Sunday, December 28, 2014

American Sniper



AMERICAN SNIPER: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, directed by Clint Eastwood (134 min.)

American Sniper tells the fascinating and unbelievable story of Chris Kyle in very conventional ways. There is some wonderful tension in a few scenes, moments that are hard to watch, and Bradley Cooper absolutely shines in the role of Kyle, a man conflicted about where he belongs. But Eastwood's direction feels uninspired at times, and tension is lacking where it should be palpable. I enjoyed certain elements of the film, no doubt, but it could have been better.

Cooper packed on some pounds to portray Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was credited with 160 kills by military officials (although the real number is probably north of 200). Eastwood, going off the book written by Kyle and Jason Hall, paints a picture of the solider as a man who yearns to help people in every avenue of his life. It is what drives him to the Navy, where he joins the SEALs and blossoms as a sniper. In the meantime, he meets Taya, a headstrong young woman played by Sienna Miller in a sturdy performance. Taya and Chris fall in love, marry, and start a family right about the time he is called into active duty.

The film then falls into the conventional back and forth between Kyle at home and his four tours in Iraq. In Iraq, Kyle becomes a legend as a deadly assassin. "Men feel invincible when you're up there," a solider tells him. But when he returns home, he feels lost, ordinary, not like a legend. Eastwood doesn't drive home the isolation he feels at home quite as much as he should, instead he has Taya chastise hime for not talking enough. Taya tells where the film should show. I would have liked a few more scenes to open up the domestic segments. Instead, we return too quickly to the battlefield where the tension is too sporadic.

There are true moments of exhilaration when Kyle is leading his men into battle. There is a sandstorm near the end that is as well executed as anything of its kind, and a brutal shootout near the middle involving a child that I would rather not see again. But, as a whole, the sequences in Iraq are unremarkable. There is a glaring need for a stronger supporting cast around Cooper. Kyle's friends are forgettable as actors where they should have stronger more memorable personalities. The stakes do not feel as high as they should feel given the situations. Outside Cooper's performance as Kyle, there is not enough emotion driving the film.

The final few moments are strong, as Kyle leaves the military and eventually finds a place in the real world helping returning soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As most know by know (spoiler for anyone who doesn't), Kyle was killed by one of those very soldiers he was trying to help in February 2013. The most heart wrenching moments of the entire film are the last moments with Cooper as Kyle, and the subsequent credit sequence where we see the real memorial for Kyle stretching down miles of highway, filled on every side by supporters waving American flags.

Psychologically, American Sniper doesn't do the conflict in Chris Kyle justice in my opinion. Atleast, not on an even basis. The most fascinating element of Kyle's personality comes in the battle scenes, where his ego drives him back for more in order to hunt down and kill a sniper working for the Iraqis, and the moments in the end when he is adrift in the real world. But then again, what is real? To Kyle, reality may have been on the other side of the world.

B-

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings



EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS – Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, directed by Ridley Scott (150 min.)

There is an ill wind blowing in Exodus: Gods and Kings very early on, when John Turturro appears as Seti, father of Ramses    (Joel Edgerton). Now, I am aware of the controversy surrounding the whitewashing of a film set in the Mediterranean and focusing on Egyptian and Hebrew characters who would most certainly not be Caucasian, but that wasn’t my issue with Turturro in this role. My issue was, well, it’s John Turturro! He has no business playing dress up in Egyptian garb, supposedly being the leader of one of the most powerful kingdoms in World history. Turturro is a great actor, but in the right roles, and here he stuck out like a sore thumb.

Maybe I am getting sidetracked with the casting of Turturro, whose role is small in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic. But it is just the tip of the iceberg the film crashes into early and often. Exodus is a complete mess of a film, despite the best efforts of Christian Bale who plays the hero, Moses. The casting might be the least of its problems, as the screenplay and the flow of the film and just the overall look and feel is all wrong.

Let’s start with the script and work our way through the wreckage. The story is familiar to just about everyone, focusing on Moses and Ramses and an Old Testament God who brings a plague upon the Egyptian people and picks Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves to freedom through the Red Sea. This is a story set, here anyway, in 1300 B.C. And yet, this screenplay, apparently written by four adult human beings, reads like it takes place a month ago in California, not in ancient Egypt. The dialogue is one-hundred percent contemporary, and a complete distraction as such. I cannot believe four people collaborated to do absolutely no research regarding the rhythm, the speech patterns, or the vocabulary of an ancient civilization. This is just one of many obvious cases of studio interference, as they feared any sort of real language from 1300 B.C. as a hindrance to audiences and box office numbers.

