Whiplash

Saw the triple-Oscar winner a couple of weeks ago. The film is about a young and talented drummer and his teacher at a Julliard-like arts school who puts him through the ringer personally and musically. The two technical awards were for editing and sound mixing; the acting Oscar was the first foregone conclusion of the awards—Best Supporting Oscar for J.K. Simmons.

In some ways, this was the little-film-that-could. Simmons was a lock early on, but it was a shock to most people when the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (a category that was a controversial choice—but that’s another article).

It’s a solid and well-done film, but I have a few reservations. The tale of the professor/teacher/trainer that pushes you beyond your conceived limits is an old one, and this is just another variation on the same. What helps this old story is that drumming is a visceral art—you can see it and you can hear it—solid film material in theory. The process of creation, practice and improvement is far easier to portray than writing music, painting, or—God help us—writing a book.

Apparently a few scenes were filmed at first, which were then used to lure funding for the rest. Some have called it a short expanded into a feature. In any case, the film feels like an expanded short. There are really just three-and-a-half people in it: the young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, who has a solid career in front of him), the teacher Fletcher (Simmons), Andrews’s father (Paul Reiser, who gives the film a much-needed grounding) and the half-character Nicole (Melissa Benoist), Andrew’s sometime girlfriend.

There are other characters, of course, but they don’t feel fleshed out in the same way. The world of the film also seems a bit thin. The heart of the film is in the rehearsing and performing spaces, of course, which makes sense. It’s when the characters venture out from there that the films seems stretched out and padded.

Most of the attention has been paid to Simmons, which makes sense, too. He seems to have won pretty much every Supporting Actor Award available last year, and in some ways deserves it. The Academy loves awarding great performances from journeymen (or –women) who have been doing solid unrecognized work for years. (Full disclosure: I felt vindicated with this performance and all the awards, as I have thought of Simmons as under-recognized for years; see http://film-prof.com/2014/02/16/five-more-supporting-performances-that-dont-get-the-attention-they-deserve/).

But when watching it, I thought it first deserved Best Part of the Year—or many a year. The part was practically created to win awards, and it’s an actor’s delight. Just as one critic noted that whoever played Viola in Shakespeare in Love (1998) would win the Oscar because the part was so good, I think the same happened here. Not that Simmons doesn’t hit every note—many of which are profane and vicious. He does, but in spite of the fact that the script demands scenes of physical and emotional violence, and we see the character’s soft side a few times to round out the harsh edges, we don’t really get a fully realized character here. The anger is there, the tears and sadness are present, and the warmth (real or not) is expressed, but they don’t quite add up to a coherent character. As much as I have supported Simmons over the years and don’t begrudge him the Oscar, I have great sympathy for those who thought that Mark Ruffalo deserved it for Foxcatcher, where he gave a more modulated and subtle performance.

Unfortunately, the same is true with Miles Teller’s Andrew. We are sympathetic to him throughout most of the film, and yet he’s an arrogant, condescending jerk who blows off a positive relationship because he’s convinced it will limit his art. I understand the argument, but didn’t believe all these pieces were coming out of the same person.

There are also simply unbelievable turns of event that arise every so often that seem to come less from the world the film created than the hand of a screenwriter creating more barriers for his characters to climb over.

If’ you’re sensitive to rough language, stay aware. If you’re sensitive to abuse, even artistic abuse, stay away. But if you want to see some solid performances attached to an intense story of art, mentorship, and the fine line between encouragement and cruelty, this is a story for you. My best friend and his wife were shaken after seeing this. As an artist and performer myself, I know something of this world and wasn’t so affected. But it’s the latest entry into the world of a few unanswerable questions: Where’s the line between intense training and abuse, and will a full-out dedication to one’s art mean that love and life are impossible? The film gives no answers to either question, but gives plenty of evidence of what’s at stake.

