Ride Along: Movie Man Jackson

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“You got five seconds to pick it up and throw it back!”

Video games can absolutely help in real life, high risk situations. Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) is a gamer, and a security guard at his local high school. His real goal is to get into the local police academy in Atlanta, and he eventually does. Things are looking great, especially with his loving, steady girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter). Ben considers this the perfect time to ask her for her hand in marriage.

Only one obstacle. Detective James Payton (Ice Cube) is Angela’s protective older brother, who considers Ben nothing but a joke. He frankly doesn’t like the guy. James comes up with a way to truly see if his future brother-in-law is the right man by taking him on a Ride Along in an effort to scare him away. It’s on Ben to show that he’s a wolf, and not the sheep that James takes him for.

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The only time the buddy cop genre was fresh was when the first film came out in the genre. Don’t take that statement as yours truly hating the buddy cop genre. I actually enjoy it more times than not, from Rush Hour to Beverly Hills Cop to National Security. It’s an easy subgenre to get right when everything is clicking perfectly, but can get old quick when things aren’t so perfectly melded. Ride Along sits in the prime meridian of the genre.

Any buddy cop movie has to have good, preferably great, chemistry between its leads. Thankfully, Ride Along possesses that. Taking part of its plot structure from Training Day allows Ice Cube and Kevin Hart to get some easy, but notable, laughs. As All About the Benjamins, 21/22 Jump Street, and State of the Union have proven, Cube will always have a role in Hollywood as the guy who can mean mug and blow up over anything and everything. While he has some moments in this one, he is overall somewhat dull, and more of an asset in those movies (except from XXX2) than he is here.

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Though both appear as co-stars in the marketing and marquee, it’s no mystery as to who this movie belongs to. As a man who is more or less indifferent to Kevin Hart, he is the clear MVP of director Tim Story’s (Barbershop, Think Like a Man) feature. He imbues Ride Along with a manic energy that sometimes makes one forget about the averageness—shoddiness, really—of the script. At times, he is like a poor man’s Axel Foley, so seemingly unbelievale and so effortless off the cuff that it is impossible not to laugh and laugh hard. His bits can run too long here and there, and anyone with a dislike of Hart will not suddenly become a fan if this is watched for whatever reason. But he tries, and succeeds to great effect more times than not, as there really are some laugh out loud moments that he delivers singlehandedly.

It’s actually a good thing that he does bring a lot of energy, because without it, Ride Along would be likely to cure insomnia. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but it is surprising that its plot is focused on so much and takes itself so very seriously. I suppose it isn’t horrid, but it is hard to care about who Omar is, who’s peddling what, etc, and it being fairly predictable does it no favors, either. A buddy cop needs to bring the laughs first and foremost, but those successful ones alluded to previously did carry along pretty good scripts all in all, and they also managed to incorporate their stories with the comedy pretty easily. Ride Along feels a little more disjointed with its comedy existing separate from the crime, if that makes sense.

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Smoother and snappier rides have existed in the buddy cop genre. But Ride Along, mostly on the effort of a little Black Hammer Hart, occasionally hits it in the right spots.

Grade: C

Photo credits go to wikipedia.org, reelangie.com, thejasminebrand.com, and phillymag.com.

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Learning to Drive: Movie Man Jackson

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“You can’t always trust people to behave.”

Wish my driver’s ed teacher was as sage-like as Ben Kingsley. For 21 years, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), and Ben (Jake Weber) have been in holy matrimony. Those 21 years have been far from perfect, but somehow the two have been able to manage the occasional rough waters. However, their marriage comes to an abrupt end after Wendy finds out about Ben’s cheating. It is not so much her wanting to end the marriage, but him, actually.

With her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) up in the farmland of Vermont, Wendy is all alone in the Big Apple, and now, her inability to drive a vehicle is more of a problem than it was before, because it is the only way to see her daughter. She enlists the help of driving teacher, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh with his own love issues. The two find strength in one another, learning more than just driving.

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In this film, the title Learning to Drive means two things. The first meaning is of course super-obvious, dealing with the task of the main character being taught on how to operate a motor vehicle. The second meaning is an extension of the first, but ultimately, the film is about taking control of one’s own life, not being reliant on someone, some ideal, or some entity to get to a figurative destination. If you have an idea on the type of film Learning to Drive is by looking at the poster, it’s probably a correct one. But, if looking for a somewhat different romantic flick, it may be worth to give this a view.

