American Hustle

Red Sparrow

No actor is immune from making a bad movie; even some of the best have been guilty. However, a string of bad films might be cause for concern in an industry where the latest “It” girl can change from one year to the next. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence (Mother!) has anything to worry about, as she’s been the toast of Tinseltown for a few years now, a bonafide megastar. But Red Sparrow marks her second consecutive disappointing feature (last year’s Mother! was an esoteric mess), and now I know that her presence alone doesn’t necessarily elevate a bad movie.

Red Sparrow intrigued with me its premise, the story of a Russian ballerina who becomes a spy. That’s all I gleaned from the trailer, and I imagined Black Swan meets La Femme Nikita or something. Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorovo, a ballerina with a promising career but meager finances and an ailing mother.  When she suffers a catastrophic injury on stage, she is presented with an opportunity to become a “sparrow,” a covert operative deployed by the Russian government in matters of espionage. Her training commences, and Dominika is subjected to a series of tasks and rituals designed to break her psychologically and emotionally. The film’s first act was its best, and I found it fascinating to witness their methods of training and subjugation. Veteran actor Charlotte Rampling (Assassin’s Creed) is featured as the “Matron,” subjecting the recruits to such humiliation as public nudity and intercourse.

As the film shifted into its second and third acts, the plot veered to and fro, with nothing but Jennifer Lawrence and some nice visuals holding the movie together. Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) has shown from his music video beginnings a deft ability to capture stunning visual imagery of his subjects and their environments, and the film’s cinematography was one of its few bright spots. About midway through, Joel Edgerton (Bright) appears as an American spy to whom Dominika is assigned. He attempts to turn her and recruit her as a double agent, and it was all downhill from there. I can’t tell you much else about the film, because at that point I simply didn’t know what was happening anymore.

Jennifer Lawrence is a really good actress. American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone all prove it. I’m not sure if Red Sparrow seemed like a good script when she initially read it, but I found writer Justin Haythe’s screenplay muddled, meandering, and confusing. Perhaps the source material was richer, but its interpretation left much to be desired. Jennifer Lawrence is better than this? Scenes that were intended as provocative and edgy came across as lurid and trashy instead. I can appreciate the alluring surface qualities, Lawrence’s beauty and the rich decadence of the environment, but that’s where my praise ends. Wait until this one makes its way to HBO.

Grade: C

Hostiles

Versatility. Range. To me, these are the hallmarks of great acting – and they have served Christian Bale (The Big Short) well, from The Fighter to American Hustle. Hostiles marks his return to the Western, his first since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. One would hope that the genre has evolved enough to be devoid of stereotypes, while maintaining historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice artistic merit. Hostiles didn’t break new ground within the genre, but emotional dramatic turns from Bale and co-star Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) make it a worthwhile film.

Set in 1892, the film depicts a rough and tumble American landscape of centuries past. Bale stars as Joseph Blocker, an Army captain tasked with a final mission before retirement, which he begrudgingly accepts. He must transport a dying Apache chief and his family back to their home state of Montana, as the elder is riddled with Cancer and has been granted mercy to die on his homeland. Violent and racist, Blocker’s visceral contempt for Native Americans could not be more obvious, and he pleads in futility to be excused from the mission. His superior officer ignores those complaints, and Blocker leads a small party of soldiers in the transport of Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and his family, including his adult children and grandson.

Historical accuracy is important, and while it is true that some early Native Americans terrorized White settlers expanding West, it is equally true that White colonizers terrorized the indigenous populations already here. Be that as it may, the film did an effective job in its first act, presenting both sides of a philosophical coin in its depiction of brutality. In a riveting opening scene, a Comanche tribe descends upon a family to steal their horses. They slaughtered them all, save for Pike’s character Rosalie, now a grieving mother and widow. Blocker and company encounter the woman en route, and she joins their small, weary procession.

