Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

Another year is done, and it is time again to look back on what good things we found within it. And 2014 was a good year as far as film goes, better than its predecessor, better perhaps than any year I've so far seen save for 2012. This I knew before sitting down to sort the lists out, but one of the reasons why I look forward to the process of ranking the year's films every winter is that there are always surprises to be had. I can't tell you how many films, over the four years this project has spanned, I have walked out of confident that it would make one or the other of my lists, only to sit down and total up the scores and determine that it would do nothing of the sort. Yet this year, the biggest surprise to me was that the best films of 2014 were wholly dominated by two genres of film: children's movies, and superhero films.

There are some who will argue, of course, that this says more about the critic than the films, that these movies topped out my list because I am a nerd who values shallow entertainment over true art, to which my reply is that I saw more indie fare this year than any year previous, including a number of gems that we will be revisiting on another list entirely. But even the indie stuff that I did like tended to rate lower on my scales than the more traditional stuff. This is not actually that common. 2013's best list and to a lesser extent 2012's were both well supplied with indie films, including the number one film of the former year. This year however, a lot of indie movies concentrated first and foremost on being indie movies, placing the concept ahead of the execution. Some succeeded despite this of course, but many others seemed content to let the notion of what they were doing stand rather than the skill with which they did it. Your mileage may, and no doubt will, vary, but the crop of kids films and superhero films this year was particularly strong, and bereft of the need to justify their existence (in all but one case), managed to produce films that were actually... dare I even say it... fun. And I will happily take grief for prioritizing that.

But before we get to the list itself, it's worth considering a few honorable mentions, films I enjoyed but not quite enough to make the final cut:

Noah: The more I thought about Darren Aranofski's batshit crazy take on the story of the Great Flood, the more impressed I was with it. In a year filled with films that tried to be "daring", this movie might have been the most daring of them all, an unflinching exploration of just what the apocalyptic story of Noah and his ark might actually do to the characters involved. With an intriguing villain and secondary characters, and a concept that seemed to take the biblical narrative both literally and as a joke, Noah may or may not have been great, but I sure as hell remember it, a year after first sitting down to watch it.

Locke:  The most interesting movie ever set entirely in a car (I'm confident in that claim), Locke was a desperately-needed breath of fresh air in the stale offerings that indie cinema threw up around the midpoint of the year. Given the concept at work here, a man discussing the collapse of his life by handless phone for two hours, this should have put me right to sleep. Instead, thanks to brilliant acting by Tom Hardy (who had one hell of a year) and an excellent and restrained direction by writer-turned-director Steven Knight, this was a film I was actually ready to watch more of, had more of it been on offer. Not bad for a film with no action, scene changes, or narrative.

A Most Violent Year: Squeaking in just under the wire (it was literally released on New Years' Eve), this quiet, restrained gangster film couldn't quite earn a place in my top ten, but was a fine movie regardless. In addition to finally giving me a reason to like Jessica Chastain, this film insisted on playing against expectations at every turn, regardless of what that did to the narrative rhythm, and presented in consequence one of the more unique takes on the gritty gangster genre I've seen in a good long while. It's no Goodfellas, but then unlike most of its peers, it doesn't seem to want to be, and a movie that wishes to simply be its own thing is always worth considering.

The Grand Budapest Hotel:  Now this was a film I did expect to make the cut, only to find, to my surprise, that when it came time to tally up the totals and ruthlessly trim the list to ten, there just wasn't any room for it. Nevertheless, The Grand Budapest was tremendous fun, a wacky, hijinx-laden romp through the mad halls of professional-maniac Wes Anderson's mind, mixed this time with period flavor from the glory days of interwar central Europe. Boasting a cast-of-the-Gods anchored around Ralph Fiennes, one of my favorite actors, whom I don't get to see enough of, this movie was a delightful addition to Anderson's colorful portfolio. How he intends on topping this one, I have no idea.

And now, without further ado, I present the ten best films of 2014!

# 10  The Drop
I did just mention that Tom Hardy had a hell of a year, didn't I? Well this was one of the primary reasons why, a sharp, quiet, expertly paced gangster flick that served simultaneously as a fitting send-off to James Gandolfini, and a final bullet point marking the ascension of Hardy to the ranks of one of my favorite actors currently working. This movie was director Michaël Roskam's debut film, but it plays like the work of a veteran filmmaker, like something Scorsese or Coppola might have done in their primes when wishing to take a quiet year. Though the film's horizons are somewhat limited, it manages to build an astonishing amount of tension out of what little plot and stakes it has. Tom Hardy of course will be helming this year's Mad Max reboot, and it's films like this that lead me to hope that we might actually get something good out of that endeavor, evidence like Total Recall and Robocop to the contrary.

# 9  Edge of Tomorrow
I've been waiting for Tom Cruise to make a movie like this, I think, a movie that embraces the fact that there's a large segment of the moviegoing public that he annoys, and who seek to watch him suffer. After 2013's Oblivion, I had thought that Edge of Tomorrow might provide some cheap entertainment, but it provided considerably more than that, proving to be a riotously funny action film featuring three stand-out performances in Cruise himself, Emily Blunt, and Bill Paxton. The movie does get a bit over-formulaic at the end, and I'm still not convinced it holds all that much water, but in terms of pure enjoyment, Edge of Tomorrow was a treat. Though I do wish they'd stuck with the original title...

