Friday, January 23, 2015

STILL LIFE and Eastwood Action

Could there be a more blue collar, working class face than the one pinned on that fine actor, Eddie Marsan?  You may recognize this Brit from the Showtime TV series, Ray Donovan.  He plays the boxer stricken with Parkinson's disease on the series.

I first really noticed him when he played probably the most short-tempered driving instructor in England in a car with the most chipper and the steeliest optimist you'd ever want to meet.  In Mike Leigh's 2008 film, Happy-Go-Lucky, Sally Hawkins played Poppy, the woman whose bright outlook on life cannot be darkened.  Even as her instructor's temper explodes.

It's a wonderful film, worth renting.

Eddie Marsan gives a beauty of a performance playing a man who's the opposite of his Happy-Go-Lucky character.  If you're a fan of the 1959 British classic starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday, I think you'll enjoy Marsan's new film.  There's a light touch of the Last Holiday about it.  STILL LIFE stars Eddie Marsan as a man who works to bring dignity to the deceased.  A simple and gentle man, dedicated to his job, he's a case worker who contacts relatives of the recently deceased and requests their involvement in funeral services.  The dead people died alone with no loved ones keeping in constant contact.  He himself is like the dead.  There is no loved one who keeps in touch with him.  He lives alone.  He eats alone.

At several church funeral services, this case worker is the only person in attendance.  Some of the surviving next-of-kin he contacts are real characters.
It appears to be a sterile, drab job -- much like his life.  There are no frills in the office.  There are no frills in his home life.  But he's not without passion.  He truly cares about providing some dignity for the dead.  He wants them to be remembered.  He sorts through personal effects of the deceased to find information on surviving relatives.  As he goes about his commitment to the deceased and contacts relatives, his life begins to change and take on some color.  Something sweet and unexpected comes into his life.

Still Life has a gentle, unassuming pace which matches the personality of its lead character.  That does not mean it's a dull movie.  Case worker John May is not a dull man.  Marsan is quite compelling in this role.  He brings nice layers to this ordinary, overlooked fellow.  It's a lovely and intelligent performance.  In a way, it's like you watch this sweet case worker come to life.  The end of the movie is one of the most poignant I've experienced in a long time.  I recommend Still Life, a warm British import directed by Uberto Pasolini.

The exact opposite of Still Life is AMERICAN SNIPER directed by Clint Eastwood.  Bradley Cooper's performance brought him an Oscar nomination this month for Best Actor.  The film is nominated for Best Picture.
When it first came out, I didn't know it's basically a biopic.  This is based on the real-life story of a Navy SEAL who did over 1000 days "in country," in the Iraqi war, and had over 100 kills to his military record.  This is a "war is hell" movie.  Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Texan who enlisted for service and is deployed after the attacks of September 11th.  In the open of film, youngster Chris Kyle is at the dinner table with the family.  His country macho father tells his boys that there "sheep, wolves and sheepdogs."  He instructs them to take care of their own, protect their people from wolves.  Their sheepish mother wearing large eyeglasses says nothing at the table as the father talks, removes his belt and places it on the table so the boys will know that's what they'll get they don't follow his orders.  This early scene is not a well-written one nor is it well-directed.  It looks like it could've easily been lampooned on Saturday Night Live by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.  Chris wants be a cowboy when he grows up.  Years later, he is one decked out cowboy.  The  cowboy then becomes a Navy SEAL.  He followed his father's orders.

Kyle is family man.  Sienna Miller plays his wife.  They met in a country bar.  She was one tough customer, shooting down advances from guys who weren't sincere.  Chris turns out to be an absolute gentleman.  When she runs outside and pukes, he holds her hair while she does.  It's true love.
True love that carries on during a nightmarish war.  American Sniper is graphic in its war violence.  It's not just man-on-man war.  You see man, woman and child being taken down by the sniper's bullets.  There's a lot of gunfire in this film.  Kyle was nicknamed "The Legend" for being one of the U.S.A.'s most praised and most lethal snipers.  The gun, as Cooper's character takes aim in the open of the movie, is photographed like a long phallic symbol as Eastwood has the camera pan across it.  Through the story, the gun will be seen as a weapon, an object of father/son bonding in the woods, and a toy in a married couple's sexy role play.

I didn't find American Sniper as good as other films Eastwood directed -- films like the western, Unforgiven, his Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and his World War 2 films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.  This is no to disrespect Chris Kyle's military service.  But, as a feature with  this particular screenplay and direction,  American Sniper felt like a movie that would've starred Clint Eastwood in the 1970s, his Dirty Harry years, with Eastwood playing a Vietnam war vet.

Cooper does the best he can here with a war script that really doesn't have much dimension to it.  He looks like a big daddy bear whose job is to protect and serve.  His Kyle is stoic, loving and fierce when he's in battle.  The actor beefed up and grew a beard for the role.  I think modern war-related films like The Hurt Locker, Jarhead and The Messenger (a very good and overlooked 2009 film starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) and the documentary The Tillman Story (about NFL star Pat Tillman who enlisted after the Sept. 11th attacks and was killed in Afghanistan)  are better. Would I have picked Cooper to be in the Best Actor Oscar race?  Not for this one.  I would've gone with David Oyelowo for Selma or Ralph Fiennes for The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Those roles and those screenplays had more range and dimension.

We know Bradley Cooper can do comedy.  The Hangover was a bawdy, big box office comedy hit.  His dramatic work in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle earned him two Best Actor Oscar nominations.  The young actor got good notices for his lead work in the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man.  So good, in fact, that he and the cast take the show to London's West End in May.  As for screen veteran Ralph Fiennes,  his energetic screwball comedy turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel was a major revelation and a surprise after seeing him for years in deep-dish dramas like Schindler's List, The English Patient, Quiz Show, The Reader and The Constant Gardener.

At the very end of American Sniper, I wanted to blurt out "What the hell happened?!?!  What motivated that crime?!?!?"  That's all I'm going to tell you.  The point is, this military script left me feeling like it needed a major rewrite.  You know that there's truth in this movie from director Clint Eastwood.  There just needed to be more truth to make the script feel complete. But that's just me.  The Academy obviously loved the movie.




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