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Tuesday
Feb032015

American Sniper (2014)

The Punishing War Zone

I'd wager that two thirds of the shit-shovelers criticizing American Sniper either haven't actually seen it or are predisposed to filter every scene through a grimy lens of faux-Progressive ideology. And to the patriots (armchair or otherwise) that created this January juggernaut--a seemingly endless moviegoing legion who've plopped down record-breaking amounts of cash--I hope you're sufficiently rattled and confused by Clint Eastwood's unflattering portrait of Chris Kyle, the Right Wing's Military Messiah.

If you have no idea what my political affiliation is based on that opening paragraph, I've done my job. By excoriating both sides of the "aisle", I hope to convey my absolute frustration and bewilderment at the trumped-up controversies surrounding this film. From the pre-release chatter alone, one would think that a quarter of American Sniper was literally Bradley Cooper waving a flag while working out to 9/11-jumper footage, with the balance taking place in a first-person-shooter dimension marked by high-scores, level-ups, and sand.

As with all matters political and artistic, the truth lies somewhere in between and is accessible only by those willing to tune everything else out and see for themselves.

You don't need to have read Kyle's autobiography to appreciate what Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall achieve with their movie. In fact, it's probably better that you go in cold (I did). The first half-hour of American Sniper really is as bad as everyone says: a clichéd and hagiographic depiction of the beer-swilling, punch-happy good ol' boy who loves 'Murica, women, and horses. It even shares the opening structure as another recently criticized war movie, Unbroken (complete with a tense war scene in which our hero flashes back to the church-going-childhood misadventures that started it all).

After the growing-up montage, Eastwood reveals Cooper-as-Kyle in classic Hollywood-cowboy form. The actor proudly lifts his head from beneath a downturned brim as he prepares for the rodeo. He's clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and beaming--a sharp contrast to the grizzled sharpshooter from the film's opening. Though it happens several minutes into the movie, the hat intro feels like our first moment with the protagonist, as if Eastwood and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach gave their movie a pre-release Tarantino shuffle.

I had fun watching this Kyle on screen. In American Hustle, Cooper shed his leading-man looks to play a sleazy undercover fed. Here, he accentuates his chiseled beefiness while draining proof of higher-level functions from his eyes and mouth. That's not to say he's a dummy; rather a "man's man" who's all heart, patriotism, and survival instinct. The effect is a cheesy-as-hell opening half-hour that could have been a cut scene from Team America: World Police--headlined by an equally sawdust-filled, honor-bound hulk.

Of course, 9/11 changes everything. I must note that the film makes clear that Kyle had given up the rodeo and joined the Navy SEALs before that day (he was compelled to enlist a couple years earlier, after seeing another terrorist attack on television). He'd also settled down with Taya (Sienna Miller), and begun proving himself a fine sniper in training exercises--though he'd never had a human being in his sights.

There's been much hand-wringing over the film's apparent linking of 9/11 to our invasion of Iraq. One need only do a Google search (or simply remember) to find that the pretense for America's invasion of that country was 9/11. Eastwood has been widely criticized for not including Afghanistan, false-WMD stories, Powell's UN testimony, mass protests, or any of the other pre-war noise that would have indicated our impending quagmire. I submit that it's not Eastwood's responsibility to do so in putting together a film about a military man following the orders set by his commanding officers. If anything, the most offensive part of the 9/11 scene involves Chris and Taya watching the planes hit, and the towers falling less than a minute later; not even the slickest editing can make that plausible or historically accurate. Again, funny.

The film shifts gears when Kyle and his SEAL Team are deployed to Iraq. Kyle's first kill involves a mother-and-son suicide team whom he takes out as they approach a Marine convoy. It's a tough moment for Kyle, who doesn't regret the decision--just the fact that his target was not one he'd expected to contend with. His marksmanship earns acclaim all over the theatre of war, and we follow Kyle as he watches over house raids and street patrols, taking out insurgents with an eerie, dead-eyed precision.

