Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kurosawa's Birthday 2015

Akira Kurosawa would be 105 today.

Tony Zhou has put together a superb video on Kurosawa called "Composing Movement." (Zhou has a Tumblr blog, Every Frame a Painting, and a YouTube channel of video essays.)

Kurosawa buffs will find much of this material familiar, but it's well-organized and features some excellent clips (no surprise):

Meanwhile, here's a list of Kurosawa's 100 favorite films.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day 2015

I've featured this song before, but here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

2014 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. Scroll down for the rest.)

2014 featured some excellent blockbusters, both serious and fun, but the prestige films were a much thinner crop than 2013. The line I found myself thinking over and over was I wanted to like it more than I did. That said, some 2014 films are well worth seeing.

I liked Neil Patrick Harris as an Oscar host overall. My favorite host probably remains Steve Martin, and like Martin, Harris is a triple threat, capable of acting, singing and dancing. Harris has enough raw charisma that he was able to deliver a marginal joke and then just stare down the camera, daring the audience to turn on him. His opening number, with assists by Anna Kendrick and Jack Black, was fantastic, and the projection effects looked pretty cool. I could have done without his "treason" comment about Edward Snowden, because the documentary about Snowden, Citizen Four, had just won the Oscar – why steal its thunder? Why not let people see it and decide for themselves about Snowden? It was editorializing, and with very establishment views that seemed like pandering. Still, Harris was an able host for the most part and kept things interesting.

As for the awards winners, they were mostly worthy recipients. Birdman is probably the most avant-garde film ever to win Best Picture, and that's a minor coup. Alejandro González Iñárritu was a worthy choice for director given both the quality of the performances and the technical complexity of the shoot. Likewise, Emmanuel Lubezki was a lock for another cinematography Oscar for making Birdman's sinuous, difficult shots look easy. (I wasn't offended by Sean Penn's "green card" joke about González given their friendship; Penn knew González would laugh. However, I thought it was it was dumb and self-indulgent, because Penn's audience was millions of people, not just one person.)

I was happy to see The Grand Budapest Hotel win for Production Design and Costuming, but most of all for Alexandre Desplat's whimsical, wonderful score. The Theory of Everything's score is a lovely, lyrical piece by Jóhann Jóhannsson, but also more traditional. The playfulness of Desplat's score – down to its fake folk music – really sells the tone of the film, and it's the sort of work that often doesn't get recognized. (Traditionally, comedies don't get much respect.) Sticking with music, the performance of Selma's tune "Glory," which won Best Original Song, was probably the highlight of the evening. John Legend and Common made some on-target remarks about current voter suppression efforts, a trend made all the galling given the subject of Selma. I'm not a Lady Gaga fan, but she's got a good voice and did a nice job singing a medley from The Sound of Music.

As for the acting awards – I haven't seen Still Alice with Best Actress winner Julianne Moore, nor Whiplash with Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons, but I admire their other work, so I was glad to see them win. Moore has been exceptional for years (I've liked her since 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street), but many of her previous nominations came for so-so films. Meanwhile, Simmons has been a workhorse with impressive range, delivering both terrifying and hilarious performances (consider Oz, Juno and his work in the Spider-Man films, for starters). I'm not a huge fan of Patricia Arquette (I haven't been able to shake the memory of her painful performance in Stigmata), but she did a pretty good job in Boyhood, and it wasn't an overwhelming year in the category. (Plus, Arquette's pro-mother, pro-woman acceptance speech was rousing.) I'd have given Michael Keaton Best Actor for his offbeat, vulnerable performance in Birdman over Eddie Redmayne's work in The Theory of Everything – playing disabled isn't as hard as the voters seem to think (and a certain Tropic Thunder clip comes to mind). Still, Redmayne's genuinely good in the film. The observation that the nominations were the whitest they've been in years was accurate. That said, I thought David Oyelowo gave a solid performance in Selma but not one of the top five by an actor, for instance. (However, I haven't seen Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up yet and likely missed some other contenders for the four awards.)

I was disappointed but not surprised that The Imitation Game won for Best Adapted Screenplay, considering the other awards it's received. Given how interesting its subject matter is, it was frustrating to see how formulaic and calculated the script seemed (the cast sells it, though). As with sections of Selma, The Imitation Game chose to invent scenes that were louder and more conventionally "dramatic" than real life, but also more clichéd, less subtle and less interesting. (Your mileage may vary, of course. Also, Imitation Game writer Graham Moore did give a great acceptance speech about life's injustices and 'staying weird and different.') Birdman was a decent pick for Best Original Screenplay, but I'd have given it to Dan Gilroy's dark and dazzling script for Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler, Edge of Tomorrow and Gone Girl were the most snubbed films among those I saw. I wouldn't have given Interstellar's muddled sound mix a nomination for Best Sound Mixing, but at least it didn't win. Its win for Best Visual Effects was more defensible, in that it was a less conventional and more subtle job than many, especially an artful dimension-bending sequence. (I've heard that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes's chimp face and fur work is very impressive, but I haven't seen it yet.) The most fun sequence of the year, visual effects or otherwise, though, was the Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

It seems the Oscars have finally adopted (for two years now) the "designated speaker" model for multiple award winners, made better because (more often than before) the lead speaker speaks briefly, shuts up and doesn't filibuster his or her fellow winners (who can at least give a shout-out to their families). I'm glad, because it always killed me to see some techie or other non-famous person denied their one shining moment (typically after years of toiling).

None of the presenters were particularly memorable – at least not in a good way. John Travolta appeared in a segment with Idina Menzel that poked fun of him butchering her name the previous year, but he grabbed her face too fervently and too long, and just came off as creepy (even if it was rehearsed).

I wish the Montage of Death would go back to the model of singing during the montage, which was used several years back with Queen Latifah. It's an unnecessary time waste to sing afterward, especially since it's easy to cut occasionally to the singer. My theory is that Babra Streisand's ego wouldn't allow for that the year she sang, and unfortunately, that format has stuck.

As for 2014 films, they featured a neat oddity: In two Marvel films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), the music of Marvin Gaye not only improved the soundtrack but played a minor plot point. This is a wise trend.

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. For the second year, I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). Meanwhile, I've added the usual interview links (mostly audio). The reviews are split into The Top Six, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2014 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): "I'm not an actor – I'm a movie star!" goes the classic line from My Favorite Year, and Birdman essentially delves into one man's attempt to prove the opposite. Birdman winds up being part character study, part backstage drama, and part meta-commentary on the creative process, with all its attendant insecurities, ego trips, inspiration and insanity.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging, fading movie star best known for playing the title character in the popular superhero franchise "Birdman," wants to prove he's a serious actor, so he bankrolls a theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." We're in Riggan's head from the start, and he's an unreliable narrator, so it's not entirely clear whether some of the weirder moments (telekinesis, levitation, the voice of Birdman) are fantasy or reality. The entire film, built of long, sinuous takes, is made to look as if it's been done in a single shot, and while it's impressive craftsmanship, it's more than a gimmick – it also helps build a sense of single-minded obsession and claustrophobia revolving around Riggan, even when he's not on screen. His daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), is a recovering addict and thinks the play is a desperate and foolish vanity project. His relationship with her is strained; he wasn't the best father to her, nor a great husband to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Three other actors appear in the play with Riggan, and Riggan thinks one of them doesn't get his concept; one of his other costars, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests bringing in her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement. At first Riggan is thrilled by Mike – he's a fine actor, quick study and critics' darling – but he's also a hardcore method actor and increasingly, a pain in the ass. Mike starts to challenge Riggan and upstage him. On top of this, Riggan's friend and manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), warns Riggan that he could go broke if the play is a flop, things aren't great between Riggan and his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and the most influential critic in town, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), threatens to give him a scathing review. An involuntary trip through Times Square captures an actor's worst fears, just as a cocky walk down the block exemplifies performer braggadocio.

