Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kill the Irishman

Alternate Title:  More Reasons to Avoid Cleveland

One sentence synopsis:  An Irish gangster moves up the ranks of organized crime while waging war on rival Mafiosos.

Things Havoc liked:    There is a certain cast one rather automatically turns to when it comes time to make a gangster movie. Some of them are occasionally in other films, but not most. They play almost exclusively gangsters, and they are so good at these typecast roles that they could do so with their eyes closed. This movie has almost all of them.

Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, Vinnie Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Bob Gunton, I love watching all these guys. They could do this movie in their sleep, and it's a lot of fun watching them do it. Walken acts like he isn't entirely sure what movie he's in, but then it's Walken. He can get away with that. The rest of them play (surprise!) gangsters of various sorts, who shoot and blow up and beat the crap out of one another in all the right ways. I could watch these guys all day...

Things Havoc disliked:   ... and in fact I'd have much preferred to watch them all day instead of the main character.

I loved Ray Stevenson in Rome (then again, I loved everything in Rome). I even liked him in both Punisher Warzone, and King Arthur, both of which were terrible films. But here he was just awful. Not only did I not even recognize him (I had to look up who he was online), but he was stiff and wooden the entire time he was onscreen. Even his Irish accent was terrible (Ray Stevenson is Irish, how the hell is that even possible?!). When he's not overacting (the opening scene, good lord...), he's sounding like a complete prat, assing about spewing thoughtless bullet points and pretending to be some kind of semi-secular saint.

I really shouldn't blame Stevenson for this. He was badass and awesome in Rome, and thus I turn my attention to the writers of this hopeless film. What they think they are doing here is completely beyond me, but there are sections of this movie where I literally cringed. At one point, Stevenson is at a backyard barbeque with his working class buddies, and makes a speech wherein he complains about the fact that there aren't enough vegetables and low cholesterol foods on offer, declares that he is in opposition to the Vietnam war, lambasts deficit spending as something that will destroy the US economy, argues in favor of the Gold Standard, and declares that his friends don't read enough philosophy. He does all this in ten seconds, all in a movie where he is supposed to be a working class guy that is set in 1968! It plays like a shopping list of "good political bullet points" meant to establish his character as a thoughtful and properly liberal guy. Later on he claims that he's a "celtic warrior-prince" from the old days of Ireland, but that he doesn't drink because he respects women too much.

This is a movie about a working class Irish gangster boss from Cleveland, not Saint Patrick. The effect is to make the movie sound completely fake, as though the screenwriters, conscious of the fact that the material wasn't selling itself, decided to "spice up" the fact that we're supposed to like this guy by ad-libbing in everything they imagined "people should like". Not only is it totally out of place, even laughable in a movie supposedly about a hard-boiled gangster who fought a mob war with the Genovesse Family, but it's borderline insulting to the audience. You don't drop the Gold Standard (which I doubt most people even understand) or cholesterol in a throwaway line without any establishment or explanation. And even if the real gangster in question (this movie's based on a real person) was a teetotaler, I need some explanation as to why this Irish Celtic Warrior doesn't drink!

Oh, and whoever keeps putting Vincent D'Onofrio in movies that require him to be a badass (as opposed to simply crazy), should really have his casting license revoked. When not playing Private Pyle, the man has all the on-screen intimidation factor of a bowl of wet noodles. This was true in Law & Order, and it is true here. His voice breaks while trying to threaten people, for god's sake. Nobody could find a better take of that scene? There was no time for ADR?

Final thoughts:   When Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, and everyone else I mentioned initially can't save a movie collectively, you know something went horribly wrong. I blame the screenwriters and the casting director, who twice made me want to leave the theater rather than listen to the claptrap they called dialogue. It's a shame, really, because the movie isn't totally terrible, and has sections, even entire sequences, that are actually fairly well done. This movie came out of nowhere for me, didn't get a wide release, and generally seemed to be slipping in under the radar. Now I know why.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Black Swan

Alternate Title:  Crazy Bitch

One sentence synopsis:  A crazy ballerina gets the lead in Swan Lake and tries to meet its requirements while going more crazy.

Things Havoc liked:   I know nothing of ballet, in essence, but I do know at least of Swan Lake, which is considered to be the most difficult role in existence for a starring ballerina. Though artsy bullshit does tend to bore me, this movie gets across why that is very well. It's not ballet torture porn, but it does quite effectively portray just what makes ballet so difficult, both on an artistic and a physical level.

The acting is generally excellent. Natelie Portman spends half the movie bound up like a straitjacket and the other half batshit crazy. She won an oscar for this one, an award she probably deserves for sheer insanity if nothing else. Vincent Cassel (who I love, but I often see in shit movies) is hilariously sleazy without being a complete cariacature of a jackass. He clearly wants to lord power over the ballerinas, and yet wants to make great art even more. Barbara Hershey is devilishly good as Portman's also-crazy possessive mother. She and Portman do this crazy one-upping dance throughout the movie where you constantly re-evaluate who is the crazier.

But really, the acting is just a vehicle, if not an excuse, for the psychodrama. I'm not usually fond of psychodrama, but this was supposed to be oscar-calibre psychodrama, so I figured why not. Well I don't really know if I'd call this psycho-stuff oscar calibre, but it's pretty damn good, I have to admit. The movie makes no attempt to play the "is she crazy or not" game. She is plainly, obviously crazy, and the game becomes sorting through her insanity to determine what is actually going on. If that sounds annoying, I must report that it never becomes so, a tribute to skillful direction, writing, and editing.

The imagery in this movie is fucked up. Granted, my tastes in such things are distinctly weird. I don't go in for horror movies, particularly the crazy kinds. I'm not saying the movie is scary or horrifying, but it is unsettling in the extreme. The overall psychological thriller style of the film makes these weird fantastical elements starker. Several scenes in particular, or rather images from those scenes, stand out even now, several weeks after the fact. Any movie that leaves such an impression can't be doing everything wrong.

Things Havoc disliked:   The pacing in this film sucks. Entire sections of it were added, in my opinion, just to make the thing long enough to qualify as a feature film. The entire nightclub sequence was un-necessary, and while yes, I enjoyed watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis having lesbian sex (I am human), I wish it was actually associated in some way with the actual film.

Speaking of Mila Kunis, you might have noticed that I left her out of my listing of how awesome the cast was. There's a reason for that. In a movie where everyone else is top form, it would be nice if she had played a character that was from the same planet as everyone else. I don't know that it's her fault, but 'who gives a crap' California irreverence doesn't work all that well when you're trying to portray ballet as a hotbed of insanity and dark passions. She seems stupid, and consequently Portman seems stupid for alternately being attracted to her or resenting her. Yes, Portman is crazy, but crazy and stupid are two very different things, and she pushes us towards the latter.

Final thoughts:   Someone asked me what I thought of this movie when I first saw it. I said that I was going to write this review in the following manner:

Things Havoc Liked: ?????????

Things Havoc Disliked: Pickles.

Like and dislike really don't enter into this one in the way that I assumed, when I started doing this, that all movies would. This movie was weird, not in an artsy theater-of-the-absurd way, nor in a fuck-with-the-audience way, neither of which I care for. It was weird in that time-honored manner, in which a movie is populated with weird characters in the reasonable expectation that weird shit will happen. It isn't precisely a dark film, though it is very dark in parts, nor a thriller, though it is very tense. It isn't really anything specific, and I left the theater completely baffled by what I actually thought of it. Even now, after several weeks to think it over, all I get when I think of the movie is a few striking images and a deep sense of unease. Perhaps that's a testament to a good and well-made film. Perhaps it's a complete mess. I really don't know what to say otherwise.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Alternate Title:  Would the Junior Senator from New York please cease fucking up reality?

