Monday, March 31, 2014


Alternate Title:  Not Your Grandmother's Genesis

One sentence synopsis:       Noah and his family must create an ark to save the Earth's wildlife in the face of God's intention to destroy the entire world.

Things Havoc liked: I should have seen this coming. I should have expected that a movie written and directed by Darren Aronofski, a man who has never met a story he didn't think could be made more insane, was not likely to be your bog-average late-March studio-castoff. This is the man who brought us Pi, Black Swan, The Fountain, and one of the shortlist candidates for the "Best Movie I Never Want to See Again" award, Requiem for a Dream. Nevermind that this is a major studio film in March, Doldrums season exists not for studios to dump terrible movies, but for studios to dump movies they don't know what to do with. Often these are the same things, but sometimes they are simply films too challenging or complicated for the dullards who run most Hollywood studios. And if nothing else Aronofski has long ago proven that he simply doesn't have a simple movie in him.

It is the distant past, or perhaps it is a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future (the movie actively hints towards the latter). The Earth is overrun with evil men, the descendants of Caine, the first murderer, whose children are nomadic scavengers, seeking to survive in a world whose natural resources have been utterly exhausted. Once, they ruled great empires and mighty cities, but all has crumbled to dust, and they have been reduced to cannibalistic savages, desperately seeking any means of survival as they wander a barren earth. Dodging these wandering bands are Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family, including his wife (Jennifer Connelly), his three sons, and a young girl (Emma Watson) taken in after being found abandoned and half-dead in the middle of the wastelands. A series of apocalyptic visions convinces Noah that the end of the world is coming, and he takes his family on a fantastically dangerous trek to a lonely mountain, where he builds an Ark to survive the coming storm. This much is the biblical narrative, and yet Aranofsky's vision for these events seems drawn from some mad mish-mash of Christian eschatological films such as The Rapture, Roland Emmerich disaster films, and Cormac Macarthy's "The Road". The world that Aranofsky has produced is nothing like the standard visions of biblical tradition, in which robed and sandaled men roam vast deserts to the accompaniment of string orchestras. Wrapped in ragged coverings like neo-apocalyptic barbarians, Noah's family passes the charred skeletons of skyscrapers and the rusting remnants of once-vibrant civilizations, bearing witness along the way to mad bacchanalian meat-markets in which the last desperate remnants of humanity devour one another in orgies of mass-cannibalism and barbarity. Barren, incinerated wastelands stretch across the screen as far as the eye can see, even before the first of the many apocalyptic events commences. When finally God pronounces his judgment, the imagery is terrible and bloody, as teeming masses of the damned are swallowed up by the cataclysmic flood, explicitly sparing neither the innocent nor the just. The weight of an event like the Deluge is front and center here, as is the immensity and inhumanity of what is, ultimately, the wrath of an omnicidal deity. In theory, the Flood was a purgation, a cataclysm that selectively punished the wicked and spared the righteous, yet Aranofsky seems to regard this notion the way we might regard the apocalyptic pronouncements of Jim Jones. God is sparing Noah and his family not because they are the righteous and the just, but because of reasons that may be completely arbitrary. Though the film never comes down one way or the other, it is unstinting in presenting an end-times that may or may not have anything to do with higher justice. It may well instead be a simple matter of indiscriminate, purposeless death.

All of which is well and good, but what does this mean for our main characters? Aranofsky's viewpoint is, a great deal. Noah spends the majority of this movie simply crushed by the weight of the responsibility that he has been entrusted with, a responsibility he doesn't even understand the nature of. Having had a hand in the virtual annihilation of humanity, an annihilation that is neither clean nor short, Noah is left a stunned, emotional wreck, desperate to prove somehow to himself that everything he has done was not in vain. Indeed, much of the second half of the film concerns Noah's desperate attempt to comprehend the intent of the Creator in sending the flood, an attempt which leads him to conclusions and actions that may make sense (at least to him), but are inescapably horrible. Noah's eventual conviction that God intends the extinction of humanity, and that he and his family were spared merely to steward the fauna of the world through the catastrophe and to enable them to recolonize the world leads him to a cold, almost psychotic abandonment of the rest of mankind. When his son rescues a young girl from the camp of the cannibals, Noah abandons her to die as "impure" despite her impassioned pleas and the anguished screams of his family. When the floating ark is penetrated by the anguished cries of the dying multitudes, he refuses to allow his family to save even the smallest child from the waves. His embrace of the terrible, yet ruthlessly logical consequences of such things visibly corrodes his sanity, leaving him a wild-eyed fanatic of a sort familiar to anyone who watches the news. Despite his awards and accolades, I've always felt that Russell Crowe is an actor who thrives in very specific types of roles, but the tormented obsessive is plainly one of them, as movies as divergent as A Beautiful Mind and LA Confidential can attest to. Here, he is perfectly on point, riding the line between satanic and stoic, until finally he falls apart entirely. The Bible records that following the Deluge, Noah became a winemaker and a drunk. This film shows us why.