We see the effects of his effectiveness almost immediately. The easy smile fades, the frustration at "the enemy" grows, and his relationship with Taya strains. Kyle returns to the Middle East for three more tours before retiring, fathering two kids in between. His compulsion to get back on the battle field comes across not as a blood-thirsty, racist rage, but as genuine concern for troops returning to that nightmare, and for newcomers who have no idea what they're about to face. Cooper conveys this duality brilliantly, through a stoic mask of manhood. Through the course of the film, we see subtle cracks in his idealism and faith in his cause. As friends die and the missions multiply, with more and more "bad guys" popping up in place of old ones, he begins to consider the possibility that something is amiss on a grander scale.

The film's climax centers on a rooftop rescue precipitated by Kyle's determination to take out a sniper (Sammy Sheik) who's dogged him for years. As hundreds of insurgents storm the building in which Kyle and company have sought refuge, a fast-approaching sandstorm kills visibility and the possibility of the rescue transport hitting its mark. Blinded and overrun by ant-like swarms of killers he'll never be able to stamp out, Kyle has a breakthrough and realizes it's time to go home and stay home. In these tense minutes, both the characters and the audience are lost in an almost literal fog of war. The fame of being "the deadliest sniper in US military history" and having his own patrol unit (whose emblem is The Punisher's jagged-jawed skull icon) is no longer a glamorous proposition for anyone (if it ever was, really), and we want to get the hell out of Dodge just as much as Kyle does.

In a way, that Punisher logo is the key to the movie: a man, driven to revenge against mobsters who killed his family, spends the rest of his life murdering "evildoers" indiscriminately--knowing, ultimately that the crusade is futile, but being unable (or unwilling) to do the heavy lifting of dealing with his rage in ways that will create less enemies. Eastwood and Hall's version of Kyle had a revelation (or at least the beginnings of one), while America at large, it's worth noting, has still not learned this lesson.

By cutting out the last few hours of Kyle's life, American Sniper ends on the same shaky footing with which it began. Sure, depicting the circumstances under which he died might have been ghoulish, but there must have been a better alternative than a sloooooow-motion shot of Taya closing a door, followed by a post-script and memorial archive footage. In short, it's back to the flag-waiving rah-rah nonsense--which we'd collectively cut through in the previous hour-and-a-half. I get it, but I don't accept it.

I also don't accept any criticism of Eastwood's film that centers on his personal political leanings. Yeah, he talked to an empty chair at the RNC a few years ago. Sure, he's taken Conservative positions in public before and made movies about gun-toting vigilantes. But when Kathryn Bigelow's film The Hurt Locker came out in 2008, it received near-unanimous praise as a similarly context-free depiction of a soldier grappling with the horrors of war, post-traumatic stress, and an addiction to the battlefield. Jeremy Renner played a similarly impenetrable hero who was, frankly, less likeable than Cooper's take on Chris Kyle. So, where was the outrage then?

American Sniper is a technical and artistic triumph, anchored by Cooper's deceptively nuanced performance. The screenplay and editing choices are undercooked at the edges (and I'm still pissed that the notoriously distracting Fake Baby ruined two scenes that should have been the film's emotional crux), but they add to the film's compelling weirdness. None of us can see inside Eastwood's head, or could have known Kyle's heart. But in presenting this fictitious account of real people and events, they guy who made Dirty Harry an icon examines our cultural obsession with starting and supporting wars that we don't have to look at every day.

As a species, we've moved from hand-to-hand combat to close-range weaponry to snipers to bombs to drones. We get further and further away from seeing those we disagree with as people capable of reason and negotiation; this distance makes it easier to collectively countenance the idea of "collateral damage". Perhaps the genie is good and well out of the bottle, but it's foolish to pretend that condemning people like Chris Kyle for doing what he was trained to do (protect his teammates during missions established by folks whose job it is to know better) is helpful. American Sniper is propaganda only to those willing to be propagandized, and a one-dimensional cartoon only to those who pick at its flaws without considering the work as a whole. If we really want to win the war of ideas and evolve together, we must stop sniping at each other over people's opinions of art that we're too uncomfortable with or too biased against exploring ourselves.

