A solid, direct war drama and by the far the most popular and… MoreA solid, direct war drama and by the far the most popular and commercially successful of the 2014 Best Picture nominees, American Sniper is Clint Eastwood's best effort since Gran Torino. Sniper centers on the real life story of Chris Kyle (who is often credited as the deadliest American marksman ever) in his four tours in Iraq and his attempts to cope with PTSD and the effects it had on his family life. As you can expect from Eastwood, this film has a low-key, stripped-down focus on Kyle and those around him. The script admirably avoids pandering jingoism, but it also avoids any heavy anti-war messaging. (Eastwood is a well-known conservative, but he is also resolutely anti-war.) First and foremost he is an objective film maker and such messaging would detract from what is primarily a character study. Kyle is brought to life in earnest form by Bradley Cooper. Over time, we see the wear and tear of his emotional health, and much of this is nonverbal. Often, it is more interesting what Cooper doesn't say rather than what he does. The action and combat scenes set in Iraq succeed in having the kind of punch that many war movies fail to achieve. American Sniper earns its R rating as we see the ghastly effects of what a heavy rifle can do in the hands of an expert. One of the more infamous scenes involves a woman and child attempting to throw an IED at an American convoy. We are not spared the bloody details once Kyle commits to stopping them.
The film becomes less compelling when it feels the need to invent super insurgents and try to link them to real world people and events, whether it be an al-Qaeda linked psychopath who uses a power drill to murder children or an enemy sniper for our protagonist to duel in the third act. The missions to stop these invented characters seem a tad bit unconvincing. The film is at its best when shows the war itself, the tense moments behind the scope and the resulting carnage, and the impact it has on Kyle and his comrades both in the field and at home. Every action has consequence and few scenes seem wasted. That being said, this movie often lacks depth or complexity, or at least the kind of artistic nuance that I prefer in war movies. This is in sharp contrast to another restrained and objective take of the Iraq War - The Hurt Locker. While not a perfect film, it intermixed scenes of genuine horror with others of incredible beauty. Remember that movie's sniper scene? Those moments have lingered on in my mind years after seeing it. Now to be blunt, general audiences prefer a straightforward narrative with no frills, and so we see the result here, as Sniper's sparse narrative and subject matter have done it great business.
Of course, there are issues with accuracy. Omitted are Kyle's claims that he was involved in sniping operations in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, punching former Governor Jesse Ventura in the face, and his general trait of self-promotion and aggrandizing. (No seriously, he claimed to punch him over some argument in a bar, while Ventura said he never even heard of him. He filed a lawsuit against the estate and Kyle's widow will probably end up paying him an absurd amount of money.) But, as with other biopics these details are irrelevant when evaluating the merits of a dramatic film. Furthermore, American servicemen have anecdotally confirmed that American Sniper is a relatively accurate portrayal of the Iraq War. Credit must be given where it is due. Faults aside, Kyle never shirked from duty and believed in the people who stood beside him, even as he suffered from personal demons. And telling that story was more important than making an anti-war statement, a propaganda piece, or focusing on his PR blunders. See this film.
I have been waiting for this one for quite a while. Yeah, sometimes I… MoreI have been waiting for this one for quite a while. Yeah, sometimes I actually look forward to a slow-paced, pretentious drama focused on three characters. I'm weird like that. Foxcatcher benefits immensely from this micro-focus and is honestly the paradigm of what you can do with three dedicated actors and a script that allows them to breathe. If I had to describe the feel or tone it would be cold and detached. We see characters interact with one another but little judgment is passed by the camera. In other words, we aren't told how we are supposed to feel. Steve Carell shows his dramatic chops here as creepy, self-absorbed predator John du Pont, whose seemingly benevolent interest in coaching American Olympic Wrestling is implied to have more to do with his Oedipus complex with his aging, cold mother and possible closeted homosexuality. All this he covers by brandishing the American flag with odd speeches and manipulates the main character with money, cocaine, fraternal jealousy, and Reagan-era jingoism. I was always of the opinion that Carell could play an unnerving villain and it's an avenue he might want to explore further given his success here. Mark Ruffalo plays the most relatable character and he impresses even if the sword of Damocles clearly hangs above his head in the few scenes that he is present. And Channing Tatum holds his own, displaying great emotional range and has the only arc of the movie. His dialogue exchanges with Carell comprise the bulk of the film and it is through these we learn just how na´ve our protagonist is and how completely removed from humanity du Pont is.
