Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Short Takes: 2014 Oscar Nominees, Part One

Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Incredibly, there haven't been too many films about Martin Luther King, Jr., despite his high stature in American mythology. Perhaps its because the civil rights leader still remains a controversial figure, even 50 years after his assassination in 1964. There are debates from both sides of the political aisle as to what his ultimate message was, and even further disputes over the methods he endorsed for achieving those goals of equality. Those disputes have made him a difficult figure to represent in pop culture, which may be why in most films about the era he only appears as a minor character at best, in stock footage or even not at all at worst.

Ava DuVernay's new film takes on King as its protagonist, but instead of a sweeping biopic that spans the entirety of his life, it narrows its focus on one event: the march from Selma, Alabama to the state's capital in 1965 to protest voting restrictions of African-American citizens. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) arrives ready to lead a peaceful protest, especially since he and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are at odds over the urgency in passing voting rights legislation. However, the demonstrations are met with hard resistance, both from local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) and Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Facing certain arrest and possibly death, King proceeds to lead his protesters anyway, despite concern from his wife Corretta (Carmen Ejogo) and his fellow activists.

The most interesting thing that DuVernay does with her film is to make it less about King himself and more about the effectiveness of grassroots activism. The film uses King's example to argue that waiting for change at the federal government will not accomplish things fast enough; change comes when the people demand it and demonstrate for it. It's no accident that DuVernay, along with master cinematographer Bradford Young, stage many scenes from the march in a way that directly recalls last summer's demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. It's a film that's (sadly) ever so timely with a message that's ultimately timeless.

Of course, much of the film's power belongs to the acting, in particular Oyelowo's commanding performance as King. He doesn't rely on mimicry so much as gusto, capturing the charisma and gift for oration that made King a prominent activist. He also doesn't shy away from King's warts, such as his affairs or his moments of weakness. But the truth is the film is ultimately DuVernay's. She's announced herself as one of the best working American directors today. It's a title she's certainly made a very strong case for with Selma. A

More after the jump.

The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum, 2014)

If it hadn't been for Alan Turing, you wouldn't be reading this review right now. Turing was a mathematical genius who, during WWII, helped create a machine that could crack the German "enigma machine," a codex that created a new, complex code every 24 hours that was deemed indecipherable. Turing's machine was essentially the first computer, and today he is recognized as "the father of computer science." At the time, however, Turing's involvement was classified top-secret by the British military, and he was later arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality. In his sentencing, he chose chemical castration over imprisonment; he committed suicide shortly thereafter, at age 41.

The Imitation Game focuses mainly on Turing's contributions in breaking the Enigma Code, as Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) being recruited to join a team of the nation's top minds to help Britain win the war. Director Morten Tyldum livens up what could have been a stolid with a handful of visual flashes and maintained tension, but the film's true successes are in the performances. Cumberbatch, naturally, does terrific work at making Turing a man who's impressive intellect makes him a touch insensitive socially, and Matthew Goode is equally great as Hugh Alexander, the only one on the team willing to butt heads with him. Kiera Knightley, though, is the film's real secret weapon. She plays Joan, the only woman on the team, and she makes for an incredibly fascinating foil for Turing: a social outcast who feels constrained by the norms of the era. Knightley plays her with aplomb, delivering a marvelous performance.

That being said, the film mostly just pays lip service to Turing's sexuality, which is a shame considering how vital it was to him as a person. Instead, it focuses mostly on his remarkable work; as great as that is, it can't help but feel a bit like a missed opportunity. B+

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Whiplash may be the most intense thriller released in 2014. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a fresh-faced student at a prestigious Philadelphia music academy, studying jazz drumming. He gets an offer to join the school's top jazz ensemble, led by the brilliant, intimidating Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew quickly becomes a target of his tyrannical abuse, refusing to back down and determined to prove himself as a musician. But his dedication begins to cost him, Fletcher's degradation wearing down on his personal life and his personality.

Director Damien Chazelle - who picked up both the Audience Prize and Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival - does a terrific job of structuring the film, keeping the intensity building without letting it prematurely break. The film is frantically-paced, in many ways just like the titular song that forms the core of the ensemble's performances. It zips with rat-a-tat energy and erratic rhythm, swinging with the balance of power between Fletcher and Andrew. The close-ups of feet tapping are a perfect encapsulation of the film: manic motion in perfect tempo.

