In Kenneth Branagh’s new retelling of the classic fairy tale, when her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) prepares to put her in a stylish new dress, Cinderella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) stops her, insisting that she wear her mother’s classic old gown, with just a little touching up and color added. The brief scene is a metaphor for the entire film: it’s a flashy, colorful reboot of the familiar story that parallels fairly closely Disney’s seminal 1950 animated film. And like Cinderella’s dress, its elegant old-school style outshines more innovative recent versions of traditional fairy tales.
This is not to say that the film is precisely the same as the earlier Disney classic. Chris Weitz’s script gives enough new material to give his audience a bit of insight, if not sympathy, for the motivations of Cinderella’s stepmother (a brilliant Cate Blanchett), and a good deal of sympathy for the Prince’s father, the old king (a superb Derek Jacobi). Cinderella’s backstory is given a bit more space, and we witness her happy childhood her sympathetic parents, and a wrenching deathbed scene with her mother (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: the Winter Soldier), in which her mother gives her a code to live by: “have courage and be kind”—a code that governs her life and that she passes on to her prince. In today’s cynical world, the simplicity and sincerity of that sentiment may seem hopelessly outdated, but the film plays it straight and makes you want to believe it. It’s a deathbed scene that Weitz parallels later in the film between the Prince and his father, who likewise leaves his son with a prescription for happiness.
Nor, of course, does this live-action film feature talking and singing (and sewing) mice—though fans of Jaq and Gus won’t be disappointed in Ella’s somewhat more subtle communication with her own pet mice. And there is no “Bibbity-bobbitty-boo” song (though that highlight of the cartoon version does get a bit of a shout-out), but there are a few computer generated special effects that provide some magic to the transformation of the pumpkin, the mice, and lizards, and a goose who becomes the coach driver. But the film does not rely on effects, and it doesn’t rely on a revisionist feminist reading of the fairy tale (as Disney did in last year’s remake of its Sleeping Beauty cartoon in Maleficent).
Branagh has the wisdom to know that the reason the classic stories survive for centuries is not because clever contemporaries rewrite then to make them flashy and new. They survive because there is something universal in them. The plot of this film is nothing if not predictable. It is, after all, the story of Cinderella, and the story as it has been perpetuated over the years and as it has been loved over the years. The traditionalist in Branagh extends even to the incredibly retrograde act of using actual film rather than digital recording in shooting the film. Its costumes are gorgeous, its colors vivid, and its sets sumptuous.
And though it relies on a few magical effects, it depends more on character made real by an intelligent script and real human performances, led by Richard Madden (Game of Thrones’ Rob Stark), who plays the young-and-in-love prince not as a sappy romantic but a sincere young idealist, and by James, who could be nauseatingly saccharine in such a role but instead comes across as believably good and naturally kind.
It’s precisely that goodness and kindness that could make adult audiences in 2015 look at the film with jaded eyes (the kids will feel no such compunction). Wouldn’t it make a better story if Cinderella rebelled against her virtual imprisonment, fled her home and came back with a band of soldiers or at least a lawyer, to take back her ancestral home from her usurping stepmother. And she could follow this by leading a revolution against the old king to create a new democracy, be elected its first president, and marrying the prince who would become the First Gentleman in her new White House. And sure, that would be quite a story, but it wouldn’t be Cinderella.
Some such reimagining could occur to a writer who saw Cinderella’s traditional role as one of passivity and weakness, that of a victim who needs a Prince to come along as a deus ex machina to deliver her from a situation she has no power to remove herself from. But a close look at what Cinderella does in the movie dispels any notion of passivity or weakness. Cinderella always has the power to leave her situation, but the house is her family estate and is the symbol of her loving family, so her staying in her situation is an act of courage. In returning good for evil from her stepmother and stepsisters, she not only follows her mother precept but is an example of an almost saint-like kindness, an attitude we can scoff at if we wish, but what does that say about us?
