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

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