Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Alternate Title:  Downtime

One sentence synopsis:    Katniss Everdeen must become a symbol of rebellion to stoke the flames of revolution against the Capitol and save her friends from the previous games.

Things Havoc liked:  I loved Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games series, itself a rebuttal to the overwhelming evidence on-offer that YA books make terrible movies. The series has been uniformly good to-date, but the second movie was a masterpiece, a deserved entry on last year's list of best films. Accordingly, unlike a lot of the stuff I have been seeing recently, I was stoked to see this, one of two yearly-installment films (the other being The upcoming Hobbit) that I thought had potential to really nail the end of this remarkable year down. The reason that this series is so good is fairly simple, quality of actors, quality of writing, quality of production, one of the only films in the genre that actually seems to take itself seriously. Compare this series to the Mortal Instruments or Divergent or, God help you, Twilight, and the differences are apparent. As with children's films, YA movies work best when you don't treat them as YA, but simply as another movie on another topic, something Hunger Games has consistently done, and the other series have consistently not.

But enough background, we're here to talk about the movie itself. And to a degree that's actually rather surprising, the movie itself is, of all things, a character study, primarily of our main character, Katness Everdeen, played as always by Jennifer Lawrence. I'm an unashamed fan of Lawrence's, and this is the role that introduced her to me in the first place, so when I tell you all that she is excellent here, I don't expect I'll be astonishing anyone. The movie dives into Katness' character far more than the other films were able to, as she tries to recover from the terrible ordeal of having competed in two consecutive Hunger Games, the second one designed specifically to destroy her, and struggles with becoming the face of the incipient revolution being prepared against President Coriolanus Snow (I love these goddamn names), played by Donald Sutherland at his most avuncularly-villainous. The movie doesn't drive completely into a study of PTSD, but that aspect is there, something I had sort of hoped would be in the previous films, but better late than never. Indeed, the film takes a fair amount of time just looking at Katness as a character, as she tries to figure out what she should do in response to the escalating violence and reciprocity of the Capital's forces. Wisely, the movie doesn't try to recast Katness as a shattered violet or anything, but you cannot engage in child murder (or war) for terribly long before some psychological effects manifest themselves, and Lawrence rides the line properly to give us a character we can believe.

But even Lawrence has nothing on the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamesmaster-turned-propagandist whose task it is to produce the speeches, videos, films, posters, and other materials that will drive the revolution forward. Hoffman is fantastic here, as an expert in his field finally being allowed to put his skills to use, utterly unapologetic about the nature of his work (propaganda), and refusing to allow himself to be used as a stand-in for a moralizing lesson about the purity of truth or some such. In a similar vein, and only slightly less impressive, is Elizabeth Banks, whose character of Effie Trinket was more or less a ludicrous joke in the first two films, and here is... well a slightly less-ludicrous one. Kidnapped by the rebels and brought to a far more down-to-earth area than the wild world of Panem, she, like Hoffman's character, becomes an assistant of sorts using what skills she does have, presentation, erudition, even makeup. The two of them are stellar in this film, the former liberated, the latter constrained, both accustomed to being the smartest people in the room (only one of them correctly), and both acidly doing what they have to do in order to practice their art. And that art is interesting to watch, particularly given the discovery, early on in the film that Katniss is a terrible actress, whose propaganda films consequently look flat and terrible, forcing innovative (and perhaps a bit contrived) solutions in order to produce the material necessary.

And there's other performances here worth watching as well. Jeffrey Wright (of Casino Royale and Only Lovers Left Alive) reprises Beetee, a Q-like gadgeteer who at the very least turns in one of the better "super-scientist" performances I've seen, insofar as his science actually manages to walk the tightrope between understandable and innovative. Catching Fire's Sam Claflin has a smaller role this time, but does a decent job with it, playing a different tribute liberated from the games with a different set of baggage on him from his experience in Panem. Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta (once more the only role of his I've ever been able to stomach), actually turns in the best performance of the three movie for him, limited though his role is. Even Liam Hemsworth, Thor's younger brother, who was more or less useless in every movie prior to this, has a decent enough turn this time. If all you're after is watching these actors play these characters for a while, then this movie will provide that much.

Things Havoc disliked:  But nothing more.

Let's address the elephant in the room here. Like the last Twilight and Harry Potter movies, this film is split in two, and what we are watching here is the first half of a movie, a decision that ruined those films (not that Twilight needed the help), and comes damn close to ruining this one. There is a flow to movies, a narrative arc that comes with telling a proper story, and while it is certainly permissible to violate that flow for whatever reason, it is not going to work to arbitrarily cut a film in half just to make more money. There is no climax to this movie, no denouement, no sense of rising action, nothing. We wander, purposelessly, from scene to unconnected scene, without any sense of tension or setup or establishment for purpose. If the second half of the movie were to immediately follow this one, then perhaps this wouldn't be a problem, but we won't know if that's the case for another full year, and the film that we have before us is consequently incomplete. At no time during the two hours it runs could I determine how close we were to the end of the film, nor, when the movie came to an end, had I the first hint that the end was coming. Maybe there was too much material for one movie or something, I don't know, but for whatever other faults they had, the Hobbit movies, also carved into pieces from a single book, managed to produce complete films out of the material, even with the sudden abruptness of the second film's ending (an ending I actually thought was kind of brilliant, as opposed to this one).

But whether or not there was too much material here for one film, there is plainly not enough for two, as this movie is padded as all hell. Sequences exist for no reason that I can fathom except to take up time, such as an interminable bombing sequence focusing around a cat, and an even more interminable speech delivered by a propagandist that takes four times longer than it should by virtue of cutaways and Shatnerian-acting. Even the action scenes, and they are very few, take forever, as characters have to stare at military bombers for three full minutes from five different angles before they work out that they may be engaged in bombing. This tendency is so pronounced that despite all the nice performances on offer, the movie is simply boring in a lot of places, and that's the one thing you cannot afford to have your blockbuster YA action film be.

