Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Alternate Title:  The 7th Round

One sentence synopsis:     The son of Apollo Creed goes to Philadelphia to find his father's long-time rival, Rocky Balboa, and enlist his help in becoming a professional boxer.

Things Havoc liked: Some movie series aren't just movies, but culture-defining institutions. You can hate a particular Star Wars movie all you want, and I certainly have in my day, but objecting that you dislike all of Star Wars is tantamount to rejecting the space opera as a genre, or maybe even the entire popular side of the sci-fi spectrum. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but while a given movie from a series that influential can be bad or good, criticism of the series as a series is more or less irrelevant. If one does not like Westerns, then one simply does not like them, and wishing they included less dust, six-shooters, and horseriding is missing the point. So it is with the Rocky movies, which came to define the entire genre of sports films in general and boxing films in specific. Rocky has had movies of better or worse quality over the years, to put it mildly, but the last film in the series, the simply-titled Rocky Balboa, was a surprisingly decent film overall, particularly considering the context and the depths to which the series had slipped with movies 4 and 5. But here we are, a decade later, with a new film and a new boxer, wherein everything can come full circle.

I have heard a lot about Michael B. Jordan, but up until this film, with the exception of a small role on HBO's The Wire, I don't believe that he and I had crossed paths (at least until I discovered that he'd also had a small role in fucking Red Tails, of all things). Still, I've heard good things about his work in Chronicle, and this seemed like a good opportunity to see what he was all about. And the answer is a great deal, because Jordan is on fire in this movie. His character, Adonis, the illegitimate son of the legendary Apollo Creed, is a well-to-do young man, with a secure, white collar job, who nonetheless moonlights (almost literally) as a boxer in dive undercards in Tijuana. Early on in the film he makes the decision to leave everything behind, his job, his family, and move to Philadelphia in the hopes of finding his father's old nemesis/friend and receiving his training as a professional boxer. The question of why he does all this, when unlike Rocky or other typical sports movie underdogs, he has all manner of other choices he could make, is never really answered (except in one line at the very end of the film), and frankly, never really has to be, as Jordan conveys everything wordlessly, a drive that has nothing to do with the working class and everything to do with self-respect. The physicality demanded of anyone starring in a boxing movie is there as well, as Jordan looks lean and lethal, and the scenes in which he obsessively trains for a boxing career that may never ever happen are as convincing as any movie-boxing sequences I've ever seen. It's one of the best all-round boxer performances I've ever seen, frankly, and while that might not sound like much praise, bear in mind that that list includes Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Real Steel (shut up!), and the other Rocky films themselves.

Ah but this is a Rocky film, isn't it? So what of Rocky himself, played as always by the immortal Sylvester Stallone. Stallone might not have the greatest range as an actor, nor the finest reputation in these reviews of mine (the less said about Escape Plan and Expendables 3, the better), but lest anybody forget, Stallone is one of only three men (the others being Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin) to receive two Oscar nominations for the same film, nor should anyone forget that the movie in which he did this was the original Rocky. I've always counted myself a fan of Stallone's when he's in the right sort of role, Rocky or Rambo or some slurring badass fighting crime with both fists, but this is his original role, and frankly, at 69, he's every bit as convincing as he was at 30, maybe even more. Rocky in this movie is an old man, retired to his restaurant in his old working-class Philly neighborhood. Reluctant at first to even indulge some no-name youngster from California, a kid who is plainly not the first to seek the old war-horse out, Rocky has to be prodded and cajoled into the Burgess Meredith role from the original film. Yet when he finally takes it on, Stallone is, ironically, entirely in his element, even though that element entails nothing like his typical role. Moments such as a standout scene in a doctor's office, where the Italian Stallion is faced with a cancer diagnosis and quietly decides against seeking treatment, or a scene near the end where he has to be helped up the famous Philly steps that he once made famous sound melodramatic on paper, but Stallone plays them with a quiet dignity that I really didn't think he had in him. It's not the stuff of further Oscars, necessarily, but it's an excellent turn from an actor infamous for vanity projects showcasing him as an invulnerable badass irrespective of circumstance. Stallone and Jordan play off one another wonderfully, all without falling (too far at least) into the usual traps.

Creed was written and directed by up-and-comer Ryan Coogler, who made his debut in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, also starring Jordan. I had my issues with Fruitvale Station (to put it mildly), but most everyone else did not, and even I had to admit that the film was exceedingly well made on a mechanical level. Creed, on the other hand, is a step above, shot expertly and with great skill. An early standout sequence involves an entire light-heavyweight fight, including multiple rounds and corner breaks, all shot in a single, unbroken take. Granted, unbroken takes have become the auteur-du-jour calling card recently (thank you, Birdman), but a good one is still impressive, and Coogler supplements the camera tricks with other nice touches, such as the John Wick-style tale-of-the-tape stat-cards that appear around other boxers at key points in the film, and the judicious addition of the old-standby Rocky-training montages. As to the writing of the film, it leans heavily on elements that have always been strengths of the Rocky franchise. Rocky films have always had "villains" that weren't really villains, and this one is no different, as Creed's primary opponent is an English champion with serious anger management issues who, facing a seven-year sentence on a gun charge that is essentially going to end his career, is looking for one last high-profile fight so as to earn enough money to take care of his family, something he needs desperately enough to agree to a fight with an untested youngster with a famous name.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, not everything in the film is as well fleshed out as the villain. Tessa Thompson, from Selma and a number of other films, is the Creed's love interest in the film, a role that is in no way elevated above the previous statement. Clumsy attempts are made to give her character, a young singer and musician whom Creed meets in Philadelphia, something of interest, but these amount largely to the fact that she is suffering from congenital hearing loss and will eventually go deaf. What is done with this fact or this character in general? Nothing, save for the usual routine of three-act movies in which they must fight and break up only to reunite at the end when the main character needs her support the most. It's not that Thompson is particularly bad in the role, it's that the role is particularly useless, to the point where the Wikipedia summary of the film tellingly doesn't mention her character at all.