# 8  How to Train Your Dragon 2
In an age where animation is dominated by Pixar and Disney, it's worth remembering that there are other players in the game, particularly the OGs of the 3D animation world, Dreamworks. How to Train Your Dragon, sequel to their finest work ever, is not quite the equal of its predecessor perhaps, but is still a staggeringly good film, lush and beautiful, well written and well acted, a triumph for a series that had the guts to allow their characters to change significantly between films and over the course of the new one. The movie is held back somewhat by a weaker third act, but even a weaker section of the dragon series is quite a thing, and the richness of imagination which infuses the film makes it the equal of anything the Mouse Lords could contrive to produce.

# 7  Big Hero 6
Which is not to say that Disney was asleep this year. Despite a well-plowed concept and a trailer I could not have cared less about, Disney's dedication to the detail of realizing the insane, cross-pollinated world sold me from the opening shot. I'm a sucker for movies showcasing my fair city of course, but I'm even more of a sucker for a film with vision and creativity, and Big Hero 6 was dripping with both. The plot is nothing to write home about certainly, but the richness of both the world and the characters that inhabit it more than made up for any failings in that direction. After Frozen, I was eager to see what Disney would make next. After Big Hero 6, I simply want to see how long what is now clearly their third golden age can run for.

# 6  X-Men:  Days of Future Past
I struggled with the rankings for this movie and the one that follows, for I loved both of them equally, despite the fact that they were vastly different movies. Obviously I chose to rank X-Men lower than its counterpart, but in no way should anyone take that as a slur upon this tremendous film. Sequel to the earth-shatteringly good X-Men First Class from 2011, Days of Future Past is not merely a great movie, but it is a great movie that retroactively eliminates non-great ones, tying the oft-confusing X-men continuity up into one coherent, workable whole. Stuffed with actors I love playing characters I cherish, the film's minor miscues were the last things on my mind walking out of the theater, and if this film restarts the entire series into a new horizon, then I for one could not be happier.

# 5  Fury
Fury is the finest war film I have seen since Saving Private Ryan, a lustrous canvas of violence and destruction which manages to be poignant without being saccharine or sanctimonious, filled with great performances by actors I was not expecting anything from. Haunting, beautiful, and exceptionally well-made, this film not only re-enforced my appreciation for Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, but actually managed to sell me on Shia LeBoeuf, who not only turns in the best performance of his career, but manages to out-act everyone else present while doing it. Scored and shot with incredible skill, Fury was a revelation, and images from it still remain vivid in my mind today. If nothing else, Fury proves that even in a genre as overdone as World War II, there is a possibility of doing something great.

# 4  Guardians of the Galaxy
I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot! I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I AM GROOT!!! I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I. Am. Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot.

We are Groot.

# 3  The Raid 2:  Berendal
If Fury was the best war film I've seen in more than a decade, then The Raid 2 may be the best martial arts film from that period. Absolutely riven with badass moments, piled high with action so good as to reduce one to tears, this movie is a must-see for any fan of martial arts or action movies in general. The gradual migration of the heart of martial arts films away from China and towards South-East Asia has produced quite a few hidden gems, but nothing quite like this, a film of such stature as to reduce everything in its path to rubble. The Raid 2 kicks ass. Go forth and be rocked.

# 2  Captain America:  The Winter Soldier
A staggeringly good movie, released right when I was starting to doubt Marvel's infallibility, the second Captain America movie is not only miles beyond its predecessor, but may actually be the best Marvel film of them all. Replete with awesome action, interesting characters, hilarious in-jokes, and general competence, the film showcases just why Captain America remains one of the brightest stars on Marvel's flag. Not many studios would have the guts to do what is done to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this movie, but Marvel is not many studios, and the sure hand of a studio that has barely put a foot wrong since beginning this epochal journey so many years ago is more evident here than I've ever seen it. Godspeed, Cap. See you in Avengers 2.

# 1  The Lego Movie

This movie was awesome!
This movie exploded right off of the screen!
This movie was awesome!
Like an eight-year-old's dream!

Every part of this film just flowed right together
Filled with charm, witty lines, and a sense of wonder
With hardly a blunder!

Never once did I think this could work
But it's clear now we all agree.

All these films were awesome!
Fun, well-crafted films that deserve to be seen
Every one was awesome!
Now for Twenty-Fifteen...

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Most Violent Year

Alternate Title:  A Non-Violent Year

One sentence synopsis:    The owner of a heating oil company tries to keep his business afloat in the face of harassment by organized crime and investigations by the police in 1981 New York.

