Tag Archives: biopic

La Vie en Rose – Review

6 Oct

If someone were to make a list of iconic singers from around the world, I can guarantee that Édith Piaf would be close to the top. Piaf’s unique voice and graceful stage presence made her an international success until her untimely death at the age of just 47. Even today, her music can be found in movies, television, and commercials which shows that even though she’s no longer with us, her musical legacy is still strong. Something that reinforced this was the 2007 film by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose. This film tells the life story of Édith Piaf, which includes incredible joy and overwhelming tragedy. It’s definitely a story that had to be told.

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The film begins with a sick looking Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) taking the stage for a concert, and quickly fainting during a song in front of a large audience. The film then cuts back to 1918 when Piaf was just a young child who is left by her parents to live with her grandmother in a brothel in Normandy. As the years go on, Piaf makes a meager living singing on the street, but is soon found by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and invited to sing at his club where she quickly becomes something of a local celebrity. As time goes on, her fame increases and travels around the world, including New York City, where tragedy hits hard when she loses the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), in a plane crash. Finally, back in France towards the end of her life, it’s clear that Piaf’s abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol have taken a huge toll on her health, and the devastating realization that soon she will no longer be able to sing anymore.

This is a hard movie to summarize because it tells so much of a person’s life. This is a pretty long movie, clocking in with a run time of almost two and a half hours, but even then I feel like there may have been more to be told. That works to the film’s credit since I was intrigued by the subject and the handling of Piaf by making the icon into exactly what she was: a human being. While I love the way Piaf is depicted in this movie, I wasn’t really a huge fan of how the story was told. The film starts towards the end and then jumps back to the beginning for a while, and naturally progresses from there. That’s all fine, but as the movie goes on it jumps back and forth and then introduces an even later timeline, and then starts jumping around even more rapidly. Towards the end of the movie, I jumped around so much that I was sometimes confused with where and when I was in the story. I understand that this was a way for the film makers to get in as much of the story as they could, and I’m ok with a cut up timeline, but this was just way overdone.

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It’s impossible to talk about La Vie en Rose and not talk about Marion Cotillard. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. When you’re watching the movie and getting more engaged in the story, you forget that you’re watching Cotillard playing Édith Piaf and are actually watching Piaf herself. I know that’s how I felt. It’s a complete transformation from one person into another, and it’s truly incredible. Not only does she nail Piaf’s voice (although the singing was dubbed), but also the way she stood, small mannerisms that she had, and even small changes to her face that made all the difference. With a movie like this where the character was a real person whose life was filled with such success and tragedy, it’s important to believe what’s happening. Cotillard’s performances made this a very easy film to believe and get lost in. She is a marvel to watch, and earned the Academy Award for her performance, which is one of the few times someone has won this award for an entire foreign language role.

La Vie en Rose also is just a beautiful looking movie, even in the beginning when a young Piaf is living a life on the streets in Belleville to the more upscale life that she led in New York. The set design is all fantastic and the costumes work great with the different decades that Piaf lived through. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to look at, and I have to give a lot of credit to Olivier Dahan and his direction for adding something more to the design. At first, I thought the directing was nothing special, but that’s not the case. It’s understated and controlled and never takes the style too far. One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens during a devastating moment in Piaf’s life, and instead of cutting, the scene follows Piaf through her entire apartment and catches the entire range of emotion in her performance and the atmosphere surrounding the incident.

La Vie en Rose is not without it’s faults, but it’s a movie that truly captures the tumultuous life of an icon of music. This is a frustrating movie to sit through, at times, because how the story keeps jumping from the past to the present to the future to the past then who knows where. If that was just toned down a bit, the movie would have been improved. Still, Cotillard’s performance, the production design, and Dahan’s skilled directing make this an above average biopic.

Final Grade: B+

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I Saw the Light – Review

12 Apr

There are many great artists who die way before they’ve done everything they had the potential to do. This goes for musicians, film makers, actors, painters, and really anything you can think of. Hank Williams is one of those people that falls into this category devastatingly well. Much in the vein of what Walk the Line did with Johnny Cash, Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light tells about the ups, downs, and inevitable end to Hank William’s career and personal life. It’s a very interesting movie about a very interesting person, but it unfortunately stumbles into pit falls that a lot of biopics do. It’s a bit too long, unfocused, and brushes over points of interest far too much to really make this a movie that comes close to reaching its full potential.