But Crowe isn't the best thing in the movie. The best thing in the movie is Ray Winstone's turn as Tubal-Cain, the king of the aforementioned nomadic band of cannibalistic scavengers. Winstone is clearly meant to be the villain of the piece, lord of a group of bloodthirsty savages that engage in unspeakable acts, and yet the film gives Winstone a surprising amount of time to establish himself and his motivations. Rather than a raving psychopath, Winstone plays the character as a harsh man in a harsh time, who does what he feels he must do to survive, and does not apologize for doing so. Tubal-Cain inhabits a world with an active, hostile God, one that has pre-determined that he and all his people are corrupt and evil, and deserving of death, thanks to their heritage from the line of Cain. His response is almost Nizchean, as he rejects God's authority to judge him and his on such terms, thunderously denouncing God and Noah alike for the casual extermination they are party to. In defense of life, he is even permitted acts that would, from any other character, be heroic, leading a charge against biblical monsters ten times his size in a desperate attempt to save some fraction of his people. He also forms a bond, of sorts, with Noah's middle son Ham (Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman), the one who had to watch his father abandon an innocent girl to be trampled to death, explaining his philosophy of unapologetic survival and his rejection of Noah's conviction that his lack of blood purity should condemn him to die. If I'm being brutally honest, I identified far more with Winstone's character than with Noah, as a sane, if harsh man, confronted with a death-wreaking god and his mad servants, surviving in spite of the odds to rage against the dying of the light.

Say what you will about Darren Aranofsky, he knows where to point a camera. Noah is a beautiful, stark film, shot in loving long takes of desolate ruin. Combat sequences are a bit frenetic, perhaps, but do not employ shaky-cam, and manage to keep everything in focus. But the best sequences of all are a series of slideshow montages of the events before the film, either the biblical account of Eden, Caine, and Abel, or (of all things) the evolution of life itself, in a progression that could have been lifted straight from Cosmos. Insofar as it posits any theology, the film seems to run with evolutionary creationism as a basis, and consequently indulges in a retelling of the famous seven days of creation to the accompaniment of a Nova documentary on the origins of the solar system. All we're missing is Carl Sagan's voiceover.

Things Havoc disliked: There are some... questionable decisions on Aranofsky's part in regards to what else he includes with the film. The movie has angels in it, voiced by everyone from Frank Langella to Nick Nolte, but these angels (fallen angels, to be precise), come in the form of gigantic four-armed rock monsters that have an uncanny resemblance to the Ents from the Lord of the Rings. This serves to throw the movie back from epic, biblical awe into more mundane fantasy, cheapening the effect that Aranofsky is going for. Worse yet, the cosmology of these Angels makes little to no sense. They are angels cast down from the heavens for the sin of having interfered with mortals, fair enough, yet we see sequences later on of them being slain by mortals in fairly large numbers, until suddenly something changes off screen, and they are immortal once again... I think. Everything else in the film works in such an obvious and unstated manner, that the inclusion of these rejects from Middle Earth really begins to muddle everything up. I know the original story spoke of Giants, but perhaps there's a better way to represent that than raiding the Neverending Story's costume closet.

Sadly though, that's not the end of matters, as not all of the actors are up to the task of portraying what they are intended to portray here. Jennifer Connelly is simply not a very good actress, never has been in my mind, despite her turn in Aranofsky's Requiem, and when she's called upon to deal with events of this magnitude, she rather unavoidably comes across like a housewife who think its "just such a gosh-darned shame" that the entire planet had to be destroyed amidst horrific scenes of suffering and death. Meanwhile, Noah's elder son Shem (Douglas Booth) is wooden and uninspired, and his dialogue sounds rather like someone reading off a cue card. This isn't helped by the general tone of the writing in the film, which is way too direct and on the nose. Noah narrates his own actions repeatedly within the first hour of the film, describing his intentions in detail to people who already know what he's about to say, including the audience. I mentioned the flashback montages before, but there are also others, including one at the beginning of the movie that is done in a strange, almost Milleresque style, one that doesn't fit at all, and gets the film starting on the wrong foot. It improves, granted, but the first few minutes of a movie are the most important, and not the ones to drop flat on. Finally, there are some special effects issues in this film, particularly with the animals that Noah is saving (or attempting to). Several of the wide shots are bad enough to fit right into an Asylum film, as if the Scorpion King was coming to join Noah on the Arc.

Final thoughts:   Noah, a $130,000,000 Hollywood biblical epic, is one of the strangest movies I have seen in years. It is a film of contradictions, scrupulously accurate to the biblical account of Noah, yet daringly subversive of the prevailing Christian narrative, built around characters and settings simultaneously everything and nothing like most people's assumptions about scriptural stories. It deals with its biblical source material with what appears to be both scrupulous reverence and thunderous contempt. It defies easy characterization. It is madness.

Did I like it?

It took me several days to figure out an answer to that question to be perfectly honest. I was ready, at one point, to give it a fairly low grade, as the writing was stale and several of the actors weak. Yet the film is so at odds with what I expected to see, so self-aware of the contradictions inherent in the story of Noah, that it almost has to be seen to be understood. Over the course of the days since I saw the film, my position on it has improved steadily, to the point now where I regard it as some kind of mad artwork. It is not a great film, nor a flawless one, and will not likely be gracing my list of classic films to be remembered throughout the ages. But it is a unique film, with a unique vision, unlike anything I can recall having ever seen. And when you see as many films as I do, a unique, yet coherent perspective is something to be savored.

Final Score:  7/10

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Thin, Extra-Red Line

One sentence synopsis:      Five Russian soldiers must defend a ruined apartment building and the young woman who lives there from overwhelming German assault during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Things Havoc liked: Stalingrad was the greatest battle in human history, and yet has never gotten the proper cinematic treatment it deserves.  Enemy at the Gates, the only major Hollywood attempt to portray the battle, was an uneven film with some qualities but more flaws, and outside of that, the battle has only appeared in localized German and Russian indie films, usually as part of some kind of Platoon-esque mediation on the horrors of war.  It serves its purpose in this regard, certainly, but the epic scope of the battle has still eluded filmakers, perhaps because it is simply too immense to fit on even a cinematic canvas.  Nevertheless, when I heard that a major Russian production was underway to try and do Stalingrad justice, I was excited to see the results, as if anyone could possibly get Stalingrad right, I would expect it to be them.

What strikes me immediately upon watching a historical film is the degree of accuracy that the filmmakers have sought.  Accuracy comes in many forms.  It can be scrupulous adherence to the historical facts of the period presented such as in Kingdom of Heaven, or a thematic and stylistic fidelity as evidenced by the original 300.  Stalingrad's creators seem to have sought for a mixture of the two, blending careful adherence to the gritty details of the Battle itself with a larger thematic sense of what it was that the Soviet Union was engaged in.  The filmmakers know their stuff, in terms of the details of the war and the soldiers.  They know that for all his omnipresence in Soviet society, Stalin was the last thing on anyone's minds while actually on the front line (neither were the dreaded commissars).  They know about the unspoken codes that exerted themselves in Stalingrad as in all protracted battles, and half-distilled propaganda lines such as "there is no land behind the Volga" (watchword of the Soviet 62nd Army).  They know how the Russian Ppsh-41 submachine gun worked, how the soldiers handled it, and why they did not simply spray wildly with it even at close range.  They know that German stick-grenades were concussion bombs, not fragmentation, and that soldiers often withstood their blasts simply by laying prone on the floor.  They even know that the dense Russian greatcoats were somewhat fire resistant, and that soldiers would often plunge right through sheets of flame wrapped in them, confident that they could shed them on the other side before being cooked to death.

Most war movies are, in some way, exercises in propaganda, particularly when coming from states with a, shall we say, "elevated" history of such things.  Stalingrad dispenses with such things immediately.  The only actor in the film recognizable to my western eyes is The Pianist and Downfall's Thomas Kretschmann, who plays Captain Kahn, arguably the most well-developed character in the film, a German soldier and war hero who becomes obsessed with a Russian woman who proves to be a dead ringer for his deceased wife.  Kretschmann, who coincidentally starred as a German Captain in a movie called "Stalingrad" twenty-one years ago, lives out the movie in some kind of purgatorial hell, condemned to attack the same house over and over and over again while trying to keep his "kept" woman (their relationship is ambivalent to say the least) from being murdered by either the Germans (who are massacring civilians with impunity) or the Russians (who are more than willing to execute 'collaborators' regardless of their circumstances).

