Friday, October 31, 2014

Unpredictable ‘Birdman’ is director’s triumph

By Steve Crum
There has already been much positively said about Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), with good reason. First, its story is fresh and unpredictable. Reason two is the terrific acting. A superb Michael Keaton leads a talented ensemble that includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan. 
Then there is the solo drum-dominant score full of jazz riffs that keeps both the plot and hand-held camera in steady motion. Speaking of camera work, add incredibly demanding cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. 
Most of all, Birdman is a directorial triumph for Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also helped write the screenplay. In short, this is a serious movie fan’s movie. Despite the title, do not expect a superhero movie, even though Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood star once famous for portraying the superhero, Birdman. But that was decades ago, sort of like the real life Michael Keaton who was Batman in two movies, decades ago. Make no mistake, casting Keaton just layers in the somewhat whimsical irony. 
After a self imposed retirement from show business, Riggan desperately wants a comeback, but not in a redo of his Birdman character. Instead, he has chosen to direct and star in a hopefully Broadway-bound drama, “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.” Birdman opens on stage during play rehearsal, and there are immediate obstacles involving egos and equipment malfunctions.  From that point, Birdman’s story line careens from backstage to onstage, with most of the action occurring in various dressing rooms and narrow hallways. Do not confuse this sketchy description with the farce Noises Off, which is comedy dominant. However, there are some outrageously funny bits in Birdman, particularly a couple of ribald scenes featuring Norton’s Mike Shiner, an eccentric method actor who is a last minute play replacement. 
An extended humorous sequence involves an embarrassed but determined Raggan having to walk through crowded Times Square in his briefs and dark socks. It turns out to be a prettier picture than one might envision. It also speaks to celebrity and technology in our culture. 
Backstage dialogue is delivered crisply at fast pace, appropriate to the seamless camera work that appears to have been shot in one gigantically long take. In one scene the camera follows a briskly walking Raggan as he talks to his producer (Galifianakis), crosses paths with his daughter (Stone), then his ex-wife (Ryan), and on and on. Incredibly, the tag team technique works. It obviously took a lot of precision rehearsal. 
Some moviegoers might have trouble with dreamlike plot devices, like the actual Birdman character frequently talking to Raggan as his alter ego. Then there are a couple of flying sequences. Or three or four.
How masterfully reality and fantasy overlap here, echoing Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” Then again, the surreal Birdman says much more. 
This is the most fascinating, original film I have seen in recent memory.

GRADE on an A to F Scale: A

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bill Murray is #1 reason to see ‘St. Vincent’

By Steve Crum
St. Vincent is owned by its star, Bill Murray, from start to finish and extending into the closing crawl. (The latter is referenced later in this piece.) Without him, the seriocomedy would lose its crux. Murray’s delivery and deadpan demeanor ignite director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay and thus the entire film. It is a delightful occasion when Murray appears in any movie, but a starring role like his Vincent MacKenna character here is extremely satisfying. 
There is a flip side to my Murray gushing, in that the screenplay is very familiar. One needs only to reference 2008’s Gran Torino, and hone in on Clint Eastwood’s central character, Walt Kowalski. Walt and Vincent are grumpy, antisocial bachelors who cuss and drink too much. Both are war veterans—Korea for Walt, Vietnam for Vincent. 
Both movies involve a codger reluctantly befriending a boy neighbor, and eventually becoming a surrogate father figure. (This development is telegraphed in the St. Vincent trailer.) A similar plot dates back to 1934’s Little Miss Marker, based on a Damon Runyon story. In that movie, a crusty criminal (played by Adolphe Menjou) is paired with a moppet played by Shirley Temple. 
It was remade as Sorrowful Jones, a 1949 Bob Hope flick. In 1980, the title reverted to Little Miss Marker, starring Walter Matthau as the rascally guy who befriends a youngster. Over the years, each star has put his own spin on the lead character. Bill Murray follows suit, and greatly succeeds. 
In St. Vincent (explaining the title would be a spoiler), Murray’s Vincent is about as unfriendly as one can get. He has a stripper girlfriend, Daka, played with sleazy aplomb by Naomi Watts. She is more so a lady of the night because he has to pay her for sex. Outside of trips to the horserace track, Vincent rarely crosses paths with fellow humans, preferring to hole up in his cluttered house and drink to unconsciousness. When his new neighbors immediately impose on him by via tree damage, Vincent is livid. 
Enter Melissa McCarthy, toned down to nearly non-comedic, a recently divorced single parent of middle schooler Oliver (terrifically played by Jaeden Lieberher). Her new job keeps her late the first day. That and Oliver being bullied at his new school play out with the boy having to knock on Vincent’s door for help. Ah, the not so beautiful start of a relationship encompassing humor and heartbreak. 
There are complexities to the plot involving a nursing home, pregnancy, the bank, and Catholicism. OK, so maybe it is not that much like Little Miss Marker after all. For sure those other movies lack Bill Murray. 