Like most romantic movies, there is simply a level of sappiness that becomes a bit much, especially with the absence of laughs. LTD is billed as a light comedy after being a romance and drama, but the attempts at humor are rarely successful. Director Isabel Coiset and writer Sarah Kemochan waste no time in setting up the story; in less than five minutes husband and wife have broken up in the back of a cab. Sure, it is revealed later that they’ve had their spats before, but how and where it occurs comes off as forced. Really, it feels more rushed than it needs to be, which can be said for the ending as well.

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The middle portion doesn’t make for a spectacular movie, but it does make for a semi-charming and warm and fuzzy one. Aside from the oddly placed daydreaming sequences and a sex scene that doesn’t contribute to anything that occurs after it, it is really consistent in getting from point A to B. The best word to probably use is unassuming, or workmanlike. Perhaps the best praise that can be given is that though it is clear as to how it will end, writer and director refuse to end it like other similar movies. Instead of the romance being the sole focus, the companionship is. It is a wise decision, one that saves Learning to Drive from being embarrassingly sappy and improbable.

Not a big film, the brunt of the weight is carried by Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley, and the two share a chemistry that likely was cultivated from their last movie together in Elegy, also directed by Coiset. Clarkson is resilient when called for it, and vulnerable when asked to be. Good work is turned in by Kingsley, in a role that very easily could have been offensive or cartoony. Thankfully, it is written pretty well, and much is learned and discovered about Kingsley’s character, He’s as big of a focus as Clarkson is, and seeing his character’s approach to life in comparison to Clarkson’s character gives LTD some depth.

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Learning to Drive is just like, well, the process of learning how to drive. It can be predictable, and (hopefully), it ends in the way one expects with getting their license. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some surprises along the way. It’s a simple film, reliable and small, about the importance of being the driver of the vehicle called life.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to usatoday.com and dailymotion.com.

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Enemy: Movie Man Jackson

Enemy-Jake-Gyllenhaal

“Your voice is just like mine.”

No two snowflakes are alike. But two people can be, and I’m not talking only about identical twins. In Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes his living as a college professor of history. It is somewhat of a mundane one, but it pays the bills, puts a solid roof over his head, and has given him a steady, and sexy, girlfriend named Mary (Melanie Laurent).

From the recommendation of a colleague who believes Adam should view more movies more to give himself some variety in life, Adam rents Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and immediately becomes transfixed on an actor, Daniel St. Claire, who looks just like himself. He takes it upon himself to find his carbon copy, real name Anthony Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal), married to wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), with a child on the way. It is unclear what Adam is looking for by trying to find Anthony, but he may be making an Enemy instead of a new friend.

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Yours truly is legitimately surprised that he has, somehow, been able to steer clear of spoilers, trailers, major thinkpieces, and more regarding Enemy, one of the more open-to-interpretation films I’ve witnessed in recent memory. The movie reunites director Denis Villenueve and Jake Gyllenhaal from Prisoners, and surprisingly, what they have combined to make here is even more layered than their first collaboration. Whether it gets under the skin like that aforementioned film will depend on the viewer, but still, Enemy will probably be talked about for years to come.

To compare this to anything in particular is probably doing a disservice to what Villeneuve and screenplay writer Javier Gullon have managed to come up with here. But, after viewing (and skimming over a think piece), I can’t stop thinking of 2003’s Identity, at least a little bit. That is a fine movie in its own right, except is is very reliant on a twist that leaves nothing to the imagination and can come off as pretty goofy. The great thing about Enemy is the fact that there is no real “twist,” or anything that tells the viewer how they are supposed to see the events on screen. No one involved has come forward to definitively expound on what things mean or how they should be looked at, leaving the final interpretation to the viewer.

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With Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve has proven to be really adept at asking a question of “How would you react if (insert scenario)…”  For the former, it was finding your missing child. For the latter, it is literally finding your doppelganger. Whether by pure luck or some direct intel on how man reacts to spotting his direct look-alike, Villeneuve captures all of the feelings of this engrossing scenario, from the astonishment and excitement, to the unease and surrealism of it. There’s a lot to take in, but credit goes to the cast for getting most of it in there.

At only 90 minutes, however, an additional 15-20 minutes would have been a nice plus to round out some characters. The actual visual aesthetic of the movie only adds to the bizarre nature of everything, bathed in a rusty, sepia tone that is equal parts beautiful and even ugly. These scenes themselves often feature minimal dialogue, which gives way to a score that can be soothing at times, and jagged at others.

