Saturday, October 25, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Crucible

One sentence synopsis:  A young typist is drafted as a replacement tank crewman, and joins a veteran crew during the bloody, bitter end of World War 2.

Things Havoc liked: War movies are their own genre with their own rules, and over the years I've seen spectacular ones (Das Boot, Platoon, Lawrence of Arabia), and terrible ones (The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, War Horse). One of the things I've noticed though, something which makes me nervous every time a new War film is in the offering, is that while there's a wide gulf of quality between an excellent war film and a terrible one, most war films look more or less identical when reduced to thirty-second trailers. As my policy in selecting films is to consult neither other reviews nor industry buzz, this poses something of a problem, as the trailers are the only things I have to go on besides my own intuition to make the selection. And to be perfectly frank, insofar as it's possible to differentiate one war movie from another via trailers, Fury's were not encouraging, being comprised of nothing but the usual "rookie joins the war and becomes a man while winning the respect of his comrades in the crucible of war" jargon that is more or less the plot of two thirds of all war movies ever made. As a result of all this, I very nearly decided to skip Fury entirely, figuring that the film had nothing new to show me beyond a tired, cliche-ridden plot, and it was only a lack of viable choices (Dracula Untold was the best of my alternate options) that led me to reluctantly see what this film had to offer.

Well I was right. Fury does have a tired, cliche-ridden plot. And it is awesome.

Let me be clear, I do not mean the film is awesome in the sense of something like the Expendables, I use the term in its strict, literal definition, in that Fury, contrary to all my expectations walking in, is a thing which produces awe. It is a shattering, stylized, tremendously well-made film, acted, directed, shot, and scored beautifully, one of the finest renditions of the "rookie joins the war" plot I have ever seen, and a well-deserved reminder that one should not judge a film by its one-paragraph synopsis. Writer/Director David Ayer, a veteran of cop films such as Training Day, Dark Blue, and one of my bigger surprises from 2012, End of Watch, has outdone himself, producing a war film that deserves to be remembered in conjunction with the finer examples of the genre, and doing so with a throwaway plot, questionable actors, and a subject (the mechanical art of driving and commanding tanks) that does not lend itself well to screen. Tanks, of course, are imposing, highly-cinematic objects. Five men crammed inside a metal box peering through peepholes for two hours are generally not. But then this film is anything but general.

It is the end of World War Two, and fanatical die-hard holdouts from the German Volksturm (People's militia) and SS (Irredeemable shitheads) fight hopelessly on against the all-conquering tide of Allied might and steel now blanketing Germany. In the midst of the savage fights that end the war, Sgt. "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) commands the five-man crew of his M4A3E8 Sherman medium tank, "Fury". I've always regarded Brad Pitt as a very good actor when he's not playing a sardonic pretty boy (at age 50, he can still manage to do as much), but this is not his first war film, and with an exception or two (last year's World War Z for instance), the results have been pretty dismal (Troy, Inglorious Basterds). Here however, he is anything but, a consummate, professional non-com, veteran for so long that he no longer even needs vocalize what he's thinking about the war or his circumstances. When he stands at a depot and is ordered to do foolish things by a fresh-faced Lieutenant, he does not curse his luck in being saddled with a fool, but simply rolls his eyes, for this is war, and stupidity is something he has long-since gotten used to. And yet the war has hardened him as well, the mechanical act of waging brutal warfare for this long having convinced him that men must be blooded in order to survive at all. Willing to kill helpless prisoners in full view of thousands of men and yet equally willing to reprimand his men for a misplaced insult, his dual nature manifests in a lengthy sequence midway through the movie where he and his rookie assistant driver (who we'll get to) enter the apartment of two young German women, the results of which we spend nearly half an hour building towards, unsure if he's going to rape them, shoot them, ask them to make him some eggs, or some combination of the three.

And sharing our confusion is Private Norman Ellison, played by Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson to you YA fans out there), a young man I've been highly impressed with in everything from 3:10 to Yuma to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to Noah, one of the strangest movies I saw this year, wherein he was very good playing Noah's rebellious middle son. He's better here. Eschewing the usual "young kid who must earn respect from his fellows" tropes that these sorts of movies are well supplied with, Lerman instead plays his character like a sane person dropped without warning (having been trained as a typist before being sent to the front by a paperwork snafu) into some kind of Dantean hell. The war he is plunged into is brutal beyond comprehension, and he reacts as anyone might, with disbelief, undisguised horror, blind panic, and pure, adrenaline-fueled rage. The semi-reflexive attempts by his new crewmen to denigrate his inexperience and to force him into the necessarily brutal mindset of the war itself he regards, not as terrible trials to be overcome, but rank insanity, screaming that no amount of forced atrocity will "make him a man" and instantly responding to the customary threats ("shoot the prisoner or I shoot you") that those issuing the threats should shoot him. It helps Lerman's case that the crew of dispassionate war veterans around him are all excellent as well, particularly End of Watch's Michael Pena, and most astonishing of all, none other than Transformers and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's Shia LeBeouf, an actor I assumed I would never have any use for in any context whatsoever, and who in this film might actually be the best actor in the entire thing! His character, like the others, is not that new (a bible-spouting born-again Christian), but the weariness with which he plays the character, and the casual manner in which he and the others bounce off one another is staggeringly good, done as real as any portrayal of these sorts of classical archetypes that I've ever encountered.

