Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Alternate Title:  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

One sentence synopsis:     Max Rockatansky becomes embroiled in an escape attempt by female sex slaves after he is captured by a fanatical warrior-cult.

Things Havoc liked:  Mad Max. What a cavalcade of total cracked-out insanity those two words conjure up for anyone of my approximate age. Three totally batshit films from underground Australian cinema master George Miller, the weakest of which spawned a whole series of pop culture catchphrases that survive through to today ("Two men enter..."). What with the recent trend of adapting 80s classics into bullshit "modern" remakes, Robocop and Total Recall come to mind, I was not overly pleased to hear that Mad Max was coming back to the big screen, but took some heart from the fact that George Miller himself would be directing the remake, and that to take over the duties of playing everyone's favorite Australian wasteland-wanderer, he had selected one of my favorite actors currently working, Tom Hardy.

At some nebulous point over the last couple of years, Tom Hardy became "the man", and has not relinquished this title since through a whole armful of films as varied as The Drop, Locke, and The Dark Knight Rises (shut up, I liked that one). Having seen Guy Pierce of all people take on Mad Max (or something like it) in The Rover last year, I was eager to see what an actor I actually liked might do with the role. The answer is exactly what he should. Hardy's Max is basically identical to Gibson's, if anything even more laconic and world-weary, to paraphrase the opening narration from the Road Warrior, "an ordinary man who was smashed by the wastelands". Hardy actually downplays Max quite a bit, an interesting decision that works well for the character. Max in the other films was always the loner who wandered by chance into the middle of other people's problems, and reluctantly took on the role of doing what he could to help. He doesn't pause to explain his motives, his background, even his name to basically anyone, getting everything across with a combination of glances and subtle gestures. In a way, this is full circle for Hardy. Two years ago, he was in a movie in which he drove a car for two hours and did nothing but talk. Now he is in a movie where he drives a car for two hours, and says practically nothing.

But that's manifestly the right call this time, because Max has a co-star here in the form of Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, a child-slave-turned-warlord who decides to break a group of sex slaves out of captivity, despite the fact that this will surely incur the wrath of supreme war-boss Immortan Joe and his army of fanatical neo-barbarian quasi-viking killers. Theron is on fire in this movie, a shaven-headed ultrabadass with a prosthetic arm comprised of what looks like a drilling augur, and a body count that could rival anything Arnold has ever done. I've seen Theron kick ass before of course, I saw Monster and The Italian Job and Snow White and the Huntsman, but this is a whole different level of awesome, a rousting, violent, Mad Maxesque performance, which not only serves to force me to forgive her for Prometheus, but also proves that even with her head shaved, one arm hacked off at the elbow, and with face smeared indiscriminately with dirt and axle grease, Charlize Theron is still perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world. She and Max encounter one another fairly early on in the film through circumstances that are complex, albeit believable, and though everyone who's seen the trailers knows that these two will eventually team up to battle Immortal Joe, the process by which this happens, and in fact the general dynamic between Furiosa and Max, is one of the best renditions of this sort of thing I have ever seen. There is no telegraphed "moment" when they are on the same side, no turning point in the script where Furiosa finally trusts Max or vice versa. It is a completely natural thing, given the fantastic foes that these two face and the manifest rightness of the cause that Furiosa has staked everything on and that Max, without ever saying one word either in favor or against, clearly is prepared to see through. The dynamic is all the stronger for never being spoken of, as in the immediacy of the dangers they face, allegiances are apparent enough to require no words at all.

And what of those dangers and the means by which our heroes must overcome them? Oh... my... god...

The action in this movie is like nothing I've seen, perhaps ever before, a riotous assembly of expertly-crafted sequences that go on and on and on, never becoming stale or forced or gimmicky, as we are not watching some pale imitation of a greater classic, but a grandmaster producing his magnum opus before our very eyes. I have been waiting for literal years to have the opportunity to use the phrase "orgiastic bloodfest" in one of these reviews, and the day, my friends, has finally come. Mad Max is a symphony of death and violence, a ballet, a showcase of the cinematic art of killing that I struggle to find comparison points for. Not content with blocking and choreographing some of the greatest action I've ever seen, Miller gives us a techno-barbarian all-you-can-eat buffet of awesomeness that starts with chrome-painted warrior-cultists hurling explosive javelins at the spine-studded cars of their rivals from atop an armored big-rig moving at eighty miles an hour in the middle of a flaming sandstorm/hurricane/tornado cluster, and gets crazier from there. We get ravening mutants spouting garbled techno-viking mythology as they leap into battle bearing chainsaws and bolt cutters, or dangle from engine-block counter-weighted vaulters' poles to drop upon their enemies. We get warlords of the wastelands straight out of the Lord Humungous playbook who bear colorful titles like the Bullet Farmer or the People Eater, and who occasionally, start blasting away with reckless abandon with akimbo machine guns while screaming biblical rhetoric at the top of their lungs in the middle of a lightning storm, as the soundtrack strikes up thunderous orchestral overtures from Dies Irae and Gotterdammerung. We get a tribe of dirt-bike-riding old women who are also snipers, who bait reflective towers with beautiful naked girls to draw in predators, and who engage right alongside our heroes in pulse-shattering action showstopper scenes that would send most movie watchdog groups screaming into the night. So relentlessly mad, so demented, so gloriously epic is the action in this movie that it is totally in keeping with both the tone of the film and the world it presents when we discover that Immortan Joe's army is led into battle by a Mac truck made of speakers and amplifiers to which have been affixed half a dozen enormous Taiko drums, and at the front of which is stationed a red-garbed lunatic called The Doof Warrior who stands on a makeshift stage mounted on the truck's hood and shreds endlessly an electric guitar that spews fire.

