Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, movie podcaster, person, etc.

Throwback Review: Short Term 12

I hold many films close to my heart, but it rarely matters if others agree. If you don’t like Boyhood, I totally get it: I can see aspects of myself that wouldn’t like it either. If you find Wes Anderson too precious, that’s your prerogative: I have a blast indulging in his whimsy, but I have no desire to defend it. Some things, though, hit me in a deeper place. Eternal Sunshine. The Before series. Lost In Translation. If you dislike them, I certainly can respect why — in the cool, sentiment-free light of day, their flaws are evident. But it signifies a disconnect between us: a particular way of looking at the world that I treasure, which for whatever reason you don’t. It actually sort of matters.

Short Term 12 is one such film. When I saw it in theatres I was transfixed. I loved it. But somehow, my knee-jerk reaction was to write off those emotions in favor of nitpicks: it’s overly sentimental, the third act strains credulity, its conclusion is too neat. When the end of the year came and I still hadn’t gotten a chance to revisit it, I sheepishly included it in the middle of a Best Of list as an “indefensible, personal” choice — a guilty pleasure at best, hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as real, Oscar-worthy fare.

A year has gone by since I made that list, and I’ve rewatched this film embarrassingly many times: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, on a Vienna-bound train (yes, along with the obvious companion.) I can now safely say that Short Term 12 is my favorite film of 2013, and is on a very short list for the decade.

I love this movie in the most tender, uncool way possible. I love Larson’s lived-in authenticity. Grace is a person I’ve met many times: her struggles are real, and her quiet looks speak volumes. I love Cretton’s keen attention to detail: the game of Big Booty, Jayden’s many wristbands, the way Mason cultivates a lenient, unkempt approachability that never undercuts Grace’s authority. I love Marcus’ heartbreaking rap, and the precise amount of stunned silence we’re allotted when he finishes his refrain. I love West’s gorgeous score, where unabashedly lush melodies swell above an undercurrent of gingerly plucked strings. I love the gentle shaky cam and the empathy inherent in its gaze. I love when that gaze lingers on empty rooms: like Before Sunrise, there’s a catharsis in the morning after, of familiar settings having outlived, but not forgotten, the emotions they contained. I love that the film isn’t afraid to be as flagrantly sentimental as this review; that it asks us to laugh, mourn, and walk alongside real kids and their very adult pain, no eye-roll in sight.

Could the third act have been more restrained? Was the conclusion a bit too tidy? Maybe. I honestly can’t bring myself to care. In that maybe-too-tidy penultimate scene, as the camera zoomed and soundtrack roared, I cried very uncool tears in that theatre. And I’ve cried every time since: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, and yes, on that clichéd Vienna-bound train. Cretton has infinite reserves of grace for every character he brings to screen, and I’m happy to afford him the same. Short Term 12 is a lovely, heartfelt masterpiece.

Review: Divergent and Insurgent

The first Hunger Games was frustrating. After an hour preparing us for intense ethical dilemmas, Katniss had managed to avert them all, lobbing righteous arrows from a tree while well-defined baddies did all the necessary heavy lifting. As successive sequels continued to polish her shiny Action Figure halo, I found myself wishing that /just once/ they would let a little darkness in. This weekend a duo, clad in underage angst and Hot Topic pleather, summersaulted out of a train and into my life as if to say “Be careful what you wish for, stiff.” The Divergent Series had arrived.

Divergent and Insurgent take place in a shameless mashup of every other Dystopian future, which really isn’t as problematic as it sounds. After freedom inevitably led to anarchy, society salvaged itself the only way it knew how: rigid structure and cautionary-tale-tailored naivity. The world is broken into five Factions, and the Sorting Ha—no, The Exam—pairs citizen with Faction based on well-defined archetypes. Self-Sacrificing (Abnegation), Peaceful (Amity), Honest (Candor), Intelligent (Erudite), and Bro (Dauntless). Triss (Shailene Woodley) is born Abnegation and chooses Dauntless, but (like all teenagers) she, like, doesn’t fit into your labels, Dad. She’s refuses to be any one thing: she’s Divergent. And that deeply threatens Kate Winslet’s Order Of Things™. No subtlety points in that regard, but far be it from me to trash a YA series for a little on-the-nose relatability. There’s a reason this stuff gets recycled: it connects.

