Sunday, September 29, 2013


Alternate Title:  Back in Black

One sentence synopsis:     Riddick must adapt to survive a death planet and two crews of mercenaries bent on retrieving his head.

Things Havoc liked:  I've long maintained that the Riddick movies are among the best purely speculative sci-fi-adventure movies I've seen. Pitch Black in particular was almost the ur-example of the simple-story-done-right, proof positive that the mere fact that others have done something before (in this case "survival amidst monsters") does not mean that it can't be done in an entertaining fashion if given a chance. While Chronicles of Riddick was something of a disappointment, I still held out hopes for Riddick as a return to form, and not to spoil my review or anything, but that's exactly what it was.

The Riddick series' strengths have always been attention to detail within a simple story, and Riddick, the film, is perhaps the epitome of this. The entire first act of the movie is simply Riddick, alone and without resources, endeavoring to survive on the harsh, alien planet where he has been deposited despite the efforts of the climate, the wildlife, and largely everything else around to prevent him from doing so. Though explanation as to how this situation came about does eventually arrive, for a considerable amount of time we get no context whatsoever, and are simply allowed to watch Riddick go through the motions of survival, struggling to avoid being eaten, melted, or poisoned to death, without any need for a greater narrative than this.

And what motions these are. Riddick is of course a ridiculously bad dude, but one of the great strengths of the film is how well it demonstrates why he is such a bad dude. Yes, he's strong and combat-capable and ferocious and so on, but unlike the Arnold-wannabes of which action films are well supplied, the focus with Riddick is not his badass displays of ultraviolence but the preparations for his badass displays of ultraviolence. For instance, early on in the film, when Riddick finds himself confronted by a massive semi-aquatic scorpion-like monster with a poisoned stinger, blocking the one path to a more hospitable part of the planet. Rather than wade in and defeat it with his manly combat skills, the movie stops in its tracks as Riddick spends weeks preparing himself to take the creature on. We see him forging weapons, taming local fauna, dosing himself with small amounts of toxin so as to build up a resistance to it, capturing smaller versions of the creature to test strategies and capabilities against. The heroic-preparation-montage has been a staple of action films since Conan (or arguably Taxi Driver), but plainly the makers of Riddick understand why it exists. By extending the preparation this far, while still keeping the material interesting, the eventual showdown with the creature takes on more weight than it would if Riddick had fought it in a cursory duel. Great action does not come from having the hero make things look easy, but from having the hero make them look ridiculously difficult, and Riddick, like the great action movies of yore (Predator for instance) knows this.

Of course the film is not all weapon-forging and cave-dwelling. There is indeed a plot here, or more precisely a cast of characters set down in one place in the hopes that their interactions will supply a plot. These characters, two different crews of mercenaries who arrive on the planet looking for Riddick for two different reasons, comprise the majority of the character interaction for the first two thirds of the film. The list of characters and motivations is long and thick, but like before the film prefers to let the plot take a backseat to the situation and the characters. Every one of the dozen or so mercenaries that arrive to find Riddick are exceptionally well-characterized, even the bit players, and as Riddick (or other things) winnow their numbers down, they respond in ways that are both logically and thematically consistent. Confronted with the knowledge that Riddick may be in a dark cave, for instance, the mercenaries enter with a large, well-armed party and plenty of light sources, covering one another's backs and leaving once again as soon as they determine that there's no further benefit to being in it. Finding themselves attacked, they immediately hunker down to defend themselves with maximum efficiency, making it as difficult as possible to surprise or otherwise assault them, once more rendering the task Riddick has before him a tremendously difficult (and thus interesting) one. But the vast majority of the time, the mercenaries simply spend interacting, with Riddick or with one another, in ways that while not always pleasant, make a degree of sense and are consistent from one scene to the next. The unfailing ability of this film to wring interesting results out of boilerplate scenes and concepts such as these is perhaps the most surprising element of a film that could well have been as generic as Will Smith's After Earth.

Things Havoc disliked: Just because all of the mercenaries are characterized, doesn't make all those characters excellent. Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica) plays a character who is supposedly a lesbian (this is mentioned, for no reason, multiple times), yet who flirts shamelessly with Riddick, and periodically takes her clothes off for pointless breast shots. I have no objection to beautiful women taking their clothes off, but the eye-candy here is such obvious fan-service that it mars the film's overall well-crafted style. Other characters, such as the obligatory wet-behind-the-ears newbie, and the money-obsessed mercenary who will sell anyone out for a buck are travelling well-trod paths, and not always with enough material to make them stand out from these archetypes, despite the film's best efforts.

