Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Alternate Title:  A Moose once Bit my Sister

One sentence synopsis:  A convicted libelist and an anti-social hacker try to solve a murder mystery in rural Sweden.

Things Havoc liked:   Normally in these reviews, I start by going on at length about the actors I love in the films. And I could easily do that here, as this movie has, among others, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Christopher Plumber, all three of whom are awesome, badass actors whom I love to watch, and do a wonderful job here. But I'm not going to extol these men as much as I normally would, because, before anything else, we need to talk about Rooney Mara.

Who is Rooney Mara? She is the actress who plays Lisbeth Salander, the aforementioned Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and she is, without question or doubt, the best thing in an amazing movie. It is rare, in this day and age, to see a character in a film that actually feels unique, different from everything else that one has seen before. Most characters, even excellent ones, are related to others that have existed before them. This is not a bad thing, it simply is. I however have never met anyone in any movie quite like Lisbeth Salander before, and most of that, I think, is due to Rooney Mara's acting.

Lisbeth is basically a walking case of Asperger's syndrome, but not in any way you've seen before. Anti-social she is, no doubt, to the point of misanthropy, strange of look and manner to the point of repulsion, yet also possessed of what appears to be an almost eidetic memory (though this is never elaborated upon), as well as an almost monomaniacal capacity for concentration and focus. Though there is clearly something 'wrong' with her, never is she portrayed as some kind of Rain Man savant genius, merely as a woman whose disinterest in everything besides her current task is total and absolute. Yet lest she appear to be a simple bitter librarian type, she is given full opportunity to be anything but. Sexual and dispassionate, violent and yet completely controlled, she is an incredibly interesting person to spend several hours watching. It helps of course that she gets several scenes wherein she gets to be completely, balls-to-the-wall, awesome in inflicting terrible retribution against characters who manifestly deserve it. Really, the only person she ever forms any sort of bond with in the entire film, is Daniel Craig's character, a (much more normal) journalist currently in disgrace who hires her to help him solve a set of serial murders and a disappearance that dates back forty years. He seems to get something out of her by simply taking her as he finds her, a refreshing approach in a movie landscape where most films would have him try to "fix" her somehow.

I could go on about this character at length, but I must speak to the rest of the film, which is violent, brutal, and yet tremendously watchable despite (or because of) it. Craig and Mara's characters are hired to research the disappearance of the niece of an industrial magnate, whose family owns a private island in the north of Sweden, upon which all of them live in separate mansions. The landscapes are cold and stark, suiting the mood of the film, and the settings are almost sterile in a very (forgive me) Ikea way, punctuated periodically by interruptions of terrible brutality. Rape, incest, murder, torture, psychopathy, and other such fun topics enter into the film, yet it never turns into a slasher movie or a gorefest, because the overall level of production and acting is so high, and the bloody stuff is intercut with sequences of mystery and research, covering great amounts of detail and conveying vast bodies of information to the audience, all done without ham-fistedness or "designated exposition".

Additionally, though this movie is not short (more than two and a half hours), the pacing in it is lightning fast. It moves with speed and poise from scene to scene, never giving us a chance to get bored or to guess what might be coming. Enormous amounts of stuff happen in this movie, be it simple plot, or complex character development. Never however does it feel rushed, never does it feel like we're being hustled along without time to determine what's going on, nor do any of the characters feel like they were shortchanged for time and not given room to grow and develop. The movie simply has a lot to say and show, and allocates its time perfectly, giving us time when we need it, and cutting anything we don't. I don't think I've ever seen a movie whose pacing was this rapid and yet this good before, and I may never again.

Things Havoc disliked:  For an American watching a movie about Swedish characters, I admit that the names get tied up in my head. I very quickly lost track in this movie of who was who and who was related to whom in what way. Fortunately it didn't matter too much, but it got confusing at a few points.

Unfortunately, what was less forgivable was the ending, which I shall not spoil here. I grant that, as an adapted film, the movie has to sort of go where the book took it, but the entire last half-hour or so, while still good stuff, felt somewhat tacked on, as the main thrust of the film had already been achieved. Again, the pacing never slows in the ending (if anything it gets faster), so it's not like it was a bore, but I don't know that its inclusion, at least in the form it took, helped the film much.

Final thoughts:  Honestly though, the above concerns are just nitpicks. This is a fantastic movie, memorable and interesting from opening sequence (a trippy CGI wierd-out set to Led Zepplin), to ending credits. Not often do I encounter 150+ minute movies that I would gladly watch another two hours of if only they would give me more of the characters in it. Given, however, that the book has several sequels, I expect that's exactly what I will be receiving in a year or two.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Alternate Title:  Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Soviet

One sentence synopsis:  A retired british spy seeks to ferret out a mole within the British Intelligence service.

Things Havoc liked:  Ah, Gary Oldman. I love Gary Oldman. He can play insane, he can play straight, he can play supremely powerful, and he can play schlub. Whatever's going on, I always love watching him, especially when he's given interesting things to do. Here, he plays George Smiley, the protagonist of John LeCarre's famous set of cold war spy thrillers, who has been involuntarily retired and then approached by the British government to look into rumors of a mole working at the "Circus", British Intelligence. The Circus here is presented much as I imagine it really was, an office building filled with dumpy, paranoid English upper crusters, played by such awesome actors as John Hurt, Colin Firth, Cirdan Hinds, Mark Strong, and the man with the most British name ever invented, Benedict Cumberbatch (no, I did not make that up). Seriously, any one of the above men I could watch doing largely anything. A cast like that cannot place a foot wrong, and therefore does not.

The movie eschews the usual James Bond tropes (not that I dislike those) in favor of the grind and misdirection of an actual spy case. There are no car chases, no duels with machine guns or swords, not even dead drops in the middle of the night while being chased by agents of the Stasi. One does not catch moles by beating them like Jack Bauer, one catches them with careful deduction and research. This research in the hands of lesser filmmakers might get boring or tired, but it does not here, and there's actually a fair bit of tension when one man is trying to pull off a complex yet subtle scheme to steal documents from a secure facility. The story is told mostly in flashback, but without losing the audience in terms of where and when we are situation, and otherwise proceeds at an even pace towards the end.

Things Havoc disliked:  That said, while we never lose the setting of the film, we do lose more or less everything else.

I am not an idiot. I enjoy complex thrillers with labyrinthine turns. I have no fucking idea what actually happened in large portions of this movie. It's not that the movie obscures these things behind misdirection and twist, don't get me wrong, it's that I cannot follow the line of logic that leads our protagonist to sniff out the mole he is hunting for. Entire subplots of the film, such as everything Mark Strong does, and most of what Tom Hardy does, have, as far as I can tell, nothing whatsoever to do with anything, or if they do have something to do with anything, it's a complete mystery to me. The movie takes great pains to establish a situation where the Mole can be any one of a half-dozen men, all well-placed within the Circus. Yet how it is ultimately determined that the mole is This man rather than That man or Those ones is totally mysterious to me. Perhaps if I went back and viewed the movie several more times, I would be able to sort it all out, but the movie's pace was so slow and methodical that I frankly was not given any reason to desire to do so. But more importantly, there doesn't seem (to me at least) to be any major underlying logic to why one person is a mole and not another. Perhaps that's the point, I don't know, but it left me feeling like the movie had arbitrarily chosen somebody to be the bad guy.

Final thoughts:  The book this movie was made from is much longer than the film, as was the original british miniseries made about it. Perhaps those elements are in play here, as the movie seems like it forgot to actually include the important information of how we got from A to B. Still, I can't call this a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It's shot well (if dumpily, but that's the point, I suppose), acted very well, and does hold together for a coherent viewing. There's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, certainly, but it didn't really leave me with a good sense of what had just transpired.

Final Score:  7/10

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Alternate Title:  Lights, Camera, ...

One sentence synopsis:  An orphan boy and the goddaughter of the first filmmaker try to solve the riddle of an automaton connected to silent films

Things Havoc liked:    Martin Scorsese is the great film director to ever live. That's not a statement I make lightly, but there you have it. I have literally never seen a film of his that I disliked, even if some were, of course, better than others. And while this movie was not what one might normally expect to see from him, such is his draw in Hollywood, that he contrived to pull an incredible cast together for the purposes of it. Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, and Sascha Cohen (yes) among others are in this film, and, as one might expect, every one of them turns in an excellent performance, even Jude Law, who almost never does. Particular acclaim should go to Ben Kingsley, who plays Georges Meliers, one of the world's first real filmmakers, now an embittered old man selling magic tricks and toys from a train station shop.

But the two stars of the movie are actually the kids, specifically Asa Butterfield as Hugo, an orphan who lives in the work spaces of the Montparnasse train station in Paris, evading security guards, stealing food, and keeping the clocks in working order (for reasons that actually make a degree of sense), and Chloe Moretz as Isabelle, adopted daughter of Meliers, who befriends him. I've been a big fan of Moretz since both Kick Ass and Let me In, both awesome films in which she stole the show as something you wouldn't normally see a kid doing. As to Butterfield, I've never seen or heard of him before, but if anything, he does even better than Moretz. Both kids hold their own in this movie, and when you're doing that while Ben Kingsley is on the screen, you know you're doing something right. Neither one is the steriotypical cute kid, and both do awesome jobs, including scenes with real dramatic requirements that both of them (particularly the boy) sail through effortlessly. Forget stars in the making, these kids are simply stars.

