Monday, April 28, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Alternate Title:  Clan Toreador:  A Film

One sentence synopsis:  A vampire-musician and his wife re-unite in Detroit while dealing with the wife's sister, and difficulties in obtaining a reliable blood supply.

Things Havoc liked:  Jim Jarmusch is insane. I know this isn't a terribly unique spin on things, but it's true. Like many of the other Indie filmmakers I've run into over the course of this experiment (Anderson the Whimsical, Aronofsky the Deranged, Mallick the Pretentious), Jarmusch has his own style, save that his particular style is semi-dazed, plodding insanity, films which not only make no sense, but seem to take perverse pleasure in willfully abolishing sense from their presence. His films always appear simultaneously to be made by someone who was perfectly lucid and edited by someone under the influence of powerful sedatives, with shots constructed in an interesting, professional fashion, which are then allowed to simply sit there on screen until the audience begins to suspect equipment failure. This technique generally does not impress me, particularly in such horrific miscarriages of boredom as Dead Man, but Jarmusch is not some affected poseur like Mallick, and can still occasionally surprise you with flashes of sanity peering through the fog of madness.

In this spirit, I decided to go see a Vampire Movie.

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's attempt at a vampire film, and strange though it is, there's a fascinating undercurrent to it, a brooding, trance-like quality that permeates the film's structure and leaves you unsure of just what it is you're seeing. Set mostly in the abandoned parts of Detroit (and exclusively at night, of course), it stars Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, alongside Tilda Swinton, one of the strangest actresses alive, as a pair of centuries-old vampires who have the misfortune of residing within a Jim Jarmusch film. Hiddleston is Adam, a musician and scientist who has become a recluse, producing music he does not want traced to him while brooding on the dark and diseased nature of the world from his warren-like house on the outskirts of Detroit, while Swinton's Eve (subtle!) is his wife, residing in Tangier, and sustaining herself on blood acquired from Vampire-Christopher-Marlowe (John Hurt). Consumed with his brooding pessimism, Adam convinces Eve to come to Detroit to see him and...

... well not much, to be honest, and yes, there'll be more on that front later, but let us first speak of good things. Though the film is as slow as any Jarmusch production, this time the movie at least gestures towards earning it with mood and imagery and score. If you're going to force the audience to stare at a single image for over a minute, for instance, it helps if the image is well crafted, if good, trippy music is playing underneath it, or if the underlying tension and theme of the sequence is worthwhile. It also helps if the audience has some idea of what your movie is actually about, which is an issue Jarmusch has had in the past, though not here. That said, the overall point of the film is plainly not the plot, but the overall feel of these two characters, characters who seem less like Twilight-inspired hipster-douches and more like people who have simply run out of reasons to be interested in the wider world. There is a strong sense of age behind Hiddleston and Swinton's performances, every line weighted down by centuries of disappointment and discontent. Some artistic or scientific pursuits still spark a flicker of interest (Adam apparently has built a perpetual motion machine out of one of Tesla's old designs), but only occasionally. And yet the theme is not overly funereal either. The characters may not be interested in the rest of the world, but they are still, at least, interested in one another. And perhaps that is enough.

Still, not everything in this movie is long, dark brooding. Midway through the film, Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears to inject some energy into the film, if only by annoying the other characters into taking some action against her. Of all the characters in the film, Ava seems to be the only one who embodies some of what we classically imagine from Vampires, specifically the predatory, dangerous nature of them. While Adam and Eve get their blood from blood banks and never go beyond appearing a bit spooky, Ava's policies are considerably more "traditional", with results that can be predicted. Other side characters, from Hurt's Marlowe (who claims to have written Shakespeare's plays and describes the bard as an "illiterate zombie") to Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin as two of the only mortals that Adam ever interacts with, the former a ghoulish hospital attendant with a penchant for nicknames, the latter a procurer of rare instruments and musical equipment, who seems to take the antics of a cloistered vampire in the wilderness of suburban Detroit as just another normal facet of reality. Yelchin in particular is as good as I've ever seen him, playing well off of Hiddleston's wooden reserve as just another musical groupie dealing with just another eccentric artist.

Things Havoc disliked: A good Jim Jarmusch film is still a Jim Jarmusch film, and lest we forget what that means, this is a man who managed to make a slow, leaden, plodding movie about a Samurai Mafia-assassin. Only Lovers Left Alive certainly isn't the worst offense against narrative timekeeping that Jarmusch has ever committed, but it's still a movie fully in his style, with slow trance-beats (from his own band, SQÜRL) over near-motionless shots of characters taking lengthy, pregnant pauses between each line of whispered dialogue. At this point, I know what to expect from Jarmusch, but that doesn't make it any easier to bear when you start to get the undeniable urge to check your watch every fifteen minutes.