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel is the first film I’ve written about where I have to throw my hands up and declare it officially critic-proof. Not that I couldn’t sit back and analyze it from several different perspectives. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s essentially unbelievable in its action and pairings, and there is a an odd camera movement combined with an unnecessary tracking shot that still doesn’t make sense. It slavishly follows nearly every cliché for its type, and yet is still something of a mess. But none of that matters. It’s like going to Grandma’s—there might be plenty out of kilter, but if you love her, you don’t notice (or it doesn’t matter).

To call the film an enjoyable romp is to oversell it, as romp implies something of a structure. And while we lurch toward the inevitable wedding of its main male character (Dev Patel), we also slip and slide into four other couplings, none of which are believable, and whose decisions and actions we simply sit back and accept at face value. Why? Because we love these actors first and these characters second, and just being with them will be what brings in the audience.

The stars shine brightly: Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. They don’t have to do anything or act with purpose, and often they don’t here. Maggie continues to get the Downton Abbey one-liners, and she adjusts well to being out of that imperious period and character. She is the heart of the film, and we’re all just happy that she’s still around. Dench is supposed to be the apple of Bill Nighy’s eye, and as in the earlier film, we just are supposed to accept the 15-year difference in their ages—she’s older—which is more than evident on-screen. But if those two likable stars want to play that game, then, heck, we’ll go along with it against our more rational impulses.

Penelope Wilton, another Downton Abbey alumnus, is essentially dragged in to make an appearance. Her role is essentially unpleasant, but since the actress isn’t, we, uh, go along with it.

Then there is Richard Gere, added clearly to bring in the older female audience. He doesn’t seem to be getting much direction in terms of performance. He doesn’t exactly phone it in, but it doesn’t come close to being a stretch or any kind of demonstration of his actual acting prowess. He’s more of a cipher than a character, and his inevitable hook-up is both obvious and as incredible as the rest.

Dev Patel, a growing actor adept at both comedy and drama, gives a performance that’s pitched too high in terms of energy. Since the character is a go-getter, we can accept this—but just barely. Has the four-year interval really turned this character into such a whirling dervish of obsequiousness? And why does the script force his character into a side trip of childish insecurity (with all the same energy as when he’s up emotionally) when we haven’t seen that side before? Again, Patel makes it work, and we go along for the ride, even when we’d rather not. Patel does have a way with a comic line, however, and we can only hope this talent gets exploited more in the future.

The film integrates the western aspects of the hotel with its Indian environment more than the first film. The sounds, sights and colors of India are more present and of a piece with the western set and habits of its main characters. That alone gives the film an extra energy and attractiveness, and is the strongest improvement over the original film.

But when all is said and done, this is a film of actors we enjoy spending time with. They each go through their paces, some logically, some not, some pleasantly, some not. But the lack of logic and the presence of questionable plotlines won’t matter. Either these wonderful actors are worth spending two hours with just because of who they are, or they are not worth it. For this writer, they were. As in many an epic or historical drama, it’s the cast that matters. Here, that’s pretty much all there is. But what a cast….

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Still Alice

Still Alice is practically an afterthought at this point, and will likely only be remembered as the film that finally brought Julianne Moore her first Oscar (she won as Best Actress earlier this year) after a number of nominations. And while Moore is certainly the bright light shining atop this structure (I’m thinking the introduction to All About Eve here), there are a few other performances worth noting as well.

The subject of the film is perhaps the second biggest star after Ms. Moore, who plays a Columbia University professor suffering with the early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The subject is fraught with emotional weight, as well as social and scientific significance. It might have become “that film” that raised awareness and instigated a social discussion of the disease, joining The Snake Pit, Philadelphia and The Lost Weekend as “issue films” that functioned as well-made films as well as conversation starters. Yet like The Theory of Everything, Away from Her, Dallas Buyers Club, and even The Pride of the Yankees, the strength of its central performance distracts from the issue or disease at hand (and with The Theory of Everything as well as The Pride of the Yankees, the other big distraction from ALS as a disease is who is suffering from it).

Here is the central sufferer isn’t famous, but does live in a relatively rarified world of comfortable New York City brownstones in New York and vacation homes. It’s as focused and limited a world as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which presents a similar narrow world. The difference is that in spite of the “small world” in which that film’s inhabitants lived and loved, the central struggles of its main characters were universally shared or understood. Not so in Still Alice, which focuses keenly on its central character and the effects of the disease on her and her family. We’re barely made aware of others who suffer from the same disease, and only as it supports the central struggle.

The film itself is relatively straightforward and direct, fairly well constructed, and could be described as lean and mean. It’s a better film than you might think if you’re only used to what used to be called “disease of the week” films on television. But other than causing some slight discomfort on the part of viewers to whom the disease is a reality or a fear, the film itself is easy to let slip from the memory (no other meaning implied).

What is provides best is a platform for performances, especially the central award-winning one. Julianne Moore is almost a hyper-realistic actress, and when she finds a good character fit (e.g., Children of Men, Far From Heaven, The End of the Affair), her performances elevate and energize her films. When the first isn’t so good (the Hunger Games films, Nine Months), she tends to either stick out of her films or shift into another dimension that only has a tangential relationship with the other actors or the film itself). Here, she has the perfect fit between character and her talents. Like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, this is a highly technical acting challenge as well as an emotional one. Moore, like those other actors, hits every technical and emotional note purely and cleanly. She never works for sympathy, and gains it in the process. It’s the perfect connection of actor and role, and she makes the most of it.

What is perhaps surprising is the quality of the supporting work. Alec Baldwin has almost become something of a joke for his boorish off-the-set behavior, and it seemed as if his years as a TV star had perhaps robbed his ability to fully inhabit a role without bringing his mannerisms into the performance (e.g., Blue Jasmine). Here, however, he reminds us that he can be an actor of the first rank with a restrained, mannerism-free performance as Moore’s character’s husband, who is torn with his own challenges at work and at home as her disease progresses. It’s a refreshing, real and straightforward performance that gives one hope that we still have a first-rate actor here.

Some ink has been spilt—and it’s flowed in one of two opposite directions—about Kristin Stewart’s performance as Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is occasionally pouty, negative and attitudinal, and evokes Stewart’s most famous role to date in the Twilight series. Yes, she is giving a contained performance, but as the film continues, we see shades we aren’t used to seeing and undertones that work well for the character. Going toe-to-toe with an actress like Moore at the height of her powers, and coming out her equal is quite the triumph. This isn’t the actress of Twilight, in spite of the similarities of its pouty characters. If rumor is true and this is Stewart’s breakout year as an actress instead of just being a star, this may well be the first film pointed to. Lastly, Kate Bosworth heretofore known more for her beauty than her acting talent, gives a solid performance as Alice’s other (and married) daughter—a small role, but an important one to the film’s structure. She’s a counterpoint to Lydia and is someone who is affected, but less so, than the closer family members, allowing us one perspective on the affects of this disease on others.

In spite of its electric and often poignant topic, Still Alice is a film that will ultimately be remembered as a showcase, primarily for Moore. We’ve been waiting for that showcase for years, and Hollywood was grateful to find an opportunity to give her what some feel is a long-overdue Oscar. It could have been deeply affecting, and it even strives for some kind of resonance in its final scenes. But ultimately, it’s a small but solid film with a good supporting cast and a classic central performance. That’s not bad, but it could have been so much more.

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Selma, Black Actors and Oscar

Throwing some thoughts into the mix….

There’s always some kind of “scandal” surrounding the Oscar nominations, and the key word is “snub.” If you were magnificent in a film but people in Hollywood don’t like you, they say you’re snubbed. Or if you got a lot of press but didn’t get nominated, you’re snubbed, which is a way of creating conflict and generating more press.

