“God’s Not Dead” Review

2014 brought with it many different types of religious films from major epics (Exodus, Noah) to soapy melodramas (Heaven is for Real, Left Behind). Most of these were forgettable, but God’s Not Dead was such a poisonous piece of propaganda for the fundamentalist Christian movement. This is a film built specifically to tell that group of people exactly the kind of reassurance they want to hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s not based in truth, logic, individual spirituality or honest characters. All that matters is that the Christians are seen as righteous victims and that everyone who isn’t a follower are slithering bullies of belief.

My first preconceptions with God’s Not Dead was that there would be a film which openly talks about religion in an educational avenue. This could be really interesting and wind up being the type of film that gets people interested and talking about the topic. Perhaps I was far too hopeful as the film dips so far down into the fallacious Christian reasoning that the debate turns into classroom melodrama fit for a Hallmark production.

Kevin Sorbo plays Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor that is so over-the-top cynical he requires his class write down ‘god is dead’ on a piece of paper to acknowledge this and move on with the course. One student, Josh, writes the exact opposite and chooses to turn the classroom into a courtroom as he defends his position that god does exist. I question why he wouldn’t just go to the Dean and report the teacher for forcing his beliefs upon the class. I know the student doesn’t do this because then there would be no debate about religion, but, honestly, a movie more about the bias of college teachers and the aftermath of being reported would be far more intriguing.

Okay, so it’s a battle of atheist beliefs versus Christian beliefs. This could still be an enthralling duel similar to how Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson squared off against each other with surprising intellect. But, since this is a drama narrative, there has to be a personal aspect to this debate. And, once again, another Christian goes on the offensive that an atheist makes their belief structure based on hatred of fate rather than a documented and informed opinion.

In the closing moments of the debate, Josh yells at his teacher “Why do you hate god?” to which Radisson screams “Because he took my wife away!” Josh looks at him with a straight face and questions how Radisson can hate someone he claims does not exist. Mic drop. Not only does the movie have the audacity to have all the students rise up in a triumphant chant forcing the teacher to retreat in defeat, but the script then kills off Radisson. After being struck in a car crash, he accepts God before dying. What a childish and gross method to illustrate a debate.

If the movie were simply working on a character level focusing on the teacher’s emotional drive, it could’ve been a passable drama from that angle. But this is a film that wants to stage the debate and fix it so the Christian believers come out on top. Well, what about the opposition that isn’t just a closeted Christian turned Atheist by unfortunate events? Or do the filmmakers honestly believe that the teacher’s stance defines every Atheist approach to the subject? This debate was a lot like watching a meek boxer square-off against a chicken with a Mike Tyson name tag. The boxer will win and claim he defeated Mike Tyson even though all he did was tenderize poultry.

For those who feel I’m banging too much on this film for personal preference in faith, turn the tables for a moment and pretend there was an atheist spin on the script. A student is forced to prove to a teacher that god is dead. The teacher screams that he hates evolution and the student questions how he can hate something he claims does not exist. The teacher later dies and comes to realize there is no god before passing away. Sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it?

And even looking at this film from a Christian perspective, I would think think that they would be offended by something so soft. Don’t you think a true Christian who has unshaken faith and dedication to their religion would be able to stand up to a harder target than Radisson? Where is the challenge? Why create yet another strawman argument? Why not make all these characters more fully realized so that they’re more than just the cookie cutter templates of every cheap production of this nature?

But the film is not just about the debate. Similar to Crash or Babel, we follow the stories of other students in how they come to terms with their own faith. Once again, another great idea hampered by the dim outlook of Christianity. A female Muslim displays a curiosity in the Bible the winds up with her father screaming her out of the house. A left-wing blogger who pokes fun at Duck Dynasty gets his just desserts when afflicted with cancer. And just to pound one last crucifying cross into your skull about the true message of the movie, a member of Duck Dynasty makes a cameo to call upon the college campus to use social media and shout out that God is not dead.

If God isn’t dead, he certainly received a headache from this shameless strawman of a picture carried out in his name. What could have just been forgettable Christian fluff goes on the offensive for what it believes to be an attack on religion. It’s still laughably bad for how dramatic the filmmakers believe they’re being for challenging the system with ludicrous villains, but a little less so when you realize there’s a large collective taking this tripe seriously. And that’s when the ironic laughs start turning into awkward ones.

