A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

Let’s face it Clint Eastwood hasn’t directed a great film in a decade. His last really good film was his 2004 masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” which was an absolutely stunning achievement garnering Academy Award nominations in almost every category, including a well deserving Best Actress win for Hilary Swank. This is an especially important thing to highlight because Eastwood’s creative output (a film every other, sometimes twice a year) has been at an all time high during these past 10 years. His back to back War films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) both were failures, both from a cinematic stand point and in terms of box office revenue, and little to next to nobody I know saw either one of them. Then came maybe his best yet still underwhelming year in 2008 with the release of both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino”. Both semi worthwhile efforts despite having their fair share of flaws. 2009 brought us his first collaboration with Matt Damon, the sports drama “Invictus”, an Eastwood effort that I skipped as it didn’t pique my interest in the slightest, that and I’m not particularly a fan of films that cast Damon in the lead role. 2010’s “Hereafter” I too skipped as it was a poorly reviewed film that featured another collaboration between Eastwood and Damon once again in the lead role. The year after he released the J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) featuring a stand out Leonardo DiCaprio performance in what was an otherwise long, tedious, and boring film. Enter 2014 and Eastwood planned to release another 2 films – the first based on a book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys” which featured no well-known actors and got mediocre to below average reviews, and basically flew under the radar of just about everyone I know (most people I talk to didn’t even know it was an Eastwood film). This being his latest film, which looked like it had some serious promise after revealing one of the better looking and well constructed trailers I had seen all year. That and the “surprise” Oscar nominations this past Thursday morning recognizing it for both Best Picture and star Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor categories quickly catapulted it from a “I’ll probably see that movie once it comes out in the theater” to a “how quickly can I get to the theater to see it” status. I then bought my advance tickets the night of the announcements, expecting the crowds to look like something similar to that of the newest “Hunger Games” release. All of that aside, I can’t say I had the highest of expectations for it, as it looked like it had the workings to either be a great film, or yet another Eastwood disappointment.

The film introduces us its real life based on a true story character Chris Kyle. A Texas man who spends most of his time at the bull races trying his best to make a living as a cowboy. His then current relationship quickly dissolving and he begins feeling unfulfilled as to where his life is heading. Like most people, he doesn’t seem content on just “being”, and strives to look for something more out of life and for himself (a lesson he is taught at an early age by his father in a flashback dinner scene with both him and his younger brother). Chris decides at a rather late age of thirty to enter the Navy, and in a montage showing him and other recruits going through basic training, it seems like he is tailor-made to be suited for his new calling as he is everything the military represents – he’s a man of high moral value that stands for loyalty, discipline, and dedication to the cause. Not to mention he’s an expert marksman. During one weekend he meets a young woman (played by the increasingly impressive Sienna Miller, who played another high-profile role this past year in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as Mark Ruffalo’s wife). They seem like a perfect fit and soon after decide to get married (in one of the first of many great scenes that I thought clearly exemplified a soldier’s loyalty to their cause over that of their own family – a major theme and focus of the story). Chris and his new wife quickly get accustomed to their newly married, domesticated lifestyle, only to have Chris get deployed for his first of four tours. The film then quickly transports us to the Middle East, where we see Chris as a Navy Seal sniper picking away at militants in combat. The camera looking up the barrel of his gun and square into his eyes as he picks off his targets right and left. Chris becomes an almost martyr-like hero to his peers as he continues to save life after life with his expert skills as a sniper. But at what cost will all of this have on Chris’s psyche and even more importantly, will it have on his increasingly distant wife and children, who seem to be deeply affected by Chris’ absence as he goes back and forth between tours in the Middle East and being back stateside with his family.

