by Philip Price
First things first: if you get your history from movies you get the history you deserve. Amid the controversy of historical inaccuracies that feel more like a play to dismantle “Selma” award chances than anything else it must be remembered that director Ava DuVernay’s is an interpretation of many historical narratives boiled down into a comprehensive two hours. Things must be compacted and slightly compromised, but never does it feel like any one character is given the shaft more than the others. The flurry of controversy here is dealing with the portrayal of the 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who is historically regarded as completely behind not only Dr. King, but the civil rights movement in general and the passing of the voting-rights act in 1965. The movie doesn’t portray a president resistant to the passing of this legislation, but more a man who has a set of priorities not in line with our protagonists. The extent to which this is true or not certainly matters, but more to the point of the film’s major goals is that this is not a movie about the relationship between Johnson and King (which a very interesting movie could be made from), but rather larger issues at hand to the point I’d say “Selma” isn’t about Dr. King either. More, it is about a movement, a moment in time that is compelling and inspiring enough to make for a good story and serve as a nice reminder and a bit of perspective especially considering the relevancy of the message it’s preaching. Despite all of this controversy swirling around it, the actual content of the film is what matters and that is where the dispute between telling history as accurately as possible and telling a good story comes into play. There is no one clearly defined version of history despite what we are taught to believe in grade school and so it is completely open and fair for DuVernay (working from a script by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb) to tell this story from her own perspective, influenced by her own ideologies. It may be slightly unfortunate that her interpretation isn’t completely fair to Johnson, but I doubt this will tarnish his legacy in the grand scheme of things. The film itself and what is actually the subject of this review is a rousing, expertly paced film that truly has the ability to inspire despite its structural conventions. The film itself is a solid four-star historical drama that is elevated to perfection by David Oyelowo’s exceptional performance.
Beginning in 1964 when King (Oyelowo) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement, the film immediately touches on a conversation that paints a portrait of the understanding and balance that King had not only for his image, but for what he felt a responsibility to represent. He has a perspective like no other around him and is appreciated by people in power for his methods of leading his movement peacefully. First and foremost he is that: a leader, a well-respected voice and a figure for those like him to trust and put their hopes in. He bears a burden as big as any man in history, but he carries it as Christ did the cross: with an understanding that his potential suffering will speak volumes to those who don’t yet understand. Oyelowo captures this psychology, this outlook, this disposition with as genuine a representation as can be imagined. Earlier this year I described Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of the Godfather of Soul as less an imitation and more a second nature within the actor, a persona he inherently understood and could turn to with ease and the same thing could very easily be said about Oyelowo’s performance here. Not only does he embody Martin Luther King Jr., but he reaches a point when making the activists famous speeches (speeches that have been changed and re-written due to issues of owning the actual text) where we believe we are watching actual footage of King rousing his troops, inspiring his legions and perfectly articulating what action is necessary and why. More importantly we see the intelligence that resides within the man as he is willing to lend his vision to others so that they may understand the scope of their actions and the possible repercussions necessary to make their point. He is asking for sacrifices, pleading with those who agree with his stance to do as he does and walk into an uncertain future, but he never underscores their willingness by holding out his motivations. I found this more compelling than anything as the politics behind the scenes, not only with LBJ, but with local sheriffs, governors and judges to be something someone in a position like King might want to keep behind closed doors, but instead of creating what could be future mistakes he conveys the full situation and its circumstances to his followers which in turn gains and maintains an unwavering loyalty.
“Selma” really picks up after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This event, depicted in the film with shattering bluntness and emphasizing the loss of innocence for no other reason than hate is a catalyst for the actions that “Selma” chronicles. DuVernay is intent on leaving a mark on the viewer immediately and she does so by strongly letting the visuals speak for themselves in her depiction of the aftermath of this bombing. It resonates and it stays with you as everything else in the film unfolds. As we only see more injustice done and more hate spewed it is the thought of these unsuspecting and innocent young girls on their way to church who were taken away in the blink of an eye that hangs over the proceedings and serves as a constant reminder for the sometimes extreme tactics used. Intimidation and fear are the two biggest factors working against King and his people and he understands that, but more the film communicates why voting was such a major point when blacks technically already had the right to vote. In the south, things were still very much segregated in the mid-sixties and there were road blocks keeping blacks out of the voting booths as officials used such tactics as the aforementioned fear and intimidation. The president offers his help to King’s cause in which King requests assistance in gaining legislation for blacks to have the right to vote unencumbered with a federal protocol eliminating the dismissal and denial of blacks seeking that right with strong enforcement of that protocol to boot. Not in the same boat with King and looking to take on the issue of poverty before voting, this is where the film shows Johnson as being resistant. King makes a clear point that the voting act is necessary due to the amount of racially motivated murders taking place in the South and the lack of any legal repercussions for these actions due to the all white officials that are elected by all white voters and in the rare instance a case goes to trial the accused are freed by the all white juries because to be eligible to serve on a jury one must be a registered voter. While Johnson concedes that he has much to think about and much work to do in the South, this issue in particular will have to wait essentially serving as the reasoning for King and his company to travel to Selma.
Selma is purely a strategic location where enough groundwork had been laid and the necessary parts were all in motion for King to rally demonstrations where he could show the rest of the world what these southern politicians wanted to keep behind closed doors. In this approach, DuVernay has a story that is all about the politics and logistics of planning a precise attack using intelligence over brawn and she gauges this angle to great effect by having many scenes where the dialogue is stronger than if we were seeing the things people are talking about play out. This is especially true when King convinces two young activists already firmly planted in Selma’s fight for equality that he is not there to take over their efforts, but merely that it is the best option in terms of getting their point of view to a wider audience. To think that King was above plotting and strategizing is to demote his intelligence to that of a naive, angry man who operated on knee-jerk reactions. King was anything but and when DuVernay uses her stacked cast to illustrate this angle through sophisticated and highly eloquent dialogue the film excels. This is not to discount her sense of visual storytelling though as this is mustered to full effect when necessary. In the high point of the film’s emotionality and physical brutality we witness a recreation of the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus bridge where six hundred marchers were attacked by state and local police with clubs and tear gas. DuVernay, who I’ve not seen any previous work from, has a distinct visual style that very much relies on the distinct framing of her subjects. In the documentation of this first march that resorts to a horror show she wisely allows the billowing smoke of the tear gas to fill the screen with only random body parts breaking through as some run and some chase after. It is very much in the vein of something you would see in a scary movie and the horror it indeed conjures up from a viewer perspective is so strong it created knots in the pit of my stomach. There is an inherent importance, rage and vitality to the filmmaking on display here whereas something like last year’s “The Butler” felt it thrust those qualities upon itself. “Selma” shook me to my core. It conjured up feelings of wanting to do more and it so specifically kept its goals in focus that the power it carries will be felt for a long time to come.
by Philip Price
There is an immediate sense of dread from the moment the black fades into the overwhelming tank crawling towards us in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” Combined with the bombarding sound design that insists your heart start beating faster, it’s apparent the veteran director intends to put you right in the middle of the action. It’s not that the life of Chris Kyle was filled with nothing but dread or other related emotions, but it was certainly filled with a fair amount. Based on the memoir penned primarily by Kyle of the same name, Eastwood and lead actor Bradley Cooper have acquired a no frills way of a telling a straightforward story about what seemed to be a very direct man. I have not read Kyle’s memoir from which this film was adapted, but if you take away anything from the film version it is the state of mind of which Cooper’s Kyle was always in. There is a consistent sense of complete confidence in himself that infiltrates the viewer’s perception of how events will play out, but where things become gray are in the contemplations of how what he is doing might fit into his overall role in life. From the teachings passed down by his father, he was bred to look at the world as a very black and white place, as a place where only a limited number of personalities existed and where the rule of absolutes made him something of a protector to those who couldn’t or didn’t know how to defend themselves. When it comes to portraying this type of mentality on screen though one could encounter a few issues given our protagonist isn’t the most articulate with his emotions and much of the drama surrounding his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), deals with his long absences during tours that’s unfortunately become so common at this point it’s hard not to convey without a hackneyed stench hanging over it. Attempting to make something more out of this or dig deeper into the material to come up with insight or an original angle would only serve to overdo what is right in front of their faces though. And so, there are no storytelling flourishes or flowery filmmaking language incorporated, but just like the man himself, this is a very basic and to the point account that speaks volumes after the film ends by not saying much while you’re in the midst.
