Category Archives: Oscars 2014: Best Picture Reviews

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: American Sniper

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it's a lot more.

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it’s a lot more.

If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.

It’s easy to dismiss American Sniper as a pro-war movie at first. Especially when you see the attitude of its protagonist. However if you watch it from beginning to end you will see that it’s a lot more than a tale of a sharpshooter and may not be as pro-war as you think.

The film begins in 2003 during the Iraq war where US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle sees a civilian woman pass a huge grenade to her 8 year-old son and is about to shoot. Before he pulls the trigger, we flash back to an 11 year-old Chris who impresses his father with his ability to shoot a deer from long range. His father teaches him about the three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Chris decides to be a sheepdog, especially to his lamb-like younger brother. In his early 20’s, Chris decides to be a rodeo cowboy until a bullriding accident leaves him with injuries he can’t recover from.

While sidelined, he witnesses on the TV news an incident that will change his life: the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda. It’s then he decides to become a Navy SEAL. At first they were reluctant to accept him but agreed upon being impressed with his shooting skills. During his training he bumps into Taya Renee at a bar. Taya is not interested because her sister dated a Navy SEAL and he ended up being a complete asshole. Nevertheless he impresses Taya to the point she dates him. Soon after, 9/11 happens. Chris marries Taya soon after and is deployed as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s there where it really begins.

At the beginning of his first mission comes the mother and son as seen at the beginning. Kyle shoots the son first only to see the mother take the grenade and carry on. He has to shoot her, causing her to throw the grenade while shot causing an explosion. The experience of shooting the two leaves Chris upset to the point of tears but he has to continue his duty. Kill after kill earns him the nickname ‘The Legend’ by his US comrades. It also makes himself a target of al-Qaeda’s where they offer for $80,000 for anyone who kills him. Al-Qaeda even have a top sniper of their own in Iraq after him and he uses and SVD. During his first mission, he is given the mission to hunt for an al-Qaeda leader named al-Zarqawi and hunts house after house for information leading to him or his second-in-command nicknamed ‘the Butcher.’ A father and son give helpful information but plans go chaotic as The Butcher locates the father and son and drills into their heads leaving them for dead. Chris was unable to defend because of sniper fire, overheard by a pregnant Taya during a phone call, preventing him from performing any action of rescue.

Chris returns to Taya in time for the birth of his son Colton. Chris tries to be a family man at home but Taya notices he’s distraught by the memories and even watching bootleg videos of marines shot in battle. Taya tells him she wants him to commit to his family. But Chris feels he has to serve again where he’s now promoted to Chief Petty Officer. This time he’s involved in a battle with The Butcher. After killing him, Chris returns home to Taya, Colton and his newborn daughter. However it’s obvious the war has affected Chris with his hostile reaction in the maternity ward when her daughter’s crying. Chris becomes increasingly distant with his family. He leaves for a third mission and his brother Jeff is also part of it too. However Chris is hugely affected by the injuries sustained by one of his US comrades part of the unit. The mission continues but Chris witnesses his fellow SEAL shot to death in the gunfire.

Chris returns home but not to his wife and family. He returns for the funeral of his fallen SEAL. Much to the heartbreak of his wife, Chris feels he has to return again in his fellow SEAL’s honor and complete the mission. During the fourth mission, the team learns the alias of the al-Qaeda sniper after them and Chris: Mustafa. Chris is assigned to take him out and is placed on the roof of a building in enemy territory. It’s very risky since killing Mustafa could put Chris and his comrades in enemy firestorm. Nevertheless Chris must do it, especially since a sandstorm is sensed from miles away. Chris spots Mustafa from almost two kilometers away and shoots. It’s a hit: the eighth-longest sniper kill of all-time ever recorded. But the enemy gunfire occurs just as the sandstorm approaches and while Chris is talking to Taya. Right during the sandstorm, Chris struggles to jump on the jeep but succeeds in time and tells Taya: “I’m coming home.”

Chris’ mission is completed. His military efforts of 255 kills, 160 confirmed, Kyle is officially the deadliest American marksman in US military history. He returns home trying to adjust to home life but it’s apparent the war is still affecting him mentally. Even Taya lets him know that. Upon the advice through psychiatric help, he volunteers his time to help veterans return to home life and overcome their own post-traumatic stress syndrome. After five years, Chris is well-adjusted and has successfully become a family man to his wife and children. The movie closes to the last morning of Chris’ life where he leaves for his volunteering with veterans. He would be killed by a veteran he was helping that day. The movie ends with footage of his funeral.

From beginning to end I had to watch it with a very observant eye. I wanted to see what types of messages it would be sending and if it was a pro-war stance or anti-war. I personally cannot see it as a pro-war movie. Sure, you see Chris’ attitude about patriotism and his determination to think that those he shot were soldiers, not people. Even seeing video footage of the funeral of the real Chris Kyle with those saluting his coffin as he went by, funeral held in a stadium and his casket covered with medals would cause some to impulsively think the film is trying to make Chris a hero. But oddly enough I don’t think it’s trying to make Chris a hero. Instead I think it showed Chris’ weaknesses as well as his strengths. We see how Chris was taught the values he held by his father including being told to be a ‘sheepdog,’ we see how he becomes hostile as he sees his newborn daughter crying in the maternity ward, we see how the death of a comrade only prompts Chris to extend his ‘duty’ despite how much his wife can’t take it, we also see it as Chris is about to punch a dog at a birthday party.

Recently I came across a quote from Clint Eastwood: “The biggest anti-war statement any film can make is to show the fact of what it does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” I feel that American Sniper does just that because I sensed right from the start, this movie actually looks at war and Chris Kyle’s hero status through a cynical eye. I felt that as the film first shows a young Chris being taught about: ‘lambs, wolves and sheepdogs.’ Then again as Chris goes to war with the Bible he stole from church and admits he never opened it. Other scenes that added to the suspected cynicism were his hostile acts at home and even that scene as he sees a therapist and says his guilt is not at all because of the people he killed but because of his fallen fellow soldiers he failed to save. That scene had me wondering if Chris really did feel that way or if it’s because he felt that’s the way he’s supposed to think, especially upon remembering he was in tears after he shot that little boy at the very beginning. Even that ending scene where they show video footage of Chris’ funeral with people lining the streets waving the American flag as his hearse passes him, the stadium where his funeral was held filled, and his casket covered with military medals made me think Clint was putting Chris’ hero status and a common belief in the United States that ‘soldier = patriot’ on the hot seat. I really sense that.

As for what it does for the family, you can bet there’s a lot of focus on that in the film, especially in scenes involving Taya. The first scene that has to send that message has to be when she’s on a phone conversation with Chris but a shootout ensues. Chris drops his phone on the street as the shootout happens with Taya listening on the other ends. Taya’s distraught crying as she’s hearing the bullet fire on the other end has to be the scene that sends that message. Even in conversation with Chris, Taya is the one reminding him how stressful and hurtful it is to her every time he goes back off. She even reminds him about how he’s not the same ever since his fighting: “You’re my husband, you’re the father of my children. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. I see you, I feel you, but you’re not here.” Even outside of Chris and Taya, we get this message at the funeral of the soldier shot during Chris’s first mission. That scene where the officer gives the mother the folded flag from his casket and the tears in her eyes also sends that message. It doesn’t matter if it’s World War II, the Vietnam War or Operation Iraqi Freedom, a lost child is a lost child and the family will hurt for a long time about it, if not for the rest of their lives.

