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
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
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... you know what? This one... this one's gonna need a full review....
Next Time: We examine DC's most recent... offering.