Saturday, November 28, 2015

All Things Must Pass

Alternate Title:  The Importance of Things Baby Boomers Liked

One sentence synopsis:     Russell Solomon and the original employees of Tower Records reflect on its creation, reign, and dissolution.

Things Havoc liked: I see an average of about one documentary per year, usually whenever I am coming off a rough stretch at the regular theaters, and with the worst Bond film in living memory directly in my rear-view mirror, this seemed like a good time. The difficulty with documentaries, like with anything really, is that a lot of them are poorly made, or thinly disguised polemical rants hurled at a paying audience with no attempt made at objectivity. So it was that, rather than see a movie about how the filmmaker is the only person in the world endowed with morals in a world comprised of sheeple, I thought that I would go and see one on a subject that nobody ever gets passionate or argumentative about: the music industry.

Tower Records, for those of you too young to remember it, was once a giant of the music industry, a chain that was not a chain, half music emporium, half shrine to the mystical glories of popular music, an empire that grossed a billion dollars in the last year of the 20th century before ceasing to exist five years into the 21st, and All Things Must Pass, taken from the metaphysical slogan that accompanied its final liquidation, is a chronicle of its lifespan, from its creation in 1960 by Russ Solomon, who sold records off of a jukebox in his father's drugstore, becoming more and more successful until he finally bought out his father and re-purposed the enterprise entirely around music. It walks through interviews with the major employees, in the main hired as young school-age dropouts in the throes of the sixties, who started working there because they loved music and because the store had no dress code or maximum hair length, and wound up executives and regional directors in their forties through sheer time commitment and the fact that promotion was all internal. There's a vibe here of the kids being given the candy store, as the major figures of the company are all either scene-sters who were looking for a cool place to work, and found one that would let them spin off a casual million or two to go build major stores in Japan, or party-crazed kids who fell into music accidentally when they discovered a job that didn't care how drunk you got or how many drugs you took as long as you showed up to work.

Tower was important to more than just the employees, however, and it's the music artists that stud the film with their memories of the store that really cement how important Tower Records was to the industry at large. Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, first entered music by working in a Tower Records and experiencing the small world that existed around it. Bruce Springsteen describes knowing that he had made it when his records first appeared in Tower, and using the store's stock and displays as a barometer of not only how he was doing but how all of his contemporaries were as well. Meanwhile, Elton John, whose career spanned the lifetime of Tower, assures us with perfect certainty that he spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being, and we must believe him. He makes the place sound like a cross between Studio 54 and a shrine to music, and seems genuinely torn up by its demise, intoning that there was never any place like it before and never will be again.

Of course the title is indicative of where this all leads, and as documentaries on the rise and fall of companies go, All Things Must End is one of the more honest when it comes to the inevitable demise of its subject. Blame is spread fairly evenly all around, from Solomon himself, who lost his best friend/accountant and, without his advice, made business decisions that were less than ideal, to the general tenor of the financial times in the years before the first crash, where businesses were encouraged to take fantastic-sized loans no matter the risk. The prevailing wisdom, of course, in regards to record stores in general, is that the internet, piracy, and worthless kids who didn't appreciate brick and mortar stores killed them all, but the film does not allow such facile reasoning to infect its narrative. Yes, Napster and the like did their damage to Tower's sales, but many of the former employees reflect on the fact that the record industry itself created Napster by doing away with Singles sales, preferring to force people to buy $19 CDs containing a single song worth listening to, confident that there was no other way for people to get their music. When Napster did show up, the industry refused to lower prices to match the new reality, instead concentrating on suing people away from piracy. Tower, and the industry in general, failed to adapt to the changing technology, and despite actually having the first online music store in the world, they fell into the trap of so many businesses I watched or was a part of in those years, businesses who were overtaken by bank-mandated "restructuring experts" of little talent and less intelligent, who through malice, incompetence, or greed, systematically destroyed what was left of the company in the pursuit of some sort of quixotic MBA-school mandate to "increase branding" or something similar. By the time they were done, there was only a carcass of a company left to pick over.

Things Havoc disliked: In describing the origins of Tower Records, All Things Must End does a fine job, as it does in describing its ultimate demise and what legacy it left behind. But unfortunately, the middle sections of the film lag significantly behind these two elements, as the film drags into a fairly slow repetition of new location selected - store opens - young aimless kid gets hired there - store does really well - young aimless kid becomes responsible adult thanks to Tower Records - repeat. I recognize we're here to chart the business, by and large, but the movie seriously repeats its "nobody thought we could put a store in Sacramento/San Francisco/Seattle/Manhattan/Tokyo/Buenos Aires/London, but we did!" shtick about a dozen times before it's finally time for the business to collapse and the movie to end. At a certain point, we're not here for a Business School case study, we're here to watch a documentary about one of the more culturally-influential institutions of our times, and while there's some effort made by the above-mentioned artists and the company executives to ground us in the epochal nature of what we're being shown, the film really seems to rely on the notion that you already know what Tower Records was, and how special it was to Baby Boomers everywhere. Not being a Boomer myself, I had certainly heard of Tower, but I don't believe I'd ever been in one, and I remarked on its passing as I would have any other large store that collapsed (who remembers Good Guys and Blockbuster?). Maybe I'm just not in tune with the world. Or maybe, conversely, we should re-think just how sacred everything that Baby Boomers liked in their youth really ought to be.

