Thursday, January 29, 2015


      Star ratings are often so terribly arbitrary.

With Part Two of my four part Savage Scorecard series, we now arrive at what I have entitled "Number 11," a selection of the films that are just nipping at the heels of my personal Top Ten Favorites Films of 2014. Typically, these films are the ones that I have awarded four stars. But this year, and especially with the overall quality being so high, there were a few films that I awarded three and a half stars but somehow they feel as if they should be housed somewhere in between the Honor Roll and The Top Ten--as if I awarded them three and three quarter stars or something to that effect.

The following seven features are films that I found to be excellent works in 2014, any of them I would be eager to see again as they all represented a creative vision that was either feverishly unique, enormously entertaining, deeply and honestly heartfelt, brazenly provocative or all of the above.

As always, I will post exactly where you can find the full reviews for each film in case you are interested.


1. "BEGIN AGAIN" Directed by John Carney
From the director of the indie/musical smash hit "Once" (2007) comes his latest film, another quasi-musical, and one that was sadly ignored during the Summer months of 2014 but for me, it was easily one of the year's most beguiling features. Mark Ruffalo stars as a Grammy award winning record producer now an unemployed alcoholic. Keira Knightley is richly enveloping and performs all of her own singing as a budding singer-songwriter attempting to find her musical way in New York City with her sense of artistic integrity intact. The fateful meeting of these two individuals inspires the both of them to join forces and create some beautiful music together in and around the neighborhoods of New York City, live and without overdubs, thus retaining the purity of the music itself and even soothing their troubled souls in the process. While the film is as light as a feather in regards to the scarcity of the plot, "Begin Again" succeeds wonderfully due to its commitment to presenting its themes about the power of creativity and art, the joys of community and collaboration as well as also existing as a dual story of personal redemption. And the songs, all written or co-written by Gregg Alexander, are folk/pop melodic gems that allow Director John Carney to again weave a poignant spell illustrating our intense relationship with the glory and connection of music itself.  
(Originally reviewed July 2014) 

2. "CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER" Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
     Despite my superhero movie fatigue, when a great comic book themed film arrives, I am as excited as I have ever been and this second installment in the Captain America series, as well as the latest entry in the Marvel Comics film universe, is one of the very best. Dialing down the CGI pyrotechnics and infusing a palpable intensity via the aesthetics of a 1970's conspiracy thriller, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a paranoid cinematic vision that smartly explores our culture's relationship with technology and our Government's over-reliance and over-reach in particular. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo utilize Captain America, now firmly transplanted from the 1940's into the 21st century, to hold up a sinister mirror to the Patriot Act and the NSA while also crafting a propulsively exciting pulse pounder in the process. And Chris Evans again gives a virtuous, vigorous, textured and sensitive performance in the titular role, the ultimate "man out of time."
     (Originally reviewed April 2014)  

3. "CHEF" Directed by Jon Favreau
     Jon Favreau fabulously returned to his independent film roots with this movie, one of the year's most soulfully entertaining releases. In a plot that shares some similarities with "Begin Again," Favreau (who also wrote the film) stars as a workaholic and disgraced four start chef who takes to the road with his young son in a food cart in order to re-connect with the culinary art that has sustained and enriched his life as well as the family his career has sidelined. "Chef" rolls to its own rapturous beat yet this cinematic party and food fest is also sumptuous and satiating for the spirit. The film is clearly Favreau's most personal statement in years, especially after toiling away on one big budget box office behemoth after another including "Elf" and of course, "Iron Man" (2008) and "Iron Man 2" (2010) and the overall effect is creatively invigorating.  
     (Originally reviewed May 2015) 

4. "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE" Directed by Justin Simien
      One of the boldest, most brazenly creative cinematic voices of 2014 was found in Justin Simien's debut feature film, a razor sharp toothed satire confronting race relations and racial identity in our so-called "post racial" American society yet filtered through the microcosm of an Ivy League college campus. In addition to serving as a brilliant antidote to the likes of "The Help" (2011) and similar themed films, "Dear White People" creates a collective of vibrantly drawn and fully three dimensional characters that hilariously and painfully illustrate the constant difficulties of existing as a black face in a predominantly white place. Simien has proven himself to be a born filmmaker whose directorial eye is as restlessly creative as his actual writing, which gave me some of 2014's finest, fastest dialogue this side of Aaron Sorkin. I am already anxiously awaiting to not only see this film again but to see exactly where this filmmaker will head next.
     (Originally reviewed October 2014)

5. "INTERSTELLAR" Directed by Christopher Nolan
I am convinced. For whatever reasons unbeknownst to everyone, I would suppose, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just hates Christopher Nolan, despite the fact that he has helmed some of the most daring, inventive, creative and intelligent big budget features in many years. With "Interstellar," (and those controversial sound issues aside) Nolan has crafted his most ambitious yet also his darkest, coldest and most cynical film to date as he spins the intergalactic tale of an astronaut (played by Matthew McConaughey) who leaves his daughter behind on a rapidly ailing planet Earth to voyage through wormholes, black holes and all manner of astro-physical barriers of space and time itself in order to potentially save the world. This was a relentlessly grim film in which every character exists within some state of anguish and therefore, it does make for an experience that is not necessarily enjoyable as his past features. But that said, "Interstellar" is no less provocative, wrenching, and masterfully presented and executed.
(Originally reviewed November 2014)

6. "THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING" Directed by James Marsh
     The biographical drama centered around the life and marriage of theoretical physicist/author Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde Hawking was a beautifully acted and presented film showcasing that even a film that is essentially a traditional prestige experience can also and most assuredly a first class motion picture that is fully deserving of any and all accolades it receives. Eddie Redmayne is absolutely astonishing as Stephen Hawking and it still amazes me with how he underwent a full physical transformation to perform the role as exquisitely as he achieved. Felicity Jones was Redmayne's unquestionable equal, and in what is essentially the less showier yet more difficult role as Jane Wilde Hawking. Jones perfectly conveyed the painful struggle of existing within the thankless role of the caretaker and how the strain of constantly placing the needs of your true love before yourself can potentially lead to a relationship's undoing. Additionally, I loved how Direcotr James Marsh refused to allow the character of Jane Wild Hawking to be swept into the background and he ensured that her own existential worldview carried equal weight and dramatic tension to Stephen Hawking's. "The Theory Of Everything" was refined, sophisticated, stylish, fragile and richly adult. 
     (Originally reviewed November 2014)

7. "UNDER THE SKIN" Directed by Jonathan Glazer
The year's most impenetrable film was also one of the year most hauntingly unforgettable. Scarlett Johansson gave her career best performance in a nearly dialogue free experience that cast her as an alien prowling Scotland to entice unsuspecting men with the promise of sex yet trapping them within an eerie black goo in order to harvest their skins. For science fiction horror film, plus existing as an exploration of lust and humanity itself, "Under The Skin" is a quietly terrifying film, a frigidly crystalline nightmare that was truly unlike any other film released in 2014. Its chillingly clinical approach brought it extremely close to the film universe of Stanley Kubrick yet remained a cinematic island that was completely foreign on its own terms.
(Originally reviewed April 2014)

Stay tuned for PART THREE where I take my gloves off one last time for the films that sit at the very bottom of my 2014 Savage Scorecard!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

JOHNNY JINGO: a review of "American Sniper"

Based upon the memoir American Sniper by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice
Screenplay Written by Jason Hall
Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood
1/2 * (one half of one star)

"And the throne, the pulpit and the politician
Create a thirst for power in the common man
It's a taste for blood passed off as bravery
Or just patriotism hiding bigotry"
-Todd Rundgren ("Johnee Jingo")

"American Sniper," Director Clint Eastwood's tribute to the deceased United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle whose 160 confirmed kills during the Iraq War have earned him the reputation as the "deadliest marksman in U.S. history," is a superbly filmed and brutally executed and effective piece of filmmaking. It is also, and moreso, a film of abhorrent jingoism as well as an appalling lack of moral complexity and ambiguity. It is a film that possesses an inhumanely repugnant lack of anything resembling a heart, brain or soul.

