Saturday, February 7, 2015
In his gritty, 132 minute, R-rated, combat biography “American Sniper” (**** OUT OF ****) producer & director Clint Eastwood treats the life of real-life protagonist Chris Kyle with unmistakable reverence. This tragic but heroic account of the deadliest sharpshooter in U.S. military history is compelling as well as propelling from fade-in to fade-out. Similarly, “A-Team” actor Bradley Cooper delivers a career best performance as the legendary Texas native who racked up 160 confirmed kills as a sniper during four tours of duty in Iraq. Cooper packed on nearly 40 pounds so he could impersonate the beefy Kyle, and the actor assured “Men’s Health” magazine that the 6000 calories-per-day diet that he shoveled down constituted a challenge in itself. According to “People” magazine, real-life Navy SEAL sniper Kevin Lacz, who fought alongside Kyle, taught Cooper how to handle the sophisticated sniper weaponry. This sober but never simple-minded saga about the Iraqi war doesn’t so much ponder the polemical politics that prompted America’s participation in the fighting as much as its use as a historical setting. Indeed, Kyle was gung-ho about serving his country after suicide bombers had blasted the Marine barracks to rubble in Beirut in 1983. Meantime, people who have read Kyle’s 2012 memoir may complain about some of the liberties that Eastwood and “Paranoia” scenarist Jason Hall have taken in their adaptation of the New York Times bestseller. Nevertheless, Eastwood has fashioned a realistic but patriotic film with a wrinkle or two that has mesmerized domestic audiences. For example, Kyle believed in what he was doing in Iraq while his younger brother abhorred not only the war but also the country. Eastwood celebrates the sacrifices that these citizens made without turning “American Sniper” into a rabble-rousing, Rambo fantasy.
“American Sniper” opens in Iraq with Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) sprawled belly down on a Fallujah roof-top checking potential threats to the Marines on the street below as they rattle one door after another in search of hostiles. Initially, Kyle spots a military-age, Iraqi native on a balcony. Chatting on a cell phone, he is watching the troops approach him. This suspicious fellow vanishes from Kyle’s sight. Moments later, a mother dressed like an angel of death in black emerges onto the street with her son. The mother hands her son a grenade, and they approach a tank with troops following it. Just as Kyle is scrutinizing these two civilians through his sniper scope, his spotter warns him that he could land in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth for shooting friendly civilians. This issue arises more than once in “American Sniper.” Civilians in combat zones without a good reason created a quandary because our guys couldn’t be sure who was either sympathetic or unfriendly. Anyway, as Kyle caresses the trigger of his sniper rifle, Eastwood flashbacks to Kyle’s life as a Texas teen shooting his first deer. Eastwood and Hall furnish us with a montage of Kyle’s life along with his God-fearing father’s philosophy. We see Kyle rush to the rescue of his younger brother Jeff on the playground at their elementary school as an obese bully beats up Jeff. At the dinner table, Kyle’s stern father Wayne (Ben Reed of “Scanner Cop”) categorizes humans into three types: predatory wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Brandishing his rolled up belt for emphasis, Wayne warns them that they will neither be predators nor sheep, but instead sheepdogs. Wayne promises to punish them for anything less. During his military service, Chris behaves like a sheepdog. Repeatedly, he risks his life to save his fellow Marines. Occasionally, “American Sniper” lightens up and lets you laugh with Chris about his romantic conquests both good and bad.
Aside from a protracted flashback sequence early into the action, “American Sniper” adheres to a conventional, straightforward storyline, chronicling the high points of Kyle’s experiences under fire. Comparatively, director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” (2013), starring Mark Wahlberg, could serve as a companion piece to “American Sniper.” The big difference is Bradley Cooper’s SEAL team hero displays no compunctions about shooting kids, whereas Mark Wahlberg’s real-life SEAL team hero Marcus Luttrell couldn’t bring himself to kill an innocent goat herder’s son. Meanwhile, “American Sniper” alternates between our hero’s harrowing battlefield exploits and his home front activities with his wife and family. Eastwood doesn’t immortalize Chris Kyle as an invincible, larger-than-life, titan. Actually, we watch in horror as Kyle unravels with each tour until he can no longer tolerate the traumatic pressure of combat. In this respect, “American Sniper” doesn’t pull any punches about the caliber of warfare that our guys had to contend with in Iraq. Mind you, it isn’t gripping in the same slam-bang sense that “Black Hawk Down” was, but “American Sniper” still qualifies as a tour-de-force, first-rate, action yarn. I don’t think Bradley Cooper will clinch the Best Actor Oscar, but you will know that Cooper takes his craft seriously. Aside from Cooper, the only other three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood character is Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya (British actress Sienna Miller of “Foxcatcher”), who goes toe-to-toe with him.
Primarily, Eastwood filters everything through Kyle’s perspective, and you don’t witness any of those standard-issue scenes with natty politicians and high-ranking officers arguing about strategy at headquarters. Eastwood rarely shifts the focus away from either Kyle with his family or Kyle with his buddies. Of course, Kyle and his buddies form a tightly knit group from their rigorous beachfront SEAL team training to the devastating combat in Iraq. Predictably, warfare dwindles their numbers. Particularly shattering is Kyle’s loss of his buddy Biggles (Jake McDorman of “Aquamarine”) who survives long enough to die in surgery. The camaraderie between Kyle and Biggles is sometimes hilarious as well as distressing. Kyle’s younger brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell of “Wedding Crashers”) drifts into and out of the action. Jeff accompanies Kyle on the rodeo circuit in Texas and later follows him to the battlefield in Iraq. Altogether, “American Sniper” ranks as a memorable military actioneer with some salty dialogue.
