It begins. The 2015 awards season took its first major steps forward last week, following several weeks of various critics associations making their top picks, with the announcement of nominees for this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes.
The nominees for the 21st SAG awards were announced Wednesday morning and are as follows for film:
For a minute there, it looked as if horror was lost on 2014. When your biggest offerings in the genre are Ouija and Annabelle, it might as well be a sign to pack it in.
Enter The Babadook.
Coming from Australian director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is this year’s diamond in the rough that stands apart. The film is not only a marvel of showcasing creeping terror, it’s grounded in a highly resonant story that spotlights one of life’s most destructive monsters of all: depression.
Seven years after the accident that took her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her rambunctious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose behavior becomes increasingly aggressive. One night Amelia unwittingly reads to Samuel from a bedtime storybook he brandishes called “Mister Babadook.” After discovering the book’s frightening content, Amelia is unsuccessful at keeping thoughts of the frightening titular monster from Samuel’s mind as he obsesses over it. Maybe it’s for good reason. Shortly after, Amelia finds herself slowly but surely stalked by unexplained visions and influences that make her a danger to her son.
In a landscape of “jump scare a minute” horror features, it’s beyond refreshing to see a film that finds power in building up sheer atmospheric terror. Pitch black corners and tricks of the light take precident over things popping out at the screen. Kent skillfully builds tension in several scenes through editing trickery and sound choices so chilling they cause immediate goosebumps. Reality bends to levels of uncertainty that are wild and upsetting.
While the terror of The Babadook is almost overwhelming sometimes, it’s the restraint the filmmakers show in handling the titular creature that keeps the fear ballooning. The Babadook itself is almost never seen in a complete way, often covered in shadow with only the briefest glimpse of the monster’s disturbing face. Truthfully, it’s more terrifying to know that the creature is present than actually seeing every detail of it.
What makes The Babadook so special, however, is that the overt horror aspects are secondary to the real human emotion that guides the story. Even more than lanky monsters that hide in the dark, this film shows these supernatural events as subsidiary to the tragic lifestyle Amelia finds herself in, day and day out. So often throughout we feel her hopeless frustration in raising an unruly child alone and it’s unnerving when we feel that she may not love her child… and what that may mean in the end. This being is literally feeding off her grief and depression, becoming a force that so clearly can lead to child abuse in many situations. Can you say “metaphor”?
Even when familiar trappings spring up, such as the mother becoming possessed by the evil spirit, the overall thoughtfulness of the film makes it a cut above the rest. This is the litter chiller that could. It’s harrowing in its drama and deeply unsettling in its tone, leaving an eerie feeling that, like the book says about the Babadook, you just can’t get rid of.
Two halves are better than one. This idea seems to have become white noise for Hollywood producers and that means no literary adaptation is safe. The trend of splitting final books in a series into multiple films has been, in a nutshell, creatively disastrous — exemplified by the uneven Harry Potter finale and the criminally overstuffed Hobbit films.
Things were looking up for the Hunger Games series, with director Francis Lawrence coming off delivering a spectacular entry that lives up to the hype with Catching Fire. Alas, good will alone can’t save the series’ last installment from the dreaded split, as Mockingjay – Part 1 comes up largely empty on content, making for the dullest entry in the saga of Katniss Everdeen yet.
After the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taking refuge in the secret underground world of District 13, once thought to be bombed out of existence. There, publicity master Plutarch Heavensby (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and stoney district president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) are intent on molding Katniss into the face of the rebellion. Katniss, meanwhile, is more hung up on crying over Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the Capitol’s hostage, who is being used to denounce the rebellion. Once she witnesses the Capitol’s capacity for cruelty and with a promise to rescue Peeta in place, Katniss embraces her destiny as the Mockingjay.
The general justification behind splitting a final installment into two movies is that it allows for a more detail and closer adherence to the book. True to form, Mockingjay – Part 1 basks in capturing the intricacies from its source material, taking things slow to catch everything it can.The unfortunate result is a film that has, realistically, about an hour of good content stretched to two hours, stuffing filler in where it can and killing all pacing.
There is promise in the blocks of the film that do work, with a satisfying look at how this rebellion is fought with publicity as much as combat and a small handful of interesting action sequences and plot turns, including the destruction of a dam.
However, if any book in the series was in need of an overhaul, it would be Mockingjay. In cribbing from and expanding on its source material to the degree needed for a two-parter, the film never finds the visual and emotional pop that we saw in the last story. This can undoubtedly be attributed to so much of the movie consisting of people in identical grey jumpsuits having prolonged conversations in a dingy, underground bunker.