Now before any of you out there are just ready to stone your computer screens in a misguided rage as you may be wondering if I, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, has a disregard for our nation's soldiers, you would be sorely mistaken. I hold nothing but the highest respect for those who do take it upon themselves to fight and die for our country. I just found it inexcusably unfortunate that this film did not live up to the same level of respect for Chris Kyle plus our troops, our veterans, our fallen, the full nature of combat and war or even those we fight against, and finally, all of us in the audience who deserve a film that will speak to the complexity this particular story demands. "American Sniper" is a film of easy, empty sentiments filtered through a prism where every conceivable emotion and motivation is laid out in the strictest of black and white terms and painted with the broadest brush possible. It is also a film that makes me angrier the more I think of it, so let me just get to it because the gloves are coming off as I must give the worst film of 2014 its proper pummeling.

As you are all aware, Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" follows the story of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), who enlisted in the United States military at the age of 30 after witnessing the U.S. Embassy bombing attacks, an event that inspired him to serve our country. For the course of the film, Eastwood takes us through all four of Kyle's increasingly perilous tours of duty in Iraq, plus his even more perilous re-adjustments and struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) once he returns home to his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller) and their children in Texas, all the way to his death in 2013 at the hands of a veteran also suffering from PTSD.

Certainly the story of Chris Kyle is worth telling, especially as the Iraq war has not been explored in great detail within the lens of narrative driven feature films, and it deserves to be explored to allow all of us to process and gain understanding into all that has occurred and where we might potentially find ourselves as a nation. As far as war movies are concerned, I happened to come of age during the period of anti-war films that were centered around the Vietnam War. How brilliant and unforgettable was Director Michael Cimino's operatic Oscar winning "The Deer Hunter" (1978), whose structure revolved around how the Vietnam war affected a small blue-collar Pennsylvanian steel town before, during and afterwards. Director Francis For Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) treated the war as a harrowing surrealistic journey into madness. Director Oliver Stone ferociously delivered "Platoon" (1986), delved into the chaos and horror of war and his "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989) illustrated explicitly just how much damage only one bullet can inflict. Director Stanley Kubrick's iconic "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) offered a bird's eye view of war and its various levels dehumanization. And of course, and moving backwards from the Vietnam war in time to World War II, we have Director Steven Spielberg's epic "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which paid tribute to all of the soldiers who fought while placing us directly in the middle of the brutality and violence.

I mention all of those films not solely because I find them to be outstanding works, but each of them utilized the concept of war to explore not only the respective wars themselves but our collective humanity and inhumanity as well. By contrast, "American Sniper" is as shallow and as heartless as a first person shooting video game and it completely functions as one, as it exists to be nothing more than racist red meat to be fed to ravenous armchair warriors. It is a film that is designed to fuel our nation's collective fears of some "other" entity hell bent on destroying us all and our needs to find some savior to single-handedly uphold God, country, family and oh yes, freedom to eradicate the world of all who wish to do us harm. To that end, "American Sniper" is a film that offers no sense of morality because Eastwood never at any moment provides any details that can inform everything we are watching, from the characters to the war itself.

Most bizarre to me, is that Eastwood has crafted a war film that offers no sense of actual politics. Now, a war film that does not delve into the politics of the war in question is not an impossibility, of course. Take Director Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winning "The Hurt Locker" (2008), which very effectively focused more on the physical and psychological effects of war on soldiers without becoming a film that was overtly political. But with "American Sniper," the film logically brings up questions and concepts that Eastwood is not even remotely willing or even interested in confronting or answering. Basically, Eastwood's narrative is as follows: Chris Kyle goes to Iraq after 9/11 and becomes the deadliest sniper in history. That's really it. Yet, with the film's complete lack of politics at its core, there is just this one nagging detail that sits at the heart of "American Sniper" that Eastwood omitted: Iraq never attacked the United States. The United States attacked Iraq and completely based upon lies the government fed to us. But that little nugget is not mentioned at all whatsoever in the film, even though it is an unmitigated fact, and because it does not serve Eastwood's "U.S. VS. THEM" narrative.

As I stated at the outset of this review, "American Sniper" is brutally effective but it is irresponsible to a dangerous degree. It is an unrepentantly racist film where EVERY Iraqi citizen (including women and children) are depicted as potential or lethal terrorists and are often referred to as "those savages," purposeful images and words designed to ensure that Iraqi people are never perceived to be human beings. There are searing moral questions at the core of "American Sniper" including what exactly is a "terrorist" (and therefore an "invader," "hero," or "coward" as well) and how and why are terrorists produced? Additionally, what does it mean to be a soldier when forced to fight in a completely fraudulent war? And yet, none of these concepts or ideas are on this film's mind whatsoever.

Yes, there is much controversy (and deservedly so) surrounding this film and the frankly the character of Chris Kyle himself.  For me, I will not fall into the all too easy descriptives that have been volleyed back and forth surrounding Kyle which have either proclaimed him to have been a "hero" or even vilified him as being a "psychopath" due to racist statements he made towards Iraqis as well as even supplying his autobiography with stories that were either embellished or invented to sweeten the narrative. I really know nothing about Chris Kyle, so I cannot (entirely) speak to either of those claims and furthermore, I have no need to necessarily like Chris Kyle. The nature of a film like this one is to help me to understand a figure like Chris Kyle. Which again leads to those pesky questions.

Did Chris Kyle harbor racist attitudes before he enlisted? Did the process of becoming a soldier, a figure where one (I would imagine) would have to demonize the enemy in order to perform their duty and survive, bring attitudes he had not carried before or did this process bring them out into the open?  Again, none of this is ever mentioned in the film. If you are anything like myself, a person who thought that perhaps "American Sniper" would give you a window into Chris Kyle's world and life, be prepared to be demonstrably disappointed. After having seen the film, I can easily tell you that I really don't know anything more about the man than before I went into the movie, and you know, I think this is the way Clint Eastwood wanted it.

In my review of Director Ava DuVernay's "Selma," I praised her approach in taking the historically iconic figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. down from the pedestal so we could see and explore him fully as a flawed human being, this making his accomplishments that much more meaningful. By contrast, with "American Sniper," it felt as if Clint Eastwood only wanted to place Chris Kyle upon larger and higher pedestals. In a very strange way, I think the plethora of superhero films have worked tremendously well to the advantage of how audiences are designed to respond to "American Sniper" because Clint Eastwood has essentially fashioned this real life story of war, killing and death into a revenge fantasy filtered through a Marvel comics aesthetic.

As I have previously alluded, I think the fact that we really know nothing about Chris Kyle (especially anything that could be construed as controversial or upsetting) within this film is because he is just a hollow shell being utilized to uphold certain ideals. The way Eastwood depicts the man, who else is he but a real world version of Captain America who just wants to fight for his country and rid the world of the bad guys? Unfortunately, the Marvel comic films' Captain America has shown more nuance and shading.

Anyhow, Eastwood's Chris Kyle is presented as being just an "aw shucks" Texas country boy who, as a child, is taught by his Father not only how to shoot but also about the three sets of people that make up the world: the sheep (i.e. victims), the wolves (i.e. bullies or antagonists) and the sheep dogs (i.e. the protectors), and that Chris is expected to become a "sheep dog." Taking this lesson to heart, and before you can say "with great power comes great responsibility," Kyle grows up becomes a rodeo cowboy yet discovers his gift for sharpshooting once he enters active duty after the September 11th attacks. Kyle's impressive skills and numerous kills inspires his comrades to refer to him as "The Legend" and over the course of the film and his final three tours of Iraq, The Legend comes across his arch-nemesis, the Iraqi sniper known only as "The Butcher" (played by Mido Hamada)--remember those savages aren't human so he doesn't have a real name. As more of The Legend's friends are gunned down in battle, and America is in constant imminent threat, he grows more tireless in his pursuit of The Butcher, which culminates in a purely and shamelessly cinematic "money shot."

With this display, Clint Eastwood has reduced this complicated experience down to a superhero origin story and three act structure which concludes with The Legend's death. He remains ever humbled when surrounded with the accolades by his brothers-in-arms, and he struggles with providing the same sense of support for his family at home although he is a savior on the battlefield. In combat, The Legend is fully revered, has a hefty bounty placed upon his head by the Iraqis and even adorns his combat fatigues with the insignia of Marvel comics' "The Punisher." Why stop there, Clint? You could have even added a cape for him to wear too.

