Sunday, December 18, 2016


Alternate Title:  The Thin Eldritch Line
One sentence synopsis:  A brilliant linguist is asked to help establish communication with a race of extraterrestrial visitors before a communication misunderstanding can end the world.

Things Havoc liked: Every so often, someone gets it into their heads to make a realistic alien encounter movie, one that isn't just explosions, monsters, and American flags (not that I don't enjoy those), but one that tries to speculate on what the reaction actually would be if a large group of alien visitors were to appear over the Earth. Steven Spielberg did this in 1977 with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie he opened against the original Star Wars and pulled off anyway. Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis tried the same thing with Contact, an adaptation of a Carl Sagan book from the decade before, that purported to discuss everything from transcendental mathematics to the role of religion in a space age (Sagan was big on that stuff). It is now nearly twenty years since Contact came out, so perhaps it isn't that surprising that Dennis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director whose background includes high drama thrillers like Prisoners and Incendies should decide to take another crack at it, this time from the basis of cognitive theory and linguistics.

... ho boy.
Arrival is a movie that is intended to be "about" something, which is always a scary proposition, specifically in this case about language and communication and the assumptions one makes simply via the context of one's life. These themes are examined, quite literally, through the arrival of a group of seven-limbed alien squids in mile-high spaceships who appear one day all around the Earth and then seem to wait for humanity to contact them. Unable to determine how to communicate with beings this... well... alien, the US army commissions Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a skilled linguist, to study the aliens' speech and writing preparatory to asking them the Big Questions that must inevitably come from such a meeting.

If Contact was a love letter to astronomers, then Arrival is one for Linguists, as the focus is not on finding the aliens (who have, of course, already arrived), but on finding a way to communicate with them, a prospect which is shown to be fantastically difficult, and which demands painstaking work over the course of months to do. I have always been fascinated by movies, stories, or even reality TV shows about skilled people practicing their craft at the highest possible level, and arrival is chock full of enough material to make an amateur lingual-philosopher's day. A standout sequence early in the movie has the commander of the army unit on-scene (Forest Whitaker) order Banks to ask the aliens what their purpose is on Earth, only for her to turn around and dissect all the various assumptions, confusions, and steps that must be taken in order to ensure that the aliens can understand the question, or any question, or the concept of questions at all. Unable to make much progress replicating the aliens' speech, the scientists quickly turn to their writing, carefully uncovering a basic vocabulary in conjunction with other scientists all across the world, each making fractional steps towards the goal of understanding what is going on. It's a fascinating conceit, no interstellar wars to fight, no immediate time pressure (at least at first), just months of labor to try and solve a problem unique in human history.

I mentioned that Amy Adams is the star of this movie, and while Adams is not always particularly good in the various movies I find her in, she's quite good in this one, a confident, professional scholar, plagued by dark dreams and overwork, but without becoming a pastiche of the "mad intellectual" that one sees periodically in movies like these. As the situation begins spiraling out of control, she serves as the voice of reason, always an easy sell for me, alongside Jeremy Renner, in an uncharacteristically normal role as an astrophysicist who serves as the second in command of the effort to understand the aliens. Renner doesn't actually get all that much to do, frankly, but he's a normalizing presence in a film that risks getting very cerebral at times, an intelligent man who is not a linguist, through which the audience can try and make sense of what's going on. Whitaker has a similar role, trying to keep some control of a situation in which everyone is scared, tired, and overworked, while character actor Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire, and last week's Doctor Strange), serves as the inevitable foil in the manner he is best accustomed to doing. All in all, we have the makings here of a fine little cerebral movie, about questions and subjects one does not often see on screen.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately that's not what we got.

People get on my case, on occasion, for nitpicking films, particularly historical films, and I admit there's some truth to that. I probably have a better chance of noticing things "wrong" with a film that is purporting to get them "right" than most, and it is easy to miss the forest for the trees when one is evaluating movies on that level. But there's another way to look at someone who spends a movie cataloguing the various things that the film didn't do right, and that's to recognize that the film itself has failed to distract the viewer in question from the niggling doubts that circulate at the back of his mind. And boy oh boy did Arrival fail to do that. is not good enough, you see, for Arrival to not be Independence Day. Not good enough for it to rest on its own laurels and tell the careful, procedural story that it wants to tell. No, this movie has to be a space encounter film by way of the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking, wherein every shot has to be broken up by nineteen other shots flashing forward or backwards in time, showcasing light shining through a window, or a child's hair, or wheat. It has to be a movie where people say things other than what they mean so that pregnant pauses can inform the audience of the subtextual meanings behind the unspoken words that the characters say or do not say. It doesn't quite get to the point where random voiceovers start spouting poetry about the birds, but I presume that's included with the director's cut. So much time is wasted with just... nonsensical guesswork, the product of a director who seems to be either showing off or uninterested in the material, that it impedes our ability to actually watch what we came here to watch. none of that is as bad as the real problem with this movie, which is that outside our two main characters, everyone in the film has an idiot ball the size of Epcot in their pocket, and refuses to put it down. I don't mind if the response to alien ships landing is panic. Some of that is unavoidable. I mind when the response becomes so hysterical that it clearly isn't there to represent what might happen if aliens landed, but to give the movie an artificial sense of tension. You see, despite arriving peacefully, and sitting motionless and without obvious intent in their various locations around the world for months on end, the panic that surrounds the aliens' arrival only seems to increase as time goes on, until the Chinese government starts to threaten nuclear war if the aliens don't stop... not doing anything? Worse yet, we eventually get a set of soldiers who not only are willing to start an interstellar war, not only willing to shoot their own comrades, but they actually attempt to destroy a mile-long alien vessel with a bomb barely large enough to take out a car. And why do they do all of this? Because Breitbart told them to, and because everyone in this movie is incapable of rational thought, unless they are our poor, benighted heroes, who alone in the universe, believe in the power of love.

Final thoughts:   I said before that I get criticized a lot for nitpicking movies, but the only reason I do so is because some movies don't give me much choice. When I have nothing to think about except a stupid plot contrivance designed to make the director or writer look smart, then that is what I will be fixating upon, and if the writers don't want me to do that, I suggest they give me something else to pay attention to.

Ultimately, Arrival is a disappointing film, not a bad one, but a movie that takes a great premise and great performances and squanders them on a formulaic plot with stupid decisions and self-indulgent directing. Though I would hesitate to call it a failure, its flaws are those common to Oscar Season in general, the sorts of things that happen when a filmmaker knows he wishes to win awards but does not know how to go about doing so. Others may disagree, of course, but for me, I prefer a movie that is about characters I can relate to in circumstances I can understand. And Arrival, for all its high-minded intentions, is nothing of the sort.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  One last roundup to see out the year.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Eagle Huntress

Alternate Title:  Eagle Dressage
One sentence synopsis:   A young Mongolian girl from the steppes attempts to become the first female master eagle-hunter in living memory.

Things Havoc liked: Among the many things that are to be found in this wide world of ours, the Eagle-hunters of Mongolia are among the most awesome. They are men who use wild-captured golden eagles, the largest true eagles in the world, to hunt game, either for meat or for fur, across the steppes and mountains of Central Asia. I discovered that these guys existed some time ago, and ever since then have gone about my life in the sure and certain knowledge that the title of "baddest motherfuckers in the world" was very much taken, and if you disagree, I defy you to find an occupation more awesome than that of riding horses at full gallop across the steppes while commanding a fifteen-pound bird to slay your enemies. As if that weren't enough, every year, the master eagle hunters of Mongolia and Khazakhstan (the borders between the two countries are pretty much imaginary) gather together in Western Mongolia for the annual eagle festival, in which they compete to see whose eagle is most awesome, and who among them is most awesome by extension. A documentary about these men and their golden eagles would be interesting enough, but this film, by legendary documentarian (and asshole) Morgan Spurlock, and Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley, is about a thirteen year-old girl who, in defiance of a thousand-year-old patriarchal tradition, has decided to join them.

