‘American Sniper,’ ‘Strange Magic’ Arrive on Home Video

Forrest Hartman

 

This week’s home video releases include an R-rated comedy sequel, an animated film from George Lucas and a war movie that was nominated for six Academy Awards.

 

 

American Sniper

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong and disturbing violence, and language throughout including some sexual references
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

Director Clint Eastwood’s meditation on the life of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was the hit of the movie award’s season. It won only a single Oscar (for sound editing), but it was up for six awards including best picture, and it grossed more than all the other best picture nominees combined. In other words, the film was a critical darling as well as a box-office smash, a combination that is difficult to achieve.   

 

“American Sniper” owes most of its success to a compelling subject, typically solid direction by Eastwood and a fine, Oscar-nominated performance by Bradley Cooper. The movie also came at the right time, playing to audiences that are ready to not only watch movies about the Iraq War but to think about the conflict’s ongoing consequences. During its theatrical run, “Sniper” stirred controversy, with some labeling it propaganda while others praised it as a brilliant tribute to the American fighting man. Curiously, both views are oversimplified.

 

At its best, “American Sniper” is an intense character study that examines the stress that soldiers are subjected to both in the field and upon returning home. At its worst, it’s an action movie packed with exciting-but-too-often-redundant combat sequences. Because of this, there are jingoistic moments, but they are countered by sequences that remind viewers of the terrible nature of war and the scars that adorn even those who survive.   

 

Cooper portrays Kyle as a service-driven Texan who joins the Navy in search of a purposeful life, and he rapidly becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. The film depicts his service in the Iraq War and his attempts to maintain a normal relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), who is at home in the States. As one can imagine, this is difficult, and the inclusion of Kyle’s home life makes “American Sniper” better than the typical war film.

 

Arguably, the movie would have been improved if Eastwood had included even more scenes between Kyle and Taya, but he sacrifices these for hard-charging combat. As a result, their relationship doesn’t seem fully fleshed out until Kyle is discharged from the military and must learn how to reinsert himself into a civilian setting. These later sequences are nicely staged and add depth to the project, but they also leave one longing for even more.

 

By now, everyone knows Kyle’s story ended when he and Chad Littlefield were killed at a gun range by Eddie Ray Routh. The men were reportedly working with Routh (a veteran) in hopes of easing his post-traumatic stress disorder. Eastwood chooses not to show the killings on screen, and that makes the film end abruptly, but the cinematic choice is understandable. After all, depicting the murder would have left viewers looking for closure, and Routh’s trial hadn’t even ended when the film reached theaters.

 

We now know that Routh was convicted and sentenced to prison, a fact that doesn’t change anything about Eastwood’s movie, but it does give viewers one more thing to think about while watching this fascinating biopic.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include two making-of features.

 

 

Strange Magic

2 stars
Rated PG for some action and scary images
Disney
Available on: DVD, digital download and on demand

 

The latest project from George Lucas is a fanciful, animated musical that transports viewers to a land populated by fairies, elves and other magical creatures, and – like much of Lucas’ work – the visuals are considerably more impressive than the storytelling.

 

In fairness to Lucas, he receives only a story and producer credit for “Strange Magic,” so many of the picture’s inadequacies can be credited to co-writer and director Gary Rydstrom and fellow screenwriters Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum. Of course, the blame game is pointless. What matters is that the movie has problems and that most of them stem from flat plotting and a soundtrack built on stitched-together pop songs rather than original material.

 

Jukebox musicals are often awkward because writers are forced to build plotting around songs that in most cases have no relationship to one another. In the case of “Strange Magic,” the creative crew was also working with tunes from a wide range of artists and styles, meaning the material doesn’t blend together as well as it should.

 

On the up side, there’s a lot to like about the actual musical performances. The arrangements of all numbers are beautifully produced and the vocals are energetic and strong. What’s missing is a sense of cohesion.

 

Not only do the songs often grind against one another, but they aren’t as well integrated into the plotting as when a song is custom written. Of course, that plotting isn’t inventive anyway.

 

The story, which drew some inspiration from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is centered in two magical lands that border one another. One is lush, green and populated by brightly dressed elves and fairies. The other is a dreary forest inhabited by frightening creatures under the rule of the Bog King. The latter doesn’t allow love in his realm, which is bordered by pink flowers that can be used to make a powerful love potion. It has been ages, however, since the land has seen this type of magic because the only one who can manufacture it is the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Bog King is keeping her captive.

 

Much of the story centers on a fairy princess named Marianne. Spurned by her fiancé, she has sworn off love. But a strange series of events lead her on a rescue mission into the dark forest, and she discovers that it’s not always easy to keep one’s emotions in check.

 

Regular moviegoers have seen similar stories play out countless times, and Rydstrom doesn’t do anything special in terms of presentation. The animation is gorgeous, but that is almost a given in today’s world.

 

The bright colors and wild creatures will likely suck young viewers in, and the pop songs that are sprinkled throughout the project are catchy. In other words, “Strange Magic” is a fine film for kids, but adult animation fans needn’t bother. These days most animated movies look great, but only the special ones offer more.

 

DVD extras include outtakes, test sequences and a look at the filmmakers.

 

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

 

“Leviathan”: Russian drama about a corrupt mayor who attempts to take the land of a simple family. The movie, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, received a Golden Globe for best foreign language film and it was also nominated for an Oscar.

 

“Glee” – The Final Season: Fox’s musical series about the participants in a high school show choir wrapped in March. Now, fans can relive the final 13 episodes with this set. 

 

“Orange is the New Black” – Season Two: Streaming video is changing the entertainment industry, and that’s reflected by the critical praise piled on this Netflix series. Anyone still curious about the prison dramedy can now watch on Blu-ray or DVD.

 

“Beauty & the Beast” – The Second Season: This CW drama about the relationship between a police detective (Kristin Kreuk) and a mysterious creature (Jay Ryan) is going strong, and this set gives fans a few days to catch up on old episodes before season three debuts. 

 

Author Bio:

 

Forrest Hartman, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation's largest publications. For more of his work visit www.ForrestHartman.com. 

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