(On Cable TV, November 2015) In many mays, American Sniper was a genuine phenomenon in contemporary American cinema. It’s one of the very, very few purely-realistic film to have been a box-office hit, without being a sequel or part of a franchise or incorporating speculative elements. It’s also, even more remarkably, a box-office hit that made most of its money in the United States, reversing the usual domestic/foreign box-office ratio for blockbusters. The reasons for both of those oddities quickly becomes obvious when watching the film, which is a conflicted paean to a fallen warrior. An exchange about sheep, wolves and sheepdogs early on clearly establishes that this is a film aimed at the sheepdogs (or, more cynically, at the sheep thinking they’re sheepdogs), and as such does seem to align with typically conservative values in the culture war that currently dominates American discourse. American Sniper, directed by old-school legend Clint Eastwood, was one of the few mainstream films to comfort conservatives in their values without necessarily annoying liberals who could appreciate the film’s portrayal of a veteran having trouble coping with the aftermath of his tours. That the film is reasonably good helps in ensuring its success. There are certainly plenty of issues with the result, though: Eastwood directs action sequences competently but not exceptionally; protagonist Chris Kyle is portrayed without many of the less-pleasant rough spots that more independent profiles of the man have outlined; the film seems to shy away from the last moments (and drama) of Kyle’s life. But American Sniper worst reasonably well, provides Bradley Cooper with a terrific role, brings together a lot of issues that have preoccupied Americans for the past decade, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the self-righteous militaristic streak of American culture. Any irresistible intention to argue about the film’s merit are part of its added appeal.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Sometimes, you have to let go of narrative and embrace the atmosphere. Despite it being a murder/courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is best appreciated as an atmospheric look at a southern-US Savannah and its unusual characters. It’s digressive, tangential, occasionally supernatural, almost uninterested in its own plot. It lives when it allows its characters to do their own thing, and grows weaker when it gets down to the business of narrative closure. This is a kind of film made for a particular kind of audience (director Clint Eastwood is often best at ease while idling), but even narrative-driven moviegoers may appreciate the unhurried pace at which it unfolds, almost as if it was an invitation to spend some leisurely time visiting Savannah. It also helps feature capable actors: Kevin Spacey is essential as a local mogul accused of murder and whose defence essentially rests on being a community pillar. John Cusack is fine but unchallenging as the audience’s stand-in to the local madness, but The Lady Chabis turns in a great performance by playing herself. If I had more time, I’d check out the book to confirm that this atmosphere is developed even more fully on the page – and I’d re-watch the film in English to get the fullest Southern-accent experience.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I really should like Changeling. It is, after all, an unusually fact-based film about historical Los Angeles, social injustice and sordid crime. It’s written by J. Michael Straczynski (who has earned a permanent residency in my brain after writing most of Babylon-5), directed by Clint Eastwood and features both Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich in pivotal roles. It starts slowly as a single-mother dramatic mystery, then gradually gets bigger and bigger until it sweeps the entire California judicial system. The historical re-creation of 1930(ish) Los Angeles is fascinating, and even the small details of the film are worth a few wonders. Alas, it feels interminable, and it tackles a subject, child endangerment, that I find unbearable these days. Sticking close to the historical facts, Changeling is also forbidden from a conventionally satisfying conclusion: at best, it finds hope in a delusion and stops before the inevitable darkness comes back. At times, watching the film felt like a singularly dull self-imposed ordeal, especially once it makes its way past the two-hour duration. I’m certainly not saying that the film is bad –I am saying, however, that Changeling feels heavy and fit for a particular kind of viewer in a particular kind of mood.
(On TV, December 2014) The advantage of being director/actor Clint Eastwood is being famous enough to indulge into a bit of self-deconstruction with wider archetypical implications. At least that’s the message I’m getting from Gran Torino, which seems delighted to mess around with ideas of masculinity as often set in stone by Eastwood. The dramatic possibilities are obvious once the basic premise is established: an isolated widower, displeased at the immigrant family moving next door, forced to coach an aimless teenager about the finer points of what it means to be a man. Squinting, grunting and cursing like a self-parody of himself, Eastwood eventually punches through his caricature to reveal a different kind of steely resolve, one that shows self-sacrifice as being the ultimate expression of service. As with most of Eastwood’s films, Gran Torino doesn’t play well with details: The actors (all chosen from within a select ethnic group, causing controversies best described on Wikipedia) aren’t all fine thespians, and Gran Torino plays better as a story than a piece of cinematographic art. Still, it flows nicely, deals with social issues of clashing ethnicity and justice and does offer a bit of an unconventional take on the big dramatic finale. Irreverent, surprisingly sentimental in a very “crying manly tears” fashion, Gran Torino does stand not only as an interesting film in its own right, but kind of a last-days answer to many films in Eastwood’s filmography.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s little doubt that a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover is a good idea. Hoover was, after all, a dominant figure in twentieth-century America: The man who defined the FBI and led it for nearly 50 years, accumulating damaging dossiers on powerful people along the way. Then there’s the man himself, filled with contradictions and character quirks; stutterer, driven, wed to the idea of law and order, devoted to his mother, not strictly heterosexual… It’s almost a wonder a big-budgeted romanced biography had to wait until 2011 to be released. Still, source material and execution aren’t the same thing, and the big question at the end of J. Edgar is whether this is the best possible film one could have made about Hoover. The script itself dares to question the usual biopic template by indulging in a lot of back-and-forth between Hoover’s early years and the end of his life: At any moment, the film is liable to switch between then and further-then, leaving a chaotic chronology. (That Hoover lies to himself and others makes for a cute third-act plot point, but it also makes chunks of the film less than relevant.) Director Clint Eastwood made the choice to film the film in desaturated colors and dark lighting, creating claustrophobia at nearly every shot. There’s also a bit of intentional blurring between Hoover’s life and the FBI’s early years, which is in-keeping with the character, but also suggests that a better film could have focused on either. Not that the film is a complete miss: Leonardo DiCaprio is quite good as Hoover, playing a character over nearly fifty years and nearly disappearing in it. In the end, J. Edgar is interesting to watch and revealing about its subject, but it’s not particularly involving or gripping. Overlong at two hours and twenty minutes, J. Edgar is a flawed take on a flawed historical figure: Worth a look, but not a film that will remain in mind for long.
(In theaters, December 2009) Perhaps the boldest chance taken with this film is the concept of slowly transforming a political thriller into a sports film. Picking up moments after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as the first post-Apartheid South African president, Invictus goes from nation-building drama to underdog sport film in steady increments, placing more and more weight on sports until political issues becomes subordinate to the results of a rugby tournament. Fortunately, the film is made by skilled technicians: security issues are used as a way to peek into racial reunification, the legend of Nelson Mandela gets a polish, and we’re shown a nation uniting behind a national sports team. It’s all curiously enjoyable: The South-African setting and accents are different enough to keep us interested (although I couldn’t help wishing for a big spaceship to appear over Johannesburg), there are plenty of misleading thriller cues (one of them leading up to a thrilling CGI flyby), Morgan Freeman is mesmerizing as Mandela (think “role of a career”), Matt Damon is unexpectedly convincing as a rugby player and Clint Eastwood’s direction is as coolly efficient as always. Even the clichés (such as more and more slow-motion segments as the game gets closer to completion) and the unequal pacing don’t look as bad when dealt by such experienced hands. For all of its calculated humanity, Invictus does get viewers to feel better about sports, films and mankind in general, which has its own attraction especially in the usual field of Oscar-baiting films.