Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Worst Films of 2015

Big years mean big failures, and just as the best movies of 2015 were very, very good, the worst films of the year were all the worse for standing in their shadows, so much so that as with this year's best-of list, I felt that to recap them all in writing, even in song, would not do them proper justice.  For it is not enough to simply state that a given movie is bad.  In order to form an opinion worth having, it is necessary to analyze the reasons why the films in question failed.  To that end, I have once more asked my faithful and esteemed colleague Corvidae to ruminate with me on the films we saw this year that made us cry, or laugh, in all the wrong ways.  It was, after all, the least I could do after putting her through them all in the first place.

And so, at last, it's time for the show you have all (hopefully) been waiting for.  Without further ado, I present...

The Worst Films of 2015!!!

As before, I have thoughtfully provided the links below, so that you may all review what my opinion was on the movies in question:

Next Time:  We begin 2016 by paying homage to a screen legend, and in doing so, draw to a close the last promise made to us in the year now passed.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

Customarily, I like to indulge myself in a lengthy recitation at this time of year, on the abiding successes of yesteryear, and on the terrible flaws that ruined large sections of it.  But this year, I thought it might be a good idea to be a bit more inclusive, as well as give you all some idea of the conversation that circulates around the movies that I go and see.  And so, for 2015's Best and Worst lists, I decided to bring in some... help.

For the last two years, Corvidae, whom most of you will remember from a lengthy and in-depth review of Antman (produced while I was otherwise occupied being cooked to death in Southern France) has been accompanying me on the vast majority of my cinematic endeavors, a decision born no doubt from Catholic guilt, brain aneurysms, and a perverse enjoyment of pain, both hers and my own.  This wonderful decision has led to her being present for some of the greatest films that this blog records, as well as some of the worst.  And given the time she has put in and the fact that watching movies like Under the Skin alone might well have been fatal, I felt it was only fair that we both have a share in recording the highs and lows of the year that has just left us.

Normally, as you may recall, I like to record my thoughts in text, a paragraph or so for each movie to explain its place on the list, but given that there were two of us this time, and my consequent desire to generate a bit more of a dialogue than one usually finds in these sorts of reviews, the decision was made to record our thoughts live, the better to discuss our opinions on these wonderful films, and offer such criticisms as might be warranted, of our selections, of the films themselves, or of anything else that came to mind.  For we are not here to bury these films, but to praise them.  The burial will come later.

So dig in, ladies and gentlemen, as we praise the best films of the year that has passed.  It's time for...

The Best Films of 2015!!!

For those of you who are too lazy to sit through our edifying discussion of the finest cinema that 2015 had to offer, or who simply want to read along with our ramblings, I have thoughtfully provided links to the films below:

Next Time:  You've heard the Best.  Now it's time for the Worst...

The Revenant

Alternate Title:  The Montana Tourist Board Welcomes You...

One sentence synopsis:     After being horribly mauled in a vicious bear attack, a frontier trapper is abandoned to die by his comrades, and must find a way to survive long enough to take revenge.

Things Havoc liked: Another year is gone (quite a ways gone by the time you're all reading this), but as always, January leaves me in something of a pickle. On the one hand, I want to close the books on 2015's movies as soon as possible, the better to get started on another sterling round of Doldrums-season offerings (A Michael Bay movie about the Benghazi attacks? It's like Christmas stayed an extra month!), and the better to produce my yearly lists of praise and pain that I know some of you are waiting for. But on the other hand, with the glut of movies released at Christmastime, I always feel bad about drawing the year closed before I've had a chance to see some of the major films within it. I can't wait for all of them of course, that would push my end-of-year lists to March, but with the proviso that there are still a handful of films I have not seen that I probably should have (The Danish Girl, Brooklyn, and The Big Short among them), there was one in particular that I felt I had to see before I could credibly start making claims about what the "best" or "worst" movies of the year was. And for that movie, it's time to turn our attention back to Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Those of you who have been reading my reviews for a while know that Iñárritu was one of the first directors I ever watched for this project, when a Spanish-language film called Biutiful starring Javier Bardem rolled through my multiplex. Biutiful was a well-made, well-acted, horrifyingly-depressing film that I would have liked more had it not engendered a desire in its audience to go home and drink bottles of Percocet. His more recent film, Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), was a much better offering, a stylish, quirky actors' film showcasing a number of people I like and even a few I customarily don't. I liked Birdman, perhaps not as much as the Academy did, but it was a piece that grew in my mind as I thought about it more. And so when Iñárritu came back not a year later with a dense, atmospheric piece straight out of the Last of the Mohicans playbook, starring a couple of actors (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy) that I love, and promising to place them in situations where they are allowed to "act" in the wider sense of the term, I was stoked. Also there's bears.