The same guy playing two different characters that look exactly the same sounds like a potential disaster, but Jake Gyleenhaal, with technical prowess from Villeneuve, does it effortlessly. If there were but one criticism, it would be that his characters aren’t all that fleshed out. Or maybe they are, and it requires many views to pick up on the depth. Regardless, Gyllenhaal, and the film by extension, does a stellar job at giving each person portrayed their own personality, yet not making it super-obvious either, if that makes sense. At specific moments, the film doesn’t make it clear whether it is Adam or Anthony in important scenes , and instead relies on Gyllenhaal and its deductive audience to determine who is who. Feels good to not be consistently spoon-fed, sometimes. Both women in Laurent and Gadon pair well with Gyllenhaal, impress when needed, and are the linchpin for many of Enemy‘s themes and ideas.

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Surely, a lot more could be said about Enemy from yours truly, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d be up to the task of stating it in a comprehensible manner. The lack of crystal clarity and shorter-than-desired runtime could be a problem for some, but for those wanting to be challenged by a unique thriller in not just one, but multiple views, Enemy is likely to spark discussion until the end of time.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to moviemaker.co.uk, torontoist.com, awn.com, and geeknation.com.

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The Maze Runner: Movie Man Jackson

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“Who knows where this might lead us.”

Most people who wake up with absolutely no memory of anything wake up anywhere but an all-boys community. Yet, that is what happens to Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), in The Maze Runner. He is the latest boy to be dropped into this mysterious place called The Glade, a place where these boys have learned to make their own society and fill specific roles for the betterment of it.

Like Thomas, all have been dropped into this world in the exact same manner, but so many years have passed by and this place is accepted as home. The secret to escape could lie in the form of a monolithic maze, to which little is known as to what exist when in those walls. Societal “runners” are the only people to truly know, but none have survived to tell others about what is in there. If Thomas wants to get out, becoming a runner is a good place to start.

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Praise goes to director Wes Ball for at least bringing some freshness to the young adult movie genre in The Maze Runner, taken of course from the novel with the same name. It is a movie where, taken as a whole, is probably better than even the most harshest of YA movie genre haters would have believed. Even with the problems, which manifest more as the runtime goes on.

Right from the jump, a short but attention-grabbing opening puts one right into the film’s world. Just like Thomas who is trying to piece together what exactly is going on, we too as the audience are doing the same. Everything is shrouded in mystery, with enough but not too much information given that does push along the story. The first 30 -45 minutes exist and deliver as a very hooking, Lord-of-the-Flies-ish setup.

It can be compared to The Hunger Games, sure, but without the battle royal aspect and an even darker (both literally and figuratively) tone. This extends itself to the action, or more like the running sequences. Though most are cloaked in darkness, they are shot well enough. If only what the characters go up against were cloaked in darkness for the whole film. They are the types of things that sound scarier when not shown in full, but look dumb when fully revealed.

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Unfortunately, it is around the middle point of The Maze Runner where the mystery starts to become less intriguing, if only because a sizable chunk of it can be put together. That isn’t to say every detail in the mystery can be nailed, however. It is just that the general mystery as to why they are down in this situation can be nailed. Even with this mild predictability, the movie still carries intrigue, but the reveal found at the end damn near tears all of the positives of the initial start of the story down. It doesn’t help that everything is so serious, despite the movie not really bringing anything thematically to the table.

With yours truly’s thoughts on TMR coming much later than the actual release of the movie, I have heard of the ending being less than satisfactory, and it absolutely is. When the exposition begins, each line only serves to complicate matters, while setting up a sequel, and throwing in a farfetched character appearance that makes no sense whatsoever when only 10 minutes ago matters were bleak for the respective character. Perhaps the ending makes more sense in the book, but it doesn’t translate to the movie.

Thankfully, the bad ending does not mar the generally good acting turned in by the cast. Nothing is really found out about their characters to flesh them out, but their actual thespian work is better than what is often found in the genre. Dylan O’Brien initially looks like the general handsome guy that all of these films seem to have, but he gets chances to prove he isn’t just a handsome face as Thomas. His opposition is Will Poulter, who is the strongest performance-wise in the movie as “Gally,” representing a young man trying to keep order in the wake of the curiosity and change Thomas brings in.

Some of the others, while sort of interchangeable, are fine, with a kid by the name of Blake Cooper sticking out (for good) because he is so different aesthetically from the rest and has a real emotional core that other characters do not have. The only real weak link is Kaya Scodelario, who comes in midway and doesn’t add anything to the plot except being lifeless with a fading American (?) accent.

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With a strong start and a surprisingly good cast, The Maze Runner is a more entertaining watch than most it shares similarities with. The aforementioned problems prevent it from being a very good film instead of one that is just good for its genre, but the fact that it isn’t Twilight or Vampire Academy is a plus.

