Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Alternate Title:  Oh Where Oh Where Has My Kaiju Gone...

One sentence synopsis:    Godzilla battles monsters across the Pacific and in San Francisco as US military forces try to stop them.

Things Havoc liked:  What was I expecting, really, walking into Godzilla? Was I expecting cinematic gold? Dramatic weight? Acting performances worthy of the Academy Award? In theory any movie is capable of producing these things, but let's be real for a second about what Godzilla actually is. A movie like this, a series like this, cannot really be seen in the context of Citizen Kane. Kaiju films, of which Godzilla is the grand dean, must be seen in their own context, a context I have to confess I'm not the best person to speak to. But since these are my reviews, let's see what we can do.

Godzilla comes to us courtesy of British-born director Gareth Edwards, whose sole credit prior to this was 2010's Monsters, unseen by me. I'm always nervous when a new director is behind the helm, especially for a blockbuster film, but it must be admitted here that Edwards, unlike many that have taken on the task of making a Godzilla film (Roland Emmerich comes to mind) knows what he's doing. The destruction of cities and the grappling of monsters is the draw here, and while the editing does deserve comment (and will receive it), when Godzilla or his quarry are on screen, absolutely nothing is allowed to interfere. Sequences involving the great monsters are lovingly-shot, with long, slow takes to enable the audience to drink in the spectacle that they are being shown. Battles between the monsters are lumbering affairs, slow and methodical, with immense weight and power lent to the beasts, as well as to the buildings they are casually erasing in their gyrations and struggles. "Signature" moments, such as the revelation of Godzilla's famous Atomic Breath are front and center, shot without artifices like Shakey-cam. Nor is Edwards' cinematography limited solely to the monsters. The film is riven with gorgeous, lush shots, often using smoke or dust to artfully frame an image and rivet the audience's attention to it. A flaming locomotive emerging from the fog, a monster disappearing into smoke or water, the trails of smoke left behind by skydivers descending into an arena of dust and fire, these are the images that Edwards plays with, and I must admit that several of them remain fresh in my mind a full week after watching the movie.

Edwards understands that the visuals are the draw here, which is why it is so important that this film, the thirty-second movie to feature everyone's favorite destroyer and defender of Tokyo, has a budget larger than the previous thirty one combined, and before we go anywhere else, it's important to note than unlike the catastrophic Roland Emmerich version from 1998, the money for this film at least shows up on screen. It is not merely that Godzilla devastates everything, but he does look good doing it, not an oversized iguana but a monster straight from the old Toho films, huge and lumbering, a towering dinosaur whose enemies, by contrast, look like they've been ripped straight from Pacific Rim. Their movements are realistic and hefty, and their battles, though consequence-free until it becomes time to "finish them", have the proper earth-shattering feel to them. Compare these creatures to those of Transformers (or Pacific Rim itself), and you will notice quite the difference. The city backdrop enables us to avoid the lack of scale that bedeviled Guillermo del Toro's take on the genre, presenting objects that we know the scale of in every frame and letting the monsters contrast against it.

Speaking of the city, while San Francisco is often destroyed in films (Pacific Rim opened that way), it's usually a sideshow, its destruction used as a quick beat before returning to the main action elsewhere. This may be the first time I've seen San Francisco's annihilation take front and center, and as a native of my fair city, I must admit to being surprised at just how well the film stuck to the actual geography of the city in question. It's not perfect by any means, but the flow is roughly accurate, in terms of where the monsters (and soldiers) go, and the buildings that are annihilated are not simply the usual landmarks that everyone would recognize, but real buildings of the SF skyline. I doubt anyone outside the city actually noticed it, but I appreciate such things.

Things Havoc disliked: Well I suppose there's no use putting it off any longer. Yes, the plot of this movie is stupid.

