Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Phoenix Critics Circle picks Birdman as top film

At a reception tonight at the Phoenix Film Foundation, the recently formed Phoenix Critics Circle announced the 2014 film awards with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) taking the top honors, including best film, best actor, best supporting actress, best director and best screenplay.

The Alejandro González Iñárritu-written and -directed character study, about a washed-up actor slowly losing his mind while directing a play in New York City, was a critical darling early this awards season with buzzworthy openings at the Venice, New York and Telluride film festivals. The hype was especially noteworthy for award-winning star Michael Keaton, who turned in what many critics are calling the performance of a lifetime. The semi-autobiographical role is noteworthy because Keaton, a former Batman, plays an aging actor who is trying to step out of the shadow of a winged comic character he played many years before. Former Phoenician Emma Stone, who plays Keaton's daughter in the film, won best supporting actress.

Other winners include Reese Witherspoon for best actress in Wild, in which she plays a hiker on a trip of self-discovery on a 2,000-mile trail, and J.K. Simmons for best supporting actor in Whiplash, in which he plays a deranged music instructor and band leader. The Phoenix Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, also honored genre films with Snowpiercer as best horror/sci-fi, The Grand Budapest Hotel as best comedy, The Lego Movie as best animated film, and Gone Girl and Nightcrawler tied for best mystery/thriller. Force Majeure and Ida tied for best international film.

Here's the Phoenix Critics Circle site (here), and full list of winners:


Best Picture


Best Comedy Film
The Grand Budapest Hotel


Best Horror or Sci-Fi Film


Best Mystery or Thriller
Gone Girl and Nightcrawler (tie)


Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman


Best Actress 
Reese Witherspoon, Wild


Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash


Best Supporting Actress
Emma Stone, Birdman


Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman


Best Screenplay


Best Animated Film
The Lego Movie


Best International Film
Force Majeure and Ida (tie)

One movie too many for Peter Jackson's Hobbit

Finally, the conclusion to the Hobbit series, or as I like to call it The $500-Million Object Lesson on How to Overproduce a Simple Children’s Book. I’m retiring if this movie spawns that 12-part Green Eggs and Ham miniseries, or perhaps that Poky Little Puppy quadrilogy.

Listen, there is such a thing as “too much,” and it’s right here in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the endpoint to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation, a book that would have been perfectly suitable within one movie or, what the hell, even two. But three!?! The wheels have finally come off this unnecessarily long franchise that began on an ominous note with the hated high-framerate 3D in An Unexpected Journey, slowly began to course-correct in The Desolation of Smaug, but finally putters into heap here with battle scene after battle scene after battle scene. It’s enough war to give the orcs PTSD. 

The problem, in the beginning and still now, is the script, which deviated far and wide from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Hobbit text just to pluck prequel strings for Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise. New locations were plotted, new characters were written, villains were crafted out of the ether, and trivial episodes were stretched thin, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” Keep in mind, all this in a story that already has too many characters, including 13 dwarves, of which only a fraction are identifiable by name — the leader, the wise white-haired one, the twins and that fat one. The rest are just background filler.

Tasked with going to the Misty Mountains to reclaim their lands and wealth, the dwarves, captained by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) — and joined by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen ) and Hobbit burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) — have fought their way through trolls, orcs, wood elves, Mordor ghosts, man-bears, a mutant orc with a sword for an elbow and, in the previous film, a giant dragon named Smaug, who might be the most sympathetic character in a series tragically lacking sympathetic characters.

The Battle of Five Armies opens on Smaug as he begins to torch a human city floating on a lake near his mountain throne. The film does not make any effort to submerge you back into the Hobbit; it simply drops you in headfirst — Gandalf is in a cage somewhere, a noble human is in jail, a ruthless tax collector is swimming away with the town’s loot, and Thorin drools over his mountain’s abandoned wealth. There is also a love-smitten elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose romantic intentions lead to a catastrophic dead end. A refresher course on all this interrupted story would have been nice, but I guess that’s what happens when you break a single story up over multiple movies. The bigger problem here is that there is just too much of it; a leaner story and cast list would have gone a lot further.

The dragon’s defeat is mostly a foregone conclusion, which leaves lots of time for the dwarves to politically scorch Middle Earth with their greed, much of which is inspired by Thorin, who’s so overwritten he becomes a parody of Tolkien’s character. The dwarves camp out in the gold mountain, and their protest-like stand sends ripples through every race of creature, from bow-wielding tree elves to pig-riding dwarf armies to legions of orcs with armored artillery units mounted on the backs of trolls. They all descend on the mountain to wage war for the treasure, a gold haul that 13 dwarves refuse to give up because of their misplaced sense of entitlement.

