Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bloody Good: WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL?


An enthusiastic embrace of exploitation cinema, Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is commentary on and celebration of trash cinema. It’s a gory action movie, slapstick comedy, teen melodrama, revenge actioner, and backstage satire. A wild and trashy mashup, it involves an amateur film club, Yakuza warfare, astonishingly bloody homicides, and a toothpaste commercial with one of the catchiest jingles you’ll ever hear. The plot is simple, clever, and told in a dizzyingly complicated manner, with wacky characterizations, jarring tonal shifts, a rambling prologue, and layers of amplifications. Sono, a Japanese poet-turned-filmmaker, makes films that are usually this extreme, and inherently messy. When they go wrong, there’s nothing worse. But in those instances where everything goes right, they’re big, sloppy, passionate exhilaration, the kind of joyously vulgar trash the movies do best.

To tell it simply: a mob boss (Jun Kunimura) wants to make an action movie that’ll make his daughter (Fumi Nikaido) a star. He forces his henchmen to become an impromptu crew. He strong-arms a local group of unsuccessful slacker indie filmmakers (a rubbery Hiroki Hasegawa as the ringleader) to direct the production. He even decides to write in a big brawl and use his actual gangland enemies (led by a sweaty Shinichi Tsutsumi) as the extras. Why not have a real battle and call it cinema? The filmmakers are in over their heads, but too in love with the expensive equipment and creative resources (swooning over real 35mm film!) to care about the dangers. It’s all fun moviemaking games, even when things get real nasty as a bloodbath battle erupts. They don’t mind. At long last, they’re making a movie!

The scenario is as funny as it is bloody. There’s a lot of comical meta film industry winking – the mobster producers are clear stand-ins for studio meddling, for example – and the characters are endlessly eccentric. There’s an infectious put-on-a-show energy not entirely unlike Mickey Rooney musicals, with the young filmmakers eager to help gangsters make sense of the moviemaking process. Eventually, there’s an endless, and endlessly inventive, action sequence in which the variety of plotlines resolve with bleeding determination and non-stop jokey excitement. It’s like Sono saw Kill Bill Vol. 1’s finale and decided to outdo it. The film and the film-within-the-film are pileups of ripe melodrama, lurid gore, goofy brutality, and projectile vomit. At one point the amateur director stands in awe of their project. “This is the movie miracle of a lifetime!” he shouts.

So it is. And so, in its way, is Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the rare prefab cult item that deserves to find its cult, because it is so gonzo expressive, ripped out of its creator’s passionate heart. There’s nothing quite like a Sono film firing on all cylinders, a rattling chaos of inspiration and insanity. Here he deploys visual gags, whip pans, snap zooms, and smash cuts to supply invigorating energy to his loopily cartoonish plot that picks up buckets of blood and cutesy affections around every corner. It’s the kind of movie where a decapitated body’s hand makes a peace sign with its dying spasms, a vindictive girl fills her mouth with broken glass and makes an ex kiss her, and warring Yakuza love the idea of being in a movie so much they pause their fighting out of respect for the director’s “Cut!” This is midnight-movie madness, convoluted, excessive, and energetically, infectiously fun. It’s a love letter to cinema at its most psychotically, unpredictably entertaining.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Love Bug: STRANGE MAGIC


The animated family fantasy Strange Magic is short on strange, and on magic. A lumpy mix of disparate inspirations haphazardly assembled, the story is one of feuding kingdoms, the good fairy people living in the fields, and the bad bog creatures living in a swamp. Just once wouldn’t it be nice if the twinkly fairies were up to no good and the ugly slimy swamp people were our heroes? (I guess that’s Shrek, but you get my point.) There’s some eventual scrambling of the simple good and evil categories, with don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moralizing, but it gets off to a routine start and stays there. It hastily sketches in a half-baked world in which the Good and the Bad fight over a love potion, and fills it with the most predictable plot points you could think up.

