Free State of Jones

RUUD RATING

Free State of Jones

Gary Ross (2016)
2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

Newton Knight is a little-known but controversial figure in the history of the American Civil War: A Southerner opposed to slavery who led a guerilla army in Mississippi after deserting from the Confederate army in 1862. Jones County, where Knight farmed, had been opposed to secession in 1861, and a number of men from that county (having little faith in the cause itself) deserted in the summer and fall of 1862. The failure of the Confederate government to provide their soldiers with food and supplies after the Siege of Corinth was one factor in these desertions. Knight’s own reasons for deserting included his learning that Confederate authorities had seized possessions from his farm, including the family horse. But some sources assert that Knight’s principal reason for desertion was the Confederacy’s passing of the “Twenty Negro Law,” which granted wealthy southerners exemption from military service if they owned twenty slaves or more. The idea of dying to preserve the rarified lifestyle of people who were themselves not required to fight because of their wealth may have been the last straw for Knight.

In October of 1862, Knight was reported AWOL. Returning to Jones County, he ultimately became leader of a company of deserters, their numbers swelled by many more deserters after the fall of Vicksburg. The Knight Company, as it came to be known, engaged in at least fourteen skirmishes with Confederate troops in Jones, Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith counties, and were supported by farm women and slaves from the area. Some historians consider the company legitimate freedom-fighters, some consider them no more than bandits. Whatever they were, the Knight Company did capture Ellisville in March 1864 and raised a Union flag over the Jones County courthouse. Early in 1864, they sent a letter to General Sherman announcing that they had declared their independence from the Confederacy, and in July the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had succeeded from the Confederacy, thus becoming the “Free State of Jones.”

All of this has “Epic Civil War Movie!” written all over it. Enter Gary Ross, the writer/director nominated for Best Screenplay Oscars for Big (1989), Dave (1993), and Seabiscuit (2003), and last seen in the director’s chair for the first installment of the blockbuster Hunger Games films (his was the good one, remember?). And Ross brings in Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey to play Knight, and several other talented actors come along as well: to name but a few, Keri Russell (from TV’s Felicity and The Americans) plays Knight’s first wife Serena; Guga Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion) plays the slave Rachel; and Mahershala Ali (Remy on TV’s House of Cards) plays Moses, an escaped slave who becomes and early member of Knight’s company. Ross provides a script that has the perceived virtue of being “based on a true story,” and voila! We have a can’t-miss dramatization of a fascinating and little-known facet of American history (albeit not likely to appear in any history books approved by the school board in McConaughey’s home state of Texas).

In Ross’s version, Knight is disgruntled by the excessive taxation of small farmers like himself, and infuriated by the exemption of the wealthy from service in the bloody war, but the incident that finally triggers his desertion is more personal and emotional: the drafting of a young kinsman of his, no more than a boy, who is almost immediately killed in battle. “He died with glory,” one of his fellow soldiers tells Knight. “No,” Knight replies, “he just died.” There is a lot going on in that exchange, and a powerful subtext emerges in Ross’s script that seems to be an indictment of the Southern attitude, one that remained even decades later, that the Confederacy had sent her sons out to defend a noble way of life, and that such a grand old cause was glorious. But Knight’s point here seems to be that “glory” is something that rich people use to convince the poor to go out and die to defend the rich people’s way of life. That such an indictment might occur to a poor southern farmer at this point in history may seem somewhat anachronistic—we are more used to seeing it in poetry and literature coming out of World War I, like Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or Wilfrid Owen’s poetry (“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/Behind the wagon that we flung him in…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old lie: Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori” [ie., “Sweet and fitting is it to die for the fatherland”]). But the “Twenty Negro Law” must have had the same sort of effect on small farmers in the south—they just had no poet to rail against it.