Notice that I haven’t really talked about Bilbo much, and that’s intentional. Bilbo is mostly an afterthought. Remember, he was brought on the quest to burglarize the dragon’s den. With that job fulfilled, he’s left twiddling his thumbs as Thorin barricades Middle Earth’s Fort Knox, Gandalf tussles with Sauron’s ghost, and elves Legolas and Tauriel inject themselves into a story in which they don’t belong. Legolas has a line here about some rabid bats: “These bats are bred for one purpose … war.” It echoes a line by Thorin: “We have no choice then … but war.” I think every character has a line that ends with a pause and “war.” And war they are all given.

The centerpiece of the film is essentially an 80-minute battle with all of the characters, and many we didn’t even know about, including Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving all reprising their Rings roles in a non-canon scene meant as lip service to Tolkien fanboys. Peter Jackson, although weighed down by three films of character confusion and watered-down story, still knows how to arrange some impressive battle scenes. His scope for war and carnage seems to have no bounds. And, once again, the Weta Workshop does a stellar job at populating Tolkien’s world with believable props, costumes and digital effects. It’s unfortunate the story couldn’t have been boiled down a little more.

The key word there is “story” and The Battle of Five Armies’ is a wreck. It’s all loose ends and forced drama, and just too many reverse-engineered plot points that honor Jackson’s earlier films but not Tolkien’s book. So why did this work for Lord of the Rings, but not the Hobbit? It’s hard to say, but I think it comes down to the nature of the characters, the points at which they’re introduced in the story and the ultimate goal to which they strive. In Rings, the key figures of the film were introduced within the first hour of the first film, whereas The Hobbit is still introducing heroes (and villains) deep into the third film. How can we identify or appreciate characters that are ninth-inning additions?

Other key components are the character motivations. In Rings, everyone was united in defeating Sauron and destroying the ring. There was never any question about that endgame. Yet here, I’m stumped. I think this is about the reclaiming of a dwarf city that was stolen by a dragon, but Five Armies complicates that with all the politics of the gold, the reluctant gratitude of the dwarves, and the request of payment from everyone else. If only the movie could end with the death of the dragon, which is a conclusion that makes sense, and just feels like a natural stopping point. I know the book examines the post-Smaug landscape, but I don’t remember it feeling this anti-climactic and long-winded.

This franchise has let me down, and spoiled the simplicity of the book. And it casts a shadow on the awesomeness of the Lord of the Rings franchise, which was executed with supreme precision and fluid storytelling. Mostly I’m just sad that Jackson thought he could do it all again. He’s a talented director, and his work is always entertaining, but this film was doomed the moment it was split, and then split again.

That’s not how you build movies, although it is precisely how you break them.\


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Inherent Vice, now with extra pulp!

From deep within an acrid haze of pot smoke and acid trip-outs strides the smirking oddity that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a slow-burn of noir clichés given a groovy spin not seen since The Big Lebowski or The Long Goodbye, its spiritual successors.

Anderson’s 148-minute spiraling mystery isn’t so much hard-boiled as it is half-baked, although you’ll easily recognize Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade in Joaquin Phoenix’s showstopping performance as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a joint-rolling private eye who works out of a doctor’s office and looks like a Vietnam protester — it’s 1970 so his camo-green ensemble with sandals and mutton-chop sideburns makes sense. Doc is visited in the first scene by Shasta Fay Hepworth, an old flame caught in a scheme that’s about to devour her. These types of women — Sin City would call her a “dame” without a wink of irony — usually kick-start movies like this, and Shasta Fay is no exception as Doc is compelled to follow her through hell and back. 

Inherent Vice is a labyrinth of vague rumors, half-heard facts and stoned visions. It should come with a road map and a compass. Its convoluted mash of detail and innuendo is told using a small army of characters with names out of a W.C. Fields comedy: Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Rhus Frothingon, Trillium Fortnight and Sauncho Smilax, Esq. Martin Short — yes, that Martin Short — plays a Dr. R. Blatnoyd, DDS., and his four minutes of screen time are just sublimely perfect. 

Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, Vice spends much of its early passages obsessed with Michael Wolfmann, a real estate mogul who’s “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi.” Wolfmann was involved with Shasta and pretty much everyone else, including sex workers, Nazi biker gangs, crooked cops, Asian smugglers, new-age cults, drug dealers, grifters and federal agents with names like Borderline and Flatweed. As Doc traces Wolfmann’s whereabouts, he’s pushed all around Southern California encountering wild characters who add more puzzle pieces to Shasta’s fractured enigma of a story.

