Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Rover

Alternate Title:  Madder Max

One sentence synopsis:    A violent, dangerous drifter pursues the men who stole his car through the post-collapse Australian outback.

Things Havoc liked:  A year before I started doing these reviews, I saw an Australian gangster film called "Animal Kingdom" by a first-time director named David Michod. It was a wonderful little film, sparse and twisted and intensely realistic, and more than that, it managed to star several actors I don't like (Joel Edgerton, Guy Pierce) and make me like them despite our history. As such, when I learned that Michod had returned to the screen with another movie about bad people doing very bad things in the middle of Australia starring a pair of actors I couldn't possibly care less about, I knew I had to be there.

I've made no secret of my distaste for Guy Pierce in these reviews. He nearly ruined Iron Man 3. He wore terrible old-person makeup in Prometheus. He made The Time Machine, Lockout, and Two Brothers. And while obviously there are roles of his I have liked (Memento, LA Confidential, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), my distaste for his smug leading man schtick remains firmly intact. This role, however, is like nothing I've ever seen from Pierce. Eric, the main character of the film, is a murderous, violent demon, quiet and barely controlled, a sociopathic monster whose inclinations towards summary action are given free reign by the dire circumstances that society has fallen into. Yet Pierce does not play the character as a screaming maniac, but rather like a villain from one of Ralph Fiennes' better performances, Coriolanus perhaps, or even Schindler's List. Quiet, monosyllabic, and yet deeply disturbing, Pierce evidences a raging ferocity through nothing more than expression and eye movement, staring into the depths of people's souls like a drilling augur before killing them with ruthless, entirely non-cinematic efficiency. A scene early on where he attempts to buy a gun from a group of carnies, only to remorselessly murder them at the first sign of difficulties, cements the tone of the character nicely. Protagonist or not, this character, and men like him, are not victims of the fall of civilization, but the reason for it. And in the absence of the law, they are let loose to do as they would in pursuit of objectives that may well make sense only to themselves.

But Pierce, for all that I hate him, has been good in films before. His co-star, Robert Pattinson, of Twilight, has not. And yet moreso even than Kirsten Stewart, I wanted to give Pattinson another shot, as there were hints, I felt, that Twilight was not a fair means to judge his actual abilities. And while Stewart was simply not up to the task of headlining her second chance (Snow White and the Huntsman), Pattinson is on a completely different plane of existence here. Unrecognizable from his chaste pretty-boy persona in the Twilight series, Pattinson plays Reynolds, a redneck miner with a southern accent captured early on by Pierce's character and forced to take him to the hideout of his brother and their gang of car thieves. Lisping and confused, Pattinson plays the character like a victim of some kind of mild retardation, a damaged, naive, unfocussed loser, so dependent on others for direction that he willingly becomes Pierce's accomplice, despite the fact that Pierce himself seems to want little or nothing to do with him. Stuttering, limping, and simpering like a whining dog, Pattinson's performance is, astonishingly enough, the best thing in the entire movie, reminding me somewhat of Leonardo DiCaprio's turn in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which is not a comparison I make lightly. Indeed, I must admit that it occurred to me while watching this movie, that before he became the well-known and well-respected actor that we know today, DiCaprio had to make such teenage masterworks as Titanic and Romeo+Juliet.

The Australian outback is a punishing, unforgiving place, as anyone who has seen Mad Max can tell you, and consequently needs little to transform it into a perfect setting for a gritty, brutal movie of violence and death. Yet aware of this as he is, Michod decides against the usual tropes of post-apocalyptia, of souped-up cars worn by men in gimp masks and famous landmarks crumbling amidst the open waste. What exactly happened to render things so bad is not stated outright, but seems to have been less nuclear war and more stock market crash. Some facets of society still exist, the Australian military, the mining industry, precisely those you would expect to continue on in the aftermath of anything short of total annihilation, hardened and sharpened to a brutal edge. Money still circulates, though the Australian dollar is hinted as having become worthless, and shopkeepers will take nothing but US from behind their armored, gun-covered storefronts. Revealing comments, like one of Pattinson's that travel times are longer thanks to the lack of road maintenance putting a limit on people's effective speeds, or the doctor who takes care of dozens of dogs abandoned by their presumably-deceased owners, are the stuff of the collapse here, not lurid Emmerichian images of the Opera House in ruins. The shots are long and desolate, as much a western as an apocalypse film, as characters walk across barren plains into sharp sunrises, or loom menacingly before dark corridors in buildings full of armed men. The violence, when it erupts (and it does erupt) is fast and brutal and entirely uncinematic. People simply are shot and die and are then dead and the movie goes on, in the best traditions of any society-breakdown film.

