Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Sniper (minor spoilers)

Clint Eastwood is one of the few people in Hollywood who went from being an icon in front of the camera to an icon behind it.  The films he directs are often thought-provoking and stunning in their their visual presentation, and American Sniper is no exception.  The story of an old-fashioned "man's man" living in the 21st Century is a fascinating one, built on themes like blind patriotism, PTSD, and war as a drug.  That last one may remind you of a similar little movie, The Hurt Locker, and comparisons to that film are inevitable.  I'll get to my feelings on how they stack up against one another.

Based on the auto-biography by Chris Kyle, the "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history," the story follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from his beginnings as a rodeo cowboy to becoming a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq after the events of 9/11. During training, he meets and falls in love with Taya (Sienna Miller), who soon after becomes his wife.  Following the 9/11 attacks, Kyle spends the majority of his time in combat, proudly protecting his country and his fellow soldiers.  Using shooting techniques his father taught him as a child, his long-range shooting skills are unmatched, and he earns the nickname "The Legend."  He becomes involved in a manhunt to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi through his right-hand man The Butcher (Mido Hamada), an equally deadly enemy sniper.  His home life becomes a strange other-world; his affections for his wife and young children have been drained, ignorance of the war angers him, and he becomes awkward in social situations.

What works in the film works tremendously well, especially with Cooper's performance at the forefront.  He portrays Chris Kyle as a man with a good heart but also a child-like naivety about the nature of good and evil.  His black-and-white view of the world is challenged time and time again in Iraq, and whenever he returns home to see his family, he becomes further and further disconnected from them.  When he realizes just how much gray areas there are in life, he doesn't know how to handle it.  After a while, he uses his previous intentions to protect and serve his country as an excuse to go back to the the war over and over, even after his wife tearfully threatens to leave him if he keeps it up.  It's a fascinating character study about a man who experiences dehumanization caused by war, and Cooper's portrayal of him couldn't be any better.

The film's minimal usage of music and emphasis on sound design creates a tension-filled atmosphere that hardly lets up once Kyle goes to Iraq, even in the civilian life scenes.  Disorienting shaky-cam isn't an issue for action scenes, color is muted and suitably melancholy, and the editing is sharp and efficient.  At first I found the sudden jumps in time periods jarring, but afterward I realized that it puts you in Kyle's shoes in a sense; suddenly his children are years older and are unrecognizable from the babies they used to be.  It strengthens the disconnect he has between his home life and his army life in a subtly and effectively.  Visual effects are top notch (sparse as they are), as is the production design.

Something holds American Sniper back, and similarly to this year's The Imitation Game, it happens in the last few crucial minutes of the film.  I won't say exactly what happens, only that it doesn't come to terms with the theme it's been setting up for the ENTIRE FREAKING RUNTIME: the dehumanizing effect that war has on a person and how that person deals with it when they are thrust back into society.  I'm not necessarily saying that I  enjoyed The Hurt Locker more overall, but its ending shines in comparison; it makes a the gutsy move to conclude with, "War is a drug, and the people who become addicted to war ultimately sacrifice what makes them human. "  American Sniper seems to conclude with "War fucks you up, so get some help when you get out and you'll be fine!"  That's not to say the film ends happily, and if you know the story of the real Chris Kyle, you know what happens to him. Could a few less scenes in Iraq and a few more scenes at home in the last act have helped fix this issue?

Suffice it to say, the ending DOES NOT ruin the movie.  I didn't gush for four paragraphs to end this with "it sucked."  American Sniper is a still a powerful, fascinating, and very emotional movie thanks to outstanding performances, excellent writing, direction, and good pacing.  It's really remarkable that Sniper is currently competing against two mega-franchise films (Hungers Games: Part 11 of 45 and Guardians of the Galaxy)  for top-grossing film of 2014.  Maybe people are getting tired of CGI explosions and sequels to sequels to sequels?  Whatever the reason for its success, it makes me very happy.  A solid and non-pandering anti-war film if there ever was one, American Sniper is a must-see.

9 plastic babies out of 10

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Better Call Saul (first impressions)

I'm not alone in calling Breaking Bad one of the most addicting, mind-blowing, and ridiculously intense television shows of all time.  When it ended about a year and a half ago, I was deeply satisfied and content for the story to end exactly where it did.  So as you can imagine, I was skeptical when I heard about a spin-off series featuring the supporting character Saul Goodman in the starring role.  However, I'm happy to report that (judging strictly from the two-episode premier) Better Call Saul is made with the same level of craftsmanship and loving care that its predecessor was.

That comes as a relief more than a surprise; after all, the series is still helmed by creator Vince Gilligan, without whom I'm sure the show wouldn't have that wonderful, darkly comedic tone that Breaking Bad perfected.  Still, there was plenty of room to be disappointed.  What if Saul's character became irritating when given the spotlight?  What if the show becomes too comedic?  Will any of this be as interesting as the story about the rise of Heisenberg? I think it's best to go into this show with Breaking Bad in the back of one's mind instead of the forefront.  I foresee cameos and references to the original show without outright parody or excessive character mishandling IF the opening two episodes are any indication.  Because, damn--these episodes were just great.

The show begins with a "where Saul is now" sequence that seems to take place after the events of Breaking Bad.  For people who haven't seen the original show (I know a few of you poor, unfortunate souls are out there), nothing is spoiled or even said about what happened to Saul.  For around ten minutes of screen time, there's hardly a word of dialogue amidst a dreamy black-and-white sequence that depicts Saul as a man living in fear, loneliness, and intense depression.  He reflects back on his life, seven years before meeting Walter White, and thus the real show begins.  Saul, whose actual name is Jimmy McGill, is a failing layer desperately looking for a break.  He supports his brother Charlie (Michael McKean), who once worked in a successful law firm but has since developed a mental illness.  After nearly being conned out of $500 by two fraudulent brothers (Jeremy Shamos and Daniel Spenser), Jimmy gets an idea that could save him from poverty.  However, the plan backfires when the two brothers get involved with a certain insane someone you might recognize.

I won't go to deep into the following episode for spoiler purposes, but I really like what I've seen so far.  Bob Odenkirk plays the same layered and intelligent character he did in the original show, but now he's given so much more to do.  It occurred to me right from the start how interesting it's going to be to see this "nobody" become the improbably powerful Saul Goodman we know and love.  I'm more interested to see that than I was to see C3PO being built by a young Darth Vader, anyway.  Man, the prequel pool is really shitty, isn't it?  The rest of the cast is great as well, with a nice recurring presence from Jonathan Banks (Mike from the original show) that should prove to be very promising.

All in all, I can't express how excited I am for the rest of Better Call Saul.  AMC's quality control is astounding, as they seem to be focused on creating smart and creative television as a priority.  Yes, spinoffs generally have the unfortunate connotation of being a cash-grab by nature, but thankfully this particular cash-grab is artistic in its endeavors.  Will it ultimately be as good as Breaking Bad? I suppose it's possible, but I wouldn't get my hopes up.  I'll just be happy to go along for the ride, which I can predict will be fun and intense in equal measures.