In the end, Cinderella presents herself to her prince as nothing more than the simple soul that she is: “Will you take me as I am, an honest country girl who loves you?” Take it or leave it, this is the fairy tale as it has survived through the centuries, and it is the film that we have. Branagh shows us that the old virtues are not dead, and that the old ways of making films and telling stories are still viable. Three big Tennysons for this worthwhile film for the whole family.
There are certain movies about which my wife has to constantly remind me “You’re not the intended audience,” and I find that to be true more and more the older I get. There are many ways, though, in which I probably am the intended audience of Matthew Vaughan’s (X-Men First Class) latest effort, Kingsman: The Secret Service: I mean, chiefly it’s a spoof of old-school James Bond flicks from the ’60s to the ’80s, and has a sound track of ’70s and ’80s tunes to prove it. As someone who grew up with Dr. No and Goldfinger, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to the world of the movie, and though Colin Firth’s Harry Hart is somewhat nerdier than Sean Connery’s Bond, his stiff upper-class British lip and bullet proof umbrella make him a formidable secret agent in that same tradition. But the film’s over-the-top violence left me repulsed and, frankly, confused about what the point of it all was.
The film is based (what isn’t, these days?) on a popular comic book series from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons about a super-secret organization of spies dedicated to battling evil. The group is like a modern Round Table of idealistic knights dedicated to the chivalrous battle for the cause of right: The head of the organization, “Arthur” (Michael Caine) sends his knights errant (Firth’s code name is “Galahad”) out on quests to rid the kingdom of its enemies—it is no accident that the organization is called “Kingsmen.” Anyone familiar with medieval history knows that chivalry was all about class. Early in the film, Hart instructs a group of working class toughs that “Manners maketh man,” and proceeds to beat them into submission with a very polite ass-whipping. The entrance to his secret organization is through a haberdashery on Savile Row, and is accessed with the password “Oxfords, not brogues.” The new Round Table, like the old one, is made up of the noble class.
In this story, a ruthless multi-billionaire Silicon-valley magnate named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is bent on saving the world from global warming by killing off the entire human population (with the exception of a handful of the very rich and the very powerful), and plans to do it by offering everyone on earth free cell phone and Internet service, through which he will be able to command them to annihilate one another. It’s the sort of elaborate plot and lunatic villain typical of the old Bond films, and has the kind of climactic scene in which the Bond character beards the villain in his den in a confrontation in which the survival of humanity hangs in the balance. Just another day’s work for a Kingsman.
Behind the elaborate plot is a fairly typical initiation story, focusing on the young street lad Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of a former Kingsman recruit killed in the line of duty while saving Harry Hart’s life. Eggsy, with a home life controlled by an abusive, gangster-connected stepfather, seems to have nothing but a dead-end future waiting for him. Harry recruits the young Eggsy to fill the slot of another slain agent, Lancelot, and after a series of impossibly competitive training exercises, Eggsy proves to be more than the equal of the snobbish little twits he is competing with—except for one young woman, Roxy (Sophie Cookson, charming in her first screen role), who predictably becomes his sort-of romantic interest. So in part this is a film about class in a way that will have more to say to a British than an American audience. “Manners maketh man,” Harry Hart says, and with this in mind Eggsy transcends his environment, learns the manners of a Kingsman, but keeps his street-savvy. What else would you expect?
Egerton is likeable in the lead role, learning to transform his congenital James Dean into an acquired Sean Connery. Firth is unflappably delightful as the seasoned spy, and Michael Caine, who never met a role he didn’t like, is quite proper in a part that takes a bit of an unexpected twist. Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker in another life, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, plays a kidnapped eco-scientist forced to assist Valentine in his insane schemes. Hamill’s role is something of a private joke: In the comic books, the scientist kidnapped by Valentine’s henchmen is actually named Mark Hamill. Vaughan stages a minor coup in getting the real Mark Hamill to play the character, whose name is changed to Professor Arnold for the film. But it’s kind of a treat to see Hamill working, if only in a small but noticeable part like this one.