Things Havoc disliked: I've got nothing against a movie that doesn't stop every five seconds to explain itself, but unfortunately, that only works if the movie doesn't leave major questions in its wake, and this one unfortunately does. Early on, after Guy Pierce has confronted the men who stole his car and is beaten unconscious for his trouble, he awakens on the side of the road, alive, and lying next to the thieves' original car, fueled and intact, with his money and his guns still on his person. Given the general tenor of this film, the question begs itself, why is Pierce still alive, let alone in possession of all the tools necessary for him to enact his crusade for revenge? It's not like the men who subdued him have been established as being possessed of particularly strong moral codes against killing, and the question as to why they have left him in this state is simply never answered, not even with a throwaway comment about how it would be 'wrong' to kill him out of hand or something. Similarly, characters find one another in the midst of the outback via methods that are never established, tracking them effortlessly over trackless desert to precisely the right locations, all without any indication as to how. I understand the desire to do away with the obligatory establishing material in favor of simply telling the story and implying the rest, but some establishment is required in order for the film to make sense. Another sequence early on had Pierce carrying an automatic pistol in one shot, and in the next, prominently carrying a revolver instead. After a minute's confusion and whispered conversation with my neighbor, I managed to construct a reasonable explanation for why Pierce suddenly had a different gun, but the fact that it was necessary for me to effectively stop watching the film for a minute and consult with friends in order to follow what was happening is not a good sign insofar as the film's editing is concerned.

There's also a simple question of pacing. The Rover is a slow, deliberate film, allowing tension to build out of empty spaces and unspoken lines, which is fine, but the tendency here is to push it a bit too far. Characters can never actually say anything without hemming and hawing for five minutes, and have to spend at least ten seconds of pregnant silence between every single short or monosyllabic line they pronounce. Used sparingly, this is an efficient technique, as evidenced by dozens of films including Unforgiven. But used constantly, all it serves to do is make most of the movie feel like padding as nobody, not even brooding loners staring into the campfire with rage-laden eyes, speaks like this constantly, and anyone who does would be so unsettling as to rapidly put anyone else off of their attempts to engage them in conversation. As it stands though, characters react to an wild-eyed, armed psychotic, visibly on the verge of a breakdown, whose words are clipped and quivering with rage, by smiling sweetly as though nothing is the matter and permitting him to walk about their homes armed and unsupervised. Given the state of society and the fact that everyone is so constantly on-edge against the predators that roam the roads, this is like making a Godzilla film wherein soldiers have been battling giant monsters for the better part of a decade, and then making everyone dismiss loud booming footsteps which shake the very walls as nothing but thunder, while stacking their weapons in another building and going back to sleep.

Final thoughts:  The Rover is a stark, well-acted thriller of a movie, an attempt to do Mad Max without the camp, but it's problems like these that really hold it back. Taken by themselves, the performances on offer here from Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson are worth seeing in any context, but unfortunately the context in question is just not good enough for a full-throated recommendation. Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom, was damn near a masterpiece. It garnered Jackie Weaver a deserved Oscar nod for her turn as the matriarch of an Australian crime family after all, and yet this time round, Michod's lack of experience at the rest of the business of moviemaking is unfortunately on display. I will continue to watch this man's career with interest, as Rover was at least good enough to prove that the first film was not a fluke, but the systemic flaws of script, editing, and general pacing (something that seems to bedevil an awful lot of the films I see, Hollywood and otherwise) keep this from being anything but a niche recommendation.

But then, if all you're looking for is the exploits of a crazy man in the Australian outback killing people, you might still want to check this film out. It's not like that genre is overflowing with examples.

Final Score:  6/10

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Alternate Title:  This is Why You're Fat

One sentence synopsis:    The head chef of a gourmet Los Angeles restaurant looks for creative inspiration by opening a food truck with his son and best friend.

Things Havoc liked:  Jon Favreau, Executive Producer of The Avengers, the first two Iron Man movies (which he also directed), and Cowboys and Aliens, is not the man I would have anticipated personally creating in an indie flick about food, but then he also wrote Swingers, so what do I know?  In Chef, a movie he stars in, wrote, directed, and produced, he plays Carl Casper, head chef of a fine dining Los Angeles restaurant, where he works alongside Sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Maitre-d' Molly (Scarlett Johanssen), and owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman).  The track record for actors who write and direct themselves is not a good one, to say the least, and I've only seen Favreau before in bit roles in Iron Man or Rudy, but to my surprise he does a fine job, wisely eschewing anything too demanding in favor of a portrayal of a real chef with real skill and real problems.  Right from the start, we see him preparing, testing, refining, and producing his food with expert precision, commanding his kitchen brigade with easy familiarity, and generally convincing us that he is, at least, what he appears to be.  He also, wisely, decides against writing a character for himself that is a stand-in for Jesus.  Carl is not an asshole, but he is a distant, divorced father, whose relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and son Percy (EmJay Anthony) is cordial but disconnected.  No (or at least few) raging explosions or histrionics here, Carl is just a guy who happens to be an excellent chef, and given that Favreau's other roles have been those of "guys who happen to be ____", sticking to his strengths is the best plan here.

