Sunday, January 29, 2017

Live by Night

Alternate Title:  The Ballad of Stoneface O'Straightmouth

One sentence synopsis:  A prohibition-era gangster juggles morality and vengeance while trying to take over the liquor trade in 1920s Tampa.

Things Havoc liked: The career trajectory of Ben Affleck makes no sense when you think about it. A blockbuster actor who came to prominence thanks in part to the coattails of his friend Matt Damon, Affleck's career was thoroughly and convincingly annihilated over the course of the early 2000s by a series of disastrously-bad films such as Pearl Harbor, Gigli, Daredevil, and Surviving Christmas, until by mid-decade he was reduced to playing 17th-billing in the forgettable Joe Carnahan comedy, Smokin' Aces. And yet despite this, over the next ten years, Affleck dragged himself back into box office and critical prominence primarily through his directing escapades, making Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and finally 2012's Best Picture winner, Argo (which didn't deserve that honor, but was still a very good film). Though he's had his share of critical catastrophes since then (the man was in Batman v. Superman for God's sake), Affleck has re-invented himself as a superb actor-director, such that I've been forced to promote him to the rarefied ranks of directors whose output are automatically interesting to me. And so when he came up with a new film directed by and starring himself, promising guns, glitz, and dames in the roaring 20s, it seemed like a great place to start off 2017.

Plus, it's January, and the alternative was a Shyamalan movie.
In the middle of the gangster-and-booze-soaked prohibition years, Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a WWI vet who lost all sense of idealism in the trenches, desires to make himself a free man by any means necessary, even if that means skating the line between rival Irish and Italian mobs in Boston and across the East Coast. Of course playing both sides against the middle isn't a strategy calculated to work long-term, and following a series of disasters and violent encounters, Joe is forced to choose sides and dispatched south to Florida to take control of the liquor trade through Tampa and up the East Coast, engaging not only with rival mobsters but with the local efforts of the Klan as well, who are not terribly enamored with the notion of a bunch of Irish and Italian catholic mobsters showing up to do business with the Cuban and Dominican gangs who run the speakeasies and smuggling routes. We are therefore treated to scenes of mafiosos massacring members of the KKK, which always brightens the day.

Affleck is a serious director nowadays, and serious directors can attract serious star power to their films. Thus in this movie we have Brandon Gleeson, playing Affleck's quintessentially irish Police Captain father, who despairs of his son's chosen profession, but greases palms when necessary to keep him out of terrible trouble. We have Chris Cooper (yes, Chris Cooper is in this), and Ellie Fanning playing father and daughter, the former a sheriff in the Ybor neighborhood of Tampa where all of this goes down, the latter his would-be actress of a daughter, who falls instead into heroin and prostitution before finding Jesus and becoming a firebrand revivalist on a moral crusade to abolish drinking and gambling, items the mob have some interest in. Neither of these roles are particularly nuanced, but Cooper in particular is very very good, both as a desperate father with no answers but the bible and as a pragmatic sheriff who understands that his town's primary industry is bootlegging, and that accommodations must be made with those who engage in it. Veteran English actor Robert Glenister plays an Irish mob boss with whom Affleck fights an on-again, off-again war, portraying his character like something out of the Book fo Revelations, quoting aphorisms as he scummily prepares to obliterate all of his enemies. But the best role of all belongs to a relative newcomer, character actor Chris Messina (formerly of Argo and The Newsroom), who plays Affleck's partner in crime, Dion, as a womanizing, live-while-you-can New York gangster who accepts the life he has and holds no illusions as to what it promises in the future. "None of these men expected to see old age," he says at one point, shrugging off the killings that his gang has just engaged in. "Neither do I."

Things Havoc disliked: If only Affleck were as good, we might have had something here.

Ben Affleck is not a great actor, but he is a very good actor, which is why I'm surprised to report that he is not very good in this picture, a movie that requires that he play a bundled, quiet man who periodically explodes into displays of terrifying violence. This is the sort of thing his brother Casey, who is a great actor, excels at. Ben, meanwhile, chooses to simply adopt a straight-faced monotone for the entire picture, along the lines of Tom Hanks' portrayal of a similar character in the 2002 Sam Mendes gangster flick, Road to Perdition. And like Road to Perdition, the result is to deaden the film (something I believe was done intentionally in the former movie), save that this time, the resulting tone is at odds with the glitz-and-glamour stylings of everything else going on. Affleck becomes fantastically successful in Tampa, winding up the most powerful mobster in the entire state, meets and weds the sister of the local Cuban mafia (Zoe Saldana), and prosecutes his campaign of vengeance against Robert Glenister's Irish devil, all while wearing an expression better suited to a man attending his mother's funeral. And given that Affleck is both directing and starring in the movie in question, it's not like the film can shoot around him or anything.

The movie also feels very choppy, as if cut down from a much longer, and likely better film. Many of the prominent events of the movie are established in voiceover montage sequences, following which we appear to be in a completely different movie in terms of tone and shot selection. At one point the film is a full-throated gangster flick with action, hedonism, and the luxurious benefits of a life of sin and crime, and then all of a sudden we're in a bittersweet mediation on mortality and ethics. A good movie can contain many elements of course, but this one just randomly seems to shift courses, pulling out of nowhere the notion that Joe is a good man fallen in with bad people, when we've never previously had any evidence of that. At one point, Elle Fanning's character tells Affleck that her father (Cooper) respected him once upon a time, a bit of information it would have been nice to see beforehand in their previous dealings, but which comes as a complete surprise to anyone who has seen the previous hour and a half or so of film. And so we move on, bouncing from one idea to the next, with the excellent actors in the cast doing what they can to make all these shifts of tone and theme make sense, while everyone else just waits for their scene to be over so that they can die offscreen.