But it's not just the pace of this film that messes about. Far from having a weak plot, the film barely has a plot at all. It is the experiences of two vampires in the world, which would be fine if those experiences were in any way indicative of the world Jarmusch is trying to create, or for that matter, of anything else. I get that the characters are bored, I get that they have lived forever and I get that they are sick of humans screwing everything up (impending vaguely-implied apocalypses, ecological or war-related, are suffused throughout the characters' dialogue). But once we've established all that, which takes barely half an hour, it would be nice if our characters went on some form of journey, as with most of the other films in the world. I don't demand that they change, they are vampires after all, and some of the best stories are about characters who attempt to change and cannot, but if the author won't let the characters even consider change, then all we're doing is watching an over-long vignette, leaving me, at least, with the question of what the point of everything is. Yes, I know Jarmusch is notorious for his rejection of common screenwriting conceits (he actually goes so far as to drop a literal inversion of Chekov's Gun into this one), but it is not good filmmaking to simply not do a thing. You also need to convince me that there's a good reason for you to not do it, and Jarmusch, for all the prettiness of some of his shots, never goes that far.

Final thoughts:   It's possible I'm not making a lot of sense, but then neither was the film, and I can only work with what I'm given. Based on other reviews I've seen from people struggling to find some meaning in this odd picture (I've seen interpretations that range from the Decline of the United States to a study of incest-taboos), I don't seem to be the only one left a bit mystified as to how I'm supposed to react to this picture. To sum up then in a manner hopefully a bit more helpful than the previous meanderings, I found in retrospect that Only Lovers Left Alive was a better film than I expected, but not different than I expected. It was, upon reflection, exactly the sort of Vampire movie that Jim Jarmusch would make, a slow, brooding movie filled with literary allusions and flirting with the edge of becoming downright boring, not because of its subject matter, so much as because Jarmusch is a director who seems to be incapable of producing any other sort of film. Indeed, at this point, the only thing Jarmusch could likely do to surprise me would be to make an action-comedy in the style of Michael Bay.

Is it possible to get too repetitive in your rejection of convention? Because if so, then perhaps it's not coincidence that Jarmusch decided, at this point in his career, that his next film should be about unchanging vampires, vaguely disgusted with the state of society around them, and yet completely unable to channel that frustration in anything but the same old way.

But then perhaps we shouldn't over-think this.  After all, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire...

Final Score:  6/10

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Draft Day

Alternate Title:  Field of Snores

One sentence synopsis:       The General Manager of the Cleveland Browns must battle the team's owner, coach, media, and his own family as he attempts to build the best team possible through the NFL draft.

Things Havoc liked:  I've mentioned in my reviews of Moneyball and 42 that I'm an avowed Baseball fan, but I haven't had the opportunity yet to discuss my position on Football, my favorite of the American spectator sports. Though I tend to open such reviews with scathing denunciations of teams such as the Oakland Athletics or the Los Angeles Dodgers, I feel in this case it would be unsportsmanlike, as well as unfair, for me to do something similar. Every fan deserves the right to root for their team unmolested, after all, and so I shall forebear to mention that teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys are comprised entirely of communist goat molesters who employ the blackest of arts to seize tainted victory from shining beacons of progress and virtue such as my own San Francisco 49ers. To mention such things would, after all, be uncivilized.

But back to the film's virtues. Despite all the crap he's been in, I can't hate Kevin Costner, especially now that he seems to have finally left his Waterworld/Postman days behind him. Though his character was mutilated beyond all recognition, I thought he was an excellent choice for Johnathan Kent in Man of Steel, and he remains one here. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr, son of a (fictional) long-time Browns coach, now serving as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns as they struggle to recover from another (real) losing season. Unlike the Head Coach, the General Manager of a football team does not run the team but assemble it, responsible for drafting and trading the players that he believes he needs in order to produce a winning team. It's the same role, albeit for a different sport, that Brad Pitt held in Moneyball, but Costner plays it completely differently. Where Pitt was a self-assured rebel effortlessly engaging in multi-latteral trades to try and fleece his opponents, Costner struggles with the weight of the decision of the year, the selection of the Browns' first round draft pick, a decision that is his alone, but that literally everyone from the rest of the Browns staff to the fans to his own Mother want to give him "advice" on. Costner's performance isn't the best in the film, but he manages to sell the sheer importance of this single call, and the sequences wherein he snaps back at those who wish to bother him with their own "opinions" on what he ought to do are among the best he has.

