Weary Pilgrim – What to Watch, Part I
As I am fond of observing, Hollywood likes to hold most of their quality films ’til what is known as Academy season, on the theory that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have zero chance of remembering anything before, say, last week. Basically, any film can qualify by playing for a week in both New York and L.A.; therefore, some films get this so-called “Academy release” and then get yanked from the theaters, only to reappear early in the year.
So here’s a snapshot of films I’ve seen and survived this season. My feeling is, reviews can often serve little purpose — they either tell you too much or too little — and any critic who spoils a movie should be condemned to watching the Worst of Bollywood for a season or two. Roger Ebert used to give away the endings to films he reviewed, and the pain on Gene Siskel’s face was impossible to bear. Speaking of Ebert, “Life Itself,” a movie about him, is a favorite to make the cut for Best Documentary, along with “Citizenfour,” a film about Edward Snowden. I’ll try and see both soon and let you know what I think.
So, in the hopes of saving you money, or making sure you see the “right” films before somebody at the water cooler blurts out an ending to one of these, here’s a glimpse of what I think is worth watching in the next few weeks:
“Imitation Game” — Alan Turing basically invented the computer while he was busy cracking the Enigma code with the help of some cronies in World War II England. Benedict Cumberbatch is just plain fun to watch, and the story takes a few bends away from the truth, but it gets most of the important things right — especially the shameful way in which the Man Who Won the War was treated afterward. Gonna get a Best Picture nomination, and Cumberbatch will be the one to beat for Best Actor. And it’s fun.
“Birdman” — Wow. Pretty much just plain wow. The film to beat in the Golden Globes (because a few hundred poncing journalists love this kind of stuff), but not the frontrunner in the Oscars — just too out there for Hollywood. But if you don’t mind suspending reality while you watch some great actors take on The Theater, have at it. It’s like Chekov dumbing down for a high school skit, put on by people who know what they’re doing. It’s jaw-dropping, but not really profound.
“Whiplash” — one of my fave films this year. It’s about a young man learning how to be a jazz drummer while being tormented by a Marine Corps drill instructor who somehow escaped into this film. It could have been about soccer or quilt-making or debating — because it’s really about learning and frustration. And J.K. Simmons as the teacher is pretty much a lock for Best Supporting Actor. Bring a pillow for your jaw, because it’s going to hit the floor a lot.
“Boyhood” — Richard Linklater directed this film, with Ethan Hawke producing and acting, over a 12-year period. It takes two-and-a-half hours, and honestly, there isn’t all that much story. It’s kinda like real life, with just enough drama to remind us of our own lives. This is a crowd favorite, for the simple reason 12 years of effort has to pay off. For one thing, right in front of your very eyes, you get to watch someone grow up, with his sister, mom and divorced dad by his side. This will be nominated for Best Picture and a bunch of other things. You should see this, because I’m not sure anyone will ever do this again.
“Fury” — WWII again, this time following a tank commander in the last few days of the war. I saw it twice, but you only need to see it once. It’s always easy to criticize a war film, if only because it has to take place in two hours, not two years, and boredom isn’t any fun to portray. Terror and Glory are, though, and that’s why you want to see this. Action galore, and isn’t that why some of us go to the movies?
“American Sniper” — This time, the war is in Iraq. Clint Eastwood directs a movie about the most decorated sniper in the history of the American military, Chris Kyle. Anderson Cooper gained 40 pounds of beefcake and shed about 40 percent of his acting repertoire to make a film about a man who showed very little of himself except through his actions. It’s not a great film, but it is about an extraordinary man.
“Foxcatcher” – Steve Carell will get nominated for his amazing role as John DuPont, a wealthy wrestling fan who managed to buy himself a team training for the Olympics. This is apparently very true to the underlying tale of a man obsessed with his own ego, and those around him who choose to ignore his unraveling. You can’t take your eyes off of Carell’s fake nose; neither can you look away from the horror that what little you have heard about this true tale is actually accurate. It’s like watching a slow train wreck you have read about. Not a great film, but once again, a great story.
“Chef” — This is available On Demand, and it’s in the Oscar hunt for the simple reason it’s terrific. No crime, no graphic sex, none of that stuff. Instead, you get a story about a guy who loves to cook and hang out with his son. What separates it from the kind of Disney fluff you and I like to avoid is that there is an honest element of love and caring running through it from stem to stern. I haven’t met anybody that didn’t love this film.
“The Judge” — In some ways an old-fashioned movie, with two great actors hamming it up every step of the way. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall go head to head in a story about a strong but fading country judge who has to depend on the city-slicker smooth-talking lawyer of a son he despises. The thing that makes this film work is that the ending is surprisingly realistic, on top of which this is one of those rare films that seems to get better as it goes along.
“Cavalry” — An oddball of an Irish film starring Brendan Gleeson, who in my opinion is a free ride in any film he does. It’s about a priest who hears a man in the confessional promise to kill him. He thinks he knows the man on the other side of the screen, but also isn’t sure if he can discuss it with anyone. We meet a curious cast of townspeople during the week leading up to the promised act, and nobody acts normal – except for the priest who basically decides to ignore the whole thing in pursuit of his chosen calling. Sound confusing? Yup, but somehow it still works, right up to the one ending I didn’t see coming.
“The Homesman” — The other purpose of a reviewer is to spare everyone a bad experience, and some movies just aren’t going to work for pretty much everybody. Tommy Lee Jones directed this strange Western about a woman (played by Hilary Swank) who enlists the help of a geezer played by Tommy Lee to bring some insane women back to civilization. Don’t bother — no, really. Don’t do this to yourself. Watching a bunch of talented actors try to make sense out of a stupid story while being “important” can ruin an evening. Watch reruns of “The Wire” or “Friday Night Lights” instead.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story in a few weeks. Meanwhile, enjoy the movies for what they are: this country’s greatest export, a portal into other lives and a reflection of our own — and a couple of hours of pure fun you richly deserve.