Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Portrait of an American Hero

The highly anticipated and critically acclaimed big screen adaptation of SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s autobiography ‘American Sniper’ is the second movie about Navy SEALs to come out in a year, following Peter Berg’s ‘Lone Survivor’ about a mission-gone-awry in Afghanistan and Marcus Luttrell’s struggle to survive behind enemy lines (see my review last January).  Raking in $90.2 million over the MLK weekend, it would appear that America’s love affair with this elite brotherhood of warriors famous for giving Osama bin Laden his due is alive and well.

And for good reason too.  Under Clint Eastwood’s skilled direction, AS is a riveting, compelling, gritty and suspenseful meditation on the complex realities of modern counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare and the warrior ethos.  We’ve all seen the trailer in which Kyle (played superbly by Bradley Cooper) struggled with himself while he held a young boy approaching a group of US Marines with an IED in his sights.  The turmoil and uncertainty shown on Cooper’s expression may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but let’s not fault Hollywood for humanizing our heroes for domestic consumption and the sake of our collective conscience.  Notwithstanding Michael Moore’s negative opinions on American snipers, these men did their duty even though they’ve been sent by our politicians to fight the wrong war for the wrong reasons in Iraq, for “theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die,” to paraphrase Lord Alfred Tennyson from his famous poem.

But what about the battle scenes, you ask?  The combat sequences are raw, visceral and intense, arguably the best I’ve seen since 2001’s ‘Black Hawk Down.’  Kudos should go to screenwriter Jason Hall for setting up the sniper duel between Kyle and “Mustafa,” the Olympian-turned-sniper fighting "infidels" in Iraq reminiscent of the legendary WWII sniper duel between Vasili Zaitsev and Erwin König during the Battle of Stalingrad as portrayed in William Craig's "Enemy at the Gates."  Alternating between Kyle’s four tours in Iraq and his life back home with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), the movie speeds up and slows down in concert with Kyle’s struggles to adapt to the doldrums of civilian life after experiencing the adrenaline highs of combat.  Here's a man who never had a regular job and whose only other profession was a brief career as a cowboy on the local rodeo circuit (another job for adrenaline junkies).  When he finally succumbed to his old lady’s endless nagging in order to save his marriage and retired from the navy to spend more time with his family, proving once again that women can conquer the hardiest of men like no armies can,  his life lacked purpose and meaning as a part of him literally died.  It is tragic and somewhat ironic that what ultimately gave him a semblance of direction and purpose in civilian life, his voluntary work helping veterans cope with PTSD, was also what killed him on that fateful day at the shooting range in 2013.

Grade: A
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CSI: Ad Hoc Cyber Unit

Cyber-terrorism is the subject of Michael Mann’s latest crime thriller ‘Blackhat,’ starring Chris Hemsworth as a computer programming genius pulled out of jail by the FBI to stop an elusive hacker who caused a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong to overheat and manipulated soy futures on the stock market (you heard right, soy).  On the heels of the recent Sony  hacks by the self-proclaimed “Guardians of Peace,” the timing of ‘Blackhat’ couldn’t have been better.  It is therefore unfortunate that the movie misfired so badly.

‘Blackhat’ is a bland and vanilla CBS-style procedural that defies our belief even as it tries our patience.  Each time the mysterious hacker taps the ‘Return’ key with dramatic flourish, we get a microscopic view as the electrical impulse zig-zags from his keyboard through wires and other electronic components across vast distances before it achieves its intended mayhem at the destination.  It gets boring after you see it just once.  Then there’s the unlikely casting of Chris Hemsworth as the outlaw hacker-turned-savior Nicholas Hathaway, who delivered a performance so wooden and flat that you can’t help but wonder why the CSA chose the Thor actor for the role to begin with.  Even if the story falls short, we can usually count on Michael Mann (‘Heat,’ ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ ‘Collateral’) to make up for it with his trademark action sequences, but his over-reliance on shaky/shifty camerawork (unsteady cam), grainy images and rapid close-ups only made ‘Blackhat’ seem unnecessarily schlocky.

