Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Shootist (1976) ****1/2

“I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same of them.” This is the memorable credo of J.B. Books, the gunfighter played by John Wayne in his last film, which happens to be one of the best westerns ever made.

As the tale begins, Books is diagnosed with cancer, with only a few weeks left to live. His physician, Dr. Hostetler (Jimmie Stewart), explains that the end will be very painful, not relieved even by the laudanum he prescribes. He wraps up this grim prognosis with the advice, “I would not die such a death...if I were as brave as you.” With this heavy weight on his shoulders, Books finds himself a room in a boarding house and settles in to die as peacefully and anonymously as he can. Unfortunately, Books's fame precedes him, and soon every hard case in town is out for a chance to kill the famous gunfighter.

Until I saw “The Shootist,” I thought that “True Grit” was John Wayne's best film, but I think “The Shootist” may be better. This was Wayne's last film, and he had already lost a lung to cancer. He was perfectly suited to play ”a dying man, afraid of the dark.” Wayne's gift to the film is that he underplays it, saying as much with silence or with his eyes as he does with words. The movie starts with a history of the Books character, using footage from old John Wayne movies to depict his many gunfights. After that footage it is fittingly shocking to see the wrecked, old gunfighter limping into Dr. Hostetler's office, clutching the pillow he has to sit on. Many fans may prefer to remember Wayne as the strapping, young hero of those earlier films, but I think he is beautiful in his age and infirmity, facing a grimmer enemy than any gunman.

“The Shootist” is great, but it is not a perfect film. Ron Howard gives an okay performance as a young man enamored of gunfighters and tough guys, who ultimately learns that violence is not the answer. That storyline is just a little trite. The other weak link in the movie is Harry Morgan, who plays the town marshal who wants Books gone. His character doesn't actually make a lot of sense, and neither does Morgan's performance.

Otherwise, the film is a catalog of great performances. Stewart's Dr. Hostetler is perfect. Laren Bacall is stunning as Bond, the widow who runs the boarding house. With her steely eyes and manner, she matches Wayne scene by scene. Even lesser roles are played by talented actors, such as Hugh O'Brien as the gambler Pulford, and Bill McKinney, who plays Jay Cobb with the perfect mix of meanness and cowardice. According to the the making-of documentary on the dvd, casting this film was easy. Everyone in Hollywood wanted a chance to be in what could be John Wayne's last movie. I am envious of Wayne. Not many people are lucky enough to have their last work turn out to be their best.

4.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Birdman (2014) ****

Where is the line between madness and genius? What is the difference between art and entertainment? Who has the right to make art? These questions and more are tackled in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's wild, free-jazz movie “Birdman.”

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor famous for having played the superhero Birdman. After establishing the Birdman franchise, Riggan had shocked Hollywood by refusing to make more sequels. If this all sounds familiar, it may be because Michael Keaton is famous for playing Batman and for walking away from the franchise. In the fictional Riggan's case, his career never again reached the heights it did in his Birdman days. Desperate to regain a sense of artistic relevance, he is in the process of putting on a serious play on Broadway when we meet him. Naturally, everything is going wrong that can go wrong, but he finally gets a decent actor for a co-star (Edward Norton), and the play might actually be good if Riggan can hold his sanity together.

We all sometimes hear within us a voice of negativity and criticism. In Riggan's case, that voice is relentless. He is constantly hearing the gravelly, haranguing voice of his Birdman character, mostly telling him to give up his stage aspirations and make another Birdman movie. Besides that, Riggan seems to secretly have telekinetic powers, including the power of flight, and we are constantly kept guessing as to whether these are real or simply part of his fantasy of having unrecognized gifts. Riggan, like all of us, wants to believe he is special, but as his daughter points out, he is blind to a whole world of people trying to prove every day that they are relevant enough just to survive.

“Birdman” deserves a place among the great films about making art. I'm thinking of movies like Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman's “Adaptation,” Bob Fosse's “All That Jazz,” and Fellini's “8 1/2”. All of these movies delve into the mind of the artist, exploring the mix of genius and madness, arrogance and self-doubt that go into the creative process. In “Birdman,” Riggan has some genuine talent, despite his self-doubt. He is also relentlessly self-destructive, however, and his talent and his self-destructiveness are constantly at war.

I haven't been attracted to any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's other films, which include “Babel” and “21 Grams.” I tried to watch”Amores Perros,” but turned it off because of the stomach-turning dog-fighting scenes. Inarritu must have some cache in Hollywood, however, because he was able to assemble a stellar cast for “Birdman,” including Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts, and he gets excellent performances from them.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also pull off a cool trick, creating the illusion that the film is shot in one, long take, even though we know that the story actually covers several days. Lubezki is known for pulling off similarly impressive, prolonged, one-shot scenes at the beginning of "Children of Men" and “Gravity”.  He had this to say about that process:

It felt contrived, like we were pushing it. I don't like it when a movie becomes a series of 'tour de force' shots, and in a way, I was disappointed that with Children of Men (2006), people noticed that the car scene was one shot with no cuts. If people notice that, it's like they're noticing my trick, you know what I mean? I'm doing it so people will get immersed in the movie, not to show off...

