American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

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Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge

Dracula Untold


Enter the dragon.

Enter the dragon.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Louise Parker. Directed by Gary Shore

You may think you know the story of Dracula but most of us only know his Victorian-age story as told by Bram Stoker. However, even by that point the infamous vampire was centuries old, the undead creature once known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who was already a bit of a monster while he was still alive. Of course, history is often a different tale than what those who were there might have narrated.

Vlad who as a boy was sent to live with the Turks as a sort of tribute (and also to keep the numerically superior Turkish army from annihilating the Transylvanians) wants nothing more than to live in peace with his people and his family – his wife Mirena (Gadon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson).

But that is not to be. A Turkish delegation arrives, demanding that the Transylvanians supply them with a thousand boys to serve in the Sultan’s army – including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with them, but the envoy won’t hear of it. When a small party of Turks comes to take Ingeras, Vlad kills all of them.

Knowing they can never defeat the massive Turkish army who are well-armed and well-trained, Vlad turns desperate to protect his family at all costs. He ascends a forbidding mountain and there meets the Master Vampire (Dance), a creature half of myth and legend but certainly real enough. He cautions Vlad that the price for power is staggeringly high. If Vlad drinks of the vampire’s blood, he will have most of the vampire’s powers for three days. If he can keep from drinking human blood in that three day period, he will return to his human form. Should Vlad drink any human blood during those three days, a vampire he’ll remain for eternity and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison and be allowed to walk the world again after centuries of imprisonment.

At first it seems like Vlad made a great bargain; he defeats a Turkish battalion by himself, able to change into bats, control the creatures of the night and possessed of the strength of a hundred men. However, the thirst is proving to be more difficult to resist than he might have thought possible. He also discovers that this was just a diversionary tactic by the Turks and they are coming with an army of hundreds of thousands to wipe out the Transylvanians, led by the Sultan (Cooper) himself, once a boyhood friend of Vlad’s. Can he find a way to defeat the Turks and keep his humanity at the same time?

This is one of those movies that mixes in fact and fiction together to create a different kind of brew, although the “facts” are somewhat fast and loose. In fact, just about the only thing the writers got right was that Dracula which translates depending on who you ask as the Son of the Dragon, or the Son of the Devil, was a prince of Transylvania who would impale his enemies as a means of intimidation. There the distinctions stop. There were no Turks in the 15th century; back then it was known as the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were but one ethnic group in the Empire. Also, his wife’s name was Ilona, not Mirena. He had a daughter named Mircea and a son named Mihnea but no child named Ingeras. Nor was Vlad all that popular among his nobles who were angered by his usurping of what they thought were their rights. Vlad wanted autocratic authority.

All that could have been forgiven if we’d been given a dynamic Vlad but Evans doesn’t deliver one. We get a fairly bland portrayal of the legendary nobleman, one that lacks force or charisma. We never get much of a sense as to what Vlad is like other than that he’s a devoted family man. That’s all well and good but we get a sense of his cruelty only by reputation; Vlad the Impaler might as well have been nicknamed Vlad the Doting Dad. There are a couple of scenes of stakes with Vlad watching them in anguish but that seems pretty at odds with the kind of guy who had no problems letting his enemies die horribly painful deaths. Evans seems distracted, like his mind is on a different movie than the one he’s shooting.

Mirena’s role isn’t well-defined. One gets a sense she’s supposed to be fiercely devoted to her son and husband and that she was strong enough to stand up to her sometimes hot-tempered husband but then at other times she seems uncharacteristically meek and submissive. Thus we are unable to get a real handle on who the true Mirena is.

The special effects are nifty, particularly Dracula transforming into a flock of bats, or controlling the storm near the end of the film. By and large though this isn’t as effects-driven as you might think; mostly this is a costumed action-adventure film in horror sheep’s clothing. The sets are extravagant looking and the cinematography of Ireland (subbing for the Carpathian Mountains) is lovely.

It can be said that this is lovely packaging for essentially an empty box. The suspense element is by the boards because we all know that Vlad is destined to be an immortal vampire so we know that he is going to consume the blood within those three days; it’s just a matter of how and when. So we’re left with mindlessly entertaining,,merely a trifle that will be forgotten the moment you leave the theater.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects sequences. Lush cinematography and nice sets and costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Evans is a bit wooden. Bloated and stodgy in places. Some historical inaccuracies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence, scenes of bloody vampire attacks, some disturbing images and a little sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam Worthington was originally set to star until he had to drop out and was replaced by Evans.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

300: Rise of an Empire


Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn't like her latest movie.

Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn’t like her latest movie.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Ashraf Barhom, Christopher Sciueref, Steven Cree, Caitlin Carmichael, Jade Cynoweth, Kevin Fry, Nancy McCrumb. Directed by Noam Munro

The original 300 depicted the historic Battle of Thermopylae (albeit taking some fairly liberal factual liberties) and in doing so, made a huge star out of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder, helped resurrect the Swords and Sandals genre (along with the Oscar-winning Gladiator) and showed how a movie made nearly entirely of CGI could be not only technologically possible but economically viable as well.

While Snyder is around for this sequel as a producer and writer only, this tells more or less a parallel story of the Athenian general Themistocles who was victorious at the Battle of Marathon at which the Persian emperor Darius (Naor) was killed by an arrow fired by Themistocles himself. His son and heir, Xerxes (Santoro) was manipulated by his most talented and vicious general Artemesia (Green) – who is of herself Greek descent – into ascending into a role as God-Emperor, which apparently makes you ten feet tall in the process.

While Xerxes is attacking King Leonidas (Butler, in flashback) at Thermopylae, Artemesia has engaged a small and ragtag Greek fleet made up mainly of fast, maneuverable Athenian ships along with a few motley vessels supplied by the other city-states of Greece who despite the peril represented by the vast army of the Persian empire are suspicious and quarrelsome among themselves. While Themistocles has some success at sea, the wily Artemesia lures his fleet into a trap and decimates it, leaving it with a handful of ships. As Xerxes gloats over his defeat of Leonidas and his burning of Athens, Artemesia brings her fleet in to finish off the Greeks once and for all – and after failing to move the grieving Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta to help her fellow Greeks, Themistocles knows that Artemesia might well do just that.

This is made in the same style as the original 300 with lots of green screen, lots of digital effects, plenty of CGI blood splatters, bare-chested Spartans with six-pack abs and enough testosterone flowing to drown Australia. It’s the kind of movie that is meant to make it’s young male gamer/fanboy target audience beat their chests and grunt, a knuckle-dragging epic in which the only major female character has a bare-breasted wild sex scene with her supposed enemy that was more violent than sexy but less violent than it was improbable (yes Lena Headey is also in the movie but only for a few scenes).

What differentiates this from 300 is that for all its macho posturing, the original film had at least some semblance of humanity, actual characters who the audience could latch onto and even care about. Here, mostly the players are cannon fodder, hurled into a meat grinder of sharp blades, battle axes, spears, flaming arrows and sinking ships, gobbets of flesh dripping gore arcing in a graceful parabola through the air after being carved from shrieking soldiers. I can’t deny that there is a certain gratification in it, a primitive caveman reaction that is both visceral and appalling, but it must be dutifully cataloged if one is to be honest.

While the dialogue tends more towards jingoism, I also will be the first to admit that the visuals are impressive. You’d swear that you were watching titanic battles being fought in rolling storm-driven seas but the reality was that the actors had not a drop of real water on them – the ocean and the ships are all CGI. About the only thing that wasn’t CGI in the movie was Eva Green’s breasts and I have my doubts about those too.

Green does acquit herself the best and that is the only kindness I can spare the acting which is for the most part over-the-top and melodramatic. Green seems to be having a good time as a badass and it shows. She utters the most cringe-worthy dialogue with a straight face and her smiles drip venom as you would expect from an excellent villain. Stapleton doesn’t have the charisma that Butler has, at least not yet. His Themistocles did a lot of shouting but didn’t really inspire me to want to follow him into battle so his abilities as a leader of men were sharply called into question at least from my vantage point.

I have to mark this down as one of the year’s first disappointments – every year provides several such in the movie calendar. Unfortunately, Snyder was a bit too busy resurrecting the Superman franchise to put in the time and effort to direct this and while his hand is evident in the production end, certainly this didn’t have the wow factor that would make me want to see the third movie in the franchise (one is reportedly in the pipeline should the box office warrant it). In the end, this is a feast for the eyes but does little for the soul beyond providing some instantly forgettable entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive CGI.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks a Gerard Butler to keep the audience’s attention. A little too mannered and over-the-top. Hardly any human element to the story.

FAMILY VALUES:  If the fake blood hadn’t been CGI there would have been enough to fill one of the Great Lakes with it. There’s also a ton of hack/slash violence, a good bit of nudity and sexuality, and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the titles say that the film is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel series Xerxes, the screenplay was written concurrently with the graphic novel which has yet to be published and has said to have changed massively since the film was made.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pompeii

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Bridge to Terabithia

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

The Monuments Men amidst the monuments.

(2014) War Dramedy (Columbia) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Justus von Dohnanyi, Holger Handtke, Michael Holland, Zachary Baharov, Michael Brandner, Sam Hazeldine, Miles Jupp, Alexandre Desplat, Diarmaid Murtagh, Grant Heslov, Audrey Marnay. Directed by George Clooney

World War II wasn’t just a fight for freedom; it was also a fight for the soul of Europe. Some of the greatest achievements of mankind were put at risk. There was a small cadre of men who devoted their lives to saving these works of art and architecture near the end of the war – this is their (fictionalized) story.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is an art historian and the curator of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He is aware that the Nazis have stolen art from Jewish collectors and museums throughout the territories they conquered in Europe. Most of it is meant for a museum that Hitler is building in his own honor in Austria, although some is being destroyed outright – Hitler, not a fan of modern art, burned hundreds of Picassos, Dalis and other modern artists as kind of the ultimate art critic.

Given the go-ahead by FDR to protect these artists and significant buildings and also to retrieve them and restore them to their rightful owners, Stokes puts together an eclectic collection of middle-aged men who are far from fit for the most part; Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Murray), art restoration expert James Granger (Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), a British museum director looking for a second chance Donald Jeffries (Bonneville), theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Balaban), and Jean-Claude Clermont (Dujardin) a former French painting instructor.

They undergo rigorous physical training that really underscores how out-of-shape they are and head off to France shortly after the invasion of Normandy to begin to track down the stolen art. Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator at the Louvre in occupied Paris, had watched helplessly as SS officer Viktor Stahl (von Dohnanyi) appropriated pieces for Hermann Goering and for the Hitler museum. She is devastated when he takes everything as the Allies close in on Paris and becomes suspicious of Granger, thinking that the Americans are no better than the Nazis, wanting these priceless works of art only for themselves.

In the meantime, one of the Monuments Men gets to the cathedral at Bruges to protect the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only work of his that left Italy during the great artist’s lifetime) only to die in the attempt. As we might say now, poop gets real, cuz.

Eventually they get wind that the Nazis stored most of the works in castles and mine shafts throughout Germany but an order has gone out signed by Hitler himself that should the Fuehrer die or Germany fall, everything is to be destroyed. Not only that but a Russian contingent is out to find the stolen art also but not to return to its rightful owners, but to keep as war reparations. The nearly impossible task just got a timer put on it.

Clooney takes the many hats of producer, director, co-writer and star and it may be one too many hats. The movie, based largely on Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction book of the same name, has essentially Hollywoodized the story of the Monuments Men, fictionalizing their characters and some of the events (although much of what happens story-wise is what happened reality-wise but not all). I’m one of those guys who prefers watching a true account of what really happened rather than seeing something that is jazzed up, romanticized and a gloss thrown over it. I guess I’m into history more than mythology.

That said, the entertainment quality is pretty high. When he was the wiseacre from SNL doing comedies like Stripes and Meatballs, who’d have thought that Bill Murray would become one of the best dramatic actors in America? He has done just that however, and he damn near steals the movie, his expressive face showing puzzlement, sorrow and pain when informed of the intended fate of the art. He also has a scene where he gets a Christmas message from his wife and granddaughter that Preston plays over the camp’s Public Address system in which you watch his loneliness and pain come bleeding out – without him changing his expression hardly at all. It’s masterful work.

Sadly, most of the rest of the cast gets little in the way of any sort of background and they seem a little cookie-cutter to me, although the impressive cast does their best to breathe life into them. Blanchett is a great actress but perhaps there could have been a great French actress – a Julie Delpy, a Marion Cotillard, a Juliette Binoche or a Ludivine Sagnier – cast instead. At least we wouldn’t have been as distracted by a French accent that seems more Looney Tunes than authentic.

The film raises the question as to what the importance of art is to a society and of course the answer is “essential.” Art is the soul of any civilization; should that soul be destroyed, so too is the civilization and that was the evil of Hitler; he didn’t only want to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, he wanted to wipe European civilization out as well and substitute his own warped version of it. Not everyone in the film agrees with Frank Stokes’ assessment of the importance of the mission of the Monuments Men (heck you might even disagree) but even if you do, the movie is surprisingly entertaining although in the interest of fair and truthful reporting, I slept through about 15 minutes of it early on.

This is the kind of movie they used to make when the War itself was either in full force or had just ended. While it lacks the snappy moxie that directors like Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges imbued in their films, it captures much of the same spirit nonetheless.  It’s kind of refreshing to be able to say in this instance, “they do make ’em like that anymore!”

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Murray is amazing here and Goodman and Dujardin not far behind.

REASONS TO STAY: Can’t decide whether to be a drama or a comedy and misses the mark for both.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some war violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing an older Frank Stokes after the war visiting an important piece rescued by the Monuments Men is in fact George Clooney’s dad Nick. Producer Grant Heslov and composer Alexandre Desplat also make cameos.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Winter’s Tale