Final thoughts:  Bilge Ebiri, movie critic for the Village Voice, said that "somewhere inside the 128-minute Live by Night is a reasonably solid 168-minute movie struggling to get out," and I agree completely with this assessment. Live by Night is certainly not a bad movie, and some of the gyrating elements coursing through it are actually quite decent, but it lacks the sure-handed structure of Affleck's previous works, and feels like a film mutilated on the editing machine into something halfway watchable. Whether that is because the original story didn't work at all or whether it was cut down to meet a timeslot, I could not tell you, but while the resulting film is halfway decent, it's not up to the level we've come to expect from Ben Affleck's directorial work. And that, right there, is a statement I never saw myself writing back in 2003, when I walked out of Daredevil.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Time to look back to a period when 'computer' was a job description.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Worst Films of 2016

2016 was not a good year for movies.  Not the worst year ever seen, mind you, that still belongs to some forgotten hellscape in the cultural wasteland that was the turn of the millennium (1999 comes to mind), but a bad year all the same.  Like 2013 before it, it was a year where the best movies were merely "very good", and the worst movies were absolutely terrible.

As before, myself and my stalwart companion in movies great and awful, Corvidae, have settled down to discuss the worst that this year had to offer us.  Some of the films we will be discussing were boring.  Some were mediocre.  And some were simply too far up their own asses.  But the worst films of this year were disasters of such staggering scale as to rend one's mind to shattered ruin.  Beware, all who enter within, for here we discuss films that should not be named, or heard, or seen.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the General's Post presents:

The Worst Films of 2016!!!

Next Time:  We begin 2017 with an Oscar-winning director's attempt to outshine his more talented brother...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

We made it, everyone.  We made it through 2016.

It was a year of highs and lows insofar as the movies go, and like always, the dedicated staff of the General's Post was here to make sure you had as much support as possible in choosing your films for the year.  And so, as always, we are gathered once more to review the best that this year had to offer.

2016 was an interesting year for many reasons, but in the context of film, it was not a particularly good one.  Not a catastrophic one the way that 2003 was or anything, but a year that, like several before it, did not reach the stratospheric highs that we saw in 2015, a year when two different movies were accounted masterpieces, and several more came close enough to touch.  2016's best films, on the other hand, lacked that perfect quality that truly great works of art possess, but that is not to say that they lacked all quality, nor that they should not be celebrated.  Indeed, this year it is all the more important to celebrate the great movies that found their way to us, the better to appreciate the diamonds that were granted to us among so much rough.

As with last year, my fellow silver-screen-warrior Corvidae saw many of the best (and worst) films that the year had to offer, and so we have both gathered to present our thoughts on the films that were.  The worst movies of the year will come in due time, but for now, hopefully you will all enjoy our little tribute to the best that 2016's cinema had to offer us, for despite their flaws, every one of these films are ones that we shall celebrate for a long time to come.

So sit back and relax, everyone, as the General's Post Presents:

The Best Films of 2016!!!

Next Time:  A bad year for films still yields good movies, but there is a different list to consider as well...

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Alternate Title:  Death of a Garbageman
One sentence synopsis:  A retired baseball player, retired and working as a Pittsburgh garbageman, struggles with his wife and sons as he tries to justify his life.

Things Havoc liked: In 1983, Mixed-race American playwright August Wilson wrote Fences, the third element of what would become his ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle", exploring black identity, racial politics, and urban life throughout the 20th century. The play debuted on Broadway four years later, winning multiple Tony awards and a Pulizer prize, and starred legendary stage and screen actors James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. Ever since then, attempts had been made to bring Fences to the screen, stymied, according to reports, by Wilson's insistence that the project could only be undertaken by a black director (which, given the subject matter, is only reasonable). For this and other reasons, the project languished, even after Wilson's death in 2010. It finally took Denzel Washington, who won a Tony award himself in the stage revival of Fences, stepping in to both star in and direct the film to get it off the ground, and it now stands as the final film of the 2016 season that we have before us.

Though he has certainly been in his share of shitty movies, Denzel is a superb actor, as anyone who's been near a movie theater in the last three decades could tell you. And if this role is inside his comfort zone of "loquacious, outgoing asshole who badgers people", then so be it. He plays Troy Maxson, a middle-aged garbageman and ex-baseball player (and felon), who played in the Negro leagues in the 30s and 40s, and resents bitterly the fact that he was kept from the Major leagues because of his color (though others in the play suggest there were other factors involved). Now a man bedeviled by failure, trying to justify a life of poor decisions to himself and others, Denzel plays the character the way he has so many others in the past, from Private Trip in Glory to Alonzo Harris in Training Day, a man bedeviled by rage and narcissism who masks it all under a cloak of affability and amiable charm. It's not a terribly large departure for Denzel, to say nothing of the fact that he's played the role on Broadway for years, but it's one he's tremendously good at, and his performance here is just as nuanced, just as expertly-phrased, as any of his finer works throughout the years.

That said, however good Denzel may be, he's not the best one in the film. That honor belongs to Viola Davis, who we ran into earlier in the execrable Suicide Squad, and who here seems to be working overtime to make up for that disaster. Davis plays Rose Lee Maxson, Troy's long-suffering wife, who tolerates each blow life deals her with an iron core of outraged propriety and with the support of her local church, and while there's isn't much to that description, Davis herself, playing a character she too portrayed on stage during the 2010 revival, is on an entirely other level here, turning in a deep, painful, nuanced performance of breathtaking stature, an Oscar-grade role if ever I have seen one, blowing everyone else, including her illustrious co-star, completely off the screen. It's not that the film is full of sturm-und-drang (save for a couple of standout scenes), but that Davis inhabits the character with an effortless ease, imbuing it with all of the well-worn life-touches that one might expect to see from a drama aiming at award accolades. For Davis' performance alone, to say nothing of Washington's, Fences is a movie that deserves to be seen, and I expect that snippets of it will be making appearances on various award shows all throughout this coming spring.

Things Havoc disliked: And it's a good thing too, that Davis and Washington are so damn good here, because there's really nothing else to recommend this film at all.

