A Most Violent Year

January 28, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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A lot can be said about movie names, how they are chosen and how effective they are. Some are straight forward (“Selma”) and some pointlessly confusing (“Edge of Tomorrow”). Some are evocative and memorable (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) and others are not (“Two Days, One Night” or is it one day and two nights? Or three days and two nights?). When I heard the title, “A Most Violent Year,” I thought immediately of Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence;” a movie that started brilliantly and ended terribly in an explosion of cartoon violence that belied the thoughtfulness of the first half of that film. Here, I came expecting some similar level of violence. Instead, what I got was a thoughtful, slow moving and painstakingly honest period piece. Set in 1981, this film tells the story of a beleaguered business owner (Oscar Isaac, who has skyrocketed since staring in last years, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who is trying to grow his company despite a government investigation and unknown crooks stealing from him. His mob-connected wife, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, keeps pushing him to deal with his problems in a less-than-legal way. He feels mounting pressure to resolve these issues while still maintaining his honesty. JC Chandor, whose two other films (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”) establish him as a director with a keen eye for and investment in realism, paces this story slowly. That is both its strength and its weakness. Everything that happens here seems completely believable. In fact, I imagine that something exactly like this was probably happening in the run-down and corrupt NYC of the early 80s. And, my guess is, if you actually lived it, it would feel like a pretty violent year. However, realistic levels of violence are not Cronenberg levels of violence and that means that “A Most Violent Year” may not satisfy standard movie-goer expectations. This is not “Scarface.” What it is, though, is an interesting window into a particular time in our history. It is also another vehicle for Chastain to prove that she is one of the best actors currently working. This performance, so full of quiet menace, deserved as Oscar nomination. She had all the best lines and her character crackled with potential, as though she could do something terrible at any moment. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you need to see that crackling explode and how much you are willing to simply bask in it’s glow.

American Sniper

January 18, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Well, it’s going to be hard to argue with success. This movie has just had the highest box office earnings ever for a January weekend (in fact, it was a blow out). As Stephen Colbert would say, “the market has spoken.” Yet, I still kinda wanna argue. So, here is how I would parse it out: this is not the film to see if you are looking for a nuanced examination of our recent wars. Chris Kyle, upon whose autobiography the film is based, was not a man accustomed to moral ambiguities; there were good guys and bad buys, rights and wrongs and he knew which side he was on. That tone (and all it implies) permeates this movie. This is a hero’s tale and has an epic battle between hero and villain that results in a showdown in a dusty, one-horse town that (thematically) could have been right out of a Clint Eastwood western. And, make no mistake, Eastwood is going for big themes here; on this canvas, Kyle is a modern Odysseus. Perhaps he is. He saved many American lives, at times at great risk to his own. He had courage and skill and a sense of honor that cannot be dismissed and must not be minimized. And, if you want a modern American hero, this may be exactly the story for you. Yet, I could not help but feel hemmed in by the film’s agenda. Are there no uncertainties about the good of having likely killed more than 250 people? Is there not a story to tell about how some Iraqis might perceive us as a hostile occupying army? Of course there is but just not here. As I said, this is not a film that wishes to explore ambiguity. So, if you can understand and accept that lens, there is much of value in this movie. Bradley Cooper continues to prove his versatility and depth as an actor and he portrays Kyle’s moral certitude and later emotional detachment effectively. In fact, in the mid to later half of the film, we get to see the war’s cumulative effect on Kyle. These are the movie’s best moments. The cost to soldiers both physically and emotionally is made very clear and I was prompted several times to think of “The Hurt Locker.” In moments, this film goes deeper than that one, though (for me) the moral ambiguities of that film were more evocative in the end. It is at the end of “American Sniper” that the audience can most clearly see Eastwood’s message; an epic tale requires the epic ending and this one came straight out of “Beowulf.” I don’t blame Eastwood and I certainly don’t blame Kyle. Every opinion is valid and their points are strong ones. Who knows, they may be right. I just think that, personally, I identify more with uncertainty. Had the filmed gone there, it might have resonated more with me.