Chris Kyle's Achilles heel is his PTSD, which in Eastwood's very few statements concerning the purpose of  "American Sniper" is the core of the film as he wants us to understand just what damage war can do to the soldier and the family once that soldier returns home. But, for me, I felt that to all just be lip service. Yes, we do see some instances of Kyle's painful and paranoid return trips back to Texas as well as his initial visit to the Veteran Affairs psychiatrist. But, in the film's final scenes when his wife Taya exclaims how glad she is that he has finally returned to the family, being fully present as a husband and a Father to two adorable young moppets, seemingly completely cured of PTSD, it further forces the questions of how exactly did Chris Kyle become rehabilitated to domestic life? How exactly did he mentally recover from all of the carnage he saw and inflicted? What did he really think and feel about his time overall in the service?  Again, not a word providing any answers to those questions are uttered at all.

In cases when a celebrated filmmaker on the level of Clint Eastwood delivers a film that I vehemently loathe like "American Sniper," I would often ponder the question: What was he thinking? But the issue I have with "American Sniper" is that I firmly believe that Clint Eastwood knew exactly what he was thinking. It is such a shame to me as he has now created a film that seemingly flies in the face of his entire output for nearly 25 years, films that have been surprisingly and provocatively fair minded, challenging, nuanced as well as enormously entertaining and powerful.

Just think of how Eastwood systematically deconstructed the Western as well as his own violent gunslinging film persona with "Unforgiven" (1992). From that point, Eastwood confronted issues of the long ranging destructive effects of child abuse in "Mystic River" (2003), euthanasia in "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), female empowerment and political corruption in "Changeling" (2008), racism, aging, mortality and violence in "Gran Turino" (2008) and post-apartheid South African politics in "Invictus" (2009). Two of the finest films of his career have been his dual study and meditation over World War II with "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), which focused upon the Japanese point of view and "Flags Of Our Fathers" (2006), which focused on the American point of view.

Remembering "Flags of Our Fathers," part of what was so crucial about that film was Eastwood's pointed undertaking of holding some strong criticisms against the United States Government for using the nation's young to not only fight and die for the wars they sanction but also how those same young people are used as forms of propaganda to keep the flames of war alive and at the forefront of the minds of the American people at home. With "American Sniper," Eastwood knew precisely what he was doing as he has explicitly performed the very same feat he was critical of in "Flags Of Our Fathers" because "American Sniper" is a propaganda film.

No question about it, dear readers. Just as Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) toyed with the facts and realities of the usages of torture and their effectiveness in pursuing and killing Osama bin Laden just to promote a right wing agenda, an agenda Bigelow was not brave enough to own up to whenever questioned about it, Eastwood has performed the exact same feat with "American Sniper," as any criticisms have been met with silence from his end so far. Now, to give Eastwood a modicum of the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his reticence is simply to allow the film to speak for itself. But, the greater part of me, the much angrier part, feels that it is just a calculated move to not alienate any potential box office take, which he really has nothing to worry about since the film has already broken some box office records and has earned upwards of $200 million dollars in just a few short weeks. Eastwood's "American Sniper" feels like a military recruitment film that is also being used as fodder to perpetuate and incite anti-Muslim sentiment and venom, which makes the entire escapade feel as if it was funded by the Republican Party, the NRA and the U.S. military combined.

There have also been some commentaries concerning "American Sniper" and its similarities to the section of Director Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" (2008) that features the fictional Nazi propaganda film within the film concerning the voluminous kills from the rifle of a Nazi sniper and to that I would definitely agree with that assessment. Now this is not to say that I am comparing Chris Kyle to a Nazi. I am not. But Clint Eastwood is a master filmmaker with 44 years worth of directorial experience thus making him a film historian as well. He knows and understands exactly how film works, and how what is shown and therefore what is not shown creates an intended message designed for audiences to receive. These are the properties of film propaganda, which Bigelow flirted dangerously with in "Zero Dark Thirty" and Eastwood is openly courting with "American Sniper," so much so that it could possibly be argued is not terribly far removed from the likes of Director Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film "Triumph Of The Will" (1935). Or to slightly less incendiary effect, Eastwood used Chris Kyle just like the U.S. Armed forces used deceased U.S. soldier Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire but was originally and falsely reported to have been killed in battle in the mountains of Afghanistan. Shameful, Clint. Just shameful.

Where was the subtlety and complexity in "American Sniper"? Why did Clint Eastwood feel that he needed to dictate our emotions every single step of the way in this film to an insulting degree? Why did he not think enough of the moral ambiguity contained within the man himself to just provide the information and allow us in the audience to connect any dots in any way that we wish to do? Therefore, why did Eastwood feel the need to excise anything questionable from Kyle's real life in order to present his story? Also, why is Chris Kyle's demise at the hands of another solder suffering from PTSD handled completely off screen whereas we have seen scores of  American soldiers blasted apart by Iraqis on screen? Of course, because that is fully designed to make us thirst for revenge, hence the scores of Iraqis slaughtered on screen.

As for the performances, oh well...Bradley Cooper is fine I guess, certainly not deserving of an Academy Award as the character that he has been given to play is a husk of a man whose eyes flare like Bill Bixby ready to transform into The Incredible Hulk (those comic book analogies again) once his country and comrades are under fire. Sienna Miller, a very talented actress, is completely wasted in a thankless and somewhat infuriating role as Kyle wife, Taya as she is required to be nothing more than alternately shrewish, bitchy or hand-wringing and pregnant nearly all of the time. And at no point were either of them convincing as existing as three dimensional human beings.

To finally bring this to an end, I just have to return to Chris Kyle's Father's simple-minded allegory of the human race existing as either sheep, wolves or sheep-dogs for just a moment. Because as I think about "American Sniper," I am feeling that Clint Eastwood has cynically cast all of us in the audience as sheep who will so easily swallow any sense of pseudo patriotic crap he can dish out just to keep us afraid and angry enough to support the current as well as the next war our country will find itself involved in. I think that it is more than telling that Eastwood excised any and all potentially controversial matter from his depiction of Chris Kyle because he had a larger agenda to fulfill and based upon the enormous response to the film, his tactic has worked brilliantly...just as the best propaganda should.

Mission accomplished.

Friday, January 23, 2015

WE MARCH: a review of "Selma"

Screenplay Written by Paul Webb
Directed by Ava DuVernay
**** (four stars)

"So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
"Give Us The Ballot, We Will Control The South" May 17, 1957

A few short weeks ago as I was driving around the city flipping between radio stations, I came across a progressive talk radio program and the host was engaged in one of those predictably fiery debates with a caller. While I can tend to shut those on-air shout fests to the background or else just change the dial, this particular caller made a statement that nearly made me want to pull over the car as I was in complete and utter disbelief. Are you ready? The words this caller exclaimed were as follows: "This isn't the 60's! We're not living in the Civil Rights Movement anymore!!" 

It was a statement that was as stupefying as it was infuriating and ignorant. To that end, it is precisely a statement like that one that proves the essential necessity of a movie like "Selma" to enter the landscape and our public discourse as Director Ava DuVernay has created a cinematic history lesson that is as up to the minute as opening a newspaper today or even just looking not terribly far outside of your own windows. "Selma" is a searing slow burn of a film, easily one of 2014's very best, and one that jointly inspires and incenses, especially as the general public has grown more politically apathetic. Additionally, and for that matter, the full knowledge of who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. actually was and precisely what he stood for has almost been relegated to the highlight reel of foggy archived film footage as well as a more pedestrian outlook of his political activism, for he was indeed an activist in every stretch of the word. What Ava DuVernay has achieved with such palpable force is to show with "Selma" is that the Civil Rights Movement is not a remnant of the past and truthfully, it never ended. The Civil Rights Movement is RIGHT NOW!

Beginning with moments of triumph and tragedy, "Selma" opens with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s (brilliantly portrayed by David Oyelowo) acceptance speech after receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, which is soon followed by the subsequent murder of four young African American girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church bombing. From this point, "Selma" revolves itself around Dr. King's turbulent struggle to obtain federal legislation protecting African-Americans' voting rights in light of the mounting cases of the illegal denying of registration rights all the way to acts of violence perpetrated against the African American community.

Already under F.B.I. surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), plus enduring repeated philosophical battles with a reluctant President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and facing marital stresses at home with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Dr. King travels to Selma, Alabama with his colleagues and meets with members of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to determine how precisely to stage a non-violent protest that will ultimately consist of a march from Selma to Montgomery. Facing incarceration, escalating violence at the hands of the Alabama state police and the leadership of the racist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Johnson's unshakable political strategizing and moral indifference, we are witness to how Dr. King remained steadfast with maintaining the clarity of his vision of equality and justice for all despite the odds and obstacles.    

