Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “The Imitation Game”

MV5BNDkwNTEyMzkzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTAwNzk3MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Alright, another biopic, the other British biopic, the one with Sherlock.

“The Imitation Game” is a solid, but very straightforward biography film, but with a very important message. Young star Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a British prodigy who helped the Allies decode Germany’s Enigma messaging system during World War II. Yes, it’s yet another war movie, and yet another WWII movie, proving once and for all that it was truly the greatest of wars and an even greater sequel than “The Empire Strikes Back” (is the sarcasm evident enough?).

But it is a different kind of war film, since very little of it takes place in the trenches or on the beach. Rather, most of the “action” happens with a group of guys sitting in a room furiously scribbling away with pencils. Even though Turing is tasked with breaking the code, which is so elaborate it needs to be decoded on a daily basis, his solution for the job at hand and for winning the war, is to build a giant machine that can calculate, or compute, if you will, the Germans’ daily code near instantaneously. Standing in his way is military Commander Denniston, played by Charles Dance most well-known as Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” who here is no less surly and condescending.

Joining Turing are some fellow geniuses, led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode, Ozymandias in “The Watchmen”), who are at first unimpressed by Turing’s ideas and personality, but whom he’d eventually win over with his determination and sense of duty. Eventually, a woman joins the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), who defies expectations and the gender roles of the day, to play a key role in the work.

Though certainly some creative license was taken with the characters and the story, Cumberbatch’s Turing is quite an awkward fellow, who would be condescending if he had enough self-awareness to understand how much of a prick he’s being at nearly all times. Basically, he’s Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory,” only in the 1940s. The one trait setting him apart from other aloof geniuses is that he fancies the men. Turing was gay, and the film also documents the relationship he had when he was younger with a boy named Christopher. This would come into play with his not-so-romantic fling with Joan, who was briefly his fiance. For her, it was a marriage more about convenience than for love, which she makes a good case for being much better than most marriages. Her family frowned upon her working, so the marriage would provide her an excuse to live away from home, as she’s expected to settle down and start a family anyway. Eventually, the truth about Turing’s sexual orientation would come out and would prevent the marriage from happening.

Probably not gonna last. How much easier would life have been if such secrets weren't necessary?

Probably not gonna last. How much easier would life have been if such secrets weren’t necessary?

The movie depicts Turing and company’s work as a race against time, of sorts, as head of MI-6, Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) would inform them that British soldiers are dying nearly by the minute. It’s also a race for Turing to complete his computing machine before Denniston pulls the plug, as he doesn’t take kindly to Turing’s wresting away control of his unit (military unit, that is). Both real and manufactured footage of WWII is shown amidst the dramatic scenes to remind the viewer that the men and woman sitting in this room have a tangible effect on what’s going on over there, even as they never saw a battlefield.

Turing was actually a pacifist, both in the film and in real life, and working for the military was likely something he would have considered undesirable. But the film does an adequate job of showing how his nature would come into conflict with his work, showing him putting the supposed greater good of the nation above individuals, especially in one heartbreaking instance. It’s certainly questionable which is really more important, and the film does a good job of simply presenting the situation and its resolution without taking a side in what is right or wrong.

It’s interesting to see how the war impacted the U.K. much more directly than the U.S. Most WWII movies deal with either the front in Germany or Japan, as aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in the U.S. homeland weren’t in much danger, even though it had to be a tense life to be living then. But living in the U.S., with the grandiose treatment of the “Great War” and the Golden generation and how much Americans celebrate war in general, but especially WWII, little is mentioned stateside about the Germans conducting air raids on Britain. Probably one of the reasons Americans love war so much is that if you’re not a soldier, you’re rarely in any danger when it comes to war. But European countries have felt the sting of war. The air raid scenes that show British people fleeing to the bomb shelters and sitting and hoping to make it through to the end are pretty harrowing. It’s just not something you see here very often, and it’s a good reminder that if war does hit home in a tangible way, you’re likely not looking to start a fight quite so quickly.

About to send Joffrey Turing to bed without his supper.

About to send Joffrey Turing to bed without his supper.

Toward the end, the film depicts Turing’s treatment by the British government after the war. Homosexual behavior was a crime in the U.K. then, and in Turing’s case, it was punishable by hormonal treatment for “fixing” his orientation, and a year after his sentence began, he committed suicide shortly after his 42nd birthday. In the U.S., people often remark about how soldiers can go die for their country at 18, but it’s illegal for them to have a beer because they’re under 21. How much worse is it that someone who did so much to aid his country would be treated in such a way just because of whom he loved and whom he was attracted to. Many Western countries have amended their laws on LGBTQ people, but even that didn’t happen without a lot of hard work and fighting to get not only laws, but perhaps more importantly, public opinion to come around to their side (as seen in 2014’s Golden Globe-, but not Oscar-nominated “Pride”). It’s still a major struggle in the U.S. today. But it’s important to remember where society once was, because people often forget that it was really that bad, and not all that long ago.

So, “The Imitation Game” has some very important things to say, and the film is very watchable, balancing the drama with humor, as good British film and programming tend to do. But folks who have seen a lot of biopics in the last few years may feel like they’ve seen much of it before. It probably deserves to make a claim for being among the 10 or 12 best films of last year, but being unremarkable as art keeps it from the top. It stacks up well compared to some of the weaker films the Academy nominated for Best Picture last year, and it is something most people should see.

Although this one came from a different angle, enough WWII movies, there were several high profile ones last year alone, in a subgenre that’s been done so much already. How many damn WWII movies are necessary? How much more is there that can be said about the war to end all wars?

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

MV5BODAzNDMxMzAxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDMxMjA4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Ever wonder what it’s like to be Michael Keaton? Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Best Picture winning film “Birdman” might give viewers an idea of how they’d expect it might feel.