Even if it isn’t about war and how it hurts the soldiers and their families, it also gives a cynical look at the war itself. We see it in Kyle first ever shooting during the war. A woman that looks like a civilian with her son passes him a big grenade. As terrible as it was to see them shot, Chris knew both had to be shot. That scene sends the message that this war is not your typical war. This is a war that can take everyday civilians and turn them into players. Even that scene where a young boy picks up a grenade launcher and appears to fire shows that even children are not immune. We should also remember this is a war where soldiers will either disguise themselves as civilians or even use them as human shields. This is a war where people from the ‘enemy’ side will torture people who give secrets away. That scene where an ‘enemy’ soldier drills into the heads of both the father and young son shows just how ugly and brutal this war is. Sure, it may not have the same total number of fatalities as Vietnam but it’s ugly enough and unpredictable enough.

Clint Eastwood does it again. If you notice one thing about his movies over the past two decades, it’s that he approaches his stories by putting certain subjects on the hot seats. We see it again here where he puts the labels of ‘man’ or ‘patriot’ associated with a soldier in war. This comes especially remembering what Clint’s character in Gran Torino, a dying Korean war vet, said: “You wanna know what it’s like to kill a man? Well, it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal… for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that’s all. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, and you don’t want that on your soul.” Clint’s directing of the story was dead on and will get you thinking. A lot of people talk about the violence in the movie. I feel what’s said and done outside the warfare says way more. Kudos to Jason Hall for adapting Kyle’s memoirs. I believe Jason too sensed something about Kyle through reading his memoirs and adapted into what he thinks is really the situation and through an equally cynical eye.

As much as it is the product of Clint and Jason, I give high praise to Bradley Cooper for making Chris into the three-dimensional depiction they intended. He delivered an excellent performance and also appeared like he had ideas of his own about what Chris Kyle was like. The only other role in the movie that was of major significance was that of Taya Kyle but Sienna Miller did a great job of portraying the wife caught in the middle. She made Taya the one who could best settle the score with Chris. She was the one who was best at getting him back down to Earth. She was also very good at epitomizing what most ‘war wives’ go through with their husbands in battle. Right at the wedding, Taya appeared happy to be married to a Navy SEAL like Chris. It’s during the war and after she found out exactly what she had to deal with. I feel Miller’s performance was one of the most underacclaimed performances of the year. The other supporting actors were also very good, even though there were many roles that could have been developed better. Also I feel it was a smart decision to have the movie with as little musical score as possible. It adds to the realistic depiction of the war throughout the movie. Even that scene of the bullet that kills Mustafa wasn’t too much of a distraction to the story.

American Sniper is not your typical war movie. It goes above and beyond your expectations and shows you an outlook on both Chris Kyle and the war you might not have thought of before. Whether you consider Chris a hero, villain or victim is all up to your own judgment.

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Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: Selma

David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma.

David Oyelowo (centre) plays Martin Luther King in Selma about an important part of American history.

Selma appears to be about an important time in US history. However it tells more than what we’ve learned about the whole story including those involved.

The film is about the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr. that would pave way to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it was more than that. It starts with Martin receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. However it’s just the beginning for Martin. A black church in Alabama explodes killing four young girls. Annie Lee Cooper has been denied the right to vote like most black people in Alabama before her. Meanwhile King is unsuccessful in convincing Johnson to pass a law allowing black citizens to vote.

Instead of accepting defeat, King is undeterred and determined to achieve this. Selma, Alabama is the meeting place for King and other activists to organize efforts to achieve this law. However both Johnson and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover are nervous about this. Hoover uses phone calls to disrupt his marriage to Coretta. Undeterred, King and black residents of Selma march to the registration office only to be confronted by a mob of police and a riot ensues where King and Cooper are arrested.

Things get even harder as state governor George Wallace, a pro-segregationist, speaks out against the marches and even calls police in Marion, Alabama to use force from state troopers during a planned night march. An assault by troopers does occur during the march where Jimmie Lee Jackson, who hid in a restaurant for the safety of him and his family, is shot to death by the police. Jimmie’s death only prompts King to tell people to stick to fighting for their rights. However the Kings receive threats on their children and activist groups are becoming unhappy with him.

A march from Selma to Montgomery to make their message heard is planned especially with the hopes of having all of the United states watching and paying attention, especially as working on ‘white consciousness’ is one of King’s objectives. At first King is hesitant but is convinced by his colleague Andrew Young. The original march takes place with all African-Americans. Right on the Edmund Pettis Bridge they’re stopped by police and attacked. The news goes nationwide. A second march is planned. This time King not only has blacks from other cities but white supporters too from regulars to religious clergy. Just before the marchers reach the end of the bridge, the chief officer and his group are back again. This time they’re allowed to proceed but King kneels in prayer and goes back. The reason was because King was suspicious. He doesn’t trust the mob of police and wants legal permission for them to march. The push for permission is especially stressed as one of the white allies, Rev. James Reeb, was beaten to death. The permission is granted by Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson. Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King and the marchers make history.

There’s no question that this is to do about an important moment in American history. Actually coming from Canada, I was never taught about Selma. I knew about the I Have A Dream speech but was never taught about Selma. However the film is also about Martin Luther King himself. The movie begins with him accepting his Nobel Peace Prize which came months after his I Have A Dream speech. However we would be reminded that King had more work to be done. Selma was a new challenge for him as his people needed the right to vote. However there was the constant threat of police brutality and even death. He stood firm in his non-violence stance and his plan was to work on ‘white consciousness’ and he knew it was the only way to work. He also knew he had to work with the tough minds of President Johnson and other politicians including Alabama Governor George Wallace. Each death linked to the marches would make him more fearful but it would make him more convinced this is something that needs to be done. We all know it was achieved but this is a reminder of how King and his people had to achieve their right.

The film also takes us back to the time and place. It reminds us just how hard it was to be black in southern US states like Alabama. Living in segregation was one thing. Being denied the right to vote was another. The only time in my life I knew of black people being denied the right to vote was in South Africa up to 1994. Apartheid riots were common news stories in the 80’s. I was shocked to learn that it was happening to black people in the 60’s in the Southern US. I always thought the US was supposed to be the ‘land of the free.’ It showed the red tape black people had to face in the justice system and especially with the police. We are all shocked and disgusted to hear about the fatal shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in recent years and their killers getting away with it. This was happening in Alabama in the 60’s all the time. Especially shootings by police on young unarmed black men like Jimmie Lee Jackson. You couldn’t blame them for having had it. They couldn’t be denied this anymore and this was a must-win situation for them and King.

