American Sniper – A Review

 

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I was anxious to see American Sniper even before it received so many Oscar nominations, but I was dubious as to how much I would actually enjoy it. My disinterest in most “war movies” is well documented; for whatever reason, I have difficulty connecting with this genre of films. I find the battle scenes too chaotic and often the characters too underdeveloped. I continue to try these films with the hope that something will stick, but the results are decidedly not in the genres favor. Despite that track record, I enjoy Bradley Cooper and have liked many of Clint Eastwood’s (non-war related) directorial efforts so I was looking forward to giving American Sniper a try. I hoped that the focus on one man’s story and his role as a sniper, rather than a soldier on the front line, would eliminate many of the issues that I tend to have with films set on the battle field.

The more focused story and the minimal use of large battle scenes combined with a strong performance by Bradley Cooper made a film that I really liked, though I can’t say that I loved. Based on his memoir, American Sniper tells the story of Christopher Kyle, a Navy SEAL that was proclaimed to be the most deadly sniper in the history of the U.S. armed forces. While there are some flashbacks to flesh out his early years and military training, the primary focus of the movie is Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq and the effect that they had on him. Though he believed in the cause and as proud of what he had done to protect his fellow soldiers, American Sniper depicts the gradual toll that this takes on his psyche and his difficulty in adjusting back to civilian life in between tours. Not only do we ask soldiers to be prepared to lay down their lives for their country, but we also ask them to be prepared to take life. That is a burden for anyone. But for snipers, the act of killing is more intimate and personal in a way; you are basically hunting human beings – quietly stalking them and waiting for that perfect shot. Before you end a person’s life, a sniper has to watch them. To be a sniper requires a certain type of person, but it also brings with it its own special challenges. His first official kills are most likely not what he had in mind when he signed up.

Because of Kyle’s occupation, American Sniper is a far more quiet film than you might anticipate. While most of the film takes place out on the battlefield, Kyle’s relative isolation during many of scenes means that he is removed from the action. I think that is a real strength of the movie, because during these moments we are better able to understand Kyle as a person and how his effectiveness at his job does not come without baggage. This is a movie is more about a man than about a war; Iraq may be the backdrop, but with the exception of one climatic action sequence this is a much stiller movie. That doesn’t mean that American Sniper is boring; if anything, the judicious use of combat actually ramps up the tension and makes it slightly easier to get inside Kyle’s head a bit. To me, it is much more nerve wracking to have a person in your sights (literally) and waiting for the moment to pull the trigger. But if you are expecting Saving Private Ryan level epic-ness, you are going to be somewhat disappointed.

Bradley Cooper is to be credited for how effectively he brought Chris Kyle to life; not only did Cooper do the obvious things like bulk up and work on his Texas accent, but his nuanced performance does a beautiful job of showing the slow unraveling of Kyle with each additional tour of duty. Out on the front line with his comrades in arms, there is a vitality to Cooper’s performance. This is a man who loves the comradery of military life and wants to protect the lives of the other soldiers. This is where Kyle feels most comfortable. You only see the slightest hint of how this is impacting his psyche, until Kyle intermittently comes home to his wife and children. Civilian life is a mystery to Kyle and while he wants to engage with his family, he just no longer knows how to do so completely. This is when Cooper allows the cracks in Kyle’s armor to be most visible, but there is still a restraint. This is a man that is struggling, not because he is weak, but because of the tremendous burden that he’s been asked to carry. Kyle never completely loses it, but Cooper’s artful depiction makes it clear that this is a man that is slowly drowning. Cooper is so good that he completely disappears into the role. There’s no costume or prosthetics to hide behind; Cooper just becomes this character so completely that you forget that you are watching a movie star up on the screen. This is a natural performance that shows the conflict that was slowly bubbling up inside Kyle as the conflict raged on around him – not a conflict over the war or its justness, but in processing the taking of so many lives. This movie was a passion project for Cooper and it clearly shows.

I also have to commend Clint Eastwood for how he shot this movie. Despite its subject matter, this is a beautiful looking film and his use of camera angles and perspective serve not only to make the movie visually interesting, but compliment Cooper’s performance in helping the viewer understand Kyle’s point of view, both figuratively and literally. Eastwood knows how to film a movie about war and he shows of his skill in American Sniper.

