Review: American Sniper

Off-Target

American Sniper scope close-up

Most biographical war films don’t outwardly identify as “action movies” because the pairing of the two genres sounds inherently unethical. Real-world combat involves real lives, after all, and to suggest that they be terminated in the service of an adrenaline rush is to appear callous if not downright inhumane. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic on the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, seemed destined to be the exception. Before his death, Kyle had 160 confirmed kills in his decade-long career as a Navy SEAL. That statistic, plus the film’s badass title, plus the fact that Bradley Cooper packed on 40 pounds for the role and would have fit right in among the Expendables, makes the implicit claim that, if any war biopic were to be an action movie and get away with it, American Sniper would be the one. Continue reading

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Review: Her

These Times, They Are A-Changin’

Courtesy of waytoblue.com

Courtesy of waytoblue.com

Note: I use the word “human” rather loosely in this review, which can be confusing when discussing a movie that’s all about the highly mutable definition of humanity. Unless otherwise noted, “human” refers to the likes of you and me i.e. traditional examples of humans.

To call Her a romance between a man and his operating system is to both trivialize the movie’s extraordinary depth and get it exactly right. The latest picture from Spike Jonze is so much more than its gimmicky premise might suggest, but it is also precisely this premise that becomes the wellspring for the film’s vast profundity. Even more than Blade Runner or A.I before it, Her explores the notion of humanity in the face of our ongoing technological revolution. It takes the topic of the singularity – the hypothetical point in time when artificial intelligence will have evolved beyond the intelligence of its human creators – and, deviating from the dystopian grandiosity seen in like-themed films like Terminator 3 or The Matrix, scales the narrative down to the place where it matters: our everyday life and relationships, and how the advent of the singularity, which is no absurd prospect considering the massive ground we’ve covered in A.I. over the past several years, could alter not only the social landscape but human nature itself. Continue reading

Review: Aningaaq

Weightless Companion Short Saved By ‘Gravity’

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

Courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

If “Gravity” were a symphony — and believe me, Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller deserves a comparison of that scope — then “Aningaaq” would be the seven-measure rest leading up to the third movement. The short companion piece, directed by Cuarón’s son and “Gravity” scribe Jonas Cuarón, centers on the man at the other end of astronaut Ryan Stone’s moment-of-crisis radio transmission (if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand the reference). Earthbound and framed against the snow-swept canvas of glacial Greenland, “Aningaaq” is the aesthetic opposite of its feature-length source, whose story unfolds in the cosmic heavens of vacuum-black space. Where one is modest, the other is grand. The first paints humanity on a mundane scale, while the second sums up the human spirit on epic terms, sending it hurling through the stratosphere in a fireball of debris and passion. Continue reading

Review: Frances Ha

Growing Up Hurts

Courtesy of imdb.com

Courtesy of imdb.com

If Woody Allen met the French New Wave, and if both were recent liberal arts college grads scrambling to navigate the trials of the working world, the result might look something like Frances Ha. Shot in gorgeous monochrome and directed by indie auteur Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg), the film has an air of spontaneity that draws directly from François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, another urban odyssey about youth’s uneasy transition into adulthood. Scenes breathe in the motion and commotion of New York City and orient us in the moment, whether it occurs outside in the throes of afternoon traffic or indoors where two close friends talk frankly about sex and life. Continue reading

Review: Prisoners

The Wrathful Heart of Darkness

Courtesy of dawn.com

Courtesy of dawn.com

Prisoners opens and closes with its title, spelled out in stark, vertical letters, not unlike the bars of a jail cell. This aesthetic is fitting, not simply as a reiteration of the film’s title but as an embodiment of the kind of world the characters live in. It’s a world as devoid of hope as the cold winter sun or the expired slush left on the pavement of a quiet Pennsylvanian suburb after a suspect RV drives off, possibly with two young girls locked away behind its doors. Placed at both ends of the movie, the titles trap us in the crushing reality of this pitch dark story — one that allows no escape or solace. Alternatively, one can see the latter title as a deliberate mirror of the first, a preface to the post-movie reality of real life. Prisoners concocts a sinister fictional environment that unifies artful filmmaking with real-world implications. Its cynicism strikes deep because, in a way, its story is our own. Continue reading

Two Thumbs Up: Roger Ebert’s Lasting Legacy

Courtesy of themoviebuff.com

Courtesy of themoviebuff.com

It’s safe to say my love of movies began with “two thumbs up.”  It was everywhere. It peppered TV spots and movie posters. It floated next to Jim Carey on the DVD case of Bruce Almighty.  It flashed sleek and shiny beneath Tom Cruise on the poster of Minority Report and blazoned greatness in the night with the coming of Batman Begins.  From the very beginning, I knew the trademarked phrase signified some level of excellence and, using my adolescent deductive abilities, would try to pinpoint the exact quality that made these movies deserving of that special label. In a way, “two thumbs up” was what prompted me to start looking at movies in a critical way. Continue reading

Review: Skyfall

An Older Bond, A Brave New World

Courtesy of submag.co.uk

Courtesy of submag.co.uk

The greatest challenge facing our favorite British spy is neither a tough-minded femme fatale nor a seedy, seditious villain played by Javier Bardem. This time around, Bond confronts a nemesis that afflicts us all. He’s growing old.

Up until this point, the general trend across Bond movies has been the perpetual rejuvenation of the title character. Compare the older 007s — Sean Connery and Roger Moore — with the more recent manifestations by Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. As each actor replaced the last, the wrinkles started to fade and youthful vigor began to enter the picture more and more. Craig’s entrance in 2006’s Casino Royale could have been the second coming of Adonis — who knew that beneath Bond’s martini-dusted two-piece suit is chiseled musculature to shame the lithest action movie heroes?  Continue reading

Review: Looper

Looping Back to Time Travel. Again.

Courtesy of soundonsight.org

Courtesy of soundonsight.org

Rian Johnson’s Looper runs off the residual petrol of past sci-fi vehicles but manages to assemble an engaging story characterized by terse professionalism across both cast and crew. Time travel, that immortal science-fiction narrative convention, factors into the movie’s events, but seems less a central topic of intrigue than a plot gimmick to set up moral  tension and vigorous action set-pieces.The cinematography is lean, the transitions rapid, the sound design booming and the performances compelling yet straightforward. Curiously, it’s the movie’s no-nonsense neatness that sets Looper apart from messier genre counterparts, but the film doesn’t invest its energy in fleshing out a distinctive style, instead integrating its moments of brilliance into the clockwork of what amounts to an effective genre exercise.

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