And what a wonderful collection of dignitaries we have assembled to tell Costner that he is an idiot. Frank Langella plays the owner of the Browns, a showman who wants Costner to "make a splash" whether the pick works out well or not, by making some kind of massive, blockbuster trade/deal to stir up excitement. Langella is always fun to watch, regardless of the role, and he hams it up in this one in his best impression of Al Davis or George Steinbrenner. Dennis Leary, meanwhile, who has been making a habit of being the saving grace of otherwise terrible films, plays Coach Penn, head coach of the long-suffering Browns, a ringer brought in from a winning team to energize a snakebit franchise. Leary in particular in the standout for this film, as his trademark blue-collar acerbic schtick works very well in the mouth of the would-be tough guys that tend to hang around the margins of NFL coaching. One could easily see him as a standin for Bobby Petrino or Nick Saban. The generally strong cast is rounded out by other standouts, many of them in-jokes for NFL fans, including Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson of 42) as prospect linebacker desired by Costner and nobody else, and real life star running back Arian Foster, playing a college phenom whose father, a former Browns great, is played by Terry Crews, a decision I don't quite understand but do endorse.

Things Havoc disliked: What, exactly, is the audience for a film like this? Football fans, would be my guess, and yet based on the evidence, that's not a viewpoint shared by the filmmakers. The movie advertises itself as a hardboiled, burning negotiation film, where deals are made and unmade in split seconds and the destinies of NFL teams are forged in a crucible of calculation and gut instinct. And there is that, I suppose, but unfortunately, the majority of the film is instead comprised of, say it with me, "family drama". And who have we brought in to this little engagement to provide the requisite drama? Why Jennifer Garner, of course.


No, Garner isn't godawful this time round (though she's not much better). The issue is really the idea that the movie should be about the personal and family troubles of Costner's character at all. Garner is his girlfriend/finance manager, who is suddenly pregnant barely a week after the death of Costner's father. What follows is a tired series of repeated scenes wherein Costner and Garner try to act at one another, misunderstand each other, are unable to talk about their troubles, become distant, make up, face relationship challllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllndfsmnasdf...........................

Huh? Sorry, I fell asleep on the keyboard there. You get the idea, right? Boring scene follows boring scene wherein Costner tries to act sensitive (never his strong suit) while Garner tries to act at all (same), all in regards to a subject that has nothing whatsoever to do with why we're actually here. And then, midway through the film, Ellen Burstyn, an actress I usually adore, shows up in a terrible role as Costner's mother, who seems to exist solely to make his life hard. Storming into his office the day of the draft itself, a subject she has been established as knowing all about (she calls him up to berate him for one of his draft moves earlier in the film), she demands that he drop everything to scatter his father's ashes on the practice field, and refuses categorically to consider doing it on any other day than the most important one in any NFL GM's life, nor to delay it by a single hour, and then drags his ex-wife along for no reason other than to snipe at Costner for working too much. This idea is so bad that it's actually painful to watch, as Burstyn is forced to play straight material that should have been laughed off the set. Of course she also doesn't like Garner (we have this much in common), and so we are given the obligatory sequences wherein Burstyn disrespects Garner, just so that we can wonder if they will later have a tearful scene of reconciliation to the accompaniment of string instruments.

And when we do, finally, return to the business of football, there are just too many questions. For one thing (spoiler alert?), Costner starts out the movie by making one of the most imbecilic moves in the history of bad draft moves, the kind of move that would, in reality, get compared to the infamous Herschel Walker trade between the Cowboys and Vikings. He spends the rest of the film being criticized for this move by most professionals in the organization, which is only fair, but the problem is that we see far too much of Costner's hand for the film to play the "is the move stupid or genius?" game. He has no secret plan, we know he has no secret plan, as we spend most of the film watching him agonize over the fact that he has no secret plan. So when the movie suddenly decides it wants to turn into Moneyball and pretend that Costner actually might have some kind of secret plan to turn this whole thing to his advantage, we are left with the conclusion that any good move he makes out of the aftermath of this situation is simply luck (or screenwriter fiat).

Ultimately, the film just doesn't feel like the sort of Hard Knocks, inside-the-curtain look at the backroom excitement of the NFL that it so clearly wants to be. Visits to other cities are accompanied by elaborate flyovers of the various stadiums (stadia?) complete with title cards reminding us that Seattle is, indeed, the home of the Seahawks, and Kansas City that of the Chiefs, something even a cursory fan of the NFL could probably figure out for themselves. Absent a montage sequence early in the film that seems placed there to acquaint people with the fact that football exists in Cleveland, there are no local touches, no colorful details of the Browns themselves, one of the most colorful (and storied) teams in the league. The terminology that the characters use with one another is either too vague and too detailed, with the script alternating between having characters explain concepts to one another that any professional would already know (so as to catch the audience up), and switching into the most arcane, acronym-laced verbiage imaginable, verbiage that could not possibly mean anything to any living human, and pretending that the characters (particularly Garner) understand what is being said as a sort of shorthand to the audience that "these guys know their stuff". Moneyball (and other movies of its ilk) managed to ride the line by using terms that the players or coaches might actually use, without bothering to explain them, understanding that audiences can catch up with the basics, and simply handwave away the rest, most of the time. But then, Moneyball was a movie with confidence and trust in its audience, whereas Draft Day is quite visibly not.