It's also important to note that the wrestling scenes, whether they are practice or a competition are well filmed and realistic affairs, showing the physical strain and the preparation these athletes undergo. That this was all based on a true story may surprise you, although Foxcatcher takes a fair amount of creative license in a similar manner to The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper. So additional homework may be required. That's why it's called a movie folks. This is easily worth your time as a rental or a digital download.
Built and centered on an admirable topic, Selma proves to be a… MoreBuilt and centered on an admirable topic, Selma proves to be a surprisingly weighty historical drama in a season of underwhelming Oscar bait hopefuls. I actually always wondered what a well-made film about Martin Luther King, Jr. would look like that was NOT about the march on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, or his assassination. In addition to a different setting than we are used to seeing him in, we also are allowed to look at King the human being, i.e. the flawed man who used politics and arm-twisting in order to achieve his goals. The script avoids pandering hagiography in a similar manner to Lincoln. King understood, both here and in reality, that any struggle would have to be public and caught on camera for Middle America to see, and this helped steer his choice toward demonstrating in Selma, Alabama where resistance would be fierce. We also have David Oyelowo giving an underplayed King, while displaying more assertiveness than we are used to seeing. Oyelowo probably gives the best depiction of MLK we have seen to date and I must join the chorus of voices arguing that this actor was robbed by the Academy for a nomination.
There are some problems with accuracy regarding the role of President Johnson, which some historians have rightfully pointed out. Namely, this version of LBJ comes off as a bit cowardly and downright obstructionist toward civil rights. He is shown yelling at King in most of his scenes, conspiring with J. Edgar Hoover to damage King's marriage by releasing evidence of his infidelities to his wife, and only pushing the Voting Rights Act to protect his legacy after it becomes clear the way the wind is blowing. I got news for ya. Johnson, like most if not all U.S. Presidents, probably hated J. Edgar and often avoided him if he could. The wiretapping of King and other Civil Rights leaders predated LBJ, and Hoover often acted unilaterally on that kind of behavior and without oversight. Furthermore, Johnson for the most part approved of King's actions, and specifically in Selma. This is not to say Johnson was an angel. He could be a gigantic asshole. But he was not a coward and he certainly didn't act to obstruct MLK, even if they disagreed on many issues. On that note, they definitely got George Wallace right. He really was a creepy, racist self-absorbed douche - largely unconcerned with the future or his legacy...until he got shot and paralyzed years later.
But I digress. This is the kind of low-key, unpretentious, honest story telling I wish I saw more of. The stellar portrayal for our protagonist, competent direction, tight writing, and simple but relevant message make this a must see. Get chill bumps listening to the speeches. Cringe every time nightsticks are brandished and George Wallace opens his mouth. Easily one the best films of the year.
An off-beat escape from the doldrums of January, Big Eyes is easily… MoreAn off-beat escape from the doldrums of January, Big Eyes is easily the best piece Tim Burton has given us in years. While it is clearly an attempt at a quirky drama based on real events, it's mostly about lies and duplicity in a world that openly encourages it. Structurally, it bears much in common with The Theory of Everything; we watch an almost perfect courtship evolve into a marriage which produces fame and success, but then watch it fall apart spectacularly. But as Theory proved tiresome and almost pointless, I actually enjoyed watching the marital destruction this time around - it was more entertaining and informed us more about the artist. It's quite clear that the reason Burton undertook this project is his personal affinity for the work of Margaret Keane and the odd look of her art that many would dismiss as mere kitsch. This is the kind of subject matter I want to see more from him, but judging how few paying audiences went to see this, I can see why we don't. Amy Adams proves once again that she is the master of underplaying a role, while Christoph Waltz does quite the opposite and gives a fun, over-the-top riff as a shiesty businessman and networker who takes credit for his wife's work. (Anyone else looking forward to seeing him face off against Daniel Craig in Spectre? I am!) So in summation, I quite enjoyed Big Eyes and the bizarre story it told, even if I understand why it didn't particularly take off with audiences and award committees.
