Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Walk

Alternate Title:  Peak French

One sentence synopsis:     A French tightrope walker conceives of and executes a daring plan to sneak onto the newly-constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center, and walk between them on a tightrope.

Things Havoc liked: Some years ago, I saw a documentary by the name of "Man on Wire" about a certifiable lunatic named Phillipe Petit who, in 1974, strung a high wire between the towers of the World Trade Center, and spent the following morning walking between them for all to see, with nothing but his own skills and a balancing pole between him and horrible death. The entire stunt was so... ludicrous, done not for any cause or political action, not because someone wanted to self promote, but because the acrobat in question simply felt a compulsion to do it, that it instantly captured everyone's imagination, and became the subject of books and documentaries and television specials the world over. In fact the director of the documentary, one James Marsh, when asked during the showing of his film at Tribeca why he had decided to make it the subject of his picture, responded that it was such perfect fodder for "a heist film", that he felt someone had to take it on. Well fast forward seven years, and what do you know, but someone has.

And not just someone, but legendary "visual storyteller" (his words) Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forest Gump and a whole bunch of extremely creepy 3D animated films from the 00s that we shall not speak of again. Zemeckis, like Ridley Scott or James Cameron, is a staggeringly visual director, one of the few serious filmmakers who always wholeheartedly embraced the 3D craze that I'm still hoping dies an eventual death. Zemeckis, I have every faith, did not sign onto 3D just to aggravate me, but because, moreso than even most of his peers, Zemeckis relies on his visual style to sell the experience his movies offer, be it the half-animated world of Roger Rabbit or the motion-captured non-Euclidian nightmare realm of The Polar Express. This time his subject is less out there, a period and a place, well two places really, specifically Paris and New York in the early 1970s, a time when Paris was a romantic, charming, magical place, and New York was... well moving on... Zemeckis films his tale of two cities in soft, muted lighting, with sweeping spectacle shots to drape the film in warm panoply of romantic nostalgia, even before the actor steps out onto his indescribably high wire. From the rich, cozy confines of a basement Bistro in Paris to the lofty heights of Notre Dame, Zemeckis clearly loves and wants everyone to love the idea of Paris in the 70s as being the most magical place in the world. It reminds me of Hugo, Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema and to the Paris of a bygone day, and carries over even when the film reaches New York, which is a cinematic city but not a very romantic one, certainly not in the 1970s. Yet Zemeckis manages to make even the Twin Towers, which if I'm being honest, were two of the ugliest buildings ever erected, look good, emphasizing their simplistic styling and their sheer mass, humanizing the two lumps of undifferentiated concrete, letting us see the towers the way our frankly-deranged protagonist sees them.

And let us not be mistaken here, this protagonist is deranged, but in a very precise way that requires explanation. You see, my sister and I both attended French immersion schools from the age of four, speak the language fluently, know and love the country, the culture, the people, (the food), everything about France and all that is French, and we both agreed, when first we saw the Documentary, that Phillipe Petit is, without question, the Frenchest man to ever live upon the Earth. What we mean by that is in some way ineffable, a combination of illogical madness, artistic obsession, vivacious over-energized demeanor, and semi-crazed philosophical underpinnings that make no sense to anyone else and only some sense to him. And stepping into this demanding role as an insane French aerialist, we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of Inception and Dark Knight Rises and Looper and so many other things that I have overcome my antipathy towards his work and embraced him as an actor worth seeing in things. To satisfy me, a Francophile of considerable experience, was going to be a tough sell, but frankly, Gordon-Levitt does a marvelous job by portraying a character at the edge of a particularly French sort of insanity, with big, bold mannerisms and big bold obsessions that leave no room for self-doubt or distraction. His accent is atrocious, one step removed from Monty Python's French Knights, but his mannerisms and enthusiasm are perfect, indeed they almost render the comic-bad accent more appropriate, as this is a character who is effectively a living pantomime. He must walk across the Twin Towers, you see. He must do it because it is a Great Thing and Great Things must be done for their own sake and for the sake of utterly incomprehensible notions of art and life and respect for the spirits of great buildings and the honor of a performance or some damn thing. You run into notions like this in movies about otherwise rational men who willingly do dangerous things for no reason, movies like Rush or Everest, but none of them got across the almost tautological nature of an obsession like this the way this movie does, not by explaining it, but by safely placing it outside the realm of explanation. Mountains must be climbed because they are there, and tightropes must be walked upon in dramatic locations because that is what must happen, and notions of safety and legality are consequently irrelevant to the task.

Of course those notions aren't so irrelevant to everyone else in the world, and so we return to the notion of a Heist movie, which this film really is, except that the only thing being stolen is gravity. Most of the film is taken up with the antics of Petit and his band of like-minded "conspirators" as they plan out, Oceans' 11-style, their grand "coup" (these are the terms the movie uses). Even before 9/11, sneaking a heavy-duty tightrope cable up to the top of a skyscraper, contriving to string it across to another skyscraper, and anchoring it to the building at several points, in pitch darkness, all without being caught, is no mean feat. When the film is finally done with the setup, the rest of the movie is the walk itself, an extended promenade straight into hardcore vertigo that is fantastically tense despite depicting a real event which actually occurred and which we know the end result of. Even in a 2D showing, which was what I engaged in, the film is positively gorgeous, lovingly capturing New York at a specific moment in time, from a vantage point only one man ever reached, and none ever will again.