Hostiles is quite simply a movie about a journey from point A to point B. The strength of the film is in the richness and depth of the characters and the performances. The Captain is a figure whom you can’t quite root for or against. Initially Blocker is cruel, failing to see the humanity in his charge. However, in moments with the soldiers under his command and in his interaction with Rosalie, we see genuine affection and tenderness, a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the duality that lies within all of us. He is an effective leader, engendering loyalty that is met with a deep and loving gratitude. As they encounter peril in their journey, circumstances force Blocker to amend his dealings with Yellow Hawk and to forge a new, albeit begrudging respect as they face a common enemy together.

An air of sadness hangs over the film, giving it a somber tone throughout. I was moved by its theme of reflection, as several characters bleakly assessed their own careers and lives, burdened by the weight of loss. I was particularly struck by a poignant scene between two lieutenants, as the younger (Jesse Plemons, The Post) reflects on his first killing. The contrast between the two men was powerful, the older immune to regret over certain lives but not others. This emotional compartmentalization exemplified the cynicism of war and of life generally, and it was portrayed beautifully.

My critique of the film boils down to a matter of taste, of whether or not one can get past the limitations of the genre and the fact that it isn’t a “feel good” movie.  Hostiles was a fine film, featuring another excellent performance by Christian Bale, and a rich emotional turn from Rosamund Pike, which may be enough for some moviegoers.

Grade: B+

American Sniper

I don’t have the highest opinion of Clint Eastwood (Trouble With the Curve) when it comes to his political leanings, but I cannot deny that his legendary status in Hollywood was cemented long ago. His illustrious body of work includes seminal roles in some of the most iconic films in modern American cinema, but in the second half of his career he has proven to be even more skilled behind the camera, giving us a horde of Academy Award winning films from Million Dollar Baby to Mystic River. In American Sniper he paints a harrowing picture of the devastating effects of war, offering an unflinching glimpse into one man’s heroic service.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) gives a tour-de-force performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. Like fellow S.E.A.L. Marcus Luttrell (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in last year’s Lone Survivor) Kyle’s exploits have become the stuff of lore, and both have been subsequently immortalized in film. We are introduced to Kyle as a typical salt of the earth Texan. Spurred to enlist after 9/11, Kyle undergoes grueling boot camp preparation before being deployed to Iraq for the first of four tours.

Two of the most heart-stopping scenes in the film perfectly captured the split second judgment calls he had to make as a sniper. In the first, a mother and son are alternately carrying a missile, and he is forced to eliminate them both. The boy couldn’t have been older than 8, and Kyle took his life with little hesitation. The other scene also involved a child and a weapon, but this time the outcome was different. One is left with the startling realization that Kyle could accept either scenario with no compunction. Kyle was fearless and resolute in battle, but like many soldiers, he found stateside re-acclimation challenging. His relationship with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher) was strained because he was often absent, leaving her to raise their two children alone. Taya felt that he’d prefer the company of his comrades to his own family, a notion that Kyle did little to dispel – particularly after returning for a third and fourth tour of duty.

I realize that whether or not you lionize or demonize a particular sniper probably depends on what side he’s fighting for. As the title indicates, American Sniper is heavy on American notions of valor and patriotism. I personally don’t buy into the “rah rah America” narrative, and I choose to evaluate the film on its cinematic merits rather than the propaganda it pushes. That aside, I never questioned Kyle’s belief in the task before him, and I commend him for his unwavering service. Some have expressed an opinion that snipers are cowards, but Chris Kyle didn’t just hide behind his rifle – he got his hands dirty too.

