Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Alternate Title:  Roboscript

One sentence synopsis:    A police officer critically injured in a car bombing is rebuilt by a corporation into a law enforcement cyborg.

Things Havoc liked:  Paul Verhoeven and I have a tempestuous relationship, but there's no denying the genius of several of his films. 1987's RoboCop, starring Classics Professor Peter Weller (I never tire of that bit of trivia) is unquestionably among them, a gritty, satirical take on 80s capitalism and American culture in the late stages of the Cold War, crossed with a bloody, emotional film that just happened to star a cyborg. As one of the best films of the eighties, it was probably inevitable that someone would decide to remake it, but given the abject catastrophe that was last year's Total Recall (also a Verhoeven film I adore), this was a film I was more dreading than looking forward to.

So let's get this over with right off the bat. Robocop, the 2014 remake of Verhoeven's classic, is not a travesty. It is not a cinematic crime, one which will taint the legacy of its predecessor. In a word, it does not suck. And the reason it does not suck is because unlike Total Recall, Robocop was plainly made by people who had at least watched the previous film, and perhaps even tried to understand it.

It's 2028, and remarkable advancements in robotics and cybernetics have allowed us to build humanoid drones of perfect accuracy, capable of a variety of military and law enforcement duties, as well as replace people's severed limbs with mechanized ones capable of the most delicate operations. Leaders in this field are Omnicorp, headed by Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), ably assisted by his chief scientist James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Keaton and Oldman are, unsurprisingly, the very best things in the film. Joking aside, I haven't seen Michael Keaton since his role in 1997's Jackie Brown, but the man is and always was an excellent, understated actor, and instead of playing a typical goatee-stroking slimeball CEO, plays this one instead like someone one could actually see in office. He wears turtleneck shirts, talks in high level sales pitches, and makes decisions for his company that make actual sense using the logic of market research and focus grouping, all while knowing when to discard a terrible idea as being far too risky for his company's image. Oldman meanwhile has little to work with playing the standard ethically-challenged scientist, but as he's one of the finest actors in the world today, manages to render the part interesting even so. His confrontations with Keaton over ethical or performance-related issues to his design sound not like the standard hapless scientist oppressed by money, and more like the typical confrontations that arise in any technology-related business.

Nor are Keaton and Oldman the only draws. Robocop's partner, Lewis, is here played by Michael K. Williams, better known as The Wire's Omar. I adore Williams in all ways, and while he doesn't have a lot to do here, he manages to bring his usual veneer of cool badassery to every scene he's in. Jackey Earl Haley meanwhile, of Rorschach fame, plays the main military director for Omnicorp. Haley's character is, of all things, a robotic supremacist, who has no use for the insertion of human factors into the drones he creates, and cares little who knows about it. Given Haley's infinite capacity to play seedy, smoldering characters, he makes a somewhat compelling foil for Robocop, particularly early in the film, as he is attempting to figure out how to properly operate his own body. But best of the supporting cast is, of course, Samuel L. Jackson, who here plays a 24 news/entertainment 'personality' in the vein of Sean Hannity, who lectures from some Fox News-style pulpit on the virtues of robots and drones, and castigates the "robophobia" of the American public.

The original Robocop was only half an action film, the other half being Verhoeven's merciless pillorying of American culture at the time, something he would go on to do more and more of to less and less effect. This film, well aware of this inheritance, retains the satirical bite but modernizes the target. Corporate greed and amorality, still as much an issue today as it was thirty years ago, comes up for another shellacking this time, but rather than recite the same cliches as you'll find in half the movies of the last ten years, this one tries to project a strange, Apple-meets-EA vibe to Omnicorp, burying it in marketing lingo and focus group results, ably assisted by Jay Baruchel, as a slimy marketing "guru" spouting terrible ideas in the name of "appealing to specific demographics". An early sequence wherein the CEO suggests that Robocop's look should be made more "tactical" strikes quite close to home. More serious is the concept of drone warfare, ably dealt with in an early sequence set in Tehran, apparently under US occupation, where we watch a cadre of suicide bombers attack a company of robotic soldiers. The robots do nothing 'wrong' per se (at least nothing a human soldier wouldn't do), and the terrorists are quite plainly terrorists ("Our goal is to die on television") says one. Yet effortlessly, the film plays with the uncanny valley such that we instantly identify with Al Qaeda against the robots. Throughout the film, the movie does its best to bring up questions of surveillance, drone use in law enforcement, and the line between military and police...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... badly.

Robocop is a film that has good ideas, and no real clue as to how to develop them properly. The question of drone use in law enforcement is raised at the beginning of the film, and then pushed to the back burner for the duration of it. Plenty of arguments occur over the use of drones on the streets, but we see nothing of the actual substance of it. The drones we see, after all, are not really scary once you get over the uncanny valley. They are efficient, accurate, never make mistakes (one early incident is the fault of ROE, not programming), and are generally relegated to the background of a movie with way too many "issues" on its plate.

The original Robocop was effectively a machine who had to, over the course of the film, re-learn how to be a man again. This film eschews that concept, making him a man with cybernetic parts first and foremost, and that's fine. We are, after all, more accustomed to the idea of a man with mechanical parts now than we were back then. The issue is that it never finds a primary character dilemma to replace the subject with, instead simply focusing on the mechanical process of getting Robocop fit to fight, and then seeing him go out and do so. Again, there is nothing wrong with this idea in theory, as I would not have minded a film about a Robocop who is really just another cop with special capabilities, trying to find a way to fit into modern law enforcement. But the film doesn't do that either, pulling a midway switch by artificially changing him into more of a robot, and then back again, and then not, several times, until all thematic structure is lost, and characters are acting in ways that have not been established or earned, simply because we're running out of time and we need a climax.

Speaking of characters, you might have noticed that I didn't mention the actor (Joel Kinnaman) who actually plays Robocop. There's a good reason for that, and that reason is that he's awful. His character, such as it is, is so understated and monotone that he actually seems more alive with the robotic parts than he did beforehand. I can usually tell if the problem is bad writing or a bad actor, but in this case the question is so muddled that I suspect it might be both. Lacking any chemistry with his co-stars, Kinnaman's job is not made any easier by the fact that his wife and son, characters who had very little facetime in the original movie, are also flatly terrible. Suckerpunch's Abbie Cornish is simply given nothing to do beyond react woodenly to bad dialogue from her husband or from the Omnicorp suits that have transformed him into Robocop, and his son is played by one of the least convincing child actors I've seen since Timothy Green. In a movie that discards much of the plot of the old film in favor of more of a focus on Robocop's character and that of his family, this is a terrible problem.

It's not the only one. The villain, played to such amazing effect in the original by Kurtwood Smith, is here a completely ignored cypher, forgotten about for half of the movie only to reappear when the film decides it needs an action piece. Indeed, the pacing is all over the place in this film, which devotes nearly half the runtime to what amounts to back-story, while compressing the actual plot into what feels like the last 40 minutes. It's perhaps not surprising, as a result, that the plot is full of holes, clearly the product of a rushed or stitched together development cycle. Why, for instance, would scientists about to release a revolutionary new robotic cyborg to his first-ever press conference, decide that five minutes before showtime was a good time to upload the entire contents of the police database directly into his brain, a process both untested and highly dangerous? And speaking of press conferences, let me pose another question. If the robotic policeman that a megacorporation had just unveiled were to, in the middle of a massive crowd of people, jump off the podium and randomly discharge his firearm into a member of the crowd, would your reaction be cheers, or panic?

Final thoughts:   I said at the beginning that Robocop is not a terrible movie, not a betrayal of the source material, and I stand by that, but mere failure to destroy a franchise is not the sole requirement for success. The truth is that Robocop, despite a number of excellent actors and several legitimately good ideas, is something of a mess, a film bedeviled by bad pacing, a lackluster plot, poor choice of focus, and a main character not up to the task of playing a character who is both a robot and not a robot. The film clearly tries to pay proper homage to its predecessor, with callback lines from the first film, and even stingers from the classic Basil Poledouris theme. But even on the level of basic design (Detroit in this film looks like a paradise, clean and crime free, to the point where we wonder where the demand for Robocop is coming from), this film doesn't know what it wants to do, and winds up, as a result, doing a great many things badly, none of which have all that much to do with one another.

I came into this film with no expectations of quality, but in many ways, this result is the harder one to bear. A film that had no chance of being good is simply that, but one that had aspirations of greatness and failed speaks to all sorts of missed opportunities that one can sense, peering from within the tangled plot and compressed pacing. At the same time however, Robocop at least attempts to properly placate those of us with fond memories of the original. It may fail at doing so, but the thought, ultimately does count for something.

