Tuesday, February 10, 2015

January 2015


     Two trends are killing the prestige of the Oscar nominations: the over-saturation of pre-Oscar coverage, to the point that it seems as if the predictions are being voted on not the performances or films, and the emphasis in the follow-up coverage on the so-called “snubs.”

    I’ll admit to being guilty of playing the snub game. But, in fact, that’s looking at the process the wrong way. Actors and films that fail to be nominated by the Academy voters aren’t being snubbed, they are finishing sixth or seventh (in most categories) or ninth or 10th (for best picture). Have I snubbed “Still Alice” or “Gone Girl” because they just missed out making my Top 10?

      And then, once the “snubs” have been established, everyone has to weigh in on the whys and wherefores that resulted in the snub. Reading the coverage of the snub of “Selma,” you’d think it wasn’t nominated for best picture (see my opinion on that below). Martin Scorsese made six films, including “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” before he received a director’s nomination, while it took the Coen brothers until their sixth film, “Fargo” to be recognized by Academy voters. Yet we should be outraged that Ava DuVernay, who made two little-seen films before “Selma,” has been “snubbed”?

     I’m more disappointed that “A Most Violent Year” came up short, and that Brendan Gleeson for “Calvary” and Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler” didn’t make the best actor list. And I’m still waiting for an explanation of why the joyful and heartbreaking film about Roger Ebert, “Life Itself,” wasn’t among the documentary nominees. The voters for docs have often blundered egregiously—Steve James, the director of “Life Itself,” was ignored in 1994 for his acclaimed documentary “Hoop Dreams,” widely considered the best nonfiction film of the past 25 years. Maybe James insulted some voters along the way….or, maybe, at least this year, there were five documentaries (none of which I saw) that were better.

      And where the hell is “Interstellar,” unquestionably a great film?

     But that’s the point, right? The process comes down to someone’s opinion, in fact, the opinion of a committee, making it even less scientific. I find it actually amazing that they get it right as often as they do.

     Having seen 90% of the acting nominees and all of the best picture selections, I’ll offer these predictions: Michael Keaton, for “Birdman,” and Julianne Moore for “Still Alice,” will win the lead acting Oscars, while J.K. Simmons, as the obnoxious band director in “Whiplash,” and Patricia Arquette, as the tireless mother in “Boyhood,” will accept the supporting Oscars. While I am not a fan of “Boyhood”—it won’t make my Top 20—I think it will win best picture and its director, Richard Linklater, will also take home the Oscar. For my money, his 2011 film, “Bernie,” was miles better than this year’s nominated picture. But I can live with “Boyhood” winning best picture as long as Keaton wins best actor. That’s all I ask of the voters: Don’t snub “Birdman!”

     While it is remains a work in progress, here’s my Top 10 for 2014. 

     1  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

        (Alejandro González Iñárritu )

     2  Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)

     3  A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)

     4  The Grand Budapest Hotel  (Wes Anderson)

     5  American Sniper  (Clint Eastwood)

     6  The Theory of Everything  (James Marsh)

     7  A Most Wanted Man  (Anton Corbijn)

     8  Calvary  (John Michael McDonagh)

     9  Nightcrawler  (Dan Gilroy)

   10  Wild  (Jean-Marc Vallée)


    Not to sound like an old guy, but if every American movie was set in and made in the style of the 1970s, I’d be a very happy filmgoer. Even those that don’t turn out very well (see “Inherent Vice” below) provide a better movie experience for me than all but the best of contemporary-set movies. J.C. Chandor’s latest film may be the best retro ‘70s picture I’ve seen since….well, the early 1980s (when it was, at least at the movies, still the “1970s.”)

      Chandor has admitted that the cop films of the great director Sidney Lumet were influential on his approach to “A Most Violent Year,” set in New York City in 1981, the height of street violence and general lawlessness in the city.

     Every frame of “A Most Violent Year” exudes a grim, intense reality—the sun never seems to break free of cloud cover—as it follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a Latino immigrant who, through hard work and good connections, runs a heating oil company, transporting the commodity in trucks throughout the five boroughs.

     Despite being in an industry control by the mob and equally corrupted unions, Abel attempts to run his business the right way, or as close as possible. Which becomes difficult when his deal to buy waterfront storage units from an Hasidic businessman (the diverse face of New York is front and center in the film) is in danger because someone is hijacking his trucks and an ambitious assistant DA (David Oyelowo) wants to indict him on corrupt charges. 

     Another thorn in Abel’s side is his equally ambitious wife Anna (the chameleon-like Jessica Chastain), who learned the trade from her mobster father and, unlike her husband, has no problem bending the law to survive. Probably the best scenes in the film are the arguments, and then make ups, between Abel and Anna; the intense, often uncomfortable scenes recall the kind of dialogue that marked so many great films from the 1970s. They are the Macbeths of mobbed-up New York.

