Monday, February 23, 2015

Burning Questions From The 2015 Oscars

Well, here we go again. Let's get on with it. My reaction to the show, in question form.

Didn't the stage setup actually look kind of cool this year with all the Oscar statues?

Were you worried some of them might attack?

NPH didn't waste any time with his "best and whitest" joke did he?

Tough room, huh?

Does Oprah's mere presence guarantee the Oscar host will be in for a rough night?

Shouldn't we ask David Letterman?

Isn't Jack Black looking more and more like late career Orson Welles?

Looking at that stone-faced audience, is it any wonder no one ever wants to host this thing?

Wasn't J.K. Simmons right about calling (NOT texting) your parents?

If he screamed it in character as Terence Fletcher, then would you listen?

Didn't everyone just know The Grand Budapest Hotel would handily clean up in technical categories? 

Need we even ask if the show's rushing or dragging?

Don't you wish Adam Levine would sing just a little higher?

Why not bring out Keira Knightley to join him?

Why not show clips from Begin Again in the background?

Did they really shorten that song or what?

Playing winners off already?

How about NPH's poorly timed wardrobe joke after documentary short co-winner Dana Perry spoke about her son's suicide?

Were Seth MacFarlane, Anne Hathaway and James Franco off somewhere secretly breathing sighs of relief?

Was that proof this telecast can destroy anyone?

Wasn't the "Everything is Awesome" performance awesome?

Could Oprah look any happier receiving her Lego Oscar?

Can you blame her?

Was it the only time she smiled all night?

Where's Tommy Lee Jones when you need him?

Is Glen Campbell's "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" the saddest song ever?  

Was the Birdman spoof funnier a day earlier on the Independent Spirit Awards?

But wasn't Miles Teller on drums a clever touch?

Are you hoping NPH was paid well for this?

Like how they grouped the Best Picture clips together to "save time?"

How many of you were able to accurately predict those two sound categories (and miss most everything else) like I did?

Can The Rock host the show next year?

Did Twitter nearly explode with Joker and Jesus references when Jared Leto came up to present?

Did Patricia Arquette turn that podium into her pulpit or what?

Wouldn't Marlon Brando be proud?

Did you see how excited the "underpaid " Meryl Streep was? 

Wasn't it nice to see someone in the audience excited about SOMETHING?

Does "rushing or dragging" accurately describe the ongoing battle between the winners and orchestra?

Did you notice the crowd was completely emotionless, pissed at NPH, or crying throughout the entire show?

Has a room ever taken itself as seriously?

Wasn't that a classy, simple In Memoriam intro from Streep?

Were you relieved they decided to turn off audience sound down on the death montage this year?

Wait, where was Joan Rivers?!!!

Wasn't Rivers' entire brand synonymous with the Oscars?

Do we really need a musical performance either before, during or after the montage?

Was Whiplash's editing win well deserved or what?

Have I ever been happier to get a category wrong?

Didn't NPH's "for some treason" joke explaining Edward Snowden's absence deserve a bigger laugh?

Or ANY laugh at all from this humorless audience? 

Did the surprise wins for Big Hero 6 and Interstellar ruin everyone's scorecard for the night?

Even if it got twice the time as the other nominated songs, wasn't Common and John Legend's performance of "Glory" the high point of the night?

Glom Gazingo?

Wasn't NPH right about John Travolta's excessive face touching of Idina Menzel?

And as hilariously comfortable as that was to watch, wasn't it a great idea to pair them up to present?

Doesn't he more closely resemble Glom Gazingo than John Travolta at this point?

Can we at least give him credit for being what so few in that audience were...a good sport?

Who better embodies the spirit of The Sound of Music than Lady Gaga?

Were you hoping she'd come out with The Muppets?

Even with the knowledge she's talented, didn't she sing that shockingly well? 

Weren't we too late in the broadcast and too spent to even care?

Did you hear the uncontrollable audience laughter at Julie Andrews saying the name "Lady Gaga?"

How about Terrence Howard getting emotional over introducing The Imitation Game?

Wouldn't it be great if every presenter cared that much?

Eddie Murphy... again?

Were you worried Eddie Murphy would refuse to read the nominees and signal for a commercial break?

Was this show longer than SNL 40?

Did having the new Batman present Best Director give away a Birdman win?

Did Inarritu really just talk about balls and "little pricks" in his acceptance speech?

As disappointing as his loss was, isn't it still great that Michael Keaton's officially

Doesn't Eddie Redmayne's wife look like a cross between Evan Rachel Wood and Saoirse Ronan?

