Thursday, July 30, 2015

Antman (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  "... cause that's how you get ants"

One sentence synopsis:     The General departs for a two-week assault on the Central European countryside, leaving me to suffer through the latest in Marvel’s I.P. content-dredge on my own.

... ahem?

Fine... Retired superhero Hank Pym recruits a young thief to coordinate a heist and pass on his legacy.

That's better.

A Note before we begin:  Due to an unavoidable bout of raving insanity brought about by a Leviathan-related relapse, the General was unable to review this week's movie.  Fortunately, he was able to conscript a bitter, shell-shocked victim loyal and enthusiastic compatriot, more than willing to fill in for a movie like this.  We, the management, are extremely grateful for her assistance in helping us through this fallow period, and would never ever stoop to suggesting that if she complains about being asked to do this again, her next assignment could well involve Tyler Perry...

Things Havoc Corvidae liked:  I should probably add a few more words of explanation here.

So yes, hello, you can call me Corvidae. For all intents and purposes, I am the lieutenant to the General’s movie endeavors. For the last--shit, how long has this been, almost two years now?--I have accompanied him on many, if not most, of the movie-viewing jaunts, an experience which has, believe it or not, been quite rewarding. It has exposed me to many movies I would not otherwise have seen and sharpened my eye for film critique and screenplay storytelling. So, when I found out that we would be missing two weeks of the usual routine because of the General’s extended European vacation, I actually asked--nay, convinced--him to let me write a review in his stead. I thought it would be a nice exercise to stretch my burgeoning film-review chops. Most importantly, though, I argued that I had earned such a privilege, because when it comes to the now-legendary incidents of Under The Skin and Leviathan, I can justly say--much like Elrond in the heart of Mount Doom--

*****I WAS THERE!!!!!!!!!*****

But now I sit here faced with the actual prospect of saying something insightful-at-best and cogent-at-least about the film and have discovered...well...It’s not as easy as I thought. But I’ve had a glass-and-a-half of over-aged chardonnay (Gann Cellars 2007. Would not recommend.) so let’s just plow into this and see what happens.

Antman is the latest in the ever-unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise and the next entry in Marvel Studio’s business plan of “No Fucks Given.” Seriously, when you turn a D-grade property starring a raccoon, a tree, and the lead singer of Mouserat into an international megahit, really you pretty much have carte blanche for whatever the hell takes your fancy, waiting for people to throw money at you just to see if you will continue to pull it off. Which is pretty much what happened to me in this case. See, growing up, my experience with comic books began and ended with a set of tie-in Jurassic Park comic serials I collected in elementary school, which basically read like officially-licensed fan fiction. Comics of the classic schools were entirely out of my purview...until Iron Man came out when I was in grad school. I loved it so much I saw it twice opening weekend, and ever since then I have watched in awe as this entire world has unfolded before me in hit after cinematic hit. It lead me to read up on some of the lore myself, and even go so far as to--gasp!--wander into brick-and-mortar comic book stores asking if the current run of Female Thor I’ve been hearing about is in trade paperback yet.

But even with all that, I entered into this movie with hesitation. I ant? I will give you hyper-efficient rocket suits, I will give you demi-magical superhumans, I will even give you bizarre strength serums and genetic experiments gone awry. ant?

And on top of that, they cast Paul Rudd. Now, I know that with the MCU expanding at the rate it is, and with DC starting to make land grabs of their own, Hollywood is rapidly running out of leading-human figures to cast, so much so that Ben Affleck has had to double up. To make things worse, even the excellent B-list and character actors are all disappearing into supporting roles, though usually to outstanding effect (I’m looking at you, Idris Elba, you beautiful man you.)

But, strangely enough, Paul Rudd turns out to be perfect. Antman is a movie that’s, I think, well aware of the ridiculous scenario it presents in a world of ridiculous scenarios, but rather than apologizing, it acknowledges and owns it. Rudd’s entire career follows this behavior, in a way, as he has largely condensed and perfected the character he created in his breakout role of Josh in Clueless, back in 1995. This is a man who knows what he is, knows it’s a little silly, but isn’t afraid of it. The gestalt of this sentiment comes across everytime he opens the helmet of his size-shrinking suit and greets the camera with just enough of a self-deprecating smile. It’s a look that says, “Yeah, I know, but...let’s have some fun, shall we?”

