Oscar Double Dose Review: American Sniper & Foxcatcher

americansniper_posterClint Eastwood is a legend, no doubt, and I have had quite the love/hate relationship with the films he’s directed. Bradley Cooper is a talented actor, one who I have had no doubt could carry a movie and one day be nominated for an Oscar. So with Eastwood and Cooper collaborating you would think AMERICAN SNIPER would be a harmonious true story about the most lethal sniper in American history- and you’d be wrong…at least in my opinion.

I guess I’m not being entirely fair- you wouldn’t be wrong for having loved this movie, I simply just wouldn’t agree. First things first though, AMERICAN SNIPER simply follows the life and military career of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). The film does not get into deep detail of Kyle’s early years aside from a few scenes with his father, then moves on to events leading to his decision to become a Navy SEAL, meeting a pretty girl at a bar and starting a relationship, and eventually deciding to join the war in Iraq. As a sniper in the war Kyle racks up a startling amount of kills, earns the title of Legend amongst his peers, becomes a high priority target in the eyes of the enemy and alienates the his wife and growing family. 

On the surface it’s very easy to write Kyle off as a unflinching killing machine with no regard for the family he continues to leave behind to fight in the war. Being someone who has not fought in a war, I cannot speak for the emotions and mental stability of the men and women who have, nor can I connect with it. However, I can fully recognize someone struggling with two sides of himself and sympathize- which is exactly what I felt in Cooper’s portrayal of this real life individual. Cooper’s performance is the saving grace of the film, though I wouldn’t call it the best performance I’ve seen this year.

AMERICAN SNIPER’s biggest downfall is the portrayal of the many wartime events and heightened drama of it all regardless of its historical accuracy. There are tense moments to be sure, and Eastwood’s direction, at times, cannot be blamed as the film is filmed very well. It’s the quick glimpses of a rival sniper having a poster of the reward on Kyle’s head and the many phone calls of the rival sniper getting phone calls and subsequently “suiting up.” The film sometimes portrays this movie as though it’s some kind of comic book movie where Kyle is the caped hero and the rival sniper is the brooding villain with zero lines but jumps the rooftops and can make shots that people continuously describe as impossible. If it’s historically accurate, then I guess I should say, “good on ya,” but I still find it ridiculous in the way the filmmakers portrayed it.

What it comes down to is that AMERICAN SNIPER just isn’t the type of movie I get excited about. I like Bradley Cooper in it, and I like many of the layers to his performance of a man who was obviously very complex in real life. The problem being that I don’t feel like Eastwood and writer Jason Hall were nearly as sure-handed with this story as they could have been. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but as a film based on a real person it sometimes feels too Hollywood-ized for the emotional core of the movie to shine as bright as it should.

Rating: C+

 

foxcatcher_posterWhile on the subject of true life stories where the filmmakers involved dropped the ball somewhere I suppose it’s appropriate to continue on with FOXCATCHER. With Bennett Miller behind the camera, Steve Carell transforming himself into the role, and the duo of Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo putting in dramatic work I didn’t think this movie could fail. Boy was I somewhat mistaken.

FOXCATCHER is the story of former Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) struggling in the real world to find his place and trying to work his way back to Olympic glory. While spending his day to day life making embarrassing appearances speaking to kids who could care less about his accomplishments and being a training partner for his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), Mark gets a call out of the blue to come visit the extremely wealthy John du Pont (Steve Carell). Du Pont offers Mark the chance to stay on his property to train and put together a team to try out for the upcoming World trials and Olympic trials down the road. Mark is romanced by du Pont’s vision of the country getting back into its patriotic ways and getting behind the United States Olympic athletes. Under du Pont’s will, Mark becomes obsessed with greatness and trying to get out from under his David’s shadow that it consumes him. Just how far is du Pont willing to go to see his vision of his team winning gold at the Olympics and mentor his new protege to the top?

Semi spoilers for real life, things do not end well for one of these three characters. I mean, we have three distinctly different personalities at play. Du Pont is obsessed with winning, but is blinded by trying to acheive his mother’s approval and trying to earn Mark’s friendship, but intentionally pushes him away and provokes him by insisting to bring Mark’s brother to the team. Mark is a lost child in a man’s body trying to reclaim his glory but falls under du Pont’s dangerous puppet-like game. David, played by Ruffalo, is the super likable nice guy who has a wife and kids, but loves his brother unconditionally and is constantly trying to extinguish the fire that is Mark’s temper. Even when Mark intentionally punches David while training all he does is laugh it off and continues along with training. Even when Mark irrationally starts yelling at David’s wife for not being eternally grateful for meeting du Pont in their hotel room David runs after Mark and graciously gives him pointers for his upcoming match. If you know the story then you too might feel intensely manipulated by just how likable and nice David’s character is.

If you don’t know the story, I don’t know that Miller and company earn the emotional or visceral response to the finale that they were going for. The entire film is one consistent tone of dread and tension, but the progression of the characters is incredibly uneven. The finale just seems to pop up because it has to get there at some point and it just felt like Miller and the screenwriters couldn’t find a more organic way to transition to confrontation. The characters are complex enough that it certainly feels as though they could have approached the last act another way, but as is it just did not have near as powerful an effect as it could have.

Story progression aside, the performances are great. Carell while impressive, his makeup and physical appearance undermines his acting. Tatum however continues to prove that he can navigate the differing cinematic waters well. Sure no one really likes his romantic efforts- estrogen heavy viewers aside- but comedy and drama are becoming somewhat of a staple for him and he plays them well. Tatum plays to a type to be sure- the anguished brute with goals that surpass his own ability to put into words that make sense. Once he flies off the rails though his grudge and subsequent anger become the star which includes a scene in a hotel room that is alarming with just a hint of comedy. Ruffalo is also great, but he’s so damn likable that it’s almost infuriating. Infuriating because again, if you know where this is going you can tell just how much the filmmakers are trying to manipulate you to react to the final scenes.

Overall, I still did not hate this movie, I just hate when I can so easily tell when I’m being manipulated. Rather than letting the story of FOXCATCHER unfold organically each scenes feels desperate to get reactions. On some level cinematically a filmmaker must make those choices to keep the audience on board, but somehow for me it betrays the emotional resonance and shock of the film’s last act. FOXCATCHER, while tense and well acted is somewhat unfocused and lacking a sense of urgency that could have put it over the top. Or perhaps it would be more apt to say that FOXCATCHER is a little too focused on being transparent in its manipulation of the audience. Either way, I found myself leaving the theater mostly underwhelmed by what I had experienced.

Rating: C+

 

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