January 28, 2015


"Feefty Sheeeyaydes of Greye!" --@MattFradd (the Aussie guy you're watching)


Is "American Sniper" war porn? I hate to use the word "porn" because of the way it's being tossed around to describe so many different things today (e.g., Instagrams of "food porn"). If everything's porn, than nothing is porn, and porn is its own unique, hideous reality. But I really wanted to know if "American Sniper" glorifies war. Does the film pretend to take very seriously the colossal cost of war, the human toll on both sides, the fact that "war is an adventure from which there is no return" (John Paul II)--but actually delights in it? Kinda, sorta. Even though Clint Eastwood insists he's more of a dove than a hawk. Some would argue that all war movies are "war porn."


First of all, 84-year-old Eastwood is one heck of a director: short and medium juxtaposed scenes one after the other. No wasted nothing. Cutting in deep and leaving early (that's how you shoot a scene). USA/Iraq. USA/Iraq. Towards the end of the film, you're just like, "Wow, I'm really here in the middle of this firefight in the middle of this sandstorm." Jason Hall is an amazing writer: no false words, false notes, false emotions, false dialogues. Dude is an actor. If actors can write? They make the best writers. He is nominated for an Oscar.

A transformed, rugged and plain Bradley Cooper--although a solid actor--is surprisingly emotionless, unexpressive and stoic throughout, but maybe he was trying to channel Chris Kyle, the real soldier he plays. Maybe it was a stretch for Cooper to play this "God, country and family" Texan, who was so focused in every way and had so few doubts about his trajectory in life, his identity and mission that he was able to hold it together better than most soldiers. Likeable, not-stuck-on-himself, unassuming, not-self-absorbed Cooper shines most when he is being a charming woo-er and then husband, or joking with the guys in that "hopeful or die" (not gallows humor) way American soldiers evidently do. Eastwood or Hall deserve an Oscar, but not Cooper, not for this role.


Chris' then-girlfriend (a smart performance by Sienna Miller--a Brit who made me believe she was a Yank) asks the karmic question: "Do you ever think of the person at the other end of your gun?" Yes, he does. He refuses to take killing lightly as some of his buddies seemingly do.

At one point a soldier wavers: "I want to believe in what we're doing." And that's really the question with so many wars and military actions, isn't it? What did Iraq have to do with 9/11? Did we really go in there after WMD's (weapons of mass destruction) that some are now reporting do exist (Bush was right?) and are now in the hands of ISIS? Were we planning to go back to Iraq anyway to begin fighting state-sponsored terrorism on the ground, and 9/11 was the perfect "excuse" or opportunity? Why did we choose Iraq (even though 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia--our "untouchable" ally) as the place to begin--because of high-profile terrorists connected with Osama bin Laden? (Going into Afghanistan/Pakistan was going after Bin Laden, I can comprehend that.)

I found myself getting angry at the hell we brought on beautiful Iraq, watching simulated sequences of hapless civilians getting murdered as "collateral," or because they helped the Americans, or whatever. And in war zones, there's always the demonic unleashed in myriad other little and big ways. Yet, I'm firmly convinced that the majority of our soldiers who went to Iraq did so with the right intention (to protect country, freedom, because they were sent, as a visceral reaction to 9/11). So it is possible to have a right purpose in a wrong war. And it is possible to be for the soldiers and against the war.


Is this a "glamorous" war film? Yes. Glamorous to men (must look like fun to them--from firsthand accounts I've read of the adrenaline rush of war--and you can't beat the camaraderie), and glamorous to women because each and every one of these soldiers (there really aren't any female soldiers in this film--just one quick shot of a few women in a briefing session) is a sincerely good guy and drop-dead gorgeous (no pun intended).


I love that Chris' father raised his sons to be fiercely protective. Good! Chris got the right message loud and clear: "There are three kinds of men: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs who protect the sheep." He preserved his humanity throughout and understood the gravity of "stopping a heartbeat." But as a sniper, he had to protect his comrades. He was their cover. I heard recently that because we don't necessarily require/demand much of our young men, challenge them, and because there are no specifically noble traditional male rites of passage, boys don't get signaled that they are men now. Grown up. Responsible. That they are the protector and not the aggressor. That they should be protecting the weak and innocent from aggressors.


It's interesting how basic training and drill sergeants for  the all-male Navy Seals that Chris was a part of use sexual terms, sexual belittling, etc., to toughen the guys up. But it's also so tongue in cheek and everyone knows it. The talk is rough throughout the film, and the violence is quite intense. Sex and gore shots are fleeting. The soldiers alternately dismiss and demean women, as well as live for them.


The ending was a total shock for me. I gasped audibly.

I have a priest friend who sincerely thinks that war is good for men. That going to war is the best and most noble and "manly" thing a man can do. Can we not offer men something higher than war to live for?