“Inherent Vice” Review

Inherent Vice is more of a ride than a story. It stages far too many characters, plot lines and events into a messy stew and dares you to keep up. The film proceeds at a stoner’s pace fitting the hippie protagonist’s mindset in 1970’s Los Angeles. The story continues to build and build, layer upon layer like a topping tower of excess. What exactly is it about? It starts off with a detective trying to stop a wife and lover from conning her husband out of her money by sending him to the nut house. Then it twists into a conspiracy involving neo-nazis. Then a drug boat is thrown into the mix. Then a crazy cult centered around an actor becomes yet another ingredient. And on it grows like an out of control kudzu in all directions.

It’s a film that’s easier to talk about for its characters than its story. Seen as more of an anthology of dialogue-driven scenes, each conversation presents some quality actors given plenty of material to play with. Joaquin Phoenix is in top form as the tripped-out private investigator Doc, stumbling around Los Angeles in his mutton chops and dirty feet. He relies on info and strange companionship from Josh Brolin as Bigfoot, a detective/Adam-12 starring character with a weird obsession for chocolate bananas and Japanese-made pancakes. Martin Short is a riot as a perverted dentist/drug dealer. And Owen Wilson plays an undercover agent with who seems just as lost and confused as Doc in this mess of a story.

But just what is this film about? Perhaps its stoner atmosphere of a stoner P.I. is a script best diagnosed by those of similar mindsets. The dialogue is kept lucidly vague and overly decadent to the point where it almost requires a hippie dictionary to translate. It’s also rattled off at a pace fast enough to just barely keep up with the ever-changing story. It felt like a slightly more grounded version of Roger Corman’s The Trip in which Peter Fonda goes on a crazy drug-induced journey through the city. But while Fonda’s trip was more random and weird for the sake of weird, there’s a strange method to the madness of Phoenix’s tracking of leads. I’m still not too sure what it was, but the original author Thomas Pynchon certainly dares us to find out what it is through some unique characters.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson does little to glue together this disassembled jigsaw puzzle of a 1970’s caper/romance/drama/whatever Pynchon intended. He merely paints the pieces with an old-fashioned 35mm finish and a stylish palette of the 70’s era. Much like films in the same presentation as The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, hilarious to follow, strange to witness and maddening to comprehend. At some point in the film, you’ll just give up trying to follow the multiple plot lines and just bask in the charisma of its characters. It certainly makes the film more enjoyable, but at 148 minutes, you’ll start to miss your brain being on to engage in a story.

Inherent Vice is just a wicked mess of psychedelic ramblings strange enough to make Hunter S. Thompson’s work seem mainstream. It takes perhaps too long of a drag the way it keeps the freeform plot fluctuating for a staggering 148 minutes, but there’s enough balances of weird dialogue scenes that it’s never entirely boring. This is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea considering Paul Thomas Anderson might’ve slipped too much trippy into this story/ride. But I was more than content for it being so loose with its story and fresh with its characters. If you can find humor in Martin Short freaking out in a car with drugs or Josh Brolin screaming in Japanese for pancakes, you’re on safe ground with this movie.

“Top Five” Review

Top Five is the third film Chris Rock has written, directed and starred in. Now at age 40, Rock has crafted a comedy that is a rather personal story. It’s not quite his autobiography picture, but it rings with so many awkward truths and concerns for a comedian who pines for the better days. His character of Andre Allen is a comedian who no longer feels funny as he directly tells some hecklers on the street. And yet everyone seems to want him to be funny as they call him out for his highest-grossing film character which he woefully regrets playing.

There’s a definite comparison between Rock’s role as the zebra Marty in the Madagascar pictures and his Top Five persona’s notable performance as Hammy the cop bear. He probably feels the same aggravation with bystanders shouting “Afro Circus!” as they spout his Hammy catchphrase “It’s Hammy time!” in this movie. The biggest difference being that his Madagascar character doesn’t have a beer named after him (I hope). He desperately tries to distance himself with more serious roles as he plays the lead in a Django Unchained revision of history. But all any of the radio interviewers seem to want to talk about is when there will be a Hammy the Bear 4. He cares so little for these interviews he actually plays video games while delivering one over the phone.

But then New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) manages to be the most honest person he’s met. After some squabbling about their interview, they soon hit it off big with true stories of their similar paths. Both of them have been alcoholics and have some stories to tell about their experiences. The sex they’ve had has been strange and awkward which they don’t feel as embarrassed sharing with one another. These two are destined for one another, but still have a few more disclosures to get out of their system before they can make that leap. Namely, Andre has to find a way to deal with his staged marriage to a power-hungry celebrity.