My problem has more to do with priorities. Unlike The Hunger Games, the series — and Insurgent in particular — isn’t afraid to bloody its protagonists’ hands. Multiple people take their own life, bad guys effectively commit genocide, and Triss and Scowly Face (“Four”, the film’s romantic variant of Christian Grey and/or a sack of potatoes) shoot to kill. Sometimes it provokes genuine guilt, giving Woodley a chance to showcase her (fantastic) dramatic chops in an otherwise miscast role. But more often it’s ignored or, worse, acknowledged in service of bland teenage melodrama: grief from suicide is resolved by a hug and “Come here”, mass-killings are stopped (not prevented) with lamely empowering quips, and a single death haunts Triss til (fifty discardable bodies later) she’s learned to love herself again.

Almost every notable aspect of the series comes with regrettable sacrifice. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but its largely male supporting players are unbearably vapid. (Rounding out the cast with Platonic-fixer-upper “Four”: The Fault In Our Stars-ex Ansel Elgort as her pouty Vulcan brother, The Spectacular Now-ex Miles Teller her inexplicably flip-flopping frenemy, and a thousand tattooed douchebags who hang out at “The Pit” and can jump real high.) It tackles ambitious themes, but only via contrived scenarios and totally irrational egos. And it introduces genuinely heavy concepts, but its follow-through is spotty and ultimately reckless. Somewhere on the cutting room floor lie a popcorn flick, a weighty epic, a Twilight reboot, and an episode of Tool Academy. Kate Winslet was right after all: it’s dangerous to try to be too many things.

Review: Run All Night

It’s hard to say much about a movie which doesn’t try to say anything at all, so I’ll keep this short and sweet: you’ve already seen Run All Night. X is a goodhearted criminal who’s been out of the game a while. Y is a powerful man with a misplaced sense of decency, and his younger henchmen are erratic douchebags. X crosses Y to save an innocent party, Y vows to come after X with “everything he’s got”, and thousands of inconsequential bullets later they’re face-to-face, destroying one another with the utmost respect and allusions to an archaic “code.“ John Wick, The Equalizer, and every other Liam Neeson movie have riffed on the aesthetic with varying degrees of success — and that’s just talking about the past year.

There will always be mindless shoot-em-ups in the name of vengeance and family. There will always be serious Common cameos, and they’ll always make me laugh. There will always be CG blood to mix with CG rain in the gutters of blue-tinted, CG Manhattan, and it will always sell popcorn. With engaging leads like Liam Neeson and Ed Harris, this particular film sold it just fine — nothing new, nothing wrong. Its trailer promised a couple hours of escape, and like any good aging mobster, it aims to keep that promise with zero surprises, tried-and-true methods, and just a whiff of weary obligation. See it or don’t, you won’t regret a thing.

Review: CHAPPiE

It’s been a while since a film has pulled a critical U-Turn with the angular velocity of CHAPPiE. When the first trailer dropped, the internet was abuzz — and to my recollection, no more than 50% of it had to do with Hugh Jackman’s mullet. The remaining buzz among fanboys and critics was that after squandering his inheritance on Matt Damon and exploding planets, the Prodigal Son of low-fi sci-fi had returned to his roots. Granted, the journey hadn’t spanned much distance in style (post-grunge, bullet-riddled Joburg) or substance ([insert name] with a robotic component fights for autonomy). But in heart and energy, he was supposedly back on top…til the vitriolic reviews poured in.

It’s no surprise that CHAPPiE was a box office bomb. Neill Blomkamp’s “anarchic” style has mass-appeal in small doses, but unfiltered it’s downright abrasive: if District 9 was a Linkin Park show, CHAPPiE is a guy with bum wine and Nietzsche tattoo playing guitar with a rusty fork. It doesn’t care if you like it, it just wants to bleed. The trailers only made it worse: when you market your movie like an inspirational mashup of Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s jarring to give the audience Trainspotting-meets-Burning Man. When they ask for Dev Patel, Die Antwoord isn’t the answer.

