All posts by Brent Leuthold

It Follows ***½|****

Maika Monroe and Olivia Luccardi in It Follows
Maika Monroe and Olivia Luccardi in It Follows

It Follows is a refreshing and engrossing new entry into the modern horror genre, centering around scenes that patiently built up dread as opposed to going for easy, knee-jerk scares. It has an intentional and almost disorienting throwback sensibility to it, recalling the chills of genre classics like Jaws and Halloween while still blazing a unique stylistic path of its own. Frankly, I wouldn’t classify it as an especially “scary” movie in the traditional sense, but rather a supremely creepy film that takes a relatively simple conceit and wrings it dry for maximum suspense.

The story centers around a young girl named Jay (Maika Monroe, who also starred in last year’s The Guest) and a curse that she contracts after having sex with the mysterious new guy in town (Jake Weary). After their encounter, he explains that she will now be stalked on foot relentlessly by a shape-shifting entity that is only visible to her until she “passes it on” to her next sexual partner. With the help of her friends, including her long time childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Jay must find a way to counter the unstoppable force as it pursues her at walking speed with a zombie-like level of persistence.

David Robert Mitchell, who previously wrote and directed the sweetly nostalgic Myth of the American Sleepover, recontextualizes his earlier film’s themes of sexual anxiety and adolescent metamorphosis within the framework of a chilling campfire tale. Once again, he proves that he has a knack for writing believable dialogue for teenagers and also displays an uncommon level of empathy for his characters, which is crucial for any horror movie to be a true success. These kids are thankfully much smarter than they’re typically allowed to be in movies like this, which allows us to root for them instead of shouting at them on the screen.

Mitchell, along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, also inject It Follows with visual flare that is subtle but incredibly effective. The camerawork often mirrors the patient efforts of the film’s antagonist, using slow and measured movements to sneak up on characters or draw our attention to apparitions that may or may not be lurking in the distance. I was particularly fond of a scene where the gang goes to a high school and instead of the following them each step, the camera stops at a center point and slowly rotates fully around multiple times to give us brief glimpses of the entity (or is it?) in the background.

Another huge asset to the film’s success is the memorable score by Rich Vreeland, which nicely amplifies the tension with its jolting synthesizer stabs that favorably recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho. Somehow, this movie is even able to include passages from  T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky in a way that’s not nearly as pretentious as it could have been. Bold choices and details like these make It Follows one of the most richly inspired and downright fun horror movies that’s come out it quite a while.

A Most Violent Year ***½|****

Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

Set in the brutal winter of 1981 in New York City, the terrific new film A Most Violent Year covers a troubled time in the city’s history which saw record numbers for murders and violent crimes citywide. Fittingly, it maintains a chillingly tense atmosphere where the threat of violence is always high and the sense of desperation and danger is overwhelming. In his third and best effort as a director, J.C. Chandor uses this setting to tell a gripping morality tale about hardships of honest ambition and the overwhelming temptation to give into corruption.

In yet another impressive leading role, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the struggling owner of a heating oil company on the verge of collapse due to his truck drivers routinely getting ambushed by an unknown band of assailants. In a last ditch effort to save the business, he attempts to secure a sought-after waterfront property through a 1.5 million dollar down payment but due to his company’s complicated legal history, he finds that there isn’t a bank in town who will loan the necessary funds. To add to Abel’s surmounting stress,  his wife Anna, played with ruthless vigor by Jessica Chastain, threatens to get her infamous mobster father involved with their affairs if Abel is unable to sort things out himself.

The chemistry between Isaac and Chastain is outstanding and gives the movie a tempestuous core on which the rest of the story hinges. Their power dynamic constants fluctuates but in small and subtle ways. Abel is an honorable businessman who knows how to fight fair but is woefully unprepared to retaliate against the criminals who threaten his well-being. Anna respects her husband but grows unwilling to tolerate his seeming lack of commitment to do all that is necessary to protect their way of life. Naturally, confrontations arise between the two and their struggle to simultaneously understand and push one another leads to dialogue that reveals depths of disparity between their characters.

