American Sniper

It happens most times I see a Clint Eastwood movie: I forget it’s a Clint Eastwood movie until his “Directed by” credit appears at the end. Last time, I was disappointed. This time, I was overjoyed. Well done, homeboy!

The simplest way to describe this movie is something like… a slightly more uplifting version of The Hurt Locker. But more complicatedly, this movie embraces the darkness, revels in the emotional turmoil, whereas The Hurt Locker‘s was built on macho avoidance. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In any case, I only make this comparison to prepare people who haven’t seen it yet. It’s not an uplifting movie by any means. It’s a hard one to watch, but it is damn inspirational.

I decided to write this review today, because in a few hours, I’m going to see Bradley Cooper do something else fantastic, in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway. Since seeing American Sniper last week, I’ve been on a B.Coop kick. I’ve always loved him, but I revisited Silver Linings Playbook the other night and am just continually amazed by his depth and breadth. I was chatting with a friend the other day, who brought up how he sort of suffers from Brad Pitt syndrome (ie, being too beautiful to be taken seriously as an actor). But I really don’t think so. Pitt is a really good actor, but Cooper is a really great one. Pitt maybe doesn’t trust himself enough to do a romantic comedy. (Can you think of one he’s done? Because I can’t.) Cooper, on the other hand, keeps showing us that he can do anything. He’s got the presence to be in blockbusters (The Hangover), the douchiness to be in big comedies (Wedding Crashers), the heartthrobbiness for aforementioned romance (SLP), he’s been in action movies I haven’t seen, he voiced a freaking raccoon in Guardians, and he boinked Michael Ian Black in WHAS and made out with Betty White on Sunday. He’s the best.

Back to the serious stuff, sorry. His portrayal of Chris Kyle is phenomenal. Pardon my ignorance, but this is the second movie in a row in which I’m writing about a true story I was blind to before. I vaguely remember hearing stories about Kyle a couple years ago, and am sad to say I didn’t pay closer attention at the time. And as I said about The Imitation Game, I’m so glad this movie was made. Kyle’s story is one that needs to be told on a grand scale, so that we understand the glories of war, and the rampant fucked-upedness of PTSD. It’s wonderful that he was able to overcome it, but it’s tragic that someone else wasn’t, and that led to his death.

It took a little bit of time for me to warm up to Cooper’s Kyle. He’s a distanced, polite guy from the start, raised with Southern manners and confidence but always a little more straightforward than his brother growing up and his comrades in the war. His descent into wartime focus and, thus, PTSD, is hard to parse, because it’s ambiguous how much of that madness is his own, and how much was caused by what he saw. Cooper plays it subtle: the descent is slow and creepy, masked by his unparalleled focus and talent. He was the best sniper in the armed forces, and the most humble, too; it seems impossible that someone that talented could ever feel anything other than deep pride. He also comes out of it gradually, embracing his wife more and fathering his children the way he always intended. He’s an easy person to root for, even if his mind is difficult to understand. He’s two people sharing one body.

On the home front, Sienna Miller is graceful and understated as his wife, Taya, so much so that I didn’t even recognize her. I tried for a bit to figure it out, but then I just let her performance take over. I want to know more of her story, more of how she was able to handle watching her husband leave FOUR times to head into a place of almost-certain death, then return a shell of a human. What a life. Out on the battlefield, the actors playing Kyle’s fellow SEALs were also a lot more understated than what I expected. War movies do tend to glorify battle, and that argument has been made for this movie as well, but I never got the sense from American Sniper that the men overseas were undeniably thrilled to be there. They were patriots, and heroes, and all that, but they were scared, too. This movie glorifies the beauty in fighting for one’s country just as much as it details the consequences. The explosions and gunfire are pretty for a second, but then they hit the ground and kill people and ruin lives and wreak havoc.

Chris Kyle really was an American hero, and he lived an important, tragically short life. If this movie, with its depiction of SEAL training, home invasion, sandstorm survival and mental instability still makes people want to go to war, so be it. I don’t ever want to, and I don’t advocate it, but I know that our country wouldn’t be where it is without good people like Kyle.

The Imitation Game

When Benedict Cumberbatch appeared on the screen in The Imitation Game it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen him act yet. I had seen him on Jimmy Fallon, and in otter memes, and gracing magazine covers, but I hadn’t seen him do the thing that’s his job. Funny how long that takes sometimes. I’m on board now.

