Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, movie podcaster, person, etc.

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:

Best Films of 2014

Best Films of 2014

tl;dr: here’s a list with no explanations

Things I wanted to see but haven’t yet: Selma (Update: Review Here), American Sniper (Update: Review Here), Two Days One Night (Update: it might have placed in the #10 category), Mr. Turner, Nymphomaniac, Still Alice, Winter Sleep, Goodbye to Language 3D

You can hear my friends and I discuss our lists at: The Spoiler Warning Podcast. You can also find more reviews at my Letterboxd page.

Meandering Intro

Ignoring a few edge cases (“What if it technically hit the festival circuit in 2013?”, “Do I count stand-up specials like Flickchart does?”) I saw 77 movies that came out last year. 71 if you want to be all conservative about it. And despite occasionally seeing terrible things for the sake of the podcast (here’s looking at you, Exodus), I rarely chose to watch garbage: most were actually pretty decent. Maybe 50 were solid enough to recommend to a friend; 15 or 20 I loved without reservation. But that love was often complicated. Maybe it’s just been an odd year for movies, or maybe I’m the one who’s changing.

2013 was full of “Stephen classics”: the intimate, heartfelt indie; the little guy you loved discovering and loved loving. Short Term 12, Her, Before Midnight, The Spectacular Now, Kings of Summer, The Way Way Back, Frances Ha. They were well-done works in their own right, but the thing that lingered wasn’t their quality so much as their soul: I was emotionally invested in the characters.

2014 would have been a depressing year without at least a few of those, but the leaders of the pack –- the things that truly stuck with me — were rarely warm and cozy. Which isn’t to say they weren’t emotionally resonant: it just wasn’t their ultimate point. More often the point was a total experience: to leave you overwhelmed, exhausted, thrilled, or lost in thought. This year was all about movies which defined their own rhythm and just started drumming; which pulled me in and said “This is what we’re going to do for the next two hours, deal with it.” “Visceral” trumped “sentimental” nearly every time.

For my 1-5 choices, I let that “wow” factor drive me: it didn’t matter if it was a charming underdog or had any sort of emotional anchor, it mattered how much it shook me. For 6-10 I wanted to represent a bit more variety, so I let myself be swayed by broader considerations. To avoid the impossible task of whittling those down to 5 slots, I decided to cheat and give each a named “award” category, with winners and honorable mentions. Taken as an ordered list (comprised only of winners, where #10 > any runner up) I’d stand by it, but my feelings are fuzzier than that. Finally, I’ll throw in a few misc categories which defied ranking, but really deserved mention.

1-5: The “Wow Factor”

1. Whiplash

Whiplash From the moment I left the theatre, I knew it would take an act of God to shake Whiplash (full review) from my #1 slot. While the others may have been more masterful or accomplished, nothing packed a gut punch remotely this sharp. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are absolutely terrific in their roles as abusive teacher and obsessive student, and the feelings they channel (a paradoxical blend of anxiety and joy, fear and admiration) are devastating. It packed more intensity into a single drum beat than all the explosions in Fury, and that intensity – squeezed through a restrained staccato pinhole – was as terrifying as it was thought-provoking and exhilarating. The final scene alone would have qualified this as my top choice of the year: that the rest of the film was brilliant is just icing.

2. Calvary

Calvary Of all my top choices, this is by far the one dearest to my heart; which also makes it the least likely to be universal. I was so blown away by my first viewing of Calvary (full review) that I’ve purposely avoided watching it again, lest hindsight ruin the memory. In another life, I might criticize it for pretension: the whole film reads like an extended play, a Waking Life-esque outlet for John Michael McDonagh to muse about faith in a postmodern world. But the film absolutely demands otherwise. Where most treatments of religion either become pandering trainwrecks (Saving Christmas) or exercises in unbridled cynicism (Religulous), Calvary is both piercing and respectful, pitch-black but somehow gentle. It’s far too skeptical to satisfy the fundamentalist audience, and too empathetic to elicit “take-down” appeal. The tightrope it walks instead, rendered effortless by Gleeson’s world-weary gaze, is the closest thing to “wisdom” I’ve seen on film in a very long time.

