Mexican DJ turned filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has so far made a name for himself as a director of weighty films with bleakly serious subjects in search of transcendence. Ever since his Spanish-language debut Amores perros, his 1999 Oscar-nominated film that had Hollywood knocking, it has been an uphill battle for the director to achieve the same level of respect. It seems what he needed was a tonal shift. The black comedy of his fifth feature film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is that shift, as it sends up virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry with dark humor on a meta level.
Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson with a complex dynamic of ego and insecurity, as he tries to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis. Just like Keaton, Riggan once played a famous superhero in the movies that spawned a series of sequels: Birdman (fun fact: there is indeed a Birdman superhero). Riggan groans about Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender as they rake in fame and fortune by donning superhero costumes in this new era of movies based on comic books with a mix of disdain and envy. He seems plagued by a bitter resentment that he hasn’t somehow been recognized for paving the way for the superhero movie star in some impractical way (maybe he’s secretly hoping for “Pioneer Superhero Tentpole” Oscar?). Yet, he also desires recognition as an artist, so he decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, in a husky growl not unlike Christian Bale’s interpretation of Batman’s voice, seems to always belittle him when he’s alone. Oh, and one more characteristic of Riggan’s worth noting: he displays powers of levitation and telekinesis when no one else is looking.
If the richness of the satirical implications of this character is not enough, there are many others who enter into Riggan’s world with their own quirks. Edward Norton does hilariously self-deprecating work as Riggan’s nemesis, Mike Shiner, the heroic stage actor who will save the play. Mike is literally cocksure. He strips to nothing backstage, in wardrobe, fists on hips, ready for his fitting. While Riggan strains for respect with his grave adaptation of serious literature, Mike oozes confidence in his craft that relies on method-like process. When on stage, he needs real gin to feel drunk and must follow his erection when he lies in bed with his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who herself is a bundle of nerves in search of her own respect on Broadway. Riggan only wishes to earn appreciation as an actor with integrity and clashes with Mike over what Riggan sees as inappropriate behavior, but Mike wants Riggan to respect his process as essential to his craft. Hovering over that, Riggan’s best friend/manager/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) sees integrity in making this production a commercially viable affair, but the constant collateral damage of ego puts him on edge. On the periphery, lackadaisically observing the ship sink and lusting after Mike, is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant.
All of these people pine for a sense of their own version of what is essential to their own vision of reality, which they hope will grant them some sense of value, but that means struggling against the other titanic egos that surround them, which is key to the film’s humor and drama. The generalizations are so piled up in this film that it would be unfair to fault it for presenting tropes or clichés. This is a movie about demolishing expectations where expectations often lead to disappointment. It thrives on generalization. But beyond that, Iñárritu presents it with a filmmaking style that at times defies the tenets of film language, adding yet another layer of meta reality to this satirical vehicle.
The editing in the film is invisible, but the story does not take place in real-time. Even though the entirety of Birdman seems like one cut, with the camera slipping through corridors and other nice moments of trickery to meet the actors at various moments of crisis, the story covers several days. It speaks to the idea of theater where acting cannot lean on editing as a crutch. At the same time, it also speaks to the lack of connection between these people. There is no room for match cuts, associative cuts, shot-reverse-shot, etc. because no one genuinely connects. It’s also a departure for the director, whose films have often depended on action off-screen and silent moments of time trickling past cut and pasted together jarringly to add a sense of levity to the contemplation of his characters. It’s as if the film has lost a superpower, much like Riggan/Birdman.
The film’s musical accompaniment is worth mentioning. In his first film score, Grammy-winning jazz drummer and bandleader Antonio Sanchez — who, like the director, also hails from Mexico City — gives the film a chaotic, cacophonous rhythm with a free-jazz, percussion-centric score, speaking to the nervous, scatterbrain of Riggan. Sanchez’s presence is so vivid, he even appears in the film at a drum kit on more than one occasion, giving physical form to the harried Riggan’s nerves. The always amazing and fluid camera work Emmanuel Lubezki is also key to the film’s tone. His sharp focus not only presents unforgiving images of the creases of many a weary face but also highlights makeup and styling designed to make some of the actors look like birds. Whether this is intentional or not, it speaks to Riggan’s perception of his world and to the fact that this is also an alienating presentation of reality, keeping the audience at arm’s length, building toward a finale that no one can truly, definitively understand because this is Riggan’s world … and ultimately, just a movie.
