Thursday, January 30, 2014

August: Osage County

Alternate Title:  Queen Lear

One sentence synopsis:    A bitter, estranged family is forced to come together when the patriarch commits suicide.

Things Havoc liked:  I've said before that Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world, and I stand by that statement. I have seen bad films with Streep in them (Out of Africa, The River Wild), but never a bad performance of hers, not once in three and a half decades of acting in more films than I could possibly see. She is one of a very small group of actors (perhaps even the only one) whose mere presence in a film guaranteed that I will see it, irrespective of the movie's subject matter, genre, or general quality. August: Osage County is another opportunity for Streep to show off her acting talents, playing as she does a character alternately over-medicated, bitter, angry, spiteful, and completely despondent. Piece of cake.

Streep plays Violet Weston, the mother of three forty-something daughters from whom she is more or less estranged, wife of Beverley Weston (played by the immortal Sam Shepard), a drug addict and cancer patient, bitter at the fact that two of her daughters left Oklahoma, largely, we assume to get away from her. In a film packed with talent, Meryl Streep once again blows everyone else off the screen. Her character is at times so drugged as to be borderline incoherent, sometimes so vicious and spiteful as to invite a beating, sometimes so perceptive that she can discern things assumed by everyone present to have been kept from her, all the time maintaining the same defiant attitude towards all who cross her door. Narcissistic and fiercely proud, her performance resembles that of King Lear in more than just the setup, and it's not hard to imagine her shaking her fist at the heavens in vain defiance. So pitilessly brutal is she in her dissection of the weaknesses of every member of her family, that one wonders how it is that anyone puts up with her at all, at least until we reflect on the fact that the story does begin with her husband's suicide, and the movie's poster portrays one of her daughters trying to beat her to death.

The daughter in question is played by Julia Roberts, a woman my father once described as "the homeliest pretty woman in Hollywood". Roberts is a middling actor at best, I've always found, but now in her late forties, she is finally beginning to take on roles that do not require her to be pretty and smile at the camera, and to be honest, this is the best thing I've ever seen her do. She plays Barbara, eldest of the three daughters, who shows up when her father goes missing with soon-to-be-ex-husband (Ewan MacGreggor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin). Her own marital life in ruins, Barbara is now forced to deal with her mother's resentment of the fact that she left home (for reasons that should be obvious), perverse delight in the collapse of her marriage, and general pain-in-the-assness, qualities she, by and large, also shares. Indeed, this is the most unlikeable I've ever seen Julia Roberts go, and as things fall apart, she unsheathes claws as sharp as her mother's, revealing herself as just as bitter and resentful as anyone else. Apples and trees.

The cast in this film is so good that we could be here all day, so I'll try to be brief. The infinitely reliable Chris Cooper plays Charles, Violet's Brother-in-Law, with wisdom and patience sorely lacking in the rest of the film. His comment, midway through one of Streep's vicious "truth-telling" episodes (excuses to barrage her relatives with insults about their lives), that Violet is "in rare form today" betrays so much weary resignation that you can feel the weight of hundreds of similar episodes in the way he phrases every word. His wife Mattie Fae, Violet's sister, played by Margo Martindale (a wonderful character actress from Million Dollar Baby among other films) is a slightly-less merciless version of Violet herself, tempered only by her own share of secrets. A sequence late in the film when she is forced to reveal indiscretions and regrets from ages ago strikes a deep chord, as she explains that she knows that everyone else sees her as "the fat aunt", when in reality she was once much more. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson play the younger sisters of Barbara, the former an airheaded bimbo from Florida who shows up with "this year's man" (a wonderfully sleazy turn by Jobs' Dermot Mulroney), the latter the long-suffering middle daughter, who remained behind in Oklahoma when everyone else left, and who now wishes to run away with her first cousin. Both women are excellent, revealing without a word the various coping strategies they have employed to simply survive the toxic environment they alternately fled from or stayed within. All through the film, this excellent cast spars, snaps, confesses, and cries to one another, as the terrible truths that underlie their lives are all dragged into the forefront, breaking some, embittering others, and leaving still others broken ruins screaming at the storm.

Things Havoc disliked:  The one glaring exception to the excellence of the cast is, sadly, Benedict Cumberbatch, playing the aforementioned first cousin that Julianne Nicholson intends to run away with. I love Cumberbatch, especially with all the work he did last year, but his character this time around is all wrong, a simpering wimp and perennial loser emasculated by his harping mother and psychotic aunt. With a different performance, this might have worked, as the environment is certainly hostile enough to crush someone's spirit, but Cumberbatch plays the character not beaten-down, but simply dopey, and that doesn't work at all. Rather than bearing witness to the travails that he is put through, or given insight into how he became so spineless, we get as frustrated with him as his mother does, undercutting rather than underscoring the overall dysfunction of the film.

But that ultimately leads to a larger problem. The film is about dysfunction, and nothing else. The characters are broken-souled figures of tragedy and pain, slicing one another to the bone as a way of deflecting their own disappointments. Their arguments and fights, justified as many of them are at given moments, are simply preludes to more arguments and fights wherein someone entirely different will act unreasonably or unforgivably cruel towards their fellows. Such revelations as inevitably come about over the course of the movie are merely excuses for more punishment, as characters curse one another, fight, or speed off into the sunset, never to return. We understand why, certainly, but the sheer bulk of the spite in this movie gets burdensome, to the point where despite all the wonderful acting by wonderful actors, all you want the movie to do is just end. I'm not insisting that every film must have a happy ending, nor unaware of the dramatic possibilities of pain and bitterness, but there must be something else to support the audience's attention, else they, like the characters in the movie, will begin to have the inescapable urge to jump into their cars and drive as far away as possible. Indeed, the movie is so relentless that when it was finally over, someone proposed that we should now watch something uplifting to balance out the negativity of this film. Their suggestion was a Holocaust documentary.