There's also the question of the boxing itself, which is a sore subject given that the problems this movie has are the same ones that Rocky effectively welded into the genre back in 1976. Simply put, boxing does not work this way, and it never has. Boxers in Creed, as in every Rocky movie, and by extension every boxing movie ever made, stand in the center of the ring trading blows to the head and body that would lay a man dead on the canvas were a real, professional boxer to ever deliver them in real life. Yet the movie seems to think it perfectly normal for its combatants to absorb dozens and hundreds of these blows before going down, even as their faces are pounded into hamburger meat and their bodies take shots that should liquify their organs with each punch. Boxing, at its most technical, can be a deceptively slow-looking sport, I grant, and nobody came to this movie hoping to see the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight all over again, but I do wish that boxing films would occasionally showcase something resembling boxing, rather than the Terminator-style bludgeonings that the Rocky films cemented in the genre to begin with.

Final thoughts:  Creed is not a terribly ambitious movie, but it is an extremely well-made one, a film that follows the old dictum that very little can go wrong when your movie calls for two good actors to stand in a room and act at one another. I'm not qualified, necessarily, to speak to it in terms of its position vis-a-vis the Rocky films of old, but as a sports film in the modern age, it stands as a testament to the notion, already highly popular this year, that new blood in an old franchise can pay great dividends if the material is treated with the respect it deserves. I don't know if this movie is the first of a new series, or if in 2018, we will see Jordan fighting steroid-enhanced Russians or acting alongside synthesized robots. But for now, all I've ever asked for was a movie that worked, and Creed is, if nothing else, unquestionably that.
Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Pixar didn't just make movies about neurology this year...

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Alternate Title:  Proof of Concept

One sentence synopsis:     A scavenger from a desert world and a renegade Stormtrooper try to make their escape from an Imperial remnant group called The First Order and their shadowy Sith leader.

A Note from the General:     I customarily like to start these reviews out with a bit of background material, explaining why I went to see particular movie, or what the context of the previous films in the series are, but somehow that seems unnecessary here. Literally everyone on Earth knows what Star Wars is, from Bushmen in central Africa to Samoyed reindeer herders in northern Siberia, and if all of those people don't know that a new movie, the most hotly-anticipated film in twenty years, is finally upon us, it can only be due to a combination of willful deafness and dumb luck that they've avoided finding out. In a way, even reviewing the new film at all seems almost superfluous, given that it is currently in the process of making approximately all of the money, and is projected to be seen, in the next 18-24 months, by more than 50% of the population of the Earth. And yet, for me, I never started this project with the intention of somehow affecting the global box office of films this size, but merely recording my thoughts for such purposes as anyone may find in them. And in the nearly two hundred and fifty films that I have reviewed to date, not one of them, not Avengers, not Iron Man, not the myriad offerings of Pixar or Disney or the output of my favorite indie directors, no film to date has generated the expectations... the hope that this one has. To have a Star Wars movie worthy of the name after so many years, and such tremendous disappointments as the prequels were, was something I scarcely believed might ever happen. Star Wars is not other film franchises, not to me and mine, not even in this age of Marvel and its imitators. Star Wars is something different, something sacred, something pure, and consequently something guarded most jealously our memories, an epic, operatic space adventure whose importance shines through all the merchandizing, "special" editions, prequels, and hype. Star Wars is a special case, it has always been a special case. How then to evaluate a new film offered up at its altar? This is the question I've struggled with ever since seeing the film, and one that I've still not satisfactorily answered. And yet, faced with the fact of the new movie and the need to say something about it, I fall back, as I often do, on the process itself, which I invented in the first place specifically to allow me to clarify my thoughts on works of art that are, after all, entirely subjective. Whatever the tricks or the complexities or the ambivalence of my feelings for one thing or another, I am, at the end, faced with the same two questions as always. What were the things I liked about this film? And what were the ones that I did not?

Things Havoc liked: The original Star Wars was a great gamble in many ways, and one of those ways was the casting. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher might all be household names to nerds of my generation now, but they were all total unknowns in the world of film when George Lucas decided to cast them in his insane, impossible, fever-dream of a space epic. Lucas wanted fresh faces who could nonetheless pull off the classically-epic material that he had created for them, and he got them, and before we talk about anything else in this movie, we need to acknowledge that JJ Abrams, a man who knows a thing or two about adapting old space operas to the silver screen, did the same damn thing, and got the same damn results.

Whatever the billing, whatever the surroundings, The Force Awakens is a movie about two young characters, Rey, a mechanical prodigy and indentured smuggler eking out a subsistence living on a desert planet, and Finn, a Stormtrooper slave-soldier desperate to escape his circumstances and find a way to live his own life, and before we go any further, these two characters are both the core of the movie and the best goddamn things in it. Rey, played by English unknown Daisy Ridley, is a self-sufficient engineer and scrounger with no future or hope for one, whose grubby circumstances amidst the ruins of the former galactic Empire is the perfect starting point for a Campbellian hero's journey like this one (a favorite note of mine is Rey's makeshift home, built out of the wreck of an AT-AT Walker). Ridley plays the character just right, enough of a hard edge to reveal her capabilities and the harshness of her background, without (as the temptation always is) going overboard into "strong independent woman who don't need no man"-syndrome (go watch Catwoman if you want to see what that looks like). Finn meanwhile, played by another young English unknown (John Boyega), whose role is that of the audience surrogate, a young man whose circumstances are highly dangerous and who simply wants to get away with his life, and his soul, intact, and who benefits from getting most of the best lines in the movie. How long has it been since we saw a character within a Star Wars movie who is allowed to get as excited as the audience at the epic things going on, or who, like Rae, is empowered to evidence sheer pants-wetting terror at some of the horrors that exist in this universe, without sacrificing her essential intelligence, resourcefulness, or grit? As to which of these characters is the main one, there may be a technical answer, but the film doesn't force us to uncover it, allowing the both of them to combine forces and go on an adventure, which is manifestly the right move. Bodega and Ridley share an effortless chemistry on screen, without the need for forced hackneyed romance plots or other distractions. 'Two, young, interesting characters go on a space adventure' is how this movie seems to want to frame itself, and after the awful drudgery of the prequels, that's exactly what I wanted to see.