Another good plan is, when introducing yourself to cinema in a major way, surround yourself with talent.  And while I had not anticipated in this little exercise associating John Leguizamo's name with talent, here we are.  His character, Martin serves little purpose except to follow Carl around and help him as he goes from his stultifying restaurant job to a food truck serving Cuban Sandwiches (which look both delicious, and like they'd make you fat just glancing at them), but Leguizamo is just so damn... well [i]entertaining[/i] as he does it, running his mouth constantly in a slew of in-jokes and references and schtick in the manner that resembles his earlier (annoying) work, but does not emulate it to the point of aggravation.  Hoffman meanwhile, as a restaurant owner desperate to fill his restaurant, is as smarmy as ever, though you can't help but feel for him when it's his money on the line every time his chef decides that there is a "creative rut" being dug and that it's time to introduce people to the merits of vacuum-boiled organ meat or some damn thing.  But best of the supporting characters is actually Percy, Carl's ten-year-old son, who clearly is looking for some way to get closer to his father, be it through cooking or anything else.  Child actors are always a danger in any film, but this one does a wonderful job, playing not some precocious little genius, nor an enfant terrible, nor any other stock thing, but just a normal kid whose reactions to the situations the movie puts him in are entirely realistic, avoiding the designated "wise statements from the angelic child" scenes, in favor of just concentrating on him and his father.  Simpler is better in this case.

And that's really all there is to it.  Indeed this is the sort of movie that almost defies reviewing, so simple and easy-going that there just isn't much to say about it.  And yet despite that, the film is never boring.  Moving along at an brisk pace and never repeating itself, it is simply a series of slice-of-life vignettes, as Favreau's character is dissatisfied with his job, quits it, finds inspiration, and returns to glory.  There are no villains to defeat, no checklist of lessons to be learned, just characters trying to do the best they can by one another and living their lives.  In it's own weird little way, it's almost refreshing to encounter a movie that doesn't have ambitions of being the successor to Hamlet.

Things Havoc disliked: And having said that, I shall now complain about the fact that the movie is not ambitious enough.

There's nothing wrong with simple films, nor with simple stories done right, and I don't think every movie has to lead its characters on a torturous journey of challenge, redemption, and triumph.  But there does need to be something there to keep our attention, and while Chef certainly isn't boring, it just doesn't have all that much going for it beyond the fact that these characters do exist and they do engage in the actions I described above.  There are hints of more, with Favreau's other sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) being conflicted over taking his place at the restaurant, his rivalry with his boss or with food critic Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt), or his relationship with hostess Molly, but nothing is really developed, as the characters enter or fall out of the scene entirely based on their proximity to the main character, and while that's pretty accurate to real life, realism is a poor defense for a narrative medium like film.

And the case for realism isn't helped by several, strange elements that seem to pop up almost at random.  For one thing, while I'm not the kind of guy who objects to product placement as a rule, the social media apps that this movie features prominently (Favreau's son is, of course, a computer wiz, and popularizes his father's new business on twitter, vine, etc...) gets to the point of an extended advertisement.  The reason product placement annoys people is because it pulls them out of the story, like a commercial break in the middle of a movie on network television.  By the thirtieth time that the movie shows Favreau's son placing a "cool" tweet (with appropriate hashtags, of course), represented by a cute little graphic of a bird flying off to spread the word, even I was starting to wonder just how much the filmmakers had funded the movie out of Twitter's marketing budget.  Leaving that aside, there are also a couple of characters that seem to be inserted as padding, such as Favreau's father-in-law, a cuban big-band style performer in Miami who seems to be in the film largely to humor the performer, or a cameo by Robert Downey Jr, acting like a weirdo, who seems to be there to give the character a truck.  Obviously real life is composed of such vignettes, but as always, film does not reward hemming and hawing with characters or plotlines that aren't intended to go anywhere.  Chekov's Gun is a principle of storytelling for a reason.

Final thoughts:  Simple films are always hard to review, as there isn't anything particularly wrong with them, but their horizons are limited enough to restrict the options insofar as the loftier scores are concerned.  Any movie can, in theory, be spectacular of course, but a movie like Chef is probably about as good as it possibly could be, a nice, charming little slice of life about characters acting as normal people do in a situation that could certainly exist.  It does not seek to exceed these bounds, nor does it do so, but if these sorts of films are up your alley, then by all means go see it, as you're not likely to encounter one done as well as this.

My tastes of course lie towards things a bit more daring than this, of course.  But even I can recognize a simple story done well when I see it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Alternate Title:  Groundhog D-Day

One sentence synopsis:    A rear-echelon soldier must find a way to single-handedly defeat an alien menace when he gains the ability to relive the same day over and over again.