Despite an extremely trite and sappy conclusion, St. Vincent works.
Be sure to stick around for the unique credit crawl. It features Murray’s Vincent in a non-verbal bit which is better seen than described.

GRADE from A to F: B+ 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Being 'Outstanding Kansas Citian' escaped me

By Steve Crum
Soon after being honorably discharged from the Army in early 1972, I was looking for a job. One might think that since I was drafted in the middle of my first year of teaching in January, 1970, I would be able to return to said job once I had served my country. But no. Virtually everyone who served got his or her respective job back, but not public school teachers. The Leavenworth school district had no openings in mid-school year, and were not legally bound to rehire me even if they did. I am still bitter about that exception to the rule. 
I stayed with my mom and stepfather temporarily until I got a job and could support myself. My plan was to find a job within a week. Unfortunately, my stay with them lasted about six months…until I was hired as a high school teacher by the Kansas City, Kansas school district. During those dreary months preceding the 1972-73 school year, I interviewed and applied for various jobs. The state employment service had no jobs for a college grad with an English degree. A paid employment agency could not help me either. Eventually I worked at an electronic firm as a shipping and receiving clerk, holding that job until my new teaching job kicked in during late August. 
Desperate for work during the first of March, 1972, I decided to dress up in suit and tie, and venture to KMBC-TV, then located in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Since my background was in academic journalism, from high school through Emporia State, I figured what the hell. I had only a handful of courses in broadcasting, but I WAS a speech minor. Maybe I could at least get a job as copy writer. By the time I approached the front door of KMBC-TV 9 that freezing day, I was willing to settle for a janitorial job. Anything to get a foothold at one of the top ABC-TV affiliates in the nation. I walked inside with no appointment, hopeful. 
Claude Dorsey was the big name at KMBC by 1972, the station’s long time news anchor, and was named Kansas City Broadcaster of the Year in 1971. He joined the staff at KMBC radio in 1939, a run lasting 60 years. This was the man fate arranged me to meet that day. 
The smartly dressed lady sitting at the front desk pleasantly smiled as I approached her: “Good morning, may I help you?” “Yes,” I said, “I am here inquiring about a possible job.” Her response startled me: “Oh yes, Mr. Dorsey is in his office now, so go on in.” She pointed behind her, and down the hall. I followed her route. I thought, “All this to apply for a janitorial job?” 
Dorsey’s door was ajar, so I walked in, meekly. There sat a man I had known since TV began in KC in the early 1950’s. He stood, greeted me, and asked me to sit down in front of his paper-stacked desk. “You know we are looking for a news anchor, since I am cutting back on my on-air duties,” said Dorsey. “So tell me about your background.” Realizing the proverbial jig was way up, I proceeded to tell him about my past two years in the Army, my brief teaching career, and my journalism background. Being editor of my college newspaper topped the list. 
As I spoke, he shuffled through his paperwork: “Now what is your name?” After telling him, he focused on a sheet of paper which evidently had a list of interviewees. Of course I was not on that list, since I had no appointment whatsoever. “So Stephen,” Dorsey asked, “why are you here today?” I then confessed to him that I was looking for any job available, perhaps as a copywriter or even a custodian. 
Dorsey smiled and said, “I guess my secretary thought you were one of the applicants we were expecting this morning. As for any other job openings, I am afraid we are not hiring right now. However, please come back to see us when you get some broadcast experience in smaller towns. Start your career there, Stephen.” 
We shook hands, and I left his office, and the building, nodding to his secretary as I left. Evidently the applicant they were expecting still had not arrived. There was no one else in the vicinity.
I never followed Claude Dorsey’s advice. Instead, I continued my teaching career, and taught both print and broadcast journalism for 35 years before retiring. 

The fellow Mr. Dorsey and KMBC-TV did hire, perhaps later that same morning, was Mr. Larry Moore. Moore continued to be chief news anchor at KMBC-TV for over 40 years, beginning in 1972, and is now “emeritus” news anchor—retired. Without realizing it, I vied for Larry Moore’s position. On Oct. 15, 2014, Moore was named “2014 Outstanding Kansas Citian.” I like to think that could have been my moniker. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

‘The Judge’ features Oscar caliber work by Duvall, Downey Jr.

