Serena: Cooper, Lawrence make most of uneven frontier drama

Pair a three-time Academy Award-nominated actor with an Oscar-winning actress and put them in a hauntingly beautiful period film and it would seem like a recipe for instant success.

Yet “Serena,” the third on-screen pairing between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, takes major missteps that equal or slightly outpace its positive strides, making for an uneven and mundane film as a whole.

Most of the blame, as it were — because conceptually, this is a film that should have fared significantly better — should be laid at the feet of Danish director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle for their mismanagement of the film adaptation of the 2008 Ron Rash novel of the same name.

Set in North Carolina during the 1920s, the movie centers around an up-and-coming logging company owner (Cooper) whose life changes when he falls instantly in love with a beautiful, yet troubled young woman named Serena (Lawrence), who will stop at nothing to keep their love alive.

How and why the couple falls in love is left up to nothing more than a single chance encounter followed up by a sloppily shot encounter on horseback in a field.

Bier and Kyle’s decision to fast-track the romance leaves viewers without any reason to invest in the characters and forces Cooper and Lawrence to rely on their innate chemistry developed in another movie (“Silver Linings Playbook”) under the guidance of a superior director (David O. Russell).

The chemistry between the duo is palpable and is especially noticeable in the sex scenes with “Serena,” but even two incredibly talented actors can’t seem to find a way to make a lackluster script work to their full advantage.

A film about passionate love and the desperation it can create needs the time to explore the romance between the leads, an almost unforgiveable oversight.

“Serena,” which was filmed before “American Hustle” and has sat on the studio’s shelf for over two years, is just missing that little bit of finesse and craftsmanship from the director’s chair necessary to keep the pacing steady and viewers engaged.

Not surprisingly, the movie falters most often when Lawrence and Cooper are not on-screen together. Lawrence, harkening back to a classic era of cinema in both look and demeanor, can hold her own with the limited material, while Cooper — who increasingly approaches leading roles with a character actor’s mentality — has a rougher go-round dealing with a lack of script depth.

Veteran character actors Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones do a decent job in their roles as a mysterious, veteran logger and the town sheriff, respectively.

Though the film deserves better than its eventual branding as “that other Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence movie,” “Serena” needed a different director to fully realize a quality period drama from a terrific concept for a movie.

Despite all its flaws, “Serena” is still the best film to be released so far in 2015, though its pacing issues and early release date will, in all likelihood, bar the film from receiving any accolades come award season.

The film is currently available via video on demand and is expected to receive a limited theater run beginning later this month.


Focus: Smith, Robbie have decent chemistry in romantic heist flick

There’s a lot of layers to the latest offering from Will Smith, who starts the long road back from cinematic wasteland with the romantic drama-comedy heist film, “Focus,” co-starring “Wolf of Wall Street” starlet Margot Robbie.

There’s the con, led by Smith as the consummate con artist, practiced in deceit.

There’s the romance, with Robbie slithering her way into Smith’s gang and into his heart.

There’s the comedy, led by some witty one-liners from Smith and hilarious supporting performances from Adrian Martinez as Smith’s running buddy Farhad and “Law and Order: SVU” alum B.D. Wong in a scene-stealing performance as a billionaire gambler willing to throw down the big bucks.

There’s some drama, too, but of the four genres melded into “Focus,” the drama doesn’t really hit home due mainly to a lack of real chemistry between Smith and Robbie.

Hollywood would be well served to develop more quality heist films, because it’s in those moments where “Focus” — under the guide of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra — shines the brightest. When the film is about the con and in service to the con, “Focus” keeps viewers coming back for more.

It’s in those moments in between — where the witty banter is exchanged for longing — that things just don’t stick fully.

After several lackluster outings, “Focus” seems to be a step in the right direction for Smith, who’s gradually finding himself in the latter stages of his career. He hasn’t made it back to “Ali” territory yet, but it’s by no means time to put the final nail in the coffin, either.