Final thoughts:   I don't want to make Draft Day sound terrible, for a terrible movie must take risks, and Draft Day takes none whatsoever. It is a movie that plays to a general audience that will never go see it, Doldrums or not, while failing to satisfy the specialty audience that might. Layered in personal drama that is both uninteresting and badly done, the movie thereby disguises what strengths it actually has by pretending for most of its runtime that it is about something other than football. I understand that not everyone is a fan of American football, but movies about something as precisely on-point as the NFL draft cannot get away with generalizing themselves in the hopes of drawing in a wider audience, not unless they are made with considerably more care and skill than this movie is.

If you're a fan like me, watch the real draft, and otherwise tide yourself over until next season, as you will find nothing in this film you don't already know, and in fact plenty that you likely know better than the film's creators. If you're not a fan, then frankly you had no chance of seeing this anyway, as the subject will mean nothing to you, and the film is not nearly strong enough to be worth seeing by itself.

Oh, and if you happen to be one of those hipsters who cannot tolerate the mention of the word "Football" without loudly proclaiming to all and sundry how much you don't like the sport of 'hand-egg', and how that makes you special and unique? Then I strongly recommend you go see this movie immediately. Seriously, man, it'll change your life.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal

Alternate Title:  Ass Kicking 2:  Ass Kick Harder

One sentence synopsis:       A decorated Indonesian SWAT officer goes undercover into the middle of a three-way organized crime war.

Things Havoc liked:  Looking back, I suspect I was a little too harsh on the original Raid, an Indonesian Martial Arts film released stateside in early 2012. I criticized it primarily for spending too much time on a throwaway plot, which was fair, and for not having martial arts quite at the level of the state of the art movies, which ultimately I believe was not fair. Raid's fighting was, on further viewing, better than I remembered it, and I think I might have been reacting to the fact that the movie's weakest section was its last third, a terrible idea for any action film. But that said, I did enjoy the original Raid quite a bit, and was eager to see what the sequel had to offer, hoping that it might improve on the flaws of its original and deliver me something special.

I do so enjoy it when my hopes are rewarded.

The Raid 2, written and directed by Welsh filmmaker Garreth Evans (as was the first) is a serious step up from what was already a very solid martial arts film base, a movie that elevates well beyond the simple-but-effective structure of the original film to become something truly special. It is a glorious ode to the fine art that is filming men beating and slicing the crap out of one another in the most cinematic ways possible, presented with the verve of a true connoisseur showing off his finest collection. Where I compared, fairly or not, the original film unfavorably to the masterworks of the genre, Sat Po Lung, for instance, or Ong Bak, I make no such claims this time. The Raid 2 is worthy of inclusion in those lofty heights, a panoramic bloodfest of orgiastic proportions, splashed upon the screen with skill and charm, sure to delight any who glory in the violent, spectacle side of martial arts.

Rama, played once more by Iko Uwais, has been through a rough couple of years. No sooner has he escaped near-certain death at the hands of the drug gang from Raid 1, than he is recruited as an undercover agent to infiltrate the largest organized crime syndicate in the un-named Indonesian city. Initiating a complex plan involving being sent into prison to get close to the son of the boss of the crime family in question, Rama is plunged into an escalating series of martial arts brawls, ones which start at the level of the fights from the first film and elevate from there. As the action is the focus and the draw here, it's worth mentioning once more just how good the action in this movie is. Frenetic and bloody, the film showcases nearly a dozen different fight sequences, each with their own signature moments, wherein a stone badass dismantles dozens of mooks intent on killing them, or alternately two of said stone badasses battle one another in a solo contest of skill and poise. Nothing new, save the fantastic skill of the sequences in question, better and more athletic than the original, and worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of amazing martial arts films. Fights are inventive and staged in a complex manner, with plenty of 'signature' characters and weapons, including a deaf girl who slaughters her enemies with a pair of claw hammers, and a baseball-bat-wielding maniac who, for once, kills people via the intended purpose of such objects. Best of all, the fights are staged in such a way that the film moves through them, by and large, in order of impressiveness, until by the end of the film, there are engagements worthy of any duel found in the finest exemplars of martial arts on film.