I’m no Cumberbitch, though. He’s a very cute, charming person, but it’s not about that for me. Guy can act. (I must go back and watch Sherlock now!) His performance as Alan Turing is my favorite of the year, by far, and my pick for the Best Actor Oscar. Turing’s story is one I wish I had known earlier in my life, and am grateful to know about now. Between decoding the Nazi’s encrypted Enigma machine in World War II and masking his true sexual identity, he lived a nearly impossible life. Without intending to, he became a stoic, unheard presence in many movements, and his work and life saved probably millions of other lives, even if he couldn’t bear to live his own.

It’s devastating and magnificent to watch Cumberbatch bring this person to life. He doesn’t smile much, so when he does, you jump at the chance to enjoy yourself along with him. Most of the time, though, he’s drawn and serious, in his own head, strained, at a distance from the real world. Even though you don’t entirely understand how his mind works, you get frustrated right along with him, too, when his comrades and coworkers don’t see the world the way he does. You want him to make the kind of progress that he needs to make to win the war because you trust him. That’s the delicate balance that I think only Cumberbatch could have stricken — behind the misunderstood genius is a good person, an unselfish person who comes across as selfish 99% of the time.

Keira Knightley, as his partner Joan, is also really wonderful. I’m really enjoying how she’s breaking away from the traditional period pieces and expanding her breadth, because she can. She and Benedict have a lovely, friendly chemistry. They seem like they’d be friends in real life, in any era, and her Joan brings out Alan’s human side without actually speaking for him. Her story is also quite fascinating: To be the smartest woman in the room, yet to have to cover her intelligence by pretending to be a secretary, hurriedly finding a husband, and generally bowing down to the traditions of the day, must have felt impossible, too. She paved the way for a lot of women, also most likely without even knowing she was.

A ton of historical context had to be built into this movie, in the form of staged war scenes, actual footage of Hitler, Alan’s childhood backstory, and that sort of thing. It didn’t always feel completely seamless, mostly because the style and coloration was a little inconsistent. But without those pieces, without taking us out of the secret room in which Alan and his team were building Christopher, the first computer, we never would have gotten a full grasp of the scope of their project, and the immense pressure they were under. And even though some of these pieces looked and felt a hair clunky, they were placed just perfectly into the story. They came when we needed them most, and they told us exactly what we needed to know. Flashbacks, especially, tend to get in the way, but those in The Imitation Game felt elegant and poetic. Kid-Alan (Alex Lawther) tugged at our heartstrings in such an honest, non-saccharine way, probably because at that age (and in that time period), the feelings he was feeling were so foreign that being reserved and quiet was the only coping mechanism. What a sad, sorry childhood Turing must have led.

I really loved this movie, and am so glad it was made. I even wish that the programming and engineering scenes had been fleshed out a bit more, for the sake of my own stupid curiosity (though it might not have made for the most exciting story), and at the expense of the two random scenes in which Turing takes his frustration out on the running track. There’s so much more to learn about Alan Turing, and this compelling, wonderful film provides a fascinating introduction.

Whiplash

Boy, am I glad I was a mediocre middle school band instrumentalist, and nothing more! The sweet hell of music school is one thing, certainly, but the special sweet hell of being a prodigy? No thank you.

We’ve seen stories about musical prodigies before, though. They’re usually quiet, nerdy, antisocial, studious. There’s something about Miles Teller’s Andrew that is off, for sure, but he’s brazen, loudmouthed, cocky, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. His ego, for the most part, actually helps him in social situations. He’s a relatively normal kid, save for the fact that he can absolutely kill it on the drums. It’s deceiving.

What’s also deceiving is J.K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher, the music teacher whose rage I can’t even begin to form words about. Simmons has the kindest eyes and face, and that kindness could never fully leave his visage, but his performance in this movie is about as close as he’ll ever get. The thing is, Fletcher is harmless. He throws things, he yells, he threatens, he screams, but he’s harmless. And yet, in all the terrifying moments of temper loss, it’s so simple to forget that. He takes what little power the talented kids have and wrings it out in seconds. He holds their fate, their futures, their livelihoods in his rather large hands, because they don’t know any better.

There’s a certain Steve Jobsiness to Fletcher, and not just because we mostly see him in a tight black tee shirt. (Or is it a Louis CKiness? A Ricky Gervaisiness?) Actually, the costuming has a lot to do with it. But there’s this brazen focus, this inability to comprehend ever losing, ever coming in second, that brings him closer to a CEO-like fearless leader, such as Jobs. His whole body oozes hatred, and his relationships with all of his students, especially Andrew, are wound so tightly that you truly can’t imagine him ever having a good time. The moments of humanness that we see interspersed throughout the movie, like when he chats with a friend’s toddler daughter, or interacts with Andrew at a small club after their falling out, are really just moments of Fletcher acting. Simmons did a meta role here — he played the greatest fictional actor of all time.

This movie is not the best picture of the year, because it’s only an acting vehicle. Sure, there were creative shots abound, and some of the drumming sequences felt like athletic races and fights and, really, anything but musical. But the drums were not another “character” in this movie. It was a one-two shot between Simmons and Teller, a bizarre exploration of how a kid with no daddy issues — because how can you have them when Paul Reiser plays your dad and is the nicest? — can somehow have daddy issues anyway with this music teacher. Fletcher is not a mentor. He’s a warning. If Andrew isn’t careful, he could wind up like Fletcher and alienate the people he loves by letting his talent run his life. He could also fail at a musical career and have to spend his life teaching kids who show far more potential and drive than he ever did.

Maybe I’m reading into the characters a little too much. But I think one of the many points of the movie was to show how some adults really don’t grow up — they stay shells of their former selves, slaves to their routines. And to contrast with that, some kids show beautiful promise, with just a bit of reigning in necessary for them to achieve it. Or, in the case of Andrew, a lot of reigning in, and a lot of bloody blisters. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, because it kept me on edge for two hours, but it was an intense look at the world of jazz, the smoothness of which is something we take for granted.

Peep World

I remember hearing about this movie when it came out in 2010, and being utterly delighted by the cast: Michael C. Hall, Rainn Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Ben Schwartz (ahem, Benny Schwaz), Kate Mara, Judy Greer, blah blah blah. And then, for some reason, I never actually saw it. Seeing Michael C. Hall on Broadway as Hedwig made me remember it, though, and stream it on Netflix.

I’m glad I did, even though it wasn’t the world’s greatest movie, because it deserves a little love. Four years later, This Is Where I Leave You came out, and OH MY GOD, it’s basically the same movie. Four siblings gathering against their will because their father makes them. There are many differences, mostly minutae, but the similarities are sort of sickening. (Benny is even in both movies!) I’m inclined to be a little mad at TIWILY for getting all the credit, though the book it was based on was published in 2009. Who knows. Either way, the Venn Diagrams of these two movies overlap so much that they’re basically just one circle, and it makes me wince that so many people I love are involved in carbon copies of the same movie. Then again, I guess this is just a Friends With Benefits/No Strings Attached type of situation. Oy.

Yes, oy. Peep World is also about a Jewish family. While the quality of this movie, production-wise, was much lower, I think it took itself far less seriously and covered much less ground than Peep World, giving it more points in my book. It also didn’t indulge its actors and let them depend heavily on their previously-established comedic talents. Michael C. Hall, playing the sort-of Corey Stoll character, doesn’t often get to be a normal guy with normal problems. Here, he was. He got to sit back and be the boring guy, and even though that wasn’t entirely believable (because he’ll always have a sparkle in his eye), he’s always had a calm about him that makes him truly magnetic onscreen. And watching him slowly boil, only to lash out at his father very eloquently, was worth it. Rainn Wilson, not the youngest but definitely in the Adam Driver role, got the chance to be a slob. A real slob, too, and a fuck-up. One that has nothing in common with his cleaned-up, thoughtful real life personality, or the OCD quality that most of his television characters tend to have. Even cooler, he and MCH kind of looked like they could be real brothers.

Sarah Silverman, playing the Tina Fey role and thus the lone woman, acted the hell out of this. She deserves much more credit than she ever gets for how truthful she can be on screen. She plays crazy well, yes, but even more than that, she has the ability to say what no one else could, with no one else’s timing, and in no one else’s tone. I can’t wait to see her do more non-comedic stuff, because she’s going to kill it. Benny probably had the most in common with Jason Bateman’s role, in that he was the focal sibling of the bunch. (He and Sarah also look like siblings!) The difference is that Peep World is the name of the book that his character, Nathan, wrote about his whole family, thus revealing all their secrets and causing a lot of resentment. There’s an air of Six Feet Under black comedy in this story, too, and not just because of MCH, but because Brenda and Billy Chenowith grew up with the world knowing about their childhood after their mother published a book about it. The family airs their grievances at one dinner, specifically because of the book, and thus the plot has more focus. In TIWILY, the movie got lost in explaining years of backstory, because the family gathering took place over a week and introduced way too many side characters to keep up with.

Speaking of side characters: Kate Mara played Nathan’s publicist. Taraji P. Henson played Joel’s (Wilson) girlfriend. Greer played Jack’s (Hall) wife. Lewis Black narrated the whole thing, in maybe his most tolerable role to date. I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it. Ensemble casts like this just don’t work out the way you think they will. Even though I think this movie was a little better than TIWILY, both were still overwhelming. And both are discouraging me from ever seeing August: Osage County. Watching another family sort out its problems is not exactly something movie-goers want to do. We all have our own family problems to deal with, after all. Peep World, unfortunately, contains a lot of great parts, but the sum of ‘em isn’t so great.

A Most Violent Year

Listen, I’m glad to be living in New York now, but I am even gladder not to be living here in 1981. Sheesh. This place was filled with guns!

It was pretty cool to watch this in an actual New York movie theater, which my friend pointed out right before it started. There’s something inexplicably significant about being in the location a movie’s about when you’re watching it. (That’s a grammatically correct sentence, I’m sure of it.) You feel closer to the story, you can picture everything happening a little more clearly (if you’re familiar enough with the place, anyway) and you can even place yourself there, even as a proverbial fly on the wall.

A Most Violent Year, admittedly, went over my head a little bit. The details of the deal that Oscar Isaac’s character, Abel Morales, was making, got muddled after he started working with Hasidim to secure a deal for a new piece of property to aid his business. Not that I necessarily needed to know more than that, but I wish I could have followed it more closely instead of re-reading the plot on the internet later. I also wish I were able to tell if it was my fault for not being more attuned, or if the story was holey in parts. Nevermind that.

Oscar Isaac made a very clear, strong impression on me right away, and that impression was of Al Pacino in The Godfather. High praise, and I mean it. The parallels between Abel and Michael Corleone are obvious: He’s a dark-haired guy married to a light-haired lady, he has a big family, he’s making morally ambiguous decisions, he hides a lot of himself in public, he generally keeps his cool and maintains his reputation. Facially, Isaac resembles Pacino, and the both of them have this quality about them that allows for easy character transformation. They’ve also got the ability to carry a movie with quiet dignity. Though Isaac’s been in the movies for years, he’s only now starting to break out. If he can sing like he did in Llewyn and stare like he did in this, he’s going to produce even more magnificent things in the future. (Oh, and he’s got a helluva Robert Duvall in Albert Brooks. Props to that casting director!)

Yet that’s where the similarities end. A Most Violent Year is not about the mafia, and Jessica Chastain, lovely as she is, is not Diane Keaton. Her character, Anna, was far more confrontational, and thus significantly less lovable but far more watchable than Keaton’s Kay. The relationship between the two couples may be similar in how business-like they are, but one could argue that Abel and Anna are equals, or at least approaching it. The 50s were a better time than the 60s. And Abel came from nothing, and never forgot it. He lacks the entitlement that Michael resisted but eventually warmed to.

A Most Violent Year‘s elegance is in what it doesn’t show. There’s an air of simplicity, of transaction, of cleanliness, which contrasts so nicely with the grime of the trucks, the dirt on the bridges, and the grunge of the oil the characters are dealing with, and the looming grossness of the city at that time. Abel doesn’t necessarily make decisions that hurt other people, but he doesn’t stand in the way of people hurting themselves, either. He abides by a certain code, which is not to involve himself unless absolutely necessary. Even with family. Admittedly, in that way, he is Corleone through and through.

This movie isn’t so much an epic story as it is a bleak, stark snapshot of a single, harsh month in time. But it left me wanting more – I wanted to see how Abel and Anna got on in their lives, how their children grew up, how the extended Morales family stayed afloat, how New York City fared… oh, wait. We’re a little better now.

This movie got jipped, right? Yeah, it did. Woulda been too on the nose to have Oscar at the Oscars again, eh, Academy?