“Focus” is ideal date night fodder for movie-going couples, with half the film aimed at guys seeking adventure and the other half for girls needing a new romantic comedy.

There’s just enough of both there to make a trip to the theaters worth your time.


What we talk about when we talk about Birdman

It shouldn’t come as a total shock that “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” — a very inside acting film — would continue the trend of movies like “The Artist” and “Argo,” winning the Best Picture prize at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Now three of the last five films to win the most prestigious award in Hollywood are about Hollywood, actors or some combination of both, and that’s certain to upset a lot of members of the general public, whether they’re indie die-hards who were mystified by Richard Linklater’s 12-year filming odyssey “Boyhood” or patriotic Clint Eastwood backers supporting a box office smash hit in “American Sniper.” But when you watch or re-watch “Birdman” — now out on DVD and Bluray — it’s important to realize just how complete a film “Birdman” is and what exactly we should be talking about when we talk about “Birdman.”

From the opening seconds, “Birdman” establishes itself as a film that’s going to draw moviegoers in with its visual brilliance, then keep them entranced with stunning performances from its deep and talented cast of actors.

Newly crowned Best Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose previous films include “Babel” and “21 Grams,” provides the initial hook, opting to stage the film in narrow, tight hallways inside the backstage of the St. James Theater in New York City to provide added tension, then flipping cinematic standard on its head by fusing each scene together so that “Birdman” feels like one never-ending, 120-minute shot.

Each scene is stitched together seamlessly thanks to the artistic savvy of “Gravity” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — recent winner of back-to-back cinematography Oscars — and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione.

Each scene transitions to the next without interruption, mostly done through extended segments of 10 minutes or more. The necessary technique to pull off such a terrific stunt is a beautifully choreographed dance between actors and crew.

A great deal of technical care has been taken in the movie, which rivals “Gravity” as the most forward-thinking and visually dynamic film in years.

This sort of digital skill is becoming commonplace — especially in the superhero film genre “Birdman” constantly derides — but never with such grace. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the technical wizardry of a film accent highly skilled and complete acting performances, rather than having gimmicks or special effects operate as a replacement for quality acting.

Much in the same way that David Fincher used who Ben Affleck is as a public figure to great effect in “Gone Girl,” Iñárritu’s choice of former “Batman” star Michael Keaton as the titular “Birdman,” given Keaton’s struggles to overcome the shadow of his role as Batman parallel his character Riggan’s difficulty separating himself mentally from the super hero character Birdman that made him a movie star 20 years ago.

As a moviegoer, it’s nearly impossible to completely separate Keaton, the actor, with Riggan the character and in the case of “Birdman,” the film takes full advantage of this duality to create a deeply personal and emotionally rich character wanting to prove himself to the world while mistaking adoration for love.

Keaton, who narrowly lost out to “Theory of Everything” star Eddie Redmayne for a Best Actor Oscar, gives the performance of a lifetime in the role, which ironically enough, should redefine Keaton as a passionate actor outside of the comic book realm.

Edward Norton, who would have won Best Supporting Actor in a year where J.K. Simmons didn’t blow people away in “Whiplash,” provides Keaton with a sounding board to lob emotional volleys to, both in the film itself and in the Broadway stage show Riggan is producing, an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Emma Stone — who is slowly, but surely proving herself to be something much more than the limited characters she’s been playing on screen — makes the absolute most out of every second in her performance as Keaton’s drug-addled daughter looking to stay clean while helping her dad reform his own image. The subtle co-dependence the two characters share in their mutual rehabilitation is one of the many great sub-plots in an intricately woven tale.

Outside of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” moviegoers would be hard pressed to find such quality acting from so many talented performers — Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough.

But the question still remains: What do we talk about when we talk about “Birdman?”

How do you explain a meta, highly self-referential dramedy that seems to demean its audience by lavishly deriding the common blockbuster experience?

Quite simply, “Birdman” is the next step forward in a cinematic evolution that began with James Cameron’s visually transformative “Avatar” and continued with Guillermo del Toro’s space adventure “Gravity.”