This is a landmark achievement between director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and it turned out to being something much more than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise. There are many things I’d like to point out about this film that I liked, but I’ll try to keep it to just the essentials. First off, it’s an incredible character study with Cooper in his career best performance to date. I thought he was great in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and good in “American Hustle” (2013) (but didn’t think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination). But this film puts him on a new platform as an actor. His restrained, subdued, yet expressive performance is nothing short of amazing. He also put on about 40 pounds of muscle (which looked to be about double that) to play the role, and is almost unrecognizable as his normal baby face appearance is transformed into someone much more tough and rugged. Which is a true testament to Cooper as an actor as you can tell he must have totally immersed himself into the role. Unlike Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”, despite the transformative physical appearance, there is an undeniable sense of serious acting chops underlying his performance from within. The second thing I wanted to point out is that it feels nothing like a standard Clint Eastwood film, who tends to follow a lot of stereotypical Hollywood movie tropes with his usual lyrical narrative approach to storytelling. There is very little here that resembles that. Though a couple of minor criticisms I had of the piece is that some of the scenes at home felt melodramatic and laid the sentiment on a bit too thick. That and I thought they downplayed the relationship between Chris and his younger brother. Outside of that though I thought it was an incredibly confidently directed and assuredly shot piece of filmmaking, and is both compelling and captivating from start to finish. Which is remarkable given that Eastwood is in his later years and we may only get another film or two out of him until he retires from moviemaking all together. The scenes of Chris during his tours of duty are visceral, gripping, taut, and utterly intense. One could only imagine the difficulty of this shoot as the “sniper scenes” were filmed brilliantly giving the viewer fly on the wall access to the proceedings. Lastly, and what surprised me most, was how it defied my expectations, particularly when it came to how Chris’ heroism is portrayed. I thought at the hands of Eastwood it could have had some serious potential to fall into flag waving American propaganda territory. Had it of been depicted in this way which I honestly thought it might I would have most likely liked it a lot less than I did. But there was nothing even remotely glorifying the Navy Seals and/or military, as many of them including Chris, are faced with difficult ethical and moral decisions in scenes both inside and outside of war that I thought were presented rather deftly by Eastwood and the rest of his writing team. The last thing I thought to be rather profound, that in a fully packed sold out theater, not one person clapped when the house lights came on and the credits rolled. Every person piled out and exited the theater one by one like zombies and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I think they like me, were so moved by the experience of what they had just seen, that they had a hard time coming up with much of anything to say. Which is why you’ll always hear me encouraging people to see movies at the theater or cinema, as it truly is one of the few last remaining communions we have. A place where a group of people can have a collectively shared, present moment experience. And this was another perfect example of that. Ladies and gentleman, even at the tender ripe young age of 84, Clint Eastwood is back.

[B+]

Review: ‘Begin Again’ 11.5.14

Ireland born director John Carney hit the scene in the mid-aughts with his breakthrough film “Once” (2006). A movie that at the time of its release captivated and moved audiences with its depiction of 2 Dublin lover/musicians that was both equal parts sweet, touching, and moving. It garnered a Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and it’s 2 leads went on to become successful internationally well-known touring musicians. A feat that doesn’t really happen but every so often in that its 2 lead central characters went on to become something bigger than their screen selves could have ever possibly imagined in their wildest dreams. It’s really stuff that miracles are made of, especially considering that it was an independent film made on a small budget. Enter 2013 after a 6 year hiatus and Carney is back once again, but instead of giving us another story about more street musicians living in Europe he takes what at first glimpse appeared, at least to me, to be a familiar formula from his previous film except for that fact that this time taking place in America using mostly a bigger cast of American friendly and familiar faces, and takes another stab at the feel good music drama formula.

“Begin Again” opens with introducing us to our first of our 2 main leads – a down on his luck, poor excuse for a father, barely holding on music producer played by the always superb Mark Ruffalo (who in thinking about is right up there with my slew of favorite actors). He is an alcoholic and as the story slowly stars to unfold, we begin to see how his old days of success and increased drinking has had on his music producing partner (played by Mos Def), his daughter (“True Grit”‘s young and obviously very talented Hailee Steinfeld), and ex-wife (the always puts a smile on my face Catherine Keener). Both his personal, family, and professional life seem to be in serious jeopardy. That is until he meets a recently split from her famous musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and also vulnerable, down on her luck musician/muse character Keira Knightley. After some convincing her that he is her meal ticket to stardom. Knightley seems to equally need Ruffalo’s character as does her he in order for them to try and start both their lives over again.

