Sunday, January 25, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper (2015)

American Sniper chronicles four tours in Iraq by real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (1974-2013), interspersed with his difficulties adjusting back to civilian life. The film works best as an uncomplicated war movie, especially given its powerful ending, but it misses the mark (sorry; obligatory) when it comes to exploring the consequences of nationalism/tribalism and the mindset that continues the cycle of violence worldwide.

Since this is a Clint Eastwood film, I shall pay tribute by breaking this down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Pre-sniper Chris Kyle is a good guy. His dad raised him to be a "sheepdog," someone who protects the "sheep" from the "wolves." As portrayed by Bradley Cooper, Chris is very determined, very brave, and very much a product of the patriarchy: protect the women and children, and keep all the pain and doubts inside. His decision to join the military transforms him--he goes from charming Texas cowboy, to driven sniper, to struggling husband and father, and eventually settles down into a devoted family man who still serves his country by helping wounded veterans.

The cinematography and sound editing are spectacular. The bloody and graphic treatment of soldiers killing insurgents recalls The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, both of which were also rated R for their unflinching depiction of brutalities. The shots showing the devastation of Iraqi cities are compelling, as are the scenes of a sandstorm looming in the periphery while Chris' team carries out a risky operation.

The Bad: The script has amusing banter between characters sprinkled throughout, but it gets lazy when it comes to how Chris earned his "Legend" nickname. While viewers do see sniper action, Chris' reputation in the movie is mostly delivered by other soldiers talking him up. This is a film! Show, don't tell!

There are also a few scenes where the cheese factor is pretty high. I counted three eyerolls accompanied by a yearning for a less sentimental director, like Kathryn Bigelow. I think she would've been like, "Stop being such testicles, which are weak and sensitive! This scene obviously needs more ovaries, which are protected by layers of muscle!"

I didn't sleep last night, can you tell?

The Ugly: The terrible and distracting decision to use fake babies on set. Here is Jezebel's "American Sniper Promotes Unrealistic Beauty Standards for Babies," a hilarious takedown of the terrifying plastic props that Cooper and Sienna Miller acted their hearts out to convince audiences that they were real. AAAHHHHHH

But seriously. The film presents the Iraq war as an unambiguous good versus evil conflict. There are hints of alternate perspectives, such as when Chris' brother voices his unhappiness, and when a fellow SEAL questions Chris' beliefs, but these aren't developed. The main antagonists, a sniper named Mustafa and an enforcer called "The Butcher," are one-dimensional. Chris becomes almost cartoonishly heroic, declaring that he'll "make them pay" for hurting his "brothers"--language that one can easily see extremists also using.

And this is the crux of the problem: American Sniper can be interpreted as a jingoistic vision of the US war on terror, where heroes save lives by killing the enemy, including civilians, who are presented here as dishonest, grasping, or murderous. But the war on terror has been more like the scene in the movie where a sandstorm hits: you hope you hit your target, you hope you don't get left behind, and you hope you come out of the storm with your mind and body whole.

TL; DR: Practically war propaganda, which is both its strength and its weakness.

This post brought to you by the icy winds of winter!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mandatory 80's Movies for My Child

Required viewing in the Fragrant household 

Movies! They transport us into other worlds, reveal the minds of other creatures, and expand the limits of our imaginations! My dad and I used to go to Alabang Town Center, back when their movie theaters were called Twin Cinemas (because there were only two, get it???), and that was how we bonded as father-daughter units.

The posters above represent the top four mandatory movies from the Epic Eighties for Junior:

The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • Plot: Two Gelflings travel to the lair of the evil Skeksis to restore balance to the world by returning the missing shard of the Dark Crystal. 
  • X Factor: Fierce animatronics. The Skeksis dinner scene is the stuff of nightmares.
  • Values: Fwendship! Courage! Sacrifice!
  • Best line: "You have wings?" -"Of course! I'm a girl!"
Labyrinth (1986)
  • Plot: David Bowie's tight pants terrorize a teenager and her baby brother. 
  • X Factor: Nutty animatronics and a labyrinth that is somehow creepy and charming.
  • Values: Determination! Cleverness! Confidence!
  • Best line: "You have no power over me."
The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Plot: A couple surmounts all obstacles in the name of true love. 
  • X Factor: Everything.
  • Values: Adventure! Swashbuckling! True Love! 
  • Best line: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
  • 2nd best line: "You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind/Kaze no tani no nausicaa (1984)
  • Plot: A young princess tries to stop a militaristic kingdom from further destroying the environment. 
  • X Factor: Nausicaa's glider. Only requires Seven Days of Fire and the birth of a Toxic Jungle to invent!
  • Values: Nature! Empathy! Love!
  • Best line: "Why does everything that's good for you have to taste so bad?"

