Posts Tagged ‘Michael Keaton’

Oh, what a year, what a lovely year.

Looking back on the last 12 months, it seems like there was a noticeable democratization of quality.

Instead of the traditional creative cluster at the end of the year, when the studios roll out their best and brightest in pursuit of awards attention and holiday box office dollars, each month seemed to coincide with the release of exceptional films, spread across genres, themes and styles.

Here are my selections for the Top 10 films of the year, beginning with a tie for number 10. I admit that it’s cheating, especially since I already named an 11th-best film, but 10 is an arbitrary number, and I make the rules around here.

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10. Love & Mercy (Tie)

Brian Wilson, the heart and soul of The Beach Boys, is a musical genius. And like many great minds, his personal story is a tragedy. He led the Beach Boys through years of critical and commercial success, only to suffer a collapse of his mental health, a reclusive period during which he was taken advantage of by his doctors (one in particular) and finally, a resurgence as a solo artist after years of treatment and recovery.

For Love & Mercy, his story is split in half, with Paul Dano playing the young and declining Wilson while John Cusack (in his best role in years) plays the mature Wilson struggling to put his life back together. It’s a musical, paying tribute to some of the most iconic songs of America’s cultural history, and a thriller, showing the threat of deteriorating mental health and the efforts of Wilson’s second wife to free him from what amounts to a psychiatric captor.

While juxtaposed, the Dano and Cusack segments work in harmony, showing two interpretations of the same man and deviating from the traditional biopic mold of a single actor in various stages of awkward period makeup (looking at you, J. Edgar). It’s an effective choice, anchoring the story in its major time periods for a stronger whole.

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10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Tie)

Olivia Cooke has made a career out of playing doomed characters, first with cystic fibrosis as Emma Decody in Bates Motel and now with leukemia as the titular dying girl in this off-beat dramedy from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

But she’s not the center of the film. That role belongs to Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, ambivalent, high school senior jolted out of stasis after his mother insists he start spending time with Rachel (Cooke). That marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, albeit one with an expiration date as her condition worsens.

The script, by Jesse Andrews, is populated by a village of supporting roles (Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman) that each take a moment to shine and add dimension to the vibrant world that Greg, Earl and Rachel exist in. Despite the cloud of death hanging over every minute, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is bursts with life.

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9. Room

Another film in two parts, Room tells the story of a woman and her son, abducted and trapped for years in a shed, who escape and must build a life in the outside world.

Newcomer Jacob Tremblay is excellent, but the film rests on the very capable shoulders of Brie Larson, whose performance is simultaneous caged animal and numb reserve. While her character smiles sweetly at her son, the audience feels fear, rage, and desperation.

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8. Sicario

In Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) the world is a dark and dangerous place. Opening with an FBI raid in the Arizona desert, the film quickly hops to the U.S./Mexico border where a cat-and-mouse game between government officials and cartel criminals begins with an idealistic (or naive?) agent played by Emily Blunt at the center.

Blunt is fantastic, and surrounded by a nebulous alliance of characters who seem capable at any second of stabbing a knife in her back. It’s a movie of sustained tension, that occasionally vents in small eruptions before a final crescendo that sees the government team storming a network of underground smuggling tunnels.

There’s a lot of politics under the surface of Villeneuve’s film but he keeps them there, always in the subtext but never addressed head on. It’s as though the director has a story to tell, and is too busy or disinterested for big-picture detours, so the audience is left to sort out how they feel after the credits roll.

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7. It Follows

The horror genre has long used its ghosts and killers as a metaphor for sex and morality, punishing its teenage characters for their dalliance and promiscuity.

It Follows shakes up that trope by extending it to its logical extreme, creating a walking (literally) STD that relentlessly pursues its target and, after eliminating them, moves backward up the sexual chain. Add in a retro-neon pulse by director David Robert Mitchell, and you get a film that exists as a singular creation, eerie and disturbing with a self-aware wisdom and seductive visual style.

From its unnerving cold open, to its ambiguous final frame, It Follows is an impeccably paced, minimalist scarer that trades loud and effective shocks with chilling silence.

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6. The Revenant

Last year, director Alejandro González Iñárritu claimed the top spot on my Top 10 with Birdman, the frenzied, sleight-of-hand masterpiece starring Michael Keaton. For 2016, the director is back with his same penchant for visual trickery, albeit in a tonally opposite film compared to last year’s Broadway romp.

Shot using only natural light in the brutal elements of the Canadian wilderness, The Revenant is both a stunningly beautiful and a shockingly brutal tale about resilience and revenge. After being mauled by a grizzly bear, Hugh Glass (a committed, to say the least, Leonardo DiCaprio) crawls, scrapes and fights his way back to society in search of the half-scalped trapper (Tom Hardy) who murdered his son and left Glass to die.