Despite its title, A Most Violent Year is not an especially violent film but that aspect lends itself to part of its brilliance: it’s the constant, impending threat of violence around every corner that is much more captivating than endless shootouts or bloody showdowns. It doesn’t fetishize violence in the way that some action movies can but instead, it treats it as an inevitable force capable of reshaping the mindsets of even the most principled and respectable of men. Its corrupting presence looms over every frame and almost feels like a main character in the movie itself.

Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot the sublime Selma last year, contributes to this air of menace with wide shots of snowy landscapes that have characters frequently guarding themselves against the elements. The music by Alex Ebert also fills things out nicely as well, with ominous organ and synth tones that are reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning Interstellar score from last year. Everything comes together to make A Most Violent Year a most compelling tale of ambition and survival amongst the most strenuous of circumstances.

Notes on the 2015 Oscars

Oscars 2015

Best Picture

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

So here we are, on the day of the 87th Academy Awards, and the Best Picture category is not entirely locked up. Frankly, it’s a great feeling. It seems that it’s come down to the two “B” movies: Birdman and Boyhood. Between the two, my preference would be with Boyhood, but I would truly be happy with either film taking home the award. They’re both audacious and creative original works, both the kinds of movies that filmmakers should strive to make in the future. In the end, I do think the Academy will favor the pure spectacle of Boyhood and award it Best Picture.

My Prediction: Boyhood
My Vote: Whiplash
Overlooked: Gone Girl

Best Director

  • Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
  • Boyhood, Richard Linklater
  • Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson
  • The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum

While I’d be happy about either Birdman or Boyhood taking home Best Picture, Best Director simply must go to Linklater. He’s had a sensational career and his 12 year dedication to Boyhood absolutely needs to be recognized this year. The rest of the nominees are worthy, with the exception of  Morten Tyldum for his muddled and disorganized biopic The Imitation Game. While Ava DuVernay’s snub has been widely publicized, it’s worth mentioning one more time just how much more qualified she is than Tyldum in this category.

My Prediction: Richard Linklater
My Vote: Richard Linklater
Overlooked: Ava DuVernay (Selma)

Best Actor

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

Of the major categories, this one is up in the air more than any other. Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is great and likely to earn him the Oscar but I still get the sense that Keaton or Cumberbatch could pull an upset. I feel that Carell and Cooper, who took on daring and transformative roles, might have a better chance most other years but this year’s field of Actor nominees is particularly competitive.

My Prediction: Eddie Redmayne
My Vote: Michael Keaton
Overlooked: Miles Teller (Whiplash)

Best Actress

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

Unfortunately, I only had a chance to see two of these five movies (Girl, Theory) , so it’s a difficult category for me to discuss in depth. Still, it seems that Moore is a lock for Still Alice, which still hasn’t opened in any theaters around me. I’m pleasantly surprised to see Pike nominated for such a multifaceted and haunting role, certainly one of my favorites from last year. Jones did a fine job but I wouldn’t exactly call it Best Actress quality work.

My Prediction: Julianne Moore
My Vote: Rosamund Pike
Overlooked: Scarett Johansson (Under the Skin)

Supporting Actor

  • Robert Duvall in The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
  • Edward Norton in Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher
  • J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

J.K. Simmons has done good work for years as a character actor but his performance in Whiplash is undeniably electric and there’s little doubt that he’ll take home the trophy. If it weren’t for Simmons, I would love to see Norton win for his memorably haughty performance as Mike Shiner in Birdman. Ruffalo is a nice addition but the nominations for Duvall and Hawke feel somewhat arbitrary.

My Prediction: J.K. Simmons
My Vote: J.K. Simmons
Overlooked: Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
  • Laura Dern in Wild
  • Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone in Birdman
  • Meryl Streep in Into the Woods

This one seems to be Arquette’s to lose, although Stone has a long shot for her terrific work in Birdman. She may not win this year but if she continues to choose roles this good, I imagine she’ll have an Oscar still in her future. This is Streep’s 19th nomination, so at this point, it’s safe to say that she can expect to be nominated any year that she chooses to be in a film.