Though very meta in how the story mirrors Rock’s feelings about stardom, the movie is still very funny in its own right for hitting several notes. When Andre hangs around a crowded room of his family, they crack all sorts of rips on each other about their shortcomings that they all seem to take in stride. When Andre talks with Chelsea about his past, he leaves in every nasty detail about his most awkward parties. There’s even some dropping of the curtain as when Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg appear as themselves to give Andre some marriage advice. The best they can muster is don’t get caught cheating and have the wife sign a prenup.

Speaking of such stars, there are plenty of surprise cameos that include Kevin Hart, JB Smoove and Tracy Morgan amid many more. All of them get their moments to shine without feeling too out-of-place for the story. Though I have to admit one of the most hilarious moments was watching DMX try to sing outside his comfort zone in a horribly off-key manner. But the pleasing cap to the film is seeing Chris Rock finally get back on a stage and perform some stand-up comedy. He certainly hasn’t lost his touch as a thought-provoking and edgy comedian who pushes buttons and makes you laugh. If there were any doubt that Chris Rock is losing his true sense of humor that made him an icon of Saturday Night Life and the stand-up circuit, Top Five is proof that he is still alive and well.

Top Five is some of Chris Rock’s best work in a long time, due in part to writing what he knows best: himself. It harkens back to a sense of classic Chris with the type of comedy he should be doing more of. If you miss that version that was buried after years of Madagascar sequels and Adam Sandler romps, this is the movie to renew your faith in the comedian.

“Whitney” (2015) Review

Lifetime just cannot wait for the chance to slap together these post-mortem retrospectives on female celebrities. Like a greedy consumer on Black Friday, they eagerly wait at the door for their demise and hop on the rights like a speedy vulture. Whereas other studios would wade and sort through the best route to take, Lifetime Productions will just jump right into these biographies with their made for TV movies. I suppose that’s the best thing you can say about these Lifetime films is that they are certainly timely on alluring subject, but, then again, so are tabloids and gossip rags.

But let’s touch on the one aspect of the Whitney Houston story that this film nails just right: the music. Naturally, you’d expect a few performances out of both Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston and Arlen Escarpeta as Bobby Brown. This TV movie does not disappoint in that department. Despite a separate voice providing Whitney’s vocals (Deborah Cox), you buy into their characters pouring out their heart and soul. Artificial? You bet, but it’s worth the Frankenstein approach to make Whitney’s concerts work. Their presence on stage and their powerful delivery of the lyrics is probably the best tribute to both Whitney and Bobby the film could hope to aspire towards.

And then the scenes of real dialogue begin as the movie slowly falls apart. As with all Lifetime productions, the TV movie merely touches on the media bullet points of Whitney’s relationship with Bobby Brown. We see the twinkle in her eye when she catches his performances, the flirty words they exchange for their love and the feuding dilemma of their shifting careers. Not much else is harped upon. Whitney’s cocaine addiction? Merely a glaze of mention between scenes and never really an issue. Their rocky marriage? Addressed, but mostly left hanging in dramatic clichés.

It’s rather amazing how the film tries to skirt around some of the juicier elements of Whitney Houston’s life. All the ingredients are there for a fully realized biopic, but all director Angela Bassett does is breeze through them for a mostly celebratory piece. It seems like such a waste given that Bassett starred alongside Houston in Waiting to Exhale. You’d think she’d provide some unique perspective having known Whitney during the height of her success. She mostly keeps the examination to a minimum, not even touching that familiar era of her life as Bassett restricts the story from 1989 to 1994. It’s a waste of personal perspective and a waste of real drama that is never tapped – most likely out of respect for the dead. But the film was criticized by the Houston family so it seems like a bust in that regard as well.

The performances in Whitney have all the love of a tribute while the drama has all the interest of a short high school essay on the famous singer. I’d say it’s worth viewing for the well-assembled concert footage, but if you’re fast-forwarding through the majority of the film to get to these sequences, you’re better off just watching actual concert footage of Whitney Houston. It’s a much more fitting way to remember the star than filling in the blanks of her early-90’s life with a Lifetime glaze.

