Category Archives: National Reviews

Review: ‘American Sniper’ is good, not great


“American Sniper” follows the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy SEAL with 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. 

It is technically a 2014 film because it opened in limited release in time to qualify for the Academy Awards (for which it got six nominations, including Cooper for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture). But it has made no shortage of headlines in 2015 due to its record-breaking box-office performance and controversial subject.
There have been accusations that the real Kyle was too trigger-happy, but the Kyle of the movie never shoots anybody that isn’t a definite threat to his fellow soldiers. 

Early scenes are pretty standard for a war movie. We see Kyle as a child, where he’s a decent shot with a hunting rifle and he’s told that it’s okay to use violence to protect people he cares about. His early adult life (circa late ‘90s) is rather aimless until he joins the military, and then he goes through what I thought was a relatively tame version of SEAL training. He also meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and they have a cute little courtship. It’s at his wedding in 2003 that Kyle learns he’s about to be deployed. These early scenes aren’t bad, but you know the movie is just going through the paces until it can get to Iraq. 

Once in Iraq, Kyle is assigned to protect ground-based Marines by overseeing their operations from a high vantage point and shooting any threats that come their way. He excels at this, neutralizing several threats and saving the lives of many fellow soldiers. He quickly earns himself a reputation as an expert sniper with the nickname “Legend.” Not that he doesn’t deserve credit for his skilled shooting, but I think he should get even more credit for his talent for spotting enemies. One-hundred and sixty kills meant that he was able to identify 160 individual threats. 

The action scenes in Iraq are by far the best in the movie. There is, of course, the extremely intense scene from the trailers where Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a child who almost certainly poses a threat, and it’s not even the only scene where he has to make a tough decision involving a child. 

Plus there are many other scenes with standoffs, interrogations, firefights and other hostile confrontations. And they aren’t always from far-off sniper distances, which is not to say that military snipers like Chris Kyle aren’t incredibly brave and selfless for entering war zones and engaging in deadly combat just because they protect themselves with distance and cover. 

Between and after his four tours of Iraq, Kyle has to live with what he’s seen. Supposedly the movie is just as much about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder as it is his war efforts. But I don’t think the film dives deep enough into his psychological issues. The few scenes we do get are decent: arguments with his wife, an inconsiderate trip to a bar, an unnerving exchange with a playful dog at a barbecue (though I would argue that a minor freakout in a maternity ward could be expected from any new father regardless of PTSD). But there are too few of them and the storyline doesn’t seem to account for much of the film’s energy. 

Aside from the heart-stopping combat scenes, “American Sniper” is little more than an ordinary soldier movie about an extraordinary soldier. It’s competent to be sure, and I can see why Bradley Cooper received an Oscar nomination. I’m sure he could have handled more responsibility with the PTSD material, as he’s demonstrated in public appearances that he’s passionate about the subject. 

I wish the film would have let him be more dynamic with his performance. This is a respectable project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “Oscar-worthy.” 

(“American Sniper” is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including sexual references. Its running time is 132 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at

Double feature: ‘Interstellar’ & ‘Big Hero 6’


This past weekend brought not one, but two new films that made more than $50 million in their debut.

Their numbers were pretty close, so I’ve decided to review them both (starting with “Interstellar”).

“Interstellar” is three hours long, and you feel every minute of it. It’s an epic about the race against time to save humanity from a dying Earth. We go from sickly cornfields to scraped-together spaceships in the outer reaches of space to uninhabitable planets to a virtual hall of mirrors that violates the laws of physics.

Matthew McConaughey stars as a promising engineer turned corn farmer who is the closest thing the Earth has to a competent astronaut after famine made pretty much everybody have to focus on corn farming. Humanity’s only hope is to relocate everyone to a new planet on the other end of a wormhole.

McConaughey and a small crew are sent on a mission to check out the three most promising candidates. The mission will take decades and he has to leave his family behind. And then it turns out that his family
may have been the key to saving humanity all along.

The movie on Earth is pretty bland, though Mc- Conaughey proves that his Oscar last year was no fluke. But of course it’s in space when things get really intense. The characters find themselves in one situation after another where you can swear they’ll never make it out, and yet there is that sliver of hope thanks to McConaughey’s absolutely believable resilience and intelligence.

Speaking of intelligence, in a way that’s the movie’s biggest problem. I couldn’t keep up with all the science talk, especially when it came to time manipulation. Like the species, I was lost and needed McConaughey’s relatability to rescue me. But even then, it was clear that “Interstellar” was doing everything it could to accomplish something important and amazing. I give it two-and-a-half stars out of five.