Just as much of a focal point as blacks fighting for their right to vote is also the focus of the bigoted attitude of the whites in Alabama. King made it his duty to work on ‘white consciousness’ in order to achieve this victory. Alabama, especially in the city of Selma, showed what type of ‘racial battleground’ they had to deal with. The first sign was the church explosion but we’d see it all throughout. We’d see it in the police brutality, we’d see it as a restaurant proudly advertises itself as ‘a whites-only restaurant since 1883,’ we’d see it as a white man ‘introduces’ himself to King and punches him in the face, we’d see it in the taunting of white people from all around. That’s the type of environment the black people had to fight. We should forget that Alabama has segregation removed years ago but the white people weren’t happy. They felt that segregation was right and they reacted in frustration with taunting and even violence. Even when white people joined the blacks in their march, that didn’t change a lot of people’s minds. In fact they found white supporters to be a threat and reacted with the same violence on them, even killing some. Another reminder that white supporters of the Selma marches would also be at risk to the same violent reactions as blacks. The film takes us back to the time, place and the hostile attitudes at the time. An ugly reminder but necessary to show.

Even though the film was about Martin Luther King, his crusade for human rights and the bigoted attitudes in the area, the film also showed another factor: the strength of non-violence. King’s use of non-violent means to achieve human rights may appear radical to many and even ridiculous to some at first. In fact it explains why he had a rivalry with Malcolm X as seen near the beginning of the film. Because Malcolm believed: “by any means necessary.” However it was shown to be successful in the actual event and in the film. In fact I noticed the film to also show violent means to look cowardly. We see it in the police who try to use it to strike fear in the protesters in hoping they’d quit. We see it in the white Alabamans as they use it to strike fear in the blacks and their supporters. Most of the times it’s seen they do it on impulse because they just don’t know how to deal with the situation. Funny how we’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies, especially in the action movies of the 80’s and 90’s, where the leading man uses vengeance and violence to become the hero. Here violence looks very cowardly.

Without a doubt, this film has to belong to Ava DuVernay in directing and co-writing the story with Paul Webb. She did an excellent job in recreating the story of the marches, the people involved with them and the atmosphere of the time and place. The end result is an excellent film that won’t leave you. It’s not without controversy. There are many questioning the depiction of Lyndon Johnson in the film. Historical documents show he was actually supportive of Martin Luther King and his mission. Even I myself believed for a second that Johnson may have had some difficulty at first, knowing Johnson was originally from Texas: a state that formerly had segregation. DuVernay simply responded: “I’m a storyteller. Not a historian.” Whatever the situation, it was still a very good film put together.

David Oyelowo was excellent as Martin Luther King Jr. as she showed him in both his convictions, his inner strength and even his own personal frailties at times, like that time he relied on Andrew Young to go through with the march. Even that scene where he calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for inspiration and she sings to him shows that King did have fears which he needed support for. Tom Wilkinson was also very good as Johnson. Even if you feel his depiction of Johnson wasn’t that truthful, it was still a very good performance. Carmen Ejogo was excellent as Coretta. She did more than just simply play Martin Luther King’s wife. She played a young woman who herself grew in courage: a courage Coretta would need after Martin’s assassination. Oprah was also surprisingly well as Annie Lee Cooper. Right at the beginning we could see a character completely opposite to the Oprah we know. A character that looks like she’s been through the hardest life offered her. You could see it in her face. The cinematography and music added to the environment of the story. You could feel that this was a struggle worth winning.

Selma is a film retelling an important moment in history. It gives us insight into the people involved and the environment they had to fight in order to achieve their rights.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything is as much about Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) as it is about Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne).

The Theory Of Everything is as much about Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) as it is about Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne).

When you hear about The Theory of Everything being about Stephen Hawking, you’d probably assume it’s about his scientific conclusions. You will actually be quite surprised.

Stephen Hawking is an astrophysics student at Cambridge in 1963. Stephen is awkward-looking, rather clumsy and already his imaginative thinking is being noticed by students and professors with varying reactions. One night, he meets Jane Wilde, a literature student. They form an unlikely couple with Jane actually taking an interest and liking in Stephen’s imagination.

The following year, there are two incidents that will change Stephen’s life: the first being a lecture on black holes which inspires him to write a thesis about time; the second being when he learns he has ALS–Lou Gehrig’s disease– and is given two years to live. Stephen becomes a recluse upon hearing the news but Jane tells him he loves him and will marry him. The two marry and they have a son Robert.

Stephen continues giving lectures as his condition deteriorates from using crutches to needing a motorized wheelchair and even talking with great difficulty. Jane is always there to help him but it’s becoming very hard on her. Nevertheless he continues to give lectures about black holes, evolution and time to top professors. Some professors find it erroneous while others praise it and give him an honorary doctorate.

Over time Hawking continues to win more acclaim in the science world including becoming a world-renowned physicist. Nevertheless the fame and his physical condition is making it hard for Jane both as a wife and as an educator. Upon her mother’s advice, she joins the church choir where she meets conductor Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Jonathan becomes a friend of the family but the birth of her third child causes suspicion from her mother if Jonathan is simply a friend. Jonathan senses the suspicion and leaves the family for a bit but Stephen tells Jonathan himself she needs him.

While Stephen’s in Bordeaux, Jane has a camping trip with Jonathan and the children and it’s obvious their feeling for each other are shown. The trip ends as Jane learns Stephen contracted pneumonia and needs a tracheotomy in order to fight this. Jane agrees. However Jane finds dealing with Stephen too difficult and hires a helper named Elaine. Elaine works well with him on the letter board. Then computerized technology comes in play and Stephen is able to communicate with a talking machine. He’s able to speak better with the machine than he did when he still had his own voice. It enables him to write a book where he dictates and Jane and Elaine type. The book, A Brief History Of Time, becomes a best-seller and wins Stephen worldwide renown. However it does mark the end of the marriage as he plans to accept an award in the US with Elaine instead of Jane. Nevertheless the film ends on a positive note leaving one to believe Jane and Stephen are still soul mates despite no longer being married.

The remarkable thing about the film is that it shows Stephen Hawking in a light we don’t normally notice. Yes, it shows Stephen and his scientific thoughts. Yes, it shows Stephen in his wild imagination. In fact there are times when it makes Stephen look like the Albert Einstein of our times. However it also shows other aspects of Stephen like how ALS can paralyze his body but not his mind. It’s safe to assume ALS made him a stronger person and the movie shows him acquiring his personal strength over time. He was expected to live only two years when he was first diagnosed and he’s still alive today. It shows how he won’t even let ALS stop him from getting a Penthouse subscription. It also shows him as a father and a husband but also a man with some personal weaknesses such as being sucked into his new-found fame and falling for his assistant Elaine.

But somehow it often appears the movie is not about Stephen. It appears more like it’s about Jane. We shouldn’t forget the film is based off of Jane’s memoirs of being Stephen’s wife. It shows Jane as she’s first attracted to Stephen despite being nerdy and having an eccentric mind. It shows her as the one who got Stephen out and living right after he learns he has ALS and even marries him. It shows her as the one that stood behind Stephen every time he gave a lecture on his Black Holes Theory even when top professors would dismiss it as rubbish. It also shows her as the one who helped Stephen write his legendary book with his talking machine. It almost appears like she was his arms and legs.

