Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Alternate Title:  Battle Fatigue

One sentence synopsis:    Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield must hold Erebor against a series of armies seeking the fabled riches of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  And so passes The Hobbit, son of Lord of the Rings, King of all Fantasy.

Among those I know, I have been one of the more constant evangelists in favor of the Hobbit series since its inception two years ago. No, I don't think it's the equal of the original films (at least the first one wasn't), but I do think that, given the constraints they were under and the mandate from god-knows-who to make a trilogy out of the book, that they have, overall, done a decent-to-excellent job, depending on the moment and the subject in question. And following the cliffhanger (sort of) ending of the second movie, I was stoked to see what Peter Jackson and his band of wizards might do given the last bit of the Hobbit, and all the appendices in the legendarium to rely upon for material.

So let's start by focusing on what they did right.

The advantage that Peter Jackson has had throughout this process, one that Tolkien himself did not, has always been that Jackson is making his films in full knowledge of what the Lord of the Rings was and would become. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit in 1937, seventeen years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings, and it despite retroactive alterations in the later editions of the work, it remains a much earlier viewpoint on a considerably less-mature world that would evolve along with its author in the decades to come. Jackson, on the other hand, has not only the Lord of the Rings books, but his actual films to fall back on and reference, allowing him to flesh the admittedly light narrative of the Hobbit out with material relating to the earlier films. So it is that in this movie, at long last, we get to see something I have desired to see ever since the original Trilogy, namely more of the major powers of the Free Peoples, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman the White, laying down their indescribable power in illustration of just why it is everyone is so deferential to them at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. The sequences I am speaking of are not long, nor particularly relevant to the plot, but they are pure, unmitigated awesome, as we get to see Saruman, not yet fallen, dispense with the enemies of the Free Peoples with all the fire that he could bring forth, as well as just why it was that Sauron always counted Galadriel, last of the Noldorin Lords, and eldest living thing on Middle Earth (presumed) as among his most dangerous foes.

But enough of my nerdgasms, what of the movie itself? As before, the actors remain excellent. Martin Freeman has always been my favorite of the bunch, if only because of the level-headedness he brings to Bilbo, so unlike the Hobbits of the previous series, the only sane person in the room, much of the time, and a good rationale for why Gandalf thought so highly of him. Richard Armitage's Thorin is given a tougher role this time, as the Dragon's hoard drives him to distraction and the brink of madness, but Armitage has always played the role with a certain noble gravitas to him that easily survives the transition. I remain a fan of Lee Pace, now better known as Rowan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy, whose Party King Thranduil of the elves is a deliciously campy lunatic. Pace seems to be desperately trying to do a Tim Curry impression, but there's a case to be made for that sort of thing in Tolkien's world, which is after all a world of broad archetypes. Ian McKellan is as grumpy as ever as Gandalf the Grey (whom I always preferred to the White version), and Evangeline Lily, whose character of Tauriel was made up out of whole cloth to try and balance out just slightly the massive sausage fest that Tolkien's works always were, still does a fine job with a character inserted by authorial fiat into events that originally did not involve her. With a cast this large, there's not much room for new additions to this, the third movie, but I did enjoy seeing Billy Connoly show up as Dain Ironfoot, when it came time for the titular battle to commence.

But what's most important about the third Hobbit is not new, but old and familiar. The film has all of the spectacle of wide-scale violence and close-scale choreography, of an ancient landscape inhabited by strange creatures whose existence needs no justification, of a heroic fantasy, in short, derived from the world of the poetic Eddas and Beowulf. It has always been one of my favorite worlds to explore cinematically, be it because of New Zealand's priceless scenery, or Jackson's priceless cinematography and design work. Whatever the flaws the movie has, there is nothing ever wrong with simply inhabiting Tolkien's world for a few more hours, and nothing, seemingly can change that.

Things Havoc disliked:  But oh, do they try.

I want to be clear. I didn't hate the third Hobbit film, as even a mediocre Peter Jackson-Middle Earth film is still quite a thing, but I must confess to a staggering disappointment, not merely with the third movie but, retroactively, with the second. I was one of those who defended the ending of the second movie, which came out of the blue and with quite a shock to everyone who had assumed the films would be ending in a different place entirely. My rationale was that by ending the movie with Smaug still alive (it's been a year, people. Spoiler protections have a statute of limitations), they had the opportunity to change things in an interesting way. Who was to say they had to kill Smaug in the first five minutes of the third film. After all, doing that would have ruined the pace of the next movie. Maybe Jackson had an innovative plan in mind.

... no. No I'm afraid he didn't. Ruining the pace of this movie is exactly what he does.

The problem isn't the dragon, though there's definitely that. The problem is that the third movie, as the title suggests, concerns itself almost solely with the battle in question, and one entire film about a massive battle is too much battling. Two years ago, I spoke in my first Hobbit review, of Battle Fatigue, of the boredom that comes over an audience when you do nothing but show them context-free violence between armies of CG characters, and this movie may become the new poster child of that concept, for that's all there is here. Not that it's all awful fighting, mind you. I quite liked certain elements, such as the Dwarven shieldwall formed by Dain's army, or watching Thranduil slice motherfuckers up with twinned elf-blades. But this much unceasing combat, presented without a break or even context, just gets old. We almost never stop to ascertain strategy or the overall flow of the battle, resulting in confusion when armies (there are five of them, remember) appear in places without having encountered the other, hostile armies in between. Forces do things for reasons I don't understand, coming to the defense of people they did not like moments ago for no remuneration, and the battle entirely lacks any sense of ebb and flow. Our heroes kill and kill and kill faceless waves of armored enemies until all of a sudden they do not need to kill any more. I have seen far more tense and meaningful battles in the Total War game series.

And even leaving the grand picture aside, the decisions of what to focus on in this movie baffle me. Was it really necessary to give Legolas yet another 20-minute epic battle sequence against a particularly nasty orc? Not only is Legolas effectively using cheat codes in these films, but we know he survives to see the Lord of the Rings movies, meaning all sense of tension is entirely absent from the fights he engages in. I defended Legolas' inclusion in the second film because the movie made him out to be an asshole and actually let him get the crap beat out of him a bit, two decisions I applauded. But here he's back to the same old invincible Aryan super-elf that everyone has complained about. Another massive swatch of screentime is lavished on Ryan Gage's Alfid, a comic relief bit character from the last film who this time takes on the role of a slightly-less-annoying Jar-Jar Binks. So much time is devoted to this character and his wacky, cowardly antics, that I assumed Jackson was setting the character up for some kind of redemption arc, or other matter of serious weight. Alas, no, the character exists only to occasionally intrude on everything with bad slapstick and the occasional admittedly funny line ("It takes a real man to wear a corset!") And in including all this, we miss an opportunity to do other things, like say, resolve key elements of the plot. Bilbo himself seems like he was shortchanged in this film, having less screentime than several other actors despite theoretically being the main character, and events such as his departing the company at the end of the quest seem glossed over and rushed. I realize that in sidelining Bilbo for the last act, the filmmakers are following the books' lead, but that's no excuse any more than departing from them would be a cause, in and of itself, for condemnation. Martin Freeman has always been the best thing out of these three movies, and I wanted to see more of him, regardless of whether or not it cut into Legolas' contractually-obligated "awesome time" or Jackson's conception of Wacky Hijinx.

Final thoughts:   I hoped for great things from the third Hobbit movie, but like the Hunger Games before it, great things were not in the cards. As I mentioned above, the film was not awful or anything, but it was strictly mediocre, albeit flashy and filled with spectacle. After six films however, it takes more than just waving orc banners in front of our faces to excite us with another jaunt in Middle Earth, particularly when all we're here to do is watch ranks of CG characters battle one another as in a video game. At least in those I have control of the action and can initiate my own will, not to mention keep track of what is actually going on.