Actually stupid may be the wrong word. 'Pointless' comes to mind instead, for while stupid things do abound in this film (and we'll get to them), the base story, of a soldier (Kick Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson) trying to help his father (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston) prove that Godzilla (or something like it) killed his mother years ago, is so pointless and tangential to the action of the film that the movie itself jetisons the entire idea halfway through, in favor of a sort of travelogue, wherein Johnson follows Godzilla from Japan to Hawaii to California and... bears witness to it I guess? The main action of the film takes place without the intervention of humankind in general, as neither Godzilla nor the Kaiju he battles seem to take much notice of humanity, save on the rare occasions when the humans manage to annoy them with their pea-shooters. Johnson's role then becomes that of escorting a nuclear missile being shipped by rail to San Francisco in the hopes of luring the Kaiju offshore and destroying them, which becomes an excuse for a series of scenes that I would call "action" were there any action really involved. Action implies a fight or struggle to survive, whereas in this movie, the monsters do as they would, and the humans die or do not die, largely without input from anyone. On top of that, the entire plot with the nuclear missile makes no sense whatsoever. We get no real idea as to what the plan with the nuke actually is, nor why it is necessary to escort this particular nuke to the city through such torturous adventures. The entire US navy is sitting offshore of the city. Did the filmmakers forget that aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines (ships clearly established to be present) also carry nuclear weapons? Ones that can be fired on any point required?

I fear that they did forget this, and it's not the only thing they forgot. For one thing, while I applaud the notion of putting actors like Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn in films like this, it is only polite to actually give them something to do. Watanabe's role this time is to play the concerned scientist, to look worried at the screen and intone meaningless garbage about how man's hubris is causing Godzilla to rip cities apart, even though the film has already established that Godzilla is an ancient being from the wilds of prehistory, and that man has had no role in his actions or intentions save as debris. Watanabe's insistence that the US military should not use a nuclear weapon to destroy the monsters advancing on San Francisco is not buttressed with any suggestion other than allowing Godzilla and the other monsters to battle freely within the city, something they seem inclined to do whether the military interferes or not. Strathairn meanwhile, who is a wonderful actor, manages to avoid the usual "cigar-chomping military officer" trap in favor of the cool efficiency that he displayed in the Bourne films, but there is simply nothing for him to do other than to stand in the center of large war rooms and narrate Godzilla's actions to the audience.

And why does the audience need Godzilla's actions narrated to them? Because this film is astonishingly reluctant to actually let us watch Godzilla. I understand the Spielberg technique of leaving the monster off-screen as long as possible, the one he used to such effect in Jaws, but that movie had compelling characters, a story we cared about, and a sense of tension and menace lurking off-screen, as men hunted the shark and the shark hunted them. This film has no tension, by design, being merely a destruction extravaganza, which makes the decision to let us see none of the destruction until the last ten minutes of the film a baffling one, to me at least. Unlike Pacific Rim, the filmmakers cannot have deluded themselves into thinking that they were producing compelling character drama, as there are practically no characters worth speaking of here. And yet the movie is so insistent on not allowing us to watch the monsters play that it begins to infect the plot, such as it is. A sequence wherein soldiers search through a nuclear waste repository built deep underground, looking for any signs of the monster, would appear to be going the Thing/Alien/hidden-monster-attacks-from-the-darkness route, until we are shown that while they were searching, the monster they sought literally tore its way out of the mountain that the facility is built into, and leveled most of Las Vegas, all without any of the soldiers noticing. These are the lengths the film has to go to, cutting away from battles between Godzilla and his enemies in transparent and even nonsensical fashions, all in the service of ensuring that we never get to see what the filmmakers know we came here to see.

Final thoughts:   Godzilla is a bad film, of this there can be no doubt, and yet I must confess that I did not hate it the way I expected that I might. Unlike movies such as Pacific Rim (yes, I will continue to reference it. Too bad), Godzilla's failings are not a hackneyed plot and cardboard characters, they are instead sins of omission. It is not that the characters that we see are terrible, it is that they do not have any purpose in the film, and the film seems to know it, which makes the decision to focus solely on them one that I simply cannot understand. And yet, despite my complaints, the heart of Godzilla is in the right place. The reason Roland Emmerich's 1998 version of Godzilla was so reviled was because it was ironically quite unlike a typical Roland Emmerich movie, and much more like a Michael Bay film, with its relentless focus on dopey characters performing stupid comic relief while inept idiots failed to contain the titular threat. This film, meanwhile, plays much more like what I would expect a Roland Emmerich Godzilla film to look like. It is a movie with a massive scope and an eye for the majesty of disaster and ruin, about a giant monster who battles other giant monsters in a city.