"Selma" is a stately, somber, and profoundly sobering experience, especially as we make serious note of the fact that the film concludes with the introduction of the Voting Rights Act Of 1965, the very act that was decimated just last year and on the eve of its 50th anniversary. With her film, Ava DuVernay wisely chooses to focus her film upon a specific period of time within Dr. King's life rather than provide the full arc of his life, an approach that absolutely forces everyone watching the film to also look to the world in which we co-exist in 2015.

What DuVernay has masterfully achieved with this tactic is to design a wrenching "what is past is prologue" narrative as I just cannot fathom how anyone watching this film, in which we hear several of Dr. King's speeches, delivered with eerie precision by David Oyelowo, and NOT make the proper parallels to current events. Elements of the Occupy movement, the protests and riots that followed the racially motivated murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner plus the insidious political gerrymandering and Voter ID laws that are completely designed to strip many Americans of their rights to vote are all represented within "Selma" and yet not one minute of this film takes place in the present. They are represented because we, as a nation, have been at this precise point before and again. Because of this intensified immediacy, "Selma" becomes essential viewing and definitely a motion picture that should be screened in high schools across the country to full illustrate to students the fact that not only what is being depicted on-screen is very recent history, but the exact same struggles are happening right now and will ultimately affect them in the future.

Rest assured, "Selma" is not a stuffy, dusty history lesson but at all times is a fiercely griping drama. I deeply appreciated how DuVernay never backed down for an instant from the violence, brutality and inhumanity of this particular era. While never gratuitously graphic, "Selma" provides a realistic terror contained during that specific period (which of course echoes loudly today) as well as the heroic and seemingly impossible bravery from those who continued marching forwards always knowing explicitly what violence is bound to be hurled in their direction. Again, it is this immediacy that speaks volumes throughout the film and provides a formidable context, especially when the adage "People died for the right to vote," has become an empty platitude for so many.

One sequence, based upon the "Bloody Sunday" attacks on March 7, 1965, where 600 members of Dr. King's colleagues and peaceful protesters are viciously attacked upon the Edmund Pettus Bridge, vividly holds a mirror up to our 21st century clashes between protesters and police with punishing force. And yet, "Selma" is not solely an incendiary experience as DuVernay often fills the film with many moments of pin drop silences that are at times even more intense and unsettling than the sequences of violence. For instance, we have a later sequence where Dr. King and his colleagues, now joined by White peace activists and members of the clergy, return to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the police, instead of raining violence, openly invite everyone to cross. Dr. King,feeling tremendous uncertainly and sensing danger, pauses and silently prays for guidance before turning backwards, leading the procession away. It is a chilling scene which DuVernay handles like a champion.

But even greater than the moments of violence are the larger themes and questions concerning the politics and strategy of non-violence, the very thematic content which speaks to the heart of "Selma." As DuVernay explores the birth and organization of a specific movement and the difficulties with maintaining and growing that movement, I really loved how she explored the clashes of ego and temperament as well as ideology held between Dr. King and additional activist figures like Andrew Young (played by Andre Holland), John Lewis (played by Stephan James), James Bevel (played by Common), and Hosea Williams (played by Wendell Pierce) among others.

Watching these figures debate philosophically and passionately deftly showcased how the Civil Rights Movement did not emerge as a fully formed entity. While the participants involved may have held the same endgame in mind, the means to achieve their goals were comparatively different, which did lead to some spirited in-fighting. And then, we must also take note of the idea that perhaps at times, and depending upon the circumstances which could shift and transform on a moment's notice, there must have been an aspect of the movement that forced Dr. King to adapt in a sort of "we're making this up as we go along" fashion. In these incredibly provocative sections of "Selma," the film often reminded me of Director Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012) as that film was essentially a more methodical and meditative experience that was about the process of obtaining votes to make the Emancipation Proclamation a reality. "Selma" is equally meditative and methodical, as the film is about the building of a grass roots activist movement and continuing even when all feels insurmountable and impossible.

There has been some controversy surrounding "Selma" in regards to the exact role President Johnson performed with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in general and the Selma to Montgomery march in particular, with some suggesting that the march itself occurred only after LBJ's permission. This sentiment is something I wholeheartedly disagree with as it suggests a certain "Mother May I?" approach to political activism that flies completely in the face of who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was as a political figure and advocate for social justice. Because let's face it, and as a very wise friend once expressed, if you have to ask for permission for the right to protest. then you never had that right to begin with.

This viewpoint seems to be shared by Ava DuVernay within her depictions of the tense discussions between King and Johnson in "Selma," and I feel that she is suggesting within her narrative that LBJ's actions were more to do with political self-preservation rather than through any sense of moral justice and fortitude. As LBJ expresses to George Wallace at one point in the film, "We can't think about 1965 right now. We need to be thinking abut 1985!" The arrival of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was most likely introduced as a matter of the preserving of a political and Presidential legacy. But, in the end, what does it matter as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a reality regardless.

On a more personal level, "Selma" is a character portrait that is as meditative and methodical as much as I would imagine the real Dr. King to have been. Because of that crucial quality, DuVernay ensures that "Selma" rightfully avoids some of the trappings that kept "Lincoln" a bit at arms length for me.

When I think of a motion picture that is daring to tackle the life (or in this case, a portion) of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the task feels to be so impossible as his iconic status and legacy has rendered him to be a figure that is almost unattainable to fully capture or conceptualize. Miraculously, DuVernay has taken Dr. King down from the pedestal and has rendered a figure who is provocatively and so recognizably human. Yes, DuVernay gives us the great orator but she carefully yet fearlessly presents to us a man who was as flawed and filled with uncertainty and doubt as he was inventive, steadfast, and supremely courageous. And here is where David Oyeowo's masterful performance comes to the forefront.

Now that I have seen the film, I can easily say that there is not even one, solitary reason that anyone could give to me explaining just why David Oyelowo was not nominated for an Academy Award. Oyelowo not only gives one of the finest performances of the year, immediately propelling himself to the front ranks of our new-ish crop of actors to the silver screen, it is a performance of uncanny transformation that you will often perform double takes wondering if what you are witnessing is indeed Oyelowo or perhaps archived footage of the real Dr. King.

David Oyelowo completely commands the screen with tremendous gravitas, and during the sequences where he is required to emulate the voice and mannerisms that have indeed become iconic, he proves himself to be up to the challenge as much as what we saw with Denzel Washington's career best performance in Spike Lee's finest motion picture "Malcolm X" (1992). As you regard not only his voice but his body language, David Oyelowo truly becomes larger than life in these and other sections of "Selma." But just as impressively, we also witness how Oyelowo almost shrinks himself during times of severe uncertainty. Oyelowo succeeds because he finds a way to burrow underneath the skin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all the while probing and discovering quite possibly what made the man tick, what drove him, what infuriated him, and even what he was afraid of.

In addition to all of the political sequences, take one section of the film when an incarcerated Dr. King is visited by Coretta Scott King who informs him that she has taken up a brief meeting with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). DuVernay and Oyelowo utilize this moment to present to us that Dr. King was not immune to bouts of anger and even jealousy. And then, there is one audacious sequence where DuVernay actually presents Coretta Scott King confronting her husband over his extra-marital affairs. When she asks of him whether he has loved anyone else, just watch how Oyelowo plays the lengthy silence that ensues as Dr. King meditates over his answer, past actions, guilt, remorse, love and the need for forgiveness and then, finally responds. It is an excellent performance, richly layered, completely empathetic, perceptive and so brilliantly executed to make the figure of Dr. King into someone tangible. What Oyelowo achieves through his performance, and therefore DuVernay with her film, was to show how Dr. King was a three dimensional, complex human being with foibles and failures who somehow dug deeply to bring forth the best of himself for himself and humanity as a whole...precisely the message he has wished for every single one of us to achieve as we march through the world. For when we do arrive at our best selves, humanity always wins. Within "Selma," we see how Dr. King continuously taught this lesson to himself as well as to society as a whole and David Oyelowo was a remarkable conduit for this message.

