Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Alternate Title:  The Most Dangerous Men in America

One sentence synopsis:     Young rapper Ice Cube, DJ Dr. Dre, and drug runner Eazy-E get together to produce NWA, and change the world of Hip Hop.

Things Havoc liked:  By now, dear readers, you all have learned, I hope, to trust my judgment on all matters cinematic, in deference to my many years of dearly-bought experience on the subject. But as a renaissance man of sober judgment and cultured taste, it would be depriving you all of a profound gift if I forebore to mention my expertise in all matters musical as well. I'm no Rolling Stone writer, of course, but I have made popular music between now and the far-flung days of 1958 my subject for a detailed musical analysis that generally serves to bore my friends when they're not mocking my awful taste (yes, I like Elton John. Shut up.) In the course of this musical project, one which I devised so that I could better understand the history of pop music in the context of its proper times and contemporaries, I have encountered, despite all the musical madness of the last sixty years, only three occasions when a musical group managed to produce something that instantly and irrevocably changed the musical landscape around them forever. One such occasion was in early 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States and more or less instantly banished everything that did not sound like the Beatles to the black hole of irrelevancy, kick-starting the 60s as a cultural thing in one fell swoop. The second, was in the winter of 1991-1992, when Nirvanna's second album, Nevermind, dragged the 80s out behind a woodshed and shot them in the back of the head, ushering in the age of Indie and Alternative rock for better or for worse.

The third was NWA.

Straight Outta Compton is the tale of the meteoric rise and fall of 'Niggaz Wit Attitude' (Or Attitudes. I've heard both), better known by their radio-friendly acronym, NWA, centered around three young black men in late 1980s Compton, lyricist and rapper Ice Cube, DJ and producer Dr. Dre, and flat out drug dealer and gangster (and frontman) Eazy-E. Over the course of less than a decade, these three, and a coterie of other, secondary rappers and artists, create a firestorm, producing a series of albums that blew the top off of gangsta-style rap in the US, and help create, promote, or inspire the careers of more or less every rapper you've ever heard of, a great many of whom appear in this film. They struggle against bitter, violent oppression on the part of the out-of-control LAPD in the leadup to and the aftermath of the famous Rodney King riots. They party and celebrate in the sudden explosion of wealth that they have access to for the first time in their lives, and fall out bitterly among one another over the proceeds of their works, culminating in violent beatings, dis tracks, and assorted bad blood. All along, other major figures of the Hip Hop world, from Suge Knight and Warren G to Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg float in and out of the picture, to say nothing of the other members of NWA, but the focus all along is on the three men at the core of it all, and all three of them, without exception, are absolutely fantastic. Corey Hawkins, a Shakespearean actor of no particular film pedigree, brings a sharp intelligence to Dr. Dre that is only appropriate for one of the smartest producers in music, a man who would go on to sell a headphones company to Apple for three billion dollars and discover most of the hip hop talent that any of you have ever heard of. Hawkins' Dre isn't a gangster or a thug, but a man with at least a semi-stable family locked in the violent ghetto of Compton, who escapes through DJing, and whose biggest goal simply seems to be working on his music, irrespective of the tempests around him. His counterpart Cube meanwhile, is played by O'Shea Jackson, Jr in an absolute dead ringer for the lyricist and rapper-turned-actor, something explainable perhaps by the fact that Jackson is the real Ice Cube's son. If anyone is the angry one in the group, it's Cube, whose bitterness at his life circumstances, his setting, his deprivation, and the way he is treated by everyone from the police to the rest of the group, is what fuels NWA's catalog, and the best praise for Jackson's portrayal might be the fact that he manages, through his acting, to make a song as incendiary as "Fuck the Police" sound totally normal just due to the fact that he's the one rapping it.

But the standout star of this film is Jason Mitchell, a total unknown with only bit parts to his name, who plays the third member of the NWA triumvirate, the late Eazy-E, the drug-dealing bankroller and frontman of the operation. Mitchell is flat out fantastic in this role, a hard-banging dealer and loanshark who turns his eye towards producing with the same ruthlessness that he brought to his previous life, plainly sharper than a razor, but equally plainly struggling to mentally escape the hell he came from. An absolutely standout scene midway through the film has him confront his alternately supportive and shady manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, in another great role) with the fact that following a savage beating at the hands of another producer (R. Marcus Taylor as a menacing Suge Knight), he does not have any option but to outright murder his rival. The sequence is brilliant, with Heller desperately trying to talk the basic sense into Eazy that he is no longer in Compton, and rivalries like this are handled with lawyers and lawsuits, not bullets, while Eazy tries to talk to the basic sense into Heller that the world of Rap still is in Compton, and that handling matters like that would annihilate the credibility he holds so dearly. Both men understand what the other is saying and why he is saying it, but cannot get the other to see that it's their version of reality that must prevail for the thing they are doing to go on.

