Middle-aged man faces crisis; sober man wonders if he’s still himself; “rigorous honesty,” a la AA, “rigorous fucking honesty,” runs riot. I don’t know if “Top Five” is great, but it’s the first comedy since “The LEGO Movie” I’ve found myself in simple awe of: ragged and rumbustious, assured and sincere-seeming, it’s, well, awesome. Chris Rock’s frank, personal, semi-autobiographical, ferociously twenty-first-century comedy feels like its own special animal, all sorts of goodness and bluntness and, okay, bright even brainy greatness, with equal parts “Annie Hall,” sometimes-collaborator Louis CK’s “Louie” and a little bit of “City Lights” and Cinderella and more Chaplin (“the Grandmaster Flash of haha”) by the way of Jerry Lewis by the way of Chaplin’s song, “Smile.” This sweet small crazy blunt bittersweet dirty fucky comedy vaults in every moment into a superior comic stratosphere. (With minor, wheedling cavils about whether some attitudes are the characters’ or Rock’s: there’s a bit about a white man’s wiggly-woggly-waggly ass as eye-widening as the horrendous female feet in Reggie Hudlin’s “Boomerang.”) The slipstream structure of flashbacks within “Top Five”’s single-day narrative of a comedy star doing press with a New York Times journalist (Rosario Dawson) just as his first serious film is opening leans adventitiously upon “Annie Hall,” but Woody Allen has never cut to the quick with throwaway lines like Rock’s “It’s hard to fuck somebody on a pedestal.”
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“Force Majeure,” Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film, is a movie that’s even better on a second viewing, when its dramatic craft is more apparent yet even more compelling. Set at a French ski resort, Ruben Östlund’s brilliant white-on-white black comedy is a precise, exacting psychological horror about the fissures in a bourgeoisie Swedish marriage, highlighted after a split-second’s reaction to a “controlled avalanche.” “How do human beings react in sudden and unexpected situations, such as a catastrophe?” Östlund has written of what he rightfully describes as his “existential drama.” “The story concerns a family on holiday that witnesses an avalanche and the father runs away, terrified. When it is over, he is ashamed because he has succumbed to his primal fear.” Read the rest of this entry »
Shot in a few weeks of nights across Los Angeles, “Nightcrawler” has two topographical advantages. There’s the glittering gulch of Los Angeles by digital dark, sheerest shadows coming to life as the camera crisscrosses the glittering, malign shape of its story. As shot by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Michael Clayton”), the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) makes the low-to-the-ground desert city look like a parallel to the hellish landscapes of 1970s New York City in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” The greatest range of topography, however, plays over the gaunt features of Jake Gyllenhaal, eyes wide, nearly unblinking, cheekbones like a hungry wolf. His Lou Bloom is a lone wolf, too, a nattering autodidact, out of work, who finds his calling in snaring news footage for local news that others recoil from: bloody, up close and yet impersonal. “Nightcrawler” wears its influences on its sleeve, its “Taxi Driver” citations not limited to an interview scene that’s patterned after Travis getting a job at the taxi garage. Lou’s a bit of a Rupert Pupkin, too, a king of comedy in his own mind, brash, making promises that fall from his tongue as fast as his mind can fashion them. Read the rest of this entry »
Alex Ross Perry excels at assholes. Impenitent, intransigent, intelligent, intolerable assholes. In his black comedy of family relations and toxic romance, “The Color Wheel,” (2011) he even plays the male lead, to disarmingly appalling effect. In Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s “La última película,” Perry plays a post-Dennis Hopper American drifting in and out of Mexican villages and landscapes to shambling effect. But his third feature finds uncommon, remorseless focus in its portrait of two driven writers from two generations who intend immortality for their words, but also to out-Philip Roth Philip Roth at every potential antagonistic bad-boy, bad-man turn. Listen up, indeed: while “The Color Wheel” drew on the inspiration of Roth’s work, Perry cites the novelist William Gaddis as a great influence on this film and its jaundiced view of artists’ behavior. There’s incendiary comedy in the fierce hostility of young-ish New York writer Philip, and Jason Schwartzman, also a specialist in intelligent but hostile male characters, with streaks of sweetness beneath misguided cruelty, has invested himself in a role among roles. Philip is his own truest antagonist, and he’s pitted against his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who offers him the use of a summer home upstate to complete a project. Read the rest of this entry »
A rollicking meeting of Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Jimmy Kimmel’s couch, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” [punctuation sic] sizzles, scintillates, teases, taunts, barks, brays, preens and careens as a simulated single-take of almost two hours, sending up showbiz and its shallowness in profane if shallow style, but also the fractured, electrically flawed brain of its middle-aged protagonist, washed-up screen actor turned Broadway debutante Riggan Thomson (a fine, furious Michael Keaton). Thomson’s adapted, directed and stars in his own rendition of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It sounds like a bad idea, but in the acting and enacting, it’s a terrible one. Opening with credits that ape the font and fashion of high-pop 1960s Godard movies, propelled by a smashing, crashing percussive beat like that of a Times Square street-corner drummer, “Birdman” is self-reflexive, self-important, overwrought, half-baked and completely glorious.
