Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Alternate Title:  The Batman Movie we Deserve

One sentence synopsis:    Bruce Wayne must confront his own demons and a pack of revolutionary terrorists led by Bane.

Things Havoc liked:  Every generation gets the Batman it's looking for. In the 60s we got a cheesy goofball foiling the ludicrous deeds of plastic villains. In the 80s it was the Dark Knight, watching over a corrupt city nearly as mad as he was while battling anything and everything in his path. In the 90s, we got a stylized Batman of haunting, neo-gothic surreality, one which ultimately collapsed under its own weight of artifice. Today we live in a world of international terrorism, violent civil upheaval, economic uncertainty, and all-pervasive fear of the future. And here is the Batman movie we have been seeking.

What use, in a film like this, to recite names of actors and characters and say what everyone has already said? This is Bale's third turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and he has finally grown into the role in a way I did not think he ever would, diving down into the nadir of his own soul and clawing his way back out through methods even Batman films did not prepare me for. The cost of becoming Batman has been a constant theme within these movies, but never has it been more severe than now, to the point that neither his body nor his mind nor even Alfred's eternal vigilance for Bruce Wayne's soul can stand them any longer. And yet reality is still present, waiting to be dealt with in the form of another one of Batman's never-ending rogues' gallery.

Bane is played by Tom Hardy, a choice I could not understand when first I heard it, bulked up like a side of frozen beef and wearing a Hannibal Lechter mask that turns his voice into a strange, synthesized British drone that reminded me of Deckard Cane more than anything else. Yet if Heath Ledger's Joker was a primal spirit of Chaos, Bane seems to be that of Death-the-Leveler, incarnated from a 15th-century cult text and set forth on Gotham not merely to kill, but to flatten society from the top down before he does so. He never raises his voice, never bows to an agenda beyond nihilism and the revelation of all earthly concerns as vanity and hypocrisy. His plan is buttressed by a horde of fanatical suicide-killers, loyal only to the notion of the fire that he will start, and the upheaval that will follow in his wake. He does not scream and he does not deceive, save in that he consciously permits the belief in hope before stamping it out as a tool of policy. Hardy's performance is hidden behind the embodiment of such a character (we cannot see his face, and his voice might as well be computer generated), but he sells the role perfectly, and I could not, by the end of it, picture another in his place.

Nor is he the only one I was dubious about who redeemed himself. Anne Hathaway, who while pretty, has previously starred in romantic comedy and princess fantasy films that I abhor, turns in here the best Catwoman performance I've ever seen, and I remember Michelle Pfeiffer perfectly well, thank you. In keeping with the tone of the film, Catwoman here is a cat burglar, athletic and supremely skilled, but no more, and we meet her when she is already at the peak of her prowess, effortlessly robbing Bruce Wayne himself at the very beginning of the film, and thereafter taking perfectly serviceable care of both herself and others on into the film. Her character teases any knowing audience with hints from the comics, but never veers into caricature, perfectly embodying everything Catwoman should be in a Batman film. On the other side we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a young Gotham cop who deduces Batman's identity quite early on and finds himself thrust into an increasingly major role in opposing the madness of Bane. Levitt, despite his good turn in Inception, has always annoyed the hell out of me, mostly because he has a bad habit of picking shit movies to appear in. After this performance, I have to admit, I'm beginning to see why he's become so popular. Blake dodges every rookie cop stereotype I can think of and several others that I just invented, on-route to giving us a dedicated, driven cop who wants to do right by his city and his badge, all without overacting or histrionics. When he is forced to shoot two assailants in a construction yard, he visibly upset at what he's just done , and when his former idol is revealed to be flawed, he explains why he is disappointed, but in both cases, returns thereafter to his job, if only because the stakes are too high for anything else. I promised I wouldn't turn this review into my usual "list of actors I liked", so I'll just sum up by saying that Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine are all as awesome in this movie as they were (with Cotillard's obvious exception) in the last one, and every one of them brings precisely the right notes to their performance.

Nolan's Batman films have always been masterpieces of style and tone, and this film is no exception. Everything that previously was here has returned, and been dialed up to reflect the even greater stakes of this film. Hans Zimmer's score, already a brooding orchestral masterpiece has been ratcheted up into a full blown, almost Wagnerian overture to the epic themes being displayed here. The city of Gotham, which seemed a post-industrial wasteland in the first film, and a glass-and-steel arena for the Joker and Batman to do battle in the second, is now a crumbling Detroit-like city on the brink of Armageddon, all mystique stripped away in favor of atavistic gutpunches. The cinematography is expert as always, symbolizing and framing Batman's fall and desperate strides towards redemption without ever becoming overbearing. When at length the movie shows us Batman standing before his foe, in broad daylight, on marble steps, we know exactly what is being told to us and why, and yet it never feels pushed into our face.