Beginning in what we come to learn are the moments right before his first kill, we are able to quickly catch a glimpse of the man that will take us through his life. It is in the split second of this decision that we are taken back to his childhood to see what in fact formed the mind of what would become the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Efficient and intent to give as full a picture as possible Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall define the initial motivation of Kyle through the combination of his father’s philosophy and the regular attendance of church by his family. He steals a bible to keep close to his side while his father gives him guidelines after he beats up a kid at school to protect his younger brother. There is no time dedicated to the character development of a younger self or even to the parents as it isn’t necessary because the sole focus here is Kyle. In doing these things we are presented with the film’s few glaring issues in that there is a stop and start nature to the pacing and we never see Kyle within the context of the bigger picture. The back and forth structure on which the film operates is understandable if problematic because the momentum that Eastwood builds during the wartime scenes is diminished when we return stateside to see the natural repercussions of Kyle not being able to leave the war behind in his day to day. As for the context, this isn’t as much an issue given the film, as I assume the book is, gives us the story strictly from Kyle’s perspective. Much of the events we see are small moments that are significant to the personal journey of our protagonist, but build no tension and give no education as to where Kyle’s company or the U.S. in general are at in terms of winning or losing the war. We are taken on missions and we are given certain targets to acquire within which we see the character of Kyle protrude even more, but then the scene will cut to Kyle being back at home waiting on his second child and the shift is something of an abrupt adjustment given the sections detailing Kyle’s time in Iraq are naturally more compelling.
Much of these miscalculations can be forgiven on the basis of Cooper’s performance alone. From the first moment we glimpse his Kyle perched on a rooftop and hear his Texas drawl spew humorous retaliations at his comrade we get a sense of who this man is. The key to understanding the role of Kyle in the war is understanding the responsibility thrust upon him by having to make decisions that either take a life to save more lives or take a life to possibly save more lives. There is never a clear line and so it is the gut instinct of this single person that allow the troops on the ground to either feel invincible or merely secure. Kyle takes this willingly as his cross to bear. Kyle develops his skill early and it’s made clear he has a gift of sorts for seeing what others may not, a precision that is unlike any other and like so many who stand above in exceptional ways it is the downside of this seeming singularity that haunts him. He is celebrated for his skill, but psychologically he pays the price for what he is doing with that skill. How can something be worth celebrating while simultaneously detracting from his overall quality of life? It is a question you can see reeling in Cooper’s mind countless times throughout the film whether it be when he is looking through his scope or at his children. As mentioned earlier, it is clear Kyle wasn’t necessarily the most expressive of people when it came to discussing internal struggles and conflicts and while I’m sure his book (which was written with the aid of two co-authors) gives more insight than those around him might have ever glimpsed, we as the audience are playing the role of those around him. This stoicism only puts more of the responsibility on Cooper as Eastwood entrusts his actor with the task of communicating to the viewer how he may or may not be addicted not necessarily to the thrill of war, but to holding up his end of the bargain. Kyle believes if he is willing and able to help defend his country than that is what he should be doing. He clearly understands the pull and the attraction of responsibility, but he doesn’t necessarily understand the need of his presence at home as much as he sees the need for his skill on the battlefield. It is in each of his facial expressions, precise reactions and overall consistent demeanor that Cooper captures this mentality and makes the film more about the character study than anything else.
As we feel we get to truly know the titular Sniper because of Cooper’s strong showing it is also through him we feel the resistant arc of a man who always had absolute ideals to determine his objectives. It is through these experiences we’re enlightened to that he comes to believe in something a little more layered and this is where the film accomplishes its major goals. While a film can never fully convey the complexities of one person’s mind and as good as Cooper is he will never know the way in which thoughts actually passed through Kyle’s head and yet “American Sniper” still does what it can to deliver the essentials. It’s not about trying to create conversation around the nature of war or even the Iraq war in particular, but more about telling this one man’s incredible story. In terms of who this man was and how he is represented on screen, it couldn’t feel any more appropriate as Director Eastwood has an unrelenting edge to him that consistently comes through as it hasn’t in some time. This assured hand, held steady by Cooper’s performance give the film an honest brutality present both in the emotions it elicits in the chemistry between Cooper and Miller as well as in the moments when we are forced to watch the violent savagery of what Kyle witnesses on a daily basis. There is a ruthlessness to the warfare depicted and a level of insignificance to the life these soldiers see taken that strikes a chord. As much as there is a pain for the lost lives they are unfamiliar with, the ones that hit home for Kyle are those of the fellow soldiers he couldn’t save. He sees this as a failure on his part and something he almost has to atone for despite him technically bearing no responsibility for his comrades choices. It is a headspace worthy of examination and while Eastwood’s film operates on some conventional standards and predictable framing the content is more than compelling. The lead performance of Cooper is transcendent in the way that Bradley Cooper, the actor and personality we see on talk shows, disappears completely into the role of this Texas military man. “American Sniper” isn’t here to give you a pro or anti-war message and it’s not here to celebrate Kyle’s proficiency for killing people, but rather it exists to provide a portrait of the disenchanting side effects of being a patriot, the toll it takes and the price you pay.
by Julian Spivey
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” a movie based on the life of U.S. military sniper Chris Kyle, obliterated January box office records this past weekend when it earned $90 million in its first weekend in theaters. The film has proven to be a massive hit among American audiences and an award season contender with six Academy Award nominations, including best picture. However, it also has brought along its share of controversy.
It’s the controversy that mostly interests me, despite the fact that I haven’t seen “American Sniper” nor do I have any plans to do so.
Long before I started to read about controversy surrounding this film something didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’ve been a fan of Clint Eastwood’s directorial work multiple times before, even though I never had any interest in this one as violent movies don’t really interest me; meaning many modern war movies aren’t on my viewing list. It wasn’t the war movie aspect that sort of turned me off about “American Sniper,” as I didn’t have similar thoughts about last year’s “Lone Survivor,” based on the true story of soldier Marcus Luttrell. For some reason I started to view this film as almost conservative propaganda. It was probably because the trailer aired on television literally every time anything I watched went to commercial. That’s great promotion by Warner Bros., but every time I saw the trailer something inside me couldn’t help but dislike it.
It was probably because I knew the reaction it would get from ‘Murica type jingoists. And, boy did it ever get a reaction.
I started to feel even worse about “American Sniper” when I started reading some of the articles recently about the reasons why it’s truly controversial and when I saw the box office numbers from this weekend compared to those for another film that’s recently been embroiled in controversy, Ana DuVernay’s “Selma.”
To try to maintain some sort of order on my opinions here I’m going to split this piece into three sections.
A. Audience Reaction
Almost any time there’s something in pop culture that can be deemed pro-America, and a military movie based on a true story is going to be considered just that, the jingoists come out of the woodwork in droves. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of being American; I certainly am, but when it becomes offensive to other cultures and people (as it so often does) it quickly gets out of hand. When you have imbeciles hopped up on their “America Fuck Yeah!” high after watching a movie such as “American Sniper” and they go to social media and spout off such hateful, pro-“American Sniper” posts as these it really makes you wonder if it isn’t all some kind of conservative, pro-American propaganda. It probably isn’t even intended this way, but ignorant audiences certainly take it that way. I wonder what Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper think about comments such as these. If the film makes $90 million in its first three days do they even care?
The jingoistic and racist pro-American sentiments espoused by many of the audience members certainly turns me off to this movie, but so does the other stupidities shown by many of the filmgoers. For instance, if you go to Twitter right now and try to type ‘American Sniper’ into the search bar the first thing that pops up is actually ‘American Snipper,’ which unless there is an even more popular movie about an American doctor fighting for his freedom to perform circumcisions means that a good portion, perhaps even majority of the people watching this film and raving about it online can’t even correctly spell the easy, six letter word ‘sniper.’ I know I run the risk of seeming high-and-mighty or even elitist with this sentiment, but it just goes to show me how dumb these filmgoers truly are – although to be fair calling Middle Easterners “ragheads” pretty much sealed that fate.
Now, I feel the need for the caveat that I know not everybody who watched “American Sniper” or wants to watch it is a jingoist, racist or truly horrible human being. I know that some people just want to watch a good movie, and the Academy Award nominations along with the 74 percent approval rating from the consensus of film critics on Rotten Tomatoes goes a long way in proving that “American Sniper” is probably a well-made film, but the response online to it has been mostly offensive in my view.
B. Making a Hero Out of Chris Kyle
My biggest quarrel with “American Sniper” and my opinion on it that will probably cause the most controversy or offense is that it goes a long way in making a hero out of somebody who might shouldn’t be considered one.
I’ll go ahead and strap on my bullet proof vest and helmet now.