I admit to being curious about the directors cuts of the three Hobbit films, as all three director's cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies improved on their respective theatrical cuts. With luck, I will discover that all of the meat and weight that I was missing in this movie sits within. But as it stands here, I cannot recommend this movie wholeheartedly, not even to those who, like me, enjoyed the first two outings. Maybe I've gotten older, maybe Jackson's lost his touch, or maybe there has simply been too much of this sort of thing over the last ten years. But impossible as I thought it once, I think, at long last, I have reached the point where, when it comes to this rendition of the Lord of the Rings and all its ancillary materials, I have finally seen enough.

Of course, if someone were to decide to make the Silmarillion....

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Storytime with the best actor in the world.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alternate Title:  A Very Queer Man

One sentence synopsis:    Alan Turing works at Bletchley Park in an effort to break the German Enigma code while endeavoring to conceal his homosexuality during WWII.

Things Havoc liked:In 1954, Alan Turing, one of the great pioneers of computer technology, was murdered by the British government, insofar as the medication the government had forced him to take to repress his homosexuality drove him to commit suicide. In doing this, the British government acted no differently than any other government on the Earth at the time (and a good many today), but the event, atoned for only long after the fact by people not alive at the time it occurred, was nonetheless a terrible crime committed against one of Britain's greatest unsung heroes. Of course Hollywood cannot resist a good story with good liberal political overtones, so at the very least we have The Imitation Game, a biographical film of the great Sir Alan, one of the strangest British persons of all time, and portrayed by one of the strangest British persons alive today, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I kid, I kid. Cumberbatch, one of the outstanding actors I have discovered over the course of this project, only appears weird because of the weird people whom he periodically chooses to play, a lineup that has varied in only the short time I've been doing this from a homosexual spy to a spineless Nebraskan wimp, to Julian Assange, to a dragon, to Khan. And now he plays Alan Turing, who according to this movie was not simply gay but also possibly the most awkward person in British history, which is a statement and a half for those of you who've never met an Englishman. Turing was, after all, a certified genius, and if Hollywood has taught me anything, it's that certified geniuses are always irascible bastards, barely able to interact with their fellow human beings, forever locked out of the world by their tremendous gifts which none others share. But this is Benedict Cumberbatch, a man I've seen people compare unironically to Lawrence Olivier, which means when things get awkward, they get Shakespearianly awkward. An early sequence in the film where the newly-arrived Turing persists in taking every question that his colleagues ask him as to whether he wants to get some lunch absolutely literally is almost hard to watch, as is a later moment when, in an effort to warm up to the self-same colleagues, he tells possibly the worst joke in the world. The rest is all standard House-style material, in which he unthinkingly dismisses everyone around him as uneducated clods who will only interrupt his research, unable to understand why this would annoy anyone. This would not work from a lesser actor, as this character would be so annoying to the audience that we would reject him entirely. Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor.

Neither are most of his co-stars. I go back and forth on what I think of Keira Knightly, as she has had the misfortune of making her career out of the decent-to-awful Pirates of the Caribbean series of Gore Verbinski films, and yet I don't have the same level of antipathy for her that I do for someone like, say, Jennifer Garner. Here she plays Joan Clarke MBE, a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley Park, whose role in the film, contrary to my concerned expectations from the trailer, is not actually to insert a straight romance into a story about a gay man, but actually drawn almost entirely from reality. A skilled cryptologist and numismatist, Clarke also served, for a time at least, as Turing's "beard", arranging an engagement with him that would permit him to maintain the fiction of being straight, and her the fiction of being "properly" respectable. Knightly does a credible job with the material she's given, and while I had questioned the purpose of her character, it appears in this case that I should have done more research, as the filmmakers knew more about the subject than I did.

The rest of the cast poses no difficulties. Mark Strong is a pimp, as is Charles Dance, and an opportunity to see both of them work is always welcome. Strong plays legendary SIS/MI6-chief Stewart Menzies, one of Turing's biggest backers, and one of the few to recognize the true potential of Enigma's scope for snooping and influencing events. Strong more or less plays the character like he might James Bond, but I can hardly fault that. Dance meanwhile brings all his Tywin Lannister gravitas to the role of Colonel Alastair Denniston, portraying him like the only adult in a room full of man-children (which is not all that far from the truth). Watchmen's Matthew Goode, finally finding a role he isn't awful in, manages to play a fairly difficult role in the form of Hugh Alexander, a fellow codebreaker who has the unenviable task of having to find a way to warm up to an intensely unlikeable Turing. Midway through the film, Goode manages to defuse a scene which could have been nauseatingly coy, one I was dreading from the trailers, where all of Turing's compatriots stand up for him to the accompaniment of swelling music. He does this by shifting the focus from Turing's likeability to his evident genius, admitting, reluctantly, that he does stand the best chance of anyone of actually defeating Enigma.

Things Havoc disliked: It's a history film. You knew this was coming.

I don't demand absolute historical fidelity in my historical movies. One of my favorite films is Gladiator, after all, a movie that has about as much to do with the actual history of the 2nd century Roman Empire as Iron Skies has to do with WWII. What I demand is that the movie respect the history it is about enough to present a credible version, and The Imitation Game does not. Yes, it's true that one of the major advantages unlocked by the ULTRA project was the ability to find German U-boats, but U-boats simply did not operate the way they are shown in this film, with a dense mass of them forming up like a school of fish before hurling sixty-odd torpedoes at their blissfully ignorant targets. That alone would be forgivable if it weren't for the fact that, having decoded Enigma, Turing and his band of merry mathematicians then find themselves having to decide whether or not to warn a convoy of British ships that they are about to be attacked, weighing the odds that such an action might lead the Germans to discover that Enigma has been broken. Much pathos and drama are wrung from these decisions, as, of course, one of the codebreakers' brother is on the convoy and will die if warning is not given...

Um... bullshit. Granted, this whole scenario is partly based on reality, likely a reference to the famous "Coventry Question" that Winston Churchill supposedly faced during the Blitz (wherein he is rumored to have allowed the Germans to erase Coventry so as to preserve British anti-bomber intelligence sources). But the whole point there is that Churchill, or at the very least his war cabinet, was the one to make these decisions, not a half-dozen anti-social mathematicians locked up in a manor in Buckinghamshire. The movie tries to turn this entire incident into some kind of "god complex" absurdity involving Turing, a kind of "how far will you let the cold mathematics take you" thing. And when Turing, of course, decides to preserve the secret (unilaterally it appears), the result appears to be the destruction of half the Royal Navy, as battleships and aircraft carriers are sent to the bottom in their dozens. I must have missed that part of the war histories somewhere.

The rest of the film is equally historically mishandled, and once again for no reason at all. That Turing had no actual interaction with MI6 during the war I don't mind. Any excuse to see more of Mark Strong is worth making. But the film goes so far as to have Turing dealing with Soviet spies from the ring of Philby and MacLean, and passing secret messages through MI6 for Soviet consumption, circumventing Churchill along the way. This isn't history, it's pulp fiction, which is fine in a pulp movie, but not in a sombre historical biopic. Alan Turing was a great man and a towering figure of the cryptological war, to say nothing of the father of modern computers. It is unnecessary to further turn him into George Smiley.

Final thoughts:   I know most people don't share my obsessions with the minutiae of history, but this is not just the ramblings of an angry fanboy upset that someone forgot to conjugate elvish correctly. By trying to turn Turing into something he was manifestly not, it undermines the question of who he actually was, which presumably was the entire point of making a biopic about him in the first place. I won't pretend this "ruins the movie" or something, for it does not, as Cumberbatch's performance is excellent, and I do enjoy seeing these actors act at one another. I just wish that the filmmakers had some faith in the story they had in front of them rather than the one they made up from whole cloth.