Keaton’s tortured actor Riggan Thomson is an actor who once had major success starring in a blockbuster super hero franchise, called “Birdman.” But despite becoming a household name, he’d never been able to capture the same glory he did with that character. So, he’s attempting to make a a name for himself in a different avenue: starring and producing in a recreation of a Raymond Carver play on Broadway. Parallels to Keaton’s own career with his apex being the “Batman” movies can easily be made.

This is a look at the life of a man who has soared to heights most people could only dream of, but is desperate for one last shining moment. Despite his success, the audience quickly learns he’s been a bit of a failure offscreen. He was never really there for his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), when she was growing up. He has been separated from his wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), for quite some time, and though they are on good terms now, their split was a nasty one, and the fallout was entirely Riggan’s fault. His relationship with his current girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), seems to be fizzling, and excellent, but wildly unpredictable thespian, Mike (Edward Norton), is threatening to sink his play, but Riggan needs to keep him on, for his talent, and as a favor to his costar, Lesley (Naomi Watts), whom he adores.

The film was shot to appear to have been done in a single take, often shifting focus between characters as they pass each other in the hallway. It’s a creative and innovative technique that provides the feeling of watching a stage performance and a dreamy, floaty, claustrophobic feeling, as if the viewer is inside Riggan’s head.

As Riggan gets into a heated argument with a critic, whom he accuses of assigning labels to the plays she’s reviewing rather than giving an honest, descriptive review, “Birdman” defies categorization. It’s a dramatic work, but is also an existential comedy, and, depending on one’s point of view, could be allegory or sci-fi, depending on whether the voice that follows Riggan is real or in his head. The different elements fit together seamlessly, and it’s a marvel to watch. Essentially, it is the deconstruction of an aging asshole who is desperate to make something to be remembered by in a late stage in his life to make up for his own personal failings. But it also examines the fleeting nature of celebrity and people’s desire to be known, who then have trouble letting it go.

The struggles unfolding in Riggan’s and the other characters’ personal lives mirror the difficulties they encounter onstage, as the play nears opening night. As Mike says, the only time anything is real for him is onstage. Everything else he does is a performance. With the explosive ending of the play, one wonders whether Riggan was planning his own demise from the beginning, or if it was a spur of the moment decision brought on after a night of heavy drinking. _AF_6405.CR2

Riggan has always been a bit of a tortured soul for some unknown reason, as he’s always been starving for attention. As his wife says, he never understood the difference between admiration and love. He’s a selfish man who is only focused on his own success. Being a not quite washed up actor (he could do another Birdman sequel anytime he pleases, as the demand is still there) who wants to be seen as a “serious” artist, whatever that means, puts Riggan in a rather unique situation. But his internal struggles are ones that anyone might face, especially later in life, so it’s still a very relatable yarn.

Norton, Ryan, Stone, and Watts, along with Zach Galifianakis make up an excellent supporting cast, as viewers would expect, but it is Keaton in his starring role that makes you wonder where he’s been all this time. Perhaps he’s so impressive here because he’s essentially playing an exaggerated version of himself. But he was a good comedic actor early in his career, and it’s a wonder that he never became the bigger star that he seemed destined to be back then. He’s had a few great supporting roles, but nothing on the level of what he accomplishes here. Maybe it was just the right script and the right director. As with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” which shares many similarities with “Birdman,” it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Keaton in this role. And unless he gets another opportunity of this magnitude, it will be disappointing that Eddie Redmayne took home the Best Actor award instead of Keaton, as the Academy Awards are so political anyway, and Redmayne is a talented enough actor who will probably have many more noteworthy performances in the future to be recognized for.

One possible theory for what this movie is, is that the entire thing is playing out in Riggan’s head. All the characters represent different aspects of his own personality, and it would explain how he’s able to move objects with his mind and fly and things like that. But it’s just as easy to say he’s only imagining those things he appears to be doing. This is one of those movies that defies explanation, and it’s fun to talk about what everything might represent because it’s never made totally clear what is happening. It has just enough focus to tell an interesting story but leaving much up to the viewer to decipher.

Maybe that bird guy is really there, or maybe everything is inside Riggan's head. Who knows?

Maybe that bird guy is really there, or maybe everything is inside Riggan’s head. Who knows?

It can’t be said enough that 2014 was a great year for movies, and “Birdman” is unquestionably one of the best films of the year. It will make a great representative as future generations look back at last year. It is well deserving of its Oscar, and it’s always great to see a person of color be recognized for his work. It’s even rarer that a person from a country whose primary language is something other than English to be recognized as a director, and Inarritu is very deserving here. Though several actors were recognized with nominations, it would have been great to have seen Keaton take home an award. Here’s hoping this will give his career the rejuvenation it deserves. And who knows, maybe he could do another stint as the Dark Knight, donning the bat costume once more. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Michael-Keaton-Batman-Jealous-Affleck

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “Whiplash”

MV5BMTU4OTQ3MDUyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTA2MjU0MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Of the films nominated for Best Picture this year, “Whiplash” was the outlier, as it was the one that didn’t fit the mold of recent Best Picture winners. It wasn’t a biopic from a historically volatile period in time, and it didn’t attempt to make any grand social commentary. It’s just a solidly made film that unfolds beautifully with two dynamite opposing lead actors.

It was good to see JK Simmons get recognition at the Oscars for his work in this film. He’s long been a great character actor, but he hasn’t had that dramatic, explosive performance that would get the Academy’s attention. But that’s exactly what he finally got in “Whiplash.”

Many of Simmons' roles have been a bit less serious.

Many of Simmons’ roles have been a bit less serious.

This film is about a young, aspiring jazz drummer just entering music school who is ready to rock ‘n’ roll (not really, there’s a poster in the film that says something to the effect of, musicians without talent play rock). But he’s not just any drummer. Andrew (Miles Teller) aspires to not just be great, but one of the greats in music history, and he’s willing to do anything it takes to attain that status. But standing in his way is the nasty son of a bitch instructor, Fletcher, (Simmons) who is basically a cross between Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket” and Darth Vader wielding a conducting baton rather than a lightsaber. Whenever he enters a room, everyone snaps to attention like it’s boot camp. He’s even dressed all in black.