Final thoughts:   It's somewhat churlish to complain that great actors are performing fantastic acting in a dramatic plot, but frankly, that's just what I come down to. August: Osage County is not a bad film, but it is an exceedingly unpleasant one, filled with characters we dislike doing bad things to one another for the purposes of inflicting pain. Everything is executed well, but the end to which it is all put is one that I can't help but question, and given that I'm presenting these reviews as I see the film, I cannot wax eloquently about this movie's overall quality the way its acting might seem to deserve. 12 Years a Slave, a film that was also filled with evil, and in many ways harder to watch, was a mesmerizing movie, filled with lively, complex characters, interacting with one another in a way that felt extremely real, despite all the horrors to which they subjected one another. August, by contrast, is a film that begins and ends where it is seemingly fated to end, and which leaves us with nothing but suffering and spite, unleavened by illuminations into the human condition.

The movie does its job well, but one can question if it's a job that needed doing at all.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Ice Queen Singith

One sentence synopsis:   The younger sister of a frost-cursed queen must rescue her sibling from solitude and her kingdom from endless winter.

Things Havoc liked:  My process for selecting films is not particularly elaborate. I watch the trailers and decide what is and is not likely worth seeing based solely on the materials I am given by the studios. I tend to avoid reviews of films ahead of time, lest I be misled or wind up simply repeating what someone else thought. It also means that, good or bad, every film I see is one that I independently decided there was likely to be some value in. Good films are a product of my discerning intellect, while bad ones are, at least in part, my own fault. On the whole, I'm very happy with this system, as I have no interest in extending this project of mine to films like After Earth or Lone Ranger, or some other catastrophe preordained from the first teaser. But try as I might, I'm not immune to the opinions of other people, and when a film I've dismissed as irrelevant starts garnering something approaching universal acclaim, I will, on occasion, revise my schedule to see what everyone's talking about.

Thank god.

Based (very) loosely on the Hans Christian Anderson story, Frozen is a revelation, a fountain of good ideas from an animation studio that has been notably thin on them for the last twenty years. The story is that of two princesses, Elsa, and Anna, the former empowered (from birth, we're told) with the magical ability to create frost and ice, an ability she is barely able to control at the best of times. Following a near-fatal accident involving these special capabilities, Elsa and her parents are convinced of the need to bottle her magic up, avoiding contact with the outside world prior to the death of her parents and her coronation. But when in the course of the celebration of the new queen's ascension, her powers spiral disastrously out of control, she flees for the solitude of the mountains, and her younger sister must find her and a way to reverse the damage her powers have done, aided only by such people and fantastical creatures she meets along the way.

The above might sound like a fairly generic Disney premise, but it is nothing but. For one thing, both sisters are drawn far more fully than any Disney heroine I can remember, including Belle. Anna (Assassin's Creed's Kristen Bell), our real main character, is young and foolish and possesses that quality of bravery often seen in those too inexperienced to know that they're supposed to be terrified out of their minds. Bottled up in a castle thanks to her sister's curse for nearly her entire life, she is visibly exploding to get out of the life she knows by whatever means necessary, and if curses, ice monsters, political intrigue, rabid wolves, and hypothermia stand in the way, then so be it. Far from the old "Princess who wants 'MORE'" gimmick, this is a Princess who wants very precise things, her sister, a cure to the ice storm burying the kingdom, and freedom, in that precise order. And though it's probably inevitable that the film begins to build a romance between her and mountain man Kristoff (Glee's Johnathan Groff), this development is presented in probably the most believable fashion of any one of the Disney romances I've ever seen. The film even goes so far as to have Anna fall head over heels in love with a dashing Prince in a single day (she's young and foolish, it happens), only to have literally everyone in the movie (including the scriptwriter) remark and even demonstrate that deciding to get married after knowing someone for a single day is stupid.

But there's also Elsa (Rent's Idina Menzel), the Queen, who presents something of the opposite quality, trained from a young age to hold herself in check, and whose barriers of iron and ice finally give way before the catastrophes her powers begin to unleash. Having been forced to flee into the mountains, she finds herself for the first time ever able to finally give reign to her capabilities, constructing soaring cathedrals of ice, and animating snowmen and ice golems with a wave of her hand. The sheer sense of liberation she experiences is vividly portrayed through music and showcase, and yet when everything goes wrong, she is portrayed not as a typical Disney villain (not that I mind those), but as a fellow victim of circumstance and situation, reacting in mounting horror and desperation as the situation spirals wildly out of control. The movie gives her no easy way out, no dashing hero to swoop in and solve her problems for her. And when the solution does finally present itself (this is a Disney film, don't look at me like that), it's not the usual Beauty and the Beast answer of marital bliss as the solution to all conceivable problems. Indeed, Elsa has no love interest whatsoever in the entire film, a staggering departure from Disney's general policy vis-a-vis their heroines. There's even a wonderful inversion of the Disney classic "love conquers all" theme, one which sets the concept at a right angle from how the concept generally works, all without cynical denigration. Well done.

That's not the only departure in this film, indeed it's almost easier to describe what isn't improved. The writing is sharp and modern without being contrived or overwrought, interspersing comedy and drama beautifully, without any of the seams that some of Disney's lesser films evidence. Even the obligatory comedic side-character, in this case an animated snowman named Olaf (Jobs' Josh Gad), is not the idiocy the ads seemed to indicate, providing a lighthearted diversion without ever becoming annoying. As to the music (a key element of a Disney musical, after all), the majority of the songs work very well in the context of the film's flow. You have to get used to the whole Disney-musical vibe, something that I at least was out of practice with, but once settled in, several of the songs are easily worthy of inclusion in the Disney canon. The twinned "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" and "For the First Time in Forever" are particularly good, to say nothing of the showstopper "Let it Go", already a sensation with the internet and the Academy. The songs are concentrated in the beginning of the film (as is customary for Disney), leaving the latter half of the film for plot and characterization, and the pacing is just right, maintaining every sequence just long enough and no longer. Disney, the originators of the feature animated film, plainly still know what they're doing when it comes to the mechanics of animated films. Finally the animation itself is as good as any I've seen, Disney, Pixar, or otherwise. The snow effects in particular, specially-made for the purpose of the film, look as realistic as a rotoscope, falling, clumping, sliding, and floating just the way it should.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not every song works, as is usually the case in a musical. A love song by the name of "Love is an Open Door" is fairly boring, and I could have done without "Fixer Upper", a semi-serious song that appears out of nowhere midway through the film to largely no purpose (except possibly misdirection, the jury's out). Yet musically, the worst sin of all is actually the absence of a Disney tradition, the Villain Song. From Little Mermaid to Hunchback of Notre Dame, some of the greatest songs Disney's movies ever produced (at least in the Renaissance period) were songs where the film's villain got to extoll the wonders of his own decrepitude, and while this movie has a villain (ultimately), it never gives them the chance to express themselves in song. I entered Frozen hoping to find something to place in the great pantheon of songs like Be Prepared, Hellfire or Poor Unfortunate Souls, only to find no such thing available.

