Wednesday, January 21, 2015


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--


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


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


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+