Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

Alternate Title:  Sins of the Fathers

One sentence synopsis:   The decisions made by a stuntman/bank robber and a young cop reverberate down to the lives of their sons.

Things Havoc liked: What a strange movie this is.

Luke Glanton is a motorcycle stunt rider, played by Ryan Gosling, an actor I've known about but never had much interaction with. He works for a traveling carnival that stops every so often in Schenectedy, New York (the titular Place Beyond the Pines in Mohawk). One night he learns that he has an infant son from a previous fling with Romina (Eva Mendes), his ex-girlfriend who now lives with another man. He quits his job and moves in with a mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn, one of my favorite character actors) and tries to earn money to support his son whether Romina or her new boyfriend want him to or not, turning ultimately to bank robbery. I really don't have much of an impression of Gosling, as I haven't seen most of his previous work, but his character reminds me a great deal of the "Born to Lose" whack-jobs that De Niro and Pacino were talking about in Heat, the sort of guy who seems destined to fail, who may even want to. He makes bone-headed decisions, but given what we know of his impulsive, none-too-bright nature, they make sense, and it's no surprise to anybody when they finally bring him into a violent confrontation with the police.

Enter Avery Cross, played by the ubiquitous Bradley Cooper, a young cop who happens to run into Glanton. The aftermath of this run-in forms the transition into the second portion of the movie, focusing entirely on him and his temptations from the corrupt cops that surround him in the Schenectedy police department. Front and center among such corrupt cops is Ray Liotta, doing his best sleaze routine, while Bruce Greenwood (another favorite character actor) tries to bust them all and Harris Yulin (and another), Avery's father, offers advice rooted not in hoary cliches of doing the right thing, but in a lifetime of experience dealing with the law and the enforcement thereof. Like the previous sequence, this one presents the character of Avery well enough that we understand why he does the various things he does even as he's doing them, and though Avery's choices are significantly better than Luke's, the forks of the dilemmas they are on are made perfectly clear to the viewer. The consequences of the decision Avery makes vis-a-vis his corrupt fellows make sense given his character as we understand it, and sets the stage for yet another transition.

Enter Jason and AJ (unknowns Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen), sons respectively of Luke and Avery, who fifteen years later, find themselves attending the same high school and meeting over a shared desire (like most high schoolers) to party and get high. As before, these two are excellent, capturing perfectly the twisted and even borderline-sociopathic mentality of real teenagers trying to grapple with their world. Jason seeks to know more about his mysterious father, while AJ seeks to know more about the ways in which he can mess himself up with drugs, and both searches lead approximately to where you might expect them to, though not necessarily with the results you would find in most films. I can't of course give away more than that, but despite the disjointed nature of these three stories, the film overall does an excellent job of connecting them into one solid whole.

What can I say then? The acting, overall, is excellent. Every actor, whether I've heard of them or not, brings a level of realism to their characters that one rarely encounters in film. Even Bradley Cooper and Ray Liotta, whom I like but usually see playing over-the-top crazy-men (Silver Linings Playbook, Limitless, everything-Liotta-has-ever-done) are restrained here, barely ever raising their voices as they go through motions we could actually see. The stories connect well, showing the realistic effects of the actions the characters take, be it coping with the aftermath of a shooting or the consequences of a marriage where one party is addicted to a job the other doesn't approve of. Corruption and robbery aside, the movie gets along more or less without villains. Even the "other man" (Mahershala Ali) who Romina winds up with as Luke is trying to win her back is portrayed as (ironically) the most responsible and reasonable person in the entire film. And overall, despite the knitting together of three fairly disconnected stories, the flow of events from one to the next is strong enough that we easily come along for the ride. A well-made, well-orchestrated, well-acted, well done production overall.

Things Havoc disliked: So then I'm left with trying to figure out why I didn't like it more.

I saw this movie with two other people, both of whom thought it was superb. I didn't. And yet they well be right, because when I look back on the film, I have only poor excuses to give for why I'm not singing this thing's praises.

To start with actual flaws, this movie is long. Three short-film-length stories crammed together are inevitably going to be I suppose, but it runs nearly two and a half hours, and I was checking my watch by the 100 minute mark. It's not that the movie is boring, nor that the plot can be predicted (although one can guess fairly quickly that Luke's character is not in for a particularly happy ending), just that the flow and pacing of the film are very slow. Normally I don't mind that so much... but... well maybe I do. None of the scenes in retrospect are un-necessary, yet all of them went on a bit longer than I would have held them, which in aggregate probably tacked a good 20-30 minutes of filler onto the film in packets of ten to fifteen seconds.

