Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper (2014) Review

 "American" has become the most tacked on word since "very."  At least, with regards to movie titles.  Between the hustles, horror stories, psychos and more, Americans appear to gravitate towards unpleasant activities.  Add said moniker to the word "sniper" and we have a pure antidote for excitement.  However, we're receiving said title from Clint Eastwood, which obviously counts for something--assuming you deleted J. Edgar and Jersey Boys from your memory.

American Sniper is a non-fictional depiction of Chris Kyle, played by Hollywood do-no-wronger Bradley Cooper.  Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper credited with well over 100 confirmed kills over the course of four tours in Iraq.  This is primarily what the film demonstrates throughout its meaty runtime.  The story begins with a brief look at Kyle's origins in Texas, where his original "cowboy" aspirations quickly dissolve in favor of a call to duty.  Once Kyle deploys on his first tour, the film initiates a stride which it never falls out of.
Bradley Cooper shines as the film's crowning piece.  With an alarmingly buff makeover, one can't help but double-take throughout the opening act.  Cooper bestows this iteration of Kyle with more care than the scriptwriter(s) probably did, especially considering the simplistic dialogue which pervades every interaction.  Hardly a scene plays without Cooper, so the fact he possesses the degree of interest he does is an accolade in and of itself.  The best scenes focus on his subtle reactions, typically (but not always) from behind the scope of a sniper rifle.  Beyond him, the characters are a host of recurring faces who, outside of Kyle's wife, blend together like pale wrinkles in a photo of the Academy. 

My reference to the runtime stems most from how the film feels.  War is never a pretty picture, and this plays into Eastwood's recent affiliation with drained color palettes.  Grays and browns bathe American Sniper more than they do a Call of Duty installment.  This almost extends to the film's commentative exploration, but that's already allotting it too much credit.  A struggle of balance defines the film whenever it sidesteps from Kyle's tours.  We witness momentary snapshots of how the war affects him back home, yet these feel more like simple, mandated inclusions.  Kyle's plight is more observational than emotional, which wears down as we approach the final, ceremonial segment.  Depiction is American Sniper's priority, yet creativity is hardly of concern.  Furthermore, despite some tense and graphic moments, American Sniper doesn't hold enough to allow for a lasting impression in the midst of other, superior war films.
Grade: C

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pinnacle Pecan Pie Vodka Review

What flavored vodkas lack in dimensions, they make up for in numbers.  Along with fellow booze giant Smirnoff, Pinnacle have basked in the constant introduction of new and zany flavors.  The fad seems to have had a recent fizzle, giving one the chance to actually catch and experiment with previously released flavors.  In this particular case, we're looking at a pecan pie imitation.

Last time I tried a pecan pie product, it was last year's Pringles venture.  Surprisingly, the results were more evocative of pancakes and maple syrup, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing when you set health concerns aside.  And since we're doing just that, alcohol makes for an appropriate transition. 

Pinnacle have a time and test proven history of mimicking whatever flavor they infuse, but since this is still vodka, no one's going to be utterly fooled.  That said, serving this blind would certainly spark a few curious comments.  A caramel-y, brown sugar aroma emits with a touch of butter from the clear spirit.  Whatever formula Pinnacle use is in full swing here; their vodka assaults with a mouth-coating sweetness comparable to candy and liqueur.  The fact this is still fundamentally vodka strangely aids in making this sippable, but the sweet factor will be difficult for most drinkers to get over.  Reactions are like to mimic those that come with sipping maple-flavored whiskey.

The mere premise of a pecan pie vodka is already egregious to turn heads past the next flavor and onto the next brand.  I usually find a line between drink snob and oft-mocked white girl stereotypes that come from trying obscure products.  Pinnacle Pecan Pie vodka finds me wavering along the same road.  I can't say the product isn't potentially enjoyable, but I can't give it my fullest recommendation, either.  If the time of the year is right, this vodka can be incorporated into certain Fall/Winter-themed drinks, but no one will be signing petitions for this vodka's resurgence if and when Pinnacle permanently kill it off.

Where I Bought It: N/A (Gift)

Price: $14.99 (750 mL, listed at Total Wine)

Grade: C

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae Review

Ben & Jerry's have caught on.  They know how effective the age-old combination of chocolate and peanut butter is, so doing it with ice cream only means catapulting the effects.  It would certainly explain their recent influx of peanut butter-oriented flavors this past year, and the trend continues in their latest offering, Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae.  Do I even need to inform you of this "vanilla ice cream with fudge brownies & a crunchy peanut butter swirl" after hearing a name like that?
After the recent euphoria-in-a-pint that was Candy Bar Pie, my expectations for Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae are understandably high.  Between that and Ben & Jerry's established track record, it's easy to hold Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae to such standards.  Yet just from the first scoop, I realized this wasn't going to be the indulgent beast I had hoped for.  Vanilla ice cream isn't always an exciting basis, and Ben & Jerry's come a few notches shy of, say, Blue Bell in this regard.  The flavor is typically a foundation for mix-ins to be shown off, and while the brownies and peanut butter swirls are obviously welcome, they're not enough to propel Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae into the top echelon.
Taking every aspect individually, the fudge brownies are the highlight with regards to flavor, although I hit some sizable peanut butter swirls throughout, especially towards near the end.  The two are nearly as blissful as they should be, although I wish the brownies were smothered about the pint to properly rival their companioning mix-in.  A smooth yet slightly crunchy texture defines the peanut butter swirls, and is as welcome as you'd hope.  And if you're somehow a newcomer to Ben & Jerry's catalogue, then these are sure to leave a strong first impression. 
I hate to admit it, but Ben & Jerry's vanilla ice cream base is what keeps me from gushing over Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae.  It's an example of being sufficient for the less discerning individual, but those expecting the charismatic excellence of Ben & Jerry's best flavors may be disappointed.  This is still a pleasant flavor and another solid dive into the ever-expanding pool of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, it's just less so than other, similar ventures.
Where I Bought It: Wal-Mart