Up and down and through the lives of our three protagonists, the movie winds, through awful tragedies and bacchanalian celebrations, breakups and bad contracts, as the wider world of music and police brutality unfolds around them. Director F. Gary Gray has little to recommend him for a project like this (his last feature film was 2009's execrable Law Abiding Citizen) save for his personal association with the subject matter, being an old friend of Ice Cube and other figures in Hip Hop, who got his start as a director with Ice Cube's own Friday. As such, he is the perfect choice, deftly introducing legions of characters, many of whom the average moviegoer may have never heard of, being too young or too non-hip-hop-minded to know who these people are without the helpful, non-obtrusive introductions that the film supplies in the form of John Wick-style floating nametags. Gray's sure hand is evident as the movie manages to deftly handle the unavoidable topics of police brutality, violence, and censorship as NWA becomes, for a time at least, the most dangerous group in America, and their home town of Compton becomes, for a time at least, an open war zone. Though the temptation to do so must have been tremendous, never once does Gray let his film become an after-school special on why racism is bad, nor some sledgehammered lesson point on why "everything is still exactly the same". Instead, he simply shows LAPD's racism in the late 80s and early 90s in its full, blunt, oppressive, awful glory, through a series of standout, ultra-tense sequences and confrontations. Young black men are beaten, abused, harassed, threatened, and most of all constantly humiliated by a police force that despite all this remains entirely believable throughout. Rather than point fingers at the audience and shriek or exchange platitudes about everyone getting along, the movie gives the context of what happened in the years leading up to 1992, and lets everyone draw what conclusions they will, particularly from an evocative sequence from the King riots themselves, displaying the most famous shots of the period, while retaining the understanding that Fergusson and the BLM movement are both like and unlike what happened back then. While stupid people may (and will continue to) scream all manner of stupid things at Gray and the film's producers for alternately watering down or playing up the riots for political purposes, the effect within the film is near-miraculous. I'm about as far from the founding members of NWA as you can get in this country, in terms of race, background, musical tastes (and skill), and general attitude towards law enforcement, and yet I had strictly no difficulty understanding intrinsically why nobody in this movie would trust the cops for a red second, nor what would lead them to produce, distribute, and perform songs like Fuck The Police in the face of angry, violent protest from everyone from Tipper Gore to the FBI. Maybe that's more of a comment on me than the movie, but it is to date the only one of the literal hundreds of lectures, sermons, interviews, dramatizations, and angry Facebook denunciations that I've sat through to ever fully bridge that gap of understanding on a root, emotional level.

Things Havoc disliked:  This is ostensibly a truthful movie, not just in the sense of its subject matter but in the sense of a biopic in general, and so it's only fair for me to point out a few elements that are less than truthful. No, I'm not talking about MC Ren's sour grapes, nor the people who are inexplicably using this film as additional "proof" that Tupac is somehow still alive. I'm talking, rather, about the rather large number of women that Doctor Dre beat the hell out of over the course of his career, including one journalist about whom he once said that he could not understand what the big deal was, as all he did was throw her through a door (that's not all he did, but is indicative perhaps of something). Normally I don't have much use for arguments about how a movie is wrong for not being about a different subject, but the subject this time IS the three founders of NWA, and if the movie has time to present Dre as a genius producer and businessman (which he is), then it has the time to include something this important, unsavory though it might be to his reputation. It's not like the rest of the film is especially reverent when it comes to Compton's drug and gang problem, Eazy-E's previous drug dealings, Suge Knight's thuggishness, or Jerry Heller's contract chicanery. It leads one to wonder if the fact that Dr. Dre is a producer on this film has anything to do with the missing elements...

Other than omissions however, the only serious criticism one can throw at this movie is its structure and length. The film has no real end point or narrative arc. The three main characters simply go through their lives, rapping, writing, being abused and abusing one another, signing and breaking contracts, dissing and reconciling, until finally we are somewhere around 1996 and it's time to stop. A lot of biopics have this sort of problem, as real life isn't necessarily the sort of thing that fits easily into Three-Act structures, but one imagines, given the overall quality of this film, that something a bit tighter could have been put in place. The first half of the film is simply so well structured that it makes a meandering ending harder to understand.

Final thoughts:  Straight Outta Compton is one of, if not the finest musical biopic I've ever seen, a tour-de-force triumph that should by rights become the model of such films in the future. Eliminating the controversy and the topical nature of the themes at work, the film is simply a magnificent biography of three men and how they changed the world of music together and separately, crafted by a director who has clearly just produced his magnum opus. And yet to remove the controversy is in some way to miss the point, for without the need to have his characters sit around reciting homilies on how bad racism is to one another (I'm looking at you, Selma), Gray has made not only one of the best biopics ever, but also one of the more enlightening films on the nature of race relations in America, both in 1992, and, yes, perhaps today as well. In its aftermath we are left to draw our own lessons from what transpired and who these men were and what became of them, whether dead at 31 from AIDS or the richest and most successful music producer on Earth.

I've had it said to me that movies like Straight Outta Compton are what we need nowadays, in the aftermath of Fergusson and other high profile cop-on-black-men shootings. I'm not entirely sure that culture can or should be directed by perceived "needs" such as these, but by and large, having seen the film for myself, I have to agree. Not simply because of what Straight Outta Compton is about. But also because of how it goes about the business of being it.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Next Time:  The dregs of a pause before the storm.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fantastic Four (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  Shit-tastic Snore

A Note Before We Begin:     I had absolutely no intention of seeing this movie.  Among comic IPs, Fantastic Four has a pedigree worse than Catwoman, and despite the resurrection of X-Men by these very same means, I am not interested in going to see another movie whose very existence is a license-renewing contractual obligation.  Marvel movies not done by Marvel have an awful track record, and the same studio that brought us the Not-Amazing Spiderman was not one I was eager to see take another bite at the apple.  Fortunately for all of you people for whom my pain is a drug, a friend of mine volunteered to take a look at this one on my behalf, seeing as I had strictly no plans to fit it into the schedule.  Unfortunately, that was before the advanced buzz came back making this movie sound like a dumpster fire, and even more unfortunately, he is a man of his word.  I sincerely hope you all enjoy this one.  It was dearly bought.

