Thursday, October 23, 2014

Marching to the beat of a different drum

In an often-repeated story in Whiplash, when the saxophone legend Charlie Parker was a young novice he had a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, who was irritated at his playing style. Parker would shake it off and eventually become one of the most important players in musical history. 

The first time this story is told, it’s slanted toward Charlie Parker, the young punk with the determined spirit. The second time it’s slanted toward Jo Jones, the pig-headed teacher pushing his student to his true potential. The beauty of Whiplash is that it’s actually about both men — the master and the apprentice. The road it takes to bring those two sides together is a hard slog through turbulent waters, but it’s worth it in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, one of the best movies of 2014. 

We begin with the apprentice, Andrew (Miles Teller), who’s at a prestigious music school in New York City. The eager young drummer is working his way up through the ranks of the school’s band programs when he meets the school’s head instructor, a stubborn monster by the name of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). We get lots of practice time with Fletcher, who runs his rehearsal space like it’s North Korea. In an early scene he torments one trombone player who may be out of tune. The poor kid is assaulted with homophobic slurs, threats of violence and Fletcher fuming in his face. The college-age kid eventually starts crying, a common occurrence under Fletcher’s direction.

Andrew thinks he has this drum thing all figured out, until Fletcher smacks him into his place as an alternate. But Andrew doesn't give up. He practices at night, listens to music of the greats, sleeps in his rehearsal space and dumps a girlfriend who was likely going to ask for more time with him. His practice routine is so intense that blood pours from open blisters on palms and fingers. Bandages just slip off the raw wounds. But the practice pays off and Andrew gets a spot on the jazz band.

But then trouble really starts as Fletcher lays into his musicians. In one especially awful session, he forces three of his drummers to do a double-time swing until they get it right. Hours later, one of them is victorious. He tells the losers, “Alternates, clean the blood of my drumkit!” Then, after all that comes a kicker: “OK, now we can start practicing.” The audience I saw Whiplash with groaned audibly at his cruelty. This is the norm: Fletcher intimidates his students, terrifies them, belittles them, and grinds their ambition into a fine powder. In one scene, he’s seen making nice with a student, asking about his parents, inquiring about his past. He’s gathering ammunition. Sure enough, one missed note later — “a tonal catastrophe” — and the kid’s entire family history is being heaved at him like a battering ram. I haven’t seen torture this cruel since 120 Days of Sodom.

Simmons plays a monster brilliantly. He’s so often the nice guy, the kind dad, the affable boss … and here he is a contemptible jerk and sadist. Awards season is going to be nice to Simmons. He has one line that sums up his cynicism and contempt for compliments: “There are no two words in the English language worse than ‘good job.’” Teller, it should be said, is also fantastic. He’s a drummer himself, which allows Chazelle to film his hands and to show wide shots with Teller behind the kit. It’s a nice touch to see the actor doing the hard work, and Teller’s humble presence makes it all the better.

My experience with phenomenal drumming is the Buddy Rich drum-off with Animal on The Muppet Show, so take my praise with a grain of salt, but the drumming is electric. I loved all the little insert shots — close-ups of hands, tuning keys, drumheads, bloody palms, and vibrating cymbals — that bring us up close and personal with the instrument. The soundtrack, with its machine-gun salvos of snare and uptempo jazz numbers, is also wonderful.

Whiplash is a brutal exercise in obsession, talent and determination. You’ll keep wondering how much Andrew will take before he snaps. He takes more abuse than I thought he would, but he does snap — everyone under Fletcher eventually does. After a big blow-up at a competition, the film shifts gears into something monumentally more powerful. As Andrew ponders his next step, he meets Fletcher again in a different environment and starts to see things from his point of view. This is where we hear the Charlie Parker story again. And it frames the last act of the movie, which is a triumph of epic proportions.

It ends with an ambush, a double-cross, a public execution, a retaliatory strike and a drum solo to end all drum solos. I’ve never had so many ups and downs in a film this year, or any from the past five. When it was over I had to catch my breath.

And then I wanted to do it all again. This is the film to beat this year.

From Batman to Birdman in 25 years

What can only be compared to avant-garde jazz on psychotropic drugs, Birdman spazzes off the screen in a cacophony of hammered notes, false starts, odd tempos and syncopated rhythms. Somehow it finds a tune in this wall of noise. And what a strangely melodic tune it is. 