And yet... for all this raving madness, there is underlying method to the world here, and this may be what Miller's strongest suit is for this film. The movie is batshit insane, but everything feels... 'real' is the wrong word, but 'consistent' is not. Little touches, like the use of steering wheels as holy relics by the warrior-cultists of Immortan Joe, like the slapped-together feel of even the mightiest war machine, like the names such as "Bullet Farmer" which evoke instantly what the dynamic must be between the various factions that are chasing our heroes, none of which is actually explained or even has attention drawn to it, but all of which points to a future world that has been meticulously thought out. Emblematic of this is a character played by Nicholas Hoult (of X-men First Class and Days of Future Past), a war cultist named Nux, introduced initially as simply another maniacal bad guy, but who over the course of the film, allows us to actually see the twisted and abused mentality that underlies the anarchic insanity of the War Boys and their machine cult. All of the other characters, from the former slaves themselves to the lieutenants of Immortan Joe, to Joe himself, played in a wonderful little throwback by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the very man who played the villain Toe-Cutter in the original Mad Max, all of their dialogue, their appearances, their very gestures and glances at one another, all are marshaled in service of telling the story of what this world is and how it became that way, obviating the need for exposition of any sort. If film is a visual medium and stories within it are to be shown and not told, then Miller here has put on a doctoral seminar on how to do just that, producing a film that has simultaneously no explanation within it at all, and all the explanation that anyone could possibly need.

Things Havoc disliked: It is challenging, truly challenging, to find a place in this movie where it fails somehow. Perhaps it's the logistics, as the film seems a long way removed from the shoestring remnant-feel of the previous films, films wherein individual bullets or half-broken children's toys were indescribably precious, literally irreplaceable items. The excesses of this film preclude that, as the warbands seem to have as much food, fuel, and ammunition as they could possibly want, and even Theron at one point suggests that if they take to motorcycles, they will have supplies enough to last them a hundred and sixty days (???). I suppose the movie is simply operating at a different scale this time, and positing a higher level of social organization among the warlord-clans, but one does miss the feel of things having gotten "real" that came when Lord Humungous decided to load his revolver with the last six bullets that remained, for all anyone knew, at all.

But that left aside, the only objection I can really make to Fury Road is that there isn't enough of it, in the sense that the world is so immense and complex and rich that the glimpses of it that we get are not enough to fully appreciate all that's going on. So many characters have unstated backstories or histories that are plainly in there somewhere but not shown to us, that it's impossible not to feel like we've missed a great deal. A lot of the dialog is fairly hard to understand, not because of the sound mix, but because the characters speak using a language we don't share and referring to things we don't know about. None of this is unintentional, of course, but one gets the sense that if we only had another half hour or so to study the world of Mad Max, we would come away with a deeper appreciation of its richness. But honestly, I'm at loathe to even suggest such a thing, as to mess with a movie this finely-produced could easily ruin everything, and perhaps its for the best that all we get to see is what's shown to us.

Final thoughts:   Last year, around six months ago, in the aftermath of the great disappointment that was The Expendibles 3, I posited that movie genres have their day, and that perhaps the Action movie as a genre piece was finally dead, and that the slew of bad action films I had seen in the two years before were simply the death rattle of the genre as a whole. In the half-year since that prediction, we have seen John Wick, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast and Furious 7, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and now this, one of if not the best action movies I have ever seen, a run of such quality that friends of mine have asked me if I might start publicly predicting the end of other genres such as Space Opera. At this point though, I've never been so glad to be wrong as I am now. In a year that, still not even half-complete, has showered us with amazing, high-quality action movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is, nonetheless, a revelation. Perhaps a revelation of total gibbering madness, but a revelation nonetheless. It is almost the platonic ideal of an action movie, packed with spectacles of violence sufficient to send any action movie fan into rapturous hysterics.

In almost any year but this one, Mad Max: Fury Road would be a shoe-in for the best movie of the entire year. That it may not reach such lofty heights in 2015 says a great deal about the overall quality of the blockbusters we have had so far. But even among such giants, Fury Road stands as proof positive that the best way to remake a beloved classic film is to find the filmmakers responsible for the original and dropping a dump truck full of money on their front lawns with a note pinned to the pile telling them that this time they should "do it properly". True, sometimes doing that will net you the Star Wars Prequels. But I would unhesitatingly put up with those all over again if it meant that I could, once in a while, get something as magical as this, a masterpiece reborn in madness, fire, and fury.

Final Score:  9/10

Next Time: The land wherein the sun will come out.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Alternate Title:  Predator vs. Zombies, the Hallmark Edition

One sentence synopsis:     In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the eldest daughter of a Texas farmer contracts a virus which slowly turns her into a zombie.

Things Havoc liked:  So... I saw a zombie movie last week starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I know that notion isn't terribly far out. I'm a huge Arnold fan after all and always have been. But a Schwarzenegger Zombie movie does rather seem like something that would write itself as an action extravaganza, played straight or silly depending on the intentions of the filmmakers. But there are always other ways to go about things, and one of the reasons I went to see this movie in the first place was because it promised to make the attempt at something new. Something different. Something like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing, not a zombie-killing badass, nor a MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW (see John Wick or Taken), but a deep dramatic role that requires him to leave the action persona aside in favor of "true acting".

