Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

Alternate Title:  Tarantino Unleashed

One sentence synopsis:  A former slave and a German dentist team up to bring down criminal slavocrats in the Antebellum South.

Things Havoc liked:  I can take or leave most of Quentin Tarantino's films. Pulp Fiction aside, his movies are always elaborate affairs that try to ride the line between a glorious spectacle and a colossal train-wreck, not always with success. And as Tarantino has grown older, his tendency to push his films to the limit of what a movie structure will support has only become stronger, with results such as 2009's Inglorious Basterds, a painfully uneven film that alternated scenes of incredible tension and skill with scenes torn directly from the giggling 13-year-old parts of Tarantino's brain. Yet it can't be denied that somewhere beneath the winking homages, self-indulgent dialogue and immature artifice, Tarantino is an extremely skilled director and writer, who seems to visualize movies in a way that many have tried to imitate (I'm looking at you, David Mamet), but never have successfully replicated. And so we come to Django Unchained.

Good directors tend to attract good actors to work for them, and Tarantino is no exception. Django Unchained employs the services of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Don Johnson, alongside Tarantino regulars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, all portraying various larger-than-life characters with appropriately weird manners of speech and motivations, inhabiting a stylized version of the late 1850s South. Waltz, in particular, is absolutely superb (as he was in Inglorious Basterds), playing a German Dentist-turned-Bounty Hunter comprised of equal parts Doc Holiday and John Brown. Despite the absurdity of his character's existence, he is never anything but straight with the material, indulging neither in histrionics nor even in outright rudeness as he cheerfully guns down criminals and scum of various sort. It is he who inducts vengeful slave Django (Foxx) into the business of bounty hunting, a role which Foxx seems to have decided to play via channeling his character from Collateral. Given the outright insanity going on around these two however, this is not a terrible choice, and Foxx manages to hold the movie down with a simple glassy-eyed stare and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, eschewing the comic lunacy that Brad Pitt brought to his starring role in Basterds.

The antagonists are equally good. DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a sadistic monster of a plantation owner cloaked in all the charm of southern gentility, who not only engages in slavery on a grand and horrific scale, but promotes a barbaric form of slave-gladiating called Mandingo, in which strong slaves beat one another to death for the pleasure (and wagers) of their owners. DiCaprio's performance is nothing terribly nuanced, but he manages to evoke the slimy bastard aspects of the character without ever turning completely into a Bond villain, grounding the character in something we could actually picture existing in the antebellum South. But far more interesting is Jackson, known normally for over-the-top screaming tirades and badass one liners, who here plays Stephen, a suspicious, elderly slave who serves as DiCaprio's Head House Slave and chief confidante. I have seen Samuel L. Jackson do strange things in movies (usually Tarantino ones), but I've never seen anything like this character before, an ingratiating, submissive Uncle Tom-style pastiche who moreso even than Candie himself, seems hellbent on ensuring that the plantation system persists in all ways despite the efforts of Foxx and Waltz to subvert it. A superb sequence halfway through the film reveals the extent to which Stephen has internalized the slave system, to the point where even the borderline sociopathic Candie is entirely reliant on Stephen to help maintain order within his house.  Indeed, it is Stephen, in many ways, who serves as the primary antagonist of the film.

Tarantino's intent with Django Unchained was to make a spaghetti western about slavery, and in all the hullaballoo around the latter part of that statement, the former part, I fear, has been forgotten. As usual, when Tarantino wants to pay homage to an older genre of filmmaking, he is nigh-flawless. The soundtrack features songs by (among others) Ennio Morricone himself, as well as a number of contemporary pieces to punctuate more tongue-in-cheek moments. The cinematography is straight out of a 60s Eastwood western, with spontaneous super-zooms and mid-scene title crawls. This isn't to say that the film is bereft of more modern elements however, as Tarantino never misses an opportunity to poke fun at the absurdity of everything, be it either with a single line ("You chose to wear that?") or an entire scene (Lynch mobs and their masks). And all along, Tarantino maintains a wonderful rhythm, never skimping on blood and gore when appropriate, yet perfectly capable of drawing great tension out of a scene that consists of nothing but polite dialogue.

Things Havoc disliked:  And then, just like that, it all falls apart.

I had a vague premonition that this might happen. All through the first two hours of this enormous film, I could practically see Tarantino forcing himself to behave, to focus, to restrain his usual obsession with extreme spectacle and ludicrous ultra violence. You could almost feel the tension in between the shots, as Tarantino gritted his teeth and restrained his impulses, letting out only the occasional, sudden explosion of violence. It was an admirable effort, one greater than that evidenced in Tarantino's two previous films, but sadly the leopard cannot change its spots, and Tarantino's restraint could only hold for so long. And when that restraint fails... oh brother, this becomes an entirely different film.

In the space of thirty seconds, what had once been an entertaining, semi-farcical, semi-realistic deconstruction of Gone-With-the-Wind, Merry Plantation hagiographies of the Old South was transformed before my eyes into an orgiastic bloodfest of proportions that made the machine gunning of Hitler in Inglorious Basterds look subtle. Literally shedding large chunks of the main cast, the movie morphed into a crude revenge flick, hateful and contemptuous of all of its characters, setting, and large sections of the audience watching it. It was as though Tarantino, having held out for so long, simply could not control himself any longer, and hurled every violent impulse that crossed his mind onto the screen, whether his movie had earned these things or not.  It's not as if I'm against movie violence, nor as though the movie had previously been PG-rated, but the sudden downshift the movie takes into full on insanity is so thunderously at odds with everything it had previously done that the result is to torpedo the entire film. The last 30 minutes or so play out as an escalating series of violent catastrophes, wherein the movie robs itself of all pretenses of wit or interest by the simple means of eliminating the characters that previously interested us, and mutilating the character of those that it doesn't eliminate. By the end of the film, characters are killing other characters simply because they are white, or because Tarantino thought it would be funny (or perhaps both), entirely discarding everything that it had spent the last two hours laboriously establishing.

Final thoughts:   Spike Lee, in explaining why he did not intend to go see this film, described it as disrespectful to his ancestors, and demeaning to the tragedy of slavery. I tend not to take seriously the opinions of those who would criticize movies they haven't seen, but in this case, I actually see his point. The Washington Times, meanwhile, lambasted this film as hateful, racist twaddle that treats all white people, irrespective of guilt, as devils to be purged from existence. As before, I tend not to take seriously the opinions of authors who go on to complain about liberals being deluded adherents to an anti-white agenda, yet in this particular case, I can once more see the point. For much of its length, the movie successfully rode the line between offensive and insightful.  Yet having watched it suffer the cinematic equivalent of an apoplectic fit in the middle of a scene and vomit all over its own shoes, I cannot judge it in the context that I was prepared to even ten minutes before that fateful moment.  Despite this, it remains true that the first 80% of the film is something of a return to form for Tarantino, reminiscent of his better work of years past. What, ultimately, you make of this odd combination will have to be up to you, as even now, a full day later, I have difficulty determining if I liked the movie or not.

"I couldn't resist," says a character in this film at the very moment of catastrophe, as though Tarantino knew, on some level, what had happened, and was offering us his explanation. But while that explanation may well be the truth, we the viewers are still left standing dazed in the aftermath of Tarantino's explosive derailment, peering through the wreckage to try and discern what it was we were enjoying so much just a few short minutes before.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Alternate Title:  Once More Unto the Text

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins undertakes an adventure with Gandalf and thirteen exiled Dwarves to try and reclaim the kingdom of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  I was really worried about this one.

The Lord of the Rings films of 2001-2003 were a turning point in my appreciation of cinema. Not only were the movies themselves spectacular adaptations of a notoriously unfilmable book series, they were spectacular adaptations of the holy bible of fantasy literature itself, movies that stunned me with how carefully they brought the lovingly-crafted world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life. Though there were some lingering issues that could be brought up concerning the films, particularly the last one, they were seminal works of fantasy film, and everything produced in that genre since then has borne their stamp. Yet good as the Lord of the Rings movies were, my reaction to the news that a new trilogy was being prepared for the Hobbit brought up uncomfortable comparisons in my mind (and others') to the last time a noted filmmaker with a brilliant trilogy of films decided to make a new trilogy of prequels. And given Peter Jackson's directorial resume since the Lord of the Rings (the mediocre Lovely Bones and the even more mediocre King Kong), I had a bad feeling that we were about to get the equivalent of Lord of the Rings: Episode 1.

Well thank God, that's not what happened.

The Hobbit is a grand return to form for Jackson and his band of New Zealand fantasy-makers, a reunion tour by a band that was simply too good at what they did to break up permanently, picking up where the Lord of the Rings left off (figuratively-speaking) without so much as a missed step. From an opening sequence every bit as good as the famous one from Fellowship of the Ring, to another thematic, epic score by Howard Shore, there is no mistaking this film for anything but another professional, reverent venture into Middle Earth. More important than the crew and style however, is the overall feel of the film, which manages to wring pathos and epic stakes from a story that in all honesty is not terribly well supplied with either. The Hobbit, a children's tale written twenty years before the Lord of the Rings, was much more of a lighthearted romp than its sequel, but while Jackson never does away with the comedic elements that served the original book so well (particularly in the first third), the movie is quite conscious of the fact that we as an audience, unlike Tolkien, know exactly where this story is eventually going, and the epic feel of the Lord of the Rings is never far from the surface of the film.

The cast for the hobbit is cobbled together from roughly equal parts returning LOTR veterans and newly-cast actors, a mixture which on the whole does the movie great credit. The best of the new actors are (fittingly) the two leads, Martin Freeman, playing a younger Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage, playing the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Freeman in particular, I have to admit, surprised the hell out of me. The original Lord of the Rings movies were not badly acted by any stretch of the imagination, but the epic scope of the films was such that individual acting performances were not precisely the point (not that this stopped Sean Astin or Vigo Mortenson from doing phenomenal jobs). The Hobbit, by contrast, for all the Sturm und Drang of its epic battle sequences, is a more human-scale (hobbit-scale) tale, and Freeman delivers a wonderful interpretation of Bilbo to anchor it. His Bilbo Baggins is perhaps the most grounded character of any Lord of the Rings related movie ever, a calm, rational hobbit of little pretense and deep reserves of good sense. A complete contrast to both Frodo and Sam, Freeman's Bilbo is never hysterical, never absurd, never reduced to food-jokes or outright farce, but a reasonable little hobbit in a world so much larger than himself. Yet lest this sound boring, his unfailingly non-theatrical response to the terrors and wonders he is put through actually makes the character much more relatable than I expected him to be. When over the course of the film he must make decisions of tremendous import, draw lines in the sand, or stand in defense of friends against forces overwhelmingly greater than himself, we sense the fires that burn within him, all without ever needing them dragged out in some elaborate exposition dump. Moreso than any version of the story I've ever seen, including the original book, this movie showed me what it was that Gandalf the Wizard saw in Bilbo the Hobbit to volunteer him on the Quest of Erebor.

But if Bilbo was excellent, Thorin is damn near as good. The film draws very heavily from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, as well as other aspects of the wider lore (the joke about the nameless Blue Wizards was a beautiful shout out to aficionados), and one of the primary beneficiaries is the character of Thorin Oakenshield. We get a full investigation of his backstory, from the fall of Erebor to the Battle of Moria, and are shown his character in all its glory, good points and bad. Better still, the filmmakers decided here to deviate from Tolkien by substituting in Azog, Orc-King of Moria, as Thorin's personal nemesis, grounding the story in much more of a character-centric theme than the rather generic adventure-quest of the original book. It is, perhaps, presumption to amend the work of the Grandmaster of Fantasy, but if anyone can do it and succeed, it is clearly Peter Jackson, and the end result is to pin the film's narrative to the twin poles of two characters we get to know, and like, very well. It's hard to go wrong in such cases.

Things Havoc disliked:  I could nerd out here, of course, about the fact that Glamdring and Orcrist should both properly glow the way Sting does, about how the Necromancer was supposed to have been established in Dol Guldur long before the book started, and other minor gripes the sort of which I would notice and most would not. But rather than display nerd cred, perhaps it's best we discuss battle fatigue instead.

Battle Fatigue is a term that I encountered some time ago (it might have been of Peter Jackson's invention, now that I think about it) for the dazed, apathetic reaction that overcomes an audience when they have been given an overload of action sequences one after the next, despite the fact that the images they are seeing would appear to be epic and interesting. The Star Wars Prequels were perhaps the ur-example of Battle Fatigue, where all the efforts of ten thousand computer animators laboring for the better part of a decade left me staggeringly underwhelmed (not that those films didn't have other flaws...). Nothing in the Hobbit is nearly that bad, mind you, but by the midpoint of the film, having already seen something like seven separate action/spectacle sequences, I have to confess that it all began to run together. The warg riders' chase sequence, though inventive enough (I shall not spoil what one of the participants is riding in), went on far too long and wound up actually becoming boring, while a segment in the mountains with Storm Giants battling in the midst of a hurricane actually managed, despite the subject matter, to be completely forgettable, coming as it did on the heels of several other "epic" sequences within twenty minutes. Though the film does manage to recover itself by the end (mostly by slowing the pacing down), I was reminded while watching these sequences of the Fellowship of the Ring, a three-hour movie with only two real action sequences, yet both of which I can remember vividly, shot for shot, some decade later. I do not expect the same will be true of any of the Hobbit's scenes.

Additionally, the Hobbit as a source material is a different beast than the Lord of the Rings, being less than a quarter as long and written at a time when Tolkien's universe was not yet fleshed out. As I mentioned above, the filmmakers made the wise decision to pad the movie's material with appendices and other bits of the legendarium, but what I did not mention was how shoehorned some of these sequences are. A scene in Rivendell with the White Council transparently exists as a sort of nerd-fanservice, wherein characters appear because nerds like them, and not because there is anything particularly meaningful for them to do. Galadriel has become a caricature of herself as the "all-knowing, wise elf-spirit" (which, I grant, is something that afflicted her in the last two LOTR movies too), while Saruman's brief cameo makes him appear like the stupid father in a teenagers-save-the-world movie, nitpicking insignificant matters as a way of appearing like the designated 'future bad guy'. Maybe there was foreshadowing being done, I don't know, but at some point, Saruman was considered a respected, wise Councillor. This depiction makes him out to be Principal Vernon from the Breakfast Club, whose sole concern in the world is that nobody ever be allowed to take any action for any reason. I get that Saruman probably has ulterior motives for this obsession, but he's supposed to be addressing Istari Angels and Elf-Lords, not sheepish underlings terrified of displeasing him. Surely one of the multi-millenia-old Immortal Kings listening to this harangue would get an inkling of the notion that Saruman might be the wrong guy to come to with such concerns.

Final thoughts:   Advance buzz on the Hobbit was not good when I went to see it, and at time of writing, remains decidedly mixed, yet despite the criticisms I leveled above, I must confess my disappointment in those who have been spilling so much virtual ink comparing it unfavorably with the original trilogy. No, the Hobbit is probably not as good as the other Lord of the Rings movies, though I will mention that both Return of the King and Two Towers had glaring holes in them corrected only by the release of the director's cuts. Still, it is true that by the lofty standard of yesteryear, the Hobbit falls short, and it is also true that those movies are the natural point of comparison for it. Yet those who end the discussion there, I believe, miss the point. The Lord of the Rings changed filmmaking in a fundamental sense, to the point where every movie with an even slightly fantastical structure made since then, from Avatar to 300 to Pan's Labyrinth, Harry Potter, and even Twilight, has borne the stamp of the Lord of the Rings. To expect the same filmmaker to return once more to the same well that he drew his original masterpiece from and come up with something as radically different from all its fellows as he did the first time, is simply to delude oneself. Filmmakers have spent ten years attempting to replicate the Lord of the Rings, some of them successfully. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Hobbit does not astonish us as its predecessor did?

Ultimately, you can look at this film in two ways. You can say it represents the weakest of Peter Jackson's Tolkien-derived movies to date. Or you can reflect on the fact that after four epic films, the worst thing you can say about the weakest of Peter Jackson's movies is that it isn't as good as the other three.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Best at what he Does

One sentence synopsis:  An alcoholic airline pilot tries to deal with the aftermath of a plane crash in which he saved hundreds of lives.

Things Havoc liked:  Captain Whitaker wakes up in a hotel room with a stewardess, after a blackout night of alcohol and drugs. He deals with his ex-wife over the phone, angrily, and then drinks gin and snorts cocaine to wake himself up. He makes his way to the airport, and boards a plane, wherein he drinks vodka out of sight of anyone else, and hides the empty bottles in the trash. His Blood Alcohol level is three times the legal limit for drunk driving, and the personnel on the plane know that something is drastically wrong with him. And yet nobody says anything whatsoever, because Captain Whitaker is the pilot of the airplane. And in half an hour, he will unquestionably save the lives of almost everyone on board.

So begins Flight, a movie by Robert Zemeckis, one of the great directors of the last thirty years, whose credits include Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forest Gump, and right away, Zemeckis has forked us on the prongs of a contradiction. Captain Whitaker, played by the incomparable Denzel Washington, is a drunk, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and yet despite everything, a genuine hero, whose daring, skill, and coolness in an emergency saves the lives of 96 people on board his plane. These two facts are incontrovertible, apparent to everyone in the film and out of it, and yet the movie is not about whether or not Whitaker is these things. The movie is about how we, how everyone else, and most importantly, how Whitaker himself can square them together.

