WARNING: This is a long one…
Woooo Weeee! I am incredibly high right now. The adrenaline of movie day is still pumping through my veins. It went as well as it possibly could, as it included my three favorite Fs: Films, Family, and Friends. Not only was it an operational success, but also the turn out was the best to date. Eleven people showed up for ‘American Sniper’ alone, a record for a single movie day movie. Even my mom, dad, and sister partook in some movie day festivities! Another first!
Before I get into the nitty gritty of it all, I want to thank the following people for coming out: My mom, dad and sister. Leigh, Josh, Gary, and Jay. Julie and her husband. Lee, Erica, Joe, Lucy, Brett, and Caitlin. I really appreciate you enjoying at least some of the day with me. I loved having you there.
Something I learned yesterday: I should check the movie day weather. Seats were a bit scarce, as most theatres were sold out due to the inclement weather. That made transitioning from theatre to theatre a little harder, but I was also lucky that all of the films were in the same building for the first year ever, my favorite theatre in the city: AMC Lincoln Square 13.
Two notes before I begin:
- The majority of the films I saw are based on true stories. I am not a historian. My opinions of these films are based solely on the movies themselves, not how I think they accurately depicted the true events. (ie: I have no idea what LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr’s actually relationship was in the mid 60s)
- The recaps and ranking below are based on these movies’ relation to each other, not everything I’ve seen this holiday season. This is by no means my favorite or best films list of 2014. It’s just movie day. The final list will be included in my epilogue next week. (Oh yeah, there’s an epilogue—sorry, epi-blogue.)
Now, with out further banter, my day:
I arrived at the partially empty theatre at 9am, picked up my paper towel roll of tickets from the kiosk, and got to work in a half full theatre.
MOVIE ONE, 9:15 am – A Most Violent Year
Director JC Chandor’s ‘All is Lost’ was one of my favorite (and most interesting) movies of last year and ‘A Most Violent Year’ adds to the filmmakers’ run of unique “man vs the world” stories. Set in the winter of 1981, AMVY follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), as they try to expand their oil business during the, statistically, most violent year in NYC history. It is a thesis-based story that revolves around how far a man can go while taking, or believing that he is taking, the right path to success in a time that seemingly calls for other, more amoral, methods of action.
AMVY’s tension and pacing matched the incredible slow burning performances by Chastain and Isaac. They are powerhouses and this movie doesn’t work without them. (Odd Tangent: in a fantasy film actress draft, I would take Chastain, Julianne Moore, or Marion Cotillard over Meryl Streep any day of the week.) There’s a true love and admiration between the two characters and it infuses itself into every conversation and fight that many films, especially in the recent ‘gangster’ genre, don’t ever capture. I would not call this a gangster movie. It’s a pre-gangster/mob movie. It depicts the moments in time where Morales is at the precipice of deciding if he morally can go to the place that he is seemingly destined to end up.
There’s something extremely raw and primal at the core of all of Chandor’s films, and this is no exception. The 1981 setting is not only executed well, but is a perfect background to the moral dilemmas that each character faces. Yes, it is slow at some points, and I don’t know if it every truly achieves certain guttural reactions from the audience that it is working for, but it’s a true thinking man’s semi-gangster movie and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Now, as the weather kicked up into high gear, the movie theatre was visibly more crowded then when I arrived at nine. I had about 20 minutes until the next start time. To my genuine surprise, the next movie, ‘American Sniper’, had a myriad of friends and family attending. Even though it was in the largest (and my favorite) of the AMC theatre spaces, it was pretty difficult to find a seat in the packed mezzanine. Most of us sat together, as the next movie began:
MOVIE TWO, 11:45am – American Sniper
Bradley Cooper is amazing. He is hitting the highest performance quality stride of his career, but it’s unfortunate that this subtle performance is in a heavy-handed Americana movie. ‘American Sniper’ follows the true story of Chris Kyle (Cooper), lauded as the greatest American sniper, as he navigates his four Iraq tours and familial responsibilities.
Most of the set pieces and action sequences are well staged, but there is something missing from the overall narrative. What Chris Kyle achieved is amazing and I am so in awe of how he mentally and physically handled it. Over 160 kills in combat is heavy thing to comprehend. He is a true hero, but the movie about him is a little overlong, redundant, and devoid of anything other than surface level emotion and thematic exploration. That is an unfortunate staple of Clint Eastwood directed films and because of that I have never been a fan of his work behind the camera.