But there's more to this movie than simply the customary violence. The Raid 1 was advertised as an action film without a plot, and I, for one, was somewhat disappointed when the film did not live up to this promise. The plot of the original film was somewhat tacked on, a lackluster, formulaic entry, that marred the last third of the movie and brought it down from the heights of action awesomeness. The sequel, while still formulaic (action films are simple movies, ultimately), is a much more layered narrative, integrated fully into the plot so as to give weight and context to the acts of brutal violence that we are witnessing. The plot is complex and labyrinthine, involving well over a dozen major characters with their own motives, betrayals and twists, gang wars and false-flag attacks. I won't claim the plot is anything revolutionary, but there is room in film for a classic-style story told well, and the narrative this time round is used to buttress the main attraction of the film extremely well. Though nobody here should be in contention for Indonesia's equivalent of the Oscars, there are standout sequences, particularly anything involving Bangun, the elderly head of the crime family in question, whose instincts are for peace at any price when it comes to mob war, or Bejo, a crippled, half-Arab up-and-coming crime lord hellbent on upsetting the proverbial apple cart, and sowing chaos so as to profit off the mayhem.

Things Havoc disliked: The film makes a rather touching series of assumptions about the nature of its audience, one of which is that they have, of course, seen the first Raid. That much is fair enough, as I do prefer it when sequels do not spend the first half of the movie rehashing their previous installment. But this film doesn't just expect you to remember the Raid, but to remember it in incredible detail. Characters from the first movie, last seen by me two years ago and portrayed by actors I've not seen before or since, form important elements of the plot, all without the film reminding us who in the hell they are, relative to one another, a practice that is not helped by the film's use of un-announced flashbacks. To make everything even more confusing, several actors from the original film appear in this one playing completely new characters, leaving us completely unsure as to what, if anything, any of the characters (save for the main one) have to do with the original. Fortunately, the plot does not rely heavily upon the actions of these characters, but it took quite a while for me to realize that the answer to all of my questions was more or less irrelevant, and that I could simply get back to the business of watching the film.

Final thoughts:   The Raid 2 is a triumph, a spectacle in every sense of the term, bloody and gorgeous in all the right ways, instantly positioning itself in the ranks of great action movie sequels such as Terminator 2 and Aliens. Though it may not be a revolutionary film in the way the aforementioned ones did, it is one of the finest exercises in its genre, a crime caper fight-fest of glorious proportions, exceeding its original in largely every way, and elevating its star and director/writer from "good prospects" to "must-watch candidates". Much hay has been made recently about the decline of "pure" martial arts films, and the lack of forthcoming titles from China or Hong Kong, the traditional homes of such things, but based on this film, permit me to suggest that the dearth of great Chinese martial arts is not due to some collapse of the industry, but to a process much more familiar to us in everyday life: Globalization.

Or perhaps practitioners of Silat are simply more badass than those of traditional Kung Fu. Personally, I suggest empirical tests be run to determine this. I also suggest they be filmed.

Final Score:  8/10

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Alternate Title:  Morning in America

One sentence synopsis:      Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon must team up to stop a deep-rooted conspiracy from destroying SHIELD and the entire world.

Things Havoc liked:  The Marvel movieverse is a miracle of modern filmmaking. It is an act of a benevolent god. This is simply not how films are made, let alone good films. There have been movie series before, sure, even some that were longer-running than Marvel's (James Bond, for instance). But most movie series are a sequential list of one movie after another, as sequel follows sequel until the inevitable reboot. Marvel, meanwhile, decided some time after Iron Man was a success to produce four separate lines of movies, all within the same universe, and then merge them together for periodic crossover mega-extravaganzas. This is not normal! And yet with the exception of Edward Norton's Hulk film, every single one of the eight movies they have produced in this line to-date has not only been a financial success, but a great film, the least of which was merely "good", and the best of which were among the finest movies produced in their respective years.

And yet for all the quality of those eight movies, number nine might be my favorite one of all.

Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011's Captain America, is a tour-de-force, a fantastically good film from a studio I had begun, I must admit, to worry about. Following the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 3, and the fun-if-pointless Thor 2, there was some concern on my part, albeit limited, that Marvel might be milking their franchises a bit too far, that the magic might be starting to fray the way Pixar's did following Wall-E and Up. Consider my concerns officially abated. Winter Soldier is everything I could have possibly asked for from a Captain America film, bigger, deeper, crisper, and more impressive in largely every way than its predecessor. It is a fresh vindication of whatever raving madness it was that compelled Marvel to try something this ambitious. It is excellence itself.