Yes, I admitted that I didn’t see this film nor have any interest in seeing it, but from reading reviews, talking to people who have and reading those previously mentioned social media posts I can surmise that “American Sniper” makes Chris Kyle, known as the military’s most proficient sniper ever with an estimated 250-plus kills, out to be the “Greatest American Hero.” I understand that many of you believe this and that’s why this movie has proven to be record-breaking popular. But, after reading about some of the controversy online and viewing some of the late Kyle’s own words from his memoir that shares (and inspired) the same name as the film I can’t help but think that he might not have been a “hero,” despite the fact that he saved lives in military action. And, to make him out as a great man or hero without showing some of his hideous faults is a major, if not dangerous (especially if it incites some to want to harm Muslims as the tweets from the previous section imply), detriment to the film’s viewers.
Kyle said in his memoir “I hate the damn savages.” and “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He also described killing as “fun” and something that he “loved.”
These aren’t the words of somebody just doing his patriotic duty, but rather words used by a sociopath who simply likes the thrill of killing people. There have been literally thousands of American war heroes throughout our country’s great history and I suspect there will continue to be so, but those heroes didn’t kill because they “loved” it or it was “fun” – they killed because they had to do so to survive and for the betterment of their country.
I don’t care how you feel about American soldiers or the war in Iraq, if you don’t take issue with Kyle’s own admission of sociopathic behavior then you’re just as messed up as he was. That isn’t what America is all about.
Maybe even more sociopathic than his admission of having “fun” while killing combatants in war is the fact that he bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, even though the truthfulness of that statement is unconfirmed and was likely the delusional ramblings of an uncontrollable and idiotic braggart.
The fact that “American Sniper” makes this man out to be a hero after admitting to taking pleasure in killing people – no matter if they were war combatants or New Orleans looters – is reason enough to doubt its credibility and view it as a disgrace, even if it includes beautiful cinematography and an Oscar-nominated performance from Cooper.
You can consider Kyle an American hero if you want, but my heroes have a little more sympathy for the lives of others than he obviously did.
C. “American Sniper” vs. “Selma”
As previously mentioned “American Sniper” made $90 million this weekend in its first weekend in theaters. “Selma,” a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights struggles in Alabama during the ‘60s, made merely $8 million and came in fifth in the box office in just its second week in theaters. “Selma” only grossed $11.3 million in its first weekend.
“American Sniper” out-grossing “Selma” by more than $80 million over the weekend tells you everything you need to know about this country. It tells you about its priorities. It tells you about its interests. It tells you about its lack of caring about important historical figures. It tells you its problem with racial issues 50 years after the events of Selma. It tells you its fascination with guns and killing and perceived good guys and bad guys. It tells you its “rah rah America” attitudes.
Both of these movies are nominated for best picture at next month’s Oscars, but Americans have proven they’re only majorly interested in one of them and on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day today it feels like they’ve chosen the wrong film and that seems very wrong.
Much like “American Sniper” I haven’t seen “Selma.” I’m actually hoping to see it today on the holiday that celebrates the life of its main character. But, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it’s more relevant and important today for American filmgoers to see than “American Sniper” and knowing the things I know about both Chris Kyle and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it’s Dr. King who is the unequivocal hero of the two. And, yet the majority of you seem to rather watch Kyle kill Iraqis in a war that much of America was torn about than Dr. King fight for something that’s truly important.
The God’s honest truth is Eastwood could’ve filmed an American flag flapping in the wind for two hours and it would’ve drawn more than the $8 million this weekend that “Selma” did. Yes, that tells me everything about this country today and I don’t think it’s what Dr. King dreamed of on that day in 1963.
by Philip Price
There is a line that is repeated several times in director Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” that reassures our lead character that, “Sometimes it is the people we imagine nothing of, who do the things we cannot imagine.”
This applies to our protagonist Alan Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing has now come to be renowned as the brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who broke the German Enigma code in World War II that won the war quicker and as a result saved millions of lives. This man who seemingly would need to have everything going for him to come to such a prosperous title is given the aforementioned advice though because he is challenged every step of the way. It is clear from the moment we meet Cumberbatch’s Turing that he suffers from some high level of Asperger’s syndrome in that his demeanor is not simply an irrational genius routine, but a degree of social awkwardness that conveys an inability to truly relate with those around him because he likely feels no one truly understands him. In coming at the world from his unique perspective, Turing sees human beings as simply being too selfish to make the sacrifices necessary to stave off the mental and physical threat posed by the enemies of his country. This leads to the creation of what is essentially the first computer that, while saving large parts of humanity that would have otherwise been lost, requires an equal amount of restraint that will knowingly allow people to die. It is only the ability to both create and be disconnected that the best definition of a perspective success can be claimed and Turing had the mentality and genius to see both through. Yes, in war there are countless deceptions and non-democratic decisions being made which, as long as they are for the seeming good of humanity, remain completely acceptable. It is on this fine line that the most interesting ideals are born from the film as Turing learns not only how to gauge his intelligence, but how best to use it. There is much to be admired in Tyldum’s rather straightforward biopic that despite being as by-the-numbers as one can imagine, is consistently enhanced by its exceedingly fascinating story.
We begin in 1939 with a 27-year-old Turing interviewing for a job with the Secret Intelligence Service. More specifically he will be working in Military Intelligence, Section 6, which supplies the British government with foreign intelligence. He doesn’t make the best of first impressions given his nature, but he says enough to enlighten Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to the fact he would be a valuable commodity. We then jump to 1951 and what is the films framing device as Turing is being investigated by a local detective named Nock (Rory Kinnear). He is brought in on charges of lewd conduct with a man, but the detective doesn’t seem as interested in the charges as he does Turing’s lack of military records in what amounts to a large gap in his life during the time of the war. While this device is clearly used to both touch more largely on the homosexual aspect of Turing’s life and to paint a picture of how far he was pushed resulting in his eventual suicide it almost feels a bit unnecessary. Cumberbatch is given a voice over at the beginning of the film that sets things up as if this were going to be something of a mystery, but there is no hiding the truth of what Turing did with his time during the war and so as we listen closely and Nock is given the information to the fill in the gaps what we’re actually getting is nothing more than the reliable way of telling a biopic. Throughout the main narrative that consists of 1939 to 1941 or so, there are also flashbacks to 1928 when Turing was a young boy in boarding school. These flashbacks are used as a way to further correlate the social awkwardness of Turing in his adult life while foreshadowing the tragedy that would follow in his later years. It is standard practice as far as these biopics go, but it is understandable as to why they follow this type of formula as it easily conveys the main points of a person’s life without allowing itself to become too bogged down in details. Turing’s life was anything but standard and thus keeps the way in which his story is told on its toes, not allowing the content to ever become as rote as the base the movie is built on.
For me, what is so fascinating about “The Imitation Game” is that it basically serves as a two hour, behind-the-scenes featurette of sorts. It is as if we are privy to how a war is actually won, that there really aren’t any chances taken, but that there is in fact a logic to it all. The romanticism of how we perceive such a victory as the battle of Normandy are brought to light as massive productions coldly calculated by people such as Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) who serves as the director while Turing is something of a production designer setting up when and where we are allowed to use his invention to save people and when saving people would be going too far and allowing the Germans to know their code had been cracked. In seeing how this type of strategy was even made possible it is as if we are seeing a film crew prepare to shoot a film and the film we’re watching is a special feature. As someone who loves the art of cinema and generally finds history inherently interesting, this made for an experience that opened up a world of themes and ever-changing ideals about how the world really works. Director Tyldum essentially wants to ask the audience who Alan Turing really was by consistently keeping an air of mystery around the character as he focuses more and more on the completion of his electro-mechanical bombe machine that, if successful, would be capable of breaking 3,000 Enigma-generated naval codes a day. This mission is the driving force of the film’s narrative while the politics swirling around it (if it is necessary, if it is worth the risk and if Turing is trustworthy or if he’s just mad) all contribute to further the analogy of a behind the scenes feature in that it could just as easily be a studio wavering on whether or not to make a film that shows promise, but could end up being a dud. While the structures of these endeavors are similar, clearly war is a much more serious subject and people’s lives are more delicate than box office returns which makes Graham Moore’s script adapted from Andrew Hodges book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” all the more fascinating for including deeper themes concerning our attraction to violence and how thinking or working differently doesn’t mean the opposite is nothing. A big part of Turing’s mentality was coming at things from a different perspective and each theme brought up or exemplified is integral to better understanding our misunderstood protagonist.
