The General's Post Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 2
Pacific Rim: Uprising
Alternate Title: That's... Better?
One sentence synopsis: The son of Stacker Pentacost and a war orphan with her own Jaeger must join the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps to help save the world from a resurgence of Kaiju.
The Verdict: I... did not like Pacific Rim. I think I might be the only one. I did not like it because it was goddamn boring, a slog of bad characters, piss-poor fights, cringeable comic relief, and no decent ideas beyond the first five minutes of the thing (and the bit with the cargo ship being used as a club, that was pretty cool.) Despite this, I did decide to see the new Pacific Rim movie. Why? Well partly because there was nothing else playing (an empty schedule is the best friend to a bad franchise), but also partly because it looked, trailerwise at least, like they had fixed some of the most obvious problems of the original. They had dropped Charlie Hunnam, the acting equivalent of a jar of mayonnaise, and replaced him with Star Wars' John Boyega. In film terms, this is like comparing the intellect of Donald Trump with that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an upgrade so fundamental as to defy the term. And that wasn't the only thing they fixed. I objected to the way in which the previous film's love interest plot was hackneyed and useless, and the new film eliminates that entirely, replacing it with an (admittedly pretty generic) story about duty and finding oneself. I objected to all the fight scenes lacking a sense of scale, due to the majority of them being set way out to sea, rather than in settings filled with human-scale objects. The movie obliges by putting all the action in downtown Tokyo and Hong Kong, or in windswept arctic settings amidst massive, calving glaciers. If you took only a bullet point listing of the various elements of this film and compared it to my review, you might conclude that the filmmakers specifically had me in mind when they made the sequel. And for this, they are to be commended.
Does this mean the sequel is good? Um... no. No I'm afraid it does not.
Look, many of you liked Pacific Rim, but I think we're going to meet in the middle on this one and call it "average". Uprising is an average movie, with average action, average acting, average thrills in service of an average plot. It never falls to the level of boring, but neither does it raise more than the occasional twinge of interest as it mechanically moves from plot point to plot point. The original film did well in China, so we have the obligatory censor-pleasing throwaway valiant Chinese government official added into the original mix, the praise of Chinese industrial conglomerate, who always act forthrightly and without corruption in their quest to improve the world, and so forth. Meanwhile our main characters learn well-trod lessons in well-trod manners before getting together for the obligatory fight sequence at the end of the film, wherein only they can save the very world. The result is a movie that feels like Independence Day: Resurgence, but without the camp value that the aforementioned sequel had. Even the comic relief, which last time was insufferable and stupid, now feels just tired and obligatory, and while Boyega does his best with the material he's given, the film patently lacks for Idris Elba and Ron Perlman, who at the very least have the experience to elevate a movie like this one.
Pacific Rim Uprising was worth a shot, but ultimately the movie just isn't about anything beyond milking the Chinese market for all it's worth and moving on with everyone's life, which is what I now intend to do with this franchise as a whole should the PRC decide it's worthwhile to make a third.
Final Score: 5.5/10
The Death of Stalin
Alternate Title: Banned in Russia
One sentence synopsis: Stalin's death in 1953 throws the tightly-wound Soviet Politburo into chaos as the members struggle to determine who will come out on top.
The Verdict: "Dictators are comical," said Charlie Chaplin once. "My job is to make people laugh at them." He said that in reference to his classic "The Great Dictator", which was about Hitler and Mussolini, and now here comes veteran Scottish satyrist Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, and In the Loop, to do the same with their Soviet counterpart. The resulting film got itself banned from Russia and its satellites for being disrespectful to a murderous dictator, which was all the impetus I needed to go and see the thing. Call this the Anti-Interview.
The Death of Stalin stars a number of wonderful actors, from Steve Buscemi to Simon Russell Beale, to Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, and the absolutely irreplaceable Jason Isaacs, all of whom are playing senior members in the Soviet Aristocracy, craven bootlickers by necessity, who must kowtow to Stalin at all times while maneuvering among one another to stay alive. Stalin's death, early in the film, throws these men up against one another, be it the secret reformer Kruschev (Buscemi) to the psychotic and pederast Beria (Beale) to the utterly weak Malenkov (Tambor), and the movie itself consists of their maneuverings, political and otherwise, as they scheme and plot and try to remain in control of events that are happening more or less automatically. Autocracies all resemble one another in the end, after all, and so the pomp and circumstance provides the backdrop for absurdist humor of a very British sort, where officiousness is the joke, and reality the punchline, and the deaths of thousands of people, which occur regularly in this film, are merely the sticks that the players can use to beat one another and maybe survive until the next day. The only person not playing the game, as it were, is Grand Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov (Isaacs), who is the goddamn best thing in the entire movie, a hard-drinking Russian general who knows himself to be inviolate, and who has no interest in who takes over, which grants him a freedom nobody else in the film has, one he exploits with savagely-hilarious gusto. The movie needs this counterpoint to the tightly-wound businessmen in their identical grey suits desperately trying not to be shot. This is still a comedy after all.
So is Death of Stalin a masterpiece? Well I'm not sure about that. The humor is very British, by which I mean dry as a desert, and that's just not always my taste. Rather than make people ridiculous, it tends to simply portray things as they were and let the absurdity of their situation carry the comedy. This is a bold and stylish choice, but it also results in a hell of a lot of tonal whiplash, which may or may not have been unavoidable, but is still present. Sometimes letting characters be themselves works great. Stalin's children, entitled, spoiled-rotten, delusional, divorced from everyday life to the point of derangement, are played by Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough, two actors I've never much liked, but who find their calling in playing bitchy, dramatic, drunken wrecks with whom our main characters must deal because the alternative could wind them up shot. At the same time though, the film struggles to find something to do with characters whose roles were not that funny, such as Foreign Minister Molotov (Palin), who is basically there because Michael Palin was in Monty Python, and is consequently British comedic royalty. There just isn't a lot of humor to be wrung from straightforward depictions of torture, rape, and husbands publicly turning on their wrongly-accused wives, and so we're back to the tonal whiplash again.
But all that having been said, The Death of Stalin is one of the better films I've seen this year, a movie I was looking forward to since it was announced and am privileged to have seen and supported. I encourage everyone here to do the same, as doing so will aggravate other, less murderous but no less comical dictators with whom we are forced to deal nowadays. And that's really the best thing that can come from any movie, now isn't it?
Final Score: 7/10
Isle of Dogs
Alternate Title: Arch-Anderson
One sentence synopsis: A young boy in Japan searches for his dog on the island that the nation's dogs have been all banished to.
The Verdict: I do like Wes Anderson and always have, my reviews of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have indicated as much, but there has always been a certain sense about him that he risks disappearing up his own ass after a point. Wes Anderson films are so distinctive that other movies with wide-angle perpendicular shots are compared to him automatically, as are films with casts of twenty thousand. There are risks, in establishing such a style, that the accidents of one's typical filming style are going to swallow the actual filmcraft. Just ask M. Night Shayamalan.
Nevertheless, here we are with another Wes Anderson film, for which he has eschewed the temporal plane altogether this time, and decided to proceed with an animated film, done in woodcut Japanese style, in Japanese, with and without subtitles as he deems it appropriate. Anderson himself has described the film as being if Kurosawa made a Rankin/Bass stop-motion picture, and while I would shudder to compare this film to anything Kurosawa ever did, the intention is there and plain to see. Great masses of computers and highly-qualified artists have been employed to ensure that we have a film that looks as cheap and as homespun as possible, and while normally that sort of thing fails, the movie does a bang-up job of producing something that actually looks like an Anderson picture. Wes Anderson's movies have always had a dreamlike quality to them, and animation suits that very well, what with its ability to frame and composite any way you choose. The stylization is unsubtle (determining who the bad guys are in the film is made easier when they look like the Butler from the Addams Family), but it does the job.
Anderson's other claim to fame is for his giant casts, however, and this is both a blessing and a curse, and always has been. Having enormous, highly-talented casts, fills every role, even inconsequential ones, with a tremendous amount of interesting choices and fun. But it also ensures that Anderson movies have to scramble to find things for their various characters to do. Anderson can't ever make a movie about a single character's life, because there would be no room for the eight hundred and fourteen other major actors he needs to squeeze into the movie. It's a dance he's well accustomed to, and has pulled off repeatedly before, but this time it's harder than it was, because Isle of Dogs, at its core, is a "Boy and his Dog" movie, which does not leave a lot of room for meaty roles beyond those of the aforementioned Boy and his aforementioned Dog. Oh plenty of other shit transpires, from political conspiracies and murder, to public health scares, ancient curses, samurai legends, twists of motivation and plot, several love interests that have nothing to do but take up time, and an entirely out-of-place subplot about a foreign exchange student from Iowa who becomes a rabble rouser. But while most Anderson films also have their nested forest of subplots, this is the first film of Anderson's I've seen that felt burdened with them, as though the movie could not get on with it because Scarlett Johansson and F. Murray Abraham hadn't had their scenes yet.
I know I'm being negative here, but that's only because I expect a lot from Wes Anderson nowadays, and Isle of Dogs, while a good film, does not clear his high bar. The movie is enjoyable, highly unpredictable, and has practically every major actor in Hollywood in it, albeit in voice roles. If that's all you want from a film, then Isle of Dogs will do very nicely for you. But if you were hoping that Anderson would outdo himself after the triumph that was The Grand Budapest Hotel, I'm afraid you may need to bark up another tree.
I regret nothing.
Final Score: 6.5/10
You Were Never Really Here
Alternate Title: The Taxi Driver's Still Here
One sentence synopsis: An ex-FBI agent tries to rescue a young girl from sexual slavery.
The Verdict: "Joaquin Phoenix is remaking Taxi Driver." That was basically all I needed to hear to sign on to this one. I can't say I love Joaquin Phoenix, but I have liked a good deal of his work, especially in his older, crazier phase, after the massive and disastrous publicity-stunt/trolling-attempt that was I'm Still Here and his abortive rap career (anyone who can make David Letterman look like a fool has got my thumb's up). As to Taxi Driver, well it's a masterpiece of course, and I was all in for a weird, psychological trip into dark places, especially as written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, the Glaswegian director of Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Ramsay likes her films dark and twisted and full of weird shit, and this sounded like a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Stop judging me.
So how is the movie? Wellllll... it's weird. It's really weird. Phoenix plays Joe, a combat veteran with terrible PTSD, not the fun or uplifting kind, but the real kind, the kind he has to treat by gargling drugs and beating people who annoy him with his fists. Formerly a cop of some sort, Joe is now a rescuer of young girls, who tracks them to the underground, underage brothels that movies like to imagine exist in every other corner of every major city, brutally murders their staff with a hammer, and takes them back to their families. Hired to do this for a State Senator, whose daughter has disappeared, he vanishes into a web of corruption, politics, and very very unreliable narrators.
And it's just a mess. Joe is a completely broken soul, not on the edge like Travis Bickle, but so far past the edge that he doesn't remember which direction it's in. He hallucinates throughout the film, sometimes in shocking sequences of some power, but usually in sequences that rob the audience of any sense of what in the living hell is supposed to be going on here. In a film like Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream this might have worked, but this is no psycho-drama within the character's head. Not only is he a hallucinating paranoiac, but people are actually trying to kill him, and this undercuts the film's emphasis on Joe's mental state by placing him in a world in which everyone is insane, a world where the cops gleefully murder dozens of people in public so as to prevent them from opposing the Governor of New York's efforts to turn his mansion into a permanent orgy for underaged girls. Even in the 80s, this would have been over the top, and the juxtaposition of an insane protagonist in an insane world is never commented on. We are expected to accept that this is a world in which pedophilia is just fine and dandy, but that the man who hallucinates is insane because the gritty, realistic world he is in has denied him the help he needs.
I tried, I really tried to like You Were Never Really Here, as it's the kind of movie I tend to like. Hell, I had nice things to say about Only God Forgives, for Christ's sake. But a movie I can't follow, which annoys me when I can follow it, is not going to win a lot of points from me. You Were Never Really Here is well made and well acted, but to what purpose, I have no idea.
Final Score: 5/10
Alternate Title: Notorious RBG
One sentence synopsis: A look at Ruth Bader Ginsberg's life and career as a supreme court justice.
RBG is a look at the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Brooklyn-born Jewish jurist who became the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Now in her 80s, Ginsberg has served on the court for 25 years, overseeing much landmark legislation, trying and judging cases, and becoming infamous for the number and quality of her dissents from the opinions of her fellow justices. But you all, being erudite persons of culture and wit (I assume you must be so if you read this blog), knew all this already, and are not here to have a hagiography or wikipedia bio-summary dropped on you, but to find out if the biographical documentary made about Justice Ginsberg is any good.
Well yes, yes it is. It's one of those sober, respectful, documentaries that tell us all we ever wanted to know about a person's life, intercut with scenes from their more recent life. Life Itself, the documentary biopic on Roger Ebert, was similar, save that for some reason its filmmakers decided to focus exclusively on Ebert's decrepitude and impending death, rather than on the man's works. No such muddle disrupts the movie here. We get a long list of history on Ginsberg's life, her education at Harvard, her struggles to be accepted as a litigating attorney in New York as a woman, and her gradual push into civil rights law, first as an attorney, then as a judge. We learn, as I did not know, that Ginsberg was a well-known figure at the Supreme Court long before she joined it, having fought six cases there as a litigator and won five of them. I further did not know her centrality to the wider march of Women's rights in the United States long before reaching the bench, her calculated strategy of dismantling patriarchal structures piece by piece, occasionally by means of taking cases where men were being discriminated against to make a wider point. I was tangentially though not fully familiar with the fact that she maintained a long friendship with Anton Scalia, the rock-anchor of the Arch-Conservative wing of the Supreme Court for many years. As the two were political opposites, this was a friendship which mystified everyone for whom political orthodoxy is a prerequisite for human interaction, which is to say, idiots.
And that's... really all there is to RBG. It's a victory lap by a public figure who has won great plaudits from the country as a whole. It does not sidestep the stridency of the political times we live in now, but neither does it speak in woeful, hand-wringing terms, about how noble politics and justice "used to be". It simply tells of the life of a woman who has shaped our times, and who, God willing, will continue to do just that into the future. If that sort of thing interests you, then my recommendation is that you go and see it. And if it does not, then my recommendation is that you wait for Deadpool 2.
Sorry, did I just spoil my next review?
Final Score: 7/10
Next Time: Hmmm... I wonder what it could be...