But Fletcher doesn’t want Andrew to fail. On the contrary, Fletcher wants all of his students to become great musicians. But if they aren’t willing to meet his demands, that’s his indicator that they are not the legendary performers he’s looking for. He tears one of his students a new one for playing off-key. The student isn’t off-key anyway, but Fletcher intimidates him into believing he was the offending player, and the fact that he doesn’t realize this is bad enough.

JK Simmons' Fletcher reveals that he's a vampire and attempts to devour Andrew. Actually, he just swears at him a lot

JK Simmons’ Fletcher reveals that he’s a vampire and attempts to devour Andrew. Actually, he just swears at him a lot.

But Andrew’s struggles go deeper than just in class. He’s one of those types who in some ways seems to have supreme confidence in himself, but pushing him gives way to deeply rooted insecurity. That’s evident when he asks a young lady out on a date and doesn’t realize she’s joking when she tells him he needs to go away.

A dinner scene with his family gets to the root of Andrew’s problems. It’s obvious that they are far more impressed with Andrew’s brother because he’s on his college football team, rather than in Andrew’s musical achievements. It takes a music family to understand the heart of a musician, and his family is as far away from that as can be. Andrew rightly takes offense at their apathy toward his passion, and it’s an unenviable position to be in.

But don’t think this is any underdog success story. Teller imbues Andrew with an arrogance and a lack of self-awareness that made it such a joy for Simmons to slap him repeatedly. When he attains success over his fellow drummers/rivals, he accepts his throne with such shit-eating smugness that the audience can’t help but root against this guy. He’s not at all likable, but as his blood feud with Fletcher builds to a breaking point, the viewer can’t help but wait with enthusiasm for the inevitable train wreck.

And when it hits, it really explodes, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is a masterfully crafted film by debuting director Damien Chazzelle, and it shows a whole lot of promise for his future. From the opening with Andrew sitting in the dark speedily hammering out a complex rhythm to the off-the-charts finale, Chazzelle has composed a sharply focused masterpiece that shows off his skills. It kind of came out of nowhere, as this is an incredible first effort, but also because his other movie credits include only writing for a pair of poor-looking horror/thriller movies. On the other hand, his experience in those genres works surprisingly well with this indie drama.

It’s a monologue Fletcher delivers toward the end of the film that raises some interesting commentary on today’s American society. He tells Andrew that he was hoping to find the next jazz prodigy, like Charlie Parker. But he believes that the younger generation is too coddled. He says the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” That’s why he’s so harsh on his students. He thinks the only way to give them the drive to succeed and weed out the ones who aren’t dedicated enough is to push them to their limits.

c1ab642c80e466d35fccb8e77a4732afHe makes an interesting point, though a poor one. Are young people given more today than previous generations, and is that keeping them from succeeding in life? Firstly, even if they are, much more is also expected of them. There probably are kids in some segments of society whose parents give them the world and ask nothing of them, so they do end up becoming spoiled, lazy, and entitled and more interested in hearing people tell them “good job” rather than actually succeeding. The thing is, those children probably belong to the upper class who are given a lot by their parents, and so when they grow up, they expect the world to fall down at their feet. And they are probably afforded a more extended adolescence because once they decide to get serious, if they ever do, they can always go to their parents for help.

Everyone else, however, is more concerned about trying to get by rather than being a superstar. Sure, that opportunity is supposedly promised to anyone who is dedicated and works hard enough, but that level of success is rare. There are always rags-to-riches stories in the news, but the stories of those who worked hard and didn’t get the right opportunities are less commonly told because no one wants to hear that. As a result, society perceives those people who don’t succeed as spoiled, lazy, and entitled because of that myth.

The relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is similar to that of an abusive parent and a child. Some parents see their children as an extension of themselves and want to live vicariously through them because they see their own lives as less successful than they had envisioned. So they push their children to succeed. Some children respond to the pressure well and thrive, and others can’t handle it and would rather find their own way in life through whatever means. Either way, that leaves scars on those people that last throughout their lives. Andrew seems to be more neglected by his parents rather than being pushed too hard, but he exhibits that insecurity that often stems from parents’ disappointment in their children. But Fletcher pushes his buttons in a way that drives him to work harder because he believes so much in that dream he has of being one of the greatest. Perhaps Andrew is craving that extremely aggressive attention Fletcher gives him.

That approach toward motivation might help some people to become more driven. But what Fletcher doesn’t understand is that other approaches can work for people too. Having positive support from friends and family can drive people to succeed as well, as they feel they have the freedom to find their own paths and their own goals. Different strokes for different folks.

Then again, Andrew is a little shit and it’s pretty understandable that he doesn’t have any friends, as he shuts himself off from everyone for the sake of his own success.

Ironically, the whole idea of competition, comparing yourself to others, and technical skill over musicality runs counter to the essence of jazz. The great jazz musicians played based on feeling and bonding between musicians. It doesn’t hurt the movie, but it makes the goals Fletcher and Andrew are attempting to achieve seem even more vain and nebulous. If your goal is simply to be remembered for something, it’s kind of lacking. Finding your passion in life is probably a better goal to work toward, as passionate people are the ones who do truly great things. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, but whenever he talks about playing, he always sounds bitter and resentful toward his teammates and fellow athletes rather than happy about the success he achieved.

If there's blood all over your instrument after you're done playing, that's a sign that you're doing something wrong.

If there’s blood all over your instrument after you’re done playing, that’s a sign that you’re doing something wrong.

Another thing about jazz is that it originated in black communities, and the art form rose to prominence through black artists. The movie is about white performers and white families. Certainly white people can play jazz, but movies about jazz and music school aren’t particularly common, and so it really seems like it’s missing some of the purpose of jazz if it is only about white people. There are black people in the movie, but none of them really get to be characters, and so they are basically scenery. It seems like a significant misstep to not even write a black character into the movie. If the movie is about white entitlement, then that’s one thing, but shouldn’t there at least be a nod to the folks who invented that form of music, and more than just the acknowledgement of their existence? This isn’t exactly Hollywood either, it’s a low-budget film made by a rookie director, but Chazzelle has quite a bit to learn about inclusiveness and acknowledgement of diversity.