It is Jackson who really steals the show in the acting department: His incredibly campy performance as a lunatic billionaire who lisps, wears his baseball caps turned to the side, and plans mass murder but vomits at the sight of blood, is such a bizarre twist on his usual tough-guy persona that he had me in stitches through much of the film.
Those are the parts of the movie that seemed likethey were speaking to me. Then there were the other parts that went off the rails. Scenes in which Valentine’s henchwoman “Gazelle,” played by dancer Sofia Goutella, slices and dices her enemies with bladed metal feet, for instance, were interesting in a stylized way but soon became brutally redundant. Or when the heads of dozens of Valentine’s super-rich, confident of their invulnerability, begin exploding like so many firecrackers on the Fourth of July—an image reinforced by the music of “Land of Hope and Glory” playing in the background.
But the showcase scene of the movie, a veritable orgy of violence, occurs in an evangelical Kentucky church of the all-too-common sort that masks ignorance, bigotry and hatred under the cloak of Christianity: (Warning: spoiler alert here) In the scene, Harry is attending the service and, at an electronic cue from Valentine relayed through everyone’s free cell phone, the entire congregation in the church turns into programmed, maniacal killers, and a melee begins in which everyone present, including Firth, is trying to kill everyone else. They use knives, axes, guns, a flagpole through the chest, and their bare hands to stab, chop, shoot, gouge, mangle and destroy one another until, by the end of a scene that never seems to end, Harry has managed to kill literally everyone in the church, all to a background of Leonard Skynard music. Perhaps, because the hundred or so parishioners have been presented unsympathetically to that point, we are meant to feel nothing for them. Perhaps the fact that the whole scene is filmed as if it is a video game, but using real people instead of computer graphics, is intended to distance us and objectify the violence. The scene is technically astounding but morally repugnant. Perhaps there is a point being made about the danger of blurring distinctions between film and reality, film being just as unreal as video games, especially in these days of computer-generated special effects. Or perhaps that is a distinction that today’s generation of film-goers does not even think of making—if so what does that fact say about the ability of contemporary films to make any emotional impact on audiences?
Yes, Honey, I know, I’m not the intended audience. If you’re like me, you probably aren’t either. I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson, for the parts I did understand.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole “Based on a True Story!” thing, the note that you see at the beginning of movies that I assume is supposed to make the audience sit up and take note, that is supposed to give the film the weight of authority that couldn’t possibly attach to those made-up stories that could never happen. I imagine that’s why nobody ever cared about Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and why, say, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather were such flops with audiences.
Of course that’s absurd. What appeals to us in movies, in novels, in plays, is the narrative. The stories that we hear help shape our consciousness of the world, not the other way around, and what appeal to us most are stories that reflect what Jung called the archetypal patterns of our minds. What appeals to us is the quest, whether it is Sir Galahad’s or Frodo Baggins’; the fall of tragic figures, whether Oedipus or Michael Corleone; the comic resolution of the barriers to love, whether for Kate and Petruchio or Maria and Captain von Trapp; and sometimes even the crushing of the human spirit by natural forces too much for our yet indomitable souls, whether in Moby-Dick or Still Alice.