Keaton's two films as Batman are obvious meta-references, but this is also the best work of his career – he's got quirky intensity down pat, but also brings a vulnerability, desperation and selective self-insight to Riggan that make him a compelling character. Emma Stone is good as always as Samantha, with her finest moment a blistering speech to her father that she almost immediately regrets – but only partially. Norton's performance is hilarious and self-mocking (he has a reputation for being difficult to work with), a perfect sendup of the serious "method" actor. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Amy Ryan as Sylvia especially impressive given her scant screen time – she's trying to be supportive of Riggan and wants to help him improve his relationship with their daughter, but it's only a matter of time until she's reminded of why they divorced.

I'm not entirely settled on some key ambiguities in Birdman, but director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu doubtless wants it that way (I'll have to see it again). Some viewers might dislike that uncertainty and what's arguably a magic realism aesthetic. (As noted in the year in review roundup, this is probably the most avant-garde movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and that's a minor coup.) I thoroughly enjoyed this film, with only a few quibbles (that subsequent viewings might change). I didn't like two moments involving the critic, Dickinson (her certainty before the performance, and her immediate yet expressionless reaction during it). I also wasn't thrilled about the climatic action, because it's easy to see coming – but González at least makes the aftermath less predictable (and then some). I'm not entirely sold on the film's subtitle, either, but I suspect it's intentionally and self-mockingly pretentious, and perhaps also indirectly references cartoon physics and the film's finale.

(Here's Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki on The Treatment, González on The Business, and Michael Keaton on The Treatment.)

Boyhood: Writer-director Richard Linklater has never been shy of experimenting, and here he follows one boy (and his sister, mother, and father) from elementary school to starting college, using the same actors and filming sporadically over 12 years. (The actors helped develop their characters and the story with Linklater.) As usual with Linklater, the performances are natural and believable, and the film has an episodic structure built of character moments versus a tight plot. Ellar Coltrane is a non-professional actor, but gives a plausible performance as protagonist Mason Jr. – mostly, like a real kid, he just tries to do his own thing and navigate the vagaries of the adults in his life, seeking to avoid their often unnecessary confrontations. His sister is played by the director's real-life daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and although the film and its title focuses more on Mason Jr., the film spends plenty of time on her coming-of-age as well. Patricia Arquette plays their mom, Olivia, who has an admirable self-improvement streak but questionable taste in men, as well as a tendency toward parenting meltdowns. Linklater regular Ethan Hawke plays the kids' biological father, Mason Sr., who flits in and out of their life and tries to be the cool dad, with all its attendant benefits and drawbacks.

The realism is the most interesting aspect of Boyhood. Mason Jr. doesn't have big screaming matches with other people, whether they're adults or surly teens; he tends to just shrug his shoulders and try to move on. (The film nicely shows that adults are often caught up in their own crap, which has little to do with the kids they interact with.) Mason's interactions with other kids are likewise plausible – occasionally contentious with his sister, impassive in the face of bullying, playing it cool with friends, sweet or petulant with a girlfriend... Olivia and Mason Sr. are refreshing as cinema parents in that they're clearly well-intentioned but often pretty bad at it. They're not horrible people and they don't do any irreparable harm, but sometimes they find themselves in over their heads and react self-indulgently or otherwise poorly. Linklater can be faulted for meandering too much, but the final 30 minutes or so features several of the film's strongest scenes – a parental freakout, a teenager's frustration with life but also insight into his parents, romantic relationship woes, plus new beginnings and a trip to nature. Linklater shows great instincts with his restraint in the final sequence, and it makes a nice cap to the film.

Boyhood has its flaws as well (although I found it worked better on a second viewing). At 165 minutes and with an unhurried pace, it's longer than it needs to be; some of the scenes get repetitive, and it would be easy to cut 20–30 minutes. It's true that this specific experiment in film hasn't been tried before, but several elements can be found elsewhere and deliver better results. Seeing how people change over time is better captured in the astounding Up series directed by Michael Apted for Britain's Granada Television, and has the benefit of being documentary versus fiction, following 20 children initially, and covering 49 years and counting. Éric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman both used some actors repeatedly over decades, so that an actress who was a supporting teenage character in one film winds up being a middle-aged lead in another – and these films often resonate off each other. (Meanwhile, Bergman's last film, Saraband in 2003, revisits the central couple from 1973's Scenes from a Marriage.) Mike Leigh develops the characters and story with his actors as well, building comprehensive backgrounds and improvising countless scenes before finally filming. All of this is to say that Boyhood is a genuinely good movie, but I found it overpraised and lacking the greatness of these other works. There's not the same depth of insight of the Up series or Secrets & Lies or the best of Rohmer and Bergman (Rohmer being a closer comparison to Linklater; see below). I'd rather see those films again. That said, Linklater's experiments are more interesting than plenty of mainstream fare, and there's plenty to like in Boyhood when taken on its own terms beyond the hype. (Side note: The extras on the disc are stingy — a behind-the-scenes featurette, but no commentaries, which would seem like a natural inclusion.)

(Here's Richard Linklater on The Business and Patricia Arquette on The Treatment.)

Gone Girl: Gone Girl is the best latter-day Hitchcock film of recent memory, with the material a great fit for exacting director David Fincher. Based on Gillian Flynn's novel (and adapted for the screen by her), Gone Girl centers on a seemingly perfect young married couple. (Her: "We're so cute. I wanna punch us in the face.") On their anniversary, the wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), goes missing, and the husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), becomes the chief suspect. Twists, reveals, reversals and ambiguities abound, and one of the great virtues of Gone Girl is how we're asked to reevaluate characters and events over time. (I haven't read the book yet, but the film seems to do a pretty good job of adapting unreliable narration, a tricky thing for film. Fincher's earlier film, Fight Club, cheats a bit despite its other merits.) Ben Affleck's real-life history as a target of tabloid gossip creates a layer of meta-commentary (and probably helped him prepare for the role). Rosamund Pike's given the juiciest role of her career, and makes the most of it. The supporting cast is superb in their roles, including Carrie Coon as Nick's sister and confidant Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as a shady ex-boyfriend of Amy's, Tyler Perry as a celebrity lawyer/PR expert, Missi Pyle as a Nancy-Grace-type TV personality, Sela Ward as a more upscale version, comedienne Casey Wilson as a neighbor, and Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the main cops on the case. (The comic chops of Pyle and Wilson serve them well.) It's hard to discuss much more without giving away crucial plot points (see the spoilers below). Gone Girl's leads aren't always likable, but they're never boring, and while the film does have its detractors, you can't accuse it of being forgettable. (SPOILERS)

Edge of Tomorrow: Edge of Tomorrow wasn't marketed well and it's a genre picture, so it didn't receive nearly the reception it deserved as one of the best films of 2014. The planet Earth is under attack by aliens called Mimics, and the war isn't going well. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a public relations officer with a keen streak for self-preservation who runs afoul of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), head of Earth's forces. Cage is branded as a deserter and assigned to combat duty under tough-as-nails Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, having a blast in the role). He's inept with his battle suit and a coward on the beach battlefield during a doomed attack, but manages to kill a Mimic, leading to him getting sprayed by its acid blood – and wakes up earlier that day, before the attack. This keeps occurring, and during one of his repeated days, he runs into celebrated soldier Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who figures out what's going on with him and tells him to 'find her when he wakes up.' It turns out he's caught in a time loop, as she once was, and they hope to exploit this not only to win the battle but also potentially the war. The problem is, this requires a painful process of trial and error, with Cage (and Vrataski, and those around them) dying over and over again to progress toward their goal. (This leads to plenty of dark humor as well as occasional poignancy.)

Edge of Tomorrow works decently just as an action film or thriller, but it's compelling for several reasons. Cage starts off pretty unlikable, but gradually and plausibly changes over time. Emily Blunt, while always good (often as a romantic interest), is convincing as a battle-hardened heroine. (Vrataski's not fond of Cage to begin with, and even if they develop camaraderie, she's not falling for him in some contrived manner.) They're also refreshingly smart about what they try, given their situation – you won't find yourself yelling at the screen, and will occasionally find yourself impressed by their cleverness. Although the external stakes are high – potentially saving the human race before Cage's special condition wears off, as it did for Vrataski – their internal turmoil naturally proves considerable as well. Dying again and again, watching one's comrades and loved ones die repeatedly, trying to make some small piece of progress despite constant setbacks – it presents quite the existential crisis.