(“Interstellar” is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. Its running time is 169 minutes.)

As for “Big Hero 6,” this is Disney’s only major animated offering this year, the first fruit of its highly publicized partnership with Marvel Comics. It’s an agreeable movie with some cute gags and clever details, but I don’t see it becoming as iconic as some of Disney’s other output.

The story follows a boy with the unsubtle name of Hiro (Ryan Potter) as he tries to revolutionize the world of robotics at the age of 13. He suffers the loss of his even-smarter older brother (it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a child suffering a loss), who leaves behind a prototype of a medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

Baymax is eager to help, but he’s clumsy. His body is inflatable and puffy, so as to be appealing to children. He’s not built to travel long distances and subject himself to harmful elements. But Hiro is impressed by the technology behind Baymax, so he makes a few upgrades and turns him into a (very compassionate) fighting robot. Hiro enlists four of his brother’s awkward lab friends to hero-fy themselves as well and together they set out to discover what happened to the brother.

Baymax is a loveable, memorable character, but the rest of the team seems to have been created by marketing people trying to sell action figures. The same can be said of the film’s plot and action scenes. Disney has gone down the superhero route before with “The Incredibles” and I never could never shake the feeling that this film is not as heartfelt as its predecessor. It’s clear that the more creative Disney people were allowed to have at least some influence on “Big Hero 6,” but the finished product is a disappointing superhero movie with a few outstanding elements. I give it two stars out of five.

(“Big Hero 6” is rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor and thematic elements. Its running time is 104 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at

Movie Review: Gyllenhaal excels in ‘Nightcrawler’


Almost all the memorable scenes in “Nightcrawler” are ones where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, is trying to get the better of people.

Sometimes he’s trying to get a job. Sometimes he’s negotiating the price of his crime scene footage with local news director Nina (Rene Russo). Sometimes he’s negotiating with Nina for something more than money. Sometimes he’s exploiting his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). Sometimes he’s trying to explain his way out of trouble with the police.

Whatever he’s doing, Lou rarely sees people as anything more than opponents – opponents who need to be beaten.

Some of this he does out of necessity (the movie takes place in the unforgiving world of late-night Los Angeles), but often he does it just because he’s him. This is a character who can only live with himself if he has the upper hand on people. I’ve heard Lou compared to Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale’s character in “American Psycho”) and it’s certainly an apt comparison, but I saw him as more akin to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in “There Will Be Blood”).

Plainview had many great quotes, but the one that applies best here is: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” This is an exaggeration, of course, both Plainview and Lou Bloom can allow other people to succeed. There wouldn’t be anything to take away from them otherwise.

The story follows the unemployed Lou as he tries to make a living filming the grisly aftermath of crime scenes. He seems like the kind of guy who would hang around a crime scene anyway, so why not get paid for it? He sells his footage to a fledging local news show, one whose ratings absolutely hinge on violence and misery (but mostly violence). These characters not only believe in the cynical rule of “If it bleeds, it
leads,” they live by it. They certainly don’t seem to believe in any others.

Things become even darker when Lou decides that to stay ahead in the game, he can’t wait until the crimes have been committed to do his filming. The conclusion of the film sees him unfurl an evil plan that is frankly far-fetched even for this movie. The film’s advertising has promoted Lou using the phrase, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” He has about the same odds of winning the lottery as he does of everything coming together with the timing and circumstances that it Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career
as Lou.

Obviously Lou is a person who doesn’t sleep at night, but thanks to Gyllenhaal, he looks like a person who doesn’t sleep ever. He has a formal way of talking that makes it clear that he understands the importance of social skills in becoming successful and equally clear that he has none. For better or worse, Gyllenhaal is going to be synonymous with this role for some time. “Better” because he’s really good at it, “worse” because he’s going to have a hard time getting work as anyone likeable. It’s also worth mentioning that Rene Russo turns in an equally twisted performance as the jaded news director who becomes Lou’s favorite foil.

“Nightcrawler” is a fully-realized movie to be sure, but by no means an enjoyable one. There’s a certain deliciousness to the way Lou takes advantage of people, but it’s not a rewarding feeling. The climactic action sequence is brutal and intense, but the actual ending seems abrupt and is something less than the epic fall that this character deserves. Still, this is a well-made movie that does an excellent job of making you detest its main characters. It’s called “Nightcrawler,” but it’s your skin that will be doing the crawling.

