Sunday, September 25, 2016

American Sniper (2015) Review:

When it comes to war in general, the concept has taken many forms for different films. Some glorify it to no end while others give their audiences an understanding of certain tragic events that occurred at specific times. Whatever the case, viewers should understand that war is an act that no right minded individual wants to pursue. However when it comes to protecting others, there are only select groups of people who know that joining the military, navy, police force, firefighters or what have you is the only way to do it. The people who join these groups are the ones who are humble enough to put their own lives at risk for the sake of others. It's these kinds of people that deserve the highest of respect because of their contributions to our safety. And for every war, there have always been decorated war heroes. Most recently the biggest name to be spoken of was Chris Kyle, a registered sniper with 150 plus kills during his time in the service. To most, that is an astounding and an unheard of record.

Forget the Sniper (1993) franchise, this guy's for real
Based on the autobiography of the same name, the movie follows the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from buckaroo cowboy to an all out killing machine. Adapting the book was Jason Hall, the writer to Spread (2009) and Paranoia (2013). The intriguing part to this is that Hall really turned himself around as a writer. Both Spread (2009) and Paranoia (2013) were critically panned when they were released. This production on the other hand was the highest grossing film in January in many years. Perhaps it was in due part that Clint Eastwood served as the director to the movie. Either way the script has several areas to consider that prove to be why the film was so successful when it was released. What moved Kyle to joining the military was after seeing the 9/11 attacks and from there on he was determined to help protect his country and the people who shared his feelings. What's also important to note is that Hall's script includes Kyle's wife Taya (Sienna Miller). Together her subplot represented another critical issue - PTSD.

For several combatants who enter the field, many do not come back the same way they entered. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is shown in this movie as a layered issue. That's an important point to make because it's not always one event that can cause it. Sometimes it's a culmination of things. This is especially compelling because of the realistic situations that are setup. Some scenes that are depicted in this movie are not what many films would dare to show nowadays. It's a very touchy topic but this is what elevates the tension. Finally after dealing with all these morbid situations, it's difficult to return home and feel the exact same way previously. This is shown properly through Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller's interactions with each other. As separate thespians, Bradley Cooper practically fully embodies Kyle and that means every aspect. Also not once does Cooper raise his voice, he's always very soft-spoken. Miller on the other hand shows how she gets concerned for Kyle even though she knows he's doing the right thing.

Another interesting aspect about Kyle is the fact that he never asked for or reveled in his status as "The Legend" that everybody loved to call him. Cooper played Kyle as a guy just trying to do what was right. He didn't care about the awards or nicknames, he was there to protect others and that was it. There was one writing flub within the execution though. Chris Kyle's brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell) changes motivational views on war; the character and topic is never addressed again. It seems that including Chris Kyle's brother was important enough to start out with but then as one brother develops the other fades away. If this was the plan, why even bother including Chris' brother? And this wasn't the plan, why was his character arc cut out of the final print? It doesn't make sense. As mentioned before the tension is pretty high due to the realistic imagery and violence. The kill shots are thankfully not as ridiculously outlandish as the action in other films like Sniper: Reloaded (2011). They do contain blood but it's mild and that's how it should be.

Sienna Miller
Tom Stern was credited as the director of photography to this movie. Stern has also done camerawork for films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and The Hunger Games (2012). For this feature, Stern has a number of wide scope panning shots that display the type of terrain and settings that veterans of the military had to withstand. Along side that are the confusing number of houses each team had to check and evacuate when it came to sectioned off areas. Stern was also able to show just how dangerous tasks like these are because of how easily hidden the enemy can be. Strangely enough one strategic element that was mainly absent through the running time was an appropriate musical score. For the 2 hour long movie there were a few synth bass and short piano cues but none of them stood out. Either the music was borrowed or composed by an uncredited composer. Either way the movie mostly works even without the score, but it perhaps could have been even more memorable if it had a recognizable theme to it. Oh well, their loss I guess.

The script has one minor problem with a character and the music is surprisingly mute but in its entirety, the movie makes out fine. Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the legendary sniper is worthy of playing the veteran, the realistic war scenes are quite tense and the development of the lead is thought provoking.

