Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Fast & Furious 7

Alternate Title:  Art!

One sentence synopsis:    The Fast & Furious crew must try to stop an SAS-mercenary from taking revenge for the crippling of his brother in a previous heist.

Things Havoc liked:  In this movie, there is a moment where The Rock drives an ambulance off of an overpass and onto a flying predator drone, from which he then salvages a Gatling gun, with which he engages an attack helicopter in a battle through downtown Los Angeles.

Do I really need to say anything else?

The Fast and The Furious was a terrible movie, many many years ago, and since its inception it has spawned a whole series of seven films, completely unseen by me, all of which I had rather assumed were also terrible. And while I didn't see these films and consequently can't speak with authority about them, those who can have more or less echoed my expectations. At least until somewhere around the fifth movie, when people began reporting to me that, contrary to all the laws of fiction, filmmaking, and frankly physics, the series had begun to become good. Or perhaps not good, but awesome in the way that a movie that is not good can sometimes be. I generally regarded these reports as being the natural result of lengthy experiments with fantastically dangerous mind-altering chemicals, but in the aftermath of last fucking month, as I cast about for something to see that did not fill me with a desire to instead jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, a good friend of mine "suggested" (read: "insisted") that indie dreck about Russian mechanics and Depression-era lumber barons was out, and that this week, we were going to go watch shit explode, come hell or high water. So that's just what we did. And thank god we did it, because Fast & Furious 7 is awesome.

No, not good, awesome, and bear in mind the difference. This is a movie that knows precisely what it is, a vehicle for insane, over-the-top action in a world pre-established by many, many previous films as being designed precisely for this. Comparisons to The Expendables series invite themselves, and yet unlike The Expendables, the result is not a tired aping of obsolete mentalities, but a riotous festival of more modern ones. Consider the murderer's row of modern-day cheesy action stars on offer here, from Vin Diesel to The Rock to Michelle Rodriguez to Jason Statham to the late Paul Walker, with Kurt Russell of all people thrown in just for a little old-school cred (and because the sight of Kurt Russell donning night-vision sunglasses and whipping out a pair of handguns to fight a mercenary army is badass regardless of era). All of these people are experts in the field of badassery, and if their resumes are not as storied as those of Arnold or Sylvester or Bruce, it's only because they did not invent the genre out of whole cloth the way the previous generation did. And given the casual disregard that this film has for anything approximating realism, the result is a relaxed, eye-pleasing, fun affair, buttressed by an understandable need to pay homage to Paul Walker, whose death midway through the film's creation is more or less explicitly memorialized within the movie. Other than that though, it's all business, whether it be an excellent opening sequence which establishes Jason Statham's invincible-badass credentials without a shot being fired, to ludicrous car stunts through Abu Dhabi, Georgia (the Asian one), or Los Angeles, to a moment where, for no reason anyone can properly establish, both Vin Diesel and Jason Statham break out akimbo lug wrenches for the purposes of a martial arts fight. It's a movie where Rhonda Rousy, who is still the worst actress I have ever seen (though I'm not sure I can claim that in a world that includes Denise Richards), but who is also a bonafide UFC killing machine, gets into a martial arts fight with Michelle Rodriguez in eveningwear and heels. Lest this sound catty, unlike most movies where the token women get into fights that are more acrobatic than combative, this fight involves smashing each other facefirst into blocks of marble and delivering blows that would lay any man, woman, or for that matter, elephant, dead on the floor were they to be employed in our reality.

But this isn't our reality, and the movie knows it, knows that this is the reality of action films, and that different rules apply. Rules like practical effects, the rule in question being "yes, please". Some three hundred cars apparently gave their lives for this movie, quite a few of them through being thrown out of a cargo plane at 16,000 feet strapped to parachutes. Rules like badasses, the rule in question being "as many as you can get". Mui-Thai Tony Jaa, who the martial arts fans among you will recognize as the star of the sterling Ong Bak series joins the cast more or less to be a badass, and the cast is overall simply dripping with them, such that even basic characters established explicitly as non-badasses are given their moments to shine. Rules like drama, the rule in question being "only when it won't get in the way". This movie relegates the absurd "plot" and "character development" to the side, allowing for the proper elements to take center screen. These aren't characters, but archetypes, and archetypes are allowed to do things differently. Nobody complains that Achilles doesn't evidence enough character development in the Illiad after all. Given the almost congenital overuse of CGI in movies like this, their tendency to oversell a single badass who effortlessly slaughters mooks until we're bored, or the aggravating overreach wherein an action film about brooding badasses with enormous guns suddenly confuses itself with The Grapes of Wrath, stats like these give me hope for the genre overall.