It is 1823, somewhere in the endless wilderness that will one day be called Montana, and Leonardo DiCaprio is a fur trapper and mountain man named Hugh Glass whose expedition is nearly massacred by a vengeful war party of Arikara indians. After a narrow escape by boat with a handful of men, DiCaprio tries to lead the remnants of the trapping party as well as his half-native son (newcomer Forrest Goodluck) back to the safety of a fort, only to accidentally stumble on a mother bear protecting her cubs, falling victim to one of the most gruesome and realistic animal attacks I've ever seen in a movie. Iñárritu is a nutcase, and this movie nearly turned into a Heaven's Gate-style disaster, when he insisted on not only filming on location but chronologically, weather and the tolerance of actors be damned. As a result, the bear attack in question featured a real, trained bear, proving once again that Leonardo DiCaprio is completely insane, and has been denied his recognition at the Oscars for long enough that he is willing to do literally anything to finally reach the mountaintop.

In fact, the whole movie could be subtitled "willing to do literally anything", as following the gruesome bear assault, Glass is left barely-alive (zing!), and entirely dependent on the rest of his party. With hostile tribesmen pursuing them, he winds up being abandoned in the woods by Tom Hardy, playing another mountain man, who callously leaves Leonardo to die of exposure and kills his son before his eyes when he tries to stop it. The movie then becomes a two-and-a-half hour festival of pain as DiCaprio painfully drags himself back to life and civilization, enduring one horrific necessity after another from cauterizing his own wounded throat with gunpowder, to ripping a horse carcass open to take shelter within it, to sudden ambushes by (and of) hostile natives or rival fur trappers, to a smorgasbord of all of the disgusting, raw, bleeding offal meat that one can encounter in the wilderness, with nothing but his own gritted teeth and matted beard and raving crazy-eyes to sustain him through. It's a transparent attempt at an Oscar grab by DiCaprio, who famously threw one of the great Hollywood tantrums of our time when the Academy (deservedly) snubbed him for Titanic, and has been trying to act his way back into their good graces ever since. But lest I sound too cynical, it's also one of the best performances of the year, if only for the evident misery that both character and actor went through to film it. Whatever else he might be, DiCaprio is a great actor, after all, and so is Tom Hardy, playing another veteran frontiersman desperate to get his money and get out of Montana in that order, and utterly unconcerned with who he might have to kill to do it. The character isn't evil so much as totally amoral, willing to kill to survive and get what he feels he needs, but never in a way that feels needless. Apart from an extended racist rant at the beginning of the film (something that would not make the character stand out at all in 1823), Hardy plays his character like someone who might well be a decent guy were he not stuck in wintertime Montana, trying to escape both a horde of righteously-angry natives, and Leonardo DiCaprio's inhuman rage-and-revenge-fueled survivalism.

I mentioned before that Iñárritu is insane, and he is, but he's also a sharp, visually-inventive director addicted to long-takes (Birdman was done up entirely as one of these) and gorgeous cinematography. For this purpose, Iñárritu works here, as he has in previous films, with legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern, one of the most prolific art-cinematographers in the world, who regularly collaborates with Alfonso Cuarón, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Brothers. The result is a stark, beautiful film, bleak and evocative, with gorgeous, atmosphere-laden shots of the vastness of Montana's plains and mountains and forests and rivers, along with extended dream sequences showcasing tripy imagery, like the repeated motif of a bell still ringing defiantly within a ruined, abandoned church lost somewhere in the wilderness. Battle sequences, which are sparing but unreservedly brutal, are shot in close quarters, with the cameraman running through the proceedings as though trying not to get hit by the flying arrows and bullets (which may be true), while the hideous brutality of combat with knives, tomahawks, arrows, and muskets is showcased throughout, as blood stains the snow and gruesome injuries are lingered upon. A haunting, atonal score by experimental composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom Iñárritu worked on Babel, completes the package, resulting in a film that has everything the Academy could ever want, except maybe a scene wherein an old white filmmaker saves the universe (those always help).

Things Havoc disliked: Back on the temporal plane though, Iñárritu has a habit of making movies that, whether or not they are actually too long, sure feel that way when you're watching them. Birdman, despite coming in at barely two hours in length, and despite the services of actors I love and material I respect, felt like it took half the night to finally end, and Iñárritu's earlier films, Babel and Biutiful in particular (does he have a thing for 'B' names?) felt even longer. The Revenant, meanwhile, actually is a long film, more than two and a half hours, and given the paucity of action (a couple of standout scenes) and lack of characters to follow or journeys for them to take (metaphorically-speaking), we spend a hell of a lot of time in this movie watching Leonardo DiCaprio suffer in the snow. I know that's the point of the movie, more or less, but the revenge element, played up so heavily in the marketing of the movie (the film's name is "Revenant" for God's sake), while present, really takes a back seat until the very end of the film. Granted, there's good reason for that, as merely surviving the Montana wilderness is a task and a half, but despite everything, the best actors of the cast and crew and a director who is legitimately insane in very interesting ways, the film is... inescapably boring, at least for long stretches.