Honestly, what else do I need to say here? This movie sold me from the premise alone, a documentary look at an insanely badass girl doing insanely badass things in the hopes of becoming accepted among insane badasses. The girl in question, Aisholpan, thirteen when the movie was made, is the eldest daughter of a former champion eagle hunter, who expressed interest at a young age in becoming one herself, and... well... proceeded to do just that. The movie chronicles a roughly six-month span in Aisholpan's life as she attends school, lives with her family in a yurt on the steppe, and practices and trains to become a master eagle hunter, a process that begins with her rappelling down a cliff to capture a juvenile golden eagle from its nest, and ends with her hunting foxes through the Kara Khitai mountains at a gallop. Along the way, we get to know her family and schoolmates, get to see the life of modern Mongolian steppe-hunters and herdsmen, and watch the famous eagle festival itself, which includes soon-to-be-Olympic events such as Eagle Dressage (I dare you to call it something else), Eagle Diving Speed contests, and long-range tracking contests judged by elder eagle hunters with talent-show placards to show the scores. You cannot make any of this up.

Morgan Spurlock and I have not always seen eye to eye, to say the least, but his turn towards the strange and exotic (as opposed to the revolutionary notion that eating too much makes you fat) has seen me soften my stance on him... at least a bit. This time he and co-director Otto Bell wisely get out of the damn way, simply following Aisholpan and her father around as they capture Aisholpan's bird (who strangely never gets a name), train it, take it hunting and to the annual contest, confident that this sort of material will sell itself. As such, we get a lot of great details, on the details of the family's life, either in a yurt or a broken-down ruin which serves as a winter camp, on the sheer ruggedness of the central Asian terrain, which looks like it should have Conan running across it at any given moment, or my favorite bit, bloopers from when the various eagle-centric events at the competition don't go as planned (one bird gets so confused it starts trying to drag its handler down a mountain, to the uproarious laughter of all concerned). Overall though, the movie is brisk and fascinating, even without the badassery on display, a glimpse into the lives of people that one has little context for and no understanding of, seen in their own terms and in their own time. As such, the casual relationship between girl and bird is what really got to me, the ease with which she and her father handle these enormous (up to 17 pound) birds, hurling them into the air from a full gallop and catching them in mid-dive on a prepared arm. If any of you had any doubts about my earlier claim that these are the baddest people around, half an hour's viewing of this movie will cure you of them.

Things Havoc disliked: A fair amount is made, throughout the film, of the fact that Aisholpan is the first girl to attempt to become an Eagle Huntress in living memory, and that this is in violation of thousands of years of tradition. And indeed, the few times that the movie cuts away from Aisholpan and her family is for the purposes of interview clips with assorted stern, elderly Mongolian men (all wearing spectacular coats and hats) who frown in disapproval and speak about how girls should not participate in the sport of eagle hunting, for all sorts of the usual bullshit reasons. And yet, when it comes to Aisholpan's actual efforts thereto, absolutely nobody seems to have the slightest problem with it.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not complaining that there was not more sexism in the movie. I am complaining that the movie seems to be trying to generate some for the purposes of drama. Aisholpan catches her eagle, trains with it, and enters the premier competition in the world to showcase her art, unannounced. And yet rather than twirl mustaches or argue, the Mongolians running the contest and participating in it seem to regard her as a curiosity more than anything else. She is allowed to participate without seemingly a single objection raised, is judged more than fairly (given the results), and cheered on for her efforts, ultimately successful, at trying to join this most awesome of groups. All credit to the eagle hunters involved, but the movie plays heavily through narration and editing on this notion that the dark forces of patriarchy are arranged against her, when none of them are actually in evidence. Perhaps there was a lot more pushback behind the scenes that we didn't get to see, and certainly the fact that Aisholpan's father is a two-time champion eagle hunter probably did not hurt her acceptance, but the way the movie is shot and thrown together, it feels an awful lot like a bunch of Western filmmakers trying to generate the sort of parochial drama that they assume a traditional culture must be inculcated with, when the culture in question may simply not give a shit. It's not like the Mongols (or for that matter, most nomadic groups) have no history with women taking on traditionally-male roles in war or hunting, but then I'm no anthropologist. What I do know is that a narrator insisting over and over to me that Aisholpan will face tremendous adversity due to being a girl, coupled with us seeing absolutely no signs of this adversity beyond a handful of staged interviews with people somewhere else, does not speak well of the objectivity of the filmmakers.

But it's not like Morgan Spurlock would ever distort the truth to fit his pet theory, now would he?

Final thoughts:  Ultimately though, I'm here to review a movie, not whine about Morgan Spurlock, and The Eagle Huntress is an excellent documentary, with an instantly-captivating subject and plenty of stunning shots of Mongolian landscape, majestic eagles, and the nerveless handlers thereof. For the shots alone, this movie would be worth seeing, to say nothing of everything else we are privileged to bear witness to throughout it. The story, at its base, is fairly simple, despite the efforts of the filmmakers to gussy it up for primetime, but a simple story is no vice, especially not in a documentary. As such, if you can find The Eagle Huntress anywhere, I recommend it highly. After all, if you have aspirations of becoming the baddest dude on Earth, it's only a good idea to see what your competition is capable of.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Amy Adams vs. Cthulhu

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Doctor Strange

Alternate Title:  Mage: The Inception
One sentence synopsis:   A talented, arrogant neurosurgeon suffers a terrible accident, which robs him of his skills, and leads him to seek a mystical cult in the hopes of being healed.

Things Havoc liked: So here we are, fourteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we're still waiting for the bad one to hit.

Seriously think about it for a moment. There are fourteen of these movies. More than Star Trek. More than Harry Potter. More than X-Men, and Friday the 13th, and National Lampoon. More than freaking Godzilla! Somewhere between six and nine more are still in the pipe, and more to be announced, I have every faith. Fourteen movies over eight years, and we are still waiting for "the bad one" to come along, despite the fact that several (Hulk, Iron Man 2) already did! Every time one of these damned movies comes out I go creeping to the theater, unsure if the magic will finally collapse this time, if this is finally the one where it will all fall apart, and have described this sort of nervousness in my reviews for movies as varied as Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Winter Soldier. So yes, I went to see Doctor Strange. And yes, I thought it might suck. And yes, I'm an idiot, because of course it's amazing.

Doctor Strange, in fact, is an amazing movie in the literal sense of the word, and if anybody wasn't expecting that, at this point, then they haven't been paying any attention. Based on one of Marvel's trippiest properties, it is a stirringly-weird, rapid-fire case study in the power of modern special effects and vocal coaching. One of the few films to warrant the 3D treatment, it is eye-watering in its inventive complexity, but as always with Marvel, it's not about the showcase, but the characters, and who better to portray the central figure of this most-American tale, than the most British man in the world?

Hell, it worked for Christian Bale.

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the name that launched a thousand polite stares, plays Doctor Steven Strange, a brilliant/arrogant neurosurgeon (are there any other sorts?) who loses his ability to practice his craft in a split-second's bad decision. Washed up and desperate, he seeks out a mystical cult (relocated to Nepal from the original comic's Tibet to avoid offending the Chinese censors), and receives training in arcane and mystic arts. This is the kind of story that would be completely insufferable if the main character was played by a lesser actor, but Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor, and is absolutely perfect here (as is his mid-Atlantic accent, frankly). The movie rides the line carefully between a character arrogant enough to warrant comeuppance and a character arrogant enough to make the audience want him dead. At moments, Cumberbatch seems to be channeling Sherlock, but just traces of him. keeping the character grounded enough that he doesn't become annoying, even as the movie punishes and purges his arrogance with revelation after mind-bending revelation. Even with my usual hesitations, I knew that Cumberbatch would be absolutely perfect for this role, the way I knew that Robert Downey Jr. Was the only man who could possibly play Tony Stark, and it's nice, once in a while, to be proven right.