Without Cooper, this film is more or less a flop with excellent production value. The thing is, he really is great enough to save this movie. Sienna Miller (who I really do enjoy as an actress, Re: Factory Girl) is fine as his wife, Taya—the character’s bar introduction being her strongest scene. Beyond those moments, Taya and Chris’ conversations during the war never feel organic. Families all over the country deal, on a daily basis, with the issues of emotional and physical distance, but we never are shown enough of how difficult their lives apart are—we are only told in conversation and sweeping generalizations. This element of contemporary war/soldier films has been presented so much more effectively in better movies. We see plenty of shoot ‘em up action, which adds very little to the narrative of Chris when it feels more like space filler than important information.
This is supposed to be a story about one of the greatest men who ever served this country, but it only feels like just another Iraqi War movie—especially in the depiction of the “evil” Mustafa sniper character. It crosses the border into cartoonish supervillian, effectively diminishing the reality of what Kyle was accomplished on his tours. In a weird way, by making his need to return to Iraqi hinge on this specific plot point, his dramatic struggle seem less genuine.
The movie loses itself at the end of the first act. In the opening sequence, just as Kyle is about to pull the trigger on his first kill, we flashback to how he got there. The journey behind his kills is a genuinely interesting way to tell this story. How did this great man get to this moment to make these decisions? Eastwood sets us up for a psychological film that we never truly get. When the movie catches up with itself about 45 minutes later, it becomes a straightforward, mediocre war film about a great man, played by a great actor.
Next up was my hardest transition of the day. ‘Sniper’ ended at 2:10pm and I stayed around to talk to all of the amazing people who showed up. I had a seat saved for me by friends who were already in the next theatre, so I sat down just as the opening credits rolled for movie three.
MOVIE THREE, 2:15pm – Top Five
Luckily, I planned my schedule with Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’ to break up the day because that had been a pretty intense five-hour morning of movie watching. ‘Top Five’ follows comedy superstar Andre Allen (Chris Rock) during a NYC press tour for his new movie opening the week before his impending nuptials to reality show superstar Erica Long (Gabriella Union). Joined by Chelsea Brown (an absolutely charming Rosario Dawson), a journalist trying to get to the core of the real Andre Allen, the two relive and attempt to exercise their personal and career demons.
This movie is not for everybody, but I really enjoyed the a gem of a meta-statement from Rock, even if many of his top five lists went over my head. While this is by no means an auto-biopic, it is clearly crafted by a man who has lived and experienced these aspects of celebrity. From the commentary on reality tv, technology, the movie business, and sobriety, this is a poignant (if not always funny) portrait of a seemingly successful comedian in our changing times. Rock is truly expressing himself in a way he hasn’t been able to since his highly successful stand-up days.
The first half of the movie tries a little too hard with insight and topical jokes, but never apologizes for its liberal point of view. As Allen relives some of his past mistakes and reconnects with his rambunctious family (it was refreshing to see Tracy Morgan again, even if it was pre-car accident), the actors in these scenes are having so much fun, it’s hard to not be intoxicated by it all. It’s always a true delight to belly laugh with a fully packed theatre. The second half of the movie, while hitting familiar ‘you’re not who I thought you were’ plot points, elevates this movie to something greater than your expected Chris Rock comedy. He presents so many unanswered questions dealing with expectation, happiness, and judgment in today’s ever-changing world that sear into your mind.
There is a scene close to the end of the film, where Allen experiences a high and euphoria that no drug could ever bring him. It’s such a life affirming moment for the character—one that I very much connected to on a deeper level. For me, this scene is, almost, weirdly comparable to the final 10 minutes of ‘Whiplash,’ but not nearly as intense.
Stuffed with incredibly effective cameos, an appearance in the very Lincoln Center AMC that we were sitting in (HAPPY MOVIE DAY), and a wonderful second act, ‘Top Five’ achieves exactly what it set out to do with some moments that go above and beyond.
I wouldn’t say that the second half of the day involved quick transitions like the morning, but because of busy theatre, seating was limited. I had eaten in ‘Top Five’ (thanks Jay for the McDonald’s McChicken!) and made quick water fountain/bathroom runs in between movies, so there was always enough time in general. For the next movie we sat a bit too close to the screen for my liking, but it wasn’t close enough to ruin the overall experience.
MOVIE FOUR, 4:30pm – Unbroken
‘Unbroken’ is the true story about an Olympic athlete who was lost at sea in WWII, only to be held in a Japanese POW camp. It is adapted by the Cohen brothers from a best selling novel and it should be way more effective than the film I saw. Unfortunately, the blame for has to fall on its director, Angelina Jolie.