Many reviewers have described Edge of Tomorrow as Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day or a video-game-inspired movie. These are decent descriptions, although it's adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill and sci-fi literature has plenty of partial precursors (Algis Budrys' 1960 short novel Rogue Moon and the short stories of Frederik Pohl come to mind). Still, Edge of Tomorrow is genuinely original in its combination and overall approach, legitimately superb in its execution and a master clinic in editing (and screenwriting and directing for continuity). There's a fair amount of violence given the storyline, but it's not gratuitous. I'm not the biggest Tom Cruise fan, but he's genuinely good here, as is Blunt, while Gleeson and Paxton are standouts in a solid supporting cast. Director Doug Liman has the reputation for being a perfectionist, and it pays off splendidly here. This is also lead writer Christopher McQuarrie's best work since The Usual Suspects. Unless you hate sci-fi and action, you should check this out.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: This may be Wes Anderson's best film to date. He has a tendency to be too precious and mannered for some tastes, but here, he delivers a delightful romp primarily set at the title location in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1932. (Some parallels to real life will become apparent.) As some viewers will note, the film is a story within a story within a story, and really gets rolling when a young "Author" (Jude Law) in 1968 visits the faded Grand Budapest Hotel and interviews its mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then tells the remarkable take of the hotel's glory days and how he rose from lobby boy to owner.

As usual, Anderson gathers an impressive cast (some famous actors essentially have cameos – I won't spoil the surprise), and the impeccable production design and Alexadre Desplat's playful score (including invented folk music from the fictional country) create a silly but plausible world and add to the fun. (It's not a world without menace nor heartbreak, though.) Selling the whole affair is a fantastic performance by Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H., the ridiculously debonair and cultured concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, especially beloved by the aging, rich women who frequent the venue (and his bed). Fiennes excels at playing villains and hasn't played a character like this in a while, so it's a real treat to see him employ his considerable charms as Monsieur Gustave. The emotional core of the movie is the relationship between Monsieur Gustave and his idolizing young protégé, Zero (played in 1932 by Tony Revolori), who's as deadpan as Gustave is effusive. Zero's budding romance with local girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) adds a sincere sweetness to the proceedings. The main plot, however, revolves around one of Gustave's elderly admirers expiring and bequeathing a valuable painting to him. This enrages one of her surviving family members, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who covets the painting, plots Gustave's ruin, and unleashes his vicious henchman J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to achieve this. (Be warned that The Grand Budapest Hotel has a few surprisingly violent scenes, mostly involving Jopling.) Really every character has at least one great scene, with one of my favorites involving Gustave realizing he's been an ass – it's funny, but a little biting, and possesses some depth. Likewise, The Grand Budapest Hotel is charming, delightful and drenched in wistful nostalgia, but also features a couple of meaningful tragedies that make it moving in addition to being entertaining. (If you don't like this one, I doubt you'll like any of Anderson's movies.)

Here's Wes Anderson on The Treatment.

Nightcrawler: (No, it's not a film about the X-Man, although that would have been cool. It's still a good movie, though.) Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) can be called the protagonist of Nightcrawler, but he's not really a hero – he's more of a sociopath, albeit a fascinating one – unflinching, single-minded, hustling and hard-working, and a quick study. He always has his own agenda, but in his own weird way he's occasionally more honest than some of the sleazier people he encounters, in that he likewise considers human relationships transactional, but drops the pretense. Louis witnesses a flaming car accident late at night, and shortly thereafter, a freelance camera crew arrives that films it and talks about selling it to the local news. Louis becomes fascinated, and decides to try to break into the business, at first with only pretty lousy gear – but his first footage pays decently, and he finds he's got a knack for the work, which can be exciting. "If it bleeds, it leads," the old TV news adage goes, and Louis quickly learns that the more sensationalistic the footage, the better the payout – especially given how competitive the local news business is, with bumps or drops in ratings helping or damaging careers. In time, Louis recruits his first employee, the overly trusting Rick (Riz Ahmed, who's very natural and plausible in the role), and has a few clashes with rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the best local provider of freelance footage. Louis also seeks to become cozier with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a veteran of the business who's the head of a local morning news show. At times, you may wonder what the hell Louis is doing – and be amazed and appalled by the results. At other times, you'll probably be able to anticipate what's going to happen, but will be transfixed nonetheless. The extended climatic sequence probably amounts to about 20 minutes, and is masterfully put together – thrilling, disturbing and memorable.

As a critique of the seamier side of TV news, Nightcrawler is on point but exaggerated, and I watched it primarily as a character study. Louis Bloom is a weird mix of charisma and creepiness, made sharper by Gyllenhaal's unblinking stare and gaunt appearance (reportedly he ran to and from set every night to keep thin and hungry). It's probably Gyllenhaal's best performance to date. Writer-director Dan Gilroy is an experienced screenwriter (and brother to fellow writer-director Tony Gilroy), but this is his first feature. Kudos to him for recognizing that "interesting" isn't the same as "likable" and for fully exploring the premises of his own story.

(Here's Dan Gilroy on The Treatment.)

Special Mention: A Summer's Tale: Éric Rohmer's 1996 film finally received its official U.S. release in 2014. I had seen the other three "season" films as part of a wonderful National Gallery of Art retrospective on Rohmer, so it was nice to round out the set (The Winter's Tale is one of my favorite Rohmer flicks). Rohmer's subtleties and unhurried pace are not for all tastes, but those who like him will treasure his work; he's the cinematic equivalent of an Anton Chekhov short story (if cheerier, being French) in that he captures real life in art. His films typically feature non-professional actors, and the naturalness of their performances and the authenticity of the moments in his films make a refreshing change of fare.

In A Summer's Tale, as usual, Rohmer offers up a slice of real life with a simple plot. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is a shy math student and decent amateur musician, spending his vacation at the beach in Dinard, a resort town. He doesn't know anyone, but his semi-girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) told him to meet her there. (She runs with the popular crowd.) In the meantime, he meets the low-key and sweet Margot, who works in her aunt's café. They hit it off quite well and spend time together, but she's got an out-of-town boyfriend herself. (Margot is played by Amanda Langlet, who also was the title character in Rohmer's 1986 film Pauline at the Beach.) Meanwhile, Gaspard exchanges meaningful glances with Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), who's attractive, sensual and risk-taking – and with Lena increasingly looking like a no-show, he gives things with Solène a chance. They have a grand time, including writing and performing silly songs together. But then Lena might be arriving after all, and Solène wants an exclusive commitment from Gaspard – she's offended by the idea of being anyone's second choice. Gaspard is a decent guy who winds up way out of his depth as he somehow finds himself juggling three women. He thinks he loves Lena, but she can go extremely hot or cold toward him; Solène is exciting but a bit possessive (not entirely without reason); Margot is probably the best of the bunch, but seems unavailable. Gaspard makes for a likable protagonist because he's not trying to play anyone and he's stuck in some amusingly impossible but entirely plausible situations. (This isn't one of Rohmer's "morals" or "proverbs" films, but if there's a moral to this one, perhaps it's: love is a puzzle; when in doubt, bet on the arts.) My favorite Rohmer films are probably still Claire's Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon, The Green Ray and The Winter's Tale, but this makes for a lovely summer treat and aesthetic change-up from big CGI blockbusters.

(My remembrance on Rohmer, who died in 2010, is here.)