3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman Birdman (full review) is about theatre, but what it ultimately amounts to is a magic show. Walking into the cinema, everything in me was ready to hate it – its hip meta-irony, self-satisfied winks at the camera, empty satire which would probably elicit zero laughs but somehow be praised by Merlot-sipping critics as “hilariously droll.” Then it started: the off-kilter percussion, the incredible sense of urgency, the camerawork which quite literally soars. In minutes it had established a visual language and world wholly unique to itself, commanding my attention in a way that nothing else this year has. With singular style and a inexplicable immediacy, it converted me by force. I was blown away.

4. Boyhood

Boyhood I’ve debated so much where, or whether, to include this. Strictly in terms of narrative, it’s doubtful that Boyhood (full review) deserves a spot this high: my love for it is as much due to the story surrounding it as it is the art itself, which, stripped of truth, might well play like a 3 hour episode of Parenthood. The same could be said about Linklater’s Before series, where the magic of recurrence can imbibe even the smallest, most lifelike conversations with depth. But I love those films, for all their perceived preciousness, and I absolutely love Boyhood too. In terms of “film as event” it stands peerless: it’s a feat of cinema and a necessarily rare spectacle. It carried with it the magic of growing up, the bittersweet loss of setting aside childish things, and a sense of incidental nostalgia which would feel forced in any other context. Which is the ultimate irony here. The story surrounding the film allows it a sort of unfiltered, heart-on-your-sleeve sentiment which would make me groan in any traditional coming-of-age story; but it’s exactly that unfiltered sentiment that makes it so hard-hitting and beautiful. Embrace the unfair advantage. Boyhood was wonderful.

5. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice Inherent Vice is an inherently un-Stephen film. Like Anderson’s The Master, it eschews traditional narrative and emotional anchors outright: it had zero interest in holding my hand. But where I found The Master dry and distant, Inherent Vice was a joy to behold. With a distinct sense of time and place, unquestioning style, and a sprawling plot which would only be called “massive”, it left me in a daze. Phoenix is perfectly good as straight-man Doc, but it’s the zany characters in his orbit that really make the film: Martin Short as the drug-dealing dentist, Josh Brolin the repressed bully/manchild policeman, Katherine Waterston the ephemeral femme fatale, and MVP Joanna Newsom the remarkably warm narrator. It’s The Big Lebowki’s laid-back haze injected with Burn After Reading’s self-aware intensity: a period piece, a comedy, and a bizarre fever dream. There’s nothing quite like it.

6-10: Awards: Winners and (Noteworthy) Runners Up

6. Dallas Buyers Club Award: Nightcrawler, w/ Gone Girl and The Imitation Game

Nightcrawler This award is for films which were conventionally great: they didn’t break new ground in form or style, but were flawlessly executed from start to finish. The winner, Nightcrawler (full review), was a riveting thriller about LA crime journalism, propelled by a twisted sense of triumph, a romantic eye for the dark open road, and a transformative performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Runner up Gone Girl (full review) was an excellent slow-burning thriller in its own right, with boatloads of style if only slightly less substance than I would have liked. The Imitation Game (full review) was an extremely solid biopic, telling an important story with urgency and wit.

7. Annie Hall Award: Listen Up Philip, w/ Love Is Strange and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Listen Up Philip This award is for comfortable, low-stakes films which, while not exceptionally daring, were pitch-perfect in their respective genre. With its distinctly New York vibe and infectious DIY aesthetic, Listen Up Philip was the clear winner: it took inherently unlikable characters and, somehow, created something charming, empathetic, and warm. While Jason Schwartzman was good as the titular Philip, the true scene-stealer was Elizabeth Moss, who blew me away in her own small, genuine way. Love Is Strange looked like it would be pure Oscar bait, but the leads (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) were too convincing to ever feel precious: they conveyed a particular brand of loneliness (realizing you’ve become a burden on the people who love you) with ease and grace, and the New York it presents is a joy to get lost in. Grand Budapest Hotel (full review) was, like virtually every Wes Anderson film, impossible not to love: zany, playful, distinct. At the beginning of the year I would have easily expected this to make my list – it’s delightful.

