Sunday, May 29, 2016


Alternate Title:  You're A Kitty!

One sentence synopsis:    Two suburban friends impersonate deadly gangsters so as to retrieve their pet kitten.

Things Havoc liked: After the end of That Mitchell and Webb Look in 2011, my favorite sketch comedy show (an award nearly as prestigious as the Emmys) became that of Key & Peale, two veterans of Mad TV who decided to strike out on their own with a series considerably less restrained than the above. Television (obviously) isn't my primary source of entertainment, but I made time for those two, and when I heard there was to be a full length movie made from them, I... immediately wrote it off. Why? Because movies based around sketch comedy bits almost invariably suck, as anyone who has watched the dismal parade of post-Wayne's World Saturday Night Live movies can attest to. Still, it has been quite a while since SNL decided to try their hand at the sketch-turned-movie genre (the last one was MacGruber, in 2010, which itself was the first one in a decade. Maybe things had improved since the days of It's Pat or The Ladies Man, or maybe Key & Peale, being far better comedians than the average denizens of SNL, would have a better shot at making something watchable.

Keanu stars Key and Peele as two suburban, middle class black men in Los Angeles, the former an uptight family man with a wife and kids, the latter a slacker who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, and who comes into possession, through strange and convoluted circumstances, of a tiny kitten which he names Keanu for reasons I don't pretend to understand. Once the kitten is kidnapped by the leader of a nearby street gang (Rapper and periodic actor Method Man, who is better at this than most of his peers), the scheme that Key and Peele come up with is to impersonate a pair of mysterious, lethal gangster/hit men (The "Allentown Boys") and pretend to be thugs so as to fool the gangsters and rescue their beloved pet. None of this is that unusual as sketch comedy movies go, indeed if anything, it's basically a remake of the execrable 2001 Orlando Jones/Eddie Griffin comedy Double Take, a movie that is slightly more funny than child molestation, but only just (then again, Double Take was in turn based on the 1957 British film Across the Bridge, so perhaps this rabbit hole is deeper than we know....) Keanu, on the other hand, does not have two blithering idiots as its lead actors, and does much better with what amounts to the same material, as the hapless Key and Peele try to maintain the fiction that they are actually hardcore gangsters. Indeed, there is some actual fun to be had here, particularly an extended sequence with Key managing to explain away the George Michael CDs in his car by convincing the unknowing gangsters that George Michael is actually a hardcore gangster, and that his songs are the epitome of thug life. Key and Peele also pull double duty as the real Allentown Boys, disguised in thick wigs and dark glasses, whose gimick involves picking up and putting down the instruments with which they intend to torture their victims to death so many times that even the orchestra gets tired of providing endless suspenseful stings.

Nor does the supporting cast let the film down overall. Anna Faris, of all people, takes on an Entourage-style role as herself, only as a version of herself who is also a drugged out lunatic who unhesitatingly pulls swords on armed gangsters when they try to collect their payment for the drugs she is buying and leave (this may not be such a stretch). Method Man, meanwhile, plays what amounts to the straight man in the ensuing insanity, enabling his character to be the punch line for a whole series of in-jokes relating to his work on The Wire. Other venerable character actors, such as Luis Guzmán and and Will Forte, take on smaller roles, generally in the form of extremely serious gangsters and killers who become highly attached to the kitten in question and are ready to pile bodies to the skies to ensure that they get to keep it. The film also features, as was probably inevitable, the vocal stylings of Keanu Reeves himself, who plays the titular kitten in a sequence of outstanding trippyness, wherein one of our heroes takes a hit from a new designer superdrug called "Holy Shit", and hallucinates not only conversations with Ted Theodore Logan, but does so as part of the least strange element of many different hallucinagenic events, including appearing inside the 1997 Music Video for Faith.

Yeah, it's one of those movies...

Things Havoc disliked: The problem with sketch comedy characters elevated to a full length feature film is that what works as a five minute gag-scene does not typically work as a 98-minute feature, either because the joke becomes too belabored, because of the need to include an actual plot, or, more commonly, both. Key and Peele start ahead of the curve in this regard, as the movie is not based on a particular set of characters from the show, but around new ones (best I can tell) made up for the purposes of the film, studding them with elements from famous bits from the show (including a discussion of "the Liam Neesons"). But even with that, it has to be said that the material here feels a bit thin, as though despite coming in at less than 100 minutes, the authors, which include the leads as well as show-writer Alex Rubens, could not think up enough to tide the film over. The joke of these two dorks pretending to be gangsters starts to run dry about the 2/3s mark, despite the movie making active efforts to spice things up with more and more over-the-top violence and gratuitous slo-mo sequences.

Granted, none of the above is the death knell of the movie or anything, but it forces the filmmakers to find filler to get the movie to its ordained end. Unfortunately, that filler tends to come in the form of either completely unnecessary sub-plots or poorly-written characters. The former takes the form of Key's wife, played by Nia Long, who takes the weekend off with a neighbor and calls in periodically to ask how things are going with her husband's "weekend fun". A sub-plot involving her being propositioned by the neighbor is never fleshed out, and goes nowhere, serving nothing but the burning up of a couple more minutes of screen-time. Other minutes are consumed with Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), the token gangster girl in the street gang, with whom the recently-single Peele begins an obligatory relationship founded on deception, etc, etc... It's not that Haddish is particularly bad in the role, but there's really no reason she's there, as the film already has several serviceable straight men (or women), and the relationship angle is poorly-crafted and a distraction from the funny elements. Of course it's hard to call this much of a pity given that a distraction was the exact purpose for which the character was added, as a desperate attempt to get the movie to feature-length runtime before they ran out of jokes.

Final thoughts:     Still, I'd rather see a movie half-filled with full-power jokes than fully-filled with half-power ones, if you know what I mean, and when Keanu works, it really does work, far better than the damp squibs that are the mainstay of this sort of film. The movie does sort of race out the door before anyone can realize that it has no encore material, but again, that's probably better than overstaying its welcome.

Overall, I would not call Keanu a must-see movie or anything, but for those who are fans of the show, as I was, there's nothing here that's going to convince you that you were wrong to like them in the first place. And given the month I've had, that's not as minor a victory as it sounds.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  "The best movie since Under The Skin", say the reviews.  Oh goody...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Alternate Title:  You Either Die a Hero...

One sentence synopsis:    Manipulated by the evil Lex Luthor, Batman and Superman clash over contrasting ideologies to crime fighting.

Things Havoc liked: In a world filled with internet outrage culture, and the raging anger of fanboys galore, 2013's Man of Steel was one of the most contentious movies I have ever seen cross the cinema. I have had multiple violent arguments over the qualities of that film, watched grown men devolve into fistfights over the question of whether it was a faithful adaptation of Superman, or a disgusting betrayal of all that is right and good in the world. As those who remember my review can attest to, I liked the film, for its visual splendor, for its iconography, for the titanomachy-grade action that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I liked it despite many glaring flaws as to tone and characterization and unfulfilled promises from the best trailer I have ever seen, but I liked it nonetheless. And yet in retrospect, the vitriol directed at Man of Steel by the many, many individuals who did not like it, not one little bit, served to taint the entire enterprise in my mind looking back. Perhaps my opinions are more malleable than they should be, or perhaps I was wrong initially and came slowly to see the light, but while I never came to hate Man of Steel, its star has definitely dimmed in the years that have passed from that moment to this one. With the raging hatred of those who abominated the first movie undimmed, and indeed increased, as we closed on the release date of its sequel, I decided to make a concerted effort to be objective with this one, above and beyond my customary disposal of preconceptions. Come Hell or High Water, there was a large segment of the internet that was going to hate this movie, and I refused to let that color my impression of Warner Brothers' go-for-broke attempt to have The Avengers' lunch.

Things Havoc disliked: All in vain...

If I have skipped over the "things I liked" section, understand that it is not because there was nothing in this movie that I liked. There was. I liked Jeremy Irons' turn as Alfred Pennyworth, a performance that is less rooted in Michael Caine and more in Michael Gough. I liked small touches that the movie introduces almost as throwaways, such as the fact that Batman, in this movie, eschews Christian-Bale-voice in favor of an actual vocoder. I liked Holly Hunter's turn as a wisecracking senator from Kentucky who chairs a senate committee charged with clarifying Superman's legal status. I even liked the effrontery with which Zack Snyder chose to hypothesize, rather than tone down, the christological parallels that the movie is riven with when it comes to Superman, explicitly including sequences where worshipful throngs of people kneel before his advent as though he were the second coming, while desperate encyclicals from the Vatican and other religious leaders declare that Superman is not actually Jesus Christ incarnated. The Christ parallels with Superman are inevitable, and were enormously thick in Man of Steel, but by calling them out explicitly, Snyder turns the subject around into a discussion of how people might actually react if an invulnerable alien god representing good and righteousness were to descend upon the planet. I liked this and all the other things I have cited, and yet I did not lump them all together within the "Things Havoc Liked" section, as is my usual wont. And I did not do that, because they are all ultimately irrelevant next to a single, impenetrable fact.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is a piece of shit.

