AEOS Double Review: Chef and Birdman (2014)

Having just caught Chef (2014), I decided that it would work well to write a double review of it with Birdman (2014), considering both films deal with artists and critics and their relationship to one another. Here are my reviews for two of the best movies I’ve seen so far in 2014.


 AEOS Review: Chef (2014)

I missed out on all of the Chef hype this past summer, so I recently rented it when I had a free night. Many of your reviews I read echoed that there was no major twist to the story, but that it was just a good story told. So I rented it with the expectation that I would get to watch a simple, but good story unfold.

Chef is Jon Favreau’s movie through and through. He produced, wrote, directed, and starred in it. Favreau has worn all of those hats before, but not usually all at once, and not for a film as successful as Chef has become. So it must have been a pretty important story he wanted to tell in order for him to put that much effort into it. And it really does show in his character, Carl Casper.

Casper’s priority in life is to constantly push boundaries in the kitchen. When food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) arrives at the restaurant, Casper argues with the restaurant’s owner about the menu, decidedly bowing to the owner’s demands to keep the menu simple and the same, which pleases the general crowd of hungry customers. The next day, Casper reads Michel’s words that ultimately rips both his work as well as the restaurant apart.

But the heart of the story of Chef is Carl’s relationship with his estranged family, particularly his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). With his family taking a backseat to his career, this minor setback in receiving a bad review somewhat unites Carl and Percy. When news of the bad review travels online, Percy teaches Carl how to set up a Twitter account, thus sparking a somewhat accidental fight between both Carl and critic Michel. Ultimately, Carl loses his job after a YouTube video of him yelling at Michel goes viral. So he decides to open up his own food truck.

Chef is a movie that has a lot of unexpected funny moments, and I think it would entertain both movie critics and families alike. Chef centers around a relationship between a father and his son, and it shows the repercussions from both when Carl is involved in Percy’s life, and when he’s not present. There are touching moments that remind us viewers that we don’t always need a dramatic tale told in order to be entertained. Failure is an inevitable part of life, and the greatest lessons are often learned in how we react when we experience failure. Carl Caspers is a simple character, but he represents a lot of ordinary people who are talented, yet jobless. But more so than that, Carl Casper is a great representation of an artist who wants to be his own boss, but struggles between working the safe job with a safe paycheck, or taking a risk that could fulfill him or leave him empty-handed.

Social media also plays a significant role in the film, showing both how it can destroy or elevate a person’s reputation. I like that this theme wasn’t constantly repeating itself throughout, but that it acted as a more subtle idea in the background.

All of the acting felt very subdued, which worked well for the tone of Chef. I didn’t really think either Scarlett Johansson’s or Robert Downey Jr.’s roles were that pertinent to the film; most any actor or actress could have filled those roles. It almost seemed to me like they were cashing in favors to Favreau, but I could be reading into it too much.

Overall, I think Chef was a great film for the year, although in a few years will probably be forgotten. That said, I appreciated its simplicity, and I liked the relationship dynamic between Carl and Percy. I give Chef 

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EYES ON SCREEN.

 

What did you think of Chef? Did you think the plot was too simple, or did you think that was the strength of the film?


 AEOS Review: Birdman (2014)

A couple months ago, I read a review on a movie called Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It just looked odd, especially the picture of Emma Stone not looking like Emma Stone. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to see the film, but after all of the high praise for it, I decided I might as well give it a try.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a once hailed and beloved actor who was known best as Birdman, a superhero character he played in not one, but three films. After turning down a fourth Birdman film, Riggan struggles between playing father in his broken family and making himself relevant again in his Broadway debut. Of course, things becomes less simple when theater diva Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) joins his play’s cast.

So many themes are overlapping each other in Birdman, but the primary takeaway is Riggan seeking significance in his career and clarity in his life while trying to come out from under the shadow of his days playing Birdman. Speaking of Birdman, who is he exactly, considering he is the title of the film? I consider Birdman to be Riggan’s alter ego, sitting on his shoulder, shifting between the good and evil sides of Riggan’s conscience.

Usually I would assume a movie with such a multilayered script to gain its strength mostly from its sharp and interesting writing, but Birdman really soars not only because of writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu, but also because of an essential lead and supporting cast who are able to carry Birdman beyond its script.

Michael Keaton makes an astounding comeback, able to access a full range of emotions, but captures the audience in his most vulnerable moments. His conversations with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), are some of the most wrenching parts of the film, but you’re happy to go along this trip with Riggan because Keaton uses some of his real-life experiences to play Riggan so genuinely on screen. It is no surprised he has received multiple award nominations already.

