Saturday, November 22, 2014

Movie: Whiplash

Whiplash:  the title refers to a jazz song.  This film has nothing whatsoever to do with a litigation lawyer or a neck injury.  I have two perspectives on this film.  First of all, it is a riveting story about a music teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and his student, Andrew (Miles Teller).  The quality of the acting and the music is outstanding, and J. K. Simmons deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance.   Fletcher and Andrew are individuals driven to attain perfection.  A significant portion of the movie takes place at the music college (Julliard in all but name) where Andrew is a freshman jazz drummer and Fletcher is the teacher of an elite jazz group.  In the opening scenes, Andrew appears as a shy teenager, particularly in his initial interaction with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a college student at Fordham who works at a movie theatre.  There is a nice charm to Andrew and Nicole, and Nicole has a wonderful smile.  We are shown, however, the extent of Andrew’s drive for perfection when he walks away from the relationship.  Through an interaction at a family dinner scene, we also learn he has no social skills.  This film is about the music and what it takes to become a true artist. 

A story about what motivated Charley Parker to become a great jazz artist is told more than once.  My alternate perspective stems from the fact that some of the scenes are difficult to watch.  The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle.  Based on what Chazelle is presenting, it is a tribute to his skills that, at times during the film, I became physically uncomfortable due to the intensity of the psychological violence.  Fletcher’s teaching style is tyrannical to the point of being abusive and, while admiring his talents, he is not a character you like.  The excellent jazz score is by Justin Hurwitz.  There is a lot to appreciate during this 105 minute film and it should receive a number of Oscar nominations.   This film leaves you feeling uncomfortable about the extent to which ambition should or could control one’s life.   Fletcher tells Andrew that the two words to avoid are “Good Job”; this film presents a viewpoint as to what it takes to go beyond “Good.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Movie: St. Vincent

St. Vincent:  Bill Murray’s latest quality movie.  This film offers a simple story line:  down on his luck elderly guy gets a new neighbor with a 12 year old son.  The mother, played by Melissa McCarthy, is forced to leave Oliver,  played by Jaeden Lieberher, with Vincent (Bill Murray) due to work commitment.   Vincent and Oliver become pals as Vincent takes the boy to places like the race track and a bar.  Murray also has a pregnant “Woman of the Night” friend named Daka played by Naomi Watts.  The character is not believable as written, however, Watts’ performance is enjoyable.  The film is a perfect set up for Murray who is a master of these types of roles.  But for the movie to work, you have to like Oliver and you do.  The 102 minute movie is written and directed by Theodore Melfi.  There is nothing new here but old tales can be fun when so well acted.  Why the title?  Oliver attends a Catholic school even though his father is Jewish.  The teacher/priest gives the students an assignment to present someone they know as a present day saint.   After seeing Vincent be, among other things, a mean drunk, we learn his history which is part of the movie’s fun.  No Oscar nominations for this film but it is quite entertaining.

Movie: Birdman

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance:  a comedy, sort of.  I decided to see this film in violation of one of my self-imposed rules: if the preview leaves you uninterested, don’t spend money to see more of the same.  This film, however, is not more of the same.  In fact, I’m wondering how many Oscars nominations Birdman will receive, including a best actor nod to Michael Keaton for his portrayal of Birdman, aka Riggan.  So who is Birdman?  - -  an invented movie character who made 3 films, the last one at least 20 years in the past.  Riggan, in an attempt to show the world that he is a real actor,  has written a play based upon the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.”  The film opens with the play’s New York preview to occur in just a few hours.  The film moves between getting the play ready for opening night and Riggan’s fantasies about being Birdman.  Another self-imposed rule blown:  if you’re really aware of the music but are not watching a musical, there is a problem.  I became extremely aware of the music and I loved it.  Antonio Sanchez should receive an Oscar nomination for best original score.  Oscar nominations could also include Edward Norton as the actor with the oversized ego and, perhaps, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer and the play’s producer.  Galifianakis has no comedy lines, which is a pleasant surprise.  There is also Emma Stone’s supporting role as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, who initially comes across as a stoner but is much more.  There are also fine performances by Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan.   The original script is by the director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Amando Bo.   An excellent cast working with a very imaginative director and a creative script produces what is definitely a picture to be both seen and heard.  The 119 minute film is not predictable.  The presentation includes showing a specific scene from the play many times but each time there are distinct  differences.   Much of this movie takes place at the St. James Theatre in Times Square.  The camerawork is outstanding and another probable Oscar nomination.   The NY Times theater critic, played by Lindsay Duncan, also offers an interesting rip on critics.  I was entertained from the beginning to the end.  I highly recommend this movie.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie: Fury