In its hyper-real presentation of story, Birdman takes an almost encyclopedic survey of every trope, generalization and prejudice we might have about Hollywood and celebrity culture and in turn lampoons it in some way. Critics, the PR machine, social media, the idea of fame by viral video, sexual relations between actors, clashing egos, it leaves none of it out. Much of it is reductive, but it’s also offered in a spectrum: there is the cynical theater critic for he powerful “New York Times,” the serious journalist with the social/theoretical concerns of the art and the star-struck reporter who will believe any rumor as insight into the unknowable person behind the celebrity. Of course, the film also does this with the colorful actors at the center of the film but still does not forget the personnel behind the scenes, as well. With Birdman, Iñárritu sets out to bite the hand that feeds so hard and with such force so as to dazzle those bitten with stars. It’s a caricature filled with magical realism that never forgets entertainment value, inviting everyone to have a laugh at themselves.
Though it is implied that Riggan may or may not have super powers, whether or not he does is unimportant. What Iñárritu is doing with this character quirk is offering a metaphor for the power of celebrity, which Riggan is trying to suppress so his craft might be taken on its own terms. Ask any artist worth his or her own work, and they will tell you that they view celebrity with a wary eye. Galifianakis noted as much in his interview regarding the film in “Hollywood Reporter.” Recently, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told me about it as if it exists outside of his control. It’s a double-edged sword that gives actors value, but that they do not have the same kind of control over. Scott Haze, another actor I interviewed, spoke about the prejudice that surrounds the work of his friend James Franco, who directed him in the underrated Child of God.
For all its smart satirical qualities, it’s hard to ignore a sense of genuine bitterness that informs the stories that make up Birdman. Iñárritu himself has had to combat high expectations from the beginning of his work in the U.S. But if you do not care to look behind the screwball farce of the action of the film, you will only be disappointed by this movie. It targets Hollywood as a business that thrives on celebrity to make its fortune at the sacrifice of people whose only dream was to express themselves in front of an audience before the machine gobbled them up, which is the true tragi-comedy of the reality of the entertainment business. What can you do? Enjoy the show!
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R (language, sexual humor and pathos). It has already opened in many theaters across the U.S. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Oct. 31. Then, on Nov. 7, it will be the premiere film at O Cinema’s newest theater in North Beach, at the former, newly renovated Byron Carlyle. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.
October 28, 2014
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that Listen Up Philip presents a man, specifically an author, living two lives. One is a life of the corporeal, human behavior and feelings with repercussions on those close to him personally, the other is a life of intellect, creativity and imagination, which satisfies personal ego and impacts, however fleetingly, those who read his books. The drama of the film stems from the titular character’s sacrifice of one life over the other. Which one he chooses will make him either a hero or a villain. Director and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry wastes no time establishing which he is.
Third-person omniscient narration prattled off by Eric Bogosian in an authoritative deadpan, as if he were at a book reading, informs us that Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who is walking down a New York City street with a furrowed brow is “characteristically not in a hurry but enraged by slow foot traffic in front of him.” When he sits at a diner counter the narrator speaks of a familiar “stage of rage” that has overtaken him due to the tardiness of his ex-girlfriend. When she appears, he tries to shrug it off, but ends the “date” by walking out without ordering and refusing to give her a copy of his new book he said he has personalized with a dedication to her.
Perry has set up a movie to make Philip Lewis Friedman, played by a note-perfect Schwartzman, one of the pettier, unsympathetic dicks committed to screen in a long time. The voice-over narration reveals motivation and often conflicting feelings of angst and ennui. It’s as if Philip lives and destroys relationships so he might inform his writing, and it makes for a heck of a funny film if you can stomach the anti-hero as protagonist.
The audience is not allowed to judge that his writing is any good, but we are told that it is. That is all that matters because this a film not concerned with the craft of creativity as much as it is interested in the formation of the persona of the creator. When we meet Philip, he is only just finished his second novel, but we are told he is on his way to a very successful career as a writer. It’s no secret that Perry based this film on the acclaimed writer Philip Roth, so those with some insight into the life the writer, who has been known to have influenced Perry, might get extra satisfaction from the comedic drama of Listen Up Philip. But those who are not are still in for a heck of a hilarious ride into comedic irony that speaks to the creative soul entanglement with true human relations.
