American Sniper

American Sniper is a well crafted and wonderfully acted puff-piece/propaganda film. Everything about it is meticulous (fake baby shots aside) with a keen attention to atmosphere. There are no errant or useless shots and all of this is much to the film’s detriment. From the opening scene to the ending credits everything is very carefully constructed to enhance the glorification of the film’s protagonist. There is no doubt from the filmmakers on whose side we’re supposed to be on and the movie goes to great lengths to to pull just the right strings at just the right moments. It is manipulative in the worst ways.

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American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal that is credited with the most confirmed sniper kills in US military history. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle with a good ol’ boy Texas swagger and his performance is convincing on every level. He nails this part totally and completely with an authenticity that is to be admired. Unfortunately, Cooper’s performance is far and away the best thing the film has going for it, because the plot can be summed up as such: Chris Kyle realized at an early age that he was very good with a gun and used that skill to kill a whole lot of people. The film tries to give us an antagonist in a rival sniper known as Mufasa. Therein lies the problem with the film. Mufasa is almost indistinguishable from Kyle. They are the exact same character on opposite sides of a war, but the film wants us to call Kyle a hero and Mufasa a savage bloodthirsty personification of evil. It is that unfair characterization that I believe sinks the film.

Director Clint Eastwood uses no nuance in this film. This is a straightforward tale of the glorification of one particular soldier in the United States military. We are told that every action and decision made by Kyle was the right one and every motive was pure. If there were any doubts about Kyle’s saintly behavior they were quickly brushed aside in favor of more hero worship. It is cloying in the worst ways, perhaps most evident in the ending sequences. Eastwood uses real life footage from Chris Kyle’s tragic and untimely death to try and convince us that the glorification was justified. The real tragedy of the film is the massive amount of skill and talent that was wasted in what ended up being nothing more than a well crafted military recruitment video. Grade: C-

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The Expendables 3

The Expendables 3 is not a great film. It’s probably not even a good one. It does, however, have enough enjoyable moments to be entertaining. The film is critic-proof and a fine example of a movie that will only attract a core audience that already wants to see it. The marketing for this movie is superfluous at best and could have been summed up in a poster that read “All of the old guys from the previous movies with a few young people that you’ve never heard of thrown in.”

Sylvester Stallone again leads his crew on suicide missions to battle scarred areas of the world. Stallone looks tired and displays a stunning lack of charisma in every scene. I don’t like to get too hung up on the physical traits of an actor, but Stallone is starting to look like a medical experiment gone horribly awry. His face looks like it’s melting and plastic at the same time. It’s petty and superficial I know, but it’s getting harder to watch Stallone on screen as he is slowly morphing into something that doesn’t quite look human.

The rest of the crew is made up of Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. Statham plays the same gruff character that he did in the first two movies and actually serves less of a point in this one. Terry Crews is sidelined early on to make way for the addition of Wesley Snipes, because clearly there can be only one black character at a time. Randy Couture is also back for a third outing despite the fact that he hasn’t shown one ounce of a personality across all three films. The only actor who seems to recognize what kind of film he’s in is Dolph Lundgren. He’s pitch perfect again, and my strange man-crush on him aside, I wish he was in more of this movie and more movies in general.

What’s passing as a plot for the film is as follows- Stallone and crew break Wesley Snipes out of jail and they head straight to another mission where the bad guy turns out to be Mel Gibson. Gibson is an old Expendable that Stallone thought he had killed a long time ago. After Gibson shoots one of the crew Stallone decides to disband the group in favor of young blood. He meets up with a mercenary talent scout (Kelsey Grammer) and begins recruiting new members from around the world. This sequence is especially fascinating for the wild lack of geography knowledge required to visit these places in the order that they do.

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Stallone settles on a group of four twenty-somethings with various talents. Kellan Lutz plays a character who can ride a motorcycle and we are told has a problem with authority even though he never displays that trait in any way. Glen Powell plays a technology expert that is not shown doing anything that a competent 16 year old with a lot of money couldn’t do. Victor Ortiz plays a weapons expert whose main addition to the film is that he’s latino. Finally, we have Ronda Rousey whose sole purpose in the film is to supply one character with a vagina.