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film — the full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — is likely to be the most polarizing movie of the year, the Synecdoche, New York of 2014. If its nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, like some early adopters are already suggesting, it will likely draw out a curious and varied crowd, half of which will walk out shrugging their shoulders. The other half will be on their hands and knees bowing to Birdman’s wacky eccentricities. Let the games begin. 

First of all, it’s a stroke of genius. I’ve never seen anything like it. Only Charlie Kaufman’s scripts come to mind when grasping for comparisons, but even those fall short of this film’s brain-like three-dimensional matrix of neural pathways and firing synapses. It’s not just cerebral and existential; it’s densely written and perversely styled, a supernova within one man’s exploding psyche. 

The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a Broadway director, actor and writer who is carving a piece of himself into Raymond Carver’s What We talk About When We Talk About Love. Many years before the events of the film, Riggan starred in a series of comic-book movies called Birdman, and now his professional career is spent playing into and against that unfortunately bombastic legacy. Fans and detractors of his work grow bored of the Carver play but perk up when someone mentions the unfilmed Birdman 4, which is about as likely as a Terry Gilliam’s forever-gestating Don Quixote movie. 

Now, Keaton’s casting here is interesting. He was a successful ’80s actor until he was plucked out of the normal acting world and dropped into two Tim Burton Batman movies, which forever colored the rest of his career. He went through some down time, and he took some dud movies, but here he is playing what can only be described as “Michael Keaton on Broadway” in Iñárritu’s spiraling whirlwind of ideas. He’s mesmerizing, and also heart-wrenchingly honest. Truer performances have not yet come to pass. 

As Riggan gets ready for his play, he interacts with members of the theater, including a maddeningly brilliant actor (Edward Norton), a gentle theater veteran (Naomi Watts), his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone), his lovely ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his hovering attorney (Zach Galifianakis), who is desperate to get Martin “Score-seez” in the theater’s seats. As Riggan interacts with all these characters, he slowly starts to unravel as his alter-ego, the likely-imaginary, possibly-real Birdman starts to fight for space in his noggin. And as Riggan plays through different variations of his theater character, so does Birdman with Riggan. 

The film seemingly takes place within one single day, but watch careful and you’ll see weeks whiz by in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s careful presentation, which includes virtuosic long takes, seamless transitions, nifty editing tricks and silky-smooth Steadicam tracking shots. The camera seems to have no limit as it bobs in and out of dressings rooms, up and down narrow stairwells, onto roofs, effortlessly through audiences or, in a signature scene, through Times Square as Riggan streaks through in his tighty-white briefs. Notice all the mirrors and reflections — never once do you see the camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more special effects here than in the last Thor movie. Also of note is the score, which includes dizzying drumwork, some of which can be seen as the drummer appears in scenes as if he were a magical siren on Birdman’s shores. 

This is a brilliant movie, and it features two groundbreaking performances (Keaton and Norton) that are simply awe-inspiring. I did find the film rather hollow in sections. Riggan’s scattered brain, although ceaselessly provocative, would often circle back on itself, and while it seemed like the script was rocketing toward the sun, on reflection it was more likely static. It’s a difficult film, one that makes you dig for its treasures, one that will likely infuriate some viewers. 

Birdman is quite simply a once-in-a-billion film. I’ve never seen anything like it, and likely won’t ever again. Even when it frustrated me to no end it was still captivating and hypnotic, and as lyrical as any song, as poetic as any poem and as cinematic as any film. 

Wicked Wick: Sad Keanu shoots people

Keanu Reeves has turned into his own meme. Sad Keanu. Google it, it’s very sad. 

John Wick is a movie version of Sad Keanu, but with guns. And more point-blank headshots than the photo booth at the DMV. Enough that they start to have a numbing sensation, a side effect that comes in handy for John Wick’s plodding second half. 

The film starts very dark: former hitman John Wick is burying his wife, who died suddenly from an illness, as opposed to a bullet like everyone else in this story. Before she keeled over, the sweet wife arranged to have a dog delivered to John on the day of her funeral. The puppy — with his droopy little eyes and puppy-dog tail and his scurrying paws — arrives and immediately alters John’s mood for the better. Things are looking up after all.

But we’ve already established that bad things (and Sad Keanu) happen in this movie, things that end with point-blank gunshots to the face. These things transpire because the puppy has to die. It just has to go. And go the puppy does at the hands of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, aka Theon Freakin’ Greyjoy), the dim-witted son of a Russian mobster who is too cocky and arrogant to even know that he just blew up the world of the wrong guy.

