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.
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.
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.
The Imitation Game is the second biopic this season that attempts to portray a well known genius but like The Theory of Everything, Game somehow loses its way and seems to have trouble conveying what was so remarkable about its subject. As the marketing cleverly suggests, Alan Turing was indeed an enigma but director Morten Tyldum does little to shed any new light on his personal or professional affairs. It’s a very straightforward, easily digestable film and while it has an worthwhile story to tell, I can’t help but feel disappointed that it didn’t probe deeper into Turing’s mind.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the legendary mathmetician with the same brand of affable arrogance that he’s perfected in the BBC series Sherlock. The film follows Turing during important stretches of his life but focuses primarily on his time as an MI6-recruited cryptanalyst during the Second World War. He leads a crack team of coding experts, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), to eventually break the daunting Nazi Enigma code and provide the Allied Forces with a tactical advantage that would eventually lead to their early victory in the War.
The wartime code breaking section of the movie is its most compelling, distilling the team’s years of struggle with the nigh indecipherable cryptograph into moments of crushing defeat and inspiring triumph. The film’s most poignant scene comes after the code is broken, in which the group’s knowledge of an impending Nazi attack must be kept confidential in order to keep the secrecy of their solution in tact. The scene delves further into the tragic irony of this realization, as one of the coders recognizes one of the Nazi’s targets as the boat on which his brother is serving. It’s a heartbreaking moment and a memorable emotional climax for the film.
Sadly, the portions of the story that involve Turing’s troubled times as a boarding school student and his personal post-War struggles that led to his eventual suicide are not nearly as affecting. The push-pull nature of the flashbacks and flash forwards is distracting and simply not worth it, given that there’s more than enough to dissect in the main mission storyline alone. Especially contrived is the repetition of a line about exceeding expectations that made me roll my eyes all three times that it was uttered. The movie is also awkwardly framed within an interrogation scene that never leads to anything that would justify its inclusion in the first place.
Despite these directorial flaws, The Imitation Game finds its most indespensible asset in Cumberbatch, who has a knack for unveiling layers of repressed emotion in his portrayals of brilliant men. Knightly also turns in a confident performance as a longtime partner of Turning’s, who wasn’t shy about going toe-to-toe with him on an intellectual and personal basis throughout his life. Unfortunately, the good work by the actors here is hindered by a lack of chronological cohesion and an overall shallow approach to a complicated historical figure.
The new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully frustrating film that sports a truly spellbinding lead performance by Eddie Redmayne but is lacking in just about every other category. Almost all of its scenes feel like they were designed to provide just enough conflict to advance the story but not enough to challenge the viewer in any way. Perhaps some will be taken with its pleasant and vapid retelling of Hawking’s first marriage but on the whole, I was somehow offended by the inoffensive tone of the entire movie.
We start at Cambridge University in 1963, where the young Hawking meets and subsequently courts a charming literature student named Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones. After an innocuous fall in the park, he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and informed by his campus physician that he has 2 years to live. Despite this revelation, Jane vows to remain by his side as he pursues a burgeoning career in theoretical physics. While their marriage is constantly tested by his worsening condtion, they find solace in a third-party father figure named Jonathan Jones, who is played by Charlie Cox.
Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is nothing short of astonishing and frankly, it may be one of the only compelling reasons to see the film in the first place. He’s able to capture Hawking’s gradual deterioration with an incredible range of facial and physical expressiveness but most importantly, he’s able to convey the spirit of a fiery genius without uttering a single word. Even when he’s wheelchair bound and nearly unintelligible, there’s a devilish wit working tirelessly beneath the surface that Redmayne is able to communicate to the audience on a seemingly telepathic level.
Despite this tremendous performance and Hawking’s remarkable life achievements, the film decides to focus instead on Jane’s struggle as a wife and mother of three children. This perspective could have proven interesting had the execution not been so toothless but more often than not, we’re left with melodramatic scenes that don’t resonate or build to anything meaningful. While the direction by James Marsh is frequently aimless, it deserves to be said that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is not as overly sentimental as it could have been and light touches of humor are applied gracefully throughout the movie.