There's also the question of scope. Riddick is a very tight film, reminiscent in some ways of last year's Dredd, and while that tightness enables the film to focus on what material it actually has, and the interactions between the characters stuck in the situation, the base fact remains that we're basically watching a remake of John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars with better writing. I'm not objecting to the improvements by any means, but the limited horizons for this film limit in turn the possibilities that the movie can entertain. The greatest films are those with a sense of ambition, ones that seek to show us things we have not before imagined. This movie quite consciously shows us something it knows we've seen done before, relying on the fact that they're going to do it well to keep our interest, and while by and large they succeed in this, the effect is somewhat akin to re-reading a book you enjoyed the first time. A pleasant experience, but not something that will fundamentally alter your worldview or present you with a new horizon.

Final thoughts:   But then again, perhaps that's the point. Not every film can possibly give us things we (or at least those of us who see as many films as I do) have never before considered, and a movie that recognizes this, and substitutes successful execution for failed ambition, cannot be doing much wrong. Riddick, ultimately, is a film I was not expecting to be any good at all, given the genericness of its premise and trailers, and the generally suspect quality of Vin Diesel-helmed movies. Yet to my astonishment, the quality of the filmmaking craft at work here, in terms of the basic elements that constitute a film (writing, scripting, directing, editing), shine through the premise and present a movie that has no right to be anywhere as good as it is. I would accuse the trailers of lying about the movie, except they did not do so. Riddick is a generic adventure-survival film about a morose badass and a gang of shrinking supporting characters being stalked by a tide of monsters, when all is said and done. Yet even within that genre, there is a wide gulf between boring tripe such as Ghosts of Mars, and standouts like Predator, and Diesel, and director David Twohy, know just how to construct the film so as to place it in the company of the latter.

You never know what you're going to get when you go see a movie, of course. But even considering that, it's not often that a movie that promised this little delivers this much. But ultimately, I'd rather have a movie tell me a simple story well, than fall all over itself failing to tell a complex one at all.

Final Score:  7/10

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Alternate Title:  Citizen J

One sentence synopsis:    Steve Jobs rises, falls, and rises again, alongside his company, Apple Computer.

Things Havoc liked:  Ashton Kutcher and I have never gotten along. For one thing, I can't tell him and Josh Hartnett apart, and for another thing, nothing he's ever done interested me in the slightest. I don't watch Two and a Half Men or Punk'd, stoner movies like Dude, Where's My Car are entirely wasted on me, and I thought The Butterfly Effect was a mediocre, sloppy mess, aping better metaphysical films such as Being John Malkovich without understanding how to make them work. Still, actors with worse resumes than Kutcher's have salvaged their careers with a single mindblowing biopic, and while I was surprised to see one about Steve Jobs appear so shortly after his demise, my status as an old-time Apple fanboy more or less required that I see this film.

It's no secret that among the very strange denizens of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was one of the strangest. Abandoned by his birth parents and adopted by new ones, a dropout of Reed College (one of my Alma Mater's rivals), and a follower of everything from homeopathy to eastern religions to fruitarianism, Jobs combined two attributes that would seem contradictory: An instinctual genius for business, creative design, and managerial inspiration, and a seemingly absolute lack of basic human empathy. If the movie gets nothing else right, it gets this fundamental dichotomy nailed down pat. Though some of the obligatory "inspiring speeches" fall a bit flat, the film gets across Jobs' single-minded obsession with design, style, and user-friendliness, a concept which doesn't sound revolutionary today only because he singlehandedly pounded that obsession into the entire computer industry. Yet Jobs, according to this film, did not act on these obsessions because he knew it was the right business move, but because of some sort of deep-seated need to produce things in accordance with his vision, whether buyable or not. We watch Jobs arguing with his business partners and investors and venture capital firms about whether the massive overruns and investments he is making into products from the Lisa to the Macintosh will pay off, but all along we get the sense that Jobs is making excuses, covering up his own obsessions with design, irrespective of the soundness of his decision making. This enables his struggles with the board to take on a slightly more real cast, rather than simply having unthinking stodgy suits fail to get his 'vision'.

