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How American Sniper Became A Surprise Mega-Hit Honoring America's Martial Culture and Highlighting the Futility of the Iraq War (Sun, 25 Jan 2015 00:07:37 -0500)

A funny thing happened on the way to a big opening for Clint Eastwood's mostly critically acclaimed American Sniper; it turned out to be a monster, record-breaking opening for the month and the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and Eastwood himself. A Marvel-style opening, actually, about a real-life would-be Captain America. And its second weekend is proving to be the second best box office weekend ever for a January film.

American Sniper is well on its way to being the biggest war film ever at the domestic box office, and second most popular R-rated film ever behind The Passion of the Christ.

Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper deliver a brilliantly-etched character study of America's mostly highly admirable martial culture. One which is all the more poignant considering the futile and wildly counter-productive expeditionary war in which the protagonist is engaged.



The taut and heartfelt American Sniper has proved to be a surprise massive hit, garnering six Oscar nominations including best picture, adapted screenplay, and best actor.


I say a would-be Captain America for former Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle, a highly-decorated Iraq War hero who was the certified deadliest sniper in the long history of American arms, was decidedly more imperfect than the fictional Steve Rogers. I've been familiar with Kyle's story before this film was even a glimmer in the eyes of Hollywood.

After he returned from his last of an amazing four tours in Iraq, he bragged about an apparently illusory barroom fight with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, the ex-pro wrestler and Vietnam War Navy frogman, to Ventura's successfully litigious disapproval. He made some politically incorrect statements. He published a book -- not surprisingly called "American Sniper" -- accentuating the latter-day trend of once super secret special operators making themselves famous with books and other media appearances. And, as part of dealing with his evident post-traumatic stress disorder, Kyle did valiant work helping other post-9/11 vets in their often troubled returns home. Including, as fate would have it, the one who reportedly murdered him and a friend one fine sunny day in Kyle's home state of Texas.

Except for these last parts, Eastwood doesn't delve into such things. Some, mostly disposed to dislike a film about a hero of a war that longtime readers know I consider one of the worst mistakes in world history, use the omitted piece of the Kyle story to downgrade the film.

Maybe I give a little break to a fellow Navy guy, but the omission doesn't bother me.

American Sniper makes it clear, from the first sequence on, in which Cooper's sensitively-etched character is confronted with the choice of gunning down a woman and a small boy approaching a Marine convoy, that Kyle is a haunted and troubled man. That he also said some silly shit after he got back from the big mess in the desert takes a movie on a somewhat distracting tangent.

As it is, Sniper proceeds from start to finish in the deceptively spare and matter of fact fashion that marks the 84-year old Eastwood's style as a director. Eastwood takes an expeditious approach to filmmaking. It's an approach which has been familiar since the classic Dirty Harry when Eastwood, subbing for a temporarily under-the-weather Don Siegel, directed the telling sequence in which Inspector Callahan, ah, rescues a would-be suicide in one night rather than the studio-scheduled six nights.

Some spoilers follow.

After the gripping opening in which Kyle must decide whether or not to shoot a woman and child approaching a Marine convoy during the battle for Fallujah -- and with your knowledge of jihadists and how they operate, you can guess what Kyle does -- Eastwood takes us back in time to see how Chris Kyle came to be there in the first place.

Here we see why much of the country between the coasts is embracing this picture. For we are firmly in trucks-and-guns country, in a small city in Texas.

There the youngster Chris, who has kicked ass on a bully who picked on his little brother, gets a speech from his somewhat overbearing father, his mother occasionally silently urging him to be calm, on the nature of the world and what kind of men his boys should be in it. There are basically three kinds of the folks in the world, he intones to his sons, who are listening raptly: "Sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs." Naturally, they are to be the latter.

Relatively unadorned though Eastwood's style is, his scenes are filled with subtlety and significant nuances. Kyle's father, though evidently a man of good will and decent values, is a little harsher than he needs to be, likely to leave any son apt to wear much the same blue collar he does a little unsure of himself even as he strives to project confidence.

We see this in the next scene, a father-son hunting exercise in which young Chris helps track and then bags the deer with one snot only to be jumped on when he excitedly drops his rifle as he runs up to his target. Never drop your weapon.

He gets his father's approval, but it's more the approval of a drill sergeant than an officer. Eastwood, an Army vet himself, not an officer, doesn't spell it out, but we can infer that Papa Kyle was also a vet, a former enlisted man, perhaps with some dark memories of his own.

The little speech that young Chris gets from his dad is absolutely key to not only the film but also America's martial culture. As it happens, I got one much like it as a boy from my own father, a much-wounded hero of World War II in the Pacific. A troubled man prone to sudden outbursts of anger, in retrospect he obviously suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his work as a scout and tip-of-the-spear combatant in some of the most brutal fighting in the Pacific. This was on top of his frequent treatments at decidedly unpicturesque Letterman Hospital (shown here), the otherwise very picturesque Presidio of San Francisco for residual shrapnel in the brain incurred in house-to-house fighting recapturing Manila from Japanese forces. Of course, in those days we'd never heard of PTSD.

