Tag Archives: ‘American Sniper’

Interview: ‘Max’ star Thomas Haden Church talks respect of military, war dogs

Carlos the dog and Thomas Haden Church in 'Max' (photo: Warner Bros.)

By Tim Lammers

While committing to a movie project is generally a crap shoot for actors, it took little convincing to get Thomas Haden Church to enlist in the new military-themed family drama “Max.” The military has played an important role the Oscar nominated actor’s life since the very beginning.

“I come from a military background — my dad was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then the armored infantry after that” Church told me in a recent call from Los Angeles. “He went in 1943 and didn’t retire until 1982,  so since my dad had such a long career, I was always around somebody that demanded the highest integrity and respect for everything that the military did.”

And while Church, who turned 55 a week ago, never served in the military himself, he was ready to go if needed.

“I was in one of the last age groups that had to register for the draft in the late ’70s, and there was a real point of honor in doing so for my dad,” Church said. “It was a ritualistic passage into manhood. He accompanied me to the courthouse in south Texas and wanted to be with me to register for potential service in the American military. For my dad, it was always about honor and allegiance to your country. ”

In “Max,” opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Church plays Ray Wincott, a wounded Desert Storm veteran and father to Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine in Afghanistan who is the handler of a military working dog (MWD) named Max. The bond between the duo is shattered, though, when Kyle is killed in battle, traumatizing Max to the point that he can no longer operate in the military.

Max is then adopted by Kyle’s family at home in Texas, where the soldier’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), seems to have formed a connection with the MWD. However, transition is rough for the Wincott family, since Justin can’t seem to live up to Ray’s expectations — a situation exacerbated by the tragic loss of Kyle.

Directed by Boaz Yakin, “Max” is the second military-themed film released by Warner Bros. in past six months, behind the Best Picture Oscar-nominated film “American Sniper.” And while “Max” is mainly a family adventure drama and “American Sniper” is a hard-hitting biopic, Church is glad that the studio is releasing films that not only show the lives of American soldiers, but the effects war has on the people at home.

But while “Max” is unlikely to encounter the firestorm of criticism received by “American Sniper” during its record-setting release — particularly from notable actors and filmmakers in Hollywood — Church, who was born in California but raised in Texas, said he’s ready to stand up against anybody talking smack about the military or films about the people who serve.

“I live in rural Texas, and needless to say, a lot of that flack is not tolerated,” Church said with a laugh. “If you remember at the beginning of 2014 when ‘Lone Survivor’ came out — (the film’s subject) Marcus Luttrell is a Texan, not unlike Chris Kyle — and that story is not without controversy as well.”

Church said that while “Max” is more of a family-oriented film than “American Sniper” or “Lone Survivor,” it still tries to address some of the same issues, but of a character you wouldn’t expect.

“It’s about what happens in the intensity of firefight, and how soldiers — including a war dog — respond in the mortal danger of a firefight. How they respond is really a measure of their training and their character, and their ability to defend themselves in their unit,” Church said. “What our movie addresses is the loss of a soldier, and the other soldier at his side returning home. Even though it’s a dog, he still has to deal with all of the sadness and the emotional recovery after the loss of a loved one. Our characters don’t know if anybody loved our son more than Max. He was his companion and his training partner, but also the solider at his side to ensure his safety.”

Needless to say, Church developed a love and respect for Carlos, the four-legged actor who played Max.

“With a Belgian Malinois — a war dog — they bring such intensity and ferocity, but at the same time, an intelligence to be trained and develop skills to find weaponry and the enemy to save American lives,” Church said. “But what you get with that intelligence and high-speed intensity, when they turn it on, you also get — at least in my understanding and experience making the movie — an emotional complexity with these dogs that a lot of people are not aware of. I don’t think a lot of people understand how far back American service dogs in the military go back, and how relevant they are right now in 2015 — chiefly Afghanistan and other areas of conflict around the world — where American soldiers are involved.”

While Church — whose rich resume includes TV’s “Wings” and “Ned and Stacey,” and the films “Tombstone,” “Sideways” (which earned him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), “Spider-Man 3” and “Killer Joe,” among many others — worked exclusively with a Belgian Malinois, he’s not necessarily a dog or cat person in real life.

“I’m both of them,” Church said, laughing. “I’m an animal guy. I have a ranch, and even a pet deer that’s sort of my most loyal companion.”

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2015 Oscars: Tim Lammers predicts who will win, should win

Birdman and Michael Keaton

By Tim Lammers

The 87th annual Oscars are Sunday night, bringing to an end another controversial awards season. At this point with all the guild awards decided, it’s pretty clear who and what film will win the big prize, although I personally hope for some big upsets just to keep the perennial overlong night interesting.