Based on the cinematography, by the always fantastic Roger Deakins, Jolie has a good eye for composition, but that’s like going to a play and saying, “Well, the set was nice.” By no means do I want to downplay the amazing courage, strength, and pure will power that the real Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) had to call upon in order to endure this torturous portion of his life. I just don’t think that this movie did it justice. All of the acting was fine enough, but each character had no true personality. All Louis’ fellow prisoners started to blend into one another, including Louis himself. His pain and suffering seemed no different than anybody else, even though we were shown all aspect of his suffering. I think that this can be attributed to the poor depiction of the passage of time once they entered the POW camp.
‘Unbroken’ feels like three different movies rolled up into one with the only connecting factor being Louis. There is no flow or build from one dire situation to the next. It was a movie of plot point after plot point, with no emotional depth. I saw Forest Gump/Chariots of Fire, Open Water/Cast Away/All Is Lost, and Fill-In-The-Blank POW camp movie at once. It hit all the notes that need to be hit to qualify as one of these types of films above without capturing any of the characterization. As an audience member, I was left to empathize and sympathize based on recognizing that what was happening on screen, to a character I have been watching with apathy, was “bad.” Honestly, there was so much violence in the camp sequences with no dramatic through line or cinematic subtly that it felt like torture for torture’s sake. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I got to know Louie on anything more than surface level and therefore the real videos and pictures at the film’s end was unearned and wasted.
Similar to ‘American Sniper’, the film starts off with flashbacks to and from the main character’s hell of a present and informative past. Once the movie lost that structure, it lost its way. So much of the opening was dedicated to Louis relationship with God and mysteriously that threat is completely missing in the movie’s second half, only to come back at the very end. If this is the point of the film, why didn’t I see more of that, as it was clearly a character arc priority?
I didn’t like this film, but I recognize that Jolie has an incredible amount of potential as a filmmaker. There are well-executed moments of suspense, grandeur, and feeling and I hope she evolves into director that I’d like to see on a regular basis. For now, I’ll settle for others. However, I would love for somebody to explain to me how Louis shaved and kept is hair so short and perfectly quaffed in a prisoner of war camp for that long.
‘Big Eyes’ ended up being sold out (good thing I had my tickets), so as we entered the theatre, I found the only seats available, two rows back from the screen. Those were going to be some very big eyes, indeed.
MOVIE FIVE, 7:15pm – Big Eyes
While not for the reasons I originally thought (‘Unbroken ended up being broken), I’m glad that ‘Big Eyes’ was here for a little breathing room. Recounting the true story of artist Margret Keane (Amy Adams), ‘Big Eyes’ is Tim Burton’s take on Walter Keane’s (Christoph Waltz) fraudulent claims that he painted his wife’s big eyed waif artwork. Bottom line, it was really nice to see Tim Burton not directing an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘Dark Shadows’. The best parts of this enjoyable, but forgettable, film come from the “Burton-esqe” moments and strong performances.
Waltz is a kick to watch. His con-man antics, while despicable, are such a great contrast to Amy Adam’s timid, inspired, and tortured artist. What could have been the movie’s deal breaker, failing to justify why Margaret would allow Walter to carry on using her artwork as his goldmine, doesn’t derail the movie, but becomes its believable center.
As I mentioned, the film’s best moments are the clear Tim Burton choices. Margret’s trip to the grocery store (where she, of course, passes the Campbell’s soup display) is probably the deepest we get into the psyche of any of the characters. We are finally treated to how she views the world, as the food shoppers display their waif-like big eyes to her in her time of panic. If this is how she sees the world, people, and their souls, then of course this lie has been eating at her all of these years.
It’s no ‘Big Fish’, but has hints of ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Ed Wood’. (And that’s aside from color palettes and time period). As an Oscar attempt, ‘Big Eyes’ is weak and forgettable overall. Burton seems a little out of practice with this smaller scale type of movie, but it was a pleasure to sit through, especially the outrageous final scenes.
At this point the whole theatre emptied out a bit. We had the most transition time of the day, a half hour, so I took a well deserved breather in the lobby as we waiting to be let into the next showing. We sat in our best seats of the day and buckled up for the final film. (Note: These seat did not have buckles.)
MOVIE SIX, 9:50pm – Selma
I am so happy that I ended with ‘Selma’, as it was by far the best of the day. Depicting only a small portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s (David Oyelowo) life, ‘Selma’ focuses on the march from Selma, AL to the capital building in Montgomery, to ensure the right to vote for the black population in the state and country. Among other elements, it was incredibly refreshing to see a biopic set in the 1960’s, in which dramatic tension wasn’t building to an assassination. ‘Selma’ shows the true courage, fear, bravery, and flaws of one of the most important American men of all time. Where other films on movie day lacked depth of character, ‘Selma’ made up for it.