Things Havoc liked:  Make all the Scientology jokes you like, I've always liked Tom Cruise, ever since I first watched Top Gun as a kid.  He may actually be insane, but he knows how to carry a Hollywood film better than almost anyone else active today.  What issues lead most people to dislike Cruise I can only guess at, but that guess revolves around an aura of smugness, warranted or otherwise, that he often projects through his roles.  Fair enough.  But bear in mind that Edge of Tomorrow is a movie where the filmmakers decided to deal with that problem by simply spending the entire movie killing him off in brutal, cathartic ways.

Directed by Doug Liman, a director I have had strictly no use for in any context previous to this one, Edge of Tomorrow is, by one measure, probably the best possible film that could be made out of its premise.  That premise, for those nine of you who have missed the trailers, is that aliens have invaded the Earth, and Cruise is tasked with slaying them, thanks to his (nearly) unique ability to "replay" the day of his own death every time he dies, going back with perfect foreknowledge of what is to transpire and changing his actions to do things differently.  We've seen Cruise save the world many times, in various, violent ways, but this movie, by nature of its premise, deals in no small part with repeated, horrific violence enacted against Cruise's person for the majority of its runtime.  His character, Major William Cage, is a marketing director pressed into military propaganda service, who manages through mischance and his own big mouth to wind up on the front lines of a D-day style assault on the beaches of Northern France to take continental Europe back from the alien foe.  Explicitly not an action hero of any sort, Cage spends his time on the beaches of France screaming in incoherent terror before being violently murdered by an alien monstrosity, and waking up once more to do it all over again.  It is only through many repeated attempts (and deaths) that he begins to learn the rudiments of the combat he is forced to undergo over and over again, while overcoming his terror of the enemy through sheer, bloody-minded familiarity.  The effect is like that of a video-game player who must reload from a checkpoint every time he dies, and the film showcases the sheer frustration that soon replaces the terror of his surroundings, and the exhilaration that comes with having gotten further than he did before.  In consequence, unlike so many other action films where the hero is simply assumed to either possess lethal combat skills or manifest hidden ones when the occasion becomes sufficiently dire, when by the end Cruise is facing down alien hell-beasts with aplomb and skill, we actually believe that this schlub is perfectly capable of doing so, due only to sheer, bloody-minded repetition.

Cruise is excellent in this role, a cocky, slick bastard who transitions to a panicked rookie and then to a hardened veteran over the course of the film.  And yet Cruise himself is not alone in this regard.  Emily Blunt, of The Adjustment Bureau and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, plays Sgt Vrataski, a veteran in her own right, hero of the war effort (the propaganda stills make her look like a Warhammer Space Marine), who owes her success to having once experienced the same sort of abilities that Cruise is manifesting.  Given that Blunt's job is to play the exact same day over and over again without any knowledge of what's coming, she does a fantastic job, laying out rather than spelling out the terrible trauma that actually comes with being brutally murdered three hundred times in succession, or for seeing those around you killed repeatedly with equal aplomb.  Brendan Gleeson (of a thousand things including Braveheart) plays the iron-faced General Brigham, with whom Cruise must deal repeatedly (of course) like a pastiche of Lord Mountbatten, rigid and unbending, even when confronted with some of the strangest evidence ever laid before anyone.  But the best of the lot is unquestionably Bill Paxton, playing Master Sergeant Farrell Bartolome like a cross between Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann and Aliens' Sgt. Apone.  Filled with marine corps (and southern) aphorisms about the purity of armed combat and its capacity to work redemptive miracles on the characters of fallen souls, Paxton here might as well be playing some thirty-year-older version of Private Hudson, and is plainly having the time of his life in a role that is truly riotously funny.

Indeed, one of the great surprises (to me) of Edge of Tomorrow was just how funny the film actually is.  The repeated deaths of Tom Cruise become so over the top and ludicrous that they actually become flat out hilarious, with orchestra stings (and misdirection) that left me, at least, nearly falling out of my chair.  Groundhog Day, the obvious point of comparison for any "live the same day over and over again" movies, was a comedy after all, and while Edge of Tomorrow is not, it does understand the absurd side of Cruise's situation very well.  It also understands the human touches that underlie the best action films (I cite Aliens once again).  Cruise's squad of misbegotten lowlifes is drawn in a beautifully human way, with each character feeling just right for the task at hand, be it the gruff delinquent or the imbecilic sad-sack.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, the film understands the limits of anyone's attention or endurance, including for instance a sequence midway through where, tired of being eviscerated repeatedly, Cruise spends one "cycle" by stealing a motorcycle, driving to London, and having a beer.  The aliens, meanwhile, though their motivations and characters are not exactly well established, do at least serve to present a credible threat to an army armed with powered exoskeletons and automatic grenade launchers.  They are frenetic, violent tornadoes of death, so fast as to present difficulties for even the audience to keep up with, with the result that when they attack and slaughter entire squads of troops, our reaction is not to laugh (as it was in Starship Troopers).  This allows the action to actually do what it is intended to do, showcase the hero's skill and bravery by putting him up against something that the audience believes to be a credible threat.  All in all, the film is simply well made from start to finish, understanding precisely the sort of story it is telling.  After all, Cruise, by virtue of his reset button, is physically invulnerable.  The alien army is therefore less of a threat to be feared than a puzzle to be solved.  This too the filmmakers' understand, and they do not bore us with over-repetition of the same horrific points but move on with alacrity to the next attempt to solve the puzzle.

