Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Birdman, The Babadook, Citizenfour, Rosewater Reviews

Dir. Alejandro González Iñarritu
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I always leave impressed when I see a movie shot (or seemingly shot) in one take. There's something about it that takes so much skill and dedication to pull off both behind and in front of the camera, it's almost like watching a ballerina dance around a stage, perfectly hitting every twirl and kick or whatever the heck they do, I don't know jack about the ballet. Alejandro González Iñarritu's latest film, Birdman, takes the "single shot" approach made popular from such films as Rope and Russian Ark and crafts a dark comedy/backstage drama/Hollywood satire around it, all while bringing Michael Keaton out of wherever he's been hiding all these years, giving him a solid role to chew on. The film is about washed up superhero actor Riggan Thompson (Keaton), who hopes a new, ambitious Broadway production will be the spark to revitalize his career. But when one of his lead actors is injured by a falling light, he hires the unpredictable, eccentric Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to take his place, whose behavior could ruin the entire production, all while he has to deal with his resentful daughter (Emma Stone), a crazy girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his personal existential crisis of forever being associated with "Birdman."

This movie couldn't run a clearer parallel to Keaton's own career, which has always lived under the shadow of the Bat. The movie manifests Riggan's insecurity by having a constant "Birdman" voiceover, proving that even in his inner monologue he can't escape this character. One problem that's prevalent in Iñarritu's work is an overbearing sense of self-seriousness (21 Grams, Biutiful), so Birdman is a breath of fresh air as the tone is overall a little lighter - though it still bears the marking of a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory picture. Zach Galifianakis is great as Riggan's manager, and you can tell Norton had a lot of fun playing a real asshole (which is ironically what the media has said about Norton in the past). But with the (in my mind) obnoxious voiceover, the heavy-handed themes, and a handful of inexplicable scenes meant just to get a "rise" out of the audience (Naomi Watts suddenly makes out with another woman backstage for no discernible reason), I wasn't fully on board as a lot of critics were.

The movie also suffers from "two ending" syndrome, which is when the perfect opportunity for a credit scroll to happen is replaced by another scene, in this case an ending which I really did not like (I would undoubtedly give this movie a higher rating if it had ended at the "first" ending). Its "messages" were so didactic and in-your-face, and some of the scenes felt awkward and out of place (hey, that rhymed). Nevertheless, on a technical level this movie was awe-inspiring and the cast does a fantastic job, especially Keaton and Emma Stone. Overall, I appreciated this movie more than I enjoyed it, but it was still somewhat entertaining. This is truly an "actors" movie, as the long takes give a theatrical sense to the performances (there were no "cut aways"), and somehow Iñarritu was able to still inject it with so much life; the camera is almost never static, it's always maneuvering around. An energetic, offbeat, fantastical dark comedy that unfortunately suffers from a few too many "Iñarritu-isms."

Rating: B

The Babadook
Dir. Jennifer Kent
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Scariest. Pop-Up Book. Ever. The Babadook, an Australian horror film that was met to great acclaim at this past Sundance Film Festival, was touted by horror maestro William Friedkin (The Exorcist) as the most terrifying movie ever made. Shot on an independent budget and directed by first-time feature director Jennifer Kent, based on her 2005 short film MONSTER, the movie is about a quite troubled mother. Amelia (Essie Davis), widowed after a car crash, is scraping by with her son Sam (Noah Wiseman) as she spends sleepless days working in a dementia ward for the elderly and taking care of her troublemaking kid, whose fascination with weapons and constant remarks about some "monster" bring endless anxiety into her life. Even though it's been seven years, Amelia still hasn't gotten over the death of her husband, and holds a slight resentment towards her son, who was born the same day as the crash. And that's all of her problems BEFORE a black demon hell-spawn is unleashed from a freaky not-safe-for-children(-or-adults) pop-up book. Whether the entire film is simply a metaphor for handling grief (not so well), or if we're meant to actually believe the supernatural events occurred, The Babadook is not just a great horror film, it's just a great film period.