One thing that these movies had going for them through thick and thin was that Katniss was, for the most part, a relatable character and Jennifer Lawrence sold it. Here, even our steadfast protagonist reaches the point of unlikable. For a series that had wisely put the love triangle aspect in the background, Katniss’ whole purpose here seems to be to juggle her clearly-interested-friend Gale at an arms length while breaking down to an ever-increasing state of weeping. Every action this character takes here seems to revolve around her fake boyfriend, Peeta, as opposed to, say, the good of others in this rebellion. Unfortunately, in a war between fascists, she’s the best we’ve got to root for — if only this movie didn’t make that such a pessimistic prospect.
There’s no doubt that the Hunger Games films are in better hands with Lawrence as director than Gary Ross, but even the I Am Legend helmer’s skills aren’t enough to avoid being hobbled by an unnecessary split to two parts. After a non-conclusion, Mockingjay – Part 1 ends on a passive cliffhanger, befitting of such a passive movie. Hopefully, Mockingjay will follow the Deathly Hallows pattern of the final part going out with a bang, but for now Part 1 is a film that can’t sustain itself on just an hour of content and doesn’t come close to justifying it’s existence as a separate film. In the long run, it’s the equivalent of a big shoulder shrug.
At the risk of sounding like a Nolanite, let me just say that Christopher Nolan is one of the most respectable filmmakers around. Outside the obvious praise of him giving us the hands-down best series of Batman films to date, the hit director is commendable for intelligent, mind-bending stories exploring science and psychology, as well as his preference for practical effects and shooting on traditional 35 mm film.
A resurgent dustbowl has wiped out all viable crops on Earth except corn, and the future of the human race looks grim. When former pilot and current farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives mysterious coordinates from an unseen specter, the struggling father is led to a secret NASA operation headed by a former colleague to look to answers beyond our solar system. Using a not-too-distant wormhole, a plan has been put in motion to send a team to survey far-away worlds that can sustain human life — a plan they need Cooper to pilot. Leaving his devastated daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) behind, he embarks for strange new worlds, but can he ever make it back to Earth and if so, will it even be in his children’s lifetime?
Much like Inception, there’s no lack of ambition at play with Interstellar. Space travel isn’t a daring new topic in the film world but the details of Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s story are. It’s beyond admirable that these two can craft an engaging (well, mostly…more on that later), accessible story using high-concept theories of hard science and, for the most part, make them work in their favor.
As per usual, Nolan’s look and sound of Interstellar is top-notch. Despite splitting from mainstay cinematographer Wally Pfister this time out, the look of Interstellar is breathtaking. Space is a surreal experience here, as distant worlds and otherworldly anomalies are brilliantly rendered on screen. If any film is destined to emulate the elaborate visual trippiness of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on screen in this generation, this is it.
Likewise, frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer largely ditches the booming bass drums and low brass wall of sound for this score in favor of a more spiritual, majestic sound — complete with pipe organ — that is invaluable to the emotion of the film.
On the topic of emotion, there’s a significant amount at the heart of this film. Nolan is a master of ratcheting up the tension, providing overwhelming stakes to Cooper’s mission (like, say, the fate of the planet) and dire consequences for each mistake.
At least part of the reason this works is because of the bond between Cooper and Murph, a more traditional motivation that grounds the movie quite well. Nolan likes to keep his players cool and collected much of the time and McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain oblige, but each are given notable opportunities to cut loose that hit home.
So, if all these elements of the film work so well — including an entertaining final act that starts as a thriller and ends diving into full-blown science fiction after several overt hints — why doesn’t the movie as a whole feel overwhelmingly good? It might be due to the fact that there’s a lot of movie going on with Interstellar; too much. To generalize, a great many 3-hour films don’t justify their runtime and Interstellar, at 2 hours and 49 minutes, falls squarely into that camp.
The final cut of the movie suffers from frequent sections of dragging while the script is in desperate need of doctoring to smooth out the extended sections of sciencey exposition and explanation, not to mention the somewhat episodic nature of the story as the team visits new worlds and deals with the hurdles each brings. It’s like Inception but not as good as Inception.
In fact, smoothing out is the perfect description of what this story itself desperately needs, especially in editing the script to trim the bloat and get the movie to an acceptable length. There’s a lot to cover with the film’s current story and one can’t help but wonder if trimming one plot thread, planet, concept or character would have helped. Interstellar is a smart film but it’s a rambly smart film when all the pieces are in place for it to be a concise one. Just because the material is epic doesn’t mean the length of the film needs to pump itself up to similar proportions.