Things Havoc disliked: There are very few things that Edge of Tomorrow actually does wrong, and most of them, unfortunately, come near the end of the film, involving revelations and plot events that I would not dream of revealing to you, my valued readers.  Suffice to say that the film's style and production was so engaging that I will confess to a bit of disappointment when, for the last half hour or so, it decided to shift somewhat into a more conventional sort of action movie.  Not that this shift is done poorly, it isn't, but the world does not lack for standard hero-against-aliens action films, nor even for ones starring Tom Cruise.  I reviewed one just last year after all.  I won't pretend that this undoes all of the good work that the film had previously undertaken, but it is simply disappointing that instead of finishing out with the creative premise that they had previously been using, the film decided to pull such a switch on us.

That said, there's not much else for me to say against the movie here.  Oh I could get pedantic about military tactics and equipment (the wonderful Osprey seems to have become the primary military conveyance of the future, and the navy is conspicuously absent for an amphibious assault on France), or about the exactitudes of the plot (it's time travel, holes happen), but the only real issue the film has besides the one I cited above is that the need to tell a story like this limits its horizons somewhat.  This is not a film destined to become some kind of cross-genre classic remembered throughout the ages, like The Wild Bunch or Godfather.  It was not intended to be.

Final thoughts:  And that, really, is it.  Edge of Tomorrow is not a classic of the silver screen but it is basically everything else that one could ask for, funny, inventive, well-characterized, well-acted, well-written, and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.  As popcorn summer blockbuster action flicks go, indeed, this is one of the best I've seen in years.  I had my doubts coming into the film that it was going to be of any use at all, exoskeletons with alien-fighting badasses in them do not have a brilliant track record at the movies after all, but this film is pretty much the best possible result you could get from a movie with this premise and this cast.  It is significantly better than I expected it to be, and considerably better than basically every non-comic-book action film of its sort for the last decade.

And if that isn't enough to get you to go see it, then I suggest you simply wait for my next review, because plainly the entire genre is wasted on you.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Monday, June 9, 2014


Alternate Title:  Sleeping Audience

One sentence synopsis:    Maleficent, queen and ruler of the fae, pronounces a curse upon the daughter of her old friend King Stephan as punishment for a vile betrayal.

Things Havoc liked:  Disney's Sleeping Beauty is a better film than I think most people remember it being, and no small part of that is due to its villain, a terrifying, satanic figure of pure malice and savage power, voiced by the incomparable Elanor Audley (who also voiced Cinderella's evil stepmother). Disney in the olden days was not afraid to call down the metaphorical thunder when it came time to have bad guys be truly bad, and Maleficent remains one of their finest villainous creations, bereft of comic relief or silliness in favor of pure hate and evil. Nowadays, with revisionism in vogue for classic fantasy stories like Sleeping Beauty (or Oz), the notion of making a live action version of the tale from the perspective of one of Disney's great villains was an intriguing one, and if you're going to do something of this sort, you could do far worse than starting things off with Angelina Jolie.