I admit, this is not the sort of movie I lean towards, not because it's centered around black people, but because it's a quotidian, Tennessee-Williams-style family drama, and those sorts of films are typically not my cup of tea, whatever the ethnicity of their participants. 2013's August: Osage County did not get much praise from me for the same reason, despite the services of several of the finest actors in the world (and also of Julia Roberts). And while Fences is anchored around a pair of performances that truly shine, even in Oscar season, its direction and staging are indisputably clunky, partly because of Denzel Washington's rather uninspired direction (Denzel is a great actor, but his previous two directorial attempts, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters are not exactly highlights), and partly because the film is unable to escape the fact that it began life as a play, and as a classic-American-style play at that. Characters repeat themselves constantly in that typically-theatrical style (the one that always makes the film sound like a David Mamet production), something required in a play, wherein one may not be certain that the audience has heard you correctly, but that in a film, with audio balancing and sound editors, just makes your movie stilted and awkward. All of the action takes place around the same two locations, save for a handful of scenes clearly shoehorned into the movie just to break up the monotony, despite the fact that the dialogue does not permit the characters to acknowledge their new surroundings in any way. Maybe hardcore fans of the theater will mind this sort of thing less than I did, I don't know, but the social contract prevalent on the stage is different than that working in film, and filmmakers forget that at their peril.

There's also the question of all the other characters in the movie, who range from passable to... not... passable. The former category includes veteran stage actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, playing Troy's best friend Jim, and who does a perfectly fine job despite his dialogue consisting of 90% exposition sequences and repetition. Mykelti Williamson, a character actor I'm a great fan of thanks to his roles in Forest Gump (Bubba), Heat, and Con Air, has a much more thankless job, playing Troy's brain damaged older brother, whose role is to burst onto the scene periodically and recite dialogue that is oh-so-innocently full of portents or commentary on the prevailing scene. He manages all right, which is about the best you can expect with a role like this. Neither Russell Hornsby nor newcomer Jovan Adepo so-manages, in their respective roles as Troy's older and younger sons. Adepo in particular looks downright wooden through most of his scenes, though that may be a facet of acting opposite Davis and Washington, a task that resembles, in a way, trying to appear to be a skilled swimmer while sharing a pool with Michael Phelps.

Final thoughts:   Fences is a hard movie to review, as its good qualities are so good and its bad ones so forgettable, that one struggles to find a score point for it, but ultimately, any film that contains a pair of performances as great as the ones contained in Fences cannot be a bad one, whatever they happen to be surrounded by. I fully expect that Fences will score a number of Oscar nods this March, and in the case of Washington and especially Davis, I wish them the best of luck in gathering them. After the lily-white Oscar ceremony of 2015, it would come as all the more timely.

As to the film itself, those interested in checking the it out are encouraged to do so, but they should be aware that they are not going to see a movie, so much as they are going to see two superb performances which have been haphazardly dressed up in the typical garnishes of a mediocre movie. But then again, such is often the nature of Oscar Season.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Time to wrap up 2016 once and for all, with the best and worst that the year had to offer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Alternate Title:  Tremble, Little Lion Man
One sentence synopsis:  An Indian boy adopted by Australians after being hopelessly lost from his family, searches for a way to find his original home as a young man.

Things Havoc liked: In 1986, a five-year-old boy named Saroo Khan left his home in the Khandwa region of central India to accompany his older brother to a work site nearby. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he wound up accidentally boarding a train which took him to the Bengali city of Calcutta, over a thousand miles away. Lost, and too young to remember the proper name of his village or mother, he wound up living on the street as a beggar before being picked up by an adoption agency and ultimately getting adopted by a couple from Tasmania. Decades later, the now-adult Saroo embarked on a quest to find his original family, conducting a grueling search using online resources and the scattered, fragmented memories of his home to eventually find the village he was from, re-united with his birth mother and family after twenty-five years' absence. This astounding story is the one that we are considering this week, thanks to Australian director Garth Davies, a veteran of commercials and television shows, who decided to produce a film adaptation of the above tale for his cinematic debut, one that would star Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham.

But we're not going to talk about any of those people right now. We're going to talk instead about a little boy named Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a young child, who was six years old at the time this film was made, and who is, unquestionably, the best thing in the entire movie. I've long held that kids are natural actors, which accounts for the high quality of the majority of child-actors one encounters at the movies, but Pawar is well and truly a prodigy, spending the majority of the first half of the film anchoring it by himself, as he turns up lost on the streets of Calcutta, scrounging food where he can, sleeping in train stations and underground tunnels, and dodging gangs of kidnappers, child traffickers, and sex slave operations (in case you had not guessed, this movie paints India as a wonderful and heartwarming place). It's a tall order for any actor, let alone one who is six, but Pawar does an immaculate job of portraying the innocence of his age combined with a child's intuitive ability to sense when there is something drastically wrong with a situation, even if he does not know what it is.

And it's not like the rest of the actors are letting the film down. Dev Patel, whom I have liked, albeit with reservations, ever since I saw Slumdog Millionaire nearly a decade ago, takes on the role of the adult Saroo, and plays a far more "adult" character than the wide-eyed idealists he's taken on in movies like the aforementioned Slumdog Millionaire, The Man Who Knew Infinity, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (the brevity of this film's title comes as a welcome sequence-break for him). The moments where we get to simply see him as a young man in Australia, though rather brief (more on that later), are convincing and compelling, showcasing more range than Patel has previously evidenced. Better still is Nicole Kidman, whom I've never had that much use for, as her career before this has involved films like The Invasion, Australia, Moulin Rouge, The Golden Compass, and Batman Forever, none of which were particularly good. She is, however, unreservedly excellent here as Saroo's adoptive mother, either when first meeting the young Saroo at the airport in Tasmania (where she sports one of the most magnificent examples of '80s hair' ever filmed), or decades later, trying to keep her family together in the face of mounting obstacles. Kidman has long been regarded as a fantastic actor, but this is the first time I've ever really seen it, as the cloying stupidities of previous years give way to a nuanced and heart-wrenching performance of a woman who desperately wants to keep her family together in the form she has managed to compile it, all without giving way to mawkish cliches that typically surround adoptive parents in films like this. Her reaction to Saroo's obsession with finding his original family, or to his adoptive brother's escalating drug use, centers the better parts of the film's second half.

