Monday, December 4, 2017

Fall 2017 Roundup, Part 1

And now for something completely slightly different

Following a sanity break, the General's Post now finds itself with more movies to review than it has time to properly explore. As such, we at the Post are pleased to present a round-up of all of the myriad films that we have seen in the last couple of months. Have at thee!

The General's Post Fall Roundup, Part 1

The Foreigner

Alternate Title:  Patriot Games II:  This Time It's Personal

One sentence synopsis:    When his daughter is killed in a neo-IRA bombing in London, an ex-refugee goes on the warpath to force the political head of the IRA to divulge the identity of the culprits.

The Verdict:  As I get older, and have a wider range of movies to look back on, I find that I appreciate Jackie Chan more and more. One of the greatest Chinese action movie stars of all time, Chan's work as an actor, stuntman, choreographer, and director has always taken on a new dimension of impressiveness when you realize the backbreaking labor and preparation that goes into his many iconic stunts, as well as the insightful and complex film-making philosophy that underlies it. Though his heyday in the States is long-since over, Chan has never stopped working, and in recent years, has been taking on more against-type roles for his appearances over here in the States, such as 2010's Karate Kid remake. So it is that we find him here, in a Martin Campbell political thriller of all things.

You remember Martin Campbell, don't you? The famous New Zealand filmmaker whose credits include Goldeneye, Casino Royale (the good one), The Mask of Zorro, and No Escape (screw you, I liked that one!) Campbell is a generally excellent director, though his star took something of a tumble after the box office cataclysm that was 2011's Green Lantern, and this is consequently his first movie in six years. And for his big return, Campbell has chosen a script that's equal parts Tom Clancy terrorism-thriller and Liam Neeson MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW-vehicle (that stands for, say it with me now, Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women). MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movies like Taken or The Equalizer are not generally very good, but Campbell cuts the rip-roaring campaign of revenge in a couple of innovative ways. One is the addition of the political drama. The plot revolves around a splinter cell of the IRA going back on the warpath, setting off bombs in flower shops and tourist buses across London in an attempt to force the Brits into cracking back down on Northern Ireland and re-igniting The Troubles. Pierce Brosnan, an actor I can generally take or leave, plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a former IRA terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on your outlook), who now faces the dual threat of having his carefully-crafted peace accords destroyed by a league of hotheads, and having his own misdeeds brought back to light by Jackie Chan's dogged pursuit of the truth of what happened. The clever twist here is that Chan's character, a retired special forces operative named Ngoc Minh Quan, actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the political drama being played out, having become involved only through the most brutal of random chances, with his daughter being a victim of one of the early bombings by simple bad luck. It's Quan's very outsiderness that's the focus here, the fact that this whole drama is something he's not party to, doesn't understand, doesn't care about, isn't a partisan of, that sets The Foreigner apart from most films in which this all would turn out to be part of a conspiracy stemming from his own dark past. Quan's only interest is the fact that his daughter is dead and he has nothing to live for but bringing her killers to justice, a campaign for which he begins by trying to bribe everyone in sight for information, and when that fails, by escalating his own terror campaign against those whom he believes, rightly or wrongly, can give him the names he desires. The film thus becomes a very complex dance of competing motivations and goals, one which the participants of all wish that Quan would simply go away and stop interfering. The problem being of course that Quan cannot go away, having become involved by virtue of the cruel injustice of terrorism. So much of this genre is comprised of those with personal (and comprehensible) agendas or grievances, that we forget just how horrible it is to have your life ruined casually by someone who doesn't care about you at all, and it is refreshing in the extreme to see a film that champions the idea that such people have a stake in the long-term resolutions as well, ones that will be heard on pain of violence.

The other innovation is the addition of Chan's style to the action of the movie. One reason MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW films usually fail to elicit much interest is that the protagonists (who are usually named Liam Neeson) are invincible super-badasses, special forces death machines of unstoppable power, who effortlessly cleave through small armies of soldiers and henchmen (who are usually brown-skinned) en-route to their preordained catharses. Taken 2 (and I must assume its sequels) were particularly bad examples of this. Chan, however, has gone on record in times past describing that audiences cannot identify with an action hero that cannot be hurt, and that his films take pains to show how dangerous and painful the stunts in his movies actually are. Obviously, at 63, Chan is not as spry as he once was (though, let me assure you, he would still kick my pasty white ass up one side of the street and down the other), but this actually helps the film more than it harms it. Chan's stunts are still impressive and amazing, but they also look more... plausible, the sorts of things that an older man in good shape and with a complete indifference to physical pain might be able to do. His engagement with multiple, armed assailants, all of them younger (and larger) than him, include brutal punishment that certainly looks like it hurts, and Chan's signature focus on prop-work and unconventional weapons remains firmly intact in all its glory.

The Foreigner is certainly not a perfect movie. Its plot gets awful labyrinthine at points, and it does evidence a tendency to tie everything up with a bow whether it makes sense to or not, but the project, on the whole is definitely a worthwhile enterprise, with multiple nuanced characters evidencing shades of grey morality as they try to negotiate the situation they are circling around and deal with the unexpected element of Quan's single-minded fixation on revenge. It's one of the better vehicles I've seen Pierce Brosnan in in a long time, and represents enough of a break from Chan's earlier, sillier work to make the whole exercise unpredictable and interesting. And as far as MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movies go, it's not like there's a lot of competition out there...

Final Score:  7/10


Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Alternate Title:  Polyamory: A Life

One sentence synopsis:   Professor William Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and his lover Oliver Byrne, form a shockingly unconventional family during the 1930s and 40s, and collaborate together to create the iconic Superheroine Wonder Woman.

The Verdict:  Talk about topical...

William Marston was one of the strangest people that even the comic book industry records, a man whose contributions to the art form were so fundamental and yet so utterly buried by the industry as a whole for the better part of half-a-century. A Harvard professor of Psychology in an era when the entire discipline was newly divided from Philosophy in general, he, and his equally accomplished wife Elizabeth Marston, combined to produce DISC theory, one of the very first behavior assessment tools ever created, one which is still used (in modified form) by behavioral psychologists today, as well as to invent the lie detector machine. And yet, this Harvard-educated academic's true claim to fame was none of the above, but the creation of Wonder Woman, one of DC's big-three comic book heroes, who earlier this year received, at last the big budget-extravaganza film that her fans have been clamoring for for decades, and whose creation and history are studded with rumors, constantly circulated, that the character was a thin veil for fantasies of bondage, sadomasochism, and other "deviant" practices, rumors fueled, no doubt, by the fact that William and Elizabeth Marston lived a more-or-less openly polyamorous threesome relationship, something barely heard of even today, and utterly unheard of in the 1930s. The reason that these suppositions are rumors, rather than established and widely-known facts, are of course the efforts of the Comics industry to cover up the salacious background of one of their flagship characters throughout the reign of the Comics Code Authority, and it is only now, with Wonder Woman back in the forefront of popular consciousness, and society as a whole more receptive to such things, that we can openly discuss the origins and themes of the character, and the man and women who created her all those many years ago.

Professor Marston is not a comic book film, let's get that out of the way initially, but instead a character study of three people, all three of them played expertly by actors I had no previous use for across the board. William Marston himself, an intellectual, forward thinking, and ruthlessly-honest academic of the roaring 20s-stamp, is played to absolute perfection by Luke freaking Evans, who until this year, I regarded as a useless waste of space on my cinema screens (go watch The Raven, Dracula Untold, The last Hobbit film, and High-Rise, and tell me if you come up with any other interpretation), and have been forced, thanks to this film and Beauty and the Beast, to utterly revise my opinion of. Evans is incredibly good, a driven, passionate man with theories of behavior and dominance that he simply knows to be correct, and who is prepared to not only practice what he preaches, but practice it while preaching. Evans is great, just great, but not as good as Rebecca Hall, a British actress I've only previously seen in bit parts, or in trailers for manifestly-awful movies like Transcendence which I had no intention of seeing. Her role is that of Elizabeth Marston, wife of William, and a fellow professor of Psychology in her own right, eminently frustrated by the restrictions imposed upon her by the casual sexism of the 1920s and 30s, forced to take menial work and suffer the condescension of male colleagues because of her membership in the "weaker sex". If there is anything to DISC theory, and I have no idea if there is, then Elizabeth is the "Dominant" personality trait given form, blunt and biting, brilliantly sharp and gifted, constrained not just by society but by her own defense mechanisms of intellectual superiority over all of her fellows, men and women alike. It's a transcendentally good performance (no pun intended), one which steals the show hands down, which is not to slight the third member of our trio, Bella Heathcote, an Australian actress whose pedigree includes Dark Shadows (ugh), and another bunch of films I didn't want to see (including one of the Fifty Shades films). Heathcote's character is Olive Byrne, a young graduate student and first-wave feminist, niece of Margaret Sanger herself, who rapidly becomes embroiled in the lives of the two Marstons and forms the beating heart of the polyamorous trio that results. Heathcote, like the others, is simply stellar in the film, a young woman whose tendencies are towards the self-effacing modesty women were encouraged to adopt at the time (and today, to an extent), and which has always been the particular preserve of those women attractive and smart enough to know that their looks will forever render others incapable of properly appreciating their minds. Olive is the desperately-needed foil to William and Elizabeth, the one whose life and pursuit of happiness is ultimately dependent on the choices that they make, the one who demands empathy from her fellows whether they feel themselves too superior to grant it or not. This is not to describe her character as a wilting violet or a willing victim. It is to describe her character as an embodiment of a different sort of feminism which was contemporary to the times, that of a woman whose conventional desires are pursued with no less fervor and conviction than those of the firebrand revolutionaries.

All three of the above actors are superb in every way, playing off one another with aplomb and wit and effortless charm, but the ringmaster of this whole affair is the biggest surprise of them all, for the film is both directed and written by Angela Robinson, whom I previously would have described as one of the worst directors working in Hollywood, thanks to a filmography comprised of cinematic excrement like D.E.B.S. and Herbie Fully Loaded (the last semi-sober thing that Lindsay Lohan ever did). Where the hell this film came from, given the above, I have no idea, but Robinson, who is a lesbian, and who deals with themes of unconventional sexuality in most of her work (not that you could tell that between dry heaves most of the time), brings a sure and careful approach to this outing as far at odds with her previous work as Sixth Sense is with The Last Airbender. The movie is crisp and beautiful, with soft, careful shots and brilliant, lived-in writing. The script is a triumph of concealed exposition, as academics ply one another with their theories, while sniping semi-contentedly and spinning nets of intellectual glamor around those whose ideal it is to live in such rarified worlds. The film is a tour-de-force, not only for the actors but for Robinson herself, whom I, among others, have drastically underestimated, and to whom I must offer my abject apologies. This is the sort of film that makes careers, and if there is justice in the world, it will do just that for its author and creator.

Indeed, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a great film in every sense, an achievement of directing, writing, and acting that one simply does not see very often, comparable in a strange way to similar "place actors in a room and give them material to chew on" movies like The End of the Tour or Locke. As with those movies, I don't know that this one will make much of an impact on the wider cinematic landscape, but I am thankful to them for existing nonetheless, though I must register my surprise that the only subject this film doesn't really seem all that interested in tackling is that of Wonder Woman herself, the creation and themes of the character being largely subsumed within the story of the lives of her creators. But then perhaps that is how it should be, as Wonder Woman, the cultural artifact, has outgrown those who brought her into being, and this film instead wishes for us to simply take a moment to appreciate the unique and interesting lives of a trio of forward thinkers who devised, through sacrifice and honesty, a way to be happy.

We should all be so lucky.

Final Score:  8/10


Battle of the Sexes

Alternate Title:  Double Fault

One sentence synopsis:    Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs' lives lead them to the famous 1973 inter-gender tennis showdown.

The Verdict: The 70s were weird.

So in 1973, an ex-Wimbledon and US Open champion named Bobby Riggs, 55 years of age at the time, hit upon an idea to catapult himself back into the limelight of international tennis. Inventing an act that would later be stolen by such luminaries as Andy Kaufman, Riggs declared that women's tennis was inferior to men's, and that despite his advanced age, that he could beat any female tennis player in the world, including the reigning champions. After doing exactly that in an exhibition match against then-champion Margaret Court, Riggs faced down the American tennis queen Billie Jean King in a match so hyped up that it was played in the Houston Astrodome before 100,000 people and broadcast live to 90 million more around the world (bear in mind that this was before the invention of Netflix). What impact this event had on the world of sport and women's participation therein, others are more qualified than I to speak to, but here we have a movie about the subject brought to us by the directing trio behind Little Miss Sunshine. I have heard worse pitches in my time.

The main thing that Battle of the Sexes has going for it is its cast. Steve Carell, who has been desperately trying to branch out of his doofus-roles of yesteryear, plays Bobby Riggs in this film and he is downright amazing, a tennis hustler and gambling addict who cannot resist the lure of the limelight and who will invent any hair-brained scheme imaginable if it means the possibility of obtaining fame and fortune. Riggs is the kind of guy who will call someone up in the middle of the night to breathlessly relate to them his latest scheme, one which usually involves stirring up controversy and acquiring what wrestlers call "cheap heat". And yet there's no maliciousness to his antics, just a thirst for attention that overrides all else. Even King herself admits to her confidantes that she knows that the whole "chauvinist pig" shtick is just that, a shtick designed to inflame opinion and drum up interest in the upcoming match, and that Riggs is quite happy to be labelled a neanderthal if it means selling tickets. Carell, who is a naturally charismatic actor (how else could he routinely play such well-meaning buffoons?) is in his element with this one, whether donning a dress to show off his tennis skills to the media, or telling a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that their problem isn't that they gamble, it's that they're bad at it.