In attempting to present this spectacle on film, Edwards' Godzilla is unquestionably a failure. But at the very least Edwards tried to get it right. Some directors can't even be bothered to do that.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Car

One sentence synopsis:    A construction foreman must make a series of life-changing phone calls while driving to London the night before his biggest project ever.

Things Havoc liked:  If you've been following my reviews, you know that my luck (or skill at choosing movies) has not been particularly good recently. The Railway Man was a bitter disappointment, and Under the Skin was one of the worst theater-going experiences I can recall from recent memory. Both of these films were indie fare, of course, as this time of year, indie cinema is generally the only game in town, occupied as the major studios are in producing Tyler Perry movies, bad comedies, and utter dreck that would be laughed off the screen any other time of year. Experiences like this are enough to put one off indie films for quite some time, but one must soldier on, and so in quest of something I might actually like to see, I decided to go watch Tom Hardy sit in a car for two hours.

No, I'm serious. Locke, a strange pet-project by Eastern Promises, Amazing Grace, and Dirty Pretty Things' writer Steven Knight, is a film that consists entirely of Tom Hardy, playing a welsh construction foreman named Ivan Locke, who sits in his car for the nearly two hours it requires for him to travel from his job site somewhere in the British country to London, and speaks to the rest of the movie's cast on his hands-free phone. With the exception of the first couple minutes of the film, which consist of Locke getting into his car, the entire rest of the film is Locke in his driver's seat, talking to others on the phone (or to himself) as he makes his way to London. The camera may cut occasionally to the highway outside. The cinematography may shift about the car, filming Locke from various angles, but the entire film is nothing but a man in his car, talking to unseen voice actors on the other end of the line. For nearly two hours.

And yet it works, and that might be the biggest surprise of this whole endeavor, it works and it works well, to the point that by the end of the film I'd have easily watched another half hour of it. Much of the reason for this is Tom Hardy, whom I praised in Inception and in The Dark Knight Rises, but who puts on a completely different class of performance in this role. Required to emote and act while buckled into a car seat for nearly two hours, and locked into a character who isn't allowed much in the way of thunder and lightning, Hardy nonetheless gives the best performance I've ever seen from him, as a man dedicated to his craft and his family, who nonetheless makes a decision that will almost certainly cost him both based on a mistake he made and his own judgment of how he must go about fixing it. Through conversations with his wife, his son, his co-worker, and his boss, he gets across perfectly the manner of man that Ivan Locke is, a consumate, almost myopic professional, who is presently undergoing the most stressful night that it is possible to undergo without mass death. Everything he goes through is spot-right, from the frustrations of talking to someone on the phone who simply won't listen to you, to the semi-rational hilarity of a situation that finally goes so far past reasonable as to finally become funny. The pressure and the pain (and the bizarre, cathartic sense triumph that often comes with being able to cope even somewhat with a hellish situation) is written all over his face and voice, even as events dance on the edge of control at his job and his home. Bereft of the usual tools that actors use, it's a fascinating performance, one that will stick out in my mind whenever I think of Tom Hardy from now on.

I mentioned before that Steven Knight's background is as a filmwriter, and given that this movie is almost pure dialogue, that makes a degree of sense. The writing is crisp and evocative, giving us snippets of character in both the seen and unseen cast without advertising itself as designated character building scenes. Despite not seeing them, Locke's son, his wife, his co-worker Donel, and his boss Gareth (IDed on his phone system as "Bastard") are all brilliantly characterized through voice (and a bit of background sound) alone. Shot selection is necessarily somewhat limited, but manages at least to avoid being boring, cutting between scenery and various angles of our titular character as he tries to navigate the course he's chosen for his life. The score is minimalist, which is the right call, underlying only the most important scenes and then only in the most restrained way. Everything sums together to produce an experience that, far from being boring, is actually one of the more interesting ones I've had in some time.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, it appears that the fact that this movie actually works, despite the lack of action or change of setting, came as a surprise not only to me but to the filmmakers, as they decided that there was a risk that the audience would not understand what was going on, and so decided to add in a series of scenes in which Locke talks literally to himself (or more precisely, to his dead father, whom he blames for many of his life's problems), which serve effectively as exposition scenes wherein the character explains his own motivation to us. These scenes are bad mistakes, as they clash with the overall style of the film and of the character itself. Locke is portrayed as an almost ruthlessly rational person, and to have him suddenly start talking to people who aren't there (though in fairness, the film is a bit coy as to whether or not he's physically speaking aloud for some of these scenes) undermines our sense of who Locke is. Given all the work of characterization that goes into Locke, this is all completely unnecessary. Having established so much about Locke solely through his conversations, there is nothing that we learn from these rants that we could not discover the way we discover everything else.