But it's the style of the film, particularly the cinematography and the score, that really push this movie over the top. We're all used to exciting battle sequences in drab olive-and-brown ruins, but never before have the ruins of Europe been this dreary, nor the battle sequences this awe-striking. Tanks deploy tracer rounds of a thousand technicolors, lighting up the sky like electrical storms, lustily eradicating everything in their path with clouds of incandescent white phosphorous or eruptions of volcanic shellfire. Anti-tank shells and machine gun bullets streak past like the colorful lasers from a Star Wars movie, ricocheting in all directions in clouds of sparks or violently ripping armored vehicles apart like volcanic eruptions. A particularly memorable shot involves the contrails of thousands of barely-visible high-altitude bombers, silhouetted against the leaden skies, carpeting the vault of the heavens in formation like a phalanx of angels as a handful of ragged German warplanes rise to offer futile battle. The footage of war in this film is horrible, bloody stuff, and yet it is gorgeous, even memorizing, a reaction made even stronger by an ethereal electro-choral score from veteran composer Steven Price, whose work last year on Gravity I praised immoderately, and must again here. Eschewing all traditional war movie themes, the military marches, the pattering drums, or the customary orchestral stings, Price gives us a score that sounds like the electrified version of a Baroque Requiem or Fugue, an accompaniment not for Band of Brothers, but for the Last Judgment. The entire effect borders on the very edge of magical realism, as if the combatants were locked in some kind of purgatorial hell, doomed to fight a bitter, bloody war until all the seas run dry.

Things Havoc disliked:  Staggering as the style of this film is, there were moments when my rational brain, and more particularly my historical brain began coughing and asking pointed questions. One of these comes early on, when Pitt's character "inducts" Lerman's into the brotherhood of misery and brutality by physically forcing him to commit a war crime. That American troops committed war crimes in WWII I accept, of course, but this one is committed in full view of hundreds and hundreds of witnesses, and involves action-by-proxy that can only be understood in the context of Pitt being a literal psychopath, ala Tom Berenger in Platoon, yet the movie soon makes it abundantly clear that he is nothing of the sort. Why then this grotesque display of sociopathy, one so absurd that I can safely say nothing of the sort ever took place in the US army during the war? Perhaps the intention is to signal the duality of Pitt's character, but there is, I'm afraid, a difference between duality and multiple personalities.

There is also the question of the battles. Though they are, in the main, scrupulously accurate (the best involves a fight between a squadron of Sherman tanks and a fearsome German Tiger I, portrayed in the film by the only functioning Tiger left in the world, and resolved approximately the way a battle between a Tiger and four Shermans would probably go), the film's final engagement seems to drop all pretense of realism in favor of pure spectacle. I don't mind pure spectacle at all, especially when it's done this well, but this is a historical war film, or at least it has been masquerading as one. For the movie to suddenly turn into a mook fight at the end is rather disappointing, as the enemies our heroes face are so absolutely overwhelming that, well-disposed towards the film as I was, and knowledgeable about the war as I am, I was absolutely unable to construct a rationale for why any of them remained alive for more than about forty seconds, given the situation they were in and the enemies they were faced with, nor was I able to construct one for where the Germans managed to derive this massive, well-trained, and dangerously lethal force mere weeks before the final collapse of the Third Reich, at a time when the US Army was overrunning Germany at flanking speed, and the Air Force despairing over having literally run out of targets in the entire country. Perhaps I simply am too close to the source material here, but my ability to sit back and admire the final sequence was hamstrung by this problem, to the point where it cheapened most of the actions, heroic and otherwise, that the characters were going through. It does not make you seem heroic if you appear to have an invulnerability cheat code on, or if your enemies appear to be monolithically stupid.

Final thoughts:   Fury is a wonderful film, a brilliantly-acted, stylish, gorgeous war epic, which neither glamorizes the war, nor wallows unnecessarily in the horrors of it (which is not the same thing as not wallowing in them at all). Indeed, such criticisms as I have seem almost unfair in retrospect, as I'm not certain the intention wasn't more artistic than accurate, that Ayer did not seek to make a film that encompassed the platonic essence of war, using World War Two as its medium. Some scenes may stretch credulity, even within their own context, but it is still one of the most complete war movies I've seen in a decade, a lustrous achievement that I am very glad I had the opportunity to see.

My track record of late has not been the best one, and last week I nervously wondered if there was any way out of the mire of crappy movies that I seemed to be stuck in. How fitting that in the middle of Oscar season, typically a time for tense dramas and soulful biopics, I found salvation in a movie about the beauty and horror that comes when fifty-ton war machines battle one another with flaming darts and blossoming shells.

Oh and it turns out that Shia LeBeouf can act. Who would have ever guessed?

Final Score:  8/10

Next Week:   Michael Keaton plays a superhero and goes crazy.  No, you have not seen this before.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Judge

Alternate Title:  Symbolism!!!

