Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Infiltrator

Alternate Title:  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

One sentence synopsis:    A US Customs Agent executes an undercover sting designed to bring down Pablo Escobar's drug cartel.

Things Havoc liked: I do like the format I customarily use for movie reviews, the "Things I liked" and "Things I Disliked" and so on, but I will admit that recently it's begun to feel a bit more constraining...

Things Havoc disliked: ... especially for movies like this one.

I'll be quick here, guys, The Infiltrator is a bad movie. Not an awful movie, not a disaster of a movie, not a movie that deserves to be written about in breathless horror, or savage, Churchillian rhetoric, just your run-of-the-mill, everyday, mediocre-to-bad movie, the sort that studios push out by the dozens every year. Its greatest sin is being boring and derivative, and taking few to no chances. It did not cause me to doubt the existence of a loving God, nor to consider the pros and cons of arson. It just made me want to be elsewhere.

But what is this movie, about which I assume none of you have heard anything? Well, it's a drug cartel drama about a man named Robert Mazur, an agent with the US Customs Service who, in the early-mid 80s, went undercover within the drug cartels operated by Pablo Escobar. Robert Mazur was a real guy, who wrote a real book on which this movie is based, and for the purposes of playing him and his associates in this movie, the filmmakers have acquired the services of Brian Cranston, who in a daring departure from his previous roles, is here playing a guy mixed up in drugs while trying to maintain his normal, middle-class life. He is joined by John Leguizamo, once one of the most annoying human beings on Earth, and Diane Kruger, as fellow undercover agents, and must go up against Benjamin Bratt, playing the head of Escobar's operations in Miami.

Honestly though, all of the above people are fine. Yes, Cranston is slumming it here (he was doing the same in 2014's Godzilla), but the fact that he can play this stuff in his sleep doesn't change the fact that he can play it. Leguizamo has long-since earned his way back into my good graces now that he's too old to play The Pest anymore, and while Krueger's not my favorite actress, she doesn't have enough of a role to make much of a difference here. Even Bratt, who is about as intimidating as a stuffed animal, is not the problem.

No, the problem here is Brad Furman, director of this film and largely nothing else with the exception of the McConaughey (and Cranston) vehicle The Lincoln Lawyer back in 2011. That movie was decent, but it was decent because of its cast, not its direction, which was lackluster and overshot. The Infiltrator is moreso, even, to the point where its cast cannot save it, and it is not helped by the fact that the film's script, written by Furman's mother Ellen, is a boring affair with no actual energy to it. Crime dramas are inherently dramatic, but they require more than simple A -> B -> C plotting like these, wherein every scene is measured out to give just enough family tension as the strains of undercover work take their toll, just enough veiled threats delivered by a charming bad guy who is doing quotidian things that could be interpretted as nasty, just enough scenes where the main hero must resist the seduction of the life of crime, etc etc. The film trots out the occasionally half-interesting supporting character, like Cranston's mob-connected Aunt, played by the wonderful Olivia Dukakis, but beyond establishing that she exists, does nothing whatsoever with her, and forgets about her halfway through the movie. Each scene, stolen from better movies, feels like it was copied from a "Crime Drama Writing for Dummies" book, all the way through until the movie reaches the end it was fated to reach from the beginning. Roll credits.

Final thoughts:   Apologies for those looking for more thunderous fury from me, but the fact is that The Infiltrator doesn't merit even as much effort as I've put into it already. It is a completely forgettable movie which only manages to stand out by virtue of just how boring it actually is. I was reading articles on my phone at the back of my mostly-empty theater more than an hour before the end, glancing up every so often just to ensure that, yep, the movie was still running.

Movies can be bad for many reasons, dear readers, but the sad fact is that some bad movies are bad simply because they haven't the wit, skill, or guts to be terrible.

Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  A month like this demands some radical changes.  Maybe it's time for something more animated...

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Suicide Squad

Alternate Title:  A Tale of Two Studios

One sentence synopsis:    An elite task force comprised of assorted supervillains is set loose to stop an ancient evil from destroying the world.

Things Havoc liked: ...