Nor is it surprising that CHAPPiE received some critical pushback: it’s technologically ludicrous, thematically scattered, and chronically unfocused. It’s also weird, vibrant, and ambitious as hell — and that’s where I have to give it credit. The film itself fails on a few serious levels, but Chappie the character is Baymax-levels of wonderful. Whether he’s “doing heists” or having angsty philosophic conversations with his Creator, he’s a fully-realized joy to behold. And while the story surrounding him is frequently bizarre, I can’t fault Blomkamp too much for overshooting. It angers me that Lucy gets rave reviews as a “campy thrill ride” while a movie that tries (and occasionally succeeds) to execute legitimately bold concepts gets torn to shreds for stupidity. His message may be as subtle as a decapitating robot, but give me “obvious” over “pointless” any day. It’s a commercial misstep worth watching.

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

January and February are the cruelest months, breeding low expectations and films which somehow fail to meet them. You can watch Kevin Costner learn about race relations, or Liam Neeson go down with a franchise, or Kevin Costner learn about race relations again, or (heaven forbid) bland erotica target a different gender. While staring down these dreary options, in walks Colin Firth, double-breasted suit glimmering through the darkness, inviting you to join an inventive, refreshingly fun romp. Or so critics have raved.

Kingsman tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young British ruffian who is introduced to an underground world of espionage. With the help of Galahad (Firth), he learns the ropes of this new society, saving the world from a philanthropic maniac (a hilarious Samuel L. Jackson) and embracing the basic tenants of Gentlemanhood in the process. If this sounds like a spy version of My Fair Lady to you, the script already beat you to that and many other punchlines. Giddily self-aware and unabashedly exaggerated, the film was very fun — sometimes. It’s the other 2/3rds that were a problem.

The film’s centerpiece is a seriously impressive, hyper-stylized action sequence set in a thinly-veiled Westboro Baptist church. I totally get why everyone is raving about it — it comes out of nowhere, hitting absurdly violent heights that’d make Tarantino smile. But the reason it comes out of nowhere, and I suspect one of the reasons everyone was blown away, is that the film before (and, barring a few other great moments, the film after) is eye-roll-worthy, cliched fluff. The scene is a standout because the bar had already been set at “decent.” Like Seth McFarlane, Matthew Vaughn’s love for pop culture leads to both genuinely clever moments and a frustrating belief that winking imitation equates to great satire. It doesn’t. Boring exposition and seen-it-a-million-times training scenes aren’t automatically a blast to sit through just because the actors are mugging the camera, and the director being in on the joke doesn’t make shallow characterizations or [seriously off-putting] misogyny any more fresh. At its witty best, it shows hints of a wonderful film: a satire, a teenage fantasy, and a gleeful throwback. Vaughn clearly had it in him. Too often, though, it felt like a lesser version of the things it was throwing back to: style without a point of view, emotional beats without conviction. There’s still some fun to be had, for sure. But it doesn’t have the firepower to save us from this C-movie wasteland.

Chris and I disagreed on this one, but I really enjoyed the discussion surrounding it on:

Review: Unbroken

We recorded this mini-episode back in our December marathon, and somehow between Best Of 2014 and controversial Oscar fare, it got lost in the shuffle. But rest assured: Unbroken is neither controversial nor the Best anything of even the last six months. It’s not the best movie about a captive public figure (Rosewater), or the best biopic to include an M83 song in the trailer (Tracks, by all accounts), or even the best 2014 depiction of Jack O’Connell or Domhnall Gleeson in prison (Starred Up and Calvary, respectively.) It’s just sort of there, with an earnest story to tell, and it’s plenty fine.

I was fortunate enough to see Louis Zamperini speak before he passed away. His story is one for the ages: it practically tells itself, and Angelina Jolie is totally content to let it do just that. In the grand tradition of old-school biopics, it hits all the requisite beats with a heavy dose of inspiration and little, if any, point of view — it just runs through the bullet points of his life, and never pretends to aim higher. Show his childhood, show his formation into adulthood, introduce his struggle, incrementally lower the lows, let the uplifting ending be brief and cap it with “What happened next?” expository text. It could have been made in any decade, by virtually any competent director, and wound up the same.