Unfortunately, Carell's performance isn't matched by that of everyone else in the film. Emma Stone takes on Billy Jean King, and she's... fine? I guess? Her character doesn't get to be as showy or outgoing as Riggs', and it's her misfortune to be laden with the task of headlining the "serious, important" side of the movie, of how much the match between King and Riggs "meant" to the sport of tennis, to women everywhere, and to the feminist movements of the era. I am unqualified to speak in absolutes on that subject, of course, but the whole effort has a certain pedestrian feel to it, simply because the material isn't presented in an interesting manner. King goes on tour, she fights with the sexist head of the Association of Tennis Professionals (Bill Pullman), she participates in the revolt of the so-called "Houston Nine", a group of top female tennis players who broke away from the ATP to form their own tour over inequalities in prize money. She does all this while dealing with her own awakening as a lesbian, striking up a relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough, in an undistinguished performance). This is all heavy material, and all of it true, but Stone never really gets to do much of anything with it. All the best lines of her battles with the tennis establishment are stolen by her partner in crime Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, who is legitimately excellent throughout), while the sexual awakening material is basically a series of dark, grainy scenes in cheap motel rooms repeated without much artistry over and over until the next sequence begins. Stone isn't bad, certainly, but there's just not that much of interest that she gets to do, and while I'm a fan of hers overall, she's not a caliber of actress who can singlehandedly elevate a movie that doesn't have a lot interesting going on. There's no sense, throughout, that the movie is depicting truly epochal events in the history of gender relations, though it does, several times, declare that it is doing just that. Riggs' antics are too silly to really stand in for the very real sexism that afflicted women of the time (and now), and King's stand against the tennis establishment, while admirable, just isn't interesting enough to carry the whole movie. Sports films are emotional films at their core, tugging on heartstrings in blunt, often even melodramatic ways, and Battle of the Sexes just doesn't have enough soul to it to do that, nor enough interesting material to do without.

I don't want to give the impression that Battle of the Sexes is a terrible movie at all, for it isn't. In addition to Carell, I've mentioned Silverman's work, and Alan Cumming of all people drops in to do a little showmanship (and provide some much needed believable context for all the social agonizing going on), but the film is ultimately a fairly forgettable endeavor, a match that, when all is said and done, really wasn't about much of anything at all besides its own empty spectacle.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time: Part 2 of our Fall roundup continues with several more movies you owe it to yourselves to see... and one that you really don't.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Alternate Title:  Asgardians of the Galaxy
One sentence synopsis:  Thor must escape from the gladiator pits of a far-flung world to save Asgard from the depredations of the Goddess of Death.

Things Havoc liked:  Within the library of ongoing wonder that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a project that is now approaching its tenth anniversary, the Thor films have been kind of strange outliers. The first, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, was a Shakespearean ode, a huge, boisterous, fantastical film, full of drama and pathos and hilarity and adventure, a fish-out-of-water story crossed with a soap opera crossed with Wagner. I loved it. The second film, directed by TV (and Terminator: Genisys) director Alan Taylor, was much less universally-acclaimed, but still a good film, I thought, underrated by the public at large, as it continued the themes of adventure and family dynamics, expanded the character of the series' breakout star (Loki), and offered a lot of fun action, adventure, and cleverness along the way. I liked it, though I did not love it as I had its predecessor. All throughout, though, the films have sort of stood apart, not conventional enough for inclusion within the main tapestry of the MCU canon, not ludicrous enough to really branch out on their own the way Guardians of the Galaxy did. There was a sense, shared by many critics, that the Thor movies didn't quite know what they wanted to be, and good as they were (especially the original), there was something of an ephemeral quality to them as a result, that some new direction would need to be taken in order to make them into the pillar of the MCU community that Marvel plainly wanted them to be.

Enter Taika Waititi, and exit all remaining doubt.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by the New Zealand creator of What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a masterpiece, a towering achievement that numbs the mind to consider, even now, two weeks removed. Not merely the best Thor movie of the three, it might (might) even stand as the best film in the entire MCU, a universe which includes everything from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to Avengers 1 & 2. My period of reviewing films has coincided almost exactly with the entire scope of Marvel's insane triumphs, and I do not make claims such as these lightly, but even if Ragnarok ultimately proves less skillfully made than those previous cornerstones, it remains a stupifyingly great film, a movie made with care and love and tremendous skill by all involved, a movie which everyone and their mother should instantly go to see, for the fates are good to us this day, and have gifted us something magical, something spectacular, and something above all, fun.

The Marvel films, in many ways, are not typical of the way that Superhero movies are done. Superhero movies in general live and die by their villains, while Marvel uses their villains as props and plot devices, employing them not for their own sake, but to cast light and dimension upon their real main characters, the heroes themselves. This sounds elemental, but it's actually quite rare, as the ranks of movies like Batman, X-men, and the better Spiderman films will show you. Villains give more range of motion to actors and writers, allow for more character freedom, without the shackle of having to make the audience identify with and like them. Marvel though has an almost revolutionary obsession with the character of their main heroes, and thus in Ragnarok gives us what amounts to an close-cropped adventure story with two main and two secondary characters. The former are, of course, Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, sometime enemies, sometime allies, brothers and adversaries all in one. Both characters and actors are on fire here, set loose in a world that doesn't take them or itself too seriously, to milk all of the ridiculous family drama and over-the-top viking madness that they embody, be it Thor's wisecracks and congenital inability to be serious, or Loki's supreme intelligence and craftiness mated with even more supreme arrogance and crushing inferiority complex. These two have been doing this dance for three movies by now (four in the case of Hemsworth), so it should come as no surprise that they are practiced experts at the ridiculous, Shakespearean, and classically tragic dynamic between the two. Thor has, in many ways, evolved over the course of the films, becoming a more whole, more stable, more balanced person, one who is, at last, beginning to accept his brother for who he is, as the God of Mischief, warts and all. Loki, on the other hand, knows seemingly less about his place in the world than when he started, still resenting Thor and Odin and all of Asgard, and yet yearning so desperately for acceptance by them all. An early sequence showcasing just what Loki's been up to since we last saw him in The Dark World hits right on the money, a combination of ham-fisted narcissism, weeping hilarity (the cameos, oh god, the cameos!), and truly tragic subtext once you stop and think about what's being done. Though the film has a lot to do, and devotes less time to our dynamic pairing than previous ones did, what sequences are included are uniformly excellent, such as a frank discussion between the brothers about Loki's probable future, with Thor no longer able to bear his brother ill-will, and Loki utterly unable to decide how to react to that.