8. Whiplash Award: Starred Up, w/ Blue Ruin

Starred Up If Whiplash hadn’t been my number 1 it would have handily won this award, reserved for small films which packed a disproportionately large, dizzying punch. As is, the honor goes to Starred Up (full review), a British prison drama carried by Jack O’Connel’s intense, almost unbearably difficult, portrayal of a young inmate. He brings with him a potent combination of frightening possibility and good intent, repressed anger lurking beneath every scene. It’s a powerhouse performance, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Keith Stanfield as Short Term 12’s “Marcus” (if you know my love for that film, you know how big a compliment that is.) Runner up was Blue Ruin, an unflinching, whirlwind anti-revenge fantasy set in the deep south. It’s a small, somewhat cryptic film, but carries more grizzly excitement than any big-budget thriller I saw this year.

9. Stephen Isn’t As Snobby As Commenters Say He Is, Sometimes He Likes Stuff People Actually Saw Award: Edge of Tomorrow, w/ The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, 22 Jump Street, and Big Hero 6

Edge of Tomorrow There’s a distinct possibility that no one saw any of the movies I mentioned so far. That’s partly my own bias: smaller films tend to take bigger risks, and bigger risks often yield bigger payoffs. But this was also a great year for creative blockbusters, which have the difficult task of being both uncompromising and crowd-pleasing. They deserve all the love they’ve received, and then some. The winner, Edge of Tomorrow (full review), took a clever Sci-Fi conceit and executed it with the perfect balance of whimsy and thrill. Tom Cruise is genuinely awesome in it. The Lego Movie (full review) was manic and wonderful, an ostensibly “kids’” movie with a sharper point of view than most “thinky” flicks that came out. Guardians Of The Galaxy (full review) was an unabashedly silly, campy adventure, which proves that the superhero craze doesn’t need to signify creative bankruptcy. 22 Jump Street (full review) was a hilarious buddy-cop joyride, with a clever, self-referential script that should put most of the raunch-com genre to shame. Big Hero 6 (full review) was everything I could want in a kids’ movie: sincere, playful, and endlessly inventive. Convincing kids that nothing could be cooler than “Bay Area robotics researcher” didn’t hurt, either…

10. Take the Premise and Run Award: Force Majeure, w/ The One I Love

Force Majeure This award (misleadingly named the “Charlie Kaufman Award” on the podcast) goes to a film whose central premise, while simple, was so fresh and thought-provoking that even if it had been sloppily executed, it would have stuck with me. The One I Love (full review) was an excellent example: cryptically billed as a relationship comedy, it hinges on a single (massive, secret) twist, gives it time to sink in, then takes it to its logical conclusion. If it were somehow possible to adapt it for the stage, I can imagine it being amazing: it’s got that sort of elegant construction. While the script sometimes lagged, the concept was strong enough to win me over full-stop. However, my personal winner (which Chris will hate me for) has to be Force Majeure, a Swedish comedy which presents a pivotal event in a couple’s relationship, then sits back and lets that relationship slowly unravel. On premise alone it’s admittedly treading on established ground (The Loneliest Planet did it a couple years ago), but the execution of said premise, with its balance of exaggerated satire and awkward realism, made it rise above the competition. And though the award is about premise, it’d be a shame not to mention its distinct visual style, employing wide angle shots that frequently lose its subjects amidst magnificent, blinding white slopes. The unhurried pace might frustrate some viewers, but if you like your movies with a little breathing room, this one is well worth the investment.