One sentence synopsis:  A hotshot lawyer returns to his hometown to defend his estranged father, a local judge accused of murdering an ex-defendant.

Things Havoc liked: I've always liked Robert Downey Jr, even back before he was Iron Man. I liked him in things like Air America and A Scanner Darkly and Tropic Thunder and Natural Born Killers, and one of the only negative things I can point to about the Rise of Marvel is that since the advent of this remarkable run of films, we've not gotten to see Downey in much besides the Avengers and the occasional Sherlock Holmes flick. I can't exactly complain, given the result, but when the opportunity arose to see Downey in a more "normal" film, alongside Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton no less, I immediately jumped on it. For all I appreciate Marvel's output and other such blockbusters, there are times I simply want to watch good actors acting at one another, and Oscar season is as good a time as any.

And these are good actors. Robert Downey Jr. in particular is a phenomenal actor, whose role is not all that distinct from his turn in the Iron Man/Avengers films, but that's hardly a complaint. He plays Hank Palmer, an abrasive hotshot attorney from Chicago who fled his small hometown long ago and never looked back. Downey showcases here his patented sardonic wit, a little more abrasive than Tony Stark is ever allowed to be, showering contempt on those less intelligent than he is, convinced that he knows what’s best, for the simple reason that he often does. This kind of character can be hard to swallow, and easily turn into an entitled dick, but the film gets around this with another phenomenal actor, Robert Duvall, playing Hank’s father Joseph, a domineering, moralizing bastard, cantankerous and harsh to all three of his sons, particularly to the one that got away from him and left to form his own life. The dynamic between Downey and Duvall is effectively the movie, which is a fine decision, given the sparks these two are capable of.

Things Havoc disliked: *Groan*

The Judge has a good idea behind it. Duvall and Downey are two actors that could bounce off one another for days. But in order for them to do so, they would need either a script worth a damn, or license to invent their own dialogue. This film supplies them with precisely none of those things.

Oh there’s a script here, of a sort. A script laden with every family-bonding cliché known to man, but a script nonetheless, one that lets Downey and Duvall interact as little as possible in favor of the most ham-fisted symbolism I’ve seen in a while. I’m all in favor of showing rather than telling, but after a certain point of clunkyness, showing is telling, especially when you’re relying on such iron-handed devices as two people facing away from one another on a road in a wide-shot that emphasizes the distance between them, or that oldest of the pretentious old-time-writer’s tricks, a family argument to the backdrop of a raging storm, into which characters stalk angrily the better to frame their emotions. Symbolism works best when done subtly, something to analyze after the fact, a detail in lighting or tone. This has all the subtlety of an anvil dropped off a roof, crude analogies so bluntly framed as to be laughable in their attempt to preserve mystery. When someone is trying to decide whether they should take their father’s place or not, how subtle is it to have him spin his father’s desk chair around, which comes to a rest framed in soft, yellow sunlight, the seat facing the man in question, rocking back and forth invitingly?

But movies have survived thunderous symbolism before. 2011’s Real Steel was barely any more subtle than this, and it made my best-of-the-year list. Unfortunately for The Judge, Real Steel buttressed its anvilicious symbolism with a wonderful cast and a heartfelt, though derivative script. The Judge has several excellent actors as I mentioned before, but it also has Vera Farmiga (far and away the weakest link in Scorcese’s The Departed), a complete waste of a performance from Billy Bob Thornton (whose character is allowed to hint towards an interesting angle, as the prosecuting attorney who sees the opportunity to squash Downey’s frankly arrogant perversions of justice, before being dropped entirely), and worst of all, God’s gift to bad acting himself, Vincent Freaking D’Onofrio, a man who has made many movies, and was good in only two of them, one as a marine suffering a psychotic break, and one as an alien faccimile of a human being. As in all previous occasions in which I’ve had the misfortune to encounter D’Onofrio (Kill the Irishman, Escape Plan), he is more or less a waste of time here, playing Downey’s older brother, a former baseball star whose career was ruined in a car accident Downey caused. Once again, a potentially interesting idea with which nothing is ever done, though in fairness that's less his fault and more the script's. Neither he, nor their mentally challenged brother Dale (Lincoln's Jeremy Strong) has a character at all, being used instead for more goddamn symbolism, such as the home movies of the car wreck that destroyed D'Onofrio's career which Dale "accidentally" plays (why exactly are there home movies of the car wreck spliced into a movie about them as children?) during a storm, just so it can afford Duvall the opportunity to break things and rage at the heavens.

Ultimately that's the real problem. There are neither characters nor a real story in this film, there is just a concept, saccharine as it is, and nothing more, and the characters (along with everything else) exist solely to symbolize things within it. Farmiga, for instance, plays Downey's love interest, who has no character of her own, merely serving to "symbolize" the bucolic existence he has passed up. His daughter, played by the same little girl from Elysium (I remember a child performance that bad) serves to "symbolize" his innocence or some damn thing. Even the final confrontation with his father comes, for no reason other than to symbolize even more, at the pinnacle of the old man's murder trial, culminating in a schmaltzy "I love you son" series of epiphanies that I would wager most courtrooms probably would not allow on the witness stand.

