Monday, December 4, 2017

Fall 2017 Roundup, Part 1

And now for something completely slightly different

Following a sanity break, the General's Post now finds itself with more movies to review than it has time to properly explore. As such, we at the Post are pleased to present a round-up of all of the myriad films that we have seen in the last couple of months. Have at thee!

The General's Post Fall Roundup, Part 1

The Foreigner

Alternate Title:  Patriot Games II:  This Time It's Personal

One sentence synopsis:    When his daughter is killed in a neo-IRA bombing in London, an ex-refugee goes on the warpath to force the political head of the IRA to divulge the identity of the culprits.

The Verdict:  As I get older, and have a wider range of movies to look back on, I find that I appreciate Jackie Chan more and more. One of the greatest Chinese action movie stars of all time, Chan's work as an actor, stuntman, choreographer, and director has always taken on a new dimension of impressiveness when you realize the backbreaking labor and preparation that goes into his many iconic stunts, as well as the insightful and complex film-making philosophy that underlies it. Though his heyday in the States is long-since over, Chan has never stopped working, and in recent years, has been taking on more against-type roles for his appearances over here in the States, such as 2010's Karate Kid remake. So it is that we find him here, in a Martin Campbell political thriller of all things.

You remember Martin Campbell, don't you? The famous New Zealand filmmaker whose credits include Goldeneye, Casino Royale (the good one), The Mask of Zorro, and No Escape (screw you, I liked that one!) Campbell is a generally excellent director, though his star took something of a tumble after the box office cataclysm that was 2011's Green Lantern, and this is consequently his first movie in six years. And for his big return, Campbell has chosen a script that's equal parts Tom Clancy terrorism-thriller and Liam Neeson MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW-vehicle (that stands for, say it with me now, Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women). MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movies like Taken or The Equalizer are not generally very good, but Campbell cuts the rip-roaring campaign of revenge in a couple of innovative ways. One is the addition of the political drama. The plot revolves around a splinter cell of the IRA going back on the warpath, setting off bombs in flower shops and tourist buses across London in an attempt to force the Brits into cracking back down on Northern Ireland and re-igniting The Troubles. Pierce Brosnan, an actor I can generally take or leave, plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a former IRA terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on your outlook), who now faces the dual threat of having his carefully-crafted peace accords destroyed by a league of hotheads, and having his own misdeeds brought back to light by Jackie Chan's dogged pursuit of the truth of what happened. The clever twist here is that Chan's character, a retired special forces operative named Ngoc Minh Quan, actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the political drama being played out, having become involved only through the most brutal of random chances, with his daughter being a victim of one of the early bombings by simple bad luck. It's Quan's very outsiderness that's the focus here, the fact that this whole drama is something he's not party to, doesn't understand, doesn't care about, isn't a partisan of, that sets The Foreigner apart from most films in which this all would turn out to be part of a conspiracy stemming from his own dark past. Quan's only interest is the fact that his daughter is dead and he has nothing to live for but bringing her killers to justice, a campaign for which he begins by trying to bribe everyone in sight for information, and when that fails, by escalating his own terror campaign against those whom he believes, rightly or wrongly, can give him the names he desires. The film thus becomes a very complex dance of competing motivations and goals, one which the participants of all wish that Quan would simply go away and stop interfering. The problem being of course that Quan cannot go away, having become involved by virtue of the cruel injustice of terrorism. So much of this genre is comprised of those with personal (and comprehensible) agendas or grievances, that we forget just how horrible it is to have your life ruined casually by someone who doesn't care about you at all, and it is refreshing in the extreme to see a film that champions the idea that such people have a stake in the long-term resolutions as well, ones that will be heard on pain of violence.