Points Earned --> 7:10

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) Review:

The Brother's Grim fairytale of Snow White seemed to be the popular story to retell for the year 2012. Two polar interpretations of the story had been made that same year. Mirror Mirror (2012) was the more lighthearted take while Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) went the opposite route with darker and edgier visuals. Of the two, the most successful was the movie that starred Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron. The production itself looked much more epic in scope, had bigger star power and had a different story to tell. After the success of the film, production began to role for the sequel. However troubles emerged when Stewart did not return as Snow White. Once that happened, the momentum that the studio had gained ended up getting stuck in development. For a while the studio went through a number of directors, including Frank Darabont the guy who made The Green Mile (1999) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Eventually the ball started rolling again and this is the end result, which could've been worse.

Hemsworth and Chastain
Directing duties for this movie were given to Cedric Nicolas-Troyan in his debut. For most of his career Troyan has been a visual effects artist for movies like The Ring (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006). He also has some partial directing experience as a second unit director to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014). Originally stated to be a prequel to Snow White and the Hunstman (2012), the story is actually a prequel and a sequel, in which case there is no word to categorize this whatsoever. First the story explains as to how Eric the Hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) became what he was by the time Snow White and the Hunstman (2012) occurred. Audiences will also learn that he has a wife named Sara (Jessica Chastain). Together they lived under the rule of Freya (Emily Blunt), an Ice Queen and sister of Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Freya believes all children should be torn from their families and made into huntsmen after the loss of her child.

When Freya learns that Sara and Eric are in love, she separates them leading Eric to the events of the prior movie. Then the story begins its sequel where Eric seeks to destroy Freya. Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, this duo's work is acceptable to some degree. Spiliotopoulos is known for writing more Disney movies like The Jungle Book 2(2003) and The Lion King 1 1/2 (2004). Mazin has done more comedies like Scary Movie 3(2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006). What might amaze the most critical of viewers is that for once the script was written with keeping the missing main characters in mind. Surely Kristen Stewart does not show up on screen once but she is at least referenced verbally and that's all films like these ask for. A simple reference. Along with that is the fact that the new characters help create a bit of depth to the original characters. That's always good to see. However this does not excuse the other problems that arise throughout this movie.

The fact that certain characters return (major or minor) and others don't doesn't make a lot of sense. There's no clear reason given from these individuals as to why they return other than stating vague answers. There's also hazy motivations when it comes to Freya. Freya creates an army of huntsmen warriors to "free" children from their lives and train them as her new army. What exactly is she trying to achieve? Sooner or later there will be no areas to concur. For actors and the roles they play all seem to be enjoying their part. Hemsworth and Chastain have okay chemistry together. Blunt and Theron look like they could be sisters too, although Theron looks to be loving her part the most. There's also appearances from Sam Caflin as Prince William and Nick Frost as Nion the dwarf. The new supporting roles added to the cast are more dwarfs played by Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach. All of which do not add any context to the story itself and more for just comic relief, which is okay.

"Did you know that I got the same pay as the Huntsman?"
With the director of this film being more experienced in the visual effects department, no doubt would the CGI look decent here. There's a barely a shot here that looks out of place or too obvious to be fake. The liquid gold mirror is still an awesome effect even though it completely references the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). The same could also be said for Freya's ice powers, she may be a villain but she makes things look very pretty. The cinematography goes hand-in-hand thanks to Phedon Papamichael. Papamicheal has had his fair share of cinematic films and it shows. The camerawork for the most part is stable and has plenty of panning wide shots for the audience to get a complete view of the scenery. Working the musical score was James Newton Howard who also worked on the music to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). Strangely enough Howard doesn't make a new theme for Freya or Eric the huntsman yet keeps Ravenna's memorable theme in tact. And if there was a main theme, it wasn't that recognizable. Come on Howard.

Played like a double-edged sword, this film acts as a prequel and a sequel to that of Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). It may not be as great as the first entry, which isn't surprising but it does make significant connections to the first without dropping everything. It still may lack clarity on certain parts but the action, effects, camerawork and music still entertain.