Did that make it even more difficult to root for him against Keaton?

Has anyone (other than Cuba Gooding Jr. and Anne Hathaway) ever looked happier to win an Oscar?

Was he channeling his Jupiter Ascending character for a second there? 

Was Julianne Moore played up to the stage by a theme song from an 80's sitcom?

Is that really Still Alice's score (please say yes)?

If it is, should I see that film immediately?

Will the show close with NPH singing the love theme to Still Alice?

Am I the only one who thought his gag with the predictions was funny?

Was Sean Penn's Best Picture announcement the most offensive since Jack Nicholson uttered the words "And the Oscar goes to...Crash" in 2006?

Is Birdman the strangest film in recent memory (or ever?) to win Best Picture?

Isn't it weird that was the conventional, consensus pick? 

Isn't it even weirder Academy members voted for it because it's about "show business?"

Isn't that kind of the last thing it's about?

Is it the film that can break the Best Picture winner's curse and age well?

Isn't it inevitable NPH will be unfairly blamed for whatever went wrong on the show?

Doesn't this telecast confirm that the problems with the Oscars go far beyond whoever is chosen to host?

Do we even need a host?

How long until those online articles start popping up calling for a complete overhaul of the show?

Aside from Carell, Streep, Cumberbatch, Knightley, Keaton and a few others, can we maybe replace the audience next year?

Will I ever learn to stop tinkering with my predictions right up until the start of the show? 

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions

Whether or not anyone wants to admit it, the Oscars still mean something. In TV, the ultimate goal isn't an Emmy or Golden Globe, but ratings and critical success. In music, the endgame is still album sales rather than winning the Grammy, which is decreasing in value with each passing year. But no matter how ridiculous the awards race gets, the Oscar still hold value as the "be all, end all" of the industry. Films are even made and released for the specific purpose of winning one, sparing us what would be an entire calendar year's worth of blockbuster popcorn franchise movies. Complain as we might about the quality or number of films selected, the snubs, or hurl often groundless accusations at its voters, the Academy still serves an important function. And at the end of the day, I'm grateful for them. While dissecting and criticizing their choices is fun, there's no doubt they serve as a guidepost, highlighting overlooked films the general public may have missed. So that in mind, I'm really looking forward to Sunday night. 

For the first time since doing this, I've seen and reviewed all the nominees for Best Picture. Whether this will hurt or help remains to be seen. What would I like to see win? Without a doubt, Whiplash. No film moved or transported me as much all year, with writer/director Damien Chazelle holding me in the palm of his hands with his technical virtuosity. It was akin to watching a championship fight unfold onscreen between a great pair of adversaries and performers in Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, complete with a shocking climax that cements it as the best nominated picture about musical obsession since Amadeus. Nothing would make me happier than seeing that cast and crew onstage clutching the gold man, but without a director nomination, it's a real long shot. My hope is that this nomination and Simmons' inevitably deserved Supporting Actor win brings this overachieving indie the attention it may not have otherwise gotten.

Instead, it's down to wire between Boyhood and Birdman, with another potential Picture/Director split on the horizon. While last year I managed to accurately predict all but two categories to set a personal record, this will be far tougher and maybe the biggest test yet of my Oscar prognosticating skills. And that's a good thing. You don't want predictability. Below are my calls for all the categories, along with some accompanying analysis for the big races. As usual, I'm reserving the right to make adjustments to these up until the start of the show. 

*Predicted Winners               

*Updated 2/22/15

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

*A category so close it even tops last year's horse race between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. With all their baggage, Selma and American Sniper cancel each other out and I wouldn't be disappointed to never hear a word about either again after this. Sniper's box office does make it a threat, but like Selma, it's lack of a director nod hurts its chances. Tied for the most number of nominations, if any movie is sweeping in for an upset it's probably The Grand Budapest Hotel, closely followed by The Imitation Game, which fits the template of past B.P. winners to a tee. And both have director nods, so that helps. The Theory of Everything has no chance, its inclusion only serving the purpose of pushing Redmayne toward a Best Actor win. This leaves Whiplash, which might be the only film here everyone agrees that they love. And it has that all important editing nomination. That's big, but it's still missing that Director nomination. If it were up to me this would take it, but it's not, and it won't.  