As usual, my predictions aren’t a reflection of who and what I hope will win, but educated guesses based on voting trends throughout the awards season. Of course, no one — no one — is a sure thing (remember Juliette Binoche upsetting Lauren Bacall?), so included in the picks is a wild card in each major category.

Best Supporting Actress nominees:  Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”; Laura Dern, “Wild”; Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”; Emma Stone, “Birdman”; Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods.”

Analysis: This category will likely signal the overrated “Boyhood’s” only big win for the night, but if any categories have upsets, it’s the supporting acting ones. Perennial nominee Streep generally bulldozes everyone she’s up against, and this year is no different. Arquette’s performance is the best of all those in “Boyhood,” but all the awards love for the movie is still mystifying.

Count Arquette’s win as the Academy’s tip of the cap to the year’s most gimmicky movie. A Dern win would be a salute to not one, but three Hollywood acting stalwarts: Dern and her parents Bruce Dern (who should have won for “Nebraska” last year) and Diane Ladd, but don’t hold your breath.

Will Win: Arquette.

Should Win: Streep.

Potential Upset: Dern.

Best Supporting Actor nominees: Robert Duvall, “The Judge”; Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”; Edward Norton, “Birdman”; Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”; J.K. S

immons, “Whiplash.”

Analysis: Not only has Simmons proven to be a great actor who has consistently delivered in his roles over the years, his turn as the vitriolic jazz conservatory conductor in “Whiplash” is hands-down the best nominated performance across all of the categories.

“Birdman” is shaping up to be this year’s awards juggernaut, and Norton — who is brilliant in the movie — could be a benefactor of that. Duvall, who is terrific as usual in “The Judge,” would be a shoo-in as a sentimental winner, but he already has an Oscar thanks to “Tender Mercies.”

Will Win: Simmons

Should Win: Simmons.

Potential Upset: Norton.

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Best Actress nominees: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”; Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”; Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”; Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”; Reese Witherspoon, “Wild.”

Analysis: With five Oscar nominations (including this year) to her credit, Moore is long-overdue. But this award isn’t being earned by Moore for sentimental purposes: Her turn as an early-onset Alzheimer’s disease patient is heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting, and one that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Cotillard (who previously upset Julie Christie, oddly enough, in Christie’s Alzheimer’s-themed movie “Away From Her”) and Witherspoon don’t have a chance because they’re won in the category before and it’s hard to repeat, and Jones, while great, is simply over-matched in the category. An upset for Pike’s ultimate ice queen role in “Gone Girl” would be a way to rectify the Academy huge oversights in several categories — including Best Picture and Best Director (for David Fincher) — in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Will Win: Moore.

Should Win: Moore.

Potential Upset: Pike.

Best Actor nominees: Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”; Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”; Michael Keaton, “Birdman”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything.”

Analysis: Keaton’s career performance in “Birdman” has dominated most of this year’s awards season, and since he’s sidestepped personal controversy (i.e., he’s said all the right things in his acceptance speeches and has been genuinely gracious) the award has been his to lose. Keaton is brilliant in the role with a fine mix of comedy and drama, but Cooper took the biggest risk with his moving, understated turn as late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

It’s not a flashy role, but yet somehow you can sense the inner-turmoil of Kyle as deals with the stress of the battlefield and suppressing his emotions on the home front. It’s an amazingly subtle role and a gutsy move for an Cooper since it flies in the face of Hollywood’s political ideas.

As much as Cooper deserves to win, the only possible person capable of upsetting Keaton is Redmayne, who gives a “My Left Foot” Daniel Day-Lewis-caliber performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” His unlikely Screen Actors Guild upset opened the door for a possible upset at the Oscars, but don’t bet on it. Carell’s and Cumberbatch’s nominations are well deserved, so don’t be surprised to see future noms, especially for the latter.

Will Win: Keaton.

Should Win: Cooper.

Potential Upset: Redmayne.

Best Picture nominees: “American Sniper”; “Birdman”; “Boyhood”; “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; “The Imitation Game”; “Selma”; “The Theory of Everything”; “Whiplash.”

Analysis: The race all along this awards season has appeared to be an even match between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” but then a surprising surge with “American Sniper” (and a $300 million North American box office) with a strong showing in the nominations suddenly made the race that much more interesting.

Conventional thinking at the moment points to a big night for “Birdman,” since it has taken top honors with the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America (for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – who will also win the Best Director Oscar) and the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble Award (the equivalent for a Best Picture prize) — so don’t be shocked when it when it wins the Best Picture Oscar.