But of course, Ridley and Boyega aren't alone out there. The rest of the cast is a mix of excellent character actors and returning fan favorites, which (almost) uniformly do the script justice. Oscar Isaac, my favorite Guatemalan actor of all time, of Suckerpunch and Ex Machina and A Most Violent Year, plays Poe Dameron, an expert fighter pilot straight out of the Wedge Antilles handbook of Star Wars aces, and while his character isn't given a whole hell of a lot of weighty material, Isaac has the right kind of dashing swagger that a movie like this thrives on. Adam Driver meanwhile, a theater actor of no particular film pedigree, plays Kylo Ren, the obligatory dark lord for a film like this. Interestingly, Driver goes a different direction than the classic Vader-style implacably menacing Sith Lord, giving us an antagonist who, like the main characters themselves, is not yet fully formed, a raw force talent who struggles with his own conflicts and throws elaborate, rage-quelled tantrums when he doesn't get his way. Some of the best scenes in the entire film involve Ren and Rey in wordless contests of will, as Ren discovers that his freshly-formed powers have their limits, and Rey that hers may exist. Driver's performance is bound to be somewhat controversial among the die-hard fans, as he comes across fairly... wimpy... relative to figures like Darth Vader at least, but that's plainly the point. The intention here seems to be to provide a villain that will grow alongside the heroes as they make their way through the new trilogy, which is an idea full of promise for a series still unformed. As to the original cast, Harrison Ford's return as Han Solo is the evident highlight, still a scoundrel and a rogue after all these years, reluctantly dragged back into all of the force-related madness that he now, at long last, has to acknowledge was true all along. Han's appearance in the movie is a gem, replete with wonderful callbacks to the originals, including the minor (and glorious) point that in every gunfight Han gets into (and there are many), he always fires the first shot.

And speaking of gunfights, The Force Awakens is fittingly awash in action, action in space and in the atmosphere, action on the ground, action with blasters, turbolasers, and lightsabers, action of supremely high quality across the board. The starfighters seem to be front and center here, with revised renditions of X-wings and TIE-Fighters dogfighting over half a dozen planets or pursuing other chips through madcap obstacle courses designed as intentional throwbacks to the original series. A standout sequence early in the film involves the Millennium Falcon being chased through a starship graveyard by a pair of TIE fighters, a sequence that is not satisfied with ripping off a particular action sequence from the original films and prefers to steal simultaneously from half a dozen. Ground combat is exciting and well-paced, with blaster fights punctuated by standout "boss" character engagements, with a particular high point coming halfway through the film, as a completely untrained Finn grabs a handy lightsaber to take on a "riot trooper", armed with some kind of high-grade cattle prod. The inevitable lightsaber-on-lightsaber combat (which we all knew was coming), feels very different this time around, with no trace of the hyper-choreographed acrobatic flail-bouts that the prequels were full of. The lightsabers this time around have weight and heft and force being their strikes, and feel far more like weapons in the hands of men or women who want to violently kill one another, not show off their athleticism. I loved the fight scene at the end of Phantom Menace as much as anyone, but the style this time is completely on-point, allowing us (as any good melee fight will) to trace the temper and mentality of the combatants by the style and progression of their fight. A moment, for instance, where Kylo Ren goes from playing with his opponent to trying to murder him with extreme prejudice comes across as clear as a ringing bell, despite not one line of dialogue and minimal musical cues to underly the change.

And finally there's the design of the films, which is so important for Star Wars, one of the only space or sci-fi settings that allows things to look grimy, well-used, and worn. One of the many criticisms leveled at the Prequels was that everything looked far too shiny, too picturesque, too factory-fresh to mesh with the original series' style, and whether or not that criticism was valid, the filmmakers this time took the issue to heart. The first half of the film takes place on the not-Tatooine desert world of Jakku, which appears to be a giant interstellar graveyard for the remnants of imperial war machines of decades past, from crashed Star Destroyers providing an endless source of mechanical parts, to hollowed-out tanks or starfighters used as crude dwellings. The other settings, which vary from a forested smuggler-haven built into what appears to be a repurposed set from Game of Thones, to a frozen taiga-planet with an Imperial-grade Superweapon built into the center of it, all feel lived-in and properly dirty, as do the weapons, tools, ships, and costumes of the various soldiers, bounty hunters, smugglers, scavengers, scoundrels and mercenaries that any good Star Wars film has to be filled with. Top everything off with a John Williams score, freshly-written for the new movie, and we have at long last, a film that earns the name it arrives under, a film that is recognizably, visibly, truly Star Wars.

Things Havoc disliked: And... perhaps ironically, that is something of the problem.