Birdman? Boyhood? Birdhood? Boyman? It's come down to this. All recent statistics and precursors point to a Birdman victory, but conventional wisdom says that even if it's a movie that's (kind of) about movies, it's too weird and experimental to take home the big prize. Also, why doesn't it have an editing nomination? That could be a red flag. Boyhood is the type of life-affirming journey the Academy loves to reward, with the added bonus that Linklater accomplished something truly unique and progressive with how it was made. Unfortunately, few saw it and some who did can't get past what they think is merely a "gimmick." Of these two admittedly great films, I prefer Boyhood, which leaves a more lasting impact. But that doesn't mean voters agree. Whichever way they go, it's a win-win.   

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood 
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

*A two-man race. We can eliminate Bennett Miller whose Foxcatcher should have been nominated for Best Picture but wasn't. Wes Anderson finally got in, and in voters' minds that'll be enough for now. Nothing about Tyldum's direction of The Imitation Game necessarily stands out enough to push him through, and that's coming from someone who loves the film. Whether you pick Birdman or Boyhood for Picture, it's quite possible the opposite result will occur here. Linklater's more widely liked and feels "due" regardless of the Best Picture result, but Iñárritu's more respected. The biggest snub in this category? Not DuVernay or Eastwood, but Chazelle for Whiplash.

Best Actor
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

*Another two-man race. Cumberbatch actually had a real shot at one time, but he just didn't get out there enough to campaign and now he's fallen way behind. When people think of American Sniper, the first thing that comes to mind isn't Bradley Cooper (as good as he was), but the controversy and how much money it made. Some doubted Carell would even make it in so his nod is reward enough. As much as it pains me to say it, they'll give it to Redmayne over Keaton, continuing the long-running joke of the Academy always rewarding actors for playing real-life figures with disabilities. He's the safer, more universal choice so we know how this ends up. But in a strange way, by honoring him they're actually doing the performance a disservice  In all fairness, I admire Redmayne's work, but boy will it sting seeing one of my favorite actors come all the way back, only to fall just short of an Oscar. Birdman could conceivably win Best Picture while Keaton loses. Here's hoping I'm wrong.   

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

*Or as it's better known, "The Julianne Moore Lifetime Achievement Award." Sadly, it's amazing Rosamund Pike even got in given how Gone Girl was snubbed across the board. Felicity Jones was great, but yet again, she's only here to prop up a Redmayne win. I want either Reese Witherspoon or Marion Cotillard to take this and I haven't even seen their films yet, which lets you know much I respect both. But it doesn't matter since Julianne Moore had the statue shipped to her house months ago. It's probably on her mantle right now, engraved and everything. Here the Academy gets to honor another one of their long standing traditions by giving out a "make-up" Oscar for a criminally overdue performer. Moore is a particularly egregious example, as she could have won at least four or five times already for superior work. But no complaints here since there's no denying she deserves it. 
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

*The best performance of the year in my favorite film of the year, and the biggest lock of the night, emerging as the clearest certainty in this category since Heath Ledger won in 2009. There's hardly any sense even discussing the chances of the remaining contenders, of which Duvall stands out as the least likely to pull off an upset. But as great as the work Hawke, Norton and Ruffalo (who I'm thrilled got in) delivered in their respective films, none stand a chance. If you had to pick a spoiler, it would probably be Norton but it's not even a conversation worth having. The unstoppable Simmons has it in the bag, but that won't make it any less satisfying when it happens. That this is such a landslide in an amazingly strong category speaks to just how great his work is.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into The Woods

*This is a big opportunity to reward Boyhood since it's still a big question mark just how much it will be honored elsewhere. In a category that's prone to upsets, don't expect one this year. Knightley doesn't really belong here, the requisite Streep nomination is becoming a joke at this point and Dern's inclusion was a welcome surprise. It's Birdman vs. Boyhood again and Arquette's walking away with it. Still, I wouldn't completely count out the far-fetched possibility Emma Stone's name is called, even if it seems a little early in her career for such a win. But if any category's known for that, it's this one. Still, this is Patricia Arquette's to lose and she won't, as most recognize she gave the performance of her life in Boyhood, carrying that film on her shoulders all the way through. Behind Best Actress and Supporting Actor, this is the third surest lock of the night.   

Best Adapted Screenplay
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Jason Hall, American Sniper
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

*This might be the only category where it could reasonably go to anything, except maybe American Sniper, which rightly or wrongly has become a lightning rod for controversy due to its hedging of facts. Will they go for the screenplay that takes the fewest liberties with a true story or veer off in an entirely different direction by giving it to Inherent Vice or Whiplash? Adapting a Pynchon novel is impossible and given the Academy's penchant for constantly honoring Tarantino in this category, the similarly rebellious and idiosyncratic Anderson seems like the next logical step. All the confusion concerning whether Chazelle's Whiplash script qualifies an adapted or original screenplay could actually help it. Why would they go out of their way to include it (and at Gone Girl's expense no less) unless it stood a good chance? But they'll go for The Imitation Game because it's best received and prestigious entry here and will likely be shut out everywhere else.  