Things Havoc liked:  Back in 2011, when this project was new and my update schedule even more sketchy than it is now, I saw a little film called Margin Call, written and directed by a newcomer named J. C. Chandor. Though I didn't review Margin Call, it was an excellent little film, minimalist but highly realistic, about the 2008 Wall Street crash and the personalities that surrounded it. And one of the reasons I didn't review Margin Call was that I had, right out of the gate, torpedoed what credibility I could aspire to having by showing immoderate praise on a Zach Snyder action extravaganza by the name of Sucker Punch, a movie I absolutely loved and everyone else despised, probably rightly. A big part of why I dissented from this opinion had to do with a Guatemalan actor by the name of Oscar Isaac, who played the main villain in the film to an absolutely sleazy T. Isaac would go on to bigger and better things, winning a Golden Globe for Inside Llewyn Davis, but I remembered him for his turn there, and waited for an opportunity to run into him again. And now along comes a period crime drama, written and directed by J. C. Chandor, starring Oscar Isaac, and all my dreams can finally come true.

It is 1981, a year when New York really was the dirty, violence-prone urban war zone that European filmmakers still seem to think it is. Abel Morales (Isaac) is a successful businessman, owner of a city-wide heating oil and furnace company, a business rife with corruption, mafia-involvement, and general chicanery. On the brink of a high-risk deal that will make or break his company's future, he is forced to deal with an escalating campaign of intimidation and theft, as parties unknown send armed thugs to his house to threaten him and his family, and send others to beat his drivers and rob his trucks. The FBI, well aware that his entire industry is as corrupt as they come, is investigating him for fraud and assorted other white collar crimes, and the head of the local Teamster's union is pressing him to arm his drivers. And yet though everything I have just recited is the same sort of thing you see in every gangster movie, A Most Violent Year takes the quotidian route by emphasizing the banality of these things. Drivers are beaten up and their trucks stolen, and the world continues spinning, as Morales refuses, no matter what, to let anything that happens push him into a rash action, not even as his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer (Albert Brooks) and largely everyone else who cares to open their mouth insist that he take a harder line, all while he insists that he can handle it without everything spilling out of control.

And indeed, "controlled" is the word that comes to mind when I think of this film, a tight, slow, deliberate thing as unlike most gangster or gangster-related films as it's possible to be. Abel's consistent insistence that escalating the situation, even as the robberies stack up, will lead to nothing but disaster, include arguments that most movies like to sidestep, such as the fact that carrying a gun in New York City is extremely illegal, and that the consequences of doing so, even in defense of life-and-limb, could be absolutely catastrophic to his company. When a teamster representative demands that he arm his drivers, his reply of what will happen if one of them should choose to shoot their wife with it is a perspective you simply don't see in most action movies, wherein weapons are consequence-free problem solvers, resorted to as soon as matters cross the threshold. And Abel is not the only one who recognizes that there are limits to people's freedom of action in even a violent city. A stand-out scene midway through the film has gun-wielding thugs attempt to hijack one of his trucks, only for the driver to retaliate in kind, shooting back at the thugs with his own personal weapon. And yet rather than a shootout, the result is outrage, not from the public but from the thugs themselves, appalled by the driver's recklessness in opening fire on a crowded freeway, and who finally flee, in company with the driver they were trying to hijack, from the cops who will quite certainly arrest them all. New York is New York in this film, not Gotham City, and while crime is a real thing that happens, it is here treated realistically, moreso than most movies I think I've seen on the subject.

And of course all this is helped by the performances. Oscar Isaac is absolutely perfect here, as a driven businessman who comprehends the stakes he is playing for and what is and is not a true threat to his livelihood and family. His background is only hinted at, but hinted at effectively enough to get the idea of a self-made man trying to move forward in the world despite the efforts of most of his competitors to shut him down (as, of course, he is plotting to do to them). Jessica Chastain meanwhile, an actress I'm on record as not being wildly fond of, is as good here as I've ever seen her as Abel's wife Anna, whose background is clearly in the mafia, and who has inherited that mindset. Responsible for bookkeeping as well as strategic advice, she is prepared to let Abel handle things his way, but the possibility of her calling in her relatives to handle the matter in a manner more customary with gangster films hangs over the entire proceeding. Albert Brooks, meanwhile, whom I haven't seen in a thousand years, does a fine job as the apparently long-suffering company attorney, whose role is to be the first lawyer in the history of gangster movies to argue that the main character isn't being violent and risky enough. The rest of the cast is rounded out by fine performances from greater or lesser actors, from David Oyelowo, whom I seem to be unable to escape recently, who plays a DA well aware of how business and justice are done in his town, to Game of Thrones' Elyes Gabel, playing a panicky driver desperate to avoid being assaulted, to newcomer Annie Funke playing the presumed acting-boss of a rival organization, to which Abel must turn for alternately polite threats and money. Each of these actors does a fine job, understating their roles nicely, resulting in a movie that plays everything its given completely straight.

Things Havoc disliked:  Maybe too straight.