Of course the same effect is helped by the fact that Jobs is an unlikeable asshole from the beginning of the film to the end of it. I had wondered how the movie would handle the uncomfortable reality of Jobs' Larry-Ellison-sized ego and Dr-House-class indifference to human behavior or standards of propriety. Many movies or television shows (I cite House again) have the distressing tendency to present a massive dickhead to us and then attempt to justify his behavior towards everyone by virtue of his genius. Jobs does the opposite, showing how Steve Jobs' total inability to empathize with people, even his closest friends and associates, drives each of them away, one by one. This is not merely the usual 'movie' version of an asshole, who calls out the pretensions of the 'designated bad guys' in an impolite manner. An early scene has Jobs call his friend Steve Wozniak in to help him with a technical matter and then outright lie to him about the compensation they are due to receive, while another has him reject and even throw his pregnant girlfriend out of his house, blaming the pregnancy on her and refusing to take any responsibility for it. As the movie goes on we see him coldly toss old friends to the curb once they can no longer promote his career, going out of his way to deny them the fruits of their labors, and generally acting as though he doesn't know them any longer. Portraying Jobs (who was indeed this big of an asshole) in this way is probably the only decision that would have worked, as it means that when the sparks at Apple begin to fly, and Jobs is forced to confront the Board of Directors and his own CEO, his abusive personality turns these scenes from "stuffy dicks oppress counter-cultural rebel" to "reasonable men trying to deal with a certifiable sociopath before he destroys the company." Not everything Jobs touched was gold, nor was his every move the right one, and his "triumph", upon returning to Apple, immense though it was (he turned a failing company into the most valuable one on Earth), is marred, ultimately, by the score-settling and pettiness that marks him through the entire film.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Josh Gad plays Steve Wozniak like the geeky computer nerd he was (and is, something I can confirm personally), while major figures in Apple's rise and fall, such as CEO John Scully (of the famous 1984 commercial) and Apple Board president Arthur Rock are played respectively by Matthew Modine and the always-awesome J. K. Simmons. Both of them bring a certain veneer of sanity to their roles steadfastly lacking in Jobs, as mentioned before. But the main event is, of course, Kutcher himself, who looks a near dead-ringer for Steve Jobs, and plays him with just the right combination of madness and inspiration. This is the sort of performance that alters the trajectory of careers, one that will at least get me to look a bit closer at Kutcher the next time I see him.

Things Havoc disliked: It was probably unavoidable for this movie to turn into an extended Apple commercial at times. We are dealing with a biopic about the man who built Apple from the ground up twice, after all, and moreover a man famous for the "Reality Distortion Field" (to quote Andy Hertzfeld) that surrounded him as he spoke on issues of design, excellence, and quality. Bereft of the field, however, some of Jobs' speeches sound rather like generic corporate bloviations on "commitments to excellence" (is there any company in the world that has a 'commitment to mediocrity'?). A particular sequence near the end of the film where the returned Jobs asks iMac designer Johnathan Ive why he's at a company that has deprecated style and design so much, sounds like the sort of thing I would have said back in my High School years when I was an unabashed fanboy who thought Apple could do no wrong. Apple was and remains (for the present) a trendsetter among technology companies, visionary in design and product beyond the scope of 99.9% of its peers. It does not follow, however, that whimsy and creative freedom are the sole supports of its success. After all, we all know how well "Design is Law" worked for John Romero...

The film also has a very strange sense of scope. The movie ends (spoiler alert) in 1997, with the iMac on the horizon and Jobs re-instated as CEO of Apple. All well and good, but Jobs' greatest triumph, arguably, is what he did after that point, taking a broken, marketless organization in free-fall and turning it into a company more valuable than Exxon-Mobile. Ending the film there shortchanges the actual genius of Jobs, as the iMac is barely in the film, the iPod gets a cameo appearance, and the iPhone is totally unseen. Perhaps the assumption was that everyone knows how the story ends (which is probably true), but this is not the only gap in the film's account of Jobs' life. Following his fall from grace at Apple, the movie abruptly shifts ten years ahead, to when Jobs was approached by Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) to resume a role at Apple. Unfortunately, when we last left Jobs he was a single, broken man, thrown out of his company and doomed at last by his own tragic flaws, the ones that drove away his friends and supporters, until he had nothing. All of a sudden, Jobs is married, has children, and is even taking care of the daughter from his previous relationship, the one he previously refused to have anything to do with or even sign visitation papers for, dismissing her as irrelevant to his life. The Steve Jobs we've gotten to know would do none of these things, indeed the movie spends a great deal of time establishing the particular fact that he would not do them, and yet we are now, suddenly, shown a Steve Jobs whose personal life is in order and his relationships fully repaired, all without a hint as to how this miracle was accomplished. To put the question mildly, what the hell happened?

