Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Incredibles 2


Alternate Title:  Bird Food
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  The Incredible family struggles to get Superheroes accepted by the populace at large while facing down the threat of the mysterious Screen Slaver.



Things Havoc liked: It's hard to imagine the cinematic world that the original Incredibles was released into in 2004, a world wherein superhero movies were considered a risky proposition, cinematic universes did not exist, Marvel made bad movies, and Brad Bird was an ex-Disney animator, who had directed and written a well-regarded bomb called The Iron Giant, and whom Pixar was taking one of a series of massive gambles on in entrusting him with another animated picture to helm. Of course that gamble paid off, with Incredibles becoming one of the many sterling victories that led Pixar to dominate the animation landscape of the 00s. In the wake of its success, I, and others, wondered for years why Pixar never followed up on such a rich opportunity, particularly as other sequels such as Monsters University or the Cars followups came and went. I still don't know the answer, but I do know that here we are, fourteen years later, and Bird has finally come up with the sequel we all expected years ago.

Picking up exactly where the last film left off, Incredibles 2 continues the (mis)adventures of the Parr family, still struggling with the fact that superheroes like them are officially illegal. With their existence exposed yet again following the first movie, and their house destroyed by a supervillain, they come into contact with a pair of billionaire siblings who intend to see the laws against superheroes reversed through timely, high-profile actions and heroics. While Elasti-girl (Holly Hunter) goes out to fight crime, legally or otherwise, her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must stay at home to take care of their kids, Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack. This much the trailers reveal, and I wasn't exactly enthralled with the prospect, as the "bumbling Dad trying to take care of the house and kids" routine is a staple of bad sitcoms for a reason. To my surprise though, these sequences are probably the best ones in the film, full of sight gags and general madness enough to keep the movie moving. As with the first film, the characters are both well-drawn and well-animated (I apologize for nothing), and the movie doesn't spend a lot of time on Mr. Incredible's incredible shortcomings, instead going rapidly for mad science, the insanities of a superhero fashion designer (voiced again by Brad Bird), and battles between a superpowered baby, a raccoon, and physics. The best parts of Incredibles 2 are when the characters are just allowed to exist in their world together, as it was in the first movie.

Not that the rest of the movie is letting the side down, necessarily. Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone gets a much increased role, including impromptu babysitting support, which is always good for a laugh. The action, and there is quite a bit of it, is well-paced and orchestrated beautifully, with most of the work going to Elasti-Girl, and standout sequences involving a fistfight in a Faraday Cage covered in hypnosis-inducing screens, and an extended brawl in the innards of a cruise ship between a girl who can turn invisible and summon forcefields and another one who thinks with Portals. The voice-acting is top notch across the board (save for Nelson, who sounds tired and detached from his role), with all of the old standbyes returning for more, and the addition of everyone from Catherine Keener (second week in a row I've encountered her), to Johnathan Banks, Phil LaMarr, and (of all people) Isabella Rossellini.



Things Havoc disliked: If all of the above seems rather mechanical (here is what the movie is about, here is who is in it), I assure you, there's a reason.

I want to get out ahead and say that I didn't dislike Incredibles 2 at all, it's a well-made movie with decent-to-good animation, casting, and action. But I also want to get out ahead and say that it isn't much more than those things, a competent movie executed by a competent cast, crew, writer and director. And as to why that is, we have to go back to the creator of the Incredibles, Brad Bird.

You see, Brad Bird, moreso than most writers or directors in Hollywood, is obsessed with a single idea, that of special, uniquely gifted people who are hated and feared by the wider society around them. The Incredibles 1 was about this. The Iron Giant was about this. Tomorrowland was about this. And guess what, Incredibles 2 is... also about this. Granted, to a certain extent that makes sense, the first movie set up a world wherein supers were feared and rendered illegal, and dealing with the ramifications of that is an obvious way to take the story, but that's just it, it's an obvious way to proceed, and one that should have been re-thought. Incredibles is set in no discernible time, but seems to be focused on some kind of golden-age-of-comics era crossed with a comic book future, and that whole dynamic does not jive very well with sad parents contemplating homelessness for themselves and their children because their superpowers make them outcasts and pariahs. I don't mind a bit of tonal discord now and again, but Bird's continuing fixation on how put-upon the special people of the world are gets in the way of the story, and is one of the reasons he's often accused of being way too Randian in his fixations (trying to get a movie version of The Fountainhead produced doesn't help). I'm not going to go that far (Tomorrowland spent half its runtime rebutting such allegations by casting the Randians as the villains), but at this point, Bird has said everything there is to say on this subject, and it's becoming boring.

And when you take that subject out of the movie, there's just not much to Incredibles 2. The plot is... fine, I guess, but entirely predictable from beginning to end, with yet another villain who is not only telegraphed but out to get the Parr's because they resent special people for some reason (*yawn*). The progression of the story is pedestrian in the extreme, with everything happening because it makes sense structurally to happen. When the end of the movie comes, there's little-to-no emotional catharsis to anything, because the stakes have never been established in a way anyone can relate to, and if the MCU has taught us anything, it's that this is something great comic book movies need to be able to do. Incredibles 2 cannot, which in turn leads one to question automatically if it can be called a great anything.



Final thoughts:   I see why Incredibles 2 made a billion dollars and why it is popular, for there's nothing really wrong with it, but like most of the films I've seen in 2018 so far, there's not a lot really right with it either. The characters are engaging enough, particularly Violet, and the animation is generally engaging and occasionally interesting (though it does come with a warning about photosensitive epilepsy, so YMMV). But there's just not a lot within it that demands to be seen. Maybe that's faint criticism overall, but I'm just getting tired of movies that refuse to insist on a reason for their own existence.

Go see Incredibles 2 if you're interested. I, on the other hand, am moving on to smaller and better things. I hope.

Final Score:  5.5/10


Next Time:  Smaller and Better Things (I hope)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Alternate Title:  Once Upon a Time in Mexico
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Alejandro Gillick and Matt Graver reconvene to start a war between two rival drug cartels by kidnapping the daughter of a cartel leader.



Things Havoc liked: The original Sicario, back in 2015, was a truly great film, as well as being my first introduction to Taylor Sheridan, a man who has gone on to dominate my best of the year lists with films such as Hell or High Water and Wind River. He wrote the original Sicario, a bleak, gritty, wonderfully-made film about the quasi-legal components of the battle against the Drug trade in the US and Mexico. Though Sheridan has become a world-class director as well as writer, he has returned to just the writing duties for this one, teaming up instead with Italian crime drama director (and former war zone news cameraman) Stefano Sollima. With pedigrees like that, you could not have gotten me into the theater fast enough.

So how's the sequel? It's good. Not great, but good, principally because so many of the original team are back for another round. Front and center is Benicio del Toro, reprising his central role as the lawyer-turned-hitman Alejandro Gillick. This is the role that brought del Toro to my good graces, and he's very good in it, dialing things back to a low burn as he takes on another job to make life difficult for the cartels that ruined his life. He's not as good, however, as the increasingly ubiquitous Josh Brolin, this time reprising the role of CIA fixer and hatchetman Matt Graver, the man who runs the circus which Gillick is a part of. Brolin is absolutely at home with this material, with a relaxed, sure approach that comes with the territory, as his character is the consummate military and wet work professional. Both actors dance through the weighty material they've given as though it's all just another day at the office, which it manifestly is. Younger actors, such as Isabella Moner and Elijah Rodriguez, play teens caught up in some aspect of the drug war and the cartels' business, the former as the conceited daughter of a cartel lord, who winds up becoming the fulcrum of events, the latter as a high-school kid from Texas who gets drawn into the web of Cartel human smugglers ferrying people into the US. All sides are covered in dirt here, as special forces and cartel assault teams comb the trackless wastes of Northern Mexico in search of their targets, and civilians are left to do the best they can in between the bombs.

I shouldn't have to tell you, then, that Taylor Sheridan's script is still as punchy as ever, with brutal action sequences alternating with the banal aspects of fighting this undeclared war on human traffickers and drug smugglers. Sheridan, the grand dean of modern westerns nowadays, turns this one into a parable-free tale of deception and bloodshed, keeping the polemics down in favor of a simple story of bad men doing bad things in a bad place. Though I had never heard of Sollima, the Director, he draws on a bountiful background in war reporting and crime drama to put this one together, and creates a film that feels effortlessly real throughout.



Things Havoc disliked: Which is all the more surprising, given that it isn't.

Sicario 1 was a superb film, precisely because the madness that was taking place was properly placed in a context that was entirely believable, with a blurry line between policing and military operations. Sicario 2 does not. It's a plot straight out of several video games I've played, in which a CIA wet work squad, at several points, engages in open warfare with Mexican cartels, police, and the state itself, all seemingly without consequences.

Look, I'm not a fool. A lot of shady shit goes down in the drug war, on all sides. This isn't about morality, or me objecting to how villainous the actions of our characters are or are not, it's about scenarios that just don't make sense. Mexico is not Somalia, not in the real world, and so armed military invasions of large portions of its territory are the sort of thing that doesn't fit with a scrupulously ripped-from-the-headlines sort of movie. A general action movie would have no trouble getting away with some of the things that occur in this film, but this is Sicario, this is the "real" war on Cartels right here, and so events like a PMC flying armed helicopters full of special forces to and fro across the border on a regular basis just don't fly.  It turns the movie from a plausible one into a violent fairy tale, at least in parts, robbing it of some of what made the original Sicario so great.



Final thoughts:   Day of the Soldado is a perfectly good film, though not the triumph that its predecessor was, a tense, gripping crime and violence-drama punctuated with just a little too much action and just a little too much suspension of disbelief to measure up to its illustrious predecessor. Still, with the year having been mostly a dud so far, there are far worse things to see in the theaters. Especially when it comes to subjects like drugs or illegal immigration, about which nobody has the slightest intention of speaking sense.

Final Score:  7/10


Next Time:  Time for Pixar to go back to the well.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


Alternate Title:  That Explains the Laser-Raptors
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Claire Dearing and Owen Grady attempt to rescue the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar from an impending volcanic eruption.



Things Havoc liked: To hell with both haters and critics, I liked Jurassic World, stupidity and all. I liked it because it was fun and adventurous and enjoyable to look at and managed to avoid pissing me off too terribly much. A lot of people did not like it, for they felt it exemplified all of the opposite qualities above, but nevertheless, the movie contrived to do almost everything that a Jurassic Park reboot could be expected to do, given that we no longer live in an age where a nearly-photorealistic dinosaur can alone be expected to sell a ticket. And so, while the trailers did not give me a lot of reason to hope, the fact that I did like the previous incarnation of this series, combined with the fact that Corvidae, my partner in crime, adores anything with dinosaurs in it, I felt I had to see this one. Besides, the worst-of-the-year list isn't going to fill itself.

I kid, I kid. Fallen Kingdom, despite doubling down on the previous movie's stupidity, is actually a pretty good film. Nothing great, nothing earthshattering, but a better movie than I anticipated it being, and the reasons for that vary considerably. Some of the credit belongs to the actors, particularly Chris Pratt, who continues to be an enjoyable leading man in most every film I've seen him in, and who manages to be considerably less of a douche in this film than he was intended as being in the previous. Newcomers to the series, particularly Justice Smith as an IT technician wrapped up in a situation far beyond his pay grade, Toby Jones (of the Captain America series) as an arms-dealer/auctioneer to the morally bankrupt, or Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs), as a great white hunter sent to oversee the operations on the island, all liven the film with their performances, Smith as a terrified college student, Jones as a sleazy mega-capitalist, and Levine as... well Levine as only Ted Levine can light up a role. Even Bryce Dallas Howard, whom I've never liked, improves on her showing this time around, though I still won't go so far as to say she's good. Some of the credit also belongs to the effects-work, which is stellar as always, showcasing us dinosaurs in all their glory and the myriad ways in which they ruin foolish humans' days. The art department, or whatever they call it these days, also deserves quite a bit, having once again turned much of Hawaii into the lush, insane death-trap that is the original island, or for outfitting the absurd Edwardian mansion/mad science facility that the climax of the movie takes place in.

But the majority of the credit for the non-suckitude of Jurassic World 2 belongs to Spanish director J. A. Bayona, of The Impossible and A Monster Calls.  Bayona, who was given the reigns of this one after Colin Trevorrow left for greener pastures, actually puts in a highly effective turn with this one, framing and shooting the movie with just the right balance of callbacks to the original films without ever devolving into kitch, with an arsenal of effective and tension-building long-take sequences, particularly a brilliantly-paced one involving a mass stampede and a subsequent sudden trip into the ocean, and a generally effective use of space, scene, and timing that is well beyond what a cash-in movie like this generally receives. I cannot pretend that I'd ever heard of Bayona previously, but I have to give props where they are due, it's one of the best directorial efforts I've seen since Infinity War, and it marks him out as a director to watch out for in the future.



Things Havoc disliked: None of the credit belongs to the scriptwriters.