Elevating the film even further from the doldrums of its conventional storytelling methods are the performances set forth by its strong cast. As Turing, Cumberbatch offers another excellent performance by playing the whole irrational genius routine well. He not only plays up the credibility of this well-worn regimen by adding a touch of humor to Turing’s level of genius, but more than anything he exemplifies it through the connections he forms with the people around him. Especially enlightening is the bond he forms with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Clarke was clearly a genius in her own right who was persuaded by her parents to meet the standard ways of the world by getting married, having kids and getting the kind of job women were expected to take at that point in time. In her though, Turing saw not a person or archetype, but a brain; someone he could connect with intellectually and the rare opportunity to have free-wheeling conversation where he would not be judged or looked down upon because of his personality or desire to generally be left alone. Clarke becomes his link to social acceptance. She displays to Turing ways in which he can make his fellow code breakers and mathematicians feel more comfortable around him. Turing and Clarke loved one another, clearly, but like almost everything else in Turing’s life, it is an unconventional love. Their love was purely a meeting of the minds. Though they would never desire the sexual aspects of a relationship with one another, they would more than make up for it in terms of being happy to share each other’s company. I appreciated the frankness with which the film approached this circumstance and rather than turning it into a point for melodrama, allowed it to play out as only rational, logic-minded academics like Turing and Clarke would. Other members of Turing’s team include Hugh (Matthew Goode), John (Allen Leech), Peter (Matthew Beard) and Jack (James Northcote). Goode and Leech receive the more prominent roles as Hugh is the assigned leader and bit of a cad while John reaches a level of comfortability with Turing that is both reassuring and cause for tension. In the end, “The Imitation Game” is a handsomely made film with another wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat and superb pacing from editor William Goldenberg that shines light on a man who wanted to use his gifts to do the world as much good as he could even when the world seemed to so frequently turn its back on him.
by Philip Price
“Unbroken” is perfectly positioned and has every credential imaginable to become a classic Hollywood drama like those of years gone by. It is the kind of film that wins awards and pleases crowds as it not only serves as a testament to the will and strength of the human spirit, but chronicles a difficult road to overcoming impossibilities that should redeem our faith in ourselves and our race. Based on a New York Times best seller by Laura Hillenbrand, adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, shot by Roger Deakins and directed by Angelina Jolie this film truly has everything going for it and while it may be intentionally old school in its structure and execution in this day and age it ends up feeling a little too calculated and at times way too amateurish for the talent it has behind it. That said, this is only Jolie's second directorial effort and her first of this scale and so it is to be understood if some of the choices here feel safer than necessary. Where Jolie the director and Jolie the storyteller differ though are in their passion for the story and their ability to strongly convey all that it holds. It is obvious this is an inherently amazing story, one any filmmaker would be happy to try their hand at. What Jolie has brought to the project is the aforementioned classical approach that beautifully captures the scope and horror of the situations our hero fell into, but what it lacks is any real insight into the mind of this man who was pushed to his limits. Technically, everything looks great and is cohesive to the point that those watching will understand what is going on and even gather a deeper meaning from it to a certain extent, but only if you're looking for it. Otherwise, “Unbroken” is unfortunately little more than surface deep. Again, it's understandable given this undertaking comes from someone accustomed to solely focusing on one aspect of a production transitioning to a role where they are looked at to be something of an expert in all areas so if there is good news to take away it is that the film ends better than it starts. Almost as if it were shot chronologically and Jolie became a better director as the film went on. That may be something of faint praise, but despite the content of the film not being nearly as engrossing as it has the potential to be it is the good intentions and admirable effort that allow forgiveness for the moderate results of an extraordinary story.
Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is first presented to us as a soldier of World War II in the role of a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber. He rides alongside the likes of pilots Hugh Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) and Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) as well as fellow bombardier Mac McNamara (Finn Wittrock). As per the old school template of how to make a Hollywood hit Jolie opens her film with an aerial fight as O'Connell as Zamperini divulges his pension for heroics and lighting things up like Christmas. Already, there is an opportunity to delve into the psyche of this character and give the audience a better look at his mentality or state of mind, a place to show where he's at now and then in the inevitable flashbacks display how far he's come. Instead, Zamperini drops bombs with no hesitation, not even a highlighted facial expression and thus we have no idea where this character is at in terms of headspace. Maybe he really didn't have any hesitation in leveling cities, maybe he didn't consider the lives he would be taking out in the blink of an eye, but the film being about the will to survive, the resilience of the human spirit and the redemption of this life derailed I doubt that was the case. After our initial introduction we are sent back to when Zamperini was a young troublemaker who hid alcohol, gawked at women and got into fights. He was on the fast track to nowhere, but thanks to his older brother Pete (John D'Leo and Alex Russell) he takes up running track and begins to excel in ways Pete didn't even imagine. Pete pushes Louie, makes him work at what he comes to love and keeps him on the straight and narrow. Louie becomes so good at his craft he would go on to run in the 1936 Olympics before enlisting in the Air Force in 1941. This is all a precursor to the bulk of the story told in “Unbroken” though as much of what the film focuses on is his survival of a plane crash in the Pacific where he spent 47 days drifting on a raft. He, along with Phillips were then rescued (ehh) by the Japanese only to spend more than two and a half years living in prisoner of war camps.
As Jolie is trying to play with multiple strings in the beginning she does so in a way that doesn't bode well for what I thought the film might turn out to be. She seemed to be trying so incredibly hard in fact that she was forcing Alexandre Desplat's overwhelming score to overpower the subtle moments of realization in O'Connell's performance while relying on a priest’s homily to convey the main ideas of the piece and voice over from announcers at Zamperini's track meets to tell of his accomplishments that move the backstory forward. It makes the film feel cheesy and melodramatic to the point it seemed the remainder of the film would be a hokey and manipulative drag rather than the sincere, tough watch this story deserved to be. It is when Zamperini and his two fellow survivors are stranded on the ocean for a month and a half that it feels Jolie finally begins to hit her stride. She is given limited things to work with aesthetically and smartly strips the rest of her elements down so as to not become overbearing on this simple human story of survival. While all of this occurs within the first hour of the film it bodes well for where things are heading in that Jolie allows the actors to bring the hardships and struggles of surviving for that long at sea to the forefront of our consciousness. O'Connell is especially compelling in these scenes for, despite the fact we still feel we don't know the character personally, we begin to at least see a side of him that speaks to his instincts. He is optimistic under the given circumstances even if he doesn't secretly believe the odds are in their favor. He naturally assumes a leadership role and while he can do little more than the average man to keep he and his comrades alive he almost makes those around him believe he can. It is in this section of the film that, while naturally being something of a tedious exercise as we know what comes next, is also the most compelling as it gives the men nowhere to go and forces them to create the dynamic that hurtles Zamperini through the even tougher challenges that lie ahead.
Once Zamperini reaches Tokyo and is forced into the prisoner of war camps Jolie not so much shifts tone, but keeps her stripped down mentality intact while building back up to where she thinks she needs to be. If anything, there is a strong sense that the direction and composition are more than competent, but what is actually being captured is undermined by a lack of confidence. These camps are essentially places where Japanese soldiers force their enemies into slavery and beg them to challenge their authority so they might revel in the pleasure of punishing them. Why the Japanese keep so many men alive in these camps is a question I'm sure could be answered easily, but is not covered in the film and so I began to wonder not only what their motivation was for keeping so many pawns, but why Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) aka "The Bird" singles Zamperini out as well. The punishment of the camps and the constant picking on of our main character becomes repetitive to a point that we understand the extent of the damage being done, but never do we really see the repercussions. There are only a few select shots where late at night, after the day’s work is done that we see Zamperini laying in his bed, staring off into the night and no doubt contemplating how much more torture is worth what might be the rest of his life. The problem is, if you're not looking for that, if you're not actively searching for the depth to the lead character then you will blink and miss them. There is nothing wrong with subtlety and of course it is appreciated in many films with as obvious a message as “Unbroken,” but for being concerned wholly with this man and the trials of his life it never feels there is a strong arc to how these events affect him. Throughout the film never does O'Connell's interpretation of Zamperini sway and so neither does who Zamperini is to us ever change. He is a man with his feet firmly planted in his beliefs (with a religious aspect meant to be significant that we don't realize until the end credits) and so despite the film most definitely taking us on a journey the surrogate we take it with is just that, never giving us an inclination to his position, but letting us decide what we would do were we in his shoes which doesn't completely make sense given it is this particular man’s story.