And the movie certainly does. See, Antman isn’t just a superhero film, it’s also a heist film. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a high-level thief who was thrown into San Quentin after being busted for a burglary on some corporate exec. As the movie opens, he’s just been released and is looking to set his life straight. Unfortunately, as is always the case, his efforts to find a normal job are confounded by his friends looking for the infamous “one last score.” When his efforts to forge a relationship with his daughter are blocked by his estranged ex-wife (the ever-entertaining Judy Greer, of Archer and Arrested Development fame) due to his lack of finances or respectability (understandable, considering he’s working at Baskin Robins and sharing a one-bedroom flophouse flat with three other men in the heart of the Tenderloin), he finally agrees.  

Meanwhile, though, is the other half of the plot equation: Michael Douglas as Hank Pym--the original Antman--and Evangeline Lilly as his daughter Hope. Pym is the founder of generic-tech corporation Pymcorp, though he’s recently stepped back from running the business, leaving it to his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym was once the actual Antman, using hyper-shrinking technology he developed himself to fight crime and Soviet threats during the Cold War. Since then, though, he has stepped back from hero-ing--citing difficulties with the technologies and dangerous effects on a balanced mental state--and has kept his identity secret all these years. Cross, as he steps forward to take over the company, is driven both by his suspicion that Pym was more than he ever let on, and his desire to prove himself to his mentor by following in his footsteps, even if it means he has to do it himself. Cross develops an analogue of the shrinking technology, which he openly plans to sell as military technology, and Pym develops a plan to steal the technology from the hyper-secure Pymcorp buildings and destroy it before it can do more harm than what he witnessed himself, decades ago. Which is where noted-B&E thief Lang comes in.

Hijinks ensue, I’m sure you can imagine.

The movie walks a fine line between the gravitas of a superhero film--wrestling with the usual complexities of morality and duty--and the humor implicit in a world wherein technology exists to shrink or embiggen humans (and objects) at will. For the most part it does an excellent job. Lang’s sidekick-crew (a diverse, if somewhat cliched, collection of a Mexican-American, an African-American, and an Eastern-European) also provide comic relief.

As a semi-native San Franciscan, I also can’t help but comment on the role our fair city plays in the movie. There’s been an absolute glut of San Franciso-set movies lately--likely due the world’s attention focusing on Silicon Valley like never before--and the representation has ranged from the decent (Inside Out), to the artfully-outstanding (Big Hero Six), to the uncanny-valley of haphazard accuracy (2014’s Godzilla). Perhaps true to theme, Antman takes the tactic of focusing on the smaller, often-overlooked aspects of the city that only the locals might recognize as being truly typical. As I said, Lang lives in a rundown apartment in the Tenderloin (in a building I know I’ve passed before but can’t place right now because I’m usually hurrying past before someone throws up on my shoes). Hank Pym lives in a Victorian mansion somewhere near the 17th St saddle of Twin Peaks, positioned such that you can just make out the distant lights of St. Ignatius Church glowing through the driving fog the night Lang breaks in, a view I have seen with my own eyes often. Finally, the Pymcorp building itself is located on the west shore of Treasure Island, a place rarely visited by tourists but hotly contested for large-scale developmen, so it makes perfect sense that a megacorp in this world would have claimed it for itself. In fact, except for the irritating-yet-understandable conceit that Langs’s journey to the city from San Quentin somehow takes him all the way over to the Marin Headlands and back along Conzelman Drive, the landscape of the city, and how it maps to the lives of the people occupying it, is perfectly believable.

Things Havoc Corvidae disliked:  Unfortunately, not everything settles in quite so easily.

So, from what I’ve gathered, it seems that something...happened during the production of this movie. According to Wikipedia, one of the driving factors to create it was Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim fame. He apparently has been a huge fan of the Antman stories since he was a kid and initially developed an idea for an off-beat, slightly-edgy interpretation of the character way back in 2003. He was a passionate advocate for the project, writing the script and working through multiple rewrites and planning delays. Finally, everything was a go and work on the film started around 2013...and not long after, he was taken off it entirely. The only explanation he has apparently given is that Disney--whom I keep forgetting now owns Marvel and then subsequently force myself to forget again--wanted to, quote, “go in a different direction.” The implication, of course, is they wanted something more “family friendly” than Wright’s other works.

And yes, it is a shame, because what we have is a movie where you often see glimpses of the fast-cut humor he obviously originally intended, but get the sense that it’s not...quite...right. Some jokes obviously made it through the transition, but quite a few comedic punches are telegraphed, oddly timed, or flatly explained in ways that ruin the impact.

And speaking of explanation, this movie has a lot of it. The technology is weird even for the MCU, so yes I can accept that we need to have a few info dumps about it, but with all that exposition, I was still unsure whether or not I “believed” it. I mean, obviously I’m not looking for a PLoS One paper on shrinking technology and digitally-assisted ant telepathy, but if you’re going to have huge chunks of time of Michael Douglass talking at me, he’d better say something that makes me connect with it emotionally (excitement, trepidation, whatever). At times I felt like I was getting the audiobook version of the Wikipedia article of the plot of movie.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that much of the plot advancement is done through montages. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good montage, but in this case I feel the movie relies on them a little too heavily. Montages show a little improvement with every shot, yes, but the viewer doesn’t experience the character advancement to the same degree as she would a real-time scene. During the movie, we have a few quick scenes of Lang screwing up with the shrinking-and-communication technology, then before you know it, he’s an expert at it. Again, not breaking the laws of these kinds of movies in any egregious ways, but it means that seeing him excel in the breakneck battles toward the end of the movie felt less like a dramatic accomplishment and more like, “I guess this is what we’re doing now.”

Speaking of the action scenes, these were obviously supposed to be the big showpiece of the film, as Antman flies through bullet space/time and back into the macro world with the fluidity of a gymnast, but honestly I was just...bored with them. I saw the movie in 2D (cause ain’t nobody got the extra cash for that shit) and I get the sense that these sequences were optimized for the 3D version, leaving the 2D version S.O.L. Specifically, the camera follows Antman tightly as he flips through the air, outrunning bullets and taking full-grown men down with one micro-punch. He is always centered in the screen, even as the camera moves through three-axes, and most of the background kind of fades into a false vanishing point behind him, indicating to me that the depth of the shot was supposed to be most of the texture, but without it it’s just a vignette of a dude flipping around. I mean, it’s fine, but it just...didn’t do anything for me. By contrast, another fight scene with functionally-similar staging, that of Nightcrawler popping in and out of reality in his attack on the White House in the opening for X-Men 2, uses far-simpler camera work and remains one of my favorite action sequences of all time. You really get a sense of the tension of the fight when you the viewer don’t know where he’s going to pop from next. And yeah, part of the point of Antman is to see him be small, but following him judiciously through every moment of the fight is about as interesting as following him through every step of his morning routine, especially when most of what he’s doing is just flying through the air (in the fight, that is, not the morning routine).

Perhaps, though, my irritation with the action scenes comes from a long-standing movie pet-peeve of mine, something I’ve decided to dub “Excitement-Exposition.” You know what it is, it’s those scenes of ramping excitement where sometime in post they went back and added in voice-over of the actor or actors yelling inanities like, “Yeah!” “Let’s go!” “It’s now or never, guys!” “Yeah, guys!!” “Guys lets do this!!!!” “GUYS!1!1!!” It’s especially rampant in kids movies, and the fact that this movie has an unnecessarily high amount of it is what makes me believe the rumors that Wright got dumped for a more family-friendly treatment.

The last thing I’d like to rant about is the villain, Cross. Frankly, he’s terrible. He’s a mustache-twirling caricature, killing in cold blood and selling his knock-off technology to Hydra simply for teh monies. There is some discussion about his deeper character motivations, specifically that he wanted to be Pym’s protege but Pym kept him at arm’s length, creating hurt and frustration. Also there’s sort of a hand-wavey mention that using the shrinking technology too much makes someone go crazy, but...come on. As Havoc himself says, the MCU is a franchise built upon the power of its villains (I’m looking at you, Loki, you beautiful ice-giant you) so this was just disappointing. Corey Stoll does a decent job with what he’s given, bringing enough of a sinister presence to the screen to carry each scene through, but I couldn’t get past the fact that, like many other things in the movie, it should have been better.

A Special Note:   Before I conclude, I’d like to take a moment to talk about something that struck me rather specifically, but which doesn’t fit neatly into like or didn’t-like. It’s not even really an issue of “like,” more a point of construction that I feel bears commenting on.

Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, of Lost and The Hobbit), represents a new factor in modern comic movies. She has estrangement and Daddy/Daughter issues with Pym senior, (which isn’t new), and she is also somewhat of a romantic interest for Lang (which definitely isn’t new). But she is also someone who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. There estrangement comes not from her wanting to be free of him, but because, like Cross, she’s mad she’s been kept at arm’s length.

Lilly herself is merely alright at the role. There are complex motivations to the character and I don’t feel she pulled them off well in all cases. Hope works as an administrative assistant to Cross and basically secretly double-crosses him when she reconciles with her father and agrees to help him and Lang break into the company. But when she is on-screen in that role, I didn’t really get a good sense of her duplicity; she is calmly and politely his assistant. For half of the movie, I found myself suspecting her of triple crossing, secretly siding with Cross while pretending to help her father. Spoiler alert, this is not the case, but the fact that I kept expecting it I think speaks to her acting rather than the writing.

But then it also could be implicit suspicion of her haircut, which, with the addition of dem cheekbones, reminded me waaaay too much of Kate Blanchett in Indiana Jones 4 and the associated PTSD memories therein. Also it’s not really flattering on either of them.

Girl, wut.

But back to the point at hand, and right now I’m going to break type from Havoc’s usual M.O. and actually discuss points of a spoiler-y nature, so be warned.


Around the second-act climax, we discover the real reason Pym gave up the technology and became so afraid of it. Apparently back in his day, Antman wasn’t a solo act. He partnered with his wife, who had a similar shrinking-suit and went by the superhero handle of The Wasp. During the Cold War, at one point a Soviet missile was launched at the US and the two of them had to stop it, by the Slim Pickin’s strategy of physically attacking the missile itself. Something went wrong, and time was running out, so without hesitation, Wasp removed this regulating device from her suit and dropped into the “subatomic” realm to slide through the metal plates of the missile, destroy the electronics, and save everyone. Unfortunately, though, without the regulator there was no coming back. Wasp was lost forever. Pym reveals this to Hope in an emotional scene of reconciliation, but my emotional reaction was one of awe.

Because this is the opposite of a fridging”.

Wasp died heroically, of her own choice, which is, in my understanding, the rare exception case of women in comic books, even the superhero ones. Women in the major serials have tended to be killed suddenly and senselessly as emotional plot devices, stripped of agency on both an individual and meta level. No one argues that women in comic stories shouldn’t die at all, but the way those deaths are portrayed does mean a lot. I could go dredge up a bunch of comic-theory articles I’ve read on this to support my point, but instead I’ll cite my own anecdata as proof: I had never even heard of Wasp before this movie, she only had about 10 seconds of screentime in a flashback sequence, but even in that short period of exposure I was fucking. proud. of her.

This brief emotional resonance lasted through the rest of the movie, and came in particularly valuable at the end. And I mean the end end, in the after-the-credits stinger sequence. Pym takes Hope down to his basement and the secret room Lang broke into at the start of the movie. From there he reveals another secret room, storing another copy of the shrinking-suit, albeit with wings, just like the one Wasp had. Pym tells Hope he made this upgraded suit for her mother but never got a chance to give it to her, and has locked it up out of grief ever since. He says that after everything that has happened, he is now ready to pass it on to her, that it’s her birthright, and he knows she can do great things with it. Hope looks at the suit, the camera pans in, she smiles a brief, joyful smile, and says, “It’s about damn time.”

In those four words, I heard so much more than a daughter making a crack at her father. The implication is clear: Hope is to be a superhero, a female superhero. Yes, the MCU has Black Widow, but while she is unquestionably a hero, she is not a superhero. Comic stories represent a kind of modern mythology, especially as these movies have vastly increased their cultural saturation in the modern consciousness. I will remind you that I was completely ignorant of Marvel canon before the movies started coming out, and I am sure I am not alone in discovering it through the movies. To be elevated to the ranks of superhero is akin to demi-godhood, so the fact that we have gone so long without major female representation in the movie pantheon...hurts. It really, honestly hurts. It feels like we’re B-string characters (aka, second-class citizens) in a shared fantasy world, which is especially frustrating considering such worlds were specifically constructed to escape from and rise above the limitations of the actual world.

To further elucidate the frustration, let’s cross the line and look at the other major half of the pantheon: DC. Wonder Woman is not only one of the best-known female superheros, she is one of the best-known superheroes of all time. I’ve never read a single issue or even seen a single episode of the 70’s tv show, but I recognize that spangled outfit just as easily as any emblazoned-S or round-shield-with-a-star-on-it. People have been clamoring, absolutely begging for her to have her own movie, and DC’s knee-jerk response has been, “Oh, America isn’t ready for it.”

Really? Fucking really!? Marvel over here made a movie starring a houseplant and a fucking genetically-engineered mustelid and it made 700 million dollars. Branching out of comics, the Hunger Games movies--starring Katniss Everdeen and a completely unnecessary love triangle that’s gotten thankfully less screentime than in the books--has made 2.2 billion dollars, and the fourth movie isn’t even out yet!!! So don’t go crying to me, DC, about America not being ready. Cause America IS fucking ready, hell the whole goddamn WORLD is fucking ready.

So yeah, even if Evangeline Lilly isn’t great, even is Wasp is part of an ensemble rather than having her own spotlight, I will goddamn take it, and I will goddamn take it gladly.

Because it’s about damn time.

Actually Final Thoughts:  Overall, I think this is a fine movie to help expand on the Marvel portfolio, but missing some of the richness and edginess that is typical of the other movies so far. But I only judge it harshly because of the high bar set by its brethren. When I walked out of the theater with my viewing-partner (the Movie Sergeant?) we agreed that this is somewhere in the B-class of the canon. Not as mind-blowing as Avengers or Captain America: Winter Soldier, much better than Ironman 3, and worlds better than almost anything comparable available at the moment (I’m looking at you, Pixels, you ass-wipe excuse for family entertainment). 

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Much to the disappointment of all concerned, I'm sure, we will not be reviewing the aforementioned ass-wiping excuse for family entertainment.  I think instead we shall look for something a bit more... elementary...

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Terminator Genisys

Alternate Title:  A Song of Gripes and Ire

One sentence synopsis:     Kyle Reese is sent back in time to save Sarah Connor from a Terminator, only to find that the timelines have changed...

Things Havoc liked:  I feel perhaps that an explanation is in order...

I do not, ever, go see movies that I know are going to suck. What do I mean by that? You know. The Lone Rangers, the After Earths, the Battleships, the films that look like abject shit from the first time you lay eyes on their teasers. The films nobody needs to warn you about because the ounce of common sense that God gave all of us (except for movie execs) has given you warning that an atrocity is about to take place. Most people of reason would (and have) stated that this movie was, without question one of their number, as the trailers made it look like a seventeen-car pileup that was then hit by a train. In my own defense, I must answer that there is a difference between a guaranteed disaster and a risk, and that if I did not engage on occasion in the latter, going to see a movie that may look dodgy because I detect some possibility in it, I would have missed such films as Kingsman, Real Steel, Fury, and Cloud Atlas itself. Sometimes you need to go with your gut. Sometimes you need to try something new.

And sometimes it can work! For instance, I had all but written off Arnold Schwarzenegger as too old to make movies anymore, but the reality is that he's actually pretty decent in this movie. Not the equal to his great early performances of the 1980s certainly, but a credible presence, helped by a script which works his age into the story, and age-reducing technology that while still not perfect, has come a long way since Tron Legacy, and masks what twinges of Uncanny Valley remain behind the fact that we're supposed to be looking at inhuman robots. And J.K. Simmons, one of my favorite actors, is in this movie! Yes, he's playing a character whose identity I mistook twice for other characters in the movie (it's a time travel film, this happens), but he's in it, playing a frazzled, awkward, conspiracy-theorist/cop trying to make sense of a lunatic plot. I had no idea he was going to be in this movie, and discovering him there was a nice treat. And it's nice treats like that that keep me doing this, honestly. The notion that sometimes these Hail Mary passes can work.

Things Havoc disliked:  But most of the time...

Terminator Genisys, in addition to having the stupidest name in the history of movies (anyone who cites counterexamples will be eviscerated with an ice cream scoop), is a festering pile of dung, a categorical failure in everything it attempts to do and a complete waste of my valuable time, both to have seen and to be sitting here writing about. It manages, somehow, to do the literal impossible and actually become the worst film in he entire Terminator series, a statement I make in full recollection of the existence of 2009's Terminator Salvation. It is a plate of ass.. And it is by a wide, wide margin, the worst major Hollywood release I have seen in two years and more than a hundred films. Read the rest of my angry rant if my pain amuses you, but if you read only this far, know that you have now been warned.

Whose fault is it that this movie sucks? Well one is tempted to give the actors, at least, a pass, for who could possibly produce anything decent from s movie this misguided? But I'm afraid that no excuse imaginable would indemnify Emilia Clarke, Daenarys Targarian herself, from a performance THIS FUCKING BAD. I see what she was going for, trying to channel all of her Game of Thrones menace into playing Sarah Connor, the badass version. Unfortunately for her though, this is a character that was played to sublime perfection by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Hamilton's best performance and in my mind, the greatest action heroine performance in the history of film. Hamilton was on fire in that movie, transcending a mere badass and entering the hallowed realm of a "Bad Motherfucker" (which as defined as an incomparable badass who remains an incomparable badass even when they are doing such perfectly quotidian things as sitting at a picnic table and staring into space). The notion of Emilia Clarke, with her four foot even, ninety-pound frame, trying to successfully ape one of the great action performances of all time is simply farcical. She is not up to this task, especially not when saddled with a plot that gives her awful dialogue and a sweet pile of Daddy issues to have fun with. I get that this is some kind of alternate timeline wherein she was rescued by a terminator at the age of nine, but having her name the robot 'Pops' (I'm not making this up) was a bad idea on the scale of cutting the last Hunger Games in half. To put things in the most reasonable way possible, Linda Hamilton would probably never have allowed her character to utter such a phrase, for fear of sounding exactly as stupid as Clarke does.

But it's not like Clarke is the only one at fault. We also have the other Clarke, Jason Clarke, who needs to fire his goddamn agent or whoever it is that keeps dropping him into movies like this one or White House Down. Clarke plays John Connor himself (sort of), a character who does nothing but monologue endlessly about the most boring, non-pertinent shit imaginable. Half his fucking dialogue is nothing more than re-hashed, contextless quotes from the first movie that not only make no sense for the scene he is in, but actively undermine what he is attempting to say. How in God's name does it help your cause when trying to convince someone of your peaceful intentions and general trustworthyness to suddenly start quoting Reese's famous speech from the first movie about how Terminators "cannot be reasoned with" and don't feel pity or fear or remorse, applying those monikers to yourself! This is on top of the usual stupid idiot-ball antics of not killing the people his plans desperately require him to kill because... it's more sporting this way? But even Clarke has nothing on Jai Fucking Courtney, the action equivalent to Vincent D'Oonofrio, a man who has starred in nothing but shitty, shitty action movies like Die Hard 5, and who outdoes himself here by turning Kyle Reese into a useless, stupid, annoying, actively aggravating imbecile, mostly so that Sarah Connor can be shown to be a (sing it with me) Strong Independent Woman Who Don't Need No Man (unless of course that man is her surrogate robo-daddy).

Would that I could stop there, dear readers, but the woes of this film go well beyond its acting, and to apportion the blame properly, it is necessary to turn to director Alan Taylor, a television veteran whose most recent film was the perfectly serviceable Thor: The Dark World, and who here has presided over a colossal mess that makes even the worst Marvel film look like Citizen Kane. The writing in this film is utterly atrocious, clunky in the extreme, with dialogue so on-the-nose as to give the cast skull fractures, particularly a series of wretchedly-forced efforts to replicate Terminator 2's philosophical voiceover codas, so stupefyingly badly written that I was literally begging friends of mine to find some way, any way to stop the movie as they were going on, up to and including phoning in bomb threats to the theater. The "writers" of this abortion of a film, Canadian duo Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, whose previous credits include such unjustly forgotten gems as Dracula 2003, Drive Angry 3D, and Oliver Stone's Alexander, have outdone themselves this time, producing a script and plot so convoluted and nonsensical that it may come to set a new bar for nonsensical time travel plots. Films as varied as Looper and Back to the Future have shown time and again all the myriad ways that one can do a time travel plot and have it make sense, but this is not among them. It's not that the plot requires anything fancy, it's that the storytelling is so bad that we never get fed such basic information as whether or not paradoxes are a thing in is universe, meaning that we don't know if the main villain of the piece is even allowed to kill the main heroes at any given time. Without knowing what the rules of the universe are, we have no idea why characters are doing anything, robbing us of all sense of consequence or importance, something that is helped in no way by the approximately eighteen different scenes in which the movie stops dead so that the characters can explain a fresh set of rules to the audience, ones seemingly drawn out of nowhere and which hold no actual implications for the story.

Final thoughts:   I know that lots of people, mindful of my claim to only go see movies that I think have a chance at being good (or at least interesting), will wonder why I went to see this film at all. I would be lying if I said that the same question didn't come to mind as I sat there watching this atrocity, but all I can say is that while I knew Terminator Genysis to be a risk, I had no idea that anything like this was waiting for me. Passing well beyond guilty pleasure territory and into the realm of war crime, if this movie does not kill the Terminator franchise at long last, then we live in a cruel and unjust world at the whim of an uncaring God. I am an avowed, dyed-in-the-wool fan of get original two Teminators, particularly the second, but this film would have been awful even if I had never heard of Terminator. That would, after all, judging by the evidence, have put me in a similar state as the director, writers, and most of the cast.

How bad was this movie? Let me put it this way. Of all the elements that went into creating this complete waste of my, your, and everyone's time, the single best one was the title.

Just think about that.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Next Time:  Catching up on a bit of backlog, hopefully with the help of a guest reviewer or two!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Connection

Alternate Title:  The French French Connection

One sentence synopsis:     A crusading magistrate in 1970s Marseille fights organized drug gangs despite corruption and violence.

Things Havoc liked:  William Friedman's 1971 film, The French Connection, was a landmark of American cinema, the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and the source of one of the greatest car chases ever filmed. While a great many of you, being persons of sufficient wit and culture to appreciate my reviews, will have obviously seen this movie at some point in your lives, I would guess that the majority of you do not know that it was based entirely on a true story, of a very real heroin trafficking route which ran from Turkey to New York by way of Marseille, one which was indeed called The French Connection, and was run primarily by a network of organized Corsico-Italian gangsters for several decades. While the NYPD and the DEA both labored to destroy the French Connection, it was, in reality, the efforts of a series of French anti-organized-crime task forces under the command of a number of crusading magistrates who finally put an end to the French Connection once and for all. And so, rather than wait for Hollywood to tell the story properly (pause for laughter), French thriller director Cédric Jimenez has brought us France's version of the famous tale, some forty-five years after the original.

I normally like to cite actors in these reviews, be they the reason the film is good or bad, but as The Connection is a French film, the only actor any of you are liable to have heard of before is Jean Dujardin, of The Artist, of Monuments Men, and of many, many other things in France itself. I understand Dujardin to be an excellent actor, at least in theory, but his work in the films I've seen so far has been... decent at best. The Connection however puts him in the role of real French judge Pierre Michel and lets him play around with a character concept we've seen before (the justice-obsessed cop who won't play by the rules) in a setting we generally have not (reality). With a background in juvenile court, where he has clearly seen the ravages of drugs first-hand, Michel is not a perfectly clean cop. Hints of a gambling addiction are dropped periodically, and his efforts to break down the resolves of the omerta-coded gangsters that he interrogates are probably the best parts of the film. One memorable scene has him confront a mouthy gangster who denies that he has anything on him, by throwing the gangster an empty pistol, and when he catches it by surprise, telling his secretary in the same room to run the gun (a murder weapon) for fingerprints. It's a nice change from Batman beating the Joker with his fists, and leads logically to circumstances such as the one where Michel flies all the way to New York to interrogate a DEA-apprehended drug lord, who in turn takes one look at the Judge entering the room, and exclaims "Oh fuck, it's you..."

The other half of the drama is veteran actor-director Gilles Lellouche, of nothing I've ever seen before, playing real-life gang lord Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa, a man whom you can read more about here if you should happen to speak French. Zampa is Michel's foil, or vice versa, or however these things are supposed to work, but his characterization is excellent. Not a screaming Scarface-inspired maniac but a careful, menacing presence, whether executing a rival gangster in broad daylight or forcing a poorly-performing minion to overdose on cocaine, Zampa manages to get across the sheer, unremitting pressure of being a criminal boss must be, constantly looking out for any one of ten thousand things which could instantly end his tenure and position, from rival gangsters' bullets to a crusading magistrate with a chip on his shoulder. He gives the usual excuses on occasion, that he's just a businessman and job creator who sells a necessary product but nobody, including Zampa himself, seems to believe it. Above all, however, he is a man obsessed with not screwing everything up by hitting back at the police and lawyers who are after him, cognizant of what kind of heat a shootout with the cops can bring down. This renders his character reasonably unpredictable, as he may be the first mob boss I've ever seen to confront an underling who has failed him in a borderline-treasonous way, re-assure him that if he tells him everything, he won't be harmed, and then actually let the man go.

And that's... really all there is to the Connection, a dance between these two men, one which covers the better part of a decade, as Michel tries to bust Zampa and Zampa tries to avoid being busted while also staying alive. Director Jimenez films all this in a very 70s style of filmmaking, with lots of handheld cameras dragged along for the fun on police raids and gangster hits, and bleached, oversaturated color schemes as the characters bask in the sun of southern France. The effect is actually fairly similar to a film by Tarantino, which makes sense when you consider that it was movies like this one that he memorized and modeled his own style after when he made stuff like Reservoir Dogs. Complete with a wonderful period soundtrack, the film is simply what it claims to be, a New Wave-style cops-and-gangsters flick, the sort of film that would fit in just perfectly in the period it's supposedly about.

Things Havoc disliked: Handheld camera work is always a gamble, as it can easily translate into dreaded shakey-cam, and while The Connection isn't an action movie, it has its share of raids and gunfire like any good cop movie must. Obscuring all of that behind motion sickness may serve some stylistic point on occasion, but I've never been a fan of it.

Otherwise though, the film doesn't have a lot to criticize about it, save perhaps for the structure, which, being drawn from reality with a European approach, seems fairly unfocused. Marital problems arise and then disappear. Addictions are brought up and then left to hang. Secondary characters (all with names I don't recognize) disappear at the drop of a hat or are gunned down by other secondary characters without any idea as to who or what is killing them. At one point, an entire mob war subplot is dropped thanks to a flash forward, and we never get any sense of even who won it beyond the fact that some people are still alive and some are not. I don't mind a movie that expects you to keep up, but some tightening would be nice, especially given how much nuance is always lost in the subtitles of a foreign film.

Final thoughts:   As an avowed Francophile, I always am conscious of the risks that any review I make for a French film will be seen as simple cultural-fawning, and it's certainly true that French movies have fared better with me (particularly this year) than the output of such nations as Hungary or Russia. But a critic must above all be honest, and in all honestly, The Connection is an excellent film, tense when it needs to be, and made with a care and style that one does not often see on this side of the pond, even among indie directors. Insofar as any of you will even have the opportunity to see this film, I don't know how much my recommendation is worth, but if you aren't afraid of a subtitle or two, there are far, far worse options in your local cinemas at the moment.

Speaking of which...

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Well something needs terminating...

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