Misc Awards / Defied Ranking

The Act of Killing Award: Three-way tie between The Missing Picture, Jodorowsky’s Dune, and Mistaken for Strangers w/ runner up Life Itself

Documentaries It’s impossible for me to rank documentaries against works of fiction, as I learned with last year’s The Act Of Killing — it may have been the most striking thing I’d seen in years, but how could I possibly compare it against a romantic comedy? I can’t bring myself to try, but these three films could go head-to-head with the best of my list. The Missing Picture was a heartbreaking look at the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Like the eponymous Act of Killing and excellent Waltz With Bashir, its narrator used a creative outlet to share unfilmable memories: in this case, acting out the attrocities with small, hand-engraved figurines. Like those documentaries, it is both devastating and hopeful, its darkest scenes frequently intercut with gorgeous flights of fancy. It’s a story about the triumph of the human spirit, and it’s truly beautiful. On the other end of the spectrum, Jodorowsky’s Dune is by far the most fun I’ve had with a documentary in recent years. The film, which centers around a movie that never got made, is a joy to behold: it’s bizarre, visually stunning, and a celebration of the indomitable creative spirit. Perhaps the most surprising was Mistaken For Strangers, which ostensibly begins as a tour documentary but ends as a deeply personal look at jealousy and sibling dynamics. If you told me a documentary about The National would almost make me tear up, I’d probably laugh at you. But I’d be wrong. Life Itself didn’t quite reach those heights, but it came close: the chance to see Roger Ebert tell his own story, mere weeks before his passing, is a gift to the film community. As a work of art it was pretty modest, but as a tribute to a lost icon it’s essential.

Vintage Stephen Award: Frank, w/ Obvious Child and Skeleton Twins

Frank While they weren’t quite striking enough to rank, it’s worth mentioning that there were still plenty of movies which captured the intimate, “indie” spirit I normally gravitate towards. The winner, Frank (full review), is an excellent (and unabashedly odd) look at the creative process, and the mystique that can both inform and obscure it. Obvious Child managed to squeeze a heartfelt rom-com out of an extremely difficult subject, which despite its imperfections is no small feat. Skeleton Twins (full review) similarly took a dark subject and made it very funny: the charisma of its leads was infectious.

Tree of Life Award: Under the Skin, w/ Only Lovers Left Alive

Under the Skin Sometimes I can respect a movie’s vision while not personally loving the outcome. With striking imagery and a haunting score, Under the Skin was likely the most stunning sensory experience of the year. The guerilla-style filmmaking and socially resonant topic (the male gaze, expectations on women) gives me huge respect for the creator. It left me a bit cold, but I can see myself loving it in a properly calibrated second watch. Runner up Only Lovers Left Alive gave a shot of originality to a done-to-death vampire genre, turning it into a stirring think piece about art and culture. While the pace was a little too slow to pull me in, in time I can see it lingering long after most of these other films have faded.

It’s been…

…a lot of fun doing these reviews. I’ve been participating in The Spoiler Warning off and on for years (I remember when Up In The Air was my #1, if that clues you in), but this is the first time I’ve let it be a weekly thing. As a frequently busy person, it’s been a wonderful excuse to take the occasional break and hit up the theatre. As an engineer, these write-ups have provided an often-absent creative outlet. And as a movie lover, I’m glad for the gems I never would have given a chance on my own. It’s been a great year for movies – here’s hoping 2015 is even better!

Review: Into the Woods

I en-joy mu-sicals. [pause for horns]. Into the Woods is a mu-sical. [pause, horns, louder] Into the Woods has mu-sic! [pause, horns, triumph] Me-lo-dic words equal muu-sic!! [cue light strings] Music, mu-sic, Into the Woods, into the woods they romp and repeat with sing-song cadences dances and beats and Cordens and Streeps and woods into which must flow music, mu-sic, musical mu-sic, wood-winded music, longwinded music, re-pe-ta-tive mu-sic, thematic’ly hazy, emphatic’ly lazy but mu-sic, mu-sical, muse I can, muse I could, if I must, then I should get into “wouldn’t”s and into the “would”s and the “yes”’s and “no”’s and the highs and the lows and the cons and the pros of the con-cept and prose of the show that we chose to re-view (did you no-tice its name? it goes): [deep breath, whole cast in unison] Into the Woods.