The opposite of that is also the case: there is an archetypal appeal to the story of one who succeeds against all odds, whose spirit carries one to triumph beyond the malign forces arrayed against him. Certain war stories have always reflected this kind of narrative. In modern America, this archetype is often seen in the area of sports. Think what a great story it will make when the Cubs finally win a world series. In films, we’ve seen this archetype play out from The Natural to Chariots of Fire to Hoop Dreams. One of the most effective manifestations of this archetype on celluloid is David Anspaugh’s 1986 film Hoosiers, in which Gene Hackman plays a coach who lost a previous college coaching job for striking a student, and is hired by a small rural Indiana high school as essentially his “last chance” and, against all odds, is able to turn a small group of mainly unremarkable players into a state champion team.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is precisely the same plot as the new Kevin Costner vehicle MacFarland, USA, a Disney film directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider). In this film, set in 1987 (the year after Hoosiers hit the theaters), Jim White (Costner) loses his job coaching high-school football in Boise after an incident with a mouthy student and must move his family to the only place he can find that will hire him: a high school in McFarland, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the poorest towns in the United States, populated almost exclusively by Hispanic farm laborers. He is hired to teach life science and P.E., and as assistant coach on the football team. He and his family are uncomfortable in the town and with their neighbors—one of his daughters voices the wish that “Dad will lose it again, and we’ll get to move somewhere else.” And White doesn’t understand the people and generally assumes the worst of those he meets. He, too, is clearly hoping that he can weather a year at MacFarland and find a better job—he feels he couldn’t find a worse one.
Having lost his assistant coaching gig after a disagreement with the head coach, White begins to notice that some of his students are particularly good at long-distance running, as he observes them running (since they can’ afford cars) to school and out to work in the fields. It occurs to him to start a cross country team, though MacFarland has never had one and he himself has no experience coaching one. Yet he recruits seven student athletes (played mostly by actors from MacFarland or surrounding towns) and forms a team, though his inexperience is evident in their first meet, against a team of privileged white kids from three prep schools. But White finds ways to improve his coaching and the students’ training, and the team begins to surprise people as the season goes on.
So far I know this sounds like a huge cliché (down-and-out kids saved from lives of poverty or even crime, a la Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love), perhaps made worse by the insulting implication that the people of this town need to be shown the way to succeed and happiness by the white (literally White) savior who swoops in and changes their backward ways (a la Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). But you say cliché, I say archetype, and there wouldn’t be so many movies of this type if the basic story arc of the triumphant underdog were not so powerful for audiences.
Nor does a familiar story necessarily lack quality if it is well told and well acted. Costner, the plain spoken, never flashy Everyman, the Gary Cooper of his generation, is easy for Anglo viewers to identify with (as he was in Dances with Wolves). This story, like that one, begins with his character in ignorance about the people among whom he is living, and ends with his growth into an informed empathy with his students and their families. He works with three of his students in the fields, he visits their home and breaks bread with them, he sees the hard labor of the kids and their parents to put food on the table and their frustrations in the face of grinding poverty. The movie is not about the white coach saving his students from lives of crime and rescuing them from their abusive parents. There are no villains here, unless it is an economic system in which one’s future is largely the product of the accident of one’s birth.
There is something incongruous in the title “McFarland, U.S.A.”: it evokes the myth of the American dream, and the film is in many ways a modern Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story. But the “riches” in this case are really merely high school graduation and the opportunity for a college education that under most circumstances are available to all Americans. Here is a case where even those basic expectations are beyond many families, and the result of this Disney movie is not, in the end, a reaffirmation of the American dream but rather an ironic—perhaps unintentionally ironic—censure of a society that promulgates the myth but erects barriers to its fulfilment for a good section of its population.
This is a feel-good movie that makes good use of the archetypal underdog sports story. But more deeply it is about success attained by teamwork, not just among the runners, but among the entire community—the school, the parents, the students, and the coach—who find a way to achieve success in an incredibly difficult situation. A minor concern of the film is whether White will actually accept a job offer from a rich school district that his coaching success at MacFarland has earned him, but the movie is predictable enough that you can be pretty sure that the outcome of that will be a replay of Sidney Poitier’s final shot in To Sir with Love.