Not merely a piece of shit, but a huge, steaming, foul-odored piece of intestinal filth, enormous in scope and terrifying in impact. We live in an age of cinematic superheroes, not merely the shining lights of the MCU, but also the other great movies that have traveled in its wake, the Deadpools and X-men and all of the rest. And yet, confronted with the ranks of angels that have graced our screens for a decade and more, what has DC, Warner Brothers, and Zack Snyder, the man I have defended for years and years, done? They have produced the cinematic equivalent of a war crime, a movie that is and was and will remain one of the most cataclysmic misfires in modern history. For all the patience I have laid upon this collection of would-be dignitaries, forgiving Green Lantern, forgetting Catwoman, defending Man of Steel in the face of withering criticism, this is how I am repaid? This putrid abomination of a comic book film? This wholesale, willful negation of not just superheros but film as a medium and narrative as a concept? This is what they presented to me, in the expectation that I would lay praise at their feet and number them among my sainted elect? This was truly the best they could do?

Well they have sown the air, dear readers. Let them reap the whirlwind.

Batman v Superman is a disaster on every level of filmmaking I can cite and several others still waiting to be invented, a calamity that recalls parallels to the Hindenburg disaster, before which a critic and cinephile such as myself can do nothing but weep and lament the humanity that was lost in devising and producing it. It is a sour, bitter thing, a vindication to all of those who insisted to me that I was wrong to defend Watchmen, wrong to defend 300, wrong to defend Man of Steel, because they all led straight to this twisted, broken failure of imagination, creativity, and thought. No one, no one touched by this enterprise escapes it unscathed, certainly not Henry Cavill, whom I appreciated in the last movie for his earnestness and physicality, but who here has become a mopey, depressed un-character, shunting about almost robotically from scene to scene, as if he has read the script of the film and knows that nothing awaits him here but bitterness and ash. Superman is a character designed to embody our best natures, optimism, strength, courage and justice, and if Zack Snyder sought to do nothing more than piss on all four concepts through this portrayal, he succeeded. Ben Affleck meanwhile, who is an Oscar-winning director in his own right of great skill and talent, plays Batman like a man under the influence of several particularly dangerous steroid-PCP cocktails, a grunting, sweating dude-bro whose plotline through the movie is possibly the single stupidest plotline I've ever seen for a major superhero, and I remember both Spiderman 3 and Superman 4. In grotesque violation of the core tenets of the character, Snyder turns a hero famous for his legendarily inflexible prohibition against killing, into a cowled version of the Punisher, who slaughters his enemies with machine guns while obsessing over the possibilities of murdering Superman for no reason at all. I remember reading Frank Miller's All-Star Batman & Robin, a comic in which Batman referred to himself as "The Goddamn Batman", gloried over breaking his enemies' spines, and forced a small child to scavenge sewer rats for food, and this movie is still the worst version of Batman I have ever seen realized in any form, a character assassination so complete that no actor, be he Affleck, Keeton, or Lawrence freaking Olivier, could possibly have salvaged it.

And yet even with all of this, Affleck and Cavill are probably the best parts of the movie, for the true depths of awfulness on display here belong not to them but to Jesse Eisenberg, who is so staggeringly miscast as Lex Luthor that I considered seriously the possibility that the entire movie was arranged by a conspiracy of his sworn enemies. There have been many versions of Luther over the years, from Kevin Spacey and Gene Hackman's goofy versions to the more serious take Clancy Brown put on the character in the Justice League animated series. But Eisenberg, presented with infinite possibilities, is absolutely unable to make his mind up, switching motivations at least a dozen times throughout the movie, in some cases in mid-scene, from an arrogant tech-god in the (inevitable) Steve Jobs style, to an abused child lashing out at his dead father, to an atheistic terrorist desirous of literally killing God, to a mad scientist seeking the coolest toys, to a twisted harbinger of some terrible threat yet to come, to another thing and another and another. Eisenberg has no character except annoyance, no standard traits except stupidity, and his "evil plan" is not only one of the stupidest I have ever seen committed to film (a key element of his plans involves a jar of his own piss), but is additionally layered with redundancies, elementary mistakes, continuity-shattering plot holes, and utterly baffling decisions not just from him but from everyone he interacts with for any length of time, be they hero or not. But for all of his many, many flaws, Eisenberg's Luthor is at least occasionally entertaining to look at, if only from the sense that baffling stupidity may arise at any time while he is on the screen. The same cannot be said of Gal Gadot, an unknown Israeli actress and model who is called upon to finally, after infinite screaming by comic fans, to portray the most famous super-heroine in comics, Wonder Woman. She sucks. Gadot cannot act to save her life, not that the screenplay does her favors in this regard, relegating her to a handful of cameo appearances so nebulous that I seriously mistook her for a different comic character altogether. Shoehorned into the movie for no reason other than franchise maintenance, she has nothing to do with anything, and the tiny collection of scenes she appears in, either as Diana Prince or as Wonder Woman herself are nothing more than cheap fan-service, hoping to keep people hanging on until next year, when DC finally intends to release the Wonder Woman movie they proclaimed to be impossible so many times.