Final thoughts:   Elementary flaws like this, done no doubt for the best of reasons, are what keep Jobs from being a great film. The great biopics of film's history, Ghandi, Patton, even Citizen Kane (yes), dug into the lives of their subjects to extract a narrative story from them. They did not simply recount their lives in the fashion of "this happened, then that happened", but strove to find order within the chaos of an actual human life so as to tell a story worth telling. To an extent, Jobs tries to do this, by portraying Steve Jobs as a classical tragic hero, whose flaw encompasses his own destruction, at least until he can rise again). But between the destruction and rebirth must come a change, and whether because of poor editing decisions, or an attempt to cover over the fact that Steve Jobs really didn't mend his evil ways over those missing ten years, this film leaves us wondering if the projectionist forgot to include a reel.

Still, Steve Jobs was a sufficiently influential and iconic person as to merit a film like this, and hopefully, the upcoming one from Aaron Sorkin will deal with him in an equally interesting manner. Kutcher's work, as well as that of the rest of the actors, is stellar, and the movie does not pull any punches out of reverence or narrative convenience as to the real Jobs' shortcomings. It may not be an instant classic, but if you're at all interested in what made the world's greatest computer salesman tick, then you could do far worse than this as a starting point.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Butler

Alternate Title:  George Lucas' Homework Assignment

One sentence synopsis:   The lives of a White House Butler and his activist son are entwined with the history of the Civil Rights movement.

Things Havoc liked:  I am often reminded, in the course of this ongoing experiment, of the worst movie I have seen to-date under its auspices, specifically George Lucas' titanic World War II/Racism failure, Red Tails. I savaged Red Tails when it came out, still recovering from the trauma of having watched it in the first place, and yet somehow I have never felt satisfied by my response to the film, as for all the detail I went into, there was no way for me to fully sum up in text what mistakes Lucas had made in celluloid. Jean-Luc Goddard (the filmmaker, not the Starfleet Captain, you philistines), once said that the way to criticize a film is to make another film, but alas, the majority of us amateur film critics do not have the years or disposable millions to do that, and must settle for complaining in text on obscure film blogs in the dark corners of the internet to tiny audiences. Nevertheless, there remains something to the notion, as it is (I now quote Pixar), ultimately a more meaningful act to create a terrible film than it is to describe it as such. I muse on these things here because, given the evidence, Lee Daniels, the director behind Monster's Ball, Precious, and The Paperboy, has also recognized this fundamental notion, and in the spirit of responding to Lucas' atrocity in a manner Goddard would approve of, has given us The Butler.

Set in Washington and the South from the 1920s through to today, the Butler is the tale of Cecil Gaines, the son of dirt-poor, black sharecroppers in Georgia, who finds his way to Washington DC and becomes a butler in the Eisenhower White House. It is also the tale of his son, Louis, who attends Fisk University in Tennessee just in time to be caught up the tumultuous events of the Civil Rights movement, becoming an activist, a Black Panther, and ultimately, a congressman. Along the way, the film surveys more or less the entire civil rights movement, both from the perspective of the presidents that had to grapple with the challenges of civil rights, to the servants within the White House, and their elevated-but-lowly status, insulated from the chaos further south, to the freedom riders and sit-iners who bore the brunt of the violence, abuse, and arrest that the movement demanded. Along the way, we meet presidents, staffers, servants, neighbors, girlfriends, civil rights leaders, racists, soldiers, and all the various panoply of people that fill these characters lives over the course of a good forty years, played in almost every case by the single most loaded cast I have ever seen.

I'm serious, the cast for this movie is stacked, so stacked that I can't even go through it all and have time to discuss anything else. Not since Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet have I seen such a cast, one so impressive that Vanessa Redgrave is called upon to play a bit part with one line, and Robin Williams is afforded scarcely more than a minute of screentime. Every part in the film, from the most minor to the most major is filled by recognizable, A (or at least B)-list actors, but front and center are three in particular. Forrest Whittaker, of Ghost Dog and Last King of Scotland (and Battlefield Earth) fame, plays the title role of Cecil Gaines, a sharecropper-turned-thief-turned-butler who winds up at the White House serving president after president. I wouldn't call this Whittaker's best role, as with the exception of a couple scenes, he's more or less called upon to play a reactionless servant. But the sequences where he does get to stretch the character (dealing with his family) are done well, and Whittaker plays the character at a variety of ages with perfect consistency. But it's Gaines' wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, who really steals these sequences. I've seen Oprah in a couple of films before, some good (The Color Purple), some not good (Beloved), but here she steals the entire show. Someone I know told me they had a hard time seeing anyone but Oprah, the television personality, but I had no such difficulty. Oprah's performance is the best in the film, and in many ways holds it together.