Everything is just fine. Jack O’Connell does justice to the role: he’s likable and vulnerable, if a little too pristine to have much staying power. Compared to his fantastic turn in Starred Up it’s hardly a meaty part, but it proves that he has more than enough charisma to carry a big-budget film. The remaining cast are all serviceable, and the film’s nemesis (“The Bird”) defies obvious archetypes (simultaneously affectionate and brutal, as Zamperini described him,) though it’s hard to find much to latch onto. Like American Sniper, there’s a whole third act to the protagonist’s life that a better film might have explored beyond a credits sequence: his subsequent alcoholism, his turn to faith, and his attempt to reconcile with his captors all would have made for more interesting soul searching than “if I can take it I can make it.“ But like American Sniper, I can’t blame it too much for veering toward the sentimental when real, recently-lost lives were involved in the production. It didn’t do very much, and it certainly wasn’t “snubbed” at the Oscars. But taken for what it is — an inspirational story meant for a sympathetic audience, not a riveting bit of cinema meant to linger — it did exactly what it needed to, and did his legacy proud.

Mini ep 6/6 at:

Review: Project Almanac

If you’ve seen the trailer for Project Almanac, you’ve seen a slightly more coherent, slower-burning version of Project Almanac. The frenetic jump cuts, the exhausting shaky cam, the Now That’s What I Call Alternative Music soundtrack, the bizarre percentage of screen time spent advertising Lollapalooza — everything crammed into the trailer is packed with equal or greater density in the feature-length film. From the opening MTV logo to the closing Michael Bay production credit, its ADHD, angst-pandering flag flew high. This is Back to the Future, set in an Orwellian future where Imagine Dragons have usurped Huey Lewis’ holy throne and Prius is the new Delorean. Welcome to the new age.

As the film opened, I could barely keep track of everything I hated. Where could I begin? The visual style? I wish the “found footage” conceit had died with Cloverfield: every ounce of realism it might have added to this film came with pounds of crushing “we-have-to-explain-why-the-camera-is-still-here” baggage. As if we really needed that narrative device to hold water in a movie where time machines fit in XBox cases. Or why not have a go at the blatant caricatures at the film’s core? Hip White Jock-Nerd who says gibberish like “Dawg, throw the L2 cache in ad hoc mode” to Unhip, Less-Creative Asian Jock-Nerd, both of whom drop backpacks and pass wrenches at superhuman speeds. Unattainable Hot Girl whose sole character growth consists of becoming attainable to White Jock-Nerd. Poor-man’s Miles Teller knockoff, with his “Cool story bro” T-shirt and endless non-sequiturs. Ultra-Regressive Blonde Sister, who doesn’t understand their “geeky” technology and dismisses video footage as “probably, like, a glitch or something.” Or maybe I should just go for the jugular of the entire cliche fantasy — how absurd it is that after only 5 minutes are devoted to overcoming poverty, we get a 20 minute sequence of dancing at a music festival; or why with a past fraught with tragedy, the central event you’d risk the fabric of the spacetime to preserve is a memorable makeout.

As you can tell, I really should hate this movie. But I can’t help feeling it’s not mine to hate. It was meant for me 10 years ago, to whom big concerts felt sacred and high school romance a profound, untouchable thing. While I can’t understand what the kids are blasting on their boom boxes and Walkmen and so forth, I also can’t bring my inner crotchety-old-man to file a noise complaint. Their come-what-may attitude and naive sense of possibility chipped away at my cynical defenses, and a half hour in I was actually having a decent time. A dumb time; but sincerely, infectiously dumb, in a way that I can endlessly tease but not really dislike. Maybe it helps that it teased itself first: with offhand references to Bill And Ted and Looper, and silly conversations about “Killing Hitler”, it was hardly posturing as grand Sci Fi. It just wanted to throw a giant party before the adult films came home from the awards gala. At its best, it captured a genuine thrill of discovery and provided a fun escapist outlet for world-weary teens (or ex-teens with a good enough memory.) And while I’ll grant that at its worst it had less to say than any given Levi’s ad, it said it with no lack of conviction. If you hate the trailer, you’ll probably hate the 106 minute trailer. But if a part of you thought it looked kind of fun, don’t let Rotten Tomatoes rain on your party. The sun hasn’t died. All systems go.

