Thursday, December 25, 2014

American Sniper Review

In his second cinematic outing of 2014 director Clint Eastwood tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American history, with one hundred and sixty confirmed kills. A pretty amazing stat, considering modern warfare is getting less and less personalized. However, “American Sniper”(based on the memoir by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelcie) attempts to be both pro war and anti war. A patriotic combat film displaying Kyle’s military exploits as well as a somber post combat film about him having to readjust to normal society between tours. It’s a great story yet Eastwood’s film rarely escalates to such heights. It’s competently made but also underwhelming; the screenplay by James Hall often resorts to cliché and heavy-handed storytelling.

After starting in medias res, the film flashes back to briefly guide us through Kyle’s early life, including his decision to join the Seals. While I can see the intention with these scenes they-- for the most part--feel unnecessary. I don’t think I needed a scene showing a young Kyle hunting bucks with his dad to illustrate an early interest in marksmanship, something that can be easily seen on the battlefield. Even worse I certainly didn’t need Kyle’s father at the dinner table talking about how there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheep dogs (protectors). And how Kyle is going to grow up to be the third option. Again, something else that can be shown on the battlefield. These scenes feel too obvious and heavy-handed. In general, the movie has a tendency to talk down to the audience. The only moments that do seem necessary are Kyle’s sudden decision to join the army—after hearing about U.S. Embassies getting blown up—and the meeting of his wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). However, since they’re preceded by four or five other superfluous scenes, Eastwood has to rush through without giving them enough time to breathe.

“American Sniper” is best when it focuses on Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) military accomplishments in Iraq and more specifically when it gets into his head as a sniper. As a sniper you’re put into a position of extreme omnipotence. Being perched on a building high above you can see basically everything going on therefore the safety of your teammates rests heavily on your shoulders. An even heavier burden to carry is deciding who lives and who dies on the opposing side. Is that military-aged male reporting troop movement or calling a friend? Or even worse, do you kill that Iraqi child walking towards a troop convoy carrying a grenade? It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress and the picture coveys all of this in a fairly tense and exciting manner.

The rest of the combat sequences—the ones not involving sniping-- while occasionally thrilling, feel relatively standard and routine. Watching them you’re reminded of the combat scenes in better modern war movies like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” from last year. Eastwood’s picture rarely grabs you the way those movies did. During “Lone Survivor” there were times I was practically hiding under my seat because I was so uncomfortable, whereas in “American Sniper” I barely cringed. On top of that, Kyle’s military buddies remain one-dimensional. Making it difficult for me to care too much about them when tragedy strikes.

The conflicts that take place on the homeland between Kyle and Taya are even less compelling. Miller does the best she can but her character is sort of hung out to dry. In addition to being saddled with some of the worst, most cliché lines of dialogue--“when you’re here, its like you’re not here!”—she’s stuck being the wet blanket wife at home with the kids. Now, I’m not saying being the wife of a service man isn’t difficult but Eastwood and Hall don’t give Taya enough dimensions. About fifty percent of her role is sobbing or yelling at Kyle. As for Kyle’s two kids, they’re just treated as props; there to add more surface-level emotions and stakes to Kyle’s situation. I realize the movie isn’t called “American Sniper and his Family” but if you’re going to incorporate the family aspect into a war picture they need to hold more of a presence.

To his credit, Cooper is actually very good. Convincingly portraying a man who’s torn between his country and his family. A man who loves the thrill of combat even when it starts to take a toll on his psyche and affect his home life. Cooper’s handsome but likable everyman sensibilities fit Kyle perfectly and he wisely underplays the character. Having read the book, I know that Kyle wasn’t a showboat but instead modest when it came to his military accomplishments. In a scene near the end of the movie when Kyle is faced with his impressive kill record he isn’t fazed by it. It can be difficult to play a humble warrior but overall Cooper’s performance feels genuine and is easily the film’s strongest asset. That being said, even Cooper is sometimes hindered by the screenplay’s more heavy-handed and propagandistic qualities.  At times Kyle will break into some pro America diatribe about the military conflict and constantly refers to the Iraqis as “savages.” Again, I know Kyle was very patriotic but in the movie these moments feel tacked on.

