Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Spring 2016 Movie Roundup, Part 2

And now, another note from the General

The struggle continues, ladies and gentlemen, but we are finally approaching the point, halfway through this damnable year, where we will, at last, be all caught up. And so, for those who have been waiting patiently, let us present, in no particular order, the remaining movies of the spring of 2016, preparatory to making a clean, fresh start, for Blockbuster season. Without further ado, I present:

The General's Post Spring Roundup, Part 2


Alternate Title:  Brutalism: The Movie

One sentence synopsis:    A single doctor moves into a high-rise luxury apartment complex in the early 1970s, and watches as it disintegrates into lawless anarchy and class war.

The Verdict: The 70s have a lot to answer for. Not just in terms of architecture or politics, though there is that, but also in the sensibility of a time in which most people legitimately thought that the world was actively falling apart and that all was soon to be lost in a pestilent gyre of madness, violence and death. Not an uncommon sense, to be fair, indeed there's more than a few people who still think this today, but the 70s were the period when the appropriate response to the impending end of the world was to settle scores, real or imagined, with a host of one's own personal or class enemies, real or imagined. It was, here in America at least, the age of Nixon, of the Weather Underground, and of Jonestown, a period in which the impending end of civilization provided justification for any number of heinous atrocities, because decency itself was evil, and one's enemies undeserving of humanity. It scared the right so badly that they built a bunker among the religious establishment and never left it, and scarred the left so profoundly that they suffered through a decade-and-a-half of impotence before being dragged back to prominence by main force. It was, at least to a vocal minority, the age for fulfillment of the millennarian prophecies implied by the 60s, a decade of sound and fury, signifying little beyond arrogance, greed, and the baser instincts of a generation that imagined itself revolutionary.

Why do I bring up all of this in what is intended to be a movie review of a recent release? Because by the standards I have spoken of above, High-Rise is the most 70s movie I have ever seen.

Based on a 1975 novel by British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard (author of Empire of the Sun), the movie version of High-Rise is a baroque ode to the 70s in the same way Rock of Ages was to the music of the 1980s, save that the focus this time, rather than on music and culture and fun, is on the dystopian collapse of civilization within English society, something Ballard, as well as largely everyone else, thought was imminent in the mid-70s, whether because of the decadence of the upper classes, the degraded criminality of the lower ones, or the general misanthropy of the times, take your pick. High-Rise consequently posits that once people are encased within the titular building, a brutalist monstrosity of dark concrete and hard angles, everyone will immediately get their Lord of the Flies on and start butchering one another in the squalid ruins of their homes, because this is the natural state of man. The movie stars people I like, including Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Marcus Antonius (James Purefoy), and Scar (Jeremy Irons). I would explain to you who these people are actually playing, but I will be damned if I can figure out who anyone is in this movie, really, for it's the sort of indie film in which the characters are intended to represent not characters, but archetypical deformations of the human psyche or some damn thing. Suffice to say the movie has the services of quite a few fine actors to portray its story.

And it suuuuucks. Not because the politics are so antiquated, though to be sure there is that, but because having taken such a misanthropic view of mankind as a base premise, the only the way the movie can function is by making no fucking sense whatsoever. There is no reason given why everything goes to hell within the apartment building, it simply does, and having done so, nobody is allowed to react as though such a thing is in any way strange, because you see, it is the nature of man to butcher one another for no reason in a drunken orgy, as the steadily dropping crime rates since the late 70s in every society around the world clearly attest to. It's only fair to take a movie's premise at face value, but in a case like this, the premise is so alien, and treated as so self-evident by the filmmakers (headed by British advertising director Ben Wheatley, who has never done anything of note before this), that it's actually quite difficult to figure out what the hell is going on. Characters get in one another's faces, put on parties while dressed like Versailles fops, paint themselves grey and stalk dogs through the hallways, and windily discuss how overpopulation is soon going to reduce the world to a cinder, and so murdering children is only the right way to go, all without any sense of what the hell the director is trying to say with all this madness. A movie that used these kinds of strange behaviors in an artistic fashion might well have worked, but this film, beamed in from 1975 as it is, simply assumes that this is what all disaffected intellectuals actually think of the world, and so does not bother to justify itself in any way, to the point where the movie even fails to give us a reason why anyone stays within the high-rise, even as it turns into Ramadi crossed with The Last of Us. The reason the movie gives us no such reason, of course, is because in the movie's worldview, there is no difference between a blood-soaked abattoir wherein people cannibalistically devour one another and stash their bodies in a swimming pool, and the rest of the world.