Philip is a huge narcissist. His consistent failure to sympathetically connect with those outside of him from one beat to the next gives Listen Up Philip a sort of sadomasochistic humor firmly trenched in Woody Allen and Larry David, albeit a bit darker. There is a sense of hopelessness for this man to connect. He hardly shows any despair about this quality, and if he does it’s only because he might feel he failed not others but himself. It’s presented as a vivid conundrum via his suffering current lover, played with forgiving heart by Elisabeth Moss. Ashley is certainly strong in her own right as a working photographer with her own creative side, yet she struggles to stay afloat in his wake. He seems more domestically satisfied when a more famous writer, with a lengthy but faltering career (a steely but tired Jonathan Pryce), invites him to his country home to finish his third book. That this man seems like an aged doppelgänger, beard and all, should serve as a warning post, but for Philip, the ego maniac, he has found a mentor to aspire for.
Schwartzman proves a perfect pick for the lead role. Philip’s remote yet determined attitude harkens back to his role as a teenager in the film that put him on the map as an actor: Rushmore. Philip is what the sociopathic aspiring overachiever Max Fischer would have become had he lost his virginity to Miss Cross.
Moss is also given a period of time in the middle of the film to carry the movie, and she shines with warm grace. While Philip heads off to the country and later accepts an adjunct position as a creative writing professor at a university, she takes the time to grow familiar with the comfort of his absence. The time away from Philip reveals what a weight he bore on her, and when he returns, the audience will have every right to root for her own desires over his, a power she can only find with distance.
Shot in Super 16mm, the director harnesses the power of the medium for the intimacy required of his subject and themes. Faces are tightly framed by the format, highlighting the actors’ expressiveness. Listen Up Philip needs this intimacy, which is hardly played for sentiment. Close-ups highlight often conflicted faces, which enhance the declarative, oft-present narration, which digs deep into the tumultuous emotions that inform Philip’s behavior, who cannot ever seem to genuinely communicate and connect with those around him. Sometimes the voice-over narration drowns out dialogue because it’s the world inside that Philip cares more deeply about.
Listen Up Philip is a film not only incredibly concerned with the internal world of the writer but also the dual nature of identity. There is no middle ground for Philip, he must choose between the people who want to love him or be loved by strangers who have not had the misfortune of meeting this cretin in the flesh. The film presents that vividly with strong performances, creative filmmaking and witty writing. It’s a tragic comedy that balances both sides to present a thoroughly watchable movie informed by a pained personal wisdom, so thanks to Perry for digging as deep as he does to present one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies of a real a-hole.
Listen Up Philip runs 109 minutes and is not rated (it’s got cursing and some sexual stuff [can't recall if its graphic]). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Oct. 31. The cinematheque provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. It only recently opened in theaters across the U.S. and will be expanding across cinemas for the rest of the year. For other screenings, visit this link.
‘1,000 Times Good Night’ presents a family portrait torn by a mother’s zeal for danger — a film review
October 25, 2014
It’s not always another person that can get between two lovers. In his first English-language film, Norwegian director Erik Poppe finds inspiration by looking to his own experiences and the dissolution of his marriage during a time when he was a war photographer. With 1,000 Times Good Night he presents a woman who is so caught up in her work she will risk not only her life, but her place as a mother to follow her ideology. There’s an empowerment of gender in his choice to explore his story through a woman’s perspective, but it also never softens the sacrifice involved, and Poppe delivers the point in a nerve-racking opening scene with hardly any dialogue, as a good photographer-turned-filmmaker would.
Juliette Binoche plays Rebecca, who has somehow found a way to photograph the ritual of a female suicide bomber as she heads out to detonate herself. The film’s title alludes to the explosive-laden vest and the ritual, but also reflects on Rebecca’s personal notion of martyrdom for her own ideology, though she prefers not to recognize it. When her zeal to get as close to the explosion as possible starts to clash with her conscience, she inevitably gets hurt. Though she survives, physical wounds reverberate to emotional difficulties that affect her entire family, which includes two daughters — one a child, the other a teenager — and a husband, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
The film plays with the dynamic between husband and wife as if another lover has come between them. After Rebecca’s husband Marcus takes her home from the hospital, there’s a tension of something profoundly unmentionable between them. The two are almost on entirely different wavelengths about what has happened, and they dare not speak about it. That the movie shows this with hardly any dialogue, speaks to the performances and Poppe’s eye for showing a story rather than relying on heavy-handed exposition.
