“Unbroken” and “American Sniper”

This weekend I saw two war films that were based on two soldiers’ lives. Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut in “Unbroken” and Clint Eastwood’s mispercevied “American Sniper” are analogous in that both push forward the belief systems of their soldier protagonists. For Louie Zamperini it is “forgive thy enemy”; for Chris Kyle it is “stand up and protect your tribe”. The temperament and the politics of the moviegoer may prejudice either film,but
this need not be the case. The horror of war and the poor help given as veteran soldiers re-enter civilian life is paramount to understanding either film. Neither man is legend or hero,in my eyes,only humanly flawed and now both dead to suffering and to sin.

Both Louie and Chris were church raised and often pew disciplined. Young Louie heard sermons heralding “love thy enemy”; Chris heard “protect our own”. Chris Kyle also hears his dad spout “you know your purpose” … ” Protect your brother”. Both father and son believe in ” the gift of aggression”, wolf -dog over sheep. While growing up, Louie hears the bromides of the time from Pete,his older brother.” Take it to make it.”

Jolie’s “Unbroken” begins with a ten minute spectacular opening. Gunners rotating and swirling amongst the clouds. Mixed shots of panoramic views give way to close- ups of eyes held in the gun sight. Puffs of ash stay suspended. The cinematography is splendid,gauzy and then clear. The film’s sound pales in comparison –often weak, raspy and muffled.

I had read the Laura Hillenbrand accounting of Louis Zamperini ‘s World War II survival,resilience and redemption, so there were not any surprises. Hillenbrand dedicated her book to the wounded and the lost,and Jolie holds that spirit in her film. The war experiences of 45 days on a life raft with insufficient rations and water, the sharks, and the internment in a POW camp run by a sadist are added to the sky skirmishes and South Pacific Japanese attacks. Zamperini’s marriages,alcoholism and Billy Graham’s influence are not covered in  the film “Unbroken”. His early years of dealing with prejudice and his Olympic running are. I found the back and forth chronology of the storyline to be frustrating. As soon as I was emotionally hooked, the screen would switch to a flashback. This seemed like teasing, and I think the film suffers for this. The four or five “break always” disrupted the emotional connection over and over again. The actors were still compelling and well -directed, and “the bird” especially brought the detestable Watanabe to life.

Eastwood’s movie opens with a huge tank and flashbacks to SEAL boot camp. We see lots of testosterone “feeling dangerous” vibes: darts thrown on targets painted on backs,for example. Bradley Cooper deserves his Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t. Cooper’s musculature is astounding.His neck is thick; his extra thirty pounds of sinew packs a screen frame. His Texas slur and intense eyes bring a true believer to life. We know Chris Kyle has envisioned how his first kill will go down. Later, a comrade compliments Kyle with “the marines feel invincible with you up there”. Really? One sniper,even one who can get a head shot at 2100 yards out,would not be able to hold to this legend. It is war that “puts lightening in your bones”. And lightening can blow circuits.

Kyle is a keenly observant soldier,but an unreflective man. He sees a rawly red elbow and deduces an enemy sniper. Kyle is good at picking up clues. He volunteers for four tours of duty, until his wife whines:”You can only circle the flames for so long,” and “when you are here ,you are not here.”Eastwood seems to rev -up the motors of war with “an eye for a eye” revenge theme Clint-style. A frame of the twin towers falling seems faultily to suggest that the Iraq War was about this. When a lackluster counselor asks the veteran Chris if there is anything he feels he would do differently, Chris responds with “I am only haunted by the soldiers that I did not save.” Staring a black TV screens, throwing an upper cut at the family dog,or bargeing into a nursery demanding that his baby daughter be immediately comforted by the one attending nurse, all show that Kyle doesn’t know when to quit warring. His wife’s “I need you to be human again” says a lot about what we expect of our soldiers.

There are some powerful scenes of sandstorm battles and an anti- war letter read at a graveside military funeral. There are too many flags, bugles and stamped SEAL crests on casket lids. A younger director would not have underscored patriotism like a sheriff pinning on his badge “High Noon” style. The use of a doll to replace a live child was also a mistake. In the first sequence of frames, the film did not suffer for this,but the second set of sightings was silly. Cooper did his best to shake those plastic curved fingers and the make-up crew did enhance, yet lifeless is lifeless, Mr. Director.

“Saint Vincent”

I love my Friday night movie dates, and connecting with two former students in a chance meeting at the Landmark Theater further enhanced my mood. This being said, I joined my husband for Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy’s feature, “St. Vincent”. Neither comedian Is my favorite, and I had put off seeing Theodore Melfi’s debut film until there was not much else I had not seen. A friend had told me a story of Murray’s first wife, a St.Mary of the Woods grad, who had been betrayed by him etc…and Melissa McCarthy is cruder than I like. All gossip and preferences aside, I did not have high expectations and was ready for a rather low-brow farce.