The locations and events Doc walks into are as sensational as the character names. I was especially fond of Wolfmann’s wife, who’s hosting a pool party — with cops in full uniforms, including motorcycle helmets, cannon-balling in the pool and manning the grills — yet also mourning her “missing” husband with a black veil to go with her black bikini. You’ll admire the shout-out to Lauren Bacall in her famous “veil scene” in The Big Sleep. There’s a sex club with an erotic menu of offerings I can’t repeat, a mysterious ship called the Golden Fang, biker parties, baseball bat museums, a massive collection of naked-lady ties, Last Supper references, and the Popsicle-eating habits of Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a character who is endlessly weird, but also lovable and goofy. Reese Witherspoon also turns up, which makes for a lovely reunion for the Walk the Line stars.

The movie is narrated by a female character who we rarely see, and her words are sumptuous and intoxicating as they ooze out in stanzas of beat poetry forever on the cusp of quoting Allen Ginsberg. The rest of the movie plays out like any Anderson stunner: music that is layered over whole movements, long takes, tracking shots, unbroken passages of dialogue, quirky compositions … you’ll see bits of Anderson’s entire filmography here, from Hard Eight and Magnolia to Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. I especially enjoyed his agonizingly slow camera zooms that begin as medium shots and, over the course of several minutes, creep closer to one face as Doc’s investigation is sent into a new orbit.

Inherent Vice goes to great lengths to convince you of the plausibility of Doc’s case, but I found it easier to surrender to the details. The names, locations, times, dates, events … they all grow more tangled as Vice proceeds, and they’re only there to serve the mood and tension of Anderson’s whirlygig of a pulp-noir mystery, which is further proof that the genre will never die.


Enigma to Ultra: Turing versus the Nazis

In 1952, the man who shaved two years and millions of deaths off of World War II was prosecuted for a crime so frivolous and embarrassing that the Queen would have to pardon him decades later. But by then the damage had been done in this shameful piece of history.

Alan Turing, the subject of The Imitation Game, was instrumental in the events of World War II, he synthesized a number of modern ideas about artificial intelligence, and he pioneered this great big box that would one day become the computer. But Turing was also gay, something he was punished for with reprehensible cruelty after the war. I wanted Imitation Game to be as outraged as I was, but it takes a different approach entirely: it presents Turing not as a victim, but a hero. 

Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was plucked from the ranks of a very talented batch of science geeks at Cambridge during the onset of World War II. He was assigned to Bletchley Park, the secret British codebreaking campus that was just starting to wrap its collective brain around the Nazi’s elusive Enigma machine.

Morten Tyldum’s careful direction and Graham Moore’s determined script present Enigma as a character in the film. The German code machine looks like a typewriter, but with a lampboard, a set of rotors, and a plugboard behind a wood panel at the base. The permutations of possible codes was almost incalculable — “millions of millions” one codebreaker says. Making matters worse, the Germans changed the machine’s codes daily, which gives the codebreakers roughly 18 hours of tinkering once the coded messages were gathered from the battlefield. While the others workers tried different combinations of plugs and rotors, Turing was looking for a shortcut.

The Imitation Game plays like an espionage thriller, because it is. In fact, historically speaking, it is the ultimate spy thriller. Turing, who was an awkward loner, spends much of the movie hunched over electronic components, dodging double-agent accusations, smuggling documents out of Bletchley Park to study at home, and fighting with his co-workers who didn’t share his ideas about his computing box that he called Christopher. Turing slogged through them, his subordinates (including Charles Dance and Mark Strong) and even Winston Churchill to get Christopher up and working with astounding results.

In one of the film’s strongest segments, Turing needs to hire more codebreakers so he plants a difficult crossword puzzle in the newspaper and watches as bewildered readers show up saying they can solve it. He ends up hiring the only woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who falls for Turing even amid her suspicions of his orientation. They make a great pair. 

I’m skeptical of historical movies like this, because I know they condense facts, eliminate characters, make composites of others and in the end the history is lost. That is certainly true here, especially once you start diving into the details of Turing’s machine and Enigma’s follow-up project, Ultra. But the core here is Turing, and he’s just fascinating. As is Cumberbatch, who is delightful in everything he’s in.

I left Imitation Game fuming at Turing’s treatment after the war, but also immensely proud of his work during the war. If only he would have been allowed to continue working — the world might look a little different today.