Why Is American Sniper Kicking Ass At The Box Office?

Cooper Sniper

  1. An excellent marketing campaign. A heavy TV schedule in December and January emphasized the tension of the sniper’s mission.
  2. Good awareness of real life sniper Chris Kyle’s story from his book and media appearances.
  3. Discussion of the film has become politicized, drawing praise and criticism from conservatives and liberals. People on both sides (as well as those in the middle) are anxious to see what all the uproar is about.
  4. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper. Eastwood’s recent efforts were misfires, but he’s delivered many crowd pleasers as a director. Cooper is a likeable actor who has several solid performances in the recent past.
  5. The competition at the box office has been weak, even for January films.
  6. The six Oscar nominations helped drive attendance (more than for other nominees), because they were announced on the day before the wide opening.
  7. The weather has been mild for January in many parts of the U.S.
  8. American Sniper is a good, if not great, movie. It focuses not just on combat in Iraq but also on Kyle’s life and family back home.
  9. The film’s sad postscript has had an emotional impact on many who’ve seen the film (and then posted about it on Facebook).
  10. Kyle is portrayed as a hero. America likes heroes.
  11. It appears to be drawing people who rarely attend movies in theaters. (In the tradition of Forest Gump, Titanic, Avatar and others.)

Even though American Sniper has sold most of its tickets in January, because it was released in four theaters on December 25 of last year, it is officially a 2014 movie. Experts predict the buzz will continue and American Sniper will go on to top 2014’s box office leaders The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy.

American Sniper

American Sniper is a red, white and blue story of a Texas cowboy who serves four tours of duty in Iraq. He is real life Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a deadly aim.

Kyle’s story, unlike those told in Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker includes significant amounts of time spent stateside between tours and after his final tour. Wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is supportive and understanding of the fact that he can’t dial things back when he’s at home. Kyle loves his family but keeps feeling the need to go back for more action.

And what action it is! Director Clint Eastwood brings a taste of what combat must be like in the Mideast, where you never know if a civilian has a bomb strapped to his or her body. The engagements Kyle and his crew have with the enemy reveal the peril that troops must constantly be aware of. (Some of the combat scenes were filmed in Morocco.)

Cooper’s not the guy I might’ve cast in this role, but he is excellent here. (Although his Texas accent tends to come and go.) He manages to bring both the hard edge of the warrior and a softer side as a husband and father. Cooper does have good range.

American Sniper enjoyed excellent buzz last year but failed to win significant love from year-end critics awards. Lately, though, buzz has trended up again and the film received 6 Oscar nominations including Best Film and Best Actor.

The Chris Kyle story has a sad ending. But Americans looking for a hero will find one in American Sniper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackhat

Blackhat has numerous scenes that look cool. Plus it has a dreamy cool synthesizer soundtrack. But the plot is ridiculous. What might have been a good nugget of an initial concept is destroyed by the way this story is presented.

When hackers cause a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in China, followed by a hack into a commodities market in the U.S., swift action is called for. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is selected by the Chinese to find the source of the hack. He drafts his sister and fellow computer geek Chen Lein (Wei Tang) to help. He also reaches out U.S. authorities and to a former M.I.T. classmate who is currently incarcerated in the states.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is behind bars for hacking. When he’s released to help with this mission, he is chastised for having added credits to accounts of fellow prisoners at the lockup’s commissary. Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is the F.B.I. operative who joins the team.

Blackhat has a romantic element as Hathaway and sister Chen quickly hook up but their coupling seems more out of convenience than true attraction. As Hathaway and crew work to track the hack, they travel to Asia. The foreign settings in Indonesia and Malaysia provide nice backdrops for gun battles and chase scenes.

Director Michael Mann brings compelling visuals to the screen. His Tron-ish representation of data traveling over networks looks good. Setting a showdown between good guys and bad guys within a large folk dance ceremony makes the confrontation interesting. Many shots have a grainy video quality that adds a true verité feel to the film.

Overall, though, the film’s structure is flimsy. Actions and motivations are not easy to figure out. Others (such as the hackers’  real goals) are explained away with a simple line of questionable dialogue. With some films, such as certain James Bond movies, that’s okay. But with Blackhat, it’s not. This is a timely, ripped-from-the-headlines problem that’s real. A movie about hacking should be topically meaningful. But Blackhat disappoints.

Selma

 

Selma is a powerful and moving film that spotlights a brief episode in America’s civil rights movement. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is a man who can remain calm and non-violent but can also ignite an audience with his fiery delivery from a pulpit. Selma is billed as a true story, although many have questioned the accuracy of certain key plot elements.