In addition, of course, the story of McFarland has what my colleague Philip Anderson always calls the “minor virtue of being true.” I said at the outset that this was never something that necessarily recommended a movie to me, but it certainly adds a layer of interest to this film as the “where are they now” ending details the subsequent lives of MacFarland’s first seven cross-country stars. Cynics might scoff at the feel-good ending and the predictable plot, but most viewers are going to be moved by the story, and it will give them plenty to think about as well. Three solid Tennysons for this one!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Julianne Moore is nominated for an academy award this year for the fifth time in her distinguished career: She lost in the leading actress category for The End of the Affair and Far from Heaven, in in the supporting actress category for Boogie Nights and The Hours. It may be that this is her year, since she has already won the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Golden Globe for her riveting performance in Still Alice, and the odds are good she will be taking home some hardware from the Oscar ceremony, as well. If you have a chance to see the film, finally in wide release, you should take it, but don’t go expecting the feel-good movie of the year.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. She has had a long and happy marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), apparently a member of the faculty of Columbia’s medical school, and she has three grown children—her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), a lawyer, is married herself and planning to start a family, while her son (Hunter Parrish) is in medical school. As the film opens, the family is sitting around a table at an upscale restaurant, celebrating Alice’s 50th birthday. It is a comfortable upper-middle class family celebrating the position and comfort they have achieved. Missing from the celebration, however, is Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the black sheep of the family who has forgone a college degree to try to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress. With her father’s help (and without Alice’s knowing), Lydia has invested in an equity-sharing theater group. At the beginning of the film, this first-world problem is the only cloud on Alice’s crystal-blue horizon.
But shortly after her birthday, Alice is giving a guest lecture at UCLA and cannot think of the word she wants. It’s a very small glitch, but soon after she is home and out for a morning run, ending in the middle of Columbia’s campus, where she stops, suddenly confused, as nothing looks familiar. At Christmas dinner, she forgets how to make her special bread-pudding recipe, and chases her children out of the kitchen so that she can look up the recipe on her iPhone. But she still makes a serious error at Christmas dinner, forgetting that she has already met her son’s girlfriend once that night and introducing herself again.
After these incidents, fearing she may have a brain tumor, Alice visits a neurologist and, after a number of tests, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As it turns out, the disease in her case is caused by a genetic disorder, and the odds are 50-50 that any one of her children may have the same disorder, and face the same future when they reach their fifties.
And that is that. The rest of the film chronicles Alice’s steady, inexorable decline one devastating incident at a time. Despite her memory exercises, her daily questions that she has her phone ask her, we see her fairly rapidly lose her ability to remember. Some scenes are excruciating—the scene where she cannot remember where the bathroom is in her house; the scene where she praises an actress’s performance in a play, forgetting that it is in fact her own daughter.
The film could easily be maudlin or sentimental or melodramatic. It is none of these things. It doesn’t need to be. Based on a novel by Lisa Genova and adapted for the screen by directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (Quinceañera), the story merely needs to show the reality of Alzheimer’s, the inevitable loss of the person that Alice was, to be heartbreaking. And Moore, as she always is, is perfect in her restrained, understated portrayal of a woman refusing to panic, determined to fight off the darkness as long as possible, and making plans to take matters into her own hands when things become too difficult and she loses herself completely.
But the film goes further. It also explores ways that the disease affects family members and how they relate to the patient as the patient continues to lose touch. One of the film’s best performances comes from Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband John, who begins as a caring and understanding partner through the first part of the illness, but clearly draws away from Alice—understandably—as her condition worsens, and she becomes essentially something that must be dealt with. We forget, in the wake of Baldwin’s brilliant comic turn in 30 Rock, that he can also be very effective in a serious role (think The Departed or Glengarry Glen Ross).
More surprising is Kristen Stewart (Twilight) as Lydia. She is given a role that allows her a complex range of emotions—she has the typical young woman’s problems with her demanding mother who consistently nags her about her life choices, but has the deepest empathy of any of Alice’s family (maybe that’s why she is an actress). She is the only one who can really talk to her mother about her illness, and will listen and understand how her mother feels about what is happening to her. She is the only one who is brave enough to form a new relationship with the different person her mother is becoming.
