Everything Could Have Been Awesome: “Selma”

MV5BODMxNjAwODA2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzc0NjgzMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_A film about one of the most important figures in the last century and U.S. history, Martin Luther King Jr., which had been a long time coming anyway, couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Especially since it covers a time of great upheaval and restoration for civil rights, it had to be intentional that director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo decided to make that film, “Selma,” in 2014, when the world finally started paying attention to the ongoing problems of racial division in the U.S. It’s not as if trouble between law enforcement and the black community had taken a hiatus since police had beaten Rodney King in 1991 until black teenager Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. But between the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, the general public of America had moved on from racial tension as if it wasn’t happening anymore. In other words, people (and the media) who weren’t affected closed their eyes and pretended it went away.

The atmosphere in the 1960s shared many similarities with today’s racial climate. Black people had had the “Right to Vote” for nearly 100 years, but Jim Crow laws prevented that from truly being the case. Black people were often arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, and crimes against black people often went unsolved because police didn’t bother investigating them, such as attacks on churches.

Through gerrymandering and voting restrictions, the U.S. today isn’t far off from Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting back in the first half of the 1900s. Now police are gunning down unarmed black people, and there are again attacks on black churches. It’s becoming more common that black men who were arrested decades ago are being released because there was no real evidence to convict them in the first place (such as a man who was convicted of stabbing his friend in New York, although he was at Disney World, in a 1994 case). They’re receiving some small modicum of justice now, but where was justice before decades of their lives were stolen from them?

Certainly, the Martin case and the unrest in Ferguson last year spurred on the making of this film, while so many racially charged events have been in the news since its release. Without question, “Selma” was the most politically relevant film of 2014, and especially among the field of contenders for best picture at the Oscars. The film is a defiant challenge to society about the recent struggles that have been made the backdrop of public life in the U.S. over the last few years.

King was not so sure about that ascot.

King was not so sure about that ascot.

One of the ideas DuVernay addresses is the concept of “respectability politics,” the notion that a minority class has to live up to some standard of “decency” set impossibly high by the ruling class in order to gain respect as human beings. She opens the film with Oyelowo’s King fussing over having to wear a fancy ascot to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Wait till the brothers back home see me like this. They’ll have a laugh,” he quips to his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). The ascot, in all its ridiculous glory, symbolizes King’s attempts to gain equality and respect for black people. Among the early scenes of the film are a black woman played by Oprah Winfrey (and people shouldn’t joke about her inclusion in the film. She’s proved herself to be a more than capable actor in other films) being unfairly denied her right to vote and the bombing of a black church, which resulted in the deaths of four young girls. Those events, which both took place in Alabama, set the stage for King’s big push toward the historic march.

Standing in the way of progress is LBJ, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. Actually, he’s not so much standing in the way, but with his concentration set on the ill-intentioned Vietnam War, he doesn’t want to have to deal with the civil war about to break out in his own country. He shows his resistance toward King’s pleas for help, and the president even tries to appease King, offering him a position in Washington trying to get him to drop his activism.

DuVernay attracted a lot of criticism for her portrayal of Johnson, whom few people had ever seen reason to stick up for previously but suddenly were showing concern for his legacy. But it makes sense, as the director is attempting to show the resistance from the streets to the highest authority that black people faced (and still face) in their fight for equality. A figure like Johnson isn’t just easy fodder, but he is the ultimate representative of authority that is at worst antagonistic and at best apathetic toward the struggles of people of color. Johnson publicly came out in favor of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but the only two people who know for sure how those meetings between Johnson and King went are the two men who were present.

The subsequent events King is hindered by serve to show not only his resolve, but also his doubts, as he winds up in jail, a member of his movement is killed by police, there are cracks within his movement. But he proves himself to be a master strategist as well, using the idea of respectability to get the attention of the public, in order to force Johnson to act in order to save public perception. The movie gives a rather complete portrait of the man, even touching on his marital struggles and his well-documented proclivities for affairs with other women. Oyelowo is good at the part. It’s obvious that he put a lot of effort into studying King. He especially shines in King’s vulnerable moments, as he’s constantly challenged by the weight of what he’s trying to achieve, and trying to weather the danger that he and his fellow marchers face.