I wish I could say I was disappointed by “American Sniper,” but to be honest I haven’t come to expect much from Eastwood these days. I admire that the eighty four year old director/actor continues to make movies and while none of his recent efforts—“Jersey Boys,” “J Edgar,” “Invictus,”—have been flat out bad there just hasn’t been a lot of fire and passion in them either. “American Sniper” is skillfully made but it’s hardly ever remarkable. Like the rest of Eastwood’s filmography of late “Sniper” goes through the motions.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Into The Woods Review

I’ll admit up front that I’m not the audience for Rob Marshall’s “Into The Woods,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical (written by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). The musical has never been a genre that’s personally appealed to me. Particularly big, elaborate spectacle musicals like this one. With that out of the way, I can say that the movie isn’t a disaster. The casting is—for the most part-- solid across the board; the musical numbers are well staged and paced, moving the action along, with only a few that meander. That being said, the movie simply has too many elements— too may plot strands and characters to balance—causing the movie to become overstuffed and drag on. At two hours and six minutes it starts to feel like three. There is some great stuff in it but the movie doesn’t add up to a completely satisfying whole.

The story can be best described as Grimm Brothers’ stew with a few extra ingredients: the likes of Cinderella, (Anna Kendrick) Jack, (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood, (Lilla Crawford) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) all interact with one another in the same far away land. In addition, there’s the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). A surprisingly underdressed Johnny Depp makes a brief appearance as The Big Bad Wolf—seriously, all he has is a mustache, a tail, and ears sticking out of a hat— and there’s not one but two blonde haired, charming Princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. One for Cinderella, another for Rapunzel.

The movie gets off to a great start, introducing the main characters and story in a music number that’s brisk and entertaining. Within ten or fifteen minutes you have a good indication of who these characters are and what they want to achieve. I won’t tell you what each recognizable character is after—if you don’t know that then you’re probably not going to see this movie--so I’ll skip right to The Baker and his wife. Due to a curse from The Witch (Meryl Streep) put on The Baker’s father long ago his wife can’t have children. However, The Witch gives them the chance to reverse the curse—telling them they must go off into the woods and collect magical items from the classic fairy tale figures. Again, I’m sure you can guess what those items are.

In the first half of the movie the basic Grimm fairy tales are reenacted with slight variations, as well as comedic interventions from The Baker and his wife. There’s a fair amount of tongue in cheek-ness running through this section that feels refreshing. Said tongue in cheek-ness can be primarily attributed to the main cast members. Each one brings charm and personality to their roles without going overboard or being bland. Blunt continues to show that she can have breezy chemistry with any male co-star placed in front of her; she and Corden are fantastic together as the only average characters in fairy tale land. And their encounters with the well-known Grimm figures make for some of the freshest moments in the movie. The Baker trying to yank Red Riding Hood’s cloak off is funny in an absurd, slightly creepy way.  Kendrick brings her typical likability and spunkiness to Cinderella and I was surprised how much Pine’s intentionally campy charming Prince act worked. I didn’t think there was much ground left to cover in the handsome Prince character. Even the immortal Streep is able to generate loose comedic energy as the hideous, bitter witch. All of these actors have moments—separately and together—of comedic greatness.

Unfortunately, the cast can’t quite escape the snail’s pace and messy nature of the overarching narrative. Even with the slight alterations we still know how the Grimm stories are going to play out, eliminating a sense of surprise and excitement. And having to endure these multiple stories at the same time can turn into a chore. Even The Baker and wife saga eventually settles onto a predictable path. Stories in which characters have to go around and collect a bunch of objects have a tendency to do that, sadly. There’s also unnecessary redundancy; Cinderella runs away from three royal balls and there are two handsome Princes. Speaking of the second handsome Prince, the whole Rapunzel story could have been axed altogether. With the exception of one song, the stuff that happens to the longhaired captive is infinitely less interesting than everything else and is given the least amount of space in the narrative. Magnussen and Mauzy do their best but ultimately their characters feel like superfluous afterthoughts. Sorry guys, but we already have a Prince and Princess.

In the second half things take a different, darker turn. In one sense, this change is welcome because the movie is no longer beholden to the predictability of the Grimm stories, and like in the first half there are some great individual moments. However it also comes a little too late. In a stage setting this transition probably works just fine because there’s an intermission. On the screen however, there’s no intermission so it’s like having to watch two long movies back to back. Plus things are still messy and unfocused from a story standpoint. A villain in the form a giant—you know, from the beanstalk—is shoehorned into the action. A giant we’ve had no real contact with until this point, making the film’s climax feel somewhat unsubstantial.

On top of that, there really isn’t much of a change in tone. This most likely has to do with the PG rating and you can certainly feel a darker, more sinister mood lurking beneath this section just begging to come out. The only thing that gets darker is the screen. There are still plenty of jokes but there’s no real sense of danger, or thrill for that matter. When that CGI giant stomps around in the forest, knocking down trees threatening to kill people, I was left cold. In fact this can be said for most of the big, CGI moments throughout the picture: Jack climbing the beanstalk, The Witch getting sucked into quicksand of some sort towards the end, etc., are all empty thrills. For being a “spectacle” musical, “Into The Woods” is largely deficient in that area.