In “Birdman,” I think the trick is worthwhile, as it helps us identify with Riggan's manic, disoriented mental state. The camera moves us and Riggan from one crisis to the next, seemingly with no rest in between.

I don't expect “Birdman” to be a massive hit, or even a cult classic. This is the kind of arty, meta project that is simply never going to draw people in droves. A few people actually walked out of the theater. I'm not sure why. Nothing particularly offensive occurs; I guess they just weren't expecting something so weird and thought-provoking. Maybe they were expecting a superhero movie.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cuban Fury (2014) ***

I like a deep, finely-crafted movie as much as the next guy, but I'm also an advocate of the occasional fun, silly, predictable piece of fluff, as long as it's done right. “Cuban Fury” is a nice specimen of the genre. 

 Nick Frost, whose name I usually say in the same breath with Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), stars sans-Pegg in this one. He plays Bruce, a doughy, mousy designer of industrial lathes whose meek exterior hides the fact that, as a boy, he was a salsa-dancing sensation, with a promising career in competitive dance. The young Bruce gave up dancing after bigger boys beat him up and teased him for it, and now he lives a boring, lonely life, still pushed around by bullies like his co-worker Drew (Chris O'Dowd). When Bruce and Drew get a pretty, new boss (Rashida Jones), Bruce doesn't even consider trying to hit on her (“She's a 10 and I'm a 2.”) until he discovers that she is a salsa-dancing enthusiast. This awakens something in Bruce, and suddenly he is strapping on the dancing shoes and challenging Drew for their boss's heart.

“Cuban Fury” isn't going to surprise you. The plot proceeds exactly as you would expect. The movie also doesn't waste time exploring the inappropriateness of Julia (Rashida Jones) dating either of these guys who work under her. You just have to go with it, and focus on the fun music and dancing. Rashida Jones is as cute as ever, especially in her feminine, salsa dresses. She plays Julia with a nice edge of nerdiness that explains how a hottie like her might actually go for Bruce. Frost acquits himself well, and Chris O'Dowd, who usually plays such wholesomely likeable guys (“Bridesmaids” “The Sapphires”) is fun to watch playing a jerk. 

 One word of warning: O'Dowd is shown in his underwear, and it's not a lovely sight. Why couldn't it have been Rashida?!

3 stars out of 5

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rush (2013) ****

Fast cars, big money, beautiful women. Formula 1 racing is THE glamor sport of Europe, and its drivers are superstars. These guys court death by racing at close to 200 mph in open-topped, open-wheeled cars.

In this legendary sport, 1976 is a legendary year. That season, Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda engaged in a rivalry for the world championship. Ron Howard's “Rush” tells the story of that landmark year. Hunt and Lauda are presented as polar opposites, with Hunt the handsome playboy and Lauda the serious, technological genius. Lauda, the sitting champ, held a healthy lead in points by mid-season. Then, on Germany's Nurburgring racetrack, Lauda had a horrific crash, suffering serious burns to his face and lungs. While Lauda fought for his life in the hospital, Hunt made up points in race after race. Thus, after only six weeks, with his skin grafts still oozing, Niki Lauda got back behind the wheel to defend his lead and his championship. The two rivals were able to duke it out to a legendary finish of the season.

“Rush” surprisingly doesn't show all that much car racing action. The focus is on the rivalry and how it serves as a goad to higher achievement. In one sense, Hunt bore some share of blame for Lauda's accident. Lauda had tried to convince the other drivers to cancel the race due to wet conditions, but Hunt pushed for the race to go on. Lauda doesn't express bitterness towards Hunt over that, however, as he says it was seeing Hunt win races in his absence that drove him to heal faster. Sometimes an enemy is just what we need to motivate us.

Like any great sports film, “Rush” works by transcending the sport to find what is universal and human. The racing scenes, in truth, are only marginally interesting. It's the personalities of the racers and their relationship that makes this excellent film so gripping. In real life, Hunt and Lauda's rivalry was always friendlier than as depicted in the film, but otherwise the movie is very historically accurate for a story with such a great narrative arc. I'm not much of a racing fan, and I wasn't sure about watching “Rush,” but Ron Howard, with help from superb performances by Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Bruhl (Lauda), has made a thrilling movie that anyone can enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) *

What a letdown! Based on reviews and a very cool premise, I had high expectations for “Snowpiercer.” Turns out it isn't even mediocre. This crapfest displays a mix of bad acting, gratuitous violence, and lame plot that suggest an utter contempt for the audience.

The cool premise is this: In the near future, humanity attempts to fight global warming by releasing some sort of chemical into the atmosphere. The stuff works too well, turning earth into a frozen wasteland. The only humans who survive are those who crowded onto an indestructible, globe-spanning train. It's never clear whether the train was built as a refuge from the cold or was already in existence. In any event, the last couple of hundred humans exist on this train, which circles the globe once a year, in a tightly regimented society. The folks at the front have good food and lux accommodations, while those at the back are overcrowded and filthy. Those at the front eat steak, while in the back they eat unappetizing protein bars and are given just enough to survive. Even worse, guards from the front come occasionally to kidnap some of the children for unknown purposes.