     Isaac, fresh from his breakout role as the obnoxious folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), nails this slick, well-dressed young businessman who wavers between supreme confidence and desperation as he watches his world collapse around him.

     Chastain’s Anna is the ultimate ball-buster who isn’t afraid to step over her husband to do what she sees as necessary. (The scene in which they slam into a deer defines their love/hate relationship). That this role is so different from Chastain’s previous work (“The Tree of Life,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Interstellar”) makes it more impressive. She definitely deserved an Oscar nomination.         

      Also noteworthy is Albert Brooks as Abel’s old-school lawyer and Elyes Gabel as a truck driver who never recovers from being a hijack victim.

     Chandor’s first film, “Margin Call” (2011), was a crackling tick-tock look at the financial crash of 2008 from inside one company. He followed that with what I thought was a rather pointless “All Is Lost,” about a nameless man (Robert Redford) trying to survive on a small boat in the middle of the sea.

      “A Most Violent Year” puts him in another class; he is not only a superb craftsman (with much help here from cinematographer Bradford Young), who is in total command of tone and mood, and a superb director of actors, but that rare screenwriter who brings razor-sharp dialogue to every scene and the kind of depth to characters that is nearly gone from American films today.



CALVARY  (2014)

    I doubt that Brendan Gleeson will ever receive the recognition he deserves. Simply put, he’s one of the finest actors working today.

     After gaining attention as the tough-guy Dubin criminal Martin Cahill in “The General” (1998), the Irish actor has mostly worked as a supporting player (“Gangs of New York,” a couple of “Harry Potter” films, “Green Zone”). But when given a chance to lead, he’s been memorable: as the reluctant, gentle hit man in “In Bruges” (2008), portraying Winston Churchill in the 2009 TV movie “Into the Storm,” and as a blunt, abrasive Irish cop in “The Guard” (2011).

      But this performance, as Father James, a weary priest in a small Irish village, stands as his finest to date. As a man who came late to the priesthood, after the death of his wife and recovery from a drinking problem, James has seen more of the dark side of life than most who take the sacraments, yet he continues to offer hope and redemption to others.

     But few in this town are interested in salvation or much of anything connected to the church, once the centerpiece of communities like this. Now, the Catholic Church is seen as a bothersome neighbor. But in the face of the disrespect, this determined priest carries on.

     Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (in just his second film after “The Guard”) makes his points early in the film when James hears the confession of a man who promises to kill him because of another priest (now dead) who molested the anonymous confessor when he was a boy. The priest faces his own Calvary.

   That threat hangs over the film like a thunderstorm inching over the hillside as Father James deals with his parishioners: a dysfunctional young couple, an arrogant, drunken millionaire and a hateful, insulting bar owner. His only real friend is, ironically, an American writer, played by legendary character actor M. Emmett Walsh, working on his latest novel in a remote cabin not far from the village. Walsh, 80 but looking 150, gives a wonderfully amusing turn, bringing a slice of light to this otherwise grim tale.

     The church also comes under assault in the form of Father Leary, a younger priest working with James who is utterly clueless in how to deal with people and the priorities of faith.

     James’ past is brought out through conversations with his grown daughter (the superb Kelly Reilly, best known as Watson’s wife in “Sherlock Holmes”), who visits from Dublin. That he has a common-man’s history gives him an edge, an authenticity that Gleeson uses to forge a portrait of an unusual, yet still traditional man of the cloth.

     This is the rare film that thoughtfully, and without becoming a sermon, deals with death and faith and the choices that determine the course of our lives. The towering strength of Gleeson’s performance carries those messages, bringing truthfulness and deeply felt heartbreak to the character and the film.


    It is one thing to face the realities of old age as one’s body, in fits and spurts, nears its expiration date. But the thought of Alzheimer’s—a kind of living death, the loss of everything that makes you you, incurable—is nearly unfathomable.

      This film tells the story of Alice Howland, a highly esteemed, 50-year-old linguistics professor, who, after experiencing occasional memory losses, learns that she has a rare early-onset of familial Alzheimer’s.

     At middle-age, she must face the debilitating losses that most don’t experience until their 80s, struggling with daily life and realizing that she is becoming a burden to her husband and grown children.

       The film doesn’t try to be anything more than a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing everything; that approach is successful because of a brilliant performance by Julianne Moore.

       The 54-year-old actress first made a splash in Hollywood in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993), in which she causally played a scene, an argument between a husband and wife, bottomless. She toiled away in both little-seen art films (“Vanya on 42nd Street,” “Safe”) and ridiculous big-budget movies (“Nine Months,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”) before her breakthrough role as porn star Amber Waves in P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997). It earned her an Oscar nomination, the first of five, followed by “The End of the Affair” (2000), “The Hours” (2002), “Far From Heaven” (2002) and “Still Alice.”