Final thoughts:  But now I'm just being unfair, and while All Things Must Pass is not a great documentary on the level of Searching for Sugar Man, it is a solid enough one to be worth a watch. The subject matter necessarily renders it somewhat restricted in its purview, and indeed, I had to contort my schedule quite a bit just to be able to see it. But if we judge a film's qualities based on whether it told us a story worth listening to and did so well, then there are far worse things one can do with two hours of your time than sitting back and getting a glimpse of a cultural world as it used to be, and hearing from the people for whom it was a special place, even if those people don't include yourself.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  We were there at the beginning.  We will be there for the ending...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Last Witchhunter (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  Let Me Tell You About My Character...

One sentence synopsis:     Vin Diesel plays an immortal badass in Modern Day New York who polices the hidden magical world when SUDDENLY THINGS GET SERIOUS.

A Note Before We Begin:  As before, when I decide definitively not to see a movie, occasionally a friend fellow victim of mine goes to see it in my place.  And on such occasions, they will once in a while have an opinion on the film in question that takes the form of a review.  And so for this outing, given that it's award season, and I simply do not have time to double back and catch a Vin Diesel action movie about a D&D character of his, I decided to let a good friend of mine take on the task.  I will give him the opportunity to introduce himself, as I still have to finish hiring the assassins I will need to murder the entire production team for Spectre.

Turns out there's a group rate!

A Note from our Guest Reviewer:  Havoc and I will tend to disagree on movies, we tend to discuss them quite vigorously, so our tastes (and likely scores) will tend to be different depending on what it is we see, though they are rarely off by more than a few points. I offered to see this movie and do a guest review for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I am a LARPer and one of my characters is a Witch Hunter. This movie is literally about Vin Diesel playing a D&D character from back in the day that he really had fun with. I like Vin Diesel, I like gaming, I like movies, I pretty much had to see this one.

Things Havoc Hotfoot liked: I can’t ever really hate Vin Diesel. He played the greatest cinematic Superman, he’s a twenty-sided die hard nerd, and he genuinely seems like a terrific guy. That comes through in the movie, where the character he plays, Kaulder, is in many ways an extension of himself in more ways that other characters he has played in the past. He is not the unending pile of badassery that Riddick was, he is not the Iron Giant or Groot, he is in many ways himself, which means that we do get to see moments of honest kindness and charity expressed in his depiction of the Immortal Hunter of Witches. In the first scene of the film’s modern day section, we get a sense of what this character is about, and it’s something that could have been expanded on more, I think.

The premise for the film is also a decent one. It’s not one of unending war between the Hunters and the Witches, but one of a peace, if an uneasy one that has allowed the modern age to thrive while keeping magic away from the average person. Kaulder acts as the primary enforcer for the Axe and Cross organization.

By and large, everyone puts in a reasonable performance here. For what little time we see him, Michael Caine has a solid performance that is a bit more personable than his role as Alfred in the Nolan Batman movies. There’s some good chemistry between Diesel and Caine too. The others do their jobs well, for what time we have them on screen, and the movie doesn’t take huge amounts of time to do exposition about them or their pasts...

Things Havoc Hotfoot disliked: ...which is not the same as showing and not telling. Aliens remains one of the best movies for establishing a large cast and doing so with incredible economy of time, letting you get to know the characters through watching them instead of having them talk about their backstory. This movie allows characters to talk about their backstory, but does so only long enough to establish them and then quickly moves on to the next point. The movie feels fairly rushed, and not in the good way.

I usually go to see movies in theaters for the spectacle. Emotional or story-focused movies I reserve for the quiet of my own home. This movie barely cleared the bar for the spectacle. The special effects are serviceable, but the over-reliance on CGI, and not great CGI at that really hurt this movie for the value of the summer action movie. When you have to compete with what’s come out this year, it’s no small wonder this got released when it did, after the summer blockbusters but before the behemoths of winter.

The story was serviceable, but only that. The formula it uses has been used in a thousand other movies before, and save for a few deft turns, fails to bring anything new or interesting to bear. It also has a few moments where significant plot points seem to come from nowhere. The lore of the world is kept largely hidden from the audience so that things can be done as needed, and while there may be deeper in-universe explanations for some of it, it’s not presented to the audience ahead of time, so it still acts as ex machina style revelations.