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel 

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

*As beloved as Boyhood and Birdman are, both films are perceived as being more improvised than written and the scripts aren't considered highlights of either. They're director and actor showcases that will be recognized as such in those catgories. It's a legitimate thrill that Gilroy's clever, timely Nightcrawler script made it in and in a perfect world it would have a great chance of upsetting. But, alas, it won't. More controversy, this time in the form of Foxcatcher playing fast and loose with facts, will spoil whatever shot it had. Besides its inevitably strong showing in the technical categories, this is where The Grand Budapest Hotel makes its presence known. Wes Anderson, snubbed as he's been in the past, is understandably always a fixture in the writing category. And now that the Academy has fully embraced him for his most warmly received and commercially successful effort yet, he'll be riding to the stage on that “homemade bicycle made of antique tuba parts.”

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Best Documentary Feature

Last Days In Vietnam
Finding Vivian Maier
The Salt of the Earth

Best Original Song
"Everything is Awesome," The Lego Movie
"Glory," Selma
"I’m Not Gonna Miss You," Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
"Lost Stars," Begin Again
"Grateful," Beyond the Lights

Best Film Editing 
American Sniper
The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal, Ida
Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
Robert D. Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Roger Deakins, Unbroken

Best Costume Design
Colleen Atwood, Into The Woods
Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Jacqueline Durran, Mr. Turner
Anna B. Sheppard, Maleficent
Mark Bridges, Inherent Vice

Best Production Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game
Into The Woods
Mr. Turner

Best Animated Short
The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper

Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Best Live Action Short
Boogaloo and Graham
The Phone Call

Butter Lamp

Best Documentary Short
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

Best Sound Editing
American Sniper

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Best Sound Mixing
American Sniper

Best Visual Effects
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Best Foreign Language Film
Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
 Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
 Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Roy Kinnear, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon
Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

In the historical heroes gallery that comprises this year's Best Picture race, World War II codebreaker and cryptanalyst Alan Turing stands out from the pack. Not only because his story's so different, but because so few have heard of him or that story until recently. With The Imitation Game, director Morten Tyldum makes a biopic that doesn't feel like one even when going through the usual motions because its subject transcends it, as does Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant lead performance. It's been endlessly compared to The Theory of Everything but other than both being British biopics about tortured geniuses, there are very few similarities aside from sharing a stigma they were made as awards bait.  While Everything was very much traditional biopic that methodically walked us through Stephen Hawking's marriage and illness, careful not to ruffle any feathers, this is an exciting sprint through the life and work of a complicated and persecuted man at odds with his own identity.

When this ends, you're able to understand exactly what he did and why it was so important, even if his story's the biographical equivalent of a tree falling in the forest, with someone accomplishing a feat so risky and ahead of its time it couldn't be revealed for nearly 50 years. The unheralded father of artificial intelligence and computers, Turing's odd quirks and anti-social behavior draw closer comparisons to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network than a legend history ignored. But carrying the heavy load of his "big secret" during an unfortunately intolerant time is what ultimately caused his undoing and eventual anonymity, even in death. Tyldum's efforts go a long way toward correcting that. 

Occasionally jumping back-and-forth through time between his days being bullied at boarding school in 1927 and eventual arrest and interrogation as a college professor in 1951, the bulk of the film centers on Alan Turing's (Cumberbatch) time working at England's Bletchley Park at the height of World War II. After an awkward, confrontational interview with Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), the arrogant but gifted Turing is hired and eventually put in charge of a covert cryptography team that includes Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard).  Appointed by the government to secretly decrypt the Nazi Enigma machine, Turing oversees a group of men who neither like nor respect him, building a machine named "Christopher" that he hopes can decode the German encryptions. Controversially, he also adds a woman, Cambridge grad Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to the team. But with Denniston breathing down his neck for immediate results and a secret life that could potentially destroy him, Turing will have to learn how to play nice with others if there's to be any chance of saving lives and eventually ending the war.

Turing is immediately introduced as a conceited oddball who's to difficult to work with and nearly impossible to work for. He doesn't listen, can't look you in the eye, has problems carrying on a normal conversation and does whatever he wants regardless of the consequences or how it effects anyone else. He often comes off as an Apergers sufferer before anyone knew what it was or how to diagnosis it, with his saving grace being that he's a genius who's right about nearly everything. The machine represents the apex of his intellectual capabilities, but whether he'll admit it or not, he needs the help in honing and perfecting it to accomplish its code-breaking goal.