One sentence synopsis:  A congressman running for Senate meets the girl of his dreams, only to find that a shadowy organization that secretly runs the world needs to keep them seperated because of the 'plan'.

Things Havoc liked:  I've mentioned before (in True Grit) that I'm not a big fan of Matt Damon. Most of the time, when I watch him, I find myself watching Matt Damon, not his character. While he's had good performances before, I have never found them to be as good as most people thought. I have to say though that in this movie, as well as in True Grit, I had no such trouble. Damon plays his congressman like a guy who is smart, driven, rational, and who never crosses the line into cariacature. If not an outstanding job, it is at least a very very good one. The same can be said for Emily Blunt, whom I've seen before but am not as familiar with. Both of them sell their roles well, and don't dive into overacting hysterics, even when the script would nudge them that way.

But the real surprise for me in this film was the plot, the style and the villains. The trailers for this film indicated (to me at least) that this was going to be some kind of high-speed chase thriller movie, and more specifically, an incredibly generic high-speed chase thriller movie. Already tepid in my enthusiasm for Matt Damon starring vehicles, I could not have been less interested in seeing what appeared to be "Jason Bourne vs. the Illuminati". Yet to my surprise, the film was nothing of the sort. The pacing in this movie is slow and deliberate and takes its time to let the characters act reasonably towards one another and towards the audience. The chase sequences, which are obligatory of course, are more than just people running/driving away from other people. They resemble less a typical car chase and more of a running game of chess, particularly one about halfway through the movie where we see Matt Damon trying through wit and ingenuity to get somewhere while two Adjustment Agents try, through equally careful wit and ingenuity, to stop him. There's no stupid distractions of stunts driving or parcours to get in the way. Both participants are smart people trying to outsmart one another in the heat of the moment. They don't stop for kung fu brawls or gunfights, and even talk to one another, civilly, along the way. When one person wins the race, the other does not scream to the heavens or swear eternal revenge. He takes stock and decides what to do now.

And that leads me to the biggest surprise, for me, which is the bad guys. Indeed, it's hard even to call them bad guys. For one thing, they're played with great charisma and screen presence by Anthony Ruivivar, John Slattery, and the always magnetic Terence Stamp. What they are (angels) is never explicitly stated (angels) but is broadly hinted at (angels) repeatedly (angels) and at length (angels) early in the film. The film takes great pains to portray them however as anything but the illuminati. The very first confrontation between the Adjustors and our hero results in the chief bad guy capturing the hero, taking stock of what he's done, and deciding on the spot to level with him completely and tell him the truth about everything that's happening. And then once they let him go, another bad guy stops by to answer the questions he undoubtedly has about what he's just been told. All without scenery chewing, without stupid villain tricks, and without even any real palpable malice.

Indeed, there's no malice in these guys at all, which I think is a brilliant move. We see Adjustors doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, warts and all (one of them oversleeps, and then gets hit by a car trying to fix his mistake). There are never any pretensions of omniscience for them. They react to circumstances as best they can, working out plans on the fly that sometimes fizzle unexpectedly, trying to fix the ever-expanding messes that result as best they can. When they fail, their reaction is not to execute the hero, but to file paperwork and call for backup. While there are handwaves in the direction of an "ultimate penalty" for those who transgress very seriously against the plan, their modus operandi is to prevent the issues from arising in the first place. Punishing the transgressor for violating the plan makes no sense, because the plan wasn't supposed to be transgressable in the first place. The Adjustors seem to take Damon's continued meddling as evidence that they're not doing their job properly, not as evidence that he needs to be silenced/liquidated/whatever. After all, killing Damon wasn't in the plan. When Damon's antics finally get his file pushed up to Stamp's level (A really senior official whose nickname is "the Hammer"), his strategy is not thunder and lightning, but sitting Damon down in a parking garage and reasoning with him.

I cannot insist enough on how refreshing this approach is. The Adjustors come across as Celestial Bureaucrats, and not necessarily indifferent ones. Even the "uncaring" ones are given lines and scenes that show how seriously and with what diligence they take their work, and how they deal with the inevitable thoughts of remorse or doubt about enacting a plan that most of them are not even party to. When Damon and Stamp discuss free will and predestination, Stamp's arguments are devastatingly effective and brilliantly written. He neither raises his voice nor makes threats, but efficiently and logically spells out just why he does what he does, not merely to justify himself or chew scenery, but to give real, moral reasons for the Adjustment Bureau itself. Most villains who bother to explain themselves in movies do so just so the audience can be spoonfed a parable about how "just following orders" or "ends justify the means" leads to disaster. It's rare to find a movie where you find yourself conceding that the villains are right because the movie is written well enough to permit them to be. When the movie finally ended, I found myself actually rooting for both sides.

Things Havoc disliked:   Seriously guys, magic hats?

Look, I don't mind non-standard mythology, and I don't require that everything be explained. The stuff with the doors (Adjustors are able to use doors to travel to anywhere else with a door, essentially) is fine. It works on solid mythological grounds, but more importantly, it's well within the suspension of disbelief and doesn't require explanation. But some of the mechanics of this world, such as the water stuff or the hats, are so transparently arbitrary as to render it impossible to accept, at least for me. While God may work in mysterious ways, he generally doesn't work in ones this absurd. What explanation goes into the magic hats only serves to make it worse, frankly. If you're using arbitrary magic, don't try and handwave it as though it wasn't.

The above is just a nitpick. What's more serious however is that the plot starts to disintegrate in the last third of the movie. The arbitrary rules that govern the world start having to get more arbitrary just to enable the plot to function. More unforgibably, the characters' behavior becomes more arbitrary as well, discarding the wit and intellect with which they had been acting previously. It doesn't totally throw it out the window, but there are several specific scenes wherein the characters act in a totally unrealistic manner because the plot requires it. Were this a lesser film with less well-drawn characters, it wouldn't be so obvious.

Finally, the ending, which I will not spoil, while it makes logical, and perhaps a degree of inevitable sense (and has a pretty neat camera trick to it as well), is somewhat unsatisfying. I can't really say more without giving the game away, but it felt... beneath the film somehow. Just a feeling.

Final thoughts:    I really wasn't expecting to like this film at all. Hell, I originally opted to see Tron instead, which was not the best decision I've ever made. Maybe it was my lowered expectations, but this movie impressed me with its intelligence and compitancy. It wasn't a mind-bending movie like Inception, nor a tour-de-force, but it was a damn good little flick, and one that should teach me not to necessarily judge a film by its trailer.

Unless that film is Battle: Los Angeles. Fuck that noise.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tron: Legacy

Alternate Title:  Abort.  Retry.  Ignore.

One sentence synopsis:  The son of the original Flynn goes back into the world of Tron to find his missing father.

Things Havoc liked:  I love Jeff Bridges, and I love Bruce Boxleitner. Seeing them in this film, even if Boxleitner wasn't used near enough, was fun for me, I have to admit. Boxleitner was almost unrecognizable to me, in fact for a second, I thought he was Rutger Hauer. As to Bridges, I have to admit, the age-reducing technology they used in this film was nigh-flawless. I was impressed when this stuff was rolled out back in X-men 3, but this time around I literally couldn't see any problems.

The movie does hit the notes that a sci fi action movie absolutely has to. The graphics were good, not great but good, and the soundtrack did rock, I have to say. I wasn't wild about some of the stylistic decisions made, I thought much of what was going on felt way to analogue for a Tron movie (Tron movies are supposed to be somewhat sterile, in my opinion), but it wasn't terribly distracting.

Things Havoc disliked:   You know you're in trouble when that's all I have to say for the good stuff.

The writing in this film was terrible, worse by far than the original, worse even by the standards of dumb action flicks. Every line grated, every piece of exposition was a clunker. I could almost picture the smug face of the "writer" behind this thing as he wrote the plodding, stupid sentences that he made his characters recite. The plot would be stupid if it weren't completely nonexistent. The original Tron was no Shakespeare, but it was innovative in many ways, and gained a cult following for a reason. This movie has no system of thought involved in its creation, an excuse to give us action scenes with bouncing disks and light cycles. You would think that a movie about entering into computer networks made in 2011 would have something to say about the minor alterations that have happened in the world of computers in the last twenty five years. Apparently you would think wrong.

But you know what? I get it. This is not supposed to be some kind of overwrought Matrixy philosophy movie, it's an action movie, right? Nerds like me need to stop whining on the internet about how it's "letting down the original" and just enjoy the action, right?

Okay, then answer me this, why does the action suck?

Oh BOY does it suck. The action in the first film was miles better than this crap. Needlessly complicated wire fu jiu-jitsu bullshit on the melee fighting, none of which is filmed with artistry, competency, or even real interest. Normally I get up in arms when someone uses Shaky-cam to completely obscure the action scene they have lovingly wrought, but there's no shaky-cam to blame it on this time. The action here sucks completely on its own bullshit merits. There's no sense of pacing to the fights, no cleverness, no spectacle, not even any moments of "awesome". It's nothing but boring, routine bullshit, not even to the level of gratuitously vapid spectacle action as in Equilibrium or Hitman. I've literally never seen action scenes this lifeless. They simply happen and are over and done with.

The lightcycles are particularly terrible. No, I don't mind that they shook the formula up a bit with a 3D grid, that's not the point. As with the melee fighting it has no sense of drama or mystery to it. It's simply a series of events that occur and then are over. Not even the participants seem to give a shit. Moreover, and I truly am at a loss as to how you can screw this up, Light Cycles are supposed to feel like a video game. There's a certain quality to the original that feels very gamelike, perhaps it's ineffable, I don't know. This version feels like stupid action tricks. I was bored to tears in even the "biggest" action scenes.

Finally, a word, please, on 3D. I have seen, to date, precisely one movie that warranted 3D, and that movie was the IMAX version of Avatar. Say what you will about Avatar's recycled plot and stupid characters, it was a spectacle to behold. Tron's 3D makes the film worse in every way. It makes the film murkier and harder to see, costs you the focus in even middle-foreground, and does nothing except distract from the movie itself. I actually took my glasses off about two thirds of the way through the movie and watched it, to greater effect, with my unaided eyes. This was nothing more than an attempt to extort four more dollars out of the viewing public.

Final thoughts:   Oh this movie is bad. Oh it is bad. The plot is absurd, the characters and action boring, the leads, male and female both, instantly forgettable and stupid. Jeff Bridges' original protagonist in the first movie was a nerd who was irreverent and interesting. This guy is as plain as paste and twice as boring. I could not wait for this damnable thing to end so that I could get up and leave the theater. I thought that at the very least, this movie would be an enjoyable mindless action film. One out of three ain't bad, I guess

Final Score:  2/10

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Fighter

Alternate Title:  Rocky Mark and the Crazy Bunch

One sentence synopsis:  A working-class boxer tries to get a shot at the title while dealing with his crazy family, domineering mother, and drug-addicted, ex-boxer brother.

Things Havoc liked:  I've seen Christian Bale in bad films. Terminator Salvation and Reign of Fire come to mind. But even in the worst of films, no matter how much of an asshole he may be off-screen, Bale is always good, and often amazing. In this movie, he is the latter. He plays a crack-addicted washed up ex-boxer lowlife who once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard down in a fight and is sufficiently delusional that he thinks he's going to make a comeback. It is painful to watch him, but that's the intention here, so I can't fault it. He looks emaciated, sunken, and in a perpetual drug-addled stupor from which periodic flashes of the competent boxer he was occasionally manage to bubble to the surface. I didn't see all the movies nominated for supporting actor this year, but he was good enough in my book.

I'm not a Mark Wahlberg fan, by and large. Once in a while, he turns in a really good performance, such as his showstopper in The Departed. Usually though, whenever he plays a nice guy, it comes across as schmaltzy. In this case, however, while I don't think he was as good as Bale, he sold me on it. He underplays the role considerably, and yet he sells it, locking up all his anger, an odd choice for a boxer, but one that feels surprisingly real. Moreover, he looks the part, having reportedly trained for four years in order to convincingly play this character (he is a personal friend of the real-life boxer). He didn't make me a fan, but he convinced me for this role.

The rest of the cast varies between adequate and excellent. Melissa Leo (who won best supporting actress) is the latter. She is an evil harpy of a woman who clearly doesn't recognize what a cancer she is. There are scenes where I wanted to set the screen on fire just to get rid of her. Amy Adams has some of the best lines in the movie, and does a very good job.

Things Havoc disliked:   I know that I'm supposed to ignore hype walking into a movie, but this thing was pitched to me as an academy-award level film, nominated for seven awards, including picture, and winning two of them. People I respect told me this was a superb film.

It is not.

To begin with, the direction is amateurish and sloppy. I'm no film student. I don't get a hard-on over walk-and-talk shots or novel uses of New Wave technique. But even I could tell that the pacing in this movie was crap and that many of the shots were badly put together. There are glaring moments where the shot is artificially constructed so that we never get a good look at the participants because an obvious stunt double is performing them. I don't object to the use of stunt doubles (and to be fair, none of the boxing is done by doubles), but a child could manufacture the scene so as to hide it better than that. The movie's pacing, particularly towards the end, is terrible, racing through payoff scenes that are desperately important to the plot and padding out others that don't matter at all. Subplots (such as Wahlberg's daughter) are simply dropped after they've provided their emotional punch, spoiling the generally realistic feel that the movie maintains throughout.

Moreover, while Wahlberg does look like a boxer, this movie has some of the worst boxing in it that I've seen since the bad Rocky sequels. I'm not a boxing fan, but I've seen a fight or two in my time. What this movie shows us instead is about as realistic as rock 'em sock 'em robots. Boxers stand in the middle of the ring and trade blows, or bunch one another up against the ropes and wail against one another's defenses, making no attempts to duck and weave, never sidestepping or circling, and shrugging off punches to the face that, from a professional boxer, could lay a man dead on the canvas, as if they were in a hollywood fistfight. Yes, it's nicely photographed, and there are a couple of nice moments (Wahlberg's knockout kidney punch in one fight is actually kind of awesome). Yes, movie fights are unrealistic normally. But this is a movie about boxing with a boxing match that has maintained a credible line of realism all the way through, not Indiana Jones. Rocky Balboa (the most recent one) had much better boxing in it than this film.

It also had a better plot.

Yes, this one is a true story, yadda yadda yadda. True stories do not obviate the need to make your movie work. Not to say that this movie doesn't work, but it doesn't work totally, and tragically, it's the last third or so that falls apart. The ending is way too pat (no spoilers), and the movie itself, after being so serious and real, turns, at risk of sounding repetitive, into a Rocky movie at the end. The final boxer that Wahlberg must face is arbitrarily and for no good reason at all, turned into a bad guy (more kick-the-dog moments, though mercifully less overt), and all the usual cliches are there. The only thing that keeps those scenes from reverting to utter dreck is the excellent performances by Wahlberg and especially Bale.

Final thoughts:   This is not a bad movie, by any means. It's not even a mediocre movie. But it never rises above the level of "decent". Excellent acting and writing, particularly in the first two thirds, are let down badly by the bad direction, the poor quality fighting, the horrid pacing, and the trite storyline. How this thing got so much critical acclaim, I will never understand. Still, I would recommend it if you're looking for something to see, particularly if you're a fan of Bale or (god help you) Wahlberg.

Final Score:  6/10

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