But then Cumberbatch is only one element of a larger group here. The rest of the cast includes luminaries such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Karl Mordo, a villain from the comics who is taken in a completely different direction here, the calm, conservative superego to Strange's impulsive arrogant id. I adore Ejiofor and always have, and he excels in a role that feeds him a couple of the best lines, and allows him to do what he does best, which is slightly detached calm amidst chaos and absurdity. Of course, Ejiofor's casting prompted the usual barking of stupid people who were angry about a black man playing a character who was white in the comics, but then I have the same response to that as I do to those angry about Idris Elba's Heimdall, one far too scatological to include here. Additional roles go to the ever-villainous Mads Mikkelsen, whose Kaecilius (that's not how you spell Caecilius, dammit!) is a twisted, evil dark-mage (the best representation of a Nephandi I have ever seen on screen), and who was seemingly born able to play roles like this one. The reliable Benedict Wong (of The Martian) takes on... well... Wong, a character re-written away from racist caricature and into something of a magic drill sergeant (this is an improvement), while Rachel McAdams takes on the love interest role of Strange's surgical colleague, plunged into the middle of a mystical world she doesn't understand. I'm not wild about characters like this, but fortunately McAdams is a better actress than most who are thrown at this material, and sells it well. The best supporter however is Tilda Swinton, who portrays the nameless "Ancient One", head of the magical order endeavoring to protect the Earth against all threats. I jump at any chance to see Tilda Swinton, and while I'm not unaware of the firestorm that erupted surrounding her casting (the original character was asian), I understand the dilemna that the filmmakers found themselves in. Best then to leave it at the fact that Swinton, in the typical old-mentor role, is just perfect, her own natural oddness lending the character a timelessness that it requires.

Steve Ditko, the legendary comic artist that created Doctor Strange with Stan Lee back in 1963, infused the comics in question with a surrealist art style inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dali and Theosophic philosophy (and probably a whole lot of drugs). There's a limit to just how trippy that a conventional movie can typically get (especially if it wants a PG-13 rating), but Dr. Strange pushes against that limit with extremely trippy imagery. The movie's director, Scott Derrickson has a rather skimpy pedigree, having mostly made undistinguished horror and middling sci-fi movies before this one (he was the guy behind the re-make of Day the Earth Stood Still), but it's cinematographer, Ben Davis, is one of the best working, a twenty-year veteran of action, sci-fi, and fantasy movies (among other things), who also served this role for Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron, which as you all remember, were terrible films without any redeeming visuals :). The magic in Doctor Strange is a hodgepodge of a thousand different ideas, kabbalistic sephirot, Inception-style folding space, traditional sparks and fireballs, mandalas, everything you can imagine, and comes complete with a Lovecraftian nightmare for everyone to match themselves against. It's no Tarsem film, but it does carry a lot more mind-bending alienness than most of the Marvel works, which have always fallen over themselves to keep everything as grounded as the subject matter allows. The better to differentiate, I assume.

Things Havoc disliked: I enjoyed Doctor Strange quite a bit, for those who haven't caught on, but of course there are things I would have changed. The film's pacing is incredibly fast, to the point of being rushed. Marvel may have the origin-story-movie format down to an art form, but there are better and worse examples of the art, and this one, particularly given the visuals on display, leaves our heads spinning as we pinwheel from one obligatory sequence to the next. Moments of character-building feel a bit underdeveloped, particularly ones that afflict McAdams' character, who seems to wind up forgiving Strange his trespasses less because he has earned it, and more because that is what this character does at this point in these stories. At 115 minutes, Doctor Strange is not a long movie, and could perhaps have used ten more minutes of screentime to flesh everything out.

There's also way too much action in the movie. I know, it's a Superhero movie, which in turn is a derivation of the classic Action film, but the better Superhero movies recently have thought outside the box where that is concerned. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-man still had plenty of action but were clearly part of a different genre (Space Opera and Heist films, respectively), and if Strange had been allowed to be something more like a travelogue or a character study, without the need to push quite so many fight scenes into the already-squeezed runtime, then I think we could have had something truly special. Don't get me wrong, such action as we get is excellent, varied, interesting, and (reasonably) coherent, and the final five minutes are among the more inventive things that Marvel has ever put together when it comes to final confrontations. But one gets the sense watching it that Derrickson and Davis never really got the chance to make a great movie with the material on-hand, hamstrung by the requirements to make a good one instead.

Final thoughts:   But, that said, they went ahead and made a good movie, in fact a very good movie, all things considered, so who am I to really complain. Doctor Strange is not the best that Marvel has ever done, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the universe at large, and a fine means of keeping the lights on as we gear up for the massive Infinity War explosion due to happen the year after next. Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, and all the rest will no doubt be returning in subsequent films, and I, personally, am looking forward to seeing what they can do once they are no longer stuck in the necessary structure of an origin story.

And in the meanwhile, those of my players asking what a Mage game looked like? Yeah...

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Best Bird...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The General's Post Fall Roundup

And now, a note from the General

Hello again, ladies and gentlemen. Following a long break in which I had to re-charge my batteries and participate in other, non-cinematic activities, I have finally returned to the fold to do a little bit of catching up. The movies below were ones that I saw whilst taking my little break, and as I would not dream of forgoing the chance to tell you all what I think about them, I have provided my customary little summaries below. Here's to Oscar season at last, and a final race to the end of 2016!

The General's Post Fall Roundup

The Lovers and the Despot

Alternate Title:  This is Still a True Story

One sentence synopsis:    A South Korean Actress and her ex-husband, a famous Director, are abducted by North Korean Kidnappers and forced to make films for Kim Jong Il.

The Verdict: As you may recall from my completely honest and entirely reasonable review of Sony's hacked film The Interview, North Korea and I have a tempestuous relationship when it comes to movies (something I'm sure they share with nobody else). Yet despite all my attempts at hyperbole and outrage at some new gyration of the hermit-kingdom's antics, North Korea is a stranger place than any of us can possibly imagine, with a whole host of strange and inexplicable behaviors that exceed those of rogue states and enter those of Bond villains. This is a country that once nearly started a war over who was allowed to cut a tree down in the Korean DMZ, who spent a month and a half breathlessly reporting on the progress of their invincible armies' conquest of the United States, and who blew up part of the South Korean cabinet for reasons I don't think anyone has ever figured out. But like a lot of strange cult-of-personality regimes, North Korea does have a slight bit of method to their madness, particularly their obsession with art and the political implications and international prestige purposes thereof. And so it was that we come to the story of a kidnapping.

The Lovers and the Despot is the story of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee, once one of the greatest box office draws in all of South Korea, and her philandering, artistically-obsessed, outspoken director-husband, Shin Sang-ok, once touted (briefly) as Korea's answer to Japan's Akira Kurosawa. In the late 70s, amidst political turmoil in South Korea and dwindling fame as an actress, Choi was lured to Hong Kong under the guise of a film project, and kidnapped by North Korean agents under what appears to be the personal order of Kim Jong-il himself, who set her up as a kept guest and asked her to make films for North Korea, whose film output was so stagnant and poor quality that even Kim himself regarded their movies as nothing but tripe. Initially reluctant, she was eventually convinced to participate in this mad scheme after the arrival of her ex-husband Shin, who was either kidnapped himself, or made his way there voluntarily (reports vary). Together, they were compelled to re-marry, and became the leading couple of North Korean cinema, working there for eight years, attending film festivals and making a great many movies, before finally making their escape to the American embassy in Vienna.