Things Havoc disliked: Oh I'm sorry, did I forget to mention Saroo's adopted brother? Who is not only a drug addict but autistic to boot? Well don't worry, because the movie forgot to mention him too.

Well that's not really fair I suppose, for after all they did mention him enough for me to include him in this review. And it's not like the character, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is badly acted, as such archetypes (the autist, the drug addict) so often can be. Indeed, Mantosh and Saroo share an effective frustrated-but-fraternal chemistry when they're on-screen together. But given that this only happens for about twelve seconds across the entire film, it is rather hard to form a definitive opinion. Similarly Rooney Mara, so radiantly good in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and so radiantly absent from my films ever since (save for a cameo role in Her). Her role in this one is Saroo's American love interest, but that implies that she has something to do in the film, which she does not, save for the occasional worried look as Saroo fails to speak with her about what the hell he is doing, something he does with great frequency with most of the cast, ignoring everything as he obsesses over Google Earth and searches ceaselessly for his real mother.

And why is he so obsessed? Well you'd think that question would be reasonably easy to answer given the circumstances, and yet the movie never really gives us any indication of what that answer is. Part of that is the fact that we never really get to know Saroo as an adult, he sort of springs fully-formed onto the screen as an obsessive young man neglecting girlfriends, jobs, and family in favor of this all-consuming quest. All well and good, but are we to assume that he has been this obsessed and closed off for his entire life? His well-adjusted circle of friends, his girlfriend, his loving family, all of whom react with worry and concern at his recent behavior, would all seem to indicate otherwise, and yet from what we have to go for on the screen, that's really the only explanation we've got, unless he spontaneously decided one day to become a haunted recluse crouched over a computer clicking on maps of northern India.

And that's really what kills the second half of this movie. Not the acting, nor the story, nor the characters, but the myopic focus on Saroo's search, a process that involves us watching him stare at Google Earth and click, and click, and click, and click. There's no sense of progression, of how he's trying to organize his search, of what methods he's using to try and find his original home. I'm not looking for a forensic geography lesson here (though that would have been pretty cool), but we need something to keep us occupied as the main character spends an hour staring at screens, in an admittedly perhaps inevitable violation of the common screenwriting rule that you never film other screens if you can possibly avoid it. Indeed, so badly-paced is this movie throughout its second half that when Saroo finally does find his home in blurry satellite pictures, a moment that should be infused with genuine emotion falls flat on its face due to the fact that, as far as we can tell, he stumbled into it completely by chance, having done nothing for the last few years but randomly drag his cursor over his computer.

Final thoughts:   It should be mentioned that the movie does end on a strong note, as Saroo returns to India (spoilers are irrelevant with a true story, I should think) to find his original family at long last, but the baffling choices made by Davis rob the movie of the potential to be something truly great. That said, for its strong first half, its superb performance by one of the youngest children I've ever seen act appreciably, and for the generally compelling nature of its remarkable story, Lion retains enough for a conditional recommendation on my part. Given that we're now in January, a time in which the film calendar has nothing but terrible horror movies, worse Christian movies, and the leftovers of last year's Oscar season, there are far greater sins than a bit of bad pacing.

Though I am still waiting for Dev Patel to make "that movie" that I know him to be capable of. If Ryan Reynolds can do it after all this time, surely he can too.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Denzel Washington yells at people.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The General's Post Winter Roundup

And now, one last note from The General

2016 has been a brutal year for my schedule, hence all these roundup posts that you have been seeing instead of more in-depth reviews as per usual. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the base fact is that, at this stage, I've been behind on my reviews for something like ten months. It's time to finally put a close to all of that by catching up once and for all. Here we go.

The General's Post Winter Roundup


Alternate Title:  Insert Rock Pun Here

One sentence synopsis:    The daughter of a Polynesian chief sets out to find the legendary demigod Maui, and to stop the evil force that is sucking the life from her island home.

The Verdict: Let's talk about Disney.

It's no secret that Disney's been on a tear recently, what with animated movies like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia (to say nothing of the work of their subsidiaries: Pixar, Lucas, and Marvel). It's consequently also no secret that I've started looking forward to a new Disney film with more than average anticipation, particularly given the general quality of films this year. Add in The Rock, whom I'm always happy to see, and this one looked like a film not to be missed.

Based around a polyglot version of Polynesian mythology, Moana is the story of a Disney Princess, in this case the titular Moana, daughter of an island chief who dreams (as most Disney princesses do) of the the typical "more", in this case of becoming a legendary "wayfinder", a navigator who seeks for new islands across the breadth of the South Pacific. Propelled into leaving her home-island in search of a remedy for a terrible curse that has settled over it, she meets with demigod Maui, (a figure revered all across Polynesia as a sort of semi-divine culture hero), who very reluctantly joins her quest to destroy the evil forces that have brought scarcity and dearth to her island. Along the way, there are ludicrous, over the top villains, thrilling action scenes, gorgeous animation, a bunch of rousing songs, and an animal sidekick thrown in for comic relief.

So yeah, pretty much par for the course for a standard Disney film. But Moana pulls most of this off well, particularly the visuals, which are staggeringly gorgeous, with a rich, deep color palate and the latest and greatest computer-animated effects for water, storms, and sand. Though Disney's animation style is fully intact, with crisp visuals and well-drawn characters, certain elements branch out into a (fittingly) more Polynesian art style, particularly the animated tattoos that adorn Maui's body describing his exploits. The voice acting, from The Rock, from Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, and from newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, is excellent across the board, with particular honors going to Clement, who plays a gigantic jewel-obsessed crab in the best tradition of Tim Curry in Fern Gully. Action, and there is plenty of it, is high-speed and clearly shot, incorporating everything from Eroll-Flynn-style swashbucking scenes to Hakka war dances performed by warriors confronting evil volcano gods. All told, the movie has everything you would expect to see from a concept like "Disney does the South Pacific", including Alan Tudyk as the world's stupidest chicken, and messages about following your dreams.