So all that is just setup. Here is the plot: John Wick murders an entire mob family as payback for the death of his puppy. Now, that sounds monotonous and dull, and it mostly is, especially in John Wick’s darker later episodes. But for large swaths of the first half this violent and gritty action thriller is a rather amusing comic adventure. I especially enjoyed the kingpin’s answer to why a low-level car thief would punch the kingpin’s son. He killed John Wick’s dog, the grunt says. “Oh,” the kingpin mumbles. Never before has “oh” meant so much. In those two letters he’s summed up his entire fate.

Other scenes are just absurdly dark, so much that you can’t help but laugh. After a particularly violent shoot-out, John calls for a hitman cleaning crew. The team arrives with all sorts of cleaning devices, including one big burly guy who only carries a squeegee. The crew Saran wraps the bodies into neat little take-out packages. And off they go as if wanton murder never took place. I also appreciated how everyone in the film knew who John Wick was, because he was just that legendary of a hitman. At one point a local cop shows up to a shootout and John barely has to explain himself before the cop tips his hat and whistles away as if he never saw anything. 

Murder machine John eventually gets stuck in a gory loop of violent head-exploding gunfights. At first his cruelty is oddly humorous, like when he wounds a bad guy, lets him cringe and bleed on the floor as he reloads his own gun to only blast him in the head. The joke here is that the threat was already isolated, but John takes his time to pop the guy in his dome because he’s some kind of obsessive completionist. This macabre brand of humor fades quickly as the headshots start stacking up and up and up. How many is too many? John Wick seems to be grasping for an answer.

David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s film employs a wide variety of top-tier talent, especially if you watch HBO’s programming. The Wire’s Clarke Peters and Lance Reddick play two pros in a hotel, Deadwood’s Ian McShane is a club owner with information to sell, Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski plays the befuddled cop, and Allen, Game of Throne’s organ-less imp Theon Greyjoy, plays the puppy killer. Other larger performances include Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Michael Nyqvist and Dean Winters, whose work on TV is also goofily entertaining — he is the Mayhem insurance salesman and 30 Rock’s Beeper King. Altogether, this is a nice cast and the way the film is structured, I was never quite sure who was going to turn up next.

I just wish the film could hold my attention longer. As the body count rose, my attention drifted. The film looks snazzy, and Reeves plays Sad Keanu quite well, I just couldn’t punch through all the arbitrary killing, which was novel in small little dashes, just not something I could watch uninterrupted for a whole movie.


More than one way to crack a nut

Stonehearst Asylum reveals its wicked sense of humor early: A doctor is given a tour of an insane asylum, and during the tour he’s introduced to a patient who’s allowed to pretend he’s a horse. Why not cure him, the doctor asks. “What, and make a miserable man out of a happy horse.”

Here is a movie that does not excel, but it has heart and pluck and charisma. Oh, and making matters more interesting, Stonehearst is a gothic thriller set in chilly castle for the criminally insane. Yeah, it’s creepy charmer. 

The doctor here is Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) and he’s come to Stonehearst in the English countryside to learn about curing mental patients, who are still at this point in modern medicine called “lunatics,” which is one better than what another character calls them — “inebriates and chronic masturbators.” Newgate is quickly taken under the wing of Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who runs the facility under some curious rules, including one that allows patients to come to staff dinners to socialize in their bare feet. 

As Newgate learns about the facility and its many dark corners, he realizes the film’s first big joke: the lunatics are running the asylum. Now, I say joke, but this is no comedy, yet I couldn’t help but laugh as events unfolded to reveal one absurdity after another. Patients are injected with heroin, given drought-causing waterboarding exercises, thrown in this ridiculous dizzy-chair contraption, and allowed to determine their own treatment, even if that treatment is none at all. When one character is threatened with something called a “pelvic massage” I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. (I did.) the whole movie is like this — vaguely hilarious, if also menacing and shrouded in doom. 

Newgate takes a special interest in Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful ear-biter and eye-gouger whose husband has put a price on her head if she’s discovered. Behind Newgate as he attempts to rescue Graves is Dr. Lamb, an even more mysterious Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and a groundskeeper named Mickey Finn (David Thewlis at his most vile). And if you caught those names — Newgate, Graves, Lamb, Salt — you’ll be forgiven for thinking this is a psychological allegory. 

The movie is drawn from an Edgar Allen Poe story, though I suspect loosely. It does have Poe’s devilish sense for humor. In an early scene, we’re told the asylum is home to the finest lunatics in all of Europe. “Here look at this man,” Lamb says, “he comes from a wealthy family that owns a vast train empire.” But why is he in the asylum? “Because he suffers no interest in trains.” Yeah, that sounds like Poe or maybe even Alfred Hitchcock. 

