Are They Worthy Part 3, The Rest of Them. Oscar Ready

So of course, the boy and I have been clambering to cram in the rest of the Best Picture nominees before the awards tonight.  Friday, we rented Birdman.  Yesterday we saw The Imitation Game and Whiplash.  Today, we rented The Theory of Everything and Selma.  Here are my final thoughts on the rest of the nominees and stay tuned to the end for my pick for Best Picture.

Birdman.  Artisitically brilliant.  Heading into this weekend, this was my pick for Best Picture, but I still had so many more films to see, I couldn’t choose this one for sure.  It flows like one continuous shot.  Michael Keaton’s performance was fantastic.  Edward Norton and Emma Stone lead a flawless cast of supporting characters.  It is imaginative, poignant, touching.  Great film.

The Imitation Game is a good movie.  It is well-written, well-directed, and very well-acted.  I liked it.  It is a teaching moment for historical brilliance that aided the free-world’s defeat of Nazism during the 1930’s and 40’s as well as the past prejudices, oppression, and crimes agains homosexuals that today seem unimaginable but which in fact took place not all that long ago. As such, it is an important piece of filmmaking.  A good movie.  A solid movie.  Certainly worth seeing.

The Theory of Everything.  Another biopic of a genius.  Great direction and cinematography, but it didn’t engage me the same way that the other films in the category did.  With that said, Eddie Redmayne deserves the Best Actor Award for his performance here.  He used his face, his body, his voice expertly.  As good as Michael Keaton is in Birdman and as much as Bradley Cooper becomes Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Redmayne simply surpasses even those two great performances.  The film though, not my choice for Best Picture.

Selma: The scene depicting the 16th street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls took us inside that church, showed us what the headlines and history books couldn’t begin to adequately describe.  Continuing with this year’s theme of flawed heroes, Selma took an honest look at a great man at a pivotal time in the civil rights movement in America.  The final scene is moving, inspiring, and stirring.  The words of Dr. King resonate to this day.  At the risk of being mistaken for criticizing the subject of the film, as with American Sniper, I will make my criticism of the film independent of my admiration for the man.  It is a wonderful film, however, as with The Theory of Everything, it did not pull me in the way some of the other films did.  Is this because of my age or my race?  Maybe.  I honestly don’t know.

Last, but certainly not least is Whiplash.  I went into this movie expecting very little.  I came out exhausted.  WIthout revealing too much about the story, I can tell you that I held my breath through most of the final ten minutes of the film.  I caught myself several times throughout the movie unconsciously clenching my fists with bated breath, on the edge because the filmmakers of Whiplash utilized the arts of music and filmmaking, cutting the film and manipulating drum tempo to build tension subtly throughout until at the very end you are taken to the point where you desperately want that release to come and… and… and… it doesn’t, at least not yet, so you wait as it builds more, and builds and builds and you wait for it… wait for it… wait for it… tension and release with no release until…

Well, I don’t want to ruin it for you.  🙂

I have never seen a film like Whiplash before.  I’d never been so manipulated by a filmmaker in that way before.  I don’t think I’ve been so energetically on edge while so engaged in a film before.  It was written, edited, directed, acted, and scored perfectly.  This film doesn’t have the social messages of Selma and The Imitation Game.  It doesn’t have the stylistic beauty of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.  It wasn’t experimental like Boyhood.  It wasn’t about real life heroes like American Sniper, Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything.  But what it was, was a true film-going experience, unique in how it grabs, holds, and shakes its audience, tossing it around, anticipating the landing so we can finally breathe that sigh of relief.  It is a rare quality for a film to affect its audience so effectively, and isn’t that the point of films?

My choice, though I’m not sure it will be the Academy’s choice, for Best Picture this year is Whiplash.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and go.  All these films are worth seeing.  All will make you think.  All have something to say.  Whiplash will make you hold your breath.

For more from this author, go to: http://inthesanctityofrevenge.com and order his gripping novel, In The Sanctity of Revenge

ARE THEY WORTHY PART TWO… AMERICAN SNIPER REVIEW 

First and foremost, we have to separate, if we can, the movie from politics. Any criticism of the film should not be interpreted as criticism of the military, nor the brave men and women who serve in the military. The wars were real, and though this film was based upon a real person, it is still a movie. What I plan to critique here, is the movie, at least to start.

With that being said, as an action-packed thriller, it works. Plenty of explosions, clear-cut heroes and villains, edge-of-your-seat suspense – it works. The main character is immediately likeable, and the love story proves relatable and leaves you rooting for the couple to make it. If all you’re looking for in the film is a couple of hours of dynamic old-fashioned, blow-‘em-up, good guys versus bad guys, you won’t be disappointed. For the majority of the film, that’s what it is. But for as fun as those types of films can be, they are rarely Best Picture films.

Of course, this is not simply an old-fashioned, blow-em-up kind of movie. It is supposed to be a biopic. Here’s where it gets a little difficult to separate the ‘film’ from real-life. The film is about a real Navy Seal Sniper named Chris Kyle and is based on a book written by Chris Kyle. It’s not supposed to be a Hollywood war movie, it’s supposed to be based on real events. And so it becomes unavoidable that in order to fully critique the ‘film’, you have to critique some of the reality behind it.