The action sequences themselves are sadly brief and while not overly flawed seem somewhat unfulfilling. The perform their jobs adequately, but do little to engage the viewer. Part of this may be that Kaulder has Wolverine-like regeneration, and thus most physical threats are of little concern to him, but the other part is that I was expected a lot more supernatural stuff than what was presented. That isn’t to say they don’t bring trippy visuals and interesting predicaments, they do, but they are often easily overcome and ended quite quickly. The most interesting action sequence to me was the very first one in the film, and it quickly went from an Aliens styled Charlie Foxtrot to a scene that just allowed Kaulder to take center stage and set up the rest of the movie’s plot.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the movie is depicting Kaulder as an immortal. There have been several movies and stories of what it might be like to be immortal. Highlander, various Vampire movies, the list goes on. I understand not wanting to wallow in “oh man living forever sucks” and for once having a character who on some level enjoys it, but the sense I was getting was that Kaulder, while superficially enjoying his immortal life, at least on some level has to deal with a degree of inhumanity as a result. We get glimpses of that throughout the movie, but rarely do we see a full scene of it being played out.

One of the biggest flaws and oversights in this movie, however, has to deal with the fact that there is a massive global secret organization dedicated to keeping magic and witches under control, but Kaulder appears to be the only enforcer in existence. I get that you’d want the immortal, unkillable, experienced individual to handle particularly large problems, but given the supernatural community in New York alone, there should rightly be hundreds if not thousands of Witch Hunters worldwide. I get that since there is an accord of peace between the Axe and Cross and the Witch Council, they don’t need a full time army, but given how much havoc can be caused by children with magic, you’d think there would be some sort of emergency response team that isn’t Kaulder.

Another thing that is classic for Witch Hunter stories is having to make hard choices, to do things other people might call monstrous to protect others from even greater evils, and the line the hunter in question chooses to draw for themselves to keep from falling to said greater evils themselves. Again, we see hints of such elements popping up throughout, but we don’t really get to see the ramifications of it or the deeper character growth throughout. If anything, Kaulder is more of a Paladin than a Witch Hunter. Always trying to do the right thing, being merciful where he can be, he rarely does anything that would break his or anyone’s moral code. At one point he mentions how he could have wiped out Witches from existence, committed a mystical genocide of sorts, but he didn’t, because he wanted peace and knew it could be attained. In many ways he is sort of playing Superman here, and I think the movie calls for something a bit darker, though not quite Pitch Black.

Final thoughts:    For every good moment in this film, there seems to be a bad one along for the ride. That would have been forgivable had the action been better, as I can forgive quite a lot for good action. Sadly, The Last Witch Hunter did not quite live up to that expectation. Of course, this is a year spoiled by excellent action all around. In a year where the last movie I saw in theaters was Fury Road, something Humungous would have to come along to Lord over that. That said, with all the negative things I’ve had to say, I don’t think this movie was particularly bad. It’s a decent popcorn flick, just not great. As someone who plays a Witch Hunter in an RPG, and a live action one at that, I just can’t help but feel some kinship with this movie. It may also be why I’m more overly critical of it, if I’m being utterly honest. Vin Diesel made a movie about a character he played with dice and paper that he really loved, and as a nerd, that speaks to me. Had this come out the same year as, say, the Dungeons and Dragons movie (yes, that one), I’d probably sing the praises of this film until the end of time. That said, there’s enough promise here to potentially reach greater heights, and if this film ever gets the sequel it baited quite heavily, I’d certainly like to see it.

Next Time:   I don’t usually do numbers the way Havoc does, but as this is his blog, I’ll relent and provide a conversion rating. I’d recommend seeing this movie at a Matinee showing if you want to see the action on the big screen where it will, at least, be more impressive than it would be otherwise. If not, wait for on-demand or some other form of rental. For Havoc’s Numbers, I give this movie a 5.5. Had the action or story been better, it might have been a 6 or even 6.5.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Alternate Title:  Staggeringly Putrid Excrement Created by TRepanation Enthusisasts

One sentence synopsis:     James Bond tracks down the mysterious architect of the events he has been investigating, as well as the shadowy criminal organization he heads.

A Note Before We Begin: Try as we might to avoid it, it became impossible to discuss this film rationally without resorting to SPOILERS. Do not read this review if you are desperate to avoid having a major plot-point spoiled for you.

Things Havoc liked: There are different rules for Bond films. We all know this. Bond is its own genre by now, with 24 movies spanning fifty years of spies, gadgets, seduction and daring-do. The most recent one of these was Skyfall, and I liked it a hell of a lot, a new beginning for a Bond series that has been many things over the course of its half-century lifespan, one that left the series open to any sort of followup the filmmakers wanted. Coming off a sterling performance by Javier Bardem as the previous installment's villain, and with the news that legendary German Tarantino-collaborator Christoph Waltz was to be taking his place as the evil criminal mastermind of Bond's most famous nemesis-organization, I was stoked to see this movie. Like with Skyfall, this seemed to promise the best combination of an excellent Bond (Daniel Craig is in the conversation for the best in the role, as far as I'm concerned), a brilliant villain (go see Inglorious Basterds if you want to know how well Waltz can play this sort of material), and a sleek, modern interpretation of the dynamic between Bond and his foes showcased through three previous movies, two of which were sort of brilliant and the last of which was merely okay. I have to see something every week, rain or shine, hell or high water, doldrums or Oscar season, but sometimes this blog writes itself. Bond was back. It was time to enjoy.