And hell, at least it's better than Robocop 3.

Final Score:  5/10

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie

Alternate Title:  Anything and Everything

One sentence synopsis:    A random Lego figure is recruited to save the entire universe in the company of a massive cast of pop culture characters.

A note before we begin:    I don't make a habit of seeing a lot of children's movies. There never seemed to be much of a point. Children's films are designed for a completely different audience, and while theoretically it should be possible to speak to a film's quality regardless of content, the fact remains that it's a stretch for me to get my mind around the slightly sideways logic and style of a typical kids film. That said, it's not like a children's movie must, by necessity, be of low quality, and I have made exceptions for films like Paranorman or Frozen (to say nothing of Pixar's work) before. I don't tend to read other reviews before selecting my weekly film, but there are occasions where buzz becomes impossible to dodge, and the accolades this film has been receiving made it rather hard to avoid. So while I had no intention originally of seeing the Lego Movie, dismissing it as the children's version of Battleship, the praise it had been garnering, as well as the interest of several friends of mine, led me to make another exception, and buckle down to see what everyone was talking about.

Things Havoc liked:  One of the great issues that afflicts modern franchise movies is that of licensing. The rights to produce a certain movie with certain characters or in a certain world are often considerably harder to obtain than the rest of the film, as so many failed projects and development-hell stories can attest to. So difficult is it to navigate the world of large-scale licensing, that entire movies are made for no reason other than to preserve a lapsing film license (the most recent Spiderman series is a particularly noxious example, but there are others), and thereby ensure the right to make other, ostensibly better films. This is the reason why despite thirty years of near-constant attempts towards this end, there has never been a Justice League movie (next year's Superman/Batman may be as close as we ever get), nor a Wonder Woman film, and is also why so many film series (such as Lord of the Rings) took forever to finally bring to the screen. The Lego corporation, on the other hand, has managed in recent years to circumvent this hellish process by employing their existing toy-set licenses to produce video games and TV shows (Lego Batman, Lego Star Wars, etc...) that employ the characters in question through the Lego master license. Lawsuits aplenty have been filed over this issue, but by and large, Lego has been able to use this system to do what others could not.

Why do I bring up licensing of all things while reviewing this film? Because this is a movie wherein Batman beats up Han Solo and Lando Calrissian and steals the hyperdrive from the Millenium Falcon, so as to give it to Twilight Sparkle and a Mecha-Pirate, who will employ it to save Superman, Gandalf the Grey, Abraham Lincoln, and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers from the robotic armies of Will Farrel, and his right hand man: Liam Neeson's character from Taken.

The Lego Movie, a February dump-film based around a toy license, is amazing, a triumph of wit and writing and direction and sheer imagination, a movie that presents spectacle and wonder in league with the transformative powers of a child handed a hundred Lego sets and told to make whatever he would. In a year that has already given me Disney's apparent resurrection, it, like Frozen, is a scathing indictment of the state of most Hollywood films, children's or otherwise. For years to come, any film that fails abjectly will be unable to use the excuse that their subject material simply "didn't play well" on film, for this is a movie about Legos that succeeds, beyond all imagination, at providing wonder and hilarity and all the awesomeness that its product is capable of. It is a textbook study in how to produce a film from nothing. It is awesome.

Recapping the plot in a film like this seems almost superfluous, but such as it is, the film stars a random Lego-man, entirely undistinguished, who inhabits a world of multiple dimensions and infinite possibility, but who is generally content to do as he is told and "follow the instructions". Whisked into adventure the likes of which stretches my ability to even describe, he finds himself in the company of a cast of characters that literally nobody but the Lego corporation could produce, with superheroes and sports stars, fantasy tropes and cyberninjas, robotic armies, cat-unicorns, pirates, aliens, and practically every other goddamn thing ever conceived of. Their goal (of course) is to stop the evil Lord Business from destroying the world through conformity and mystical artifacts obtained from God-knows-where, but then that's not really the goal at all. The goal is to provide show-stopping spectacle at blistering pace, and fill in every single gap of more than four-tenths of a second with in-jokes, references, asides, montages, and all of the hilarity that comes with the eighty-six-car-pileup of crossover insanity that this film seems to regard as the basis of storytelling. Subtle and nuanced it is not (except when it is), but then how many of us had time for subtle nuance when we were building X-wing Death-train Battlecruisers from Hell piloted by Godzilla, the Kool-aid man, and the disembodied head of the Barbie Doll your younger sister left in your room?