Grade: C+

Photo credits go to bloody-disgusting.com, hypable.com, and slashfilm.com.

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Big Game: Movie Man Jackson

big game poster

“You gotta cock it, motherf***er!”

Kids can do the darndest things nowadays. 13 year-old Oskari (Onni Tomilla) is coming up on a coming-of-age moment in his life. He is at the point where he must prove his manhood to his Finnish kinsfolk. This involves going on a hunting excursion alone with only a bow and arrow and a hunting knife, in an effort to bring back some dead Big Game which will affirm his status amongst his people.

On the hunt for game, Oskari instead discovers an escape pod in the woods that is housing none other than the President of the United States, William Allen Moore (Samuel L. Jackson). Moore’s Air Force One plane has been reduced to rubble, and unbeknownst to him, he is a victim of an inside job by one of his Secret Service agents. Now, Oskari and Moore have to become linked at the hip to survive and unravel just who flipped on the President, and of course, save the world.

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Big Game takes its inspiration from 80’s/early 90’s movies, both of the action and coming-of-age variety. If yours truly could describe it, think The Karate Kid mixed with a very tame Rambo, a tablespoon of Cliffhanger, and a hint of Spy Kids. Problem is, this isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as those (Spy Kids 1 was solid). Instead of trying to pay homage to those films, Big Game comes off as a lame attempt to do so, ultimately making this an agonizing chore to get through.

Directed by Jalmari Helander and shot on a budget of nine million, one can expect that some scenes just are not going to be up to snuff like their big budget brethren. That is fine, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that so much of the movie’s action and set pieces are uninspiring and filled with very noticeable CGI and green screen. In a nutshell, there is much worse action out there, but better action has been created with smaller budgets. This is a problem, but an even bigger one happens to be that the real explosive stuff doesn’t occur until two-thirds of the movie have been completed. Not a problem, except for the fact that, you know, this is an action movie.

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The lack of action only brings more unwanted attention to the mundane story. I know it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, but since it takes much time for anything of note to occur, this actually pushes the flimsy story to the forefront. Where to start? For starters, there is a ton of dialogue that is designed to bring some background to Oskari and his village. Almost all of it is through subtitles, which yours truly normally has no problem with. Here, however, the font and white letter coloring makes the subtitles unreadable against a snow-capped background, which truly is a tough way to begin viewing a movie. After the 10-minute subtitle fiasco, much of Big Game, until the final act, is really just Samuel L. and Tomilla walking around trying to figure out what to do next. It isn’t exciting, adds nothing to the story, and the two leads have mediocre chemistry at best.

Despite not being the star of this, Samuel L. Jackson is the only person to have his name on the poster. Over the years, whenever SLJ appears in something, audiences don’t expect an amazing performance but at least know that a fun time will likely be had. Maybe it is the character he plays, or just a straight cash-in, but whatever the reason, Jackson is pretty sedated. Big Game desperately needed an over-the-top performance where Jackson goes off on hilarious tirades and what not, but aside from one classically delivered line near the end, his casting essentially feels like an effort to have someone recognizable in the movie without taking advantage of it.

He becomes the sidekick to Onni Tommila. The kid looks convincing in doing action, and down the line it isn’t hard to see him being a consistent and villainous presence in the genre. Still, he comes off as very wooden here, which I believe is unintentional even though the film tries so hard to be a cheese-fest, which is painfully unfunny from that regard. Honestly, his character and subsequent adventure are not that compelling.

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Considering there were no expectations on my end with this one, hopefully all of this says something about the feelings yours truly has about Big Game, a film luckily not many have seen or are even aware of based upon the financial returns. More fitting titles would be Big Lame, Big Shame, or Big Disdain.

Grade: F

Photo credits go to Youtube.com, IMDB.com, wideopenspaces.com, and bloody-disgusting.com.

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The Loft: Movie Man Jackson

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“The people you love, they are the only people that can hurt you.”

When guys want some solace and away time from their spouses and loved ones, they sometimes go to the golf course. Sometimes they go to a man cave. If they are really well off, they go to a posh upscale loft. Five insanely successful friends Vincent (Karl Urban), Chris (James Marsden), Luke (Wentworth Miller), Marty (Eric Stonestreet), and Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts) share what is essentially an underground bunker (except it’s above sea level) in The Loft. Here, any getaways, fantasies, and infidelities are not just possible, they are encouraged.

All that is needed are keys, and only the five friends have possession of them. The loft is a welcome addition to their lives until one day a woman turns up dead in the secluded space. The questions and tensions begin to come to the forefront. The police cannot get involved, because everything will be lost if so. Who is the woman? Who let her in, or how did she get in? The only fact? With just five keys in existence, someone—maybe everyone—in the group is withholding information.