There are also (inevitably in a movie this complex) a number of... questionable character decisions. For one thing, if you're going to tell a teenage kid that his father was a bank robber and criminal, and give him the man's name, shouldn't you also mention the incredibly important circumstances that led to him no longer being here, ones which if viewed in the wrong light could lead to a number of unfortunate consequences? Why instead give the kid all the resources he needs to find these things out without any context? And while we're on the subject, while this film does avoid most of the cliches that come with law-and-crime character studies like this, one thing it lands hard on is the whole "I cannot bear to tell my children the truth" routine, even when the truth is explosive and the consequences of the children finding out on their own even more so. Yes, I know that not everyone wants to speak about past traumas, particularly to their kids. But no fewer than three different characters play this card at one point or another, to uniformly disastrous consequences. Family secrets are a thing, I agree, but it left me at least watching the whole last third of the film thinking that all of this drama could have been avoided if someone at some point had just said the things they should have said. Maybe that's the point of the film, in which case, well done. But it happened so often and with such regularity during the latter stages of the movie, that I began to get the impression that I was watching an "idiot plot", defined as a plot which would not exist if the participants were not all idiots.

Final thoughts:    No, Place Beyond the Pines is not an Idiot Plot, and no, I have not given the film away by saying that there is drama and tension in the last third. But these reservations are what kept me from praising this movie with the same, fulsome approbation that everyone else who saw the movie seems to have. Well-acted, well-shot, well-directed and well-written, I should not really be looking for anything else when I go to see a movie. And yet the slow pace and questionable decisions by many of the characters all conspired to leave a lukewarm taste in my mouth.

I've agonized for several days over what to score this movie, as on the one hand, these are my reviews which are intended to reflect my reaction. And yet on the other hand I do hold to the notion that it is possible for an opinion, even a subjective one, to be erroneous if not outright wrong. It is one thing to dislike Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but quite another to claim that they are "bad films", which is what a low review grade indicates in some regard. And yet on the other hand, how high can I possibly rate a film I didn't love before I'm just repeating what other people think instead of what I do. As such, I therefore must give the movie what I think it deserves from me, cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of viewers would praise it much higher than I have done. Place Beyond the Pines is probably a much better movie than I found it to be, but I can't in good conscience call it the masterpiece that others claim.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Monday, April 15, 2013

Evil Dead

Alternate Title:  How are the Mighty Fallen

One sentence synopsis:   Five young adults go to a cabin in the woods to enjoy a pleasant evening's conversation on the mysteries of life. (I wish.)

Things Havoc liked: I've never been a big fan of horror flicks. For one thing, I don't think any of them are scary so much as just gory, and while there is indeed artistry to gore, it's rarely found in the found footage dead teenager movies that one has seen over the last 20 years. Classics like Alien, The Exorcist, or the more recent Cabin in the Woods notwithstanding, this genre is wasted on me unless something different can be done with the material. That said, one of the few directors who ever managed to make horror entertaining to me was Sam Raimi, specifically in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, a pair of utterly classic comedy-horror movies starring the irrepressible Bruce Campbell. The very reason I liked them is indeed that they weren't the usual parade of horror movie cliches, the jump scares and over-the-top gore effects and teenagers backing into dark rooms one by one in search of a killer who will, obediently, kill them. Instead they were hilarious, slapstick-filled, rip-roaring pastiches of Z-grade horror shlock. Raimi went on to do bigger and (occasionally) better things thereafter, while Campbell went on to become the reigning king of B-Movies and star or co-star in awesome television shows. But as horror grew continuously stupider throughout the 90s and 00s, I occasionally looked back on those movies wishing that there was something else like them out nowadays. As a result, while I can't say I was looking forward to Evil Dead, I had some hope that with both Raimi and Campbell returning as producers, there might be some semblance of the magic of the old films here, something that would take me back to a memory of better times.

Things Havoc disliked: There was not.