The film takes its time to follow a neat story arc that ends with a significant pay-off that will hopefully lead to some growth for this woman, but it will not come without sacrifice. These people have issues, and they keep them inside for some time. The film appropriately has to spend some time in tense silence for much of the early part of the film so that it might allow the audience to appreciate and contemplate a genuine tension between the couple. It will then earn the confrontation between the two when one of them finally finds the courage to say something about the ever-widening gulf between them.
Coster-Waldau and Binoche rivet the film with strong performances. The actors deliver in both silence and the inevitable explosion of their repressed feelings. When Marcus confronts Rebecca about how her work has detrimental effects on the family, Binoche transmits the pain and shame of having been trapped between her family and a passion for her work as if she had been caught in an infidelity. It’s a brilliant moment that reveals the silent precision of Binoche’s acting chops. Throughout the movie, Binoche never seems lost in some haze of ambiguity. This is a woman of convictions, and she carries that burden heavily.
The film has a conscience, but it also explores the flip side, which is the pain of sacrifice one makes for ideals, and it’s complex impact on loved ones. There’s a moment when Rebecca schools her elder daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) on the problems in Africa, the role of corporations in those problems, including a lack of human rights and the news business’ interest in celebrity photographs over her war journalism. Steph has an admiration for her mother informed by her love for not only a mother but also a hero standing up for human rights. But that love will be put to the test at a refugee camp in Kenya, which a colleague tells Rebecca is completely safe for her to bring her daughter to.
This refugee camp is the site of another intense sequence of danger when marauding rebels come in with AK-47s blasting. Rebecca cannot seem to contain her impulsiveness to get shots of the conflict, despite leaving her tearful daughter to enter the melee. It might seem illogical for a parent to do that, but Binoche is so good at capturing the passion of this woman she genuinely sells her as someone who can hardly control her addiction to adrenaline. It almost seems like a reflex for the woman, as not even the worried tears of her daughter can sway her from her job.
The film could have easily drowned itself in over-the-top melodrama, but it never does thanks to the carefully modulated acting of Binoche and the patient, deliberate construction of the story by Poppe and his co-writers. 1,000 Times Good Night does not glamorize the photographer. It presents her as a torn person who never seems whole without her camera and conflict but still understands her place as a mother. Poppe’s personal experience informs this complex character profoundly, and because he once was that person, he understands an end point will come. Whether a family can survive this force in their life is never fully resolved, but he builds toward a finale that shows there may be a wake-up call coming for this woman, and it relies on much of the film’s painstakingly constructed drama.
Note: Read my interview with Coster-Waldau on this movie, working with Binoche and his personal investment in his character here:
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau talks about bringing personal experience to his role in ‘1,000 Times Good Night’
1,000 Times Good Night runs 117 minutes and is not rated (contains violence and language). It opened in South Florida this past Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and the Tower Theater in Miami. It’s opening across the U.S. right now. To see other play dates across the nation, visit this link. Film Movement provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.
October 24, 2014
Director Peter Sattler has dropped into Miami to introduce his debut feature film Camp X-Ray, which stars Kristen Stewart, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema tonight, Friday. I spoke to him the day before, via phone. He spoke from his hotel room where he was working on the third act of his new script. He’s on his way to the Abu-Dhabi Film Festival with his film after his Miami appearance, which — if the weather clears up — should make for a nice pit stop before heading on to the Capital of United Arab Emirates. “I’m really excited to see what the reaction there is to the film,” he noted. “It’ll be quite a different audience to see the movie with.”