So is Moana a triumph on the level of Frozen or The Lion King? Not really. For one thing, the songs themselves, an important element in any kind of Disney film are pretty undistinguished. We've got the grand sweeping "I Want Moooooooore" style ballad, the fun "I'm a Whimsical Character who is Kooky and Weird" pop number, all the standard stuff, and while all of the songs are perfectly workable, there's nothing here to compete with the great Disney animated songs of yesteryear, from Let it Go to Tale as Old as Time to Be Prepared. And speaking of Be Prepared, the one major song archetype the film lacks is a good Villain Song, that time-honored Disney tradition that has given us their best work. Part of the reason for that is that the villain in Moana is a complete cypher, a roaring volcano-god of raw destruction with no personality beyond looking scary and wanting to kill, and while there are plot reasons for this lack of sophistication, it still hurts both the narrative and the song-selection, as we get no opportunity for a great Villain piece along the lines of Hellfire or Poor Unfortunate Souls. Granted, it's not exactly fair to criticize Moana for not being just like another movie, but Disney is a formula studio, and in everything but this, they adhere quite closely to the standard Disney formula. It's good, don't get me wrong, but lacks that key moment that would push the film over the top, either through innovation, or through perfect execution. The pacing is generally undistinguished, with too much downtime between moments of excitement, and there's a certain lack of ambition involved in a film that spends most of its time on a small boat in the middle of the ocean making (admittedly pretty funny) references to Mad Max movies as opposed to giving us a more cohesive world, the way some of the best Disney films have.

Moana is a good film, well-executed and with a trembling eye towards the masses of people who were waiting to accuse Disney of cultural appropriation if they slipped up (some of whom did so anyway, because they are stupid). But it is not a masterpiece in the vein of Disney's last three or four attempts. Unoffensive and entertaining enough, it's a fine movie to go see for a weekend trip to the multiplex, but I do not expect to find people humming its songs to themselves while walking down the street six months from now. Then again, a good film is no slur to anyone's reputation, not even modern-day Disney. And if this is the worst film Disney put out this year (and it is), then that's a hell of an achievement by itself.

Final Score:  7/10



Alternate Title:  Pittfalls

One sentence synopsis:   A Canadian SOE operative and a French Resistance fighter fall in love and marry, only for her to be accused of being a Nazi spy.

\The Verdict:  Brad Pitt is a gorgeous man, somehow more handsome at the age of 53 than he was twenty-five years ago (I stand by this), but he's not a very good actor and has never been one. Oh there's been plenty of movies in which he elevated himself, 2014's Fury for one, but overall he's usually just a pretty face with a narrow range of emotions who is there to look good and eat food on camera. More than one film has been salvaged by casting Pitt opposite someone who COULD act, be it Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire, David Thewlis and B.D. Wong in Seven Years in Tibet, or everyone the Coen Brothers ever met in Burn After Reading. This time, in Allied, a period war drama about resistance fighters, spies, and double-crossings, the filmmakers thoughtfully gave us French actress Marion Cotillard to play the part of the real actor in the movie, a part she is indisputably qualified for. She plays Marianne, a French Resistance fighter who has escaped to Casablanca and who meets up with Pitt's Max Valan to assassinate a German General and escape back to London. Cotillard was born to make movies like this, rich period pieces in the style of Casablanca itself, showcasing the danger, excitement, and glamorous locations of the more espionage-laden sides of WWII. She's so good in the movie, that she almost excuses the fact that Pitt is not, as his typical stone-faced approach re-asserts itself, leading us as the audience to, almost impossibly, wonder what someone would see in one of the most gorgeous men alive. Such is Cotillard's performance that we almost buy the absurd twists that the plot deploys against her, and she almost singlehandedly makes the film work.


Allied, frankly, is not a very good movie, and the reason it's not a very good movie is because it sticks way too close to formula. Director Robert Zemeckis is, of course, an excellent filmmaker, but his strengths have always been movies that stretch the imagination a bit, whose stories are weird and quirky and offbeat, such as in Back to the Future or Death Becomes Her or last year's The Walk. When he tries to make a formula picture, especially one he hasn't written, the result looks an awful lot like this, mediocre films like Cast Away or What Lies Beneath, movies that are serviceable entries in their genres, but not destined to be remembered as anything special. The movie boasts stellar cinematography, but the war-scenes are almost pro-forma exercises in obligatory violence which happen and are then over, the better to advance a plot that, while decently original, is rendered entirely uninteresting by Brad Pitt's inability to emote anything beyond self-satisfaction and blank-faced stoicism. For all the criticism I've heaped upon him in this review, Pitt can act when he wants to, I've seen it happen, but he chooses this film to morph back into his cypher from Tree of Life, which is the death knell to sweeping romantic dramas like this one. The pace is agonizingly slow, even with massive time-jumps to bring us periodically through the war, and the lack of anything interesting happening allowed my historian's mind to wander through the absurd contrivances that the film employs for its historical veracity, such as having British citizens wandering outside during a Blitz raid, setting undercover spy missions in cities months after they were historically liberated from the Nazis, and employing an ending that left me baffled as to just what the plans of all those concerned were. I know that people get tired of me complaining about historical details in every movie set before 2010, but with acting this wooden from one of our leads and a plot that lends itself to soap-opera "twists", there was little else for me to do for large chunks of its runtime.