Of course, the script has made Lydia the most sympathetic role, and Stewart makes the best of it. One of the film’s flaws is the lack of development of the other two children. Anna is one dimensional, self-centered and unsympathetic. The son Tom is barely there—he has little to do other than escort new girlfriends around.
Something seems to be missing in Alec Baldwin’s part as well. His withdrawal from Alice seems too sudden, and we do not get inside his head at all to understand his final decisions in the film. There is a moment late in the film when he asks Alice if she “wants to be here.” It isn’t clear whether he is asking whether she wants to stay in New York, or whether she wants to die. And it may be that the ambiguity is intended. But as the film winds down, we move from one scene of Alice’s degeneration to another, and the narrative arc of the film seems to degenerate as Alice’s mental faculties do. But we also lose focus on the other characters—as, in fact Alice does, until in the end she has all but lost her ability to speak. The very end of the film is a little too precious, a little too tidy for the mess that Alice’s life has become. Overall, however, the film makes its audience feel profoundly the wrenching effects of the loss of self that the fading of a lifetime’s memories brings.
I’ll give this movie three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare, based on Moore’s Oscar-worthy performance and an excellent supporting cast.
One of the great controversies of this year’s Oscar race is the perceived “snub” of Jennifer Aniston for her performance in the film Cake (which garnered her a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best actress) in favor of the surprise nomination for the Academy Awards’ favorite Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard for her performance in Two Days, One Night, a film that barely squeezed into eligibility by appearing on five screens in the United States before the December 31 deadline for nominations. On the off chance that somebody may care what I think about it, let me devote this column to an exploration of the two performances with an eye toward either lamenting Anniston’s snub or applauding Cotillard’s nomination.
Both actresses play women suffering from depression. In Aniston’ case, it is a depression that continues throughout the movie without much hope. In Cotillard’s, it is a depression she has recovered from though the circumstances of the film threaten to drag her down once more. It ought to be said at the outset that both actresses are convincing in their pain and evoke from the viewer both sympathy and frustration, much as they do to those closest to them in their respective films.
But there are few other similarities in the characters. Anniston plays Claire Bennett, a wealthy Los Angeles attorney whose bitterness over a car accident that killed her young son and left her scarred and in severe pain has driven her husband away, and has kept her from returning to work after more than a year. Her only support is her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who stays devoted to her when anyone else would have been long gone. Cotillard plays Sandra, a working-class woman who, trying to return to her job at a solar panel factory after missing time with emotional problems, finds herself laid off as a result of a vote forced on her coworkers by the company’s management. Sandra’s loyal husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) stays with her and consistently encourages her to keep fighting for her job.
Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland), presents Claire as an angry, resentful woman who is kicked out of her support group for her caustic remarks about others’ pain, is about to be dropped by her physical therapist for failing to make an effort to improve, engages in casual sex with people like the pool boy in order to have some form of human contact, and is addicted to painkillers to such an extent that she convinces her housekeeper to drive her to Tijuana to pick some up illegally. When it appears that there is little or nothing that she can do to win our sympathy, Claire steps in to save Silvana from an embarrassing encounter with a few patronizing “old friends” they run into while lunching in Mexico. And there are other occasional flashes of the old Claire that surface, underscoring what a loss it is that she has become what she has.
Along the way Claire has become obsessed with one of her former support group patients (Anna Kendrick), who has committed suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. The scenes where Kendrick appears are an interesting break from the nearly unrelenting misery of the film, though in the end it’s hard to tell whether they are dreams or hallucinations, and exactly what they are telling Claire. But her interest in Kendrick, while it seems to put the idea of suicide into her mind, also strangely compels Claire to seek out Kendrick’s former home, meet her husband (Sam Worthington) and son, and gives her some interest in forming tentative new human connections.