And part of the reason for that is that DiCaprio's character, whom we are following through this awful ordeal, never gets the same opportunity to characterize himself the way Tom Hardy's does. Part of that is the unavoidable fact of being stuck alone in the wilderness for most of the runtime, but there's also the extended flashback and dream sequences I referenced earlier, which while pretty, really clarify nothing. This speaks to a larger problem with Iñárritu as a director, which is that he has no idea how to actually tell a story in ways that mortals are supposed to comprehend, leaving everything up to interpretation that requires the audience to do most of the work. So it was with Birdman, wherein the main character was occasionally insane, possibly hallucinating, or perhaps actually possessed of magical superpowers that nobody else knows anything about, or Biutiful, which had an extended Magical Realism sequence in the middle of the film that made no sense, alongside a weird conceit that the main character worked as a spirit-whisperer who talks to presumably-real-ghosts, all in the middle of a bitingly-real story of a man dying of cancer, illegal immigration, and the criminal world. Granted, both of those movies worked, despite or perhaps because of the lack of specificity, but Revenant, at least in part, represents a step too far. Instead of characterization of the man we are spending most of the movie watching suffer, we get disjointed scenes of moments from his past wherein he met a native woman, had a son, killed a man, and perhaps did other things I couldn't quite figure out. It's not that these scenes are totally abstract (though a recurring image of a pyramid of buffalo skulls feels like a Tarsem-style director jumping up and down begging for people to ask him what it means), but they reveal nothing about the character beyond what we already knew, that DiCaprio is mad because his son is dead, and because dying alone in the wilderness sucks, conceptions that I'm confident most audiences can figure out for themselves. Contrast this to The Grey, 2012's movie about Liam Neeson fighting wolves in Alaska, which was a movie that got a lot more out of similarly-stark imagery, surreal flashbacks, and limited characterization. It also had Liam Neeson punching wolves.

Final thoughts:    The Revenant is a movie that I expect will earn DiCaprio his long-awaited Oscar, which he deserves. I also expect it will earn Iñárritu another round of Academy accolades, including Best Director and Best Picture, which if I am being honest, neither of them do. It is a good, solid movie, by a talented, visionary director, but the stuff of best of the year it is not, though whether the old white men of the Academy see things that way is a question we shall have to postpone a little while. That all said, I enjoyed watching Revenant, though some of you with more squeamish tastes may not, and I can't complain overmuch if a bunch of good actors and a good director get together to try and make an Oscar-caliber film. Not even if they fail.

Besides, I've gotta have something to complain about during this year's awards.
Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  The Best Films of 2015

Friday, January 8, 2016


Alternate Title:  Joylessness

One sentence synopsis:     A young woman caring for her extended, dysfunctional family, invents a new type of mop and struggles to build a business around it.

Things Havoc liked: Some things are as regular as the seasons themselves. Take wintertime, when we encounter short days and cold weather, the NFL playoffs, Christmas holidays, and of course, the most regular of all predictable events, the yearly David O. Russel movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper.

Yes, for the third year in a row (unless you count last year, but who does?), Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell has returned to the well, bringing us another movie about weird, quirky people starring the same weird quirky actors as his last weird, quirky movie. In 2012, there was Silver Linings Playbook, a cute little romanitc comedy about two utterly broken, manipulative people, and their only-slightly-less-broken families trying to help them. In 2013, it was American Hustle, a madcap romp through the worst of 70s hairstyles featuring Christian Bale as a con-man with a combover of the gods. And now we have Joy, which is a movie about a whole panoply of insane, needy characters, and the one person who tries her best to take care of them all.

Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence, one of your and my favorite young actresses, and a veteran of both of the films I cited above, playing Joy Mangano, who is a woman in greater need of a week-long vacation to Hawaii than anyone else you or I will ever meet. A prodigy with mechanics and construction (or as the hipsters around here call it nowadays, a "maker"), Joy is inspired to invent a new type of self-wringing mop after one-too-many accidents while trying to clean up broken glass around her dysfunctional house (more on this later), and spends the rest of the movie trying to flog it to consumers any which way she can, eventually landing on QVC, the famous home shopping network, the meaning of whose initials I never knew before I watched this movie. Joy Mangano is a real woman, who really did these things in 1989, though how truthful the movie is to the reality of her story, I cannot tell. Lawrence is superb in this movie, as she is in everything I see her in, as a young woman stretched to the breaking point by the demanding needs of her extended family (more on this later), two kids, two parents, an ex-husband, a jealous half-sister, a job she hates, a desire to succeed, bills, arrests, and the thousand frustrations of life. The character never comes across as a martyr (very easy to do in cases like this), nor as some kind of needy twit (ditto), but an eminently watchable character just trying to keep all the plates spinning, in circumstances that occasionally had me wanting to run out of the room screaming (more on this later).