Too weird to be true? This is North Korea, who once sent special forces commandos to beaches in Japan to kidnap teenagers and force them to teach Japanese to their army units. But what's compelling about this documentary isn't how strange it is, to be honest, but how... normal it is. Choi and Shin got it into their heads to record their conversations with Kim Jong-il (the first such recordings ever to be made), and what we consequently have is a candid, unscripted look at one of the most secretive and strangest figures in the late 20th century, the most awkward dictator in history, who comes across like a drooling fanboy intimidated by the artistic talents around him (Hitler is supposed to have acted similarly among stars of stage and screen). One might expect that the films Kim demanded would be nothing but propaganda, but no. Kim wanted prestige, particularly international prestige, and seems to have given his pet filmmakers carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, ignoring the dictates of his own propaganda ministry, including the first love story ever filmed in North Korea, lush medieval epics, and even a Godzilla movie (yes, there is a North Korean Godzilla movie in existence. I must have it.) Though the film never softpedals the horrors that North Korea was and remains capable of, they also make clear what sort of exhilaration can come from being the favorite of an absolute God-Emperor like Kim, particularly for filmmakers whose stars were already in decline back home.

The Lovers and the Despot his not a perfect documentary, as the story it tells winds up being just about what you think it's going to be, save in details, and because frustrating gaps still remain in it, such as the question everyone seems to be tiptoeing around as to whether Shin was or was not kidnapped. But it is still a look at a subject it is rather hard to get a good look at, and yet another tale from the hermit-kingdom of North Korea to make one marvel at just how strange the world can be at times.

Final Score:  7/10


The Magnificent Seven

Alternate Title:  The Mediocre Several

One sentence synopsis:   Seven disparate fighters in the Old West team up to stop a mining baron from destroying and slaughtering a small town of pioneers.

The Verdict:  Speaking of Akira Kurosawa, we have before us a remake of a remake of his greatest work. Goody.

Seven Samurai was a tremendous movie in every sense, and like most tremendous movies in every sense, has been copied a thousand times by every filmmaker who comes along looking to kick-start their career. John Sturges, of Ice Station Zebra, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a musical version of the Wyatt Earp story), and The Great Escape, did so in 1960 with the original Magnificent Seven, a movie that starred Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steven McQueen, and Charles Bronson, and should really have been more awesome given the cast I just cited. But that was the early sixties, and here we are in the Year of our Lord, 2016, with an Antoine Fuqua-directed remake. Given that the original Kurosawa film all the way back at the beginning of this chain was one of the best movies ever made, is there a chance that the man behind Training Day could produce magic out of this?

No. No there was not. You see, Antoine Fuqua is just not a good director, Training Day notwithstanding. With the exception of his one great masterpiece, a movie that coincidentally (or not) also starred Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington, all he's ever made is a slew of crap such as The Replacement Killers, King Arthur, Olympus has Fallen, or The Equalizer. His version of the Magnificent Seven is par for the course in every way, a big, stupid action fest in which characters do dumb things for no reason other than the notion that they might look good on screen. I usually call this "xXx-syndrome", save that unlike xXx, this movie doesn't actually get the stunts correct, letting signature moments and scenes either run on way too long (such as a sequence wherein eighty-six bad guys to not shoot Chris Pratt for no reason at all, thus getting themselves killed), or not long enough (such as a culmination fight between Martin Sensmeier's Commanche warrior and a rival evil Indian, which ends in about five tenths of a second). How Fuqua, who has a twenty-year history with directing action movies, hasn't figured out certain basic truths yet is beyond me, but you cannot produce tension by having a hero effortlessly slaughter thirty mooks without breaking a sweat, nor are audiences so innocent in these days that they can't figure out that a hero who smiles and says goodbye to his love interest before mounting his horse and riding towards the villains to the accompaniment of stirring orchestral music has finally lost his character-shield and may now reach a sticky end.

Yes, the cast is pretty decent, at least as a theoretical cast, and not as an actual one. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke are about as good as they ever are, even in an Antoine Fuqua movie, which as we've established, is nothing new for them. The former plays the leader of the titular seven, and survives the film, as is customary for Washington, by downplaying everything and acting like the only adult in the room, while Hawke plays a Louisiana gunfighter of some repute (but no accent), who actually does a decent job alongside companion and life coach Lee Byung-hun, who gets the James Coburn role from the original as the quiet, knife-wielding assassin. Chris Pratt on the other hand, whom I love dearly in all manner of movies, is just not very good in this one, which makes no sense to me, given that the role of a cocky hotshot cowboy should have been right up his alley. I blame the direction, frankly, as Pratt's character is way too over-saturated in the film, with everything he does buttressed by shot selections, and especially a score (the late, great, James Horner, of Titanic, Braveheart, and, The Land Before Time, and The Wrath of Khan) which seems designed to make absolutely certain nobody in the audience can mistake him for anything but the designated charming rogue. Everyone else in the movie is completely forgettable, including Peter Sarsgaard as a typically slimy villain, save only for Vincent D'Onofrio, a man I generally have little good to say about, but who here plays a mountain man who has plainly gone crazy in the wilderness, and who, in a movie filled with over-choreographed stuntwork, stumbles blindly about like a drunken bull, screaming incoherent gibberish and murdering people with an axe. It's something.

Enough said, really. The Magnificent Seven is a boring movie that rises just enough off the strength of its cast to barely hit the mediocre bar. It's a film that will, I expect, be completely forgotten until it comes time to make yet another remake of Seven Samurai, which judging from the state of Hollywood, should take about ten minutes.

Final Score:  4.5/10


Queen of Katwe

Alternate Title:  Zugzwang

One sentence synopsis:    An impoverished girl in the slums of Uganda is taught to play chess by her youth worker and becomes an international prodigy.

The Verdict:  When the trailers fail me, and they so often do, I find myself having to go see movies "on spec", by which I mean basing my decisions around who's in the movies, who made them, and what they're about. So if you want to know why I went to see a Disney movie about chess prodigies, look no further than the cast, which includes David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o (the former of a bunch of recent films including Selma, the latter of 12 Years a Slave), and the director, Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, of Salaam, Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding. FIlming on location in the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda, Nair used all local actors (save of course for the above-mentioned marquis ones) to produce a film about poverty and escape provided by chess. I felt I had to try it.

And... no. No it didn't work. And I feel bad about reporting that it didn't work, because like all movie critics, I like the concept of the story and want to give the film a pass for it, but this is not charity and I am not trying to praise movies because of their social content. The base fact is that when you hire non-actors for your movie, you're liable to get all sorts of things, but unlikely in the extreme for any of those things to be "acting". Nobody in this movie, save for Nyong'o and Oyelowo, can act. Nobody. Not the lead actress, a young Ugandan named Madina Nalwanga, not the many other children involved in the film, who have no idea what they are doing in front of a camera and have not been instructed, not even the other adults in the movie, who seem to have been told to overact as much as possible so as to make sure that the audience knows what they're saying. The script, meanwhile, is the most basic Disney-sports-movie fare you can imagine, following the exact same trajectory as Cool Runnings (for instance) save without the local color and humor that made that movie so watchable. Most of the film, indeed, seems to be filler material, as characters narrate each others' actions to one another in slow, laborious scenes that lack any punch or interest. If it weren't for the pedigree of the filmmakers here, I frankly would have called this a first-time effort from an amateur director. Maybe there were budgetary restrictions, maybe the biographical nature of the film got in the way, or maybe nobody was willing to take any risks with a "heartwarming, feelgood movie," but the overall effect is surprisingly poor, and leads to long stretches of the film rendered boring as paste by the simple fact that nothing is allowed to happen.

