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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Selma, Snipers, and More

I've been steadily making my way through the major players of the season, and have recently seen the two movies most in the cultural zeitgeist: Selma and American Sniper. Here are some thoughts on those, as well as a few others.


Ava DuVernay's Selma is, like Steven Spielberg's great Lincoln, a story of a short period of time and a major political achievement, in this case the marches in Selma that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is so much to love about Selma, beginning with David Oyelowo's masterful performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. Without mimicry or showy acting, Oyelowo completely embodies both the bravery and the fear in this great man. It's all the more impressive because DuVernay surrounds King with a whole cast of characters from the Civil Rights Movement. Watching Selma, the viewer sees that this was truly a movement of the people, not just of one great man.  Carmen Ejogo is also wonderful as Coretta. Without sensationalizing, the movie doesn't shy away from the stresses of their marriage. The most moving and gripping moments in Selma are the marches, filmed with a powerful vision by DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young. There are a few "traditional" biopic moments where the dialogue is a little too expository and on-the-nose, but that's pretty much my only quibble.

As for the controversy around Selma's portrayal of LBJ, I have a few thoughts. First, despite what you hear, LBJ is not at all portrayed as a villain in the movie. He's shown as a savvy politician working to fight poverty and pushed to fully embrace civil rights. From the responses, it sounds like there are some liberties taken with his actual role, but what film doesn't? Does a president deserve more than other, less-famous, historical figures?   Selma did get a Best Picture nomination, but only a lonely Best Song nomination to match, leading many to cry snub. This is a bit more complicated. Selma was completed late and screeners only reached the Academy at the last minute. This probably explains some of the overlooking, but I also think there are other forces at play. This is the kind of big, important historical movie Oscar usually loves.  Did some of the old white members not see this movie, or ignore it if they did? It's certainly likely-and a bit disturbing when you think of other, far inferior movies that did extremely well (see next post!).

Grade: A-

American Sniper

American Sniper is the incredibly huge hit and last-minute Oscar movie from director Clint Eastwood.  It stars Bradley Cooper, who I like very much as an actor, as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper of the Iraq war. I really hated this movie.  The movie is structured as a series of missions in Iraq broken up by homefront scenes. Both types of scenes are incredibly familiar. The war scenes are unstylishly composed and very good-vs-evil in their morality. The one exception is a final scene in a dust storm which really helps the viewer understand the chaos of the time. Sienna Miller does a fine job as Kyle’s wife, but their scenes hit all the expected beasts and then some.  Every other actor in the movie, including both his fellow soldiers and especially the Iraqis, are almost non-entities, simply existing to move the story along. The last 10 minutes of the movie are also incredibly awkward, forcing forced moral revelations, tragedy, and real-life footage onto the viewer in a rushed time frame.

Since American Sniper thinkpieces are saturating the Internet, I’ll add my take.  I think American Sniper is a poorly made movie, adding nothing new to the war genre, but in reflecting on the movie’s choices and politics I’m even angrier. Kyle is portrayed throughout this movie as a true American hero, mad about 9/11 and willing to do whatever he can to save his country. While the movie shows the affects of the war on his homelife, there’s little doubt we are meant to admire his moral certitude and sense of right and wrong.  It’s also incredible to me that so many are embracing this as a tale of pure heroism, ignoring the fact that Iraq was a misguided and tragic war for all involved. In the excerpts I’ve seen from Kyle’s book, he enjoys killing Iraqis, claims he killed looters during Hurricane Katrina, and lies about several events. What if the movie had explored the real Kyle, a man with many rough edges the movie sands off in its portrayal of patriotism and American good?  The whole time I watched American Sniper, I wished I was watching Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. There’s a movie that shows the bravery of soldiers, their addiction to war, and the true moral consequences of their actions. And it made about 1/20th the box office of Sniper.  