There's also some unavoidable issues arising with any film presented in what amounts to real time. The life-changing events that Locke undergoes over the course of his drive to London are not the sorts of things that can be resolved in an hour and a half, we get that, and so when some of the various threads do not wind up tied into a bow, that's fine. And yet several of them are terminated so abruptly that it's not left clear what the point was in the first place. It's as though the film has reached the end of its allotted runtime, and everything is allowed to drop. If that's what the film was going for, then fair enough, but this is a narrative medium that has built several compelling stories, and to have not only no resolution but precious little concept of what sort of resolution might be expected in the future from a story that was previously important enough to devote 45 minutes to is... jarring to say the least.

Final thoughts:   But flawed though this film is, there's no denying that despite having one of the stranger conceits in indie films this year, Locke is a very solid piece of work. Not only the finest thing I've ever seen from either Hardy or Knight, this film proves that what I said last week about Under the Skin was appropriate. A slow film (and this is necessarily a slow movie) does not have to be boring. Indeed I'd gladly have doubled this one's length if it meant skipping last week's fare.

Indie films this time of year tend to paper over the long, ugly gap in Hollywood films between January and May. They're no sure thing either (obviously), but at the very least they can still offer something worth watching. After the month I've had, that's a reminder well-appreciated.

Final Score:  7/10

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Under the Skin

Alternate Title:  Purgatory

One sentence synopsis:   An alien masquerading as human kidnaps and murders lone drifters in Scotland.

Things Havoc liked:  So... let me explain.

Some weeks on this project are easy. Some weeks I have a plethora of films that I want to see, and the hardest decision I have to make is picking which one to see first. The week that Winter Soldier came out was not a particularly hard one for me to make up my mind about, for instance. That's not to say that these films are always amazing, reading back through my archive will reveal that much, but movies like that are no-brainers. Yet some weeks, particularly around Doldrums season, are not so simple, where it becomes increasingly hard to find something I want to watch. Normally in such cases, I take a guess as to what might look good or at least interesting, and see what I see. The results I experience with this policy vary (obviously), as it has led me to godawful movies at times (Timothy Green comes to mind), but also to hidden gems that I might not otherwise have seen (the original Raid, for instance). Indeed, I tend to approach occasions like this with a mixture of dread and hope, bearing in mind the whole time that hands down the best film I ever saw on this project, Cloud Atlas, was the product of one such week in which I had nothing to see and decided to take a chance. It is good to remember, when going into a film that one knows nothing about, that sometimes you get something wonderful.

Things Havoc disliked: And sometimes you get this.

I have seen bad movies in the course of this experiment, dear readers. I have seen horrors the likes of which would send a lesser critic screaming into the night. But even at the nadir of my experiences with cinema over the last three years it is rare that I run into a film as bad as this. A classic mark of a bad film is that it makes you start checking your cell phone to see how much time is left. A really bad film has you wondering if your phone's timekeeper has stopped. This film convinced me at one point that we had actually reached the end of linear time, and that all that was left was to watch Under The Skin. Forever.

First, the plot, which consists of [TO BE FILLED IN WHEN THE PLOT FINALLY SHOWS UP].  But forget the plot, let us focus on the characters, which include Scarlett Johansson as [???] and [is anyone else IN this movie?]. No seriously, that's about all I've got. Johansson's character is credited as "Laura", but she is never named within the film, nor given any sort of character or opportunity to develop one. Oh there are gestures in that direction, to be sure, as she revolts against the unseen forces leading her to commit her heinous acts such as "Motorcycle guy" and... um... "OTHER motorcycle guy" (in retrospect that might have been the same guy). But nowhere in the film do we get the slightest hint of who or even what she is, and given that the film is entirely about the question of "who she actually is, really", this is something of a serious problem!

I'm not making any sense, am I? Let me try this again.