I don't want to pile it onto a basic movie like this one too thick, as the film is hardly some kind of crime against sense and cinema, but spec only gets you so far. If you want praise from me, you need to actually make a good film. And Queen of Katwe is not one.

Final Score:  4/10


The Accountant

Alternate Title:  Number Crunching

One sentence synopsis:   A math savant with high-functioning Autism uncovers a conspiracy to defraud a major robotics company and murder the only witness.

The Verdict:  In 2003, Ben Affleck, then in the middle of the tailspin portion of his career, appeared in a superhero movie by the name of Daredevil. It sucked, miserably, and contributed to such a nexus of failure that year that Affleck abandoned superhero movies entirely in favor of more challenging work in more interesting movies such as Hollywoodland, Gone Girl, The Town, and Argo, the latter two of which he directed, and the last of which earned him an Oscar. In defiance of expectations from the last decade, Affleck is now a successful, respected, actor and director, a powerful man in Hollywood, capable and apparently willing to chose his own scripts. And yet the superhero bug never really seems to have left him. Hollywoodland involved him playing Superman after all (sort of), and this year, Affleck engaged in the double-whammy of playing not one but two superheros, first as Batman in DC's flagship Batman v. Superman, and second as an autistic killing machine in the movie we have before us here. The former, I need not tell you, was a disaster on the level of the Hindenburg explosion. How was the latter you ask?

Actually... pretty good.

Yeah, this one surprises me too, guys, but The Accountant, a movie in which Ben Affleck plays an autistic savant who happens to have been trained by his special-forces father to be a unstoppable killing machine as well as a mathematical prodigy, is a damn fine little movie, not because it makes a whole lot of sense, but because it involves good actors doing what they do best while good cinematographers capture them doing it, and that's a formula that will take you far with me. Ben Affleck is one such good actor, playing a role that could easily have been either silly or offensive, and in fact which ten years ago probably would have been both. His character's concept is manifestly ridiculous, but Affleck plays it sermon-straight, as a high-functioning autist who has developed a lengthy and complex series of coping mechanisms to deal with the nature of his condition, from sensory-overload chambers to repetitive tics. I would not call the movie the most er... realistic take on Autism and its many varieties, but the filmmakers clearly knew that they were treading on thin ice with this one and took active steps to make the movie into something like what Arnold Schwarzenegger would make if you told him to create an Autism Speaks commercial.

The rest of the cast is just as good, from the always-enjoyable J. K. Simmons, playing a treasury department director who has been chasing the mysterious "accountant" for decades, to John Lithgow, playing the head of the robotics company that all of this winds up landing upon, and Anna Kendrick, as a young in-house accountant who serves as a sort of "sidekick" (I hesitate to say love interest, given the workings of the film). But the real meat of the movie is the action, which I am satisfied to report is some of the best I've seen all year. There's been a trend over the last eighteen months or so of action directors finally starting to eschew the whole Jason Bourne-style shaky-cam style of cinematic combat for a cleaner, more focused style that I choose to call the "John Wick". The Accountant follows this trend, shooting the combat in glorious stable vision, allowing the characters to slice, shoot, stab, and smash each other with crisp, perfectly cinematic execution. The concept may be demonstrably goofy, but the film seems to know that, using the ridiculous contrivances that are the bread and butter of movies like this with something of a wink and a nod, as though the filmmaker were patting the audience on the back and asking them to bear with him so that he can tell his ridiculous story.

The Accountant is hardly a perfect movie, everyone seems to spend the entire run-time expositing the plot, and the ending makes even less sense than the absurdity of the setup would have you believe, but thanks to the strength of its cast and its style, it holds together surprisingly well. In a year that has already given me some of the worst action/superhero movies that I have ever seen, sometimes a mere "good" film is all that you can ask for.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time: Time to get back in the swing of things with a proper Superhero movie.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Alternate Title:  First World Problems
One sentence synopsis:   A wealthy philanthropist with no skill at singing attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream of singing at Carnegie Hall.

Things Havoc liked: I'm on record as being willing to see anything that Meryl Streep does. I've done so on more than one occasion for this project, including quite a few films (Into the Woods) that I would not otherwise have given the time of day to. Still, one must be consistent in one's cinematic dealings, even if those dealings lead us down paths terrifying to tread. Paths like ones that lead to Hugh Grant.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I haven't seen hair nor hide of Hugh Grant, once the crown prince of awkward befuddlement (Grant was once so ubiquitously milquetoast that there are still rumors he allowed himself to be arrested for soliciting prostitutes just so that he could credibly get an "edge" to his image), since his turn as about fifteen different things in the extremely strange (and extremely good) film Cloud Atlas. And before that? Nothing since Love Actually, all the way back in 2003. So given my blessed interval away from Hugh Grant, why am I talking about him and not about the Greatest Actor in the World? Because Hugh Grant is awesome in the movie and you all need to hear about it.

Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, the most British man alive, a swinger of the 1940s with little money but a great deal of old English charm, married to the wealthy widower Florence Foster Jenkins and secret lover to what appears to be a number of swinging, hip women reveling in the freedom of the war years. There was a time when the prospect of Hugh Grant playing a character like this would have driven me screaming out of the theater, but there's no denying that an older, more mature, and more experienced Grant is goddamn perfect in this role, using his trademark understated humor to tremendous effect, and more than willing to inject ridiculous slapstick into the proceedings if he thinks it will get a laugh. Lest Grant's character sound like a playboy (which he is) and nothing else, the movie goes to enormous length to show just how devoted Bayfield is to Jenkins, whom he dotes upon to the point of lunacy, constantly keeping dozens of schemes spinning to avoid upsetting her in any way, and encouraging her whims and fancies of artistry, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. The film, and Grant himself, make it very clear that these are not just the actions of a kept man trying to keep his lifestyle going, but a besotted worshiper, who refuses to see anything but joyful foibles in his beloved's flaws, and indulges her delusions of adequacy when it comes to her singing career.

And they are indeed delusions, of the highest degree, for while Streep doesn't steal the show in this film the way she typically might, she does manage to play a dotty old woman whose belief in her own skill hovers between the narcissistic (though utterly without malice), and the simply demented. Meryl Streep can sing, very well in fact. She's proven that in everything from Mamma Mia to Death Becomes Her to Prairie Home Companion to a dozen other films. It consequently must be difficult for her to sing so badly, for so long, with such consistent lack of talent, grace, or self-awareness, as she contrives to as the titular Florence Foster Jenkins. It's not merely that she's terrible, but that she contrives to maintain no awareness whatsoever of her terribleness, not even as audiences laugh at her and critics boil over in rage, both because of her own delusions and the helping hand of her husband, who whisks away any bad news into a form more palatable to his beloved. One is reminded of Good Bye, Lenin!, the 2003 Wolfgang Becker film about a son desperate trying to conceal the fall of the Berlin wall from his Communist mother, particularly in sequences wherein Grant has to explain away the aftermath of a debauched party, or scramble to hide mocking reviews from his wife, who may not survive the shock.

