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American Sniper ~ A Capsule Movie Review

American Sniper

American Sniper ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

From producer/director Clint Eastwood comes American Sniper, the true story of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal (Sea, Air and Land) who became something of a hero and a legend during four tours of duty in Iraq due to his sharpshooting skills. With at least 160 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle became the most successful (deadly to the enemy) sniper in American military history.

Chris Kyle is a Texan and starts out wanting to be a cowboy, but he is moved to serve his country when it is attacked on September 11, 2001. He joins the Navy Seals and finds himself fighting the enemy in Iraq. After one tour of duty, he has the deep conviction that he is still needed and signs up for another tour, and then a third and a fourth. With a wife and two small children at home, he is torn between his duty to them and what he sees as his duty to his country.

Bradley Cooper, who we have seen in a lot of other movies lately, plays Chris Kyle with a clenched-jaw Texas accent that at times I find difficult to understand. Once again, we are left with getting the gist of what is being said without the actual words. No other actor could have played Chris Kyle any better, though; he even bears a strong physical resemblance to him.

American Sniper isn’t a justification for war and isn’t making a political statement. Rather, it is about the people who fight the war (one person in particular) and the actions they must take to survive and to help their fellow soldiers survive. If that means shooting and killing a woman or a child who is lobbing missiles at Americans, then so be it.

Not the least amazing thing about American Sniper is that Clint Eastwood is still making action movies like this in his 85th year.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Mr. Turner ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

J.M.W. Turner was an English landscape painter who lived from 1775 to 1851. The new movie, Mr. Turner, is a stately (slow-moving) look at his life and times. Timothy Spall plays Turner and the movie was directed by celebrated director Mike Leigh.

While Turner (known to his friends as “William”) was a profoundly gifted painter whose work influenced landscape painting for generations, the movie focuses more on his eccentric private life than on his work. He lives with his elderly father and calls him “daddy” until the older gentleman’s death. He never marries but fathers two daughters with a shrewish woman who comes around periodically to berate him and his work and to tell him how worthless he is. He cares little for the woman or the two daughters but must, seemingly, tolerate them. (When one of the daughters dies as a young woman, he barely bats an eyelash.) He has an unattractive housekeeper, one Hannah Danby (she reminds me of the character actress Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz), with whom he enjoys furtive sexual congress from time to time. He travels a lot, seeking inspiration for his work, and it is on one of these trips that he meets Mrs. Booth, a widow with a soothing nature. The two are drawn to each other, not for the sake of physical appearance (“When I look in the mirror, I see a gargoyle,” he says.), but for what each sees in the other. He has a dalliance with Mrs. Booth that lasts eighteen years or so, in effect leading a double life apart from his life in London. He is at the home of Mrs. Booth when he dies at the age of 76 of a heart ailment. Hannah Danby is, wordlessly, left with a broken heart.

Mr. Turner is an English art film, rather than a mainstream movie, so its audience is limited. Turner is very jowly (or at least that’s the way he is portrayed here), so I had a little trouble understanding what he was saying, especially in the early going. The other characters are, mostly, more intelligible. Sometimes we are left to catch the gist of what they are saying, rather than the words themselves. All in all, though, Mr. Turner is a fascinating glimpse, for the serious moviegoer, at the life of a nineteenth century genius.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Unbroken ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Unbroken

Unbroken ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Unbroken is a true American story about a boy born of Italian immigrant parents, one Louie Zamperini. As a child, Louie is bullied and inclined toward fighting and mischief, which includes smoking cigarettes surreptitiously and drinking liquor out of milk bottles. Feeling worthless, Louie turns to running at the urging of his older brother, Pete. He finds he is very good at running, becomes the fastest runner in history for a high school student, and ends up in the 1934 Olympic games, held in Nazi Berlin.

Fast forward a few years to World War II when Louie is a bombardier on a fighter plane. When the plane he is on goes down somewhere in the South Pacific, he and only two other members of his crew (Phil and Mac) survive. Adrift on a life raft, they believe someone will rescue them, but they find it difficult to maintain the hope that will keep them alive. After many days at sea with slim hope of rescue, one of the three, Mac, dies. Louie and Phil hang on, but just barely. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for them, they are captured by the Japanese and put in a prisoner-of-war camp, where they are routinely beaten, tortured and brutalized. The snarling young Japanese commandant of the camp, known by the prisoners as “Bird,” knows that Louie was an Olympic athlete and singles him out for special mistreatment, at one point forcing all the other prisoners to punch Louie in the face, which they are, of course, reluctant to do.