The film however does make Jane out to be a saint. It does show Jane’s struggle of being both a wife to a man with a disability. In fact it was the scene when Stephen is playing croquet just after his diagnosis and Jane sees how much it’s deteriorated him that sent me the message this movie could be about Jane. Despite Jane doing her best to be a supporting wife, there are times she can’t hide the frustration and it upsets her. Her frustration is a common frustration people who are spouses with disabilities go through. The film also shows Jane in another flawed light when she falls in love with Jonathan and has a long affair. This film highlights Jane’s own flaws as it highlights Stephen’s.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the film has to be the performances of the two leads. Eddie Redmayne was beyond dead-on as Stephen. In fact it’s the scene of the divorce where Eddie playing Stephen said more with  his face than his talking machine did that caught my attention. There were many times in the film Eddie was able to say more in silence as Stephen than when he was talking. From beginning to end he was excellent and embodied the ALS flawlessly. It wasn’t just the ALS. Eddie also gave us an inside look into Stephen’s imagination which adds to the character. Imaginative minds must be something for a topic for film this year. First Alan Turing and now Stephen Hawking. Felicity Jones was not only excellent but also did a great job of stealing the show. Her embodiment of Jane Hawking helps you get to know Jane better as well as have a new found respect for her. In terms of acting, this is mostly a two-person film. Nevertheless there were some good supporting performances from Charlie Cox as Jonathan and Maxine Peake as Elaine that added color to the story. Even the minor appearances of Stephen’s college mates and Stephen’s family added to the story too.

James Marsh did a very good job in directing, especially since he’s more of a documentarian (Man On Wire). This is his second feature-length film that isn’t a documentary and he does a great job of directing the story and bringing out the characters. Anthony McCarten did a great job of adapting Jane Hawking’s memoirs into a good story with great character depth. However it did often come across as a two-actor screenplay and could have added more depth to the other actors. The film had other great efforts too such as Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography, the score from Johan Johannson and added visual effects that dazzled.

The Theory Of Everything isn’t a perfect depiction of Stephen Hawking and his marriage to Jane but it is entertaining. We get to know the two better and feel for them both.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician/inventor Alan Turing through many angles in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician/inventor Alan Turing through many angles in The Imitation Game.

“Am I a machine? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?”

The Imitation Game is a film that presents us a story of legendary scientist Alan Turing. It shows who he is and his life but also sheds light on many things we didn’t know.

The film opens in 1951 with Alan being investigated by detectives Nock and Staehl. This takes the film back to moments of the past starting in 1939. World War II has started and Turing applies to become part of the cryptography team at Bletchley Park. His ability to decode things and his knowledge that the Nazis use a code called Enigma impressed Commander Alasdair Dennison so much, he brings him on with the team of Hugh Alexander, John Cairncross, Peter Hilton, Keith Furman and Charles Richards.

Turing is difficult to work with as he distances himself from his colleagues. He has an idea for a machine to decipher Enigma but Commander Dennison doesn’t approve. Turing writes to Winston Churchill asking for assistance. Churchill is so impressed with Turing’s idea, he declares him the leader upon which he fires Furman and Richards. He uses a crossword puzzle to find his replacement. Upon which he hires a woman, Cambridge graduate Joan Clarke. Joan however has to deal with her overbearing parents as they don’t want her to work with men and marry immediately. However Turing is convinced enough she’s the right person for the job to the point he provides her a room to stay and work with female clerks while he shares his plans with her.

Difficulties continue as the code of Enigma needs to be reached. First the Germans change the code daily so that the enemies don’t succeed in breaking it. Secondly, Dennison is infuriated with the machine which Turing names Christopher and wants it destroyed and Turing fired. It’s only after the team threaten to leave if Turing is fired that he’s able to continue. Joan is pressured by her parents to either marry or leave her job, to which Turing proposes to her. On top of it, Turing’s team know of his homosexuality but promise to keep it secret.

Even after results happen and Christopher is able to successfully decipher Enigma, the solutions don’t start there. They can’t make it obvious to the Germans that they know Enigma so they have to carefully plan their strategies of attack even if it means considerable time later. Turing learns Cairncross is a spy for the Soviets but is told to keep it a secret or else Cairncross will expose his homosexuality. The place becomes too dangerous for Joan to stay and Turing tells her to leave, outing himself to her and even saying he was only interested in her as a co-worker. Joan leaves angrily. World War II was won and the cryptographers plans are burned.

The film progresses to the 1950’s when Turing was arrested first pursued for hiding confidential information only for them to uncover his homosexuality. His homosexuality was as much of a challenge as his eccentric way of thinking even as far back as his school days when he would be bullied. Fortunately a boy named Christopher befriended him and encouraged him with his coding and shared feelings with him. Unfortunately Christopher died before Alan had a chance to tell him he loved him. At the end, he’s shown with his final struggle with his homosexuality just before his eventual suicide as he’s sentenced to chemical castration: a sentence he chose over two years prison time. In his home where he secludes himself with his own concocted version of the machine Christopher, it’s Joan who comes to him in the end offering moral support and reminding him how significant he was because he was ‘not normal.’

Some would first come to the movie thinking it’s about him and his lifestyle. Some would first think this is autobiographical. It’s more. It presents the story of Alan and his eccentrically intelligent and creative thinking. It presents Alan’s side of the story from beginning to end focusing on the three biggest events in his life: in 1928 as a teenager when he’s first given support of his eccentric imaginative thinking and first learns of his homosexuality; during World War II and the story of the moment and invention that defined him; and in 1951 with Scotland Yard’s trying to link him of a crime only to discover his secret that would lead to his tragic fate. The focus of the story is especially clear at the beginning when Alan asks us: “Are you paying attention?” The film also presents why it was so important for this machine to crack Enigma had to be created as Alan would remind us it wasn’t simply against the War but against time. Especially for the UK which was suffering terribly. It also presents their strategy for helping to win the war as soon as they could.

It’s also very much about Alan the person as it is about Alan and the team working to crack the code. It presents Alan’s intelligence as creative in which he can decipher things through his work on crossword puzzles. It presents Alan as one who also has a very unlikable side including a ruthlessness his coworkers found hard to deal with though they stick with him because they feel he’s the only one who can succeed at cracking the code. They can’t stand him but they believe in him. It especially presents Alan’s homosexuality as for why he was about to go on trial. As he is about to be tried, he looks back on his life for when he was part of the mission to his schoolboy days and his encouragement from Christopher: the one person who truly understood him. It ends with Joan, the one colleague who knew him best and deserves to desert him after what he said to her but comes in the end to remind him of his significance to this world.

It’s obvious that Alan was able to solve Enigma in time but appeared unable to solve himself and even doubt his self-worth just after his sentencing of ‘chemical castration.’ A common thing as we see all too often in history how some of history’s biggest heroes would eventually become rejected by the people and even die lonely. Nevertheless we’re reminded that he still had people willing to stand by him even as he felt worthless. Especially Joan as she reminds him after he becomes a recluse after his defamation: “Do you know, this morning I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up, on my work, a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you.”