Stuff happens and things blow up. Circumstances change and Stallone requires his original team to come to his aid and work with the new kids to defeat the evil Mel Gibson and his plans for… Well we’re not sure what his plans are besides making money. We are told numerous times that he’s a really bad guy so we’ll have to take their word for it. More stuff happens. Loads and loads of things blow up. Even when they shouldn’t.

The brightest spot in the movie is the addition of Antonio Banderas as Galgo, a motor mouthed mercenary that can’t seem to find a team to work with him. His scenes are brilliant and they provide the only joy in an otherwise extremely self-serious film. Newcomers to the series Snipes, Banderas, Grammer, and Harrison Ford all provide the smallest of supporting characters and yet they bring the most to the table.

The biggest problem with the film is Sylvester Stallone himself. He is beyond terrible in this movie. His lines are more incomprehensible than usual and the weird melty face thing seems to have hindered his ability to emote anything besides blank slate. He is by far the least interesting thing happening in a movie that he is the star of and wrote for himself.

It’s hard to fault director Patrick Hughes, because he is clearly handcuffed by the enormous cast and the PG-13 rating. The fact that he managed to stage any decent action set pieces at all should earn him praise. Besides, Hughes is likely more of a figurehead. This is Stallone’s baby and there is no doubt of that at any time. That is never more telling than when Rousey mentions to Stallone that she would totally do him if he was 30 years younger. That exchange is so embarrassing to everyone involved, and that’s taking into account the fact that Rousey can’t act even a little bit.

I must mention the PG-13 rating as well. Not only does this rating not make sense for the film, but it blatantly shows how broken the MPAA rating system is. Hundreds of people die in this film. More bullets are fired than there are people on the Earth, but no blood is shown so it’s ok for teenagers. Boyhood shows a teenager drinking and says the f word once or twice and is slapped with an R rating. Expendables 3 shows a group of mercenaries killing the equivalent of a small nation’s population and it’s PG-13. That makes no sense. My other issue with the rating is that is a clear hindrance to the film. Hughes must continually cut away from action scenes that were obviously filmed to be in an R rated movie. The result is a tortuously edited mess. The question I would really like to ask the film makers is this: Did you really think you had a solid base of 13-17 year olds chomping at the bit to get into Expendables 3? The core group of stars in this film are in their 60’s. The only thing they accomplished with the PG-13 rating is watering down the violence which alienated the group of people that actually were excited for this film.

It’s been pretty easy picking out the weak spots, but there is some good stuff in there as well. Banderas is terrific. The action is a smidge above average. Lundgren and Snipes are fantastic. The final set piece is fun and contains the kind of jokes to action ratio you would hope for in a movie like this. This is easily the best of the Expendables trilogy, which might be damning with faint praise, but so be it. I’m actually quite looking forward to the inevitable unrated DVD version which has the possibility of being a pretty good movie. The best thing I could hope for is that the unrated version somehow has way less Stallone in it. Seems unlikely I admit, but I’d love to see that. I hope this ends the Expendables franchise, because with Stallone involved as heavily as he is this is probably the best we’re going to get so it might as well go off on the highest note possible. Grade: C+

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Boyhood

Boyhood is an extraordinary feat of cinematic achievement. It is breathtaking in ways that extend far beyond the story presented on the screen. Richard Linklater has created a film with such scope and patience that it stands as a one-of-a-kind experience that will stick with you long after it ends.

Richard Linklater is responsible for the Before series of films (Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight) which rank as some of my most personally beloved films of all time. My effusive praise for those films factored into my expectations for Boyhood and try as I might to temper them those expectations were extremely high. This was easily my most anticipated film of the year and I am beyond elated to say that it is a magical experience.

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The true uniqueness of the movie lies behind the screen. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason at 6 years old as the film starts, however he is also playing Mason at every other point in the film. The production for Boyhood started twelve years ago and Richard Linklater filmed the actors for a short period each summer. The same actors reprise their roles over the course of that twelve years which lets us watch this boy grow in a way that has never been captured before. We follow as Mason goes to school, makes friends, encounters new step-dads, and learns he who wants to be. Being able to watch the same actor play every scene during the transition from boy to man is astounding. All of the awkwardness of the teen years is in full display and the typical frustrations that accompany a boy learning to navigate the world are made all the more emotional when we have had the chance to watch that same boy grow up in front of our eyes.

