Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SELMA (2014)

Written by Paul Webb

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Where & When: Vista Theater, Hollywood, CA. January 17, 2015 7:00PM

I was almost three years old when the events of this historical drama, "Selma" took place. I've always been aware of the march for voting rights but this deeply moving film by Ava DuVernay helped put it in a much clearer perspective for me. The harrowing, painful struggles and horrific sacrifices many endured not only for their own basic American liberties but for mine as well. A film about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well overdue but instead of trying to cover his entire extraordinary life, "Selma" focuses on this very specific time of the civil rights leader.

The film takes an unsentimental look at the legend of Rev. King, displaying a cigarette-smoking, possible womanizing, ambivalent human being. This may disturb some but I find it makes him even more fascinating. How this brave but fallible man was willing to risk his life and lose precious time away from his family for a higher calling. Playing King, David Oyelowo (one of several British actors populating the film in key roles) may not share many physical characteristics but the actor expertly captures the civil-rights leader's fire and gravitas.

"Selma" begins in Norway as Rev. King (Oyelowo) with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are there for him to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Back in Alabama, four little black girls are murdered by a bomb set in their church by the Klan. This horrific act was sent as a violent reminder for African-Americans to remember their place. While they may have earned the right to vote but because of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, it was made virtually impossible for African-Americans to register. King seeks the help of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is sympathetic but feels this issue will need to wait.

No longer willing to wait, Rev. King travels from his home in Atlanta to Selma with fellow civil rights activists, Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) to devise a plan of action. Speaking before a local congregation, King inspires the crowd to march from Selma to Montgomery for a non-violent protest against this oppression.

There are several obstacles in the way including FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) secretly surveilling the activities of the key players while trying to use some of this information to create deeper tension between King and his wife. George Wallace (Tim Roth), the Governor of the state, is determined to stop the march and has no issue with using brute force.

Ms DuVernay first worked behind the scenes for other filmmakers before deciding she wanted to tell her own stories. She became noticed for her second film, the wonderful very low-budget indie, "Middle of Nowhere", receiving plenty of critical acclaim and awards. With a budget two hundred times bigger than her last feature, the director displays a remarkably confident artistry that many veteran filmmakers with a much longer list of movies still aren't able to accomplish. The filmmaker purposely avoided making anything remotely resembling your standard cinematic biography, stating they are her least favorite form of film. Ms DuVernay has taken what could have easily been an earnest run-through of a history lesson and given it inventive flourish with vibrant camerawork by Bradford Young and kinetic editing by Spencer Averick. Although the film was not given permission to use any of King's actual speeches, you would never notice. The script by Paul Webb (with considerable contribution from the director but denied credit through arbitration) perfectly captures the spirit of his memorable, eloquent words.

Many of the important figures from the civil rights movement make brief but effective appearances (with some deserving their own feature films) and are well-played by a variety of notable performers including Common (who co-wrote the theme song, "Glory" with singer, John Legend) as Southern Christian Leadership Conference director, James Bevel, Cuba Gooding, Jr. appearing as attorney, Fred Gray, Lorraine Toussaint as activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson and one of the film's producers, Oprah Winfrey as the feisty woman known for knocking down the abusive Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, Annie Lee Cooper.

"Selma" comes at a very turbulent time in America with regards to race. With several tragic homicides involving African-Americans by law-enforcement occurring across this country and angry, fed-up people out in the streets protesting, it may seem like we haven't made much progress. There is no denying we have moved forward as a society, right up to this country having it's first African-American President but the racial tensions and the fight for true equality that's depicted in the powerful "Selma" is sadly, still far from over.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


The eleven-day cinematic experience in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival begins today. A record of over 12,000 films from across the globe were submitted with only 185 selected to be screened during this event. New York Magazine has put the spotlight on 20 of these films that are eagerly anticipated. Time will tell how much interest will remain after they are actually shown in front of an audience.