Things Frigid... Saw?:  Hello, I go by Frigid on the internet and I write a book review blog called Frigidreads. Today however I will reviewing a movie in the good General's stead because it was feared if he saw this movie... Well it's likely best for all of us he doesn't see the movie. So I figured I'd volunteer, it's only a movie, how bad could it be? I'll be using the General's score for this despite having my own rating system because well, it's his series after all. Anyways on to the review:

So I went to see the movie against the advice of my family, my friends and my doctor. I should really start listening when everyone lines up to tell me not to do something.

I was told repeatedly that this film was a celebration of the comics. Well I saw damn little of the comics in this movie. The opening with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm is frankly tedious and eye rolling. Little Reed wants to be the first man to teleport organic matter (you know teleporting inorganic matter would be pretty damn revolutionary as well, just saying...) and announces this to his teacher and classmates. His teacher reacts to one of his students showing an interest in become a scientist by shitting all over him in front of his classmates and telling him to write a report on a “real” career. Really? I mean seriously, the kid before him chattered that he wanted to be a NFL quarterback. Bluntly Reed had a better chance of growing up to be a scientist working on teleportation than that kid, but no one shit on him. This displays one of the few consistent themes in this movie, any authority figure who is not named Storm is unreasonable and dislikes our main characters... For reasons.

The opening does show us how Reed and Ben met but frankly it's a waste. We're fed formulaic origin stories (Ben is alienated from his family who makes a living from their junkyard, Reed can't stand his stepfather and is a wacky child genius who is rejected and misunderstood). Hollywood, I know you love unreasonable authority figures who piss on our “heroes” for no reason but do a decent job with it, or don't do it. We jump to Reed and Ben as high school seniors in a science fair, where they show off the device and are disqualified for... reasons. This is so tired and hackneyed and cliched and they don't do a damn thing with it! It's just there to make them temporarily put upon! Why have this shit in your movie if you're not going to do anything with it?

Although the teacher does have a rather nice sneer. Reed is then offered a scholarship by Sue and Johnny Storm's father, Doctor Franklin Storm. By the way for those wondering, Susan is adopted. This isn't turned into a thing.

Ben, having served his betters for years is told 'thanks a lot now toddle on back home like a good servant'. Seriously this one burned me. In the comics Ben Grimm puts up a front of being a rather dim guy, but he met Reed in college, they took classes together. Yes, Ben is not in Reed's league but seriously who is? Regardless Ben Grimm is a fucking pilot who was good enough for fucking NASA! How is it a celebration of the comic books to take away all of Ben Grimm's skills and abilities and reduce him to Reed Richard's Igor and good luck charm? It turns their relationship from one of two men with different gifts and skills who regard themselves as equals to one of Reed graciously condescending to dribble crumbles to his friend who gave him spare parts. I would bitch about the movies getting rid of Ben's military service (he was an air force pilot before being accepted by the space program) but Marvel has got me fairly well covered with Captain America, Warmachine and Falcon. This treatment of Ben stands out all the more considering Susan Storm is turned into a scientist who while not as smart as Reed is still shown to have impressive intellectual gifts. Johnny Storm is shown to have good hardware and basic engineering skills. In the original story Sue was along literally because she and Reed were knocking boots and Johnny got to come because he was the little brother of Reed's girlfriend. So everyone got upgraded expect for Ben, who got downgraded, and there wasn't any reason for it that I can see. It added nothing to the story, it gave us no new information on Ben's character. So why have this in your movie if you're not going to do anything with it?

Then we have Victor Von Doom, except we don't. Because I don't know who the hell this guy is, but he ain't Doctor Doom. I don't know what Fox's problem is with actually getting one of the most Ionic and Memorable Comic Book Villains ever made right, but it seems they can't bear to simply give us Dr. Doom. In this movie Knock Off Doom is a withdrawn painfully introverted “genius” who will make cow eyes at Susan Storm for about a third of the movie, which I'll go into in a minute. They drop Doom's characterization for something completely different, jettison his background and origin for something completely different, and then (say it with me now) they don't do anything with it! Why even name this guy Doom? He's got nothing to do with Doom! For that matter they'll take him out of the movie and only bring him back in the last 20 minutes or so because someone pointed out they needed a bad guy and a superpower fight. So there's no build up, no foreshadowing, just Doom being lost on Planet Zero (Spent all night coming up with that name didn't ya fellas?) for a year (gonna cover this to) and being brought back where he immediately starts killing people because of crazy. To be fair if I thought I had escaped this movie and was dragged back in, I'd be pretty pissed off too.

I mean first of all... How to put this? Doom runs a country, bitch! He is a sovereign ruler with resources and abilities on par with the Fantastic Four despite not having any superpowers expect for the ones he steals from any cosmic being stupid enough to get close enough to him! He's epic, grand, petty, and spiteful, with an ego that would make gods suggest he needs to tone it down. Worse of all, at least half of the time he can back his shit up. They run from this like vampires from daylight, which only enforces that this movie is at best uncaring of its source material, or at worst ashamed of it. Which a comic book cannot be. Comic book movies can be a lot of things, as Marvel has gleefully proven with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Winter Soldier, and even Ant Man! But they cannot be ashamed of the comic books they spawned from. The sooner Fox figures this out, the faster they'll stop making shit superhero movies. I had believed between X-Men first class and Future Past they had figured it out. I was mistaken.

But let me get back to this thing. The movie tries to set up a Reed-Susan-Victor love triangle. It fails. Firstly because Reed is made painfully awkward (to be fair, I was worse in high school). Second, the actors have all the chemistry together of a pile of granite rocks. Thirdly, and this will surprise you gentle readers, the movie doesn't do anything with this plot! Seriously why bother with these tired cliches if you're not going to bother doing even a cliche ending to them? It's like someone told them all movies must have a romantic sub plot but they weren't sure what 'romantic' and 'plot' meant. Hell, it's not settled by Susan choosing to be with Reed or anyone admitting their feelings. Victor drops his half formed crush on Susan Storm to commit himself to genocide. All I could think at that point was at least someone in this movie was committing to something!