The screenplay by director Gary Rydstrom (a Pixar alum responsible for the charming alien-abduction short Lifted) and co-writers Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum, from an idea by George Lucas, follows the standard animated family film formula. There are princesses, unrequited love, and fancy parties. There are kind but misguided parental figures, silly sidekicks, and magical quests involving True Love. There’s anachronistic slangy dialogue and modern music. In fact, it’s a jukebox musical that’s nonstop familiar songs (from Elvis and ELO to BeyoncĂ© and Kelly Clarkson) assembled in an incongruous mix as if someone listened to an oldies station and wrote down the first six songs that played, then scanned the dial to a more current station to grab three more. To top it all off, there’s a busy battle climax, including the now-standard giant crash that appears to kill a main character until the supposedly dead reappears as the crowd’s mourning turns to astonished relief.

That’s familiar stuff, but at least it looks good. The movie was animated by Industrial Light and Magic, whose last all-CGI feature brought the wonderful Rango’s motley wildlife to the screen. The characters here are operating on a similar ugliness to cuteness ratio, their scales and fur impressively rendered. The main plot – involving an evil Bog King (Alan Cumming) who has outlawed love potions, and the innocent fairies (Evan Rachel Wood and Meredith Anne Bull) who get caught in his wrath when one of their citizens (Elijah Kelley) steals a vial – is snoozeville. But the design fills in whimsical details along the edges, like gossiping toadstools, insecure froggy goblins, and an impish rodent thing who just wants to sprinkle the whole forest with the love potion.

Animation buffs might enjoy buying the Blu-ray off a bargain rack to study the lovely details, but even then the film would be better enjoyed playing in the background with the sound down. It’s so bare bones in its telling, with dialogue that may as well be “insert something about XYZ here,” tonal switches that feel like placeholders for more fluid shifts, and songs penciled in like temp tracks a music supervisor should have improved later. Its formula is broad chalk outlines to be fleshed in later, except no one did. Its storytelling is so loose and rough, it feels like we should be watching storyboards and invited to shout our suggestions for improvements.

I’d start with changing the depressingly heteronormative approach, which takes Wood’s cool, self-sufficient warrior princess who is completely happy swearing off romance and, by the end, says she just needs to meet the right man. How awesome would a fairy princess deciding she’s happier on her own be? And how sad, in a movie that features a fairy prince making out with a fly, that there isn’t enough imagination to think that’s a possibility.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fatal Attraction: THE BOY NEXT DOOR

A short, silly psycho stalker movie, The Boy Next Door offers serviceable low-rent pleasures. These sorts of films tap into anxieties about sex and secrecy, worrying that one wrong private decision can have horrible public consequences. Here a high school teacher (Jennifer Lopez) finds her eye wandering to the neighbor’s housesitter, his 19-year-old dropout nephew (Ryan Guzman). He’s a fit young handy man, introducing himself by offering to make her garage door go up again. Later, after flirting corny come-ons and discovering they share a favorite book (The Iliad, of all things), he seduces her. It’s a one-night-stand she immediately regrets. She may be estranged from her cheating husband (John Corbett), but she hasn’t given up on her marriage. She’d hate for a fling to ruin chances of fixing her life, a very real possibility as the boy next door refuses to take “never again” for an answer. What follows is a faithfully formulaic escalation that moves too fast to let a little silliness slow it down.

We go to the movies for all sorts of reasons. This isn’t a movie to satisfy most of them. Its dialogue is preposterous. Its twists can be seen coming. Its characters are paper thin, with motivations prone to switch for whatever the plot needs next. It’s silly and more than its fair share of stupid. It does little that wasn’t done before, and better, in 1996’s Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon teen thriller Fear. I could sit here and pick it apart for hours. And yet! And yet I didn’t mind it so much. It’s ridiculous and dumb, but so what? It has J.Lo looking fabulous, wielding considerable sex appeal in a part that transforms what could be a simpering woman-in-danger role into something sturdy through her presence. It has director Rob Cohen staging sensual scenes of desire, decent jump scares, effective growing paranoia and eventual violence. It’s not a good movie, but it sure is fun enough in the moment.

