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.”


Into The Woods: Misunderstood film an above-average movie musical

Many audiences have left the Disney-produced fairy tale film, “Into the Woods,” disappointed and with little right to be.

Certainly, the studio is to fault for not clearing up the confusion surrounding the film. Too many people have left screenings surprised they just watched a musical and many others probably were in shock when the film doesn’t end with Cinderella’s marriage to the prince.

But moviegoers should have seen this coming.

The film, a clear adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway musical of the same name, is a darker intersection of several classic fairytales, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rightly rated “Into the Woods” PG “for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”

The film is more “Snow White and the Huntsman” than the animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Moviegoers, especially those expecting their money back, need to take more care in researching the content of a film before purchasing a ticket. Disney didn’t help matters with an ambiguous trailer promoting the film, but the studio can’t be held entirely responsible.

Setting aside those complaints, “Into the Woods” does a remarkable job of faithfully adapting Sondheim’s award-winning musical to the big screen.

Director Rob Marshall, best known for his work on the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” is blessed with a talented cast led by “Pitch Perfect” star Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and British sensation James Corden as the narrating Baker.

The best performances in the film are actually given by the biggest — and youngest — unknowns with Broadway’s latest “Annie” Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone, best known as Gavroche in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, as Jack.

It’s all too common to cast either actors who can’t sing well enough or worse yet, singers who can’t act well enough to be convincing.

What works in both performances, more so than any of their more famous counterparts, is that Crawford and Huttlestone maintain a balance in their responsibility both acting the part and singing the songs.

Huttlestone’s “Giants in the Sky” — along with Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Witch’s Lament” — is a musical highlight.

The film isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince is largely overdone in a very William Shatner-esque way, which doesn’t really work throughout much of the film, but is quite hilarious within the shirt-ripping, water-splashing duet “Agony.”

Johnny Depp’s performance as the Wolf felt too campy, though the limited screen time helped prevent the film from veering too close to 2014 “Annie”-bad territory.

Overall, “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly darker, but satisfying retelling of classic fairy tales and a faithful interpretation of Sondheim’s musical worth seeing.


Wild: Witherspoon delivers Oscar worthy performance

Some films are designed for escapism, a chance to remove the viewer from the everyday grind and stresses of real life and pull them into somewhere new and exciting.

Other films are meant to draw the viewer into a cinematic experience, offering us something to learn from along the way.

Cheryl Strayed’s true-life story of a newly single woman hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means to cope with loss isn’t meant as escapism.

There’s a passionate message of empowerment and rebirth in “Wild,” the latest film from director Jean Marc Vallée of “Dallas Buyers Club” fame. The film is an emotional roller coaster that will resonate with anyone who has lost a close loved one or feels alone with a sense of loss.

With a terrific script adapted from Strayed’s 2012 book by Nick Hornby, the film itself centers around Strayed’s journey from southern California to Canada and requires a tour de force performance from its leading actress.

A film like “Gravity,” for example, could have been as good if not a better movie with another actress taking the reins from Sandra Bullock.

You just can’t make “Wild” work without Reese Witherspoon.

Witherspoon plays Strayed with total commitment and honesty, baring her soul and body (quite literally) on screen in one of the most heartfelt performances in several years.

Audiences, especially predominantly female ones, will find themselves drawn to the unbridled vulnerability Witherspoon is able to draw from, pulling viewers deeper into the story.

Laura Dern, often the daughter and never the mother in feature films, provides a subtle, yet important counterbalance to Witherspoon’s at-times manic performance as Strayed’s mother.

The Pacific Crest Trail itself becomes a leading character within “Wild” with its expansive and varied landscapes painting a tremendous background for Strayed’s emotional journey of self-forgiveness.

Vallée’s decision to shoot the trail entirely in natural light is an inspired one that helps to maintain “Wild’s” grounded reality.

Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Witherspoon, “Wild” is definitely one of the year’s best films and well worth seeing more than once.


Unbroken: Jolie mishandles World War II drama

“Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie wants viewers to pigeonhole her film into a single word: resilience.

It’s there in all the film’s soon-to-be-cliché catchphrases: “If you can take it, you can make it” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”

“Unbroken” is a film that insists upon itself, knowing its story is inspiring and refuses to allow audiences to forget it.

The movie shows so much promise in its first act, where World War II hero Louis Zamperini’s pre-war exploits — both as a youth and Olympic athlete — are seamlessly woven into what would otherwise be a routine inspirational film set in an already crowded genre.

Once “Unbroken” moves past the early years and dedicates itself solely to Zamperini’s trials and tribulations as a Japanese prisoner of war, the film largely fails to live up to the grandiose expectations it has bestowed upon itself.

There’s not enough grit within the blinding light of “Unbroken,” an area in which 2014’s other World War II film “Fury” excelled.

And it’s a problem that “Unbroken” needs to be compared with “Fury,” because the two films could not be more opposite in directorial style and cinematography, but it is all too often the case in the World War II genre.