Because of this, there’s a really disappointing feel at times in the movie — like you’re being kept at arm’s length investment right at the moment you’re feeling closest. As mentioned, Nolan’s space epic can be completely engrossing in parts but they’re sadly often followed or proceeded by parts that don’t match up.
Far be it to say Interstellar is a bad movie, it’s not. In so many ways it embodies why we go to the movies in the first place: to be transported to far away worlds and see something we’ve never seen before. It even throws in the bonus of making you think a little bit. Sure, there’s a frequent feeling that this good movie could have been great with more care in scripting and pacing but Nolan’s latest succeeds on visceral entertainment (a screening in true IMAX is a must for film junkies), performances and admiration for making a film about relativity interesting.
It may not be the knockout success akin to some of his earlier films or what some of us may have been expecting, but it’s far from something to turn your nose up at.
It takes balls to revolve an entire film around a character who is downright unlikable. In a landscape of easily accessible protagonists and cheery goals and motivations, Nightcrawler spits in the face of joy and comfort to deliver a hypnotizing portrait of a man who has left morals behind.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) may believe in hard work and forward advancement in the business world but that hasn’t changed the fact that he is a petty thief, stealing manhole covers and chain link fences when not busy assaulting security officers for their watches. Lou finds his avenue to success, however, when he falls into the world of “nightcrawling,” videotaping latenight accidents, murders and robberies for local Los Angeles TV news. Once in, Lou will stop at nothing to reach the top, abandoning all morality while manipulating coworkers and taking out the competition.
Nightcrawler is a creepingly uncomfortable viewing experience all thanks to Jake Gyllenhall going the extra mile to be, well, the ultimate creep. Appearance-wise, the actor is gaunt to the point of being almost unrecognizable and exudes unsettling focus and intensity, while first time writer/director Dan Gilroy crafts a character on paper that is repulsive but mildly admirable for his tenacity — something Gyllenhaal jumps all over in performance. The story expertly unfurls the depths of Bloom’s ruthless nature and why he does what he does to the point where all expectations of him doing the right thing disappear.
Everything pivots on the study of Bloom and Gyllenhaal fully delivers on his end of the slimy deal. Gilroy manages more than alright on his own as well, producing a smart script that keeps you thinking, whether it be about the effects of a recession and limited job market, racial selectiveness in crime reporting and the “if it bleeds, it leads” desperation that some media embraces. Gilroy’s story is the sturdy bedrock on which all of Gyllenhaal’s character work can build upon (props as well to Rene Russo, tactfully playing the similarly dubious and enabling but unsuspecting news director, Nina.)
As an unabashed character piece, it admittedly takes Nightcrawler a bit to get moving. The first 45 minutes of the film is all character work that, while good, feels a tad aimless. It’s after then that the movie finds its plot and puts its character inspection to good use.
Nightcrawler acts like a passing car wreck you can’t turn away from, while remaining a pristine example of filmmaking. Gyllenhaal’s unsettling performance and Gilroy’s cynical script make for one of the seediest, thoughtful film experiences this year that will keep you pondering long after.
As someone who devoted most of their formative years to music, I can say with confidence that the music making process can get intense. Tempers can easily be tested and the potential for embarrassment is always on the cusp. Lifelong insecurities come from this stuff.
With Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle understands that undercurrent of emotion (himself a former music student) and mines it for all it’s worth. The story of a jazz drumming student pushed to his absolute limit by a ruthless instructor, Whiplash is a far more intense experience than a majority of thrillers and a kinetic, disturbing look at the lengths one will go to reach their potential.
War is hell but music can be pretty close. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young prospective drum student at one of New York’s premiere jazz academies. It’s there that he catches the eye of music maestro Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) and is given his big break into the world of top-tier jazz performance. Little does he realize that Fletcher sees greatness in him, which means he’s about to launch a full-scale psychological campaign against Andrew to bring that greatness forward.
It’s compliment that can’t bestowed on nearly enough movies but it absolutely fits here: Whiplash is never boring. Chazelle delivers a taught, skillful film that asks questions about what it takes to achieve greatness and whether greatness through adversity is the right path. The game of war between Teller and Simmons is amazing to witness, with each subsequent moment of the movie feeling like it’s reaching the razor’s edge. Chazelle knows that in the world of competitive music even the most innocent mistake, like misplacing a music folder or not adequately practicing come rehearsal time, can cause a panic attack — something he very well may be out to incite.
Of course, so much of that is due to the cast. Teller ditches the smarmy Vice Vaughn impression and plays a real, layered, driven individual. Through him we see both the triumphs and sacrifices that come with going for the gold and are asked “Is it worth this punishment?” Or rather, would I literally bleed as much as he currently is for my craft?