The Theory of Everything

January 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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I had steadfastly avoided this film when it was released. Frankly, it looked sappy and I could not imagine Hawking’s love life to warrant a film. I was not incorrect, on this front, but I had not taken into account how drawn in I would be by Eddie Redmayne’s performance. Redmayne (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Les Misérables”) wholly transformed his physicality for this role. The effort it must have taken him to walk with twisted ankles, to hold his hands as he did and use his knuckles to stand or hold himself up, to maintain his shoulders at the sharp angle Hawking does and, most of all, to manage the contorted facial expression Hawking has. When he spoke, his voice, while I have no idea if it sounded like Hawking did, was a force of acting in itself. And, once he could no longer speak, he was able to hold that facial posture while still being remarkably expressive. There is a scene where he breaks down sobbing that is just stunning; to maintain the integrity of that character on so many levels in that moment was remarkable. There were other solid performances, as well. Felicity Jones, who has done mostly bit parts before now, delivers a breakout performance (though not really Oscar-nomination worthy, frankly) as Jane Hawking. She has an expressive face and was able to capture Jane’s evolution from young, plucky and determined to older, sadder and exhausted. This is, in the end, an unrelentingly feel-good movie and feel-good movies have no bad guys. Everyone here is treated with genuine affection, their flaws touched on lightly enough that they only serve to highlight their strengths. The story itself is vaguely interesting, though I would have preferred a much deeper dive into Hawking’s stunning insights. But, again, this is not a film intended to teach you, only to move you. And I was. More than once. But not by the story, whose outlines I already knew. I was moved by a single performance. So much so that I now think he should win the Oscar. I had been leaning toward Michael Keaton for his naked vulnerability in “Birdman.” But who do you reward? The person who was courageous enough to play himself or the one who so wholly transformed into someone else?

Selma

January 11, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Over the last couple of weeks, a controversy has been brewing over this film’s depiction of the relationship between MLK & LBJ (because there is apparently nothing else going on in the world that might want to occupy our attention). Was President Johnson as obstructionist toward King’s plans as the film suggests or, as others have said, was he actually the mind behind the Selma march? I find this controversy curious. Surely people aren’t suggesting that “The Imitation Game” or “Unbroken” are 100% accurate and yet nobody seems worked up into the same level of ire. In truth, I do not know nor do I care how accurately this film portrays Johnson’s role; it isn’t a film about Johnson. This is a film about the courage it took for a small group of people to stand up against immense odds. To that end, it succeeds beautifully. Though, it follows a standard Hollywood story arc, “Selma” never failed to engage. The core reason for this engagement was the British actor who played King himself, David Oyelowo, who is about to break wide open. He captured King’s accent and cadence perfectly, delivering both his dramatic speeches and his quiet moments. This was a powerful, grounded performance; I felt King’s struggle, his fear, his hope and his courage in that performance. This was a Hollywood film and deeply sentimental but, sometimes, sentimentality works. This story is so important and many people paid so dearly for it that I don’t mind a little sweeping music and well planned closeups. Given everything happening in this country today, it’s important to remember how far they traveled on the march to Montgomery and how far there is left to go.