Because of the nature of the story, “Unbroken” can’t seem to separate itself from the rest of the genre.

Jack O’Connell as the resilient Zamperini is effective in keeping the film centered and evoking the support and sympathy of audiences, hitting on all the right notes. Missing from the performance is a larger sense of Zamperini’s development of faith in God, which plays a larger role in the book and cannot be faulted to O’Connell.

The best performance in the film, however, is given by Japanese rock star turned actor Miyavi as POW camp leader “The Bird,” a violent, irrational man whose complexities are poignantly evoked both verbally and non-verbally by Miyavi.

In another year, where J.K. Simmons’ stunning turn as a demanding music instructor in “Whiplash” isn’t also eligible, Miyavi’s mesmerizing performance would make him a clear frontrunner for best supporting actor awards.

For a film whose mantra is “If I can take it, I can make it,” “Unbroken” certainly insists upon its viewers taking every plodding second of its 137 minute running time.

“Unbroken” is a very good movie, just not a great one.


Night At The Museum 3: A fitting tribute to late Robin Williams

Now that the final installment of “Night at the Museum” has arrived in theaters, it’s sad to think that this will be the last time that comedy legend Robin Williams will be shown on the big screen.

Sure, we can hear his voice again as Dennis the Dog in the upcoming animated feature “Absolutely Anything,” but it just won’t be the same.

Things aren’t quite the same in “Secret of the Tomb,” the last of the “Night of the Museum” movies pitting Ben Stiller as a bumbling security guard managing exhibits that magically come to life at night.

The story isn’t really relevant and takes a general backseat to the notion, played up in the film itself, that with the death of Williams, this is the end for a heartwarming era in comedy.

Stiller does yeoman’s work in a pair of roles as the driving force propelling the plot forward, while Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect” fame tries a little bit too hard to throw her weight around in a secondary role as a guard at the British Museum.

Through some sort of bittersweet irony, Williams has an incredibly poignant final monologue that is all the more heart-breaking in the larger context.

“Secret of the Tomb” also marks the final film for another cinema legend, the great Mickey Rooney.

While the film itself isn’t up to the standards set by the franchise original, “Secret of the Tomb” will help provide viewers some closure on the loss to two comedy heavyweights.


Annie: Musical remake falls flat

It’s hard to get behind up-and-coming actress Quvenzhané Wallis as “Annie”, despite being the youngest Academy Award nominee in history for last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

It isn’t because Wallis is unlikable as the down-on-her-luck foster kid living in a group home. She just can’t sing and it’s not her fault.

“Annie” director Will Gluck knows she can’t sing either and let the whole world in on it through his less-than-subtle directorial tricks.

Annie sings a major solo at a charity fundraiser, but her mouth is almost always obscured by the microphone in front of her.

Large segments of other songs — including the classics “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” — are filmed with Wallis’ back to the camera, at an extreme angle or at a great distance in an attempt to hide Wallis’ flaws as a singer.

For all the grief given to Tom Hooper for his extreme close-up choices during major scenes in 2012’s epic musical “Les Misérables,” at least the audience could tell with absolute certainty that the performances were genuine and authentic.

Outside from the musical spectrum, “Annie” could have actually worked as a family-friendly comedy.

Wallis is charming and lovable aside from her singing, while Jamie Foxx as her rich caretaker is the absolute best thing in the lackluster film.

Choosing Cameron Diaz, however, to fill Carol Burnett’s shoes as Miss Hannigan was a major misstep as Diaz horribly overacts in a very disinterested performance. Burnett would be rolling over in her grave if she had one.

Despite the intentions of producers Will Smith and Jay-Z to modernize the classic tale of an orphaned girl during the Great Depression, this modern “Annie” just doesn’t click, trading in classic songs for cliché references to Twitter and the film industry.


Exodus Gods and Kings: Bibically-inspired epic takes left field turn

Biblically-inspired 3D epic film doesn’t really sound like a very appealing genre, especially after Russell Crowe’s dud “Noah” released to much derision earlier this year.

There’s a lot of unevenness to Ridley Scott’s latest feature, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which re-imagines the Biblical story of Moses as action-adventure fodder.

Oscar-winner Christian Bale picks up sword not staff to play Moses, a highly conflicted character uncertain of what actions are morally just.

Understandably, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” might not play very well with devout Christians, who could find the liberties taken in the depiction of the plagues and God’s interaction with Moses off-putting.

In fact, if an uninformed, non-religious person watched “Exodus” with no prior knowledge of the Biblical story, religious aspects of the film could be explained away entirely as natural disasters, disease, famine and a schizophrenic man. The film is perhaps the most secular way possible of examining Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

The film, which clocks in at well over two hours, could also benefit from a couple of extraneous scenes being left on the chopping room floor.

While “Exodus” is placed heavily on Bale’s broad shoulders, the former Batman is not the true star of “Exodus.” Joel Edgerton, who plays Moses’ brother and future pharaoh Ramesses II, stands out in a thankless villain role that probably would have gone to Ben Kingsley 20 years ago.

