Sunday, December 18, 2016


Alternate Title:  The Thin Eldritch Line
One sentence synopsis:  A brilliant linguist is asked to help establish communication with a race of extraterrestrial visitors before a communication misunderstanding can end the world.

Things Havoc liked: Every so often, someone gets it into their heads to make a realistic alien encounter movie, one that isn't just explosions, monsters, and American flags (not that I don't enjoy those), but one that tries to speculate on what the reaction actually would be if a large group of alien visitors were to appear over the Earth. Steven Spielberg did this in 1977 with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie he opened against the original Star Wars and pulled off anyway. Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis tried the same thing with Contact, an adaptation of a Carl Sagan book from the decade before, that purported to discuss everything from transcendental mathematics to the role of religion in a space age (Sagan was big on that stuff). It is now nearly twenty years since Contact came out, so perhaps it isn't that surprising that Dennis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director whose background includes high drama thrillers like Prisoners and Incendies should decide to take another crack at it, this time from the basis of cognitive theory and linguistics.

... ho boy.
Arrival is a movie that is intended to be "about" something, which is always a scary proposition, specifically in this case about language and communication and the assumptions one makes simply via the context of one's life. These themes are examined, quite literally, through the arrival of a group of seven-limbed alien squids in mile-high spaceships who appear one day all around the Earth and then seem to wait for humanity to contact them. Unable to determine how to communicate with beings this... well... alien, the US army commissions Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a skilled linguist, to study the aliens' speech and writing preparatory to asking them the Big Questions that must inevitably come from such a meeting.

If Contact was a love letter to astronomers, then Arrival is one for Linguists, as the focus is not on finding the aliens (who have, of course, already arrived), but on finding a way to communicate with them, a prospect which is shown to be fantastically difficult, and which demands painstaking work over the course of months to do. I have always been fascinated by movies, stories, or even reality TV shows about skilled people practicing their craft at the highest possible level, and arrival is chock full of enough material to make an amateur lingual-philosopher's day. A standout sequence early in the movie has the commander of the army unit on-scene (Forest Whitaker) order Banks to ask the aliens what their purpose is on Earth, only for her to turn around and dissect all the various assumptions, confusions, and steps that must be taken in order to ensure that the aliens can understand the question, or any question, or the concept of questions at all. Unable to make much progress replicating the aliens' speech, the scientists quickly turn to their writing, carefully uncovering a basic vocabulary in conjunction with other scientists all across the world, each making fractional steps towards the goal of understanding what is going on. It's a fascinating conceit, no interstellar wars to fight, no immediate time pressure (at least at first), just months of labor to try and solve a problem unique in human history.

I mentioned that Amy Adams is the star of this movie, and while Adams is not always particularly good in the various movies I find her in, she's quite good in this one, a confident, professional scholar, plagued by dark dreams and overwork, but without becoming a pastiche of the "mad intellectual" that one sees periodically in movies like these. As the situation begins spiraling out of control, she serves as the voice of reason, always an easy sell for me, alongside Jeremy Renner, in an uncharacteristically normal role as an astrophysicist who serves as the second in command of the effort to understand the aliens. Renner doesn't actually get all that much to do, frankly, but he's a normalizing presence in a film that risks getting very cerebral at times, an intelligent man who is not a linguist, through which the audience can try and make sense of what's going on. Whitaker has a similar role, trying to keep some control of a situation in which everyone is scared, tired, and overworked, while character actor Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire, and last week's Doctor Strange), serves as the inevitable foil in the manner he is best accustomed to doing. All in all, we have the makings here of a fine little cerebral movie, about questions and subjects one does not often see on screen.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately that's not what we got.