The man.

The man.

Because Johnson questions King, as King organizes the 50-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the capital in Montgomery. King sends his people out knowing that Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) with his temperament toward black people is going to react with violence. In a way, that’s what King is hoping for, as a photo of a black woman being beaten by police on the front page of newspapers across the country is what’s going to get people’s attention, the president’s most of all with his reputation on the line. Johnson tries to put the blame on King for stirring up trouble, knowingly putting people in harm’s way. Even though King knows his cause is righteous, the viewer can see in King’s eyes that he’s wondering if Johnson is right that he’s going about it the wrong way.

The police are beating up Oprah. Who wouldn't be upset seeing that on the cover of their morning news?

The police are beating up Oprah. Who wouldn’t be upset seeing that on the cover of their morning news?

DuVernay uses King’s voice to offer exposition on the relationship between the law, justice and equality. King explains to one of his aides that gaining equality in the law doesn’t mean anything if there’s still poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunities. That’s one concept that resonates in today’s supposedly “colorblind” society. Disparity of income and education, and the proliferation of the drug trade in urban life overpower laws against desegregation. If poor communities are comprised of mostly people of color and rich communities are mostly full of white people, how does that equate to desegregation? Kids in better schools have more opportunities to learn and succeed. Disadvantaged youth are fighting an uphill battle from the start.

The film captures the fearful time the black community had to be facing before the historic march. Watching black people being beaten and arrested during peaceful protests and marching defenseless into the teeth of angry white police with batons and guns who wanted to hurt and kill them has to make the viewer respect the boldness of those folks. That’s where the film unleashes its greatest power.

The film is unfortunately, not without flaws, mainly in its portrayal of white politicians. It makes sense for them to be antagonistic. No one should believe that LBJ or Alabama Gov. George Wallace were saints either in public or behind closed doors. But the way they are played, they come off as so evil, cartoonish even. Wilkinson is an incredible character actor most noted for playing despicable, slimy characters, like in “Michael Clayton,” which he received an Oscar nomination for. He plays Johnson as a hard-ass bulldog among his own people, but with aa weasely and full of excuses when meeting with King. Perhaps that’s what he was like, but he was probably more subtle in the way he conducted business that he wished he could have avoided.

If Wilkinson seemed a bit off, then Tim Roth’s performance as Wallace is on another plane of misguidedness. A charismatic actor who commonly plays over-the-top villains, as in “Pulp Fiction” and “Lie to Me,” comes off like Quentin Tarantino might write a white supremacist for one of his own films. Giving a speech, head cocked arrogantly to the side, while flanked on both sides by dual Confederate flags about how the negro should not be allowed to share schools with white children is just so overly exaggerated. To continue the Tarantino references, Don Johnson’s performance in “Django Unchained” offered a subtler character. At least he was a charming evil bastard. But even if Wallace was as superlative as Roth made him out to be, the part might have been better if it had been underplayed. The most despicable politicians are the ones who subtly and sneakily work their propaganda in a way that people with less extreme points of view will succumb to their charms. The ones who come out with vile hate speech to rile up their base can easily be written off as “one of those” people. On the other hand, perhaps the point is to show what black people experienced in that time period, and the full-on hate from the podium was how it came across.

Tim Roth's Gov. George Wallace is a little too much like a Tarantino white supremacist villain.

Tim Roth’s Gov. George Wallace is a little too much like a Tarantino white supremacist villain.

Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, although his screen time was limited, tops off the trifecta of villainous actors playing politicians in the film. As stated earlier, it makes sense for the politicians to be antagonistic, but making them full on Batman villains might be a step too far. It doesn’t leave room for a nuanced view of politicians and politics, where supposed “nuance” is actually a murky cover for passively oppressive tactics. The actors with their acting history alone should have made them obvious poor choices.