It would be easy to simply play Ramesses in a stiff and formulaic manner, but Edgerton — whose work in “Warrior” alongside Tom Hardy is first-rate — rises above the lesser fray and gives a more well-rounded performance than other cast members.

Kingsley and “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul each appear briefly as Moses’ chief advisors, but neither actor is given much to work with.

A lot of care — and time — is taken up early in the film to develop a brotherly bond between Bale and Edgerton, giving the inevitable rift between the two real stakes.

Edgerton actually does a better job of evoking pain and conflict about Ramesses’ relationship with Moses than Bale does. Perhaps it’s the fault of Scott, who doesn’t give Bale enough to do in coming to grips with the situation, or more likely Bale himself, who doesn’t give enough credence to showing the necessary emotion to match Edgerton.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is best enjoyed when the viewer can get past the film’s criticisms — both its Biblical flaws and lack of diversity in casting — and simply enjoy the ride.


The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies: Six movies later, the journey finally ends

After years of waiting, the ride through Middle Earth seems to be at a close with the release of the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy, “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” a darker, more violent picture than the previous two films.

Continuing a trend established throughout Jackson’s Middle Earth films — the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies — “Battle of the Five Armies” shines brightest in its grandiose battle sequences, featuring towering monsters waging medieval war on men, dwarves and woodland elves.

Just like its Oscar-winning predecessor before it (the Rings trilogy’s “The Return of the King”), the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy is leaps and bounds the best, visually stunning and impactful from the opening moments all the way through the titular battle of the five armies.

What sets “The Hobbit” apart from other, lesser science fiction and fantasy genre films is the heart brought to the series by British actor Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman brings a genuine lightness to the screen which counterbalances so effectively with his rougher, tougher costars to make Jackson’s film cohesive.

Ian McKellen leads a wonderful and large supporting cast, including Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett and a standout performance by Richard Armitage as blinded, conflicted dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield.

The film suffers, however, in its overly long ending after the extended battle sequences. At more than two hours in length, the third “Hobbit” stalls out when the emphasis is on dialogue and not in beautifully constructed CGI scenes.

Of the action sequences, only the rescue of Gandalf early in the film feels out of place, like a high quality video game boss battle rather than a cohesive action sequence.

Fans of the prior two “Hobbit” films as well as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy should be extremely pleased with Jackson’s final foray into Middle Earth, a fitting end to a wonderfully dynamic series of cinema.


The Theory of Everything: Hawking biopic astounds

Eddie Redmayne better be nominated for an Academy Award.

He might not win, but with a pitch-perfect performance requiring such specific nuance in physicality, Redmayne certainly deserves acclaim for his turn as famed physicist Stephen Hawking in the British drama “The Theory of Everything.”

An hour into the film, it’s all too easy to forget that Redmayne is an actor portraying a character on screen.

While the film certainly deals with Hawking’s emergence as one of the world’s premiere scientists, “The Theory of Everything” focuses more on the development of Hawking’s relationship with his future wife, Jane, amid the onset of his debilitating ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One part biopic and two parts love story, the film works only because Redmayne’s heartbreaking portrayal of Hawking pairs perfectly with Felicity Jones’ understated, yet firm Jane.

In fact, the film is at its best when it avoids the complex physics and sticks with the simplest notion of unbridled love and emotion.

The story, while following true events and a lackluster screenplay from Anthony McCarten, is elevated by both lead actors’ performances as well as the light, delicate touch of director James Marsh — best known for his Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.”

Each scene is carefully detailed visually, from the movement of the camera — especially in memorable 360-degree rotation moments — to the richness of the colors captured by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme.

While not on the upper echelon of cinema to be released this fall, “The Theory of Everything” is a poignant and bittersweet biopic worthy of making an effort to find before the Academy Awards early next year.


Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas: Feature film needs direct to DVD release

The message of “Saving Christmas,” featuring “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron, is that celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ can be found hidden inside some of the traditional imagery of Christmas — Santa Claus and decorated trees, for example.

The film, which celebrates “the reason for the season” and does a pretty good job explaining the relationship between the secular and religious aspects of the holiday, falls short cinematically and thereby fails in its overall mission of educating the public.

“Saving Christmas” is constructed a lot like the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her” by Dinesh D’Souza. Both films rely heavily on re-imagined accounts of historical events to help accentuate the points made in the film.

However, in both features, these re-enactments are often distracting and visually jarring, especially early in the films before explanation is given as to their necessity and meaning.

It’s unfortunate that the film will largely miss its target audience due mainly to an uneven screenplay and poor time management. As a 60-minute, direct-to-DVD release, “Saving Christmas” would work incredibly well and would likely be received much better than it has been.

But in its current form, with unnecessary hip-hop dance sequences and multiple endings that don’t really end, “Saving Christmas” misses the mark and keeps audiences at bay.