2014 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Theory of Everything: This is a cut above for biopics, lifted by great performances from the two leads and an inherently sympathetic story. Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is an extremely bright physics student at Oxford. He's socially awkward, but has a certain sweet, geeky charm, which eventually wins over Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who's a serious scholar in her right (of Romance languages). One day, Stephen collapses, and medical tests discover that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease). The prognosis is grim – he's given two years to live. He pushes Jane away, but she persists, and eventually they get married. Their life is not an easy one, especially as Stephen becomes progressively physically disabled (his mind remains clear, though). The Theory of Everything avoids becoming a maudlin disease-of-the-week flick because of Stephen's sense of humor and the occasional glimpse that he isn't a saint. Likewise, Jane doesn't always rise above the tough situation she's been dealt – she's expected to be a full-time caregiver to Stephen and champion mom to their kids, while putting her own scholarly aspirations or any sort of career on hold. (Apparently, this is a fairly accurate depiction, although the film unsurprisingly take some liberties.) Charlie Cox (as sensitive choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones) and Maxine Peake (as sly nurse Elaine Mason) are standouts in a strong supporting cast. A fine score (by Jóhann Jóhannsson) and some lovely images further elevate the proceedings. (The PBS documentary Hawking is a good nonfiction account.)

Selma: Selma chronicles an important part of American history – key events in the civil rights movement of the 1960s – but possesses several virtues as a film beyond any "eat your broccoli" moral value (as Aaron Sorkin calls it). First, it captures the struggle between the public and private self, as we see Martin Luther King, Jr. (British actor David Oyelowo) give rousing speeches before large audiences but wrestle with self-doubt alone or with a few close associates. (The film's opening handles this particularly well, and it's a smart choice to kick things off.) Second, it captures the danger and courageous restraint of civil disobedience, which wasn't passive, but confrontational. A key scene shows the protestors standing fast in front of a courthouse while the police badger them. At one point, a cop wades into the protestors and starts assaulting one of them – and the camera cuts to the other protestors, who are seething but restraining themselves from physically retaliating at this injustice, because it will only make things worse. As viewers, we feel the tension and the same urge to intervene. (The scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge create a similar unease.) Third, the film captures the in-fighting and disputes within political movements (particularly in scenes featuring John Lewis, played well by Stephan James) as well as the coordination and strategizing (with a standout scene featuring Malcolm X, played by Nigél Thatch). Fourth, Selma captures the weariness of the struggle, in some of King's private moments but also an early scene featuring Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who gives a heavy sigh anticipating what brave new bullshit will be flung her way when she attempts to register to vote yet again. Finally, related to all this, it's nice to see grassroots activism from ordinary figures get its due, and not another "great man" approach to history.

Selma's merits make its unforced errors all the more unfortunate. The craftsmanship, quite strong in some sections, seems surprisingly subpar in others, most notably a key living room scene between Martin and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). The scene isn't well-lit and uses an odd shot selection, jumping all about – it comes off as amateurish and cobbled from bad coverage versus an intentional "unsettling" choice. The film occasionally assumes viewers know pertinent history, as with a significant but fleeting reference to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Some artistic license with history is to be expected or even necessary, but Selma falsely suggests that President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, continuing a tradition of Brits playing American presidents) approved of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) trying to blackmail King with evidence of his extramarital affairs. The scenes between MLK and LBJ are also conventionally "dramatic," full of yelling and pronouncements. Per recordings and personal accounts, this is an inaccurate dynamic (and jarring to viewers who know better). Perhaps more to the point for a piece of commercial art, it plays as implausible and is less intriguing than what actually occurred – the delicate, polite dance of actual activists with powerful supposed allies is largely banished from the screen. (If you're going to invent something, make it more interesting than reality.) Given Selma's willingness elsewhere to portray the public versus the private sides of King, this is a missed opportunity, because the film could easily have shown King's private frustrations while practicing diplomacy with Johnson. The challenges of their historical coordination makes for a more interesting story than exaggerated and artificial conflicts. It's worth noting that Johnson, while instrumental in helping the civil rights movement in the end, was not a saint and had stymied the cause at points earlier in his career. Still, other works (The Contender, for example) do a fine job with the polite, casual threat and "civilized" political sparring; subtlety is harder to achieve artistically than bombast. (Likewise, The West Wing featured both bombastic and subtle scenes, although the latter predominated.) All of this is to say that "accuracy" issues generally stem from artistic decisions, not the other way around, but it's legitimate to criticize those aesthetic choices – for delivering stock melodrama, for instance, over more subtle or original conflicts. (Also, given the weighty subject matter and Paramount's decision to send a DVD of the film to every high school in the U.S., it's fair to hold Selma to a higher standard than ordinary fare.)

Selma is still worth seeing, though. It's somewhat amazing that so few films have been made about King. Is it because it's hard to portray someone who's become such an icon? (Oyelowo does a solid job.) Is it because documentaries cover this material better? (Eyes on the Prize and King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis are particularly good.) Selma is not a masterpiece, but its virtues do outweigh its flaws. Finally, as noted in the Oscars review, "Glory," which won Best Original Song, is a rousing tune, and it's appalling that voter suppression is still an issue.

(Some of the better pieces on the historical accuracy issue and artistic choices in Selma come from The Washington Post, Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie and Elias Isquith.

Here's director Ava DuVernay on The Treatment and The Business.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Marvel's sequel to the decent-but-not-astounding first Captain America flick (the 17th film reviewed here) unexpectedly winds up being one of the best superhero movies ever made. It delivers the requisite action sequences, but its great strength is a splendid fit between its main character and the plot – the patriotic and loyal Steve Rogers, Captain America (Chris Evans), must contend not only with terrorism but the more extreme responses to it from his supposed allies, such as violations of due process, privacy, free speech and more. This results in a surprisingly political film for a summer superhero flick, but it doesn't feel heavy-handed because this element is so integral. In this film, Cap is still trying to adjust to the modern day after being frozen near the end of WWII and later awakened. He checks in on his former girlfriend, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now aged, makes a new friend in Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and works with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Cap fights against evil organization Hydra and a mysterious super-powered foe (the winter soldier of the title). Troubling clues he discovers eventually lead him to speak with S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig and "World Security Council" member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

It's hard to discuss much more without giving things away, but the best part of the film is that the filmmaking team (directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) really understand the essence of Captain America, and that drives all their decisions. As noted in the review of the first Cap film, the character could come off as an insufferable goody two-shoes, but Chris Evans does a fine job of capturing the character's essential decency and rooting that in humility so that he's not ingratiating or sanctimonious. Cap's moral compass is essentially one of his superpowers, or at least what makes him a hero as much or more than his martial prowess. There's an early scene that demonstrates this well, as Cap squares off against villain and savate master Batroc (Georges St-Pierre); Batroc claims the shield gives Cap an unfair advantage – so Cap throws it to the side to fight him hand-to-hand. Some of this is warrior confidence, but it also plays as Cap believing in a fair fight (assuming time is not of the essence, of course). Cap's reluctance to kill, devotion to his friends and willingness to die for a truly good cause are likewise not only plausible but inform pivotal decisions. This stands in striking contrast to last year's Man of Steel (reviewed here), which built its climax on the shock value of a choice antithetical to its main character, Superman. ("Reboot" sometimes means, "We don't know what to do with these characters... now here's some flashy, trendy shit.") Marvel Studios' ridiculous string of success is due not just to delivering reliable spectacle, but because the core teams invest the time to understand the characters and develop good storylines for them.

