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.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (B+) is an absorbing true crime drama featuring spot-on performances by Steve Carell as a paranoid multimillionaire obsessed with being an Olympic sports coach and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as gold medalist wrestlers grappling with the limits of loyalty to their wealthy patron. A commentary on how power, wealth and influence can be used to advance twisted values, one can’t help but think of Michael Jackson or Joe Paterno scandals as Carell’s John du Pont manipulates the world around him to support his megalomaniacal desires. Miller creates an austere and often bleak portrait with nary a false note and an underlying tone that traps viewers into an off-kilter lust for power without boundaries. Carell creates a fully unsympathetic portrait, and Tatum and Ruffalo physically and emotionally inhabit their roles with deft skill. Bennett builds on the autumnal tragedy he brought to Capote and the slackjawed sensationalism of sports drama Moneyball to create another modern-American stunner.
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.
As a director, Clint Eastwood is generally occupied with contemplative exploration of emotion and nuance, often told in a jazzy lower key (think Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby or Flags of Our Fathers), which makes him an odd choice to helm the adaptation of the long-running Broadway crowd pleaser Jersey Boys. But in peeling back the bombastic stand-up-and-dance qualities that made the live musical so popular and mining the biopic for its nerve center, he has fashioned an effective cinematic adaptation (B+) that explores the ups and downs of music making, the bounds of loyalty and the exuberance of a splendid time and place. The popular music is still there and serves the story, but Eastwood trusts an almost reverse “inside voice” instinct in spotlighting the Rashomon-like account of how the individual members of The Four Seasons rose from shady petty crime origins to chart toppers. John Lloyd Young is effective as Frankie Valli, the heart of the piece. His character battles demons and heartbreak that give growing gravitas to his distinctive angel voice. Vincent Piazza is also strong as the tough guy with mob roots who takes the band to the brink. The period detail and art direction in a near-sepia that emphasizes tones of silver, is gorgeous in its retro muted effect, like you’re waltzing into a Whurlitzer. The melodrama is sometimes laid on thick, as is the old-age makeup (Clint, did you learn nothing from J. Edgar?). And the narrative wraps up a little too tidy with what feels like a closing credits music video tacked on with a completely different and more buoyant mood than the preceding film. Still, it’s recommended for folks who enjoy how art is put together, how relationships withstand adversity and how songs become a sensation. Much more a film with incidental music than a “Capital-M Musical!,” it’s nonetheless absorbing and awakens unexpected senses.
Gus Van Sant’s Milk (A) is a stirring biopic, faithfully recreating a San Francisco of the 1970’s and, as embodied by Sean Penn, giving a star turn of an American hero in Harvey Milk. The film blends personal and political triumphs, with a touching performance by James Franco as Milk’s love interest. The sometimes avant garde Van Sant minimizes his grittier aesthetic for a wide canvas Hollywood epic, and the result is a soaring triumph.
Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (A+) challenges viewers to re-think views on free speech as its antihero protagonist played by Woody Harrelson is a notorious peddler of pornography. His stripped bride played by Courtney Love helps him mount an unexpected defense in an unorthodox look at the limits of decency and how people in America can express themselves. Harrelson and Love are magnificent in their roles. Forman makes films very infrequently, but when he does, he generally contributes mightily to America’s film canon.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon (B) is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of one of America’s most controversial presidents. Stone uses some of his trademark visual bombast, but it’s his rare moments of tenderness that humanize the president and Anthony Hopkins’ touching performance that lift the film above revisionist history.
Moviemaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. could have been the next Orson Welles. Both men hit their stride at an early age and possessed unswerving obsession for the films they created. There’s just one thing Ed Wood lacked: talent. Wood, infamous for dreck such as Plan 9 From Outer Space is biographically redeemed in director Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (B+). As portrayed by Johnny Depp, the title character plays out his passions and peccadilloes against a quaint black and white stock ensemble dramedy. Martin Landau is genius as legendary film star Bela Lugosi, who adds heft to the proceedings. The movie magic of rubber squids, aluminum foil robots and zombie body doubles creates a pleasant phantasmagoria that’s right at home in Burton’s oeuvre.
Director Brian Gibson’s biopic about Tina and Ike Turner, What’s Love Got To Do With It (B+) is a well-choreographed musical drama, vividly realized with color and energy. While the intense focus on Ike’s abuse of Tina overshadow the more joyful moments of her life and career and weigh the film down, Angela Bassett’s performance as the sassy singer transforms the formula TV plot into a winning film. Laurence Fishburne is powerful and menacing in a rather thankless role. It’s definitely a story worth telling and ultimately a triumphant tale.
Director John Glen, who has made a career out of taking the final gasps of life out of creaky James Bond film entries in the late ’80’s, originally cast Timothy Dalton but found an even more bland leading man named George Correface to play the title character of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (D+). Like the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, this vessel is undeniably wooden. Even Marlon Brando can’t muster a glimmer of interest as a high inquisitor. This “Columbus for Beginners” wouldn’t even make a good mini-series if you split it up into episodes. This won’t be playing soon in a classroom near you.