American Sniper Review

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 camera movements 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 pull just the right strings at just the right moments. It is manipulative in the worst ways.

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-

 

Ted 2 Review

Seth McFarlane is in desperate need of an editor. Ted 2 had the chance to be a full on vulgar riot, but McFarlane’s unwillingness to streamline the film a bit leaves it a tattered mess with as many jokes that go nowhere as uproarious ones. Comedy is a delicate art and it is especially easy to overstay your welcome. Ted 2 overstays its welcome and then stays some more. If it was about a half hour shorter we might be talking about comedy gold, but as it is, it’s merely ok if not annoying.

Mark Wahlberg is back with his living teddy bear from the first film. Ted is in love, gets married, and tries to have a child. The conflict comes when Ted is informed that due to an oversight by the government he is ineligible to adopt a child because he is technically not a person. That is the loose thread upon which all of the jokes are hung. Amanda Seyfried joins the cast as a pot smoking lawyer who may or may not be interested in Mark Wahlberg’s character who is recovering from his divorce. There really is very little else to say unless I wanted to spoil the jokes.

The cast is game for all of McFarlane’s shenanigans. Wahlberg brings that boyish charm and charisma that he used to such good effect in the first film and Seyfried gets a better chance to show off her comedy chops than she’s had in quite some time. Even the supporting and cameo characters are spot on with a willingness to let the jokes take center stage. Everyone’s on-screen timing is perfect and the acting deserves serious applaud.

It’s rare that a film seems to have one flaw so fatal that it downgrades the whole affair. Ted 2’s running time is that flaw. Whole swaths of the film could have been cut, especially everything involving the Giovanni Ribisi character, and what would have been left would have been tight and filled with jokes that land. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone thought this movie needed to be two hours long. If it was a half hour shorter it would have been a laugh a minute. Instead, it’s sporadically hilarious with long stretches of tedium. Grade: C-

Dope Review

Dope is the rare teen comedy that lives up to the highest levels of the genre. It is smart, funny, well acted, and provides a wonderful experience. Dope is breezy and exhilarating in ways that are sorely lacking from most teen fare. This also has the added bonus of having perfect performances from a young crew of mostly unknowns that capture these characters in ways that seem realistic and nuanced. Dope is a feel-good comedy that mixes some grounded performances with heightened situations to give audiences a good laugh and a good time.

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a geek that spends all his time preparing for college and hanging out with his two best friends Jib (Tony Revelori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Malcolm’s Harvard aspirations and penchant for 1990s hip-hop don’t make him very popular so he splits his free time between avoiding the thugs trying to steal his shoes and dodging the drug dealers that try and steal his bike. During one such encounter with the dealers in his neighborhood he makes an impression on a local heavyweight and scores an invitation to a party where things go awry, chaos ensues, and Malcolm ends up with a backpack full of dope. Malcolm has to rally his friends to join him on an adventure through the streets of L.A. to fix the situation, secure his future, and maybe learn a little about themselves along the way.

The trio of Shemeik Moore, Tony Revelori, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful on screen from beginning to end with each one bringing a layered and hysterical character to the screen. It is refreshing to see such on-screen chemistry that doesn’t seem forced.

Thankfully, the behind-the-camera talents are as impressive as the on-screen ones. Director Rick Famuyiwa lends a sure hand to the proceedings that elevates the material beyond standard point and shoot. Editor Lee Haugen also does a superb job keeping the film light on its feet and wonderfully paced. Due to the tone, pacing, and editing the hour and forty three minute run time flies by leaving everything feeling like a breezy romp.

Dope is the kind of teen comedy I wish we got all the time. In many ways it reminds me of The Breakfast Club and 10 Things I Hate About You. There are few films in the genre that are this successful in their storytelling and Dope tells a wonderfully uplifting story that is a joy to experience. Grade: A-

Jurassic World Review

Those who crave logic and consistency be warned- Jurassic World is not a movie for you. This film is a mess, but it has achieved something that is fairly rare, in that it made me give up somewhere halfway through. I don’t know if it was the total lack of characterization, the appallingly bad dialogue, or the mind-bogglingly stupid decisions made by every character, but somewhere in there I decided that I just didn’t care anymore. Who cares if the characters’ actions in one scene seem to have no bearing on the next? Why bother having any dialogue at all? If the screenwriter didn’t care enough to write believable dialogue why should I bother listening to it? Let’s just get to that end scene with all those CGI dinosaurs that move in ways that suggest that it was the laws of physics that went extinct instead.