With that out of my system: I can’t say I understand the attention Into the Woods is getting. That’s not to say that it’s bad — despite my snark, it really is a competent, generally nice film, and while I found the music surprisingly grating in places, it still makes for some lighthearted fun. But given the incredible lineup and (supposedly) masterful source material, “generally nice” and “some fun” is muted praise. I question the source material because, for all the magic promised by its new-twist-on-classic-stories premise, it rarely carried the revisionist, inventive thrill I’d expected. There are hints of cleverness, especially when casting a critical lens on fabled masculinity (Johnny Depp’s wolf is downright creepy, and Chris Pine’s riff on the “charming prince” archetype is hilarious.) But these unexpected reversals hardly comprise the bulk of the story: for every subversive moment, there are a dozen others which either reiterate the same old tropes, or are too vague to be provocative (“No one is alone…so the enemy has his reasons too…so…um…yeah, forget it, carry on with the killing.”) Having read a few essays about Sondheim’s original work, it seems like the shiny Disney paint job obscured some of his sharper points for the sake of being family friendly. Which would be fine, really, if it had committed to it. But what’s left is both too visibly cynical to be an unabashed joyride, and too reserved to be anything else; it’s oddly uneven. With stronger melodies, a gutsier script, or maybe even just fewer repetitions of “into the woods”, it might have been great: the cast is talented and clearly game for anything. As is, it’s pretty forgettable.

Mini ep 5/6 of the week is live at:

Review: The Interview

The threat of censorship is like being called “this generation’s Bob Dylan” — it’s bound to garner headlines, hipster pushback, and general disappointment when impossible expectations aren’t met. So I’ll start with the obvious disclaimer: The Interview isn’t high art, great satire, or generally important except to the extent that the events surrounding it sparked conversation. If you watch it because you feel it’s your duty to “protect free speech”, you should only do so under the conviction that all speech, not just meaningful or tasteful speech, is worth protecting. It won’t earn its controversy for you.

With that out of the way, let’s lower the bar back down to “Seth Rogen comedy” and the obvious baggage that comes with it: unbelievable situational humor, low-brow jokes that won’t land if you’re not having fun, and a “bromance as infinite gag machine” theme that probably won’t have a long, socially-conscious shelf-life. Grounded in that reality? I really liked The Interview. If I was wary of tasteless nationalistic satire, my concerns died pretty quickly: its Kim Jung Un is clearly an absurd bro caricature (think Harold and Kumar’s George Bush), I can’t recall a single time it used North Korean citizens’ ignorance as the butt of a joke, and the only real semblance of venom was aimed at the entertainment news cycle in the U.S — with surprisingly funny, if predictably cameo-driven, results. On the laugh-a-minute barometer it was leaps and bounds above the recent Neighbors, and could square off against any post-Superbad Apatow-ish fare pretty handily: this is half due to Seth and James’ easygoing chemistry (reunited with fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Lizzy Kaplan), and half due to a script which, while hardly transcendent, is peppered with more genuinely clever references than I’d have expected. Stripped of the crowded-theatre-as-echo-chamber bump most comedies get, that barometer is no small feat. Those who dislike raunch-com should also be pleasantly surprised, if not totally satisfied: while not family-friendly, the jokes are atypically clean, relying more on action and zany character moments than synonyms for “penis” (not that there aren’t a few of those too…) Even casual misogyny or homophobia was scarce, with most apparent examples turned into self-aware, winking reversals.

Was it the best comedy of the year? No way. Will it stand the test of time? Pretty doubtful. Is it sometimes a bit stupid? Hell yeah, but it’s frequently not. Did I laugh a whole lot more than I snootily anticipated, sober on a couch, at 1pm on a Saturday? Guilty as charged.

