There aren’t too many things more damaging to the human psyche than the abuse of trust, power or love, but what if any or all of those things aren’t even earned? Director Bennett Miller’s (Capote, Moneyball) new film, Foxcatcher, is a searing examination of what can happen when power, trust and love are allowed to be bought and then are not only abused, but perverted, twisted and then maliciously destroyed. Foxcatcher is very similar to Capote and Moneyball, Miller’s other two films, in that it is a deliberate and thoughtful film that takes you deep inside its subject matter, delivering indelible performances in a slow-moving but fascinating film that will go far this awards season, and rightfully so.
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A friend who knew I saw Interstellar last night asked me how it was, but before I could say a word, she held up her hand and said, “if you mention Gravity, I’m out.” See, she and I have been having the Gravity debate for a year now, as it was my favorite movie of 2013, and she hated it. So I stopped, looked at her and burst out laughing. I laughed not because there is much similarity at all between Alfonso Cuaron’s blockbuster space disaster movie and Christopher Nolan’s ambitious and highly-anticipated futuristic space travel mindbender epic—besides being set mostly in space. I laughed because if you are looking to escape the word gravity, Interstellar is the wrong movie to see. Yes, gravity, as in the force that keeps us all connected to Earth, as opposed to randomly floating out in space. Gravity is one of many scientific concepts that director Christopher Nolan, along with co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, explores throughout Interstellar, a magnificently mind-blowing adventure through space and time that will make you feel at moments like you are watching Spielberg, at other moments Kubrick, but, in the end, it is Nolan who leaves his unique imprint on this massively idea-driven film that will not only expand your mind, but will expand everything else you have ever known (and didn’t even know you didn’t know).
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I used to wonder what kind of person watches The Jerry Springer Show. Or buys the National Inquirer. Then I realized that it’s not a far stretch from those gutter-dweller tabloid turds to the so-called mainstream entertainment that surrounds us now, from TMZ to the Kardashians to People magazine to E! television. Even I bask in the red carpet glam every Oscar night. It’s shameful to admit, but these things exist because people watch. A lot of people.
Human nature is a voyeuristic one, a curious one, one that rubbernecks on the freeway when passing an accident, one that gossips about friends, one that wants to know every detail of the lives of the rich and famous, one that longs to feel compassion and sorrow and joy and angst—to feel anything and everything about themselves and others. They say money makes the world go ‘round, but emotion is what makes the spinning matter. But there’s an interesting thing that’s been learned about these emotions in a group setting. The emotion that seems to be the most powerful one of all, more than love, compassion—even happiness—is fear. And guess what? Those wonderful “entertainment” shows we have become addicted to? Yup, they found a way to harness that fear. They just call it something else: news. And the closer to home the fearful news hits, the higher your heartrate goes, and, in turn, the more intense your interest. Interest=ratings. Ratings=money. And the world keeps spinning.
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Last year at this time, we were talking about Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s virtuoso cinematic achievement which went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Visual Effects. Hard to believe, but Cuaron’s countryman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) has now upped the ante. Inarritu’s newest feature, Birdman, is itself an exercise in cinematic wizardry, but of a completely different nature and with vastly different effect. What made you hold your breath in Gravity makes you breathe faster in Birdman.
Birdman will make headlines for being the “comeback” of Michael Keaton, but it should be talked about for so much more. Keaton plays a washed-up actor who was famous for playing a superhero in the movies, but is now trying to revive his career by writing, directing and starring in a play on Broadway. The movie takes place almost entirely backstage at a Broadway theatre and is so incredibly meta your head will spin. Between Michael Keaton actually being a semi-washed up actor who really did play a superhero in his career, to us watching a movie about a play, and then all the actors doing nothing except talking about acting—this movie gets so inside itself so fast it turns itself inside out before you figure out which way is up.
And then you realize that’s exactly the point.
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What are true motivations for success? Money? Career? Fame? Self-respect? Pride? Fear? What motivates an athlete to push him or herself through the pain? What motivates an actor to keep going if they continue to get rejected, time and time again? We all remember the opening of the TV show Fame, right? Debbie Allen’s famously motivational words to her students at the School of the Arts, as they are grinding through her tough dance class: “You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying….in SWEAT!” (See it here.)