Jurassic World is a direct sequel to Jurassic Park with no mention of the two other sequels that exist, which is probably for the best. Jurassic Park has become a major tourist attraction that pulls in twenty thousand visitors a day. Day-to-day operations are handled by Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose nephews (Kid 1 and Kid 2) are coming to visit her for the first time in years. It just so happens that the scientists at Jurassic Park have tinkered with the DNA of a T-Rex and created a whole new species of dinosaur that is bigger, scarier, and brought to you by Verizon Wireless. This new dinosaur has waited patiently for the perfect time to escape by calculating when the most useless idiots will all be in the same place at the same time. Enter Chris Pratt- The Dinosaur Whisperer.

I don’t want to be too hard on the movie. I can’t even get myself worked up about it because clearly the filmmakers put in the actual minimum amount of effort. If they can’t be bothered, neither can I. Jurassic World is a celebration of CGI and nostalgia. Remember that Jurassic Park movie back in the 90s? That was so good wasn’t it? Every ten minutes or so is a scene specially designed to make you remember that original film regardless of whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever. All of those scenes were punctuated by flashes of CGI dinosaurs that look close to realistic until they move. At some point my mind went numb and I never recovered. I could spend another thousand words describing all of the ridiculous things that happen in Jurassic World, but why bother? No one cares. If you want to see a film where dinosaurs fight each other and massive amounts of idiots are in peril, this is the film for you and nothing I say would change your mind. I can’t really recommend this film, but I understand the appeal. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have a better time than I did. Grade: D+

Tomorrowland Review

Tomorrowland left me breathless. Mostly because I spent the last twenty minutes or so of the film holding my breath in a desperate attempt to make myself pass out and bring about an end to the experience. I found myself hating Walt Disney a little just because he founded a company that would eventually make this didactic mess that I would have to sit through instead of doing something productive. Tomorrowland is such a monumental waste of time that not only do I feel that the studio owes me my ticket money back, but also the gas money I spent to drive to the theater and a little extra for emotional damages.

The “plot” is about a girl who is given a pin that magically takes her to Tomorrowland (sort of) where only really smart and creative people are allowed. That world that isn’t exactly Earth is being threatened by the negativity of humans in ways that either don’t make sense or aren’t explained and they can only be saved by the heroic presence of our main character. She doesn’t need to do anything, just stand there optimistically while George Clooney and Hugh Laurie take turns patronizing everyone with speeches about how negative humans have become and how smart people should be allowed to go somewhere and just be smart.

Tomorrowland certainly has a message that the filmmakers wanted to get across. The message is this- smart and creative people are awesome and they should be allowed to do whatever they want which would really be for the benefit of everyone because the awesome people will  make awesome stuff that even normal dumb non-creative people will get to enjoy. I would have much preferred it if the smart and creative filmmakers had made a smart and creative movie instead of a jiggling mass of plot holes that buckles under the weight of its own pretension.

 There is one set piece in the film that is entertaining even if it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film. You’ll be able to spot it immediately if you have the misfortune to find yourself watching Tomorrowland. It stands in direct contrast to everything that comes before and after, mostly because it’s fun and is a competently choreographed action scene that seems to have internal consistency and a sense of purpose. It just so happens to be the only scene that seems to be made by a crew of filmmakers that weren’t snorting the majority of the budget straight up their nose.

I have complained in the past about films that appear to be feature length music videos. Tomorrowland takes that one step further by hijacking the Apple computer advertisement that told us to Think Different and blowing it up to two hours and ten minutes. I would like to say more positive things about the film, but every time I think about it my head starts to hurt and I need to lie down. I sincerely hope that we can all forget about this piece of exceptionalist nonsense and never speak of it again.  Grade:F 

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

I believe strongly in the auteur theory in film, so much so that I feel like we should be seeing the DNA of the director splattered across the film stock if we know where to look. We should know when we see a certain director’s films. We know when we’re watching Hitchcock, Scorsese, or Tarantino. On the other end of the spectrum it could be argued that Michael Bay is an auteur, because I can certainly identify one of his giant piles of garbage instantly. Now here comes a new film that fits into that auteur category perfectly. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work that could be done by no one other than George Miller. This is a singular vision of mayhem and insanity that looks and feels like no other film.

I had high expectations for this film as it was easily my most anticipated summer release. I loved the original films when I was a kid and the trailer for this new chapter certainly kept my hopes high. The trailer promised bombastic chaos in a world that could only come from the Mad Max post-apocalyptic landscape created by George Miller 36 years ago. Mad Max: Fury Road delivers on the trailer’s promise and gives us two hours of relentless high octane carnage. Its only true flaw may be that it overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes or so.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the current landscape of summer blockbusters where the emphasis is on superpowers and explosions and any semblance of characterization or storytelling is left by the wayside. I don’t understand why films like the Avengers or Furious 7 even bother with expository scenes at all. It is quite clear that the filmmakers had no interest in writing or filming them so why am I seeing them? George Miller has sidestepped that question by silently agreeing with me. Mad Max is essentially a chase film from beginning to end and it does not rest for silly contrivances like character motivations or plot mechanics. We are dropped into the world and just have to go with it. There are no explanations and we don’t need any. Mad Max: Fury Road is an experience plain and simple. For all those that say they go to see a movie just to turn off their brain and see things blow up- this is the movie for you.