I don't have anything against a movie that eschews violence and vast intricate mafia wars for a focus on a more realistic slice of life, but movies have to entertain as well as educate and while I wouldn't say that A Most Violent Year ever gets boring, it does come across as an awful lot of buildup for not a whole lot of payoff. Not that I'm about to spoil the ending or anything, but the film downplays a lot of what in a more normal movie would be the primary plot so much that a good amount of what happens in the course of the film starts to feel rather pointless. Many mysteries, such as the armed man that Abel surprises outside his house, or the entire subplot with the young door-to-door salesman, are never really resolved, and if the film was hinting towards a resolution with them, then I managed to miss it. Perhaps it's a bit churlish to complain that a movie isn't predictable enough, but there is a certain level of narrative focus that one appreciates in film, or at least that I do. This, combined with an ending that seemed a bit pat, conspires to keep the film from the lofty heights of the great crime dramas, minor though the complaint may be.

There's also the question of just who the main character actually is. A Most Violent Year is as much a biopic as it is a crime drama, what with its laser-like focus on Abel Morales. But while Isaac plays the character very well, to the point of fascination, the film doesn't actually tell us a whole lot about him, where his principles of business come from, the ones he holds onto so tightly in opposition to his wife, family, and lawyers. Bits and pieces come our way, of previous business deals and aphorisms acquired from a lifetime of work, but unlike the better character-focused films I've seen recently like Locke or Birdman, the movie never really manages, despite the focus and the acting, to let us into the character's head in a comprehensive way.

Final thoughts:   Then again, Locke chose to do that by adding wholly unnecessary exposition rants wherein the main character abuses his dead father for his moral failings, contrasting himself to them overtly, so perhaps it's not such a bad thing that this film keeps the main character at arm's length. Indeed, rather than those films above, the one that this movie begs to be compared to is last year's The Drop, a similarly understated gangster piece with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, one which created mood and atmosphere and suspense by not having things explode into bloody violence. I liked The Drop a lot, and I find I liked A Most Violent Year just about as much, and for similar reasons, as both films showcased good actors playing characters whose motivations were at right angles to expectations, despite the gritty and violent world they were immersed in. And given that there are no shortage of movies out there which resolve everything in barrages of gunfire (not that I mind that), it's no bad thing to occasionally encounter a movie that has something else to say on the subject.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  A long-awaited recap.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Alternate Title:  Hail to the King

One sentence synopsis:    Martin Luther King organizes the Selma-to-Montgomery marches as part of the civil rights movement in 1965.

Things Havoc liked:  It's a dangerous business, trying to produce a movie about a figure like Martin Luther King. Everything you do with a character like that will be scrutinized like a biblical text, subject not only to criticism regarding the artistic and structural choices made, but in the lens and context of contemporary politics as well. It's not quite true that King is a polarizing figure, but he is certainly a venerated one, and as purified saints make for bad biopic targets, attempts to humanize someone like King are fraught with peril, opening one up to accusations of bias, racism, or grievous disrespect. Particularly given the ongoing relevance of civil rights and race-related issues today, this was a film that had to walk a tightrope. Too daring, and the filmmakers would be fricasseed. Not daring enough, and the movie would suck. What is a young, up-and-coming filmmaker to do?

I know, let's cast the guy who starred in Red Tails!

For someone who helmed the worst movie by score in the history of this project, David Oyelowo has done pretty well for himself in the intervening years. Roles in Lincoln and Middle of Nowhere as well as a turn in The Butler that I was quite a big fan of, a role in which he rather co-incidentally shared the screen with someone else playing Martin Luther King, have softened my hatred regarding his participation in the above travesty. That's not to say I would have picked him as the actor to represent King, but I'll be damned if he didn't sell me. King, moreso than many other historical figures, could only be fantastically difficult to portray, but Oyelowo does a fantastic job by refusing to get histrionic, not even during the sweeping speeches which are a must-have in any MLK film. It admittedly took some time for me to accept Oyelowo's speechifying as worthy of one of the great orators of the 20th century, but by the end of the film, Oyelowo managed to capture even that aspect, to say nothing of the calm patience with which he approaches the task of destroying one of the cornerstones of Jim Crow.

Yet the focus is not on grand speeches or high-minded ideals, for the film quite rightly infers that the audience is capable of understanding that arbitrarily denying voting rights to black voters is a bad thing without having to have it shoved down their throats. In consequence, the movie concentrates instead on the actual down-and-dirty methods by which these things were to be combated. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), King's reluctant ally in the fight against segregation, has a hundred items on his agenda, and in order to push this one to the top, King and his associates employ every trick in the political handbook. Marches and "awareness" are only half the battle here, as, like Lincoln before it, Selma prefers to concentrate on the... grittier side of getting politics done. In an early scene, King admits openly that he has selected Selma as the next battleground because the local sheriff is an irascible bastard, who can be counted upon to lose his cool and engage in violent suppression of the demonstrators, thus pushing the agenda further than it would otherwise go. Neither he nor his crew of like-minded activists are even slightly ashamed by these tactics, and nor should they be, for confrontation is the cornerstone of their movement, not sermons from the mount. The mechanics of how King goes about provoking the authorities to respond, and the responses that he generates form the meat of the film, and as with Lincoln, the result is to ground the film in what actually happened, instead of in platitudes about being nice to one another.