But boy does it sure symbolize a lot.

Final thoughts:   The Judge is a sad waste of time, not merely for me, but for the actors who wrongly thought it was an opportunity to make a good film this Oscar season. I cannot say that director Jeremy Strong, formerly of Fred Claus, and co-writer of such masterpieces as Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D. really plays below par here, given the above resume, but this film does not elevate his name into one I will be looking for when it comes time to select something to watch. But as to this dreary, sappy, over-long piece of kludged-together gunk, my only hope is that it will soon be forgotten thanks to the flood of excellent films I have to assume are coming just around the corner. The alternative would be for the entirety of Oscar Season to be comprised of nothing but the kinds of terrible disappointments that have filled my last two weeks. And there's no way that can continue forever...


... right?

Final Score:  3/10

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gone Girl

Alternate Title:  Genesis  3:16

One sentence synopsis:  The wife of a philandering bar owner disappears without a trace, leading to suspicions that he may have murdered her.

Things Havoc liked: "I'm excited to see that new Ben Affleck movie," is one of those statements that I never expected to be saying in all earnestness ten years ago, not in the dog days of films like Gigli or Daredevil. But then we live in a strange world these days, where people speak of things like "Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey", and "this year's cinematic masterpiece from Marvel comics", so perhaps I should be less surprised. It is still perhaps saying something that my first thought on hearing about this film was grave concern that Affleck was merely acting in this movie, and not taking on the director's duties, but one takes what one can get when it comes to serious dramatic films with serious dramatic casts.

Gone Girl, based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), and directed by the incomparable David Fincher, whose resume includes such films as Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the first real sign I've seen that the September slump is behind us, and that we've finally entered Oscar Season. Oscar Season, for those who have not been keeping up with my barely-comprehensible ramblings concerning the yearly film calendar, is the third of the three major seasons into which the year is divided, a time between mid-October and the end of December, wherein the studios release their big-ticket Oscar-prospects, the movies they believe and hope will generate awards for them during the award ceremonies that recap the year between January and March. Not every film that comes out around this period qualifies as an Oscarbait film of course, but Gone Girl, with its accomplished cast, its all-star director, and its dramatic, "serious" subject matter, is almost a perfect example thereof. Lest I sound critical however, Oscar Season is a time I look forward to with great anticipation, as all of a sudden the studios disgorge a plethora of excellent prospects before me, and ask only that I, like the rest of the critics, find something in them that we like.

Well I'm always game for seeing the bright side of things. Let's start, as always, with the actors. Ben Affleck, like other former-pretty-boy actors before him, has made the transition from a critical joke to a critical darling mostly by putting his reading glasses on when reviewing scripts, taking on films that offer greater dramatic range while relying on his instinctive charisma to carry him through the role. McConaughey did the same thing when he made his right-turn into relevance, and Affleck, even when not directing, knows exactly how to deliver a performance like this. He plays Nick Dunne, a failed writer who has become something of a layabout in a small town in Missouri, to which he has moved himself and his wife to be closer to his family. Affleck plays the role distantly, like a playboy who is no longer young enough to get away with such antics, and does not seem to know what else he is supposed to transition into for the remainder of his life. His marriage with Amy, his wife who goes missing early in the film, is highly strained, believably in both of their cases, and Affleck does an excellent job of provoking suspicion from both the audience and the rest of the cast without ever transcending the bounds of reason or lacking for a plausible explanation. It's not easy to balance on the edge of a mystery like this, but Affleck is easily up to the challenge, and never once slips back into the bad habits he demonstrated for the first fifteen years or so of his career.

But Affleck is a rank amateur compared to the real revelation of the film, Rosamund Pike, an actress whose resume previously included such "wonderful" films as Die Another Day, Jack Reacher, and Wrath of the Titans, and who is on a completely different level in this film. Describing the various things that Pike does in the movie would be to spoil the entire thing, but her performance here is absolutely electrifying, an order of magnitude beyond anything I have seen of her before. Through all the tribulations that the movie involves her in, Pike manages to portray everything from quotidian concern to frustrated anger to horrific victimization to... well that would be telling. Her performance anchors the entire film, whether in flashbacks to her and Affleck meeting in New York, to more recent flashbacks to their troubles in Missouri, to the events that actually touch the plot off, and with it, she has instantly elevated herself in my mind to the A-list of Hollywood actresses. This is the sort of performance that Oscar nominations are made of, a riveting, twisting role that can make or break the actor or actress in question.

And the good times don't stop there, indeed this movie was a rather stunning revelation for me, not merely because of Pike, but because of a number of different actors for which I've had no use previously, and found one here. One of these actors is Kim Dickens, a main character on HBO's Deadwood (one of the best television shows of all time), who has previously been decidedly underwhelming in everything I've seen her in, but not here. She plays Detective Boney, the only member of the local police force unable to make her mind up instantly about Affleck's guilt or innocence, whose investigation parallels that of others, as the audience tries to piece the truth together. But the one that surprised me the most, unquestionably, was of all people, Tyler Freaking Perry, once described to me as the least-intimidating six-foot-four black man in America. Perry, a purveyor and star of absolutely terrible movies for the last decade or so, here plays the first serious role I've ever seen him attempt (I contrived to miss 2012's Alex Cross), as a high-priced, high-profile defense attorney specializing in media circuses, and to my abject shock, plays the role perfectly, a sober, collected expert who knows precisely how the currents of public opinion and media cycles function, and advises his client on the best way to avoid shipwreck. Perry is not a caricature, nor an exaggerated farce, and the realism with which he portrays the role actually cements the film's central narrative about the facetious gossip-mongering that the rest of the media and legal system is mired in.