Adding new depth in acting to lofty and innovative cinematography makes “Birdman” the obvious next step in filmmaking, led by Iñárritu, who is up to the task of making all the moving pieces work fluidly and beautifully.

“Birdman” checks off on all the critical elements of a complete cinematic experience — visual brilliance, acting talent giving top notch performances, elite technical skill and a blue-chip script — and is worthy of its Best Picture statue.


McFarland USA: Disney offers heartwarming sports tale

January and February are usually the time of year where films the major studios aren’t real comfortable with get released and it’s often a wasteland of below-par cinema.

Every once in a while, during this time of year, a film overcomes this stigma and becomes something worthwhile.

Such is the case with the latest Disney release — “McFarland, USA” — starring the timeless Kevin Costner in a true story about a white football coach who, through a series of unfortunate events, becomes the first cross country coach at a predominately Hispanic high school in McFarland, California.

These sort of generical sports movie off-shoots of “Rudy” typically aren’t worth a trip to the theaters, but “McFarland” goes beyond the traditional and brings an added depth to the race relations discussion now so prominent in Hollywood with films like “Selma.”

Costner, while keeping his usual charm, isn’t the primary reason the film succeeds, but rather the bridge that keeps the whole picture moving along.

The group of talented young Latino actors tasked with portraying the underdog, but hardworking original McFarland cross country team — led by Carlos Pratts as the team’s best runner and a heartwarming performance from Ramiro Rodriguez as the tubby Danny pulling up the anchor — give the film just the right amount of heart.

Though the film takes great effort to have Maria Bello and “Homeland” actress Morgan Saylor as the secondary leads, it’s in scenes where the team interacts with Costner that “McFarland” shines the most, largely due to the compelling relationship built up between the young actors as a whole.

Director Niki Caro takes his time finding a groove within “McFarland” and as a result, the film doesn’t really take off until the final third, when the focus becomes more about a coach and his team crossing traditional racial barriers and finding a way to win.

A heartwarming family tale, “McFarland, USA” is definitely worth checking out now.


Fifty Shades of Grey: Chemistry, quality missing in film adaptation

It takes two to tango — one to lead and one to follow — in the feature film adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The follower, Dakota Johnson as the naïve and bookish Anastasia, is a breath of fresh air anytime she appears on screen and truly gives 110 percent of herself to every scene no matter how much clothing she wears.

However, the leader, Jamie Dornan as the charismatic and mysterious billionaire Christian, can’t dance to save his life.

In relationship-heavy two-handers like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it’s important that both leads utilize the other’s performance to help elevate their own, but Johnson is acting against a brick wall.

There’s only so much an actor can do when given nothing to work with. It’s what makes Johnson’s honest portrayal of the loss of innocence more noteworthy.

It’s easy to tell that Dornan isn’t anywhere close to being the first choice for the role, as the Irish-born actor can’t seem to find any depth to a man hiding dark secrets.

He struggles to identify with the character and placates that lack of connection — and subsequent lack of chemistry with Johnson — by softening each of his lines to make them sound more attractive.

Whispering can be sexy, but not when it’s the only tone of voice used over a two-hour period.

Just as miscast as Dornan is sophomore director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose lack of vision clouds any real character development in either lead and limits the film to late-night Cinemax fodder.

There’s no creativity in the film’s construction or development as if the actors directed themselves.

It’s ironic (and rather sad) that “Fifty Shades of Grey” scored the biggest opening weekend in history by a female director at just under $91 million.

Passionate filmgoers angry about the omission of Ava DuVernay from best director accolades for “Selma” need to be just as upset, if not more so, that Taylor-Johnson’s pedestrian, banal effort will be considered a greater success by Hollywood standards than the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic based solely on box office revenue.

The “Fifty Shades” film is simply a tent pole in service of a financial empire — a means to further line investors’ pocketbooks through the licensing of everything from lingerie, oils and wine to stuffed teddy bears with handcuffs in their paws. 

