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Column Fri Jan 16 2015

American Sniper; A Most Violent Year; Still Alice; The Wedding Ringer; Two Days, One Night; Goodbye to Language 3D & If You Don't, I Will

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American Sniper

We're not here to talk about Chris Kyle or how truthful his book is or his politics or director Clint Eastwood's politics. You could despise each and every one of these elements that went into making American Sniper, the movie, and still find the film compelling as both a character study and a film about war that doesn't get too deep into the reasons why the American military was in Iraq in the first place. (It's my understanding that in his book Kyle draws a direct line from the 9/11 attacks to America being in Iraq, something the movie skirts ever so slightly.) As a pure cinematic experience, American Sniper has more than a handful of impressive sequences on both sides of the war, and that has to be considered.

Filmmakers (other than the ones who make documentaries, obviously) are in no way obliged to stick to the truth and nothing but the truth; it's sometimes better when they do, but it's not a requirement. Dramatic license is a real thing; deal with it. If changes to reality make for better storytelling, I think audiences are smart enough to know that Bradley Cooper is playing a character in American Sniper and therefore is meant to represent the spirit of Chris Kyle than to actually be him. Kyle was nicknamed "Legend" on the battlefield because he had more confirmed kills than any other sniper in U.S. military history. Some might be impressed by that; some horrified. That isn't the point. What Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall are attempting to do here is illustrate the type of man Kyle was beyond his abilities as a sharpshooter.

As a husband and father, for example, Kyle was a bit of a mess for many years (he did four tours of duty). According to the film, seeing the attacks on the World Trade Center inspired him to enlist in the U.S. Navy (eventually becoming a SEAL), and his sense of duty and wanting to protect his fellow soldiers kept him re-enlisting, forcing his new wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and young children to live alone for months on end. When he was stateside, Kyle was adrift and found it difficult to take the day-to-day tasks seriously while men were dying in the Middle East. I've seen other films (feature and docs) that have covered this ground, but Cooper is so focused and steely eyed, you understand where Kyle's mind was when his wife wanted him to be present and accounted for on the homefront.

As lost as Kyle seems stateside, he seems completely comfortable and in tune with the world around him when he's got an enemy to deal with. Eastwood shows us a man who is most comfortable when he has a mission that means something that he considers worthy. Whenever American Sniper slips into plot mode, things don't function as well. The idea that the Legend might have been known behind enemy lines might have been true (we're told a bounty was put on his head, which made his downtime in Iraq perhaps more dangerous than the time he spent doing his job), but it seems silly to frequently pit the skills of Kyle against those of an enemy sniper. The film and Cooper work best when we're given the opportunity to get to know him a bit and understand why he goes to a bar instead of his home when he returns from overseas.

Sienna Miller is also quite good as Taya, and the film might have benefitted greatly from having her being more in the film than she is. Still, watching Taya transition from unhappy house wife to a woman smart enough to understand that simply asking her husband to be around more isn't going to cut it leads to some great sequences in which she finds a way to find Chris a new mission at home worthy of replacing the one in Iraq. She encourages him to spend time at a local VA hospital, working with vets suffering both physical and psychological damage. He spent time with these men in and out of the hospital, and most importantly, doing so made Chris feel like he was still saving lives. It's the part of the film that works the best and offers the most emotional heft (so naturally, the people cutting the trailers for the film aren't showing you any of that).

I don't mean to make American Sniper sounds like it's nothing but an emotional rollercoaster. If anything, it reminds us that there are many kinds of tense, charged rides in life, and Kyle experiences a great number of them on the battlefield, sitting for hours in one position, waiting for his target to show himself. The scene being shown in trailers for the film of Kyle targeting a woman and child, jointly carrying a weapon, doesn't even begin to hint at the tension that is built in those minutes. It's terrifying, heartbreaking and results in pure devastation. And moments like that are repeated with incredible precision throughout the film. As a pure filmic experience, there is a great deal to appreciate and admire here. Eastwood reminds us why he is one of the great American directors, just months after people believed he had lost his touch with last year's Jersey Boys.

By centering on this husband-and-wife team that found a balance, a way to make their cross purposes work, Eastwood and his team bring this flawed but brave man's story to life — or at least a portion of it. It doesn't ask some of the hard questions, but I'm not sure that's necessary. Still, it keeps the film from being truly great. As it stands, it works a great deal of the time, and it takes us inside the often-frazzled mind of a soldier who is hard-wired like few others on the planet. Bearded and bulked-up almost to the point of being unrecognizable, Cooper is the heart and soul of American Sniper, and he does his subject with an honesty that isn't about facts; it's about capturing the soul of a man.

