REVIEW: “The Glass Castle”

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While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.

So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.

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The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her  story as a young adult out on her own.

Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancé (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.

Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.

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To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays the Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too repulsed by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.

Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.

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There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.

“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “While We’re Young”

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Noah Baumbach has made a career out of making movies about unlikable or generally unhappy characters. Many of his walking human complexities exist in various stages of lethargy, denial, or dissatisfaction. But at the same time the characters he creates drip with humanity and they are fascinating to watch. Yet with all of that being said, I don’t always fully go for his movies.

“While We’re Young” is another of Baumbach’s mixed bags. It is a sincere and genuinely human comedy that connects due to its observational honesty and its willingness to address real emotional struggles. But like a few other Baumbach projects, it doesn’t fully see its promise through and the final act of the film wanders away from what makes the story initially so compelling.

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Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a middle-aged couple living in New York City. Their past difficulties in having a baby are highlighted with the birth of their best friends’ daughter. Josh and Cornelia attempt to brush aside their feelings of disappointment and unfulfillment by focusing on the freedoms they have as a family of two. But even that is effected by the plain ol’ fact that they are just getting old.

Josh is a movie documentarian who has been stuck in the rut of an eight year film project that shows no signs of nearing completion. After teaching a continuing education class at a local college he is approached by young twenty something couple Jamie and Darby Massey (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The Massey’s invite Josh and Cornelia to dinner where we learn Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a huge fan of Josh’s first film.

Josh and Cornelia grow infatuated with their new young hipster friends and their exaggerated retro styles. They feel young and energetic whenever they are around Jamie and Darby and they begin feeling a disconnect with their old friends. But is this simply a refuge from their insecurities about getting older, or is the old adage correct – you’re only as old as you feel?

For most of the film Baumbach explores that question through a number of smart and witty conversations and situations. We see the Schrebnick’s, particularly Josh, open up and embrace new things. He puts aside some of his closed-minded, exclusionist perspectives and sees creativity and life in general through a new lens. But at the same time Baumbach is shrewdly pointing a finger, not at Josh but at the Masseys; asking compelling questions about the younger generation.

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Baumbach’s film works on so many levels but it also has its flaws. Stiller and Watts each convincingly play their individual parts. Yet there are moments where I couldn’t quite buy into them as a couple. There are also a few moments where the normal sharp wit gives way to the juvenile. For example, an Ayahuasca scene leads to a running vomit gag that never seems to end. I mean who doesn’t laugh at vomit, right? And the biggest problem is in the last act when the story loses its focus a bit and ventures off in a direction that simply wasn’t that interesting.

Baumbach is a unique filmmaker who tells unique stories. His tales rarely venture outside of his confined view of life, love, and relationships but that’s what provides his films with their own flavor. “While We’re Young” gives its audience things to ponder and to chew on while also being deftly funny and unflinchingly human. It just can’t quite see its strengths through till the end. It’s still a good film. Not “Frances Ha” good but hey…

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “St. Vincent”

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Bill Murray is an interesting actor who has had an interesting career. It has been a long career marked by numerous successes in lead, supporting, or even cameo roles. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Bill Murray is that most of the time he plays a variation of the same type of character. Sometimes he amps it up as high as it will go, other times he dials it down to subtle levels. Either way we often get some of the same characteristics in a Bill Murray character and it has served him well since his peculiar feature film debut all the way back in 1975.

His latest effort teams him up with writer and director Theodore Melfi. The movie is “St. Vincent”, a comedy/drama that plays with that familiar Murray onscreen personality yet offers the actor an opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles. Murray doesn’t disappoint. As you can probably guess, he plays a man named Vincent. He’s a Vietnam War veteran living in Brooklyn who seeks refuge from his misery in all the wrong places – alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling just to name a few. Vincent is right in Murray’s comfort zone. He is sarcastic and snarky and the humor we get from him is dry and subtly self-deprecating.

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Melfi’s film starts by clearly defining Vincent’s miserable circumstances. It also exposes us to Vincent’s numerous unpleasantries. It doesn’t take long for us to originate our opinions of this man. He’s rude, cranky, frequently drunk, dishonest, and shameless. His finances are a mess, he is in deep with racehorse bookies, and his self-destructive habits are wearing on his health. These problems are accentuated but also confronted when a recently divorced mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. But at the same time we eventually see that there is more to Vincent than the gruff, jagged exterior.