Indeed, this film almost defies the capacity to review normally, as the acting and plot are either nonexistent or inconsequential. We can however discuss other aspects, such as the music, an techno-rock score featuring contributions by the Lonely Island and the Electric Light Orchestra. The music is as frenetic and high-speed as the film itself of course, but that's the proper choice for a film that is essentially narrating the imaginary adventures of a child's mind. Meanwhile the animation, generally designed to resemble stop motion Lego work winds up looking like some weird cross between Robot Chicken and a Dreamworks production, alternating between static slides and elaborate animated set-pieces with rapid frequency. Voice acting, primarily by Will Ferrel, Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, and Hunger Games' Elizabeth Banks, is spot on in every case, as it is for the dizzying array of cameos and stunt voices for the literally dozens of assorted characters the movie pulls out of its toy chest. Morgan Freeman, as always, has the best voice in film, and uses it to savage comedic effect (picture Morgan Freeman's most God-like voice telling someone that he is an idiot), while Chris Pratt, whom I've never seen outside of bit parts before, nails his everyman main character with a bubbly enthusiasm that becomes almost deranged given the insanity that surrounds him. Characterization, meanwhile, is excellent. These are the characters we've seen a million times before in a million different settings, but unlike the films or media in which they are normally portrayed, this version seems to be aware of the prevailing memes and trends that surround them in the rest of the world. Thus, this Batman is something of a brooding caricature, playing guitar solos titled "My parents are DEAD!" and building "only with black blocks, and occasionally, very dark grey". A weird cat-unicorn thing encountered in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land is straight out of an Adventure Time pastiche, complete with anger management issues buried beneath a veneer of fanatical cheeriness. Recurring gags with Green Lantern, Superman, Morgan Freeman (whose character's name is a wonderful in-joke for classics nerds of all people), and some kind of weird 1980's Space Guy (that's actually his name) are wickedly funny, and in all cases betray an incredible sense of self-awareness

But the strongest point is the script, one of the sharpest I've ever seen, which treats the fourth wall like a theoretical concept at best, and the audience like a group of people about to die from understimulation of the senses. Direction, by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, involves removing the brakes from the film and replacing them with rocket motors. Yet somehow it all manages to hold together, despite the perfunctory pace with which important plot elements are introduced or thrown aside, and the bewildering complexity (and frankly, surprising depth) that the narrative twists itself into. The film's goal is plainly to find an excuse to barrage us with awesomeness at every turn, and yet for all the insanity of the script, not only does the story make sense, not only does every one of the innumerable disparate elements of which it is comprised wind up tied rationally together, but the film actually manages to make a solid, even sentimental point by the end, one that I was not expecting when the film began. Playing misdirection with the audience, the movie disguises its true message underneath an initial, more obvious message, both of which work, both of which are family appropriate, and both of which, ultimately, lend meaning to everything we've seen.

How in the hell did they do that?

Things Havoc disliked:  I can't pretend the movie is perfect. The initial message is a bit clunky in its handling, being a fairly obvious theme of "be imaginative and find the special qualities within yourself" that I assume most kids could get after the first five times it's repeated. The backstory that we are given before the story proper starts could also perhaps have been handled a touch more cleverly, given the rest of the film. Indeed the movie does take a bit to get really rolling, as it has a style all its own, and this can lead to the first ten minutes seeming just... weird, perhaps even inaccessibly so. It fades quickly, but this is the sort of movie you do need to give a chance to.

A plot this chaotic cannot help but have some holes in it, particularly in the light of some of the revelations we are privy to by the end, and some of the characterization, particularly that of Elizabeth Banks' "Wyldstyle" (just accept it) seem a little unsophisticated. Normally that's not a word I would allow to creep into a children's movie review, but the rest of the movie displays such wonderful self-awareness that when it suddenly turns around and pretends that the notion of "believing in yourself" is new and fascinating information to anyone in the audience, it can't help but feel like a let down. Indeed, there are several moments when the movie cuts back the pace a bit, perhaps simply to allow the audience to catch their breath, but with each one, the movie's usual crispness seems to fall away, as though, like a shark, it needs to keep moving in order to live. We are, after all, talking about a children's movie, and perhaps these pauses in the action enable the adult part of our brains to become self-aware of that fact again, dialing back our enthusiasm as we re-assert mental control. You might argue this is a problem of the viewer more than the film, but a movie this bonkers has to know it's going to be working against the more discerning eye that us adults are offering it, and while it manages to overcome our stultified inertia most of the time, that only makes the moments when it does not all the more glaring.

