Movie Review: “American Sniper” (Clint Eastwood, USA 2014)

I went in to this film unsure of what to expect. While Clint Eastwood has been an effective filmmaker and even against type once directed one of the more effective anti-violence films in history in Unforgiven (USA 1992), the public discourse around the film has entirely focused on an argument about whether the real-life basis for the film, Chris Kyle, should be viewed as a psychopathic kill or heroic patriot, with most claiming that the film depicts the latter but then being split on the propriety of that depiction. So, I did not know whether to expect the more thoughtful ruminations on the nature of violence and war that Eastwood has proven capable of providing or a jingoistic romp about the glory of the American soldier. Thankfully, I think the film was closer to the former than the public discussion would suggest, and though it was nowhere near the masterpiece that Unforgiven was, it was still an above-average film that was worth a viewing.

The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a soldier who was credited with a huge number of kills during four tours of duty in Iraq. However, the film is not so much interested in what Kyle does in Iraq, his training, or even in what makes him such a great soldier. It’s interested in how the Perfect Soldier (which is how he is portrayed) adjusts back to civilian life. It’s a story we’ve seen many times before, but Eastwood tries telling us the story in a different way–breaking up the narrative and having Kyle attempting to adjust during his service. Continue reading

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Movie Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (Matt Reeves, USA 2014)

Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968) was a naked political allegory, like much of what Rod Serling wrote. As such, it was a creature of its time even more than most films. However, its basic plot is easily adaptable to making all kinds of points–it is, after all, not at all dissimilar from the zombie apocalypse plots that permeate the industry at this point. That’s what made it so rife for remaking, including the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA 2011), to which this film is a sequel.

Luckily for viewers, director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver don’t run away from the political themes that defined Schaffner’s original film–indeed, they make the political themes of the film obvious. American flags are displayed prominently (especially for a climactic moment when a dastardly ape stands on a giant flagpole to shout abuse at imprisoned humans), the characters openly discuss some of them, and no one could ever fail to notice the obvious political ramifications of including blowing up a skyscraper that is decorated with an American flag as a major story point. The non-human apes and humans are clearly symbols representing the (for lack of a better term) Middle Eastern Muslim world and the United States.

The story of the film is that of a group of humans, some of the few remaining on a planet that has long since been overtaken by non-human apes, who attempt an uneasy truce with a band of those non-human apes. Both groups are filled with radical elements who don’t want peace with their neighbors, causing internal strife that leads to external strife. Chaos ensues, eventually erupting in a pair of attempted massacres that leave both sides essentially destroyed.

Somewhat interestingly, it’s damn near impossible to pin down whether the non-human apes are the Muslims or the US, because the point of the film is a bit facile: There are extremists in every given group, and judging the entire group based on those extremists leads to dangerous miscommunication. If you want to broaden the point a bit (which is fair), it’s that both sets of people are the same–as Caesar says, “I see how much we are alike.”

An unfortunate problem for this film is that it is essentially a cartoon, like most current big budget films. It opens with a sequence that is a mixture of animation and newsreel footage that is a very effective montage that quickly explains the world as it exists as our story begins, but it unfortunately doesn’t really get any more real. Further, Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin display a shocking lack of visual imagination. The colors, the composition, the use of light and shadow, etc. are all so standard issue that they draw no attention whatsoever.

However, to its credit, the animation of the non-human apes is quite excellent–much better than most of the CGI going on in the film world. And for a film whose 3D effects are constantly (wrongly) being praised, it actually avoids the idiotic “make every chase go toward the camera” with which most 3D films seem to be infatuated.

I know that it is in vogue to praise every bit of Andy Serkis motion capture work as though it is a vintage Al Pacino performance. However, I have never known how to separate Serkis’s own work from the technology and artisans involved in bringing it to life. Caesar is certainly an achievement of some kind, though his perpetual snarling face is slightly over the top, but I have no idea where that credit should go.

Meanwhile, the other acting is good for what it is, but no one really has much of a part to play. Kodi Smit-McPhee, once so excellent in the thoroughly disappointing The Road (John Hillcoat, USA 2009), was the lone standout in a small role, evincing a depth and realism that no one else touches. Gary Oldman achieved something he has never achieved for me before: I could understand everything he said for the entire film, even though his accent slipped a few times. Still, there are no noticeably weak performances, which is something.

Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fine for what it is. It’s a somewhat simplistic cartoon political allegory that unfortunately does not know how to make its point visually, but the care and thought put into the writing is enough to carry the film to being better than the usual summer fare. Much like The Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA/Australia 2014) earlier this summer, it doesn’t set its sights all that high (though a bit higher than that film’s), but it mostly reaches what it aims for. You can’t expect that much more out of a Planet of the Apes film.

Notes

  • “It was a talking ape!” So are you, moron!
  • The non-human apes are apparently able to communicate effectively and efficiently by non-verbal means, so why do they at random times just decide to speak? And after the humans are “eradicated,” why wouldn’t they just permanently return to however they communicated before they learned human language?
  • How is this the “dawn” of the planet of the apes? It seems like it’s more like the downfall of the planet of the apes.
  • Why is Gary Oldman in every film? Does he make like 200 a year?
  • Love that “The Weight” is the song that survives the Simian Holocaust. Carmen and the Devil walking side by side . . .
  • 3D still doesn’t add anything. I hate 3D.

Movie Review: “Edge of Tomorrow” (Doug Liman, USA/Australia 2014)

I think a lot about the basis of the critic’s job. A critic’s job is to find the director’s purpose and judge how well the director succeeded in achieving that goal. Many would say that putting any value judgments on whether that goal was worth achieving is beyond the purview of a critic and while I can understand the logic of that position, I also reject it. Films by their very nature have a limited range of things they can do–they can make a single point. They cannot fully flesh out characters or build deep plots–they have to use characters and plots to make points, and they have to do it quickly. When a film does not understand that, I think it’s right to criticize it. I think it’s fair to punt on making judgments about whether a film’s point is “right” or not, because that question is so unrelated to whether the film achieved its goal.

A number of films I have watched this year were films I criticized for “not trying,” by which I mean that they did not have a point but rather were just the end results of massive marketing campaigns to get, as my favorite undergraduate film professor used to bluntly put it, “asses in the seats.” Edge of Tomorrow, a film with two major stars, a big budget, and more than its share of special effects was a film that clearly had the potential to fall into that category. And it did fall into that trap–it was a film without a point. However, it did a much better job of failing than, say, Neil Burger’s last film. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re going to make a pointless film, this is how to do it.

The plot is not terribly complicated, in spit of involving time travel: During a future war with an alien invasion force, a soldier accidentally gains the aliens’ generally-unknown power to restart “the day” (It actually appears to be more than a day, but that’s the way they say it.) and live it over again until his death. He of course finds a hot, badass female soldier who helps him try to use this power to win the war and along the way he falls in love with her. It’s not terribly complicated and it’s even rather conventional. The film is rife with references to other time-travel films and has more similarities to Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, USA 1993) than could be explained from simple plot similarity, which suggests that Liman and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth were well aware of their own conventionality. It’s not an outright comedy, but the references and self-awareness give the film a lightness that makes its conventions easier to forgive than with a more self-serious film. Also, for all its conventionality, the film has more than its share of good laughs–they’re not too telegraphed or unoriginal to work, which is a surprise for a film that is otherwise so lacking in originality or surprise.

Dion Beebe and Limon follow much the same path visually–it’s conventional and doesn’t stand out at all, but it never embarrasses itself. Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI, but the CGI is mostly used to create creatures that are supposed to look unrealistic, a gambit that allows the silly cartoons not to look quite so silly. It’s the same type of rather washed-out blue-heavy color palette that we see in most futuristic and “science-y” movies, and it doesn’t do much that draws attention to what it’s doing. The reason those conventions exist is because they work at least somewhat well, so following them is not the worst thing in the world.

The only person who really gets a chance to act is Tom Cruise, and he really shines in this performance. I often think that we’ve been somewhat cheated out of a good actor by the fact that Cruise has been a star for his entire career and so has never had to use the considerable talent he brings to the table, but this film was a good example of what he can do when he wants to–the look of fear on his face when he’s told he’s being sent to the front and the way he sells his feeling of being out of place as he walks into the barracks are moments that alone show you that he can act, and he does much the same throughout the film. However, oddly, Emily Blunt gets the star entrance–we hear about her legend and see her picture several times before she finally shows up, and then we see her only in silhouette a few times and then only her sword (Yes, a sword) at first. She doesn’t really get anything to do in the film, essentially playing a cold, collected soldier with no real depth, so her acting really isn’t noticeable. She seems to have an oddly inconsistent accent (odd because Blunt is actually English and the film is set in England and what little we know about her would suggest she is English, and yet she seems to be affecting an American accent most of the time), but it’s not a huge deal.

Overall, this is a simplistic, pointless film–but at least it’s a simplistic, pointless film that does what it wants to do well. It’s fun to watch, the performances and visuals are good enough, and it has some good, intentional laughs. That’s more than can be said for some films, and enough to make it worth watching once if it sounds like it would interest you at all.

Notes

  • The Omega looked just enough like the Nestene Consciousness that it was all I could think of.
  • When Rita walks out with her sword in hand, she looks like she walked in from Final Fantasy XIII. I can’t be the only one who had that thought.
  • Science Hill, Kentucky is actually smaller than where I grew up. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a specific city with a population smaller than where I grew up mentioned in a film before.
  • 3D is still a scam–there was nothing at all gained by it.