Insurgent

 

Insurgent, as the 2nd film of a quadrilogy, is like a middle child in a family. The eldest and the baby get more attention and certain perks, so the middle children have to work hard to be noticed.

The main task of the second film of a series is to set up the final films. At the same time, there must be a few hooks to give the film an identity of its own. Insurgent manages to hit its marks on both counts.

Insurgent offers cool dream sequences (apparently inspired by Inception) and the addition of Naomi Watts (as a brunette!) to the cast. Not to mention… the two main characters act on their mutual attraction.

To refresh, civilization in this dystopian version of Chicago is based on all people being selected for one of five factions, according to personality testing. Those who crossover into multiple categories are referred to as Divergent. In the 2014 film, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), after being pegged as Divergent, chooses the Dauntless faction, where she meets and falls in love with Four (Theo James).

As we pick up the action in the new film, Tris and Four are living on the run, away from the city, where political turmoil is wreaking havoc. Erudite faction leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is now in charge. Upon their return to the bombed out landscape of Chi-town, the pair meet up with Evelyn (Watts) who leads the factionless brigade. She is also revealed to be Four’s mother, though their relationship is far from warm.

The film’s highlights include trials conducted by Candor faction leader Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim) with heavy doses of truth serum injected before testimony. Later, the sequences that occur after Tris turns herself into Jeanine for more faction testing are fun to watch as Tris’ mind goes through weird dreams. They are even trippier than the effects that present the opening production logos.

Woodley, Winslet and Watts are the acting stars among a large cast that also includes Miles Teller, Ashley Judd and Octavia Spencer.

As a fan of dystopian future settings, I like this one. (Although it seems odd that most of the bombed-out building shells are still standing 200 years after the destructive war.) The POV flight through the dried-up Chicago River bed isn’t quite as thrilling as the zipline ride from the top of the Hancock building in Divergent, but it does present a creative vision.

While Divergent focused on introducing the characters and the scenario, Insurgent seems more concerned with advancing the storyline. The film, which is violent throughout, ends with a bang as a new political coalition stands by to be fully realized in Allegiant—Part 1. That film will comes to theaters in March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birdman

Birdman delivers. It is an amazing thing to see. Michael Keaton’s terrific performance in the title role is likely to earn him an Oscar nomination. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who co-wrote the script) should receive awards, as well.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is a well-known movie star who played a character called Birdman in a series of films before he stepped away from the franchise. Now he is starring in and directing a Broadway play whose script he adapted. The movie covers the few days spanning the time from final rehearsals to opening night. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one with a dark, often subtle, wit.

Is Riggan crazy? Is his inner voice—the voice of Birdman— just the conscience we all have or is it the voice a mentally ill person hears? Does he really (within the movie) have super powers or is that just his imagination? Can he possibly be as insecure as he often seems? And there are more questions that are not clearly answered, questions that can’t be referenced here without being spoilers.

Other key players include Mike (Edward Norton) who is a last minute replacement in the play’s cast. He’s a pro and Riggan knows it, but Mike’s on-stage confidence and Broadway pedigree rub Riggan the wrong way. Naomi Watts is Lesley, another on-stage cast member. She and Mike have a past together. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is the 4th member of the play’s cast. His response when she tells him she’s pregnant reveals much about their relationship.

Samamtha (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter, just out of rehab. She confirms to her dad that, yes, he is no longer relevant. She chides him for not being on Twitter and Facebook, equating social media presence to existence.

Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the show’s producer, is a different role for Galifianakis. He plays a less wacky, more normal guy, though one with some funny lines.

Because of its technical style, long takes and unorthodox camera angles, Birdman is film that will be dissected and analyzed by film classes for decades. The Steadicam used extensively in filming Birdman earns back every cent producers paid for it.

If you see Birdman with a friend, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about after the show, such as: Who, besides Keaton, had the most award-worthy performance? (I’d say Norton.) Were things Mike said to Riggan based on jealousy of his notoriety or were they sage wisdom? (Both, I think.) Was Birdman‘s “continuous take” clever or tedious? (For me, mostly clever.)

More discussion topics: How about that soundtrack, provided mostly by a single drummer? (It magnified the tension, but I detest drum solos at concerts, so I got tired of it quickly.) Is the alternative title Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance really necessary? (No.) Was Riggan’s putdown of critics valid? (To a degree, yes.) What did you think of that ending? (No spoilers, so no input from me on this question.) We can talk after you see Birdman. And you must see it!

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a movie whose outcome you can predict as soon as it begins. Even though the destination may be preordained, the journey is fun, sweet and, at moments, poignant.

Bill Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeon who lives alone in a non-descript section of Brooklyn. Single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) make an auspicious arrival as Vincent’s new neighbors when their moving guys take out a tree limb and part of Vincent’s fence with their truck.

Maggie goes to work and Oliver goes to school. When Maggie has to work late, she hires Vincent to babysit the lad (who appears to be about 10 years old). While mom works, Vincent shares his world with Oliver, taking the kid to the horse track and a bar. He also introduces Oliver to pregnant stripper/hooker Daka (Naomi Watts with a bad Russian accent).

When Oliver is bullied at school, Vincent suggests a technique to take down his bigger intimidators. It works extremely well. (Charismatic Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is a priest who is one of Oliver’s teachers at school.)

As the movie proceeds, more of Vincent’s life is revealed and the grizzled old guy with a bad attitude is shown to have human emotions. He may not have a heart of gold, but at least he has a heart.

Bill Murray has been handed a role that’s perfect for him. His Vincent is not just a caricature, he’s a real guy, like you see on the street everyday. Murray should get awards consideration. But because he makes playing Vincent look so easy, he may be overlooked. The other performances are solid, but Murray carries the movie, so he is due the greater amount of acclaim.

First time director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi, a man with Missouri roots, has assembled a movie that’s funny but also brings real human emotion to the screen. You may not actually cry, but you’ll laugh. And you’ll ending up liking the key characters, too. (Stick around for the closing credits and Murray’s casual singing of Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm.”)

The Impossible

The killer tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 is the real star of The Impossible. The tsunami horror that was frighteningly depicted in the 2010 movie Hereafter is multiplied and intensified in The Impossible. Add to that horror… the horror of not knowing whether your family members survived the ordeal.

Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor are mom and dad to three young boys on a Christmas holiday trip when the monster wave hits. After the water finally subsides, mom is severely injured. With help from one son, she makes it to a treatment center, where the medical staff tends to those who are hurt.

Meanwhile dad and the other two sons await word regarding mom and the other son. Dad sets off on a quest to learn his wife’s fate and locate her. He accepts the offer of a stranger (played by Geraldine Chaplin) to watch the younger boys while he searches for his wife and older son.  Later, he is unable to locate those two younger sons, adding to his worries.

Any parent who has ever lost a child, even for a moment, knows the pangs of fear that overtake the mind and body during those times. Any child who has ever been separated from a parent also knows the terror that each of these three children knew during this ordeal. Watts and McGregor as the parents and Tom Holland as the oldest son each are superb at bringing these emotions to the screen.

My only complaint about the film is that timeline is not exactly clear. When the narrative moves straight ahead with no sidebars or flashbacks as in The Impossible, the passage of days and nights should be more plainly delineated.

The Impossible is based on a true story. The family survives, despite injuries. But the mood at the film’s end is more melancholy than upbeat. The fact that the tsunami killed so many thousands keeps the tone somber and respectful.

The story is presented with a bit of Hollywood plot enhancement, but stays on its consistent path without being especially stylish. It is the acting and the effects that make The Impossible a compelling movie to watch.