But the main characters are, of course, Russian, specifically five soldiers who wind up defending an apartment building from repeated German attack, as well as a young woman whose home it is, and who tries to continue to live amidst her dead neighbors and ruined home even as war sweeps over it again and again.  The scenario is a real one, inspired no doubt by the famous "Pavlov's House", scene of fighting for weeks on end in the real war.  Five soldiers is just about the right number, frankly, as the movie is given time enough to characterize each one, with standouts being Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), the de facto leader (none of the soldiers seem to give rank much of a thought in the heat of battle), a hardened combat veteran of every major battle of the 1940s, and Nikiforov (Alexey Barabash), a classical tenor and local celebrity, converted by war into a lethal, silent killer.  But the focus of all the soldiers' attention is Katya (Maria Smolnikova), a civilian survivor who winds up the focus of all five soldiers' attention as they battle for the house.  Yet rather than turn the story into a typical Hollywood love story wherein one soldier becomes her romantic interest, perhaps at the expense of one or more of the others, this film has the soldiers treating Katya, likely the first woman they've been in close proximity to in a year and a half, as a figure almost of reverence, perhaps a representation in their own minds of loved ones at home, or some idealized version of Russia herself.  Cheesy though this may sound in text, the film portrays this dynamic sermon-straight, with a sincerity that is frankly convincing.  Men under the stresses of battle do not always revert to animal behavior.  Some seek for any shred of human decency they can find, if only to remind themselves that something exists beyond the war.

I mentioned last week in my review of the new 300 movie that Zack Snyder's stylized action style from the original laid its mark on the films that followed it, and nowhere is that more evident than here, a non-Hollywood Russian war production.  War movies since Saving Private Ryan (at least the good ones) have not sought to glamorize the experience of killing in war, instead focusing on the gritty, bloody realism of the participants.  But in a battle such as Stalingrad, in the midst of an incinerated city, fighting a tide of evil, Director Fedor Bondarchuk seems to have decided that the horrors of war will attend to themselves, and fills his movie's combat with glorious, expertly choreographed slaughter.  By knife and grenade, sub-machine gun and pistol, the soldiers in this film kill one another in poetic, artistic ways, replete with cinematic trickery and well-placed slowdowns, sparing neither the violence nor the blood attendant in such activities.  War is indeed hell, the film seems to be indicating, and yet there is an awful majesty to it as well, particularly given the stakes involved, and when Russian soldiers storm the bluffs above the river, covered in burning oil like demons from hell, and charge into machine gun fire to throw the Germans back, it's rather hard to argue that the film isn't showing the war with sufficient reverence.  The spectacle of this film's violence, though not so over the top to invite laughs, cements the central thrust of what actually happened on the banks of the Volga in the autumn and winter of 1942.

Things Havoc disliked: Stalingrad is an extremely [i]Russian[/i] film, by which I mean the style of cinema that has been a hallmark of Russia since the days of Sergei Eisenstein.  Big, elaborate showpieces are separated temporally by lengthy, almost willfully restrained sequences filled with characters locked in emotional turmoil staring at one another or out of windows, whispering dialogue that takes... seventeen.... seconds.... between.... words.  As such, it shouldn't really be a surprise that for a movie supposedly about the greatest battle in human history, this film is [i]awfully [/i]slow, particularly the second half, wherein the movie seems to forget its a war film at all, pulling out almost all of the action in favor of more character moments and scenery.  I don't mind a humanized war film, with a battle the size of Stalingrad it's almost mandatory, but the film begins, I fear, to lose track of just what it's supposed to be about, neglecting the battle until it's time for the movie to end, in favor of some kind of artistic statement on the purity of love, or something.  I'm not entirely sure myself.

There's also the other facet typical of Russian films (as it is with Russian literature), in that narrative tightness has never been a particularly important element of the equation.  Russian movies and books think nothing of simply dropping subplots, characters, or entire thematic constructs whenever they are no longer convenient to the writer, without feeling any particular need to resolve such elements.  Consequently, the film introduces characters to us who are then never seen after the first ten minutes, or elements of people's backstories that we assume are being set up for later, only to never be given any form of payoff.  Perhaps this was intentional, or perhaps this is the mark of a film that had to be edited rather heavily, but given the slow pace mentioned above, this lead me to start wondering, during the last half of the film, if the movie actually had any idea at all of where it was going with any of this.

Finally, one of the issues that afflicts a film that chooses to go the accurate route in dealing with history is that it's no good to only be strenuously accurate in [i]part[/i] of the movie.  As the film comes to its foreordained end, the filmmakers' grasp of the reality of Stalingrad seems to desert them, as tanks line up in ranks so tight that they would be unable to maneuver or turn their turrets, the better to present an imposing sight for the audience, and hundreds and hundreds of men are routed with almost contemptuous ease by the actions of half a dozen Russians, none of whom ever seem to engage more than one or two German soldiers.  Moreover, I hate to nitpick, but if you had an airstrike available to you on command, and saw what could not be less than an entire regiment of enemy forces forming up in packed ranks in the open to attack you, would you call that airstrike in on them, or wait until they had already entered the building you were endeavoring to defend?