And yet, to simply call this or that actor's performance bad or even terrible does not even come close to the baffling anti-thought that permeates this movie like a miasma, afflicting everything from the derivative, over-bombastic Hans Zimmer score to the godawful cinematography and world design, to the plot and effects, which are so lackluster that they would not have appeared out of place in a mid-00s X-men spinoff. One of the few undeniable high-points of Man of Steel was the thunderous scale of the thing, a movie in which Olympian gods vented destruction and wrath upon their enemies in staggering, awe-inspiring spectacle. And yet of all the things from the original film to discard, the filmmakers chose not the fractured storytelling, not the stupefying plot contrivances, not the mutilation of beloved, century-old characters, but the sense of wonder that they had managed, against all odds, to produce. The action in Batman v Superman is almost uniformly some of the most boring action I have seen from a superhero film, a factor not helped by the "big bad" that our heroes must punch repeatedly being the laziest rendition of seminal Superman villain Doomsday that I've ever seen. The movie's version looks like someone crossed a troll from Lord of the Rings with The Scorpion King, and has CGI that would have been laughed off the set of Catwoman. There is no sense of scale, not to the final fight nor to the movie as a whole, as most of the titular Batman v Superman fighting takes place in an environment of Kryptonite gas, turning the entire thing into a battle between a meatheaded, drunken bully, and a depressive head-case who just wants the entire thing to stop. Not one fight has a sense of interest, of stakes, of personal agenda or emotion or even wow factor, but then neither do any of the dialogue or exposition scenes either, so why should I be surprised. This includes an extended sequence in the middle of the film where Wonder Woman is given a thumb drive containing top secret information from Luther's corporation, which turns out to be a series of trailers for future DC continuity movies. Which she watches. For five minutes. Yes, that means the movie stops dead in its tracks for five whole minutes so that it can advertise other movies to you that have not yet come out. I know some people think Marvel congratulates itself too much, but at least they usually save their ads for the next movie until after you have finished watching the current one!

But all of this, all of this, I might have forgiven (might), if it weren't for the final, damning element of this colossal misfire, the fact that the movie is so goddamn ugly. I don't mean ugly in the visual sense, although it absolutely is that, with a visual style that washes out the primary colors these characters are so well known-for into a dour, faded mockery of themselves, shot primarily in what appears to be a Detroit junkyard at night. No, I mean the ugliness of the sensibility that would lead to someone making a movie like this, a movie where Batman is a grotesque caricature of the sort Frank-Miller used in his more militant, crap works such as Holy Terror, a grunting parody of a "real man" who spends his time crossfit training before running out to murder people for no reason other than his own ego. I mean the ugliness required to produce a movie in which Superman, a character so defined by his moral sense that many people consider him boring and arrogant, undergoes an existentialist crisis before picking up the idiot ball and refusing to put it back down. I mean the ugliness and cynicism required to produce a movie ostensibly starring Wonder Woman after literal decades of denying women a place at the table, and then effectively whisking her off-screen like Charlie Brown's football and demanding that we go see another movie next year if we actually want to see her. I am talking here about a movie that reduces Lois Lane to a complete idiot with nothing better to do than find her way into death traps, that turns Lex Luthor into a simpering asshat whining about how unfair it is that people like superheroes, that turns the very notion of catharsis into a cruel joke, and then has the gall to turn around and mock Marvel's films for being too "unrealistic". I am talking about a movie that is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel, not merely in its worldview but in its active actions towards fan-base and casual film-goer alike. I am talking about a movie so irredeemably awful that I, comic book fan that I am, instantly wrote off every other movie in the DC canon from here on out, including this year's Suicide Squad. Because if this is the sort of product that the flywheels at DC and Warner Brothers believe is worthy of me and mine, then I suggest that they take a good solid look in the mirror, and then proceed to literally fuck themselves to death.

Final thoughts:     One of the great mysteries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beyond the fact that it exists at all, is the consistent level of quality that it has maintained, such that weaker movies like Iron Man 2/3 or The Hulk still maintain a sense that serious people tried to make a good movie through the best methods they knew. The results are not always excellent (though the majority definitely are), but they are never the sorts of gross insults that a truly awful movie can feel like. But while I generally resist the temptation to describe bad or even terrible movies in such hyperbolic terms as "slaps in the face", Batman v Superman leaves me with little choice, made as it seemingly is by people grasping and jealous of the MCU's success, who could not stop themselves from voiding contempt for all those who supported Marvel in their endeavors instead of indulging in the "grim and gritty realism" that they offer up like offal disguised as ambrosia. As such, what is staggering about this film is not that it is bad, for a whole slew of DC-comics-related failures have adequately prepared me for that possibility, but that its badness comes in forms so ugly and hateful to myself and others, particularly given the fact that I was never a great fan of DC's characters in their comic form, and consequently have no fond childhood memories for them to stomp upon. Consider my rage then a cathartic thing, channeled on behalf of others, whose childhoods were spent between the pages of a Batman or Superman comic, and who have come to see their heroes realized on screen only to be confronted with one of the worst superhero films I have ever seen.