Not enough can be said about the visuals of this film. The camera gazes heavenward to capture ever beam of twilight, and in the process makes every inch traveled by Glass seem daunting. And where most films shoot their action from the outside looking in, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is centered, spinning and sliding impossibly like the eye of God.

By ambition alone, The Revenant is one of the most memorable films of the year. But combined with a well-paced tale and the humane intensity of its lead (a lock for an Oscar nomination, if not the trophy itself) Revenant is also one of the year’s best.

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5. Sleeping With Other People

Simply put: Romantic comedies aren’t supposed to be this good.

The genre has become so mired in recycled blueprints that when a film like Sleeping With Other People comes along, blending laugh-out-loud comedy with pathos-drenched emotional depth, it’s jarring to the senses.

Years after a one-night fling in college, Lainey (Allison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect in New York City as damaged, emotionally-stunted adults. The result is a Harry and Sally-esque platonic friendship that pulls each character out of their respective ruts as they mature.

It sounds simpler than it is, because writer-director Leslye Headland successfully captures lightning in a bottle. Sudeikis is perfect, showing the dramatic range buried beneath his typical shtick, and the chemistry between him and Brie is electric.

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4. The Big Short

A very bad thing happened a few years back; you may have heard of it. In a nutshell, lenders offered increasingly ill-advised mortgages to people with no ability to pay them back, and those junk mortgages where then bundled up together into a big pile of rotting garbage that sunk the U.S. economy.

A few shrewd traders saw the crisis coming and bet against the market. They are the real-life individuals dramatized by The Big Short, which tracks the initial disbelief and later outrage of the small group watching Wall Street fiddle while the economy burns.

It’s heady stuff, made palatable by comedy director Adam McKay, who uses a series of fourth-wall-shattering techniques to add a spoonful of sugar to the economic medicine he’s feeding you. Margot Robbie explains subprime lending from a bubble bath, and a smarmy Ryan Gosling narrates the goings-on, occasionally stopping and addressing the camera to make sure you’re following along at home.

It’s an unconventional choice that works like gangbusters, taking a story about a rag-tag group of investors and turning it into a moral crusade against the as-yet-unpunished people who broke the country.

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3. Ex Machina

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a chess game between three characters: an eccentric inventor, a nebbish programmer, and a seemingly sentient robot.

After winning what he thinks is a vacation at his employer’s isolated laboratory, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he’s been selected to participate in an experiment to validate the artificial intelligence of Eva (Alicia Vikander), a charismatic and beautiful machine created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

It’s a film of nonstop mind-games as allegiances shift, motivations become murky, and every word eschews a hidden meaning. The male characters trade monologues on life and identity while Eva, sultry and suspicious, toys with the idea of gender and personality to get what she wants, whatever that may be.

Few films are able to achieve so much with as little as Ex Machina. From the acting to the story to the aesthetic – a blend of cold, metallic minimalism contrasted against the landscape of Nathan’s rural estate – every ingredient contributes to a feeling of unease and mystery, building to a flawless and unexpected conclusion.

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2. Spotlight

Few institutions are as seemingly invincible as The Catholic Church, but in 2002 a team of Boston journalists made the church bleed. After a year of investigations, the Boston Globe published a series of reports chronicling sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the implied cover-up by church leaders.

That team was Spotlight, one of the oldest-surviving newspaper investigative teams in the country and, in the film version, played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James.

What’s striking about director Tom McCarthy’s film is the drama and tension he’s able to squeeze out of an otherwise pedestrian tale of watchdoggery. The Spotlight team doesn’t have late-night meetings in dark parking garages with sources, chased down alleys by men with guns. Instead they knock doors, dig through archives and make the connections that the world around them was either unable, or unwilling to make.

The film makes a compelling case for the importance of investigative journalism, but it also recognizes the real-life toll that major stories like the sexual abuse scandal take on individuals. While focused on the Boston Globe, Spotlight never forgets that the names and dates refer to real people, damaged by an institution that was intended to be a source of comfort and trust.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road

WITNESS ME!

What separates the cinema from other media is its capacity for eye-popping spectacle. A good book and a good play will give you three-dimensional characters with compelling arcs, but only the movies can provide that AND the sensory thrill of seeing the storytelling magic writ large on the silver screen.

That is the singular beauty of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in George Miller’s dystopian saga about a drifter highwayman perpetually besought by roving bands of warring marauders. It is two hours of sustained chaos, rendered in physics-defying choreography and eschewing computer trickery for the tactile thrill of burning metal and beading sweat.