Despite that flaw, “Whiplash” is one great intense film that should hook most people and trigger horrible memories in those who were music students, or at least aspired to be. It’s a battle of wills, and the audience is waiting to witness the explosion when it happens, but it ends on a somewhat unexpectedly high note (though whether it’s really a positive ending would be up for debate). It was good to see the Academy give this movie some attention, as it doesn’t seem like the stereotypical Oscar movie. As 2014 was an excellent year for movies (though it wasn’t truly reflected in the Best Picture candidates), “Whiplash” was among the best, though not as great as “Birdman” or “Boyhood.” But JK Simmons got a well-deserved Oscar, and it will be exciting to see how Chazzelle develops as a director in the future.

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “American Sniper”

MV5BMTkxNzI3ODI4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjkwMjY4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_In Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, Bruce Wayne sets out to create a symbol of justice, the courage to stand up for the weak against those who would oppress them, and an icon that would provide assurance of the city’s safety for the people of Gotham. Bruce’s ambitions were noble but flawed to the point that it was in question whether they were any benefit to society.

Chris Kyle, an American Navy SEAL, known as the “American Sniper,” purported to be about similar traits to the ones Bruce Wayne attempted to emulate through his random act of heroism. Clint Eastwood’s film shows that these traits were instilled in him from a young age, giving him a simplistic view of right and wrong, that he carried throughout his life.

From the beginning of the film, the viewer is thrown along with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) into a situation in Iraq where he has to make a quick decision, and a painful one. He sees through his sniper scope an Iraqi child carrying what appears to be an improvised explosive device toward a squad of U.S. troops. With Kyle’s moral code in mind, he makes the best decision he is able to, which ends badly for the child. This world is the hell the troops walked into when they were sent to Iraq back in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Eastwood provides a harrowing look into that world.

Bradley Cooper arguably gave his best performance to date in portraying Chris Kyle.

Bradley Cooper arguably gave his best performance to date in portraying Chris Kyle.

Of course, for any soldier, there’s more to life than just combat. There are things like going to bars to meet women who will someday become your wife and have children with you. The film delves into Kyle’s home life, as well as his accomplishments in war, providing a much-needed depiction of civilian life for former or currently serving soldiers.

As far as war movies go, in some regards, “American Sniper” is one of the best, offering a glimpse into the life of a single soldier, albeit one who was seen as something of a hero among his peers rather than your run-of-the-mill grunt. This is the first non-documentary movie about the Iraq War to explore factual (to a degree, more on that later) events, which could make a good companion piece for HBO’s “Generation Kill” series. It’s entertaining for the most part. Cooper gives an impressive performance as Kyle, convincingly filling the shoes of a simple Texas boy who deals with trauma from his experiences in battle.

Chris Kyle, the American Sniper

Chris Kyle, the American Sniper

That’s where the movie succeeds the most. There’s always a lot of rhetoric in the U.S. about supporting the troops and placing them in a status above normal people and the sacrifices they make for the good of the country. “The Hurt Locker” touched briefly on life for a soldier after returning home, but no film has captured those sacrifices as completely as “Sniper.” Many war films end with the protagonist soldier going home, but they usually don’t get into what happens after they get home. “Sniper” weaves the traumatic violent experiences of war together with the everyday atmosphere of suburban life, and offers a brilliant contrast between a war-torn country whose inhabitants are under constant threat of terror, and the safe, sterile environment of suburban life enjoyed by well-off Americans. The effects of war on the people who wage it is something people need to see to fully understand the horrors of war. “Saving Private Ryan” illustrated the “war is hell” idea better than anyone had previously with the opening scene on Normandy Beach, but then spent the rest of the movie making war look cool again. “Sniper” avoids making war look like fun and conveys in many ways how being in the military changes people.

That sounds like pretty glowing praise for a movie that’s gotten so much progressive backlash. People who have read this blog before have to be thinking “there’s no way this guy is going to shower this cheap propaganda with this much praise and let it off the hook right?” Right.

If you look at the film a certain way, you can see how it could be an attempt to portray Kyle’s subjective views on the war, without intending to enter into any political commentary on those views, and in some ways it succeeds at doing that. Anyone who shared the experiences Kyle did in the movie could probably understand, at least in part, why he held his harmful views. You could see Islamic militants as simply evil bullies who just want to kill innocents and the U.S. as the protectors of the innocent. You could understand how someone like Kyle could write in a book that he wished he would have killed more Iraqis when he was serving because that would mean more Marines lives would have been protected. Perhaps he and other soldiers are blinded by U.S. patriotism and gung-ho military attitude and really believe that they are defending American soil by traveling to the other side of the world to countries the size of Ohio whose main resource is oil, which is sold to the U.S. to power the tanks that drive through that country’s streets. Maybe troops really are concerned these militant groups that couldn’t afford to manufacture large ships or planes or assemble a real military could invade San Diego.

But the film does reveal its political bias, though it is subtle. The most telling sign that it is attempting to sway or reinforce the audience’s opinion is in the way it embellishes certain events. The incident with the boy carrying the IED was similar to an event Kyle describes in his book where he shot a woman carrying an IED. It was only a boy in the film. Though the real event was horrific as well, it’s not quite as bad as having to shoot a child. There are some events later in the movie where Kyle encounters some grotesquely sadistic extremists that the real-world Kyle didn’t have any experience with.

