Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

I still say there's a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
I still say there’s a lot of Jason Batemen from this angle
Every Clint Eastwood film these days is a must-see for me, and American Sniper — which happens to be his first Best Picture nomination since 2007’s Letters From Iwo Jima — is of course no different.

The film is less a war movie per se than a biopic of, or perhaps a tribute to, US war hero Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history. Yes, that means Kyle has the most confirmed kills, a staggering number most people cannot even comprehend. He was so good, in fact, that US enemies put a sizable bounty on his head.

The verdict? American Sniper is not quite what I had expected. With Eastwood, you know you’re going to get a very steady, subtle hand, with an almost muted style that somehow generates volumes of emotion and tension. In the case of this film, however, the emotions felt a little suppressed — much like how Kyle suppressed his in real life — and I wonder if it was a deliberate decision on Eastwood’s part to take such an understated approach.

Given that Kyle spends a lot of time on the battlefield (he served four tours), it’s no surprise that American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s more action-packed efforts, relatively speaking, though audiences expecting an all-out thrill ride are likely to be disappointed. The action in American Sniper, though at times aptly tense, is sporadic and aimed more at character development than providing visceral shocks, but there should be enough to keep most war-hungry viewers satisfied.

The focus of the film is firmly on Kyle, who is depicted as an extremely polite and selfless soldier devoted to his job of protecting marines on the field. That devotion, however, comes at a steep price, namely his relationship with his wife (played by Sienna Miller), children, and his mental health. Kyle wasn’t allowed to discriminate between his targets, which forced him to do some very difficult things in the line of duty, and despite his insistence that he only cared about saving the lives of the marines, there’s no doubt that his actions bred a darkness that haunted him even after he returned home.

And that’s the heart of American Sniper — the struggle between duty to country and duty to loved ones, the irreversible damage to a person’s soul from being exposed to the horrors of war, and especially dealing with the terrible decisions one must make.

All of this is brought out by Bradley Cooper’s astounding portrayal of Kyle. He might not have resembled Kyle in terms of facial features (Chris Pratt comes to mind, and apparently he was Cooper’s choice too had he not been cast), but Cooper bulked up to at least provide the same flavour of masculine beefiness. More importantly, he manages to channel Kyle’s demons so audiences can at least attempt to comprehend his inner conflicts and turmoil. It’s a nuanced performance that doesn’t build Kyle up as some kind of saint, but simply gives you a good sense of who he is and what he stands for — from his no-nonsense “yes mam, no mam” demeanour to the his uncomfortable awkwardness in the face of praise and gratitude.

The rest of the supporting cast, including the likes of Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner and Eric Close — is solid but intentionally low-key, which is necessary for the film to maintain its focus on the protagonist. Sienna Miller does what she has to, though I wish her character would have displayed more depth than the typical soldier’s wife anguishing for her husband’s return.

For those who don’t know about what happens to Kyle, I won’t spoil it by revealing the ending of the film, though I believe the quiet approach had a lot to do with certain restrictions imposed by the timing of the film’s release. At a hefty 134 minutes, it was probably a good time to wrap things up anyway.

I don’t necessarily agree with complaints that American Sniper is a pro-war movie that justifies US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As with most Hollywood productions, there are probably lots of factual inaccuracies, and the portrayal of Iraqis are admittedly simplified and weak, but the thing to remember is that this is a biopic told through Kyle’s eyes. For me, it’s important to separate Kyle’s story, regardless of whether his views are right of wrong, from any supposed underlying message being promoted by the film.

My problem with American Sniper lies more in the film’s relative lack of emotional impact and resonance. It’s as though the film stuck too close to Kyle, to the point where his own emotional detachment ended up getting passed on to us. Having seen the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Mystic River and even Changeling and Gran Torino, I know just how good Eastwood can be at tugging the heart strings and making me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. As well made as the film is, there wasn’t nearly as much of that sort of brilliance in American Sniper — at least not executed as effectively — and as a result I found it less engrossing than some of Eastwood’s finest works.

Nonetheless, a slightly above-average Clint Eastwood film still classifies as a very good film by almost every other standard.

3.75 stars out of 5

Battle of the Biopics: The Iron Lady (2011) vs J Edgar (2011)

I’ve been thinking of ways to hasten the catching up of my movie reviews, but at the same time it didn’t feel fair to put some of the higher profile films in a four-film blitz. So I came up with a compromise. A head-to-head between two of the biggest biopics of 2011, Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady and Leonardo DiCaprio’s J Edgar. Ladies first.

The Iron Lady (2011)

The Iron Lady was a little slow, not terribly exciting, and a little selective in the events it wanted to depict, but it does boast a powerhouse performance from Meryl Streep and tells the story of one of the most intriguing political figures ever.

I admit, I didn’t know much about Thatcher other than her pointy face, crooked teeth and trademark voice, and The Iron Lady helped illuminate her life to some extent.

The story is told through flashbacks, from 2008, where Thatcher is battling dementia, and relives some of the most pivotal moments of her astonishing political career. You don’t have to understand politics or British politics to get this film (though it will help) because it’s essentially about how an ordinary woman overcame the odds to rise to the top of the UK’s political ladder.

Thatcher is painted as a complex person: highly ambitious, relentless, cutthroat, and ultimately quite tragic. I know a lot of people kicked up a stink about the film because they hate Thatcher’s guts and think she butchered the country, but I get that she’s the protagonist of the movie, not the villain, so she had to at least have some redeeming qualities or have the ability to make people feel sorry for her.

Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from Streep’s performance. I don’t know enough about Thatcher or have seen enough video clips of her to know how close Streep is, but by most accounts it was a fantastic impersonation (similar to what people said about Philip Seymour Hoffman when he won for Capote). But was it worthy of the Oscar (again)? I’m not 100% sure.

The Iron Lady was an unusually short 105 minutes (for a movie of this kind), but it actually felt longer than 2 hours. It’s an intriguing biopic but will unlikely break into any “top biopic” lists any time soon.

3 stars out of 5

J Edgar (2011)

Clint. Leo. Armie (Hammer, that is). What’s there not to look forward to in J Edgar, the biopic about J Edgar Hoover, the most legendary FBI director of all time? While there are no cross-dressing scenes (apparently this was just an “unconfirmed” rumor), Eastwood makes it 100% clear in his film that Hoover (DiCaprio) was not only gay but for many years pined after his longtime assistant Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

Like The Iron Lady, this film is also told in flashback format. It begins as an aging Hoover tells his life story to Ed Westwick from Gossip Girl. The story follows a young Hoover working for A Mitchell Palmer in the US Justice Department in 1919, later rising to become the head of the FBI before introducing many of the most monumental improvements in crime solving techniques – in particular, criminal science.

While the film covers the most significant events and cases in Hoover’s life, such as the capture of John Dillinger and the Lindbergh kidnapping, the heart of the movie undoubtedly lies with Hoover’s sexuality and his tumultuous relationship with Tolson. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain but I found it to be rather moving at times. It was hard to root for Hoover at times because he was deeply flawed and could be a colossal prick, but the love he felt for Tolson, at least for me, felt genuine and heartbreaking.

Even though he looked nothing like Hoover and was obviously a lot taller, Leo’s performance was, as expected, awesome. As was Armie Hammer’s. What I didn’t realize before watching the film was that it also starred Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary who stuck with him for a zillion years, and Judi Dench, who played Hoover’s somewhat frightening mother.

Look, when you have Clint Eastwood at the helm, you know you’re going to get some quality cinema. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him, on a film-by-film basis, the best director around today, so naturally I am a little biased when it comes to his movies.

My problem with J Edgar for me was that the story lacked cohesion at times and certain plot points were covered with too much subtlety, to the extent where it became confusing and unclear. The biggest complaint, which you might have guessed, is the make-up. I couldn’t quite understand, with the advancements in modern technology and make-up techniques, how they managed to make both Leo and Armie look so bloody freaky and unnatural. They weren’t even that old (60s?) but looked like Guy Pearce in Prometheus.

Anyway, apart from that, I have to say I quite liked J Edgar. It’s not one of Clint’s best films, but it’s among his better ones. In any case, I liked it more than The Iron Lady.

4 stars out of 5

Winner, J Edgar

Movie Review: Hereafter (2010)

Sure, Invictus was just okay, but it seems to me old Clint Eastwood can do no wrong these days.  There is a quiet confidence in his approach, a lovely subtlety in his pacing and pauses.  And no matter what, he manages to evoke powerful, genuine emotional responses from his audiences (I mean, come on — Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino…).

Eastwood’s latest effort, Hereafter, is no different.  It’s a dangerous project because, as the title suggests, the film is about death and what comes after, which makes it prone to soppy melodrama and manipulation.  And of course, the afterlife is a topic often subject to ridicule and parody, so there’s the additional hurdle of keeping the film serious without tipping it over the edge.

Somehow, some way, Eastwood delivers.  Pound-for-pound, Hereafter is perhaps not one of Eastwood’s greatest films, but it’s certainly one of his better ones — and it holds great potential to be one of his most popular films.

It tells three separate stories about three different characters — Marie (Cecile de France), a well-known French television journalist; George (Matt Damon), an American factory worker who just gave up on his old job; and Marcus (Frankie McLaren), a British boy with an older twin brother and a crackhead mother.  I won’t say much more than that except that each of their lives is touched by death and what lies beyond.

Perhaps it’s just my fascination with the film’s themes and/or my appreciation for Eastwood’s direction, but I was totally engrossed by Hereafter from start to finish.  Sceptics might have a natural bias against the film because it lays quite a lot out on the table (similar to say atheists towards The Passion of the Christ or fundamentalist Christians towards The Da Vinci Code — even though it’s fiction), but those who keep an open mind will find it hard not to be moved by at least one of the three stories in the film.  It’s a shame that many people will simply scoff at this film because of its subject matter and try to discredit it on other grounds.  I’m just glad religion played an almost non-existent role in all of this.

Anyway, I loved it.  Eastwood butchered the ending in my opinion with a pointless sequence but apart from that I found it beautiful, absorbing, poignant, and ultimately very satisfying.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Invictus (2009)

I decided a while ago that Clint Eastwood doesn’t make bad movies.  Some are exceptional, of course, but none fall below “very good”.  Invictus, his latest film starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela (who else?) and Matt Damon as François Pienaar, captain of South African rugby team, is one of Eastwood’s weaker films.  But it is still, well, very good.

Invictus is a rather formulaic story about two men – one a politician, the other a sports star – who attempt to unite a nation through the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  There’s the set up, the journey, and the climax – all the elements of an inspirational sports movie are there.

But the thing is, Invictus is a true story.  From the history to the main characters to the events that changed the world, almost all of the film is true. That’s what makes Invictus so amazing.  There’s no artificial manipulation injected to make you feel inspired.  Knowing that the things depicted actually happened is more than enough to give you goosebumps.  Even if you know what happens from start to finish, Invictus is still a worthwhile experience.  If you don’t know anything about what happened, even better.

However, I had a couple of problems with the film.

First, though I usually enjoy Clint’s imagery, some of the stuff in Invictus felt a little heavy handed.  When you can tell immediately what the director is trying to achieve with a shot or a sequence of shots, regardless of how well-intentioned it is, you get the feeling that you’re being manipulated.  That happens a few times in Invictus.

Second, the depiction of rugby wasn’t very satisfying.  Part of this is because the film is confined to what happened in real life, though it wouldn’t have hurt to make the games a little more exciting.  People who have never watched the sport won’t have much of a clue what is going on, and frankly, will probably think it is a boring, brutish game where all points are scored on penalty kicks.  It would have made things more riveting had they at least tried to show some of the sublime running and passing the game is known for, rather than simply tackles and scrums which make the sport appear like a constant mass orgy.

As for the performances, both Freeman and Damon are very good, although I wouldn’t have handed either Oscar nominations.  There was never any question that Freeman is the perfect actor to play Nelson Mandela, and Damon’s stocky physique (despite his height) makes him a believable rugby player.  Maybe it’s because the two actors fit the roles so well physically that their performances don’t stand out as much.

So, I found Invictus to be a very good film that fell a couple of notches short of great.  In my opinion, it’s one of those movies where you marvel at the true story and the real-life people depicted in it more than the quality of the film itself.

3.5 stars out of 5