Things Havoc disliked: Given the above, and the effusive praise I have lavished upon so many actors of this film at such length, you might expect that I would have little to complain about, and that this movie was one I was preparing to strongly recommend. And indeed I must admit that when I first emerged from the theater and analyzed my feelings on the film in general, that was precisely what I was preparing to do. Normally my first impression from a film proves to be pretty close to my final thoughts, but in this case, I decided to give the film a little time to percolate before making a final decision, so that I might come to terms with some of the more disquieting elements that the movie left within me.

My conclusion? I hated this film.

Everything I said above, praise for Affleck and Pike and Dickens and Perry, all these things I stand by, as the problem with the movie is not the acting. It is not, by and large, the direction, nor the cinematography, the former of which is at least serviceable, the latter of which is expertly-done by long-time Fincher-collaborator Jeff Cronenweth. No, the problem with the film is something much deeper, much more troublesome, something rooted in but not precisely equivalent to the writing. An accusation that all of you know, by now, that I do not make lightly, and in fact almost never make at all. The major problem with this film is, indeed, something I feel fairly uncomfortable even bringing up, knowing as I do how quick I am to reject such statements as issue-questing and axe-grinding when it is made of other films. But the fact remains that the problem with this film is that it is deeply, pervasively, stunningly misogynistic.

You all know me. You all know I do not press that button of all buttons casually. And yet I have no choice here but to hammer it home because this film is staggering in its contempt for women, all women (with a couple customary exceptions) over the course of its narrative. They are shrewish, empathy-less, judgmental harpies. They are evil, conniving, psychopathic murderers. They are twisted monsters disguising themselves effortlessly from the honest, simple, true-hearted men that surround them, whose virtuous, trusting natures prevent them from seeing the webs of iniquity and vitriol that are being spun around them. Not one woman is portrayed this way, but ALL of them, even when their characters must make right-angle turns in order to support this narrative, even when the plot groans under the weight of contrivances just to squeeze that much more evil out of the female species, even then the film is relentless in hammering home the fundamental decrepitude of women as a whole, to the point where my viewing companion suggested that the film was beginning to resemble an MRA propaganda piece, and I was getting flashbacks to St. Bernard's medieval panegyrics denouncing the race of Eve as sinful, duplicitous monsters.

The typical hypocrisies associated with bigotry of any stripe are front and center here. Some women are ditzy or brainless or simply stupid, such as the majority of the Stepford-analogues in the bedroom community that Affleck and Pike are living in, vapid people with shallow interests and a grotesque inability to empathize. A throwaway character early on in the film, a woman who approaches Affleck after he has lost his wife to a violent kidnapping for which he himself is suspected, presumptuously takes a Selfie with him for no reason whatsoever, and then reacts to his requests to delete or at least not share the picture as an inexplicable and creepy request from a selfish dick, informing him that she will share the picture with whoever she wishes and storming off as if wrongfully abused. Later that very image appears on a talk show run by an evil, shrewish Ann-Coulter analogue played by veteran actress Missi Pyle (who I'm sure is a very nice person, but whose misfortune has always been to have a face that naturally screams "bitch"). What benefit does this mystery woman draw from this act? Nothing. She's simply a stupid ditz who ruins Affleck's life for no reason and can't even realize she's done wrong. Similarly Affleck's mother-in-law, a bitter, sniping woman who publicly denounces Affleck any chance she gets, and his mistress (more on that later), a dumb college student who seduces Affleck with her bubble-headed sexiness only to turn around and put on a virgin's cowl when it's time to tearfully denounce him while being manipulated by other women. Yet on the other hand we have other women who are sublimely clever, twisted, masqued murderers and sociopaths, who delight in destroying men's lives for the fun of it, or for the crimes of having paid insufficient adoration to themselves. Women able to construct the most exquisite frame jobs, fake everything from rape to physical abuse, spend years establishing the pieces only to bring the unknowing men down just so that they can have the pleasure of watching them burn. It's not just Affleck this happens to of course, for these are man-eaters, misandrists of a sort that exist only in the depraved fantasies of men who feel themselves wronged. One man, late in the film, admits to having had his life destroyed by a woman who set him up as a rapist for the crime of not committing to her, while another (played by a surprisingly flat Neil Patrick Harris), showers a woman with money and attention, only to be the victim of a hideous crime largely out of convenience. I have literally known men who were falsely accused of sexual assault in real life, something which is vanishingly rare, and even I was unable to simply accept something like this wholeheartedly. In a film that employed ONE of these characters, such as Jennifer Lawrence's sollopsistic passive-aggressive maniac in American Hustle, I would have had no problem. But this film throws in every stereotype they can find, makes up a few more, and then afflicts them all on the thankless, aw-shucks simple man of virtue that is Ben Affleck, and expects us to accept that this is the stuff of real drama.