The secondary characters I mentioned before are newcomers, in one case technically, in one case literally, and they're both awesome. The Hulk is one of them, not Bruce Banner (whom we'll get to), but the Hulk himself, who following the events of Age of Ultron, disappeared into Marvel's Cosmic Universe and now makes an appearance drawn directly from the pages of Planet Hulk. Imprisoned on an alien world where he is used as a gladiatorial champion, this Hulk has existed as Hulk for long enough to develop a personality and character of his own, and it's awesome. The writers seem to have realized both the character limitations of the musclebound green monster (limitations which sank the first two standalone Hulk films), and instead decided that he'd make a great straightman in a Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy, which is genius itself. The other character is Valkyrie, played by Selma and Creed veteran Tessa Thompson. Thompson didn't impress much in those two films, but she makes up for lost time here, as her Valkyrie is a revelation. Too easily, a character like this can be introduced as nothing more than a token woman (or actor of color), either a love interest, or a tagalong, or a Strong-Independant-Woman-Who-Don't-Need-No-Man, or whatnot. Valkyrie, though, isn't just not the above (another pitfall), but an awesome, ludicrous character perfectly suiting the irreverent tone the film has in mind. Her introduction is a thing of beauty, a hero-moment spoiled, just briefly, by her falling off of her own starship due to being mind-shatteringly drunk, and her role is less token anything, than it is the fallen, dissolute veteran who must find their honor/skill/fire/guts/whatnot once again. A perfect match for the operatic viking saga that is the Thor movies in general, and Ragnarok in particular. Thompson is incredibly good, turning in a star-making performance that effortlessly fits into the wider MCU, equal parts badass and character study. I have no idea what Marvel has in mind for Valkyrie (probably, like everyone else, they intend to wait on events), but I can't wait for more, from her or from any of the others.

What others? Oh god, where do I even start? Jeff Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum, and it's wonderful. His character probably has a name, but we're fooling nobody here. Ad-libbing all of his lines (apparently), Goldblum turns his warlord/gladiator promoter into a pastiche of his own public persona, all hemming and hawing, and awkward asides to his minions about when the appropriate moment to present the melting sticks is. Waititi himself takes a voice-role as Korg, a rock-creature and fellow gladiator whose job is to be comic relief in an action-comedy, something which probably wouldn't have worked had it been anyone but Flight of the Conchordes-veteran Waititi manning the controls. Waititi apparently derived the character's demeanor and voice from those of burly Maori bouncers at Aukland nightclubs, enormous men with soft-spoken voices, who need never shout, because one glance at their size tends to defuse situations better than any screaming would. Karl Urban, of all people, makes an appearance as an Asgardian named "Scourge", well supplied with guns and less so with brains, who positions himself as the right hand man of film antagonist Hela without him (or, frankly, her) having the slightest idea of how that relationship is supposed to function. And speaking of Hela, she is portrayed by Cate Blanchett, Galadriel herself, in her finest black queen regalia and icy demeanor. I mentioned before that Marvel isn't generally that interested in their villains relative to their heroes, but Hela is the first of their villains who seems to know that, luxuriating in her long-delayed revenge and stopping periodically for deadpan moments that fit right into the overall structure of the film, and prevent her or us from taking her too seriously. Blanchett is brilliant in the role, of course she is, and the script wisely allows her to take on a role and a motivation that has nothing whatsoever to do with Thor, Loki, or anyone else present, under the principle that if the movie isn't too interested in her, she won't be bothered to be interested in it. And while I don't want to over-focus on the socio-cultural "meanings" of the movie, or anything, it is worth noting that her entire plan revolves around revealing Asgard, the brilliant, peaceful, utopian land of lily white marble (and skin) as having been originally founded on a campaign of ruthless, violent conquest and subjugation, all swept conveniently under the rug when it became politically inconvenient to remember that the bloodshed had ever taken place. Given that director Waititi is of Maori heritage, and hails from New Zealand, a nation forged through bloody wars and conquest, and which now presents itself as a friendly, liberal bastion of racial tolerance and kindness, one has to wonder how much of this subtext is accidental.

But the big win here isn't with the cast, good as they are, nor with subtext overt or subdued, it's with Waititi himself, and his screenwriters Christopher Yost and newcomer Eric Pearson, who like many teams of directors and writers in Marvel's past, have put their own stamp on an MCU piece, but with effects far, far greater than most of the previous efforts. Waititi's a comedian after all, his previous work on this project was What We Do in the Shadows (which you should go and see, dammit), and for Thor Ragnarok, his decision was to drop the dramatic-comedic balance of previous films and make a straight-out action-adventure-comedy. There will be more on that decision in a moment, but whatever you think of it, the result is one of the funniest movies I have seen in goddamn years, and that's a fact. The entire film is riotously funny, from the piss-taking of overserious buffoons like Jeff Goldblum (God, he's good at that), to lightning-fast dialogue spit-takes, many of which were ad-libbed (the elevator scene with Thor and Loki is a high point), to glorious callbacks to signature moments of the previous films, deadpanned and dressed up for the most fanservicey-sorts of comedic throwbacks as can be imagined. I've long wondered what someone utterly unacquainted with the MCU would think of films like this one, this far into the series, but as someone who is acquainted with the series, the effect is paralyzingly funny, squeezing humor from the most juvenile of jokes ("your hammer pulls you off?") and even simple sight gags or situation comedy straight out of a Steve Carrel show. Hemsworth in particular is a terribly funny man, who has The Rock's gift of being able to clown himself without sacrificing authenticity, and playing this element up in the film to produce a weird Big-Trouble-in-Little-China vibe for it is manifestly the right call. In keeping with Thor's transition to the Cinematic side of the MCU, Waititi shoots the film in bold, vibrant color, luxuriating in the rich saturated worlds that it exists in, be it Asgard's Norse fantasy realm, the bowels of assorted and various Hell dimensions, or the oppulent Vegas-goes-to-Star-Wars planet Sakaar, comprised of half piles of garbage, half Roman orgy-palace. The score is incredible as well, a mix of classic rock tracks (Zeppelin's Immigrant Song features prominently, of course), and an ethereal electro-instrumental soundtrack provided by Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo, as well as of literally dozens of other films ranging from most of Wes Anderson's work to the Lego Movie(s). The whole production, start-to-finish, is brilliantly-done, a labor of love and craft and care tremendously well-executed and realized. A tour-de-force for Marvel, Waititi, and his many collaborators.

Things Havoc disliked: That said, I do understand why some people hated it.

Okay, 'hated' is too strong a word. But I have spoken to quite a number of people, fans of the MCU in general, who were left very cold by Thor Ragnarok, for all the glitter and sparkle and hilarity on offer. And while I would hesitate to speak for all of them, the core of the objection seems to be tonal. Simply-put, Ragnarok is very different from the previous Thor movies, especially the magisterial first one, which was directed by Kenneth Branaugh in his finest Shakespearean pomp. It had comedy, to be sure, and quotable lines ("This drink! I like it!..."), but it was a family tragedy first and foremost, centered around the character arcs of Thor and Loki both, and while Ragnarok does not ever forget who these characters are, it is not at all the same thing, having eschewed most of the dramatics in favor of a straight-up comedy. And as a result, those who come in hoping for more depth to the bittersweet relationship between Loki and Thor, while they are not denied entirely, will probably find themselves disappointed, as the film is manifestly not about Thor and Loki (or really any other specific character or idea), but instead is about presenting an incredible, hilarious, and very funny adventure, starring characters we've all come to know and love. Ragnarok, ultimately, trades on its predecessors in ways that the other Marvel films typically do not, and it's only by dint of the high level of execution overall that stops the film from being honestly quite insufferable.