I've certainly seen worse films than Allied, even ones starring Brad Pitt, but for all the pretensions Allied makes of being an Old-Hollywood-style epic romance, it lands with an audible 'thud', doomed by a bad performance, overdirection, and a lack of crispness to any elements of plot or story. Those with souls more romantic than mine may well find a way to let Allied sweep them away into a realm of danger and romance, but for me, the fundamental lack of anything interesting going on dooms the film to the ranks of those I shall likely not be remembering at all.

Final Score:  5/10


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Alternate Title:  Make Magical America Great Again

One sentence synopsis:    A magical wildlife researcher whose specimens break loose in 1920s New York becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving murder and monsters in the American Magical establishment.

The Verdict:  I was always kind of ambivalent on the Harry Potter films, a series based on books that I loved, but whose film adaptations... varied, shall we say, in quality. There was nothing globally wrong with them or their casts, but my interest waned after a while, and I skipped the last couple altogether, split as they were into two films for mercenary reasons. With the prospect of a reboot (sort of), however, one starring actors I admire and un-anchored to any textual source, I actually re-discovered a bit of excitement for the Potterverse, and found that I was interested in seeing what they had to show me. And so, now having seen Fantastic Beasts and processed it thoroughly, a single thought occurs to me.

These movies are fucking dark.

There's always been a strong anti-authoritarian streak to Harry Potter, no doubt the product of its author, what with children (or other marginal figures) being revealed as possessing simple wisdom, while almost all authority figures are revealed as being shallow-minded, bureaucratic incompetents at best, and outright genocidal bigots at worst, with the former often being transformed into the latter once you get to know more about them. Fantastic Beasts continues that trend to such a degree that I would be tempted to complain about an Anti-American bias if it weren't for the fact that the series has always been just as merciless with everyone else. The Magical Government of the United States may look glittering and inclusive, with Art Deco-styled magical buildings, fedora-and-longcoat-wearing Aurors, and a black, female President whose stylings look like those of a flapper crossed with Cleopatra, but beneath the surface it is a gang of brutal, anti-miscegenation (forget 'mudblood' prejudice, American Wizards are forbidden under pain of death to marry or have children with mundanes), blinkered reactionaries, arrogant, contemptuous, and stupid, who primarily exist to throw obstacles, lethal or otherwise, in the way of our plucky heroes trying desperately to save the day. This is a film where anyone competent is evil, and anyone incompetent is merely antagonistic, and while that's fine, generally speaking, it does result in a rather unavoidable tonal clash when the rest of the film is trying to be an enchanted adventure of whimsy and wonder.

Another thought that occurred to me as I watched this film was that it appears to be a good year for autistic heroes, as first The Accountant and now this film have showcased leading characters that are... shall we say... neuroatypical? Our lead here is Newt Scamander, previously a background character in the wider Harry Potter universe, portrayed here by Eddie Redmayne as either a high-functioning autist or simply the most awkward British introvert alive (it can be difficult to distinguish the two). Honestly, Redmayne is excellent in the role, a committed magical-zoologist with little interest or time in anything else, who has no idea how to interface with most people beyond a veneer of officious British charm, and no particular interest in learning. I suspect most British actors are born with the ability to exhibit charming befuddledness on command, but Redmayne nevertheless goes above and beyond, delivering a performance that's surprisingly nuanced and warm, despite the requirements of the role, even when the Oscar-winning actor is called upon to perform an elaborate mating dance for a creature that appears to be a cross between a rhinocerous and a stag beetle. Behold, the dignity of acting.

Would that the rest of the movie were as good as Redmayne is, but sadly it is not. Comedian Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol turn in serviceable roles, the former as a Nomaj (No-Magic, or Muggle in Brit-speak) cannery worker who gets caught up in the magical madness against his will, the latter as an airheaded Legilimens (mind-reader) with a big heart. Newcomer Katherine Waterston, playing leading lady Tina Goldstein, an ex-auror trying to solve the case, does not. Her character is supposed to be a no-nonsense gumshoe battling for what's right despite the orders from on-high, but she plays the character like a wide-eyed innocent, constantly bursting in on important meetings of the magical congress (called MACUSA for short) before forgetting what she was going to say. The character never gels properly, which unfortunately makes her look rather stupid, a quality I do not admire among my plucky protagonists. Colin Farrel, meanwhile, takes the villainous role of Percival Graves, and he's fine... at least by comparison to your typical Colin Farrel role. His character, ultimately, is nothing more than a teaser for other movies to come, though how this is accomplished is obviously something I shall not be describing here. The rest of the plot, which involves among other things a group of neo-Salemite witch-burners, child abuse, a newspaper magnate played by Jon Voight, and his son, a normal, non-magical Senator, is confusing and belabored, with Deus Ex Machinas liberally strewn throughout for whenever the writers get themselves in trouble and have no idea how to resolve things. It's nothing horrific, and it doesn't rob the film of all of its charm, but it takes a big enough bite out to be noticeable.

Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a decent enough film, one that has enough imagination, whimsy, and hammer-handed political allegory to satisfy any die-hard Harry Potter fan. But I doubt seriously it's going to convert too many fence-riders to jump one way or the other, especially not given some of the promises it makes regarding the sequels to come... but then that would be telling ;)

Final Score:  6/10


Manchester by the Sea

Alternate Title:  Broken People Living Marginal Lives

One sentence synopsis:   A janitor moves home to the New England town he grew up in after his brother dies, and finds he must take care of his now-teenage nephew.

The Verdict:  Oh goody, another movie with universal critical acclaim! Surely this won't turn out to be an epochal disaster like Leviathan, Under the Skin, The Railway Man, White God, or Elysium!

One of the (few) bright spots at the movies this year was February's underrated crime flick Triple 9, a movie that aspired to be a modern-day version of the classic 1995 Michael Mann thriller Heat, and came closer than I, for one, thought it had any chance of. Triple 9 had a bunch of very good actors in it, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Michael K. Williams, and the reason we're here today, a fine actor whom I've been following for several years now, Casey Affleck, younger brother of Ben. Far from being a hanger-on riding the coattails of his more famous brother, Casey has spent the last decade or two proving that, if anything, he is the more talented of the two (at least when it comes to acting), in a host of recent movies including Out of the Furnace, Gone Baby Gone, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck's signature has long been playing quiet men on the edge of a psychotic break, and thus we come to his character here, a janitor.