The movie tries to show more of what Alan Turing did as an effort to combat the war rather than focus on his lifestyle. Actually the movie does show about the struggle with his homosexuality throughout his life. His first difficulty came in high school as he fell in love with his friend Christopher and had to pass notes in his special code to him. We should remember that Alan was not beaten up in high school because he was gay but because of his intellectual eccentricities where it first showed its presence. He had continued difficulty during his work as even though his colleagues were supportive of him, they did remind him he could lose his job and be imprisoned because of it. Joan appeared to be the one who dealt with it best as she was not afraid to be in a sham marriage with him especially since it would help get her parents off her case. Then we see at the end as Alan has to deal with his ‘chemical castration’ which would eventually lead to his suicide at 41. We should remember those were the times. It’s because of the criminalization of homosexuality in the past that we had the pride movements that spawned out of the 70’s and are what they are today.

Benedict Cumberbatch did an excellent job in his portrayal of Turing. His performance was full of dimension for a person who was hard to like and had quite an imagination but quite smart and even troubled in the end. It’s a role where he not only acts off of his actors but us the audience too filling us in on all the details and making us think too. You can tell when Alan as narrator tells us to pay attention. Of the supporting players, it’s Keira Knightly as Joan who shines the best as the one who not only helps decipher Enigma but is the one person who can decipher Alan as a person in the end. The actors making up the cryptography team–Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Allen Leech– did great both as a team unit and in their own individual moments. Other standout supporting performances came from Rory Kinnear as detective Nick and young Alex Lawther who did a remarkable job playing the young Alan Turing.

Also deserving of acclaim is director Morten Tyldum. Very experienced in his home-country of Norway, this is actually his first direction of a English language feature and it’s an excellent first-effort. Also excellent is the script from Graham Moore. He did an excellent job in creating the story off of Andrew Hodges’ biography setting the three periods of Alan’s life that defined him most and piecing it all together. It succeeds in keeping us interested. Technical aspects were also excellent such as the set design, costuming, cinematography and the composed score by Alexandre Desplat.

The Imitation Game is a unique story about a scientist who went from a hero to a criminal of his time. It tells the story through his eyes and leaves us both interested and getting us to think as well. That’s the movie’s best quality.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

A hotel owner and his lobby boy (played by Tony Revoloro and Ralph Fiennes) go on a bizarre adventure in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A hotel owner and his lobby boy (played by Tony Revoloro and Ralph Fiennes) go on a bizarre adventure in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Anyone else here who missed seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel back when it was released in the spring? Yes, I’m guilty of that too. I can blame it on things like me being tired right after last year’s Oscar season to having a lot of preoccupations in my life at that time. This year’s Oscar race sent me the message of what I missed out on the first time. I finally saw it on DVD a few days ago and I now finally see why it ranks among one of the best of 2014.

This is another review of mine where I won’t give an analysis of the plot. Instead I will put focus on the movie’s strengths and possible flaws.

This film is quite typical of what to expect from a Wes Anderson film. It has an eccentric situation along with eccentric characters and a lot of comedy along the way. However this movie has its charm: the common charming eccentricity with Wes Anderson movies that continuously attract fans of his movies and moviegoers looking for something different. It’s also a trademark charm of the director that does not run stale with their movies time after time and continues to be enjoyable.

This too is a film that offers a lot and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first but makes sense as it goes along. It starts with a young girl paying honor to a writer in the present. Then flashing back to the writer in 1985 talking about hearing from Zero the owner of the practically lifeless Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 about why he won’t close it down and Zero flashing back to 1932 to explain the whole story why. Wow, a lot of flashing back!

The story itself unravels itself over time with its various chapters from Zero joining the hotel as an orphaned lobby boy to the fictional country of Zubrowska nearing war to the owner Monsieur Gustave’s affair with Madame D to inheriting her most coveted painting much to the anger of her own family who hoped to have it to being framed for her murder. Yes, already bizarre. However the colorfulness comes with Zero’s love for the cakemaker Agatha whom he eventually becomes engaged to and helps bake cakes with escape tools.

The situation gets weirder as an assassin is on pursuit for him and the hotel needs to be managed, especially since news about a second will from Madame D is in existence somewhere. It’s after a pursuit while at a winter sport’s to kill off the assassin that the can return to the hotel only to find it overtaken by soldiers in the war and police on the hunt for Gustave.

As you can tell, this all makes for a bizarre confusing story and even leave you wondering about why the hotel is still in existence.  Understanding it means having to see the story for itself from beginning to end. There may be some confusing moments along the way and even a lot of eccentric humor but you will understand it and even the reason why a mountaintop hotel that’s completely useless is still in existence. You’ll even understand why the lobby boy is the only person in the world Gustave can trust wholeheartedly and would eventually own it. It’s no wonder Wes had to write a story along with his writing partner Hugo Guinness in order to bring this to the screen and make it work.

There are even times when I felt the story resembled Farewell To Arms, albeit with Wes Anderson’s dark humor intertwined into the story. Actually the credits in the end say the film was inspired by the readings of Stefan Zweig. I’ve never read Zweig’s writings so it’s hard for me to judge on that factor. Nevertheless the fact that Zweig was an Austrian Jew who fled to Brazil for refuge where he died may have some bearing on this. Even seeing how the character of The Writer looks like Zweig gives a hint.  Whatever the situation and even if the story does not go as well as you hoped it would, it does leave you feeling that it does end as it should.

Despite this film being another excellent work from Wes Anderson, we shouldn’t forget that this is also because of the excellent ensemble of actors. Many of which have already acted in Wes Anderson movies of the past. Here they deliver well as a whole to make the movie enjoyable and true to Anderson’s style of humor and style of film making. However it also succeeds well with those who have never acted in a Wes Anderson movie before, like lead Ralph Fiennes. He delivers a character that’s humorous and true to the humor of the movie. Newcomer Tony Revolori also adds to the charm of the movie as the young bellboy who becomes Gustave’s partner in crime as does Saoirse Ronan as Agatha. You can easily see why she won his heart. Even minor roles from other Anderson first-timers like Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham add to the story.

Even the technical aspects of the story are excellent. The costumes designed by Milena Canonero are perfect to a T in this movie as is the set design and the makeup and hair. All these elements fit the times they’re set in and add to the film’s charm. The cinematography by Robert Yeoman fit the story well and the music from Alexandre Desplat also fit the film.

The interesting thing to note is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s highest-grossing film ever with $59.1 million in North America and almost $175 million worldwide. Buzz for the film first started after it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Buzz continued after it continuously impressed film festival after film festival. Although his box office total in North America is not too impressive, it should be seen as respectable as it opened around the same time as the summer movie phenomenon that was happening. It made for a nice humorous alternative to the overhyped summer schlock.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a DVD worth watching. We all didn’t know what we were missing during the summer and now we can finally see why.

Movie Review: Whiplash

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on Miles Teller in Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on a drumming student played by Miles Teller in Whiplash.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful that good job.

One of the year’s biggest surprises has to be Whiplash. You think a movie about a jazz drumming student and his teacher wouldn’t be one to win people over but you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Andrew Neiman is a 19 year-old jazz drummer who has been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory to pursue his dream of being one of the greats like Buddy Rich.  Despite practicing long hours, he does take time to take things easy watching movies with his father and even dating the girl working at concessions.