Things Havoc disliked: All of this is supremely well-done, as befits Robert Zemeckis, but that's... really all there is to the film. Characters, other than the main one, are more or less nonexistent, props for the heist or for Phillipe to bounce off of. Canadian Actress Charlotte Le Bon, playing Phillipe's musician girlfriend, has more or less nothing to do in the film but to, almost literally, bear witness to how crazy he is, watching him as he sets up the heist, pulls it off, and then heading home, with only a couple obligatory scenes of "why are you doing this?" concern to give the audience the chance to listen to Phillipe being French and crazy again. Even Sir Ben Kingsley, who was also in Hugo and about six billion other movies, has little to do as Papa Rudy, a Czech circus-master who serves as Phillipe's mentor, save for appearing once every half hour or so to dole out a penny-packet of wisdom on the philosophy (oh yes, there is more philosophy) of performance and life. I don't mind wise old mentor figures, certainly not when they're played by actors as august as Ben Kingsley, but it's only polite to actually give them something to do in the film beyond lending their name to the marketing campaign.

Final thoughts:    The Walk is another one of those frustrating films whose only real flaws are that they have limited horizons, movies I like but always feel bad about not giving a higher score to, as they didn't really do anything wrong. But whatever the hangups inherent in my scoring system, the film itself is a wonderful, atmospheric, enjoyable little character piece, one which, if the stories told be true, heavily involved the real Phillipe Petit, who personally taught Gordon-Levitt both how to tightrope walk and, presumably, how to be sufficiently French. A great and lasting masterwork it is not, but as a film designed to capture a person, a place, a time, and a couple of buildings that are normally associated in most Americans' minds with an entirely different, considerably less whimsical event, The Walk is a film it's hard to find fault with.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  A Halloween Spooktacular Special!  Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Intern

Alternate Title:  The Taxi Driver Wears Prada

One sentence synopsis:     A retired widower joins a senior internship program at a startup fashion company, and becomes the personal assistant of the frazzled CEO.

Things Havoc liked: Let's be honest with ourselves here. Robert De Niro is a great actor, but he's been phoning it in for literal decades now. I mean, I watch a lot more movies than most people do, but even I struggle to recollect anything about his more recent projects, boring make-work fare like Killer Elite or godawful tripe like Freelancers. Yes, De Niro is an old man, whose reputation and stature in Hollywood is eternally secure, and he doesn't need to be running around proving himself to anyone anymore, but it's not like any of those factors have stopped Maggie Smith, Hellen Mirren, or Meryl Streep from continuing to produce high quality work in interesting films. And the nexus of a lot of the crap De Niro has been his comedies. If they're not garbage like What Just Happened or Grudge Match (and they usually are), then he quickly stars in a number of sequels to them (Meet the Fockers, Analyze That) which are guaranteed to hammer the quality level back down to what we have come to expect in recent years. I love De Niro, and will always love De Niro, for all the many, many great films he's done, but he trades on that love to get away with making throwaway crap, ground out in a week or two so that he can get back to Tribeca and his political work.

So, with all that in mind, I decided this week that it was best to go see a Robert De Niro comedy.

*Record scratch*

Now hold on, this movie's more than just a Robert De Niro vehicle, it's an Anne Hathaway vehicle, and that's a different prospect entirely. Anne Hathaway is a wonderful actress, and I've loved a great many roles of hers, from The Dark Knight Rises to Les Miserables, to The Devil Wears Prada, which is where we finally arrive at this film. Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, founder and CEO of an online fashion startup in Brooklyn, who resembles in no small part a number of people I know hanging around the tech industry, people who are pulled constantly in eighty-six different directions at once because, deep down, they sort of prefer it that way. Her character is not the Satanic fashion overlord that Meryl Streep played to such effect in Prada, but sort of a... natural evolution of the one that Hathaway played, someone who is intensely focused and highly self-driving, but who tries, at least, to moderate those tendencies when it comes to everyone around her lest she transform into the boss from Hell. Which is good, because the movie really isn't about Bosses From Hell, nor about the dangers of overwork, nor even (as the trailers seemed to indicate) about Robert De Niro being old and unacquainted with technology, and thereby setup for pratfalls when it turns out he doesn't have a Facebook account or doesn't know what the internet is for.