Nothing about this movie looks or feels like a Scorsese picture, but that's not a bad thing. The shots are gorgeous and full of whimsy and life, without lapsing for an instant into fantasy. Paris is one of the world's great cinematic cities, and whatever the CGI involved, it definitely shows in here. The film is set vaguely in the early 30s or so, but there's no Depression era nonsense involved. It's a gilded age of a gilded city shot lovingly by a spectacular director who knows how to establish every shot.

The story is nothing tremendously special, but that's because it serves as an excuse for the real subject of the film, a loving tribute to the wonder of film, via an examination of one of its earliest advocates. Georges Meliers, for those who've never heard of him, was one of the first people to use film to create stories and art, rather than just a sideshow penny arcade attraction. His films, of which there were nearly five hundred, invented everything from practical effects to narrative storytelling through shot selection. Everyone from DW Griffith to Sergei Eisenstein were inspired by Meliers, who practically invented an entire form of artistic expression. Scorsese is plainly using this movie to pay homage not just to Meliers, but to the medium of film to begin with, and this love for film and its magic infuses the movie so much that there's no need for overt fantasy, for the whimsical sense is there between the shots. This movie was a love story to its own medium, and it shows.

Things Havoc disliked:  The story in this film is pretty forgettable, due to the fact that it's not the main purpose, but merely an excuse for Scorsese to have his love affair with early cinema. This isn't my problem. My problem is the pacing.

The pacing in this film is awful.

You might think this is a bit of a nitpick. It's not. The entire first half of the film is so slow that it verges on absolutely unwatchable. NOTHING fucking happens. So much time is taken in establishing shots that the movie looks like a travelogue. So many subplots and extraneously un-necessary characters are brought into the mix that the film risks collapsing. The same damned chase scene occurs at least five times, and some of the characters, particularly the station agent played by Cohen, are given huge blocks of time to establish themselves. Normally that would be a good thing, but nothing fucking happens there either, and the character is not established further, simply placed on screen to act weirdly over and over again. Half an hour into this film, I was on the verge of walking out, something I didn't even do to The Last Airbender.

Now, granted, the film did get better as it went on, but never did it fully escape the almost unbearably slow pace that it had established. When I finally left the theatre, it felt like the movie had run for about two and a half hours. The real runtime was ninety minutes. Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too short, and no bad movie short enough. This one feels like it's actually never gonna end. The pace is so slow that great stretches of the movie are simply... well... boring. No matter what effort the actors put in or how sweeping the imagery or lovely the idea of the movie, it fails to entertain. No failing is ever as bad as this one.

Final thoughts:  I really don't know where to go on this one. A movie I threatened to walk out of is definitionally not a good movie. And yet looking back, I don't feel any ill-will towards it. The parts of it that work really work, and there's something inescapably charming about the whole thing. The last couple days have softened my view on the thing somewhat, and while I wouldn't call it the masterpiece that most critics seemed to, I'm coming around to the idea that it wasn't as bad as I originally thought. The pieces are all here for a great movie. It's just a shame that Martin Scorsese forgot to make one.

Final Score:  6/10

Friday, October 14, 2011

Real Steel

Alternate Title:  Rock 'em Sock 'em Rocky

One sentence synopsis:  An ex-boxer and his estranged kid try to take a broken-down sparring bot to the championship of the World Robot Boxing League.

Things Havoc liked:    Hugh Jackman has been in his share of bad films (Wolverine and Swordfish come to mind), but I've never thought that he was bad, just unable to elevate the material. And when Jackman is good (X-men 2, The Fountain, the Prestige), he's quite good. Headliner as he is in this film, I have to admit that he's quite good. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, who is a douchebag (no, not a lovable douchebag, a douchebag), an underground robot boxing promoter who scams and steals and does all the things movie douchebags do. Yet despite being a douchebag, unrepentantly, Jackson brings an excellent performance here, such that the movie doesn't have to soften him in order to get the audience to like him. I'm actually impressed.

But not as impressed as I am by Jackson's co-star, a kid named Dakota Goyo, playing Charlie's estranged 11-year old son Max. Child actors are dangerous in any movie, especially a movie that is transparently about cute kids and robots. Moreover, this particular kid has the unfortunate characteristic of reminding me of Jake Lloyd from the Phantom Menace (and we all know what a cinematic masterwork that was). Yet, to my surprise, Goyo nails the role (and it's a much bigger role than one would expect from the trailers) very well. The character fails to lend itself to particular adjectives, he's not "plucky" or "edgy" or "angry" or "cute" though he does at times hit all those notes. The performance, and the interplay with Jackson's character (and with the robot) just... works.

Speaking of the robot(s), the effects in this movie are excellent. That's par for the course these days, but they're excellent regardless, mostly because of the decision to use animatronics where possible and CGI only when necessary. It gives the robots weight and dimension, such that when they fight (or simply run about), we actually feel their existence rather than view video game images. There is none of the cinematographic bullshit that got in the way with the Transformers movies. Fight scenes are shot cleanly and with good lighting, giving us an excellent idea of what's going on. The robots themselves are distinctive, well-designed, and interesting, and their fight choreography (shaped by Sugar Ray Leonard of all people) is excellent and entertaining.

Soundtracks are a dime a dozen, but I did notice in watching this film that this particular soundtrack was excellent. There are some recognizable songs on it, but mostly its a mood-setter soundtrack that blends standard orchestral scores with, of all things, synthesized country ballads. That this is the work of Danny Elfman, a composer of great fame and skill, comes as no surprise, but the music fits the mood shifts of the plot much better than any film of this caliber has a right to.

Oddly enough for a story about pugilistic robots, the plot of this movie is derived in no small part from a famous 1973 movie called Paper Moon, starring real life father-and-daughter Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. An excellent film in its own right (it garnered an Oscar for Tatum), this movie basically blends it with Rocky to produce a movie that's simultaneously about an estranged father and son coming together and about robots boxing. All that I will say here is that the writing in the film is good enough to elevate it above what you would expect a ludicrous combination like this to result in, and the actors carry it off well enough to make it work...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... sometimes.

When I say that this movie is Paper Moon crossed with Rocky, I mean it. It is those movies verbatim, plot point by plot point, woven together to create something simultaneously new and completely predictable. I have never guessed right so many times as to what was going to happen in a movie as I have with this one. I said that the writing in the film is good, and it is, but the plot (as distinct from the writing) is really lackluster. Not only have you seen this all before, you've seen it before so many times that you know exactly what's going to happen. This makes parts of the film (towards the beginning especially, I found), rather painful to sit through

I know I praised the cinematography before, and I meant it, in that it's so rare we see good fight sequences in this age of over-processed CGI. But the reason the cinematography is good in the fights is because the movie uses a very old-school approach to its cinematography (see Paper Moon again). This is good in the fight scenes, but less good in the rest of the movie. It's not that the film is badly shot, far from it, but there is an unconscious language to cinema of inferences and shot constructions, and this movie abuses that language to the point of absurdity. Many shots were almost pretentious in their obvious desire to symbolize things like the gulf between two characters, to the point where I was just waiting for the director to get over his film school textbook and get on with it.

Some of the supporting cast is good and some is less good. The villains in this film are among the latter, stereotyped "evil terse asian supertechstar", "evil russian ice queen mobster" and "evil redneck racist hillbilly" foremost of all. Other than adding something for our audience to root against, they don't do a hell of a lot. This actually undercuts some of the effective design work that went into the bots, as it takes the attention away from the thirteen-foot armored monstrosity trying to beat the heroic underdog into the dirt with pile drivers. That's not an easy thing to do, mind you.

While the writing is good overall, the decision to stick so closely to formula hurts the movie in that there are some sequences that simply cannot work in a modern film, no matter how good your actors and how good your writing. Tearful apology scenes for instance are tremendously hard to do right without a tremendous amount of skill, and chaining the film to older movies with older sensibilities only guarantees that won't be the case here. These moments weren't that common, frankly, but they were still present, and almost cringeworthy when they popped up.

Finally, the product placements in this movie were egregious, even by today's standards. Guys, we get that Dr. Pepper and Budweiser (and ESPN and Droid and Toshiba and Red Bull and fifty others) paid you. At a certain point, enough is enough.

Final thoughts:  *Sigh*

To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to writing this review as I was taking the train home from the movie theater, and most of the reason for that was that, while I was able to portion out and characterize this movie's strengths and weaknesses, the way I have for every film I've reviewed here, I knew I was eventually going to have to come to this section, wherein I would be required to admit that I basically adored every second of this movie the instant I started watching it.

That sound you hear is the sound of my credibility disappearing.