Somewhere in the less scenic parts of New England, Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a custodian for an apartment complex, living alone with his beer and guilt following horrific events which destroyed his life, marriage, and family. Summoned back to his old hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea (Title call!) by the death of his brother (King Kong and Argo's Kyle Chandler), he discovers that he's been named the custodian of his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and must now uproot his life to deal with the thousand-and-one things that must happen when a loved one dies, arranging a funeral, reading the will, settling probate, etc, while also somehow figuring out how to take care of a sixteen year old whose father is dead and whose mother is a recovering drug addict uninvolved in her son's life.

And that's... really all there is to Manchester by the Sea, a quiet movie about damaged people living out their lives that is almost militantly non-histrionic. Apart from the occasional snap of bar-and-beer-induced violence, nothing really "happens" in the film, no formulas, no character arcs, no dramatic speeches or fights in crashing thunderstorms (I'm looking at you, The Judge). Affleck plays the movie very close to the chest, walking through the film as though in a daze, a man whose fires for life burned out a long time ago and will not be rekindled by any Disney-esque magic of last-second reconciliation or forgiveness. Hedges, meanwhile, plays a very adult sort of teenager, who deals with his father's death by not dealing with it, by and large, continuing his life with his friends, multiple girlfriends, sports and school while only occasionally giving into the emotions that the sudden loss of his father are generating. The movie goes so far out of its way to avoid histrionics or any form of formula that it quite perversely begins to feel incredibly depressing and dour, as if the filmmakers thought Biutiful was a good movie, but needed more charmlessness and depression. It's a skilled production, drawing emotional resonance from minimalist performances and eschewing all of the conventional story beats we might expect with a film like this, but goddamn is it a downer. Not that I have anything against non-saccharine movies, but the relentless mundanity of these broken people's lives as they manage to cobble themselves together and continue on with their empty existences is not an experience I recommend for those looking to be taken away from their problems for a couple of hours at the movies.

Manchester by the Sea is one of those films whose quality is entirely divorced from my enjoyment of it, a well made film that I have absolutely no need to see again. Darling of the critical circuit as it has quickly become, it may well generate the Palme d'Or's and Golden Globes and other such awards it was obviously created to generate, but it has little to offer anyone who isn't an admirer of the technical qualities of filmmaking. And though I do indeed admire both it and Affleck for their evident skills in piecing a defiantly non-traditional movie like this one together at all, the film experience is simply not one I'm in any hurry to repeat.

Final Score:  6.5/10


Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story

Alternate Title:  Sound and Fury

One sentence synopsis:   The daughter of the designer of the Death Star joins a high-risk rebel operation to locate him and stop the Empire from bringing the station online.

The Verdict:  *Sigh*





No, I'm sorry guys, I can't do it.

I love Star Wars. Everyone loves Star Wars for god's sake, and I love it right along side them. I love the originals, I love the games, the RPGs, the new Disney series and the fun that is to be had therewith. Forty years on and with countless imitators in its wake, and it's still the only science-fantasy franchise that's worth a damn, one that covers every style and every genre of storytelling from noir to high fantasy to space opera to classical tragedy across the board. I can even say some good things about the Prequels if you force me to. So of course, I went to see Rogue One, with high expectations. And of course in some regards those expectations were met. But... no, I just can't geek out over this one the way I really want to because the base fact is that the movie isn't very good.

Look, I see why everyone loves it. I'm not stupid. It has wonderful spectacle to it, something Star Wars even at its nadir has usually done quite well. The film takes place on half a dozen different wlldly-different planets, each with its own lush and rich cinematographic possibilities to offer, from a stony-desert world that looked chiselled out of Monument Valley, to a rainy riot of buttresses and adamantine cliffs, to a tropical paradise-world-turned military installation whose shot inspirations seem drawn from WWII's Pacific Front (and which was apparently filmed in the Maldive Islands). Certain shots come straight out of an epic war or fantasy movie, such as that of AT-AT walkers laboriously advancing through the dust and smoke of a battlefield, toppling palm trees as they crash through their cover. In a world where everything is shot either in the stark Bruckheimer/Bay contrasts of Blue-and-Orange, or in washed out, dust-impregnated brown, this film gives us vibrant colors and gorgeous setpieces to go with the lived-in feel that Star Wars has always excelled in. Battles, and there are several, are spectacular affairs, combined-arms showcases of space and air and land all rolled into one, to say nothing of a truly epic rendition of just what happens when a Death Star is used... sparingly. Die-hard aficionados of the originals will find piles of easter eggs, references, in-jokes, and subtle (and less subtle) callbacks to the original series, enough to keep the internet spinning for years, and all of this wrapped up in a story that is much more adult in feel than the movies of yesteryear, filled with rebels who not only shoot first but actively feel like the terrorists that they must be, in actuality, all without sacrificing the essential good-vs-evil dynamic that the Star Wars films are cored around.

So what's missing? character.