Final thoughts:  It's always hard to criticize a foreign film, as the conventions of cinema are simply not the same from one place to another, and while it's somewhat churlish to criticize a Russian movie for failing to be American, the film ultimately has to entertain me if it wishes for my wholehearted recommendation.  How much of Stalingrad's failings are due to its place of origin and how much are actual errors I cannot say, but the movie, ultimately, had me wishing by the end that it would simply get on with it.  There are good elements, even good sequences in Stalingrad, particularly the surprisingly-rare battle scenes, done with a style and panache that would make most of the film's Hollywood contemporaries green with envy.  But it's a very difficult task to hang a two and a half hour film on twenty minutes of action, especially when all of the action is front-loaded.

My suggestion?  Catch the battle sequences on Youtube, and otherwise wait for the next try.  Stalingrad was the biggest battle in the history of the world.  Filmmakers will get it right some day.

Final Score:  5/10

Friday, March 14, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Alternate Title:  Go Persia!

One sentence synopsis:     The Athenian General Themistocles must lead a coalition of Greek warships to defend Greece from the Persian hordes of God-King Xerxes and Queen Artemisia

Things Havoc liked:  Despite my well-founded hatred of films that take it upon themselves to rip history to pieces to suit some shallow modern obsession (Troy, for instance), I openly adored Frank Miller and Zack Snyder's 300. The film was almost comically inaccurate, depicting the Battle of Thermopylae as one of hyper-muscled Spartans in leather thongs battling the orcish hordes of a nine-foot Xerxes. Yet I had no objection to it, partly because the spectacle was so amazing, but also because, despite the bare chests and slavering monsters, the film actually did bear a relation to the historical source material, albeit not the one that most historical epics pretend to have. 300 was not the Battle of Thermopylae as it happened, but the Battle of Thermopylae as the Greeks would have described it, a record not of the history, but of the mythology that grew up around it in Greek circles. This was the version of the battle that Aeschylus and Herodotus would have presented, a visual version of the Epic Poetry that was written in volumes about one of the signature battles of the Persian War. I was therefore hyped to see the sequel, wherein Snyder and his crew took on the immediate aftermath of Thermopylae, and the turning point in the war, one of the most important battles in human history, Salamis.

What a surprise therefore, that the thing I liked the most about this film wasn't in the original.

Looking back, I think I've been waiting for an opportunity to like Eva Green, and yet I'm not sure I could tell you why. She was wooden and unremarkable in Kingdom of Heaven, Dark Shadows and The Golden Compass were awful films, and while I did like her in Casino Royale, it was hardly the sort of performance that cements one's career in memory. Yet moreso than many character actors I have enjoyed, I've always remembered Green's name and face, and wondered what she might do if given an opportunity to completely slip the leash. In Rise of an Empire, this is precisely what she was given, and the answer to the question appears to be "raving camp". Green plays Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus and ally of Xerxes of Persia, here elevated to the overall commander of the Persian fleet assembled to annihilate the Greeks once and for all. As the primary antagonist of the film (Xerxes himself being demoted to an occasional presence occupied with Leonidas), Green plays a character straight out of Rocky Horror, passing well beyond camp and straight into a semi-genre-savvy pastiche of an evil warlord. This is one of those villains who isn't merely evil, but gleefully, riotously evil, and while that's tremendously inappropriate for a straight historical drama, for a stylized mytho-historical action orgy like 300, it fits absolutely perfectly. Artemisia, one of the more fascinating characters of classical Greece, here becomes a cross between Nicholas Cage and Captain Ahab, whether dual-wielding broadswords against Greek hoplites, calling enemy commanders to her flagship for casual threats mixed with sex, or masterminding pan-imperial assassination plots to maneuver her handpicked selection to the throne of Persia. Moreover, Green is the only character provided with an actual backstory, explaining the passionate hatred she, though Greek herself, bears for all of Greece. Buttressed by this backstory, and the nature of the film, Green lets herself go all out, and is easily the best thing in the entire film.

300 was an action spectacle, a blood opera in keeping with the finest works of John Woo or Donnie Yen, and its sequel does not disappoint in this regard. To the customary sword and spear-play, replete with copious limb amputations, this film adds naval combat to the repertoire of stylized slaughter, with triremes ripping one another apart and naptha bombs setting the sea alight. Eschewing the dreaded shaky-cam, the film uses 300's patented slow-mo/speed-up to linger on every single mutilation and every bone-shattering impact. And while the fighting isn't quite as studded with "wow" moments as the original, that may simply be the lack of novelty. 300 changed the way action was done, at least in good films, and this one proves that the formula still bears fruit.