Sociologically, breaking down society into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs is fairly simplistic. But there is substantial truth in it, especially when looked at from the standpoint of predatory violence.

So it's a useful and valuable ethic for those who would defend society, especially an advanced industrial society increasingly divorced from more traditional pursuits like hunting and fishing and fighting. Which is to say it's a valuable ethic for the United States Armed Forces.

But it's an ethic which can be manipulated and subverted by those who don't honor its essence. As was the case with the Iraq War.

For it is an ethic which is not very intellectual or especially attuned to complex geopolitics. Which is why the policymakers must live up to the intrinsic bond of trust that the troops who lay themselves on the line as the sheepdogs are being painted in the right direction, one which does not waste their sacrifice and impugn the honor of the nation they're sworn to protect.

When we next see Kyle in the film, he's a rodeo rider and ranch hand, A natural sort to join the military right out of of high school, he's coming of age in the Bill Clinton years not long after the end of the Cold War. There doesn't seem to be much of a threat left in the world. You may recall the end of history, the new world order, and all that jazz. Then Chris and his brother see coverage of Al Qaeda's massive bomb attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Kyle enlists, joining the Navy so he can become a SEAL (Sea Air Land) commando.

In real life, he tried to join the then vastly more famous Marines first only to be turned down by a recruiter worried by his rodeo injuries. The Navy proved more amenable, and it was there he learned of the much more elite but then far less well known SEALs.

He makes his way through the very challenging and grueling SEAL training, which I doubt I could have done, just outside San Diego in southern California, and is selected for sniper school.

He also meets and comes to marry his wife Taya, very ably played by British actress Sienna Miller, best known for more glamorous lifestyle roles. Though she's in for some harrowing times, they're a good match. He listens to her, but doesn't follow her main advice until late in the day. But that's getting a bit ahead.

We relive the shock of 9/11 and then, well, we're in Iraq. Eastwood, who opposed the Bush/Cheney invasion of of Iraq, as he opposed the big Obama escalation in Afghanistan, doesn't editorialize about what a non sequitur it is to take down Saddam Hussein's regime after 9/11. This isn't the tale of a war protester. Instead, Kyle and his compadres find themselves struggling over time to explain to themselves and their families just what the hell they're doing in Iraq.

It's an in-your-face choice by Eastwood and Warner Bros. to go with the American Sniper title. A lot of people don't understand the sniper or find him sinister, even "un-American." Like Michael Moore, who tweeted his dislike of "cowardly" snipers before rethinking a bit and coming up with a respectful review of the film and especially Cooper's performance.

The reason why Chris Kyle is a great figure of the Iraq War in spite of the Iraq War is that he was an extraordinarily effective sniper. Kyle significantly limited the tragedy of lost American lives, and catastrophically altered American lives, in Iraq.

He played a crucial overwatch role for Marines and others who might otherwise have been ambushed by loyalists of the old Saddam dictatorship or the new jihadists cutting their eyeteeth on America's big dumb incursion into the Middle East. It may not seem sporting to kill from long distance under cover as Kyle did. But war isn't sporting. If it's a fair fight, that's because somebody screwed up. That goes for all sides. Most American casualties in Iraq were the result of various forms of sneak attack.

The sniper has a longstanding role in the history of American arms, going back to the Revolutionary War. The highly trained British Army was dismayed to find their ragtag colonial opponents fighting not out in the open in perfectly disciplined formations, but firing from behind cover. The Brits were especially alarmed by the tendency of American sharpshooters to target Royal Army officers.

The fact that most people don't know these things points up the big American disconnect on the military. Though "we thank you for your service has become more than trite, polls consistently show the military to be the most respected institution in the country. But fewer and fewer know much about it. Increasingly, especially among the so-called upper classes, there is little actual engagement with it. James Fallows, who is frank about his own avoidance of military service, has a very good article on this in the latest Atlantic.

Where my father and all my uncles were combat vets, today hardly anyone I know in politics, in either party, or the media ever wore the uniform. Beyond a certain point, the lack of any hands-on experience leads to bad policy-making.

Eastwood presents the story in episodic fashion. It is notably not a film of changing dynamics in Iraq. There is no triumphalist "surge."

Kyle, to his wife's growing dismay, keeps on going back to Iraq. He largely refuses to engage with Taya on his role in the war, unable to spin up a rationale for the war. Next thing we know, he's back in Iraq. Again.

This goes on for an astounding four tours, with Kyle in constant verbal denial about the war's effect on him. But his eyes, his body language, tell a different story in Cooper's powerful performance.

Eastwood stages some dramatic action in each of the four Iraq tour sequences. But they always begin with the colonels spinning up a different but remarkably similar mission statement for what is to come.