High-Rise was, predictably, praised by all the same people who praised Under the Skin and Elysium, because if you want to impress indie film critics, nothing works like claiming they're the only ones that can see the impending downfall of civilization at the hands of vast hordes of people that are not like them, even if you have to dig up the mindset of forty years ago to do it. Being a critic who does not hold the 60s and 70s as some kind of sacred period of true freedom before "the youth" ruined everything, I have a lot less patience with the film. And even if you regard my viewpoint on history and politics as nothing but hot garbage, ask yourselves how much you enjoy the prospect of watching an indie movie in which nobody acts in a comprehensible manner for two and a half hours?

Final Score:  3.5/10


X-Men: Apocalypse

Alternate Title:  The Same Old Shit

One sentence synopsis:   The awakening of the world's first mutant, who aspires to become a god, forces the X-Men and their enemies to unite to try and stop him.

The Verdict:   I was really hoping that this movie would be excellent, and can you blame me? The first movie of the rebooted series was the incomparable X-Men: First Class, one of the first films I saw for this project of mine, and one of the finest Superhero movies I've ever seen, period. The second film, 2014's Days of Future Past, while not the equal of its predecessor, was still a superb movie, one that merged both the old and the new canons together, and prepared the way for a future of infinite possibility. Combine that with the news that one of my favorite actors of recent years, Oscar Isaac, would be playing Apocalypse himself, and I was stoked for this one.

Of course I shouldn't have been, but I still haven't managed to train myself entirely to give up hope.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a great disappointment, not a disaster or the worst movie ever made or anything so dramatic, but a mediocre movie veering on a bad one that takes the infinite possibility afforded by its predecessors and cast and does exactly nothing with it. That Brian Singer, one of my favorite directors, and a man who directed not only Days of Future Past but also the original X-Men 1 and 2 (to say nothing of things like The Usual Suspects), created this thing only serves to deepen the disappointment for me, as X-Men: Apocalypse is the kind of movie that I assume all superhero movies look like to people who hate superhero movies. Though it retains the same raw materials as the previous films, particularly the services of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence as the characters of Charles Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique respectively, it has no idea what to do with any of it, relegating Magneto to an one-note off-screen role that employs little of the character's fascinating depths, while giving Mystique nothing to do but exposition and the occasional punch. Only McAvoy gets some actual acting to do, and his part is shortchanged by being stuck on a rock on the outskirts of Cairo for half of the runtime, in the company of Isaac's Apocalypse, who looks like a Luchador, and who exhibits none of the amoral, sinister menace that the comic character evidenced back in the day. Returning roles by Rose Byrne and Nicholas Hoult as Moira McTaggert and Beast are equally useless, as the characters in question have been (in one case literally) prevented from moving forward in any interesting way from the previous movie. But the worst idea relates to Quicksilver, whose glorified cameo in the last movie was one of the greatest things ever committed to film, and for whom the filmmakers had so few ideas that they simply repeat it, almost shot for shot, in this one. The decision to upgrade this character to a supporting cast member could have been fine, if they had bothered to give him any sort of developmental arc. But this is not the movie for such things.

