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

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sucker Punch

Alternate Title:  Dancers in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:  A traumatized girl imagines herself into various fictional worlds with her friends while concocting a plan to escape their imprisonment.

Things Havoc liked:     I was not going to see this movie at all, as I thought it looked stupid. The previews and the "Behind the scenes" look I saw at various other films I've gone to see were all idiotic. Zack Snyder is obsessed at the best of times with his own style, and it's one that gets old pretty damn fast. In my own defense, I will simply say that I was talked into seeing it by a combination of an entreaty from a friend of mine, and the fact that I simply couldn't find any other damn thing to see. After Tron and Kill the Irishman, I was very much not looking forward to this, but I sucked it up and sat down.



... so I'm just gonna come out and say it. This is the best movie I've seen all year.


No, this is not a joke.

Trust me, I'm as stunned by this as anyone reading this review. I sat through the entire credits of this film in a daze, not because I wanted to see them, but because I could not believe what had just happened. This movie, which looked so terrible in the previews, which has gotten excoriated by largely every major reviewer I know of, which should have been godawful in every way, this movie, was awesome.

Zach Snyder is known for over-the-top stylized action sequences. See 300 for details. It gets old after a while watching him speed up and slow down and speed up some more as his invincible heroes slaughter defenseless mooks. Or at least that's what I thought. Snyder here presents action scenes that simply boil over with energy and life. No shakycam, no camera obscura, no bullshit. This is a man who knows how to create gorgeous action spectacles, and presents them to you relentlessly and with verve and vigor. Every single action sequence in this film could easily serve as the centerpiece of any major big budget action movie, and yet they just keep coming. We go from steampunk WWI to Robo-Samurai duels to a fire-breathing dragon chasing a B-17 through the air and on and on and on it goes. You'd think that after a while, battle fatigue would set in, and yet, for me at least, it never does (okay the last one did go on a bit long, but still). The surreal style of the action, which is not something I'm usually fond of (Sky Captain anyone?) fits here so well, and the fighting never seems sterile or uninteresting, the way that a lot of effects-laden action sequences often are (Star Wars Prequels anyone?)

On the level of a stupid action film, this movie works and works brilliantly, and yet to my surprise that's not the only level it works on. The acting is, even in the non-surreal sequences, almost entirely excellent, with the lion's share of the props going to the villain, played by Guatamalan actor Oscar Isaac. I've seen him before in a thing or two, but I've never been impressed before. Here he delivers a performance that's just spectacular. He's menacing and witty, erudite and slimy, incredibly threatening and also wormlike and toadish when he needs to be. The girls are generally very good, particularly Abbie Cornish, another actor I've seen before but never really noticed, and Carla Gugino, who seems to be doing a sendup to Nathasha Fatale. Scott Glenn, who is always a pleasure to watch, is plainly having fun this time around, and does a terrific (if not terribly demanding) job.

The soundtrack rocks. I don't notice that sort of thing usually, but it was done so brilliantly well this time. The entire opening scene of the film is told with no dialogue or words at all, just the music and the pictures. It remains uniformly kick ass throughout the entire film. Who would have thought that Bjork goes well with swordfighting?

The plot is perhaps nothing to write home about, it's a fairly simple story, after all, but told with great care and skill by the director. Moreover, for those who think they've seen the entire film in the previews, you could not be more wrong. This movie managed to surprise me more than once. It's not Inception, but it does have some twists to take you on, more than one might expect from a movie of this sort. I was impressed.

Things Havoc disliked:   Sadly, the only weak link in the cast is Emily Browning, who unfortunately plays the main character. She's not terrible certainly, she sells the action scenes perfectly well, and it's actually her music on the aforementioned rocking soundtrack more than once. But her acting is too wooden for this part, and frankly, her makeup is ridiculous. Her character's name is Babydoll, and she is made to look the part, complete with too much blush and pigtails. It just looks absurd on a girl her age. Compared to the other actors, especially Isaac, she just doesn't have the firepower to compete in the tense or dramatic scenes. Still, one can't have everything.

Everything else I could object to is nothing but nitpicks. The last action scene does drag on a bit, and is probably the least inventive of all four, which is a great shame. The color palate is all browns and sepias in the fighting scenes, though that is much less of an issue in this film because the scenes in reality are usually in vibrant color, providing an effective contrast. The plot is fairly simple and the some of the characters aren't terribly... well... characterized, but not enough to be really offputting. The movie is not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I would be lying if I said that there was more than ten seconds where I was consciously aware of any flaws while I was watching it.

Final thoughts:   I'm at a loss for words here. This movie should have been terrible. In fact, I have a sneaky suspicion that it was terrible, and that I am insane. Every single major film critic I know, every one without exception, hated this film. I've seen it called "The Last Airbender with Bustiers". I read these reviews and I question what movie it was that these reviewers saw. This movie is a triumph of style and directorial skill, gorgeous and satisfying and astonishingly competent, not merely in action, but in acting and dramatic tension. It is badass when it needs to be, coy when it needs to be, tense when it needs to be, and completely off-the-wall when it needs to be.

I am not a man who indulges in stupid action flicks by and large, unless they are done with wit and skill (or are from the 80s). I hated Shoot Em Up, loathed the Blade films (other than the first one), and despised Tron Legacy (as you all know). Yet this movie sold me in a way that I did not believe I could be sold. The closest comparison I have for it is the Kill Bill films, movies I loved, and yet others who are aficionados of the genre hated.

There is no more defense that I can make here. I do not know what else to say. Every critic in the country who saw this film hated it. Many of them are erudite film scholars who can and do defend their opinion at length. I cannot ask you in good conscience to believe that all of them are crazy, and that I am right, and yet it is what I am ultimately saying. The year is still young, but this movie is the best one I have seen so far, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.

God help us all.

Final Score:  8/10

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