So what's the movie about then? Well, strangely enough, that's kind of a complex question, and even more strangely, the confusion that results is actually to the movie's credit. You see the film recognizes that, while having a seventy-year-old intern working at your company is... perhaps unusual, as well as a bit awkward at times (the interview question of "Where do you see yourself in ten years" is not the most appropriate one here), it's certainly not the most revolutionary gut-buster to ever cross the threshold. After all, De Niro is hired as part of a Senior Internship program, examples of which exist in the real world. And so after exhausting the veins of "old guy among young people" jokes for about twenty minutes, the film really finds itself with no choice but to pivot around and turn into something of a character study. We have Hathaway, who is sharp and committed, and possessed of a strong vision for her company, trying to juggle her family's requirements (her husband gave up his career to care for their daughter), with those of her company (which is reaching the point where a professional CEO may be required, a dangerous moment for any startup). Far more self-aware than most Captains of Industry, she recognizes that she may be attempting to do more than is humanly possible, with resulting strains in her life and in the company itself. And opposite that we have De Niro, who allows himself to play De Niro, a charming, smart, wizened man whose background in company work (he spent forty years as a phone book production manager/salesman before his retirement) fits better into the chaotic mess that is any startup, particularly an internet company with an average employee age of 26, than anyone anticipates. Smart though they may be in their fields, and the film makes that clear enough, nobody at this hectic company has a sense of what it means to be a company, an institution designed to last for decades, not months, and while De Niro certainly doesn't take over, he brings a sense of stability and reliability to the proceedings that is self-evidently valuable.

Sure, there's comedy here, some of it pretty good, as De Niro's old-world charm begins to rub off on the fresh-from-college man-children that inhabit the company's ranks. A standout sequence involves De Niro taking command of a squad of interns and technicians as they try to retrieve and delete a nasty Email that Hathaway's character has accidentally sent to her overbearing, critical mother. But mostly, the movie just sort of lets the characters work off one another, be they De Niro and the company masseuse, played by Rene Russo (in a nice turnabout from her last outing), Hathaway and her frustrated (to say the least) stay-at-home-husband (Comedy Central's Anders Holm), or mostly, Hathaway and De Niro themselves, who share an effortless platonic chemistry in the movie that's actually quite surprising, given the premise promised by the trailers. The movie leans on this chemistry a lot, which is a good decision, softening a lot of the more preachy elements in the film, while indulging in sequences where Hathaway seeks... perhaps not advice, but just a sounding from someone who's life experience and background is entirely alien to everyone else's in her world, while De Niro quietly and calmly dispenses what he thinks are the proper dollops of advice that bridge the gap between fatherly, friendly, and just wise, to those who seem to need them. A worse movie could have turned this into the retiree version of The Legend of Bagger Vance, where a magic old person miraculously solves the problems of everyone around them. Instead De Niro does, and says, what he thinks is best, and if he's right, it's simply because he's been there before. He never presumes to step in further than is appropriate for someone who admits to not understanding everything that's going on with the fast-paced world of internet support, nor the realities of non-traditional-gender-role-households (there's a mouthful), and the resulting restraint pays off for the movie, by making it simply about two interesting people and the interesting conversations they have with one another.

Things Havoc disliked: And it's kind of surprising that it does so well at that, because frankly, this movie is pretty badly written. And that's unfortunate, considering it comes from Nancy Meyers, a writer and director of these sorts of sugary, women-centric movies whom I actually like a fair amount, at least when it comes to her earlier work like Father of the Bride or The Parent Trap (I can even find one or two good things to say about Private Benjamin if you twist my arm). But since taking on the Director's chair, while Meyers has achieved commercial success (she used to hold the record for most successful film directed by a woman), the writing quality of her movies has gone way downhill, starting from the aforementioned "success" What Women Want (*shudder*), and proceeding on through films like The Holiday or It's Complicated. Meyer's signature has always been to find a parcel of great actors and get them to act against one another in a relaxed setting, and that's what she does here, but the movie also delivers a lot of big, elaborate speeches, and those speeches are, inevitably, stiff, wooden exercises in bullet point recitation. Do not get me wrong, the problem isn't the themes in the movie, feminist or otherwise. The problem is the on-the-nose quality of the dialog, or more precisely the intersecting monologues that fill a lot of the run-time of the film. De Niro gets an opening narration, one I understand is intended to set the tone of the film from the get-go, but that comes across so leadenly-dull, like the bullet points of a character study being turned in at a community college literature class, that it really robs us of the chance (until later) to get to know the character at all. A speech midway through the film by Hathaway of how men have lost their sense of quiet charm and the societal sources thereof, would be unlistenable if the actress delivering it wasn't so good, or the setting established so well (she's drunk in a bar, rambling to a captive audience who looks as awkward as we feel). De Niro and Hathaway are so good in this movie, so effortlessly good, that a lot of the worst effects of this sort of stilted dialogue is mitigated, particularly when it's just the two of them talking to one another. But even the best actors can only cover for so much, and one is left with the sense that perhaps the reason the film concentrated so closely upon these two characters is because the film would have fallen instantly apart the moment the script was asked to bear any real weight.