Fury:  a WWII film starring Brad Pitt.  Timeline is Spring 1945.  The Allies have crossed the German border but Germany’s war defense effort remains substantial.  Pitt’s character, Sgt. Don Collier, is a tank commander.  His crew has been with him since North Africa.  When the film opens, we learn that Collier’s tank is the sole survivor from an encounter.  This film is presented in the style of Saving Sargent Ryan, and war is shown in all its brutality.  There is also a sense of Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards present, a prior Pitt WWII film.  Both films are clear that the enemies are the Nazis  and they deserve to be killed.  The tank’s crew is diverse, which is expected in a 21st century movie.  Michael Pena as Gordo, the Mexican-American, and Jon Bernthal as Grady Travis, the Southerner, play effectively off each other.  Shia LeBeouf gives an Oscar quality performance as the Bible quoting Christian.  The counterpoint character is a private, played by Logan Lerman,  who is assigned to the crew as they are heading into another battle.  Lerman is a transferee from the typing pool and has no experience with death.  He is also presented as an intellectual who has read Hemingway and plays classical piano, which we learn during an interlude between the taking of a German town and the next battle.  The break in the fighting allows Pitt to reveal the complexity of the tank sergeant.  Collier speaks fluent German but how that came to be is left unexplained.  The film was written and directed by David Ayer.  The battles have a realism that propels the movie.  The film’s title is taken from the name painted on the tank’s main gun.  This emotion is also reflected in Sgt. Collier character and in the battle scenes.  Veterans of war speak of the savagery of battle and the need to act with decency once the fighting has ended.  My father did not watch war movies because he found their treatment of war silly and unrealistic.  I think he’d find this 134 minute film to be the exception.  This film grabs your attention with the opening scenes and holds it firmly to the end.  

BOOK: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pigrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the latest novel by Haruki Murakami.  If you haven’t read any of his novels, you are missing a very talented writer.  This summer I read Kafka on the Shore.  When I saw the announcement of Murakami’s newest novel, I immediately ordered a copy.  Colorless is relatively short making for a good weekend read.  The story opens with Tsukuru, as a college sophomore, learning that his four closest friends from high school cut off all communication with him.  This act changes Tsukuru for life.  The novel has three time periods:  Tsukuru’s high school years in Nagoya; his college years in Tokyo; and as a 36 year old employed engineer.  Although much of the storyline takes place during Tsukuru’s adulthood, the story keeps returning to his time in school, and it is only towards the end of the novel that we learn why his friends, 2 males and 2 females, terminated their relationship with Tsukuru.  Unlike his friends, Tsukuru’s name does not translate to a particular color.  His friends’ surnames reflect a color:  Miss White; Miss Black; Mr. Red and Mr. Blue.  Tsukuru’s name means “to make”.  Tsukuru’s only other college friend’s name, Haida, means gray.  The colors are  metaphors for personalities.  As in Kafka on the Shore, this novel explores the difficulties of a young male coming of age in a society without the companionship or relationship of a father; Kafka and Tsukura, however, are very different males as were their fathers.  Tsukuru’s  efforts to learn what happened with his friends allows him to finally grow as an adult.  Interestingly,  the individual who pushes Tsukuru to make peace with his own history also has no color in her name.  Her dress and her life, however, are very color-coordinated.  The underlying story holds your interest and the quality of Murakami’s writing is world class.  For example:  “There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage of acute loss.”  I’ve read that Murakami has been considered for the Nobel Prize in literature.  Colorless, a relatively short work, will give you a feel as to why he is deserving of such consideration.  Then, after reading longer tales such as Kafka on the Shore, I believe that you, too, will be convinced that Murakami is deserving of such an honor.