The push and pull of the story is Turing's constant battles with his entire team since his mind doesn't have the time or capacity for dealing with people. The lone exception is Joan, whom he goes to bat for reasons more complicated than it first appears. At first, it seems as if he's just simply using her abilities to get this done. We then suspect he might be unselfishly pushing her to fulfill her potential. And then briefly, Graham Moore's script begins hinting at a burgeoning romance between the two. This is where the movie turns on its heels and heads in an entirely new direction, as Turing's closeted homosexuality comes to the surface and threatens to end him, insuring he'll face criminal charges or worse.

Turing's secret is one he didn't even seem to be in on himself or refuses to acknowledge as reality in those times, as his misguided marriage proposal to Joan confirms. He just knows he's "different." And that's really the prism through which the whole film and Cumberbatch's work in it can be viewed, so it's strange many feel the script brushes this aspect under the rug. Every scene is about his inability to fit in, most especially ones opposite the similarly marginalized and underestimated Joan and the flashbacks to his childhood (featuring a great Alex Lawther performance as young Turing).

It's only by cracking Enigma that he can escape all this, and because Tyldum is so good at showing rather than telling, it's these scenes that crackle with the most tension and excitement. It isn't just solving Enigma, but the actions need to be taken afterwards to insure they maximize the intel they have without tipping off the Germans. They're walking a thin line that ends up introducing all sorts of complicated moral questions that the characters and audience wouldn't immediately consider. The cruelest irony is that even after Turing figures it all out, saving millions of lives and ending the war, the secret of his heroic actions isn't the one that ends up getting out. It's the other one, and it destroys him. 

Cumberbatch is a revelation in this, called upon to reflect two entirely different dimensions to Turing's personality. There's the quirky, arrogant genius and the vulnerable, frightened child that's still very prevalent from the earlier flashbacks. It isn't until the third act that they completely converge and we're able to gain a full appreciation and understanding of the subtle acting choices he made earlier. While Turing may have had deeper problems co-existing with others, it's his sexuality that proves to be his true undoing. It's now insensitive to refer to it as a "handicap" or "disability," but at the time it was viewed as that or far worse, and Cumberbatch rightly plays it as such.

The film rarely cuts corners in that regard, as reluctant in revealing it as he is until the time comes to hammer home its importance in determining his tragic trajectory. Opposite him, Knightley delivers her typically solid period drama performance, which is to say she's completely effective without necessarily impressing. She can do this in her sleep, but at least here she's afforded the added benefit of playing a character of agency who can't be the love interest. But I still say her career best performance in Begin Again from earlier in the year would have made for a far worthier acting nomination.

One of the harsher criticisms leveled against the film is that even as well done as it is, this is something you'd just as easily be able to see as a television miniseries on History, PBS or BBC. But given the high quality of dramatic TV these days, is that really such an insult? While I'd agree there's nothing especially noteworthy about Tyldum's direction, a lot can be said for knowing when you have a compelling story and just getting of the way to let your actors tell it. Like most of the "based on a true story" awards contenders this year, creative liberties were likely taken with key facts, but here you can legitimately marvel at the surprising facts we do get, or that we've gotten any at all considering the unusual circumstances. The Imitation Game is absorbing and sincere enough to take the line, "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine" and make it seem like more than just an empty platitude.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Keith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Jeremy Strong
Running Time: 127 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

One of the biggest obstacles in bringing any part of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life to the screen is that there's simply no guidepost other than history itself. Despite or maybe because of his monumental importance and cultural significance, we can't point to any contemporary film that's attempted to give us a thorough treatment of the man or what he stood for and few actors have tackled the role on a grand scale, which is probably for the best since it's a no-win situation. With Selma, director Ava DuVernay attempts what probably shouldn't be done, but takes the wisest route possible by zeroing in on a specific point in King's life to tell a larger story. One that's shamefully ingrained into the fabric of this country whether we like it or not.

There's an even bigger challenge in not turning the story into a history lesson or homework assignment that checks the boxes on certain key events with which we're already familiar. DuVernay manages to walk this line very well, taking a magnifying glass to the ins and outs of the civil rights movement while weaving it into a compelling narrative that should hold viewers' interest for the entire running length.  But the strongest reason to see it is David Oyelowo's controversially un-nominated performance as King. The big surprise is watching him bring to life this man in such a way that it feels as if we're being exposed to his life and ideologies for the first time, experiencing the weight of his impact with fresh eyes. That's the real draw here. If there's anything the film will be remembered for years down the line, aside from the silly, fabricated "controversy" surrounding its accuracy, it's his restrained, thoughtful interpretation of King.