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The film begins in 1944 with Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) and Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) getting married in a gas station in a small town in Alabama. What follows is the story of how Hank rose to fame and the toll it had on his life and on his family. He started out humble enough, playing small shows around town and hosting his own radio show where his band and his wife sang songs early in the morning. Eventually, Hank goes on to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s where his career really took off. With a string of hit songs and a winning stage personality, it seemed America found itself a new voice. What people didn’t know was Hank’s troubling addiction to drugs and alcohol and the strained relationship with Audrey and his children that was caused by these addictions and his sharp rise to stardom.

People who make biopics are undoubtedly taking on a huge responsibility. First of all, their subject has to be done properly for their fans or followers or even the subjects themselves to fully respect what was created in their name. There have been some huge successes like Walk the LineSelma, and even Love and Mercy. Unfortunately for I Saw the Light, this Hank Williams biopic doesn’t stand nearly as tall as the movies I’ve mentioned. First off, I’m a little concerned on how balanced the movie is in terms of his successes and his failures. I’m no expert on Williams, but I felt the film focused mostly on his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and not so much on his time at the Grand Ole Opry or really exploring his music further. All in all, I Saw the Light was a pretty depressing movie for the most part of it.

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This isn’t to say that there isn’t some great drama and music in this movie, because there are scenes that work really well. One particular scene shows Hank Williams showing up to a concert completely out of his mind and making a complete fool of himself before he even plays a note of music. That was a really good scene that’s unfortunately cut a little too short. A lot of things are cut short in the movie, even when it comes to character development. There are a few friends of Hank that show up throughout the movie that we are supposed to care about, but nothing is ever done to make the characters appear real or change. Even though the movie is about Hank Williams doesn’t mean that they couldn’t explore the lives of the people in his band a little as well. On the flip side, the music that is in the movie all sounds very authentic and really puts you in the time period. Hiddleston and the rest all perform the songs very well and I found myself tapping my toes on more than one occasion.

Speaking of Tom Hiddleston, I’m not even sure he was in this movie. For all I know, I was watching the real Hank Williams, who rose from the grave just so he could star in his own biopic. Hiddleston can now be ranked with those few actors who have completely transformed themselves into a character to the point where you don’t even feel like you’re watching them and you can lose yourself in the story. His movements, voice, posture, and expressions all seem so meticulously planned to create the most authentic representation of Hank Williams that he could possibly conjure up. If anything, people should just see the movie for Hiddleston’s performance.

I Saw the Light has a lot of problems with how the story is told and what the story focuses on, but there are also plenty of good things in the movie. Tom Hiddleston is fantastic, the music is so much fun to listen to, and I really had no problem immersing myself in the time period. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I got the full story on the life and death of Hank Williams. This is a movie that could have been great, but instead it’s just pretty good. Is it worth seeing? Yeah, I think so, but don’t expect to be completely fulfilled by the end of it.

Monster – Review

13 Dec

Between 1989 and 1990, a Daytona Beach prostitute named Aileen Wuornos killed 7 men in cold blood. While Wuornos isn’t America’s first female serial killer, she is the first one that got this amount of attention thanks to the media and her reputation as psychotic. It goes without saying that there have been a few documentaries, books, and other works dedicated to Wuornos, but none have had the impact that Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster had. Instead of focusing on the crimes themselves, Jenkins decided to focus on Aileen as a human and what drove her to do such horrible things. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough to grab your attention, Charlize Theron’s transformation into Wuornos surely is.

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute working the streets in Florida who has just about completely given up on her life, that is until she meets a woman named Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby is a lesbian and has strong feeling for the straight Wuornos, who at first turns her down, but soon finds out just how nice it is to be loved and the two start an unlikely relationship. Money soon becomes tight after Aileen decides to quit being a prostitute, so she hits the streets once again but instead of sleeping with anyone she begins to murder them and steal their money and their cars. Aileen feels this is all justifiable since she believes that all of these men are going to rape her, but her story begins falling apart and soon she won’t be able to keep this cold blooded secret from Selby or law enforcement.

I’m gonna start with the weakest part of this movie so I can dedicate the rest of this review to what is so overwhelmingly positive. The narrative flow of Monster is very weak and makes it kinda hard to follow at times. Aileen Wuornos killed people between 1989 and 1990, but there is no indication as to how much time has passed between scenes. It could be an entire year of 3 weeks for all I know. If you’re making a movie about a very specific amount of time, it’s important that the audience feels that this amount of time has passed. By the end of the movie, I didn’t really feel like I’ve been with the characters for over a year. This is actually a pretty major complaint since it actually affected how the movie flowed and made the overall narrative feel pretty choppy.