Things Havoc disliked: What the fuck was that?

Spectre is, without question in my mind, one of the most staggering, incomprehensible failures in moviemaking that I have ever seen. It is a disaster, a terrible film on both the level of a standalone action movie and the level of a Bond film, modern or otherwise. Comparing films to their predecessors may be gauche, but this is James Bond, a movie series with heft to it, and more importantly, one that had just finished a rousing triumph in the form of Skyfall, and for the filmmakers to follow Skyfall up with this, makes for perhaps the greatest collapse in quality between one film and another in the same series since Highlander 2: The Quickening. It is a terrible movie, no matter how you wish to slice it or what excuses you wish to give, and if you want to find out why, then we have to start with a little digging...

Bond films have always been silly, we know this. Sometimes, as in many of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan films, they are more overtly so, and sometimes, as with Craig or Timothy Dalton's showcases, there is an attempt made to ground them in a grittier reality, but even when we're dealing with the former case, the silliness of Bond films comes from how over-the-top they are. Laser death traps, girls with ludicrous names, exotic henchmen with signature weapons, evil masterminds who could just kill Bond but prefer to monologue about their evil plan first, these things are staples of the series because they fit the series, or at least fit the movies they are in. Scaramanga works in Man with the Golden Gun because he's established as being an eccentric perfectionist who locks Bond in a dueling arena on his private island because his goal is to defeat Bond in a dueling arena on his private island. Jaws is a giant hitman with metal teeth because we are inhabiting a world with giant hitmen with metal teeth, same with Oddjob and Xenia Onnotop and Pussy Galore and all the rest. You don't drop villains like that into a movie like Casino Royale or License to Kill, at least not unless you intend to make terrible Bond films (Die Another Day comes to mind). So what do these filmmakers do? They get Christoph Waltz, a man who never found scenery he couldn't dine on, and tell him to play Ernst Blofeld (the reveal of which is treated like some grand dramatic thing, even though there is no context for who the hell that is within any of the previous films), zapping at Bond with some contraption of indeterminable purpose, or stashing him within elaborate death traps that he can easily escape, all while the other half of the movie is trying to be a Kathryn Bigelow-esque mediation on surveillance societies and privacy-infringing intelligence resources, material it plays so straight as to strangle all potential for any fun.

But I'm afraid blaming a tonal clash for this film's woes doesn't even scratch the surface. Plenty of movies have tried to be all things to all people, and some of them were even decent. This film however doesn't just fail on the level of ideas that clashed with one another, but because the ideas themselves that they are trying to fuse are BAD IDEAS. The movie goes all-out, trying to convince us that everything from the last three Bond films was leading up to this, all the events of the previous movies were orchestrated by some shadow-organization who is now being revealed, because hey, it's 2015, and we want every movie to be The Avengers now, right? Well Avengers managed that because they were A: Dealing with comic book characters, with strongly-defined archetypical characters, traits, and stories, and B: Marvel spent a goddamn decade building the world they would inhabit up through a whole series of previous films explicitly geared towards this end. You can't short-cut your way through that process by taking the three previous, barely-connected films, waving your hands at any muddled aspects of them that didn't make sense, and claiming that the very lack of specificity to some of the plot details we barely remember was all part of your brilliant plan. The effect is so tendentious as to be laughable, as the movie vainly tries to pretend that this was the plan all along, and when it fails (and oh, does it fail), turning around and doing something you only see when a movie has suffered a tremendous failure at the most fundamental level:


Making the villain a relative of the hero, about whom we have heard nothing previously, in a vain attempt to force some "emotional resonance" into the conflict between them without actually going through the trouble of establishing anything.

Yes, this is a film wherein it turns out that all of the events of the three previous Bond films happened because James Bond's step-brother, whom we have never heard of, became the literally greatest criminal in the world just so that he could torment James Bond and ruin his life through a series of hopelessly lame setpieces and death traps. And we are expected to swallow this despite there being no evidence in any of the previous movies (or frankly, in this one), that anything of the sort was being planned. The transparency of this ploy within the film is so stark as to stagger belief. It is like claiming that you did not kill that man moments after walking into the room with a machete, and, in front of seventeen witnesses, killing that man.

But fine, the plot is stupid beyond belief. Bond movies have survived that much before. What makes this movie fall totally to pieces? Everything else. The action, one staple of Bond films you can usually count on, is staggeringly inept, boring as all get out, with no energy, style, or interest to it. Remember Casino Royale? Its opening sequence, its fight in the bathroom or the parkour-heavy scene in the construction yard? Remember that silent, silhouetted fight scene from Skyfall, the one that took place against the backdrop of a ten-story neon sign? Well forget all that shit, we've got some of the most boring, pace-less, spectacle-free action you've ever seen here. Even Bond doesn't look interested as he lazily shoots down his targets. The fucking climax of the movie involves him firing a pistol at a helicopter while not being menaced even slightly. What is this, some attempt to drop Blofeld and Bond's wackiness into a John leCarre book? Even the henchman, usually a reliable source of fun in a Bond movie, is a hulking cypher of an irrelevancy played by Dave Bautista, who was awesome in Guardians of the Galaxy as Drax the Destroyer because that was a good movie made by skilled filmmakers with a brilliant script. This film, possessed of none of those qualities, makes him into Generic big tough guy number 18, to the point where it wasn't until after he had died that I realized his death sequence was supposed to be a major setpiece of the film.

