American Sniper (2015)

American SniperDiscontent with his life as a rodeo cowboy, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) joins the Navy SEALs — prompting younger brother Colton (Max Charles) to sign up too — and is soon deployed to Iraq as a sniper. Over the next ten years he serves four tours away from wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) and his family, is promoted to Chief Petty Officer and is dubbed the most lethal sniper in US military history for his efforts, with 160 confirmed kills. Having earned a degree of notoriety among both allied and enemy forces, Chris’ attempts to identify and eliminate a figure known only as The Butcher are hampered by the price he has on his head — a reward assiduously sought by a Syrian master sniper (Sugar Shane) who is renowned for his ability to hit a target from over a mile away. Having developed something of a hero-complex, Chris feels increasingly uncomfortable when Stateside and unable to protect his friends on the battlefield.

Based on real events, or rather those recounted in Chris Kyle’s best-selling autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Clint Eastwood’s latest is a meditation on what it means to be an American, a soldier and a hero. Neither quite celebratory or condemnatory, it instead explores the stark reality of modern warfare, in which the sniper must trust his instincts and yet remain accountable for his actions. Unlike most war movies it doesn’t limit itself to the overseas conflict alone, and though many of the film’s more potent scenes are seen through Chris’ cross-hairs just as many are coloured by his concerned wife, trying to raise a family back in Texas where the day-to-day dramas are less life-or-death but just as difficult to those enduring them. It’s a question of perspective, and Eastwood isn’t blind to the importance of family.

Although his main character might have started out as a cowboy, the director has little time for the bravado that proliferates in his chosen genre. When we meet Cooper’s character he’s perched on a crumbling rooftop with a child in his sights, attempting to decide if the object in the little boy’s hands is incendiary or perfectly innocent. It’s a stomach-churning scene, as the weight of Chris’ decision weighs heavily on all who are witness to it (bar his spotter, who gets a rollocking for his snark), and is later reprised after a flashback to his Texas upbringing, replete with rifles and rodeo. Chris couldn’t be any more American if he tried, but Eastwood just about tows the line between patriotism and propaganda; by pitting Chris’ duty to his country against his duty to his family the director is able to question his priorities without ever criticising them. American Sniper asks: is Chris nobly saving his squad and protecting his own family or is he simply killing foreigners and tearing theirs’ apart unnecessarily?

As tense and provocative as American Sniper often is, however, it never really gets to grips with the story it wishes to tell, and Eastwood slowly loses his impartiality as he slips into cliche. Being adapted from a memoir, it’s only natural that the film doesn’t necessarily follow a dramatically satisfying arc with clearly identifiable themes but there is an uncertainty to it that is nevertheless disappointing. Although measured, Chris is ultimately being immortalised, and this being such a sensitive and recent true story it is perhaps only natural that the man and his actions aren’t subjected to the scrutiny that they perhaps should be. American Sniper doesn’t seem particularly interested in context, or indeed the wider war, and as compelling as Cooper is in the lead role such a narrow view of one of the most complicated conflicts of the modern age is never fully justified. By sidelining the enemy so completely it’s impossible to judge Chris accordingly, and without due development it’s easy to forget that Chris is killing human beings. (They’re not all threatening children with electric drills.) Forgivable — perhaps even desireable — in the theatre of war, but not in the cinema.

Although better than many of his more recent efforts, American Sniper does not quite mark a return to form for Clint Eastwood. It’s a question of one man’s legacy versus another’s legitimacy, and his answer doesn’t exactly convince; Cooper and Miller both perform admirably, and the direction is deft and direct, but without an obvious target the film doesn’t really know where to aim.

3-Stars

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the GalaxyAbducted from Earth in the year 1988, mere minutes after the death of his mother, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown up in the company of space pirates. While trying to retrieve a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet, Quill is interrupted by a group of Kree hunters under identical orders from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). He escapes — just — only to run into a couple of bounty hunters and an assassin who want him for a variety of reasons. As Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to capture Quill in order to claim a reward and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) chases the orb they are all arrested by Nova Prime, an intergalactic police force lead by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). They manage to escape — just — before Ronan and Nebula (Karen Gillan) can arrive for the orb, having recruited a fifth member in Drax (Dave Bautista), who seeks revenge on The Accuser for murdering his family. Having struck an uneasy alliance, the Guardians of the Galaxy set out to do something good, something bad, or a bit of both.

