Monday, May 25, 2015

"Best" Movies of the Year Part 2 (American Sniper, Imitation Game, Princess Kaguya)

Continuing our viciously critical breakdown of all the most applauded movies released in 2014.  Part 1 here.

Missed it by that much

For a movie striving to honor the greatest recorded sniper ever to serve his country, American Sniper doesn’t serve viewers the greatest in much of anything.  I suppose it’s commendable for bulldozing over the silly, historically inaccurate Ferguson PSA that came out a week before, but other than putting that tripe in its proper place it doesn’t offer anything of significant value for film, for fans, or for the deceased Chris Kyle. Like Lone Survivor of two years before, it’s altogether passable as a contemporary Rah Rah America crowdpleaser or Navy Seal recruitment tool, but as a war movie it’s certainly not going to be remembered and appreciated for its artistry twenty years from now.  In fact, pretty much everything director Clint Eastwood tries to do in Sniper was accomplished much better by Peter Berg in Survivor, which wasn’t recognized for any major awards but nonetheless made for an exponentially more entertaining ode to America’s soldiers, which leaves us with many more meaningful questions than the infamous “snubbing” of Selma’s director or lead actor.  This is where I was originally going to make a snide and wholly ignorant remark about the Academy’s propensity towards honoring washed-up film legends and those within their elitist clique over younger, more popular visionaries, but then I realized that it was just as uninformed a remark as those we’re already well attuned to hearing every damn awards season, and if there’s one thing we can’t stand at the Files, it’s uninformed remarks about politics.

American Sniper – The Good Parts Version

I don’t want to harp on Sniper too much because it’s really not a bad movie.  Bradley Cooper gives an admirable albeit simple and rather boring performance as the equally admirable and simple and boring Kyle, who stands resolute under the most horrifying of circumstances and never rises above being a kind of white stallion of American exceptionalism.  The most intense scenes of the film, broadly featured in its ad campaign, depict Kyle sternly weighing the necessity of shooting a woman or child to protect his men. This – it goes without spoiling too much – he eventually does when it’s apparent there can only be two outcomes, but Eastwood doesn’t really make a follow-through effort to show the impact this has on Kyle’s conscience, other than having him give a firm rebuttal to his partner, who happens to be an immature, hyperviolent gamer soldier the like of which we’ve never seen before in a war movie.  Later on the script tries to touch on Kyle’s post-traumatic stress disorder (which he may or may not have had), and while I liked the relatively understated way Eastwood chose to portray this, relying more on jarring everyday sounds and Cooper’s acting than on obtrusive visuals and dream sequences (take that Mad Max), it still feels like the creators are just checking off ingredients for a story based firstly on a tagline – “No soldier comes home unscathed.” – and secondly on the life of the man Chris Kyle, who’s basically present to prove the truth of the tagline.  One will walk away from Sniper knowing that Kyle was a killing machine of the highest caliber but having little understanding of Kyle as a husband, a father, a patriot, a conservative, or anything else besides a humble Texan who picks up a pretty woman at the bar and would unhesitatingly give his life for his country.

As for the war itself, Sniper offers superbly realized if heavily edited scenes of urban Iraqi devastation and mostly succeeds in conveying the tension that soldiers within such contested, claustrophobic warzones would have experienced.  For all their reliance on video-game “scope cam”, the fight scenes don’t get dull and Eastwood smoothly manages the conflict’s transition from cramped interiors to rooftops overlooking desolate streets.  The movie sounds spectacular in a theater setting when gunfire is spitting from every angle, and you won’t be looking at a whirring power drill the same way for some time, but Eastwood is also aware of when silence would be more effective.  When Kyle takes out the made-up, rival boss sniper from a mile away at the end of the picture in a triumphant feat of summer blockbuster glory, one could hear the softest of snores rising from the aisles, followed by the most half-hearted of extorted applause.

American Sniper entertains in moderate doses when it’s not obviously trying to yank audiences in one emotional direction or another, and it certainly deserves the many distinctions it received for technical achievement, but if you asked me whether I’ll remember it in a year, let alone a month from now, there’s a multitude of other war dramas that’ll stick with me much longer than this.  For horror and bleak meditation on the inhumanity of man, there’s Apocalypse Now, for insanity and immersion there’s Full Metal Jacket, for grit and havoc there’s Saving Private Ryan or the more recent Fury, for ethical intrigue there’s Courage Under Fire, and for pure balls-to-the-wall action you have something like Lone Survivor or 300, but American Sniper doesn’t stake a claim as the best in anything.

With all that negative stuff said, you should still totally buy a DVD for yourself and all your liberal friends who’ve crammed their heads full of unmitigated lies about Kyle’s character and statements.  (He never said that he took pleasure in killing brown-skinned people. He did say that “the enemy” were savages and, “I only wish I had killed more.  Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.  Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.”)  Winning America’s culture war will take perseverance and the courage to shoot down low-information misconceptions wherever they emerge, but with the help of half-rate propaganda films like American Sniper, someday we shall prevail.

A Trailer Review
Moby Dick movie by Ron Howard – Oh, brother.  I hated the real version of this movie.

An Imitation of a Man

The Imitation Game is a dramatically acceptable HBO-level biopic about brilliant mathematician Alan Turing’s gayness and the horrible sentence he received from Britain for admitting to it.  As others have pointed out, the movie is woefully inaccurate historically but it doesn’t really matter because the filmmakers obviously elected to emphasize stigma towards homosexuality over the realistic depiction of historical events, going so far as to deliver the story in flashbacks structured around a hokey, made-up investigation into Turing’s past.  Wikipedia has almost a full four pages roasting The Imitation Game on everything from trivial details such as Keira Knightley’s casting to more egregious errors like the commanding authority placed on the codebreakers’ shoulders and Turing’s clich├ęd representation as an antisocial, misunderstood genius.