And what of the Cast, the quality of the film I usually lead with? Useless. Léa Seydoux may be gorgeous, but she is simply a bad actress, something I've determined before from films as varied as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Farewell My Queen. Honestly, the problem here though isn't her, but the character written for her, a generic useless pretty person who has no actual point in either the story or the "grand plot" of the films, and yet whom we are supposed to believe Bond falls in love with to the point where he is willing to give up the life of an itinerant spy. The classic Bond girls of yesteryear were silly, yes, and there as eye candy, but they were also KGB spies and secret assassins and exotic heiresses looking for vengeance in their own right, and when Bond slept with them, you could see what it was that he found compelling. This one is a shrinking violet of no use to anyone, whose character arc is transparently used as an excuse to get her captured, again and again, so that Bond can have a dilemma. Monica Bellucci, meanwhile, about which so much was made prior to the film's release, that there would finally be an older Bond Girl, is basically not in the movie at all, and during the two minutes she does spend there, she accomplishes exactly zero, save of course for being seduced by Bond during her husband's funeral. We've discussed Waltz and Craig, both of whom look flat-out embarrassed to be there, but we also should bring up Ralph Fiennes, who has the unenviable task of basically playing Alec Baldwin's character from Mission Impossible 5 without the compensating quality of being Alec Baldwin. Andrew Scott, meanwhile, who played Morarty on the BBC's Sherlock, gets to play the evil government official who wants to activate a domestic spy program to rule the world, an idea that seems to come out of nowhere except the filmmaker's desire to pretend that this BOND FILM is actually a deep mediation on the questions of our times. Admittedly, this is the sort of shit that worked in Captain America 2, mostly because that movie starred Captain America, was written by someone who had seen a movie in the last thirty years, and was also entirely about the subject in question, rather than tacking it on as a B-plot to impress those who believe we can't have a spy movie that isn't also about how evil espionage is. This film meanwhile is so incompetently-made that we are treated to actual scenes in which Scott stands before his adversaries and sneers at them that they are clearly too naive weak for the modern world because they "are stupid enough to believe in... *scoff*... democracy!".

Final thoughts:    Spectre is not just a bad movie, but the worst kind of bad movie, a movie so bad that it makes me retroactively hate other movies related to it that I previously liked. I praised the hell out of Skyfall when it first came out, but reflecting on the thunderous mess that is Spectre makes me realize that the flaws that destroyed this film were present in its predecessor as well, waiting to strike once the filmmakers ran out of good ideas and threw their hands up in the air. That Sam Mendes, who made American Beauty, Jarhead, and Skyfall itself, was the director of this film, tells me that something went fantastically wrong early on in the process, to the point where nobody, not the cast, not the producers, not Mendes, and not the scriptwriters, were able to salvage anything from it. And yet to present this movie as some kind of Avengers-style capstone to a series that was plainly not aiming in this direction beforehand is a move so shameless that I can only describe it as contemptible. This is a film that tells you that the movies you watched before were other than what they were, and rather than try and figure out what made them popular, prefers to re-write them for the worse so as to peddle lazy swill before you, confident that an action movie in November is unlikely to have much competition.

I get a lot of flak every time I pan a stupid action movie, from people who claim that I am simply failing to get into the "spirit" of the thing by turning my brain off and enjoying the spectacle. While I would point out that you are speaking to the guy who liked both Kingsman and Fast & Furious 7, my counter is not so much that I don't have high expectations, but that a stupid action movie that wants to coast on its action and fun should probably include fun action. And when the film does not include fun action because fun is stupid and all movies have to rip off other successful movies regardless of whether their formulas are compatible, then they should not expect mercy from me when it comes time to review the quality of their work, particularly not when their only recourse is to try and convince me that movies I liked weren't all that good in the first place.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Next Time:  A movie this bad demands a retreat to the indie theaters for something a little... different...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Alternate Title:  Saving Captain Powers

One sentence synopsis:     An insurance lawyer from Brooklyn is asked by his company to defend a Soviet Spy in his trial, and by the US government to negotiate his exchange for American pilot Gary Powers.

