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.

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