Making Sense of the Controversy Surrounding Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”

January 22, 2015  |  2014, Feature, Outcast Opinions  |  1 Comment

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz once said, “The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.” When I think about Clint Eastwood‘s “American Sniper,” which crushed the box-office last weekend with over $100 million in four days and garnered more Academy Award nominations than anyone expected, Mankiewicz’ words resonate all the clearer. The controversy this film ignited due to its success makes less sense than its incredible box-office numbers. Buckets of acid are being flung at the film’s supposed pro-American propagandist attitude, heroic celebration of its protagonist, and its rewriting of the Iraq war. The purported negative stigma of “American Sniper” can be summed up in this Storify page from independent journalist Rania Khalek, using reactions from certain audience members as fuel for her fiery accusations.

This fervent reaction is troubling because, within this whirlpool of flying dung, a lot of people seem to be forgetting a crucial factor: the movie itself. “American Sniper” is not a piece of pro-American propaganda, it doesn’t rewrite the Iraq occupation, it doesn’t celebrate Chris Kyle as a hero, it doesn’t downplay PTSD, and it doesn’t glorify war. The worst, legitimate, politicized accusation one can throw at the film is that its Iraqi characters are one-dimensional, pointing out one especially brutal scene featuring a drill and a terrorist nicknamed The Butcher that feels like a “24” episode guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino (even though, apparently, The Butcher is based on a real Shia warlord). Since the film’s primary focus isn’t an “us vs. them” mentality, but more a “man vs. war” one, the concern of depicting the villains as one-dimensional couldn’t have been a big one for Eastwood. It would have reportedly been for Steven Spielberg, the original director attached to the project. But once he stepped off, and Eastwood took over, a different kind of film was born. Since I’d take subtlety over sentimentality any day of the week, I’m pretty happy with how that went down.

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Burn While Watching: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Masterful Boogie, “Inherent Vice”

January 19, 2015  |  2014, Bold Cinema, Reviews  |  No Comments

inherent vice phoenixPaul Thomas Anderson‘s new movie is very strange, and left me, even more than “The Master,” completely disoriented after its first viewing. Anderson threw me into this world, or more like lulled me into it thanks to Joanna Newsom‘s narrator Sortilège, and kept spinning me like a spinning top while exhaling marijuana smoke with Bob Marley-levels of thickness right into my face. “I’m glad I was there, loved hanging out with those people, don’t know what the fuck it was all about, can’t wait to be back.” That was my insta-reaction to”Inherent Vice.” I knew I had to see it at least once more before writing about it.

The second time around was a much more sober experience. I followed more closely, understood the Coy Harlingen and Sauncho Smilax characters more, but still got lost right before Martin Short makes his incredibly entertaining cameo. Understanding Harlingen and Smilax made me appreciate Owen Wilson blending into the film’s context surprisingly well just by being Owen Wilson, and Benicio Del Toro at his funniest best, respectively. The second time around, more importantly, I confirmed my impression that the film’s core themes are defined by Larry “Doc” Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationships with, first, his ex old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston, in breakthrough mode), and secondly, Bigfoot (Josh Brolin, giving an ultra-layered performance). And then, it hit me like a ton of bricks made of duh: every Anderson film is defined by the relationships of his characters. “Inherent Vice” is just the most elliptical Anderson film yet, and it’s deliberately confusing to the point of making you think the plot matters more than the characters. I felt ready to write.

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Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” Or The Unexpected Virtue of Contrivance.

January 8, 2015  |  2014, Bold Cinema, Feature  |  1 Comment

BIRDMAN

[Caution: this essay review contains spoilers in its last paragraph.]

