Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Screw the Haters, American Sniper is an Excellent Movie

Nominated for 2 Oscars this
year; 4 in the past 3 years
Goddamn Clint Eastwood: his movies are unpredictable, quality-wise (Bird, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby [not an exhaustive list] all have greatness in them; Gran Torino, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Space Cowboys [not an exhaustive list] all have awfulness in them), but he seems to evoke greatness from his actors. In the last 25 years he's directed more actors to an Oscar win (5) than Steven Spielberg (1 [none before then]), Martin Scorcese (2 [+2 before then]) or Woody Allen (4 [+3 before then]). FUN FACT: Cate Blanchett is included in both Scorcese's and Allen's tally of the last 25 years.

Disclaimer: I have written about the tragedy and the stupidity of the invasion of Iraq many time: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney orchestrated an oil grab that went really badly. They are war criminals and guilty of crimes against peace. This isn't about the war, or even the real Chris Kyle.

America Sniper is great and that greatness really stands on the shoulders of Bradley Cooper's performance. Cooper gives an amazingly complex if seemingly straight-forward performance. How alike or different that character is from the real is a different conversation that I'm not knowledgeable enough to have. Cooper is wonderful, commanding, and goddamn it hot as hell in the role. He starts hot and just gets hotter with every scene. The entire cast is great, but it's Cooper's movie, and he is flawless.

As much as I loved Michael Keaton in Birdman and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Cooper brings more to this. A critic I follow on Twitter said something about 2014 having more really great movies than any year in the recent past and while I don't remember who, I grow more enthusiastic about the year with each additional movie I see (if you don't count Black or White).

The technical and creative elements of the movie are all fine and I only recall Cooper's eyes, his grin, and his breathing. Yes, also his body in the tight t-shirt but that was just a pretty bonus.

I'm eager to see The Theory of Everything just to figure out if Cooper can take out Eddie Redmayne.   At lot of folks are wondering if Sniper can win Best Picture--its a well-timed blockbuster but its Metacritic score trails Birdman, Boyhood and Selma. I won't begrudge any of those 4 or The Imitation Game a win there (but Imitation lacks any momentum aside from being a Weinstein Company picture [and that's not nothing]).

If there's a loser in all this greatness its what little esteem I had for Foxcatcher.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Is it Racist That the Movie Isn't "White or Black"?

In lieu of my typical "notes on" which views movies only in terms of their awards potential (none, unless you count the African-American Film Critics Association and the Black Reel Awards which, if anything, tells you that racism really exists in America is this is the best those organizations could come up with... actually no [by the way, my parantheticals sometimes go on too long, so much so that they really should be their own paragraph, deal with it] the 2 nominations from the Black Reel Awards--Jillian Estell for Outstanding Breakthrough Performance comma Female, and Terence Blanchard for a charming, reserved Original Score--are both worthy of merit) I am returning to the halcyon days of my full-on movie reviews.

As full-on as I can be.

Black or White is a movie about drunkie grandpa Kevin Costner and sassy grandma Octavia Spencer and a very white black little girl (Jillian Estell) who is something of an afterthought of a character. It is also a movie about race, family, iPads, law firms, addiction, money, swimming pool safety, more iPads and hair dye. Given all that, where should I begin?

Let's get the basics out of the way: Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, both Oscar winners, have some choices in the projects they pick, so my assumption going in was that basic story, direction, acting and creative/technical elements of the production would be professional. This is not a shoestring or prestige indie production (even if Relativity, the releasing studio, is considered an indie, either way it has the look and feel of a polished Hallmark Hall of Fame original). Everything is a 110% nice version of what you'd think it would be. Aside from Costner's kitchen which, as a man who has recently redone much of his kitchen I feel sufficiently emboldened to say, looks like crap. Like a 1997 kitchen. White people, am I right? Terence Blanchard's score, as I mentioned before, is quite nice, although it lacked the magic he brought to his part of the music in Mo' Better Blues.

The movie eschews the cliche of soul food which, to be fair, I think it should have included. But that would have put the movie in the hands, or eyes (or mouths) of the blacks which is barely ever done. It does not surprise me that the writer/director is a white. It also doesn't surprise me that he's 5' 8" (that is in his bio) as that is the average height of American males (or possibly American white males but same thing, right?). Mike Binder, the 173 cm (I told myself I should elective-ly use the metric system since I think America's failure to adopt it is narcissistic and stupid) tall white guy in question seems to have a "paint with a thick brush and stay well within the lines" approach to film making. Was there nuance in the movie? I don't recall any. I do recall a really lovely comforter in Costner's bedroom and some beautiful cinematography in and around the pool during both day and night scenes. So it's not like I didn't take away anything from the movie. Maybe there was nuance during my short trip to the men's room.