I loved this film. I loved everything about this film. I'm not entirely certain I can explain why. Everything I said above, all the criticisms I made about the pretentious cinematography, about the outright theft of a plot, about the stupid villains and the cringeworthy moments, all of that is true and I don't give a damn. This is the movie I wanted Transformers to be. Fuck, this is the movie I wanted Rocky to be. Nothing here makes sense. Paper Moon crossed with Rocky (plus robots!) makes about as much sense as crossing Total Recall with Driving Miss Daisy, and yet something, something buried deep inside this movie just worked, on a level so profound that I completely forgot everything mean I had said about the film by about the 2/3s mark. Part of it is the acting, which from both Jackman and Goyo is just right. Part of it is the overall design. Yes I whined about the product placement overload, but the design work on the film is awesome regardless. It feels like a real near future, even with a premise this ludicrous. Part of it is the soundtrack, which I cannot rave enough about in doing a fantastic job of buttressing the movie emotionally. And part of it is the writing, which despite the hackneyed plot, feels completely real at all times.

But I think most of it is none of those things, or maybe all of them in aggregate, I don't know. Alfred Hitchcock said that the soul of cinema lies between the shots. Something lies between the shots in this movie, something real and intense and passionate and just plain childish fun. Somewhere along the line, someone associated with this movie loved it enough to insert blood and sweat into polishing it, and the end result shows up on screen. This film was everything a setup like this could possibly be and more, exciting, fun, appealing, everything I wanted the retread movies that trampled on my childhood to be, and were not. Watching this movie, I felt like I was ten years old again, watching awesome robots fight with wide eyes and an open imagination. I suspect someone making this film brought the same mindset towards its creation.

On paper (and maybe even in objective reality), this film should be around a 5.5 or a 6, a decent film but nothing spectacular. After all, everything here has been done before, and bigger, and louder, and more edgy, and more real, and with more cool jump cuts and CGI. All of those things may be true, but goddamnit, these are my reviews, and I will call them as I see them. Call me a sucker. Call me a nostalgic fool. Call me an idiot, I don't care. I loved this film. I loved everything about this film. This is what Transformers should have been.

This is what Transformers once was.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Friday, October 7, 2011

Killer Elite

Alternate Title:  Action by Numbers

One sentence synopsis:  A retired mercenary must assassinate several ex-SAS operatives to save his partner's life.

Things Havoc liked:   Clive Owen is a bad motherfucker. Jason Statham is a bad motherfucker. And Robert DeNiro is the original bad motherfucker. Between them all, there is a recipe for an excellent action movie here, and I'm pleased to report that what you see is essentially what you get. Killer Elite is a meticulous, complex action film wherein our heroes beat the piss out of one another in reasonably inventive ways.

As action is a relatively important element of an action movie, I must report with some satisfaction that the action here is of top quality. There's very little in the way of superhero tricks, no shaky cam or new-edge cinematography bullshit getting in the way, just basic, competent action camerawork, and the scenes that we get are executed well. The plot is serviceable, if not anything groundbreaking, but it does do a nice job of establishing the bad guys both as an effective force in their own right (we are talking SAS here, after all), and in giving them a more complex motivation than simply "we are evil and must do more evil." Clive Owen's character in particular (he plays a former SAS turned dirty-tricks man for a cabal of other former SAS men) is even given some depth.

Things Havoc disliked:  The word "formulaic" comes to mind here constantly, which is perhaps a bit unfair, as the movie really isn't that much of a formula. It does however have an astonishing lack of empathy to it, despite the aforementioned gestures in the direction of good characterization and villain establishment. First off, this movie continues to prove my assertion that Jason Statham should only play assholes. His attempts to emote things like regret and compassion are just not convincing, and never have been. The man is an excellent action star, but charisma is not his forte. By far, the best thing I've ever seen him in (Snatch), knew this. This movie does not.

Second, this movie is a complete waste of Robert DeNiro. His character is locked in a jail cell for the majority of the first and second acts. When he breaks out, he gets a couple of decent scenes, but they are only decent because he is in them, not because they're integral to the plot or well-written. It's clear that the filmmakers were trying to come up with something for him to do just so that they could headline him in the film credits.

The plot is labyrinthine and fairly absurd, but that I mind less. What's annoying is the third act "revelation" of how (surprise surprise) the government is evil and doing evilly evil things for the sake of being ever so evil. We did not need a ham-fisted recitation of the hard-bitten life of a mercenary or ex-soldier. This is not Platoon, guys, get over yourselves.

Final thoughts:  Honestly, this movie is about what you think it is, a reasonably well-executed action vehicle for Statham and Owen. There are some sequences (the whole section with the remote control truck and the following scenes in the container park for instance) that are elevated by good camera, plotting, and stunt work. The majority of the film however really never rises above "decent". Not a condemnation, certainly, but nothing to write home about.

Final Score:  6/10

Friday, September 30, 2011


Alternate Title:  The Agony of Defeat

One sentence synopsis:  The general manager of the Oakland A's turns to Sabermetric analysis to find a championship team he can afford.

Things Havoc liked:   Baseball is the great American pastime, and I am a great admirer thereof, particularly of my own home team, the San Francisco Giants. As a loyal Giants fan, not to mention a San Franciscan, I of course believe that everything even remotely related to Oakland, including their foul, diseased, putrid excuse for a baseball team (playing godless American League baseball, no less) should be summarily consigned to the lowest pit of Hell, where they shall be tormented by the devil with hellfire for ever and ever for the sin of having employed the Designated Hitter and thereby tarnishing the face of baseball for all time.

Er... sorry, where was I?

Er yes, the film. This is not a standard sports movie by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, it's primarily about the back office. Brad Pitt plays A's general manager (and now minority owner) Billy Beane as a very rounded character, one whom I can easily see alongside the Steinbrenners and La Russas and the other lunatic personalities that baseball seems to generate. The movie focuses on him as general manager, a role entirely different from the manager (played in this case by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), one concerned with the details of personnel acquisition, high pressure player trades, and scout management. More time is spent looking at spreadsheets and computer models than at baseball players playing baseball. Pitt's character doesn't even watch the games.

Indeed, this movie is almost single-minded in its overturning of the general cliches of the sports movie genre. The players are shown almost as an afterthought (with the exception of Scott Hatteberg, an injured catcher-turned-first baseman whom the A's are able to pick up because nobody else wants him). No rag-tag team of plucky all-stars here, but a bunch of soulless, interchangeable parts, picked up and released without so much as a question. What we see therefore resembles more of a collectible card game than Field of Dreams, as managers call one another and enact byzantine strategies to outmaneuver one another for the players they think are undervalued. The movie takes what seems to be pathological delight in completely dispensing with notions of "fundamentals", "intangibles", "scout wisdom", or "small ball", all concepts that are usually used to give the plucky, ragtag group of movie baseball misfits a fighting chance against the big bad soulless ball team.

And yet, surprisingly, this doesn't make the film unwatchable, far from it. The focus instead is on Beane and on his assistant general manager, Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill in easily the best performance I've ever seen out of him). Brand is a 25-year old Yale-educated economics student, who also happens to be a fat baseball statistics nerd. Yet he brings an absolute conviction to his belief that baseball in general is doing it all wrong, valuing (and thus, rejecting) players for subjective reasons that have nothing to do with their actual performance. Through Brand, the movie throws massive amounts of data at us, but never in a fashion that feels infodumpish or bewildering, and the core tenet that teams are buying players when they should be buying wins, is one that underlies everything that these people do.

The effect is very weird, turning everything we normally see in a sports movie on its head. The plucky misfit players become almost background noise, the wise, sagely coach becomes the antagonist who nearly derails the team for the sake of his future employability. The sports commentators vilify our heroes when the system doesn't work, and credit the useless manager when the sabermetric analysis pays off with an unprecidented 20-game winning streak. And all that time, the penny-pinching, numbers-obsessed capitalistic moneyball players are our heroes.

And yet it works, more or less. Pitt and Hill deliver effective, realistic performances, as do many of the more minor characters (including, of all people, Robert Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard, playing the owner of the A's). The movie generates investment for the idea that these people are working with, rather than for the players or the coaches. And somehow, none of this takes away from the majesty of the game itself. When the A's pull of their streak, it's no less effective than in any other well done sports movie. The movie looks the moneyed aspects of baseball in the eye, and still comes away with a love of the game.

Things Havoc disliked:  This movie is almost perverse in its focus, relentlessly, on failure, loss, and lack of success. We see many games in the film, almost all of them from the period when the system wasn't working, and nearly none from the period when it was. An even more pressing example is that the one game we focus on clearly. In this game, the A's take an 11-0 lead, and then lose it, returning to 11-11, before finally winning with a walk-off home run 12-11. We do not see any of the A's runs to take their lead, but we watch in abject, well-shot detail as they lose it, run by run, before an almost perfunctory victory sequence that glosses over their record 20th consecutive victory by following it up instantly with a lengthy speech indicating how it doesn't matter at all.

I don't mind that they want to turn sports movie cliches around, but the movie is so single-minded about showing us nothing but loss and failure that it becomes very awkward to watch, ironically because it's shot so well. This obsession spills over into the rest of the film as well. Even when people aren't on the field, we hear nothing about them except that they are going to fail, have failed, or have succeeded, but that their success doesn't matter because they're going to fail at something else. It's not maudlin or campy, but it does get old.

Finally, I have to say, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is an excellent actor, simply does not do well in this role. His manager's an antagonist, I understand, but unlike the antagonistic scouts, the film doesn't give him an opportunity to make his case, instead simply having him hamfistedly refuse to play the new players and to adopt the new style for no reason other than blockheadedness. I can see why the real Art Howe had nothing good to say about this movie.