Marsh previously crafted the gripping and inventive documentary Man On Wire and it’s a shame to see a talented director create something as stripped down and apprehensive as The Theory of Everything is. Only in its third act when Hawking’s ability to communicate is revitalized do we see glimmers of a more thoughtful movie. I wish to believe that Marsh had a much more clever vision in mind for this story that was suppressed by the film’s producers in order to streamline it for Oscar contention. Redmayne will no doubt get the attention he so rightly deserves but beyond that, the film is a black hole of biopic aspirations.
It’s almost impossible for a film to live up to the amount of hype that The Interview had prior to its troubled release. Threats from the North Korean government and the “Guardians of Peace” Sony Pictures hack thrust the comedy into a political spotlight for weeks as the film’s release status hung in limbo amid national conversations about artistic censorship. Despite all this, the movie has been released in limited theaters and On Demand and while it certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty political ambitions that have been placed on it, The Interview has enough goofy exchanges and memorable one-liners to merit it a modest success.
Rogen plays Aaron Rappaport, long time collaborator and close friend of entertainment talk show host Dave Skylark, played with idiotic glee by James Franco. After their 1000th episode together, they get word that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, played by Randall Park, is a big fan of their show and he invites them to his headquarters in Pyongyang to get the world’s most exclusive interview. Upon hearing the news, Aaron and Dave are intercepted by the CIA with the hopes that the two can carry out an assassination attempt on one of the world’s most ruthless leaders.
This setup should give the sense that The Interview has its heart set on being more of a silly spy farce rather than some piece of sharp political satire. There are some shots taken at the propaganda that Kim Jong Un directs at his people but the majority of the comedy is more broad, focusing largely on bodily function punchlines and the type of ridiculous, over-the-top violence that also took hold of the climax of the Rogen-Franco led Pineapple Express. Also present from that film is the comedic chemistry between the two leads, which is more palpable here than ever before.
Of the two performances, Franco is the clear standout. His Dave Skylark is a character who steadily wears you down with his dopey affability until just about everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious. The best scenes in the movie showcase Dave and Kim Jong Un’s blossoming bromance ,which includes shooting hoops with margaritas in hand and listening shamelessly to Katy Perry. There’s a manic charisma in Franco’s performance that reminded me of other comedic actors like Mike Myers or Jim Carrey, who also work hard to get the audience on their side. He has a comedic magnetism here that is so effective, it’s almost a let down when he isn’t present on screen.
Indeed, the scenes that feature Rogen without Franco often flounder without their chemistry, including a romantic subplot with Kim Jong Un’s assistant that simply goes nowhere. Rogen’s comedic talent as an actor is squandered here but he proves himself again as a competent director alongside Evan Goldberg, with whom he also co-directed last year’s This Is The End. The Interview may not have the satirical bite that curious audiences may come to expect but has enough lowbrow laughs to make it worth their while anyway.
How is greatness made? Hard work and dedication, sure, but can truly great figures of history get there through normal circumstances or is there a deeper pain that must be confronted and overcome? Is it worth pushing these figures away from the possibility of a normal life in order to serve a higher calling? The new music-based film Whiplash, one of this year’s very best, deals with these concepts with brutal honesty and feverish intensity. It sometimes feels like a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which also dealt with the darker side of ambition and the potential perils of perfectionism.
Miles Teller, one of the best young actors working today, plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman jazz drummer who is just starting out at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. After drumming in a practice room late one evening, he is discovered by the conductor of the school’s lead jazz band Terence Fletcher, played with merciless tenacity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees potential in Andrew and invites him to play in his group but after a verbally abusive confrontation with Andrew on his first sit-in, it’s clear that Fletcher’s teaching tactics will push him further than he’s gone before.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Teller and Simmons are here. Both do so much to defy the typical teacher-student role conventions seen in lesser films and instead create believable characters that are morally complex and psychologically compelling throughout. Fletcher is generally monstrous and Andrew is often sympathetic, if by necessity, but each character is given a fair trial and first-time director Damien Chazelle doesn’t give us an easy sense on which character is right or wrong in what they’re doing. He gives us the opportunity of perspective and allows us to make up our own minds; a refreshing concept.
