Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
DIRECTOR:  Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Action/War

Knowing Clint Eastwood's politics, I knew going in that American Sniper was going to portray its subject as a hero and true patriot, and that is pretty much what we get. Eastwood apparently doesn't go any deeper than my-country-right-or-wrong--the Dick Cheney credo of the end always justifies the means-- and that the world is made up of good guys and bad guys and very little in between (like in those spaghetti westerns of his early career) and thus anything is permitted, and justified, if it eliminates the bad guys.  (Of course, the more we do that around the world, the more "bad guys" keep popping up in Whac-A-Mole fashion to threaten us. What's up with that?)     

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Navy Seal sniper with 160 confirmed kills (men, women, and children) to his credit during the Iraq war. (To be fair, those women and children were allegedly acting in threatening ways, like attempting to blow up some of our troops.)  There is no Iraqi in this movie that isn't portrayed as some kind of potential threat. The ones who have taken up arms against us are "savages," so dispatching them can be done without a whit of soul-searching. They become mere stick figures--like the anonymous war-whooping Indians getting picked off one by one by the "good guy" cowboys in the western films many of us grew up with.  Okay, there is one scene where Kyle has his sights trained on a young boy who is about to pick up an anti-tank weapon and do some damage with it. The sniper sweats and grimaces, and begs under his breath for the kid to put the weapon down so he doesn't have to shoot him. This is supposed to show us that Kyle has a conscience. That runs contrary to the real guy's assertion that killing was "FUN,"  and his unsubstantiated claim that he had murdered looters during hurricane Katrina. So draw your own conclusions about that.

Technically, American Sniper is superb. The combat scenes are among the most realistic I have seen. But they go on and on and on, covering Kyle's four tours of duty, and after a while you become numb watching them, and ultimately bored because of the tremendous overkill (pardon the pun). I can't imagine anyone but 14 year-old boys addicted to playing war games on Xbox being avidly engaged with this kind of stuff all the way through. And that is where Eastwood misses the mark. He gives us an out and out action movie, where a little balance, by examining some of the moral and psychological aspects of it all, would have made it a much better film. 

To the director's credit, he does give some cursory play to  the effects of PTSD, and how it affected his subject and others returning from the battlefield. Perhaps numbing us out with all the violence in American Sniper is supposed to make us draw a parallel between that and the numbed out Chris Kyle, whose social skills had departed, and he could no longer relate to his family or people he would meet when he was back home. There is a scene at a picnic gathering where we observe what a ticking time bomb the man had become. 

Speaking of which, I fear we are becoming a nation of numbed-out voyeurs, inured to the violence we see, and so we keep increasing the dose of the drug just to feel something. American Sniper does that by ramping it up and feeding into our insatiable appetite for blood (maybe that's why vampire flick are so popular) that we drink up on television, on the movie screen, and in the news. It's a sick obsession, but those with mental health issues rarely recognize it themselves until someone points it out. And so the image of the female breast in a movie continues to be blurred out when it shows on TV, but all the grisly blood-spattering-against-the-wall scenes of murder and mayhem are fine and dandy.  

As for this film, I can't give it a pass based on technical merit alone. Not when Clint Eastwood fails to examine the complicated issues involving real HUMAN BEINGS on both sides of the conflict, or the reasons why we've been drawn into this war of ideologies--with no end in sight--in the first place.     

Grade: C--


JILL'S TAKE

After that rant, who'd have the balls to disagree? Me. But not by much. Unlike my co-writer, I feel Clint Eastwood did take the time to explain why psychologically Chris Kyle was such a patriot-turned-killer. At the very beginning of the film, we witness a scene at the dinner table where Kyle's dad gives a speech to his two boys about lambs versus wolves. This dad reminded me of another tough-guy Marine played so brilliantly by Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. Before signing up to go to war, we see Kyle as a rodeo rider/wannabe cowboy and it's easy to assume he's seen every John Wayne movie that ever existed.

I'm not here to judge the rightness or wrongness of war. It's a movie, after all. Based on a best-selling book. As a movie, I felt it was overly long. By Kyle's fourth tour of duty, I was nodding off despite all the blood and bomb blasts. Still, it made me understand why so many soldiers return from this craziness and commit suicide. (The numbers are truly staggering.) Back to the film and Bradley Cooper's perfomance. I'm told he gained 35 pounds to play the part and he was certainly convincing as both a fearless sniper and a zoned out husband. I don't, however, think he deserves an Oscar. Not compared to the other contenders.