After all, if they were going to do that much, why not make a movie wherein Alan Turing was the leader of a renegade faction of the Illuminati, assassinated in his prime for daring to break humanity free of the static reality around them and enable them to use information technology to reach for the metaphysical stars? I'd certainly go see it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  The last chapter of the greatest fantasy ever told.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Alternate Title:  Director in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:    A sociopath tries to strike it big as a freelance news cameraman chasing crime and accident stories in nocturnal Los Angeles.

Things Havoc liked: I give up.  I surrender.  My hypocrisy only goes so far.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a good actor.  And I enjoy watching him in movies.  Are you happy now?!

I have a series of actors that I have no use for, and many of them have featured on this little project before.  Vincent D'onofrio.  Jennifer Garner.  Anybody commonly associated with Tyler Perry.  Gyllenhaal was, for many years, a featured player on my list, probably due to his roles as a teenager and young man in such dreck as The Day After Tomorrow, October Sky, Prince of Persia, and Donnie Darko (yeah, I said it!)  But like Joshua Gordon Levitt before him, Gyllenhaal just kept making movies.  Good movies.  Movies like Source Code and Zodiac and End of Watch.  And there's only so many movies I can enjoy by someone before I can't maintain the fiction anymore.  There was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was that whining little snot from Titanic, after all.

Nightcrawler, a character study by first-time director Dan Gilroy, is a tight, careful film, focused relentlessly on one of the weirder characters I've seen this year.  Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an strange, socially-stunted sociopath, a man who apes and analyzes the emotional reactions of the people around him more than he shares them.  This is a concept that has been explored before, most notably perhaps in the Showtime series Dexter, save that here the character is not a serial killer but a "nightcrawler", a freelance news cameraman who spends his nights seeking out footage of accidents, crime, or bloodshed to sell to morning news channels, the gorier and "rawer", the better.  This is not an occupation that lends itself well to a balanced emotional state to begin with, and Lou takes to it like a duck to water, starting out with a single camcorder and winding up with a full-fledged production studio, assisted along the way by his absolute lack of fear, a head full of self-empowerment business slogans, and a complete antipathy to social norms that would normally restrain someone from filming the dying or worse.

And that's really all there is to it.  Nightcrawler, like Taxi Driver before it (or this year's Locke) is a movie that is about one subject, and which seeks nothing beyond chronicling his career wherever it goes.  There are, of course, other characters he encounters, most notably Riz Ahmed playing Rick, an out-of-work latino laborer whom Gyllenhaal recruits as a navigator and secondary cameraman, who only slowly grows to realize just who he has begun moonlighting for.  But Gyllenhaal is front and center here, a thin, wiry figure who manages nonetheless to evoke a great deal of presence by the sheer absence of regular social norms that he evidences.  This is not to say that he is awkward, indeed like many real sociopaths, he is charming and witty when the occasion calls for it.  But it is visibly all an act, and when the occasion calls for it, the frankly predatory side of his persona comes bubbling to the fore with impressive facility.  Never does Gyllenhaal go completely wild-eyed maniac, but you can, at most times, see the possibility of it within him, as though at any moment he is engaged in cold calculation as to whether he is liable to get the best results from a smile and a witty remark, or from an act of inhuman violence.  Either one is fine by him.

Things Havoc disliked: Gyllenhaal I have finally come around to, but the same is not true of every actor or actress I dislike, and so we get to Rene Russo, whom I have liked more and more as she has done fewer and fewer things.  About the limit of my tolerance for her was as Freya, wife of Odin, in the Thor movies, a role which required only a few short scenes and nothing more.  As a full-fledged character, Russo isn't terrible, but she is playing a pastiche of a cliche, a news director for a struggling TV station who is willing to do "anything" to get the footage she needs.  Russo does her best to conjure up the required desperation for a role like this, but she comes across like she's reading cue cards, as she flip-flops from a hard-assed news reporter to a vulnerable victim in the schemes of our main protagonist.  She also has the unenviable task of playing stand-in for the author once it comes time to soapbox windily about how ethical the news "used to be", and how things are "so different now" because we live in a fallen age and blah blah blah.  A tertiary character (Mad Men's Kevin Rahm) exists solely to pop up every so often to recite windy dialogue about how Russo has abandoned her conscience and done terrible things.  Fine, I suppose there's something to be said there.  But then the film decides that it's not enough Russo show no ethics, she has to do stupid things for the sake of increasing her own crepulence, including giving up on the chance to be the first to break a huge story so that she can smash more gore into her lineup.  I have no doubt there are news directors who act this way, but most of them don't last long when they start confusing the quest for violence with the quest for money, the latter of which is the real Holy Grail of media.

Final thoughts:   I actually enjoyed Nightcrawler considerably more than I expected to, as the movie, despite a fairly short horizon, manages to generate a sufficiently deranged atmosphere (something Los Angeles is always good at generating) that despite the manifestly evil things Lou is doing, you have a perverse desire to continue watching him do them.  The last 45 minutes or so is an escalating lesson in proper suspense-crafting, not from any of the old standbys of Killer-in-the-house or whatnot, but from Hitchcock's old saw that when a bomb under a table goes off, it is action, and when it does not, it is suspense.  The film's ambitions of being a biting media satire hold it back, particularly when it starts to get preachy about the good-old-days, but as a character study and a vehicle for Gyllenhaal to act creepy and weird, it has very little to speak against it.  And while there's still something about Gyllenhaal that just rubs me the wrong way, it's gotten increasingly hard for me to defend a dislike for an actor that keeps turning in good performance after good performance.

Eventually, it seems, even my ego has its limits.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Week:  The most British man in the world plays the most British man in the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Interview

Alternate Title:  A Jolly Jaunt in the People's Paradise

One sentence synopsis:    A shallow television personality and his producer/best friend go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un.

A Note From Management:  We are currently attempting to determine what happened here and how this review came about. No offense is intended towards anyone with enough military hardware to make credible threats. We apologize for any inconvenience that may have been caused. Those responsible for sacking those previously responsible for incidents such as these have themselves been sacked.

Things Havoc liked:  I have never been a great fan of James Franco, nor of Seth Rogan, but in all fairness, last year's "This is the End" was riotously funny despite those two doing more or less exactly the things I have disliked them for in the past. As such, I had rather ambivalent feelings about The Interview, appearing as it did to contain everything I hated, yet required to take certain things on faith. It appeared for a while that my ambivalence on the part of this film was going to be rendered irrelevant, after North Korean hackers threatened Sony with assorted violent retributions if they did not pull the release of the film, but fortunately, since no major company would ever agree to a policy that cowardly, debased, and counter-productive, I was given the opportunity to witness what is surely, a part of history.

What can be said in the film's favor then? To begin with, like This is the End before it, The Interview is a film made with care. Scathing pillory is not something that rewards sloppiness, and as the previous film knew precisely what the sort of Hollywood excess they were skewering was. This film, similarly, has done its homework, down to details such as the composition of flower bundles handed out to foreign dignitaries on the tarmac of Pyongyang, the songs sung by the obligatory identically-dressed masses of schoolchildren drafted for such occasions, and the size and scale of the rawhide whips used to beat the political prisoners in North Korea's mountain prison camps (the lowland ones have a different climate, different barometric pressure, and consequently, different loyalty-enforcement instruments). Particular praise should go to Randall Park, whom I've not seen before, but who here has the unenviable task of portraying the Dear Leader Kim Jeong Un. Park's portrayal is masterful, particularly the first interview, where he smilingly and charmingly disarms our bumbling heroes with imported liquor and classical music as his staff hurriedly cover up the bodies of the young women he raped to death that morning (I'm told this actually happened during a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador last year, forcing the embarrassed diplomat to spend fifteen minutes appreciatively admiring the floral patterns on the carpet to avoid looking up). In the second interview, a more intentionally hurried affair wherein the journalists surprise Kim in the middle of one of his infamous (and CIA-attested) goat-orgies along with North Korea's senior military staff, Park manages to deliver a chillingly calm and rational defense of his regime's policies despite the ball-gag, and even contrives to order his harem girls to continue administering the electric shocks to his genitals, all without losing his temper or raising his voice. It's a performance that could not have been any easier to produce than anything Christian Bale has ever done, and credit must be paid to Park for his masterful display of the craft.