“St. Vincent” is all about the characters and each has their own distinct personal problems to navigate. The central relationship is between Vincent and Oliver. From the very first moment they meet the direction of the film becomes obvious. As I watched I kept thinking of a darker, edgier, subtler “Uncle Buck” minus the family dynamic. But while things are pretty predictable that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t without value. The relationships evolve at a deliberate pace which actually works in the story’s favor. But perhaps the biggest surprise came in the movie’s final act. The melodrama is ratcheted up and I knew my emotions were being set up. Yet despite that I found myself responding to it even though it felt a bit manipulative.

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Bill Murray is such a natural performer at this stage in his career and he delivers a strong performance filled with more layers than you might initially think. Young Liberher is fine although it is a pretty standard performance for that type of child’s role. One of the big surprises was McCarthy. It’s not that she was great or groundbreaking. Instead I was just pleased to see a performance from her that I didn’t mind sitting through. We also get Naomi Watts as a Russian dancer and “woman of the night”. She is solid as always although I think her character is easily the most flimsy and uneven.

Again, if you know this is a Bill Murray comedy you have an idea of what you’re going to get. But “St. Vincent” allows for enough nuances to let Murray extend himself beyond what we often see him do. This isn’t a film that breaks any new ground but it does tell a good story although a fairly predictable one. You won’t find a single surprise and there are moments where the movie could have dove into some unfamiliar waters. But at the same time it does offer a handful of intriguing characters whose lives draw us in for better or for worse. That’s something many movies never accomplish.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Vacations Gone Bad

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It will be a light week here at Keith & the Movies as I am heading out on vacation with my family. We are keeping it in the States this year and heading to the Great Smoky Mountains. But I can’t leave without dropping a new Phenomenal 5 on you. In light of our travels today I’m going to look at movie vacations but with a darker twist. These five experiences of troubled travelers certainly started with happier intentions but things go terribly wrong. Now throughout film history there have been many movie vacations that have went south so I’m not going to call this the definitive list. But there’s no doubting that these five movie vacations go phenomenally bad.

#5 – “THE EVIL DEAD”

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I may be wrong but I don’t think many people include demon possession, dismemberment, and death in their vacation itinerary. Neither did our five college kids in Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” but that’s exactly what they got. Ash (Bruce Campbell) and company plan on spending their Spring vacation in a small remote mountain cabin but their fun and relaxation is thrown aside after they unleash demonic forces via The Book of the Dead. Things couldn’t possibly go any worse for these friends as one after another meet their grisly end. For me this is a horror movie classic that still creeps me out even though it can seem a little dated. But if there’s one thing I have learned from “The Evil Dead” it’s that if I ever find an old book bound in human flesh while I’m on vacation, I’m leaving it alone!

#4 – “THE IMPOSSIBLE”

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I don’t often use movies this recent on my Phenomenal 5 lists but this one fit perfectly. Based on the true story of a family’s remarkable survival during the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, “The Impossible” captures the pain and raw emotion that such a devastating tragedy must bring. Many have harshly judged the film for downplaying the suffering of the locals and for using white actors to tell the story. I don’t buy into either of those criticisms. I think the film is respectful and powerful except when it gets a little too big at the end. This is a much more serious example of a family vacation that goes terribly bad but it’s one that deserves a spot on this list. Despite the popular criticisms, I found this to be a testament of the human spirit and of the bond of family.

#3 – “AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON”

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I’m sure that college vacationers David Kessler and Jack Goodman had several concerns going into their backpacking trip across England’s North York Moors. I’m sure they weighed everything from sprained ankles to bad weather. But I wonder if they ever factored in a werewolf attack? That’s exactly what happens in this 1981 horror/comedy classic and lets just say the results dance between really funny and really gruesome. Visions of dead friends, graphic transformations, and a big finale in downtown London are things that certainly weren’t part of the vacation planning. But they are great moments for anyone who has seen this film. When it comes to movie vacations gone wrong, it’s hard to leave this one off the list.

#2 – “THE DESCENT”

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All vacations start off as well intentioned getaways. Some are for spending times with family. Others are for seeing new parts of the world. In “The Descent”, six young women go on a group vacation intended to not only serve as a getaway but also to bring these friends back together after a deadly tragedy. The ladies go spelunking in an uncharted cave and lets just say its a really bad decision. It’s bad enough that the caverns cave in and trap them. That alone is enough to make this list. But throw in carnivorous subterranean creatures and now you understand why it’s #2. Things go really bad here in this survival horror picture that I really appreciate. It’s unique in several ways and its a perfect fit for any bad vacations list.