Final thoughts:   More than two years ago, I saw a film called Real Steel, which many hated, but I praised for being, in essence, a child's dream (of gladiatorial robots) brought to life. The difference between it and the other movies of similar subject but less skill was one of passion, heart, and love, of filmmakers who understood not only that certain things are awesome, but also understood the reasons why they are awesome, what it is that they represent to the child in all of us, what renders them so enduring. Like Real Steel before it, the makers of the Lego movie, given an assignment to make a film about Legos, chose instead to make a film about what it is that Legos actually represent, what it is that made them one of the most enduring children's toys of the 20th century. Armed with infinite license, legal and otherwise, to do whatever they wanted, the film they produced is an absolute joy, exciting and funny and rapturous in all the ways that most toy-license films (GI Joe, Transformers, Battleship) are not.

If this is the sort of thing I've been missing by steering clear of children's films, then perhaps it's time I changed my policy. Because while I hesitated to go and see a movie based on a toy line, in a very real sense, the Lego movie's title is itself misleading. This, as it turns out, is not a movie about Legos. This is a movie about sheer wonder.

And there's always room in my schedule for that.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Alternate Title:  Forgiving the Unforgivable

One sentence synopsis:    An unemployed journalist becomes embroiled in a human interest story concerning an elderly Irish lady trying to find the son she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church fifty years earlier.

Things Havoc liked:  When all is said and done, and the verdicts of history are finally written, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution will have much to answer for. Without diving into papist and anti-papist polemics, the Church has spent the last two millenia vigorously sweeping a great many sins under the rug of holiness and salvation, recently as well as in the distant past. In this, the Catholic Church does not differ substantially from every other religious organization on the planet (or, for that matter, a great many secular ones), but the reach, power, and weight of centuries that the Church had and has at its disposal necessary gave them a capacity for good or evil greater than the majority of their fellows. And without endeavoring to insult the many Catholics who find solace in the modern church, nor the many Catholic priests, bishops, or officials who use it to minister to spirits and perform such good works as they can, a proper accounting must ultimately be made for crimes committed under the aegis of the Roman cross. Thus we come to the story of Philomena Lee.

Dame Judi Dench (CH DBE FRSA) is a living legend of British film and theater, and here plays the aforementioned Philomena, an old Irish lady who once, fifty years ago, was a young woman with no family, taken in by an order of Catholic nuns who ran a workhouse for "wayward girls", otherwise known as women in Ireland who became pregnant out of wedlock. With Ireland dominated by the Catholic church to an extent unheard of even today (which is saying something), there was simply no alternative for such girls but to live and work in such convents, where their children would be essentially sold to wealthy adoptive families without their mothers' consent, the church having taken the precaution of obtaining contracts whereby the mothers declaim all parental rights to their own children. Now, fifty years later, Philomena has spent most of her life trying to discover what happened to the son who was taken away from her, periodically asking the church to help locate him, a request that is constantly denied.

Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Sixsmith, a former cabinet minister and journalist for the BBC, finds himself without a job in 2002 and encounters the story of Philomena by accident. Deciding after some reluctance to turn the story into a human interest piece, he meets the old woman and offers to help her track her son down by means other than the completely unhelpful Church authorities. Thus begins an odyssey from Ireland to America, as Sixsmith first seeks to uncover the identity of Philomena's son, then later the circumstances of his life, and his current location. Along the way, he is required to put up with Philomena, who chatters on endlessly, tries to elicit the life stories of everyone she meets (including waitresses), and maintains a number of "quaint" habits calculated to drive one mad. Yet this is Judy Dench, not Tyler Perry, and the character comes across like a real old woman, not some pastiche of one designed to elicit "comedy". Coogan plays Sixsmith as a slightly smarmy Oxfordian, but one who truly is trying to both find the truth and to, in some small way, right the terrible wrongs that have been inflicted on Philomena.