Ross’s film continues as Knight finds refuge in a swamp with runaway slaves, including Moses. As their ranks swell with more deserters, racist attitudes surface among the whites regarding the blacks, but Knight puts down such squabbling by telling the deserters they are just as much “Niggers” (sorry, that is the word used in the film) as the blacks: “They just picked cotton for them. You were willing to die for them.” “Them” of course refers to the rich landowners. The scene is interesting in that it may portray Knight’s own world view (perhaps not only the fictional one in this film, but the historical Knight as well, who did marry the former slave Rachel). But the scene certainly does not express the sentiments of most of Knight’s Company, nor of the south in general (a fact that becomes all too clear in the movie’s last section, dealing with the Reconstruction era and the rise of the KKK). And if this is Ross’s assertion, it does ignore some real historical facts: Slaves had no civil rights at all, because they were not considered fully human. Slaves could be whipped, killed, abused (as Rachel is). The white soldiers, drafted into a war they disagreed with, still had led lives of privilege by comparison. While it may even be true that in practice those with money and power have always used the poor and disadvantaged, including slaves, for their own ends, the equation of the two situations at this point might seem, to some, an oversimplification, perhaps even insulting.

Knight’s army defends the poor farmers of the area against excessive government exploitation, fights against Confederate units sent into the swamp to root them out, and ultimately does raise the Stars and Stripes over the Jones County courthouse. In all the danger and turmoil, Knight’s wife Serena takes their son and abandons their farm (the historical fact is that Confederate troops looted and burned Knight’s farm). Knight then does ultimately marry Rachel, and has a child with her. The Knight’s Company breaks up after Sherman declines to send them aid, but Knight keeps some of his men, playing out his revolt until the war’s end. McConaughey is impressive in the part, bringing a kind of confident and reasonable charisma to the role, along with a bit of necessary hubris that allows him to do what he does. Ali is wise and sympathetic as the high-principled Moses, and Mbatha-Raw is likeable and believable as Rachel. Russell is memorable as the sometimes bitter, sometimes forlorn Serena. But it must be admitted that by the end of the war, they are all used up.

This is where the film takes an ill-advised wrong turn. Ross had begun making a film with a clear story arc dealing with a forgotten group of Yankee sympathizers during the Civil War, and an exploration of their possible motives, but inexplicably switches mid-stream and decides to make the film a shapeless biography of the life of Newton Knight, showing us pretty much everything else he did during the years of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, as with many film biographies, this amounts to stringing together several isolated moments with a small connecting thread (in this case, the thread is “Newton Knight stood up for black people”) rather than creating an integrated plot where scenes have cause-effect relationships, and where there is conflict, rising action, a climax, and resolution. None of this occurs in the last third of the film.

Add to that the interesting but ultimately irrelevant sub-plot, which the film returns to occasionally, of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) on trial for the crime of miscegenation in 1948 Mississippi, because he married a white woman and it can be proven that his great-grandmother was Rachel, the former slave—thus making him 1/8 black, and hence legally barred from marrying anyone white. This could have been fascinating, but as it is, it is undeveloped, connected only tangentially to the rest of the film, and so more annoying than enlightening.

What we end up with is a mish-mash of unrelated chunks of stuff. But it is a well-meaning mish-mash of unrelated chunks of stuff, and you can probably learn something about history (though not 100% accurate history) from watching this movie, as you could from an amateur presentation by a nonexpert in an undergraduate history class. As a film, though, I’m gonna have to give this one a gentleman’s C, and two Jacqueline Susanns.

“Money Monster” Review

 

Ruud Rating
Money Monster
Two Susanns/Half Tenneyson

Jodie Foster last directed a film five years ago, when she tried to save buddy Mel Gibson’s sagging career with the ill-conceived and poorly received The Beaver in 2011. Prior to that, she hadn’t directed any films since the early- to mid-90s, when she had some success with Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays. She has kept her hand in, directing a few episodes for TV’s Orange is the New Black and one episode of House of Cards. But given this track record it seems safe to say that she would not have directed this film, Money Monster, and backed it with the combined star power of George Clooney and Julia Roberts, unless it was something she really cared about.

That something, presumably, is the sort of economic malfeasance engaged in by Wall Street tycoons who, without legal sanction or moral scruple, manipulate the global economy for their own personal gain while the average investor, or consumer, loses everything. The plot is the embodiment of the kind of discontent with the global economy that has been registering with voters this entire presidential season, represented here in a single fictional company, Ibis Clear Capital, and its fictional CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West, best known from TV’s The Wire).