J.Lo makes a convincing cougar next door, staring out the window at the boy, his muscles rippling, sweat dripping, billowing curtains barely blocking her view. Later, she’s at her wit’s end trying to act like nothing’s wrong, especially as the boy lingers, menacingly hanging around her family, making instantly close friends with her son (Ian Nelson), inviting himself over for dinner, and dripping hardly-hidden innuendoes into conversation. “I love your mom’s…cookies,” is just one of many lines that straddle a line between threatening and goofy. Once it becomes clear she’s not interested, he gets even worse. He registers to finish his degree and hacks into the school email to get in her class. He turns her son against her. He threatens to blackmail her. He cuts the breaks on her husband’s car. He threatens a potentially sympathetic vice principal (Kristin Chenoweth). There’s something not right about him. Guzman gives a creepily dead-eyed performance that reads as generic model hunk in the opening act, but then turns instantly into stone-cold insanity.

By the time she sees his stalker-wall-of-photos and hears his smarmy self-righteous entitlement, it’s clear he’s not unlike a particular brand of Internet troll, raining sexist abuse upon her and yet hypocritically claiming he’s the victim in all this. More than once he howls at her something along the lines of, “How can you do this to me?” As if her turning him down is the real injustice. Given that, it’s easy to root for J.Lo to teach him a lesson, reclaim her life and, you know, kick him in the boing-loings at the very least. There’s enough believable chemistry between the leads in the first several minutes, and menace in the stalking and threatening that takes up the rest of the runtime, that the simple story works. It’s exactly what the movie needs to operate and not a bit more. Though, what with J.Lo’s Fly Girl start and Guzman’s two appearances in fun Step Up films, I kind of wished they had a big dance number. It wouldn't have made a goofy little movie loaded up with Freudian undercurrents, Oedipal references, and an actual cat scare any more ridiculous.

That missed opportunity aside, Cohen shoots Barbara Curry’s clunky script with energy. He and she are committed to the unapologetic trashiness, bringing the film a bit beyond what could’ve been routine Lifetime-style hot button insinuations by providing carefully framed, suggestively lit steamy sex and just-brutal-enough violence. Sometimes, there’s even a nice solid bit of blocking, like a scene in which the boy confronts J.Lo in the kitchen. Father and son are in the next room, out of focus in the background left of frame, while the boy backs her into a counter at the far right, forcing himself between her and what she hopes to maintain. That’s just good filmmaking, expressing in images what the script rather simply spells out. Take sturdy construction like that, add some star power, some goofy chills (of the sexy and scary varieties), and some good laughs (with and at the movie), you end up with half-decent cheesy sleaze.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Love Streams: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY


I appreciate Peter Strickland’s horror-adjacent mood pieces without quite loving them for the same reason I’ll always prefer a live butterfly to one pinned behind glass. His films are lushly appointed, handsomely crafted, and stuck airlessly behind a distancing layer, framed, mounted, and gathering dust. Sure, the patterns are intricate, lovely to regard and interesting to contemplate. But what I’d give to see it stretch out and flap its wings once in a while! Strickland’s a master of sustained atmosphere, as his latest, The Duke of Burgundy, percolates with unspoken tensions as characters explore the emotional terrains in which they find themselves. It’s fascinating as an exercise in style, and an acting workout, but interests me more theoretically than in actuality.

The film takes place almost entirely in the country home of a woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who studies butterflies and moths for a living. The walls of her office are covered in their framed forms, stuck there making a perfect metaphor for anyone trying to write about a film that looks great but just never clicked for them. As the film starts, she scolds her maid (Chiara D’Anna) for arriving late, then for slacking off on the job, then punishes her by forcing her to perform a series of intimate exchanges. They aren’t merely maid and taskmaster. They’re lovers engaging in a kinky roleplay, living out their scripted scenarios day after day. Over the course of the film, Strickland repeats their routine, allowing the replications to accrue small shifts, opening up differences between them and their desires.