After his “Death” trilogy (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel“) Alejandro González Iñárritu took an even more depressing route. Instead of swallowing the proverbial chill pill by directing something lighter, looser, something with a sliver of optimistic verve in its veins, he went ahead and made the ultimate downer of his filmography: “Biutiful.” Nothing against the film itself (it personally moved me to no end, and I believe it contains the best performance Javier Bardem has ever delivered), but it’s bleak as all fuck. Despite his stupendous critical success with all four, the Mexican director clearly needed a mood swing. And he’s swung so successfully with “Birdman;” he must feel like he’s flying just as highly as his protagonist does. But, “Birdman” doesn’t mean a change in approach. If you’ve already fancied Iñárritu pretentious with his unsubtle direction, non-linear story lines, and imbalanced tones (I’m merely playing devil’s advocate here), “Birdman” could make you sick to your stomach with how unapologetically contrived it is. This contrivance, this forced artificiality, I argue, is the film’s greatest virtue.

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18 Unforgettable Single Frames From 2014

December 30, 2014  |  2014, Feature  |  No Comments

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It’s almost the end of 2014, and by now people must be getting real sick of all the Year End articles, listing out the Best films, the Worst films, the Best Scenes, the Most Overrated, Underrated, etc. etc. It’s December, after all, when the entire film writing community seems to funnel out the same exact articles in various shades. But, as I’ve said in my own Top 20 feature, which you can now read on The Playlist, these lists are necessary for critics to get the word out about themselves and their peculiar tastes. Even ranking “Boyhood” as number 1 or number 8 tells you something different about that individual.

Anywho, some of the year’s greatest year-end articles for me are the ones that tend to delve into the art of film a little more through shots (examples include The Playlist’s Top 12 Shots of the Year, The Dissolve’s Shot of the Year, Kris Tapley’s 10 Shots of the Year – even though I begrudgingly add that last one since I’m not a fan of his self-stroking style). Considering this, I thought I’d churn out my final list before the year closes. It’s one that I’ve had great pleasure thinking about and compiling, because these frames (whether I liked the overall film or not) stuck with me, stunned me, and struck me with awe. Whether it’s because of their sheer aesthetic beauty, the weight of their emotional baggage, or all of the above, these single frames lingered on long after the final credits rolled and are truly, in every sense of the word, unforgettable.

Jump the cut to see why movies are paintings in disguise.

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Before “Inherent Vice:” 10 Perfect Paul Thomas Anderson Moments.

December 15, 2014  |  2014, Directors, Feature  |  No Comments

Anderson directing Day LewisPaul Thomas Anderson is the bee’s knees. If you were to have every working American director in a single room for an emergency meeting, PTA would be the spokesperson and everyone would shut the fuck up as soon as he took the mic. Same goes for David Fincher and Terrence Malick (though, the latter wouldn’t be getting up on any stage.) Anderson’s debuted in 1996 with “Hard Eight” (also known as “Sydney“), and it was already obvious how well he directs actors and how fantastically in tune he is with music and sound. While it also showed signs of things to come as far as the father-son motifs and smooth slicing of American values go, it wasn’t until “Boogie Nights,” the year after, that people started to realize this guy is good. This guy is really, really, fucking good.

Today, he’s one of the best, and he’s been the epicentre of a critical circle jerk for undeniably good reasons. His actors usually get some kind of award recognition (Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Bill Reynolds, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc.) and even when his themes are too dark for cookie-cutter-loving voters, he might walk away with a nomination or two (as in the case of “There Will Be Blood“). He’s made 7 feature films by now, including his latest one “Inherent Vice,” which opened last Friday in limited fashion around NY and LA.

The dolly track used for Anderon's latest, "Inherent Vice"

The dolly track used for Anderon’s latest, “Inherent Vice”

As my own little personal way of celebrating this modern auteur, this bonafide cinematic brainiac who will one day have libraries of books written about him, I’ve decided to talk about 10 perfect moments from his films. All of these moments reveal a perfect symbiosis of performance, writing and direction, often juxtaposing black humour with dark undertones, or simply gripped in the shackles of what makes us human.