Inherent Vice

January 11, 2015 at 9:39 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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While I was struggling to explain to my friends what bothered me about this film, one of them summed it up perfectly for me: “Inherent Vice” is the uneasy child of a one-night stand between “The Big Lebowski” and “L.A. Confidential.” It strives for the light-hearted goofiness of Lebowski within the frame work of a plot so convoluted none of us were able to follow it. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) is incredibly talented and has a knack for drawing stunning performances from his actors and he has no shortage of them willing to work with him, as evidenced by the huge cast here, some of whom (Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts) were willing to show up for tiny roles. It’s a shame most of them weren’t better utilized. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc fumbles and smokes his way around early 70s LA as a cavalcade of capital-E Eccentric characters drift across his path. Some of these characters, like Josh Brolin’s “Bigfoot,” work and are quite funny. Others, like Martin Short’s dentist, do not. Much of the dialogue feels self-consciously funny and relies too much on humor about the era. But if there was a pleasant surprise here it was in discovering that Phoenix is a skilled physical comic. The best part of the film was in watching his facial expressions; they were, in fact, the only time I really laughed. He has an instinct for the scene and how to draw the audience into his thoughts. Through him, we could appreciate the absurdity of his situation. If only that had been enough, though it seemed to be for most of the audience, who laughed riotously many times. For me, the film was otherwise tedious, difficult to follow and (at two and half hours) seemed endless.

Top Five

January 6, 2015 at 9:16 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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I left this film wanting to talk about and process it more than any film I have seen in a long time. It was so packed with big, button pushing ideas that it could sustain a second viewing or probably several with different, strongly-opinioned people; the debates would never be the same. On the surface, it has the structure of a very common Rom-Com trope: two people fall in love over the course of an evening while walking around a big city (often New York, in fact).  This film is that film and, as far as those types of films go, it isn’t a bad one: funny, tender, insightful at times and with a clever Cinderella metaphor running throughout. But this story is so much more than that. You realize you are in for sly social and cultural commentary early on when the re-envisioned Cinderella story is first introduced. Chris Rock is one of the most important comics in America today but unlike Stephen Colbert (who is his comic equal in intellect and cultural insight), he has never become one of the most influential. He should be and this film proves why. Yet it may also prove why he is not. His insights into American culture today are biting, brilliant and spot-on but his voice is so completely an African American one that I’m afraid the message feels inaccessible to White American (perhaps in the same way that an O’Reilly lover may not even get why he doesn’t get Colbert). Rock has written and directed this is a movie, which spans the most personal to the most global of themes. He plays a comic who made his money playing a costumed bear in a series of movies (“Madagascar,” anyone?) who now wants to be taken seriously as an actor and a person by friends, fans and the media. There is commentary here about being Black and famous in this country today, about celebrity in general, about reality television, about gender & relationships in the Black Community and a whole variety of other issues. The characters played by Rock and Rosario Dawson (“Kids,” “Sin City” I & II, “Clerks” II & III) are both alcoholics in recovery.  The AA term, “rigorous honesty,” is one of the running themes, not only as it refers to their burgeoning relationship but also, it seems to me, as it refers to comedy and this film. Isn’t this what the greats strove for (and I mean Bruce, Carlin, Pryor)? Rigorous honesty, no matter how embarrassing or inflammatory. Rock strives for it here but I don’t know how to assess how well he succeeds. In one scene, he finds himself in jail across from rap star DMX, who is playing himself.  What unfolds is so packed with meaning that it was difficult for me to grasp what Rock is trying to say. In fact, several times, I felt like the commentary was so outside of my own experience that I only sensed that I was missing something brilliant. If I have any criticism it’s that the film sometimes felt over-crowded, as though Rock had so much to say, he didn’t know what to leave out.  There was scene with Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld that fell flat.  The three of them added nothing to the film and were too busy being amused with themselves to even be funny.  This is a small complaint and the bigger one is perhaps more a concern than a complaint: how does a voice as rigorously honest as Rock’s get heard?