So what else does the movie boast? Well there's a reason Russell keeps coming back to this cast. Bradley Cooper this time plays a producer and acolyte for QVC, a salesman with a slightly messianic bent who proselytizes the gospel according to home shopping networks. His role isn't huge, but he's a strange, vaguely-orgasmic character, who seems to regard the production of a successful infomercial and the sales that it generates as a cross between conducting a symphony and performing stage magic. Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen play Joy's father and mother respectively, the former a lonely, embittered car mechanic with good intentions and terrible habits, the latter a cloistered, dependent shut-in with no sense of perspective beyond the walls of her room. Both De Niro and Madsen are excellent in roles that have them screaming and breaking things and tearfully apologizing seconds later, be those things a water glass or their daughter's life and career. Edgar Ramirez, of Zero Dark Thirty (among other things) manages to be affable and appealing despite playing a deadbeat loser still living in his ex-wife's basement, while the eternally-glamorous Isabella Rossellini plays a wealthy widow whose business acumen is not quite the equal of the cold merciless demeanor she puts on when dealing with it. All of these are good actors, each of which have fun, meaty roles to play, which has always been the hallmark of Russell's success.

Things Havoc disliked: This time, however, the service all this talent is put to lets the whole movie down.

For a movie called Joy, this film is one of the hardest things I've had to watch since Leviathan mercifully ended, and the reason for that is because every one of these excellent actors, Lawrence excluded, has been instructed to put all their talent and skill towards portraying characters that I simply wanted to kill for almost all of the run-time of the film. The tone is set early on, when De Niro, fresh from another divorce, returns to Joy's house expecting to be given a place to stay, only to instantly confront and insult his first ex-wife and embark on a tirade against her that culminates in him violently smashing things while screaming invective. He apologizes, pro-forma of course, but treats the event as no big deal, expecting Joy to simply accept him acting in this way whenever he wants. So does Joy's mother, who watches soap operas all day and demands that Joy deal with every intrusion on her life from bills to repairs without even requiring her to lay eyes on other human beings. So does her sister, a thoroughly loathsome bitch seething with barely-suppressed jealousy, who sabotages her constantly in front of her children, business partners, and family. And Joy simply takes it, accepting the abuse and the negging and the jealousy and the dysfunction and the constant bickering fights that swirl around her. To Lawrence and Russell's credit, the film doesn't try to make her a stand-in for Jesus, but it does rob the audience of any sense of catharsis, as we are left sitting there waiting for Lawrence to do the sensible thing and throw everyone into an active volcano. Because she does not do this, we are left watching these awful, awful people for hours on end, and the skill with which the various actors blame Lawrence for every problem, denigrate and sabotage her constantly, and act like entitled dicks, only makes everything worse.

I grant, this isn't the first time that Russell has mined this particular vein of crazy, as Silver Linings Playbook had an extended family around the protagonist that was reasonably dysfunctional, while 2011's The Fighter had one that was utterly irredeemable and manipulative.  The devil here, though, is in the details. Silver Linings Playbook had protagonists who were considerably crazier than their extended families, and the madness that encircled them was there to showcase just how they might have come by their own issues.  The Fighter, meanwhile, a movie I had a lot more trouble with, gave the extended family (particularly Christian Bale), enough self-awareness to develop an arc over the course of our time spent with them.  It's a lot easier to spend an hour in the company of an awful person if there's a purpose to it beyond misery, and Joy has no such purpose.  Her family are terrible, manipulative, soul-excoriating people when they begin the film, and remain so even into the end-of-movie voiceover.