First off, Chris Kyle was a Navy Seal. That, in and of itself, is worthy of our respect and gratitude. He also served four tours in Iraq, an unimaginable sacrifice worthy of our respect and gratitude. He served his country and he served it well and you can’t take that away from him and I wouldn’t want to, but I have to be honest here in my criticism of the film.

American Sniper borrows a lot from old-time Westerns. The common themes of the all-American man who must leave the homestead to defeat the threat, the protestations of the frightened wife left behind to care for the children and hold down the fort, the elusive and ‘worthy’ opponent – the one guy dressed all in black whose skills place him above the other ‘bad-guys’ so that the overall battle boils down to a showdown between our hero and this villain. It’s all there in American Sniper just as it is in any John Wayne western. But this is supposed to be real life and real life rarely resembles a John Wayne western.

Though there are events and accomplishments that are fact and cannot be denied, I have to be skeptical of a story like this written by the ‘hero’. I admit, I have not read the book, but I intend to. It is very possible that the screenwriters elevated the level of hero-making and that Chris Kyle’s book was not near so self-aggrandizing, but the controversies surrounding the story suggests that might not be the case. In the film, Kyle comes across as a one-man army. Regardless of how good or how tough he was, I’m fairly certain that was not the case. The US military is full of tremendous fighters, legends, and heroes. It takes more than one guy.

That’s 99.5% of the movie, a good-old fashioned western. We love our hero, we hate our villain, we want the man in the white hat to ride home to his wife and children victorious to live out his days in peace and comfort enjoying the freedoms for which he so bravely fought. That’s the story Clint Eastwood told – almost right up to the very end when reality rears its ugly head, and that’s when American Sniper earns its stripes. If you don’t know the story and plan to see the film, keep it that way. I don’t plan on giving away any spoilers, but I’d hate for you to be able to read between the lines and guess, so if you don’t know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.

Schindler’s List, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper are the only films I’ve seen from which a large audience in a packed theater silently and solemnly remove themselves from their seats and out into the lobby. I’ve left church services in crowds less reverent than these moviegoers. It is a unique transformation from Saturday night fun and date night anxiety to quiet and reserved solemnity. It takes a powerful film and a good storyteller to be able to do that to an audience. Clint Eastwood succeeded. It is because of that impact that I feel American Sniper belongs in the Best Picture category for 2015.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bradley Cooper in this review. Cooper is nominated for the Lead Actor Oscar. I went into American Sniper thinking the star was that skinny dorky guy from The Hangover. Funny and likeable and I know the women think he’s cute, but a Navy Seal? No way.

I sat through the entire film and never once did I see Bradley Cooper. He wasn’t there. In his place was Chris Kyle. The actor disappeared into the role and inhabited the character in such a way that you forgot who the star was. That is the sign of superb acting. Bradley Cooper deserves to be nominated for the Oscar in his category.

So, while my overall criticism of American Sniper is that the real story was made into a very ‘Hollywood’ story, there are some real issues that this film rightfully touched on, issues that have bothered me as well over the past decade plus.

While it is preferable to have an all-volunteer military, the problem with that is that the enormous amount of sacrifice, by both the service members and their families, falls on a relatively small percentage of the population. The result is our fighting forces are stretched thin, most having to do multiple tours of combat which strains them, their marriages, their children, their parents, their jobs or hopes for jobs back home, and produces some exhausted soldiers. In the meantime, the rest of us go about our usual routines without any form of sacrifice whatsoever. You would never know that America is at war. It doesn’t permeate the nightly news, it doesn’t impact our daily lives, it doesn’t stop us from doing anything. This was not the case during the conflicts of the twentieth century. Even during Korea and Vietnam, most people knew someone who was in the trenches. The wars affected the folks back home. Not so this time around. If you didn’t want to think about it, you didn’t have to. Meanwhile, a small number of families were carrying the heavy burden. They did all the work, we reaped all the benefits, and we didn’t even have to acknowledge it was happening. Janet Jackson’s nipple and the Situation’s abs and Paris Hilton’s skills at oral sex and her stint in jail affected more Americans than the wars raging in the Middle-East. We’d occasionally pause before a sporting event, but even then it was because it was forced upon us, and then it was play-ball and where’s the beer vendor. Ironically, it’s been since the bulk of the troops have been pulled out of harm’s way that we’ve begun to pay attention to them. Personally, I think the bombing at the Boston Marathon had a lot to do with reminding us that there are people out there trying to do us harm.

If all you see in American Sniper is a shoot ‘em up Western, you’ll be sure to be entertained, but you will have missed some very important points the film makes. If your criticism of the film is that it glorifies war, I think you’ve missed the point as well. Was Chris Kyle an American hero? In my opinion, he is. Does this movie tell the real story? Probably not, at least not with full honesty, there’s a lot of ‘entertainment’ going on here. Lone Survivor was a better movie. Does the film touch on some very real issues of America at war in the 2000’s? It does. Putting all that aside and taking the movie simply as a piece of filmmaking, does it belong in the category of Best Picture? It does. Does it deserve to win? Probably not. Does Bradley Cooper deserve a Best Actor nomination? Definitely.

