For almost 2 hours, Birdman is captivating and Michael Keaton is mesmerizing. Then we watch the final few seconds and the entire movie implodes before our eyes. I have never seen a movie undo everything that came before it in such a short amount of time. Without spoilers, let’s just say it is inconsistent in our lead character’s actions, the observations of people around him, and adds a level of ambiguity that did not exist until that moment. An inexplicable final shot that, at least for me, ruined what had been a damn good movie. That being said, Keaton is magnificent.
People try to find themselves in an unknown number of ways. They change careers. They travel. They write a movie blog (heh heh). Then there is the ever popular running away. Disconnect and abandon your life and embark on a sort of vision quest. That was Cheryl Strayed preferred method of self-discovery. It is a quest detailed in WILD. Based on Strayed’s book of the same name it stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed. WILD details her three month hike of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mojave to the south to Mount Hood in the north. Strayed’s life was certainly in need of some vision questing. She was kicking heroin, she was divorced and a few years earlier her mother died at the way too young age of 45. This is a woman in serious need of a new direction. So she left her life behind and set out to find herself on a thousand mile hike. Witherspoon is absolutely fantastic. This is not a role filled with pretty dresses and perfect makeup. She is sweaty, dirty, beaten, bruised and battered along the way. But in her lonely months on the trail, she seems more present in life than she ever did back in civilization. Witherspoon’s acting chops combined with an excellent story make Wild a treat to watch. Jean-Marc Vallee did such a fantastic job with DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, setting Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto up for Oscars he obviously knows how to get the most out of his actors. Same here with Witherspoon and Laura Dern (both nominated for Oscars). The script by Nick Hornby is clever and dramatic with the right amount of humor thrown in. But there are holes in the narrative that you could drive a truck through. Strayed’s brother, her abusive father are just kinda thrown in and the timeline is never fully clear except on the trail. The scenery is beautiful from the deserts in the south to the mountains and forests up north, it is a picture postcard for the PCT. But it is Witherspoon who makes the material rise above just “good” to wonderful. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen her do and it is also good to see a meaty, gritty female role. WILD didn’t get any love as a best picture contender and I get that. But Witherspoon deserves the Oscar if she wins it. WILD is worth two hours of your time just for her performance. — Alan Yudman
I’ll get this out of the way right now. Scarlett Johansson is naked in UNDER THE SKIN, and there is no way to be disappointed about that. There’s also a lot of guys “junk” on display, but just overlook that, literally. Ok now on to the movie, you know, the story and such. Johansson plays an alien. She is driving around what appears to be Edinburgh, Scotland in a van. She picks up lonely single men, seduces them, lures them back to her lair and they wind up dead. How they wind up dead is kind of odd and really not fully explained, but they are most assuredly dead. Jonathan Glazer co-wrote and directed UNDER THE SKIN and creates an eerie vibe using Mica Levi’s haunting score and the bleak beauty of the Scottish countryside. The weirdness is heightened by the sparse dialogue. The only speaking is between Johansson and her prey. She is personable in conversation but lacks all emotion otherwise. An automaton carrying out her mission. Only when she seems to take pity on a deformed man, does she show any hint of humanity, of what might be lurking under her skin. On the run from her “handlers” she is taken in by a kind man.. the kind of man she would have targeted before. In the end she winds up being the target. UNDER THE SKIN is a rumination on humanity and discovering what is really going on under your own skin. It’s haunting and weird, but it is effecting in getting its point across. In the end, after seeing it, UNDER THE SKIN got under my skin as I continue to ponder its meaning and message. Isn’t that what good art is supposed to do? — Alan Yudman
Much has been made of SELMA’s “snubs” after this year’s Academy Award nominations. I’m not going to get into that here. I’m just going to give you my review of the movie as it stands, not comparing it to anything else (but my opinion may become apparent). Rarely does a film move you to tears. Move you from joy to sadness without being obvious about what it is trying to do. The best films do that just by telling compelling stories in an honest way. SELMA one of those films. The story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for the passage of the Voting Rights act is history. That means we all know what happened, or at least most of it. Ava DuVernay’s film taps into stories from those where were there like Andrew Young and John Lewis and the FBI’s records of wiretaps on King and other civil rights leaders. That makes for a film that feels historically accurate. It shows Dr. King as a righteous man who is also troubled and flawed. In other words, a man. Not a deity or larger than life legend. He is calculating, but in the service of his cause. He also spends too much time away from his family and seems to have cheated on his wife Coretta. All of this is perfectly portrayed in the nuanced, sensitive and timeless performance of David Oyelowo. Even writing this I feel emotional about his performance. When he delivers speeches in Selma church or in front of the state capitol in Montgomery, it’s as if you are listening to Dr. King. He delivers the historic words with power and meaning and emotion that stirs and troubles your soul. Oyelowo was the best thing in THE BUTLER, but he was merely a supporting player. Here he is allowed to shine and put the full palate of acting skills on display. It’s acting so good, you can’t tell that he is acting. I cannot put into words how good a performance this is. It will stick with me for a long time. But, the movie around Oyelowo is just fantastic. DuVernay makes all the right choices. Every shot, every frame brings you into the struggle, the frustration and the brutality. There isn’t a false or wrong note in the entire movie. it’s not bloated. It lingers on history just long enough to make its point then it moves on to the next piece of outrage or treachery. A lot was made of how Lyndon Johnson is portrayed, more as an adversary forced to action by Dr. King rather than as a willing partner. From my research, Johnson was a lot more willing participant than DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb portray here. but he is not evil, not intentionally blocking Dr. King. He seems to really struggle with his decision to focus on legislation to fix poverty before clearing the way for voting rights. He’s a politician, trying to serve all constituencies equally. He’s making choices. Granted he is forced to make the right one, but h does come around. Tom Wilkinson plays it well, especially in one Oval Office scene where he confronts Gov. George Wallace (another great performance from Tim Roth). After the final credits I sat in the theater for a few minutes, not wanting the experience to be over (but alas, they had to set up for TAKEN 3.. draw your own conclusions about that image). That’s how much this film moved me. How much it has pounded into my brain. This is no question in my mind the best film of 2014. — Alan Yudman
One update: I completely forgot to mention “Glory” by John Legend and Common. It is a perfect song for this movie and well done. Deserves nomination for Best Song.