Cooper has easily given the performance of his career, equaling his Oscar nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook, and surpassing his work in American Hustle. He’s shown flashes of greatness throughout his career and has outdone himself here. His physical and emotional transformation was amazing, and he completely embodied Chris Kyle, from the brawny physique to the Texas drawl. His character’s emotions hurtled from one extreme to the next, and Cooper was pitch perfect throughout. His character’s post-traumatic stress was authentic, and we watched him grasp at normalcy upon his return. This type of film can easily become overrated, due to its subject matter. I think it’s a movie people will want to like, but notions of patriotism aside – I thought it was a well-crafted film that relies heavily on its star, whose presence was undeniable. I think 2015 is off to a good start in film. Grade: A-

Kill The Messenger

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster

Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra

I ran contraband that they sponsored”

-Jay Z, “Blue Magic”
Conspiracy theories are funny. On the one hand, only a fool believes everything their government tells them. On the other hand, if you find a conspiracy behind every corner, your assertions lose credibility. That being said, I know the U.S. government is capable of some appalling behavior. An entity that intentionally infected Black men with syphilis is capable of anything; so the notion that the government facilitated the sale of crack cocaine to its own citizens is not unbelievable to me. Under the Reagan administration, the CIA funded the Nicaraguan Contras by allowing them to export cocaine into Los Angeles (and other American cities) while funneling the profits back to them.

That revelation forms the crux of Kill the Messenger, a film based on true events involving San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, American Hustle) and his exposure of the CIA’s involvement in what came to be known as a massive crack epidemic. The movie takes place in the mid 90’s, just before the dawn of the information age in which we now live. Although we weren’t in a “24 hour news cycle” back then like we are now, you can imagine the controversial uproar Webb’s articles caused.

The government’s actions were layered and corrupt, as an intricate scheme revealed their use of an informant who doubled as drug middleman. Danilo Blandon was a go-between for the Contras and American dealers like the infamous “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who grossed upwards of a billion dollars by selling drugs to the Blood and Crip street gangs of Los Angeles. Blandon informed on Ross, collapsing his empire while working at the behest of the government. I’d encourage you to read up on this scandal yourselves, as it is quite interesting. These types of events are nearly unbelievable, and lend themselves well to cinematic re-telling.

Webb should’ve been a Pulitzer winner, as he had the courage to risk his life to expose the truth of a corrupt government. However, those who pull back the curtain often fall victim to those they are exposing. Webb’s career was ruined, as the paper began to distance itself from him and his reputation was smeared and character assassinated. In a tragic turn, he was found dead in 2004 of two gunshot wounds to the head, in what was deemed a “suicide.” How one could be capable of shooting himself in the head twice is truly baffling, but after all I’ve told you – are you really surprised?

Jeremy Renner turned in a very good performance, effectively conveying the idealism, passion and doggedness that drove his character. Webb risked his own safety and that of his family in pursuit of what he believed was right. Saddest of all was the realization that his career was ruined. It was cruelly ironic that Webb’s assertions were subsequently confirmed in a government report that went largely unnoticed while the nation was distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I often talk about the goal or purpose of film. Aside from the obvious emotional effect movies have on us, every now and again the purpose of film is to educate and expose. Kill the Messenger was a nice reminder that you can actually learn a thing or two from the movies. Grade: B+

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Whether it’s foolish or not, I’ve always shown brand loyalty. When I decide I like something, it takes me a while to turn my back on it, even if the quality declines. I’m also a sucker for advertising. Hence, I will probably have an iPhone for the rest of my life; I don’t care if the Samsung Galaxy is superior. I’m loyal to my favorite movie franchises too. Quite simply: I like X-Men. I’ve seen every installment in the franchise, and I can admit that a few were subpar (X-Men 2) – but that’s not going to stop me from seeing the latest entrant upon its release. I enjoyed 2011’s X-Men: First Class and eagerly anticipated a return to the prequel format that showcased the likes of a young Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender, The Counselor).

Director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) returns to helm the latest iteration of the popular franchise, and I thought his efforts were mostly successful. The familiar themes are present, yet they felt more relevant than trite. The mutants have always been characterized by the juxtaposition of ostracism and duty, with some vehemently loyal to protecting a species that welcomes them with one hand, yet pushes them away with the other. However, Magneto and his ilk have a darker ethos, perennially mistrustful of the so-called benevolence of mankind. They know that fear defeats loyalty and love nearly every time, and would rather not give humans an inch, lest they take a proverbial mile.