People get on my case, on occasion, for nitpicking films, particularly historical films, and I admit there's some truth to that. I probably have a better chance of noticing things "wrong" with a film that is purporting to get them "right" than most, and it is easy to miss the forest for the trees when one is evaluating movies on that level. But there's another way to look at someone who spends a movie cataloguing the various things that the film didn't do right, and that's to recognize that the film itself has failed to distract the viewer in question from the niggling doubts that circulate at the back of his mind. And boy oh boy did Arrival fail to do that. is not good enough, you see, for Arrival to not be Independence Day. Not good enough for it to rest on its own laurels and tell the careful, procedural story that it wants to tell. No, this movie has to be a space encounter film by way of the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking, wherein every shot has to be broken up by nineteen other shots flashing forward or backwards in time, showcasing light shining through a window, or a child's hair, or wheat. It has to be a movie where people say things other than what they mean so that pregnant pauses can inform the audience of the subtextual meanings behind the unspoken words that the characters say or do not say. It doesn't quite get to the point where random voiceovers start spouting poetry about the birds, but I presume that's included with the director's cut. So much time is wasted with just... nonsensical guesswork, the product of a director who seems to be either showing off or uninterested in the material, that it impedes our ability to actually watch what we came here to watch. none of that is as bad as the real problem with this movie, which is that outside our two main characters, everyone in the film has an idiot ball the size of Epcot in their pocket, and refuses to put it down. I don't mind if the response to alien ships landing is panic. Some of that is unavoidable. I mind when the response becomes so hysterical that it clearly isn't there to represent what might happen if aliens landed, but to give the movie an artificial sense of tension. You see, despite arriving peacefully, and sitting motionless and without obvious intent in their various locations around the world for months on end, the panic that surrounds the aliens' arrival only seems to increase as time goes on, until the Chinese government starts to threaten nuclear war if the aliens don't stop... not doing anything? Worse yet, we eventually get a set of soldiers who not only are willing to start an interstellar war, not only willing to shoot their own comrades, but they actually attempt to destroy a mile-long alien vessel with a bomb barely large enough to take out a car. And why do they do all of this? Because Breitbart told them to, and because everyone in this movie is incapable of rational thought, unless they are our poor, benighted heroes, who alone in the universe, believe in the power of love.

Final thoughts:   I said before that I get criticized a lot for nitpicking movies, but the only reason I do so is because some movies don't give me much choice. When I have nothing to think about except a stupid plot contrivance designed to make the director or writer look smart, then that is what I will be fixating upon, and if the writers don't want me to do that, I suggest they give me something else to pay attention to.

Ultimately, Arrival is a disappointing film, not a bad one, but a movie that takes a great premise and great performances and squanders them on a formulaic plot with stupid decisions and self-indulgent directing. Though I would hesitate to call it a failure, its flaws are those common to Oscar Season in general, the sorts of things that happen when a filmmaker knows he wishes to win awards but does not know how to go about doing so. Others may disagree, of course, but for me, I prefer a movie that is about characters I can relate to in circumstances I can understand. And Arrival, for all its high-minded intentions, is nothing of the sort.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  One last roundup to see out the year.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Eagle Huntress

Alternate Title:  Eagle Dressage
One sentence synopsis:   A young Mongolian girl from the steppes attempts to become the first female master eagle-hunter in living memory.

Things Havoc liked: Among the many things that are to be found in this wide world of ours, the Eagle-hunters of Mongolia are among the most awesome. They are men who use wild-captured golden eagles, the largest true eagles in the world, to hunt game, either for meat or for fur, across the steppes and mountains of Central Asia. I discovered that these guys existed some time ago, and ever since then have gone about my life in the sure and certain knowledge that the title of "baddest motherfuckers in the world" was very much taken, and if you disagree, I defy you to find an occupation more awesome than that of riding horses at full gallop across the steppes while commanding a fifteen-pound bird to slay your enemies. As if that weren't enough, every year, the master eagle hunters of Mongolia and Khazakhstan (the borders between the two countries are pretty much imaginary) gather together in Western Mongolia for the annual eagle festival, in which they compete to see whose eagle is most awesome, and who among them is most awesome by extension. A documentary about these men and their golden eagles would be interesting enough, but this film, by legendary documentarian (and asshole) Morgan Spurlock, and Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley, is about a thirteen year-old girl who, in defiance of a thousand-year-old patriarchal tradition, has decided to join them.

