Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle

Alternate Title:  The Sleaziest Men in the Room

One sentence synopsis:  Two con artists must play the FBI, the mob, and a corrupt New Jersey politician against one another in the late 70s.

Things Havoc liked:  Twice before, director David O. Russel has appeared in this space, and twice before, I liked the result, even though I thought Silver Linings Playbook somewhat overrated, and The Fighter seriously overrated. His interest in strange, sleazy characters, and the kookiness that results from putting them together is obvious, and this time around, he seems to have decided to simply merge the casts of his two previous films, give them the most outlandish hairdos known to man, and let them loose on one another. I've seen worse pitches for a film.

Christian Bale is infamous in Hollywood for being insane enough to do literally anything to himself in pursuit of looking the part for a film, whether that be binging on protein and working out like a fiend for Batman, or starving himself to ghoulish proportions for the Machinist (things he did back-to-back). This time, Bale sports not only a beer gut but one of the most ridiculous hairdos I've ever seen, a truly spectacular comb-over complete with hair pad and enough gel to sink the Titanic. This in a movie replete with hairdos of the Gods, from Bradley Cooper's gerrycurls to Jeremy Renner's pompadour to whatever you want to call the hairstyles of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams. The style of the late seventies, in all its tacky hideousness, is riven through this movie like a bacillus, from fashion to cars to architecture to interior design to the way people talk and live with one another. Couple that with a particular sense of place, that of northern New Jersey, and this is one of the most solidly atmospheric films I've ever seen.

But of course there's more here than atmosphere. Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist extraordinaire, hustling and cutting deals in every direction, a sleazy man in a sleazy town with a combover of power (I'm sorry, I can't get over it), and a constant feel for the odds for and against whichever of the nine deals he's currently engaged in. His partner in crime, played by Amy Adams, is another con artist, one who masquerades as British nobility when she's not using sixteen men for her own purposes, identifying men's needs and playing off them to set them up for another fall. Believe it or not, these two are our heroes in this film, not simply for lack of better options (though there is that), but because Russell's script humanizes these incredibly sleazy people expertly, showing us their inner lives, their broken families, and the competing pressures they deal with as they simply try to get by. Bale's character, for instance, is married, to Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he has a young son whom he feels he cannot abandon, even though he and his wife can barely tolerate one another, what with him a huckster, and her the single most skin-crawlingly manipulative, passive-aggressive basket case I've see anyone play in a good long while. Lawrence is the hot thing around Hollywood these days, but this character makes her turn in Silver Linings Playbook look like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, so relentlessly shallow and self unaware that she's actually difficult to watch. Merely putting up with her for any length of time absolves Bale of much in this movie, as he tries, despite Lawrence and everything else, to simply survive.

But that's not easy with a plot and characters like this. Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent with a yearning to break through into a major case so intense it wafts off him like a stench. Having obtained leverage over our two small-time fraudsters, he proceeds to crowbar his case with them into the massive, sprawling federal affair that became known as ABSCAM, all while Bale and Adams, dragged along unwillingly for the ride, try desperately to keep some control of the situation. Caught in the middle of all this is Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito, a politician whose dirty laundry is only to be expected from someone named Carmine Polito who does business in New Jersey. Both Cooper and Renner are spot perfect in these roles, the former a desperate cop just on the cusp of his first taste of success in any venture at all, a taste which instantly goes to his head, while the latter is a blue-collar politician of the sort only the Mid-Atlantic seems to be able to produce, corrupt perhaps, but well meaning despite it, who seeks to use the corruption that surrounds him to the genuine betterment of his impoverished constituency. When we marvel how mayors of poor cities who are arrested with crack and hookers or busted in corruption scandals, still somehow manage to get overwhelmingly re-elected, we should consider Renner's character here, a populist in the tradition of Huey Long crossed with Jimmy Hoffa, someone who wades through the grease to actually get something accomplished.

This, essentially, is the film, a study of characters who are set against one another and proceed to weave plots of labyrinthine complexity to entangle each other, playing and being played by many in turn. Indeed the strength of the film is such that, despite the intricate dance of leverage and scamming going on, the focus of the film is squarely on the characters themselves, particularly those of Bale, Adams, and Lawrence, all three of whom turn in masterful performances (the first I've seen from Adams), particularly Bale. His character is wound up so tightly in the madness of his crazy life that it seems impossible for him to make sense of it. At times he finds himself literally suffering panic attacks from the strain, and yet without betraying the fundamental weaknesses of the character, he manages, somehow, to keep things going despite the ever-escalating involvement of the police, the FBI, and the Mafia. It's unnecessary at this point to call Christian Bale a great actor, as he's been evidencing this fact since the age of 12. But this, nonetheless, is one of his best performances, layered and nuanced and emotional despite the hair and the clothes and the terrible taste laden atop it all.

Things Havoc disliked:  It can be hard to figure out just what is going on at certain points, as the plot is extremely dense and the character relations so complex and laden with misdirection that it ultimately confuses the audience. Most of the time this is intentional, an attempt to introduce uncertainty as to the true motives of a character (usually Adams'), but it's not usually a good thing to have your audience spend large sections of the movie unsure as to what's going on. Granted, the film is generally strong enough that when something rings false, or seems out of place, it turns out to have a purpose behind it, but unfortunately that doesn't hold true every time. Cooper's character, for instance, goes so far over the top that at one point he attacks his boss (Louis C.K.) and beats him with a telephone for having the temerity to call a halt to an investigation whose scope and cost are spiraling out of control. That an agent so tightly wound might do such a thing I can perhaps believe, but such an agent would be instantly cashiered if not arrested and thrown in federal prison. Some movies could perhaps get away with this, but American Hustle goes out of its way to present itself as a realistic, albeit deranged, story. This is a problem, as the film later expects us to swallow characters acting in a strange, suspicious manner, with the promise that this behavior will be explained later. But as the characters have been allowed to act unrealistically before, we are left wondering if what we've just seen is foreshadowing or a plot hole.

Final thoughts:   Do not, however, let these minor quibbles affect your takeaway from this one, for in a lesser film than American Hustle, they would not even have been noticed. This movie is the David Russel film that people have long been telling me he was capable of making, a grandiose exploration of sleazy, damaged people, in a strange setting, trying to get one over on each other. I'm a great fan of (almost) all of these actors, and of course remain one now, but even so, I was not expecting this level of general quality. A film done well, regardless of subject matter, is always better than a film whose concept is not matched by its execution, and American Hustle is perhaps the best proof thereof. And it's one of the best ways I can think of to ring out the Old Year.

Final Score:  8/10

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Alternate Title:  Dragoncon (say it aloud)

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and the Quest for Erebor approach their destination and encounter Smaug the Terrible.

Things Havoc liked:  The decision to make the Hobbit into a film at all was a contentious move among nerds, as was the decision to divide it in three. I quite liked the first Hobbit film, indeed I put it on my best-of-the-year list (albeit at number 10), but there were a large number of people who did not, some for reasons I found valid and some for reasons I found stupid. My own issues with the film concerned its length, which at risk of spoiling the next section, remains an issue in this film, and also with its pacing, which does not.