The character of Max was established in the original Mad Max in 1979, but I don’t feel like there’s any reason you would have needed to see that film to enjoy this one. The only thing you need to know is that this takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humanity has been ravaged. What really sells this film is the visuals which are almost impossible to describe. Fans of the original series can rest assured that George Miller’s maniacal visual flair is still intact.

There certainly are other aspects of the film that merit mention, namely actors Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Both do a fine job with their roles and Theron makes a strong case that the film is mistitled. She is the star and easily carries the film with her performance. The cinematography is gorgeous and it feels like an interesting choice to oversaturate the colors with the modern trend being to de-saturate as much as possible. Miller takes that color palette and fuses the visuals with the audio in a way that feels completely organic to the world while being completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I also appreciated the feminist angle the film seems to take, which is a refreshing respite from the summer movie season mentality of manly men, their heroic deeds, and the luscious ladies that cook them dinner.

My only gripe is that two hours is a ridiculously long time to watch trucks chase each other. I spent a long time admiring the world, the visuals, and the mayhem, but after a while that admiration turns to tedium if nothing new is happening on the screen. I wanted Mad Max: Fury Road to be a masterpiece. It isn’t. But I’ll take the flawed vision of an auteur like Miller over the rubber stamped studio product like The Avengers any day of the week. At least with Mad Max I could walk into the theater saying I didn’t know how the story was going to go, and leave the theater saying I’ve never seen anything else like it. Grade: B+

Mother's Milk Review

Some movies are more intriguing than they are entertaining or technically sound. Mother’s Milk, a psychological horror film from first time director Edward Pionke, certainly falls into that category. There are some very good ideas here and, given the limitations of the ultra-low shoestring budget, what is presented to us onscreen is fairly well realized. There are certainly faults with the film, but they are of the variety that money and experience will likely fix. Mother’s Milk has the feel of a director learning his way around a camera, but is a strong enough debut that I look forward to his future projects.

Mother’s Milk, in both tone and story, is Psycho and Misery mixed together and wrapped in sexual dysfunction. Claude is a statistics professor with a dark fetish stemming from his troubled past. He kidnaps a recent college graduate in order to try and fill a very specific role in his life. As the days and weeks go on a bizarre sort of relationship forms between Claude and Kim leaving the viewer wondering who is really trapped. This is an extremely dark film that will likely leave the audience uncomfortable. I’m not sure I would want to meet the person that believes this has any kind of rewatchability factor. I recommend watching it once, after that you’re on your own.

I must give praise to the two leads as Casey Chapman (Claude Rainer) and Mackenzie Wiglesworth (Kim Rodgers) both do a superb job in the film. Chapman manages to give believability and sympathetic qualities to a monster with a delicate performance that could have easily gone wrong in numerous ways. Wiglesworth plays the victim with a strength not typically associated with that role. Both do a great job of playing off of each other, which is fortunate since they are essentially the only two characters we see on screen for the vast majority of the film. This is the first film I’ve seen for each of them, but they showed enough that I hope to see them again.

The technical aspects are where the film falters, especially in regards to the lighting and editing. The lighting was one of the first things to strike me. Pionke uses his lights to create an atmosphere of shadows and while this can create some striking images it tended to muddle the compositions of scenes taken as a whole. This mixed with the editing issues really dampened the emotional impact of a few key scenes. I’m going to bet that Pionke came out of stage theater productions because many of the films scenes are staged and edited as if they were a play. There is virtually no coverage and most of the movie is done with two shots where both actors are in the frame at the same time. When the majority of the film takes place in a basement it wouldn’t hurt to use the editing to spice things up a bit at times.

All-in-all I was pleasantly surprised by Mother’s Milk. It’s a solid debut for director Edward Pionke and actors Chapman and Wiglesworth. They’ve created a very dark and disturbing film, and while the technical aspects may not be there quite yet, they did succeed in storytelling, tone, atmosphere, and the ability to create a whole lot of tension with just two people in a basement. I’ll forgive the flaws when that much goes right on the first time out. Grade:B-