This year, Jennifer Aniston supposedly was snubbed because she wasn’t nominated for Cake. Same with Angelina Jolie for directing Unbroken. And there’s the biggest, most genuine, shock of all for those on the inside, and that’s the absence of The Lego Movie in the animation category, one it was supposed to win.

But in a year where wrists got sore from pulling out the race card on every other event, Selma is the big Oscar snub story of the moment. It was indeed nominated for Best Picture and was nominated and will win Best Song for “Glory.” It will likely earn a standing ovation from the crowd come Oscar night when it’s performed (as this is how Hollywood will “make up” for the supposed snub when they overpraise the performance of this good piece of music.) But it wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, a true oversight, and it wasn’t nominated for Best Director.

There is of course the issue of racism in the film industry, which is mostly white and male. To think that no one in the general liberal camp of Hollywood is not racist is absurd, of course. But it’s just as absurd to say that because there are many white males voting, that that would be the key reason not to nominate Ava DuVernay, a black female, as director.

First of all, take a look at who also didn’t get nominated: Clint Eastwood, for a film that gathered six nominations including Best Picture, American Sniper. Was he not nominated because he’s considered something of a conservative? That wouldn’t be a good reason not to nominate anyone, especially when he’s given us some of the best work he’s done in a decade here. Then there is David Fincher, who did one of the finest directorial jobs of the year with Gone Girl, which only got one little acting nomination. It was brilliantly directed, and went from something of a front-runner to an also-ran in just a few months. And there is Christopher Nolan, whom many thought was a shoo-in with Interstellar. DuVernay is in good company.

From where this author sits, her work in Selma simply didn’t deserve the nomination. While we enjoy historical moments as much as the next person, to nominate someone just because it would be the first black female nominated as director shouldn’t be enough to garner the nod. It’s not an opportunity missed unless she deserved it. To some, she did. To me and to others, she didn’t.

For those following such things, you already know that the timing of the film’s release was a problem, coming so late in the year. There was also an apparent problem with the screeners, the DVD versions of films put out to voters to encourage them to see the considered films in their busy schedules. I’m sure a few heads are rolling over at Paramount, and perhaps they should. Not getting enough screeners out is a serious goof-up, and those screaming racism need to back away, take a cleansing breath and consider the big picture this year behind the lack of nominations, including bad timing and marketing missteps.

The lack of Oscars for black actors, screenwriters, and directors is a reflection of the lack of blacks in the mainstream industry, both now and historically. Today’s filmmaking community, with the exception of some individuals, doesn’t consider itself racist at all, of course. The power players have always been about money, anyway, and if there were money to be made with black participants, it probably wouldn’t matter. Being historically white and male, it’s not surprising that voters might tend to lean toward what they are familiar with and comfortable with, but that idea extends far beyond race to the subject of indie films and the fine foreign products that make their way onto American screens. Voters vote what they resonate with.

Let’s take a quick look at the Oscars and black actors:

Hattie McDaniel gets the first nomination for a black performer as Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind (1939). She wins it. Nine years later, Ethel Waters wins the same category nomination for Pinky. She doesn’t win.

Dorothy Dandridge gets the first Best Actor/Actress nomination in 1954 for Carmen Jones. She loses to Grace Kelly, who should have lost to Judy Garland.

It’s not until 1963 that Sidney Poitier wins for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Was he really better than Albert Finney in Tom Jones? Or Paul Newman in Hud? It was probably the fact that he was beloved and black that he won the award (or can’t I say that?)

Several other black performers were nominated between 1963 and today, including Denzel Washington for Glory and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (a rare and happy occasion for a comic performance).

Then we come to 2001, when the Best Actor and Actress Awards were won by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, both of whom won, I believe, because they were black and Hollywood decided that this was going to be the year to do that. Washington’s performance for Training Day was a surprise nomination to me, and I took it as a sign of affection for Washington as a respected person in Hollywood that he would be nominated. But I didn’t think he was deserving of a nomination, much less the award. It wasn’t the strongest year, to be honest, and there is still the idea that if Russell Crowe hadn’t had a phone-throwing problem, he would have won his second consecutive Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. But Washington, IMHO, was nominated because he is respected and loved, and won because this was the year to honor black performers. (It may well have been a make-up for his loss for Malcolm X as well. It’s another bad habit of Hollywood to take care of what they think was an oversight by creating new ones.)