Under the leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the tail-dwellers plan a revolt. From the train's prison, they free a security expert, who helps them open the doors between cars one-by-one, as they work their way forward to the engine.

It was that intriguing premise that drew me to the film, and for the first twenty minutes or so, the film seems poised to deliver on it, as the tail-dwellers plan their attack. The film gradually falls apart, however, as neither the back story nor the actions of the characters make any sense. Even the concept of the train-as-refuge turns out to make no sense. I had assumed that this must be some super-fast train that circled the globe in one day to stay in the sun and avoid the devastatingly cold nights. It turns out, though, that it circles the globe once a year, which means there is no conceivable advantage to having the train keep moving. Even if we make the ludicrous assumption that this train is more resistant to the cold and weather than all the military bunkers and bomb shelters on earth, it would still make more sense to just park the thing somewhere near the equator at a low altitude, and just run the engines to generate heat and electricity.

Even if we accept this moving train concept, the characters' actions also exceed the limits of my suspension-of-disbelief. Curtis witnessed cannibalism in the early days on the train, but he acts horrified to learn that the protein squares are made from bugs. After some of Curtis's fighters are hurt in a huge melee, he leaves almost his entire fighting force behind to continue the advance. When he finally gets his hands on some guns and live ammo, he squanders them ridiculously. The security expert's daughter turns out to be clairvoyant, but after figuring that out,Curtis makes no further use of her skill. It's a dumb plot that forces the characters to do dumb things.

I wish I could point to a single performance as providing a bright spot in the film, but in this turd, even good actors look bad. Ed Harris plays Willard, the God-like conductor, but his villain-explains-himself scene comes off as a weak parody of itself. Tilda Swinton plays her character with such bizarre mannerisms that she is hard to watch. Even Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is made to look ridiculous.

“Snowpiercer” left me with many unanswered questions, but the biggest one is, “Why did so many reviewers like this movie?” Yes, the film is “symbolic,” holding a dark mirror up to our own society of haves and have-nots, but so many other movies have done it so much better. If you want social commentary, watch Fritz Lang's “Metropolis” or the original “Planet of the Apes.” Unless you will be satisfied with a lame, half-baked action-fest, don't board the “Snowpiercer.”

1 star out of 5

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ***1/2

Wes Anderson is known for making the kind of film you will like if you like his kind of film. Starting with “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” his storytelling has relied on exaggerated, even bizarre characters. As he moved into the years of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” his characters, costumes, and backgrounds became increasingly weird. Anderson's is a world of bright, primary colors and bright, primary people. Everything is so removed from real life that at times it is hard for me to get invested. His films remain watchable, however, due to his sense of humor and his compassion for the absurdity of the human condition.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a Wes Anderson movie, and you can largely predict whether you will like it based on your response to his other films. This belongs in the top half of his works, largely due to excellent work by Ralph Fiennes, who plays Monsieur Gustave, the perfectionist concierge of the titular hotel. M. Gustave demands the best from himself and his staff, taking time off from his work only to bed the rich, elderly women who frequent the hotel. He isn't a gold-digger. He seems to view making love to these women as part of providing the absolute best experience for clients of the Grand Budapest. In any event, he likes older women. As he explains to his young protege, Zero (Tony Revolori), “When you're young, it's all steak filet, but when you get older you have to go for the cheaper cuts, which, anyway, I find more flavorful.”

When one of these wealthy dowagers dies, leaving M. Gustave a priceless painting, he is thrust into a web of intrigue with her greedy children (including Adrien Brody), an assassin (Willem Dafoe), and the police (including Ed Norton). Gustave is framed for the woman's murder, escapes with fellow prisoner Harvey Keitel, then crisscrosses the country to prove his innocence.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is action-packed, but it is the kind of brightly-colored, Keystone Cop action that dominates Anderson's movies. I was rarely on the edge of my seat. The action and characters were too cartoonish for me to suspend disbelief. I couldn't shake the feeling that all these excellent actors had gotten together for a dinner party, raided the closets for costumes, and were putting on a silly play for the entertainment of the other guests.

The real charm of the film is its story-within-a story framework. The movie starts with a young woman approaching the grave of a famous writer, then sitting down to read one of his books. That book is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in it the writer describes how he visited the hotel in its decline and met its mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa is the aged Zero, and he relays to the writer the tale of his adventure with M. Gustave, who wound up owning the hotel and ultimately passing it on to his loyal protege Zero/Moustafa. Intertwined with the tale is the tragic story of Mr. Moustafa's one, great love. Having these characters look back on the story from different perspectives over the decades lends the tale a poignancy that belies its cartoonish look. In this light, the stylized look of the film represents the way our memories look to us, and these tragicomic characters seem very real and beautifully human.

3.5 stars out of 5