I realize that most of my issues with “Into the Woods” probably have more to do with the source material than the movie. But a movie has to be able to stand on its own and things that worked on stage may not necessarily work on screen. I also realize that I’m not the target audience for this, and those that love big musicals like this will find much to enjoy. As for me, while there are some great individual moments scattered throughout, they’re somewhat diluted by a lumbering and bloated story.


The Gambler Review

Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a good movie. I know that’s kind of a weak statement but I’m not sure how else to sum it up. It’s a remake of the 1974 James Caan film of the same name but this version isn’t a carbon copy. While the basic floor plan remains, certain important events are rearranged, altered—not always for the better, by the way—and some are even removed all together. Having seen the original fairly recently, there was just enough change in Wyatt’s version to keep me on my toes. Yet, as entertaining as the movie can be “The Gambler” still suffers from some glaring issues that keep it from achieving greatness.

The picture revolves around Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg, nicely fitting into Caan’s shoes), a literature professor with a costly extracurricular activity. By day he teaches English 101 to a class full of disinterested students—we’ve all been there. Even as an English major myself I found English 101 to be boring—and by night he’s gambling. An activity that leaves him with a massive debt. Bennett is a peculiar English professor in that he doesn’t seem to care all that much about his profession. He’s intelligent and seems to know his stuff but his life outside the classroom doesn’t feel like one of an English teacher. Instead of mingling with other literature professors or scholarly people talking Chaucer or Joyce he’s most at home in dangerous places with low life criminals. He loves the thrill of gambling, putting everything on the line and potentially winning it all. A sensation he probably doesn’t get from teaching.

On top of that his teaching style is aggressive and blunt to say the least—during one lecture period he very frankly announces that most of the students won’t be good writers, even the students that want to be in English 101. His confidence level is extremely high, an admirable quality no doubt. He never comes off as a pathetic addict. When his shady debt collectors come knocking he doesn’t beg them for another week. Instead he wears an apathetic guise—not caring whether he ends up in a ditch somewhere--to buy more time. A gamble in and of itself that sometimes pays off. Bennett is the most compelling part of “The Gambler” because he’s both likable and unlikable at the same time. An educated man given all the opportunities growing up—his family is loaded—with a stupid, stupid problem. This tension proves to be the driving force in the entire movie: on the one hand you hate to see Bennett in these tight situations but on the other he brings them on himself.

With the rest of the movie Wyatt finds a middle ground between an ultra depressing addiction movie—in the vein of something like Steve McQueen’s “Shame”—and a pulpy, semi comedic crime drama. At times it can be quite somber and uncomfortable like most addiction dramas but the comedic undertones also make it more enjoyable and easier to consume. This middle ground isn’t always so smooth, however. Sometimes the comedic scenes can feel too cartoony, for example when Bennett eggs on one of his debt collector’s associates and gets punched repeatedly for it. These scenes simply feel too out of place, especially when juxtaposed with very serious ones. Bennett sitting in his bathtub thinking about his massive debt, looking sad. In addition, the debt collectors themselves—played by John Goodman and Michael K Williams—come right out of a B gangster picture, Goodman’s character in particular. While he’s definitely fun to watch in the typical loudmouth John Goodman way he doesn’t get very many scenes and therefore comes off as no more than a caricature.

There are other issues concerning supporting characters, most notably the romantic subplot between Bennett and a student named Amy (Brie Larson). Put simply, it just isn’t developed enough. We don’t really understand what Amy finds so appealing about Bennett and Wyatt only devotes a few scenes to the relationship, not allowing for any kind of substantial connection to form. This wouldn’t be that great of an issue—after all the focus is on Bennett and his problem—except that Wyatt forces this undercooked subplot into the final frames of the movie. Making for a puzzling and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

From a technical standpoint “The Gambler” is also a mixed bag. There are odd stylistic flourishes—the use of jump cuts while Amy is walking to campus, a lengthy sequence towards the end involving Bennett running to meet someone, a five minute long college basketball scene, various moments of slow motion—that come off as unnecessary indulgence; not doing anything to advance the picture. At the same time, the soothing ambient score by Jon Brion and Theo Green is outstanding, providing perfect background sound for the more uneasy and melancholy moments.

All in all, “The Gambler” is an entertaining, though somewhat forgettable affair. A great central performance surrounded by a uneven movie.