While We're Young Review

Youth will leave us all behind. It’s what we do when that inevitable fact happens that matters. Do we desperately try and recapture it and force ourselves to try and fit in with a culture that we don’t quite understand? Or do we embrace our age and all of the signifiers that go with it? What happens if we feel alienated from both groups? While We’re Young gives us a story of those in the middle ground. It shows us what happens when we give up on our own identity in a fleeting attempt to live someone else’s life.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia who are in their forties, childless, and splitting their ideals between youthful spontaneity and dull maturity. Stiller is a documentary filmmaker that had a modest hit many years back, but has stalled for ten years making his follow up and is constantly living in the shadow of his father-in-law who is a much heralded documentarian. Stiller encounters Jamie and Darby while he’s teaching a filmmaking class for continuing education. Jamie, an aspiring documentarian himself, offers up immediate flattery for Josh’s old documentary and Josh begins to swoon. Flattery will get you everywhere. Before they know it Josh and Cornelia are spending all of their time adapting to fit in with the youth culture that Jamie and Darby represent and in the process alienating themselves from the group of friends that they now find boring and predictable. When Josh starts to realize that his newfound friendship may not be as it seems he is left to decide where he fits in based on his ideals and his ideals only.

While We’re Young is written and directed by Noah Baumbach who brings his typical ear for dialogue and simple cinematography to this project. He lets the focus fall squarely on the characters and situations. There are no distractions from the story that he’s trying to tell and the stark compositions enhance the themes in much the same way that the black-and-white film added to Frances Ha, which is a film I prefer to this one even though I find While We’re Young to be more relatable. Baumbach has proven time and again that he has a unique ability to shine the spotlight on a character and watch as they squirm through everyday life. I always find his films engaging and While We’re Young is no exception.

Ben Stiller and Adam Driver are the true lead characters in the film and both portray their characters with just the right amount of truthfulness. Stiller’s brand of neurotic everyman has often rubbed me the wrong way and I find most of his performances to be smuggish at best. Here he plays Josh with a vulnerability that I don’t often see from him. We can truly believe that Josh is confused as to why his life didn’t turn out the way he thought it would. We can see Josh’s inner struggles to find his place in the world and that is an amazing credit to Stiller who has shown to be far more in favor of showboating than nuance. It is wonderfully played against the ultra-ironic bohemian hipster in Adam Driver. Driver is a shark in skinny jeans and uses every ounce of that charisma of his to woo not only Stiller’s Josh, but us in the audience as well. We want to like both of these characters and the inevitable breakdown of a forced friendship makes us look at where we truly stand. There are no right and wrong sides because Stiller and Driver let us see ourselves in each of them.

I found this film moving in so many ways. The first two acts are a different tone than the last half hour, but the early moments in the film are so good at capturing truth and believability that the final act twist still seems in character. What we show to the world is not all that we are just as this film is not only what happens onscreen. While We’re Young will stay with you awhile after you see it, making you look at your own life to see where you fit in. That’s the sign of good art and a good film. Grade: A-

 

The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

The Avengers 2 throws so much at the screen in its two and a half hour run time that it seems impossible that someone could come out of the theater not liking at least something about the film. That is true even for me. I did indeed like approximately five minutes or so of the movie. The rest is either filler garbage that is there for no other purpose than to set up a future movie or stunningly bad action scenes. The most upsetting thing about the film is that there really is nothing to get upset over. I described The Avengers 2 to a friend as a visual concussion and I’m sticking by that description. The film spends so long pounding and blasting and exploding, and screaming MORE that by the end of it I was left feeling nothing and remembering less.

The plot of the Avengers 2 has to do with a group of superheroes getting together to do superhero stuff and a villain attempting to drive the team apart with infighting. The heroes must learn to work together in order to save the world from certain destruction. Oh wait sorry, that’s the plot of the first Avengers. Marvel movies seem to have become so formulaic that they are almost literally remaking the same film and no one seems to either notice or care.

The touches that I did like in the film felt pretty exclusively like Joss Whedon flourishes. There is a party scene where all of the Avengers just sit around and chat while trying to pick up Thor’s hammer that is brilliant. I would have watched that party in real time for two hours and left feeling satisfied. I didn’t need the two hours of battle scenes because that’s where the film really goes off the rails.

The closest comparison I can make to The Avengers visual style, frame composition, and CGI is Transformers. Most of this movie felt like a Transformer film just with superheroes instead of robots. No wait, Avengers 2 has giant robots as well. The action is muddled and it is very difficult to understand what is happening in any given battle. You can’t figure out where the characters are in relation to each other and everything feels weightless. The editing is hyperactive and sloppy which just makes everything worse. Above all else, it is the technical aspects of the film that really make it a slog to sit through.

It’s hard to write about a Marvel movie. There’s never anything egregiously wrong with them. They’re just all the same. I’ve sat through enough of them now to not care anymore. Hawkeye has a speech in the Avengers 2 where he talks about why they fight. He says that it’s their job. That’s what these films are starting to feel like. It’s a job. Marvel executives have told us that we need to see it and so we go. No other reason. It’s our job. Grade: C-