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But really, what is the main reason anyone is really interested in seeing Monster for? It’s obviously to see what is one of the best onscreen performances you will ever see. I don’t even know if Charlize Theron was actually in this movie. There was no evidence onscreen that she was ever there. Theron completely succeeds at transforming herself into Aileen Wuornos. Not only is the make up applied perfect, but also the fact that she gained a decent amount of weight and mimicked Wuornos’ facial expressions and ticks in a creepily authentic way. It’s an almost incomparable performance that, to me, should make Theron one of the most respected actors working in Hollywood. While I really can’t say enough about Theron’s performance, I also have to give a lot of credit to Christina Ricci for giving a performance on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. She’s a timid, almost pathetic, character that is played out wonderfully.

Something else this film succeeds in is putting an interesting twist on the cinematic views of a serial killer. Many films make their serial killer subjects, whether they be real or not, into something inhuman. What Patty Jenkins does with Monster is show Aileen Wuornos as a tragic human being. Make no mistake, though. Jenkins in no way condones or tries to defend what Wuornos did, but she does sprinkle a theme concerning circumstance and environment into the film. This kind of puts this movie into an interesting sort of category where it doesn’t focus on the horrors of the murders, but the horrors of this woman’s life and actions.

Narratively, Monster may not be the strongest movie out there, but this film is ultimately a character study. Charlize Theron gets so deep into her role as Aileen Wuornos, it’s truly unsettling, but it’s also a relief that Patty Jenkins showed a different kind of side to what we normally see in films about serial killers. Everyone will agree that what Wuornos did was despicable and wrong, but what was done to her was also despicable and wrong and, especially in a time when there are more and more mass killings, maybe this is a good topic to talk about.

Black Mass – Review

22 Sep

It’s pretty natural for actors to get into ruts in their careers, only to have them revitalized with some major performance. It was Matthew McConaughey’s turn a few years ago with Dallas Buyers Club, and 2015 is the year for Johnny Depp. Ever since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie back in 2003, Depp has been kind of stuck with Jack Sparrow, even when he played Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It’s so refreshing to see what an actor of his caliber really has to offer, and you get to see that in Black Mass. Despite a few minor flaws, this film is definitely going to be one of the stand outs of this year and Johnny Depp’s performance isn’t the only reason why either.

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This is the story of one of America’s most dangerous and notorious gangsters, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). While Bulger is still just a small time gangster in South Boston, he is reunited with his childhood friend, John Conolly (Joel Edgerton), who has begun making a name for himself in the FBI. Conolly proposes to Whitey that they should form an “alliance” where he will feed Bulger information procured by the FBI, while Bulger will give some names and places of notorious Italian mobsters that have been giving the Irish gangs a hard time. As time goes on and both men rise in rank in their organizations, the walls begin closing in on both of them, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to cover their tracks.

The first thing I have to talk about is Johnny Depp’s performance. I mean, how can I not be excited about this. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen the movie and I still get all wound up just thinking about it. Johnny Depp can be a chameleon when it comes to acting and this is case and point. While I was watching Black Mass, I didn’t feel like I was watching Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger. I felt like it was Whitey Bulger. Everything from his posture, to his facial expressions, and how he delivered lines made him a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Props also have to go out to Joel Edgerton who gave the same kind of realistic performance. Finally, after getting used to him, Benedict Cumberbatch threw me through a loop with his higher pitched voice and Bostonian accent.

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The only thing that Black Mass has going against it is just how much content is mushed into its two hour run time. When I say that this movie is packed to the brim, I mean it really is. This movie could have easily been another hour long, and even a miniseries, but two hours just isn’t enough. The movie actually felt longer than it was because of how much stuff happens in it. Scott Cooper actually said that the film was originally three hours long, so if there were ever a director’s cut released, I’d love to see just how much was excluded from the finished product and if it would make the movie flow a little bit smoother. The pacing gets so weird and choppy at times because there’s so much stuff to fit in, finding the proper transition could be hard. It also made it hard to see how much time has passed or where everyone was.

Still, it’s understandable why the film makers would want to cram so much material into this movie. It’s all really interesting stuff, and the character of James Bulger was just asking for a movie like this. You know how in The Godfather you can get behind the Corleone family and in Scarface you can go along with some of Tony Montana’s doings? Not in Black Mass. Whitey Bulger is truly an evil human being with no moral compass whatsoever. In the beginning of the movie, there’s some humanity, but by the end the audience sees just how disassociated from society he really was. It’s also interesting to note that this isn’t just a biopic about Whitey Bulger. It’s also an exploration of a time when the FBI was corrupted and their security breached by this unholy alliance.