Now on the final stretch of their journey, the company of Dwarves and a Hobbit find themselves confronted by the Elf fastness of Mirkwood, the sealed floating city of Laketown, and Erebor itself, complete with dragon. Bereft of the need to introduce the main cast (with a few new-come exceptions), this movie can dive straight into the meat of the subject, as Thorin and company are beset by giant spiders, orcish raiders, and insular Elves led by Thranduil, King of Mirkwood, and his son, Legolas. Fortunately, the Dwarves are in the company of Bilbo, who has proven a quick study after his education-by-fire in adventuring last time around. Bilbo here is a completely different hobbit than the one who set out at Bag End, competent, cool and collected in even the most chaotic of circumstances. Bilbo was one of my favorite parts of the last film, as he was a hobbit totally unlike the previous hobbits we'd seen, a rational, reasonable man in a world that outsized him considerably. All of these qualities are retained by Martin Freeman in this film, but rather than repeat themselves through Bilbo's previous character arc, this time Bilbo is a practiced adventurer, dueling with giant spiders, stealing from elven lords, and even confronting dragons out of a sense of obligation and having already seen a lifetime worth of excitement. Bilbo is, as is right for the series, my favorite character in this film as much as the last one, as he meets every challenge with ingenuity and expertise, building off of the place we last left him, buoyed by the ring, his own confidence, or some inner store of strength that allows him to approach the patently lethal situations he gets himself into with the knowledge that he has actually somehow already seen and been through worse.

But Bilbo's only one character among many, and we'll be here all day if I cite each one of them. To cap off quickly then, Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarven expedition remains as expertly played by Richard Armitage in this film as he was in the last. Knowing, as I do, where the films are going, the character arc as he nears the final fulfillment of his quest is spot on, slowly showing the risks attendant even in successes when the object of one's quest is wealth of a scale unimaginable by anyone present. Ian McKellan's Gandalf remains as Gandalfian as ever, while the various other dwarves, some of whom get larger screen time than the previous outing, each play their respective roles to the hilt, showcasing the diversity even within the Dwarven ranks. Newcomers to the series include Luke Evans as Bard, a hopeless Gary Stu in the books, who here comes across as an effective everyman within the strange, floating city of Laketown, a man simply trying to make ends meet who has the bearers of this tremendous quest (and the risks they represent) dumped on him by surprise, and now must make the best of things. We also get elves, particularly the returning Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and the newcomer Evangeline Lily (Real Steel) as Tauriel, a captain in the elf-guard of Mirkwood. To my abject astonishment, I actually enjoyed both of these actors' performances, in Bloom's case more than I did in the Lord of the Rings! This is a younger, more militant, much less friendly Legolas, who still engages in his signature invincible death-machine moves (unfortunately), but this time actually is allowed to get his ass kicked (a bit), as well as confront the Dwarves with undisguised, untrammeled hostility, as befits the Mirkwood elves. Tauriel meanwhile, is allowed to shine on her own, and the love interest aspect between her and Legolas (as well as with a third character I won't spoil here) is thankfully not made too much of. Both Tauriel and Legolas are allowed to simply interact quite a bit, speaking in Elvish and discussing things the way one might expect immortal forest-elves might well discuss given the situation. And of course, no listing of the cast would be complete without mentioning Benedict Cumberbatch's deliciously sultry, almost Jaffar-esque turn as Smaug the Golden, a titanic dragon who plays with his prey as a cat might a mouse before unleashing his true, terrifying power. Cumberbatch, who also provided Motion Capture for the Great Wyrm, works wonders here, his voice artificially infused with thunderous timber, becoming a menacing growl from the depths of some cavernous hell. It's as spot-on a casting as Andy Serkis was for Gollum.

The pacing was the big stumbling block of the first Hobbit film, and it is a great pleasure to report that it is much improved this time round. Whether there was actually less action in this film or the action was simply better paced, editted, and presented, I cannot say, but the dreaded Battle Fatigue did not rear its ugly head this time round for me at least, despite a three hour run time and multiple ten+ minute sequences of unbroken action. What action there is is concentrated in the first and last hours of the film, leaving the entire middle of the film for character introduction, development, politics, and general adventure/suspense. As with the Two Towers, this movie must cut back and forth between multiple simultaneous story threads, be it Gandalf attempting to beard the lion in his den by storming Dol Guldur itself, the Dwarves and Bilbo making their way through Mirkwood to Laketown and beyond, the Elves under King Thranduil (Legolas' father) debating what tact to take, and executing it, and the Orcs under the command of Azog the Defiler (and his son Bolg) making their own plans. Yet the threads weave themselves together seamlessly, and result in a film that is engaging overall from the first minute to the very last, one that never manages to bog itself down in repetitious action or "spectacle" sequences the way the first Hobbit movie occasionally did.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not every additional actor manages to hit one out of the park here. The aforementioned Thranduil (Lee Pace) unfortunately comes across like a Tim Curry character, hamming it up just a bit too much with his elongated vowels and slightly simpering tone. I grant that Thranduil is supposed to represent an obstacle of some sort, but there's no sign of the quiet regalness of Galadriel or Elrond here. Maybe that was the point, but it's one that I felt could have been made better. Similarly, Stephen Fry of all people plays the Master of Laketown as a pompous buffoon straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, an Edwardian fop in wig and lace that makes little-to-no sense in the context of the wider world of Middle Earth. I see what they were trying to go for with this character, but once more the filmmakers overstate their point, turning the Master into the kind of windbag who is astonished, ASTONISHED, I SAY, at the notion that his people dislike starving to death!

There's also a few moments, generally mid-combat sequence, where Jackson's tendency towards the Slapstickier side of things re-asserts itself. Not that the combat is all hilarity, it's mostly not, but on occasion, one finds characters performing feats of ridiculously impossible deathwreaking purely by accident, an event which always reminds me uncomfortably of the climax to Star Wars Episode 1. Slapstick is fine, by and large, when it reflects the characters' actual intended actions. I don't much care for it when someone effortlessly annihilates an army of enemies without meaning to simply through fortuitous luck.

Final thoughts:  Hobbit 1 opened to mixed reviews, though I was certainly one of those who counted myself its champion. Hobbit 2 however, bucking the middle-film curse, takes the Star Wars route of being an improvement over the original in every way. Capitalizing on what worked in the previous film and resolving or at least minimizing that which did not, the Desolation of Smaug is a tremendous film, epic in all the right ways, worthy to stand alongside its legendary predecessors, and promising more to come. I said about the first movie that the worst thing that could be said about it was that it wasn't as good as the three Lord of the Rings movies. To sum things up as concisely as I can, this one is.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Alternate Title:  The Evil Overlord List

One sentence synopsis:  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark must compete in a champions league edition of the Hunger Games, even as the flames of rebellion begin to spread across the land.

Things Havoc liked:  Last year's Hunger Games was a complete surprise to me, to the rest of the viewing public, and probably to the film's distributors, who chose to dump it in the middle of the Doldrums like a known bomb. Rather than the would-be Twilight ripoff that many (including me) were expecting, Hunger Games was a flawed but fundamentally strong film, one that inserted a breath of fresh air into the YA film market, and left me at least anticipating the sequel with something akin to optimism. While I'm as aware as any of how dangerous unfettered optimism can be when walking into a new film, there are occasions when hope is rewarded, and it is my pleasure to report that Catching Fire, a film that is superior to its predecessor in largely every respect, is one such occasion.