Yet as much as I enjoyed Bradley Cooper’s performance, I can only saw that this was a good – not great – film. I can’t put my finger exactly on what limited my praise of the film, but I think it is partially the overall thinness of the story. All of the depth comes from Cooper’s performance, rather than the narrative itself. There is a fair amount of repetition, which is probably very accurate but not interesting to watch. I would have liked a balance that was more focused on his life at home and slightly less on his time in Iraq, simply to provide better context for his conflict. The film doesn’t take an overt perspective on the war, nor does it have to, but I think I would have enjoyed a film that had a little more complexity written into it. Cooper infuses as many layers as he can, but there are not a lot of layers inherently written into the narrative. Most biopics tend to whitewash a lot, and this film did take some creative license, but I think the inclusion of more shades of grey would have only strengthened the film.

Some other thoughts:

  • During the wedding scene, Kyle finds out that he’s being deployed and I had flashbacks to the wedding I went to where my date found out in the middle of the reception that he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. Kind of put a damper on the evening.
  • There is a scene in the film where it is very obvious that they used a fake baby. Really obvious. Like, distractingly obvious.

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I have no idea what was going on in that scene because I was staring at the doll that they had swaddled. Even more disconcerting was that they piped in real baby noises. Turns out, I am not the only person who noticed this. Screenwriter Jason Hall even felt the need for an explanation. Still, I don’t know why they didn’t just re-shoot the scene or remove the baby from the scene. To use the doll was a big mistake, based on all the attention it’s getting.

  • Sienna Miller doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but she was very good as Kyle’s wife Taya.
  • I knew the fate of Chris Kyle before the movie, but if you are interested in reading more about the real life story, you can look here, here and here.
  • Chris Kyle appeared on Conan when his book came out:

 

  • I got surprisingly excited when Sam Jaeger (Joel, Parenthood) turned up in a small part. Jake McDorman (Evan, Greek) has a slightly larger role as one of Kyle’s brothers in arms.
  • Even I got a little teary eyed at the real life footage that they use during the end credits.
  • I saw the film in IMAX – a rare splurge on my part – and that only enhanced the film.

I thought American Sniper was a solid, not stellar, movie that is elevated by a fantastic performance by Bradley Cooper. This is a film that is more a character study than a war movie, which definitely contributed to my overall enjoyment of the film. I’m not surprised that it was nominated for Best Picture, but I’m not sure that it actually deserves to win. Still, it absolutely a movie worth seeing. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the film recently, but I walked out of the film reminded of the tremendous sacrifice that our member of the military and their families make on a regular basis. I didn’t see any ideological slant or propaganda either way, but I also wasn’t looking for it either. Not my favorite film of this awards season, but worthy of being in the conversation.

American Sniper is currently in wide release.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy – A Review

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I blame Christopher Nolan.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christopher Nolan movies and he is one of my favorite directors working today. But ever since he got his hands on the Batman movies and they were so successful, it’s had a ripple effect through the superhero universe. Superhero movies have now almost universally become dark and broody affairs and while that works for Batman and his personality it has kind of sucked all the fun out of the genre. Superhero movies are all beginning to look the same – they are darker, more violent and everything is somber and solemn. Now, I have no problem with dark and broody in and of itself – I practically live in the space of dark and broody – but when that becomes the rule rather than the exception, it can get a little exhausting. I don’t know if I have it in me to watch another city get destroyed and our hero be a tortured guy with a ton of baggage. I mean, Superman is killing people now. Even I, a non-comic book girl, know that is a big deal. There are the occasional moments of comic relief in most superhero films, but that’s just what it is – relief. Relief from the onslaught of very important, joyless action. Superhero movies have mostly stopped being fun; The Avengers was a good time and there is always slightly more humor in Spiderman or Iron Man films, but the Spiderman and Iron Man films also haven’t really been that good in a while. In the wake of the Dark Knight trilogy, almost all superhero franchises have taken a turn to the dark side. There has been no joy in Mudville; in the words of a Nolan creation:

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Then along comes Guardians of the Galaxy, the runt of the superhero universe. Casual superhero fans like myself have never even heard of this title and when they first announced that it was being made I figured that this was some sort of experiment – if we picked the weirdest and most obscure property and slap the Marvel name in front of it, will people still go. I guess they figured that they had been so successful in the past that they could take their chances. The folks over at Marvel pretty much run Hollywood now and are playing with house money, so they can afford to try something a little different. I don’t know that they would have predicted that Guardians of the Galaxy was not only the superhero movie that we needed, but the superhero movie that we deserved. Because Guardians of the Galaxy is a breath of fresh air to the comic book universe; it’s a film about superheroes that is *gasp* a ton of fun to watch. It’s funny and charming and entertaining – when you leave the theater you will have a big old grin slapped on your face. When’s the last time that happened after a superhero movie?