I found myself really enjoying this film despite its somewhat predictable elements that we more or less have come to expect from a genre piece of its kind. The performances are all well written and acted, particularly that of Ruffalo’s character which I found to be an almost pseudo character study. He once again shines here as he did with his brave turn as an AIDS activist earlier this year in HBO’s “The Normal Heart”. Ruffalo always seems to somehow take a decent script and character and make it better because of his proficiency as an actor. The supporting turns by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Stenfield feel authentic and well cast. Also, Keira Knightley, who I can’t say I’m particularly fond of as an actress in a lead role does a pretty effective and convincing job here. And the 2 leads present a pretty believable on-screen duo. What felt slightly off to me here to go back to the predictability factor that I touched on earlier, was the clichéd storyline that propels us into an idea that the two leads come up with in hopes to achieve success. It felt slightly preposterous but because of my engagement in the story and having a keen sense of the genre of which it falls into, I found myself willing to suspend its plausibility factor. Lastly, and what I found to be the strongest element of the film, was Carney’s obvious knack of understanding the spellbinding power that music has on us all as human beings. The way in which music drives all of the characters portrayed, particularly of Knightley and the rag-tag group of street performers she’s set up with, has a certain energy and sense of inspiration that I thought was a strong point in a movie that is essentially an exploration of the power of music and how it can be a universally loved art form that has the potential to bring us joy in our lives when sometimes we can feel void of true feelings and inspire us to feel joyous, celebratory, and give us the power to feel like nothing else bad in the world actually exists. I thought at the core it captured that component quite well. Which is another credit to Carney and the way in which he seemingly understands this “universality of music” concept and applies it to his script and characters. Despite a couple of minor flaws I found this to be a mostly entertaining musical thrill ride. One that I can see both music lovers and aficionado’s alike enjoying as well as those looking for just a feel good musically themed drama with a fair amount of heart, spirit, and inspiration at the core of its story.

[B]

Review: ‘The Normal Heart’ 9.9.14

Another gem in a string of exemplary made for TV films by HBO. Which, I personally think are just as good as any feature films that get a theatrical release and in some cases, sometimes better (last year’s “Behind The Candelabra” being one that comes to mind). This piqued my interest after having seen it rack up Emmy nominations and/or wins in almost every category – Outstanding Television Movie (won), 1 Best Actor nomination, 4 Supporting Actor nominations, 1 Supporting Actress nomination, and also nominations for Directing, Writing, and Cinematography. So at the very least I knew I was getting myself into something that was going to be worthwhile. That, and I am really passionate about the subject matter, which is the HIV/AIDS virus that sprung up in the early 1980’s and became one of the worst health crises in the history of America. I am particularly interested in why the United States government chose to neglect treating millions of unhealthy patients, because they thought them to be “sick” (figuratively speaking that is). How an atrocity of this proportion could have possibly occured has always and will continue to always fascinate me. As depressing as the topic may be.

This focused on the beginning years of the epidemic. Which essentially took place between 1981-1985, when the HIV virus had just started to be detected and people started to become aware of a disease that would ultimately wind up killing millions of lives. Shown through the eyes of its central character, played by Mark Ruffalo (in yet another knockout performance), a gay writer, who recognizes early on that his life’s calling is in AIDS awareness and activism. He eventually becomes the Co-Founder of an organization called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We are shown the relationship between him and his brother, played by Alfred Molina (one of the strongest dynamics in the film), who has never agreed with his brother’s lifestyle which pulls them further and further apart especially as his brother gets deeper and deeper and more passionate about the cause. Another key player is one of the pioneering doctors in AIDS research, a stand out performance by Julia Roberts (I haven’t seen her in anything this good since 2000’s “Erin Brokovich”), who at a very young age contracted Polio, and is bound to a wheelchair and who joins the fight with Ruffalo. Other relationships that are particularly strong outside of the aforementioned 2 are that of Ruffalo and his lover, who contracts the disease and perpetuates Ruffalo’s fight to find funding for the research needed. That as well as the relationships between himself and the other members of the organization, whose political ideals tend to shift over the course of the film.

I felt like this was a fascinating and well researched glimpse into the AIDS/HIV epidemic and what the early years of the disease looked like through the eyes of its central character. Someone who put his entire life into the cause and did everything he could possibly do that was within his capacity to try and bring AIDS awareness to the people. The ensemble cast were all fanstasic, hence the amount of Emmy nominations it received. Even if it did tend to fall a bit on the over melodramatic side at times (after all, it’s cable programming we’re talking about here). But the story was filled with so much heart, so much energy, and so much passion for its subjects, that I was able to overlook that one criticism. This is one, if you didn’t get a chance to catch it when it first premiered, or are like me and don’t have HBO, that I would encourage you to check out. Especially if you have even the slightest bit of interest in the source material.

Grade: B/B+