But set the pacing aside and the money-grabs by the producer, and there's still major problems here, most of which have to do with new additions to the cast. Catching Fire introduced a bunch of new characters, all of whom were nuanced and interesting and had objectives they kept hidden which might have had nothing to do with Katniss at all. This time though, we get Natalie Dormer, of the Tudors and Game of Thrones, playing Cressida, a director escaped from the capital, whose job is to follow Katniss around and film her. I wouldn't mind this concept so much if this character was given a character of her own, or even an opinion on something, or for that matter, if Dorner could act worth a damn, which she cannot. A whole gaggle of fellow idiots tags along with her, of such little use that I refuse to even research their names. But worse yet is Julianne Moore, an actress I have never liked, not even in movies I favor (Big Lebowski for instance, or Children of Men). This is more or less the reason why. Her character of President (of the rebels) Coin is a complete cypher, reciting deliberately ambiguous speeches awkwardly about inevitable victory or some such, a transparent attempt by the filmmakers to add "mystery" to the character that winds up all but attaching flags and sirens to itself saying "EVIL CHARACTER DESIGNATED TO TEACH LESSONS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF REVOLUTIONS IN THE NEXT MOVIE".

Oh, I'm sorry, am I spoiling things? I have no idea, I never read the books. I just have a feeling...

Final thoughts:   Mockingjay, or rather Mockingjay's first half is a tremendously disappointing film, mostly due to the terrible decision to split it in two. Not only does this guarantee that the first movie is a boring exposition-fest intercut with shots of the camera watching a character watch the beauty of the trees or whatnot, but it also all but guarantees that the second half of the film, due to come out next year, will likely be nothing but a single, solid action piece, without time to stop for exposition, character, or breath. All things being equal, that might not be so bad, and God only knows what the whole thing will look like when arranged front to back, but given that this is the movie I was given, this is the result I have to report on. The movie is not a bad film, neither poorly-made nor poorly-acted (on the whole), but if there was ever proof that a good movie is more than the sum of its parts, it's this one. Why they did not decide to simply make two complete movies out of Mockingjay, I do not know, but they did not, deciding instead to simply cleave one large movie in half with an axe.

I still like this series, despite this misstep, and will in all likelihood see the last element of the film when it comes out at the end of 2015. But do not expect me to give it mercy for failing to properly establish itself just because the establishment, and strictly nothing else, was all done in the previous film.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Week:   Actors in Nebraska.  Lots of them.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6

Alternate Title:  California Roll

One sentence synopsis:    A mechanical prodigy must use his brother's robot, his friends, and his own ingenuity to defeat the mysterious villain who killed his brother and stole his inventions.

Things Havoc liked:  This just isn't fair anymore. I see so few children's movies, normally, that earlier this year when I reviewed the Lego Movie I felt the need to include a disclaimer explaining why I had decided to go see such a thing at all. And yet if there ever was a year to show me the error of my ways in leaving this particular genre aside, it was this one, as hit after stellar hit has rained down from a genre I haven't followed in the better part of two decades. And yet this year has also been the story of something else, of the rise of the terrible, three-headed, fire-breathing monster that now marches beneath the black banner of the mouse, the unholy trifecta of studios united through blasphemous arts, of Pixar, of Marvel, and of their evil, ruinous mastermind, Disney.

Not that all three have been active this year, indeed Pixar has disappeared of late, diving back into sequels after Brave's less-than-fantastic run (something they will hopefully rectify in 2015), but the other two heads of the hydra have been working overtime in Pixar's absence, Marvel with their cinematic Universe, and Disney with the latest of their periodic renaissances. Thus far, all three studios have more or less worked in parallel to one another, a wise decision on the part of someone at Disney, but that doesn't mean that cross-pollination isn't possible, or even beneficial. Rather than consolidate their mega-studios together into one monolith, Disney has been content thus far to leave their subject empires alone to do their thing, while occasionally sneaking in at night and perusing the back-catalog of intellectual properties on offer to see if they can find something worthwhile. And so it is that, for the second time since August, a major studio has picked out a third-tier novelty hit from Marvel's extensive comic catalog and made a gigantic, world-conquering movie out of it.

You all know where this is going.

Big Hero 6 is a fantastic film, both as a kids' movie, an animated movie, and a straight up action-adventure movie, a glorious, technicolor opus to manga, superheros, and giant robot anime, and more proof, if ever some was needed, that Disney has not lost its touch. I was annoyed when I realized that due to Frozen's release date of last Christmas, I was not going to be allowed to praise Disney Animation in my end-of-the-year lists, but I don't think that will be a problem anymore. And the reason it works, ironically, is that ultimately it is not a Disney Film at all, but a Marvel film that's been animated. And we all know how terrible Marvel's films have been recently...