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The Loft, to yours truly, is like an amalgamation of Wild Things with a hefty dash of the classic board game Clue. As of this writing, it currently sits at 0% on the ever-popular Rotten Tomatoes. Is it that horrid? Not to myself at least, but this is hardly an great entry into the thriller genre, either. Much worse can be found in the genre though.

Crazy enough, this movie is actually a remake of a 2008 movie known simply as Loft. Okay, that may not be crazy, but what sort of is happens to be that the exact same director is attached to both. Erik Van Looy does make a competent looking remake with a sort of glossy, metallic, and artificial feel, which does align with the tone of the movie. Still, nothing here overtly stands out as eye-popping.

With the premise of The Loft—jilted lovers, infidelity, and the high life—it isn’t hard to imagine an alternate universe where the story is carried out with a film noir approach. In this present universe however, the movie is carried out through a mix of flashbacks and returns to the present day. Though this may sound disjointed, it is actually fairly cohesive and does give some needed back-story. With that said, it does get repetitive, even comical to a point because they all happen in similar fashion. All of the flashbacks are initialized by some guy talking and then the camera focusing on him in close-up before jumping into it, or the camera closes in on one of the characters “attached” to the impending flashback while another guy talks for a few seconds before it.

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For about a half, maybe two thirds, the film possesses solid pacing, a desire to see the mystery solved, and a nice steady reveal of its hand. But eventually, everything that can be thrown at the wall is done so in rapid succession. And “everything” just means an euphemism for twists. The twists are a mixed bag; none are WHOA that was good! but they are accepted, while others, the “grander” ones if you will, fail substantially for two reasons:

1. There are a tad too many of them, to the point that it may have been better to be more conventional.

2. There is little to no care as to what happens to these characters after the twists, whether big twists or small ones.

Two is the main reason why the twists carry little impact. No one here is written strongly enough to get invested in their well-being. All are spoiled douchebags and/or even monsters who care for little else than themselves and their pleasure. It isn’t a huge issue early on, but as the movie continues and the events begin to paint characters as fully bad or slightly-bad people, it is difficult to feel anything for them.

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With that known, the actors who comprise the five buds generally perform at a respectable level, some stronger than others. Karl Urban is a favorite of yours truly, and the man needs more work. He is good here as the cool, composed, and arrogant de facto leader. It isn’t a particularly deep character (no one is here), but his role in particular is fun to watch. James Marsden is James Marsden, fine but sort of wooden here and there, and Matthias Schoenaerts, who appeared in the original, is one note because his role calls for it.

The real surprises/oddities are Wentworth Miller and Eric Stonestreet. Miller may not be terrible but the facial expressions and delivery of spoken word are a bit suspect, and Stonestreet, known for playing a gay man on Modern Family, is far from it here as an over-the-top male chauvinist. But again, no one here is written with a lot of depth, and that includes the females. They are either uptight black/brunette-haired spouses, or blonde sexpots.

Nothing about The Loft inspires a must-watch now in theaters, or a rewatch.  But it is a halfway decent, somewhat entertaining whodunit. Lofty expectations need not apply here.

Grade: C

Photo credits go to blogs.indiewire.com, brickunderground.com, and galleryhip.com

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American Sniper: Movie Man Jackson

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“You can only circle the flames so long.”

Behind almost every pull of a trigger lies a lot of weight and impact. Not just on the person pulling it, but those connected to said person. American Sniper is the story of Texan Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). As a youngster, it is clear Chris has a desire to protect those around him, a value instilled in him by his father. Still, the Texas lifestyle lends itself to making a good and fun living as a cowboy, a living Kyle enjoys.

It isn’t until he sees a television report of a terrorist attack that he begins to question what he is really doing with his life, which leads to enlisting into the Naval program. In training, Chris hones his raw and already-existing marksman skills, and finds a woman in his down time in Taya (Sienna Miller) who eventually becomes his wife and mother of his children. Shortly after marriage, Chris is deployed to Iraq, where he quickly makes a name for himself in combat; being hailed as “The Legend.” But the horrors of war are real, and no matter how many times Chris is home, each tour takes a little something out of him.

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Films about war and patriotism seem to pierce viewers different ways. With any, there are those who may be offended with said war film’s message and deride it as propaganda, while others may not see one. Yours truly can only speak for himself, but American Sniper is pretty devoid of—let’s call it a visible slant. It is tense, tightly directed, well-acted, and one of the best of 2014/2015.

