Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  An Android's Love Language (and Other Bad Life Decisions)

One sentence synopsis:     Colonists land on a planet occupied by a certain android.  Horror ensues.

A Note Before We Begin:  Having recently returned from my trip abroad, I am presently engaged in catching up on all the wonderful things I missed.  But as there have been a handful of movies that have come out recently that I had no intention of seeing whatsoever, I managed to threaten convince one of my cinematically-inclined associates to assist me by seeing one of these godawful phenominal movies that I simply wasn't going to have interest in time to see.  And so, without further ado, let me reintroduce to you all one of my finest contributors and collaborators over the years (and the man who, after myself, bears the most blame for the 2014 Worst of the Year Musical Showcase) , the incomparable Dr. Comrade Tortoise.

A Note from our Guest Reviewer: Hello there!  In case you hadn’t guessed, I am not General Havoc.  Instead, I am the creature (in)formally known as Comrade Tortoise.  A bit of background is in order, I think.  I need to get my Alien street cred out there.  I first saw Alien when I was two, loved the Xenomorphs, and now study vicious predatory and parasitic insects. This naturally means that when Havoc was gone, came back, and had catching up to do, I volunteered to shoulder the burden of a movie he was (justifiably, given Prometheus) nervous about inflicting upon himself.  There are limits to his masochism, ladies and gentle-beasts.

That said, I do things a bit differently.  I am scoring different aspects of the film separately, and providing a composite score consisting of the average of its components at the end, along with final thoughts.  These scores will be in the form of grades, with the final composite score being a GPA on a standard 1-4 scale.

Cinematography and Visuals: A

Ridley Scott is a visual storyteller. No matter what else one might say about his films, they look amazing, and this movie is no exception to the rule.  Every shot is perfectly framed and the CGI is crisp and realistic looking, including the various creatures appearing to and behaving as if they have mass.  This is often a problem with films heavily dependent on digital rather than practical effects (as an example see The Lizard in The Amazing Spider Man) and something that was successfully dodged in this movie.  The sets (physical and CG) were realistic looking and faithful to the original retro-future look of the original film (though with some modern tweaks), everything that needed to remind us of the glory of H.R. Giger did so successfully.

Plot: C-

Here I am defining plot as the overarching story, not the details that comprise it, but the filmed representations of the storyboard elements.  Here, without spoiling anything, it holds up pretty well.  Colony ship, things happen and decisions get made, land on planet, terrible things happen.  It is not especially creative, but it works.  There are no notable plot twists, and everything is pretty well telegraphed.  Probably too well, actually.  I was able to easily predict most of it, including the kill-order of the various characters, so for that it takes something of a hit.

Writing: D

This is where it falls off.  If plot is the A to B to C of a film, the writing consists of the details that get you to the various points.  Here… oh god. The quantity of contrivance and ridiculously bad decisions that get us to the end game is awful.  Just awful.  It literally starts in the first five minutes of the film, with the shit going down that initiates the sequence of events leading to planetary landing.  It is a ridiculously improbable event.  Then the crew decides to do something reckless (landing on an uncharted system that was either passed over for colonization or *somehow* not seen in stellar surveys over the objections of the XO, and that when they arrive is horribly unsuited for manned surveys).  No environment suits. This planet just so happens to be the one planet in all the universe that David landed on… The list goes on and on and on.  In the original Alien, most people made smart decisions except where outright malice or very human concern for a friend came in.  They died anyway.  In Alien: Covenant, people make stupid decisions and you find yourself wanting them to be punished for them.  That said, the dialogue is good, and the way the film slowly reveals just how fucked up David is (even with the bad decisions of those around him) was very well done.  These things don’t give the writing a passing grade, but they do rescue the film as a whole.

Writing: B-

Every actor did an adequate job selling that shitty writing as something their characters would do, for the most part, the performances were competent. If Fassbender were not involved, the score would be a C.  However, he was involved and managed to single-handedly elevate the performance.  His portrayals of David (and malignantly narcissistic psycho AI) and Walter (his Friendly AI counterpart) were perfection. I have to give a shout-out to the sheer terror portrayed by a shuttle pilot as well.  It was… delicious.