Surprised and satisfied,I can report that Murray was so engaging that not one of the fifty some filmgoers walked out until after the last credit rolled. Vintage songs liket Bob Dylan’s ,”Shelter From The Storm” deepened the reflective mood of this reflective-comedy.

Director Melfi  and I have the same distain for cattle-maze-rope barriers and the phrase,”It is what it is”! Catholic school nostalgia is here,too. Those saints are first and foremost a starting point for lessons of every kind. Empathy is taught and re-taught; character development is the cornerstone. Naomi Watts is fabulous as Daka, a lady-of-the-night, even though her character is the most stereotyped. Jaeden Lieberher is smart and endearing . He  looks way younger than the twelve years his role implies.

This film has a very strong beginning that uses close shots to center our focus on the debauched Vin  (Murray). Murray is beautifully nuanced and so in character and so convincing as Vin that one forgets one is watching Murray. I rather became a Murray fan with this picture! The ending is strong,too, as tears and laughter mingle in a rather redemptive display of acceptance and giving. A great reminder to withhold one’s judgement until one has walked the same path!

“Tim’s Vermeer”

Have a special interest in art and love science?  See this documentary and mull over a few profound questions when you are not marveling at this inventive plodder, Tim Jenison. Jenison underbills himself as a tech geek. His company and his inventions have paid his way to study a 350 year old mystery: How did the 17th century Johannes Vermeer paint light across his canvases?

Tim has travelled (we feel like we can call this Iowa raised guy by has given name) the world to see all extant Vermeers,even to Buckingham Palace which houses “The Music Lesson”.He credits artist David Hockney and his book with lighting the spark to prove that Vermeer of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” fame used a mirror and something like the camera obscura to blend images through a lens. Jenison aims to copy this technique by using a lens held at a 45 degree angle to paint his “Vermeer Masterpiece”. The self-deprecating  Jenison considers himself a “bathtub thinker”, and he is easy-going as he pushes the definition of what it means to be an artist painting that light.

The documentary, “Tim’s Vermeer” is also full of great music thanks to Conrad Pope.His music supports the profound questions about art and technology and the demarcations we draw between the arts and the sciences. See this for marvels galore.

“Cold In July”

I was expecting “Cold In July” with Micheal Hall of “Dexter” fame to be a thriller with glimmers of “Cape Fear”, “Straw Dogs” and Clint Eastwood revenge sparkles; but what I got was much more. Let’s say a morality tale with exquisite depth! Find this film and savor the pacing, the suspense, the characterizations and the photography of Ryan Samul. Samul’s frames of half car sides and half foreground are fresh and artful. His slow motion and pan shots campy with gas price signage, hog callers and pimped-out cars:  All capturing East Texas in 1989. One scene has Michael Hall, as Dane, turn blood-red in psychological reflection of the mayhem.

The screenplay writer, Jim Mickle, is also the director. His use of comic relief close to perfection. I would not be surprised at an Oscar nod for best book adaptation. The source material is the novel of the same name. I was so impressed with the story that I checked author Joe Lansdale out on Amazon. Unknown to me,  he is an award winning sixty-two year old Texan with over thirty novels in this thriller genre. The hardback I wished to purchase was listed for 135 dollars, and alas the used hardback was 59. Collectors have taken note.

Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s son,Wyatt Russell, plays the vilest part imaginable. His character works for “The Dixie Mafia”, again a new world for me. Sam Shephard portrays Ben, the newly released ex-con, and is outstanding. His relationship with Jim Bob, played by Don Johnson is based on a Korean War experience that saved Jim Bob’s life. Age has been kind to Johnson: his eyes glint with energy to spare. Besides the war buddy history, Jim Boy bursts on the screen as a private investigator whose eccentricities steal more than a few scenes. Michael Hall is praise-worthy, too. From his wife- protecting lies to his outbursts misdirected at his toddler,Dane (Hall) moves from framer/salesman to truth-seeking macho gun slinger.

But now to the morality tale,which I can not divulge without spoiling the joy. Just let me say that this film so well mixes the strata of classes that real growth and human understanding sing out: guns and blood be damned.

