Archive for January, 2015

American Sniper: Not Enough Bang—Movie

January 20, 2015

Bradley Cooper gives a bravura performance as Chris Kyle, the hero of “American Sniper.” Unfortunately, as presented on-screen, the film’s execution doesn’t measure up to the real person, and over the course of more than two hours, becomes too repetitive. Directed by Clint Eastwood with screenplay by Jason Hall, based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelice, the film delves into Kyle’s childhood, his rodeo career, enlistment into the military, marriage and fatherhood, and most importantly, his years as a Navy SEAL and four tours of duty in Iraq.

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“American Sniper” opens in Iraq with Chris zeroing in on a young target in his sights. The film then powerfully jumps back in time to his home in Texas and a hunting lesson with a young Chris (Cole Konis) and his father, Wayne (Ben Reed). We see that even at a young age, Chris is an excellent shot. Chris’ father is a stereotypical Texas good-old boy, who seems to be all about God, country and hunting. Anything less than “manning up” is unacceptable to him. Younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine), is weaker than Chris and seemingly in Chris’ shadow for the rest of his life. The boys grow up and become bronco rodeo riders. Although successful, Chris isn’t fulfilled and enlists, becoming a Navy SEAL. Interestingly enough, brother, Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), also enlists in the military. Prior to his first tour, Chris meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller). Soon after he is married, he heads off to Iraq. The film shows that Chris doesn’t take his first kill lightly…that it does weigh on him…but he gets on with the mission at hand. Over time, Chris is known for his sharpshooting skill and his number of kills, earning him the nickname, “Legend.” Chris is matter-of-fact about his accomplishments which wins him the respect and friendship of his fellow soldiers. Although Chris is home for the birth of his first child, a son, it’s easy to see that he doesn’t feel completely at ease there, thinking he should be back with his fellow soldiers. Over the course of four tours, his time at home is more and more strained, especially when he becomes a father again. He goes back to Iraq, but during his fourth tour, Chris seems to realize that when it’s done, it’s time for him to be home for good. But being stateside is easier than it sounds. Chris has flashbacks, violent outbursts and more. It’s not until he tells a VA psychiatrist that he is “haunted by all the guys he couldn’t save,” that he finally finds the road back to a fulfilled life.

Clint Eastwood would seem to be an excellent directing choice for “American Sniper.” He does capture the camaraderie of the soldiers especially well. The good-natured ribbing, even while waiting on targets to make a move, comes off as very genuine. He also does a very good job in showing how boring the life of a sniper can be…the hours of just waiting for movement…while still remaining sharp. Unfortunately for a movie viewer, sitting there waiting with Chris and the other men isn’t very interesting and while the players may change a little over four tours, it feels like one is watching the same thing over and over. And while Eastwood does show us Chris’ home life and the strain tours take on families in general and his in particular, there just isn’t enough of what Chris does to overcome this and get on with his life. We see some of this activity, but it would be meaningful learning more. Eastwood concludes the film on a somber note. To underscore the solemnity, the ending film credits roll in silence. It’s a brilliant touch.

As noted earlier, Bradley Cooper gives an outstanding performance as Chris Kyle. He’s very believable as a man who sees things in terms of black and white, who loves his country and his family—both military and familial. Sienna Miller, as Chris’ wife struggling to cope with the changes she sees in Chris, is also very convincing. The supporting cast of actors playing soldiers is extremely good and those actors make the film feel very realistic.

Unfortunately, even with compelling performances, “American Sniper” too often feels repetitive and flat. The man himself was anything but, and it’s too bad the film doesn’t capture more of that spirit.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

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Paddington: A Magical Delight—Movie

January 20, 2015

In a movie year full of altruistic apes, snarky raccoons and dragons that rise from the sea, “Paddington’s” bear brings it and then some. A magical delight from beginning to end, “Paddington” is for the child in all of us. Directed by Paul King and written by King and Hamish McColl, based on Michael Bond’s character, Paddington Bear, this is the tale of how Paddington came to be.

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The story begins in darkest Peru where Paddington’s aunt and uncle encounter the English explorer, Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie). Clyde is enchanted by the bears and teaches them to read, write and speak English. Before going back to England, he tells them that they will always be welcome in London and leaves his hat behind as a remembrance. Many years later, the nephew of the aunt and uncle (who will eventually be known as Paddington) leaves Peru under sad circumstances. A stowaway on a ship setting sail for London, the bear has nothing more than a suitcase full of marmalade and a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat, just as the explorer had taught the bears to do…just in case. He arrives in rainy London, expecting someone…anyone to give him shelter and welcome him into their family. While no one in London seems surprised by a talking, well-mannered bear, the city is not as friendly as he expects. It isn’t until he meets the Brown family, who offer him temporary shelter, that his fortune changes for the better. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) and young son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), take an immediate shine to him…Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) and older daughter, Judy (Madeleine Harris), not so much. The family decides to call him Paddington, named for the station in which they found him, and so Paddington begins to settle in, hoping to find either the explorer or the explorer’s family to eventually “adopt” him. However, finding a permanent home for Paddington is not his only problem. Unbeknownst to the Brown family and Paddington, a villainous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) has been made aware of Paddington and is out to find him and provide him with a different kind of permanency.

“Paddington” is so much fun on a variety of levels. The scenes in the Browns’ bathroom are absolutely hysterical, as the bear adjusts to a life with humans in a human house. His reactions and the family’s reaction to him are priceless. It all feels so very real. Even the scenes with the family in the kitchen seem quite genuine and are extremely funny.

“Paddington” boast a top-notch cast. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins are just wonderful as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Bonneville is especially good and has some terrifically funny scenes. It’s hard to find someone who can express disgust and disdain as elegantly as this actor can. Julie Walters is great as the family housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, and her interaction with everyone else in the cast is fun to watch. Nicole Kidman makes for a great villain. She’s absolutely terrific in her single-minded meanness and such are her shoes that they get their own special credit (Nina Shoes, for those of you who might be interested). It’s rare that we see her do anything with a comic bent and she really shines in the part. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s aunt and uncle are spot on. Finally,there is Paddington, himself. Voiced by Ben Whishaw, he is sheer perfection. He makes Paddington so loveable without being treacly…he is that great.

“Paddington” is full of real pigeons and monkeys as noted by their respective wranglers in the film’s credits. You can tell me that Paddington is not real, but I refuse to believe it. Everything about him feels genuine. You just want to reach out and touch him…or hug him. I don’t want the magic spoiled by knowing how this was done. If this really is special effects, then it’s the most amazing work I’ve seen in a long time. All I know is that “Paddington” seemed very real to me and I just fell in love completely.

4 nuggets out of 4

Selma: Doesn’t Quite Measure Up to Excellent Performances—Movie

January 18, 2015

In spite of some very good performance, “Selma” still feels and falls a little flat. Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, “Selma” is about the 1965 March for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to the Montgomery state capitol and the events leading up to the March.

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“Selma” opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) getting ready for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for which King is a recipient. This scene is important for showing us not only the esteem with which King is held, but in presenting, in a very subtle manner, the dynamic between Martin and Coretta. It’s loving relationship, but seems a little strained. From Oslo we go back to the United States where we meet Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a nurse in a rest home. It’s through her that we see how difficult it is for African-Americans to register to vote, regardless of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the courthouse, in an effort to register to vote, we watch Cooper going through hoops to answer ridiculous “qualifying” questions, the answers to which, no American would have the answers. It’s that scene and one other horrific scene which set the movie up perfectly for what is to come and demonstrates perfectly why the Selma marches are necessary and why King believes that it is so important that they happen on his time-frame, not President Johnson’s.

As King prepares for the initial march we are introduced to members of both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meeting at the home of old friends, the two groups discuss strategy and while SNCC favors a more aggressive approach, it acquiesces to the more non-violent pursuit of King’s SCLC. The resulting initial Selma march is shown in all its brutality. It and the aftermath are well-done, albeit very difficult to watch.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo is outstanding. He never seems like he is doing an impersonation and his performance feels very genuine. Signing on to the film in its early 2010 origins, “Selma” became a passion project for him and he does King proud. A very unglamorous Oprah makes for a very compelling Annie Lee Cooper and in some ways, Cooper is the heart and soul of the film. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta gives an outstanding portrayal. Her performance is a very dignified one, much like the real Mrs. King many of us have seen or about whom we have read. Stephen James as a young John Lewis is also very good. In fact, the entire supporting cast is extremely good. Not so good, two important leads…surprisingly Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. Their accents and performances seem more like caricatures than the real people. To be the successful politicians they were, there had to be more to them than what we see on the screen. And perhaps it should be pointed out that these two actors are English and maybe this is what causes them to overdo the Southern drawl to cartoon levels. Oyelowo and Ejogo are also English, but neither lay the accent on so thick and are much more believable in their roles.

There has been some controversy about how President Johnson’s and Rev. King’s relationship is portrayed. That is something for historians to discuss. Regardless of what truly happened, no one can doubt that the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for true equality and the right for all Americans to vote, regardless of the color of their skin, was and is an important, hard-fought battle. There most definitely is a moving connection as we watch the final March take place and Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.This reviewer just wishes that the rest of “Selma” packed more of an emotional wallop. Some scenes do, but others do not and it’s hard to say just why that is the case. When the film is mixed with real footage of the day, more of that emotion resonates. There’s just not enough of that to bring “Selma” to that next level.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

Unbroken: Powerful Salute to a Real Man—Movie

January 4, 2015

Fierce, dark, heroic…”Unbroken” is all this and much more. This brilliant film pays tribute to its hero, Louis Zamperini, by presenting a luminous look into the life of an extraordinary man. Masterfully directed by Angelina Jolie with primary screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Unbroken” takes us from Zamperini’s boyhood to his life as a bombardier to the endless days he spent on his raft, to his imprisonment and torture and, finally, to his eventual release. It’s all mesmerizing and although there are times you want to look away, you can’t.

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Jolie begins the film with mind-boggling scenes of one of Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) bombardier missions during WWII. The shots inside the plane are absolutely phenomenal. We feel like we are right there beside the crew. In the midst of the action, we flash-back to a young Louis (C.J. Valleroy) living in Torrance, CA. A child of Italian immigrants, Louis is frequently bullied for his heritage and is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Fortunately when his older brother, Pete (first played by John D’Leo and then Alex Russell ), sees how fast Louis can run when trying to escape from some crime he’s just committed, he decides Louis has it in him to run track. It’s Pete who sets him on the straight and narrow with the words that remain with Louis for the rest of his life, “If you can take it, you can make it.” Pete’s influence is a success and Louis turns into a track phenom. He becomes part of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, coming in 8th in his event and sets a record for speed in the final lap in the 5000-meter run.

“Unbroken” then picks up where the war action left off. We now know that after the Olympics Louis enlisted (off-screen) where he became part of a bombardier squad. The squad is in the middle of a search and rescue mission in the Pacific when their plane fails them and crashes into the ocean. He and initially two members of the squad survive the crash and endure 47 days on a raft in the Pacific before being captured by the Japanese. They are taken to a Japanese prison camp where, for most of their remaining time in capture, they suffer some absolutely harrowing days under the sadistic watch of Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Watanabe knows of Louis’ Olympic status and, thus, he is singled out for special torture.

Jolie has done a fantastic job in casting “Unbroken.” C.J. Valleroy as the young Zamperini is terrific and his transformation into the adult Zamperini (O’Connell) is spot-on. O’Connell, so fabulous in “Starred Up” is even better in “Unbroken.” He captures Louis’ spirit…his will to survive perfectly. He gives a truly amazing performance. Also very good is Ishihara as Watanabe, his primary tormentor. His portrayal is never over-the-top. It’s more of an understated malevolence, which is very unsettling.

It’s impossible to exaggerate how affecting “Unbroken” is. The battle scenes are extremely realistic. The days spent on the raft and the conversations between the men feel very real. And, finally, the time in the prison camps is just horrific as we watch the men shrink physically, but never emotionally, before our very eyes. Adding to the film’s ferocity is the powerful score by Alexandre Desplat and the realistic cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Angelina Jolie, the Coen Brothers and Jack O’ Connell…all have given us a film that is truly worthy of its subject, Louis Zamperini. Although you may have to sit in your seat for a while to regain your composure when the film is over, “Unbroken” is not to be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Mr. Turner: Is It Over?—Movie

January 2, 2015

To be perfectly blunt, “Mr. Turner” is a hugely disappointing bore. Two hours of watching actor Timothy Spall looking and grunting like a pig is just not entertaining on any level. “Mr. Turner” gives new meaning to the phrase, “like watching paint dry”…literally. Written and directed by the usually wonderful, Mike Leigh, “Mr. Turner” is one very long look at the life and career of 19th century British artist, J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall).

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“Mr. Turner” deals with the artist’s latter years, so he is already a renowned artist when we meet him. He lives in London with his faithful housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and his father, William (Paul Jesson), until his father’s death. This particular casting is very bizarre because the father looks about the same age as Turner, making one think at first that the two are brothers.

Turner’s paintings become more impressionistic over the years. Not everyone is a fan of this change as we see in an amusing scene with a young Queen Victoria’s reaction to his work. Turner and his new art are the butt of jokes several times over the course of the film, often within Turner’s earshot. While his reactions are priceless, they are most definitely not enough to sustain interest in the film. Therein lies the problem with “Mr. Turner”…there is no there, there. There’s no narrative to explain the man behind the paint brush. What caused his painting style to change? There are some extraordinary scenes of Turner strapped to a boat’s masthead so he can paint what he sees, but why did he choose to do this? The film doesn’t say.  “Mr. Turner” alludes to and shows that as a human being, Turner could be quite despicable. He took some heinous (or so we are led to believe) actions within his family and we know he fathered children, but was never a real father…why?  His treatment of Hannah would today be a form of sexual harassment. However, in 19th century England, everyone was far too polite to say anything publicly. Why was he like this? The only time Turner’s mood seemed to lighten was when he was around Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady of the boardinghouse where he often stayed. He became friendly (for him) with both Sophia and her husband. After her husband died, the two of them became more than friends. It’s worth noting that when he was at home in the company of his housekeeper, Turner was moody, dark and mean. When in the company of Mrs. Booth, he actually seemed to brighten a bit. It makes one wonder what might have happened if she had come into his life sooner.

Although “Mr. Turner” has received several awards and nominations, its allure simply escapes this reviewer. As Turner, Spall does nothing but stomp and grunt. When he does speak, he’s not easy to understand. The rest of the performances, save for that of Bailey, are there seemingly to show the speech and moirés of the day.

The only parts of “Mr. Turner” which are truly good are its cinematography and music. Cinematographer Dick Pope is extremely worthy of the special jury prize the Cannes Film Festival awarded him for the film’s cinematography. Gary Yershon’s weird and powerful score complements the movie beautifully.

“Mr. Turner” provides a lovely look at the beautiful work of J. M. W. Turner. It’s unfortunate that most of the film doesn’t measure up to that work.

1 ½ nuggets out of 4

 


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