It's 1964 and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) has just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, even as discrimination and racism continue to rip the country apart. The previous year four young girls were killed in a white supremacist bombing of an African-American church in Bimingham, Alabama, escalating racial tensions to an all-time high as blacks are continually denied the right to vote. When Southern Christian Leadership Conference President King meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in an attempt to obtain federal legislation that would allow black citizens such as Annie Lee Cooper (a powerfully subdued Oprah Winfrey) to register without restriction, he discovers the passage of such a bill is at the bottom of Johnson's political priority list.

Upon arriving in Selma with SCLC activists, King's met with even more resistance by Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), with local law enforcement and state troopers responding to their nonviolent protests by injuring and in some cases killing protesters.This prompts King's idea for the Selma to Montgomery march, his seemingly last ditch effort to defy segregation and get through to the lawmakers. Drawing thousands of both blacks and whites from around the country, it's a dangerous but necessary move, putting these activists lives at risks, as well as King and his family's safety.

This is a difficult watch for a number of reasons that are completely unrelated to an allegedly controversial depiction of President Johnson. You'd figure that in a film covering a jaw-droppingly repulsive period in the nation's history, we'd be left more shaken by the recreation of those horrific events than preserving LBJ's legacy. It's especially comical when no one was ever previously concerned with doing that, or were even aware he had much of one to preserve. While he does come off terribly in the film, rejecting King's proposals at every turn until it politically benefits him to change course, there's little evidence suggesting those events didn't occur.

Whereas George Wallace is mostly painted a card-carrying racist, LBJ avoids that indignity, with Wilkinson playing him as an out-of-touch schemer who's eventually dragged kicking and screaming into signing the bill only after lives have been lost and he's politically humiliated. It's definitely not his finest hour, but we're kidding ourselves into thinking a President raked over the coals for his handling of Vietnam and even accused of conspiring in Kennedy's assassination was at all beloved prior to this film's release. He has his supporters and his reputation has unquestionably undergone a positive reevaluation of late, but DuVernay shouldn't be criticized for failing to portray him as a saint.

If maybe not King's nemesis, LBJ's clearly positioned as a major obstacle in blacks obtaining voting rights, and a stubborn one at that. Very much behind the curve while King is ahead of it, the movie's at its strongest when tensions reach a fever pitch and violence erupts. His non-violent sit-ins don't initially work and there seems to be much doubt as to whether they eventually will. The violent alternative is presented as Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who shares a brief but memorable scene opposite King's wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) that seems to exist solely for the purpose of King venting about it later (hint: he doesn't like him). The more interesting stories involve the individual protesters such as Winfrey's Annie Lee Cooper and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), SCLC members James Bevel (Common) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) and young marcher Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), and white priest James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), whose eventual murders take this battle to a whole new level.

The picture of King in our minds is often that of a big, booming powerful force of nature so it would seem unlikely that the talented, but mostly unknown David Oyelowo would have the physical presence or charisma to pull that off. But just as we already decided how Daniel Day-Lewis should play Lincoln and what voice he should use before he actually did it, Oyelowo changes the conversation, challenging our preconceived notions of Dr. King. It's a really quiet performance but explosive when it needs to be, which makes all the sense in the world when considering his methods. There is a physical resemblance and he nails the speaking rhythms, but more importantly, he captures the determination, never blinking or wavering once in his plan despite the resistance that comes from even his most loyal supporters. The only time he lets his guard down and we see the fear and sadness is when there's a death or his family's threatened. Most of these displays of emotion occur in the scenes opposite his wife, as we see the toll it's taken on his marriage. Rumors of King's affairs are addressed before being quickly dropped, but they're never presented as anything more than that. If anything, the film even finds a way to at least partially blame Johnson for King's marital problems.

It seems as if we've entered a period where movies based on historical events are judged on their truthfulness and accuracy before anything else. This is a losing proposition since it's not only impossible to nail down every fact and conversation exactly how it happened, but it robs the filmmaker of creative license . And if it's about a touchy subject or contending for Oscar consideration, the nitpicking only intensifies. Taking all that into account, DuVernay does a great job under thankless circumstances, making logical decisions as to when  she starts and stops the story. If she came in any sooner in King's life it could have been too much and if she stretched it out to include the assassination, it would just present an extra load of baggage to deal with. Just ask Spielberg, who couldn't even decide whether he was including Lincoln's assassination or not. At least DuVernay clearly commits to ending this at a concise point. 