Wednesday
Jan282015

Trainspotting (1996)

The Grim Seduction of Self-Destruction

Trainspotting changed my life. Twice. On a mid-summer day in 1996, I went to see "this crazy Scottish drug movie" with a friend who kept me in the know regarding certifiably cool stuff. We hadn't been seated long before Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" cut the darkness, pounding out a hot-pursuit rhythm in time with Ewan McGregor's spotted, angry face. His low-key, lyrical tirade of pro-drug/anti-establishment philosophy narrated Danny Boyle's colorful character-intro montage, and I was hooked.

Within twenty-four hours of leaving the theatre, I'd shaved my head. I got the Doc Martens a week later, and adopted the world's most offensively inept Scottish accent somewhere in between. Even at nineteen, I knew that a spiral of heroin, disease, and betrayal wasn't for me--but I reveled in the doomed muck of charismatic low-lives Renton (McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) just the same. 

In their practically plot-free adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge fill every frame with colorful characters who yank us into a lucid reality with ill-defined walls. Renton's quest to retrieve opium suppositories from a blackened, backed-up toilet morphs into a tranquil deep-sea dive. Later, during cold-turkey confinement imposed by his parents, our narrator encounters a ghoulish, cooing dead baby and glimpses the AIDS-infected non-future of a straight-edge friend he'd reluctantly turned onto drugs.

Nearly twenty years on, the movie still resonates, still pulses with audacity--in both subject matter and in defiant, joyous zeal. A joyous drug movie? Absolutely. Boyle and company make circling the drain of wasted potential an alluring prospect, in keeping with the novel's sincere yet exploitive journey to the heart of disillusioned twentysomethings. Trainspotting's heroes and villains are one and the same, developmentally arrested precursors to the world-weary zombies we see on morning commutes or in the mirror--save for the illegality of their unrelenting addictions. Hodge reinforces Welsh's themes of ubiquitous chemical distraction: the tingling allure of sex; the therapeutic rush of good booze, bad food, and worse television; the adrenaline surge of a bar fight. In the film, as in real life, some conquer these diversions; some are conquered by them; others win minor victories, later succumbing to substitute vices.

Trainspotting changed me a second time a few weeks later, when I read Welsh's novel. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I struggled with the first chapter, off and on, for about three months. These aren't long chapters, either. But they're written in a poetic Scots patois so dense that the publisher, helpfully, included a glossary at the back of the book. I wanted so badly to access the author's wider world, but getting into a rhythm with all the "huvnae's", "wisnae's", and "likesay's" was almost impossible.

Until one day, when it wasn't.

I don't recall when or why the breakthrough happened, but I found a grip and boarded Welsh's wavelength. From then on, every other book, magazine article, and newspaper story seemed dull and unreadable to me--an affliction that continues to this day.* I plowed through the novel's three-hundred-and-forty-eight pages with the glee and ease of a painter finally getting the hang of brush-stroke variation.

The downside to enlightenment is, of course, revisiting pre-enlightenment delights. Subsequent viewings of Trainspotting felt incomplete--natural, since it's missing about a third of the novel's characters. That's not a slight against Boyle or Hodge: to fully capture the emotional and relational complexity of Welsh's skeevy Edinburgh would require at least three hours, and probably an HBO miniseries for maximum effect. Just as Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is like the director's cut of The Coen Brothers' film adaptation, so, too, is Welsh's novel a rich, expanded-universe treasure awaiting discovery by those who think Boyle's movie is tops.

It is tops, by the way, a visually and musically charged stab at capturing the deceptive glamour of drug culture. When Renton overdoses on smack half-way through the picture, he collapses onto a rug--then into the rug, as Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" kicks in. We follow his limp body from dealer Johnny Swan's (Peter Mullan) flat into a taxi and then to a hospital emergency room. Boyle frames much of this montage in a velvety vertical letterboxing, placing us squarely in the detached, helpless mind of a kid falling into his grave. Trainspotting is full of these indelible moments,** which is quite a feat for a movie that barely crosses the ninety-minute mark.