And on top of that, there's an issue with Russell's writing, normally as sharp as it comes, but this time so over-written, so impossibly on-the-nose, that it exacerbates all of the film's flaws. This isn't a movie where characters are allowed to simply emote or act, they must explain, in great and exacting detail, what they are feeling at this exact moment and how that relates to the arc of their lives. So it is that when Joy looks like she is faced with bankruptcy after her business is knocked onto the ropes by incompetence on the part of her family and outright theft on the part of her suppliers, her family gathers together to enact an elaborate after-action breakdown, in which they discuss, over and over again and in explicit detail, how this happened because Joy is a loser, who should not be in business, because she is weak, and will lose all her money, which she just did, because she is a loser, and has now lost her money, as losers do, and must now file for bankruptcy, the papers for which are right over here, which she should sign right now, signifying that she is a loser, who lost all her money, because she doesn't know anything about business, as the papers will attest to, which is why she should sign them, because then everyone will know she is a loser, who has lost all of her money in a risky business venture, which she should never have been in, because she should instead go home and be a loser, which is all she is, as attested to by the fact that she lost all her money, so she should sign the forms right now, and then everyone will forever know that she is a loser, whose life ended on this day after she lost all her money, and that will be the abrupt end of her story, with no possible chance of redemption, certainly.

Final thoughts:    Joy is not a badly-made movie, but it is a movie I flat out did not enjoy the act of watching, and had I been unable to make snarky comments about the awful people on screen, I would have enjoyed it even less. Plenty of movies are made about terrible people, including several films I have enjoyed tremendously, from Pain & Gain, to Russell's own American Hustle. This film, however, presents us terrible people not so that we may understand them or take pleasure in their sleaziness and greed, nor enjoy the act of watching them fail, but so that they can be inflicted on the main character, and thereby on us, for more than two hours without any compensating gain for our trouble. As such, despite the pedigree and the acting on offer, Joy is a film I simply wanted to end, and could not find much reason, in retrospect, to recommend to anyone. After all, even if you're a die-hard Jennifer Lawrence fan, and I have been accused of such in the past, surely you would prefer to see her in a role that serves some purpose beyond showering everyone with misery until the lights come up.

After all, if I wanted that, I'd go see an Alejandro Iñárritu movie.
Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  I go see an Alejandro Iñárritu movie.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Alternate Title:  No More Heroes

One sentence synopsis:     Eight strangers find themselves stuck in a cabin together in 1870s Wyoming.

Things Havoc liked: I don't know if Quentin Tarantino has spent the last twenty-five years going increasingly insane, or if he was already raving mad and has simply been revealing that fact to us for a quarter-century. A lot of people look at him as screaming, indulgent egotist, who makes movies comprised entirely of style with no substance whatsoever. I understand that opinion, as the maddening unevenness of Tarantino's work can be frustrating as all hell given the generally high-level of cinemacraft he displays in producing it. The last half-hour of Django Unchained, for instance, came close to ruining the previous two hours, which were a veritable masterclass of restraint, pacing, and alternately rich and claustrophobic cinematography, while Inglorious Basterds was, in many ways, a highly-unfocused mess of a film elevated by a handful of standout scenes and actors. But for all of that, my view of Tarantino has always been a crazed, fanatical artiste filmmaker, whose obsessions are so prominent that they will not permit him to make anything but highly original movies, movies which sometimes overreach, but are always interesting to watch. All the paraphernalia he surrounded his latest film with, the touring pre-release roadshow, the intermission, the film brochure handed out to everyone on walking into the theater, from any other filmmaker, this would smack of unreasonable arrogance. But Tarantino has been operating at that precise level of arrogance since I was in High School, and alone among modern filmmakers I know of, he possesses both the willingness to engage in lunatic stunts like this, and the film pedigree to back it all up. Who else, after all, would I willingly sit through a three-hour, seventeen-minute film from after their last two movies had been underwhelming? With what other filmmaker's work could I convince someone else to come and do the same?

Maybe nobody. Maybe several. But all that matters is that I did these things, and boy am I ever glad I did.

The Hateful Eight is a masterpiece, of what I'm not entirely certain, but a staggering achievement in the realm of pacing, cinematography, and the firework potentials that can arise when you take a bunch of good actors and stick them in a room for a few hours. It is a relentless, bloody film about awful people doing terrible things to one another, delivered with all the grinning cocksureness that Tarantino is known for with far less of the over-indulgent twelve-year-old that we all know resides somewhere within his soul. It is a masterful work delivered by a masterful hand, whose flaws, of which there are quite a few, only serve to underlie just what surety guides Tarantino's directing, and what faith the actors who know him place within his ability to make anything, from subtle dialogues to quotidian acts like nailing a door shut, into tense, style-dripping setpieces. It is a very long film that doesn't feel very long, and one of the best movies that Tarantino has ever made, a movie where half of the moviegoing audience that exists out there will hate it, because they are intended to. Not being part of that half of the audience, I can only applaud the gall with which Tarantino has produced this awful, brutal, repellent thing, and praise it as is its due.