The story is fairly simple, as one might expect from a kids' film. Hiro (a real Japanese name kept in constant use by homophonic-minded English authors for thirty years now) is a 14-year-old robotics and science prodigy from a family of the same, whose brother is killed in an act of industrial sabotage by parties unknown, and whose most brilliant invention, a swarm of micro-robots capable of reconfiguring themselves on the fly to any required form, is stolen by a masked man bent on killing him. With a group of fellow-scientists from the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology (we'll get to that), he forms a science-powered superhero team along with a reprogrammed and upgraded medical robot, constructed by his late brother before his passing. The key point here, as in any superhero film, is not really the story, but the characters, each of whom are drawn, literally and figuratively, extremely well, from the eclectic collection of super-scientists at the institute, each of whom are established as world-class scientists and strong personalities without ever lapsing into Nerd-Minstralism, to Hiro himself, a genius kid who strikes the perfectly appropriate line between fake-jaded and utter wonderment, both at his own genius and that of others, to the robot, an inflatable latex Kung-Fu-Panda-scale plushie named Baymax (80s in-joke ahoy!) who plays up the always-fun "robot straight-man" routine to the point of sounding like the result of a hotboxing experiment involving Robbie the Robot. No great attention is paid to the establishment of these characters, they're simply allowed to be in word and gesture and design, such that even when things take radical turns, such as a distraught Hiro ordering Beymax to kill, or the robot going Terminator-mode and doing so, everything still seems like a reasonable extrapolation of what a given character might do in a given situation. All of this is helped by the fact that Big Hero 6, with one exception, does not use celebrity voice talent, but instead professional voice actors, experts in their field (including of all people, the son of a Wayans brother), who instill their characters with a spark of life that stunt casting rarely can offer.

But all this would be for naught if the design of the film wasn't up to par. With Disney studios on the job though, and Marvel providing consultation, there's no need to worry. Big Hero 6 is gorgeous, easily the equal of Dreamworks' towering How to Train Your Dragon series, a futurist's dream brought to life in a riot of design aesthetics and scene blocking. Set in the alternate metropolis of San Fransokyo (which another reviewer described as being San Francisco if it had been conquered by Nintendo instead of Google), the movie makes the absolute most of its setting. I'm accustomed, as must be anyone who lives in a cinematic city, to seeing my city portrayed rather haphazardly on film, with geographies and local touches being twisted about to suit the filmmakers' needs. Yet of the four films I have seen for this project that featured San Francisco in any form (the others being Godzilla, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek Into Darkness), it is this, the animated movie, that is the first to bring fidelity to the screen in portraying my fair city (as well as being the first one who did not use the city solely as a backdrop for destruction). Disney purchased the actual assessor's data for SF, producing a digital map of the city as it is which despite all the alterations made in the name of style, is instantaneously recognizable for what it is to a native. And lest I go on at too much length about my home town, let's speak of that style, an oriental-western hybrid that recasts the entire city into a sort of Neo-Tokyo/Metropolis hybrid, complete with a re-imagining of the many landmarks of the city in a new format, be it the Pagoda-style of the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramids, or the fusion of the famous Painted Ladies of the Western Addition with Japanese Tea Houses. I'm sure that someone, somewhere on the internet will take this style as some kind of Yellow Peril propaganda, or as an excuse to complain about "cultural appropriation" or other things that appear important to stupid people, but to view the entire thing in context is astonishing, producing a wondrous film that works sub-visually as well as on the surface level to generate an immensely strong sense of place.

Oh but this is a comic book movie, right? So how is the action? Well Disney may claim that they made this movie without reference to Marvel's studios, but whether or not that's true, the action is awesome. With each character and their capabilities established perfectly, and high-conceptual science gadgetry on display everywhere, the film is tailored towards the production of explosive, visually-stunning action scenes, delivered at great speed and with great frequency. Several sequences, particularly towards the end of the film, are positively trippy in their design, not something Disney has ever historically shied away from, but all of them are well-designed, well-blocked affairs, exciting and frenetic without ever becoming confusing or hard to watch. This is not as easy to do as Disney makes it look.

Things Havoc disliked:  Kids movies have certain aspects that one cannot avoid, at least not all the time, and several of these are on display here. Made for a less sophisticated viewing audience, the movie delivers several sections of biographical exposition in fairly clunky ways, having characters turn to one another and explain each other's life stories out loud in a way that strictly nobody has ever done in real life before. I recognize that there's a need to get on with things when one is working with kids and their attention spans, but my preferred solution is always to drop the exposition entirely, and trust that people, even little kids, will get the idea from context. It's not strictly necessary that we know from the get-go how old Hiro is exactly or what his pass-times include, not when the movie characterizes him perfectly in terms of age on its own, and shows those pass-times on screen.

There's also the issue of tension, something kids movies tend to shy away from in all but a handful of rare exceptions. It's not that they don't build stakes, its that they don't give those stakes any time whatsoever to hang, resolving nadir points within seconds of them being established. This happened in Frozen and in both How to Train Your Dragon movies, and it happens here, with the movie painstakingly placing the hero in a low point only to have them claw their way out of it almost instantaneously. I know why the filmmakers do this, kids don't have the patience or the mentality to want to sit around watching their heroes be miserable for hours, and I'm not precisely angry that the movie doesn't dwell on dark and depressing subjects for an interminable period. But when you resolve things this quickly and this perfunctorily, it tends to shortchange the actual narrative weight of what's going on, making even the most awful mistakes seem like minor setbacks, easily set to rights. It's probably better, as these films do, to err on the side of too little moping, but it's still an error whenever it comes up.

Final thoughts:   I only went to see this movie under protest, being none too impressed with the trailers I had seen, but figuring that after Frozen, Disney had earned a free pass from me. If nothing else, this should teach me a lesson about underestimating the Mouse. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful film, easily the equal of last Christmas' Frozen, and once again forces me to acknowledge that next time they release a film, I will more or less have to be there. Of course, by then, I should have finally purged what lingering objections I have to going to see children's movies in general for this project. After a year such as this one, it would be criminally stupid of me not to.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Week:   How Hungry are we for the Games when they split the attraction in two?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Alternate Title:  Journey Through the Plot Hole

One sentence synopsis:    An astronaut-turned-pilot must lead a small team of NASA scientists on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity.