(“Nightcrawler” is rated R for violence including graphic images,
and for language. Its running time is 117 minutes. Contact
Bob Garver at

“Ouija” an uninspired, predictable horror movie


Here it is: the official scary movie of Halloween 2014. I have to say I’m disappointed. This is a pretty unoriginal slog through murky spiritual territory. The ghosts featured are relatively unconvincing, but I can see being startled by the occasional loud noises. The best thing I can say for this film is that it has enough cheap jump scares that it will make the audience scream a few times, and then they’ll laugh at themselves for screaming. This means that the movie is only effective with a big, screaming audience.

A Ouija board, by the way, is a board game of sorts that allegedly allows players to talk to spirits in other realms. The game is controversial because it supposedly encourages players to dabble in the dark arts. My mother told me that I should consider it an automatic deal-breaker in a friendship if the friend ever wanted me to play with a Ouija board. Clearly they don’t work, because if they did, they would be exploited for a lot more profit than just selling ill-reputed board games.

The movie follows a group of teenagers who use a Ouija board to make contact with a friend who committed suicide. The girl was a
Ouija fanatic, and something about a message she received pushed her over the edge. Her friends decide to reach out to her spirit using the same game. They don’t connect with the friend, but they do find themselves the next targets of the same supernatural danger.

Fans of horror movies know where we’re going from here. There will be a few fake scares that gradually turn into real ones. Most of the characters will maintain a state of denial until it’s too late. Silent scenes will be interrupted by bumps in the night. One by one the characters will get picked off in PG-13 fashion (after the original victim there are five members in the group, so that should give you an indication of the body count). The promiscuous member of the group will probably be the first to go. The characters will investigate darkened houses and never turn on the lights (or the electricity will go out at the worst possible time, ditto for flashlight batteries). They’ll split up and individually encounter horrors that the others won’t believe. The spirits will do little more than manipulate furniture and shriek. And of course, nobody will be able to destroy the stupid board.

I should be saying that the movie is a glorified commercial for Ouija boards, but that isn’t the case. At no point in the movie do Ouija boards look cool. They only summon murderous ghosts bent on killing the players. This movie can’t even be bothered to make the game look enticing. A better horror movie would let the kids have fun with the board at first (“Nice talking to you, Mr. Andre the Giant sir”) and then things spin out of control. Nope, we get evil, evil, and more evil. I’m not saying that I’d be supportive of a Ouija craze, just that the movie fails at its supposed goal.

“Ouija” was the #1 movie in the country the weekend before Halloween, and it will almost definitely retain its spot over Halloween weekend by extension. Then its numbers will fall off a cliff. It gives people an excuse to go to the movies on Halloween and scream and laugh. It makes for a fun party, even if the movie itself is lousy. You’ll remember going to see this movie more than you’ll remember anything about it.

(“Ouija” is rated PG- 13 for disturbing violent content, frightening horror images, and thematic material. Its running time is only 89 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at


If the word “brutal” sounds like an insult, you probably aren’t a heavy metal fan.

That being said, Psymatica’s “Envisage” is brutal. And that’s a high compliment. Written and recorded by one-man metal machine Stevil Graham, this CD is down-tuned, raw-throated excellence. The former frontman of now-defunct Scathe combines aggressive drumming, chugging riffs and powerful vocals to deliver an undeniably focused record.

Graham’s proficiency with all things metal — from technical fills to interesting polyrhythmns to the audio quality itself — is uncanny. But also worth noting is the way the Johnstown resident seamlessly infuses sounds not traditionally associated with the genre. The second half of “Emergentcy,” for example, ascends from metal mayhem into proggy instrumental ambiance without a hitch.

Not everybody will appreciate this kind of “extreme” music — in the same way not everybody appreciates cage fighting or advanced calculus. That makes it no less impressive.

Brutal stuff.

12 songs, 58 minutes
Psymatica Music, 2013

Jarekus Singleton – Refuse To Lose

When you think of the blues, the image of a shabby down-and-out type drowning sorrows on a shack’s front porch may come to mind.

Jarekus Singleton apparently wants no part of that stereotype.

The Mississippi-born collegiate basketball star gives us a fresh spin on the genre with his optimism-infused blues sound. His guitar playing calls to mind not only the classics, but also contemporary greats such as Warren Haynes and Gary Clark Jr.

As advertised by the title, “Refuse to Lose” is remarkably upbeat for a blues record. Jarekus recalls hardships overcome and battles won.

Still, the best song might be the laugh-out-loud funny “Blame Game,” in which Jarekus bemoans a “jerk” boss who won’t let him text, Tweet or even sleep on the job.

“Blame Game” is Jarekus at his best — classic and contemporary at once.

‘Refuse to Lose’
12 songs, 53 minutes
Alligator Records & Artist Management