Many films based on true stories embellish details for dramatic effect, and that sort of thing can be done well, so as not to make a significant difference and to improve the story. But in a movie as politically charged as this one, slight changes can make a major difference. Certainly the use of children in several scenes emphasizes how evil these extremists are, and though no one should argue that religious or political extremists are really good people who are just misunderstood or whatever, it downplays the U.S.’s role in the conflict, which certainly goes back to before Sept. 11, by making those militants, and by association the people of those countries and of Muslim faith, into simple villains (and seriously, Hollywood needs to refrain from killing children in movies; who the hell finds that entertaining?). There is a character referred to as “the Butcher,” who is based on a real person, but one whom Kyle never encountered, nor was christened with the same moniker, but shit, when there’s someone in a movie whom people call “the Butcher,” you know that’s gotta be a bad person before they even appear.

Using children to make a point is a key tactic in trying to make a political statement.

Using children to make a point is a key tactic in trying to make a political statement in a film.

Then, there’s the way Kyle repeatedly and forcefully refers to, either the militants or Iraqis in general, as savages. The real Kyle probably did consider those people to be savages, but repeating it on film emphatically reinforces that stereotype in the audience’s minds with nothing to counter that opinion.

The Marines in the movie are also simplified. Talk to anyone who’s been in the military, and the non-combat stories they’ll talk about probably involve consuming mass quantities of alcohol, possibly some illicit substances, hazing, lots of fucking or at least the intense desire to fuck, and other tales of debaucherous feats (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with any of that). That’s just the stuff on the base. There have been numerous stories of terrible acts committed by U.S. troops against the people in the countries they’ve been stationed in, sometimes depicted in films. Of course, that’s nothing unique to the U.S., as that’s been the nature of war since biblical times.

But the Marines in “Sniper” are the sweetest little boy scouts you’ll ever meet who all just want to go back home so they can get married, and the chatter they make while sitting in the back of a jeep traveling through the dangerous streets of Iraq involves doing the right thing by getting an expensive engagement ring, rather than a cheap knock-off. Sometimes the boys might let a little fuck-word slip here or there, but who can blame them because they’re under so much pressure, having to kill children and all. It creates an us vs. them mentality, and obviously the U.S. is the good guys and anyone who opposes it must be evil.

At the end of the film, after Kyle has been killed at the hands of a Marine, whom people assumed had mental illness (the Marine has mental illness, but militants are all just inherently evil, right?), though in the trial which recently wrapped up, he was considered to be of sound mind and convicted of murdering Kyle. So Kyle goes out, and is given a hero’s funeral, filling Cowboys Stadium. Last month, the day of his death was dubbed “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas to honor him.

So, in many ways, Eastwood (advertently or not) and the U.S. have created their own symbol of justice, the courage to stand up for the weak against those who would oppress them, and an icon for American citizens to rally around, a reminder that the U.S. stands for what is right in the world. The U.S. has turned Chris Kyle into its version of Batman.

Islamic extremists as depicted in "American Sniper" but with less cackling.

Islamic extremists as depicted in “American Sniper” but with less cackling.

And Batman has to have his Joker. Islamic militants who are inherently evil and simply want to create chaos and watch the world burn (nothing to do with the U.S.’s pro-war culture or its invasion of their countries, of course) make for a good villain people can rally against. This has the unfortunate side-effect of anti-Islamic rhetoric invigorated among those who are heavily patriotic and mistreatment of peaceful Muslims, especially in Western countries. But a pro-war culture thrives on us-versus-them mentality, and this film has stirred up a lot of that fervor at a time (as evidenced on Twitter, especially in regard to this film) when the U.S. and Europe are facing a “threat” bearing many similarities to the one in Iraq, as depicted in “American Sniper.”

No one should condone the violent actions of the Islamic State group or the Taliban or whichever militant organization, whether it’s beheading prisoners or attacking a newspaper in France, but to believe that they are the only aggressors in these conflicts is ignorant.

If it’s understandable that people like Kyle see the need to stand up for the innocent against bullies, then the blame should be placed on the ones above them who for their own profit send young men and women into combat, before blaming the people on the opposite side.

While Eastwood’s intent may have been artistic endeavor, rather than to stir up political fervor, it shouldn’t have been difficult to gauge the reactions people would have from watching the film, and if you want to create something free of political bindings, then a director should take all of this into account. Though it might be reductive to label art as propaganda, it’s impossible to ignore the effect it has on an audience.

“American Sniper” was far and away the highest grossing film out of the Best Picture nominees, and undoubtedly the most influential one. It wouldn’t be surprising if it was the only Best Picture nominee most moviegoers went to see in theaters. Though Eastwood has created an important and even essential movie, it also has such great problems politically, that one needs to watch it with a skeptical mind and do some research, so as not to be sucked in by its persuasiveness. Was it one of the best films of the year? It was better than “The Theory of Everything,” but with so many other great films that came out last year, it’s hard to see how this one made it in but others didn’t.

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

MV5BMzM5NjUxOTEyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjEyMDM0MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_There are two types of people in the world: Those who love Wes Anderson movies and those who hate them. Those who love them prefer some more than others, but those who hate them will hate all of them, and there will never be any convincing them otherwise.

Essentially, all of Anderson’s movies are the same: Quirky humor, the theme of growing older, well-established actors playing against type alongside his cast of regulars, a sense of over-the-top gravitas (though whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not is up to the viewer to decide), odd visual symmetries, and all of it bathed in delectable pastels.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nothing new, in that regard. Anderson fans will eat it up like one of Mendl’s confections. The good thing about Anderson movies is that although they all follow similar patterns, the director has managed to improve upon his previous effort every time out. So, his latest film is always his best.

This version concerns a famous hotel located in the mountains of a small, fictional European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, in the 1930s, where none of the residents is sure which accent they’re supposed to speaking with. The story follows the hotel’s concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who has a passion for pungent cologne and a penchant for wealthy, elderly women. His new lobby boy, Zero, played in his younger days by the debuting Tony Revolori, works his way into becoming Gustave’s protege and close friend.