“Inherent Vice”

Paul Thomas Anderson is not my kind of wunderkind. I have tried with his “Boogie Nights” 1997,and with his”Magnolia” 1999, and with his “There Will Be Blood” 2007. The “soul of America searching” does not lead me to sociopaths and psychopaths. Anderson’s “The Master” 2012 would be my favorite PTA work, but Scientology and Elmer Gantry antics lead to easy satirization,so credit is easy in coming. His “Inherent Vice” based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel left me antsy to leave the packed  audience of  thirty and forty -year -olds to their snickering. I can’t remember when I was more bored–maybe watching my ninty-year -old mother go through her envelope of grocery coupons.

The setting is my decade, and Pynchon’s. Torrance California ( of “Unbroken” fame) and its L.A.environs provide the background. A narrator is used to tell a hazy and hollow tale of a  private investigator/counsellor type named Larry “Doc” Sportello. (Joaquin Phoenix) Phoenix,who I loved in “Her”, relies on his farcical chia- pet mutton chops and stoner stare in too many close-ups. I think his nomination for best actor is a reaction to his losing for “Her” last year.The hippie culture details were evocative: the Ouija boards,astrological mutterings,the turquoise phones with rotary dials and curly cords,the weed and harder drugs,the police animosity,the easy sex and patachouli clouds, not the farts.  The theme does not come easily,maybe change in love and in loyalty. The key is the viewer does not care. The movie was too long,too nihilistic,and too “unartful”.

Josh Brolin played his type,a big-footed unsavory policeman. His chocolate-covered banana close-ups overdone. A heavier Benito del Toro was excellent in his cameo role,but not worthy of the ticket price and time wasted.The “boulevards of regret” were all mine. I liked the irreverent pizza last supper with matching tablecloth,and wish other religions would be as tolerant of needling sacred images. I worry about PTA,whose friends PSH (Phillip Seymour Hoffman)and DFW (David Foster Wallace) both offed themselves. Maybe,having a comedic partner like Maya Rudolph will keep him from black-humor burnout. Only those who get Pynchon,or enjoy the vulgar, or the silly picking of noses and toes,or like to hear pants growing should bother with this one.


“Come to Selma” may have been a better title for this docu-drama. Martin Luther King is given import as a Noble Peace Prize recipient, and then portrayed as a political strategist intent on capitalizing on 70 million people sympathizing with marchers demanding a vote. This is how protest is done Saul Alinsky style: orchestrating a non-violent disturbance,using negotiating,demonstrating and resistance to gain needed change. The film is a primer for knocking down status quo unfairness.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the subject matter here,and Martin Luther King is the community organizer with a mission to create a better world.”Come to Selma” is his rallying cry.

Cinematographer Bradford Young does an absolutely glorious job of filming. The light and dark images play across the screen in headshot close-ups,and in pastels of muted meeting rooms, and pink-lighted, floating, slow-motion tumbles of little girls’ shoes and legs. But to be visually mesmerized is not the only reason to see this film. The acting under the direction of Ava Duvernay is masterclass worthy. David Ogelowo’s facial expressions let ussee the joys and the agonies of giving oneself over to a cause. Tom Wilkinson, as President Johnson, shows his impatience with “all that was on his plate” (Vietnam Nam included) without diminishing his good intentions and ultimate accomplishment.

Ava Duvernay in her womanly direction strengthens  the touching scene between Coretta Scott King and her husband,  as Cory tells Martin that she knows what he sounds like and that the crank call ( probably J.E.Hoover  instigated) was not worthy of her angst. She then asks her husband if he loves her and if he ever loved the others. Carmen Ejogo is simply exquisite. Dignity is paramount and MLK never loses it. The praying on bended knee mid-bridge and the quiet conversations with John Lewis, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and Malcolm X are histories videoed. The viewer goes away with missing the cadences of his speeches,but awe struck at this man slain at the young age of 39. That we all could make such a difference is what this film inspires.

“God’s Pocket”

Directed by John Slattery and co-written by Alex Metcalf, “God’s Pocket” is based on the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter. I won’t be reading it, nor will I be viewing the film again.

The cinematography is dull and lifeless and the script worse. I want to say this would work better as black comedy; it is so faulty- cliché filled. So, if you feel it is fun to watch all seven deadly sins committed view “God’s Pocket”, which evidently refers to a Hell’s pocket section in South Philly that the inhabitants renamed.Hubris, Sloth,Envy, Lust, Greed, Gluttony and Anger all raise their ugly backsides. Dissolution is personified.

The film makes one cringe at the stereotypes of the “gun-slinging mama”, the “deluded playboy” and the “busty Italian”. The bartender, something like the mayor of the enclave, turns on the lights only to see the “cockroaches” scatter. What a depressing film that leaves the audience feeling like the poor deserve laughs. The paper bag “ask-back”, the big- eared photo and the tossed-out corpse could not have lifted Philip Seymour Hoffman’s spirit, and this film deadened mine.