You see this sort of thing on occasion from all sorts of actors, comedians looking to prove themselves in dramatic roles, action stars looking to prove that they're more than just hulking killers, Hollywood pretty boys trying to shed their teenage-heartthrob reputations in favor of being treated seriously as actors. Some people can pull this transition off (Leonardo diCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey) and some can't (Robin Williams, Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone), but it really shouldn't be much of a surprise that Arnold, at long last, decided to give this sort of thing a go. After all, when one thinks about action stars who can't really act, Arnold is the apex predator, so iconic in such roles that his accent alone became a standin for the entire genre of action-stars-who-can't-act, and several of his best movies (such as Terminator) took advantage of his legendary acting awkwardness by casting him, believably, as a killer robot. Here he plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in Texas who lives with his second wife and three children on a farm following a zombie apocalypse. If you have trouble picturing Arnold as such a thing, I don't blame you, as I was constantly waiting for the movie to go full-Commando and have him suddenly break out the weapons from his secret hidden past as a Vietnam scout-sniper or something, but Arnold plays the role sermon straight, and honestly... he's... not that bad. He's not great certainly, but the movie doesn't demand much more than the occasional clipped word and worried look, and while it palpably feels like the film is dancing around the issue of his inability to act, he never embarrasses himself with some kind of tearful, screaming, Tommy Wiseau-esque performance. That's a bigger accomplishment than it sounds, given the track record of a lot of his peers in movies like this. Does anyone remember 1991's Stallone vehicle, Oscar?

Wisely, the film pairs Schwarzenegger with someone with a bit more credibility as an actor, specifically Abigail Breslin, whom I first encountered as a child actor in Little Miss Sunshine and have consistently liked ever since. This isn't Breslin's first time in a zombie flick (Zombieland), nor her first time in the horror genre (Haunter, The Call), and given that the film is more or less about the process of her turning slowly into a zombie, she effectively leads the film. Her reactions to her slowly-worsening condition are believable, both in reaction to horrific events (snapping and ripping a fox apart with her teeth, for instance) and simply in dealing with the inevitability of the fact that she's going to die and be replaced by a mindless killing machine. The movie doesn't dwell more than is necessary on the details of her condition, though sequences in which she cuts herself accidentally only to have black ichor ooze out of her finger are certainly gruesome enough, and Breslin gets more or less the entire runtime to shine, putting on a slew of reactions beyond just blind panic and frightened weeping. She goes out with friends, she says goodbye to people she loves, she even manages to become reasonably numb to some of the manifestations of her worsening condition (nonchalantly asking if there are any eyedrops in the house after her eyes turn black as pitch and film over with zombie-cataracts). Her acting is believable through and through, and thereby she manages to take most of the dramatic weight of the film, leaving Arnold to carry a lesser burden. The two of them work well together, as the film gives them both a chance to breathe and simply exist in their world, something most zombie movies don't do.

But then, Maggie isn't most zombie movies, thanks to the twin decisions by the filmmakers to invert the general concept of zombies by A: establishing the zombie virus as something which turns its victims over the course of weeks, not seconds, and B: setting the film at the tail end of a seemingly successful campaign to combat the zombie plague. All the trappings of zombie apocalypses are here of course, the abandoned cars on empty roads and burnt fields sterilized by a frightened government, but the movie's dynamic is of normalcy of some form re-asserting itself in the aftermath of a disaster. The government is clearly functioning. Civic authorities distribute literature and seminars about dealing with the zombie virus. Citizens complain that the local authorities aren't getting municipal services back up and running fast enough. There's even discussions of whether or not it's time to re-open the schools, as children talk frankly with one another about which ones of their classmates died during the plague and which ones did not. People don't even seem overly afraid, as, absent the mystery of what the zombies are and how they spread, they have more or less become inured to them, taking reasonable precautions by going about armed, and otherwise returning, slowly to what can be salvaged of their lives. Civilization has not fallen, nor the world degenerated into a Mad Max setting. All of this combines to produce a setting that isn't quite like anything I've seen before. Indeed, the best scene in the movie comes when one of Maggie's friends, worried for her but determined to help her anyway she can, convinces her to come to a gathering of their fellow high schoolers, where they all sit around a campfire drinking beer stolen from someone's parents, talking about what is happening the way teenagers always talk about their lives, conscious at all times of the fact that two of their number (Maggie and another boy) are sporting visible marks of zombification, and will consequently be dead in a matter of weeks. Zombism here is a fatal disease, not the cleansing wrath of a vengeful God. It's astonishing that it took this long in a zombie craze that has lasted my entire life for us to get a movie that tried something like this.

Things Havoc disliked: So how is it, then, that none of you have ever heard of this movie, which should by rights have at least been making the rounds of trailers on Youtube or before other films? It's not simply because this isn't a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the normal sense of things. It's because, on top of that, this is a Zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenneger as made by Terrence Malick.

No, not literally. The movie is actually directed by a man named Henry Hobson, whom I've never heard of before, and who, according to my research, is most famous as a Title Credit Designer (that's a thing) on a number of films, and who used this movie as his directorial debut. But judging from the evidence, Mr. Hobson either desperately wishes to be Terrence Malick or thinks that he already is, as the movie as he has produced it is glacially slow, due mostly to the need for the camera to stop every ten seconds or so for another obligatory shot of the sunlight filtering through wheat, or whatever else is intended to symbolize some damn thing like the fading light of innocence. Characters speak in almost puritanical mumbles, as if afraid that to speak with any more force would be to incur the wrath of the director, their lines punctuated by long, pregnant pauses which simply become endless, until we are left wishing that the characters would get over themselves and die or convert into zombies already. Worse yet, bereft of the tension that would come from actually having zombies about, the movie winds up with no tension at all. The zombies, absent a jump scare or two at the beginning of the film, are effectively never there, and without them, the movie may as well be a Lifetime Channel special-of-the-week about the challenges that beset a family whose daughter is stricken with inoperable cancer or other generic pretty-person's-disease.