That all changes one day when during class, instructor Terence Fletcher who already has an infamous reputation among students substitutes for one instructor. It’s more than instruction as Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate for the school band he conducts. Sure enough, Andrew catches his eye. Actually Andrew caught his eye days before while practicing alone.

On the first session, Neiman learns that part of Fletcher’s rehearsal methods is manipulating emotions out of his students. It is while rehearsing the Hank Levy song ‘Whiplash’ that Fletcher makes Andrew his target of attacks including berating him verbally especially when Andrew is brought to tears, throwing a chair at him and even slapping him for going off tempo. The rehearsal ends with Andrew being the alternate drummer and relegated to page turner for the lead drummer.

Instead of quitting, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher and master ‘Whiplash.’ He listens intensely to its drumline and studies videoclips of the drummers. He even cuts his movie time with his father and breaks up with Nicole to intensely pursue his ambition. Then bad luck happens during a competition when Andrew misplaces the drummer’s sheet music. However Andrew is determined to perform ‘Whiplash’ without the notes. To the astonishment of all including Fletcher, he does it perfectly and becomes Fletcher’s new lead drummer.

However it’s short-lived as Ryan a drummer from Fletcher’s former class, is promoted to lead drummer. Andrew is frustrated to the point he confronts Fletcher only to learn Fletcher decides who has earned the part. That only drives Andrew to practice intensely to the point his hands bleed. Just before Fletcher starts rehearsal one day in tears, he reveals to all that one of his former students from six years ago Sean Casey, whom he describes as a ‘marvelous musician,’ died in a car accident. He starts rehearsal on ‘Caravan’, the next competition piece, but has a hard time picking out the right drummer for the song. Fletcher gets all three drummers including Andrew continually trying out the piece for several brutal hours until he makes his final decision at 2:30 am. He decides it to be Andrew.

Andrew buses to the competition but the bus suffers a flat tire. Andrew’s determined to be there on time to the point he rents a car but forgets his drumsticks at the rental office. Andrew only finds that out once he arrives and Fletcher dismisses him for not having his drumsticks. Determined to play, Andrew rushed back to the agency to get the sticks. Speeding to the concert hall and talking to Fletcher on his phone, Andrew is hit by a car. Despite the car flipping over and Andrew bloody and injured, Andrew rushes to the hall to play. A stunned Fletcher lets him play but it’s obvious Andrew is off as his injuries cause him to drop his drumsticks continuously. Fletcher gives him the words onstage: “You’re finished.” That causes Andrew to attack Fletcher onstage in front of the audience.

The attack caused Andrew to get expelled form the school. Soon Andrew learns from the lawyer of Sean Casey’s parents that Casey actually committed suicide and believes it was because of the personal torment endured by Fletcher’s teaching methods right from when he first started. Andrew agrees to testify, leading Fletcher to be dismissed from the school. Just when it seemed to be all over for Andrew, he learns months later Fletcher is performing in a club. Andrew and Fletcher meet up again and it’s during a drink together that Andrew learns why Fletcher teaches the way he does. Because he drives his students to be the next jazz great. And he saw it in Andrew more than the other two. Fletcher agrees to have Andrew as part of the band he’s conducting for the upcoming JVC festival where they will be playing the same songs. Andrew agrees. However things do not go as planned as Fletcher tells Andrew he knew he got him out. On top of it, the band opens with a piece Andrew never rehearsed. This leads to an ending that’s unpredictable and entertaining.

One can simply say it’s a story about a student with the drive and the teacher determined to make him succeed no matter how soul-crushing his teaching methods. I myself saw a lot more to it. I see it as about music and arts in general. We see and hear a lot of great pieces of music, great acting performances and great pieces of art. One thing we don’t often see is that it takes everything out of a person, especially their heart and soul. We also see that here in teaching as Fletcher verbally beats his students into the ground to bring out the best in them. He feels he’s doing the right thing even as he was blamed for Sean Casey’s suicide. He even brings up the example of Charlie Parker who was a substandard saxophone player until his bandleader threw a cymbal at his head. That was the turning point. I myself have taken acting courses and there have been times in which I was encouraged to dig deep into my soul even to the point of remembering some of the more upsetting moments of my life. It’s not uncommon for teacher sin the art to be that tyrannical to their students to bring out the best in them.

It’s not just about a teacher putting his students through such agonizing torturous methods to better his students and bring the best out of them. It’s also about the drive of a student. Andrew is determined to be the best drummer ever. In his mind, he thinks it’s better to be a success even if it means dying in his 30’s and having no friends than it is to be not so successful but live a long life and be beloved. Andrew is willing to practice drumming until his hands bleed, willing to give up his girlfriend and even determined to make a competition even if he’s in a car accident and the car flips over. The crazy thing is that there are a lot of people in the arts that feel that same way. That success in their art is better than being loved and even worth dying for. We see that in Andrew.

Even there, it’s not just about the teacher and about the student, it’s the relationship between the two. Fletcher can be brutal and abusive both verbally and physically but he pushes Andrew because he sees a quality in him he has not seen in a student before. Andrew is driven to succeed but he sees something in Fletcher’s tutelage that he feels he can’t get anywhere else. He senses Fletcher and only Fletcher can help him to be the best jazz drummer ever. And he’s willing to take it on even with the physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Even after both Andrew and Fletcher are both dismissed from Shaffer, Andrew still relies on Fletcher’s judgment on his abilities. Often Fletcher’s teaching and pushing Andrew can remind a lot of people of sports coaches who are that tough on their athletes but are determined to bring out the best in them. Andrew willing to endure it all to be the great he wants to be will remind you of athletes who wholeheartedly trust their coach to the point that they’ll willing to do illegal things like steroids upon their urging.

Without a doubt, J.K. Simmons owned the movie. His portrayal of Fletcher determined to bring out the best in his students even if it requires him to deliver physical or verbal abuse stole the movie. His focus on perfectionism, his love for jazz music and the greats, his portrayal of that kind of teacher will keep you glued to your seat. Even though Simmons owned the film, credit should be given to Miles Teller. He as well delivered an excellent performance of a student with a dream and determined to succeed even if it means taking physical abuse from a teacher. He also did an excellent job of showing how Andrew’s determination to succeed almost destroys him at times. Miles himself also drummed as a kid so it’s kind of natural he was chosen. Plus if director Damien Chazelle was interested in making his film bankable, he could have chosen Nick Jonas as Andrew. Miles was one who could both drum and act.

The film is actually the brainchild of director/writer Damien Chazelle. Chazelle wanted to become a successful jazz drummer in high school. He was in a very competitive jazz band in high school and had an intense music teacher who would become the inspiration of Terence Fletcher. However unlike Andrew, Chazelle knew he wasn’t good enough to excel in jazz drumming and turned to film making instead. You could rightfully call this film his baby. This film has won the Sundance Audience and Jury Award for Best Drama and the reception has been excellent.