The plot begins fairly simply, and is not much of a surprise since we already know what’s going to happen if we’ve seen any of the previews. Clooney’s character, television personality Lee Gates (a smug, smarmy, egotistical financial TV “news” host in the vein of CNBC’s Jim Cramer), comes in to begin his show along with his long-time director Patty Fenn (Roberts’ character), who clearly has spent her career keeping the loose cannon that is Gates’s mouth in check. Gates’ financial “news” show is a showcase for his cocky, clowning, macho personality, complete with stock recommendations that he goads viewers into having the “balls” to invest in. He begins today’s show by making excuses for a disastrous 800 million-dollar plunge in value by Ibis, a company he had recommended as “safer than your bank account,” blaming the disaster on a “computer glitch” and brazening it out. Strangely, the company’s CEO Camby, supposed to be available for an interview on the show, is missing in action.

Things take an unforeseen turn (unless you’ve seen the trailer) when a disgruntled investor Kyle Budwell (played by Jack O’Connell, last seen in last year’s ambitious but disjointed Unbroken), comes onstage with a gun, forces Gates to don a suicide vest, and threatens to blow up the entire set live on television unless he gets some real answers as to why he has just lost his entire life’s savings after investing it in Ibis, Gates’s “sure thing.” He wants answers, and he intends to get them—for himself and for every other small investor wiped out by the devalued stock.

The story, written by Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall), Alan DiFiore (TV’s Grimm), and Jim Kouf (Rush Hour), is in fact loosely based on the real “Mad Money” host Cramer’s woes after his part in the 2008 financial scandal, during which he aggressively promoted Bear Sterns stock just days before the company’s collapse, and was humiliatingly called out in a subsequent appearance on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart characterized him as “selling snake oil as vitamin tonic.”  Stewart, of course, did not have a gun. Money Monster’s story enfolds in real time as Clooney tries to keep Kyle from killing him, Roberts has all of her forces engaged in trying to track down the truth of what happened to Ibis, the police try to figure out how to defuse the situation—one option being actually shooting Clooney (yes, in front of a live TV audience that by now is international), and Ibis spokeswoman Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) tries to stick to her talking points in the midst of one exposed lie after another while the credibility of her story sinks more and more into the realm of the ludicrous.

So it seems Foster felt strongly about the corporate greed and guilt that plunged the world economy into its worst state since the Great Depression. And the film does present the “terrorist” Kyle in a sympathetic light throughout. But this is no Dog Day Afternoon, though it may want to be. Actually, that is the real problem with this film: In the end, I’m not sure what exactly Foster wanted it to be, for there is an inconsistent tone that confuses our responses as an audience, and there are unrealistic plot twists that strain the movie’s credibility even as the film poses as something ripped from today’s headlines.

Case in point: there is hapless producer (Christopher Denham) who is put in several absurd situations and becomes the butt of a couple of running jokes in the film, presumably as a kind of comic relief, but the humor falls flat and seems grotesquely out of place. Further, as the villain of the piece, West is given nothing to work with: we don’t really know his motivation beyond simple greed, and we don’t see that he has any actual remorse. He is simply a personification of avarice.

As a personification, CEO Camby may actually work if we consider Money Monster to be a kind of modern day morality play: Clooney, as the “Everyman” figure, is seduced by the greed incarnate represented by Wall Street and its evil representative, and essentially becomes their puppet, using his fake news show to simply promote corporate talking points. While on the other side, Kyle represents the good angel, or at least what Lincoln called the “better angels” of his nature, the conscience that ultimately sways him as he comes to see the human side of the economic chaos Gates has helped to promote. Looking at the film this way may explain the glaring flaw my wife noted about the movie: “There’s no way that a Narcissist like that [i.e., Gates] would ever suddenly demonstrate such insightful self-awareness.”

Characterization in general is one of the flaws with the film. Clooney does the best with what he’s given, but outside the morality play scenario he seems too shallow to suddenly “get it.” Roberts has it even worse—she’s given almost nothing to do except react with concerned looks to the bizarre events unfolding around her, and to bark orders at her virtually faceless underlings. There are hints of an untapped relationship between her and Gates, but it seemed that Foster was counting on a kind of natural chemistry between the two stars, and in the few places where such hints occur, they seem artificially inserted into the tense main plot. Kyle is really the only character who is significantly complex, and it is with him, not with Clooney, that the audience feels empathy.