As refreshing and inventive as “Birdman” is, remember 2015 as the year the chickens come home to roost on Hollywood. The Academy will appear completely out of touch with Middle America for not naming “American Sniper” its Best Picture; even more so if it goes the upset route and names the low-budget, gimmicky “Boyhood” as “the best.”

A film that rightfully puts the focus squarely on the American soldier and his or her families (and avoids the politics of war), “American Sniper” has had a profound emotional experience on viewers, and it will no doubt enrage them when it is passed over (watch out, Twitter!). Ultimately, if one film is going to make Hollywood stand up and listen to its audiences, this is the one, but they’re too afraid to honor a movie with ties to the right wing by default.

Will Win: “Birdman.”

Should Win: “American Sniper.”

Potential Upset: “Boyhood.”

Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie reporter and author of the ebook “Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton (Foreword by Tim Burton).”

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Movie reviews: ‘American Sniper,’ ‘The Wedding Ringer,’ ‘Blackhat’

 

Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller in 'American Sniper' (Waner Bros)

“American Sniper” 4 stars (out of four)

Clint Eastwood brilliantly directs the best film of 2014 with “American Sniper,” a compelling big-screen adaptation of the autobiography of late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. An emotionally charged and brutally honest portrayal of the most prolific sniper in American military history, the film is honorable in that it’s not necessarily about heroics, but a heartbreaking, warts-and-all portrait of Kyle during his four tours of duty in Iraq, and the effects the war has on his loved ones at home.

A God-fearing military man who loves his country, Kyle, played with layered subtlety by Cooper, is taciturn, and appears to take no great joy in what he does. Forgoing any sort of “oorah” chants, his duty as a sniper behind the long barrel of an M40 rifle is one that he’s humbled by. If he does his job, his fellow soldiers live. If he doesn’t, they die.

Interview: Sienna Miller talks ‘American Sniper’

While “American Sniper” features perhaps the most authentic Iraq War scenes ever filmed, Cooper hauntingly brings the war home in his head, dealing with the psychological torment of a man operating on an extremely high, adrenaline fueled level, who is forced in the course of a day-trip home to downshift to the seemingly mundane life he leads at home in America.

It’s here where “American Sniper” becomes a well-rounded story, where Chris’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), tries to tap into the conflicted mind of her husband who can’t seem to embrace his duties as a family man because he’s too preoccupied with how many lives of soldiers he could be saving if he were back on the battlefield. He only finds his peace in other soldiers worth saving – the men and women physically and psychologically wounded in VA hospitals on the home front – a path that ultimately leads to his untimely d

eath.

Whether it’s recreating the chaos of the battlefield or the monotony of Kyle sitting at home in front of a blank TV screen, Eastwood is in complete command of “American Sniper.” The film, naturally, is at its most poignant at its conclusion, where the director showcases real-life photos and videos of Chris and Taya Kyle, and the ultimate salute he received by his country after his death. Ultimately, Eastwood and Cooper humanize the man the enemies feared, and rightfully so, called “The Legend.”

Reviewed in brief:

“The Wedding Ringer” (R) 3 stars (out of four)

Kevin Hart and Josh Gad are hilarious in “The Wedding Ringer,” a predictable yet cleverly conceived comedy that is funny throughout despite some very disgusting, over-the-top gross-out moments.

Gad stars as Doug Harris, a loveable loser who realizes two weeks before his wedding to his high maintenance fiancée, Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), that he has no friends: a big problem, considering he needs to come up with a best man and six groomsmen for the big day. Lucky for Doug, there’s a service for such quandaries, run by the fast-talking, silky smooth hustler Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who for $50,000, assembles a rag-tag bunch of “friends” for his client – a group, that along with Doug, makes him realize that he just may be lonesome himself.

Hart and Gad provide a perfect comedic one-two punch in “The Wedding Ringer,” and thanks to unlikely comedic turns by Ken Howard as Doug’s future father-in-law and the always adorable Cloris Leachman as Gretchen’s grandma, it thankfully avoids becoming a one-joke movie. It’s even charming if not a tiny bit poignant at times, bringing a strange sense of balance to the movie, considering it’s about as politically incorrect as a comedy gets.

“Blackhat” (R) 1 1/2 stars (out of four)

What should be a timely film about cybercrime is mostly just a cy-bore.

“Blackhat,” without a doubt, has all the right elements to construct a top-notch thriller, from director Michael Mann to “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth and a solid supporting casting including “The Help” Oscar nominee Viola Davis, but in the end, simply fails to connect with its audience. It starts out with promise and intrigue with a cyber-attack on a Chinese nuclear plant and the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago, but quickly takes a sharp dive into a lumbering, aimless chase film where the feds spring a dangerous, imprisoned hacker (Hemsworth) to help ferret out the bad guy.