The film had its debut at Sundance earlier this year and has since traveled to other festivals around the globe. Sattler and Stewart attended several screenings. As the film begins its run in theaters and VOD, Sattler reflected on the reception of the film at the screenings he has attended. “It’s been great. A lot of weepy eyes at the end of the film, but everyone’s responded to it really well. Depending where you go, it’s interesting, people laugh at different things I think, internationally and whatnot, but generally the reaction’s been really good. It had a very universal message of just finding commonality in a stranger that transcends language and cultural barriers.”
Camp X-Ray focuses on the arrival of a new group of guards at Guantanamo Bay eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11. Stewart does impressive work capturing the experience of a wary but tough private whose mission is to “protect” the detainees from themselves. They are basically on 24-hour suicide watch. The film is all about the tension between the men detained and not officially charged with any crimes — though they are suspected of terrorism due to evidence that remains classified — and the guards who watch them. Eventually, Stewart’s character, Private Cole, strikes up a conversational relationship with one of the detainees, Amir (an intense Peyman Moaadi).
It’s a film that pays off thanks to Sattler’s attention to detail. With this film, Sattler does an impressive job in recreating Guantanamo Bay on a set. “Honestly, I did a lot of good, old-fashioned leg work,” he said of his research. “I read every memoir that I could find. I looked at every documentary that I could find. I got a hold of the standard operating procedure down there, which WikiLeaks put out, which was super helpful, and so from doing all those things, you can start to piece together some of the little facts and details about what life is like and really how it looks down there.”
But what gives the film its power comes from something bigger, as revealed in Sattler’s brilliant script and the performances of Moaadi and the too often underrated Stewart. Actual guards from Gitmo have actually reached out to Sattler with praise for his work. “I think the bigger challenge is how do you capture the feeling of what it’s like down there,” he added. “That’s something that you kind of have to intuit to some degree, to read between the lines. But, luckily, after the movie’s come out, I’ve heard from a few guards who’ve been down there that really complimented us on being able to capture that feeling and that strange conflict that these soldiers find themselves in, trying to operate in an honorable way in very uncomfortable and uneasy situations.”
You can read much more of my conversation with Sattler including why he pursued Stewart for the role and what she brought to the character. Jump through the “Cultist” banner below, which published my Q&A with Sattler earlier today:
Camp X-Ray opens exclusively in South Florida this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. The red carpet premiere is tonight at 7 p.m. For details of the premiere visit the event page here. The movie is also available on video on demand and has opened or will soon open at other theaters across the U.S. For screening details visit this link.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau talks about bringing personal experience to his role in ‘1,000 Times Good Night’
October 23, 2014
It requires a subtle sort of acting to pull off the complex dynamic between the husband and wife at the center of the new film 1,000 Times Goodnight. But Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Juliette Binoche rise to the task, riveting the film with performances that allow silence to speak volumes and outbursts to inform their profound baggage of unresolved issues. Binoche plays Rebecca, a war photographer motivated by a righteousness that leaves little room for her family, which also includes two daughters. Coster-Waldau is the weary father and husband, Marcus, reluctantly supporting her choice of career. His concerns for her safety and her perfunctory performance as a mother is upended when she barely survives a suicide bombing in Afghanistan that she was chronicling for the “New York Times.”
I spoke with Coster-Waldau via phone, while he was on break from shooting Season Five of “Game of Thrones” (he plays the “Kingslayer” Jaime Lannister) in Seville, Spain. For a 15-minute chat we had a chance to go pretty deep, so this article actually expands on an article I wrote for the art and culture blog “Cultist” operated by the “Miami New Times,” which you can read by jumping through the blog’s logo below:
I was offered to ask him one “Game of Thrones” question, but what I really wanted to do was go deep into how he made this relationship so real and sympathetic. Between the director’s restrained tone, which allows the actors to say more about their feelings when they are not talking, and the dynamic performances, the carefully constructed dramatic arc of the film is an analysis of a relationship held together by fraying threads. When I asked the Danish actor about how he approached Marcus’ feelings for his wife, he notes a Catch 22 in their relationship. “I think they stopped, a long time ago, to communicate about the things that are the most important to them,” he says of Rebecca and Marcus, “and then, with her, it’s easier not to talk about what she’s doing, where she’s going, what the job was that day. It’s easier for him not to hear about it because it would make him more worried maybe. But it’s also, I think, at the very core of why they no longer can be together because they’ve lost the ability to be a couple, to communicate and all that.”