As a TV watcher, I had to giggle at cameo appearances by Eric Close as DIA Agent Snead (he plays the mayor in Nashville) and Jonathan Groff as YoungVet Mads (he's a gay man, eager to get laid in HBO's Looking). That's the problem with being a regular on TV: it's jarring to see that same actor in a different role. Be that as it may, I didn't hateAmerican Sniper. Or get emotionally upset by its content. Maybe I should have. But war has -- and always will -- provide us with many an Oscar-winning film.

Grade: B




Saturday, January 10, 2015

THE GAMBLER (2014)



Rated: R

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Genre: Drama

Watching Mark Wahlberg as a once promising novelist turned college professor turned compulsive high-stakes gambler is like staring at some bratty child who won't eat his vegetables and will sit there at the dinner table and wait you out longer than you can, or would want to, wait him out. 

Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, an arrogant wise-ass who talks down to his students, and follows in the footsteps of James Bond (though infinitely less debonair ) by firing off sarcastic one-liners at the bad dudes who are about to beat his ass for not paying his debts. Bennett borrows from Peter (Korean mobsters) to pay Paul (black gangster) to pay John (Goodman), who gives another inspired performance as a loan-shark with a soft side, the only thing that explains why anyone would  issue a dime to such an obviously bad risk . 

Bennett comes from money, and doesn't know the value of a dollar--that's why he gambles away every last one he can get his hands on. Money is just a tool to feed the sick ego gratification he gets from proving-repeatedly-that he's a loser. Like most self-destructive people, the guy is angry. And it' so bottled up that the sarcasm seeps from every pore.  But we never see why he's angry. Where has life dealt him a bad hand? All we know is that his banking magnate grandfather (George Kennedy--who keeps his streak of being in every movie ever made alive here) kicks the bucket in the opening scene, and Bennett is left with a mother (Jessica Lange) who is also really pissed-off, but mainly at him, for being an incorrigible, irredeemable asshole. Are you getting the picture that, to me at least, this is one of the most unlikable protagonists to come down the pike in quite some time?  Which is unusual, because we can usually find SOMETHING about the main character in any film that we can root for. So this is either a one-dimensional turn from Wahlberg, or, as Pee-Wee Herman was fond of saying: I meant to do that.

The subplot revolves around a romance that's haltingly blooming with one of his students (Brie Larson), a brilliant writer in Bennett's estimation, who likes him maybe for seeing something in her she didn't recognize in herself?  Well, The Gambler doesn't work if you don't have multiple individuals who are rooting for this guy to make one big strike and win in the end (most of them so they can get their money back).

 I. on the other hand, am just rooting for something to show in his eyes that tells me he can snap out of it and become more than a petulant child sitting there grimacing at his Brussels sprouts.    

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE  

I guess assholes are not Tim's cup of tea. Me? I like 'em. And despite Mark Wahlberg's overdone, over-dyed hairdo, I was mesmerized by his total lack of fear -- and common sense. I haven't spent much time in Vegas, or around compulsive gamblers, but by the time The Gambler ended, I felt like I'd personally won and lost a shitload of shekels.

At the beginning of the movie, credit is given to the original film of the same name which starred James Caan (1974). I'm pretty sure I must have seen it but who remembers back that far? I did look up the cast, though, curious to see who played the John Goodman part: it was Paul Sorvino. Speaking of Goodman, I must warn any of you who are fat phobics to turn away when Goodman exposes his naked and roly-poly body in a steam room. (Apparently he's lost 130 pounds since this flick was filmed!)

What impressed me most was how original the time sequences were established. A number would flash on screen signifying the days this guy had left to pay his mounting debts. Then a musical interlude would set the mood and tone. Very, VERY effective. What impressed me least? The longest running sequence since Chariots Of Fire – when running was the whole point of the movie. In this case, I think Wahlberg just wanted to show the audience how in shape a guy can be at age 45.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE INTERVIEW (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Randall Park, Lizzy Caplan

DIRECTOR: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
GENRE: Action-Comedy


It's ten minutes past the scheduled show time, and the screen is still dark. A theater employee walks down the aisle to make an announcement. Sorry, folks...we're having a little problem...we have to restart the projector...I DON'T THINK IT'S A HACK...thanks for your patience.  Such is the movie going experience in the days of free speech in America under attack from piss-ant dictatorships across the sea. (Just when we had our hands full with home-grown assaults under the guise of political correctness.) 


The film started shortly thereafter, with Seth Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg--in a tacked on segment at the beginning--saying "If you are watching this, then you're a g-damned phucking American hero!" 


I can't remember when I've felt so patriotic.


I'd heard that The Interview had opened to mixed reviews on Christmas day, but I gotta tell ya I was pleasantly surprised at how good and wickedly funny this movie is! 


Dave Skylark (Franco) and Aaron Rapoport (Rogen) host a cable TV show called Skylark Tonight . It happens that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, whose job title is Supreme Leader Who Doesn't Pee Or Poo, is a fan of the show. (We know that the real Kim is an avid film buff and consumer of American movies, so thus far the plot isn't too far-fetched).  Dave and Aaron get invited to Pyongyang to conduct and interview with Kim, which is supposed to be a soft ball affair where he gets a chance to plead his case to the west. (Dennis Rodman set the precedent here, so again, not terribly far-fetched.) Kim's not a bad guy at all (despite the labor camps, malnourished citizenry, and total suppression of human rights.) 


When a sexy CiA agent (Lizzy Caplan) learns of the upcoming trip, she sees an opportunity to get rid of one of the world's most ruthless strongmen. She convinces the boys that it's their duty to take him out, which is to be accomplished by way of a poison to be administered through a handshake.  


From here on, everything in The Interview IS far-fetched, and so raunchy and over-the-top hilarious that I suddenly envisioned the president and Michelle viewing it (which they're bound to do, just so they really know what all the fuss is about), and hoping they didn't make the mistake of allowing the girls to see it!


Randall Park can't quite nail down the physical presence of Kim--he doesn't have that baby-faced manchild look of the real guy--but beyond that he gives a winning performance as a Jekyll and Hyde manipulator who charms the pants off our heroes initially, then reveals his true nature when crunch time arrives.


And there's this hot Korean army chick whose real name is Diana Bang. How perfect is that?


Grade:  B +




JILL'S TAKE
I went, grousing and grumbling, to see The Inteview – assuming it would be utter fluff and one dumb movie per year is my quota. I was wrong. As silly as the premise is, it made me giggle from start to finish. As Tim was imagining the Obama Family watching this fart-friendly film, I kept imagining the real Kim Jong Un watching it. Not known for his self-deprecating sense of humor, North Korea's Chief of State would be highly insulted. (He might even nuke us for such insolence.) 
Be that as it may, I must say I was seriously impressed by James Franco's portrayal of Dave Skylark, a seemingly superficial TV talk show host. Having seen Franco in 127 Hours (for which he received a Best Actor nomination in 2011), I knew he had acting chops. What I didn't know was how funny he could be. And believably funny, too. Not all leading men types can make that switch. So Bravo, Signor Franco! 
As for Seth Rogen? He directed, wrote and produced this opus. And that's nothing to sneeze at. Of course, I have a special affinity for the lad since he grew up in a city that I lived in (and loved) for over 17 years: Vancouver, BC. The Interview is not going to appeal to everyone but I heard on the news that on its first weekend playing in theaters, it was the highest grossing film in China's history. 

Grade: B







  


           





Friday, December 26, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)



Rated: R


Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Director: Dan Gilroy
Genre: Thriller

It's clear from the get-go that Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a seriously creepy individual. The kind of person who looks right through you when you're speaking to him--the one-track brain focused on whatever grisly obsession is occupying it at the time.  


Bloom is a petty thief, and right off we observe him punching out a security guard who has happened upon him stealing chain-link fencing. But he's not satisfied with his lowly station in life. He has ambition, and he's an opportunist, searching for that spark of an idea that will catapult him into the big time. He finds it when he begins stumbling across accident scenes, observing the "nightcrawlers," or free-lance videographers doing their work. He gets himself a camera and a police radio and he's in business. 


Lucky for him there's a TV station in L.A. that will run the gory footage he obtains on their nightly news. (Here's where I thought the script was a mite over the top, as most stations still show at least some discretion about such things, but maybe we're not far away from that.)   


Nina (Rene Russo) is the news director of said media outlet. A little paranoid about hanging onto her job at a station whose ratings are in the toilet. In Lou she sees the perfect collaborator. By scooping the other stations in la la land with the bloody or sensational footage Lou provides, she envisions the pathway to her own salvation. He pressures her to include sex in their working relationship and she accedes, an indicator of how far she is willing to compromise to obtain her own objectives. 


At one point we realize that they are total kindred spirits, and that's where Nightcrawler makes its cynical statement. Yes, it's a character study about sociopaths, but it's also saying something about the public that eats this kind of stuff up. The law of supply and demand. 