 Whiplash is as much about the punishing training and studying music students go through to pursue their dreams as it is about the determined teacher, the driven student and the turbulent but solid chemistry between the two. It will also remind all you young ones with musical dreams that if you think chasing your musical dreams is a cakewalk, you couldn’t be wronger.

Movie Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

I know the awards season is just starting to declare winners en route to the Oscars. I will have a lot of movie watching to catch up with. I finally did see Birdman, one movie with a lot of big buzz, and I’m glad I did.

Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood movie star who hit the big time as Birdman: a movie that propelled his fame and had him act in two more sequels. However he soon became yesterday’s news after he left the Birdman franchise and he’s aiming for a Broadway comeback. His plan is a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he plays lead, directs and writes. However something is knwing at him. He hears a voice and he has telekinetic powers.

Upon rehearsal, he is pissed off with the male lead actor. Suddenly a stage light lands on his head. Everyone is shocked and fearing for his life except Riggan, who just walks away. He soon admits to his lawyer friend Jake that he rigged the light to fall on him to get popular stage actor Michael Shiner into the play. Getting Michael came from him refinancing a house that should belong to Sam, his recovering drug-addict daughter and assistant.

However friction eventually happens. Riggan is unhappy with how Mike does a scene during rehearsal and he storms off violently. Even Mike’s suggestion of using a more realistic gun for the suicide scene doesn’t sit well with him. The feelings are justified when Mike is scene in a news story and how he mentions Raymond Carver made him want to become an actor. On top of it, reviews of the dress rehearsal are not impressive at all and it hits Mike bad.  Meanwhile the voice inside his head is either supporting him or mocking him for turning his back on Birdman. Adding to it, Sam is unhappy with him and tells him that his play is garbage and that he doesn’t matter. Not in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, media streams he consistently rejects.

Things actually take a turn for the better but through some of the most unlikely of methods. Right in the middle of a preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre with the door accidentally catching hold of his robe. He impulsively walks around Times Square in nothing but his underwear to get back to the theatre and catches the notice of everyone whom he walks by and even enters the theatre leaving the audience confused and delighted. After the show, he gets drunk and encounters theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson who says she will crucify his play because of her detest of Hollywood movie stars trying to pass themselves off as legitimate actors. The next day, a drunken Riggan actually has a hallucinative conversation with Birdman and he gains powers including flight. It’s like he became Birdman again as he’s flying all around Manhattan.

Then opening night for the play happens. Riggan uses a real gun for the suicide scene shooting himself in the head in front of the audience. Everyone in the audience gives him a standing ovation but Tabitha just walks out without emotion or applause. Turns out Riggan didn’t kill himself. He survives but wakes up in a hospital bed learning the bullet badly damaged his nose. On top of that, he learns from Jake that Tabitha gave the play rave reviews. He’s even able to spend a poignant moment with Sam in his hospital bed. After Riggan is left alone, the film ends in a way I don’t think most people will understand. I guess the point was to have you the audience decide the ending. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

This film is a unique method of telling a story and giving portraits of the characters. The film’s method of following characters around and often appearing like one non-stop shoot adds to the film and can make the audience curious to what will happen next. However the most striking thing for me about the film is how it shows actors and even those involved in the whole showbiz scene. We have a lead actor who’s a former movie star now struggling to re-establish himself. We have a daughter who’s loving but ill-tempered and frequently at odds with him. We have a supporting actor who isn’t as big a name but well-respected and tries to use this opportunity to promote himself further. We have both an ex-wife and a current flame struggling with personal issues with him. We have a theatre system that demands the movie be a hit for the sake of the show, the sake of the theatre and for the sake of Thomson’s finances. We have the fame system which has had major changes in the ‘fame game’ in recent years thanks to online technology giving us video sites and personal homepages. We have media critics who not only make judgments about plays but are egotistical enough to unapologetically trash a work if they see fit. It’s no wonder an actor/director like Riggan Thomson drinks a lot. Heck I’ve frequently said: “Actors and drinking go together like ham and eggs.” Here I’m finally shown why!

The funniest thing about the film is that while I was watching, I was constantly sensing that Birdman may be about Michael Keaton himself. For those that don’t know, Michael Keaton was the first Batman when the franchise was revived on the big screen in a big way back in 1989. He also starred in the second Batman movie Batman Returns from 1992. The role of Batman has since gone onto Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. Michael Keaton had some continued commercial success for a few years after his last Batman movie. Actually he even had some healthy commercial success before thanks to 80’s movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. So it had me wondering if Riggan’s struggle of coming back while having the baggage of being famous as Birdman was a parallel reflection of Michael Keaton being famous as Batman. I found it odd because I’ve never heard of Michael having a struggle with it. I even looked over his biography and info of his personal life at Wikipedia to see if it was. Although I saw some parallels, I was still left without a conclusion. I haven’t even seen an interview of Michael Keaton where he publicly declared it synonymous.

I will say that Keaton did an excellent performance as Riggan. This is not like any performance I’ve seen from Keaton and this is the best acting I’ve seen from him. Possibly the best acting performance of the year. Edward Norton was also great as Michael Shiner and did a great job of showing ego conflict between actors. Emma Stone also delivered her best ever performance as a daughter who’s also an assistant with the same showbiz-style nastiness to her own father. Zach Galifianakis gave what I feel to be his best acting performance and one where I actually end up liking him in a film. Additional standout supporting performances are Amy Ryan as the ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as the new girlfriend and Lindsay Duncan as the theatre critic who did a lot in that one scene of hers.

The technical aspects are also excellent and one-of-a-kind for this film. Emmanuel Lubezki did a smart job with having the follow-around method of filming. Usually such a method is risky in the storytelling aspect of film making but it works to near-perfection here. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione also did an excellent editing job especially in how they made it look like there was a single non-stop scene for over an hour. Of course modern technology can do the film fakery to make it look like a non-stop scene but Crise and Mirrione did it all right and made it work. Also kudos to composer Antonio Sanchez. I like how he delivered a score that was a jazzy style of music for the stageplay scenes and then our typical grandiose orchestrated score for the Birdman scenes. That score that corresponded with the themes was an excellent choice for the film.

Birdman is not your typical Hollywood fare but it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but would make more sense to those who see it twice or even those that know acting or showbiz as a whole.

Movie Review: Boyhood

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) shot over a period of twelve years.

Boyhood is a movie of the growing years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) and was shot over a period of twelve years.

I know there have been a lot of people who liked my World Cup blogs but there are still some who feel like saying: “Jon, when’s your next movie review?” For those wondering about that, yes I have been watching movies over the summer and I have a few reviews to share. To start with, I’ll do Boyhood: a good choice for those who want something different.

The movie starts with six year-old Mason Evans Jr., a boy growing up in a small Texas town who’s more interested in nature and collecting arrowheads than playing football. He lives with his slightly older sister Samantha, single mother Olivia and her boyfriend. Things are not the best as Mason has to share a bedroom with his sister and that causes typical brother-sister issues. Then it changes one day after an argument with Olivia and her boyfriend which she claims she has no free time. She moves to Houston with the children. This causes concern for mason wondering if he’ll ever see his father again.