The film adds the saddest of codas to its story that many of you might now, but I won't ruin it for those planning to see the film. It's a bittersweet (mostly bitter) and shocking end to the life of a man who lived by the sword and was prepared to die the same way, although probably not in this most bizarre and tragic manner. Chalk up American Sniper as a learning experience, and we're able to take stock in the life of a man most of us will never understand, but the film at least gives us the opportunity to peek into his brain and see how it works. In that sense, the film sometimes manages to be an enlightening and uplifting experience.

To read my exclusive interview with American Sniper star Sienna Miller, go to Ain't It Cool News.

A Most Violent Year

It becomes clear after a few minutes of viewing A Most Violent Year that Abel Morales' (Oscar Isaac) definition of running a clean business in 1981 New York City actually means he's just less dirty than his competitors in the home heating oil business. But his ambition is an honorable one: he desperately wants to operate so that the feds can scan his books, keep an eye on him, and see nothing but a hard-working immigrant working hard to make a success of himself for his family, including wife Anna (a powerhouse Jessica Chastain), whose father just happens to be about as mobbed up as they come.

The setting is winter and Morales' troubles begin when his trucks begin getting hijacked and emptied by an unknown rival. He refuses to arm his drivers, despite urgings from union leaders, because it's illegal. To compound his stress levels, he is also attempting to raise capital to expand his business after his investor backs out at the last minute, leaving him scrambling and cutting unwise deals with competitors and loan sharks to scrounge together the cash. All the while, the city's heating oil industry is being investigated by an ambitious district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo), which Morales is more than happy to assist with until his wife tells him maybe he shouldn't be so eager.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor's third feature (after Margin Call and All Is Lost) continues his tradition of building mature and carefully realized works. With A Most Violent Year, he has structured a film that is the closest thing to a Sidney Lumet crime drama than we've seen since Lumet's passing four years ago (although his final film was released in 2007). It's a sophisticated and complex tale about not being able to escape where you came from as easily as you'd like. And while you might not feel that a story about the home heating oil business would be particularly interesting, Chandor supplies us with just enough detail to pull us in and make us invested in the fate of these character and their work.

The performances, both lead and supporting, are what keeps A Most Violent Year afloat and absolutely gripping. Isaac is the picture of focused and contained, and in those rare moments when he loses his composure, the tension rises exponentially. Chastain prowls across the screen like a woman with a secret, which more than likely is that she is ready to embrace being her father's daughter at a moment's notice if need be. A scene in which the couple hit a deer and are forced to put it down tells us all we need to know about the perceived and actual balance of power in their marriage and business. And pay particular attention to an utterly offbeat (but not entirely comedic) take on the Morales' lawyer but an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks.

We're able to empathize and support much of what Morales does in the film because his heart is in the right place, but his actions go from honorable to deplorable fairly quickly once he thinks he's discovered who has been ripping off his trucks. The story goes a little astray when Chandor sends us down a subplot involving a truck driver involved in a shootout, after which Morales must track him down and deal with his unstable ass. But the way all things converge in the film's final moments is magnificent and wholly satisfying.

I'm so impressed with Chandor's track record and growth as a filmmaker that I eagerly await each new project (his next work is an exploration of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, starring Mark Wahlberg, set for a late 2016 release... not that I'm counting the days or anything). A Most Violent Year is the kind of film that doesn't necessarily win awards, but it's a solid, self-contained piece of near perfection that makes everyone involved look good and do some of their best work to date. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Still Alice

This is one of those bizarre instances where a film features a remarkable performance (and apparently those who issue acting awards agree) at the center of a deeply flawed film. In a perfect world, such performances should be recognized more often (some have argued that Eddie Redmayne's work in The Theory of Everything is another example of this), but the truth is prestige awards usually only recognize work in lauded films. But in Still Alice, Julianne Moore's work as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, is impossible to deny as some of her finest work.

There's not much of story to Still Alice beyond watching the fairly rapid decline of a woman for whom language is not just a part of life, it has become her life's work. She's happily married to husband John (Alec Baldwin, Moore's occasional partner on "30 Rock") and has three grown children (played by Hunter Parrish, Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart), all of whom have different ways of dealing or not dealing with the new of their mother's illness. Lydia (Stewart) is looked upon as the flighty, irresponsible one whose latest dalliance is with acting in a company that Alice partially funds. But she's the only one of her siblings that steps up to help out around her parents' home when Alice's condition worsens.