“Nightcrawler” Review

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is an intelligent man of frightening morals. He has enough determination to slick talk and inch his way into money, but has issues building trust. With a blank slate for his future, he is inspired one night by a nosy cameraman shoving his lens into the scene of a car accident. The cameraman is constantly moving and hustling to make a few dollars off some shocking footage he can sell to the local TV news. It’s a fast-paced and flashy career that he becomes infatuated with for all its thrill. Maybe it’s the hours, but he wants this job so badly he is willing to do absolutely anything and everything to be the best at such a seedy job.

If you’re following this setup by traditional movie lore, it appears as though this is another rise-and-fall story of one man seeking to make his mark. But this is a movie about a character who is so sharp that it’s all about the rise. It seems like a given that one day he will end up the victim in his own line of work, but not with this movie. I’ve seen that movie a dozen times in the form of Scarface, Wall Street and a hefty handful of Martin Scorsese pictures. Rather than give us the inevitable finale, Nightcrawler simply skims over the beginning and gives us the juicy middle to this scummy businessman.

Lou, drawn to the glamorous life of a twilight crime paparazzi, quickly steals a bike and sells it for a camera and laptop. He hits the streets and cruises around until he finds a car crash. One night he is lucky and pokes his lens directly into the bloody aftermath. The cops push and shove him back, but he butts in long enough to get what he needs. When he enters one of the local LA news stations, he appears sheepish but committed. The news anchor pays him a modest amount and sends him on his way hoping to never see him again.

But Lou never stops. Even when challenged and threatened by a competing cameraman played by Bill Paxton, Lou continues to push becoming more crafty, vicious and slimy with his methods for making the most of his footage. He hires an intern and pays him peanuts. He breaks into crime scenes to get exclusive footage. He conceals vital crime evidence and information to arrive at a murder before it happens to be the first on the scene. When questioned about his content, he hides the juicy bits from the demanding feds.

What’s most frightening about Lou is his calculated mind and cool attitude for approaching every social situation. When Lou is intimidated by Paxton’s character to join his video crew, Lou simply replies with a calm smile stating how he has such an urge to beat the man in front of him. Lou later finds himself attracted to a female news producer, but his attempt at wooing is more a business deal than a friendly chat. He knows what he wants and thinks an awful lot about how he wants to get it.

Now how could a movie about such a psychopath be so appealing? The character of Lou takes a dark and illegal path, but it’s one that gets results in the messed up world of broadcasting. The local news organization could have turned down Lou’s disturbingly graphic footage the broke the law, but they did not. The down-on-his-luck intern could have turned tail and ran from such a dangerous place, but he did not.

The media world is portrayed as a deceptive game of skirting the law with no regard for human life. Lou just happens to be the best player and we let it happen. If there was more morality in the profession, Lou would be either a bum or arrested for his behavior. He is, instead, crowned for his efforts as the king of news videos. The methods of a madman are treated as someone just doing his job.

There is no downfall of the crazy cameraman. He doesn’t get shot in the line of duty, arrested by the police or spiral down a hole of drugs and alcohol. Lou gets away with everything and comes out on top. To kill him off or kick him down the mountain he built would be a cheat that implies some justice in this microcosm of crime and broadcast news. The good guys do not win in this industry. It’s the smart people who ascend to the top and the most intelligent one in this picture just happen be completely insane and immoral. For being both a commentary on scummy media and an intense character study of quietly evil men, Nightcrawler is an endlessly infatuating movie for how dark it presents its world that becomes frighteningly reflective of current media and a loss of morality.

 

“Lalaloopsy: Festival of Sugary Sweets” Review

Years ago I ripped apart the merchandising vehicle that was Monster High, hoping it would die out within a few years for a new fad. Not only did it spur forth with many more films, but now it has expanded into live-action music videos. I later saw grown women donning the garb of the monster dolls for a costume contest. For as much as I loathed the pun-heavy writing and bland character development of those films, I now find myself pining for the eye-rolling of Monster High. After watching another one of these Lalaloopsy videos, I’d be grateful if my eyes could do something besides droop in boredom.

There really is nothing to this story and I’m struggling to find something to latch onto with Festival of Sugary Sweets. The doll world of the Lalaloopsy girls is currently obsessed with their festival of assembling mountains of pastries and cakes. I guess cavities are never an issue when everyone in your society is made of yarn, cloth and buttons. But, oh no, they’ve run out of sugar! What will they do for the festival? They learn to experiment with natural sweeteners and use more fruits and vegetables for assembling treats. And that’s about all there is in a script that’s padded out to fill 45 minutes. There is no major crisis that affects the festival and no character hangups that force anybody to learn anything.

