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‘American Sniper’ hits box-office high

Bradley Cooper and Kyle Gallner in American Sniper

In its first weekend in wide release, American Sniper earned more money than all of the other eight nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. It made $107 million through the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, a record for a movie in January. By the time the Oscars are given out, it’s likely that the film will earn more than all of the other eight combined. The film had great marketing and was receiving award nominations, but nothing could have predicted how much the film would draw in audiences, not only in so-called middle America, but on the coasts, too; it was the number one film in California that weekend, too.

Something about American Sniper has struck a chord, and it’s not clear what. Pundits are arguing about its politics, whether it’s pro or anti-war, whether it’s racist or just murderous, whether it’s true or not, whether or not it deserved to receive six Oscar nominations. I think the politics are decidedly muddled, and I think it deserved one nomination – for Bradley Cooper’s excellent performance – but the rest are somewhat ridiculous. It’s not a great film.

Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. He killed around 160 people during his five tours in Iraq: He killed insurgents, terrorists, men, women and children. He killed them because, he says and we’re told, they were trying to kill American troops. They are savages, he says over and over; murderous savages he had to stop. Yes, it was his job, and he was damn good at it. He became famous and he became a hero in the military, and after he wrote a book called American Sniper, he became famous and heroic for a lot of other people.

But what’s interesting about Kyle, a charming and laconic Texan who blindly believes America is the greatest country on Earth, is not that he was a killing machine. It is what he was haunted by. He failed to save too many soldiers, too many of his friends. He clearly didn’t relish killing little boys holding bombs meant for American soldiers, but it’s thinking about the soldiers who lost limbs, eyes and their lives that he can’t shake. American Sniper is less a war film than it is an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder that uses violent, vicious action scenes to explain the suffering that comes afterwards.

America’s great formalist director Clint Eastwood handles the action and the domestic drama with equal skill. The battle scenes – which are mostly a series of people dying, ducking and firing bullets – are brisk and effective, though they are sometimes confusing, and rarely are they interesting, except when Kyle seems to be battling his morals before killing a woman or a child. (He doesn’t blink when he shoots an adult male.) The scenes back home, with Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller), allow Cooper to portray PTSD with great sensitivity and allow Miller to complain about her husband’s patriotic duty that seems strangely like a death wish. The Kyles’ home life is endearing, even idyllic, and it works as a powerful contrast to the hell of Chris’ tours in Iraq.

The reason any of this works is Cooper, who has received his third acting Oscar nomination in three years for playing Chris Kyle. (Cooper is also nominated as a producer for American Sniper.) This is by far Cooper’s greatest performance, and the first one that tamps down his naturally brilliant comedy. Cooper exudes a kind of Texan cowboy masculinity that we know better as myth but which still pops up in real people, and Chris Kyle was one of those people. Kyle is tortured by what he experienced in Iraq, and that torture is portrayed with agonizing fear and anxiety easily seen in Cooper’s expressive eyes and jerky head.

After a few pushes from other veterans and a vet psychologist, he starts spending time with wounded and traumatized vets, helping them overcome their demons by taking them to the shooting range. (It was a laudable goal if not a great idea, and it ended in tragedy.) How this helps Kyle regain his composure, overcome his PTSD, become a better dad and husband and redeem himself is completely left out of the film.

We learn more about how to sight a rifle than we learn about how Kyle overcame killing 160 people. That the latter is impossible is left out of the film. That is not something that deserves awards.

American Sniper

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Jason Hall and Chris Kyle (book)

Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and Luke Grimes

Rated R

At your local multiplex

Also playing

Paddington

Most of the Oscar bait films sitting in theaters right now are not cheerful, and some of them are just downright depressing. And you certainly shouldn’t take your kids to American Sniper or Foxcatcher. But Paddington is wondrous.

A big hit in Britain this Christmas, it was nominated for a British Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and I think it’s deserving. Freely adapted from the children’s book series by Michael Bond that began in 1958, Paddington is a rare intelligent talking bear from darkest Peru, and in Paul King’s film, he sets off for London to find a new home after the forest where he lived with his aunt and uncle is destroyed. When he gets to England, he stands in Paddington Station and hopes someone will take him in. The Brown family do, over the objections of father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) but with the great support of mother Mary (Sally Hawkins).

While Paddington tries to fit into the world he doesn’t understand – with typical slapstick results – an evil taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) is determined to stuff the poor bear and display him in a museum.

This subplot is a little too similar to 101 Dalmatians, but the execution of the whole story is sweeter, smarter and much more charming. Hawkins is particularly wonderful as the wise and emotionally grounded mother, and Bonneville does a great curmudgeon. The kids, Madeleine Harris as Judy and Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, are both winning as well. And Ben Wishaw, the out gay actor best known as Q in the new James Bond films, does Paddington’s voice with perfect whimsy.

Even without the unintentional double entendres about (gay) bears, the film is worth seeing even if you don’t have children.

GALECA announces its awards

The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA), of which I am a member, announced its annual awards, and while we followed the crowd in a few places, we queered it up in others. Boyhood was named best picture, Julianne Moore best actress for Still Alice, and Eddie Redmayne best actor for The Theory of Everything. But then we gave the famously snubbed director of Selma Ava DuVernay best director. Queer Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s brilliant Cannes’ hit Mommy won best foreign language film, while Pride won both best LGBT film and best unsung film of the year. TV awards went to Transparent, The Normal Heart, and Lisa Kudrow. And we gave our Timeless Award to George Takei, who has done so much as an activist, actor and humorist.



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Posted by on Jan 22, 2015. Filed under Movie Review, Bottom Highlights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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