Final thoughts:    The Intern is not a great movie, but it is a rather surprisingly good one, one that I liked when I left, and find I actually like a little more now that I've had a bit of time to sit back and think about it. It may be a personal matter for me, as my own father spent some time as the Old Man of an internet startup back in the first .com boom, and found that his job, in no small part, was to educate the kids around him, smart though they unquestionably were, about the actual mechanics of business in general. The film has, unfortunately, gotten dragged down into an internet mudslinging contest, as didactic feminist theorists have accused everyone who doesn't like the movie of being sexist shitheads who hate women (my favorite claim, published in The Guardian, being that Richard Roeper, who thought far more highly of the film than I did, "only" gave it 3.5/4 stars because he is engaged in an active conspiracy to drive women out of the movie business). But taking the film as a film, particularly when comparing it to its trailers, the result is a much more charming little piece than I had anticipated seeing, and a welcome reminder that there is actually a reason why Robert De Niro (and, for that matter, Anne Hathaway) is as famous as he is.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Man on Wire.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Martian

Alternate Title:  Stand back!  I'm going to try Science!

One sentence synopsis:     An astrobiologist on one of the first manned missions to Mars is left behind during an evacuation and must figure out how to survive, contact NASA, and find a way home.

Things Havoc liked:  Welcome back, Sir Ridley Scott. I've really missed you.

I know we haven't had the easiest time, this last decade or so. I know I said some things that were unkind, maybe even unfair. I know your original vision for Robin Hood was a much more interesting film than the one Universal finally let you make, and I know it wasn't entirely your fault that it turned into a boring slog so dull that even the historian in me couldn't be bothered to take an interest. I know that you went into projects like Exodus: Gods and Kings and... *shudder*... Prometheus, with the best of intentions, and I tried, I really tried, Sir Ridley, to praise the good parts of those movies, the visual style that you've always been a master of, and the interesting concepts that you... attempted... to bring to the screen. I know that I wasn't very complementary about Prometheus in particular, Sir Ridley, but in my defense, you hurt me with that film, you hurt me and you hurt everyone that loved the Alien mythos you created. And I do love that mythos, Sir Ridley, just as I have loved so many of your films, from The Duelists to Blade Runner to Thelma & Louise to Gladiator, to the stunning, glorious, historical triumph that was your Director's Cut (not that mutilated theatrical version) of Kingdom of Heaven. I love so many of your films, Sir Ridley, and I want very much to carry on loving your films, and so when I heard that you were making a movie about hard science and space exploration, based on a book that my scientist friends all rave about, and featuring an army of great actors and a screenplay by Drew Goddard, who wrote World War Z and Cabin in the Woods and most of Netflix' Daredevil series, I got really excited. For all the things I've said, Sir Ridley, all I've ever wanted was for your movies to be great.

So welcome back, Sir Ridley, from the bottom of my heart, welcome back. Let's never fight again.

The Martian, one of the most anticipated films this year among my coterie of friends at least, is everything that Interstellar was not. Bold, scientific, rigorously on-task, and possessed of the best performance I have ever seen Matt Damon (among others) give. His task is to play Mark Watney, a scientist trapped on Mars when a dust storm forces the evacuation of the NASA expedition sent thereto. For what amounts to the entire film, he is on-screen alone, narrating his actions to a series of video journals and logs, as he struggles to find a way to survive in a habitat designed for temporary occupation, on a planet devoid of life, and with the nearest help several hundred million miles (and multiple years) away. This is not an easy task to perform, a role that demands he not only act alone but for some props, but that he narrate his actions to the audience without histrionics or character development, effectively expositing to the audience for two hours. Tom Hanks tried something similar in Cast Away, in which he was ultimately reduced to talking to a volleyball in order to give the audience something to watch and listen to, but Damon does it better, much better, mostly by understating the role, letting his scientific credentials take front and center and only letting slip the panic, fear, and turmoil that must be pulsing through him at every waking moment in tiny bursts and occasional slips of the stoic mask. It's probably Damon's finest performance to-date, and I've loved almost everything he's ever done, from Good Will Hunting to The Adjustment Bureau.

But the really impressive performance in the film isn't Damon's, it's Ridley Scott's, who has made so many bad or editorially-mangled films in the last few years that we forget just how great a filmmaker he is, one of the best directors working, a master of every aspect of filmcraft beyond the ken of most of his peers. Knowing, as Scott does, that a movie entirely set on Mars watching a smart guy act smart would become insufferably boring, Scott splits the film between Mars and Earth, where NASA, in the person of a whole boatload of fine actors from Chiwetel Ejiofor to Jeff Daniels, slowly become aware of what has actually happened on Mars, and throw themselves, collectively, into trying to help Watney out from several dozen million miles' remove. Granted, these sequences also mostly consist of exposition, but the exposition is tinged with debate, frustration, and risk, as NASA and even other international space agencies throw themselves into the task at hand with all the fervor of any good space-love-letter movie. Everywhere the film goes, from NASA command in Houston to JPL in Pasadena to the red planet itself, the cinematography is gorgeous, the soundtrack suitably weighty and epic (in most cases), and sense of wonder and exploration palpable. And unlike last year's dismal Interstellar, a movie which also featured Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on another planet, there is no attempt to ruin things with digressions into the physics of love or trans-dimensional Morse Code. Everything is grounded in real science, something my scientist friends can attest to even if I cannot, which lends the entire proceeding an air of wonder it might not otherwise have. It's one thing to see phasers and transporters and lightsabers and warp drives and understand what those vehicles mean for the plot. It's quite another entirely to see Watney lighting hydrogen on fire to produce moisture for his potato garden, or cutting a hole in his spacesuit with wire cutters so as to fly through space like Iron Man, if only because in the back of your mind, you're trying to remember that this shit actually works.