I have not always been kind to Angelina throughout her career, and neither has everyone else, for her performances in films like Changeling or Alexander were godawful, and not helped by better appearances in worse films such as the Tomb Raider movies or Mark Millar's horrid insult to all comic book fans, Wanted. But whoever suggested her for the titular role this time around deserves some kind of award, because whatever her flaws, Jolie embodies Maleficent in this film from top to toe. Gaunt and angular, with built up cheekbones and ivory-pale skin, Jolie is a dead ringer for the stylized cartoon villain of half a century ago, with mannerisms that range from the disinterested to the downright vicious. Jolie's performance is the best in the film, easily embodying the incandescent fury of a woman (or a witch) scorned, alongside more subtle facets of a character who is, after all, our protagonist. Jolie's Maleficent is capable of terrible rage, but also astonishing pettiness and even dry wit, something that always goes well in a non-heroic protagonist like this one. I don't know if I'd say that this is Jolie's best performance, as I've not seen all of her work, but it's a step up from a lot of "dramatic" work she's done in the past.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, but tends towards the good side of things. Sharlto Copley, the South African actor last seen in District Nine and (*Shudder*) Elysium, plays King Stephan, father of the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty, who is driven to mad distraction, first by power lust, and then by fear of the loss of that power in general and Maleficent in specific. Thinking back on Elysium (an exercise I do not recommend), Copley was plainly one of the better elements of it, and I did enjoy his turn here as an inversion of the typical wise king, a man who makes a terrible mistake in an act of desperate greed and winds up paying for it the rest of his life. Meanwhile Sleeping Beauty herself is played by Elle Fanning, a young actress I can't say I've had much use for, but who does everything she needs to as the kind and wonderstruck (and fairly airheaded) Princess Aurora. Maleficent's recurring policy of peremptorily putting her to sleep as soon as she begins running her mouth about the beauty of the bluebirds was a nice touch. Moreover, it's nice to see a film wherein both Aurora and Prince Charming (Brenton Thwaites), a hopelessly inept but well-meaning young prince dragged rather abruptly into these matters by officious fairies, are actually cast as young as they are supposed to be. As a result, when the two lovebirds are awkward or naive or a bit thick, it comes across as the natural consequence of their ages, not irredeemable stupidity.

The world of Maleficent is a lush, well-realized one, filled with fantastical monsters and gorgeous scenery. This is standard for fantasy films these days, of course, but it is still worth noting when it comes. Glowering tree-monsters riding boar cavalry, hedge dragons, flying beasts of every description, all of them realized well and employed to some (at least) effect. This dovetails of course with Maleficent's design, which somehow makes the ludicrously satanic appearance of the character from the cartoon into something that looks at least plausible given the setting, even for a character that is not, initially at least, supposed to be evil.

Things Havoc disliked: It's difficult stuff, making a fairy tale for the big screen, especially when one is attempting to revise it for more modern sensibilities. One is reminded unavoidably of 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, a movie that starred Kristen Stewart, but whose greatest sin was lacking the courage to push the envelope to the logical conclusion for a fairy tale, modern or otherwise. These are not subtle stories, but broad, fantastical ones, and if you're going to write a story about characters with hearts so pure they can melt glaciers, or true love conquering all, or other such things, then you need to actually commit to that story, not hold back for fear of appearing schmaltzy. In a similar vein, when you are making a film about Maleficent, the closest thing Disney ever came to putting Satan on screen (Fantasia excepted), then you do just that.

I'm not saying Maleficent has to be made into a nothing but a psychotic killer. Broad canvas can still encompass nuanced characters (Lord of the Rings comes to mind). But when you are dealing with someone who has been violated and mutilated (let's call things what they are here), and whose consequent wrath is so volcanic that she unmakes reality around her through her mere presence, it does not do to have her show up in a cloud of vengeful hate and pronounce a curse so mealy-mouthed and laden with contingencies as to leave one wondering where in the world she pulled it from. We've established that Maleficent has the effective power of a Pagan God, effortlessly routing armies, conjuring dragons, and rending entire castles apart, so for her to drop the "revenge" that she does, feels like Charles Bronson confronting the men that killed his wife at gunpoint and presenting them with a parking ticket. Similarly, having pronounced her infamous curse, I cannot fathom for the life of me what would possess a character this enraged to spend the next sixteen years secretly watching over the object of the curse, even going so far as to saving it from the neglect of the three fairies deputed to look after her (a trio of women performing comic relief straight out of a three stooges routine). I understand why the plot inclines that way, for we have to make a story about how Maleficent was not evil but just misunderstood, etc... Fine. But you have to ground the character's actions in a way that makes sense, no matter how over the top they are. Maleficent is evil, or at least wrath, personified. Let her be wrathful. If your movie is worthy, the audience will follow you there.

But then I'm not sure if she is actually meant to be wrath personified or not, because the movie can't make up its damn mind as to just what Maleficent is actually capable of. In one moment she is laying armies waste, erecting impermeable barriers around entire kingdoms, and transforming her minions in any manner she wishes at the flick of a finger. The next she's barely capable of handling a retinue of armed men, and must walk into obvious ambushes for lack of any alternative. Yes, some gestures are made to cold iron as a kryptonite analogue as a weakness for fairies (something that's at least grounded in sound mythology), but even still, for someone who has been established as being capable of ripping stone buildings to pieces by accident, it stretches credulity when she suddenly has no alternative in escaping from a stone castle than walking out of it and trying not to make too much noise.

