Follow by Email

Monday, 9 February 2015

WINTER FILMS.. WHIPLASH, BIRDMAN, INHERENT VICE, EX-MACHINA.

Whiplash is a fairly simple story. A young man, Andrew Neiman, goes to a New York music academy as a jazz drummer, with dreams of becoming the best. There, he is confronted with Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who has won a string of awards for his role here), a ruthless, sometimes abusive teacher who claims he is simply demanding excellence, despite his bullying, excessive approach.

The key to Whiplash is that Fletcher and the central character, Andrew, are driven by the same motivations, both willing to do what it takes to be the best, or to bring the best out in others, even if this results in personal loss or the destruction of those people not strong enough to live up to expectations. They are two sides of the same coin, we gradually come to realize.


The final scene is key to the story, a powerful, thrilling piece of the action based around a concert that both central characters play a role in. The film itself is slight enough, but intense for all that, though this final scene does, strangely, seem to suggest that Fletcher's tactics are in some way justified. A curious ending to a fine, compelling story.

Birdman is a curious mix. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, (ironically) a washed up actor who is known only for playing a superhero in a series of blockbuster movies. Once the franchise runs its course, he decides to get his career back on track by writing, directing and starring in a theatre adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories.

The film is centred on the production, in the lead up to the play's first night. This is the strongest part of the movie, Keaton's interaction with the other actors, and with his daughter who acts as his personal assistant, are funny and touching and at times calamitous. This is especially true of Edward Norton's character, Mike Shiner, who is method personified, a difficult yet inspiring actor whose professional star is on the rise and yet whose personal life is falling apart. Norton takes over the film for the all too brief time he is on screen.

Riggan's struggles with the cast, with the script and the production of his play are what works in this film. Unfortunately it constantly descends into flights of fancy, where Keaton's character imagines the fictional Birdman talking to him, and giving him the powers of a superhero. The film doesn't need all of this fantasy element, it is an extra, unwieldy layer on something that was working just fine, and distracts from something that could have been a fine film.

In the end it just feels like a missed opportunity. Edward Norton is way underused, and in fact all of the ancillary characters quickly become sidelined as Riggan's alter-ego takes over. Just as it is getting interesting, the film drifts off into fantasy land, and loses its way.

Inherent Vice is a Paul Thomas Anderson film of a Thomas Pynchon novel. That in itself is enough to suggest something quirky, strange and unique, and that's what this film is.

Joaquin Phoenix does his best Dude (from The Big Lebowski) impression as the central charater, Doc Sportello, a Private investigator and dopehead in 1970s LA.

Doc gets mixed up in the shady dealings of the Golden Fang cartel, and in between getting stoned he gets sucked into a world of drug-dealing and drug-rehab. Josh Brolin's unstable police detective, Bigfoot Bjornsen, is both ally and enemy, and Luke Wilson also turns up as a snitch and ex-druggie who just wants to go home.

It is really not worth trying to follow the convoluted, twisting plot too closely. People go missing, turn up, change their names, get stoned, betray each other, and somehow the tangles unravel and we reach some sort of conclusion.

The pleasure in the film is in the attention to detail of the setting of early seventies, California, in the fine cast, that also includes Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, and in Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the dopey, resourceful, humane, idealistic hippie Doc.

There is a dreamy quality to the narrative, and a voiceover that adds to this dreaminess, by musician Joanna Newsom, and all the weirdness draws you in if you are prepared to abandon a demand for a rational, logical plot. At its best Inherent Vice has a hypnotic quality to it, like a gentle trip on a sunny, strange, crowded beach.

Ex-Machina stars Domnhaill Gleason as an employee in an IT company, sometime in the near future, who wins a lottery to go and visit his boss's secret hideaway, somewhere in the American wilderness.

There, Gleason's character, Caleb, discovers that his boss, Nathan, has brought him there to perform a test on his creation. Caleb is to interact with a humanoid robot that Nathan has designed and created, to see if the robot has true artificial intelligence.

The film is curious and intensely suspenseful. Naturally, Nathan is soon revealed as not being everything that he seems, but what exactly is going on and what his intentions and motivations are we are kept in the dark about for most of the movie. Ava, too, Nathan's artificial human creation, is quickly shown to be much more than she first appears.

There is a debate in the background here about what is consciousness, awareness, personhood, about how a true AI should be treated by us if such a thing were to be created. Coupled with the tension and the uncertainty built up by the narrative, this adds a nice layer of complexity to an already fascinating film.