A year has passed since Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) vanquished all opposition in the 74th Hunger Games, and against all odds, both survived to return home. In that year, conditions in their Appalachian (I assume) home have deteriorated from bad to worse, with ever-more brutal acts of repression from the central authorities. Their families cared for by virtue of their status as victors, Katness and Peeta are forced to play along with the cover story from the previous movie of being star-crossed lovers, despite the increasing brittleness of the lie in question and of Panem's control over its impoverished provinces. The film wisely takes its time establishing the tense circumstances that Panem finds itself in, in order to properly give weight to the decision by the central government to pull together a special edition of the Games starring only previous winners. The complex subtleties of the central authority's control, from broadcast propaganda to calculated brutality are explored in detail, as well as the thinking behind the arbitrary-seeming decisions concerning the games themselves and the traps and designs that go into them. What emerges is a picture of a real society, built upon the basis of what was established in the previous film, but granted this time a patina of verisimilitude as we begin to understand just what makes Panem tick.

It feels like I've spent pages and pages of these reviews praising Jennifer Lawrence, but once more isn't going to kill me. Her performance in the last film was very good, and this one is simply better, an older and more embittered Katniss than the girl we saw in the last film, whose capacity to tolerate the horrific atrocities she witnesses around her as she is forced to go on tour for the central authorities and recite sterile speeches and propaganda to enmiserated serfs being crushed under the same oppression that placed her in the previous games. Her relationships with everyone from Peeta to Haymich (Woody Harrelson) to the rest of her competitors to the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to her still-wonderfully campy stylist Effie (Elizabeth Banks) is everywhere more complex, more mature, more real than it was in the previous film, and yet never feels random. She plays everything from desperate fear to boiling anger to contemptuous professionalism with an ease that actresses thrice her age would struggle to adopt, and absolutely inhabits Katniss from start to finish. Yet the big surprise to me was that, unlike the last movie, the same can be said of Josh Hutcherson's Peeta, previously a pining boy-next-door type whose role was effectively to play damsel in distress for Katniss, now a seasoned killer in his own right, who still carries the torch for Katniss, but never in the cheesy, mopey, teenage-angst way that so many movies do. Hutcherson doesn't so much amp up his performance as deepen it, never pushy, never insistent, never given to raging tirades about why someone doesn't love him, simply trying to ensure that he and Katniss survive yet another horrific ordeal. I've never cared for Hutcherson, not as a child actor nor as an adult, but he is miles better this time round, and acquits himself in excellent company with aplomb.

And what company it is. The most interesting elements of the previous Hunger Games were the decadent and fascinating world of Panem, a world I felt we did not get enough time with, and which was filled with interesting characters portrayed by excellent actors. All of them (save for the occasional casualty) return in this film, and are joined by newcomers such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee (those names!), gamemaster for the special edition of the Hunger Games. Hoffman and I are not always on the best of terms, but this is a case where his signature understated performance is spot-on. The character is no shrieking maniac, nor a pastiche of evil, rubbing his hands together over the glories of wickedness, but a master manipulator, psychological and calculating as he seemingly effortlessly prepares the "moves and countermoves" that are the tools of his trade. Recognizing the fundamental immorality of his profession, he alone in Panem seems to disdain the vain decadence of the society around him even as he exploits it ruthlessly to political ends.

But by far, the most refreshing addition to this top-notch cast is not Hoffman nor any other member of Panem elite, but the group of returning, veteran Tributes that Katniss and Peeta are pitted against. So easy it would have been for this film to turn into a repetition of its sequel, as Katniss is forced to kill a fresh crop of "designated evil" Tributes in reverse order of total screentime, but rather than do this, the film turns itself to the question of just who the rest of these people are, and what they might think of being dragged out of a comfortable retirement to massacre one another at the behest of President Snow. All of these characters, from the Capitol-pretty-boy-turned-ally Finnick (Snow White's Sam Claflin) to the fiery and vicious (and extremely bitter) Johanna (Suckerpunch's Jena Malone), to the mad scientist-turned-contestant Beetee (Casino Royale's Jeffery Wright). In every case, the movie establishes the sort of character (hulking brute, evil sexpot vamp, bitter nerd) that we've seen in dozens of these movies before, and then pulls the rug out from under them by giving them complex motives, goals, and character points that we are allowed only to glimpse, as the simple premise of the Hunger Games is twisted on its head by the boiling stew of character machinations that the movie has unleashed.

With a budget twice the size of the original film (something that's prone to happen when your first installment makes three quarters of a billion), much of the pacing and cinematographic issues, such as they were, in the first movie are absent here. No more shakeycam, no more hyper-frenetic action required to soften the fact that we were (then) watching kids killing kids, just a well-shot, gorgeously-vibrant movie, from the cold, sterile landscapes of District 12's slag mounds, to the glittering, degenerate capital city of Panem, to a weird, crater-like tropical bowl complete with inland sea that serves as the setting for the Games themselves. As before, we spend a fair amount of time within the game arena (which I suppose is only to be expected), but unlike last time, when I had issues with that fact, this time there's actually plot and character development occurring within the Games themselves, giving us an actual reason to be there other than the mechanical act of watching 22 opponents be reduced to none. As such my complaints about the time spent therein, ones predicated on the notion that Panem was inherently more interesting than the Games themselves, no longer applies.

Things Havoc disliked:  There do remain a few sticking points I wasn't overly keen on. Liam Hemsworth (brother of Thor) plays Gale Hawthorne, the love interest (?) of Katniss when she's not pretending to be madly in love with Peeta. His role would appear to be important, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it was, as he mostly serves to occasionally complain to Katniss about the fact that she's required to pretend to be madly in love with Peeta. I understand the situation is awkward, but the reasons for this charade are perfectly obvious to literally everyone else in the movie, including the villains, and other than this complaint, he basically here takes over Peeta's role as designated whipping boy who must be saved by Katniss whenever convenient for the plot. I suppose he was in the book, but in the film his character just comes across as being placed on ice, revealed to remind us who he is until he actually gets to do something in movie three.

There is, also, the ending to the film, which I will try not to spoil, but like Ender's Game before it (although to a much lesser degree) feels inordinately rushed. I don't mind it when a movie sets up its sequel, and such behavior is almost mandatory for the second part of a trilogy nowadays (thank you Star Wars), but the establishment of this sequel takes place in less than a couple of minutes, and in what might as well be voiceover narration, as a character we've barely seen appears and explains sudden and tremendous plot revelations to our main characters, revelations it would have been far more interesting to actually see. The revelations themselves aren't the problem, as they make sense given everything and establish the premise for the next film well. But film, as always, is a visual medium, and these things don't have the required weight when we're sitting in a room just talking to one another about the terrible events that have occurred.

Final thoughts:   In case I somehow haven't been clear, Catching Fire is a superb film, from beginning to (nearly) end, one that surpasses the achievements of its predecessor with effortless grace, giving us more of the things we enjoyed from the original and replacing all of the things we did not. YA fare like Twilight, The Host, or next year's Deviation remain anathema to me, yet the Hunger Games is the exception that proves the rule, a film so rich in character and premise and plot and story as to render all such comparisons obsolete. Despite having been caught off-guard by the original's release date and subject matter, I was once more caught off guard for the sequel, this time by the sheer quality of storytelling and filmmaking on offer, and with the year nearly over, I unhesitatingly pronounce it one of the finest movies I've seen all year.

After the first Hunger Games, my desire to see another film was founded on my curiosity as to whether lightning could strike twice. After the second, my desire to see the third is based on the fact that with a movie this good, all I can ask for is more.

Final Score:  8/10

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ender's Game

Alternate Title:  Better with Kinect

One sentence synopsis:  Boy-genius Ender Wiggin trains at a futuristic battle school to become the commander of Earth's war against an alien species.