Click below to check out some of these films:

20 of This Year’s Big Sundance Films You Need to Know

Thursday, January 15, 2015


The nominations for this year's Academy Awards have been announced today and for the very first time, every category was presented during the annual televised event. I say this is long overdue. All of the nominees should be treated like they are just as important as what is considered to be the top prizes.

This year we have eight films that earned enough votes to be up for Best Picture with "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" receiving the most nominations with nine each. "The Imitation Game" followed with eight and "Boyhood" and "American Sniper" both earned six.

There were no real surprises in the actual nominations (except maybe Marion Cotillard for Best Actress) as most of the shocks were found in what was not nominated. The biggest was the almost complete shut-out of "Unbroken" and "Selma". I knew it wasn't a good sign when the DGA failed to recognize either of the female directors of these films, Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay but I'm still surprised they didn't do better in other categories. "Gone Girl" also failed to receive much recognition. I thought David Fincher had a strong possibility for Best Director but Gillian Flynn seemed almost certain to receive the nod for her screenplay.

As for the Oscar history books, Robert Duvall became the oldest Best Supporting Actor nominee at eighty-four (and his seventh nomination overall). Bradley Cooper became the tenth actor to receive three consecutive acting nominations with his role in "American Sniper". Roger Deakins received his twelfth Best Cinematography nomination (and still, shockingly, no wins). And with her Best Supporting Actress nod for "Into The Woods", Meryl Streep became the most honored actor with nineteen career nominations.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, February 22, 2015 at the Dolby Theater with Neil Patrick Harris serving as host.

Here is the complete list of the nominations:

Best Picture:

“American Sniper”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”

Best Director:

Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

Best Actor:

Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Actress:

Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon, “Wild"

Best Supporting Actor:

Robert Duvall, “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”
Edward Norton, “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Best Supporting Actress:

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Laura Dern, “Wild”
Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone, “Birdman”
Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods"

Best Original Screenplay:

Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, “Foxcatcher”
Dan Gilroy, “Nightcrawler”
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, “Birdman”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice”
Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash”
Jason Hall, “American Sniper”
Anthony McCarten, “The Theory of Everything”
Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game”

Best Cinematography:

Roger Deakins, “Unbroken”
Emmanuel Lubezki, “Birdman”
Dick Pope, “Mr. Turner”
Robert Yeoman, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, “Ida”

Best Film Editing:

“American Sniper”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”

Best Animated Feature Film:

“Big Hero 6″
“The Boxtrolls”
“How to Train Your Dragon 2″
“Song of the Sea”
“The Tale of The Princess Kaguya”

Best Animated Short Film:

“The Bigger Picture”
“The Dam Keeper”
“Me and My Moulton”
“A Single Life”

Best Foreign Language Film:

“Wild Tales”

Best Documentary Feature:

“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“The Salt in the Earth”

Best Documentary Short Subject:

“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”
“Our Curse”
“The Reaper”
“White Earth”

Best Live Action Short Film:

“Boogaloo and Graham”
“Butter Lamp”
“The Phone Call”

Best Production Design:

The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

Best Costume Design:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Inherent Vice”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

Best Original Music Score:

Alexandre Desplat, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Alexandre Desplat, “The Imitation Game”
Johann Johannsson, “The Theory of Everything”
Gary Yershon, “Mr. Turner”
Hans Zimmer, “Interstellar”

Best Original Song:

"Everything is Awesome" from "The LEGO Movie" (written by Shawn Patterson)
"Glory" from "Selma" (written by Common and John Legend)
"Grateful" from "Beyond The Lights" (written by Diane Warren)
"I’m Not Gonna Miss You" from "Glen Campbell. . . I'll Be Me" (written by by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond)
"Lost Stars" from "Begin Again" (written by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”

Best Sound Editing:

“American Sniper”
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Best Sound Mixing:

“American Sniper”

Best Visual Effects:

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Monday, January 12, 2015


There were plenty of really delightful, charming and moving cinematic moments released throughout 2014 but there were also quite a few stinkers put out there. My list of least-liked films from the previous year include some major successes that many people seemed to enjoy rather enthusiastically but they failed to generate much interest from me:


Who would think that a story about WWII soldiers trying to save valuable art stolen by the Nazis would have made a thrilling and engaging feature film? Apparently only George Clooney. The actor's heart is certainly in the right place for with his fifth directorial feature, "The Monuments Men", he wanted to remind the world that art is important and I definitely appreciate and support that idea. Sadly, Mr. Clooney couldn't find an adequate way to bring this based-on-true-events adventure to life. The film feels extremely labored with the characters flat and unimaginative. Clooney called in some big favors as his corralled a very impressive cast including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett but all their hard work has gone to waste in this dreary drama.


"Maleficent" may feature vivid cinematic thrills and Angelina Jolie is pure perfection as the title character but I pondered this question before seeing the film and feel even stronger afterwards; what was the point of "Maleficent"? This fantasy-drama offers a never-knew-we-needed back-story to the evil fairy from the fable, "Sleeping Beauty" and perhaps intended to shed some light on why she was so bad. We learn that Maleficent, as a young girl, was a gentle protector of the land before a cruel act of betrayal from the future king would lead her turning to the dark side. Now, I understand being upset but does that really warrant placing a pretty nasty curse that causes the death of an innocent child? Call me old-fashioned but that seems a bit extreme. I can't say I actually enjoyed this much and certainly didn't walk away with any sympathy for this character either. Anyway, "Maleficent" was one of the biggest hits of 2014, so what do I know?


Here again is another wildly popular box-office smash that many people loved yet "Interstellar" left me icy cold. To be fair, this Christopher Nolan production had me initially very intrigued with this story of a future Earth that is becoming uninhabitable. Matthew McConaughey plays a former NASA pilot drafted by a professor (Michael Caine) to go back out in to space in search of an alternative planet in order for mankind to survive. A small crew (which includes Anne Hathaway and Wes Bentley) heads out on this long, brave journey which they may never see their family and friends again. This is all fine, as I enjoyed the brilliant performances and dazzling state-of-the-art visual effects, until we come to the conclusion. This is where "Interstellar" lost me. Perhaps the convoluted ending simply went over my head (which is very possible) but regardless, it felt dubious and annoyed me greatly to have spent over two hours sitting through this.


"The Other Woman" seems like it wants to be positioned like this generation's version of a feminist comedy like the classics, "9 to 5" and "The First Wives Club". This very unfunny farce is no where near the same league. The plot wants us to go with the idea that an unsuspecting wife (Leslie Mann) would befriend the clueless mistress (Cameron Diaz) of her cheating spouse (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Then these sudden best buddies would discover a new mistress (Supermodel, Kate Upton), become good friends with her and all plot to destroy the very busy husband. The real question would be why would they all want to waste their valuable time bothering with this worthless man?  This is not positive female energy put to good use.


Michel Gondry made one of my all-time favorite films, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" over ten years ago. This French film maker's work after that amazing accomplishment has been uneven at best but his latest, "Mood Indigo" is absolutely unbearable. This surreal melodramatic drivel stars two very appealing leads, Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, in this story about a rich playboy who falls in love with a beautiful woman. Shortly after they wed, she grows ill after a flower begins to grow in her lungs. The director litters the film with overdone visual effects that are apparently supposed to be whimsical and charming but simply grows more irritating and distracting as the film drags on. What really brings "Mood Indigo" down is a lack of actual moments involving true romance or emotions.


"Godzilla" (click on title to read review) fills the spot as last year's most unnecessary remake. The only positive thing I can say about this version is that it's an improvement over the last lame American attempt to revive the Japanese cult hero. But that's still not saying much. This new Godzilla (which turned sixty last year) has been given a nice face-lift and features some spectacular visuals however the script is really dreadful. This cast of distinguished international performers (that includes Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche) are clearly here only for the paycheck and really look like they're struggling to make this flimsy dialogue sound even remotely persuasive.