One of Gustave’s senior sweethearts, Madame Duchess, portrayed by a completely unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, is assassinated and, being much closer to Gustave than to the rest of her family, makes Gustave heir of one of the world’s most reknowned paintings, “Boy with Apple.” Of course, her family is none too pleased, especially her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who then makes it his mission, or more accurately, his hired thug, Jopling’s (Willem Dafoe) mission, to hunt down Gustave and the painting.

Move over, Ralph, Dafoe and Brody get to be the despicable ones this time around.

Move over, Ralph, Dafoe and Brody get to be despicable this time around.

The movie hits all the Anderson trademarks, but with the subject matter of the story, and the backdrop of war-torn Europe, the typically faux gravitas gives way to actual gravitas. Edward Norton plays a rather un-European European softy military commander who is a buddy of Gustave’s and helps him out of some treacherous situations. This is Anderson’s most serious movie, which could be a misleading statement considering how silly it is. It also features some of the darkest humor he has employed in any of his films, especially the scenes involving hit man Jopling.

It’s always fun to see the visiting cast of actors get the Anderson treatment, and this crew is no exception. Fiennes displays a surprisingly natural sense of comedic timing, which may come as a surprise to some, as he’s most known for the countless despicable villains he’s played over the years, and he proves a good hand to anchor a film to, even as an honorable, kind gentleman, though his love interests may be questionable, given the treasures he stands to gain from those relationships. Revolori is a bit of a revelation in his first big role, a natural fit for the dry humor Anderson employs. He makes a good sidekick for Gustave, though much of the story is also about his character. Saoirse Ronan is lovely as Zero’s love interest with a facial birthmark in the shape of Mexico, Agatha. Unfortunately, she isn’t given much to do. Most of Anderson’s usual suspects are placed in mere cameos, but it’s fun to see them when they pop up.

Anderson knows how to find the right angles.

Anderson knows how to find the right angles.

Although Agatha has opportunities to show strength, she mostly plays second fiddle to the men. Her role in Gustave’s and Zero’s activities mostly involves doing work for them. Women’s deaths are commonly used in the story as plot devices or for the male characters’ development. There are some Anderson films where he implements more fully fledged female characters, but invariably, they all mostly concern men and men’s affairs. He’s better than many directors at creating women in his films, usually giving them more dimensions than many female characters, but are often only more complex love interests for the men, rather than simple ones. In this regard, “Budapest” is one of his weaker movies.

As the film opens with a young woman in the modern day visiting the hotel long after it has ceased operation, lured there by a book written by a one-time patron, the movie is reflective on history long forgotten, only passed on through a tour book. It’s a stark reminder of the world as it ages, and one’s experiences eventually become memories, only the best of which will be passed on, and that’s if you’re lucky. An old empty building may house the ghosts of a world gone by, yet it’s also mere cold brick and stone.

Ultimately, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” though a very good one, is just another Wes Anderson film. Fans of his know they’ll enjoy it before they sit down to watch it. It won’t change the minds of those who don’t care for his whimsical worlds of whimsy. It continues his tradition of topping his last film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” though his last three or so have been significant improvements over his earlier movies, as they exhibit stronger storytelling that has come with years of experience. It doesn’t seem like a better film than say, the wondrously creative and innovative “Birdman,” as Anderson hasn’t really broken any new ground with his latest film, or even made any significant shifts from his previous work. It seems like the Golden Globe the movie won may have been more of a legacy award for Anderson than for the movie’s own merits. It probably won’t and shouldn’t win Best Picture from the Oscars this year, but Anderson has created another lovely movie that fans of his will eat up with a spoon.

“The Theory of Everything” Could Have Been Awesome

MV5BMTAwMTU4MDA3NDNeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDk4NTMxNTIx._V1_SX214_AL_Biopics have been particularly popular with the Academy for about the last decade. Asa a result, there have been gads of them in recent years. Some have been great (“Walk the Line,” “The King’s Speech”, “The Queen”), some mediocre (“Ray,” “Fearless”), some downright boring (“Public Enemies,” “Invictus), and a few that took a unique approach (“The Last King of Scotland,” “The Social Network”), generally all of which generated pushes for Lead Actor/Actress nominations, as performers attempted to disappear into the role and recreate famous moments in history. There are several in this year’s Best Picture nominees alone, “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” and “Selma.”

“The Theory of Everything,” a dramatic representation of cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s life, as well as that of his first wife, Jane Hawking, who is equally integral to the film, is a biopic. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to be said about it. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, per se, but it doesn’t make any attempt to add anything new. That’s not to say Stephen Hawking isn’t an interesting figure, but if you’ve seen a fair share of similar movies, you’ve basically already seen this one.

The man

The man

The bulk of the film deals with the Hawkings’ relationship, which began before Stephen’s disabling condition began to manifest itself. Thus, the most compelling thing it does is show both the courage and frustration of a spouse to someone who possesses high ambition, who because of his condition is also increasingly need of a caretaker. Felicity Jones plays Jane as a bold woman who takes a great risk in many ways in marrying Stephen, who faces the specter of a difficult and possibly short life. Eddie Redmayne portrays Stephen as a man with a complex personality who has an awkward outer shell but is quite the cheeky rascal to people who know him well, which comes as a contrast to the image of the wheelchair-bound man with a computer voice most people identify him with.

Once Stephen is diagnosed with his disease, while studying at Cambridge, it is quite an emotional risk he takes in continuing his work, being unsure how much he would accomplish, as doctors give him no more than a few years to live. Jane makes the decision to stay with him and marry him and have children, even with the knowledge that life with Stephen would be not be easy. On the one hand, if the doctors’ predictions about Stephen’s mortality were to come true, she would lose the person she loved and have to raise the kids on her own. On the other, Stephen would eventually be completely paralyzed and require Jane to take care of him for the rest of their lives.

The film does a good job of capturing Jane’s struggles, as well as Stephen’s, as Jane gradually feels her life being drained away, as she is required to give most of her life to taking care of Stephen and her children. Her struggles are embodied in a single man, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), whom she meets at church choir practice, as he is handsome, kind, and able-bodied, and she begins to develop romantic feelings toward him. It is admirable that she is willing to give of herself as much as she does, and it’s a sign of the strength of the Hawkings’ relationship. But her frustration and longing for an easier, more fulfilling life are totally understandable, as the life she has chosen was never going to be easy.