And yet the film, to my surprise, does not restrict itself to skewering the admittedly low-hanging fruit of North Korea's ludicrous regime. Rogan and Franco, Hollywood insiders though they are, simply cannot restrict themselves from dealing harshly with the materialistic world around them. Guy Pierce, playing Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton, turns in a role I regard as his best (admittedly not a particularly high bar), having gained over two hundred pounds for the role and agreeing to have what is claimed to be pig feces (I hope, for his sake, it was merely chocolate) smeared over his face and mouth six or seven times throughout the runtime. Co-chairman Amy Pascal (played by Jennifer Garner, at last having found a role I like) is meanwhile depicted as pouring over the backlog of Sony's film library with a microscope looking for anything that might insult someone. The scene where she dances drunkenly around a bonfire consuming the master tapes of Casablanca is a standout bit of work from an actress I had long suspected had no actual talent within her. But the pick of the lot has got to be Vincent D'onofrio, who is a changed man playing Sony's President Doug Belgrad. Sweating grotesquely, D'onofrio here lets himself look far worse than anything that ever happened in Men in Black, fauning over everyone nearby with a sleazy, mincing mien that turns the stomach and the ear. And yet this is plainly the intended-for effect, as director Evan Goldberg combs the depths of depravity to portray this man in the most hideous, grotesque manner possible. I was not prepared for the graphic, hardcore snuff-and-sex scene which D'onofrio subjects himself to near the end of the film, and while I intellectually know that the flames of the butaine lighters used to torture the smuggled children were all CGI or other movie fakery, I have to report that the sequence is incredibly disturbing to watch, enough to put one off Sony films for a good long while.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not everything can be perfect of course, not with a subject matter like North Korea, the most secretive regime on the face of the planet. For example, I could not help but notice in the aforementioned goat orgy sequence that the goats in question were clearly Thuringians, something I can probably forgive given that the Dear Leader's absolute proclivity towards the similarly-appearing Black Zhongwei goats is known only to a few scholars of obscure zoophilias. Similarly, the rate of fire of the Chinese type-81 Squad Machine gun is approximately 700 rounds per minute, too slow for a trio of the guns to kill literally every one of the three or four thousand political prisoners we see lined up for the mass sacrifices intended to accompany Kim's birthday celebrations in less than a minute of work, even with pinpoint accuracy. As to the sequence wherein the Sony board of directors lines up to perform acts of hardcore felatio on Kim's senior ministers, I can only report that I am gratified that no crude gay jokes were hurled their way during the course of the scene, as such homophobic remarks have become truly passe in the modern culture of Hollywood.

Otherwise, the only criticism I can level at the film is really a simple lack of ambition. I know this seems a strange thing to throw at a movie produced by Seth Rogan of all people, someone known for thoughtless comedies like The Neighbors or Seth and Miri Make a Porno, but the base fact is that after the first half hour of the movie and its shameless expose of the regime and the film industry's sins, I did expect to see more. A nod towards the North Korean policy of generational guilt would have been nice. While the seven-year old girl we see Kim torture to death with barbed wire is hinted at having been the victim of such a policy, something a bit more explicitly called out would have not gone awry. Similarly, the all-too-brief sequences of mass starvation are undercut by the crude comedy surrounding it, leading to the uncomfortable feeling that we are intended to laugh at the victims of this regime instead of pity them.

Final Thoughts:  That said, I doubt seriously that was the intention, as nobody capable of making a movie this daring, this fearless, and this filled with scathing critique is capable of actually harboring such infantile and awful concepts. One might from there accuse the filmmakers of themselves becoming mouthpieces of one of the most evil regimes on the planet, chilling the expression of free speech for decades to come, and actively seeking to oppress and persecute anyone who dares rock the boat against a manifest evil such as North Korea. Such a claim would be laughable however, as Sony has proven themselves the stalwart champions of free speech and common decency, persisting in calling a spade a spade no matter who tries to intimidate them, letting all audiences see the movie that, while no masterpiece, is a fine reminder of the fact that in a free country, we have the right to be stupid when we wish to.

My hat is off to you, Sony. You have redeemed my faith in the medium of film.


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Homesman

Alternate Title:  Bitches Be Crazy

One sentence synopsis:    A single pioneer woman and an old-hand claim jumper must take three catatonic women from Nebraska to Iowa in the early 1850s.

Things Havoc liked:  Like with many movies in this review project, I chose to see this movie because of its cast, a cast that could sunder mountains and leap tall buildings with a single bound. Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld, this is the cast you assemble when it's time to blow me away. And when the movie in question is a western, then casting someone like Tommy Lee Jones as the lead (effectively) is the icing atop the cake. Jones is a national treasure, one of my favorite actors, whom I enjoy watching even in bad movies (I can even stomach Batman Forever), and particularly when it comes to Westerns, one of the grand old men of the art form, worthy of being spoken of in company with Clint Eastwood or James Coburn. In everything from Lonesome Dove to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones has shown himself an almost quintessential western actor, and given that he also co-produced and directed this movie (as he did the aforementioned Three Burials), I was stoked to see this. It also helped that my alternatives were Dumb and Dumber Too or The Interview.

I've been hearing lengthy, wizened recitations on "The Death of the Western" for as long as I've been alive, so if you don't mind, we'll leave the post-modern millenerianism at the door. That said, the Homesman is not a traditional western, being bereft of gunfights, action in general, or, to be perfectly frank, the West. Set in Nebraska of the 1850s, one of the starkest and bleakest landscapes I've ever imagined, the focus here is not on the West as a place of opportunity and adventure, nor even a place of hardship and loss, but a place of almost unfathomable isolation combined with abjectly primitive conditions that lead one to wonder what possible fate could draw people out there. No excited wagon trains of would-be settlers seeking a better life here, this is a cold, miserable place, where people eke out a living while desperately trying to retain their very sanity. Poised on the knife-edge of this struggle is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single woman approaching middle age (a rarity to say the least back then), whose prospects for marriage and simple companionship are dampened by her blunt nature, plain looks (it takes some doing to make Hilary Swank look homely), and the sheer lack of people in Nebraska, particularly single men. I haven't seen Swank in ten years, not since Million Dollar Baby, but she fits right back into the swing of things here, as a somewhat-neurotic frontierswoman who volunteers to help take three completely crazy women back to Iowa, despite the fact that it means leaving her evidently prosperous homestead behind. One gets the very real sense from her, though it is never spelled out, that she isn't doing this out of the kindness of her heart, but because she suspects that if she spends one more minute in Nebraska, she will actually go mad. I've known quite a few people who've gone through that state even today who could sympathize.

Tommy Lee Jones meanwhile, plays George Briggs, though we never discover if this is his real name or not, a claim jumper whom Cuddy encounters while being lynched, and enlists to help her get the three women in question back to civilization where they can be cared for. Given the women's catatonia, and Cuddy's own bag of issues, Jones, in consequence, gets to play the adult in the room most of the time, something he's always been good at. We learn bits and pieces about him from half-mentioned anecdotes and small gestures, and unlike a number of writer/director/actors I could mention (Costner comes to mind), Jones clearly does not intend for him to be a stand-in for Jesus. He drinks, gambles, drunkenly dances and sings to the accompaniment of his own gunfire, to say nothing of his claim jumping in the first place. That said, the movie does not really deal in such concepts as "good" and "bad" guys, having neither villains to defeat nor heroes to follow. It is merely the story of a number of people in a strange place doing a strange thing, and what befalls them as they try to do it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Or rather that's what it would be about if anything actually befell these people.