by Philip Price
I can't help but feel I don't know enough to be making such a list as this anymore. Every year I go through the upcoming year’s slate of planned movie releases and come up, pretty easily, with 10 or so films I'm genuinely excited to see and again, this year, that has been no problem. My issue with a list such as this is there is no way to go through each possible release or even know about every release in the way that a movie might come to light during the course of the year and becomes something you wish you might have highlighted way back when, that you knew about and held expectations for simply because it's nice to be "in the know". That sounds a little crazy and a little ridiculous, I realize, but it is easy to go through and say what blockbusters you are most excited to see in any given year, but you only wish you knew that there might be a “Birdman” or a “Whiplash” sneak up on you and blow you away. Then again, I'll just convince myself I actually enjoy the element of surprise and wait to see what gems 2015 currently has tucked away. To both points, I've attempted to go through and double check with some of my favorite directors and actors to see what, if anything, they might have on their slate for this year so as to hopefully surprise a few people with this list and not just satisfy/underwhelm folks who see another list where ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Star Wars’ take the cake. From my most anticipated list of 2014 three films made my year-end top 10. From my most anticipated list of 2013 one film made it, so I guess that could be taken as a good sign if there is any correlation to be found at all. Furthermore, 2014 seemed like a really solid year when looking back despite it feeling easier than ever to craft a top 10. There were a few exceptional films, but there seemed an abundance of more than solid features that are just as worthy for someone else's favorite films of the year. If 2015 is anything like it, we'll be in for a great crop of flicks (the best of which I likely don't even know about yet).
10. “Pitch Perfect 2”
Say what you will, but I base a lot of how much I love movies on their re-watchability factor and between my wife and I we've probably seen the first “Pitch Perfect” about eleventeen thousand times. It is a solid comedy and features more than its fair share of little moments that will make there way onto t-shirts in a few years when the next generation doesn't even fully understand the reference. The first film was something of a lightning in a bottle experience. Nobody really expected anything from it, but it amassed such a loyal following and exploded in home video sales to the point that in two short years it is already a mainstay at slumber parties and in female dorm rooms. It is simply one of those times when the stars align and everything falls into place as good as can be expected. The Barden Bellas are now a cultural mainstay while the film also allowed for Anna Kendrick to officially carve out her spot in the celebrity landscape and not to mention, score a hit song. While it feels like somewhat of a risk to possibly tarnish the reputation of the original by making a sequel there is also plenty of reasons to be optimistic about part two. For starters, Elizabeth Banks is in the director’s chair this time around making her feature debut so I fully expect there to be some wacky, left field choices made. Next, the entire cast is returning (Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp and Adam Devine while adding Hailee Steinfeld and Katey Sagal) and in the first trailer for the sequel it was clear everyone was happy to be back and seemed to be having a blast. I saw the first film with no expectation going in, but came away surprised and eager to tell others about just how much fun it was. It is one of those films you can pop in any time and everyone can agree it's entertaining. I'm excited to see what Banks and company have in store and can only hope it lives up to the awesomeness we all expect from it. (5/15)
9. “The Revenant”
If you've looked at my Top 10 of 2014 you'll see that director Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” is fairly close to the top of my list. Not only did he craft one of the more singular visions of this year though as he has been putting out beautifully depressing films stateside since 2003's “21 Grams” and so on. With his latest, “The Revenant,” Iñárritu has adapted the novel of the same name by Michael Punke that tells a story of nearly unimaginable human endurance spanning three thousand miles of uncharted American wilderness, including what is today the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. Based on the real life of fur trapper Hugh Glass, “The Revenant” recounts the toll of envy and betrayal, and the power of obsession and vengeance. Of the many reasons to be interested in the film one of the main draws will be that this was the next project Leonardo DiCaprio chose to embrace after taking an extended break after filming ‘Gatsby,’ ‘Django’ and ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ back-to-back-to-back. DiCaprio will star as Glass while being joined by the likes of his “Inception” co-star Tom Hardy (who will also have a busy 2015). As for “The Revenant” specifically, I'm excited to see how Iñárritu follows-up what will surely be an exciting awards season for both him and his film. (1/8/16 with what I assume will be a staggered release beginning in December of '15)
8. “Inside Out”
It has been an off year for animation as nothing other than “The LEGO Movie” really became a hit and while that film was immensely fun, I'd still pick “How To Train Your Dragon 2” as the best of the bunch in 2014. Besides the disappointing box office returns though a big hole was also left open by the absence of a new Disney/Pixar film. For the first time in nearly a decade we received no new movie from the once illustrious studio. It has been quite a while since we've seen an original film from Pixar as well (only one of the last four has not been a sequel), but in 2015 we are headed for change as audiences will not only get one new Pixar film, but two; both of which will feature original stories. First up is director Pete Doctor's “Inside Out.” Telling the story of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) the film goes inside her mind to explore the inner workings of her personality by creating personifications for her emotions including fear, sadness, anger, disgust and joy. As seen in the first full trailer that premiered earlier this month these personified emotions essentially run our brains and determine how we function in response to the situations and circumstances around us. Not only will we get a peak inside Riley's mind, but her parents voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as well. As exciting as it is that Pixar is delivering an original film rather than another sequel, it should also be noted that this extremely inventive concept and entertaining and funny execution truly feels like it could be the return to form for the studio desperately needs to maintain their reputation for excellence that has waned considerably in the last few years. I certainly hope “Inside Out” proves to be as good as everything about it promises it can be as even the voice cast includes greats such as Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler. (6/19)
7. “Midnight Special”
There might be something of a bias in this next pick as director Jeff Nichols hails from my home state and city of Little Rock, Ark. Nichols has been making well received indie films since he broke onto the scene with 2007's “Shotgun Stories.” Following that up with the little seen, but universally hailed “Take Shelter” the director finally gained something of larger scale recognition when he took part in the McConaissance by contributing “Mud” to Matthew McConaughey’s resume. Both writing and directing each of these films Nichols made the decision to step into the ring of a major studio production next and was lucky enough to still pen his own script for what has come to be known as “Midnight Special.” While writing the script for the film Nichols described it as a yearning to make something akin to a 1980's John Carpenter movie, more specifically “Starman.” I've never seen that Carpenter film, but imagine I'll get on that soon. At first this felt reminiscent of a J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg a la the summer of 2011 and the final product that was “Super 8” (man, I'd really love to watch that again soon), but Nichols is clearly trying to give more of an example as to where his head was at while writing the script. What might have come of the story since making that statement and whatever directing filter he put the film through since shooting has now wrapped could have completely changed that comparison given they are in deep post-production. Regardless, I am eager to see what Nichols has in store for us and if you're a fan of the director and a little upset he gave into the big studio system, fear not, as he also said he was working on another script at the same time that hued closer to his other work and was, "austere, quiet, sad and beautiful." “Midnight Special” stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard. (11/25)
6. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
The first trailer for the follow-up to writer/director Joss Whedon’s record-breaking 2012 film was supposed to drop during an episode of ABC's “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” but someone from within leaked the trailer three days early. This is how much people cannot wait to see what else Marvel will give them. There is no denying the anticipation for this one is sky high and our first glance at the sequel in those trailers only added to that hype in the most positive of ways. I can remember being slightly underwhelmed by the first trailer for “The Avengers” as the Nine Inch Nails soundtrack never met with what I imagined it to be, but ultimately we know everything turned out OK and if nothing else it was a treat to finally see all of these characters in one place together. This time around that isn't going to be enough, but what Whedon has given us a glance at here is a very different, much darker tone than the original possessed. From what we've seen so far (and I hope they hold back on the marketing and avoid an ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2’-like situation) I'm loving the color palette created from the broader scope of locations in this film, I enjoy the musical choice and I appreciate the vibes coming off genuinely dramatic while not taking itself too seriously. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all return to battle titular villain Ultron (James Spader) while new allies and enemies join them in the form of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will also utilize Don Cheadle, Andy Serkis, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders. (5/1)
Martin Scorsese has been developing his next film for several decades. To call it a passion project feels like something of an understatement at this point. Having worked on an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel, “Silence,” for years things finally began shaping up when financing was secured near the end of 2013 and production officially began in what was reportedly July of 2014. The story concerns two Jesuit priests who, in the seventeenth century, face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver will serve as the priests in the film while the likes of Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson will also star. It is difficult to find anything real concrete on whether or not the film moved forward as intended and will stick with its planned November release placing it right in the middle of awards season, but I can only hope these facts hold steady. It will be somewhat odd to see Leonardo DiCaprio in an Oscar season film not directed by Scorsese as “The Revenant” will also be in the race for 2016, but it will certainly be something of a refresher, like “Hugo,” as we see the legendary filmmaker work outside what has more or less become a comfort zone over the last decade. What is even more exciting is that this is pretty heavy-sounding material giving the director plenty to work with and so to be able to anticipate what as talented a director as Scorsese will do with that material in bringing it to life with the passion we all know he has for it, only serves to create what will hopefully be one of the more memorable movie-going experiences of the year.