And the tragedy of it is that, bereft of the things that might serve to make this character truly memorable, Maleficent, both character and film, are reduced in the end to a fairly boring re-tread of the inverted version of Sleeping Beauty. I don't object to re-imagining Maleficent at all of course, nor to giving her a character arc and more complex motivations than "Satan", but you have to at least give us a character that we can identify something in. It is not impossible to make a character who both embodies the sheer power of the original and the more modern sensibilities of the rewrite. It is equally not impossible to make a character who is drastically different from the original in every way. But it is not possible to make a character who is all of those things at once, especially not in a movie that barely has 90 minutes to make its case. Without a strong character to anchor this fantastical biopic, the movie's action climax feels almost lethargic, which is a hell of a strike against a film whose predecessor ended with Maleficent being slain by a magical sword plunged through her heart while she was meta-morphed into a dragon on top of a jagged mountain in the middle of a lightning storm.

Final thoughts:   I can, if I squint at it, imagine a version of Maleficent that would be something truly special, for the basics are all here to make it work. Jolie is easily capable of carrying a film about the sorcerous queen of Hell, with or without more humanizing character features, Copley makes for a compelling obsessive antagonist, and the two romantic leads are actually a lot more likeable than I had anticipated them being. But the film simply cannot decide what it's trying to be, going for a PG-13 (or even R) concept with a PG rating, neutering its own premise by refusing to take it far enough to match the setting and concept. A movie actually about one of Disney's greatest villains could be a triumph on the scale of Wicked, but I fear that novice director Robert Stromberg simply lacked the courage (or the clout) to drive home the version of the film that might have brought that triumph home. And without it, all we're left with is a pedestrian fairy tale that happens to star a woman with horns.

Final Score:  5/10

Monday, June 2, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Alternate Title:  Retcon

One sentence synopsis:    Wolverine is sent back in time from a hellish future to help Professor Xavier, Beast, and Magneto stop it from coming about.

Things Havoc liked:  At the beginning of each year, right about the same time that I sit down to work out my ten best and worst for the year previous, I like to look ahead to the movies to come and determine, unofficially of course, which ones I am the most interested in seeing. There's nothing formal about this process, it's really just a way for me to remind myself, several months later when the doldrums are burying me in utter crap, that there are in fact films to look forward to on the horizon. But with anticipation comes apprehension, for I have seen far too many bad films, and more specifically far too many bad films that I originally hoped would be good, to not be worried about Hollywood (or whoever) living up to my heightened expectations. It was thus with a great deal of trepidation that I went to see this movie, my most anticipated film of the year, sequel to 2011's film-of-the-year X-men First Class, a movie that promised to unite the various timelines of X-men movies into a single, cohesive whole. The trailers were inconclusive after all, and X-men is not a series with a flawless pedigree. My concern was that this would turn into a calamity on the level of X-men 3.

I do love being wrong sometimes.

Days of Future Past is a fantastic film on largely every level, and the reasons for this are, as they were with the previous film, threefold. The three in question of course that I speak of are James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence, who respectively play Charles Xavier (Professor X), Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Raven (Mystique). I spent practically the entire review of First Class praising these three, and the wonderful dynamic that their characters offered, and if I don't stop myself I will probably do so again. All three are note-perfect in their roles, as they were the last time we saw them. Xavier, who has degenerated into a recluse following the events of the first film, and the progression of failures culminating in the conscripting of most of his students and staff for the Vietnam War (clever idea), must claw his way back into the Roddenberry-esque figure that we know from both the comics and the first film. I don't often see characters undergo hero's journeys in reverse, but McAvoy sells every scene perfectly, humanizing a character that all too easily turns into a mouthpiece for the scriptwriter. Fassbender meanwhile, while he doesn't get material as meaty as he did in the last film, has come full circle. His Magneto is by now a hardened fanatic, dedicated to the point of megalomania to his cause, and yet we see so clearly how all of this is simply layered atop a normal, likeable person. Magneto has always been one of my favorite characters in comics (you don't see many empathetic megalomaniacs), and without disrespect to Ian McKellan, this is the version I've come to prefer.

But to my astonishment, not only is Lawrence's Mystique still the only version of this character that I can stomach, this film actually does the impossible and turns her into my favorite character of the film. Though her role is a bit more plot-heavy this time round, there is still plenty of time allotted for Lawrence to bounce off of everyone else. Embittered by the campaign being waged against Mutantkind, disenchanted with Xavier's attempts to force her onto the straight and narrow path, and tired of Magneto's excesses, Lawrence plays Mystique at times unsure of what she's actually trying to accomplish, at times driven with an unshakeable certainty to safeguard "her" people against what is being done to them. Every meeting she has with either Xavier or Magneto is perfect, be it surprise and joy at seeing one of them after so long, or a bitter reunion between two driven people who have simply parted ways. The dynamic she and the others established in the first film is perfectly intact here, and twists and shifts in different directions, just as it ought with characters like these.