And it helps to have a useful cast when one is making one of these solemn biopics, and for this film, director Ava DuVernay has assembled a murderer's row of excellent character actors. Wilkinson I mentioned before, but his turn as the profane, frazzled, beleaguered LBJ, who agrees with King but has other priorities and does not appreciate being dragged back into King's agenda, is probably the best in the film, with a close second being Tim Roth's turn as Alabama governor (and scumbag) George Wallace, a man who oozes contempt from every pore without ever once uttering a word edgewise against King or his movement. Other roles go to solid B-listers such as Lorraine Toussaint, Dylan Baker, The Judge's Jeremy Strong (who may one day find forgiveness), and of course, two actors who cannot be left out of any movie like this, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom were in the Butler alongside Oyelowo. Winfrey in particular deserves a mention, playing Annie Lee Cooper, a local activist best known for responding to a sheriff prodding her in the neck with a billy club by belting him in the face. Mock Winfrey's work all you will, since the Color Purple she has made a habit of movies like this one, and as with the Butler, she does a fantastic job of disguising herself behind makeup and getting the hell beat out of her by disgusting racists. Everyone needs a hobby I guess.

Things Havoc disliked:  Realistic this film most certainly is, and yet realism is a poor substitute for drama when it comes down to it, and Selma is rather unavoidably a very slow film, as characters ponder over their actions, re-think things, discuss strategy at length to one another, hesitate, turn back, try again, consult, and only then finally move forward with anything. It's probably close to how things actually ran, but real life is a long and boring process, and we're not watching a documentary. One gets the sense, as the film goes on, that it perhaps has too great a sense of its historical weight, expecting that merely gesturing in the direction of events that occurred and trusting that the audience will understand the importance of them would forgive any pacing problems that the movie might manifest. Unfortunately the importance of the march is not well placed in context of the wider movement. I know it as merely one of many steps taken to break the back of segregation in the South, but which step it was and in response to what pressures it was taken, I cannot tell you, as the movie regards it as a single event that began and ended, with no wider context to distinguish it except that it was a thing that Martin Luther King did. To compare the film to Lincoln once more, Lincoln spared no expense in grounding the struggle to pass the 13th amendment within the context of the end of the Civil War, ensuring we knew why it was so important. Here, one may be forgiven for wondering if Johnson, who urges focus on other priorities instead of on this issue, might have been right, as we have no idea what else was going on except that the South was racist and King fought them.

And speaking of Johnson, much ink has been spilled over the subject of his portrayal in this film, where at times he seems almost like King's enemy, asking FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to send evidence of King's various infidelities to his wife as a means of cooling his ardor. To put it mildly, that never happened, and while I understand why it's in the film (there needed to be some way to introduce the subject of FBI opposition and of King's extramarital affairs into the story), the base fact is that a historical biopic is going to be judged on its fidelity to history. No, I don't think this is a crippling issue, as Johnson overall is portrayed quite well, ending the film with his famous speech to Congress on the eve of the Voting Rights Act, in which he quoted King directly while shattering the very spine of segregation. But the filmmakers' reactions of outraged horror that their film should be subject to such mundane things as "accuracy" do them no favors, as I cannot for the life of me understand someone making a film like this who did not expect people to pour over it with a microscope. This is history, and we all can find out what actually happened. Do not tell me that we should all "get over it" when the very purpose of the film is to show how much we have not gotten over the subject at hand.

Besides, Reverend Abernathy's defenders have a far better reason to get pissed here than President Johnson's...

Final thoughts:   With the Oscar nominations for 2014 now released, there has been the usual buzz of outrage over which films were and were not nominated for which categories, and of all the movies on offer, Selma is the one everyone is discussing being "snubbed". Much though I did like the film, permit me to disagree as to its deserving of further nominations. Oyelowo's performance is quite good, but only just that, and he never reaches the transcendent state of divine madness that a number of other nominees reached in quest for their nods (Keaton comes to mind), while director DuVernay's competant-but-uninspired directing of the film is worthy of praise, but not of Oscar praise, not in a year that brought us Linklater's Boyhood and Iñárritu's Birdman. DuVernay has additionally done herself no favors by insisting that criticism of her film is tantamount to a slap in the face to black people in general and to the NAACP in specific. Lest I sound like I am repeating myself, the rightness of a subject matter does not immunize a film from criticism, as films as varied as Red Tails, Monuments Men, and Jakob the Liar have all contrived to demonstrate. Selma is a good film, a film worth watching, a film that has value and that I am glad I saw, but none of those things equate to automatic greatness, particularly when you combine them all with the simple prosaic fact that Paramount released this film far too late in the game for most of the academy voting staff to have even seen it.

I recommend Selma unhesitatingly. But best-of-the-year honors are demanding things. And there's a reason my rating system goes to 10.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  New York's glory days.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Alternate Title:  Welcome to the Club

One sentence synopsis:    During the Chinese civil war, a platoon of PLA soldiers must destroy a rampaging mountain warlord with an impregnable fortress and thousands of troops.

