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PostPosted: Sun Oct 15, 2017 4:37 pm 
Mr. Party-Killbot
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Victoria and Abdul

Alternate Title: Most Unorthodox!!!

One sentence synopsis: An aging Queen Victoria befriends a young Indian servant, who becomes her teacher while earning the enmity of the rest of her court.


Things Havoc liked: In 1997, British director Stephen Frears made a film called Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judy Dench and Billy Connolly as, respectively, Queen Victoria, and John Brown, her confidant, friend, and rumored lover in the years following Prince Albert's death. Mrs. Brown was a fine little movie, as are most films that ask Judy Dench to play imperious royalty (her role in Shakespeare in Love was good enough to earn an Oscar nod, despite receiving all of nine seconds of screentime), so much so that twenty years later, we find ourselves with an unofficial sequel of sorts, once more focusing on Victoria's relationship with the next in what appears to have been a long list of friends and confidantes that she amassed throughout her reign. It's good to be the queen.

In 1887, as Victoria was preparing to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, every component nation of the British Empire showered her with gifts from all corners of the world, and sent pages and representatives without number to present said rarities. Among these was Abdul Karim, a Muslim prison clerk from Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), who found himself roped into being sent halfway around the world to present a commemorative coin to the Empress of India, and who of course would come to do much more for the sovereign than that. In the film, Karim is played by Indian actor and model Ali Fazal as a wide-eyed young traveler who isn't quite sure what he's doing in the far off land that he is presently inhabiting, but who is happy to simply make the most of whatever happens, neither intimidated by royalty or the trappings of Empire nor shy about babbling semi-coherently about his homeland and the things about it that fill him with joy. This would probably be insufferable, but the film wisely supplies Karim with a fellow traveller in the form of the world-weary and cynical Mohammed, played by The Big Sick's Adeel Akhtar, whose role it is to suffer from the English climate, food, and imperialism, and to despise all three in equal measure. All comedy is based on pain.

But let's be honest with ourselves here, this movie exists and always existed from inception to showtime, as a showcase for Judy Dench at her Judy Denchiest. Reprising her role as Queen Victoria, Dench is covering old ground in this film, but she's so damn good at playing the tempestuous, impatient, power-addicted queen, that she basically knocks everyone else off the screen. Short-tempered, imperious, and capable of cutting men dead with a single disgruntled stare, this is and has always been Judy Dench's best sort of role, be it as a literal queen or empress, or some sort of substitute figure of unmatched authority (there's a reason she lasted longer in the Bond movies than Pierce Brosnan). Over half the movie is spent with Judy Dench cutting dead a slew of officials, servants, and officious busybodies who are, to a man, scandalized by the fact that she has dared befriend an Indian (the repeated mistaking of Karim for a "Hindu" by officious twits who know nothing is both hilarious and on-point for Victorian Britain). As an excuse to give Judy Dench scenes in which she destroys people with her cut-glass speeches, it's a fairly transparent device, but it's a good deal of fun for that, particularly when the said official is her son, the future King Edward VII (or as he's known in this film, "Bertie"), played by none other than Eddie Izzard, almost unrecognizable under mutton chops and morning dress.


Things Havoc disliked: The problem with a film that's so transparently about giving an actress known for being good at a specific thing a chance to do that thing, is that the film cannot, almost axiomatically, be about much else, particularly with a run-time of less than two hours. As such, the film rather breezes over a lot of material that would probably have been useful to have more of, such as a better sense of what Karim's life in India was like, and a more detailed process of just how it was that he was able to get Victoria's ear in the first place. As it stands, Karim takes the first opportunity he can to start running off in fifty directions about whatever seems interesting to him today, while VIctoria patiently indulges him, something she seems rather uninterested in doing when it comes to anyone else. I understand what the filmmakers are going for, that Karim's wide-eyed innocence is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the stifling atmosphere at court, I just wish it was better established is all, rather than forcing me to rely on the fact that I've seen this movie made fifty times before. There are occasional scenes, such as one between Victoria and Abdul alone on an island in the Scottish Hills, wherein Dench is allowed to give her character more emotional range than "Head Bitch in Charge", but they are few and far between.

There is, of course, also the question of historicity, which is a subject you are all sick of hearing about, and that is just too bad. I normally have little patience for reviewers who excoriate a film because its political content doesn't match with their opinions in every way, but in fairness, there is something to the claims that the film is mired in historical revisionism. The movie goes to extreme lengths to paint Victoria as a liberal, forward-thinking pan-humanitarian, which is, to put things mildly, an... 'interesting' take on the life and opinions of one of the most rabid imperialists in British history, a woman who once threatened to resign her office and retire in disgrace to Germany because the British government was being dilatory in their conquest of the Sudan. The movie professes, among other things, that Victoria was unaware of the provenance of the Koh-i-Noor diamond (captured during the second Anglo-Sikh war 1849), and so detached from the events of the Indian Mutiny that she was unaware of what role the Muslim people of India played in it, neither of which seems likely given Victoria's obsession with her Empire. I am not a stickler for absolute historical truths in every film, despite my reputation, and I both understand and support the concept of being able to tell a simple royalist fantasy once in a while (to say nothing of one who's primary message is one of tolerance for and by Islam), but there is some part of me that sits poorly with a film that not only does all this, but then contrasts it with the thuggish, racist, and reactionary behavior of Edward VII, who in reality was one of the most forward-thinking (and wildly popular) monarchs of his or any age, a man who once publicly upbraided the German Kaiser for his (widely held) opinions that Europeans were of superior bloodstock to the subject races of the colonial Empires.


Final Thoughts: Lest I start sounding like the very reviewers I have no use for, no, Victoria and Abdul is not some gross insult heaped upon the altar of history. It is a semi-fantastical story about an old queen and a young clerk and the friendship that develops between them, one that is, in all but tone, fully grounded in historical fact. Abdul Karim existed, did become close friends with Victoria, did teach her to speak and write Urdu (which she was fond of lapsing into during conversations with impenetrable bores), as well as give her lessons on Islam, the Koran, and Indian history. Efforts were made to erase his contributions in the years following Victoria's death, by a government none too interested in having him remember, efforts which were, until only a few years ago, entirely successful. The impetus to want to record such an event in film, not to mention take the opportunity to allow for Judy Dench to do her thing, is one I understand well. So when all is said and done, register my objections as mere... uneasiness with some of the elements of the film, and not a rejection thereof.

Victoria and Abdul is not the best film of the year, nor the best film to cover such well-worn territory. In some ways it is profoundly flawed. But's a fun little fantasist view of the last days of a legendary queen's life, and of the young man who made them richer, and it needs no further justification for existing than that.

Final Score: 6.5/10

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 23, 2017 4:01 pm 
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Blade Runner 2049

Alternate Title: Ryan Gosling's Sad Face

One sentence synopsis: A replicant blade runner becomes embroiled in a mystery involving Deckard, Rachel, and what befell them after the events of the first movie.


Things Havoc liked: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a very special edition of the General's Post. Why is it very special? Well, because this film represents a staggering milestone, the 300th review on this little project of mine, a number so astounding that I can scarcely believe it's real. Three hundred times, we have sat down to consider the movies on offer from our local theaters, amidst pain, pleasure, rapturous applause and bilious hate. And so before anything else happens here, before we undertake the review that actually lies before us, I want to take an opportunity to thank each and every one of you who are reading this, whether this is your first review or your 300th, for all of your kind words and support, and even for your angry denunciations of my terrible, terrible opinions. I have no idea what has driven me to make three hundred of these damn things, but I know that without you, I would not have even amassed a single one. So thank you all, from the bottom of my cold, ossified heart, and let us now consider a remake of a film made the year I was born.

I was not looking forward to a remake of Blade Runner, and I expect every one of you can easily figure out why. The trailers for one thing made the movie look like an action movie version of the original, but more importantly, the track record for nostalgia-based remake/sequels to Ridley Scott classics is not at all a good one (consider the double-suck-whamy of Prometheus and Alien Covenant if you don't believe me). Harisson Ford has been phoning in all of his older roles for the last few years, so that gave me no hope, and while I like Ryan Reynolds and... respect (?) Dennis Villeneuve, that alone wasn't enough to make me excited about the prospect of them ruining another old classic. Still, I confess to having been at least a bit intrigued by the possibility that they might do Blade Runner justice, and went to see it anyway, and... well whatever else the movie is, it is certainly not the Total Recall/Robocop remake-disaster that I was afraid of. Far, far from it.

Set thirty years (obviously) after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 starts things off in an interesting manner right off the bat by giving us a replicant as a main protagonist. Not the is-he-or-isn't-he speculative replicant question that the first movie spawned (something helped by its fifty-seven different "authoritative" versions), but an honest-to-god, established-as-such-right-from-scene-one replicant in the form of KD6-3.7, an advanced, perfectly obedient replicant played by Ryan Gosling and his ten thousand sad faces. This decision immediately makes the film more interesting, as it totally changes the perspective we have on the universe. KD6-3.7, or K for short, is a Blade Runner, tracking down escaped replicants and 'retiring' them by force. A more advanced model than the rebellious replicants of the previous film, K is exceptionally good at his job, which affords him the opportunity to live independently and carry on a relationship with his holographic AI girlfriend Joi (Cuban actress Ana de Armas), a development which, if nothing else, proves that someone in the writing staff saw 2013's Her. Gosling plays the character the way he generally plays every character, guarded, quiet, and with a face made of sadness, but as always, Gosling has chosen his projects well, and this is a movie that befits such choices. His character rapidly becomes embroiled in mystery and conspiracy, as the remains are discovered of a replicant who seems to have died in childbirth, the implications of which are many and disturbing to the status quo. But Gosling plays the character very cool all along, neither affecting a robotic monotone, nor giving in to the sorts of loud emotions that don't really fit a Blade Runner film.

The rest of the cast does reasonably well. De Armas' AI hologram manages to exceed the rather thin material she's given, portraying an AI trying to understand and push the boundaries of her experience. I joked before about Her, but the movie contains a scene halfway through where Joi hires another replicant to be her physical proxy for an evening, a scene far trippier here than it was in the previous film (something helped by the fact that we're asked to imagine Ryan Gosling in the throes of passion instead of Joaquin Phoenix). The corporate interests, such as they are, are played meanwhile by the dynamic duo of Jared Leto, playing the evil (or at least supremely creepy) corporate overlord/replicant magnate Niander Wallace, while his second in command, a replicant named Luv, is portrayed by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks. I'm still deciding if I will ever forgive Leto for his role in Suicide Squad (probably not), but he tones it waaaaay back in this film, still a creepy bastard of course, but one that seems drawn from a genuine place as opposed to random stupidity and artifice. As to Hoeks, she's a discovery, a chilling, lethal, corporate killer-assassin-replicant, the sort of thing we got to see in all the movies Blade Runner inspired, but not in Blade Runner itself, and Hoeks does an excellent job with the material. Cameos from everyone from Dave Bautista to Lennie James also liven the film, but the best thing in the movie is Robin Wright, who has spontaneously started showing up in all of my movies this year, playing K's supervisor, Lt. Joshi. Where Robin Wright has been all these years, I have no idea, but she's perfect in this, as a veteran LAPD officer trying to keep the city from spiraling out of control, one who plainly humanizes the synthetic replicant who reports to her to a point, but only to a point. It's a nuanced performance that makes me regret Wright's absence all the more these last few decades.