Rogue One is a movie with an enormous, almost labyrinthine plot, involving multiple rebel groups and cells, political maneuvering on several levels, reunions, betrayals, battle plans and lengthy engagements, and to its credit it handles all of those things quite well, even when it has to spend the first ten minutes of the film establishing about half a dozen different planets that we will eventually be visiting. The problem isn't the plot, it's that it has to do all of those things while also establishing nine different major characters, none of whom we know anything about going in (save for those who have been watching the cartoon series), all in a runtime of less than two-and-a-quarter hours. It's not that the movie fails in its attempts to characterize these people, it's that characterizing that many people and that much plot in that short a run-time is impossible. As such, we get the briefest introduction to each character before plunging them into another battle or plot point, with the predictable effect that almost all of them are complete cyphers, robbing the film of the emotional core that the best Star Wars movies have. As always, a lack of characterization throws the job of generating interest onto the actors themselves, who accomplish their impossible task to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Veteran character actor Ben Mendelsohn, of whom I have always been a great fan, pulls it off, playing Death Star project director Orson Krennic as a driven man who's life's work is finally approaching fruition and who is stymied on all sides by incompetence, political underhandedness, and the rebels (in that order), who does not understand why things can never go smoothly, and why the disasters that befall his pet project must continuously happen to him. Nightcrawler-alum Riz Ahmed pulls it off as well, playing a defecting Imperial pilot caught up in the larger chaos of the war between Empire and Rebellion, a man trying to do the right thing unable to understand what is happening around him. Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, and Chinese director Jiang Wen all also manage to pull at least something out of their characters, respectively a broken man struggling to redeem a lifetime of failure and deception, a committed rebel terrorist attempting to ensure that the horrors he has perpetrated have meaning, and a stoic badass with a gigantic machinegun (this is Star Wars), as does Alan Tudyk, as the voice of the comic-relief droid, a world-weary cynic who does what he must. But unfortunately, one who does not pull it off is Felicity Jones, star of the movie, whose character of Jyn Erso has no character whatsoever, a plot device at best who goes along with the flow of the movie until it's time for the script-demanded "big rousing speech" that the movie has entirely failed to earn. Forest Whitaker, meanwhile, tries to escape into weirdness, playing a gasping, throaty lunatic of a rebel fighter. One is reminded, with this character, of Episode III's General Grevious, a villain that popped up out of nowhere to command a central role that had not been established, due to the character having been first created in one of the TV shows. Leaving aside the question of this sort of practice, the character is a complete non-entity, who plays no role but exposition before being summarily dumped in favor of more plot.

Rogue One is not a terrible movie, nor a bad one, but in defiance of all those saying otherwise, it is my solemn duty to report that it is a fairly mediocre one, certainly not a disaster on the scale of the Prequels, but nowhere near the equal of the originals, nor of last year's Episode VII. It is, to me at least, proof positive that Star Wars' strengths, particularly in the modern day, do not rely solely on Empty Spectacle, as some overly-serious critics might imply. Here, after all, is a movie that is largely nothing except Empty Spectacle, and it does not equal the warmth and glory of the predecessors, not even with a bevy of decent-to-good actors at its service.

But then, surely the Prequels already told us that much.

Final Score:  5.5/10


La La Land

Alternate Title:  Streetlight People

One sentence synopsis:   An aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz piano player find love and follow their dreams in Los Angeles.

The Verdict:  I feel like I've done you guys a disservice this year. I'm not talking about the irregular schedule I've had, for that was unavoidable given my other commitments. I'm talking instead about my selection of movies for 2016. All year I've been beating the drum of the fact that 2016's movies have been godawful, on average and in summation, and it's true that if you look over the reviews I've laid down this year, that's certainly reflected in the score. However, it wasn't until a number of other critics started releasing their year-end best lists (mine are coming, don't worry), that I began to realize that what was wrong with this year might not have been the movies, but my taste in them. Most of the films people were citing as the best of the year, movies like The Handmaiden, The Nice Guys, or Neon Demons, were movies that I had, for one reason or another, decided to skip in favor of more mainstream fare, which turned out, generally speaking, to be utter crap. I pick the movies I'm going to see based on purely arbitrary readings of trailers and my own mood, but it's true that after the disaster that was 2015's Indie cinema (Leviathan, anyone?), I turned back to Hollywood's mainstream offerings, in the hope that I would not be subjected to a movie as bad as any of those I saw in 2015.

Well that didn't quite work the way I had anticipated, as the rest of my reviews from this year can tell you. But as a final parting gift from 2016, I decided to do something about this unpleasant trend from the year now fondly departed. And so, bypassing more mainstream movies like Passengers and Collateral Beauty (the vibes of which were becoming quite toxic), I decided to go see a classic-style musical starring a sexy, sexy man.

Which sexy man? Why, Ryan Gosling, of course, who stars in La La Land as a jazz pianist struggling to follow his dream of opening a classic jazz nightclub somewhere in Los Angeles, while dating the equally adorable Emma Stone, who is that most common of all Los Angelenos, an aspiring actress. I could tell you more about their particular characters, but honestly, they're not really playing characters as much as they're playing the ur-representations of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, two movie stars caught up in a glorious musical ode to love and life and dreams and the quest for all three, and god damn are they good at it. Granted, Gosling is not much of a singer, but in all other respects the two of them are just radiant, playing modern day incarnations of the featherweight characters that used to be portrayed by people like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Stone even tries her hand at tap dancing. And given that this is Ryan Gosling, who as I mentioned before is a sexy, sexy man, and Emma Stone, one of the most effortlessly charming actresses working today (and who is also possessed of some of the most gorgeous eyes I've ever seen), the result is a wonderful little movie, thin on plot (though perhaps not quite thin enough) and long on song and dance and heartwarming, occasionally bittersweet, modern fantasy. The musical numbers range from old-style dance escapades that would not be out of place in a Ginger Rogers movie, to more modern ensemble pieces, including a wonderful opening sequence set, of all places, in the middle of rush hour traffic on a highway. It rambles from big band ensembles to jazz numbers to marching-band-and-samba pieces with cameos by John Legend and J.K. Simmons. It's a wonderful movie, in the sense of being full of wonderous things. I enjoyed it more than I have most anything else this year.

La La Land isn't perfect of course, the middle section drags fairly heavily, due to the baffling decision to drop the music for a while and focus on a fairly formulaic plot, but it scarcely matters when dealing with a movie like this. La La Land is a charming movie in every sense, one that is the perfect way to see out the calendar year of 2016, and usher in a year full of, hopefully, better things.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  We begin the January cleanup of last year's Oscar season with a stage-to-screen adaptation starring two of my favorite actors.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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