Another refreshing aspect of this movie is the way it doesn’t bind itself to traditional Hollywood storytelling methods. There are subplots involving Andrew’s caring father and also his temporary girlfriend that serve the story purposefully but the majority of the run time is tightly focused on the relationship between these two complicated characters. It also doesn’t shy away from mental and physical anguish associated with being the best in a highly competitive field. There are no convenient montages of steady progression; we see all of the tears, sweat and yes, blood, along the way.
Chazelle uses these tortuous settings to create a relentlessly tense and downright dangerous atmosphere that had me pinned down from beginning to end. There’s an anxious, propulsive energy to Whiplash that gives it a bracingly unpredictable quality, especially leading up to and including the film’s spellbinding climax which further showcases Teller’s amazing abilities behind the drum set. Frankly, I’ve never seen a movie that was this singularly focused on music performance and as a musician, I was thrilled and delighted to find a film that dealt with the subject passionately and intelligently.
Those who like their movie franchises unnecessarily drawn out and bloated, fear not: the final chapter of The Hobbit series is upon us at last and I fear that not even the most staunch Tolkien devotees will find much to like in the joyless obligation that is The Battle of the Five Armies. The whimsy and wonder of the previous entries has been replaced with stilted dialogue and endless barrages of computer generated chaos. In fact, this film was previously subtitled There and Back Again but unfortunately, The Battle of the Five Armies turns out to be a more fitting title after all, as the majority of the run time is dedicated to the titular conflict.
We pick back up right where the previous movie left off, with Smaug on his way to terrorize the small town of Esgaroth as Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the Dwarves look on from the Lonely Mountain. After the great dragon is vanquished by Bard, played by Luke Evans, the fate of the vast treasure at Erebor becomes uncertain. Led by the fearless Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, the Dwarves defend their treasure against the Middle Earth armies of men, Elves and Orcs (frankly, I couldn’t tell you after seeing the movie who the Fifth Army is).
From the Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers to the battle at Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, large scale showdowns were an integral part of the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise and they used to be one of director Peter Jackson’s fortes. Some of the sequences in this film feel like a parody of Peter Jackson’s directing style, whether its characters taking long pauses to speak amongst hundreds of characters fighting around them or the hilarious over abundance of Orc beheadings that used to be treated as a novelty in the LotR series but is literally done to death in Five Armies.
When the screen isn’t filled wall to wall with incoherent and increasingly implausible action, we’re treated to meaningless subplots that crop up sporadically throughout. The most noxious are those involving an Elf-Dwarf romance that inspires some amazingly mawkish lines of dialogue like “he is my king but he does not command my heart.” This could possibly be forgiven if the acting was worthwhile but it consistently appears as though the majority of the actors are bored to reprise these roles. Least compelling among these actors is Lee Pace, who has proven again to be a colossal bore in his antagonistic film roles after his charming lead part on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
While plodding through its comparatively gracious runtime of 144 minutes, there’s an unshakable sense of looming déjà vu as one watches this entry in the Hobbit series. It’s the feeling that everything we’re seeing has been done better before and even by the same production team, which is unfortunately the case here more often than not. I personally can’t wait for the day when all the Hobbit films are available on Blu-Ray and someone clever on the internet condenses the three into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Until then, I can’t suggest that even diehard fans go out to see this thud of a conclusion.
After a couple near misses in the director’s chair, Chris Rock returns with his third feature Top Five, which isn’t without its drawbacks but ultimately comes across as Rock’s most honest film to date. The feel and premise recall the recently released Birdman, which both feature actors reflecting on their careers and striving to do more ambitious work in order for their fans and critics to take them more seriously. While the comedy here is decidedly more broad, both films know how to use comedy as a means of catharsis for their lead characters.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a washed-up comedian turned actor who threw away a successful stand-up career for a hit buddy cop franchise called “Hammy the Bear”, which has him running around in a bear suit and shouting catch phrases like “It’s Hammy Time!” As a backlash against the character, he chooses to star in an award-baiting, Haitian revolution movie called “Uprize” in hopes of winning back the critical admiration that he squandered with the “Hammy” series. While back home in New York to tirelessly promote the film, he is followed and questioned by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played with winning charm by Rosario Dawson.
