Saturday, January 17, 2015

Film Reviews: American Sniper & Goodbye to Language 3D

"American Sniper"  **** (out of ****)

With its six Academy Award nominations, director Clint Eastwood's story of American sniper, Chris Kyle, based on his own 2012 memoir, is one of the best films of 2014.

The story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL, who served four tours of duty in Iraq, starting at the beginning of our decade war there, has been the subject of controversy, mainly for political reasons. Those that did not approve of the war feel Eastwood and his movie do not condemn the war as the mistake it was. Others feel too much of Kyle's life and remarks, divisive remarks, he made in his book were left out.

I cannot comment on Kyle's memoir and the accuracy in which it has or has not been translated onto the big screen. To be completely honest, I don't care. Movies do not need to be faithful adaptations of books, whether they are true stories or not. I sincerely wish this persistent belief among some people would end soon. As for the political nature of the movie and how strongly the movie makes a statement condemning the Iraq war is not as interesting to me as what the movie does say about war and the effects war has on the soldier. Not since Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) have I seen a movie which shows the de-humanization of war as compellingly.

The director, Clint Eastwood, gained fame for playing tough guys in westerns and came to represent a macho, anti-hero figure in American films, opposite what John Wayne represented in earlier westerns. Wayne became identified as a symbol of American principles. Wayne was the good guy. He stood for solid values. How interesting though, that Eastwood, the man known for appearing in violent pictures; "Dirty Harry" (1971) and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1967) would make a movie about the effects violence, specifically war, has on the individual.

I understand those that complain the movie doesn't take a stance on the Iraq war and the movie doesn't make the point it was a mistake to enter in the first place but, at no point does this movie want to tell that story. The movie is not about Iraq. What I came away it watching this movie was here is a movie which shows us the devastating consequences war has on the individual, just on a psychological level alone.

As Bradley Cooper, in an Academy Award nominated performance, plays Chris Kyle, we see a man slowly losing sense of himself. Kyle is credited it with more than 160 kills. That takes a toll on a man. Knowing that you personally have taken that many lives is something you must struggle to live with. Yes, the men he killed were classified as "the enemy". Yes, the men killed were on the battlefield, not the streets of a major American city. But, that argument misses the point. Killing someone is killing someone. Taking a person's life has an effect on the individual's mind. And to think, someone was trained to do that is disturbing, not only to the viewer watching the movie but to the man being trained.

In that sense, "American Sniper" could have been made in the 1970s and people would have said it was an anti-Vietnam movie showcasing the effects the war had on the troops coming home. That is the heart of the movie. It is not about Iraq, Vietnam or Afghanistan. It is about what war does to a man. Therefore "American Sniper" is an anti-war movie. The soldier is a victim of a government's actions.

Those that wanted an anti-Iraq war message get whispers of it as we hear other soldiers question why they are fighting this war. This is in contrast to Kyle who does what his government ask of him. Kyle believes he is defending his country. He is protecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and their children. Kyle never directly questions the policies of the war. His government told him to fight and so he did. Why would his government lie?

Cooper does something very difficult in this movie, he plays the emotion of showing no emotion. Kyle is a man who will not admit he is haunted by his actions. He lives in a state of denial. Killing all of those people, sometimes women and children, has made him question what kind of person is he. When he does speak to someone, later on in the movie, he says what bothers him is the thought he could not save all of his fellow soldiers. He may feel that, to a degree, but he will not admit the elephant in the room and discuss the effects those 160 kills have on him.

Clint Eastwood as a director has simply gotten better with age. I am continually impressed with his work and by what he finds interesting. He has made some of his best work in the last decade or so from "Mystic River" (2003) to "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), "Changling" (2008) and "Hereafter" (2010).

"American Sniper" is an emotionally powerful movie headed by an excellent performance by Bradley Cooper. It is a well deserved Oscar nomination. The movie is also nominated for best picture though regrettably Eastwood was not nominated for best director. This is one of the best films of 2014.

"Goodbye to Language 3D"  * (out of ****)

Nominated for the palm d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, iconic French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language 3D" (2014) surprised a lot of people when recently it won best film at the National Society of Film Critics Award. I'm surprised and disappointed too.

Godard is best know in this country for making "Breathless" (1959), while not the first film of the French New Wave it became the most emblematic of the movement with its jump cuts, natural lighting and breaking the fourth wall.

Godard has done a lot for the language of cinema. At first, walking into his latest work, I thought that was what the title meant. We are saying goodbye to the language of cinema as we know it. The art form is changing and continues to change. Movies are made digitally now. Few, if any, filmmakers use actual film stock. Cinematic gimmicks like 3D are common. Rapid edits (jump cuts included) are standard practice. In "Goodbye to Language 3D" alone we see images appear upside down, images super imposed into other images in slow dissolve and of course 3D. Godard is challenging us in the way we watch movies.

But, I don't think the "language" referred to the in title necessarily means "film language". It may mean language in the way we communicate. Technology of course has changed that too. Communication doesn't exclusively mean "face to face", actually speaking to someone. Now it means text or email.

However, at the end of the day, I must be honest. I am not exactly sure what Godard is trying to convey in "Goodbye to Language 3D". Some of that is my fault, perhaps for not being unable to understand how to interpret the symbolism of the images on-screen but the rest of it is Godard's fault for not being explicit in his message.

That has always been my issue with Godard. In the 1960s he was seen as a far left radical who talked about revolution in his films. The movies are a time capsule in my opinion. They spoke to the moment. People who saw those movies during that era and enjoyed them caught on to the keywords Godard used. He didn't need to be explicit. They could speak in short hand. I find that to be the case with this movie as well.

I have no doubt Godard had intentions with this movie. There was an idea, a social point, he wanted to comment on. I question whether or not he has stated that message in the most effective way possible. Interesting ideas but poor execution in other words.

Godard has just always seemed to me to be pretentious. He is not the great intellectual he thinks he is. Still I have a small sense of admiration for him and recognize his influence. There are even a small handful of movies he has made which I enjoy; "Breathless", "The Carabineers" (1963), "Contempt" (1963) and "Tout va Bien" (1972) .

There is no coherent story in "Goodbye to Language 3D". We see two people, a couple, talk about equality while the man sits on the toilet and we, unfortunately, hear what he is doing. We see images of a dog, which is suppose to represent perhaps the idea of living a materialistic free lifestyle (?). We see a philosopher sitting in a park. We hear conversations concerning the conflict between society and the state. And we get to see a dog in 3-D.

It may all lead up to something interesting and meaningful. In its current state however it led me to boredom.