Stonehearst, directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist) from a script by Joe Gangemi, taps on all the predictable story beats, and some that aren’t so predictable. You know you’re in for a whopper of a finale when they trot the horses through the asylum kitchen. I will admit I expected a bigger twist at the end, something perhaps on par with Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead, it fizzles. 

It’s all absurdly silly and at the same time deathly serious. That makes for a strange dynamic, for sure, but I was never bored, which is high praise for this genre. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sound and the Fury

Fury plays fast and loose with its military action, but never with its stars — the tanks. 

The metal goliaths, featured heavily in David Ayer's World War II epic, crunch into battle at a tedious pace and with the subtlety of, well, a smoke-belching tank. "Over there," a soldier says pointing at a treeline, and off the tank goes to blast the bushes into yard mulch. The tanks turn and chug toward danger because that's what they were designed to do — battering rams, roadblocks and troop shields. It does not make for the most plausible, nor exciting, action sequences. More on that later. 

The film follows a tank crew during the final push through Germany before the fall of the Third Reich. It's April 1945, weeks away from Hitler's suicide, when the German people, including women and children, were told to defend the country until the very end. The tank, called Fury, is captained by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a battle-hardened Nazi-killer with a cool temperament. His crew includes Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Peña) and Grady (Joe Bernthal), and they are crudely jaded by war and its atrocities. They make the soldiers from Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One look like Sunday School teachers. 

The film shepherds us into the war with a surrogate, the fresh-faced teen Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who has been assigned to Fury from a cushy position at headquarters. "I type 60 words a minute. I'm not meant to be here," he pleads with the tank and its crew. Norman is given a position at the front of the tank, where he operates a machine gun turret next to the driver. When it's safe to do so he pops his head out of a hatch and gets a nice view as the tank bops down the German countryside. During a firefight, he drops down under the hatch and uses a nifty periscope to (barely) see what, or who, he's shooting at. 

Ayer's film, which he also wrote, establishes one principle very early on: the tanks, even with their armor plating, are fragile monsters. One wayward bullet and gas ignites, shells explode and the tank turns into a convection oven. Then, of course, there are German bazooka teams, landmines and the nearly impenetrable tiger tank, a feared enemy by any Allied soldier. It's amazing any of these brave tank crews survived the war. Making things more hazardous is the way the tanks fight in Fury's battles: when meeting the enemy, tanks turn and grumble into the action in a straight line. While dog-faced infantrymen use cover, weave through the trees and generally try to use a tactical approach, the tanks just drive right in, which makes for anti-climactic action sequences. Maybe this is the way the real tank battles were fought, in which case the film nailed it, but I couldn’t help but think of Civil War movies and the frustrating tactics that those soldiers used. Marching into bullets in spiffy rows of targets likely got a lot of men killed. I can't imagine that strategy, even with tanks, would ever be suggested. Someone flip through a Stephen Ambrose book to check.

This tactical curiosity is clearly seen in one sequence where a column of tanks face off against a single tiger tank. The Americans turn to engage and then chug forward as the German foe obliterates one metal beast after another. Was there not another way to fight this battle? The ease at which these tanks are destroyed directly contradicts with the logic of the last sequence, which features a single tank — without treads, low on ammo and exposed — decimating an entire company of elite SS. Either the tanks are paper-thin shooting targets or indestructible bullet sponges, but not both.

I will say this, though, the tanks looks amazing. A lot of work went into their creation, and they are convincing creatures unto themselves. Especially noteworthy are the shell effects, with high-velocity tank shells ricocheting off hulls, bouncing off soggy soil and piercing armor in perfectly round holes. The threat of a tank barrel pointed at the screen felt real, with terrifying consequences. The same can't be said about the regular bullets, which only found American flesh when the plot demanded it. Germans were apparently awful shots or crack shots, but never a mixture of both. The movie doesn't treat all hand grenades equal either: American hand grenades had quick fuses that exploded on contact, yet German grenades were so slow to blow up that Americans could snatch them up and heave them back. Was this a real difference between the two armies, or was Ayer’s script skewed for its heroes? I'm dissecting war clichés here, but they're so dreadfully obvious I feel compelled to bring it up.