Did I mention the film is a carbon copy of Scott’s far superior Gladiator?

Now, as I take a deep breath, let’s look at this cast. Whitewashed, yes, but any Egyptian or Mediterranean actor who was passed over should consider it a blessing in disguise. While Christian Bale once again shines, as he always does, and tries to save the whole endeavor, he cannot carry the weight of the entire film. Edgerton is fine as Ramses, I suppose, but is non threatening as antagonist. He does a lot fo walking around lighting things with his torch. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver plays his mother in the film, but she is on camera less than five minutes and has maybe two lines. Why hire Weaver and have her do absolutely nothing?

Exodus looks and feels completely packaged by Hollywood. It is glossy and homogenized to a point of being embarrassing. Very little dirt and grime exudes from the screen, and all of these actors (except Bale) look like they are playing around in costumes. I never once believed anything in the film, and never felt any connection to the actors. The consequences of the characters mean nothing.


Ridley Scott needs to sit down, take a deep breath, and really think about his next film. I have heard it is going to be an adaptation of the novel The Martian. In my opinion, he needs to work hard at this to make it something special, or the great films of his past will become harder and harder to remember.

D

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Foxcatcher



FOXCATCHER: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, directed by Bennett Miller (130 min.)

The introduction of John du Pont might make him seem like an eccentric Bond villain. At least it did to me. He lives in a mansion near historic battlegrounds in Pennsylvania, on hundreds of acres with prize-winning horses, his aging mother, and a collection of military equipment he purchases because he is a self-proclaimed “patriot.” He travels primarily via helicopter, and is the only son of America’s wealthiest family. However, John du Pont was a real man, and his story in Foxcatcher is a true story, which rids the film of any satire or fun that might come along with a Bond villain. Instead, Foxcatcher is permeated with uneasiness and discomfort, which hums below the surface of the events like the buzz of a broken stereo speaker. I was uncomfortable from the very beginning, and grew even more so as the film unfolded. It was undoubtedly the desired effect.

It is a story so bizarre and disturbing it could only be true. While du Pont eventually becomes the focal point of the film, we begin with the story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who won Gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) also won gold, but the trajectories of these brothers could not be more opposing. Where Mark is alone, introverted, lost, Dave is an outgoing personality with a wife and children who has become a wonderful wrestling coach. Mark has very little in his life; Dave has everything he needs.

Mark gets a phone call from Jack, a spokesman for John du Pont played by Anthony Michael Hall. Jack invites Mark to du Pont’s estate, Foxcatcher Farms, where we finally meet this strange and ultimately pitiful man. Steve Carell disappears into the role of John du Pont with short graying hair, a hawkish nose, and poor teeth. Du Pont wants Mark to lead a team of wrestlers who will compete in the World championships and the ’88 Olympics. He pays Mark a considerable amount of money to move to the du Pont estate and train on site with a team. Mark, who sees this as an opportunity to get out of his brother’s shadow, jumps at the chance.

Things are clearly not what they seem early on at the du Pont estate. John du Pont has no athletic ability and no knowledge of wrestling whatsoever; he simply wants to be given credit for assembling a championship wrestling team. He lives in crippling, emasculating psychological fear of his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who sees no value in wrestling. Before long, du Pont seems to lose real interest in being a coach as he gets Mark hooked on drugs. The story takes a strange and disturbing turn once Mark becomes a sort of servant to John, dying his hair blond and cutting John’s hair. The late-night “practice sessions” are equally as unsettling. There is a hint of sexual attraction, even obsession, on John’s end, though that is not ever truly explored.

Eventually, John throws enough money at Dave to get him to move his family out to Foxcatcher Farms and train the team. Dave immediately notices something is amiss, but tries to make the best of it because he is a good person and he is worried about his less-intelligent brother. Pay attention to the way Mark and Dave carry their bodies, a great indicator of their personalities. Mark plods along heavily like a gorilla, and Dave floats and bounces, his ankles and wrists turned in slightly to give him a childlike, generous posture.

As the story progresses, Mark becomes more withdrawn and less concerned with wrestling. Du Pont is destroying him systematically, and Dave steps in. Director Bennett Miller never intensifies the tension, because the subtleties in the three brilliant performances make all the tension arrive easily, and at the right moments, without enhancement.


Much has been made of Carell’s performance, as it should be. Carell creates an aura of discomfort and unease with his performance, showing what John du Pont is thinking without saying a thing. But let’s not get away from the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo as Mark and Dave. This is Channing Tatum’s best work to date, and Ruffalo is equally as compelling as Dave. I fully expect Carell to grab an Oscar nomination for his work and be the favorite going in, but I also hope Tatum is noticed for his supporting work. And while there may not be room for Ruffalo, in a perfect world he would get a supporting nod as well.

There is a murder, and du Pont is arrested and sent to prison where he died in 2010. As far as acting is concerned, Foxcatcher hits all the right notes with a trio of brilliant performances. But as an overall film, I’m not sure Foxcatcher completely works. Certain scenes end before they should, and Miller’s direction sometimes suffocates. The final scene doesn’t work at all for me, it feels tacked on and unnecessary. I’m not sure we needed a follow up to the character as his exit from the film was fitting in an earlier moment.


Foxcatcher is a thriller so strange it can only be true. It is an exercise in disturbing drama that effectively made my palms sweat throughout, despite the fact that the structural suffocation might hold the film back from being something great. See this film to celebrate these three great performances, but don’t expect to be feeling good walking out of the theater.

B

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Birdman



BIRDMAN: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianikis, Emma Stone, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu (110 min.)

Birdman is Michael Keaton at his absolute best, but it is nothing unexpected. I am not alone in this Michael Keaton fan club, a group of cinephiles and movie folks who have always respected Keaton’s acting abilities in spite of his poor film choices. Keaton has been the BMW engine in the body of a Pinto too many times in his acting career, making poor film choices to the point of growing obscure when he should be one of the more celebrated actors of his generation. But that is neither here nor there, because now Keaton has gotten a film to sink his teeth into, a showcase of his manic energy and passionate acting. Birdman is a triumph for Keaton, and a fascinating film to boot.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former superstar who made millions and spent millions playing Birdman, a Batman-esque superhero (life imitating art to an extent, though I don't believe Keaton is quite the mess Thompson is in his personal life). Now, working for ultimate respect as an actor, Thomson has taken on producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway stage production of a play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The production is a passion project for Thomson, but it has clearly transformed into an ego-driven albatross pushing him to the breaking point. All the while, Thomson is haunted by his superhero past, even fighting to block out the voice of Birdman who serves as the devil on his shoulder, constantly telling him this endeavor is a waste of time and Birdman 4 is the way to go.

The stage play feels doomed in every scene as the film uses some crafty camera tricks to make it feel like one continuous shot over a few days. Thomson’s lead actor is awful, his former drug-addicted daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, floats behind the stage as a source of constant angst for him, and the whole production is steadily running out of money and heading for disaster on opening night. Then, a freak accident – one of the many semi-supernatural occurrances in the film – sends his lead actor to the hospital.

Thomson’s attorney, Jake (a subdued Zach Galifianakis), brings in Mike, a notoriously difficult and eccentric stage actor played by Edward Norton, to take over the lead role. Mike is brilliant but impossible to handle, and immediately makes moves on Sam who isn’t quite as clean as she should be having just gotten out of rehab. The entire story focuses on the uphill battle Thomson must fight to get his dream project successfully to the stage.

Birdman is also written by Iñàrritu, among others, and the humor is razor sharp and crafted perfectly for Keaton’s strengths. The magic realism throughout is a charming addition to the film, and it fits the way the picture unravels into insanity. At times, Thomson flies into a rage in his room and seems to be using telepathic powers to throw things from one side to another. In an amusing later scene, we find out what is really happening. And as if the doomed production isn’t enough, Thomson seems to have no chance to win over the most important stage critic in Manhattan, who sees him as a joke and plans on destroying his play before seeing a single moment.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñàrritu steps out of his comfort zone with Birdman. His career has consisted of heavy dramas like Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams. He handles the humor and wit very well, and the gravity in his previous works feels effective in keeping the story serious enough to care about these characters. I felt myself rooting for Thompson and his production, even as it looks like a lost cause and Thompson finally reaches his breaking point and suffers a nervous breakdown hours before opening night.


Birdman is a wonderfully entertaining film, and it should earn Michael Keaton his first Oscar nomination. As Thomson, Keaton bounces maniacally from excitement to rage to desperation to resignation from scene to scene. Having seen the other frontrunners for the award this year, I would have to say Keaton deserves the win, which should make his cult following feel vindicated, and make Keaton gain the respect Riggan Thomson is so desperately searching for on Broadway.

A