And maybe this all would have worked in a film that explored the deep-seated hypocrisies of seemingly-normal people, a Peyton Place-style unveiling of the hidden darkness within everyday people, but the movie refuses to play fair, because Affleck, the afflicted man at the center of this tempest, can do no wrong. Sure, he's a shiftless layabout who sponges off his wife's trust fund, but trying to be a writer is hard, guys, and he needs some time to himself. Sure, he throws his wife into a wall in anger, but she probably made that up as part of a Machiavellian plot to get back at him. Sure he, cheats on his wife with a student half his age, but she was just so goddamn sexy that he had no way to control himself! Just ask his twin sister Margo (played by Carrie Coon, whom I mistook until five minutes ago for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's Aubrey Plaza), who almost alone among the women of the film is portrayed as neither stupid nor conniving, mostly because she has absolutely no reason to exist, either in the script or in the world of the film, save as an adjunct to Affleck's character. She has no life of her own, no family, no boyfriend, no hints of anything else going on except the ability to bear witness to Affleck's travails and fume against his tormentors. At one point late in the film, when asked if she is "with" Affleck, she responds that she was with him before they were born. She exists to complement him, which promotes her to 'honorary guy', something I don't usually mind with female characters, save when that promotion exists purely to distinguish the character in question from the dreaded curse of femininity that otherwise runs through the movie.

Final thoughts:   This review project of mine has been a weird exercise in many ways, but this, for me, is one of the weirdest. I never in my life thought I would wind up denouncing a movie with good acting, excellent cinematography, and at least decent directing (Fincher has a bad habit of stopping the film for ten-minute expo-dumps periodically, but that might be unavoidable considering the subject matter), let alone for reasons such as this, but there are occasions when one must, upon seeing a spade, call it a spade. I know this film has been praised to the skies by every critic known to man. I know it was written by a woman (Gillian Flynn, who also authored the book it was based on). I know David Fincher is a superb director who has done very little wrong in the last fifteen years, and made films of greatness and grandeur, something he will hopefully do again. I know this movie may even show up next March when it comes time to hand out Oscars. But this is my goddamn blog with my goddamn reviews on it and I cannot, and will not praise a movie this badly compromised by a deep-seated sense of misogyny as some kind of daring exploration of the nature of our modern world. I do not require that all men who philander be regarded as satanic and evil, or that all women be virtuous or kind or even sane. But I will not accept a movie that so blatantly gender-codes its roles in such a way and then turns around and tries to pretend to me that it is some sort of deep-rooted mediation on reality and its flaws. If a movie was made this way about men (and there have been some), I and others would be trumpeting outrage to the skies. It is only elementary consistency that leads me to do the same here.

A good movie can be made about any subject, but only if it is made with honesty. This movie is made with cruel and crude simplification and then gathers airs of depth and innovation because of its many virtues of acting and pedigree. I leave it to the other critics this time to praise its glories. For me it is a shallow, ugly thing, that in all honesty, I would simply sooner forget.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Equalizer

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Denzel Washington Kills Everyone

One sentence synopsis:  A mild-mannered hardware store worker with a hidden past takes revenge against human traffickers and slavers when they beat a young prostitute within an inch of her life.

Things Havoc liked: There's a great and rich history to revenge fantasy movies, movies about quiet, usually middle-aged men of dignity and simple virtue, who are either wronged or have their loved-ones wronged by the evil men that some imagine to be lurking around every dark corner in the dirty cesspools that are "the city", and who set out to take revenge. Charles Bronson made a number of these films back in the day, including the immortal "Death Wish", which touched off a firestorm by inverting the point of the novel it was based on and coming down on the side of vigilante justice. In more recent times, actors such as Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson have played these sorts of roles in everything from Air Force One to the Taken series. There are those who revile these sorts of films as nothing more than middle-aged power fantasies of paternalistic violence delivered against scary minorities by virtuous white men. Unlike such critics, I try to remember that movies in general are the stuff of power fantasies the world over, for every audience imaginable, and that it is easy to twist power dynamic theory to condemn literally anything. That said, there is still perhaps something to the notion, which is why it pleases me to see that for this latest rendition of the old revenge-movie staple, the producers have decided it's time to try the formula out with a black hero and white villains.

Based on a CBS show from the late 1980s, the Equalizer stars Denzel Washington as your typical Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women. The MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW has been a staple of film for years, but unlike Neeson, who has always been a director's actor and requires a steady hand to produce a good performance, Denzel is, as always, effortlessly charismatic, no matter his role, and manages here to appear far more convincingly a rational, reaosnable surrogate-dad figure to the cast of vulnerable little people that are required to surround the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW in movies like this. This role does not exactly stretch Washington's range, but he can play something like this in his sleep, transitioning efficiently at a split second from ruthless killer to concerned, and empathetic protagonist, sometimes doing so several times in the same scene. Given that Washington is, like Neeson and Ford and Bronson before him, playing an absolutely invulnerable killing machine, it's actually nice to see some of the smaller touches the film gives him. His attempts to defuse situations without violence (which are, of course, rejected by our evil villains), actually feel genuine, such as an occasion when he simply gives an armed robber money from the cash register at his workplace, or an earlier effort to buy out the mobsters who have enslaved a young prostitute. Only when these attempts fail do the fireworks begin, something many modern movies (like the Taken series) fail to do. It's not that I have some moral objection to people striking first in films, I'm as big a fan of Han shooting Greedo as anyone. But moments like this are character moments, and help establish that we're watching something other than an armored robot in the shape of a person gunning down mooks.