Forgiving the munitions, Fury dwells mostly on the main tank and its ultimate destiny at a German crossroads, but the film isn't shy about turning its attention on the tank's human controllers, be it Gordo and his Mexican heritage or Grady and his backwoods mumble. One noteworthy performance is by LaBeouf, fresh off his crazy tour, as a Bible-thumping creepo. He initiates one of the more interesting conversations in the movie: if anyone can be "saved" by Jesus' grace then couldn't Hitler be saved? He's truly stumped. 

The central characters are Wardaddy and Norman, playing master and apprentice. Pitt's Southern snarl is lewd and nasty, but he imbues the character with a gritty affection. "Wait til you see it … what a man can do to another man," Wardaddy, the Davey Crockett to the tank's rolling Alamo, says to Norman. "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent," he adds later. These two characters take Fury on a hard left turn as they wander through an apartment complex and meet two German women. Tension fills the room as Wardaddy removes his clothes and makes glances toward a bedroom. But the scene didn't go where I thought it would, and it instead revealed a great deal about Fury's heroes. Although the scene is a dramatic detour, one I greatly enjoyed, it does not knock the tracks off the movie's momentum. 

The photography is, at times, exceptional, including several scenes that are worthy of commendation: a formation of bombers weaving a metal carpet in the sky, shots of Americans playing baseball with stack of worthless German money, and a stunning opening shot of a German on horseback riding through the mists of war, the battle-churned mud, and the pierced and smoldering carcasses of beetles with names like Panzer, Tiger and Sherman. This can be a gorgeously ugly movie. 

Fury isn’t the greatest World War II movie, but it is a noteworthy one, despite its sluggish depiction of tank warfare. It proves that there are still many stories worth telling from a 70-year-old war. 



Crudup is back in the band

What is the weight of a song? Where does its spirit reside? And how does it ensnare us in its rapturous grasp?

I first saw Almost Famous at an impressionable age, when movies didn't just thud at your feet, but cratered into your soul. The Cameron Crowe film reaffirmed something I already knew, but in a beautiful way: there are songs (and albums and bands) in this world that change the fabric of your being. That was a lesson that the charismatic guitarist Russell Hammond helped teach in Stillwater, Almost Famous' fictitious rock group. 

So it pleased me to no end to see Russell Hammond, more precisely Billy Crudup, once again on a stage teaching us about the cosmic-spiritual connection that music initiates within us.

Crudup stars in Rudderless, a delicate, though overreaching, drama about a father carrying on the troubled music of his dead son. The film opens on the son, who we only really see once until a fateful news story about a school shooting. His father, ad executive Sam (Crudup), takes it hard and falls into alcohol, depression and then poverty. We pick up with him two years later, when a wayward box of his son's mementos turns up at his doorstep. Inside are old notes, demos and lyric sheets — a time capsule of unlived musical dreams. 

As a way to reacquaint himself with his son, and to get out of the ratty sailboat where he's living, Sam learns the tunes and takes it to an open-mic night, where the music is a hit. He attracts the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a younger musician who won't let Sam rest until they start performing together. They form a band, their shows get bigger, they develop a following, and the whole time Sam is concealing a dark secret — his dead son is the writer of all his music.

Rudderless is directed and co-written by William H. Macy, whose filmmaking lacks the depth and nuance of the captains who have directed him — the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Rob Reiner, to name a few — although he clearly learned, if only through osmosis, what a great story looks and feels like. Some of the sequences are thrown together and chaotic, including a sabotaged boat regatta, and other scenes could be written with more depth and understanding of the central characters. But, as they say, Rudderless has good bones. It has a story to tell, and it’s a whopper.

Central to the plot is a twist so monumental, so audacious, so utterly believable that I'm damned near ready to spoil it just because. I won't, but the urge is there. The twist comes with a single image, and it's devastating on a nuclear scale. It alters the very atoms of the movie, a top-to-bottom overhaul. (Recall Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer. That kind of twist. An epic horizon-flipping twist.)

Crudup plays the heartbroken father with a degree of calmness and ease. He underplays Sam, and it's a terrific strength. Yelchin, the fiery little dweeb, is fine, too, although his hair is coiffed into a nest of punk tangles, odd for a kid who wants to play folky emo tunes with a 50-something. Laurence Fishburne plays a music store owner who dispenses lots of sage advice, to the youngsters and the adults. Selena Gomez also turns up, as does songwriter Ben Kweller, who plays one of the bandmembers. The music is exceptional, and just perfect for the story Macy is telling. 

So what is the existential spiritual role of music in our lives? Rudderless — using warm performances and a story that is worth its weight in gold records — tries, and often succeeds, in getting to the bottom of that question.