Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

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.)

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