It also helps if the mooks have a decent villainous leader, and for this purpose we have Teddy, a half-Sherlock, half-Ivan Drago-style Russian mob enforcer played by New Zealand actor Marton Csokas, whose last major role was as Guy de Lusignan in Ridley Scott's massively underrated Kingdom of Heaven. Like action movie villains the world over, Csokas takes refuge in audacity with this one, whether completely extraneous shirtless-flexing scenes which exist merely to show off his tattoo and physique, unflappable feats of deductive reasoning and stone-faced murder, or explosions of raging violence when confronted with the unstoppable force he is ultimately up against. Csokas played the main villain (another Russian mob boss) in 2002's wretched xXx, and was the only redeeming element of that film, so something like this is right up his alley.

Things Havoc disliked: There are times I wonder if I've seen too many films. I know that's something of a tall claim, given how many movies professional critics go to, but nevertheless, I wonder if a film like this would have been more up my alley if I'd seen it ten years ago. There are movies like this I enjoy, after all, the original Taken was decent, as was Washington's previous MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movie, the surprisingly good Man on Fire. And yet... this time around, as Washington effortlessly slaughtered, detonated, and massacred his way through what appears to be the entirety of the Russian mafia, I was left wondering what the hell the point of all this was. The killing is decent, but lacks the artistry that would make it its own justification, and without that, the film is precisely what we expected it to be.

There's some inventiveness to the film, yes, the opening fight scene in particular is a lot more patient than I expected it to be, and showcases the hero's skills quite well, but it really never ceases showcasing them throughout the entire movie, long after it has established Washington as a badass, to the point of almost comical invulnerability. If Washington were shown to be getting one over on his enemies by means of wit and intelligence and proper planning (ala Riddick), that would be one thing, but we're just asked to swallow, retroactively, that he read the mind of all of the bad guys every time they laid a trap for him, allowing him to achieve his goal without fail. It gets to the point by the end of the film where I was almost as frustrated as the villain, as this superhuman death machine more or less toyed with his supposedly-lethal adversaries before dispatching them all. Again, I could understand this sort of thing if, perhaps, the point of the film was that the mobsters had gone far beyond the pale, and that Washington wished to torment them as well as kill them, plunging deep into the darker side of revenge. But Washington is so unflappable that nothing poses a threat, not to him, not to those who rely on him, nothing at all. He is a god, dispensing almost perfunctory wrath upon the insects who threaten him. For a hundred and thirty one minutes.

And maybe something could have been salvaged if those who are not invulnerable death machines were menaced effectively, but unfortunately no such luck. Chloe Grace-Moretz, a young actress I've been a huge fan of since the original Kick-Ass, is grossly underutilized as an underage prostitute in bondage to the mob, serving as Washington's obligatory trigger for fatherly violence-instincts. A few early sequences show promise, particularly ones where she, despite her youth and the terrible circumstances around her, shows off her ability to deal with awful situations through resignation and wisdom hard-bought. Yet all-too-quickly, the character is downshifted into a parody of some kind of "vulnerable young girl" complete with sparkling dreams of a singing career, before being summarily shunted off-screen for two-thirds of the movie. Perhaps it's me, perhaps I simply couldn't let my preconceptions go and sit back and enjoy the story before me, but I could not help but think, as the film progressed on, what a wonderfully-refreshing take on the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW genre it would be if Moretz decided halfway through the film to break out her Hit Girl character again, and team up with Washington to massacre the entire Russian Mafia.

Final thoughts:   Honestly, there's nothing particularly wrong with the Equalizer by the standard of MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW films (yes, I'm sticking with that damned acronym), but then again there's nothing particularly right about it either. It does what it sets out to do, showing us Denzel Washington killing people, without a whole lot of artistry, care, or interest. Maybe I'm just too old for movies like this, or maybe I've seen the MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW done too many times, but I simply need a film to do more than hit the minimum required notes for me to praise it, even when it's a film plowing such a well-worn trail as this. I don't much care usually when a movie is derivative, but it has to bring something to the table to get me to pay attention, and merely failing to suck horribly is not enough.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Drop

Alternate Title:  The Sopranos: Endgame

One sentence synopsis:  The bartender of a dive bar owned by the Russian Mafia must deal with violent lowlifes, battered women, the vengeful ex-owner of the bar, and a dog.