(Neatest touch: After Cap meets with Pierce, he descends in an elevator and the Watergate complex can be seen in the distance over the Potomac River. As most everyone knows, the bungled Watergate break-in eventually exposed the corruption of the Nixon administration, leading to Nixon's resignation. The film adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's nonfiction book about those events, All the President's Men, starred... Robert Redford. Given the plotline of The Winter Soldier, it's a lovely riff. As noted in the Oscars/year review, the Marvin Gaye shout-out and callback is great as well.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past: First Class became the best X-Men movie to date in 2011 (it's the 15th film reviewed here), and now Days of Future Past arguably seizes the title. (Bryan Singer returns to the series as director; he was a producer on First Class.) Its plot draws from a two-issue storyline in 1981 about a dire alternative future that wound up driving countless other issues. In this future, fearful humans have created adaptable robot enforcers called Sentinels to hunt, kill and enslave mutants. The last survivors, including many of the big names from the X-Men plus Magneto, are facing a major and potentially fatal assault. They concoct a desperate plan to send someone's consciousness back in time to 1973 to avert this disaster, and settle on Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), because he was alive at the time and his healing factor might help him survive the process. (Him being the most popular X-Man doesn't hurt, either.) His mission is to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), inventor of the Sentinels – his death and her subsequent capture lead to their dreadful timeline. But things don't go as planned – the young version of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a reclusive, distraught addict, who's using an experimental drug that allows him to walk again despite his crippling injuries but also blocks his powers, which Logan needs him to use. They'll also need to spring the young version of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from a seemingly impregnable prison in the Pentagon. (This leads to the most entertaining sequence of the year, because Logan recruits young Quicksilver, a superfast mutant played by Evan Peters.) Of course, given their life experiences, neither Magneto nor Mystique is convinced that killing the right people wouldn't be a big improvement – especially when faced with Major William Stryker (Josh Helman), a cruel bigot eager to experiment on mutants or kill them outright. (Time travel purists be warned that the film depicts the past and the future as running in parallel, which is illogical, but makes for dramatic cross-cutting.)

Days of Future Past has a fine cast, and the filmmakers wisely build the most pivotal scenes around their strongest players – Jackman as Logan confronting McAvoy as young Xavier, and Patrick Stewart as the older Xavier reaching out to his younger self. Fassbender, Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult as the young Beast and Ian Mackellan as the older Magneto all have good moments as well, but it's primarily on McAvoy to provide the emotional core and sell the whole proceedings. In 1973, Xavier possesses enormous power (he's the world's greatest telepath), but it can be agonizing at times to hear everyone's thoughts, and he's been dealt a lousy hand (being crippled and relatively alone). His future self, a wise father figure to almost all the X-Men (including Logan), seems unattainable if even desirable. Because the character has been portrayed in rather saintly fashion in the comics and movies, it's interesting to see him struggle with physical pain, addiction, self-pity and self-doubt, and to see that internal struggle become pivotal to the external plot. Given the number of characters running around and the potential headaches of time travel plots, Xavier's arc becomes an important touchstone, and McAvoy and the filmmakers deliver. The spectacle's fun, but once again, the key here is a solid grasp of the characters and building a good story from that. (A few quibbles are discussed in the spoilers section below.)

(Here's James McAvoy on The Treatment.)

Guardians of the Galaxy: This may be the most fun movie of 2014, certainly among the summer blockbusters. (Personally, I was looking forward to seeing Rocket Raccoon on the big screen, but I was a bit surprised the movie was as big of a hit as it was.) Young earthling Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (played as an adult by Chris Pratt), faces the death of his mother and is then abducted by aliens, becoming a spacefaring, freelance thief and general scoundrel (if an amiable one). Stealing a mysterious orb earns him plenty of enemies, though – his former boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker), the deadly, green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and bounty hunters Rocket (a wise-cracking, cybernetic raccoon with a taste for big guns who's voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a strong plant man with an extremely limited vocabulary, voiced by Vin Diesel). Pretty soon the latter four all wind up in a prison of the Nova Empire (home planet: Xandar). There they meet up with the eventual fifth member of their misfit team, Drax the Destroyer (mixed martial artist Dave Bautista), who seeks above all to kill Thanos (James Brolin), a powerful galactic villain who killed Drax's family. (Thanos is also Gamora's adoptive father – but they have a complicated relationship.) The orb contains something powerful that Thanos and several others want, leading the unlikely team to argue about a huge payday versus survival versus revenge, all while trying to evade several other groups. These includes Yondu and his mercenaries, the cops as represented by the Xandarian Nova Corps, and Thanos' flunkies: Gamora's half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a powerful Kree warrior who wants to destroy Xandar as revenge for a past war between the Kree and Xandarians. (You'll see almost every shade of alien in this movie – green, blue, red, purple… The green woman versus blue woman fight is a highlight.) The film boasts a deep bench, with Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and a funny John C. Reilly in supporting roles.

Although the film starts with a personal tragedy, and has serious and even poignant moments throughout, Guardians of the Galaxy is primarily a fun, silly romp mixing action and comedy and doing it well. It's full of audience-pleasing moments, but they actually work instead of feeling forced. And the silly moments generally aren't just shtick – Quill's beloved mix tape provides some laughs, but there's a deeper reason he's so attached to it. Likewise, his willingness to play the clown is sometimes tactical, as in a key confrontation. As with Galaxy Quest, most of the humor is character-based rather than being tacked on. One of my few complaints – I wished the filmmakers just renamed Yondu, because while Michael Rooker is an interesting actor, he plays Yondu as a space redneck, which is miles from the original character, a spiritual mystic who uses low-tech weapons like swords and a bow. (The film keeps Yondu's whistle-controlled yaka arrow, although they make it much more powerful.) Some reviewers didn't care for the Infinity Gauntlet exposition crammed into the movie, but I thought it was neat to get a better look at Thanos. This is a great summer popcorn flick.

(Here's James Gunn on The Treatment.)

Chef: This is a fun flick, and unless you hate eating, you'll be hard-pressed to dislike it. (Make sure you have some food on hand during viewing – preferably great sandwiches.) Writer, director and star Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the head chef at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles, who's stuck in a rut with his menu. He reacts poorly to a disparaging review by notable food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), and wants to change his menu, but owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) doesn't want Carl messing with success. Carl gets some sympathy from his cohorts – hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson) and kitchen staff Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Canavale) – but they're stuck in an awkward position. Carl's relationship with his tween son Percy (Emjay Anthony) could use some work, too, as his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) reminds him. Percy is tech-savvy but Carl is not; Carl accidentally winds up publically challenging Ramsey to a food rematch… and things do not go the way Carl planned. Carl decides to get back to his roots in Miami, where he started, with a food truck (Inez calls in a favor for him; Robert Downey, Jr. is funny in a brief scene). He's aided by Martin, and by Percy, who wants to spend time with his dad. The three of them drive west from Miami to L.A., hitting food meccas along the way and buying the best local stuff to make their menu. (You'll be salivating.) A fantastic soundtrack injects additional energy. All that's fun, but what makes the film really work is the plausible shifts in Carl's relationship with his son, Percy. Carl isn't always the best father, but he genuinely loves to cook, and something special comes out when he's teaching his son the craft but also the philosophy of the profession. Chef has its contrivances, but if every Hollywood flick was at least this entertaining, it'd be a good thing. (It's also neat to see Favreau do a smaller film again after directing two Iron Man films and Cowboys & Aliens. Angelenos might be interested to know that Roy Choi, head chef for the celebrated Kogi Korean BBQ trucks, was a chief consultant.)

American Sniper: Taken on its own merits, war movie and biopic American Sniper is pretty good, with Clint Eastwood showing his usual straightforward, meat-and-potatoes style as a director. Bradley Cooper is solid in the main role of Chris Kyle and sells the quiet, dependable-but-repressed Southern redneck shtick convincingly. A rodeo rider with a knack for bad relationships, Kyle decides to join the military, has a hard time of it becomes of his age, but perseveres, makes the Navy SEALs and becomes a sniper. He meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar, they hit it off, get married, and decide to have kids – and then 9/11 arrives, and Kyle ships out for the Middle East (as does his brother). Kyle has a talent for the work, and earns the nickname "Legend" – the soldiers feel more confident when he's on the job, somewhere on a rooftop, scanning for threats. When some of his buddies get killed, he becomes obsessed with catching an Iraqi insurgent commander nicknamed "The Butcher" and an opposing sniper known as "Mustafa." This means Kyle re-ups for additional tours of duty, which causes increasing friction with Taya, who justifiably complains that even when he's physically present, he's mentally and emotionally distant. It doesn't help that in the war zones, Kyle takes greater and greater risks, raising the question of whether he'll survive.

