‘American Sniper’ hits it mark

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) driving to the mall with a blood pressure reading of 170/110. “There’s a war going on and nobody’s talking about it,” he says.

Well, they’re talking about it now. Whether you love or hate Clint Eastwood’s controversial Oscar contender, “American Sniper,” you can’t deny how it brought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back into the national dialogue.

The 132-minute film’s based on Kyle’s bestselling 2012 memoir, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” which is co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice.

With four consecutive tours to Iraq (where he spent about 1,000 days in between in the U.S.), Kyle has totaled more than 160 confirmed kills. His fellow SEALs nicknamed him “The Legend” — more myth-than-man especially when airbrushed by Jason Hall’s larger-than-life Hollywood script.

“That’s a title you don’t want,” Kyle tells a fellow veteran.

But his feats are legendary. Kyle’s your Paul Bunyan, whom the marines feel invincible around. He shot an enemy sniper from a distance of 21 football fields. The Iraqi insurgents nicknamed him the “Devil of Ramadi,” and put a $20,000 target on his head.

Despite all that, Cooper’s Kyle is very solid and grounded. When he says with his Texas drawl: “I’d lay down my life for this country,” you believe him without a doubt.

Kyle’s one of those old Western heroes Eastwood would have played a lifetime ago: a real American hero sworn to God, country and family (in that order). He was a cowboy before he was a soldier. And his father, Wayne (played by Ben Reed), taught Chris to protect his own.

That’s what he’s trying to do when we’re first introduced to him. Kyle’s lying on his belly with a rifle in his hand. Below him, you can hear the rebels’ croon “Allah Akbar.” The rumble of an approaching U.S. Marine tank muffles their cries.

From his elevated vantage point, Kyle sees a woman and a kid with a grenade. They’re moving quickly toward the marines.

“You’ll fry if you’re wrong,” his comrade Goat (Kyle Gallner) whispers in his ear.

He has only seconds to shoot. If he chooses to.

If you choose to see “American Sniper,” be prepared for very graphic material. Eastwood creates a visceral experience, shooting you with a fusillade of heavy and emotional bullets. These include the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in 1998 and the World Trade Center on 9/11; as well as the confrontational conversations between Kyle and his wife, Taya (played by Sienna Miller), whose trying to raise two children on her own.

It certainly feels like you’re at war. At times, you’re looking through the crosshairs. Children and women are in the line of fire, holding up bombs and picking up guns. There’s lulls of pillow talk interrupted by the continuous rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. Blood and guts. Disturbing images you can’t unsee. It’s long and emotionally draining, filling you with anger, pride, fear, but mostly, an incredible sadness that pierces your heart.

“American Sniper” was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall, based on Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice’s book. “American Sniper’s” nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Motion Picture. 

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ plays a familiar tune

It starts with a mixtape labeled: “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” — filled with tracks from the ’70s and ’80s. The mixtape, like the music, takes you into another era — the one when new “Star Wars” movies were being released into theaters and “Star Trek” was still running on TV. The force was with us as we “explored strange new worlds, seeking out life and civilizations, going boldly where no man has gone before.”

That’s the tune director James Gunn sets up with his Marvel film, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a time capsule to the “old” frontier.

The “Guardians of the Galaxy” aren’t your conventional superheroes. But neither are the crew of Josh Whedon’s “Serenity.” These intergalactic guardians are rogues, thieves and smugglers, assassins and killers — all with their own agendas. And their origin story starts in prison.

The captain of this Space Western (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett’s comic books) is Peter James Quill (Chris Pratt), or, as he likes to call himself, Star Lord. When we first meet him, he’s stealing this orb while rocking out to Redbone’s 1974 hit, “Come and Get Your Love.”

But Quill’s not the only one that wants the orb. “This orb has a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe,” says Quill.

Quill’s mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) would love nothing more than to sell the orb to the highest bidder. The Collector (Benecio Del Toro, “The Usual Suspects”) wants to add the orb, and the infinity stone it contains, to his collection of outer worldly treasures (which includes the Terrasect from “Thor: The Dark World“). Green-skinned Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana of the modern “Star Trek” films) is sent to secure the orb for Ronan (Lee Pace), but she wants to betray him for killing her parents. Ronan, like all evil-doers, wants the orb for world destruction. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) wants to inflict revenge on Ronan. And Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pal Groot (an Ent-like structure voiced by Vin Diesel) are hired mercenaries, looking to capture Quill for their own financial gain.

As you can imagine, the rest of “Guardians of the Galaxy” plays out like a 121-minute game of capture the orb, accompanied by flying ships and explosions. We’ve seen this story dozens of times before with varying degrees of special effects. (The visual effects artists of “Guardians of the Galaxy” successfully disintegrate the faces of men while animating CGI and rotomation animals.) But “Guardians of the Galaxy” strikes a chord.

With the help of Blue Swede, David Bowie, the Runaways, Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and the Raspberries, Gunn drums up our nostalgia — reminding us how awesome the ’80s were while paying homage to the science fiction stories we grew up on. Now that’s a tune we can listen to.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was directed by James Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett’s comics. 