Blade Runner was a revolutionary film in many regards, with a style, visual and directorial, all its own, and here, at the very least, the filmmakers have done their level best to ensure the new film matches up with the old. The visuals are dark and sodden, whether storm-lashed cities and coasts or fog/smoke-shrouded ruins in which men scrape a life together from the detritus of the world. As with the previous film, natural items like wood are a premium, and languages blend together in a mishmash of cultural crucibles. Standard cyberpunk fare nowadays, but director Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) thrives in this sort of setting, delivering a slow-paced atmosphere picture, completely belying my concerns that someone or other along the line was going to have the bright idea to turn Blade Runner into an action movie. Several sequences, particularly the modified Voight-Kampf test that K is made to undergo periodically to ensure his conformity, are jarring to the point of bewilderment, as is the intention, and the film overall has a washed-out, drained quality to it despite the voluminous neon and product placement on display. Affer all, a Blade Runner movie is one of the few circumstances where product placement is appropriate. Overall, Villeneuve delivers an aesthetic that perfectly matches the original film, both in style and in pacing, obviating any concerns that this would be nothing more than another crappy remake.


Things Havoc disliked: In fact, so dedicated is Villeneuve to the desire to stray away from a typical Hollywood style of filmmaking that the end result is... kinda boring.

Blade Runner 2049 is not a short film, well over two and a half hours overall, but it's not the length that's the problem, it's the pace, combined with the resolute refusal to let the characters do much more than march about in an emotionless affect. Please don't mistake me, this isn't The Lobster or something, but the original Blade Runner did have action, have a comprehensible plot, have things happening within it, which seems to have been tossed from this movie under the theory that if nothing happens throughout the movie's run-time, nobody can accuse the film of being shallow.

I mean, that's slightly unfair, because things do happen in Blade Runner 2049, but I will be damned if I can piece together why they happen, let alone what they are intended to mean to the characters involved. The plot, such as it is, seems to wander about largely at random, from set-piece to set-piece, and so much time is taken up just luxuriating in the setting and atmosphere, and so little time taken up with anything actually happening, that what the movie starts to feel like is less a meditative examination of the ineffable and transitory nature of human experience, and more like Salvador Dali's vacation slideshow. Part of the problem is the soundtrack, which in the original was composed by the immortal greek album/film composer Vangelis, but which in this movie is undertaken by Hans Zimmer, a composer whose work I used to love, until he achieved such success with the Inception soundtrack that he decided to basically repeat the leitmotifs from that film (BWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!) ad nauseum for every movie he scored thereafter (consider Dunkirk if you want to see the result). As a result, the music, which in the last film was daring and bold and set an artificial, noirish vibe for the entire goings on, is in this case nothing but undifferentiated foghorn noise that symbolizes nothing (to me at least) except the promise of future migraines.

The plot contains multiple cul-de-sacs, concepts and ideas that are brought up largely for the sake of bringing them up and then forgotten about entirely, such as an underground replicant-rights movement whose existence is revealed to us all of a sudden midway through the film with no setup, who acts as a Deus Ex Machina for two minutes, and then who disappears with nary a mention ever again. There is, in fairness, something to be said for this sort of narrative, wherein the movie is about the main character meeting strange and diverse people who have their own agendas unconnected with the overall plot, but that only works when the overall plot itself is comprehensible, and this one just isn't. Early hints that certain characters may be feeling a particular way beneath the surface about their circumstances are abandoned immediately, lest the actors be made to act, as opposed to standing about like drones serving the purposes of the narrative. By the end of the film, I was having tremendous difficulties determining why people were acting the way they were, what their intentions were vis-a-vis one another, or what the hell was going on in general. This descends into even elementary mistakes on the level of continuity editing or idiot balls. Where, for instance, does one character spontaneously obtain what appears to be a missile-armed attack craft during one of the penultimate sequences, and why do the bad guys insist on knocking our protagonist unconscious repeatedly and then leaving him, unharmed, where he has fallen, without even taking the opportunity to deprive him of the vital clues or transportation he will need to continue to oppose their plan? Everything here, to me, points to a film that was entirely driven by the art department and the director's vision, rather than by the writers and the script, and while there are films for which that approach has paid great dividends (the better half of Tarantino's works, for instance), without proper care, the result veers dangerously close to just turning into a self-indulgent mess.


Final Thoughts: I sort of respect Blade Runner 2049 more than I actually like it, respect the achievement in producing it, and in adhering to a vision that is in many ways daring, though not in the same ways that it was back in 1982, respect the sensibility that went into trying to ensure that as a sequel to a nostalgic classic, it had a duty to try not to ruin the memories of the original with Hollywood pap. But all that respect does not really translate into me recommending the film unreservedly. It is a long sit, even for the time it actually takes up, and if your patience for staring at dim visuals while listening to atonal electronic music is limited, there is not going to be a lot here for you. I saw the film with two companions, one of whom loved it, and one of whom hated it, and that, I think, is a microcosm of the reaction that this film can expect to engender. It may, on some fictional objective level, be a great film, but here on the temporal plane, as a piece of entertainment, it is unavoidably inadequate on several levels. Whether those levels are minor nitpicks to you, or outright dealbreakers will depend entirely on what purposes you have for film overall. For my part, I'm glad I saw Blade Runner 2049, but it's not a film I have any need to experience again, let alone the nineteen different "authoritative" versions that may well be coming over the next few years.

Oh, and for those wondering why I didn't once mention Harrison Ford's reprisal of his original character in the review above, as either a good thing or a bad one, well it's because it is neither. Harrison Ford is in the movie, playing Harrison Ford. Like so much of the rest of Blade Runner 2049, whether that is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on how desperate you are to see Harrison Ford continue his farewell tour of all of his old classics.

Final Score: 6.5/10

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 26, 2017 7:09 pm 
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Thor: Ragnarok

Alternate Title: Asgardians of the Galaxy

One sentence synopsis: Thor must escape from the gladiator pits of a far-flung world to save Asgard from the depredations of the Goddess of Death.


Things Havoc liked: Within the library of ongoing wonder that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a project that is now approaching its tenth anniversary, the Thor films have been kind of strange outliers. The first, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, was a Shakespearean ode, a huge, boisterous, fantastical film, full of drama and pathos and hilarity and adventure, a fish-out-of-water story crossed with a soap opera crossed with Wagner. I loved it. The second film, directed by TV (and Terminator: Genisys) director Alan Taylor, was much less universally-acclaimed, but still a good film, I thought, underrated by the public at large, as it continued the themes of adventure and family dynamics, expanded the character of the series' breakout star (Loki), and offered a lot of fun action, adventure, and cleverness along the way. I liked it, though I did not love it as I had its predecessor. All throughout, though, the films have sort of stood apart, not conventional enough for inclusion within the main tapestry of the MCU canon, not ludicrous enough to really branch out on their own the way Guardians of the Galaxy did. There was a sense, shared by many critics, that the Thor movies didn't quite know what they wanted to be, and good as they were (especially the original), there was something of an ephemeral quality to them as a result, that some new direction would need to be taken in order to make them into the pillar of the MCU community that Marvel plainly wanted them to be.

Enter Taika Waititi, and exit all remaining doubt.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by the New Zealand creator of What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a masterpiece, a towering achievement that numbs the mind to consider, even now, two weeks removed. Not merely the best Thor movie of the three, it might (might) even stand as the best film in the entire MCU, a universe which includes everything from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to Avengers 1 & 2. My period of reviewing films has coincided almost exactly with the entire scope of Marvel's insane triumphs, and I do not make claims such as these lightly, but even if Ragnarok ultimately proves less skillfully made than those previous cornerstones, it remains a stupifyingly great film, a movie made with care and love and tremendous skill by all involved, a movie which everyone and their mother should instantly go to see, for the fates are good to us this day, and have gifted us something magical, something spectacular, and something above all, fun.

The Marvel films, in many ways, are not typical of the way that Superhero movies are done. Superhero movies in general live and die by their villains, while Marvel uses their villains as props and plot devices, employing them not for their own sake, but to cast light and dimension upon their real main characters, the heroes themselves. This sounds elemental, but it's actually quite rare, as the ranks of movies like Batman, X-men, and the better Spiderman films will show you. Villains give more range of motion to actors and writers, allow for more character freedom, without the shackle of having to make the audience identify with and like them. Marvel though has an almost revolutionary obsession with the character of their main heroes, and thus in Ragnarok gives us what amounts to an close-cropped adventure story with two main and two secondary characters. The former are, of course, Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, sometime enemies, sometime allies, brothers and adversaries all in one. Both characters and actors are on fire here, set loose in a world that doesn't take them or itself too seriously, to milk all of the ridiculous family drama and over-the-top viking madness that they embody, be it Thor's wisecracks and congenital inability to be serious, or Loki's supreme intelligence and craftiness mated with even more supreme arrogance and crushing inferiority complex. These two have been doing this dance for three movies by now (four in the case of Hemsworth), so it should come as no surprise that they are practiced experts at the ridiculous, Shakespearean, and classically tragic dynamic between the two. Thor has, in many ways, evolved over the course of the films, becoming a more whole, more stable, more balanced person, one who is, at last, beginning to accept his brother for who he is, as the God of Mischief, warts and all. Loki, on the other hand, knows seemingly less about his place in the world than when he started, still resenting Thor and Odin and all of Asgard, and yet yearning so desperately for acceptance by them all. An early sequence showcasing just what Loki's been up to since we last saw him in The Dark World hits right on the money, a combination of ham-fisted narcisism, weeping hilarity (the cameos, oh god, the cameos!), and truly tragic subtext once you stop and think about what's being done. Though the film has a lot to do, and devotes less time to our dynamic pairing than previous ones did, what sequences are included are uniformly excellent, such as a frank discussion between the brothers about Loki's probable future, with Thor no longer able to bear his brother ill-will, and Loki utterly unable to decide how to react to that.

The secondary characters I mentioned before are newcomers, in one case technically, in one case literally, and they're both awesome. The Hulk is one of them, not Bruce Banner (whom we'll get to), but the Hulk himself, who following the events of Age of Ultron, disappeared into Marvel's Cosmic Universe and now makes an appearance drawn directly from the pages of Planet Hulk. Imprisoned on an alien world where he is used as a gladiatorial champion, this Hulk has existed as Hulk for long enough to develop a personality and character of his own, and it's awesome. The writers seem to have realized both the character limitations of the musclebound green monster (limitations which sank the first two standalone Hulk films), and instead decided that he'd make a great straightman in a Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy, which is genius itself. The other character is Valkyrie, played by Selma and Creed veteran Tessa Thompson. Thompson didn't impress much in those two films, but she makes up for lost time here, as her Valkyrie is a revelation. Too easily, a character like this can be introduced as nothing more than a token woman (or actor of color), either a love interest, or a tagalong, or a Strong-Independant-Woman-Who-Don't-Need-No-Man, or whatnot. Valkyrie, though, isn't just not the above (another pitfall), but an awesome, ludicrous character perfectly suiting the irreverent tone the film has in mind. Her introduction is a thing of beauty, a hero-moment spoiled, just briefly, by her falling off of her own starship due to being mind-shatteringly drunk, and her role is less token anything, than it is the fallen, dissolute veteran who must find their honor/skill/fire/guts/whatnot once again. A perfect match for the operatic viking saga that is the Thor movies in general, and Ragnarok in particular. Thompson is incredibly good, turning in a star-making performance that effortlessly fits into the wider MCU, equal parts badass and character study. I have no idea what Marvel has in mind for Valkyrie (probably, like everyone else, they intend to wait on events), but I can't wait for more, from her or from any of the others.