Life in Houston starts to work out fine for Mason and the family. Olivia is able to attend classes at the University of Houston while Mason and Samantha attend school. They’re able to meet up with their father Mason Sr. but it’s not so frequent. Even as Mason Sr. drops the kids off, friction between him and Olivia come back. In the meantime, Olivia meets up with Professor Bill Welbrock. He appears to be a good man with a head on his shoulders and even takes a liking to Mason, willing to introduce him to his own son Randy who’s a similar like. The two marry and his children Mindy and Randy move in together. The family appears close knit as the stepsiblings have fun together and Bill appears to be the ideal husband. However things turn for the worse as Bill develops a drinking problem he first tries to keep secret only to have it exposed as he becomes abusive to Olivia and the children, even forcing Mason Jr. to get his head shaved. Olivia immediately leaves the household taking Mason and Sam with her.

The three find a new life in a town close to Austin. Olivia becomes a psychology teacher and falls in love with one of her students Jim who’s a former Afghanistan War veteran whom she eventually marries. Mason Sr. has married and has become a father to a newborn. In the meantime, Samantha and Mason Jr begin social interaction of their own as they make friend and start dating. However Mason’s drinking and earrings have gotten on the nerve of a visibly drunken Jim. Not surprisingly Olivia divorces him.

In the meantime Mason has a girlfriend named Sheena, works part-time at a seafood restaurant and has developed a passion for photography. His work in taking pictures and developing in the darkroom inspires him to be an artistic photographer. However it doesn’t sit well with his teacher because he knows how competitive of a field photography is and how gimmicks are easier moneymakers than art. The teacher then makes Mason photographer for the football team.

Grade 12 is a life changing year for Mason Jr. Sam has moved onto college but she does allow Mason and Sheena to ‘visit.’ Sheena soon breaks up with Mason for a boy on the high school lacrosse team. Mason also wins second prize in a photography contest and receives scholarship money. His graduation is celebrated with family and others close in his life like his teacher and his boss at the restaurant. Going to college is the next chapter in Mason’s life. However it’s not without heartache as his mother finds it hard both her children have moved out and wonders of her own life. The film ends with Mason attending college, becoming friends with his roommate and being introduced to his roommate’s girlfriend’s best friend who shares a lot of common interests and common dreams with Mason.

Now this is something. Director Richard Linklater tells a story of Mason Jr. over the years and the people around him. He uses all the same actors, no replacements. This was very chancy because a lot can change over a period of twelve years. It’s possible Ellar could have gotten tired of acting and wanted nothing to do with it anymore within that time. It’s even possible one of the actors in one of the main roles could have died. Any one of them. But it worked. And it wasn’t just simply the technical bits. It was also a story about a boy whose life over the years catches our intrigue. We’re astonished to see Mason Jr. (or should I say Ellar?) grow over a twelve year span. We also see the lives of his mother, father and Sam pave their way too. All those who were part of the film and its ‘aging process’ contributed significantly. Also as it progresses over the time, Linklater doesn’t leave anything out as far as aging goes. He doesn’t get the adult actors to hide their facial aging. He doesn’t replace the child actors if any one of them go through the ‘awkward stage’ or get braces. He keeps it all as is. That’s another quality.

The thing is the film doesn’t really tell the typical story that has a beginning, middle and end. Rather it tries to paint a portrait of Mason Jr. growing up over the years and of the boy he was and would grow up to be. It’s not too thick on a plot but rather lets time unravel itself and tell the story as it goes along. Almost like childhood through Mason Jr’s eyes. It’s common with Richard Linklater’s movies that they’re not too heavy on the plot and give more of an atmosphere. Another thing this film can do is remind audience members of their own childhood growing up. It may tell a story of a boy who’s not into sports and more of a dreamer but I’m sure there are some parts of Mason’s childhood that will remind them of their own.

Another additional element that adds to the film are the surrounding scenes that add to the atmosphere. Linklater has done that in past films where he would show elements in the film that would actually add to it. We see it here too with Sam’s like of popular culture from Britney Spears to High School Musical to Lady Gaga. We see it in the computer technology as the cast go from Apple computers with big box screens to iPhones. We see it in Mason Jr. growing up in highly conservative Texas and the values the state tries to instill with the people and through the schools. We also see it in how it with Mason Sr. being a liberal Democrat in a state that has a lot of staunch conservatives. We also see it with scenes with other artistically-minded people in the film. It all adds to it.

This film also adds to a common theme of Richard Linklater’s movies. Linklater has never been one to dwell into the typical Hollywood fanfare. He’s always been one to do his movies his way. His movies have featured people pursue their passion and even dream out loud. He often focuses on the visionaries and the inspired ones and he presents them as the ones to be admired. I think that’s why he has such a following with Generation X. We can see that in Mason Jr. He falls in love with photography and wants it to be his life passion. The problem is those around him don’t think highly of his choice. The teachers question it and whether it’s a career choice that will allow for a decent living. His father wonders why he doesn’t pursue something that ‘wins chicks.’ His girlfriend drops him for a jock because it doesn’t make him look cool enough. And his friends razz him about it. But it’s his passion. I think that’s what Linklater is showing. About how passion is what matters. Especially for a boy like Mason.

Without a doubt, this is an accomplishment from Linklater. It was a unique idea from him that was creative but risky and it paid off very well. However this is also an accomplishment from actor Ellar Coltrane. It was not an easy job to play the same role over twelve years of filming. Nevertheless he did an excellent job in the role. It wasn’t so much a role filled with emotional range or drama but rather a role that required the actor to grow along with the role and have the personality of the dreamer Linklater intended to have as the central protagonist. Much of it was natural personality but a lot of it was maturity over age. And Ellar did it. Very excellent.

Patricia Arquette was also very good as the mother almost to the point it appeared she stole the movie. The movie was also about the mother over the years improving her life, raising her two children and falling into two marriages that appeared right at the time but would soon make a turn for the worse. Her struggles added to the story not just to add to Mason Jr’s story but to also mix it in as her own story too. Ethan Hawke was also good as the father who makes the annual visit. He too shows maturity over the years but his overall role was not as challenging as his past roles. Lorelei Linklater was also very good. She may have been cast as Sam simply because she’s Richard Linklater’s daughter–much the same way Ethan was cast because of working in his Before Sunrise series– but she wasn’t just simply there. She was given a role too that involved her to grow along with Ellar and also portray Sam as this sister who was liked pop culture, had her own individual style, had ambitions of her own and was a typical older sister in both the fun times and the bad times with Mason.

One thing to note as well. It has been noticed in the last few years the lack of buzz alternative or independent cinema has had over the years. There hasn’t as big of a phenomenon from Sundance or any other film festival promoting independent film in the last while. I don’t know if Boyhood would qualify as a phenomenon but it is one film that has gotten bigger notice over time and has grown with the buzz. It currently has made $22 million in the US and $37 million worldwide. It has also received a lot of critical admiration and a lot of praise for its uniqueness. Definitely a big boost for independent cinema this year.

Boyhood is one of those summer movies one who wants to get off the beaten path of your typical summer movie fanfare would want to see. It’s definitely worth it.