Things Havoc disliked:  But it proves a few other things along the way.

The original 300 was not subtle, nor was it oversupplied with characterization, but it was a simple story told simply and with skill. It eschewed modern sensibilities in favor of a stylization of how Greeks might have seen the battle in question, and when you took the orcs and monsters and oiled chests out of the equation, it portrayed the Battle of Thermopylae more or less the way it actually happened. The Persian army, confronted in the pass of Thermopylae by a small force of Spartans and other Greeks, was unable to batter their way through, taking horrific losses, until finally they outflanked the position and annihilated the Greeks, winning the day, but providing a preview of the horrific defeats to come. It played like a mythologized version of the real battle, not a complete invention, which is why I defended it to those who argued its historical qualities. And yet I'm frankly not certain if any of this was apparent to the actual filmmakers, because judging from the way this movie portrays its material, it might all have been an accident.

Part of the problem is the main character, Themistocles, played by Animal Kingdom's Sullivan Stapleton. Where Gerard Butler's Leonidas was a very Greek archetype, a somewhat one-note killing machine of machismo and combat prowess, the filmmakers this time round try and make Themistocles into a modern hero, conflicted and unsure of himself before rising above his flaws to become the champion Greece requires. This is all wrong. The man who singlehandedly forced Athens to first build a navy and then use it to battle odds scarcely credible was neither "conflicted" nor "humble", but instead a leader of overwhelming arrogance and self-assured power, one who knew he was equal to the task at hand, and single-minded towards gaining it. This version of Themistocles is a mincing violet when it isn't time for him to butcher vast numbers of men, to the point where the movie has him give a pre-battle speech acknowledging that he is inadequate and telling his men that he doesn't mind if they desert him. Not only does this turn the character into the same damned reluctant hero archetype of thousands of other films (and a boring one to boot), but it shatters the illusion that we are watching anything resembling the actual Battles of Artemisium and Salamis, even ones as seen through the lens of Greek tale-making.

But then, that illusion doesn't hold up for long anyway. The original 300 played fast and loose with everything except the actual facts of the war itself. This movie throws that notion out the window instantly. In a desperate attempt to raise the personal stakes, the movie opens on the Battle of Marathon, some ten years earlier, and has Themistocles (somehow now promoted to command of the Athenian army) personally slay Darius, father of Xerxes, thus setting off some sort of revenge plot between him and Xerxes. Ignoring the fact that Darius was not at the Battle of Marathon, nor did he die during the war in question, this scene is problematic because it touches off the way in which these new filmmakers (Snyder is creditted as a co-writer this time, but the directing duties fall to newcomer Noam Murro) plan to treat the history of their subject. Battles are fought which never happened, in locations that do not exist, under circumstances that never transpired. Worse, people die who actually survived the war, fighting in battles they did not participate in, while armies that did not exist appear from nothing to save the lives of people who needed no saving in the real version of history. The film goes so far that when the Battle of Salamis finally rolls around, it is fought using a strategy completely alien to the real battle, by forces utterly alien to the ones in the real thing, with results that have very little to do with what actually happened. I understand the need to be fresh with the material, but when the entire reason that the battle was so important is junked in favor of some other battle whose repercussions would have been vastly different, one begins to question the point of the entire exercise.

If you're going to change history around though, the least you can do is try and distract us from this fact by way of providing something else interesting to watch. Unfortunately, besides the items I listed above, there isn't much of that. The characterization, both of Themistocles and of his various allied warriors, is so paper-thin that we actually wind up with better character moments when the movie turns back to returning actors Lena Headley and David Wenham, respectively playing Queen Gorgo, and Delios of Sparta. The original characters had very little characterization themselves, but it's emblematic of this movie's flaws that, when those two are on the screen, it's a serious improvement. Bereft of them, we have painfully obvious rehashes of the subplots from the first movie, complete with the whole father-and-son dynamic that the original used as a means of trying to distinguish a few of the Spartan mass. It didn't really work then, but it really doesn't work now. And given this, the movie is unable to distract us from the structural problems it has in spades. While the fighting and choreography is superb, the blood effects in this film are some of the worst I've seen in a decade, as if the movie-makers had squirted red jelly on the film stock. The Persians, Artemisia-aside, are such bumbling fools wandering blindly into certain death over and over again, that all sense of drama or tension is lost, even when the filmmakers arbitrarily reduce Themistocles' fleet from 300 triremes to 5 for the final throwdown. The effect is so bad that even the fighting becomes tiresome, as we wearily wait for the Greeks to effortlessly slaughter another horde of men eighty times their number before they can actually get around to doing something dangerous.