The movie begins in an apocalyptic future, where the tenuous bond between mutants and humans has been irrevocably broken. The powers that be have crafted a method of ruthlessly efficient eradication of mutants, and the species is essentially helpless, barely staying one step ahead of their predators. A government scientist named Trask (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones) has enabled the reverse engineering of Mystique’s DNA, creating an adaptable killer who can snuff out mutants easily. The only way to ensure mutant survival is to go back in time and change the events of history so that the government does not develop this deadly technology.

The movie’s plot was entertaining and relatively simple, which I appreciated. McAvoy and the remaining cast were compelling and demonstrated great chemistry. Jennifer Lawrence added complexity to her role, humanizing her mutant character and making her a sympathetic figure in the face of persecution. There are always deeper psychological underpinnings at work in this franchise, if one chooses to explore them. Again, I find it interesting that so many mutants crave acceptance from the very institutions that seek to destroy them. I thought this was a fine addition to the franchise, and I wasn’t disappointed. Writer Simon Kinberg (This Means War) crafted a clever script that will allow an infusion of new life into the series, opening up tons of creative possibilities that were previously non-existent. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but since the movie involves changing the events of the past, it means that history can be re-written: for the X-Men and for everyone. Solid, fun movie. Grade: A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’m reluctant to admit when some of my favorite actors or actresses fail to deliver.  This time, it’s the flavor du jour, Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).  I adore her as much as everyone else does, don’t get me wrong.  Her unassuming demeanor and down-to-earth personality make her a breath of fresh air in Hollywood, not to mention her undeniable talent. That being said, her presence wasn’t enough to elevate The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to my lofty expectations.

When we last saw Katniss Everdeen, she had emerged victorious from The Hunger Games alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right).  Both temporarily left their lives in District 12 behind as they fought to survive in a Darwinian cage match.  Pulling the strings was President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Horrible Bosses), a subtly nefarious plutocrat who kept the majority of the citizenry under his thumb after a failed uprising.  When Peeta and Katniss return home to District 12 things are bleaker than ever, as people scramble for essential resources.  President Snow wanted to use the Hunger Games as a twisted tool of both oppression and inspiration, as participation is involuntary, yet contestants are expected to fight proudly on behalf of their district.

Snow recognizes Katniss’ influence, and feels threatened by its implications for his own stranglehold on the populace.  He doesn’t want another uprising and must smite Katniss’ influence before she galvanizes the people.  He mandates that the next Hunger Games will be comprised solely of past champions. Talk about the odds not being in your favor.  Once again Peeta and Katniss must battle to the death, only this time their competition is infinitely more formidable.  Katniss’ team of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, Movie 43) try their best to prepare she and Peeta for the challenges that lay ahead, though Katniss is overly protective of Peeta, perhaps feeling guilty for not completely returning his feelings.  They must form new alliances if they want to survive; yet Katniss senses that the stakes are even higher this time.

I haven’t read the books on which the movies are based, and perhaps that explains some of my opinions regarding this sequel.  I was very intrigued by the concept of a “best of the best” Hunger Games, but the actual competition portion of the movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  I won’t elaborate too much, so as not to spoil it for you, but I don’t think the competitive dynamic between contestants was as exciting as it could’ve been.  I also thought the movie ended very abruptly and left me wanting more.  This was odd, considering the lengthy run time – but a friend explained to me that the book ends equally abruptly.  Oh.

Finally, we come to Ms. Lawrence.  Save for one scene, I wasn’t that impressed with her performance.  She was beautiful and striking as Katniss, but the actual quality of her performance left me wanting more – and I know she’s capable of it because I’ve seen it.  I’ll give you a small example, and feel free to disagree.  If you’re supposed to be crying – I expect your face to be dampened with tears.  I think that’s a simple expectation, but it’s one that wasn’t met here.  I’m still in the tank for J-Law, but maybe she needs weightier material like Winter’s Bone to truly flourish.  I look for her turn in American Hustle to make me forget I ever faulted her abilities.  Final verdict?  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was pretty good.  Not great.  Grade: B.