Prosaically, though, there is a concern with the ending, one which I will try to refer to obliquely. I understand this is a Disney film, based on a fairy tale, and that happy endings are mandatory, and I do not object to such things generally speaking, but one of the larger issues raised by the film, a driving force behind most of the plot and almost all of the characters actions, is more or less hand-waved away at the end of the film, as though, having arrived at the end of the movie, it was decided that everything should be made all right all of a sudden. Without getting into too many details, I seriously doubt that a character previously established as being unable to perform a task would be suddenly able to perform that task with perfect reliability simply because another character mentioned a few words of encouragement, nor that, given the previous establishment, and the importance thereof, the rest of the film's cast would spontaneously accept that this person is now an expert in the subject. I recognize that the previous statement means very little to anyone who has ever seen a film, but consider an analogy. Would you, aware that a certain person has crashed their car eight or nine times, destroying vast amounts of property and threatening the lives of all and sundry, trust that person to become your personal chauffeur simply because someone came along to give that person a pep talk? There is a difference between Fairy Tale logic and total illogic, something Disney is usually very good at maintaining, but not this time.

Final thoughts:   Frozen is a masterpiece, a tremendous achievement from a studio I had long-since written off as incapable of producing its like, and well worthy of the acclaim (and box office receipts) that it has been garnering since December. Not merely one of the best films Disney has made in a long time, Frozen is far and away the best animated film I have seen from any studio since Pixar's Up, a film which sadly seems to have been the last masterwork that Pixar had in store for us. With Pixar falling into the trap of sequels and merchandizing tie-ins, Disney has recently been on something of a upward turn with films like Tangled or Wreck-it-Ralph, but Frozen eclipses all of these aforementioned works the way the Disney Renaissance did Song of the South. Blending the timeless core of Disney's best films with a modern re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, Frozen, if we are very lucky, may well represent the beginning of a second renaissance for the grandfather of all animation studios, something that, in the wake of Pixar's eclipse, the world of cinema sorely needs.

Welcome back, Disney. We missed you.

Final Score:  8/10

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Alternate Title:  Boy Meets iPhone

One sentence synopsis:   An introverted divorcé finds love and acceptance with his artificially-intelligent Operating System.

Things Havoc liked:  Joaquin Phoenix is a strange man. I suppose that's not exactly a revelation to most of you, but in Phoenix' case, his strangeness often manifests in the types of movies he chooses to make. Films like The Master or Quills, about cults, madness, and the charisma of borderline madmen, to say nothing of whatever I'm Still Here was supposed to be, do not speak to someone over-concerned with their reputation as a bankable star. But while Phoenix' performances have been... uneven to say the least (his turn in Gladiator was among the few things I didn't like in that film), he's usually at his best when playing half-crazed, emotionally weak characters. Enter Her.

In the near-future, Theodore Twombly (how that's pronounced, I have no idea) is a loser. An author at a company that produces fake handwritten notes for people apparently too busy or otherwise incapable of doing so himself, he subsists on video games and anonymous phone sex with strangers, having lost his wife (not to cancer amazingly enough) to divorce some time previously. Mired in loneliness and depression, he one day sees an ad for a new "intelligent" operating system for his phone and computer, and before long he is not only talking to his phone and computer like it were a close friend, but actually falling in love with it.

And we can see why. Played by the completely-unseen Scarlett Johansson, "Samantha" is a perfect AI, not merely casually intelligent, but possessed of a personality and interests right from the get-go. She is warm and understanding and appears, at least, to be interested in Theodore's life and work, though to what extent this is a facet of the fact that he bought her or genuine is left unexplored. In short, she is the perfect companion for a damaged shut-in like Theodore, particularly one whose dating experiences are such disasters (an early attempt at a date with Tron Legacy's Olivia Wilde is a hoot). What I like about this is that Theodore, despite being an evident loser, is not portrayed as some kind of lecherous monster, nor a "damaged" person with one single flaw which Samantha exists to fix. Through her he grows, yes, and begins to appreciate life and the world more, but he remains more or less who he was before, simply happier and more content with his life. His work improves, his disposition is sunnier, he reconnects with friends and otherwise seems to become a better person. As such, the film chooses to sidestep the question of whether a relationship with what amounts to an iPod can be "real", and skips straight to the question of whether or not the "realness" of said relationship is even important at all.

Indeed, one of the better ideas this film has is the fact that it's not just Theodore who's confronting this question. His neighbor and friend Amy (Amy Adams) has an AI as well, one she has not fallen in love with, but formed a fast friendship with, and when Theodore finally confides in her that his new girlfriend is an operating system, she seems more bemused than judgmental. The same cannot be said of Theodore's bitter ex-wife Catherine (Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara), who uses the fact as ammunition to stab at Theodore out of bitter resentment. Both of these performances, particularly Adams' (who, after this film and American Hustle, may have finally made her way out of my dislike column), are less about the "amazing" fact that someone has fallen in love with a computer than the characters themselves, and what their questions mean to Theodore.