David Oyelowo captures what we can understand to be the true essence of Dr. King Jr., as his confidence and passion oozed off of the screen. In every moment he carried the tangible weight of the lives of his entire race on his shoulders. His vulnerability and search for strength are the more powerful because of it. Everybody from Oprah to Common to Tim Roth to Tom Wilskinson brought their A game, regardless of screen time. Carmen Ejogo, as Coretta Scott King, is dynamite, especially in what may have been the best scene of the movie. As she and King Jr. discuss his infidelities and the fog of death that clouds their marriage, you could only hear a pin drop if your goosebumps weren’t loud enough. King Jr. wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a man who fought for much more than any person can realistically take on himself. The film is so bold in encompassing all of what made the man, elevating the stakes tenfold.
Ava DuVernay’s direction is so full of passion, love, and a well-executed CIA framework structure, that it may very well be one the best of the year—joining Wes, Alejandro, and Richard. I’m in awe of the power she infuses into every conversation, bridge march, and tender moment without every tipping over into melodramatic territory. These were real people—faults and all—dealing with real issues.
Obviously, it cannot be overlooked that, aside from being a great historical period piece, ‘Selma’ and its message directly correlates to our current state of American social affairs. This makes the film twice as powerful. It is a truly skilled director who can draw parallels to today without losing the narrative of a film. The end credits song choice clarifies her intentions, but it’s impossible to not draw comparisons while watching all two hours of film. I want to note that the violence in the film was purposeful, a nice change from the movies before this one. Hopefully ‘Selma’ will be seen by as many people as possible and used as some sort of a teaching tool. Please, see this movie.
What a day! The funny, as well as crazy, thing is, I easily could have sat through another movie. And, I kind of, sort of did…
During a writing break from this very recap you’re reading, I ventured out into the world to, yes, see another movie. Originally, I had saved ‘The Imitation Game’ to be include during this years’ movie day, but theaters and showtimes didn’t allow it to fit in to the plans. So, with out further ado, I bring you:
A Bonus Review!
MOVIE SEVEN? 4:10pm – The Imitation Game
What ‘Unbroken’ and ‘American Sniper’ lacked in the cohesive flashback department, ‘The Imitation Game’ made up for in spades. To win World War II, mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) led a team of the greatest British minds to break the unbreakable Nazi code. The film not only depicts the frustrating process to crack the transmissions, but Turing’s childhood, and his post war life. These three interwoven portions of his story are told in a well-paced, dramatically effective narrative that never feels overlong.
Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly are fantastic. While Cumberbatch stands out, as he is the sole lead of the film, Knightly makes the most of her scenes. She really has become an excellent actress—making smart film choices along the way. The two bring a smart sense to these roles and the movie in general. Cumberbatch’s “on the spectrum” Turing is so understandably unlikable and charming in the same breath, while Knightly’s Joan Clarke interacts with him with such grace and genuine interest, that their screen presence, apart or together, is magnetic. Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and Alex Lawther all leave memorable impressions, despite this being the Benedict Cumberbatch show.
The movie hits all of the usual plot and emotional points that a British historical drama should, but even with guessing certain inevitable outcomes, every moment feels organic, earned, and character driven. The three separate time frames were very easy to follow and never overwhelmed or complicated the character study. I’m not familiar with the director, Morten Tyldon, and his work, but he certainly tells a concise, nicely structured story.
The well balanced film is infused with a wonderful sense of humor and perfectly placed twists that add layers to the excellent final act. The take away is informative and heartbreaking on so many levels—never seeming to come out of nowhere. This is one of the better “true story” films I’ve seen this year and would have ranked very high had it been included on movie day.
So yeah. Wow. A lot of true stories and violence. Hmmm. Interesting. Needless to say, I am well prepared for the awards season, among other things (insane asylum? corrective eye surgery? professional Netlflix watcher? I mean this is my version of a Netflix binge.)
Here’s my “Summary List” in order from worst to best:
6. Unbroken – Boo Urns.
5. Big Eyes – Fine, but forgettable.
4. American Sniper – Movie? Meh. Cooper? Great enough to be better than ‘Big Eyes’.
3. Top Five – Funny and Poignant.
2. A Most Violent Year – Excellent film.
2* (The Imitation Game) – It would be ranked 2nd had it been seen within the marathon.
1. Selma – Run to see it.
I love the movies. I love them so much. If you’ve made it this far down the blog page, I want to thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and passion with you. Perhaps I’ll see you next year on movie day?
Anyway, I’m off to watch a movie… (not a joke)
Keep on Watchin’!