Er... Things Havoc Liked?





... ?



... let's talk about Batman v Superman for a moment.

Batman v. Superman sucked. There's really no other way to put it. It was a terrible goddamn film, a useless waste of two, hell three of DC's most important and popular superheros, a maudlin, ugly, disaster, which I hated with every fiber of my being. It had a stupid, needlessly-byzantine plot that made no sense once strung together and was cored around a jar of urine, a directing style that eschewed everything fun from the first movie in favor of a bitter polemical rant against anyone who enjoys superheroes, movies, or life, and a central premise which ultimately pitted a depressed headcase against a roid-raging dudebro for eight freaking minutes before resolving its primary conflict with one of the stupidest contrivances I have ever seen in all my years of moviegoing. I hated Batman v. Superman, and I vented my hate for it in these very pages, denouncing it with all of the biblical savagery that I could muster before announcing that I was rejecting the entire DC cinematic universe wholesale, and that whatever they wanted to do next, I would leave to others to see.

So, obviously, that didn't happen, because here we are. But the reason that didn't happen is more complex than my being a sucker for buzz or a slick trailer (though it definitely does involve those things). The reason that I, in defiance of my previous ban, went to see Suicide Squad, was because it looked... well different I suppose. The rumors that came out of its production that things were not working properly and that DC had decided to re-cut the film to be more like Deadpool were certainly concerning, but it's not like the notion that DC has been having problems making their movies work was a new one, and frankly, I liked Deadpool. With Batman v. Superman, DC's filmmaking seemed to have entered a tailspin, and perhaps ripping off the closest Marvel film in reach (even if it's not an MCU one) was not the worst way to try and pull out of it. Though haters and trolls may say otherwise, I am not against DC in their efforts to replicate Marvel's success. If I was, I would not have stuck with them after such disasters as Green Lantern or Batman v Superman. And so that, combined with the oddball nature of the trailers, the rumors of re-writes, the pedigree of the filmmakers involved, and the fact that several of my stalwart viewing companions expressed some interest in seeing this one, all combined to get me to reneg on the vow I had made not a couple of months before, and go see DC's attempt to get something right this time.

You learn things, seeing a movie a week. Things you might not otherwise have ever known. You learn which actors grate on you like nails on a chalkboard, and which ones are good enough that you'll go see anything if they're in it. You learn how to read between the lines of a teaser or a full length trailer to anticipate what movies have real potential and which ones are just the marketing department desperately trying to cover a flop. You learn that highly-praised indie movies can suck, and that the difference between a good, stupid brainless action movie and a bad one is that the good one isn't as stupid or as brainless as it initially appears to be. Lessons hard bought, the lot of them, some from the collective gestalt of a hundred movies seen, and some from a single moment's revelation after only one. But in all the years and all the reviews that I've done, one of the greatest surprises I've ever had came to me last Tuesday, as I watched this movie, and I learned that Batman v. Superman, a movie I hated with every fiber of my being and condemned in language appropriate for a war crime, was actually the best movie that DC would make in the Year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Sixteen.

Batman v. Superman was bad, believe me, you all heard me rant about its decrepitude and ugliness, but Suicide Squad is, contrary to all reason, logic, and the laws of physics, not only worse, but much worse a movie so bad as to defy description, one of the worst films that has ever been made by anyone for any purpose. Not only worse than its predecessor, but worse than every touchstone of failure that this genre has ever experienced, worse than Catwoman, worse than Barb Wire, worse than Electra and Amazing Spiderman, Batman & Robin and Superman IV, worse than every Fantastic Four movie ever made, the worst superhero film ever committed to celluloid or digital media, and quite possibly the worst movie I have ever seen as a part of this project. A bad movie may bore or annoy you, a terrible film may fill you with frothing rage, but Suicide Squad is so bad as to be numbing, a shell-shock-inducing calamity of a film that left me struggling to form complete sentences. Not bad like Green Lantern, not a sneering idiocy like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad is a systematic, comprehensive failure of basic storytelling, film-making, and human endeavor from start to finish, a movie which, if the Gods are just, will live on in the annals of man as one of the handful of films synonymous with anti-quality, standing in company with giants like Battlefield Earth, Heaven's Gate, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. And yet to scream and rend garments over this eldritch cataclysm of a movie is not sufficient to come to grips with its decrepitude. Instead we must look at what happened and attempt, as might an arson investigator, to determine where it all went wrong.