#1 – “FUNNY GAMES”

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“Funny Games” isn’t what I would call a horror picture but it is one of the most frightening and unsettling films you’ll see. It’s also a perfect example of a movie vacation that goes terribly wrong. Michael Haneke, a filmmaker I’ve grown to love, wrote and directed this discomforting story of a German family spending some vacation time at their Austrian lake house. The husband and wife, their young son, and the family dog have their plans turned upside down when two young men appear and take them hostage in their house. They terrorize and psychologically torture the family and Haneke sits us down and makes us watch it all. It’s brutally realistic and genuinely disturbing which is what really sets this film apart. It’s a hard film to watch but it shows Haneke’s great eye for filmmaking.

There they are – five movie vacations that I hope to NEVER experience. What do you think? There are SO many more that come to mind. Please take time to share your thoughts.

5 Phenomenal Non-Western Shootouts

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In what I think was my second ever Phenomenal 5 I looked at phenomenal western shootouts. Now, over 50 lists later, I’m going to look at 5 phenomenal non-western shootouts. I separated the two mainly because nearly every western features or ends in a big shootout. But over the years movies have found more ways to incorporate great gunplay into their storylines. And let me just say I am a sucker for a good gunfight. To narrowed the list down I stayed away from military and war movies. Like westerns they deserve a list all their own. So no more delaying. Let’s get to it. Now as you can imagine there have been tons of shootouts throughout movie history so it would be dumb to call this the definitive list. But I have no problems calling these 5 non-western shootouts absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE MATRIX”

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In 1999 the (then) Wachowski brothers gave us “The Matrix”, a science fiction action picture that quickly gained a huge following. While I don’t love the movie like many others do, I still recognize it for some of its incredible action sequences. The best one involves a shootout that had to make this list. In an attempt to rescue Morpheus, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) have a showdown in a lobby with a group of heavily armed agents. But the two come prepared. With trench coats filled with pistols and sub machine guns, they shoot it out in a stylistic slow motion barrage of bullets. It’s an incredibly slick sequence chock full of gunfire, flying debris, thousands of shell casings, flying bodies. I don’t know about you but that’s right up my alley!

#4 – “THE INTERNATIONAL”

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One of the more underrated movies of the last few years is “The International”. This globetrotting thriller starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts has one of the most realistic and energetic shootouts I’ve ever seen. The two stars are hot on the trail of a corrupt international bank that’s filtering money to arms traders, terrorist groups, and an assortment of other baddies. Owen tracks down an important lead to the Guggenheim Museum. But as he moves to apprehend the lead he finds a heavily armed hit team is waiting. An intense 7 minute shootout follows that’s up there with anything else you’ll see. Lead flies, bullet holes riddle the white museum walls, and glass shatters as Owen tries to make it out alive. This shootout blows me away.

#3 – “THE KILLER” (1989)

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Director John Woo could have a list all his own. Woo made a name for himself by filming some of the most dynamic shootouts ever. This king of the Hong Kong action movie genre gave me plenty of scenes to choose from but I went with the final showdown from his 1989 film “The Killer”. Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee find themselves at odds with a violent criminal organization known as the Triads (I won’t spoil why). While meeting in a church, the two find themselves surrounded by loads of heavily armed (isn’t that always the case) Triads thugs. An insane shootout follows as the thugs attack the church in full force. Muzzle flashes, screaming gunfire, and an insane assortment of falls are all mixed with Woo’s signature slow motion. Bravo!

#2 – “DESPERADO”

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I have a real soft spot for Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 action flick “Desperado”. It’s easily my favorite of his Mariachi films. “Desperado” has such a great mix of insane over the top action and hilarious humor. And of course Rodriguez’s style is undeniable. There are several great shootouts in the film but there’s one that stands out for me. El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) calls his two guitar case toting buddies and squares off against a drug lord’s gang. In old west style, the two sides square off on a dirt road but this is no old west gunfight. The bad guys pull up in their bulletproof limo armed with assault rifles. But our mariachis aren’t armed with plain old guitar cases. One is actually a rocket launcher and the others are fully automatic mini-guns. The result is a ridiculously wild shootout with a scorching Tito and Tarantula tune playing in the background. Perfection!

#1 – “HEAT”

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If you ask me about shootouts in the movies one will always instantly come to mind – the downtown firefight in Michael Mann’s fantastic crime thriller “Heat”. First of all the movie is spectacular and features two of our greatest actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Pacino is a cop, De Niro is a criminal with a muddy moral compass. De Niro and his crew (which includes Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore) are finishing their final big bank heist when they run into Pacino and a brigade of cops. An intensely realistic shootout follows in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Few shootouts can match what Mann gives us here. The loud sounds of accentuated gunfire bouncing off of the buildings and the brilliance of how it’s shot and edited pull you into the middle of the chaos. It’s truly phenomenal!

So how those five non-western shootouts? Agree or disagree with my choices? Let me know what shootouts would have made your list.