And that's really the problem with Maggie. It's a movie that defines itself by what it isn't. It isn't an action extravaganza. It isn't a normal Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. It isn't The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later or World War Z. It isn't a horror film. It isn't a movie about a family besieged by zombies. So much time is spent establishing the fact that the movie isn't a bunch of things, that by the time it gets through the aforementioned sunset-wheat-shots and to the point of the film, there really isn't anything there. And what little there is is entirely manufactured. Why, for instance, would the government ever conceivably let families take their zombie-infected loved-ones home, only to ask that they dutifully bring them back to an extermination center for disposal when the disease gets close to turning them? Isn't this just asking for people to fail to do so, thus releasing further zombies on the population? We only see this happen some four or five times in the movie, and yet the entire concept is treated as some kind of "tension-generator", as the local cops threaten to take Maggie away and her father threatens to... I don't know... go full Terminator and beat them up I guess. Worse yet, we have the local doctor who solemnly informs Wade that the exterminations centers are basically giant pits into which the infected are flung, or where they are given euthanizing drugs to kill them, which paradoxically produce a spectacularly painful and drawn-out death. Doesn't a lingering, agony-filled experience kind of defeat the purpose of euthanasia? And given that we now know this, doesn't that completely disarm the "dilemma" of what Wade is to do with Maggie? His choices are literally to keep her at home and comfortable, or to send her to be tortured to death by strangers. And the movie tries to make of this some kind of difficult, agonizing choice that tears at his soul. If the film were a more traditional Arnold vehicle, wherein he had to battle the cops for the right to not have his daughter die in agony, I could see a contrivance this broad, but this movie is no such thing, and the contrivance itself is regarded as being the sole source of tension. This is like making a movie about the terrible, nerve-shattering decision that a man must make, wherein he can either obtain ten million dollars, or he can shoot himself in the testicles with a rivet gun. What will he decide?!?!?!?!?!

Final thoughts:   Given the weirdness of the premise, Maggie isn't an awful film, but unfortunately it's undone by the fact that the weirdness of the premise is literally the only thing the movie has going for it. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the concept alone of Arnold in a tearjerker was enough to sell the film, absolving themselves of the need to actually make a decent tearjerker to go along with him. Tearjerkers aren't my cup of tea, generally speaking, but even I know the difference between those that are good and those that aren't, and Maggie, while it is not a bad movie, is certainly not a good one either.

One is tempted in cases like this to ask why this movie was made at all, be it Arnold's ego, or the director's, or both, but the end product we have here is a classic case of someone becoming so attached to the concept of a film that they forgot to actually include the rest of the film. All of this has happened before. All of it will happen again.

Next time, though, perhaps Arnold could include a one liner or two to spice things up? I'd really appreciate it.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time: Oh what a lovely day it is...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Alternate Title:  Apotheosis

One sentence synopsis:     The Avengers struggle to contain and defeat a former project of Tony Stark's after it attains sentience and attempts to exterminate humanity.

Things Havoc liked:  It's... been a rough year to date.

I mean, it always is this time of year, as the Doldrums finishes its final, awful convulsions, and the gravitational waves of the first big blockbuster of the season clears everything else out like a tidal wave sucking all the water off of a beach. The last couple of weeks in particular have been a bunch of castoffs and throwaways, as no studio, not even an indie one, wanted their release date to be anywhere near Avengers 2. But all calms before a storm eventually end with the storm itself, and with Doldrums season now finally, mercifully behind us, it's time to consider Marvel's 11th movie in its endless parade of amazement, a movie with more to live up to than perhaps any film since the Star Wars Prequels, following up not only on the excellent Marvel films of last year, but its own direct prequel, 2012's masterpiece-grade showstopper, Avengers itself, and implicitly on the entire towering edifice that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You all know my position on Marvels' films. You know I'm a fan, you know I've loved them, but more importantly you know that I've always been nervous about their ability to produce ongoing quality as they move through this never-before-seen project. Particularly after Iron Man 3 and (to a lesser extent) Thor 2 showed that Marvel was capable of making non-amazing films, I have been sitting in mixed-anticipation and fear with every successive movie, expecting that each one in turn would be the one to finally snap the spine of this fantastic beast they had conjured up. I expected Winter Soldier to be lackluster, and it was anything but. I expected Guardians of the Galaxy to have no prayer of working, and it worked beyond my wildest dreams. So when I tell you that I expected that Avengers 2 would be unable to live up to the high water mark of its predecessor, it should not surprise you either that I doubted, or that I was wrong.

But... I don't think anyone was expecting just how wrong I was.

The Avengers, Age of Ultron, is a masterpiece, a doctoral thesis in how to make a superhero film, forged with wit and charm and bucket-loads of skill that boggle the mind to even conceive of. I described the original Avengers in such terms, raining praise down on Joss Whedon and his team of lunatics for having produced one of the finest movies I had ever seen, but having done so, I feel as though I've now painted myself into a corner when it comes to this film, as Age of Ultron manages, somehow, through methods inexplicable and possibly illegal, to be better than its predecessor, a matter of degrees certainly, but palpable nonetheless. I have not enjoyed a movie this much since I began writing these reviews, and if you have lingering doubts as to whether you should go and see it, let that statement sink into your minds.

The setup is familiar. The Avengers, each having had the chance to work through their own personal issues at greater length in individual movies (with the exception of The Hulk of course), are once more united to take on a more dangerous threat. Last time it was Loki, this time it's the proliferation of Loki's technology, the advanced, alien tech that has been allowing organizations like Hydra to make terrifying advances in weaponry and superhero production. And yet this threat is only the initial stopping point, as the movie centers itself around Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.'s) desire to find a more permanent solution to the perennial threats that are blanketing the world. After all, as he puts it, the end goal of the Avengers project is to disband and go home, having secured the world once and for all. Anyone who's seen the trailers knows how this project goes, but the strongest element of the movie remains the cast and the characters, all played by actors at the peak of their games, who have had in some cases as many as half a dozen movies to establish themselves. Everyone, from Downey's older and more brittle/mature Iron Man, to Evans' more decisive, undisputed leader Captain America, to Hemsworth's more serious, more aware-of-the-stakes, and more willing to trust Thor, to Ruffalo's more resigned, more accepting of his power/disability Hulk, everyone is at the absolute peak of their game, and the film wisely spends lots of time just letting them all hang out, interact, argue and debate, drink and celebrate together. To my surprise, this includes previously-shortchanged badass-normals Black Widow and Hawkeye, who finally get the promotion to A-list screentime they both deserve, and whose actors (Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner) prove themselves worthy of it. I've questioned Johansson's role as Black Widow in many films before, from Avengers 1 to Winter Soldier, but at long last she has finally nailed it, delivering a performance I effortlessly believed, one which fits in seamlessly to the rest of the cast, and which actually left me looking forward to her appearances. As to Hawkeye, Renner's patience with this character has finally been rewarded, as his role is massively souped up for this iteration, and as a big fan of Renner's, I could not be happier.