Regardless of my thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s film, Chris Kyle has my respect and my gratitude, as does his family, for their sacrifice, a sacrifice made by too many and a burden carried by too few. If it takes films like American Sniper to bring home to Americans the fact that while we were living the easy life, there were those who were sacrificing everything they had, it is a worthy endeavor.

I’ve yet to see Selma, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Birdman, or The Imitation Game. Stay tuned for my thoughts on those as I see them.

For my review of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, click here.

ARE THEY WORTHY? REVIEWING THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL & BOYHOOD, NOMINEES FOR BEST PICTURE

AND THE WINNER IS…

Yeah, I know they don’t say that, but I like it. It’s true. The one who gets the statue is the winner. The others lose. That’s not to say they’re ‘losers’. It doesn’t mean they’ve lost at life, that they’re failures. Hell, they’re doing what they love and they’re doing it well enough to get the attention of their peers to the point that they are selected to be in the elite club that is the Oscar Nominees. You are a professional success in my book if you’ve accomplished that. But if they don’t win, they, by definition, lost. That’s just how it goes.

In any event, I like to watch the Oscars. I like to try to guess who will win. I love, like everyone else and I don’t know why, the In Memorium segment in which all the people who’ve died between last year’s telecast and this year’s are honored with sad music and a string of fade up-fade out headshots, the very notables honored with a small clip.   But in order to really enjoy the Academy Awards, you have to have seen some movies. I liked watching the show when I was a kid too, but I hated that Amadeus or Terms of Endearment were up for Best Picture when I would’ve much rather have seen Goonies or Temple of Doom up for the award.

Well, I’ve grown up now and my tastes have, if not changed, expanded. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing better than a good Indiana Jones adventure, but I don’t mind the subtle genius of a movie like The Skeleton Twins. I’m disappointed that neither Kristen Wiig nor Bill Hader was nominated for their roles in that film. Both proved that they are so much more than comedic actors. They are Actors. Much as MacGruber proved the same in last year’s fantastic film Nebraska. See it if you haven’t.

As a result of my expanded tastes, I like to try to see as many of the Best Picture nominated movies as I can before the awards telecast. This year, I’m way behind. At the time they were announced last week, I hadn’t seen any of them. So I started this weekend with the first two: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.

If you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film, you’re missing out. He has a style such that you know immediately that you are watching a Wes Anderson film, a style that elicits an either ‘love him’ or ‘hate him’ response from moviegoers. It seems to me that he composes each scene as a still photograph then lets the action take place within that picture. It is a beautiful way of making a film. The camera isn’t just there to capture the actors; it is truly painting a picture.

As far as what’s going on within those pictures, well ‘quirky’ is an understatement. The characters are refreshingly unique and often odd. The people inhabiting The Grand Budapest Hotel are no exception. In fact, they are among the most likeable of any in a Wes Anderson movie. The script is tight and funny and well paced. It was a fun movie to watch. I loved it. It certainly deserves to be nominated for Best Picture. I’ll reserve my opinion as to whether or not it should win after I’ve seen all the nominees.

Boyhood is the exact opposite of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years using the same cast. That’s a neat idea. We see the main character grow up before our eyes without substituting some unknown kid whom kind of looks like the star to play the role of ‘Young Main Character’. In this case, when the movie begins, Ellar Coltrane who portrays the protagonist, Mason, is a little boy. By the end of the film, Ellar Coltrane the actor, is a grown-man same as the character Mason he’s portraying. It’s neat to see him and the other child actors grow and age as the film goes along.

The scenes with Ethan Hawke are good. I like Ethan Hawke. I think he’s a good actor, and he takes on these experimental roles (Before Sunrise for example) and he delivers. The problem with Boyhood is, he’s the only one. It felt like a student film when Hawke wasn’t on the screen. Even veteran actor Patricia Arquette comes across as stiff and unbelievable as does the rest of the cast.

Not only did shooting meander, but so too does the script, and that is not a good thing. It feels as if writer/director Richard Linklater kept rewriting and refining and changing the script to the point that one scene felt as if it had no relation to the previous scene, even if they were shot within the same time period. It was all over the place.

And as far as the experimental, and brave, approach of shooting one film over the course of twelve years, it didn’t work, at least not in this film. I’d like to see it tried again with a better script and with better execution. It was an okay movie. About an hour longer than it should’ve been. Did I like it? Yeah, overall it was enjoyable. Best Picture though? Not a chance. If Selma, American Sniper, Whiplash or Birdman are as good as people are saying, or even come close to being as good as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood doesn’t stand a chance. It’s an okay movie. It is not the Best Picture of the year.

I’m going to try to get to the rest of the nominated films between now and the big night. I will post my thoughts throughout. What do you think of these two films? Am I wrong about Boyhood? Let me know.