"Laura", or "complete cypher" as I call her, is some kind of alien, a fact I, at least, discovered only at the end of the film. Why then am I spoiling it? Because the movie does not go out of its way to hide this fact from us, concealing it for some kind of narrative payoff. It is simply so shockingly poorly made that vital information such as this is not conveyed to the audience, even though the film clearly believes that it has been. Disguised as Scarlett Johannson (or something), she makes the rounds of the Scottish countryside, looking for drifters, loners, and people who will not otherwise be missed. She picks these men up under the promise of sex, taking them to dark, abandoned buildings where they strip naked before being drowned in some kind of oily fluid and rendered down into gory mulch, save only for their skins, which are (I think) harvested for the purposes of being worn by the other aliens. If this sounds horrifying or shocking, understand that this entire process is filmed in the style of a Calvin Klein ad, wherein everything is muted, and characters not only do not speak, but do not act in anything but the most foreordained manner, walking blindly ahead into pools of translucent oil so as to be stripped for parts, never once endeavoring to escape or even struggling. That men would wish to sleep with Scarlett Johansson I can easily believe, but are they being mind controlled? Have their libidos completely overwritten their sense of self-preservation (or sight)? If you, lured into a creepy building by a sexy woman, found that the floor had been converted into a gelatinous substance filled with mummified corpses, would you wade into it with nary a glance in the hopes that it was nothing but foreplay? Would you maybe at least ask a question? Possible answers could be given to this fundamental connundrum, but none are offered, leaving us watching people acting in self-destructive ways, wondering what the hell the director is trying to say.

But then, Under the Skin is not a film interested in telling us anything. Entire sequences appear and disappear at random and for no purpose. At one point, Johansson finds herself on a remote beach in Scotland, speaking to a Czech surfer about why he has come all the way out here. He gives her vague answers about trying to get away from it all, and then runs off to try and rescue a couple who have become caught in a riptide trying to rescue their dog. The couple drown, the Czech man nearly dies saving them, their baby is left abandoned and dies of exposure, and nothing about this subject ever comes up again, save for the fact that we later hear a report on the radio that the people in question are missing, a report to which nobody reacts. Perhaps the film is attempting to show us that Johansson's character is learning from the example of humanity around her, but if so, the lesson she learns is entirely opaque to me, as is the effect of every other thing that happens in the movie. She seduces a man with severe facial deformities. Why? We do not know. She strips the clothes from another woman brought to her by a man on a motorcycle. Why? We do not know. She is dragged unwillingly into a nightclub, attempts to escape, then changes her mind and seduces a patron, taking him back to the skinning factory where he obediently drowns himself like all the others. Why? How the hell should I know? Every action taken by every character in this film has zero context to it, such that when the film starts having characters act out of character, we barely even notice, as nothing the characters have done up to this point has made the slightest sense. It was forty-five minutes into Johansson's spirited rebellion against her alien masters before I even noticed that she was rebelling at all. You can't replace nonsensical bullshit devoid of context with other nonsensical bullshit devoid of context and then expect the audience to tell the difference.

And maybe it's me. Maybe I would have caught on earlier, except that my brain was busy trying to chisel its way out of my skull in a desperate attempt to escape the soul-devouring boredom that is sitting in the theater, watching this film. I've seen and enjoyed plenty of slow movies, including sci-fi and alien ones, from Stanley Kubrick's masterful "2001" to David Bowie's semi-sensical "The Man who Fell to Earth" to Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting, Soviet-era masterpiece, "Solaris". But those films were slow because the filmmakers wished to give the audience time to settle on images, or moods, or subconscious conjurations, so as to properly craft the experience that they were endeavoring to present. This film, on the other hand, is simply boring as paste, and tries to disguise this fact by showing us a lens flare for three and a half minutes while atonal electronic feedback is playing, perhaps in the hopes that if they drive the audience mad with disinterest, someone will mistake their film for avant-guard. Addicted to images stolen from better films, the movie takes six times longer to do every single thing than it has to, showing us, for instance, the process of Johannson walking towards a cabin (30 seconds), then staring at the door to the cabin (30 seconds), then the sign that tells us that the cabin is there for hikers to use (30 seconds), then her opening the door and walking inside (25 seconds), then the interior of the cabin as she selects where she wishes to lay down (45 more seconds), all of which is in the film so that the next morning she can leave the cabin (35 seconds-oh-GOD-MAKE-IT-STOP-I'LL-TELL-YOU-WHERE-THE-BODIES-ARE-BURIED-JUST-MAKE-IT-STOP!!!!!!!) A friend of mine, with whom I saw this film, asked me midway through to make her a solemn promise that this movie would, at some point, actually end, and that we would then be able to leave the theater. I'm a veteran at this sort of thing by now, dear readers, but I must confess, that by the time a seemingly major subplot of the film (a mysterious man on a motorcycle pursuing Johansson), one that had occupied 15 minutes of screen-time, resolved itself with a two minute, unbroken shot of the man slowly turning a complete circle while standing in a snowfield... I began to have my doubts.