In Fury Road, the Maxian torch is passed to Tom Hardy, who is abducted and held captive by the War Boys, zealot offspring of the despotic Immortan Joe, who rules from a fortress called The Citadel. When Joe’s slave brides attempt an escape, the War Boys make chase with Max in tow, kicking of a diesel-fueled hunt across the scorched desert wasteland.

Much has been written about how Max takes a secondary role in the film, frequently deferring to the leadership of Charlise Theron’s one-armed Imperator Furiosa. In large part, the success of the film lies with Furiosa, who supplies the desire for freedom and the despair of a dead world next to the stoic and monosyllabic Max.

It’s a brilliant choice, enriching and expanding the world created by Miller in 1979 by moving beyond, without supplanting, the scope of protagonist’s view. Like something out of mythology, Max is a nomad pulled into the struggles of strangers out of a shared need for survival.

It’s larger-than-life, and frequently over the top, but handled deftly with an unflinching eye for production and entertainment value. While other movies may do better at the box office (Star Wars) and at the awards shows (Spotlight), no other film provided as good a reminder for why we go to the movies in 2015 as Mad Max.

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It’s 2001, George  W. Bush has just entered the White House, AOL is advertising on billboards and a massive, decades-long cover up of child molestation by Catholic Priests is about to be exposed by an elite team of journalists.

That’s the setting of Spotlight, which tells the true-life story of the Boston Globe division that spent a year interviewing victims and pouring through church and court records to unravel one of the most insidious conspiracies in modern memory.

It’s a great story, and just like the scandal needed the Globe’s Spotlight team to tell it right, Spotlight, the movie, is the perfect fit to tell the tale on the big screen.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, and I have no illusions about how much these types of films preach to my choir. But even as I attempt to set that bias aside, I maintain that Spotlight is a great piece of drama and not just first amendment porn.

That’s because director Tom McMarthy is working with a perfect cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo Liev Schriber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery. And together they create an incredibly human story about individuals working together to move a mountain.

Because this is Boston, and The Catholic Church (or simply, THE Church), is an institution that is all but immortal. But the Spotlight team made it bleed.

As a piece of drama, Spotlight shouldn’t work. There’s no back-alley meet ups with anonymous sources, no bricks through windows. Even fellow based-on-a-true-story Zodiak had the unspoken possibility that its journalist character could be murdered by the titular killer.

Instead we have long segments in which the characters furrow their brows and run their fingers down the pages of a directory, or type names into a database. It’s not sexy stuff, but Spotlight makes the machinery of a newsroom as compelling as a car chase.

When the pieces start coming together, and the Globe team realizes its not just a handful but dozens of priests with hundreds of victims between them, the script hums with electricity. The audience is treated to a sample of firsthand accounts from survivors, and the knowledge that it’s the tip of a very dark iceberg is handled with deft, unsettling precision by McCarthy.

The film would have been forgiven for playing into the criminal acts of the Catholic Priests. It’s easy to imagine an alt-universe version of Spotlight that plays like an episode of CSI, showing us a string of horrendous crimes as our heroes get closer to the truth.

McCarthy resists that temptation, and the film is better for it. It’s not a story about depravity, it’s a call to action.

Grade: A

*Spotlight opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 20

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I don’t normally make Oscar predictions because I’m terrible at it. I’ve learned that my flaw is an inability to vote with my brain over my heart. So every year I watch my more level-headed friends do the victory dance after being crowned champion of our annual Oscar ballot contest.

But the Oscars are tomorrow, and I’ve been neglecting this blog since Sundance, so I thought I’d cobble together some thoughts on the big six races (because let’s be honest, that all we really care about).

Best Supporting Actor

Ever since I saw Whiplash at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last January, I’ve been waiting for the well-deserved furor to build around J.K. Simmons. His turn as a megalomaniacal music instructor is explosive, fascinating and terrifying and despite excellent competition from Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, the statue is his to lose.

Will win: J.K. Simmons

Should win: J.K. Simmons

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Best Supporting Actress

I’ve written in the past about my love for Boyhood, and I’ll certainly continue to do so in the future. But while that story centers on a child, it is really the adult characters that ground and sustain the 12-year journey and particularly Patricia Arquette.

As a single mother raising her raising her children and fighting through a string of lousy boyfriends, Arquette is raw, natural and heartbreaking. The story ends with the titular boy headed off to college with the whole world and his future at his feet, but the real emotional punch is Arquette, alone in a drab apartment with the better years of her life behind her.

Laura Dern and Emma Stone are both terrific in Wild and Birdman, respectively. And any time Academy-favorite Meryl Streep is in the running it complicates things, but Arquette has swept every award show so far and I can’t imagine her streak ending at the big show.