The Force Awakens is a movie that was clearly designed with the idea in mind of not repeating the mistakes of prequels past, and yet so obsessively does it follow the "script" for a Star Wars movie, or more specifically for the original Star Wars itself, that it winds up being, for even a casual fan of the series, highly derivative. Yes, of course I know that the original Star Wars was also derivative, as Lucas more or less added Samurais and WWII fighter pilots to Joseph Campbell, but this film is even more derivative than that, to the extent of point-by-point retreads of previous moments in the series, including X-wings on a trench run against an evil, planet-sized superweapon with a single weak point, a hero attempting to refuse the call after finally figuring out what is actually going on, dark lords in breathing masks, a search for a wise, old, reclusive Jedi master on a remote planet, and dramatic family revelations taking place on catwalks that have clearly never been approved by OSHA. This is all in addition to the various callbacks, in-jokes, and references that the film is constantly making back to the original trilogy in a desperate effort to convince you that yes, this is actually a Star Wars film, because the Prequels ruined everything and we need to make sure you understand that this is just like the original, okay?! I understand the desire to reassure the fanboys (of which I am one) that things will be different this time, but the constant winking and pointing at the audience gets tiresome, and the movie's slavish fidelity to the decisions of its predecessor prevents it from actually becoming its own story, hoping instead to hint at a different story (or possibly the same story as Empire Strikes Back, who's to tell?)

And in its desperate attempt to rekindle the flames of the first Star Wars, this movie winds up making damn close to no sense at all. We are given more or less the same situation as the last movie, with a giant, evil empire full of Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers (The First Order), and a small, plucky rebellion fighting for freedom (The Resistance), with no sense of where the hell either of these organizations came from or what they're really trying to do. Of course in the original Star Wars, we got the same amount of information, but there it was world-building and it made perfect sense. An Evil Empire exists, a small rebellion exists, have fun. We destroyed the Evil Empire in Return of the Jedi, at least per my recollection, so where the hell did the First Order come from? Are they a remnant force of the Empire? An attempt to re-construct it? A group of particularly dedicated historical re-enactors? I have no idea, nor have I any idea where the "Resistance" came from or why. And all of this lack of basic world information following a thirty-year hiatus from the Galaxy Far Far Away means that very little of what's actually going on makes any sense. A great deal of the plot of this movie has to do with a map leading to SPOILERS REDACTED, of provenance unknown, and a simultaneous attempt to stop the First Order from using a horrifying super-weapon, of provenance unknown, to destroy the New Republic's capital, of provenance (and even name) unknown. Star Wars is a simple, timeless space epic, I grant, and I fully understand that among the Prequels' many, many sins, was an over-focus upon bullshit political minutiae as written by an teenager angry at the Bush Administration. But there is a happy medium between the goddamn Prequels and telling us nothing whatsoever, and this film fails to find it, the filmmakers preferring to assume that the audience doesn't care about things as minor as the plot of the movie they are watching, so long as they get to see some Star Wars staples.

Final thoughts:   And the worst part is, they're right.

I hate to give in to my inner fanboy to this degree, but JJ Abrams and his band of miscreants are absolutely right. I didn't care what the plot of The Force Awakens was, not really, so long as it wasn't something so unforgivably stupid that I was forced to care about it (I'm looking at you, Attack of the Clones). What I wanted was Star Wars, in every sense of the word, the pageantry, the timelessness, the epic scope and feel, the broad, appealing character archetypes, the heroism and action and daring-do, the humor and the drama and the characters and the orchestral grandeur of it all. I wanted Star Wars, peopled with characters I liked, replete with action that was exciting and bombastic, with stakes so high as to be ludicrous and a philosophy so timeless as to be instantly familiar. Next week, and the week after, I will go to the movies to get myself an interesting plot, but all I really wanted from Star Wars was for it to be good, and fun, and entertaining again.

And was it?

Yeah... yeah it was. Despite a plot dredged up from the bottom of George Lucas' boots and a storyboard that has "A New Hope" written on the cover and hastily scratched out, despite all the nitpicks about ex machinas and convenient plot points, despite a handful of lines I wouldn't have written and seams in the writing between Abrams' snark and Star Wars' earnestness, despite everything, yeah... it was what I wanted it to be, even if I didn't want to admit to myself that this was what I actually wanted. Maybe the next movies will continue to be entirely derivative, and I will turn on this new series the way I turned on Hobbit and Hunger Games. Maybe the plot won't get any clearer and the motivations won't get any more nuanced, and the films will implode under the tremendous gravity of their own predecessors. Maybe I will hate the next Star Wars movie because it does those things, or maybe it will do those things and I will love it anyway, because Star Wars is a blind spot for me and I am incapable of objectivity. Maybe I will be sitting here in a couple of years like a trauma victim, trying to assure you all that a series that has done nothing new whatsoever is actually good, despite all markers of objective quality.

Maybe so. But for right now, JJ Abrams clearly wanted to prove to me that he, and others like him, are capable of making good Star Wars films, and that the future films that they are offering are something worth sticking around for. The result isn't perfect, nor, I predict, will it be remembered anywhere near as well as the originals were. But in terms of a fun, exciting, gorgeous film that is recognizably Star Wars in all of its tattered glory? Here it is. Take it or leave it as you will, but we have not seen its like in forty years. And if there is anything at all that the Prequels taught me, it's that a good Star Wars movie is not so simple a thing after all.
Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  With Star Wars finally behind us, let us now consider a modern sequel to a classic series of beloved films, whose last couple sequels were regarded terribly, starring new young actors alongside the older, now-wizened original cast.

Wait a minute...

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Alternate Title:  The Priests and the Pedophiles

One sentence synopsis:     Reporters from the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" investigation team unearth the truth of a massive conspiracy by the Catholic Church of Boston to cover up the sexual abuse of children by hundreds of Catholic priests.