My Prediction: Patricia Arquette
My Vote: Emma Stone
Overlooked: Elizabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip)

Here’s my rundown of the “non-major” categories:

Best Animated Film

  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Song of the Sea
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

My Prediction: How to Train Your Dragon 2
My Vote: – [I didn’t see any nominees] Overlooked: The Lego Movie

Best Cinematography

  • BirdmanEmmanuel Lubezki
  • The Grand Budapest HotelRobert Yeoman
  • Ida, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
  • Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
  • Unbroken, Roger Deakins

My Prediction: Emmanuel Lubezki
My Vote: Emmanuel Lubezki
Overlooked: Nicolas Bolduc (Enemy)

Best Documentary Feature

  • CitizenFour
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Last Days in Vietnam
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • Virunga

My Prediction: CitizenFour
My Vote: CitizenFour
Overlooked: Life Itself

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Ida (Poland)
  • Leviathan (Russia)
  • Tangerines (Estonia)
  • Timbuktu (Mauritania)
  • Wild Tales (Argentina)

My Prediction: Ida
My Vote: Ida
Overlooked: Force Majeure

Best Original Score

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat
  • The Imitation Game, Alexandre Desplat
  • Interstellar, Hans Zimmer
  • Mr. Turner, Gary Yershon
  • The Theory of Everything, Jóhann Jóhannsson

My Prediction: The Theory of Everything
My Vote: Interstellar
Overlooked: Antonio Sánchez (Birdman)

Best Original Song

  • “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
  • “Glory” from Selma
  • “Grateful” from Beyond the Lights
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell… I’ll Be Me
  • “Lost Stars” from Begin Again

My Prediction: “Glory”
My Vote: “Everything Is Awesome”
Overlooked: “Yellow Flicker Beat,” Lorde

Best Visual Effects

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

My Prediction: Interstellar
My Vote: Interstellar
Overlooked: Snowpiercer

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • American Sniper, written by Jason Hall
  • The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore
  • Inherent Vice, written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • The Theory of Everything, screenplay by Anthony McCarten
  • Whiplash, written by Damien Chazelle

My Prediction: The Imitation Game
My Vote: Whiplash
Overlooked: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

Best Original Screenplay

  • Birdman, written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
  • Boyhoodwritten by Richard Linklater
  • Foxcatcherwritten by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
  • The Grand Budapest Hotelscreenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
  • Nightcrawler, written by Dan Gilroy

My Prediction: Birdman
My Vote: Birdman
Overlooked: The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)

Fifty Shades of Grey *½|****

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey

Based on the bestselling E.L. James novel that has somehow sold over 100 million (!) copies worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey proves itself shockingly inept at being either a convincing romance tale or a tantalizing erotic thriller. It’s an oppressively dull and obnoxiously moody affair, one whose source material apparently originated as Twilight fan fiction and doesn’t seem to have improved much on the formula of its predecessor. I can’t speak for fans of the book, as I have not read it myself, but those who come into the movie uninitiated will no doubt leave the theater in confusion as to what the fuss was all about.

The story revolves around the chance meeting of journalism student Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, and billionaire businessman Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan. The two have an instant and inexplicable connection, one that slowly leads to an obsessive sexual relationship revolving around bondage and sadomasochism. As their relationship progresses, Christian asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement that negotiates the terms of their relationship as a romantic couple and as BDSM partners. The latter half of the film alternates between softcore, Cinemax-level sex scenes and Christian doting on Ana to sign the aforementioned contract.

If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. There are many problems with Fifty Shades as a movie but at the foundational level, this story simply does not work. It’s phony and unconvincing every step of the way, led by two main characters who are one-dimensional and altogether uncompelling. Any attempts that there are of character development are sophomoric at best and laughable at worst, especially when it involves any of the secondary or tertiary characters. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is as stilted and implausible as the film’s central relationship, with lines like “I’m incapable of leaving you alone” that will no doubt inspire torrents of giggles theater-wide.

This puts Johnson and Dornan in an unfavorable position, to say the least, and it’s clear that they’re doing the best that they can with the material. Unfortunately, it’s still not good enough. Johnson does bring some grace and intelligence to her role but Dornan gives a performance that seems like the result of director Sam Taylor-Johnson whispering “dark and mysterious” into his ear over and over again. Whether he’s sullenly draped over a grand piano or glumly jogging through busy Seattle streets, his Christian Grey ultimately proves to be a colossal bore who lacks the charm or charisma necessary for any level of engagement.

