Mandy (2018)


Nic Cage is never happier than when he’s driving a car while drenched in fake blood.

(2018) Horror (RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephen Fraser, Ivalyio Dimitrov, Kalin Kerin, Tamás Hagyuó, Madd’yz Dog Lollyta, Corfu, Paul Painter (voice), Hayley Saywell. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

 

Nic Cage has, in this stage of his career, carved out a reputation as having the best freak-out in the business. Perhaps not what he had in mind back when he was considered one of the finest actors in the business for serious works like Leaving Las Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married but it’s always good to be good at something.

Here he plays Red Miller, a taciturn lumberjack living in the Pacific Northwest woods of the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his hippie chick girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) who makes a living doing illustrations for fantasy and science fiction-themed album covers. She’s a bit of an aging waif with anime eyes who brings in a little extra cash working as a cashier at a local gas station/grocery. Walking home, she is espied by Jeremiah Sand (Roache) who decides that this is the woman from him. He sends Brother Swan (Dennehy) to see that she sees the light.

Using an odd instrument called the Abraxas Horn Swan summons a group of demonic bikers who use a sort of liquid extreme LSD to get themselves in the mood for violence. They break in to the rustic cabin of Red and Mandy and restrain Red in a kind of barbed wire manacle. Mandy is brought to Jeremiah who makes an art form of tooting his own horn. His attempts at seduction don’t get him the results he wanted so in a fit of Trump-like pique he decides to teach the couple a lesson.

The results aren’t pretty. Mandy meets a grisly end witnessed by her boyfriend who is stabbed and left for dead. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Red and he goes about collecting himself an arsenal and then going on a little ass-kicking expedition and you know it won’t end until every mutha who messed with his girl exsanguinates all over his face.

For those who, like me, love Conan O’Brien’s Nicolas Cage threat level gauge, he delivers one here that is sure to be Defcon One the next time O’Brien puts one together. Through the first half of the film Cage is fairly quiet but once Mandy is taken from him he goes full-on Nicolas Cage and that can be highly entertaining.

Director Panos Cosmatos isn’t above ratcheting up the crazy, using a good deal of psychedelic footage and LSD-inspired footage melds that with a largely electronic and almost progressive metal score from the late Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson that really captures the heart of the film. Any movie that starts out with King Crimson’s criminally underappreciated “Starless” is a friend of mine.

Riseborough is not your usual lead here; oddly, Jeremiah seems to treat her as a younger woman but she’s clearly middle aged. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder but her character’s new age babble is a little bit distracting. What isn’t distracting is the final half of the film which is essentially one long action sequence with all sorts of gory violence which is bound to bring a contented smile to most horror fans.

This is not your typical horror movie; there are some themes of love and violence, obsession and ego. There are some animated scenes that are sort of like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. So it’s very much a situation of the 70s have called and they want their horror film back. This isn’t a movie from that era (even though it’s set in ’83) but it captures the spirit of psycho horror films of that era nicely.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his most ludicrously demented which is saying something. The action sequences are bizarre but in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie does take a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: Deep breath now; there’s gore and violence (some of it extreme), the full Monty, copious drug use, profanity and likely lots of mean thoughts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roache and Brake both previously worked together in Batman Begins in which Roache played Thomas Wayne and Brake played Joe Chill, who murdered him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive Angry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Coors: The Will to Live

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New Releases for the Week of October 5, 2018


VENOM

(Columbia/Marvel) Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Slate, Riz Ahmed, Michelle Lee, Sope Aluko, Reid Scott, Mac Brandt, Melora Walters. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Investigative reporter Eddie Brock tries to redeem himself following a scandal following a government experiment involving an alien symbiotic lifeform but accidentally becomes infected by the symbiote. He becomes Venom, a violent and often malevolent entity who has his own agenda but with a shadowy organization with nefarious ambitions of the own trying to develop their own version, the alien and the reporter realize their interests intersect.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D, IMAX, IMAX 3D, RPX, RPX 3D, XD, XD 3D
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language)

A Star is Born

(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle. The latest version of a timeless classic finds a grizzled musician with a rosier past than future falling for a young woman who has given up on her dream of stardom. He coaxes her into the spotlight and her career immediately takes off but the higher she soars, the more strain on their relationship is placed particularly since he has a substance abuse problem that is putting everything in jeopardy. Cooper also makes his directorial debut.