But the way the film just quickly glazes over the aspects of the Lalaloopsy society did leave me with a few questions about their mechanics. The girls of this doll world seem to have organic means of consumption the way they are constantly gobbling down pastries and cakes. I originally thought that sweets were their sole means of nutrition given how it’s all I ever see them eat. Then the film introduces natural sweets and healthier options which may suggest that Lalaloopsy’s agriculture has similar formation to humans. But it appears that two of the littlest girls can make mud pies and actually eat them. This tears down most of my theory in that it’s possible the Lalaloopsy girls don’t actually have any taste buds or proper organs to process food. Is the act of eating just for pretend, echoing previous lifeforms that had taste and digestion?

This brings about the evolutionary questioning of Lalaloopsy’s conception. Just who made these girls and how are they created? I’m assuming they have some grand creator as there are no mothers or fathers present for these girls who seem to live on their own. Maybe they are all orphans of a horrible genetic experiment in combining brains with yarn, exiling the subjects to a secluded island where they run out their remaining days in harmless splendor. They all certainly appear to be built for specific purposes in mind the way their one-track habits rob them of any true personality. The cheerleader girl only cheers people in every aspect of life. Not cheering people on must result in termination of her functions since this character does nothing else in this movie. There are younger girls in the group so perhaps they have also mastered the art of procreation in their yarn-assembled race.

And I just now realized I’ve wrote an examination of Lalaloopsy longer and deeper than anyone will ever care to write. I’ve also probably written the word Lalaloopsy more times than any normal human being should have to write.

Festival of Sugary Sweets is another addition to the Lalaloopsy universe with more artificial sweetener than Splenda. There’s no engaging story or character development to hold your attention even on the most base level of children’s entertainment. The dolls are probably a great product and are a better use of time for kids to develop their creativity. Leave them alone with some of these toys for 45 minutes and I guarantee they’ll weave a better tale than this bland excuse for tie-in marketing.

“The Interview” (2014) Review

After all the controversy over the Sony hacks and North Korea threatening America if they released The Interview into theaters, is this comedy any good? While it’s certainly nowhere near the level of controversial buzz it generated, yes, it was a funny picture. It will not be fondly remembered as the satire that stabbed violently at the ordeal of North Korea with telling wit, but did manage to be humorous for what it wanted to be. Given Seth Rogen’s previous comedic projects (This is the End), it wasn’t exactly aiming for the furthest heights of satire.

That being said, there is some cleverness given to its semi-meta premise. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a talk show host that thrives on the most scandal-worthy conversations with celebrities. Eminem comes on the program to reveal that he’s homosexual and his lyrics were acting as clues for these years. But all these interviews to little satiate his producer/friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) and his thirst to produce better television. Seeking to be more professional, the two end up landing the most exclusive of interviews with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un (Randall Park) in his native country. Of course, acquiring such exclusivity attracts the CIA that want Dave and Aaron to act as secret agents and take out the dictator.

The humor for this let’s-kill-a-dictator plot is on par with Rogen’s line of comedy. There are no shortage of weed and penis jokes in stock to please the most bro-worthy of college boys. Foreign objects are placed inside rears and limbs are severed in the name of shock. But when the script can pull itself away from a-typical low-brow, there are a few nuggets of insightful satire on North Korea. The Korean children bred and conditioned for entertainment play guitars for their guests with disgustingly perfected smiles. The grocery store Kim stages for his visitors is a fake which makes for a great reveal once James Franco finds himself wronged. Throughout their stay, Franco believes all of Kim’s words while Rogen politely nods along being aware of all his tricks. It’s a predictable, but playful enough dynamic for the dolt and the straight man.

The comedy is somewhat grounded by an arc for Dave and Kim. The two find themselves developing a friendship in their manchild lifestyles of too much play and a want to be taken seriously. I was rather surprised at how much the movie held back in transforming Kim into a goof – thanks to both the script and Randall Park’s performance. He’s certainly silly the way he favors Katey Perry as his music-to-drive-tanks-to, but rarely over the top with emotions and secrets. If the real Kim Jong-un favors the presence of Dennis Rodman, being in possession of a Katey Perry song seems very plausible.

There’s a romance between Seth Rogen and a female NK soldier, but it’s mostly background dressing for Rogen to get in a few laughs as the nervous spy. As Franco is laid back and easy-going as he grows to love Park’s Kim, Rogen gets to do most of the spy work with his mishandling of secret weapons. He even wedges in a few fight scenes since I swear it must be a requirement in his contract that he does some slapstick.