4. “The Hateful Eight”
Oh, the trials and tribulations of Quentin Tarantino's “The Hateful Eight.” First there was the script leak, then the director basically said the film wouldn't be made, but then he staged a live read of the script to which there seemed to be some inspiration to again make the film and so it was being made, but then there came delays and of course a barrage of casting rumors. All of this to say that the film is now obviously being made and has either just started production or will start next month with a full cast in place and a release date set for this November. Tarantino will again be venturing into Western territory as “The Hateful Eight” tells the story of bounty hunters trying to find shelter during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming, but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. I haven't read the leaked script nor have I looked at any videos of the live read (mainly because I can't find any), but needless to say that as a film geek I'm always excited for a new Tarantino movie. There was always the stigma around “Pulp Fiction” that you had to love it as a film student and no matter how many times I watch that film it seems coming to it later than when it first premiered takes it down a few notches for me who was unaware of what was so revolutionary about it at the time. For me, what really set the director apart as a strong, singular voice was “Inglorious Basterds.” I saw both “Kill Bill” movies in the theater as well as “Death Proof” and so I was given access to those films without prior opinion hanging over as an influence and still, it wasn't until ‘Basterds’ that I felt I finally "got" what everyone else was talking about. I enjoyed ‘Django’ in many of the same ways I did ‘Basterds,’ but to a slightly less fulfilling degree. I can only hope that while Tarantino is working in the same genre as his previous film that he and his cast that includes Channing Tatum, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern will continue to keep things innovative in the way the director has become known to do. (11/13)
When I think of narrowing down the upcoming year in movies to a select few I am most excited for I think of it in terms of what movies I would want to see if these were the only movies I were allowed to see that year. This train of thought really comes into play when you get down to the top five. In the last couple of years Jake Gyllenhaal has proven himself to be one of the best and most versatile actors working in Hollywood today and that has not gone unnoticed by most. I can't wait to see what the guy does next. Much like other constantly rising, constantly producing quality stars like Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender, Gyllenhaal will have a busy 2015 with four films set for release. There is David O. Russell's comedy/romance “Nailed” co-starring Jessica Biel and James Marsden that sounds like fun, but not my top pick from his current crop. There is “Everest” from director Baltasar Kormákur that co-stars Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, Sam Worthington and Emily Watson, but while I've enjoyed Kormákur's previous works as B-movie entertainment I wouldn't consider them worth having on a "must-see" list though that cast is certainly impressive. There is also Jean-Marc Vallée's next film, “Demolition,” about an investment banker struggling to understand his emotional disconnect after the tragic death of his wife that co-stars Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper, but I wouldn't be surprised if this one ended up as a 2016 release. The one I want to see most out of his upcoming films though is “Southpaw” from director Antoine Fuqua about a boxer fighting his way to the top as his life falls apart around him. I watched “The Equalizer” again yesterday with commentary from Fuqua and his passion for filmmaking along with Gyllenhaal's clear dedication only solidified this as the best choice at this given time.
2. “Furious 7”
Last year was a tumultuous year for the cast and crew of the seventh film in the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise. I wasn't overly interested in the series until Justin Lin came along and decided there was something worth investing in. While ‘Tokyo Drift’ felt like something of an audition for the director it has come to serve as a catalyst of sorts for the series. Going back in time to before the events of the third film, Lin brought us up to date with 2013's “Fast & Furious 6” and from there on out we faced the unexpected. The unexpected came in tragic form in November of 2013 though with Paul Walker's untimely death which sent the James Wan directed sequel into re-writes, delays and an unquestionable future. Through all of this it feels like the series has become more of a cultural mainstay and closer to people’s hearts which will no doubt up the interest in the seventh film, but more than anything it will be nice to have one last opportunity to see Walker portray the character he will be most remembered for. I was and am beyond excited to see Jason Statham joining the cast this time around as the brother to Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw whom Statham is now out to avenge and it will be interesting to see how this plot plays out, but more than anything the future of the entire franchise rests on this installment’s shoulders as we wonder and wait to see where the crew will take us. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson and Lucas Black all return while Ronda Rousey, Tony Jaa, Nathalie Emmanuel, John Brotherton, Djimon Hounsou and Kurt Russell join the ever-expanding cast. (4/3)
1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
By the time J.J. Abrams' ‘Star Wars; entry hits theaters just under a year from now it will have been over a decade since the last ‘Star Wars’ film was in theaters. This may conjure up bad memories for most seeing as George Lucas' prequel trilogy wasn't received well, but this marks a new day. It was just before I graduated high school that I waited in line for the midnight showing of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ and if ‘Star Wars’ brings up anything more than the iconography of its characters it's nostalgia. These are event films in a manner no other films can strive to be. The movie will sell itself and fans and superfans alike will show up multiple times no matter what to see, to dissect and re-watch to make sure their opinion is correct. Though Abrams and company decided to release an 88-second teaser trailer in November, they could literally do no more marketing for this film and it would do gangbusters at the box office. That said, we will get a ton more marketing and with the teaser I'm at least happy to get a look at what tone, style and atmosphere we will be getting from this new film. In the teaser we get a first look at John Boyega in full storm trooper garb, Daisy Ridley riding across the desert and Oscar Isaac as a starfighter before cutting to a mysterious figure breaking out a new model lightsaber who I, for one reason or another, instinctively assume is Adam Driver. ‘The Force Awakens’ will also see the return of original stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher with other new additions that include Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Max Von Sydow and many more. I do indeed love how simply cinematic the first footage looks and while I'm more than excited to see the final product I wonder if it will ever be able to live up to the ridiculous expectations already being held for it. (12/18)
by Julian Spivey
I have a few thoughts on the Academy Award nominations that were announced on Thursday, Jan. 15, but before I start I feel the need to admit that I’ve only seen a small handful of the movies nominated this year (though I do hope to catch a few more before the ceremony on February 22). If you want a more reasoned and adequate opinion on which films and actors were truly snubbed you should check out Philip Price’s thoughts, because he’s seen every one of these films and many more.
My favorite nominations this year involve the incredibly brilliant, but little seen indie drama “Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a youngster who’s just about to turn 30. “Whiplash” tells the story of 19-year old jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) and the abusive music teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) in charge of molding him. The performances by both Teller and Simmons are among the most tense you’ll ever see on film, and this is essentially a teacher/student film which makes that all the more incredible. But, it’s because it’s a film about how far one will go or let himself be pushed in order to reach greatness that the intensity works so beautifully. “Whiplash” was nominated for best picture, best supporting actor (Simmons), best adapted screenplay (Chazelle), best film editing and best sound mixing. I wish space could’ve been found for Chazelle in the packed best director field and Teller in the incredibly packed best actor category. Still I’m thrilled that a little indie film that cost just around $3 million to make can receive such an esteemed honor as best picture nomination, even if there’s no chance in Hell of it winning. It means a lot for the state of indie films in this country, where many of America’s best films are coming from. Sure, you could say that best picture front-runner “Boyhood” and leading nominee “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are also indies, but not $3 million indies that are basically do-it-yourself like “Whiplash” was. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Whiplash” did more with less than any film of 2014.
The biggest controversy following the announcement of the Oscar nominations on Thursday was the utter lack of nominations for “Selma.” Just about everybody who’s seen it has heralded it as one of the best movies of the last year, but it could only muster a best picture and best original song nomination? Some are blaming the fact that Paramount didn’t send out screeners to voters, which does seem like a dumbass thing to do, but that’s simply not a good enough reason to almost shut this movie out (I will say I haven’t seen it yet, but the majority of critics can’t be that wrong). The most puzzling snub is that of director Ava DuVernay not receiving a nomination for best director when her film is nominated for best picture, yet “Foxcatcher” is not nominated for best picture but its director Bennett Miller receives a best director nomination. David Oyelowo who plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the film is also considered a pretty big snub in the best actor category, but that is an extremely packed category this year. Maybe the Academy is simply over the African-American history film this year and has turned its focus to films about scientists, as both Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Alan Turing) received nominations for playing scientists.