A couple of provisos: since I’ve limited myself to 10, there will be nothing from “Hard Eight,” as much as that film is dear to me. Also, back off PTA fanboys; I realize that there are more than just 10 perfect moments in his films, but there’s no way I’m going to sit here and talk about everything that makes his cinema so fascinating because that’s a book and ain’t nobody got time for that. Not yet, anyway.

Jump the cut to read.

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CASTING FOR COMIC BOOK MOVIES: 12 Actors And Their Perfect Comic Book Movie Roles.

December 9, 2014  |  2014, Comic Book Movie, Feature  |  3 Comments

Surprised McGregorI know, I know. Writing about 12 Philosophical Shots in Terrence Malick’s cinema, reviewing an Iranian black and white vampire film, and now talking about potential comic book roles. My “voice” echoes all over the place and I’m a total cinematic inbetweener. That’s me! I love my arthouse stuff as much as I love to think about all the potential, untapped, comic book material out there still waiting to be exploited by Hollywood. (Well, OK, I love my arthouse stuff more). This newest Grapevine article is all about the mainstream casting director freak in me, though, looking at potential actors who would fit perfectly into a comic book setting, but weirdly haven’t been cast in any comic book role as of yet.

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So, we’ve all heard how Benedict Cumberbatch officially signed on for Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” and how the cast of “Suicide Squad” is ballistic. Given the level of dominance the comic book movie has had ever since Bryan Singer‘s “X-Men,” it’s only natural that every actor considers – or is considered for – comic book roles. Come to think of it, these days it’s more surprising to hear that a popular actor hasn’t been in a comic book movie or TV show yet. Well, say hello to this article.

Whether they’ve never lost their popularity, or they’re trying to regain it, here’s a group of well-established actors who have the experience and the eccentricity, but not a single comic book character between them. For fans of the genre, here’s the good news; comic books and graphic novels (for the purposes of this article, the term comic book bundles both) have plenty of untapped material still left to be explored, and not just in the standard Marvel and DC superhero stories we’re all so familiar with.

In light of the Cumberbatch and “Suicide Squad”casting news, and in an effort to look ahead at future adaptations that can provide something more than just pretty special effects and superhero worship, this article is going to match up 12 actors with his or her perfect comic book character, yet to be seen in live-action form.

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REVIEW: Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.”

December 4, 2014  |  2014, Bold Cinema  |  No Comments

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night PosterAna Lily Amirpour. Remember the name. Whenever “vampire” and “western” cross the same path in a single thought, the name will roll off the tongue that much easier. In the same year that has seen vampires elevated back to the realm of super cool by the venerable Jim Jarmusch in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” comes this quietly unassuming Iranian film, using its shoestring budget to dangle so much craftsmanship and panache it renders Jarmusch’s expertly plotless tale into a delicious digestif. Amirpour’s is the full course meal; love, longing, the female gaze, a wondrous soundtrack that keeps on giving, and the kind of black and white photography you want to take a bite of. Herzogian dabs of Lynch and Jarmusch can’t coverup the display of one woman’s singular, soaring, talents behind the camera. Standing alongside ‘Lovers’ and Tomas Alfredson‘s “Let The Right One In” (2008), “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” helps the adult crowd forget everything they ever wished they never knew about “Twilight” and “True Blood.”

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Philosophical Visuals: 12 Shots That Describe Terrence Malick’s Cinema.

November 30, 2014  |  2014, Directors, Feature  |  No Comments

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Terrence Malick is America’s greatest philosophical director. After the tumultuous beginning of “Badlands,” in 1973, when he drove half the film crew mad with his insistence on capturing moments according to the external elements, he made the even more laboriously-produced “Days of Heaven” 5 years later. Then he disappeared, moving to Paris and falling in love (large chunks of his life in this period remain private and undocumented). He reemerged in 1998 with “The Thin Red Line,” a WWII film boasting a gigantic all-star cast.