What others? Oh god, where do I even start? Jeff Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum, and it's wonderful. His character probably has a name, but we're fooling nobody here. Ad-libbing all of his lines (apparently), Goldblum turns his warlord/gladiator promoter into a pastiche of his own public persona, all hemming and hawing, and awkward asides to his minions about when the appropriate moment to present the melting sticks is. Waititi himself takes a voice-role as Korg, a rock-creature and fellow gladiator whose job is to be comic relief in an action-comedy, something which probably wouldn't have worked had it been anyone but Flight of the Conchordes-veteran Waititi manning the controls. Waititi apparently derived the character's demeanor and voice from those of burly Maori bouncers at Aukland nightclubs, enormous men with soft-spoken voices, who need never shout, because one glance at their size tends to defuse situations better than any screaming would. Karl Urban, of all people, makes an appearance as an Asgardian named "Scourge", well supplied with guns and less so with brains, who positions himself as the right hand man of film antagonist Hela without him (or, frankly, her) having the slightest idea of how that relationship is supposed to function. And speaking of Hela, she is portrayed by Cate Blanchett, Galadriel herself, in her finest black queen regalia and icy demeanor. I mentioned before that Marvel isn't generally that interested in their villains relative to their heroes, but Hela is the first of their villains who seems to know that, luxuriating in her long-delayed revenge and stopping periodically for deadpan moments that fit right into the overall structure of the film, and prevent her or us from taking her too seriously. Blanchett is brilliant in the role, of course she is, and the script wisely allows her to take on a role and a motivation that has nothing whatsoever to do with Thor, Loki, or anyone else present, under the principle that if the movie isn't too interested in her, she won't be bothered to be interested in it. And while I don't want to over-focus on the socio-cultural "meanings" of the movie, or anything, it is worth noting that her entire plan revolves around revealing Asgard, the brilliant, peaceful, utopian land of lily white marble (and skin) as having been originally founded on a campaign of ruthless, violent conquest and subjugation, all swept conveniently under the rug when it became politically inconvenient to remember that the bloodshed had ever taken place. Given that director Waititi is of Maori heritage, and hails from New Zealand, a nation forged through bloody wars and conquest, and which now presents itself as a friendly, liberal bastion of racial tolerance and kindness, one has to wonder how much of this subtext is accidental.

But the big win here isn't with the cast, good as they are, nor with subtext overt or subdued, it's with Waititi himself, and his screenwriters Christopher Yost and newcomer Eric Pearson, who like many teams of directors and writers in Marvel's past, have put their own stamp on an MCU piece, but with effects far, far greater than most of the previous efforts. Waititi's a comedian after all, his previous work on this project was What We Do in the Shadows (which you should go and see, dammit), and for Thor Ragnarok, his decision was to drop the dramatic-comedic balance of previous films and make a straight-out action-adventure-comedy. There will be more on that decision in a moment, but whatever you think of it, the result is one of the funniest movies I have seen in goddamn years, and that's a fact. The entire film is riotously funny, from the piss-taking of overserious buffoons like Jeff Goldblum (God, he's good at that), to lightning-fast dialogue spit-takes, many of which were ad-libbed (the elevator scene with Thor and Loki is a high point), to glorious callbacks to signature moments of the previous films, deadpanned and dressed up for the most fanservicey-sorts of comedic throwbacks as can be imagined. I've long wondered what someone utterly unacquainted with the MCU would think of films like this one, this far into the series, but as someone who is acquainted with the series, the effect is paralyzingly funny, squeezing humor from the most juvenile of jokes ("your hammer pulls you off?") and even simple sight gags or situation comedy straight out of a Steve Carrel show. Hemsworth in particular is a terribly funny man, who has The Rock's gift of being able to clown himself without sacrificing authenticity, and playing this element up in the film to produce a weird Big-Trouble-in-Little-China vibe for it is manifestly the right call. In keeping with Thor's transition to the Cinematic side of the MCU, Waititi shoots the film in bold, vibrant color, luxuriating in the rich saturated worlds that it exists in, be it Asgard's Norse fantasy realm, the bowels of assorted and various Hell dimensions, or the oppulent Vegas-goes-to-Star-Wars planet Sakaar, comprised of half piles of garbage, half Roman orgy-palace. The score is incredible as well, a mix of classic rock tracks (Zeppelin's Immigrant Song features prominently, of course), and an ethereal electro-instrumental soundtrack provided by Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo, as well as of literally dozens of other films ranging from most of Wes Anderson's work to the Lego Movie(s). The whole production, start-to-finish, is brilliantly-done, a labor of love and craft and care tremendously well-executed and realized. A tour-de-force for Marvel, Waititi, and his many collaborators.


Things Havoc disliked: That said, I do understand why some people hated it.

Okay, 'hated' is too strong a word. But I have spoken to quite a number of people, fans of the MCU in general, who were left very cold by Thor Ragnarok, for all the glitter and sparkle and hilarity on offer. And while I would hesitate to speak for all of them, the core of the objection seems to be tonal. Simply-put, Ragnarok is very different from the previous Thor movies, especially the magisterial first one, which was directed by Kenneth Branaugh in his finest Shakespearean pomp. It had comedy, to be sure, and quotable lines ("This drink! I like it!..."), but it was a family tragedy first and foremost, centered around the character arcs of Thor and Loki both, and while Ragnarok does not ever forget who these characters are, it is not at all the same thing, having eschewed most of the dramatics in favor of a straight-up comedy. And as a result, those who come in hoping for more depth to the bittersweet relationship between Loki and Thor, while they are not denied entirely, will probably find themselves disappointed, as the film is manifestly not about Thor and Loki (or really any other specific character or idea), but instead is about presenting an incredible, hilarious, and very funny adventure, starring characters we've all come to know and love. Ragnarok, ultimately, trades on its predecessors in ways that the other Marvel films typically do not, and it's only by dint of the high level of execution overall that stops the film from being honestly quite insufferable.

And it's not just Thor and Loki's relationship that gets the short shrift. Characters from previous films are either gone entirely (Sif, for instance, is nowhere to be seen), or get such a reduced share of screentime as to constitute being shelved (such as the Warriors Three). Odin is barely in the film (for admittedly defensible reasons), and while I appreciate the chance to watch Heimdall kicking ass (it's Idris Elba, I'd watch him make a sandwich), it would have unquestionably been nice to give him something substantive to actually do while he and everyone else waited for the plot to get back to him. The one who gets it the worst though, is Bruce Banner, as distinct from the Hulk. An interesting and tragic character in his own right, introduced and explored carefully in both of the Avengers movies, Banner is used basically as nothing but comic relief in the film, bumbling through his scenes as a fish out of water before it finally becomes time to let loose the Hulk once again. It's not that this is totally inappropriate given the setting, nor does Mark Ruffalo do a poor job with the material. But there's a certain lessening of the character by using him solely for this purpose that is hard to get around. Similarly, the film's relentless focus on comedy and snark also threaten to derail some of it's most genuine moments. Not that it never simply lets a moment happen, for it does, but as with the original Avengers, there's sequences that, in all honesty, could have done with a bit less guffaws and winks to the audience, and a bit more sincerity. This is particularly true near the end of the film, which is otherwise a rousing, triumphant action-setpiece, but also contains a couple of lines I would have cut, as they drain the impact from scenes that are decidedly not intended to be funny.


Final Thoughts: All hesitations aside though, Thor: Ragnarok is a goddamn marvel, a stupendously-good film that takes the series in a bold new direction with no hesitations whatsoever, and while it may not be the Thor movie that everyone wanted, its underlying qualities are so pronounced as to render the matter effectively moot. If Thor degenerates into nothing but a one-liner-ridden comedy-action mess the way the Transformers movies did, then perhaps its critics will be vindicated, but for now, I cannot confess fast enough how much I loved this film. Marvel's deranged cinematic universe has given us a lot of surprised, not the least of which was its own existence, but this film is one of the best surprises of all, presenting old characters in a new way, and giving us a film bursting at the seams with energy, excitement, and above all else, fun. Considering the comprehensive cinematic cataclysm that was Batman v. Superman, the abomination that was Suicide Squad, and the tonally-dissonent mess that reviewers are describing for Justice League (which I have no plans to see, thank you very much), Thor Ragnarok did not need to be this good to earn my praise. But it is this good, one of the finest films that Marvel has to offer, and the best thing they have done in their entire Third Phase of moviemaking.

Though if the trailers for Black Panther are properly indicative, it may soon have some competition on that front...

Final Score: 9/10

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2017 10:42 pm 
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I thought the character work between Loki and Thor was pretty good. We saw a Thor that is pretty much over Loki, he's not mad anymore, he's not disappointed, he's just... Let it go and is moving on with his life. Loki on the flip side isn't over Thor, he's not able to really deal with the idea of not being a major part of Thor's world and can't really see a path to making a world separate from Asgard and his family. What Loki wants is explicitly to be celebrated and lauded by Asgard and Thor but what Thor wants is for Loki to just move on.

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 05, 2017 1:26 am 
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And now for something completely somewhat 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 it, everyone!

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 filmmaking 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 Lian 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 busses 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 pre-ordained 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 filmly 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

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2017 12:57 am 
Mr. Party-Killbot
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You're not done yet, ladies and gentlemen. It's New Years' weekend, and that means it's finally time to catch up once and for all.

The General's Post Fall Roundup, Part 2




Murder on the Orient Express

Alternate Title: Mustaches on the Orient Express

One sentence synopsis: Internationally-famed detective Hercule Poirot must spring into action when a man with many enemies is murdered aboard a luxury train in Eastern Europe


The Verdict: Those whose tastes run to detective fiction must know of Agatha Christie's most enduring creation, the fastidious Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, a 20th century rendition of the Sherlocke Holmes archetype, the eccentric sleuth whose perceptions and deductive skill penetrates all efforts at obfuscation. The character has been portrayed dozens of times, by great actors across stage, screen, and television, including David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Ian Holm, and even Orson Welles (in a 1939 radio-play). It's not entirely astonishing to find someone like Kenneth Branaugh, a man who has never seen a piece of scenery he could not eat, nor a classic character he did not wish to cast himself as, deciding to undertake a rendition of his own.

Unfortunately, nothing else is particularly astonishing either.

Murder on the Orient Express, despite the services of an impeccable cast, a luxurious old-world location, and several decent-to-good ideas on the part of the cinematographer (Cypriot veteran Haris Zambarloukos, of Locke, and Branaugh's Thor), is pretty much a dud, and for this we really have nobody except Branaugh himself to blame, given that he directed the film, starred in it, and helped produce it in conjunction with Scott Free films (Ridley Scott's production company). It is a rote film, blessed with neither novel ideas as to how to perform the material nor any sense of proper excitement as it runs through its labyrinthine and yet rather absurd plot. None of this is the fault of the cast, a fascinating collection of excellent actors, including Judy Dench, Willem Defoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley, all of whom do serviceable work as the various European and American archetypes they are assigned, particularly Dench's turn as a Russian Heiress and Defoe's as a bigotted Austrian doctor who is more than he seems. But none of the characters are given any real personalities beyond the vaguest sketches, it's as though Branaugh instructed all of them to do nothing more than look vaguely worried and recite their lines with a minimum of emotional effort. And given the sheer size of the cast, and the mechanical requirements of the plot (a murder has occurred, and Poirot must interrogate the various persons present to determine who the guilty party is), what this means is that the entire movie is simply a series of discussions wherein Poirot asks the same stone-faced upper-middle-class professional a series of questions which will slightly discomfit them, causing them to glance about their railway car in a guilty fashion before he moves on to the next one. Repeat for two hours and roll credits.

The plot's insane, of course. A wealthy American (Johnny Depp, an actor that studios seem to think we continue to want to see in the late 2010s) with a shady past is murdered while on a train from Istanbul to Vienna, and Poirot must deduce which of the other passengers has murdered him, after first digging into their backgrounds and associations with the murder victim, associations which every single one of them is plentifully supplied. I don't really blame the movie for this, as the book it's based on is equally labyrinthine, but the duty of the filmmakers is not only to give us something to elevate the complex material, but also to differentiate the film from the 1974 version, a rendition that (though I have little use for it) was regarded in its day as being one of the finest mystery thrillers ever made, directed by the great Sydney Lumet and starring a veritable cornucopia of towering screen actors, including Sean Connery (back when he still gave a shit), Lauren Bacall, (Sir) John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), and even Ingrid Bergman (who won her third Oscar for the role). It's not that Branaugh has no ideas as to how to freshen the material, for he does, including a few bits of interesting cinematography (such as an extended long-take from overhead to show the reveal of the murder, with all of the characters hidden from view by their period hats), as well as re-casting one of the principal suspects (Doctor Arbuthnot) as a black veteran of WWI, so as to entwine the racial dynamics of the 1920s into the plot. But minor changes to an established formula are not enough to salvage anything really interesting from the whole affair. As to Branaugh himself, the best that can really be said is that he fails to embaress himself unduly, despite the ridiculous French accent and a mustache that someone really should have talked him out of (though admittedly, a sight gag of the mustache protector he wears at night is pretty good).