Things Havoc liked: I really should not have to introduce Steven Spielberg to anyone. If he's not the greatest filmmaker of the modern age (and he probably is), then he's at least on the short list, alongside names like Scorsese, Kubrick, Myazaki, and Scott. Yeah, it's fashionable to denigrate his films as sentimental schlock and no, I've not loved everything that Spielberg has ever made (let us never speak of War Horse again), but make no mistake, Spielberg invented modern Hollywood cinema and has defined it, with revisions, for three and a half decades. When I was a child, he was my favorite director in the world, and now that I am an experienced film connoisseur who can discourse authoritatively on the works of Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier, Spielberg is still (probably) my favorite director in the world, and no amount of twaddle about the "infantilization of American filmgoers" (Peter Biskind can kiss my ass) will ever change that. So far, five years into this project, we have been twice presented by one of Spielberg's films, The Adventures of Tintin (which while not great, was pretty fun), and Lincoln (which while not fun, was pretty great). Now we have another offering before us, a cold war historical thriller of the sort that Spielberg has become increasingly fond of in recent years (Munich comes to mind) starring one of his favorite actors, Tom Hanks, and one of mine, Mark Rylance.

You do know who Mark Rylance is, don't you? A big-time British theater actor who specializes in Shakespeare on stage and television, whom I've not, admittedly, seen a whole lot of in my film-watching career, but I do remember. He was the only good thing in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich's godawful attempt to posit a monarchical conspiracy theory, and also the only good thing in The Gunman, a film that would have to find some ambition before it could become shit. Rylance plays real-life Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, not as any form of movie spy, but as an old, unfailingly polite man, who neither admits his espionage nor explains it, but holds fast to his allegiance without any real explanation as to why. We don't know a lot about Abel, why he became a spy, what his background is, what he hopes to gain from refusing the offers the CIA (understandably) makes to him involving turning double-agent. What little we do get from him is via his interactions with James Donovan, played by Spielberg's favorite actor, Tom Hanks, an insurance lawyer and (*gasp*) everyman good guy assigned to the defense of the accused spy, and following his conviction (spoiler alert), to the task of trying to arrange his exchange for a shot down spy pilot in Berlin.

So far, all I have told you is the plot of the movie and that actors you have or have not heard of are in it, so let me try and actually speak to something good here. Spielberg is one of the great directors after all, and his specialty (or one of them) is this exact sort of Americana period piece. It's no surprise then that the movie's decoration and sense of place is so spot on. Be it 1950s Brooklyn, or 1950s Berlin, the set dressing for this film is absolutely fantastic, neither layered with nostalgia nor over the top in its depiction of the dismal, ruined state of Berlin at the foundation of the Berlin Wall. The smoldering ruins that are all that is left of East Berlin (and would remain all that was left of it until 1989) are beautifully realized, as is the smoldering resentment of the East Germans themselves towards this state of affairs and the hand they have been dealt by global geopolitics in general. Indeed, the film is in no small part about this fact, as Donovan does not engage in spy games, Bondesque or otherwise, but simply shuttles between one part of Berlin and another, making contacts and struggling to understand, however he may, the interests of the various organizations that he has to deal with, Soviet, East German, American, and whatnot. This gets hilarious at times, from the thunderous, bufoonish bombast of the East German minister of... nobody quite knows what, to the tearful overacting of the "family" of the confessed spy, none of whom seem able to keep straight what their relationship with him is, and whose purpose in being foisted on Donovan in advance of his meeting is entirely opaque to us and to him. The take is very much Marx-Brothers-do-The-Cold-War, which is appropriate, given the level of false ambition endemic to spy agencies then (and now).

Things Havoc disliked: If it doesn't sound like I'm making a great case for this film so far, well... there's a reason.

Bridge of Spies, like many movies I can think of made by many good directors, is a film defined by what it is not. It is a spy movie that is not James Bond or Jason Bourne, all action and adventure, nor for that matter is it a John leCarre film about how everyone is evil and posturing and spycraft is useless. It is not a movie about the relationship between Donovan and his charge, though it touches briefly on that point, nor about the life and times of Captain Powers himself, on whose behalf all of this is being done, nor is it a biography of James Donovan, who was a real man who engaged in real negotiations of this sort, serving as an envoy between governments that were not able to recognize one another's existence. It's fine to want to make a movie different from its fellows by not being similar to them, but at a certain point, a movie actually has to BE something, and Bridge of Spies... isn't.

Consider the first half of the movie, which is an extended setup for the second, in which Donovan defends Abel against the charges of espionage, unsuccessfully. We know he is going to be unsuccessful, as the film was advertised to us as being about the negotiations which took place after Abel was convicted, which makes the entire hour of screentime spent watching him be convicted pretty damn pointless, as far as I'm concerned. Spielberg tries to insert some interest, by having a massive public backlash against Donovan for having defended a spy (which never happened), culminating in someone shooting into his house with a machine gun (which also never happened), following which point the police accuse him of being a traitor who deserved to have his family massacred (which I'm willing to predict never freaking happened). The entire event is a ham-fisted effort to ground the film in hysteria so as to wave neon signs to point to similar events from today, tendentious ones that don't fit the tone of the movie. Even if this sort of thing happened all the time in regards to terrorism suspects today (which it does not), Spielberg's inherent sentimentality turns the entire event into an after-school special on how condemning people without trial (which nobody ever considered doing) is a bad thing, because they might be innocent (which Abel isn't).