Things Havoc liked:  I once stated that there was a fine art to hagiography, and the same is true of propaganda. Propaganda gets a bad reputation these days, but all it is is media designed to influence people's opinions in one direction or another, and I shouldn't have to tell any of you that film has a long and rich history of the stuff. I don't just mean wartime cartoons about Donald Duck or Superman battling Hitler, though there is that, but also action films, particularly over here in the US, almost the entire genre of WWII action films, from Casablanca, filmed during the war, right up through 2014's Monuments Men and Fury. And yet despite Hollywood's domination of the worldwide cultural landscape, at least in film, propaganda movies are certainly not unique to the United States, as everything from Bollywood war epics to Turkish Rambo to last year's Stalingrad will attest to. And so in that spirit, it is perhaps time to turn our attention to the latest import from China.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a propaganda film from the People's Republic of China, and before we go any further, it's important to note that when I call a film 'propaganda', unlike most people who use the term, I don't mean to cast aspersions on the material itself. The long and rich history of nations glorifying themselves in film is far too important to our cultural heritage to throw the whole thing under the bus simply because of its partisanship, and it would be the height of hypocrisy for someone who unironically enjoyed everything from Captain America to the original Red Dawn to come down on a Chinese film maker for making a film about Chinese soldiers being badass. That said, Chinese propaganda isn't something we see a whole lot of around here, and so it might be instructive to see just what our erstwhile rivals have to say.

It is the winter of 1946, shortly after the end of WWII, and the long-deferred war between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalists) has exploded back into full flowering, even as large swatches of the country are overrun by bandit armies in sufficient numbers to merit the term. A small force of PLA (People's Liberation Army) troops are sent into the snow-covered mountains to engage with one such bandit army presently in occupation of a massive, fortified arsenal, complete with artillery, tanks, and hundreds upon hundreds of men. Uncertain of how his handful of troops are to protect the local villages from marauding armies of bandits, platoon commander, Lt Yang (Zhang Hanyu) sends a veteran scout, Shao Jianbao (Lin Gengxin) to infiltrate the bandit compound, gain their trust, and permit the PLA forces to seize a decisive advantage when it comes time to fight. Much of the film is taken up with Shao's efforts to weasel his way into the bandit forces, and as Lin Gengxin is the best actor in the entire affair by a country mile, this is a decent idea. The villains of the piece are straight out of the snarling, over-the-top, Peking-operatic school of cinematic villainy, with every snapped piece of evil dialogue accompanied by melodramatic gestures and crazed Zoolander looks hurled at the camera like weapons. The effect is not tremendously subtle, but it does work, and a particularly standout scene involves Shao performing a theatrical recitation of the events that led him to join the bandits while surrounded by a cavernous hall full of thousands of snarling bandits, all of whom are brandishing automatic weapons at him. Going big or going home is a well-worn path for action/war flicks like this, particularly the ones on the sillier end, after all. And there's nothing wrong with a bit of melodrama to liven up an obviously preposterous situation.

Neither is there anything wrong with the action beats here. Someone in the production staff of this movie appears to have watched 300 (or God help them, Wanted) at some point, because the action bears the marks of Zack Snyder quite strongly. Gunfights are punctuated with liberal use of slowdown-speed up routines, particularly an opening engagement in and around a train station, wherein each bullet fired by the platoon snipers seems to take five minutes to actually land. Yet I remain a fan of this technique, particularly when compared to the Shaky-Cam option (something Chinese action cinema, with its rich tradition of martial arts films, does not seem to have ever been infected with), and the action overall is of at least decent quality, not an easy thing to do when one is competing with Hollywood extravaganzas. I liked the consistent touch of every weapon in the bandits' arsenal, no matter how esoteric, being an American gun (propaganda, remember?), while the PLA are all using Russian/Chinese weapons. The rarer melee sequences are also done well, with shots stolen, in the main, from either Snyder or Rodriguez' films. Once again, this is not a criticism.

Things Havoc disliked:  Allow me, therefore, to offer things which are criticisms.

Propaganda films have come a long way in the US since the days of Audie Murphy. Yes, we've still got shameless dreck like the new Red Dawn or White House Down coming out periodically, but there's been so much more, as propaganda, and war films in general over here, were indelibly marked by such experiences as Vietnam and the Iraq war. It's impossible to look at movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Jarhead, Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty in the same way as one might look at John Wayne's Green Berets, as the nature of American nationalism has evolved over time to reflect the somewhat more complex relationship that the American public has with its own military history. By no means is this a uniquely American phenomenon. Post-Stalinist Russian war-cinema is positively Dostoyevskian in its embrace of bloody fatalism (some would regard this as reversion to the Russian mean), while German films of the same nature tend to be about how war is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone ever (there are more German films about Stalingrad than Russian ones). China however, caught up in its sudden emergence onto the world stage as a great power, and playing heavily on the Nationalism card (not to mention with a film censorship board considerably stronger than any over here), has not yet had time to temper its initial, exuberant instincts towards war propaganda, with the ultimate result, however culturally parochial it might sound, that this film, like a lot of Chinese war cinema, feels an awful lot like something Hollywood might have made in 1957.