“Fifty Shades” doesn’t need to be good to feed the beast, just buzz-worthy enough to draw interest and push product on the most ardent “Shade”-oholics.

There’s about 20 minutes worth of sex scenes in “Fifty Shades,” significantly toned down from the source material. Taylor-Johnson’s film sticks mostly to topless and rear nudity along with some glimpses of hair in places usually not shown on the big screen.

Who would have guessed that a movie about bondage and dominance could be so mundane?

For a book about sex, the film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t so much about the BDSM lifestyle as it is an inferior study of compulsion and control.

What doesn’t work most about this lackluster, cookie-cutter, sex-by-numbers escapade is the lack of character development, leaving viewers simply ogling Ana and Christian rather than identifying with them.

It could very well be that Dornan can’t handle a complex character, but even the most average thespian could act circles around Dornan’s bland, one-note, uninspired whisper performance.

Marcia Gay Harden is largely wasted in a throwaway cameo role as Christian’s mother.

On the good side, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — who shot “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Atonement” — does a wonderful job lighting and framing each scene.

Additionally, the film’s soundtrack boasts an impressive selection of top artists, including multiple tracks from Beyonce, whose remix of “Crazy in Love” is top notch, and Annie Lennox, whose cover of the classic song, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” at the film’s outset fools viewers that they’ll see a better movie than they ultimately get.

As is the case in many other genres, independent films like “Blue Valentine” and “Secretary” do a much better job balancing the emotional and physical of psychologically challenging romantic relationships.

“Fifty Shades” is much too mainstream to be filmed with an NC-17 hard cut that would offend too much of the country; too erotic to be given a softer, more emotional cut that truly examines the choices and mindset of those who explore BDSM lifestyles; and certainly too poorly made to deserve a sequel, but too financially important not to.


Kingsman The Secret Service: Firth steps out as action star

“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” an action adventure thrill ride from “X-Men: First Class” director Matthew Vaughn, gives viewers Colin Firth as he’s never been seen before — a fighter, not a lover.

By far the most mainstream work in the long and celebrated filmography of the Academy Award-winner, Firth is charming and dynamic in this modern imagining of independent gentleman spies and everything you could possibly hope for out of an international man of mystery.

Homage to spy films throughout the decades, “Kingsman” has a lot of the uninhibited panache of a Roger Moore-era James Bond film with the violence turned up to 11.

Parents of younger viewers need to be aware that “Kingsman” cranks up the gore considerably, especially during the chaotic fight sequence in the church featured in the trailer, which could be considered a ‘G’ or ‘PG’ rate cut in comparison to the hard ‘R’ version shown in theaters.

Though talented actors — Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine — are littered throughout the supporting cast, Firth is worth the price of admission and the only real reason to see “Kingsman.”

Don’t try and understand all the nuances of an uneven film, but sit back, relax and enjoy vintage spy comedy in a modern age.


Jupiter Ascending: Sci-flop not worth your time

It’s unfortunate that “Jupiter Ascending,” the latest sci-fi adventure from the Wachowski directing team of “Matrix” fame, wasn’t released last summer like originally scheduled.

The film, which believes itself to be the second coming of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, is more like the Jar Jar Binks of the sci-fi genre, heavily derided, over-animated and just not that good.

It certainly doesn’t seem like the extra seven months taken following its July 18 expected release date helped the overall aesthetic of the film.

To be sure, “Jupiter Ascending” is a terrible film lacking in any semblance of character development, cohesive plot or sense of purpose.

But films like “Jupiter Ascending” are necessary evils that remind us just how fortunate we are for movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” science fiction films with an actual point of view and something interesting to hold on to.

Or better still, “Jupiter Ascending” should make viewers more appreciative of Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey, “Interstellar,” which hits on a lot of the same plot points — previously home-bound hero rockets off into unknown worlds to save the people of Earth in a big-budget, special effects heavy adventure film.