It was a bold move for Jane to stay with Stephen, even after he was diagnosed.

It was a bold move for Jane to stay with Stephen, even after he was diagnosed with his degenerative disease. The film captures her struggles, as much as it does Stephen’s work.

The development of Stephen’s theory on the origin of the universe is presented as almost cursory to his relationship with his wife. His scientific work is what he’s known for after all, not as much for being a husband. The complexity of the theory is presented as long equations on a chalkboard, indecipherable to non-astrophysicists, and presented as a simple explanation, so the audience can understand that he has come a conclusion that is scientifically sound, though not the impenetrable means of achieving that conclusion.

In other biopics, it’s easy to relate the subject’s work to their life, as a running theme throughout the film. For instance, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were musicians who let their genuine emotions bleed into their songs. Idi Amin was the deranged tyrant of a nation. There are many biopics made about athletes or coaches. Their accomplishments make for a nice juxtaposition with their personal lives, as one influences the other. Of course, music and sports make for good hooks to keep viewers entertained, or in Amin’s case, his violent displays of power and an ugly disposition are terrifying.

The problem when comparing those to “Everything” then, is that it’s difficult to film scienceing. Images of Stephen writing labyrinthine equations on a chalkboard don’t come close to relating what those equations mean into something the audience can care about. As a result, Stephen doesn’t really have anything to be defined by, as far as the film goes. His wife becomes defined by her work to take care of her family. Stephen in some ways becomes defined by his disability, which doesn’t send a positive message.

Certainly, the performances of Redmayne and Jones are the heart of the film, and they’ve both been recognized with Oscar nominations, as co-leads. Redmayne is especially impressive, as he is able to make Stephen a lively figure, even as his paralysis becomes gradually more pronounced. He is still able to communicate the rapture of looking at a Penthouse magazine, even though he can only move his eyes. That’s good acting. He’s able to do it in a way that comes off as sincere, but not offensive or exploitative. Jones is more understated, but she is able to convey the very complex emotions Jane experiences throughout the movie.

The performances are enough to make the movie worth seeing, but otherwise, “The Theory of Everything” is a rather flat, even cold experience. It’s not bad by any means, and the Hawkings’ relationship is compelling. But even as the movie makes an attempt beyond the straightforward telling of the scientist’s life, it comes too late to make any lasting impact. If you’re looking for an entertaining insight into Stephen Hawking’s theories, you won’t find that here. It will likely garner an award for Redmayne, which is deserved, but it doesn’t seem memorable enough to be considered one of 2014’s best films.

Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “Boyhood”

In honor of “The LEGO Movie’s” snubbing by the Academy, Asian & Entertained presents the 2015 Best Picture nominees. Today, “Boyhood.”

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MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Roger Ebert once said, “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” In one sense, that might make “Boyhood” the master of all movies. Being filmed over 12 years, chronicling two children’s growth over that span, and featuring continuity in casting as the adult actors themselves changed over that period, it was an unprecedentedly risky project, with so many variables that could have caused it to be a flop. To its credit, it is well-filmed and a remarkable, peerless precedent set by visionary director Richard Linklater.

But the premise isn’t particularly original: a movie about a white boy growing up is hardly anything new, so that’s one hurdle Linklater needed to overcome to make something viewers would find compelling to sit through for nearly three hours. Sure, it is kind of a curiosity to watch a document of people changing over time, but anyone who invested in home movie camcorders over the years could have done that themselves, with a real family and their real stories, rather than a fictional one, complete with period soundtrack, fashions, and references to world events. They would probably have a hard time getting a studio to buy it and release it in theaters no matter how fascinating that family was, because no one really wants to watch that. But you could watch your own home movies for three hours, and probably have an entertaining time, and why would you want to watch someone else’s.

Then, Linklater also had to be a bit concerned about the actors he hired. Ellar Coltrane, who plays the boy, Mason, was eight years old (though he was playing a five-year-old), as was Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter), who play’s Mason’s sister, Samantha. It’s rare enough to find good child actors, and even rarer that good child actors grow up to be good or successful adult actors (i.e. Hayley Joel Osment). Indeed, there were some rough years in the middle of the movie for those kids, as they appeared either disinterested or unsure of themselves, though by the end, they have both turned out to be pretty decent at playing that character they’d been for over a decade. And once he’d wrapped shooting for the each point of the movie, there would be no going back if he wanted to change something, so sticking with what he had and making it into a cohesive story, took some incredible foresight and ability to adjust for the future, rather than the past. In most filmmaking, hindsight can probably be a rather valuable tool, as the movie isn’t done until it’s done, but it’s easy to see how it would be more of a frustration in this case, as it wouldn’t really do any good.

Is watching some strange kid grow up better than your own home movies?

Is watching some strange kid grow up better than your own home movies?

Thankfully, the movie isn’t just about the boy, or even just him and his sister, but also about the people around him, though it is always from his perspective. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play their separated parents, living in Texas, who obviously hadn’t been planning on having kids at the age they did. Mom tries to navigate a difficult world as a single mother, as Dad has run off and is doing his own thing but comes back to visit every now and again. They both love the kids, and it seems like Dad is a good guy who wasn’t ready for the responsibility. Unfortunately, just being a good guy doesn’t do much to help when he’s not around, as there are always bills to pay and lonely days.

As Mason grows up, Mom starts to take some control over her life, going back to college to further her career, both for herself and to support her family. Along the way, she goes through a couple husbands a few years apart, who both turn out to be abusive drunks. Mason gains and loses a couple families and that’s just part of life. Dad becomes more involved with his kids, but shows no sign that he’s ready to settle down yet, as he’s still on some esoteric quest to find himself. He kind of becomes the cool Dad, who shows that he actually does love and understand the kids, but actually taking care of them, at least from a financial standpoint, is not high on his list of priorities.