The visuals are gorgeous, as they always are in even a weak Ridley Scott film, from the sweeping, Dune-like landscapes of Mars (properly red this time) to NASA, JPL, and international space agencies on Earth, their look burnished just enough with near-future extrapolations to keep the film believable. None of the actors are asked to do much more than look properly somber and excited while reciting their lines, but they are good enough sports and the lines are interesting enough reads to permit this. Jeff Daniels more or less reprises his role from The Newsroom as the perennial straight-man head of NASA, Ejiofor reprises his from 2012, only with a good script this time, as the mission director in Houston, while more minor roles go to Kristine Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Benedict Wong as assorted media directors, mission planners, Astronauts, and JPL officials trying to figure out what to do to save Watney's life and get him home. There are no relationship triangles, no forced family drama, no stodgy, unbending administrator who gesticulates at the bottom line while sneering at the notion of trying anything "radical". Where disagreements happen, they happen among scientists and administrators dedicated to solving the problem in front of them. Given how many movies with strong premises I've seen destroyed by hack writers who felt that they had to add more made up "human interest" to avoid deviating from their "Screenwriting 101" syllabus, the effect is almost revolutionary.

Things Havoc disliked: I swear that I do not intend any puns when I say that the Martian is a very dry film, which is fine, and such humanizing touches that are there are clearly tertiary concerns on the part of the director. Recurring gags about the bad musical taste of the mission commander on Mars are fine, and we do need a break every once and a while from the raw "SCIENCE" of the film, but there are some decisions I don't quite understand. One of them involves Community's Donald Glover, who plays an astrodynamicist (this is a real thing) beamed straight in from the Big Bang Theory, the raw-talent-with-lots-of-smarts-but-no-social-sense archetype. This is just an archetype I don't care for, with exceptions, and Glover carries the thing way too far, as I refuse to believe that a titanic super-nerd such as him, however awkward, could walk into a room with the Director of NASA, and not only fail to recognize him, but apparently fail to recognize his title. The whole character screams comic relief, which is something the movie doesn't demand, at least not in strokes this broad.

A similar problem arises with... *sigh*... Jessica Chastain, an actress everyone else likes, and I just have no use for. Another veteran of Interstellar, Chastain is the only actor from that movie who manages a worse turn in this one, as she plays her character, the mission commander of the Mars landing, so woodenly as to render her entirely boring. I get that she's trying to be a tough, no-nonsense NASA commander, but the script calls for her to feel guilt at having left Watney behind to die, and to thereby project other emotions throughout the film. As with several other movies I've seen of hers, Chastain simply can't project the appropriate level of emotion for the scene. In Zero Dark Thirty she was a screaming lunatic who should have been thrown out the door of the high-pressure position she found herself in, while here she takes the opposite approach, reciting her lines monotonously and failing to elicit any sort of believable human reaction to the events before her. When Gillian Anderson's performances have more emotional heft to them, you may wish to re-think your approach.

Final thoughts:   The Martian is, in every way, a welcome return-to-form for Ridley Scott, a movie that is about precisely what it intends to be about, a love letter to NASA, science, engineering, and the power of human ingenuity to solve seemingly insoluble problems. It presents no villains except for Space itself, no drama except for that of the situation, and even manages to bypass the over-nationalism that sometimes accompanies NASA love letters by bringing other countries' space agencies (which ones may surprise you) into the mix to receive their share of the plaudits. The film it most closely resembles, inevitably, is Apollo 13, another procedural science-thriller about a disaster in space and the reactions to it by intelligent men, and like the Ron Howard film before it, it serves as a wonderful recruitment film for NASA and for engineering schools worldwide.

I know that my friends and readers of a scientific bent were anticipating the Martian, and I'm glad to report to them that Sir Ridley pulled it off. As for me, I've no more background in science than most laymen, can't tell a hydrogen block from a thrust pack, and don't particularly feel the need to learn to do so. If the film managed to make an effete, cinephilic liberal artist this happy, imagine what it might do for those of you for whom science is a passion or even a calling.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Let's see if Robert de Niro phones it in this time...

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Alternate Title:  Places You Will Not Find Me

One sentence synopsis:     Legendary New Zealand Mountaineer Rob Hall guides a group of paying clients to the top of Mount Everest just as a raging storm descends on the mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  I first read Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", an account of the 1996 Everest Disaster, nearly twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since. It's a fascinating work, detailing the lives and deaths of a group of people whose obsessions frankly puzzle me, mountaineers, willing to put up with agony in untold quantities and the constant risk of horrible death, simply to stand on top of a mountain in the middle of a part of the Earth designed seemingly to kill anyone who enters it. Though Everest is now climbed by hundreds of people a year, enough to produce traffic jams on the summit approach, the mountain still kills one in five climbers who ascend above base camp, and the list of highly-experienced, indeed world-famous climbers that have died on its slopes is long and august. In some ways, therefore, it is surprising that it took this long for someone, in this case Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, to put a big Hollywood movie together based on the incident. And not just any movie, but a big, sweeping IMAX 3D movie. Normally I couldn't care less about either 3D or IMAX, but big landscape-movies like this are an exception in my mind, and I decided to splurge.

But forget the visuals, let's talk about the guy from Terminator Genesys!

Yes, Jason Clarke, who was good in Zero Dark Thirty, and has spent the intervening time between that movie and this one trying to convince me by any means he can that his performance there was a fluke and that he actually sucks. It's not that Clarke is a bad actor, it's that he has no sense for what movies he should be doing and what ones stink on ice. I asked Mr. Clarke in my Genesys review to fire his agent and start reading his own scripts, and... well maybe he did, because this is the best I've seen out of him in a couple of years. His character, Rob Hall, the leader of the main guided expedition to Everest, isn't especially nuanced, a dedicated family man and expert mountaineer who is there to do his job, and does it, but Clarke manages to at least bring a bit of humanity to a character that could only have been something of a cypher, given the production's lack of support from the survivors of the actual disaster. A better job (from a better actor) comes from Josh Brolin, playing Beck Weathers, a cardiologist from Texas who hires Hall to drag him up and down the mountain. There isn't a vast amount for Brolin to do with the character, but he's an entertaining presence with folksy Texan ribbing for his fellow climbers. Others present include other actors I enjoy the chance to see, such as John Hawkes (of Deadwood) as Doug Hansen, a mailman on his third attempt to climb a mountain that has come to rule his mind, and Emily Watson (of many things), as Helen Winton, the base camp controller, whose job is more or less to sit on a radio talking to people high on the mountain who are dying in the storm...

... okay, maybe I'm not making a great case for the good stuff here. Let's try something else.

Everest, for whatever faults it may have, is a beautiful film, shot by whatever means with lush, realistic photography, expansively photographing the mountain and its surroundings. In all conditions, calm, storm-laden, or anywhere in between, the mountain is shown off in all its terrible, lethal beauty, and the sequences wherein our heroes are waylaid by the storm of the century look frigid enough to freeze the audience in their seats. I particularly appreciated the little touches on the way to the mountain, the overview of the gorgeous trek that leads to base camp, the stops at local monasteries to receive blessings from the Nepalese lamas, the tent city of Base Camp, and the generally primitive conditions that prevail there and elsewhere. I've long imagined Everest and its approaches, thanks generally to Krakauer's book, and this film, if nothing else, cured all need to experience the mountain further. One can only watch people falling to their death or being horribly mauled with grotesque frostbite in the middle of a hurricane-force ice storm and be thankful that one does not share the obsession that led them to seek their deaths in a god-forsaken place such as that on the roof of the world.

Things Havoc disliked:  If it feels like I haven't said much about Everest until this point, it's because this sort of movie is one of the hardest sorts to fit into my usual structure of likes and dislikes. And the reason for that is that this movie isn't really about anything.

I mean that's not fair, it's about the 1996 Everest disaster, and it quite faithfully shows that, but... at the same time that's really the problem here. The film is about a group of people who go up a mountain and do not come down it. We all know (at least if we've read the book or heard of the incident) that the movie is going to consist of this, which renders it quite difficult to wring any kind of actual narrative out of the film. People go up the mountain and die, as we know they are going to, as we expect that they will, and there's no real surprises to be had, or even question as to the direction the story will take along the way. I'm reminded, in a way, of the George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg film The Perfect Storm (a movie that also featured John Hawkes, now that I think about it), which was also about a group of men who went out into bad weather and all died, and also had the difficulty of trying to make that story interesting to an audience that knew they were all doomed. The Perfect Storm managed it by using the fact that nobody knew precisely what happened to the men in question to speculate on what their final hours might have been like, thus telling a story of courage and adventure and heroism in the face of terrible odds. Everest, meanwhile, has to stick directly to the known facts of the case, which are that many of the men in question died while narrating their own actions into satellite phones. As such, we really are just sitting there waiting for people to die, in a circumstance (freezing to death without oxygen) that prevents them from even making last-ditch heroic efforts to save themselves.