Terrence Malick

“The Thin Red Line” added to his notorious reputation of being difficult to work with due to his in-the-moment decision making. Nevertheless, the film was a critical and financial success, nabbing some Oscar nominations on the way. In 2005,”The New World” was the new Terrence Malick film, and a drastic shift towards the more abstract was felt. Not as well received, the film started to gain in stature only years later. Then, in 2011, Malick’s “The Tree of Life” took a leap forward in the director’s evolutionary cycle, towards the more personal, spiritual, and cinematic. It won the Palme D’Or, founds its way close to Sight & Sound‘s 2012 Greatest Films Poll, and angered many.

It took only a year for a new Malick film to hit festivals. “To The Wonder” encroached even further into realms of a transcendental nature. Nary a narrative or apparent character development to be seen, “To The Wonder” made many turn away from Malick, while those true to the man’s philosophical visual style held on, defended, and praised.

Today is Terrence Malick’s 71st birthday. As he is one of my personal favorites, and in my opinion, the most important American filmmaker working today, I’ve decided to honor his birthday by selecting a few of my favorite images from his 6 finished feature length films, and associate them with a quote from some of Malick’s known points of reference. These include philosophers Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (whom he studied before turning to journalism and film, Heidegger especially), Stanley Cavell (renowned film theorist, and Malick’s old professor) and the Book of Job (quoted in the beginning of “Tree of Life,” and surely a text Malick has studied as a devout Episcopalian Christian).

Click on. I hope you enjoy.

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TRAILERS: Some movie about a force or whatever waking up, or something? STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

November 28, 2014  |  2014, Trailers  |  No Comments

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awake-010Today was a day marked on many a Cheetos-stained calendar. J.J. Abrams‘ “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” teaser trailer hit the internet, and had everyone talking. Even people who aren’t diehard ‘Star Wars’ fans were swept up in the whirlwind. That’s me.

So I’m officially jumping on the biggest bandwagon and posting the trailer here. Because turning a blind eye to this just seems silly. It’s the biggest thing on any grapevine.

Here’s what I thought,

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Listen To This: 15 Fantastic 21st Century Scores From Composers Not Called Hans Zimmer.

November 25, 2014  |  2014, Feature  |  1 Comment

hans zimmer composingHans Zimmer‘s latest handiwork, the score for Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar,” was released last Tuesday. It is, in every crevice of the word’s definition, spectacular. And that’s based on a released soundtrack that doesn’t include the film’s most mind-squishing musical moment: the “Docking” song (also known as “The One That MELTED YOUR FACE”). But not to worry; there’s an Intergallactic Illuminated Starship Asteroid Einstein edition (or something) on the way. It will be available sometime in the near future and promises to have 35 minutes of never-before heard music from the film. As if we needed further proof that Hans Zimmer has, yet again, eviscerated his composer colleagues. Another year, another ownage.

Interstellar OST

Yes, Mr. Zimmer and his golden baton have been dominating the film score scene in the 21st century. Just, think about it. “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Last Samurai,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Inception,” “Man of Steel,” “12 Years A Slave,” “Kung-Fu Panda 2,” and now, “Interstellar.” Many would agree that Zimmer is the Beethoven of film scores, and it is highly likely that many of his colleagues, when they hear his stuff, react in a very Jerry Seinfeld-y way, as they clench their teeth, curl their hands into a fist, and utter “Zimmer!” under their breaths. But, what of those colleagues? We’ve had 15 years in the century so far, and there have been plenty of fantastic scores, many of which people forget to consider thanks to Zimmer’s monopolization. Scores, which, at times, surpass even their respective films, but always, evoke a sense of passage leading back to the imagery and mood of its film. Like any brilliant score should do, they support and propel their own films towards deeper understanding and fuller feeling.

So, I’m taking a stand and giving a shout out to 15 fantastic 21st century film scores from composers not called Hans Zimmer. It’s in descending order, from least to most likely at beating “Interstellar” in an epic battle of the orchestral bands.

Hear we go,

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