As a character, Chris Kyle is similar to Michael (Robert DeNiro) in The Deer Hunter and William James (Jeremy Renner) in The Hurt Locker in that he can't really deal with civilian life but is very good at war. (One of the better scenes has him completely inept and uncomfortable at dealing with someone thanking him for saving his life.) The action/war scenes are decently staged, and the film also does a fine job at depicting PTSD and Kyle's jitteriness back home – twitching at sounds, scanning cars and people as if they're the enemy – it's all done pretty subtly and convincingly. The film has its problems, though. Chris Kyle is not a reflective guy, and agonizes over killing women and children who are suicide bombers, but never questions the righteousness of the war in the slightest – when his buddies do, he's puzzled or even indignant. It makes him a less interesting character to follow because there's just not that much depth to him. Although the first few scenes with his Taya, his eventual wife, are fairly interesting, the stateside scenes get repetitive and one-note. Almost all of the Iraqis shown are bad guys, (as in maiming-children bad guys), and the film offers little insight into their point of view on the war – they're mostly faceless baddies. (The Hurt Locker also suffers from this.) I think Eastwood's film Letters From Iwo Jima is a better war flick that lets viewers get to know and care about the characters more, and interesting also for being from the Japanese point of view (its companion film, Flags of Our Fathers, is less successful). Some tales from the real Chris Kyle have significant credibility issues, and the film definitely takes some liberties as well, both of which may turn off some viewers. I would not rank American Sniper with the great war movies, but it's worth a look.

(The Hurt Locker is the first film reviewed here; Letters from Iwo Jima is the first film reviewed here and Flags of Our Fathers is the first film reviewed here.)

The Unknown Known:

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

– Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2/12/02

Errol Morris bases his latest documentary around Rumsfeld's famous (or infamous) formulation. (Rumsfeld himself referenced it in the title of his book Known and Unknown: A Memoir. His words have also been turned into poetry and put to music.) Taken on their own, Rumsfeld's words are true and even profound, in terms of the limits of human knowledge and humility related to certainty. However, as Morris reminds us, Rumsfeld's words were in response to this question:

Is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.

Rumsfeld, a smart and extremely assured man, was being directly asked about actual evidence. He was being asked to justify Bush administration claims about WMD, which were the lynchpin of their case for war with Iraq. And, as usual, he chose to be evasive. He bullshitted. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, he chooses to do the same throughout the interviews that make up The Unknown Known. It's impossible not to think of Morris' excellent, Oscar-winning 2004 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during much of the Vietnam War, was in his 80s like Rumsfeld when interviewed by Morris. But while McNamara wasn't always completely forthcoming, he was considerably more reflective and willing to identify mistakes. Rumsfeld is having none of that. Perhaps it's because the stint under discussion is more recent, but Rumsfeld is man of no doubt and absolute certainty – there's no humility about unknowns there. Rumsfeld seems to enjoy jousting with Morris (he frequently grins), and approaches the interview as an intellectual battle or a public relations fight or as the defense counsel in a trial. (He and other Bush administration officials still face the possibility of war crimes prosecution overseas, but it's highly unlikely to occur, and prosecution in the U.S. is virtually inconceivable.) Occasionally, Rumsfeld will make a ridiculously false claim and Morris will run a clip that exposes it (about administration claims to justify the Iraq War, for instance), but Morris actually goes much easier on Rumsfeld than he could. For example, Rumsfeld gives context for the photo of his 1983 meeting with Saddam Hussein when Iraq was a U.S. ally, but Morris doesn't show footage of Rumsfeld getting testy with the press when asked about this or Rumsfeld's suggestion that Iraq supplied the footage. (The Bush administration could have accounted for this history, but generally chose to ignore it and the First Iraq War and its aftermath altogether; Morris doesn't dwell on that, either.) There's a nice segment early on where Donald Rumsfeld talks about meeting his eventual wife Joyce and their long marriage that humanizes him. Although The Unknown Known could never be mistaken for a puff piece, it's not a hatchet job, either. Morris does get animated at times, but there's generally good cause – as when Rumsfeld claims he never read some infamous torture memos. (Near the end of the documentary, Morris asks Rumsfeld why he agreed to do the film, and you'll have to see his reaction.)

The Unknown Known's main virtue seems to be getting Rumsfeld on the record and allowing him to offer his own account. Unfortunately, the film doesn't stand as well on its own – the documentary is much more interesting and better contextualized if you read Morris' four-part series on the film in The New York Times, or check out the disc commentary and other extras, or read some of the better reviews. The film proves less engaging than The Fog of War because Rumsfeld is markedly less candid and reflective than McNamara. It's still worth watching, but don't go in expecting McNamara or the Frost/Nixon interviews.

(Here's Errol Morris on The Business. Here's his series in The New York Times, parts one, two, three and four. Peter Osnos, who published McNamara's memoir, provides a good piece about The Unknown Known and the differences between McNamara and Rumsfeld for The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Mark Danner wrote several pieces about Rumsfeld and the documentary for The New York Review of Books, but some are behind a paywall. One piece is available for now here and Danner's author page is here. UPDATE: Some May pieces on Iraq War revisionism are pertinent – see Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, Digby and James Fallows, among others.)

2014 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and Noteworthy Films.

Interstellar: Director Christopher Nolan (who cowrote the film as usual with his brother Jonathan) can't be faulted for lacking ambition, but Interstellar falls further short than any of his other efforts. The film features some good moments, but the overall result remains disappointing. Joseph "Coop" Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and widower who's trying to raise his two kids and survive on an Earth battered by climate change, resulting in droughts and dust storms. By investigating some mysterious phenomenon in their house, Coop and his spitfire young daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, who's quite good, although the makeup department looks to have gone overboard), eventually discover a hidden scientific facility that's preparing a final mission to confirm a habitable planet to preserve the human species – previous expeditions are sending back positive signals from three contending planets. ("Plan A" is a mass exodus from Earth, assuming a scientific breakthrough on escaping gravity; "Plan B" involves frozen human embryos.) Coop's recruited to pilot the craft by an old colleague, Dr. John Brand (Michael Caine). The crew will include Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who's a biotechnologist, two other scientists, "Rom" (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus two nonhumanoid robots, TARS and CASE (one makes a 2001 HAL joke). But even if it's to save the human race, the trip means that Coop might never see his kids again (Murphy takes this particularly hard). On top of this, even if Coop can somehow return, due to relativity, the extreme gravity of black holes and the high speeds of interstellar travel (the astronauts are using a slingshot effect and a space portal gifted by unknown benefactors), the people on Earth will age relatively quicker than Coop and the other astronauts. Two or three of the best scenes in Interstellar involve this element and represent a strength of good science fiction – the human reaction to an unusual situation. There's also a visually imaginative sequence depicting extradimensional space. (I think this helped win the film the visual effects Oscar; as noted in the Oscars/year review, I wouldn't have given it the award otherwise, myself.) It's also neat to see practical, modular, nonhumanoid robots, and the cast is generally good.

Interstellar is saddled with a bevy of problems, though. The film runs almost three hours and it drags. The opening section on Earth is far too long – we simply don't need to know all the details given to us and frankly don't care about the odd politics of education in this world or scavenging drones. Instead it should be: The Earth is in peril; here's why; here are the stakes and the challenges; let's go. The idea of Coop being recruited at the last minute for a pivotal mission is just silly and unnecessary. (I'm guessing it's a plot decision spurred by the "ghost" scenes.) It's nice to see two accomplished female scientists on screen, Amelia Brand and the adult Murphy (played by the reliable Jessica Chastain), but both of them have big, emotional, irrational moments. (A male character arguably tops them, but is more selfish than strictly irrational.) Despite the film's length, Nolan doesn't bother to properly introduce Rom and Doyle, nor TARS and CASE and how to distinguish them. It's difficult to make a sci-fi film with the grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Nolan appears to attempt that (which deserves some credit) while also trying to deliver a "love conquers all, even the time-space continuum" storyline (alas, that's almost a verbatim quotation). Those two impulses make for an awkward mismatch and the latter one produces some painful treacle. With the notable exception of the great relativity-aging scenes and a few others, Interstellar winds up being more space opera than true science fiction. I'm a fan of Nolan's other work, and wanted to like Interstellar, but I think he ran out of gas and the love stories aren't enough to blind us to some gaping flaws (in part created by those same love stories).