The plot of the latest film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike), Two Days, One Night, is simpler and in many ways more realistic: Sandra (Cotillard) has just returned to her job after a bout with depression, but the management of the Belgian solar panel factory has put her fate into the hands of her 16 fellow workers: they can either allow Sandra to return to work, or they can receive a bonus of 1,000 euros and Sandra will be laid off. The company cannot afford both.
The vote turns out 14 to 2 in favor of the bonus, and Sandra appears doomed to lose her job—a job she and her husband and two children need in order to stay in their home. Word is, however, that the foreman has influenced the vote by hinting to some workers that if Sandra is not laid off, they very may well be. Sandra and her friend Juliette speak to the manager and get him to agree to another vote that will take place on Monday morning. After speaking to one of the other workers by phone, Sandra is faced with the task of spending the weekend tracking down the remaining 13 co-workers and trying to convince them to change their votes.
What could have been an exercise in redundancy—one confrontation after another—turns instead into a series of tiny individual mini-dramas in which we see thirteen different characters, each confronted with the choice of taking the thousand euros—a sum which each of them needs to some extent—or sacrificing that sum to allow Sandra to keep her job, her entire income. It is a moral and ethical dilemma that plays out for each character in a different way, and we see layer upon layer of internal struggle in each character that Sandra approaches.
The fact is that both performances are excellent. If I had to choose, I would say that Cotillard’s shows more range. It is subtle and quiet, and from her tearing eyes to her need for her Xanax to her optimistic rallying to her despair and desire to just go to bed, she is perfectly convincing as a woman truly suffering from depression. Aniston physically gets into her role, moving gingerly throughout as if in perpetual agony, and pays a bitter suffering woman with occasional glimpses of the humor that used to be there. But in a direct comparison of the two performances, it is Aniston’s that I came away from thinking “That was pretty good acting,” and it was from Cotillard’s that I came away thinking, “That was real.”
In the end, Two Days, One Night is a much better movie than Cake. Aniston acted as executive producer for the film, clearly because she wanted a serious dramatic role at this stage in her career, playing a role that she normally would not have been considered for, with her history chiefly in romantic comedy. Her performance here will certainly make her a viable candidate for other more serious roles in the future. But the film itself follows a very familiar arc of healing and doesn’t really give us anything new—other than the strange scenes with Kendrick. But for many Academy voters Cake may have simply been too obviously a vehicle by which Jennifer Aniston was trying to win herself an Oscar nod.
Two Days, One Night, on the other hand, is the first film that the Dardenne brothers have made with a major star, and Cotillard’s appearance in the film will no doubt give it a greater circulation than it would otherwise have attained. But the film itself is well-made, with or without its star. It has a simple but clever premise that allows for a great range of dramatic encounters within its limited scope. There is no question that a good performance in an excellent movie is going to be more remarkable to an audience than a good performance in a mediocre movie. And Cotillard’s performance is better than good. The academy made the right call. If you have to choose, see the French film with its subtitles, and skip the star-making vehicle.
If, as Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived,” then Abel Morales, protagonist of writer/director, J.C. Chandor’s new film (finally in wide release) A Most Violent Year, is quite happy at the end of the movie. But Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) has given us a film so complex in its moral ambiguity that by the end we are not sure ourselves whether we should celebrate virtue triumphant or lament the irresistible flood of corruption that seems to engulf the five burroughs of New York in the winter of 1981—as the film’s title proclaims, one of the most violent in the city’s history.
Previews make Chandor’s work look like a gangster film, when it is anything but: It might be better called an anti-gangster film. Morales, played by an impressively understated Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is a Latino businessman chasing the American Dream: the CEO of the highly profitable Standard Heating Oil Company, he is about to lose the biggest deal of his career, a deal that will secure a large waterfront property that will give him vast storage capabilities, allowing him to buy oil when it is cheap and store it until its price goes up in winter. It will also give him the ability to bring his product directly to his tanks by sea, cutting his costs and increasing his profits. He will become king of his industry. He put his life savings into the down payment on the property, and has a month to secure the $1.5 million loan he needs to complete the deal. If he fails to come up with the remaining money, he will lose everything.