Gotta get back in time with us at:

Oscar Ballot: Part 1

Oscars: Part 1

With the Academy Awards approaching, I thought it’d be fun to cast my own ballot, ranking the nominees from best to worst. Today I’ll do Film, Actor, and Supporting Actor. Director, Actress, Supporting Actress are coming in Part 2.

Best Picture

Whiplash

Whiplash (Review)

Intense, visceral, exhilarating on every level. My number one with a bullet.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Birdman

Birdman (Review)

Singular vision, masterfully executed, its own universe from beginning to end. This is one of those rare cases where that “inside baseball” meta humor the Academy loves is actually deserved.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Boyhood

Boyhood (Review)

This is the most likely to actually win, and while I don’t think it was quite as exhilarating as the above films, it had heart to spare. As a cinematic accomplishment it stands entirely alone.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Selma

Selma (Review)

An outstanding biopic, anchored by a pitch-perfect performance and a timely, moving message.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest Hotel (Review)

Wes Anderson is a legend, and Grand Budapest Hotel was a wildly fun entry into his made-up genre. It didn’t reach the ambitious heights of some of the other films on this list, but it struck its zany/sentimental tone perfectly.
Deserved Nomination: PROBABLY

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (Review)

Another very solid (if not groundbreaking) biopic, which managed to turn a relatively difficult technical concept into a riveting crowdpleaser with a socially-conscious heart.
Deserved Nomination: PROBABLY

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (Review)

Imperfectly plotted but never less than charming; carried by a fantastic cast and an eye for good, old-fashioned sentiment (if not science.)
Deserved Nomination: PROBABLY NOT

American Sniper

American Sniper (Review)

Showed admirable restraint in its depiction of a controversial figure — so much so that it didn’t seem to have much of anything to say.
Deserved Nomination: NO

Things I wish made the cut: Nightcrawler (Review), Calvary (Review), Inherent Vice

Best Actor In A Leading Role

Eddie Redmayne: The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne: The Theory of Everything (Review)

While the film itself was flawed, Eddie Redmayne’s physically-demanding portrayal of Hawking was virtually flawless. I’m well aware that playing a “difficult” character automatically gives an actor an aura of greatness that other subtler roles don’t have, but I don’t particularly care. This tour de force blew the others out of the running for me.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Michael Keaton: Birdman

Michael Keaton: Birdman (Review)

Keaton is a clear front-runner, for obvious, deserved reasons. Nearly every frame of Birdman is focused on him, and he absolutely carries it. Teetering on the edge between manic and profound, he does the role its scenery-chewing due.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Steve Carell

Steve Carell: Foxcatcher (Review)

Critics have been torn about Carell’s performance: some called it a transformation, others a distracting misstep. I’m firmly in the first camp. I found his turn as John DuPont chilling, nuanced, and utterly captivating.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper: American Sniper (Review)

I had my share of problems with American Sniper, but Cooper absolutely was not one of them. He took a role which could have been jingoistic and hammy, and turned it into a subdued, fully-realized character. Whether holding a sniper or a distracting plastic baby, he never felt less than genuine.
Deserved Nomination: PROBABLY

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch: The Imitation Game (Review)

Cumberbatch is only last on my list by process of elimination: he brought amazing energy and fragility to the role of Alan Turing. He isn’t given quite enough to do to best the others, but within the framework of the film, he does everything right.
Deserved Nomination: PROBABLY

Things I wish made the cut: Jake Gylenhaal, Nightcrawler (Review); Miles Teller, Whiplash (Review); David Oyelowo, Selma (Review)

Best Actor In A Supporting Role

Simmons

J.K. Simmons: Whiplash (Review)