Selma is beautifully shot and superbly acted, but as awful as this statement seems, I have little desire to see it again. That's not a complete surprise given the difficult content, but it brings up an interesting question. How miserable is too miserable? While that reaction could easily be written off as the typical "white guilt" response, maybe there's some truth to it. Who of any race, gender or nationality wouldn't feel terrible watching this? And what ending, no matter how uplifting or inspirational, could possibly erase the image of blacks being beaten as gassed in the streets or that King is assassinated only a few short years later. Maybe there is an inherent liability in recreating historical events so closely in that it robs us the ability to "escape" through movies. Here, we're watching history skillfully reenacted on screen, as if it will ever provide some kind of restitution or explanation for what happened. And yes, it's true that films of this type are always released like clockwork around Oscar time. It's easy to respect what Selma does, but more difficult admitting it's something we want to see.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Eric Close
Running Time: 132 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The one thing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper can't be accused of is failing to live up to its title, which of course comes from the 2012 memoir by Chris Kyle, the most decorated and lethal sniper in U.S. Military history. Regardless of how much it bends facts or the public's reaction, it does feel very true to the legendary figure the film was intended to eulogize. Controversy has only entered the equation when discussing the heroics of his actions, a debate that's entirely political and has little to do with what unfolds on screen. Let's just get it out of the way now: Kyle was a hero who courageously served this country and that wouldn't have changed whether this movie was made or not. The argument that Eastwood should have presented a more even-handed portrayal of the man or the side he fought against is barking up the wrong tree as far as the film's problems are concerned.

Had Eastwood actually released a flag-waving, right-wing propaganda piece I'm not sure I'd have much of a problem with it considering how infrequently that stance is represented in Hollywood. But he mostly plays it down the middle. If pushed, it's fair to say this leans slightly pro-war, but more accurately this is a military procedural doubling as a character study. Unfortunately, it's far less successful at the latter and the former is very much something we've seen before. It's well executed, even if I'll admit to being a bit perplexed as to how it's raked in gazillions at the box office and scored a Best Picture nomination. This raises the question as to whether it's possible to appreciate and even admire what Kyle did, while not being completely sold on the idea of stepping into what sometimes feel like a first person shooter video game. It's kind of an exhausting watch in ways both good and bad, but the central performance and Eastwood's direction, his tightest in years, manage to win out.

The film depicts each of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) four tours of duty in Iraq, starting with his first deployment following the September 11th attacks in 2001.With each subsequent tour, Kyle's legendary reputation grows, accumulating an impressively lengthy kill list and saving countless American lives. It's only when he returns home in between tours that the cracks start to show, as his traumatic memories and experiences in Iraq haunt his daily life, tearing apart his marriage to wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who believes he should be focusing more on their new son and daughter.

With each trip home Kyle finds it increasingly difficult to adjust to a civilian lifestyle, frequently disoriented and distant as he continues to emotionally drift away. It's a stark contrast to the cool, collected sniper with pinpoint accuracy whose persistent nemesis, Mustafa, a dangerous insurgent sniper, proves to be his biggest obstacle throughout the four tours. He keeps going back, but it's when he permanently returns to his family that he faces his biggest challenge, removed from the only environment in which he truly feels most comfortable. For Kyle, becoming an emotionally engaged and present husband and father is a learning process, as is overcoming the PTSD that's taken over his life.

This is primarily about a man who was born to do what he did, and did it with a calculated diligence few could likely comprehend. While it may seem crass to describe Kyle as being "hard-wired" to kill there's no question that's exactly how Eastwood presents it so framing the discussion any other way would only sugar-coat the obvious. But it's not as if Kyle is presented as this emotionless one-man killing machine, knocking off innocent women and children without a second thought. There are many scenes where we see him physically and emotionally struggle with what his actions, often beating himself up for feeling that he didn't do enough for his men. An early scene even shows him pretty much rejecting any celebration of his accomplishments and a more devastating one back home depicts an encounter with a vet he saved, but can't even look in the eye.

Anyone claiming Eastwood isn't showing the horror or ramifications of war or just simply throwing a victory parade celebrating Kyle's kill count was obviously watching a different film. The entire third act, in which he devolves into such a disengaged zombie that he can't speak to his wife should be proof enough. But even in giving the director points for his balanced portrayal, we still never really learn anything about Kyle that we didn't know going in. And while the film's structure (alternating between war and home life scenes) undeniably keeps the pace moving, it doesn't break any new ground and sometimes feels frustratingly repetitive. It's a throwback war film of sorts not entirely dissimilar to last year's Lone Survivor, and while everyone's tolerance of watching a skilled sniper pick off targets for two-plus hours will vary, mine started to wane after a while. But there's still no denying the sequences are excitingly staged by Eastwood, who keeps the tension level consistently high.