The biggest misstep in the film occurs when the hostage situation leaves the studio and takes to the streets of Manhattan, followed by half of New York’s police department and surrounded by curious New Yorkers as if they are on a parade route. That was the point where the movie jumped the shark. If Foster wanted to make a serious indictment of corporate skullduggery, this movie has not really succeeded. Aside from becoming too over-the-top to be taken seriously, it succeeds only in presenting the fall of a single greedy executive, too extreme to be taken as a representative of the entire profession. Two Jaqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

Top Ten Films of 2014 (With Incidental Oscar Predictions)

Living in the hinterlands of Arkansas rather than New York or Los Angeles, we don’t get to see many of the best films of one year until two months into the next, which is why a “Best of 2014” list can’t come out until today, the day of the Oscars, since it is only within the past few weeks that several films finally in wide release have been available for consumption by the vast majority of American viewers. But it seems appropriate now, after reviewing many of them, and before the orgy of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory binge known as the Academy Awards, that I put out my own list of the ten films that I consider the best of the lot for 2014. In rough order from tenth best to best of all, with interspersed commentary on who I believe will win the most coveted Oscars, here is that list:

10. The Theory of Everything

The story of the marriage of Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist, and his wife Jane Wilde, has received a good deal of attention for its lead actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne is almost certain to walk away with the Academy Award—his is the sort of role the Academy loves. Struck by Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 21, and given two years to live, Hawking marries Jane, fathers children, gains a worldwide reputation as a scientific genius, while at the same time physically degenerating until he can move only some of his fingers and is only able to speak in a mechanical-sounding voice through a computer. Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking’s long battle against disintegration is the most memorable thing about the movie. But Jones’s portrayal of a wife who, believing she was in for two years of heartache, must bear it for decades, and her own emotional price that she pays for her marriage, is a subtle and impressive context for Redmayne’s performance. Jones is unlikely to claim the Oscar however—that may be sewn up by Julianne Moore for her parallel performance of a declining genius in Still Alice. But Redmayne is likely to lose only if Birdman is dominating the awards and sweeps Michael Keaton to an Oscar on its coattails. As a film, The Theory of Everything has a few flaws common in biopics—it is episodic and at times moves through too much too quickly, but director James Marsh should be commended for making an honest movie that looks at the legitimate problems real people face in extreme situations like this marriage.

9. The Immigrant

A brilliant film completely overlooked by the Academy is James Gray’s The Immigrant. Gray’s film opened pretty much everywhere in the world in 2013, but did not get into even limited release in the United States until May 16 of last year, at which time it played to small audiences. The aura of hopelessness that hangs over the film made it a good bet it was never going to be a mega-hit, but distributor Harvey Weinstein, who feuded with Gray and demanded cuts in the movie, certainly did not help matters and did not really push the film as Oscar-worthy until its star, Marion Cotillard , had already received several awards for her performance. The film is beautifully shot, a period piece set in 1921 New York, and filmed in a retro style that emulates old Hollywood melodramas. The film chronicles the story of Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda, who land at Ellis Island in pursuit of the American Dream, only to see Magda quarantined on the island because of a lung disease, and Ewa is left to her own devices on the streets of New York, hoping to find some way to stay in America and to reunite with her sister. She falls in with a burlesque producer and pimp named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and has a chance to be rescued from the life by Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner). The performances are, as befits the film’s style, melodramatic, but the film is a scathing criticism of the American Dream and an historical look at a contemporary problem—the plight of immigrants. If you are one of the millions who did not see this movie, it is available on blu-ray and other sources now, so I urge you to see it.

8. Selma

The year’s most important “serious film,” Selma tells the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, a march that galvanized the country behind the Voting Rights Act and made the promise of the 15th amendment a reality for millions of African Americans. As a bio-pic, it does what Steven Spielberg did so effectively in Lincoln, showing the character of an individual through one crisis period, rather than attempting to trace the entire narrative arc of the person’s life. David Oyelowo, the classically trained British stage actor who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, gives a riveting performance as King, warts and all, successfully leading the march. While the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it was virtually shut out in other categories, nominated only for its original song, “Glory” by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, for which it will almost certainly win (sorry Lego). The lack of other nominations for a film that received a 98% positive rating from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes.com, may stem from two causes: First, the script had some flaws, in particular a tendency for characters to become preachy at times, with swelling music warning the audience that “I AM SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT NOW.” Second, the film took some heat from Joseph Califano, former presidential adviser for domestic affairs, who criticized what he called a distorted and inaccurate portrayal of LBJ’s part in the Selma march and the passing of the Voting Rights Act. But despite these flaws, the film made a huge political statement, coming out close to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Act of 1965—reminding us how much that law cost in human life and suffering, and by implication underscoring the ease by which the courts have allowed the law to expire. This is despite the fact that many new schemes to prevent voters from exercising their rights have sprung up recently in many states, not only in the South. In many ways the 50-year-old story of Selma is the most contemporary political statement of the 2014 film season.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

