AMC Best Picture Showcase 2015 Day 2

So day two of the annual Best Picture Showcase featured four films that I had not yet seen. This was an unusual year for me, last year at the Best Picture Showcase, “Her” was the only film I needed to catch up on, so it was the only one from either day that I needed to do a fairly complete post on. This year, the burden is more complicated. All four of today’s movies were new to me, but I don’t have the energy to do a full review of each at this time of night and I want to be finished before the Awards tomorrow. So you are going to get a thumbnail review of each of the four, and during the Awards tomorrow, I may post some commentary video to go along with my opinions and guesses.

This is the film that I was least looking forward to. The subject sounded a little mundane and the film looked like it was entirely predicated on a gimmick. I had heard a number of positive comments and the reviews have mostly been glowing, but I could not shake off my dread. After being subjected to “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Tree of Life” in the last few years, I assumed there would be a pretentious turkey in the bunch and this looked like it would fit the bill. I am happy to say I am completely surprised and that this is indeed an outstanding piece of work, deserving of some acclaim and a warm spot in almost anyone’s heart.

While it is episodic and sometimes without much of a theme or structure, it is also a lot more entertaining than I expected. There is a stronger narrative than I was lead to believe, although it gives Patricia Arquette the thankless task of playing a woman who can only choose losers as husbands.  I should have known that the slice of life approach could be enthralling coming from director Richard Linklater. He did a fantastic job on “Dazed and Confused” twenty one years ago and this proves that he has the right touch for character pieces.

Ellar Coltrane grows up in front of us but there is more to the story than that. His character has to give up friends, confront bullies, live with neurotic parents and cope with a broken heart. I read some criticism of him in a few spots but I thought he was very good at the younger age and got better as the years passed. If you are a parent, be prepared to see some of the events in the growth of your own child pass by in the blink of an eye. It was not always smooth, and the “movies” have conditioned us to expect the worst at times, but this personal diary of a young boys life is a nice way to experience those moments again (minus the abusive drunks).

Eddie Redmayne may very well win the Oscar tomorrow for his portrayal of physicist Steven Hawking. He has a love story and a tragic human malady to support him, and the well known specter of Hawking himself hanging over the proceedings. The part is an actor’s dream because it requires a variety of emotional touchstones and a physical transformation that will impress even the most casual of viewers. It is as a result, a technically excellent performance but an unsatisfactory accomplishment. The fault is the completely straightforward narrative of the picture, which takes us from point A to point B and then to point C in exactly the manner that everyone expects.  There are no surprises here, and the thing that even the cosmologist would say is the least important reason for his being well known, the crippling disease that trapped him in a failing body. The brilliant theories are in the movie but they are not realized in a creative way and they are still almost as abstract as the lesson in quantum physics we got in “Interstellar”.

The Cambridge environment and the 1960s setting are an elegant tapestry for the love story between the two leads to play out against. The clothes, music and manners of the times feel genuine with these characters. Felicity Jones is a match for Redmayne’s performance, without all of the physicality that goes with it. The sad dance of decaying romance turning into respectful friendship also undermines the last half of the story. Yes it is honest and sensitively played, but it is also a downer which finishes the movies  early strengths with hard fact.

This was the most conventional of all the films nominated this year. Even Selma, a story that has history all over it, managed to inject a little tension and anticipation to the events it showed. This film just feels like the cliff notes version of the story, and a very obvious biopic that could have worked on any number of media formats. It is a very good film, but not an excellent one.

From a story telling point of view, this film feels like a very traditional mainstream Academy friendly movie. An oddball genius, has to overcome his own failings as a human being in order to work effectively on a critical job. It is an important part of history, especially World War Two, but also technology since it features what is basically an early computer. It also benefits from having a theme about the oppression of women and homosexuals, two pieces of bait the Academy is unlikely to ignore. Coming as it did right after “The Theory of Everything” it made me feel as though I’d seen almost every British actor of the current generation in a four hour span.

Bouncing around three time periods in the life of Alan Turing, we get enough background to see where he is coming from and why he ends up as he did. The central part of the story is the pressure filled race to crack the “Enigma” code and save lives and win the war. Benedict Cumberbatch has secured his place as a modern British movie icon after a short ten year period where he had small roles in a dozen big films and a breakout role on BBC television. His face is a passive mask on which we can easily project coldness, malevolence and a robotic personality. That he manages to make the later scenes into something more human explains his presence among the nominees for Best Actor this year. Kiera Knightly shines in a clearly supporting role as a woman who is also incredibly bright and overlooked for completely different reasons.

“The Imitation Game” is a well told war story, with a huge chunk of intrigue to boot. That it makes math puzzles interesting and important is an accomplishment of some sort. Mark Strong will soon be the new Michael Caine, he will be appearing in every other movie that comes out of Great Britain before long.  I also enjoyed recognizing Rory Kinnear as the police inspector. He is now a regular in the 007 films playing Bill Tanner the Chief of Staff, and he is technically Veruca Salt’s brother.

At Eighty Four years old, Clint Eastwood puts the rest of us average mortals to shame. He had two films that he directed out this year, the musical “Jersey Boys” and this combination war film and biopic of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. As I watched this film today, I was impressed with the detail of the battles and the settings used in filming. There is a terrific performance from the lead actor (and producer of the film) and Clint manages to get a musical credit for himself as well. This is the most financially successful of all of the films nominated and the biggest hit of Eastwood’s  career, either in front of or behind the camera. Oh yeah, did I mention that he is 84. Man I feel like a slug by comparison.

Billed as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, Chris Kyle’s story is one that is motivated by a deep love of country and a creed that appears to have been a part of his life since childhood. He is a Shepard protecting the flock from the wolves. I can hardly believe that this story has come in for criticism from some political points of view. There may be legitimate criticisms of the Iraq war, but the troops shown here are heroes, doing their job in incredibly hard circumstances. They have a tough time balancing the warrior spirit with the need to win hearts and minds of the locals. The film never depicts the enemy as anything other than what they are, and it walks the fine line of showing evil and innocence in the same places. That is the story that Kyle tells and the movie shows.

Bradley Cooper is nominated for the third year in a row, suggesting that we can put to rest any doubts about his abilities. He shows that Kyle was a simple man who had to life a complicated life in order to do his duty. While we can celebrate his acts, they are never lingered over or shown in a gratuitous fashion. The only time any sniper shot is show boated is in a final tense shootout when an incredibly difficult shot is depicted with a slow motion camera zoom along the trajectory of a CGI bullet. This moment from a CSI episode was needed because of the distance being shown at which the shot was taken, not to make the killing of an enemy more spectacular.  The much criticized other special effect in the film ( a mechanical baby used for a brief couple of scenes) was not nearly as distracting as some have said.

The brotherhood of the soldiers and the strains on the family at home are not new concepts. They are however honestly shown here and not played for melodrama. Eastwood has the right touch for the domestic scenes and a surprising ability to make the war sequences harrowing and real.  “American Sniper” is a more relevant story than any of the other films nominated this year and the film making skill that went into telling it is second to none.

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