Guardians of the Galaxy flips the script; instead of giving us comedic relief from the action, this film gives us action relief from the comedy. Because make no mistake about it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a comedy first and an action movie second. The audience was laughing so hard at points of the movie that you could hear the next few lines. That’s not to say that the action in the film is second rate – it absolutely isn’t. There are some very cool and thrilling sequences that are what you would expect from these types of films. But because they are spaced out in between all the comedy, I think you appreciate them more. You don’t become numb to the action in Guardians of the Galaxy, you look forward to it.

I didn’t know much about Guardians of the Galaxy before the film, but these comics must have been the black sheep of the comic book world. This is a decidedly weird entry in the superhero sweepstakes; it really feels like the brainchild of writers in the 70s who took a lot of acid and thought it would be fun to stick our heroes in space. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that this is a campy, kitschy and goofy movie – two of the main characters are a talking raccoon and a tree creature – and I was nervous going in that they wouldn’t quite get the tone right. A little weird goes a long way and I feared that they would have trouble striking the right balance. It turns out that James Gunn was the perfect guy to pick to adapt this film, as he found the sweet spot of making a cult movie that has universal appeal.

The plot for Guardians of the Galaxy is exceedingly dense and even after sitting through the film, eyes glued to the screen, I don’t know that I could fully explain everything that was going on. There’s a lot to digest, but mostly it’s all a MacGuffin; it’s the same basic story that everyone wants some magical thing and the good guys have to keep it away from the bad guys or the universe/planet/galaxy/city will be destroyed. Don’t get hung up on the details of it all, because that doesn’t really matter. In this film, our potential saviors are an unlikely band of heroes: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a small time thief that fancies himself as much more important than he actually is; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is an alien who had been programmed to be an assassin; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is a humorless warrior whose primary purpose is to avenge the death of his family; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a tree creature with a limited vocabulary; and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a genetically engineered raccoon who is a mercenary bounty hunter. The five of them meet in prison and find common ground in their desire to stop Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from destroying the universe, though they all have very different motivations (greed, altruism, revenge). This sounds super serious, but believe me, it is not.

A lot of the credit for the success of Guardians of the Galaxy belongs not only to writer/director Gunn but also to star Chris Pratt. Pratt has enough charm and charisma that you could power a small city if you could harness it and he is perfectly cast in this role. He brings not only the necessary goofiness but the swagger to Quill. In Pratt’s capable hands, Quill is kind of like Hans Solo’s goofy younger brother. He’s just fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Pratt forever from his role on Parks and Recreation and this is the role that may make him a star. The casting in this film is universally great – all of the actors in the major roles do a tremendous job – and I couldn’t really imagine other people playing/voicing these characters. Saldana is always solid and Bautista, who is best known from his work as a professional wrestler, is much better than I would have anticipated. He holds his own with the more experienced actors. Though we never see Bradley Cooper, his voice work provides Rocket with the necessary attitude and personality to make the CGI creation seem real. Honestly, this is the most I’ve enjoyed Cooper in a role in a while – he’s always good, but he gets to have more fun in this role. I continue to be fascinated by Lee Pace’s transformation to playing the villain; while I primarily know him from his work on Pushing Daisies, he’s quietly become the bad guy – first in The Hobbit and now in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s the most serious character of the bunch, but it provides a nice balance from all the other silliness.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are two post movie sequences for Guardians of the Galaxy; one immediately after the movie and one at the very end after all the credits. The first scene was possibly my favorite part of the whole movie. The second is tremendously odd – I’m not even sure if most of the audience I saw the film with even got the reference. They may be too young.
  • You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film is going to be another self-serious movie from the first five minutes of the film. So if you are confused at the very beginning, just trust me that you are in for a fun ride for the rest of the film.
  • Benicio del Toro, Glenn Close, Michael Rooker and John C. Reilly all turn up in smaller roles. And I didn’t even realize that Karen Gillan was in the movie until after the fact; she’s completely unrecognizable (and bald!).
  • Chris Pratt dancing may be my new favorite thing.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t necessarily aimed at kids, but I think this is the most family friendly of the recent superhero films. The language is pretty PG (other than one obscene gesture) and the presence of Rocket and Groot helps illustrate that the violence/action is all fantasy.
  • Here’s a Guardians of the Galaxy trailer…in LEGOs!