See the trailer, a video featurette and a music video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, Dolby
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse)

The Church

(Hard Floor) Clint Howard, Bill Moseley, Ashley C. Williams, Meghan Strange. The minister of a once vibrant and iconic Baptist church in a decaying Philadelphia neighborhood resists gentrification despite pleas from his status-seeking wife and bribes from unscrupulous developers. He is determined to preserve the legacy of his family’s ministry in the neighborhood even if he has to break a few commandments to do it!

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent content and thematic materials)

Mandy

(RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke. A peaceful couple living in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest has their lives shattered by a twisted cult leader who develops an obsession with Mandy, the distaff half of the couple. Red, the male half, is forced to go on a journey of vengeance, blood, fire and rage.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Monsters and Men

(Neon) Anthony Ramos, John David Washington, Nicole Beharie, Cara Buono. A young man with a promising athletic future witnesses a police shooting, recording it on his cellphone. He has the valuable proof that will validate the assertion that it was unjustified but releasing the footage could jeopardize his future.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language)

Pick of the Litter

(Sundance Selects) Dana Nachman, Don Hardy Jr. This documentary follows a litter of puppies from the moment of their birth through the two years of training to be service dogs for the blind. The bar is set high and not every dog makes the cut. Both heartwarming and heartbreaking, the film provides insight as to how dogs go from unruly pups to disciplined service animals.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Shine

(GVN) Jorge Burgos, Gilbert Saldivar, Jadi Collado, Alysia Reiner. Two salsa dancing Puerto Rican brothers in Spanish Harlem are estranged by a family tragedy. Years later they have chosen different paths; one looking for success as a real estate developer, the other devoted to preserving their old neighborhood at all costs. What’s a dancer to do…except dance?

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Urban Dance
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cobb Plaza Café Cinema, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Andhadhun
Bayou Caviar
Exes Baggage
Nota
Ride

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

96
A Crooked Somebody
Exes Baggage
Fats Buddies
The Hate U Give
Hello, Mrs. Money
Nota
Prathamika Shale, Kasargud, Koduge Ramanna Rai
The Sisters Brothers

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

96
A Crooked Somebody
Loveyatri
Loving Pablo
Nota
Pariyerum Perumal
Raatchasan
Ride
Tea With the Dames
Varathan
Viking Destiny

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

96
Andhadhun
Exes Baggage
Nota

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Star is Born
The Church
Mandy
Pick of the Litter
Tea With the Dames
Venom

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Tampa, FL)

The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Brighton Rock


Sam Riley resists going back on set.

Sam Riley resists going back on set.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Nonso Anozie, Sean Harris, Philip Davis, Craig Parkinson, Geoff Bell, Steven Robertson, Maurice Roëves, Steve Evets, Francis Magee, Adrian Schiller, Pauline Melville, Mona Goodwin, Kerrie Hayes, Lexy Howe, Harry Lloyd-Walker, Dennis Banks, Helen Kingston. Directed by Rowan Joffe

Good and evil are meant to balance each other out. You can’t have one without the other; they are opposing forces, a yin and yang of morality as it were. And as such, they often attract one another.

Pinkie Brown (Riley) is a gangster wanna-be. He is vicious and calculating, sometimes cruel and absolutely without any morality. He meets waitress Rose (Riseborough) in the restaurant of a grand hotel in Brighton and walks her down the pier, passing by a thug from a rival gang. Pinkie goes back afterwards and kills the thug. Later Rose realizes that she saw the man whose picture has been published by the newspapers.

Ida (Mirren), the manager of the restaurant and surrogate mother to Rose, warns Rose away from Pinkie. As it turns out, she is very well acquainted by men of his ilk. She enlists the aid of her friend Corkery (Hurt) to help Rose out, but he has other worries, one of them being Pinkie’s boss, the urbane but evil Colleoni (Serkis). When Rose gets married to Pinkie, she no longer can testify that Pinkie was in the vicinity of the murder victim. Can that be the only reason that Pinkie married Rose? Or does the gangster actually have a heart?

Graham Greene wrote the novel this movie was based on back in 1938, at the height of prohibition in the United States and the golden age of gangsters and in some ways the tropes of that era carry over not only in the novel (as you would expect being a product of those times) but here as well. In order to distance the film from those tropes – and from the English noir movie that starred a young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie – Joffe elected to set this version about 25 years after the novel was set, in an era when Mods and Rockers were rioting in Brighton. It’s actually a bit of a brilliant move; the era was evocative (as captured by the Who in Quadrophenia) and appeals more to filmgoers today than perhaps the pre-war era would. The translation between eras is spot-on, particularly since the filmmakers captured the 1960s Brighton so well.

Riley is an actor better-known to admiring critics than he is to the general moviegoing public and that’s a shame; in my opinion he’s one of the best actors working today. He has an amazing intensity and the ability to take on vastly different roles while retaining his own style which is no easy task, I can tell you. I’ve sometimes thought of him as a Johnny Depp without the mannerisms and that’s about as close as you’re going to get.

I think because his looks are more unconventional than traditionally hunk-ish or handsome he has largely been ignored by American filmmakers and audiences, which shows a deep shallowness on our part. I have seen him in movies where he is the only good thing about them and so good was he that he was worth seeing all by his lonesome. If some artsy-fartsy pretentious douche hipster filmmaker decided to make a Dadaist version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or worse, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – as a one-man show, if that one man was Riley I’d go see it anyway.

The rest of the cast is pretty terrific; Mirren is another actress whose presence in a film is all  the recommendation I need to go see it. Hurt is a veteran character actor who brings rumpled gravitas to the role, and Serkis is serpentine as the gangster in a smoking jacket, an ape in a velvet coat.

There is a thin veneer of civility over the violence which can come suddenly and shockingly which I found fascinating. However, one of the movie’s great flaws is a curious lifeless feeling to it; there’s little energy, as if the actors are all sleep-deprived. Riley is the lone exception although even he at times seems somnolent. Perhaps that was an effect the filmmakers were intentionally trying to create?

One of the major plot points is that both Pinkie and Rose are teens, but curiously Joffe (who wrote the screen adaptation) chose to bury that particular lede; it’s a major plot point but I get the sense that he presumes you know it already (note to Joffe: not everyone read the book). It does eventually get revealed, sort of, but by then it changes the dynamic tremendously and unnecessarily. I would have wished that Joffe made this salient point clear from the get-go, but again, that’s just me.

Other than suffering from script obfuscation, the writing is actually pretty good most of the time and the acting, despite the odd lack of inertia, is top notch. I would have liked to have rated this higher (and some critics did) but I just wasn’t inspired to like it any more than a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack number. In this case, the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Riley is intense. Great period depiction. Terrific cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit muddled. Curious lack of energy. Omits a crucial story point early on needlessly.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel; the first was made in 1947.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard, but there are some interesting interviews with the principle cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and Steaming), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Krays
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Films 4 Foodies begins!

Birdman


The angel on Michael Keaton's shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

The angel on Michael Keaton’s shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Merritt Weaver, Natalie Gold, Clark Middleton, Jimmy Marsh Garland, Akira Ito, Michael Siberry, Katherine O’Sullivan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu

Our identity is sometimes self-affixed. Other times it is forced upon us by circumstances, or by others. When you are a celebrity, you are often trapped within the latter situation. A memorable role or performance can change people’s perception of you until you realize that you aren’t seen as anything separate from that performance or role. You become trapped in that role forever.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has had such a role. The superhero Birdman made his career through three hugely successful movies but after three of them he decided to turn his back on the part which by then was far too late. By the time he’d turned down Birdman 4 he was already yesterday’s news, a has-been.