The Imitation Game

January 6, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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American’s love a good World War II movie and consume no shortage of them. In 2014, we were treated no less than three, including “Unbroken” and “Fury.” Almost always, they include sentimentality, bravery and a healthy dose of Yankee ingenuity and, as such, I generally avoid them. While this film is no different in hitting all the basic notes, I found it more engaging than most.  Part of the reason is that these are not your typical GI heroes. Rather, this is the story of a group of quiet, British intellectuals and the role they played in ending the war. And, though I thought I knew that story, it turns out that it is far more interesting than I had suspected. I had thought that, once Enigma was broken, the story was essentially over: climax, denouement, credits. Not so and, what came next, though it was the sort of thing that was obvious the moment I heard it, it had not occurred to me prior. The story of beating Enigma was surprisingly engaging from start to finish. Benedict Cumberbatch (“Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Fifth Estate”) played the genius mathematician Alan Turing as an endearingly awkward savant. At one point, he is told that, in order to pull off the “irascible genius” routine, he had to actually be one but the audience knows he is and he will and, of course, he does. He stammers and lisps and struggles to make eye contact, all hunched shoulders and awkward gait, while appearing oblivious to some basic social norms and occasionally saying mildly offensive things (but not too offensive—we have to like him, remember).  This is “The Imitation Games” big flaw; it is so thoroughly a Hollywood movie. Every scene and every editing decision and every note of music fits into a well-worn formula. And like many of these types of movies, it wants it both ways: to educate and entertain, to be  traditionally all-American and progressive in its values, to be feel good & heart-wrenching & moralizing all rolled up into one. The film works best when it just tells a story but too often it is heavy handed, trying to bully and manipulate its audience. This is most egregious during a scene where they agonize over saving a boat full of children (children, I say!) only to discover that one of them also has a brother on the ship (because, apparently, it had to be that much more poignant). Likewise, the story of Turing’s sexuality worked best when it was simply told without commentary. The narrative jumps between his first love as a school boy in the 20s, his time breaking the code in the late 30s and then his arrest for indecent behavior in the 1950s. This was effective and, at times, very touching story-telling. Yet, it wasn’t enough. The film had to end with images of Turing and his friends laughing in front of a fire while we read about how many lives he saved, his tragic death and how many homosexuals were persecuted in 20th Century England. Okay, yes, I get it. Alan Turning good. Persecuting Alan Turing bad. Homosexuals can save the world if you let us. It’s moments like that when I found myself tuning out. It’s a shame; shave 10 minutes here and there from this film and it could have given us the same message without needing to hammer it home.

Big Eyes

January 3, 2015 at 2:08 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Though true stories may not seem like Tim Burton’s bailiwick, this one seems right up his alley. Margaret Keane was your typical 50s housewife, as naive and prim as you might imagine a woman from that era could be. But, she also fancied herself a painter and wiled away her time making truly, truly awful paintings of doe-eyed, weepy children. These are the things nightmares are made of and, thus, perfect Burton territory. It doesn’t hurt that you have a manipulative, con-artist husband who orchestrated a successful scam that lead to Keane becoming the top selling artist in the world. Burton has long needed a work to rein him in. In his early years, his weird vision was brilliant (“Beetlejuice” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Nightmare Before Christmas”) but it all got a bit unhinged later and his takes on “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were a mess. Here, he is constrained by the physics of 1950s America. It tones him down but his Burton-ness still shows through in the CGI idyllic backgrounds, the cartoonish acting and the too-50s-to-be-real feeling of the entire film. Christoph Walz (“Inglourious Basterd,” “Django Unchained”) gives a manic performance as Margaret’s ne’er-do-well husband. Walz is really the most magnetic thing to watch here. He has remarkably almost eradicated his German accent (no small task at all – Ahnuld still struggles after 40 years) to play the American Walter Keane and he does so with a frenetic, grinning idiocy that borders on slapstick. Amy Adams mostly plays it straight as the beleaguered Margaret and, as a result, while the film focuses on her (which is most of the time), it is much less fun. Walz turns what would otherwise be a standard drama into a biographical satire or, perhaps, a satirical drama (something strange and hard to classify). The story reaches an absurd point in a courtroom scene that I thought had to be made up (it wasn’t — I checked). This film was ridiculous and odd and, occasionally, even funny but mostly odd. As such, it had Tim Burton written all over it.

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