playing correctly and in showing off the flashes of virtuosity that he displays.

Whiplash debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, which has become something of a testing ground for self-absorbed autobiographical coming of age dramas written and directed by young upper-middle-class white males who maybe took that advice to “write what you know” a little too literally.  On paper this movie fits all of the criteria I just dismissively described above, and I do think the film ultimately does struggle to completely break from its general Sundancyness, but I still enjoyed it a hell of a lot most like-minded movies, so what makes this one different?  Part of it might just be that Chazelle has something other than just a manic-pixie-dream girl relationship to write about is a big part of it.  Neyman’s plight is still ultimately a rather bougie problem to have, but at least it’s something, and he actually provokes the audience to think about some of the things they’re watching rather than merely empathize with them.

The other part of it is probably just a simple matter of solid craftsmanship and quality writing.  Chazelle isn’t content to just have his characters talk to each other in front of a handheld camera and doesn’t waste our time with improvisational blathering.  I wouldn’t necessarily say he has some kind of master’s eye or anything, but there was some real effort put forward to make this look like a real movie and he did add a number  of neat little touches that helped to bring the film to life here and there.  The film’s ending, which has a bit of a Purple Rain/8-Mile quality to it, has the whiff of wish-fulfillment to it and perhaps isn’t entirely earned, but it does feel good in the moment because Chazelle has gotten you involved on the character’s journey and render’s his moment of triumph in a very effective way.  Whiplash isn’t really a great film in the grand scheme of things, but it’s clearly a cut above other indie debut films and if nothing else it’s got some very good music to listen to… even in the opinion of a jazz neophyte like myself.

***1/2 out of Four

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)(10/25/2014)

During the 2006 Oscar season there were two major storylines: the prospect of Martin Scorsese finally winning his Oscar and the emergence of “The Three Amigos.”  “The Three Amigos” referred to a trio of Mexican film directors who all had major awards contenders that year.  Genre maestro Guillermo del Toro had just released his most respected and accomplished film Pan’s Labyrinth, expert visual stylist Alfonso Cuarón had come out with the influential post-apocalyptic film Children of Men, and finally there was the realist auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu who had just made Babel, the third film of his trilogy of films penned by Guillermo Arriaga which were characterized by their bleak worldview and non-chronological structures.  In the time since then, Del Toro has managed to maintain his commercial niche and Cuarón eventually won an Oscar but Iñárritu has maintained something of a lower profile.  Of the three he’s probably had the most divisive filmography.  Many (including myself) found his films to be powerful and well realized, but others have dismissed them as superficially puffed up miserablism and there was something of a backlash against him around the time Babel came out.  In 2010 he made a Spanish film called Biutiful, which probably got more recognition for a central performance by Javier Bardem then it did for Iñárritu’s direction and otherwise there’s been radio silence on the Iñárritu front.  But now he’s made a new film called Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which looks unlike anything he’s done before, and this could be exactly what he needs to get back into the forefront of film culture.

Birdman primarily concerns an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who became famous in the early 90s in a series of big budget movies based on a comic book character called Birdman.  Now his superhero days are far behind him and he’s considered washed up and as the film opens up he’s planning to mount a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a stage play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story) which he’s planning to open on Broadway but his plans hit a snag when his co-star is injured by a falling stage light.  Desperate for a replacement, and under pressure from his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to get a big name who will sell tickets, he casts an acclaimed but volatile Broadway star named Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who immediately starts making diva-ish demands.  Truthfully though, Shiner is the least of his problems.  His bigger challenge is to come to terms with his poor relations with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his current lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but most importantly his own ego and neurosis.

You wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from the trailers, but Birdman is actually based around a pretty interesting technical device.  Aside from a prolog and an epilog, the film has been made to look like it was done entirely in a single shot for most of its running time.  The obvious forbearer to this technique is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also attempted to use invisible cuts to achieve a similar effect, but Birdman is different in that it does not play out in real time and instead transitions through time periodically and tells a story that takes place over the course of a few weeks.  This is the kind of technique that can easily be dismissed as directorial masturbation, but I think it serves a very legitimate stylistic purpose here because it lends the film a certain theatricality.  Like in a stage play the scenes play out in long takes with the actors forced to interact and deliver dialogue to each other in long stretches instead of having their performances get chopped to pieces in a series of over-the-shoulder shots.  This matches the film’s writing and acting which is also somewhat heightened and theatrical and it’s also written sort of like a stage play in the way characters occasionally monolog and reveal themselves through dialog over the course of the film.  That’s not to say that I think the film’s tracking shot style doesn’t have a few downsides.  It does more or less make it impossible to cut down and trim scenes and here and there I do think that hurt the film a little, but I still more or less think it was worth the tradeoff.

To say this is a bit of a reinvention for Iñárritu is probably an understatement.  This rather comedic and satirical screenplay is far removed from the dead serious social realism that the director previously specialized in and the visual pyrotechnics don’t have a whole lot in common with what we saw in his previous films, which were largely defined by their editing.  Birdman has a sly wit to it.  It’s not necessarily a movie that’s laugh out loud funny, but it has a sort of screwball pacing to it that really keeps your eyes glued to the screen and amuses you throughout.  The long take format also gives the film’s backstage intrigue a certain “30 Rock”-like walk-and-talk energy.  It’s also helped by some really energetic performances by people like Edward Norton who is wonderfully dickish as a volatile method actor and Zach Galifianakis who acts as a perfect foil for many of the film’s witty conversations.  Of course the central performance is that of Michael Keaton, who is sort of making a comment on his own career given that he is himself largely famous with the public for having played a superhero in the late-80s and early-90s and is now trying to re-establish his artistic bona fides after a long time adrift.  Keaton perfectly walks that line between the character’s comedic energy and his sometimes rather dark depression.

I’m generally not a fan of movies that satirize Hollywood because those movies generally tend to be kind of bitter and self-absorbed, but I think Birdman found a pretty interesting way to do it.  It’s a film that certainly makes a comment about Hollywood’s obsession with churning out silly action movies but is perhaps even more biting in its critique of the people who think their “above” simply entertaining people.  Many will view the film as an allegory for Michael Keaton’s attempt at a career comeback, or of Edward Norton’s reputation of taking over projects, but the parallel that is perhaps most Jermaine is the one with Iñárritu’s own career.  Unlike Riggan Thomson, who’s trying to become relevant by making something exceedingly serious and respectable, Iñárritu has brought himself back to prominence by lightening up a bit while still maintaining his artistic integrity.  I wouldn’t call Birdman a perfect film.  It plays a couple of false notes here and there and the gist of its ending is fairly predictable, but how can you not appreciate an audacious and creative gem like this?

**** out of Four