Mini review 4/6 at:

Review: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

I take no joy in trashing the Hobbit movies. Peter Jackson gave us an amazing trilogy with Lord of the Rings, and like Ridley Scott or George Lucas, no modern day sin can undo my respect for those accomplishments. More importantly, the source material demands attention: the scope of Tolkien’s vision is unparalleled in fiction, period. A single Wikipedia entry or Quora question can still pull me into his universe out of nowhere, its tangled web of languages and civilizations and hazy mythologies keeping me spellbound for hours. If hand-wavey summaries written by strangers have that power over me, surely a competent film should elicit the same wonder.

It should and it does, sort of. There’s a certain joy in seeing mythic races clash and imagining the backstory Tolkien dreamt up for each meticulous detail, or with following Gandalf’s (anachronistic) journey and knowing the Google rabbit hole that will ensue, taking me from Sauron and the Maiar to Morgoth and the Valar, to Melkor and Eru and the most beautifully minimal creation fable. Bland CG and absurd plotting can’t take those associations away, even if it requires some digging to undistort them.

Ignoring sentimental associations, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is just not good. At all. From the opening sequence that’s abundantly clear. It begins abruptly, squandering what may be its best scene before the audience has gotten a chance to calibrate to the story, or even remember what synthetic cliffhanger Desolation had left off on. Having gotten the biggest climax out of the way before our eyes could adjust, it then does everything it can to shoehorn Bilbo’s adventure into the sort of warfare epic that made Lord of the Rings feel so grand, without any of the story or characterizations which made that grandeur worth a damn. Tolkien’s cautionary tale about greed is buried under the rubble somewhere, but at no moment does it feel like a poignant arc: it’s just a thing that happens to a future Happy Meal action figure, who’ll snap back to his old CGI-decapitating self a few scenes later. Like Scott or Lucas’ worst pictures, the whole thing plays like a mindless video game trying to cash in on better films’ aesthetic, rather than a unique story with something to say. To use Chris’ analogy in the episode, it feels like the stockpile of Tolkien’s riches has gotten to Jackson’s head like dragon sickness, so in love with the brand he’s won that he’s unable to lead it anywhere. Like Thorin, he does come to his senses a bit by the very end, showing genuine love for the source material and enough warm-and-fuzzies to still make it essential viewing for any (unhappily resigned) completist. But the journey getting there is a tedious slog.

Mini ep 3/6 of the week at:

Review: Wild

“Based on a true story” is a potent phrase. At its best, it can make on-the-nose sentiment transcendent and give irony real teeth; it can take a cynical conceit and make it indispensable. “Movie moments” feel like cheap cliches in fiction, but observed in the wild they’ll floor you.

But the opposite doesn’t hold: flooring experiences won’t always yield good movie moments, and in Wild, there aren’t many to observe. It tells the (true) story of Cheryl Strayed, a 26-year old who embarked alone on the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail after hitting rock bottom. Over the course of her journey she learns to be content with herself, in solitude, flaws and all. As an inspirational story that’d be plenty to go off of — I was empathetic to her experience and, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, driven to go out and live life a bit more. As a narrative, however, it’s limp: her motivations are never particularly clear, her journey is devoid of obvious highs and lows, and while I’m sure her revelations were life-changing in-person, on screen they’re little more than shrugging platitudes. A better film could have taken the same messy truth and gleaned something profound from it; failing that, a little artistic liberty could have gone a long way. What we got was a perfectly fine crowd-pleaser, and the two hours — carried by Witherspoon’s sincere performance — were never dull. They just weren’t sharp enough to linger.

She would walk 500 miles, and she would walk 500 more, just to be the woman who’d walk a thousand miles to stop at Portland, OR. It’s a nice sentiment, but not riveting to watch.