Honestly, what else do I need to say here? This movie sold me from the premise alone, a documentary look at an insanely badass girl doing insanely badass things in the hopes of becoming accepted among insane badasses. The girl in question, Aisholpan, thirteen when the movie was made, is the eldest daughter of a former champion eagle hunter, who expressed interest at a young age in becoming one herself, and... well... proceeded to do just that. The movie chronicles a roughly six-month span in Aisholpan's life as she attends school, lives with her family in a yurt on the steppe, and practices and trains to become a master eagle hunter, a process that begins with her rappelling down a cliff to capture a juvenile golden eagle from its nest, and ends with her hunting foxes through the Kara Khitai mountains at a gallop. Along the way, we get to know her family and schoolmates, get to see the life of modern Mongolian steppe-hunters and herdsmen, and watch the famous eagle festival itself, which includes soon-to-be-Olympic events such as Eagle Dressage (I dare you to call it something else), Eagle Diving Speed contests, and long-range tracking contests judged by elder eagle hunters with talent-show placards to show the scores. You cannot make any of this up.

Morgan Spurlock and I have not always seen eye to eye, to say the least, but his turn towards the strange and exotic (as opposed to the revolutionary notion that eating too much makes you fat) has seen me soften my stance on him... at least a bit. This time he and co-director Otto Bell wisely get out of the damn way, simply following Aisholpan and her father around as they capture Aisholpan's bird (who strangely never gets a name), train it, take it hunting and to the annual contest, confident that this sort of material will sell itself. As such, we get a lot of great details, on the details of the family's life, either in a yurt or a broken-down ruin which serves as a winter camp, on the sheer ruggedness of the central Asian terrain, which looks like it should have Conan running across it at any given moment, or my favorite bit, bloopers from when the various eagle-centric events at the competition don't go as planned (one bird gets so confused it starts trying to drag its handler down a mountain, to the uproarious laughter of all concerned). Overall though, the movie is brisk and fascinating, even without the badassery on display, a glimpse into the lives of people that one has little context for and no understanding of, seen in their own terms and in their own time. As such, the casual relationship between girl and bird is what really got to me, the ease with which she and her father handle these enormous (up to 17 pound) birds, hurling them into the air from a full gallop and catching them in mid-dive on a prepared arm. If any of you had any doubts about my earlier claim that these are the baddest people around, half an hour's viewing of this movie will cure you of them.

Things Havoc disliked: A fair amount is made, throughout the film, of the fact that Aisholpan is the first girl to attempt to become an Eagle Huntress in living memory, and that this is in violation of thousands of years of tradition. And indeed, the few times that the movie cuts away from Aisholpan and her family is for the purposes of interview clips with assorted stern, elderly Mongolian men (all wearing spectacular coats and hats) who frown in disapproval and speak about how girls should not participate in the sport of eagle hunting, for all sorts of the usual bullshit reasons. And yet, when it comes to Aisholpan's actual efforts thereto, absolutely nobody seems to have the slightest problem with it.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not complaining that there was not more sexism in the movie. I am complaining that the movie seems to be trying to generate some for the purposes of drama. Aisholpan catches her eagle, trains with it, and enters the premier competition in the world to showcase her art, unannounced. And yet rather than twirl mustaches or argue, the Mongolians running the contest and participating in it seem to regard her as a curiosity more than anything else. She is allowed to participate without seemingly a single objection raised, is judged more than fairly (given the results), and cheered on for her efforts, ultimately successful, at trying to join this most awesome of groups. All credit to the eagle hunters involved, but the movie plays heavily through narration and editing on this notion that the dark forces of patriarchy are arranged against her, when none of them are actually in evidence. Perhaps there was a lot more pushback behind the scenes that we didn't get to see, and certainly the fact that Aisholpan's father is a two-time champion eagle hunter probably did not hurt her acceptance, but the way the movie is shot and thrown together, it feels an awful lot like a bunch of Western filmmakers trying to generate the sort of parochial drama that they assume a traditional culture must be inculcated with, when the culture in question may simply not give a shit. It's not like the Mongols (or for that matter, most nomadic groups) have no history with women taking on traditionally-male roles in war or hunting, but then I'm no anthropologist. What I do know is that a narrator insisting over and over to me that Aisholpan will face tremendous adversity due to being a girl, coupled with us seeing absolutely no signs of this adversity beyond a handful of staged interviews with people somewhere else, does not speak well of the objectivity of the filmmakers.

But it's not like Morgan Spurlock would ever distort the truth to fit his pet theory, now would he?

