And now, a note from the General
Hello again, ladies and gentlemen. Following a long break in which I had to re-charge my batteries and participate in other, non-cinematic activities, I have finally returned to the fold to do a little bit of catching up. The movies below were ones that I saw whilst taking my little break, and as I would not dream of forgoing the chance to tell you all what I think about them, I have provided my customary little summaries below. Here's to Oscar season at last, and a final race to the end of 2016!
The General's Post Fall Roundup
The Lovers and the Despot
Alternate Title: This is Still a True Story
One sentence synopsis: A South Korean Actress and her ex-husband, a famous Director, are abducted by North Korean Kidnappers and forced to make films for Kim Jong Il.
The Verdict: As you may recall from my completely honest and entirely reasonable review of Sony's hacked film The Interview, North Korea and I have a tempestuous relationship when it comes to movies (something I'm sure they share with nobody else). Yet despite all my attempts at hyperbole and outrage at some new gyration of the hermit-kingdom's antics, North Korea is a stranger place than any of us can possibly imagine, with a whole host of strange and inexplicable behaviors that exceed those of rogue states and enter those of Bond villains. This is a country that once nearly started a war over who was allowed to cut a tree down in the Korean DMZ, who spent a month and a half breathlessly reporting on the progress of their invincible armies' conquest of the United States, and who blew up part of the South Korean cabinet for reasons I don't think anyone has ever figured out. But like a lot of strange cult-of-personality regimes, North Korea does have a slight bit of method to their madness, particularly their obsession with art and the political implications and international prestige purposes thereof. And so it was that we come to the story of a kidnapping.
The Lovers and the Despot is the story of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee, once one of the greatest box office draws in all of South Korea, and her philandering, artistically-obsessed, outspoken director-husband, Shin Sang-ok, once touted (briefly) as Korea's answer to Japan's Akira Kurosawa. In the late 70s, amidst political turmoil in South Korea and dwindling fame as an actress, Choi was lured to Hong Kong under the guise of a film project, and kidnapped by North Korean agents under what appears to be the personal order of Kim Jong-il himself, who set her up as a kept guest and asked her to make films for North Korea, whose film output was so stagnant and poor quality that even Kim himself regarded their movies as nothing but tripe. Initially reluctant, she was eventually convinced to participate in this mad scheme after the arrival of her ex-husband Shin, who was either kidnapped himself, or made his way there voluntarily (reports vary). Together, they were compelled to re-marry, and became the leading couple of North Korean cinema, working there for eight years, attending film festivals and making a great many movies, before finally making their escape to the American embassy in Vienna.
Too weird to be true? This is North Korea, who once sent special forces commandos to beaches in Japan to kidnap teenagers and force them to teach Japanese to their army units. But what's compelling about this documentary isn't how strange it is, to be honest, but how... normal it is. Choi and Shin got it into their heads to record their conversations with Kim Jong-il (the first such recordings ever to be made), and what we consequently have is a candid, unscripted look at one of the most secretive and strangest figures in the late 20th century, the most awkward dictator in history, who comes across like a drooling fanboy intimidated by the artistic talents around him (Hitler is supposed to have acted similarly among stars of stage and screen). One might expect that the films Kim demanded would be nothing but propaganda, but no. Kim wanted prestige, particularly international prestige, and seems to have given his pet filmmakers carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, ignoring the dictates of his own propaganda ministry, including the first love story ever filmed in North Korea, lush medieval epics, and even a Godzilla movie (yes, there is a North Korean Godzilla movie in existence. I must have it.) Though the film never softpedals the horrors that North Korea was and remains capable of, they also make clear what sort of exhilaration can come from being the favorite of an absolute God-Emperor like Kim, particularly for filmmakers whose stars were already in decline back home.
The Lovers and the Despot his not a perfect documentary, as the story it tells winds up being just about what you think it's going to be, save in details, and because frustrating gaps still remain in it, such as the question everyone seems to be tiptoeing around as to whether Shin was or was not kidnapped. But it is still a look at a subject it is rather hard to get a good look at, and yet another tale from the hermit-kingdom of North Korea to make one marvel at just how strange the world can be at times.
Final Score: 7/10
The Magnificent Seven
Alternate Title: The Mediocre Several
One sentence synopsis: Seven disparate fighters in the Old West team up to stop a mining baron from destroying and slaughtering a small town of pioneers.
The Verdict: Speaking of Akira Kurosawa, we have before us a remake of a remake of his greatest work. Goody.