The historic Civil Rights act passed Congress in 1964 but, as the movie begins, blacks in the South are still not allowed to register to vote. King visits President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House and asks that the administration support federal voting rights legislation. LBJ is hesitant and continually puts off MLK.

King and his lieutenants choose Selma, Alabama, as the place to begin a march to the state capitol in Montgomery, about 50 miles away. King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has disagreements with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) about tactics. Despite resistance from Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the march begins. The police attack the marchers.

For decades Martin Luther King has been seen mainly as an icon, in video and audio clips and photos. Selma humanizes the man. He’s shown sharing social occasions with his SCLC colleagues. He works to engage the SNCC crew, which has similar goals, but wants a greater share of the glory. King’s womanizing is addressed as wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) listens to FBI-provided tapes of an extramarital liaison.

There has been a chorus of uproar from individuals about the film’s depiction of Lyndon Johnson and his commitment to King and voting rights for blacks. Diane McWhorter who wrote Carry Me Home, a book about the civil rights effort in my and her hometown of Birmingham, has said, “With the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’”

In all movies that tell true-life stories, a filmmaker may embellish the narrative to add drama and conflict. Is director Ava DuVernay’s alleged sin regarding LBJ so egregious that it renders the film meaningless? Certainly not.

The film’s depictions of the disrespect, the beatings, the shootings and the bombings suffered by blacks in Alabama in the 1960s are brutal and direct. I believe they reflect what actually happened.

I find it ironic though that for this story, a vital part of America’s volatile 20th century history, DuVernay has chosen British actors to portray King, LBJ, George Wallace and even Coretta Scott King. One would think that there are capable American actors available to play these truly American roles.

 

Inherent Vice

 

Inherent Vice is an enjoyable mess from director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson. The plot is secondary to the film’s characters and the amusing things they do and say.

It’s 1970. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a longhaired pot-smoking hippie L.A. private detective who gets a surprise visit from old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her newest flame, it turns out, is a married guy whose wife and the wife’s boyfriend are trying to get him out of the picture to get his money. Shasta wants Doc to find out what’s up.

The missing boyfriend is sleazy real estate developer Michael Wolfman (Eric Roberts) whose latest project is a subdivision ridiculously located next to L.A.’s concrete irrigation canal. When Doc goes to check it out, he finds a massage parlor where the menu of services is clearly posted on the wall.

The story brings in many players including LAPD Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (James Brolin) who has some hilarious moments onscreen. His enjoyment of chocolate covered bananas provides some of Inherent Vice’s humor.

Also in the cast is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a dentist who is handling money for other dentists in a company called the Golden Fang. Benecio Del Toro appears as Doc’s attorney. Reese Witherspoon plays an assistant D.A. who is another of Doc’s gal pals. Owen Wilson is Coy Harlingen, a musician with shady connections. Maya Rudolph has a role as a receptionist with the colorful name Petunia Leeway.

The narrative goes in many directions and brings in even more characters than those I’ve mentioned. My son described Inherent Vice as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for stoners. That sounds about right.

Inherent Vice, despite its too many plot elements has a charm not unlike that of The Big Lebowski. While it’s doubtful that IV might attain similar cult status, it provides a fun take on a time and a place. If Anderson is willing to share his characters and setting with a developer, I’d love to see an Inherent Vice TV series. Either in the more permissive setting of cable or the more restrictive arena of over-the-air TV, it just might work.

 

 

The Imitation Game

 

Another movie based on a true story, The Imitation Game tells a fascinating story of brilliant minds deducing methods to break Germany’s unbreakable Enigma cryptography code during World War II.

The genius of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) causes him to be a bit of an egotist. He knows how smart he is and he flaunts it: first, with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) at the UK’s secret code-breaking agency; later, with his co-workers who have a hard time liking the guy.

Intercepting the Germans’ encrypted messages was easy. The mission to break the constantly changing code was deemed impossible. But Turing and his team made it happen. They required patience and a major outlay of funds from the government to finance the project. With Winston Churchill’s support, they got the money. The result was an early, primitive version of a modern day computer.

The team battles a series of frustrations. In the film, when they are able to finally break the code, they can’t share the info they obtain. Their fear that the Germans would quickly realize that the Allies know their plans might compromise the whole mission. Ultimately, the breaking of the code was credited with saving millions of lives.