Points Earned --> 6:10

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bandits (2001) Review:

Sometimes there are movies that don't give a real reason as to why they should exist. Most movies when released serve a purpose. Whether they are extremely well made or just cheap cash-ins, there's usually an understandable reason. Whether it is ethical or not for making the movie is another question entirely. No matter if it's just making money off the name or because the filmmakers actually have a vision, they both serve as valid reasons as to why they exist. Also in the past, several macho actors from the 1980s have all made a few blunders in their time. Most of these box office bombs were because of being cast in unorthodox roles or ones that just didn't fit them. The genre with most of these examples belongs to the comedy films. As it turns out, Die Hard (1988) star Bruce Willis wasn't done trying his hand out at forced comedic roles until the early 2000s. Oddly enough, this felt like one of those movies that by the end of the showing made the viewer question why they even bothered to watch it. It literally serves no purpose in any way.

"Convincing no?"
Directed by Barry Levinson, this romantic heist comedy is short on almost everything it's supposed to deliver. Written by Harley Peyton, who has penned more TV episodes than anything else, the script is a story that barely engages its viewing audience. The plot involves two nationally recognized thieves known as the "Sleepover Bandits" who end up falling in love with an accidental hostage. Featured on a TV show, the two criminals at large are Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thorton). The female hostage that they both end up panting over is Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), a rich housewife who loves to cook and can't stand her own marriage. For two hours, this film drags its feet doing nothing particularly important related to the plot. Pacing is one of the film's biggest problems. For such a cut and dry scenario, the length at which this story is stretched to is ridiculous. Especially when the main set of characters barely get the development they need to be likable.

Aside from Wheeler not liking the way her husband kissed her, there is no other given motivation as to why she can't stand the life she lives. On the other side, no explanation is given as to how Collins or Blake got into the profession of robbing banks. Nor is it elaborated on how they got so good at it. Or even if they really are that cold blooded since a few hostages question their actions. That actually would've been more captivating to focus on. There's also another character named Harvey Pollard (Troy Garity) who has his own character arc but doesn't add anything to the main plot. Pollard's goal is to become a stuntman and that particular trait is only utilized once throughout the whole movie. Convenient much? The execution is highly cliche in its play out of the story. There are numerous things that can be seen way before the end credits role. One of the reasons why this is known is because the movie starts off at the finale and then rewinds to the beginning. It hardly creates the required tension to make the movie engaging.

One more nail in the coffin is the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thorton. The two just don't make the kind of buddy duo one would enjoy. Bruce Willis plays it soft spoken Mr. Mysterious with an ugly mullet and rarely makes a funny line. Billy Bob Thorton oppositely plays his role loud, jittery and obnoxious. Thorton says the name "Joe" almost after every sentence. Is it really that necessary to point out whom you're talking to in every line of dialog? It's apparent that Peyton was trying to define these characters so differently, but they're so exaggerated that they aren't as relatable as they could be. None of the lines these two main leads have to say are worthy of even a chuckle. Every bit of dialog, scenario and end result is just playing on screen to use time. It's not even that it's bad dialog, it's just boring. Watching two oddball characters ham it up about who wants to be with the female hostage feels rehashed and over done so many times. Really, who cares?

Cate Blanchett
The only two redeeming elements to this movie are the music and camerawork. Credited as director of photography, Dante Spinotti has acceptable work here. Giving his talents to other movies like Heat (1995), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Hercules (2014), Spinotti has proven that he can capture clear settings for different scenes. From what was displayed no shots shook around nor did they have any problems showing the audience of which certain things were stationed. For music, the underrated Christopher Young worked as the composer. Strangely enough having Young on board didn't change much of the experience for two reasons. The first reason is that Young does have a some cues that are interesting to hear but they are very short lived. The second reason is that Young is known for composing music to horror films; how in the world did he get hired for this project? It nowhere fits his previous credits in his filmography. Besides, most of Young's work gets run over by all the early 2000s mainstream music. Just great....not.

The film on a visual aspect looks fine and the music is nice even though Christopher Young as composer is not using his skills wisely. Anything else is all questionable. The movie does not prove itself to have a reason for existence. The characters are boring, the premise is boring, and the comedy is boring. It's all boring and overdone.

Points Earned --> 3:10

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sniper: Ghost Shooter (2016) Review:

It's amazing that the Tom Berenger / Billy Zane thriller Sniper (1993) franchise has made it this far. Has this series cultivated a secret fanbase? Or do the producers believe there is a fanbase and keep on making sequels anyway? It just seems hard to believe that the first film would have made such an impact on viewers. It was well executed movie yes but the crew attached didn't have filmmakers like Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood in the director's chair. The man behind the first film was Luis Llosa, the director of The Specialist (1994) and Anaconda (1997). These were both films that people viewed as fairly silly movies. This is probably Llosa's best entry in American cinema but it still won't hold a flame to a lot of other well made popular films. When a series like this has gotten this far in making sequels with no public critical reception, it truly is an anomaly. So how does this sixth entry hold up in the array of sniper films? Well it certainly isn't unwatchable,...yet. Thankfully it works but it has warning signs.