Things Havoc liked: In 2002, just after 9/11's coverage was finally fading from the news cycles, the Boston Globe published the first of over six hundred articles about the sexual abuse of children by priests within the Boston Archdiocese, and about the widespread and concerted effort to cover it all up on the part of the Catholic Church. The driving force behind these articles was the Globe's "Spotlight" team, an investigative-journalism unit who wound up winning a Pulitzer for their work in exposing the crimes and the coverups. And now along comes Tom McCarthy, an actor/writer/director best known for comedies and warmhearted fluff pieces like Up and The Station Agent, to try and bring this story to the big screen, with the help of a solid cast and a writing staff cribbed from Law & Order and Aaron Sorkin vehicles. I've certainly heard of worse ideas.

Spotlight is a procedural film at its core, a type of movie that has, ironically, more in common with heist films than it does with other news-based movies such as The Paper or Network. The assembled cast of characters has a job to do, and the movie is about how they go about doing it. These kinds of movies can work if the process of performing the job is sufficiently interesting, which is why most procedurals revolve around crime, either as mysteries, cop dramas, or criminal capers, and if the cast assembled to perform the job is good enough, then it will keep us interested. Fortunately enough, Spotlight succeeds on both counts. The entire Spotlight team is a murderer's row of good actors that I enjoy watching, from Michael Keaton to Mark Ruffalo to John Slattery to Rachael McAdams, all of whom play real reporters, current or former, of the real Boston Globe. McAdams in particular shines, as she always does, bringing the same sensibility she had in A Most Wanted Man to a movie whose intentions are considerably less axe-grindy, while Slattery (playing actual Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr.) gets to do what he's always done best, which is to stand around and look shocked at the information other people are bringing to him. The entire affair is overseen by Keaton, playing Editor-at-Large Walter Robinson, a local Bostonian who schmoozes with the great and the good of Boston's elite, politely fending off "requests" to turn his attention to other matters by the powers that be. This gives Keaton a chance to do what he does best, which is to mug for the camera while taking a principled stand, rightly or wrongly, and he confirms that Keaton's disappearance from film between the mid-90s and the mid-10s (the occasional appearance in Jackie Brown notwithstanding) was a terrible mistake, and I need to see him more often to compensate.

But the best performance in the movie by far is Liev Schrieber's (shout out to another native San Franciscan!), which consists of him doing the exact opposite of what he usually does best, which in most movies is to shout and look menacing (and occasionally to narrate documentaries about finance, football, and the greater cosmos). Schreiber plays Marty Baron, the newly-inaugurated Chief Editor of the Boston Globe, summoned from Miami by the paper's New York-based ownership under the assumption (universal among the paper's staff) that he is here to oversee staff cuts and the shuttering of the venerable institution as part of the ongoing century-long trauma that has been the "death of print". And yet no sooner does Baron arrive than he kick-starts the entire investigation by more or less forcing the Spotlight team to begin paying attention to an issue regarded as too small and too local for their purposes, at least until it becomes clear that the story is anything but. Baron's motives are never explained, not overtly, but the movie characterizes him via everyone else brilliantly, as everywhere he goes, everyone treats him with formal politeness, all while making absolutely certain that everyone else remembers at all times that he's That Jew From Miami, an outsider come to ruin the paper, Boston, and Catholicism itself. An early meeting with Cardinal Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese, ends with Law giving him a welcoming gift of a Catechism manual. But even with this treatment, Scheiber plays Baron at a level of quiet professionalism, never raising his voice or responding to the alternating flattery and threats of the established forces of Boston's Catholic organizations, but quietly encouraging his team to do their jobs, safe in the knowledge that his very boring nature is his secret weapon.

Material like this is hard to stay above board with, as the temptation is so great to start sermonizing on the failings of wicked men or corrupt institutions, but Spotlight keeps its focus relentlessly upon the reporters and the objects of their reporting, the minutiae of how one goes about getting information from a less than willing subject, or deals with bureaucratic obstacles while trying to obtain public records. The tale of horror that the reporters uncover grows and grows and grows, from 1 sick priest to four to thirteen to ninety, and at each step the characters are left to wonder just how far it will lead. Along the way they deal with other parties, such as the irreplaceable Stanley Tucci, playing a lawyer for a number of abuse victims, as well as support groups, other victims, and even the perpetrators themselves. A standout scene midway through the film has Rachel McAdams approach a house, looking for a source, only to meet one of the accused priests directly, who amazingly consents to being interviewed, beatifically admitting to her that he molested a number of boys, but that everything's all right, because he never took pleasure in it, and since the church has declared that his sins are now forgiven, there is no harm done. This sort of alien moon-logic juts into the film's reasonably placid world like a knife every so often, reminding everyone of just how it was that a conspiracy of abuse such as this could possibly happen, and bringing the consequences home, as one reporter discovers that a classmate of his was abused by their football coach/priest, and that he was only spared because he was lucky enough to play hockey, and another realizes that one of the various "treatment centers" that the Church uses to hide the pedophile priests is just around the corner from his house. These sorts of terrible discoveries serve as their own motivation, as the staff of the Globe continue their work through to the final breaking of the story, and the conflicts and agonies they suffer as a result seem entirely real.

Things Havoc disliked: I realize that these actors are playing real people, and that real people have real traits that need to be kept in mind, but boy are the accents in this movie pretty bad. Mark Ruffalo sounds like he has cotton balls stuffed in his mouth, as if material like this meant that he had to commune with his inner Marlon Brando. His character is mentioned at one point as being Portuguese, but no accent or point of origin could possibly explain the resulting full-mouthed blubbering that Ruffalo gets up to during most of the film. The quest for an authentic sound also bedevils Michael Keeton, whose character speaks in a loose slur the entire film, sliding from one word to the next such that I, at least, found it almost impossible to hear what the hell he was saying. His character, while a local boy done good who boozes it up with the high society folks of Boston's elite, is nowhere established as being a drunkard or even ever drinking to excess, so why he decided to put on a pastiche of an Irish drunk is beyond me. Maybe the original character did sound like that, but I'd prefer to dial back the verisimilitude a bit in favor of understanding what the hell people are saying.