The Imitation Game has similarities to the current release The Theory of Everything. Both central characters are brilliant British men who have circumstances that could challenge their abilities to accomplish great things. For Stephen Hawking in Theory, the challenge is ALS. For Turing, the challenge is his closeted homosexuality. (Turing was actually arrested for being gay.)

Keira Knightley appears as Turing’s friend Joan Clarke, a fellow code breaker. Her character’s significance is said to be inflated a bit in the film, but Knightley provides box office appeal and a feminine presence in a male-dominated movie.

The story of Alan Turing and his work is one that has not been widely told while many have been familiar with Hawking for decades. Benedict Cumberbatch is a certain best actor nominee and The Imitation Game is a likely best picture nominee. The film is directed by Norway native Morten Tyldum.

The Imitation Game is one of 2014’s best films and one that I recommend highly.

 

 

Into The Woods

 

Into The Woods is a pure delight. The performances are fun and funny. And what a cast!

Wonderful Stephen Sondheim songs bring together characters from favorite fairy tales. (The script is by James Lapine.) The songs have clever lyrics that you can understand. The songs have those Sondheim melodies that don’t always go where you expect them to go.

Into The Woods is directed by Rob Marshall who hit it out of the park with his Oscar-nominated direction of Chicago in 2002. (His 2009 film version of the musical Nine was more like a bloop single.)

The story begins with The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who want a baby. The witch (Meryl Streep) says she will lift her curse on the baker’s family if the couple accomplish three specific tasks. They must go into the woods to get things done.

The large cast of characters also includes Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), The Wolf (Johnny Depp), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski), The Prince (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Jack’s mother (Tracy Ullman), The Giant (Francis La Tour), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and more.

The story that weaves all these characters together is ingenious. Though these are children’s stories, the movie is made for adults. Disney toned down some of the more grownup content from the stage version of Into The Woods to make the film more family friendly. Yes, you can take your kids—it’s rated PG—but younger children are likely to become fatigued.

The film’s strongest performances come from Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and (surprise) Chris Pine. On the down side, the movie seems longer than it is. Run time is 2 hours, 4 minutes. Resolving multiple story lines takes a while. The pace of the film, just perfect at the start, seems to bog down a bit in the end.

But there are joys aplenty in Into The Woods. If you like musicals, you need to experience and enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unbroken

 

Unbroken tells an amazing true life story of a real man, Louis Zamperini. Director Angelina Jolie’s film has flaws but still manages to bring Zamperini to life impressively.

He is played by Jack O’Connell, an Irishman, who does a credible job portraying this 2nd generation Italian-American. Like the young Zamperini, O’Connell is classically handsome.

Zamperini is a track star who makes it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. During World War II his plane is shot down in the Pacific. He survives 47 days at sea. He is rescued by the Japanese who imprison him.

During his imprisonment, he is teased, tortured and abused by a Japanese officer he nicknames Bird. Zamperini’s physical and mental toughness inspires the other prisoners and gains him a small amount of respect from his captors. Then, the war ends.

Among the film’s flaws is the strange beard growth (or lack of it) by men stranded at sea for 7 weeks and by men in prison camps. Much of the time in life rafts was less realistic than one would expect from a modern film—it appears many scenes were shot in a tank or pool, not so perilous as being adrift in the ocean.

Jolie and scriptwriters Ethan and Joel Coen have a lot of story to cram into a 2-hour movie. They do an admirable job of presenting Zamperini’s life highlights and lowlights and imparting an appreciation of the man’s character.

The film is based on Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling book which, according to synopses I’ve read, contained more light-hearted moments that helped Zamperini survive prison camp.

Unbroken was an early frontrunner for awards nominations. Now that the film has been widely previewed, the buzz has diminished. Still, Zamperini’s story has enough moments to make you admire this man who you may have never heard of. Unbroken is also constructed to provoke a bit of old-fashioned American pride. And it does!

 

 

 

The 10 Best Films of 2014

Birdman red Again this year, the 3 things that make a film great—a fresh story, indelible characters and clever story telling—have come together beautifully in several movies. Beyond those on my “Best Of” list are a few that simply made me feel good (which signifies a different kind of greatness). The Best of 2014:

  1. Birdman. Creativity unleashed. A fantastic story with a memorable lead character who elicits a variety of responses from his incredibly strong cast as well as from audience members. And what an ending! Excellent use of the film medium.
  2. Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s idea of telling the story of a young man growing up, using the same actor from start to finish, was risky. So many things could have gone wrong, but, based on what is on the screen, they mostly went right. Ellar Coltrane was a perfect choice for the lead role.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s masterpiece is zany, madcap, silly fun. Anderson’s attention to little details and inspired performances from a large cast of stars make this his best yet.
  4. Whiplash. The concept doesn’t sound that exciting: a music instructor who’s an abusive bully meets up with a cocky young drummer. But the story, the music and the over-the-top character that J.K. Simmons inhabits combine for a movie that sizzles.
  5. The Lego Movie. Filled with fun and surprises. This film doesn’t just use Lego pieces as characters, it captures the way kids use Legos. The live action postscript was a beautiful touch.
  6. Snowpiercer. Praise begins with love for the French guys who did the graphic novel. And to the publisher who chose to sell the book in Korea, where the director/co-writer discovered it. Strong multinational cast. Dystopian class warfare at its best.
  7. Gone Girl. Everything works here. Acting, directing, scriptwriting. The most meaningful soundtrack of the year. Gone Girl satisfies on so many levels. Thanks to (most) everybody who resisted spoiling.
  8. The Theory of Everything. A British genius tries to channel his immense brilliance into something useful, while dealing with a challenge that could torpedo his efforts. For Stephen Hawking, it’s ALS. Multiple Oscar noms on the way for this one.
  9. The Imitation Game. A British genius tries to channel his immense brilliance into something useful, while dealing with a challenge that could torpedo his efforts. For Alan Turing, it’s closeted homosexuality—a crime in the UK in the 40s. Cumberbatch shows again why he’s the “go to” guy for so many movie makers.
  10. Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal is, as they say, a revelation as a free-lance videographer who crawls throughout the underbelly of L.A. for sleazy TV news footage. His story is well-crafted and his performance is maybe his finest ever.

My “feel good” list for 2014:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy. Characters, soundtrack, story, effects—wow!
  2. Chef. Beautiful food, wonderful music. And it gets social media right. Thank you, Jon Favreau!
  3. Big Hero 6. Appealed to my inner 12-year-old boy. I loved lovable robot Baymax and the film’s cool blending of U.S. and Japanese culture.
  4. St. Vincent. Bill Murray is loathsome, pathetic, hilarious, generous and sweet all in one movie. Good supporting cast, especially the kid.
  5. Get On Up. The James Brown biopic may have been too raw to be a big hit but it made me feel good. (I knew that it would.)
  6. Life Itself. The talented Mr. Ebert had a wonderful life.
  7. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. I met Glen Campbell and am a longtime fan. His good humor in dealing with Alzheimer’s plus the love shown by all his family was what made me feel good.
  8. Edge Of Tomorrow. The structure of this movie, similar to Groundhog Day, could’ve come off as dumb. Happily, it’s clever and fun.
  9. Draft Day. As an NFL fan, I enjoyed the football parts of the movie. The flyover shots of the stadiums were beautiful.
  10. Into The Woods. Sondheim songs and a mighty cast. A pure delight.

Foxcatcher

 

The acting in Foxcatcher is excellent. The characters are intriguing. The story, however, is unexciting. Based on true events, set in the 1980s, Foxcatcher is mainly about one man and his quirks. Okay, two men with quirks.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell) is a self-described “rich guy” who is obsessed with wrestling. (Legitimate wrestling, not the WWE type.) He is an heir to the vast Du Pont fortune. He resides on an estate in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square.

He recruits Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to train at his estate. Du Pont’s relationship with Schultz goes beyond being a patron. He presents Schultz almost as a trophy. “Have you ever met an Olympic gold medalist?” he asks associates at a banquet.

Du Pont soon convinces Mark’s brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to bring his wife and family and help coach the Olympic wrestling team at Foxcatcher Farms.

Du Pont has issues, as many rich people do. He got his wealth the old-fashioned way… he inherited it. He tries to convince his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in a brief but powerful appearance) that he’s doing something worthwhile. He also sees his role in leading the team to victory as his legacy, a service he’s providing the country.

Mark Schultz also has issues. He’s been in his brother’s shadow most of his life. He’s not particularly bright or socially adept. And he does not handle failure well.

This odd dynamic generates events that lead to a tragic end.

Steve Carell, with prosthetic nose and stunt teeth, is terrific as Du Pont. (His portrayal generated early awards buzz which seems to have cooled lately.) Channing Tatum is a perfect dumb jock—his posture and his gait are dead on. Ruffalo is also strong as the loving, protective big brother.

The narrative leaves much to be desired, but the acting here is superb.

Unless you’re a wrestling fan, it’s the performances of the three main actors that provide the reasons to see Foxcatcher.