Things Havoc disliked:  That's not to say there aren't some bad habits in play here though, and one of the foremost is a blight I had thought (and hoped) we had already banished, a cancerous relic of the age that this generation of action stars grew up in, shakeycam. A great many fights, particularly the hand-to-hand ones, employ what we used to call "MTV editing", meaning they look like they were filmed by someone suffering an epileptic fit. It's not merely that the camera gyrates wildly, ruining our ability to actually see what the hell is going on, but the movie compounds this by making the average shot length of the fight sequences somewhere between 0.1 seconds and the lifespan of a higgs boson. In consequence, all of the hard work that went into these fight sequences, the do-your-own-stunts and practical-SFX and expert choreography that I have every faith the filmmakers employed is rendered entirely useless, as even basic blocking is impossible to follow. Why Shakeycam became such a big deal in filmmaking, I have no idea (my suspicion is that it's the fault of Saving Private Ryan's famous Normandy sequence), but it has been an abject disaster since its inception, and remains one here. Not everything that was done in the 90s is worth preserving.

There's also, of course, the question of acting, or perhaps the lack thereof. Michelle Rodriguez can't act, ever, and Vin Diesel, for all his awesomeness and sterling credibility as a badass, isn't exactly Olivier himself. Having not seen the original six Fast and Furious movies, I have no idea what is supposed to be going on here, but the moments where the movie stops the action and cuts to the character drama!!!! between these two are moments where the movie comes to less of a halt and more of a collision with a retaining wall. The plot circulates around amnesia, or so I assume, as again I don't know what happened last time, but plots about amnesia, whatever their sources, tend to suck horribly, and exist more as cheap writer tropes than actual plot points, exceptions like Memento notwithstanding. Similarly pace-shattering is Paul Walker's wife (Jordana Brewster) and son, who are established rather explicitly at the beginning of the film, no doubt for the benefit of the fans, and then summarily shunted off to a compound in Panama to wait for the credits to arrive. I know that the family drama and "compelling" moments are afterthoughts in a film like this, I remember Men of Valor as well as anyone, but the problem is that the movie treats these as obligations to the fans, which deaden the film every time they arise.

Final thoughts:   It's tempting to be hipsterish about a series like Fast and Furious, either by condemning it as plebeian trash or by perverse praising it as some dynamo of modern filmmaking. But if the truth be known, this film was exactly what I needed to see at the tail end of a long, punishing slog through indie films that varied from mediocre to awful. Call it what you will, this series has managed to capture an audience, and unlike other vulgate series for which that could be said (Transformers comes to mind), it seems to have done so by getting the basics right, good action, fun stunts, practical effects, snappy one-liners, and ludicrous, over-the-top sequences that would not be out of place in one of Arnold's sillier jaunts. No, it's not some undeservedly maligned classic of the silver screen, ignored by serious critics because of snobbery, and no, I do not place it in the pantheon of great action movies of the last couple of years. But it is an irreverent, silly, over-the-top explosion-fest that knows what tone to take and what type of movie it is making. Good movie nights have been made from worse materials than this.

But if you absolutely must have a more intellectual gloss on your film selections, and who am I to argue with you, consider that this is an action movie where, without drawing the slightest attention to the fact, six out of the seven main characters, including both of the leads, are persons of color, representing practically every major ethnicity in America (including mixed), where the women in the film are permitted to be just as bone-shatteringly violent (and just as preternaturally indestructible) as the men, and where, despite being set rather prominently in the Middle East, the only terrorist in the entire film is a Brit.

We could do a lot worse indeed.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time: Lassie meets The Birds in Hungary

Monday, April 20, 2015


Alternate Title:  Silver Linings Playbook, Episode 1

One sentence synopsis:    A pair of newlywed timber magnates try to protect their business against government intrusion and auditors in 1930s West Virginia.

Things Havoc liked:  Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are two of the hottest things in Hollywood now, and wouldn't you know it, they have made something of a habit of playing opposite one another, usually to good effect. Following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Serena is the third time these two have shown up on screen together in as many years, something I generally don't mind, given the quality of those two films and the talent of these two actors. And so in a fallow period, coming off one of the worst films I've ever seen in my life, I decided it couldn't be too terrible an idea to go with the safe choice this week.