Okay, admittedly, this movie has one of the better premises for five young men and women to go into the woods to an isolated cabin from whence there can be no escape (one of the characters is a Heroin addict undergoing an enforced withdrawal courtesy of her friends), but the mere fact that such an excuse has to be invented is indicative of the major problem here. Evil Dead is a movie about five young men and women going into the woods to an isolated cabin from whence there can be no escape.

I mean, is it really necessary for me to say anything else at this point? The original films were parodies of this sort of movie, mocking the pretensions of the Cabin Fevers and Friday the Thirteenths and all the other schlock horror movies that did nothing more than assemble a cast of young twenty-somethings and killed them in increasingly gruesome ways. Long before Scream thought itself original by pointing out that, *GASP*, horror movies are generally contrived exercises in nauseating stupidity, Evil Dead 2 took this notion for granted while crafting a hilarious slapstick romp around them, while Army of Darkness took the premise and ran with it straight off the Cliffs of Insanity, becoming a movie that was half Dragonslayer, half Ghostbusters. And after twenty-plus years and a budget thirty times the original, this is what Evil Dead now has to show us? This formulaic, paint-by-numbers five-man-band film in which the characters die in predictable, gruesome ways after making the most boneheadedly stupid decisions known to man? This is what Evil Dead has been reduced to? The tagline for the film declares that Evil Dead is the most terrifying film you will ever experience, but even if that had been true, whose fucking idea was it to remove the comedy from Evil Dead? Is the world not well-enough supplied with Dead Teenager movies as it is that they need to raid this franchise of all franchises? How can Sam Raimi, who practically invented the art of the horror-mockery, possibly hope to make a movie like this not 12 months after the release of Cabin in the Woods, a film that riotously skewered this exact movie premise. Is there really a single living soul in America who expects that a film in which five young people with no personalities are stranded in a spooky cabin, they will all come out the next day fresh and renewed, and ready for the challenges of a bright future?

And yes, some of this might have been forgivable (I guess) if Evil Dead actually lived up to the tagline, but this movie is neither terrifying, nor frankly even competently done. The basics here are all wrong. At times, characters die by simply being hit in the head with a door, while others linger on after being stabbed, mutilated, beaten, and shot repeatedly with a nailgun. Makeup effects, while visually gruesome, are terribly inconsistent, with characters' injuries changing or disappearing between scenes, whenever the plot "forgets" about the hideous compound fracture that someone sustained not five minutes earlier. Moreover, in grand horror film tradition, the characters are all the stupidest people alive. Even after evil forces are clearly seen to be at work, they walk alone into dark rooms and then spend long periods lingering over minute details on a wall or window while turning their backs on objects or corpses they should really not be turning their backs on. One sequence near the end of the film has one of the characters repeatedly wedge themselves into increasingly confined and inescapable spaces on purpose while being pursued by evil demons and undead monstrocities, only to be astonished when they find great difficulty in escaping from the evil forces that afflict them. Other characters do incredibly stupid things (read the evil book, pick up the evil object, summon the evil monster) for no reason whatsoever and then compound their stupidity by refusing to tell anyone else that they have just done these things. Within half an hour of the film's beginning, I informed my viewing companion that for the rest of the film, I would be rooting for Satan.

Final thoughts:    Evil Dead is the Richard Nixon of horror movies, a film that was once idealistic and hungry to stand out now reduced to a crumbling, reclusive ruin, aping the movies it once sought to pillory in quest of some quixotic drive I can scarcely guess at. The film is not atrociously made, but given its history, for Raimi to produce a film this generically awful is a measure of how tired he has become. Evil Dead II, for all its shlock, was a film that brimmed over with life and humor. Evil Dead, the remake, is a moribund piece of cinematic garbage, made all the worse for its association with a film series that was once great.

Final Score:  3/10

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sapphires

Alternate Title:  Soul Sisters

One sentence synopsis:   Four Australian Aboriginal women form a soul group in the late 1960s to entertain the American troops in Vietnam.

Things Havoc liked:  It only takes one Doldrums season to make one reconsider the virtue of this weekly-film project, and I've now been through three. Each one had its hidden gems, but was mostly characterized by a flood of mediocrity, and films that ranged from barely tolerable to outright atrocious. Two years ago it was Tron: Legacy, last year Red Tails, and this year a slew of consistently boring, plotless, pointless films in endless succession. I knew when I started this that there'd be times when I had to drag myself to the movie theatre to see something I had no interest in watching, but I wasn't aware of how extended these times might become. And with little worth seeing on the horizon, even in indie cinemas, I have more than once considered just throwing the towel in rather than waste my time and money on a movie without hope of being any good, just so that I can come back here and inform you all that yes, Teenager Holocaust 7 is in fact exactly what you think it is.

