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AMERICAN SNIPER Review: Making the Hallowed Hollow

January 16, 2015 2 comments

American Sniper PosterCritiquing a film based on an actual person always brings with it the risk that the critique will be misinterpreted (or, in some cases, misrepresented) as a critique of the person.  When the story on which the film is based brings with it its own controversy, the risk can increase.  Wrap the story in an American flag and attach to it debates on everything from war to gun control, and writing a review can be like … well, like walking through a mine field.

I mention this to make clear I am aware of these risks, and I am only interested in reviewing any film based on its merits as a film, not as an examination of the politics, actions, or final fate of the subject on which the film the is based, nor the direct or peripheral events in that subject’s life.

In this instance, that subject is Chris Kyle and the film about him is Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper, based on Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.  The film recounts key moments in Kyle’s childhood, what motivated him to join the military at age 30, and how his service affected him and his family life.  It also showcases moments of his four tours of duty in Iraq and many of his confirmed 160 kills.

American Sniper Bradley Cooper 1 LTBX

As the primary character in the story that is American Sniper, Chris Kyle is painted by Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall as straight out of Central Casting.  He was Texas born and raised by a father (mom is little more than the woman at the dinner table) who was firm but fair and knew his way with a belt, and who instilled in his sons a love of god and a taste for killing by way of hunting deer.  As an adult, Kyle is a strapping, aw-shucks kind of guy who aspires to be a rodeo cowboy, with a willingness to resolve conflict with violence (although not a violent man, per se).  He is motivated to enlist in the SEALs after seeing the aftermath of pre-9/11 bombings of overseas US embassies.  Nothing deeper than that is established.

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Once Kyle is “in country,” the film becomes a monotonous military procedural.  American convoys slow-roll Iraqi villages, buildings are checked and cleared, and Kyle snipes a few threats.  Sometimes Iraqis are interrogated for information (although nothing remotely as chilling as found in Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty), and sometimes there is combat.  Sniper, rinse, repeat.  With the exception of a couple truly gripping scenes, Eastwood fails to create any sustained tension in his action sequences; they are repetitive to a fault and chaotic for the sake of chaos.

There is also something of a cat-and-mouse game between Kyle and Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), an elite Iraqi sniper who is presented as something of a foil for Kyle (and who actually appears to be better at killing than Kyle), but who is less Moriarty and more Boogeyman; even that becomes rote and repetitious.  Eastwood also relies too heavily on the action movie equivalent of the “jump scare” found in horror movies – those moments when SEALs are depicted as being suddenly sniped by Mustafa.  It’s jarring, but without sustained tension, it becomes a cheap scare that is quickly erased by chaos.

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The four tours’ worth of action Kyle sees is interspersed with scenes of Kyle at home with, or in country and on the phone speaking to, his wife Taya (Sienna Miller).  Taya is the hard-to-get gal Kyle met in a bar and charmed to the aisle, combat and all.  Despite the significant impact Kyle’s constant returns to duty have on Taya and their (ever-increasing number of) children, she is grossly underdeveloped, serving only as a reminder that, oh yeah, Kyle has a life beyond war.  Her scenes are threadbare and her dialogue is clunky, and Miller isn’t a skilled enough actress to make anything out of what little is there.

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Worst of all, though, is Eastwood’s approach to Kyle’s psyche: it’s an afterthought – padding, really, to fill those quieter moments when Kyle wasn’t staring through a scope.  If this film were merely one about military tactics and the men who execute them, something deeper might no be required.  This isn’t that.  Eastwood and Hall reference deeper issues with Kyle but those issues are never addressed.  He shows signs of PTSD, but they are inserted merely as reminders that, oh yeah, vets come home and suffer from PTSD.  It’s little more than moviemaking lip service that not only does wrong by the film, it does wrong by Kyle, as it turns him into less of an American hero and more of a video game character.  How he worked through his issues – with his wife and kids and other family – is ignored.

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American Sniper is supposed to be a film about “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” but once the closing credits rolled (without a score, which is unsettling), I left the theater with knowing only of the things The Legend had done, not of the man Chris Kyle was.