Boyhood works on practically every level for practically any audience. The film may center on Mason, but as with life, the supporting characters contain their own stories. Patricia Arquette’s single mom resonates with truth and honesty and she attempts to make life work even if it is far different than the life she had planned. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. traverses from a relative slacker to an everyday family man. What also resonates about Hawke’s performance is how he manages to be the most consistent male figure in Mason’s life even though he does not have custody and isn’t around all that often.

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Each character has an arc that will resonate with different people for different reasons. Patricia Arquette’s single mom will certainly hit an emotional chord with any single parents out there trying to do what’s best for the family without sacrificing her own dreams along the way. As much as I can relate to some of the experiences of Mason, as a father I found myself intrigued by Ethan Hawke’s journey as he is more representative of my life at this time. I firmly believe that Boyhood’s ability to connect with an audience through multiple characters is what gives the film so much warmth.

As my praise borders on hyperbolic, I’ll suffice to say that Boyhood is an amazing experience that I will treasure for a very long time. It is easily one of the best films of the year. The independent nature of the film’s release will hinder it’s ability to find a mass audience, but I urge those that can find it to seek it out. Grade: A

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Guardians of the Galaxy

There is little doubt that audiences will turn out in droves to see Guardians of the Galaxy. There is also little doubt that loads of people will hail the film as the best Marvel movie to date. However, for me, the spectacle has lost its sheen. Guardians of the Galaxy offers nothing new and Marvel continues to churn out carbon copies with their infallible formula. The only true difference between Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America 2, Thor 2, and even Iron Man 3 is the set design and costuming. All of the plots are the same. Characters are interchangeable. The best and most unique thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is that it has an amazing soundtrack.

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This never felt like a film to me. There were no characters fleshed out beyond the one characteristic that defined them, and the third act plays out as every third act in a Marvel movie does. There are massive explosions and wild amounts of property damage in an attempt to stop a nondescript villain from gaining enough power to destroy the universe. I’m sure the Marvel marketing machine has made any description of the storyline irrelevant as audiences will line up to see “that new Marvel movie that’s been plastered all over creation.” A plot synopsis seems further extraneous because it is almost exactly the same plot as The Avengers. A group of heroes must put aside their differences and stand together against a common enemy. Oh, but this one has a talking raccoon.

I hate to sound cynical, but I’m growing tired of the comic book movie very very quickly. There has been no evolution in the genre. It appears that every release was pitched by an executive with the phrase, “yes it’s just like the last one but it will have more explosions.” We are not given reasons to care about any of the characters, possibly due to the fact that none of them have a personality. I truly believe that the film can be enjoyed in exactly the same way if the sound was on mute. The dialogue bears no weight on the story. All that’s left is the spectacle. The awe and wonder of the visual design. For some, that will be enough and I hope they enjoy every frame. There was a group of children seated near me that were raving throughout the film and seemed giddy with excitement as it ended. I wish I could go back to those days, but for me, I’ve seen variations of this film far too many times and the thrill is gone. Grade: C-

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Life Itself

I’ve never been one to hold up people as heroes in my life. Sure, I’ve had the normal fascinations and fantasies about sports players and rock stars, but they were always just that: fascinations. They were daydreams about living a life I’ve never experienced, but to me a hero was something more. I’ve only considered myself to have one hero and it was largely a secret to most people. My hero was Roger Ebert. It wasn’t the type of thing one flaunted or put up posters on the wall about, but it was a far more personal connection. It was personal in ways that I’ll never be able to articulate fully. I’ll never understand how someone that I had absolutely no personal contact with was able to hold me under his sway so completely. In my mind, what Roger Ebert wrote was worth reading. Always. However,  I didn’t always agree with his reviews and that may, perhaps, be the thing I cherish most. When I disagreed with Roger Ebert I really had to look to myself and justify my feelings. He forced me to look at films more critically, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Now I find myself presented with the documentary Life Itself, a film based on the memoirs of Ebert directed by Steve James. Roger had given James full access to his life just months before he passed and much use was made of personal footage and interviews with those that knew him best. The only glaring omission to my mind was leaving out all mention of Richard Roeper. It puzzles me as to why those years of their partnership were omitted in his life story. However, the rest of his life is beautifully presented. It is unflinching towards the less desirous characteristics of his personality and faces the tribulations of his cancer treatment with candor and honesty.