Itching to make a comeback, he’s putting on a Broadway production that he has written, directed and is starring in. adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With his closest friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) helping him with the business end, he has cast his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts) and Ralph (Shamos), possibly the worst actor ever. When a fluke accident knocks Ralph out before the first preview performance and Jake frantic to find a replacement, Lesley offers to call Mike (Norton), with whom she once had a relationship. Mike, being a big star who could certainly draw larger audiences, is immediately brought in even though some have misgivings about Mike’s general attitude and backstabbing tendencies.

Riggan and Jake have sunk everything into this venture and know that if it fails, Riggan’s career is done. With Riggan’s adult daughter Sam (Stone) acting as his personal assistant to offer support – okay, to rip her father a new one at every opportunity, a vicious New York Times theater critic (Duncan) waiting in the wings to savage the play because she hates Hollywood stars with a passion, it is no wonder Riggan is beginning to have delusions of telekinetic superpowers, of hearing the voice of his cinematic alter-ego in his head with whom he has long conversations. Can Riggan pull this off and save his career?

Inirritu has tended to do dramas with a kind of heavy hand in the past with movies like Babel and Biutiful to his credit. This is more of a heavy handed comedy in many ways although at the end of the day I think it is more accurately classified a drama with fantasy and comedic overtones.

Keaton, who once played Batman in two Tim Burton movies back in the day, is inspired casting. In return he delivers his greatest performance to date. Riggan is a tortured soul of missed opportunities, bad turns and ill-advised choices. Those are the kinds of things that keep a person up all night and Riggan clearly isn’t getting much sleep. His chance at redemption is a long-shot at best and Riggan knows it. Years wasted away from his family that ended his marriage to a faithful wife (Ryan) and created a rift between Riggan and Sam. On top of that, he’s having delusions, hallucinations – call them what you will – which make more sense to him than the sensory input from the reality around him.

Give him a good supporting cast and a terrific script and you have a winner without fail. One of the things I like about Birdman besides Keaton is the ambiguity within the script. In many ways, you are given “just the facts” without any editorializing. You are left to make your own opinions with the information you’re given. If you need an example ask yourself this when you leave the theater: What did Sam see at the window? Those who have seen the movie will get the reference. My friends and I debated that very question after the movie was over and I don’t think any two of us had exactly the same answer.

Inarritu chose to shoot the film to resemble one long continuous shot a la Rope by Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of critics have praised this technique but I thought it got a little gimmicky, particularly near the end of the movie when they were running out of ways of transitioning from one point of view to the next.

This isn’t a mainstream movie although it isn’t so far out that mainstream audiences can’t enjoy it. This isn’t a typical indie movie either although it isn’t so Hollywood that indie audiences won’t embrace it. Not everyone is going to like it although critics have thus far enthusiastically recommended the movie but while most of the people who saw it with me admitted that they liked it, there were some who were ambivalent about it. I won’t say it’s a transformative movie experience although I will say it’s insightful – and allows you to reach those insights honestly. It is likely to be an Oscar contender although I suspect that there are other movies that are more likely to win the gold statue come February. However, I think a lot of people are going to see this as one of the year’s best movies and I really can’t fault them for that.

REASONS TO GO: May be Keaton’s best performance ever. Line between fantasy and reality is thin. Ambiguous where it needs to be. Terrific supporting cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A little gimmicky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of swearing, some brief violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was shot at the St. James theater on Broadway, one of the most prestigious theaters on the Great White Way where such plays as Oklahoma, The King and I, Becket and Hello, Dolly all made their Broadway debuts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: St. Vincent