In a year that featured huge fantasy/adventure blockbusters including The Hunger Games, Transformers, X-Men, The Hobbit, the Planet of the Apes, Captain America and Spiderman, by far the best, the most engaging and entertaining was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Having the virtue of not taking itself or its genre too seriously, this film was irreverent and consistently funny and at the same time brimming with action and impressive visuals. The film featured oddball characters that you actually cared about, including a pistol-packing raccoon named Rocket, voiced by Oscar-nominated (not for this film) Bradley Cooper, an ent-like creature called Groot, the deadly Gamora, last of her species, and the frightening and powerful Drax. As the Han Solo-like adventurer Peter Quill, Chris Pratt leads this merry band against a fanatical megalomaniac bent on control of the entire galaxy. The film is a hoot, and if you haven’t seen it you need to rent or stream it ASAP. Sadly, it is nominated for only two Oscars, for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, and for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. It probably deserves both of these, and I would hope it gets the recognition those awards might bring it. Of course, as the second-highest grossing film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy won’t suffer too much if it fails to win those Oscars.

6. Grand Budapest Hotel

The year’s best comedy hands down (and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical to prove it), Wes Anderson’s latest quirky adventure was released rather early in the year but wasn’t forgotten by Academy voters, who nominated it for nine Oscars. It’s not likely to win any of the major ones, except perhaps one for Anderson for Best Original Screenplay, which it has a good shot at unless Birdman sweeps the awards (Birdman’s script is nearly as good, but Anderson’s is quirky, full of unexpected plot twists, and moving all at the same time). More likely at the Oscars are wins for Costuming and for Production Design, areas in which it has already been honored, and perhaps for Film Editing—unless Boyhood sweeps the awards. The story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge, and his faithful lobby boy and sidekick Zero Mourrtafa (Mathieu Amalric) and their adventures chasing a family fortune and a valuable Renaissance painting may be the most absorbing romp of the year.

5. Calvary

A small movie completely ignored by the Academy is John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the devastating story of an Irish priest in Sligo facing murder by one of his parishioners who was sexually abused by his priest as a child. The parishioner knows that Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, and plans to kill him because no one would pay attention to the murder of a bad priest. The film, which follows Father James through his week, shows him visiting his parish full of people who no longer see the Church as an institution with any moral authority, but continuing to faithfully perform his duties. “Do not despair,” the film’s headnote proclaims. “One of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: One of the thieves was not.” All of Father James’s parishioners fall into one of these categories, but Father James forgives all of them—like his role-model on the original Calvary—even forgiving the one who kills him, as he dies for the sins of others. McDonagh said he made the film deliberately in the wake of worldwide condemnation of clergy abuse, to be a story concerned with forgiveness and not condemnation. It is a small, quiet film that packs a huge wallop. Gleeson is fabulous in the lead role, and the film devastating but in the end, somehow uplifting. More people should have seen it in the theater. But I would strongly urge you to rent or stream his film.

4. Imitation Game

The biography of Alan Turing, Imitation Game is the story of a pioneer in computing and artificial intelligence, focusing on his work with British MI-6 during the Second World War, and his group’s cracking of the previously unbreakable German Enigma code. This was an accomplishment that saved what is estimated to be millions of lives and shortened the war by two years. The film is well written, and the one Oscar it seems destined to win is for Adapted Screenplay for Graham Moore. But what is most engaging about the film is the brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing—arrogant and socially inept, machine-like but harboring gut-wrenching emotions, and the equally impressive job turned in by Keira Knightley as Turing’s colleague and fellow genius Joan Clarke. Neither is likely to win the award in their category, but together they help make The Imitation Game one of the most powerful films of the year, and the issue of Turing’s sexuality makes this film another politically timely one.