Emma Stone might not play a large role in Birdman, but hers is an essential one that gives viewers probably the best commentary in the film. I wouldn’t have expected to see Stone tackle as dark a role as rehab druggie Sam, but she’s definitely proven that she can play more than just comedic and light-hearted characters. Edward Norton also seems to play an exaggerated (?) version of himself in Birdman, resulting in some of the most unexpected and amusing scenes I wouldn’t have expected from him. I could continue to mention multiple actors who added to Birdman, but I don’t want to forget to mention Zach Galifianakis, who played straight to the funny and weird and eccentric, using Birdman almost as a stage to show off that he can be funny without being the funny man.

The ending of Birdman is most telling, because it leaves viewers wondering why. It gave Riggan the critical review he sought from theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). It also may or may not reveal what was going on in Riggan’s head, and how he was dealing with everything. I like how it served as the finale of both the play and the film. There was a great build-up, and I was definitely not expecting it.

Complementing the script and acting was a memorable and unique score composed entirely with just a drum set by Antonio Sánchez. Though I wouldn’t listen to it in my free time, I felt like the drumming worked well with the eccentricity of the film, and it set the tone for Keaton’s character and played off his emotions, swelling and diminuendoing as the movie went along.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work is also the big talk of Birdman, and rightfully so. Viewers really felt the experience of working in Broadway, the camera offering the “one, continuous take” of characters walking down the cramped, claustrophobic setting of a theater backstage.

I found relevance in Birdman in watching actors play characters that loosely mirrored their real lives. Beyond that, we get to witness the relationship between the artist (in this case, actors) and the critic. In addition, we get a behind-the-scenes view of a play, a washed-up actor’s life, and the consequences of how fans, viewers, and critics perceive artists in a different light when an actor seeks relevance in a fictional world where relevance is rarely long-lasting or authentic. Did that end scene give Tabitha Dickinson the sincerity she demanded from Riggan? What was Alejandro González Iñárritu trying to tell viewers in Birdman?

Although Birdman doesn’t dispense the same conversation Interstellar left us with this year, it does ask questions about how artists want to be perceived, and it also points the finger at critics to consider how we critique by offering a look behind the curtain. However, not all critics play hard ball like Ms. Dickinson, and not all actors are looking to be authentic like Riggan.

Birdman will likely make its mark on 2014 awards ceremonies, hitting reviewers’ and critics’ nerves. I found the conversation and thought process following the film to be more eye-opening and interesting than the film itself. Perhaps it’s my own fault. It’s not a movie I want to watch over and over again, but it gained my respect in offering up such a multi-dimensional character as Riggan Thomson in such a sharply edited film that only boosted its already strong writing. I give Birdman 

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1/2 EYES ON SCREEN.

 

What did you think of Birdman? What was the ultimate takeaway of the film for you? What are your theories on the ending?

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All Eyes On Bloggers, Ed. 2 + From Page to Screen Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

Today I’m offering two posts combined into one, because today marks one month since I posted my first edition of All Eyes On Bloggers, Ed. 1a series that features some favorite posts I’ve read around the blogosphere over the month of September. Without further ado, I present . . .

All Eyes On Bloggers, Ed. 2

I’m a new reader to Getter Trumsi’s blog, Mettel Ray, the place where she talks a lot about the small screen. I’m definitely a new fan, and one of my favorite posts of hers includes her recent Shame List, a list of movies that are considered classics or popular or must-see for any film buff, but ones she hasn’t actually watched yet. I love this idea for a post, considering that my list would likely be just as long as hers.

One movie I’m certain to see in the near future is A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), given the positive reviews by both Tom of Digital Shortbread and Dan of Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews. Meanwhile, Chef (2014) has become an absolute must-see with great reviews by Nostra at My Film Reviews, Jaina at Time Well Spent, and Ryan at The Matinee. And if it ever shows in Milwaukee, Ruth at Flixchatter has all but convinced me that my fall will not be complete until I’ve seen The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014), thanks to her review.

I have joined two blogathons after being inspired by other bloggers’ participating posts: Caroline posted about her favorite guilty pleasures films at her site Let’s Go to the Movies by participating in Jenna and Allie’s Guilty Pleasure Movie Blogathon (you can check out my guilty pleasures movies too here!). One of my absolute favorite posts I’ve gotten to read so far spawned from the The Matinee, where Ryan wrote about what the movies of the summer taught him. You can read my copycat post and feel free to write a similar post if you’d like.

I also read a couple of interesting posts about two popular animated flicks: first, this post from one of my new favorite blogs to read, Writer Loves Movies, poses the question, What do you think makes Toy Story such an enduring animation? second, Mark at The Animation Commendation continues to ask questions about the background of unknown characters in animations films, this time focusing on “The Lady with the Kids” in Pixar’s Monster’s Inc (2001).

And that wraps up edition two. Thanks everyone for all the great posts this month . . . looking forward to reading this October!