But things begin to unravel in Morales’ business. His drivers are being regulary hijacked at gunpoint and his oil stolen from him, thousands of gallons at a time. His salesmen are attacked by thugs working for his competitors when they make sales calls. Not only is he unable to get the assistant district attorney Lawrence (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo) to take any interest in these hijackings, he learns that Lawrence, who has been investigating the heating-oil industry, is about to bring charges against him for corruption, tax-evasion, and fraud, charges that he strongly, but politely, denies. To make matters worse, the bank that was to finance the remainder of Morales’s business deal becomes hesitates in the wake of the indictments.
There is a panicked, almost claustrophobic feel to the film as time passes, and Morales must fight off pressures from a teamster boss who insists on arming all of Morales’s drivers (with somewhat questionable permits) to prevent the hijackings—a step Morales feels will only escalate the violence; he must go hat in hand to rivals in his own industry to secure short-term loans with outrageous conditions attached, while at the same time trying to figure out which of three rivals is actually behind the harassment of his drivers, he has to prove his innocence of the criminal charges against him while his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) and lawyer (Albert Brooks) assure him that they have followed “standard industry practice” in all business dealings, with the unspoken implication that there probably are some not-completely-honest transactions that have gone on without his knowledge; and through it all he must strive not to succumb to Chastain’s goading him to “do something” to protect his business and family from those who do not scruple to use violence against him. Anna, the daughter of a Brooklyn mob boss, does not have Morales’s scrupulously honest instincts or his abhorrence of violence. She wants something done, and she wants it done now. “You’re not going to like what’ll happen if I get involved,” she warns.
The scenes between Anna and Morales are the most intense in the film. The tension between the two sometimes erupts into what can only be called abusive language on her part, though Morales maintains his controlled demeanor and projects, as he does in his public life, the demeanor of the reasonable, honest man. It is difficult to know whether this is all a front or whether he is in fact as honest as he purports to be. Chandor uses visual clues to make it difficult for us: Throughout the film, Morales is impeccably dressed in well-tailored suits, putting into practice what he tells his employees: “Have some pride in what you do.” But more significantly through most of the film he wears a long camel coat, identical to the one famously worn by Al Pacino in the Godfather II. Much in Isaac’s performance seems to channel Michael Corleone, but a Michael Corleone whose calm is not that of the unfeeling, calculating fratricide, but a Michael who resists the call of evil and preserves his own innocence. Or does he? A one point or other in the film, the Teamster boss (Peter Gerety), the Hassidic rabbi who sells him the waterfront property (Jerry Adler), and Morales’s own lawyer (Brooks) ask whether he fully understands what he is doing. The viewer must ask the same thing.
Morales tells the assistant D.A. late in the film that in all his business dealings, his chasing of the American dream, he has taken the way that is “most right.” But at another point, Anna laughs at him with bitter irony when he talks like this, implying that there have been plenty of times that underhanded things have been done that have got him to this place of power and influence. Some clearly have been done by her without his knowledge—though when he asks if his lawyer knew about one of these things, Brooks answers “Of course.” If Morales did not know, it seems clear he should have. Given some of the choices that he does make in the course of the film, when he says that he always did what was “most right,” he clearly means that he chose to do what was least wrong: he says in the film that it is failure he fears the most, and while his goal is not success at any cost, it is success at the least possible cost to his integrity. In the end, this film does not present us a clear and naïve depiction of good and evil. It demonstrates what happens to an essentially moral man driven to succeed in a business in which violence and corruption are the rule and he is the exception. The film is ambiguous, and we never know everything that perhaps we would like to about Morales and his business. But there is the feeling as the final credits role, that Morales’s contentment with his own integrity may simply be, as Swift might say, the product of his own self-deception.
For fine performances and a truly intelligent story, give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.