But then I run into something like the Sapphires.

Set in the dusty outback of 1960s Australia, the Sapphires opens the film up with a stark recitation of the facts of life for Aboriginals in Australia up through the 1970s, covering such topics as the Stolen Generation, and the laws, then still on the books, that identified them as not human but "flora or fauna". And yet while the movie contains these subjects, it is not about them, insofar as the lives of the four women who form 80% of the main cast also contain these subjects, but are not comprised entirely of them. All four girls stand out individually in their roles, particularly Shari Sebbens' Kay, a light-skinned girl taken by the Australian government to live with a white family as part of the policies of the time, and Deborah Mailman's Gail, the self-appointed matriarch of the group, entirely uninterested in the posturing of those around her, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. All four women are excellent, lending their characters believable patinas as they butt heads with their Irish manager, Dave (Chris O'Dowd). Dave is a wreck, inept at best and usually drunk, but just barely competent enough to provide real help as the girls switch from Country to Soul music and refine their act into something bankable. He's also, crucially, an outsider to the world the women inhabit, enabling him to be both a window for the audience into what is going on (the movie does not generally pause to explain things otherwise), as well as a catalyst for illustrating a few uncomfortable truths from the women themselves.

If the above sounds like a particularly bad issue movie, then you'll simply have to take my word that it's anything but. For one thing, the Sapphires is wickedly funny, particularly in the early half of the film as Dave tries to forge the group into something approximating a real soul band. The dialogue is witty and real, even during bouts of exposition, all of it flowing naturally, like something real people would actually say. Given the subject matter on offer, which starts with racism and gets more serious from there, this is an almost unheard of achievement, as most films on such subjects either turn into bitter polemics or high-concept speeches on the need for tolerance. This movie manages to make the plights of our main characters fully real, all without hand-wringing and finger-pointing. The Aboriginal characters beyond the four women are not the "wise spirit people" of many misguided anti-racism films, but people, like any other. Rare indeed is the movie that manages to make everyone seem reasonable without falling into any of these traps. Rarer still is one that does so while also being hilarious.

Things Havoc disliked: Some of the secondary characters, the nightclub promoter in Saigon, the racist white Australians at the beginning of the film, and many of the American soldiers the group encounters along the way, are not drawn quite as well, failing the eye-test for whether a character is a real character or a cardboard stand-in for what the filmmakers thought they needed at that moment. As these are tertiary characters (at best), this matters little, but it does lead to a few issues of logic and plot. Why, for instance, does the promoter insist on sending the girls unescorted through the wilds of Vietnam to get to a special show? If the show is that important, surely an escort would be called for, especially given how easily the girls got one when they were still lowly unknowns.

Final thoughts:    Yeah, I'm really reaching with this one for bad stuff to say, and there's a reason for it. The Sapphires is one of the best films I've seen since the Oscar Season opened last year, a gem of a comedy that's more real than 99% of the films made about this or any similarly touchy subject. Funny, well-written, entertaining, and otherwise brilliantly put together, this film is a gem, especially given when it came out. In a season where the highest-grossing film is the Evil Dead remake (we'll get to that), what more can you really ask for?

Final Score:  8.5/10

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Alternate Title:  Sleight of Plot

One sentence synopsis:   A famous stage magician must overcome his own arrogance to compete with a shock-artist street magician in Las Vegas.

