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Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

American Sniper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and Keir O'Donnell
Synopsis: Most movies centered on war focus on the battle at the front. You have the two sides, you have the key battle scenes and that, ideally, a big victory. There are battle scenes and victories in “American Sniper,” but that’s not the ultimate point. The film, about legendary Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, isn’t really about the action at the front. It’s about how a man who’s seen the horrors of war processes all that, and how he goes back to being a husband and a father. Kyle was nicknamed the “Legend” by his peers because of the shots he hit. He had the most confirmed kills in history. But as Clint Eastwood chronicles in this film, his biggest battle was letting go of all he’d seen and done. “Sniper” was a late addition to the Academy Award race. While it didn’t get a lot of nominations or attention at earlier award presentations, it stunned on January 15 by getting six nominations — including Best Picture and a Best Actor nomination for Cooper. And after an incredible opening weekend — which saw it break a January Box Office record — the film appears to be on a roll. That shouldn’t be a big surprise. Eastwood has delivered some incredible films over the last two decades, getting several Best Picture nominees. In “American Sniper” he finds another film that takes a hard look at faith, family and how to deal with difficult circumstances in life. Eastwood is a good director, and has offered some beautiful films. “American Sniper” is a good film, but not a great film. Some of the plot seems to jump around and the film isn’t as polished as his better work. Some of this might be due to the script from Jason Hall, a surprise nominee in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, and some of it might be a result of controversies that have followed Kyle’s family following his death. Either way, there are parts of the film that are powerful and parts that don’t make a lot of sense. Additionally, biopics get held to a higher standard because they are grounded in real events. “Selma” seems to have lost ground in the awards races because of depictions of President Johnson, and I can’t help but wonder if some of the liberties taken with story in “American Sniper” will hurt its Oscar chances. Despite some of the flaws with the film, the work of Cooper is incredible. He was nominated for Best Actor for the third year in a row, and for the third year in a row he’s brought a completely different character to the screen. But his depth of emotion and the way he plays Kyle in this film is what really makes it hum. Also interesting is the time spent looking at how Kyle found his way back to his family when the combat missions were over. That’s an aspect of war not often covered in war movies, so it was nice to see time devoted to that, and the deft way it was handled, with this movie. In sum, “American Sniper” is a fascinating story that leads to a good, but not great film. It surprised with a lot of nominations on January 15, but the bigger surprise would be if it actually wins.
Rating: R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, and John Ortiz
Synopsis: Michael Mann has carved out a very successful career, much of it based on beautifully told crime stories. Twenty years ago Mann gave us "Heat." On Friday, he gave us "Blackhat." The movie wants to be great — and it even has some good actors. It's about cyber terrorism, and it's a crime story that takes you around the globe. Hemsworth — better known as Thor in the Marvel Universe — plays a computer hacker who's freed from prison to help find the bad guys using some of his code. He finds love, runs a foul of the law, and ultimately gets his man. This isn't a hard movie to follow and, though it has a few surprises, it ends in a spot you'd expect in a Mann movie. My quibbles are more that the story and characters aren't that interesting, but worse the movie is shot in an uninteresting style. Mann has always used hand-held cinematography to give a more intimate style, but the shots in "Blackhat" are particularly bad. Much of it looks like it was shot on a cell phone. It's grainy, poorly framed, and detracts from the narrative. I read a review of "Blackhat" and it suggested that even great filmmakers, like Mann, are allowed an occasional misfire. That's certainly true of "Blackhat." It's not a bad idea, but it is a marginal film.
Rating: R for violence and some language. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.

Dumb and Dumber to
Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, and Rob Riggle
Synopsis: In 1994, the Farrelly Brothers gave the world "Dumb and Dumber." It was a weird, sometimes magical, and often hilarious ride. It kick-started a slew of comedies from them that established their brand. And, supposedly, they always wanted to work with Carrey and Daniels again on a sequel, but it never came together. The world of "Dumb and Dumber" got a prequel that wasn't well received, but they never came back to do a sequel. Until lat November, that is. Twenty years after the original, Carrey and Daniels reunited for the long awaited sequel. It's 110 minutes of familiar characters engaging in tired gags without much of a compelling plot. Sure, there are some moments that make you smile and some that make you chuckle, but nothing like the laughs generated by the original. Carrey's schtick is long past old, and so, too, is the schtick of the Farrelly Brothers. "Dumb and Dumber to" might have been a hot movie at one point in time, but 20 years after the original it just seems sort of sad.
Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references.
Verdict: One star out of four.

Inherent Vice
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, and Katherine Waterston
Synopsis: This is the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. It's set in 1970 and follows private investigator Doc Sportello (Phoenix) as he gets pulled into a wild case by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Waterston). The film is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, and it features eccentric characters, a wild plot, and plenty of drug use. Some have compared the film to the Coen Brothers drug-fueled comedy "The Big Lebowski." In terms of tone, there are some similarities, but this is also somewhat of a detective story. It's more true to the era and a certain kind of lifestyle. It's characters who are separated by disparate world views — the straight-laced L.A.P.D. cop (Brolin) and the stoner detective. It's an interesting period in American history, too, which Anderson captures in his film. He has a great cast and he gets some great performances out of them, particularly from the over-the-top character played by Brolin and the emotional scenes from Waterston. Phoenix, too, feels like the perfect actor to settle into the lead role and be the glue for this wild story. Anderson has a unique style as a filmmaker. None of his movies are the same, and none are what you'd expect. "Inherent Vice" follows a similar pattern. I enjoyed the comedy and the performances, and I was entertained by the movie even if I'm not quite sure what happened or what the film was trying to say. In a year that's been crowded by some memorable and well-made films, it's not hard to wonder why something off the beaten path got lost in the shuffle. That said, you'd be hard pressed to find a more original movie from last year than "Inherent Vice."
Rating: R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

The Wedding Ringer
Starring: Josh Gad, Kevin Hart, and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting
Synopsis: January is a time when new movies get thrown out in droves to see what, if anything, sticks. It's not usually a time for high quality, but rather some light-hearted winter comedy and action films. "The Wedding Ringer" hits the comedy side nicely. It's not a deep movie, and it's not incredibly memorable, but it has some good characters, decent performances, and some nice laughs. Gad — who plays a groom without any friends — and Hart — who plays a professional Best Man for hire — have a nice rapport. The film has plenty of funny sequences, and the two lead characters do a nice job. There's also a strong supporting cast, including Cuoco-Sweeting, who plays the Bride, and Olivia Thirlby, who plays the Bride's sister, someone who's very suspicious of what might be going on. The story plays out largely how you'd expect, until you get to a twist at the end that makes the ending a little more charming. This isn't a deep movie, but it's a great way to pass a snowy afternoon.
Rating: R for crude and sexual content, language throughout, some drug use and brief graphic nudity. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, January 23 — "Strange Magic," "Mortdecai," "The Boy Next Door," "Black Sea"
Friday, January 30 — "Black or White," "Project Almanac"


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