The movie stands as a reminder to those who would use King as a weapon against so-called “SJWs” that King did not change the world by peacefully laying down and waiting for racist white people to realize the error of their own ways. He riled up his people who were facing oppression. He used atrocities committed against his people for political gain because a revolution does take sacrifice. King made the choice to make the march across the bridge into harm’s way to show the world what he and his people were fighting against. He didn’t redirect the march away from hostility because if he had done that, no one would have cared. Just like when the people of Baltimore rioted earlier this year after word came out about Freddie Gray being killed by the police instead of peacefully protesting, because no one pays attention to that. It took getting in the way of people going about their daily business and interrupting their lives, without killing anyone. Whether the attention they received was generally positive or negative, they got people’s attention, which they wouldn’t have gotten any other way. And as Spike Lee posed the question to viewers in “Do the Right Thing,” which do people see as worse, black people burning down a white owner’s restaurant or white cops killing a black man?

Why riot? The answer is simple: How else do you get people's attention when you're sick of being oppressed?

Why riot? The answer is simple: How else do you let the world know when you’re sick and tired of being oppressed that you’re not going to take it anymore?

This wasn’t DuVernay’s first film, but it was the first to gain widespread recognition, and even though she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, it was quite an achievement for her to get the movie nominated for best picture, being the first black woman to do so. And the subject of the  movie was fitting, especially as women in general, and especially black women, have had a difficult time gaining recognition in Hollywood.

This was a film about MLK done the right way. Oyelowo has said it took eight years to get the film made because movie studios wanted to include some sort of white savior character, even though it does include white people from northern states who traveled to Alabama to join the protests, and they do play an important role (by getting killed!) in the events, but the film belongs to King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conferece. So that is a triumph in itself.

“Selma” is a grand film about MLK himself, but also about the difficulty in executing a revolution. It’s a strong reminder that “freedom isn’t free,” as goes the adage Americans like to spout ad nauseum. It was easily one of 2014’s best films and deserved recognition. In terms of filmmaking, perhaps it lagged behind other strong contenders like “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” but as with “12 Years a Slave” last year, it’s difficult to compare films with such potent, serious subject matter with films that go in other directions. But even as it’s good to see films about black people getting such praise, it would be nice to see movies starring and directed by black actors and directors where racism isn’t the main theme. Society shouldn’t stop talking about racism, in fact society needs to spend more time acknowledging that problem, and Hollywood needs to continue making movies concerning racism. But to see true equality in entertainment, the movie industry needs to stop equating movies about black people with movies about racism, and just consider movies about black people as movies. Chris Rock’s “Top Five” would have been an excellent inclusion over “Theory of Everything,” for instance. Certainly racism needs to be acknowledged as an aspect of the black experience in the U.S., but surely it shouldn’t be the only aspect worthy of awards recognition. The U.S. needs black super heros; black adventurers; black comedians; black action stars; and even black quiet, quirky, sensitive, aging men going through mid-life crises on equal billing as the white ones. That will be equality in the movies. With the next feature film DuVernay is possibly slated to direct being “Black Panther” (about the Marvel super hero, not the civil rights group), hopefully Hollywood will soon be moving in that direction.

vibranium-captain-america-shield

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Now that I’m through all 8 Best Picture nominees, my personal ranking:

1. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
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2. “Boyhood”

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3. “Selma”

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4. “Whiplash”

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5. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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6. “The Imitation Game”

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7. “The Theory of Everything”

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8. “American Sniper”

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Five that should have been nominated (in alphabetical order):

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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“The Lego Movie”

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“Maleficent”

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“Nightcrawler”

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“Top Five”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #73. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

MV5BMTkyMTM2NDk5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY1NzEyMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #28 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #73 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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The most popular genre in film is possibly the action-adventure. It’s easy to see why. The movies are usually pretty light, fun, very accessible, lots of action, can offer intellectual insights at times, and even if they don’t, they’re usually pretty entertaining. For the common movie goer, that type of film gives the most bang for their buck at the theater.