The film is actually based on the real life experiences of the film’s director, Erik Poppe. What is interesting about what he does with this movie is that he only presents a couple of intense scenes of action involving Rebecca, which inevitably resonate back home. Though both moments are adrenaline-fueled scenes of compelling action, Poppe is more interested on the effects of those instances of violence and trauma on the family of the photographer. In his director’s statement, he admits that, during his own chronicling of war zones, his relationship suffered. “I had a strong relationship with the woman whom I shared my life with, but it couldn’t sustain the choices I’d made,” he says.
This marks the most personal film by the Norwegian director, and he was quite open with the cast about that. Coster-Waldau says though the scenarios were up-dated for today’s headlines (Poppe was in Cambodia in the early ‘80s, among other places), the repercussions of Poppe’s career choice, including a zealous righteousness to affect some good in conflict zones for the innocents, had vivid effects back home. “He’s had to deal with those exact conflicts with his wife, where he would be in these situations where he could die and wouldn’t be able to call home for weeks, and it takes a toll,” states the actor. “It’s really tough on the people who are left behind, and sometimes you’re so driven and you’re so focused that you kind of forget. You forget, or you kind of push it aside because you have to.”
That passion and focus, a sort of entrance to a zone that calls for a vision sometimes blinded by an intensity for the work that excludes the family, can be quite traumatic to those outside that area of ego. Back to Poppe’s director’s statement, he even says, “my ego was bigger than my love [for my wife].”
Binoche channels that potently in her character. In one scene, Marcus confronts her about her work and she reacts as if she was caught in an infidelity. “She’s also quite passionate. She can’t help herself,” notes Coster-Waldau. “Yes, there’s the whole — which is very important — that she wants to make the world aware of these horrendous things that go on in these horrible places. There is also that thing that happens that it’s really her passion. It’s those moments when she’s doing her job that she can lose herself a hundred percent because she’s quite good at that, and in a way that’s what she does, she gets in there and she gets the shot. When she removes that part of herself, she removes part of the essence of who she is. Clearly, it’s worth it. It’s worth it that she got it out, and she took these pictures that no one else would take, and it has positive change for these kids or these families or refugees, but at the same time there is also negative consequences for not only her own relationships with her family but also for her kids. They suffer, and if that worked objectively, you’d say, yes, it’s for the better, but for those two kids and her husband, it’s not.”
The emotional struggle this brings to the family is quite vivid in 1,000 Times Good Night. For Coster-Waldau, the feelings do not seem foreign to him. He speaks with an enlightened wisdom that comes from his own experience as a family man who must balance his own passions outside of his personal life. “He loves his wife,” he notes about Marcus’ struggle to compete with her calling. “What happens early on in the movie, of course, when she gets into the explosion, is that suddenly that thing happened that he’s been living with, and that he just accepted and wanted to ignore, and of course this is a movie, so of course it’s life and death, but I think that it happens in many relationships where you change, and people change, and we don’t necessarily change together, and we change in different directions.”
Though he is but an actor, Coster-Waldau knows some of the difficulties that arise at home when he focuses on his work, which also includes being away from his family for some time, and he brought that to his role as Marcus. “It’s all those discussions, all those conflicts that were interesting to talk about,” he says, “and then, of course, in my own life, because I also have two daughters myself. I am the one who travels most of the year doing what I do … and I could use those discussions we’ve had in this movie. In this case, in the movie, I’m the guy who’s left behind, so it was interesting.”
Again, Coster-Waldau brings up personal experience in relation to the film. “I’m a father myself,” he adds. “I have two daughters, and there’s something about that whole discussion of what does it mean to be a parent. A good parent is not necessarily a woman or a man, and can a father be as good? You would think it’s an obvious thing, but I think that a mother is more of a parent than a father in some ways, and I think I like to explore that because that’s something that’s very much a part of my life, being a father.”
1,000 Times Good Night runs 117 minutes and is not rated (contains violence and language). It opens in South Florida this Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and the Tower Theater in Miami. It’s opening across the U.S. right now. To see other play dates across the nation, visit this link.