(Physicist Kip Thorne, the science advisor for the film, has written a book explaining the science of the movie and what's real and what's speculation. Neil deGrasse Tyson provides some appreciative and amused tweets. The "honest trailer" is on point and hilarious, summarizing most of the major criticisms of the movie.)

The Monuments Men:

You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, and it's as if they never existed. That's what Hitler wants and that's exactly what we are fighting for.

– Frank Stokes (the movie version)

Director, cowriter and star George Clooney assembles a fine cast to tell a tale based on a fantastic real-life story, but a wildly veering tone and episodic structure result in a muddled film. It's 1943, and the Allied Forces are making advances in World War II. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is concerned that the Germans are looting or destroying precious art works as they retreat. He convinces President Roosevelt to let him assemble a team of art experts (professors, museum curators and the like) to try to safeguard the art – essentially, trying to preserve civilization. It's a noble mission for the "monuments men," but one challenged by the inherent absurdity of a bunch of academics (essentially) playing at soldier and trying to get battlefield commanders to care about art work in the middle of a war. The cast is stacked, especially for comedic chops: Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Matt Damon, and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney mostly goes for broad comedy, which works well in the basic training sequences – out-of-shape, middle-aged men trying to hump it over a fitness course and being shocked to learn that those are live rounds, not blanks. The witty scenes (especially those featuring the fabulous Blanchett) also work well. ("Would you stop speaking French? Or whatever language you are speaking?" "Well, if it weren't for us, you'd – you'd be speaking German." "No. If it was not for you, I might be dead. But I would still be speaking French.") The black comedy is sometimes effective, as in a scene involving a land mine. What doesn't work is moving from comedy romp to maudlin tragedy. It being a war, some people do die. Obviously comedy and tragedy can coexist in the same work, but the specific shades don't mesh here; Clooney never quite gets a handle on the tone. Clooney has proven himself to be a decent director, but even some great ones struggle with shifts in the tonal palette. Making the comedy less broad and the tragedy less maudlin probably would have helped – emphasizing the absurdism and sardonic wit while ditching sentimentality and melodrama – but it's an admittedly challenging task regardless. (Barry Levinson's direction on Good Morning, Vietnam is one of the better successful examples. Crucially, even the most buffoonish character, played by the late, great Bruno Kirby, is played straight, and is unaware of when he's being unintentionally hilarious or poignant. Meanwhile, Robin Williams' character is a consciously funny guy in a serious universe. They're strikingly different characters – antagonists, actually – but Levinson grounds them both in the same reality.) The episodic nature of the film, with the team splintering into pairs, also diffuses the energy – many of the scenes are interesting on their own, but an overall build doesn't really occur. I love the themes and most of the cast, but alas, the film doesn't quite succeed in its mission. It's a decent rental.

(The Monuments Men have a website. The National Gallery of Art had an exhibit on them, since concluded, but their website still shows some materials. PBS' NewsHour also did a segment on them.)

The Imitation Game: The intriguing Alan Turing gets the biopic treatment, with mixed results – unfortunately, the less you know about Turing, the more likely you'll enjoy the movie. During World War II, British mathematician Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited to help crack the Germans' notoriously difficult communication code, encrypted by their Enigma machines. Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), in charge of the codebreaking effort, is a no-nonsense military man who doesn't care much for the intellectual, quirky Turing, but he's giving him a shot. Turing's colleagues, most of all Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), think Alan is an arrogant jerk. Turing finds an ally in one of his recruits, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) – whatever his other faults, Turing is no sexist, and recognizes and supports talent when he sees it. They even start a tentative romance – but Turing's sexuality is an issue. (The film jumps between three time periods – the "present day" of 1951, WWII, and Turing's rough boyhood at boarding school, with the bulk occurring during WWII.) Turing's efforts to help win the war, followed by shabby treatment because of his personal life, makes for a good story, and a solid cast and handsome production values help.

Unfortunately, the movie has a by-the-numbers, calculated quality to it, where "drama" involves yelling at each other needlessly and epiphanies involve breathlessly running toward an armed guard without explaining anything. This artifice becomes much more grating if you're aware of the significant inaccuracies in the depiction of Turing, all the more troubling given that it's his biopic and they're unnecessary. He was definitely eccentric, somewhat shy and socially awkward, impatient with fools, but was generally well-liked, had a good sense of humor, didn't have Asperger's, and wasn't an insufferable, arrogant asshole. It's not just that these are traits are inventions by the filmmakers, but that the reality is more interesting, and that the inventions are more clichéd. The Turing of the movie borrows from Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a "high-functioning psychopath," and on the model for that depiction, the misanthropic title character in House, and on Russell Crowe as John Nash, the obnoxious genius of A Beautiful Mind. We've seen this story many times before. (And if you're going to invent something, make it more interesting than reality.) Likewise, it's a failure of imagination to concoct other conflicts within the codebreaking team, especially if they play as exaggerated and artificial. Apparently, winning World War II, defeating the Nazis, preventing the conquest of the British Isles and saving the lives of Britons and their allies are not sufficiently high stakes for a drama on their own. As noted in the Oscar post, I'm disappointed the screenplay won an Oscar, although writer Graham Moore gave a lovely speech. The original subject matter is great, but the treatment is too slick and processed for my tastes; it feels exploitative, as if Turing's life has been used as raw fodder and poured into the commercial biopic formula, rather than a more artistic approach being taken. This is a British production, but it feels as if the question asked was, "How can we make a Hollywood film out of this?" not "How can we tell Alan Turing's fascinating story cinematically?" Your mileage definitely may vary; the film has its admirers, and at the worst, it has brought more attention to Alan Turing himself.

(Slate and The New York Review of Books handle the accuracy issues quite well. Turing biographer Jack Copeland provides a fine portrait of the real man. Turing has been portrayed in plays and other media. He does not appear in 2001's Enigma, another film about the codebreaking efforts.

Here's screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum on The Business.)

Noah: The biblical account of Noah omits many details, and director and cowriter Darren Aronofsky's inventions to fill in the story are a mixed bag at best. (This is a film most people either loved or hated.) The basic plot is familiar: humankind is sinning; God plans to wipe most of them out with a great flood and start again; he commands Noah to build an ark to preserve two of every species and Noah's family. Most of Noah's visions are visually striking montages, and give a sense of how terrifying it might be to receive powerful but unclear messages from a deity. (There's also some question of whether Noah is inspired or crazy.) On the other hand, a computer-generated snake in a recurring Garden of Eden sequence looks unintentionally comic. Despite the mysticism and weirdness of some sequences – animals marching to the ark, fallen-angel rock creatures and the like – the actors play everything with a grounded, gritty realism, which makes Noah strikingly different from highly staged, formal (and occasionally hokey) biblical fare such as The Ten Commandments (at least Yul Brynner's awesome). Noah's cast is good: Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman as two of their kids, Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, and Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain, the main bad guy (as you might guess, he's a descendant of Cain). This Noah is a man of action and obsession; he means well, but can be domineering and even seem psychotic. It's not a portrayal that will necessarily warm the hearts of adherents of the Abrahamic religions, but it also makes for an odd viewing experience. Noah fixates on a strange interpretation of events for a long section of the film, and because this dictates so much of the plot, the audience is left wondering "what the hell" and "get to the point" for a deadly stretch of the movie's needlessly padded 138 minute running time. Give Darren Aronofsky some credit for taking risks and trying something different, but I'd rank this with his failures, as opposed to his genuinely good efforts, Black Swan, The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream.

(Here's Darren Aronofsky on The Business.)