The tenth instalment of Marvel’s long-running cinematic universe, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the first origin story of Phase Two. Although not quite stand-alone (a Dark Elf is glimpsed in The Collector’s gallery and Thanos makes his first appearance since The Avengers), it still marks something of a departure for the studio. A space opera featuring a talking animal, a walking tree and an arrow guided by whistles (not to mention an exclusively 80s soundtrack), Guardians of the Galaxy is out there even by Marvel’s standards. An inherent weirdness isn’t all it shares with Gunn’s previous films, as Michael Rooker, irreverent humour and moments of real, occasionally certificate-pushing gore add to the film’s oddball personality.

Things get off to a strong start, as Quill is bequeathed a final present by his dying mother only to be moments later plucked from the fog outside the hospital by a visiting alien. Having nodded to Spielbergian sci-fi, Gunn then homages Indiana Jones with a bit of high-stakes tomb raiding. When the title card finally appears, our hero is dancing around an ancient alien ruin to Redbone’s Come And Get Your Love, carelessly kicking womp rats as he goes. Gunn treads the line between nostalgia and iconoclasm beautifully, referencing a number of classic movies and pop culture phenomenon without ever doing so in a way you might anticipate. The film even has its own R2D2 and C3PO, only the former has been reimagined as a bad-mouthed, gun-totting raccoon (just don’t call him vermin) and the latter as a walking tree with a spectacularly limited vocabulary (“I am Groot”).

It’s an astonishingly tough call, but Rocket and Groot arguably steal the show. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, despite only being cast in the last seven or eight months, give two of the best vocal performances of the year, breathing real depth into special effects that are just as impressive in their own right. Andy Serkis might — deservedly — be getting all the praise for his work on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but what Rocket and Groot lack in nuance and photo-realism they make up for in personality and presence. Rocket — whether he’s fixing a gun or, erm, himself — is a sardonic, short-tempered delight, while Groot gets one of the funniest scenes in the film — though to say any more would be to spoil the surprise. Pratt, Saldana and Bautista are great too, the latter (actually a WWE wrestler by trade) making a huge impression as Drax the Destroyer, a badass who takes everything at face value. Even John C. Reilly has his moments.

Like the rest of Phase Two, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is not without its problems. Having so expertly established their shared universe in Phase One, it’s disheartening to see Marvel so clearly struggling to maintain it. The joy of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger was the sense of cohesion and momentum which increased with every new, cross-pollinating instalment. When The Avengers rolled around its story followed directly on from each, furthering various character arcs while introducing new relationships. With Avengers: Age Of Ultron due for release next year, there is little urgency or sense of purpose for what should be the big event of 2015. That’s not necessarily a problem with Guardians of the Galaxy itself, but the tangential nature of it can’t help but slow things down even further. Even the re-appearance of Thanos does little to further the over-arching story, with the character limited to a mere cameo in favour of Ronan and Nebula, two of Marvel’s least engaging villains to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy‘s sheer disregard for logic and reason is often joyous (and even a running joke among the characters themselves), but it’s also at times incredibly frustrating. The first half an hour sees the audience bombarded with gobbledegook, as comic book mythology is introduced but never explained. Nouns like Xandar, Knowhere, Nova Corps, Ravagers and Kree are likely to go right over your head, and unless you’re completely au fait with Marvel’s comic book universe you are unlikely to pick up on a number of references — not just Easter eggs, but plot points too. You can no longer delineate characters solely on the basis of skin or costume colour; there are a number of blue characters in Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s almost impossible to determine the relationship between them. There is precious little sense to the wider universe, at least beyond Asguard and Midguard, and it becomes particularly problematic during the closing battle when you’re supposed to be fearing for the lives of supporting characters you barely recognise let alone care about: random pink girl, for instance, or that alien with the eyebrows.

Guardians of the Galaxy is nevertheless a very entertaining space romp. It’s funny, exciting, beautiful and — given the preponderance of profanity, the dubiousness of the ethics and the occasional grisliness of the special effects — suitably edgy. Add to that the quality of the cast, the quotability of the script and general awesomeness of the soundtrack, and you have a film that it is destined for greatness. Sadly, however, your enjoyment will likely be marred somewhat by an incomprehensible plot, weak villains and moments which stretch your goodwill a little too far. The whistle-guided arrow, for example.

3.5-Stars

American Hustle (2013)

American HustleDespite owning a chain of dry cleaning stores in New York City, businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) makes most of his money flogging fake paintings on the side. When he meets stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in 1978, the two become partners with Sydney adopting the guise of British aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly in an attempt to ensnare investors. They attract more than just clients, however, and are soon under investigation by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), though he has bigger fish to fry; in exchange for their freedom Irving and Sydney must help to implicate four other criminals. Suddenly, they, along with Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), become embroiled in a plot involving seemingly corrupt politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and mob boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).