And there are such wrongs in this film. One can understand, perhaps, the mentality from fifty years ago that led the Church to take Philomena's son from her by force, and adopt him out to wealthy Americans. One can even perhaps understand, if one is particularly twisted, what would lead them to cover their tracks by incinerating records and refusing to provide assistance to Philomena's search. Yet the moral turpitudes of the Irish Catholic Church in this film ultimately beggar the imagination, and while normally I would object to such things as unrealistic, research of my own shows that, if anything, the film understates the matter. Yet rather than just wallowing in the Church's repugnant, shameful treatment of a Catholic woman seeking to know about her long-lost son, the film actually uses the horrific treatment Philomena (and her son) have been subjected to, to bring up themes of forgiveness and redemption, all perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. Philomena is a Catholic of the old school, one who believes and lives what she has been taught, even when those who teach it to her plainly do not. And the interaction between the elderly Catholic lady and the cynical, agnostic Brit, which the film never allows to become antagonistic, nor overly saccharine, secures the film along a very strong narrative line.

Things Havoc disliked:  The above praise may sound like something you'd read in a marketing handbill, and for that I apologize. The base fact is that this movie, while compelling and even interesting, only reaches so high. Philomena regards everything that has been done to her as something that happened in the past, unchangeable now, and not worth wallowing in hate over. This is both a commendable attitude towards the wrongs she has suffered, as well as an incredibly difficult one, and so I'm loathe to object, but Philomena seems almost completely unperturbed by the staggering revelations as to what actually was done by the nuns who took her son, and whom she relied upon to help her find him. Forgiveness and a healthy outlook on life are wonderful things, but they are the antithesis of drama, and the certainty with which the character determines to rise above the crimes done to her, actually robs them of meaning, preventing us from actually seeing just what these losses actually meant to her. If forgiving someone who destroyed a large portion of your life is hard, then the best way to illustrate this is to make it look hard, not like some simple thing one can just decide to do as if choosing what to eat for lunch.

Worse yet, this same problem winds up warping the other character, Sixsmith. Not a Catholic himself, more mired in the cynical world around him, Sixsmith is utterly horrified by what has been done to Philomena, and becomes moreso as it is revealed that the Church is actively continuing to screw her by any means it can, even when there is no reason to do so beyond sheer, contemptuous spite. His reaction, when all is revealed, is outrage and fury, only for him to be castigated by Philomena herself for being so angry. Defiantly, Philomena rejects the anger Sixsmith evidences as she does not want to become a sad, broken person like him. Perhaps in another film this sort of declaration and message would work, but here, the crimes are so unforgivably terrible that Sixsmith's anger is hardly an unreasonable reaction, indeed my own (and I suspect, that of most people) would be far, far worse. And yet the message here seems to be that if you react with anything but saintly forgiveness to a horrific crime committed against someone you care about, you are a terrible person who should be ashamed of yourself.

Dare I suggest that this is a sentiment that the Irish church is desperately trying to encourage?

Forgiveness is not an easy or automatic thing, for it were, then there would be no need to laud it, or stand in awe of those capable of it regardless of circumstances. It cannot be mandated or expected as a matter of course, not from everyone, not when the crimes are as terrible as these. While Philomena's superhuman capacity to act as Jesus taught her and forgive her enemies is rightly praised in the film, by pretending that this is the only reasonable response to such incidents, the film, I fear, makes the preposterous claim that if Philomena had reacted with rage and fury at the terrible things done to her out of pure spite, then somehow she would have been in the wrong. And by making Philomena apparently hold such a belief, the film quite unavoidably begins to make her forgiveness take on the appearance of some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, wherein she forgives the Church because she cannot bear to imagine it culpable. While I'm sure this is not the impression the film was trying to give, in casting Sixsmith's anger in such a negative light (something not helped by having him periodically start reciting atheistic propaganda for no reason except to make him look bad), the movie starts to resemble a hatchet job against critics of the Church.