It is the Great Depression, and George Pemberton (Cooper) has a concession for timber in the Smoky Mountains of West Virginia, with a profitable logging camp which he rules over in the manner of a logging boss in a poor state in the thirties. On a trip to New York to take out a loan to see his camp through the economic downturn, he encounters a mysterious woman named Serena, which he proceeds to marry. Both of them are veterans of the logging industry, and on returning to the mountains, both of them take an active role in managing the logging process, Serena doing so in defiance of the societal roles of the time, in daring to be a woman involved in such traditionally male activities as...

... yeah, okay, so the movie isn't exactly revolutionary in this sense, no, but in fairness it's not really about Serena's daring challenge to gender roles of West Virginia in the thirties, but about her and her husband and the lengths to which they wind up going to defend their claim from those who wish to take it away from them. Who are these evil malefactors? Well the National Park Service is one of them, in the form of Toby Jones, of Captain America, the man you hire when you want audiences to instantaneously dislike someone for being an officious nerd. It's an odd circumstance to find the National Park Service cast as the villain for trying to stop clear-cutting, but this is a historical film, and our heroes aren't all that heroic, frankly. Cooper and Lawrence do the best job they can with the material they're given, and turn in decent performances, if nothing better, as we settle in to watch them deal with the crises that afflict their business and the lengths they go to to make everything turn out the way they want.

Things Havoc disliked:  I'm... pretty sure by now you're all asleep, as the above was the most boring "things Havoc liked" section I've ever written. And the reason for that is that this movie has nothing to like whatsoever.

Oh don't get me wrong, there's not all that much to dislike either. This movie is perfectly... serviceable would perhaps be the right word. Serviceable acting, serviceable plot points, serviceable pacing, and serviceable sound design. The movie clearly wants to be something like The Piano crossed with a rural version of the Great Gatsby, but the process of watching Serena lose her damn mind as she becomes more and more obsessed with keeping what she has is not shocking or psychological or frankly even that interesting, thanks to a plot which chooses to telegraph itself fantastically at every moment. If you were, for instance, the business partner of a lumber magnate, who had just betrayed him to his enemies and informed him that you were going to destroy his company, would you then, the very next day, agree to go out on a hunting expedition with this same magnate, wherein you and he will head out into the woods of West Virginia, armed and beyond all aid from others? And having decided to do that, in a movie like this, what do you think will come about as a result? A rousing game of Parcheesi?

There's all the usual routines here, with Serena getting jealous of the bastard child that George fathered out of wedlock before meeting her, saving the life of a strange trapper and field-hand who becomes obsessed with her (Rhys Ifans, who is better here than he was in The Amazing Spiderman, but only just), and scheming to keep everything running through a series of perfectly rote "threats" that unfold one after the next. Lawrence is good at playing crazy characters, as is Cooper at dealing with them. Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle proved that much at least. But those movies surrounded the characters in question with an interesting story or setting or merely character traits that this film lacks entirely. Nothing is particularly badly done (a cameo by an almost unrecognizeable Conleth Hill is a nice touch), but there's really no actual sense of interest to the film. A story is mechanically presented to us and events transpire until they are transpiring no longer. Everything works out the way we expect it to. The end.

Final thoughts:   A couple weeks ago, I described The Gunman as one of the most routine films I'd ever seen, and yet here we are less than a month later, and the same damn verdict presents itself. Serena is a movie that was made and released on concept alone, and while the concept (putting Cooper and Lawrence together again) means that it's executed with a decent level of skill, that's all that really recommends this film. Doldrums releases sometimes conceal diamonds in the rough, or epochal disasters destined to be remembered for all time, but most of the time they produce films like this, movies that weren't strong enough to release opposite anything compelling, but not weak enough to be shelved entirely. Last year it gave us 300: Rise of an Empire and Robocop, the year before The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Oz the Great and Powerful, and the year before that one Footnote and Mission Impossible 4. Serena unquestionably belongs in this not-so-lofty company, which means that, having now completed this review, I don't expect to ever think about it again.  Nor, I suspect, will anyone else.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  I just... I can't do this indie crap anymore.  I need something with explosions...

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Alternate Title:  Misery

One sentence synopsis:    A Russian handiman confronts a corrupt small town mayor and the legal and religious systems around him intent on forcing him off his land and ruining his life.

Things Havoc liked:  ...



Ahem?! Things Havoc liked:

Go away.


Go away. I don't wanna.

What the hell do you mean you don't wanna?

I don't wanna review Leviathan! I won't do it!

Oh come on now, it can't have been that -

It was that bad! It was awful! I don't wanna relive it! I'm not doing it!

Don't be such a baby.