Everything that “Jupiter Ascending” doesn’t have going for it — quality acting performances, adept storytelling, cinematically beautiful visual effects — “Interstellar” has in spades.

Nolan’s movie is a little long and pretty wordy, but there aren’t any flying dinosaur battles ripped from the excess pages of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Bad acting abounds in “Jupiter Ascending,” from Mila Kunis as the damsel in distress to her one-note savior, Channing Tatum.

The worst offender, however, is Academy Award nominee Eddie Redmayne, who awkwardly whispers his way through the film like he’s hoping viewers don’t remember he’s the same actor who just won a BAFTA (British Academy) award for best actor as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”

It’s plausible to think that producers believed the name recognition of Tatum and Kunis would be enough to get people in the door early and the $175 million they spent on special effects would keep buzz going.

Except “Jupiter Ascending” is so bad, you won’t find yourself caring so much about the plight of the characters as much as how long before the film ends so you can go home.

The biggest problem with this sci-fi dud is that it’s another poor outing for originality in filmmaking, strengthening the case for Hollywood producers to spend more money (and waste viewers’ time) with unnecessary sequels.


A Most Violent Year: Quiet drama honors gangster genre

Hollywood is putting serious pocket change into remaking vintage films using modern technology for new audiences.

It seems as though no film is beyond the grasp of remake-hungry directors, though there are still some movies that need to be left untouched.

You just can’t remake “The Godfather.”

“A Most Violent Year,” a little-seen film that the National Board of Review chose as the best of 2014, isn’t a “Godfather” rip-off or remake, but carries with it all the lessons modern filmmakers can learn from the Francis Ford Coppola crime classic.

J.C. Chandor’s third feature film — following 2011’s breakout hit “Margin Call” and 2013’s “All Is Lost” — stars Oscar Isaac as a businessman trying to stay clean in a dirty, corrupt heating oil industry.

The film gets its title from the background in which it is set — New York City in 1981, a disproportionately violent year in the town’s history.

At its core, “A Most Violent Year” is a brilliantly simple film masquerading as a gangster morality play.

Isaac’s Abel Morales, a Latin American immigrant who believes in the “American dream” in its purest form, wants to do right by his wife and daughters.

His sense of honor in a land of thieves and crooks that rob his company help define him as a more conflicted, modern day Michael Corleone, a role Isaac plays with understated, refined grace.

Counter-balancing Abel in their marriage, Jessica Chastain continues to prove why she’s the best actress working in Hollywood with a scene-stealing performance as Abel’s wife, Anna, whose Mob family background casts a shadow over Abel’s legitimate business operations.

It’s Chastain’s on-screen presence that sneaks up on viewers focused on the nuances of Isaac’s performance as Anna provides the unseen but loudly heard muscle backing Abel’s calm and calculated demeanor.

Chandor’s script provides both Juilliard-trained actors a treasure-trove of character development material from which to mine, allowing Isaac and Chastain to give some of the year’s most compelling performances.

As Abel’s right-hand-man, Albert Brooks lightly evokes Robert Duvall’s performance as concerned mob lawyer Tom Hagen from “The Godfather,” while “Selma” star David Oyelowo is capable as an assistant district attorney investigating the Morales’ business.

But it’s Elyes Gabel — in a critical supporting role as a fearful truck driver thinking of taking matters into his own hands — that offers up the best work from the supporting cast.

His nuanced performance helps give added meaning to the delicate balance between right and wrong in Abel’s struggle to achieve the American dream.

“A Most Violent Year” is as important a film for what isn’t on screen as for what is.

Chastain, with her finger on the trigger throughout, is never granted the opportunity to explode into rage and order a “Godfather”-esque series of hits to even the score.

Chandor, in both his script and direction, values restraint as a means to uphold Abel’s moral compass and flip the stereotypical gangster genre on its head.

For a film titled “A Most Violent Year,” there’s a glaring minimalism of actual violence in preference to the looming threat of violence, terror through fear, rather than action.