But lest this sound like another political axe of mine being ground at the expense of another movie, my objection isn't the politics of the film, but the pointlessness of it. More tension is brought to the fold later on, when it turns out the East Germans have seized some college student who strayed on the wrong side of the Wall, and now seek to scupper the impending spy trade by threatening to execute him. This did happen, and adds an interesting wrinkle into the situation before Donovan, but nothing is unfortunately helped by the fact that everyone else involved, CIA, GDR, KGB, or whatnot, are unspeakably stupid. The movie lets Donovan's CIA handler insist, over and over, that they should not exert themselves to save the kid without ever letting the CIA handler give a reason why (and there are reasons why). Unlike last year's Most Wanted Man, I don't think this is because Spielberg actually thinks the CIA are too stupid and evil to have a reason, but it's a diminishing of the film's stakes when we're presented the question of "Do we approve of the execution of innocent college students?" as though it's some kind of deep moral quandary. And lest the film sound biased, the movie manages to go so far over the top with the Eastern Bloc agencies that Donovan winds up having to explain to the East Germans that if they decide to blatantly scupper a deal between the USSR and USA, the Soviet Union, the country which occupies their own with the largest standing military force on the planet, might just get angry.

Final thoughts:    I certainly didn't dislike Bridge of Spies, but the film is almost relentlessly ephemeral, a non-entity of a movie that is, as always, quite difficult as a result to actually talk about. On the scale of Spielberg films, it rates along the lines of things like 1941 or Always, movies that are neither good nor interestingly bad. I barely recall the act of seeing it, just a couple of weeks ago, and will likely remember it even less the next time this project forces me back to the subject. It's a pity, because there's a good movie to be made from the story of Captain Powers, James Donovan, and Rudolf Abel, but given this thing, I think we'll have to wait on that one for another time, and frankly, another director.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Bond.  James Bond.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Crimson Peak

Alternate Title:  Alice in Jotunheim

One sentence synopsis:     An American writer who can see ghosts marries an impoverished British Baronet, and comes to live with him and his sister in their ancestral manor.

Things Havoc liked: I just don't know what to do with Guillermo del Toro anymore. Frankly, I don't think I ever did. He's a talented, truly original director who is also frustrating as hell to me as a moviegoer because I simply don't know what I'm going to get from him for any given film. Will I be seeing a movie from the visionary, fantastical, brilliant action-fantasy director who brought me Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy? Or will I be seeing a movie from the cheap, low-concept genre hack who brought me Mimic, Blade II, and Pacific Rim. Admittedly, a director who gives me great and bad movies in alternating sequence normally represents a worthwhile investment, but we exist in a movie landscape that suddenly seems to be replete with visionary Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón or Alejandro González Iñárritu, and inconsistency like del Toro's really begins to mar the experience. I rely on trailers, history, and my own native good sense (pause for laughter), to make my weekly selections, and when the trailer promises a horror film livened only by the promise of a director who in his last picture failed to make giant robots awesome, well... you can see why I put this one off.

And yet del Toro is a talented director, a very talented director even, and while I'm beginning to tire of the old excuse for bad movies that "at least they have good visuals", the fact remains that there's good visuals, and then there's del Toro's visuals. Even in crap like Pacific Rim, del Toro has always had a masterful eye for dressing a camera shot, and that remains the case in Crimson Peak. We've all seen haunted old mansions before, but del Toro's version gives us a mansion that, rather paradoxically for a horror film, is all big, open areas, be they the towering central atrium of the mansion's ground floor, to the barren, snow-swept fields of the surrounding region, sparsely-studded with arcane machinery. Even when the film descends into haunted cellars and spooky corridors, the lighting is ample and the spaces large, ensuring that the area never feels claustrophobic. This is a particularly weird choice for what is ostensibly a horror film, but del Toro seems to want his imagery to provide the necessary thrills by itself, rather than through penning the audience in. Some of the more evocative shots involve the malformed ghosts standing or floating openly in broad daylight, with plenty of room around them to highlight their alien-ness. Forget letting your imagination do all the work, del Toro has created a visually rich panorama, and you are going to look at it dammit, drink in every last drop, and let those images scare or impress you.

Indeed, I'm not even sure that the intention is to be scary, as del Toro seems to go out of his way to replace fright with atmosphere. Elaborate explanations, often established in advance, greet every manifestation of strangeness, from a rich blood-red clay that stains the ground around the manor and bleeds from the very walls, to the arcane sounds and groans that permeate the house. The characters, inured to strangeness like this as they are, consequently pay the presence of such disquieting images very little mind, even when it comes to ghosts clawing their way out of the floorboards or dripping bloody clay down the atrium as they float and moan. In a strange way, this makes sense for a del Toro picture. Pan's Labyrinth had a similar sort of spooky-but-not-scary atmosphere to it, a dark fantasy/magical realism approach completely at odds with the state of most horror films (Evil Dead comes to mind). Indeed that was one of the reasons I loved Pan's Labyrinth as much as I did, for rather than forcing the audience to cringe for jump scares all the time, it let us drink up the world that was being presented, dark though it might be. There's a subtlety to Crimson Peak, for all the haunting and mystery, and it's something I can appreciate.