Things Havoc liked:  There are ineffable qualities to a great film, something which has always eluded mechanically-minded directors like Michael Bay. You cannot simply list a series of traits and establish greatness, it is something that has to be earned anew with every single film, and this fact, more than anything else, is why I have always held studios and filmmakers who can consistently produce greatness in such high regard. Marvel, Disney, Scorsese, Aranofsky, Affleck, anyone who can put not one but a string of spectacular films together is worth regarding with respect. And so we come to Christopher Nolan, the reigning King of High Concept, whose staggering ambitions and unfailing cinematographic eye have resulted in not one but an entire series of towering films, ramshackle perhaps when analyzed closely, but flat-out staggering when considered in totality. Momento, The Prestige, Inception, the entire Dark Knight trilogy, even the third one, which teetered on the brink of total collapse, but held together just long enough in my mind to transform into a masterpiece, all these films have showcased Christopher Nolan's yawning ambition to bring staggering metaphysical concepts to the screen with as much lush verisimilitude as possible, and the skill by which he has thus far been able to do so. And so we come to Interstellar, perhaps his boldest effort yet, a Kubrickian-showcase of classic semi-hard-science fiction exploration and adventure in alien worlds and even more alien realities. I was sold on this notion from the very first trailer.

So let's begin with what he has given us. Interstellar is a gorgeous film, a rich, vibrant showcase of imagery and land/spacescapes breathtaking to behold on largely any level (IMAX, Digital Enhanced, Normal) that you care to witness it. It's not that the "effects" are good, though there is that, and more that the simple artistry of presenting things on screen is operating at an exquisitely high level. Even when the film is presenting concepts that stretch our capacity to imagine, such as wormholes, frozen clouds, or extra-dimensional tesseracts, the movie comes up with a way to present what is happening stunningly and intuitively, and shots of the greater stellar phenomenae to be found throughout the film, particularly the accretion disk of a supermassive black hole, are simply inspired. Design, of spaceships and shuttles and equipment and robots (particularly robots) is just as inspired, reflecting a near-future setup that never goes beyond the realm of plausibility. The robots, indeed, are one of the most unique things the film has to offer, a strange arrangement of four tall pylons connected at the center by a rotating hinge, enabling them to walk and even roll (sort of), while unfolding to reveal manipulator arms and datascreens. Given deadpan snarker-voices and the best lines in the script, the robots liven the film every time they're on screen.

There is more to design than pretty visuals however, and Nolan, if nothing else, has those elements nailed down. The film's score, by veteran composer Hans Zimmer (of a thousand other things) is a typical Hans Zimmer score, beautiful and melodic, electronic and orchestral all at once. Rather than go with the traditional marching-band-style space score, Zimmer prefers a sort of electro-choral feel for the entire thing, punctuating sequences where the dialog is pulled out in favor of the soundtrack and the visual design. The cinematography is spot on as well, using smoke and flame and shrouded mist to set up dramatic backdrops for whatever happens to be ongoing, while the outer space shots are worthy of any collage of NASA's or episode of Cosmos. Whatever this film's flaws may be, it looks and sounds fantastic, elements which may, by themselves, serve to justify a look at this film in all the lusciousness of a digital (or even 70mm) cinema.

Things Havoc disliked:  But I doubt it.

I've loved Christopher Nolan's work for a decade if not longer, but he has always had a side to him that threatened to undo everything. His films are often, if not always, so high in concept, so creaky and laborious in construction, so riddled with elementary problems of plot and common sense, that it requires all of his skill to distract the audience from everything that doesn't make sense. Until Interstellar, he was always able to pull the song and dance off, at least for me, with a combination of judicious exposition, stirring concept and vision, and and masterful cultivation of tension, excitement, and energy. Inception, possibly Nolan's greatest work, was basically nothing but exposition, but the exposition was so tightly crafted, and the world so cleverly realized that nobody noticed. The Dark Knight Rises pushed his skills to the limit of what was possible, laden as it was with so much super-tech and plot contrivance that many people rejected it utterly as a complete disaster, though I felt that the immense weight of the two previous films, as well as the elemental, mythic themes of the movie earned it honors. But even if you were prepared, as I was, to follow Nolan that far, the problem with this approach is that it is entirely reliant on your movie being grand and heavy enough to paper over these forced exposition sequences and narrative holes, and Interstellar, frankly, is neither grand enough, nor heavy enough to even come close.

The concept is fine. Mankind has used up the Earth and must venture into space. But that story is too simple for Christopher Nolan, spinner of cinematic webs, and in consequence it is beladen with all sorts of incoherent crap that serves only to muddle the plot and confuse the audience. We are presented with a world wherein most crops have gone extinct, where the human race is dying off, where governments have lost so much of their resource base that even the various national armies, generally the last things to go in an Apocalypse, have been abolished. One might expect, given the above, a scenario like Mad Max or The Road, but instead, inexplicably, we are given a world where people have new cars, and the fuel to run them, where the Federal Government, bereft of its armed forces, still has the means to print standardized science textbooks and disseminate them, where interstate travel remains reasonably common as do automated combine harvesters and advanced wireless communications. Worse yet, halfway through the film, we actually change apocalypses, as the artfully-crafted starvation narrative is, without warning, junked in favor of a completely NEW apocalypse, also junked in turn when the time comes to muddy the issue. We are told that society has turned against science, for what reason we never know, to the point where the Moon Landings are being taught to children as propagandistic fakes used to scare the Russians, and yet NASA, outlawed and off the books, still manages to build underground space stations (don't ask), employ thousands of highly-qualified engineers and scientists, and even casually employ technology that has specifically been called out earlier on in the movie as not existing anymore. Granted, it's not like Nolan's previous films were lacking in these kind of contradictions. Dark Knight Rises involved someone fixing a broken back by punching it into shape. But the previous movies managed to hide their holes by giving us something else to think about. In Interstellar, it's the entire movie.