Final thoughts:  Ultimately though, I'm here to review a movie, not whine about Morgan Spurlock, and The Eagle Huntress is an excellent documentary, with an instantly-captivating subject and plenty of stunning shots of Mongolian landscape, majestic eagles, and the nerveless handlers thereof. For the shots alone, this movie would be worth seeing, to say nothing of everything else we are privileged to bear witness to throughout it. The story, at its base, is fairly simple, despite the efforts of the filmmakers to gussy it up for primetime, but a simple story is no vice, especially not in a documentary. As such, if you can find The Eagle Huntress anywhere, I recommend it highly. After all, if you have aspirations of becoming the baddest dude on Earth, it's only a good idea to see what your competition is capable of.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Amy Adams vs. Cthulhu

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Doctor Strange

Alternate Title:  Mage: The Inception
One sentence synopsis:   A talented, arrogant neurosurgeon suffers a terrible accident, which robs him of his skills, and leads him to seek a mystical cult in the hopes of being healed.

Things Havoc liked: So here we are, fourteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we're still waiting for the bad one to hit.

Seriously think about it for a moment. There are fourteen of these movies. More than Star Trek. More than Harry Potter. More than X-Men, and Friday the 13th, and National Lampoon. More than freaking Godzilla! Somewhere between six and nine more are still in the pipe, and more to be announced, I have every faith. Fourteen movies over eight years, and we are still waiting for "the bad one" to come along, despite the fact that several (Hulk, Iron Man 2) already did! Every time one of these damned movies comes out I go creeping to the theater, unsure if the magic will finally collapse this time, if this is finally the one where it will all fall apart, and have described this sort of nervousness in my reviews for movies as varied as Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Winter Soldier. So yes, I went to see Doctor Strange. And yes, I thought it might suck. And yes, I'm an idiot, because of course it's amazing.

Doctor Strange, in fact, is an amazing movie in the literal sense of the word, and if anybody wasn't expecting that, at this point, then they haven't been paying any attention. Based on one of Marvel's trippiest properties, it is a stirringly-weird, rapid-fire case study in the power of modern special effects and vocal coaching. One of the few films to warrant the 3D treatment, it is eye-watering in its inventive complexity, but as always with Marvel, it's not about the showcase, but the characters, and who better to portray the central figure of this most-American tale, than the most British man in the world?

Hell, it worked for Christian Bale.

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the name that launched a thousand polite stares, plays Doctor Steven Strange, a brilliant/arrogant neurosurgeon (are there any other sorts?) who loses his ability to practice his craft in a split-second's bad decision. Washed up and desperate, he seeks out a mystical cult (relocated to Nepal from the original comic's Tibet to avoid offending the Chinese censors), and receives training in arcane and mystic arts. This is the kind of story that would be completely insufferable if the main character was played by a lesser actor, but Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor, and is absolutely perfect here (as is his mid-Atlantic accent, frankly). The movie rides the line carefully between a character arrogant enough to warrant comeuppance and a character arrogant enough to make the audience want him dead. At moments, Cumberbatch seems to be channeling Sherlock, but just traces of him. keeping the character grounded enough that he doesn't become annoying, even as the movie punishes and purges his arrogance with revelation after mind-bending revelation. Even with my usual hesitations, I knew that Cumberbatch would be absolutely perfect for this role, the way I knew that Robert Downey Jr. Was the only man who could possibly play Tony Stark, and it's nice, once in a while, to be proven right.