Man, America can really be an asshole when it wants to be. LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM kinda drives that point home with a club. Rory Kennedy’s documentary is literally about the final days of the United States presence in Saigon. It is filled with heroes and heartbreak. Blind belief in American exceptionalism and resignation that maybe America isn’t as great as we once believed. Through interviews with military personnel, diplomats, spies and South Vietnamese nationals Kennedy weaves her story of how America simultaneously saved and abandoned tens of thousands of people with ties to the United States who were doomed to be imprisoned or executed. Kennedy posits that the resignation of Nixon emboldened the North Vietnamese to invade the South. The North thought Nixon was crazy and that kept them from making any move on the South. Once they invaded, there wasn’t much to stop them from quickly advancing on Saigon. CIA and military officers tried warning U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin that they needed a plan to get out, but Martin would not believe what was going on right before his eyes. Then there were our Allies. Americans had married Vietnamese women, had children and none of them could be left behind. Then there were the government officials and military officers who helped us fight the North Vietnamese and were doomed if not rescued. So even though Ambassador refused to plan, others planned on the sly. There are obviously too many stories to tell in about two hours. Kennedy cherry picks the most compelling stories and paints her heroes as well meaning, yet flawed. There are acts of tremendous courage on the part of the South Vietnamese and Americans alike. LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM is a fitting final chapter in the failed war. An imperfect plan destroyed good intentions and ultimately lead to failure. But even in those failures there remained hope in optimism because of good people doing good things. Documentaries are tricky. What is presented as truth always has many layers and other perspectives that a filmmaker chooses to leave out. But Kennedy plays it fair and that is high praise. — Alan Yudman
The story of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is both heroic and tragic. He is officially the deadliest sniper in United State military history. He killed more bad guys and protected so many troops that the “hero” designation is not really up for debate. The tragic part is that his life ended way too early at the hands of a troubled veteran he was trying to help. His story makes AMERICAN SNIPER a compelling film directed by Clint Eastwood. Bradley Cooper nails the performance. He exudes machismo and patriotism and bravery, yet you can see just below the surface something just isn’t quite right. Sienna Miller also nails her role as Kyle’s wife. She sees something is wrong and confronts her husband repeatedly about it.. even threatens to leave him. The battle scenes are well staged and two scenes where Miller is on the phone with Cooper as battles rage are absolutely gut wrenching. I suppose they are true, made possible by technology and modern warfare. The only problem I had with AMERICAN SNIPER was Eastwood’s direction. He is a great technician, every scene is perfect. But it also feels kind of sterile and stripped of emotion. You feel sympathy and empathy for the characters and that’s a tribute to the actors, but I feel like I was missing something. I wish I could put my finger on it more clearly, but it’s just a feeling I have. I have it about a lot of Eastwood’s movies. They are well done, but don’t rise much above “good”. They don’t feel powerful and filled with emotional connection. I can’t help but wonder what Kathryn Bigelow would have done with the same material. Cooper and Miller deserve whatever nominations and awards they receive. This is a very good film, but award winning? I don’t think so. — Alan Yudman
What’s worse than a movie that stinks from start to finish? A movie that has moments of greatness interrupted by scenes of abysmal writing, acting, and special FX. Welcome to the world of The Hobbit trilogy. I held off passing judgement on these movies until I saw if Peter Jackson could stick the landing. Nope. He fell on his face. In all three movies its painfully obvious what is coming from the source material and what’s been created to extend what could have been one really good movie into 3 below average ones. Any goodwill Jackson had with fans has been torpedoed by this obvious money grab. The biggest problem with the Hobbit films is that Jackson doesn’t have faith that he can keep us interested unless he keeps foreshadowing his other trilogy. And create subplots that go nowhere. And love stories that carry no weight. And characters that seem to have wandered in from other movies. One other note to George Lucas….I mean Peter Jackson. ..it’s called THE HOBBIT! Maybe, I don’t know, more Martin Freeman and less Orlando Bloom? He had his movies and is nothing but an unwelcome distraction every time he appears on screen. The best thing I can say about the third movie? Thank god there won’t be a fourth! — Stormy Curry