I haven't thought about the 90's yet, but I'm pretty sure one of the Disney Renaissance movies will make it. Maybe Aladdin...?

This post brought to you by red wine!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Babies = Kitties or Puppies? An Analysis [UPDATED]

Human infants are typically known for being adorable, helpless, and a major impediment to parental slumber. Kitties are soft, playful, and make good companions. They also have an unfortunate habit of walking across freshly laundered items of clothing.

Some human adults compare babies to cats. The reasoning, I believe, goes like this: babies are small and cute, cats are small and cute, therefore babies = cats.

However, after a series of randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews, and meta-analysis, we have come to the conclusion that babies = puppies. Our findings are summarized in the Venn diagram below:

The characteristics exclusive to babies are at the top of the diagram: their hypnotic powers over grandmothers, overnight transformation from raisin-goblins into rosy-cheeked cherubs, and so on. Babies are also magnets for phrases such as, "It's so great when they're at that age," delivered in wistful tones (or frenzied tones, if the other human is currently raising teenagers). This is because little babies are utterly helpless and need caregivers for the simplest tasks, such as wiping their drool or cleaning their butts.

This last is shared with puppies, who are also very enthusiastic producers of saliva and are not able to discard of their solid wastes. Like babies, puppies depend upon their caregivers and are actually capable of gratitude, unlike cats. However, puppies are much more mobile than babies, so they can over-express their affection and also act out a baby's desire, which is to put things in its biggest face-hole. Puppies only need to wait a couple of weeks for their first set of teeth to come in, so they can chew rubber bands, shoes, hand grenades, and your other personal items with abandon.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are cats, who typically only deign to acknowledge their human companions when food is being offered. Cats will spend hours every day cleaning themselves, possibly to be charmingly presentable when the media come to ask about how their human "tripped over his/her own feet" while holding an open can of tuna. Cat claws are terribly sharp and retractable, so be very still when kitty is stroking your cheek, unless you want your good looks shredded.

Both cats and dogs can be playful, which is not true of all babies, who are concentrating on the process of revealing their personalities like a butterfly emerging from chrysalis. Maybe little Hashtag is super serious, and that's why she keeps staring solemnly at you while you make faces at her. On the plus side, no matter the personality type, your baby will certainly not walk over your fresh laundry and shed fur all over it. Some babies do have hair that falls out (e.g., my own Junior was born with back hair, like a baby werewolf), but these are virtually unnoticeable.

All three small creatures possess cuteness in spades, they are indifferent to your sleep schedule, and their farts are surprisingly toxic despite the relatively small size of their intestines. We can only surmise that Intestinal Gas, Inc. is an equal-opportunity stinker.

After thorough study of the above facts, our team calculated that there are 300% more bullet points within the intersection of Baby and Puppy than within the intersection of Baby and Kitty, thereby conclusively proving that babies = puppies.

This post brought to you by the power of Greyskull!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Movie Review: The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Happy New Year! In 2015, I resolve to: Enjoy!

Here at the Fragrant Household, we ushered in the future by giving our money to Peter Jackson, his cast and crew, and the Showcase Superlux.

Without further ado, here is an opinion-sprinkled recap of:

The Setup
Smaug is burning up Lake Town because he thinks they helped Thorin and Co., who in the last movie poured piping hot gold on the greedy dragon. It did not work as intended.

As the townfolk flee, the Master and his awful assistant Alfred escape with the town's treasures. Bard uses his jail bedsheet and contrivance to escape and clamber to a high tower. He fires at Smaug and runs out of arrows, but his son is there with a giant javelin!

Bard uses Penetrate Weak Spot! It's super effective! Smaug is dead! Now everyone and their mother look toward the treasures Smaug had been hoarding.

Thandruil Wants His Shiny
The king of the forest elves is first on the scene, with his army. "The heirlooms of my people are not easily abandoned," he intones, when Bard asks him why he would risk war for a necklace.

Bard goes and tries to reason with Thorin. He fails because he opened with easily-countered arguments, e.g. "We don't have a home!" to which Thorin is like, "Did you not see the first movie?"

Thorin Wants All the Shinies
Bilbo is worried because Thorin has replaced sleeping and eating with salivating over his grandpa's treasure hoard and roaring about finding the Arkenstone. The other dwarves are too loyal to question him, leaving Bilbo to have tender conversations about acorns with the now-mad King Under the Mountain. Thorin is so far gone that he starts talking in slow motion and also walks around with Revlon winds blowing at him constantly. At one point, he has a bad acid trip where he sinks into the solid gold floor.

Gandalf gets beat up so it's up to Galadriel to save him! She uses Bright Light! It's not very effective! The Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings attack!

Saruman, Elrond, and their wigs come to the rescue! Suddenly, Sauron's figure appears within the Fiery Vajayjay of Mordor! This time, Galadriel goes all Zombie Elf Queen with Insane Ring of Power! It works, but she's exhausted!

"Leave Sauron to me," says Saruman. Foreshadowing for LOTR is 25% complete.

Bilbo Sneakily Sneaks
Bilbo leaves the mountain and gives the Arkenstone to Bard, Thandruil, and Gandalf, figuring Thorin would negotiate to get it back. The humans and elves march to the mountain to see if Thorin will see reason. When that fails, Bilbo 'fesses up, and Thorin orders him hurled from the parapet. Fortunately, Bilbo's karma credit score with the other dwarves is 750, so they let him rappel down the wall instead.

Tauriel and Legolas would like to remind you that they are in this movie! They find out about the vicious war-bats of a super sikrot orc army and race back to warn their allies.

The Battle Begins
Thorin's nutty cousin Dain appears with a dwarf army. As the elves prepare to fight, an orc army (the not-sikrot one) pours out of the hills. The dwarves race past the elves to engage the new foe. They slam down their shields into the ground to make a straight-line version of the Spartan's shield-and-spear porcupine formation at the end of 300. It looks like the elves are staying out of it...but no! They vault over the dwarves and go stabby-stabby at the bad guys!

While all this is going on, Azog the Defiler, the brains behind the operation, orders a second wave to attack the undefended city of Dale, where the human refugees fled. Bard and his men rush back to the city, where Bard makes sure to fulfill the movie's quota of at least one (1) High-Speed Attack Using Unlikely Item.

The Battle Turns
The dwarves are on the verge of being overwhelmed, Thandruil is pissed off because his Battle Elk got arrowed, and the humans are doing so badly that the women take up farm implements to join the fighting. In the midst of all this, Alfred and his monobrow still somehow do not get gruesomely killed, which would have led to audience cheers.

Thorin comes to his senses and leads his band on a roaring rampage straight to the orcs! Then he realizes that Azog, who killed his father, is calling the shots from a fortress on a mountaintop! Thorin takes a literal Battering Ram and his best warriors to confirm if Azog ordered an appetizer of icy plunge with a side order of sword to the chest, hold the fountain of blood.

Legolas and Tauriel arrive in Dale and announce the impending attack from the north, but Thandruil is all, "I'm too pretty to care." Bilbo volunteers to go warn Thorin, who would be stuck on the mountaintop when the new army comes. Legolas decides to also go help Thorin, using a war-bat to complete the first of the movie's three (3) required Scenes of Legolas Defying the Laws of Physics.

The Battle Peaks
Bilbo uses the Ring of Power to go invisible and successfully warn Thorin, who decides to leave the fortress. But Azog kills Fili and he must be aveeeeeeenged!!! Tauriel gets the snot beaten out of her by Azog's lieutenant. Kili comes to the rescue but gets Kili-ed instead. Dammit, that pun doesn't work.

Legolas sees Tauriel in peril and defies physics again to create a bridge out of a watchtower so he and whatsisface can duke it out. He takes a brief second to save Thorin from certain death via flying sword, then performs his final ridiculous act by running to safety using the crumbling tower blocks as stepping stones.

Azog uses a block on a chain to fight Thorin, who eventually figures out that the fastest way to win this boss battle is to let Azog break apart the ice under their feet and then unbalance him so he sinks to his watery, ice-cold death. Naturally, this does not quite work, and they end up stabbing each other in the chest. But Thorin is on top, so that means he wins! The war is over!

Oh yes, and the eagles swoop in to save the day. Bit too late for Thorin, though.

And So It Ends
Bilbo keens his anguish over Thorin's corpse in what is really a touching scene. Legolas sees Tauriel grieving over Kili and tells his daddy he can't come home anymore, can he please have his allowance via monthly wire transfers, and Thandruil says he should go to and check out this guy Strider. LOTR foreshadowing 50% complete. Then Thandruil and Tauriel resolve their differences because true love and also tragic loss.

Thorin's company bids farewell to Bilbo, reminding the audience that the only one they really knew was Balin, and maybe Bombur since he was The Fat One.

Bilbo and Gandalf part ways at the borders of the Shire. Gandalf reveals that he knew about Bilbo's magic ring all along. LOTR foreshadowing 75% complete.

Back home, Bilbo discovers he's been classified as deceased and interrupts the auction for his belongings. He goes into his now-empty hobbit hole and, in another great, wordless scene, radiates relief at being home at last.

Cut to: older Bilbo about to celebrate his birthday, Gandalf knocking on the door, and LOTR foreshadowing 100% complete. The end, and a new beginning.

TL; DR: The shortest Hobbit film. Now buy the complete Blu-ray collection!

This post brought to you by Vornado whole room evaporative humidifier!