Or at least it's the entire movie until it becomes time for exposition theater, and this is where the mediocrity of Interstellar begins to really confuse me. Nolan once made an entire movie out of exposition (Inception), but here he seems to have forgotten how, as he has scientists laboriously explain to one another concepts that no scientist in the world, let alone one selected for a humanity-saving NASA mission, would be unfamiliar with. How often do you think an astronaut who has just spent two years embarking on a journey to a wormhole would need to have another astronaut explain to them, at length and with diagrams, what a wormhole is? Worse yet, the reason all this exposition exists is apparently so the filmmakers can impress us with how legitimate the science of the film is, something they have taken immense pains to showcase. Fair enough, but it's not. Not at all. Not even to the point where liberal-artist me was fooled for more than five seconds. And I must report that the actual scientists that I saw the film with had extremely negative reactions, ones whose negativity increased proportionally with how close their personal field of science was to astrophysics, to the point where the physicist in residence declared to me with perfect candor that this was the worst movie he had ever seen.

Look, I don't mind bad science in movies, not at all. Sunshine had bad science, as did 2001, a movie Interstellar desperately wants to be, to say nothing of a lot of Nolan's previous work. But those movies used bad science in the service of actually making a movie, creating a premise, based on bad science though it was, that was interesting enough to hang a story on and explore something amazing. It's not that Interstellar doesn't have the same intention, it's that even with bad science, there must be consistency for the audience to have any prayer of understanding what the stakes are and what is and is not possible given the rules they've been taught. This film is all over the map. Some sections are interesting, particularly a visit to a water-planet circled by immense tidal-waves, locked in orbit around a supermassive black hole whose gravity is such that it distorts time itself. But the majority of the film consists of half-understood scientific concepts regurgitated at length before being casually shattered in the next breath. Relativity is important until it's suddenly not. The black hole's distorted gravity slows time until it suddenly doesn't. A world-ending blight works one way, then suddenly another, and on and on until all the painstakingly-prepared science lectures turn into nothing but standard movie technobabble with slightly more realistic phrases sprinkled in. By the time we're trying to mathematically quantify human love, and apply it to physics (yeah), the entire exercise is revealed as a colossal failure. The bad science movies I cited above worked because the movies were not about the science. Interstellar is only about the science, until at last, long after it's far too late, it tries to reveal that it was actually all about sentimentality, something Nolan does not know what to do with, and never has.

You'll notice that up until this point I haven't even mentioned the cast, usually the thing I lead with, and the reason for that is that with a movie this disjointed and artifice-laden, the cast is almost irrelevant. Matthew McConaughey, who has been on a hot streak of almost unequalled proportions in the last five-odd years, does his best with what he's given, but the role is almost indescribably generic, an astronaut-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut again with no real motivation beyond wishing to save his children's lives. Anne Hathaway, as the leading scientist on the mission, is conscientious and dedicated, as are Michael Caine and John Lithgow and David Gyasi (of the infinitely superior Cloud Atlas) and everyone else in the film. Nobody gives a particularly bad performance (though I still don't much care for Jessica Chastain, who also gets most of the worst lines), but their performances are effectively moot in a film like this, even when they're allowed to emote. Michael Caine does himself no favors by repeating Dylan Thomas' famous poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' about seven times, but frankly that's irrelevant too. It's as though they weren't brought into the project to act, but rather to narrate it to the audience, or simply to provide the vehicle by which the audience can bear witness to its magnificence. In that regard, the mere fact that these fine actors are able to serve this task adequately may speak volumes to their professionalism and skill. Lesser actors would have been utterly destroyed.

Final thoughts:   Back when I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises, I said that it was a movie to which I could have given an 8 or a 4, but not a 6. I ultimately gave it the former grade, as I felt that ramshackle though it was, the edifice held together long enough to produce something unique and triumphant and truly special, not that everyone agreed with me. Interstellar is a similar enough film with a similar enough set of attributes to warrant the same disclaimer, and yet this time the result is not even slightly in question in my mind. The movie is simply a failure, a grand failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless, an idea stretched past the limits of its tensile strength, toppling into ruin around its embattered architect. There is something to be said for failing upwards, and it does remain the case that I would unquestionably wish to watch movies from someone who produces only 8s and 4s rather than from someone who produces uniform 5.5s on my scale, but none of that makes Interstellar any more of a success than it is.

I had extremely high hopes for Interstellar, and why wouldn't I? It had trailers that looked spectacular and a pedigree that could not be ignored, not after so many high-wire acts of Nolan's had proven masterpieces. But perhaps the silver lining here must be that this movie proves just how good films like Inception and Dark Knight really were. It is far harder than it looks to make a movie hold together under the weight of so much explanation and so much plot contrivance. So hard, indeed, that this time, even Nolan himself could not.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Week:   Disney cashes in its pass from Frozen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

John Wick

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Denzel Washington Keanu Reeves Kills Everyone

One sentence synopsis:    A former Russian Mafia hitman is dragged back into the world of violence and revenge when a mob boss' son steals his car and kills his dog.

Things Havoc liked:  ...

... was it just me? Or was Keanu Reeves the bad guy in this movie?

So... it's not uncommon, really, to leave a Keanu Reeves movie confused. Of all the actors that commonly grace my theater screens, he's one of the ones I have the most trouble with placing in the appropriate mental box. He's manifestly not a great actor, I shouldn't need to list you the citations for that claim. But neither is he a bad actor, really, not even in the sense of an actor who is only good at one thing. I know he has a reputation for having a very limited range, and I can see why, but you think you have the guy figured out, and then you turn around and watch My Own Private Idaho or A Scanner Darkly, or read the rave, gushing reviews he garnered in the 90s playing Hamlet and Iago on stage, and you realize you have no idea what to do with him whatsoever, nor how to react when a movie in which he stars is being produced. I recognize that this may be a bit of a over-philosophical way to begin the review of a movie about a lone badass slaughtering the entire Russian Mafia, but this is not a normal Bronson-style revenge movie, and when you consider who and what Keanu Reeves is, that much should probably have been apparent from the get go.