Where this series, for it is explicitly intended as one, goes from here, I cannot say. At time of writing, Batman v Superman did indeed make the hundreds of millions of dollars that superhero movies are wont to, and yet a steep and pronounced drop-off in second-day and second-week receipts point to something more than a handful of highbrow critics raging that their theaters have again been taken over by "teenager" fare. The deep apathy with which this movie was received by a public which may have bad taste but resents being spat upon does not speak well for the cornucopia of DC-comics movies that Warner Brothers has planned for the immediate future. I do not know if the lessons of Batman v Superman can be metabolized by a production unit so debased as to loose it upon us in the first place, and if I'm being entirely honest, I could not care less whether they can or not. Batman v Superman stands as a repudiation of the very reasons why I began this project, a cynical, slimy exercise in contemptible arrogance and shocking stupidity, a movie that hates you for liking superheroes, and hates itself for containing them. A studio capable of producing such a thing is one that I have no intention of supporting further by any means, and thus, in keeping with my stated policy of only going to see movies that I suspect have a chance to prove worthwhile, consider this my preemptive rejection of the entire DC cinematic universe. I do this project for many reasons, but one of the main ones is to let my readers know what films are worth seeing and what ones are not, but there is a limit to even my cinematic fortitude, and in consequence, I am afraid that if you wish to know how the future movies in this series will turn out, you shall all have to find out for yourselves.

And if, in doing so, you discover that the followup movies are nothing but cynical exercises in nihilistic defecation, thinly excused by wild gesticulations towards terms like "gritty realism" and "hardcore", then, in one way at least, I will be able to say that Batman v Superman told me the truth.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Next Time:  This film was DC's last hope.  But there is another...

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring 2016 Movie Roundup

And now, a note from the General

So over the last few weeks, I've been struggling with competing priorities, an illness or two, and general chaos that circulates at any given moment around here. As many of you have consequently noticed, I have therefore fallen somewhat behind in my weekly reviews of the films that I subject myself to for your amusement. As such, rather than continue to struggle with catching up on the backlog that I have amassed for movies this spring, and consequently render all of Blockbuster season's releases late as well, I have decided that it is best to catch everything up in one fell swoop, by providing capsule reviews of the various films that I have seen over the last month and a half. With luck, these will still provide all of the information that you all require when making determinations about what movies are worth seeing, as well as the standard cathartic enjoyment you all get from my pain and anguish. And so, without further ado, I present to you all:

The General's Post Spring Roundup

The Lady in the Van

Alternate Title:  Downton Garage

One sentence synopsis:    A homeless lady living in a broken-down van parks it in the driveway of a writer's house and stays there for fifteen years.

The Verdict: Let's get things started with a movie none of you have heard of.

Between 1974 and 1989, a woman named Mary Shepherd lived in a dilapidated van on the property of British author Alan Bennett. That... effectively is the plot of the movie before us here, a quintessentially British film from acclaimed director Nicholas Hynter, previously of The Crucible and The Madness of King George. If this sounds like a boring time, I can understand why, but I went to see this one for one reason and one reason alone: Maggie Smith. I said before in my Quartet review that I regard Smith as a gem (this is not a controversial opinion), one of the few actors for whom I will go see a movie largely regardless of its subject matter, and she is, as always, excellent herein, playing a role that could not be more removed from the wizard professors and dowager countesses that she typically portrays on screens large and small. Her character is a dotty old lady of questionable sanity and togetherness, and considerable aggravation, remarked upon as smelling awfully and being utterly ungrateful to those she accepts the charity of or tremendously inconveniences. And yet she gets away with this because her erstwhile landlord (sort of), is Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), a gay author and playwright who is also one of the most British men alive, and who avoids conflict like no man I've ever seen, either with his neighbors (who are horrified that he has permitted her to take up residence), or with Ms. Shepherd herself (who walks all over him). The film goes so far as to have Bennett spend much of the film talking to a Charlie Kaufman-esque vision of himself (his 'writer' self or some such) who berates him constantly for not taking a more active line with such people as annoy him.

As you can tell, we are dealing with a strange film here, but it all works... mostly, and the artifice is generally capable of disguising the fact that there isn't much to the plot of the story beyond the old woman continuing to exist despite the efforts of the entire neighborhood to will her out of existence. The film does break down at its margins, whether from a completely forgettable turn from Jim Broadbent, playing a crooked policeman who shakes down penniless old women for money (that can't be a terribly lucrative racket), to Cecilia Noble's role as a social worker whose job appears to consist of berating Bennett periodically for not sufficiently permitting the old woman on his property to ruin his life as opposed to performing social work. The film's navel-gazing gets a bit tiresome after a while, but Smith and Jennings are very good in it, separate or together, and as an excuse to watch one of the grand old dames of the cinema work, I've certainly seen worse. Not a film to run out for unless you're desperate or as thrilled with Indie British theater as I occasionally am, but hardly a bad time.