Jurassic World was a stupid movie, but it knew that it was stupid, and played with its premise in a way that felt fun and interesting. Fallen Kingdom on the other hand stretches our patience with such things to its breaking point, finding yet another way to posit that weaponized dinosaurs are something that a good many someones with a lot of money feels is a good idea. Some of you may have thought that my little alt-title up above was a pure joke, but I ask you in this case, in what world does it make more sense to breed and train a dinosaur to kill anyone who has a laser pointer aimed at them, than it does to attach said laser pointer to a gun and shoot the people you train it upon directly? I am reminded of the scene in the Jackie Chan movie, The Tuxedo, in which a villain devises a secret, multi-billion-dollar compound which, when injected into someone, kills them via nanobots. Roger Ebert famously asked if there was a reason that injecting them with arsenic was not good enough, given the intent.

But back to Fallen Kingdom, which is a very stupid movie, involving very stupid decisions on the part of very large portions of the cast. I'm not talking about the basic fact that every single interaction with these dinosaurs on the part of anyone has resulted in catastrophe, there does need to be a movie after all, nor am I objecting to the movie's premise of a de-extinction rights campaign on the part of well-meaning environmentalists who wish to save the dinosaurs from their impending extinction. What I object to is the fact that, for the roughly fifth time in a row in this series, the heroes walk into the middle of a PMC camp staffed by grizzled, amoral mercenaries, and assume that all is to be comprised of peace and love. It's not that the moment-to-moment stuff is terrible, it's not, we're not in a horror movie here, but the plot is so irretrievably stupid that we can predict the entire thing by simply asking ourselves "what decision would the characters have to make to maximize the number of large teeth they are likely to encounter in the near future", and then watch as our wildest fantasies are realized before us.



Final thoughts:   Honestly, while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a very dumb film, I actually expected it to be worse, assuming that the acting would be terrible, or the directing sloppy, or the effects sub-par, or the plot even dumber than it turned out to be. Given that none of the above actually happened, I'm actually in a rather awkward position vis-a-vis Fallen Kingdom, in that despite how dumb it is, I have to admit that I... actually kinda liked it, and I think that most people who go see it might find they like it as well.

If you demand that all of your movies be intellectual in nature, then you must at all costs avoid the latest Jurassic World movie, but if you're willing to turn off your brain and just watch some interesting characters go through a romp with a bunch of dinosaurs (or if you find the baby dinosaurs insufferably cute... as I and all those with a soul do), then I think you might find something to like, even in a movie as dumb as Fallen Kingdom.

Final Score:  6.5/10


Next Time:  Let's see what Taylor Sheridan's been up to, shall we?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Ocean's 8


Alternate Title:  Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Danny Ocean's sister recruits a team of female thieves to steal a valuable diamond necklace from the New York Met Gala.


Things Havoc liked: I really liked Ocean's Eleven (the Clooney version). I did not like its sequels. In this, I expect that I resemble largely every moviegoer in America. The original (yes, I know it's a remake, shut up), was a cool, confident heist film, one that held together well, had interesting character actors playing interesting character roles, and was overall a template for how modern heist movies should be made. Soderbergh has gone on to bigger and better things since the Ocean's series seemingly ended, but here comes Gary Ross, of Pleasantville and the surprisingly good Free State of Jones, to give us an all-female version of the formula.

All-female versions of movies, well... let's be honest with ourselves here, they generally suck. They suck because the selling point of the movie is simply that the cast is female, with no thought given to making the movie stand out from their source material in any way beyond this, meaning that the film is almost definitionally derivative, often resulting in abject crap like the Ghostbusters remake of 2016. But to do this as a heist film makes a lot more sense. Heist films are inherently derivative, in that the plot is effectively "steal some shit", and the film is the course of the characters going about stealing it. Doing an all-female version of that makes far more sense than remaking a specific film, especially if the cast is good.

And oh yes, this cast is good. Cate Blanchett, an actress I love, plays Lou, partner in crime to Debbie Ocean, our protagonist, and basically takes on the Brad Pitt role from the original film, wisecracking and being generally cool. Mindy Kaling, whom I love dearly, and Helena Bonham Carter, whom I love dearly on the rare occasions when she's not working with Tim Burton, both liven the cast tremendously, the former as a jeweler desperate to get away from her domineering parents, the latter as an Irish fashion designer desperate to get away from the piles of IRS debt she has incurred through disastrous decisions (an early sequence wherein one of her fashion shows flops magnificently is a highlight). But the best element of the cast is Anne Hathaway, playing the air-headed celebrity target of the heist itself, who gets all the best material playing the sort of person who can lose someone else's $150,000,000 necklace and get angry at them for being upset.

Heist films live or die by their plot coherence, and Ocean's 8 manages to avoid the pitfalls that ruined movies like Logan Lucky by having one that works. The key here is plausibility. The steps that the girls take to steal the jewels they are after make sense within the context of the film, even if a sharp-eyed smark can find ways in which things would fall apart in the real world. We can follow the action from start to finish, and the obligatory twists as the plan almost falls apart and is rescued at the last second are believable, if extreme. This is not as minor a factor as it sounds, as it takes real skill to put together a plot that convincingly sounds like an impossibly difficult plan pulled off by a team of skilled con artists and thieves, and not like a load of writer contrivance designed to get the audience forcefully to the next scene.



Things Havoc disliked: You may have noticed, if you are familiar with this movie, that when I praised the cast, I neglected to mention the actual lead, Sandra Bullock, an actress I also dearly love, and who is just not good at all in this one. I don't know what went wrong, if she made a bad set of decisions in terms of her acting or if the director gave her bad instructions, but she's terrible in this film, attempting to replicate the George Clooney chill by simply bleeding all emotion out of her character entirely. Everyone else in the movie manages to evidence cool without evidencing such a boring affect, so why Bullock can't is utterly beyond me.

But the main problem with Ocean's 8 is that it's just... alright. It has an all right plot with an alright heist attached to it, planned and executed by alright characters to meet its alright ending with some alright jokes along the way. It managed to entertain for its run time, but only just, and leave a positive impression, but only slightly. It's in every way a 'passable' film, not excelling, not failing, just pretty decent across the board. Whether this is because there was no real intention to make it more than "alright", given that most movies of its type are not even that, or because whatever thrills and excitement the filmmakers intended to add to it simply didn't make it through, I have no idea. The result is the same. Ocean's 8 is an alright film. It is not much more.




Final thoughts:   I really hate writing reviews like this one, as movies that engender a passionate response, be it positive or negative, are much easier to review. Still, I can't get mad at Ocean's 8, as it is a perfectly serviceable, pretty decent movie, one I will not be recalling with scorn once the end of the year worst list comes around (probably). Go see it if you are enthusiastic about the cast or concept, and skip it if not. It makes very little difference either way.

Final Score:  5.5/10


Next Time:  Dinosaurs!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hotel Artemis


Alternate Title:  Budget John Wick
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Various characters turn up at a secret hospital for criminals during a massive riot in near-future Los Angeles.



Things Havoc liked: I don't see enough of Jodie Foster. She's one of Hollywood's gems, always interesting to watch, choosing interesting roles, and I only encounter her about once every five years or so, and the last time was Elysium, so to hell with that. I went to see this movie entirely because she was in it (and because of who else was), and so before we go anywhere else, I want recognition from you all that this was a good decision.

Hotel Artemis stars Jodie Foster as a nurse, known almost exclusively as "The Nurse", an agoraphobic who runs a seedy hotel named the Artemis that moonlights as a hospital for paying members of a criminal club that strongly resembles the one in the John Wick movies, albeit the low-rent version. Foster's brilliant in this one, shuffling through the halls of her semi-decrepit old hotel like an old woman, trying to keep the plates spinning as one semi-crazed criminal after another requires her services on the night of a gigantic riot sweeping through downtown Los Angeles. Wrapped up in an inexplicable Brooklyn accent, she carries the film effortlessly.

Though not without help. Indeed Hotel Artemis has a whole bunch of actors in it that I adore seeing. Sterling K Brown, whom most of you will remember as N'Jobu (Father of Killmonger) in Black Panther, plays Waikiki, an armed robber whose brother is shot in the theft of a bank vault and who winds up having to hole up at the Artemis as the riots spread across the city. Similarly holed up are Sofia Boutella, one of my favorite action actresses working, playing (what else) a French super-assassin, and Charlie Day (of Lego Movie) as a douchebag (Charlie Day is very good at this). Dave Bautista, meanwhile, who has become a much better actor since getting his start in Guardians of the Galaxy, plays Everest, who is so named because... well... you get it. The combination of all of these actors together would be enough for me, but add Zachary Quinto and Jeff Freaking Goldblum (playing a mafia don of all things) really pitches the film over the edge into truly awesome territory. I would watch these actors having lunch, let alone starring in a crazy kooky action-hijinx movie. And fortunately, Hotel Artemis is not about them having lunch.



Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, it's not a crazy kooky action-hijinx movie either.

I don't know who's been setting up trailers for these films recently, but this is the third or fourth film in a very short amount of time whose trailers were written by lying liars who tell lies. Hotel Artemis was pitched to me in the trailers as being a fun action-comedy, a crazy madcap movie full of wacky hijinx and hilarious interplay between the various characters. Instead, the movie is a fairly dramatic character-study of the Nurse and a number of other characters, all set against the backdrop of a dystopian cyberpunk reality.

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact the resulting film is possibly more interesting than the alternative would have been, but it's never a great thing to go in expecting comedy and not receiving it, and Hotel Artemis does that. Instead, there are interminable sequences wherein we are intended to get to know the characters better through threat and dramatic interplay. Some of these work, mostly because it's excellent actors engaging in them, and some do not, such as an endless sequence that goes nowhere involving a cop that the nurse decides to allow into the facility, in violation of the hallowed "rules". Your mileage will vary as always, I didn't have too much of a problem with the bait and switch, but do not go into this movie expecting a cornucopia of wacky fun, as suggested by the marketing campaign.

There's also the question of the film's ending, which is a muddled mess of bad ideas, as though the scriptwriters, having gotten to a certain point, could not figure out what to do afterwards. There are obligatory fight sequences, not shot with any particular energy or stylism, there are tearful departures and triumphant moments as characters overcome the handicaps they have been presented as living with, it all feels tremendously rote. The dystopian elements of the background setting are never expounded upon or dealt with in any way, making it feel as though large sections of plot were cut for time or interest, and the entire film just sort of... ends eventually. It's hardly enough to ruin everything, but it's not the best way to leave a strong impression of your movie as I'm walking out the door.



Final thoughts:   Hotel Artemis is a strange film, there's no question, and it is not the film that I was
expecting to watch, but despite a meandering plot that seems to waste a lot of time and an ending that goes nowhere in particular, the cast itself has such a genuine strength and chemistry to it that I have to admit I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's not a movie destined to reshape the landscape of film or anything (and it's presently engaged in bombing spectacularly), but it's a solid movie, interesting enough to be worth a watch, and unlike Red Sparrow, it will not send anyone into flashbacks.

Well, unless groaty hotels bring up your worst nightmares, that is.

Final Score:  7/10


Next Time:  Anything you can Steal, I can Steal Better.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Red Sparrow


Alternate Title:  Trigger Warning
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A ballet dancer becomes a Russian spy at a specialized training school, before being assigned to uncover the identity of a mole in the Russian intelligence service.



Things Havoc liked: The whole point of seeing one movie a week is that I get to see everything I want to, and nothing I don't, something I continuously remind the people who insist that I go see godawful pieces of obvious crap for their amusement. Overall, this system has worked well for me, but it's not perfect, as occasionally the movies stack up in such a way that I miss something I was hoping to catch. So it was with Red Sparrow, a spy thriller that looked, according to the trailers, like a cross between Atomic Blonde and the Black Widow movie that Marvel has been threatening to make for quite some time, all starring one of my favorite working actresses. So when, recently, I had a chance to double back and actually catch this one, I was excited to have a chance to do so?

So what did I think? I think the trailer house responsible for this one are filthy, filthy liars.

Why? Because Red Sparrow is not what it was sold to me as. It is not some kind of spy thriller romp through the badass parts of spydom. No, sir, it's something entirely different, and this fact is something anyone considering the movie needs to bear in mind. Red Sparrow has nothing to do with Black Widow or Spygame or other movies about the cool parts of spywork, it instead draws inspiration from two places: John leCarre movies about the bland, thankless, awful parts of real spywork, and I Spit on Your Grave.

Yeah, the Trigger Warning above was real, folks. Dig in.

Red Sparrow, based on an award-winning novel from a former CIA operative, is about a Russian ballerina named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), who, following a career-ending injury, is forced by her connected uncle to join the ranks of spy workers, called Sparrows, who train in the arts of seduction, emotional manipulation, and general ruthlessness to advance the Russian policy of "Kompromat" (the discovery and exploitation of compromising material on foreign assets) by means of (I'm not making this word up) "Sexpionage". Everything is portrayed in as realistic a manner as possible, from the dehumanizing training methods, to the constant one-eye-over-your-shoulder means by which such agents are required to go about their actual work, with very little to look forward to beyond being dragged back home for an even more dehumanizing "debriefing"/interrogation. It should be said that Lawrence is very good at portraying all of this (even if her Russian accent is less only slightly more convincing than Scarlett Johanson's). She nails the paranoia and helplessness of the character, who is in a position wherein staying alive for five more minutes is contingent on her willingness to do unspeakable, disgusting things, and where the danger comes not from the CIA, but from her own handlers.