Things Havoc disliked: Would that the rest of the cast were as good as Hugh Grant (there's a statement I thought I'd never make), or Meryl Streep, but they are not, and Florence Foster Jenkins loses a lot of its magic as a result. Simon Helberg, of The Big Bang Theory and little else, plays pianist Cosmé McMoon, hired to accompany Florence in her performances, and is simply not up to acting alongside either of his co-stars. Though his character is supposed to be something of a blank cypher, whose role is to bear witness to the madness that surrounds him, Helberg isn't even up to that much, and plays the character like a low-functioning idiot grinning his way through the movie in the hopes that it will end and he can go back to television. I got visions of Mark Wahlberg's performance in The Happening from him, and brother, that is not something you want to hear me say. The rest of the cast is forgettable, but particular honors must go to stage actress Nina Arianda, who brings a stage-size mentality to her role, which is to say that she overacts like a lunatic, with big, sweeping, melodramatic gestures that are totally at odds with the restrained farce that the rest of the film seems to inhabit. All of this means that the movie plays very broad with subject matter that isn't really up to the task of that, as though somebody dropped the Marx Brothers into the Bob Newhart show.

Now how about that for a reference that nobody will get?

Final thoughts:   Florence Foster Jenkins is an all right movie, not a great one, but a decent film worth considering if you're hard up for something to see, and given this year, who isn't? Meryl is incapable of delivering a bad performance, as usual, and Hugh Grant re-inventing himself as a character with refined comic timing is a very welcome addition to the small ranks of actors who can do that. The subsidiary performances are bad enough to drag the movie back down to earth, but then again, I hardly expected this movie, of all movies, to become some kind of classic masterpiece for the ages. Sometimes you just want something worth seeing, especially when there's so little out there that fits the term.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  *Sigh*  Time to play catchup again...

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Don't Think Twice

Alternate Title:  The Delusion of Spontaneity
One sentence synopsis:   Six underground improv comedians find their troupe turned upside down when one of them is picked to join the cast of an SNL-style network sketch show.

Things Havoc liked: "Dying is easy," said Edmund Gwenn (Santa, from the 1947 Miracle on 34th St). "Comedy is Hard." Or maybe he didn't say it, and Jack Lemmon or Gregory Peck or Milton Berle made it up. Nobody's really sure. But whoever said it was absolutely right, because comedy is fraught with peril. A bad drama, for instance, or a horror film that fails to horrify, can at least take solace in being unintentionally hillarious, and thereby become a staple of midnight screenings and cult followings forever (consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, or The Room). Such infamies are not what one sets out to make, generally speaking, but they can still provide entertainment and joy to their audience. A bad comedy however, leaves one with nowhere to go, because it fundamentally isn't funny. There is no safety net, no backup plan for comedy. It fails or succeeds entirely of its own merits, as what it was intended to be. The prospect must be terrifying. And yet people keep throwing themselves into comedy, including several that I have now seen repeatedly in these little weekly excursions of mine to the theater.

One such person is Keegan-Michael Key, the taller half of the comedy duo Key & Peale, who graced us earlier this year with their first foray into filmmaking, Keanu. Keanu was a fun little movie, and so I decided that it was a good idea to see what he and a number of other talented comedians had to offer, among them Kate Micucci, of half a dozen TV shows that even I know about, and Tami Sagher, a comedy writer for 30 Rock, MadTV, and Inside Amy Schumer. Top everything off with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating (I'm not kidding), and it seemed like a good time.

Things Havoc disliked: So... you know how I was talking about bad comedy a minute ago? Yeah...

Don't Think Twice is a bad comedy, but more than a bad comedy it's a continuation of a trend that has become a full blown epidemic this year, of movies that every critic on Earth rates highly turning out to be pieces of crap. Sometimes they're just mediocre, sometimes they're unwatchably awful, but always they're the sorts of movies that the critics like to fawn over because it makes them seem superior to the unwashed masses. Normally I just remark on this when it happens. Taste is subjective, after all, and critics can simply be wrong sometimes. I'm the guy who praised Suckerpunch, remember? But subjectivity ceases to be a defense when literally everybody praises the movie in immodest tones, like it's the second coming of the medium of film, and all those who fail to see it are dooming themselves to lives of deprivation and despair. Kubo got this kind of reaction, and High Rise, and The Lobster, and Hail Caesar, and I am getting very, very tired of it. I try to see movies because they appeal to me, because they look interesting or daring, and not to be influenced by the critical opinion on a movie, but it's hard to ignore sometimes, particularly when every other critic in the world is lauding something to the skies and pronouncing it the finest film to ever grace the screen. And for the same critics to then turn around and declare that the aforementioned films are better than things like Deadpool or Triple 9 because the subject matter of the latter is not as artistic or intellectual is flat out dishonesty. One bad film I can forgive. Three I can understand. But a dozen movies in a row starts to look like either incompetence or gross bias on the part of those who get paid for this sort of thing.

*Sigh* So, the movie...

Don't Think Twice is an improv comedy, about a troupe of players in New York who are distinctly small-time, but have the passion (maaaan). And because many of the comedians involved are good comedians (I haven't mentioned Gillian Jacobs or Chris Gethard yet), you'd expect some decent improv at least. Well no such luck here, because the improv on display from these starving artist players is shit. Boring, unfunny, uninteresting shit. And I don't wanna hear about how hard improv comedy is, because I've seen much much better stuff from local troupes around here in San Francisco, to say nothing of things like Second City or Whose Line is it Anyway. Hell, the comedians here had it easy! They could have either scripted the stuff, or if that was too artificial, done what a lot of troupes do and done a lot of improv, so as to cherry pick the best bits to be shown in the film. Instead, we get "comedy" that would be booed off the stage at a third rate amateur club. There is one, I repeat one funny bit in the movie (a routine involving the appearance of imaginary friends to a twice-divorced man in his fifties). All the rest of the comedy is barely chuckle-worthy, the kind of stuff you laugh politely at if you are related to the people involved, and otherwise check your watch a lot. And yet, we are expected to believe that this awful material of theirs is good enough that the players involved (but only some of them) are invited to audition for "Weekend Live", an SNL-knockoff looking for new talent. Admittedly, this conceit does allow for Seth Barrish, a veteran film and stage actor, to do an absolutely dead-on sendup to SNL's Lorne Michaels. But mostly, it's used for, of all things, melodrama.

Oh. My. God. Is there melodrama in this movie. You see, only one of the six players in the troupe (Key) can join SNL, and once they do so, what happens but terrible rifts and falling out. You see, it's not good enough for the other comedians to get jealous of the success of their friend, they have to have BIG DRAMATIC SPEECHES about how their friend has changed, how success has gone to their heads, how they have forgotten their roots (maaaan), and are now soulless and lost. Yes, these speeches are intended to showcase the insecurities of the other troupe members more than reflect the reality of the film, but they are so far over the top that they destroy the entire dynamic of "plucky group of friends trying to succeed at comedy" that the film has been desperately trying to build. Nobody capable of literally punching their friend in the face for having failed to secure them a guaranteed audition could possibly have been stable enough to have been a member of a troupe like this in the first place, and I don't care how "quirky" the film wants to make all comedians look. This is a movie about assholes acting over-dramatically and occasionally pausing so that you can laugh. Sound fun?

And whose fault is all of this? Well I can't know for sure, but my guess would be Mike Birbiglia, a claim I make based on the fact that he produced, wrote, directed, and stars in this movie. We met Birbiglia way back when in Sleepwalk with Me, a movie whose biggest flaw was simply being too awkward. Well Birbiglia has graduated now from being uncomfortably awkward to painfully awkward, with a good heaping scoop of narcissism piled on. Not content with mining the vein of betrayal (maaaan), Birbiglia has to give everyone a series of melodrama staples to pout and stare sadly out windows about, from the cast member whose father is dying, to the cast member who is living off her parents, to the cast member who is a slacker and depressed, to the cast member struggling to grow up. In a film that was toned bittersweet, where the comedy was an intentional juxtaposition with the misery of the characters' lives, in short in an actual drama, this might have worked. But Don't Think Twice is pitched, paced, written, and shot like a slapstick comedy without the slapstick, and consequently falls flat on its face. Only this time, there's nobody to laugh.