But I have to stop praising these three characters, because there is simply so much more to talk about. One such thing? Wolverine. Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine perfectly even in bad movies, here has the fascinating task of coming full circle. His Wolverine is older, wizened, finally restored to some semblance of peace with all of the turmoils and terrors that have been inflicted on him. Jackman's version of Wolverine has long been the only one I could actually stand, and here he takes the character to a new level, tasked with turning around and dispensing the same sort of level-headed support for a younger generation of mutants that was dispensed to him by these same characters in the future. Time travel plots are fun. But Wolverine's addition to the past-time cast is barely the tip of the iceberg, as largely every character from every rendition of every X-men film, past and present, shows up here, if only for a cameo, turning the film into a veritable farewell tour for a series that has spanned seven films in three different decades. On top of that, we have new additions, including Evan Peters as a hyper-powered Quicksilver, played in this case like a teenage stoner whose capabilities are so immense that he is simply bored with the wider world. Quicksilver's role here left me with a number of questions (not the least of which are how the alternate version of the character in next year's Avengers 2 is going to avoid confusing the hell out of us all), but his role is transparently an excuse to show us awesome things, including a hilarious battle inside the Pentagon's kitchen that will forever change my feelings towards Gordon Lightfoot (don't ask). But the biggest newcomer to the scene is undoubtedly Peter Dinklage, playing Bolivar Trask, a weapons designer dedicated to exterminating mutants with a series of powerful mutant-hunting robots. Dinklage admittedly does occasionally slip into Tyrion Lannister mode, but his portrayal is perfect, not a screaming psychopath but a scientist and engineer who regards mutants as nothing more than a particularly interesting civic engineering problem to be mastered and dealt with. I always love watching Dinklage, and interestingly, the film not once makes mention of the fact that Bolivar Trask, in this version, is a little person, the fact in question being utterly irrelevant to the plot, the characters, and the world at large.

So much said, and I haven't even spoken of the plot, which despite gyrations and the insanities of time travel, manages to hold together well. I haven't even spoken of the action, which is crisp and inventive and violent to a degree previous X-men films have not been. I haven't spoken of John Ottman's score, an inventive mix of action beats and period music (the period in question lending itself to some trippy sequences). I haven't spoken of the shoutouts to previous films, the unending stream of inspired cameos, or the fact that this movie, as a time travel film, manages to unwrite a fair amount of X-men canon that nobody, least of all me, is sad to see thrown aside. I haven't spoken of any of these things, because the core of the film, the connection between the characters I enjoyed seeing so much the first time around, eclipses everything else, good or bad, that the movie produces. Believe me, this is not a complaint.

Things Havoc disliked: Which is not to say that I have no complaints.

For one thing, this film takes a while to get started, with an ill-conceived opening segment that, while effective in establishing the credentials of the antagonists, necessarily is mired in an infodump to end all infodumps, one that is badly-paced, awkwardly-written, and is clearly rushed through in order to get us to the meat of the material. I don't mind when films concentrate on their strongest elements, mind you, but throwaway stuff like this should either take thirty seconds or should be expanded into something more palatable. After all, at barely over two hours, it's not like this film couldn't have had another five or ten minutes added onto it.

The plot of this film is, of course, demonstrably goofy, which is forgivable in a movie that has to use time travel and astral projection to make its plot work. What is less forgivable is some of the decisions made in regards to what the film has several of the characters do. Magneto's abilities, always exceedingly potent, are in this film extended to the point of ludicrous absurdity, something which Magneto has been subject to before, admittedly, but generally not to good effect. If Magneto can exercise control of his abilities to the extent that he demonstrates in this film, surely he would simply win, at everything he chooses to do, instantly. Similarly, Quicksilver, though a fun addition here, has a power-set so absurdly over the top that he would, if used properly, obviate the entire plot in twelve seconds, which is likely why the main cast leaves him behind once his admittedly awesome sequences are complete. One must set boundaries on one's super-powered characters if they are to be compelling at all, for if not, any difficulty they encounter can only be rendered a challenge by making them an idiot.

Final thoughts:   There are good movies, there are great movies, and then there are great movies that retroactively render bad movies either better or obsolete, and X-Men: Days of Future Past is unabashedly one of these rare third category. A wonderful, sweeping, brilliantly-executed film, if this film fails to live up to the quality of its predecessor, it is only because of a greater focus on plot and less on character establishment. Prior to this film, the X-men franchise had produced six films, three good, and three less so, but this movie puts all (but one) of them into the shade, not content with redeeming characters that I imagined irredeemable, but erasing the flaws that originally rendered them so annoying in the first place. Gleefully shredding the continuity of the X-men, it leaves us in a place from whence, once more, anything at all is possible. And if the makers of the previous six films should choose to use this movie as a launching point for another six, then they can count on me being there to watch every one of them.

I have seen franchises born, and I have seen franchises die. But not often do I see a franchise return to vibrant and wonderful life after being all but left for dead.

Final Score:  8/10

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