Beckett Jr. & Richard Miller
Directed again by Don Michael Paul from Sniper: Legacy (2014), fans are once again brought back to Sgt. Brandon Beckett (Chad Michael Collins) in the field doing what he does best. Unfortunately after hesitating on an assignment and lashing out at another officer, Richard Miller (Billy Zane) puts him on probation with Russian sniper Andrei Mashkov (Ravil Isyanov). Meanwhile the Colonel (Dennis Haysbert) and assistant lead Robin Slater (Stephanie Vogt) try to find a "ghost shooter" by the name of Gazakov (Velislav Pavlov) who's looking to stop a certain business pipeline. Written this time by Chris Hauty, the screenplay works to some degree but fails to make certain connections clear and answer some questions. For Hauty, this is his fifth writing credit of which this is his first related work to this series. This is possible as to why not everything is clear, but Hauty has written for three other sequels so he should have had some idea as to what constituted as a narrative that continued the story at an engaging level.

Unsuccessfully this isn't the case here. Hauty's inclusion of the probation period for Beckett was okay until it became unnecessarily extended for an action shootout sequence. That in fact could have been substituted in for time with Beckett's other team members like Barnes (Enoch Frost), Cervantes (Nick Gomez), Aungst (Presciliana Esparolini) or just cut it out completely. Ravil Isyanov as Mashkov does have some comical quips with Beckett but the development really should have went to somebody closer. Then there's no explanation for missing persons. What happened to Sanaa (Mercedes Mason) from Sniper: Legacy (2014) or even Beckett Sr. (Tom Berenger) for that matter? Where did these characters vanish to? Where's the consistency? When starting the second trilogy, you brought on Billy Zane, then dropped him for Tom Berenger and then did the reverse again? Fans should demand to see Billy Zane and Tom Berenger on the same screen again. Those are the two old men who started it all, so get them on the same screen.

Now although Zane and Berenger are still not on screen together, Billy Zane returning as Richard Miller is still acceptable. Zane still looks like he's having fun in the role and enjoys playing the sarcastic wise cracking supervisor of Beckett's son. Miller even has a few comments that don't even really make sense but the way he says it is anyway. When it comes to Beckett Jr.'s team, few of them get much development. Sure they have a few moments of flare but nothing really makes the viewer want to see more of them and hope they survive all the shootouts. Of the members, only Cervantes (Nick Gomez) has some kind of arc. Everyone else is just kind of there. As for other actors, there's also appearances from Dominic Mafham and Navid Negahban as a blind connection to Gasakov. Negahban playing a blind man had a great look. Foggy contacts make him look like someone who's real clever and full of knowledge. Mafham as Bidwell "Bulletface" sadly gets less screen time than he did before but when he is shown, it's good to see him.

"Can you believe they didn't bring on Berenger again?"
Action sequences were well executed again. There might've been not as much carnage edited in but it still got fairly messy. The shooting throughout this film is quite abundant so there's bound to be explosions and RPGs. In addition, there are also drones in which are used in firing missiles. Those perhaps are the weakest looking parts because obviously they wouldn't have real drones. The camerawork provided by Martin Chichov looked good. It wasn't easy to tell what was green screen and what was actually filmed. Much of the scenery looked authentic and shot on sight. The film also may not be the ultimate widescreen but there is a number of establishing shots that get a lot of the landscape and it looks great. Composing the musical score for the second time in this franchise was Frederik Wiedmann. Regrettably again, Wiedmann does not have or bother to create a memorable main cue for this franchise but that thought seems to have died long ago. As for music in general, it's decently composed with guitar and Middle Eastern instruments.

Now that this series has completed its second trilogy, maybe the producers and filmmakers can get back to basics once more. The main actors, music, action and camerawork are fun but it's all brainless. The connections are lazily tacked in and some scenes could've been utilized more efficiently.