But then Cumberbatch is only one element of a larger group here. The rest of the cast includes luminaries such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Karl Mordo, a villain from the comics who is taken in a completely different direction here, the calm, conservative superego to Strange's impulsive arrogant id. I adore Ejiofor and always have, and he excels in a role that feeds him a couple of the best lines, and allows him to do what he does best, which is slightly detached calm amidst chaos and absurdity. Of course, Ejiofor's casting prompted the usual barking of stupid people who were angry about a black man playing a character who was white in the comics, but then I have the same response to that as I do to those angry about Idris Elba's Heimdall, one far too scatological to include here. Additional roles go to the ever-villainous Mads Mikkelsen, whose Kaecilius (that's not how you spell Caecilius, dammit!) is a twisted, evil dark-mage (the best representation of a Nephandi I have ever seen on screen), and who was seemingly born able to play roles like this one. The reliable Benedict Wong (of The Martian) takes on... well... Wong, a character re-written away from racist caricature and into something of a magic drill sergeant (this is an improvement), while Rachel McAdams takes on the love interest role of Strange's surgical colleague, plunged into the middle of a mystical world she doesn't understand. I'm not wild about characters like this, but fortunately McAdams is a better actress than most who are thrown at this material, and sells it well. The best supporter however is Tilda Swinton, who portrays the nameless "Ancient One", head of the magical order endeavoring to protect the Earth against all threats. I jump at any chance to see Tilda Swinton, and while I'm not unaware of the firestorm that erupted surrounding her casting (the original character was asian), I understand the dilemna that the filmmakers found themselves in. Best then to leave it at the fact that Swinton, in the typical old-mentor role, is just perfect, her own natural oddness lending the character a timelessness that it requires.

Steve Ditko, the legendary comic artist that created Doctor Strange with Stan Lee back in 1963, infused the comics in question with a surrealist art style inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dali and Theosophic philosophy (and probably a whole lot of drugs). There's a limit to just how trippy that a conventional movie can typically get (especially if it wants a PG-13 rating), but Dr. Strange pushes against that limit with extremely trippy imagery. The movie's director, Scott Derrickson has a rather skimpy pedigree, having mostly made undistinguished horror and middling sci-fi movies before this one (he was the guy behind the re-make of Day the Earth Stood Still), but it's cinematographer, Ben Davis, is one of the best working, a twenty-year veteran of action, sci-fi, and fantasy movies (among other things), who also served this role for Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron, which as you all remember, were terrible films without any redeeming visuals :). The magic in Doctor Strange is a hodgepodge of a thousand different ideas, kabbalistic sephirot, Inception-style folding space, traditional sparks and fireballs, mandalas, everything you can imagine, and comes complete with a Lovecraftian nightmare for everyone to match themselves against. It's no Tarsem film, but it does carry a lot more mind-bending alienness than most of the Marvel works, which have always fallen over themselves to keep everything as grounded as the subject matter allows. The better to differentiate, I assume.

Things Havoc disliked: I enjoyed Doctor Strange quite a bit, for those who haven't caught on, but of course there are things I would have changed. The film's pacing is incredibly fast, to the point of being rushed. Marvel may have the origin-story-movie format down to an art form, but there are better and worse examples of the art, and this one, particularly given the visuals on display, leaves our heads spinning as we pinwheel from one obligatory sequence to the next. Moments of character-building feel a bit underdeveloped, particularly ones that afflict McAdams' character, who seems to wind up forgiving Strange his trespasses less because he has earned it, and more because that is what this character does at this point in these stories. At 115 minutes, Doctor Strange is not a long movie, and could perhaps have used ten more minutes of screentime to flesh everything out.

There's also way too much action in the movie. I know, it's a Superhero movie, which in turn is a derivation of the classic Action film, but the better Superhero movies recently have thought outside the box where that is concerned. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-man still had plenty of action but were clearly part of a different genre (Space Opera and Heist films, respectively), and if Strange had been allowed to be something more like a travelogue or a character study, without the need to push quite so many fight scenes into the already-squeezed runtime, then I think we could have had something truly special. Don't get me wrong, such action as we get is excellent, varied, interesting, and (reasonably) coherent, and the final five minutes are among the more inventive things that Marvel has ever put together when it comes to final confrontations. But one gets the sense watching it that Derrickson and Davis never really got the chance to make a great movie with the material on-hand, hamstrung by the requirements to make a good one instead.

Final thoughts:   But, that said, they went ahead and made a good movie, in fact a very good movie, all things considered, so who am I to really complain. Doctor Strange is not the best that Marvel has ever done, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the universe at large, and a fine means of keeping the lights on as we gear up for the massive Infinity War explosion due to happen the year after next. Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, and all the rest will no doubt be returning in subsequent films, and I, personally, am looking forward to seeing what they can do once they are no longer stuck in the necessary structure of an origin story.

And in the meanwhile, those of my players asking what a Mage game looked like? Yeah...

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Best Bird...

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...