As I watched "Selma," I often thought about that radio show I mentioned at the outset of this review and the preposterousness of the ignorance contained within that caller's statements. "Selma" then inspired me to mentally return to the events of February 2011, when the people of Madison, WI stormed, and soon occupied, the State Capitol to protest the policies of the (then) newly elected Governor Scott Walker, policies that even Walker himself has described as "divide and conquer." It was the night that then inspired the full Wisconsin Uprising, an experience during which I participated over and again through a period of nearly three months, whether housed at the epicenter of the Capitol Rotunda or marching throughout the streets surrounding the building and alongside thousands of Wisconsinites and visitors of solidarity to the state. And the entire experience, despite whatever the politicians attempted to feed to the complacent media, was non-violent. Yes, people were angry. Truthfully, people were enraged. But as I met more and more people from so many walks of life during those months we stood side by side in the frigid cold and snow or in the volcanically loud Capitol Rotunda, I felt the echoes, the reverberations and even the power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s political vision of non-violent protest. It completely surrounded me, and I cannot even begin to fully express how beautiful it was.

I thought of the world in which we live currently while I watched "Selma" because how could I not? Frankly, I am fearing that we are living in politically dangerous times that are quite possibly even more dangerous than 50 years ago specifically because after all of the gains we have made as a human society in 50 years, much of those gains are being eroded as I write. We live in a time where political discourse has disintegrated into vacuous rancor. Journalism is essentially dead. The media has been bought and sold as well as our electoral system. Corporations are supposedly "people," money is supposedly "speech," and the wealthiest among us are supposedly disenfranchised. Education is devalued as teachers are now vilified. Science, reason and cold, hard facts themselves are virtually ignored by our leaders. We have truly found ourselves through the looking glass where as Bill Maher once expressed, "How can we have a debate when we cant even agree on reality?" And therefore, what can be done to speak truth to power when despite the volumes of truth, there seems to be even greater power which is held in fewer and fewer hands?

"Selma" informs and questions us about what precisely does it take to bring a political movement to life. What is the spark that ignites and what are the lessons that can be learned to help us remain inspired even when a groundswell ultimately fails, as it did in Wisconsin. The work of protest does indeed feel exhaustive but when we really look backwards, especially at the events as depicted in "Selma," how can we even begin to bemoan our state of existence and complain of being tired when people did indeed die for the right to vote? As far as I am concerned, ANY and ALL semblances of apathy are inexcusable and we owe it to our collective past, present and future to perform the deep soul searching that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. performed during his lifetime when we think about how we wish to exist in the world.

Recently, when I was feeling politically dejected with Scott Walker's re-election, a reality that has left me with increased feelings of hopelessness, I learned that the Solidarity Singers, a small group of individuals who organized during those initial protests, who sing protest songs during the lunch hour each day at the Capitol had reached their 1000th day of protest through song.  Think about this, dear readers. 1000 days without fail. 1000 days even when the numbers of singers have dwindled. 1000 days even after Walker issued violent (and frankly illegal and unconstitutional) raids against the singers, which ultimately drew the protesters back to the Capitol Rotunda for a spell. 1000 days and just for singing protest songs together.

That is the spark. That is the soul and spirit of peaceful, non-violent protest. That is the continuing vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made into reality in the 21st century. That is the ember for which we should continue to cling to and furthermore bring back to a greater, unstoppable flame because the people truly do have the power, if only we could crawl out of our apathy to realize precisely just how much power we actually have.

Ava DuVernay's "Selma" is a stirring cinematic experience that provides us a window into or history but it is not the past. "Selma" is NOW.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


As far as I am concerned, 2014 was a wonderful year at the movies!!

I know that we all still have a problem with the continuing glut of remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings. Furthermore, I still contend that we are having too many "tentpole" pictures, from superhero films, to multi-part franchises being made at the expense of more personal and more diversified movies. And yes, there were stories upon stories about the declining box office and 2014 being a terribly under-performing year at the movies so on. But for me, and all of those criticisms being said, the actual quality of the films overall were of such an unusually high standard, which made going to the movies this past year such a joy.

For years, I have bemoaned the standard movie year cycle where the very best material is saved for the final four months or so but in 2014, strong films were being released beginning in February, and also remember, Wes Anderson's masterful "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was even released as far back as last March! For me and my sensibilities, 2014 was a yea were established filmmakers brought out some of their most challenging works and in some cases, the finest films of their careers thus far. And independent and newer filmmakers consistently brought their "A" games as well, creating works that could easily rival those of their veteran cinematic colleagues. Yes, there were the films that I didn't are for but also in a cinematic year, they were unusually few and very far between and frankly...there were many I avoided because truthfully, there is no reason whatsoever for me to sit through anything that Michael Bay has touched.

So now, we arrive at my annual four part Savage Scorecard series where I run through and tally up everything I saw within the past cinematic year as I lead up to the Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, February 22nd. As always, the series progresses as follows:

PART ONE: THE HONOR ROLL-The films that I awarded with a three and a half star rating.
PART TWO: NUMBER 11-The films that are just nipping at the heels of the Top Ten.

At the end of each selected title, I will inform you of where you can find the full review.

And without further hesitation, dear readers, let's begin!!


1. "THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2" Directed by Marc Webb
Even though this film has been steadily finding itself ranked as one of the worst films of 2014 by many critics, I would like to think that time will ultimately be kinder to this movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed. For me, I still stand by my assessment of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which I actually felt was stronger that most of Director Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies (hey, even he has finally spoken out about his regrets over that disastrous third film) as well as one that is richer, darker and more profoundly moving than its own predecessor. But mostly, I felt that Director Marc Webb fashioned a wise comic book fable about the pain of being powerless, and the irony of that discovery via three characters who are given extraordinary powers that fuel their respective brands of hubris to tragic effect.
(Originally reviewed May 2014)

2. "BIG EYES" Directed by Tim Burton
Tim Burton returned to the world of real, live human beings for his finest film in too many years as he presented the true tale of artist Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams) and her struggle against her husband, Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz), to claim the rightful authorship of her deeply personal, highly popular yet bizarre paintings of wide eyed waif children, paintings of which Walter stole the full credit. Burton has deftly weaved a beautifully visualized and enthusiastically well acted film that not only explores themes of female empowerment, cleverly filtered through the aesthetic lens of an adult fairy tale, he also has given us a film that exists as a dissertation about the nature of art itself. How wonderful it is to again see a Tim Burton film is is actually about something and leaves all of the CGI trickery behind!
(Originally reviewed December 2014)

3. "DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES" Directed by Matt Reeves
One of the most sobering films of the year arrived in this decidedly grim update of the classic "Planet of the Apes" series as we find our human world, ten years after a devastating pandemic, teetering on the edge of extinction with rise of an increasingly militant talking ape population as led by the troubled Caesar (portrayed brilliantly by Andy Serkis). As with the original film series, but without even a stitch of campiness, Director Matt Reeves has created an allegory of our own depleting sense of humanity when faced with groups different than ourselves and speaks directly to the core of our war driven culture. Tougher, bleaker, and more riveting than it had any right or reason to be, this was a mournful experience of brutal elegance.
(Originally reviewed July 2014)

4. "EDGE OF TOMORROW" Directed by Doug Liman
It is truly beyond me why this film bombed at the box office, especially with the across-the-board high critical praise to fully entice viewers to go see it. Although it was saddled with a terrible title, "Edge Of Tomorrow," was otherwise a flat-out terrific piece of summer movie entertainment that was sharply written, directed and acted, and fueled by another full throttle leading performance from Tom Cruise who starred as a military spokesman with no combat training forced to enter front line combat with a gargantuan alien species and is killed moments into battle yet then, finds himself trapped within a time loop where he is forced to live through the day repeatedly until he can discover how to destroy the aliens. While essentially a cross between "Groundhog Day" (1993) and "Starship Troopers" (1997), Liman completely circumvented any cinematic plagiarism through the sheer dynamism of his direction, the sharp writing and the nearly satirical attitude the film took towards Tom Cruise's own legendary screen persona as a "go-get-'em" hero by turning him into a coward.
(Originally reviewed June 2014)

5. "THE FAULT IN OUR STARS" Directed by Josh Boone
The heart aching love story between two teenage cancer patients would typically be the exact type of movie that I would avoid but thankfully, Director Josh Boon kept all of the sharp edges of the remarkably unsentimental novel by John Green and created a film that was sardonic, sarcastic, caustic, prickly, as well as tender, powerfully romantic and whose overall emotional palate remained honest. Shailene Woodley gave a beautiful leading performance as she never over-sold even one moment throughout the film and I loved how Boone allowed the film's many silences speak for the film's characters in ways where other films would be drowning every second in prefabricated drama.
(Originally reviewed June 2014) 