By Steve Crum
The Judge is the best movie of 2014, so far. Plus—without a doubt—both Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. are likely to be nominated for Best Actor Oscars. That boldly said, it is still early October. Since movie studios release the bulk of their Academy Award contenders in November and December, The Judge is sure to have serious competition.
To be honest, like the multitude of viewers, I have been watching TV ad after TV ad promoting The Judge, and perceived it to be a predictable drama. Father and son are estranged, and reluctantly team to overcome a crisis. No spoiler here since such is shown in the trailer. Indeed the film’s weakness lies in its cliché premise. We have seen it many times before: family members are at odds, but end up in loving embrace. Conflict resolution time. That is not exactly how The Judge goes, but the general direction is correct. 
However, huge positives kick in. What we have are two bullheaded central characters, Judge Joseph Palmer and Henry Palmer, brilliantly played by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. Decades ago, son Henry (aka Hank) left his Carlinville, Indiana hometown for the big city to pursue what developed into a successful career as a criminal attorney. Henry's marriage produced a young daughter, nicely played by Sarah Lancaster. His father, aka Joe aka Judge, continued his local judgeship. Henry's brothers still live in Carlinville: Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong). 
There is also Judge’s wife, whom we never see. At the outset of the film, she has died, bringing Henry back home for the first time in many years. That essentially sets the plot, well written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
A tragic circumstance occurs following the funeral, directly involving Judge Palmer. A local lawyer (portrayed by Dax Shepard) is not qualified to handle the judge’s defense, so Henry steps in. Then there is the high pressure, appropriately named prosector, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). Then there are Henry’s times spent outside of court with former girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga). 
The movie really ignites during the off-trial sequences, particularly telling and stressful scenes between Henry and his father. There are some great takes involving the three brothers as well. D’Onofrio is definitely Oscar worthy for Best Supporting. Farmiga’s bittersweet performance should receive accolades as well. What a great ensemble cast led by the terrific Duvall, arguably the best motion picture actor of our time, who anchors the film. 
The Judge is tragic, funny, frustrating, and heartbreaking. For director David Dobkin, best known for fluff flicks like Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, The Judge is a major career redirection. He handles it well. 

GRADE on an A to F Scale: A-
The trailer to The Judge:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ants are irritating, but being terrorized by Mant was no picnic

By Steve Crum
Shades of William Castle! Make that booby trapped shades. Castle, the king of gimmicky 1950’s and ‘60s horror movies, always went for the audience’s jugular in both promoting and filming his flicks. Matinee, directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), is a homage to the late William Castle. Released 21 years ago, Matinee stars John Goodman as Lawrence Woolsey, whose latest B-grade schlockfest, Mant!, is about to premiere in Key West, Florida.  Woolsey drives to town in his convertible accompanied by his girlfriend, Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty), who co-stars in his movie. She will also participate in the film’s presentation. 
Like William Castle, Lawrence Woolsey devises scenarios to help both lure the audience into buying tickets and give added entertainment during the film's showing. During the movie’s opening, Ruth is dressed as a nurse, and sits in the lobby to aide anyone fainting or having a heart attack during Mant! viewing. Woolsey, like Castle did in The Tingler, has wired theater seats located up front with an electrical charge that will be turned on during particularly horrifying sequences, causing audience members to scream and leap up. 
The premiere occurs during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, which serves as dramatic backdrop for what is otherwise a hilarious comedy packed with sight gags and inside jokes. Among the inside jokes are bit roles by Robert Cornthwaite, Kevin McCarthy, and William Schallert, actors associated with horror films of that era. 
Matinee is really a film within a film. We see producer-promoter Woolsey hyping and presenting his movie, Mant! We also see a great deal of the movie itself while it is being shown. But wait, there’s more!
The Backstory 
A couple of weeks before Matinee opened in Kansas City, in mid-January 1993, I played hooky from my regular job to attend—what else—a matinee Matinee screening held at the Crown Center Theatre in midtown K. C., Missouri. I called in sick that day, confident that no one would ever know I was anywhere but resting in bed at home.  There were only a dozen film critics in the audience, so no sweat. 
During the latter part of the movie-within-a-movie when the ant-headed man monster picks up the screaming on-screen nurse in his arms, Woolsey has his “live” nurse, who is seated on the theater’s front row, grabbed and picked up by an actor dressed in the Mant costume. She screams and is carried out of the room at the same time. Is that clear enough to envision? (See the movie.) 
So…as I and my fellow critics are watching this filmed fracas, a real, live woman dressed as a nurse, seated on the front row of OUR viewing room, is accosted by the same-costumed Mant creature, who picks her up and carries her out while she screams bloody murder. The two run up the aisle by which I am sitting.  They are followed by someone else Universal Pictures publicity has hired to videotape the event, including our reactions! In other words, I am among those being taped for possible showing on the local evening news. My incognito status is blown. 
Therefore, I became part of a movie-within-a-movie, within-a-movie, within-a-movie. Triple play, and I was fouled. 

I never saw the video shot at the screening, and do not know if it was shown locally. If it was, I never heard anything about it from anyone, including my boss. Maybe only Universal executives viewed it. Regardless, I am pretty sure I blocked my face with a notebook. I cannot remember. Seeing Mant in person clouds one’s mind. 
Enjoy both the 1993 trailer to Matinee + the mock-up trailer to Mant!: