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

Thoughts on the Previews: April 18, 2014

Another new feature to try out: these are some random thoughts I had during the previews at the theater today. There will be a movie review probably later tonight (at worst early tomorrow), but I often have things to say about the previews, so I might as well say them here. Note that I’m not necessarily covering everything. I really have nothing to say about another Expendables movie–I just rolled my eyes at its existence and moved on.

Commercials: Orphan Black and M&Ms

  • I love M&M commercials. Like always. They do these stupid little fake movie trailers to tell people to silence their cell phones and yet they are just consistently awesome. They are such a perfect mimicry of typical movie trailers. They’re like the This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA 1984) of movie commercials.
  • It’s good to see that Orphan Black is getting pub. I’m going to do episode-by-episode reviews this season, since I got a season pass on Amazon. Note that, like Breaking Bad‘s final half-season, I will be a little behind because I have to wait for those to come up.

Trailer: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Marc Webb was an exciting young visionary. He made a brilliant film in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009) that was simultaneously a great love story, a deconstruction of movie love stories, and a masterclass in how to cover up a poor lead actor in Zooey Deschanel (Sorry F!). Then, he caught the Bryan Singer-copyrighted Superhero Movie bug.
  • Spider-Man is a stupid superhero. He’s whiny and annoying.
  • “You know what I love about being Spider-Man?” Clearly, the tight suit and being able to be supposedly shy but have a new love interest every five issues but it’s obvious you’re going to say everything. “Everything.” Yeah, that was obvious.

Trailer: Lucy (Luc Besson, France 2014)

  • “It’s been estimated that the average human being only uses 10% of their cognitive ability” (note: this is from memory). Only by idiots! I was a psychology major. I took neurology classes. Guess what? That’s a myth. Here is Snopes.com debunking it. Here’s Scientific American doing the same thing. Even Wikipedia knows it! We need another movie perpetuating this nonsense and using it as its basis??!!! You know what would actually happen if someone could access 28% of her brain? She would be a drooling puddle of goo!!!
  • I remember when Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman were real actors. I miss them.
  • Luc Besson’s career is a mystery to me.

Trailer: X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Bryan Singer was a real director. Sigh.
  • To be fair, the X-Men movies do always look much more like real movies than most comic book fare. I’ve still never wanted to watch one, though.

Trailer: Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014)

  • I thought casting Chris Pratt, in spite of his bulk, as a superhero was a little weird, because he just oozes sweetness. However, I now see why they cast him, and I’m sort of interested in this.
  • Did they really just not even bother to show Karen Gillan in the trailer?
  • I will not speak of what Karen Gillan did to herself for this film. I may avoid it only because of that.
  • The Karen Gillan tag has way more entries than any logic would suggest that it should . . .
  • Doesn’t this sort of look like a movie version of Firefly?
  • My favorite part of the flipping off the camera joke was actually the computer saying, “Warning: Imminent Obscene Gesture Detected.” They have the technology to do something that impressive, and that’s what they use it for?! Yeah, that actually sounds like something a government would do. I’m sad now.

Trailer: Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, USA 2014)

  • “Oh what a night/Late December back in ’63/What a very special time for me/What a lady, what a night . . .” Oh, that’s not here. Boo.
  • Clint Eastwood . . . musical . . . not sure about that idea. Eastwood has some goodwill for me, but his last film was a total embarrassment, so he’d better get it together.

Movie Review: “Trouble with the Curve” (Robert Lorenz, USA 2012)

Let’s start this with what should be an uncontroversial statement: Clint Eastwood is not and never has been a good actor. He has spent his entire career playing the same thing: tough, grouchy (often to the point of being vicious), solitary men who, underneath the harsh exterior, have hearts of gold. From the beginning of the Man with No Name’s trilogy in 1964 to this film, Eastwood has really never tried to do anything else. The only difference between his recent work and his work from nearly a half-century ago is that he now spews seemingly innocuous bile and bizarre old-age jokes to create his own comic relief. Now, there is certainly a good point about that: He at least recognizes the limits of his talents and stops short of stretching himself places he’s not capable of going (except apparently the Republican National Convention). However, the fact that he has become such an iconic “actor” and been rewarded with two Best Actor Oscar nominations is frankly disturbing.

In Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood’s first performance in a film he did not direct himself since In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, USA 1993), he does not stretch himself any further. The same attempts of humor that populated his over-celebrated performance in Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA/Germany 2008) populate this film, and remain the only things separating him from the ’60s westerns that made him famous. He plays an old baseball scout with failing eyesight who is watching his job slowly disappear under the onslaught of computers and statistics (one of the many baseball stupidities in this film). Eastwood is a perfect casting decision, but also one who is not going to add anything to the film, which is, in a way, emblematic of the film’s myriad problems.