Instead of focusing on the politics or the glory that comes with performing miraculous deeds, director Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima) chooses to focus upon the man and the mental aftermath that arises because of the acts he commits. He accomplishes the former by presenting a substantial yet still brief look at what made Kyle who he is and why he is so. During this beginning part of the movie, the investment into the main character is forged. He isn’t perfect by any means, but the duty he possesses towards protecting others is one to connect with. This duty factor is a question that is continuously asked as the movie progresses. To where should Kyle’s duties lie, and are they nestled together like he believes?

And for the latter, while the reasons of fighting will never be universally agreed upon, almost everyone would likely agree that war more often than not leaves an indelible mark that is a struggle to deal with for all involved. Nothing here is glorified or lessened in effect. The realities and subsequent effects of war are cold, harsh, and unforgiving.

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With that said though, the movie looks and sounds pretty splendid. Eastwood certainly knows how to capture full-scale warfare. No dazzling flair, which would have likely cheapened the intended grounded effect, is found, but the approach is suitably straightforward. Every trigger squeezed and RPG launched carries audible weight, but the moments where nothing but silence exists are true high marks. They carry insane amounts of tension and make the firefights all the more impressive. It all adds up to effective pacing, with the only misfire being near the end. The last 15-20 minutes do feel a tad rushed.

Bradley Cooper completely immerses himself into the role of Chris Kyle. His adopted Texas accent never wavers, he physically looks the part, and he superbly displays the difficulties Chris has to grapple with, often in split seconds, throughout. He is a killing machine, but not a completely soulless one. He never relishes in carrying the title of “The most lethal sniper in U.S. History,” he just goes about his business. Cooper has been gaining praise for his skills for a while now, but if anyone were looking for another, perhaps really serious and transforming role from him, this work would be the evidence shown.

Of course, this vehicle is Cooper’s, but Sienna Miller is good and does what is needed as Kyle’s wife. The role is somewhat cookie-cutter and there are one or two moments in which she is sort of wooden, but for what the character is nothing is glaringly off-putting. This sentiment can be said for most everyone else in the movie as well, with the only difference being they don’t stand out like the wife does. Sure, a few are remembered more so than others, but the large majority just fill out the spaces needed.

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American Sniper is basically the film yours truly expected it to be after viewing that initial trailer where so much silence was utilized. Gripping, intense, and a no-frills take at what the warzone does to one’s mental state. 132 or so confirmed minutes of exceptional drama.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to heavy.com, blogs.wsj.com, and Collider.com

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Boyhood: Movie Man Jackson

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“A bit of decisiveness goes a long way in this life.”

Life, in all of its frequent “nothingness,” is really something to behold. Boyhood isn’t so much a story, but a presentation of life, of both the smaller moments and the larger ones. Young Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is introduced to the audience as a six year old in early grade school. Along with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), they live a pretty simple existence in Texas.

Life is anything but simple though, as Mason’s eyes see quickly. Girls, identity, a father-son relationship, and other happenings give meaning and ongoing experience. The key is however, that all of these happenings shape our existence, and are all very, very important, not to mention astonishing.

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There are coming-of-age movies, and then there is Boyhood. As stated previously, it doesn’t really feel so much like a movie as it does an exhibition of 12 years of life, a literal coming of age on a screen. Being as it was filmed, as everyone I’m sure has heard 100 times, over a 12 year period, part of its allure is seeing the natural aging and actual changes of its stars. There is something awesome and crazy about seeing Ethan Hawke as he was in 2000-2001 and knowing that he either was filming, getting ready to, or just wrapped up work on Training Day. This is intriguing and original, but it never comes off as a gimmick to mask issues in the movie. Rather, it only enhances its positive qualities, to which there are many.

A story exists here, just not of the “here-to-there” variety. Directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Trilogy, A Scanner Darkly), it is very loose, free-flowing, and has no interest in being conventional in its storytelling. Even its timekeeping method is unconventional; aside from the once-in-a-while age and year announcement, Linklater prefers to leave the audience to decipher the year through visuals such as video games, music, and books.

Events appear to happen organically, and this is reflected in the editing. There is no fade to black or rapid splice/cut that signals a new year, it just occurs. It is similar to an individual’s birthday in a sense. Eventually, these yearly markers just blend in to one another, the only representation of them occurring being the visible weathering. Clocking in at almost three hours, there is never a noticeable feeling of this overstaying its welcome. Perhaps the last part of the film could have ended slightly earlier, as yours truly believes it would have made for a more sound ending, but this is just a matter of preference.