Friday, January 9, 2015


This previous year in cinema didn't seem like it would turn out to be very promising. The 2014 release slate started off fairly sluggishly and the summer offerings pretty much failed to generate much excitement. By the time September rolled around, there was a vast improvement as we received a steady stream of interesting films with true depth and quality through the holiday season. No surprise that the majority of films found on my round-up of favorites appeared in theaters over the last five months. As always, my list is not in any order of preference nor limited to any particular quantity:


One of the most unique and magical cinematic experiences I have ever encountered. "Boyhood" follows six year old, Mason Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) as he literately ages over the course of the story, evolving from a precocious child to a complicated teen on the verge of becoming a young man. Writer/director, Richard Linklater shot this project over a week for the last twelve years in his hometown of Houston. There were so many ways this could have gone wrong but the film successfully captures the simple and ordinary events in this boy's life that will ultimately help shape and define him as he moves in to adulthood. "Boyhood" also features amazing performances from Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as Mason's older sister, Patricia Arquette as Olivia, their divorced mother struggling to make a better life for her children while wanting to improve her own and Ethan Hawke as Mason, Sr. their loving father who really wants to spend more time with his kids yet has far too many distractions. This film feels truly authentic, very much like a documentary. I don't think it's any kind of an overstatement to proclaim that "Boyhood" is a absolute masterpiece. I was surprised how deeply moved I was by the film, in ways I never expected.


I have to admit when I first saw the trailer for "Guardians of The Galaxy", I wasn't overly enthusiastic. However, after seeing the actual film, I absolutely loved it. Based on an obscure Marvel comic book,  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was kidnapped from Earth as boy and raised by space pirates. Now, a scavenger himself, Quill steals an powerful orb which sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a sexy green assassin and two bounty hunters, Rocket, a foul-mouthed, talking raccoon with his tree-like humanoid partner, Groot hot on his trail. After they all end up in prison together, this motley crew reluctantly decide to work as a team (with the addition of WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer) to escape and discover the true secret of this orb. What actually made this super-hero flick so much fun is that it followed none of the rules we've come to expect from these movies.


What made the mystery-thriller,"Gone Girl" so good is that it went well beyond all expectations. Gillian Flynn managed to craft a compelling screenplay based on her novel despite the fact that millions of readers were quite familiar with the story. David Fincher, a director well-versed in the making of dark thrillers, surprises with moments of romance, light humor and pure camp in between the twisted drama and bloodshed. Finally, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike headline a very unexpected cast that includes Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Missi Pyle, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry who all astonish with richly textured performances.


"Whiplash", an electrifying drama from writer/director, Damien Chazelle, looks at the turbulent relationship between a young, aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his intensely abusive instructor ( J.K. Simmons) who strongly believes you must be pushed in order to be great. We witness the brutally long hours of rehearsals and the other extreme sacrifices that are made while striving to be the very best yet sometimes that's still not enough. "Whiplash" thrills with a throbbing, dangerous beat while the vibrant work of Teller and Simmons helps to elevate this feature even further.


Steve James was in the middle of shooting the documentary, "Life Itself" on the Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert when the legendary subject passed away suddenly after his lengthy battle with cancer. With the encouragement of Ebert's widow, James (whose 1994 doc, "Hoop Dreams" was championed by Ebert) completed the project and thank goodness he did. This fascinating film looks back at the beginning of Ebert's career (including his time as the writer of the B-movie, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls") while interviewing him over his final months. It also examines his loving but highly competitive relationship with fellow critic, the late Gene Siskel during their run together on the hit television show, "At The Movies" and talks to several filmmakers who admired his tough but fair reviews including Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese. "Life Itself" covers what we already knew about Roger Ebert; his deep love affair with cinema but we also learn he had an even bigger passion and that was with the woman he's credited for saving his life, his devoted wife, Chaz Ebert.