J.K. Simmons will win this, and it will be absolutely deserved. His portrayal of Fletcher is exquisitely terrifying: sitting in the theatre, I was on the verge of (literal) panic, as if he would call my name at any moment and force me to play the next few bars. It’s the control that really gets to you. He masters the quiet, human moments so the loud will feel crushing: at his most unforgivable, you can still somehow believe the twisted, misplaced love that brought him to it.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo: Foxcatcher (Review)

In a chilly film full of monstrous personalities and prosthetic noses, I would never have expected the scene-stealing performance to be a warm fatherly figure. But Mark Ruffalo nailed it, channeling a sort of rugged, quiet kindness that felt distinctly lived-in. From minor vocal quivers to the particularly way he carries his arms, everything felt true.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Edward Norton

Edward Norton: Birdman (Review)

Edward Norton brought a brilliant, self-effacing comic energy to Birdman. One minute he might be waxing poetic about the role of Art, the next he’s smashing bottles and wrestling in his underwear. His ability to mix pretentous, romantic prose with goofy physical comedy is awesome.
Deserved Nomination: YES

Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke: Boyhood (Review)

In Linklater’s naturalistic style, it’s hard to recognize actors for doing great work: it’s hard to put a finger on effortlessness. All I can say is Ethan Hawke was completely believable from start to finish as the good-intentioned, ex-deadbeat dad in Boyhood: likeable, imperfect, warm. When the gap between start and finish spans 12 years, I’ve got to give consistency its due credit.
Deserved Nomination: MAYBE

Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall: The Judge (Review)

This one is just mind-blowing to me. Other than the fact that his name is “Robert Duvall”, I can think of no reason any aspect of The Judge, particularly the performances, should be nominated for anything. It was fine. Robert Duvall was so blandly “fine” that I’m straining to remember what he did with the character.
Deserved Nomination: NO

Things I wish made the cut: Josh Brolin, Infinite Vice.

Review: American Sniper

[This one wound up way longer than I’d anticipated. TL;DR: American Sniper was decent, but the story deserved better.]

It’s been a rough week for movie reviews: between Selma and American Sniper, the films we chose have become synonymous with their broader social themes. In one snarky tweet about a trailer, Seth Rogen’s image pivoted from jingoistic Team American (cue left-wing overreactions) to America Hater (cue right-wing overreactions) faster than you can say “clickbait.” Not that that’s unexpected: it’s hard to be flippant about a film without seeming flippant about its message. I may have thought Selma’s award-nominated rap sounded like a parody of actual Common songs, but leaving the theatre, I didn’t feel like trashing it. Even if “justice is juxtaposition in us” feels phoned-in, the loudest cry – “glory” – rang true.

Here’s the good news: despite being “the story of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history”, American Sniper doesn’t deserve its controversy. The film centers around a man thrust into a harrowing war, it never once plays like a Navy recruitment ad. Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle with respectable, editorial-free restraint: neither comfortable with his fame nor particularly tortured by his actions, he’s just a guy who keeps moving forward. I don’t know anything about the real Kyle, but his filmic counterpart is humble, gentle, and free of artificial glow. You can see what made him so loved, and it has little to do with a number. With the exception of an ultra-fictionalized enemy sniper (who, par for the course, seems to have dropped by on the way to a Jafar audition at Disneyland) the war scenes also felt remarkably, even-handedly true. Those criticizing Clint for being “jingoistic” either have very different criteria than this bleeding-heart liberal, or they never saw more than the trailer. His Iraq is a gritty and discomforting place, where human life vanishes not with Lone Survivor slowmo or Spielberg crescendo, but a muted whimper. Like the excellent Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, war is seen as a numbing, all-consuming force – and as with Bigelow’s protagonists, it leaves complicated scars. Unfortunately, a fairly good war film is mingled with a pretty poor biopic. If Eastwood was committed to authenticity on the battlefield, he seems wholly disinterested in the personal front — which is arguably the crux of the film. Nowhere is this more clear than in the “parenthood” scenes, in which characters have dramatic arguments while cradling the most /distractingly/ fake baby doll I’ve ever seen; hushing its looped baby cries while its rigid arms dangle. Obviously that’s a minor point, but I can’t help but feel it’s symbolic of the broader emotional core, wherein real, breathing feelings seem to be replaced by lifeless, off-the-shelf substitutes. Kyle’s pre-war history felt obligatory and impersonal, his meet-cute and marriage read like Nicholas Sparknotes, his PTSD (despite laudable screen time) is given surprisingly little depth, and his (deeply moving) post-war recovery is tacked on as a postscript. Cooper’s subdued charisma would have been fantastic if the script supported it; here it only amplified the problem. Like fame, ethical dilemmas and emotional pain seem to just happen to Kyle. They’re narrative “demons” rather than feelings, communicated just enough to remind us of their existence, battled and healed almost entirely offscreen. Nothing seems personal. It felt like Eastwood wanted to make the movie his trailer promised, but lacked the audacity it demanded: he praises bravery without having much to say about it, shows ethical dilemmas without acknowledging their consequence, and pays homage to trauma without implicating its root. Teetering in some purgatory between the typical War is Hell and Hell Yeah, it settled for something less satisfying: War is. Kyle just is. Never wrong enough to offend, never right enough to linger; perched 2000 yards out, unreachable.