Price: $3.48

Grade: B

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

Pitching Mockingjay Part 1 can be a simple undertaking or a daunting challenge, determined mainly by whether or not you've read the book(s).  Anyone already fully versed will know precisely what to expect, with the real question being where the split will come to separate the two movies.  Those who haven't invested in the books, however, are like to struggle with adjusting to the changes made in this semi-sequel.  Since the first two movies focused on tension, culminating in Catching Fire's intense cliffhanger, it only makes sense for one to expect its sequel to feed the fire even further.  However, most viewers will feel that the flame has been left to dwindle down to a mere simmer. 

Without spilling spoilers, Mockingjay Part 1 sees Katniss in a new home with all the homeliness of a mental ward.  She's quickly presented the task of being the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion and potential freedom for the Districts in Panem.  Her role primarily amounts to being a part of propaganda films (called "propos") to rile the Districts and ultimately thwart the Capitol.  There are no "Games" to speak of, which makes the continued use of the Hunger Games moniker feel both cluttered and misleading.  Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 is a depiction of cold war soon to be followed by actual, open warfare.  What audiences have been waiting to see for a year is only briefly realized before the end credits begin, asking us to come back again next year.
So it's easy to feel cheated out of payoff in Mockingjay Part 1, but does the film function on its own merits?  This question may depend on your expectations, but you do feel the franchise being milked throughout, especially during the first hour.  Mockingjay Part 1, like its corresponding book, is a slow ride, putting its bleak commentary and main character first.  At this point it needn't be said that Jennifer Lawrence owns the role of Katniss Everdeen; all the emotion and trauma that comes with the territory is realized in a way that the film loves to demonstrate.  If anyone has a chance to steal Lawrence's spotlight, it's either Josh Hutcherson during one of his three or four (emotional) moments, or Elizabeth Banks during her many comedic tidbits.  For as much runtime as Mockingjay Part 1 has to work with, nearly every supporting character lacks proper exposure.  Take for instance a scene where Sam Clafin's Finnick Odair discloses some revelatory details.  This scene would work great on its own and serve as an effective way to develop an otherwise minor character.  However, this is set as a backdrop for another event in the movie, meaning these just-exposed details may become lost on a less discerning viewer. 

Compounding the issue of short-changed characters is the fact we get scenes of downtime when they're never needed.  Until the last 30 minutes, everything moves without immediacy, save one or two brief action scenes.  It's a definite example of misused runtime.  What's more is that the score, one of Catching Fire's surprising strengths, feels utterly rehashed here.  If James Newton Howard composed any new tunes, they're lost in favor of pasting key notes from the previous film.

Mockingjay Part 1 isn't without merit, but the drastic shift in style and overall decline in substance leaves it feeling incomplete.  Granted, we know this will be the case going in, but it feels fragmentary for other reasons, too.  There's simply less to invest in, and this particular film seems to be in dire need of a plot device to drive things forward.  That may come in Mockingjay Part 2, but another year of waiting for that feels like an illogical punishment for fan loyalty.

Grade: C

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ben & Jerry's Candy Bar Pie Review

Ben & Jerry's don't need me to voice their validity; they've accumulated enough revenue and fandom with their indulgent products to make Donald Trump feel modest.  Yet all the same, it's fun to review anything they provide, especially when it's a pre-packaged variant inspired by their ice cream shop offerings.  I for one can't say I've ever experienced a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, which might have to do with the fact I might as well buy tickets to Universal Studios and/or Islands of Adventure.  Hardly a feasible purchase.  Setting my personal digression aside, I had my eyes peeled for Candy Bar Pie to make an appearance on nearby store shelves, and I'm glad to say it's become rather easy to find.  We'll see if it makes the scoop shop scarcity factor any less relevant.
The description is sexy enough: Peanut butter ice cream with fudge flakes, chocolate nougat & sweet & salty Pretzel Swirls.  This already sounds like an easy A, especially since Ben & Jerry's have a reputation for decimating my defenses whenever employing their deadly chocolate-on-peanut-butter combinations.  The only thing I hope they didn't skimp on is the pretzel pieces, which better be plentiful and salty.
First impressions look promising with the top removed, which continue through each scooping.  Ben & Jerry's venerable base already works wonders with peanut butter flavor, but thanks to an ensemble of mix-ins, the ante is raised yet again.  Fudge flakes and quick-to-melt nougat are endearingly prominent, imparting to a strangely coffee-esque flavor.  And when I say "coffee," I mean Starbucks Frappuccino coffee.  The touted pretzel swirls add an additional touch, one that's salty and a wonderful enhancement to the peanut butter flavor.  To my surprise, these aren't necessarily crunchy, but swirled around with a smooth texture to maintain consistency with the ice cream.  I'd say the lack of crunchiness is disappointing, but I'm having too much fun enjoying the sheer collage of flavors.
Candy Bar Pie is an ice cream that leaves no stone unturned.  As with the best of Ben & Jerry's flavors, you feel like you picked up a pint straight from the ice cream shop, which was likely the intent.  Most ice creams leave me longing to suggest additional mix-ins, but Candy Bar Pie covers more terrain than an American dead-set on freedom.  That said, if the pint doesn't quite cover your one-way ticket to diabetes, you could always crunch up some Reese Oreos for that final push.
Where I Bought It: Wal-Mart

Price: $3.48

Grade: A