Christian Bale’s American villians: ‘American Hustle’ vs. ‘American Psycho’

When you watch Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glue and rearrange his hair on his balding head in the first scene of director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” you get a sense of déjà vu.

We’ve seen Bale in front a mirror — surrounded by more hair and beauty products — when he played the infamous Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000).

Sure, Rosenfeld is older and heavier than Bateman. Bateman isn’t plagued by high blood pressure and a manipulative know-it-all wife (played by the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence).

But they’re both American con men — practiced liars and actors whose confidence is as deadly as a siren’s song.

Bateman was the mad New York “mergers and acquisitions” man from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. He murdered his acquaintances to the soundtracks of Huey Lewis & the News, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.

Rosenfeld and his pretty partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) listen to Duke Ellington and John Cotrane. They run a successful Ponzi scheme in the tri-state area. Sydney would pose as Lady Edith Greensly, a rich English girl with London banking connections. They would deny it as they swindled desperate clients thinking their investment would more than double under Rosenfeld and Prosser’s fake firm, London Associates.

Or at least that’s what Rosenfeld and Prosser did until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) caught them.

Now, their “get-out-of-jail-free” card is to help the FBI catch corruption. And boy, are DiMaso’s sights high…

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve lived through it.

“Some of this actually happened,” reads a black title screen.

Written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, “American Hustle” is loosely based on the story of “sting man” Melvin Weinberg. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Weinberg helped the FBI entrap six congressmen, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey state senator and a mayor accepting bribes in the undercover operation, Abscam.

“You set up a crook to catch a crook,” Weinberg tells “60 Minutes'” host Mike Wallace. “We put a big honeypot out there and all the flies came to us.”

Bale’s swindler is oddly sympathetic compared to Bateman. For Rosenfeld, conning is a way of survival: “We’re all con ourselves from one way or another, just to get through life,” he says.

Perhaps it’s the way Rosenfeld looks — balding with a bit of a belly. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as his wife berates him.

“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” he says.

Or perhaps it’s just the masterful acting of Christian Bale, conning himself into our hearts as he changes his figure and assumes yet another elusive identity (After all, how much can you trust a con man?).

At least this one looks and feels human.

“American Hustle” was directed by David O. Russell and written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best costume design, best directing, best film editing, best production design, best original screenplay and film of the year.

‘Hangover III’: the end to an era

Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, that was never the case in the “Hangover.” Or in “Hangover Part III.”

After “Hangover” sent Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a wild goose chase across Las Vegas in search of their missing friend, groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha), and “Hangover II” takes the gang through a similar scenario involving Stu’s wedding in Thailand, “Hangover III” takes the Wolfpack full circle: back to Vegas where their drunken, blacked-out misadventures began.

While “Hangover III” is less slightly formulaic than its predecessors (“Hangover II” was an almost frame-by-frame replicate of the first movie), it follows a similar pattern: Doug gets kidnapped and Phil, Stu and Alan have to get him back. Though this time, the Wolfpack have their memories in tact (perhaps writers Craig Mazin and Todd Phillips finally realized that there were only so many times the company could get drugged).

Advertised as Alan’s “happily ever after,” the movie begins with a funeral rather than a wedding. Alan’s dad (Jeffrey Tambor) died and Alan promises to ween off drugs if Phil, Stu and Doug join him in rehab. But on their drive from LA to Arizona, Doug gets kidnapped by Marshall (John Goodman), who has some beef with Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), the Asian criminal mastermind infamous for his catchphrase, “Too-da-loo, Motherfucker.”

Because Alan kept in contact with Mr. Chow before he escaped from prison, Marshall figures the Wolfpack could to retrieve Chow. So reluctantly, Phil, Stu and Alan return to Sin City where they reunite with cops, Stu’s stripper ex-wife, Caesar’s Palace and the baby Carlos/Tyler.

Although its chock full of recycled gags (which include drugging animals and body altercation), at least “Hangover III” tries to disguise itself as something different. The boys seemed to have grown up. For one, Stu doesn’t lose a tooth or get branded with a Mike Tyson tattoo. And we don’t see any pictures of it. The three  don’t wake up with a baby, tiger or small chimp in their room. And they don’t even suffer from any black-out inducing drugs. Or at least that isn’t part of the central plot of the film.

This film is about Alan, the eccentric man-child, who seems to finally possess social finesse, pulling Cassie (Melissa McCarthy), a female replica of himself. Galifiankis and McMarthy’s mating ritual ranges from strange to hilarious.

And there is a wedding. (After all, it wouldn’t be a comedy without one.) But the best parts of Todd Phillips’ third installment? We don’t see the bachelor party and we know there’s no more sequels.

“Hangover Part III” was directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Craig Mazin. 

‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is where two stories meet

Call it fate, destiny or karma, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is where two roads converge into one.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman at a traveling fair when he finds out his fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has a 1-year-old boy. Luke quits his job and stays in Schenectady, N.Y., to support them. However, with work experience such as driving motorcycles fast, his income is limited. After Luke meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the two begin a bank-robbing spree. Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is the cop that eventually catches Luke, known as “the motorcycle bandit.”