As you can imagine, this all makes Red Sparrow a very bleak movie, something director Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games, Constantine) takes as many pains as possible to reinforce. The color palate is all muted greys and overcast, icy landscapes, the sterile confines of doctors' offices and the dingy interiors of FSB black sites. Characters are constantly being forced to strip naked and cast aside moral distinctions, to do one disgusting, vile task after another, to seduce one another and spy on each other for the slimmest of political advantages. The music (Longtime Lawrence collaborator James Newton Howard) is dour and laden with pregnant minor chords, building an air of paranoia across the board. It's a quintessential film school movie, ultimately, where all the elements reinforce the tone of the thing, and are available to be broken down into their constituent parts so that essays like these ones can be written about them.



Things Havoc disliked: Which is all well and good, but we're not in film school here, we're here to talk about movies to see and movies to avoid, and all that bleakness is going to (hell, HAS) resulted in a big old warning sign being stapled on the film for a considerable number of people.

Look, I'm no enemy to bleak films. I thought Wind River was one of the best movies of last year. But there needs to be a point to all of it for such movies to be worthy of a recommendation, and Red Sparrow... struggles to find one. I know that the practice of spywork resembles John leCarre more than it does James Bond. I know that real spywork is not glamorous but thankless, boring busiwork carried out by mediocre men in airless rooms. I know all these things because fifty different films from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold onwards have taught me them, and so I need something beyond "Being a spy sucks" to justify being dragged through it all once again, especially when the film in question advertises itself as being a fun spy romp in the style of Salt. I've always said that it's not fair to criticize a movie for not being another movie, but it is fair to criticize a movie for not being the movie it pretended to be during the marketing push, and Red Sparrow sets off that alarm loud and clear.

Ultimately, the movie is just not enjoyable in a way that fun spy romps are made to be. It is a cryptic, difficult movie to penetrate, one that ultimately proves not as intelligent as it thinks it is, nor does it have any of the sense of trashy fun that might have elevated the material into a must-watch. Everything in the movie is done competently, but nothing about it demands to be seen, justifying the awful lengths to which the actors and characters are put with some kind of haunting, thought-provoking, or simply gripping story in some regard. Instead we get to watch a bunch of characters put through hell for a corrupt spy agency that hates them and then we get to go home. Fun times at the local cineplex?



Final thoughts:   I'm never sure what to do with movies like Red Sparrow, which are well-made films, but ultimately not very enjoyable to the viewer. In part, it seems unfair to give them low scores, as the movies are, as I mentioned, well-structured and shot, but at the same time, I go to the movies to be entertained, and there isn't much in terms of entertainment value to a movie this grim for this little purpose. Fully half of the people I watched this one with walked out of it, simply uninterested in putting themselves through the thing for any further length of time, when the reward was simply going to be a moral of "Spywork sucks". As such, the best I can do is suggest that you make your own mind up as to whether Red Sparrow is a good one for you, and move on to the next movie.

Final Score:  6/10


Next Time:  Jodie Foster has a bad day in Los Angeles

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Upgrade


Alternate Title:  Poor Life Choices
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A man crippled by the attack which killed his wife seeks an experimental AI-implanted surgery to enable him to seek revenge.



Things Havoc liked: I've talked a lot about MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movies (that stands for Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women) on this little project of mine, in such fine fare as the Taken sequels and the Equalizer (soon to get an entirely unearned sequel of its own). But the truth is that the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW film is really nothing more than a sub-genre of another, similarly-august type of film, the Revenge thriller. Revenge thrillers go way, waaaaay back, at least as far back as 1974's Death Wish, the Charles Bronson movie that spawned an entire series of films of decreasing quality, and inspired a genre that includes its own remake from earlier this year. I am neither in favor of nor against the Revenge Thriller, it is a genre like any other, but I was intrigued by one that offered to combine it with the cyberpunk techno-thriller genre to create something at least slightly different.

Upgrade stars Logan Michael-Green, the very, very poor man's Tom Hardy, as an auto mechanic named Grey who, in keeping with the theme of the genre, has his life turned upside down when a group of hardened criminals ambush him and his wife, killing her and crippling him. Traditional Revenge movies would involve him proceeding to train rigorously as a badass with the intention of taking violent, cinematic vengeance against those who have wronged him. The trick this time though, is that as a quadriplegic, Michael Green needs the assistance of the obligatory antisocial Tech genius (Harrison Gilbertson), who outfits him with a revolutionary new cybernetic system called STEM (SYMBOLISM!!!). This bypasses the need for the obligatory training montage, by enabling STEM to take control of Grey's body and eradicate his enemies with judicious Kung-Fu and General Ultra-violence. I have never been much of a fan of Michael-Green's, (his greatest previous claim to fame was Prometheus of all things), but it can't be denied that he meets the demands of the physical acting required to portray a man controlled by a robot which is kung-fu fighting, evidencing a minimalist combat-style that is actually quite unique in my vast experience of watching people beat the shit out of one another on screen. I won't go as far as to say that I became a fan of Michael-Green through this performance, Prometheus looms large in my memory, but he helps the movie more than he hurts it, and that isn't nothing.

Upgrade was written and directed by Australian horror author and director Leigh Whannell, formerly of the Insidious series and some of the Saw sequels. Upgrade never gets to the point of torture porn films, but has a rather unique body-horror twist on the general Revenge-movie formula, involving the semi- and involuntary takeover of one's body by external forces, as well as the panic when those forces begin to fail. Whannell's direction isn't inspired, but the film has twists in it I didn't expect going in even accounting for the oddity of the genre-mashing premise. Revenge movies tend to be extremely simplistic affairs, our hero kills the bad men until he is done doing so. Occasionally someone, usually a woman, will fret over the inhumanity of the violence he is unleashing, but the film does not stop said violence until the bad men are dead, roll credits. Upgrade does not take a novel moral approach to this question, (something the actual Death Wish novel did, interestingly enough), but it does bring a bit of modern horror sensibility to its mashup. The direction and cinematography are dark and gruesome where they need to be, though no more. Overall the term "workmanlike" comes to mind thinking of Upgrade. It manages to avoid embarrassing itself, not a small feat given the pedigree of its actors and director.



Things Havoc disliked: You can't gauge a movie like this one on the same lines that you could Casablanca or a Star Wars film. Moreso than anything else, Upgrade is a genre piece, and must be judged by the conventions of its genre, in this case R rated action thrillers. And by those standards, one must admit that Upgrade doesn't quite measure up. It's not that the film is terrible, it isn't, but there is little for an MPAA censor to become upset about. I have a long and tempestuous history with R-rated action films and this one could have been PG-13 with about 30 seconds of footage removed. That is not a compliment. I understand, this was an Australian micro-budget production with very little room for fancy effects, but when I go to see a R-rated action-body horror movie, I expect to see some real shit, man, not two-minute sections of awkward Kung-Fu followed by a little bit of blood. There's just not enough here to justify the great claims that a movie that pretends to be re-inventing the action genre makes, and as a result, true aficionados of the genre (both of them) need not worry that they are missing something earth-shattering in this one.

There is also the acting, which I would dearly love to say very little about, and cannot, because it generally sucks. I know I praised the physical work of Michael-Green, but the rest of the cast is pretty lackluster, even accounting for the fact that they're mostly Australian micro-production actors of no real pedigree. Everyone is wooden, reciting their lines with a bare minimum of emphasis, generally in the wrong places. People calmly and glibly ask not to be murdered by screaming psychopaths, while overselling perfectly basic comments to one another over dinner. The body horror aspect becomes forced after a while, with developments like guns built laboriously into people's arms (the advantages thereby offered over just carrying a damn gun do not jump out at me) which are utterly useless except to "shock" us with their horror (um... noooo?). The movie never becomes boring or outright bad, but the mechanics of the basic building blocks are not in order, and that does limit how good the thing can become.



Final thoughts:   Upgrade is a decent little film, if nothing more, though nothing that will either give you a rush of supreme excitement to be remembered through the years, nor that will keep you up at night from its terrifying horror elements. It's a reasonably clever little film about cyborgs beating the crap out of one another that doesn't intend to be a whole lot more than the above sentence. If that sounds like it's your cup of tea, then go forth and bear witness. And if not, well, there are worse things for you to catch on late night cable in a few years' time.

Final Score:  6/10


Next Time:  Doubling back to find out if a movie we missed was worth the fuss.

The Incredibles 2

Alternate Title:   Bird Food                                                                                                            ...