6. "GONE GIRL" Directed by David Fincher
A completely blindsiding and wildly entertaining psychological thriller that truly upended me over and again and is possibly one of the very best if its kind since "Fatal Attraction" (1987) as it really crept into the underbelly of the ebb and flow that occurs within marriages. Rosamund Pike deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her "star is born" performance as Amy Dunne, a woman who disappears on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and whose husband Nick (Ben Affleck) soon becomes a prime suspect. While highly successful as a thriller, it is even better as a cultural commentary on the art of media manipulation within the hyperspeed of our 21st century/24 hour news cycle and increasingly ravenous internet culture.
(Originally reviewed October 2014)

7. "THE INTERVIEW" Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
I still think it was all a PR stunt but one that also fully worked within the context of this hysterically unhinged, unapologetically vulgar yet surprisingly savvy political satire that placed two idiotic "journalists" into North Korea to interview and then covertly kill Kim Jong-un. While the North Korean dictator certainly takes his lumps, I feel that the sharpest satirical teeth happily chomp themselves into the ever expanding hide of the U.S.A. as Rogen and Goldberg rip apart our increasing megalomania, the death of journalism and even intelligence itself and finally (and again), the effectiveness of media manipulation over the masses who do nothing to educate themselves to anything other than what is dangling in front of our faces.
(Originally reviewed January 2015)

8. "THE LEGO MOVIE" Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
How did this movie not receive an Oscar nomination????? I DO NOT understand how this massive oversight could have happened for this film a critical and box office smash, that was so dizzyingly creative, inventive and executed and so packed to the gills visually and comedically that it demands subsequent viewings as it would be impossible to catch everything in just one sitting. Beyond even that praise, it was possibly the most subversive film of the year as this major studio release based upon the iconic toys contained a message that was defiantly anti-corporate, anti-conformity, and anti-establishment and essentially instructed everybody watching to throw away the instructions. What could have existed as a soulless commercial became one of the year's highest surprises.
(Originally reviewed February 2014) 

9. "MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT" Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen's latest cinematic excursion, a romantic comedy set in 1920's France about a magician (Colin Firth) dispatched to debunk a possible clairvoyant charlatan (Emma Stone), again delivers a light, frothy work that is visually sumptuous and just may inspire travel. What made this film special for me was how Allen utilized the romantic comedy framework and his peerless dialogue to essentially weave a spirited debate about existence itself between representatives of Science and reason (as embodied by Firth) and the spiritual (as embodied by Stone). This is a warm comedy filled with intelligence, and a literary and philosophical wit that would otherwise be unheard in the movies in quite the same way.
(Originally reviewed August 2014)

10. "THE SKELETON TWINS" Directed by Craig Johnson
Oh how I wished that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig could have received some awards attention for their outstanding dramatic work as the titular estranged twins who are reunited after a family near-tragedy. Unlike another film I saw in 2014 that dealt with death and a family reunion in degrees that were wholly ridiculous and unconvincing (just wait for Part Three of this series), this film perfectly captures a sibling dynamic as well as explores the hereditary affects of clinical depression combined with adult feelings of failing of living up to one's own youthful expectations. A richly acted and deeply melancholic film.
(Originally reviewed September 2014)

11. "TOP FIVE" Directed by Chris Rock
Here was yet another film that should have soared to the top of the box office chats but when you opened it next to the third and final installment of "The Hobbit" series, it just never had a fighting chance. And such a shame as Chris Rock delivered the good with his third and most successful writing and directing effort which somehow merges the sensibilities of Richard Linklater and Richard Pryor into a seamless whole. "Top Five" is Rock's romantic comedy and media satire about the fictional Andre Allen, a famous stand up comic and movie celebrity caught in a personal crossroads and feeling as if he may never want to perform comedy again. Rosario Dawson stars as a New York Times journalist sent to interview Allen. Rock delivered a film that was not only sharply funny but even better, as a dual character study of two lost souls who find each other at precisely the right time.
(Originally reviewed December 2014)


Thursday, January 15, 2015


The nominations are in and here's my initial reaction.

First things first, I send my most heartfelt congratulations to "Boyhood," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)" for the healthy amount of nominations all three films received this morning. While I have not even begun to post my four part Savage Scorecard series detailing my favorite and least favorite films of 2014, it should be no mystery to any you frequent visitors to this site of my love for those three aforementioned films as they not only represented three of the very best films 2014 had to offer, but all three filmmakers of Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu as boldly wondrous creative artists who each created their finest films to date. I am thrilled for all of them without question.

Additionally, I was thrilled to see the blistering, exhausting "Whiplash" nominated for Best Picture as well as veteran character actor JK Simmons nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for his searing, violently charismatic work in the same film. To that end, I was also very happily surprised to see Felicity Jones deservedly nominated in the Best Actress category for her powerfully subtle work in "The Theory of Everything," as well as Laura Dern and Emma Stone each nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for "Wild" and "Birdman" respectively. And seeing Michael Keaton nominated for his outstanding performance in "Birdman" within the Best Actor category felt like nothing but vindication for me since I have LOVED him ever since Ron Howard's "Night Shift" (1982) baby!!!!!  

But you know, I have to say that one of the happiest surprises I had while watching the nominations was seeing the selection "Lost Stars" nominated for Best Original Song from the underseen and under valued "Begin Again." It is a beautiful piece of music, so melodically rich and within the film, is utilized in a variety of formats, all of which convey different meanings to the purity and impurity of music, especially when it is co-opted by the music business. Keira Knightley, sings this lovely song, so very well and I am amazed that it made the cut at all  

But at the same time, the nominations felt to be a bit unimaginative or at least most curious as to what exactly was omitted. First of all, I was completely shocked that "The LEGO Movie" was completely snubbed, especially as it was a critical smash in addition to being a box office behemoth. When the nominations for Best Animated Feature Film were announced and "The LEGO Movie" was not mentioned, I was initially puzzled but figured that it would show up within the Best Picture category. When it still refused to appear in any further nominations, my mouth dropped completely open in disbelief. Now certainly, anything that helps the excellent "How To Train Your Dragon 2" in possibly receiving the Best Animated Film award is fine with me but even so, this omission was the jaw dropper.

And please, DO NOT get me started on the Best Film Score category. How it is possible that Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Composer Mica Levi, and Composer/Drummer Antonio Sanchez, the creators of the musical soundscapes to "Gone Girl," 'Under The Skin" and "Birdman," respectively, and the three most innovative scores of the year hands down, were omitted?!?!? Your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast is frothing at the mouth right now!!!!

But let's keep moving along....

Where was Amy Adams for "Big Eyes"? Nowhere to be found. Where was Scarlett Johansson for her career best performance in the supremely haunting "Under The Skin"? What about David Oyelowo for his highly celebrated work as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma"? And frankly, why was "Selma" as a whole nearly entirely snubbed, especially considering the heaps of praise that film has received? Where was Ralph Finnes for his top of the line performance in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"? Or even Jake Gyllenhaal's celebrated disturbing work in "Nightcrawler"? While I was so happy to be Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were both nominated for their work in "Boyhood" but what of the boy himself? Why was Ellar Coltrane, the film's STAR, not nominated, for without him, there is no "Boyhood"?!  And really, it just broke my heart that Director Steve James' "Life Itself," celebrating and commemorating the life, writings, love and death of Roger Ebert, was snubbed entirely as well as it sadly did not make an appearance in the Best Documentary Feature Film category. Honestly, what was Oscar thinking?

And look, does Meryl Streep own stock in the Academy Awards or something? I don't care what anybody says but they HAVE GOT TO STOP nominating Meryl Streep just for showing up on a film set at the expense of other actresses who have performed top flight work within the year. Yes,strong roles for women are indeed lacking, and to apathetic degree, but truthfully not so much that Meryl Streep has to be a default nominee every single year.

Now, all of this being said, and for all of the highs and lows within the nominations themselves, we are off to the races again and I do have a little catching up to do. Out of the eight Best Picture nominees, I have seen five of them and I am hoping to catch the final three over the next few weeks. Wish me luck and let's get ready for the show!