The highlights are few and far between. I did enjoy a playful negotiation scene between Ana and Christian that incorporated much needed moments of levity and self-awareness to the otherwise stifling proceedings. The handsome, if one-note, production design is also first-rate, though its only true goal is to make audiences drool over wide shots of Grey’s luxury high-rise penthouse. It could be argued that the film’s exaltation of wealth is more pornographic than any of its sex scenes. Regardless, Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing more than a transparent tease of a film.

Inherent Vice ***|****

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

It’s fair to say that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master) has one of the most stellar track records of any director working today but with the number of superb films under his belt, it feels slightly disheartening when he releases a film that is merely good instead of great. That’s the feeling that I was left with during the conclusion of Inherent Vice, his brazenly bizarre adaptation of the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon. While it seems to be the most studiously faithful adaptation that Anderson has done so far, it has a peculiar energy and enough spontaneous moments to allow it to stand on its own as a creative work.

The full story is intentionally indecipherable, so detailing it feels like a bit of a fool’s errand. We open in 1970 on the fictional Gordita Beach, when hippie private investigator Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is visited by his ex-flame Shasta Fey, played by Katherine Waterston. She clues him in on a plot to kidnap her current lover, the wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman, played by Eric Roberts. Doc’s ensuing investigation spawns a host of idiosyncratic characters who guide us through a plot that almost feels like it’s being made up as it goes along.

There’s no doubt that this willful lack of narrative clarity will frustrate viewers and there were times when I felt out of step as well. More often than not, characters come and go with little introduction and talk about places or people that haven’t been established yet. After a certain amount of time, I generally stopped trying to follow the plot and just enjoyed each scene individually for what it was. Clearly, Anderson is going for more of a vibe than a precisely told story and as a hazy, rose-colored evocation of an era, it rarely misses a beat.

The tone that he creates throughout is a peculiar amalgam of broad slapstick comedy and post-noir mystery, with a touch of nostalgic romance thrown in for good measure. There’s also an unmistakable feeling of paranoia present in the film, most likely an attempt to bring the main character’s drugged-out perspective to the forefront. The stirring score by Jonny Greenwood and the washed out look of Robert Elswit’s cinematography both contribute heavily to Inherent Vice‘s unique sense of style of vision.

It also helps that Anderson has put together a terrific ensemble cast, which also includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and a hilariously deadpan Josh Brolin. Amongst all the performances, Phoenix’s is still the standout to me: he brings all the intensity that he normally would for a dramatic role and instead translates it into an energy of endearing goofiness. There’s no doubt that Inherent Vice is a one-of-a-kind trip but I can’t help but feeling that Paul Thomas Anderson is much better suited to direct an original story as opposed to an adaptation, especially one as challenging and singular as this.

My Top Movies of 2014

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is at it again with yet another highly stylized and highly entertaining piece of filmmaking. While his previous film Moonrise Kingdom was more intimate and smaller in scale, Hotel finds Anderson at his most grandiose, leading a stellar cast throughout various time periods (cleverly represented in aspect ratio changes) and set pieces that feel more intricate as the film progresses. This is a fun, old-fashioned caper with a brisk pace and a smart balance of whimsy and melancholy.

9. The Babadook

The Babadook

If I’m being honest, most horror movies just don’t scare me and I feel I have to give ample credit to those that do. The Babadook was a genuinely frightening experience for me, which I attribute most to my level of engagement in the story and the level of investment that I felt with the characters. Instead of going for jump scares and cheap thrills, director Jennifer Kent instead builds up an uncommon amount of dread and creepiness that kept me glued to my seat.

8. Mistaken For Strangers

Mistaken For Strangers

A bit of a bias here: I do love The National, the band that is the focus of this rock-doc, but I think even people who has never heard their music will still find plenty to enjoy. It serves as a video diary for the band’s 2010 world tour but also functions as a relationship study between lead singer Matt and his brother Tom, who directs the film during his time as a roadie for the band. Strangers is packed with an awkward brand of humor that’s right up my alley but it also delivered a heartfelt ending that I found to be surprisingly moving.