The film will likely be remembered most for its climatic chase scene, clearly influenced by “The French Connection.”

It’s actually “A Most Violent Year” and not “Selma” that has suffered most from poor release scheduling, which prevented the film from real consideration for Academy Award nominations.

A Golden Globe nominee, Chastain would have been the shining star in an otherwise lackluster Best Supporting Actress category, while Isaac would have found himself in the middle of a difficult to crack Best Actor race.

Cinematographer Bradford Young, also responsible for the Oscar-nominated biopic “Selma,” provides a gritty depth to “A Most Violent Year,” evoking classic ’70s films like “Taxi Driver” and “Dirty Harry.”

Many critics bemoan a lack of a nomination for Young’s work shooting “Selma,” but “A Most Violent Year” is his career best work.

Chandor’s best effort to date, “A Most Violent Year” honors its gangster genre predecessors while going somewhere new in the story telling, a lesson worth learning by the rest of Hollywood.


Selma, The Imitation Game: Strong leads pace Oscar-nominated biopics

There’s no reason not to like “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-helmed drama which chronicles the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1960s led by captivating activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

British actor David Oyelowo makes the most of a poorly outlined script by first time screen-writer Paul Webb, largely succeeding in the attempt to provide a larger picture of King the man while given limited opportunity for character development.

There are better movies yet to be made about King’s life, achievements and character as DuVernay’s third feature film simply scratches the surface of a complex and powerful leader.

“Selma” is the rock dancing along the top of the water of importance, skipping around from beatings in the streets to White House visits, from quiet personal moments to loud public emotions without ever diving into any of them.

Too grand for its own good, the film lacks the depth and gravitas that the first feature centering on King deserves and suffers from the same one-note flatness that befell Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”

At the outset of the film, DuVernay chooses to counterbalance King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a rural church bombing, a point never revisited again in the film.

Malcolm X, a significant figure within the civil rights movement, is relegated to a single scene, while a measured performance from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is marginalized and largely pushed off to the side.

Supporting performances in “Selma” are a mixed bag from the uneven, haphazard performance from Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson to the completely flat, uninspired Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.

Among the minor players in the film, Henry G. Sanders’ moving portrayal of a grandfather mourning the death of his grandson provides “Selma” with its most poignant moment, and then is relegated again to the background.

“Selma” is an important film for how it frames today’s fragile racial climate following Ferguson and similar events, but its omission from larger Oscar accolades isn’t a black or white issue, nor is it a political issue. It’s a matter of quality in a given year.

Half of this year’s nominees for Best Picture are biographical films, and several also worthy films in the same genre (“Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher”) sit idly by on the sidelines.

Racial bias didn’t cause the Academy to overlook DuVernay for a directing nomination, but rather that five directors had more impact on cinema this year. The fact that Clint Eastwood — who made a better film (“American Sniper”) and is universally beloved by the Academy in spite of political differences — didn’t receive a directing nomination should be just as shocking.

The same is true for Oyelowo as King, but the effort doesn’t match up with the likes of Bradley Cooper’s chameleon performance in “American Sniper,” Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation to play Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” or Benedict Cumberbatch as code breaker Alan Turing in “The  Imitation Game.”

What works for the leads in this year’s other top biopics, especially for Cumberbatch, is the depth of character each actor is able to achieve thanks to a quality script and allowances from the director to immerse themselves in the character.

A film like “The Imitation Game,” which sees Cumberbatch shed most of his “Sherlock” persona to portray a complex man helping to save Britain while hiding a dark secret, offers the time for character development.

Viewers are allowed to see how Turing became the man who shortened World War II through mathematics, while also providing audiences with the social context in which Turing, a closeted homosexual, lived in.

Cumberbatch is able to live in the duality of Turing’s character — the public, dry and off-putting persona of Turing the professor as well as the private Turing, struggling with sexuality in an unforgiving world.