There's also, more directly, the flip side to a movie this careful and procedural. The film starts slowly and never really accelerates from there, as characters look into what they regard as a nothing case buried in the back-archives before slowly coming to realize what is actually going on. I have no problem with a slow burn, but Spotlight seems to tread on the notion that you already know these characters and the environs that surround them, rendering the first half hour or so of the film... I won't say boring, but definitely slow. It picks up, as the investigation gathers steam and the consequences for the reporters, the city, and the church become more and more clear, but it's the sort of film one does have to stick with.

Final thoughts:   Spotlight is the exact sort of film that Hollywood and the Awards organizations love, a movie about old-school journalists doing their jobs to solve some terrible societal crime that permits everyone to get misty-eyed over how wonderfully noble journalism used to be, and what terrible fallen times we live in. I thereby predict that when the Oscar nods are announced next year, we will be hearing more about it. Lest I sound too cynical however, Spotlight is also an extremely well-made film, starring a number of superb actors performing meaty material with a script that does not lead them off a cliff. The land of Oscar Season is strewn with the broken remains of films that tried to be as quiet-burn, as respectful, and as focused on their subject matters as this one was, and a film that clears the hurdles that lie in wait for would-be awards fodder is worth recognizing when it lands.

Spotlight does not indulge, by and large, in lengthy invective against the Catholic Church, who knew of this pattern of horrid abuse for decades if not longer, and took every step imaginable to cover it up and allow it to perpetuate. Not, at least, until the very end, when in a final title card, it lists the cities in which the church was also found to have participated in a conspiracy to abuse children and pervert justice. The list is hundreds of cities long, in every state, every country around the world, and each one represents a pattern of child abuse abetted by and all-but sanctioned by the Church authorities. Nearly 300 priests abused kids in Boston for decades and were allowed to get away with it, and Boston was but one city on the list. Spotlight and its director/writer Thomas McCarthy are not to be commended for casting light on this pattern of abuse, for that was done by the Globe investigators, and they already shared their deserved Pulitzer for it. Instead, Spotlight is to be commended for realizing, as so few films do, that when you can deploy statistics and lists this damning, there's no need to say anything else.
Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Rocky VII.  It has come to this.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Night Before

Alternate Title:  The Stoner, The Flaker, The PED Taker

One sentence synopsis:     Three adult friends celebrate Christmas together for the last time.

Things Havoc liked: I've not had the best luck with comedies on this little project, but one of the big exceptions was 2013's This is the End, a Seth Rogan movie which spawned, among other things, my... ahem... review... of the unreleased Interview. I effectively went into This is the End on a dare, but it turned out to be a bloody, disgusting, sick black comedy of the sort that I can really appreciate, and so when Rogan showed up again with a new R-rated comedy featuring significantly upgraded characters, I was down. So, surprisingly perhaps, were others. This time, rather than the apocalypse, Rogan's target is the Christmas spirit, and since I'm the sort of sick bastard who likes a good awful Christmas movie in the company of some good actors, it sounded like just the dish after the twin disappointments of Hunger Games and Bond.

The Night Before is the story of three high school friends, now adults of varying levels of success. Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a thirty-something slacker coasting through his life, whose parents' deaths in a car wreck at age 19 triggered the establishment of a Christmas tradition whereby the three of them hang out together, partying throughout New York while attempting to gain access to the near-mythical Nutcracker Ball, a legendarily exclusive super-party run by god-knows-who, put on in a secret location on Christmas Eve, where all manner of debauched fun is supposed to be taking place. Ethan is the center of the film, which is fine by me, given Gordon-Levitt's pedigree, and is also the one with the deepest issues being masked by the forced cheer, to the point where the prospect of the tradition ending and leaving him alone upsets him enough that he gets into drunken fights with Santa-dressed pub crawlers (including Jason Manzoukas, one of my favorite podcasters) for disrespecting the meaning of Christmas. The tradition in question is ending because, unlike Ethan, his friends, Isaac Greenberg (Seth Rogan) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie), have moved on with their lives. The former is a Jewish husband and expectant father, whose wife provides him with a cavalcade of hard drugs to enjoy the night with, and who spends the night getting so deliriously high that he winds up talking to a nativity scene in front of a Church and vomiting in the middle of a Midnight Mass while screaming that he didn't crucify the Messiah (before, later, crucifying the Messiah). The latter is a professional football player (what position and team are unrecorded, but I must assume the Giants), who is experiencing a career renaissance thanks to a new diet and workout regimen, a strong presence on Social Media, and approximately all of the steroids ever. As a side note, this is now the second movie in which I've seen Anthony Mackie indulge in massive steroid abuse for laughs. Statistics like these really keep me going during the darker times of the film calendar.

And really, that's all there is to The Night Before, the story of these three bros and the night they have on their last Christmas party. Along the way, wacky hijinx ensue, as Chris keeps getting his weed stolen by a grinchy hipster douche-girl named Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), whom he alternately chases across New York and has sex with in nightclub bathrooms, Isaac gets more and more transcendentally fucked up on a series of hard drugs until he starts recording coked-out rants about the mortal terror of his impending fatherhood, all while receiving pictures of some random guy's penis on his phone, and Ethan tries, through a series of contrivances and bad ideas, to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan). Along the way, they meet a cavalcade of strange characters played by strange character actors, including James Franco, playing... well... playing James Franco, best I can tell, as well as stable Seth Rogan actors Mindy Kaling and Randal Park (who played Kim Jong Un in last year's semi-unwatched The Interview), and, of all people, the increasingly ubiquitous Michael Shannon, who plays a chronically-stoned-to-hell Pot dealer/philosopher named Mr. Green, who operates out of his hotboxed Oldsmobile and dispenses the sort of creepy batshit wisdom that only makes sense to those who have just smoked gargantuan amounts of nuclear-grade weed. I love Michael Shannon, and he is the best thing in this movie by far, using that intense stare of his to radiate possible menace while offering pot and advice in equal measure.