Bradley Cooper doesn't have an easy job here in not only playing a recent real-life figure, but a quiet, intense guy whose lack of emotion is a prerequisite to him being as skilled as he is. There's never much emanating from Kyle, and if Eastwood is to be believed, little in the way of a personality either. That's a challenging character to center a movie around but Cooper meets the physical requirements by bulking up considerably, while also giving us all we need to know through his body language and subtle facial expressions during the tensest of circumstances. If you add up the lines of dialogue he has throughout the film it wouldn't be much because it simply isn't necessary. Kyle is a man who commands respect because of his actions and Cooper really captures that.

The strain on Kyle's marriage never carries the emotional resonance it should and part of that problem stems from the fact that Taya is treated as almost a whiny, superfluous diversion that pops up in between tours. It's easy to just lay all the blame on Eastwood or screenwriter Jason Hall for an underwritten, borderline misoginistic character, but Sienna Miller doesn't do herself any favors by acting with a capital "A" in all her emotionally charged scenes. Something about the performance just rubbed me the wrong way, as I never bought that I was watching Taya Kyle so much as a Hollywood actress shoehorned into a stock role of the distraught wife. While much has been made of the noticeable plastic baby used in the now infamous nursery scene, that actually stuck out less to me than Miller's frequently grating work.

The biggest question mark going into the film wasn't how Eastwood would navigate the tricky minefield of Chris Kyle's story, but how he'd address the bizarre circumstances surrounding his eventual death. It's the only detail that doesn't feel widely known, even if the actual event is drenched in the cruelest of ironies. Eastwood mostly chooses not to dwell on it, save for a very brief scene at the end that doesn't really work due to a lingering, ill-advised facial expression by Miller that inexplicably implies Taya foresaw his death. While holding back was probably the respectful thing to do, it does seem as if an intriguing commentary surrounding its irony was left on the table. Much like Kyle's life, the film doesn't end so much as suddenly stop, with a certain comfort in knowing he finally found his calling and purpose in helping other veterans.

What's interesting is that given how mixed a bag the film is it's mostly being attacked for all the things Eastwood gets right and his intentions in making it. It's revealing how few complaints center around the actual content. That it's about an important subject aimed at an arguably underserved audience might be the best thing American Sniper has going for it. It delivers all the tension the trailer promises, but the real surprise might be how little we actually learn about Chris Kyle. By the time the credits silently rolled, I was left strangely unfulfilled, but respectfully impressed.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Memorable Movie Images of 2014

What exactly defines a "weak year" for movies? It's a question I've been thinking about a lot since most seem to believe 2014 qualifies. Does it mean the selection was thin? That there were fewer great movies? Or that the great movies just weren't as great as they usually are? Not on my end. I refuse to call any year that gave me Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl, Foxcatcher and Whiplash all within a span of only a few months a weak one. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find five films that fit more firmly in my wheelhouse or I had more of a blast reviewing, with Whiplash literally sending me in a full sprint to spill my thoughts minutes after seeing it. It also helps that I somehow managed to avoid most of the lesser efforts that came out, realizing there just isn't nearly enough time to see or review EVERYTHING so I'd better choose wisely. It took a while to figure that out, but doing so allowed me to jam more quality films in, to the point that I'm not only in excellent viewing shape heading into the Oscars, but could almost provide a legitimate Top 10 without any filler. Almost. You already just got the Top 5 (in no particular order mind you).

So, here's the part of the movie year where I submit the visual evidence. The images and screenshots posted below had to be chosen from films released (in theaters or in demand) during the 2014 calendar year and be either a visually impressive or interesting shot and/or capture a memorable moment. As usual, I went digging everywhere in attempting to find the highest quality captures that weren't the obvious stills or promotional images, unless such an image proved to be the best choice. While I didn't include every single film of the year, it's pretty close, covering big studio and indie, untitled and arranged in chronological order of U.S. release. That last part was complicated and tricky since the parameters defining an actual "release" have drastically shifted over the past few years. The most enjoyable part of this is always selecting the shots from films I missed and realizing how badly that needs to be rectified. For cheating, this Wiki 2014 in Film page is helpful as a broad outline, but it's missing a lot of titles and the release dates are off. And most obviously, there are SPOILERS. Here we go....