Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

Alternate Title:  The Hero we Need
One sentence synopsis:   Batman struggles with attachment issues relating to adopted-orphan Robin, newly-minted police commissioner Barbara Gordon, and long-suffering Alfred, even as the Joker plans to unleash a horde of the worst evildoers in all of fiction.

Things Havoc liked: Of all the staggering surprises I have experienced in my years of watching movies for this project, very very few have been as astonishing to me as 2014's Lego Movie, a film that seemed like it was to be the children's version of Battleship, and turned instead into the best film of 2014. The reasons it did this were complicated, and likely best summarized by reading the review in question, but foremost among the qualities that movie presented were its sense of infinite wonder, its frenetic pace, and its complete and utter disregard for things like canon and continuity.

So how fares its sequel? Well... two out of three ain't bad, folks.

The Lego Batman movie is a very good film, bordering on an excellent one, a film that is directly in the vein of its predecessor with a similar sense of irreverent insanity and disregard for the super-serious canon that Batman, and other such superhero properties, have built up for themselves. Replete with in-jokes, references, and ballistic-grade visual gags, the movie is energetic, off-the-wall, and a lot of fun, simultaneously the most and least loyal film ever made to the tremendous backlog of Batman's history. I wasn't sure, going in, how in the world you could possibly follow up on something as... strange... as the Lego Movie, but this is hardly the worst idea that they could have come up with. Well done.

The list of voice actors that populate The Lego Batman is long enough to serve as its own review, so suffice to say that the film involves Batman's (Will Arnett) first encounters with such series staples as Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawsom), who in this film are portrayed respectively as a heartwarming orphan in the traditional sense of the term, and an analytics-based police officer who intends to put Batman out of business through the novel approach of actually doing policework. This Batman, who is both entirely the same and completely divorced from the previous incarnation of the character, is intended to be a send-up to the character, a meat-headed dude-bro obsessed with his dead parents and with how effortlessly awesome he is, whose reaction to change is uniformly negative, and whose comfort level beyond the confines of his cowl and batcave is nonexistent. Lest this sound like another recap of Batman v. Superman however, the character is played explicitly for laughs, a ludicrous man-child of undeniable skill whose password in the Batcave is "Iron Man Sucks", and whose butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), reminds him periodically of the last few times he entered a brooding phase (the dates of every other Batman movie ever made, as well as the Adam West Batman TV episode where he danced the Batusi).

Yeah, in case it wasn't clear, this is a movie that doesn't take itself overly seriously, and given the propensity for comic book films, particularly DC/Batman-related comic book films to do just that in the last decade, the result is a welcome change away from the "SERIOUS BUSINESS!" style that every other Batman property has had, to varying effect, since Joel Schumacher gave it up. Early on in the movie, Batman simultaneously defeats his entire rogue's gallery at once, all while singing (and occasionally performing a guitar solo) about how incredibly awesome he is, because he's Batman. That's not to say that there's no heart to the story, certainly, just that the movie accepts that we all know how badass Batman is, and wishes to tell something else about him, something not seen in proper Batman media outside of fan comics. Along with this comes The Lego Movie's wanton disregard for the boundaries of licensing and canon, as Joker, in his quixotic quest to get Batman to admit that he hates him most of all (this is exactly as ridiculous as you think), eventually comes by the services of such luminaries as Sauron, Agent Smith, Voldemort, Godzilla, The Wicked Witch of the West, and the Daleks, not as cameos, but as actual elements of the plot and story. This tendency by the Lego Movie series (recall that the last movie had Batman beating up Han Solo so as to steal a vital component for his impending rescue of the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers) has always been one of the great uses of a master-license in modern filmmaking, and it's refreshing to see it all over again, even if they inexplicably miss an opportunity to have Fiennes reprise his voice-role for Voldemort. Even when not literally robbing the stables of other great properties, the film uses visual gags and even voicework ones to send-up largely every superhero convention in existence, from the Bane and Mr. Freeze voices clearly pasticheing their most famous portrayers, to the Justice League "forgetting" to invite Batman to their anniversary party at the Fortress of Solitude because he's such a misanthropic douche. What's not to love?

Things Havoc disliked: As with any sequel, the question must arise as to whether The Lego Batman Movie is as good as The Lego Movie was, and no, it is not. The reason for this isn't just because The Lego Movie caught lightning in a bottle and that this film cannot possibly replicate the astounding surprise that was its predecessor, though of course there is that. It also has to do with the fact that The Lego Movie's scale and breadth of imagination was satisfyingly vast, with settings and characters stolen from fantasy films, crime dramas, space operas, sports teams, internet memes, Adult Swim cartoons, and the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Aristophanes, all tied together with an intensely humanizing meta-story about the nature of imagination and wonder. The Lego Batman movie does not contain those things, content instead to tell a fairly conventional Batman story, albeit one that is both well-crafted, and unlikely to be seen outside the bounds of imgur or Beyond the fact that vast numbers of villains from other properties exist and are thrown into the story, there is really no hint of the wider Lego Metaverse that the first movie established, and the whole concept of Master Builders or the assembly of ridiculous contraptions out of the ubiquitous Lego bricks is either absent entirely, or surfaces just for a second here and there throughout the movie. There's nothing wrong with that per se, as the film's predecessor more or less said everything that needed to be said on that subject, but it does leave the film feeling much more restricted than The Lego Movie itself did. That puts it in good company with 99% of movies made, of course, but it also makes the inevitable comparisons all the more obvious. The Lego Batman movie is a very good Batman film. The Lego Movie itself was a masterpiece.

Final thoughts:   But at the same time, I have never, ever allowed myself to fall into the trap of disliking a film simply for not being another film, and a very good Batman movie is quite a thing in and of itself, particularly one that is so radically different from all the previous Batman movies we have experienced. As such, my recommendation is that people leave the previous film entirely out of their calculations when deciding whether or not to see this one, and simply try to see the movie as its own thing, an extremely-funny send-up to the conventions and tropes of the Batman franchise and legacy. It may not be a stone classic the way that the first one was, but it is a fine, well-crafted, and highly-entertaining film. And if that's not good enough for you, then you either see way too many movies, or none at all.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Whoa...

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Alternate Title:  The Passion of the Audience
One sentence synopsis:   Two priests travel to Japan to discover the fate of their teacher while trying to avoid the agents of the Japanese inquisition, determined to eradicate Christianity in Japan.

Things Havoc liked: Despite Hollywood being a star-driven system overall, if you're a true cinephile, there are certain directors you simply pay attention to. Spielberg, Tarantino, Aranofsky, the Coens. And high on that list of key directors is Martin Scorsese, a man who has made 24 full length feature films over the course of his career, and been nominated as Best Director for exactly one third of them. Though obviously best known for his crime dramas like Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets, or Taxi Driver, Scorsese does occasionally step outside the confines of his normal routine, whether for whimsical fantasy (Hugo), or for pissing off authoritarian governments (Kundun). So it is with this film, a long-awaited historical mediation on spirituality, religion, sacrifice, and faith, in which Kylo Ren and Spiderman go to Japan to find Liam Neeson.

In the mid-1630, in Macao, then a Portuguese colony on the edge of China, two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), receive word through an intermediary that their former teacher and mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been captured in Japan while attempting to preach the gospel, tortured and forced to recant his faith in public. Both young men immediately decide to venture to Japan to find and retrieve him, while also spreading their faith as best they may, despite all entreaties to the contrary. Japan in the 1630s, after all, is in the throes of the Tokugawan persecution of Christians, an attempt by the newly-victorious ruling parties of Japan to violently extirpate the Christian faith from their shores by any means necessary. So begins an epic journey into danger and faith, of martyrdom by the helpless and suffering inflicted by the powerful. So begins, in essence, Scorsese's attempt to delve into the contents of his own on-again, off-again Catholicism, to discover truths about faith, ritual, and God.

Heavy stuff? Unquestionably. So let's return to the temporal plane with a discussion of what works, and to my surprise, we have to start with the acting. Andrew Garfield has been a hit-or-miss figure with me over the films I've seen him in, particularly the abominable Amazing Spiderman, but his performance in this film is absolutely spot-perfect. Garfield's ability to project college-aged youth-with-confidence through films like The Social Network has never been in question, and in the role of a young priest who has no idea what he is getting into, but strives as best he can to do right by the parishioners he encounters in Japan, he finds the best role of his career, not that that's saying a whole hell of a lot. All joking aside, Garfield has to anchor the movie, and does it very well, oscillating between naivety and doubt as to what his mission should be in the face of the horrific, unending brutality on display from the Japanese authorities towards Christians native or foreign. His character is not a fool, nor blind to the suffering his presence may cause, and his struggles with the dictates of his faith and desire to bring compassion in the form of Christianity to the devout worshipers that cling to existence in Japan, despite all efforts to (literally) extirpate them. Almost as good is Adam Driver, of Kylo Ren fame, whose Father Garupe, another secret traveler to Japan, an equally-committed but more hardline priest who regards the torments of the local Christians as contributions towards martyrdom, and who holds to a hard line against the demands of the shogunate to trample upon images of Christ and the saints. A lesser role goes to Liam Neeson, not phoning it in for once, as a broken priest forced to adopt Buddhism and to become a hunter of Christians. I've said before that Neeson is a very good actor when a strong director takes him in-hand (and there are few stronger than Scorsese), and he manages considerable nuance and conflict through subtle elements of his performance, saying one thing, meaning another, and probably believing a third, or perhaps not, depending on the interpretation. The Japanese cast, including veterans like Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer), Issey Ogata (The Sun), and Yōsuke Kubozuka (Strangers in the City), all execute flawlessly, particularly Yosuke, who plays the perennially lapsing Christian Kichijiro, who constantly fails tests of his faith and devotion and constantly seeks redemption and repentance for doing so. His character is all-too-human, and would make, in another world, a fine subject for a movie in his own right.

Silence is also, above all else, a gorgeous film, with long, luxurious shots of Japanese country and seacoasts. Waves crash against rocks (and Christians), torches twinkle in the bitter darkness of the night, and peasants lead un-glamorous, un-sentimentalized lives amidst fields of tall grass and azure skies. The music is sparse to the point of non-existence, the film relying instead on whistling wind, shifting branches, running water, and distant cries to form its soundtrack. All in all, the film is a masterful work by a masterful filmmaker, plainly the product of infinite care and devotion on the part of one of the great filmmakers of modern times.

Things Havoc disliked: But goddamn is it long.

Silence clocks in at 161 minutes, which is long as movies go, but not impossibly so. The Hateful Eight still had more than a half hour to go at the point when Silence stopped, but despite that, Silence feels much longer, and that's really the metric that matters. The entire movie, absent a few shots at the beginning and some setup regarding the first village of hidden Christians that the priests come to, is basically comprised of two elements: Martyrdom, and gaslighting. The former is by no means Passion of the Christ level torture-porn, but there is just so damn much of it, at such endless length, as this set of Christians are found out and tortured to death while refusing to recant, and then this set, and then this one over here. I know this is the point of the movie and I know that martyrdom is a core element of the Catholic faith. I also know that seventeen separate scenes of "will the villager step on the image of Christ as commanded by the inquisitor or will he refuse" rapidly gets monotonous for anyone not as obsessively lapsed-catholic as Martin Scorsese, particularly when the answer is always "he will refuse", and the result is always "he will be abused and martyred for doing so".

As to the gaslighting, well if nothing else, this movie finally made it clear to me what is meant by that term, as Garfield is more or less subjected to the technique endlessly for about the last two thirds of the movie, as the authorities alternate the torture of Christians with telling Garfield that he is to blame for them being tortured. This may well be true from a certain point of view, and it certainly is historical to what went on (the Japanese authorities, recognizing that martyrdom was counterproductive, told priests that they would torture Japanese peasants until the priests apostatized. Again, it feels rather churlish to blame the movie for including things that it is ostensibly about, but we get the idea very early on in the process, and the terrible indecision that Garfield undergoes at interminable length only holds the interest for so long. And not to spoil the ending, but given that the movie is more or less entirely about Garfield and his reactions to the terrible tortures being inflicted upon him and others around him, the lack of any clear idea of what he (or anyone else) eventually comes to believe about all of this does not make for compelling filmmaking. The Japanese gaslight a young priest for what appears to be months until he either does or does not recant. Which does he do? Um...

Final thoughts:   There's a degree to which movies like this are enjoyable, as one can respect a good filmmaker making a project he believes in, but that degree ended for me quite a ways from the end of Silence, which ultimately is a punishing movie to sit through, not as literally as Passion of the Christ or its imitators, certainly, but in all the ways that a three hour movie with one hour of content in it can customarily be, irrespective of subject matter. The film is acted very well, shot very well, directed extremely well, and scored... not at all, to be honest, but that's plainly the intent. And yet I left the theater in no hurry to watch it ever again, so certain was I by the end that I had wrung every possible drop of interest out of the concept presented here. Still, subjective as my opinions are, I do try to retain a certain level of objectivity when it comes to a movie that is made as well as this one, but there is a limit to how far I can go in my praise for a movie I did not actually enjoy the act of watching. Catharsis is one thing, after all, but boredom is very hard to defend, no matter what the subject matter is.

Final Score:  6/10


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hidden Figures

Alternate Title:  This Week, on a Very Special Episode of...

One sentence synopsis:  Three female black mathematicians at NASA confront prejudice and open discrimination as they work on the Friendship 7 program to send the first Astronaut into orbit.

Things Havoc liked:  Following the embarrassing racial flub that was the 2015 Lily-white Oscars, the Academy, in their wisdom, seems to have decided that the hashtag for their Oscars this year should be "#OscarsSoBlack", giving out assorted nods to films like Moonlight (unseen by me), Fences (deserving at least in the acting categories), and the film we have before us today, the historical NASA/timely tolerance feature Hidden Figures. Yes, this movie, like the one from last week, did technically come out somewhere in 2016, but I do not base my film calendar around such technicalities. It entered wide release in 2017, and a part of 2017 it consequently is. So here we are.

1961. Langley, Virginia. The newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been in existence for three years, and spent all three of them getting embarrassingly lapped by their Soviet counterparts, who have succeeded in putting a satellite, then a dog, and then finally a human being in space, and returning the last one to the Earth. In their efforts to catch up to the Soviets and surpass them by being the first to place a man in orbit (not just grazing the outer atmosphere for a moment), NASA employs teams of computers, which at this time are not machines but job descriptions, men and women of tremendous mathematical gifts who perform the mind-shatteringly complex calculations necessary to launch anything into space, let alone to get it back again in one piece. Among these staggering mathematicians are a group of black women struggling under the prevailing racial attitudes of 1960s Virginia, and American society at large. Among this group are Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a prodigal mathematician and astrophysicist, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a pioneering computer programmer, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a technician-turned-aeronautics-and-space-engineer, and it is about these three women, and their attempts to, each in their own way, deal with the prejudices blocking their success, that the movie concerns itself with.

Leaving Goble aside for a moment, the other two women are played extremely well, particularly Vaughan, who gets the most nuanced and interesting storyline. Stuck with the responsibilities of a supervisor at NASA, but neither the pay nor the title, and confronted with the reality that mechanical computers will soon be replacing human ones, Vaughan dodges the thinly-veiled racism of her own boss (played by Kirsten Dunst of all people), and trains herself and her staff on the operation of IBM 7090 mainframes, all while teaching herself FORTRAN (God help her). A cutting remark, late in the film, following this tremendous effort that she is absolutely sure that Dunst believes (wrongly) that she has nothing against black people is as sharply-written as anything else in the rest of the film, and Octavia Spencer herself is plainly the best actor of the bunch. Other plaudits go to Kevin Costner, whom I have never managed to hate as much as I probably should, who takes on yet another all-American role as Space Task Group director Al Harrison, a man obsessed with besting the Russians in the Space Race. Costner is good at few things, but one of them is everyman charm, and he brings a lot of it to this role as he stoically trudges on with his efforts to get the project moving whatever the cost (it's not as bad as it sounds)

Things Havoc disliked:  I'm sure you can all guess why I chose to leave Goble aside a moment ago.

Goble, the main character among the three women at the heart of this case, is played by actress Taraji P. Henson, who has been in a great many other films and television shows, though none that I have previously watched. Based on her performance in this movie, I'm not about to start. Henson plays the character like a wilting violet, lacking all self-confidence and inclination to raise hell, which is fine in a general sense, but not when the character is going to be called upon to deliver a series of loud, aggressive speeches about the discrimination that she has been subjected to. There is a way, hell there are several ways that a character like this could have been naturally brought to the point where they would make such speeches, but just dropping one on a character not established to have enough wherewithal to speak above a mousy whisper is not one of those ways, and just turns the movie into a set of disjointed scenes fit awkwardly into place around disconnected lesson moments. The same problem afflicts Janelle Monáe, a much better actress with a much meatier role, who nevertheless, in the climax of her own plot arc, has to stop dead in her tracks to deliver a completely artificial speech about tolerance and justice, one that sounds like it was taken straight out of a fourth-grade essay on the subject of why we shouldn't be racist. Obviously I have nothing against the sentiment, but the message in question is hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, resulting in a movie that feels less like a story of people that existed (which it is), and more like an after school special from the Lifetime channel, complete with dramatic, swelling music whenever it's time for someone to give their contractually-mandated speech about tolerance, and the big-damn-hero moment for our leading old white man character, as he demolishes a colored bathroom sign with a sledgehammer, in one of the least-subtle metaphors that Kevin Costner has ever engaged in. Think about that.

And unfortunately, if we try to turn aside from the message work here, there's just nothing else to the movie. 2016 omnipresent star Mahershala Ali has a completely pointless role as the love interest for our main character, one that doesn't emerge from behind that description, I'm afraid. Jim Parsons, meanwhile, of The Big Bang Theory, gets to play the obligatory role of the needlessly dickish racist asshole, something complicated by the fact that Parsons cannot act at all beyond his role in the aforementioned show, and comes across, consequentially, less like a figure of prejudice, and more like an oblivious douchebag who spends the entire movie being periodically astounded and amazed by the fascinating revelation that a woman, and a black woman no less, can perform mathematics! I wouldn't mind if he had expressed surprise once, but after the seventeenth time when Parson's character is astounded to discover that the black woman he disdains has managed to perform a complex calculation, it makes me think less of the crushing hand of institutional racism, and more than Parson is something of an imbecile who needs to be removed immediately from NASA before he accidentally impales himself with a protractor.

Final thoughts:   I could go on, of course, arguing about the fact that the movie gets its facts entirely screwy. NASA was, in reality, a fully integrated shop by executive decree from its inception in 1958, and women were in senior engineering positions, and authoring scientific papers at the organization by 1960, three years after this film is supposed to be taking place. I will not, however, complain about this, because these alterations to history were made in the interests of telling a compelling story, and represent one of the only concessions to doing so to be found throughout Hidden Figures. Admirable though the purposes of the movie may be, seeking to shine light on a subject relatively unknown to the public at large, the execution of the movie is almost entirely flat, pitched at the level of a classroom special for nine-year olds.

That said, it's worth noting that both of the people that I saw this movie with loved it, as did the audience at large, who gave it an ovation when the movie ended. Judging from the reaction the film has gotten, commercially and critically, it may simply be that I'm missing something here. Still, I have to call these films as I see them, or else there isn't much point to the entire project. And while the impetus behind Hidden Figures may be laudable, the movie that I was given to watch as a result of that impulse fails, comprehensively, to launch.


... I regret nothing.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Spiderman and Kylo Ren go to Japan.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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