Spaces between the performances are close and subtle, trading on the intimacies of a relationship deeply felt in the specificities to reveal the slight differences between their expectations that threaten to push them apart. This is a film about a relationship between people with particular needs, but the particularities contain wider truths. In their roleplay is a literalized expression of negotiations and trade offs in romantic entanglements of any kind. Relationships are about discovering how best to be the person your partner needs without sacrificing your needs in the process. It’s about the balance between control and release needed to make their relationship, or any, work. Here we see a woman who gets revved up by, say, being bound in a trunk at the foot of her partner’s bed, then whispers in the middle of the night that she needs to be let out. There are few characters – and no men – in this movie, a decision that nicely restricts the emotional range to a tight focus on one compelling pair and their decisions.

Those midnight whispers floating out of the darkness with ghostly sibilance are part of what gives Strickand’s controlled mood and style its horror-adjacent qualities. The lifecycle of the relationship on display is sharply defined and methodically studied, much like the creatures they study are categorized by their behaviors and fixed biological impulses, signals and responses. But it drifts into dreamy creepiness at times, especially in hazy overlapping dissolves, and in a knockout nightmare that comes near the end and culminates with a series of shots looking like a giallo guest-directed by Stan Brakhage. Throughout the film there’s something so precise, so clinical about the precision of the staging, the pronounced sound design that makes shifting fabric, pouring water, or a purring cat loud and strong in the mix. Combined with Nicholas D. Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography’s rich colors and artful framing, it’s like a straight Bergman drama borrowed the atmosphere of a 1970’s Jean Rollin softcore horror picture.

This sounds like a premise that could easily be campy or smutty (or both). But here it’s refreshing to find what are such tricky areas handled seriously and sincerely. This is a film of strong acting and exquisite craftsmanship in pursuit of teasing genre nods and fully articulated subtleties. I saw that, and appreciated it, without ever quite getting on its wavelength. Like Strickland’s last film, the Foley-artist walking-nightmare movie Berberian Sound Studio (which puts these qualities into a marginally pulpier context), The Duke of Burgundy is surface beauty disturbed by rough undercurrents. Strickland is a writer-director making films of strong aesthetic choices, intoxicating style evoking interesting ideas. They’re too good to ignore, but they’ve yet to win me over. He’s great at making and sustaining a tightly controlled mood, but after a while luxuriating in the suffocating style, my interest starts to drift. They’re striking, but static.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hack to the Futures: BLACKHAT


Blackhat is a very good thriller from a master of the form. Michael Mann’s been crafting sleek, propulsive films for decades now, and this high-tech whodunit is among his most accomplished. Like his 1995 cops-and-robbers Heat or 2006 procedural reimagining Miami Vice (possibly his best), he here takes a crime drama setup that could easily be routine – a bad hacker is causing havoc, so he must be found and stopped – and goes about filling it with artful, elliptical moodiness glowing with glamorous framing and grim dangers. It’s another of his terse and exciting men-at-work movies, flowing with jargon and tech as people at the height of their chosen professions pit their skills against formidable opponents. There’s energy in his intelligence, and the romanticism he finds in human connections, and the frayed nerves of people forced to choose between their relationships and their missions.

But the added digital element, in which real world consequences can zip anonymously (or nearly so) through a web of interconnected devices, adds a tangible, dangerous, element to the relationships charted. It begins with a mysterious hacker who overloads a Chinese nuclear power plant with a strategically deployed malware and a few swift keystrokes. Mann plays out this sequence with procedures forcefully visualized, starting on a monitor, then zooming into a microscopic view of shimmering data zipping through microchips and fiberoptic cable, before pulling up at another keyboard on the other side of the world. The digital journey viewed so closely looks like the usual beauty of a nighttime Mann skyline viewed through a trip through a wormhole. It’s routine and scary, devastating effects from the tiniest mysterious machinations.