Indeed, in one real sense, this film has nothing whatsoever to do with AIs or computers at all, but is a simple relationship story, from start to... well that would be saying, but following the progress of two people as they fall in love, fight, break up, get back together again, and live their lives, virtual and otherwise. True, the simple fact of one of the participants being an artificial intelligence does come up now and again, in particular during a very strange and ill-advised "surrogate" session that involves a stand-in woman playing the part of Samantha (and ends the way such a situation would almost certainly end). But this is really just one aspect of these people's lives, and not necessarily the most important one. And while the fact of Samantha's virtual existence remains foremost in our minds as we watch Joaquin Phoenix frolicking with an iPhone, the question of her "realness" is simply not one the film chooses to ask.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, that is not the only question the film eschews.

I try always to bear in mind the fact that it is unfair to judge a movie harshly for not being another, different movie, but the fact remains that it's a bit disingenuous to make a movie about a man falling in love with an AI without at least considering certain questions. For one thing, by making Samantha an absolutely perfect replica of a person from the get-go (she boots for the first time with her personality fully-formed and on-display), the movie simply drops all questions concerning AIs and the ability of a computer to feel true feelings, mandating instead that "yes, they can", and leaving it there. I respect the need to get on with the story we're trying to tell, but every so often the film doubles back to hint at some of the questions that it insists on leaving unexplored, as though teasing us with the occasional view of a world just beyond the reach of the camera lens. At one point, Samantha mentions that she talks to thousands of people at the same time as Theodore, and is in fact in love with hundreds of them, yet the film does not actually try to explore this concept beyond the fact that it makes Theodore (understandably) uncomfortable. Theodore's comment that he doesn't know why Samantha pauses before making certain statements, given that she doesn't have to breathe, is the occasion for a bitter fight, but left by the wayside is the question of just why, or more precisely, how did she learn to do this? As the movie progresses, and AIs seem to be evolving in new and radical ways on a worldwide basis, producing clusters that represent the consciousness of dead people and ascending beyond the need for matter (?), the focus remains resolutely away from all of these developments, and instead firmly on Theodore, leaving us to wonder if there is not some other, more interesting film being made just off camera. I can understand if some of these questions are beyond the purview of the film that Spike Jonze is attempting to make here, but then why bring them up at all if you're not going to address them in even the most perfunctory of manners?

Final thoughts:   This may seem like a churlish or even unfair criticism, but it's one that continued to come back to me both during and after the film. Her seeks to jump past the obvious questions that arise with any story about a man and a computer falling in love, but in doing so, seems to forget that absent that particular fact, what we have here is the perfectly mundane story of a romance's progression. Not that there's anything wrong with a simple story told reasonably well, but when you continuously gesture at other elements of the story that you could talk about but have chosen not to, it becomes frustrating instead of heartfelt.

Spike Jonze, director of this film, is known for strange and obtuse stories, generally executed with flair and skill, from Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, to the incomparably weird, and yet surreality fascinating Being John Malkovich. This time, he seems to have sought to go with a more simple film, but despite his best efforts, it may be that there isn't a simple film in him, and in the attempt to try and force this one to be simple, I fear he may have simply rendered an otherwise well-told story into one that seems to tease its audience with the notion of a far more interesting tale, hidden just off screen.

Final Score:  6/10

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Alternate Title:  To Boldly Go

One sentence synopsis:   A middle-aged daydreamer must locate the cover photograph for the final issue of Life Magazine.

Things Havoc liked:  A new year is upon us, and I thought the best way to begin it would be with Ben Stiller.

Stop laughing, I'm serious. No, I'm not a fan of most of Stiller's "comedy" stylings, such as the Focker movies, but quietly, along the way Ben Stiller has amassed himself quite a reputation not as an actor, but as a director. His last two directorial films, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, were not only two of the better movies he's played in over the course of his career, but also two extremely well-made movies, cinematic and well-crafted. And with the particularly weird, arthouse-style trailers that this movie was graced with, going to see it was a foregone conclusion, albeit temporarily delayed by the need to see 47 Ronin. Don't judge me.

Based (very loosely) on James Thurber's 1939 short story, a staple of high school English classes the world over, Walter Mitty stars Stiller as the titular Mitty, in this version a photo-processing clerk at Life Magazine, a boring man who pines for a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) in silence, while having never experienced anything adventurous in his life, despite daydreaming with gusto all manner of extreme and ludicrous adventures, the sorts of power fantasies that most people grow out of after age 11 and the rest learn to never speak of. Stiller has never been my favorite actor, especially when he's trying to be funny, but this role is perfect for him, a straight-man to end all straight-men, not a goofy loser but a shy, nerdy introvert, who is perfectly capable of social interaction, but has, for one reason or another, chosen to avoid it for most of his life. Rather than mire Mitty in slapstick or awkward doofyness, the film merely makes him a wistful dreamer, a loser perhaps but not a pathetic one, which serves to make him a bit more real, no matter the absurdities he is subjected to. When he discovers that his would-be girlfriend may have gotten back together with her ex-husband, for instance, his reaction is not histrionics, but a quiet withdrawal, followed by an earnest effort to put the matter from his mind, irrespective of what his feelings might be. To say that I "know" people like this is a severe understatement, and Stiller is note perfect from beginning to end, keeping a character arc without sacrificing the essence of the character.

The rest of the cast is as good, generally speaking, from Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mother, who constantly knows more than she lets on, to Sean Penn, an actor I usually loathe, playing to his biggest strengths as Sean O'Connell, a world-traveling photojournalist whose missing picture inspires Walter's own quest. As with any good travelogue movie, the film also includes colorful and strange characters for Walter to meet once he finally breaks out of his shell, from salty sailors and tribal warlords, to a drunken lout of a Greenland helicopter pilot (Ólafur Ólafsson, in a wonderful little performance) to one of the most earnest dating-service clerks in history (Patton Oswalt), who serves as a sort of Greek Chorus to Mitty's transformation and evolution. I won't say that every one of these performances are particularly realistic (how many Afghan warlords can be really bought off with clementine cake?), but their role is not to show the world as it is, but as it may be found, if one is willing to find it so.