Things Havoc disliked: There's a certain moral sensibility to this movie, despite all the violence, drugs, humiliation, and R-rated humor, which is par for the course as far as Seth Rogan movies are concerned. His last collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the underrated 50/50, had something similar, as did This is the End, despite the cannibalism, bestiality, and devil-rape (fun for the whole family!). This movie has it too, with the characters being taught life lessons about the meaning of Christmas and so on, but the result this time around is a little less well-made than the previous films were. I don't object to having a gooey moral center in the middle of a drugs-and-bodily-fluids comedy, not at all, but the lessons here are a bit forced, particularly for Mackie's Chris, who I think is supposed to learn that steroids are bad and that the rest of the team he's trying to impress are douchebags, but the sequences in which he's supposed to learn this are glossed over so quickly that I wasn't sure why, or even if he decided at the end to turn back towards Jesus or whatever the point of all that was. His mother, played by the wonderful Lorraine Toussaint, gets a few good lines, but really has no purpose in the movie other than to shame Ethan and Isaac for respectively letting his girlfriend go, and for being a drug-addled wretch (which at the moment, he is). Everyone else's plots resolve themselves in a reasonably perfunctory fashion, despite a standout cameo by Miley Cyrus of all people. Lessons are learned, friendships restored, Deus Ex Machinas are relied on (in one case quite explicitly), and everyone goes home for Christmas dinner.

And really, what keeps The Night Before from being a great film is not anything the characters do, but what they don't do. The movie's "message" is woven into the film a little tighter than before, as the characters openly discuss their problems rather than letting the sequences showcase them. This isn't a terrible thing, but it means that the film feels like it's tacking the low-brow sequences onto a Christmas movie, rather than tacking Christmas spirit onto a low-brow comedy. Bear in mind, This is the End involved douchebags being ripped apart by cannibals and demons, while those who exhibited righteousness in any form were raptured up to Heaven by direct act of God to party for all eternity with weed and the Backstreet Boys. Subtlety isn't a requirement here. But it feels like the movie spends a little too much time making sure you understand that it's really a wholesome family film at heart, before getting back to people bleeding into one another's drinks, cussing out their unborn children, and stapling people to trees.

Final thoughts:  The Night Before is a well made movie, funny in certain parts, with one or two really memorable lines and scenes, but it is not a classic comedy for the ages, not the way Pineapple Express or This is the End or The 40-Year-Old Virgin were. It tells its jokes, preaches its lesson, bows to a round of applause, and departs the stage with some grace, and while that's a lot more than many films manage to do, it's not exactly the stuff of legend. Still, this year has produced its share of both middling movies and middling comedy, and The Night Before is superior to both, a movie that is funny for its entire run time and leaves enough of a memory to merit a watch. Don't look to find it on a list of the best movies of the year. But if you're interested in seeing something you can just relax to and have some laughs, then you could do a whole lot worse than watch three not so wise men try to survive a single crazy night.
Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Per a reader request, Batman, the Hulk, and Sabretooth team up to tackle gangs of pedophile priests.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Alternate Title:  Hunger Overtime

One sentence synopsis:     Katniss Everdeen and her band of freedom fighters take the civil war to the Capitol itself in an attempt to bring down President Snow once and for all.

Things Havoc liked: Some of you may recall that I was not terribly complementary towards the first "part" of Hunger Games' Mockingjay, due entirely to the baffling creative decision (unless you consider the box office possibilities) to arbitrarily divide it in half. The track record for movies that have done this is very poor, even if you don't consider Twilight (and who does?), but I didn't chide the filmmakers because I hated Mockingjay, I chided them because Hunger Games is the only YA series of films that I like, and I wanted it to remain good as it approached its ordained end. In the time since then, we have experienced the pacing disaster that was the third Hobbit film, a film whose flaws were also due to badly-designed cuts between films that should never have been separated, but what's done is done, and no matter what my feelings on dividing movies up into halves or thirds or whatnot, I felt it was important to see the series out, and find out if anything could be salvaged from the mess.

The strength of Hunger Games has always been its cast and its characters, a collection of weird individuals in a larger-than-life world derived from the bastard child of Imperial Rome and Madison Avenue. Jennifer Lawrence has long-since ceased to require this series to prove that she is a good actress, but she inhabits the character as well as she ever did. Katniss by now is a weary, tired soldier, sick to death of war and the losses it forces on her circle of friends and loved ones, animated primarily by the abiding need to take revenge against President Snow, and protect whatever she has left. Snow himself is as delightfully sociopathic as ever, and Donald Sutherland's avuncular evil gets a full stage to work with here, as the rebels advance relentlessly on his glittering Capital, and he is permitted to chew a bit more scenery than the previous films afforded. Even in the face of impending defeat, his Coriolanus Snow (I love these names) is unrepentantly evil in the best tradition of theatrical Bond Villains everywhere, and I'm so glad the film finally saw fit to give him a stage to monologue upon. The role of Peeta remains the only thing I've ever been able to tolerate Josh Hutcherson in, and this time the film gives him a little more to do than simply stand around moping as part of one of the obligatory love triangles that all YA stories must be provided with. Following his capture and rescue from the hands of the Capital forces, Peeta is a badly-damaged individual, conditioned and re-conditioned to the point where he has admitted difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. The film actually handles this concept reasonably well, particularly given the comedic or overwrought method that any sort of Mental Illness is usually portrayed on screen.