Mann, the “Miami Vice” TV director who went on to helm such modern classics as “Heat” and “The Insider,” never seems to find the right pacing and sense of tension with “Blackhat.” Try as he might to carry the film, Hemsworth, speaking with an American wiseguy accent, goes through the action movie motions on his way to the Mann-like one-on-one confrontation with the villain – an underwhelming development in that is played by the largely-unknown Yorick van Wageningen. So much for another Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro “Heat”-like confrontation that made the crime thriller such a nail-biter.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

Interview: Sienna Miller humbled by playing Taya Kyle in ‘American Sniper’

Film nominated for 6 Oscars Thursday including Best Picture

By Tim Lammers

It’s been a whirlwind year for heralded actress Sienna Miller, landing not one but two pivotal roles in two of the year’s most acclaimed films: “American Sniper” and “Foxcatcher.”

In oddly timed bits of casting, though, Miller plays the eventual widow of two real-life men who met tragic deaths early in their lives. Even in the face of tragic storylines, it’s hard to say no when acclaimed directors come calling, especially when it’s the likes of Clint Eastwood for “American Sniper.”

“I would have been happy to make the tea on Clint’s set much less be a part of the actual film,” Miller told me, humbly, in a recent call from New York City. “He’s phenomenal. As a young girl dreaming of being an actress, he’s one of the people I dreamed of working with. I still can’t believe this has all happened.”

Sienna Miller in 'American Sniper' (photo Warner Bros)
Sienna Miller in “American Sniper” (photo Warner Bros.).

Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “American Sniper,” based on Chris Kyle’s best-selling novel of the same name, tells the harrowing true story of the Navy SEAL (played by Bradley Cooper), who is credited with being the most prolific sniper in American military history. The film nabbed six Oscar nominations Thursday, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bradley Cooper and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Miller stars in “American Sniper” as Taya Kyle, who unwaveringly stood by her husband’s side as he endured the stress and danger of the battlefield in Iraq over four tours of duty; and found herself challenged by the deep, psychological effects the war had on Chris when he returned home to be with his wife and two young children.

“Ultimately, the title is ‘American Sniper’ is story about Chris Kyle, but I think his and Taya’s relationship is a huge part of the book and the film,” Miller observed. “I do think by looking at the relationship, it grounds the war. It helps you find the human behind the Navy SEAL. It shows what the man faced while trying to raise a family and be a husband, but it also shows the immense sense of duty he felt to serve his country when he wasn’t in active service. He felt that there were people dying that probably wouldn’t be dying if he had been there. I think that dynamic is really interesting, because his relationship with his family was a huge part of his life and was well-represented in the film.”

Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper' (photo Warner Bros)
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper” (photo Warner Bros.).

Miller, who was cast in the film last March and began shooting in May, worked very closely with the real-life Taya Kyle during the production, gaining access to communication between the couple when Chris Kyle was serving abroad.

“Taya is so unbelievably open, and so wanted this film to be a good representation of his and Chris’ relationship. She was just the easiest woman to talk to and so generous,” Miller said. “She kept all of their email correspondence while he was on his tours, and let Bradley and I have access to them. There were hundreds of really interesting emails, and she let us go through them so we could get a sense of what their relationship was like.”

In addition to the emails, Miller said Taya Kyle was open to any question she wanted to ask.

“Of course, there were questions you have to ask and you have to be really forensic in your examination of someone if you want to do them justice, but at the same time, she never made me feel uncomfortable at all,” Miller said. “She said, ‘Just ask me anything. I want to help. I want you to get this right. Please don’t be shy or worry about me getting upset.’ She told me almost everything, and we became really close as a result of that. So, while by nature I feel uncomfortable to ask those sorts of questions, I felt I had to serve the film and serve the performance and do my work.”

While she naturally respects Taya Kyle immensely for what she endured while her husband was alive and the harsh circumstances she’s faced since — including a defamation suit filed by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura transferred to the widow after Chris Kyle’s untimely death in 2013 — she also feels a greater sense of appreciation for members of the military and beyond.

“I have such a new-found respect not only for the men and women in the military and who are serving in combat, but the spouses left behind,” Miller said. “I think in a way they’re making as much of a sacrifice because it’s impossible to raise a family and not know every day whether your husband is going to live or die. It has to be an unbelievable situation to find yourself in. Of course, Taya Kyle understood who her husband was, but at the same time, it’s an enormous sacrifice on both sides. Before I started the film, I hadn’t given enough thought to that.”

MORE: Sienna Miller talks about Jesse Ventura lawsuit against Taya Kyle