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Paraphrasing the great Mark Hobin here, Boyhood may be titled as such, but it “really could just as easily been called Fatherhood, Motherhood, Girlhood, etc.” Still, the events comprising of this presentation are seen through the eyes of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. Much like how he literally matures physically on screen, so does his acting skill. Really, it hardly even feels like acting, and for this film, that isn’t a bad thing. Coltrane just carries himself like a normal and average kid, realistic and true to form. Honestly, this feels as if this movie is his actual life, and he is just going along with it. His career is going to be interesting to watch.

From the moment Patricia Arquette appears on screen, it can be seen that the work she will turn in will be something special, and it truly is. And while it may not be true bravery, if such a thing as “Hollywood bravery” exists, Arquette deserves a 10 for submitting herself and seeing herself change, which can probably be a little jarring. But back to the work she does: it is touching, saddening, and introspective. Like any truly great performance, the work is of high quality throughout, but there is one scene in particular near the end that stands out and will likely be remembered for years and years.

People often say that the father figure is the most important one in a son’s life. Every time Ethan Hawke appears on screen, it is important, and not because he is necessarily saying important things, which he does do. It is simply the fact that he is there, for his son, and for his daughter. He is the fatherly yin to the motherly yang. There is a real regret and realization of limitations that Hawke conveys effectively, but he doesn’t let that serve as an excuse for failing to be there for his youngsters. It resonates just as strong as Arquette’s performance.

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Yours truly’s favorite show of all time is probably The Office (US version). One great quote occurs near the end of the series, where Pam opines that “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” There will likely never be another Boyhood, something that cherishes and takes pride in something so ordinary such as growing up. It is a film that even challenges the conventions of what a film is in some cases. Regardless, whatever it is needs to be witnessed.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to impawards.com, hitflix.com, aintitcool.com, and joblo.com.

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Selma: Movie Man Jackson

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“The decision is with your side, sir. Not ours.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished a lot and brought attention to many civil rights matters during his very brief life, but one moment known as the “I Have a Dream” speech sometimes overshadows everything else he had done. In Selma, attention is given to the events in 1965, events that would further shape history.

A bombing that kills four young African-American girls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama serves as a major incendiary moment that ups the ante in the Civil Rights Movement. Though there has been some very minor headway in voting for the minority group, not enough has been made, and not being able to vote means no representation as it pertains to the court and juror system. After failed attempts to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to sign a voting rights bill into law, Rev. MLK (David Oyelowo), knows that he and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) must take matters into their own hands. By marching from Selma to Montgomery, AL, a statement will be made, and change will be obtained.

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It could just be yours truly, but does it seem like the past calendar year has included more movies based upon historical figures than usual? Whatever the case, some, like The Theory of Everything and Get On Up, attempt to take a wide look at the famous person’s life. Others, like The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, and now Selma, focus upon a specific period in the subject’s life. No one approach is definitively better than the other,  but centering in on a specific period does appear to give a biography piece more focus, and at the very least not shock or disappoint people when certain events are not mentioned. I don’t think I would call Selma particularly riveting and I am sure it will not be watched again by my eyes, but it is a definite must watch during this moviegoing period.

In a way, watching Selma unfold is like being exposed to the events for first time. Part of that is due to the way somewhat unknown director Ava DuVernay handles the material, less like a history book or lecture and more of just a natural story. The audience knows of its importance, and so do the characters involved in it. But these characters are living and breathing, meaning that they clash and experience friction just like in real life, and all don’t necessarily share the same way to achieve the end goal. Some don’t even share the same end goal. It is a nice look at the inner-workings of a group, and just because they are unified in public doesn’t mean that the group is in lockstep behind closed doors.

The other part of this that may end up being underlooked is how the movie looks. As this progresses on, DuVernay fully realizes the horrors and the savagery that came about with these marches with impressive cinematography. As impressive is frequently utilizing the right depth and angles in the various speech and behind closed doors conversation scenes, as their correct usage gives more dramatic tension and heft to these moments. It is really minute, and yours truly probably could have described this better, but know that it all adds up to a very tight-looking production.

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Much of the attention and accolades given to Selma will be towards the man who portrays one of the best orators in America’s history. David Oyelowo is a name that has been picking up steam for a few years now, but this performance probably marks his arrival into the mainstream. From appearance to diction, the portrayal is spot-on. And it isn’t overly showy; in most scenes he is humble and understated like MLK likely was. Even when there isn’t a whole lot going on as the movie gets a little dull at times, he keeps it relatively on course by his presence alone. When those crowd-addressing speeches come to light though, Oyelowo delivers charisma and a real intensity with every spoken word.