The film is art-house to its core, and yet when I say that, I don't mean a meaningless waste of over-symbolic time like a Malick film. What I mean is that the movie is constructed such that the fantastical element (Mitty's daydreams) are not split off into their own subsections and sequestered, but allowed to rest within the film in the confidence that the audience will catch up. Indeed so well are they integrated that midway through, I had the sinking feeling that the movie might pull the dreaded "it was all a daydream" card (it does not). The cinematography is gorgeous, as beautiful as a travelogue without resorting to obviously-faked postcard shots. Iceland appears to really be Iceland (take it from me), as does Greenland and Afghanistan and every other location that Mitty finds himself dragged to. From beginning to end, no matter the strangeness going on, the film "feels" real, something more important than actually being real, and gets across its message without the need for pointless shots of the sunlight filtering through trees, voiceover poetry, or hackneyed exposition. Terrence Malick wishes he could make a movie about the beauty and wonder of life like this.

Things Havoc disliked:  For some reason, this movie seems to require the services of a villain, in this case, a bearded Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) as a douchebag "transition" manager brought into Life Magazine to shift it from a print to an online-only publication (a transition that actually happened in 2009, and ended three years later in the magazine's total collapse). That such people exist in reality (and probably were involved in the end of Life) is not the point, but Scott is such a raging tool that it makes Mitty's generally realistic portrayal begin to fray at the seams. Nobody, let alone the shy retiring type (who tend to be the kind to bottle anger), would take the dressing downs and petty harassment that Scott's character inflicts on Mitty over the course of the film, so when he walks away without a word, it spoils some of the generally proper portrayal that we see. Perhaps I saw too much of myself in the character or something, but while Scott is only on screen for a limited period, and while Mitty's final confrontation with him is satisfying enough (to say nothing of the daydreams his harassments occasion), I simply felt the character was unnecessary.

There's also a question of the narrative tightness, in particular, the pat nature of how the story unfolds. Every object Mitty encounters in his travels just so happens to have relevance to him at some point along his journey, until we start to wonder if we're dealing with a Sierra adventure game. I don't mind a few narrative coincidences when the movie is obviously not about the plot, but some of these coincidences begin to border on Deus Ex Machina after a point, and a couple of them (such as the ultimate location of the missing negative) manage to make several characters who were not established as being stupid to act as if they were. Little things like this become grating when your film is supposed to be about an everyman on a journey, for the simple reason that most everymen do not have perfect foreknowledge of just what crazy object they will need to solve some highly specific problem in the future.

Final thoughts:   The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is presently in the process of garnering highly mediocre ratings from most reviewers I am familiar with, and I will be goddamned if I can figure out why, as I found it to be a highly effective film when I first left the theater, and it has improved in my mind as I had time to mull it over. The message is simple, but very well stated, the characters, especially the main one, engaging, and the overall charm of the film shines through whatever minor scripting faux-pas it may accidentally make. It is without question the best thing I have ever seen Ben Stiller do, and should, if nothing else can, cement his place in the Ben-Affleck/Ron Howard school of questionable-actors-turned-excellent-directors. Above everything else, this is a film that earnestly believes in embracing one's life and dreams, not from some hallmark understanding of "life", nor some Malick-inspired mediation on the transitory nature of reality (or whatever Malick's maniacal brain most recently dreamed up), nor even in the slightly morbid "before its too late" sense. This is a film about the ways in which life simply happens to us, be we the most sheltered of introverts. All it takes is to seize it. Go and do likewise.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Worst Films of 2013

As I've stated many times, I do not go out to see every movie ever made. I go out to see the movie that I feel will be the best thing available in a given week. Sometimes I guess wrong, and witness some sort of apocalyptic disaster, but the most obvious bombs, the ones that every trailer indicated were going to suck on ice, go unwatched. RIPD, The Lone Ranger, After Earth, these are films that may well have been worse than everything I saw this year, but I will never know. What I do know is that while last year, the worst films of the year were apocalyptic disasters, leaving me staggering from the theater in a daze, this year they were a much more conventional group. Blockbusters with stupid writing, B-movies that went too far (or not far enough), the sorts of movies I saw because there was nothing else out that week, or because I felt like taking a chance. This didn't make them any easier to sit through, but it did, at least, make me appreciate the glories of Oscar Season much more.

10: White House Down: I can’t be mad at this earnestly-meant action flick, replete as it is with some of the most absurd action sequences I’ve seen in years, but accepting a film for what it is does not magically transmute schlock into quality. White House Down was a manifestly stupid film, complete with paper-thin politics, imbecilic, motivation-free villains, terrible flag-waving uberpatriotism, and absurdly-stupid “movie” science. I’ve defended Rolland Emerich’s congenital lack of taste in the past, but even I have limits to what I can tolerate, and White House Down exceeds these tolerances with gusto.

9: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: I want to know who it was that thought Taladega Nights, The Legend of Ricky Bobby, was such a cinematic masterpiece that it deserved a point-by-point remake in the form of this lame, hyperformulaic “comedy”. Jim Carey’s David Blaine-inspired street magician performance is not enough to salvage this brain-dead Steve Carrel “asshole-learns-the-meaning-of-friendship” vehicle, a movie which doesn’t even have the originality to pull that simple story off properly. Burt Wonderstone is one of those movies that doesn’t even have the decency to be bad enough to get properly angry with, and now that I’ve summed it up in this recap, I confidently expect to never speak of, hear of, or even recollect its existence again.

8: The Wolverine: The best thing I can say about this movie is that it wasn't its predecessor, and boy is that a low bar. The Wolverine was a tired film, lacking the spark of originality that all of the good comic book movies have. It throws many characters at us, none of whom are developed with any skill, nor even given coherent motives. Lacking even a memorable villain, this movie opted instead to pull giant robots out of its ass for the obligatory paint-by-numbers final action scene, one which presents no threat to the hero and offers no chance for character growth. The best thing in this movie was the post-credits trailer, and the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced the entire rest of the film was put together as an afterthought around that thirty-second ad.