It becomes clear that Kyle is fighting not in furtherance of clearly evanescent geopolitical goals but to protect his colleagues and, increasingly, as losses mount, to exact revenge.

"There's evil here," he says as he tries to justify the massive American presence to one of his buddies. Who immediately replies: "There's evil everywhere."

Cooper's portrayal of Kyle shows the strains from the beginning, notwithstanding the more positive language he spouts. And those around him are more forthright in their dismay. Kyle is thrilled to run across his little brother as a Marine in Iraq, but he hates the whole deal. A SEAL buddy becomes a big doubter about the war effort and is killed in action. At the funeral, his mother reads a letter, written by real-life Navy SEAL Marc Lee, that pointedly asks "When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade?"

Kyle tells his wife that the doubt is what killed his friend. But he can't really articulate what he's doing over there and she is fed up. Meanwhile, Cooper's affect belies his words. He's filled with doubt, too, but doesn't want to admit it. He's maintaining an even strain.

Eastwood is a confusing figure for many who are too quick to jump to conclusions about him and his work that may say more about them.

I ripped Eastwood -- whom I've met but don't know (though I have friends who do know him) -- when he did his notorious "empty chair" routine about President Barack Obama for Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

It wasn't so much that he was criticizing Obama, whom I support but who is at times eminently criticizable, but that he was doing it on behalf of Romney, who gives fatuous politicians a bad name. Maybe he was just that perturbed by Obama. But you don't have to like everything someone does to appreciate it when he does something well.

In any event, Eastwood is in a little better focus in his home state California. Appointee of Gray Davis, serving for years with distinction as an environmentally-minded state parks commissioner, endorser of Dianne Feinstein, friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger (who nonetheless did not reappoint him when Eastwood opposed a toll road through an environmentally-sensitive area), admirer of Jerry Brown.

In American Sniper, Eastwood has delivered a special film, a taut and realistic depiction of modern-day combat, men at war, and the the effects on their families and themselves. A film which makes no claim of accomplishment beyond its depiction of Kyle and his comrades fighting bravely and competently.

Eastwood has delivered many scenes of combat in his long career, which has seen him snag five Oscars, but few if any surpass Kyle's last stanza in Iraq, a chaotic and frightening sequence which nonetheless achieves clarity about Kyle's (and America's) time there as a sandstorm inexorably envelops everything. Kyle is at last ready to come home, just as most of America was more than ready to get out.

This is the second critically-acclaimed big hit in a row that originally to be a Steven Spielberg film, following right on the heels of the stunning Interstellar. As much as I respect Spielberg, who has directed some of my favorite films, I think both films are the better for having been directed by Christopher Nolan and now Eastwood. They're tougher and more challenging pieces.

Of course, the whole thing falls apart without the right person playing Chris Kyle. Here Brad Cooper, now enjoying his third straight Oscar nomination, proves that he truly is an outstanding actor.

Cooper, who put on 40 pounds for this role, is a Northeasterner, a Georgetown grad in English literature, non-jock and non-vet. He has little intrinsically in common with his character.

Yet he is utterly convincing as this blue-collar Texas shitkicker with the bombardier eyes and quietly breaking heart.

I remember Cooper when he played the LA newspaper reporter/platonic best friend to Jennifer Garner's perfect UCLA grad student by day/secret super-agent by all other hours in Alias. He's come a long way since that touching but rather thankless role, proving himself in romance, drama, and of course comedy with The Hangover movies. He was even the hilarious and affecting voice of Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here he's done something very special, crafting a portrayal that most Americans can appreciate if not embrace, regardless of their politics of views of our post-9/11 misadventures. With the popular response so strong, the Oscars may be more interesting this year than usual.



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Lena Dunham Dings Woody Allen, Discusses Campus Rape At Sundance (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 21:58:02 -0500)

“America is at its most puritanical,” Lena Dunham proclaimed to a group of (mostly female) patrons at a Sundance panel discussion on Saturday afternoon. "People are forgetting that humor is a tool for debate and a tool for expression."

The panel was titled "Power of Story: Serious Ladies" and featured Lena Dunham ("Girls"), Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project," "The Office"), Kristen Wiig ("Bridesmaids," "Saturday Night Live"), Jenji Kohan ("Orange Is the New Black," "Weeds") and was moderated by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum.

All four are women who have broken serious ground in entertainment over the last few years and are arguably some of the most powerful forces in comedy. And yet, the initial conversation at the start of the panel was surprisingly tight-lipped.

Dunham teased that they were now all too seasoned to fall for "gotcha" questions, like when Nussbaum asked what jokes they've cut from their shows for being over the line. Kaling added that a few years ago they would have just been blabbing, but now they know better. Dunham mused that perhaps they are all just too media-trained now.

But then Dunham had a un-media-trained moment, when she brought Woody Allen into the picture.