The Hateful Eight is in many ways a deceptively simple film. Eight people, two bounty hunters, a condemned murderess, a newly-minted sheriff, a confederate general, an English hangman, a cattle drover, and a Mexican hosteler are trapped by a blizzard at a large trail cabin in Wyoming. Many of these people know one another, often without admitting to it at first. Others have hidden secrets that they wish to divulge only at the proper time. All are armed, dangerous, and without exception, are terrible, awful, rancid human beings, bigots, murderers, sadists, killers of every stripe and every sort. If there's anything that his previous films have taught me, it's that Tarantino has a great affection for terrible people as characters, and indeed he spends much of the film getting to know them in their own words, finding out their idiosyncrasies, their self-justifications, the humanizing touches that enable us as an audience to empathize with this one or that one. Yet it is all a game, and Tarantino is the Game Master, as he plays with our modern conceptions of labels and the color-coded moralities that most films deal with to make the audience identify first this character as the hero, then that one as the villain, knowing all the time that there are no heroes in this film, no redeemed characters who can rise above their bitterly-regretted pasts for a cathartic third act, no sympathetic victims unjustly maligned by the designated bad guys. Only terrible people trapped in this cabin, and their allegiances and intentions shift and twist around one another like a nest of vipers.

And of course it's not just Tarantino playing us this way. The film boasts a wonderful cast full of excellent character actors who know just how to wring the right notes from Tarantino's ever-poetic dialogue. Front and center is Samuel L. Jackson, a man who needs no introduction from me, playing a Civil War cavalry officer-turned Bounty Hunter, who, if anyone, is the main character of this bloody drama. Jackson is, of course, a Tarantino regular from as far back as Pulp Fiction, and is in his element here, luxuriating in long, Poirot-style monologues in which he deduces the secrets of the rest of the cast or illustrates a lengthy, horrifying tale about his own past in terrible, graphic detail. Tarantino gets deserved flack for overindulging in his dialogue fetish, but Hateful Eight is set up specifically to permit such indulgences without interruption from plot elements or the requirements of taste. Jackson's character is as awful as everyone else's, but Tarantino has always known how to make Jackson look cool, regardless of the circumstances, and he takes full advantage of that, engaging in swift, horrific violence at the drop of a perfectly-phrased line. Not that everyone else suffers by comparison of course. Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom I've not seen in... well practically ever really, goes full Charlize Theron as a ignorant, murderous, monster of a woman being dragged off to hang. Her role involves getting punched in the face a lot and coming out spitting, something she is so good at you want to shower every time she's on the screen. Kurt Russell, who is awesome but manifestly not a great actor, manages to make his Jim Bridger-style Mountain Man into a raving pastiche of an invincible wilderness man, and Russell has always been better at pastiches than subtlety. Excellent turns by Demian Bechir (the best thing from Machete Kills), Tim Roth, and Bruce Dern all liven the film in their inimitable style, but the standout performance of the bunch comes from, of all people, character actor Walton Goggins, one of Robert Rodriguez' go-tos, playing a racist Confederate raider-turned-sheriff, who is both considerably smarter and considerably dumber than he passes himself off as being, and who winds up, over the course of the film, in some of the more surprising situations I've seen all year.

But then that fact itself shouldn't be much of a surprise, because Tarantino has stacked the deck with this one. Having eliminated all notions of conventional storytelling by ruthlessly exterminating any shred of heroism within our assembled cast (save for a few red herrings thrown in for fun), Tarantino is left free to do whatever he wants. His cinematography, shot on full, luscious 70mm celluloid, is rich and understated, drinking in the wide-open and yet claustrophobic confines of the cabin and lingering on evocative shots, such as that of snow swirling through the front door as the wind howls just beyond. The violence (and rest assured, there is violence) is equally luxurious, whether filmed in slow motion or with one sudden, gruesome shot. And what should underlie the entire affair, but a film score composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, of spaghetti western fame and so much more, who just two years ago famously declared that he would never work with Tarantino ever again, and apparently was brought to change his mind. Morricone's score, his first western score since the 1970s, places the film precisely in the old-school context that Tarantino intends, and placing his work in a five-minute overture at the beginning of the movie probably did a lot to smooth over whatever feathers were ruffled after Django Unchained.