The 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express is hardly an abomination, but in a year that has been packed full of great films, it is a decidedly amateurish, and fairly boring effort, one that does little beyond rehash the warmed over material without adding any spice to the mixture. It is a filler film that comes and goes without much actual impact, despite the services of the many talented and skilled individuals who were committed to its creation. It's honestly not worth spending as much time on as I have already, let alone any more, so my suggestion, given the transcendent year we've been having, and the plethora of excellent movies on offer, that you give this one a pass and go watch something worthwhile.


Final Score: 4.5/10




Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Alternate Title: South Fargo

One sentence synopsis: A woman purchases space on three billboards outside a small town, demanding to know why the police have not solved the rape and murder of her daughter.


The Verdict: ... for instance, you could consider this.

Martin McDonagh is a man with a strange pedigree when it comes to film in specific and art in general. An English/Irish expat who is probably better known as a playwright than a filmmaker, he has directed only a couple of films, but these included the wonderfully quirky, and difficult to describe In Bruges, as well as 2012's incredibly strange (too much so for its own good, frankly), Seven Psychopaths. This isn't enough of a filmography to really establish a career trajectory, but insofar as one can describe McDonagh's work, he seems to be a fan of extremely black comedy. This isn't exactly an uncommon affectation for the indie-minded directorial set, and there is an established cabal of actors who make the circuit of such films, floating in and out of the Coen Brothers' orbits. Among these actors are Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell, and it is to them that McDonagh has turned to create one of the blackest comedies I've ever seen.

And holy hell, it's so good.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (the length of the title is going to necessitate some adjustment) is a wonderful film, brilliantly written, acted, shot, and produced on every level, a tour-de-force and one of the best movies of an incredible year. It is packed full of bleak humor and deep sincerity, with characters that are blunt and violent and awful and cruel and deeply human on every level. It introduces us to characters that have few if any parallels across mainstream cinema, and forces us to watch their lives and the way that they interact, mocking their foibles and showcasing their flaws all while forcing us to look past the mockery and the condemnation at the humanity beneath. No, I have not just segued into a particularly bad bout of Leonard Malkin worship, that is simply what the movie is about, and if you need further proof as to its qualities, consider that the film is more than two hours long, and part of the reason I didn't give it an even higher score is that I felt like it ended way too early.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the divorced mother of a dead daughter and a living son, the former having been raped and murdered by an unknown assailant some seven months before. Seething with anger and resentment at the lack of progress in the case, she takes it upon herself to rent out three billboards outside of town, castigating the town police chief by name for not prioritizing her case, and lashing out angrily at anyone who tries to talk her into taking them down, whether they attempt to do so by careful persuasion or blunt intimidation. This leaves Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, who has finally found a good role to play) in a bit of a bind, as he has no leads with which to solve the murder, and is presently busy dying of pancreatic cancer regardless. Willoughby's attempts to coax Mildred into taking down her billboards quietly are rebuffed, which infuriates Willoughby's chief deputy, Officer Dixon (Rockwell), a violent, racist thug and incompetent who nonetheless dreams of becoming a detective one day, and who takes care of his widowed mother as best he can. All of these characters, and the ones that surround them are fully realized people, horrible at times, violent, blunt and emotional, and watching them bounce off of one another is a true treasure. McDormand is on fire here, brimming over with relentless moral absolutism as she devastatingly rejects any and all excuses for why her daughter's murder has not been solved. Yet the film doesn't let her off the hook either, as her crusade for justice leads her to make demands that every male in town (or the country) have their DNA requisitioned to determine their guilt, and to ignore and even belittle the consequences that her crusade has for her still-living son (Manchester-by-the-Sea's Lucas Hedges). Harrelson, an actor I've never had a lot of use for, is almost as good this time, a cynical, weary sheriff who is simply trying to do right by everyone he knows with what little time he has left, the only person in town who manages to disarm Mildred, if only for a moment. But the star of the show is Rockwell, who takes a character that in any other movie would be a (entirely genuine) caricature of small-town ignorance, and manages to humanize even him, using his gift for acidic comic timing and incomparable character work to render Officer Dixon into something more than just a repulsive slug, all without losing the inherent awfulness of who he is and what he does. McDonagh wisely simply lets the characters work, filling in the gaps with superb secondary work by actors like John Hawkes, playing Mildred's violent, probably-abusive ex-husband (again without losing the humanity of the character), or Peter Dinklage (who worked with McDonagh on In Bruges), playing a local car salesman with a deeply un-reciprocated crush on Mildred, who among other things gets one of the best lines in the film.

Mouthful though the name is, and limited though its release was, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an exceptional film, a staggering triumph of character design, writing, and acting, showcasing excellent actors at the peak of their craft. Not only does it contrive to present characters more rich, more nuanced, and more textured than most films would dare attempt, but it does all of this while still managing to come out a comedy, albeit a very dark one indeed. Moments like Dixon's inability to find his badge during a moment where it is particularly important that he do so, or Mildred getting one over on a dentist who decides to take it upon himself to enforce his own moral policing on her behavior are simply ludicrously funny, despite or perhaps because of the underlying issues smouldering beneath the town surface. The entire production is a consequent gem, a movie that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys pure cinema, or anything related to the Coen Brothers' orbit.

But... if this sort of thing isn't really up your alley, don't worry...

Final Score: 8.5/10




Coco

Alternate Title: El Mariachi

One sentence synopsis: A boy who dreams of becoming a musician finds his way into the Land of the Dead, and must discover the truth about his ancestors.


The Verdict: ... we've got you covered.

Pixar was the defining animation studio of the 2000s, of that there's really no debating. The 2010s... not so much. An increasing addition to sequels to movies that were not all that good in the first place (the Cars series for instance) was coupled with new features that simply did not meet the high standards of their glory days. Brave, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur were decent movies, certainly, but not the equal of masterpieces like Up and Wall-E, and even these were intercut with things like Monsters University, Cars 2/3, and Finding Dory, which varied from the good to the... less good. Admittedly, most of the above films would have been perfectly acceptable offerings from any studio other than Pixar, but setting high expectations comes with the price of not being able to slum it insofar as the critics are concerned. And with parent company Disney's own in-house animation studio producing signature masterpieces like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, I, at least, began to wonder if Disney hadn't poached all of Pixar's best people or ideas, and if the studio would ever return to the prominence it once enjoyed.

I still wonder that, to be frank, but the question has become somewhat more nuanced in recent weeks, because it turns out that Coco is a goddamn masterpiece.

Yes, that's right, from out of nowhere whatsoever, Pixar has pulled a gem out of their bag of tricks and given us a movie as great as their classics of yesteryear, a film that deserves to sit in the same pantheon as the finest Pixar films to be found. Though not an emotional gut-ripper like Up or Toy Story 3 (movies I have watched reduce whole theaters to puddles of slobbery tears), nor perhaps quite the equal of the singular animated achievement that was Wall-E (one of the finest animated films ever made), Coco is nonetheless a staggeringly great film, thanks to a compelling story, wonderful music, gorgeous animation, and a whimsical sense of fantastical fun drawn from another of the diverse collection of world mythologies that Pixar (and Disney) have decided to dive into in recent times, in this case the Mexican folklore surrounding Dia de los Muertos, known better north of the border as the Day of the Dead.

Miguel Rivera, the young scion of a large Mexican family of shoemakers, dreams of becoming a musician, like his great-great-grandfather before him, a world-famous balladeer who died in an untimely accident many years before. Unfortunately, his family is stridently against music and musicians, due to turmoils stemming back to the family's past, and forbids such pursuits. With the Day of the Dead approaching, and the boundaries between spirit and real worlds wearing customarily thin, Miguel's efforts to circumvent his family-imposed restrictions lands him as an accidental trespasser in the Land of the Dead, where his large, extended family of dead relatives further complicates matters. The mythology here is rich and detailed, but not spelled out beyond the absolute basics required to follow the plot, relying instead on a deep, rich, beautifully-textured and omnicolored art design that draws from everything from Aztec reliefs to Diego Rivera and everything in between. From Alebrijes (chimerical particolored creatures of Mexican folklore), to posthumous cameos by Frida Kahlo and El Santo (just... look them up), the movie is absolutely dripping in clever cultural in-jokes and references, all rendered in Pixar style, with a color palate that explodes off the screen, and a depth of field that, even in 2D, seems to stretch on for miles. What feats of technical wizardry were required to produce this gorgeous film, I can't possibly say, but the effort was worth it, as rarely, even in animation, does one encounter a visual feast such as the one Coco has to offer.

Equally good is the voice-cast, neither stunt-cast from name-brand celebrities nor tossed out as the least important element of the film (you may laugh, but I've watched major studios do both of those things with multi-hundred-million-dollar animated films in the last couple of years alone). Gael Garcia Bernal, of The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel, No, and Desierto, voices Hector, a con-artist and poor dead man with nobody left in the living world to remember him, with whom Miguel falls in in his attempt to find his illustrious ancestor. The ancestor in question is voiced by the increasingly ubiquitous Benjamin Bratt, an actor I have had little use for in the past (he was not exactly riveting in The Infiltrator), but who is unrecognizably excellent in this. Indeed both Bernal and Bratt, as well as youngster Anthony Gonzalez (playing Miguel) are spot on perfect in voice work that rivals anything being done in any animated context in recent years. Miguel is a clever, driven boy, desperate to follow his dreams despite the violent opposition of his entire extended family, living and dead alike, Hector is a trickster and a scoundrel, apparently on first-name terms with half of the dead of Mexico (most of whom would seemingly kill him if he wasn't already dead), while Miguel's Great Grandfather, Ernesto De la Cruz, is the sort of character that would be appearing in particularly un-self-aware telanovellas from the 1940s, all large hats and sweeping gestures. All three, along with a veritable army of secondary and tertiary characters are drawn so brilliantly well, but figuratively and literally, that the movie just (if you'll forgive the term, pops to life before you. And then there's the music, assembled by veteran film composer Michael Giacchino, whose credits include everything from Zootopia to Rogue One to half of Marvel's Phase 3 offerings. Infused deeply with everything from Bolero to Flamenco to Salsa to classic Mariachi fare, it's a fantastic accompaniment for a film that is, ultimately, about diving headfirst into a fantasy realm and luxuriating in its richness.

Coco is certainly not a perfect movie. The film's plot, when boiled down to bare bones, is nothing that special, and it carries a very strange message that could easily be interpreted as "stick with your family, even when they are abusive dicks", but balanced against the fundamental qualities of the film as a film, such complaints are very small beer. Coco is the first Pixar film in nearly a decade that has earned the title of "a Pixar film", and this fact alone should banish all doubt. It is a bouncy, adventurous film, with a vibrant atmosphere and a genuine warmth absent from all but the absolute finest animated movies on offer. Practically everything about this movie is fantastic, and if, like me, you assumed that Pixar's best years were behind them... well you were still probably right, but at least they can still muster up the old magic when it really matters.

Final Score: 8.5/10




The Disaster Artist

Alternate Title: Oh Hi, Oscarbait!

One sentence synopsis: A would-be actor meets one of the strangest men on Earth, who finances, writes, and directs a feature film that will go on to become one of the worst movies ever made.


The Verdict: There's a concept in film criticism of a movie being "so bad, it's good", movies that are so baffling in their utter wretchedness that they become paradoxically fascinating and even highly enjoyable to watch. As someone who has spent more than their fair share of time watching bad films, I can assure you all, my gentle readers, that such concepts are 99% crap. Bad movies are generally just bad movies, unless of course they are really bad, at which point they become truly awful movies, and you all get to chortle at my misfortune as I expend rivers of virtual ink excoriating them for your amusement. And yet, even I have to admit that there are a very, very small handful of movies who actually do manage to attain some kind of idiot-nirvana, either by being so alien to common sense and decency as to defy belief, or by evidencing an almost touching lack of awareness of their own purulence. Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous Ed Wood magnum opus, is one such film, a movie that today plays like a brilliant parody of Z-grade 50s sci-fi, and features a chiropractor with his face covered serving as a stand-in for Bela Legosi, who died midway through production. Zardoz, the 1974 John Boorman film that can only be explained by vast quantities of hallucinogens or a series of massive brain aneurysms, is another (it features Sean Connery in a red diaper chasing a flying Easter Island statue which vomits assault rifles and intones, with stark gravitas, "The gun is good. The penis is evil"). In all the many years and hundreds and thousands of movies I have seen, only a handful of films have ever reached the lofty heights of being truly so bad that they were good. And one of those is The Room.

The Room, for those who haven't seen it, is a film that defies description in terms of its direction, script, and acting, all three provided by a certain Tommy Wiseau, who is one of the strangest people I have encountered in all my years of filmwatching. A mysterious pan-European film producer of unknown origin, whose accent is unsourceably weird and whose mannerisms resemble those of space aliens unacquainted with the proper functioning of human social structures, Wiseau was the brainchild of The Room, and for this has my eternal thanks. To attempt to describe what is wrong with The Room in a short-form review like this one is simply impossible. Like the Matrix before it, you must see it for yourself, hear Wiseau's unfathomable accent, see the brain-twistingly insane decisions made as to continuity, shot selection, and simple concept, in order to appreciate just what a colossal misfire that it is. And yet I love it, earnestly and honestly, for reasons that I do not properly comprehend, and which likely do not speak well of my general nature as a person. There is something endearing about The Room's cosmic lack of shame and filter, something utterly fearless about its baffling failure to rise to any rudimentary standard of filmcraft and narrative structure. It is platonic in its awfulness, and the ineffable qualities that have led me to love it are apparently not restricted to me, as the film has become a cult hit, playing to midnight screens of rabid "fans", and now, giving birth to a major Hollywood movie depicting its creation, and the minds, tangential to sense as they are, that could have dreamed up such a thing. And so we come to the Franco brothers.

James Franco has been a hit or miss quality for me for years, though on balance I don't mind him, and it is his task in this film to portray Tommy Wiseau, a Herculean one to be sure, as Wiseau has simultaneously one of the most imitable mannerisms and accents of any living human, and a quality to him that utterly defies replication. James does his method-acting best, hamming up the crazy Eastern-European-by-way-of-New-Orleans accent, donning the tragic black hair and curious mannerisms, acting weird at every opportunity, claiming to all and sundry that he is both a native-born American and an experienced filmmaker, all while evidencing absolutely no understanding of either filmmaking or American culture. It's honestly more of an impression than a performance, if I'm being honest, a little too deliberate to actually match the gonzo insanity that is Tommy Wiseau, especially when trying to mirror some of the more infamous sequences from The Room itself. Maybe James Franco is just too good an actor? Hard to say. His brother, however, Dave Franco, whom we ran into earlier this year back in The Little Hours, is better, or perhaps just better cast, playing Greg Sistero, Tommy's best (and probably only) friend, co-star of the Room, and the man who wrote the book on which The Disaster Artist is based. I've not seen enough of Dave Franco to properly gauge how good he is, but his forte seems to be playing earnest young guys getting dragged into strange circumstances they don't quite know how to deal with. Honestly though, however accurate Dave Franco is to the "real" Greg SIstero, he's intensely compelling here, playing the eager young actor who is made to bear witness to the absurd oddity of Tommy Wiseau, as well as the one tasked with showcasing to the audience just what he saw in Tommy in the first place. It's a careful balancing act that's not easy to pull off given the gonzo insanity of the subject matter.

The rest of the film is entirely peopled with a who's who of Hollywood actors, all of whom, I assume, thought it would be fun to appear in a bad movie on purpose for once. The film doesn't draw attention to any of them, to the point where I didn't know that bit characters were being played by Sharon Stone or Melanie Griffith until just a few moments ago, to say nothing of the dozens of little cameos, most of which flew right over my head. Long-time Franco collaborator Seth Rogan plays the embattled Script Supervisor/Assistant Director, and is used just sparingly enough to provide a voice of reason as the shoot for The Room goes completely off the rails, and the production falls apart. The other actors portraying the characters in The Room (the film-within-a-film thing is necessitating an awful lot of over-clarification in this review) range from Jackie Weaver (whom I've always loved) to Josh Hutcherson (whom I've generally not), but all of them are excellent (though Weaver, alone among the cast, cannot seem to get her counterpart's stilted performance right), and are buttressed by an armada of cameos from largely anyone who could convince the director (also James Franco, because a movie like this could only be directed by its lead actor) that they should be involved in it. Quite a few celebrities star as themselves, including super-producer Judd Apatow, who gets to steal one of the better scenes in the film when he berates Tommy for being a creepy bastard and interrupting his dinner out with his wife, insisting to him that he has no future in the movies.

Indeed, the whole film is more about Tommy the weird and occasionally creepy bastard, than it is about the fun-loving keystone-kop hilarity that was The Room's production. The movie pulls few punches when it comes to Tommy, recognizing his passion for filmmaking, his deep and abiding loneliness, as well as his staggeringly petty behavior as soon as anything comes between him and his one friend or goal. Without trying to diagnose a man over the internet, Tommy in this movie comes across as a truly weird individual, not in a conventional "zany artist" manner, nor a bumbling incompetent, but a sometimes-vindictive, sometimes-incomprehensible, sometimes-tragic, and sometimes-absurd figure who simply has latched onto the idea of making a movie with himself as the hero, and will not be talked out of it, no matter how batshit insane the ideas he has surrounding this notion are. This does not make Tommy Wiseau look particularly good, but paradoxically it humanizes him far more than all the gut-wrenching laughs to be had from The Room showings ever could.

I won't pretend that The Disaster Artist is some masterpiece, particularly as large stretches of it seem to have been included simply to pander to rabid fans of The Room (something I recognize, even as I appreciate it. And as mentioned before, for a film whose entire existence hinges on Franco's impression of the highly-impressionable Tommy Wiseau, Franco's impression is not exactly world-class. But it's an enjoyable and very human film nonetheless, a look into the side of Hollywood far removed from glitter and Oscar statuettes, and the story of how one of the weirdest films I have ever seen (and boy is that saying something) came into being. It may not win many awards, but I am deeply glad that I saw it, and that Tommy Wiseau lifelong dream to have his work appreciated on the big screen has come to fruition.

Though I have to say, if this movie somehow wins an Oscar, and the winner in question brings Tommy Wiseau up onto the stage to help accept it, then my lifelong dream will also be complete.

Final Score: 7/10

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 02, 2018 11:38 pm 
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One last catch-up, before we can start the New Year fresh. One last journey into the breach, dear friends.

The General's Post Winter Roundup, Part 3




The Shape of Water

Alternate Title: Fishfucking

One sentence synopsis: A mute custodian at a top secret research clinic gets to know a strange, magical fish-creature brought there from the Amazon at the height of the Cold War.


The Verdict: No, I don't think the alt-title is at all inappropriate, given what this move is about. You go see an R-Rated Guillermo del Toro movie, and you're gonna see some strange shit, man.

I'm a movie critic, and therefore I'm more or less contractually obligated to sing the praises of Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro, and to discourse windily whenever his name comes up about how much of a visionary he is relative to the studio hacks that populate Hollywood, etc etc etc... Unfortunately, I've always been hamstrung by the fact that I've disliked more of his movies than I've liked. Yes, Pan's Labyrinth was a masterpiece. Yes, the Hellboy series is awesome. But absent those two, we're left with crap like Mimic, Crimson Peak, Blade II, and Pacific Rim (yes, Pacific Rim was crap. Fight me!). He's a fantastic visual director, one of the few imagesmiths in Hollywood who really understands the soul behind B-movie genres like splatter-horror and Kaiju, but he also brings a real lack of narrative and structural polish to the proceedings, which ultimately result in most of his films turning out to be average creature features with excellent art design. I was consequently nervous about this new features of his, a send-up to Creature from the Black Lagoon, but was somewhat re-assured by the strength of the cast.

So who's in it? Well Michael Shannon, for one, an absolutely stellar character actor who has been in bad movies but never been bad in them, and who here is playing to type as a tightly-wound G-man in charge of a project to capture a fish-man thing from the Amazon jungle and bring it to the United States for testing. Shannon is in his element here, menacing and fragile and awkward and creepy all at the same time, a pastiche of 50s stoicism asked to loom about as only he can. His nemesis, this time around, is English indie actress Sally Hawkins. I've yet to have an opportunity to speak of Hawkins in these reviews, as she's always been firmly lodged in the independent film circuit (she's been in several recent Woody Allen films, and won a slew of awards for a 2008 Mike Leigh comedy). Nevertheless, I now have cause to regret the lack for she is fantastic in this movie, pulling off one of the hardest tricks in the world by creating a comprehensive, three-dimensional character, complete with goals, desires, aspirations, and libido (it's astounding how often the scriptwriters forget that part), all without speaking a word. Her character, Elisa, is a mute, communicating only by sign language and expression, a useful characteristic when dealing with fish-men who do not possess vocal chords. The movie does not infantalize her, which is a rarety for characters with disabilities, and her performance is the best thing here.

The rest of the cast is equally stellar, from Boardwalk Empire's Michael Stuhlbarg as a concerned scientist (movies like this require one), to Olivia Spencer, who is basically playing the sassy black friend, but is really damn good at it, so who am I to complain, to Richard Jenkins as a closeted gay artist who lives next to Eliza, and who, due to his co-star being mute, gets to steal all the best lines in the film. The creature itself, meanwhile (played, of course, by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones), while it isn't the phantasmagorical nightmare-beast of some of del Toro's other creations (the fucking Pale Man has everyone beat there), is toned down into something more humanizable and evocative, which is a good thing, given that the movie requires it not to be terrifying to be pitied, studied, and, eventually, screwed. Yes, screwed. The movie is explicit about this, so if you ever wanted to see a scene where the mother from Paddington Bear has sex with a fish-man, boy, have I got a film for you. I'm not sure if this aspect adds to the movie or not, to be honest, the sequences are fine but it brings up certain unavoidably uncomfortable questions (of consent, for one thing). Then again, this is a fairy tale, and del Toro a modern fantabulist who does not shy away from the adult materials therein, so I suppose I should not complain. The film makes the most of its early-cold-war setting, with everything taking place inside massive ferrocrete bunkers, gargantuan brutalist laboratories, enormous industrial plants, or spiraling, Victorian buildings. Always, the aesthetic seems to be elegant corners carved out of enormous facilities, like the upstairs lofts that Eliza and her neighbor inhabit above a richly-appointed movie palace. None of this is all that uncommon for del Toro, consider where Hellboy took place, but it works with the paranoid structure of Shannon's character, and as a space for Eliza and her friends to scoot about in unseen.

Ultimately, The Shape of Water isn't a great movie, it's a bit too pedestrian a retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon for that, despite the fish-sex, but it is a good one, in parts a very good one. Del Toro's command of space and aesthetic is entirely intact, and despite the absurdities on-offer, the movie does not embarrass itself at any point. It does seem to think that there's more hay to be made from its central conceit of "look how uptight the 50s were" than there is, given that every film since 1966 has had the same, but that doesn't hurt it overmuch. As such, if creature features are your thing, this film will be an excellent choice. And if not, then give it a shot anyway. Where else are you likely to encounter a sign language explanation of the proper functioning of fish-man sexual organs.

... you know what, I don't want to know the answer to that.


Final Score: 7/10




Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Alternate Title: Jumanji: GOTY Edition

One sentence synopsis: Four high school students discover a video game that transports them into a fantastic adventure world.


The Verdict: The original Jumanji, a 1995 movie by pulp-master-general Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Captain America), was not a great movie, but it was a good one, a Robin Williams vehicle that was funny and adventurous when it needed to be, didn't take itself tremendously seriously, and did everything it needed to do in order to be remembered fondly as a landmark of 90s nostalgia. As we presently live in the era when 90s nostalgia is regarded as a lode to be mined by every film studio on the planet, of course we wound up with a sequel, and I probably would have given it not a second thought, save that the trailers... intrigued me. They promised a movie that was fun and funny, starring multiple comedians of note, and placing, front and center, one of my favorite actors working, and the highest-paid man in Hollywood at the moment, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Dwayne Johnson is a man hewed directly out of calcified charisma, who has been in bad movies but always manages to elevate them at least somewhat, and so I went to see this movie, expecting that The Rock would headline a cavalcade of adventure-comedy and bring a smile to my face.

What I did not expect was for the film to remind me how much I have missed Kevin Hart, and Jack Black.

Kevin Hart is a comedian who rides a very thin line between funny and annoying, and who has fallen off of it before. He generally appears in awful-looking films that I have no interest in seeing, and so I have not had much to do with him in the last several years. And now I regret this lack, because Hart is riotously funny in this movie, easily the best thing in it. With the premise being that four high schoolers are transported into video game archetypes in the world of Jumanji, Hart plays a football star who finds himself now in the diminuative body of... well... Kevin Hart, and is not happy about it in the slightest. The sequences where he tries to exert his will physically against The Rock are exactly as hilarious as you would expect, as both men are skilled physical comedians, and are in their element here. Almost as good is Jack Black, who often plays a caricature of himself, but this time does a brilliant job as an instagram-obsessed popular girl/airhead shunted into the body of an overweight, middle-aged man. In lesser hands, or with a lesser script, this could all have been played as nothing but a Gay Panic joke, but Black plays the material sermon-straight, which is manifestly the right choice. Perhaps the best sequence in the movie is one where he, as the popular girl, must teach Karen Gillian, a bookish nerd-girl transported into the body of Lara-Croft-style sex bomb, how to be sexy and flirtatious. As to Gillian herself, I've not known her from much beyond certain seasons of Doctor Who, but she's excellent here, playing a semi-genre-savvy high school revolutionary who abruptly finds herself stuck in a crop top and short shorts, and given the ability to dance-fight with armed men. Ironically, the only main character who doesn't pop off the screen the way the rest of them do is The Rock himself, not from any lack of charisma (God no), but because his character arc (the nerdy hero who gets transported into Superman's body, and must discover his inner bravery) doesn't allow for much. There's moments, of course, any movie with The Rock is likely to have those, but overall, the movie puts The Rock in a back-seat position when it comes to the best lines and sequences. It's a weird decision, narratively.

Unfortunately, it's also the only at-all weird decision that the filmmakers made. The new Jumanji is the brainchild of Jake Kasdan, son of the renowned Laurence Kasdan, one of the very greatest genre scriptwriters to ever work in Hollywood (his resume includes Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and four separate Oscar nominations. This may be unfair, but his son has a lot of catching up to do. There's nothing tremendously wrong with the structure of Jumanji or with its direction, but that's only because the movie is as formula as you can get, a structure-obsessed piece of Hollywood fluff, with action setpieces parceled out at precise intervals, between which lie beats of character "drama" so obvious that one knows which way the film is going with them before they even begin. I certainly wasn't looking to a Jumanji sequel to revolutionize my understanding of narrative storytelling, certainly, but it's disappointing that nothing was done to spice the material up beyond hiring comic actors with charisma and giving them license to improvise. And even that doesn't extend to everyone. Bobby Cannavale, a fine character actor whom I know best from various television dramas, has basically nothing to do, playing a one-note video game boss (literally) whose biggest character attribute is the ability to spit centipedes from his mouth. More importantly, a fifth member of the troupe, un-announced by the trailers, turns out to be portrayed by one of the Jonas Brothers of all people (Nick, for those who can tell them apart). The best thing that can be said about Nick Jonas in this film is that he does not embarrass himself. The worst thing that can be said is that the previous sentence was the best thing.

So... Jumanji is not some kind of epochal story, destined to be remembered for all time, nor even a side-splitting classic of modern comedy, but for all that, it is not without its charms. I mean what I say when I praise all four of the leads, even The Rock, who may not have much to do, but mugs for the camera regardless in the best Rockian fashion. I won't pretend that I loved the film, but it's a decent enough little diversion, enjoyable on its own terms, and one that doesn't take itself seriously enough to ruin the proceedings. I can't pretend it will be remembered as a classic, nor that it will be featuring strong in my memory, but for what it is, it's an entertaining film, and one should never become too cynical to appreciate that.

Final Score: 6/10




Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi

Alternate Title: Metastory

One sentence synopsis: As the First Order attempts to eradicate the last remnants of the resistance, Rey seeks to unravel her destiny as a wielder of the Force with the help of Luke Skywalker.


The Verdict: So, here we are.

It's a new year now, and every movie critic alive, from myself to the professionals, is presently engaged in looking back over the year just ended to see what sense can be pulled from it. Personally, I've been trying to catch up for the first time all year so that I can start 2018 with no review backlog (be still, my beating heart!), but as a result, I feel like I've come a bit late to the discussion of Star Wars, by which I mean that everyone has already commenced calling one another Nazis over their opinion of the film, and I feel sad to have missed my chance to be so-labelled. All joking aside, The Last Jedi has been one of the most polarizing movies that even recent history records. Though it has, thus far, made a billion dollars worldwide, there are those who still see those numbers as somewhat disappointing, given the scale of the all-out global media offensive that has accompanied it (has anyone seen a car ad that didn't feature Star Wars in the last couple months?). More importantly, the responses to the movie from critics and audience-goers alike has been decidedly mixed, with the obvious result that everyone has begun calling one another cucks, libtards, Nazis, racists and citing Donald Trump. Boy do I love the internet.

It's unlikely, given everything, that this review is going to be the deciding factor as to whether any of you reading it go see the movie, indeed its unlikely, given everything, that any of you haven't seen it already. As such, my purpose here must be a bit different than the standard review tenet of "tell the people whether they should see the film", but rather a retrospective of what I, an experienced filmgoer and fan of Star Wars, thought of the proceedings. And the answer? Well... it's complicated.

Let's get some basic elements out of the way. The Last Jedi is, above everything else, heartrendingly beautiful, shot and framed like a work of fine art, with a richness and eye for visual detail that stands alongside any of the great genre works of yesteryear. Certain sequences reference visually the classic shots of the old trilogy, while others showcase the universe of Star Wars in a way that we've never before seen. The soundtrack is spectacular, because of course it is, rousing and classical, and though it lacks any of the singular touchstone leitmotifs like the Imperial March or Duel of the Fates, it still buttresses the action tremendously well. The acting is superb across the board, something not always the case with Star Wars movies, with the standouts being Daisy Ridley (Rey), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), both of whom get the best and juiciest material as they both struggle with their place in the universe, with responsibility and duty, with their respective pasts, and with what place they wish to have in the new universe being created. Both of these actors took a while to grow on me in the first movie, but both of them are stand-out amazing here, and feature in several of the best sequences in the film, including a lightsaber combat (I shall speak no more of who is fighting what) that is the hands-down highlight of the entire affair. They are not, however, alone in this, as the returning characters from the original trilogy are just as good, with Carrie Fisher turning in her best performance in the entire series (as is fitting) as the world-weary, but still struggling on figurehead of the entire resistance, a figure of almost mythical reverence to her crew and officers, and who gets several of the funniest lines in the movie. Mark Hamill, meanwhile, is absolutely on fire this time, playing Luke Skywalker not as simply Yoda to Rey's Luke, but as a bitter, defeated hermit, who has lived now long enough to see the cycles that perpetuate across the galaxy with the choices he and others have made, and wants to be done with it all. The story is consequently less Rey learning the ways of the Force from a wise old master, than it is Luke facing down what demons and flaws he had within him all along, trying to make a younger force sensitive see the larger picture to the mythic events of the day, and trying to provide not only guidance for Rey, but closure for himself. Finally, I'm just gonna come out and say it: The Porgs are cute and awesome. Fight me.

But let's be honest here, all of you already knew all of this before opening this review. Of course the visuals were amazing, they cost over half a billion dollars to produce. Of course the score is excellent, John Williams is a God. Of course the lead actors are great, we found that out from the previous movie. So what do I have to tell you about this film, as a Star Wars film, and its qualities or lack thereof? Well, simply put, this is probably the most daring Star Wars film I've ever seen, one of the most daring major franchise films of all time, purely because of the decisions that it makes concerning what the movie is actually about, both in terms of theme and tone, and in terms of simple plot mechanics. This is commendable, hell in some ways it's downright revolutionary. But it's also the source of a lot of problems, as some of the decisions the film makes, ballsy as they are, just aren't good.

What do I mean? Well, it's mostly a matter of structure and narrative. The concern prior to the film being released was that as Force Awakens was basically a clone of A New Hope, that Last Jedi would basically be a retread of Empire Strikes Back. It is very, very much not that, which is a positive overall, but it also makes the choice of sending my favorite character from the new series, former-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) down a plot cul-de-sac for the first hour of the movie for no real purpose beyond tendentious gestures at the wider universe that never really pay off to anything. It's not that Finn gets no screentime, for he does, nor that he is unenjoyable to watch during this time, for he is, but the whole sequence is awkwardly-placed, features the worst writing of the entire film, and sticks Finn next to an additional character, new to the series, named Rose. Again, there's nothing wrong with the concept here, Rose is the sort of below-decks, non-fantastical character that we don't get to see a lot of in Star Wars, nor does her actress (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) do a poor job of portraying her. But the character feels shoehorned into the proceedings, given an immediate importance well beyond the scope of what her position in the narrative would appear to warrant, to the point where I seriously considered the possibility that this was a character introduced in some ancillary related media (a book, comic, or TV episode) with which I was simply expected to be familiar. A similar fate befalls Laura Dern's newly-introduced Admiral Holdo, brought into the narrative with the cinematic equivalent of trumpets to announce her advent, only for her entire plot arc to be a massive contrivance bordering on an idiot plot, wherein many large-scale problems could easily have been resolved with a single word to the right person, and were not solely so that Poe Dameron (still ably played by Oscar Isaac) has something to do for the first half of the film. Yes, Laura Dern is excellent overall. Yes her character arc is resolved in the most appropriate manner possible, but all that Admiral Holdo does throughout the film is highlight the enormous pacing problems bedeviling most of the film as characters get shot off in different directions in pursuit of objectives that make little sense within the plot and less sense outside of it. On top of all that, is a massive tonal fault line running through the entire movie, as the earnest, pulpy line delivery clashes spectacularly with more snark-laden comedic lines designed to "take the piss" as it were out of the self-seriousness of Star Wars. It's not that I have anything against Star Wars playing things a little less Buck Rogers once in a while, but you can't match up dialogue from an Edgar Wright film directly next to something out of the Joseph Campbell stable and expect everything to come up shining, as the "let's not take this too seriously" material prevents people from taking seriously the material that comes directly after, begging the audience to take it seriously.

These are all serious problems with the film as a whole, not merely the sour grapes of various retrograde scum whom we imagine to comprise all forms of opposition to our opinions. And yet, I do not see them as "flaws" so much as "unavoidable complications" that arise when you take great risks as a storyteller, and director Rian Johnson, whom I have previously seen very little of, has swallowed enormous risk this time around, to the point where I have to stand in awe, for The Last Jedi is a movie that knows what it is to be a Star Wars movie, a film that plays with every aspect of audience expectation as to theme and narrative and meta-narrative and character, in the service of trying to create something that is truly "about" Star Wars as much as it is of Star Wars. Not all of these attempts work. Some blow up violently in the film's face. But when the movie threads that narrow passage, it produces sequences and character moments that we simply haven't seen before in any context within Star Wars, and precious few in any massive, multi-billion-dollar entertainment franchise. The character arcs for Rey and Kylo Ren, though they are the focal points of the film, work nothing like what I or anyone else would have anticipated, answering questions posed by the previous film(s) in ways that comment on our expectations as much as the characters involved themselves, and diverts the entire narrative theme of Star Wars into directions that it previously has not seen. Things as simple as what Kylo Ren's motivation actually is, what he desires and why he desires it, are fascinating, not so much because of the implications they line up for later films, but because we have simply never explored Star Wars before from these perspectives, and are now getting to do so. The entire plot arc of Rey and Luke on the hermetic island is less a retread of the Dagobah sequence from Empire Strikes Back than it is a metaphysical analysis of what Star Wars is on a narrative level, what sorts of stories it has told us in the past and what stories it might be able to tell us in the future. As much as this matters to Rey, and moreso to Luke, the person actually being addressed through most of it is us, the fans of Star Wars, we who find the series compelling and worthwhile, even if we don't necessarily know (or care) why. There are explosions in this movie. Dogfights and battles reminiscent of the greatest periodicals of WWII (including a bombing-run sequence that has few analogues in sci-fi in any context, mostly because the physics are stupid even by Star Wars standards). There are lightsabers and the use of the Force, and old mentors confronting fallen students on several sides of several coins. There is even comic relief, some of it good and some less so. But The Last Jedi is less a Star Wars movie than it is a movie about Star Wars movies, about legends and stories and what they mean to all of us, here and elsewhere. If A New Hope was a retelling of Joseph Campbell's Hero-with-a-Thousand-Faces theory, then The Last Jedi is a movie that asks us, sincerely, and without necessarily knowing the answer, what it is about that archetypical story that appeals to us so much, and what role such a tale plays in our lives, as imagined above the circumstances that we live in.

So, yes, I would have changed things in The Last Jedi. I would have reduced the presence of characters like Admiral Holdo and Rose and other characters we are told to care about for no reason other than the movie says so, and increased in turn the presence of previously-established, and interesting characters like Captain Fasma and Maz Kanata. I would have junked about a fifth of the dialogue overall, in an attempt to smooth out the cracks between the "Star Wars" writing and the "modern" writing. I would have restructured the plot in a number of major and minor ways. But given the film as it stands, warts and all, I am deeply impressed by it. It's a movie that does not play things safe, as the previous film did, seeking to prove that modern Star Wars films are possible, but instead seeks to show what is possible within Star Wars' framework, not necessarily by telling strange new stories, but by broadening the horizons of what Star Wars means as a franchise and a concept. It's a metanarrative gambit that could only have been spectacularly difficult to pull off, but that the director manages, somehow to execute upon, even if it leaves the film itself lacking polish that one might normally, and with reason, expect from a multimedia extravaganza like this one.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi very much, despite my reservations, and I respect the achievement of creating it even more. What it augurs for future Star Wars movies, I cannot say, as the film's purpose is not really to augur specific things, but to instead instill within us the sense that anything is possible. Perhaps Episode XI will be nothing but a return to the beats and themes of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps the new Han Solo movie will suck. Or perhaps none of these things will be the case, because this is Star Wars, and ultimately, there is a reason we gravitated towards it in the first place. This film doesn't always know what that reason is. But it does know that the reason is there, buried within ourselves and the stories we tell, waiting for the slightest spark of imagination to spring triumphantly to life.

Final Score: 7.5/10

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 08, 2018 4:00 am 
Mr. Party-Killbot
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Hostiles

Alternate Title: A Million Ways to Die in the West

One sentence synopsis: A veteran of the Indian Wars is assigned to escort a dying Indian chief back to his tribal homelands in Montana.


Things Havoc liked: I love Westerns. I love the iconography, the setting, the themes, the action, everything about Westerns. Not to say that there aren't incomprehensibly awful movies made with that setting, but in January, when there's nothing to see but a bunch of dump-off films that no studio has faith in, and a screaming horde of oscar-bait movies that all came out on New Year's Eve, one kind of has to take movies by genre and concept more than by anything else, and a Western suited me just fine. The entire genre still lives in the shadow of the titans of the early 90s, especially Unforgiven and Tombstone, both masterpieces of the genre (the former won the Best Picture award that year), which stamped their form indelibly upon the genre and all films within it thereafter. At the time, many critics thought that Unforgiven in particular had closed the books on all there was to be said for the Western, but Hollywood doesn't work that way, and we've had a number of Westerns since then, some good (True Grit), some bad (Cowboys and Aliens), some modern (Hell or High Water) or otherwise setting-crossing (Serenity), but all ineffably Westerns, and most, on the whole, a credit to their forebears. The genre may not have the prominence that it once had back in the 50s or 60s, when the Western was regarded as one of the surest moneymaking prospects in Hollywood, but Westerns still get made, and the good ones, at least still try to say something about the world when they are. So it was that, still in recovery from the flu and looking for something with which to start the calendar year of 2018 (even if 2017's film calendar still has a film or two to run), I spotted a Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike vehicle promising six-shooters and mustaches and long tracking shots across desolate plains, and settled in on a Friday night to watch something good.


Things Havoc disliked: That is not what happened.

2017 has been a banner year for film, without question, and one of the many consequences of its stellar slate of films has been that we haven't seen a lot of films like this one in a while, but they are still out there, waiting to strike as soon as your guard is down. Hostiles is just such a hidden trap, a movie that looks very good from the trailers, cast, and concept level, but completely implodes once it gets around to actually trying to tell its story. It is not a good film in general, nor a good western in specific. In fact, it downright sucks, in a way that we have not seen in quite some time. So let's analyze for a moment who could possibly be the one responsible for this dreadful state of -

... what's that? It's directed by Scott Cooper? Oh... well there we have it then.

Yes, Scott Cooper, a man who never met a screenplay he did not feel needed to be more on-the-nose, more anvilicious, more filled with trepidatious pauses and forlorn looks at the camera, a director whose entire filmography is full of sound and fury and signifies very very little. I know that many people liked Crazy Heart, the 2009 Jeff Bridges vehicle, and I even know some who liked Out of the Furnace, but I remember him from 2015's Black Mass, a movie in which Johnny Depp played a vampire and called himself Whitey Bulger, and the Cooper did everything he could to disguise whatever else the film might have been about beyond a handful of disconnected events that may or may not have had anything to do with Whitey Bulger. I didn't hate Black Mass, but it was not a good movie, and Hostiles, for all the differences in tone and theme and genre, is honestly even more of the same, a plodding, placid film directly from the Terrence Mallick school of filmmaking. But where Mallick is at least an interesting visual filmmaker, Cooper has simply learned that some directors place long, empty spaces between every line that every actor intones, but has not learned why. The result is a movie that is stuck in the tonal sensibilities of the worst parts of recent years, but the genre sensibilities of the early 1990s. Not a good combination.

The year is 1898, and life is hard in the West. Commanches raid farmsteads in New Mexico, while reservation jumpers are hunted down by the US Army with extreme prejudice. Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a veteran US Army Captain, is assigned a mission by his commanding officer (Stephen Lang, in a rare moment of life within the otherwise dead film) to escort a dying Indian chief and his family (Wes Studi) back to their homelands in Montana, so that he can die in peace. Why is this mission so vital that the President of the United States issues a personal and direct order that it be accomplished? I have no idea, for the film is not interested in that question. It is interested instead in the fact that Captain Blocker, who seemingly fought in every single war between the US Army and an Indian tribe in the thirty years prior to this film, is a very bad man, a murderer of men, women, and children, and consumed by all-powerful hate for the Natives he has spent a lifetime battling. Thus far, we are on good thematic ground, with the hero revealed as a broken-down killer, much like in this film's most obvious ancestor, Unforgiven itself, which this movie is so endebted to that it steals quite a few major lines from the aforementioned Clint Eastwood piece, wholesale. Still, this would all serve well enough were the rest of the film, say, a character study of this broken and hate-ravaged soldier, or perhaps a slow exploration of the means by which he discovers a route to becoming something else. Unfortunately, the movie is neither of these things, preferring instead to be about nothing at all besides its own portentous, over-weighty dialogue, and its cynical marginalization of the very people it purports to be exposing the cruelties towards.

What do I mean? Well consider the setup above. A man who hates Natives is now forced to escort a Native chief halfway across the country through territories filled with hostile bandits and Commanche raiders. And yet of all the many and varied paths that the film could potentially take from here, the film chooses none of them, preferring instead to simply have Bale sit stone-facedly in the grass or in his saddle and stare off across the plains as though reviewing internally the emptiness of his life. I don't mean the life of the character, I mean the emptiness of Bale's life having been forced to make this movie. Bale spends the entire film in an unplaceable monotone that sounds like a Ron Swanson impression, staring into space blankly as the various other characters he meets recite ridiculously overwrought lines at him about how dark his soul is or how dark their own souls are or how dark everyone's soul has become or how much they wish they understood the meaning of the darkness that lies within their souls or how they wish their souls were not so dark but unfortunately they are, or or or or or. I get the desire to tell a revisionist Western (as though there have been anything else for the last thirty years), but you actually do have to tell the Western, not just gesture at the self-evident notion that everyone who dared set foot in The West was a soul-destroyed PTSD-riddled hollow wreck of a person, whispering dialogue concerning the darkness that was their souls at ten second intervals before riding over the next ridge to do it all over again. The entire film is comprised of nothing but dead-eyed stares and monotone line delivery, until we as the audience start to wonder if the problem isn't something more medical than "the sickness of man". At least when The Homesman acted like this, it had the excuse of portraying characters that had literally gone insane.

But heavy-handed as this sort of thing is, I might have forgiven it (might) if the movie had had the balls to actually follow through with the premise that the story of the West is truly the story of the Natives, and that the disconnection the other characters feel has to do with the horrors they have perpetrated on such people. Unfortunately, for all its pretensions at telling a revisionist story of modern understandings of The West, the movie's interest in its Native characters, which as mentioned before include Wes Studi, the greatest Native American actor of all time (go watch Geronimo or Last of the Mohicans if you disagree with that), is practically non-existent. In addition to Studi's Chief Yellow Hawk, there is his son, Black Hawk, his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and grandson, and not a single one of these characters get a goddamn thing to do throughout the entire movie but sit in a circle and look enigmatically upon everyone else, without saying a word, and occasionally demurely giving gifts to the white characters and radiating angelicness. Yellow Hawk himself doesn't get much more to do. He and Blocker are established as being old enemies, both bad men who did bad things during the Indian Wars to one another's people, who have hated one another for years without halt. Yet Studi doesn't get more than a handful of lines across the entire movie, all of which are calm, dispassionate requests for Captain Blocker to listen to his wisdom in terms of how to deal with other Indian tribes, how to deal with his guilt, or (get this) thanks to the good Captain for having the common decency to treat him... better? It's not quite as obsequious as it sounds, but it's not far off, and this is the only Native character in the film with what amounts to a real part! Yellow Hawk and Blocker share barely a handful of scenes together, and then suddenly transform into best friends, with Blocker telling Yellow Hawk in his own language that he carries a piece of him in his heart. There is a way that this sort of admission between two old enemies could work, hell there is a way where it could be profoundly moving. But it would have to be in a movie that was about the relationship between these men, while this film is not interested in being about anyone, least of all the Natives, who are treated here like the Indian equivelant of Spike Lee's famous Magical Negro archetype, props for the movie to trigger the spiritual renewal of a sinful white character who is now redeemed. At least the majority of the Magical Negro movies out there (Legend of Bagger Vance for instance) actually involve the black character getting to do something, be it give wizened speeches or demonstrate his superior ways. This movie seems to posit that the mere presence of Native Americans will render you more spiritual and absolve you of your sins, like the symbols of some holy faith, bereft of the need to actually do anything.


Final Thoughts: I said before that I love Westerns, even though this sort of failing is not unheard of in the majority of them. Hell, I like Dances with Wolves, which had a number of people retrospectively up in arms for being a White Savior movie. Maybe that's fair and maybe it isn't, but goddammit, in Dances with Wolves the Natives got to be real characters, with speaking parts and character arcs and everything, not mute props dragged along so that the "real" characters could react to their presence and be cleansed of their guilt. And when you combine all this with the fact that none of the characters actually do anything to cleanse said guilt beyond staring into space and occasionally getting in gunfights with the most thinly-characterized "bad people" imaginable, well let's just say that the movie is not precisely everything I would want in a modern Western.

Westerns have come a long way in the last three decades, not always to great effect, but frequently so. Go watch Unforgiven or Tombstone, or Geronimo, or for that matter Wind River from earlier this year, as all of those movies are good movies first and foremost, with characters who take action and who deal with one another as people might do. Not all of them involve Native Americans, but the ones that do actually involve them, they don't play-act at involving them and then pretend that they somehow have something to say that the aforementioned movies did not say. Above all though, go watch movies that are actually about something, because Hostiles is about nothing besides its director's ego, and the highly out-of-date sensibility that the only thing you have to do to increase representation of Native Americans in movies is to physically include them within the frame occasionally.


Final Score: 3.5/10

_________________
Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair...

Havoc: "So basically if you side against him, he summons Cthulu."
Hotfoot: "Yes, which is reasonable."


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 20, 2018 9:14 pm 
Mr. Party-Killbot
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Molly's Game

Alternate Title: The Poker Room

One sentence synopsis: A former competitive skier builds an empire of underground poker games before being caught up in a massive federal case against the Russian Mafia.


Things Havoc liked: Some stories are just too good not to film, really. Molly Bloom, a downhill skier whose career was derailed by injury, moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and was hired to staff a Poker game out of a backroom club called the Viper Room, catering to Hollywood celebrities. The game expanded, and Molly first took it over, then took it big, throwing lavish events and attracting moguls from industry, finance, entertainment, and every other corner of the high-roller world. By 2009, she had moved her operation to New York, running one of the most sought-after games in the country, before a 2013 raid and indictment caused her to lose everything in a massive RICO sting aimed at the many members of the Russian mob who were participants in her game. Along the way she dealt with addicts, egomaniacs, mobsters, drunks, Hollywood big shots, princes of various European and Middle Eastern royal families, and plenty of people who fit into more than one of the above categories. Her career came to an abrupt end in 2013 when she was caught up in a money laundering and racketeering sting by the FBI and Justice Departments, as part of their attempts to crush the Russian Mafia, most of whose most prominent members were players in her game. In the intervening years, she wrote a tell-all book (notable primarily for not even remotely telling all), and there were a number of attempts to turn her story into a movie, and after several abortive attempts, who has decided to take this on, but Television's master of self-important dialogue, Aaron Sorkin.

Molly's Game stars Jessica Chastain, an actress I have famously had little use for over the years (see my reviews for Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar for more on that), as Molly Bloom, but for all my objections to Chastain's typical style of acting, if there's one thing 2016's The Huntsman: Winter's War taught me, it's that I had Chastain pegged incorrectly. The problem isn't that she can't act, the problem is that she can't act seriously. Her attempts to emote sincerity and seriousness have always fallen flat to me, making her sound alternately like a marionette struggling to understand these "hu-man" emotions, or like a petulant seven-year-old who has been denied a cookie. But give her a film or a situation in which she's supposed to be campy, or ridiculous, or over-the-top, and she suddenly becomes a completely different actor. And while Molly's Game is certainly intended to be a realistic portrayal of a young woman who simply got caught up in strange events, it's also written by Aaron Sorkin, of The Social Network and The West Wing (and several other things we will get to), who has one of the strongest and most distinctive authorial voices of any screenwriter in Hollywood (yes, moreso even than Joss Whedon). Sorkin's dialogue, no matter the setting or medium, has always felt like written dialogue, like something prepared in advance by a speechwriter, rather than something people might conceivably come up with and say in a real setting, and while that's not always a strength, it allows Chastain to do what she's good at, giving her the sort of snappy, witty, erudite one-liners that nobody would come up with in the spur of the moment. The long and the short of all this is that Chastain is excellent in this film, playing a driven young woman from a hyper-demanding background who is subjected to the sorts of raving, savagely egomaniacal, borderline sociopathic douchebags and pressures that are instantaneously believable as coming from the ranks of Hollywood or high finance.

And of course, Chastain is not alone. Idris Elba, my man-crush and yours, plays Bloom's lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, in the typical style of an Aaron Sorkin lawyer, meaning with wit, erudition, and snappy comebacks to every situation. As I know several people (Hi, Colleen!) who fantasize about Idris Elba yelling at them, this movie should provide plenty of fodder, and Elba is, as he always is, wonderful in the role, though his American accent this time is about as authentic as my British one. Kevin Costner, of all people, plays Molly's father, a professor of psychology and a helicopter parent, whose tough-love-style of borderline-verbally-abusive behavior is intentionally played in contrast with Costner's native salt-of-the-Earth persona. I've admitted before that for all the garbage that Costner has made over the years (and still continues to make, lest anyone forget Criminal), I've always liked him, at least in the rare occasions when the director and scriptwriters manage to get him something to say or do that is within his range. Sorkin does, and Costner, surprisingly, proves an excellent fit for Sorkin's stilted style, particularly in a late sequence where he sits down with his daughter and speaks what, to him at least, is brutal honesty. And then there's the various shitheads that Bloom encounters throughout her career, foremost among which is Michael Cera, of all people, as "Player X", a composite of various A-list Hollywood celebrities who frequented Molly's games, but apparently primarily based on Toby Maguire, or so the rumors have it. If those rumors are true, Maguire should take real care given the tenor of Hollywood today, as Cera plays this character as an actual raving sociopath, one who admits that despite all the poker he plays, he actually doesn't much like the game itself. What he likes, in his own words, is "ruining people's lives", something he does with Iago-like gusto to everyone he meets. My old pals Chris O'Dowd (of The Sapphires), and Jeremy Strong (of a whole bunch of crap), take smaller roles as, respectively, a drunken Irish associate of the Russian Mafia with a heart of gold, and a Hollywood wannabe/failed Los Angeles real estate agent with seemingly no heart whatsoever. This is the sort of thing one runs into when one turns in these circles, it seems. Both are superb, customarily so in O'Dowd's case, the opposite in Strong's, with O'Dowd managing to inject some real emotion into one of the oldest cinema character cliches in existence (the drunken Irishman), and Strong evidencing some of the douchiest behavior known to man outside of the White House.


Things Havoc disliked: You may have noticed by this point that I seem to be talking an awful lot about Aaron Sorkin, and that's kind of unavoidable, and not just because he both wrote, produced, and directed this film, his directorial debut, in fact. Honestly the direction is fine, Sorkin has a lengthy and well-established background in Television after all and has been working in film for over thirty years. But when it comes to the writing, we start to have an issue. You see, I mentioned before that Sorkin's authorial voice is one of the strongest in Hollywood, up there with the likes of David Mamet or Joss Whedon. This is not necessarily a good thing. You see for all of the success that Sorkin has had, with The West Wing, with Social Network, with Moneyball or Charlie Wilson's War, when Sorkin has nobody to restrain him the way David Fincher did, he generally produces works of such staggering, monumental authorial arrogance as to inspire mocking fake-twitter feeds that long-outlast the work in question. It was thus for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a failed behind-the-scenes-at-Saturday-Night-Live show that was so painfully preachy and unfunny as to make paint drying look like a Megadeth concert, and wherein Sorkin famously responded to the criticisms he was subjected to by calling all his critics basement-dwelling virginial bloggers with no taste. It was also thus for The Newsroom, one of the preachiest and most hamfisted television shows ever invented, wherein Sorkin re-wrote every story of the day as he would have reported on it with perfect hindsight, and then spent the rest of the runtime making his characters recite endless denunciations of strawman after strawman, particularly when it came to "the youths" and their "blogosphere". Now, let me be clear, Molly's Game doesn't have anything like those shows' levels of unfettered arrogance. What it does have, however, is the tendency for every character to sound the same.

You see, with a voice this strong, this recognizable, it's clear enough to me at this point that Sorkin doesn't know how to write anyone who isn't just like himself, an overeducated political and cultural snob (I say this with some endearment, as I am also an overeducated political and cultural snob). In shows like The West Wing, which was about a group of exceptionally intelligent and driven people at the heart of the political system, this mattered less, as Sorkin wrote his characters the way we'd like all of our elected officials to act and speak. With The Social Network, he was again dealing with masters of the universe, students at Harvard University with spectacular pedigrees and impeccable contempt for all the lesser creatures of the world. But in Molly's Game, despite all the high-rollers on offer, the movie is ultimately a character study of Molly, and to a lesser extent her lawyer, none of whom should sound the same as one another, and all of whom do, speaking in this inflappable, ultra-witty style of hyper-stylized dialogue that just does not exist when we are supposedly dealing with the real world. Everyone's speach consists of the same one-liners, peppered with references to high culture and in-jokes that it makes no sense for their characters to be making. And while I do like movies about smart people speaking in a smart fashion, Sorkin's voice is so overpowering that he risks losing the humanity of what's happening. It's hard for us as an audience to feel sorry or frightened alongside the main character when the film has spent the entire run-time establishing them as being beyond such mortal concerns as fright or sorrow. And none of this is helped by Sorkin, in the last third of the film, giving into his worst habits and spending a good portion of the movie waxing eloquently about the injustice of the FBI seizing Molly's assets and fining her hundreds of thousands of dollars, when in reality (as it turns out) neither actually occurred. I don't demand all biopics stick scrupulously to the truth of the matter, of course, but it's a bit rich to turn your film into an excoriation of the Federal Government for having done terrible things to poor Molly, when it did not actually do those things.


Final Thoughts: All that being said though, Molly's Game is certainly an enjoyable film, with a compelling story full of sleaze and greed and power games and, it must be admitted, luxuriously fun dialogue at times. Even if Sorkin makes everyone sound like himself, the fact is that his style of witty repartee is a lot of fun to listen to, especially when good (citation needed) actors are the ones reciting it. I don't know if it's worthy of the Oscars that it clearly is looking for, but as a film about the seedier side of high society and organized crime, I have seen far worse examples, and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who likes the idea of the film, or just wants to watch Idris Elba yell for a while. And really, who doesn't?


Final Score: 7.5/10

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 21, 2018 3:09 pm 
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If she did launder money, wouldn't the FBI be justified in fining her though? Not that they did, just wouldn't that be justified?

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 21, 2018 10:44 pm 
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frigidmagi wrote:
If she did launder money, wouldn't the FBI be justified in fining her though? Not that they did, just wouldn't that be justified?


It would, but it's worth noting that she did not plead guilty to money laundering, only to lesser charges. Which is why she got a $1,000 fine, and not the $200,000 one that this film mysteriously claims she got.

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