Final Score:  6/10


Midnight Special

Alternate Title:  ET: The Branch Davidian Cut

One sentence synopsis:   The father of a boy with unexplained powers struggles to hide him from the government and the religious cult he grew up in.

The Verdict: Actors and directors sometimes just hit things off together. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, John Ford and John Wayne, Wes Anderson and a quarter of Hollywood, these pairings have existed since the dawn of movies, and have been responsible for some of the greatest films in existence. And while indie director Jeff Nichols has only made a handful of films in his career to date, he seems to have already found his counterpart in celluloid for the foreseeable future in the form of Michael Shannon, one of my favorite working actors, whom he has directed in most of the movies he has made to date, including 2012's Mud, and the strange, apocalyptic psycho-drama Take Shelter, which was just weird enough to be a work of near-genius. Nichols' trademark has always been of existential uncertainty and gritty violence in a hyper-realistic context, and this time he brings the same style to a genre film, which is a novel idea if nothing else.

Michael Shannon plays Roy, a former member of a religious cult in West Texas that has formed around the pronouncements of his son, Alton, a strange kid who has exhibited unexplained powers of precognition and telekinesis since birth, who spends the movie trying to safeguard his son from the dual threat of the FBI, which is searching for Aldon after he managed to psychically decrypt their satellite communications, and the rest of the cult, who believe that Aldon will herald the rapture in a few days and will stop at nothing to retrieve him. This is the sort of premise that could easily have turned into an action blockbuster, but Nichols keeps things relentlessly close-cropped and focused on Aldon, Roy, Roy's friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton, in one of the first good turns I've ever seen him make), and the people they cross as they try to figure out what is coming, and what role Aldon will play in it. Shot mostly at night, with a claustrophobic and paranoid feel that never crosses the line into thriller territory, the movie is extremely well-made, and Shannon is fantastic in it, as he is in everything I see him in.

Indeed everyone is fantastic in Midnight Special, whether I normally like them or not, from the immortal Sam Shepard as the quiet-spoken leader of the Waco-like cult, to Kirsten Dunst, who has retreated into indie fare for the last decade, playing Alton's estranged mother, to Adam Driver, of Star Wars and Girls, playing an FBI agent trying to put everything together in the wake of the increasingly disturbing events transpiring in Roy and Alton's wake. Unfortunately, the plot is not quite up to the same level, fraying around the edges before collapsing entirely near the end. Nichols' movies always seem to be more interested in the setup than the punchline, but this time he's working with a genre piece, and his inexperience with the conventions of sci-fi shows in an unfocused conclusion that wound up confusing the hell out of me in all the wrong ways. Still, the tone and feel of the film is spot on, and while I wouldn't call Midnight Special one of the best movies I've ever seen or anything, it's a solid enough piece to be worth a look if you have any interest in the indie side of scifi. Keep an eye on this Nichols kid. He's going places.

Final Score:  7/10


Hardcore Henry

Alternate Title:  I Wanna Be The Guy, The Movie, The Game, The Movie

One sentence synopsis:   A man is revived from death as a cyborg super-soldier, and must save his girlfriend from an evil maniac and his army of killers.

The Verdict:  Experimental cinema is a dangerous place to hang around, but this movie was a concept that I basically had to see. Hardcore Henry, for those who've never heard of it, is a Russian-American action movie produced by semi-legendary Khazakh schlock-meister Timur Bekmambetov, purveyor of such fine films as Wanted (ugh) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which... if I'm being honest, has aged a lot better than it should have). The gimmick, this time, is that the entire movie is shot from a first-person perspective, thanks to a pair of GoPro cameras mounted on the heads of a whole series of stuntmen and parkour athletes used to portray the titular Harry. Add in a bunch of game actors and a bunch of action and blood, and we have a concept that could fail miserably, but one that had to be seen regardless.

So does this ludicrous excuse for video-game cinematography actually work? Well... kind of. If (like all right-thinking individuals) you have a problem with Shaky-cam, then this film is not going to please you overmuch, as the first-person camera is frenetic to the point of being honestly distracting for the first hour or so of runtime, and the schizophrenic editing style does the movie no favors in that department either. It's not quite nausea-inducing (though in fairness, I didn't see the movie in 3D), but it certainly made several of the earlier fight sections very, very hard to follow, something not helped by the movie's plot involving crazy, fantastical elements, such as a character (played by Neil Blomkampf's favorite actor Sharlto Copley) being killed and re-incarnated multiple times with no explanation given. As with any kind of shaky-cam-like style, the result is to effortlessly obscure the wonderful work that the director, stunt coordinators, actors, and stuntmen put into producing a visual wonder, wasting much of the enterprise.

And yet... weird as the core conceit and gimmick are, you do get used to it, and by the midway point of the movie, my eyes had adjusted to the frenetic pace and the strange perspective, and fortunately, the midpoint of the film is where first-time director Ilya Naishuller decides to A: Slow the movie down a bit so that we can get some sense of what the hell is going on, and B: Start introducing the real meat of the action in the film, cored around two particular extended sequences, one in an abandoned apartment complex, and another atop a Moscow skycraper. Both of these sequences rock, and are shot with a bit more restraint and maturity to them, resulting in truly orgiastic spectacles of artful violence and death (eventually to the accompaniment of a Queen soundtrack). The overall effect is still a bit video-game-cutscene-like, particularly the final confrontation with the big bad (an inexplicably telekinetic Danila Kozlovsky), but if you're used to the conventions of the genre (and if not, research is in order), then it won't be too distracting. Overall, while I can't call Hardcore Henry an unqualified success, and I certainly don't want its style to sweep through action movies and change everything (though in fairness, anything is better than actual shaky-cam), the movie does justify its existence with a showcase of excellent stuntwork and violent action. Would it have been better as a normal movie? Probably. But then would I have even heard of it?

Final Score:  6.5/10


The Jungle Book

Alternate Title:  Now With Actual Indians!

One sentence synopsis:   Mowgli the Jungle Boy is menaced by the tiger Shere Khan, and taken to the nearby man-village by his friends Baghera and Baloo for his own safekeeping.

The Verdict:  Twice now, in less than six weeks, I have seen a film wherein Idris Elba voice-acts as a ferocious animal, first as a Cape Buffalo/Stern Police Chief in Zootopia, and now as Shere Khan, the famous man-killing tiger from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book stories. I have strictly no objection to this state of affairs, of course, as my mood at the cinema rises and falls in no small part based on the amount of Idris Elba I am able to acquire. Nor is Elba alone in this one, as director Jon Favreau (you really should not need me to tell you who that is) has assembled a hell of a voicecast, including Ben Kingsley as Baghera the panther, Bill Murray as Baloo the Bear, Christopher Freaking Walken as King Louis the Gigantopithecus (a gargantuan orangutan), Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the snake (whose role is quite truncated from the 1967 animated film), and a whole slew of cameos and smaller roles for everyone from Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito, to Russell Peters, Sam Raimi, and the late Gary Shandling. Granted, most of these additional voice-roles don't amount to much beyond stunt-casting (though a sight-gag involving Walken's character is to die for), but still.

There've been quite a few versions of the Jungle Book on screen, most of them animated, some not. But among them all, this one stays closer to Kipling's original stories than is typical, combining a couple of the Jungle Book anthology pieces together into a more or less coherent whole, and mixing it with elements from the Disney animated version. Mowgli himself is played by then-10-year-old Neel Sethi, an Indian-American kid who does a... passable job, let's say, if not an inspired one, particularly given that it could not have been easy having to act entirely on a green-screen with puppets and motion-capture icons for sightlines. Sethi is fine, honestly, and I don't like beating on kids for uninspired acting performances anyway, particularly in a children's film where the intended audience will likely not even notice.

What they might notice is the seams between the better-done aspects of the film that are mostly drawn from Kipling's stories, and the... other... sections of the film which are drawn from the animated movie. I love the 1967 film, of course, but the decision to transplant a couple of the songs from the original over into the live action film was not an inspired one, on several levels. For one thing, musicals work under their own logic, especially Disney animated ones, and while you can have a movie full of singing, or a movie that has no singing, it's really difficult to get away with a movie that is mostly non-musical except for a couple of songs awkwardly inserted. None of this is helped by the fact that neither Bill Murray nor Christopher Walken (who get the two songs in the film) can actually sing, something made worse by the fact that I, at least, remember the original songs (Man Like You, and Bear Necessities) quite well, and can compare them to these renditions, which sound like amateur hour at the Lake Woebegone talent contest by comparison. None of this "ruins" the movie or anything, but it does expose the entire procedure as a flawed one, that may not have been thought through sufficiently.

The Jungle Book is a perfectly decent movie, ultimately, but it's not one that I'm going to remember as fondly as its predecessor. But then again, it hardly has to clear that bar in order to be worthwhile.

Final Score:  6/10



Alternate Title:  Paycheck

One sentence synopsis:   A sociopathic criminal has his mind switched with a dead CIA agent so as to stop an anarchist from destroying the world.

The Verdict:  In 1991, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones all got together with Oliver Stone to make JFK, a ludicrous but extremely well-made movie about the trauma and conspiracy wrangling that attended the JFK assassination. In 2016, all three actors got together with Israeli director Ariel Vromen and perpetual underachiever Ryan Reynolds to make a generic spy movie involving body switching technology. The world is sometimes a cruel place.

I can't pretend that I didn't know what Criminal was likely to be, but a cast like that is something I have a lot of trouble resisting, even if Tommy Lee Jones has made a habit of phoning it in recently, Gary Oldman doesn't seem to read his scripts before selecting them, and Costner... well... I mean I do like Costner more than I probably should, but let us not pretend that he is a great actor or has been in nothing but amazing movies here. Criminal supplements these three veterans with what is, honestly, an excellent turn by Ryan Reynolds, who lights up the screen for five or six minutes before being summarily killed off and removed from the movie for the rest of its run-time, and with respected Spanish actor Jordi Mollà, who plays a radical anarchist straight out of the Mission Impossible 4/5 school of villainy, an evil villain of evil who has no actual motivation beyond evil, despite the movie's almost-desperate efforts to hint at one. It features a lot of shooting and blowing up of things, occasionally with some degree of skill, such as a strange three-way gun battle between the terrorists, the CIA, and a Russian snatch-and-grab team sent in just to complicate things. It also features movie-hacking in all its glory, including the inevitable scene where a hacker causes a submarine to launch a nuclear missile despite the frantic and desperate efforts of the helpless crew to countermand their own computers. I do not understand why it never seems to occur to directors or screenwriters that nuclear submarines are not able to launch their missiles remotely for this very reason.

Ultimately, Criminal is one of those movies that would have been very difficult to write a full-sized review for. Not only is it a bad film, but it is bad in entirely generic, uninteresting ways. By no means is it the worst thing I've ever seen, but that almost serves to make it worse. Criminal is just a generic, boring movie, the likes of which nobody will ever think about ever again, another piece of flotsam to be tossed onto the rubbish heap and forgotten.

Final Score:  4/10


The Huntsman: Winter's War

Alternate Title:  Upgrade Complete

One sentence synopsis:   The Huntsman must find the evil queen Ravenna's magic mirror before her sister, the Ice Queen of the north, locates and uses it to rule the world.

The Verdict:  Like everyone else in the world, seemingly, I thought that 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman was a film with some good ideas, weighted down by bad actors and bad decisions, resulting in a mediocre experience. And yet here we stand some four years later, with a sequel in-hand to a movie that probably did not deserve one, objectively-speaking. Like its predecessor, it is pretty damn stupid, with a plot that falls to pieces as soon as you look at it for too long, and characters that seem to have been assembled by random sortition. Like its predecessor, it is fairly badly written, passing off the simplest of concepts ("LOVE IS GOOD AND FASCISM IS BAD!") as revolutionary notions that nobody in the audience will have ever thought of (and don't give me the kids' movie excuse here. Not only is this a violent action movie, but even kids are bored of this stuff.) Like its predecessor, it a fair amount of dead weight, as well as some of the worst accents I have ever heard in film (Jessica Chastain's idea of a Scottish accent is staggeringly inept). Like its predecessor, it is consequently not a very good movie.

Unlike its predecessor, I actually really liked it.

So how did this come to pass? Well for one thing, the filmmakers managed to zero in on the elements that worked in the original film (Charlize Theron's madness, Chris Hemsworth's charisma, the scenery), and ruthlessly eliminated everything else, reducing Sam Claflin (whom I liked in The Hunger Games, but not in Snow White) to a cameo role and eliminating Kristen Stewart, the previously-titular Snow White, entirely. Given that Stewart is one of the worst actresses alive, that's an immediate improvement, but they doubled down on the matter by replacing her with Emily Blunt, a wonderful actress whom I adore, playing the role of the Ice Queen in a role half-derived from Frozen and half from Conan the Barbarian. Put simply, replacing Kristen Stewart with Emily Blunt is like replacing Adam Sandler with Lawrence Olivier, to say nothing of the fact that the movie supplements this addition with Jessica Chastain, an actress I have said many unkind things about, but who, I am beginning to realize, is not so much a bad actress as one of limited range. In movies like Interstellar and Zero Dark Thirty she is miscast, as she cannot convey serious business to any real effect. But when called upon to deliver campy, over-the-top snarling-and-fighting sorts of fantasy performances, she's actually much better than I was prepared to expect. Toss in a handful of legitimately funny comic relief supporting characters (Dwarves all) played by Nick Frost, Alexandra Roach, and Sheridan Smith, focus heavily on Theron and Blunt being crazy in all the right ways, and in some honestly pretty legit fantasy action, and the resulting movie, while probably not objectively "good", is actually a surprising amount of fun. I not only liked it, I liked it considerably more than its predecessor. And that, dear friends, is not something I ever expected to say about a sequel to a Kristen Stewart vehicle, but this is the world in which we live.

Final Score:  6.5/10


Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice

Alternate Title:  ...

One sentence synopsis:   ...

The Verdict:  ...






....... no.

No... you know what? This one... this one's gonna need a full review....

Next Time: We examine DC's most recent... offering.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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