Birdman (B-), The latest film from director Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel) seems to be getting some award buzz, so I figured I should check it out. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan Thomas, a once-successful actor who walked away from a popular superhero movie franchise to pursue . . . well, I’m not sure what, but something different. Now, many years later, he is struggling to open a Broadway play that he has written, is directing, and plans to star in. Everything is going wrong, of course; money is short, critics are sharpening their knives, and to top it off Thomas is starting to hear a scornful voice in his head—the deep voice of Birdman, the superhero role he left behind. It’s a pretty entertaining movie with lots of star power. Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) plays Thomas’s in-and-out-of-rehab daughter. Edward Norton (Fight Club) plays the temperamental actor who just might save the play. Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover) is Thomas’s over-stressed lawyer, and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) are the actresses in Thomas’s play. I’d have to say the film’s weakness is its length; at 119 minutes, it just started to feel a little long to me. Cut out about 15 or 20 minutes towards the end, and I’d probably give it a solid B.
The Homesman (B). Westerns are such exotic creatures, I like to try to see them whenever a new one is released. Of course, they are frequently terrible, like the January Jones vehicle Sweetwater, but I admire directors who try to breathe life into this wheezy old genre. I assumed this one would be laughably bad from the capsule reviews I read: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough-as-nails farmer in the Nebraska Territory who agrees to transport three pioneer women back East because the three have gone stark raving mad from the tragedies and hardships of life on the frontier. It turned out to be not half bad. Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3) directs and co-stars as a crusty old ne’er-do-well who agrees to help Cuddy attempt the six-week trek through dangerous and desolate Indian country. Swank gives a brave performance as a lonely 31-year-old spinster who gets told to her face, more than once, that she is a very plain-looking woman, and bossy to boot. It’s a pretty grim tale, with some moments of dark humor to lighten (?) the mood. I’d give it a higher grade but for a serious twist that seemed pretty unlikely to me. You’ll be impressed at how many famous actors Jones persuaded to be in his pic, including Meryl Streep (Hope Springs), John Lithgow (Interstellar), James Spader (Lincoln), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Frances Ha) plays one of the crazy women.
The Book of Life (B-). When I saw in the opening credits that this animated film was produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), I figured (correctly) that I was in for a wild ride. It’s a story within a story; a small group of ill-mannered school children go on a field trip to a museum, where a saucy tour guide soon has them spellbound with a tale about Old Mexico. That tale is the wild part. It involves a love triangle in which Manolo (voice of Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También) and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) vie for the hand of their childhood friend Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana, Star Trek). It also involves a wager on the love triangle by two magical beings who rule over the realms of the dead. And an effusive magical candlemaker (voice of Ice Cube, 21 Jump Street). And a wicked bandit named Chakal, and a bullfighter voiced by opera superstar Plácido Domingo. Anyway, it’s an undeniably creative movie. The animation is entertainingly off-kilter in a Tim Burton-ish sort of way, and snippets of pop songs from Elvis Presley to Mumford and Sons crop up unexpectedly, but somehow the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Still, I’d have to say it’s worth a look if you have an hour and a half to kill.
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston (Norton 2013). This is probably not a book to be seen reading in public if you want others to think you are cool. The subtitle gives you a good hint as to what you’ll find inside: an archaeological expedition into the origins of a handful of punctuation symbols and other symbols used in writing. Some are not so common, like the “pilcrow” or paragraph sign (¶), and the “manicule,” or little pointing hand. Some are quite common, like the pound sign, the @ symbol, and the ampersand. One is a recent invention that never really got off the ground: the so-called “interrobang,” which is a combination question mark and exclamation point (‽). And finally, the author discusses recent attempts to create a conventional “irony mark” for conveying that the author is joking or being sarcastic. (He concludes that the smiley-face emoticon is probably as good as we’re going to do.) Kind of interesting, if you like this sort of thing. I will add that the print in the book seemed unusually small to me, and many of his illustrations taken from old manuscripts were very hard for me make any sense of. But these may just be signs that I need bifocals.
Interstellar (B+). Director Chris Nolan (Inception) is back with another big-concept movie. I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but almost a month into the film’s release I think I can safely say it is about astronauts searching for habitable worlds other than Earth because Earth itself is getting increasingly less habitable as the 21st century goes on. Matthew McConaughey (Mud) plays the lead astronaut on the mission, while Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) plays some other scientist-type member of the crew. More than that, I cannot say. I definitely enjoyed it; although the run time is 169 minutes, I never got bored or looked at my watch. But I can’t quite give it an “A” grade because there’s just too much stuff that left me scratching my head and thinking, “Huh?” I understand that Nolan tried to stick to the known rules of science in creating the movie, but he gets into some pretty far-out theoretical physics along the way. As long as I turned my brain off and focused on the spectacle, I liked it just fine. If you’re into sci-fi, and especially if you enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will probably enjoy this movie.
Captain Phillips. A-. I never got around to seeing this film in the theaters last year, but it received nominations for Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, so I figured I would see what the buzz was all about. Good grief, this was a surprisingly riveting movie. When it started and I realized that it was about the Somali pirates raids on U.S. ships off the coast of Africa, I tensed up, thinking that I probably wasn’t going to be all that enamored with the film. Wrong. The film draws you in as it sets up the scene for a raid of the US MV Maersk Alabama. This is the telling of the true story of the 2009 hijacking. Captain Richard Phillips is played by Tom Hanks. Hanks’ performance is so amazing that I totally got lost in the fact that it was Tom Hanks and I felt like I was right there with him during every tense moment. I am really surprised that he didn’t at least get a nomination for Best Actor out of this one. The story is a good one and with a good outcome. Even if this were fictionalized, the suspense of the story would make it a good movie to see, but knowing that it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible. I recommend this move whole-heartedly.
Fury (A-). It is April 1945, and the American army is driving deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. But the Germans are continuing their desperate resistance, and military and civilian casualties are piling up at a sickening rate. In Fury, we join the five-man crew of an American tank (nicknamed Fury), and we get a grounds-eye view of the final days of the war. Brad Pitt (12 Years a Slave) plays the savvy sergeant in command, and Logan Lerman (Noah) plays Norman, the green recruit who has been plucked out of a clerk assignment to become the tank’s assistant driver. There is mud and gore aplenty as Fury chugs along from one battlefield to the next, and we see how the war coarsens Norman as it has already brutalized the rest of the crew. The battle sequences are truly top-notch, especially a pitched battle at close range between three American tanks and one far superior German tank. A scene in which the Americans conquer a German town is also fascinating as we watch to see if the Americans will treat the vanquished as badly as the Nazis did. Director David Ayer (End of Watch) is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, as only a few “Hollywoodized” and unbelievable moments mar this intense film. Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout.