Saturday, April 28, 2018

Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 1

Howdy everyone!  It's been quite a while.

So yes, The General has been taking it easy for a month or two, taking some time to decompress, unplug from the review machine a little bit, recharge my creative batteries for praising great movies or cursing terrible ones.  Three hundred films is quite a lot, and it was time for a little bit of a break, especially following the great year that was 2017.  I decided it was a good opportunity to just relax a bit and concentrate on other projects.

Also, I contracted SARS.

Yeah, The General's Post became The Quarantine Post for a good portion of the early parts of this year, with an onslaught of respiratory illness that took a good month to resolve itself.  The act of catching up with my life after that particular bout of unpleasantry was not something I'm in any hurry to repeat, and is one of the main reasons why none of you have heard from me for the last bit.

Nevertheless, I did manage to go and catch a number of films this spring, and I would not feel right if I didn't sit down here and share my opinions on all of them with you.  So for all of you patient little boys and girls who have been waiting for my sainted opinions on recent films, I present to you.

The General's Post Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 1

12 Strong

Alternate Title:  Charge of the God-Mode Brigade

One sentence synopsis:    A dozen special forces soldiers are inserted into Afghanistan during the first days after 9/11 to help local insurgents fight the Taliban.

The Verdict:  So let's start things with a movie none of you have ever heard of.

January releases are a messy lot, as most of the time people are either busy returning to work or watching Oscar films, and have no time to deal with any new releases not good enough to be deployed during Oscar season proper. As such you get a lot of films from genres that are famously not very good, banking on the fact that their audiences will not go see anything else. Christian message films, bad horror ripoffs, foreign imports of no general interest, and also the subject we have before us today: Military wank films not good enough to get a fall/winter release. So it is with 12 Strong, a movie about a very cool event in military history, but that was not regarded well enough either by critics or by its studio to merit anything beyond a January release.

So was that a mistake? Well no, not really. But there are virtues to the film.

12 Strong is about the US 5th Special Forces Group, Operational Detachment Alpha 595, a very boring name for a very tough group of hombres who did some very insane things in the first two months after 9/11 in Northern Afghanistan. Those of you old enough to remember it, might recall pictures of US special forces soldiers fighting on horseback in the Afghan mountains, and these are the men in question, the first American horse cavaliers since 1942, who battled the Taliban alongside an alliance of warlords and guerilla fighters, calling air strikes in from B-52s while galloping into battle with armored vehicles. This event, this concept, is goddamn amazing, and ripe for a badass movie to be made about it, and the filmmakers (primarily Danish documentarian Nicolai Fuglsig) assembled one of the better casts I've seen in a war film to make it. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Peña are all actors I have tremendous love for, as any regular reader knows, and all three star in the film as the officers and NCOs in command of the 12-strong unit. There's not a great deal of material for any of them to sink their teeth into (especially Shannon), but these are the sorts of actors that elevate any role their in, be it through Hemsworth's charisma, Shannon's world-weariness, or Peña's general hilarity. Small touches, like the running joke of the soldiers' ever-more fantastical descriptions of how much they love the barren shitholes they are in, add a good deal of humanity to a movie that could easily be left without. Smaller roles go to the indispensable William Fichtner, the completely out of place, but somehow still decent Rob Riggle (what in god's name is Rob Riggle doing in a movie like this?), or to German-Iranian actor Navid Negahban, who probably gets the best role of the bunch, playing a veteran Northern Alliance commander which the movie takes some pains to humanize.

So what else does the film have? Well... not a whole lot to be honest. There are battle sequences of course, many of them, but they all sort of run together into one giant mess. Our heroes are invincible supermen, riding directly into machine gun and cannonfire and coming out unscathed while accurately gunning down their foes with perfectly-placed shots from a rearing horse. There are moments that liven things, like a confused sequence wherein hundreds of Taliban troops try to surrender simultaneously to four American soldiers, but these are few and far between. Discussions between Hemsworth's character (the commander of the unit), and the General played by Negahban never go beyond the whole "learning how to be an effective leader of men" stage of military speech-making. The film does dot itself with some moments of self-awareness, such as a riotous moment where Hemsworth, demanding to see proof that the troops he's about to carpet bomb belong to the Taliban, gets an answer in the form of the General calling up his opposite number on the radio, calling him the son of a flea-bitten dog, and telling him to confirm his identity to the Americans so that they can all go kill him.

There's nothing really wrong with 12 Strong beyond a certain lack of ambition, for the movie is competently enough made and the shots of whatever more commodious terrain passed for the mountains of Afghanistan are striking and beautiful in their rugged, barren way. As an excuse to watch good actors ride horses and shoot machine guns for a while, there are far worse films than 12 Strong out there. Just don't expect too much else from it.

Final Score:  6/10


The Insult

Alternate Title:  Another Day in the Middle East

One sentence synopsis:   A Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee's confrontation over a minor grievance turns into a massive political setpiece in modern Beirut.

The Verdict:  I try not to be a snob on this project, I do, but it's a basic fact that my enjoyment of the movies is almost directly proportional to the amount of weird shit I get to see. I can overdo it, certainly, like I did in the early part of 2015 (to the point where sitting in traffic for an hour and a half to go see Maggie seemed like a good idea), but in the spring, when movies suck, it's not a bad idea to look for what you can catch at the smaller theaters, and what did I catch this time but Lebanon's contribution to the Best Foreign Language Film category, a little film called The Insult.

The Insult is a movie that serves as both a primer on Middle Eastern politics (at least those of Lebanon), while also serving as a simultaneous send-up to Law and Order and to Crash, the 2004 Paul Haggis film about race relations in Los Angeles, and a short list candidate for the award of "worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards" (fight me). It comes to us courtesy of Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, a man who recently achieved the feat of being banned from Lebanon for being too pro-Israeli, while also being banned from Israel for being too anti-Israeli. Any man who pulls that off is deserving of respect and attention, and his film is one of the better things I've seen in this young year, a polemic of sorts (in a good way) about race and nationality and the wounds of civil strife in a poly-ethnic society like that of Lebanon.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian auto mechanic, and an asshole. He supports hyper-partisan politicians (most politicians in Lebanon fit this description), and regards immigrants to his country, particularly refugees from Palestine, as dogs. This is a problem, because the foreman of a construction project in his neighborhood, Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is himself a Palestinian refugee, a man of considerable expertise and education, but who must work under the table and live in a refugee zone because he is a Palestinian, a group not well regarded in Lebanon since the violent events of Black September. A minor altercation between the two men over the code status of a leaking drainpipe results in one insulting the other, and kicks off a chain of gradual but believable escalations that lands both men in court to try and prove that they are the aggrieved party and the other an unreasonable menace to public safety. Heedless to the pleas of loved ones and friends to let things go, the men proceed with their dispute, until, almost inevitably, it blows up well beyond their control, breaking open the hastily papered-over fault lines in Lebanese society, a society which as little as thirty years ago was a full-fledged war zone, and which has not recovered therefrom by any stretch.

And yet rather than turn the movie in another parable about how bad sectarianism is, The Insult strangely goes the route of a courtroom drama, wherein lawyers stand up and give impassioned speeches regarding how terrible the life of their client was, and how many horrible things the other party has done or said in their lives, until both men are grudgingly left on the sidelines of their original conflict, their deepest wounds brought to the surface to be probed by the legal system. Hanna, it turns out, despises the Palestinian people because of the annihilation of his village during Black September at the hands of a screaming Palestinian mob, which executed his family and burned his home, while Salameh is forced to relive all the moments in his life when, pushed to the edge by indignity heaped upon indignity, he snapped and lashed back. Arguments are leveled about subjects that sound all too familiar to us Stateside, from affirmative action to free speech to incitements to hate crimes. And of course, being as this is the Middle East, even as the participants speak of high-minded ideals and racial tolerance, they layer every sentence of every accusation of wrongdoing with a thick coating of un-examined antisemitism.

The Insult isn't quite a great movie, the courtroom antics quickly begin to feel early-90s-era Law and Order, with lawyers basically allowed to recite dissertations at infinite length because the filmmaker said so, but it is, all in all, a very good one, buttressed by excellent acting by the two leads and most of the supporting cast. It's a small film with a big topic and one that handles things deftly, and if it's available on a streaming service or a showcase of foreign cinema, I would strongly suggest undertaking it. The alternatives from early this year are not encouraging.

Final Score:  7.5/10


Black Panther

Alternate Title:  Anti-Marvel

One sentence synopsis:    Newly-crowned King T'Challa must defend his crown and country against the machinations of an international arms smuggler, and a warmongering figure intent on claiming his throne.

The Verdict: I am an unapologetic fan of Marvel's work. You all know this. I have lauded them time and time and time again for all of the myriad reasons that their films are heir to. You all know this. Eighteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and with the most ambitious one yet being seen by yours truly the day after I write these words), there is no doubt in my mind that this universe of cinema they have created is, to-date, the crowning film achievement of the 21st century, a fountain of staggering creativity, enjoyment, fun, and splendor, even with the occasional stumble here and there. I love the MCU as I have loved few things in cinema, and there have been times in the past where it alone represented the only reason I continued to do this. Nor has the series been getting worse, not by any long shot. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I loved Spiderman. I adored Thor Ragnarok. And I was desperately excited for Black Panther, which looked supremely awesome, starred a half dozen actors I adore, and was being made by one of the better directors working. I wanted this film to be great. You all, if you know me at all, know this.

So when I criticize Black Panther, please understand that I do it from a place of love. Because no matter how I slice it, Black Panther is not great.

Now don't misunderstand me, Black Panther is not bad either, nor even close to it. It is always adecent, frequently good, and occasionally very good, but never does it rise to greatness, and in the company it keeps, within the lofty heights of the MCU, that does not suffice to obtain my unquestioning praise. There is a great deal to love about Black Panther, and yet something is missing from it, something fundamental and hard to elucidate. So let's give it a shot.

As always, I like to start with what does work, and the list is admittedly long. The film is gorgeous, vibrant and brilliant of color, with all the sweeping glories and rich palette that an African setting can offer. The styling of the film is even better, an Afro-Futurist riot of brilliant design-work, African-inspired of course, but with unexpected twists to the atmosphere that the film pieces together, turning it into a wonderland cornucopia of non-western design often without (to my western eye, at least) obvious source. Elements of the Wakandan world, such as the Dahomey-inspired Techno-Masai stylings of the "Dora Milaje", a kind of all-female royal guard regiment comprised of shaven-headed Amazonian Hoplites is goddamned brilliant, and serves more than adequately to ground the film in comic awesomeness while remaining true to its inspirations. Several of the new characters we are introduced to, particularly Shuri (Letitia Wright), the younger sister of T'Challa, a technophile genius who steals the best lines in the film, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the stoic (to a fault) head of the aforementioned royal guards, and Killmonger (Michael B. Freaking Jordan), the villain of the piece, who gets waaaaaaay more backstory and interesting material than any Marvel villain not named Loki has ever gotten. Indeed, Killmonger might be the best thing in the movie, a villain with a comprehensible, timely, and well-fleshed out backstory, one that encourages sympathy even as it paints him as a violent extremist prepared to wage worldwide race war to right the wrongs he and his people have suffered. That Michael B. Jordan can pull something like this off should be no surprise to anybody who's seen the rest of Ryan Coogler's work, and the screen is enlivened whenever he is on it.

But for all of these virtues, Black Panther is a deeply uneven film, and this is primarily due to a problem I don't think I've ever seen before: Accents.

You might be wondering how a bad accent can ruin a film. It can't (usually), but what I mean when I say this isn't that someone has a bad accent, it's that someone is unable to perform their role because of it, and that someone is Chadwick Boseman himself, an actor I have desperately tried to like in movies from 42 to Get on Up to Draft Day, for he is a likeable guy whom I assumed would use this movie as his coming out party. Instead, he falls completely flat, and the reason he does is because he cannot fathom that pan-African accent that they gave his character. I don't mean that his accent is unconvincing, though it is. I mean that it actively stops him from emoting, from project force and volume with his words, from acting, in short, restricting his entire performance to an awkward monotone that kills the movie's momentum whenever the main goddamn character has to speak for any length of time. This isn't a problem unique to Boseman. Other actors, good actors, from Angela Bassett to Lupita N'yongo, have tremendous difficulty reciting the dialogue they have been given, this despite the fact that Bassett is a phenomenal actress (go watch Strange Days if you don't believe me), and N'yongo (also a phenomenal actress) is actually Kenyan, but is not allowed to use her native accent for the role.

Obviously not everyone is unable to overcome this issue. Leticia Wright manages just fine, as does Daniel Kaluuya (whom I didn't even recognize). Forest Whitaker basically retreats into his Idi Amin impression, which is fine by me, and the portion of the cast that is actually African (N'yongo excepted) has no trouble. But while I don't care that the accent is fake, nor that some people can't manage it, I definitely care when major actors the film are so busy struggling with it that they can't actually act. Boseman is not terrible uniformly, but he is the weakest element of a movie that is the also the star of. This is a problem.

And it's not the only one. The movie is structured very strangely, with two distinct halves that effectively represent completely different stories, tied together with editorial duct tape and bungee cord. Killmonger's character is well established, but considerable chunks of that establishment are thrown out around the midway point of the movie so as to re-establish him with other, different establishment. This second establishment is indeed stronger than the first, but it leaves one wondering what the point of the initial material was. The plot, meanwhile, is overwrought to the point of melodrama (admittedly, so is about half of the MCU), and less-forgivably, is entirely predictable, beat for beat, being one of the most convenitionally-plotted films the MCU has yet to give us. The other films in Marvel's canon are hardly the stuff of Neo-Noir, but many of them, even relatively bad ones, include interesting twists and developments, either in the characters' fortunes or the machinations of the bad guys. Black Panther meanwhile, plays like a first draft, uninspired in its plotting and with very little in the way of character significance for anyone concerned. It's a fun outing, don't get me wrong, but it tells us relatively little about anybody except the villain of the piece, and leaves most of the characters exactly where they started. This might be fine for a proof of concept popcorn flick, but it is not the stuff of great cinema. And contrary to the opinions of those too stuck up to care, much of the MCU is great cinema.

I did not hate Black Panther, nor even dislike it, and there are moments and even entire scenes that are fascinating, if only for the richness of the setting and the novelty of the world. It is also worth noting, of course, that I am a white guy reviewing a movie that is probably not entirely made for me. But while I acknowledge this factor, and do not seek to denigrate the experience of others who have seen the movie, the flaws in Black Panther are much more fundamental than those that afflicted last year's Wonder Woman, and do not, I believe, represent some kind of special coding which I am unable to perceive, as some of Wonder Woman's did. A flawed film remains a flawed film no matter who is making it, and Marvel's movies, being the product of an international media conglomerate the likes of which find few parallels in history, are explicitly intended as universalist efforts, whether or not they attain such heights. Black Panther too attempts to appeal to everyone, and in many cases succeeds, but as MCU films go, it is unavoidably one of the weaker efforts, providing us with the rare example of a Marvel film whose hero is weakly drawn, and who is propped up by its villain, when almost every other Marvel film is the precise opposite.

And now you know where that Alt-Title comes from.

Final Score:  6/10


A Wrinkle in Time

Alternate Title:  A Platitude in Script

One sentence synopsis:    The daughter of a missing astrophysicist must embark on an adventure with her younger brother and school friend to save him from the forces of darkness.

The Verdict: I receive criticism on occasion that I do not watch enough bad movies. This is generally criticism from those who enjoy my pain (which I assume to be true of all of you), and who want me to go and watch and then review some horrific piece of cinematic excrement that was obviously going to suck from the get-go. I reject these invitations, partially because I have a working brain, but also because there is no need. As I continuously remind people, I do not need to go looking for bad movies to see. By simple means of attempting to watch one film a week, and gauging their qualities purely on their trailers, the bad movies will find me eventually.

For example, we have A Wrinkle in Time.

Oh yes, A Wrinkle in Time is a bad movie, in fact it's an awful movie, a meaningless, smarmy, intensely boring piece of cinematic waste excreted by a director I had previously thought competent and must revise my opinions of accordingly. Brainless, stultifying and stupid, it is to children's films what Interstellar was to adult science fiction, a repudiation of whatever qualities its source material had and a strong incentive to seek for diabetes medication upon watching it. This is not a controversial opinion. I have seen this film compared negatively to Tomorrowland, and I'll remind you that I am the only person on Earth who liked Tomorrowland. Well even I couldn't stand A Wrinkle in Time. If it were not for the demands of my reviews, I would have left after five minutes.

I have nothing against children's films. Hell, I love good children's films, they can touch our souls the way that few things can, but a good children's film demands that someone have a sense of what the difference between whimsy and saccharine is, and Ava DuVernay, whatever her actual qualities are as a reasonable filmmaker, is not this person. The film is aggressively annoying, written in a disbelief-shatteringly on-the-nose fashion, a place where child and adult actors alike are forced to recite dialogue so wooden that I am currently re-enforcing my writing desk with one of the monologues. No character acts human in this movie, instead they stand around and use "As You Know" phrases over and over and over because the scriptwriter can't figure out how to shovel exposition into the audience's heads any other way. The children meanwhile do not act like kids anywhere, not even in the Disney sitcom land that this world takes inspiration from, but like pastiches of "bright-eyed eager youngsters", so squeaky-clean and inhuman that Leave it to Beaver would have rejected them as unrealistic. I understand that six-year-old Charles Wallace (the repeated name is never explained) is a super-genius. I should prefer that he also be a six-year-old boy than a robot programmed to spout "affirmations" every five seconds whilst others look on in rapt awe at how precious he is.

Indeed "precious" is a good word for this movie. Calvin, the boy next door to our main character Meg, looks and acts like he's auditioning for a younger version of One Direction, and spends the entire fucking film telling Meg over and over and over again that she's beautiful on the inside. I have nothing against the sentiment of wanting to teach such morals, but I have seen greater nuance in instilling them on episodes of Veggie Tales. Meg, meanwhile, must put up with the gamut of lazy scriptwriting cliche middle-school problems, from random, unexplained bullies, to stern, unfeeling principals, to teachers who gossip openly about the failings of their students in the hallways like a Greek Chorus. Once the adventure begins however, it's simply an unending barrage of positivity quotes taken from someone's page-a-day calendar on the subject, many of which come with attributions designed to be "quirky". If you removed from the movie all of the scenes in which Oprah (who I will remind you all, is a phenomenal actress) scolds Meg for not being sufficiently perky, happy, or positive (all without giving her any reasons to be perky, happy, or positive), then the film would be about thirteen minutes long. As it stands, generic "evil energy" must be combated by the power of... I don't even know. At least Interstellar had the balls to claim that love was the most powerful force in the universe. A Wrinkle in Time awards that distinction to generic contentedness.

A Wrinkle in Time is a truly wretched movie, one that was difficult, at least for me, to sit through, and inspired many a forlorn look at my smartphone as I desperately tried to determine how much of it was left. Whatever point I was through the film, the answer was always "too damn much", and the movie itself stands as a reminder that nobody, no matter how well praised or liked, is incapable of making a complete piece of crap.

Final Score:  3/10

Next Time: It's time to do this, ladies and gents.  It's time for the Infinity War.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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