Moore's performance embodies the frustration, sadness and fear that a relatively young person (Alice celebrates her 50th birthday at the top of the picture) might have when handed this sentence, but almost more interesting a choice by writers-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood, Quinceañera), adapting the Lisa Genova novel, is to portray her family members as sometimes less than supportive. None of them, including her husband, feel they have the time to care for her full time, which motivates her to push on with her life fending for herself. It also pushes her to use the parts of her brain that work just fine to conceal the illness from her colleagues and students with intellectual tricks. Still, the aggravation of losing what seems like one word at a time from her vocabulary is unbearable, and dark thoughts begin to permeate Alice's mind.

But without Moore's subtle, tragic acting work, the film might have become disease-of-the-week fare with too may opportunities for us to simply take pity on this poor woman's situation. Moore's performance rarely asks for the audience's sympathy. Alice wants our understanding rather than our tears, and on those terms, Still Alice succeeds. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Wedding Ringer

The set up to the Kevin Hart-Josh Gad comedy The Wedding Ringer may sound somewhat familiar. Gad plays Doug Harris, a fairly well-to-do guy who is as confused as the rest of us as to why a "catch" like Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) would give him the time of day, let alone agree to marry him, but that's exactly what's happened and they are just a coupe of weeks away from the big day. The problem is, she has seven bridesmaids and he had none because he's somehow managed to make it through life without making any lasting male friendships. It's not unlike what Paul Rudd's dilemma in I Love You, Man, only Doug decides that rather than simply tell his bride to be, he'd rather go through the trouble of lying to her about having said friends. Instead, he hooks up with Jimmy Callahan (Hart), a professional best man (something of a cousin to Will Smith's role in Hitch) who also can round up groomsmen not just as place holders but as trained fake friends who can convince the bride and anyone else who asks that they've known the groom for years.

As convoluted as the plot sounds, the execution is mostly funny thanks to a well-earned R rating (Hart in particular is so much funnier when he's not restrained by PG-13 limitations) and a strong and sizable collection of weird supporting players. The film throws so many jokes out that it feels like an all-out assault, but the result is that a few of them actually hit the mark. Gad is mainly on hand as the straight man, reacting to the extremities around him. When he's given good material, Gad can be quite funny (hello, The Book of Mormon), and there are a handful of moments in The Wedding Ringer, including an extended dance sequence with Hart, in which he really gets to shine.

But the real romance on display is between Gad and Hart. Jimmy makes it clear that once the wedding is over and he gets paid, their relationship is done and that Doug shouldn't get too attached. But it turns out that Jimmy doesn't really have many friends either, and the two seem to play well together, so a bond begins to form regardless. Director Jeremy Garelick and his co-screenwriter Jay Lavender might have made a better film if they'd gone either in the direction of strengthening the friendship aspect of the story or turning up the intensity of the outrageous behavior of the fake groomsmen. An Asian guy who loves to show his three testicles only goes so far. And the gag about Gad unknowingly getting some form of oral gratification from a dog is hardly cutting edge; I'm pretty sure I saw that on "Downton Abbey" last week.

I'll admit to laughing the most when Doug was in the presence of his future in-laws, who include the likes of Olivia Thirby (where the hell did she disappear to; it's good to see her back on the books), Cloris Leachman (who has one truly hilarious scene involving fire), Mimi Rogers as Gretchen's uptight mom, and my personal favorite, Ken Howard as her dad. Howard strikes absolute gold in a couple of scenes, spouting off emasculating insults at Doug at every opportunity. A impromptu mud-soaked football game between Howard and his former college football buddies and the groomsmen is highly amusing and so very violent.

The biggest thing The Wedding Ringer has going against it is not bringing a truly fresh take to the wedding comedy. It's not enough to simply let an audience laugh at rude behavior and the veritable freak show of odd characters; this film also wants to grab our hearts as these two immature grown men learn to find friendship with each other. Everything plays out pretty much exactly how you expect it will, and while surprise isn't a necessary pre-requisite to a successful comedy, taking chances and mixing things up a bit doesn't hurt. It was a closer call than I thought it would be, but The Wedding Ringer falls short because of a limp script that even a cast with this much potential can't save.

Two Days, One Night

Occasionally the simplest ideas make for the most powerful dramas. In the case of Two Days, One Night, the latest from Belgium-born Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, L'enfant, The Kid with a Bike), the story is ripped from the word of downsizing and economic strife. The Dardennes don't tend to use famous faces in their movies, but here it suits them. Nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, who works a manufacturing job that she had to leave for time due to mental breakdown. Not long after her return, Sandra discovers that her bosses have decided to let the other employees make a decision: they all get bonuses if Sandra gets laid off, or Sandra stays and no bonuses. Not surprisingly, the vote does not go her way.