I will not be giving this film a grade. Suffice it to say that it moved me to be able to watch a bit of the life of a man I never knew, but yet always felt close to. I cried while watching the end and felt the loss of his passing all over again. I believe that the film will be impressive and moving for even those that weren’t enthusiasts, but that belief is mired in a bias so thick that it’s palpable. To those that are not fans of Roger Ebert this may be an interesting two hours spent learning about the life of a complicated and celebrated man, but to me it was a chance to spend time with my hero, which much like the writings that came before it, is something that I will cherish forever. Rest in peace Roger, and thank you for all that you did even for those you never met.

Maleficent

There was a point during Maleficent where I considered setting myself on fire. I felt that my fellow audience members deserved to see something entertaining that evening and the film certainly didn’t seem to have any interest in providing it. I checked my watch about ten minutes into the film due to an unrelenting desire to be anywhere else and I continued checking my watch every ten minutes for the 17 hour runtime. I emerged from the theater haggard and sleep deprived. I was mentally calculating how many meals I must have missed and how much I longed to see my family. In this delirious state I was informed that Maleficent has a runtime of 97 minutes. I still do not believe that fact.

Maleficent is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story told from the point of view of the villain. Sort of. She’s now the hero and the villain. She’s the only one the filmmakers cared about even a little bit so she has to be all things to all people. The film begins with a young Maleficent that lives in the Moors with a wide range of fantastical creatures. She befriends a trespassing human from a nearby land and they begin a long term friendship that culminates in a betrayal/ rape analogy. Maleficent then spends about twenty minutes as the villain we remember before changing again because the plot requires it.

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One of the major problems with this film is that the vast majority of the plot is described in narration rather than in any of the scenes. The film begins with narration, moves on to a scene, then begins another narration in an endless cycle so that no individual scene requires any semblance of plot. At no point do the filmmakers make any attempt to create anything that could be called an actual film.

Angelina Jolie has championed this project for years and she clearly saw something in the story that she connected with. Her performance is fine in a strangely nondescript way. That may be due to her character changing personalities so many times throughout the film. Jolie still has an amazing ability to act with her eyes and she can nuance her emotions with a glance. I felt bad for her because she gives her all in a truly bad film. She is let down at every step from script to direction to CGI.

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Speaking of the CGI, Maleficent falls victim to the same problem as Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful. A purely computerized environment never feels authentic. It never looks likes the actors are interacting with anything. Maleficent looks like a green screen nightmare with a nausea inducing love for anything that looks strange. All of this is not to say that the CGI is poorly designed. The CGI itself looks fine, but it never melds with the actors. There is a clear disconnect that never resolves itself.

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I would like to make special mention of Sharlto Copley who plays the nemesis to Maleficent in the film. I was wowed by Copley’s performance in District 9 and was looking forward to his future roles. Unfortunately, Copley has been blazingly bad in everything since. He was awful in Elysium and Oldboy and he does nothing to regain any confidence here. It is time that casting directors take a hard look at these performances and reconsider their interest.

I could go on and on about all of the things I disliked about this movie, but the internet would run out of room. Suffice it to say that there was nothing in this film that I liked, and that I feel bad for Jolie who deserves a much better film around her. I would actually be interested in seeing the film that was advertised in the trailers. That film looked like a dark and gothic fairytale with a willingness to embrace its evil side. The finished film is nothing like the trailer lets on. I don’t think I can continue talking about Maleficent. I’ve given too much of my life to this film. I should’ve stopped after the two minute trailer. I probably would’ve been far more satisfied. Grade: D-

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