7. The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

I doubt there was a bigger surprise this year than The Lego Movie: what good things could we really expect from another film based on a toy franchise? What surprised me most is how co-directors and screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were able to take the themes of creativity/practicality and individuality/conformity that are inherent in Lego building and translate them to a story that’s this funny and this insightful. The visual style here is also exceptional, which employs unique computer animation techniques to give it the feel of a stop-motion animated movie.

6. Enemy

Enemy

Jake Gyllenhaal starred in two great films last year and while Nightcrawler may feature a more memorable performance, Enemy has stuck with me more with each repeated viewing. It’s an engrossing and often times bizarre mystery tale that actually deserves the David Lynch comparisons that are applied too often to other films in its genre. Rather than giving tangible clues or contrived resolutions, director Denis Villeneuve instead guides us through a psychologically satisfying portrait of a man at odds with himself.

5. Boyhood

Boyhood

2014 saw the completion of Richard Linklater’s 12-year production that may just be one of the daring experiments ever attempted in American cinema. Given its background, Boyhood was destined to achieve notoriety since its inception but the biggest surprise is how small the movie feels in comparison to the scope of its narrative. By focusing on the seemingly insignificant moments of life, Linklater creates an organic and wholly unique portrait of American life that is effortlessly engaging and memorable.

4. Gone Girl

Gone Girl

David Fincher’s ruthless and faithful screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel was the cinematic equivalent of a car crash that you just can’t ignore. Fincher dug deep into the well of depravity to bring forth this cold and calculated masterpiece, which also doubles as the most awkward date movie of the year. Rosamund Pike gives one of the year’s very best performances in a turn of jaw-dropping audacity, intensity and nuance, while Ben Affleck proves that he’s capable of a delivering a memorable performance when the material is just right.

3. Life Itself

Life Itself

The Roger Ebert memoir Life Itself is a tribute to one of the most iconic and prolific American film critics of all time. If it isn’t obvious by now, Ebert is a huge inspiration to me personally (the name of this blog is a reference to one of the many books that he wrote) and it was a joy to see his life commemorated so purely on screen. Whether you’re completely unfamiliar with his work or a big fan like I am, this documentary is well worth your time.

2. Selma

Selma

While many of last year’s biopics came across as timid or short-sighted, Selma stood tall. This is a masterful work of focus and confidence from director Ava DuVernay about the Selma to Montgomery marches during the 1960s. What surprised me most about this film is how even-handed the narrative is throughout, especially during scenes of protest and violence. Even more refreshing is the passionate performance by David Oyelowo, which truly captures the essence of Martin Luther King, Jr. without veering into a glorified impression of him.

1. Whiplash

Whiplash

The most electrifying film of the year takes all of the student-teacher cliches that you may expect and gleefully throws them out the window. Featuring two spellbinding performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash is the most feverishly intense movie about music performance that I’ve ever seen. Like a drummer gradually speeding up a snare roll (as heard during the film’s title sequence), it builds with an uncompromising level of power and precision to a finale that left me shaken and speechless.

Foxcatcher ***|****

Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher
Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher

Led by a trio of meticulously crafted performances, Foxcatcher is an oppressively bleak and occasionally brilliant wrestling tale that’s based on the true story of Olympic gold medalists Dave and Mark Schultz. Without saying too much, its fair to say that the film’s ending is shocking and I would suggest that those unfamiliar with the real life events should avoid reading up on them before watching the movie. The strange and seemingly impenetrable story is director Bennett Miller’s third attempt at translating real accounts into cinema and while it may not have quite as much insight as it would like, it does tackle themes of wealth and ambition with a piercing and unrelenting focus.

We meet Mark, played by Channing Tatum, after he wins a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics with his brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. He is eating alone in his apartment when he gets a call from multimillionaire John du Pont, played by Steve Carell, who wants to help train him to win the Wresting World Championships and win the gold medal again at the 1988 Olympics. Mark, and eventually Dave, accept duPont’s offer to train privately on Team Foxcatcher and the film examines the would-be familial relationship between the three men.

