American Sniper

American Sniper Poster

Now, I’ve seen a good number of movies in my time, and I fully admit that I’m probably a little jaded, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by the insurmountable arduousness of this whole Oscar season in general and American Sniper specifically. The professional news sources will tell you that Mr. Eastwood’s latest opus has broken all kinds of box office records and has made more money that God at this point; but after having put quite a bit of thought into my review of the film, I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It irks me that original and imaginative movies like Birdman only end up raking in a fraction of the cash that something like American Sniper does, but that’s people for you—forever loath to get out of their tiny comfort zones.

Clint Eastwood is a very old man—he’s eighty-four, according to Wikipedia—and it seems to me that a lot of his later work, and American Sniper specifically, is mired in a lot of really uncomfortable old-world machismo and outdated nationalism which manifests itself and a weirdly earnest “us vs. them” mentality that seems singularly out of place in this Web 2.0 world. Eastwood’s actual technical direction isn’t as much at fault as the writing is, which usually what it comes down to with these kinds of things. Weirdly, a lot of the special effects in the film look laughably fake, and I’m reminded specifically of one sequence in which Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are trying to have a serious exchange, but they’re very clearly handling a fake Fisher-Price baby; and I’m sitting in the theater all the while, barely stifling laughter.

Cooper, playing real-life American sniper Chris Kyle (whose biography inspired the film), does a pretty fair job, though as I mentioned before, a lot of the problems I found with the movie stem from the protagonist coming across as a bit of a bully and more than a little dense, which proved problematic as the film progressed, as Cooper’s was of course the character the audience was meant to identify with. Cooper is joined by a host of more or less low-key actors, who all give serviceable performances, though playing the gritty, emotionally detached soldier is probably one of the easier jobs as far as acting goes.

This particular review will probably be a little more subjective than normal—you know, since usually my reviews are models of level-headedness and non-partisanship—but the problem that one runs into a lot of the time with character driven films like American Sniper is that the success of the movie lives or dies on whether or not the audience can connect to the protagonist. I had the same problem with David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, also starring Cooper. It wasn’t a terrible movie, per se, but the fact that I found the main character almost totally un-relatable was what killed it for me, and I think the same idea applies to this film as well.

Apart from having a rather dull protagonist, the film mostly consists of a series of factual events from the life of Chris Kyle, occasionally spiced up with some classic Hollywood sensationalism. While the aforementioned nationalistic pride is certainly there, I think the Eastwood may have missed an opportunity to make a broader connection in the form of Kyle’s role in a much larger and increasingly ambiguously defined conflict. It’s pretty obvious the American Sniper wants to be something like The Hurt Locker, but the fact that if writer Jason Hall had entertained even for a moment the idea that his writing ability is on par with that of someone like Oscar-winner Mark Boal, then he’s got another thing coming.

Despite the earth-shattering commercial success of the film, I mostly found it pretty lacking. Maybe that’s my inborn desire to be contrary about everything speaking, but I really feel that the majority has really missed the mark on this one. I’ve seen good war movies, and I’ve seen bad war movies, and I’ve seen shocking war movies, and I’ve seen emotional war movies, but American Spectrum falls right off the spectrum, right into the pit where the downright bland and mediocre war movies reside, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Unbroken

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Among the end-of-year cinematic powerhouses competing for Oscar nods this year, Unbroken is unquestionably the runt of the litter. As you might be aware, the film is based on the World War II exploits of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, subsequently purchased by Universal for a tidy sum, to be sure. From the word ‘go,’ Unbroken is in the unfortunate position of having to be compared to other war-dramas like Fury, and intimate biopics like Selma, and dramatically intimate biopics centering around war like The Imitation Game, all three of which are vastly superior.

The film marks Angeline Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort, after her 2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. Now, I could take or leave Jolie as an actress, and I generally find her performances to be serviceable, but as a director I find her work incredibly bland. Far more interesting than the direction, however, is the screenplay and those who contributed to it. There are a few guys responsible, including Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King), William Nicholson (Les Miserables, Gladiator), and—get this—the fuckmothering Coen Brothers; Joel and Ethan themselves. Now, it remains up for debate how much input the Coens actually had, but I’m willing to bet that they were included mainly for the publicity and to make the production as high profile as possible. There are some really basic problems with plotting and characterization that the Coens could have, and indeed would have, spotted in their sleep. The whole business just makes me weary, mainly. It’s one of those insidious little Hollywood tricks, but I guess it something that we all have to suffer through, especially as we get closer to awards season.

The acting? Yeah, it’s okay, I guess. And I know that sounds like a noncommittal answer, but despite the fact that the actors did the best they could with the material they had, the plot was so insubstantial and one-notey that it all faded into white noise by the end. They’re still letting Jai Courtney be in movies, I see—his diligent efforts at ruining pretty much every film he’s been in notwithstanding.

The main issue I’ve got with Unbroken is that there’s no character arc to speak of—meaning, subsequently, that there’s no reason for the audience to remain invested in the struggles of the protagonist. Neither the main character nor his comrades grow or evolve or learn anything over the course of the film, bringing into relief the main misconception that the writers where under; specifically, that “strength of character” is synonymous with “getting the shit kicked out of you.” Indeed, the characters are beaten up pretty badly throughout the film and subjected to some pretty inhumane treatment, but brutality alone does not a compelling story make. I consider it a symptom of lazy writing when a plot hinges mostly on happenstance as opposed to the choices and decisions of the characters, which, in my opinion is one of the film’s major shortcomings. I think I counted two actual choices over the course of the film, both of which were entirely predictable and only served to drag out a story already suffering from a meandering, go-nowhere structure.

Unbroken is the hardest kind of movie to write about because it’s so mediocre from almost every perspective. It’s neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It just sits there like a grey, flavorless blob of tofu amid a spectacularly extravagant buffet. It’ll likely be swiftly forgotten amid the shuffle of more impressive films this year. All in all, it’s boring, predictable, monotone, lukewarm, boilerplate, run-of-the-mill, average, humdrum, unexciting, routine, dull, tedious, uninteresting, insipid, standard, common, lackluster, dreary, mind-numbing, arid, tame, plain, mundane, toothless, and frankly, I’m tired of writing about it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Disturbo 13: Combat Shock

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Part 12 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

An extremely personal, overwhelmingly depressing, low-budget film written, produced, and directed by New Yorker Buddy Giovinazzo. Originally American Nightmares, it was retitled and reportedly toned down by the notorious exploitation film company Troma, so as to secure and R rating and a videocassette release. Even “toned down,” the movie is still one of the most uncompromisingly bleak examinations of a person’s dead-end existence ever made. (In a critique, Chas Balun states that the movie has been “thrown out of over fifty film festivals.”)

Combat Shock is the tragic story of a wasted Vietnam veteran, living in abject poverty in the Bronx with his wife and baby. Every day is a battle to stay alive; every night is a battle to retain what’s left of his steadily eroding sanity. If this weren’t bad enough, the couple’s baby is not quite human (can you say Eraserhead?), having been genetically damaged by the aftereffects of Agent Orange brought home by Dad as an added legacy of lifelong despair.

The film is so painful because the filmmakers make absolutely no pretense to soothe us with even a moment of happiness for anyone in the story. Every pitiful character is shown to be hopeless, knowing only drugs and violence and suffering. Incredibly, the man’s situation gets even worse—finally concluding with an extended murder-suicide bloodbath after putting the baby into the oven and turning it on high. Nearly unbearable in its raw intensity, Combat Shock makes the violence and nihilism of Taxi Driver seem like a Walt Disney production.

The Emperor Review

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Due in large part to the fact that absolutely nothing came out last week, I’m left with a startlingly small amount of material to review. It was with some trepidation, then, that I ventured into a showing of Emperor, having nary a clue what I was in for. It’s been a good, long while since we’ve had a honest war move come down the pipe, let alone a historical piece. Emperor takes a fresh look at WWII through the veil of historical fiction, as the story of the American occupation of Japan and the the ultimate  fate of Emperor Hirohito unfolds. I’m happy to say that my reluctance was unfounded, as Emperor proved to be a generally engaging and satisfying experience.

Based on the novel His Majesty’s Salvation by Shiro Okamoto, Emperor is directed by Peter Webber. Like his other work including cult hit Hannibal Rising and Girl With the Pearl Earring, Webber takes on this piece of historical fiction with enthusiasm. Direction is solid and functional but unremarkable, and is therefore uninteresting to talk about.

In virtually the same role he’s been type cast for since the 1970’s Tommy Lee Jones brings General Douglass MacArthur to life as he becomes the de facto ruler of Japan after its surrender in World War II. As is to be expected of Jones’ performances, the character is here represented with a fundamental essence of humanity and brings across in his performance the immense pressure and responsibility that has been placed upon MacArthur’s shoulders. Matthew Fox lends his talents to the role of Bonner Fellers, the world’s most generically American man. While for the most part perfectly functional, Fox’s performance comes across as slightly stilled, though I could be misinterpreting his military precision for a lack of personality. It’s strange really. Here we have a character with an inner conflict, a motivation, a seemingly insurmountable problem, and yet, unfortunately, Bonner Fellers seems to behave like some kind of hyperrealistic robot, programed to simulate frustration, anger, and sadness at the appropriate times. His performance is difficult to critique because it’s too good to be called bad and too mediocre to be called exceptional. What we end up with, however, is essentially a bland mess.

The films switches periodically from the investigation of the Emperor’s involvement in Japanese military endeavors of WWII to the story of a pre-war Fellers and his Japanese love interest. Interestingly and refreshingly, this juxtaposition is actually plot critical, as the lessons Fellers learns about Japanese society and culture while fraternizing with his woman and her family prove to be key insights into the psyches of the Japanese people and their loyalty to the emperor. While providing a context for Feller’s later conclusions about the emperor, the film simultaneously uses those flashback sequences as a means to flesh out his character and portray him in a sympathetic light as he and his blushing bride to-be build a meaningful relationship. As I mentioned a moment ago, however, Fox’s disingenuousness puts a damper on an otherwise  surprisingly effective plot device.

Additionally, I enjoyed the fact that General MacArthur’s motivations remained ambiguous until the end and mirrored the overall atmosphere of uncertainty and intrigue in terms of both the investigation of the emperor and the general atmosphere of now leaderless Japan as a whole. That tension is what held an otherwise slightly boring movie together and kept me engaged until the end. Ultimately, I think that film suffered from a relatively slow pace coupled with the fact that not an whole lot actually ends up happening to begin with. As high as the stakes seem to be, all we can do is to take General MacArthur’s word for it. By that, I mean that the audience is told that if the Emperor is arrested, the occupying force might risk a mass uprising, but not necessarily shown that a threat is posed by such a gambit. The success of a film (a primarily visual medium, remember)  relies on the fact that the director is able to show us, and not simply tell us, that the stakes are being raised. As it stands, what we’re shown is a scattered and desolate citizenry that is on the verge of starvation and wouldn’t last two seconds in an insurrection against the US army. This, in a very real sense, eliminates a lot of the urgency and danger that would have been present in the film otherwise.

Though Emperor has it’s flaws, primarily with Fox’s stilled acting and the seemingly hypothetical stakes, it also does a lot of things right. Jones portrays a believable and engaging MacArthur and the originality and freshness of the plot bring a lot to the table as well. Overall, Emperor is a very decent experience and may be an especially welcome respite for the history buffs among us.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5