7: Pacific Rim: And speaking of giant robots, we have Pacific Rim, a brainless, soulless summer blockbuster cowering in the shadow of flawed-but-fun contemporaries like Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel. Idris Elba can do no wrong, and the opening to the film does rock, but when the movie can't make a battle between a skyscraper-sized robot and Godzilla even slightly interesting, what kind of praise can I be expected to give it? This was a film designed from the get-go as a vehicle for awesome action, and yet someone seems to have forgotten to deploy any, instead belaboring the film with terrible, annoying characters, a plot so stupid as to defy commentary, and a poverty of imagination that is simply criminal in an enterprise like this one. The only explanation I have is that Guillermo Del Toro got lost in the awesomeness of the concept he was putting together, and forgot the execution. Or perhaps cocaine.

6: The Grandmaster: I've seen bad kung fu movies, but not bad kung fu movies that were bad because they forgot to include the kung fu. I did not think it possible to make a film worse than the last entries in the Ip Man series, but boy were these filmmakers up to the task. I don't mind characters who are secure enough to refrain from ludicrous show-off poses every ten seconds, but this film goes waaaaaay too far in the other direction, presenting us with a version of Ip Man so self-satisfied that he barely seems to take an interest in the slow, agonizing death of his wife and children. Though it takes place amidst the most dramatic events in the history of China, events that the real Ip Man was deeply involved in, the film seems to think that we're more interested in seeing him and his would-be lover staring wistfully at the snows of winter, mediating for twenty minutes at a time on the transitory nature of life. Although in fairness, that's the same thing I started doing while watching it.

5: Oz the Great and Powerful: Maybe if I wish real hard, and click my heels together three times, I'll discover why people seem to think that James Franco is a good actor. I certainly didn't discover it by watching this film, about which the best that can be said is that the title is good. This film seems to have been made by people with a mindset entirely alien to my own, as Zach Braff and Tony Cox are not names I would instantly associate with "prequel to the most beloved children's classic of all time". But then they also contrived to make a film about Oz lacking all charm and innovation, preferring instead to tell a tired heroes tale about a character that isn't heroic, who must save the damsel in distress who is neither a damsel, nor (save by the most absurd contrivances imaginable) distressed. Though it's (obviously) not the worst film on the list, Oz was a sad, tired vision of just how far the studios have fallen from the original masterwork, and deserves to be summarily dowsed with water and melted into a puddle of celluloid.

4: Machete Kills: Having seen the original, I was ready for just about anything when I went to see Machete Kills, and yet it managed to surprise me nevertheless by being boring as hell. How Robert Rodriguez became convinced that the selling point of his previous film was its plot is beyond me, but for the sequel, he chose to double down on plot and skimp on everything else, such as action, gore, fun, and Danny Trejo. Indeed, Trejo is barely involved in this movie, staring blankly at the plot as it unravels around him, occasionally killing someone, and then doing it again. Having wasted every one of the excellent actors who signed up for a grindhouse-style bloodfest, the movie then has the audacity to end abruptly with the promise of another movie which will presumably actually include the interesting elements that were not in this one. Fool me once...

3: Escape Plan: Speaking of boring movies who doubled down on bad plot at the expense of their action, we have Escape Plan, a Stallone-Schwarzenegger teamup film that inexplicably includes almost no actual action. What it does include is a plot that makes no sense, and supporting characters that vary from terrible to godawful. Sam Neil apparently thought this movie was the moment to pull out pathos and deep turmoil, a decision which eludes me, but perhaps the same mania overtook him as did the man who suggested hiring 50 cent to play a computer hacker. Meanwhile Jim Caviziel is so detached from the film that he can't be bothered to take an interest in his own death scene. Escape Plan was relentlessly bad, and only the limited skills of its makers kept it from achieving the excellence of the top two spots on this list.

2: Evil Dead: This was not Sam Raimi's year. Not only was he saddled with a massive flop in the form of Oz the Great and Powerful, but his effort to recapture the magic of his classic films of yesteryear, films that invented an entire genre, resulted in one of the worst horror movies I've ever seen. I described this film as the Richard Nixon of horror movies, a film that once idealistic and hungry, now reduced to a crumbling, reclusive ruin, aping the movies it once sought to pillory in quest of some quixotic drive I can scarcely guess at, and nine months later, I'm still confident that sums the film up. Incompetently-made and edited, this film inspires not anger but sadness, emblematic as it is of the shell of himself that Sam Raimi, once the master of schlock-horror, has become. Come back to us Sam. We want you to make us smile again.

1: Elysium: Though you may not believe it after perusing the list above, I honestly do try to avoid movies that are obviously going to be terrible ahead of time. Movies like The Lone Ranger or After Earth go unwatched by me, cognizant as I am of the fact that there is not a chance in hell that they will be any good. But every once in a while a movie slips through the radar that I was not expecting, and blows up in my face, and boy oh boy did Elysium pull that off. Not only is this movie shallow, dishonest, and shockingly racist, it's flat-out unwatchably stupid, filled with poorly-acted character after poorly-acted character and plot holes large enough to fly ten thousand magical healing ambulances through. If this is "reality" as perceived by the filmmaker, then I would suggest he desist from smoking the mercury-laced crack that he has apparently been imbibing, and consider the world as it is, as opposed to the deranged facsimile thereof that he seems to have drawn upon. 2013 was a year that gave me few opportunities to get good and angry at a movie, but Elysium, by dint of unstinting effort, managed to persevere. Well done.

The Best Films of 2013

10: American Hustle: I wasn’t as rapturous about this film as some critics, but that does not alter the fundamental qualities of this star-studded 70s romp. In addition to sporting some of the greatest (read: worst) hairdos I’ve ever seen, this film was expertly-crafted from start to finish, and despite a somewhat pat ending, contained such strongly-drawn characters, sleazebags all, that I couldn’t help but love it. It contained what might be the best performance I've seen from Christian Bale, and reminded me of Scorsese’s better movies. When that’s the comparison I’m moved to make, you’ve clearly done something right.