And it's not just Thor and Loki's relationship that gets the short shrift. Characters from previous films are either gone entirely (Sif, for instance, is nowhere to be seen), or get such a reduced share of screentime as to constitute being shelved (such as the Warriors Three). Odin is barely in the film (for admittedly defensible reasons), and while I appreciate the chance to watch Heimdall kicking ass (it's Idris Elba, I'd watch him make a sandwich), it would have unquestionably been nice to give him something substantive to actually do while he and everyone else waited for the plot to get back to him. The one who gets it the worst though, is Bruce Banner, as distinct from the Hulk. An interesting and tragic character in his own right, introduced and explored carefully in both of the Avengers movies, Banner is used basically as nothing but comic relief in the film, bumbling through his scenes as a fish out of water before it finally becomes time to let loose the Hulk once again. It's not that this is totally inappropriate given the setting, nor does Mark Ruffalo do a poor job with the material. But there's a certain lessening of the character by using him solely for this purpose that is hard to get around. Similarly, the film's relentless focus on comedy and snark also threaten to derail some of it's most genuine moments. Not that it never simply lets a moment happen, for it does, but as with the original Avengers, there's sequences that, in all honesty, could have done with a bit less guffaws and winks to the audience, and a bit more sincerity. This is particularly true near the end of the film, which is otherwise a rousing, triumphant action-setpiece, but also contains a couple of lines I would have cut, as they drain the impact from scenes that are decidedly not intended to be funny.

Final thoughts:   All hesitations aside though, Thor: Ragnarok is a goddamn marvel, a stupendously-good film that takes the series in a bold new direction with no hesitations whatsoever, and while it may not be the Thor movie that everyone wanted, its underlying qualities are so pronounced as to render the matter effectively moot. If Thor degenerates into nothing but a one-liner-ridden comedy-action mess the way the Transformers movies did, then perhaps its critics will be vindicated, but for now, I cannot confess fast enough how much I loved this film. Marvel's deranged cinematic universe has given us a lot of surprised, not the least of which was its own existence, but this film is one of the best surprises of all, presenting old characters in a new way, and giving us a film bursting at the seams with energy, excitement, and above all else, fun. Considering the comprehensive cinematic cataclysm that was Batman v. Superman, the abomination that was Suicide Squad, and the tonally-dissonent mess that reviewers are describing for Justice League (which I have no plans to see, thank you very much), Thor Ragnarok did not need to be this good to earn my praise. But it is this good, one of the finest films that Marvel has to offer, and the best thing they have done in their entire Third Phase of moviemaking.

Though if the trailers for Black Panther are properly indicative, it may soon have some competition on that front...

Final Score:  9/10

Next Time:  Time for an Oscar Season Roundup!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Alternate Title:  Ryan Gosling's Sad Face
One sentence synopsis:  A replicant blade runner becomes embroiled in a mystery involving Deckard, Rachel, and what befell them after the events of the first movie.

Things Havoc liked:  Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a very special edition of the General's Post. Why is it very special? Well, because this film represents a staggering milestone, the 300th review on this little project of mine, a number so astounding that I can scarcely believe it's real. Three hundred times, we have sat down to consider the movies on offer from our local theaters, amidst pain, pleasure, rapturous applause and bilious hate. And so before anything else happens here, before we undertake the review that actually lies before us, I want to take an opportunity to thank each and every one of you who are reading this, whether this is your first review or your 300th, for all of your kind words and support, and even for your angry denunciations of my terrible, terrible opinions. I have no idea what has driven me to make three hundred of these damn things, but I know that without you, I would not have even amassed a single one. So thank you all, from the bottom of my cold, ossified heart, and let us now consider a remake of a film made the year I was born.

I was not looking forward to a remake of Blade Runner, and I expect every one of you can easily figure out why. The trailers for one thing made the movie look like an action movie version of the original, but more importantly, the track record for nostalgia-based remake/sequels to Ridley Scott classics is not at all a good one (consider the double-suck-whamy of Prometheus and Alien Covenant if you don't believe me). Harisson Ford has been phoning in all of his older roles for the last few years, so that gave me no hope, and while I like Ryan Gosling and... respect (?) Dennis Villeneuve, that alone wasn't enough to make me excited about the prospect of them ruining another old classic. Still, I confess to having been at least a bit intrigued by the possibility that they might do Blade Runner justice, and went to see it anyway, and... well whatever else the movie is, it is certainly not the Total Recall/Robocop remake-disaster that I was afraid of. Far, far from it.

Set thirty years (obviously) after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 starts things off in an interesting manner right off the bat by giving us a replicant as a main protagonist. Not the is-he-or-isn't-he speculative replicant question that the first movie spawned (something helped by its fifty-seven different "authoritative" versions), but an honest-to-god, established-as-such-right-from-scene-one replicant in the form of KD6-3.7, an advanced, perfectly obedient replicant played by Ryan Gosling and his ten thousand sad faces. This decision immediately makes the film more interesting, as it totally changes the perspective we have on the universe. KD6-3.7, or K for short, is a Blade Runner, tracking down escaped replicants and 'retiring' them by force. A more advanced model than the rebellious replicants of the previous film, K is exceptionally good at his job, which affords him the opportunity to live independently and carry on a relationship with his holographic AI girlfriend Joi (Cuban actress Ana de Armas), a development which, if nothing else, proves that someone in the writing staff saw 2013's Her. Gosling plays the character the way he generally plays every character, guarded, quiet, and with a face made of sadness, but as always, Gosling has chosen his projects well, and this is a movie that befits such choices. His character rapidly becomes embroiled in mystery and conspiracy, as the remains are discovered of a replicant who seems to have died in childbirth, the implications of which are many and disturbing to the status quo. But Gosling plays the character very cool all along, neither affecting a robotic monotone, nor giving in to the sorts of loud emotions that don't really fit a Blade Runner film.

The rest of the cast does reasonably well. De Armas' AI hologram manages to exceed the rather thin material she's given, portraying an AI trying to understand and push the boundaries of her experience. I joked before about Her, but the movie contains a scene halfway through where Joi hires another replicant to be her physical proxy for an evening, a scene far trippier here than it was in the previous film (something helped by the fact that we're asked to imagine Ryan Gosling in the throes of passion instead of Joaquin Phoenix). The corporate interests, such as they are, are played meanwhile by the dynamic duo of Jared Leto, playing the evil (or at least supremely creepy) corporate overlord/replicant magnate Niander Wallace, while his second in command, a replicant named Luv, is portrayed by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks. I'm still deciding if I will ever forgive Leto for his role in Suicide Squad (probably not), but he tones it waaaaay back in this film, still a creepy bastard of course, but one that seems drawn from a genuine place as opposed to random stupidity and artifice. As to Hoeks, she's a discovery, a chilling, lethal, corporate killer-assassin-replicant, the sort of thing we got to see in all the movies Blade Runner inspired, but not in Blade Runner itself, and Hoeks does an excellent job with the material. Cameos from everyone from Dave Bautista to Lennie James also liven the film, but the best thing in the movie is Robin Wright, who has spontaneously started showing up in all of my movies this year, playing K's supervisor, Lt. Joshi. Where Robin Wright has been all these years, I have no idea, but she's perfect in this, as a veteran LAPD officer trying to keep the city from spiraling out of control, one who plainly humanizes the synthetic replicant who reports to her to a point, but only to a point. It's a nuanced performance that makes me regret Wright's absence all the more these last few decades.

Blade Runner was a revolutionary film in many regards, with a style, visual and directorial, all its own, and here, at the very least, the filmmakers have done their level best to ensure the new film matches up with the old. The visuals are dark and sodden, whether storm-lashed cities and coasts or fog/smoke-shrouded ruins in which men scrape a life together from the detritus of the world. As with the previous film, natural items like wood are a premium, and languages blend together in a mishmash of cultural crucibles. Standard cyberpunk fare nowadays, but Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) thrives in this sort of setting, delivering a slow-paced atmosphere picture, completely belying my concerns that someone or other along the line was going to have the bright idea to turn Blade Runner into an action movie. Several sequences, particularly the modified Voight-Kampf test that K is made to undergo periodically to ensure his conformity, are jarring to the point of bewilderment, as is the intention, and the film overall has a washed-out, drained quality to it despite the voluminous neon and product placement on display. Affer all, a Blade Runner movie is one of the few circumstances where product placement is appropriate. Overall, Villeneuve delivers an aesthetic that perfectly matches the original film, both in style and in pacing, obviating any concerns that this would be nothing more than another crappy remake.

Things Havoc disliked: In fact, so dedicated is Villeneuve to the desire to stray away from a typical Hollywood style of filmmaking that the end result is... kinda boring.

Blade Runner 2049 is not a short film, well over two and a half hours overall, but it's not the length that's the problem, it's the pace, combined with the resolute refusal to let the characters do much more than march about in an emotionless affect. Please don't mistake me, this isn't The Lobster or something, but the original Blade Runner did have action, have a comprehensible plot, have things happening within it, which seems to have been tossed from this movie under the theory that if nothing happens throughout the movie's run-time, nobody can accuse the film of being shallow.

I mean, that's slightly unfair, because things do happen in Blade Runner 2049, but I will be damned if I can piece together why they happen, let alone what they are intended to mean to the characters involved. The plot, such as it is, seems to wander about largely at random, from set-piece to set-piece, and so much time is taken up just luxuriating in the setting and atmosphere, and so little time taken up with anything actually happening, that what the movie starts to feel like is less a meditative examination of the ineffable and transitory nature of human experience, and more like Salvador Dali's vacation slideshow. Part of the problem is the soundtrack, which in the original was composed by the immortal greek album/film composer Vangelis, but which in this movie is undertaken by Hans Zimmer, a composer whose work I used to love, until he achieved such success with the Inception soundtrack that he decided to basically repeat the leitmotifs from that film (BWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!) ad nauseum for every movie he scored thereafter (consider Dunkirk if you want to see the result). As a result, the music, which in the last film was daring and bold and set an artificial, noirish vibe for the entire goings on, is in this case nothing but undifferentiated foghorn noise that symbolizes nothing (to me at least) except the promise of future migraines.

The plot contains multiple cul-de-sacs, concepts and ideas that are brought up largely for the sake of bringing them up and then forgotten about entirely, such as an underground replicant-rights movement whose existence is revealed to us all of a sudden midway through the film with no setup, who acts as a Deus Ex Machina for two minutes, and then who disappears with nary a mention ever again. There is, in fairness, something to be said for this sort of narrative, wherein the movie is about the main character meeting strange and diverse people who have their own agendas unconnected with the overall plot, but that only works when the overall plot itself is comprehensible, and this one just isn't. Early hints that certain characters may be feeling a particular way beneath the surface about their circumstances are abandoned immediately, lest the actors be made to act, as opposed to standing about like drones serving the purposes of the narrative. By the end of the film, I was having tremendous difficulties determining why people were acting the way they were, what their intentions were vis-a-vis one another, or what the hell was going on in general. This descends into even elementary mistakes on the level of continuity editing or idiot balls. Where, for instance, does one character spontaneously obtain what appears to be a missile-armed attack craft during one of the penultimate sequences, and why do the bad guys insist on knocking our protagonist unconscious repeatedly and then leaving him, unharmed, where he has fallen, without even taking the opportunity to deprive him of the vital clues or transportation he will need to continue to oppose their plan? Everything here, to me, points to a film that was entirely driven by the art department and the director's vision, rather than by the writers and the script, and while there are films for which that approach has paid great dividends (the better half of Tarantino's works, for instance), without proper care, the result veers dangerously close to just turning into a self-indulgent mess.

Final thoughts:   I sort of respect Blade Runner 2049 more than I actually like it, respect the achievement in producing it, and in adhering to a vision that is in many ways daring, though not in the same ways that it was back in 1982, respect the sensibility that went into trying to ensure that as a sequel to a nostalgic classic, it had a duty to try not to ruin the memories of the original with Hollywood pap. But all that respect does not really translate into me recommending the film unreservedly. It is a long sit, even for the time it actually takes up, and if your patience for staring at dim visuals while listening to atonal electronic music is limited, there is not going to be a lot here for you. I saw the film with two companions, one of whom quite liked it, and one of whom hated it, and that, I think, is a microcosm of the reaction that this film can expect to engender. It may, on some fictional objective level, be a great film, but here on the temporal plane, as a piece of entertainment, it is unavoidably inadequate on several levels. Whether those levels are minor nitpicks to you, or outright dealbreakers will depend entirely on what purposes you have for film overall. For my part, I'm glad I saw Blade Runner 2049, but it's not a film I have any need to experience again, let alone the nineteen different "authoritative" versions that may well be coming over the next few years.

Oh, and for those wondering why I didn't once mention Harrison Ford's reprisal of his original character in the review above, as either a good thing or a bad one, well it's because it is neither. Harrison Ford is in the movie, playing Harrison Ford. Like so much of the rest of Blade Runner 2049, whether that is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on how desperate you are to see Harrison Ford continue his farewell tour of all of his old classics.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Jackie Chan does Taken... 'kay...

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Alternate Title:  Most Unorthodox!
One sentence synopsis:  An aging Queen Victoria befriends a young Indian servant, who becomes her teacher while earning the enmity of the rest of her court.

Things Havoc liked: In 1997, British director Stephen Frears made a film called Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judy Dench and Billy Connolly as, respectively, Queen Victoria, and John Brown, her confidant, friend, and rumored lover in the years following Prince Albert's death. Mrs. Brown was a fine little movie, as are most films that ask Judy Dench to play imperious royalty (her role in Shakespeare in Love was good enough to earn an Oscar nod, despite receiving all of nine seconds of screentime), so much so that twenty years later, we find ourselves with an unofficial sequel of sorts, once more focusing on Victoria's relationship with the next in what appears to have been a long list of friends and confidantes that she amassed throughout her reign. It's good to be the queen.

In 1887, as Victoria was preparing to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, every component nation of the British Empire showered her with gifts from all corners of the world, and sent pages and representatives without number to present said rarities. Among these was Abdul Karim, a Muslim prison clerk from Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), who found himself roped into being sent halfway around the world to present a commemorative coin to the Empress of India, and who of course would come to do much more for the sovereign than that. In the film, Karim is played by Indian actor and model Ali Fazal as a wide-eyed young traveler who isn't quite sure what he's doing in the far off land that he is presently inhabiting, but who is happy to simply make the most of whatever happens, neither intimidated by royalty or the trappings of Empire nor shy about babbling semi-coherently about his homeland and the things about it that fill him with joy. This would probably be insufferable, but the film wisely supplies Karim with a fellow traveler in the form of the world-weary and cynical Mohammed, played by The Big Sick's Adeel Akhtar, whose role it is to suffer from the English climate, food, and imperialism, and to despise all three in equal measure. All comedy is based on pain.

But let's be honest with ourselves here, this movie exists and always existed from inception to showtime, as a showcase for Judy Dench at her Judy Denchiest. Reprising her role as Queen Victoria, Dench is covering old ground in this film, but she's so damn good at playing the tempestuous, impatient, power-addicted queen, that she basically knocks everyone else off the screen. Short-tempered, imperious, and capable of cutting men dead with a single disgruntled stare, this is and has always been Judy Dench's best sort of role, be it as a literal queen or empress, or some sort of substitute figure of unmatched authority (there's a reason she lasted longer in the Bond movies than Pierce Brosnan). Over half the movie is spent with Judy Dench cutting dead a slew of officials, servants, and officious busybodies who are, to a man, scandalized by the fact that she has dared befriend an Indian (the repeated mistaking of Karim for a "Hindu" by officious twits who know nothing is both hilarious and on-point for Victorian Britain). As an excuse to give Judy Dench scenes in which she destroys people with her cut-glass speeches, it's a fairly transparent device, but it's a good deal of fun for that, particularly when the said official is her son, the future King Edward VII (or as he's known in this film, "Bertie"), played by none other than Eddie Izzard, almost unrecognizable under mutton chops and morning dress.

Things Havoc disliked: The problem with a film that's so transparently about giving an actress known for being good at a specific thing a chance to do that thing, is that the film cannot, almost axiomatically, be about much else, particularly with a run-time of less than two hours. As such, the film rather breezes over a lot of material that would probably have been useful to have more of, such as a better sense of what Karim's life in India was like, and a more detailed process of just how it was that he was able to get Victoria's ear in the first place. As it stands, Karim takes the first opportunity he can to start running off in fifty directions about whatever seems interesting to him today, while VIctoria patiently indulges him, something she seems rather uninterested in doing when it comes to anyone else. I understand what the filmmakers are going for, that Karim's wide-eyed innocence is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the stifling atmosphere at court, I just wish it was better established is all, rather than forcing me to rely on the fact that I've seen this movie made fifty times before. There are occasional scenes, such as one between Victoria and Abdul alone on an island in the Scottish Hills, wherein Dench is allowed to give her character more emotional range than "Head Bitch in Charge", but they are few and far between.

There is, of course, also the question of historicity, which is a subject you are all sick of hearing about, and that is just too bad. I normally have little patience for reviewers who excoriate a film because its political content doesn't match with their opinions in every way, but in fairness, there is something to the claims that the film is mired in historical revisionism. The movie goes to extreme lengths to paint Victoria as a liberal, forward-thinking pan-humanitarian, which is, to put things mildly, an... 'interesting' take on the life and opinions of one of the most rabid imperialists in British history, a woman who once threatened to resign her office and retire in disgrace to Germany because the British government was being dilatory in their conquest of the Sudan. The movie professes, among other things, that Victoria was unaware of the provenance of the Koh-i-Noor diamond (captured during the second Anglo-Sikh war of 1849), and so detached from the events of the Indian Mutiny that she was unaware of what role the Muslim people of India played in it, neither of which seems likely given Victoria's obsession with her Empire. I am not a stickler for absolute historical truths in every film, despite my reputation, and I both understand and support the concept of being able to tell a simple royalist fantasy once in a while (to say nothing of one who's primary message is one of tolerance for and by Islam), but there is some part of me that sits poorly with a film that not only does all this, but then contrasts it with the thuggish, racist, and reactionary behavior of Edward VII, who in reality was one of the most forward-thinking (and wildly popular) monarchs of his or any age, a man who once publicly upbraided the German Kaiser for his (widely held) opinions that Europeans were of superior bloodstock to the subject races of the colonial Empires.

Final thoughts:   Lest I start sounding like the very reviewers I have no use for, no, Victoria and Abdul is not some gross insult heaped upon the altar of history. It is a semi-fantastical story about an old queen and a young clerk and the friendship that develops between them, one that is, in all but tone, fully grounded in historical fact. Abdul Karim existed, did become close friends with Victoria, did teach her to speak and write Urdu (which she was fond of lapsing into during conversations with impenetrable bores), as well as give her lessons on Islam, the Koran, and Indian history. Efforts were made to erase his contributions in the years following Victoria's death, by a government none too interested in having him remembered, efforts which were, until only a few years ago, entirely successful. The impetus to want to record such an event in film, not to mention take the opportunity to allow for Judy Dench to do her thing, is one I understand well. So when all is said and done, register my objections as mere... uneasiness with some of the elements of the film, and not a rejection thereof.

Victoria and Abdul is not the best film of the year, nor the best film to cover such well-worn territory. In some ways it is profoundly flawed. But's a fun little fantasist view of the last days of a legendary queen's life, and of the young man who made them richer, and it needs no further justification for existing than that.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  How do you remake a Ridley Scott film?  You give it to the Quebecois.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Alternate Title:  'Murica!!!
One sentence synopsis:  A devastating attack by a mysterious assailant forces the Kingsmen to enlist the aid of their American cousins, the Statesmen.

Things Havoc liked: 2015 was one of the best years in this project's history, and of all the films that graced it, the one that was the largest surprise to me was unquestionably Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie in which Vaughn continued his career policy of only making movies adapted from the comics of legendary indie comic author (and gargantuan asshole) Mark Millar. This is a very strange policy for a director who previously made excellent films like Stardust and X-Men: First Class, but the results have been uniformly great, so who am I to complain. Kingsman was a smash hit by every metric, so it's not surprising that a sequel should have been commissioned, and given how flat Kick-Ass 2 fell without Vaughn's direction (even though I liked it), it's not a surprise that Vaughn should be tapped to actually direct the followup this time. And thus here we are.

Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) has certainly come up in the world. Not only did he save the world during the events of Kingsman 1, joining an elite organization of super-spies dedicated to world peace and making off with riches and panache in the offing, he has since become one of the foremost agents of the Kingsmen, pursued his relationship with the Crown Princess of Sweden, and is otherwise enjoying his life as the world's foremost throwback to James Bond (and who could blame him). Obviously it's no spoiler to state that his idyllic existence is about to be upended, but Edgerton remains an excellent actor who can handle both the camp and the serious aspects of the film with aplomb, and his mugging for the camera is helpfully supplemented by the addition of a half-dozen other actors who are just as good at doing so. Mark Strong returns as Merlin, the Q-analogue of the Kingsman world, who is brutally and violently promoted into active status with a sudden, devastating assault on the Kingsmen from assailants unknown. Any casual reader of my reviews knows that it is my concerted opinion that Mark Strong is the man, and the man he remains here, with a running joke of his character's appreciation for John Denver of all things being used particularly well. Colin Firth returns as Galahad, a surprise the trailers themselves could not wait to spoil, and which I shall as well. It's unquestionable that his character's presence in this movie is a massive plot shoehorn designed to let him play again, but at the same time, his performance in the first one was one of the best thing Firth has ever done, and I'd be very churlish to object to more. Firth retains his refined Mr-Darcy-as-James-Bond charm from the first movie, and it's just awesome. If, like me, you simply loved the first movie and wanted more of it, Golden Circle offers just the dish.

Which is not to say that there aren't new elements here, nor that those elements are uninteresting. For one thing, Julianne Moore (I got her name right this time!) plays a villain drawn directly from the same stable as Samuel L. Jackson's Mike Tyson/Steve Jobs crossover from last time. Her character is Poppy Adams, a fifties-obsessed Pleasantville escapee who has reconstructed an amalgamated theme park version of the 1950s in the Cambodian jungle, and uses it as the headquarters of her worldwide drug empire. If this sounds absurd, that is because it is, and the movie wastes no time in having her find a number of dogs to kick to establish her off-brand evil, even as she prepares a diabolical plot to poison the very drugs she is pumping out abroad to force the world to legalize her product. Moore and I have not had the best of relationships in movies before (I was so mad at the last Hunger Games movie that I accidentally started ranting about a completely different actress), but this is her sweet spot, where she can play a totally deranged killer with a dose of syrupy sweetness, perfectly fitting with a movie like this. And the fact that a major element of her evil plan involves kidnapped Elton John (playing himself), and forcing him to play his greatest hits at gunpoint certainly does not detract.

But the biggest addition is the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen, and this, right here, is the movie's strongest element, because the Statesmen are insane and ludicrous in all the right ways, a campy send-up to the most American stereotypes imaginable. Front and center are agents Tequila and Whiskey, respectively Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal. Tatum is a veteran of super-campy movies, of course, and as a fine character actor, does better, I find, the more ludicrous the role (see Hail, Caesar! for evidence of this). But oddly, given the billing, Tatum's role is far less important than Pascal's, whom I've been a huge fan of since Game of Thrones' fourth season, and who in this movie is awesome, a drawling cowboy who does battle with six shooters, a retractable bullwhip, and an electric lariat that can saw people in half. Pascal is awesome, he's been awesome in everything I've ever seen him in, and so having him play the lion's share of the Statesmen roles in this round is no slight whatsoever. Rounding out the Statesmen are Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges, the former playing Mark Strong, and the latter playing himself. Just think about it, and you will realize that this is perfect.

But there's more to like here than the characters. The whole aesthetic of the movie is genius, as it was in the last film, but moreso here. The Kingsmen are, after all, a hyper-stylized version of both what
the world sees of Britain, and what Britain sees itself as. As such they are invincible super-spies in impossibly well-manicured bespoke suits, their entire look and feel being that of Saville Row and Buckingham Palace. Only such a mentality could have resulted in a film in which the protagonists' main weapons are cuff links and umbrellas. The Statesmen, existing in the same universe, are the equivalent hyper-stylization of what Americans see of themselves, and what everyone else sees of them, and thus they are cowboys and gunslingers, their entire aesthetic being firearms and mahogany, not Saville Row but a hunting lodge. The Statesmen are headquartered in a Kentucky whiskey distillery, their weapons of choice the tools of cowboys, their affect a southern drawl, even when the actors themselves can barely manage it. Every element of this is perfect, over-the-top, sensationalized, steriotypical, awesome, and deeply appropriate. Keeping its eye forever on the salient themes of the series, the movie never allows itself to forget that this is a universe in which it is a completely normal part of human existence to have Colin Firth and Elton John battling killer dog robots with bowling balls.

Things Havoc disliked: The plot is a mess, of course, but that was also true of the first one. It may or may not be a bit more of a mess here though, with plot cul-de-sacs galore, such as the question, awkwardly brought up and resolved, of whether Halle Berry's Agent Ginger Ale can be promoted to a field agent, or Pedro Pascal's Agent Whiskey's motivations for his actions throughout the movie. Various characters, some from the first film, some brought in specially for this one, have very little to do, either being killed off rather unceremoniously, or in one case getting literally stuffed in a refrigerator to wait for the film to end. None of these things are truly crushing blows to the film's overall quality, don't get me wrong, but they do speak to a somewhat larger problem at work here.

Kingsman 1 was, in many ways, a very complete story, not leaving us with much leverage in terms of sequels, and Kingsman 2 really never manages to get over that particular hurdle. A lot of elements in the film, from Colin Firth's presence in it at all, to the extended action sequence that starts it off, do not seem to exist because they're integral to the story (as opposed to the plot), but because they are the sort of thing (in some cases the literal thing) that was in the first movie and that people responded positively to, and so by God we have to have it in the next film as well. Fanservice of this sort can work, certainly, but it's not generally the place that great storytelling emerges from, and there just isn't much great storytelling, or even really... any storytelling going on in this movie. Plenty of stuff happens, don't get me wrong. Things explode, people get the crap beaten out of them in hyper-cinematic fashion (a fight sequence in the end shot in a dizzying long-take is pretty damned epic), people die, some of them with significant send-offs, and we even get some mechanistic plot advancement for some of the characters, but the entire enterprise is spectacle. Spectacle is good, don't get me wrong, and in fact Vaughn knows how to produce it better than most, but it isn't a proper substitute for a full fledged story arc, and the entire film, no matter how well made it is mechanically, does unavoidably feel like a contractually-obligated sequel at a number of points.

Final thoughts:   I adored Kingsman: The Secret Service, if only because of the tremendous surprise that it was, coming at a bad time on top of a bad marketing campaign and looking like nothing more than a generic action film made to fill space on a calendar. If only by virtue of heightened expectations, Kingsman: The Golden Circle simply can't match the astounding impact of the first film, being neither as astonishing, nor (to be frank) cored around as signature a sequence as the infamous Mr. Darcy vs. The Westboro Baptist Church scene from the original (a sequence that was so jaw-dropping that my first comment thereafter was "I can't believe that someone committed this to film"). It does, unavoidably, carry a hint of empty spectacle within its shooting and exploding. But lest I sound too negative, it is masterful empty spectacle, a ridiculous, campy, ultra-violent, very fun little movie that I did enjoy pretty much start to finish. Is it a great movie? No, ultimately it is not. But it is a good movie, perhaps a very good one. And one should never let oneself get so spoiled, even in an excellent year, that you start objecting to that.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Judy Dench Judy Denches.

Fall 2017 Roundup, Part 1

And now for something completely slightly different Following a sanity break, the General's Post now finds itself with more movies ...