Brown starts with softball questions about Allen’s career and his upcoming celebrity wedding but the questions grow more personal as the day goes on. It turns out that they both have more in common than they think and soon, an easy and likable chemistry forms between the two. Their scenes together make up the best stretches in the movie, whose New York street walk-and-talk style feel like Rock’s version of a Woody Allen movie. The dialogue, also written by Rock, covers Rock’s usual favorite topics of race and relationships but it aims to penetrate deeper into how these characters think and feel.
While I don’t doubt Rock’s merits as an actor or a writer, he still has room to develop as a director. This film has a start-stop, jerky rhythm to it, which is caused by sporadic flashback sequences that are very hit-or-miss on the whole. Some of those scenes just go on for too long, like a flashback to Houston in 2003 when Allen is recounting a “rock bottom” affair that is neither as comedically appealing or dramatically revealing as Rock thinks it is. Others work quite well, including an unexpected rapper’s hilarious rendition of “Smile” while he and Allen are staying the night in jail.
In many ways, Top Five also reminded me of the movie Funny People with Adam Sandler, who is among one of the film’s numerous cameos. Both star comedians who started in stand-up comedy, strayed away to advance their careers but yearn to return to the stage once again. There’s an excitement to performing stand-up that Rock captures well here in the scene after Allen returns to the Comedy Cellar for the first time in years. Likewise, both films also give way to melodramatic turns and meandering subplots but Top Five has enough to recommend to fans of show biz comedies and especially to fans of Chris Rock.
Documentaries can serve many roles: they can inform, they can influence and yes, they can bore. But some, like genre greats Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans, take a seed of an idea and pursue it with the dramatic precision of a fictional feature film. The result is an exquisite experience: watching a true story that feels like it’s being created before our eyes. That’s how I felt while watching The Overnighters, which I found to be one of the most compelling and transfixing documentaries that I’ve seen all year
The movie’s title refers to a program started by Pastor Jay Reinke at his church in Williston, North Dakota, which allows men who are effectively homeless to find shelter as they hope to take advantage of the rampant growth in the area’s fracking jobs. While this is clearly an overwhelming act of charity, Reinke’s plan soon comes under fire from a community whose recent population spike has also seen an increase in the number of felons and criminals residing in the small North Dakota town. When details of an Overnighter’s criminal past come to light, Reinke finds himself in a very public act of moral tug-of-war that threatens to erode his career and his family’s trust.
Even if you take the weighty and worthwhile topics of economic inequality and the nature of charity away from The Overnighters, you would still be left with a fascinating and deeply personal character study. Reinke is compelling for the same reason the main character in a fictional drama would be: we root for him and yet we can’t be entirely sure of his motivations. He consistently refers to himself as a deeply flawed man when confiding in the men that he shelters, although he generally comes off as a thoughtful, charismatic and generally kind person. “It’s easy to become a facade,” he states at the film’s opening, and we don’t fully learn the weight of what he means until the concluding moments of the story.
The entire structure of The Overnighters is similarly purposeful, which can be attributed to the keen eyes and ears of director Jesse Moss. In interviews, Moss has revealed that he originally went to Williston to capture the fracking story and how it affected the community but he shifted his story’s focus when learning of Pastor Reinke and his mission. This spontaneous shift in storytelling makes Moss’ film even more admirable, especially considering that Reinke’s culminating moment in the movie was almost entirely unplanned by the filmmaker.
I also admired Moss’ level headed approach to this material. This is a documentary potentially ripe for loads of political posturing but he gives each character room to express their thoughts and feelings freely instead of editing together a series of talking head interviews to hammer home a point. The Overnighters often plays like a parable for the cynical notion that “no good deed goes unpunished” but in Reinke’s case, the unravelling of that good deed reveals universal truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.