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American Sniper
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I walked into my local theater at 2:15 on a Saturday. American Sniper, now nearing the end of its second week in theaters, was on the docket. As I turned the corner and faced the auditorium, I drew in a breath then let out a "wow." The theater was more crowded than I have ever seen it before. Now, truth be told, I'm not an opening night kind of guy. Still, just this past year, I've seen a lot of huge movies on opening weekend. But American Sniper, in its second weekend, was way more packed than The Winter Soldier, Mockingjay, and Interstellar. I couldn't believe my eyes.

American Sniper had the second highest grossing opening weekend of any R rated movie (behind only The Matrix Reloaded). At 90 million dollars (a downright Marvel number), it more than doubled the highest grossing opening weekend for a film released in the month of January. Numbers like this, for a war movie, are simply unbelievable. Out of nowhere, American Sniper has become a huge event film. With all this phenomena, I couldn't help but contribute to the film's week two box office total.

The narrative falls into two categories: a domestic drama and a war movie. American Sniper functions at its best when it is a war movie. A very significant portion of the film focuses on Chris Kyle's four tours of duty. Yes, it is patriotic flag waving. And yes, I'm right-wing enough to applaud it as such. But let's not let the needle get stuck on politics.

When American Sniper is a war movie, it is extremely engrossing and entirely well done. The moral conundrums Chris faces in the line of duty provide for the most gripping moments of drama in the film. Tom Stern's cinematography expertly achieves the film's goals of portraying war. The action scenes show a side of Clint Eastwood that is, honestly, very impressive. In fact, Eastwood's work here is impressive all the way around. American Sniper is a war epic, a massive undertaking, and a grand accomplishment. And it is directed by an 84 year old man. Of course, he is Clint Eastwood after all... Nonetheless, I can't help but be taken aback by the director's work here.

Where the film falters is in the domestic side of the story. Don't get me wrong, there are still some solid scenes of drama in this portion of the movie. But there are also some tacky elements. The scenes in question aren't raw enough to be effective, and they aren't refined enough to go unnoticed. As for the political side of things, I find/recognize fewer flaws in this film than most, and we'll leave it at that.

Bradley Cooper has had a simply marvelous 2014. Following Guardians of the Galaxy (a fun but light performance), Cooper acts his heart out as Chris Kyle. It is a performance worthy of recognition and admiration, though possibly not an Oscar nomination. There is a welcome level of introspection to the character. Perhaps, most importantly, Cooper makes Kyle an extremely likable presence. Sienna Miller finally gives a performance I can applaud. Whether it was a bland appearance in that first equally bland G.I. Joe movie, or her bit part in Foxcatcher, I had yet to see Miller shine in her own right. But she delivers a completely convincing performance. There isn't a moment in this film where I thought she could be better as Taya Kyle. It's a commendable performance.

As the movie drew to a close, the credits played out in total silence. Literal silence. There is no music over the end credits. As I exited in the theater after the movie finished, there wasn't a word exchanged between audience members. Almost on cue, the entire theater stood up and quietly filed out of the auditorium. It was bizarre. There is something about American Sniper that inherently lends itself to respectful silence. And I do greatly respect the movie and Chris Kyle.

Any movie this divisive deserves to be seen. What you believe will strongly dictate how you react to the film. American Sniper may not be flawless, but if it helps the Kyle family, then I am all for it. And getting a very good, very entertaining movie out of the deal, well that's just fine by me.

"I'm willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took." 8/10

Big Eyes
Big Eyes (2014)
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's no secret, Tim Burton and I don't always get along. I hold no ill will towards the director; in fact, I find that I often enjoy his work. I greatly appreciate his entries into the Batman canon. Edward Scissorhands is a unabashedly wonderful film, rich in imagination and emotions. But on the other hand, Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, I know Burton didn't direct) failed to grab me in any meaningful way. And from the little I could stomach of Corpse Bride, I can assume that I would not have a positive reaction to that movie either. In short, I'm no Tim Burton expert. But from the smattering of his films that I have seen, I can't seem to form a consistent throughline of enjoyment, nor can I fully commit to loving any of his films so far. That all comes to an end with Big Eyes.

I loved this movie. It feels good to say. There are no two ways about it, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this film. Perhaps, tellingly, it is because Big Eyes is the least Tim Burton-y Tim Burton film to grace the director's filmography. There's no make-up smothered Johnny Depp, no morbid gothic overtones, no whooing Danny Elfman choir, and no senseless imagination, simply for the sake of it. Big Eyes is a historical biopic, but definitely not in the same vein as Selma. While Selma was burdened by a weighty, dramatic, extremely significant story, Burton's film is presented in an artistic enough manner to make the whole experience feel like a work of fiction. The movie isn't afraid to be creative and unique. Burton's imaginative style sets Big Eyes well apart (and ahead) of other recent biopics, like Selma and The Imitation Game.

The story is fairly simple. In the 1950s, Margaret Keane paints "big eye" portraits, and they become wildly popular. She earns riches beyond her wildest expectations, lives in a dream house, and easily provides for her daughter. There's only one problem, Margaret's husband, Walter, has been forcibly taking the credit for these paintings for years.