The dangerous hacker becomes a serial cyber-attacker when he manipulates commodities prices in Chicago. Authorities are afraid those attacks are only the beginning. Needing to sort through the noise to find digital breadcrumbs that lead to their suspect, a brilliant Chinese security expert (Leehom Wang) agrees to a joint taskforce with FBI agents (Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and Holt McCallany), so long as his old MIT roommate (Chris Hemsworth) can be let out of prison to help. He’s a fit, genius hacker, the kind who’d read Foucault in between pushups, and the one who wrote the source code for the software this unknown cyber-assailant hijacked for nefarious purposes. The Americans reluctantly agree to the terms. Old friends are reunited, tenuous alliances are made with reluctant colleagues, and a romance burgeons between the convict and his friend’s sister (Wei Tang), also a computer whiz helping the investigation. In typical Michael Mann style, these dramas of human connection are sublimated in the propulsive plot, tense melodrama expressed through action.

This is every bit a Mann film, and all the pleasures that implies. He makes a lean script by Morgan Davis Foehl into beautiful pulp. It’s shot in gorgeously textured cinematography, stormy skies and grainy blackness, pale city lights and bleach white sun. (To see what director of photography Stuart Dryburgh does with digital cameras here is to make bleary digital productions look all the worse.) The chase picture plotting hunts down a mystery through a globetrotting search for clues mixed with a paranoid high-tech hackathon, the rapid pace told through artful images and granular specificity. Whole sweeping emotions are told in a tossed off frame, a man free from prison taking an extra beat to stare across an open tarmac, a dying woman looking up, her last sight a skyscraper casting pale light upon the night sky. Meanwhile, details pile up around them, keys clacking, phones tracking, gunshots carrying oomph and variety.

Here is a movie that respects its audience's intelligence, rarely slowing down for info dumps. It’s juggling a complicated storyline and a fine ensemble while working through intersecting multi-step conspiracies. Instead of telling us what’s happening, it simply lets the goings on go on. We join stories midstream, watching characters behave and react, piecing together plans and histories as they unfold gesture by gesture. It’s a film on the move with twists and sudden violence, but also the patience to envelop the proceedings with a mood, lamenting missed interpersonal connections, celebrating small moments of intimacy, alternately exhilarated and worried when confronted with the scope of virtual damage in the real world. It’s a thriller that’s entertaining, yes, but also hits hard with intoxicating style and tension, action and emotion as intertwined as the real world and the digital.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Grin and Bear It: PADDINGTON


Based on Michael Bond’s popular picture book of the same name, Paddington is a movie about a bear cub who speaks English, wears a red hat and blue coat, and likes marmalade. You’d think that’s not a lot to hang a feature film upon. But in a pleasant surprise, the result is easily the best live action talking animal family comedy since Babe: Pig in the City, though that might say more about the usual level of quality in this particular subgenre than anything else. In the movie, Paddington and his bear family are CGI creations that at first look creepily real, more Country Bears than Alvin and the Chipmunks. But once I got used to looking at him and his interactions with a real human world, the more adorable he became. He’s an inquisitive little guy, pluckily charging forward hoping for the best. That’s a good description of the movie, too. It’s a pleasant, affable, likable little thing, funny, fuzzy, warm and goodhearted.

Paddington (Ben Whishaw) grew up in darkest Peru, where he was taught about London by his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and uncle (Michael Gambon). They had become Anglophiles after an explorer (Tim Downie) visited years earlier. After an earthquake destroys their jungle home, Paddington is sent off to London in search of a better life. His aunt lovingly places around his neck a note asking the recipient to take care of this little bear. It’s a softly downplayed immigrant story, with the bear washing up on London shores in need of help making sense of a new place, but with plenty of qualities – a killer marmalade recipe, for one – that’ll enrich the lives of those he meets. There’s some quiet metaphor work going on, especially with the cranky neighbor who worries about bears moving into his neighborhood.