When it comes to pop culture, we have seen this time and time again. From Rudy doing everything he has to to make it onto the Notre Dame football field, to Nina Sayers getting her chance to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake to, well, everyone doing everything to get the part in A Chorus Line. Following your passion can be brutal, especially in the arts, when it’s not just your body that takes the pounding, but your soul as well. The latest movie to explore the theme of “how much will you give for your art?” is Whiplash, from writer/director Damien Chazelle, and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
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I’ll make this short and sweet. Brad Pitt’s new movie Fury: pretty good for a war movie, despite the neverending array of war movie clichés that run rampant throughout. Brief synopsis: Brad Pitt plays a U.S. Army tank sergeant in Germany during World War II and the movie follows his tank, its crew and its missions during one very busy day towards the end of the war. The best parts of the movie are when we see the interactions between the tank’s (nicknamed Fury) crew members and the edge-of-your-seat action sequences, which made me realize that, in all the many war movies I’ve seen, I’ve never really seen great tank battle scenes. This movie changes all that. Sadly, though, Fury is held together only by the audience’s desire to see more of these scenes, because the clichés do get tiring after a while and you learn to give up much hope for interesting dialogue or character development. But still the movie held my interest for the 2-plus hour running time, thanks to the fast pace and the nearly universal appeal of the actors. Pitt is serviceable as the lead, no surprises there. The real shock comes in how watchable Shia LaBeouf is, even powerful at times. Logan Lerman and Michael Pena are great as well. But the huge, glaring weak spot is Jon Bernthal, who mumbles and overacts his way through every single scene, to the detriment of the film. Thankfully, however, the action scenes and the fast-paced directing by writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) makes Fury a worthwhile experience, if this is your kind of thing. Just don’t expect anything more than a well-made war movie which treads extremely familiar territory.
So here we go. The official kickoff to Oscar season, the first big movie that gets everyone buzzing, with big names, big pedigrees and even bigger expectations. Gone Girl is the latest from acclaimed and beloved director David Fincher, who brought us the dark favorites Se7en, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the near Oscar-misses The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, (not to mention television’s House of Cards) so, naturally, it will be looked on with keen interest. Add to it the fact that it is based on the world-wide smash-hit novel of the same name by author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and you have a doubly built-in audience and fervor for this movie, which seemingly stars Ben Affleck as an afterthought.
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I feel like I could write a treatise on grief as portrayed in pop culture. First, I survived (suffered?) through the entire season of HBO’s much-talked-about show The Leftovers, a series that posits the question: what would happen if 2 percent of the world’s population vanished all at once, with no explanation? It is about those left behind, specifically those in one small town in upstate New York. The Leftovers has been setup to be a little bit of a sci/fi/mystery/thriller/psychological drama in the spirit of Lost, especially considering it shares the same creator, Damon Lindelof. But I’ve found the most fascinating parts of The Leftovers not to be the mystery elements, but the straightforward humanistic elements of grief the show puts forward based on the main plot point that drives the show. The essence? Everybody deals with grief differently. The Leftovers shows just how differently. It’s an intense, depressing, dark, heavy and sometimes maddening show, but that thread that runs through it is so rich, it makes for a visceral viewing experience—at least for me.
And now, here comes The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Following on the heels of The Skeleton Twins, a movie about the bonds of two people through depression, and right after a summer watching The Leftovers, this movie felt like the grand finale of the Bummer Trilogy. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is about a married couple who are torn apart by tragedy and are trying to figure out, individually and together, if they can ever get whole again.
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As an only child, I am aware that I have the tendency to overly idealize and romanticize the sibling bond. No matter how many friends-with-brothers-and/or-sisters try to set me straight, I just can’t help but dream longingly about the one connection in the world I know I will never have, wondering how totally awesome it must be to have a lifelong bond like that. Of course, everyone with a sibling out there just read that and probably wants to call me up right now and tell me all their brother/sister horror stories and how they would have given ANYTHING to have been an only child.
The grass is always greener.
And that’s the great thing about the new movie The Skeleton Twins. It’s a movie about that sibling bond and it shows both the horrors and what I always imagined to be the ideals of that relationship in a little movie that packs a big emotional wallop but offers enough laughs to make the heartaches worthwhile.
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I honestly haven’t decided yet if Richard Linklater is a secret genius or just a guy still stuck in film school trying desperately to complete that last assignment that he never got right. But, either way, I’ve got to give the guy credit. While other directors in Hollywood seem to be chasing fame, status, awards or money, Linklater seems to be legitimately interested in his craft.
Last year saw the completion of Linklater’s 17-year, 3-film odyssey with the release of Before Midnight, the final act of a love story that began in 1995, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. That trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and the finale in 2013, gained masses of fans around the world and earned director/co-writer Linklater cult status as a critics darling—they loved the fact that he broke the rules, did something different, expanded his thinking and gave the audience a fuller, more complete story, one that was rich and full and about the human condition—about love, about life.
Granted, I wasn’t as bowled over by these movies as most of the critics were, but I was taken by them. I loved getting to know the characters intimately, seeing their relationship blossom, take hold, grow and eventually fizzle, as most relationships do. It was relatable, it was real. The writing was powerful, the acting was nuanced and memorable, particularly Delpy’s. There’s nothing to speak of cinematically, but that’s not the point. The point is in the essence, the heart and the soul. I didn’t start with these movies in 1995, unfortunately, so I can’t say what it was like to wait 17 years for the conclusion of the story, but I know there were a lot of people who did and all I can say is, wow, that’s impressive. That’s something for a filmmaker to connect with his audience that way. And good for him—to have that vision, that commitment and dedication to his project, while also being a sought-after Hollywood director—he directed several other movies during the span, including the hits School of Rock (2003) and Bad News Bears (2005).
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