John Wick (Reeves) is your typical invincible action badass, somewhat, though not exactly, in the vein of other MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW characters in the past (for those who don't remember, that acronym stands for Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women, a concept well-traveled in action movies since the 70s, and that has gathered quite a bit of steam in recent years). I use the term here loosely, as Keanu has no woman to threaten (his wife has died of cancer, you see, leaving him only a cute dog to take care of), nor is his badassery that secretive. In the first of many odd deviations from the usual formula of these sorts of movies, the head of the Russian Mafia (about whom we will say more), upon being told that wrongs have been inflicted on John Wick, reacts not with contemptuous, self-confident laughter or indifference, but with pants-shitting terror at the revelation that a man such as Wick has been inconvenienced in the slightest way. Keanu plays this role the way more or less the only way he knows how, a terse, morose, gaunt figure who seems semi-depressed when he's not initiating thunderous violence against his enemies (and, frankly, also when he is), speaking in gruff whispers and never using two words where one mumbled half-word will do. This is stock-and-trade Reeves, identical to his turns in the Matrix series, Constantine, A Scanner Darkly, or 47 Ronin. And yet the role demands nothing more of him than this, having been clearly constructed around Reeves' capabilities and strengths, which are less in the realm of dramatic emotion, and more in the realm of cinematic death.

And oh yes, the death is cinematic. These movies are, as I've said before, Male-Chick-Flicks, rehashes of our inner fantasies of power and revenge, and given that the main character in them is typically a stand-in for some idealized version of ourselves, we like it when that character is shown as a bad, bad man. Reeves, after decades of action movie training, knows exactly what he's doing, showing us a remorseless, unstoppable killing machine, capable of annihilating his enemies like a Fury, cutting them down like wheat-stalks with mechanical precision and regularity. Criticisms of these sorts of revenge-flicks often focus on the ludicrous implausibility for one man to overcome and destroy dozens of his counterparts, and yet rather than dial back John Wick's indestructibility, this film instead decides to ratchet it up several more notches, explicitly dumping the everyman qualities we normally get with these kinds of protagonists, until actually accept the body count by virtue of the fact that this is obviously some kind of deranged death-genius who could never pass for normal.

And it's not just the audience who is expected to come to that conclusion. Indeed the strongest element of the film is not Reeves, nor the action, but the side characters and the world. A movie that includes Willem Defoe, Lance Reddick, Ian MacShane, and John Leguizamo in its secondary cast can get away with a whole hell of a lot, and wisely, the film never really stops to explain just who the hell these people are, instead simply letting them populate a world that makes perfect sense to them if not to us. It's a world wherein everyone is a badass, centering around "The Continental", a hotel-for-hitmen that one can only access with specialty golden coins, where both the clientele and the staff are badass killers who agree under severe penalty not to "conduct business" on the premises. Nothing about this makes the slightest degree of sense, but nothing about it really needs to. We accept the existence of SHIELD in the Marvel films with no more leaps of faith than are required here, after all, and the film is so confident that it makes sense in its own context that we do manage to follow it through.

But the best thing in the film is actually none of the above people, but Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, who two years ago played a completely forgettable super-villain in Mission Impossible 4, and whom I've heard nothing of since. This time round he takes a turn as Viggo Tarasov, head of an unnamed Russian crime syndicate, a role that could quite easily have been a clone of the previous one, but is instead nothing of the sort, for Tarasov, to my astonishment, is actually the most reasonable person in the entire film. Early on, when informed that his son (Alfie Allen, reprising all the stupidity of Theon Greyjoy) has beaten John Wick, stolen his car and killed his dog, he reacts much like I expect anyone would when told that an invincible action protagonist is coming for them. He tries, unsuccessfully, to atone for the insult, offering to make peace and pay concessions, all to no avail, and when the storm breaks, he marshals what forces he has to try and hold back the tide, knowing full well that he is up against a force of nature that cannot be stopped, not by anyone or for anything. Far from cackling madly at the skies, as the movie progresses, Tarasov seems to become almost philosophical by the direction things have taken, aware that he is no more able to divert the wrath of John Wick than he would an approaching hurricane, and that the only choice left is how he wishes to meet the inevitable conclusion.

Things Havoc disliked:  Returning for a moment to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, it's worth noting that for all the pretensions this film has to showing without telling, when it does stop to tell us things, it manages to do so in an extremely heavy-handed fashion. The early sequences in the film when Keanu almost grudgingly "bonds" with the puppy he is given by his dead wife are clearly designed as a thin excuse to grant him permission to embark on the rampage of revenge that forms the rest of the movie. So, incidentally, is the initializing act of the revenge drama, the theft of the car and the murder of the dog in question. We are expected to believe that Alfie Allen, son of a mob boss though he may be, reacts to literally every person who so much as fails to speak deferentially to him at a gas station by breaking into their house, beating them with iron bars, stealing their cars and killing their pets. This approaches Steven Segal levels of flimsy, and moreover incorporates within it another major flaw, that the putative bad guys refuse to take several perfectly good opportunities to kill John Wick, despite having him chained up/beaten/knocked unconscious in the presence of many goons. Clearly it is far more important to tie him to a chair in an abandoned building somewhere so that we can deliver monologues to him once he wakes up. How else would the audience be able to tell that a man who has lost millions of dollars, dozens of men, and most of his criminal organization to John Wick's antics doesn't like him?

