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New films: Two good and two…not so good

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American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is still going strong and has another winner with “American Sniper,” a character study of Chris Kyle, hailed as America’s deadliest sniper. During four tours in Iraq, Kyle was credited with 160 kills and Eastwood is more interested in telling us what that means to a man, than in dwelling on the details of exactly how it happened.

It’s easy to watch “American Sniper” and think it’s very gung-ho with respect to war and military service, but it’s more of a consideration of what might cause that attitude. Kyle, as depicted in the film, was raised by a father who instilled the idea that a man’s duty is to protect those around him. By enlisting, Kyle was living up to that ideal and he continued to serve and go back for more as the need to protect others, as he understood it, never diminished.

Narratively, the film is a little sloppy and time passes somewhat abruptly as we see Kyle progress very rapidly from being the new guy to being “Legend,” the guy that people have heard of, the guy that fellow soldiers felt good about having watching their backs. But Eastwood wants us to think about the man more than his actions and the effect that war and killing had on Kyle.

During the same period that Kyle served, he also met and married his wife and started a family. However, while the commonality of caring and protecting existed in both of his worlds, the battlefield mindset didn’t translate to his home life and he continued to feel drawn towards service and away from home. Understandably, this didn’t sit well with his wife who wanted him home and felt that he had done enough already.

Bradley Cooper is remarkable as Kyle, becoming this man who excels in the dispassionate world of warfare and killing and who struggles to readjust to family life, where passion is held in high regard and not every outside force is a threat. Eastwood succeeds in bringing that struggle and that two-way transition to the screen and, in doing so, rather than celebrating war, he causes us to think about the costs of war. At some point, killing 160 people takes on the nature of the high score in a video game – but each number represents a life, likely of somebody else who is similarly doing what they see as their duty, whether we agree with them or not. Eastwood is not the most subtle director, but he’s very effective with films of this kind.

 

Paddington
Directed by Paul King

“Paddington” is based on the character created in the late 1950’s by Michael Bond – he’s a young bear who arrived at Paddington Station in London, having stowed away on a boat from “darkest Peru.” The image of a innocent character at a rail station, with a label around his neck, hoping to be taken in by a caring family was familiar to Bond’s generation who grew up in England, during WWII, when many children were evacuated from cities and sent to live in more rural locations that were less likely to be bombed.

Paddington is found by the Brown family, whose patriarch (Hugh Bonneville) is a stiff and pragmatic man, not exactly prone to adopting young bears at a moment’s notice. But he’s more than adequately counter-balanced by his more spontaneous wife (Sally Hawkins). And so Paddington moves in and hi-jinks ensure, fueled by an amusing combination of culture-shock and clumsiness.

That’s really all the books were about and they were a big part of my childhood. Paddington’s adventures tended to be very mundane and filled with life lessons about banking and asking for help and, I suppose in today’s terms, about acceptance and inclusion. So it’s a little disorienting to a longtime fan to be presented with a film that feels the need to establish a more complex backstory in service to a plotline that involves a Cruella De Vil style villain intent on doing harm to young Paddington.

However, it all works surprisingly well, providing enough added action to satisfy a younger audience who have been raised on such fare. And the basic dynamic of Paddington and the Brown family is updated and preserved quite well in the midst of all the added excitement – although it’s hard to picture quite what we might get next, if the filmmakers feel that danger is such an imperative – it’s certainly not likely to be a story of Paddington discovering, to his horror, that the bank notes given to him by the bank teller aren’t the same bank notes he deposited for safekeeping!

“Paddington” was a somewhat troubled production, with cast changes fairly late in the process. Oddly, the original voice for Paddington was going to be provided by Colin Firth, who’s a great actor but doesn’t seem a good fit for a juvenile anything. Fortunately, the voice provided by Ben Wishaw, who at 34 also isn’t especially juvenile, works very well.

“Paddington” is a fun family film that somehow manages to mess enough with the original to potentially offend some purists, while maintaining enough of the characters and fun to satisfy this particular former purist (although I had some misgivings early on).

 

Moviebriefs

Michael Mann’s latest film “Blackhat” manages to be even messier and more distracting visually than his last film “Public Enemies.” Pitched through its marketing campaign as a techno-thriller, “Blackhat” isn’t really that technical proficient and relies more on gunfire and explosions than on geeky guys staring at computer screens – indeed, there isn’t a geek in sight, with uber-hacker Nick Hathaway played by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. And if you exclude “Tron” (and perhaps “Matrix”) there really aren’t any films that benefit from visual attempts to take you inside computers and circuit boards – something “Blackhat seems to realize halfway through when it stops bothering and becomes an action film instead. “Public Enemies” was shot partially on film and partially digitally, with the transitions being very obvious and action sequences appearing choppy. I said at that time that I was surprised because the quality of the production was reminiscent of independent filmmaking a decade or so ago, when video tended to be very obviously video. In “Blackhat” there aren’t the disorienting transitions, because it all seems digital, but unfortunately it all has the same problem, looking more like news footage than film. I’m not sure if it’s a frame-rate issue but it kept taking me out of the action as I sat and pondered the apparent low quality of the image. Which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, given the similar low quality of the storytelling. Although it’s not all bad, it’s just a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or who it’s for. Ah January.

I think I’m building an appreciation of Kevin Hart but I’m not much of a fan of “The Wedding Ringer” despite having laughed through a great deal of it. It’s an inherently amusing story about a guy who makes a living as a professional best man, for those guys who don’t have friends who are close enough to perform that duty. That’s a great premise and there’s much here that builds on it. Unfortunately, it’s a little too quick to fall back on tired and stereotypical tricks, such as playing sexuality and disability status for laughs – and in doing so it transitions into feeling mean-spirited. If that doesn’t bother you, you might enjoy the film because it’s genuinely laugh out loud funny much of the time, but I cringed almost as much as I laughed.

New films: Two good and two…not so good via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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