As with most of del Toro's movies (though not all), the cast is something of an afterthought, but that doesn't mean they're bad at what they do. I love Tom Hiddleston, for instance, even when he's not playing Loki, and this role (a tall, austere, elegantly-charming British aristocrat with a troubled dark past) is the sort of thing that Hiddleston was born to play. As with his turn as Loki, we are never quite sure just what the hell his game is, is he a good guy, a bad guy, or merely troubled and dark (hint, hint). Jim Beaver, of Deadwood (a show you should be watching now), does a fine turn as the concerned father of our heroine, making an actual character out of something that could have been nothing more than a pastiche of an overbearing dolt. But the big surprise for me in the cast was Jessica Chastain, who continues to confound me by following up every boring, acting-free role of hers (Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, Interstellar), with one that actually showcases some skill (A Most Violent Year, and now this). Nobody's going to confuse her with Meryl Streep or anything, but her role, as the disturbed sister of our favorite Trickster-god, is certainly animated, and involves a good bit of horror-trope acting before it's over.

Things Havoc disliked: So then with all those things, why didn't I like this movie more? Because this is a Guillermo del Toro film, perhaps one of the most del-Toroesque movies I've ever seen. And that means we don't just get visionary-del-Toro, we get the schlocky fanboy-del-Toro too. How else to explain the tone of this movie, which is the most fragmented thing I've seen since the last half hour of Django Unchained? The movie builds atmosphere relentlessly, stacking up visual images left and right, and then... all of a sudden at the drop of a hat, we're in Eli Roth territory, where horrific, violent shit is happening to characters nearby in a manner so over-the-top as to be grotesque.

I mean, I know what del Toro is going for here, and I'm not a prude. There's certainly a place for over-the-top gorey violence in film. I composed a pangyric to Mad Max for nastier stuff than this. And I understand that the intention here is to contrast the reserved, visual world with scenes of shocking horror, the way Pan's Labyrinth intercut all the magical realism and creativity with brutal sequences involving fascists and torture. Unfortunately, this time it doesn't work at all. Pan's Labyrinth maintained a stark division between the realistic scenes of awful horror and the mystical scenes of childlike fantasy, using the two of them as mirrors for one another. Crimson Peak is all visual magic and set-piece imagery, until all of a sudden we're hit with body horror and jump scares for a moment or two, and then back to the magical realism we go. This sort of tonal shift is a terrible mistake, as it drags the audience out of the world by shocking them into a completely different movie every time the film has built a bit of momentum. We simply can't let ourselves sit back and drink up the details of del Toro's world the way he wants us to, because he's already established that at the drop of a hat he's going to pull some hideous jump scare or gore-pile on us, and run off giggling about how he "got" us to let our guards down.

And none of this is helped by the fact that the camera is focused far, far too much on the weakest elements of the cast, among them Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, whom I last saw last year, pairing up with Tom Hiddleston in the far superior dark fantasy/horror film Only Lovers Left Alive. Wasikowska was perfectly good in that film, but this time she's gone full Tim Burton protagonist on us, playing a shrinking violet of a character who insists against all appearances that she's tough enough to deal with what's going on. Her acting is wooden and stilted, as it was in Alice in Wonderland and as I expect it will be in that film's misbegotten sequel, which we shall almost certainly not be considering when it comes out next year. Her character takes an agonizingly long time to recognize that there is anything even slightly odd about living in a house with no roof that bleeds from the walls, and reacts to truly worrisome events or mortal peril like she is being horribly inconvenienced and may have to actually raise her voice. Nor are things improved via the addition of Charlie Hunnam, last seen as the lead in Pacific Rim, where he played a character so boring that I remember nothing whatsoever about him. If nothing else, this film proves that Hunnam is consistent, for I continue to remember nothing whatsoever about him, which is a problem given the amount of time his character is afforded to prat around uselessly. Indeed that description can be thrown at most of the cast, who are so clueless that it takes the better part of a year and the consistent efforts of a concerned party to get anyone to realize that someone whose face was beaten in by multiple blunt force traumas may have experienced foul play.

Final thoughts:    Crimson Peak has some good shots in it, but a collection of good shots does not a good movie make. Bereft of a cohesive tone, and riven with jump scares or body horror shock moments as a substitute for a plot that would serve to amuse any moviegoer for more than a few minutes, the film is disjointed and lackluster. I have certainly seen far worse horror movies in my tenure as the Internet's foremost film expert (pause for laughter), but it does not serve as the return to form for Guillermo del Toro that I was hoping it might, and I doubt that after another couple of weeks, I will remember it at all.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Stop me if you've heard this one:  Tom Hanks confronts the enemies of the United States in a Steven Spielberg film set in war-ravaged Europe...

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