2star

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THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Review: Behind Every Great Man …

December 28, 2014 2 comments

The Theory of Everything PosterWhen I was a junior in high school, I excelled at chemistry.  I don’t know why, really; it was just something I was good at.  When it came time to choose classes for my senior year, I thought, “Hey – physics!  Same teacher as chem and everything!  How hard can it be?”

Oops.  It was pretty hard.  I did okay, but it was clear early on that I would never be the next Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist who is part of the focus of the film The Theory of Everything.

At the film’s start, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a student of sciences at Cambridge when, at a party, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a student of arts.  Opposites prove to attract and the two fall madly in love.  Despite his opposition, Jane stands by Stephen when he is soon diagnosed with a form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that slowly destroys almost all his muscles, crippling him to the point of needing 24-hour care.

His mind, however, isn’t a muscle, and his work in cosmology, both as a doctoral student and a doctor, earns him global notoriety.  This fame takes its toll on the marriage, though, as Jane must sacrifice her studies and her life to not only be Stephen’s wife and mother to their three children, but also to act as his manager and his nurse.  His commitment to his work and his physical limitations leave Jane lonely and vulnerable to the temptations of an extramarital relationship.  The same is also said of her genius husband.

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Based on Jane Hawking‘s autobiography “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” The Theory of Everything is a film foremost about the relationship between the Hawkings.  Thanks to the strength of the performances of the leads, the story is wonderful in its early stages.

Redmayne plays the young Hawking with delicately measured parts shyness and awkwardness.  He’s never the stereotypical nerd, incapable of functioning normally around a real girl – although there’s this hint that he could be were he not invigorated by his love for her.  It’s as if she is the reason for his confidence, and were she anyone else, he would become that stereotype.

Jones, on the other hand, is grace and charm and an absolute joy to watch, lighting up the screen as the art major who is unintimidated by the intellectual might of her love interest.  She might not understand all the science, but she understands Stephen’s passion for it, and that’s what makes her so great.

Together, their chemistry is a textbook example of an irresistible force.

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The force of story continues in the early stages of Stephen’s disease.  His frustration by it and her support of him in dealing with it – even early in their relationship – is strong.  And the two actors certainly rise to the physicality of the circumstances.  Jones is great in support, but this is where Redmayne peaks in the film.  I am fortunate to not know firsthand if Redmayne got the general physical degradation of ALS “right,” but it was certainly transfixing to watch.

Also well-integrated into the story is the actual science itself.  Director James Marsh incorporates just enough of it to offer some cerebral razzle-dazzle without getting lost in formulas and equations (or force-feeding it in an effort to prove some greater intellectualism, like another science-flavored film from this year, Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar).

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It’s at the point in the tale when Stephen’s disease becomes more crippling to him and a greater burden to Jane that the film loses the magic it had in the first act.

The physical challenges presented to Redmayne become greater, which require him to shed the subtlety he masterfully presented earlier.  While the physical effects of ALS might be presented accurately, and while Redmayne disappears into the role, there is a palpable shift from how Hawking handles the disease to how the disease affects Hawking.  For the intimate tale this wants to be, the approach doesn’t fit well.

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More disappointing, though, is Jane’s story.  She goes from being heralded (in the story) as the great woman behind the man to being portrayed as the overburdened wife and mother who is tired of living in the shadows yet won’t do what’s right, only what brings her comfort.  This isn’t meant to demean her circumstance; it’s meant to suggest that this is the tale of a remarkable couple presented as something pedestrian, something you can find on cable any night of the week.  A woman like this and a couple like this deserve better treatment.

Stephen’s path is presented as equally as common (and blisteringly accelerated), missing completely the chance to explore how a person of his fame, yet physical limitation, manages something like infidelity.

The entire film gets terrific treatment, though, from cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, whose visuals are (like the film itself) striking early on, but quite strong throughout.

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If the acting tandem of Redmayne and Jones is the film’s irresistible force, then the fading presentation of the story of The Theory of Everything is the immovable object that that force has the unfortunate circumstance to meet.  I don’t know the outcome of a meeting like that in the realm of physics, but in the realm of film, it isn’t pretty.