And even if you ignore the plot in favor of just watching actors act and filmmakers film, there's just a lot of bloat to this film. Consider Jake Gyllenhall, whom I've finally come around on, who here plays Scott Fisher, leader of the rival Mountain Madness guided ascent group. Fisher, who also died on the mountain, has no role in this film, other than to have Hall occasionally ask him if he's okay before getting sick and dying of hypothermia on the mountain. Having read the book, I know who Scott Fisher was, but had I not done so, I would have been utterly confused as to why he was even in the movie. He ascends the mountain and dies largely without having anything to do with anyone else, nor does his death or presence prior to it affect the ongoing tragedy around him save for adding another number to the casualty list. But if I can't figure out what Gyllenhall is doing there, I certainly can't account for the presence of Robin Wright or Keira Knightley, both serious actresses, whose roles as the wives of various dying climbers consist entirely of sitting at home and looking worried or tearful in proportion with the amount of information they have as to the status of their significant others.

Final thoughts:   I don't want to give the impression that I hated Everest, or was bored by it, for the teeth-chatteringly awful conditions that climbers are subjected to on Everest, even without unseasonably horrid storms brewing up from the bowels of Hell, certainly prevents that. But the base fact is that the story that Kormakur and his crew are attempting to tell here is simply not a very narratively interesting one, turning instead into one of my least favorite sorts of movies, the Death-Watch thriller. Made at a much higher quality than most Death Watch movies, Everest manages to retain its interest during its run time, but it manages nonetheless to be one of the more ephemeral movies I've seen in a good long while. Still, I can't say that I disliked the experience of watching Everest. I just don't think it's a movie I'm likely to spend any brainpower thinking about ever again.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Matt Damon gets his ass to Mars.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Black Mass

Alternate Title:  The Adventures of Jimmy B and his Bestest Palls

One sentence synopsis:     James "Whitey" Bulger and his gang form an alliance with the FBI to extend their power over Boston.

Things Havoc liked:  Ever since the details of his case came out back in 1997, the story of Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger and his illicit relationship with a network of corrupt FBI agents has tantalized a Hollywood still obsessed, in the main, with gangster flicks. Scorsese's "The Departed" was more or less openly based on Bulger's story, with Jack Nicholson taking on the starring role to effect that varied depending on who you asked. I quite liked The Departed, but it was pastiche, a thin retelling of a completely new story using characters inspired by real gangsters, something Scorsese has done many times before. The actual truth of the matter, of who Bulger was and what he did to earn himself a place on the notorious FBI Most Wanted list, remained untold, waiting for another director, in this case Scott Cooper, of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace (two excellent films), to come along and take a crack at it with the assistance of an actor who desperately, desperately needed to be in a good movie for a change.

What a decade it has been for Johnny Depp, a man I once respected immensely, who has systematically squandered all of the goodwill he earned from me with every appearance of intent. He was one of my favorite actors once, in movies like Finding Neverland, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Blow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and of course Donnie Brasco, a gangster movie in which Depp played an undercover cop opposite Al Pacino during one of his brief periods of lucidity. All of this wonderful work, and yet what has Depp done for the last fifteen years but throw all of it away playing cartoon characters, literal or figurative, in appalling dreck such as the later Pirates movies, The Lone Ranger, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and last year's execrable luddite homily, Transcendence. So bad has his career become that the best thing I can say for it is that his three minute cameo as a pedophilic Big Bad Wolf in last Christmas's Into the Woods didn't ruin the movie for me. Formerly regarded as one of the great actors of his generation, Depp has become a joke, through enough collective memory remains of his great early work that we keep hoping he will, against all expectations, pull a Matthew McConaughey, and suddenly transition back into good movies once again. Black Mass, in fact, was sold almost entirely on the notion that it was just that, Depp returning to serious roles as a serious actor. He's the reason I went to see the thing in the first place.

And you know what? He's awesome. Depp's films have been so bad, so cartoonish recently, that we forget just how great his acting range really is, and here, in this movie, we finally get to see something of the old magic again. Almost unrecognizeable behind makeup that ironically makes him look more like a Vampire than Tim Burton's films ever did, Depp is a sinister, menacing, violent figure looming over this film, with none of the self-referential winks or crotchety old-man vibes that Nicholson brought to the role. An evil, manipulative gang lord with no conscience or sense of redeeming qualities beyond the ferocious loyalty he half-inspires, half-enforces on the rest of his cronies, Depp blows everyone else off the screen, his voice a low, cavernous Boston drawl, dripping with semi-sarcastic hate. He seems to feed on his own persona as a local Irish townie who was tougher than everyone else, murdering men in broad daylight with a carbine or beating them into a bloody pulp with a sudden explosion of frothing rage. Even his own allies within the FBI are afraid of him, and so are we. It's Depp's best role in decades, one of his best ever, and an anchor point to the tie the movie to, the core element of what should have been a gob-smacking tale of corruption, violence, crime, and punishment.

Things Havoc disliked:  And yet...