Perhaps it’s just all the controversy surrounding the movie’s release, but it felt as though the satire should have gone a bit further. Seth Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg spent a large amount of time doing research on this subject from as far back as when Kim Jong-ill was still alive. It’s a little disappointing that after all that work and a desire to make something a little more relevant of the times, the end result is one that fills in most of its blanks with toilet humor. Rather than have more fun with focusing on the culture of North Korea, Franco and Rogen spend most of their time bickering in a guest room about (what else?) weed and penises. Maybe they secretly knew they were treading in hot territory and wanted to play it a tad safe.

While The Interview doesn’t redefine Rogen and Franco’s comedy careers, it’s good for a few laughs both insightful and dumb. Most of its base humor is deserving of a chuckle and the few digs at North Korea are well-thought. For not having as much bite, there is enough satirical bark at media and dictators to offer more than I expected. To think that a nuclear war could’ve broken out over such a comedy is more laughable for how there was such a big stir over such a low-brow farce. There’s also of bit of reflection in the character considering North Korea has made a multitude of propaganda films, but one suggestive piece of satire on our end causes outrage. Art reflects life – not that I’d considered The Interview a piece of art. It does rhyme with fart though.

“Birdman” Review

In the very first shot of Birdman, we see a fireball descend from the sky. The movie then cuts to Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thompson levitating in his dressing room in nothing but his underwear. His grisly voice can be heard and although his back is to the camera we can tell it is not his natural voice. The voice remarks “How did we end up here? This place is horrible; smells like balls.” As we soon learn, Riggan is in a terrible place: a theater filled with people just as egotistical as himself. But this is his own grave that he dug so deep he can’t help but laugh to the bottom when the dirt entombs him. And we the audience are taken along on this rollercoaster of a maddening ride through his messed up mind and the destructive personalities surrounding him.

Riggan Thompson is a washed up actor who used to be well known in the 1990’s as the star of the Birdman superhero movies. The poster of him in the Birdman costume looms over his dressing room as a painful reminder of what he used to be. On his TV, an entertainment report focuses on Robert Downey Junior’s Iron Man franchise being a billion dollar success. It’s another life Riggan loathes, regrets and envies. Birdman now haunts his mind as another character, beating down his own ego as he tries to force Riggan back onto the easy street of doing superhero movies.

Birdman is the little voice of Riggan’s doubt that he is not a stage actor, writer or director. He constantly questions why he bothers trying to create a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Riggan is constantly at battle with this aspect of his psyche that has made him so far gone he starts hallucinating superpowers. In private, we see him fling objects around his dressing room with his mind. On the streets of New York City, he soars above the masses like a graceful bird. The next thing he knows, his dressing room is in shambles or he’s standing on top of a building ready to plunge. He doesn’t relay his personal demons to anyone he works with and the few he does brushes it off as jitters.

Having once been admired in the spotlight, Riggan’s respect has diminished in his inner circle. His daughter turned assistant (Emma Stone) has a bitter disrespect for being ignored by her dad as a child and into adulthood. His new lead actor (Edward Norton) looks down on Riggan being a man of the stage directed by a man of the silver screen. His lead actress and love interest Laura is bitter and torn about them not being able to have kids. His lawyer Jake is so angrily concerned with the bottom line that he is more than willing to lie his ass off to Riggan just to get the show off the ground. And even the local critic Tabitha despises the man so much she flat-out tells him she’ll write a scathing review of his play before she witnesses one scene.

Why does Riggan surround himself with such detrimental characters to his psyche and bank account? He needs them. Without them, he would have no reason to climb, no reason to bleed and no play to create. They are the challenge that reminds him of how alive he needs to be for the greatness he hopes to achieve.

The cast of the movie is perfectly playing to their personal strengths. One has to wonder how much of Keaton’s performance is based off his personal experience playing Batman in the Tim Burton movies. While arguing with his Birdman persona about how he cannot return to the superhero movie game, he shouts “it’s not 1992 anymore” referring to the last time Keaton portrayed Batman in Batman Returns (1992). He then lifts up his shirt in the mirror to display everything that he’s become from his scalp to his belly comparing himself to a “turkey with Leukemia.” He even mentions to interviewers in the film his reasoning for passing on Birdman 4, possibly referring to Keaton’s true reasoning for not going along on with the other two Batman films of the 1990’s.