Regarding exposition, there is such a thing as too little. Willem Defoe is a treasure, and I love seeing him on screen, but I have no idea what his character is or what his intentions are. His motives seem to vary widely from scene to scene, whether because consistency is not to be used in this film, or because the movie itself can't make up its mind who he is. Adrianne Palicki meanwhile, playing yet another invincible assassin, stakes her allegiances early on, despite the fact that doing so seems to be a death sentence, putting her up against not only an invincible assassin, but an entire organization of invincible assassins to which he belongs. One that, having betrayed in the worst way possible, she agrees to meet, unsuspectingly, in dark alleys without witnesses, the agents thereof. Ian MacShane meanwhile, who plays a character I only learned was the head of this organization by reading the Wikipedia page afterwards, has no purpose whatsoever in the plot save to offer up a couple bits of information, a trait he shares with John Leguizamo, who gets roughly twelve seconds of overall screentime. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy any chance to see either of these two on screen (much to my surprise in Leguizamo's case), but it would have been nice to see them in actual roles instead of in random scenes strung together on chicken wire.

Final thoughts:   I've never been a great evangelist for revenge films like this one. There's exceptions of course, most of them marital arts movies, but the bulk of Hollywood fare in this genre is strictly MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW material, and there's only so many times you can watch Liam Neeson or whoever intoning grave threats to a sneering, usually ethnic, bad guy, preparatory to killing his entire criminal network in order of total screentime least to most. I don't know if John Wick was an intentional effort to shake the genre up a bit, or if the filmmakers (first time director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad) stumbled into this strange combination of an unreasonably vicious protagonist and uncommonly reasonable antagonist completely by accident. I don't know, ultimately, if it matters, but if I'm being blatantly, embarrassingly honest... I... kinda liked it. I liked it better than the goddamn Equalizer if nothing else. A movie that brings a fresh idea to a well-stocked table, even if it's buttressed by otherwise poor decisions, is almost certainly going to win out over movies that offer me the same exact thing as six or seven other films I could cite by name.

Maybe I'm reading way too much into this thing. Maybe this was nothing more than an attempt to create a formula revenge film that misfired gloriously. But sometimes art can only be found, not made, and while I'm not sure if John Wick is art, I am sure it'll turn out to have been a much better movie than Taken 3.

Not that a January release date has anything to do with that...

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Week:   Matthew McConaughey takes us to the stars while still managing to remove his shirt.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Alternate Title:  What is this I don't even...

One sentence synopsis:   A washed-up movie star famous for his decades-old role as a superhero tries to adapt a Raymond Carver play to Broadway while dealing with his crazy family and psychic powers.

Things Havoc liked:  Three years of hard-bought experience have taught me to duck whenever a movie shows up that begins receiving universal acclaim. I'm not talking about movies like Lord of the Rings or Avengers, the blockbusters that everyone at least "likes" even if some like more than others. I'm talking about darlings of the indie circuit, the "masterpiece", once-in-a-decade films which seem to come about every four or five months or so, the ones that generate Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores that beggar belief, and which would appear to have every single critic in existence foaming at the mouth in praise of. I've seen a good half-dozen movies who fit this category to-date, and without exception, every single one of them was a disappointment, varying in quality from the "decent" (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Boyhood), to the "wretched" (Under the Skin, Dear God... Under the Skin). My policy with these things is to consult reviews only after seeing the movie in question, but inasmuch as it sometimes becomes impossible to avoid the buzz, I tend to get a sinking feeling whenever I realize that the movie I'm about to see was praised by every critic known to exist, as it usually puts a ceiling on my ability to enjoy the movie. You can thus imagine just how thrilled I was to learn, moments before I entered the theater, that this movie was being touted by an entire phalanx of major movie critics, as one of the finest things ever made.

Of course, the rules only apply when one is not dealing with Alejandro González Iñárritu.

You remember Alejandro González Iñárritu is, don't you? I certainly do. He wrote and directed Biutiful, the second film I ever reviewed back in 2011, one which, I assure you, I am in no danger of ever forgetting. Biutiful was a weird, atmospheric, magical-realist film about a low-life criminal dying of cancer, a memorable experience to be sure, as it made my shortlist of "Great movies I never want to see again" (sharing that distinction with Sophie's Choice and Grave of the Fireflies). While I'm not overly proud of my reviews from back then, I stand by my final statement that you should watch that film immediately if you find that there is altogether too much happiness and cheer in your life. The good news here is that Iñárritu, who was also the director of Babel and 21 Grams, decided here to dial back the hopeless fixation on misery (somewhat) in favor of other things. The bad news is that those other things are more or less raving insanity.

Michael Keaton, an actor I jump at the chance to whenever I can, plays... well... his character has a name but it's hard to see it as anything but Michael Keaton, or perhaps Michael Keaton after taking a particularly heavy dose of PCP. Keaton, or rather "Riggan Thompson", once was a movie star with a successful franchise of superhero flicks about a man in a costume who fought crime, but that was decades ago, and in the twilight of his career, he is on Broadway now, desperately trying to produce a play about love and relationships and all the drama that circulates in people's lives, despite the twinned problems that nobody will take him seriously, and that he is positively barking mad. Keaton has always thrived on madness, either implied or outright, as his best performances in things like Jackie Brown, Beetlejuice, or... well... Batman, all make clear. It shouldn't be much of a surprise then that he is absolutely fantastic here, edge-of-sanity crazy at all times, harried by the pressures of his play, his career, the voices quite literally in his head, and his completely unexplained ability to manifest telekinesis (or something) during times of great emotional stress (as though there are any others). Simply making this film, given its obvious parallels to Keaton's own career, was a ballsy move, but he goes all out in it, deconstructing himself and anchoring the film with a performance that feels exactly right, no matter how weird it gets.