Halle Berry is a wildly variable actress, who can be fine in one film and awful in the next. She was fine and dramatic and edgy in Monster’s Ball in an Oscar-bait performance, and hit her artistic peak with this film. She may well have deserved the award. But Hollywood nearly put its shoulder out of joint that year in congratulating itself for honoring black performers that year. No trace of racism there, unless it’s a problem to give an award because someone is black, which may well have been the case here with Washington.

Since then, we’ve had Jamie Foxx for Ray, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, and Mo’Nique for Precious. Last year we had Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o nominated for 12 Years a Slave, and the latter won. Barkhad Abdi was also nominated for Captain Phillips, but lost to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. There are varied, but generally good, reasons that black actors didn’t win when they were nominated. Mostly it was because it was felt that others did a better job.

Was The Color Purple robbed because it was nominated for 11 awards and won none? Was that racism, or could it be because in each category, someone was better? The Turning Point, a film on the rarefied world of ballet and catfights, was in the same situation. Was that anti-classical dance, or were there just better choices in all the categories?

This year had plenty of surprises, not only in the snub category. Marion Cotillard, one of the greatest film actresses alive today, was honored for her work in Two Days, One Night, possibly knocking out Aniston and Oscar favorite Amy Adams, who’d just won the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes for Big Eyes. I saw Big Eyes and not the others, but from what I’ve read, it seems a good set of choices.

The only real “snub” for Selma was the omission of David Oyelolo as Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a wonderful performance. But it’s also part of a film that many didn’t see in time. It’s also low-key and weighed down rather than intense, and lacks the big furniture-chewing moments that tend to draw nominations. That’s not necessarily right or smart, but it’s a fact, and it has nothing to do with the color of the actor.

Yes, Hollywood voters are generally white and male. But to define that entire demographic as racist is racist. The lack of nominations of black actors in general (and I use the term to refer to both genders) is part of film’s history in America. Last year’s winner for Best Picture was 12 Years a Slave, which was the best picture of the year. Last year, three out of 20 acting nominations were by black actors. This year, the 20 acting nominations didn’t include a black performer. Next year will be different again. Perhaps someday the entire conversation will be about the work, and not about the color of the folks working.

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Selma

Selma is the companion piece to American Sniper in terms of being a Rorschach test for America in early 2015. Those loving neat categories would place Selma on the left and American Sniper on the right, and might find some kind of balance there. This would miss the value of each film by a country mile.

Like American Sniper, Selma is, to some of us, a movie. It’s an important movie, and a good one—just not a great one. The Oscar snub business, always a fascinating topic, will be addressed in the next posting. This time, as with all films, I’m writing about the film as a film. (See the opening quote and the first paragraph of my writing on American Sniper–film-prof.com/2015/01/17/american-sniper/.)

Let’s jump first to Selma’s theme, which, along with the central performance, is the strongest part of the film and what grants it the majority of its emotional heft. It presents and ultimately celebrates a moment within a great moment in American history, when the rights of blacks to vote were at least legally guaranteed, one of several key steps forward in civil rights in the 1960s. Just addressing this topic with skill and artfulness is reason why this is an important film and one that should be seen by every adult in America.

Yet here is where this unassailable and respected element of the film finds its major problem area. It purports to show the history of a great man at one of his greatest moments, and we have no reason to believe that what we are shown about Dr. King is inaccurate. The brouhaha has been over the film’s treatment of President Johnson and his role in the Voting Rights Acts. For those who respect truth and think that films covering historical events should work extra hard to present as much truth as they can (like the author), this is a problem.