--"American Sniper," no doubt, will go down in the annals of filmography as one of the best-shot, best-produced war movies ever.

--Is the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War even over? Has it been declared over? I'm serious. Do we even know? Are they part of some larger unending war on terror? Am I just ignorant? Because I have dearly tried to keep up.

--My Canadian audience was really digging the kills, even cheering a little. It was strange for Canada, but these were also young, seemingly first-generation, immigrant Canadians. Maybe the screen looked just like their videogames. Meanwhile, I, an American, am playing anti-war song "American Woman" (by Canadian band "The Guess Who") in my head.

--There were small children in my theater which was sad, but I guess their parents must let them see this stuff on TV all the time, too.

--I kept thinking of Jesus and nonviolence and MLK ("Selma") during the INTENSE battle scenes. Nonviolence requires superhuman courage and strength: to take on oneself the violence and end it within one's own body.

--So why is Cooper nominated for Oscar? I think he's a Hollywood darling. And Hollywood--although traditionally left of left on most issues--was ostensibly behind the second Iraq War.

--Excellent portrayal of the dilemma of split loyalties: family first or my buddies "over there" first?

--Why do people pay $15 to talk and snore in movie theaters?

--One of the most powerful credit rolls ever.

--Constant reference to the enemy as "savages." Which, of course, is standard operating procedure in any war: dehumanize the enemy.

--This war film is VERY much about (American) aftermath and PTSD. No aftermath/epilogue for the Iraq side. Not even a whisper. The Iraqi people are not responsible for Saddam, terrorism, 9/11, Osama bin Laden.

--Are soldiers really allowed to call home from the field? Yes, says my vet friend! Wild!

--Chris Kyle is completely disciplined and subordinate, not rogue, even though he was revered as a "legend" and he knew it.

--Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller actually look like Chris Kyle and his wife.

--"War puts lightning in your bones. And pretty soon it's all you can hold on to."

--Was it really that calm in the battlefield? Hardly any fear or meltdowns are depicted.

--Chris Kyle being Texan explains a lot. You do know Texans are more American than Americans, right?

--Soldier: "I want to believe in what we're doing here."
Chris: "We're fighting evil here. We've seen it."
Soldier: "There's evil everywhere."

--Kyle is justifiably upset--when he's back in the USA between tours--that the war is not even on the news, nobody even seems to care....

--Check out this wonderful organization: www.CatholicPeaceFellowship.com, made up in part by vets. Includes Church teaching on war, conscientious objection, etc. Their website is unclear and disorganized (there's an old and new version--the old is better), but lots of great stuff. (The way conscientious objection works in USA is you must declare yourself a combatant or non-combatant in the military from the get-go. You are not allowed to opt out of specific military actions/wars as they arise because of your judgment that they are unjust.)

--What do Iraqis think of "American Sniper"? Here you go:
http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iraq/150128/what-moviegoers-baghdad-think-american-sniper (Also proves my point that men love war. Any war.)

--Did you know there are still U.S. soldiers (conscientious objectors from the Iraq War) in Canada?http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/02/08/more-us-soldiers-could-be-sent-back-for-court-martial-on-desertion-charges.html  

--Myla, a young woman from Hawaii (who had to finish her time in the Army), was going to become a Daughter of St. Paul but was killed Christmas Eve in Baghdad. http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0600230.htm


(I think men also "love," or feel inexorably drawn, called, programmed to "protect" or do what they perceive as protecting. This is a very good thing. It's how God made them. But it has to be channeled as rightly as possible. This reflex is clearly shown in the Chris Kyle character, and I've witnessed it in my brother and other men.)

January 19, 2015


"Selma," the story of a pivotal point in the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a well-cast, well-acted re-telling. At times it lacks a bit of a spark, especially as David Oyelowo delivers MLK's rousing, eloquent and inspired speeches in an almost too polished fashion, even though MLK was a great orator. But this is one of the film's only flaws.

The very word "Selma" should be fraught with meaning for Americans, but with each generation, once-shocking and galvanizing events fade. Historical dramas are an excellent way to bring to life crucial personages and moments, to "never forget" where we came from as a country. Many historians loathe these re-enactments because they know all the finer complexities of situations and fear that what people now see on the screen will become ingrained as Gospel truth. But getting 80% of history right is worth it if the alternative is knowing 0%.

"Selma" truly focuses on this one event in MLK's life with just enough backstory to get us going, with just enough hints at the even worse recent nightmare of slavery. Nothing is gratuitous or maudlin in "Selma." This shows great restraint in proper filmmaking, much like the great restraint required by the nonviolent movement. Rather than overstuffing the film with every great event  and character of the 60's, "Selma" is focused. For example, we see Malcolm X only once, at just the right time and in just the right way.