Jennifer Lopez isn’t a bad actress, but she is so miscast so miserably as a high school English teacher in “The Boy Next Door” (* OUT OF ****) that not even a seasoned Hollywood helmer like Rob Cohen can salvage this substandard stalker saga. Although he has directed hits like “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx” as well as above-average epics like “Daylight,” “Stealth,” and “Alex Cross,” Cohen appears appallingly out of his element with this formulaic fiasco. Not only does the tawdry “The Boy Next Door” miscast Lopez, but also it makes Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, and Hill Harper look just as inapt. Whatever Lopez and the other twelve producers on this picture admired about rookie writer Barbara Curry’s screenplay must have been either altered or didn’t survive the final cut. Although she received an MFA in scriptwriting from UCLA, Curry should have kept her old day job. She spent ten years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles where she toiled in the Major Violent Crimes Unit and handled federal cases involving murder-for-hire, prison murder, racketeering, arson, kidnapping, and bank robbery. Reportedly, Curry taught criminal procedure at FBI Headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and pushed for trial advocacy at the U.S Justice Department in Washington, D.C. In time perhaps, Curry might brush up on her storytelling skills and become a better writer. “The Boy Next Door” is neither suspenseful nor surprising, unless you’ve never seen a single stalker movie. Quite often, our sexy heroine, her oblivious colleagues, and her unsuspecting kin do some really stupid moves that make this movie appear more like a comedy than a drama. The best thing about this predictable pabulum is that it clocks in at a minimal 91 minutes. Meanwhile, “The Boy Next Door” has sold enough tickets to qualify as a “hit.” Produced for a paltry $ 4 million, this mediocre crime melodrama has coined more than $20 million at the box office box, an amount sufficient to pay off its budget as well as its advertising.
Lopez plays English teacher Claire Peterson who teaches classic literature, specifically “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” at a California state public high school. Our heroine looks far too incendiary for her own good. Mind you, I’m not saying high school English teachers cannot look stunning, but Lopez strains credibility with some of her wardrobe. As the action unfolds, Claire has separated from her philandering husband, Garrett Peterson (John Corbett of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), who careens around in muscle cars and had an affair with his secretary. Since you never get a glimpse of the other gal, you have to wonder how she compared with Claire. Presumably, Garrett was probably taking advantage of his lowly employee because she was younger than Claire. Meantime, Claire’s teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson of “The Hunger Games”), suffers from asthma and allergies when bullies aren’t badgering him. The senior citizen next door to Claire (Jack Wallace of “Boogie Nights”) has just taken in his handsome, but orphaned, 19-year nephew, Noah Sandborn (an improbable 27-year old Ryan Guzman of “Step Up Revolution”), whose own dad died in a mysterious car crash. Hint, hint! Claire encounters this charming Abercrombie & Fitch pin-up boy while she is wrestling with a cranky garage door. One weekend, while Garrett and Kevin are away on a fishing trip, Claire accompanies her best friend and colleague, High School Vice Principal Vicky Lansing (Kristin Chenoweth of “Strange Magic”), on a blind date from Hell. The well-meaning Vicky has set Claire up with a gruff anti-intellectual guy. After she walks out on this loser, our distressed heroine finds herself face to face with charismatic Noah. During a vulnerable moment, Claire abandons her morals as easily as Noah disposes of her lingerie. Lopez displays little more than her shapely thighs while Guzman keeps her breasts discreetly covered with his groping paws. The morning after when he awakens her with orange juice and coffee, Noah cannot imagine why Claire would be racked with recriminations. Complicating matters even more, Noah is a transfer student who has enrolled in classes at the same high school where Claire teaches. Lusting after her, Noah decides to pursue Claire, but she rebuffs his advances. Eventually, Noah turns psychotic. Initially, he hacks into Claire’s e-mail account and obtains permission from Principal Edward Warren (Hill Harper of CBS-TV’s “CSI: New York”) to enroll in her class with her apparent approval. Similarly, Noah befriends Kevin, teaches him how to box, and tries to turn him against Garrett who wants desperately to patch up his marriage with Claire. In a burst of rage, Noah pulverizes one of Kevin’s bullies, and Vicky expels Noah. Meantime, Vicky uncovers some disturbing information about Noah, and she finds herself on the wrong end of his rage. Ultimately, Noah horrifies Claire with news that he made a video of their sex act and threatens to expose her! At this point, you’re liable to laugh your head hysterically off rather than gnaw your fingernails in dread.
Comparatively, “The Boy Next Door” reminded me of “Fatal Attraction,” “Single White Female,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “Swimfan,” and “Basic Instinct.” In a “Cosmopolitan” magazine interview, Curry said she drew inspiration from a real-life incident involving a high school teacher who had seduced one of her underage students. Sadly, the relationship between Claire and Noah, especially their voyeur episodes, is so outrageous that you cannot take the drama seriously. Cohen claims he wanted to craft the ultimate erotic thriller along the lines of those previously mentioned movies, but he embroiders clichés. Some of the action scenes, particularly a runaway car episode, provide only a momentary relief from the Harlequin-like soap opera shenanigans. Cohen generates a modicum of suspense in the tradition of “Rear Window” when Claire searches Noah’s man cave for the sex video. Most of the time, however, you’ll felt insulted by the idiotic antics of these clueless cretins. “The Boy Next Door” isn’t a third as exciting as last year’s “No Good Deed.”