Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies of 2014 (Plus Their Key Lines)

Since the Oscar nominations were announced a week ago, and I’m pretty caught up on all the major, and not so major, movies of 2014, it’s time to list my 10 favorite films of last year (plus some spillover). This time instead of providing a blurb for each entry, I’m going to only highlight a key line, or at least what I think is one of the most memorable, for each movie. Also, unlike in previous year’s lists, I’m listing them from 10 down to 1. Click on the film's titles to read my original reviews:

10. CALVARY (Dir. John Michael McDonagh)

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson): “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it's okay to kill people.”

(Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Adam (Tom Hiddleston): “You drank Ian.”

(Dir. Wes Anderson)

M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes): “The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved and they will open up like a flower.”
Also: “I sleep with all my friends.”

(Dirs. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman): “The only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be - I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

6. INHERENT VICE (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short): “It’s not groovy to be insane.”

5. SELMA (Dir. Ava DuVernay)

Martin Luther King (David Oyellowo): “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

4. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons): “My dear god, are you one of those single tear people?”

3. LIFE ITSELF (Dir. Steve James)

Roger Ebert: “Look at a movie that a lot of people love and you’ll find something profound no matter how silly the film may seem.”

2. BIRDMAN (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Riggan Thomson as his inner Birdman (Michael Keaton): “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this artsy fartsy, philosophical bullshit”

1. BOYHOOD (Dir. Richard Linklater)

“Never leave your mother’s womb, unless you wanna see how hard a broken heart can swoon.” - Tweedy (from the end credits song “Summer Noon”)

And now, in no particular order, a bunch of 2014 spillover, with a few of their key lines too:

EDGE OF TOMORROW (Dir. Doug Liman) “Okay, first of all, terrific presentation. Just Terrific.”

FRANK (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

NIGHTCRAWLER (Dir. Dan Gilroy)  “Do you know what fear stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real.”

WILD (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

THE RAID 2 (Dir. Gareth Evans)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Dir. James Gunn): “It's got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.

FORCE MAJEURE (Dir. Ruben Östlund)


GONE GIRL (Dir. David Fincher) “We're so cute. I wanna punch us in the face.”

UNDER THE SKIN (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

JOHN WICK (Dir. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski)“Oh.

All in all, not a bad year for film.

More later...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER: Decent But Not Very Deep

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

AMERICAN SNIPER (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2014)

With several sequences dealing with a soldier having trouble adjusting to civilian life after intense tours in Iraq, this film often feels like Clint Eastwood’s THE HURT LOCKER.

But the crusty but lovable filmmaker, who’s 34th film as director this is, obviously feels he has bigger fish to fry here than that film’s “war is a drug” theme.

AMERICAN SNIPER, Eastwood’s new biopic of Chris Kyle (1974-2013), the late Navy SEAL who from 1999 to 2009 racked up the most career sniper kills (over 160 confirmed enemy kills) in U.S. military history, wants to both pay tribute to the man as a modern war hero, and provide a platform for his redemption as a murderer.

It’s not entirely successful in those goals, but it’s Eastwood’s best film as director since 2008’s GRAN TORINO, proving that the man is much better at capturing combat than maneuvering through the tried and true tropes of musical biopics (see last year’s ultra trivial JERSEY BOYS).

In a performance that’s worthy of the Oscar nomination he scored this week, a beefed up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, who we follow from being a good ole boy Texas ranch hand and rodeo cowboy to becoming a celebrated Army rifleman whose fellow Navy SEALS called “The Legend.”

Cooper’s Kyle, a vessel of extreme patriotism, spends four dangerous tours of duty in Iraq, where we see him mostly stationed on rooftops providing cover for the troops below. In one central scene, which the film opens on then comes back to later in the narrative, Kyle weighs whether or not to shoot an Iraqi woman and a young boy, after seeing in his site that they were about to lob a grenade at a group of Marines on the street.

This is an intense, defining scene, one that TV spots for the film use as a cliffhanger (will he/won't he shoot? - see the movie and find out), and it is effective, but like the movie itself, it doesn't plow that deep into Kyle's character.

Kyle, who constantly calls the Islamist insurgents “savages,” does appear, in fleeting bits of dialogue, to be strongly in favor of the Iraq war, but the film itself is fairly ambiguous about it.

Kyle’s camaraderie with his fellow SEAL team members, who include Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, and Jake McDorman, is familiar feeling but still necessary material in the mix, possibly giving the most insight into what the film thinks the guy was like.

When Kyle is stateside between deployments with his wife Tara (Sienna Miller) and kids, he has the expected trouble adjusting to civilian life, but the aforementioned THE HURT LOCKER went through these motions much more effectively; here it’s way too spelled out.

There’s an action movie drive, which the film is really more about, to Kyle and his team’s hunt for an Al Qaeda terrorist named “The Butcher” (German-Egyptian actor Mido Hamada), and an enemy Syrian sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), in which we're simply watching a good guys vs. bad guys scenario with noisy shoot-outs and chases. All compellingly shot by Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer Tom Stern.

The big climatic battle, taking place on our lead’s fourth and final tour, has Kyle and his unit surrounded by terrorists as a sandstorm approaches. It’s truly exciting stuff, a sequence that proves how much pure machismo Eastwood can still muster at his late age.

Sure, the film hugely oversimplifies, making combat look like a video game at times, and it won't satisfy the folks who are complaining about its supposed pro-war stance, but it falls in line with what Eastwood has been saying cinematically his entire career. Consider that his iconic Dirty Harry character was considered by many to be “fascist” back in the day.

In a way Eastwood's film, via Jason Hall's screenplay adaptation of Kyle's 2012 autobiography, is like the protagonist's phone calls home to his wife; it’s tight-lipped about what’s really going down on in the guy’s mind.

It basically seems to come down to saying this guy believed in what he was doing for his country, but he was a little conflicted by it. That may anger folks who feel that the real-life Kyle had no remorse over his killings and cite passages that say as much in his book, but, for me, the movie version of Kyle never wrote a book.

That is, like all the other films that are based on true stories out there, especially the ones that are Oscar nominated, AMERICAN SNIPER shouldn’t be taken as fact. Moviegoers going in should just ignore all the pundits and think pieces, and just take it as an old fashioned war movie with a smidgen of new school conscience that features an invested, career best performance by Cooper carrying one of Eastwood’s most well constructed productions.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Touching, Timely SELMA Should Be Mandatory Viewing

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2014)

Despite the accusations of inaccuracies, Ava DuVernay’s SELMA is the only 2014 film based on true events that ought to be mandatory viewing. As in, kids should be dragged to it, it should be shown in schools, etc.

SELMA’s stirring depiction of one of the most important episodes in civil rights history, the civil rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, provides a profoundly powerful lesson about how people can pull together to rise above oppression.

It’s a timeless lesson, especially given the similarities to the protests and riots that have resulted from the fatal shooting of 18-year old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, that hammers home philosopher and cultural critic George Santayana’s famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Although the bulk of the film concerns the campaign to secure equal voting rights in 1965, SELMA begins with a few scenes set in the years leading up to that period.

First, we see Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The legendary civil rights leader’s wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) helps him with his tie in this backstage glimpse which shows him as a vulnerable, nervous man, not an unflappable icon.

Then, first-time screenwriter Paul Webb’s narrative takes us back to 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. Even if you know your history, the scene is a shocking sight; one that won’t soon fade from memory.

Those who don’t know their history may be confused by the chronology, but from this point on – that is, after King’s meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office in December, 1965 – the film focuses on the tumultuous three-month movement in early ’65.

Wilkinson’s LBJ tells Oyelow’s MLK Jr. that because of a hundred other problems – Vietnam, poverty, Medicare, immigration reform, etc. - “This voting thing is just going to have to wait.”

Nonplussed, MLK Jr. travels to Selma to get the ball rolling with the help of of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which included such members as Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Reverend James Bevel (Common), , James Orange (Omar Dorsey), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint).

Meanwhile, LBJ deals with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who wants to discredit King, and becomes furious that Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) has vowed to stop the march.

A violent scuffle in Selma, in which Oprah Winfrey (one of the film's producers) as Annie Lee Cooper, a hospice nurse who had previously tried several times to register to vote, punches ultra racist Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), leads to King and many of his people getting arrested.

The violence escalates when state troopers attack activists on a night march, and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) gets shot and killed by one of the police.

But the most devastating incident of the entire movement, and one of the most searing sequences on film of this last year, is undoubtedly the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation, in which 600 marchers were attacked by Alabama police and angry posses who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

The massacre as it intensely unfolds can be hard to watch, but Duvernay’s cut-aways to folks’ horrified reactions – most notably LBJ’s - as they watch it on grainy black and white television sets – got me so caught up in the outrage that is was impossible to look away.

SELMA gets so much right in its portrayal of the passion of the protesters in the face of the severe stakes involved, that the quibbles about its mischaracterization of LBJ’s motivations are seriously misplaced.

In real life, LBJ wasn’t as hesitant to introduce a voting rights bill as shown in the film, but the film hardly depicts him as a villain. Wilkinson (who like Oyellow is British) brings a stressed-out air to the role, something he’s used to great effect in a great many movies playing morally questionable characters, but here the notion is that he’s a politician first and foremost.

This can still be seen as a flaw in the film’s framework, as are a few moments that are wrapped in melodrama, but not one that takes away from the heart pounding impact of this excellent epic.

Oyelowo, a name that everybody should learn, is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance as MLK. He brings a gravitas to King that I’ve not seen him muster before, particularly when compared to his role as the subversive son of THE BUTLER just last year. Oyelowo doesn’t really resemble King, but he successfully channels him in both the quiet, troubled moments behind the scenes, and the famous, powerfully moving speeches we’ve all heard throughout our lives.

Cinematographer Bradford Young is also certain to get award season action for greatly giving the imagery what he called in an interview a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.” (If Young isn’t nominated for an Oscar for this then his superb work in J.C. Chandor’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR will certainly get a nod).

The touching, timely SELMA is the best historical drama of 2014. It’s unfortunate that its story is still strongly such a necessary one to pass down, but even without recent events, it’s one that should be forever told.

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