American Sniper Strikes Back

American Sniper - poster

FINALLY!  A good movie about American contemporary war.  After Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty I was beginning to lose faith.  A couple clips nail it:

Kenneth Turan, LA Times:

Eastwood’s impeccably crafted action sequences so catch us up in the chaos of combat we are almost not aware that we’re watching a film at all.

David Denby, The New Yorker:

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” is both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie, a subdued celebration of a warrior’s skill and a sorrowful lament over his alienation and misery.

A great film, one of the best of 2014.  That it was completely absent from the Golden Globes points to a wacky awards season.  Could it be a “sleeper” at the Oscars?  I hope so.  9/10

Don’t Get American Hustle’d

A new Christmas tradition is in the works: me watching a crappy David O. Russell film.  It is a tradition that I sincerely hope does not become too firmly established.  Now I am being a little too harsh — American Hustle is not exactly crappy, it’s American Hustle - posterjust not good.  About half-way through, I thought to myself — “hey, I think this is that new film by the Silver Linings Playbook director.”

I thought this not because it is bad, but because of the manner in which it is bad.  I forget what scene it was that triggered my association to last year’s picture, but, despite the very different subject matter, these two films have a similar feel — that feel of a story not coming together.  It’s as if Russell read a manual on how to put together a movie, and said, OK, let’s add this piece to this piece, and throw in some 70’s fashion and music, let good actors do their job and we’ll have a good movie.

With a Tomatoemeter score of 94%, it has succeeded where it wanted to.  To me, it felt like four great films — Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, and P.T. Anderson’s fabulous Boogie Nights, blended together and spit out the other end, resulting in a film just under half the quality of any of one of those.  After stumbling out of the starting block, American Hustle finally got to a point where I was enjoying a couple scenes, but faltered again down the stretch.  I walked out thinking what a non-story, really, what a non-movie that was.

As to the critical acclaim?  Critics think the acting was stellar here.   Christian Bale gained a lot of weight for the role, even the more impressive remembering his weight loss for The Machinist.  But something about his character, and to some extent, those of Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, somehow didn’t ring true to me.  Hard to put my finger on it, but perhaps it was the context of the poorly executed film.  The performances seemed as arbitrary as the plot elements.

Also arbitrary: otherwise fitting 70’s-era popular music.  These are all great tracks, but except for the disco scene (Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), the songs seemed completely disconnected from anything happening in the picture.  They were thrown in in the same dishonest way that Silver Linings was marketed with a song that did not appear in the movie.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

That brings me to the other reason critics liked this film — they were taken by the vintage fashion, music, culture, and historical context of Abscam.  To me it’s a big snow job.  American Hustle is a simpleton’s movie.  It’s a good movie for people who are blinded by the facade.

You might think that I really hated this movie, but there were moments that became more and more enjoyable as the movie finally began hitting its stride.  I would have liked to see more Louis C.K., who was great here.  But in the end this was a deeply dissatisfying film.  Those critics applauding the film?  The only thing they or anyone else is going to remember about this movie five years from now is, oh yeah, that movie where Christian Bale was fat and bald.  4/10 

Film Notes: The Place Beyond the Pines

Place-beyond-Pines-IMDb Still

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the Pines

I was excited enough about this movie that I had posted three times before on it.  If you, like me, were eagerly anticipating the pairing of two of the hottest A-list actors today in the same movie, The Place Beyond the Pines does deliver that.  However, if you were waiting to see Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper actually acting together in the same scenes, eh, no… you won’t get that here.

Like its title, The Place Beyond the Pines rambles too much, without understanding how to construct the climax that everyone is expecting and deserving.  The director Derek Cianfrance more or less abandons the taut style that served so well in his previous work Blue Valentine.  I think he was trying for an epic-ish vision in 3 acts, perhaps in order to demonstrate his breadth, his ability to make grand tales and move beyond the small intimate indie.

This movie begins with a great deal of promise, and the first part with Gosling is quite gripping.  The second third is good too.  I kept giving Pines the benefit of the doubt, and was thinking happy thoughts with expectation of a great and explosive climax — but ultimately it just peters out.  I reckon Cianfrance is attempting some greater message on redemption, forgiveness and loss, but he forgets that story must come first.