While Black Mass may not be the best gangster movie of the past ten or twenty years, it is one that’s going to be remembered. It’s sort of true that Johnny Depp carries the movie, but only because he’s so in character and the character is so intriguing that you can’t help but watch. It was a dark time in the history of the FBI and seeing them deal with that is just as interesting as everything else. This isn’t just a good movie, it’s a great movie. If some of the pacing issues were fixed, who knows how great it would be in the course of film history.

Straight Outta Compton – Review

18 Aug

Between 1986 and 1991, N.W.A took what was considered decent in the music industry and practically turned it on its head, but not without good reason. Their raps reflected the truth of their everyday life, and that just didn’t resonate well with some people. Straight Outta Compton, the new film by F. Gary Gray, finally tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A, but also how Ice Cube and Dr. Dre became household names. While this film is a biopic, what makes it really exceptional is its indictments of the police, the music industry, and greed.

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After growing up and living in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) form the rap group N.W.A. Together they write and produce songs about Compton and the only lifestyle they’ve ever known, which is plagued by violence and police brutality and harassment. After being found by their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and picked up by Priority Records, the group takes the world by storm and causes an uproar fighting censorship of their music. As greed and ego finds its way into the group, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre break off to form their own careers, but their past efforts as N.W.A can’t be so easily shaken off.

The Academy Awards seems so far away, but like… Straight Outta Compton has to be considered. I mean, it just has to. This movie isn’t just a great biopic, it’s also a great examination of race relations, the music industry, and personal friendships. What only makes it more powerful is that it’s a true story filled with characters who are still alive to tell the tale. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube actually worked as producers on this film, which is comforting since you know they gave some input on what actually happened. It’s a really incredible story but that’s just where things begin. There’s so much more to this movie that it was almost hard to wrap my head around everything.

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Stepping away from what the movie is about, I’d like to look at everything that aesthetically makes Straight Outta Compton so pleasing. Having worked on music videos before (some for both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre), F. Gary Gray brings a real visual flair to this film. There are scenes where the camera swoops, turns, and glides with effortless ease. Add the skills of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has worked with Darren Aronofsky on films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and you have a visually beautiful movie. The soundtrack to this movie is exactly what you’d expect it to be, and I loved every minute of it. They played songs by N.W.A that I heard before, but now I have some welcome additions that I didn’t know before this movie. Thank you, Straight Outta Compton.

There couldn’t be a better group of actors portraying these larger than life people. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., the son of Ice Cube, plays his father in this and it’s sometimes eerie how similar they look. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, respectively, also give exceptional performances, and Mitchell’s work is part of the reason this movie needs to be remembered during the awards season. When the actors all come together, their chemistry is fantastic and they work great with an already great screenplay. I just wish that DJ Yella and MC Ren had a bit more to do.

Straight Outta Compton is, unsurprisingly, a very powerful movie. While showing the rise and fall of one of rap, and arguably music’s, most influential groups, the film also treads over deeper themes that could have easily not been included. Fortunately, everything in this movie clicks together and works perfectly making the two and a half hour runtime not something to be intimidated by. Even if you don’t care for rap music, this is a powerful story that will now surely stand the test of time.

American Sniper – Review

17 Feb

When told right, a war movie can really make you think and try desperately to understand what soldiers all over the world have to face everyday when they wake up in hostile territory, but also how they react back home far away from the battlefield. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see Fury, which worked very well as a thought provoking war film, and now I’ve finally gotten the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s Oscar contender American Sniper. The biggest thought I have in my mind is that if the Academy really needed a war movie for a nomination, why couldn’t it have just been Fury?

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After seeing coverage of the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) decides that it’s his duty as an American to enlist in the military to do what he can to protect his country. After the 9/11 attacks, he is deployed to the Middle East where his talents as a sniper become quite apparent to the rest of his brothers in arms and also the enemy. Each time he comes home to his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children, it becomes more and more clear to Kyle that he belongs in battle alongside his fellow soldiers, but he also feels the need to be at home with his family. As the these conflicts become more intense, and more of his friends are killed, Kyle’s stability becomes more and more fragile, encouraging him to do something before it reaches the point of no return.

I know I’m probably a minority in my opinions about this movie, and excuse me for saying this, but I really can’t get behind this movie or all of the praise it’s getting. Everything from Bradley Cooper’s performance to the way director Clint Eastwood handles the complicated subject material is getting way too much positive attention in my honest opinion. The basic formula of this movie has been done before and done a lot better, especially with Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional psychological war film The Hurt Locker. This film, on the other hand, follows the formula step by step and fails to bring anything new or particularly thoughtful to the table. I can’t say that American Sniper is a “bad” movie but I can definitely say that it is bland, generic, and boring.