9: Pain & Gain: Where in the world did this come from? Michael Bay, the Sultan of Suck, produced in Pain & Gain his finest masterpiece, a ridiculous, scandalous, farcical romp about several of the sleaziest people ever to live, the awful crimes they committed, and the worse justifications they used to excuse them. It’s arguable that only Michael Bay, whose taste may be worse than any living human, could have made this movie, and gotten such wonderfully cringe-worthy performances from Mark Wahlberg and his co-stars. Plus, a film that contains the Rock’s best performance ever (not a title I give out lightly), cannot possibly be left off a best-of list.

8: Gravity: An excellent argument for leaving one’s preconceptions behind, Gravity was a complete surprise to me, as I expected to find an Open Water-style deathwatch thriller, and instead received a tightly-crafted, gorgeous, tense survival thriller. Shame on me for expecting any less of Alfonso Cuaron, but in my defense, I had not anticipated this film’s qualities, the low-key, note-perfect performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (even if Clooney is effectively playing himself again), the frankly stunning visuals, and most of all, the absolutely superb electro-string score, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s finest films. Gravity did not find universal acclaim, and I even read some reviews complaining of motion sickness (be forewarned), but I was enthralled by this film, and unhesitatingly recommend it.

7: World War Z: Talk about movies that had no right to be good, World War Z is a complete rejection of the award-winning Max Brooks book, having practically nothing to do with the source material, and yet managed despite this to be one of the finest Zombie movies I’ve ever seen, arguably as good as the seminal 28 Days Later. Dispensing with the intra-personal made-up dramatics that the George Romero films degenerated into, this film managed to make Zombies scary again, even in broad daylight, something I’ve not seen… well ever to be honest. Buttressed by an excellent score, wonderful supporting performances, and a tightly-focused narrative that keeps its eye on the ball, World War Z, despite its flaws and detractors, was a magnificent addition to a schlock-ridden genre, and one of the best pure thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while.

6: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire: On a certain level, I understand the objections that arose in regards to the first Hunger Games film, a movie I enjoyed but which suffered from focus problems and the general issues that afflict most YA stories. None of the above is true of the sequel, as Catching Fire is an improvement over the original Hunger Games on nearly every level. The heroes are more complex, the villains more dastardly, the action more crisp and the society of Panem more decadent in this round, with even the throwaway supporting characters given depth and character development beyond their desserts. More than this however, Catching Fire was perhaps the only YA film I’ve seen that seems to have been made by people familiar with the clichés of the genre, eschewing forced conflict or the rehashing of the first film in favor of a brand new look at a still-fascinating world.

5: Quartet: Story isn’t everything, or to be more precise, freshness of story isn’t everything. Quartet contains a story we’ve all seen dozens of times, complete with a “how will we save the orphanage/school/community center/retirement home” plot. And yet the underlying elements of Quartet, centered around Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtney, and Billy Connolly, are so strong that none of that matters. Quartet is a movie about the characters, and more specifically about the characters that our popular memory of actors such as Maggie smith have become, the eternally grande-dame of the silver screen, biting and witty and sarcastic in the way that only she can be. If ever a love letter to these fine old actors was penned, this was it, and the sheer, unbridled fun of watching them elevate everything given to them was worth the price of admission and more.

4: Rush: This movie was so good, it got me following Formula One. One of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, Rush is a masterpiece, capitalizing on the inherent drama of the most lethal sport on Earth to tell a mesmerizing tale of two racecar drivers competing for glory through circumstances so dangerous and (often) horrific that they beggar belief. Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively famous for being a Viking Thundergod and nothing at all, are pitch perfect as two extremely different men with two extremely different approaches to the same inexplicable obsession to be victorious in the fine art of driving in circles like a maniac . Ron Howard has long been one of the finest directors in Hollywood, but even I did not expect the result of this film to be of such high quality. A must-see, even for non-racing fans.

3: The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug: Very few films do I go to see twice in theaters. The second Hobbit film is one such case. A massive improvement over the already-good Unexpected Journey, the Desolation of Smaug is tighter, better paced, more interesting, and more epic in almost every respect, elevating the Hobbit series (arguably) to the heights of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though still extremely long, the second Hobbit film does not feel padded in the least, and its action sequences (fewer than the original), are much more expertly done, leaving all worries about Battle Fatigue at the door. I was willing, despite my high score, to entertain the notion that the first Hobbit was not as good as I thought it. Not so here. This movie is awesome, and those who claim to hate it are either trolling or incapable of joy.

2: 12 Years a Slave: The Schindler’s List of American Slavery, if 12 Years a Slave does not win a pile of Oscars next March, I will be very surprised. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s best film (a statement I do not make lightly), this was the most “real” version of the great Tragedy I've ever seen, eschewing the clichés and black and white characterization (no pun intended) of previous takes on the genre in favor of an examination of how it was to actually live in such times, whether as owner or slave, all without sacrificing the fundamental inhumanity of slavery. Indeed, the inhumanity comes across all the more powerfully for how realistic the film comes across as. Whether or not you've any interest in the subject, I predict this is a film that will come to be seen as the ultimate word on the subject of Slavery, insofar as such a thing can ever exist.

1: The Sapphires: I don't care how cliche it is to put an unknown indie flick at number one, the Sapphires was a goddamn revelation. A film about Aborigines in Australia in the sixties should have been another maudlin reminiscence on the crimes of the past. But without ducking the issues aboriginal peoples faced in those days, The Sapphires is about real characters, not archetypes meant to stand in the place of real people. The film is tremendous, a note-perfect, hilarious romp from beginning to end, rapturously funny without sacrificing the pathos of the characters and what was done to them. It is a movie about people, not stereotypes, and given the subject matter, that may be its finest achievement.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

47 Ronin

Alternate Title:  Dude, Where's My Honor?

One sentence synopsis:  The former Samurai of a betrayed and dishonored Lord must take revenge against the men who betrayed him with the assistance of a half-breed with demonic power.

Things Havoc liked:  It's a fair question to ask what I was doing seeing this movie at all, frankly, but to be honest, while I don't go out of my way to see bad movies, I felt that the year, and with it, my worst of the year list, would not be complete without going to see a film I knew was going to be terrible, but perversely kind of wanted to see anyway. Keanu Reeves as The Last Samurai taking on one of the great staples of classical Japanese mythology is precisely the sort of colossal trainwreck that appeals to the part of me that enjoys rubbernecking at traffic accidents. And so it was, on the last night of 2013, that I sat down to find out where on my list of the worst films of the year, this wondrous disaster belonged.