Final thoughts:   This movie confused me more than anything, as many films that seem to deviate from a winning formula for no reason do. Why would you make such radical changes to the characters and the story of the battle you have selected to portray when it was precisely the lack of such changes that made the original a great movie? Did Hollywood, or whoever was responsible for the first film, simply luck into 300, or did Frank Miller understand his subject matter far better than those hired to follow him up? Indeed, the very title of the film betrays confusion, as I fail to understand why a movie about the shattering defeat of what was then the mightiest polity in human history would possibly be called "Rise of an Empire". The film is not, overall, badly made, and Eva Green's performance elevates almost every scene she is in, but the ultimate result of this project is contrivance and incoherence, and not all the beautiful slaughter in the world can disguise it. Ultimately, for those who adore the poetry of an action film, as I do, Rise of an Empire is a worthy thing to see, along the lines of the Expendables or the brainless action films of yesteryear. But given the effort that went into the previous film to produce something truly unique, it is disappointing to see 300 reduced to another chop-shop tale of modern, conflicted characters, dressing up in Halloween costumes and fighting the innumerable forces of thundering idiocy.

After all, if I wanted to see that, I'd watch The Patriot again.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Monuments Men

Alternate Title:  The Case of the Missing Comedy

One sentence synopsis:     A task force of artists, antiquarians, and curators must locate troves of priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis in the end stages of WWII.

Things Havoc liked:  Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi regime perpetrated the greatest series of crimes in human history. One such crime, though not as high profile as the Holocaust, was the theft of tens and hundreds of thousands of works of art, mostly sculptures and paintings, from all across the continent of Europe. As the war wound down, the Allies assembled a unit, the "Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program", who spent the last two years of the war, and six years thereafter, doing their best to recover as much of Europe's cultural heritage as possible from the various hidden troves where the Nazis had hid it. Called the "Monuments men" for short, this film is the story of these men, as they cross Europe trying to stop the Germans from destroying their looted art, or the Soviets from looting it in turn as war reparations.

For the task of portraying this story, the German-American producers of this film have assembled a superb cast. George Clooney and Matt Damon play Lts Frank Stout and James Granger, Harvard-educated art curators from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, who convince the government to assemble a team to preserve what can be recovered by any means necessary. Among the other experts brought in are characters played by Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban, along with an international contingent including a Free French expert played by The Artist's Jean Durjardin and a curator from Paris played by Cate Blanchett. The characterization for this bevy of characters is somewhat limited (more on that later), but a collection of superlative actors this accomplished can't help but produce good work, even in somewhat mundane circumstances or encounters, such as a sequence when Murray and Balaban encounter a straggling German soldier in the woods and disarm him with a pack of cigarettes, or another, later on, when they unknowingly stop by the cabin of a Nazi art thief, and gradually begin to realize who they are dealing with. Clooney persists in playing himself, as he has in largely every film ever, but he and Damon play off one another well, and when the plot calls for someone to recite sugary dialogue over patriotic horn music about the importance of art to human wellbeing (more on that later as well), Clooney's one of the best in the business.

The film is not structured, more or less, as a single plot, but rather as a series of vignettes, as various teams of Monuments men break off and scatter across western Europe, seeking for art in mines, castles, and the homes of Nazi war criminals. Some are shot at, some killed, others find themselves in strange situations, but the episodic style of the movie, while defusing a great deal of narrative tension, does manage to convey the sense of these soldiers' actions as being a small element of a much larger tapestry, either the war in general, or the campaign to recover art in specific. The real MFAA program employed hundreds of American, British, and Allied experts, who combed Europe for years, and while I understand that the film has to concentrate on a few of them in order to tell the story at all, it's nice that the movie doesn't attempt to pull a U-571 and pretend that these men were the only ones to engage in these sorts of efforts.

Things Havoc disliked:  All of which is well and good in theory, but in practice, this film is simply a mess.

Advance previews for this film originally began coming out last September, with an intended release date around Christmas, and crucially, they portrayed the film as a comedy. At some point that fall, the film was pulled for additional post-production work and pushed back to a February release, not a good sign insofar as the studios' confidence levels are concerned. Moreover, the new trailers were playing the story straight, as a feel-good dramatic piece showcasing the good works these people were doing, leading me to believe that test screenings had gone disastrously badly, and editors were being brought in to salvage it. I mention all of this background because the film we have been given here bears all the hallmarks of one mutilated in editing to become something it was not originally intended to be. The film cannot, for instance, decide if it wants to be funny or not, trying to cross elements very little short of slapstick (Matt Damon steps on a landmine, for instance, and must find a way off without getting blown up), with heavy drama (the team proceeds to locate a barrel containing tens of thousands of extracted gold teeth). Admittedly, many of the individual scenes do work, either because the editorial patching is well done, or because these actors are good enough to carry them, but the overall effect is mood whiplash, robbing the movie of any momentum in terms of dramatic heft or comedic timing. It becomes a series of disconnected scenes, having nothing to do with one another, played in seemingly random order with little-to-no impact on the cast itself.