Far better than its generic trailer would suggest, Wild surprises with… MoreFar better than its generic trailer would suggest, Wild surprises with a simple, earnest look at loss and the lengths some take to cope with it. It's mostly a more uplifting update of Into the Wild and has some naturalist elements sprinkled throughout the narrative. Said narrative revolves around the true story of a young woman, who after the loss of her mother and in the midst of recovering from narcotics addiction, takes the long trek of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. And then she (similarly to Jeremiah Johnson) finds out that she is woefully and hilariously unprepared for the challenges of the deserts and cold mountains of the American West. Thanks to the kindness of strangers and her own stubborn, desperate self-determination, she grows both as an outdoorswoman and more importantly as a person. If you couldn't figure it out, the central theme is about letting go and while it is not the most original film of this type, it's easily the best work Reese Witherspoon has turned in and it deserves most of the praise awarded to it. Laura Dern also wipes the floor with your emotions. (It's good to see her in independent movies and small scale television. She shines there.) I can say that it was worth my time and that's more than I can say about a lot of movies recently.
Unbroken is a film that I consider effective, but I would hesitate to… MoreUnbroken is a film that I consider effective, but I would hesitate to call it great or even particularly good. That's not to say that this isn't a competent effort by Angelina Jolie and all involved. It kept my interest and I was fascinated to see just how far this movie would go. I found out all right. Here we have another WWII biopic, this time based on the New York Times Bestseller telling the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian athlete turned B-24 bombardier, turned castaway, turned abused P.O.W., turned inspirational hero. He is earnestly and bravely played by Jack O'Connell. Most of the focus is on our protagonist's nightmarish experiences at the hands of the Japanese, specifically a cruel non-commissioned officer known as "The Bird" and ferociously brought to life by Miyavi. As Zamperini is beaten down and brutalized repeatedly so too is Angelina Jolie beating down and brutalizing the audience. Now the idea of Jolie torturing me for hours does sound appealing, but all levity aside this comprises precisely half the film. Little is shown of the Olympics or much of his early life. I was also informed by several irritated people who have read the book that Zamperini's postwar activities including traveling to Japan and forgiving his former oppressors was left out. My suspicion is that the filmmakers wanted a singular, heavy focus in order to make it an Oscar contender by transforming it into a tale about spirit triumphing over adversity or something to that effect.
In this film's favor I might add that overall the direction was splendid. Jolie is clearly influenced by Clint Eastwood and she uses similar techniques, shot composition, color scheming, and his postmodern focus on characters. Never is attention broken away from the action to scenes back home, with the family, or any other crap that would have irritated me and detracted from the experience. Furthermore, schmaltzy BS is kept to a minimum, which is admirable. The opening B-24 raid on a Japanese held island and the resulting air battle was easily one of the best of its type I have seen in recent years, with well-edited action and a great introduction to our hero. The scenes of desperation, floating on rafts on the treacherous open ocean reminded me of All is Lost. The brief glimpses of WWII era Tokyo were fascinating and I wanted to see a tad bit more. It is also important to note that a heavy religious message runs right through the middle of this pic and your mileage may vary on how effective that will be. (The story is framed largely as one of Christian redemption.) And while critics are giving Unbroken mixed reviews, audiences are responding to it quite favorably.
As for my evaluation, this is a decent prestige flick that needed a broader focus on this exceptional man's life, and probably a little less torture. Zero Dark Thirty was water boarded by the Academy and the far political left and right for less, and that was widely considered the best film of that year! Still, keep this advisory in mind when planning to take your family to see it. I still think Fury had more gravitas and weight than any WWII drama this year or this decade for that matter. But that doesn't necessarily win awards does it?