Monday, January 12, 2015

ENDLESS BUMMER: a review of "Inherent Vice"

Based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon
Written for the screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

PTA, for the very first time, I think you kinda lost me. Or maybe, you didn't. I'm really just not sure at all...

Dear readers, if you have been faithful visitors to this site, then you are all fully aware of my complete allegiance to the filmography of Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson, an artist I feel is one of the finest American filmmakers we have working today. For nearly 20 years, Anderson (or more affectionately know as "PTA") has crafted an increasingly idiosyncratic cinematic filmography of unusually high quality. For my own personal tastes, his epics "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999) represents two of the finest films of the 1990's while his searing and ahead of the curve "There Will Be Blood" (2007) represented one of the finest films released in the decade between 2000-2009.

For a filmmaker who possessed a certain Scorsese-ian or Altman-esque quality to his rich cinematic canvases, in recent years, beginning with "There Will Be Blood" and continuing with "The Master" (2012), Anderson has seemingly adopted a tone that is decidedly more akin to Stanley Kubrick, a colder, more hands off approach that feels no less intense but one that is more emotionally removed and therefore, increasingly impenetrable to decode. "Inherent Vice," Anderson's seventh film as well as his adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel, is his most inscrutable escapade to date.

"Inherent Vice" is  a 2 1/2 hour plus comedy/drama/detective film that is so fueled and filtered through a dense haze of nicotine and marijuana that you would easily receive a contact high from the screen. That said, the film is so remote that I am truly unsure as to what Anderson was trying to say about this material, these characters and the landscape that he has visually rendered. Certainly, I deeply appreciate any filmmaker who is determined to not attempt to tell me what to think about their material and Anderson is unrepentantly a filmmaker who refuses to spoon feed his audience and defiantly treats film-goers as intelligent beings worthy of an adult yarn. Even so, and while I may have my ideas, "Inherent Vice" ultimately becomes a frustratingly meandering tale that truly tested my patience regardless of how much there was on screen to greatly admire.

Joaquin Phoenix, in his second collaboration with Anderson, stars as Los Angeles Private Investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello, an aging hippie and perpetual pothead who is greeted at the opening of the film (as if through a drug fueled hallucination) by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey Hepworth (a terrific Katherine Waterston). Shasta informs Doc of her fears that there is a covert plot underway to institutionalize her new boyfriend, wealthy real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), by Wolfmann's wife and her lover.

Doc agrees to investigate, which then sends him on an odyssey that forces him to not only constantly run afoul of his nemesis, Police Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) but also propels him to obscure beachfront brothels, a gang of neo-Nazis, a drug smuggling syndicate known as The Golden Fang, the offices of a cocaine snorting dentist (played by Martin Short), the inner sanctum of a cult run insane asylum, as well as a concurrent yet connective missing person case featuring the whereabouts of saxophone layer/police informant Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson).

As complicated as that plot description may already sound to you, this truthfully only scratches the surface of the world contained within "Inherent Vice," and I am not entirely certain if the layers upon layers of material, situations, motivations and characters (plus all of that pot) was necessarily a good thing. As with every single one of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, "Inherent Vice" is a brilliantly acted ensemble piece by the entire cast as well as an experience that is a beautifully visualized presentation, which again finds Anderson collaborating masterfully with the veteran Cinematographer Robert Elswit. And I must give special credit to Radiohead guitarist/songwriter Johnny Greenwood, who on his third collaboration with Anderson, also again proves himself to being one of the cinema's most exciting, haunting and unorthodox composers.

Regardless of the glistening aesthetics of the film, I do have to get into the heart of the matter. Now, I have not read the novel from which this film is based so I cannot attest to how faithful or loose of an adaptation this film happens to be. Even so, I felt that Paul Thomas Anderson richly captured a certain dusty, funky vibe of Southern California 40 plus years ago that works as a conceptual bookend to his "Boogie Nights," which took place at the end of the 1970's and the beginnings of the 1980's. In many ways, "Inherent Vice" felt to be a film that is navigating a certain death of the 1960's, or at least any notions of mythologized "peace and love" era, as the haze of that psychedelic period has given way to the eye opening grim realities of societal, financial, and sexual corruption, the increase of heroin, as well as the mounting conservative climate's decimation of the counter culture itself (especially evident in some of the actions of the clearly closeted homosexuality of Detective Bigfoot).

If this film were a song, it could have been entitled "This Is The Sunset Of The Age Of Aquarius" as the copious amounts of drugs on display within the film are not used for any sense of mind and spiritual transcendence, or even as a source of societal rebellion but as more of emotional pain killer and even as a retreat from reality itself, an aspect of "Inherent Vice" reminded me very much of Director Terry Gilliam's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" (1998).

Within the character of Doc, who is indeed nursing some deep emotional wounds from his broken romance with Shasta Fey Hepworth, we are also indeed tethered to a most unreliable narrator, who despite his honorable intentions as a P.I., is quite possibly too far gone for us to even take the fullness of his pursuits at face value. The further the film unspools, we are treated to moments and sequences that very may well exist solely within Doc's drug addled mind as Paul Thomas Anderson does weave a certain mounting drug fueled paranoia over the course of the film. No, "Inherent Vice" does not dabble in wild fantasy sequences at all and there are no drug freak outs but that pot haze certainly grows thicker as the narrative becomes more labyrinthine, and for that matter, impossible to fully penetrate (but bit more on that later).

"Inherent Vice" also treats us to the melodic and laconic spaced-out narration by a female figure known as Sortilege (winningly portrayed by musician Joanna Newsom), who essentially functions as Doc's inner voice and closest confidant. While she is seen throughout the film, she interacts with no one else but Doc, which suggests that even she is a hallucinogenic invention, thus making her the film's most unreliable narrator by a mile. To a certain extent, this element works very effectively within the topsy-turvy world of "Inherent Vice" where almost nothing is real, or reality itself feels so increasingly unreal. But even so, I did wish that Paul Thomas Anderson had added a bit more method to his madness to give the proceedings a greater context, weight, or even purpose.

As I have previously stated, the narrative of "Inherent Vice" builds in complexity over the course of the film to a near dizzying degree. I have to say that perhaps for the film's first hour, I was completely with the film and its bong-water rhythms. However and unfortunately, the complexity of the story becomes so muddled and confusing that after quite some time trying to remain attached to it, I ultimately gave up trying to follow all of the twists, turns and intricacies. In Anderson's defense, and in keeping with the grander themes of unreliable narrators, and the succumbing to a drug fueled fantasy world to escape the rise of the heartless excess of the 1970's, I wonder if we are even supposed to be able to keep up with the narrative in the first place. But then...if the story is not designed for us to keep pace with, then what is the point overall?

Additionally, and in regards to Paul Thomas Anderson's filmmaking skills, I have to say that I deeply missed the more visceral nature of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," where the sheer intensity of those films was so powerfully unnerving to the point of near exhaustion. While Anderson's films have evolved to a more crystalline palate and with more deliberate pacing, "Inherent Vice" stumbles quite a bit due to its leisurely pace with does become quite the slog. Now again in Anderson's defense, perhaps the cocaine fury of "Boogie Nights" would not be an appropriate tone for the pot drenched fogginess of "Inherent Vice" but even so, it did make for the most uncomfortable amount of seat sifting that I have experienced in any film that he has made to date. Characters would drift in and out of the film, exhuming one monologue after another and nothing ever really seemed to fasten itself together into a larger fabric. I could feel that the film was trying to build to something and believe me, I really have no idea of what the end result was supposed to be. The film's final sequences, which feature Doc and Shasta, covey a palpable sense of loss but of what exactly? It is lost youth? A lost era? The loss of Southern California to more corporate interests? Innocence itself? All of it or none of it or something completely different? It was all so puzzling and not to an intriguing degree and by that time, I found myself not caring terribly much about all that had transpired.

Dear readers, I do not wish for my criticisms to dissuade you from seeing "Inherent Vice" as any film from Paul Thomas Anderson is indeed an event that demands to be seen and experienced on the big screen. I will even concede to the possibility that PTA has crafted a film that just cannot be gathered in one sitting and it is one that needs time to fully develop within the mind. It is a film that I would gladly revisit in the future especially as Joaquin Phoenix's performance is as full and transformative as what he elicited in "The Master" and PTA has unquestionably carved out another fully complete cinematic universe that also works as the next chapter on his continuing cinematic novel.