Final thoughts:   I am probably angrier at this movie than I should be, because the base fact is that Don't Think Twice isn't an awful film, just one so painfully mediocre as to render one exhausted with the entire thing. But what annoys me about this movie isn't simply that it failed, it's that it represents arrogance at every level, arrogance necessary to stuff a comedy full of melodrama in the belief that one's life (or facsimile thereof) is so fascinating that everyone will immediately hold tremendous sympathy for all of your travails. This particular type of arrogance has bitten Birbiglia before, and this time it proves so insurmountable that the entire film is wrecked upon it. And as to those who called this movie "Laugh-out-Loud funny" or "genuinely moving", all I can suggest that you stick to your "counterprogramming" and railing incessantly against how dumbed down Hollywood has become, go see your quirky indie movies made by the right directors and praised by the right publications, and leave me to watch actually good movies in peace, if ever there are any to be found in this miserable year.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  Let's see if the Greatest Actor in the World is up to the task of turning things around.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Alternate Title:  The Cold Facts
One sentence synopsis:   A young boy with powerful origami magic sets out to retrieve the magical artifacts that will enable him to defeat his grandfather, the Moon King.

Things Havoc liked: Laika Studios is an interesting anachronism in Hollywood today, a stop motion animated film studio founded by Nike chairman Phil Knight, whose specialty is the sorts of children's' movies that have never really existed beyond early 70s Christmas specials and big budget epics from the mid-1930s. Beginning with Coraline in 2009, Laika has carved quite a nice little niche for itself in the realm of studio animation dominated by giants like Pixar-Disney, and Dreamworks. The last film of theirs that I saw was 2012's Paranorman, a very good movie that showed a lot of promise, and following one or two short or lesser-reviewed films, they have returned four years later with a movie that got so much hype, I was frankly worried.

Set in mythological Japan, Kubo and the two strings is a fairly standard hero's journey tale with a style that is entirely non-standard, a stop-motion and practical-effect-laden aesthetic that is simply gobsmacking in its richness and style. Animation can do wonders, this we would all know even if we weren't smack in the middle of the Third Golden Age of Disney, but Laika's greatest strength has always been the way that their laborious, hand-crafted art style and stop motion design produces a truly unique effect on-screen, and Kubo may be their magnum opus insofar as such things are concerned. Every frame of the film is drenched in art, from the earthy sequences of Kubo's local village, to the truly fantastical designs of his aunts, or of the strange and horrible creatures that inhabit the world. How Laika contrived to produce all of this, I have no earthly idea, only that the labor must have been immense,and the result is apparent to all. Whatever faults it may have, Kubo is a gorgeous film, and those who go simply to drink in its richness will not be wasting their time.

It's always hard to criticize a movie that tells a simple tale, as this one does, because the sheer familiarity of a story is not a flaw, especially not in a children's movie, whose target audience will not be as jaded by a hundred thousand retellings of Joseph Campbell. In this case Kubo, a boy with the power to animate origami paper and produce living, moving figurines, lives with his mother by the sea and works as a storyteller in the local village, before the hero's journey inevitably whisks him away. This is the kind of simple story that is used as an excuse to provide other delights, such as visuals or memorable setpieces, one where the stakes and the direction are fairly obvious, and yet that's no slur. Pursued by a group of evil spirits, tasked with retrieving the magical artifacts once wielded by his warrior-father, protected by a group of magical creatures including a Japanese macaque with a distinctly martial bent, and a larger-than-man-sized beetle, it is a story of adventure and danger and family and lessons learned. Kubo himself, voiced by Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones' Rickon Stark), is a perfectly compelling protagonist, brave and kind and sly in his own way, and the movie's recurring theme of metaf-iction, drawn out through Kubo's own profession telling stories with inanimate objects brought to life, complements the main plot perfectly. The rest of the voice cast is provided by other stalwarts, including Charlize Theron, whose role as a swordfighting monkey is actually fairly badass for a G-rated kids movie, while the ever-reliable Ralph Fiennes gets to play an evil god (again). Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa , Rooney Mara, and George Takei also lend their voices to more minor roles, all doing a fine job. For those interested in nothing more than a quality children's film, Kubo has everything you are looking for.

Things Havoc disliked: I really hate to do this.

People accuse me on occasion of being contrary, of hating movies simply because they are popular, and while I won't deny that there is definitely a correlation between a movie receiving universal critical acclaim, and said movie being a piece of crap, I do not go out of my way to bash movies that are popular just to be different. I want movies to be good, that's why I do this in the first place, and when a movie comes out with a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, I still expect, despite the Leviathans and Under the Skins and Beasts of the Southern Wild, that I'm going to get something special from seeing it. And if I don't, then I am not going to sit here and blow smoke at everyone just to pretend that I have some kind of non-existent credibility. And so it is in the interests of honesty for my readers and myself that I report that there are two major problems with Kubo and the Two Strings. One of these problems is survivable. One of them is not.

The first problem is Matthew McConaughey. Anyone who's spent any time reading my reviews knows how big a fan I am of McConaughey ever since he stopped playing vapid action leads, but here he's a voice actor, and voice acting is not the same thing as regular acting and never will be. It's not that McConaughey is awful, it's that his voice, his cadence, his vocal presence is so strong that it knocks you right out of the movie you're watching. Some actors, no matter how good they are, have such a strong persona as actors that it's entirely impossible to picture them as anyone else once you hear their voice. Asking McConaughey to play a Samurai warrior (who is also a giant beetle), while giving him the sorts of snarky lines that he would get in a traditional McConaughey movie, and then expecting the audience to see anything but Matthew McConaughey wandering onto the set of a Japanese children's show, is like asking people to hear Nicholas Cage or Joe Pesci or Tommy Lee Jones and not instantly think of the iconography around Nicholas Cage, Joe Pesci, or Tommy Lee Jones. McConaughey is flat-out distracting, there's no other way to put it, and while that's certainly something that probably afflicts adults more than children, even absent the baggage, the introduction of McConaughey as McConaughey is totally anachronistic to the fantastical magical world that the filmmakers have laboriously created. The effect is rather like Robin Williams' performance in Fern Gully, a performance that, irrespective of the quality of the voice work or the pedigree of the actor, simply takes you out of the film every time you encounter it.

But distracting as McConaughey is, he's not a lethal blow to the film. Recasting him would have solved everything, after all. The biggest problem with Kubo and the Two Strings, and the one that cannot so easily be resolved isn't McConaughey. It's Laika.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that wants to be a rousing adventure, a trip through mythological Japan complete with monsters, magic, swordfights, action, and all the good things that fun animated kids movies have nowadays. But it also wants to do all of those things purely with practical effects, miniatures and stop motion and the like, and unfortunately what Laika has discovered and inadvertently revealed to all of us is that these two goals are antithetical, because Laika just can't do it. You cannot make a full-speed action-adventure feature film using nothing but stop motion, not without taking sixteen years and $200,000,000 to do it, neither of which Laika can feasibly take. When one must re-arrange every frame of a 100+ minute film by hand, it means that every frame of animation takes longer to produce than it would being drawn on cell paper, let alone rendered on a computer. And because of this, with a limited budget of money and time, Laika has been forced to cut corners, in the time-honored method of budget-crunched animators everywhere. Action sequences are stilted and slow, lacking the explosive movement that we've come to expect from animated films nowadays. Scenes designed to generate energy grind to a halt so that minutes can be taken up with pace-shattering filler material, throwing off the balance of the entire movie and rendering several long sections flat boring to watch. To save frames, the animators even resort to the old anime trick of moving the background while the characters stay motionless, a staple of Saturday morning anime, unworthy of the feature film that it is used within. Even the plot is harnessed to push the required frame count down, tieing itself into knots to avoid having to show any more action than is absolutely necessary, and leading unavoidably to the conclusion that despite the gorgeous look and style of the film, this is a movie that should have been made by Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks. Laika is simply not up to the task of realizing it.