 

  • I’ve already touched on how much I love the music in this movie, but it is deployed perfectly.
  • It’s not all laughs in the film, there are also some very sweet moments about friendship.
  • If you need a refresher on where Guardians fits in to the larger Marvel universe, here you go.
  • I’m really curious how much they paid Vin Diesel to play Groot, but since the character only says four words in the entire film his work day must have been pretty short. Here’s Diesel saying “I am Groot” is a bunch of different languages. And yes – he’s on stilts.
  • Reason 5,321,343 that Chris Pratt is the best – he surprised a bunch of kids at a charity screening of the film in New York:

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  • How much did I enjoy this movie? I may or may not have immediately come home and bought this Groot figure for my desk. (I totally did).
  • This movie has a raccoon firing a machine gun. Why am I still trying to convince you to go see this; YOU HAVE ALL THE INFO YOU NEED.

This is easily the most fun that I’ve had at a superhero movie since Avengers. In fact, I kind of want to go see the film again; like, I might go again this evening. It was just so nice to see a superhero movie that knows how to be goofy and tell a fun story. The audience that I went to see it with burst into applause at the end and while I normally think that is hokey, I actually contemplated joining in. I didn’t of course, but the fact that I even thought about it is a major victory. As Vulture so perfectly put it, this film is the class clown of the Marvel universe – and who doesn’t love a class clown? Guardians not only saves the galaxy, but it saved my summer movie season. I’m still smiling about the film 12 hours later.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens nationwide today.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Kick off the Weekend Edition

Some technical difficulties and a wonky schedule this week mean that you are getting your pop culture roundup a few days late. Apologies to anyone who was disappointed, but I tried to make it up to you with an extra-long batch of links. With Sundance, The Television Critics Association winter meeting and awards season all happening at the same time, there was no shortage of news to report. This is actually the condensed version of links! So while most of the country is in a deep freeze, grab a blanket and stay inside all weekend pouring through the last 2+ weeks in the world of pop!

  • Last night was Adam Scott’s final installment in his The Greatest Event in Television History specials. They ended with a bang, with Scott and Paul Rudd recreating the opening credits to Bosom Buddies:

I will miss these.

  • HBO has passed on the Sarah Silverman pilot, People in New Jersey. Boo!

 

  • As someone who regularly hangs out with our interns at the office, this Conan bit made me literally laugh out loud:

 

  • Adrian Grenier was almost Dawson on Dawson’s Creek. I didn’t think it was possible to make that character more awful, but that would have done it. #Pacey4Life
  • This will make some people I know happy – the first photo from Dumb and Dumber To:

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  • Bam! Pow! The original Batman TV series with Adam West is finally coming to home video. So. Much.Kitsch.

Now for some news on the Super Bowl:

  • The Full House guys are reuniting for a yogurt commercial:

 

  • Good news for the Bronies out there – the Bronytunes app allows you to stream 7,000 different songs about My Little Pony.
  • One Direction will appear on the show:

 

  • This is kind of cool – watch Quentin Tarantino and Steve Buscemi rehearse Reservoir Dogs:

 

  • The first poster for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I have been released (and it doesn’t look much different than the poster for the previous two films):

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  • One of the stars of Shipping Wars has died.
  • Watch a one armed teen scare The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus:

 

Trailers:

  • A teaser trailer for FX’s The Strain:

 

  • I bailed after J.R. died, but here’s a trailer for the 3rd season of the new Dallas:

 

  • A new trailer for The LEGO Movie, which I really want to see:

 

  • Chloe Sevingny’s new show, Those Who Kill:

 

  • James Franco’s Child of God:

 

  • Showtime’s new creepy thriller, Penny Dreadful:

 

  • A very Syracuse-y trailer for Adult World, starring Emma Roberts and John Cusack

 

  • A new prom for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:

 

  • I did far better than I expected on this SNL quiz, thanks to some catchphrases from the 90s.
  • Just because, here’s a photo of Tupac and Suge Knight playing Sonic the Hedgehog:

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As always, we end with the mashups and the supercuts:

The film Her seems to have inspired a lot of parodies:

  • A trailer for Him:

 

  • Her starring Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones:

 

  • If you ever wondered what Game of Thrones would look like if it was set in ancient Japan (and who hasn’t?), wonder no longer.
  • As a fan of independent films, this parody trailer made me giggle:

 

  • Mean Girls by cats:

 

  • A supercut of every Nintendo start screen….ahh memories:

 

  • A hipster remake of American Psycho:

 

  • Donald Glover’s last episode of Community was last night; here’s a Childish Gambino/Community mashup to help ease the pain:

 

  • It was only a matter of time- someone mashed up Haim’s “The Wire” with footage from The Wire :

 

  • Watch a supercut of “Let It Go” in 25 different languages:

 

  • Teen Wolf of Wall Street:

 

  • A supercut of Larry David’s best insults:

 

  • And finally…The Facts of Life/Breaking Bad mashup you didn’t even know you needed:

 

Have a great weekend!!!