Paddington’s found by a sweet family who take him to stay in their house that appears to be on the same street as the Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s definitely a Poppins set up, with a free-spirited mother (Sally Hawkins), stuffy all-business father (Hugh Bonneville), and a daughter and son (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) who are having troubles of their own. Then in comes Paddington, an openhearted, open-minded little fellow who quite by accident brings the family closer together. It’s a film that has lots of dependable bits of family film plot mechanics, from the boring dad who’s softened up by the events herein, to the kids who find a friend in a magical guest, to a protagonist who’s thrust into a new world and, despite some difficulties, learns to love it.

But it’s all so sweetly done, and writer-director Paul King brings a kind sense of humor and lovely visual style, from intricate whimsical production design, to Wes-Anderson-esque dollhouse constructions, to clever cutting and crisp wordplay. The funniest joke is also the simplest: no one finds the talking bear strange at all, and treat him like they would a human child. There are amusing sequences in which he slowly destroys his surroundings while attempting a simple task, wrecking a bathroom or covering himself head to toe in tape. My favorite was a chase scene in which the bear floats by a schoolroom studying Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. “Exit pursued by a— ” “Paddington!” The amusing slapstick and cute misunderstandings are bolstered by an undemanding plot and a troop of fine British actors (the leads, as well as Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles) who kids growing up on this movie will later recognize if they ever catch up on old BBC programming or the films of Mike Leigh.

I’m not sure if a film so sugary English, with nicely small character moments and a charming shaggy tone, needs a villain, but Nicole Kidman plays an ice cold taxidermist about as well as she could. She’s a Cruella de Vil type with a Hitchcockian blonde bob, strutting about wanting to add a talking bear to her collection. Her scenes are few, and of a slightly different tone than the sentimental slapstick culture clash comedy elsewhere, but such pro forma kids’ film villainy is the impetus to finally bring all the characters together in support of the bear they’ve come to love. And by then, I’d also found much to love in Paddington, and was glad to see the film resolve so neatly.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Natural Born Killer: AMERICAN SNIPER


A complicated, unsettling movie, American Sniper is torn between rah-rah hagiography and sober anti-war lamentation. Director Clint Eastwood takes the story of Chris Kyle, the late Iraq war veteran the military credits as the deadliest American sniper in history, and makes a movie that’s simultaneously proud of those accomplishments and sorrowful when confronted with the mental and physical toll warfare takes on soldiers and civilians alike. It’s a film that sees the same black and white, good and evil dichotomies as its protagonist, showing enemy combatants terrorizing the war zone, giving the sequences there an omnipresent danger (and stereotypes). Then it follows him home to Texas between deployments, where the remembered sounds of war echo in the silences of daily life. Eastwood wants his audience rooting for the home team, and then wondering if the carnage is worth it.

This is a charitable interpretation of Kyle’s memoir, which was riddled with exaggerations and inventions. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have pared back red meat pandering into something murkier. That’s ambiguous enough to make for some queasy responses, especially from those prone to take Kyle’s story as unambiguous heroism and American-might-makes-right flag-waving. But surely only the most sociopathic patriotism could lead someone to watch the opening scene, in which Kyle stares down the barrel of a sniper rifle and makes the decision to shoot a child, in purely heroic terms. Sure, the boy clutched a grenade mere blocks from an oncoming convoy of American troops. But who could watch the boy flung back with the force of the shot, blood splattering out behind him as his mother cries, and feel any amount of pleasure?

