Of Monsters and Men: “Birdman,” “Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler”

Birdman

Movies don’t come out in a vacuum. Three of this fall’s most talked-about movies follow men as they struggle to balance professional success and occupational fulfillment with personal relationships and emotional connections. In all three stories, the main characters fall victim to the grim realities of the businesses in which they embed themselves. Nightcrawler, Birdman and Whiplash will likely be among this year’s crop of Oscar nominees. Below, my thoughts on these movies and the effect of thinking about them in tandem.

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“There Will Be Blood”: Drink It Up

There Will Be Blood

“When’s he going to drink the milkshake?”

I spent most of the two-and-a-quarter hours leading up to the instantly iconic milkshake rant in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood asking myself that question. Even as I was paying attention to the extraordinary feats of performance and cinematography, marveling at Anderson’s command of the sprawling epic form and gaping at his horrific portrayal of early American industrialism, I found myself waiting for the scene I knew was coming.

Such is the experience of watching an acclaimed movie years after its cultural moment has passed. It’s happened to me recently with Bridesmaids and in the past with countless other movies.

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“Nebraska”: Illuminating the Everyday

Nebraska

When was the last time you saw a movie set in the Midwest?

Think about that question for a minute, and you’ll realize that the answer is, “Quite a long time ago” or “Very rarely.” Even though movies have the freedom to explore every corner of the known world (not to mention the unknown ones), Hollywood productions rarely take up issues of the heartland. And when they do, they often do so in a simplistic, stereotypical way, emphasizing the wackadoo accents and aw-shucks sincerity without searching for some humanity beneath the superficial.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t entirely avoid those stereotypes, nor does it pretend to – its principle actors adopt accents that could only be described as Midwestern. What elevates this film beyond generic depictions of the Midwest is its willingness to see beyond the stereotypes. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson observe the oddly confining vastness of the “amber waves of grain,” capturing the claustrophobia that comes with being so small in a world so large. At the same time, this is a touching film about relationships between fathers and sons and a grimly amusing commentary on the challenges of timelessness.

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“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”: Planting the Seeds of Revolution

Hunger Games

(Note: This review contains spoilers for the first movie but nothing major for the sequel.)

The Hunger Games movies represent a rarity among Hollywood franchises: uncommonly intelligent and socially conscious, littered with terrific performances and supported by unobtrusive special effects. Director Gary Ross’ original is far from perfect, but it provides a compelling introduction to a post-apocalyptic world rife with commentary that rings true in our present moment, and Jennifer Lawrence’s capable lead performance provides an unconventional and appealing lens for exploring media manipulation, reality television constructs, cultures of violence and oppressive powers. Though Ross’ directorial ineptitude skewers the numerous action sequences and the PG-13 rating limits the onscreen bloodshed to the point of desensitization, The Hunger Games asks questions that other blockbusters, especially ones based on popular novels for young people, wouldn’t dare touch.

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The M&M Report, Episode 7: Injustices Unforgiven

Ejiofor

Click the link for this week’s episode.

This week on The M&M Report, Devin and I had lots to say about the remarkable new movie 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. We discussed the movie’s approach to historically tricky subject matter, the searing performances and McQueen’s impressive command of visual storytelling. We both think this movie is more than worth seeing – it just might be essential.

(Note: we discussed the movie in general terms before getting into spoilers. If you’re on the fence about seeing this movie, listen to the first few minutes for our verdict.)

At the end, we simply couldn’t resist making room for a new feature: Devin Doesn’t Like Things. This week, Devin explains his true feelings about Halloween. Beware: he’s not a fan.

We’ve got lots of exciting things on the way in the next few weeks, including a return to music and a parade of guest stars certain to keep things interesting. We hope you’ll stick around!

Click through for the time breakdown.

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“Gravity”: Untethered, Unbound, Unbelievable

Gravity

Some movies demand to be seen. Gravity demands to be experienced, in 3D, on the widest possible screen, surrounded by the most excitable people you can find. During its slim 88-minute running time, Gravity conjures the physical and emotional weight of space flight and zero-gravity navigation with more skill, grace and beauty than any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the few movies in which George Clooney’s star magnetism gets outshined, not only by his co-star, the luminous Sandra Bullock, but by the sheer force of the spectacle surrounding the two leads. Gravity takes stunning advantage of the scope that the big screen affords and the small screen lacks – anyone who says that television is better at everything than movies need only be reminded that no one does outsized spectacle like Hollywood.

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