What do I mean? Consider the actual scenario on offer here. A platoon of PLA troops, maybe twenty or twenty-five in total, are pitted against a force that I would conservatively estimate as being fifty times larger than them. These aren't "long odds", these are the sort of odds that the British faced during the Zulu wars, with the slight exception of the fact that the Zulu in this case are armed with tanks, grenade launchers, and machine guns. Lots of films present their heroes as being outnumbered, certainly, but this film is so stacked against the heroes that when they defeat their enemies, the reaction is not awe or even thrills, but gut-busting laughter, as the cold odds against the heroes are so great that they can only win by either transforming spontaneously into Superman or by having their enemies suffer sudden attacks of acute mental incapacity. Both are on offer here. A battle sequence midway through the movie involves the platoon repelling an assault by three hundred machine-gun-and-bazooka-wielding bandits, killing two hundred and fifty of them for the loss of ONE soldier, whose death is treated with ten minutes of solemnity in the aftermath. Later, in the climactic fight, the troops slay hundreds of men, engage in protracted gunfights, take out tanks and storm fortified positions, all without incurring any casualties whatsoever. Are we expected to be impressed by the achievement of having won a battle where the other side was firing blanks? What tension is there to be wrung from a film where the heroes are all invulnerable, thanks to the unshakeable faith they have in the rightness of Chairman Mao?

Yes, yes, I know that this is not the only film to make this mistake, not even recently. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to have a movie with an invincible protagonist. John Wick did this, as did the Taken films, and The Expendables, and Shoot Em Up, and 47 Ronin and a hundred other movies. The difference is that those movies (the good ones anyway) were not intended to create tension, but to present a spectacle, the unavoidably awesome spectacle that is one man or group of men slaughtering another in artistic fashion. Tiger Mountain on the other hand, when not dealing with the antics of its villains, is as somber as a church sermon, as soldiers stand about talking in low, reverential tones to one another about how much they want to protect the "little people" of the villages they are passing through, and try to outdo one another in the heroic sacrifices they are able to make. It would get saccharine if it weren't so boring, and loooooong stretches of the film are comprised of nothing but this, presumably as a sop to the Chinese film censors who would no doubt blanch and faint at a portrayal of the PLA with anything approaching the verisimilitude of something like Platoon. None of this is helped by a completely unnecessary framing story, set alternately in New York and Beijing, where the grandson of one of the characters in the story learns that he must give up the materialistic ways of America and return to China to get in touch with his cultural and historical roots (or something). The film cuts back and forth between framing story and main story rather disjointedly, leaving me at least completely confused at more than one point as to what the hell was going on. And while there's nothing wrong with the themes of returning home to one's roots, the clumsiness with which this point is hammered home is strong enough that it even shines through the subtitling process, one which usually softens awkwardness like this.

Final thoughts:   I have great respect for Chinese cinema, particularly Chinese historical action cinema. Movies like Red Cliff or The Flowers of War deserve to be spoken of alongside their Occidental counterparts, to say nothing of more fantastical wuxia fare like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the Hong Kong blood operas of John Woo and his inheritors. But a bad film is a bad film, and ultimately, all politics aside, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is a bad, boring film, one which comes across as contrived, dated, and quite crudely made overall. The campiness of its villains and one of its leads does earn it some points, and I'm hardly about to, as an American, criticize China for glorifying its own soldiery. But cinematic propaganda of this sort has a long, complicated history to it, one that it does not do to ignore when one is trying to make a film about how amazing your nation's troops are. In short, there is nothing wrong with the concept of this movie in theory, but if China wishes for this sort of thing to be taken seriously by an audience used to the rest of the world's fare, then judging by this film, they have a long way to go.

Of course, if you look only at Michael Bay, so do we.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  Goin' down to Alabama to see the King.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Into the Woods

Alternate Title:  The Things I do for Meryl

One sentence synopsis:    Multiple classic fairy tales take place simultaneously within a fantasy forest.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm on record as stating that Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world, and she is, indeed she's been the greatest actor in the world since the early 80s. I am also however on record as stating that because of this, I am willing to see any movie that Meryl Streep finds herself in. And that, as it turns out, is a dangerous statement to make, because Meryl Streep makes all sorts of movies, many of which I would otherwise have no interest in whatsoever. And while she is the greatest actor alive, it does not follow that all her films are masterpieces. The Homesman for instance only had her in it for all of about three minutes, and while she wasn't the reason I went to see that movie, she has been the reason I've gone to see such pieces of cinematic masterwork as The River Wild, Lions for Lambs, or The Hours. As such, I always get a bit nervous when Streep comes to my local cinema, as she does with regularity some two to four times yearly. And this time she not only arrives, but marches in under the banner of the Unholy Mouse. Gods preserve us.

Into the Woods, based on a Sondheim musical I've contrived mightily to miss, is essentially Disney combining thirty-odd years of its animated output into one live-action musical. Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and no doubt a bunch of other stories I know nothing about, all rolled up into one semi-deconstructed omni-fairy-tale. All set to a typical Sondheim-style score, a style that basically consists of re-writing West Side Story with different lyrics and a key change or two.