Mini review 2/6 at:

Review: The Imitation Game

[Note: as a biopic, I don’t think Turing’s later life should be considered a spoiler. It hangs heavily on the whole film. If you do want to go in not knowing, listen to the linked mini-review or skip to the last paragraph for the TL;DR]

When I saw a small screening of the Imitation Game open up in San Francisco, it didn’t matter that I’d barely slept, or that I’d be going directly from a long, very well-stocked Christmas party. I knew I had to see it. So I tiredly cabbed through a storm, ordered an extra drink for good measure, and watched in bated breath as the film expertly set its stage. So expertly, I knew I could close my eyes for a second and still get the gist. Just lean back in that comfy leather recliner, lids down, soaking in the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch…One $15 nap later, I decided I’d need to catch the film again in theatres before having anything meaningful to say about it. I’m writing this because I finally did, and I’m very glad for it.

The main character of the story is Alan Turing, the British mathematician whose only-recently-unclassified efforts to crack the German Enigma machine make him a bona fide WWII hero. Here lies the period thriller promised by the trailer; expertly told and, given the lack of broad twists-and-turns, absolutely riveting in its depiction of code-breaking and the stress it entails. Also present is Alan Turing, the early computer scientist whose fundamental contributions to the theory of computability have made him an icon, with plenty of eponymous prizes and theorems to prove it. His “irascible genius” is communicated by a pitch-perfect performance from Cumberbatch, who weaves difficult concepts (Turing Machines, decryption, algorithmic thinking) into the sort of sharp, narratively-consistent package that all pop science biopics should aspire to. Nit-pickers can nit-pick, but I can’t imagine a better treatment for a general audience. Finally, there’s Alan Turing, the 40-year-old man who was arrested for homosexuality, chemically castrated by the British government, and shamed to the point of suicide. Independently these stories all have merit, but the soul of the film (and true brilliance of the script) lies in their stark incongruity, which its best scenes highlight in damning clarity. Secrecy functions as both villain and protagonist, enabling every victory only to imbibe it thankless, heavy weight. As a work of fiction it’d be a cynical conceit; as a true story it’s indispensable.

I loved this movie in exactly the way I loved last year’s Dallas Buyers Club: it tells an important story in a traditional form, but every beat it hits is just right. If you loved The Theory of Everything you’ll probably love this as a companion piece; if you hated it, this is probably the film you wished it were. You owe it to yourself to see this movie, and you owe it to Turing’s legacy to pay attention.

Mini-ep 1 of 6 for the week at:

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

I almost feel guilty saying anything about Exodus: Gods and Kings. That’s probably why it’s been a week since recording the episode, and I’m only now linking to it. Some things are so bad they’re fun to talk about; others are so soul-crushingly bland, you feel ashamed for throwing in $12.

Much has been made of Ridley Scott’s refusal to cast “Mohammad so-and-so”, and while the film is certainly white-washed (including an inexplicably Yiddish Bale and borderline-blackface Mendelson), that description goes way beyond skin color. Everything is inexcusably bland: there are zero rough edges, no interesting (hell, I’d settle for “discernible”) point of view, nothing to elevate it above a way-too-long cinematic for a Bible video game your racist uncle never lets you actually play. Aronofsky’s Noah was far from perfect, but at least it took compelling risks (the creation visuals, the Abraham/Isaac third act, the much-derided rock monsters): this takes a massive, practically-made-for-Hollywood story, and emasculates it into some vague pile of sandals and eyeliner. The exploration of faith is devoid of content, the characters are so worthless their emotions actually made my audience laugh, and the few artistic decisions Scott makes are more or less schizophrenic in their philosophy/theology/not-really-worth-dignifying-with-an-ology. Even the money shots, when not inexplicably absent (see: the burning bush, the staff turning into the snake, the actual parting of the Red Sea) are hollow and by-the-numbers. As a film student’s CGI showcase it might get a passing grade. As a waste of $140M, it’s practically a social crime. That’s probably why the credits (seriously) mention how many jobs the film created: whether director or pharaoh, if you’re going to throw away extravagant amounts of money and dismiss entire people groups to build an absurd monument to your manhood, you’d better throw in a line about “economic stability.”