The only thing that keeps Louie Zamperini and the others alive in the face of unspeakable brutality at the hands of the Japanese is the determination not to give up. At one point, Louie says that making it through alive to the end of the war is the best way to get revenge. The will to persevere that he learned as an athlete in his younger days serves him well.

We’ve seen life in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in plenty of other movies—The Bridge on the River Kwai, King Rat, Empire of the Sun, Paradise Road, The Railway Man, to name a few—so that aspect of Unbroken seems familiar. Also we have seen plenty of harrowing stories about survival in World War II. What makes Unbroken unique is that it was directed by a woman (Angelina Jolie) and that Louie Zamperini was a real—not a fictional—person that almost anybody could identify with. He died in 2014 at the age of 97. If you won’t give up, neither will I.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Selma ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Selma

Selma ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In the American South of the 1960s, black citizens were guaranteed the right to vote but were systematically denied the right to register to vote by a system controlled by white officials. (If you can’t register, you can’t vote.) The new movie, Selma, is about the struggle to right this wrong and about the symbolic fifty-mile protest march from Selma to Montgomery that galvanized the country’s attention.

To politicians of the day, suppression of black voters in the South was a political football they preferred to stay away from. When Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) seeks the help of the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, the actor who seems to be able to play any part, from Ben Franklin to a transgendered woman), he (Johnson) wants to defer the matter to a future time, believing the country has more pressing problems, such as the Vietnam War and poverty. The demagogic governor of Alabama, George Wallace (a snarling Tim Roth), seems unable to effectively deal with racial issues in his state. He wants the president to handle the matter, while the president dresses Wallace down for not handling it on a state level. When the protesters, mostly black but some white, attempt to cross the bridge over the Alabama River, led by Dr. King, there is a bloody melee with an all-white police force. When the story and its accompanying images are beamed across the national airwaves, people everywhere are suddenly paying attention to what is happening in the South and waiting for what happens next.

Of course, the focus of Selma is Dr. Martin Luther King, his life and struggles. In the many scenes between him and his wife, we sense a tension between them and get the impression that their marriage is not all it should be. (These interior scenes are, for some reason, grungy-looking and dark.) Dr. King’s well-publicized marital infidelities are played down. (The couple’s children are nonentities, mentioned in passing and seen only from a distance.) Dr. King seems to not know that the FBI is snooping on him, listening in on his private conversations, seeking to destroy his family and his life. Once again, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is the villain.

Selma is a history lesson wrapped up as mainstream entertainment. How historically accurate is it? Only those who were there and remember the events as they happened can say for sure. What is known is that President Johnson signed into law in 1965 the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp  

Into the Woods ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Into the Woods

Into the Woods ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Into the Woods was a Broadway musical with music by Stephen Sondheim and is now a movie. It’s set in a mythical kingdom, populated by a childless baker and his wife; a wicked old witch (Meryl Streep); Rapunzel, whom the wicked witch passes off as her own daughter but who is really the younger sister of the baker; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick); Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and two wicked stepsisters (“beautiful of face and black of heart”); not one, but two, handsome princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnuson); Jack (of “and the beanstalk”) and his harried mother (Tracey Ullman); Red Riding Hood and a hungry wolf (Johnny Depp); and an angry female giant who is at first mistaken for an earthquake. They all sing at the full capacity of their lungs (except for the giant) and they all want something. Desire of some kind seems to be the subtext for all fairytales.

There are some funny moments, as when the wicked stepmother cuts off part of each of her daughter’s foot (“If you’re married to a prince,” she says, “you won’t need to walk.”) to accommodate the slipper that Cinderella left behind as she was fleeing the ball at midnight; and when the baker and his wife attempt haplessly to get their hands on the articles (Red Riding Hood’s cape, a white cow, a golden slipper, and hair as yellow as corn) the wicked witch requires to reverse the spell she has placed on them that has made them childless. Also funny is the scene where Meryl Streep is transformed from an ugly witch into a beautiful witch, making her look like a drag queen.