     She deserved to take home the Oscar for her performance as a frustrated ‘50s housewife in “Far From Heaven,” but her stunning transformation as Alice, from an expert in the development of language to a confused, hopeless victim of this awful disease should rectify that oversight. Though the conversations with her husband (a very restrained Alec Baldwin) and youngest daughter (a well-cast Kristen Stewart), Moore can be seen struggling to hold onto yourself, to remain connected, even as the disease chips away at her.

    Writing and directing partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, adapting neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel, smartly keep the camera focused on Moore, peering into her quietly expressive face, which, more than any piece of dialogue, tells the story of her heartbreaking fate.          


    Since scoring a best picture Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics’ Top 10 lists, this film about Navy SEAL sharp-shooter Chris Kyle has faced a nonstop assault from the leftwing blogosphere with claims that it paints a false picture of the war in Iraq and misrepresents the character of Kyle.

    While I count myself among those who feel we had, and have, no business in Iraq—that fabrications were used to convince the American public it was a necessary fight—those who want every film depiction of the war to cater to their political view is nothing short of anti-art.

      Should I dismiss the entire genre of Westerns because of their prejudicial view of native Americans? I might not believe everything proposed by Oliver Stone in “JFK,” but that doesn’t stop me from considering it a heck of a film. Exactly when did it become the requirement of filmmakers to provide the whole truth and nothing but the truth, an historical accurate view (as if that’s even possible), of the events being portrayed? Does every World War II film need an explanation of the political and economic decisions that led to the conflict?

     And please don’t look to “American Sniper” for a nuanced portrayal of the Iraqi people—like the Germans, Japanese and North Vietnamese before them, they are nothing more than the cinematic “enemy.”

      While the film tells the story from Kyle’s narrow, super-patriotic view of the war on terror (he’s W., if he had enlisted), the protagonist turns out to be far from the John Wayne-model of war hero.  What director Clint Eastwood (whose political views have spurred much of the vitriolic reaction) and screenwriter Jason Hall have fashioned is one of the most interesting war pictures in recent years, managing to be both pro-war and anti-war. The right may see Kyle as a national hero, but he’s also a damaged man who grows frustrated by the insanity he encounters in Iraq and his own inability to function outside of the warzone.

    Based on Kyle’s autobiography, the script offers a pointed examination of what war does to a man; the personal cost of relentless killing, even when done in the name of your country.   

    You probably know the details of this story: Kyle spent four tours in Iraq, credited with being the most deadly sniper in U.S. history, but became more and more distanced from his family and life at home. War turns him into an efficient killing machine who can barely function in civilian life.

     Making this duality real is Bradley Cooper, giving his best performance to date as Kyle, an average Joe who becomes something special when he’s given a rifle and told to kill bad guys. Cooper must go beyond the lines of script to show how his war experiences, superbly staged by Eastwood, alter his being.

     Sierra Miller plays his wife Taya, who must bear the brunt of his distant moodiness and attempt to hold the family together.

    After enduring the dullness of Eastwood’s film version of “The Jersey Boys” earlier this year, I wondered if it was time for the 84-year-old to hand in his DGA card. He didn’t wait long to redeem himself, crafting a film that is both a fine depiction of the randomness of contemporary war and a powerful portrait of a warrior who pays for his devotion to doing what he believes is his duty. Not unlike Eastwood’s Bill Munny in “Unforgiven,” Chris Kyle was raised to accept violence and guns as necessities in life, but learns the costs that must be paid, on both sides.


SELMA  (2014)

   Before I saw this movie about the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma to Montgomery, a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, my primary question was why it took so long for a depiction of some part of King’s monumental life to make it to the big screen.

    After watching “Selma,” I wondered how it was possible to turn this legendary life into such a slow and lifeless motion picture. While the mainstream media is all aghast that Ava DuVernay failed to earn a best director Oscar nomination, I cannot grasp why it scored a best picture nomination.

     This knee-jerk response discounts, or conveniently ignores, that this same body of Oscar voters selected “12 Years a Slave” as best picture 12 months ago and has nominated (according to the Los Angeles Times) 33 black actors and writer-directors in the past 14 years. Now, apparently, they are racists and need to be counter-acted by adding minority faces to their membership.

    The offensive assumption is that minority voters will ignore aesthetics and art and vote for “their” people. Total rubbish. It’s an insult to every minority who works in the business. Do we really need to question the liberal concerns of a group of Hollywood actors, writers, producers and craftsmen? Isn’t this the same group that is forever assailed by the right wing as perverting the country’s values and favoring minority causes?