Director Ava DuVernay has been a bit defensive on the issue: “My response is that this is art. This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.” This is disingenuous at best (especially since she has a history of directing documentaries). She’s tackling a highly charged moment in American history with real people with real reputations who did real things. It doesn’t diminish King to have LBJ treated more accurately, though the dramatic conflict between the two might not have been as easy to locate and represent. It’s a weakness of the script that it had to bend truth to find drama. (Among recent films, The Imitation Game also did the same thing, but the license taken there was less damaging to the film and to history.)

Actually, her depictions of J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace are less than convincing, and in some ways as stereotypical as previous generations’ representations of blacks in films. In fact, if one were committed to digging into the truth about Wallace and his perspectives, one would have to sharpen the representation to include an intelligent understanding of the state’s right/federal government tension of the time. But even an attempt to try to understand a state’s leader’s wrestling with the issue of states’ rights, for the sake of depth and truth, might trigger accusations of wanting to reinstate Dred Scott. Bottom line: it’s too easy to simplify, stereotype and unnecessarily throw figures under the bus to support a point that doesn’t need supporting. And that’s a weakness that unfortunately undermines the power and believability of the rest of the film.

Happily, the central performance by David Oyelowo as King is sublime. You can feel the weight of the responsibility King must have felt, as well as the bone-deep fatigue, both physically and emotionally. This holds the film together, and Oyelowo’s rhetoric soars nearly as high as those of King himself when he’s addressing the crowd. He well deserved an Oscar nomination, and should have been in Steve Carell’s “slot,” for those who think that way. (See the next posting on why he may not have received the nomination.)

There are other strong points. The sequence of the beatings following the first attempts at the march is fine filmmaking, combining music, editing and camerawork for a powerful and animated experience—a jolt of energy the film continually needed. On the more personal side, some of the intimate conversations between King and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) bring a humanity and tenderness that softens the legend and reminds us of the personal cost of his work. There is a fine scene of a particularly painful question asked of King by Coretta, and the inordinately lengthy time he takes to respond is one of the finest uses of quiet in any recent film.

The film is far too talky at times, and can feel more like a historical reenactment with people working to describe the situation to the viewer rather than living it in front of us. King was obviously brilliant and articulate, but too many times the conversations of him and others are expositional, working to inform us of actions and attitudes that we might have inferred from something more visual, like, say, action.

The presence of famous faces is also problematic, though some might fold it into their political and emotional experience of the film. But seeing Oprah, an institution herself, along with Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. can be distracting, especially when every key black part is played by actors generally unknown outside of the trade. It pops the viewer right out of the film to see these renowned figures. It may add some element of “See, these people support the message of this film,” but it subtracts from the viewer’s engagement in the film and the credibility of its images.

Director DuVernay is a little like Angelina Jolie, who is also a young filmmaker with talent still relatively new to helming a large-scale dramatic feature. The film, while generally well acted, is too didactic and slow, and has a few exaggerated stereotyped performances of historical figures. But this is a good film, especially from someone with a relatively short resume. More than that, it addresses a painful subject in our history that needs to be looked at and discussed far more than it has. In the world of film art, it is a minor film. In the world of films on historical figures and tragic historical situations, it’s an important entry and should be viewed, the LBJ misrepresentation notwithstanding, by every American adult.

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American Sniper

Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure…

To this Biblical passage I add, “to the political, all things are political.” This goes for film critics as well as politicians, and that has posed a few problems in covering American Sniper, one of the best films of the year.

You can almost palpably feel the angst in many a critic’s attempts to describe, praise or even evaluate the film objectively. To praise the film might be seen as a support for the war, or George W. in particular, or warmongers in general, and that slight possibility is anathema to too many reviewers, and throws them onto many a divergent path. This film may go down in history as a Rorschach test first and a work of art second.

As hard as it might be for some critics to handle, this is a film first and foremost. It’s a well directed, well acted, well paced and well written film as well. And for those who thought that director Clint Eastwood had lost his mojo—and there has been ample recent evidence—it’s a relief to see he hasn’t.