Points Earned --> 6:10

Les Miserables (1978) Review:

When it comes to all things France related, there aren't too many mainstream stories that have been told and retold again in American cinema. The French Revolution, parts of World War II and even fantasy stories like Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) all take place in France. But from as it seems, the most popular of these French stories belong to Victor Hugo's novel of the same name Les Miserables. So far this book has had five major film adaptations; four of which were feature length movies, while another was a mini-series. The two latest adaptations were theatrically released while the second in line was a TV movie release. The difference in years between releases may be a long period (two decades), but the story wasn't drastically varied. The only noticeable change in presentation is having the knowledge of its production date. Knowing it was produced in the late 1970s gives it a much more dated viewing experience. Nonetheless, the story is worth the time to see.

"I'm just a woodcutter...."
As the title would suggest, the plot to this movie is about Les Miserables or "the miserables", "the poor ones" etc. Living in France during 1796, a broke innocent woodcutter named Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan) steals a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister and her children. Not long after being caught by the authorities, Valjean is sent to Toulon to carry out his five-year sentence. In charge of the Toulon camp is the heavy handed Javert (Anthony Perkins), who ends up becoming acquainted with Valjean very quickly and their rivalry percolates into the next thirty years. With time passing before his eyes, Valjean becomes bitter against humanity but realizes his error when a bishop (Claude Dauphin) displays an act of kindness towards him. Determined to live every moment by caring for others, Valjean becomes utterly the opposite of what he once was. Headed by Glenn Jordan (a veteran TV Movie director) and written by John Gay, this film looks dated but still has a significant amount of storytelling.

The development of Jean Valjean is intriguing enough to see play out when looking at his humble beginnings. Over time, Valjean becomes a grizzled man who finds himself being more of an early Hudini than a woodcutter. Even at an elderly age, somehow Valjean finds a way of getting around; that's impressive. Richard Jordan as Valjean doesn't disappoint either. Jordan is one those serious actors who always play his role like it were his own. Along his travels he adopts a widow's daughter named Cosette (Caroline Langrishe) and raises her as his own. Angela Pleasence, the daughter of Donald Pleasence, plays the widow. The part that Cosette plays as to her stepfather isn't as prominent, but she does bring about some compelling situations between Valjean and the ever-vigilant Javert. Speaking of which, Anthony Perkins as Javert is credible too. Although he stands like a giant mast, Perkins can be very intimidating as the lead inspector. He really makes things run like clockwork. By far the best chemistry is seen between Perkins and Jordan.

The odd thing is the relationship that Javert and Valjean have reminisced to that of Batman and The Joker from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). Except this time, the roles and personalities are switched. Valjean is the miscreant who makes Javert's world a chaos to deal with. Yet Valjean's ideals are more unpretentious than say The Joker's. Javert on the other hand resembles that of Batman, wanting order and will stop at nothing to catch Valjean. The parallels are undeniable. It is a little baffling though to see actors playing French characters and not sounding anywhere close to the accent. Saying monsieur doesn't make you entirely French. The other problem that arises is the forced love interest between Cosette and a rebel named Marius (Christopher Guard). All these two characters do is stare at each other once or twice and they both know they're in love. It's certain that most audiences will not buy into this notion and completely believe that. Rarely do individuals know each other are meant to be by just staring.

Anthony Perkins as Javert
When it comes to visuals, the scenery isn't always clear. However, since this took place way before CGI was implemented into film, all props were undoubtedly physical objects. That covers sets and various historical pieces of the time. A lot of the old structures look appropriate taking the setting into account. The cinematography was shot by Jean Tournier, a native Frenchman (gasp!). Like stated before, although there are some darker than normal scenes, the scenes do cover enough to have the viewer comprehend the surroundings of the main leads. That also means even without a widescreen view. The musical score composed by Allyn Ferguson is another memorable element. Sadly there was no official release of the music but the theme is quite endearing. Relying mostly on the strings, Ferguson's main theme to this adaptation consistently appears whenever Valjean is on screen pointing out that the story revolves around him. Surprisingly, that's all the music needed. It would've been nice to have other cues but it's fine anyway.

The fact that the actors weren't directed to have a more authentic French accents and the main character's step daughter having a forced love interest are the only true crimes to this book adaptation. The actors, music, camerawork and especially the writing make this a special story to witness.

Points Earned --> 7:10