A lot of this film is stunt casting, meaning casting done for novelty value, but with actors of this caliber, this matters very little. Best of the bunch for the Presidents is Liev Schreiber, playing LBJ, who curses up a Texas storm and refers to the black population of the country by the N-word, all while signing the most comprehensive civil rights bill since the 14th amendment. Alan Rickman, a man I would not think of to play Ronald Reagan, also does a good turn, mimicking the Gipper's soft voice and extended word delivery. Meanwhile, downstairs, Cecil's fellow butlers are played most effectively by Lenny Kravitz (?) and Red Tails' Cuba Gooding Jr. Gooding, in particular, has been in a slump basically ever since Jerry Maguire, but here manages to break out of it with a role that, while small, feels drawn from real places. When Cecil's son, to whom he is no longer speaking, is arrested for some fresh protest, Gooding's character is the one to bail him out, along with a number of words concerning what he should and should not be doing. And speaking of Cecil's son, David Oyelowo, who was the best thing out of Red Tails (not that that's saying much), does an excellent turn as a college firebrand turned panther turned congressman. As with Red Tails, he plays the character straight and understated, save of course that in this movie that's more of a stylistic choice and less of a survival strategy. The sequences where his character participates in the civil rights movement are portrayed with brutal honesty towards how these episodes must have happened, particularly an early sequence where the young activists (both white and black, I was glad to see), first prepare for, and then execute a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter, ultimately being beaten, abused, and arrested by the white authorities and local militiamen.

Things Havoc disliked:  It's often said that if you have to resort to a voiceover narration, you have failed as a scriptwriter, and while that notion is slightly flippant, there's something to it nonetheless. Among such films as have used voiceover to wonderful effect are the terrible theatrical version of Blade Runner, and the worst movie in the history of filmmaking, The Last Airbender. The Butler's sins do not come close to those of the films I just cited, but the voiceover in the Butler is still a bad idea, one that tells us episodes we should be shown. The inner thoughts of a character should come from within the characters actions and the actor's performance, not from the screenwriter standing up with a megaphone and shouting "this character is sad now!"

There's also the difficulty of the film's first half hour, wherein Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation, and sees his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father murdered with impunity by the son of the local plantation boss. I grant that such things probably did happen in the world of 1920s Georgia, but the son is so perfectly evil in every way, murdering people openly in the fields with a racist sneer on his face, that the entire concept disintegrates into bad farce. There are excellent scenes of racism in action in this film, the aforementioned sit-in, a lengthy sequence involving the KKK's attack on a Freedom Rider bus, and other moments both overt and subtle from the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s. Why, then, was it necessary to headline all of these sequences with something so over the top as to be a pastiche of racism?

Finally, we have to discuss (fellow Red Tails Alum) Terrence Howard's character, a neighbor of Cecil and Gloria, who is a womanizer and general disreputable person, and with whom Gloria has an affair. Anyone who can explain to me what the point of Howard's character was is invited to do so, as I could not determine as much. His character shows up, acts sleazy, disappears, acts sleazy some more, and then is killed off-screen by a jealous husband, never to be mentioned again. Even his affair with Gloria, an episode that would seem to be important, is glossed over with a few throwaway lines and no consequences whatsoever. Cecil never discovers the affair, meaning he cannot react to it, and the very first mention of it is Gloria telling Howard that it must end. In a film this congested with actors and characters, this is time that could have gone to so many other things.

Final thoughts:   I have no idea if Lee Daniels actually intended The Butler to be a response to Red Tails (my guess would be no), but in perfect honesty, he might as well have. This movie is to that one like Interview with the Vampire is to Twilight, a movie that is not only good, but simply by being good, illustrates the manifest flaws of its inferior counterpart. Taking the same cast (Gooding, Howard, Oyelowo) and putting them in another film about racism and the struggle for equality, Daniels proves conclusively what did not need proving, that Red Tails was not the fault of its cast, but of its scriptwriters, director, and producer. Though it falls short of the oscar-worthy mark it is clearly attempting to reach, The Butler is still a very good film, a simple story about a man and his son who lived in interesting times, and what they made of them. Never overly sappy, nor flagrantly melodramatic, the movie is a very solid piece about a historical process of infinite complexity, as seen by those whose lives were played out in its wake.

Final Score:  7/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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