To this day, I've never done hard drugs (or soft drugs, whatever those are). I'm not saying Trainspotting had a PSA effect on my nerve, but it opened up my mind to horrors and happiness I'd never known existed. Boyle and Welsh altered my brain chemistry, setting off chain reactions of possibility and creativity that persist even as I climb the weary, settled-down steps towards middle-age. There are negative side effects, too: occasionally, I'll slip into that horrible accent. In darker moments, Ewan McGregor's line, "The truth is that I'm a bad person", plays on a loop over whatever self-doubt diatribes my inner monologue decides to spin.

But that's the mark of great art, isn't it? Better or worse, we're all one hit away from becoming lifetime fiends. 

*No matter how gripping the content, I'm always a bit disappointed when I see read dialogue that begins with quotations, rather than an em dash.

**The finale, set to Underworld's "Born Slippy", is one of my favorite movie endings.

Friday
Jan232015

Vice (2015)

Groundhog Date

Someone, somewhere, not only greenlit Vice--a perhaps unintentional throwback to early-nineties direct-to-VHS rentals--but infused it with enough money to bring in Bruce Willis for a few hours of shooting, and set it loose on the world. Everything about Brian A. Miller's would-be techno thriller is tired--from the innumerable chase scenes, to the bait-and-switch premise, to Wilis himself, who uses his character's cold-hearted, calculating nature as an excuse to never leave the drab Villain's Office set. He winces from beneath the skin-tight regret-mask of a hard-core slot player who's just ceded their "lucky machine" to a bathroom-break interloper.

Screenwriters Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore at least have an interesting premise going for them, birthed from smashing together three very familiar genre plots. In the not-too-distant future, an evil tech mogul named Julian (Willis) creates Vice, a luxury compound where people pay to live out their fantasies--which, of course, include raping, torturing, and killing innocents. Here's the rub: the victims look like flesh-and-blood L.A. types, but are really androids that get re-formed and re-set after each nightly round of horrors.

One of these comely bots, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), becomes self-aware and--unlike your humble reviewer--escapes Vice unscathed. She teams with the guy who programmed her (Bryan Greenberg) and, later, with a cop-on-the-edge* who wants to bring down Julian at any cost.

Little of that summary was not in the trailer, which made Vice look like Hostel-meets-Groundhog Day-meets-I, Robot. I assumed, maybe like you, that the filmmakers would step beyond the water's edge of their setup. Instead, we're deluged with the boring parts of every cheap, low-sights actioner whose posters invariably feature a blurry character running at a slight angle, holding a gun. Even the premise turns out to be as artificial as its heroine's easily wiped CPU: Miller and company explore Vice's skeevy morality for all of ten minutes, before making Kelly's predicament interchangeable with that of any other on-the-lam thriller.

I also can't countenance the film's ugliness regarding the treatment of women. No soapboxing here, just a very uneasy feeling every time a leering goon slaps around and/or verbally assaults Kelly or one of her ilk. Sure, this brutality is meant to show what kind of scum our protagonist is up against, but Miller lacks the deft step required to walk the line between motivation and exploitation. Had the rest of the film not been so bland, I might have regarded these nastier bits with less contempt. As it stands, Vice's undercurrent of misogyny serves only as an easy pulse-quickener in an otherwise somnambular journey.

Which brings me back to Willis: Does he have a tax problem I'm unaware of? Between this and the first two Expendables films (especially the second), I'm beginning to wonder if there's a reason he's taking on nothing parts with hefty paydays--beyond the fact that certain moneyed interests allow him to do so. Thomas Jane also phones in his part, but at least he gets outside--and revels in his character's nifty match-chewing habit. Willis glares, speechifies, and barks orders to a henchman (Jonathon Schaech). Even the climactic showdown between Julian and Kelly takes place in his office.

Someone, somewhere, someday, will no doubt pick up where Vice's potential left off, and turn in a film worth watching. For now, we're left with a movie that exhibits mankind's saddest, most disgusting, and detrimental trait: sloth.

*Thomas Jane, looking more like a man-out-of-time Aragorn than ever.