Meryl Streep received her record-extending 19th Oscar nomination on Thursday for her role as the witch in Disney’s disappointingly disjointed cynical fairytale “Into The Woods.” She is the only one of the nominees in this category whose role I’ve seen this year, but I still highly doubt she’s worthy of this nomination. She certainly was good in the role of the witch, but this has all the looks of another “Meryl Streep being nominated because she’s Meryl Streep” nomination, which we’ve seemingly seen a few times over the last few years. I hate to come off as bashing Streep because she’s obviously one of the most talented actresses in the history of cinema, but I do have to roll my eyes a bit when people continue to put her on this higher than the sky pedestal – Streep might be great, but stop acting like she’s the greatest ever. Have you seen Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and others act?
Robert Duvall’s nomination for best supporting actor in “The Judge” frankly surprised me (I haven’t seen the movie yet as poor reviews scared me off of a theatre viewing), even though it doesn’t seem it should have as he was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award. Still some might think of this as a lifetime achievement nomination for the great Duvall (much like the nomination for Streep). Being a huge Duvall fan though it wouldn’t surprise me if he truly is deserving, even if the movie disappointed many overall. At 84 years old Duvall surpasses Hal Halbrook as the oldest male nominee in Oscar history (only Emmanuelle Riva who was 85 when nominated for best actress for “Amour” in 2013 is an older nominee). The truly fascinating thing about Duvall is that he keeps turning out terrific, award nominated performances long after many of his contemporaries have hung up their acting shoes. Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson have long since retired and Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino haven’t done anything substantial in years, but Duvall is still going strong. It’s a testament to not only the Oscar winner’s talent, but his work ethic.
Bradley Cooper’s best actor nomination for “American Sniper” could be considered in place of a more deserving performance (David Oyelowo for “Selma” or Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler”), but I honestly wouldn’t know because I haven’t seen any of those films yet, but I do know the Academy seems to have a new infatuation with the 40-year old actor. This is the third consecutive year that Cooper has been nominated for an Oscar having been nominated last year for best supporting actor in “American Hustle” and the year before for best actor in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper is only the 15th actor to ever receive three consecutive Oscar nominations, which puts him in fantastic company that includes Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy and Jack Nicholson. Russell Crowe 2000-2002 was the last actor to accomplish the feat. If Cooper is nominated for something next year he would tie Brando’s record for four consecutive nominations; Brando won on his fourth consecutive try for “On the Waterfront” (1954).
The Oscars seem to be getting more boring and boring with each passing year because we usually know with pretty good certainty which actors or films are going to take home the most coveted hardware in all of Hollywood because there are so many award shows prior to the Oscars. This has made Oscar pools pretty damn easy for anybody who’s paying attention to the rest of award season. I’m almost 100 percent sure that three of the four acting categories this year are stone cold locks. Julianne Moore is going to win best actress for “Still Alice,” Patricia Arquette is going to win best supporting actress for “Boyhood” and J.K. Simmons (thankfully) is going to win best supporting actor for “Whiplash.” This means only best actor is up for grabs and it’s pretty much down to Michael Keaton for “Birdman” and Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” the two actors who won Golden Globe awards last weekend. And, with each passing day Keaton seems to be distancing himself from Redmayne.
Much has been made since the Oscar nominations were revealed that the Academy has whitewashed the awards. One article headline even stated that this is the whitest Oscars since 1998. All 20 nominations in the four acting categories are taken up by white actors and actresses. Is it a problem for all 20 slots to be taken up by white performers? Yes and no. I believe that Oscar nominations should go to the best acting performances regardless of race and other factors. If the five best performances of the year in each acting category were done by white actors than that’s the way the nominations should go. Any other way is asking for a token nomination and I don’t believe anybody would truly want that. But … the reason why the “whitewashed” tag is being thrown around and the reason why 20 white actors for 20 nominations seems so wrong this year is that there’s a reportedly terrific movie out there featuring a predominantly black cast in “Selma” (again I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to very soon) and the fact that movies and performances that many critics believed to be inferior to “Selma” are receiving nominations over it make things seem a little out of place.
by Philip Price
We are here once again with Oscar nominations and while I attempt to limit any coverage of awards season hoopla (simply because there are so many to cover and too little to care about) the Academy Awards are obviously the biggest show of the season and so it was with great anticipation I awaited Thursday’s announcements. My initial reactions are of a bigger shock than I anticipated. Mainly having to deal with what was one of my favorite films of the year, “Selma.” While the Academy decided to go ahead and give it a Best Picture nomination over “Foxcatcher” (which is surprising given the supporting nominations, but nonetheless “Foxcatcher” is completely worthy) it glaringly left David Oyelowo off its best actor list for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while his director Ava DuVernay was omitted from the Best Director category as well. One wants to blame this on Paramount for handling the awards campaign for the film poorly, but that just feels like more of an excuse at this point. Other notable snubs include “The LEGO Movie” being left off the Best Animated Feature list for Disney's “Big Hero 6” and “The Boxtrolls” which would have served as a better nom than either of those. The other films I was largely disappointed to see left off were “Nightcrawler” and “Gone Girl.”
While I'm fine with giving Laura Dern a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “Wild,” does Meryl Streep really need another for a rather sub-par movie? Give Rene Russo the nod, her character arc and performance in “Nightcrawler” are riveting. The same is true of Jake Gyllenhaal who arguably gave one of the best performances of the year and received zero love. I agree that Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell deserve their respective nods and was happy to see them received, but Gyllenhaal created a character from nothing and excelled at it and this should have easily taken over two more actors playing other historical white guys in some rather mediocre and conventional films. It doesn't hardly matter though given Michael Keaton has this category on lock. No one will say anything about Robert Duvall getting a nomination for the largely hated “The Judge” (I didn't mind it and rather enjoyed it) because J.K. Simmons is a lock for that spot and deservedly so, but it would have been nice to see a less pedigreed choice such as Logan Lerman in “Fury” or even Channing Tatum in “Foxcatcher” along with his co-star Ruffalo in this category. What would have been horrible would be if they were to have given Tom Wilkinson a nod for Selma while leaving the rest the same. Let's just thank God they decided not to go that route.
As for “Gone Girl,” it was largely shut out of the race altogether as only Rosamund Pike received a nomination for her role as Amazing Amy Elliot while director David Fincher didn't get a directing nod nor did the picture receive a nomination. Personally, I loved “Gone Girl” and after the snub that “The Social Network” received a few years ago in not winning Best Picture I was hopeful the Academy might at least make up for it by giving the admittedly non-friendly Academy film and Fincher the due they deserve. It might have also been nice to see Carrie Coon or Kim Dickens get some recognition in the supporting actress category as I would have taken either of them over Dern or Keira Knightley for her performance in “The Imitation Game.”
Other surprises include the exclusion of the documentary “Life Itself,” but then again it was about a movie critic so how surprised are we, really? The absence of “Force Majeure” and “Two Days, One Night” from the Foreign Film categories is somewhat shocking considering the steam they had going in, but I have yet to see any of the nominees so I can't really complain about it. All in all the final counts come to “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with nine nominations each (both deservedly so, though I was hoping Ralph Fiennes may sneak into the best actor race as well, but still not before Gyllenhaal) while “The Imitation Game” landed eight, “Boyhood” and “American Sniper” have six a piece and “Whiplash,” “Interstellar” and “Foxcatcher” each received five. There is always plenty to complain about and as the shock of the “Selma” and “Nightcrawler” exclusions still appalls me, it's beginning to sink in that this was all rather predictable and, once again, I should have known not to hope for better from any of these types of awards.
Check out the full list of nominees below and catch the broadcast on February 22nd at 7 p.m. hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.
Nominations for the 87th Academy Awards
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)
Robert D. Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)
Roger Deakins (Unbroken)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Jason Dean Hall (American Sniper)
Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)
Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice)
Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything)
Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Best Original Screenplay
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler)
Best Documentary Feature
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth
Sandra Adair (Boyhood)
Barney Pilling (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game)
Tom Cross (Whiplash)
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game)
Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)
Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything)
Gary Yershon (Mr. Turner)
Best Original Song
"Lost Stars" from Begin Again
"I'm Not Gonna Miss You" from Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
"Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie
"Glory" from Selma
"Grateful" from Beyond the Lights
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Captain America: The winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Mark Bridges (Inherent Vice)
Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods)
Anna B. Sheppard (Maleficent)
Jacqueline Durran (Mr. Turner)
Makeup and Hairstyling
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
by Julian Spivey
Matthew McConaughey shocked Hollywood on Thursday, Jan. 15 when it was revealed that he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the second straight year after taking home the Oscar for his role in “Dallas Buyers Club” in 2014.
McConaughey wasn’t among the prospective nominees for the coveted award, which is why his second consecutive nomination came as a shock to both Hollywood insiders and cinephiles everywhere. His nomination wasn’t even the biggest surprise, but what McConaughey received the nomination for – not his performance as astronaut Cooper in Christopher Nolan’s space blockbuster “Interstellar,” but for his series of Lincoln car commercials.