This is partly the story of the sniper with the single most kills in American military history, Chris Kyle. It mainly covers his tours in Iraq, and as such is one of the best-constructed war films in recent memory. But the film goes beyond that, and does it sensitively and realistically. It covers the effect of his work and the war on him and especially his family. That’s a difficult balance to maintain for any film, but American Sniper pulls it off.

This is due in great part to the two central performances. I say two because there has been a great deal of attention paid to Bradley Cooper, who bulked up big-time for the role and has turned from “that guy in the Hangover movies” to an actor enjoying his third acting Oscar nomination in three years. This is the best work he’s ever done, and by far the least ostentatious. Bradley’s performances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were showy, edgy and appropriately over the top at times. Here he has nailed a character that is sure of himself—to a fault sometimes—and deeply committed to what he believes. It’s the opposite of flashy, but is strong and defined. Like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, an underrated actor creates a character and then simply lives that like character throughout (apparently he also stayed in character throughout the shoot). Cooper doesn’t just “act up a storm” in any given scene, or show us his acting chops, but embodies his creation.

Just as excellent is Sienna Miller, who rises to a new level in her role as Kyle’s wife Taya. In what could have been a throwaway role as the longsuffering wife, Miller makes this character as much of a specific individual as her husband. Miller has previously been known for her looks as much as anything. Here she brings an intelligence and raw reality we haven’t seen before. In some scenes, partly due to Chris’s reticence and Taya’s intense concern, Miller pops off the screen more than Cooper. If this role were in another film, she’d likely get an Oscar nomination, or at least be in the discussion for one.

The script succeeds in balancing a number of narrative threads, and it seems a juggling act at times. There is Kyle the sniper, and the intense difficulty of knowing when and whom to shoot. Then there is another, almost competing sniper on the other side of the war. Then there is his family, and the tensions there. Then there is the difficulty of adjusting to life back home when you’re still feeling the siren call (and what is that call, exactly?). Only the close of the story poses a slight problem narratively (spoiler alert), and it isn’t allowed to reflect back onto what we’ve already seen.

Eastwood has been known for underplaying for a long time, and his films receive some of their power from this understatement. But here he allows some genuine, heartfelt emotion to come to the surface in real-life contexts, not set pieces designed to demonstrate either the actor’s skills or the importance of the dramatic moment. This is his most rounded and balanced film in years.

American Sniper has carved out a new place for itself. It’s not The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, though there are narrative similarities. It’s not a Bourne film, though the editing and sound editing work to create some similarly tense action sequences at times. It’s not The Green Berets, either, and can’t and shouldn’t be analyzed primarily from a political point of view. It’s the story of a man with deep convictions and with a talent that involves shooting. That may be hard to wrap one’s head around at times for some critics, but this is first and foremost a character study of an American soldier. Yes, it doesn’t condemn him for going to war, but nor does it shy away from the devastating impact that war can have on a body, a psyche, or a family. There may be thematic reverberations emanating the film, but it may be months or years before we can objectively see and analyze them.

In the meantime, this is solid, clean, mature filmmaking at its best.

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2015 Oscar Thoughts, #1

Today the Oscar nominations came out. There were a few surprises, and the usual bellyaching about snubs. Whatever…. BTW, I’ve posted the nominations below.

Best Picture
Only 8 nominees for Best Picture out of 10. No Into the Woods, no Big Eyes. That’s good. Otherwise, it’s all the usual suspects, with a surprise inclusion of Whiplash.

Best Actor
No surprises here, though Steve Carell’s nomination for Foxcatcher should have gone to Ralph Fiennes for his high-wire performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel. That was a stellar performance that looked too easy, and was comedy, and high comedy no less. The academy doesn’t tend to notice such accomplishments.

Nothing against Carell, but it’s normal to applaud comics who go serious, and do a genuinely good job. It’s that combined with the collective surprise of everyone that got Carell the nod.