I occasionally encounter movies like this, films that want to be defined more by what they aren't than by what they are. This isn't always a bad idea, but it does lend itself to issues where a film, desirous of not being a "traditional" thing, forgets to be anything whatsoever. The trailers, cut together as they are to promise a narrative, really represent instead the entire film's narrative pushed together, with the rest of the film being filled with... well nothing really. And given just how much of the cast I have yet to speak of, that's quite a problem.

Let's begin with the crazy women in question, all three of whom are given hints towards an actual backstory, one having lost her children to diptheria, one raped repeatedly by her husband, and the third having gone simply mad enough to kill her own newborn baby. Played by, among other people Miranda Otto (Eowyn), and Grace Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep), one could imagine all manner of interesting stories being told through the lenses of these women who found life on the frontier utterly intolerable and lost their minds as a result. Instead, the movie treats them like props, leaving them catatonic and mute the entire length of the film, MacGuffins for the main characters to labor over getting to Iowa. No character development whatsoever is afforded to them, which would be fine if the intention of the story were to present a situation wherein change is impossible or some other sort of stylistic choice. But instead it's as though the entire purpose of having these characters was forgotten about, and the film might as well have been about transporting mules.

And it's not just the three mental patients that this happens to. Assembling a cast of actors this talented had to be hard work. The least you could do would be to find something for them to do. Meryl Streep, of all people, who I maintain is the best actor in the world, gets about five minutes of screentime near the end of the movie, where her role is... well damned if I know what her role is. She seems to exist purely to relieve one character of a plot device. James Spader meanwhile turns up halfway through the film as a hotelier in the middle of nowhere, a role so strange that I can only assume that vast chunks of his work was left on the cutting room floor. Halee Steinfeld, who was so good in True Grit (my very first review!) seems to exist solely so that Tommy Lee Jones can buy her a pair of shoes. I realize that a film this stacked is gonna have limited space to go around, but nothing happens in this movie for most of its runtime. Surely with this many actors in this rich a setting with this much potential for psychodrama, SOMETHING could have been come up with?

Or maybe not. Maybe this was the intention all along, to present some kind of super-minimalist western in the vein of a Jim Jarmush film or something. But if that's the case, then the same question applies here that I ask whenever Jim Jarmush himself comes to town: Why? Why was this film made? What story seemed so vital that it needed to be told? Was this supposed to be some kind of mediation on Prairie Madness (yes, it was a thing. Click the link)? If so, why do we get to do nothing with the crazy women beyond checking in on them once in a while to make sure that yep, still crazy! Was it a character study of Swank and Lee's characters? Maybe, but then why do we not actually get to see their characters in more than snippets, and why does so much of the movie consist of them not revealing anything to the audience. The film gets so obsessed by the end with not being any kind of "traditional" western (which is dead, you know) that it winds up not being anything at all. The last forty-five minutes of the film in particular, while they are shot and acted well (as was inevitable given the cast in question), almost literally consists of nothing more than a series of events, unconnected with one another, which happen, and then are over. Nothing is learned. Nothing is done.

Final thoughts:   I cited Jim Jarmush above, because he's made movies like this one before, among them the almost unwatchable Dead Man, which also starred a number of A-list actors in a western setting accomplishing not very much at all. The Homesman is nowhere near as unbearable as Dead Man was, but it is still a fairly boring movie, competently executed, but for purposes I cannot fathom, even a week later. My viewing companion, whose perspective on these things is very different than mine (for which everyone concerned is grateful), informed me that this movie has received a great deal of attention in feminist circles, though why this is the case, neither she nor I could guess. It is a movie about two people taking three catatonic other people across an empty terrain until they no longer have to do so. If that's your cup of tea, then look no further.

As for me? I think I'll stick to Jim Jarmush-like films actually made by Jim Jarmush. If nothing else, his boring movies are usually inventive.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Week:   Either war docs or Iranian vampires.  TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO FIND OUT!!!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Alternate Title:  Downtime

One sentence synopsis:    Katniss Everdeen must become a symbol of rebellion to stoke the flames of revolution against the Capitol and save her friends from the previous games.

Things Havoc liked:  I loved Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games series, itself a rebuttal to the overwhelming evidence on-offer that YA books make terrible movies. The series has been uniformly good to-date, but the second movie was a masterpiece, a deserved entry on last year's list of best films. Accordingly, unlike a lot of the stuff I have been seeing recently, I was stoked to see this, one of two yearly-installment films (the other being The upcoming Hobbit) that I thought had potential to really nail the end of this remarkable year down. The reason that this series is so good is fairly simple, quality of actors, quality of writing, quality of production, one of the only films in the genre that actually seems to take itself seriously. Compare this series to the Mortal Instruments or Divergent or, God help you, Twilight, and the differences are apparent. As with children's films, YA movies work best when you don't treat them as YA, but simply as another movie on another topic, something Hunger Games has consistently done, and the other series have consistently not.

But enough background, we're here to talk about the movie itself. And to a degree that's actually rather surprising, the movie itself is, of all things, a character study, primarily of our main character, Katness Everdeen, played as always by Jennifer Lawrence. I'm an unashamed fan of Lawrence's, and this is the role that introduced her to me in the first place, so when I tell you all that she is excellent here, I don't expect I'll be astonishing anyone. The movie dives into Katness' character far more than the other films were able to, as she tries to recover from the terrible ordeal of having competed in two consecutive Hunger Games, the second one designed specifically to destroy her, and struggles with becoming the face of the incipient revolution being prepared against President Coriolanus Snow (I love these goddamn names), played by Donald Sutherland at his most avuncularly-villainous. The movie doesn't drive completely into a study of PTSD, but that aspect is there, something I had sort of hoped would be in the previous films, but better late than never. Indeed, the film takes a fair amount of time just looking at Katness as a character, as she tries to figure out what she should do in response to the escalating violence and reciprocity of the Capital's forces. Wisely, the movie doesn't try to recast Katness as a shattered violet or anything, but you cannot engage in child murder (or war) for terribly long before some psychological effects manifest themselves, and Lawrence rides the line properly to give us a character we can believe.

But even Lawrence has nothing on the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamesmaster-turned-propagandist whose task it is to produce the speeches, videos, films, posters, and other materials that will drive the revolution forward. Hoffman is fantastic here, as an expert in his field finally being allowed to put his skills to use, utterly unapologetic about the nature of his work (propaganda), and refusing to allow himself to be used as a stand-in for a moralizing lesson about the purity of truth or some such. In a similar vein, and only slightly less impressive, is Elizabeth Banks, whose character of Effie Trinket was more or less a ludicrous joke in the first two films, and here is... well a slightly less-ludicrous one. Kidnapped by the rebels and brought to a far more down-to-earth area than the wild world of Panem, she, like Hoffman's character, becomes an assistant of sorts using what skills she does have, presentation, erudition, even makeup. The two of them are stellar in this film, the former liberated, the latter constrained, both accustomed to being the smartest people in the room (only one of them correctly), and both acidly doing what they have to do in order to practice their art. And that art is interesting to watch, particularly given the discovery, early on in the film that Katniss is a terrible actress, whose propaganda films consequently look flat and terrible, forcing innovative (and perhaps a bit contrived) solutions in order to produce the material necessary.

And there's other performances here worth watching as well. Jeffrey Wright (of Casino Royale and Only Lovers Left Alive) reprises Beetee, a Q-like gadgeteer who at the very least turns in one of the better "super-scientist" performances I've seen, insofar as his science actually manages to walk the tightrope between understandable and innovative. Catching Fire's Sam Claflin has a smaller role this time, but does a decent job with it, playing a different tribute liberated from the games with a different set of baggage on him from his experience in Panem. Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta (once more the only role of his I've ever been able to stomach), actually turns in the best performance of the three movie for him, limited though his role is. Even Liam Hemsworth, Thor's younger brother, who was more or less useless in every movie prior to this, has a decent enough turn this time. If all you're after is watching these actors play these characters for a while, then this movie will provide that much.