This is the type of film that always bothers me, because its strengths are mostly masked by glaring flaws that should have been obvious early on but may even have been added along the way. Fundamentally, the film’s biggest problem is that it has no idea what it’s about. Consider the plots that the film attempts:

  • An aging baseball scout, seeing his job slowly replaced by computers and statistics in the modern world, makes his last stand.
  • An aging baseball scout, obsessed with his job above all else, discovers that his eyesight is going and attempts to work through the job nonetheless.
  • A 33-year-old lawyer whose life otherwise appears to be coming together finds out that her father is gravely ill and so attempts to repair their long-broken relationship.
  • A long-absent father and his daughter find themselves trapped together on a road trip by circumstances, with a dark secret from their past haunting their every conversation.
  • A lawyer finds herself in a relationship that, while it sounds good on paper, has no feeling and finds herself irresistibly (and supposedly inexplicably, though he is of course incredibly good looking) attracted to someone who does not fit her schema for life.
  • Two young people who are connected only through their connection to one man, the woman’s biological father who was always absent and the man’s surrogate father to whom he had no biological connection, fall in love.

That’s six films, not one. When you try to tell all of these stories at once, what you actually do is tell a very thin, surface-level version of each, robbing it of all of the depth and emotional power it could have had. Further, look at those stories. Is this movie about the father, the daughter, their relationship, or the daughter’s other relationship? Using multiple plots like this can work if there is a single narrative thread, but a single thread isn’t here, so it doesn’t work.

It’s easy to see how the plots could have happened: the aging baseball scout losing his job to computers and stats mirrors the daughter’s change of relationships from the good-on-paper-but-passionless relationship to the opposite, the foil of the players he’s carefully mentored to the daughter he ignored emphasizes what he’s done with her, the fact that Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake playing the younger roles means that they are going to have to have a romance, and there needs to be some reason besides just being a bastard that the old man didn’t care for his daughter (after all, Eastwood can’t really be a bad guy). It could easily be that writer Randy Brown began with a screenplay telling any one of those stories and telling it well and then had these things added along the way for the sake of family-friendliness and/or commercialism (particularly the Adams/Timberlake romance). Someone should have realized that the film was way off course at some point–hell, Eastwood himself, for all his faults as an actor, is a very talented director who should have recognized the problems (though admittedly focus has been a problem of some of his films as well)–but it apparently never happened.

Visually, the film is actually a bit better than it deserves. It works on a full, saturated color palette that really fits the whole baseball story perfectly and while Robert Lorenz couldn’t be said to have done anything particularly interesting, that once-common look is now relatively rare in modern filmmaking and he certainly doesn’t do anything else that takes away from it. It’s not the most visually creative film, but it’s far from bad. Long-time Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern and Lorenz deserve some credit for at least doing that much, especially considering the derision that Lorenz and Randy Brown deserve for so much of the film.

The only actors other than Eastwood with significant screen time are Amy Adams, who is really pretty bad in her performance, keeping a lightness and effervescence that does not befit the character. Meanwhile, that same type of lightness and effervescence is perfect for Justin Timberlake’s character, and he fits that perfectly. His charm and charisma are a perfect fit and he handles a simple role. The film doesn’t expect much of anyone except Adams, and she unfortunately fails.

And of course, no baseball film would be complete without making some ridiculous baseball mistakes. Eastwood is supposed to be scouting a high school baseball player (who is apparently playing the busiest high school schedule ever) the team wants to draft first overall. The “stats guy” (another problem: no one believes in reading stats out and ignoring scouting completely) and younger scout Timberlake both compare him to Albert Pujols and he’s a fat kid playing third base, but then the stats guy calls him a five-tool player. No corner player goes first in the draft, because there’s a limit to the upside of any such player and no high school third baseman can be considered someone who may have plus speed and defense. A left-handed pitcher with decent mechanics gets compared to Sandy Koufax as though that’s a good thing. Koufax had terrible mechanics and that’s why he flamed out young in spite of his unbelievable greatness.  He also gets compared to Randy Johnson for his fastball when Johnson’s success was in fact almost entirely dependent on his slider. The Red Sox decide to pass on the kid they had ranked first for the draft based on the fact that a scout from another organization said, “He can’t hit the curve” and apparently the Sox have no interest in stats (which is of course the opposite of reality–the Red Sox are, along with the Rays and the Astros, perhaps the most SABR-friendly team in baseball). (This is really just scratching the surface. Over at his blog the Dish, baseball writer Keith Law called the film “an insult to anyone who works in the baseball industry.”)

Overall, this is a frustratingly bad movie with a lot of flaws. Not worth seeing.