I actually do wish for you to venture out and see "Inherent Vice." Because maybe then, you could explain it to me.

Friday, January 2, 2015


Story by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg & Dan Sterling
Screenplay Written by Dan Sterling
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Well played, Seth and James. Well played.

Let's just get it all out in the open, shall we. I thought this whole thing was a massive PR stunt. Of course, I will never know if it is true but that is just my gut feeling. By now, we all know about the pre-Christmas Day release controversy surrounding "The Interview," the second directorial effort from the comedic creative team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This controversy, which resulted in the supposed hacking of the Sony corporation by North Korea, which was then followed by threats of violence to movie theaters, which then prompted theater owners to back out of showing the film on opening day, which then forced Sony to pull its own release date plug, which then forced a public outcry (that even included President Obama) decrying Sony's move based on perceived injustices to the 1st Amendment which then forced Sony to (of course!) decide to release the film anyway, albeit through the more unconventional methods of streaming services and Video On Demand plus some independent theaters around the country, just felt to be so increasingly preposterous the longer it played out.

I have to tell you, by the time the President weighed in, I truly wondered to myself if Seth Rogen and James Franco were having a laugh on the entire country and once the film was released anyway, it all seemed to fall into place in my mind. Honestly, a comedy abut two media clowns attempting to assassinate Kim Jong-un was outrageous enough but to me, the sight of real world Americans all demanding their rights for free speech based upon a movie that had already received some negative pre-release reviews, that general audiences would most likely not even see thus creating a potential box office bomb was just beyond outlandish, and potentially even funnier than the actual film itself.

Just think. To take a film that most people may not have ever seen and to transform it into the very thing that everybody wants to see, or is at least curious about, is undeniably genius and I do applaud whomever arrived with this scheme. I'm telling you, those people do deserve a massive raise as the film has quickly, and inevitably, become a hit. Even so, I was beginning to feel a bit irked at possibly of being jerked around by all of this nonsense because if the film cannot stand on its own, then it just can't regardless of whatever hype is created around it. But, in order to truly weigh in, I have to see what the fuss is all about and I am not here to review a controversy. I am here to review only what is on the screen. And with that I have to happily express to you that "The Interview" is the most audacious comedy of 2014 by a mile. I laughed out loud often and HARD and I deeply appreciate the sheer comedic fearlessness plus filmmaking bravado that Rogen and Goldberg have displayed with their second directorial effort.

"The Interview" stars James Franco as Dave Skylark, the unabashedly vacuous host of the entertainment gossip talk show "Skylark Tonight" and Seth Rogen co-stars as Skylark's producer, Aaron Rapoport, a journalist with a long held desire to produce authentic journalism. After the 1000th broadcast of their television show, and discovering that "Skylark Tonight" is one of Kim Jogn-un's favorite television programs, Dave arrives at the idea of interviewing the North Korean leader as a way of creating a television interview coup for himself and increased journalistic respect for Aaron in the process.

An initially skeptical Aaron then sets up the proposed interview, which is surprisingly accepted by North Korea and fully arranged by North Korean official Sook (Diana Bang). Soon afterwards, Dave and Aaron are visited by CIA agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who instructs them to take this interview opportunity to covertly assassinate Kim Jong-un (played riotously by Randall Park), thus facilitating a coup d'etat. Dave and Aaron reluctantly agree to the task.

If you took some elements of Director Barry Levinson's classic political satire "Wag The Dog" (1997), Director Ben Affleck's "Argo" (2012), certainly "Mission: Impossible," those Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road movies, blended them all and released the results through a bong, then you would have an idea of what "The Interview" is like. Let me first say that based upon how much I loved the fearless audaciousness of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's previous film, the apocalyptic satire "This Is The End" (2013), I should have stuck to my original feelings with regards to seeing "The Interview" in the first place and not allowed the initial negative reviews to sway my enthusiasm, which was indeed quite healthy. First and foremost, Rogen and Goldberg did not disappoint in the least for me as "The Interview" is so defiantly shameless, insubordinate and irreverent. It is also undeniably fearless as its "take no prisoners" approach makes for the very kind of dangerous comedy that is of exceedingly short supply these days.

As with "This Is The End," Seth Rogen essentially plays the straight man and wisely so, as he plays to his strengths as an actor by allowing everyone else around him to take center stage within the madness. That is not to say that Rogen doesn't save any gems for himself, which includes a night time showdown with a tiger, a "Lord Of The Rings" inspired fight sequence late in the film (you just have to see it) and the already much discussed covert smuggling of a poisonous weapon.

James Franco is just a madman as he is clearly relishing the opportunity to be this unhinged on-screen. He takes the concept of stupidity to new heights (or depths) and all the while, his no-holds-barred performance will indeed test your personal boundaries as his relentless energy with either elate or exhaust you. For me, it was a bit of both and happily so.

Randall Park is truly the film's wildest of wild cards as his interpretation of Kim Jogn-un for much of the film is surprisingly sympathetic as his version of the North Korean leader forges a bro-mance with Dave Skylark, a friendship based in basketball, shared rides in Jogn-un's private tank and a secret love of Katy Perry's "Fireworks." Even so, Park, with Rogen and Goldberg's conceptual guidance, does not undercut the reality of Kim Jong-un's dictatorship, but somehow they have made this figure quite the comic character who does nearly steal the film from our two stars.

Yes, the film is unrepentantly vulgar with hefty doses of scatological humor, endless profanities, nasty screwball hijinks and adolescent blasts of "Monty Python-esque" graphic violence from beginning to end. All of the qualities are precisely what you would expect and are all hallmarks of Rogen and Goldberg's previous film excursions. But, what was very impressive to me is that this duo has helmed yet another exceptionally well filmed, constructed and executed manic comedy that merges all manner of social satire and cultural comedy into the wildest political carton since Actor/Writer/Producer John Cusack's passion project, the brilliantly rapacious and extremely underseen "War, Inc." (2008), as directed by Joshua Seftel. However, unlike that film, Rogen and Goldberg have somehow crafted an experience that is indeed less rancorous and therefore, more accessible than Cusack's more rage filled strand of satire. But hold on then...perhaps, by making a film that is indeed more accessible by being more overtly ridiculous, maybe Rogen and Goldberg have made a film that is more subversive than I am giving it credit for.

For a film that is indeed this brazenly stupid, it is also extremely savvy in what it wishes to be stupid about. First of all, our two heroes are complete idiots, definitely one more than the other, but idiots without question. But to just have two leading characters getting themselves unwittingly involved in one crazy moment after another is definitely not enough for a movie, a trap Rogen and Goldberg very smartly avoid.

Yes, North Korea is comedically laid to waste in "The Interview" but truth be told, I would say that the joke of the film is mostly and decidedly upon the United States. In addition to existing as a post-mortem of our now non-existent state of journalism, the increased idiocy of our entertainment and our allegiance to upholding all manner of cultural stupidity in the process, Rogen and Goldberg are also suggesting that our societal sense of increased megalomania is entirely contributing to our sense of intellectual decay, which even includes aspects of our military, which in the world of this film is fully responsible for enacting a plan as preposterous as this one, and with the utmost seriousness, in the first place.

Beyond that, the satire plunges even deeper as Rogen and Goldberg deftly place their sights directly at us in the audience as "The Interview" also works as an exploration of media manipulation of the masses and just how we, as viewers and consumers, are so easily led and swayed with truly the most insignificant amounts of information at our disposal. And honestly, the satire has indeed worked extremely well as it truly played out for real with the pre-release controversy. Again, just think about what has happened. A film that most mainstream audiences probably would not even have seen or cared about is suddenly transformed into the symbol of American freedom and the right to free speech?! That is just insanity, as so much of the American public is either uninformed or uncaring about how our 1st Amendment rights are actually being eroded year after year. But that is indeed life in the 21st century and now, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and James Franco can heartedly laugh themselves all the way to the bank. More power to them and again I say, well played!

And to that end, with "The Interview," Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are equal opportunity offenders as everything on their conceptual radar receives its own amount of excessive lampooning. Look, dear readers. What really counts is the following: no matter how much analysis that I can give to the film is meaningless if it just wasn't funny. For me, "The Interview" was VERY funny, as Rogen and Goldberg certainly did not play anything safe or hedge their bets. They realized their concept as completely as possible, with confidence, urgency and without ever looking behind them even once.

Whether smart or stupid, the comedy itself proved to be the victor.