Edward Norton also plays a bit of a meta character in the way he nearly destroys the production with his backstage and onstage tempers. He challenges Riggan in rehearsals, throws a drunken tirade during a preview showing, wrestles Riggan to the floor in the break room and even goes so far as to nearly rape one of the female actors on stage in a bedroom scene. And yet he seems to merely be playing the role of the diva until he retreats to the roof for a cigarette where he unloads his honesty on Riggan’s daughter. He laments how he’s never himself until he’s on stage. It’s possible he’s never himself similar to the way Peter Sellers joked that he had his true personality surgically removed.

Birdman was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, best known for his “trilogy of death” that included Amores perros (2001), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). All three of those films were told in a non-linear, anthology format of connecting stories. While those were emotional journeys of trying to find life after death, Birdman attempts to find some life before death. Or maybe life during death as there are many who theorize Riggan officially kills himself at several points in the picture and that the final act is his own purgatory vision. Whatever your theory, Birdman is an infatuating and dizzying character drama that I will absolutely love examining and dissecting for years to come.

“Dear White People” Review

Dear White People is one of the best films of 2014 because it tackles a new form of racism. The safe Ivy League campus of which the story takes place breeds the type of racism that is more subtle and creeps into your skin where it festers into an almost invisible hate. It’s easy to spot racism when it presents itself in the form of the Klu Klux Klan, Nazis, blackface, old-world stereotypes, slavery and “the big N.” Those are big targets easy enough for any reasonable person to nail with a palpable hit. It’s quite another thing to find a way to deal with racism in the form of media, elections, tribalism and romance. These are not so easy to spot and even harder to resolve. Perhaps they can never be resolved.

This becomes painfully apparent when one of the school chairs remarks that there is no more racism in America anymore (“except for Mexicans”). From his perspective, racism is dead especially for these privileged kids. He doesn’t spot any lynching, fragrant uses of the N word, banning others for their skin color or a vulgar play of stereotypes in sight. But racism doesn’t come in such simple packages and cannot be dismissed simply because the biggest issues have been quelled.

The film takes a look at the subject from a micro level, following four very different black students on campus. The centerpiece is Samantha White, the loud and proud racially-motivated radio host and filmmaking student. She writes a book of black people observations on what makes a positive African American role model and what constitutes a walking stereotype. Her initial film project is The Rebirth of a Nation, a modern role-reversal of D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Sam’s tactics on the subject are strictly eye-for-an-eye. But her path is built on a shaky foundation. When she applies to be the head of a local fraternity, she only does so to rile the masses. She does not expect to win and when she actually does so there is panic in her mind just as prominent as her opponent’s. The added burden coupled with her school work, radio show, secret white boyfriend and medical issues at home start to make her pillars crack. When she’s on the radio, ranting and classifying the racist world she perceives, Sam is calmly and casually in control. When she receives news about her dad’s illness or is challengingly questioned by her caucasian partner, she’s a mess and the us-versus-them mentality begins to display its ugliness of separation.

Other characters we focus on go to the other end of the spectrum not so much by choice, but by design. Colandrea Conners, or Coco as she would prefer to be known virally, is obsessed with becoming a celebrity achieving reality show status. But Coco is not exactly what a hunting producer is seeking. Namely, the black producer wants somebody more in-your-face with the culture and Coco tries too hard to shun her ghetto roots. He finds himself more interested by Sam’s speeches than Coco’s talking head videos on YouTube. Jealous and willing to do anything for the attention, she rants against Sam White and immediately generates a favoring with both the producer and white college students. We can see this is not entirely what Coco wants to say or do, but she carries on believing it’s the only way to get anywhere in the lime light.

The most interesting character to examine in the movie is Lionel, a gay black student with a large curly afro (which curious white girls can’t help but play with). Lionel does not choose a side in the racial debate and is just not sure of his place in the world yet. Fraternities lock him out of the house and treat him as both the outcast nerd and the gay mascot, both titles he sighs at with disappointment.

An enigmatic editor takes notice of Lionel’s writing and hires him for the local paper. But is the editor interested in him more as a writer or just the color of his skin? This question is raised even further when the two of them enter into a relationship. Does he see Lionel as a boyfriend or his black boyfriend that he can tout as a point for the qualifications of racially tolerant white people? In one of the most hurtful moments for him, one of the editors earnestly refers to Lionel as being black, but “not really black.”