The film smartly takes a nuanced view on abusive people. The abusive husbands Mom marries aren’t the stereotypical deadbeat dads who live in a trailer and spend their days at the bar and their nights slapping around their wives, calling them “bitch,” and telling them to get back in the kitchen like most movies or TV shows. The first one, Bill (Marco Perella), is one of Mom’s professors. He’s well off, has two kids of his own, spends his off days golfing, and at first, he seems like a stable person for Mom to be with as she gains her feet in the world. His abuse of his kids is only verbal, and subtle at first, undercutting them as they do normal things kids do. He’s harder on the ones who aren’t his, of course. But then comes the drinking, which he hides or disguises, so the family isn’t aware. As time passes, the drinking becomes more pronounced, and he’s found to be physically assaulting his wife. It’s interesting how the abuse is gradual and increases over time, though the signs are always there to a discerning person. Of course, to many, his taking digs at the kids might just appear to be “tough love.” Years later, when husband No. 2, Jim, (Brad Hawkins, who starred in “VR Troopers” way back in the day), starts to show similar patterns, Mom gets the family out before the problems escalate to the same level.

It’s interesting how the movie contrasts Mom’s other husbands and Dad. Dad seems like he’s never quite got it together himself, but he’s great with his children, and shows he cares about them and takes the time to listen to them and try to understand them, whereas Mom’s other husbands are authoritative and judgmental. When they get into high school, he awkwardly tries to talk to them about safe sex, which shows that he may be no perfect parent, but he really is trying and he does care about his kids, which is probably more than can be said for a lot of parents. But his inability to get his own life together would have made for a poor environment for the kids, and often throughout their lives, Dad’s presence seems to be only cursory. So, although he’s not abusive, he’s still not able to be a healthy member of that family. Eventually, he does turn it around, getting a steady job and finding another woman to settle down with. Perhaps had he and Mom met later in life, it could have worked out for them. But that’s the way life goes.

All of this probably sounds like it belongs on ABC Family rather than on the Best Picture list, and though it has better acting and production, as well as a broader scope, that’s basically what it is. The second half of the movie is where it starts to set itself apart and become a great movie. If this were a typical family film, Mom and Dad would come to realize that they really do love each other after all, and they just had to figure out how to balance their crazy lives with one another, and at the end, there would at least be some sign that it might work out after all, and the abusive guy’s kids could come live with them.

Thankfully, Linklater took a more realistic approach. Instead, Mason, having lived in several cities with different people and different family experiences, starts to become disaffected, as all teenagers do, and starts to realize that he doesn’t want to become either of his parents. But then, where does that leave him? As he works through high school, summer jobs and the teenage party life, it begins to show that he has his mother’s talent and intelligence, and his father’s adventurous spirit, but also has picked up Dad’s lack of work ethic and ability to find his way in the system. So, these reflections help provide some insight into how people can be the product of what they grew up with, which lifts the film above just another coming of age story.

Dad’s and Mom’s progress throughout life also highlights the differences single dads and moms face trying to make it through life. Whereas Dad has the luxury of taking an excursion in Alaska or bumming around with his friends and trying to get a band started that has no chance of becoming anything, he still has plenty of time to be the cool dad who takes an interest in the kids’ lives and trying to help them turn out better than he did. Mom’s life, even when she makes choices for herself, she still has to make them with her kids always in mind. At the end, Dad is on a positive path, starting a new family with a new wife and a new child. Mom is fresh off a second divorce wondering where her life went. That’s important for people to take note of, as men and women definitely have vastly different experiences when it’s just one of them and the kids.

Cool Dad gets to have all the fun with his kids, while Mom is left working to support them.

Cool Dad gets to have all the fun with his kids, while Mom is left working to support them.

The obligatory pop culture references are fun, as they reflect the year and just how silly many of those trends were back then. Period pieces can be cool, but they can only be so accurate when research comes from someone who had studied that period and lived it if lucky. This is a real period piece, as the work was actually being done in the period that part of the movie was about. It is a bit odd to see a movie in 2014 open with a 14-year-old Coldplay song, and it’s easy to forget how popular that song was back then (also weird to think how much Coldplay has changed). Ditto for Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” which many who remember when that song was popular, probably assumed they’d never hear it again. It’s cool to see kids waiting in line for a midnight release of a Harry Potter book (remember when people got excited about hardcopy books?) too. But as the years pass, the references become more muddled, especially if they’re supposed to help create atmosphere for a specific year. Who remembers which year that one Vampire Weekend song came out? It was one of those in the past decade or so, but which one? It’s funny how Linklater incorporated world events into the the story too, as Dad is a hardcore Democrat who makes his kids steal John McCain signs out of people’s yards. And when Dad takes his kids to a Houston Astros game, he marvels at how Roger Clemens could still be at the top of his game, even as he was still pitching at a high level in his early 40s. It hasn’t been proven that Clemens was on PEDs then, but plenty of evidence points to a likely answer to Dad’s marveling.

Clemens has always been about silencing critics for one reason or another.

Clemens has long been about silencing critics for one reason or another.

Does the end result justify the time and care Linklater has put into it? It’s difficult to say “no.” The movie’s story might not being anything too original, but it’s like part fiction, part documentary, as the characters literally grow up before the viewer’s eyes. That’s something that has never been done before, and never attempted. It was an incredibly ambitious project, one that likely no one will ever duplicate, and it would be hard to see any reason to do it again. Although Linklater made a large portion of his body of work over that time, some of them excellent movies, he has dedicated at least a bit of the last dozen years to one film, and that deserves recognition. In a year of great movies, this one does stand apart from the rest if for no other reason than its unique approach. It’s a heavy favorite to win at the Oscars, having already picked up Best Drama at the Golden Globes, but it would be hard to say this was the best movie of the year, as it had some stiff competition. But it certainly is toward the top of the list. The Academy could do much worse than to pick this one to win.