Okay, I'm kidding. Sondheim is just not my thing usually, but there's nothing wrong with a musical done well. Not that there's that many examples of that in the last twenty years, but if one were to start, it would not be a bad idea to start with Streep, who in addition to being the finest actor in the world, has a rock solid background in musical film and theater. Here she plays the ubiquitous Wicked Witch of half the fairy tales that have ever existed, not quite as wicked but as a jaded, cynical Greek Chorus sort of thing, singing at length about how stupid, venal, greedy, and generally awful our main characters are. Streep is entertaining in this film, in a sort of easy, Nicholas Cage-crazed sort of way (wound down for a PG rating of course), strutting about perpetually frustrated by the incompetence of the characters around her. A clever running gag involves her setting a difficult task for two young would-be parents to shatter a curse she has placed on them, only to wind up having to practically drag the hapless protagonists through the forest just to keep them on the right track. But her main role in the film is to introduce us to the deconstructive element at work here...

... sort of. Into the Woods isn't really a straight re-telling of the various classic fairy tales of yesteryear, but neither is it really a deconstruction. The characters roaming through these incredibly crowded woods aren't really self-aware about their situation, but neither are they content to simply follow the formula from start to finish, if only because all of the assorted chaos that comes with hurling Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and several more I know nothing about together at the same time. This chaos works better for some than others. Chris Pine's (Kirk from New-Trek) Prince Charming is a ludicrous pastiche of boring hero archetypes in these sorts of stories, particularly during a standout song alongside Billy Magnussen (Prince Charming... 2?), where they compete to see who can employ more melodrama to describe the heartache they feel at having fallen in love with their respective princesses in all of nine seconds. A sequence later on when he tries to seduce the Baker's Wife (just roll with it), he excuses with a shrug over the fact that he's "supposed to be charming, not sincere". Speaking of Blunt, who is fast becoming one of my favorite recent actresses, she too does fine with the material at hand, not an easy thing when the script periodically calls for you to burst into song to narrate your own feelings. Similar plaudits go to Anna Kendrick, of Twilight (*shudder*) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It turns out that Kendrick has a beautiful singing voice, which she demonstrates quite well across the film. Finally, there's a handful of other, smaller roles that go to actors I'm always glad to see, among them Tracy Ulman (Robin Hood: Men in Tights) as Jack (of the Beanstalk)'s long-suffering mother, played as only Tracy Ulman plays irascible frazzled woman. Joanna Riding meanwhile, a stage actress I've seen in a handful of places, takes an almost ghoulish turn with Cinderella's mother, unhesitatingly chopping her daughters' feet to pieces to make them fit into the famous slipper, only to have her eyes pecked out by a flight of birds.

You know, for kids!

Things Havoc disliked:  This may sound like a bit of a strange thing to complain about, but there's an awful lot of death in this movie.

Yes, I know the original fairy tales had a lot of death, and no, I'm not usually against spicing up a fairy tale with a bit of killing, but there's ways to do death in musicals like this, or in movies in general, and this isn't it. The film treats its plot like a throwaway concept, irrelevant as it is in most musicals and fairy tales, until all of a sudden it turns out we were supposed to be paying attention as characters die offscreen, seemingly at random. I don't mind that the deaths aren't shown, it's a kids film from Disney, this is how it goes. I mind that the deaths come out of nowhere, and are so well hidden that there are a number of characters I did not realize were dead until I looked the synopsis at home preparatory to writing this review. I spent half the movie wondering when certain characters were going to come back to sing anew, only to gradually realize that they were gone for good. This wasn't helped by the characters barely reacting to most of the attendant deaths.

But I get it, you don't go to a movie like this for the edgy plot, you go for whimsy and for the singing. But unfortunately not all of either is up to snuff. The singing across the board is... uneven. Part of the problem is the child actors, unknowns Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, who simply are not up to the task of singing alongside Blint or Streep, being respectively flat and generally off-key. I hate to pick on kids, but there's a seeming infinity of excellent child actors in Hollywood nowadays, and why you would select these two and then give them 40% of the songs in the film, is entirely beyond me. Worse yet is Johnny Depp, yes Johnny Depp, who shows up early on in the film playing the Big Bad Wolf (because of course he'd find something weird to play), gets a single song with Little Red Riding Hood filled with weirdly pedophilic undertones, and then disappears for the rest of the movie. Depp has not had a great run of things for the last decade or so, but this is almost insulting, effectively a cameo, and one that lacks quality. Depp hams it up like he's trying to seduce the scenery, and it's no great loss when Red Riding Hood winds up skinning him and wearing him as a hat.

Final thoughts:   Ultimately, Into the Woods is a very ephemeral film, in that it's not so much that it does anything wrong, that it does nothing really outstandingly right either. Perhaps the movie just wasn't made for me, or some ineffable quality of the musical it was based on simply failed to make the transition, but while the movie was diverting enough, it wasn't anything I'm going to remember on through the years. Frankly, with a live-action Cinderella coming out later this spring, I'm surprised this film was made at all, but then I suppose the need to push out something at Christmas to compete with the Annie remake triumphed over all.

Can't let Columbia ruin the holidays, after all.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  China's latest action movie.

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