Movies fail for many reasons, from bad direction to bad acting, but the one that seems to kill the majority of them, and the one that sits like a naked singularity at the heart of the issues afflicting Suicide Squad is the writing, writing so unremittingly ham-handed, so overwrought, so clunky and shapeless that no movie and no director could possibly survive its advent. Lines that could not ever have been a good idea, not even in the vacuum of a table-read, are littered throughout the film like land mines, waiting for a hapless actor to tread upon them. Moments where the cast is asked to exposit actions that the audience has just seen take place, or to tearfully recite some kind of supposedly heartwarming "bonding" dialogue, despite having no setup whatsoever for that statement, could not have been performed satisfactorily by anyone, let alone the flywheels that occupy the majority of this film. And yet to simply call this the result of a bad script or a hack writer is, once again, not sufficient, because this script was written by none-other than writer-director David Ayer, one of the very best filmmakers working, a man who also wrote and directed such films as Fury, Training Day, and End of Watch, a man who knows how to both create and realize not just good but excellent movies. So how could this script have gotten so far away from him as to produce something this bad?

Simple. Ayer wanted to make Suicide Squad. DC wanted to make Guardians of the Galaxy.

You see, for all the rumors about this film being re-cut to take advantage of Deadpool's success, the end result is about as far from Deadpool as it is from Citizen Kane, if only because it has no, and I repeat no humor in it, not even a semi-decent one-liner. What it does have is a desperate attempt to replicate Marvel's "bad people form a surrogate family" dynamic from Guardians of the Galaxy, an attempt so brazen that multiple characters describe the rest of their team as "family" despite having never once evidenced behavior that would support that. While I can understand DC trying to do something, anything to capture even a small piece of the magic Marvel has been using to craft their cinematic universe, the result is nothing but further evidence of just how difficult a line Marvel walked when it came to Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians had, among other things, a cast that was both razor-sharp and incredibly strongly defined, even with one member a mute (essentially), one a cartoon, and another purposely written around the fact that the actor playing him could not act. And yet even with those things, Guardians only managed to make their movie work by armoring it with a thick layer of snark and self-awareness, bending over backwards to gain the audience's permission to be cheesy and schmaltzy when it counted. Suicide Squad, like the DC universe it comes from, does none of those things, attempting to drop a "found family" dynamic directly on top of a collection of gaping-mouthed douche-hats without a single redeeming feature between them, all in the middle of a universe that has quite clearly evidenced its bilious contempt for such notions as human warmth or joy. To say that the result is a tonal clash is like saying that the Titanic was a boating accident.

The actors caught in this suck-vortex suffer different fates, mostly in line with their abilities. Better actors like Will Smith (playing team-lead Deadshot) or Viola Davis (playing arch-strategist Amanda Waller), manage to survive by more or less retreating into their established personas, strong enough in Smith's case that he can simply turn his role into "another Will Smith outing" and get away with it, while Davis switches her emotions off and forces her way through the material as though none of it matters to her in the slightest (this is the correct move, lest I sound critical). Basically everyone else goes down with the ship, either because they are bad actors, because they are stuck in a bad role, or both. Margot Robbie, trapped within the role of Harley Quinn, is one such tragic victim, as her character is simultaneously drill-bit-annoying and Westboro-Baptist-stupid, to the point where she sits and pouts over events that both she and everyone else within a million light years knows have not actually taken place. Joel Kinnaman and Jai Courtney, the Tweedle-Dipshit twins of bad action movies, have no chance at all, and consequently fail just as miserably as they always do, as does newcomer Karen Fukuhara, whom the filmmakers task with playing Katana without evidencing the common decency required to give her a character, a backstory, or even a viable reason to be present at all. The same is true of the other eighteen or so members of the Suicide Squad, each of whom get a generous nine seconds to establish themselves in, nicely conveying the fact that the movie has too many goddamn characters to try and pull off an ensemble piece, particularly since we have never seen any of these characters before now, and rapidly don't want to see them ever again.