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Shameless? Fuck yeah! Writer-director Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent” (a script born as “St. Vincent De Van Nuys”) stars Bill Murray as an elderly, whiskey-brined war veteran who keeps his cards close to his chest, seeming like the grumpiest of neighbors in the dumpiest of houses, but whose secret inner life will slowly be teased out only by the efforts of one clever young lad, Oliver (prehensile straight man Jaeden Lieberher), who moves in next door to him in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. Tooled within an inch of its precious life, Melfi’s cliché-dandling script pushes buttons in the most satisfying ways, wringing both laughs and unlikely tears from the meeting of man and child, of man and boy who will, of course, become a fantastic man after a series of adventures—racetrack, tavern—that pass for babysitting. But with a few lightly R-rated, filthy jokes in between. The sixty-four-year-old Murray works his magic as a figure who exemplifies dignity through douchebaggery—That’s Mister Misanthrope to you—but the great fortune of the script, and of viewers, is its function as a platform for Murray’s effortless grace as a performer, as the most maximal of minimalists. Read the rest of this entry »
When a boy meta girl… The hyperbolic, galvanic, filthy-black-funny “Gone Girl” is multitudes. And it’s one of the most complexly disturbing movies about grownups fucking up sex in all too long. Sex, no, not sex, really, but power. Who has the fucking upper hand and who has the upper hand fucking? (Oh, the music in Rosamund Pike’s voice when her “Amazing Amy” first beds Nick (Ben Affleck) and says, as he tousles his face upon her lap in an act of assured cunnilingus, “Nick Dunne, I really like you.”) And every bit of it is so readily read into, and not limited to various and sundry accusations of misogyny in the narrative.
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“Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
By Ray Pride
Along with a hundred-plus features and shorts from around the world, the fiftieth edition of the Chicago International Film Festival includes notable appearances and master classes, including Michael Moore presenting his restored version of “Roger & Me,” a film that was nearly lost; producer-turned-online distributor Ted Hope talking about his memoir-manifesto, “Hope For Film,” and Oliver Stone, with a director’s cut of “Natural Born Killers” and “Alexander: Ultimate Edition,” a fourth version of his 2004 epic, reportedly with a warm handful of homoerotic content restored to its 207-minute duration. An Isabelle Huppert tribute will trail four features, including Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Claire Denis’ “White Material,” both shown in 35mm. Kathleen Turner will tell her truth, and eighty-one-year-old Hollywood Renaissance bright light Bob Rafelson will show his 1990 exploration epic “Mountains of the Moon” before presenting a master class to Columbia students, a rapscallion of a raconteur when I heard him speak a few years ago.
Notable locals include the world premiere of Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan’s long-in-the-works “Algren” bio, as well as up-and-coming local auteur Stephen Cone’s “This Afternoon,” mingling his favored themes of sex and religion. Read the rest of this entry »
Shoestring Terry Gilliam is better than no Terry Gilliam at all, and in the sweetly mad master’s latest revision of dystopia takes on the pixel-kapow of corporate-designed image-drench and idea-blanch of the modern landscape of cities and man’s mind. Small-scale yet still baroque, the Bucharest-shot $13.8 million quickie, “The Zero Theorem” (written by Pat Rushin), still indulges Gilliam’s particular brand of dark whimsy and prickly paranoia. A chrome-domed, stressed and fretful Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a computer programmer who’s retired to a chapel in the midst of a bustling post-modern London metropolis, slaving day and night at a computer simulation he’s been employed to use to solve the “zero theorem.” He keeps at his drudgery while waiting for a mysterious phone call that seems may never come. The glimpses of the streets outside bustle like Piccadilly Circus merged with a midget version of Hong Kong Central, and branding and hectoring and overlapping voices battle of Qohen and the audience throughout. Read the rest of this entry »
Xavier Dolan by Clara Palardy.
Oft-expressed concerns about the “mainstreaming” of gay characters and subjects and how that would affect gay film festivals may be misplaced in the tectonic economic shifts of contemporary filmmaking and distribution. By advance word and by the range of subjects, the thirty-second edition of Reeling, like many other recent film festivals, looks like we may be in a brave new world of possibilities. A few I’ve liked: “Lilting,” with Ben Whishaw as a young gay man mourning a lover whose Cambodian mother did not know he was gay is low-key and touching, even more so in the light of Whishaw recently coming out. The intense psychological thriller, “Tom At The Farm” was made just before “Mommy,” the latest over-the-over-the-top melodrama by twenty-five-year-old Xavier Dolan, who shared a Cannes Jury Prize with eighty-three-year-old Jean-Luc Godard. While it lacks the peacock vainglory of the Québécois wunderkind’s fantasticated “Laurence Anyways,” “Tom” toys with the kind of ambiguous psychological turns that many French masters have done so well, including Clouzot and Chabrol. Read the rest of this entry »