But movies like this need more than just their protagonists, and this is where Age of Ultron truly surprised me. I love James Spader, but I had no idea what they were going for with Ultron going in, and was not expecting what I got. Ultron is a dark reflection of Tony Stark, in every sense of the word, and while the trailers got the menace he exudes across perfectly well, it didn't get the rest of him, the snark, the dry wit, the self-awareness, and the boiling rage that comes when someone of immense capabilities and intellect is denied or frustrated by circumstance from making use of it the way he intends. It's not how I would have chosen to portray Ultron were I given the choice, but that only goes to show why I am not given the choice and why Joss Whedon was. His character fits perfectly into the self-referential, sharp, well-drawn world that the Avengers inhabit, and the movie wisely spends most of its time with him dealing with who he is as a character and why he acts as he does, rather than bog everything down with the hows and the pseudoscience. But if Ultron was a pleasant surprise, that's nothing compared to his two disciples, Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, twin war orphans from a Bosnia analog played by Kick-Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Oldboy's Elizabeth Olsen (who weirdly-enough starred together as a married couple in last year's lackluster Godzilla remake). I had no hope for these two, based as they were on characters I don't like, shoehorned into the Avengers artificially (I felt), and portrayed by actors I've had mixed feelings on, coupled with the fact that another version of Quicksilver already appeared (awesomely) in last year's excellent X-men: Days of Future Past. And yet once again, it turns out I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, as these two are awesome, brilliantly set up and characterized, matched correctly with the Avengers themselves, given depth and background and character arcs and meaningful sequences with the various other characters on offer. I could not, for the life of me, envision these two working, and yet they did, somehow, as does everyone else from the cameos by series regulars like Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter), or Stellan Skarsgård (Dr. Selvig), to other characters, the identities of whom would be spoilerish even to reveal.

And what of the film itself, absent the characters (which is a difficult thing to evaluate, admittedly)? Triumph. The action is superb, the cinematography glowing, the soundtrack (by Danny Elfman!) unobtrusive and properly triumphant or dour when it needs to be. Whedon's command of dialog and of writing in general was what recommended him for this film series in the first place after all, and it has not deserted him, as practically every line is note-perfect no matter who is saying what. Avengers had, among its very few flaws, the problem of some lines feeling rather artificial or forced, as though the characters were uttering them to set up a joke as opposed to because it made sense for them to say it at the time. Not here. The in-jokes and asides are side-splittingly funny without ever being pushy, the references to previous films, and even to the wider universe of television shows and Netflix original series are richly applied, but none of them get in the way for those uninitiated. Even plot tropes that I always groan to see, the "heroes must battle one another for arbitrary reasons" or "the team is broken up by evil mind control" routines, are done with skill and poise, turning the former into a more-or-less open slap at Man of Steel's disregard for civilian body counts, and the latter into an opportunity for the characters to explore their own natures further when confronted with truths and fears they did not wish to discover, rather than the customary, laborious "wait for the characters to figure out what the audience already knows" sequence that it usually becomes in other movies. The pacing of the film is blisteringly fast, but it generally doesn't feel rushed at all, as the movie knows what is and is not important, and ruthlessly trims away the latter in favor of the former throughout its entire run-time, letting the useless exposition drop whenever it can and pausing instead to let the characters breathe in between action sequences of breathtaking complexity. If filmmaking, as Shirley Clarke used to say, consists of a series of simple choices, then this film surely is what happens when a director, cast, and crew unerringly make all the right ones. It is, without hyperbole, as near to perfection as I think I have ever seen.

Things Havoc disliked: Near to perfection and perfection itself are not the same thing, of course, and if one wishes to dive into it, there are issues I can bring up. A couple of shots, particularly early on, are clearly trailer-shots, designed for no other reason than the fact that the marketing department needed something equivalent to Avengers 1's famous 'circling the wagons' shot at the outset of the climactic battle. In a lesser film, that wouldn't even be noticeable, but this is a movie which goes out of its way to make everything work organically, and so something included for such reasons manages to stand out.

There is also a cost at inflating the cast and giving each of them screentime enough to establishing themselves, and the casualty this time around, sadly, is Thor. Not that Thor is sidelined in this movie, far from it, he gets his quota of character moments, banter, and action time just like everyone else, but there are some sequences featuring him that clearly were intended to be longer set-pieces, that had to get truncated just to make the movie fit. This truncation isn't done poorly by any stretch, but its' visible, and those who regard Thor as their favorite Avenger will consequently be forced to wait for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok to get their proper fill of everyone's favorite Thundergod (to say nothing of Loki).