Final thoughts:   No, I don't actually think this film is a hatchet job against anyone, and I appreciate that this review may be starting to sound like an Anti-Catholic screed, for which I must apologize again. The point here is not really anything particular to Catholicism, but a more basic one, about the harm that self-righteous institutions can do, and the ways in which one can respond to things done to one. I do not pretend that this movie is poorly made, badly acted, or incompetently written and shot, for it is none of those things. On an objective level, it is a very good film. But a reaction to a piece of art is by necessity personal, and my personal reaction to the film was, to my surprise, less positive than I expected, especially in reflection, and the problems with the way in which it deals with the issues it raises are not ones that can simply be swept aside.

"I couldn't forgive you," says Sixsmith at one point, after Philomena has somehow managed to do just that. Were I in his position, I might well have set the building on fire, so outrageous is the behavior of the nuns in this film. And while arson is obviously not a reasonable response to something like this, searing, incandescent anger absolutely is. Philomena Lee is free to forgive those who trespassed against her, and should rightly be honored for it. But not all of us are capable of such sentiments. And there is nothing whatsoever the matter with anyone who, having had their child stolen, and been lied to for fifty years as to his whereabouts, found themselves unable to forgive.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dallas Buyers' Club

Alternate Title:  How to Catch AIDS and Influence People

One sentence synopsis:    A homophobic rodeo electrician becomes a drug importer and tireless political advocate after being diagnosed with AIDS.

Things Havoc liked:  The resurrection of Matthew McConaughey is one of the ongoing amazements that I encounter in my moviewatching career. From his romantic comedy and action hero past, which resulted in nothing but godawful movies about a tanned slacker who took his shirt off at every opportunity, McConaughey spontaneously began, about five years ago, to make independent films of extremely high quality, usually showcasing himself not as a charming leading man, but as a boo-ray hick or loathsome killer. The turnaround is so stark that it's barely explainable, but the result has been that McConaughey has re-invented himself with no less efficiency than Ben Affleck's transformation from star of Daredevil and Gigli, to Oscar-caliber director of The Town and Argo. Though I've certainly enjoyed the results of McConaughey's resurgence in films such as Magic Mike, Bernie, or Mud, I've always remained somewhat restrained in my praise. Perhaps it's my own fault, but I just keep seeing flashes of Sahara or Failure to Launch peeking through whatever characters McConaughey plays, as most of his new characters were somehow still charming leading men, just with dirt smeared over them.

Not this time. Dallas Buyers' Club is easily the finest performance I've ever seen Matthew McConaughey give, a tour-de-force of equal caliber to Chiwetel Ejiofor's turn as Solomon Northrop in 12 Years a Slave. He plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas cowboy and oilfield electrician in 1985 whose views on homosexuality are entirely representative of those held by most persons in Texas in 1985 (and many today). Diagnosed with AIDS at the height of the plague, and given thirty days to live, Woodroof's entire life shifts out from under him as he desperately searches for some means of saving his own life by any means necessary, including stealing supplies of AZT, an experimental anti-AIDS drug, and eventually even more esoteric regimens from illegal chop-shops in Mexico. Along the way, despite his lack of education or sophistication, he transforms himself into an expert on AIDS research, forcing complex technical studies and biochemical analyses through his head with sheer desperation to not die. McConaughey has played characters similar to this before, but never with this level of skill. Alarmingly thin, concealed behind aviator sunglasses and an 80s porn-stache, the evolution of Ron Woodroof, as his desperate efforts begin to succeed against all odds in abating his own symptoms, and his interest turns to marketing his own treatments to other AIDS patients, is portrayed with some of the most realistic care I've seen in any movie of the sort. Woodroof is a homophobe, by every definition of the term, and yet when forced, thanks to the need to establish his "buyers' club" of AIDS treatments, to interact on a daily basis with Dallas' homosexual community (where the vast bulk of AIDS patients are located), his views undergo a very subtle shift, as the experience of dealing with dying men on a daily basis humanizes them before the eyes of a man who, previous to this experience, had most likely never met a homosexual before. At no point does the film indulge in violin-scored epiphanies or tearful apologies for past, un-PC viewpoints, for those are not the things that reality is made of. McConaughey never once breaks character as he gradually transforms from boo-ray to AIDS drug activist, growing organically, rather than changing because the plot mandates it. This is how a homophobe becomes something else, and the process of him doing so occupies practically every scene in the movie. Any lesser performance would have torpedoed the film out of the gate, but McConaughey is somehow up to the task.