Which brings us to Simmons, who is nothing short of a knockout as Fletcher. The actor is constantly riding the line of being ridiculous in his abrasiveness, but by god it works. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the writers have given him a very difficult, duplicitous character to work with; after doing something reprehensible, we’ll see hints of humanity and maybe even empathize with him, which is usually followed by him doing something every more appalling. Simmon’s performance as this battering ram of a person, understandable in purpose but deplorable in methods, is a standout.
Equal if not greater praise has to be given to the editing of Whiplash for keeping things constantly on the point of panic. Jazz is alive in the very fiber of this film’s being. The big band performance sequences are some of the most comprehensive, memorable portrayals of music performance put to screen thanks to the deliberate, mathematical way in which they’re put together. Maybe the sequences themselves come close to being long in the tooth, much like Simmons’ performance, but they always hit the right note by the end. The effect is absolutely heart-racing.
It’s stunning how lean and mean (emphasis on the latter) Chazelle’s sophomore effort is. Its universal themes are explored in depth without being heavy handed, the performances are killer and the intense emotion of the piece pulls you in for good. Simmons’ Fletcher may believe that “good job” is a poisonous phrase, but it’s a vast understatement when it comes to Whiplash.
From the opening drum riff and the very first image of a comet burning bright in the sky, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes it clear that you will be using your brain throughout Birdman. The Mexican director establishes from the get-go that his story of a former Hollywood star grappling to put together a Broadway production will be an “ideas movie.”
True to his word, Birdman is rife with ideas, both thematically and in technical experimentation, that throw caution to the wind and just go for it. As one might expect, some ideas stick and some do not, but among the best of them is the decision to bring in both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton to really show us what they’ve got.
In an effort to escape his image as an aging celebrity, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is writing, producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Apparently the universe has other plans, as Riggan is pushed to his wits end by the antics of a new, difficult costar (Edward Norton), who has set his sights on Riggan’s troubled daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). If that’s not enough, Riggan also must ward off a venomous theatre critic intent on sinking the show, as well as his own impending mental collapse, brought on by the less-than-helpful disembodied voice of the character he made famous, Birdman. Oh, did I mention he may also be developing telekinesis?
At the core of things, Birdman is about Riggan’s descent into madness, and on that level, the film is well done. It can not be stated enough how much Keaton’s performance adds to the pathos of the movie, with the veteran actor expertly carrying the film. It’s Keaton’s comeback show but Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan all make their presences known. Horrible as it sounds, the plot points of Riggin’s downfall are delightful to watch in that special, dark comedy type of way.
It’s in how Inarritu goes about showing that story that things become a mixed bag. Some gimmicks are actually really cool and others show that the director is too preoccupied with making “art” that the natural intrigue gets lost in favor of manufactured intellectualism. Much as I hate calling things pretentious, this fits the bill in more than one area.
In the camp of things that are awesome, Antonio Sanchez’s 100 percent drum kit score (barring just a few classical soundtrack interludes) pays off, flooding the film with improvisational street beats that marry the film’s spastic psyche with the rhythms of New York City.
Perhaps the biggest trick Innaritu tries to pull off is the illusion that Birdman is one long, continuous camera take. While it sounds awesome in theory (especially considering Gravity‘s Emmanuel Lubezki handles the cinematography), the trick works amazingly for scenes with a lot going on, bobbing and weaving in between different character actions, then often fails in the slower sections of the story, leaving in the vacuums of momentum that editing could have rightfully done away with. By the end, most of the film’s pacing is shot.
Outside the main dilemma of Riggan’s fall from grace, Innaritu and his co-writers have a lot to say on the state of film vs. theatre, criticism, relevancy in the modern age, etc., but it too often feels just like a superficial look at these ideas (better than nothing, I guess). Character nuances are spelled out plainly in monologues, rather than shown naturally — again blurring the line between cinema and theatre for the worst.
And where would the film be without a helping of magical realism, highlighted beautifully by Riggan’s zany hallucination of Birdman himself, taunting the actor to abandon his quest for artistic integrity with lots of ‘splosions, which audiences apparently eat up. It’s a fun sequence and the most bombastic moment of an otherwise downplayed area of the movie.
Birdman is worth the price of admission alone in watching Keaton and his fellow co-stars do their thing. And while some of Innaritu’s artistic nuances definitely work — weird as it sounds — it’s hard not imagine what the film could have been if the filmmakers had played things just ever-so-slightly more straight.