A Note Before we Begin:  What a hornet's nest this film turned out to be, so tied up in the politics surrounding Orson Scott Card that it's become borderline impossible to speak of it as a film. Two different people informed me that they would not read my reviews any longer if I so much as went to see this movie, irrespective of the score I gave it. While I certainly have no sympathy for Card's politics, this absolutist rejection is a line of thought I find uncomfortably akin to those who threw books onto bonfires because their authors were liberals or Jews, and lest any lingering firebrands remain, I saw this movie without reference to Card's homophobia, and will be reviewing it as such. If this policy is not to your liking, there are plenty of other reviewers to follow.

Things Havoc liked:  The more I think about Enders' Game, the more I wonder if it wasn't intended as a sequel to Independence Day, and re-purposed partway through with the book in mind. See if the concept sounds familiar to you: 30 years after defeating a massive alien battlefleet which nearly annihilated the planet and destroyed many major cities, the humans have harvested alien technology and constructed a unified government and military capable of visiting the war back on the aliens themselves. In the flashback scene at the beginning of the film, we watch as the hero of the previous war flies his lone jet fighter up into the center of a massive alien mothership, striking its weak point and destroying it and the surrounding fighters in a single, cataclysmic blow. It was enough that I sat there wondering if this mystery pilot informed the aliens that he was "baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack".

When one wishes to make a film, be it sci-fi extravaganza or historical manners piece, one could do worse than to start by assembling a cast of actors whom I have enjoyed in many movies previously, and offer to present them to me. It is in this spirit that Ender's Game stars Harrison Ford, who finally breaks his recent streak of phoning it in, playing Colonel Graff, the commander of Earth's defense forces, who has been assigned, for reasons never made entirely clear, to recruit children and teenagers for training as potential commanders of the space force assigned to fight the war against the aliens. Ford's character is a pragmatist first and foremost, employing his customary gravelly, seen-everything voice, defending his choices as he plays psychological games to draw out the inner fighters and sociopaths of his would-be trainees. Assisting him in this endeavor are Ben Kingsley, playing Mazer Rackham (?), a part-Maori tactical trainer who ruthlessly molds the best candidates into the necessary killers, and Viola Davis as Gwen Anderson, the psychological expert in charge of monitoring the social dynamics of the kids so as to identify those possessing the best traits. All of these people do excellent jobs in roles that should frankly be ludicrously silly, bearing in mind the entire time that there are consequences to inaction, even as they debate the whens, hows, and whyfors. As the adults in the room, they are the ones charged with lending the film a patina of "realness", and do so very well.

But of course this film is not about the adults, but the kids, led by Hugo's star, Asa Butterfield, as the titular Ender Wiggin (where do they get these names?), a boy recruited into "battle school" and gradually molded over the course of the film into someone's ideal of the perfect commander. Though I'm not entirely certain what accent he was aiming at (and I'm not certain he was either), Butterfield actually does very well here, as he did in the aforementioned Hugo, playing a kid trying to deal with almost unfathomable pressure applied steadily to him since birth to conquer, win, and be the best. He manages to show the ruthless and innocent sides of Ender's character (mostly) without the need for showy emotional scenes, and holds his own against Ford and his former co-star Kingsley effortlessly. Alongside him is Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit (my first ever review!), whose performance, while nowhere near the standout of the aforementioned film, still complements Butterfield's exceptionally well, displaying the effortless confidence that particularly smart teenagers seem to possess (or at least fake) in limitless quantities. The majority of the other kids, played by various actors I've understandably never heard of, are just as good, whether their roles are antagonistic, supporting, or a mixture of both.

It's no surprise anymore when a blockbuster comes replete with excellent effects, but Ender's Game's manage to be noteworthy nonetheless. Alien designs are weird enough and appropriately insectoid, while the space stations appear sufficiently strangely-shaped to be believable. Battle sequences are crisp and involve at least a nod to physics, in that spaceships shatter rather than explode when struck by munitions, and the movie even uses the fact that smashed wreckage in outer space carries momentum and mass as a plot point during one of the more hectic fights. Earlier sequences involving zero-G laser-tag fights employ accurate physics, often used for tactical gain, and the film wisely tends to assume that the audience will be able to figure the physics out intuitively and thus spares us the lesson in Newtonian mechanics. In the cinematography department, the film is shot with unusual sharpness, by what technique I do not know, which enables the viewer to see every imperfection and blemish on every actor's face. I can only assume was a stylistic decision to help humanize characters who are not generally allowed showy scenes of hyper-emotion.

Things Havoc disliked:  The plot of Ender's Game is something one simply has to accept as a base premise. Even the movie appears to state as much, brushing aside the question of just why children are being thrown into command of battlefleets with a quick explanation of reaction times and openness to new ideas, or some such. I'm willing to meet a film halfway, and can therefore accept the premise, but no such excuse offers itself in defense of the writing. Dialog is wooden and stiff from beginning to end, not because of exposition dumps (of which there are many, but which are handled reasonably well), but simply because the characters, child or adult, speak like nobody in history has ever spoken. If one character responds to massive pressure with monotone robot-like utterances, I can understand it, but not when the entire cast acts like they're auditioning for Robocop. Things get worse when the characters are supposed to act relaxed. The actors convey much through expression and vocal tone, but when they open their mouths to talk, its like someone dubbed a completely different set of words in. Director Gavin Hood is also credited as the screenplay writer of this film, and judging by the result, they might have done better to just let Orson Scott Card take over the duties in question, as he at least managed to create a popular book out of the concept unladen by such problems.

But the dialog, stiff though it is, pales in comparison to the major problem of the film, the pacing. Butterfield's last film, Hugo, had massive pacing problems, resulting in a first half that was entirely superfluous to everything. This film not only repeats the same mistake (what was the point of all that laser tag, really?), but compounds the matter by being forced to cram all the rest of the film into what feels like the last twenty minutes of its sub-two-hour run time. As a result, the actual events of the Command School training (which are of considerable importance, given everything), the war itself, and its aftermath, are treated like a cliffs notes version of the actual book, rushed through in such haste that it actually opens plot holes that would otherwise not be there. Is it reasonable to assume, for instance, that tens of thousands of humans could build and inhabit a major military base for twenty-seven years without once exploring a highly visible cave located literally a hundred yards outside the main entrance? A little bit of breathing room would have allowed the film to establish elements like this properly, without giving us the impression that the film was trying to hustle us out the door without thinking things through. Worse yet, this compression means that Kingsley's character, as well as the climactic war that Ender has supposedly been training for, occupy barely a third of the film's runtime (if that). Blockbusters are routinely 2-3 hours nowadays, why was this film forced down into such a restrictive timeslot? And knowing that it was going to be, why would the director not choose to concentrate on the elements that were of the most importance, as opposed to the third consecutive "dealing with a bully who doesn't like him" sequence that Ender is subjected to?

Final thoughts:   Even without considering the politics of its author, Ender's Game is a hard movie to sum up properly. The acting is good, and the film easily comprehensible, despite the literal rocket science it is laden with, and yet the basics of writing and storyboarding are all so wrong as to make one question whether or not some calamity overcame the project mid-production, necessitating unforeseen and clunky changes to the script. I genuinely like both Butterfield and Steinfeld, to say nothing of veterans Kingsley and Ford, but the movie's flaws are such that it's largely irrelevant how well they do their jobs. By no means was Ender's Game an unpleasant movie to sit through (clunky though the dialog did get, especially at the beginning), but I would not expect it to find its way into anyone's catalogue of treasured classics. As such, without getting into the question of whether Orson Scott Card is an unfairly maligned genius or a homophobic reactionary misanthrope, the film of its own volition merits, in my mind, a conclusion that very few of the partisans surrounding its debate will be willing to consider, that of mediocrity.

Not every movie is worthy of the rapturous hagiographies or thunderous denunciations that come with scores on the narrow ends of the bell curve, guys. Some films, despite all the outrage and fire, just don't manage to stand out at all.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Alternate Title:  Thor vs. Legolas

One sentence synopsis:  Thor does battle with the Dark Elves, while also dealing with his brother, Loki.

Things Havoc liked:  In terms of film-making, Thor is not a concept that calls for subtlety. Kenneth Branaugh, learned thespian and director though he was, understood this, and created the original Thor film by channeling the King Lear/Tempest side of his Shakespearean experience, giving us a film that was boisterous and rowdy and filled with people screaming their heads off as they endeavored to slay one another with magic weapons that were nowhere explained. This was the appropriate tactic to employ when creating Thor, a movie filled to the brim with viking awesomeness, and it's a tactic that the sequel's director, TV veteran Alan Taylor, has wisely decided to continue with.

The core of the original Thor movie was always Thor (appropriately enough) and Loki, brothers turned enemies turned who-knows-what. Loki served as antagonist for The Avengers of course, but his best work was in Thor, where he was allowed to not only have a complex character arc, but also to plot and scheme and layer plans atop one another while pulling off double and triple crosses left and right, leaving Thor to clean things up in his wake. Their relationship anchored the first Thor, and it anchors this one, as Loki, now post-Avengers capture, is locked away in the dungeons of Asgard, bitterly resentful of his defeat, but still possessed of the same ambivalent motivations that were somewhat lacking in Avengers. The primary threat of the film does not come from him, but from other, larger elements in which he and Thor are both wrapped, which gives us a chance to see the two brothers in more nuanced lights. Despite knowing his reputation for deceit and trickery, I must admit that Loki fooled me more than once in this film, and when you see as many movies as I do, that's no small task.

But let's not turn this purely into Loki's affair, tempting though this may be. Chris Hemsworth is back once more as Thor, and is just as metal as he was previously. This Thor is a more adult Thor, still the same overconfident Viking badass of before, but no longer as cavalier as he was in Thor 1. Indeed, his sense of responsibility for the Nine Worlds seems to have deepened beyond even what his father Odin was looking for, and rather than have him relearn the lessons of the first film, this movie confronts him with the limits of one's capacity to deal with events of such unimaginable scope as to shatter even gods. It's not precisely the most riveting performance, but Hemsworth is a joy to watch (as always), and effortlessly holds down the movie as it jumps from crushing action to raving despair to jovial wisecracks. Alongside him are the other Norse gods, including his would-be paramour Sif, the ever-awesome Warriors Three (though one of them, Hogun, does get weirdly sidelined for no reason I can fathom), and of course, Heimdall, whose Viking credentials I should hope are no longer being questioned by anyone, and who serves a role all his own in this film, watchful as ever over his appointed charge. All of this takes place in a much more vibrant and fully-realized Asgard, a place which now seems like an actual kingdom and not some sterile palace with naught but guards and extras. The best parts of the original movie were the ones in Asgard, as Asgard was an interesting place to visit, filled with color and spectacle and viking awesomeness. Choosing to spend even more of our time in Asgard (or other alien realms) was the right call.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, we also have to talk about the things that were not the best part of the original Thor, and which remain so in the sequel, which more or less boil down to everything set on Earth. To begin with, Natalie Portman's character, whom I actually liked in the first film for her spark of life and earnestness to perform patently insane acts of science in quest of truth (and later, in quest of Thor), has here been watered down into (I hesitate to use the phrase) shrinking violet, pining after Thor and moving listlessly about in search for him. That a woman would fall in love with an Asgardian God sent down to Earth to save her life several times from unspeakable fates, I believe. That the affections would be returned, I am afraid I do not, at least not with this version of Portman's character. Portman can act when she wants to, but this performance is just dull, and though it's nowhere as bad as this example would warrant, it does strike uncomfortable memories of her turn in the Star Wars Prequels...

But Portman (who does at least get to go on the adventure with everyone else) is not the main issue. The main issue (for me at least) was Kat Dennings' Darcy, who has gone from mildly-amusing comic relief to gratingly annoying comic relief. Word to filmmakers: it is not funny when someone acts like a complete asshole and gets away with it. Nor does being funny consist of saying nothing but one-liners. Comic relief works when it is properly integrated into the plot, not sidelined off in its own corner to be cut back to for five minutes out of every twenty, and unfortunately, other than acting like a prat and being annoying, Darcy has literally no other role in the plot. Nor (sadly) does Stellan Skarsgard, reprising his role as Dr. Erik Selvig, who apparently has been driven half-mad by Loki's mind-manipulation in the Avengers, something which apparently was put in to excuse extended scenes of him naked or in his underwear. Weirdly funny as that might have been the first time, Selvig's simply doesn't work as a madman, especially when given nothing to do, a theme that runs through all the rest of the Earth-based secondary cast (though I'll admit that seeing The Sapphires' Chris O'Dowd pop in for a cameo role as Portman's ever-suffering blind date target brought a smile to my face).

Finally, a thought or two about the villain and his evil plot. Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Doctor himself, plays Malekith the Accursed, leader of the Dark elves of Svartalfheim, apparently ancient enemies of the Asgardians. I say apparently because he is introduced rather perfunctorily in an opening scene complete with voiceover that is desperately trying to rip off the intro to Fellowship of the Ring. Homages though I don't mind. What I mind is that Malekith is simply a cypher, a revenge-crazed maniac looking to find the MacGuffin to destroy the world. He has no character or plot other than this, goes through his single-minded motions, and battles Thor along the way because that's what the bad guy does in films like this. I don't ask that every comic movie villain be Loki or Magneto, but some form of characterization would have been nice. As it stands he is simply a prop or plot device against which Thor and Loki must fight. And while these fights are entertaining (one particular engagement that winds up hopping between worlds dozens of times was particularly well done), and while watching Thor and Loki react to them is more entertaining, Malekith himself might as well not be there for all the affect he has.

Final thoughts:   Given the above review, I'm sure you would expect me to sum Thor 2 up as a fairly mediocre film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Flawed though it is, in many ways, the core of Loki and Thor and the Asgardians is so strong in this film that it manages to carry it despite these flaws, helped immensely by the director and writer choosing wisely to spend as much of the film as possible with its strongest elements. As a result, while The Dark World is not the fantastic comic book film that the original Thor was, it is still a fun, action-packed, gleeful romp of a movie, one which retains and enhances most of the virtues that the original provided. The Dark World is not a movie that will be remembered as a classic of the genre, but neither does it do anything to tarnish Disney-Marvel's image as the purveyors of extremely high-quality films based on comic books, something I could not say for the lukewarm Iron Man 3.

As with all Marvel films, this movie comes with a mid-credits teaser (two, actually). As with some films I've seen (The Wolverine), these sequences are among the most interesting bits of the entire movie. But unlike the majority of movies for which this is true, that fact speaks more to the promise of those scenes than to any lack of quality in the movie itself.

Final Score:  7/10

Saturday, November 9, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Alternate Title:  Slavery, a Life

One sentence synopsis:       A free black man is kidnapped by slavers and dragged into plantation slavery for twelve long years in the Antebellum South.

Things Havoc liked:  It is not easy to condense the sins of history into a film. Be it the Holocaust or other genocides, human trafficing or child labor, attempts to deal with subjects so harrowing and yet so complex in our understanding must walk a tightrope between short-selling the subject and overdoing it to the point of atavistic rejection. Some films succeed in walking this tightrope and some do not, but once in a while, one sees a film that deals with a difficult subject in such a profound way that it instantly renders all other previous efforts obsolete. Twelve Years a Slave is such a film.

In 1841, Solomon Northop, a free black professional musician, was lured to Washington DC under false pretenses and clapped in irons by kidnappers to be sold in New Orleans. He spent the next twelve years in chattel slavery in the deep south, working at various plantations as a fieldhand, and occasionally a laborer for other projects. Some of his masters were sadistic, evil men, and some were conscientious and sought to do what they thought was right, but none could see past the institution of Slavery, which permeated every micron of the Antibellum south like a miasma. Freed at last after managing to get word to his friends in the North, his ordeal was recorded in the fiery abolitionist book which he wrote in its aftermath, a book which forms the basis for a film by British director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor). Front and center is Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, and Children of Men, who here delivers a performance easily superior to every one I've previously seen him give. Solomon Northop suffers horrific abuse, and witnesses plenty more, but Ejiofor never indulges in bombastic, melodramatic speeches or overdramatic cries to God. He plays the character in a highly realistic fashion, allowing us to experience the horrors that surround him as he does, without stopping to explain why he acts as he does. The movie omits the tired scenes we've seen from similar films, such as the strong-willed hero valiantly resisting the attempts to break his will on the part of the slavemasters. The film instead forces Northop to adapt and bend before the horrific evils he is subjected to, accepting, to some degree, his newfound identity as a slave, recognizing that frankly-put, to resist the slavemaster in the 1841 South was to die.

Or was it? The vast bulk of the film consists of Northop's interactions with his masters, overseers, and fellow slaves, as well as a number of free white workers who come and go at the plantations, and every single one of these relationships is complicated in the extreme. Some slaveowners are brutal, callous psychopaths, such as Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose lust for cruelty and blood rises and falls with his mood, and with the bitter war he wages with his wife (Deadwood's Sarah Paulson). Epps beats his slaves, "breaks" them, abuses them, particularly his constant rape-victim Patsy (Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o in a standout, award-worthy performance), yet slaves are valuable property, and he can only permit himself to go so far with them. Even when his wife demands on pain of divorce that he sell or kill one, he calmly replies that he would far sooner do away with her than one of his most productive slaves. Other masters, such as Baptist Minister William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempt to treat their slaves better. Ford preaches the gospel to his slaves weekly, attempts (feebly) to keep their families together, and even listens to Northop when he proposes engineering improvements around the plantation, over the objections of his overseers, and rewards him when they bear fruit. Through these interactions, and those with the other whites in the film, we see that, slave or no slave, men must live together somehow. When an overseer pushes Northop too far, and is beaten by him in self defense, Northop is not made an example of, but has other overseers come to his defense, even standing down the first one at gunpoint lest he lynch Northop on the spot, for it is apparently understood that while overseers have the power of life and death, provocation is still provocation. Yet when push comes to shove, Ford is a slaver still, and will not countenance freeing a slave simply because of the circumstances in which he was made one, unable despite his best intentions to see past the horrific slaveocratic society in which he, and everyone else is mired.

Indeed, this is the entire film, a series of characters and incidents that may be surprising or may be as horrifically brutal as we all know slavery to have been, but always feels real. The slaveowners do not generally behave as cardboard cutouts, but as real people, who can get drunk, and angry, and attack a slave, who will push them off or demand that they stop, and be listened to (sometimes). They may imagine themselves the aristocratic lords of the manor, but the movie knows that they are merely putting on airs, and that the pretenses of civilization they clothe themselves in are simply that, something several of the slaveowners realize to various extents. We meet one plantation owner who has quite publicly set up his favorite slave (Alfre Woodard) as the lady of the house, a wife in all but name, with slaves of her own, though she retains enough self-awareness to comment on the catastrophe that she believes god will one-day inflict on the plantation-class (given history, we all know how that turns out). Others turn a blind eye to their own crepulance, or revel in it, or even seem unaware, only to be called out by their fellows. Yet all are guilty of the same original sin, and crucially, all but those blind to basic human empathy (Fassbender's character for instance) seem to know it. As such, while I'm no expert on the subject, the treatment of slavery in this film certainly feels more like the reality of the situation than any other I have seen before. All its horrors, all its banalities, all of it is displayed here, not with stridency or some need to ram down agendas, but simply as what was.

Things Havoc disliked:  19th century speech is hard to wrap one's modern head around, complicated by the fact that the movie's director, writers, and most of its cast (black and white alike) are all British, which makes some of the dialogue sound rather like the Lord of the Rings. I know that people spoke differently back then, and that this film may well be somewhat accurate to the point, but when everyone, from the meanest slave to the richest landowner speaks in flowery, complex rhetoric, it renders the entire exercise a bit sterile, like we're watching a manners drama instead of a re-enactment.

There's also the matter of Brad Pitt, whose role in the film is quite small but merits a comment. Pitt plays a Canadian laborer and abolitionist, hired as a carpenter by one of Northop's masters, and serves as effectively the only white character in the film not completely immersed in slavery, and who sees it for the evil it is. I have no problem with the existence of such a character, as the abolitionist movement, for which many a man would die even before the civil war, was in full swing by 1853, and moreover the character was a real one who really existed. What I object to is Pitt's performance. He's not awful, but he delivers his sermon on the evils of slavery like he's delivering a speech, and seems to evidence no particular passion for the subject, wryly grinning when threatened as if in the knowledge that slavery will all be over soon, and everything will be fine. I would have anticipated that an abolitionist willing to deliver such speeches to a slaveowner's face to have more fire and outrage in their rhetoric, or at least to make a plea beyond "well, you see, slavery's just plumb bad." I would also, frankly, expect a slaveowner of the sort he delivers the speech to, to murder him for it, or at least cease employing him as a carpenter.

Final thoughts:   But frankly, the only reason this stood out at all was because of the overall stellar quality of the rest of the film's cast, direction, and writing. Brutal when it needs to be, banal when it needs to be, and overall rivetingly real, 12 Years a Slave is an incredible film, though admittedly not one I'm in any hurry to see again. Like Schindler's List, a movie I expect it to be compared to often, it unflinchingly presents the horrors of its chosen subject matter, without the need to go past that into pastiche and surreal monstrosity. The reality of slavery was horrific enough, and presenting it as it actually happened can only make it more so.

Slavery was the original sin of the United States, one that can never be properly atoned for, only acknowledged for what it was. Our relationship with it, black, white and otherwise, is still complex and incomplete, and may forever remain so, which may be why it took a foreign director and his foreign cast to make a film this definitive on the subject. But politics and national wounds aside, 12 Years a Slave is fully deserving of the universal acclaim it has thus far received, and while it is not my policy to make Oscar predictions here on this little experiment of mine, it would not surprise me at all if come next March, we get to hear about this film all over again.

And if so, it will be time well spent.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Monday, November 4, 2013

Escape Plan

Alternate Title:  The Count of Rocky Conan

One sentence synopsis:      A profession prison breaker must escape a secret maximum-security facility in an unknown location with the help of a fellow inmate.

Things Havoc liked:  Like Pacific Rim before it, Escape Plan begins with an excellent sequence. Sylvester Stallone is locked up in a federal prison for some unspecified crime, and spends days simply observing his surroundings, the routine of the guards and prisoners, the procedures for dealing with everything from fights to prisoner escort to locking someone in isolation. This goes on for more than five minutes, all without explanation or context, and then all of a sudden, Stallone is out of the prison. He escapes with the help of an outsider, is taken to a phone booth, and dials a number while state policemen surround him with drawn guns. And then, having been brought back to the prison, Stallone and the man he called sit down with the warden and explain, in detail, how it was that he escaped, for you see, Stallone is a professional prison-break artist, hired by the government to test the security of it's maximum security federal penitentiaries.

So begins Escape Plan, an action vehicle for two of the most legendary action stars of my childhood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Both now old men, no longer able to draw quite as large an audience by themselves, Stallone and Schwarzenegger have made a habit of pooling their talents in recent years, beginning with the Expendables and segueing into this. Though Stallone is still more than capable of horrifically abusing himself in the quest for an action shot, it's Schwarzenegger who seems to be the only one actually aware of what this movie is supposed to be, a retread of the 80s classics of yesteryear. To this end, Arnold brings his one-liner-issuing charm, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen (more on this later) as he clearly has fun with the material. Action shots are intentionally set up to hearken back to the glory days of such films as Predator or Commando, and the movie even features a lengthy sequence wherein Arnold launches into a diatribe in his ever-unique style, save that this time he does so in his native German, which if nothing else is something I haven't seen before.

Things Havoc disliked:  Ohhh boy...

So I don't think I'm gonna shock anyone by informing them that this movie is stupid. I certainly wasn't shocked by that fact. What did shock me was how incompetent it was. One would expect that a film with Schwarzenegger and Stallone to have at least competency in the fundamental mechanics of action films (as the Expendables series did), but unfortunately the director this time is Mikael Håfström (of 1408), and the scriptwriting team the same one that brought you Machine Gun Preacher and Mirror Mirror. And while this lack of experience shows in many places, one of the major ones is that they seem to have made an action movie without any goddamn action.

Okay, yes, that's an exaggeration, but it is seriously two thirds of the movie before any action shows up, and when it does it feels almost perfunctory, an element to be gotten out of the way and dispensed with rather than celebrated. What does the movie offer us in return? Plot and dialogue, both from our leads, two men famous for their inability to deliver a line in anything but a campy, overwrought fashion, or from our main villain, a sadistic Blackwater-funded prison warden played by Jesus Christ himself, Jim Caviziel. What camp nightmare of a Bond movie Caviziel pulled this character out of, I cannot fathom, but while I've never been a great fan of his, this performance is far, FAR worse than anything I imagined seeing from him. His warden is a fastidious nut, fond of taunting our heroes for no reason whatsoever. Informed that a prison break is fomenting, he proceeds to take the seventeen steps required for him to be unable to foil it, including trusting the prisoner who hates him, giving in to absurd, unexplained requests on the part of random prisoners, assuming that he has captured Stallone and Schwarzenegger in inescapable death traps/corners/isolated rooms from which they could not possibly escape unlike the previous sixteen times, etc. Moreover, instead of camping the hell out of the performance, which might have saved it, Caviziel plays the character in a sort of ironic undertone, unimpressed by anything that's going on, never harried, looking almost bored save for when it's time to grin orgasmically (yes, it's possible to grin in such a way) at the prospect of having "beaten" one of the prisoners. So detached is this guy that when faced with impending death (it's an action movie, you know how it ends), he can't muster any reaction but a bored shrug.

Other than Caviziel, the movie is not merely incompetent, but uninterestingly so (yes, it's also possible to be fascinatingly incompetent. My reviews, my rules.) Enemy soldiers suffer from the Stormtrooper effect, in which eighty-seven highly-trained mercenaries with fully automatic rifles are unable to hit men twenty feet in front of them with ten thousand rounds of ammunition (though they are, of course, able to hit the thin metal handrail in front of him a hundred times each). Such guards as have been identified by name or nickname are dispatched in reverse order of total screentime. The hero will suffer a 'setback' that will cause him to lose hope until the other hero rallies him by encouraging him to explain his backstory to the audience (the cathartic effects of sudden exposition dumps really should be investigated by doctors). Meanwhile, the remainder of the surprisingly-large cast suffers varying fates (the actors I mean, not the characters). Sam Niel, playing the prison doctor, seems to be under the terrible misimpression that he is in a movie with dramatic weight and heft. He plays his scenes with the solemnity of a deacon, agonizing in his office about whether it is "right" to imprison people in illegal black ops prisons for no reason other than corporate say-so and then torture them medically (which leads me to a question, given the prison's remote and secret nature, do the officials, administrators, and literally hundreds of guards all live on-site?). Vinnie Jones (Lock Stock, Snatch) gets to play a standard Vinnie Jones role without any of the quirkiness he is accustomed to, while Faran Tahir (Star Trek) provides one of the few actually interesting side characters, as an Arab "terrorist" of some sort who uses the ignorance of his captors concerning Islam to hide his actual purposes in helping the heroes escape. Meanwhile, back at home, Stallone is ably assisted by his team of completely useless idiots, specifically Amy Ryan, who has nothing to do, and (of all people) Fifty Cent, who (I'm not making this up) plays the computer hacker trying to find Stallone after he is abducted and thrown in prison. Rounding this Oscar-worthy cast out is Vincent D'Onofrio, playing Stallone's boss, who once again is under the terrible delusion that he is capable of appearing intimidating and authoritative, despite nearly thirty years of material on film to prove that he cannot.

Oh I could go on and on about all the thousands of massive, cavernous plot holes in this film... so I will. For instance, the prison's location is a tightly guarded secret, from the inmates as well as the outside world, yet later on in the film, one prisoner is brought out of the prison for the flimsiest of reasons, enabling him to discover naturally and automatically where the prison is actually located. The prison brims with hi-tech security systems and hyper-trained guards, yet never once is someone's cell tossed, never once is someone frisked following a suspicious encounter with other prisoners. Surveillance cameras follow the prisoners in every moment of their existence, yet always from a respectful distance, never close enough to actually determine what they are doing or saying, and of course nobody ever thinks to bug their conversations, not even within their cells. But the biggest one of all was one that occurred to me at the beginning of the film. Confronted with men "too dangerous to be let out", which would be the more rational solution: Construct an impossible prison in the middle of nowhere so secret that nobody ever heard of it, confine them there under hundreds of guards at fantastic expense, spending man-months of time and untold millions of dollars to ensure that none of them can ever escape into a world that believes them dead? Or shooting each of them in the head?

Final thoughts:   Of course I know that "rational" is the wrong term to judge a film like this on, but frankly, if the movie's not going to do it's part by entertaining me, I feel no compunctions about bringing such subjects up. Escape Plan is not an evil or despicable movie, but it is a very, very bad one, as I'm certain every one of you was already aware from having seen the trailers. It fails not merely on the level of great cinema, but also on the level of a stupid popcorn action flick. Expendables 1 & 2, both of which were equally brainless, were exciting, lovingly-crafted action romps, and I rewarded their efforts accordingly. Escape Plan on the other hand is what happens when you get the producers of "A Good Day to Die Hard" and tell them to try their hand at another 80s action classic. Even the die-hard Arnold fan in me couldn't muster more than a few minutes of interest, and then only in the scenes actively aping the better films of yesteryear.

The Expendables proved, conclusively, that old though they may be, Stallone and Schwarzenegger and others of their generation of action stars can still absolutely get it done. Time has moved on from their heyday, yet they have still never been replaced as the Grand Deans of Action Film. Escape Plan is not, as it might be for some, evidence that Arnold and Sylvester are past it. Escape Plan is instead an argument for not letting blithering idiots write and direct films that these men are perfectly capable of making for themselves.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Machete Kills

Alternate Title:  All Blade and no Point

One sentence synopsis:     Unstoppable killer Machete returns to battle drug cartels and corrupt arms dealers on behalf of Mexico and the United States.

Things Havoc liked:  At some point, I lost track of whether it was or was not cool to like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' 2007 exploitation double feature "Grindhouse". I for one enjoyed it (the Tarantino side in particular), and particularly enjoyed the ludicrous fake trailers that were included with it. Apparently I wasn't alone in my appreciation, for two of those trailers were turned into movies: the Rutger Hauer-helmed Hobo with a Shotgun (?), and Machete, starring stern-faced badass extraordinaire, Danny Trejo. Machete was many things, crude, violent, stupid, unhinged, and with all the political subtext of a sledgehammer, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun, showcasing Trejo at his baddest alongside a cast of basically half the films Robert Rodriguez has ever done. And so it is that here, three years after the original, we find ourselves with the sequel to the movie made from the fake trailer in the exploitation double feature (?????), Machete Kills.

Once (many decades ago) a real gangster and thug, Danny Trejo has been in something like three hundred films since 1985, of varying qualities, and with some exceptions I've loved every minute of them. His range is not tremendous, not generally straying beyond "badass with a face that could curdle milk". But within those boundaries, he has for four decades been an incredible presence on any screen he graces, scything his way through a legion of mooks with a scowl and an assortment of bladed weapons. The movie wisely does not ask him to do much beyond that in terms of the acting department, leaving the scenery chewing to others, better suited to the task. One such man is Mel Gibson, playing a weapons dealer drawn directly from the Goldfinger/Scaramanga school of Bond villainy, complete with lengthy and unnecessary explanation to the hero as to the nature of his evil plan, and a cool looking accoutrements to compensate for a hideous disfigurement. Another one is Charlie Sheen, he of the Tiger Blood and Adonis DNA, here credited as Carlos Estavez, playing none other than the President of the United States. Surprisingly enough, Sheen plays the character fairly cool, trying to channel his father perhaps, but his mere presence is a lot of fun, as are the zany situations he appears in the course of. But the best one of the bunch is probably unknown-to-me Demian Bechir, who plays a schitzophrenic drug cartel boss who alternates between scenery-chewing madness and tearful repentance. Bechir doesn't so much devour scenery as vacuum it up, but in a movie like this, that is the appropriate reaction, and he enlivens the movie every time he's on screen.

Things Havoc disliked:  ... something the movie badly needs.

I had expected a number of things to come out of Machete Kills, but not the one that ultimately kills this movie. Machete Kills is straight out boring. And the reason for this is somewhat complex, but ultimately comes down to someone forgetting what the whole point of the Grindhouse-inspired films was.

Machete had a plot, a preposterous one, grounded in racism and immigration policy and other topical issues, but nevertheless secondary to the overall experience of having Machete kill people in a violent, bloody fashion. We were not here to experience the struggle of the Mexican immigrant, nor discuss the weighty issues involved in immigration policy, we were here to watch Danny Trejo kick people's asses in the company of other Robert Rodriguez regulars. And while this does technically remain true in this movie, the film seems to think that we not only give a damn about the plot this time, but retroactively gave a damn about the previous movie's plot enough to remember every single step it took. Lengthy sequences of the film consist of people monologuing about plans and politics, punctuated by Machete killing some of them and the whole thing repeating. The original film had extremely clear-cut good and bad guys, racist murdering scum on one side and Machete's crew on the other, and while this film does keep some of that (William Sadler plays an obvious standin for Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio), the vast majority of the film is wrapped up in a labyrinthine plot involving drug cartel bosses that may or may not be evil, CIA agents that may or may not be evil, and a whole host of other characters with their own agendas and plots, all of whom betray one another seemingly at random. And in the middle of all this is Machete, who has no real ties to anyone present, and therefore seems to just drift through the film, as though this were the Big Lebowski starring Jason Voorhees. I get that in a grindhouse movie, the protagonist's invulnerable badassery is taken for granted, but the plot here is not merely unnecessary, it's actually irrelevant to Machete himself, who winds up feeling like the afterthought in his own film, so much time is taken up with exposition, double-crossing, and irrelevant plot development.

This is not the only problem. With respect to Danny Trejo, who is one of the better menacing badass character actors of the last thirty years, at the age of 69, he is no longer able to fight and kill as though he were 20. He can still sneer and look terrifying with the best of them, as well as beat the hell out of someone should it be required, but the acrobatic machete-fighting scenes are simply beyond his capacities, buttressed as they are with deceptive camera angles, ultra-close up shots, and bad CGI. Once more, I understand that this is an intentional throwback to the classic B-movies of yesteryear, but bad CGI simply does not have the retro-charm of bad practical effects, and the CGI in this movie is uniformly bad, to the point where I suspect that Rodriguez was trying to ape such legendary bad films as Birdemic.

Finally, some of the directorial decisions here simply baffle me. Machete Kills comes with an excellent cast, courtesy of Rodriguez' power as a star-magnet, but several of these excellent cast members are completely wasted in throwaway roles. Jessica Alba shows up for two minutes just to remind us that she was in the previous film, while a character called "El Cameleon" absorbs the services of a good half of the A-listers in the cast. The character is a shape-changer, by magic or theatrical talent it is never revealed, with the result that he is played (like the Doctor) by many different people at various points in the film including Antonio Banderas, post-Butler Cuba Gooding Jr, and Lady Gaga. There's nothing wrong with this idea, I suppose, except that all of these actors are utterly wasted due to El Cameleon having nothing whatsoever to do in the film. His (its?) presence consists of a handful of short scenes, each of which is played by a different actor, totaling maybe 8 minutes at the most, before being dispatched in the most perfunctory manner possible, rendering the services of all of these actors, every one of which I would have liked to see in precisely this sort of zany Rodriguez-style B-movie pastiche, into little more than glorified cameos.

Final thoughts:   Youtube has recently been showing ads for a direct-to-DVD film starring Trejo as an old west gangster raised from the grave to kill the crew that betrayed him. In these trailers, which I have to assume were made post-Machete Kills, Trejo looks perfect, a poised, menacing, glowering badass old west killer, who could be 40 or 50 or 70 or immortal for all anyone can tell (or cares). His acting looks sharper and his action cleaner and cooler than that which I saw in Machete Kills, and while I grant that trailers are intentionally designed to make people look good, this well illustrates the problem with Machete Kills. The draw of these films was Trejo, and the irreverence of Rodriguez, who was willing to let Trejo do scandalous, bloody things simply because they were awesome. It was not the shock value of stunt casting, nor the deep politics, nor some other convoluted venture into labyrinthine plotting. I literally lost track of what the hell was going on in this movie (something I don't often do), and could not, despite active efforts, catch back up. And once the plot was lost, there was simply not enough else going on to keep my attention.

The movie promises yet another Machete film in the future, one with an even more outlandish premise. But given what I saw from this movie, I'm afraid that the next time Machete takes up his blade, I'll be watching something else.

Final Score:  4/10

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