Seven Samurai was a tremendous movie in every sense, and like most tremendous movies in every sense, has been copied a thousand times by every filmmaker who comes along looking to kick-start their career. John Sturges, of Ice Station Zebra, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a musical version of the Wyatt Earp story), and The Great Escape, did so in 1960 with the original Magnificent Seven, a movie that starred Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steven McQueen, and Charles Bronson, and should really have been more awesome given the cast I just cited. But that was the early sixties, and here we are in the Year of our Lord, 2016, with an Antoine Fuqua-directed remake. Given that the original Kurosawa film all the way back at the beginning of this chain was one of the best movies ever made, is there a chance that the man behind Training Day could produce magic out of this?
No. No there was not. You see, Antoine Fuqua is just not a good director, Training Day notwithstanding. With the exception of his one great masterpiece, a movie that coincidentally (or not) also starred Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington, all he's ever made is a slew of crap such as The Replacement Killers, King Arthur, Olympus has Fallen, or The Equalizer. His version of the Magnificent Seven is par for the course in every way, a big, stupid action fest in which characters do dumb things for no reason other than the notion that they might look good on screen. I usually call this "xXx-syndrome", save that unlike xXx, this movie doesn't actually get the stunts correct, letting signature moments and scenes either run on way too long (such as a sequence wherein eighty-six bad guys to not shoot Chris Pratt for no reason at all, thus getting themselves killed), or not long enough (such as a culmination fight between Martin Sensmeier's Commanche warrior and a rival evil Indian, which ends in about five tenths of a second). How Fuqua, who has a twenty-year history with directing action movies, hasn't figured out certain basic truths yet is beyond me, but you cannot produce tension by having a hero effortlessly slaughter thirty mooks without breaking a sweat, nor are audiences so innocent in these days that they can't figure out that a hero who smiles and says goodbye to his love interest before mounting his horse and riding towards the villains to the accompaniment of stirring orchestral music has finally lost his character-shield and may now reach a sticky end.
Yes, the cast is pretty decent, at least as a theoretical cast, and not as an actual one. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke are about as good as they ever are, even in an Antoine Fuqua movie, which as we've established, is nothing new for them. The former plays the leader of the titular seven, and survives the film, as is customary for Washington, by downplaying everything and acting like the only adult in the room, while Hawke plays a Louisiana gunfighter of some repute (but no accent), who actually does a decent job alongside companion and life coach Lee Byung-hun, who gets the James Coburn role from the original as the quiet, knife-wielding assassin. Chris Pratt on the other hand, whom I love dearly in all manner of movies, is just not very good in this one, which makes no sense to me, given that the role of a cocky hotshot cowboy should have been right up his alley. I blame the direction, frankly, as Pratt's character is way too over-saturated in the film, with everything he does buttressed by shot selections, and especially a score (the late, great, James Horner, of Titanic, Braveheart, and, The Land Before Time, and The Wrath of Khan) which seems designed to make absolutely certain nobody in the audience can mistake him for anything but the designated charming rogue. Everyone else in the movie is completely forgettable, including Peter Sarsgaard as a typically slimy villain, save only for Vincent D'Onofrio, a man I generally have little good to say about, but who here plays a mountain man who has plainly gone crazy in the wilderness, and who, in a movie filled with over-choreographed stuntwork, stumbles blindly about like a drunken bull, screaming incoherent gibberish and murdering people with an axe. It's something.
Enough said, really. The Magnificent Seven is a boring movie that rises just enough off the strength of its cast to barely hit the mediocre bar. It's a film that will, I expect, be completely forgotten until it comes time to make yet another remake of Seven Samurai, which judging from the state of Hollywood, should take about ten minutes.
Final Score: 4.5/10
Queen of Katwe
Alternate Title: Zugzwang
One sentence synopsis: An impoverished girl in the slums of Uganda is taught to play chess by her youth worker and becomes an international prodigy.
The Verdict: When the trailers fail me, and they so often do, I find myself having to go see movies "on spec", by which I mean basing my decisions around who's in the movies, who made them, and what they're about. So if you want to know why I went to see a Disney movie about chess prodigies, look no further than the cast, which includes David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o (the former of a bunch of recent films including Selma, the latter of 12 Years a Slave), and the director, Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, of Salaam, Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding. FIlming on location in the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda, Nair used all local actors (save of course for the above-mentioned marquis ones) to produce a film about poverty and escape provided by chess. I felt I had to try it.
And... no. No it didn't work. And I feel bad about reporting that it didn't work, because like all movie critics, I like the concept of the story and want to give the film a pass for it, but this is not charity and I am not trying to praise movies because of their social content. The base fact is that when you hire non-actors for your movie, you're liable to get all sorts of things, but unlikely in the extreme for any of those things to be "acting". Nobody in this movie, save for Nyong'o and Oyelowo, can act. Nobody. Not the lead actress, a young Ugandan named Madina Nalwanga, not the many other children involved in the film, who have no idea what they are doing in front of a camera and have not been instructed, not even the other adults in the movie, who seem to have been told to overact as much as possible so as to make sure that the audience knows what they're saying. The script, meanwhile, is the most basic Disney-sports-movie fare you can imagine, following the exact same trajectory as Cool Runnings (for instance) save without the local color and humor that made that movie so watchable. Most of the film, indeed, seems to be filler material, as characters narrate each others' actions to one another in slow, laborious scenes that lack any punch or interest. If it weren't for the pedigree of the filmmakers here, I frankly would have called this a first-time effort from an amateur director. Maybe there were budgetary restrictions, maybe the biographical nature of the film got in the way, or maybe nobody was willing to take any risks with a "heartwarming, feelgood movie," but the overall effect is surprisingly poor, and leads to long stretches of the film rendered boring as paste by the simple fact that nothing is allowed to happen.
I don't want to pile it onto a basic movie like this one too thick, as the film is hardly some kind of crime against sense and cinema, but spec only gets you so far. If you want praise from me, you need to actually make a good film. And Queen of Katwe is not one.
Final Score: 4/10
Alternate Title: Number Crunching
One sentence synopsis: A math savant with high-functioning Autism uncovers a conspiracy to defraud a major robotics company and murder the only witness.
The Verdict: In 2003, Ben Affleck, then in the middle of the tailspin portion of his career, appeared in a superhero movie by the name of Daredevil. It sucked, miserably, and contributed to such a nexus of failure that year that Affleck abandoned superhero movies entirely in favor of more challenging work in more interesting movies such as Hollywoodland, Gone Girl, The Town, and Argo, the latter two of which he directed, and the last of which earned him an Oscar. In defiance of expectations from the last decade, Affleck is now a successful, respected, actor and director, a powerful man in Hollywood, capable and apparently willing to chose his own scripts. And yet the superhero bug never really seems to have left him. Hollywoodland involved him playing Superman after all (sort of), and this year, Affleck engaged in the double-whammy of playing not one but two superheros, first as Batman in DC's flagship Batman v. Superman, and second as an autistic killing machine in the movie we have before us here. The former, I need not tell you, was a disaster on the level of the Hindenburg explosion. How was the latter you ask?
Actually... pretty good.
Yeah, this one surprises me too, guys, but The Accountant, a movie in which Ben Affleck plays an autistic savant who happens to have been trained by his special-forces father to be a unstoppable killing machine as well as a mathematical prodigy, is a damn fine little movie, not because it makes a whole lot of sense, but because it involves good actors doing what they do best while good cinematographers capture them doing it, and that's a formula that will take you far with me. Ben Affleck is one such good actor, playing a role that could easily have been either silly or offensive, and in fact which ten years ago probably would have been both. His character's concept is manifestly ridiculous, but Affleck plays it sermon-straight, as a high-functioning autist who has developed a lengthy and complex series of coping mechanisms to deal with the nature of his condition, from sensory-overload chambers to repetitive tics. I would not call the movie the most er... realistic take on Autism and its many varieties, but the filmmakers clearly knew that they were treading on thin ice with this one and took active steps to make the movie into something like what Arnold Schwarzenegger would make if you told him to create an Autism Speaks commercial.
The rest of the cast is just as good, from the always-enjoyable J. K. Simmons, playing a treasury department director who has been chasing the mysterious "accountant" for decades, to John Lithgow, playing the head of the robotics company that all of this winds up landing upon, and Anna Kendrick, as a young in-house accountant who serves as a sort of "sidekick" (I hesitate to say love interest, given the workings of the film). But the real meat of the movie is the action, which I am satisfied to report is some of the best I've seen all year. There's been a trend over the last eighteen months or so of action directors finally starting to eschew the whole Jason Bourne-style shaky-cam style of cinematic combat for a cleaner, more focused style that I choose to call the "John Wick". The Accountant follows this trend, shooting the combat in glorious stable vision, allowing the characters to slice, shoot, stab, and smash each other with crisp, perfectly cinematic execution. The concept may be demonstrably goofy, but the film seems to know that, using the ridiculous contrivances that are the bread and butter of movies like this with something of a wink and a nod, as though the filmmaker were patting the audience on the back and asking them to bear with him so that he can tell his ridiculous story.
The Accountant is hardly a perfect movie, everyone seems to spend the entire run-time expositing the plot, and the ending makes even less sense than the absurdity of the setup would have you believe, but thanks to the strength of its cast and its style, it holds together surprisingly well. In a year that has already given me some of the worst action/superhero movies that I have ever seen, sometimes a mere "good" film is all that you can ask for.
Final Score: 7/10
Next Time: Time to get back in the swing of things with a proper Superhero movie.