And what a journey this film is. Among comic book characters, Batman has always had a reputation for darkness, and Nolan has clearly done his homework in that regard. The entire second half of the film (spoiler alert) is an extended foray into urban hell, as Bane's conquest (yes, conquest) of Gotham city enables him to spin fortune's wheel at will and turn the low against the high (and anyone else he wishes to exterminate). We see wealthy parts of the city being looted and burnt, families dragged from their homes and shot by enraged have-nots, or the violent thugs that Bane recruits from prisons. Cops are hunted through the streets, their bodies hung from the suspension cables of bridges, and show trials presided over by madmen sentence the previously-powerful to be hurled into frozen rivers to drown. As a vision of the most apocalyptic fantasies of urban upheaval, this movie will do quite nicely, and while I'm not one of those lunatics who thinks Nolan is trying to impugn the Occupy Wall Street movement (or the Arab Spring), he unhesitatingly borrows much of their imagery to give these scenes a greater impact on the audience. The sheer audacity of the bleakness in this film, where Batman is broken and cast down, and his city, blanketed in snow, is given over to the rule of psychopathic suicide-terrorists for months on end, is almost stunning. There are many reasons to hate this film, but lack of daring is not among them. Like it or not, Nolan sought to present, in this movie, something that nobody would ever forget. I certainly won't.

Things Havoc disliked:   I confess, I did not even think it was possible for a movie to simultaneously be too long and rushed.

165 minutes this movie runs, and I'll be damned if it doesn't feel it. No good movie is too long of course, but while I wasn't exactly bored at this one, I could feel the weight of time as I sat through it and realized that no, the movie still wasn't approaching something resembling an ending. What's strange is that despite the immense runtime, this movie feels like a rush job, as every one of the (at a guess) six-or-so main characters, half of them new to this film alone, must be given ample time to establish their characters and go on the journey prepared for them. The result, predictably, is that certain inconvenient things like "facts" get papered over. Despite a promising start in which Bruce Wayne is forced to acknowledge the raw physical damage that a decade spent as Batman does to a person's body, the movie quickly loses all sense of what human beings are and are not capable of. Back surgery is performed by means of punches, and the power of will to overcome mere physical limitations is touted to a point where even a Batman movie cannot sustain it. Furthermore, I know this is a Batman movie, and that the previous films involved such concepts as weaponized fear gas, microwave bombs, sub-dermal high explosive, and personal-scale radar that can track an entire building, but this film's supertech just runs off the rails. We are treated to levitating armored gunships, fusion reactors-turned-thermonuclear weapons, entire fleets of batmobiles equipped with electromagnetic cannon and Gatling guns. It gets to the point where not only are we being asked to swallow an awful lot of future-tech shenanigans, but it begins to take the focus off of the characters themselves, leaving their actual confrontations somewhat overshadowed by the clash of robots and hardware.

There are also some significant structural problems with this film. The principle of the inescapable pit-prison is cool and all, but poses some unfortunate logistical and physical issues that I had a hard time getting around (someone I was with asked if they had electricity or not). Left unexplained is how many characters seem to get from point A to points B, C, D, or E, a matter of some interest when the points are on separate continents and the characters in question are crippled, hunted, and broke. Nobody explains how a quarantine tight enough to seal thousands of police underground and prevent a single escape from a megalopolis in five months can be evaded when it becomes necessary for someone to break into the city, nor how the army of trained killers failed to notice a fully functional gunship poised on the roof of a building during those aforementioned five months. The logistics of supplying a city of twelve million severed from all contact with the world save for relief trucks is perhaps best not thought about. There are also many scenes wherein literal armies of heavily-armed men discharge machine guns at one another without effect, often eschewing their guns altogether in favor of fisticuffs and melee combat. These sorts of scenes always stick out to me if only because of how ubiquitous they are in lesser action films, and to see them in this one is disappointing, even if they're obviously done for effect.

Final thoughts:  I'm torn on this movie.

Writing this review, I found myself able to recount good and bad points, but not to sum up, as I discovered that I could make a case for giving this film a 9, and also a case for giving it a 4. Both cases could be defended. And yet to split the difference and give it a 6-7 could not. In an age when most movies play it safe in every respect, one can object to Christopher Nolan's final entry in the Batman trilogy, but one cannot accuse it of being safe. Indeed it's one of the most audacious movies I've ever seen, dispensing with the dreaded "third-act collapse" so common to movie trilogies (X-men, Spiderman, Godfather, Matrix) by virtue of turning the intensity dial up to 11, then ripping the dial off and punting it into the river. Nolan here seems to have made a conscious choice that, whatever he did, he would not make a soft landing for his trilogy, and that if the expectations on this film were so impossibly high that they could never be met, there was nothing to be lost from attempting to shoot the moon. So ultimately, I have to look at the film in all its glory and excess, all its grit and pain, all its triumph and flawed stupidity, and ask myself, simply, did it work?

And you know what? Yeah. It did.

It may not appeal to everyone. I can list, by name, at least a dozen people I know who will hate it. But the sheer scale of this film, the triumphant highs and the (far more numerous) cavernous lows to which our heroes are plunged, all of that coupled with a stylistic design that emphasized the epic, almost operatic sweep of what was being shown to us, succeeded ultimately in burying all of the flaws and issues that one might have brought up. And a film that does that much whichalso contains superb performances and very good (if occasionally too-spot-on) writing that this one did, I really can't complain. I would rather see a film that showed me something spectacular (in the literal sense of the word) with flaws than a film that showed me the same damn thing I've seen a thousand times before. And while this movie had flaws, some of them quite serious, the three-hour epic tale of the fall and redemption of Bruce Wayne was a grand enough setting to overcome those flaws. I did not leave this film in a fit of fanboyistic glee, as I did for The Avengers, but rather in stunned silence, my mind struggling to grapple with everything I had just been shown. As the weight and complexity of it all has percolated within me, I am left with the strong sense that what I saw was a movie of weight and yes, even gravitas, scarcely to be equaled in this age of Battleship and Bay-formers. A movie this bold could only be a catastrophe on the level of Heaven's Gate, or a masterpiece of the level of Lawrence of Arabia. With very few reservations, I choose to call it the latter.

This is not the Batman movie I expected. It may not even be the Batman movie I wanted. But it is the Batman movie we all deserved.

And sometimes that's the best thing of all.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Alternate Title:  Paging Doctor Phil...

One sentence synopsis:    A Scottish princess tries to escape marriage and the control of her mother.

Things Havoc liked:  We consistently expect greatness from Pixar. We consistently expect greatness because they consistently provide it. Wall-E, Up, the Incredibles, Finding Nemo, the goddamned Toy Story series (My alternate title for Toy Story 3 would have been "You will weep like a baby"), year after year, Pixar has given us some of the finest if not the finest animated stories I for one have ever seen. Walking into a Pixar film is therefore, to me, almost like watching a High Wire act performed with no net. The expectations are so high that they will not tolerate the slightest slip.

Brave is a Pixar film, and as a Pixar film, some things simply need to be dispensed with. The animation is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful, caricatured, yes, but significantly more realistic than most of the rest of Pixar's body of work. Long gone are the days when the Incredibles (which looked good if not great) represented the cutting edge of Pixar's human animation, and the detailing on these characters (particularly their hair) is photo-quality in all conditions. People are dirty, blood-smeared, or soaking wet, but the animation keeps pace all without drawing attention to itself. Models are far more detailed than even Pixar tends to make them, and the design is such that we can easily tell the difference in the mental state of a non-talking bear from shot to shot with only slight alterations to the eyes and jowls. The settings are gorgeous, vibrant, and distinctive from all previous Pixar works, giving us a taste of stylized Scotland that one could easily lose one's eye in and picture as real. The cinematography is classic Pixar, with a liberated camera that unerringly finds the perfect angle to illustrate the tapestry before us, and even some touches of false-reality added in such as faded middlegrounds and camera angle tricks that one generally wouldn't see in an animated movie. For the three remaining people in the world who imagined that Pixar might produce a badly-made film, you may all set your fears to rest.

Voice acting, as is standard for Pixar films, is spot on. The main character, Princess Merida, is ably voiced by native Scott Kelly MacDonald (of Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men), while her mother, Queen Elinor, receives the voice of Emma Thompson. Thompson, in particular, does a fantastic job with what is arguably the second main character, to the point where, though I've heard her voice a thousand times, and she makes no effort to disguise it here (beyond a soft Scottish accent), I absolutely did not recognize her voice, as it seemed to be a perfectly natural part of the character on screen. The rest of the voice cast is filled with actors I invariably enjoy such as Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, and Robbie Coltraine. As with Thompson, I did not recognize a single one of them (save for Connolly, whom I knew about going in) until after the film, a testament to how well animated characters and voices were matched throughout the film. Finally, like all Pixar movies, Brave is wickedly funny, especially in key parts, with high-speed visual gags that fly in one after the next, some aimed at kids, some at older kids, and some at adults.

But what elevates Pixar films above the standard animated fare is not their visuals or voice-casting or even humor, but the sincerity, sophistication, and poignancy of the stories they tell. This time, Pixar made a very conscious decision to try a female main character (their first), and has brought us a story that revolves primarily around Princess Merida and her mother. There's nothing tremendously new about the material. Merida is a free-spirited teenager (in an age before that term was invented), who resents the control her mother has over her life, and the rules to which she, as a Princess, is expected to adhere. We've seen this stuff before. The "Princess who wants more" trope goes back, in animation, at least to the Little Mermaid if not long before. But the film quite cleverly knows that we've seen it before, compressing what for a Disney flick would be an entire film (Princess exerts her independence, confronts the men who would take her life over, and wins out through skill and daring) into the first act of this movie, and then turning to the question of what happens next. In doing so, it focuses the movie on two important elements not normally seen in this sort of film. One is the issue, as I mentioned, of what happens after the bold declaration of independence. "Competing for your own hand" in marriage is all well and good, but the movie points out that politics and war are involved in a princess' betrothal, and that casually throwing these things aside can lead to copious bloodshed, shattered alliances, and civil war. The other (stronger) element is the core relationship between Merida and her mother, and what their different opinions on responsibility and decorum actually mean. This is not a case of the wicked (or overbearing and out-of-touch) parent unfairly suppressing her daughter out of jealousy, stupidity, or stubbornness. Both characters are presented sympathetically, and the rifts that rip them apart are given real weight.

Things Havoc disliked:   Or rather they would be given real weight if the behavior of Merida was not so appalling.

Okay, yes, Merida is a teenager, and teenagers, by and large, do act thoughtlessly and selfishly. Wealth, privilege, and loving parents have no effect on this fact of life, and I've definitely seen teenage girls act even more horribly than this. That said, some of this character's actions approach sociopathy, and that's where this movie begins to lose us.

I've got to be somewhat coy here. I was not expecting to see some of the things in this movie that I wound up seeing, particularly some of the actions that Merida takes when trying to change her destiny and evade betrothal to a group of men she does not wish to marry. I accept that forced marriage is something one would wish to fight against. I also accept that in a moment of stupidity, anger, or desperation, Merida might do something as galactically foolish as she does in this film. What I don't accept is the flippancy with which she deals with the consequences. Teenagers may talk a good game about hating their parents who don't understand them, but most of them would be upset at the prospect of having poisoned their own mother (by accident or otherwise) or generally placed their parents in jeopardy of death or equally horrible fates. Merida does try to deal with the mess she makes, but we do not sense the panic or fear or even a particular tone of urgency in her efforts to repair the truly terrible things she's done, at least not for a good long while. Given the lengths to which Elinor, wrong-headed though she may be, goes to try and connect with or help her daughter, and the truly awful danger she winds up in, the lack of concern for the consequences of her actions displayed by Merida completely destroys the balancing act that Pixar was trying to produce between the two characters, at least for much of the film.

Now to be fair, yes, Media does eventually come to appreciate the jaw-dropping carelessness of her own actions, as well as the life-shattering consequences they might have. And yes, when she does so, the resulting scenes are both moving and tender, as one might expect from Pixar. But by that point we've spent half the film in the company of a girl who seems either oblivious to the point of stupidity or uncaring to the point of psychosis. In consequence, the scenes in which Elinor softens towards Merida's perspective (you did not seriously expect this was a movie about an irreparable family rift with no solutions, did you?) come across as flat and forced. I do see what they're going for, but if nothing else, the lesson of the entire journey would seem (to me at least) that Merida's mother was right all along, if only because Merida is so unforgivably thoughtless and her mother so infinitely patient and protective. There's simply no counterbalancing lesson to push things in the direction of Merida's being right, for the simple fact that the arguments against her are too damning and the plight she is rebelling against too slight by comparison. As a result, the ultimate solution that the movie comes to feels both forced and rushed, as characters spontaneously agree to things I did not believe they would agree to, or express opinions that the movie has not earned.

Final thoughts:  Maybe it sounds like I'm nitpicking (which I'm not), or at least taking one single thing and harping endlessly on it (which I guess I am), but this issue is not a small one insofar as the film is concerned. Pixar movies are held to such a high standard because the interaction of the characters is so real (and raw) that despite their being robots, fish, children's toys, or grumpy old men, we identify so strongly with the emotions on display that our reactions are almost written for us. This only works if the characters, idiosyncratic as they are, make sense to us within their particular contexts, and this movie simply lost me for a good long part of it. Indeed, part of the problem is that Queen Elinor is so well crafted that the dissonance of her daughter's actions makes the film seem almost uncomfortable at times, at least for me.

I have to admit that I was avoiding this film for several weeks before I went to see it, as the concept seemed forced ("Look! We can have strong, independent female characters!") and rather pedestrian for an animation studio that had, until now, eschewed Magic Princess stories entirely. To my surprise, those issues that I expected to run into did not materialize.  To my even greater surprise, other, much more problematic issues surfaced in their place. Pixar is, of course, a great movie studio, and even when they make mistakes, the movies they produce are still of excellent quality. But while Brave is ultimately a good film, and maybe even a very good film, another Pixar masterpiece it simply is not.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Monday, July 16, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Alternate Title:  The Magical World of Global Warming

One sentence synopsis:    A young girl and her father deal with hurricanes, forced evictions, and man-eating aurochs in their strange Louisiana community.

Things Havoc liked:  So... there's this little girl.

Her name is Quvenzhané Wallis. She is currently nine years old. When she was five, a couple of filmmakers named Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar picked her to star in an independent film adaptation of Alibar's one-act play about a girl and her father living in what I take to be the Mississippi delta. She looks between six and seven or so at time of filming, though I'm a terrible judge of these things, and frankly, she's the best actor in the movie. She plays Hushpuppy, a dynamo of stubborn wilfulness, living in a strange community called the "Bathtub" on the ocean side of an immense levy with her father and a gaggle of fellow lunatics, adult and child alike. Fearless (and serious) to the point of self-destructiveness, Wallis delivers an incredibly good (and at times surprisingly restrained) performance, never veering at all into cutseyness. She talks to animals and her absent mother, stares down gigantic carnivorous beasts, and talks back to her drunk, half-mad father, not out of precocity but from that self-evident consistent-yet-alien worldview that small children are able to conjure forth. She imagines the world to behave naturally in a given way, and thus for her it does. When she lights her trailer on fire and hides from the flames inside a cardboard box, we understand immediately her thought process, all from her actions and expression. She also evidences the terrible, biting cruelty that children can unleash when frustrated or angered, at one point telling her father, whom she loves and who loves her, that when he dies she will go to his grave and eat birthday cake upon it.

And speaking of her father (played by Dwight Henry), Wink is one of the weirder father-figures I've ever seen in a film. Terminally ill with some unspecified cancer-like disease, constantly drunk and sometimes even physically violent, Wink is nevertheless neither a villain nor a pitiable figure to be "redeemed" by Wallis. He seems to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, (at one point exploding over the proper method of shelling a crab), and yet because his daughter is both equally energized and totally unafraid of him, the result is all over the map. They fight, throwing mutual tantrums and competing to see who can make more of a mess. They argue, occasionally bitterly and painfully, as Wink attempts despite himself to do what he thinks is best for his daughter, who steadfastly refuses to have anything done for her (except of course when she doesn't). He tells her stories and shows her how to catch a fish with bare hands, even as hurricanes blow and levies explode. And yet despite everything, the sum total of their interactions feels more real than almost any other film I can conjure to mind. Hushpuppy seems to take her father's 'oddities' as simply another piece in a world that, to her, is entirely consistent, just as she does that of her crazy teacher, crazy neighbors, or the crazy things that happen over the course of the film.

Things Havoc disliked:   And what crazy things these are. This is a film in which global warming touches off the thawing out of antarctic Aurochs, who become carnivorous and stampede towards Louisiana (?) for a confrontation with our heroes. Believe it or not, that is a minor subplot of everything that's going on.

Ultimately though, that's really the problem. This movie has no "plot", so to speak, but is simply, to quote Roger Ebert, a series of events that happen. When the hurricane comes and floods the Bathtub, there is an elaborate sequence involving an alligator carcass, bottles of gasoline, explosives, a detonator, and power boats that culminates in Hushpuppy blowing a hole through a levy to drain the Bathtub. Yet once she does this, the movie seemingly abandons the whole thing in favor of another Terrence Malik-inspired mediation on the transitory nature of life, or something similar. There are occasional hints back to the fact that busting open the levy probably led to X and Y, further down the line, but no real sense to collect all of this together into a story. In choosing this mechanism, the filmmakers are probably trying to capture the world through the eyes of a particularly clever six-year-old, but it results in a lot of questions by the audience going unanswered.

For instance, the movie posits the return of the Aurochs, here presented as gigantic boars wearing mammoth hide who are apparently carnivorous and the size of buses. Leaving aside the question of how they get from Antarctica to Louisiana, the base fact is that Aurochs were not pigs but cows. Yes, the title character has never seen an Auroch (or for that matter a cow) and therefore probably imagines them in whatever form she's familiar with, I get that. But this is sort of like presenting a flying bear as a dragon and expecting the audience to infer who is making the proper mistake. If any creature would do, why borrow the Auroch (a European animal) for a story set in Louisiana? Do folk-tales in the Bayou typically revolve around creatures that never lived in this hemisphere?

The above may sound like a nitpick (though given the amount of time the movie spends building up the Aurochs, it's not), but it leads to the main issue. A movie like this, which glosses over a more structured plot in favor of transporting us into the mindset of a small child, can only work if the adult part of our brain does not constantly barge in with obvious questions about what the hell is going on. And given the goings on of this film, that's exactly what was constantly happening to me, particularly when the movie was concentrating on its favorite theme of contrasting the joyous life of the denizens of the Bathtub with the sterile, artificial life of the rest of us. I couldn't help but sit there wondering where this small (though scrupulously racially diverse) community of subsistence fishers and scavengers got the fireworks, gasoline, dynamite, and ammunition with which they appeared to be plentifully supplied. How exactly was it that the security guards at the evacuation hospital that these denizens are sent to seem to vanish whenever the plot does not wish them to be there. Where exactly did the rest of the children in the Bathtub come from, and what were all of them doing when Hushpuppy decided to swim off to the floating whorehouse in search of her mother (yes, it's that sort of film). I understand that the theme of the movie is that civilization is evil and poor people are pure, but surely the government would take exception to a bunch of armed lunatics abducting orphaned children from a hospital and taking them back to a disaster zone?

Final thoughts:  I know, I know, I'm not supposed to ask those questions, not in a film like this, which is more or less about the relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, but I couldn't help it. The movie, which had an excellent thing going with those two characters, continuously jumped around, gesturing wildly at topics as varied as global warming, the inhumanity of modern medicine, and giant carnivorous pigs, only coming back to the central core of the story whenever it felt like it. There's only so much digression I can tolerate as a moviegoer before I start to ask uncomfortable questions about what the hell is going on, especially when the film itself invites these questions by bringing up the topics.

I took a chance on this movie because it had, and I'm not kidding about this, the most positive reviews I'd ever seen. Of the major critics that reviewed this film on Metacritic, fully half of them gave it 4/4 or 5/5 star perfect reviews, praising it in immoderate terms and calling for awards and Oscar statuettes to be heaped upon it. I try not to inundate myself with reviews before seeing a film, but with indie films it's sometimes the only way to spot a potential winner amidst the dross. And while I didn't hate this movie at all, I simply do not understand what all these people think they saw. The core of this film is built around an excellent, and perhaps even moving dynamic. But try as they might, the filmmakers were simply unable to disguise the fact that this story, like many children's stories, just doesn't make sense in the cold, unfeeling light of day.

Final Score:  6/10

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman

Alternate Title:  A film in which there are occurrences.

One sentence synopsis:    Peter Parker becomes Spiderman and fights the Lizard.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm not a hater. Stop laughing, damnit, I'm not. I'm not someone who actively looks for terrible movies to savage. My average review score in this little escapade is above five. The whole idea behind this ongoing series was to force myself to see new and different movies with the intention of enjoying myself. I know that it's fun to rip a bad movie apart, and to read the angry rants that accompany some cinematic disaster, but honestly, I don't do this because I hate. I do it because I like things.

I like Martin Sheen, for instance. I've liked him for thirty years (aberrations like Spawn aside). I like how he can play a character like Uncle Ben straight, avoiding most of the usual schmaltz that character usually embodies. I like that he can give a character advice without sounding like he's beginning the "designated advice scene". I like that when I watch him in a good movie I can enjoy his performance, and in a bad movie I can always reminisce about the West Wing.

I like Sally Field, despite the movies she's usually in being about as far from my tastes as possible. I find that I like her more recent work better than her older stuff, and I like that she plays Aunt May (an important character in the Spiderman mythos) with the right blend of motherly warmth and genre-savvy. The movie never actually comes out and says whether or not she knows that Peter Parker is Spiderman, but the hints are there to be seen. I like how most of her performance is implied rather than outright stated, and I like how she and Martin Sheen interact. They definitely seem like a couple that have been married for 37 years.

I like Denis Leary, even though he often picks bad movies to be in. I like his comedy and I like his TV work, and I honestly like him here, as Leary can portray a veteran New York Cop (or firefighter or whatever) effortlessly when he wants to. I like how his biting wit comes through even when operating under a PG-13 restriction, and I like that he gets the best lines in the movie ("Why don't you go talk to the mayor of Tokyo").

I even like some of the interesting touches the movie has regarding Peter's transformation into Spiderman. I like the panic he feels when he realizes that something is drastically wrong with him after being bitten by the genetically engineered spider. I like the mounting fear in the sequence where Peter, unable to control his suddenly-superhuman strength, begins breaking the appliances in his room, crushing doorknobs while trying to open them and shattering glass doors simply by closing them. I like the montage of him getting used to his capabilities, slowly pushing the boundaries of what this Spiderman stuff will let him do. I also like the progression he goes through as he hunts for Uncle Ben's slayer (this better not be a damned spoiler), taking on the attributes of Spiderman one at a time as he moves towards the figure we all know and love.

So please, stop accusing me of being a hater. I do not hate movies. I like movies. I like going to the movies. I like being told amazing and interesting stories through the medium of the movies. I like finding a movie that's a complete surprise, one that I had no idea existed, or one that I thought was going to suck. I like anticipating a great film, and going to see it only to find that my faith has been rewarded. I do this whole thing because I like liking movies.

Things Havoc disliked:   But sometimes I encounter a film like this. And all my protests are rendered weak and fruitless, as I have to sit here and tell you all the truth.

I hated this movie. I hated everything about this movie. This turgid, awkward, endless, brainless, soulless movie. This movie that took two and a half hours of my life and wasted nearly every second of them with tired, boring garbage that does not seem to have even held the director's attention. We live in a world where the studios have taken comic books and given us films like The Dark Knight, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and to turn around and try and pass a film like this off as acceptable is more than simply a slap in the face. If there is justice in the world, it will kill off any thoughts of resurrecting the Spiderman franchise, but no body count this film could engender would be enough to satisfy me.

You all have read my reviews. You know how forgiving I am with actors. Not here. Andrew Garfield might somehow (despite being 28 and playing a teenager) look like Peter Parker, but he is not Peter Parker. His attempts and pretending to be an awkward nerd look like a terrible caricature of high school nerds, stuttering whenever a girl approaches and wildly shifting in tone and emotion as though suffering from some kind of psychological disorder, all while blindly ignoring those around him in a narcissistic haze. I know teenagers are crazy, but Peter in this movie literally goes from mopey and sad to frustrated and angry to laughing and making jokes within the same goddamn scenes, utterly destroying whatever character credibility he had and coming across like a thin mockery of the archetypes at work. Peter Parker is a nerd, and if this is what the filmmakers believe nerds are like, then, as a nerd myself, I invite them all to kiss my nerd ass. Emo-Peter from Spiderman 3 was bad, but this performance is just insulting, and say whatever you will about Tobey MacGuire, he never managed to convince me that the filmmakers were trying to mock me through their performance.

Oh but Garfield isn't the only issue here. Emma Stone, whom I loved in both Zombieland and Easy A (and who, at 23, is more credible as a teenager than Garfield), here plays Gwen Stacy, about whom the only thing positive I can say is that at no point does Spiderman have to save her from the clutches of the evil villain. That cliche avoided, her character is left as a total non-entity. Yes, she's smart and beautiful etc etc, why does she like Peter Parker? If the film can neither answer that question nor give me a plausible reason to find on my own for it (which it does not), then I'm going to have trouble suspending my disbelief. More importantly, for all the screen time she's given, her character does nothing for the entire movie. Having decided not to use her as the typical screaming hostage, the writers clearly could not think of any other role that a female lead might serve, including her only because Gwen Stacy is in the comics and the love interest's presence is obligatory in movies like this.

And don't even get me started on Rhys Ifans' turn as the Lizard. It's well known that comic-action films like this often live and die by their villains. Consider Heath Ledger's Joker or Terence Stamp's General Zod, and then compare them to this dreary, CG-bloated excuse for a villain, and tell me what you think. Movies like this have great leeway with villains. They can be campy, serious, terrifying, noble, mad, driven, well-intentioned, monstrous, anything you want. But the one thing you cannot make a villain is boring, and oh boy did they ever pull that lever here. Conors' motivations are a total mess, going from hints of being a well-intentioned scientist to an abrupt and pointless about-face into the usual ranting monster-talk of how the world is full of weakness and everyone should die. Ifans' delivery is painfully stilted, growing worse as the movie goes on, and his appearance (entirely CG, of course) is generic to the point of ridicule. His first "appearance" is so anticlimactic that the movie glosses over it as though aware that it doesn't matter, and his motivations are so unclear that by the end of the movie I literally wasn't sure who he was and wasn't trying to kill anymore. Nor, must I admit, did I care.

And yet the problems with the Lizard are only the tip of the iceberg insofar as this movie is concerned, emblematic of what went wrong, and yet a tiny part of a larger whole. Every single thing about this movie is underwhelming, from the CG that looks eight years out of date, and laden with pointless first-person POV shots clearly designed to give the 3D audience something to look at, to the teeth-grinding pace of an already bloated 136 minute film (I could joke about how it felt like weeks, but I absolutely would have sworn that we had been in there for more than two and a half hours). Entire subplots are introduced, some elaborately, some almost perfunctorily, and then dropped as soon as the movie reaches another plotting beat, giving the unmistakable impression of a film produced by checklist. Fully half the run-time (more than an hour) goes by before we actually get to see Spiderman, and yet where I would applaud such restraint in a film that actually had something to tell me about the characters, here it feels like a shameless attempt to rip off Batman Begins without actually understanding what made that movie work.

And yet it's not really a lack of professionalism or understanding that dooms this film. I've seen lots of badly-made pieces of junk which were made earnestly but failed because of elementary film-making mistakes. That is not what happened here. What killed this movie is a lack of interest, a lack of passion, a lack of soul, to the point where I wonder if even the director had any interest in what was going on. Given the concept of Spiderman, and the freedom to invent a new take on the beloved story, the sheer poverty of imagination in this film is, for lack of a better word, gobsmacking. Not only is nothing new contributed to the story in this treatment, but the movie takes great pains to ensure that innovation is impossible within its framework. The entire third-act, a languid "crisis" involving the Lizard in an arbitrary plot to destroy New York, alternates between shot-for-shot ripoffs of Sam Raimi's version, pointless CG padding, laughably bad attempts at heroic pathos, monotonous "two men on a skyscraper" fights, and some of the most shameless 9/11-style working-class-hero flag-waving hoo-rah crap I've ever seen, and yes, I saw Spiderman 3. There are no stakes in this movie, no characters to identify with, no journey to accompany the hero on. It is a road leading nowhere which we are obligated to follow until it is over, hitting all of the contractually-obligated points of corporate-approved "story" along the way. There is no reason to care about anything that happens in the film, and as a result, unsurprisingly, we don't.

Final thoughts:  In my review of Real Steel, I quoted Alfred Hitchcock, who said that the soul of cinema lies between the shots. That movie and this one are a study in fascinating contrasts. Real Steel had tired villain stereotypes, a hopelessly pedestrian plot structure, thunderously unsubtle cinematography, and a script that was stolen wholesale from a Ryan O'Neal film. And yet Real Steel positively overflowed with charm, with love and care and blood and sweat and soul, resulting in a film that reduced me to tears at points (shut up). Every frame of that film was plainly someone's childhood dream brought to life, and the sheer wonder of the whole project swept all my objections aside.

There is no wonder in this movie. No earnest joy at the spectacle of amazement brought to the screen. There is no sense that the filmmakers wanted to tell a great tale or bring their secret imaginations to life. We have no sense of all the reason why Spiderman has been a beloved character of American pop culture for nearly fifty years, no hint of why he captured the imagination of so many children and former children. To paraphrase a fellow critic, this movie was not made to tell a tale or show a spectacle or even to make a lot of money. This movie was made because a committee sat down three years ago and arrived at a consensus farmed out to the scheduling directors that a Spiderman movie should probably be made sometime in the middle of 2012. This movie was made on autopilot, and has all the creative spark of a cereal box. It is a waste of time, a waste of money, and a waste of electricity. And if I never see or hear anything about it again, it will only be fitting. Indeed, I suspect it will be the response the filmmakers intended.

And now, to cleanse my mind, I present to you more creative effort than was utilized for the entirety of this movie:

Spiderman, Spiderman
Exceeding my attention span
Turns your brain to marzipan
I'd rather see Twilight again
LOOK OUT! Don't go see Spiderman!

Final Score:  3/10

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Alternate Title:  The Great Eviscerater

One sentence synopsis:    Abraham Lincoln hunts vampires during and after his rise to the Presidency.

Things Havoc liked: What, really can you say about a movie like this? A movie that doesn't even pretend to be historically accurate, a movie with a concept so insane that it's almost genius. The historian in me was cringing, but the aficionado of awesome spectacle was watching Abraham Lincoln employ a silver wood axe to murder vampires in a plantation house in Louisiana or battling them atop a racing train car on the way to deliver victory at Gettysburg. This is one of those movies that gets more awesome the more ludicrous it gets, and believe me, this film gets very, very ludicrous.

Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stars Benjamin Walker, an unknown, as the title character, presumably because he is unnaturally tall (I kid). Actually, Walker is quite good in a role that must be almost unplayable, portraying Lincoln both as a young man training to become a lawyer and politician (and vampire slayer), and an old man weighed down by the responsibilities of presidency and war (and vampire slaying). Walker's performance is earnest and forthright, and he plays the material completely straight, which is frankly the only thing he could do with it. He even manages a decent turn at mimicking Lincoln's famous oratory. Though the old-age makeup isn't tremendously convincing, and Walker doesn't frankly look much like Lincoln to begin with, his performance anchors the film well, and grounds it in a layer of reason that material this insane requires.

Walker is further helped by several other good performances to work off of. One is Anthony Mackie, an excellent actor with credits such as 8 Mile, the Hurt Locker, and one of my guilty favorites, last year's The Adjustment Bureau. He plays William Johnson, a black boy from Illinois who was one of Lincoln's childhood friends and who grows up to become his personal assistant and comrade-in-arms against the Vampires. Leaving the historical accuracy of such a character aside, Mackie strikes just the right chord here, never veering completely into anachronism. Further help is provided by Dominic Cooper (who played Anthony Stark in last year's Captain America), here playing Lincoln's mentor, Henry Sturgess, a bitter, violent vampire hunter who inducts Lincoln into the secret world in question. He and Walker play well off one another, and his character provides a bit of additional life for the movie whenever it pauses for breath.

But the best thing in the movie is the main villain (always a good sign), played in this case by veteran English actor Rufus Sewell. Sewell plays Adam, a five thousand year old vampire who has come to the United States with the intention of claiming the nation for Vampires to live in openly. Sewell seems to be the only one in the film who actually knows what sort of movie he's in, and plays his character with a world-weary amusement that's honestly quite funny. He gets some of the best lines in the film, particularly in a delightfully deranged sequence set in a drooping plantation house in New Orleans straight out of an Anne Rice novel. While most of the other vampires in the film chew (and in fact, inhale) all of the scenery within reach, Sewell seems to find the entire situation mildly hilarious, and gives his character a bit of polish that is... shall we say... somewhat lacking in most of the others.

Things Havoc disliked:   That said, high concept and rule-of-absurdity can only get you so far, and we have some problems here.

One of them is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (previously of Grindhouse, Die Hard 4, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) who is unfortunately quite badly miscast in this movie as Mary Todd Lincoln. I'm not going to bother arguing that her performance is historically inaccurate (though it is) but merely point out that the film takes great pains to at least pretend to be about the mid-nineteenth century, and Winstead still seems at times to be channeling Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim. Doey-eyed schmaltz is fine, but 20th century mannerisms stick badly out in a film like this, and frankly her line delivery, especially during the more intense scenes, borders on the ludicrous. I liked Scott Pilgrim, and I admired her role in it, but might I suggest that costume dramas (which this film masquerades as being) are not her thing. Equally badly miscast is Alan Tudyk (of Firefly among other things), a wickedly funny actor who is completely wasted here in a thankless role as Stephen Douglass, given nothing more to do than introduce Winstead and make a few half-hearted remarks about preserving Slavery.

But the biggest problems with this film have nothing to do with the actors. The movie is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us the truly awful movie adaptation of Wanted, and while this film isn't nearly as bad as that one was, it bears many of the same mistakes. Combat sequences, of which there are many, are positively overloaded with Zach Snyder-like Slow-mo-speed-up shots, sometimes using four or five such effects in the same shot. I don't hate the slo-mo trope as much as I do things like Shaky-cam, but this much of it gets very tiring, especially with an enormous number of shots clearly done solely to look cool in 3D (something I skipped this time around and suggest you do too). Moreover, the combats themselves, though reasonably high-energy, tend to drag on and on, especially the final one, which lasted so long that one person I was with took a bathroom break in the middle of it and missed nothing.

But there's also a fair amount of just basic film-making issues. The movie wants to have its cake historically and eat it too, wishing to be regarded as a reasonable facsimile of the 19th century and the life of Abraham Lincoln, while also presenting a plot so absurd as to strain credulity. I don't mind that, in fact I think it rather in poor taste to object to a movie's premise (there are exceptions of course), but the collision between the two is quite visible and leads to a lot of unanswered and unaddressed questions. I know that Lincoln split rails as a young man, and that he was noted for being very physically powerful, but where precisely did he gain the power to chop down (in fact, to detonate) large hardwood trees with a single blow of his axe (the movie seems to handwave the question away as 'the power of righteous anger'). Similarly, the principles of the Vampire mythos are pretty well established in modern fiction. Therefore, where did this concept that Vampires are unable to hurt one another come from? And why are they apparently able to go out during the day (anyone who cites Twilight as a precedent will be shot) without ill effect? I'm not averse to shaking up the Vampire myth, (and in fairness, the movie's explanation for why Silver is anathema to these Vampires is one of the better ones I've heard), but if you're going to deviate from the established canon, you have to at least give us some idea why or how, or else your movie has no rules.

And I know I said I wouldn't argue the historical inaccuracy thing, I know, but take it from one who really enjoys twisting history up (I've written stories about dragons in WWII for God's sake), there's a difference between a ludicrous premise and a ludicrous execution. Your story doesn't have to be consistent with history, but it does have to be consistent with itself, and there are parts of this one, particularly near the end, where the story doesn't just tear up history but also physics, geography, and common sense. Without giving too much away, Lincoln's "brainstorm" for how to defeat the Confederate vampires should have been obvious from the beginning, and is enacted in a span of time and over a span of distance that is simply impossible. I don't care how angry or determined you are, or how many fugitive slaves you have to assist you, the production of metric tons of explosives and weaponry took longer than five minutes, even back in the 1860s, and you cannot lug sufficient sufficient ammunition and weapons for an army of a hundred thousand over a distance of eighty miles on foot in one night. Moreover, if your central conceit is that Lincoln fought a secret war with Vampires throughout his life unbeknownst to history in general, it's probably a good idea not to publicly and drastically alter the events of the greatest battle in the Western Hemisphere.

Final thoughts:  I'm really of two minds on this one. I didn't hate this movie, and in fact I actually enjoyed large parts of it. But while Bekmambetov didn't actively piss me off this time the way he did with Wanted, the problems with his style are still highly evident, and the film's myriad flaws prevents me from recommending it highly. I know my attachment to history borders on mania, and that my view of Wanted (and perhaps of this film) will not be shared by large elements of the geek community, but one must call these films as one sees them, and my call for this one can be summed up simply as a great idea hampered by pedestrian execution.

But hell, if you're curious about this movie (and what self-respecting geek would not be), a Netflix rental or stream couldn't hurt.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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