Tatum gives his finest performance here as the younger brother Mark, who looks up to his big brother Dave but also harbors feelings of inadequacy and resentment towards him. His withdrawn and moody nature is implied to be the result of living in Dave’s shadow but Tatum does a great job of finding notes of compassion and empathy under Mark’s hulking exterior. The bond between Dave and Mark is arguably the most perceptive aspect of Foxcatcher, in particular an early sparring scene between the brothers that showcases depths of their disparate personalities.

As du Pont, Carrell is almost entirely of a different element. Strapped with facial prosthetics and a distracting amount of makeup, he abandons his comedic chops and brings forth a creepy and compelling portrayal of a man who has almost entirely lost his way in life. As an only child, du Pont comes off as desperately lonely and continues to seek the attention of his disapproving mother. He finds temporary solace in becoming a father-like figure to Mark but it doesn’t take much time for their tenuous connection to fester, especially when Dave comes back into the picture.

Unfortunately, the downward spiral that Foxcatcher depicts in its third act is arguably the weakest portion of the movie. It would seem that Miller has a psychologically sound explanation for the tragic incident that occurs, given that it’s such a predominant factor in the story that he’s telling, but it seems that he is just as dumbfounded by it as we are. On that basis, it doesn’t work for me as a true crime story but as a study of three broken men attempting to find meaning within one another, I found it engrossing and eerily effective.

Selma ****|****

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma
David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma

After a season filled with underwhelming and overpraised biopics, we’ve finally struck gold: the new Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma is a note perfect historical drama. It deftly sidesteps the Important Historical Figure movie cliches to create an inspiring piece of filmmaking that’s filled with rich authenticity and detail. Ava DuVernay has directed other smaller independent films in the past but here, she proves that she is even more effective with a larger budget, a sound script and an ensemble cast of incredibly gifted actors and actresses. Her talent is undeniable and I hope this movie leads DuVernay to other avenues of success in the future.

Instead of trying to condense King’s entire life into one film, Duvernay smartly chooses to focus on the six month period from Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. We start in 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned segregation in the South. After seeing the systematic discrimination that remained in tact, King comes to President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) with a plan to push his Movement forward, specifically by protecting voting rights for African-Americans. When Johnson deems the move politically unfavorably, King takes to the street and leads a trio of peaceful protests in Alabama that would capture the nation’s attention.

There’s something so incredibly human about Selma and it starts with the compassionate and commanding lead performance by Oyelowo as King. He effectively strikes a remarkable balance between the fiery vigor of King’s public persona and the quiet humility behind King’s personal life. There’s nothing showy about this performance: Oyelowo chooses wisely not to do an imitation of one of the 20th century’s most memorable historical figures but instead, he captures his essence with a level of intimacy that I could not have expected.

Selma also has a crisp and distinguished look to it without feeling too polished or overproduced. The accomplished cinematographer Bradford Young uses unconventional framing and unique camera angles to add a visual flair that doesn’t distract from the captivating true story that’s being told. The lighting is the film is also top notch: I was taken especially with the Selma prison scenes that find the perfect amount of moonlight to cast on the prisoners faces as they speak to each other in the night.

In addition to the technical aspects, the writing is also consistently brilliant. Given that the filmmakers couldn’t reach an agreement with King’s estate to utilize the words from his speeches, the screenplay, written by Paul Webb and co-written by DuVernay, deserves even more credit for devising new passages of public speaking that use King’s cadence and rhythm without using the words that he actually spoke. The risk for failure is inherently high when capturing a historical figure on film, especially one as widely known and influential as Martin Luther King Jr., but Selma stands as a towering achievement of dignity and humanity.

American Sniper ***|****

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

Based on the autobiography of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, American Sniper is a confident and convincing account of the most lethal sniper in American military history. Taken just as a war movie, it certainly has its issues but as biopics go, it has much more personality and perspective than other films in the genre that I’ve seen this season. The film is also aided greatly by a superb, understated performance by Bradley Cooper, who was just recently nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor.