Things Havoc liked: I like Steve Carrell. I like him despite the admittedly awful material he often chooses to appear in. Yes, he's schmaltzy when he's not being insufferable, but that works in some movies, and things like The 40-year-old Virgin, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dinner for Schmucks, or Little Miss Sunshine (to say nothing of his work on The Office) showcase just how well he's able to play a sincere idiot (if that makes any sense). As such, despite the utter dreck that his career is studded with (the less said about Evan Almighty or the Get Smart remake, the better), I actually pay attention when a new film of his comes out, despite the fact that straight comedy is in no way my preferred genre. At worst, his films are inoffensively stupid, and at best, they can actually, I think, be almost moving (shut up). One need only look over the other films on offer during Doldrums Season to see just how appealing a minimum threshold of "inoffensive" can become.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Carrell as a stage magician in the vein of Seigfreid & Roy, the leading half of a partnership whose other half is played by the inestimable Steve Buscemi. What Buscemi, whose pedigree needs no recitation, is doing here in the role of the hapless best friend being driven away by Carrell's arrogance is entirely beyond me, but fortunately Buscemi is an awesome actor who makes everything he's in better, and it's fun just watching him parade around on stage like a cross between David Copperfield and Liberace. The antagonist, meanwhile, is supplied by none other than Jim Carrey, whose career has been an Eddie-Murphy-level joke for the last nine years. I loved Jim Carrey back in the 90s and into the 2000s whenever he took on a project more adult than Yes Man. Here, he plays a David-Blaine style "street" magician, whose acts involve ever-escalating bouts of self-mutilation, shock-horror, and exceedingly painful endurance stunts. Carrey steals the show in this one, riding the edge of his usual slapstick insanity without ever crossing over into out-and-out lunacy. It's a pleasure to see him back in proper form at last, and his villain is just weird enough to prove the most interesting part of the entire exercise.

Things Havoc disliked: *Sigh*

So, a couple years ago, Will Farrell and John C. Reily made a movie called Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, about a NASCAR driver who falls from the pinnacle of his profession due to his arrogance, must spend time in a humble position reconnecting with why he came to love the sport he practices, and then with the help of an elderly mentor, returns to the limelight armed with the lessons he has learned to unseat an even more arrogant rival and reclaim his championship and his personal relationships. It was a fairly forgettable movie, being neither particularly good nor particularly funny, but I mention it here because Burt Wonderstone is the exact same film.

This is not hyperbole. This movie is identical, almost to the point of a shot-for-shot remake, to the Farrell film. The same journeys are taken by the same characters for the same reasons at the same moments. Everything, down to the minor details of when a character gives an inspiring speech, how long the retraining montages last, or when and in what manner the various protagonist-antagonist clashes erupt is identical, root and branch. Lest I sound accusatory, I am not trying to claim that the filmmakers here consciously ripped the other film off, but merely that the plot formula they came up with was so generic that it has literally already been done before. And despite the fact that Talledega Nights was the very definition of forgettable, this one actually comes off like the low-rent version.

I could single out this actor or that one to blame, from Carrell, whose amoral shithead of a magician is such an uncaring douchebag that nobody would believably put up with him for five minutes, to James Gandolfini, still playing Tony Soprano, to Olivia Wilde, last seen in the brilliant Tron Legacy (ugh) who here plays a completely generic love interest, but the issue isn't that this performance is bad or that one wooden. The issue is that even within the formulaic plot, there are mis-steps made. Jim Carrey's character is forced into the antagonist slot simply because it's what his character is "supposed" to play in a movie like this, all without actually bothering to make him a bad guy. He's weird of course, and arrogant, but so is our hero, moreso than this guy could ever hope to be. And as Carrell's "conversion" to being a non-douchebag is handled with such a sense of obligatory obliviousness that we never buy it in the first place, the worst thing that can be laid at Carrey's door is that he revels in showing off his superior magician skills. Similarly, the grand "reveal" that the heroes use to win their place in the end of the film is nowhere established, but simply deployed out of nowhere. It's as though the filmmakers knew the formula had been done to death, and thought it so well established that there was no need to establish it within the film. Carrell doesn't win out over Carey or become a better person because of actions that happen in the movie. He does these things because the filmmakers know we're expecting him to.

Final thoughts:    Burt Wonderstone isn't a terrible movie by any stretch. Carrell does a decent enough job once he stops pretending to be an insufferable dick (yes, it's possible to be bad at being an asshole), Carrey and Buscemi are entertaining to watch, and there's quite a bit of good-to-excellent slight-of-hand on screen. But I've seen out-and-out remakes less derivative of another film than this movie was of earlier genre comedies, and nothing here ever builds to the point of the farce that might have excused such lame recycling.

Pickings are always slim this time of year, I grant, but if your movie choices get to the point where you're considering going to see this repetitive film, then the best advice I have is to stay home.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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