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When I first saw trailers for this movie, I was really all about it. I couldn’t wait to see it. The scenes showed in the trailer looked like some of the most intense shit ever, and that’s what I really wanted to see. Think about it. A whole war film seen through the eyes of a sniper, the man who’s far away from the action but holds the lives of the squad in the palm of his hand. One wrong decision could be fatal. Thank goodness I got at least two intense scenes out of this movie. The rest of the war scenes were really nothing special. The time he spent at home where the effects of the war could be examined were completely underutilized and the editing between the two was so sloppy and jarring I couldn’t really believe they got away with it. I don’t want to keep comparing this movie to The Hurt Locker, but I can’t help it. That movie just did it so much better.

Bradley Cooper has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood recently through his comedic efforts in The Hangover movies but also his more dramatic roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Now he’s nominated for Best Actor for the third year in a row for his performance in American Sniper and I just am left to sit here and wonder how. For most of the movie, he just grumbled his dialogue in a typical tough guy manner. It was just annoying to listen to, and the movie didn’t spend enough time developing his relationships to other characters to make their interactions really amount to anything.

All I can really say about American Sniper is that it’s a missed opportunity. I love war movies and respect all of the work that goes into making one, but this was just too formulaic and bland. There were definitely some really great scenes in the movie, but other than those few moments, nothing in this movie ever really amounted to anything much. It pains me to say this, but American Sniper is a big disappointment of 2014 and a Clint Eastwood movie that I’ll do my best to never have to watch again.

Selma – Review

14 Feb

It’s a fact to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most important historical figures of the past 100 years. The victories he won and the lengths he went to to secure those victories are incredible accounts of perseverance and bravery, so it’s kind of strange that Hollywood hasn’t really released any films that show his accomplishments. I mean, how many people saw that 2001 release Boycott? Luckily now we have a movie that not only shows Martin Luther King as an activist and a soldier for equality, but also a human being who faced despicable threats of violence to achieve basic human rights.

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In 1964, the Civil Rights Movement has been going strong, but African Americans are still restricted through stringent laws from being able to freely vote. That combined with a bombing of a church pushes Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and other activists to travel to Selma and begin a protest for the right to vote. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), after talking with King, feels a reluctant need to help, but feels confined to dealing with other national problems. King then feels that the only way to get Johnson’s attention and the attention of Americans is to push through lines of police, face beatings from the vicious officer, and march to Montgomery, Alabama in protest. As the planning begins, and violence against African Americans intensifies, King begins to fear that this plan may not be feasible and victory impossible to reach.

After thinking about this film, I’ve really come to respect it. As I was watching I kept seeing some major flaws in it that really brought down the entire experience, but they aren’t enough to completely ruin the movie. Most of the problems that I have are with the screenwriting and the pacing. There are many really intense scenes involving the politics that King had to work with but also really moving scenes involving the protests and marches. In between those, however, there are a lot of scenes that just don’t move really well and are filled with melodrama that I just didn’t need. I understand that they were trying to humanize King, but that happened in much better scenes throughout the movie. The scenes that they were trying to humanize him with came of as slow, fake, and overly dramatic.

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So despite there being scenes in this movie, a lot of scenes actually, that didn’t really serve a purpose or weren’t executed well, there were much more powerful scenes to counterbalance them. Selma is one of the more intense movies of 2014, and I say that with the utmost confidence. The terrible thing is that all of this really happened (despite some minor historical accuracies) and it happened in the not too distant past. The first attempted march to Montgomery is actually one of the most startling scenes I’ve seen in recent film making. Director Ava DuVernay did a great job at making history seem to come to life on the screen with cinematography that looks like it could have been ripped right from a moving history book.

I can’t really talk about Selma without mentioning David Oyelowo’s brilliant performance as Martin Luther King. It’s even more impressive considering Oyelowo is a British actor and how well he nails the accent and also King’s way of speaking. The entire cast is all really good, but it really is Oyelowo’s performance that stands out over everyone. Now that I’ve seen the movie, it’s pretty fair to say that he definitely got snubbed at a Best Actor nomination.

Selma may not be my favorite movie of the year or even the best movie of the year, but it is one of the more impressive films of the year. There’s a lot to really love and appreciate with this movie, but there’s also a lot more work that could have been done in trimming up the screenplay and getting rid of some scenes that didn’t really need to be in there. That being said, there are a lot of those unimportant and relatively boring scenes, which almost spoils the entire movie, but luckily there are enough really exceptional and powerful scenes that help work against them. Even though this film is flawed, the history that it presents and how well it presents it should make Selma required viewing.