The film, respectively directed by Morten Tyldum, captures Turing in a much more complete way than “Selma” does King, and is helped by a strong performances from Keira Knightley as a colleague aiding in secret due to sexism in the workplace.

“The Imitation Game” also does a better job of providing larger context to the film’s stakes than “Selma,” whose scenes of violence feel largely forced outside of the troopers’ attack on the bridge.

“Selma” is a great story told well; “The Imitation Game” is a fine story told greatly.

Both films are among the year’s best and are worth seeing in theaters, though neither rises to the year’s elite category.


American Sniper: Compelling Cooper performance stuns audiences

By now, if you haven’t seen or heard about Clint Eastwood’s epic war drama “American Sniper,” odds are good that the cell phone reception on that deserted island you’ve been living on is spotty at best.

The drama kicked off its national release with six Academy Award nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper — and completely dominated the cinematic landscape.

The film made $90.2 million, becoming the largest January weekend release in history and besting the $68.5 million pulled in by “Avatar” in a single weekend per “Variety.”

It isn’t an accident either.

Whether out of a sense of patriotism or Oscar buzz or a love for war films, Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper or any combination of reasons, everyone knows someone who’s seen “American Sniper” at least once, if not many more times.

What a great thing for cinema that thought is.

Put all the politics aside. Cast away the agendas on either side of the aisle and what the film is or isn’t saying and whose side “American Sniper” supports on any number of hot-button issues.

“American Sniper” is an important film within the current cinematic climate because of what the film truly is, an intimate character study of a Texas man. Certainly the context of “American Sniper” is modern warfare, but the film — and especially Cooper’s stunning performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — is much more than a simple story of battles home and abroad.

Try watching interviews of Chris Kyle promoting his 2012 autobiography, on which “American Sniper” is based, and then see if you can figure out where Kyle stops and Cooper begins in the mesmerizing cinematic portrayal.

Criticizing the film for its subject matter is criticizing Chris Kyle the man as no actor in several decades has done as complete a job becoming the person they are portraying on screen as Cooper does mirroring Kyle step for step, word for word, nuance for nuance.

The rare leading man who views himself as more a character actor, opting for substance over style, Cooper’s portrayal transcends the film itself — a remarkable performance from a remarkable actor and one that will define the rest of his long career.

Sienna Miller does an admirable job facing the daunting task of counterbalancing Cooper’s performance while simultaneously honoring Chris’ wife Taya, who served as a technical advisor on the film. It’s a thankless role that could have been the film’s downfall, but Miller’s performance is steady enough to carry the film forward when needed.

The biggest flaw in “American Sniper,” which is minor enough in larger context, but noticeable enough to be distracting, is the use of clearly fake, plastic dolls serving as placeholders for real infants during dramatic home scenes between Kyle and his wife.

It’s baffling that something so trivial and unrealistic would be used and the fake baby’s appearance is so jarring that it can knock viewers completely out of their cinematic experience.

Obviously, this error can definitely explain Eastwood’s absence from Best Director accolades, but fortunately, “American Sniper” is so brilliant in the other 131 minutes that it’s just as easy to fall right back into when the film moves on.

What Eastwood gets right in his direction is a delicate balance of an intensely accurate depiction of modern warfare offset with hard-hitting drama, the best of a newer brand of “action-drama” cinema.

In stark contrast, Michael Mann’s dark and brooding cyber-thriller “Blackhat,” starring Chris Hemsworth as a veteran hacker helping the CIA prevent terrorism, is exactly what Hollywood wrongly assumes complex action-dramas are supposed to be.

Released last weekend, the film is clunky, overly technical and difficult to follow, definitely not the sort of film Hemsworth fans thought they were getting upon seeing the trailer.

It’s difficult to believe that “American Sniper” viewers ended up watching the film they believed they were going to after watching its trailer, but not in the same way.

Eastwood’s film provides so much more depth of character thanks to a complex, yet compelling performance from Cooper.