All of the best ones, or even all of the mediocre ones owe something to George Roy Hill’s 1969 film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Sure, there were adventure movies before this, and there were better ones to come since, but this film acts as a template for modern action films, sometimes to a fault. The winning formula was set in place in 1969, so Hollywood owes a lot to those bandits.

It has all the hallmarks of your typical action-adventure. Two buddies, who share some quiet intimate moments together in divulging each other’s names over drinks and hookers, attempting daring feats to get out of sticky situations, and surviving against all odds, pulling off flashy heists, some silly hijinks, odd character quirks, like the Kid needing to make some weird movements in order to be the sharpshooter he is, general clowning around, and pages of witty banter. Look at everything from “Fast and the Furious” to Marvel to Jackie Chan to “Terminator 2,” and in each of them you’ll find some element of “Butch.”

Paul Newman as the charismatic leader Butch and Robert Redford as the quiet but brash Kid make for an entertaining pair to watch, as they get themselves into and out of trouble with loads of panache and quips. Many of the action stars today are more notable for how they look without a shirt on, sometimes more than for their personality. But Newman and Redford have plenty of character to spare.

The Sundance Kid can't swim. That could be a problem in this situation.

The Sundance Kid can’t swim. That could present a problem in this situation.

But the movie isn’t just action and jokes, it does have something intelligent to say. When Butch and Kid attempt one of their train heists, Butch and his hole-in-the-wall gang have the train stopped, and Butch threatens the man in charge inside the train that he’ll blow down the door if he doesn’t let them in. The guy inside the train refuses because he’s accountable for his boss’s money. Butch asks how could he work for a man who cares more about his money than his employee? The gang blows the door open, and Butch tells the guy his boss isn’t paying him enough. It underscores the corrupt nature of business, where workers are treated as expendable, and the only thing that matters is the company’s bottom line. And as Butch and Kid are bank robbers, it isn’t as if they’re any worse than the people they are stealing the money from. Train barons, as most business people, have hardly earned their fortunes without stepping on lots of little people along the way. A similar sentiment was a large part of last year’s excellent, indulgent “The Wolf of Wall Street,” where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort painted himself as a Robin Hood of Wall Street, stealing from the rich, corrupt business men for his own benefit.

Unfortunately for Butch and Kid, on what they agree will be their last run, the train baron has a surprise waiting for them, which turns out to be a posse made of the most notorious, most costly lawmen in the country, out to put a stop to the thieving. As Butch says, the group probably cost more than Butch and Kid have stolen on all their jobs combined. The posse has no intention of bringing the criminals back alive. The middle third of the film has Butch and Kid on the run, leading them to seek help from a sheriff whom they have in their pocket. The sheriff foreshadows their eventual demise, saying that their thieving ways have caught up to them, and they won’t be getting out of this alive.

So, they flee, along with Kid’s girlfriend, Etta (Katherine Ross), to Bolivia, because Butch says there will be lots of opportunity for business there. Although when they get off the train, they are greeted by some llamas and a small, sleepy, dusty town, they eventually learn their way around. The first bank job they attempt goes awkwardly, as they don’t have their Spanish down yet, but eventually, they figure out what they’re doing, but it isn’t enough to sustain them. They attempt to go straight and get real jobs, but their first job as security goes poorly as they get their employer killed.

This is the opportunity in Bolivia awaiting Butch and Kid after fled the U.S.

This is the opportunity in Bolivia awaiting Butch and Kid after fled the U.S.

Even though Etta is “only” Kid’s girlfriend, she is at least given some agency, something which is less common now. When faced with the prospect of having to move to Bolivia, she tells Kid that she’ll do anything he asks, except for one thing: she won’t watch him die. So, she makes it clear that she loves her man, but is strong enough to warn him not to be foolish. When it’s clear that the boys aren’t making any headway in Bolivia, she tells him she’s had enough and she’s going home, which she does.