The other innovation is the addition of Chan's style to the action of the movie. One reason MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW films usually fail to elicit much interest is that the protagonists (who are usually named Liam Neeson) are invincible super-badasses, special forces death machines of unstoppable power, who effortlessly cleave through small armies of soldiers and henchmen (who are usually brown-skinned) en-route to their preordained catharses. Taken 2 (and I must assume its sequels) were particularly bad examples of this. Chan, however, has gone on record in times past describing that audiences cannot identify with an action hero that cannot be hurt, and that his films take pains to show how dangerous and painful the stunts in his movies actually are. Obviously, at 63, Chan is not as spry as he once was (though, let me assure you, he would still kick my pasty white ass up one side of the street and down the other), but this actually helps the film more than it harms it. Chan's stunts are still impressive and amazing, but they also look more... plausible, the sorts of things that an older man in good shape and with a complete indifference to physical pain might be able to do. His engagement with multiple, armed assailants, all of them younger (and larger) than him, include brutal punishment that certainly looks like it hurts, and Chan's signature focus on prop-work and unconventional weapons remains firmly intact in all its glory.

The Foreigner is certainly not a perfect movie. Its plot gets awful labyrinthine at points, and it does evidence a tendency to tie everything up with a bow whether it makes sense to or not, but the project, on the whole is definitely a worthwhile enterprise, with multiple nuanced characters evidencing shades of grey morality as they try to negotiate the situation they are circling around and deal with the unexpected element of Quan's single-minded fixation on revenge. It's one of the better vehicles I've seen Pierce Brosnan in in a long time, and represents enough of a break from Chan's earlier, sillier work to make the whole exercise unpredictable and interesting. And as far as MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movies go, it's not like there's a lot of competition out there...

Final Score:  7/10


Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Alternate Title:  Polyamory: A Life

One sentence synopsis:   Professor William Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and his lover Oliver Byrne, form a shockingly unconventional family during the 1930s and 40s, and collaborate together to create the iconic Superheroine Wonder Woman.

The Verdict:  Talk about topical...

William Marston was one of the strangest people that even the comic book industry records, a man whose contributions to the art form were so fundamental and yet so utterly buried by the industry as a whole for the better part of half-a-century. A Harvard professor of Psychology in an era when the entire discipline was newly divided from Philosophy in general, he, and his equally accomplished wife Elizabeth Marston, combined to produce DISC theory, one of the very first behavior assessment tools ever created, one which is still used (in modified form) by behavioral psychologists today, as well as to invent the lie detector machine. And yet, this Harvard-educated academic's true claim to fame was none of the above, but the creation of Wonder Woman, one of DC's big-three comic book heroes, who earlier this year received, at last the big budget-extravaganza film that her fans have been clamoring for for decades, and whose creation and history are studded with rumors, constantly circulated, that the character was a thin veil for fantasies of bondage, sadomasochism, and other "deviant" practices, rumors fueled, no doubt, by the fact that William and Elizabeth Marston lived a more-or-less openly polyamorous threesome relationship, something barely heard of even today, and utterly unheard of in the 1930s. The reason that these suppositions are rumors, rather than established and widely-known facts, are of course the efforts of the Comics industry to cover up the salacious background of one of their flagship characters throughout the reign of the Comics Code Authority, and it is only now, with Wonder Woman back in the forefront of popular consciousness, and society as a whole more receptive to such things, that we can openly discuss the origins and themes of the character, and the man and women who created her all those many years ago.

Professor Marston is not a comic book film, let's get that out of the way initially, but instead a character study of three people, all three of them played expertly by actors I had no previous use for across the board. William Marston himself, an intellectual, forward thinking, and ruthlessly-honest academic of the roaring 20s-stamp, is played to absolute perfection by Luke freaking Evans, who until this year, I regarded as a useless waste of space on my cinema screens (go watch The Raven, Dracula Untold, The last Hobbit film, and High-Rise, and tell me if you come up with any other interpretation), and have been forced, thanks to this film and Beauty and the Beast, to utterly revise my opinion of. Evans is incredibly good, a driven, passionate man with theories of behavior and dominance that he simply knows to be correct, and who is prepared to not only practice what he preaches, but practice it while preaching. Evans is great, just great, but not as good as Rebecca Hall, a British actress I've only previously seen in bit parts, or in trailers for manifestly-awful movies like Transcendence which I had no intention of seeing. Her role is that of Elizabeth Marston, wife of William, and a fellow professor of Psychology in her own right, eminently frustrated by the restrictions imposed upon her by the casual sexism of the 1920s and 30s, forced to take menial work and suffer the condescension of male colleagues because of her membership in the "weaker sex". If there is anything to DISC theory, and I have no idea if there is, then Elizabeth is the "Dominant" personality trait given form, blunt and biting, brilliantly sharp and gifted, constrained not just by society but by her own defense mechanisms of intellectual superiority over all of her fellows, men and women alike. It's a transcendentally good performance (no pun intended), one which steals the show hands down, which is not to slight the third member of our trio, Bella Heathcote, an Australian actress whose pedigree includes Dark Shadows (ugh), and another bunch of films I didn't want to see (including one of the Fifty Shades films). Heathcote's character is Olive Byrne, a young graduate student and first-wave feminist, niece of Margaret Sanger herself, who rapidly becomes embroiled in the lives of the two Marstons and forms the beating heart of the polyamorous trio that results. Heathcote, like the others, is simply stellar in the film, a young woman whose tendencies are towards the self-effacing modesty women were encouraged to adopt at the time (and today, to an extent), and which has always been the particular preserve of those women attractive and smart enough to know that their looks will forever render others incapable of properly appreciating their minds. Olive is the desperately-needed foil to William and Elizabeth, the one whose life and pursuit of happiness is ultimately dependent on the choices that they make, the one who demands empathy from her fellows whether they feel themselves too superior to grant it or not. This is not to describe her character as a wilting violet or a willing victim. It is to describe her character as an embodiment of a different sort of feminism which was contemporary to the times, that of a woman whose conventional desires are pursued with no less fervor and conviction than those of the firebrand revolutionaries.

All three of the above actors are superb in every way, playing off one another with aplomb and wit and effortless charm, but the ringmaster of this whole affair is the biggest surprise of them all, for the film is both directed and written by Angela Robinson, whom I previously would have described as one of the worst directors working in Hollywood, thanks to a filmography comprised of cinematic excrement like D.E.B.S. and Herbie Fully Loaded (the last semi-sober thing that Lindsay Lohan ever did). Where the hell this film came from, given the above, I have no idea, but Robinson, who is a lesbian, and who deals with themes of unconventional sexuality in most of her work (not that you could tell that between dry heaves most of the time), brings a sure and careful approach to this outing as far at odds with her previous work as Sixth Sense is with The Last Airbender. The movie is crisp and beautiful, with soft, careful shots and brilliant, lived-in writing. The script is a triumph of concealed exposition, as academics ply one another with their theories, while sniping semi-contentedly and spinning nets of intellectual glamor around those whose ideal it is to live in such rarified worlds. The film is a tour-de-force, not only for the actors but for Robinson herself, whom I, among others, have drastically underestimated, and to whom I must offer my abject apologies. This is the sort of film that makes careers, and if there is justice in the world, it will do just that for its author and creator.

Indeed, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a great film in every sense, an achievement of directing, writing, and acting that one simply does not see very often, comparable in a strange way to similar "place actors in a room and give them material to chew on" movies like The End of the Tour or Locke. As with those movies, I don't know that this one will make much of an impact on the wider cinematic landscape, but I am thankful to them for existing nonetheless, though I must register my surprise that the only subject this film doesn't really seem all that interested in tackling is that of Wonder Woman herself, the creation and themes of the character being largely subsumed within the story of the lives of her creators. But then perhaps that is how it should be, as Wonder Woman, the cultural artifact, has outgrown those who brought her into being, and this film instead wishes for us to simply take a moment to appreciate the unique and interesting lives of a trio of forward thinkers who devised, through sacrifice and honesty, a way to be happy.

We should all be so lucky.

Final Score:  8/10


Battle of the Sexes

Alternate Title:  Double Fault

One sentence synopsis:    Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs' lives lead them to the famous 1973 inter-gender tennis showdown.

The Verdict: The 70s were weird.

