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

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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