It's Teller and Simmons, though, that lend the film its vigor. Simmons is rightfully earning raves for his terrifying performance. In his hands, Fletcher isn't so much a petulant tyrant as a bloodthirsty shark, a man who thrives on destroying others - no matter the cost for his victims. And he's a man who's given this power because he's genuinely good at his job; Simmons lets that talent and passion for music slip through Fletcher's ironclad facade just enough to emphasize this. Teller, too, is terrific, unafraid to present Andrew as someone who is also genuinely talented but also somewhat of an asshole. The most remarkable thing about Teller's performance is how he differentiates Andrew from Fletcher, but still shows shades of their similarities and how perilously close Andrew is to becoming Fletcher. Most importantly, however, their confrontation chemistry together is electrifying, especially during the film's climactic scene. Their cat-and-mouse relationship is what makes Whiplash such an incredible rush of a film. A

American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

Let's get this much out of the way first: American Sniper is director Clint Eastwood's best film in several years. Based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, a sniper in the Iraq War who accrued the highest confirmed kill count in American military history, the film follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as he finds purpose in the military, then observing him as he struggles to oscillate between life on the battlefield and life at home with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). Eastwood and longtime cinematographer Tom Stern forego their usual faded-grey color scheme for an almost oppressively-bright look, and it invigorates the entire film. Cooper delivers one of the most remarkable performances of his career, proving he can do more than play motor-mouthed neurotics and arrogant douchebags with the silent, introverted Kyle. If nothing else, the film is a testament to his power as an actor.

But the problem is that the film is littered with problematic ideas. The film's politics have (rightfully) been blasted, as the narrative implies that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified because the nation was responsible for the attacks of September 11, a claim that is blatantly false. Eastwood seems to briefly position this as just being how Kyle rationalizes it, which works for the moment but falls apart as Eastwood abandons it. This occurs repeatedly throughout the film - Kyle and his (fictionalized) nemesis, a Syrian al-Qaeda sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), are shown as equals separated only by the ideologies they've subscribed to, for example, only for Eastwood to quickly move on to more hero worship and brutal warfare. The film seems to stumble upon these interesting ideas, choosing to ignore them rather than further develop them.

The film's biggest fault, however, is in how it disservices Kyle as a character. The film clearly wants to be a contemplation of what kind of effect killing is having on Kyle, starting with the harrowing opening scene in which a woman and child land in his crosshairs. The film inches closest to exploring these ideas in the scenes when Kyle is between tours, where he's twitching nervously from the sound of power tools in a body shop or suffering a breakdown at a barbecue. These are among the film's most involving scenes, but instead of developing them it rushes back into the battlefield, where the action scenes mostly follow well-worn patterns to the point of losing their power. Kyle was known among his fellow soldiers as "the Legend." The problem with American Sniper is that it purports to present the man behind the Legend, only to fully endorse the latter while barely acknowledging the former. B-

Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

Director Bennett Miller, in just three films (Capote and Moneyball), has established himself as a masterful director of actors. Foxcatcher, his latest, further proves this claim. The film tells the true story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler who, together with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), won gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. They were recruited by millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to help train a team of wrestlers for the 1988 Olympics, relocating to du Pont's Pennsylvania-based Foxcatcher Estate. But du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior leads to concern, ultimately resulting in Mark's murder at du Pont's hand.

All three leads turn in stunning performances. Carell, who's done terrific dramatic work in the past, is virtually unrecognizable about du Pont, his voice distorted into a nasally timbre. Ruffalo, too, does typically great work, lending Dave a shagginess that betrays his dedication to the sport and to his brother. But it's Tatum who's the most remarkable. Tatum has done great work in the past, but here he's a revelation, turning completely inward to play Mark as a man who's life has never really been in his own hands. It's tricky work, playing a character who's inherently passive, but Tatum does it with grace and precision.

The problem with Foxcatcher, though, is that it's got all the hallmarks of a great film except for je ne sais quoi. Miller's direction is impeccable to the point of being clinical, and the performances - though certainly impressive - never quite connect the way the actors are clearly working to achieve. The result is a film that seems to be determined to maintain a steady distance between itself and the audience. It's a shame that the film never quite makes it all work. B-

Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Valle, 2014)

There's something about reconnecting with nature that makes for a great spiritual journey. There have been a number of films about people leaving the modern world behind to trek through the natural world, and each finds power in the protagonist discovering themselves and what they're truly capable of. The trick to mastering this kind of film is not only to give the audience a sense of the grandeur of nature (typically through exceptional cinematography), but to find an actor capable of holding the audience's attention for long periods of time by themselves. Luckily, director Jean-Marc Valle has both in his latest, Wild.

The film is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who's reached a low point in her life. She's mourning the death of her mother (Laura Dern), and her marriage has fallen apart as a result of her multiple affairs and heroin abuse. She decides to make amends and find peace by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans 2663 miles from southern California to British Columbia. Though she is, in many ways, woefully unprepared for the journey, she pushes through in an effort to better herself and her life.

Witherspoon is an absolute marvel as Strayed, expertly capturing all the warts, bruises, and beauty of this complicated woman. She's never been better, and she commands every frame of the film with her charisma and determination. But Valle matches her contribution with his impressive direction. Together with Nick Hornby's script and Yves Belanger's cinematography, he structures the narrative as an impressionistic recollection of memory, dipping in and out of chronological order to create a greater understand of who Strayed is and why she's enduring this undertaking. All of it combines to create a film that earns its spirituality and emotional uplift. Despite the fair number of films with this basic premise, few present nature as church quite as well as Wild. A

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