Indeed, there's a couple of pretty decent ideas at the core of this film, particularly in terms of the scale of the piece. The war between Snow and his rebellious districts is in full rage by now, with tens of thousands of troops engaging one another in battles so immense as to dwarf the protagonists. One gets a fine sense of them being more or less lost in the wider war, as Katniss' efforts to get to Snow seem almost incidental compared to the wider sweep of the conflict around them. Normally I'm not fond of movies that miss the forest for the trees (it was one of the big problems with Spielberg's War of the Worlds), but in this case the trees are more interesting than the forest anyway. Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, and Jeffrey Wright all resume their roles from earlier films, necessarily small, but welcome, while the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in his last theatrical appearance, reprises arch-manipulator and gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Given Hoffman's untimely death, the filmmakers plainly did the best they could with his remaining footage, contriving to put a role together for him that mostly doesn't feel pulled together artificially. Considering the circumstances, I'm forgiving of any seems that result.

Things Havoc disliked: I'm considerably less forgiving of everything else.

My original concern with Mockingjay being split in half was not simply that this sort of thing never works (which it doesn't), but that the first film in this pairing was entirely comprised of setup and character establishment, neither of which are bad things to have in a movie, but which meant that there was no actual payoff to anything. Nothing of consequence happened, no battles were fought or issues settled, there was not even any interesting action, resulting in a movie that was flat out boring at points. At the time, I assumed that, given everything, we were being set up for a second part that would be almost entirely paceless action, all of the "boring" setup parts having been gotten out of the way earlier, akin to what happened to Harry Potter 7 or The Hobbit. The good news is that it turns out I was entirely wrong. The bad news is that the reason I was wrong is that this movie is also nothing but setup and character establishment.

Mockingjay 2, or whatever we're calling it at this point, is a dreary, boring, leaden affair, a movie that has some of the worst pacing I've seen in quite some time, whether you consider it its own film or part of a unified whole with its predecessor. It is a film that consists almost entirely of the main cast sitting around in basements, bunkers, or other dark holes in the ground, talking in hushed, whispered tone to one another about how horrible things are, something I would normally be more forgiving of if the movie had focused on those horrible things and the ugly reality of war. That theme is in the film, don't get me wrong, but takes a second place to the love triangle built up between Peeta, Gale (Liam Helmsworth at his least memorable), and Katniss. This element, a staple of YA fiction, was in all of the previous movies I'm sad to say, but in the previous movies there were other elements to distract us with. Here there are not. The strange, decadent, world of Panem, both alien and familiar, is barely here, partly due to the understandable reason that the Capital is in the middle of a brutal street-to-street civil war, but that hardly excuses relegating characters such as Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman or Elizabeth Banks' Effie to barely a minute of screentime, characters which were the mainstay of my level of interest in the previous films. Here was an opportunity to watch the Capital's degenerate society collapse upon itself in the midst of violent, fiery upheval, to watch characters we've come to know get pressed to their breaking point, and all the filmmakers can think to do is show us mopey people walking through ruins and worrying about which interchangeable boring hearthrob will wind up with Jennifer Lawrence? Even the action scenes, which while not the draw of the previous films, were at least there, are muted and boring this time around. There is one, one action sequence worth remembering, a standout piece that starts in sewage tunnels inhabited by demons straight out of the later versions of Doom, and escalates from there. This one sequence however takes place hours before the end of the movie, and doesn't even serve as a climax to anything, being buttressed on both sides by yet further scenes of the characters sitting in basements engaging in long, pregnant gazes at one another.

But no, let's be fair, there's more than just moping and love triangles going on here. There's also some of the most ham-fisted "political" drama I've seen in a while.Julianne Moore  is not exactly my favorite actress in the world, and long-time readers may recall my identification of her character as being a designated bad guy designed to teach lessons about the abuse of power in the next movie. I don't want to give the game away, but let's just say that a character who shows up, apropos of nothing, and announces that all elections are suspended until further notice, and that the first thing that the rebels should do following the defeat of the capital is to put on a new set of Hunger Games, may not be quite as subtle as the filmmakers intend. What justification the filmmakers have in tearing all of the interesting parts of this setting out and replacing them with a Juliette Lewis performance that would not be out of place in Escape from LA, I have no idea, but it seems to be part and parcel with this film's utter lack of ambition, content, and elements of interest.

Final thoughts:  With Mockingjay Part 2, The Hunger Games, a series I once enjoyed enough that I gave its second installment a place on my yearly top-10 list of best films, ends not with a Bang, but with a Whimper. If nothing else, it proves, assuming anyone didn't already know, that arbitrarily hacking a book up into two components is, and will remain, a terrible idea, one done purely for the sake of squeezing more money out of a franchise that has proven popular enough to be squeezed. I can't say I didn't see this coming, but I do admit a sense of profound disappointment with the end of the series. Movie franchises often end this way, everything from Terminator to Alien to the terrifying collapse of the Matrix series showed me as much, but this film hurts more than most, if only because it didn't have to be like this. Hunger Games was a special franchise, one of the only series of its genre that I could stomach at all. If the filmmakers had only concentrated on making an actual movie instead of deadening all possible forward motion with a blatant cash grab, then we might well have had something special. Instead, all we have now is the lurching remains of a series I once admired, and the epitaph of a once-promising series to remind us that there exists no story in the world so simple or idiotproof that someone in Hollywood can't be found to fuck it all up.
Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  The Interview, Take 2.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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