Final thoughts:   Age of Ultron, Marvel's final answer to the flood of imitations that are going to be let loose upon us next year by studios such as Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers, is an emphatic, stamped-metal, full stop to the question of how unique their cinematic universe actually is. It is the Godfather, Part II to Avengers' Godfather, and I anticipate the same level of debates among film aficionados as to which one is actually the best as one finds for those films. From what I can tell online, the consensus among the nerd community is that, while a great film in its own right, it is not the equal of its predecessor. With respect, however, to both the original film, and the learned opinions of my colleagues concerning it, I must disagree. Avengers 1 was a fantastic film, a masterpiece in its own right, but Age of Ultron is one of the best films I have ever seen, and half the reason this review has taken as long as it did to produce is because I wanted to take the time to reflect on my own opinion and ensure that I was speaking with proper judgment and experience, and not in the first rush of excitement at having finally been liberated from the Doldrums From Hell. Having had the better part of a week to think it over however, I can only report what I truly believe. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a rapturously-good film, likely the best Superhero movie I have ever witnessed, and a sure-fire contender for the best film of the year if not the decade. I do not allow myself to indulge in panegyric hagiography for films, even great films, that cross my path, specifically because I wish to have some credibility to expend when a movie that is truly special comes along. And for three years now, I have been waiting for one worthy of the praise I have yearned so desperately to deliver, wondering more than once if I had become cynical or jaded or seen so many bad films that I was no longer capable of appreciating an achievement like this when it was presented to me, wondering where I would ever turn to find a movie that could fill me with nothing but gushing, torrential praise, a movie that would leave me singing hymnals to the grace of those who had seen fit to produce it.

I should have known. For this is the work of Marvel, and it is glorious in our eyes. Go forth and bear witness, and ye shall know what it is to experience joy.

Final Score:  9.5/10

Next Time: A pause for breath.  And possibly for zombies.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Water Diviner

Alternate Title:  Gallipoli 2: Revenge of the Cyber-Aussies

One sentence synopsis:     A widower whose three sons were all killed at the Battle of Gallipoli, goes to Turkey in 1919 to try and find their remains.

Things Havoc liked:  For all the obsessive retellings of WWII I've seen on screen, there aren't a huge number of movies about its predecessor out there, due primarily to the twin factors of WWI having not been a particularly cinematic war (trenches are only so interesting), and the United States having had not a whole hell of a lot to do with it. Yet alongside the obscure or art-house pieces one does find on the subject such as The Lost Battalion, Paths of Glory, or All Quiet on the Western Front, the major exception has always been Australian films, as the war has never been supplanted in Australian memory, not even by its sequel. The foremost Australian WWI movie I am aware of is, of course, Gallipoli itself, but Gallipoli is well over thirty years old at this point, and leave it to Russell Crowe, no longer young enough to play his typical bad boy roles, to try and replace it with a sombre historical piece about the aftermath of a lost battle halfway round the world.

Russell Crowe is a great actor of course, one of my favorites in everything from Gladiator to A Beautiful Mind to Master and Commander, but one of the nice things about seeing foreign indie films (and it is important, after the last couple of months, to remember that there are nice things) is encountering good actors one is not familiar with. Given that this movie takes place in Turkey, the two actors I speak of this time are Yılmaz Erdoğan and Cem Yılmaz (no relation), who respectively play Major Hassan and Sgt Jemal, two veterans of the battle of Gallipoli brought down by the Commonwealth forces to help locate and identify the bodies of those who died there. I have never seen either of these actors before in my life (Cem Yılmaz is most famous in Turkey as a stand-up comedian, of all things), but their characters are exquisitely-well-drawn, two dedicated soldiers who won their battle and lost their war, and who are now engaged in trying to find a way to preserve their country in defeat. Encountering Crowe early on, as he seeks to find out what happened to his sons, they carry the narrative through the tumultuous events of the transition between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, and the sequences focusing on them, particularly an underground party wherein everyone gets drunk and begins telling old war stories ("This man is the worst soldier in the Turkish army. Three times, I saved this man!") or a standout fight sequence later on between a trainload of Turkish troops and a battalion of Greek irregulars, provide the movie with its best moments.

This movie is not merely a Russell Crowe vehicle, but also Crowe's directorial debut, and for this first foray behind the camera, Crowe recruited legendary cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who died just this last month, making this his final film. Lesnie was most famous for all six of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, and while the cinematography this time round isn't quite as lush, the film is beautiful when it needs to be, whether showing the wide open dry plains of the Australian Outback to the sun-draped shores of the Dardanelles, to the minaret-studded skyline of Istanbul (then Constantinople) at dusk, to the blasted, ravaged battlefields of Gallipoli itself. Lots of films justify their existences as travelogues, and if nothing else, this movie manages to serve well as a tourist ad for Turkey's Ionian coast.

Things Havoc disliked:  If nothing else indeed.

The core premise of this movie is fine, a man's search for his dead sons, and I have no objection to the contrivances that arise around it (such as the notion that Water Divining is somehow a real thing). What I do have an objection to though is a ham-fisted secondary plot surrounding French-Ukranian actress Olka Kurylenko, as Ayshe, the widow of a Turkish officer who also died at Gallipoli, and Dylan Georgiades as Orhan, her "adorable" ten year old son. These two have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot save to allow the obligatory love story to play out, something I'd be less upset by if they weren't both so damned awful in their parts. Kurylenko in particular, a veteran of Quantum of Solace, To the Wonder, and Hitman (all films, you may have noticed, that were not very good), I am simply prepared to label as a bad actress and move on. She is rigorously unconvincing as a Turkish widow, looking approximately as Turkish as I am, and overacting constantly as though afraid that the daring, novel idea of a woman from Turkey falling for our rugged Australian hero is so unexpected as to leave the audience agape at the staggering risks the movie is willing to take. Georgiades, meanwhile, plays the most aggravating type of child role imaginable, the cute moppet who warms the heart of the hero. The performance is bad, but any kid would do badly with material like this. Worse yet, it's apparent that the filmmakers were aware of the fact that these performances were awful or at least badly dated, and failed in consequence to tie them into the rest of the plot in any real sense. Ayshe and Orhan have nothing whatsoever to do with Crowe's search for his sons, not even in a thematic sense, thus giving us the impression that we are watching two completely disconnected movies happen before our eyes, forcing those characters that do bridge the two stories to change their motivations and intentions spontaneously in order to fit in.

And why is this subplot structured in so clunky a fashion? Well frankly, because Russell Crowe isn't a very good director, or at least isn't one yet. The whole film is structured in one of the more heavy-handed manners I've seen, with the direction and shot selection beating the viewer over the head with the notion that we are all SUPPOSED TO FEEL SAD NOW, ALRIGHT?! Some decent ideas, such as muting the most obligatory sappy sequences behind silent montage, do not cover for the fact that Crowe simply doesn't know what he is doing a great deal of the time. The British officers he encounters, for instance, are the most absurd pastiche, monocle-popping, stick-up-the-ass fastidious twits one can possibly imagine, twirling their mustaches in outraged propriety at the very notion that this colonial should think to come and upset their tea breaks by requesting to travel to the Dardanelles! As the film goes on, the British become positively pathological about ensuring that this unknown Australian farmer is inconvenienced as much as possible, sending soldiers to pursue him through the streets of Istanbul and across Asia Minor in the middle of a three-way war simply because the thought of leaving him be would be wholly unorthodox! (Harumph!) It's like this with everything, the Greek rebels who look like something out of Blackbeard's crew and must do evilly evil things for the sake of evilness just so the heroes can look gallant beside them, the arrogant Jr. officer who makes jaunty comments about how he expects Gallipoli will not be so bad as everyone tells him just so that he can have his comeuppance deployed in as telegraphed a manner as possible, the Irish priest who refuses to assist Crowe in burying his wife without a bribe because God has abandoned us!!!! Everything is so ridden with melodrama and telegraphed plot beats as to render the entire exercise fairly sterile, despite the obvious sincerity of the cast and crew.

Final thoughts:   I don't read other critics' reviews ahead of time, as I prefer to make my own mind up, but I do tend to consult them in the aftermath of my viewing, if only to see what others focused on that I may have missed, and in this case what I appear to have missed is some kind of grotesque and outrageous insult to the Armenian people due to the fact that this movie does not make mention of the Genocide against them on the part of the Ottoman army and government during WWI. With respect to the fact that the modern Turkish government's cowardly and censorious refusal to even discuss the subject does continue to turn my stomach, it does not follow that any movie that does not bring up the genocide in question is automatically an evil film out to recreate it all over again. I don't remember a lot of Holocaust references in Saving Private Ryan (or in last year's Fury), after all, and I did not read those movies as being anti-Semitic attempts to deny the legitimacy of the Holocaust. The Water Diviner is not a movie about the Armenian Genocide, and it is not at all fair to suggest that it is a bad film simply because it is about one subject and not another, especially not when there are perfectly good reasons to call it a bad film woven all throughout it.

Heartfelt though it is, the Water Diviner is a sappy, melodramatic, clunky film livened only by a handful of scenes that seem drawn from other, better movies, and while it is hardly some sin against man and god, it is the cherry on top of a long, bloody, ugly doldrums season that I am very glad to see the end of. Doldrums is always a hard time for me to get through, but this year was an unlivened disaster, and never have I been more happy to arrive at Blockbuster Season and its quota of mindless popcorn explosion-fests than I am now.

I get a lot of flak from certain circles about how I don't go to see enough independent, non-blockbuster fare. In the future, anyone making that objection will be instructed to go and watch the last eight weeks' worth of cinema that I have partaken in, and then let them tell me about my lack of taste and culture.

I, meanwhile, have a date with Marvel...

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time: Avengers Assemble.

White God

Alternate Title:  Barkticus

One sentence synopsis:     A mixed-breed dog forcibly separated from the girl who owns him is subjected to cruelties by human society before inspiring a canine revolution.

Things Havoc liked:  Yeah, you read that right.

So the Doldrums is something I've complained about many a time, but there's another concept in filmmaking which I call the "Rain Shadow". A rain shadow is the tendency for a really big, highly-anticipated movie release to empty the weeks both immediately before and immediately after its arrival of any movie whose audience could conceivably be drawn away by the arrival of such a huge event. This is the reason why Blockbuster season consists of a series of immense releases staggered as far apart from one another as possible with interludes of indie fare between them, as well as why the Doldrums exists at all, as the movies that normally go there cannot compete in any sense with the films that will be landing come May or October. What this means for me though, is that the Doldrums Season, which is bad enough by itself, gets worse before it gets better, as the movies that herald the arrival of Blockbuster season chase away even what few good things Doldrums has in store. In this case, with a certain film some of you have probably heard of on the immediate horizon, the movie world has emptied like the precursor to a tsunami. And since the only movies that do not adhere to this trend are the ones that do not expect that their audience will overlap with that one at all, I was forced, this week, to go and see a Hungarian indie film about dogs.

WC Fields always said to never work with animals or children, and this movie thoughtfully includes both, but to take them in order, the main character here is Hagen, a mixed-breed dog owned by a thirteen-year-old girl named Lili. "Mixed-breed" is the operative term here, as Lili is sent to live with her father in Budapest, where there is apparently a fee in place for mixed-breed dogs, designed to promote proper "Hungarian" breeds (whatever those are). With her father unwilling to meet this sudden hike in the cost of living, Hagan is abandoned on the roadside, and must survive on the mean streets alone. I, at least, have seen this story before, sometimes with more than one dog (Homeward Bound), sometimes with less than one (Oliver & Company), but whoever the canine actor was that was tipped to play this role, he's one of the better dog-actors I've seen. It's not that they can get him to do the big things, the growling or playing or emoting or fake-attacks, but the more subtle actions that really impressed me, getting him to stop on a mark, look out across a river, then continue on to another mark, and so on. A standout section late in the film has Hagan lead his band of killer dog-assassins (more on this later) to the house of the operator of a dogfighting ring, and then sit and watch in the manner of the Godfather as the other dogs rip him to pieces. Of course it's possible that they simply filmed the dog over and over until he accidentally did something they could use, I don't know, but either way, the leading dog manages to be a fairly stable element in a film that simply could not work without him.

Things Havoc disliked:  Pity about everything else, really.

For a movie that debuted at Cannes and was touted as Hungary's foreign film offering for the Academy Awards, White God is a pretty ineptly made film, and a good chunk of the reason for that has to do with the other half of the "kids and animals" duo, child-actress Zsófia Psotta, who plays Lili. I try to be nice to child actors around here, as there's no point in harping on a kid for not being able to skillfully perform a task that eludes most adults, but Psotta is flat terrible in this movie, and given that she comprises half the run-time of the film, this is something of an issue. Her character is a girl whose best friend, her dog, is callously abandoned in front of her by her father, who throws him dramatically out of a car and speeds away, and yet she can't seem to muster up enough emotion to do more than casually protest as these things take place. Were I, at the age of 13, to be faced with someone throwing my dog out of a car like this, I might well have caused a traffic accident with my reaction. This girl acts like she's had her video game privileges revoked for the next three days. And in the aftermath of this loss, as she acts through the obligatory stages of a teenage rebellion (going to parties and hanging out with older boys), this total lack of actual emotion or insight into how kids think only results in us waiting around for the movie to get back to the dogs.

Oh and speaking of the dogs, I appreciate that it's not easy to get one dog to do what you want it to on film, let alone six hundred, but speaking as someone who has some experience with man's best friend, the filmmakers here are deluding themselves if they think this movie is even slightly convincing. The plot of the film requires that we believe that Hagan, due to the terrible abuses he suffers, raises a canine revolution, inspiring hundreds and thousands of dogs to go on a murder-spree. A far out premise to be sure, but one must always be ready to take a movie at its premise. The issue though is that if you know anything about dogs, about their body language and behaviors, you will quickly realize that the filmmakers have not filmed a pack of ravening, savage beasts filled with outrage and malice, but a swarm of happy, friendly dogs, splashed with fake blood and told to run over to the nice man behind the camera who has a bag of dog treats for them. I appreciate that some people are afraid of dogs, and that others simply do not like them, but for me, as a dog lover, there is simply nothing menacing about watching a hundred dogs run happily down a street, tails wagging and tongues lolling. Even the scenes where the dogs are made to fight one another are clearly comprised of two large dogs riled up by their trainers who are wrestling playfully with one another without intent to cause real harm. Perhaps someone who knows nothing about dogs, or who is terrified by their very presence would be fooled. I am not this person. And I was consequently unable throughout the entire movie to understand why people were screaming and running in fear, calling out police firing lines and desperately manning barricades against a seething tide of dogs who had had enough and wanted, nay demanded, to be scratched behind the ears, and perhaps to be taken for a walk.

And that's really the core of the issue here, for White God is clearly not supposed to be about dogs at all, but a parable for how Europeans (I assume) treat the immigrant populations of Europe. And even leaving aside the fact that the dogs fail to act ferocious (it strikes me as I'm writing this that perhaps this was the point all along, and that the purpose of the movie was to show how people are afraid of nothing), but that they are dogs at all. Parable is fine, as is allegory, but the base fact is that we, as people (at least in the Western World), treat our dogs far, far better on average than we treat one another. After all, the days of us requiring dogs to help us hunt for food and ward off wild predators have been over for a while, and yet we are still, as a species, mad about our canine friends, spending huge amounts of money on them, looking after their well-being whenever possible, mourning them as members of our families when they die, and so on. I have more than once been part of a mob of fifteen or twenty people all working to corner a single collared dog that was clearly lost, just so we could find out to whom it belongs. Obviously abuses happen, dog fighting and animal abuse is a thing after all, and Europe's societal rules may be different than ours, but it just stretches the analogy to the limit of credulity to posit that all dogs are destined for abandonment and abuse on the part of truly psychotic humans (the butcher who starts chasing the dogs down the street with a butcher knife, screaming for blood, is a good example). You simply cannot allegorize the plight of immigrants in Europe using dogs, not if you expect to be believed. Most immigrants in Europe should be so lucky to be treated with the levels of compassion and care that most people reserve for dogs. Hell, killing or abusing a dog is so commonly used as a means of signalling the bad guy in movies because of this exact trait. Asking the audience to swallow a sea-change this massive and arbitrary (why the sudden obsession with dog-breed-purity?) just to make an allegory work leaves one wondering unavoidably just why the filmmakers didn't skip all this and make a film about the subject they were actually interested in.

Final thoughts:   Cognizant of the potential for backlash in a movie about killer dogs (imagine what PETA would think!), the filmmakers made it clear both before and after the movie that not only were no dogs harmed during its filming, but that the entire stray dog population of Budapest was recruited for the sake of the movie, every single one of whom was adopted by the cast at the conclusion of the process. This fact, the placing of hundreds upon hundreds of dogs in loving homes, does serve to excuse many of these films problems, as I would gladly sit through a bad two hour movie so as to have a hand in arranging the above. But a good cause and a happy (real) ending do not magically make a bad film good, and White God is indeed a bad film, a film that could never have worked without a radical redesign in tone or focus, one cored around a premise that makes no sense, using dogs that never manage to convince the audience of their intent to harm, and a girl who never manages to convince the audience of her intent to act. It is, admittedly, hard to get angry at a movie like this, a movie made for the best of reasons with the best of intentions, but unlike all of the many, many critics who have praised this movie as some kind of act of staggering genius, I am forced to report to you, my valued readers, that this movie needs to be taken out in the back and shot.

It's for everyone's good, really.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time: Russell Crowe Fights Round the World

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