Before the very first stark image hits you, Fury director David Ayer unnerves the audience with a simple title card describing the all-out war they are about to witness. The text establishes this is 1945, the end of World War II and U.S. troops are advancing on Berlin. Hitler’s forces are down to recruiting children and old men to fight, but they still have tanks that outgun the comparably puny Shermans of the U.S. army. Then the land fades up from black. It’s all gray and black mud, destroyed war machines and crumpled, muddied bodies. The camera tracks and tracks across this for enough time to set up that this is not a film out to glamorize or romanticize war but to present it as stark and as harrowing as Hollywood can.
For the most part, Ayer succeeds. Forgiving an early sequence that tries too hard to reveal the heart of Brad Pitt’s character Don “Wardadddy” Callier, where he frees a horse from an SS officer, the film’s power lies in its ability to present the unforgiving quality of war. Soldiers are burned alive and torn apart. Faces are removed and bodies burst below tank tracks. These events of horror occur in the film’s first 20 minutes. “This ain’t pretty,” Don tells his new, fresh-faced co-pilot Norman (Logan Lerman). “This is what we do.”
Ayer not only stages vicious battles and skirmishes but presents aftermath as horror: stacks of squishy, gelatinous body parts quivering in rumbling truck beds and even a bit of stiff, pancaked human road kill. He does it all in sharp, steady deep focus. Unlike Spielberg, who, in Saving Private Ryan, stylized his presentation of war violence by enhancing the imagery with tints, shaky camera movements and ratcheted shutter speeds, Ayer wants to present something more unadulterated. Even the interior of the titular tank is far from romantic. Besides photos of loved ones, there is nothing but cold, hard metal bits, much of which blocks out the faces and bodies of the five-member tank crew. They have been consumed by this machine and are only partly human. They are family and hive with various capacities in making “Fury” run while trying to cling to their individual tiny, salvageable bits of humanity.
All actors deserve nods for realizing their characters. Michael Peña’s Mexican character, Trini Garcia, nicknamed “Gordo,” the tank’s driver, handles anxiety with cool determination. Don refers to Jon Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis as an animal when we meet him trying to fix a broken-down “Fury” on a smouldering battlefield. Bernthal infuses Grady with an unstable sort of menace, even when he tries to show affection to his mates by tugging at their ears and noses. Then there’s Boyd “Bible” Swan played with tortured heart by the too often underrated Shia LaBeouf. His Bible-quoting could have easily been a contrivance had LaBeouf not brought such expressive heart to his character. He’s a focused psychotic but also has great affection for those in his company. Sadness and anger with righteous Christian logic used to rationalize behavior never appeared more conflicted.
Yes, they are a motley crew, but to fault the film on that means you should fault all ensemble adventure films for such tropes since John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s Ayer’s unflinching sensibility that makes the film stand out as a statement film because this is not entertainment. This is a nerve-rattling confrontation with the sublime. The tank battles are not CGI, and the effect only enhances the weight of their power on soft humans — both internally and considering the unforgiving science of visceral matter. Ayer’s only enhancement to the tension is a score by Steven Price featuring swelling, rhythmic horns, voices and timpani and bass drums, but it’s plenty enough to tune into for the sense of dread the director is trying to present with this anti-war film.
We follow these men as they show little mercy to surrendering SS troops, the most fanatical of Hitler’s military. Early in the film, Don gives Norman, who was a mere Army typist before being sent to the front, a brutal lesson in killing. After taking a town “decorated” with bodies of hanged children with signs around their necks dubbing them cowards, Gordo mows down an unarmed, surrendering SS officer alleged to have committed the atrocities. Then, one splice cut later, he makes out with a now gracious, liberated fräulein. The boys can have a civilized extended meal at the home of two rattled women, and Norman can have a moment to fall in love. But nothing quiet can last in this all-out war. So the mood can be brought down when Fury’s crew brings up France and their methodical execution of scores of wounded horses, and then there’s worse… the return to killing for their lives.
The brutality of the end of World War II was harsh. I’ve heard stories from my father who was forced into the Wehrmacht at 16 years old, when his family tried to flee to Spain. It was that or face a firing squad. He survived Africa and Stalingrad (I’m still looking for a translator of his diaries from that era as pictured in the following post: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). I’m glad that Ayer did not turn this film into some fluffy adventure movie. You might nitpick the characters, but the real star of this film is violence and the strain for humanity to break through it. The culminating skirmish that ends the film speaks to both random luck both good and bad but also a little more: a sense of hope for the only strategy that can end wars: just stop fighting.