And it gets weird. The reason it gets weird is complicated, of course, but part of it at least is that the movie seems to flow between the various characters, from Keaton to others and back again, something which is rendered far more tolerable by the fact that basically everyone else is just as good as Keaton is. Actresses like Emma Stone and Naomi Watts are always good of course (even if I haven't seen Watts in about seven years) the former as Keaton's bedraggled, rehab-shuffling daughter/personal assistant, the latter as a newly-minted Broadway starlet trying not to screw up her big shot. But the surprise is from those actors who are very much not, particularly Edward Norton, whom I've never much liked, and Zach Galifianakis, whom I've never liked. And yet I do here, as Norton is superb at playing a veteran, method-to-a-fault stage actor, who rides the line of being an insufferable prick without actually necessarily being one, while Galifianakis, of all people, is tasked with playing the voice of reason, Keaton's best friend and manager who is running himself ragged just trying to get this insane thing to work. I don't know whose idea it was to make Galifianakis the straight man in this, but to my astonishment it works and works well, as this is easily the best thing I've ever seen him do, and probably close to the best for Norton as well.

Perhaps it's me, or perhaps I'm being overly affected by Guillermo Del Toro, but I've come to associate Mexican directors with a very strange, fantastical style of filmmaking. Iñárritu's own Biutiful had a completely out-of-place magical realism sequence in it after all involving Javier Bardem talking to dead people in the middle of a realistic movie about immigration raids and sweat shop laborers being poisoned to death with carbon monoxide. Here that element takes front and center, not only with more inexplicable fantasy elements (Keaton has, or is at least strongly hinted as having, telekinetic powers enabling him to fly, break things, and even kill people), but with a visual style that attempts to replicate the effect of having the entire movie be a single, unbroken take. It isn't one of course, but the seams between shots are very cleverly hidden, as the camera moves up and down and through the backstages of the theater, into dressing rooms and down dingy corridors, up onto rooftops and down into the street. This might have been distracting if the movie weren't so weird overall, but in this case simply adds to the dizzying effect of everything piling on. The camera twists and turns and drifts from character to character so much that we lose sight of where we actually are at times, as chaos seems to be unfolding all around us. Given this, and the natural pressures of live theater, the overall effect is one of immense tension, as we keep waiting for fresh catastrophes to disturb, yet further, our main character, and his tenuous grasp on reality.

Things Havoc disliked:  Speaking however, of tenuous grasps on reality, this movie eventually gets so overwhelmingly weird that it starts to break apart. The surest sign of this being the duration. At 119 minutes, Birdman is hardly a long film, but boy does it feel like one. Perhaps it's simply a facet of the unrelenting tension in the film, of sitting there for hours on end waiting for shoes to drop, to the point of actual physical exhaustion, but having left the movie, I would have sworn that we had been in there for three hours. I have nothing against long movies, but there comes a point in any film when you are ready for it to end, and a movie that continues on past that point is liable to earn itself some ire, at least from me.

And part of why I felt this way may be that not every character justifies its existence properly. Keaton's ex-wife, played competently enough by Andrea Riseborough, has absolutely no purpose in the film except to stand there and serve as a soundboard for Keaton's escalating levels of craziness, occasionally stirring them up by leveling criticism on his life choices in ways calculated to make him even more crazy. Worse yet is Lindsay Duncan (of HBO's Rome), who plays Tabitha, the New York Times' theater critic, who midway through the film confesses to Keaton that she despises him and all his ilk (movie stars trying to become serious theater actors), showering his career and pretensions with venomous contempt, before informing him that, sight unseen, she intends to write the single most devastating review in the history of theater criticism and destroy his play and life, all from pure spite. In addition to displaying a staggering overestimate of the influence of critics (Spider Man, Turn off the Dark, concluded its four-year Broadway run this past January despite being roundly savaged by every critic alive), this reaction is not merely crazy (which would at least be consistent) but vicious and hateful to the point of monomania. No less than Roger Ebert himself was once thrown out of the Film Critics' guild for reviewing a movie he had not seen all the way through, and the concept that a theater critic would be willing to risk their hard-won reputation doing the same is almost laughable, to say nothing of the fact that a review that outlandishly bad would be almost certain to generate buzz rather than defuse it. The film battles hard to regard this subplot as the straw that breaks the camels' back, leading Keaton to act in wildly crazy ways, secure in the knowledge that his life is ruined anyway, yet the entire notion, to say nothing of the manner in which it is ultimately resolved, cheapens the last third of the movie considerably.

Final thoughts:   What does one do with a movie this insane? Does one throw up one's hands and rate it Q out of 10? Does one flunk it for being an unapproachable mess, or praise it immodestly for being daring and avant-garde? None of these things are really my style, and yet I confess I had a hard time coming to grips with just what I thought about Birdman. I see most films on Tuesdays, and yet, even on the rare occasions when I'm actually on schedule, my reviews are not finished until the following weekend. Part of this is irredeemable procrastination of course, but part of it is the base fact that sometimes you need to let a film settle in your mind before you write the review of it, give it time to percolate and discover what you feel about it in retrospect, not just in the moment. This is what turned Gone Girl from a 7 to a 3.5, and in this case, is what turned this movie from a fairly mediocre score to the one you see below. Ultimately what I remember from this film is not how uncomfortable it made me, but how much I enjoyed seeing Michael Keaton on screen again, how much I was pleased to finally like Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton, how much Emma Stone lights up the screen and how ageless Naomi Watts seems, despite the interval it has been since last I saw her.

In short, for all of the criticisms I level at these two-hour blocks of would-be entertainment, I enjoy watching movies, all kinds of movies, and I enjoy watching actors I like (and even ones I don't) giving good performances in movies. I enjoy innovation and daring and a bit of unstated zaniness thrown in, and I enjoy watching good directors direct good films with wit and skill and creativity and charm. I enjoy these things all, and when a movie is made sufficiently well to remind me of what it is that I enjoy about watching movies in the first place, then how bad could it really have been?

Final Score:  7/10

Next Week:   Keanu Reeves shoots many people.  Again.

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