Things Havoc liked: I am fast becoming a massive fan of Tom Hardy, torchbearer for the next iteration of Mad Max, who has been uniformly excellent in recent years in films as diverse as Locke, Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Dark Knight Rises (we won't talk about Star Trek Nemesis). I am becoming a fan of Hardy's because of his ability to play all sorts of disparate roles to perfection, from a tightly-wound, soft-spoken, Welsh building engineer in Locke, to the voice-distorted, hulking terrorist Bane in DKR. This time around, Hardy takes a stab at playing a New Jersey tough guy(of sorts), by the name of Bob Saginowski (thus marking the first time I have seen someone play a working-class tough guy in a gangster flick named Bob). Bob is the bartender at Marv's bar, a local dive for the working class patrons of whatever section of blue-collar Jersey this happens to be, lives otherwise alone, and seems to be at least partly... "slow" is perhaps the best word. This is his neighborhood, and he knows it well, and does not seem tremendously interested in much else outside it, and yet rather than turning into some kind of gangster-version of Forest Gump, Hardy plays him like a none-too-bright blue collar guy who simply knows where he is and accepts it. As always, this is a complete departure from Locke or Bane or anything else I've seen him play, and he is mesmorizing throughout, particularly as the background of the character and the things he may actually be good at begin to come to the fore.

But of course, the Drop is not famous for Tom Hardy's appearance, but because of that of James Gandalfini, in his last ever role, where (in a daring departure from his previous body of work), he plays a New Jersey tough guy with a thick accent who swears a lot. I kid, but Gandalfini here was playing to his strengths, while improvising just enough to keep it interesting. His character Marv is not a Tony Soprano analogue at all, save for the accent and location, but a frightened, bitter man, who has lost in life and knows it, and desperately wants to get back what he believes is his. The bar he and Bob work at is called Marv's Bar after all, and once it was his, until a Russian gangster (Michael Aronov) applied the right type of pressure to take over the bar. Though Marv still runs the place, it now functions as a "drop bar", where money from illicit activities is gathered and protected prior to collection by the mafia. Marv resents this interference, as anyone would, and yet the film is not precisely the story of his never-ending quest for vengeance, or what happens to those who cross Tony Soprano, but about the limits of what a guy who thinks himself tough may be when confronted with those who are truly ruthless. The toadying obsequiousness that Gandalfini displays around his bosses, and the bitter anger he offers when they're not around are wonderful to watch, clashing as they do with Bob's more pragmatic approach to everything.

And that's more or less it. The Drop is not a complex film nor a particularly violent one, but a superb exercise in staged tension and subtext, as Bob (and Marv) deal not only with the gangsters in question, but with Nadia (Noomi Rapace, in a much better turn than Prometheus), a local waitress whom Bob meets by chance, and Eric (Rust and Bones' Matthias Schoenaerts), her low-life ex-boyfriend, with whom Bob becomes entangled after he discovers an abandoned puppy in Nadia's trash that once belonged to Eric. The characters stare at one another and say very little, as in the best gangster movie tradition, in dark houses, a dark bar, the dark of night, or the slate grey of an overcast sky. Every situation is allowed to build, carefully amassing tension and building towards inevitable payoffs. The film maintains this measured, gradual approach the entire length, producing one of the more well-crafted thrillers I've seen in quite some time, an impressive feat for first time director Michaël Roskam, who has clearly seen his share of crime dramas, and deconstructed what makes them tick quite well.

Things Havoc disliked: Given the tightness that the film maintains around its central characters and story, I am left confused as to the purpose of Detective Torres, played by The Fast and the Furious' John Ortiz. His character is the token cop, a catholic (of course), who keeps tabs on our main character at confessional and who seems to be following the action with reports and briefings and all the usual stuff. Yet nothing really is ever done with this character, as he has practically nothing to do except occasionally show up and exposit information at our characters. I suppose every gangster film must have a cop in it, but it's generally only polite to give him something to do. The main thrust of the film is simply the interaction of Bob and Marv and the low-lifes and damaged people that surround them. The police have nothing to do with that, something confirmed by the end of the film.

Otherwise, all I can really point to is the fact that The Drop, as was probably inevitable for a freshman outing, is a very simple film, perhaps a bit too simple, given the runtime. It's not that it gets boring, far from it, there's just a limit to the horizons a movie that spends this much time on the question of who owns a dog can possibly have. I don't demand that every gangster film I see be the Godfather of course, but there's no end to the wonderful, triple-crossing fun you can have in movies like this, and this film, desiring as it does to avoid all the cliches of the genre, is left with a very plain story. Some may not prefer that.

Final thoughts:   I on the other hand have no problem whatsoever with being given a simple film done well once in a while. Too many directors, authors, actors, get airs about them, that they all must produce Coppolian works of earth-shattering weight and dizzying complexity for anyone to notice them, and that there is no room in their careers for subtlety or craft. Not that a big film is a bad thing, by any means, but there is room in film for a movie like this, a very simple, very effective, very tense thriller, which simply produces a number of characters about which we know little, and then lets us get to know them over the course of self-contained events that make logical sense. The Drop is one such movie, a tightly-crafted, finely-acted, highly effective thriller, about which there is not a vast amount to say, except that I wish all of my first-time directors could produce work of this caliber.

Now if he can avoid making a sophomore film like Under the Skin, we might actually be onto something.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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