The panel had just discussed how fans often assume they are just like the characters they write or play –- this is especially true for Kaling and Dunham. (Wiig joked that if she were anything like the characters she plays, she would be "really fucked up.") They agreed that male artists deal with this less, and Dunham decided pushed the conversation further.

Saying she doubts that people like Woody Allen and Larry David walk around being mistaken for the characters they play, Dunham stated: "Woody Allen is proof that people don’t think that everything he does in his films is stuff that he does because all he was doing was making out with 17-year-olds for years. And then he did. A bunch."

lena dunham

After that, the room was more alive, but the general questions about being a female powerhouse came and went, as did queries about if film or television is the better landscape for women at the moment. But each woman on the panel had a chance to discuss what political issue was most important to her.

After muttering under her breath that it was going to sound stupid, Wiig was first to answer the question. "I think it's important to know where your food comes from. The food in schools right now is the worst. The grade of meat they allow is below what supermarkets allow. I think it's terrible and it affects how we learn and it affects our health. Our health is our lives."

Kohan, whose show "Orange Is The New Black" is known for challenging our perceptions of gender and sexuality, stated, “Something I find myself railing against is fundamentalism in all its forms."

Dunham spoke out about reproductive rights and justice. "The idea that this is still something that women, in what I supposed to be the freest nation, are still fighting for every single day. And it's not just a political issue -- it's also a lot about class and race -- it is a part of all of these other forms of inequality and injustice in our country."

She also commended the Sundance documentary "The Hunting Ground," which focuses on the issue of campus rape.

"Women on college campuses are some of the most privileged women with the loudest platforms to tell their stories," she said. "Most of them are middle class and white. And they still can't be heard as survivors of sexual assault. So think about what that means. That is indicative of the fact that sexual assault is an epidemic and so many people are voiceless."

Pointing out that she realizes focusing only on campuses is ignoring so much other sexual assault in the nation, Dunham clarified, "I think campuses are a great place to start because that is where we are being educated and where we are told we are going to be safe."

Kaling was also concerned with a female issue. "So many girls who look up to me are young women of color who have been told that they are ugly," she said. "They feel that they are not normal. I think it's so important for us to help illuminate that they can be beautiful and objects of love and attention and affection. I feel sad when people say, 'You are the first person who made me feel that that is possible.'"

Rihanna Just Dropped 'FourFiveSeconds,' A New Song With Kanye & Paul McCartney (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 19:45:03 -0500)

Surprise! Rihanna released a new song on Saturday night: "FourFiveSeconds" with Kanye West and Paul McCartney. The acoustic track was teased by West on Wednesday at the iHeartMedia Music Summit. Listen at Rihanna's website: rihannanow.com. ("FourFiveSeconds" is also available at iTunes.)

pic.twitter.com/8EAjjf4yMy

— Rihanna (@rihanna) January 25, 2015



FIRST GLIMPSE AT MY NEW MUSIC!!!---> http://t.co/8bsJSvxVp6

— Rihanna (@rihanna) January 25, 2015



Rihanna hasn't released a new album since 2012's "Unapologetic," but it's expected she'll put out a record this year. We can't wait.

What Is It About Those Wonderful Revenge Movies? (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 19:32:44 -0500)

For a philosophy class, I once wrote a paper on the allure of "Revenge Movies." My premise was that our love of these movies springs from the same innate capacity that allows us to believe in the concept of Hell: The belief that people who commit bad deeds deserve to be punished. Not only deserve to be punished, but deserve to have their skin roasted for eternity. Not just for a thousand years, mind you (which, theologically, would be a mere slap on the wrist), but forever.

Consider: If mankind didn't believe that being a "morally good" person truly mattered, the concept of Hell never would have made the cut. It would never have taken root. Indeed, the concept would have been considered icky and perverse. If mankind didn't believe, on some deep, dark, primordial level, that being a "bad" person rendered you worthy of contempt, we would have laughed off the very notion of Hell.

But we didn't laugh it off. Instead, we embraced it. The notion of being consigned to eternal damnation for our sins scared the bejeezus out of us. Admittedly, while most people in the Western world no longer believe in a fire and brimstone version of it, the overwhelming majority of us still rejoice in seeing bad people get punished.

Some will call this punishment "justice"; others are more comfortable using the 24-carat term "retribution." In any event, I prefer to call it what it is: Revenge. Hence, the universal popularity of revenge films. The following are my four all-time favorite revenge movies. They are listed in no particular order. As for that philosophy paper, I received a grade of C+. Call it "justice." I had no business being in college.

1. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Steve McQueen plays a half-breed Indian kid whose parents are not only murdered by three horrible desperados, they are deliberately butchered and mutilated. These evil men (Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau and Karl Malden) actually skin his mother alive. This is how the movie opens. And being the exquisitely gratifying revenge film it is, we already know how it's going to end. Although the 36-year old McQueen plays the part of a very young man, he's terrific in the role. As is Brian Keith, who plays his mentor.