Like Selma the film concludes with a real-life montage, and like Selma I was in no mood to criticize. It was a moving tribute. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the person I was mourning had almost nothing to do with the muted persona I’d seen on screen. I felt for the real Kyle I knew nothing about, who lived with decisions no person should endure, and whose scars surely ran deeper than an audio cue. Hero and villain in the public eye, a real man bearing the weight of a symbol. I have no dog in the fight regarding which one he was. But that juxtaposition would have rung truer than moderate, restrained “glory”.

Review: Selma

“Unfair advantages,” even when true, are a curse of perception. They prevent a work of art from vicious criticism, but they also prevent it from unreserved praise: it’s good, “but, of course, how could it not be?” Selma has more than its fair share of unfair advantages. Like half the Oscar nominees, it’s a biopic; like last year’s Twelve Years A Slave, it provokes stirring dialogue about race relations (all the more resonant in Ferguson’s wake;) and like Lincoln the year before, it centers around a beloved, charismatic icon: Martin Luther King. That is empirically Academy gold. One article will suggest it was “snubbed” at the Oscars due to prejudice, others will imply that fear of perceived prejudice is the only reason it’s even in the running, and the vicious cycle of obvious-points-masquerading-as-deep-think-pieces will run on.

While the truth of the story probably isn’t the reason I loved Selma, I also can’t separate its truth from my love for it. Nor do I think it’s remotely useful to try, as if the ideal target demographic were some society of emotionless humanoids, rather than real people, bringing the baggage of our too-recent histories to the theatre. Exposing tragic truths isn’t a narrative cop-out; communal grief and redemption aren’t cheap tricks. Selma is the story of Martin the man and King the symbol, and David Oyelowo’s ability to weave both personas into a single line of dialogue is seriously incredible. In any given scene he might begin as Martin the cautious pastor in mourning, til feeling in the dark he’ll trip over a poignant phrase and tumble into King the great orator, pushed by a momentum that didn’t originate in himself, breathless. Words don’t come to him — they happen to him like a tidal wave. And they happen just in time: the world DuVernay builds around those words is bleak, and regardless of “artistic liberties” taken in the political aspect, its deeper truths ring terrifyingly true. This is a very hard movie to watch. The scene at Edmund Pettus Bridge is absolutely harrowing: the heavy fog, the heightened, violent realism, a slowed-down “Masters of War” rolling through the dark like a funeral dirge. King isn’t even on that bridge: like us, he’s stuck behind a screen, powerless. Forced to fasten the triggers for others to fire, then sit back and watch when the death count gets higher. When his hymn rings out at the end, it’s as much an ode to tragic, calculated loss as to his legacy. Other films will try to find the human element behind systematic racism: this is a film about acknowledging it, surviving it, and rising above it. I thought it was very well done, and if in a vacuum it’d fall a bit short of “masterful”, with the air in this particular theatre, in the same country where Beatlemania preceded the right to not be beaten on television for demanding dignity, it had more than enough impact. And none of it was fair.

Full audio review: