Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Alternate Title:  Exactly What it Says on the Tin

One sentence synopsis:  An elite team of super-spies must stop a madman from starting nuclear war.

Things Havoc liked: Tom Cruise may actually be crazy, but nobody's ever claimed that he was unable to act. With thirty years of action (and non-action) movies under his belt, it's no surprise that in this, the fourth installment of his venerable Mission Impossible series, Tom knows exactly what he's doing. I don't mean to imply that he's sleepwalking through it, merely that Cruise looks relaxed and confident as Ethan Hunt in his latest, desperate attempt to avert global catastrophe. For someone who's pushing fifty, the ability to convince an audience that it's really him performing martial arts, running down fugitives, or scaling enormous buildings is not to be taken for granted. Cruise does so effortlessly, and even manages to sell the relatively few dramatic or comedic scenes he's given without much trouble.

Of course it helps to have a good supporting cast. One of the better decisions Cruise made with this film was casting Simon Pegg (of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame) as the technical specialist for the team. Pegg plays the funny man, but toes the line between an idiot and a competent agent very effectively, and is responsible for some of the better moments the movie has. Meanwhile Jeremy Renner (last seen in The Hurt Locker, and playing Hawkeye in Thor), plays an analyst-turned-field-agent effectively if not spectacularly, delivering at the very least an workable rendition of the material he's given.

One goes to see a Mission Impossible film for action and spy gadgets, of course, and as one might expect, both are handled well. The action is workmanlike and effectively shot, with none of the ludicrous stupidity of MI2 or 3. No shaky-cam, no insta-cuts, just effective hand to hand and gun fighting most of the way through the movie (even if the accuracy of our heroes' shots is clearly plot-dependent). The gadgetry on offer is actually quite well done. The constant use of retinal scanners becomes a mildly amusing running gag, and a sequence early in the film with a rear-projected screen controlled by an eye-following computer is actually very well done. The best spy gadgets in all these sorts of movies are the ones where the function and limits of the gadgetry are instantly apparent to the audience without need for explanation, and, for the most part, those are the sort that one encounters here.

Things Havoc disliked: There are, unfortunately, also other things that one expects from a Mission Impossible movie, among them a ludicrous plot, awful "dramatic" moments, and a boring villain. And like the above items, these ones are also here in spades . Central to these issues is Paula Patton, who plays the token female (and minority) agent, and essentially does nothing to rise above those categories. Her attempts to convey anguish over the death of her partner (yes, we're in that territory) are laughable at best. Given that Cruise is never allowed to emote anything beyond "badass", and Renner nothing beyond morose, she has to carry the dramatic weight (if you can call it that) of the film, and is unable to do so. As Patton was excellent in Precious, I have to conclude that this is because there was simply nothing there to carry.

The Mission Impossible series isn't exactly Godfather, but the original film at least had a plot that was mildly interesting, if only from the sheer complexity of its ludicrous gyrations. Even by the standards of the movies that followed however, this plot is paper thin. The film's villain, played by Michael Nyqvist, has one of the most absurd motivations I've ever seen, even in an action film. At one point we watch footage of him standing up at a scientific conference and publically discussing the positive sides of global nuclear war, a war he apparently decides to start for the purposes of advancing the human species. Why any of his henchmen support him in an effort to exterminate their own nations is left completely unstated. This is the sort of stuff that would be laughed off the set of a bad Bond film.

Yet apparently we are intended to take great interest in this dastardly plot, even as it comes down to the wire in an action sequence so gratuitous and overplayed that I thought for a moment it was meant to be a joke. Pro tip: if the audience starts walking out of the film to take a bathroom break in the middle of your climactic action sequence, you may have made a mistake somewhere along the line. This scene is so absurd, both in terms of the punishment the characters deal to one another, and in terms of the down-to-the-wire pacing it employs, that it destroys the previously effective tone of the action overall, leaving the audience with a bad taste as the film (finally) ends.

Final thoughts: I skipped seeing this film when it first came out because I was certain I had already seen the entire film from the trailers, and while I've been wrong about such beliefs many times (including last week), I was not wrong here. This movie is exactly what you think it is, an action/spy/adventure film whose pretensions and expectations are kept low. There are occasional flashes of self-awareness or an interesting concept, but they disappear as quickly as they surfaced, and I must conclude that they were added only by accident. This is a make-work film, intended simply to generate money and disappear, leaving behind no legacy whatsoever. Perhaps there is a time and place for such endeavors, but great art, which there is plenty of in the action/spy genre, simply does not result from such small-minded work.  Simply put, this film had nothing new to show me, and in another week, I doubt seriously I will remember a thing about it.