To me the Stephen Sondheim music is unmelodic and highly forgettable (not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein), but Into the Woods is beautiful to look at, with engaging and likeable characters (except for the wicked stepsisters, one of whom smacks Cinderella in the face and knocks her down). Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours between Christmas and New Year’s. I just wish I could have seen more of that angry female giant.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Hobbit, the Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

We come now, finally, to the third installment of the Hobbit trilogy: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Smaug, the ill-tempered, fire-breathing dragon that has been sitting on a tremendous horde of gold inside the Lonely Mountain for a long time (centuries, it seems) was unleashed in December 2013 at the end of the second installment. For reasons that are not clear, Smaug is intent on destroying Middle Earth. Smaug manages to destroy a large part of the town called Laketown but is killed by one of its intrepid citizens, the one named Bard, with a special arrow that pierces his otherwise unpierceable hide. Of course, Bard wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of his young son, whose name, I believe, is Bain.

So, with Smaug dead, that leaves all that glorious gold inside the mountain unattended, which, naturally, everybody wants for their own. The armies of the different races (dwarves, elves, orcs, and men) converge on the mountain to fight it out. Is all that gold worth fighting a war over? Of course, it is. Which army will prevail in the end? Will it be a force of good or will it be the army of orcs (a cruel, ugly, war-like, humanoid race) sent by arch-villain Saruman?

Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf who is also an exiled king, is supposed to represent the force of good in the war over the gold, but something happens to him. Just being inside the mountain makes him greedy. He begins to believe that the gold means more than honor, integrity and commitment to his people. He is suffering from what one dwarf calls “dragon fever.” How will the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and the thirteen dwarves he has been traveling with since the beginning of the adventure make Thorin Oakenshield see how wrong he is?

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth another visit to Middle Earth, apparently the last one there will ever be. Peter Jackson, the director who directed this trilogy and also the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a master’s touch, says he will not make any more movies based on the fantastical works of J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s been a lot of fun and a great run. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp 

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Exodus, Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

There aren’t many movie spectacles anymore like Exodus: Gods and Kings. It is a retelling of the familiar story of Moses (played by Christian Bale) and how he led the Hebrew people to freedom after four hundred years of slavery by the Egyptians. (And how did Egypt use all those slaves? To build its monuments and tombs, some of which still stand today.) John Turturro (an odd choice) plays the pharaoh Seti (with a strange British accent). When Seti dies, his son, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), becomes pharaoh. Ramses may be a god to his people, but he has the full range of human frailties (self-doubt, fear, etc.) He’s no strutting, arrogant jerk here, as we have seen him portrayed before.

The foundling Moses is, of course, raised by the Egyptian royal family as their own. He and Ramses are like brothers, although they are nothing alike. When Moses, as a man, kills a slavemaster, it becomes apparent that he and Ramses are on opposing sides. Moses is exiled, or chooses exile on his own, and flees across the Red Sea. When he is rescued, near death, from a terrible storm by a tribe of Bedouins, he marries a woman of their tribe and they have a son. In the meantime, God is speaking to Moses through the “Burning Bush.” God’s messenger to Moses is a small boy who appears to be about twelve years old with a grownup’s command of the language. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people from slavery. Why was Moses chosen out of all the others to carry out this task?

Egypt needs its slaves to build its tombs and monuments and has no intention of giving them up without a fight. (As Ramses explains, the monuments, which are so necessary, represent power.) God unleashes the Ten Plagues on Egypt, not only as punishment, but also to contrast His own power with the power of the Egyptian deities. After the tenth plague (death of the firstborn), which costs Ramses his infant son, he capitulates, bringing about the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.

I can’t attest to the historical or biblical accuracy of Exodus: God and Kings, but, for my money it’s solid entertainment on a spectacular scale, far superior to most of the mainstream crap that’s out there. (Horrible Bosses 2? Oh, please! And do we really need another Dumb and Dumber?) There’s something about seeing the grandeur of ancient Egypt in a big-budget Hollywood movie that makes it worth the time and effort. Just enjoy the ride and don’t pay any attention to those people whose job it is to tear everything down.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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