2. DEATH WISH (1974). This might well be the gold standard of revenge films. It has everything: New York City during its high-crime glory years, criminal gargoyles roaming the streets preying on the innocent and cuddly, and a reluctant and noble hero. Charles Bronson (who better??!) plays an architect whose wife and daughter are viciously beaten and raped. The wife dies, the daughter, reduced to a vegetative state, is committed to a mental institution, and Bronson evolves into a deadly efficient vigilante, going around ridding NYC of every bad guy who dares approach him. A great movie.

3. THE BRAVE ONE (2007). Yet another film featuring a reluctant hero, and this time it's a woman, the wonderful Jodie Foster, who plays a thoughtful, low-intensity intellectual talk radio host. True to the formula, she and her boyfriend are attacked by bad guys in--where else?--Central Park. She is severely beaten (they beat the crap out of her), and the boyfriend is killed. Afraid to emerge from her apartment, she avoids the world for a number of weeks before deciding to venture out and buy an unlicensed gun for her own protection. This purchase turns out to be a life-changer, as she morphs into a stupendously righteous, self-confident and heroic killing machine. We love her! Terrence Howard plays the ever so cool NYC cop and Greek chorus. Don't miss this one.

4. JOHN WICK (2014). This is the only movie in the group that features a non-amateur as the revenge-taker. And, oh baby, what a "non-amateur" he is. Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, an ex-intel agent of the highest and most accomplished order, a veritable one-man wrecking crew, universally regarded as being so dangerous and efficient, the vile people whom he is chasing have no choice but to remain in a scared-shitless state of terror until he kills them all. Reeves has never been better. A resounding thumbs-up.

David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition). He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Sundance So Far: Adam Scott & Jason Schwartzman's Fake Penises, Ethan Hawke's Latest Dad & 'The Witch' (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 17:28:51 -0500)

Last time on Sundance So Far, we discussed "The Bronze" and other movies that opened the festival. Temperatures dropped to 18 degrees at sundown in Park City, Utah, on Day 2 of Sundance. Parkas were out and crowds were thick at some of the most anticipated films of the opening weekend. The press screening for "Z for Zachariah," filled up two hours before the film began, and Jason Segel stunned audiences as David Foster Wallace at the world premiere of "The End of the Tour." We'll write about both of those films shortly, but here are the other titles HuffPost Entertainment editor Matthew Jacobs and Los Angeles senior editor Sasha Bronner caught on Friday:

"Stockholm, Pennsylvania"
Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Jason Isaacs and Cynthia Nixon

stockholm

There is more than initially meets the eye in the post-kidnapping drama about a young woman, played by Saoirse Ronan (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), who is returned to her home after being held captive in a basement for the majority of her life.

Taken from a park when she was 4 years old raised by her kidnapper (played by Jason Isaacs), the extent of what her character knows about the world can be held in the palm of her hand.

The film’s intentional use of claustrophobia does the trick. When Ronan sticks her head out of her bedroom window and, we presume, feels rain for the first time, you too feel her wonder and her innocence.

But this is not an innocent film. Cynthia Nixon, who plays Ronan’s mother, is understandably emotional when her daughter returns home and does her very best to help the family acclimate to their suddenly different circumstances (think “trust falls”). But the people of the town stare. And they discover that their missing daughter doesn’t know when her real birthday is, doesn’t remember them at all and actually thinks that her name is Leia -- “named after a Princess,” she tells her parents on her first afternoon home.

The psychological phenomenon Stockholm syndrome describes the common scenario of a captive feeling protective, loving and sympathetic to their captor. Ronan’s character visits the man who took her only once in jail and after telling him that she doesn’t know how to do anything in the real world, she also says she doesn’t know what the worst thing is that’s happened to her -- spending her life with him, or spending the rest of it without him.

When she asks if he regrets it, he answers that it takes the same amount of effort to run in place or to run a mile, and he would rather see the mile.

A startling twist (which, of course, we will not ruin for you) turns everything inside out. Filmmaker Nikole Beckwith presents a quiet and powerful debut feature that succeeds in redefining what captivity means as well as tilting the kaleidoscope of identity and love ninety degrees on its side.

Stay tuned: Saoirse Ronan gets more screen time at the festival -- she also stars in the 1950s drama “Brooklyn,” written by Nick Hornby, as an Irish-American immigrant attempting to choose between love and her place in the world. -- SB

*****

"The Overnight"
Written and directed by Patrick Brice
Starring Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche

overnight

Two delights of Friday's Sundance came in Patrick Brice's very funny "The Overnight." First, Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling, playing a couple looking for friends after moving to Los Angeles, smoke weed with another couple (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) who invite them over for what appears to be an innocent playdate for their children. They are a riot as bumbling stoners who conjure up a candidness foreign to their lives as young parents during what turns out to be a quite propulsive gathering. Later, Scott and Schwartzman prance around naked for a solid chunk of the film, for reasons I'd rather you discover on your own. Just know that both actors wear prosthetics, and the size of the genitals on display is an uproarious part of the plot.

"The Overnight" is just bawdy enough to be something of a sex comedy, but it's nothing if not a tactful tale of a rowdy, confused couple befriending the innocent newcomers from their neighborhood park. The playdate -- billed as a simple pizza night at their palatial home -- turns into an all-night affair with increasingly bizarre results. There's a slight dip in the film's energy toward the end as the dramatic underpinnings of the foursome's lives unfold, but it doesn't take away from the sharp performances and clever writing this film boasts. Now where should we mail our smoke-out invitation for Scott and Schilling? -- MJ

*****

"The Witch"
Written and directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger

the witch

Today's horror landscape is bleak. The reliance on gratuitous violence and uninventive scare tactics is more of a nightmare than any of the stories being depicted onscreen. Yet every year a few movies break through the gore to channel the worldly panic that horror is meant to showcase. This year, one of those is "The Witch," a movie that became one of Day 2's buzziest Sundance titles. (To wit: A24 is nearing a deal to distribute "The Witch.")

Set in 1630 New England, "The Witch" is a stylish chiller about a devoutly Christian family whose infant vanishes. Their crops fail and they begin accusing one another of occultism -- all while a witch creeps through the depths of the woods that surround their home. The movie seems talky at first, but let these irascible colonials work through their muddy family dynamics, from the mother's grief-stricken instability to the father's sympathy for her daughter after his wife accuses her of witchcraft. This is eerie filmmaking at its finest, which is all the more remarkable considering Robert Eggers is a first-time director. By the time their paranoia reaches peak levels, this family of six can barely stomach the sight of one another, so wracked with the panic that haunts their countenance. As if Mark Korven's strings-heavy score weren't enough eerie enough, know that the film is pieced together using actual journals (including specific conversations) that chronicled the witchcraft that took place in the 17th century. -- MJ

*****

“Ten Thousand Saints”
Written and drected by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Starring Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch and Emily Mortimer


ten thousand

Who doesn’t want to see Ethan Hawke as a burner, weed-selling, dysfunctional father with a heart of gold? Apparently no one, because the premiere of his new film “Ten Thousand Saints” was sold out Friday evening at the Sundance Film Festival. Hawke stars alongside Emily Mortimer, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch and
Asa Butterfield, and is the center of an off-kilter family dealing with an actual tragedy and also the general tragedy of growing up.

Set in the 1980s, first in Vermont and then in the East Village in New York City, the film is dripping with teen angst, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, teen angst, weed, cocaine, mushrooms, plenty of huffing and punk rock, to be exact. There are Hare Krishnas, tattoos, protests in New York City and a genre of the hardcore punk scene called “straight edge” where abstinence and sobriety are encouraged.

The teen stars of the film are its strength, carrying their angst like a heavy duffle bag thrown in the corner of every room they enter. But there is a lot packed into the story and there may just be too many protagonists involved for many viewers’ tastes. We probably aren’t supposed to, but in some ways end up rooting the most for Hawke in all his flawed attempts at being a decent father.

Filmmaking duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini work as a team writing, directing and editing and are best known for “American Splendor” (2003), “The Nanny Diaries” (2007) and “Cinema Verite” (2011). The two were nominated for an Academy Award in 2003 for their writing of “American Splendor.”

The writing in “Ten Thousand Saints” gives Hawke room to make audiences laugh with his idea of good parenting and one of the most awkward father-son talks we have seen. In a surprisingly poignant moment, he reveals to his son (played by Butterfield) one of his observations about the world and about family: “Women make their decisions and men are just trying not to be men. The whole system needs looking over.”

Young Millenials will flock to the film if they are looking for an indie, hipster coming of age story with plenty of bad decisions and always, of course, the promise of love. -- SB

Jimmy Fallon Explains The Reason For Netflix's Countdown Between Episodes (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 16:42:57 -0500)

Have you ever wondered why Netflix has that countdown between episodes? Well, that worrisome thought will never interrupt your binge-watching again.

While writing his weekly "Thank You Notes," Jimmy Fallon finally explained the reason for the streaming service's timer. Apparently, Netflix does it just to mess with us. The company knows we're going to keep watching, and they want us to know that they know.

For the record, Netflix does give you the option to opt out of automatically playing the next episode. It's currently available on a number of devices.

But if you haven't heard, the new season of "House of Cards" is coming out next month, and Netflix has plans to premiere up to 20 new shows or new seasons of original shows a year. So really, why bother?

"The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. ET on NBC.

'American Sniper' Triggers Flood Of Anti-Muslim Venom, Civil Rights Group Warns (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 16:07:33 -0500)

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said this week that threats against Muslims and Arabs have soared following the release of "American Sniper," a hugely popular and hugely controversial film.

Threats reported to the civil rights group have tripled since the film’s wide opening over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the committee told The Guardian. "The last time we saw such a sharp increase was in 2010, around the Ground Zero mosque," said the group’s national legal and policy director, Abed Ayoub, referring to an Islamic center that was going to be located a few blocks from the World Trade Center site.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has even sent letters to "American Sniper" star Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood, imploring them "to help reduce the hateful rhetoric," according to USA Today. The group wrote that it has seen "hundreds of violent messages targeting Arabs and Muslims from moviegoers of the film."

"With all these threats coming in, we wanted to be proactive," Samer Khalaf, the committee's president, told The Huffington Post in discussing his group's decision to contact Cooper and Eastwood. "When we are not proactive, people end up getting hurt. ... We don't know if somebody's serious or if somebody's joking around, so we take all these threats seriously, especially when they're talking about shooting bullets into someone's head."

Khalaf said the group has not heard back from either Cooper or Eastwood.

Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso Productions, and Cooper's rep have not responded to The Huffington Post’s requests for comment.

american sniper anti muslim threats

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in "American Sniper."


"American Sniper" tells the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who served four tours in the Iraq War and is credited as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It's based on Kyle's 2012 autobiography.

"Savage, despicable evil. That's what we were fighting in Iraq," Kyle wrote. "I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives."

"American Sniper" has been a massive box office success, raking in $90 million in the first three days of its wide release -- reportedly an all-time record for the month of January. The movie has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor.

But the film has also proved to be politically polarizing, with celebrities, politicians and critics adding their voices to the debate. The National Review's David French said the "phenomenal" movie had "created a cultural moment," while New York magazine’s David Edelstein slammed it as a "propaganda film" and a "Republican platform movie" that was "scandalously blinkered."

In a post for Electronic Intifada this week, journalist Rania Khalek noted that social media has been deluged in recent days with "American Sniper" fans posting hateful, discriminatory and sometimes violent messages directed at Arabs and Muslims.

The film "makes me wanna go shoot some f**kin Arabs," wrote one Twitter user earlier this month, punctuating his tweet with emoticons of guns. "'American Sniper' made me appreciate soldiers 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more," wrote another.

In its letter to Cooper, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee warned, "The threats advocate for the murder of Arabs, one going as far as to say, 'Great f**king movie and now I really want to kill some f**king ragheads.'"

The civil rights group said in its letter that it's working with the FBI and local law enforcement officials to address the threats.

"It is imperative for us, as Americans, to act now to prevent these verbal threats from turning into violent and physical hate crimes," the group wrote.

Hilary Duff And Her Pup Have A Very Adorable Day (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 15:36:50 -0500)

Hilary Duff carries around Beau, her French Bulldog, during a walk around her neighborhood on Jan. 21.

Miley Cyrus Admits She Can't Spell Boyfriend Patrick Schwarzenegger's Last Name (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 15:27:45 -0500)

Miley Cyrus admitted that she has no clue how to spell her famous boyfriend's tough last name.

Eugene Kaspersky: Cybersecurity Criminals 'Are Getting More And More Professional' (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 15:24:30 -0500)

Eugene Kaspersky, founder of the Kaspersky Lab, said there's both good and bad news about cybersecurity.

The good news is that leaders are starting to understand the issues with cybersecurity a bit more. The bad news is that cybersecurity issues do still exist and can cause major damage.

"It's not the end of the revolution, and unfortunately the bad guys, the criminals -- let's say they're criminals -- they are getting more and more professional," Kaspersky said.

Kaspersky specifically weighed in on the recent Sony hack, saying the incident is going to force the U.S. government to better understand cybersecurity "bad guys." He said he's not convinced North Korea was behind the attack, saying he doesn't "have any hard data to prove" that's true.

"It's very easy to point a finger to the wrong direction," Kaspersky said.

Below, live updates from the 2015 Davos Annual Meeting:


This ‘Wheel Of Fortune' Contestant Forgot How The Game Works, Keeps Guessing Wrong Answer (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 14:38:27 -0500)

"It's not 'The Pointed Desert,' no matter how many times you say it."

On a recent episode of "Wheel of Fortune," contestant James Trahan seemingly forgot how the final spin works. After the contestant before him incorrectly guessed "The Pointed Dessert," Trahan decided to guess the same answer. Then, after finding out he still had more time, he guessed it again. (Hey, if it's not broke, don't fix it.)

Host Pat Sajak was noticeably confused by the move, but at this point he should probably expect it. Excluding contestant Matt DeSanto's record breaking performance on "Wheel," game shows in general have seen a lot of hilarious moments lately. Steve Harvey even completely lost it on "Family Feud" after one fail he called the "best answer" he's ever heard.

So don't feel bad, Trahan. You're in good company. Though future contestants should probably stay away from his strategy: Guess. Wrong. Repeat.