So in 1973, an ex-Wimbledon and US Open champion named Bobby Riggs, 55 years of age at the time, hit upon an idea to catapult himself back into the limelight of international tennis. Inventing an act that would later be stolen by such luminaries as Andy Kaufman, Riggs declared that women's tennis was inferior to men's, and that despite his advanced age, that he could beat any female tennis player in the world, including the reigning champions. After doing exactly that in an exhibition match against then-champion Margaret Court, Riggs faced down the American tennis queen Billie Jean King in a match so hyped up that it was played in the Houston Astrodome before 100,000 people and broadcast live to 90 million more around the world (bear in mind that this was before the invention of Netflix). What impact this event had on the world of sport and women's participation therein, others are more qualified than I to speak to, but here we have a movie about the subject brought to us by the directing trio behind Little Miss Sunshine. I have heard worse pitches in my time.

The main thing that Battle of the Sexes has going for it is its cast. Steve Carell, who has been desperately trying to branch out of his doofus-roles of yesteryear, plays Bobby Riggs in this film and he is downright amazing, a tennis hustler and gambling addict who cannot resist the lure of the limelight and who will invent any hair-brained scheme imaginable if it means the possibility of obtaining fame and fortune. Riggs is the kind of guy who will call someone up in the middle of the night to breathlessly relate to them his latest scheme, one which usually involves stirring up controversy and acquiring what wrestlers call "cheap heat". And yet there's no maliciousness to his antics, just a thirst for attention that overrides all else. Even King herself admits to her confidantes that she knows that the whole "chauvinist pig" shtick is just that, a shtick designed to inflame opinion and drum up interest in the upcoming match, and that Riggs is quite happy to be labelled a neanderthal if it means selling tickets. Carell, who is a naturally charismatic actor (how else could he routinely play such well-meaning buffoons?) is in his element with this one, whether donning a dress to show off his tennis skills to the media, or telling a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that their problem isn't that they gamble, it's that they're bad at it.

Unfortunately, Carell's performance isn't matched by that of everyone else in the film. Emma Stone takes on Billy Jean King, and she's... fine? I guess? Her character doesn't get to be as showy or outgoing as Riggs', and it's her misfortune to be laden with the task of headlining the "serious, important" side of the movie, of how much the match between King and Riggs "meant" to the sport of tennis, to women everywhere, and to the feminist movements of the era. I am unqualified to speak in absolutes on that subject, of course, but the whole effort has a certain pedestrian feel to it, simply because the material isn't presented in an interesting manner. King goes on tour, she fights with the sexist head of the Association of Tennis Professionals (Bill Pullman), she participates in the revolt of the so-called "Houston Nine", a group of top female tennis players who broke away from the ATP to form their own tour over inequalities in prize money. She does all this while dealing with her own awakening as a lesbian, striking up a relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough, in an undistinguished performance). This is all heavy material, and all of it true, but Stone never really gets to do much of anything with it. All the best lines of her battles with the tennis establishment are stolen by her partner in crime Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, who is legitimately excellent throughout), while the sexual awakening material is basically a series of dark, grainy scenes in cheap motel rooms repeated without much artistry over and over until the next sequence begins. Stone isn't bad, certainly, but there's just not that much of interest that she gets to do, and while I'm a fan of hers overall, she's not a caliber of actress who can singlehandedly elevate a movie that doesn't have a lot interesting going on. There's no sense, throughout, that the movie is depicting truly epochal events in the history of gender relations, though it does, several times, declare that it is doing just that. Riggs' antics are too silly to really stand in for the very real sexism that afflicted women of the time (and now), and King's stand against the tennis establishment, while admirable, just isn't interesting enough to carry the whole movie. Sports films are emotional films at their core, tugging on heartstrings in blunt, often even melodramatic ways, and Battle of the Sexes just doesn't have enough soul to it to do that, nor enough interesting material to do without.

I don't want to give the impression that Battle of the Sexes is a terrible movie at all, for it isn't. In addition to Carell, I've mentioned Silverman's work, and Alan Cumming of all people drops in to do a little showmanship (and provide some much needed believable context for all the social agonizing going on), but the film is ultimately a fairly forgettable endeavor, a match that, when all is said and done, really wasn't about much of anything at all besides its own empty spectacle.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time: Part 2 of our Fall roundup continues with several more movies you owe it to yourselves to see... and one that you really don't.

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