Things Havoc disliked:  But nothing more.

Let's address the elephant in the room here. Like the last Twilight and Harry Potter movies, this film is split in two, and what we are watching here is the first half of a movie, a decision that ruined those films (not that Twilight needed the help), and comes damn close to ruining this one. There is a flow to movies, a narrative arc that comes with telling a proper story, and while it is certainly permissible to violate that flow for whatever reason, it is not going to work to arbitrarily cut a film in half just to make more money. There is no climax to this movie, no denouement, no sense of rising action, nothing. We wander, purposelessly, from scene to unconnected scene, without any sense of tension or setup or establishment for purpose. If the second half of the movie were to immediately follow this one, then perhaps this wouldn't be a problem, but we won't know if that's the case for another full year, and the film that we have before us is consequently incomplete. At no time during the two hours it runs could I determine how close we were to the end of the film, nor, when the movie came to an end, had I the first hint that the end was coming. Maybe there was too much material for one movie or something, I don't know, but for whatever other faults they had, the Hobbit movies, also carved into pieces from a single book, managed to produce complete films out of the material, even with the sudden abruptness of the second film's ending (an ending I actually thought was kind of brilliant, as opposed to this one).

But whether or not there was too much material here for one film, there is plainly not enough for two, as this movie is padded as all hell. Sequences exist for no reason that I can fathom except to take up time, such as an interminable bombing sequence focusing around a cat, and an even more interminable speech delivered by a propagandist that takes four times longer than it should by virtue of cutaways and Shatnerian-acting. Even the action scenes, and they are very few, take forever, as characters have to stare at military bombers for three full minutes from five different angles before they work out that they may be engaged in bombing. This tendency is so pronounced that despite all the nice performances on offer, the movie is simply boring in a lot of places, and that's the one thing you cannot afford to have your blockbuster YA action film be.

But set the pacing aside and the money-grabs by the producer, and there's still major problems here, most of which have to do with new additions to the cast. Catching Fire introduced a bunch of new characters, all of whom were nuanced and interesting and had objectives they kept hidden which might have had nothing to do with Katniss at all. This time though, we get Natalie Dormer, of the Tudors and Game of Thrones, playing Cressida, a director escaped from the capital, whose job is to follow Katniss around and film her. I wouldn't mind this concept so much if this character was given a character of her own, or even an opinion on something, or for that matter, if Dorner could act worth a damn, which she cannot. A whole gaggle of fellow idiots tags along with her, of such little use that I refuse to even research their names. But worse yet is Julianne Moore, an actress I have never liked, not even in movies I favor (Big Lebowski for instance, or Children of Men). This is more or less the reason why. Her character of President (of the rebels) Coin is a complete cypher, reciting deliberately ambiguous speeches awkwardly about inevitable victory or some such, a transparent attempt by the filmmakers to add "mystery" to the character that winds up all but attaching flags and sirens to itself saying "EVIL CHARACTER DESIGNATED TO TEACH LESSONS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF REVOLUTIONS IN THE NEXT MOVIE".

Oh, I'm sorry, am I spoiling things? I have no idea, I never read the books. I just have a feeling...

Final thoughts:   Mockingjay, or rather Mockingjay's first half is a tremendously disappointing film, mostly due to the terrible decision to split it in two. Not only does this guarantee that the first movie is a boring exposition-fest intercut with shots of the camera watching a character watch the beauty of the trees or whatnot, but it also all but guarantees that the second half of the film, due to come out next year, will likely be nothing but a single, solid action piece, without time to stop for exposition, character, or breath. All things being equal, that might not be so bad, and God only knows what the whole thing will look like when arranged front to back, but given that this is the movie I was given, this is the result I have to report on. The movie is not a bad film, neither poorly-made nor poorly-acted (on the whole), but if there was ever proof that a good movie is more than the sum of its parts, it's this one. Why they did not decide to simply make two complete movies out of Mockingjay, I do not know, but they did not, deciding instead to simply cleave one large movie in half with an axe.

I still like this series, despite this misstep, and will in all likelihood see the last element of the film when it comes out at the end of 2015. But do not expect me to give it mercy for failing to properly establish itself just because the establishment, and strictly nothing else, was all done in the previous film.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Week:   Actors in Nebraska.  Lots of them.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6

Alternate Title:  California Roll

One sentence synopsis:    A mechanical prodigy must use his brother's robot, his friends, and his own ingenuity to defeat the mysterious villain who killed his brother and stole his inventions.

Things Havoc liked:  This just isn't fair anymore. I see so few children's movies, normally, that earlier this year when I reviewed the Lego Movie I felt the need to include a disclaimer explaining why I had decided to go see such a thing at all. And yet if there ever was a year to show me the error of my ways in leaving this particular genre aside, it was this one, as hit after stellar hit has rained down from a genre I haven't followed in the better part of two decades. And yet this year has also been the story of something else, of the rise of the terrible, three-headed, fire-breathing monster that now marches beneath the black banner of the mouse, the unholy trifecta of studios united through blasphemous arts, of Pixar, of Marvel, and of their evil, ruinous mastermind, Disney.

Not that all three have been active this year, indeed Pixar has disappeared of late, diving back into sequels after Brave's less-than-fantastic run (something they will hopefully rectify in 2015), but the other two heads of the hydra have been working overtime in Pixar's absence, Marvel with their cinematic Universe, and Disney with the latest of their periodic renaissances. Thus far, all three studios have more or less worked in parallel to one another, a wise decision on the part of someone at Disney, but that doesn't mean that cross-pollination isn't possible, or even beneficial. Rather than consolidate their mega-studios together into one monolith, Disney has been content thus far to leave their subject empires alone to do their thing, while occasionally sneaking in at night and perusing the back-catalog of intellectual properties on offer to see if they can find something worthwhile. And so it is that, for the second time since August, a major studio has picked out a third-tier novelty hit from Marvel's extensive comic catalog and made a gigantic, world-conquering movie out of it.

You all know where this is going.

Big Hero 6 is a fantastic film, both as a kids' movie, an animated movie, and a straight up action-adventure movie, a glorious, technicolor opus to manga, superheros, and giant robot anime, and more proof, if ever some was needed, that Disney has not lost its touch. I was annoyed when I realized that due to Frozen's release date of last Christmas, I was not going to be allowed to praise Disney Animation in my end-of-the-year lists, but I don't think that will be a problem anymore. And the reason it works, ironically, is that ultimately it is not a Disney Film at all, but a Marvel film that's been animated. And we all know how terrible Marvel's films have been recently...

The story is fairly simple, as one might expect from a kids' film. Hiro (a real Japanese name kept in constant use by homophonic-minded English authors for thirty years now) is a 14-year-old robotics and science prodigy from a family of the same, whose brother is killed in an act of industrial sabotage by parties unknown, and whose most brilliant invention, a swarm of micro-robots capable of reconfiguring themselves on the fly to any required form, is stolen by a masked man bent on killing him. With a group of fellow-scientists from the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology (we'll get to that), he forms a science-powered superhero team along with a reprogrammed and upgraded medical robot, constructed by his late brother before his passing. The key point here, as in any superhero film, is not really the story, but the characters, each of whom are drawn, literally and figuratively, extremely well, from the eclectic collection of super-scientists at the institute, each of whom are established as world-class scientists and strong personalities without ever lapsing into Nerd-Minstralism, to Hiro himself, a genius kid who strikes the perfectly appropriate line between fake-jaded and utter wonderment, both at his own genius and that of others, to the robot, an inflatable latex Kung-Fu-Panda-scale plushie named Baymax (80s in-joke ahoy!) who plays up the always-fun "robot straight-man" routine to the point of sounding like the result of a hotboxing experiment involving Robbie the Robot. No great attention is paid to the establishment of these characters, they're simply allowed to be in word and gesture and design, such that even when things take radical turns, such as a distraught Hiro ordering Beymax to kill, or the robot going Terminator-mode and doing so, everything still seems like a reasonable extrapolation of what a given character might do in a given situation. All of this is helped by the fact that Big Hero 6, with one exception, does not use celebrity voice talent, but instead professional voice actors, experts in their field (including of all people, the son of a Wayans brother), who instill their characters with a spark of life that stunt casting rarely can offer.