3Star

ANNIE Review: No Sun Comes Out for This Little Orphan

December 22, 2014 4 comments

Annie PosterAs I hold true in the cases of films that are byproducts of books, comic books, television shows, video games, board games, and other movies, I hold true that a film ought to stand on its own merits if it is the adaptation of a stage play.  Writer/director Will Gluck‘s Annie is no exception.  I do not have any familiarity with the stage production (nor its 1982 theatrical film adaptation, nor its 1999 TV film adaptation), aside from reputation and some pop-culture references.  Having now seen this latest version, I might want to look into those older incarnations.

In this year’s entry, the little orphan known as Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) isn’t an orphan at all, but a foster child who, along with several other girls, is under the care of the cruel Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz).  Despite her bleak situation, Annie holds out hope that her birth parents will someday return for her.  As it so often does, fate intervenes when Annie crosses paths with Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx).

Stacks is a billionaire businessman campaigning to be mayor of New York.  Despite help from top political strategists (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale), his campaign is flailing because of his inability to connect with the people of the city.  But when he saves Annie from being hit by a car and that footage goes viral, his poll numbers get a boost.  He decides to assume temporary guardianship of the foster girl to help his campaign, but unexpected conflict – and unexpected emotions – complicate things.

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It’s difficult to oversell the combined might of the talent assembled for Annie. The cast includes an Oscar winner (Foxx, Best Actor, 2004’s Ray); history’s youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee (Wallis, 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild); history’s highest-grossing actress (Diaz, who presently stands atop all actresses, and 14th overall, with $2.946 billion); one of the hottest comedy actresses in town (Byrne, she of 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2014’s Neighbors); and one of the hottest all-around actors in town (Cannavale, whose recent credits include 2014’s Chef, 2013’s Blue Jasmine, and 2013’s Lovelace). This is a well-balanced cast, each member of which brings strengths to the film that should make it successful.

And yet it fails so tragically.

Annie Quvenzhane Wallis and Friends LTBX

This film is a musical, but there isn’t a memorable number to be heard.  Oh sure, the big songs are included (big even for those unfamiliar with the material), but they are wholly unremarkable.  For “It’s The Hard-Knock Life,” the foster girls are reduced to being kids saddled with household chores while Diaz barks orders.  As for “Tomorrow,” the money number if there ever was one, it’s nothing more than Wallis roaming the streets of her neighborhood, singing the song and seeing the world through an optimistic spectrum. If you extract that song from the film, the segment could be a commercial for the latest hybrid car.

The rest of them – including a song sung in a helicopter flying over NYC – are utterly forgettable and shot and edited so heavy-handedly, it’s uncertain if the cast even knew each entire dance routine from beginning to end. This is not your grandfather’s musical. This is not an ‘80s music video.  This isn’t even an episode of Glee.  It’s puzzling why Gluck was chosen to direct (and such a high-profile release), as nothing in his resumé suggests he can block and direct a dance number.  He proves here he can’t.

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That leaves the rest of the film, and it’s really no better than any musical number that interrupts it.  Everyone in the cast – with the exception of Foxx, who I found to be good – falls into this grey area where they are too over-the-top to be taken seriously, yet not so over as to be camp.  Diaz is the worst offender here, with everyone else close behind.  As for Wallis, her over-the-topness comes from trying so hard to be cute that she speeds past sweet and plows straight into saccharine.

Close the movie with a ridiculous and accelerated resolution, a contrived romance, and a dreadful car chase, and that’s a wrap.  To judge it on its own merit?  It isn’t good.  To make a comparison to the past?  Again, I’m not familiar enough with the source material to say, but something – anything – from the past must surely be better than this.

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Annie reeks of one of those vanity projects where a bunch of rich and famous people who are good at certain things thought they could translate their knowledge of those things into a good movie. In this case, two of the film’s rich and famous producers – Jay-Z and Will Smith – certainly know a thing or two about music.  But knowing music and the music business, even in the context of also knowing movies and the movie business (in Smith’s case), does not make someone an expert on movie musicals.  This film is hard knock proof of that.

1halfstar