Derek Cianfrance, writer and director of “Blue Valentine,” creates another drama that flits between the past and present. However, unlike “Blue Valentine,” which chronicles the failing marriage of a young couple through flashbacks, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is told chronologically.

The first third of the 140-minute film follows Luke and his motorcycle. The roar of his bike and the scream of the carnival crowd are deafening. While Gosling’s stunt double, Rick Miller, performs the most dangerous stunts, such as driving a motorcycle into a spherical cage or driving the bike through the woods and a cemetery, Gosling does some stunt work, such as driving a motorcycle into a busy intersection.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt specializes in producing long one-take shots that follow the character. Because of this, Gosling and Miller did not have time to switch positions in that particular scene. In the most impressive one-take sequence, Bobbitt’s camera follows Luke as he gets dressed, walks into the carnival tent and then gets on a bike. The camera then follows the bike into the cage.

This isn’t the first time Gosling played a stunt performer — he was the driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” two years ago. Compared to his performance in “Drive,” Gosling is much more vocal, if not violent. He’s desperate as he screams obscenities at the bank tellers shoving money into his backpack. In another scene, he punches a man in the eye, drawing crimson blood. While Gosling, the face of the “Hey Girl” memes, is personable, his character tiptoes along the precarious line of good and bad.

For Cooper, this isn’t his first time behind the wheels of a police vehicle. He drove one over Las Vegas sidewalks for a brief stint in “Hangover.” Now playing an actual cop, Cooper drives his police car through the cemetery with the director of photography is sitting in the passenger’s seat, filming Cooper and the motorcycle he’s chasing.

While Cianfrance creates an engaging drama, “The Place Beyond the Pines” may be too ambitious. The film contains three stories: the stuntman-turned-bank-robber, the cop who pursued him, and their sons, which could easily have been three separate movies or episodes. While each storyline is well crafted, the film feels lengthy, running almost two and a half hours.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” may contain plenty of exposition, but Gosling and Cooper’s performances support the film’s long, convoluted script. Cooper, who has a similar height and build to Gosling, is a believable casting choice to play the heroic cop in a corrupt frat-boy police force. Moreover, his and Gosling’s similar appearances allow Cianfrance to create more efficient parallels. Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, both are placed in morally ambiguous situations and both characters’ similar looks highlight these plot points, creating a sense of closure.

While “The Place Beyond the Pines” ties three stories together through a central point in time, it’s an ugly and messy story, filled with crime, corruption and karma.

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‘The Words’ tell a captivating story

The story behind “The Words” is not new. Earlier this month, Jade Bonacolta, a Columbia University student and the Columbia Spectator’s former associate arts and entertainment editor, plagiarized Robin Pogrebin’s New York Times article. Earlier this summer, Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria was caught plagiarizing Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article in his column on gun control. Although adopting another writer’s work as one’s own isn’t new, directors and screenwriters Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal film adds an original spin to an unoriginal concept.

The film begins as author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading his fiction novel, “The Words,” on an author visit in a New York university. He is telling the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), a young man who moved into a New York City apartment with his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana), in hopes of becoming a writer. When Rory and Dora get married, the couple spends their honeymoon in Paris, where Rory inherits a briefcase containing a finished script. Spurred by his ambition to publish his first novel, Rory makes a Faustian deal with himself — marketing the script as his own, and becoming a bestselling author.

Although the plot may seem trite and cliché at first, the movie becomes more interesting with the appearance of Jeremy Irons, who plays the old man who wrote the original script. Irons provides some of the most captivating scenes in the film, such as when he confronts Cooper about his book with an excellent mix of sarcasm and bitterness. Irons’ narration of his past life also comes at a pivotal point of the film, holding the audience’s interest, just when the film starts to become boring and chalk full of clichés.

Ben Barnes, who plays Irons’ younger self, also gives an excellent performance. Not only does the English actor give a solid American accent, but Barnes also brings sincerity to the writer role that Cooper seems to lack. For example, in the scenes where Barnes is writing his novel, he is seen typing furiously into his typewriter, or reading his script, or scratching things out. Meanwhile, parallel scenes when Cooper is staring blankly at his laptop screen feel flat.

Although Cooper did a decent job in his role, he sometimes comes across as more of a petulant child rather than a writer. For example, in one scene, he abandons his writing in favor of hooking up with his wife. In another scene, he begs his father for money. Cooper is mostly believable as a writer who would plagiarize, but Barnes’ performance and story resonates more with the viewer.

“The Words” is very artistic, from Klugman and Sternthal’s multi-layered script to Marcelo Zarvos’ music, which provides a beautiful and haunting atmospheric background to most of the movie. The imagery, including the picturesque cobblestone sidewalks in Paris and the lush green parks in New York City’s Central Park, is also vibrant and visually stunning.

Like a good novel, “The Words” transports the viewer on a journey through time. The pages of this book jump to life, and Klugman and Sternthal are wonderful storytellers who weave together a charming and romantic drama.

“The Words” is directed and written by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.

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