I don't even know why I continue to marvel (no pun intended) at the casting in these films, but for what it's worth, let's go through it again. Chris Evans, whom I mentioned in my Avengers review I thought was a bit shaky in the original Captain America, has grown into his role in a big way. His Cap is defined, not by the fact that he beats people up, nor by some uberpatriotic claptrap or sermonizing saintliness, but by simply being a good, decent guy. In a world of flashy superheroes and literal gods, the filmmakers seem to have centered, ironically, on Cap's normalcy as being the proper window for his character. He beats and kills people with aplomb to be sure, but the best moments in the film are Cap simply interacting with people, relaxed, confident, willing to entertain other perspectives but ironclad in his own core beliefs. He is not a stand-in for Jesus, nor given some kind of strawman personality to "contrast" his good points, but manages to make the character interesting and compelling through small touches and quiet moments that blend together in summation to produce a holistic character. One of the strongest sequences in the film is a quiet visit that Rogers pays to his old flame from the first film, now elderly and infirm, inconsequential to the plot, but highly evocative in evidencing the yawning gulf of everything Cap has lost in missing sixty years of his life. Touches like this, his continuing efforts to catch up on modern society, his capacity to adjust his world-view without abandoning his principles, or simply his ability to put down the Captain America persona in an instant and become Steve Rogers once again, are what remind me of the Cap I always imagined when reading the comics, the Cap that I have longed to see realized.

But of course Cap is only part of the draw here. Indeed moreso than any previous Marvel film except Avengers, Winter Soldier is an ensemble piece. Returning characters Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are elevated in this film to major characters in their own right, with their own goals, backgrounds, motives, and responses to the madness that is the plot. Fury, in particular, I've been waiting to see more of, as I could not imagine Marvel failing to utilize Samuel L. Jackson to his full potential for very long. This film gives us a welcome opportunity to see some of what makes Fury tick, his background and his values, through the tried and true method of placing him in a room with other compelling characters and letting them hash matters out. Widow meanwhile receives a serious upgrade to her screen-time over even Avengers, becoming Cap's unofficial second in command. That Johansson can beat the crap out of people as well as the next man is not a surprise, but the filmmakers here give her character time to be presented organically, with none of the "designated background infodump" sequences that occasionally arose in The Avengers. Given the little time we've actually had with Black Widow, this movie gives us enough to launch her own film, if Marvel should have such a thing in mind, as we begin to understand a bit more about SHIELD's resident spy. But the best of the newcomers by far is Anthony Mackie, of Adjustment Bureau and Pain & Gain, playing Falcon, a minor character from the comics whose primary claim to fame was as the first African American superhero in comics. Put all thoughts of tokenism aside, Mackie plays Falcon note-perfect, a veteran para-rescue soldier who is presented not as Captain America's sidekick but as his friend, to whom he goes for advice and assistance, and vice versa. Though aware that Cap is larger than life, Falcon's role is not to bear witness to his awesomeness, but to provide an example for him, a modern character whose values reflect Cap's own, a bridge of sorts to the modern world. Avengers-fanatic though I have always been, I had never heard of Falcon prior to this film, but this movie sold me on him, a perfect counterpart to Captain America, whom I could stand to see far, far more of.

The original Captain America was a pulp film at its core, a ridiculous romp through Nazi super-tech and WWII insanity. Winter Soldier, by contrast, is a relentlessly serious film, touching on questions of governmental control, surveillance, and preemptive war. These are, admittedly, well-plowed fields in film, particularly in the last couple of years, but rather than simply make sanctimonious points about how fascism is bad, this film prefers to examine these questions in the context of Marvel's super-tech-laden near-future. In a world with literal supervillains, evil gods, and alien monsters invading the Earth, the reaction of terrestrial agencies to prospective threats is liable to be a bit more draconian than their counterparts in our world, as indeed they should. The plot is complex and layered, involving international politics, terrorism, and long-buried conspiracies, worthy of classic spy thriller films from the Cold War. Front and center in the midst of these plots is Fury's boss, SHIELD director Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in what appears to be a reprisal of his roles from Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game. Redford is not my favorite actor, but that's because of his insufferable tendency towards smugness, something far more tolerable in a government agent than in some sort of self-assured romantic lead. It also centers around the mysterious Winter Soldier, a character whose identity I would not dream of revealing here, but about whom I will simply say that, knowing the comics as I did, I expected him to be insufferable, either through hackneyed personal drama or oversaccharinated cloying sentimentality. Neither is the case in this film, and the Winter Soldier, surprisingly to me, actually provides a perfectly effective foil for our favorite supersoldier.