Gyllenhaal has a Golden Globe nomination for his work here, and deservedly so. It's a multi-layered performance with elements of dark comedy, as all the while Lou is revealing himself as an entity without a whit of empathy or human compassion, he's lecturing his assistant in a moralistic fashion about the importance of good business practices.       


Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

Tim has pretty well covered the salient points but I'd like to give a special kudo to the cinematographer whose darkly sinister shots of Los Angeles helped creep out the viewer before any of Lou Bloom's antics did. And, believe me, this is one creepy character on a level with Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (minus the pageboy haircut). According to Hollywood gossip, Jake G. Lost 35 pounds for this role. That weight loss definitely added authenticity to his soulless, deep-socketed eyes. And persona.

The film scolds us all for being such gore-hungry humans, ever curious to gawk at auto accidents. Violence is a money-making commodity, for sure. My quarrel with Nightcrawler? I felt the sex angle between the two main characters was unnecessary. We already knew how driven and desperate they both were. Other than that, it's an intense movie that keeps you gripping your arm rests throughout.

Grade: B




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (2014)



Rated: PG-13


Stars: Jim Carrey,  Jeff Daniels,  Kathleen Turner

Director: Bobby Farrelly, J. B. Rogers
Genre: Comedy



I'm going to say up front that Jill talked me into seeing this movie. As a lark. Like gassing up at Texaco and peeing in the park. Just to see how stupid one movie could actually be. And with a title like Dumb And Dumber To, the Farrelly Brothers were giving themselves carte blanche to go there in spades. 


I'll put it this way. If the characters of Lloyd and Harry that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are playing were real people, they would be confined to an institution. Which, ironically, is where we find them at the beginning of the flick. Lloyd has been in a catatonic state for the last twenty years (the time that has elapsed since the original Dumb & Dumber). Harry visits to change his diaper and wipe his butt.  And, of course, we get to watch. (Changing a grown person's diaper may be funny only if you're not the one doing it!)


There is a plot. Harry needs a kidney transplant, and he needs to find a relative who would make a donor match. So they go in search of the daughter he never knew. It goes on from there, but it doesn't bear mentioning because the plot exists to serve the slapstick nature of the film, which is aimed at 12 to 15 year-old boys who are still fascinated with fart jokes. (And certain rather twisted adults...not mentioning any names!)


There were about three gags in the whole movie that made me laugh out loud. Jill, on the other hand, was spewing her drink all over the place. (Just kidding--we're too cheap to pay those inflated concession prices.)  


Kathleen Turner, a bombshell in films like Body Heat back in the 80s is...well...let's be kind and say matronly looking at this stage of the game. Give her credit for saying, in essence, time flies and this is me....so suck it! Don't look back. Which I'm trying not to do because I'm thinking that for the price of admission to this film, I could have gotten myself a couple bean burritos and started cracking my own fart jokes. 


Grade: C -



JILL'S TAKE

Had I not suggested this super silly cinematic experience, Tim wouldn't have been able to pen such a witty review. (So there!) As I entered the totally empty theater, something told me I was in for 'beyond stupid.' Then two more people sauntered in, looking embarrassed to be seen. Okay. It was a ridiculous film but you could tell that the actors were having a blast. My advice? If you are knowingly going to a movie with a title like this one, forget about plot, character development and nuance. Leave all that at the door.

Yes, I laughed out loud. And, yes, I'll admit I enjoyed Jim Carrey's antics and Jeff Daniels idiotic facial expressions. (A far cry from the role he plays in the HBO series "The Newsroom" for which he won an Emmy.) But it takes a very special person—a very brainless one—to get into the spirit of Dumb And Dumber To. It's hard for me to imagine anyone who reads this blog going to see this particular flick But I'm not sorry I did....

Grade: C


Saturday, December 6, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Director: James Marsh
Genre: Biopic/Drama

If you've hesitated to see the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory Of Everything, because you thought you'd be staring at a blackboard full of mathematical equations for two hours, have no fear. This film is a love story, plain and simple, and the only thing about it that may be difficult to understand is how the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) endured through difficulties of cosmic proportions.


Hawking, as you know, is the brilliant astrophysicist who developed ALS--or Lou Gehrig's Disease--while still a young man. But as his motor skills declined, eventually confining him to a wheelchair, Jane's determination to make their life together as normal as possible in every other way, grew. 


He was a student at Cambridge when he met the comely Jane Wilde at a dance. There's a glance...at a dance...you know how that goes. And while the bespectacled Hawking wasn't much to look at, perhaps she already knew she was going to be attracted to him for his mind--and so she never asks why he doesn't love her for hers, as under the circumstances, that would be just too ironic!