Watch this instead:

American Sniper: D+

Quick Thoughts

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who played a huge role in breaking the German enigma code and helping the Allies win WW2.  The Imitation Game is an engaging, handsomely mounted, and pretty conventional movie that feels right up Oscar's wheelhouse.  This isn't entirely a slight on the movie. I enjoyed it the whole time, learned a lot about the story, and thought Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and Matthew Goode were terrific. While the movie doesn't exactly shy away from Turing's hidden gay life and his later years, the movie does seem to sand the rough edges a bit in order to turn this into more of a triumphant movie.  It's a very good movie, but does nothing particularly groundbreaking in today's film landscape.

Grade: B


Foxcatcher is a cold, calculating film about wealth, American competition, and masculinity.  The movie starts Channing Tatum as a, Steve Carrell as the wealthy John DuPont, and Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s brother.  Steve Carrel has the showiest role, and won the Oscar nomination, for his creepy portrayal of DuPont. While I was interested in Carrell the whole time, there were definitely times when I felt the effort of his performance.  Much stronger, in my opinion, were Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum is easily typecast, but he adds texture and depth to his role here, showing the desperation, confusion, and anger of his character. Ruffalo is even better as his brother, a man teeming with love for his brother and a sense of justice. I love Bennet Miller’s two previous films (Capote and Moneyball), and I don’t think Foxcatcher quite lives up to them. The story is so bizarre, I honestly wanted a little more absurdist humor thrown into the movie to modulate the tone a bit. It’s a strong movie, though, and definitely well-worth seeing for its controlled filmmaking, strong performances, and thoughts on American culture.

Grade: B/B+


Based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a woman overcoming her mother's death and issues of addiction through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I saw Wild because I knew Reese would get a nomination, and didn't have the highest of expectations. I was really pleasantly surprised at how impressed and enthralled I was by Wild. Director Jean Marc-Valle takes a huge leap forward from Dallas Buyers Club in terms of directorial style in this film. The movie seamlessly weaves Strayed's journey with the difficult moments of her past, which the movie doesn't shy away from.  This is the best Witherspoon has been since Election, and Laura Dern is also great in her Oscar nominated role as Strayed's mother. 

Grade: A-

Still Alice

Julianne Moore is one of my all-time favorite actresses, and here is the movie she is almost guaranteed to win her the Oscar. Moore stars as Alice, a 50-year-old linguistics professor diagnosed with rapid, early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The movie follows her and her family as she quickly declines and loses much of her life.  Moore is nothing but brilliant in the role, subtly showing the shifting emotions and cognition that happens as the disease progresses. Kristen Stewart is also surprisingly good as the black sheep daughter who becomes Alice's greatest ally.  I also admired the way the movie didn't try to go over-the-top melodramatic, knowing the story itself was enough to make us emotional.  Despite its significant strengths, there's a lot that feels kind of plain about Still Alice, and makes it the kind of movie you won't need to see more than once.  Alec Baldwin is also woefully miscast as her science professor husband, feeling about of place in his role.  I'm happy that Moore will now have an Oscar statue, but I also wish she could have been recognized for one of her collaborations with one of my favorite directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Todd Haynes (Safe, I'm Not There), or Robert Altman (Short Cuts).

Grade: B-

Very Quick Thoughts

If you're looking for some recommendations for movies out of theaters (some on Netflix Watch Instantly) check these out.

Dear White People: A nuanced a slyly funny film about identity, with four main characters that feel human.  Thought-provoking yet not preachy, it's a winner.


Ida: A Polish film is nominated for Foreign Language Film and Cinematography, this film is stunning. Seems both classical and modern, unafraid of big ideas played out through a tight 80 minutes and basically just focusing on two characters.


Edge of Tomorrow: Action movies inevitably disappoint me, but this one didn't. A sci-fi Groundhog Day, it's witty and fun, with a good mix of action and character.  I loved Emily Blunt and even liked Tom Cruise!


Le Week-end: If you like the Before Sunrise movies, imagine their golden years.  A caustic, sad, funny, touching look at a long-time married couple on vacation. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan are terrific. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year.


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