Final Score:  5/10

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Grey

Alternate Title:  A Series of Cries in the Dark

One sentence synopsis: The survivors of a plane crash try to escape a pack of man-eating wolves in the wilds of Alaska

Things Havoc liked: Fifteen years ago, Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins starred in a film called "The Edge", about survivors of an airplane crash who must outwit hostile wild animals in Alaska and make it back to civilization. Having apparently decided that the aforementioned film was insufficiently authoritative on the subject, Ridley Scott decided to make another film on the exact same subject, this time starring Liam Neeson and a whole crew of unknown actors, and replacing the Kodiak Bear with a pack of wolves. While this situation certainly lends itself to comments on Hollywood's lack of new ideas, it is worth mentioning that The Grey essentially works itself out to be the movie that The Edge was trying to be.

Directed by Joe Carnahan, an action director known for making awful action movies (The A-Team was his last feature), this film is, astonishingly, nothing of the sort. I've heard it described as a character study, but that's not really accurate either. At times it plays like a horror movie, as our heroes are stalked by a pack of ruthless, almost supernatural wolves (more on that below), and yet at other times it feels like a travelogue of men hiking through the scenic backwoods of Alaska. The pace is slow and deliberate, and the writing on-point and brisk, and the score (one of the best I've heard in a long while) is atmospheric and haunting, particularly during the last third or so, and serves to give the events of the film an almost operatic quality. The cinematography, clearly taking inspiration from the film's title, is bleak and dour, giving us half-glimpsed shadows at the edge of perception that might be figments of our imagination, or more wolves come to devour us. The best comparison I can make is actually with Alien, another excellent Ridley Scott film about a dwindling group of people being stalked by a super-human menace. But while Alien reveled in Geigeresque horror, this film has a dour, almost Bergman-like feel to it.

Liam Neeson is not always the wisest of men when it comes to selecting scripts, and his most recent films (The A-Team, Unknown, Taken, the upcoming Battleship) are mostly brainless action extravaganzas wherein he plays a morose silent badass who efficiently kills everything in sight. This movie takes the same character (here a professional wolf-hunter named John Ottway) and drops him in a setting wherein he's no longer the apex predator. The result is startlingly effective, particularly because the movie surrounds him with other characters (mostly no-name actors), all of whom act and behave the way men in a situation like this might well act. While we get the usual cliches of the disaster-survivor-film genre, including the "braggart who claims to be without fear", "the believer", and "the nerd", none of these archetypes are overplayed. They feel like a bunch of oil workers on the edge of the world, tough men who find themselves in an even tougher situation. The writing does not let any of the characters down, not even Neeson, and gives them lines to say that actually sound like real people might say them. This is more of a rarity in this genre than one might think.

Things Havoc disliked: I hate to be a pedant, but wolves do not work that way.

Yes, wolves do occasionally kill people. I accept this. But no wolves in the history of the world have ever behaved the way the wolves in this film does. No man-eating wolves have ever behaved like this, not even desperate, starving wolves, which these are explicitly not. I get that the film required a legitimate antagonist to threaten the heroes, but the wolves here resemble real ones in the same way the gorillas from Congo do the real thing. While I can accept a certain level of suspension of disbelief for a movie, watching wolves throwing themselves at a large group of armed men invites ridicule from anyone even tangentially connected to the reality of actual wild animals.

It's not just that the wolves attack the men, though that does stand out. The wolves in this film are an almost diabolical force, inexorable and omnipresent. They negotiate cliffs and rivers with ease, pursue the men for days on end with no food or sleep, and the snapshots of their behavior that we see resembles that of a biker gang more than a pack of animals. At one point, one of our heroes is surrounded by dozens of wolves, all of whom back away so that their leader, can finish the human personally in a mano-y-wolfo duel. This isn't an alpha wolf, this is Lord Humongous. Equally, scenes of synchronized funeral howling sound like the filmmakers are trying to find some kind of noble-savage parallel in the wolves. I have no doubt that wolves are smart enough to recognize and mourn their own dead. I doubt, however, that they are able to give choreographed eulogies in the style of Pericles.

Final thoughts:  I'm almost hesitant to cite all of the above as a negative however, because while the wolves are plainly not real wolves, the effect that the wolves have within the film really works. About halfway through the film, once I had gotten over my nitpicking objections and the cast had been thinned enough (spoilers!) so that I could keep track of them all properly, the movie began to gel for me in a way I'm not entirely sure I'm equipped to describe. Partly it's the effective, though sparse, use of back-story and character implication in the main and secondary characters, that seems to feed so well into the grim tone the film presents. Characters die in this film in horrible, uncompromising ways, yet the movie doesn't lapse into grimdark-ery, nor does one get the sense that the deaths are cynical calculations by filmmakers seeking shock value. As such, the movie succeeds where most of the awful 'cast slowly winnowed by evil monster' films (Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, Event Horizon) all fail. The last third or so of the movie in particular is brutally, wonderfully effective, thanks in part to an inspired score, and in part to wonderful directorial choices, and the movie's ending, which I will not spoil here, cemented the film for me as a surely-guided work of tremendous skill.

Nothing, on paper, about this movie, points to excellence. I only saw it when I ran out of other films to see. And yet walking out, I knew I had seen a special film. I wasn't then, and still am not now entirely certain that I could articulate why, but this movie might well be the pinnacle of its ill-defined genre, and given that the trailers advertised nothing more than Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face, a most unexpected one.

Final Score:  8/10

Friday, February 10, 2012


Alternate Title:  Voldemort Ad Portas

One sentence synopsis: A victorious Roman general is banished by the people and seeks revenge.

Things Havoc liked: It takes a certain kind of madman to do Shakespeare justice. Masked behind tormented psyches and archaic language, actors who attempt Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, are often unable to get the essence of their characters across unless they can properly channel a certain modulated intensity (it also helps if one is British). Fortunately, with films such as Red Dragon, In Bruges, and Schindler's List behind him, as well as a long history with Shakespeare on the stage, Ralph Fiennes is more than qualified to bring one of Shakespeare's crazy protagonists to life. Here he plays Caius Martius Coriolanus, a general in the Roman army who is brought down by his unwillingness to play demagogue. Fiennes, always at his best when playing a man on the verge of a psychotic episode (see the above films), plays Coriolanus like some kind of enraged demon locked up within a frame of icy professionalism. Rejecting fame and flattery, indifferent to pain and injury, conscious of his own superiority without feeling the need to have it flaunted, he seems almost lost when he doesn't have someone to shoot at. Unlike many of Shakespeare's heroes, Coriolanus doesn't indulge in lengthy soliloquies to explain himself to the audience, and Fiennes gets all this across just through his stare, expression, and the occasional clipped word. It's quite impressive.

This is also Fiennes' directorial debut, and for the occasion, he has surrounded himself with a superb supporting cast. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox turn in outstanding performances as Coriolanus' mother and friend respectively. Redgrave is a match, intensity-wise for Fiennes himself, speaking and acting with the same ferocious glare to her eyes, such that when she says she'd be perfectly happy for her son to die as long as he dies well, we believe her. Cox, who usually plays a slimy bastard, here plays the only non-slimy politician in Rome, who tries again and again to soften Coriolanus' woeful public image. Smaller parts are still entrusted to other excellent actors, among them James Nesbitt as one of the rabble-rousing Tribunes, and John Kani as the arch-patrician General Cominius.

In keeping with what seems to be a rule nowadays, this movie is shot in modern times, with period language. I'm not usually a huge fan of this method, as it often (Romeo+Juliet) comes across as pretentious and jarring. This time, however, with actors good enough to sell the dialogue, the style is allowed to stand on its own and even update the material with modern takes. Soliloquies and herald messages that would be awkward in person are handled cleverly through talk shows and broadcast news reports. Coriolanus' meltdown happens on the set of a Face the Nation-type political interview show, which adds to the frenzied, almost tabloidish atmosphere of the entire event. Meanwhile the competing armies are a study in contrasts. The Volscians (Rome's enemies) carry eastern-bloc weapons and dress like Cuban guerrilla fighters, while the Romans are in full modern infantry gear, carrying western assault rifles and satellite uplinks. Battle sequences are violent and gritty, and look like something one might see from one of the Balkan wars of the 90s, while the city of Rome itself is half-industrial park, half tenement-housing. Still, a modernized Roman setting is the sort of thing calculated to make me happy, and I particularly appreciated the little touches thrown in here and there (such as Fidelis TV and the Latin headlines on the scrolling news bar).

Things Havoc disliked: The only major actor who doesn't keep up with Fiennes and company is Gerard Butler, who plays Aufidius, enemy of Coriolanus and general of the Volscians. It's not that Butler is bad, but he's just not in the league of people like Fiennes and Redgrave, and moreover his character just isn't as interesting. This isn't helped by the fact that, for some reason, Butler decides to dive deeply into a thick Scottish accent for this role. Why he chose to do this is beyond me, but when the language is as dense and archaic as Shakespeare's, muddling everything up with an accent this thick renders half of his dialogue completely incomprehensible, at least to ignorant American me.

Additionally, the soundtrack in this movie is very sparse, to the point of being nonexistent. There's certainly a time and a place for less-is-more insofar as soundtracks are concerned, but whole sections of this film seem like they forgot to score them, which becomes particularly problematic in scenes where, for stylistic reasons, the sound effects also are cut out. Twice during the film I thought that the theatre's sound system had failed, only to find that there was "symbolism" being done.

Final thoughts:  Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, and rivers of ink have been spilled debating just what's wrong with it. It's certainly more straightforward than most of the Gordian Knots that Shakespeare usually tied his characters into, and has a protagonist who says much less, overall, than other Shakespeare protagonists I could mention. The film, cleverly, improves on the sparseness of the play in ways only film can perform, enabling the actors to infuse their dialogue with far more subtle nuance than would be possible on stage. This turns the screenplay's relative sparseness into an asset, as much is implied between each line. Couple that with an alt-history setting that appeals to the romanophile in me (and probably bumps the film's score by half a point or so), and we have a winner here. The material frankly isn't awe-striking enough to turn the movie into a true masterpiece, but as Shakespeare films go (to say nothing of directorial debuts), one really can't ask for anything more than this.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Flowers of War

Alternate Title:  The Rapists of Nanking

One sentence synopsis: A drunken American mortician and a chinese prostitute try to save a group of schoolgirls during the Rape of Nanking.

Things Havoc liked: In 1937, the Japanese army destroyed the city of Nanking, then capital of China, with a thoroughness and a bestial cruelty unrivaled since the depredations of Genghis Khan.  For eight weeks, the Japanese almost literally tore the city apart, slaughtering men, women, children, dogs, and every other living thing with indiscriminate cruelty, until fully half of the city's population (all who were unable to hide), had been exterminated.  It was one of the worst atrocities of modern times, rivaling in intensity the worst incidents of the Holocaust, and is today all but forgotten in the annals of history.

Enter Zhang Yimou.  One of China's most well known directors (at least in the West), Zhang has been responsible for some of the finest Chinese movies I've seen, including masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic games.  Yimou has a very distinctive style to many of his films, flowing landscape shots of stark color contrasts and dreamy, almost slow motion sequences, even in the midst of wire-fu action sequences.  It's a weird pairing, I admit, but Yimou pulls way back on his stylization for this film, with only a few shots displaying his tendency towards over-symbolism.

The movie stars Christian Bale, who plays John Miller, an alcoholic undertaker called to a church in Nanking to bury the head priest.  As it happens, this church is also the chosen refuge of two groups of girls, one of young schoolgirls, led by Shu (played by Zhang Xinyi), and another of high-class prostitutes from the city's red light district, led by Yu Mo (played by Ni Ni).  Bale's character is based on several real people, westerners caught up in the hell of the fall of Nanking who tried to save whoever they could.  Bale has certainly been in his share of bad films (Reign of Fire and Terminator Salvation come to mind), but here he's actually quite good, confronted as he is with one of the hardest character archetypes to play, the reforming drunk.  More solid props should go to the other actors.  Zhang Xinyi and Ni Ni both play their characters very well, in scenes that run the gamut from introspective to violent to terrified.  Another very good performance is turned in by Tong Daiwei (whom I swore initially that I had seen somewhere before, but apparently had not), who plays Major Li, one of the last Chinese soldiers left in the city, and who provides the movie with its action hero, and is the catalyst for the (surprisingly few) fight sequences.

The film's pace is slow and effective, dwelling more on the potential terror of the character's surroundings than on the horrid atrocities themselves (though there are those).  Conversations shift effortlessly from English to Chinese to Japanese, relying on the audience to simply keep up with who can understand what at any given point, and yet we never get lost.  The chromatic choices are overwhelmingly gray and muted, as befits the setting of a ruined city being torn apart, but Zhang's trademark flashes of intense color pop up periodically, lending a somewhat dreamlike quality to many scenes.  The writing overall, despite dipping into fairly well-trod territory ("you can overcome your drinking by finding faith!") never gets schmaltzy (something helped, I find, by the subtitles), and holds the drama together quite well.

Things Havoc disliked: On occasion, Zhang's addiction to cinematic prettiness gets the better of him.  There are several shots (such as Bale unfurling the red cross flag) that strike a grating tone, due to sheer pretentiousness.  One can almost feel the director screaming in the background "wait 'till they get a load of this sweep-shot I've got planned'.  Similarly, a couple lines sound pretty forced, at least in English, though nothing continuous enough to get super-annoying.

The movie is also very long, nearly two and a half hours, and admittedly, it feels it.  While the movie's pace doesn't drag too badly, it does get pretty slow towards the end of the film, when we already know how the plot is going to resolve itself as the movie takes the time to explain it to us five or six times.  At that point, we're simply waiting for the plot to turn out the way we know it will.  Finally, there's quite a few cases of some of the girls doing things so galactically foolish (I need to get my cat!) as to strain belief, solely for the purposes of producing tension (or atrocity).

Final thoughts:  I really shouldn't keep doing this, I know, but this is yet another movie that I liked quite a bit which was more or less excoriated by the critics at large. With movies like Suckerpunch, I can see why this happens, as I am able to identify that there are movies that are objectively bad which I will like. But a movie like this, made with care and craft by an award-winning director and starring actors who give honest and even moving performances, I cannot help but conclude that there is something wrong.

And then, of course, I read the reviews, and found gems like this:

One of the ancient ploys of the film industry is to make a film about non-white people and find a way, however convoluted, to tell it from the point of view of a white character. "The Help" (2011) is a recent example: The film is essentially about how poor, hard-working black maids in Mississippi empowered a young white woman to write a best-seller about them. "Glory" (1900) is about a Civil War regiment of black soldiers; the story is seen through the eyes of their white commander.


Now let me ask you: Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell his story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?

The entirety of Roger Ebert's review of this film is comprised of the above sentiment. It was the sole reason cited for him giving it a lower score than Red Tails.

I have two replies to this.

One, this movie is, amazingly enough, based on a series of historical events, surrounding real people who acted in this way. I stated above that half of the population of Nanking died in the Rape. Almost the entirety of the other half were saved by taking refuge at the international safety zone established by a handful of westerners of all nationalities and stripes who happened to live in the city for one reason or another. These men and women were led by (of all people) a Nazi named John Rabe, and contrived to save hundreds of thousands of civilians from the Japanese by a variety of methods.

Obviously this film is not specifically about John Rabe, but the point is that Westerners were deeply involved in the survival of most of the city of Nanking. Replacing the actual American priest who did these things with a Chinese priest would be to distort history in the name of political correctness, changing events that actually happened because they do not suit your modern political agenda. I would be no less scandalized if they had recast the Japanese soldiers as white (or for that matter, black) to avoid demonizing Asians. The fact that a Westerner could do things and move about in the city more freely than a Chinese person could (thanks to the Japanese being less willing to simply slaughter every westerner in sight) is a plot point of the goddamn movie, and the sole reason why the hero is able to make several important discoveries and decisions throughout it. Moreover, it is a simple fact that a Catholic cathedral in Nanking in 1937 would not have had a Chinese priest officiating over it, and casting one would be completely anachronistic. Or is the fact that Catholics had something to do with saving civilians in China also inconvenient for our sensibilities today?

Secondly, look again at who made this movie.

Zhang Yimou is one of the most important directors in China today. He has been accused of being both anti-authoritarian and pro-authoritarian at various points. He was chosen to choreograph the Beijing Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. He filmed this movie with a budget of more than $90,000,000 and was given carte blanche to cast any actors he wished or could acquire. His film was co-produced by William Kong, the famous Hong Kong producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and other staples of wuxia cinema. I categorically refuse to believe that, given these circumstances, Zhang Yimou, one of the finest directors in mainland China whitewashed his own film.

Glory, The Help, and this movie all did have White characters as points of view (though in Glory it was one of about five). Glory, The Help, and this movie were all also excellent films, all three of which were based around true stories about real people, white and otherwise, who did the things they did. George Shaw, from Glory, existed. Making the film without him would have been an intolerable crime committed against the pages of history. Similarly, Westerners, and yes, western priests, were instrumental in saving hundreds of thousands of lives in Nanking. This happened. And to remove them from the story because you don't like that they were in it is as absurd as moving the setting of the movie to Chicago. This is literally the only complaint that Ebert (and some others) make about the film. He admits late in the review that "The Flowers of War" is in many ways a good film, as we expect from Zhang Yimou." He, and those like him, have fallen into that ultimate trap of criticism, wherein they are criticizing the movie not for what it is, but because it is not some other imagined movie that they would have preferred to see.

And to suggest that this artfully-crafted movie was inferior to the dreck that was Red Tails simply because that movie had no white characters in it, and this one did, is simply contemptible.

Final Score:  7/10

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