But all this would be for naught if the design of the film wasn't up to par. With Disney studios on the job though, and Marvel providing consultation, there's no need to worry. Big Hero 6 is gorgeous, easily the equal of Dreamworks' towering How to Train Your Dragon series, a futurist's dream brought to life in a riot of design aesthetics and scene blocking. Set in the alternate metropolis of San Fransokyo (which another reviewer described as being San Francisco if it had been conquered by Nintendo instead of Google), the movie makes the absolute most of its setting. I'm accustomed, as must be anyone who lives in a cinematic city, to seeing my city portrayed rather haphazardly on film, with geographies and local touches being twisted about to suit the filmmakers' needs. Yet of the four films I have seen for this project that featured San Francisco in any form (the others being Godzilla, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek Into Darkness), it is this, the animated movie, that is the first to bring fidelity to the screen in portraying my fair city (as well as being the first one who did not use the city solely as a backdrop for destruction). Disney purchased the actual assessor's data for SF, producing a digital map of the city as it is which despite all the alterations made in the name of style, is instantaneously recognizable for what it is to a native. And lest I go on at too much length about my home town, let's speak of that style, an oriental-western hybrid that recasts the entire city into a sort of Neo-Tokyo/Metropolis hybrid, complete with a re-imagining of the many landmarks of the city in a new format, be it the Pagoda-style of the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramids, or the fusion of the famous Painted Ladies of the Western Addition with Japanese Tea Houses. I'm sure that someone, somewhere on the internet will take this style as some kind of Yellow Peril propaganda, or as an excuse to complain about "cultural appropriation" or other things that appear important to stupid people, but to view the entire thing in context is astonishing, producing a wondrous film that works sub-visually as well as on the surface level to generate an immensely strong sense of place.

Oh but this is a comic book movie, right? So how is the action? Well Disney may claim that they made this movie without reference to Marvel's studios, but whether or not that's true, the action is awesome. With each character and their capabilities established perfectly, and high-conceptual science gadgetry on display everywhere, the film is tailored towards the production of explosive, visually-stunning action scenes, delivered at great speed and with great frequency. Several sequences, particularly towards the end of the film, are positively trippy in their design, not something Disney has ever historically shied away from, but all of them are well-designed, well-blocked affairs, exciting and frenetic without ever becoming confusing or hard to watch. This is not as easy to do as Disney makes it look.

Things Havoc disliked:  Kids movies have certain aspects that one cannot avoid, at least not all the time, and several of these are on display here. Made for a less sophisticated viewing audience, the movie delivers several sections of biographical exposition in fairly clunky ways, having characters turn to one another and explain each other's life stories out loud in a way that strictly nobody has ever done in real life before. I recognize that there's a need to get on with things when one is working with kids and their attention spans, but my preferred solution is always to drop the exposition entirely, and trust that people, even little kids, will get the idea from context. It's not strictly necessary that we know from the get-go how old Hiro is exactly or what his pass-times include, not when the movie characterizes him perfectly in terms of age on its own, and shows those pass-times on screen.

There's also the issue of tension, something kids movies tend to shy away from in all but a handful of rare exceptions. It's not that they don't build stakes, its that they don't give those stakes any time whatsoever to hang, resolving nadir points within seconds of them being established. This happened in Frozen and in both How to Train Your Dragon movies, and it happens here, with the movie painstakingly placing the hero in a low point only to have them claw their way out of it almost instantaneously. I know why the filmmakers do this, kids don't have the patience or the mentality to want to sit around watching their heroes be miserable for hours, and I'm not precisely angry that the movie doesn't dwell on dark and depressing subjects for an interminable period. But when you resolve things this quickly and this perfunctorily, it tends to shortchange the actual narrative weight of what's going on, making even the most awful mistakes seem like minor setbacks, easily set to rights. It's probably better, as these films do, to err on the side of too little moping, but it's still an error whenever it comes up.

Final thoughts:   I only went to see this movie under protest, being none too impressed with the trailers I had seen, but figuring that after Frozen, Disney had earned a free pass from me. If nothing else, this should teach me a lesson about underestimating the Mouse. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful film, easily the equal of last Christmas' Frozen, and once again forces me to acknowledge that next time they release a film, I will more or less have to be there. Of course, by then, I should have finally purged what lingering objections I have to going to see children's movies in general for this project. After a year such as this one, it would be criminally stupid of me not to.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Week:   How Hungry are we for the Games when they split the attraction in two?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Alternate Title:  Journey Through the Plot Hole

One sentence synopsis:    An astronaut-turned-pilot must lead a small team of NASA scientists on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity.

Things Havoc liked:  There are ineffable qualities to a great film, something which has always eluded mechanically-minded directors like Michael Bay. You cannot simply list a series of traits and establish greatness, it is something that has to be earned anew with every single film, and this fact, more than anything else, is why I have always held studios and filmmakers who can consistently produce greatness in such high regard. Marvel, Disney, Scorsese, Aranofsky, Affleck, anyone who can put not one but a string of spectacular films together is worth regarding with respect. And so we come to Christopher Nolan, the reigning King of High Concept, whose staggering ambitions and unfailing cinematographic eye have resulted in not one but an entire series of towering films, ramshackle perhaps when analyzed closely, but flat-out staggering when considered in totality. Momento, The Prestige, Inception, the entire Dark Knight trilogy, even the third one, which teetered on the brink of total collapse, but held together just long enough in my mind to transform into a masterpiece, all these films have showcased Christopher Nolan's yawning ambition to bring staggering metaphysical concepts to the screen with as much lush verisimilitude as possible, and the skill by which he has thus far been able to do so. And so we come to Interstellar, perhaps his boldest effort yet, a Kubrickian-showcase of classic semi-hard-science fiction exploration and adventure in alien worlds and even more alien realities. I was sold on this notion from the very first trailer.

So let's begin with what he has given us. Interstellar is a gorgeous film, a rich, vibrant showcase of imagery and land/spacescapes breathtaking to behold on largely any level (IMAX, Digital Enhanced, Normal) that you care to witness it. It's not that the "effects" are good, though there is that, and more that the simple artistry of presenting things on screen is operating at an exquisitely high level. Even when the film is presenting concepts that stretch our capacity to imagine, such as wormholes, frozen clouds, or extra-dimensional tesseracts, the movie comes up with a way to present what is happening stunningly and intuitively, and shots of the greater stellar phenomenae to be found throughout the film, particularly the accretion disk of a supermassive black hole, are simply inspired. Design, of spaceships and shuttles and equipment and robots (particularly robots) is just as inspired, reflecting a near-future setup that never goes beyond the realm of plausibility. The robots, indeed, are one of the most unique things the film has to offer, a strange arrangement of four tall pylons connected at the center by a rotating hinge, enabling them to walk and even roll (sort of), while unfolding to reveal manipulator arms and datascreens. Given deadpan snarker-voices and the best lines in the script, the robots liven the film every time they're on screen.

There is more to design than pretty visuals however, and Nolan, if nothing else, has those elements nailed down. The film's score, by veteran composer Hans Zimmer (of a thousand other things) is a typical Hans Zimmer score, beautiful and melodic, electronic and orchestral all at once. Rather than go with the traditional marching-band-style space score, Zimmer prefers a sort of electro-choral feel for the entire thing, punctuating sequences where the dialog is pulled out in favor of the soundtrack and the visual design. The cinematography is spot on as well, using smoke and flame and shrouded mist to set up dramatic backdrops for whatever happens to be ongoing, while the outer space shots are worthy of any collage of NASA's or episode of Cosmos. Whatever this film's flaws may be, it looks and sounds fantastic, elements which may, by themselves, serve to justify a look at this film in all the lusciousness of a digital (or even 70mm) cinema.