There is, however, more than McConaughey going on here. Jared Leto, an actor (and singer) I've never had much use for, here plays Rayon, a transvestite (or transsexual, the film is not clear) also afflicted with AIDS whom Woodroof recruits early in the process of establishing his Buyer's Club for the simple reason that, being LGBT himself, he has access to volumes of clients that Woodroof does not. Rayon is not a subtle character, addicted to various drugs, abusing her(?) body, and otherwise unreliable, forcing Woodroof to intervene in her life, changing her diet, putting her on a regimen of nutritional supplements and anti-AIDS peptides, and generally trying to keep Rayon together if only (initially) to keep his business running. The way these characters interact is a textbook example to would-be screenwriters of how to create believable character interaction. Woodroof's homophobia may fade, but his domineering personality never does, while Rayon speaks as someone no longer at all shocked by being treated as a pariah by mainstream society, who can differentiate when someone calls them a faggot out of hatred, or ignorance, or even frustrated endearment. The running gag of Rayon planting pictures of studly men amidst the pornographic pictures of women that adorn Woodroof's half of their shared office is actually hilarious, and the rare occasions where Leto is permitted to play the character "straight" (for lack of a better term) are riveting and poignant, particularly a sequence late in the film where Rayon approaches his estranged, bank-manager father, to aquire a loan to keep the buyers' club afloat.

All through the film, the movie maintains a relentless focus on the main characters, and how they, and the club they establish, changes over the course of time. Begun simply as a means of financing his own ready supply of personalized anti-AIDS drugs, the scale of the human suffering of AIDS and the desperate popularity of anything that offers hope against it, begins to draw Woodroof and Rayon into the political side of AIDS research. AZT, the drug-company-sponsored "treatment" for AIDS, proves a toxic solution, killing as many patients as it succors, and the FDA's rejection of other, competing, avenues of drug research steadily grows from disapproval to outright persecution. As Woodroof finds himself having become, almost accidentally, a tireless, fire-breathing activist for AIDS victims in general and homosexual AIDS victims in specific, the film holds to its focus, trusting to the odyssey of the main character as sufficient to hold the audience's attention. Most of the film is edited in long, unbroken takes, often without soundtrack backing, and with naturalistic lighting from overcast skies or clinical fluorescents. The intention is plainly to present the film in as simple, and realistic a fashion as possible, allowing the central story of a man confronting his own mortality, and finding new life in every sense, to rightly carry the film.

Things Havoc disliked:  Sadly, there is one major fly in the ointment, and her name is Jennifer Garner. I swore Garner off forever after the catastrophe of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, two years ago, and while Garner does not approach that level of annoyance this time, the movie reminded me quite keenly as to why I broke with her in the first place. Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, a doctor in the main Dallas hospital administering the AZT treatments under trial, who first attempts to treat Woodroof as he is first diagnosed, and then later begins subtly sending her own patients to Woodroof's buyers' club as she becomes convinced of his process' efficacy. Along the way, of course, she becomes Woodroof's love(?) interest. Not only is her performance unavoidably wooden and unconvincing when placed alongside McConaughey's tour-de-force, the character itself is completely unnecessary, as she is effectively used as some kind of flashlight to contrast with the "uncaring, money-obsessed hospital administrators". While I appreciate the point they were trying to make, the fact is that the FDA's increasingly heavy-handed persecution of Woodroof's buyers' club makes that point far better than poorly-acted speeches against "the administration" of the hospital ever could. The hospital is offering a toxic treatment to AIDS patients while working with the government to render all other avenues of treatment illegal. Did we really need a board meeting scene starring a poor actor to ensure that the audience realized that this was "bad"?

Final thoughts:   It's a pity that Garner's performance mars this film, because when she is not on the screen, the movie is all but flawless, a relentless and riveting character study of one of the frontline warriors of the battles surrounding AIDS during the height of the crisis. The politics of the film are unsubtle, but the film is not attempting to engender a debate, merely pay homage to a man who, even if accidentally, wound up waging the sort of battle that had to be waged on behalf of millions of marginalized people being mercilessly culled by a terrible plague. Woodroof himself died of AIDS in 1992, seven years after receiving his thirty-day diagnosis. His life, adjusted for the sake of storytelling though it may be, has been transformed into one of the finest films produced in the year just ending. And McConaughey, at last, has proven that his transformation from laughing stock to master thespian, is finally complete.

Final Score:  8/10

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