Even though Big Eyes tells a story of manipulation and abuse, it is still, oddly enough, a wonderfully entertaining time. This is thanks, in large part, to a number of different elements. As already alluded to, Burton's direction is (I can only assume) his best in years. He continually finds inspired and vivid ways to exhibit the story. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is utterly stunning. It's no surprise that a film about art and painters would boast a staggering color palette. Nonetheless, Big Eyes displays a frankly astounding array of colors! There is one scene in an art studio, lit by the reflection off a pool, which is absolutely breathtaking! In addition, the production design by Rick Heinrichs successfully captures the 50s era with a stylish flair.

One of the very most important elements that adds to the overall enjoyment of Big Eyes are the two splendid leading performances by Amy Adams and Christophe Waltz. Adams truly does carry the movie. The success or failure of the film is greatly dictated by the quality of her performance, and she is more than up for the task. Since she is so capable, charming, and commanding in her part, she allows for Waltz to go off the rails as much as he pleases. His performance probably has more than enough bravado to cancel out all the subtleties of a Bennett Miller movie. It's overacting, make no mistake. But it's fun overacting! I can't deny that there are a few moments where Waltz's over-the-top antics detract from the drama of the story, but more so than anything else, he heartily spices up the film.

If I were to sit down with no previous knowledge of the music of Big Eyes, and if some hypothetical someone were to play me Danny Elfman's musical score, my first guess as to composer would be Thomas Newman. That's not to say that Elfman is incapable of writing something like this, but listeners have grown so accustomed to the Burton/Elfman collaborations yielding a certain sound, and Big Eyes certainly is not that sound. But his score fits the film snugly, and it is very enjoyable music in its own right.

There are a handful of period pieces of music, all of which prove unobtrusive. Lana Del Rey lends her talents on two songs. The first, a comically candid illumination of Margaret's feelings, is inserted around the halfway mark. I greatly respect, appreciate, and enjoy Lana's many abilities as an artist, but the song simply adds nothing to the film. She also provides the end credits song, "I Can Fly," and it is much, much better. It's the classic Lana Del Rey sound that I have grown to be a fan of.

Big Eyes suffers only from a misplaced song and an occasionally (and very noticeably) hammy antagonist. Even though the film indulges in some historical biopic trappings (complete with epilogue text and stills of the real people), there is something singularly engaging in the way that Burton tells the story. In a cinematic landscape full of grandiose blockbusters and dour dramas, it is more than refreshing to kick back with a bright and delightful film that tells an absorbing story, and tells it well. Color me pleasantly surprised!

"Eyes are the windows to the soul." 8/10

Selma (2015)
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I've been putting off seeing Selma until today, for obvious reasons. On the day we celebrate the man himself, it only seemed right see his life celebrated on film. Selma finally brings Martin Luther King to the screen. A proper look at the life of one of America's greatest heroes was long overdo. Making a movie is relatively easy, making a good one is much harder. But Selma, most certainly, is a good one.

There has been much controversy of late about the film's lack of recognition at the Academy Awards. Most egregiously, David Oyelowo's stirring performance as King was overlooked. I'll be the first to agree that 2014 has had more than enough unbelievable performances, but is Oyelowo's one of the five best of the year? Absolutely. It is one of the most grounded, impassioned, and impactful performances 2014 has to offer. The film's greatest challenge is portraying MLK correctly, and portraying him well. I am more than happy to say that David Oyelowo succeeds at every facet of this performance. It is obvious that the portrayal, much like the man, is anchored in a very quiet, spiritual strength. Oyelowo is on record as saying, "I always knew that in order to play Dr. King, I had to have God flow through me because when you see Dr. King giving those speeches, you see that he is moving in His anointing." The actor is a powerhouse, proudly marching in Martin Luther King's shoes.

The second most prominent rebuff this film received at the Oscars is for its director, Ava DuVernay. I can understand the outcry. The Academy has never been kind to female directors, and nominating an African American female director would be a first. But at the same time, I do not feel like DuVernay's work is Oscar worthy. There are some noticeable filmmaking slip-ups (ignoring the 180-degree rule entirely during the jail-house talk, for example) that do detract from the overall experience. Don't misunderstand, this is an impressive film. But on the waiting list of directors who deserved to be nominated for an Oscar this year, DuVernay is definitely behind Dan Gilroy, Christopher Nolan, and Damien Chazelle.

Selma absolutely excels when the main performances are allowed to shine. There are a myriad of talented actors represented in this movie, though many of the supporting characters fail to differentiate themselves from each other, to the movie's detriment.

The film has a vast amount of painful, dramatic power. There are multiple scenes that are truly difficult to watch. The filmmakers nail the sense of injustice that is pointed against the peaceful protestors of Selma. The movie also doesn't alienate its white audience (myself among them) by painting with too broad a brush. There can't help but be a sense of accomplishment when protestors of both races join in the march toward freedom.

Selma does an awful lot right. The performances are praiseworthy no matter where you look, the story is easily one that needed to be told, and the script provides for a powerful look at a man who deserves to be celebrated. The film won't find its way into my top 10 favorites of 2014, it may slip into historical biopic trappings every now and again, the musical score is unfortunately nondescript, and some of the technical aspects of the movie seemed a bit off at times; but the story and messages on display in Selma are more than worthy of all the recognition they continue to receive. The film does not simply demand our respect, it genuinely earns it.

"We build the path as we can, rock by rock." 7.5/10