And why not? Because X-Men Apocalypse is simply bloated with too goddamn many characters, and I say that in full recollection of my praise for Avengers 2, which had nearly as many. In addition to all of the returning cast, we have Psylocke, Storm, Nightcrawler, Angel, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Jubilee, Colonel Stryker, to say nothing of the obligatory Wolverine cameo shoehorned into the movie in one of the most transparently crowbarred sequences of recent memory. Attempts are made to give some of these characters life, with mixed results. Former child-star Kodi Smit-McPhee actually does a very serviceable job as my favorite blue German teleporting mutant (Nightcrawler, for those plebeians who don't know), while Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) is just embarrassingly unable to embody Jean Grey at all. But ultimately it doesn't matter if any of these actors are able to portray their characters well, because the film gives us so little of substance with any of them. They could all be played by actors of the pedigrees of Lawrence Olivier and Peter O'Toole, and it would likely make very little difference.

Ultimately, I didn't hate X-Men Apocalypse, but it hardly represents what I had in mind when I saw the ending to Days of Future Past. And while I refuse to punish a film for not enacting my exact desires in front of me, I also refuse to have mercy for a film that fails to enact anything of substance whatsoever.

Final Score:  4.5/10



Alternate Title:  Art from Adversity

One sentence synopsis:   Disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner attempts to make a comeback by running for Mayor of New York when another scandal hits him.

The Verdict:  If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never forget Anthony Weiner, the man at the center of one of my favorite scandals of all time. Once a fiery congressman from New York, Weiner's promising career was destroyed in 2011 when it came out that he had been texting pictures of his penis to random women on the internet. The combination of transgression and name were too delicious for anyone to resist, and some of my favorite headlines of all time resulted from this hilarious debacle. So much for Weiner the man. Weiner the film, however, is a movie made two years later, in 2013, chronicling Anthony Weiner's efforts to stage a comeback through the 2013 election for Mayor of New York. And to document his attempt to do just that, Weiner invited documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg to chronicle his campaign, neither of whom probably knew what was about to happen.

Political campaign documentaries are a dime a dozen nowadays, as every campaign announces that there will be a "behind the scenes" documentary created as they run for office, generally as a way of appearing to be "hip, and with the youths". But the nice side effect of this barrage of documenting is that it means the cameras are on-hand for when everything falls completely to pieces, as happened here. Weiner, you see, was not done with his sex scandal behavior, and midway through the mayoral race, was hit with the revelation that he had continued to text pictures of his penis to anyone with an internet account, including a young woman named Sydney Leathers, who went explosively, wonderfully public with the allegations, a decision which ended with her and Howard Stern attempting to ambush Weiner at his own campaign headquarters on the night of the election, forcing him to take shelter by fleeing through the bathroom of a nearby McDonalds. It is rare, even in this day and age, to be able to watch a trainwreck like this transpire live before our eyes, but this is what Weiner, the film, consists of, the damage control and tearful press conferences, the meetings with shocked staffers and frenzied media sharks, all the glorious schadenfreude of something as stage managed as a modern political campaign misfiring dramatically before our very eyes, it's all here. And things get oh, so wonderfully ridiculous, until at the end, the shell-shocked documentarians are reduced to asking Weiner, in something of a sympathetic tone, "why did you let us film all of this?"

And honestly, it's hard to blame them, documentary ethics be damned, because the fact is that in bearing witness to Weiner and the disasters, all of his own creation, that overtake him in the course of this campaign, one actually begins to feel for the man, not as a punchline or a politician, but a person. A sharp, clearly principled political figure who just happens to also be opportunistic, ambitious, and as dumb as a bag of hammers, Weiner may be a sleazy figure, but over the course of the insanity that erupts in his wake, he starts to feel like a character from a Coen Brothers movie, a semi-coherent guy who fundamentally does not understand why he is where he is, but is attempting in his own way, to make the best of it. We also get to know his wife, Huma Abedin, one of the most powerful people in the Democratic Party, and currently the vice-chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Weiner and Abedin's relationship is... well strained probably doesn't do it enough credit, and feels rather like the arranged political marriage between two up-and-coming young Democrats that it originally was (Bill Clinton officiated their wedding). They speak frankly of having considered separating back when the first scandal hit, and both myself and all of my companions assumed (wrongly as it turns out) that they had divorced in the aftermath. Though they never scream at one another Jerry Springer-style on-camera, there is a palpable tension between husband and wife that feels entirely real, undercut only on rare occasions, such as when Weiner angrily confronts a man who takes him to task for having "married an Arab".