     I guess I’m just confused. Sorry for that interruption: I’ll step off my soap box and get back to the movie:

    The film begins with the shattering bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls in 1963 and then a scene that shows the outrageous hoops that blacks had to go through to register to vote in Alabama (and throughout the South) in that era. These scenes are powerful reminders of how recently a large chunk of America (and many of these folks are still alive and wielding power) treated African American as bothersome, clueless children.

     This brings in King and others from the Southern Christian Leadership, including Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, who head to Selma, Alabama, for a 1965 protest at the courthouse over voting rights.

     David Oyelowo (“The Butler”) plays King as a very quiet, thoughtful but tightly wound leader who often confounds his fellow activities with his sudden decisions. It is a good performance, but rarely does Oyelowo, who is made-up to look quite like the man himself, rise above the printed words and truly become this legendary figure.

     The film, in large part because of a lackluster, by-the-numbers direction and Paul Webb’s script, never finds a way to dig below the historical surface, never made me feel like I was there with them—standing up to Bull Connor or suffering under the hateful batons of Southern “lawmen.”

    Near the end of the picture, fading black-and-white newsreels of the Selma march are shown and they feel more vivid than the previous two hours of drama.

    Actually, the most compelling scenes in the film are between King and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as King tries to persuade the president to push for a voting rights bill. The script does a disservice to LBJ, not in the words (which I don’t doubt the validity of) but in his attitude. In subtle ways, the film implies that LBJ actual considered having King eliminated (J. Edgar Hoover’s idea) and was a reluctant partner in this fight for African American rights. This ignores his long, very unpopular fight to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress and the work in support of King by LBJ’s attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Some critics of the film have said that LBJ actually encouraged King to march to Selma, which is the opposite of what’s shown in the film.

     Yet making Johnson something of a bad guy does give the film some juice and allows Oyelowo to show some fire. Except for one student activist, whose motivations aren’t clear, the other protest leaders are never fully developed, thus offering little contrast to King. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King is very elegant and restrained but has little to do, even when confronting her husband about his affairs. 

     “Selma” isn’t a bad film by any means; it will serve as the perfect classroom tool to illustrate the inhumanity and pervasiveness of American racism and the power of peaceful resistance. Yet it falls shorts of bringing that movement and the most reverent Martin Luther King alive.


    Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has the period atmosphere, dialogue, attitude and vibe down so perfectly that you could easily pass off his new film as a forgotten relic from 1972. Unfortunately, for contemporary audiences, it’s not a relic that deserved to be unearthed.

    A perfectly cast Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a dope-smoking, beach-dwelling, very hairy hippie, who somehow carves out a living as a private detective. Living amid the drug crowd of Manhattan Beach, Calif. (here called Gordita Beach), he barely seems capable of maintaining his balance, let along taking on the problems of others. Yet, he does have connections.

    The story begins when his former girlfriend, stereotypical hippie girl/actress Shasta (Katherine Waterston) reappears at his apartment seeking his help. According to her somewhat vague story, she’s in the middle of a scam to defraud real estate mogul, and her current lover, Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Then, everywhere Doc turns, he runs into someone connected to Wolfmann, including a dead body at a massage parlor.

    There are scenes in “Inherent Vice” that are wonderfully acted and conceived—taken directly from Thomas Pynchon’s novel—but the film never achieved the offhanded comic lunacy that pervades the book. I laughed more at the trailer than I did when I saw the entire film a week later.

    Phoenix is properly clueless as he stumbled from one crazed setting to another; watching his reactions to the collection of characters he encounters is the most entertaining aspect of the movie. He eventually puts his efforts into saving a confused sax player turned federal informant (Owen Wilson), who is mixed into the convoluted, pointlessly messy tale. Doc’s grass-fueled aplomb is amusing, but, at some point, it becomes clear this is leading nowhere.

     Offering some diversion is Josh Brolin, as a hard-ass LA police detective with a love-hate relationship with Doc, using the PI to unofficially dig into truths long buried by the LAPD; and Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s gonzo lawyer, who expertise in Maritime law comes in handy when a ship dubbed “The Golden Fang” becomes a central player in the mystery.

      I kept rooting for the film to turn the corner and evolve into something memorable (not unlike my reaction to the director’s “The Master”) but it never happened.     






1 comment:

Dana King said...

Brendan Gleeson has been a favorite of mine since I figured out who he was, in The Guard. (Where he starred with another actor who, in my eyes, steals every movie he’s in, Don Cheadle.) In Bruges is another example. First rate work every time he steps in front of the camera.

I haven’t seen Selma, and may not. I did see 12 Years a Slave, and it confirmed my suspicions: a movie that while good, won the big awards because it’s subject matter was deemed award-worthy; as a movie, it was lacking. What I’ve seen and read of Selma gives me the same impression, which is a shame. There are great movies to be made on these topics.

How can you do Julianne Moore’s resume and not mention The Big Lebowski? Dude…
(I like the red background. Really ties the blog together.)