Things Havoc disliked:  But I doubt it.

I've loved Christopher Nolan's work for a decade if not longer, but he has always had a side to him that threatened to undo everything. His films are often, if not always, so high in concept, so creaky and laborious in construction, so riddled with elementary problems of plot and common sense, that it requires all of his skill to distract the audience from everything that doesn't make sense. Until Interstellar, he was always able to pull the song and dance off, at least for me, with a combination of judicious exposition, stirring concept and vision, and and masterful cultivation of tension, excitement, and energy. Inception, possibly Nolan's greatest work, was basically nothing but exposition, but the exposition was so tightly crafted, and the world so cleverly realized that nobody noticed. The Dark Knight Rises pushed his skills to the limit of what was possible, laden as it was with so much super-tech and plot contrivance that many people rejected it utterly as a complete disaster, though I felt that the immense weight of the two previous films, as well as the elemental, mythic themes of the movie earned it honors. But even if you were prepared, as I was, to follow Nolan that far, the problem with this approach is that it is entirely reliant on your movie being grand and heavy enough to paper over these forced exposition sequences and narrative holes, and Interstellar, frankly, is neither grand enough, nor heavy enough to even come close.

The concept is fine. Mankind has used up the Earth and must venture into space. But that story is too simple for Christopher Nolan, spinner of cinematic webs, and in consequence it is beladen with all sorts of incoherent crap that serves only to muddle the plot and confuse the audience. We are presented with a world wherein most crops have gone extinct, where the human race is dying off, where governments have lost so much of their resource base that even the various national armies, generally the last things to go in an Apocalypse, have been abolished. One might expect, given the above, a scenario like Mad Max or The Road, but instead, inexplicably, we are given a world where people have new cars, and the fuel to run them, where the Federal Government, bereft of its armed forces, still has the means to print standardized science textbooks and disseminate them, where interstate travel remains reasonably common as do automated combine harvesters and advanced wireless communications. Worse yet, halfway through the film, we actually change apocalypses, as the artfully-crafted starvation narrative is, without warning, junked in favor of a completely NEW apocalypse, also junked in turn when the time comes to muddy the issue. We are told that society has turned against science, for what reason we never know, to the point where the Moon Landings are being taught to children as propagandistic fakes used to scare the Russians, and yet NASA, outlawed and off the books, still manages to build underground space stations (don't ask), employ thousands of highly-qualified engineers and scientists, and even casually employ technology that has specifically been called out earlier on in the movie as not existing anymore. Granted, it's not like Nolan's previous films were lacking in these kind of contradictions. Dark Knight Rises involved someone fixing a broken back by punching it into shape. But the previous movies managed to hide their holes by giving us something else to think about. In Interstellar, it's the entire movie.

Or at least it's the entire movie until it becomes time for exposition theater, and this is where the mediocrity of Interstellar begins to really confuse me. Nolan once made an entire movie out of exposition (Inception), but here he seems to have forgotten how, as he has scientists laboriously explain to one another concepts that no scientist in the world, let alone one selected for a humanity-saving NASA mission, would be unfamiliar with. How often do you think an astronaut who has just spent two years embarking on a journey to a wormhole would need to have another astronaut explain to them, at length and with diagrams, what a wormhole is? Worse yet, the reason all this exposition exists is apparently so the filmmakers can impress us with how legitimate the science of the film is, something they have taken immense pains to showcase. Fair enough, but it's not. Not at all. Not even to the point where liberal-artist me was fooled for more than five seconds. And I must report that the actual scientists that I saw the film with had extremely negative reactions, ones whose negativity increased proportionally with how close their personal field of science was to astrophysics, to the point where the physicist in residence declared to me with perfect candor that this was the worst movie he had ever seen.

Look, I don't mind bad science in movies, not at all. Sunshine had bad science, as did 2001, a movie Interstellar desperately wants to be, to say nothing of a lot of Nolan's previous work. But those movies used bad science in the service of actually making a movie, creating a premise, based on bad science though it was, that was interesting enough to hang a story on and explore something amazing. It's not that Interstellar doesn't have the same intention, it's that even with bad science, there must be consistency for the audience to have any prayer of understanding what the stakes are and what is and is not possible given the rules they've been taught. This film is all over the map. Some sections are interesting, particularly a visit to a water-planet circled by immense tidal-waves, locked in orbit around a supermassive black hole whose gravity is such that it distorts time itself. But the majority of the film consists of half-understood scientific concepts regurgitated at length before being casually shattered in the next breath. Relativity is important until it's suddenly not. The black hole's distorted gravity slows time until it suddenly doesn't. A world-ending blight works one way, then suddenly another, and on and on until all the painstakingly-prepared science lectures turn into nothing but standard movie technobabble with slightly more realistic phrases sprinkled in. By the time we're trying to mathematically quantify human love, and apply it to physics (yeah), the entire exercise is revealed as a colossal failure. The bad science movies I cited above worked because the movies were not about the science. Interstellar is only about the science, until at last, long after it's far too late, it tries to reveal that it was actually all about sentimentality, something Nolan does not know what to do with, and never has.

You'll notice that up until this point I haven't even mentioned the cast, usually the thing I lead with, and the reason for that is that with a movie this disjointed and artifice-laden, the cast is almost irrelevant. Matthew McConaughey, who has been on a hot streak of almost unequalled proportions in the last five-odd years, does his best with what he's given, but the role is almost indescribably generic, an astronaut-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut again with no real motivation beyond wishing to save his children's lives. Anne Hathaway, as the leading scientist on the mission, is conscientious and dedicated, as are Michael Caine and John Lithgow and David Gyasi (of the infinitely superior Cloud Atlas) and everyone else in the film. Nobody gives a particularly bad performance (though I still don't much care for Jessica Chastain, who also gets most of the worst lines), but their performances are effectively moot in a film like this, even when they're allowed to emote. Michael Caine does himself no favors by repeating Dylan Thomas' famous poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' about seven times, but frankly that's irrelevant too. It's as though they weren't brought into the project to act, but rather to narrate it to the audience, or simply to provide the vehicle by which the audience can bear witness to its magnificence. In that regard, the mere fact that these fine actors are able to serve this task adequately may speak volumes to their professionalism and skill. Lesser actors would have been utterly destroyed.

Final thoughts:   Back when I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises, I said that it was a movie to which I could have given an 8 or a 4, but not a 6. I ultimately gave it the former grade, as I felt that ramshackle though it was, the edifice held together long enough to produce something unique and triumphant and truly special, not that everyone agreed with me. Interstellar is a similar enough film with a similar enough set of attributes to warrant the same disclaimer, and yet this time the result is not even slightly in question in my mind. The movie is simply a failure, a grand failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless, an idea stretched past the limits of its tensile strength, toppling into ruin around its embattered architect. There is something to be said for failing upwards, and it does remain the case that I would unquestionably wish to watch movies from someone who produces only 8s and 4s rather than from someone who produces uniform 5.5s on my scale, but none of that makes Interstellar any more of a success than it is.

I had extremely high hopes for Interstellar, and why wouldn't I? It had trailers that looked spectacular and a pedigree that could not be ignored, not after so many high-wire acts of Nolan's had proven masterpieces. But perhaps the silver lining here must be that this movie proves just how good films like Inception and Dark Knight really were. It is far harder than it looks to make a movie hold together under the weight of so much explanation and so much plot contrivance. So hard, indeed, that this time, even Nolan himself could not.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Week:   Disney cashes in its pass from Frozen.

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