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From Page to Screen: The Maze Runner (2014)

From Page to Screen Header

Switching gears here, I’ve been very excited to see The Maze Runner (2014) ever since I read the book (okay, all three) and saw the promising trailer for this YA adaptation. While I’m growing tired of teenage protagonists leading the fight to end the government in a post-apocalyptic world, I felt like James Dashner’s idea was a bit different, and the movie was worth giving my attention to. My sister, Jennifer, has written for All Eyes On Screen before, even if it has been a couple years. She helped me with this second From Page to Screen post, writing both the book review and participating in the compare/contrast section at the end.

Book Review

By Jennifer Griffin

TMR coverReleased in 2009, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009) is another novel belonging to the currently trendy, young adult post-apocalyptic sci-fi/dystopian genre, and it is often compared to The Lord of the Flies (1954), a book about a group of British boys who find themselves stranded on a deserted island. The Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner, The Giver (1993), The Hunger Games (2008), and other young adult dystopian fiction center around the theme of welfare of the individual vs. the welfare of the community.

Instead of a teenage heroine turning into a modern Joan of Arc archetype, The Maze Runner’s plot centers around 17-year-old Thomas, who wakes up one day in a metal cage realizing that he remembers absolutely nothing about himself except for his first name. When the cage stops moving, he finds himself transported to an unnaturally isolated environment in which only boys ages 12 through 18 reside and band together to survive. Every boy he meets refuses to tell him anything about what has happened or why he remembers nothing about his past. They consistently call him “Greenie,” and have added other strange colloquialisms to their vocabulary such as “shank” for idiot or “klunk” for poop. One book reviewer, Jessica Harrison of the Deseret Morning News, states that the main drawbacks of the book The Maze Runner are that it “starts out a bit slow,” and the “fictionalized slang gets old pretty fast.”

As time goes by, Thomas learns that all of the boys have been trapped in what they call the Glade, where each boy works in his own unit for the good of the group, the Maze preventing them from finding a way out because its patterns change every night. The other problem that plagues the Gladers are the nightmarish, blubbery robot creatures they call Grievers which can either kill or sting the boys, a blow that would force them to go through “The Changing” process, which will kill its victims if they do not receive the Griever serum (supplied by the Maze creators) in time. Those who experience “The Changing” also remember fragments of their past before they were marooned in the Glade. After Thomas arrives in the Glade, Gladers who went through “The Changing” target Thomas, specifically Gally and Ben, both who claim Thomas is to blame for their predicament. Ben also tries to kill Thomas at one point. Three days after Thomas’s arrival, a girl named Teresa comes up in the cage and immediately recognizes Thomas. She’s holding a note that says she will be the last person to arrive in the box.

These events prompt the gladers to mistrust Thomas until one night Alby, their leader, and Minho, the keeper of the runners, do not come out of the Maze as the doors are about to close. The Gladers consider being left inside the Maze overnight a death sentence, left to be the victims of the Grievers and the changing Maze walls. As the Maze doors are shutting, Thomas runs into the Maze to save them, trapping himself inside. Minho has given up and run; Alby has been stung and left for dead. Not only is Thomas instrumental in saving Alby’s life by hiding him in the Maze walls from the Grievers, but he also outsmarts the Grievers into jumping off a cliff to their deaths, saving Minho and himself in the process. The Gladers gain a newfound respect for Thomas, making him their new unspoken leader. Thomas motivates the Gladers to find a way out of the Maze using the patterns that the runners have compiled with the help of Teresa, with whom he can inexplicably speak telepathically. The Gladers finally discover how to leave the Maze by going through the Grievers’s entrance into the Maze and inputing the letter codes from the Maze patterns they discovered. Thomas leads a group of Gladers to their final battle with the Grievers in front of the exit, many of whom die while fighting. Only Thomas and nineteen others survive and make it through.

At the end of the book, the head of W.I.C.K.E.D., the agency responsible for putting the boys in the maze and experimenting on their minds to interpret their reactions to the trials, reveals two key pieces of information:

1) They are experimenting on more than one group of people.

2) More trials await the Gladers.

I give The Maze Runner book

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 and 1/2 EYES ON PAGE.

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Film Review

By Kristin

So I let Jennifer handle the book review, and since this is a longer post, I’m going to keep this film review fairly short. If you’ve read the book (or the review Jennifer wrote), you’ll have a pretty good idea of The Maze Runner‘s plot. So instead of reiterating the story, I’ll separate my thoughts on the movie into two categories: negative and positive. Let’s start with negative first, and get it out of the way!