Some people will shrug these failures off as “artistic license” or say the movie’s meant to be “entertainment, not a documentary”, which is all well and good until they start heaping accolades and praise on a film they admit completely botches its “true story” and really does nothing more than entertain them.  Why don’t we dole out best picture or screenplay awards to “stupid” big-budget pseudo-histories like Pearl Harbor or 300 or Kingdom of Heaven?  Because they’re stupid and heavily dramatized and made to entertain?  The Imitation Game is just as stupid and inaccurate and manipulative as any of those movies and should be judged by the same standards.  If you find it entertaining, that’s completely alright and I envy you for it.  I personally find 300 to be a very entertaining and well-made movie even with its ridiculous fantasy elements, ludicrous portrayal of King Xerxes, and the treason plot unbelievably thwarted by Leonidas’ queen.  The difference between 300 and The Imitation Game is that Zack Snyder wasn’t selling his movie as a faithful adaption of Herodotus’ account, whereas Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore rigidly hug the “based on a true story” label while throwing truth to the wind and assuming that imbecilic moviegoers and critics won’t give a damn, which they did not.  From the scene where young Turing runs outside to see if his boyfriend is returning to school, frantically scanning all the students coming in, to the part where the officials threaten to take apart his machine and his codebreaking buddies say something like, “You’ll have to go through us too,” The Imitation Game is relentlessly, unarguably stupid and formulaic.

It’s a well-acted kind of stupid, to be sure.  Benedict Cumberbatch is great per usual, though his performances in Sherlock and Star Trek are both much more memorable (I have no immediate plans to see the Hobbit or Slave movies).  Here he just seems like a tool for promoting a rudimentary message of Diversity or tolerance or whatever, to the end that he actually gives a moving, Oscar-worthy, and mostly illogical plea to his interrogators for intellectual diversity, because computers think differently from people, and that’s OK.  Keira Knightley is just fine, though she’s graced much better gay movies over her career, particularly Bend It Like Beckham, which had undeniably cheesy caricatures of socially conservative parents but succeeded in making a more sympathetic homosexual character than this haughty biopic tries to draw.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s deep and powerful speech

The Imitation Game ultimately does a disservice to Turing’s and the other uncredited scientist’s achievements because the filmmakers were so obdurate about making a socially important drama that’d vacuum up critical acclaim; so they zeroed in on the man’s sex life and consequent persecution, neglecting or severely dumbing down the science of his contribution, his cooperation with other individuals, and the impact that breaking Enigma had upon the war effort.  Turing’s homosexuality was undoubtedly integral to his life (and possibly to his death, which may or may not have been suicide) and it’d be shortsighted for the movie to ignore it, but to make it the most remarkable or defining aspect of his legacy is equally shallow. There’s a much more thought-provoking and philosophically intriguing dimension of the war that’s only skimmed over in Moore’s script, that being the impracticality of acting on the translated codes without running the risk of alerting Germany that their system had been busted.  The Cumberbatch crew settles for logistically weighting each scenario – the number of lives at risk and strategic value of given targets – and making net-beneficial decisions accordingly, which raises a lot of tough ethical questions about Utilitarianism, whether the sanctity civilian lives can ever justly be abrogated in war, and I sound like I’m in debate again.  Ugh.  Kritikal press on inhuman jargon.

There’s a handful of decent gay movies (X-men 2), a bunch of bad gay movies, and a lot of fine movies with characters who happen to be gay.  Just so with overtly Christian movies, which all too often turn out trite and moralizing even though many secular movies manage to implement well-refined Christian characters to the benefit of the narrative (see Fury, Hellboy, and let’s throw Halo ODST in there for the halibut).  The Imitation Game could have been a great historical drama about a gay character but just ends up a mediocre, hardly historical, and overdramatic gay movie.  For a less political tribute to Turing’s discoveries and more sophisticated treatment of the way computers think, watch Ex Machina, and by the time you do, you may properly appreciate what’s bound to be a spoilery review from your own Author.  Go watch Mad Max too.  There are too many good movies in theaters right now for you to waste your free time watching a stupid and disappointing movie on video.

Princess Kaguyaaaaaawn

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is playing on the TV as I type, but no one in the room is watching it.  One of us is editing a video, another’s playing solitaire on the phone, a third has just admitted that he “doesn’t really care for it”, and the fourth has made the gracious error of calling attention to a self-indulgent pile of eastern art crap which would otherwise be forgotten in spite of beating out The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody and Sherman for an Oscar nomination, whatever that’s worth.  The whole thing is supposed to look like a moving watercolor painting, which is cool for about twenty seconds – maybe thirty in the scene where Kaguya runs through the forest and sheds fifty layers of clothing – but short of any meaningful story or intriguing characters undergirding the frankly ugly visuals, what you’re left with is a really boring, really pointless 140-minute refashioning of a fairy tale you or may not have found frivolous were you familiar with it in the first place.  Did the Academy give this a shout-out merely to ensure that a token Japanese representative was in the running for an award?  If so, there are far better animes in film and television than Kaguya.  Or were they simply adhering to a long-standing idolatrous infatuation with the environmental socialist Hayao Miyazaki who founded Studio Ghibli and directed one of the dumbest animated movies ever to fool the critics (Princess Mononoke)?---

More on Friday including Boyhood!!

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