Will win: Patricia Arquette

Should win: Patricia Arquette

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Best Actor

To me, 2014 was the year of Boyhood and Birdman, and since the lead actor in Boyhood was an untested child actor who was far from consistent over the 12-year shoot, that means 2014 was the year of Michael Keaton. He was already a good actor, but in Birdman we saw just how great he can be when handed the right material and director.

But, this is the Academy, and they can do some strange things sometimes. The Oscars love real people, like the characters played by every actor in the category BUT Keaton. They love physical transformations, like the nose Steve Carell hides behind in Foxcatcher or the ALS cocoon that slowly envelops Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. It also never hurts when a movie is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, like the gangbusters business that American Sniper is doing.

I still think Keaton has the edge, if nothing else than because he’s a veteran actor who’s never been recognized before. But if Redmayne ends up on the stage tomorrow night I’ll be disappointed but not surprised.

Will win: Michael Keaton

Could win: Eddie Redmayne

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Best Actress

A lot has been said about how there’s not enough good roles for women in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Actress crop would certainly suggest that. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about this year’s race. Still Alice? Two Days, One Night? I would imagine most people have neither seen those films nor even heard about them.

The smart money is on Julianne Moore, but if it were me I would give the statuette to Rosamund Pike for her work in Gone Girl. It’s not easy to steal the spotlight on a David Fincher film, but Pike (who has swam just beneath the surface of fame for a decade) delivers an Amy Dunne who is aggressive and vulnerable, sexy and repulsive. She also delivers the most memorable sex scene of Hollywood’s modern era.

Will win: Julianne Moore

Should win: Rosamund Pike

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Best Director

Again, Birdman and Boyhood. Boyhood and Birdman. Either one could win either this category and/or Best Picture. But Best Director goes beyond making a great movie and what Richard Linklater accomplished with his 12-year passion project simply must be recognized. This is the category to do it in.

Will win: Richard Linklater

Should win: Richard Linklater

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Best Picture

I already picked Birdman as my choice for best film of 2014. It’s unique, inventive, daring and filled with star-caliber performances. It’s the kind of film that captures the magic of the movies and reminds you why you want to spend your time in a dark room in front of a glowing screen.

Boyhood is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but its power comes from its ability to capture the quiet simplicity of everyday life and its slow evolution over time. It’s normalcy, on the big screen, in a way that few other narrative features have displayed. But Birdman is fantasy, it’s jazz, and as I’ve said before, it’s darned fun to watch.

But that’s my heart talking. My head knows that Boyhood has so far earned more awards from the other guilds and that its somewhat rare for Director and Picture to split. I give the edge to Birdman, but that might mean another year of someone else’s victory dance.

Will win: Birdman

Should win: Birdman

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It’s no secret that mainstream Hollywood is in a creative rut. The major studios are in a decades-long arms race to put as many (young, white, male) actors into a cape and tights as possible and the idea of something original making a reasonable splash grow smaller every year.

And against that backdrop we have Birdman, a surrealist meta-drama about fame and art that winkingly places a former Batman into the role of an aged former superhero movie star and also happens to be one of the most original, indescribable creations to hit cinemas screens in recent memory.

It’s a five-tool player, a union of impeccable acting, writing, direction and editing built from a bold concept that dares you to put it in a cage.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a film actor who 20 years ago walked away from the wildly successful Birdman franchise only to watch his star steadily fade. In a last ditch effort to relaunch his career as a “serious” actor, he invests the remains of his fortune into a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which the elder thespian is writer, director and star.

Thomson is a ball of nerves, lashing out at his friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Oblivion’s Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and himself via the taunting voice of his former persona, which mocks his professional decay. As opening night approaches and the pressure mounts, Thomson begins to lose his grasp on reality, seeing himself as a literal superhuman capable of feats that are impossible … or are they?

The entire cast is phenomenal, truly, yet it is Edward Norton who walks away with the show. His Mike, a veteran stage actor brought in at the 11th hour, is a manic, egotistical time bomb, effortlessly cool and dangerously unhinged. His interplay with Michael Keaton makes for the films best moments, which I mean as high praise considering that Birdman’s entire running time is a seemingly endless stream of unforgettable imagery.

But the real rabbit in director Alejandro Inarritu’s magic hat is the camerawork, stitched together to form what appears to be a single running take. The trick has evolved since Alfred Hitchcock deployed the same device in Rope but the same seams show if you’re looking close enough. Except you won’t be, because after a few minutes into Birdman you stop looking through the smoke and mirrors and simply let yourself get swept away in the illusion.

Grade: A

*Birdman opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 31.

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