To my surprise, given the pedigree of Scott Cooper, and the quality of the supporting cast, Depp isn't the problem with this movie. Indeed he's one of the only actors in the film that manages to pull anything out of it. The rest of the dozens of characters orbiting around Depp's performance are almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, and it's this, not Depp, which ultimately sinks the film. Joel Edgerton, whom I'm beginning to realize is simply a bad actor, plays FBI Agent John Connoly, a childhood friend of the Bulger family, who proposes an alliance between Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and the FBI so as to bring down the Italian mob. Given that this alliance is the central drama of the film, and that the movie, truthfully or not, makes clear that the entire thing was Connoly's idea, foisted on a semi-reluctant Bulger after much persuading, it's really Connoly who should be the focal character of the film, at least structurally, but Edgerton is a boring actor, and his character, a slick, slimy, charlatan of an FBI agent who drags others down with him, is not as interesting to watch as Depp's Bulger is, nor does the film manage to convince us that he's the sort of person that could mastermind something like this. The movie makes Bulger look almost indifferent to the entire thing, blowing Connoly off when he brings up issues that might arise, and treating him with the grudging semi-contempt that a high school cool kid might treat a nerd who wormed his way into the cool kids' table at lunch. Indeed the film goes so far as to suggest that the entire reason Connoly maintained the alliance so long was because he was obsessed with being "in" with someone like Bulger, a obsession that was entirely unrequited. Maybe this is all true (though it smells a lot like someone trying to pin all the blame for a multi-decade conspiracy within the FBI on the one fall guy who got convicted for it all), but narratively, it's like watching the first half of an 80s High School movie over and over again, without any character movement or development, nor any rapport between our main characters, the sort of which is required for a good gangster movie like this to function. Michael Mann knew this much.

And the problem spreads from there. Because Edgerton looks hapless and frankly pathetic, it makes all of the other people engaged in trying to work around this unholy alliance look stupid or powerless. Kevin Bacon and David Harbour do their best with what they're given, but what they're given just isn't that much. They roil and scream or agonize over questions of what the right thing to do is, and then let themselves be walked all over by a man we have just watched being walked all over. When finally the noose starts to close around everyone, thanks to newly-arrived crusading DA Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll, making up for a bad turn in Antman), the movie picks up somewhat, but only so that we can ask why nobody was able to put a stop to this earlier? Any hints of wider corruption are ruthlessly suppressed in the film, so we are left with the conclusion that the Boston office of the FBI was comprised entirely of shy, retiring gentlemen, who thought it would be too awkward to ask one of their agents to please stop assisting Whitey Bulger with his murder spree.

Meanwhile the rest of Bulger's friends and family are a just a mish-mash of poor execution and bad pacing. The movie opens with Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons playing a newcomer to the Bulger gang, his initiation, his meetings with Bulger, etc. The film clearly seems to be setting this character up as an audience viewpoint, along the lines of Goodfellas or Once Upon a Time in America, only to, ten minutes in, drop the character entirely and focus instead on someone else, then someone else again, seemingly at random. Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the most British name, is more or less wasted in the role of Bulger's brother Billy, popping up every twenty minutes or so to say hello before disappearing again without affecting the story. Other character actors, including ones I adore, such as Deadwood's W. Earl Brown, are so sparsely and ill-used in the movie that I actually mistook them for other characters when they finally made a reappearance. The plot, such as it is, just meanders along from point to point, with no cohesive narrative, no sense of the proper passage of time, or even of the rise of Bulger's criminal Empire. Contrast this to The Connection from earlier this year, which managed to show a convincing and utterly real crime syndicate building up and mutating as wars and pressure from the government continued to hammer on it. In Black Mass, nothing actually happens except for vignettes involving schemes to take over a Jai-Alai league (???), and the occasional comment about so-and-so's vending machines. I don't require that every gangster movie provide a primer on the commission of organized crimes, but some sense of what's actually going on here would be of help. As it stands, the movie simply expects us to take the existence of this massive crime syndicate on faith, while simultaneously floundering around in search of a subject.

Final thoughts:   Black Mass is not a bad movie, ultimately, but it is not by any means a great or even good one. That a director known for making legitimately great films like Scott Cooper could have floundered like this points to a serious breakdown in the production and writing process, and yet ultimately the result is that the movie isn't about anything at all, except some kid from South Boston who unrequitedly idolized a bad man so much that he did bad things himself. Ignoring the historical truth of that premise, if the film had just been honest about that being its subject matter, it still might have worked, but the strongest element of the movie, Depp's performance as Whitey Bulger, is never allowed to anchor the film, because of the need to wander this way and that through the screenplay in search of something that the movie can be about. On its own, Depp's return to form is good enough to warrant a look, but if this movie had ambitions of becoming another Scorsese-like exposition of the wacky, evil, violent, and sleazy worlds of organized crime, then all I can suggest is that it probably needs to familiarize itself with its subject matter some more, and come back when it has something to say.

And if not, then I'll be damned if I can figure out what the point of the whole exercise was. Because it sure as hell wasn't to tell the story of Whitey Bulger.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Into Thin Air.

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...