Oprah Winfrey is almost unrecognizable as she gives an incredibly humble and unprepossessing performance. Carmen Ejogo looks eerily like Coretta Scott King, so much so that you would think she had cosmetic surgery. MLK's small entourage of planners and activists give just the right aura of men powerful and determined in their own right, but willing to trust the thinking, leading and strategizing genius of Dr. King. But the real heroes of the film and the movement are the completely ordinary everyday folks, black and white, who put it all on the line. Tom Wilkinson is brilliant (and comical) as LBJ. There is subtle humor everywhere if you know a little something about these times: Edgar J. Hoover's bit part is hilarious.

The film does not forget that Dr. King (doctorate in theology from Boston University) was also, or perhaps first, a pastor. God is the ultimate reason, the ultimate giver of freedom and rights and dignity, and the civil rights movement is very much seen as God's will--"who created all men equal"--by many of its participants.

The tone of the film is mildly tense with a few flares in violence and raw emotion. There are many scenes of a kind of minimalist stillness. The film could have been made in a more dynamic way with intensity, blasting score, with quicker cuts and shorter dialogue, but it gives us the feel of real life unraveling in real time. The cornucopia catalogue of this era's music (including all the jazz, blues, Gospel, folk, rock, spirituals, etc.) is used sparingly and to great effect.

For the most part, little of the actual footage of the Selma March(es)--there were two!--is used, which puts the burden on the current-day filmmakers to deliver their own images, rather than using the real images as a crutch. Only towards the end, and with purpose, do we see long cuts of the actual marches. The first march was all-Black. The second march was integrated. The media played a great role in raising awareness of the invisible horrors transpiring in the South by reporting in print, but also and much more powerfully, photographing and filming, and then displaying on worldwide television.

Today's social justice movements (e.g., "Occupy" and #BlackLivesMatter could really take a page from Dr. King's, Ghandi's and others') playbook. If possible, go stringently by the existing laws in order to change them. Otherwise, highly organized civil disobedience. (An unjust law is no law at all.) A cogent list of demands, outcomes and desired goals. Use the system itself in order to be able to truly use the system (in "Selma's" case, be able to vote). And above all? Nonviolence. Because nonviolent action works and brings lasting change. But who will be able to stick to nonviolence in the face of all kinds of unwarranted, blatant and brutal intimidation; oppression and bigotry, and flagrant disregard for the law by those in power? Who will have the superhuman patience to be able to carry on in the face of stubborn attitudes that refuse to change? Only those who truly believe in the depths of their hearts that hatred is weaker than love.


--Woman director! Woman director! Ava DuVernay (snubbed by #OscarsSoWhite). This is the whitest Academy Awards (noms) since 1998. Angelina Jolie was also snubbed for "Unbroken."

--I chuckled aloud a few times, gasped a few times, and learned a lot.

--LBJ's confidential n***** comment (like Sony's hacked emails), shows how deep racism is in the USA. This is what Black people understand only too well and know that many white people don't. If I was Black? I would just be full of simmering anger at the hypocrisy. I wouldn't want to be, but I know I would be.

--King's purported womanizing is dealt with with economy and gravitas. It had to be.

--"Negotiate, demonstrate, resist." MLK's strategy in a nutshell. (He keeps repeating this.)

--As an American, I feel proudly that somehow this is my story, too.

--Most African-Americans have been in the United States longer than most white people.

--People were so much more articulate in the 60's. Sigh. The film has such incredible attention to detail that it captures older pronunciations of words, antiquated expressions, etc.

--I don't know if the (older) Canadians in my theater got all the jokes. But then again, Canadians do not engage in boisterous laughter.

--Other related must-see movies and docmentaries: "Eyes on the Prize" (Civil Rights Movement), "Malcom X" (Denzel Washington), "42" (The Jackie Robinson story). And if you want to understand who Malcolm X was at the end of his life, you MUST watch the interviews he gave about his journey/transformed thought.

--Did you know that MLK's niece, Dr. Alveda King, is a pro-life activist?

--"Selma" really showcases above all the inner workings of the movement. How easily factions and infighting sprung up and how it was resolved.

--Couldn't help thinking of the song "Sweet Home Alabama" and Neil Young. :(

"Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come...." Amazing Grace

"The man on the news said China's gonna beat us,
We shot all our dreamers, there's no one left to lead us.
We need a solution, we need salvation,
Let's send some people to the moon and gather information.
They brought back a big bag of rocks.
Only cost thirteen billion. Must be nice rocks.
You think it's such a sad thing when you see a fallen king
Then you find out they're only princes to begin with
And everybody has to choose whether they will win or lose
Follow God or sing the blues, and who they're gonna sin with.
What a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it.
Don't ask me, I'm only visiting this planet." 
Only Visiting the Planet, Larry Norman