Final thoughts:  Kubo and the Two Strings has a universally-sterling reputation, and I do see why, but the film is not the masterpiece that it is being made out to be. I would never begrudge someone from enjoying themselves insofar as a movie is concerned, of course, nor do I wish to pretend that literally everyone else is obviously wrong and I am clearly right. But pacing is not an afterthought when one is crafting a story, and it is equally not a place one should cut corners just to make the movie come together. Laika's insistence that their methodology was the right one to bring this story to life is commendable, certainly, but also completely wrong-headed, as a brief credit sequence done with traditional animation proves more lively than the entire movie it follows. And while I hate to denigrate the tremendous work that a great many skilled professionals put into the movie, I cannot pretend that the result was the untrammeled success that I was promised. After all, if I did, then what praise would I have left for the next time Laika does pull it off?

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Comedy is hard.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hell or High Water

Alternate Title:  Peak Texas
One sentence synopsis:    Two Texas brothers execute a plan to rob banks to save their ranch, while being pursued by an old Texas Ranger nearing retirement.

Things Havoc liked: It's about goddamn time.

For those who don't follow the movie calendar the way that I do, we're now in a period colloquially called the "September Slump", which is exactly what it sounds like. It's the blank space in the calendar between the blockbusters of summer and the award bait of the late fall, a period which often has lots of movies that superficially appear to be worth seeing, and prove ultimately to be pieces of crap unable to compete with the films actually coming out of Oscar season. The Judge and Gone Girl both come to mind. As such, while the options around September generally dictate that I go see them anyway, I've become rather gun-shy about movies that might appear at first glance to be the first blossoms of the fall flowering, as these films typically devolve into cheese, schmaltz, and general crap.

But not always.

Hell or High Water is an excellent film, bordering on a great one, a movie made with consummate skill and sure-handed direction by one of the best up-and-coming directors that I have yet to encounter over the course of this project, Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, whose previous credits include Young Adam, Starred Up, and the extremely underrated indie sci-fi drama Perfect Sense. I've not run into MacKenzie so far doing this because the majority of his movies are strange indie flicks about odd people that don't get a lot of play over here, but as his star has risen, so has the reach of his movies, and here we are at last, with a film that bears all his hallmarks, save with a bigger cast and a homegrown setting.

West Texas, an area of the country all its own, where the men are men and the women are armed. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, poor Texas folk whose mother's ranch is now being repossessed by the bank she had her reverse mortgage with, have decided upon a scheme of bank robbery and casino-based money laundering to pay off the debt and re-acquire the ranch for Toby's children, not that the ranch seems all that useful an asset, at least at first. Bank robbery is not a career move one makes if one has either brains or options, but the Howard boys have a plan, one that bypasses the dye packs and traceable bills and security systems that most banks are equipped with nowadays. As the brothers strike and strike again, an old nearly-retired Texas Ranger, and his half-Mexican, half-Commanche partner, is pulled off his desk in Ft. Worth to hunt down those responsible for the armed robberies, trying to divine who they are and what they are attempting to do so as to head them all off.

The setup may all sound familiar, but it's the execution here that pays the bills. The Howard brothers are played respectively by Chris Pine, whose range as an actor has never been properly appreciated, and Ben Foster, who I may have to revise my opinion on after this turn. Both brothers are fantastic, world-weary poor Texas folk, the former more or less law-abiding, the latter a hardened criminal, but both entirely believable, with characters that eschew stereotype and sound perfectly authentic. I've always liked Pine, but Foster, whose most memorable credit to-date was in X-Men 3, is a goddamn revelation here. His character seems to be set up for the Joe Pesci role of the hothead who blows everything by being stupid, only for the screenplay to turn on its head, revealing that hotheadedness and criminality are not necessarily vices when it comes to the business of robbing banks. It's a star-making performance from an actor I previously had no use for, and yet even it pales by comparison to Jeff Bridges (in his finest Rooster Cogburn style) and Gil Birmingham, who play the aforementioned Texas Rangers with a ribald ribbing that is among the truest partnerships ever committed to film. The old standby of the mismatched buddy cops is a tough one to see afresh, but the script holds up, as these two ornery old men rip one another's age, heritage, and intelligence in an exceptionally believable way. Bridges is always great, of course (as is Birmingham when he's not stuck in a Twilight movie), but rarely this good, and as the hunters relentlessly track down the hunted, the characterization only gets stronger along the way.

People have been predicting the death of American film for as long as it has been around, but it is true that the last decade has seen more and more foreign directors trying their hands at the Great American Classic Film, be it Alfonso Cuaron with The Revenant or Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave. Hell or High Water is a movie firmly in this genre, and Mackenzie, like the best of the foreign directors who have attempted this, brings his unique eye to the proceedings while still respecting the subject's conventions. The cinematrography is grand and sweeping, with desolate plains and empty tracklands, boarded-up stores and artificially-cheery diners or casino lobbies. Decay and dislocation are everywhere, for sale and payday loan signs choke the streets and highways, graffiti complains of poverty and economic misery. Yet the movie does not turn into some maudlin lament on the starvation of labor or some damn thing. The rough vernacular color of West Texas pervades the entire enterprise, with even bit characters given blunt, plainspoken dialogue, such as the bank clerk who tells the brothers to leave, "because so far, all you're guilty of is being stupid." The movie also delves a bit into just how hard it must be to commit armed robbery in a place where literally everyone is armed all of the time, and prepared to form a posse at a moment's notice. The sheer sense of place that Hell or High Water produces is rare in film, indie or mainstream, and it is a credit to Mackenzie and to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (of Sicario), that they've managed to produce a film this richly appointed.

Things Havoc disliked: And it's a good damn thing that Sheridan and Mackenzie do such a good job with the dialogue and localizing, because the movie would quite probably fall apart if they did not. Nowhere is it indicated, for instance, just where these two brothers, who are, after all, doing all of this because they have no money, are getting the many and varied cars, automatic weapons, and earthmoving equipment that appear to be integral to their plans. Neither does the film bother to explain away certain fantastic coincidences, or convenient turns of mind that overtake certain characters in the run up to the climax of the film. I understand that this movie isn't about its plot, and I further understand that even if it was, we are not here to get a seminar on the mechanics of rural bank robbery in the American Southwest. But the film does ask us to swallow quite a lot of contrivance in order to make its point, something that I'm usually willing to do, but only if the movie proves itself deserving.

Final thoughts:  This one, however, does, and so there's really nothing to complain about.

Hell or High Water is an exceptional film, a high point in a year that has thus far been notably bereft of them, an excellent film that is both loyal to the oldest conventions of American cinema (the evil bank trying to take the land of the poor ranchers), and entirely defiant of all conventionality. It is a movie that boasts excellent acting, superb writing, and brilliant styling, all in the service of a thoroughly enjoyable movie, one of the very few whole-hearted recommendations I have been able to make this year. Insofar as I write these reviews so as to tell people whether they should or should not go and see a given movie, which is certainly one of the goals that this little project of mine serves, let me be clear. Go and seek this movie out. For once, this summer, you will not be disappointed.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Laika's at it again.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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