Saturday
Jan172015

Still Alice (2014)

The Memory Hole

Still Alice is not a good movie. The technical aspects are top-notch: performances, direction, score, wardrobe; it's all there, and it's all great. But an Alzheimer's Disease movie needs to make us care that it somehow clawed its way up from the Lifetime Network's butter-lit valleys, and this flat, sappy effort by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland doesn't cut it.

Let's get this out of the way: I'm not mocking people with Alzheimer's, or downplaying the life-altering impact of their condition--any more than Radio, I Am Sam, or The Other Sister deliberately mocked the mentally challenged. Some well-intentioned movies simply land with a thud of inauthenticity. It's our duty as art lovers to recognize and exorcise the bad stuff at every turn. 

Julianne Moore plays linguistics professor Alice Howland, who lives in New York with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), a doctor. The couple are recent empty-nesters: their youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), just started college in L.A. (which is code for "secretly dropping out to pursue acting"); eldest Anna (Kate Bosworth) is trying desperately to have a child with her husband; I can't remember what middle-child Tom (Hunter Parrish) does for a living.

In the midst of her over-scheduled life, Alice begins experiencing memory lapses. Words vanish from her mind during a lecture; she gets lost while jogging on campus. A doctor (Stephen Kunken) gives her a series of memory tests to help diagnose the issue. Turns out she's got an unusually aggressive form of Alzheimer's--and it's genetic.

I needn't go further. If you want to know what happens next, just ask yourself how this plot would play out on TV. Not in a multiplex, where you ostensibly pay for a singular, premium-entertainment experience; I'm talking about at home, surfing an ocean of content so vast and statistically generic it might as well be free. Think about that movie, the one where life stops for everyone in the protagonist's circle so that she can have Alzheimer's.

That was a classist remark, and I stand by it. There's zero conflict in Still Alice, aside from the physical effects of the disease itself. Early on, Glatzer and Westmoreland imbue their adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel with the dawning horror of perpetual, random forgetfulness. But as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that everything will be relatively okay for the Howlands. For most people, cutting a two-income household down to one is devastating; for the Howlands it means possibly having to make Lydia pay for school on her own (i.e. not subsidize the theatre company she's joined). John's sudden out-of-state job offer from Johns Hopkins is a three-minute crisis that's resolved by hiring home-care staff and moving Lydia back into the house.

I'm not suggesting that extreme health challenges are less scary for wealthy people, but how much more interesting would Still Alice have been had the Howlands lost their health insurance, or both jobs, or not had a large, eerily available family to support them? The film's single moment of tension involves a computer file that Alice set up for herself prior to dementia; by the time Glatzer and Westmoreland get around to paying it off, we already know it's not that kind of movie (tiptoeing around a real spoiler here).

It also doesn't help that we don't get to know Alice before the disease sets in. We're told of her accomplishments, and she's clearly an intelligent, hyper-driven person. But she also comes across as someone who spells  "introspection" better than she practices it. I was never allowed to feel the tragic weight of a real personality being slowly devoured by nothingness. Intimacy. Connection. These are what make us cry when a friend gets hit by a bus, and reflexively shake our heads when it happens to a stranger on the news.

Julianne Moore has received a lot of praise for her portrayal of Alice; this makes me happy, since she's one of my favorite actors. But not even a powerhouse with God-given gifts of subtlety can overcome a lousy, quarter-drawn character, and it's a miracle that Moore makes Alice compelling in spurts. The contrast between pre-Alzheimer's Alice and Alzheimer's Alice is cosmetically drastic and suitably assisted by ambience on the part of the filmmakers--but I can picture a dozen other greats turning in the same capable, surprise-free performance.

I haven't read Genova's book, and I can't speak to her intentions or those of Glatzer and Westmoreland. Perhaps they made Still Alice as a sincere, artistic response to a personal brush with Alzheimer's. But the film feels easy--calculated on a cellular level to grip audience members in patellar recognition instead of genuine emotional response. We will never be rid of moviegoers who bawl at the mere mention of disease, cancer, true love, dead pets, whatever. But my heart doesn't sit in the cheap seats, and filmmakers still have to try to make me cry.