Worth every penny of the five, six or seven times it needs to be seen in theaters, “American Sniper” is an instant cinematic classic and among the best films of the 21st century.


Revisiting Boyhood: ‘I just thought there’d be more’

Coming-of-age films are nothing new.

Boy starts out young and naïve, things happen, boy matures, end of film.

Filmmakers have always circumnavigated lengthy time jumps in these sort of movies by casting multiple actors to play the same part at different ages.

In the case of the Golden Globe-winning drama “Boyhood,” director Richard Linklater took the slow approach, filming segments of his movie over the past 12 years as young actor Ellar Coltrane grows up in the film around him.

The film, which missed out on the Cinematic Considerations 10 best films of 2014, is worth a second look following an initial review in September.

A lot is made of the 12-year filmmaking process, and indeed, “Boyhood” and Linklater need to be commended for their dedication to the project.

There certainly isn’t another film like “Boyhood,” but that fact alone doesn’t make the film any good, just unique.

Imagine a film where events feel like they’re happening around the main character rather than to the character, where the character doesn’t really experience any growth or development besides physical appearance and you’d have Mason, “Boyhood’s” defacto protagonist.

A voyeur of his own life, Mason idly watches as things happen around him. Life affects him only peripherally.

“Boyhood” is the “Seinfeld” of cinema; it’s a film about nothing.

You can easily see Coltrane becoming disinterested in the filmmaking process throughout the years, as his character Mason becomes disillusioned from the world.

Nothing can be done about the film’s significant pacing issue. “Boyhood” cannot shortchange any of the 12 years of filming, making it difficult to leave scenes on the cutting room floor. The film does not move crisply from year to year and two hours into the film, “Boyhood” can easily leave the viewer exhausted past the point of enjoyment.

There are moments where “Boyhood” rises above its 12-year gimmick and provides quality scenes — most notably sequences featuring Marco Perella’s daring portrayal of Mason’s first alcoholic step-father attempt to propel “Boyhood” in an actual direction.

Ethan Hawke offers up the film’s best performance and shows the most character development as the frequently absent hippie father turned square dad.

Groundbreaking not for the content, acting or cinematography, “Boyhood” is heralded for its actual 12-year filming time, allowing characters to naturally age physically on screen.

There’s been a large amount of groupthink among critics who feel compelled to congratulate Linklater’s determination and creative vision to attempt such a different style of filmmaking that valid critiques of the film’s actual merits have been largely absent.

These reviews of the film suffer from the same lack of individuality that Mason bemoans to his girlfriend Sheena during a road trip late in the film.

Set aside the time element of “Boyhood” and what is left? Twelve separate short films loosely tied together based on common characters. Is that truly noteworthy?

The film is a kitsch time capsule that elevates the mundane for two hours and then laments how boring the journey was.

When Mason prepares to go off to college, his mother Olivia (Golden Globe-winner Patricia Arquette) cries for her own lost life as much as the departure of her son.

“I just thought there’d be more,” she laments.

For “Boyhood,” a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking film, I just thought there’d be more.


Taken 3: Leave Liam Neeson’s family alone

Enough already.

There’s no more story to explore in the now-tired “Taken” franchise which saw a former CIA operative (Liam Neeson) rescue his kidnapped daughter in the first installment, then save himself and his ex-wife in the sequel.

There’s no one left Neeson’s character cares about to kidnap, so obviously the solution is to frame him for the murder of the ex-wife he just saved in the last movie.

Action sequels, of which “Taken 3” is just the latest example, have plot holes for days, but that’s not the reason to see B-rated, shoot ’em up thrillers.

Fortunately, what “Taken 3” has going for it is a lot of above-average, high-paced car chases, hand-to-hand combat and gun battles.

Though it’s lost all the depth and luster of the original, “Taken 3” is worth seeing if viewers just want to forget about their troubles for a while.

Don’t worry though, as quality action films are on the way this weekend with the release of Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s “American Sniper” and Chris Hemsworth’s “Blackhat.”