H/T Uproxx

'Boy Next Door' Star Ryan Guzman Says J.Lo Was His Best Onscreen Kiss (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 14:35:02 -0500)

If Jennifer Lopez is looking for a new man, it sounds like she could set her sites on the dude she gets hot and heavy with in "Boy Next Door" -- cause he's a big fan.

Julia Roberts To Make And Star In A Feature Film About Batkid (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 14:20:58 -0500)

Julia Roberts is making a feature film about Batkid.

Submarine Entertainment announced Friday that the star had secured the rights to remake the new documentary "Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around The World" as a feature. Roberts will both produce and star in the film, with Dana Nachman, the documentary's director, serving as one of its executive producers.

"Batkid Begins" tells the story of Miles Scott, a Batman-loving 5-year-old who, after being diagnosed with leukemia, lived as a real-life superhero for a day when the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned San Francisco into Gotham City in his honor. Thousands of residents came out to participate, and the story went viral through the use of social media.

"It's thrilling to me that Ms. Roberts and her team watched our film and were so moved by it that they want to dedicate their time and creative capital to make sure the widest audience possible will know and love Miles’ story," Nachman said in a press release about the deal.

"Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around The World" premiered Saturday at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.


In Defense of 'American Sniper' (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:20:17 -0500)

Let me start by agreeing with the critics of American Sniper on one point. The movie does present Iraqis in a one-dimensional way and doesn't spend much time trying to understand the complexities of the war.

Yet the fuss over the film is still ridiculously overblown.

Snipers have a specific task -- which is to incapacitate or, more often, kill their target; and from a distance. With that job description, there is little room for snipers to worry about what their targets' lives are like or even the politics of war. If they did, they would never be able to pull the trigger and would become useless in battle.

This is a point that many critics of the movie, most notably Michael Moore, are missing. In order for snipers to do their job, they simply can't be expected to engage in philosophical soul-searching about the conflict they're engaged in. And to criticize them after the fact is to repeat the shameful mistake that Americans made after the Vietnam War in their shabby treatment of veterans.

It's true that Chris Kyle, the subject of the film, was apparently a troubled man and not the perfectly noble hero we imagine our soldiers to be. His statement that he found his job "fun" is disturbing too.

But ultimately so what? Kyle was not deployed to be a nice guy or even a thoughtful one. He was sent to Iraq to be a sniper, and that's what he did. If we were to get on a moral high horse about every member of our military, or even our political leadership for that matter, we would have about five people left to do anything in this country.

Everyone is imperfect. Chris Kyle was imperfect, and so were many others who fought in the Iraq war. It's fine to question the war itself and war in general, but to target the people who did our dirty work for us is frankly unconscionable, and as I said before, a repeat of the post-Vietnam fiasco. We should be better than that now.

Here's the other thing too: American Sniper is not a documentary. It's a mainstream feature film made to entertain audiences, and serves that purpose well.

To Clint Eastwood's credit, he has not tried to whitewash war but shown it as the extremely brutal affair that it is. His only oversight was to present Kyle in a more sympathetic light than he may have deserved, but that is simply artistic license. American Sniper is not the first movie to simplify history in order to make it more easily digestible for a wide audience, and there's nothing wrong with it.

If there was, the other much-talked-about movie of the year, Selma, would fall into the same category. Just because Selma reportedly twisted historical facts about Lyndon Johnson's role in advancing civil rights does not make it a bad film. It, like American Sniper, was balancing historical accuracy with the need to tell a compelling story with power and simplicity.

Sure, there are plenty of films that present a more nuanced and complex view of war, and those are fine too. It all just depends on the preferences of the filmmaker and the audience, and that's why we cherish our democracy.

If you don't like it, don't watch it, but to use a movie as an excuse for launching an assault against those who believe that our troops do an amazing job on our behalf and deserve our respect -- no matter how we feel about a particular war -- is grossly insulting to our men and women in uniform.

Or in other words: you don't need to be pro-war or anti-war to #SupportOurTroops

Bill Maher Says 'American Sniper' Is About A 'Psychopath Patriot' (Sat, 24 Jan 2015 12:48:59 -0500)

Bill Maher has addressed the recent controversy surrounding the Clint Eastwood film "American Sniper."

The film -- based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history -- broke box office records when it raked in $90.2 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. But it has divided viewers and critics alike in its exploration of war and patriotism.

On "Real Time With Bill Maher" on Friday, the host criticized the picture for what he views as a lack of nuance.

"'Hurt Locker' made 17 million because it was a little ambiguous and thoughtful," Maher said. "['American Sniper'] is just 'American hero! He's a psychopath patriot, and we love him.'"

The host then went on to criticize sections of Kyle's autobiography, including a part in which Maher says he writes, "I hate the damn savages," in reference to the Iraqis.

"Eisenhower once said I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can," Maher said. "I just don't see this guy in the same league as Eisenhower. If you're a Christian, 'I hate the damn savages' doesn't seem like a Christian thing to say."