Indeed, the editorial seams in the story rob us not only of proper pacing, but also of a proper idea of just who these people are. There are no introductions for the various characters, save for a cursory voiceover listing their names and areas of expertise. We are given no time with them in training, or in preparation for their task in order to get to know them, and while several of them seem to know one another already, we have only the barest hints as to what their relationships are or how they can be expected to evolve. A British antiquarian, for instance, is [i]hinted[/i] at as having had some kind of dissolute past, but the exactitudes are never made clear, even though the movie treats his work as some kind of redemptive act of penance, complete with solemn speeches about how he has finally made good.  The reason for all this stasis may be that the characters don't evolve at all, as though the writers had no interest in the characters as characters, and preferred instead to simply use them as a means to show off the fact that Americans care about art. What few characters that do get a moment or two to actually develop are, of course, done poorly. Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone is an art curator in Paris who loses a brother to the Nazis and fights to prevent them from looting the French collection, and yet when the Americans do finally arrive she refuses categorically to help them find the stolen artwork, presumably because she is afraid they will keep it for themselves. Without getting into the politics of such a belief, what exactly is her plan? Do nothing in the hopes that the paintings will magically find their way back to their original owners? Or is the entire plot point invented to give her the excuse of later falling for Matt Damon's character and giving him the information she should have given him an hour and a half ago?

Furthermore, I hate to be pedantic, but, if you're going to make a film about World War II, based on a non-fiction book and rooted in the insistence that this is a true story, then the least you can do is try and get your facts straight. I'm not talking about minor quibbles like the proper functioning of land mines (they explode when you step on them, not off), but major matters like the date and time of the D-Day invasion, as this film has Clooney display a battle map to the President of the United States showing the invasion as having already occurred in August of 1943.  Worse still, while the film does avoid making the initiative a purely American one (though the non-Americans on the team tend to have a much shorter lifespan than their fellows), the Russians, who were dealing with their own recovery efforts, are effectively turned into the bad guys, as the movie seems to regard them as rapacious thieves on the same level as the Nazis themselves, seeking to loot all of Europe to please Stalin. The real monuments men spent much of their time not only locating stolen art, but laboring mightily to save what had simply been damaged, such as their efforts in Pisa, Florence, or Aachen. None of these things figure into this film, and while I'd understand those omissions in the context of presenting a coherent story, given that it does no such thing, I'm hard pressed to excuse it.

But all of these problems might even have been salvageable, save for the damning fact that this is one of the sappiest films I've seen since The Odd Life of Timothy Green back in 2012. While we do not have time, while watching this film, to actually develop characters, we apparently have plenty of time to linger on backlit shots of the American flag, to listen to horrible, vaguely-patriotic horn music accompanying everything the characters do like a choir of angels, or have George Clooney recite dull, cliche-laden speeches about how "art is important, guys!" The movie uses broad comedy when considering most of its characters' actions, before suddenly becoming as solemn as a deacon on Sunday when one of them must valiantly give their lives to protect the heritage of Western Civilization. Not only that, but it calls back to this theme some five or six times, going so far as to have the President of the United States personally ask the commander of this little unit if "it was worth it", when he considers the men who died to save the artworks in question, a question he of course answers with the assistance of bugles, soft lighting, and copious American flags. Perhaps, if I squint, I can conceive of a version of this film and this subject matter which might have worked. But this version is as sweet as cough syrup, to the point where even I, die hard WWII historian that I am, couldn't bear any more of it by the time the movie mercifully ends.

Final thoughts:   The Monuments Men, for all of my complaints, is not a terrible movie, but it is an almost aggressively mediocre one, mired in a directionless script written by studio hacks and then mutilated by editing into a rambling, disjointed mess. The sheer skill of the many great actors involved in the production, who no doubt thought they were making an important film on a great moment in the US Army's history, is all that keeps this film from being truly wretched, but are not enough to salvage a project that, judging from the evidence, was doomed from the beginning. The story of the men who saved the treasures of Western Civilization is a worthy one, and deserves a theatrical consideration of the highest quality, but the mere fact that the story is uplifting is no excuse for failure of this magnitude.

My suggestion? If somehow a terrible war ravages the globe once more, do not exert heroic efforts to preserve this film from the flames. Believe me, the corpus of human achievement will not be lessened by its absence.

Final Score:  4/10

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