Final thoughts:  This is a very strange film, and a hard one to rate, frankly, as the tone and the writing are simultaneously very skillful and very subversive. Overall though, baseball fan as I am, I was entertained and fascinated by this look into the backrooms of the great pastime, and both Pitt, who is not my favorite actor, and Hill, whom I have never seen before, sell their roles really well in it. Hoffman's a letdown, and the emphasis is really too grim for a movie that's supposed to be about sport and a team that, frankly, was a great and shocking success, but the movie still tells quite an interesting story, and might be worth a look even if baseball isn't your particular thing.

Oh, and fuck the A's. And Oakland.

Final Score:  7/10

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Alternate Title:  Indiana Jones and the License to Kill ET

One sentence synopsis:  A drifter and a cattle boss must join forces with townsmen, bandits, and Indians to defeat alien strip miners.

Things Havoc liked:   I could watch Daniel Craig read a phone book. He's one of my favorite actors, who makes every movie he's in better, at least by my opinion. As to Harrison Ford, it really doesn't matter what other movies of low or high quality he's been in, as we are speaking of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and therefore there shall be nothing ill said of him. While Ford certainly sometimes oversells his roles, he does reasonably well here. Both lead actors are helped by the addition of a sterling supporting cast, including Paul Dano (last seen in There Will Be Blood), Clancy Brown (last seen in the Shawshank Redemption, Carnivale, and as Lex Luthor in the DCAU), Olivia Wilde (last seen in Tron, but I will try not to hold that against her), and the incomparable Keith Caradine (last seen being generally a bad motherfucker).

With a cast this good, much that would otherwise be unbearable can be borne with ease. Daniel Craig in particular is given the task of playing an amnesiac drifter who appears to have been an outlaw before he lost his memory at the hands of the aliens. Acting-wise, this job is nearly impossible, but Craig pulls it off. Ford's character, a former army colonel who fought various battles in the Civil and Mexican wars, is given the task of expositing much of his own backstory, and with one or two exceptions, it works pretty well, proving once again that good actors can often elevate pedestrian writing.

Things Havoc disliked:   I think you know where I'm going here.

This movie is written badly. Very badly. Like long-exposition-scenes-strung-back-to-back badly. Like "I wish I had a son like you" badly. The actors, and they are excellent, do the best they can with the material given to them, but there is simply no salvaging some of this crap. I grant, it's not Last Airbender bad, but it does no service to the film. When even Daniel Craig can't sell a line, you know you've fallen off something.

Bad writing though I am used to. Movies like this are not sold on the strength of their writing. Unfortunately, the problems here go much further, into the entire making of this film. For one thing, the editing in this movie sucks. Continuity mistakes are everywhere. Daniel Craig pours the same shot of whiskey two or three times without emptying the glass. He is covered in dust by an explosion multiple times and is then clean in the next shot. Battle sequences are edited such that it is often impossible to determine where everyone is in relation either to one another or to the surrounding terrain (which is of some importance, given how much time they spend discussing the need for open ground).

Equally, the design and cinematography of this film is just bad. Lots of shots take place in the dark or in twisted, restricted tunnels, all of which are impossible to see thanks to terrible lighting and sloppy cinematographic shot selection. The alien ships look ludicrous, not flashy enough to be camp, and not interesting enough to get away without it. Entire set pieces for the film (such as the random steam boat they find in the middle of the desert) are badly designed and never explained reasonably. Why would the alien mothership have cavernous caves leading secretly to the surface? Didn't the aliens have to excavate all that?

Oh and speaking of the aliens, this movie presents us, in keeping with such films as War of the Worlds or Signs, with aliens who have mastered the interstellar hyperdrive, but not pants. Their design is totally uninspired, growling tooth-laden monsters who are sufficiently advanced to fly between the stars, but who talk by roaring, and fight naked on all fours by leaping on their target and tearing them apart with claws. Their master plan involves (spoiler alert) mining for gold, making this movie perhaps the only one I've ever seen to consciously rip off Battlefield Earth. Moreover, even this lame excuse is handled half-assed, as nowhere is it explained why the aliens are kidnapping humans instead of spending their time getting the one thing they actually are here for. Moreover, the physical capabilities of the aliens are completely inconsistent. They go from being bulletproof to susceptible to gunfire within the same sequence. At one point, bows and arrows are sufficient to kill them, while Winchester rifles are not. If you don't establish rules for your film, then the audience can't figure out what the hell to think.

Final thoughts:  A tired, cliched, poorly written film, elevated by the strength of its cast. The plot makes no sense and is hackneyed in the extreme, the direction and editing are awful, the design is lazy, and the movie overall is just a one-note bore. Even the action scenes are foolish and poorly cut together. The actors assembled for this project manage, just barely, to elevate it into mediocre level, but that's hardly a stunning recommendation. Avoid.

Final Score:  4/10

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Alternate Title:  America!  Fuck yeah!

One sentence synopsis:  A 4F volunteer becomes a super-soldier to fight an evil Nazi mastermind trying to destroy the world with occult super-tech.

Things Havoc liked:  Take another look at that one-sentence synopsis above. If that concept sounds awesome, then have I got a film for you...

We live in an age when Comic book films are not merely good, but are actively some of the best movies available. While I could write a soliloquy on why that is so, the upshot is that standards for this sort of film have become higher and higher. Such movies can work because of excellent characterization, as in X-men First Class or Iron Man, or because of the inherent capability of movies to distill the essence of the fun and boisterous wonder of comics, such as Thor. This film is one of the latter.

Captain America is a pulp movie to its core. Note that I say Pulp, not Camp. It is a movie that does not in any way attempt to disguise what it is about, namely two-fisted pulp WWII fun. There is a sequence in this film where Captain America rides a rocket-propelled motorcycle while being pursued by Nazis with death rays, whom he evades by riding up an embankment, leaping onto a Leman Russ battle tank (Yes), knocking a Nazi super-soldier out with his shield, and destroying the tank with a satchel charge. If this sequence is not to your liking, find another film. The movie abounds with occult super-science, dastardly Nazis and square-jawed heroes doing epic battle for the fate of nations. It is not camp, and it is not silly (okay mostly not silly), but it is very much in the style of Gearkreig or Superwar or any of the other WWII pulp tales one might remember fondly (at least if one is me).

The cast for this film does an excellent job overall. Chris Evans, last seen being terrible in the Fantastic Four films, is, while perhaps not great, certainly good as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Cap's a hard one to get right, as he's basically a boy scout with a ridiculous costume who perpetually fights Nazism. Evans plays the character well without lapsing into schlock or flag-beating super-patriotism. He manages to make Captain America seem like a real person, which is more of a feat than it sounds like.

The rest of the cast however are uniformly excellent. Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as Colonel Chester Phillips, in which he essentially does a send-up to Patton. Hugo Weaving does an superb job as Red Skull, during which he does a send-up to Hitler. Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark (father of Tony), who is essentially a send-up (and a hilarious one) to Howard Hughes. And Stanley Tucci plays Docter Erstein, which is essentially a send-up to Albert Einstein. It amazes me how strong our collective memories of the towering figures of that period are, such that one merely has to cite their names to get a fulsome idea of what one is dealing with, but that's neither here nor there. All of the above actors, particularly Weaving and Jones, do a spectacular job, as do those who are not performing send-ups, particularly Sebastian Stan, who plays Buckey, in the comics a kid sidekick for Cap, while in this film Rogers is his sidekick until the serum hits. Finally, while Haley Atwell is reduced to playing the token female love interest, she at least does a fine job with it.

One last line regarding the effects. Special effects are hardly special anymore, but the ones in this movie, particularly the mask for Red Skull, deserves a great deal of praise. Red Skull is an inherently ridiculous concept, and one that many versions of the mythos have struggled to get onto the screen. They found a version here that looked neither stupid nor (entirely) fake. Moreover, I don't know what method they used to make Chris Evans look like a wimp early in the film, but it was utterly convincing (except for his voice, which didn't fit a guy that small).

Things Havoc disliked:    The story for this movie is extremely formulaic, something that isn't helped by a needless "framework" story that actually manages to spoil the movie's ending in the first scene. Even without the opening gaffe however, I could have told you exactly what would happen with my eyes closed. Granted, the movie is fun enough to make the ride worthwhile, and there are even a few elements I didn't expect (Captain America the War Bond salesman!), but overall it goes pretty much exactly the way you would expect it to go.

Moreover, the thing that elevates most comic book movies is their razor-sharp writing. The material is always somewhat ludicrous, but excellent writing can redeem much. The writing in this film certainly isn't bad. Some lines verge on inspired, particularly those given to Tommy Lee Jones. But overall it's not quite at the level that some of the great works of the genre have been.

Final thoughts:  This movie was not X-men First Class good. It probably wasn't even Iron Man good. But it was Thor good, and Thor good is pretty damn good. It was a hot-blooded, funny, action-packed, two-fisted pulp action extravaganza, befitting the era that Captain America is derived from, and I personally enjoyed the hell out of it. It has all the things one should expect to see from a retro-40s action thrill ride. It has occult super-science, dastardly villains (Roger Ebert said in his review "You can't do better than Nazis", and I agree with him), beautiful dames, and clean-cut virtuous heroes. It has chases and death-defying stunts, it has courage and heroism, it has Dum Dum Dugan and Nick Fury, it has Patton and Einstein and Hughes and Hitler all under different names doing what Patton and Einstein and Hughes and Hitler all ought to do. This movie has Captain America, who throws his mighty shield.

What else can you really ask for?

Final Score:  8/10 

Additional note:  This didn't occur to me until after I finished the review, but a movie that this one reminded me of a great deal was 1991's pulp action classic "The Rocketeer", a movie that bombed horribly, but that I thought was an excellent movie, very much in keeping with the source material. Imagine my surprise to find that both movies were directed by Joe Johnson.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

13 Assassins

Alternate Title:  (2xSeven)-1 Samurai

One sentence synopsis:  A picked band of samurai attempt to assassinate an evil Shogunate Lord in 19th century Japan.

Things Havoc liked:  I am not a fan of Takashi Miike. I recognize that's not easy to say, given the sheer volume of the man's work, but I will say it regardless. Ichi the Killer was one of the worst pieces of crap I've ever seen, and Audition was a gruesome gorefest that I felt lacked artistry in favor of raw shock value (yes, there is artistry even in horror, see the Exorcist or Alien). I grant that these two films represent about 1% of Miike's overall film output, and some of his films such as Zebraman and Agitator have garnered great praise from people whose opinions I respect. Nevertheless I have to call them as I see them overall, and to-date I have not liked what I've seen from Miike.

Until last week at least.

13 Assassins is a classical Samurai movie in the genre (and more) of Akira Kurasawa's epic masterpiece Seven Samurai, which I maintain is one of the greatest movies ever made. This film is more than just similar to Kurasawa's film, but borders on a remake of it, albeit with some significant alterations. Normally I'd object to such a thing, but this is not the first (nor the fifth) time Seven Samurai has been remade, and the remakes have occasionally been spectacular (The Magnificent Seven, for instance, which was much closer to this movie than 13 Assassins is). Miike is known for over-the-top gruesome body horror, and while there's a single scene in this film that seems reminiscent of that, it is at least appropriate given the subject matter, and isn't dwelt upon for long.

That's not to say that there aren't some alterations done, and by and large, these alterations are to the film's credit. The core of the film is around two middle-aged Samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, played by Kôji Yakusho, and Hanbei Kito, played by Masachika Ichimura. These two men are former sparring-mates and rivals from dojos decades ago, now minor Samurai lords in their own right. Shinzaemon largely plays the role taken in the original by the great Takashi Shimura (and Yul Brenner in the western), an old, wise, war-weary soldier who is hired to perform a seemingly-suicidal job and recruit a team of Samurai to do it. While Yakusho doesn't quite have the stage presence of Shimura, he brings a presence to the role that does the job. Hanbei however, is a new character, not present in the original film, and plays the head Samurai of the assassination target, a man of honor who recognizes the corruption and decadence of his Lord but has sworn to defend him to the death regardless. Ichimura plays the role perfectly, easily stealing the show in every scene he is in, as a tired but indomitable samurai who regrets the necessities of his position but will do his duty to the last. Samurai movies are usually about honorable death and performing duty in the face of tremendous hardship, and Ichimura captures it perfectly.

The other great role from the original film was that of Kikuchiyo, a bandit farmer who pretends to be a Samurai and serves as a foil for the noble pretensions of the other six. In this movie, that role is taken by Yūsuke Iseya playing Kiga Koyata, a poacher who joins the Samurai largely out of boredom and revulsion with the Samurai class in general. Here too, some alterations are made, ones I will not spoil here, but elements of his character are infused with classical Japanese mythology, left open for those who know what they are looking for. It's a nice touch.

The villain in the original film was forgettable (I think he had two lines). In this movie, the villain is a major character in his own right. Gorô Inagaki plays Lord Naritsugu like a complete sociopath, a man who literally does not feel remorse or empathy, almost to the point of solipsism. Naritsugu is a complete monster, but is given enough facetime that he doesn't just feel like a "designated bad guy" (which he is), but more like a mad dog who simply needs to be destroyed. His reactions in the second half of the movie, when the fighting breaks out and men are dying on all sides, is almost one of reverential joy, as he is finally able to experience sensations of any sort, even physical pain. It's unsettling, but it works.

Finally, this movie was famous in some circles for "the battle sequence". The entire second half of the movie is an unbroken, 45-minute battle in which hundreds of people fight and die. There are things both wrong and right with this approach, but while I frankly enjoyed the first half of the movie more than most of the second, the battle was invigorating, well-shot, and choreographed very nicely. In an age of Shaky-cam, one can ask for little more.

Things Havoc disliked:   The problem with changing the movie from 7 to 13 samurai and then halving the time of the film (and taking up half of that with a single fight) is that your characters get lost. Every one of the other Samurai has a name and some gesture towards a character, but only just. I absolutely could not tell one from the other once the armor was put on and the swords began to sing, and so apart from the characters I mentioned above, everyone else is basically an extra with a flag on their arm to indicate "good" or "bad" guy.

Even the characters that are given time and characterization are somewhat problematic though, particularly Yūsuke the poacher. The original character of Kikuchiro was played by the unparalleled Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest Japanese film actor ever. Kikuchiro was one of the most memorable characters in all of my years of movie watching, animated, boisterous, slightly crazy, driven by deep anger and resentments, comic and serious and tragic all at the same time. Kiga Koyata does his best, but has neither the acting chops (which is no shame, honestly) nor the screen time that Mifune had, and is therefore reduced in my mind to a pastiche of Mifune's performance.

The great battle scene, meanwhile, has its own set of issues. For one thing, 45 minutes of ceaseless combat gets very repetitive if you don't spice it up with variation. There is some, don't get me wrong, the transition from ranged weapons to swords to duels is done well, and the end of the battle is by far the best segment, but the ceaseless slicing and dicing beforehand does get a little old. Don't get me wrong, I love long, involved battles, but I love them precisely because of the "awesome!" moments you find within them. There were not enough of those here. Instead we get drawn out death scenes as the heroic samurai die one by one, overwhelmed by a tide of foes. After the eighth of those, one gets restless for something different.

There's also a minor issue in that it is very hard to film 13 people killing 200 people with swords without looking completely ridiculous. Yes, this is a Samurai movie, wherein skilled warriors can defeat many opponents with nothing but their awesome skill. But at the same time, no Samurai, no matter how badass, can take on thirty-six sword-wielding maniacs at once and survive, and we know it, which makes scenes where they do this look cartoonish. Yes, there's a great history in Martial Arts movies in particular of heroic badasses taking down entire armies by themselves. But this movie purports a very realistic feel for the entire run, and to suddenly see everyone turn into Superman for a mook fight is disappointing. Once more, the original film made all the Samurai into badasses without need for this.

Final thoughts:  Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge this film so harshly in the light of Seven Samurai, but this is a personal review, and Kurosawa's film colonized my memory so effectively in terms of what Samurai films ought to be that it's very hard for me to separate out this film, particularly when it takes such pains to emulate Seven Samurai in so many ways. That said, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. 13 Assassins does many things right, especially when it breaks from the Kurosawa format and adds new elements to an already established genre. This film wasn't a masterpiece by any means, but it was a damn good flick, proving once again that even a Flawed remake of Seven Samurai is still quite a thing.

Final Score:  7/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern

Alternate Title:  An Actor's Day, A Writer's Night, A Decent Film, but not too Bright

One sentence synopsis:  A test pilot is chosen by an intergalactic corps of superhero defenders to protect Earth from the living embodiment of Fear.

Things Havoc liked:  Green Lantern is a high concept, in almost every way. The comic is about a semi-omnipotent superbeing who can conjure anything he can imagine into reality in order to fight evil. Though I'm hardly an expert on the Green Lantern mythos, the notion has always been one of high concept space opera mated to superhero comics. The hero is incredibly powerful, the villains are cosmic-scale, the battles world-devouring in their scope. Much of the reason for this is that the comic, moreso than many of the contemporary ones, is hammy as all hell, and needs to cover for it by going all the way. Green Lantern has a magic poem he has to recite after all, and if you're going to sell magic poems, you really have to sell them absolutely. No sly winking to the audience, no holding back. The key to movies like this (as evidenced by Thor, among others) is absolute sincerity.

Ryan Reynolds is not a name I would normally have associated with Hal Jordan. Until this film, I don't know that I've ever seen him before. However, in this film, he manifests the proper sincerity that is necessary for someone to be a convincing Green Lantern. Not knowing the comic terribly well, I can't speak to the "fidelity" of the portrayal, but he did manage to convince me that he could be both a test pilot, and ultimately, even a superhero. Known mostly for romantic comedy roles (which I avoid like the plague), Reynolds is able to successfully turn what I must assume to be natural charm on in this film, and manifests the proper sense of wonder, awe, and eagerness that makes the film breathe. It is not an easy feat to recite the Green Lantern oath on film and make it sound credible. Reynolds has to do it twice.

We live in an age where good special effects are not even remarkable anymore, but even by those standards, those in Green Lantern are top notch. They do not commit the terrible sin of simply piling image upon image, and even give us a pretty memorable vision of a villain in the form of Parallax the World Destroyer. The Green Lantern suit seems real, and the conjurations that he and the other Lanterns produce have heft and weight to them.

The supporting cast in this film is very high caliber, which works to the film's advantage. Peter Sarsgaard, an excellent actor, plays Hector Hammond, one of the antagonists of the film, and brings creepy life to a fairly pedestrian character. Sinestro, not yet evil, is played by the always-dependable Mark Strong, who seems to be channeling David Niven (not a bad thing). Smaller roles are given to veteran, excellent actors such as Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, and the voices of none other than Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan. As a result, some of the scenes and lines that would not normally work are able to garner a pass due to the caliber of actor delivering them.

Things Havoc disliked:   Some of the scenes that don't work get a pass. Not all. Not even most.

This film's screenplay needed another six months in the oven. Some of the individual lines, and even a couple of scenes, are actually pretty good, but overall the plot, while coherent (not as easy as it sounds with a Green Lantern movie), is lackadaisical at best. The exposition, while not the worst I've ever seen, is very clunky. Thor had no less of a fantastical setting to establish, but did so effortlessly, while in this movie we clearly encounter the dreaded "Designated Exposition Scene" more than once, and not even Geoffrey Rush's narration can carry us over it.

Worse yet, the entire movie is comprised of one long set of Daddy Issues, which are established ham-handedly and without skill in a series of jarring flashback scenes and awkward Villain-Exposition-Moments. Hal Jordan misses his dead father. Hector Hammond resents his successful one. Green Lantern is about imagination and awe, and the one thing a film version should not be is formulaic and predictable. The tired old cliches of "Why doesn't my father love me?" and "How do I overcome my fear" have not only been done to death, but more importantly, have been done much better and with more wit and care than this. I don't mind if a character doesn't know his true potential for courage or resents his father. There's a reason these concepts keep getting re-used, after all. But give me something interesting and worth caring about when they do these things, characters who are smart enough to retain my interest and written well enough to make me pay attention. Don't just go through the motions, especially in a film like this.

The lack of originality unfortunately spills over into the Lantern's powers. Green Lantern can literally create anything he can think of out of pure force of will. Not only is this a tremendous power, but it allows the screenwriters to completely go to town. Unfortunately, they don't go very far. One or two moments of conjuration were inventive enough to make me smirk (I kind of liked him getting sick of Sinestro's bullshit in the sparring session and pulling out a minigun), but the majority of Hal's conjurations are exactly what you'd expect him to use. Someone fights you? Get a big fist. Someone shoots at you? Make a shield. Green Lantern is about flights of wild imagination and fantasy. Give us something truly breathtaking, not springs and toy catapults.

Finally, in a movie with excellent actors, someone who just isn't up to par is gonna stand out all the worse. Blake Lively, who plays the most obvious "designated damsel in distress" I've seen in a while, is one such sub-par actress. She's not terrible, but unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn't have the chops to surpass the mediocre writing that's fed to her.

Final thoughts:  Green Lantern, at it's heart, is a mediocre movie elevated somewhat by the sincerity of the lead actor and the skill of the supporting cast. It's not a bad film, but it is a very forgettable film, which given the subject matter, is almost worse. Reynolds tries to evoke the epic, sweeping scale of the material with his acting, and does a legitimately credible job, but he is hamstrung by bad screenplay decisions, ugly exposition, and pace-grinding "introspective" moments accompanied by terrible show-don't-tell violations. Some lines, and even some scenes in this movie seem to hint at a far better film than this one was, but overall, the movie never manages to rise above decency. If they ever made a sequel to this movie, it might well be significantly better than this one, as the backstory and exposition would not be necessary. Unfortunately, given the overall quality of this movie, I would not rate that as a strong likelihood.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-men: First Class

Alternate Title:  Why I Love Comics

One sentence synopsis:  A group of mutants headed by Charles Xavier and Magneto must stop an evil mastermind from starting World War Three.

Things Havoc liked:  One thing I like about this new policy of a weekly movie is that I am forced to see films I would not otherwise have seen. Some movies are simply obscure or regarding a subject matter I have no interest in, but others are ones for which I have made a snap judgment based on the trailers. Trailers exist for such things after all, so I usually feel confident in pre-judging a film based upon it. This movie, like others I have reviewed here, had terrible trailers, and given that both X-men 3 and Wolverine were terrible, I had some confidence in predicting that this thing was going to blow. Hard. Yet in order to see a film a week, sometimes, I am forced to see movies I would otherwise skip. There are times when the movie turns out to be just as bad as I expected, or even worse, and I hate that I invented this policy. Once in a while though, a movie will surprise me, and on such days, I like this policy.

Today, I like this policy.

This movie was fantastic, from start to finish. It helps of course that the X-men were my childhood favorites growing up, but even independently of this, it tells a story that is compelling and rich and brilliantly well acted and faithful in the extreme to the comics and the (good) movies that came before it. It integrates the origins of the X-men into history superbly well, founds the characters in reality, and gives them weight and depth and likability. I love these characters, and I loved seeing them brought to life on the screen.

The story is, essentially, that of two people. Charles Xavier, and Erik Lenscher, known by the end of the film as Professor X and Magneto (the way they get their names is a hoot, by the way). Xavier, played by James McAvoy is spellbinding. He's arrogant, in his own weird way, a young man who thinks he knows what's best for everyone partly because he actually does. He's genteel and clever and wickedly insightful (as one might expect from a telepath), someone who knows exactly how to talk to someone else and get them to like him and trust him, yet also someone whose sense of morality is simultaneously unbending and flexible enough for compassion. A mentor and a friend to everyone, and yet human enough to drink and to hit on women by describing how their genetic code is beautiful (it's actually less pathetic than it sounds). A true, classical hero, and I'm astonished to say that McAvoy does a better job with the character than even Stewart did (partly because he's permitted to be much more active than Stewart).

And if McAvoy nails Xavier, then Michael Fassbender, who is always excellent even in bad movies, nails Magneto equally. Magneto is one of my favorite characters ever and this, THIS RIGHT HERE, this is why. Fassbender's Magneto is tormented, yes, but he's not an emotional wreck, and neither is he a stone, unfeeling killer. Magneto is a driven man who has suffered outrages and will not see them committed again against "his" people. He's one of those strange people who gets scarier the less angry he is, and yet the movie takes great pains to paint him, not as a villain, nor even really as a designated villain-in-training, but as a man, complicated and sometimes confused, who acts as he thinks is best, and has real compassion and capacity for greatness that he does not simply cast aside when it comes time to become the bad guy. Indeed, I wouldn't even call him "the bad guy". He's a character, whole and complete, and one may take him as one finds him.

Those two I expected, but what I did not expect, was a third character, scarcely any less important, specifically Mystique, played by Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Mystique is an important character in the comics, but I've never been a fan of hers. This movie changed my mind. In this, Mystique is Xavier's quasi-adopted sister, a homeless orphan taken in by Charles and his family when she was a child. As such, Mystique goes from being a devious villain (not interesting) to being Xavier's more grounded sibling (very interesting). Her nature as a visible, obvious mutant who must hide her identity is explored in depth, and she serves as an interesting vehicle to explore Xavier's and Magneto's contrasting philosophies concerning what Mutants' place in society ought to be, thus eliminating the need for the characters to actually stand around and tiresomely scream at one another.

The characters are themselves very strongly portrayed, written, and acted, but the brilliant part is not the characters themselves but how they interact. This movie gets it right. We see and believe Xavier and Magneto becoming friends, real friends, not because the plot requires pathos but because they simply are. Mystique's interactions with Xavier are so right I can't even do them justice. They act like siblings, argue like siblings, know one another the way siblings do, and care obviously for one another deeply Her connection with Magneto is equally interesting. We see why she is attracted to what he represents (and perhaps to him himself, though the movie doesn't force a "relationship" on us in any way). We see why he takes interest in her, what he sees in her both in terms of potential and in terms of a fellow member of his oppressed group. NONE of these relationships seem forced, NONE of them seem one-sided or even particularly unhealthy. These people genuinely love each another. That their characters force them to act differently to one another is simply the way of things. At the end of the film, I would not say they part as friends, but neither do they part as enemies. It is this intriguing element that made these characters my favorites as a child, and it made them so here again.

I've spoken endlessly, and not even gotten to other amazing things, from Kevin Bacon's turn as Sebastian Shaw, to Nicholas Hoult as Beast, to January Jones as Emma Frost, to Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart. All four do justice to their characters, particularly Hoult. I've not talked about the great character actors like Oliver Platt, Rade Šerbedžija, Michael Ironside, or Matt Craven, who all bring great fun to their relatively small roles. I've not talked about the wickedly fun cameos (which I shall not spoil here), nor the superb writing, nor the effects, nor anything else. Suffice to say that the movie as a whole is acted, directed, scored, and written tremendously well across the board, and you will get the picture.

Things Havoc disliked:   Some of the minor X-men, particularly Havok and Angel, were not up to par with the rest of the cast. Not that they were terrible, but the caliber of acting is simply not there to compete with the main characters in the story. A few lines, particularly a couple given to Beast, ring false, which shows up more prominently because of the overall high quality of the writing. The subtitles on the exterior establishing shots are often laughable ("Secret CIA training facility!"). Finally, the movie (vaguely) implies that the Americans provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis deliberately, which is, needless to say, a view of history I find laughable.

Final thoughts:  This movie was just great, from start to finish. So much so that I doubt my own opinion on it and wonder if it might just be rampant fanboyishness talking. It gave me characters I cared about and had them interact with one another in interesting ways, and that, honestly, is all I can ask any movie to do. Comic book films have had such successes in the last decade or so that the bar is set ridiculously high for them, yet this movie vaulted over it effortlessly. It was faithful in detail and extreme to the comic, it was interesting and varied, it took its time when necessary and most of all it gave me the Xavier and the Magneto (and the Mystique!) I wanted to see.

Not long ago, I saw Thor in West Virginia. I thought it was the best movie I had seen all year. And here, for the second time in as many weeks, I have a new champion for that title, from another comic book film. I cannot guarantee that everyone will see it the same way as I did, but I loved this movie, and everything it stood for. Once again, the trailers lied to me.

But this time, I don't mind so much.

Final Score:  9/10

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Alternate Title:  To be a Viking, or not to be a Viking

One sentence synopsis:  The God of Thunder is exiled to Earth by his father and must redeem himself and oppose his brother's machinations.

Things Havoc liked:  There's been a lot of comic book movies around recently, many of them surprisingly good. As such, my expectations with this movie were very high. Thor as a character is not a tremendously Hollywood-appropriate figure, being neither "conflicted" nor "conventional". I am happy to report that Chris Hemsworth was Thor, the same way that Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man. He was boisterous, he was badass, he was arrogant and he was, most of all, Viking. Being Viking is a quality that is very difficult to explain, but one knows it when one sees it. This guy was Thor to his bones.

The movie's overall quality is just excellent. Branaugh's direction and Straczynski's writing combine perfectly. The writing is sharp and crisp and wickedly funny. The acting is brilliant uniformly, from Anthony Hopkins (breaking a chain of terrible roles) to Stellan Skarsgard (whom I love in everything he's ever been in) to Idris Elba (more on him below) to all of the warriors three (particularly Ray Stevenson, making up somewhat for his absurd performance in Kill the Irishman) to Clark Gregg as the SHIELD agent (whom I like more and more every time I see him). A particular accolade should go to Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki is given great depth and almost Shakesperian character arcs, something we do not often see in villains, particularly (literal) comic book ones. He goes on something of a journey of self-discovery of his own, becoming Thor's enemy through a tragic flaw more than through being an evil bastard. Loki was never one of my favorite characters, but I grew to like him along the way.

All the little touches in this movie are right, from the cameos (Hawkeye's few short scenes were a riot), to the references (to Iron Man and other Marvel films), to the minor character touches that make the characters real. The direction is crisp and tight, as befits a great director, and the movie never loses cohesion or stops short for exposition. With the exception of a short opening narration, we are told about the world of Asgard and the characters through seeing the world and the deeds of the characters that inhabit it. We never get lost, nor do we ever get bored.

Finally, a note on Black Heimdal. Much ink has been spilled over the fact that Idris Elba is black (which is true), while his character Heimdal, both in the comics and the mythology itself, is white (which is essentially though not literally true). Racists have objected to this as "political correctness" and other such idiocy. Others who are sane have countered that this is an element of setting the balance straight, that there are very few roles for black men relative to white men, and one supporting character being changed over is not going to end the world, and might just do some good, particularly given Kenneth Branaugh's well-known reputation for color-blind casting. While this argument is valid, it is, with respect, irrelevant. Indeed, by allowing the argument to be framed by the racists into one of "Black Heimdal" vs "White Heimdal", those who are arguing in favor of Elba's casting are doing themselves a disservice. To my mind, the question of this casting is not about race. It is not important to me that Heimdal be White. It is far more important to me that Heimdal be Viking. The quality of being Viking is a subtle one (ironically), difficult to describe in words, perhaps even ineffable. Ultimately though Elba's Heimdal is unquestionably Viking in act and word throughout the movie. He is badass, imposing, gets several awesome lines, and the fact that he is black is actually played up (not overtly) along with makeup and CG to give him a somewhat different feel to the rest of the Asgardians, which is mythologically consistent with the Heimdal of the Norse Sagas and of the comics. As such, his casting to me is perfect, and his race unimportant, either as a symbol of political correctness or of affirmative action. Idris Elba was Heimdal. Nothing else is important.

Things Havoc disliked:   This movie needed ten more minutes.

There's a lot going on in this film. There's the humans' plot, Thor's plot, Loki's plot, the Warriors' Three/Lady Sif's plot, it gets complicated. The movie never loses us, but with so much going on, the runtime necessarily compacts some of these plotlines. There were many complaints that the romance between Portman and Hemsworth was unconvincing. Some people on this very board made that argument. I sort of see what they mean, and while I don't precisely agree, I think that the romance did need about five more minutes of screentime, both for Portman's character (who comes off flat by comparison to the others), and to sell the changes in Thor's character and what brought them on.

Similarly, though Loki and his plots are portrayed very very well, a character like Loki needs time to establish, to make rich and interesting. By and large, they do give him time, but a little more would have helped, particularly with some of the plots he was hatching concerning the Warrior's Three and Sif. Were they to give him just a couple more minutes of obfuscation and work, I would have no objections.

Final thoughts:  A glorious film, big and boistrous and bold of action and effect, with amazing vistas and excellent storytelling and writing. I had my doubts about this movie, but I should have expected no less. All in all, this film took one of the Marvel characters I was never all that into, and made him properly awesome. Having seen this, I look forward to Captain America.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

Alternate Title:  Triumph of the Will

One sentence synopsis:  Two industrialist billionaires fight the government's attempts to destroy their businesses.

Notes from Havoc:  This movie is one that my normal style of reviewing does not really apply to. I could, at need, cite things that I thought worked and things that did not, as is my custom in these reviews, but a movie of this sort defies the usual review style. The impact it made on me, and that which it will have on others is not based upon it being a good or a bad film, but its content and the style of those who have created it. As such, do bear with me as I explain what can be said for a film of this sort, before getting to the crux of the matter.

Things Havoc liked:  Low expectations are a given here. Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand's Magnum Opus, a sixteen hundred page polemical rant about the evils of collectivism, unionism, and pretty much every other 'ism' that is not naked Capitalism. I knew I was going to have to see this movie when I first heard about it, as I could not envision how one could possibly make a film out of it.

Well, they made one. Not a particularly good film, but a workable film nonetheless, and if I am to be honest, I must admit that it's not the worst thing I've ever seen, nor even the worst film I've seen all year. There are positives to speak of. One of them is Grant Bowler, last seen on True Blood, who plays Hank Rearden, one of the two billionaire-heroes of the movie. His character is weird and he plays it strangely and with an amoral gloss that's vaguely unsettling, but given that he's supposed to be this way, I can't fault his performance, which is honestly better than the film seems to deserve. The supporting cast in general, comprised mostly of unknowns (with a cameo by Armin Shimmerman!) does credibly well, and surprisingly, does not lapse into caricature when portraying the large numbers of "evil" liberals and "parasites" in the film (more on that later).

The direction, if a little inconsistent in its pacing, is decent and serviceable. Shots are well constructed and workmanlike, and the plot, byzantine and strange as it is, does move along nicely. The movie has the unenviable task of somehow explaining how freight/passenger trains are relevant again in this modern age, as well as setting up the appropriate economic setting for this near-future world (the book is set in the 50s, the movie in 2016). Surprisingly, it does both quite well upfront. Finally, the style of the film, as "creative" persons disappear progressively, leaving behind only the enigmatic "Who is John Galt?" question, is mined reasonably effectively for tension and mystery as the film progresses, with dateline-updates of missing persons that seem stolen from an FBI file. I have to admit that I found this method somewhat compelling.

Things Havoc disliked:   While Bowler does a good job, the other lead, played by Taylor Shilling, really doesn't. She doesn't seem amoral so much as frozen emotionally, and when the script calls for her to act with emotional resonance, she fails utterly. This is not helped by the fact that the writing for this film is uniformly terrible, and not in an interesting way. Every line is a clunker, every dialog scene a complete mess. Nobody, not even repressed billionaires obsessed with their work and creative vision, talks like the people in this film do. Great stretches of the film are taken up with scenery shots of Colorado, which is nice, I guess, but cuts the pacing of the movie entirely to ribbons. Overall however, there just isn't all that much that happens in this film, not enough to justify the running time at least. The plot seems laborious and slow. Characters have scenes wherein they say things to one another that are repeated over and over again, while other, more important information (such as just what the hell "Who is John Galt?" is supposed to mean) is glossed over or ignored. The overall result seems amateurish.

Final thoughts:  I've given you a breakdown on the pros and cons of this movie, but as I said initially, the pros and cons of a movie like this are almost beside the point. They certainly don't get to the core issues of the film as I saw it. Those I shall address now:

This is one of the most unsettling movies I've ever seen.

No, it's not filled with bile and polemical hatred for all Liberals (or rather, while it is, it's certainly not the most strident form I've ever seen). It's not packed with commands to kill people or commit terrible crimes (though one of the secondary heroes does cause a massive ecological catastrophe that will poison or kill thousands of people out of spite). What is unsettling is the mindset of the creators of this film, the way in which, unintentionally, it reveals the worldview under which they operate.

Let me explain what I mean. Consider the Turner Diaries.

The Turner Diaries, for those who are not in the know, is one of the most famous pieces of Neo-Nazi literature in the world, a spec-fiction/alternate history novel about an underground network of neo-nazis who rises up to conquer the world and destroy the Jewish-backed "System", annihilating everyone of non-white ancestry in a nuclear holocaust, as told from the ground level by one of its members in diary form. It is a noxious and vile book, but one that I have read several times nonetheless, for it has popped up in the decades since its publication in the hands of terrorists and racists beyond compare (including Timothy McVeigh). There is no shortage of neo-nazi literature in the world, yet this book, alone among the reams of the stuff one could find from Stormfront, is enduring, persistent, and, in the right circles, famous.

The reason for this, as I see it, is the mindset.

Most polemical works, particularly fringe polemical works like Mein Kampf or Imperium, are really rants, usually screaming rants, about the evils of one thing or another. Two thirds of Mein Kampf consists of barely legible tirades about how the Jews, Communists, and countless others are evil monsters out to destroy Germanic culture who all must be annihilated. What's so unique about the Turner Diaries is that it is not a strident polemic, indeed it's not a polemic at all. Most Nazi literature goes to great lengths to explain to everyone and sundry why it is vitally necessary for the salvation of the human race to slaughter giant swatches of the population. The Turner Diaries does not. It contains practically no racial epithets, no political rants, few tirades about what is wrong with the world. The tone is basic and pedestrian, no screaming lectures, no attempt to convert the unconverted. Killing Jews is nowhere justified, it is simply assumed to be the proper course of action. There is no need to justify it because the novel holds the slaughter of the non-white races to be a self-evident necessity, whose utility and purpose are so obvious as to not require explanation. The hero of the story does not explain why he kills Jews. He simply kills them. And we the readers are obviously expected to identify with this hero because he is slaughtering Jews.

Atlas Shrugged, for all the moral bankruptcy of its political philosophy, is not Neo-Nazi literature. It does not advocate the slaughter of anyone, and I am not comparing it to the Turner Diaries for the purposes of invoking Goodwin's Law. Its proponents, creators, and enthusiasts are not Nazis, and it is not my intention to describe them as such. What I am attempting to say though, is that like the Turner Diaries, this movie dispenses entirely with polemical tirades designed to convince the viewers of the right of Objectivism and private enterprise. It does not go to any lengths to show why the Liberals that the heroes are pitted against are wrong. It assumes that we as viewers will believe that they are wrong and evil, simply because they are Liberals.

There is a scene, for example, wherein the brother of one of the main characters bursts angrily into the hero's office and demands to know why she has abandoned an entire rail line in Mexico. When the hero explains that she did so because she believed it would profit the company, the brother explodes into an impassioned speech. He tells her that the rail line in question was the cornerstone of the area's infrastructure and economy, that hundreds of thousands of people depended on it, and that by doing this, she will annihilate the fragile economic prosperity of the entire region, casting untold masses of people into abject poverty at a stroke. I had expected the film to give the hero an impassioned speech of her own defending her decision, castigating her brother's weak-willed idealism, and explaining her Objectivist principles. Such a defense could be made. Yet the movie has her contemptuously walk out of the room without so much as an answer for these arguments. The reason it has her do this is because, to the mindset of the filmmakers (and presumably their intended audience), such an argument does not require an answer. It is a Liberal argument, and thus self-evidently wrong.

I said before that the Liberals in this movie are not, by and large, portrayed as caricatures. That was not a decision made in the interests of fairness. Liberals, of which there are many in the film, are by and large allowed to behave as real Liberals, making arguments against Monopolies, in favor of regulation and sane taxation, and of the social cost of the "successes" that the industrialists trumpet. Of course, they are also conniving and scheming, out to 'get' our heroes constantly, but in every case, the arguments they make are not refuted, because they are not considered worthy of the effort of refutation. In this, the movie (not the book) reminds me of the Turner Diaries, where the world-view of the heroes is considered to be so obviously "right" as to obviate the need to convince anyone of its rightness. It is as though the heroes stood for the continuation of life, and Liberals for enforced mass suicide, or something equally mad.

In the movie's final scene (spoiler alert), our heroine looks over an oil field that has detonated and exploded, blackening the sky and filling land with flame from horizon to horizon. Countless thousands must be dead, hundreds of thousands of others are going to die or be poisoned from its toxic effects. Yet when she cries out in pain and anger, it is not because of these effects, but because the perpetrator of this disaster (the owner of the oilfield) has committed this act of sabotage against his own oilfield as a petulant slap back at the government who was attempting to regulate his business. She is crying, not because of the tens of thousands that are dead, but because the visionary oilman who did this has left, and vanished to join John Galt in some hideaway at the ends of the Earth, thus depriving her and the rest of the world of his incomparable genius.

And we, as watchers of the movie, are expected to agree with her.

There is a mindset at work in the creation of this film with which I am entirely unfamiliar, even among the actual real Objectivists that I know. Never before, save in the Turner Diaries, have I encountered its like, and the experience is one I will not soon forget.

This movie languished in Development Hell for over 40 years.  If only it had stayed there.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Alternate Title:  It's a Bird!  It's a Plane!  It's Psychoman!

One sentence synopsis:  A short-order cook loser becomes a superhero to rescue his wife from a drug dealer.

Things Havoc liked:  I love most of the cast of this film. Ellen Page has been awesome in largely everything I've seen her in from Juno to Inception. Kevin Bacon is good in good movies and even better in terrible movies and here plays a sleazy, slimy, awesome drug dealing scumbag effortlessly. Nathan Fillion, it is well known, exists on this earth for the sole purpose of gallivanting about while being awesome. And Michael Rooker is one of my favorite recognizable-but-not-nameable character actors around. All four of the above cited actors do excellent (if demented) jobs in this film. Bacon's drug dealer is hilarious and slimy in equal measure. Fillion plays some kind of Christian Superhero on TV in sequences of shameless hammyness. Rooker goes through the entire movie acting like the only sane person at a convention of the mad. Page's character is simply and convincingly off-her-meds insane.

Rainn Wilson, the main character, better known from the Office TV show, is not really in these people's leagues (and neither is his wife, played by Liv Tyler), but he does a credible enough job. The movie requires that he play a repressed, overweight loser with a semi-hidden streak of quasi-incoherent rage run through him, suppressed only with difficulty. He does this. Indeed, weirdly for a movie that is supposed to be a sort of screwball dark comedy, Wilson plays this guy like an axe murderer waiting to happen, perfectly straight without any comedic overtones. The effect is unsettling. There is a scene near the end of the film where he has cornered one of the bad guys and is screaming into his face about "The Rules" and why one simply doesn't violate them by dealing drugs or kidnapping people, and one senses palpable, intense, and largely unfocused hate that seems both very real and oddly effective, though perhaps better suited for a film other than this one.

Things Havoc disliked:   That really is the problem in fact. The tone of this movie is all over the map. There are scenes that play as farce, and others, often right next to them, that seem to be dredged up out of American History X, and then back to comedy without a second thought. It doesn't really work. Wilson's character is pathetic all right, and frustrated, and repressing what is obviously seething, boiling anger at the frustrations of society, but it doesn't feel comedic or exaggerated, it feels real. This poses two problems. First it makes the film overall go from hilarious to just... icky at parts, particularly as the film never shies away from gory, graphic shots of the actual results of the violence it portrays (beating someone to death against a tile floor or breaking their skull with a pipe wrench are not clean activities). I don't object to gore, nor to realistic violence, but there is a time and a place for it, and this movie does not set out to create that time and place. Second, as largely everyone but Wilson are playing characters straight out of a farce, it feels all the more jarring that he is attempting to play this intensely driven maniac.

Final thoughts:  It is, of course, inevitable that this movie will be compared to Kick Ass, given the subject matter. Unfortunately, it does not stack up well in the comparison. Kick Ass was an excellent film, funny, riotous, violent, farcical, and generally awesome in pretty much all respects. This movie can't pull the same weight. Kick Ass' protagonist was a nerdy loser, but he was likable, believable, and most importantly, not a psycho. The kid sidekick in Kickass, who was a psycho, was still a likable psycho, partly due to being a young kid, a thin pastiche of superheroes in general. The one in this movie is a deranged, almost squicky woman afflicted with obvious and violent pathologies who does not care overmuch what or who she kills. The violence in Kick Ass rapidly became so over the top as to be hilarious and awesome, and was directed towards targets that we felt were deserving of it. That of this film is gruesome and gritty, and the recipients of it are often wholly arbitrary (there is a scene where our hero beats a man and his wife unconscious with a pipe wrench for cutting in line at the movie theater), which spoils the fun of the movie entirely, and hits us periodically with wholly off-color (if unexpected) moments and scenes. Kevin Bacon redeems much of the film with his sliminess, Nathan Fillion is hilarious to watch, and the rest of the cast turn in decent performances, albeit ones better suited to a completely different movie.

This movie opened in limited release with little fanfare.  As with Kill the Irishman, I feel that I now know why.

Final Score:  5/10

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