3. The Lego Movie

By far the best and the most creative animated film of 2014, and one that also made almost everybody else’s list of top 10 films of the year, one of the top reviewed films of the year, and one of the top grossing movies of 2014, I’m still completely flabbergasted that The Lego Movie was not even nominated for an Oscar as best animated film (that will probably go to How to Train Your Dragon 2), when in fact it should have been one of the movies nominated for best film of the year. Seriously, everything about this movie was awesome. It had beautiful animation, a great cast of voices, and brilliant satire softened by its gently ironic tone and hilarious jokes (I’ll never look at Batman the same way again). Rumor has it that Academy voters who had not seen the movie thought of it as just a movie length “toy advertisement” and so defeated its nomination. Get a clue, Academy. At least watch the movies so you have a legitimate reason to disregard them. The only award the film is nominated for is original song, for the infectious “Everything is Awesome.” It’s possible, but not likely, that voters will take out their frustration at the film’s snub by giving the Oscar to its song, but that’s a pretty long shot.

2. Boyhood

If there is one certainty in his year’s Academy Awards, it is Richard Linklater’s Oscar for Best Director for his twelve-year project Boyhood. Filmed with the same actors over a period from 2002 through 2013, the film follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through his college orientation. The fact that Linklater was able to complete such a project, that he was able to keep a cast together to film them off and on for twelve years, and that he could edit such material into a movie with a narrative arc is a feat unrivaled in the history of feature films. Ethan Hawke as Mason’s sometimes absent father, and Patricia Arquette as his often ineffectual mother, are impressive in their roles and have been nominated for Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Arquette is actually favored to win, though she does have competition from the always formidable Meryl Streep from Into the Woods and from my own favorite in this category, Laura Dern from Wild. But I suspect Arquette will win. If she does not, it is a clear indication that Boyhood will lose the Best Picture Oscar, probably to Birdman. Hawke is less likely to win: The favorite in his category is veteran character actor J.K. Simmons for his unforgettable performance in Whiplash. And never count out the sentimental vote for the always brilliant Robert Duvall in The Judge. If Hawke wins this category, look for a Boyhood sweep, and expect Boyhood to win Best Picture as well. In my own opinion, though admirable for its hyperrealism and for its sensitive portrayal of an archetypal coming-of-age story, Boyhood is overlong and somewhat rambling in terms of plot. It is a remarkable technical achievement judged intellectually, but for me, it is not a film that generates a lot of affection. I don’t think it is 2014’s best film.

1.Birdman

My pick for the number one movie of 2014, and the film I believe should and will win the Oscar for Best Picture, is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the quirky, brilliantly post-modern, self-referential and magical-realist psychological drama about Riggan Thomson, former blockbuster movie star as “Birdman,” attempting to make a comeback and re-launch his career as a serious actor despite the voices in his head that try to convince him he will never succeed. The film raises huge questions about its own art form: What are the purposes of art? Should art please the crowd or be aimed at the elite? The film, of course, does both, impressing the critics while entertaining the masses with hilarious scenes like the one of Riggan running through Times Square in his underwear, having locked himself out of the theater in the middle of a performance. It has moving dramatic conflicts between Riggan and his daughter (Emma Stone) and his co-star (Edward Norton). And it has brilliant cinematography—Emmanuel Lubezki shot a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long, continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Lubezki should certainly win the Oscar for cinematography. And the screenplay could give Grand Budapest Hotel a run for the Oscar. Norton and Stone give performances that elevate the film, though it is unlikely they will go home with the Oscars, nor are Keaton or Iñárritu likely to do so. But Birdman is a tour de force, technically brilliant, well-acted, entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s the best movie of 2014.

Honorable mention: Still Alice, Two Days One Night, Wild, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Foxcatcher

Fatal Feast Now Shipping and a Public Reading

Fatal Feast by Jay Ruud

Jay’s new novel, Fatal Feast, is now available
at your favorite bookstore or online bookseller

 

Jay will read an excerpt from Fatal Feast
at the Faulkner County Public Library

Thursday, February 19, at 7:00 pm