And speaking of foils, we must discuss the action of this action film. It is awesome. Choreography is bone-shattering and energetic, reminding us periodically of the terrible power that someone like Steve Rogers can unleash at need. The shield work is far more visceral this time, still PG-13 of course, but bloody for it. Fight sequences are designed intelligently, with two standouts being a crazed, cramped battle in an elevator, and the first car chase I've seen in years that was actually new and interesting. Cinematography and direction is spectacularly nuanced across the board, with shots constructed and framed to provide emotional shorthand even within quiet scenes. The actors are instructed to use body language and subtle gestures to re-enforce the relative relationships between them, relieving the script of the need to explain things that are already apparent to the viewers. And while movies like this, particularly ones locked into a larger series, are only able to go so far with their characters, I must admit that there was not one but several occasions in which I actually suspected, rightly or wrongly I will not say, that the movie was actually going to go through with the fundamental changes, be they death of major characters or reorganization of the larger world, that they had been hinting towards. What other studio, midway through "phase 2" of a twenty year movie plan, would have the guts to let their film take risks that might reverberate down the rest of the cinematic universe forever?

Things Havoc disliked: I could nitpick of course. The film has an "interesting" relationship with the nature of certain types of military hardware, particularly CIWS, which is designed to take down ballistic missiles in mid-flight, but are apparently unable to hit a single man-sized target given ten minutes to do it in. The film also fails to understand the nature of V/TOL aircraft, a quality it shares with every other film that has ever featured them. Leaving the military-wank aside, some of the fight scenes are cut so fast that it becomes hard to figure out what's going on, even to the point where the dreaded shaky-cam begins to threaten at the margins. I will never understand the impetus to spend so much time and energy producing an incredible action sequence and then deciding to let nobody actually see it.

But the main issue I have here, as I had in Avengers, is Scarlett Johansson. Not to say that she is bad, or her character is poorly done, for neither of these things are the case, but there remains something... wrong... with her portrayal in a way that is rather difficult to describe. Her character is intended to be a self-assured spy, I admit, but she plays it so laconically that it begins to interfere with her ability to emote properly. I understand that the entire point of her character is her inability to reveal her true nature to anyone, even Cap, but if she doesn't reveal herself to us, then we can't get to know her, and if we can't get to know her, there is a limit to how much we can identify with the situations she is in. Should the rumors of a Black Widow movie be true, perhaps Johansson will alter her performance to give us something more, but playing the character as an emotionless cypher can only get us so far.

Final thoughts:   I was a fan of the original Captain America, but had to couch my praise with warnings that this was a Pulp film that might not appeal to everyone. I make no such declarations here. Winter Soldier is a fantastic film, one of the finest offerings that Marvel has ever presented us, a rejuvenation of the entire Marvel cinemaverse and a perfect lead-in to next year's Age of Ultron. It is rich, emotional, exciting, weighty, visceral, and a hundred other things besides. It is a towering achievement, an automatic candidate for one of my favorite films of this still-young year, a film that anyone who has ever enjoyed a superhero movie should, by rights, adore.

When by the end of the film, we are given our customary hints as to future films from the Marvelverse, I for one was ready to watch the next film in Marvel's repertoire then and there. Indeed, if films like this are what we have to look forward to from Marvel, then I suspect, despite every spectacle we have so far seen, the best may actually be yet to come.

A man can dream.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alternate Title:  Hijinx Ensue

One sentence synopsis:      The concierge and lobby boy of a classic European hotel are caught up in a murder mystery involving a wealthy heiress and priceless painting.

Things Havoc liked:  Last year, I described The Butler as having the single most loaded cast I'd ever seen. Apparently Wes Anderson doesn't like being one upped, because for the latest entry in his endless series of strange, right-angle films that are not entirely fantasy and not entirely not, he has assembled a simply ludicrous cast, a cast so loaded that veteran character actor Bob Balaban is billed eighteenth, and to recite the entire list would be to consume half the review with names. Just assume that all of the various actors you've come to associate with Wes Anderson (Murray, Norton, Keitel, Swanton, etc...) are all here, along with a bunch of new arrivals, every one of whom (with one exception, to be discussed later) is a veteran, seasoned actor, each one at the peak of their game, and you'll begin to see why this movie is being discussed in such glowing terms.

Set in a fake Austria-Hungary in between the world wars, The Grand Budapest is a quintessentially continental luxury hotel, dressed up like a wedding cake with an army of staff to cater to the nobility and the super-rich. Presiding over this stately chaos is concierge Gustave H, played by Ralph Fiennes, who not only runs the hotel but draws its elderly, sex-starved (yes) clientele to the place so as to avail themselves of his hospitality. Gustave is a vain, insecure man who seduces rich, elderly women, not simply out of venial greed (though there is that), but plainly because he needs the approval of someone at all times. As the film commences, Gustave takes in a new Lobby Boy (Tony Revolori) as errand runner and lobby steward, shortly before one of the elderly ladies that Gustave has been wooing is found dead of poison, amidst complications involving the widow's will, her greedy son, his lawyer and hitman, and, of course, murder allegations that immediately begin to swirl around all of the above. Indeed, the plot is almost purposefully overcomplicated, the better to turn the entire affair into a grisly, wacky, typically Anderson-esque farce. Fiennes, presiding over all of this madness, is perfectly in his element here, playing a cross between Jeeves and Peter Sellers, a character who gets neurotic about things that should prove meaningless (his brand of perfume), and perfectly blase about things that are matters of literal life and death (fascist death squads). He rides the line of madness and playing it straight as though he's been in Wes Anderson's films for years. I've never seen Fiennes give a bad performance (The End of the Affair was not his fault), but this is unquestionably one of his best.

