Movie Review: “Selma”

Starring
David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Stephan James, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce
Director
Ava DuVernay

Though it coincides nicely with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the events depicted in the film, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” has the unenviable distinction of being one of the timeliest dramas of 2014. But while there’s no denying that its message resonates even more in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, hopefully those parallels won’t end up overshadowing the movie itself, because although it’s not quite as sobering as last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” is a deftly made drama about an important piece of American history that’s guaranteed to be a major awards contender, largely due to the outstanding lead performance from David Oyelowo.

The film opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) – having already delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech the year prior – receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his part in helping to abolish segregation. But King knows that his work is far from done, and he turns his attention to voting rights in the South, where, although it’s technically legal for black citizens to vote, they’re made to jump through ridiculous hoops (like naming all 67 Alabama County judges) in order to register. When King and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation that specifically prohibits the discrimination of black voter registration. Though Johnson refuses to budge on the subject, instead intent on pursuing his War on Poverty, King continues to test his resolve with a planned 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, fully aware that the racist state troopers and local cops will respond violently, thus generating the news coverage necessary to pressure Johnson to stop dragging his feet on the issue.

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Movie Review: “American Sniper”

Starring
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell
Director
Clint Eastwood

There are some amazing stories that have come from the ashes of the Iraq War, but so far, it appears that Kathryn Bigelow is the only person capable of making them pop on the big screen. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” has a whale of a protagonist, a carefree good ol’ boy who gave up his easy-going existence to serve his country and became one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. Sadly, the movie about his life does little to separate itself from its Iraq War movie brethren, save for the occasional moments where our hero has qualms about killing complete strangers. It is perfectly enjoyable, and it is well made, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. To add insult to injury, the off-camera ending feels like a cheat.

From an early age, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was raised to be the kid who protected the bullies from the sheep. He was a good shot and, as an adult, he enjoyed his simple life touring as a rodeo cowboy, but after watching 9/11 unfold on his TV, he volunteers for military service. The recruiter suggests the Navy SEALS, and Chris impresses his superiors with his marksmanship. Chris is assigned to assist a troop of Marines as their eyes in the sky, as it were. The job was not easy – his first two confirmed kills are as brutal as it gets – but Chris excels at it, and before long, his fellow soldiers are calling him The Legend. The Legend, however, is having issues dealing with the moral dilemmas that come with his work, and the ‘don’t be a baby’ aspect of his military training leads him to internalize much of his anxiety, at the great expense of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children.

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Movie Review: “The Imitation Game”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
Director
Morten Tyldum

There are at least two stories within “The Imitation Game” that, by themselves, would make for gripping films. There is Alan Turing the maths genius (the English add an ‘s’ to math, for some reason), and there is Alan Turing the closeted homosexual, in a country where being gay is illegal. Since it is difficult to secure funding for any movie, the obvious choice, of course, is to combine these two massive plots to make one hell of a film. There are times when the two stories get in the way of one another, but thanks to a cracking script and superb performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game” gives “A Beautiful Mind” a run for its money in the “damaged genius period piece” genre, assuming there is such a thing.

World War II is in full swing, and Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), a Cambridge maths professor, applies for a job with the British military because they need code breakers, and Turing is convinced that he is the brightest mind they will ever find. Despite bombing the interview in spectacular fashion, Turing is recruited to join a team of math geniuses. Their task: break the Enigma code, the German encryption tool that is sent out on open airwaves but is so complex that no one has been able to solve it. (Turing’s team even has an Enigma machine, but the code is so dense that it is of no use.) Turing pulls some unpopular moves to put himself in charge of the group, but eventually earns the group’s respect. His commanding officer (Charles Dance), however, needs results, and because of the aforementioned bad interview, he’s looking for a reason to shut Turing’s program down. In comes plucky Joan Clarke (Knightley), who has the misfortune of being a female good at maths. Turing, naturally, bonds with her instantly, since they are both outcasts. Turing and Clarke do amazing things together, and just when they think it’s time to celebrate, that is when they realize that they have a whole new set of decisions to make, and they are far more difficult than the previous set of problems that faced them.

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Movie Review: “Big Eyes”

Starring
Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Delaney Raye
Director
Tim Burton

If you were to show somebody a painting of a Campbell’s soup can, chances are that they could identify it as the work of Andy Warhol. But show them a piece from Margaret Keane’s equally popular Big Eyes series, however, and although they’d admit their familiarity with the kitschy paintings, they’d be less likely to name the artist, let alone know the strange-but-true story behind them. That’s the subject of Tim Burton’s latest movie, his first live-action feature to not star Johnny Depp in over a decade. But while it’s a bit of a departure for the oddball director, “Big Eyes” is his best film in years, even if that comes off like a backhanded compliment considering some of the garbage (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows”) he’s released.

The year is 1958, a time when it was still fairly unheard of for a woman to leave her husband, but Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) has done just that, escaping the boredom of suburbia with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) for a fresh start in San Francisco. It’s there that she meets smooth-talking artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at a local art fair, and after hitting it off, the two don’t waste any time getting married. Though Walter hasn’t found much success with his uninspired paintings of Parisian street scenes, he notices something special in Margaret’s wide-eyed waifs and rents some space in a nightclub to show off their artwork. When a couple patrons mistakenly credit Walter with painting one of Margaret’s Big Eyes (after all, they both sign their art “Keane”), he doesn’t bother to correct them in order to close the sale. Margaret gets furious when she finds out that Walter has been passing off her work as his own, but he insists that they’re a team, and before she knows it, the lie has grown so big that she’s unable to stop it in fear that the whole Keane empire, and her life’s work, will be tarnished in the process.

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Movie Review: “Into the Woods”

Starring
Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford
Director
Rob Marshall

It is strange to watch a film like “Into the Woods” in a post-“Shrek” world. When “Into the Woods” first debuted in 1987, and turned fairy tales on their heads, it was a truly unique concept. Why should we accept that all princes and princesses have a happy ending? Why should poor children be allowed to steal without consequence? Why shouldn’t terrible parents pay for the sins they committed in the name of “protecting their children”? Those are all fair questions, and many of them have since been addressed in films like “Shrek,” “Tangled,” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” to name a few of the characters involved here. All of these films owe a debt of gratitude to “Into the Woods,” yes, but when you take 27 years to go from the stage to the screen, all debts have been paid far in advance. We are now at the point where pop culture has passed “Into the Woods” by, stripped it for parts, and left it for dead.

The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a baby, but the witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep) reveals to them that she has cursed the Baker’s bloodline with impotency for a crime that his father committed. But she will undo the curse – which will then restore the witch’s beauty – if the two collect four items from previously separate fairy tales: a cow (the one Jack sells for magic beans), a red cape (yep, Little Red Riding Hood), hair as gold as corn (Rapunzel’s), and the golden slipper worn by runaway bride Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who leaves the prince (Chris Pine) in a hurry every night of the big festival. As their lives intersect, the characters learn things about themselves. Some of the things they learn are good, while others are lessons like, if you kill a guy, be prepared to kill his vengeful wife as well. Wait, what?

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