But Sandra convinces the bosses to let the employees take another vote on the coming Monday morning, after she spends the weekend visiting each and every one of them (there are only about 20 co-workers) convincing them to reconsider. Fully armed with new chemical-balancing pills and a frustrated but caring husband (Dardenne Brothers regular Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra does just that, and what follows is a series of awkward — sometimes hostile — conversations that open up a whole new world of working- and middle-class Belgian households, all of which could use the money but also have compassion for Sandra's situation and disdain for the people that run their company for making the employees the bad guys in this situation.

In my favorite female performance of 2014, Cotillard is the portrait of restrained angst (as she often is), and as she goes from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, you can see the energy and will power drain from her face and slumping body. It's one of the most desperate things I've ever seen on screen, and we find ourselves trying to keep track of who is voting for her, who is not, who is on the fence, who might change their mind. And even if she wins, others might lose. I know Two Days, One Night sounds like a type of endurance test, but it's actually an emotional roller coaster that finds you celebrating a series of small victories and cursing the losses. There's not much more to say about it other than you absolutely must see Cotillard in the best performance she's ever given, in a career loaded with strong work. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Goodbye to Language 3D

The more recent works of France's legendary director Jean-Luc Godard are not experiences you discuss and evaluate as you do more traditional cinema. There aren't plots or fully drawn characters, not as you'd recognize them. With efforts like Film Socialisme and his latest, Goodbye to Language 3D, Godard seems far more interested in offering up something that goes beyond and outside our comfort zone, using the tools of filmmaking but ignoring and corrupting all that we know about cinematic structure and piecing together a work of visual art like a mad scientist in a lab. For Godard, these more recent works have been about how the images and sounds make you feel than whether they make sense. Of course they don't make sense, but they are still so worth experiencing and enjoying.

Goodbye To Language elicits feelings of joy, laughter and playfulness, words not often associated with Godard. I wouldn't necessarily call it accessible, but with a running time of only 70 minutes and a clear sense that the filmmaker is attempting to play with the conventions of 3D, Godard certainly doesn't overstay his welcome. It's best to view the movie without burdening yourself with trying to make sense of it. Listen to the declarations made by the actors, relish in the madness and chaos, enjoy the healthy doses of male and female nudity, and when it's all done, take stock in how different you feel.

Ever the provocateur, Godard tosses in images concerning revolution, costume dramas, a sweet dog in the woods, stock propaganda footage, politics, the economic climate, and some true mind-altering uses of 3D, including a couple of instances where the lenses point in two different directions, giving us one image in one eye and a totally different one in the other. I guarantee you, I couldn't pass a test on Goodbye to Language 3D, but I know I enjoyed the lesson. I think the more adventurous among you will as well.

The film opens today in Chicago for a three-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which has rented a 3D projection system to present a series of five additional 3D films over the next month or so, sampling the sporadic history of stereoscopic systems in the cinema. I'll give more detailed reviews of a few of these selections in the coming weeks, but check the Film Center's schedule for the list of films and showtimes.

If You Don't, I Will

Two of the finest French actors of their generation, Mathieu Amalric (who recently popped up in The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Emmanuelle Devos (Kings and Queen) come together in director Sophie Fillières' (Un chat un chat) latest as husband and wife Pierre and Pomme, whose marriage has become little more than a series of petty squabbles and going through the motions. Their squabbles are actually mildly amusing and their dark humor can be funny at times, so for a time I assumed they would find a middle ground in friendly jesting. Instead things turn nasty and vindictive as she attempt to be more spontaneous and loose, while he resists with all his might just because he doesn't seem to like the idea of her being happier than he is.

Pierre and Pomme have a grown son in college, who seems to be the only one who'll be honest about how bad things have gotten. On one of their better days, the couple go into the woods for an extended hike, but before too long they're fighting again, and Pomme storms off into the woods, disgusted with her husband and her life. In a fit of anger, Pierre heads back to the car and leaves her in the forest. Rather than panic once she realizes she's been abandoned, Pomme takes the time alone to walk the woods and uses the silence to take stock in her life and where it's headed. Surprisingly, Pierre finds himself missing his wife, and he begins the search (half-hearted as it may be) for her.

If You Don't, I Will rambles and wanders a great deal, and it's certainly not the most in-depth examination of a marriage in turmoil I've ever seen, but Amalric and Devos are such strong, talented actors, they fill in a lot of what's missing with fraught emotions and wonderful moments of clarity that are missing from the script. Although they spend a great deal of the film apart from each other, they still generate enough explosive energy between them in their scenes together to sustain us for the film's brief running time. Both husband and wife are adrift, and the movie is not about them coming back together to become whole again; it's more about them beginning the journey toward healing their own souls before they can decide how the other person fits into their lives. It's an honest, raw work from all concerned, and while it certainly won't be ranked among either actor's finest films, it's certainly a pleasant reminder of how important an actor's interpretation of a character can vastly improve things. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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