McConaughey becomes the first major star to receive an Oscar nomination for a role in a commercial, which is allowed under Academy rules classified as a short film. He also becomes the first actor nominated for such an esteemed honor just for playing himself on film.
Though McConaughey is popular among audiences, his peers and Hollywood executives his nomination did cause quite the controversy on Thursday morning shortly after it was announced, particularly for being chosen over the performances of Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher,” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” and David Oyelowo in “Selma.” The unique nomination was defended by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
“We realize that nominating Matthew for this award based on a series of 30 to 60 second commercials for a car company was going to be a controversial and unconventional decision, but once we saw his performance we knew it would simply be inexcusable to snub him,” Isaacs said. “He really captured our imagination with his incredible dramatic and comedic performance. It was such a thought-provoking role that many of our 6,000 members were immediately compelled to go out and buy Lincolns.”
No one was more shocked about McConaughey’s Oscar nomination than McConaughey himself who was reportedly surfing in Hawaii with “True Detective” co-star and good friend Woody Harrelson.
When reached by phone for interview McConaughey said, “Alright, alright, alright” before launching into a 25 minute spiel about how his role of Lincoln spokesman was the one role he’d prepared his entire 45-year life for. “I wasn’t just born to sell Lincolns,” he said before pausing for an incredibly unnecessary amount of time, “but rather Lincolns were born to sell me.”
McConaughey’s competition for Best Actor during the February 22 ceremony will be stiff with the other four nominations going to Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Seth MacFarlane (“A Million Ways to Die in the West”), however he said it was just an honor to be nominated and that statues are only good for paper weights and trading for copious amounts of weed.
by Philip Price
I have become less and less enchanted with Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy the more and more we get of it. Thankfully, “The Battle of the Five Armies” will be our last trip to Middle Earth (if at least for some time) because the more Jackson and company string out their financially successful series the more he seems to discredit the genuinely engaging and handsomely made films that started it all. There was always great hope for an adaptation of “The Hobbit” given it would return Jackson to a place he clearly has a passion for, but a lack of care also seems to be the source of trouble with each new chapter in this prequel trilogy. It feels as if each movie hinges on one or two major set pieces allowing it to deliver what audiences expect while the remaining hour and a half is left to be filled with subplots that are either unnecessary to the main narrative or feel forced in so as to simply extend the running time. Is it required a film must be two and a half hours for it to feel epic? Jackson seems to think so, but as “Battle of the Five Armies” comes in at two hours and twenty-four minutes it is by far the shortest installment and at the very least, feels like a relief because of it. I didn’t like a lot about this final chapter. I wasn’t impressed with the structure of the story or the organization of the titular five armies (if you haven’t read the book you’ll be left wondering who exactly the fifth army even is) and more than anything it was frustrating to see a maguffin as obvious as “Dragon Sickness” pit Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) against seemingly everyone else in the entire movie, even his fellow dwarves. Certainly, some of the blame for this can be placed on all of the rules, worlds and ridiculous names that author J.R.R. Tolkien originally came up with, but with as much of a beast as Jackson has turned this small, 300-page introductory novel into I’m willing to place most of the blame on he and the studio for compromising much of the story’s merit for greed. I understand the reasoning, I realize there is a business aspect to it all and that by splitting the planned two films into three allows this third film’s box office to generate pure profit, but that doesn’t mean I sympathize with the decision because while they get extra cash on their Christmas bonus, audiences everywhere are short-changed by this insufficiently justified chapter.
To his credit, there isn’t as much messing around in this closing installment as Jackson jumps right back into things picking up where “The Desolation of Smaug” abruptly left off. We are dropped back into the quaint Lake-town that resides at the bottom of the mountain that houses the dragon Smaug. Bard (Luke Evans) fights for his small piece of Middle Earth as much of the town flees from the dragon that is quickly turning it to ashes. Thorin and his company of dwarves meanwhile have reclaimed their homeland and are hard at work searching for his family heirloom, the arkenstone of Tharin. Before the title card even comes up Bard has killed the dragon Smaug and has somewhat reluctantly moved into a position of leadership. He leads his people up through the mountains some abandoned ruins where they will presumably receive aid from the dwarves. The aforementioned “Dragon Sickness” comes into play here as Thorin has become obsessed with reclaiming his treasure above all else. It is not he who comes to the aid of man, but instead it is the elf army under the command of Thranduil (Lee Pace). When the elf army arrives, Thranduil forges an alliance with Bard in hopes of claiming a necklace of white gems from Thorin’s treasure. Bard attempts to reason with Thorin to avoid war, but Thorin, much to the dismay of his company and Bilbo (Martin Freeman), refuses to share any of his treasure or help those in need in any fashion. As all of this is going on there is also the incoming threat of an orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) who, after learning of the elf army, sends word to Gundabad to summon their remaining forces. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are also in on the action as they witness the march of this second massive Orc army and rush back to warn the others of the impending second wave of attacks. While all of this is going on there is also Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to keep in mind as he is stuck in a cage at the top of another mountain and is rescued by the likes of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). It’s easy to get lost among all of the details, but we really know it’s all just an excuse to get the dwarves, elves and men to unite or be destroyed.
My real issue with the film though, and this would be a problem with any film not just one as singular to its world and characters as one based on Tolkien literature, is that none of what is going on seems meaningful or substantial in a way that it is worth what will come after the loss. There is a moment late in the film where I sat back and thought to myself what might an orc do if they were to actually win and survive this battle? What is the point of them even fighting? The gold that Smaug guarded? What would riches do for an orc in this age where they seem so animalistic as to be able to live happily off the land? It’s as if there is almost no thought or reason to it other than the good guys need someone to fight and they need to look ugly and disgusting enough for us to inherently think of them as evil. I, again, realize this isn’t the point of such fantasy films to ask a ridiculous question such as what an orc needs money for, but to even get to that place in my thought process has to say something about the value of the entertainment at hand. I also realize the production that included crafting this final chapter was likely anything but rushed yet I can’t help but feel like the majority of what we’re seeing here (sans the massive battle sequences) are scenes that would have ended up on the cutting room floor of a much tighter, two-film series. Instead, this third and final chapter in Jackson’s second Middle Earth trilogy is patched together by disparate storylines that eventually and awkwardly merge to create what we come to see these movies for in the first place (those massive battle sequences). The emphasis is on the armies, on the fighting and while there are a few actual involving moments along the way that sprinkle in genuine emotion and do their best to move the story forward there still isn’t enough for the culmination of these events to mean anything more than a distraction. Based on little more than the massive scope on which these films operate it is hard to look at them as underwhelming, but as our titular hero whose story and journey we are supposed to be taking part in is relegated to little more than a supporting character it is also hard to see this final film as anything close to fulfilling much less definitive.
I sound as if I hate the film and the truth is I didn’t, not really. I’m probably (wrongly) taking my frustration out on “The Hobbit” series as a whole with this film as we now have a full picture of what things look like. There are certainly things to appreciate here be it a few pieces of striking imagery in the third act or the emotional weight we feel with the Tauriel and Kili (Aiden Turner) storyline that is explored in little depth, but resonates given its universal themes. What is disappointing about this chapter more than anything is the ease with which Jackson has come to use CGI. In the original trilogy there was a natural aesthetic to things, especially the orcs, as well as the environments and despite knowing large battle sequences are largely computer generated there was something about the way it was shot that felt authentic. In this second trilogy and to greater effect than ever before it feels like while watching “The Battle of the Five Armies” that I was watching a video game. The director has strayed so far from practicality that even when Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot II (Billy Connolly), shows up he is completely computer animated and for what reason? Why use motion capture when you have a living, breathing actor (and one of Connolly’s skill no less) who is willing to perform the part and cover that with unrealistic renderings? Regardless, it is not just with this character (though he serves as a prime example) but in many instances that one is forced to wonder how much of this they actually shot given the only things that seem real are a handful of the human characters necessary to the throughline plot. It is with something of a disheartened sigh that this final film closes on more of a whimper than a roar, and despite Freeman still giving a charming and affable performance as Bilbo there is not much to cling to here in terms of what you can dig in deep enough to enjoy. All of the actors and performers are more than up to the task and more specifically Ryan Gage as Alfrid provides some nice comic relief, but more than anything it simply feels as if Jackson has wandered so far from the innovation and vision of what made his original trilogy so enchanting that this film is more the story of a director who’s lost himself and his way rather than a hobbit who discovers who he really is.