Dear White People tackles modern racism in a way that is intoxicatingly honest, smart and uncompromising. It shares an undeniable similarity to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) not for its subject matter, but for its characters. There are no good or bad characters in this film; just ignorant ones. The ignorance goes all the way around displaying characters who would seem politically correct discovering the big kinks in their armor when the bullets of racism fly.

Director Justin Simien makes his debut with this feature and he proves that he not only has a lot to say, but a knack for placing all those thoughts and commentaries up on the screen. The college life is perfectly portrayed in the awkward quiet moments in addition to the hustling and bustling of campus activities. Sam argues with her white boyfriend all the way back to her dorm room and even continue the conversation when they’re alone, kissing and undressing. There plenty of beautiful shots in the bedroom that capitalize on the young intimate experience. Brief shots of the clothes on the floor or a ripped open condom wrapper stick out as we witness the characters basking the afterglow letting their inner thoughts leak out.

This is not an easy comedy, a simple examination of racism or a one-note societal commentary. For being so daring and off-beat, it strikes a genuine chord as an awkward picture that may make you squirm, but also make you more thoughtful and vocal about race. The film ends with real photos of “black themed” parties at college campuses featuring white college students in rapper garb, donning gold chains and even covering themselves in black face. These are present to remind us that this is not just an isolated incident within an Ivy League microcosm that racism is still alive. The racism that plagues these upper-class colleges may be lesser than that of the inner city or ghettos, but it still exists and is just as ugly in the way it eats away at individuals.

“Green Street Hooligans: Underground” Review

While there are many movies out there that attempt to satirize the cheese of macho sports flicks from the 1980s, Green Street Hooligans: Underground seems to be one of the most earnest attempts at recapturing that goofy charm. It whips out all the old clichés of the sports training picture from the driving jog through the streets to the slow passionate scene of lovemaking to the quintessential giant of a nemesis. The soundtrack even echoes that familiar sense of 1980’s synth. Since it’s all kept rather subtle, you never really get that feeling of it being a-typical of the 80’s sports genre until about midway through the picture. There’s something rather admirable about a film that can keep up such a tone without added camp. It almost makes its spotty storytelling worth viewing.

What helps keep its 80’s sports roots well hidden is its premise of focusing on the world of street fighting football fans. Danny Harvey (Scott Adkins) returns to his old stomping grounds of West Ham when his little brother is murdered. Determined to find his brother’s killer, he decides to delve back into the world he left. He sticks around the pub to hook up with the lady bartender and acquaint himself with the Green Street Elite of fighting football fans. Out of shape and overweight, they’re far from being the best when it comes to street rumbles with opposing football team fans. Danny decides to whip them into shape for the main goal of tracking down his brother’s murderer (I think). There’s also an undercover cop in all the fighting seeking to find the murderer as well (I suppose).

Most of the film is dominated by montages with music. The violent drinkers hit the gym for some much-needed exercises before the big fights. They lift some weights, punch some bags and do plenty of push-ups. The fights themselves are treated almost like tournaments in the way the film tracks each street match. They take place everywhere from steel cages in fields to abandoned buildings with flares for lighting. They go at it like dogs, kicking and punching wherever they can land a blow, in some brutally bloody sequences. And, of course, there’s the sex scene montage which isn’t all that erotic in the least.

The fights themselves are very frequent and quite graphic. Heads smash through car windows, faces are stomped on by multiple fighters and groins are smashed. There’s not much craft to any of these scenes though. All the training they do for these matches eventually boils down to who can hit harder and gang-up on the most people. I also found it rather amusing how they keep track of these fights as if it were some sort of fantasy football league. This makes me question why the film couldn’t just be a comedy. The montages are laughable, the fights are over the top and the dialogue is just a comical mess of cuss words. I just couldn’t take such a film seriously for how straight it probably wanted to play up the world of organized underground football fan fighting. Then again, I was never much of a fan of organized underground football fan fighting. Maybe I’ll try to catch a few games on ESPN and see if it’s my thing.

Green Street Hooligans: Underground truly does feel like one of those forgettable and silly B-movies from the 1980s you’d put on for a laugh. But since I’m not so sure the director was in on this angle, I’m afraid I have to call it like I see it. This is a worthy rental as a party film to mock with your best buddies over a few beers. As a legitimate action picture about underground fighters, however, you’re better off finding something a little more grounded.