Godzilla: If there's one thing the latest English-language Godzilla film gets right, it's a sense of awe, and relatedly, if there's one thing the staging for 3-D gets right, it's the frequent shots and reverse shots of a tiny human in the foreground looking up at a massive beast. Director Gareth Edwards understands that he's not just delivering spectacle – he's showing the human reactions to that spectacle, in the gee-whiz, movie monster matinee and Spielberg traditions. Personally, I would have loved more kaiju fighting and less human melodrama, but this is a loving fanboy homage to the extended family of Godzilla films, which typically feature plenty of the latter. Unfortunately, "daddy issues" stand in for the primary Hollywood character arc yet again, but at least "daddy" is well cast. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, is forced to deal with his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), a scientist obsessed with finding the truth behind mysterious occurrences, due to events in the backstory. Ford's doctor wife, Elle (Elisabeth Olsen), wants them to reconcile, partially for their sake of their young son Sam. (Side note: Taylor-Johnson and Olsen play brother and sister in the new Avengers movie.) On the scientist side, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) nicely represents for the Japanese origins of the source material and brings a sage gravitas to his ponderings on the true nature of Gojira/Godzilla. He's ably assisted by fellow scientist Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and challenged by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), although refreshingly, he's not a kneejerk blow-'em-up type, just cautious and practical. I enjoyed this film, particularly a deliciously tense sequence involving a railroad trestle, a funny scene involving young Sam and the TV, and the final monster showdown. It's significantly better than the painful 1998 Emmerich-Devlin Godzilla, and in the end, it delivers the monster movie goods. (I know a Godzilla fanatic who adored this film.)

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The second film in the series avoids the sequel curse by keeping the same characters, but making them older and wiser, and throwing them into a significantly different situation. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is five years older, and continues to invent neat gadgets (including gliding wings for himself). His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), chief of the village, wants Hiccup to take over eventually, but Hiccup isn't sure he's meant for it. In the meantime, he hangs out with his buddies and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and he and his dragon Toothless go exploring for new land. In the process, they encounter new villages that claim they've been attacked by dragons and are none too happy to see the duo. Hiccup and Toothless also run into a band of dragon catchers, led by Eret (Kit Harrington), who serve the conqueror Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who's building a dragon army. Meanwhile, Hiccup comes across a rival but beneficent group of dragons, led by his… long-lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett; this plot development is in all the trailers). Hiccup faces some family drama, and also the threat of an advancing, powerful dragon army. What will happen next? The plot isn't always strictly predictable and the characters are relatively engaging; Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, all good at the comedy thing, add their vocal talents again. Hey, it's pretty hard to dislike Vikings (some of them Scottish) and dragons.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: "Well, let's get this over with," was my attitude, the way you stick out to the bitter end a bad game your favorite team is losing (in this case, the team being Tolkien fans). If you saw the first two films, you might as well see this one. At least director Peter Jackson can stage a decent battle, it's got a cool dragon, plus there's Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and a number of other good performers. If you go into this just wanting an action film with a little drama, you'll probably be pleased (it certainly did great box office worldwide). In terms of fidelity, Jackson and company don't go Jurassic Park here, flipping deaths and survivals; the characters who should die or live per the books do come out that way in the movie. It's also neat to see the White Council face off with Sauron, events hinted at in The Hobbit and covered somewhat in Tolkien's supplemental materials. Still, Jackson throws some key source material aside and pads the hell out of everything, losing character in swamping spectacle, exactly what he didn't do in his masterful adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo, the title character and protagonist, is seldom seen in the early going, and his crucial role in taking on Smaug is excised. Far too much time is spent on the "dragon sickness" of Thorin (Richard Armitage). The greed and paranoia plotline itself is fine, but it's beaten to death – after Thorin breaks his word and starts treating his friends horribly, we're left wondering why they'd follow him and biding our time until Jackson's wrung every last shot he wants out of this stuff. I couldn't fully object to Billy Connolly as another Scottish dwarf (at least he's funny), and the Thorin-Azog duel is pretty good, but I wanted more of Beorn the skin-changer (he gets shafted, relative to his key role in the book), and could have done without the tacked-on elf-dwarf love story. Recapping previous discussions, The Hobbit should have been two movies at most, three to five hours total, hewing closer to the book, not a ridiculously padded prequel to The Lord of the Rings. (The issue isn't strictly fidelity – it's that the story would work better as a movie.) Some of the additional material could have been handled in "Tales of Middle-Earth" spinoffs. Given that it's Peter Jackson, plenty of good moments exist in the three Hobbit films, but they remain a steep step down and a disappointment given the triumph of The Lord of the Rings.

The Judge: A good cast elevates standard melodrama to the watchable level. Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a hotshot lawyer who comes home for his mother's funeral and clashes with his equally strong-willed father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the local (and magisterial) judge. When evidence emerges that Joseph ran down a local scumbag (and former defendant) with his car, Hank winds up defending his father in a murder trial, squaring off with a tough prosecutor, Dwight Dickham, who wants to show up the big-time lawyer. (Yeah, that's really the character's name, but at least he's played by the reliable Billy Bob Thornton.) Unsurprisingly, Joseph proves to a cantankerous, uncooperative client for Hank and his nervous co-counsel, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard). In the meantime, Hank also reconnects – and clashes – with an old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and his older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio). These are easy roles for Downey and Duvall, and the entire cast is solid. Unfortunately, the big, emotional, climatic courtroom scene between Hank and Joseph grows pretty implausible (it would have sold better with a few more reaction shots from Thornton and the presiding judge). On the other hand, the film occasionally chooses welcome understatement and leaves words unsaid, notably between Hank and Glen. This isn't a great film, but it's a decent rental.

(Here's Dobkin, Downey and Duvall on The Treatment.)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: This is an okay but unexceptional rental that will be more appealing if you like the key actors: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh, who also directed, plays the chief villain and is the most interesting thing about the film, thanks to his subtle and understated moments as the calculating but world-weary Viktor Cherevin. Pine is a likable young actor who works pretty well as the latest Jack Ryan (he's the fourth actor to play Tom Clancy's character in the movies). Costner does decently in a mentor role, and Knightley is good as Jack's fiancée, who's in the dark about his secret life as a CIA recruit. The evil master plot this time out involves cybercrime and economic warfare, which makes a nice, modern change from older spy films. Unfortunately, a key part of the plot depends on imperiling a civilian, which strains credulity, and there's a chase-rescue sequence with a section cut together so bizarrely it's both hard to follow and implausible. Given Branagh's involvement, I was hoping for something more interesting.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam's latest film isn't a masterpiece ranking with his best, but being Gilliam, at least it presents interesting, original and memorable moments. Qohen Leth (pronounced "Cohen") is a reclusive, eccentric employee of giant corporation Mancom; he "crunches entities" for it using a gaming-like interface. He requests a home assignment because he's extremely anxious about missing his "call" – years ago, he received a mysterious phone call but he accidentally cut it off. Qohen (Cristoph Waltz) has become convinced that the caller will try again at some point, and will impart some special knowledge or wisdom. He pulls off a meeting with "Management" (Matt Damon), who thinks he's insane. Nonetheless, Management recognizes Qohen's talent and arranges for him to work from home, trying to solve "the Zero Theorem," an equation with cosmic implications. Qohen also encounters Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an attractive woman who seems interested in him (to his confusion), Bob (Lucas Hedges) a computer whiz who helps set up and maintain Qohen's home rig, Joby (David Thewlis), Qohen's ambitious supervisor, who can never seem to remember Qohen's name, and Dr. Shrink-ROM (Tilda Swinton), a computerized psychiatrist consulting Qohen on his issues. There's also virtual reality and dreams and nightmares; The Zero Theorem lies somewhere between dream logic and strict reality. This also results in significant ambiguity about key events, including the ending (which is memorable). The obsessive Qohen is sympathetic, but not that relatable, making the proceedings perhaps more interesting than satisfying – but I might have to see it again. I'd grade this a lesser Gilliam, worth a rental for fans of his work or unusual fare in general. (Side note: it's awfully impressive how far Gilliam can stretch a budget.)