Anything else?  Where do I start? Well, there’s the unlikely ad hoc team of cyber-sleuths comprised of a convicted felon, a couple of Chinese cyber ‘experts,’ an FBI agent and a US Marshal on whom catching the cyber-mastermind depended upon, a contrived romance between Hathaway and the pretty Chinese network engineer (Tang Wei) who tagged along on the team for no other reason than to give Hemsworth's character a stock "love interest," the uneven pace of the movie, the weak plot (I still don’t know what the hacker’s up to when the movie ended) and the WTF climax occurring at a crowded festival in Jakarta.  Oh, did I also mention the movie is just plain boring?  Mann is so much better than this.

Grade: C-
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Taken Again

Liam Neeson returns for the third and final installment of the ‘Taken’ franchise as Bryan Mills, the retired Black Ops specialist with a “particular set of skills” who went to the end of the earth to get his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) back from eastern European kidnappers in the original sleeper hit back in 2009.  As a surprise sleeper hit, ‘Taken’ was one of those movies that exceeded expectations and thereby warranted a sequel if not a trilogy for the sake of the bottom line.  Unfortunately, in such instances the sequels nearly always disappoint since there were no plans initially for follow-on stories.  While ‘Taken’ was an average and serviceable action B-movie in the tradition of Charles Bronson’s ‘Death Wish,’ critics were far less kind to ‘Taken 2’ with its hackneyed “an eye for an eye” revenge plot.  ‘Taken 3’ fared no better critically with its current “Rotten Tomatoes” rating of 11%.
It is well deserved.  ‘Taken 3’ is a cinematic train wreck equivalent to the worst excesses of Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson.  Bloated, overwrought, over-the-top and unbelievable, ‘Taken 3’ became a chase movie by making Mills a fugitive from the law as the prime suspect for the murder of his ex wife Lenore (Famke Janssen).  There’s no tension or suspense because we all know that with his “particular set of skills” he will have no problem evading the police while getting the real bad guys who killed his ex.  To make matters worse, even the mind-numbing action sequences are silly and uninspired.  In one scene, Mills somehow jumped out of his car right after it went off a cliff before exploding in spectacular fashion seemingly without a scratch; in another he was outrunning fully automatic weapons fire in a penthouse apartment from a Russian baddie who doesn't lead his shots despite being ex-Spetsnaz.  I thought I was watching a cartoon.

No matter.  ‘Taken 3’ took in $40 million at the box office over the weekend at #1, thanks to suckers like me packing the seats.  Why?  Because like the ‘Fast and the Furious’ franchise it has wide appeal and is immune to critics.  With its family-centered theme about a loving father and husband who will do anything to keep his loved ones safe, this is the type of action movie that speaks to both men and women.  In one memorable scene Mills asked Forest Whitaker’s character (an LAPD detective) what his top priority was, to which he replied: “To bring the person responsible for your wife’s murder to justice.”  Mills then said: “My top priority is to get my daughter back.” You can’t go wrong with that no matter how much a movie blows.

Grade: C
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Monday, January 12, 2015

A Three Hour Tour (well, not quite)

Paul Thomas Anderson, not to be confused with his diametrically opposite number Paul W.S. Anderson, is one of those film-makers who may not be particularly prolific but whose movies are always anxiously anticipated by cinephiles for their originality and unique vision.  ‘Inherent Vice’ is the seventh film from the director who brought us ‘Boogie Nights,’ ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Master’ and might just be his boldest and most daring yet.

Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, ‘Inherent Vice’ is a neo-noir film that’s aptly described as “Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe by way of Cheech and Chong.”  That’s because its protagonist, former cop-turned-PI “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix in another fine performance) is a pot-head beach bum sporting long hair and face-hugging sideburns that would do Wolverine proud.  But don’t let the slacker façade and drug-induced incoherence fool you; he is a sharp cookie (some of the time) and a capable Private Investigator.  Set in Los Angeles during 1970, the plot is a convoluted mess involving the disappearance of a real estate developer, murder, Sportello’s hippie ex-flame, cops, feds, a sax player-turned-informant, something called the “Golden Fang” (which may be a sinister drug laundering operation, a dentist organization created for tax purposes or simply a boat), free love and, of course, lots of dope, weed and pot consumption (quite literally in one scene involving Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen played by Josh Brolin).  It’s 1970, man, get over it.

Despite its confused and meandering pot, err, I mean plot, ‘Inherent Vice’ is weirdly entertaining and darkly funny in its own way, with numerous references from 'Adam 12' and 'Gilligan's Island' to Jesus's Last Supper.  To fully enjoy this movie, you must take a leap of faith and allow yourself to be swept along on its psychedelic trip to Nowhereville.  Don’t work too hard asking so many questions or try to connect the dots because you’ll only become increasingly frustrated.  Things will become ‘clear’ in the end.  Better yet, smoke a few joints while you’re at it with some friends for increased effect.  Just kidding. 

Grade: A
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Monday, January 5, 2015


“Survival. Resilience. Redemption.”  So goes the tagline of Angelina Jolie’s second directorial feature ‘Unbroken,’ the unbelievable-yet-true WWII survival tale based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 non-fiction book of the same name.  In her own words, what drew the actress-cum-director to bring Louis “Louie” Zamperini’s story on-screen is that it’s about a man “who tries really, really hard.”  That much is true; Louie’s story is one that has to be seen (or read) to be believed.

The feat of portraying Louie Zamperini falls to British newcomer Jack O’Connell.  With his innocent, boyish aspect, it’s not too much of a stretch to see how he could be so naïve that such notions as “giving up” and “admitting defeat” would never occur to him despite the best efforts of POW camp guard Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara aka “Miyavi”) to break him, culminating with the Herculean scene in which he lifted a heavy beam above his head that brings to mind Jesus Christ bearing the cross for our sins (see poster below).

‘Unbroken’ is filled with cheesy-but-inspiring sound bites such as “If you can take it, you can make it” and “One moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”  Platitudes aside, however, ‘Unbroken’ not only serves as a fitting tribute to a remarkable World War II veteran but also a testament to the enduring human spirit. To criticize such a “feel good” movie would be impolitic and un-American on my part, but thankfully I won’t have to because ‘Unbroken,’ co-written by the Coen brothers, is a solid yarn which demonstrates that Angelina Jolie may yet become a better director than she is an actress.

Grade: B+
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Be careful what you wish for

What do you get when you tie together four popular and beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales with an original story about a baker and his wife told through song?  The answer is ‘Into the Woods’ of course, the pleasant and utterly delightful Tony Award-winning Broadway musical which debuted in 1986 and now adapted into a movie by ‘Chicago’ director Rob Marshall.  With a talented cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden and Johnny Depp, ‘Into the Woods’ takes us on an imaginative musical journey into the dark, forbidding forest filled with enchantment, mystery and danger.

The mashup is elegant in its simplicity: A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wanted badly to have a child, but couldn’t due to a curse placed upon them by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep).  To lift the curse, they must follow the witch’s instructions and obtain a cow “as white as milk,” a cape “as red as blood,” hair “as yellow as corn,” and a slipper “as pure as gold.”  In the process they venture ‘into the woods’ and encounter Jack (of Beanstalk fame), the Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella.  ‘Into the Woods’ twists the familiar happy endings of these characters into something a bit darker (but not so dark as to lose its family-friendly PG rating) and makes us contemplate these people’s actions and their consequences.

Buoyed by the splendid musical score from composer Stephen Sondheim, ‘Into the Woods’ delivers the goods as a gleeful and magical romp into an enchanted realm guaranteed to please young and old alike.  This is sheer movie escapism, plain and simple, as light and fluffy as cotton candy.

Grade: A
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