Unbroken Review

Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort “Unbroken” is an utterly bland, mostly soulless endeavor. It’s the kind of large-scale historical biopic that comes ready made with words like “inspirational,” “heartbreaking” and “powerful.” But the movie is none of those things. Based on the nonfiction book by Lauren Hillenbrand “Unbroken” tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) an Olympic runner who, after a near fatal plane crash during World War 2, spends forty seven days stranded at sea before being held in a Japanese POW camp. Sure, that does sound like an amazing story and perhaps Jolie and co. thought that the subject matter alone would make up for the tepid, unconvincing execution.

The picture is divided into three sections: Zaperini growing up, Zaperini stranded on a raft at sea with two other surviving soldiers and his time at the POW camp where he’s tormented by a cruel Japanese officer. Each section presents its information and events in the most conventional and boring ways possible. For a movie that involves being lost at sea—with sharks swimming below—and a grueling POW camp there’s hardly a thrilling or intense moment. But worst of all, the picture is emotionally stilted. A lot of times an old fashioned and formulaic historical movie like this can be forgiven if the human element is present, if the connections feel real and intimate.  Sadly “Unbroken” is missing that element and therefore I didn’t care about anything that happened.

During the first section—in the form of a flashback—we’re introduced to Zaperini as a young lad who goes from being a troublemaker to an Olympian. He steals a couple bottles of alcohol, gets into a fight with a group of boys, gets lectured by his father, cleans up his act with the help of his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) and becomes the best high school mile runner in the country. Clearly this is supposed to be a defining period in his life but Jolie hurtles through this material like it’s no big deal and sprinkles in some really bad dialogue to compensate. Cheap, hollow motivational phrases such as, “If you can take it, you can make it” or “a lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain,” that foreshadow later events in an obvious and schmaltzy way. On top of that, Jolie does such a shoddy job of establishing the relationship between Louis and Pete that when they say goodbye as Louis is heading off to the Berlin Olympics—the last time we see them until the very end of the movie—you feel no connection whatsoever. And when they’re finally reunited you’ve forgotten that they even had a relationship.

The rest of the movie follows on a similar path, dully going from one plot point to the next without developing character. Interactions between Zaperini and the various people he encounters along the way are cold and inauthentic. Even the attempts at humor—telling jokes, friendly ribbing among soldiers—feel forced and robotic.

Newcomer Jack O’Connell has already proven that he has massive acting talents with the emotionally raw father/son prison drama “Starred Up” from earlier this year. As Zaperini he does the best he can with an underwritten character. For being the center of attention, there’s simply not enough dimension to Louis. He’s resilient; I’ll give him that. When he’s stranded at sea or in the prison camp he won’t let his spirit, or physical body be broken. He’s prideful and loyal to his country; when the Japanese ask him to say negative things about America on the radio in exchange for a better living situation, he refuses. But for a two-hour plus movie that’s not enough substance. Outside of wanting to survive he doesn’t appear to have much personality. And that’s why when you see him do things like having to hold a heavy wooden plank above his head for a day or be shot in the prison camp, there’s no weight behind it. Instead of sitting on the edge of your seat wanting him to succeed, you’re indifferent. With its lack of a compelling protagonist, “Unbroken” lacks an emotional core.

The supporting actors are given even less to work with. Other talented young up and comers like Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) and Garrett Hedlund (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) pop their heads in every so often, barely making an impression. However, Japanese star Takamasa Ishihara is probably treated the worst. As Mutsushiro Watanabe, the leader of the POW camp, he has no purpose other than to be a massive jerk to Louis. There’s no reason for it, especially with a camp full of a hundred other prisoners. It’s almost hard to believe how one-dimensional he is; as if he was yanked straight from a Rambo picture. In a movie purporting to be based on a true story no character should come off this cartoony.

The prison camp section encompasses the majority of the movie’s running time and yet it still manages to become repetitive and unmoving. It either consists of scenes showing Louis going through some kind endurance test or recovering from said endurance test.  Jolie makes sure to portray plenty of torture and suffering but since she fails to develop the humanity aspect, these scenes are bloodless. And after a while it begins to feel somewhat egregious. It feels like suffering for the sake of suffering.

“Unbroken” was filmed by master cinematographer and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins and as to be expected the film is elegantly staged and pretty to look at. At the same time though, considering the subject matter, things can look a little too neat and polished. A movie that takes place in a grimy, muddy POW camp shouldn’t look so clean. And with the lack of story substance or character development the picture can look like a wax exhibit in a World War 2 museum.

Maybe I’m being too hard on “Unbroken.” Maybe if it had been a made for TV movie I would have expected less. But for a major theatrical release loaded with new and old talent I was thoroughly disappointed. In an attempt to make an honest, uplifting and intense account of one man’s incredible story, Jolie has made a dull, by the numbers historical drama.