No one showcases moral ambiguity better than Clint Eastwood, so it’s no surprise that his military biopic American Sniper (A-) depicts sharp-shooter Chris Kyle in all his heroic glory punctuated with pangs of crisis of conscience. Told in four Iraq tours of duty with domestic dissonance in between, the film is most effective at spotlighting its protagonist’s laser-focused attention to his craft. Bradley Cooper is superb with a Texas drawl and a single-mindedness of purpose, and Sienna Miller makes the most of the role of his wife. The film hardly traverses much new terrain but does so with style and substance. After some sleepier outings, Eastwood crafts a propulsive, absorbing drama that takes viewers into the heart of military heroism.
Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (A+) does everything a great movie should: intrigue, involve and inspire. The real-life dramatic and suspenseful story of recalcitrant British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch, offers a veritable sudoku of surprises and a surprising testimony to unexpected heroism. The smart screenplay is matched by sterling performances across the board, especially by Keira Knightley as a problem solving trailblazer who becomes emotionally involved with the prickly protagonist. Tyldum successfully interlaces several timeframes and historical insights into the spy games and builds to various levels of resonance both personal and profound. It’s a prestige picture in every sense of the word, plumbing the implications of both artificial and emotional intelligence, and it’s highly recommended.
It’s been a long journey to the movie screen for the Martin Luther King Jr. story, but writer/director Ava DuVernay’s Selma (B+) is a stunning and sometimes surprising biopic that taps into the zeitgeist of the continuing civil rights struggle. As amazing as he is in reenacting famous oratory, David Oyelowo is even more compelling in the quiet and more contemplative moments as his MLK wrestles with mortality and the consequences of his personal choices on his mass movement. Additionally, Carmen Ejogo gives a sturdy performance in a small role as Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson is effective as a duplicitous LBJ. DuVernay makes some fascinating choices in terms of timeline and sequence, including straightforward typed government descriptors of MLK’s whereabouts and activities from FBI operatives. The film also ends at an expected place. Overall triumph eclipses tragedy in some key moments, which may gloss over the state of the struggle a bit. But the smart dialogue, period detail and forward momentum to the narrative help the film to tell its story of a critical juncture in a specific place and time.
I suppose Mr. Holland would never forge his opus or dead poets their society without a little creative inspiration. Writer/director Damien Cazelle’s Whiplash (B+) supposes that great art comes from a relentless push from both oneself and some other outside force. The film starts with an aggressive, percussive beat in a lonely hall and ends with nearly the same in a concert hall, but the film’s young jazz drummer protagonist, brilliantly played by Miles Teller, is not the same man from beat to beat. Under the tutelage of a maniacal perfectionist with the draconian stylings of an unhinged drill sergeant – the performance of a lifetime by J.K. Simmons – Teller’s promising artist learns to hone his craft through a ridiculously escalating series of Herculean obstacles. Cazelle and his powerhouse lead actors never let up in this powder-keg of obsession, filled with unexpected grace notes. The authenticity of the film’s merciless NYC music school and the close-ups of blood, sweat and tears required to make great jazz add to the film’s somber and occasionally off-kilter tone. While there are character details that get somewhat short shrift, the movie is largely an absorbing riff and an often riveting tight-wire act. Mostly, it’s a stunning showcase for fine acting.
James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (A-) is the unconventional true love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, portrayed indelibly by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones and based on Jane’s memoirs. While bound by the confines of the biopic structure, the film illuminates grand themes of unconditional love, the limits of sacrifice and one’s place in the universe. As Professor Hawking, Redmayne is charming and beguiling and showcases the effects of a neurological degenerative disorder with spectacular realism; he is never an object of sympathy as he continually confounds the odds. Jones has a demanding role of her own right as lover and caretaker, trying to bring order to a life spiraling out of control, and she embodies the role with fierce fortitude. Charlie Cox is also a standout as a family friend with his own designs on the couple’s brief history of time. Marsh photographs the film lushly and embues the characters with realism and humanity. Although the story doesn’t fully plumb the depths of the scientific side of Hawking’s career, it shares a far more unexpected and cinematic slice of his life.
First things first, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tragicomic backstage character drama Birdman (B) is often brilliantly bonkers, and Michael Keaton gives a command performance at the film’s core as a fading Hollywood film star trying to reinvent himself on Broadway while suffering an all-out mental breakdown. With long tracking shots through claustrophobic corridors, a percussive jazz score rat-tat-tatting through the spiraling series of devolving events and tidbits of comic book flourish and fantasy that would be at home in a Terry Gilliam film, this dark delving into the damaged psyche of a thespian on the brink of obscurity pounds its themes with a bit too much prescience. The film comes most alive in its moments of inspired mania that spring from real-life conflicts such as dealing with harsh critics and handling acting egos with kid gloves. Quite frankly, supporting performances by Ed Norton as an obnoxious actor in the on-stage drama and Emma Stone as Keaton’s real-life daughter steal the show a bit with audacious turns of their own. Stone gets a great soliloquy encapsulating the essence of modern-day relevance. The film is a brittle amalgam of too many themes boiling in one big pot; but its insider’s take on exorcising one’s demons, conquering the temptations of fame and reconciling the notions of love and admiration is likely to appeal to artists’ temperaments more than the mainstream. It’s a treat to see Keaton get to sink his teeth into such a flight-of-fancy performance, and both West Coast and East Coast entertainment industries get their share of skewering in this uneven but often shrewd satire.
Writer/director Richard Linklater has created the movie miracle of the year with Boyhood (A+), a powerfully stirring journey that rivals its extremely original high concept. This first-ever fiction experiment with newcomer actor Ellar Coltrane actually aging more than a decade in the role from childhood to high school graduation is matched by the emotional wallop and moving issues revealed in the human adventure. Surprisingly free of smugness or gimmickry, the auteur also plucks outstanding wounded performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the protagonist’s divorced parents. This basically redefines the coming of age movie; and in dinner table and campfire chats, it reveals glimpses of the meaning of life. Linklater’s penchant for smart dialogue and characters works alternately as a love letter to Texas and to rock and roll, as a veritable mix tape turned playlist unspools from shortly after 9/11 to present day. Boy, did they find a charmer in Coltrane who exudes not a single false note as he grows up right in front of our eyes. He’s a stand-in for what has become one of the preeminent voices in cinema, reflecting advice he receives from a community of dazed and occasionally confused elders who don’t really know their way either and looking for a way to express his singular art that puts an imprint on the world. The production values are uniformly superb, and parents in the viewing audience who can withstand some of the film’s salty language will be enriched and left with eyes full of glorious tears. Passionate and purposeful, this film joins another favorite of mine, Memento, in the category of films that should not work but do. It’s a tribute to masterful editing. Like all great movies, you’ll have a hard time not seeing a little of yourself in this one.
An all-star polka-palooza of exquisite Euro-production design, droll dialogue and screwball pacing, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (B) is a glorified episodic buddy comedy with Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori bringing considerable wit and charm to their central duo of hotelier protagonists. There are roomfuls of incidental storylines from murders to jailbreaks (all meticulously crafted), star cameos (many that go nowhere) and plot points that aren’t all that revelatory. I wasn’t too sure of any theme except for the oft-repeated notion of the plot thickening. But chances are, if you’re an Anderson fan, this will be your cup of Darjeeling tea. Cozy up — your screening room is ready.