Things Havoc disliked: There's really no getting around the fact that a three-hour, seven-minute movie is a long goddamn movie, particularly when the movie in question features a bunch of actors trapped in a cabin together. The Lord of the Rings was long as well, but it, at least, spent its time on elaborate battle sequences and fantasy wars. I grant that I saw the "roadshow" version of the film, which is considerably longer than the theatrical cut, but most of that is due to the intermission that will presumably be cut out of the real film, and bear in mind that my version didn't come with the customary twenty minutes of ads and trailers. And for all the genius of Hateful Eight's framing, pace and writing, there are entire sequences I would have cut right out of the film. An elaborate flashback sequence detailing how several of the characters came to be at the cabin goes on roughly twice as long as it needs to, and most of the material relating to Michael Madsen (another Tarantino staple actor) and Eli Roth turns out to be artifice for the sake of artifice. There are also some questions that inevitably arise concerning why certain characters act as they do, given the ultimate goals that we discover them to have, which are natural when your movie is three hours of people lying to one another. To say more on that subject would be spoilery, so let's just say that plot has never been Tarantino's forte nor his area of interest, and this film is not the moment where he suddenly figured it out.

Final thoughts:   A great many people I know will despise the Hateful Eight as a ghoulish exercise in unremitting awfulness and bloodshed, and they will be right to do so. I, on the other hand, have chosen to praise the film for precisely these qualities, as it is one of the finest exercises in ghoulish bloodshed and general awfulness that I have seen in quite a long time, a movie worthy of being compared to Tarantino's great works of old such as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown. It is a film that showcases a master of his craft executing precisely what he wishes to do, a movie that eschews our demands of Westerns or movies in general in favor of showcasing a concept that simply appealed to the deranged mind of one of the best filmmakers working. I'd be lying if I said I was in a hurry to see Hateful Eight again. A film that long needs to be prepared for. But in a year that had an awful lot of tentpole franchise-building and safe, pedestrian choices, it takes a movie like The Hateful Eight to remind us all just what the cinema is capable of being, once you have someone this good behind the camera.
Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Stop me if you've heard this one:  Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper all star in a David O. Russell movie...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Good Dinosaur

Alternate Title:  Young-Earth Creationism

One sentence synopsis:     In a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, a young dinosaur, separated from his family, tries to find a way home with the assistance of a feral caveboy.

Things Havoc liked: Pixar, Pixar, Pixar, what am I supposed to do with Pixar? The great movies of Pixar's oeuvre stand out as some of the finest things ever animated, but the result for them has been that every Pixar movie is now judged in the context of Up or Wall-E or Finding Nemo, which has lead to complaints (with some justification), that if anyone besides Pixar had released Inside Out or Brave, it would have found considerably more acclaim. That may be so, but Pixar themselves are the ones that set the bar this high, so they really have nobody but themselves to complain to when we get an unreasonable expectation upon seeing their name pop up in the opening credits. All of this, of course, is nothing but a clumsy attempt to explain why it was that in the midst of a Holiday season that gave us Star Wars, Tarantino westerns, a glut of Oscar bait, and the new David O. Russel movie, I decided it was time to sit down and watch an animated children's movie about dinosaurs.

Don't judge me.

The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's second (and far less-prominent) feature film of 2015, is a very old story told via a twist that leads to more speculation than a G-rated kids movie usually allows for. The premise is that the Chixulub Impactor, the 6-mile-wide asteroid that obliterated the Dinosaurs some 65,000,000 years ago, missed Earth rather than colliding with it, allowing dinosaurs to continue to evolve right alongside mammals and birds. Alternate History (Alternate Pre-History?) is one of my personal passions, and the hints of the society that the now-evolved, albeit still primitive intelligent dinosaurs are piecing together were enough to sell me. Saurians and other plant-eating dinosaurs seem to have developed into agricultural farmers, while meat-eating dinos such as the therapods and raptors have become herders and animal husbanders, a nice shift from the typical "meat-eaters = evil" that you see in films like The Land Before Time. Obviously this film isn't about the anthropological implications of pastoral-agricultural relations among stone-age reptiles (we hope to publish next year), but an excuse to allow for cavemen and dinosaurs to co-exist without having to ban Evolution from the schools.

So what is the movie about then, if not a mediation on social structures that never were? Well, strangely enough, the story that all this weird ahistorical trapping is draped around is a kid-alone-in-the-wilderness-style adventure movie, a genre of film that used to be very popular on the direct-to-video circuit, and may still be for all I know, and had titles like Into the Wild, Far From Home, or A Cry in the Wild, which made them very hard to distinguish one from the other. Pixar crosses this genre with a more straightforward adventure movie, in which audience-surrogate protagonists travel through exotic lands and meet strange and interesting people while learning and using life lessons (the examples are too many to cite). The audience-surrogate protagonist in question is Arlo, the youngest son of a family of little-house-on-the-prairie-style pioneer Apatosaurs (Jeffrey Wright and an unrecognizable Frances McDormand), whose problem to be overcome (there's always one in these sorts of films) is constant, overwhelming fear at his surroundings. What Saurians capable of plowing furrows with their faces and chopping down trees with a single tail-swipe have to be afraid of is never really stated, but then fear is not rational by definition, especially in kids. Separated from his family thanks to a flash flood and some contrived circumstances, Arlo meets a mute human cave-boy whose role, oddly enough, is that of the dog (Arlo even names him "Spot") in this boy-and-his-dog-style genre. Having a five or six year old kid take on the role of the fearless animal companion who challenges venomous pit vipers and pterodactyls eight times his size while the dinosaur protagonist cowers in fear behind him is... an interesting state of affairs, but then this is all kids' parable stuff anyway, and it's handled reasonably well, to be honest. The messages aren't too obvious and the two protagonists are well-animated, well-voice-acted, and done up in Pixar's trademark sentimental style.