Like some strange composite of last year’s awards contenders, recycling the cast of David O. Russell’s own Silver Linings Playbook‘s and recalling both the setting and tone of Ben Affleck’s Argo, American Hustle struts into cinemas just in time for 2014’s Golden Globes. The whole thing stinks of award bait, from method actor Christian Bale’s continued yo-yo diet to cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s preoccupation with the production’s extensive hair and make-up. Watching Russell’s latest it’s hard not to mentally compose your own “For Your Consideration” montage, even for the most technical of categories.

That’s not to say that American Hustle isn’t good — there is undoubtedly much to admire in its 138 minute running time, as there should be — just that it’s often more concerned with being worthy than either engaging or enjoyable. For what feels like much of the movie’s first act, dialogue is often eschewed in favour of lengthy voice-over, giving the film a detached quality that is perfect for explanatory soundbites but perhaps less conducive to immersive storytelling. This uninterrupted stream of exposition is necessary, however, as unlike Affleck’s Oscar winner Russell’s film doesn’t simplify events so much as complicate them. The introduction of the Arab Sheik should have been funny in its absurdity, but unless you’ve been keeping notes you’ll be too busy waiting for him to explain his purpose to get the joke.

It’s a shame because when the jokes do hit their mark they’re often very funny indeed. Cooper, though recently revealed to be a capable dramatic actor, is first and foremost a gifted comedian, and his passive-aggressive relationship with his boss Stoddard Thorsen (played beautifully by Louis C.K.) — a mentor figure who keeps trying and failing to impart wisdom through a fishing anecdote — is a joy to behold. Lawrence also shines in her capacity as unstable housewife and accidental arsonist Rosalyn Rosenfeld, and she — along with Stoddard — may be the closest the film comes to sympathetic characters. Bale and Adams aren’t anywhere near as much fun, though the latter still manages to impress thanks to a note-perfect English accent and an irrepressible innate charm.

Impressive and occasionally entertaining, American Hustle is decent enough comedy-drama — more admirable perhaps than Anchorman 2 but nowhere near as enjoyable. Strong performances and even stronger production values guarantee that there is always something to look at, but once the credits have finally rolled you’re unlikely to recall more than Bale’s comb-over, Adams’ cleavage and Cooper’s curls. At least until awards night, when the montages start.

3-Stars

The Hangover Part III (2013)

The Hangover Part IIIWhen he inadvertently decapitates a giraffe and causes a motorway pileup, Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) returns home to find his friends staging an intervention; Alan has been off his prescribed ADHD medication for months, and his beloved Wolfpack wish to drive him to a rehabilitation clinic in Arizona. On the way, however, they encounter mob leader Marshall (John Goodman), who kidnaps Doug (Justin Bartha) as collateral and orders Alan, Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) to find Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and return the millions of dollars worth of gold that was stolen from him. Read more of this post

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond The PinesAfter learning that a former lover had given birth to his son in secret, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) quits his job as a stunt racer for a travelling circus and begins robbing banks to better support his new family — whether they want his help or not. When Glanton’s raids put him on a collision course with idealistic beat cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a chain of events are set in motion that will impact not only their own lives, but those of their children, Jason (Dane Dehaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), too. Read more of this post

The Hangover: Part II (2011)


Life has gone back to normal for Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Since their Vegas misadventure, Phil has had a kid, Stu is set to re-marry and Alan is back living with his parents. Invited out to Thailand for the wedding, the friends (and Alan) reunite for a quiet drink on the beach with Stu’s prospective brother in law, Teddy. One fastforward later, our heroes awake in a trashed Bangkok apparently with no memory of the night before. With ties to a nearby monastery, a tattoo parlour and a gangster-run strip joint, the trio must once again retrace their steps if they are going to find Teddy, get back in time for the wedding and put another hangover behind them.

Before we get underway, there is one small matter we should probably address first, lest anyone imagine I’ve started throwing out popcorn pieces to anything that makes me laugh (though, in the world of comedy, is that really an invalid measure of quality?), namely that The Hangover: Part II isn’t as good as the celebrated original. It just isn’t.

The problems are many, with the extent to which the original has entered the public consciousness following its considerable success exacerbating the loss of originality that inevitably comes with filming a sequel, overburdening The Hangover: Part II with a stifling sense of deja-vu. The need to outdo their previous effort is evident from the off, with the original structure intact it is impossible not to draw comparisons, with every plot point and set piece having a comparative parallel. While this is milked for humour – often to pant-wetting effect – it renders the movie strangely redundant. Lost in a foreign city and robbed of all memory of the night before, Bradley Cooper’s assurances that “you know the drill” bestow proceedings with a repetitiveness far beyond the franchise’s two instalment.

