Tuesday, February 24, 2015

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 Is a Comedy Black Hole of Suck


- This one makes me sad. I liked Hot Tub Time Machine a lot. Was it the best comedy ever? No. But it was a fun flick - an anything-goes, silly and over-the-top comedy that featured a really funny cast. And I was actually pretty excited for a sequel. The premise was so open-ended that I looked forward to an anything-goes film that would just go all-out with time travel insanity. Well, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 is pretty insane, but sadly, not really in a good way. There is so much talent here, but they have so little to work with. The result is a comedic trainwreck that sees the likes of Rob Cordry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, and more flailing desperately to salvage anything out of this flaming pile. This is one that's best just quickly forgotten about. We can all just put it behind us and try not to let it diminish our enjoyment of the stars' much better creative output. Children's Hospital is still really awesome, you guys. Don't let the stink of Hot Tub 2 rub off on it, or any of the other great stuff this cast is involved in. These talented comic actors deserve better.

It's not really worth going into all the time-travel-y plot machinations here, except to say that the gang (sans the original's John Cusack) end up traveling into the future to prevent the murder of Cordry's Lou. If you recall, the original film ended with the guys going back to the past and remaking history so that they became prophetic purveyors of pop-culture and technology based on their knowledge of the future. Of course, success has only made Lou even more of an asshole, and has won him his share of enemies. When the crew pursues their suspect through time, they find themselves flung a couple of decades into the future. There, they meet Adam Scott's character, Adam Jr. - an uptight, soon-to-be-married square who is actually the son of Cusack's character from the original.

The movie uses its near-future setting to basically try to be a poor-man's Idiocracy. But the gags here are so off-the-mark that the movie just ends up being off-putting rather than funny. I'm all for boundary-pushing comedy - but boundary-pushing only works if there is an underlying intelligence, even in the silliest and seemingly stupidest gags. But HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 just feels half-baked in every regard. Jokes get set-up without any sort of satisfying punchline. Meant-to-be-shocking moments are more shocking for their lack of comedic punch than anything else. And that lack of hilarity only ends up emphasizing the overall mean-spiritedness of the script. Again, I'm never going to begrudge a comedy for going dark. But there's got to be *some* method to the madness. Here, the dark stuff just seems like a fall-back to cover for the lack of solid jokes. Script is a mess? Thow in a scene where two straight guys are forced to have sex on a televised game show that for some reason is popular in the future? It's like ... at least give the concept some sort of comedic context. But there's no real rhyme or reason to any of the jokes about this future. It's just a mish-mosh of ideas that add up to nothing in particular.

Cordry seems to be overcompensating for the movie's lack of a funny script by just cranking up his performance to eleven. You've got to feel for the guy. We know he can be hilarious when given the right material. But here, his character of Lou is pushed so far down the spectrum of annoying-asshole that at some point, you just want him to go away. And again, if HOT TUB 2 was really going for some kind of punk rock, joke's-on-you anti-comedy thing, you could at least admire it. But I don't think that's the case here.

The movie feels slapped-together. It's no surprise then that its funniest moments come during the seemingly improvised moments. Put these guys in a room together and let them riff, and you're guaranteed hilarity. But put them in a cash-in sequel with a black hole of a script, and not even their sizable talent can save it.

My Grade: D+

Bye-Bye to PARKS AND REC: The Last Great TV Comedy

PARKS AND RECREATION - Goodbye to the Last Great TV Comedy

- With tonight's series finale of Parks and Recreation, it truly is the end of an era. Parks is the last of its breed - the last broadcast network sitcom that tried to bring edgy, Millennial-friendly comedy to the mainstream. Parks is perhaps the most beloved low-rated sitcom ever - in the grand tradition of The Office, 30 Rock, and Community - all NBC shows that had increasingly small on-air audiences, even if their actual fanbases were much larger. Sure, there are some spiritual successors to Parks out there in TV land. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the most obvious - it is, after all, from Parks and Rec's Michael Schur (along with Dan Goor). And that show has found solid ratings success on Sunday nights. The Goldbergs on ABC is another potential successor - a family sitcom that combines very traditional sitcom tropes with a surreal and subversive, pop-culture-obsessed streak. But mostly, the best comedy these days is on cable, where it is increasingly able to get weird and niche-y. I love the likes of Broad City, Nathan For You, and Garfunkel and Oates. But those shows are going for very specific audiences. In theory, Parks should have been the biggest comedy of the last ten years. It was jam-packed with a great cast of diverse characters, and had a ton of heart. Parks' humor was razor-sharp, but it was also unabashedly earnest and sweet. It wasn't about off-putting well-off LA one-percenters (hello, Modern Family). It was about hard-working small-town Americans. And in an age of political divisiveness and gridlock, Parks and Rec was a constant reminder of our potential to put aside our differences and work together towards a common goal. Like I said, the fact that this *wasn't* the #1-rated comedy on TV speaks to the reality that no comedy is mainstream anymore. With most shows, I get it. But Parks was so funny, so good, so heartfelt, so universal in its themes that you have to wonder if, upon its end, we'll ever see the likes of it again.

Parks and Rec didn't start out amazing. In a strangely similar fashion as its predecessor, The Office, Parks' first season got out of the gate wobbly. Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope was, well, sort of annoying. And the focus on her undermined the stellar supporting cast. But like The Office, Parks came into its own in Season 2. The show became more of an ensemble comedy, and what an ensemble it was. If the show were launching today, it would have the all-star cast of all-star casts. Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Retta, Adam Scott ... and the list goes on.

I heard someone say that the characters on Parks were so perfect because it was as if each represented a certain part of our personality. We all have aspects of these characters inside of us. Leslie is the ambitious go-getter. Ron Swanson the stubborn iconoclast. Andy the big kid. April the sarcastic teenager. Ben the nerd, Tom the would-be player. Jerry/Larry/Gary the loser-dork. There's that, but what makes Parks' characters so fantastic is that, at the same time, none could be reduced to one-note cliches. Leslie was a go-getter, but also a devoted friend who put her BFF Anne above all else. Ron Swanson was a stoic man's man, but he also moonlighted (hilariously) as local jazz legend Duke Silver, and had a kryptonite-like weakness for his ex-wife Tammy. Andy and April seemed polar opposites, but both found joy in each other and became a delightfully oddball couple. Tom, it turned out, was a romantic at heart. Hell, even Jerry was revealed to have an insanely idyllic home life that completely contrasted with his sad-sack reputation in the workplace. Parks never shied away from contradictions and complexity - and showing how and why these characters worked so well together despite their differences.

My favorite example - the one that to me is the heart and soul of the show - is the relationship between Leslie and Ron. Vulture published an essay a few weeks ago about how Ron represented the last gasp of the old man's-man stereotype, how he was the last of a dying breed. I argued that the essay missed the point. What's so brilliant about the Ron Swanson character is that he has his very strong likes and dislikes - he's got a freaking "Pyramid of Success" - but he also was never beholden to outdated views if those views were ugly or mean-spirited. Sure, Ron Swanson doesn't like Europe or skim milk. But he also is a man who sort of transcends specific politics. He likes what he likes. But not because of any ulterior motive or agenda. And that means that when push comes to shove, he admires Leslie's drive and fire and friendship. It's why the "Ron and Leslie" episode in Parks' final season, in which the feuding pair is locked in a room together and forced to hash out their problems - is such a legitimate tearjerker. The show brilliantly led us to believe that the rift that had formed between Ron and Leslie during the two-year gap between Seasons 6 and 7 was about clashing politics. But the real reason behind it was heartbreakingly revealed to be Ron's feeling that his unlikely friend Leslie - wrapped up in her new job - had left him behind.

But even when Parks does have its characters disagree on politics, the disagreements have a purity to them that is inspiring. Ron and Leslie often have different philosophies on government - but again, those views come from a pure place. The political fights on Parks would often see Leslie and Ron united - because it wasn't about Democrat vs. Republican vs. Libertarian - Leslie's battles were about smarts vs. stupidity, integrity vs. shiftiness and hucksterism, community vs. homogenization, and sticking up for friends and family. It's no wonder then that Leslie and Ron were ultimately on the same side when push came to shove.

Aside from all that, from a sheer comedy perspective, Parks is a bar-setter. I don't know all of the behind-the-scenes people who made the show as sharp as it was. But what's amazing is how, over the years, I've discovered new comedy voices who were associated with the show. Sure, going in, comedy fans knew creators Greg Daniel and Michael Schur's bonafides. And we knew Amy Poehler from years on SNL and Aziz Ansari from his stand-up. But aside even from the breakout cast members like Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt, we've seen people like Megan Amram, a writer on the show, become a cult comedy favorite. And tragically, one of the show's Co-EP's - Harris Wittels - a guy who was by all accounts the show's go-to joke puncher-upper, and an emerging stand-up comedian and comedy writer - passed away last week. One only needs to look at Wittels' Twitter to see what an incredibly hilarious voice was lost. But his ability to nail jokes and joke construction - and just the overall talent of the writing staff - was evident on any given episode of Parks. Amazingly, the show is going out sharper than ever. This final season has been a veritable comedy master-class. Each episode is jam-packed with instant-classic quotes and perfectly-constructed jokes. The comedy has been able to swing from character humor to parody (as in the impressively unique Johnny Karate episode from last week), from pop-culture references to absurdism. And yet ... I (and suspect many of you) have been left misty-eyed by nearly every episode this season. To be that funny and that emotionally-involving is a rare feat for any show to pull off.

And that's why I say Parks and Rec might just be the last great comedy. There's something to be said for comedy that doesn't have to swing for the fences, that can just be what it wants to be and get as weird as it wants to. I love that stuff. But there's also something to be said for comedy that can be funny and smart and challenging, but also have the characters and heart and real-world relatability to ensure that there's something there for everyone. It's hard for me to imagine *anyone* giving Parks and Rec a try and not digging it. But increasingly, the Parks-esque shows are disappearing from the air. They're becoming watered down like Modern Family. Or going to Netflix (Tina Fey's upcoming Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or the web (Community's upcoming sixth season). And as that happens, comedy won't need to appeal to a broad audience anymore. There's a part of that that's cool, sure. But there's also something sad about the end of shows that unite us in laughter, just as the characters on Parks were united around their beloved town of Pawnee. That sense of community is evaporating - we're all separating off into our little tribes where our super-specific tastes are catered to with web series and podcasts. And in that environment, you have to wonder if any show will again be able to be a true national-conversation starter again. Parks was never that show, but it was to a lot of the people that mattered. People who were smart and funny liked Parks. Parks people were my people. And it was watched by the funniest comedians and most important politicians (everyone from the Obamas to Joe Biden to John McCain - who cameo'd multiple times - were fans). The ending of Parks and Recreation makes me sad - it's the end of a great TV show, but also sort of the end of an era for TV. But as long as the spirit of Leslie Knope lives on, as long as Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness hangs on college dorms and office cubicles, as long as we still reference DJ Roomba and Burt Macklin: FBI and JJ's Diner and the Cones of Dunshire and Jean Ralphio and Perd Hapley, then Parks and Rec will *literally* live on forever in Lil' Sebastian-esque fashion.

So long Parks and Rec. It's been an amazing, legendary run.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

OSCAR 2015 - Pre-Show Thoughts & Predictions & Rants

OSCARS 2015 Thoughts and Predictions:

Oscar time, once again. The Oscars have gotten a lot of flack this year, but hey, I give 'em flack every year. The fact is, the Academy Awards rarely seem to really reflect the year's best films. And this year is no exception. From the complete lack of major awards love for the masterpiece that is Nightcrawler, to the stunning omission of deserving directors like Selma's Ava DuVernay, this year's Oscars seem to have dropped the proverbial ball in multiple ways. That said, what's often worse than the Oscar omissions is the unfounded backlash against deserving films that actually do get nominations. This year, there is tons of hate being thrown in the direction of movies like Boyhood. Wake-up call, people. Maybe it's not to everyone's tastes, but Boyhood is a landmark movie from a director who is both one of our best and one of our most historically under-appreciated. I have to shake my head at the same people who long griped about Richard Linklater not getting his due who now claim that perhaps his greatest work is overrated Oscar-bait (as if ... to work on a quirky side project for twelve years with the intention of it being Oscar-bait would be flat-out insane). In any case, while there are some clear omissions this year from the Oscar race, and some nominated films that to me are mere B+ players, there are also some fantastic movies in the mix that, should they win, would be more than deserving of Oscar gold.

To kick things off though, here are my Top 10 OSCAR SNUBS of 2015:

1.) Best Actor - Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

- WTF. This was a performance for the ages, a De Niro in Taxi Driver-esque turn that was both mesmerizing and nightmare-inducing. This omission is flat-out embarrassing for the Oscars, because this is one that will be talked about for a long, long time.

2.) Best Picture - Nightcrawler

- Again, WTF. A clear top-tier film of 2015, it's shocking to me that this one was omitted at the expense of the good-but-not-even-Wes-Anderson's-best Grand Budapest Hotel and the overrated Birdman.

3.) Best Animated Feature - The LEGO Movie

- Once again - are you freaking kidding me? The LEGO Movie was one of the best animated films in YEARS, not even just of 2015. It was hilarious, poignant, and smartly self-aware. Crazy that it wasn't nominated.

4.) Best Director - Ava DuVernay - Selma

- It got a Best Picture nom, and yet the director of the masterfully-directed Selma got no nomination? But the director of Foxcatcher did? Say it ain't so.

5.) Best Actor - David Oyelowo - Selma

- Similarly ... are you serious, bro?! David Oyelowo kills it as MLK Jr., and brings humanity and dimensionality to an impossibly tricky role - and yet no nom? Completely crazy.

6.) Best Supporting Actress - Rene Russo - Nightcrawler

- Meryl Streep is nominated for Into. The. Woods?! But Rene Russo's incendiary turn in Nightcrawler is snubbed? Oscar, what hath thou become?

7.) Interstellar ... for anything.

- I suppose some of the backlash to this film kept it out of the Oscar race. But to me it was on par with Inception and other top-tier Nolan films. Nolan should have been nominated. McConaughey should have been nominated. And Jessica Chastain.

8.) Best Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man

- One of the best ever gives you one final performance for the ages ... and no Oscar love? Guess it's fitting, as Hoffman was the kind of actor so good that he was sort of too good for the Oscars, anyways.

9.) Best Actor - Tom Hardy - Locke

- Tom Hardy destroys in Locke. He's the only actor on-camera the entire movie. And the whole thing takes place in the dude's car! And it's totally riveting. If that doesn't spell Oscar-worthy, then the Academy is on crack.

10.) Funny Women

- 2014 was a landmark year for women in comedy. Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. Kristin Wiig in Skeleton Twins. Amy Poehler in They Came Together. But as per usual, comedy is completely ignored by the Oscars unless it contains Wes Anderson quirk or whatever it is that Birdman has. Lame. Oscars, get a sense of humor.



Should Win: Boyhood or Whiplash

- Boyhood was, to me, a masterpiece. A flat-out modern classic in a year that produced few of them. Hate on it if you will, but I think this is the ultimate Richard Linklater film. Meanwhile, Whiplash for me was a very close second. A movie so intense that it's practically a horror movie. JK Simmons was *the man* in this film and his is a performance for the ages.

Will Win: Boyhood

- Despite some eleventh-hour backlash, I think there is some degree of consensus that Boyhood is the film to beat this year. Linklater's moment is now, and it's time that the rebel-slacker indie darling gets his moment in the sun.


Should Win: Eh ...

- I don't absolutely love any of the actual nominees this year. Eddie Redmayne was pretty amazing in The Theory of Everything, but it's also not a role that produced any super-memorable moments. Benedict Cumberbatch was fantastic in The Imitation Game as well, but again, not sure if there was truly a huge, classic, Oscar-worthy moment in the film. Gyllenhaal and Hardy should have been nominated here.

Will Win: Michael Keaton

- It seems like the momentum is in his favor. And who doesn't love Michael Keaton? But the fact is, he's great in Birdman, but the movie itself is a jumble of ideas and concepts that doesn't really amount to a fulyl cohesive statement. Plus, to me it was actually Emma Stone who stole the movie.


Should Win: Rosamund Poke

- Pike killed it in Gone Girl, giving us the perfect balance of pulpiness and legit-disturbing psycho-killer creepiness. Without her, Gone Girl would not have worked as well as it did, and she deserves the gold.

Will Win: Julianne Moore

- I have yet to see Still Alice, but the movie just seems like the sort of dour prestige pic that the Oscars love. And Moore is a great actress long overdue for a win. I'm not opposed, but I'm not all that enthused either.


Should and Will Win: J.K. Simmons

- If there's one sure thing this year, it's Simmons - no question. Bet on it. Sometimes a performance is so damn awesome that there's no choice but to give it all of the awards. And Simmons' work in Whiplash is just such a performance. Not quite your tempo? If that's the case, I seriously question your movie taste, dude.


Should and Will Win: Patricia Arquette

- I liked all of the actresses in this category (save Meryl Streep in the messy Into the Woods). But Arquette was legendarily good in Boyhood - funny, heartbreaking, and pretty much awesome. She made it as much her story as anyone's (which makes you wonder why she's not in the Lead Actress category, but whatever). But Arquette - long an underrated actress - deserves awards for killin' it in Boyhood.


Should and Will Win: Richard Linklater

- This is a tough one to call, but again, I think this is the year Linklater get his due. I could see Alejandro Inarritu with an outside chance, but I'm guessing enough people agree with me that Birdman's single-take style was more gimmicky than great to keep him from taking the top prize. I don't think you can underrate Linklater's achievement with Boyhood. To weave twelve years' worth of story into a compelling and moving narrative is no easy feat.


Should Win: Nightcrawler

- Seriously, what an innovative, dark, funny, satirical, crackling screenplay. But given its omission from every other major category, I'd be shocked if the deserving Nightcrawler and Dan Gilroy won here.

Will Win: Birdman

- Deserving? Not really? There are some great little monologues in the movie (Emma Stone's kills it), but thematically and tonally, this one is all over the map. Still, the combo of quirky and meta and commenting on Hollywood (we know how Hollywood loves that!) will give it a victory.


Should Win and Will Win: Whiplash

- I've got to think that Whiplash will take this one. I mean, it's by far the most quotable movie of this Oscar season, with J.K. Simmons' "Not my tempo!" now in the pop-culture lexicon. Maybe The Imitation Game plays spoiler, but I think Whiplash gets the edge.


Should and Will Win: Big Hero 6

- Disney's film was action-packed, stylish, smart, and had an awesome pro-science message. In LEGO Movie's absence, it's my pick. I also loved Book of Life, so wouldn't be upset to see it with an upset. I will caveat by saying that the Japanese films Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kayuga could also play spoiler. I haven't seen these, but both have received rave reviews. So it's a tough one to call, no question.


Should and Will Win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

- There is room, I suppose, for an upset here. But come on, APES for the win. I mean, the movie made me care, a lot, about warring armies of intelligent apes. And Ceaser and Koba were the best hero/villain rivals of 2014 - and again, they were mo-capped monkeys! (er, apes). No monkey business, Oscar!


- Should and Will Win: Whiplash


- Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Will Win: Birdman


- Should and Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel


- Should and Will Win: Feast


- Should and Will Win: Citizenfour


- Should Win: ?
- Will Win: Joanna


- Should Win: ?
- Will Win: The Phone Call


- Should Win: ?
- Will Win: Ida


- Should and Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel


- Should and Will Win: Guardians of the Galaxy


- Should and Will Win: Whiplash


- Should and Will Win: American Sniper


- Should and Will Win: Interstellar


Should and Will Win: "Glory" from Selma

And there you have it. As I always do, I urge everyone to enjoy the Oscars but also not pay them too much attention. 2014 was an amazing year for movies - but a lot of the year's best were films that the Oscars simply doesn't and won't recognize. I'm talking about action films like The Raid 2 and Snowpiercer, blockbusters like Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy, horror like The Babadook, thrillers like The Guest, and comedies like Obvious Child, Top Five, and They Came Together. Remember, the Oscars are just one narrow slice of the movie universe. Be sure to explore it.

AMERICAN SNIPER Is Gripping But Problematic Return to Form For Clint Eastwood


- Since its release, AMERICAN SNIPER has been a hotbed of controversy. In terms of where I stand, in all honesty, I find myself slightly torn. Personally, I'm a big believer that, too often, we let opinions about what a movie is "saying" get in the way of its merit as a movie. There are plenty of movies I like and love that also seem to advocate viewpoints I don't necessarily agree with. At the same time, the tricky thing with movies is that we don't always *know* what a movie is saying - it's often a matter of personal interpretation, and even then, a movie often gives off mixed-signals about its true intentions. War movies are particularly problematic. There are some movies that are blatantly jingoistic and propaganda-ish when it comes to war. Think back to any number of old World War II films that were blatant us-vs.-them, good vs. evil epics. There are some films that are clearly anti-war, whose entire point is to de-glamorize combat and emphasize the cycle of violence perpetuated by war as a zero-sum game. The Hurt Locker was, I think, a great recent example of that sort of movie, as was the darkly satirical British film Four Lions. But most war movies fall somewhere in between on that spectrum - acknowledging the high cost of war while also making sure that the combat scenes are super-badass. And this is where we get into some very tricky grey areas. In just the last year, a number of movies - from Lone Survivor to Fury to AMERICAN SNIPER - have been part of this category. They are movies that can be problematic, because their version of war is both something to be reviled and celebrated. The first two movies mentioned, however, can probably have their issues chalked up to mere tonal inconsistency. But with AMERICAN SNIPER, you can't help but think about Clint Eastwood's real-life politics as part of the film's DNA. And that's where, again, we get into some very tricky conversation about art, politics, and the merits of a movie that surprisingly became a hot-button red vs. blue talking point.

But let's forget about politics for a second, and simply talk about Clint Eastwood the director. In a lot of ways, it sort of makes me sad as a movie fan that politics is now such a lasting part of the Eastwood legacy. I wish we could go back to just talking about him as one of the all-time great (if not *the* all-time great) cinematic badasses, and as one of the great actors who transitioned into one of the great directors. But politics aside, there's no question that Eastwood as a director has been in a slump. The last movie of his I truly enjoyed was Gran Torino. Since then, his films have felt stiff, slow, and so blandly directed that you wondered if Eastwood was doing much more behind the camera than simply pointing and shooting. With that said, AMERICAN SNIPER is a huge directorial triumph for Eastwood. It's by far his best and best-directed movie in many years. I've seen some reviews deride the film as shoddily directed, and I think those reviewers are on crack. I think that action and badassery elevates Eastwood's game. If only he'd been doing action all this time and not Jersey Boys, we could have potentially avoided this quality drought. But Eastwood is in top form for AMERICAN SNIPER - a film that in some ways reminds me of his classic Unforgiven. The film is mostly a pretty straightforwardly-shot drama, but the action is edge-of-your-seat riveting. Here, Eastwood shows that he's got a bit of juice still left in the tank. He shoots combat scenes with a clear-eyed, easy-to-follow yet chaotic intensity.

He also gets a phenomenal performance out of Bradley Cooper, in quite possibly his best role yet. As real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Cooper transforms himself into a jacked-up good ol' boy who happens to be the best in the biz at killing from a distance. I give Cooper credit for bringing a ton of nuance to the performance. Cooper shows us the different sides of Kyle - the soft-spoken family man, the take-charge military veteran, and the haunted-by-PTSD survivor. The film does an admirable job of  showing the many aspects of Kyle - the good, the bad, and the part that was irrevocably damaged by his time overseas.

The various sides of Chris Kyle are spotlighted as the film veers back and forth between his time at home and his time on duty. To me, what's effective here is the repeated juxtaposition of the normalcy of life as a civilian in America vs. the insanity and harsh conditions of life on the battlefields of Iraq. The film hammers home just how difficult returning home can be for a soldier - in some ways, as much if not more so than returning to active duty. Sienna Miller does a fine job here as Kyle's rock-steady wife, who can't help but be concerned when her calls with her husband are interrupted by gunfire. As the drama of Kyle's home life unfolds, the action in Iraq hits hard with nail-biting tension. Kyle's role as a sniper is one that we've not seen fully explored in many war films. In the world of videogames, sniping is now a standard action mechanic, and so there's an air of un-reality to Kyle's actions. But Eastwood, I think, mostly grounds the movie enough so that the action is suitably intense without simply becoming Call of Duty: The Movie.

With that said ... there are some things in the film that do feel a bit "off." The film does a nice job of showing Chris Kyle as a three-dimensional human being, but it also depicts him with the kind of larger than life reverence a film might show to a superhero. In some ways, Eastwood seems to depict Kyle like a modern version of the old Western heroes he used to play - a duty-bound warrior for whom violence was simply a way of life. But it's one thing to mythologize the Old West. It's another to give the same treatment to a very recent - in some ways still ongoing - war, whose legitimacy many question. And it's strange - while some parts of AMERICAN SNIPER do feel on-point (i.e. Kyle's struggle with PTSD), other parts feel oddly cartoonish. For example, Kyle's nemesis in the film - a rival Al-Qaeda sniper - is portrayed as a dastardly villain right out of G.I. Joe. In a way, it's easy to get caught up in these parts of the film as a classic good vs. evil showdown - when Kyle gets the drop on his nemesis, my theater cheered wildly in approval. But the contrast between the adult gravity of the PTSD stuff, and the more anachronistic, us-vs.-them material in some of the combat scenes, was often jarring. What really made me wonder though was the film's ending. Without spoiling anything, the movie's finale uses real-life footage to paint Kyle as a true American hero - a symbol of all that is great and good about the U-S-of-A. But in a film that repeatedly touts Kyle's sniping (aka killing) prowess, it just seems odd and in many ways inappropriate to give him that sort of treatment. I - and I think most others - owe a huge debt of thanks to our armed forces. But when thinking about why we should honor a soldier, I think about acts of bravery, acts of courage, acts of selflessness. To tout someone as a hero because of how good they were at killing - to me that seems like an antiquated and morally suspect concept. Chris Kyle as portrayed in the film seems like a man with a story worth telling - a story that drives home the hardships our troops go through, and a story that reminds us of the difficult price we pay in the fight for peace. But AMERICAN SNIPER seems to treat acts of grave necessity as worth celebrating.

And here's where that somewhat questionable point-of-view affects the movie as a whole: a great war movie tells us something not just about one soldier, but about the nature of the war itself. That's why The Hurt Locker was Best Picture-worthy - Jeremy Renner's war-addicted soldier was emblematic of America's addiction to conflict. But the story of American Sniper - while a moving and intense depiction of Chris Kyle's life - feels told in a vacuum, lacking real context or greater meaning that truly puts his service and sacrifice in a broader perspective. In doing so, it implicitly feeds the dogma of neo-con conservatives that feel all wars are good wars, and that the only real issue is that we don't support the troops *enough* to give them the help they need to keep on fighting. I don't think AMERICAN SNIPER is an overtly political movie at all, one way or the other. But some of the tonal inconsistencies can be troubling, and actually hurt the movie artistically. Basically, the film presents Chris Kyle's story without much in the way of larger thematic context. And that prevents it from being great.

By the same token, those who dismiss the film - just because they fear it may indirectly promote suspect politics - are not being fair to how well AMERICAN SNIPER works as pure cinema. Even if part of the film's box-office success stemmed from it becoming part of a political rallying cry, there's also no way it would have become the sensation it did if it was poorly-made. Eastwood really shines here, and Cooper knocks it out of the park. In many ways, the film works well as the antithesis of the overly-cluttered, choppily-paced action films that crowd theaters today. Eastwood's straightforward style feels oddly refreshing, creating good old-fashioned tension without much in the way of gimmicks or tricks. It's old-school, but unlike Eastwood's other recent output, it's never dull.

I could write a lot more about this film. In many ways, the controversy around it has less to do with the film itself, and more to do with a country still fiercely divided over the war in Iraq and the extent to which we should be engaged in bloody foreign conflict in the modern era. But I do think there's a weird cyclical thing at play here. I think that a generation raised on old Westerns and ra-ra World War II movies has a hard time separating the classic American myths from the current American reality. And trust me, I love that stuff. I love the stories of the stoic cowboy riding up to a lawless town and violently cleaning it up, ridding it of all the scumbags who've infested it. But that's escapist fantasy. Eastwood himself helped to shatter that fantasy with Unforgiven, when his aged gunslinger ruminated that killing a man was a hell of a thing. AMERICAN SNIPER is sort of a riff on that, but the problem is that Cooper's Kyle isn't some lone-wolf gunslinger riding around a lawless frontier. No, he's a highly-trained cog in a military-industrial machine. Big difference. But Eastwood doesn't fully seem to acknowledge it. That's why those old Westerns are so appealing - they were simple stories - good, bad, and ugly - problems solved with a bullet, and then it was off to the next town and next adventure. Is it any coincidence that Eastwood has always excelled at giving us those modern myths, those tales of hard-traveled cowboys and vigilantes? It it any shock that his take on the Iraq war is a version of that story? It's too simple an approach to very complex recent history. Interestingly, Eastwood is the same director who gave us the WWII-from-the-Japanese-perspective film Letters From Iwo Jima. Eastwood at the time felt compelled to humanize the Japanese soldiers of WWII and tell a story from their POV. But there still remains the idea that war is in and of itself noble. But Eastwood never took the next leap, to tell a story of war that might be essentially pointless, even from the point of view of its participants. Some characters in AMERICAN SNIPER touch on that idea, but they seem quickly brushed aside - perhaps the film's way of saying that it ain't got time for that nonsense. But that makes it seem ever so slightly tone-deaf to the story's larger context. And so, AMERICAN SNIPER is really good for what it is. But what it is isn't quite enough to be great.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, February 21, 2015

BIG EYES Is Burton at His Best

BIG EYES Review:

- You could say that BIG EYES is a bit of a departure for director Tim Burton. It's a live-action film that takes place squarely in the real-world - in fact, it's the true story of Margaret Keane - an artist whose best-known work was credited to her husband and not to her. There hasn't really been a Burton film like this one since Ed Wood, and in some ways, BIG EYES is its spiritual successor. Both celebrate artists who Burton clearly views as inspirations - cultural outcasts who were panned by critics yet celebrated by their devoted fans - iconoclasts who paved their own way and whose work was defiantly, willfully weird. It's not hard to see how Burton's own trademark animated art style was likely influenced by Keane. And it's also not hard to see how the director - so often (and often unfairly) panned for peddling mass-marketed weirdness might feel empathy for Margaret Keane and her popular series of "big eyes" paintings. Both Keane and Burton peddle pop-art weirdness. But Keane's story has another dimension that Burton's own does not: the fact that her work, for years, was falsely attributed to her publicity-hungry husband. So yes, BIG EYES is in some ways a change from the type of Burton movie we've seen in recent years, but it's also brimming with the sorts of themes that have long captivated him. At its core is the premise that beneath a picture-perfect facade of domestic tranquility and the American dream lies a more disturbing truth. Getting back to that central, personal theme - and not having to deal with the demands of a big-budget blockbuster - seem to have reinvigorated the director. It's his best film in years.

Amy Adams kills it as Margaret Keane. Her journey is that of a woman realizing her strength as an individual. At first, Margaret is somewhat shy, lacking confidence in her work. Only once meeting the flamboyant huckster Walter does she start to see her work's potential. The sad irony is that Walter is all too eager to co-opt her success once her "big eyes" paintings take off. What starts as a small lie from Walter - that he was the artist who had signed "Keane" on a big eyes painting - soon expands to become a full-on Big Lie. Walter gains fame and fortune from his wife's paintings, and Margaret is left to paint in secret, locked up in a hidden room of their home like a medieval prisoner locked away in a tower. But it's a joy to watch the always-great Adams find the courage to challenge her husband, and to increasingly open her eyes to the fact that he's a first-class con-artist.

As Walter, Christoph Waltz goes big. He's animated and over-the-top, and totally entertaining. He perhaps goes a little too big at times, giving Walter an almost cartoon-villain aspect. But the performance works, because Burton paints Walter's journey as a slow descent into madness. The Big Lie is all he has, so when that begins to unravel, so too does he. And really, who better to watch descend into madness than Christoph by-god Waltz?

Burton isn't afraid to give BIG EYES a slightly surreal sheen. It takes place in a day-glo mid-century America, so bright and sun-bathed that it can only be a facade for darker things underneath. And as Margaret struggles with her secret, she is haunted by nightmarish visions of her own big-eyes paintings. The paintings themselves are the kind of pop-goth oddity that seem like early precursors to, well, the Tim Burtons of the world. The fact that they become so popular is the sort of unlikely success story that mirrors Burton's own strange works that went on to entrench themselves in the pop-cultural mainstream.

Burton at his worst can feel like he's simply on cruise control - going through the motions and delivering what's expected of him and not much more. But here, he seems motivated and personally connected to the story being told. BIG EYES is a film about empowerment, but it's also a film about owning eccentricity and creativity. Walter can't generate art by himself, and so he doesn't truly understand the direct, personal relationship between the artist and their artwork. He sees art only as commodity to be exploited. And it's when that happens that diverse voices are shut down or shut out, because too often diversity is viewed as being not what's best for business. In BIG EYES, we get a great story about a woman finding and laying claim to her artistic voice. The side benefit is seeing a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic voice in Tim Burton once again doing the same.

My Grade: A-