Beyond the Pines also has a major continuity problem that is generally solved in film school 101: when you jump forward 15 years in time, you need to make the characters look a little older.  I mean, nothing extravagant, but after 15 years people don’t look the same as they did before 15 years.  Especially as in the case of one character, a drug-addled abuser who couldn’t possibly make it another year, much less 15.  Try a little makeup, people.

As I’ve said before, Ryan Gosling is the best actor working today.  He is the Jack Nicholson of his age: always fascinating no matter what he is doing on camera.  He’s great here too.  And Limitless caused me to gain respect for Bradley Cooper that would otherwise be flushed away by The Hangover and the stupid dance-off sitcom un-movie Silver Linings Playbook.  And I like him in this movie.  But in the end, there is nothing from a story perspective that stands out here.  This is not going to be a movie that you remember a few years down the line, and for that reason I cannot recommend it.  There is a lot that does work, but more that doesn’t.  5/10

* * *

Comparison Notes: The Departed, Reservation Road, Mystic River

Times’ take on The Place Beyond the Pines

I don’t plan on getting in the habit of posting links to external reviews — that’s not what my blog is about.  But because there is so much interest in this movie, and because it is, in typical New York Times fashion, consummately written, I am making an exception.  I have disagreed strongly with A.O. Scott in the past (on his lauding of The Grey, for example), so I cannot say whether I would agree with him in his mixed review.

Of note is the setting of Schenectady, N.Y., which makes a connection to another movie I’ve written about, Synecdoche, New York; see my post “Film as Soufflé.”Place-beyond-Pines-NYTimes

The Place Beyond the Pines

I watched Stoker last night at my main local indie/art house, the Landmark Hillcrest.  They showed previews of two movies which may have ‘indie-like’ elements, but due to their overwhelming star power are decidedly not independent.  I suppose that means they will show them both.  I’m not sure I approve of that, since it means denying screen time to smaller movies like John Dies at the End, and at the same time overwhelming the limited venue’s capacity.

The first one is The Place Beyond the Pines, which pairs (for the first time?) Ryan Gosling with Bradley Cooper.  Somehow I’ve already made a connection between these two, maybe because they look like they could be brothers.  Beyond offering promise for a decent movie, the trailer gives me a feeling that Ryan Gosling will further cement his reputation as the singularly best actor of his generation.  The star power of this movie is rounded out by Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta.  If you haven’t heard of it already you will soon hear plenty; this movie will be getting some serious advertising bucks and could make it big.  Click here to watch iTunes trailer, or view below.  Stay tuned for second ‘indie’ trailer.

my take on Silver Linings Playbook

Through about the first half of Silver Linings Playbook (now in theaters), I was mildly entertained and content with the growing expectation of good things unfolding as the movie progressed.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are players in a story with a depth somewhere between Three’s Company and a typical Frasier episode, spread out to a full 2 hours.  Likable characters and a certain marginal cinematic quality elevate it a little over a television sitcom, but barely.  I am not phrasing that correctly.  There are some very good sitcoms out there that might take offense.

I just confirmed on IMDb that the catchy and popular song used to promote this movie, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, is never used in the movie.  These guys should be sued for perjury as far as I’m concerned.  That really steams me.  I’ve never heard of a movie being so heavily promoted with a piece of music that has zero connection to said movie.

Now, the talk of Oscar acting nominations is surprising.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence do, I think, what the short-sighted filmmakers ask of them, but that equates to nothing at all exceptional.  Even Robert DeNiro is boring and wasted in the cardboard cut-out role he’s given; his spin in Meet the Fockers is high art compared to this.

The more I’ve thought about this movie, the more I dislike it.  Contrived, artificial, one-dimensional characters and story contribute nothing of lasting value.  Silver Linings Playbook is utterly forgettable, mildly entertaining pabulum, as lame as its lame title.  Give it a year, nobody will remember this movie.  Honestly, it could not even deliver a single “wow” scene that people can talk about.  The good news?  It’s not the worst of the year.  3/10.