Final thoughts:   If The Railway Man, last week's abysmal failure, was, as I described it, a "catastrophically bad film", then Under the Skin is the cinematic equivalent to a Biblical plague, a desolate, empty, thought-siphoning vacuity of a film that would be laughably bad if the experience of watching it were not so unremittingly unpleasant. Director Johnathan Glazer, whose debut film was the brilliantly sleazy Sexy Beast, has supposedly been laboring on this film for nearly a full decade, and based on the result, I'd say this shows every sign of a project that simply ran away from him, until finally he was forced to give up and release it without the coherent story that he was unable to provide it. I know that this review stands in stark contrast to the rave, universal acclaim that this movie is in the process of generating from film critics on either side of the pond, (Britain's Independent and Daily Express, and America's Hollywood Reporter providing lone voices of sanity amidst it all), but I do not care. I recognize that my own opinion is fallible, particularly on something as subjective as a movie, but this is plainly a case of bandwagonning hacks being unable to distinguish between the cerebral and the simpering. This is not a "deep" film, nor a "complex" one, nor a "masterpiece" nor a "work of genius". This film is a fraud, perpetrated against moviewatchers and abetted by professional critics, in the hopes that nobody will notice just how bad it actually is. And those critics (I have made a list) who had the bald-faced temerity to compare this movie to Cloud Atlas of all things should be driven from their offices with a horsewhip.

I went into this movie to see if Scarlett Johansson, an actress I've had problems with before, could act in a serious role. Unfortunately, I still don't know the answer, as no serious role was ever permitted to even come close to this movie.

Final Score:  2/10

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Railway Man

Alternate Title:  Lifetime Presents:  Bridge on the River Kwai

One sentence synopsis:  Decades after being tortured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, a traumatized ex-soldier confronts the man who tortured him.

Things Havoc liked:  I was really looking forward to this film. You would too if you had seen the trailer I did. How am I supposed to resist a film with Colin Firth (The King's Speech, Conspiracy, A Single Man), Stellan Skarsgard (Thor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Good Will Hunting), and Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, Sunshine, The White Countess)? How am I supposed to resist a movie about the Second World War, and indeed about an element of it (the abuse of Allied POWs during the war) that deserves to be better known about? How am I supposed to resist the prospect of such a film landing at the tail end of Doldrums season, always one of the most fallow periods in the film calendars, when the big budget flicks are all stupid bombs and a glorious indie film can slide in under the radar. This is the time of year that gave me last year's Best Film Award-winner The Sapphires, for God's sake. What else can you really ask for?

The Railway Man, directed by newcomer (to me) Jonathan Teplitzky, is a film about a weighty subject. In 1942, following their capture of the fortress-city of Singapore, the Imperial Japanese Army forced tens of thousands of Allied POWs and hundreds of thousands of conscripted local peasants to build a railway from Thailand to Burma over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the history of engineering. Tens of thousands of slave laborers died in the attempt to carve a railway through the jungles and mountains of South-East Asia, a section of which was so horrific in terms of lives lost and atrocities committed by the Japanese Guards that it became known as "Hellfire Pass". The film is the story of Eric Lomax, a railway enthusiast and soldier who is made part of this terrible project, during the course of which, he is tortured by a Kempetai (Secret Police) officer named Takashi Nagase. Yet all this is really just backstory for the main event, which is the decades-older, traumatized Lomax discovering Nagase's location, and seeking him out, hell-bent on revenge. This represents an... interesting take on the real story which underlies this film, but when it's actors like Firth and Sanada portraying these roles, the effect is potent. The confrontation between these two men, one a tortured victim boiling over with long-suppressed rage, and the other a man who has tried for decades to reconcile his wartime crimes with himself, cores the film, and provides an engaging denouement to slowly work towards. Lesser actors would not have been able to make this scene work, but these are not lesser actors.