I don't see a lot of documentaries, mostly because I can't stand polemics, but even by the admittedly strange standards of the documentaries I do go and see, Weiner is one of the strangest documentaries I've ever seen, and it definitely profits from it. That it exists at all is a point in favor of the voyeuristic side of political life in this country, something I never thought I'd ever say for any reason. I would hardly call the film a must-see, but for those who have any interest in what it must be like at the center of a maelstrom like the one that Anthony Weiner conjured up for himself, there is no finer resource than this, other than running for office yourself while trying to conceal an addiction to barnyard animals.

Final Score:  7/10


Popstar:  Never Stop Never Stopping

Alternate Title:  This is Bieberlake

One sentence synopsis:   Connor4Real, formerly of the Style Boyz, attempts to recover from the failure of his second solo album amidst fears of irrelevance.

The Verdict:  If you don't know who the Lonely Island are, then open up a new browser tab to Youtube and go find out. I'll wait.

Back? Good. So having sampled the Lonely Island's wares, what would you say if I told you that Popstar is a full on Spinal Tap-style mocumentary which changes out Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne for Justin Bieber and One Direction. Some of you might, no doubt, run screaming for the hills, but those who do not are in for a treat, because Popstar is goddamn glorious.

Andy Sandberg, SNL and Brooklyn Nine-Nine alum, stars as Connor4Real, a Justin Bieber/Justin Timberlake analogue who was once a member of a group called The Style Boyz, which resembles nothing if not the fake boy band that the protagonist of Rock of Ages was forced to be a part of by his unscrupulous manager. Now a solo act with a massive, MC-Hammer-style entourage (including a Unicorn Trainer), the story, such as it is, involves Connor's second album (Connquest) flopping, sparking a crisis of confidence and ever-more-desperate acts on Connor's part to recapture the limelight, of a sort that would be familiar to watchers of reality television or VH1 documentary shows. If this all sounds familiar, then there's a reason, for we're in solid mockumentary territory here, a cross between Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (typing that title makes me want to set my computer on fire), and a Christopher Guest movie. As such, the plot isn't the point. The point is to pillory everything and anything in the music industry, which means that the only question that matters is whether the movie is funny or not.

Well... yes. Yes it freaking is. Sandberg is accompanied here by Lonely Island veterans Akiva Shaffer (who doubles as the film's director), and Jorma Taccone, playing his former bandmates, the former of which has become an embittered farmer in Colorado (whose woodworking skills recall Billy Joel's "Classical" work), the latter of which has become Connor's DJ, hiding under a helmet that Daft Punk would reject for being gimmicky. All three men are credited as writers, and fill the movie with blink-and-you'll-miss-it in-jokes and gags, such as Connor one-upping Justin Bieber's infamous gaffe at the Anne Frank house (just watch it), or a quick-change act that ends just about as disastrously as such acts can possibly end. All along there are a horde of funny people in support, from Emma Stone, Bill Hader, Sarah Silverman, Mike Birbiglia (you'll live Sleepwalk With Me down someday, buddy), Joan Cusack and Will Arnett (who tries vainly to satirize something as stupid as TMZ), to an unpublishably huge list of cameos from basically every musician ever, including Ringo Starr, Usher, Pharell, Carrie Underwood, Adam Levine, Akon, Snoop Dogg... there's just no end. Highlights for me include Seal (back from palling around with West Asian dictators) getting eaten by wolves, and none other than Martin Sheen punching Sandberg in the face before running around the room chanting "ATTICA! ATTICA!" The songs are no less awesome, from a satire of pro Gay-Rights anthems like Born This Way or Same Love more interested in assuring the audience of the singer's heterosexuality than any message, to an Insane Clown Posse ripoff called "Incredible Thoughts".