Eastwood spent the first part of his career playing the macho American, gun-slinging cowboys, soldiers, and rogue cops who’d do whatever necessary to get their version of justice done. The last few decades, he’s been directing films that dismantled the myth and saw its poison. This film straddles the line uncomfortably. It says some people need these myths to survive, without knowing what to make of that idea. We see Kyle sign up to be a Marine to help his country, with every intention of killing terrorists. He ends up serving four tours in Iraq, where Kyle’s fellow soldiers often call him a hero, especially as his reputation grows. But he’s quick to downplay his accomplishments. When he’s met with questions about the conflict, doubts expressed by his wife, a buddy, or a psychiatrist, he’s equally quick to shrug them off. What does he truly, deep down, think about himself? It’s hard to say, and Eastwood’s not quick to provide his answer.

The answer may be in Bradley Cooper’s performance, one of his best, which brings shadings to a role that could’ve easily been one-note. He plays Kyle as a man stubbornly convinced of his duty, single-minded in his unquestioning pride and instinctual humbleness. This is partly symptomatic of a simply unreflective personality, but Cooper lets us see it as coping mechanism as well. A clear-cut sense of right is the only thing keeping him going after all he’s seen. Down bombed out Iraqi streets, he’s terrorized innocent civilians, invited collateral damage, driven into ambushes, and seen friends die. He’s most in control when hidden on rooftops, looking through his rifle’s scope, hand on the trigger, armed with his sense of purpose. The only way he can maintain his sense of duty, his righteousness, is to shut out dissenting voices. Cooper brings a lumbering physicality to the role, sturdy but carrying clear uncomfortable feelings when others try to tell him who he is. He has a look in the eyes betraying a storm of emotions that never comes to the surface.

The film follows Kyle’s war exploits, presenting them in an amped up, stripped down Hollywood style. Eastwood’s visual stillness and simplicity (from frequent cinematographer Tom Stern) provides crisp, coherent energy to the combat, but at worst fills the frames with swarms of enemies that threaten to look like Call of Duty at times. It’s at once intense and depersonalized. It’s a simple worldview on display. American soldiers are good, individualized, imperiled. Anyone else is there to be suspicious, dangerous, or dead. Sick thrills in the combat sequences let pulpy actioner clichĂ©s creep in around the edges, like the enemy sniper who’s a sneering, unknowable villain who leaps to his next perch with parkour moves.

It’s part of the film’s inability to land on any specific ideological perspective. This is a serious and sobering movie (grim gore, funerals, PTSD, tearful phone calls and portent) that also has a scene where a SEAL makes an impossible shot complete with slow-mo bullet arcing through the air (ridiculous) and a last minute dash through an increasingly chaotic sandstorm (thrilling). The film’s able to both satisfy patriotic bloodlust with vaguely true-to-life, but exaggerated, action-thriller filmmaking, and give those of us grossed out by such displays enough grey area cover to feel okay about being unsettled. It’s strategically politically ignorant, and in some moments the head-spinning cognitive dissonance is perhaps more effective and destabilizing than either approach would’ve been alone. It’s evenhanded in its sympathy for every American viewpoint even as it reduces foreign bodies to set dressing and cannon fodder. The film shuts out implications as a way of narrowing the focus, keeping its gaze on its lead.

In the film’s most politically complicated scene, Kyle and his wife (Sienna Miller) attend the funeral of a fallen soldier whose mother reads a letter explaining the deceased’s belief that the war was wrong. Driving home, Kyle blames the man’s death on that perspective. He calls it weakness, though it sure looked like hard-earned skepticism to me, especially considering the man died of enemy fire no pro-war stance would shield. Kyle clings to a black and white world because he needs it to be that way, because he needs to feel 100% justified to survive. Eastwood’s film is an ambiguous inhabitation of that worldview, putting it on display and letting the audience take it for an inkblot test. I saw it as messy, but ultimately more sorrowful than celebratory. Eastwood features real disabled vets in the final scenes, then rolls footage of Kyle's funeral over the credits. Here was a man good at war. Look what war does.

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