Friday
Jan162015

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Corleone 2.0

Though set in the early 1980s, J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a fine, new-millennium gangster drama. At its center is a home-heating-oil entrepreneur named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who finds himself surrounded by corruption. He's targeted by everyone from the District Attorney (David Oyelowo), to a cadre of competitors, to a mysterious band of armed robbers who keep highjacking his trucks during New York City's most violent year on record. Though this may sound like another tired blood-and-honor riff on The Godfather, writer/director Chandor presents us with a sort of alternate-universe take on Michael Corleone--one whose aversion getting his hands dirty ensures a lifetime of hardship in a world that requires it.

More on that Corleone comparison: With his sunken, soulful eyes; tall, slick, black hair; and an intensity meter that ratchets from "Philosophical Calm" to "Betrayed Outrage" on a dime, Isaac at times resembles a CGI stand-in for early-70s Al Pacino. He's terrific here as a charismatic, sympathetic character whose moral code is as complicated as it is absolute. When pressed by the DA to admit that his business may not be on the level, Morales counters with legalese about complying with industry standards and practices. It's an artfully filtered evasion: Morales can't guarantee that every single aspect of his growing empire is legit, but he's also not the kind of leader who would countenance sabotaging competitors.

We quickly understand that Morales has constructed a sturdy fortress of plausible deniability within his own mind. He trusts his attorney (Albert Brooks) when he says that there's A) no merit to the DA's case and B) the 30-day land contract he's just signed for a 10,000-gallon-capacity shipping port will go through without a hitch. He trusts his wife (Jessica Chastain), the tough-as-nails daughter of a local crime legend, when she says she'll let Morales handle his business without getting her family involved. He trusts that his two biggest rivals will quit causing trouble for everyone, and thus get the law off everyone's backs.

Day after day, this month-long saga (A Most Violent Year begins and ends with the land contract) pushes Morales harder against a wall he helped build through his misplaced faith in the storybook American Dream. Chandor and Isaac build to an emotional climax that a lesser film would have telegraphed in the trailer. Abel Morales is unlike any character I've seen, a principled warrior who stands up to the universe and is undeterred by his subsequent pummeling. I need to revisit the movie, I think, to determine whether or not Morales winds up being insanely lucky, or if he's simply rewarded for surviving a gauntlet of fools, cowards, and back-stabbers.

Sorry if that was a spoiler. If you go into A Most Violent Year expecting, or even hoping for, the ninetieth coming of Goodfellas, nothing I write will disappoint you any more than you are already likely to be during the movie. That's not a knock on Goodfellas, or on you; A Most Violent Year just isn't a showy picture full of gruesome deaths, quotable mobster-isms, or colorful Pesci-types. This is a serious character study that questions what it means to be a "man", a provider, and a leader.

Using our collective knowledge of crime pictures against us, Chandor amps up the dread in very familiar key scenes: the big-boss sit-down, the carjacking, the wilderness-set captive hand-off. The intensity of these moments is just as pulse-quickening as the climactic car chase (and ensuing foot chase). Working in concert with editor Ron Patane, composer Alex Ebert, and cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor casts a vision of a prosperous city on the verge of hemorrhaging its secrets--one in which a well-to-do-looking businessman's quiet drive home can end up as a bloody fight with hired scum.

I have one nit to pick with the film, and it's so tied to the greater theme that I'm usure of how to resolve my complaint. Elyes Gabel does some really great work as Julian, one of Morales' drivers. Unfortunately, Chandor's screenplay transforms him from catalyst to Maguffin by placing him in about three too many scenes. I understand this, from a story-structure and pacing perspective, but his final appearance in the film is far too great a coincidence to let stand without comment. It's a hell of an exit, and Julian's exchange with Morales underscores just how high a price one can pay for righteousness. But I had to walk back the character's last few scenes to figure out how it made sense for him to wind up where he did. The math works out, but it's a stretch.

Quibble aside, I highly recommend A Most Violent Year. It's a different breed of crime drama, one in which avoiding crime is of paramount concern to the main character. Fueled by bold ideas and strong performances, this is two hours of morally complex, stomach-turning tension that live up to its title in ways I didn't expect.

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