If Training Day (or Glory) taught us anything, it's that Denzel Washington is at his best when playing roles outside his previous straight-laced image, and sure enough, Washington is excellent in this role. Whitaker is a fascinating person, a raging alcoholic whose capacity to hold himself together enough to function (with the occasional assistance of drugs) is beyond anything we normally see in film. Most movie alcoholics act like pastiches of Irish drunks, or sobbing gutter-trash seeking for redemption they don't believe they deserve. Whitaker is a functioning alcoholic, an excellent pilot, capable of, despite a raging hangover, extemporaneously speaking to the press without being discovered as drunk. We see him undergo the crash, the aftermath, see the wolves beginning to circle as a toxicology report finds evidence of his drinking, and lawyers debate what should be done with a man who was clearly drunk on duty, but without whom not one soul would have survived the crash. As it proceeds, and the drinking begins to take hold of Whitaker, Washington's performance becomes increasingly hard to watch, even 'cringeworthy' (in the words of a viewing companion), yet it never loses our attention, nor becomes less effective. It may not be Washington's best performance, but it's definitely in the discussion.

Zemekis is a world-class director, and for his return to live action, he has assembled an excellent supporting cast. John Goodman plays a drug dealer that seems to be taken straight out of a 70s film, whose small time on screen is absolutely riveting, while Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle play lawyers of various types, more or less acquainted with the truth about Whitaker, and whose agendas force them into covering for him even if they would prefer not to. Yet the movie is not really about a procedural coverup, nor about the relationships between these men and Whitaker. To an extent, it is about Nicole, a Heroin addict played by Sherlock Holmes' Kelly Reilly, whom Whitaker meets in the hospital and has a relationship with afterwards. And yet ultimately it isn't about Nicole either, but about Whitaker, who he is, what he is, and how we, the audience, are supposed to take him.

Things Havoc disliked:  All of which would be fine if the movie didn't raise some serious questions about what's going on here.

The film is very, very clear that the crash was caused by mechanical failure. The specific part that led to the aircraft's failure is highlighted in a public hearing by the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. The aircraft's black box shows Captain Whitaker as being in control and command for the entire crash landing process, including performing an incredible stunt to stabilize the plane, inverting it into a roll and then locating a place to put it down. Cheadle's character informs Whitaker at one point that ten veteran pilots were placed in simulators of the accident, and all ten crashed and killed everyone aboard. None of the facts surrounding the crash appear to be in question.

So given that, what in the hell are we doing here?

Yes, Whitaker is a drunk and a drug abuser. These facts are not in question. Yes, it is illegal to fly an airplane under the influence of alcohol. This is also not in question. But the investigation into the crash quickly seems to turn into a witch hunt to "get" Whitaker, despite literal mountains of evidence that his drinking had nothing whatsoever to do with the crash, and that his presence in the cockpit directly led to the survival of the passengers of the plane. Given the heroic nimbus that immediately encircled Captain Sullenberger three years ago when he managed to ditch his broken airliner in the Hudson River, I admit that I don't see what in the hell would prompt the NTSB or anyone else to conduct the inquisition that they do into Whitaker's drinking. Granted, Whitaker is an out-of-control drunk who should not be flying, but we get no sense throughout the film of why the head prosecutor wishes to go after him, no idea of what her agenda actually is in attacking a genuine hero, nor in what backlashes she may face for doing so. With no evidence that Whitaker's drinking had anything to do with anything, and plausible explanations for what caused the crash in-hand, we are forced to assume motivations that don't exist for the government's pursuit of Whitaker. He clearly saved lives. He clearly did not cause the plane to crash. Why threaten him with manslaughter charges?

Final thoughts:   I suppose the answer to my question above is 'drama', which is fair enough I guess, and the question of why Whitaker is going through all this is secondary when you stop and think about it. Flight is a picture that knows what it is about, and tells us its story without feeling the need to up the stakes above what they already are, letting us make our own conclusions up about the main character and what should be done with him. It is admittedly very hard to watch at times, to the point where it may well enter into that nebulous category of movies that are good, but that I don't want to see any more of (Bad Lieutenant, Sophie's Choice, Leaving Las Vegas). But if you can't separate the quality of a movie from how nasty its subject matter is, then honestly, you've no business watching movies at all.

Final Score:  7/10

Life of Pi

Alternate Title:  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Script

One sentence synopsis:  An Indian boy must survive a shipwreck in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.

Things Havoc liked:  There are Ang Lee movies I like (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain) and Ang Lee movies I hate (Hulk, oh god, Hulk), but there are no Ang Lee movies that I find boring or uninteresting to look at. Ang Lee is a stylistic filmmaker who produces visually stunning work, even when the result is a plodding mess, and whose visual style is so distinctive that other directors get accused of "Ang Leeing" things when they go too far into visual artifice. Lest I sound negative, the primary consequence of Lee's obsession with the perfect image is that every movie he makes is stunningly distinctive, burnt into your mind by virtue of the repeated use of distinctive imagery, the focus of which is unlike that of any other director's movies. Unlike some of his contemporaries (Terrence Malick, for instance), Lee doesn't use visual images to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say, nor even to say anything in particular, permitting the images to stand on their own, under assumption that a perfect shot is its own justification. In Life of Pi, we get two such repeated images, a boat, raft, or swimmer, suspended in water of perfect mirror-clarity, and the alien glow of bio-luminescent plankton agitated by other creatures, aquatic or otherwise. What from any other director would be artifice, is from Lee a simple appreciation of the camera's ability to show us magnificent things.

Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name (unread by me), is a slow, deliberate film, meandering carefully from one sequence to the next with little care as to what one thing has to do with another in favor of showing, much like Cloud Atlas of a few weeks ago, a range of human experience. The central thread is the life of the main character, Pi Patel, a boy named for the french word for swimming pool (long story), who, even before the shipwreck that gets the 'plot' moving has already mediated on the nature of God and spirituality, converted to three religions, and memorized the famous number that serves as his other namesake to about the ten thousandth digit. Played at various ages by different actors, the character's primary portrayer is Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job with a movie that requires him to spend the better part of two hours acting by himself against green screens and CGI animals added in post-production. One has only to look at the Star Wars prequels to know how well that strategy usually turns out, but Sharma's performance is orders of magnitude better than anything found in those disasters. His Pi is resourceful and clever, deeply reflective, at times overwhelmed by his ordeal and at other times confident and collected in the face of it. He turns what could be a artsy version of Castaway into something far more special.

Indeed, this movie surprised me primarily because of what it is not. It is not a story about survival against the odds, not really. Pi is stuck in a situation wherein he might be expected to die, but his lifeboat is well equipped with food, water, survival equipment, and even instructions on their use, and the movie does not linger on the usual torments of being lost and adrift, preferring to concentrate on the spiritual experience of the character. Yet it is also not a Terrence-Malick-like whimsical mediation on the transitory nature of life. Though the film is narrated (and with a framing story), it does not consist of people reciting poetry over shots of clouds. Instead, apart from a few well-done visual explorations of the world beneath the ocean, the movie stays reasonably grounded in what the protagonist does, and why he does it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, there are also other things the movie is not, and one of them is 'focused'. The entire first third of the film is essentially irrelevant to everything in the last two, dealing as it does with Pi's childhood, his introductions to spirituality, his relationship with his father, mother, uncle, girlfriend, and the rest of his life in the family zoo in Pondicherry, India. Not that I object to biographical material, but nothing that Pi goes through with the exception of his brief interactions with the tiger, have any impact on anything that happens in the remainder of the film. It would be one thing if this was merely a framework to understand the character's actions later in the film, but not even the spirituality of the main character is really entered into throughout the remainder of the film, leading me to assume that this stuff was added either to pad out the length, satisfy fans of the book, or both.

There's also some concepts that just clash with one another. The movie starts out rigorously non-fantastical, preferring instead to see the beauty of ordinary things iterated throughout space and time. But midway through the film, the castaways land at a floating island made of what appears to be living Mangrove trees and covered in Meerkats, which as it turns out is a single, living, carnivorous organism. This concept is so strange and so at odds with the realistic feel that the movie has overall been maintaining until this point that it knocks us out of the flow of the story. Moreover, the whole escapade seems to have nothing to do with anything else.  Pi visits the island, sees what lies upon it, discovers its secret, and then leaves. Neither anything before nor anything after this point is enhanced by his visit. He discovers no truths and learns no lessons here, it is simply a even which happens and is over.  So what exactly was the point?

Final thoughts:   That's really the issue I have with Life of Pi in general. The movie is well shot, well acted, and manages despite the 3D to avoid looking like a grainy newsreel (not that the 3D adds anything, but what do you want?). The story is reasonably engaging, and strange enough to keep our interest. But if there's an overall thread running through everything, then I missed it completely. None of the movie's eclectic notions of spirituality, religion, cross-species empathy, or survival seem to actually have anything to do with any other thing, as though the movie was assembled at random from whatever Ang Lee thought would make for a compelling image. As a result, while the film is well made, there's just no greater substance to it but a series of pretty pictures, laden at times with pretenses of meaning, but nothing to back it up. Cloud Atlas this ain't.

Final Score:  7/10

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Last, Full Measure

One sentence synopsis:  Abraham Lincoln struggles to get the 13th Amendment passed through congress before the end of the war makes it impossible.

Things Havoc liked:  Daniel Day Lewis is one of my least-favorite great actors. Method to a fault, he throws himself into his films like a madman, with the predictable result that his movies are often wholly mad. Gangs of New York, in which he played a raving maniac, was a muddled, chaotic mess of a film that lost itself in artifice and stylization. There will be Blood, in which he also played a raving maniac, was a languid, boring piece of crap, livened only by a hunched-over Day-Lewis screaming incoherently about milkshakes. Though there are movies of his I've liked, they've either been due to factors other than him (Last of the Mohicans) or films where his tendency to devolve into histrionics served the film well (The Crucible). Though on some objective scale he is reckoned a great actor, I must admit that I questioned his casting as Abraham Lincoln, a man whose biography, I felt, was not conducive to the typical soul-baring rage-against-the-heavens that Day-Lewis tends to inflict on his audiences.

Well apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Lincoln, a biopic based loosely on the pioneering biography "Team of Rivals", is one of the greatest biographies ever committed to film, and the majority of the credit is due to Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether by consultation with the production team, his own obsessive method preparations, or both, Lewis presents us with a Lincoln unlike any we've seen before, and yet better, by far, than all of the others. The movie takes place (rather surprisingly to me) in the last few months of Lincoln's presidency, and we see him as a bent, exhausted man, wearied by four years of seemingly ceaseless slaughter, yet still empowered with reserves of will sufficient to take on yet another bitter battle because of an opportunity he alone perceives as existing. His voice is high and almost reedy, infused with the mid-western twang that so many Lincoln actors forget he must have possessed, and his manner is folksy and informal, and his penchant for tall tales and Aesopian parables is such that he drives members of his cabinet out of the room with the mere mention of the phrase "I am reminded of the story...". More shocking to me, there is here no trace of the violent, brooding madness that Day-Lewis previously seemed to mistake as 'pathos' in so many of his previous characters. Capable though he is of deep feeling, he only occasionally lets it break out, and then quickly thrusts it back inside, understanding instead the need to be the man that others expect him to be. Only once, in the entire film, does Day-Lewis explode into the sort of tirade that his previous films were so studded with, and in that case he is easily upstaged by a genuine lunatic.

Speaking of which, Lincoln carries with it a cast of supporting actors to die for. Sally Field, who I like more and more as she gets older, plays the infamous Mary Todd Lincoln, who in her own words in this film, is "remembered only for being crazy and ruining [Lincoln's] life." Field plays Mary Todd as a woman who is borderline crazy, yes, but who has been crazy for a long time, and who has, along with her husband, come to terms with her own conditions to a point. She and Lincoln fight, even rage at one another in thunderous bombast, but she retains enough self-awareness to cut dead her husband's political adversaries with weaponized remarks, to play the part of the first lady when necessary, and to indulge in the political intrigues of the day. Other roles include that always dependable David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward, a polished statesman still rankling somewhat beneath Lincoln's backwoods aphorisms and seemingly impossible requests, but who quite clearly has come to be in awe of the President whose greatness so clearly eclipses everyone's including his own. Tommy Lee Jones, who recently has taken to playing himself in every film, here plays Thaddeus Stevens, a firebrand radical abolitionist, who must set aside his own distrust of Lincoln's moderation to force a bill outlawing slavery forever through a hostile congress. Jones' performance isn't a terribly grand departure from his usual fare, but he benefits by getting fed some of the best lines, standing up in the House of Representatives and denouncing his opponents with savage, biting wit. If nothing else, this film provides a counterpoint to anyone who claims that bitter partisanship is somehow a new development.

Steven Spielberg is a director whose name was once a byword for quality, but whose tendencies towards schmaltz and sappiness have overwhelmed him of late (AI, War of the Worlds, War Horse). But Lincoln serves as a reminder of just how effective Spielberg can be when he chooses. With one brief exception early in the film, the movie is shot entirely without battle sequences or fights of any kind, concentrating instead on the details, sometimes the exacting details, of congressional procedure and political dealmaking. We watch as Lincoln's team of fixers (led by an unrecognizable James Spader) seeks to bribe, cajole, and threaten various congressmen into voting for the bill, go through lengthy debates and speeches that deal with arcane rules of governmental protocol and hear over and again Lincoln standing firm against what appears to be his entire cabinet as they try and convince him that the Thirteenth Amendment cannot (or should not) be passed). And yet somehow, not only is this material not boring, it is positively riveting, shot as it is in such a manner as to allow these towering figures of history to show the import of the tremendous events they are participating in. Far too much historical material regarding the Civil War and slavery is presented from a modern perspective, investing the "good" characters with qualities anachronistic to the times so as to force our identification with the side of right. Yet the movie here, without disfiguring the context of its history, portrays all of the players in 1865 as being well aware of what history they were making, and the seriousness and passion with which the movie and the characters treat the subject at hand is infectious, turning what could have been a Ken Burns documentary into a vision of living history, timeless and timely all at once.

Things Havoc disliked:  When the film is dealing with issues of weight and gravitas, it is faultless, but there are occasions when it deals with other matters, to its own disservice. The entire sub-plot with Robert Lincoln, who wishes to enlist in the army over the objections of his mother and father is not badly handled, but comes across as a very pedestrian subject by comparison to everything else being done. Moreover, as Robert is played by the increasingly ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt, these sequences served only to remind me of the fact that I'm not a great fan of his, despite his excellent turns in The Dark Knight Rises or Inception. Gordeon-Levitt doesn't do a bad job, but the material he gets to play with is far less compelling than everything else, and he does not have the services of half a dozen superb, veteran actors to call upon in support of his major scenes.

The movie also does go a bit overboard near the end, when it becomes time to hold the climactic vote to decide whether the 13th amendment will pass or not. I appreciate that the issue was closely fought for, and that it serves here as the climax of the film itself, but the slow, lengthy recitation of what must be every single congressman in the House claiming Aye or Nay run for so long that one suspects the intention was to ward off any possible criticism from historians, as opposed to generating riveting film. Yes, we've invested a great deal of time in the question of whether this congressman or that one will vote for the amendment, but the film spends at least ten minutes going through the votes of other congressmen we've never met and never heard of up until this point, which given that we already know that A: the amendment passed, and B: the amendment's passage came down to a handful of votes, the bearers of whom we've spent two hours exploring, the fixation on procedure seems odd.

Final thoughts:   Lincoln is a towering achievement, a movie that presents us with the story of a great man in tempestuous times and shows us how he rose above them to command the reverent adulation with which his memory is clothed today. It takes a tiny portion of Abraham Lincoln's overall story, and presents it to us with such skill that we are simply left wanting to see more. I know that I seem to have fallen into a habit of saying things like this, but it is one of the best films I've seen in quite a while.

There are some biopics that colonize the popular memory of a historical figure. George C. Scott will forever be synonymous with George Patton and Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles. If there is any justice in the world, when people think of Abraham Lincoln in the future, they will think of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Alternate Title:  Bond Begins Again

One sentence synopsis:  James Bond must confront a former 00 agent seeking revenge against MI6.

Things Havoc liked:  Like with Batman, every generation gets the Bond it's looking for, and Daniel Craig is unquestionably a Bond for this generation. Despite the vitriol with which his second film, Quantum of Solace, was greeted, many people, myself included, were so blown away by Casino Royale that Craig immediately usurped our position of "best Bond". Craig's bond was gritty, energetic, serious, dialing back the puns of the Brosnan era and the silliness of the Moore era in favor of something much more robust and modern. Part Jason Bourne, part Jason Statham, Craig's bond was the first one to dive into what might make a secret agent like Bond actually tick, showing him as he evolved from fresh-faced (though still lethal) MI6 assassin to the more mature Bond we remember from the classic films. With Skyfall, Craig's Bond has come full circle, entering the film as a bitter, broken agent, worn down my years of physical and psychological abuse, seeking to determine if he still has what it takes to save the world.

Skyfall is a movie well aware of the long history of James Bond, a movie that sits and thinks about what it means that Bond has now been with us for fifty years, still saving the world as resolutely as he did back when he was Sean Connery seducing Ursula Andress. It is, effectively, the story of two characters, Bond himself, who after years and years of saving the world has ground himself down to an alcoholic nub, and M, played by Judy Dench, who now faces the prospect that her no-nonsense ultra-pragmatic approach to the shadowy world of espionage may be about to explode in her face. The vehicle for this explosion is Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, a former 00 agent turned Wikileaks-style computer hacker and revenge-obsessed assassin, who wishes for nothing more than the destruction of M and all her works. This could have become, and indeed sounds like, the most generic premise for a Bond film ever, and yet the movie wisely takes its time with all three elements to the triangle, giving us time to understand the limitations Bond is pushing up against as his body and mind begin to fail him, while also affording us glimpses, grudging but present, of the toll that the job of safeguarding the free world has taken on M, and the terrible choices she has had to make, live with, and stoically refuse to question. Craig, in his third movie as Bond, plays the character perfectly, recognizably Bond at all times, and yet plainly approaching his breaking point as the missions keep piling up and his ability to cope with them drains away. Dench meanwhile, in her seventh turn as M, gets arguably more material here than she did in the previous six, an old woman at the twilight of her career, whose relationship with her finest agent is finally given some of the weight we have all long suspected it must hold, and whose greatest failure has returned to haunt the last days of her reign. Dench has always stolen the show as M, but we finally here get a sense of what makes her tick beyond the professional demeanor that she has shown us in film after film. Much of the second half of the film is dedicated to her and Bond and the ways in which these two solitary, weary veterans know one another far more than either one will admit.

But a great Bond movie also needs a great villain, and Bardem is one in the best traditions of Blofield or Treveyan or Scaramanga. The best Bond villains always had a sense of self-awareness concerning their situation, and Bardem plays a character who knows his own role in a drama only he seems to be able to perceive. His introduction to Bond is a glorious repartee between himself and an agent whom he no doubt once resembled, and ends with a hilarious sequence I will not spoil here. And yet humor, int he sense of the classic Bond villains, is not the point here. Bardem's character is a broken, shattered man, thirsty for a bitter revenge against the woman (M) who used and then discarded him, and while he seems entirely comfortable with the fact that, as a Bond villain, he and all his works are destined to end in fire, he cares little so long as he can burn her (and Bond) down with him. The cat and mouse between Bond and a villain every bit as skilled, driven, and, let's face it, obsessive as he is, effectively lets the movie ratchet up the stakes and then ratchet them up again, on and on throughout the film.

And the stakes do indeed get ratcheted. One of the objections that was made of the previous sortie, was that Quantum of Solace simply wasn't grand enough, focusing on a hackneyed plot involving Bolivian Water rights, and an action climax set in a deserted hotel. No such criticism applies here. It's not just that the action sequences are stunning, though they are, but they're extremely well done, shot perfectly, and with glorious senses of spectacle and cinematography. An early fight between Bond and an international assassin takes place in a single, unbroken take, with nary a camera movement in sight, as Bond and his adversary shoot, fight, and grapple with one another on top of a building lit by neon signs the size of airliners. In an age of microscopic shot lengths and shakey-cam, this one sequence shows us exactly how to do it, and it is buttressed throughout the film by several more, including a truly tense sequence inside a courtroom, and a climactic battle in a location far more personal than any has ever been in a Bond film. The callbacks to classic Bond films are many and varied (even the classic old Aston Martin DB5 of yesteryear makes an appearance), and yet the movie never pretends to be anything but extremely modern in theme and tone, deconstructing what it is to be Bond while still letting him retain that mystique so central to the character. By the end of the film, I was looking at Bond in an entirely new way, and yet recognized everything I saw.

Things Havoc disliked:  So consumed is this movie in its sense of tone and style that minor issues like "plot" fall between the cracks. For example, I recognize that most movies that involve computers bear no resemblance at all to how the things actually work, but this movie takes it a step further, with a series of "hack the internets" moments so ludicrous I half-expected Neo to make an appearance. It doesn't help that these hacks feature prominently in the evil plot of the villain, a plot so convoluted that it makes the Joker's plan from the Dark Knight look straightforward and plausible. I hate to spoil things, but if I never see another villain who lets himself be caught so that he can employ some ridiculous social engineering trick based on omniscient preconception to break out of his cell and be exactly where he wanted to be all along, it will be too soon.

The villain's infinite resources get annoying on the temporal plane as well. I can accept that a Bond villain must and will have a small army of well-armed men who follow his every command, that comes with being hired as a Bond villain. But in a film that is trying to be as, dare I say, 'realistic' as Skyfall is, to have the villain assemble not merely a small army but military-grade hardware, including attack helicopters, in the middle of Great Britain, is asking quite a bit. Yes, many Bond villains have had private island fortresses, underwater warships, or moon bases, but those villains at least had the decency not to place their secret volcano lairs in the middle of Scotland.

The movie also seems to assemble and then discard subplots at random. A promising story seems to be in the making early on with a character named Severine, a mysterious woman with a history of child abuse and sexual slavery whom Bond identifies and then (of course) seduces. Yet nothing is made of her character after about the third-way point through the movie, as though the film abruptly decided it should pursue other interests and characters. Similarly, the character of Eve, a junior agent responsible for a terrible mistake early on in the film, is never really expanded upon, as once more the film drops everything to pursue Bond and M. I'm not objecting to those two being the focus of the film, but why introduce such interesting character points if you're not going to do anything with them?

Final thoughts:  Ultimately though, Skyfall for all its veneration of the history of the character and all the inventiveness of its action sequences, is less a Bond movie than a movie about James Bond. Who he actually is, what drives him, and what relationships, as opposed to flings, he has managed to assemble along the way. Though Bond movies are, and remain, ludicrous exercises in excess and superhuman daring-do, Craig, in Skyfall, has come the closest to showing us Bond as he might actually be. At the end of the film, when Bond speaks to M, and receives his newest set of orders, we get the sense not of an ending, but a beginning. Craig's entire journey as Bond through three films, has led us, finally, to the steely-eyed Secret Agent we recognize from fifty years of adventure, seduction, and heroism.

His name is Bond. James Bond. And at long last, we know who he is.

Final Score:  7/10

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Burlesque Assassins

Alternate Title:  War and Pasties

One sentence synopsis:  A team of international Burlesque Dancers/Assassins team up to defeat evil dictators and save the world.

Things Havoc liked:  A while back, I reviewed a film called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, a movie in which the Great Emancipator liberated the entrails of an army of vampires with a silvered axe while racing to save the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a movie with a premise so ridiculous that to criticize it was to miss the point. One could either choose to accept it, or not. It is with that notion in mind that I present The Burlesque Assassins, a movie with a premise so outlandish that I can't decide if it represents insanity, genius, or both: A world where Nazis, Fascists, and Cold War communists must fear the watchful eye of Johnny Valentine, and his posse of burlesque-dancers-turned assassins.

Who is Johnny Valentine? Picture a cross between Charlie (of the Angels) and Hannibal Smith of the A-Team, and you'll begin to get an idea. Valentine is a grizzled veteran who ran a secret squad of burlesque assassins during WWII (the newsreels of their exploits are one of the movie's highlights), while simultaneously carrying on with his Russian counterpart, Katerina Molotov any chance he could get. Valentine (I could not for the life of me discover the actor's name) brings just the right note of played-straight spy foolishness to a role that is, on the face of things, utterly ridiculous, and manages to render the entire thing believable, even as he dons an ever-more absurd series of "disguises" (the source of many awesome jokes). Valentine's performance is spot on, and grounds the entire escapade, somehow, in just enough of a veneer of reality that we can suspend our disbelief. His is the role of the gruff, cigar-chomping unit boss, unflappable and supremely confident in his plan and his agents, though when he gets his hands dirty (as he does several times in the film) the result is unfailingly hilarious.

But the stars of the show are intended to be the Burlesque Assassins themselves, a collection of actual burlesque dancers of note, acting here with stage names and cover identities that I must assume are barely, if at all, exaggerated above their "real" ones. The team's modus operandi is generally to seduce their targets with a sexy burlesque routine, following which the target is invited backstage for a 'private' show to die for. It comes as no surprise, of course, that professional burlesque dancers can indeed perform burlesque routines, but given the generally low budget style of the film, it is a surprise that several of them actually seem to be able to act as well. Particularly, the actresses portraying Bombshell Belle and Koko La Douce (I beg pardon if I'm confusing real stage names for film ones, but IMDB is singularly unhelpful here) bring just the right hint of world-weary comedy to the planning and execution of their assassinations to carry the farcical yet straight-played tone that the movie is going for. And many of the more slapsticky routines they engage in, particularly those where they have to dispose of the bodies of the malefactors, are actually really funny.

Speaking of the malefactors, this movie presents us with, and I'm not making this up, the Son of Mussolini, the Clone of Adolph Hitler, and a very much non-dead Joseph Stalin working in cahoots to destroy the world with a Death Ray. If that concept sounds awesome, it's because it is, and the actors who portray the three villains in question manage to have a great deal of fun with their roles, despite physically doing little more than sitting in a theater watching Burlesque routines. Of the three, Hitler is probably the funniest (if only because of a single hilarious sequence involving his er... preferences... in companionship), but all three play fantastically off one another, a cross between their versions from The Great Dictator, and more modern parodies from a Family Guy-style. Their interplay, and reactions to the girls are quite well done, and anchor several of the best sequences in the film.

Finally, I obviously can't speak to what budget this movie had, but given everything, the effects are better than I expected. Most of the violence is deliberately over-the-top, Tom and Jerry style "hijinx", but while the blood, body parts, or futuristic weapons won't be winning any Academy Awards, they were a step or so above what I initially expected to see from a movie like this one. Given that the movie's tongue is firmly in its cheek, a little bit of ludicrously over-the-top blood gives it a very Sam Raimi feel in all the right places.

Things Havoc disliked:  A risk with small projects like this is that the actors you're employing are not always up to par. Such is the case for the main assassin, Bourbon Sue, who simply doesn't know how to deliver a line properly. Oh she can dance seductively with the best of them, that much is for certain, but there's more to acting than burlesque dancing, and her wooden acting does the film no favors. In fact, given the movie's low budget and burlesque theme, Sue's performance hurts more than it normally would, as it brings to mind uncomfortable parallels to the bad acting one finds in porno movies. Don't get me wrong, that's not what this is, but it was the impression I got.

Speaking of Burlesque, I understand that this was a niche film made by a proud subculture, I really do. But for boring old me, a man who knows less about Burlesque than he does about rocket science (I'm not kidding), the movie seemed entirely overloaded with Burlesque routines. Not only does each of the assassins get their own number, but the rest of the action is intercut by three or four "guest" appearances by other well-known Burlesque stars. I recognize that it's a bit churlish to complain that there are too many beautiful women removing their clothes in front of me, but each of these routines is three or four minutes long, and after the seventh one, I began to wish the movie would simply get on with it. There was enough interesting and funny material to be had from the actual main characters, and given that I did not know who any of the guest Burlesquers (that may not be a word) were, there wasn't really anything for me there. I doubt there's much for anyone who doesn't know the participants.

Final thoughts:  And yet the reason I bring that complaint up at all is because this is not simply a fan-work for insiders only. It's actually a surprisingly well-done action-comedy-farce graced by good writing, acting, and a suitably ludicrous concept. Were it not for the languid pace that the various numbers give it, and the issues that mar its choice of main actress, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. That said, even with its flaws, this is one of the better low/no-budget flicks I've seen, and should one of you happen to come across it in your wild journeys through the cinematic landscape, you might well be in for a surprise.

Final Score:  6/10

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Alternate Title:  The Story of Us

One sentence synopsis:  The lives of a group of people cross again and again throughout the past, present, and future.

Things Havoc disliked:  Yes, I know that normally I start with what I liked, and leave the whining until later, but this time I had to get something out of the way:

I don't like it when movies decide they're too smart for you. I don't like it when they go out of their way to be impenetrable, artifice-laden slogs. I don't like having to disentangle a movie from the pretensions of their authors, and I absolutely hate it when the movie compounds this issue by playing around with the basic language of cinema for some bullshit 'cognitive effect' dreamed up by an overindulged 'artiste'. Setting, character, shot selection, coherent editing, narrative flow, these are not optional elements in a film, they are the mechanisms by which the fever dreams of a cinematographer's imagination can be translated for the rest of us, and films which abuse these elements for the purposes of showing off how superior they are tend to arouse my ire.

Cloud Atlas, based on a novel by David Mitchell, is an unfilmable mess, worse by far than the Lord of the Rings adaptations ever were. The novel consists of six different stories told across time and space, linked together by the fact that many of the characters in each one are the re-incarnations (I assume) of one another. I am forced to assume this, as opposed to knowing it, because while in the film version of this novel, these characters are played time and again by the same actors, what is actually going on is never, ever explained. Some gestures are given to magical birthmarks, some to deja-vu, some to spiritualism and some to God, but we are clearly meant to simply sit back and accept the central conceit, something that would be much easier to do if it were made clear at any point if the characters played by such actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Kieth David, or Hugo Weaving (to name only the ones I recognize) are meant to literally be the same person brought forth in a new time and place, the descendents thereof, or something else entirely. I just finished the entire movie, and I couldn't tell you the answer.

Indeed, I can't tell you a whole hell of a lot about this film, not even if I had the time to sit down and parse out the various narratives of this story one by one. Part of the problem is that the stories are tied together so closely and with such rapid shift from one to the next that we scarcely have time to get our bearings in terms of what is actually happening in one tale before we're whisked off without warning or hesitation to another. Worse yet, several scenes actually have the temerity to flash-forward within the same (or even a different) narrative, further confusing everybody as to just what's happening. And as though that wasn't enough, one of the larger narratives takes place with the characters speaking some kind of post-apocalyptic argot that's effectively incomprehensible. And since subtitles (or, you know, English) would spoil the majesty of whatever brilliance the filmmakers are deigning to place before us plebeian swine, I still have no idea what most of the characters in that sequence were saying. Of course, this would be the one plot thread where the directors decide to actually slow down and linger for a time.

You can therefore imagine my frustrations as I sat through this interminable (three hour) movie, completely lost as to what was going on, who the characters were, what they were doing, and even what words they were speaking to one another. What greater point the movie was trying to make was only dimly perceptible beneath layers of artifice, confusion, and artistic chaos. And all I could think of as I sat there, was that eventually it was going to be my task to come home and try and make sense of this mess to the rest of you.

Things Havoc liked:  And then, around the 45 minute mark or so, something very strange began to happen...

Each of the six stories that we are told here, taken in and of itself, carries a different theme and a very different tone, all this despite the actors occurring and re-occurring within each one. Some of these actors, like Hugo Weaving or Halle Berry, are constantly playing the same basic character archetypes (slimy villain and intrepid explorer, respectively), set down in settings as varied as a 19th century ship, 1970s San Francisco, or the distant future. But what began to dawn on me was that other characters, particularly those that Tom Hanks portrays, are not. Hanks portrays, at times, a violent thug who brutally murders people in a drunken rage (his cockney accent leaves something to be desired), at times a nebbish scientist dragged into doing the right thing against his will, and at other times a cowardly fisherman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world of cannibalism and death. He's not alone. Jim Broadbent goes from a murderous, virulently-racist ship captain one moment to a conniving book publisher trapped in a mental hospital, while Jim Sturgess and Korean actress Bae Doona go from demure Victorian aristocrats to fire-breathing rebel leaders in an Orwellian superstate. Once this became apparent, and it took some time, it dawned on me that what was being represented here was not a specific set of characters, replayed through the ages like broken records. What was being represented was a range of human experience. And how some people, for better or worse, can change over time, and some people, for better or worse, cannot.

This recognition, such as it was, was the first of many within this film's enormous running time, and as the movie moved on, I became more accustomed to what it was trying to tell me, and more importantly, how it was trying to tell it. What appeared at first to be maddening artifice slowly evolved into a different language entirely than the one I was used to experiencing in movies. The overlap between the stories, I came to realize, was not based on tone or scene tension levels (action scene links to action scene, for instance), but based around something else entirely, specifically the relationships between all of the various characters at given moments, and the resonances, not repetitions, that their interactions had as they rippled across time and space itself. And once I had gotten over my confusion, even in the slightest degree... what a tremendous landscape this film unveiled before me.

Every element to this film, taken by itself, is done extremely well, with great fidelity to the style and times required. The pastoral periods, be they pre-civilized or post-apocalyptic, are shot in glorious, vibrant color, while the futuristic dystopia setting has dark, gritty cinematography livened by bursts of bright visual effects, ones that honestly resemble Tron more than they do the Wachowskis' famous Matrix trilogy. The cinematography changes too, from broad canvasses appropriate to adventure films for the 1840s scenes, to a blocky procedural style for the 1970s segment, and to a more modern caper-flick Scorsese-inspired set of sweep-shots and held takes for the sequence taking place in the modern day. The major linking factor through all this is the truly incredible score, written by co-director Tom Tykwer, a score that somehow manages to make the same piece of music work for adventure, action, romance, and inspirational scenes all at the same time. It is able to do this because, as with everything else in the film, the important element isn't what scene is currently playing, but the overall tapestry of human experience that the movie is trying to portray, and a score appropriate to that will by definition be appropriate to every scene that represents it.

Indeed, Cloud Atlas might be one of the boldest films ever made, a sprawling, elaborate spectacle, both visually and in the sheer complexity of its narrative, which twists and turns around itself like a helix, filling every scene, every shot with detailed references to other stories, past or future. It's true that none of the individual stories that comprise this enormous offering are terribly nuanced by themselves, but taken in summation as they are, the stories buttress one another to produce a larger, more universal narrative, reflecting the themes of power, love, abandonment, indifference, and hope. Life, at times, is not terribly nuanced either, and only when combined with the stories of the lives of everyone that surrounds us does it acquire definition. This is not the sort of re-incarnation story where we see characters play out the same tale over and over again with changes of costume and scenery. Every story, every relationship, every moment of this film is unique to itself and yet rhymes in a strange, almost rhythmic way with moments and scenes scattered across creation. The various tracks that the movie jumps between with such frequency are not actually individual stories, but elements of a larger, cohesive whole, simultaneously unified and multifold, a record of human experience throughout the ages, and the ways that the black evils and selfless kindnesses that we do for one another resonate with people we never meet, whose lives we can scarcely imagine.

Final thoughts:  If the above sounds inane, meaningless, or like a particularly bad bout of over-analysis, then I apologize, but this is a film that defies easy description. Some critics have savaged the film for being a plodding bore, others for being overly full of itself, and some even for being horribly racist (several actors change their ages, genders, and even races for some of their characters, not always with the most convincing of effects). And yet, if I am to be brutally honest with everyone, I can't possibly describe it in terms other than near-rapture. I've seen dozens, hundreds of films in my life, both before and during this grand experiment. And yet I cannot name more than a handful of movies that have left me with such a feeling of awe and wonder as this one did. All the complaints I leveled against it in the beginning are true, and remained true throughout the movie, and yet at some point, I simply began to perceive what this film was trying to show me, and like an incomparably intricate Swiss clock, every element simply slid into place. What response it will generate from others, I cannot possibly speculate, yet the passion, heart, and empathy of the film are so strong as to be overflowing, all without once veering into maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. It is, without question, one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

'We are all connected to one another,' says one of the characters in this movie repeatedly, and indeed both the narrative and the thematic hearts of the film are encompassed within the above statement. This film's subject matter is no less than the interwoven nature of our lives, not in some basic tit-for-tat sense, but in all its glorious, majestic complexity. It shows us as we are, billions of individual threads dancing around and between one another, forming iterative patterns much greater than ourselves, simultaneously newly minted and long-worn. When revealed in all its glory, the resulting tapestry is vast beyond scope, yet infinitely detailed, a fractal pattern repeating itself forever, and each time in a manner wholly new. We call the result History.

Final Score:  9.5/10

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Best Bad Idea

One sentence synopsis:  A CIA exfiltration expert creates a fake Hollywood movie in order to rescue American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Things Havoc liked:  Be honest with me. Back in the early 2000s, when you had just finished seeing one of the lengthy series of disastrously terrible Ben Affleck movies that came out around then, movies like Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, or Gigli, did you ever imagine that some ten years later, you would find yourself looking forward to the newest film from critically acclaimed director Ben Affleck? I sure as hell didn't, and yet following films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town, there's simply no two ways about it. Affleck knows what he's doing behind the camera, and directing himself, he has put together a hell of a movie here.

Argo is a story so strange I would not have believed it if my own research had not backed it up. It concerns a fake CIA-financed science fiction movie that was thrown together so as to provide a cover for smuggling a handful of American diplomats out of the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. Yet strange as the story is, the movie about it is very down-to-earth. Every step in the process, from the initial escape to the planning, preparation, and execution is dealt with precisely and efficiently, never rushing, but also never slowing down for forced character moments, relying on the characters themselves to come through via the plot. The best of a very strong cast is Alan Alda, an actor whose appeal I've never quite "gotten", who here plays Lester Siegel, a Hollywood film producer approached by the CIA to provide cover for the fake movie. Alda's only in the film for about half an hour, but is absolutely note-perfect as a man who has played around in Hollywood long enough to know exactly how and when to bullshit people and how and when to threaten and bluster to get what he wants. Yet unlike a lot of retrospective "Hollywood on Hollywood" movies (such as Hollywoodland), the film never gets caught up in itself, relegating the Hollywood material to its proper place in the overall plot.

The film is a visible throwback to the 70s, not only in decor, hairstyles (those mustaches), but also in the overall structure. With nearly no action to speak of, the focus is on deliberation and procedure, an intentional throwback to classic spy thrillers like Day of the Jackal or The Spy who Came in from the Cold. The fact that we know how the mission turned out (at least if we've done any cursory research on the film) does not stop it from being extremely tense, particularly in a heavily atmospheric sequence in a crowded souk where a shopkeeper begins screaming at our heroes in untranslated Farsi over an issue nobody, including the audience, is able to even understand. The cinematography, meanwhile, is superb, showcasing Tehran as a normal, functioning city that has been at least partly taken over by madmen. The normal, everyday functioning elements of the city are juxtaposed with the rampaging 'students' who are apparently free to kill whoever they want, conscript small children for slave labor, and, at will, disrupt entire sections of the city's infrastructure. And yet none of these things feel artificial or ring false. This was, we believe, what it was to live in Tehran in 1979. And it was not an experience to recommend.

Things Havoc disliked:  The Iran Hostage crisis is still a contentious issue, to say the least, and the film does try to address in as balanced a manner as it can. Unfortunately, that balanced treatment amounts to "following thirty years of unrelieved evil, the Americans finally got what was coming to them."

Am I exaggerating? Yes, massively. But the problem with trying to condense a massively complicated political situation down into 45 seconds of title crawl is that someone is invariably going to wind up looking like a cartoonish villain, and given who and what made this film, one can guess just who that person is. It's a shame that the film does this, because this is one of the only films I can recall in which the CIA are actually portrayed as good guys doing good things. And yet lest this sound like a blip at the beginning of the movie, the film re-enforces the matter with not one but several scenes in which US diplomatic agents in hiding for their very lives, their friends and colleagues being beaten and tortured just down the road for months on end, discuss with one another how the Iranian revolution and its aftermath are the just deserts of the terrible US foreign policy they previously were responsible for enacting. While it's certainly true that there's precious little for the US to brag about in the history of its relations with Iran from circa 1950 onwards, I would submit that this is not a point likely to present itself as reasonable to people driving through streets filled with the hanged bodies of secularists while armed maniacs pursue them with assault rifles. It reads, at least to me, as a failed attempt to contextualize the events of the movie by trying not to portray the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as "all that bad", despite the visibly bad things they are attempting to do to our heroes. Again, perhaps it's just me reading this into the film, but most film critics have been praising this movie for its "even-handed" approach to the Iran Crisis. I would submit to such people that "even-handed" is not defined as blaming everything on the Americans, but that's generally not a position likely to find backers in some portions of Hollywood.

Final thoughts:  But while I may be obsessive about these obscure historico-political interpretations, I'm not so far gone to fail to recognize a good film when I see it. Argo is an excellent spy thriller, well-shot and acted, and with the additional virtue of somehow, despite its ludicrousness, being absolutely true. Oscar buzz (though I consider the possibility a long shot) has already begun circling around the movie, a clear signal to me that we are finally entering into Oscar season, the last of the three major "phases" that the film calendar recognizes. Given the worse-than-usual Doldrums and the utterly wasted Blockbuster season that we experienced this year (Avengers and Batman notwithstanding), I am hopeful that Argo represents the beginning of a much better stretch of film for the next few months.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Friday, October 12, 2012

Taken 2

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Kills Everyone Again

One sentence synopsis:  A retired special forces agent is attacked by the families of the men he killed protecting his daughter.

Things Havoc liked:  I don't mean to sound critical here, but for the last few years, Liam Neeson has been progressively transitioning from his previous wide range of movie roles to a typecasting of "badass middle-aged father figure who still has it". Though he's one of my favorite actors, thanks to films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, Rob Roy, Les Miserables, and Kingdom of Heaven, I've nonetheless always been conscious that Neeson is the sort of actor who needs a strong, capable director and script in order to bring out his talents. Without such things, Neeson tends to revert to monotone blandness, as examples as diverse as Star Wars Episode 1, the A-Team, and the Haunting can attest to. That said, one of his strengths is his ability to bring a level of quiet, refined subtlety to his better roles, whether they be Oscar Bait or his more recent action extravaganzas. A good example for this would be The Grey, where Neeson elevated the entire tone of the movie out of "Taken with Wolves" and into something truly special. Despite all the dross on his IMDB page, I still like watching Neeson, and I get excited to see him in most movies.

One of the things I liked about the original Taken was that, while the routine that Neeson went through to track his daughter down was demonstrably goofy, the movie at the very least did spend a great deal of time showing him go through it. Even if the particular steps and leaps that he was making in his search for his daughter (particularly the magic CIA buddy with infinite data on everything) were stupid, the movie got across tonally just how difficult and complex the process actually was, which lent credibility to the notion of a father with badass skills chasing his daughter down like a remorseless calculation engine. Taken 2, I'm relieved to report, tries to keep this model going. Easily the best sequence in the film comes roughly a third of the way in, after Neeson and his wife have been kidnapped by bad guys (the trailers spoil this, so I shall too). For about a solid half-hour, the movie puts the brakes on the action in favor of showing Neeson progressively working out how he will escape from this situation, giving us everything from complex memorization routines of the route his car is taking, to a phone conversation with his daughter that culminates in the use of dead reckoning by means of map circles, echolocation by hand grenade, and inferences made based on weather conditions, all so that Neeson can figure out where he is, and use this information to get a weapon and escape. It's far-fetched of course (I'm impressed by how nonchalantly the Istanbul police took random hand grenade explosions), but no more so than the glazed-over handwaving you find in most action films, and the detail to which the film goes works in its favor, lending the scene a patina (if nothing more) of believability.

Things Havoc disliked:  I never understood the hoopla over the original Taken. In my mind it was a formulaic, average action flick, elevated slightly by a few above-average scenes. And yet Taken became so iconic (the famous "I will find you" montage attained internet meme status) that I can today cite its title in a pun and be reasonably sure that everyone will understand what I mean. I didn't hate Taken, mind you, it was an all right action flick, but I don't understand what made it so special. And given that, I don't think this movie was made for me.

The premise is decent enough. Neeson, having slaughtered several busloads of people in the first movie through methods that were not entirely ethical (or sane), now faces a large quantity of people who have fairly specific things to say to him about having electrocuted their sons/brothers to death. As a motive to kick the action off, this is a great idea, deconstructing the first movie as a means for beginning the second, but unfortunately, outside of a couple minor scenes, the film never makes anything of this concept. The bad guys are simply another horde of faceless men out to get our determined hero, and the legitimate grievances they have with him are only ever addressed in the most perfunctory manner. The reliably awesome Rade Šerbedžija, brought in here to serve as Neeson's primary antagonist, is tied heavily into this reciprocity concept, and yet because the film drops it so perfunctorily, the result is that Šerbedžija is barely in the film at all.

So what do we get instead? Action scenes. Boring, repetitive, absurdly over-edited action scenes. The director of this film, Olivier Megaton, seems intent on proving my theory that no man who ever changed his name into something sounding supposedly "badass" has ever made a good film. Shot lengths in fight scenes are about three nanoseconds long, alternating between shots of Neeson holding a gun and looking concerned with distance shots of someone with noticeably different hair color performing martial arts. Neeson is 60 years old (though he does look younger), and I don't blame him for being unable to do all his own stunts here. But the least that a director can do is try and make the stunts look reasonably plausible, or at least sew the stunt double work together competently. There's exactly one fight scene, near the end of the film, which while completely contrived, does actually look like the sort of fight two older men with military training might have. Everything else is the invincible hero shooting, beating, and stabbing his way through villains that can't threaten him, all shot in a confused, hyper-frenetic manner that prevents you from seeing what's going on. Occasionally they add a car chase.

Final thoughts:  No, Taken 2 isn't horrible. I've seen far worse action films this year. But there's just nothing about it that's at all 'special', even by the standards of Liam-Neeson-revenge films (a surprisingly large genre). Granted, I didn't think there was anything too special about the first Taken either, but that movie at least had good, competent action with a strong narrative and interesting moral questions. This one seems to have somehow ratcheted the stakes down, like we're watching a direct-to-DVD sequel that got somehow released in cinemas, and none of the promising elements that the first film had have been followed up on.

Go see this movie if you must, but whatever it was you people found in the original Taken, I doubt seriously you're gonna find it here.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Alternate Title:  Laaaaauuuuuugggghhhhhh!

One sentence synopsis:  The veteran Judge Dredd and a rookie psychic must fight for their lives against an arcology-wide drug gang.

Things Havoc liked:  Ever since appearing in The Lord of the Rings, Karl Urban has apparently made it his personal mission to appear in as many terrible action movies as he possibly can. Oh there's exceptions here and there (his turn as Leonard McCoy in Star Trek was inspired), but I refuse to believe that movies like Doom, Pathfinder, or Priest ever looked good, even on paper. That said, I've always had a soft spot for Urban, as even in the worst of films, he always manages to avoid looking like a complete fool by playing everything as straight and simple as possible, letting others do the hilarious overacting. Given this, his selection for Judge Dredd makes perfect sense. A far cry from the 90s Stalone adaptation, Urban's Dredd is less a character than a presence, a monotone archetype of toughness, perpetually scowling, whispering in a gravelly voice filled with menace. Though I've never read the comics, Urban's Dredd is exactly what I expected the character to embody, a single-minded lawman of simply inhuman dedication. He is not a caricature, nor a monomaniacal ass, there are sequences where he expresses admiration for idealistic views of the law, but Dredd himself is a remorseless, relentless figure, not cynical so much as beyond ideology. Urban plays him as a man who feels no need to bluster over his embodiments of the Law, for he has nothing whatsoever to prove. And given Urban's solid action movie credentials up to this point, the result is exactly as it should be.

This much I expected. What I didn't expect was Olivia Thirlby, an unknown 20-something playing Judge Anderson, a rookie cop with advanced psychic capabilities assigned to Dredd for evaluation. When I heard that this was to be the setup, I damn-near wrote the movie off altogether. If there's one cliche to cop movies that I simply don't need to see again, it's the 'young, fresh-faced rookie who must prove himself to the hardened veteran', particularly when the young rookie is a woman, typically intended to bring the softer side out of our main character. To my abject astonishment however, that's not at all what I received here. Anderson is young, and a rookie, intimidated by Dredd and her surroundings, and yet when the chips are down, she does not come across as the hesitating newbie who must make good, but a confident judge learning very quickly on her feet, bringing her own perspective to the business of law enforcement. A good early sequence establishes her motives for joining the judges, and the rationale given follows her all the way through the terrible ordeal she is made to undergo. Moreover, a sequence midway through the movie, when she is called upon to employ her psychic abilities to interrogate a suspect is damn near inspired, sidestepping all of our expectations for what letting a frightened girl into the mind of a hardened killer will result in, in favor of exploring just how scary a Judge with mental powers should properly be. Thirlby does all this without ever once losing the veneer of a rookie cop, allowing the film to ride the line of viewer expectation from start to finish. I admit to being impressed.

Most of the film takes place in a massive "block" tower, a 200-story skyscraper housing tens of thousands of residents, controlled by a criminal gang that must number in the high hundreds. In addition to provoking comparisons to last year's "The Raid" (more on that later), this location (chosen I assume to keep the costs down) allows the movie to focus on practical, as opposed to CGI effects, a decision I generally welcome. The action is crisp and easy to follow, unladen with modern contrivances such as shakycam, and while there's a fair amount of slo-mo work, it's actually explained in the plot quite well, and used for aesthetic, rather than stupid reasons. The supporting cast, headlined by Wood Harris (of the Wire) is uniformly excellent, giving us a gang of drug-fiends that are entirely believable, and grounding the more absurd stuff we are shown in a realistic setting. Overall, the movie simply works, and comes out to a good, solid action flick.

Things Havoc disliked:  Of course, that's not to say that there's no problems at all. One of them is unfortunately the villain, played by Lena Headey. Headey, of Sarah Connor and Game of Thrones fame is entirely wasted in this movie, playing a rote-criminal named Ma Ma who produces and sells drugs. The movie gives her no motives beyond that, despite hints of an interesting back-story, and she is required to play through the film in such a drug-addled stupor that it probably wouldn't matter anyway. I know the focus is supposed to be on Dredd and Anderson, but a villain can often make an action film, and it would have been nice to see some effort in that direction.

Frankly though, the main issue I had with this movie is going to sound a bit churlish. I've always held the position that it's neither fair nor reasonable to criticize a movie for not being a different movie, but in this case, having seen The Raid, a movie that is practically a carbon copy of this one, I find myself unable to separate the two, and unfortunately, Dredd comes out worse in the comparison. The Raid's action, though I stand by my position that it was not quite at the A+ level of some other kung fu blockbusters, was still of very high quality, and Dredd's, workmanlike though it is, just isn't in that same class. The gunfights are too procedural, and the bulky judge costumes prevent the actors (or stuntmen) from performing acrobatic stunts or hand-to-hand combat. I get that Dredd is not a typical action hero, a direct and forceful presence who simply bludgeons his way through any opposition, but the action in this film actually gets repetitive, as it never varies from Dredd shooting people with various types of ammunition while looking stern. It's all done well, but the action is never allowed to build to a transcendent "awesome" moment, instead simply running through scene after scene of shooting the same bad guys in the same fashion.

Final thoughts:  I must admit to being surprised that I liked Dredd at all, and yet while that's always a welcome development, it didn't manage to wow me the way other action films of this or last year did. That said, I did think the movie worked, and the concept and casting deserve a look. Given that the alternative for fans of Judge Dredd is Sylvester Stalone screaming at Armand Assante about the LAAAAAUUUGGGHH, I don't hesitate to suggest that such fans may want to cleanse their cinematic palates here.

After all, there's no Rob Schneider this time.

Final Score:  6.5/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...