But Fiennes isn't alone in delivering a winner here. I promised I wouldn't give a recitation of the infinite names associated with this film, but I can't proceed without talking about Adrian Brody, an actor I've always disliked, or Jeff Goldblum and Willem Defoe, two actors I secretly adore. Brody here, playing the son of the murdered widow, takes his performance from Midnight in Paris and presses the Asshole button until it breaks, becoming a murderous psychopath with one foot squarely in the Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. Goldblum plays Brody's family lawyer, in whose hands the probate of the widow's will is placed, and Dafoe his personal legbreaker, who over the course of the film breaks far more than that. It's true that Goldblum is largely playing himself, and that Dafoe is simply channeling his native creepiness (something he is well supplied with), but Wes Anderson likes to play with actors' archetypes in fun ways, and watching these two ham it up in their customary fashion is something I could go on with for days.

Anderson is a highly visual director, a term I use with precision in his case. He enjoys establishing fixed tableaux and presenting his characters before them, with his cameras moving only when absolutely required. This film exhibits his tendency towards such things far better than most. The hotel itself is cavernous, filmed in loving wide shots to take in its grandeur (or lack thereof as time goes by), as are the other monasteries, prisons, and castles that the film takes place in. Bright, primary colors are the rule, even in dismal prison scenes, where tiny splotches of color from pastry boxes (or arterial spurts) contrast off the overwhelming backdrop. The writing is Wes Anderson's writing, a bit more polished than usual here, filled with lines that would be punchlines if every person in the film did not seem entirely incapable of appreciating humor in a normal, human way. People complain in other films about wooden line delivery. In this one, it's the intended result.

Things Havoc disliked: Fiennes' counterpart through all this madness is newcomer Tony Revolori, playing Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa, and though I hate to come down on a newcomer, he's simply not up to the task of dancing with Ralph Fiennes. Where everyone else recites their lines in a wooden fashion because they choose to, one gets the sense with Revolori that he is doing it because that's simply how he acts. Perhaps it's a more difficult task than I imagine to be good at acting poorly, but either way, Revolori just doesn't have the chops for what he's up against. Neither, incidentally, does his love interest, Saoirse Ronan (of Hannah and City of Ember), who shares in Revolori's inability to act badly well. Fortunately, there is no shortage of characters that ARE capable of such acts, but when these two are the only ones on the screen, we go from a quirky movie to a badly made one, if only for a moment.

There's also an issue with the plot. I know, I know, the plot in a Wes Anderson film is secondary, but it's at least usually complete. The sheer number of plotlines, side characters and juggling acts that this movie has to keep spinning is breathtaking, and before the second act is over, the film has to start jettisoning characters and plotlines like a balloon aviator trying to lighten the load. Bit characters are fine, and Anderson's films are known for the weird, never-to-be resolved sideroads branching off the main plot, but this is the first time I've seen him drop entire major plotlines without resolution. Perhaps there's some sort of message being delivered here, and my issue is not that certain things turn out badly, but that some of them end with almost violent abruptness, a voiceover to explain what happened, and then nothing more. Perhaps Anderson is trying to make some kind of verisimilitude point or playing with our expectations or something, but it's not unreasonable for a viewer of a film to ask a filmmaker who establishes a major question as the driving force of his movie in the first half hour of it, to at least answer the question in some regard throughout the rest of the film. If the answer had been some artistic point regarding the inability to know certain things it would be one thing. But the impression we get from this film is that he simply forgot.

Final thoughts:   I doubt seriously that he forgot, of course, and as evidence I have to point to the overall quality of the film, quirky though it is, replete with wonderful set pieces and memorable shots, set up in Anderson's trademark style. The acting is uneven, but a cast like this is simply incapable of being bad, even, apparently, when instructed to try, and the overall effect is glorious insanity, the sort of thing that most of Anderson's movies eventually devolve into, celebrated in vibrant technicolor by an artist given license to do whatever the hell he wants.

A reviewer in my neck of the woods described this film as the movie Wes Anderson has been promising to make for the last decade. Unfamiliar as I am with the promises Anderson has or has not made, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is certainly a superior film, funny and farcical and insane in all the right ways. I've always sort of liked Anderson's movies without loving them, but this is as close as he's ever come to changing my mind on that score. Well done.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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