Negative
  • Tangled Plot – I supposed I mean the pun when I say “tangled,” give that this movie is about a maze. Puns aside, The Maze Runner is a bit of a mess when it comes to the plot. It’s partially understandable given that the source material was complicated. You have all of those terms down that were mentioned in the book review, right? Haha. Unlike this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which introduced us to a new universe, characters, and story, The Maze Runner struggled to communicate its reasoning behind why the characters did what they did. The plot moved forward so quickly at some points, that characters were making decisions where I was left scratching my head and wondering why.
  • Too much change – While I actually applaud screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Grand Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin for leaving out some unnecessary explanations and scenes from the book, I think they failed to include enough explanation, leaving the actors to try to be really, really convincing when the story didn’t support their actions.
  • Not enough characterization – This is one point my sister discussed with me at length, but like any good story, you can’t care about the characters if you don’t know enough about them. While Thomas seemed to be the most evolved on screen, prominent characters such as Chuck, Teresa, and Alby didn’t receive enough screen time or dialogue for us to care about their characters.
Positive
  • Great casting – This is such a subjective point, but I loved the cast, specifically Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who stood out as Newt. Dylan O’Brien plays a convincing enough lead who will undoubtedly be offered more opportunities after The Maze Runner. Aml Ameen (Alby) and Ki Hong Lee (Minho) were great in their roles as well, although they functioned more as needles in a haystack with the large cast of youthful boys in an unmemorable film.
  • Memorable soundtrack – While John Paesano doesn’t have the largest resume, he composed a fitting, fast-paced score to match the intensity and energy of The Maze Runner‘s action scenes. Apparently Paesano is also the composer behind this year’s When the Game Stands Tall‘s soundtrack, which I might have to check out now.
  • Ideal set – While I normally don’t comment much on a film’s set, the set for The Maze Runner was not only massive, but also as scary and intimidating as I imagined it could have been when reading the book. The maze acted as a character in this film, and I certainly wasn’t surprised to read that it was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a fitting place for a set as large as that one must have been.

I give The Maze Runner

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 and 1/2 EYES ON SCREEN.

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Compare/Contrast THE MAZE RUNNER’s Book and Film

Answers given by Jennifer Griffin

Which did you hear of first, the book or the film? I heard about the book first. After I read The Hunger Games (2008), it was a book series recommended to me being of the same genre. Only thing is, instead of a heroine, we have a hero.

What was your favorite and least favorite parts of the book?

Favorite – My favorite part of the book was the interpersonal relationships between the characters, and how they all seemed to work together. They’ve all been marooned for almost 3 years in the maze, and they all have established this society that has helped everyone survive, and actually in some respects, prosper more than what they would in their dystopian world in which they’ve come from.

Least favorite – My least favorite part – there’s not necessarily one thing that’s horrible or great – obviously they establish their own language, which for me took a long time to get used to. Something that was an even bigger deal to me: in the book, Thomas and Teresa can communicate with telepathy backand forth, and Dashner never explains how or why they can do it, or why they’re special, or even why the characters remember certain things, but don’t remember others.

Do you think it was inspired by any other books? A lot of people compare it to The Hunger Games, but there was no way Dashner could “taken” an idea away from Suzanne Collins because of when it was published. He’s definitely inspired by Ray Bradbury, because Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is one of the first dystopian books. I also think he’s been inspired by Lord of the Flies (1954), which The Maze Runner shares a lot of the same ideas.

What was your favorite and least favorite parts of the movie?

Favorite – I would say the actual maze. It was very interesting to see how they showed how the maze change, the different noises it made, and just the terrifying concept of running into this maze in the middle of the night.

Least favorite – The explanation of things: I understand how you can’t explain all the terminology throughout; it would take forever. But I felt the like the whole explanation of “The Changing” made no sense in the movie; also, [it was never explained] why a person would go through “The Changing” and what that would explain for them. In addition, the character Teresa is made to look like an idiotic, throwaway character in the movie. (She actually fills in a lot of the blanks in the book.) One other part I really disliked is that I felt like the movie had a lot of missed opportunities in the scene with just Thomas and Minho.

Do you think the movie was inspired by any other movies? One thing that makes the movie appealing is that you don’t really see anything like this; it doesn’t really remind of anything except for maybe The Matrix (1999), but it’s so different it’s really hard to compare.

Will the book, movie, or both forms, stand the test of time? No, because I don’t feel like [the story] is original enough in a lot of ways. The whole idea of studying people for years on end and seeing how they react to things, even international crises going on, is not a new idea. The only new idea is that they’re testing it on teenagers. And both the book and movie have been released at a time when a lot of other young adult franchises that have come out that are either more well-written as a book or more effective as a film.

Thanks again to Jennifer for both her book review, as well as answering all of my questions about The Maze Runner.

It’s your turn now. Have you seen The Maze Runner? If not, do you plan to see it? What do you think of the film compared to the book? Please join the discussion below, because I would love to know your thoughts.