Cool films blowin’ in

A batch of fine films (finally) make their way to Chico in January



In the national press, January is routinely referred to as a dull time for movies. But here we are, a couple of weeks into 2015, and a whole bunch of remarkable films—most released (however limited) elsewhere in 2014— already have come Chico’s way: Selma, Inherent Vice, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Homesman, Blackhat. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that we’ve gotten a head start on a top-10 list for 2015, or that we might be half-way to a top 10 already.

We do, however, have 11 more months for all that to get sorted out. A more immediate problem, for me, concerns doing some justice to so many films in a customarily limited review space. With that in mind, I offer the following notes and observations:

Heroes & anti-heroes: A strength these dissimilar films have in common is in their various offbeat takes on heroism. American Sniper honors a war hero (Chris “Legend” Kyle) while taking pointed note of the human cost, to himself and to others, of his heroism. The Imitation Game honors a more cerebral kind of war hero (code-breaking computer pioneer Alan Turing) while dramatizing the costs and limitations of a far larger victory. Selma portrays the heroism—moral, political, spiritual—of Martin Luther King Jr. while taking serious note of the doubts and hesitations that marked his journey toward what we know in advance will be a successful campaign.

The title character in The Homesman has his life saved twice by the women he’s earnestly and dutifully trying to protect. “Doc” Portello in Inherent Vice is a diligent pot-smoking private eye who rarely solves mysteries but keeps pursuing them even as they get larger and more elusive. The quasi-superhero/hacker of Blackhat makes a kind of last stand for flesh-and-blood humanity in an overwhelmingly digitalized universe, but comes to resemble an electronic action figure in the process.

Modern history (mediated): By some quirk of the movie industry’s release calendar, there’s an interesting sort of timeline here—World War II, the struggles of the civil rights movement, hippies and Vietnam, the wars in Iraq, the digital fireworks of an otherwise dehumanized future. More than a century separates American Sniper and The Homesman, but in terms of cowboy heroes and archetypal storytelling, there’s a direct line running between Bradley Cooper’s character in the former and Tommy Lee Jones’ in the latter.

Generally, the movies aren’t the best place to study history (cf. the controversy over Selma’s version of LBJ), but they can serve as effective sounding boards for discussions of our own historical moment. And these films, I’m inclined to say, seem to arise from a culture and society struggling to maintain cherished values and traditions while frantically trying to navigate the perils that come with its innovations.

Breaking the codes of romance: The Imitation Game is about breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code, but it’s also very much about breaking and bending the codes of romance. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is gay; one of the loves of his life is a straight female who gladly marries him, and another is a computer named for his first love, a schoolboy who died young. An inverted protest against such codes is implicit in The Homesman, where frontier farmers treat their wives like livestock, and the women (including Hilary Swank’s bold spinster) feel impelled to marry whatever eligible oaf happens to come their way.

She’s a real mensch: In The Homesman, a frontier preacher (John Lithgow) tells Swank’s character she’s “a better man than any man around here.” He’s right (but that’s only part of her story). In Blackhat, Viola Davis (as FBI agent Carol Barrett) is intensely iconic and in the story’s oppressively wired environment that translates into something staunchly human. In the same film, Tang Wei’s Chen Lien seems a merely ornamental cipher, but her unflagging involvement in the action combines with her thoroughly ordinary physical qualities to make her the film’s key (and only real?) representative of ordinary humanity. In American Sniper, Sienna Miller is strong and sharp as Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, a brave and long-suffering warrior in her own right (on the home front).