We have a montage after Reed is recruited to build a device to jump to a planet in another dimension, because space is too old school or something I guess? Despite the fact we live in a world where space travel is rapidly being privatized and there are an increasing number of organizations showing up to push back those boundaries, so a movie about people going to space would be relevant and pretty cool. But nope! We're teleporting to another dimension for reasons. I guess this could be a call back to the Negative Zone, but again they don't do anything with it! When they successfully teleport a chimp to and back, they're told that it's time to bring NASA in, and you'd think they were told that we were gonna build a new Gitmo there or something. So Reed, Victor and Johnny decide the only adult thing to do is get drunk and hijack the teleporter and do it first so they can be in the history books. Reed drunk dials Ben, because they need him to become a bad CGI rock monster. They go and bad things happen. Sue gets blasted because she walked in and tried to help. They are then turned over to the military and Reed flees because the military is bad. We now skip a year, so we have two time skips and a montage. I'm not saying that time skips are bad, but I am saying that so many in a single movie suggests to me that you need to go back to the story board. During that time skip Ben starts doing missions for the military, which is bad for reasons. The military develops ways for Susan and Johnny to control their powers and Johnny decides he wants to go on missions too. This is also bad for reasons.

The government and the military are treated as these sinister monsters who will surely destroy our heroes if left unchecked, but what do they do? They develop suits to help bring Susan and Johnny under control. I'm not a fan of these suits honestly but it's a minor plot point. They try to conduct research to understand Ben's condition and send him on missions for the US Army. When Susan says no, no one pressures or threatens her to make her do it. As to Johnny, after a year he gets ready to volunteer and everyone freaks out. Yes, clearly the stuff of villainy! I mean the most villainous person here is Doctor Storm's coworker in a suit who keeps referring to them as subjects behind their backs. But hey, an adult might be sent on a military mission of his own free will? That's awful! Speaking as a veteran of the Marine Corps? Fuck You.

But seriously why all this build up about how they can't trust the government or the military and then have the said government do... Really nothing at all that seems that sinister to me. At worst they took advantage of Ben to save other troops lives, but I guess our lives don't count. But hey, it doesn't matter because they do this build up and then... You guess it, they don't do anything with it. Instead there's Reed, who spent the year in Central America trying to rebuild the teleporter. They don't do anything with this either. Nor do they do anything with the fact the Ben is angry at Reed for taking him on a mission that turned him into a big orange monster and then fucking off to the jungle. They. Don't. Do. Anything. With. This.

It's all resolved with hand waves at the end of the movie, where they and Not-Doom have this really... generic, mundane let down of the a fight. Our heroes turn around to the military who gave them the training and equipment to win and tell them, hey we're done working for you. You're going to give us a huge fuck off lab, fund us to whatever amount we want and we're not going to share our work with you or do anything for you at all! Because you're evil. For reasons. It's an ending that reeks of the worst of Baby-Boomer-entitlement where authority exists only to give you everything you want but fuck you having to do anything or, you know, give anything back. The movie closes and I am left with this. The best part was the Star Wars Trailer and the knowledge that no one ever said they were the Fantastic Four in this film.

But I am left asking, why is it so hard to do a film about the F4? It's a simple concept: a family that loves to explore and push back the boundaries of knowledge and must at times fight against the new threats that exploration reveals. Instead Fox continually keeps trying to turn them into a generic superhero team, stripping away anything interesting or special in favor of movies that tell stories by waving about tired old cliches and then putting them down to wave another set of tired old cliches. So I have to close this review by asking the same question I've been asking throughout. Why have the rights to the Fantastic Four, why fight and scheme and sweat to keep those rights... If you're not going to do anything with them?

Final Score:  2.25/10

Next Time:  Most musical biopics do not involve machine guns.  This is not most musical biopics...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Alternate Title:  Truth in Advertising

One sentence synopsis:     A woman whose life consists of one night stands and casual relationships tries to clean up her act after falling for a sports doctor she was assigned to interview.

Things Havoc liked:  I don't go to see a lot of romantic comedies. It's not a genre I chase down when I have the chance. If I'm being blatantly honest, I don't really know why that is. Yes, most romantic comedies are stupid, shallow, vapid, and borderline offensive, but those terms also describe a number of genres that I do like, so perhaps it's just a matter of not having any major milestone films to compare them to. An action movie that I sit down to see is going to be measured in terms of the giants of the genre, the Aliens, the Terminator 2s, (the Mad Maxes), whereas I've never been fan enough of Sleepless in Seattle or whatever the stalwarts of rom-coms are supposed to be to properly evaluate modern renditions with the classics of yesteryear. But with the September Slump having pushed into August this year, and precious little available to see, I was prevailed upon to take a shot at the latest offering from Judd Apatow.

You all know who Judd Apatow is, don't you? I do, and I go to see Rom-coms about as often as I check out polemical documentaries on the evils of sheep. The king of "Bromantic comedy", writer and/or director of everything from Pineapple Express to The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Funny People, Adam Sandler's last watchable movie, Apatow is one of the reigning High Lords of Comedy nowadays, having somehow caused Bridesmaids to become the biggest R-rated comedy ever (Lord only knows how). Yet rather than draw on his usual stable of Hollywood comedians like Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, or Kristen Wiig, Apatow this time has decided to give us Comedy Central star Amy Schumer, SNL's Bill Hader, and a whole pile of major figures in sports and wrestling, presumably in the hope that some of them would be funny.

And you know what? They are. And not only that, but their presence livened the movie considerably for me, a depressingly-stereotypical heterosexual man whose appreciation for these sorts of movies is desperately limited, but who can nonetheless appreciate the automatic comedy potential that comes from having a film in which LeBron James plays the role of the concerned friend who doesn't want to see his fragile buddy's heart broken and who stages interventions alongside Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert (I have no explanation) to get the struggling couple back together. These kinds of funny celebrity not-cameos are the sorts of things The Rock used to do all the time (Be Cool was a good example), back before he graduated into a full-fledged actor, sequences where the punch line was that someone like The Rock was acting like a gay narcissist, or a nanny, or something else un-macho. This time we have LeBron complaining that his best buddy Bill Hader isn't keeping up with Downton Abbey, and that he may have to watch it without him. We have Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire stumbling out of his rehab hospital in an anesthesia-ed stupor because he suddenly realizes that his doctor is running on caffeine fumes before his major knee surgery. We have John Cena, of all people, cast as the meatheaded-but-sensitive boyfriend of the protagonist whose dedication to the gym may be covering for latent homosexual tendencies. All of these are funny ideas, but the surprising thing is that all of the above non-actors are really good at milking the comedy prospects out of them. LeBron, for instance, has a standout scene wherein he and Hader play pickup, half-court basketball while discussing Hader's relationship problems, a sort of scene even I've seen a hundred times in the movies, save that this time the best bud is LeBron James, the greatest basketball player in the world, and the match is allowed to go approximately the way any contest between LeBron James and an SNL comic would naturally go, all without anyone ever acknowledging that anything is strange. Cena, meanwhile, the most popular WWE wrestler in the world (and the record-holder for Make-A-Wish Doundation's pledges fulfilled), goes much further than I would have expected any wrestler to go in making fun of himself, not only appearing as a possibly-gay, 'roided-out gym-fanatic with some of the best lines in the movie ("I look like if Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg"), but starring in sex scenes where he can't perform without chanting iron-pumping slogans. And yet what other movie, given a target as over-the-top as John Cena, would have the guts to cast him, despite his pretensions and ridiculousness, as the manifest good guy in a relationship dispute with the main character of the film?

The whole movie, in fact, is filled with this sort of thing, light touches from a highly experienced director who knows how to ring situational comedy out of the slightest deviation from normal reality. Schumer works at a TMZ-style gossip magazine called S'nuff, whose writers sit around pitching ever-more debased concepts to one another and to their boss, played by the incomparably weird Tilda Swinton (whom I misidentified as "that woman whose name I don't know who looks a lot like Tilda Swinton"). "The ugliest celebrity children under 6" is the sort of depraved article I could absolutely see appearing on some kind of Gawker-analogue. Schumer's brother-in-law and nephew (the former played by Mike Birbiglia, who may one day find forgiveness for Sleepwalk With Me) ride the fine line between real-life awkward and only-in-movies awkward. The film even takes the time to introduce Schumer's ever-philandering, vaguely homophobic-and-racist father, played by Colin Quinn, who despite all of the above is very funny as a prototypical New York asshole, albeit far too young to credibly play a nursing home resident alongside Norman Lloyd, who is 100 years old, and still has his comedic timing. All in all, the movie is comprised entirely of these nice, subtle comic touches, ones not everyone will necessarily get (a gag involving a bunch of Jets fans asking Hader who his sports patients are had me laughing out loud even as the rest of the theater stared at me in confusion). I would expect nothing less from Judd Apatow at this point.

Things Havoc disliked:  So... given all that, why didn't I like this movie much?

It's not that I hated it, for I didn't, but for the amount of effort Apatow spends trying to get me specifically to like his movie, I walked out of the theater surprisingly cold to the entire effort. And the reason for that is not the direction or the cameos or the sense of humor or the secondary characters or anything else. The reason for that was Amy Schumer.

Now please don't get me wrong, I didn't think Schumer did badly in this movie. She acts decently well, even when the script calls for sincerity and dramatic weight, something which would cause most hipster-comedians to run screaming out the door. I don't know anything of Schumer's previous body of work, and I don't know what her reputation is as a comedian, but I do know that the character she plays in this film, a role she plays with a fair degree of skill I should add, is an awful, awful person, and I simply wanted her to go away.

I can hear the objections already. "Of course she's an awful person, the movie is called 'Trainwreck'! It's a redemption story!" All true, but all beside the point. The film has her treat everyone she knows, her initial boyfriend (Cena), her newly-acquired boyfriend, her sister and her family, everyone meaningful, with insouciant disconcern bordering on contempt. This is fine, comedies are often about awful people after all, but most of the time, those comedies are not also asking the audience to identify with the awful person in question, at least not through their entire runtime. Identifying with a flawed character is one thing, but an inveterate shithead is another, and this character strikes that chord with almost contemptuous ease. Accusing her sister of being an insensitive bitch who hated her father at the old man's funeral while relentlessly mocking her sister's son and husband to their faces for being awkward, treating her putative boyfriend's job (sports medicine) as a stupid joke and mocking the very notion that sports should matter to anyone, passive-aggressively treating anyone who criticizes her like a shallow, stupid, inferior person who is clearly intimidated by her awesomeness, none of these are game-breaking traits necessarily if the movie were to frame the character fairly, but it does not. Not at all.

What do I mean? The movie keeps to a fairly normal rom-com style of reality, wherein strange and quirky things happen, but nothing in the realm of absolute impossibility. I can see LeBron James hanging out with his favorite sports doctor and doling out relationship advice after all, in between losing NBA Finals games (I kid, don't hurt me!). But periodically throughout the film, characters, and even the entire feel of the movie shift wildly into the realm of ludicrous parody so that the main character can be forgiven of slights that would otherwise be unforgivable. Her sister, the one with the weird family, a character established as having her life at least somewhat together, and having a much deeper respect for the concept of family in general, just so happens to decide, apropos of nothing, to wantonly destroy their father's collection of sports memorabilia and sent her text messages about putting the old man in a worse nursing home (not a "cheaper" one, a "worse" one). Nevermind that the old man is a homophobic racist who insulted her son in public and drove her out of the room in tears, nevermind that Amy herself heaps nothing but scorn on the concept of sport, this gives Amy "permission" to act unforgivably to her and then expect to be forgiven. Similarly, Tilda Swinton, as Amy's boss, plays a character beamed in seemingly from Mars, a raving sociopath, utterly at odds with the tenor of the movie, who tells Amy at one point that the best way to grieve is to simply not do so. I love Tilda Swinton, I'm on record a hundred times saying that, but her character is thunderously at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, which would be fine if the reason she was included wasn't to offer an excuse for the main character to act like a shithead. The "crisis" of the film (all Rom-coms have the same structure) is provided by Swinton calling Schumer with the most ludicrous, unacceptable demands possible in the middle of one of the only moments where she is required to provide support to someone else. Despite being established as a fiery, don't-give-a-shit sort of person, she acquiesces immediately to running off and leaving her partner in the lurch without a word, something she now has an "excuse" for. Nevermind that she stays away afterwards and smokes pot instead of even trying to explain herself.  Nevermind that the film lets her spin the resulting argument around to make the other guy look like the asshole for demanding to know what happened.  We deus ex'ed up a reason for the character to act like a shithead, therefore you, the audience, are required to like her.

Final thoughts:  I want to stress that none of this is Amy Schumer's fault, at least not as an actress. She plays the character as the script calls for her to play the character, and does a fine and defensible job at doing so, even when the script demands that she put actual pathos into her acting, something a lot of comics more storied than her have repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot do. No, the fault of this glaring flaw is due to the writer of this movie, a woman named Amy... Schumer...

... huh. Okay then. That may explain a few things.

Psychoanalysis aside, Trainwreck is not a bad movie, nor, judging by the reactions it has gotten, is it a movie that will appeal to nobody. But there is always a risk in romantic films that when one character asks the other (as they do in this film), why they or anyone could possibly want them, that the audience will find themselves asking the same question. The main character of a movie like this does not have to be a good person, or all that likeable, but there must be something to convince us as viewers that we should indeed invest ourselves in this character's success, either because we like them or identify with them or both. The film never convinced me to make this leap, and in consequence never succeeded in convincing me that I was watching a happy ending at all. Perhaps I'm simply allergic to the pathologically passive-aggressive, or perhaps the pre-emptive hate mail I got for this review (It is not 'slut-shaming' to suggest that someone who lies to her partner while cheating on him with a dozen other people is an asshole, people) poisoned me on the concept. But while I'm not about to launch moral crusades about how this movie is evil, there is a core of bitter entitlement to it that I find most unpleasant to be around.

Some movies are bad, and some are good, but some are films that, for better or worse, I just didn't like that much. I won't go so far as to call Trainwreck bad. But I won't be bringing it up again as some hallmark of the comedic arts.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Another Guest Review!  This time by a man who chose... poorly.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Alternate Title:  Exactly What I Deserve

One sentence synopsis:     Ethan Hunt and the IMF must stop a group of international terrorists from destroying the world.

Things Havoc liked:  So... some of my long-time readers will remember that a couple years ago I reviewed the fourth film Mission Impossible series, a movie called Ghost Protocol for reasons that I doubt even the scriptwriter remembers now. If you don't recall this film, you shouldn't feel particularly bad about it, as the movie was an entirely forgettable affair, one of the most by-the-numbers action jobs I've ever reviewed, along the lines of movies like Killer Elite or The Equalizer. The film wasn't awful, just entirely forgettable, to the point where, absent a handful of moments and shots, I don't remember a damn thing about it, something unusual for me and my movie-watching. Middling films like MI:4 are difficult ones to review and to collate in my mind, not in the least because of the question of what to do when their sequels inevitably come out. Movies I love or hate are easy to decide upon when the next installment arrives, but with the prospect of MI:5 on the horizon, I was uncertain as to whether to see it or not. Ultimately it was the request of others that drove me to give it a chance. And so here we are.

So let's start, as is customary, with the high points. I don't recall exactly when Simon Pegg got into the Mission Impossible business, but he was the best thing in MI:4 and he remains the best part in its sequel, with a role that is considerably enhanced over the last time. Yes, he's still sort of comic relief, but he gets to play his role a bit straighter this time, with less stupid pratfall bullshit and more of a sense that, yes, this is supposed to be a superspy, despite everything. Pegg's hallmark has always been a very everyman sort of straight-man comedy (Hot Fuzz aside), and he seems to be almost aware of how absurd this series is, even as he plunges headlong through it. Pegg is also at the heart of the super-tech gadgetry that Mission Impossible has always been heavy on, a sort of combination of Q and the plucky sidekick. I won't call this Pegg's best role or anything, but it's a welcome sight to see entering a movie like this.

There are newcomers this time as well, both new to me and simply new to the series. Rebecca Ferguson is one of the former, and her role is that of the femme fatale, the female assassin/love interest of our dashing hero, Ethan Hunt, though admittedly the Mission Impossible series has always been a bit lighter on the seduction than the Bond films they clearly wish to be. All that means though is that Fergusson actually gets to act, which is a shade more than Halley Berry got to do during her turn as a Bond Girl. Fergusson is perfectly decent in the role, one that actually requires her to engage in her own action set-pieces at times (a knife fight between her and a giant bruiser late in the film is a particular high point), and while I'd hardly write her in for Scarlett Johansson, the field of actually effective action heroines is not so immense that I'm prepared to look gift horses in the mouth, as it were. And speaking of gift horses, we also get Alec Baldwin this time around, whom I love, and have always loved, even in the bad, bad movies that he made a habit of making during his misspent youth. Baldwin plays the director of the CIA, a man determined to get the IMF under some approximation of control by any means necessary, and though this does mean that Baldwin is simply reprising his douchebag-authority-figure role from such films as Glenngary Glenn Ross and The Departed (and 30 Rock), this is a character type that he is good at playing, and that I enjoy watching him play, irrespective of the circumstance.

Things Havoc disliked:  The fact that I keep using phrases like "irrespective of the circumstance" should probably give you a hint.

No, Mission Impossible 5 isn't awful, and no, I don't outright regret seeing it (Pixels was my alternative), but if I'm being brutally honest with myself, I should simply have known better. I went to see this movie because, of all people, my mother wanted to, as she wanted to see Tom Cruise and I had no better idea to suggest instead. As such, the results I received were entirely predictable from the get-go, given that the last movie, while also not receiving a properly failing grade, was so irrelevant to my greater moviewatching career that I announced at the conclusion of reviewing it that I would likely never think about it again, and proceeded to do just that until it came time to write this review?

So what's actually wrong here? The film is just boring. Long and boring, despite a two hour runtime and about eighteen different action setpieces. How this happened is beyond me. Christopher McQuarrie, whose writing and directing credits include The Usual Suspects, Edge of Tomorrow, Valkyrie, and Jack Reacher, all good films, most of them starring Tom Cruise. So what happened here? Was the weight of the mediocrity of this series so immense that McQuarrie couldn't do anything about it? Was Cruise ghost-writing the thing? Did everyone get swallowed by Scientology? I have no idea, and yet here we are.

Part of the problem is the returning cast, particularly two men I'm typically great fans of, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner. Rhames hasn't been in a whole lot recently, and is more or less in this movie just because he was in the first one. He looks tired, uninterested, and simply bored, or perhaps I was simply projecting my own state. He does, however, manage to do better than Renner, who has a fairly comprehensive pedigree for action movies nowadays, and seems to have decided that this was the moment to channel his turn in the fourth Bourne film. I love Renner, but he's awful in this movie, having apparently mistaken the plot for one that is reasonable and speaks to deep truths in our modern world. He speaks in breathless tones on the phone and to his colleagues as though trying to put together the prosecution of the Nuremberg trials, and otherwise does more or less nothing except provide a cardboard cutout for Alec Baldwin to yell at.

But the cast is secondary in a movie like this, even in a good one, so if I'm being properly honest, the real problem here is the action, which is formulaic in all the wrong ways. Setpieces involve the usual Imperial Stormtrooper Academy of Marksmanship bullshit wherein our hero, running in a straight line down a hallway away from the enemy, cannot be hit by bullets, despite the six goons with machine guns firing at him for a minute and a half from ten yards away. A single motorcycle chase through the highways of Morocco manages to generate some interest, due to clever cinematographic tricks to highlight the speed our heroes are making, but all of the other chases, on foot, in cars, underwater, all of them suffer from the same old boring problems that they had in the previous film, fights without stakes, chases without purpose, a gratuitous swimming scene that is padded out by contrivances so obvious that the audience laughed at them before they happened. You know the feeling you get when you're about to get out of an unpleasant situation, a boring conversation or a staff meeting, and then, right at the end, someone does or says something that guarantees you are stuck there for another half hour at least? Half a dozen of the scenes in this movie contained elements that gave me that same reaction.

Final thoughts:   It's hard to write about movies like this, ephemeral movies that have no purchase on one's memory, better or worse. And yet despite the fact that they're basically the same film, I left Mission Impossible 5 far more annoyed than I had its predecessor. Part of that was simply that I wasted my time at a film I knew was unlikely to be good, but part of it was that, in a year such as this, with the glorious, transcendent action movies we have gorged upon for the last six months, there is simply no excuse for making a boring, routine action flick like this one, a movie that could easily have come out in 2004 for all it has learned. Even stupid action films like Fast & Furious 7 (and, if I'm being brutally honest, Kingsman), have evolved far beyond this, with new styles, scripts, pacings, and cinematic tricks designed to thrill audiences who have seen fare like the rest of the damn Mission Impossible series already and want to watch something entertaining. How this series keeps going the way it has, garnering the critical acclaim and audience adoration (my audience applauded the goddamn thing!) is entirely beyond me, but then I'm used, at this point, to being the smartest man in the room when I sit down to watch these weekly films.

Go see Mission Impossible 5 if you're curious, but it is exactly what you think it is. As it was exactly what I thought it would be. I, meanwhile, keep my code of only going to see movies I think might be good for a reason, ladies and gentlemen, and once in a while, it helps to remind myself of just what that reason is.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Next Time:  LeBron James and John Cena compete to see who can follow in The Rock's footsteps.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mr. Holmes

Alternate Title:  Elementary Filmmaking

One sentence synopsis:     An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes, tries to recall the fading memories of his last case, the one which led him to retire in the first place.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm back, ladies and gentlemen, and I have another movie for those of you who missed my incoherent screams of anguish. It's about Sherlock Holmes futzing with beehives and has an adorable kid sidekick!

Wait! Wait! Stop! It also has Gandalf!!!

Ian McKellan is a treasure, as everybody on the internet already knows, and that is what led me here, to a quiet, simple movie about everyone's favorite constantly re-imagined detective. McKellan plays Sherlock at various ages between 60 and 93, showcasing the world famous detective both when he was still at the height of his abilities and in the fading twilight of his life, exiled by choice to a cottage in southern England where he keeps bees, drives his housekeeper mad, and desperately tries to find some superfood (royal jelly, prickly ash sap) that will restore his failing memory. McKellan is a wonder to watch in largely any role I've ever seen him in, and that remains the case here, as the movie wisely turns down the sociopathic assholery that seems to have become compulsory in Sherlock Holmes adaptations in the last decade or two, and instead simply turns Sherlock into a grumpy old man, whose experience with feats of deductive genius is so extensive that even the degeneration of his long term memory cannot materially harm it. The movie is full of moments where Sherlock "does his thing" (as one of the characters literally puts it), but the results are, as they always should be, impossible to follow until you suddenly realize how obvious it all was to begin with. Yet the film isn't just about sitting back and admiring Sherlock Holmes (as has also become compulsory), but simply using him as a vehicle to examine regrets and memory, thankfully without literally turning into Flowers for Algernon.

Show of hands, how many of you actually got that reference?

The reason the movie does not degenerate into a piece on failure and death (now you get it), is weirdly enough because the filmmaker (Bill Condon, who may one day find forgiveness for Twilight 4 and The Fifth Estate), supplies cantankerous old Sherlock with a kid sidekick, usually the death knell for movies like this, but in this case salvaged by two factors. One is the actual sidekick in question, a clever boy named Roger, played by unknown Milo Parker, son of Holmes' housekeeper, who bitterly resents his own working class background, and clearly sees Holmes as a symbol of a better, more educated, more intellectual life than the one he is almost certainly destined to have. Unlike movies that fell apart because of these sorts of characters (The Water Diviner comes to mind), Parker doesn't play Roger like a cute moppet, and McKellan's Holmes doesn't seem to know what to do with a kid anyway, and therefore simply treats him like he would any other mere mortal, layering contempt on him if he doesn't match Holmes' exalted intellectual standards, and permitting mild surprise whenever he does. It would be condescending if Holmes didn't treat everyone that way, and as Roger is clearly used to being condescended to (as are most children), one gets the sense that he enjoys hanging about with Sherlock Holmes if only for the novel experience of being condescended to by a professional. All analysis aside, the dynamic is simply excellent. Both McKellan and Parker handle their characters beautifully, and the movie even manages to coax a good performance out of Laura Linney, an actress I have never liked, whose last appearance on this project (2013's Hyde Park on Hudson) was not precisely a triumph.

And that's really all there is to Mr. Holmes, a simple, Sunday Afternoon kind of movie, not a mystery thriller nor a Lear-esque Damn-the-Heavens mediation on old age and death, but a quiet piece with good performances by good actors. Nice touches, rather than staggering acts of genius or shocking plot twists, are the stuff of this film, such as the notion that Doctor Watson, under the pen-name of Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote the stories of Sherlock Holmes in a sort of Hearstian semi-biography, something which leads to the admittedly funny idea of Sherlock Holmes going to see the famous Basel Rathbone movie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, and then grousing endlessly about the inadequacies he is now expected to live by ("I do not wear a deerstalker!"). I liked the mundane, quotidian uses to which the elder Holmes puts his deductive skills, and the way in which the movie lets the audience figure the riddles out before inevitably spelling them out, and the simple, non-histrionic method in which the film allows Sherlock his subtle victories of intellect and deduction before re-framing the film entirely away from his state as the sharpest man in the room. There's a great deal of depth of feeling to Mr. Holmes, but none of it is shoved front and center onto the screen, as Condon clearly trusts that McKellan and his cohorts are strong enough actors to manage without the need to demolish all subtlety.

Things Havoc disliked:  The film is never boring, but it is very slow, and on occasion one may be forgiven, despite a solid script and excellent actors, for wondering just what the point of a given sequence is. So it is with an extended secondary flashback sequence to a trip to postwar Japan, where Sherlock must come face to face with the aftermath of Hiroshima. Though the sequence did provide a welcome opportunity to see Hiroyuki Sanada in a non-crap movie for once (thank you Railway Man), there really isn't much of a point to this entire subplot, as the film makes nothing of the themes of Sherlock being out of place in the modern world that it seems to be aiming at with this idea. Indeed, for the amount of time devoted to this excursion, there really isn't anything to show for it. Sherlock seeks for a plant in Japan to restore his memory. He finds it, tries it, discovers it doesn't work, and moves on. Vague gestures are made towards other thematic components of this plotline being involved in the rest of the film, but nothing definite really ever comes of it, and given the movie's already leisurely pace, slowing things down further with pointless vacation slides was probably not the best idea in the world.

Final thoughts:   Still, not every movie has to be Mad Max, and Mr. Holmes is honestly quite a good one, despite its pace and the occasional diversion into pointless rambling. Maybe I am a bit too forgiving of Ian McKellan (I'm the one guy who liked Apt Pupil), but I'd rather be wrong about spending a couple hours with actors I enjoy, than right about avoiding them. If you're looking for deep, thunderous drama from your British indie pieces, or simply want a spiritual sequel to the eighteen different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes on television in the last five years, then this may not be your cup of tea. But even in a year as overloaded with blockbuster action as this one, there's always time to stop and smell the beehives, if only to deduce by the flight pattern of the worker bees that summer is ending, and it may be time to start trimming the hay.

Or alternately, time to see what the studios decided to drop at the back-end of Blockbuster Season...

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  So... what did they decide to drop at the back-end of Blockbuster Season?

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...