TWO AND A HALF HOURS! I sat through this fucking thing for two and a half goddamn hours and you wanna call me a baby?!

But every critic on Earth called this a great film. Hell it was a nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars!


And this was -

- WORSE!!!

I don't believe that. Under the Skin was a hole in the space-time continuum. This thing at least had nice cinematography, didn't it?

*Sniff* Yeah...

And the actors weren't bad, were they?

I... I guess not...

So how bad could it possibly have been?

You don't understand... this movie is just... contrived misery. For hours on end. Everything sucks and we have to make sure it keeps sucking artificially, even when it makes no sense for it to suck. We've gotta drop plotlines midway through and arrange macguffins and use every contrivance in the book so that everything can suck as much as humanly possible BECAUSE ART.

I get all that, but -

YOU DON'T GET SHIT! You can't understand how horrible an experience it is to sit through something this goddamn vacuous for that long with no actual purpose to it beyond some pathological need to display arbitrary suffering.

Well it's trying to be a daring indictment of Russia's corruption and culture of alcoholism

BULLSHIT. It takes more to indict something than just splashing it on the screen. Russia isn't corrupt because God and the impersonal forces of the universe are in collusion to ruin some drunken idiot's life. That's like saying Commando was a daring indictment of South American kidnapping rings.

But... you liked Commando.

I liked Commando because it's entertaining. This movie's as boring as wallpaper paste. I started trying to identify the make and model of the shuttle busses just so I wouldn't go completely mad. It's not like the plot was occupying my attention.

Did it even hold together?

Hell no! That would have required straying away from the daring thematic elements. Think about this one. Let's say you've got a corrupt mayor, who is being threatened by a hotshot lawyer from Moscow who has dirt on him so explosive that he nearly has a heart attack to see it. The lawyer is established as having high level connections in Moscow, and yet the mayor decides to drag him out to a rock quarry and beat him up with goons before throwing him on a train out of town. What do you think happens next?

The... lawyer goes to his connections and gets the government to -

NOTHING HAPPENS WHATSOEVER. We never hear from the lawyer again. Why not? Because Evil Must Triumph Or It Isn't Art!

Surely you're being a little overdramatic...

There is a scene in this movie where the main character sits down on a beach littered with whale bones, drinks an entire bottle of vodka in one swig, then looks out at the camera and says, in perfect dramatic seriousness, "Why?!"

... really?

I swear to God.

Okay so... not very good then.

Not something I'm gonna be running out to buy the Blue-ray of, no.

But you've reviewed bad movies before. What's the problem with this one?

I... I just hated it SO MUCH. Every time I sit down to write the review I degenerate into incoherent screaming. It was an atrocity. And everyone loved it because it was "daring" enough to claim there's corruption in Russia!

Sounds kinda like Under the Skin.

Don't remind me. Still... you're right, I do kinda have to do something.

See, that's the spirit! You'll think of something, don't worry about -

Wait, I know!

You do? Great! What's the plan?

I'll review it IN SONG!!!


*Skips away in psychotic glee*


The Russian Film 'Leviathan'(Sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas")  There's an indie film from Russia
The worst I've ever seen
With characters so wretched
They drink like Charlie Sheen
Two hours or more I sat there
It damn near stopped my heart
And if I find the filmmakers
I'll tear their lungs apart.

It's the bleakest fucking movie
This critic's ever viewed
With plot holes wide as oceans
And pace like superglue
You can talk about your Requiems
Or the Choices of Sophie
But the Russian film Leviathan's
The one that finished me.

When the Fireflies are buried
No longer shining bright
And the lists of Oskar Schindler
Have vanished in the night
I will lie awake regardless
For how was I to foresee?
That Leviathan will stick with you
And never leave you be.

It's the bleakest fucking movie
This critic's ever viewed
With plot holes wide as oceans
And pace like superglue
You can send me to Elysium
Or the Life of Timmy Green
But among them all this film's the one
I wish I'd never seen.

And now I've seen this movie
And my heart is full of woe
It's like the Last Airbender
Crossed with The fucking Road
Under the Skin was awful
Worse than any film before
But the film that I most hated
I shall call it nevermore

It's the bleakest fucking movie
This critic's ever viewed
With plot holes wide as oceans
And pace like superglue
You can talk about the second Tron
Or sing of Matrix 3
But I would not give Leviathan
To my worst enemy.

Final Score:  2/10

Next Time:  Do I really have to?

... fine.. how about Silver Linings Playbook 2: This Time It's Personal?  It seriously cannot be worse than this.

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