We follow Kyle in flashbacks through his life, starting out with his first hunting trip and his father’s early implementation of a strict code of right and wrong. After seeing footage of a terrorist attack on television, he feels compelled to enlist as a Navy SEAL and protect the country that he loves more than anything. After meeting and eventually marrying his wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller, the two struggle to keep their family together during Kyle’s four voluntary tours of duty in Iraq. While these home-front scenes are crucial to the film’s story, the majority of the movie depicts Kyle’s time in Iraq as a successful rooftop sniper.

The most effective combat scene appears at the film’s opening, which retells Kyle’s first sniper kill in Iraq. It starts quietly on a rooftop, with Kyle following a US convoy through his scope when as woman and her child appear from a seemingly abandoned building. When the woman hands off an explosive to her son, it’s made clear that the decision for Kyle to intervene is one that’s left up almost entirely to him. It’s a gripping opening sequence and director Clint Eastwood is able to present this moral dilemma with a masterful amount of dramatic tension and visual finesse.

Unfortunately, the subsequent depictions of the war in Iraq are generic and one-dimensional, especially in comparison to this scene. The main storyline in Iraq, which pits Kyle against a rival Syrian sniper who is set up like the Lex Luthor to Kyle’s Superman, is very hokey and diminishes any sense of realism that the film attempts to establish. Fortunately, the scenes at home with Cooper and Miller are handled with much more tact and tenderness and the two are able to build up a very palpable chemistry throughout the movie.

Cooper has excelled most recently in extroverted roles that make use of his motormouth persona but here, he is able to focus that energy inward while still maintaining a steady balance of humble virtue and self-deprecating charm. American Sniper will no doubt be compared to other contemporary war films like the masterpiece The Hurt Locker, which took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009. While Sniper is admittedly not of that caliber, it’s a bold piece of filmmaking that adds a new perspective on the psychological effects of prolonged warfare.

Force Majeure ***½|****

Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure

The new Swedish film Force Majeure is an unexpected powerhouse, deftly blending moments of engaging introspection with surprising bits of dark humor to create a thrillingly original tale of marriage and mistrust. The film’s devilishly clever title, literally “superior force”, is a clause commonly found in contracts that refers to a freak, unavoidable accident that exonerates both parties from fulfilling an agreement. Indeed, the main characters are met with an chaotic and unforeseen incident but it’s the chilly aftermath of that event that is the true focus of the film’s narrative.

We are introduced to Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) as they find themselves in the French Alps for a week-long skiing trip with their two children. While eating lunch on the hotel balcony one afternoon, a controlled avalanche creeps dangerously close to the restaurant and the patrons initial reaction of wonderment devolves quickly into mass hysteria. A panicked Tomas makes an instinctual dash of self-preservation, which leaves an incredulous Ebba to protect the children on her own. While the physical threat of the avalanche is later revealed to be a false alarm, a metaphorical avalanche of doubt and misconception begins to slowly threaten the relationship between Tomas and Ebba.

“Slowly” is the key word here, as director Ruben Östlund displays tremendous patience in generating scenarios during which the two characters can suss out what happened on the balcony that day. I was struck by how intently the camera focuses on the faces of the actors as they subtly confront one another about their reactions to the seemingly life-threatening event. Instead of just having Tomas and Ebba talk with just each other the entire film, he not only includes other pairs of couples during theses conversations but chooses to linger on their awkward and uncomfortable facial expressions to break the tension.

The two leads are fantastic here, as Kuhnke constructs a naturalistic portrait of crumbling masculinity and Kongsli conveys notes of mounting insecurity with considerable nuance. Kristofer Hivju, of Game of Thrones fame, also turns in a very funny performance as a sort of devil’s advocate who defends the virtue of Tomas’ intentions but does well to point out to Ebba that he would have personally reacted with more courage if he had been placed in the same situation. I should also say that child actors don’t very often get much credit but children in this film (real life brother and sister Clara and Vincent Wettergren) do a convincing job with some tricky material.

While the film builds nicely to a cathartic climax, it does stumble to find its footing afterwards. There are about 2 or 3 different moments that felt like sufficient stopping points but instead, the actual ending comes abruptly with a puzzling last exchange of dialogue. Nevertheless, Force Majeure is a thoughtful and bizarrely funny look at the failure of the male ego and the slow climb of redemption up the mountain of patriarchal expectations.