In addition to Costner, Spencer and Estell, key cast members include Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, AndrĂ© Holland, Paula Newsome, and, for no clear reason, Gillian Jacobs. Jacobs is useless to the movie and seemingly only around for 2 weak jokes and a quick snarky back and forth. I reserve the right to upgrade Holland in the future but tonight I feel like he was in over his head as the absentee dad. Koaho is fine and Newsome tackles the role of family court judge in nicely and avoids histrionics or with any sass (reserved for Octavia)--she's actually the kind of actress I'd have prided myself of picking out in a movie and thinking to use her in a judge-type role (like Miriam Colon [trust me on this]) so I think I like her more because as a judge I could see her playing a judge and that makes me discerning and not just literal. Shut up.

Anthony Mackie is better than his role in this movie and I'd like to believe he picked this movie because it spoke to him and not because he's not got a bunch of options. He was great in The Hurt Locker and he's the Falcon... like I said, better than this. Bill Burr is not. Bill Burr is perfectly adequate for this movie. And this movie is perfectly acceptable for Bill Burr. Ditto both Costner and Spencer.

Hair dye: Why? Burr and Costner both had some seriously dyed hair. Obvious and poorly done. That might have gone without saying (at least the obvious part) but I'll say it again to shame all parties responsible: shitty hair dye dudes. Now you might be thinking "so what? how is that important to the movie?" And to that I say "if your hair dye is distracting from the movie, it's important to the movie."

iPads: Everyone has one. Even lawyers who are questioning witnesses carry and use them. And these are not some off brand Android tablet or a crappy Surface, these are iPads. And iPhones. iPhone 5, to be specific.

Swimming pool safety: Blacks have a disproportionately high rates of swimming pool-related deaths... I'm just saying. This does not constitute a spoiler or even foreshadowing. (Or does it? [It might.])

Money: We've got money yes we do, we've got money how about you? We also have money. Much more money than you'd reasonably expect. And while we have explanations for the source of the money (Spencer is a successful, self-made entrepreneur), she doesn't act all that professional, even when expected to, like in court. But she is sassy and what would Tyler Perry do? Ooooh, Madea vs. Kramer. Patent pending.

Addiction: What's worse, crack addiction or alcoholism? It doesn't matter if you're hurting, it's all the same pain. But if you want to clean yourself up you can, in a couple weeks, if you just go away and breathe. (Cut to Pax Prentiss telling us that he has the cure for addiction.)

Law firms: It's cliche law firm vs. cliche law firm. One, a corporate law firm that "makes billionaires tremble" in its shiny super modern offices putting 9 or 11 (when I realized how ridiculous it was I didn't get a chance for a full count but I think it was 11) lawyers in a conference room, with iPads in front of every one of them, to discuss a custody hearing which, as we know, they do not have experience litigating. The other, a law firm of unknown specialization aside from knowing that they also don't have experience litigating family law, putting 4 partners together to take this serious case very seriously. They don't have iPads (during the meeting) but they do have a black secretary. At least no one talked about graduating top of their class at Harvard (the only law school in movies)--oh, speaking of cliche avoidance, the 2 grocery bags lacked a fresh unwrapped baguette sticking out the top (but included a normal loaf of bread with plastic bag end sticking up... good job everyone.

Family: In some of the movie's best moments I saw and heard things that I've seen and heard play out in my and others' families and that was great. What undermined that was a seeming lack of any interest in being anything but selfish. This is a movie about selfish people thinking selfishly and not extending simple courtesies to others. When 2 grandmothers work out an arrangement about visitation for their shared grandchild, and 1 of those grandmothers dies, you call the other grandmother. Not to do that is selfish and dickish and just out of character for someone who was "raised right" or "raised white." It's late and I'm getting punchy, so that white thing is more for my own amusement that a statement on...

Race: Black or White is exactly that. Did I mention the lack of nuance? That.

All that being said, I enjoyed the movie but I don't think it's very good. But it's a movie I might recommend to my dad or aunt. It doesn't hold a candle to Selma, but might be a reasonable opening act (especially if the Pointer Sisters performed between the 2).

Oh, the all white audience in Vancouver, Washington really grooved on Billy Joel's "Don't Ask Me Why" during the drive to south central. They didn't groove too much on a later Gladys Knight song (not "Midnight Train to Georgia"). That's not part of the review, just a thing that happened.