So what else is there to say for this film? Well for one thing it's gorgeous. Pixar's films are always gorgeous, even the mediocre ones, and The Good Dinosaur has a lovely, nearly photorealistic style for its backgrounds and landscapes. The film takes place (I'm guessing) somewhere in the American West (fitting the pioneer theme, I suppose), and sports a John-Ford-style eye for the impressive, rugged landscapes that the area naturally affords (I swear, I thought I saw Monument Valley). The water effects in particular deserve praise, be they placid, still rivers rippling down their banks, or the surging, muddy tide of a landslide-induced flash flood. Beyond the visuals though, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the existence of the legendary Sam Elliot (the man, the legend, the mustache), playing a cowboy tyrannosaur driving a herd of buffalo across the open ranges of the American West. I try to respect the breadth of opinions that exist within the world of film criticism, but frankly, anyone who fails to get excited at the prospect of Sam Freaking Elliot playing a Tyrannosaurus Rex who is also a cowboy needs to either stop watching movies (because they have become far too cynical) or start watching them (because they've clearly never seen one).

Things Havoc disliked: I said that The Good Dinosaur is gorgeous, and it really, really is, but for some reason Pixar chose a hyper-realistic animation style for the landscapes and backgrounds of the movie, and an extremely stylized, cartoony style for the characters themselves, which fits together kind of awkwardly. I recognize that a hell of a lot goes into animated character design, and realism is not necessarily one of the most important factors, but there's a visible clash this time between the characters themselves and the world they inhabit that simply wasn't there for most of Pixar's previous work. Finding Nemo for instance, managed to make its fish characters highly expressive and cartoony without making them stand out too egregiously from the underwater tropical world that existed around them. More to the point, Brave, whose software was refined to produce this movie, managed to use subtle shifts in how the characters were animated and how stylized they were to portray the changing mental and emotional states of their human or ursine cast. Maybe the more alien/up-to-date designs of some of the dinosaurs here (the filmmakers give us raptors which look a lot more like the semi-reptilian chickens they more or less were than Jurassic Park ever did) threw me off, or maybe it's a facet of the intended audience, but while neither the characters nor the background work is bad, the combination of the two is a bit... distracting.

Overall though, the issue with The Good Dinosaur isn't so much what it does wrong as what it doesn't do at all. Yes, this is a kids' film, and in consequence is going to have big, broad themes mixed with slapstick comedy, and a few winks to the audience for the adults, except that that's really not been true of Pixar's other work, or at least their best work. The Good Dinosaur is about a little dinosaur trying to find his way home with the help of strange people he meets along the way, and while that's fine, it's also... all that the movie is about. Compare that to Up or Wall-E or The Incredibles, which were about a great many things, some of them fairly subtle, or even to Inside Out, which was about some pretty heavy and abstract stuff (depression, epistemology, and even gender roles). There's nothing wrong with a simple film, certainly, but The Good Dinosaur feels like material that Disney might have put out in between one of their multiple golden ages, a time-filler movie that is designed to look nice and entertain the kids for a while, and then be over with.

Final thoughts:  Maybe I'm being too harsh, and maybe "just" making a good kids' film that isn't stupid is harder than it sounds (in fact I'm certain it is), but while it's always unfair to criticize a film for not being another film, it's almost impossible not to judge the Good Dinosaur in the context of what we've come to expect from Pixar. It's a fine, family movie overall, written well and animated gorgeously, with a number of strong elements that make it worth a watch if you happen to be looking for good kids' movies. But the previous entries in Pixar's oeuvre were masterpieces that transcended the label of "kids" film or any other genre for that matter, movies that had to be seen by everybody, regardless of their circumstances or background, speaking to people on a number of levels at once. The Good Dinosaur is not one such movie, but then that's not so terrible a sin either. After all, if every movie transcended the genre they were written into, then there'd be nothing special about Pixar's best work at all.

And hell, any movie that gives me Sam Elliot, Tyrannosaur-Cowboy, has to be doing something right.
Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  We've seen the kids' film.  Now let's see what Tarantino has to offer us...

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