Turns out? Nowhere.

Don't get me wrong, this is not some hidden gem destined for cult classic status, but given the trailers I saw for this film, to say nothing of the noted shortcomings of its primary star, I expected a disaster of cataclysmic proportions, and while it is shaping up to be one of the biggest bombs in history (as of this writing, it's about $175,000,000 in the red), the movie is nowhere near as bad as its previews made it out. And one of the biggest reasons? Keanu Reaves isn't the main star.

No, the star of this film is Hiroyuki Sanada, of Sunshine, The Last Samurai, and most recently, The Wolverine (we'll forgive him that one), here playing Oishi, the leader of the 47 Ronin, former samurai of noble Lord Asano, who is betrayed and disgraced by his arch-rival, the evil Lord Kira. The decision to focus heavily upon Oishi rather than Reeves' character (whom we'll get to), was a terrifying one for the studios, who fired the director and edited the movie with re-shoots designed to bulk up Keanu's presence. Even with them however, the fundamental premise of focusing on the guy who is actually important instead of the guy who's the box office draw is a daring one, something you rarely see in Hollywood, and given that Sanada is a fine actor who delivers a performance that's actually convincing, I can't fault the logic here. Sanada's character is rather broadly drawn, but then Samurai movies have never been venues for subtlety, and his presence on screen is formidable, whether he's peremptorily issuing orders to subordinates or donning a disguise so as to get close to his hated archenemy and kill him. Indeed, so central and overarching is his role, that of course he was left completely off of the movie poster and barely appeared in the trailers, a decision that plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the studio's desire to twist the movie somehow into being about the token white guy.

But speaking of the token white guy, Keanu isn't bad this time round. Channeling more of his Constantine performance than his Matrix one, he remains the morose, barely-emoting, monotone surfer that we all know and love, but his fighting skills still remain intact, and the script puts few demands on him that exceed his range. Moreover, despite my assumptions, the film actually bothers to give us a plausible explanation for why a white guy is running around in Tokugawa-era Japan. It's a contrived explanation, certainly, but it's there. Keanu overall manages to at least not detract from the film, and a few of his fight sequences actually show real skill.

Overall the rest of the movie more or less follows the above theme, not great, not necessarily all that good, but much better than a movie like this should expect to have. The plot is straightforward and gets across the essence of the story without too much of a need for additional puppies for the main bad guy to kick. The scenery is lush and vivid, from dark mountain fortresses to verdant forests to beautifully-appointed temple-cities full of the obligatory Chrysanthemum blossoms. The always awesome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (better known as Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat), shows up to lend his gravitas to the role of the Shogun of Japan, grimacing disappointedly as only he is capable of. Finally, while I normally don't give away the endings of films in these reviews, let me just say that I was astonished that the filmmakers, whoever they were, actually had the courage to present us with the ending we got, something I would not have expected from a western, Hollywood studio, and which certainly earns the film a point or two in my book.

Things Havoc disliked:  Please do not mistake my effusive prose as an attempt to indicate that this film is some awesome, buried treasure.

For one thing, despite a 200 million + budget, the effects in this movie are shockingly poor. Makeup and practical work does fine, but the CG creatures that our heroes must deal with or battle look like something that would have been laughed off the set of The Scorpion King. A mystical white fox, appearing several times throughout the early part of the film, is particularly poor, to the point where I first mistook it for a wolf, and then later wondered if there wasn't some stylistic choice ala Who Framed Roger Rabbit going on. Alas, no. Just lazy CGI.

But it's not just the fake characters that are unconvincing. One of the two main villains of the piece is an evil witch named Mizuki, played by Pacific Rim's own Rinko Kikuchi. The best I can say for Kikuchi's performance is that it's miles away from the shrinking violet she played in Pacific Rim, but alas, this sort of vampish role also proves to be beyond her powers. She plays the character completely over the top, like a bad cartoon version of some evil Dragon Lady (literally, as it happens), all wide eyes and sultry expressions and desire to do evil apparently for the sake of doing evil and being oh so devilishly in love with the concept. Maybe in a camp film this might have worked, but the rest of the cast plays the film sermon-straight (Keanu, as we all no, could not play camp if one provided him with a tent and sleeping bag), resulting in a terrible tonal clash whenever she appears on film.

There's also the question of the love story, a superfluous man/woman of different stations tale dropped on top of the original 47 Ronin story with a very audible thud. The film manages to sequester the majority of this plot to the first third or so of the film, which is fine, except it results in Keanu being forced to do absurdly stupid things that he knows cannot possibly end well for him just so that the plot can continue to flow. I know that Hollywood demands a love story in everything, even classical Japanese Samurai tales, but that doesn't make this any better of an idea, and given that Keanu and his love interest Mika (Kou Shibasaki) have no chemistry whatsoever, one wonders why it was included at all.

Final thoughts:   Actually that's a lie, because I happen to know exactly why the love story was included. Apparently Director Carl Erik Rinsch was summarily removed from the project when Universal saw the rough cut of his film, and discovered to their horror that it included neither a love story, nor all that much of Keanu Reeves, their bankable (?) star. In a desperate effort to suck whatever creativity had previously existed in the film right out of it, they mandated reshoots to add in more Keanu, more love story, and more crazy evil witch, which, if you've been paying attention, were all elements in the film that did not work. The result is that 47 Ronin is a film that probably could have worked had the Director been allowed to make the rather surprisingly stripped-down version that he was apparently set on making. Unfortunately, the seams of the welding job done by Universal, to say nothing of the actual qualities of the crap they added in, conspire to eliminate that. It's still nothing close to the disaster that I confidently predicted going in, but all it serves to prove now is that Universal's studio heads are tasteless clods, and that your movie is unlikely to fly when you arbitrarily solder lead weights to it. Frankly, neither of these facts were really up for debate.

Final Score:  5/10

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