The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking is probably one of the most well-known, recognizable, outwardly famous nerds in the entire world. And yet, upon watching this movie, I realized how little I knew about his life, and just how much he has accomplished. Nevermind the cinematic liberties that The Theory of Everything may have taken for the sake of the story; Hawking’s the man. It takes a special, rare person to be that cocky, to think that this unattainable theory is somehow attainable. His sheer focus, clarity of mind, brilliance, all that — it pales in comparison to the degree of determination he had. The rarest thing about him isn’t the set of health circumstances that befell him; it’s his ability to completely disregard them and move forward with his goal, no holds barred.

I wonder if there’s a bit of that in Eddie Redmayne, then, too. He’s a bit of a thing. The only role I can recall of his that I had seen was his stint in Les Mis, and he was definitely my favorite part, but he’s so innocent and unassuming that it must have seemed daunting to take on this role. Do it right, and you’re most certainly nominated for an Oscar. Fuck it up, and you’re the guy who spent several months limping and torturing your body, only to come across as a jackass. Fortunately, Eddie falls in the former category. His performance is magnificent, and it really humanizes a person that, frankly, most of us see as a machine. Of course, the Stephen we see on screen is also very romanticized, and who knows how much of that is accurate, but watching a bumbly, gawky kid with oversized glasses woo a girl is never not cute. Knowing that guy will grow up to be the greatest living scientific mind is just icing on the cake. Redmayne contorts his body in ways that must have been excruciating. ALS is not kind. But the way that he must have studied to perform this role, to allow the “disease” to overtake him gradually, is really impressive. So is his chemistry with Felicity Jones, who plays his longtime (though divorced now) wife, Jane. She’s so sweet, and maintains that sweetness throughout, but you never doubt her vivacity, either. What’s also interesting is how neither of them overpower each other. Redmayne’s character would be the likely focus, but the truth is, neither of them are. Hawking’s mind, and his theory, is greater than the both of them, and their portrayals of this couple show just how real that was when it was actually happening. Stephen knew, and Jane knew, and they were a team that worked together to achieve that goal. Even as their marriage fell apart–and who knows how much of the story is actually true–they maintained a quiet dignity, because they knew that they accomplished something great together. The theory, their children, their partnership.

It was also refreshing to get lost in a biopic, for once, because Redmayne and Jones are not uber-familiar to me, nor were most of the other actors in this movie. Chalk it up to American ignorance, but I was able to feel like I was back in the 60s, at Cambridge, living life with a bunch of skinny geniuses. And what a life that must have been.

As far as the Oscars go, I don’t think this is the Best Picture of the year. I don’t think I’ve seen it yet, whatever it is. The movie itself is beautiful, and somewhat romantic, as I mentioned, and its staging got out of the way of the actors to let them tell their stories. It was their vehicle, more than anything. For that reason, I do think Eddie has a shot, though the four other men in the category Brought It (or so I’ve heard). I haven’t yet decided if I’m rooting specifically for him. One thing’s certain: He worked.

The Wedding Singer

This was the second in my triple-rom-com-feature, a blank I had meant to fill in many years ago, but didn’t, thanks to my dad’s strict No Sandler In The House policy. Today, I feel especially compelled to write about this cute flick after seeing its star kill it on Fallon last night.

The Wedding Singer oozes late-90s, despite taking place sometime in the 80s, which is oddly not unappealing. The production values are rather perfect for what the movie ends up being. And Adam Sandler, despite his recent creative downturn, is at peak charm here. It’s easy to forget Jack and Jill and Grown-Ups when he plays romantic leads (as opposed to man-children; see also: Billy Madison or Little Nicky), because there’s something so everyman and likable about him. He knows exactly who he is, he’s never arrogant, he’s nearly always soft-spoken and humble, and he doesn’t play games. He’s got a great, effortless presence and a realistic vibe. He’s a guy you could see yourself really liking and falling for. And that’s what happens here, with his Robbie and Drew Barrymore’s Julia.

Of course, the movie isn’t without its rom-com tropes. There’s a left-at-the-altar scene, a handful of sidelong glances, a Big Confrontation, and an amusing celebrity cameo. And everyone’s hair is bad. But Barrymore and Sandler have a sweet chemistry together, bound in years of friendship, and it’s neat that they’ve gotten to make a few movies together. They’re big stars without being glamorous, and even though they’re in a rom-com, they shorten the gap between the genre’s unrealistic expectations of love and actual, meaningful representations of love in real life.

Then again, I was watching this on a plane. Maybe I had a case of Altitude Sentimentality. Whatever. This movie is delightful, and I know understand the “Julia Guglia” reference.

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