Fury runs 134 min. and is Rated R (it’s one of the most justifiably, unflinchingly violent films I’ve seen in years). It opens today at your local multiplex. Sony Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
‘The Blue Room’ captures the sense of memories in murder-mystery full of telling imagery — a film review
October 15, 2014
I’ve only ever noticed Mathieu Amalric as an actor. I had no idea he could direct, and what an introduction to his directing is The Blue Room (La chambre bleue)! What first strikes the viewer is the gorgeous work of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and set design by Christophe Offret. The framing is sometimes ideally symmetrical or fractured by strategic placement of foreground. Colors are either vibrant or obscured by shadow. These visuals carry an important weight because it will be hard to trust what anyone in this movie says. This is a murder-mystery, after all, and even though police detectives have caught their suspects at the start of the film, what actually happened will remain a mystery until the movie’s still intriguing finale.
Based on Georges Simenon’s 1955 novel, a book that reads like a puzzle gradually coming together and into focus, Amalric co-wrote the script with co-star Stéphanie Cléau with great respect to the work both literally and figuratively. The recurring image of a woman’s legs opening to reveal a glistening pubic bush half-covered in shadow is lifted right from the book. Oh, the trouble that lies within. But the story takes on another quality as a movie. It’s a fractured mirror inviting the viewer to both judge these people and sympathize with them, as the film takes a while to arrive at any sense that a horrific crime was committed.
The director/actor plays the lead role of adulterous husband Julien Gahyde married with a young daughter to the quietly suspicious but repressed Delphine (Léa Drucker). We meet him in the afterglow of sex with Esther Despierre (Cléau). She’s the wife of his family’s pharmacist. Julien seems both nervous and excited by the liaison. But this is only a memory. In fact, the film seems filled and informed by the haze of memory. At a curt 76 minutes in run time, the movie is best thought of as a series of vignettes reflected on from the trial. Hidden in the edits could lie the truth. “Life is different when you live it and when you look back on it after,” Julien tells a magistrate early in the film during questioning.
Visually, blocking and vertical lines fracture many images, reflecting half-remembered situations. There are many windows, passages, doorways that represent obscured and maybe not completely honest memories. Presented in the 4:3 academy aspect ratio, which speaks to the influence of early mystery masters like Hitchcock and Chabrol, masters in the game of perception, the film’s framing also creates a window in and of itself. The movie is filled with many a lush image loaded with probable meaning. The score by Grégoire Hetzel is often overwrought and steeped in nostalgia. Strings swell and woodwinds modulate from wispy to soaring. It’s a bit over-the-top, but it’s by design.
Not only does Amalric show an incredible eye for beautiful staged images. He has pacing down to a brisk clip, and his interpretation of the source material is brilliant in how it embraces mystery and suspense giving no sign of relief but also no solid answers. The Blue Room is a baroque thriller that presents more than an answer to whodunit but offers the questions and stories in layers of tantalizing teases toward a subtle reveal that speaks more to the notion of judging people than any ultimate, definitive truth.
In some ways, the movie has a kinship with Gone Girl (‘Gone Girl’ examines perceptions we make with stories we tell — a film review). Like Fincher, Amalric prepares the viewer early on for the film’s unique quality. In the titular bedroom, Esther bites Julian on the lip, drawing blood. “Will your wife ask you questions?” she asks Julien. During his recounting of this incident to the magistrate, Julien is asked, “Could she have bitten you on purpose?” This is a film that says more in its questions than it does in any of its scenarios, so Amalric prepares the audience quite nicely to play interpreter and judge. Questions can only lead you so far, but they can also lead to great post-movie conversations, and many viewers will not always come away with an exactly similar viewing, as the film also features blink-and-you-might-miss-them behavioral reveals that will maintain the film’s intrigue long after the house lights go up. The Blue Room is an exquisite movie made for the dark chamber of the movie house.
The Blue Room runs 76 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (but expect violence and frontal nudity). It opens this Friday, Oct. 17, in the Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It then expands the following week, on Friday, Oct. 24, at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It began screening across the U.S. on Oct. 3, so it may already be screening at your location, check local listings.