His performance isn’t the only one worth mentioning. Just about everyone who appears here does an extremely great job, like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth as Confederate state governor George Wallace in supporting roles. Underneath these supporting characters are smaller roles that are comprised by fairly younger actors and actresses, but without their good work, the emotional moments would lack a little in potency. It isn’t hard to imagine some of these people going on to obtain more work and larger roles within them.

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Selma is definitely a historical film, but for all of the recent racial events in the recent news, it does feel awfully current and maybe needed now. The film is strong in most areas, but perhaps it is strongest in how it connects to our present day, a fact it doesn’t shy away from as heard by its end credits song by John Legend and Common. Undoubtedly race relations have come a long way in 50 years, but there is still much work to be done.

Grade: B

Photo credits go to theguardian.com, bellanaija.com, and insidemovies.ew.com.

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Big Eyes: Movie Man Jackson

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“The eyes are the windows of the soul.”

Emotion can be conveyed in a multitude of ways, but it always seems to be the eyes that are recognized first. Big Eyes tells the true story of American artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), who in 1958 leaves her husband and decides to start life anew with her daughter and her paintings, most of them featuring people with big eyes. Mother and daughter are now rejuvenated in North Beach, San Francisco, a progressive place and an artist’s dream for someone of Margaret’s caliber.

A companion is needed though, and Margaret finds it shortly in the form of smooth-talking Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), also a passionate artist. Walter not only serves as a partner, but also the only thing that could keep her daughter Jane in her possession. They end up getting married, and things appear to be a perfect blend. With Walter, the new Mrs. Keane starts getting the money she deserves for her work, but it comes with a price: No one knows it is her creating the paintings, as Mr. Keane, a guilty conscious absent from his mind, willingly takes all credit.

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For what seems like forever now, the mention of director Tim Burton’s name invokes images of dark, odd, out-there scenery and characters, be it of the animated or live-action variety. In no way has yours truly seen every work in his filmography, but in recent years it does feel that if you’ve seen one of Burton’s films, you have sort of seen them all, especially as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are present in about every last one of them. Big Eyes, sans Depp and Bonham Carter, represents an entertaining, well-made, grounded, and mature effort to a feature film from a man who many doubted if he had it in him.

A more traditional directorial effort doesn’t mean that Burton completely abandons his trademark style. It is still found here in places, but the style isn’t a crutch for the movie. Those infrequent instances that are vivid and surreal with vibrant color tones and quirky imagery highlight these moments more, showing off the artistic element (technical-wise and script-wise) of the movie, and giving them more importance in comparison to past works which featured the same stuff throughout.

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Maybe all it took was a true story. There is a notable level of respect that Burton conveys with this effort. I had never heard of Margaret Keane, but her tale is legitimately interesting, and he (Burton) lets the story plays out naturally for the most part. The social commentary regarding women and whether the public fully accepts their work or contributions isn’t heavy-handed, but it is thought-provoking, and still matters today. However, even at a pretty standard 105 minutes, the movie is overlong from time to time.

Not to discredit anyone else who appears here, but after Burton’s direction, Big Eyes boils down to two people and performances: Amy Adams as Mrs. Keane and Christoph Waltz as Mr. Keane. Both are veterans and immensely talented, and reaffirm that again in this. For a movie with a focus on eyes, Amy Adams knows how to utilize hers. Her attempt at a Southern accent may come and go, but those eyes remain. There are many scenes in which she fully exhibits the sadness and worthless feeling her character is subject to by Walter. Still, not a ton is known about Margaret, but it can be assumed that this isn’t the aim of the movie. There might not be enough character-wise for serious award “contendership” but the performance is very, very sound.

If Adams’ character work is unassuming here, her counterpart Christoph Waltz’s portrayal is anything but. His character revels in the spotlight, addicted to the glamour and acclaim, all style in his exterior and little substance behind his interior. Waltz looks to know this, presenting the audience with an animated and spirited portrayal of Margaret’s husband. While it does feel very over-the-top especially near the end, apparently this was exactly how Walter was in real life according to the real Margaret Keane, who served as an adviser of sorts. If that is the case, then Waltz certainly does a spot-on job, but that doesn’t change the fact that it can become quite comedic.

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It would have been very easy for Burton, especially with the source material, to make Big Eyes in the same motif as previous features. But the proverbial comfort zone is left, or at least pared down substantially, and a great movie exists as a result. Perhaps this will open up his eyes a bit; not every feature needs to be a fantasy.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to variety.com, contactmusic.com, and screenrant.com.

Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson