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Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 2

Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.

LA LA LAND

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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as an actress and a pianist united in their dreams of stardom in La La Land.

We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.

We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.

Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.

Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.

It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.

And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’

It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.

La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.

FENCES

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Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring Troy and Rose Maxson to the big screen in Fences.

Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.

Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.

Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.

Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of  places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.

Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.

Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.

Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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Manchester By The Sea is the story of an uncle (played by Casey Affleck, left) and a nephew (played by Lucas Hedges, right) who suddenly become closer through death.

Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.

The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.

The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.

The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.

The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.

The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually.  For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.

The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.

Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.

The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.

Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.

And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.

Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.

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Movie Review: Carol (2015)

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Rooney Mara (left) and Cate Blanchett (right) are lovers in a forbidden time in Todd Haynes’ Carol.

NOTE: I may have ‘published’ a previous version of this review. It was accidental as I meant to save instead of publish. Here’s the complete review.

There have been a lot of LGBTQ-themed films done in the past twenty years. Carol is the latest big film to be shown on the big screen. However it’s not your typical gay-themed film.

The film begins in a scene set in the future. Then flashes back to Therese, a young 20-something woman working the toy section of a Manhattan department store. A glamorous older woman, Carol Aird, consults her for what to buy her daughter for Christmas. Therese recommends the train set and she buys one. However Carol left her gloves behind in which Therese mails to her from the address on the sales slip.

Both women have difficult lives. Therese is in a relationship with a man and longs to be a photographer. Carol is in a marriage near divorce and in the midst of a tight custody battle with her daughter. However Carol is able to get Therese to meet up for lunch. The friendship starts to grow and Therese is able to take pictures of Carol for her photography habit. On Thanksgiving, Carol invites Therese over to her house but it does not go well with her husband Harge as he knows Carol had a relationship with a woman named Abby last year.

Carol visits Therese on Christmas and gives her a state-of-the art Canon camera. Carol also reveals to Therese the details of her divorce and how Harge plans on having a ‘morality clause’ against her in an attempt to win their daughter Rindy in a custody battle. Carol plans an escape for the two of them around New Year’s Day in a remote Iowa town to get away from the difficulties of their lives and to finally have time for the two of them together. It works on cultivating their relationship but it’s interrupted as it is learned an investigator was hired by her husband to track her lesbian relation. Therese is driven by Abby back to New York.

In the meantime Carol is in a difficult situation as she is to decide whether to love Therese or give it all up for the sake of winning custody of her daughter. Months pass and Therese is now working as a photographer with the New York Times and Carol is seeking psychotherapy for the sake of winning custody of Rindy. Carol attempts to reconnect with Therese at a lunch at The Ritz but is interrupted by a former co-worker of Therese’s. The film ends with the moment many believe was meant to be.

The thing about Carol is that it’s not only about love but about the times too. Cate Blanchett even describes the story as ‘like Romeo and Juliet, only Juliet and Juliet.’ Todd Haynes is a gay director himself and he has delivered films with gay-themed subjects. Here he presents a love story situated back in 1953. The story reminds us of the times of how GLBTQ people were limited in terms of rights if they even had any at all. We shouldn’t forget that homosexual acts were criminalized until the 1970’s and the homosexual attraction was considered a form of mental illness up to 1973. Knowing that would make one understand the situation Carol would have to face: to choose between custody of her daughter or pursue who she loves. Nowadays the courts would be more favoring towards the GLBTQ person but back then homosexuals always lost such a custody battle.

The film isn’t completely about presenting a gay scenario from back in the past. The film is as much about the two main characters Carol and Therese. Carol is of the more upper class but is longing to break free of her loveless marriage to pursue her heart’s desires and live the life she was meant to. Therese is a young 20-something looking for something better but finds it with Carol. It’s as the two find love through each other that they know there are better lives for them. However it’s not to be without obstacles like a boyfriend questioning, a suspicious husband and a judgmental society.

The film is actually based on a novel from Patricia Highsmith entitled The Price of Salt. I’ve never read the novel but I get a good understanding of it from seeing the film. Interestingly is that after reading over Highsmith’s biography, one could sense the film is about some of Highsmith’s own experiences. She herself was a lesbian who had relations with women during that very time set in the film. She even went under psychoanalysis while in her 20’s to marry a man but it didn’t work. Those were the times back then.

The film is excellently written out by Phyllis Nagy and directed very well by Todd Haynes. The only other two films from Haynes I ever saw was 2002’s Far From Heaven which also dealt with homosexuality in the 1950’s and I’m Not There which is something else. Remembering Far From Heaven has me convinced Haynes was the right choice to direct. Phyllis Nagy may only have one other script to her credit–HBO’s Mrs. Harris— but she does an excellent job in writing the story. The slow pace of the story succeeds in getting you to feel the characters and the situation. There have even been a few times I’ve thought that with this movie being released in 2015, the year the US Supreme Court legitimizes same-sex marriages in all 50 states, this film is a reminder of what they had to go through in order to achieve it.

The film also excels because of the acting. Cate Blanchett shines as Carol who possesses a shining confidence but struggles in a world that won’t accept people like her. Rooney Mara is also excellent as the young naive Therese who’s confused about herself but finds herself over time. Despite the two owning the film, there were other good supporting performances from the like of Kyle Chandler as the suspicious Harge and Sarah Paulson as Abby. The set design and costuming did an excellent job of taking the film back to the past. The cinematography added to it as well as the score from Carter Burwell which captures the intensity of the situation.

Carol is a story about a woman of her time who dared to be different and love even if it meant losing it all. It not only does a good job of telling the story but also the time of the story too.

Double Movie Review: Inside Out and The Minions Movie

You saw I did a triple-movie review yesterday. That’s what I plan to do as far as reviewing summer movies. Review two or three summer movies that are in the same genre. Yesterday was a review of three summer comedies. Today is the review of the two hit animated movies of the summer: Inside Out and The Minions Movie. Both were two of the biggest hit movies this 2015 and both were different but both also had their own qualities.

Inside Out features five characters of human feelings and takes one to an amazing world of the subconscious.

Inside Out features five characters of human feelings and takes one to an amazing world of the subconscious.

INSIDE OUT

This is actually Pixar’s first original movie since Brave. It’s been awhile and it was commonly assumed that the buzz of Pixar–the buzz of quality and creativity–was fading with movies like Cars 2 and Planes. They also had to face the fact in recent years they were no longer alone at the top with Illumination Entertainment emerging and Walt Disney Studios returning to their winning ways. However Pixar did come back with a vengeance this year with Inside Out.

Pixar went once again to its dream team with Up director Pete Docter doing the direction as well as co-writing the script with Josh Cooley and Meg Le Fauve. Michael Giacchino returns to do the music and vocal talent comes from the likes of Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Diane Lane, Bill Hader and John Ratzenberger.

The biggest achievement of the film is that it doesn’t just simply deliver a great story that can keep the audience intrigued but it creates a unique and dazzling world of the human mind. Here they invented the world of the human brain called Headquarters, creates characters related to human emotions, creates a system where emotions are delivered by Headquarters subconsciously via a control console that any of the five emotions can control, has memories kept in colored orbs in its own storage system and has islands that reflect the most dominant aspects of a person’s personality connected by the train of thought which is an actual locomotive.

That already looks like creative stuff on pen and paper. However it took Pixar’s animators to make this world come alive. If you’ve seen Inside Out, you too would be dazzled to see the world inside the mind of Riley Anderson, the main character. It’s one thing to think up this world. It’s another thing to have this world come alive on screen and be good enough to dazzle and even mesmerize the audience. Were you mesmerized? I was.

However despite the mesmerizing world, it still had to have a solid and entertaining story to go with it. The story consists of five characters representing the five core emotions. Those emotional characters are inside the mind of Riley Anderson: a hockey-loving 11 year-old girl who is trying to adjust to a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Promising enough. However it also took the right juggling of the story to go from focus on Riley to focus on the emotions and their world inside Riley’s head. It was a balancing act.

The story had to make Riley a likeable and identifiable character. It also had to make the emotions likeable characters too. Like it couldn’t make Anger as an abusive brute or Sadness into a manic depressant. C’mon, this is a family film for people to enjoy rather than see characters that cut deep. I’ll admit I did find the story rather confusing at first. However it starts to make more sense over time long after you leave the theatre. Inside Out is like a lot of Pixar movies where the focus is more on the story or the world rather than it being too character-driven or too entertainment-driven. That’s how Pixar has created some of the best animated movies of the past 20 years and that’s how they succeed here again.

Inside Out isn’t simply another charming animated story from Pixar but an escape to a world that will leave you dazzled. The ending will even get you thinking you have five characters in your head just like them!

The Minions movie is about Stuart, Kevin and Bob searching for a master of evil to serve.

The Minions movie is about Stuart, Kevin and Bob searching for a master of evil to serve.

MINIONS

Without a doubt, this decade’s top movie stars are not of flesh and blood but yellow and pill-shaped. Yes, the Minions who have been the aces at stealing the show from Gru in all the Despicable Me movies. Their popularity over time made the possibility of their own movie eventual. However it was to be a big question of The Minions Movie. Yes, they can steal the show from Gru but can the hold their own? Or will people become sick of an hour and a half of Minions?

Firstly in order to do a 90 minute-long film about Minions, one should have a solid but entertaining story to go with it. Interestingly enough they didn’t pick Despicable Me writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to write the story. It went to newcomer Brian Lynch who actually wrote for the Minions Mayhem short three years ago. Despicable Me co-director Pierre Coffin returns to direct this but his co-director this time is Kyle Balda, who co-directed The Lorax with Despicable Me co-director Chris Renaud. Renaud is Executive Producer of the Minions movie. Hmmm, looks like Pixar’s not the only animation team in town.

The story does seem a bit formulaic as they try to look for a master of evil to serve. The master they think they found turning on them isn’t that original either. Even the ending where they eventually find themselves the master of Gru was not unexpected. The strength of the story was for it to have a decent plot but put major emphasis on the entertainment factor. Let’s face it, people are in love with the Minion characters. If one writes a story that’s very plot-centred like most Pixar movies, the flavor of the Minion characters would be lost. People love the goofy nature of the Minions. They story could not be two plot-centred if the Minions had to have their hyper but cute charm maintained.

Nevertheless they had to have a good story not just to keep it going to a feature-length but to entertain as well. That was achieved well with the story of Scarlet Overkill having them under their wing. Sandra Bullock made Scarlet fun to watch. Even if you knew the Minions would turn out okay with whatever Scarlet plotted against them, the movie still kept you wondering and hoping that they’d come out alright.

I give the writers and directors credit to writing and directing an entertainingly good story of how the Minions found Gru. However like most other movies, I usually question the choices made or if it could have been done better. Sometimes I wonder was it a good idea to pick three Minion characters as the lead Minions instead of maybe more? Was there too little time spent on how they met Gru at the end? Was Bob more idiotic than he should be? Actually I can’t really judge because I’m not a Hollywood writer. However I do feel that the ‘Hair’ number shouldn’t have been the only Minion musical number.

Minions is a mission accomplished: making a feature-length film of the top scene stealers in Hollywood right now. However it is imperfect and can make some people think it could have been done better.

As for the two movies, they both turned out to be the two biggest money makers of the year. Sure, Jurassic World is #1 but both are comfortably in this year’s Top 5 with Inside Out grossing $352.8 million and Minions grossing $332.8 million. It looks like animated movies are among the strongest films out there right now. Often they’re better at making favorite characters than most live-action movies. What Pixar and the other animation teams have up their sleeves has yet to be seen.

Inside Out and Minions are two of the biggest winners of the summer. they not only entertained but they also showed why animated movies are one of the tour de forces in moviemaking right now.

Oscars 2014 Best Picture Review: American Sniper

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it's a lot more.

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it’s a lot more.

If you think that this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.

It’s easy to dismiss American Sniper as a pro-war movie at first. Especially when you see the attitude of its protagonist. However if you watch it from beginning to end you will see that it’s a lot more than a tale of a sharpshooter and may not be as pro-war as you think.

The film begins in 2003 during the Iraq war where US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle sees a civilian woman pass a huge grenade to her 8 year-old son and is about to shoot. Before he pulls the trigger, we flash back to an 11 year-old Chris who impresses his father with his ability to shoot a deer from long range. His father teaches him about the three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Chris decides to be a sheepdog, especially to his lamb-like younger brother. In his early 20’s, Chris decides to be a rodeo cowboy until a bullriding accident leaves him with injuries he can’t recover from.

While sidelined, he witnesses on the TV news an incident that will change his life: the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda. It’s then he decides to become a Navy SEAL. At first they were reluctant to accept him but agreed upon being impressed with his shooting skills. During his training he bumps into Taya Renee at a bar. Taya is not interested because her sister dated a Navy SEAL and he ended up being a complete asshole. Nevertheless he impresses Taya to the point she dates him. Soon after, 9/11 happens. Chris marries Taya soon after and is deployed as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s there where it really begins.

At the beginning of his first mission comes the mother and son as seen at the beginning. Kyle shoots the son first only to see the mother take the grenade and carry on. He has to shoot her, causing her to throw the grenade while shot causing an explosion. The experience of shooting the two leaves Chris upset to the point of tears but he has to continue his duty. Kill after kill earns him the nickname ‘The Legend’ by his US comrades. It also makes himself a target of al-Qaeda’s where they offer for $80,000 for anyone who kills him. Al-Qaeda even have a top sniper of their own in Iraq after him and he uses and SVD. During his first mission, he is given the mission to hunt for an al-Qaeda leader named al-Zarqawi and hunts house after house for information leading to him or his second-in-command nicknamed ‘the Butcher.’ A father and son give helpful information but plans go chaotic as The Butcher locates the father and son and drills into their heads leaving them for dead. Chris was unable to defend because of sniper fire, overheard by a pregnant Taya during a phone call, preventing him from performing any action of rescue.

Chris returns to Taya in time for the birth of his son Colton. Chris tries to be a family man at home but Taya notices he’s distraught by the memories and even watching bootleg videos of marines shot in battle. Taya tells him she wants him to commit to his family. But Chris feels he has to serve again where he’s now promoted to Chief Petty Officer. This time he’s involved in a battle with The Butcher. After killing him, Chris returns home to Taya, Colton and his newborn daughter. However it’s obvious the war has affected Chris with his hostile reaction in the maternity ward when her daughter’s crying. Chris becomes increasingly distant with his family. He leaves for a third mission and his brother Jeff is also part of it too. However Chris is hugely affected by the injuries sustained by one of his US comrades part of the unit. The mission continues but Chris witnesses his fellow SEAL shot to death in the gunfire.

Chris returns home but not to his wife and family. He returns for the funeral of his fallen SEAL. Much to the heartbreak of his wife, Chris feels he has to return again in his fellow SEAL’s honor and complete the mission. During the fourth mission, the team learns the alias of the al-Qaeda sniper after them and Chris: Mustafa. Chris is assigned to take him out and is placed on the roof of a building in enemy territory. It’s very risky since killing Mustafa could put Chris and his comrades in enemy firestorm. Nevertheless Chris must do it, especially since a sandstorm is sensed from miles away. Chris spots Mustafa from almost two kilometers away and shoots. It’s a hit: the eighth-longest sniper kill of all-time ever recorded. But the enemy gunfire occurs just as the sandstorm approaches and while Chris is talking to Taya. Right during the sandstorm, Chris struggles to jump on the jeep but succeeds in time and tells Taya: “I’m coming home.”

Chris’ mission is completed. His military efforts of 255 kills, 160 confirmed, Kyle is officially the deadliest American marksman in US military history. He returns home trying to adjust to home life but it’s apparent the war is still affecting him mentally. Even Taya lets him know that. Upon the advice through psychiatric help, he volunteers his time to help veterans return to home life and overcome their own post-traumatic stress syndrome. After five years, Chris is well-adjusted and has successfully become a family man to his wife and children. The movie closes to the last morning of Chris’ life where he leaves for his volunteering with veterans. He would be killed by a veteran he was helping that day. The movie ends with footage of his funeral.

From beginning to end I had to watch it with a very observant eye. I wanted to see what types of messages it would be sending and if it was a pro-war stance or anti-war. I personally cannot see it as a pro-war movie. Sure, you see Chris’ attitude about patriotism and his determination to think that those he shot were soldiers, not people. Even seeing video footage of the funeral of the real Chris Kyle with those saluting his coffin as he went by, funeral held in a stadium and his casket covered with medals would cause some to impulsively think the film is trying to make Chris a hero. But oddly enough I don’t think it’s trying to make Chris a hero. Instead I think it showed Chris’ weaknesses as well as his strengths. We see how Chris was taught the values he held by his father including being told to be a ‘sheepdog,’ we see how he becomes hostile as he sees his newborn daughter crying in the maternity ward, we see how the death of a comrade only prompts Chris to extend his ‘duty’ despite how much his wife can’t take it, we also see it as Chris is about to punch a dog at a birthday party.

Recently I came across a quote from Clint Eastwood: “The biggest anti-war statement any film can make is to show the fact of what it does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” I feel that American Sniper does just that because I sensed right from the start, this movie actually looks at war and Chris Kyle’s hero status through a cynical eye. I felt that as the film first shows a young Chris being taught about: ‘lambs, wolves and sheepdogs.’ Then again as Chris goes to war with the Bible he stole from church and admits he never opened it. Other scenes that added to the suspected cynicism were his hostile acts at home and even that scene as he sees a therapist and says his guilt is not at all because of the people he killed but because of his fallen fellow soldiers he failed to save. That scene had me wondering if Chris really did feel that way or if it’s because he felt that’s the way he’s supposed to think, especially upon remembering he was in tears after he shot that little boy at the very beginning. Even that ending scene where they show video footage of Chris’ funeral with people lining the streets waving the American flag as his hearse passes him, the stadium where his funeral was held filled, and his casket covered with military medals made me think Clint was putting Chris’ hero status and a common belief in the United States that ‘soldier = patriot’ on the hot seat. I really sense that.

As for what it does for the family, you can bet there’s a lot of focus on that in the film, especially in scenes involving Taya. The first scene that has to send that message has to be when she’s on a phone conversation with Chris but a shootout ensues. Chris drops his phone on the street as the shootout happens with Taya listening on the other ends. Taya’s distraught crying as she’s hearing the bullet fire on the other end has to be the scene that sends that message. Even in conversation with Chris, Taya is the one reminding him how stressful and hurtful it is to her every time he goes back off. She even reminds him about how he’s not the same ever since his fighting: “You’re my husband, you’re the father of my children. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. I see you, I feel you, but you’re not here.” Even outside of Chris and Taya, we get this message at the funeral of the soldier shot during Chris’s first mission. That scene where the officer gives the mother the folded flag from his casket and the tears in her eyes also sends that message. It doesn’t matter if it’s World War II, the Vietnam War or Operation Iraqi Freedom, a lost child is a lost child and the family will hurt for a long time about it, if not for the rest of their lives.

Even if it isn’t about war and how it hurts the soldiers and their families, it also gives a cynical look at the war itself. We see it in Kyle first ever shooting during the war. A woman that looks like a civilian with her son passes him a big grenade. As terrible as it was to see them shot, Chris knew both had to be shot. That scene sends the message that this war is not your typical war. This is a war that can take everyday civilians and turn them into players. Even that scene where a young boy picks up a grenade launcher and appears to fire shows that even children are not immune. We should also remember this is a war where soldiers will either disguise themselves as civilians or even use them as human shields. This is a war where people from the ‘enemy’ side will torture people who give secrets away. That scene where an ‘enemy’ soldier drills into the heads of both the father and young son shows just how ugly and brutal this war is. Sure, it may not have the same total number of fatalities as Vietnam but it’s ugly enough and unpredictable enough.

Clint Eastwood does it again. If you notice one thing about his movies over the past two decades, it’s that he approaches his stories by putting certain subjects on the hot seats. We see it again here where he puts the labels of ‘man’ or ‘patriot’ associated with a soldier in war. This comes especially remembering what Clint’s character in Gran Torino, a dying Korean war vet, said: “You wanna know what it’s like to kill a man? Well, it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal… for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that’s all. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, and you don’t want that on your soul.” Clint’s directing of the story was dead on and will get you thinking. A lot of people talk about the violence in the movie. I feel what’s said and done outside the warfare says way more. Kudos to Jason Hall for adapting Kyle’s memoirs. I believe Jason too sensed something about Kyle through reading his memoirs and adapted into what he thinks is really the situation and through an equally cynical eye.

As much as it is the product of Clint and Jason, I give high praise to Bradley Cooper for making Chris into the three-dimensional depiction they intended. He delivered an excellent performance and also appeared like he had ideas of his own about what Chris Kyle was like. The only other role in the movie that was of major significance was that of Taya Kyle but Sienna Miller did a great job of portraying the wife caught in the middle. She made Taya the one who could best settle the score with Chris. She was the one who was best at getting him back down to Earth. She was also very good at epitomizing what most ‘war wives’ go through with their husbands in battle. Right at the wedding, Taya appeared happy to be married to a Navy SEAL like Chris. It’s during the war and after she found out exactly what she had to deal with. I feel Miller’s performance was one of the most underacclaimed performances of the year. The other supporting actors were also very good, even though there were many roles that could have been developed better. Also I feel it was a smart decision to have the movie with as little musical score as possible. It adds to the realistic depiction of the war throughout the movie. Even that scene of the bullet that kills Mustafa wasn’t too much of a distraction to the story.

American Sniper is not your typical war movie. It goes above and beyond your expectations and shows you an outlook on both Chris Kyle and the war you might not have thought of before. Whether you consider Chris a hero, villain or victim is all up to your own judgment.