Michael Keaton makes a very welcome comeback with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (click on title to read review). The actor delivers a masterful turn as an unraveling, former movie-star in search of a comeback and seems to have found it with a Broadway show he's put together. However, nothing is working as planned with temperamental actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts), a very concerned business partner (Zach Galifianakis), his fresh out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) determined to close the show and his screen alter-ego, the super-hero, Birdman complicating his goal. Alejandro González Iñárritu ("21 Grams", "Babel") is a true visionary who is able to weave timeless themes into this wonderfully strange film that makes it equally accessible and daring.


In "Force Majeure", what started as an idyllic family vacation turns in to a psychological nightmare. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) , a workaholic businessman decides to go on a week-long skiing trip with his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children. During lunch, a controlled avalanche comes uncomfortably close which causes Tomas to flee but without his wife or kids. This doesn't sit well with the Mrs. especially since he denies even doing it. This delightfully dark Swedish comedy from writer/director, Ruben Östlund won a Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and landed on the short list of the Best Foreign-Language Film selections in consideration for this year's Academy Awards.


"The Theory of Everything" is the inspirational fact-based account of the early life of theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking that features a star-making performance by Eddie Redmayne. While a promising student at Cambridge, Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and they fall in love. During this time, he's diagnosed with ALS and only given a couple of years to live. Jane decides to marry Stephen but completely unprepared for how challenging their life together would become. However, as Hawking's motor skills deteriorate, this doesn't slow down his brilliant mind. This is a remarkable love story and moving portrait of an incredible spirit that cannot be broken.


In 2013, we saw several high-profile, historical dramas involving African-Americans that won critical praise and big box-office. This year, we had a couple of strong films that focuses on African-Americans in very funny, contemporary comedies.

Dear White People" (click on title to read review) is the terrific first feature from Justin Simien that bravely takes a comic look at a highly uncomfortable subject; race relations. Tensions were already high at this ivy league campus but once word gets out that white students are throwing an "African-American" themed party, the situation turns explosive.

Chris Rock stars, wrote and directed "Top Five" and I think it's his funniest movie ever. The comedian has taken a page from Woody Allen and appears in this semi-autobiographical story about a popular comedy star that no longer wants to make funny films while being hounded by an attractive reporter (Rosario Dawson) who wants an interview to find out why. Rock has surrounded himself here with some of the best comedians in the biz and they all support him by delivering wildly hysterical performances.


I would say that there doesn't seem to be any reason to bring to the screen another movie about overexposed vampires. However, what I failed to realize is that, in the right hands, a new film (or two) about those blood-suckers could actually be quite entertaining.

Jim Jarmusch was already off to a perfect start by casting Tom Hiddleston and the magnificent, Tilda Swinton as an undead couple in his moody work, "Only Lovers Left Alive". (click on title to read review). Together for centuries but currently living apart, Adam (Hiddleston) has become weary and suicidal. Eve (Swinton), sensing his distress, leaves Morocco for the Motor City to be with her lover. Much like those popular films involving teen vampires, the focus here is less on blood and more on romance but "Only Lovers Left Alive" is far more alive and captivating. These mature vamps are effortlessly cool, enjoying the simple pleasures of listening to music and cruising down deserted streets at night.

"A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night", this black & white debut feature from Ana Lily Amirpour, is a surreal romance that has more on it's mind than vampires in love. Gender politics and bloody violence are also to be found in this story set in a decaying Iranian town where a girl (Sheila Vand) arrives to feed on the corrupt citizens while falling for a handsome local (Arash Marandi). This is a stylish visual delight and triumphant showcase from a bold new filmmaker.

Honorable Mention: "Beyond The Lights", "The Drop", "Finding Vivian Maier", "Ida", "The Imitation Game", "Into The Woods", "Land Ho!", "Love Is Strange", "Nightcrawler", "Nymphomaniac; Volume I & II",  "Snowpiercer"