Felicity Jones brings to her role such a fierce determination to love this man in spite of everything, (and even the theory of everything) through thick and thin--raising a family of three children together and all the rest--that her performance must be singled out as Oscar nomination worthy. The same goes for Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) who deserves kudos just for mastering all the facial contortions and such that were required to nail down this role.  


We do learn a bit about black holes and the like along the way, but The Theory Of Everything is, above all, a film about the most powerful and enduring force in the universe...and that is Love.


Grade:  A



JILL'S TAKE

What can I say that Tim hasn't already said?  Plenty. To begin with, I was sure I'd be put off by watching the physical deterioration of Hawking – imitated to painfully realistic perfection by Eddie Redmayne. But the actor's smile was so winning, his spirit so ebullient, that I got totally wrapped up in Hawking's life, i.e. the relationships he had -- with his wife, his parents, his classmates, and his mega-intellectual colleagues. Still, as a woman, I found it inconceivable that their marriage was as "normal" as it appeared to be  under the circumstances.

Caretakers often lose their identities and, in this case, when Hawking's mother-in-law (played way too briefly by Emily Watson –The Book ThiefWar Horse,Hilary and Jackie, etc. ) suggests to her daughter that she should join the local church choir, it is a life and soul-saving move. I wouldn't want to give away too much more but the actor (Harry Lloyd) who plays the choir director was appropriately sensitive and highly believable in the part. Because The Theory Of Everything is a star vehicle for Redmayne, who will definitely win an Oscar this year, Mr. Lloyd's performance will undoubtedly get swept under the red carpet.

Despite the inherent sadness Hawking's situation evokes, I left the theatre feeling uplifted and hopeful. It's a wonderful film that I can find nothing to criticize.

Grade:: A+

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ST. VINCENT (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher


Director: Theodore Melfi


Genre: Comedy


Vincent is cranky. He's rude to most people, he drinks too much, and he consorts with hookers--but he has a big fluffy Persian cat that he pampers, and that's how we know he's really a good guy at heart. And who better to play him than Bill Murray, who's uncannily adept at being stinky and lovable at the same time!


When divorced mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12 year old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince is predictably standoffish. Until circumstances drive Maggie to coax him (with money) to babysit Oliver after school while she's at work. The kid and the curmudgeon eventually warm to each other, as what 12 year old wouldn't enjoy hanging out in bars and going to the racetrack with such a colorful role model?  


We're in familiar film territory here, as just this summer we had Michael Douglas playing the mordant mentor to his young grand daughter in the Rob Reiner flick, And So It Goes.  But there is more depth to Murray's character, as we learn later about his exploits during the Vietnam war.  


A humorous subplot centers on Vincent's relationship with a pregnant "lady of the night" (Naomi Watts), and to add some bass to all that treble, we travel along to observe the tender moments he shares with his memory challenged wife at the care facility where she resides. 


It's refreshing to see Melissa McCarthy in a role that brings out her human side, and Naomi Watts is a trip as your friendly neighborhood Russian stripper/hooker who makes house calls at Vince's place. Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, who looks like he could be Macauley Culkin's long lost love child, is believable as a wimpy kid who gets picked on, but then gets in touch with his his inner Karate Kid.


Saint Vincent is just the right kind of feel good movie to get you tuned up for the holidays, as you'll leave the theater with a warm and fuzzy feeling (which may dissipate when you try to find your car in the parking lot).      


Grade:  B +

   
JILL'S TAKE

loved this movie. Feel good, it definitely is! (And the audience agreed with me with some tentative applause at the end.) As Tim pointed out, curmudgeon roles are always a good staple. Who could forget Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets? Or even The Duke in The Shootist (his young sidekick was played by Ron Howard). Bill Murray was terrific. But let's not give him all the credit. After all, the writer/director Theodore Melfi deserves a pot load of praise for creating such a colorful character in the first place. Whether it's watching Naomi Watt's very pregnant character pole dance, or hearing the word "Shit!" escape from a priest's mouth (ably portrayed by Chris O'Dowd), the original moments abound in St Vincent.

The hits of the 60s interspersed throughout took me back in time, as they did for Vincent. Unfortunately, I can't name any of the tunes right now. But as they played, and Bill Murray danced, my feet were tapping.

If I had to criticize anything—and I am loathe to do so—it would be the ending credits. I'm sure in theory the director and lead actor loved the concept. But watching Murray improvise over all those credits got a bit redundant.

Grade: A