Essie Davis is absolutely amazing in this movie. I really sympathized with her and her son's hopelessness, with no one, not even her sister or the school, willing to help. She starts out a somewhat broken down woman to begin with, but things progessively get worse and worse, and the sense of doom I felt was comparable to that of a Rosemary's Baby or an Exorcist (though this isn't quite as scary as those films...sorry Mr. Friedkin). I also thought the kid did a great job, especially with such emotionally heavy subject matter as this. The themes reminded me of a lot of other horror films, like Mama, that deal with the fears of parenthood and a similar feeling of being unable to control your life, but The Babadook's truly discomforting atmosphere and craft make it stand out among its genre peers.

The overall look and design of this film was spectacular, and added to the nightmarish quality of the picture. Like I said, that picture book is terrifying (it reminded me a little of the 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' books), and the way the film uses the color black throughout is a nice touch to add to the macabre tone of the movie, if a bit distractingly over-done. The entire time I felt "right there" with Amelia and her struggle, and I think this was a quite impressive first feature for Kent; plus it's nice to see a female director again finally! The climax maybe does go a little overboard, but this is one of the better supernatural horror flicks I've seen in a while.

Rating: B+

Dir. Laura Poitras
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Watching Citizenfour feels like you're in a room where history is being made before your eyes. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked information that the American government has extensively spied on its citizens, as well as other countries, through mind-bogglingly huge databases of "metadata" (information from e-mail, phones, etc) with very little oversight. Knowingly putting his life in danger, Snowden released this information on principle alone - thinking that the American public deserved to know what was going on and to be able to challenge it. Whether or not you consider Snowden's whistle-blowing to be heroic or problematic, his actions have no doubt brought to light some major issues we have to consider regarding our privacy, and will likely be an incident "for the history books." With Citizenfour, we get a first-hand account of what went down in that Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden sought refuge, and the documentary brilliantly plays out like a spy-espionage thriller.

While most documentaries (especially those with subject matter this important), stick to purely capturing the moments, director Laura Poitras injects the events with a palatable state of paranoia, where even the hotel room phone is a source of dread. I may not fully understand the scope of exactly what Snowden leaked, but this film does a great job at encapsulating the feelings, tension, and media frenzy that slowly built over the course of a year surrounding Snowden and the journalists close to him. To have such intimate footage of such a big story alone is priceless, but the fact that it was entertaining as well is the icing on the cake.

Rating: A-

Dir. Jon Stewart
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Jon Stewart may have been responsible for an innocent man subjected to 118 days in prison. Oops. Based on the true story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, Rosewater is more or less Jon Stewart's directorial debut and/or atonement for what happened. Bahari participated in a Daily Show segment where correspondent Jason Jones interviewed him, and in a joking way called Bahari a "terrorist." Unfortunately, the Iranian government, who wouldn't know comedy if it hit them in the groin with a football, believed the fake interview to be real, and framed Maziar as an undercover spy. Whisked away from his mother and pregnant wife, he was subjected to torture interrogations, even though all he did was capture b-roll for the upcoming [rigged] election in his home country. This film was upsetting to me, and felt all too real in how stubborn the government was. It's a well acted, well put together film and to me proves that Stewart has more talent than just reading the news in a funny New Jersey accent.

Mexican-turned-Iranian Gael García Bernal plays Bahari, and really drives home the "innocence" factor - he's just a normal, average, likable dude who's thrown into a horrible situation, evoking Hitchcock's "wrong man" characters. But the real stand-out performer for me was Kim Bodnia, playing Bahari's interrogator. The way he creates such a hopeless situation for the lead character was intense and made me want to throw a shoe at him. I just wanted him to listen to the man: He didn't do anything! It totally reminded me of high school (I was once told by some woman that I apparently started a fight in the lunchroom and was threatened with "police action," when in actuality I was just minding my own business, hating life with my gross chicken patty sandwich). Of course, most of his interrogations have little to do with him actually being a spy, and more about his video footage making the government look bad, but Bodnia doesn't really seem to even take that hint. He's a stubborn, intimidating dummy who I loved to hate. Rosewater works at its best when the actors are just playing off each other, but I think Stewart's directorial "voice" has yet to develop, and certain montage scenes of news footage and floating, 3D hashtags took me out of the movie (yes, that happens in the movie...giant floating hashtags...). But the performances alone are solid, and if you don't already know the story, it's definitely an eye-opener for this current situation of journalists being kept in prison. Jon, you did justice to this story, and you're forgiven, sir.

Rating: B

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