Indeed, if you've read any of my reviews, you'll know that I'm an actor's critic, in that if everything else fails, I can always simply appreciate the chance to see good actors doing their thing. Even actors I'm not particularly fond of, Nicole Kidman for instance, who here plays Lomax' wife, can produce performances to surprise me here and there, and working off Firth, even Kidman has her moments in this movie. An opening sequence, one that has nothing to do with anything in the plot, simply portrays Kidman and Firth first meeting, and has a wonderful awkwardly-real tone to it, as does the quintessentially British reaction Firth has to having met someone he has actually fallen for. All throughout the movie there are touches like this, moments or individual lines made possible by the craft of the actors involved in the film, that vindicate my faith in their abilities. And this is why, despite the fact that there are no sure things in film, I had every faith that, even with a middling plot or questionable direction, The Railway Man was destined to be a highlight of my experiences early this year.

Things Havoc disliked: "Had" being the operative word.

The Railway Man is a catastrophically bad film. A film so wrong-headed that nothing, not a wonderful premise or a gift-wrapped dramatic plot or the services of many fine actors to portray these things had the slightest prayer of salvaging it. A middling story and questionable direction can indeed be overcome, but there is no salvaging a film this clunky, this overwrought, this maddeningly blind to all sense of nuance or subtlety. How is such a thing possible? One need look no further than the screenwriters, Frank Boyce and Andy Patterson, both of whom are known for producing children's books and television. Picture, if you will, a version of Empire of the Sun produced by Nickelodeon, and you will begin to understand the problem here.

What do I mean? Every decision, every plot point, every bit of exposition in this movie is produced as though the intended audience were seven-year-olds. An early sequence in which Lomax is tasked by the script to explain just what the Burma Railway is to his fellow POWs (and by extension the audience), a sequence which could have easily been handled with a few words, or even a pre-screen title card, is instead treated almost like a ghost story told by campers around the fire, complete with ominous music, and slow, "important" line-reading ("The British thought building a railway through there would be.... BARBARISM!!!" *orchestra sting!*). Despite the subject matter, which includes torture, PTSD, guilt, and forgiveness, never once does the film shy away from having to jackhammer everything it's doing into us with all the subtlety of a brass band. Nicole Kidman's entire role in the film seems to be to explain to the audience that a man who spends his nights shrieking in agony and attacking solicitors with box cutters is "not coping well" and "must have experienced something bad". Worse yet, the movie seems to believe that we are incapable of handling astonishing revelations such as these without unobstructed concentration, and tackles subjects such as Kidman and Firth's relationship, his trauma, and his quest for closure one at a time, as though these things had nothing to do with one another. Firth shows no signs whatsoever of being a broken victim when first we meet him, until finally he and Kidman wed, at which point he spontaneously morphs into the shattered vet he supposedly was all along, much to both Kidman's surprise and our own. And when we've managed, at length, to establish that Firth is a wreck, every other element of his life, including Kidman's entire role, is summarily dropped, left in waiting for nearly an hour as Firth journeys to Thailand to find his tormentor, confident that having abandoned his wife without a word so as to travel for weeks and murder people in another country, everything will be perfectly fine when he gets home.

