In appreciation: ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ 10 years later

“Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest thing we ever get to going to the movies.”

Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessean harbinger of death and caustic quips in “Inglourious Basterds” – Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, and released 10 years ago this month – says that line in passing to a swastika-bearing Hitler footsoldier in the backwoods of France before the Bear Jew comes out, bat in hand, and, as advertised, proceeds to beat a Nazi to death.

The Basterds hoop and the Basterds holler like they’re at a movie where hooping and hollering goes unpunished, and so do we. It’s an explosion of catharsis, a bloody denouement to the suspense built on the words of Tarantino’s epic screenplay. The writer-director allows us to breath a guilty sigh of relief—the standoff has ended. And it ends for the better; the other Nazis in their capture don’t want their heads bashed off by an exuberant Eli Roth channeling his inner “Teddy Fuckin’ Ballgame” and wielding his bat with the might of an entire people behind it, and immediately provide the information Aldo was searching for. Continue reading →

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Review: With Dunkirk, Nolan matures as a director and visionary

When it was announced that Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the polarizing space epic Interstellar would be a much more grounded film rooted in the history, it was a bit of a surprise.

Here was a director who has made a career (and, generally, huge box office returns) on the fantastical – imaginative works grand in vision and scope – looking to bring to life a much more straightforward premise by comparison.

But Nolan is also known for taking risks, and as it turns out, Dunkirk is no different. It’s a reinvigoration of the war genre, and its most innovative offering in decades.

There’s certain elements you can expect every time you go to see a Nolan film: a certain visual aesthetic that borders on broody without ever fully entering Kubrick territory, a pounding score, iconic imagery and emotional heft. Continue reading →

Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

rogue-one-at-ats

The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016

American Sniper relies too much on the destination, and not the journey

It’s tough to decide whether American Sniper, the latest directorial effort from Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, is a biopic or not.

On one hand, the film’s main subject – Chris Kyle, dubbed the deadliest sniper in US military history – has an unwavering presence. This is his show for roughly two hours, from the southern boy to the cowboy to the soldier.

On the other hand, Eastwood is ambiguous, almost epileptic, in how he conveys Kyle’s journey. There are clearly destinations that Kyle is supposed to arrive at in terms of how the war affects him, but more often than not while watching American Sniper, we arrive at those destinations without ever realizing we were on the journey in the first place.

American Sniper is essentially two films. One tells the story of Kyle the American, during his time at home between his four tours in Iraq. These parts of the film are clearly what got American Sniper nominated for the Best Picture Oscar last Thursday. Eastwood does an incredible job showing how Kyle’s time in Iraq affects his interaction and relationships, and there is a clear transformation from the always-smiling, somewhat naïve but dutiful Texan we saw at the beginning of the film, and the troubled character he becomes the more he experiences.

 

Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.

Chris Kyle becoming one with his weapon.

The tight, tense focus on Kyle’s inner conflict is by far the strongest aspect of the film. Eastwood has shown his effectiveness in conveying inner struggles before, most notably with his own role in 2008’s Gran Torino. Kyle’s world changes, and he deals with the all-too-common problem of never really returning from war. There is consistent attention to detail concerning Kyle’s morphing perspective at home. Although he stresses throughout the film that he is just a soldier doing his duty to his country, it’s the things he doesn’t say or do or visibly feel – things that we know pre-Navy Kyle would do – that is a fascination to experience.

In stark contrast, the majority of the film’s time spent in actual conflict in Iraq is mostly vastly underwhelming. We all know what to expect from war films. Gunfights. Death. Patriotic undercurrents. Actions so infuriatingly suspicious that sometimes we know what is really happening before the soldiers on the screen do. American Sniper presents all these in a manner that is simply all too familiar.

An exception to this weakness is when we get to see Kyle do what he does best as Kyle the Sniper. The few – two few – scenes where Kyle is providing overwatch for his comrades are as tightly filmed as the scope he is attached to, and a sequence involving his split-second decision involving an Iraqi child is both memorable and breathtaking. We are able to see what made Chris Kyle so deadly, and it’s incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, those scenes are too few and far between. Instead, Kyle spends the majority of his time on the ground in what soon becomes nothing more than monotonous Call of Duty action on the big screen. The film neglects to add any real levity to the majority of the film’s time in Iraq, save for an intense gunfight near the end.

The most disappointing aspect of the film’s time spent with conflict is how little it adds to the story. We are able to see the leader Kyle becomes – which, some say, is a historical inaccuracy – but it’s predictable in its point A to point B narrative. We never really see how the decisions and actions of Kyle the Sniper come around to affect Kyle the American. There are only two or three truly poignant moments during his time overseas when the audience can sympathize with the horrors Kyle experiences.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) is a revelation as Kyle. He officially sheds whatever skin he still had from The Hangover, emerging in his own right into an elite class of dramatic actor. He rightfully earns his third straight Best Actor nomination, completing a both unexpected and fascinating metamorphosis into an actor who ascends higher with each performance. The way he conveys Kyle’s ignorance to his own transformation – with his southern drawl, and lower jaw-jutting smile – is both believable and powerful. Cooper makes it easy to sympathize with Kyle and what he goes through.

One may wonder how the film would have been different if it utilized the majority of its running time focusing on Kyle’s struggle and the complex, confused character he turns into. Instead that storyline is forced to compromise and split time with the expendable,mundane, “hoo-ah” military spectacle so engrained in our culture that it doesn’t provide any surprises.

 

In a Nutshell

Bradley Cooper fully comes into his own, portraying a soldier who unknowingly realizes how the war is changing. But unlike another recent Iraqi war story, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper is inconsistent with its focus and direction, instead seemingly presenting two different films with their own motives, one vastly superior to the other. As a result, the movie ultimately ends as jarringly as Kyle’s life; there is so much more meant to be that simply isn’t.

 

6.5 / 10

 

 

 

 

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Directed by Clint Eastwood

2014