The film never escapes its predecessor’s shadow as the filmmakers resurrect anything and everything that might have made the original work. As Chow, Mike Tyson and the obligatory tryst with the law are shoehorned in, the sequel never really finds an identity of its own. While the 2008 original enjoyed an easy escalation that tempered its contrivances with a hysterical air of disbelief, Part II has a forced air of a studio eager to duplicate the box office success of another film. As a result, the movie goes on one machination too long, the creative strain to keep our heroes in Bangkok jarringly close to the surface. For me, however, it was the pushing of Alan that came nearest to derailing the entire film, with Zach Galifianakis’ intervening success granting him a (painfully) larger role and instantly compromising my enjoyment of the film at large. Needless to say, the other characters apprehension at taking Alan along was shared tenfold.

The Hangover: Part II was no Due Date (read: disaster), however, and I found myself drowning in a constant state of hysterics. I spent entire scenes gasping for breath as Phil and Stu watched their lives spiral out of control, struggling to account for how it might have happened again. From the hotel room revelations to the carefully planted plot resolution, the film managed to wrangle new laughter from the same jokes, all the while increasing the scale and extent of the carnage. I am no fan of comedy – after “the sports movie” it is probably my least favourite genre, prone as it is to being about as funny as algebra – but The Hangover franchise continues to prove an exception to the rule. As the credits roll and the assorted photos from the night before flash up on screen, it is impossible to dwell on mere deja vu.

Too much Alan, a monkey that can’t die soon enough and crippling lack of originality may rob The Hangover: Part II of greatness, but there is enough wit, innovation and incredulity to save this first sequel from feeling like a hangover in itself.

Limitless (2011)

A failed writer living in New York, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) has a book deal but no book to show for his months of trying. Dumped by his current girlfriend, Morra unexpectedly runs into the brother of another of his exes, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth). Given a pill with alleged FDA approval called NZT-48, and told it could aid his creative woes, Eddie gives in to temptation and takes the drug. Seducing his landlord’s wife and making a substantial dent in his novel, his night of self-actualised productivity leaves him desperate for more. Sourcing a considerable stockpile of pills, Eddie creates a new and improved life for himself, quite despite the increasingly debilitating side effects result from his growing dependency. Making enemies, unable to account for entire hours of his life and stalked by death, Eddie’s newfangled partnership with powerful business tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) promises a way out – providing he doesn’t run out of time, luck or pills.

Right from the outset, it is clear that with Limitless we are dealing with something completely fresh and exciting. With the filmmakers embracing a flamboyant cinematography – which includes fish-bowl effects and a blended zoom that gives the impression of an excellent and impossible one shot – Limitless boasts some of the most unique camera-work you’ll see outside of the matrix. Augmenting the more obvious visual ticks are a wealth of subtler techniques that conspire to create a hyper-reality of dizzying proportions, the colour saturation creating a more attractive world for our medicated protagonist to exploit.

The transformation from sober to medicated transcends cinematography, however, with Cooper utterly convincing as the empowered Eddie Morra, a suave and confident expansion of his former self. Aided by a portentous voice over, the narrative highs and lows – Eddie goes from mastering languages with incidental exposure to begging for his life in a scattering of scenes – concoct a powerful hook as Cooper’s character is caught up in rapidly escalating circumstances. Bookended by a scene set in his residential vault, Limitless is a well paced and expertly plotted thriller that gathers momentum almost as quickly as to begs questions.

The primary problem with Limitless then – considering that is it so well acted, dynamically shot and boldly set up – is that it never really ends. Basically a morality tale warning against humanity’s penchant for self-sabotage masquerading as a thriller, convention necessitates a special breed of dénouement that ties up the conspiracy and imparts a preordained message. Discarding characters such as Anna Friel’s ex-girlfriend – and fellow NZT addict – Melissa and Eddie’s hired muscle with frustrating abandon, and failing to conclude a murder investigation subplot, Limitless has no definitive endpoint but ironically limited scope for a thread-tying sequel. By film’s end we are really no closer to understanding who Eddie Morra really is, or why he was in such danger to begin with.

Although endlessly engaging and refreshingly unconventional, Limitless suffers from a fundamental ambiguity that undermines the tension built up through the film’s body. Visually arresting and wonderfully weird, however, Limitless deserves it’s inevitable frustration.