I cannot possibly overstate just how pervasive this tendency towards simplistic exposition is within the film, so deeply ingrained that many characters are either reduced to passive observers, unable to act for fear of introducing complexity into the narrative (Kidman) or forced to act in ways that nobody, not even the most traumatized victims of horrific abuse, ever act (Skarsgaard). Paradoxically, this obsession with simplistic storytelling makes many elements of the movie very hard to understand, as characters act in ways that make no sense unless someone truncated all concerns or motives but one narrow one out of their personalities. Skarsgaard, playing Firth's best friend and fellow POW Finlay (how a Sweede wound up in the British Army is left unanswered), acts in ways that I still do not quite understand, not even if I assume that he is as broken as Firth is. His solution to the plain fact that Firth's PTSD is not curing itself is to conspire with his wife to encourage Firth to find and murder his old oppressor. And when Firth speaks of setting the past aside, something he wishes to do despite not knowing how to do it, Skarsgaard's reaction is so baffling and completely out of left field that I reacted as though I'd just seen a jump scare in a horror film. Meanwhile, the sections set in the past, with Lomax and Nagase played by War Horse's Jeremy Irvine and newcomer Tanroh Ishida, are almost painful to watch for the same damned reasons. Ishida, at one point, is literally tasked with standing over Irvine and screaming "You have no honor!", a line that could never possibly have worked, and certainly not when delivered with all the bombast of King Lear screaming at the stormclouds. Irvine, meanwhile, at one point builds a clandestine radio so as to get news from home and "keep the lads' morale up", a process that consists of finding a shaking, broken British officer, who is instantly cured of his afflictions upon being told that the Russians have re-captured Stalingrad. Clearly, this is the most important information imaginable to a man being beaten and starved to death by an unrelated enemy some ten thousand miles from a city he has likely never heard of. Later, having been beaten and tortured for weeks for possessing this forbidden radio, the film actually goes so far as to have Lomax deliver a defiant speech to his tormentors about how they will be beaten in the end, and how they will never break his spirit, the filmmakers having apparently forgotten that they were trying to make a realistic movie about the scars left by war. Arnold Schwarzenegger can get away with backtalking the people who have physically abused him for weeks. Terrified teenagers destined to suffer decades of tormented abuse in dramatic movies about the horrors of war cannot.

Oh and speaking of the damned radio, it symbolizes the greatest crime that this oversimplification produces, namely the fact that it actually serves to genericize the actual events in question. The horror of the Burma railway was the randomness of the brutality. The Japanese guards, inflamed by terrible conditions and the general culture of violent discipline in the Imperial service, brutalized their prisoners for no reason, beating them to death, decapitating them, arbitrarily torturing dozens of them to death for no reason whatsoever. It was the same mentality that led to the atrocities of Nanking, of the Bataan Death March, of thousands of other incidents across the Pacific War. Yet in this film, Lomax is not tortured randomly, but because of the damnable radio he decides to build. To be sure, the abuse he suffers following the discovery of his secret radio is a war crime, but by framing the story around it, it turns what Lomax suffered from the horror of the Burma Railway into yet another fictitious "sadistic guards beat the prisoner" story, the sort of which could be found in any war on any side. Anyone can be abused by someone in power, but what actually happened on the Burma Railway was so, so far beyond the usual abuses that one can encounter in any prison, as to constitute one of the most shocking atrocities in the history of war. Not here. Here, the worst crime perpetrated, a crime so terrible that it caused the place it transpired to be called "The Railway of Death", the one that necessitated decades of soul-searching, and an act of forgiveness so sublime as to defy belief, was that a man who violated the rules of his prison camp suffered a disproportionate punishment. This is the equivalent of making a film in which a German officer beats a person up for insulting Hitler, and then calling it the Holocaust.

Final thoughts:   I have labored mightily to get this far without making a "trainwreck" joke, but The Railway Man is precisely that, a complete disaster of a film that not only fails to do justice to its own story, but seemingly misses the point of it along the way. Though elevated by a handful of scenes wherein the cast is able to bring their talents to bear, the movie is a leaden, simplistic, undignified mess, one which grows steadily worse as it lurches on from scene to seemingly-disconnected scene, blissfully conjuring up "cathartic" moments that it has done nothing to earn. I have long maintained that a good cast can cover any fault, but there appears to be a limit to the amount of damage that even the highest caliber of actors can overcome. Paced and written like a Edutainment cartoon for learning-challenged adults, the film lacks any of the charm or drama that its trailers promised, and serves as a sad reminder of just what Doldrums season represents, even for can't-miss indie films.

Some terrible films leave you in a frothing rage (Timothy Green, Amazing Spider-Man), while others leave you in a stunned daze (To Rome with Love, Red Tails). This film, on the other hand, just left me sad, wishing that somehow I could go back, and see the movie that the trailers had actually advertised, instead of this botched rendition of one that they had not.

Final Score:  3/10

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