And then there's the Joker, oh god is there ever the Joker. Not that we get to see him a lot, for contrary to what the trailers told us, Jared Leto gets all of ten minutes of screentime, is not the main villain of the movie, and in fact, has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, the actual villain, or any goddamn thing. And yet those ten minutes of facetime that Leto gets are more than enough to tell me everything I need to know about this new and updated version of the Joker, namely that he is catpiss-annoying on the level that Jessie Eisenberg's Urine-obsessed Lex Luthor was. The character looks and acts like what would happen if the entire marketing department at Hot Topic were fused together in a bizarre transporter accident, a disaffected hipster affecting pathologies because the alternative would be "conformist". I've long suspected that Jared Leto is an insufferable human being, but he plays this character like he's trying to confirm all of the worst rumors ever spread about him, and the camera lingers on his gold teeth and carefully-selected "gang" tattoos as though the cameraman was bribed by a cabal of his sworn enemies. Insofar as one should hate the villain of a movie (even though Joker is, I repeat, not the villain here), his character is something of a success. Insofar as one should also wish to continue watching the villain, much less so.

All of this seems to take place in a world devoid of anything but grunting shitheels packing heavy weapons and claiming membership in various elite military formations who would, in reality, piss themselves laughing at the prospect of inducting any one of them as a member before kicking their asses just for the fun of it. The film has the customary DC trait of causing major cities to be destroyed without consequence or even concern by the cast as a whole (I speak here of the US government, not the Suicide Squad), only this time, instead of making said destruction at least interesting to see, the movie is so uninterested in the prospect of showing us something interesting that it cuts away from it after a few desultory montage shots. The plot holes are many and cavernous, of course, including a main villain who can apparently defeat half the US army and shrug off direct hits from cruise missiles, but is taken out by a bomb so puny that people standing twenty feet away with no cover are not even knocked over. But the plot holes, as well as the knots that it ties itself into (to the point where I couldn't tell you what the actual plan was for using the Suicide Squad), seem less like carelessness or even stupidity this time than they do the result of complete indifference. The plot of Suicide Squad makes no sense because, on a fundamental level, nobody gave a shit about it, certainly nobody involved in its actual creation. Whether this was always the case, or whether it's simply a matter of the dramatic and brutal editing done to the film in desperation by a frightened studio, the result is a movie where characters find convenient binders labelled "Top Secret Information", whose contents they apparently absorb in fifteen seconds, all while major MacGuffins like a set of sub-dermal explosives injected into the Squad Members to keep them in line, cease to and resume working at what appears to be arbitrary moments, and characters that have been established as being immune to gunfire and rocket strikes not minutes before are suddenly felled by a baseball bat.

Final thoughts:   David Ayer, I wish to remind you all, is a man of talent. Zack Snyder, despite what many people believe, is a man of talent. A good many of the other people involved in this movie, from cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (End of Watch, Fury), to composer Steven Price (Gravity, Fury) are men of talent, as are members of the cast, both of this film and of its predecessor. And yet all that these men of talent managed to do in this case was to produce one of the most staggering misfires of modern times, a movie so bad that I struggle to find a single point to recommend it with. Had I not expended the bulk of my rage at DC with Batman v Superman, this review might have consisted of nothing but incoherent screaming, but as it stands, for all the efforts I've made to diagnose what happened here, I still feel rather like the explorer surveying the blasted ruins of a lost civilization and attempting to guess at what unfathomable catastrophe overtook it.

It should be no surprise that after watching Batman v Superman, swearing off DC forever, relenting, and being presented with this movie, that I intend to see the error of my ways and return to my policy of bothering only with superhero films attached to the MCU. But to write off Suicide Squad as nothing more than a bad entry in a series does not do justice to the transcendent majesty of its failing. This is a film that, by sheer awfulness of writing and acting and plotting, manages to be physically uncomfortable to watch, not because its subject matter is objectionable nor because its cinematography is frenetic, but because one is embarrassed to be watching tripe of this grade, both for yourself and for those forced to participate in it. This is a film destined to be remembered, by me at least, and likely by everyone else forced to see it, a film that will be recalled in hushed whispers around quiet corners of bars, as men grasp glasses of stiff whisky with white knuckles and speak tremblingly of a film they once saw whose gaping void of quality could extinguish the very stars.

Final Score:  1/10

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Alternate Title:  Where Everyone Has Gone Before

One sentence synopsis:    The crew of the Enterprise confront a mysterious assailant who seeks a doomsday weapon with which to destroy the Federation.

Things Havoc liked: As is inevitable with anything related to Star Trek, the 2009 and 2013 JJ Abrams-helmed reboots of Star Trek were... well let's say contentious. I know people who burned their Star Trek collections because of the "betrayals" inflicted upon them by Abrams and his gang of slick iPod-aesthetes. As for me, I'm an old-time Trekkie, Next Generation, Original Series, Deep Space Nine, the works. And as a credentialed member of one of Nerd-dom's most storied fan clubs, I thought the reboots were... actually really good. Not the same, certainly, and not flawless either (especially the second film), but then what of that? It's not like the original continuity shows and movies didn't have stinkers (every odd-numbered film, anyone?). What the reboots did have was casting and writing, with a host of younger actors who did almost uniformly fantastic jobs with the old characters, particularly the trio of Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Bones (Karl Urban). The revised movies were fun and campy (just like the original series), written with tongue firmly placed in-cheek, with plots that did not take themselves overly seriously (especially the first movie), and character interplay that just worked. Yes, the plot of both films was unnecessarily convoluted. Yes, both movies had villains that needed more time in the oven. Yes, there were questionable decisions throughout, but you know what, the absence of perfection, even in a holy canon like Star Trek's, is not a slap in the face to the fanbase. As someone who has seen slaps in the face to fanbases, and recently, I appreciate the difference.

So this time, Abrams has taken a back seat, and the director's chair has been yielded to Justin Lin, a strange choice on the face of things, as he's a man who made one great indie film (Better Luck Tomorrow), before going over wholly to the really stupid side of Hollywood action (Fast and Furious). And yet, when you think about it, Lin is a fine choice for a series like this, one that has always looked to bring back some of the madcap energy and action of the original series, which for all its deification as one of the great cultural works of our times, was also a television show that featured a barfight in every third episode. If Lin knows anything, after all, it's how to direct action, and given that this movie has a lot of it, it's work remarking that the action in Star Trek Beyond is generally (though not tremendously) better than that of its predecessors. Scenes are less frenetic (though still somewhat), with a broader scope and (somewhat) better eye for actually framing an action shot, something important when we're dealing with disintegrating spaceships with wonky gravity, or tesseract-folded cities that taurus-wrap around themselves. I won't call Lin one of my favorite directors or anything, but he's competent at the least, and given the flirtations that the previous movies (especially the first one) had with dreaded Shaky-Cam, it's worth noting the absence thereof.

The cast is back, as I mentioned, and just as good as they ever were, whatever the quality of the material (we'll get to that). Highlights this time are Urban's McCoy, who gets some of the meatier scenes, along with John Cho's Sulu, who actually gets to command things this time, and Simon Pegg's Scotty, who has taken the screenwriter's privilege of giving himself most of the best lines in the movie. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (of Mass Effect), continues the new series' tradition of having excellent Admiralty actors (joining Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller). But the standout of the film is actually a newcomer, Algerian-French actress Sofia Boutella, whom you may remember last trying to cut Taron Egerton to pieces as the Blade-running henchwoman from Kingsman. Unrecognizable here beneath layers of typically-Star Trekian makeup, her character, a scavenger named Jaylah, doesn't actually get a lot to do beyond play the "token tough self-reliant girl", but Boutella elevates the character beyond the thin material, and also gets probably the best action sequence in the movie, as befits someone of her pedigree.

Things Havoc disliked: Those of you familiar with this movie and its cast, may notice the lack, in the previous section, of an actor whose presence, even in bad movies, can be generally counted upon to drive me into paroxysms of rapturous delight. I am referring, of course, to the villain of the film, played by none other than Idris Freaking Elba, and yet his absence above is no oversight, for it is my duty to inform you that contrary to all the laws of filmmaking, decency, and frankly, physics, this film managed to make Idris Elba suck.

It's not Elba's fault. Of course it's not Elba's fault, how could it be? This is the same man who was literally the only thing worth watching in 2013's otherwise execrable Pacific Rim, he knows how to salvage his dignity in an otherwise bad movie. Instead, this is the fault of Lin and Pegg, who decided to repeat the same mistake that X-Men Apocalypse made earlier this year, specifically take the fantastic actor they had gotten to play their leading villain, and immure him within layers of fake laytex costuming and makeup that not only renders him unrecognizable, but robs him of the ability to actually, you know, act. And just like Brian Singer did with the third installment of his reboot X-men series, Lin and Pegg compound the issue here by giving him nothing whatsoever to work with. His character, a warlord named Krall, has no motivation beyond wanting to destroy the Federation because... because sharing and kindness are marks of weakness or something equally stupid. Yes, there's ultimately more to it than that, a lot more actually, but the "revelations" as to what Krall is actually doing are delivered so late in the film, and in such a ham-fisted exposition-heavy manner (I'm reminded of the resurrection-blood introduction from Into Darkness), and leave such gargantuan character holes in their wake, that the result isn't surprise or delight at the cleverness of the filmmakers, as it is confusion and disgust from an audience who presumably came here to watch a story about characters with believable motives and actions. I don't know if this is an editing problem, wherein the arrangement of the material available was simply botched, or if Lin couldn't be bothered to actually devote attention to the plot of his own movie, but the result is to torpedo any possible levels of interest, or god help us, social commentary (this is fucking Star Trek, people), that might have gone into the movie.

And it's not like the rest of the film really picks up the slack in this regard. Indeed, the movie that this film reminds me of the most is Star Trek Insurrection, the Johnathan Frakes-directed 1998 disappointment, whose failings were primarily that the entire movie felt like an extended episode of the Next Generation TV series. Beyond isn't as bad as Insurrection was, certainly, but it has the same feel. There are no real stakes for the characters, despite desperate attempts by the plot to inject some, and the character subplots are firmly in autopilot from where they were before. You know an ensemble film has no real ideas as to what to do with a character when they have not one, but two separate "maybe I should resign from Starfleet" subplots at the same time. Characters like Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are given nothing to do beyond exist and service the plot, interpersonal relationships, even between Spock and Kirk, are sort of left to sit, unaddressed, as though the filmmakers had no interest in them. As such, the movie is left with a script that would probably make a serviceable episode of a rebooted Original Series TV show, if one were to exist. Tune in next week to get some actual characterization, but meanwhile, here's Kirk riding a dirt bike and shooting at aliens as we play the Beastie Boys!

Final thoughts:     Star Trek Beyond is not a bad movie, but it is certainly a mediocre one, and a big step down for the franchise as a whole. While the series has seen far, far worse than this, it does lend itself to questions about just how viable the ideas of the filmmakers are, moving forward. I have my own opinions as to what makes good Star Trek, as does anyone who has ever called themselves a Trekkie, but this... this is not it. This is a mildly-entertaining filler episode that you get through without remembering much of while you're binge-watching the third season on your way to the actual good stuff.

A lot of people hated the first two films of this re-imagined series, and most of them, to my surprise, actually thought that Star Trek Beyond was a big step up for the series as a whole. I can't pretend that I understand why, unless what these people think of as "good" Star Trek, is space silliness with no actual content (maybe they were Voyager fans?). As always, I don't concern myself overmuch with the opinions of other critics, mired in the swamps of bad taste and poor judgment as they are. All I will say, as a result, is that if this is the direction that the majority of Trekkies actually want this new series to go in, then by all means, they can have it.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Brian Cranston, in a daring departure from his previous roles, gets involved in the drug trade.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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