Unfortunately, there’s a creepy scene between Kid and Etta near the beginning of the movie, where the viewer is unaware of the relationship between the two. Kid sneaks into her house, and makes her undress at gunpoint, as if he’s forcing her to do it, which is a pretty uncomfortable scene. Eventually, she chides him for being late, and the audience is let in on the “joke,” that they’re actually together. But even though a couple might have such a relationship where that sort of thing is playful and friendly, under the assumption the movie expects the viewer to make with this appearing to be a rape scene, it’s almost playing rape as part of the entertainment. Maybe it was an attempt to make the character and the movie seem “edgy,” but it comes off as more exploitative. Once it’s made clear that the characters are romantically involved, it’s a relief, but even playing on that assumption is rather tasteless in an otherwise, highly enjoyable movie.

The film does also glorify white crime, which is a pretty common trope in American entertainment.Historically, the duo weren’t exactly the worst of criminals, mostly knocking off banks and trains. It’s not like they were serial killers or anything. But in comparison, black criminals in movies made around the same time as “Butch” were pretty much treated as the lowest of the low, like human trash basically, as seen in “The French Connection,” for instance (with the exception of the great “In the Heat of the Night”). In more modern films, black criminals are always thugs. Even when black criminals are the protagonists of the film, it’s always a black character making the wrong choice because of the allure of gangs. Whereas white crime, a la Walter White or Butch and Kid, is cool and exciting, in “Menace II Society” or “Do the Right Thing,” (both directed by black men), the perpetrators are viewed as menacing gangbangers.

A lot of that comes from the viewer’s perception of course, and Hollywood has been improving more recently. It’s important to critique the roots of modern cinema even decades later, especially since “Butch” obviously still has a strong influence on the movies people spend the most money on. And especially with recent ongoing issues with cops and their highly questionable at best killings of black people, along with the riots, it’s important to look at perceptions of people through the media, and where those perceptions could come from. It’s not like watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” will make someone a racist, but it does show a huge double standard, which can be seen throughout media, public opinion, and especially Hollywood. It’s far from the only movie on the AFI’s list that glorifies white crime. And the juxtaposition of crime and race is such a major issue right now that it needs to be explored from many angles.

This is what Hollywood thought white crime looked like in 1969, apparently.

This is what Hollywood thought white crime looked like in 1969, apparently.

Butch and Kid never make it back from Bolivia. They don’t get caught during a robbery, they get caught with their pants down proverbially. Someone recognizes them as they’re eating at a restaurant, and they don’t even get to finish their steaks. You’d think that if there were some white people robbing banks in a South American country, those white robbers would be pretty visible, as they’d stick out like sore thumbs. They don’t get to go out with a bang on the biggest job of their careers. They get surrounded by what appears to be every last lawman in Bolivia, and though they go out with guns blazing, it’s not as if those Bolivian police/military would have let them go peacefully anyway with how much they’d stolen. Their thieving ways did catch up with them, and that’s the end of it. Cue iconic sepia tone freeze frame.

Even though “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has been emulated and copied so many times since 1969, it still stands as one of the best of its genre. Though now, it might be a bit predictable, and technology and budget have helped more recent films surpass it in some ways, none quite have the personality Newman and Redford exuded, and it’s without a doubt a classic film that every cinema lover needs to see. It’s surprising now that the movie didn’t receive much acclaim from critics, but it probably did have a hand in making “lighter” fare being taken more seriously, which sounds strange. Certainly classics like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Star Wars” movies owe much of their success to “Butch,” and today, no one could deny its influence. If you’re into this summer’s blockbusters and you haven’t seen “Butch,” you’re due for a history lesson.

They might have been purtied up for the movie a bit.

They might have been purtied up for the movie a bit.

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Next up, #72. “The Shawshank Redemption”

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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.