Enough. Suffice to say that Popstar, while hardly a movie for everyone (you do kinda need to understand the modern state of Pop Music to get 90% of the jokes) is a hell of a thing, a short, sweet, rapid fire movie that doesn't overstay its welcome and is worth the price of admission. One can always do worse at the movies than that.

Final Score:  7.5/10


The Man Who Knew Infinity

Alternate Title:  Show Your Work

One sentence synopsis:   Mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan works at Cambridge with English Professor G. H. Hardy during World War 1.

The Verdict:  I want to like Dev Patel. I want to like him because he tries so hard to be likeable, in Chappie, in The Newsroom, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he's just a... peppy figure for lack of a better word, and so I suppose it was only a matter of time before he played the brilliant and eager young student struggling to fit in at the prestigious institution of higher learning that has been seen in a thousand movies from Monsters' University to Harry Potter. Most of those movies have a wise old teacher who takes the student under his wing and helps him achieve his potential, and when it comes to wise old teachers, one could do a lot worse than Jeremy Irons, I suppose. And Cambridge is, after all, the ur-example of stodgy old learning institutions steeped in history. So why the hell not?

The Man Who Knew Infinity is based on the real life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an poorly-educated laborer and clerk who also happened to be an intuitive mathematician of staggering productivity and insight, author of thousands upon thousands of wholly self-made theorems, many of which continue to baffle the world today. The film focuses on his life in Cambridge, after having come to the attention of several Mathematics professors there, one of whom (Irons) sponsors him to come to Britain and revolutionize the world of numbers. In Britain, he must deal with all the usual suspects, racism, overt and shuttered, both by bitter draftees on the streets and sneering ponces in the classrooms, a climate and diet that is like nothing he is used to (if I had to eat nothing but British food from the 1910s for five years, I might try to dig back to India with a spoon), and, of course, the rigid codifications of a system that is not kind to intuitive geniuses, and seems to exist only to put young men in their places...

... yeah, so there's nothing really revolutionary here from a plot perspective, and yet I did like The Man Who Knew Infinity. Not as much perhaps as I've liked some other movies this year, but I liked it nonetheless, for the movie does do a few things differently from the typical "smart kid makes good" films you see every so often. I liked, for instance, that Ramanujan's insistence that proofs are a waste of time being forced upon him by a racist western establishment that doesn't "get" the numbers (maaaan), is rewarded in a very un-cinematic way when it turns out that his primary theorem, which he never bothered to mathematically prove, is completely wrong. Having seen roughly a billion movies where proper testing and academic rigor are treated as the last resort of dopey, smelly losers out to crimp the genius main character's style, I appreciate a film that is aware of the fact that Math does indeed have to add up in order to be correct. I liked Patel in the movie, liked his growth from naive student to seasoned Mathematician, liked the frustration and anger he let himself express (not always in the most productive ways) at the racism and the boorishness he was faced with. I liked Jeremy Irons (but then I always do), and I liked Toby Jones, who is finally given a chance to play something other than a weaselly villain.

There are things I didn't like of course, like the obligatory love interest shoehorned into the movie with a crowbar, or the fact that Steven Fry, who got third billing in the movie, has roughly eight seconds of screentime throughout the thing. But those are minor points. The Man Who Knew Infinity is a decent-to-good movie, and if sedate biopics about men who should probably be more famous are your thing, then I doubt you'll have much to complain about here.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time: We finish off the first half of the year with Part 3 of our roundup.

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