Final Score: 2.33, C

This movie scrapes by with a middling C, like so many slacking undergrads who will never make it into medical or law school but who may find themselves in a corporate boardroom or the oval office one day.  It was… Okay.  It had the potential to be a great film, but the writing failures and lackluster plot drag down the actors and the amazing visuals into a film so mediocre it hurts to behold.  “What could have been…” looms large in my assessment of the film..

Final Score (Translated into Havoc's Rating): 6/10

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fate of the Furious

Alternate Title:  As The Rock Turns
One sentence synopsis:  Following a shocking betrayal from within, the Toretto crew must team up with old friends and adversaries to stop an international cyber-terrorist from seizing control of a doomsday weapon.

Things Havoc liked:  Let us now consider a work of high art...

The Fast and Furious franchise is one of the strangest things in film, an action movie series that somehow re-invented itself halfway through and became awesome on its fifth installment. How it did this is a complete mystery to me, partly because this is something that is simply never done, and partly because I took one look at the original Fast and the Furious and noped out right then and there. It took the dregs of 2015's indie dreck to drag me, kicking and screaming, into Fast & Furious 7, where I discovered to my amazement that the series had metamorphed into an action-soap opera involving wonderful self-aware humor, and some of the most ludicrous action setpieces I've seen since the heyday of the 80s. The writing was terrible, the actors sub-par, the plot ludicrous, the movie patently stupid. I kind of loved it. And now here we are, two years later, with another sequel, the eighth in the franchise, and one which has, at time of writing, scored the biggest opening weekend in the history of cinema (a record that is broken every six months or so, but still). Not bad for a movie series where two of the lead characters can't act and the third one is dead.

Too soon?

The Fate of the Furious is a movie directly taken from the vein of the previous films (I assume. Remember, I haven't seen any but 1 and 7). Dominic (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon in Cuba, visiting old friends, when trouble arrives in the form of Charlize Theron's Cypher, a super-hacker/Bond villain with ties to Dom's past (after eight movies, are there people still in existence who do not have ties to Dom's past?) out to do nefarious things for the sake of being nefarious. This is the sort of villain character that we have seen time and again in bad action movie after bad action movie, but this is Charlize Theron, a woman who embodies campy insanity, as a glance at the Snow White and the Huntsman movies will tell you, and she makes it work by vamping it up with icy-blonde dreadlocks and a murderous stare. She joins a cast that by now has passed unmanagably large and entered ludicrous territory (zing!), including The Rock, Kurt Russell, and F&F7's main villain (now converted into a protagonist, like every Fast and Furious villain), Jason Statham. Each and every one of these men are veterans of myriad bad action movies, and know just what they are doing here, from The Rock's larger-than-life personality (an early scene where he coaches a girls' soccer team includes a hilarious bit I would not dream of spoiling), to Kurt Russel's cock-eyed, self-assured arrogance (something he does oh-so-well), to Jason Statham's virtuosity when playing an abrasive asshole (something he is so much better at than playing a leading nice guy). These characters join the "crew", now comprising half-a-dozen members in their own right, even without the late Paul Walker, including Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson (I love these two men so much), Nathalie Emmanuel (who played a hacker character in the seventh movie that I assumed was disposable, forgetting that this series never discards anyone), Michelle Rodriguez, Elsa Pataky, and... you know what if I keep going, we're gonna be here all day, so let's just leave it at "also everyone else in the universe". Some of these people are good actors, some are not, but every one of them inhabits a lived-in role designed just for them, one that fits their strengths and er... non-strengths... just right, with the result that even the bad performances are charming in their own way. This isn't a movie you go to see in order to watch great thespians bare their souls. It's a movie you go to see to watch shit explode and one-liners said.

So who is the ringmaster of this absurd collection of action movie tropes and variable-quality acting? None other than F. Gary Gray, who we last saw two years ago directing the incomparable musical biopic Straight Outta Compton. One forgets, given the critical acclaim that movie produced, that Gray got his start directing stupid, stupid action movies like The Negotiator, The Italian Job (the 2003 version), and Law Abiding Citizen. While I would not recommend you all run out to find those movies (especially not the last one), they are in the vein of this sort of willfully absurd action extravaganza, and fortunately, Gray, as well as long time series screenwriter Chris Morgan (whose other work we shall not speak of here), seem to have found their senses of humor this time to go along with the ridiculous action. One of the secrets of this series' success is just how little it cares about how dumb everything is, and while it's hardly the first action series to give in to the stupidity and just run with everything, Gray succeeds where others fail by playing up the melodrama of everything to truly hilarious levels. Characters cannot simply discuss their feelings, they must weep and wail and gnash their teeth and cast about for scenery to chew upon, so overwrought are they by the soap opera-style drama and relationship complexities that overcome them minute by minute. With a lesser cast, this sort of thing would be insufferable, but Gray trusts his cast to go for it, relying on the good actors (or at least the good bad actors) to carry the bad ones through the material, and the stunts and action to take care of the rest.

Oh did I mention there was action in this movie? Because there is. And it's awesome. Granted, I don't know that anything will top the sheer lunacy that was the climax to the last movie (recall that that one ended with an akimbo lug-wrench fight between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham on top of a collapsing building), but I'll be damned if they don't try. Listing everything insane that happens in this movie would take a hundred years, but standout sequences include one where a computer hacker seizes control of thousands of self-driving cars for a chase through New York City, one that quickly comes to echo the zombie hordes from World War Z more than your traditional car chase. An extended, Mad-Max-style car chase sequence on a frozen estuary livens things up with the addition of a nuclear submarine to the mix, while Jason Statham, in the company of several cameos that made us all howl with laughter, gets to have a brutal hand to hand fight with innumerable military goons while holding a baby in a bassinet. I won't say this is the weirdest fight I've seen Statham engage in (the aforementioned lugwrench fight comes to mind, as does the occasion in The Expendables 2 when he fought off a platoon of soldiers with an incense censer), but it's one of the funniest, as Statham mugs for the baby (and the camera) during the entire engagement, which had me, at least, in stitches.

Things Havoc disliked: I love a good, stupid action movie as much as anyone, believe me, but all joking aside, I don't mistake it for a work of high cinematic achievement. Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez simply cannot act, not like this (in Rodriguez' case, not ever), and I'd be lying if I said it didn't get tiresome watching them try. And the film, in making them share the screen with actors like Charlize Theron, does not do them any favors, nor even when it pairs them with people like Statham and The Rock, who whatever their acting limits, are extremely good at overacting in action movies like these, and thus can't help but show up those in the cast who do not have such skills. This was a problem in the seventh movie as well, but it's a bigger one here, as the soap opera turns of the plot (has Dom Toretto turned on his "family"?!?!) forces everyone to start overacting in a hyper-melodramatic manner, resulting in about seventy billion repetitions of the already pre-established fact that the crew here are a family, and that family is very important when family bonds are strained by familial family obligations of family family family family family. Given that Guardians of the Galaxy managed to set up a believable, fun, surrogate family dynamic without ever once using the word 'family', it's a little much to sit through scene after scene after scene in which characters narrate their own familial relationships to one another in repetitive detail, especially when the actors doing so have no idea how to deliver a goddamn line.

That said, there's nothing wrong with the concept of course, in fact more movies could stand to have a showcase of characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and accents like this, family or not. But if you're going to have a cast this size, then the question of what the hell to do with everyone is going to rear its head, and while the film manages to give most of the cast something to do, there's an unavoidable sense that some people are just here because they're expected to be here. With so much attention on Dom's dilemma and his cat-and-mouse games with Theron's evil villainess, the rest of his crew gets short shrift. Gibson and Ludacris are mostly there to score points off one another and flirt with Emmanuel, Rodriguez has nothing whatsoever to do besides look constipated and growl the word family every five minutes, and a new character, a stick-in-the-mud G-man played by Suicide Squad's Scott Eastwood (because an association with fucking Suicide Squad was what this series needed), is pretty much introduced becasue we need someone to play the handsome generic white dude in the absence of Paul Walker, and I guess he'll do. Even The Rock, whom I adore to death, has very little material in this film, other than a handful of fun scenes playing off his rivalry with Statham. I understand that there's a limited number of movie minutes to go around, but a film that fails to use The Rock properly is a movie that is struggling to invent a reason why everyone is there. I grant that plot is a tertiary concern at best in a movie like this, but there has to be something in it for everyone, or the film will begin to resemble nothing but franchise maintenance, along the lines of the third films from the X-Men and Iron Man series.

Final thoughts:   Granted, I wouldn't quite go so far to directly compare Fate of the Furious with those films, but the parallel did assert itself as I was watching, and thus for all its action setpieces and soap opera plotting, I have to confess that Fast & Furious 8 is not as good a film as its direct predecessor was. By no means is it a bad film, but it feels... limited, in a way that the previous one did not. It's possible that's just a reversion to the mean, or a factor of the previous film being an auspicious combination of low expectations and bad competition, but I honestly think that the series, given its disregard for taste and its enormous cast of quality bad actors, is capable of better than this.

That said, for all my reservations, I do recommend Fate of the Furious, perhaps not as strongly as its predecessor, but strongly nonetheless, as only in this series have I found such a wonderful disregard of logic crossed with an embracing of fun, despite all the efforts to ape it by lesser studios and series. For my part, I shall file this one away as a lesser-but-still-fun episode of my favorite action-soap opera, and wait for better things. Of course, given the fact that Fate of the Furious has just finished making roughly all of the money in existence, I expect that the aforementioned cast will soon have an opportunity to try the whole exercise again. And when they do, I will be there to see it.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  The Princess Diaries 3:  Attack of the Kaiju

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Alternate Title:  Whites in the Film
One sentence synopsis:  A special forces operative with a cyborg body confronts the truth of her own past in a techno-futurist Tokyo.

Things Havoc liked:  Anime is not, by and large, my thing. Oh I've seen the classics, Akira, the Miyazaki films, Paprika, and so forth, but the conventions and cultural stamps of Anime just aren't really what appeal to me, absent a handful of exceptions. One of the biggest of these exceptions, however, was Ghost in the Shell, an animated series (and pair of films) about an anti-terrorist unit in nano-tech-era Tokyo, one that not only included excellent action and cool technological gadgets, but also involved byzantine political plots, and lengthy discussions on the ethics, philosophies, and new questions brought about by the logical extremes of the information age. Though, as I mentioned, the series spawned its own animated films, rumors of a live action Hollywood adaptation have abounded for years. And now they've been finally brought to fruition, albeit in a form guaranteed to piss off a huge segment of the population that would naturally be inclined to see the movie. Well done, you geniuses of Hollywood, well done.

So let's start with what works, shall we?

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Snow White and the Huntsman alum Rupert Sanders, is first and foremost a gorgeous film, stunningly beautiful in sequence after sequence. Much of the credit for this belongs rightly to veteran cinematographer Jess Hall, of Brideshead Revisited, Hot Fuzz, and a handful of other films. It showcases a futurist society in all its splendor and sleaze, but unlike the usual cyberpunk ultra-metropoli that one encounters occasionally in the movies, this one is filmed (usually) in the full light of day, or the sharp neon-tinted glow of a lit night. It's as if Wes Anderson decided to re-shoot a Ridley Scott film, it's that stylistically impressive, with a full color palate and plenty of set-piece imagery drawn, not merely from someone's vibrant (or depraved) imagination, but also from the anime itself. Indeed, several shots and even whole scenes are re-created from the original anime film shot for shot, including a couple of the most visually memorable ones from the entire enterprise, including a battle between a gun-wielding terrorist and an invisible assailant, filmed on a flooded street, and a sequence inside a ruined zen-temple-turned-arena featuring the aforementioned assailant and a walking tank designed to resemble a spider. The color palate is rich and deep and vibrant, with garish imagery that could have been rotoscoped off of a high-quality cartoon, contrasted with inky shadows and stark relief shots. Given that most cyberpunk seems to take place entirely within a New Jersey trash dump at three in the morning during Hurricane Sandy, this sort of thing is a welcome addition to the genre. So gorgeous was the imagery in this film, that I broke a cardinal rule of mine and saw it in IMAX 3D (the fake kind), and was not disappointed, though as always the 3D merely served to not suck the life out of the film, rather than adding much.

There are other matters of use here as well. The score, by veteran film scorer Clint Mansell, is superb, an electro-choral orchestral soundtrack that sets a techno-futurist patina on the entire proceeding. I've been a massive fan of Mansell's work since Requiem for a Dream, and he does not fail to deliver here, particularly during intense action sequences, which are not scored with pulse-pounding thriller beats, but with strange ethereal music, as though the action were but the surface elements of the true depths being portrayed. The actors themselves, meanwhile, vary widely in quality and usefulness, but particular mention should go to Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, who plays Batou, the second in command of the counter-terrorist unit the movie circulates around, as well as legendary Japanese actor/filmmaker "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, who plays the Section chief of the selfsame organization. Asbæk's character is not quite (or at all) the same as the one in the show I so loved, but I've never permitted myself to condemn a film for not being like another film I would have preferred to see, and his portrayal is actually fine, in keeping with the style of the movie this is, a monotone professional soldier and world-weary loner who keeps to himself and watches his teammates' back. As to Kitano, his character of Chief Aramaki was my favorite in the show, an old man whose experience in penetrating political and terrorist conspiracies to get to the truth of the matter was unparalleled. Kitano doesn't get to do a lot of that sort of thing, but he still gets several awesome sequences in his own right, where the movie laboriously reveals that he was five steps ahead of his opposition all along. It's nothing revolutionary, but I just so enjoy watching Kitano do his thing, that I couldn't help but enjoy every moment he was on screen.

Things Havoc disliked: Let's talk about the elephant in the room here.

Motoko Kusinagi, the main character of every version of Ghost in the Shell that there is, is Japanese. Scarlett Johansson, the actor who was selected to play her in this movie, is white. Not surprisingly, this has attracted a hell of a lot of criticism from a number of sources accusing the studio of whitewashing the movie to suit their own racist, or at least mercenary, ends. This is not the first film I've come across that has done such a thing. Both The Flowers of War and Doctor Strange were pilloried for supposedly placing white actors in Asian roles, to say nothing of the furor that erupted over Cloud Atlas. With all three of the aforementioned films, I denounced this interpretation, in the first case because it was bullshit (the character in question was white), in the second case because the movie could not have been made without making a change of the sort (such is the reality of PRC censorship), and in the third because the very purpose of the movie was to break the laws of race and gender. I believe I consequently have plenty of standing as not being some sort of easily-offended keyboard warrior looking to show off my progressive credentials to my echo chamber. And as such, I'd like you all to gauge my criticisms in context when I say that casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusinagi in a Ghost in the Shell movie is utter bullshit.

Forget, for a moment, that Scarlett Johansson is simply not a good actress, or at least is a very limited one. Forget that her vaunted "cyberpunk credentials" are based around a set of godawful movies that start with Lucy and get worse from there. Forget the thin excuses about whether a movie that didn't have a recognizable name at the top of the marquis would appeal to American audiences (because Lord knows the one we got with that name still managed to bomb severely). This casting decision is bullshit because it is not the only one in the movie. Not only is the main character of the film switched over inexplicably from a Japanese character to a white one, but so is everyone else in the goddamn film. The main villain, the secondary members of the squad, the scientists and businessmen at the heart of the conspiracy, everyone with a speaking role has been re-cast from their original race. In fairness to the filmmakers, not all of the re-casts are with white actors, yet somehow, as if by accident, all the characters that have nothing to do with anything, the bit characters that barely have lines or any purpose in the film, those are the ones with black and Hispanic and Asian actors, while all the actual roles, including multiple major characters from the original series/films, all just happen to have white people in them. Trying to play this off as nothing more than a co-incidence is worse than simple run-of-the-mill racism, it's the sort of racism that insults your intelligence while it's doing it.

And you know what's worse? The movie knows all this. Why else would they have basically built the entire plot of the story around the question of Kusinagi's origins, and how it is that she came to look like Scarlett Johansson, throwing out all of the byzantine plots, political intrigue, and cyber-philosophy that was at the core of the original series. Horrible as I found this decision, it isn't in and of itself a bad thing. There are movies (World War Z comes to mind) that have entirely discarded their source material and still made something great, and there is a version of this film I can imagine wherein the fact of casting a white actress to play a Japanese role would be used as an examination of the fetishization of white women in Japan. But this film is written by none other than Ehren "Fucking" Kruger, one of, if not the worst writers in all of Hollywood, and given that Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler still have careers, boy is that saying something. The writing in this film is consequently terrible as one might expect from the pen of the auteur of such works as Transformers 2, 3, and 4, The Brothers Grimm, and The Ring Two. Every line in the film is stilted, robotic, and entirely functional, serving to inform the audience that a certain character is the designated evil business leader, or the designated conflicted scientist, or that the plot is about to enter action section 4b (sub-paragraph nine). An example midway through the film comes when Johansson inexplicably walks into the home of an older Japanese woman, who, without prompting, invites her to have a cup of tea, and talks about how she rarely has visitors now that her daughter, who would be about Johansson's age, disappeared under circumstances that nobody knows about, and how much she misses how she used to do things that Johansson also does. WHERE COULD THIS PLOT POSSIBLY BE GOING, THE WORLD WONDERS?! As a result of all this, the entire film feels flat and empty, a soulless exercise in violence and pretty pictures, where every scene serves simply to get us to the next scene along the painfully pre-established "revelations" that anyone with half a working brainstem will have figured out five seconds into the film, and must then spend the next hour and forty-six minutes waiting for the movie to catch up. We get no sense of the character of the Major, of the villain, of anyone really, for the simple reason that nobody preparing the script had the skill to give them any.

Final thoughts:   Ghost in the Shell is a frustrating film, far more so than it really deserves, to be honest. It would be easy to dismiss it as the product of studio-sanctioned racial games, along the lines of the abortion that was The Last Airbender, or even simply as a low-rent animesploitation flick like Ultraviolet. But the sad part is that the movie does have virtues locked away inside it, namely its gorgeous style and distinctive visual world, one realized in loving, painstaking detail by aficionados of the genre and the source material. Yet all the efforts of a great many talented people have been committed in service of a film that is, when you get past the outrage, simply bad, a victim of awful writing, poor scripting, terrible casting, and hackneyed production overall.

At time of writing, Ghost in the Shell is in the process of losing Paramount roughly 60 million dollars, which is only appropriate given what it is. And yet what gets me is that the nominal argument for doing all of this crap has always been that in order to attract an audience, such films need to whitewash simply to get a big name actor. Leaving aside the question of whether this is a moral act or not, the fact that the movie did this and then lost a pile of money anyway, just like all the other movies that have done this (Last Airbender, Gods and Kings, 21, Aloha) should serve to torpedo this particular line of argument. Of course Hollywood is a place where people need a long time and a lot of failures to learn their lessons. But if Ghost in the Shell can serve as a stepping stone in that particular path, then maybe there was a point to the entire exercise after all.

And if not, well, maybe the DVD version will let you mute the dialogue.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Next Time:  A daring and fearless look into the philosophical nature of man.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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