Best Actress
Sorry, Jennifer (Aniston). No Cake jokes here, but this isn’t your year. Also, Amy Adams, who just won the Golden Globe for best comedy performance (in a non-comedy—go figure) in Big Eyes, wasn’t even nominated. Good decision. Instead of Jennifer or Amy, we have Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night. Cotillard is France’s Meryl Streep, with more emotion, and is a world-class actress. I’m glad she was recognized.

Best Supporting Actor
Glad Mark Ruffalo wasn’t passed over for his fine work in Foxcatcher. He has no chance of winning, but this time the nomination is the award. J.K. Simmons is a lock.

Best Supporting Actress
Glad that Laura Dern was nominated for Wild, but she could have easily been nominated for her equally fine work in The Fault in Our Stars. If it wasn’t for Patricia Arquette’s lock on the Oscar for Boyhood, this could have been Dern’s year.

Best Director
No Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), a bit of a surprise considering the technical achievement of the film (see last year’s director, and the year before!) No Ava DuVernay for Selma. Some are bemoaning the Academy’s not nominating the first African-American woman in this category, as if that were reason enough for a nomination. Of course this kind of skewed reasoning (to give a nomination for any other reason than the work itself) is behind many bad choices in nearly every year. What should be discussed is why the directing wasn’t considered good enough to be included. Are the film’s reputed historical inaccuracies the reason? Is the directing good, but others are simply better?

This kind of argument reminds me of when The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars and won none. People were crying foul for all sorts of reasons. I took a careful look at all the categories and agreed that while each person nominated deserved a nomination (or nearly all, to be honest), that there was simply someone better in every category that year. That’s not snubbing. That’s simply losing. In Selma’s case, there is ample reason to believe that not enough folks saw it before nominations were due. Racism? Let’s try to remember last year’s Best Picture, shall we?

Perhaps the only other surprise was the omission of The Lego Movie from the list of nominations for Best Animated Film. It most certainly should have been there, and arguably should have won. But those that say the Academy is too married to traditional animation techniques and is a little too old or slow to pick up all the humor in the lightning-paced film—those folks might be right. Apparently not everything is awesome.
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2015 Academy Award Nominations

Best Picture
“American Sniper”
“Birdman”
“Boyhood”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Selma”
“The Theory of Everything”
“Whiplash”

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 Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Morten Tyldum, “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 Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper,” by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game,” by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice,” by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything,” by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash,” by Damien Chazelle

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

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

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

Best Documentary Feature
“Citizenfour”
“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“The Salt of the Earth”
“Virunga”

Best Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1″
“Joanna”
“Our Curse”
“The Reaper (La Parka)”
“White Earth”

Best Film Editing
“American Sniper,” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood,” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game,” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash,” Tom Cross

Best Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome,” from “The Lego Movie,” by Shawn Patterson
“Glory,” from “Selma, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn”
“Grateful,” from “Beyond the Lights,” by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars,” from “Begin Again,” by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

Best Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game,” Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar,” Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods,” Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner,” Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts

Best Live Action Short Film
“Aya”
“Boogaloo and Graham”
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)”
“Parvaneh”
“The Phone Call”

Best Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture”
“The Dam Keeper”
“Feast”
“Me and my Moulton”
“A Single Life”

Best Sound Editing
“American Sniper,” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman,” Martin Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar,” Richard King
“Unbroken,” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Best Sound Mixing
“American Sniper,” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman,” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar,” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken,” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash,” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Best Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice,” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods,” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent,” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner,” Jacqueline Durran

Best Foreign Language Film
“Ida” (Poland)
“Leviathan” (Russia)
“Tangerines” (Estonia)
“Timbuktu” (Mauritania)
“Wild Tales” (Argentina)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher,” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy,” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Best Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game,” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar,” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner,” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything,” Jóhann Jóhannsson

The 87th Academy Awards will air on February 22.

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