Monday, January 25, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

After catching up on most of the Oscar flicks from the past year that I’d rather not have waited until DVD to see, 2016 begins with a military film. I’m not sure why – the records don’t bear it out – but it feels like this is exactly the sort of film with which I always begin my year, being a competently told but largely indistinguishable war film with a strongly personal focus bordering on hagiography. The real surprise, however, is that Michael Bay directed this one (about which, so much more later).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells the true (and largely apolitical) story of a team of CIA military contractors (including among them John Krasinski and James Badge Dale) who defied the orders of their Chief (David Costabile) to mount an aid-and-rescue mission to the besieged American embassy in Benghazi in September 2012.

First of all, as an action film 13 Hours is a big success. My primary goal as a moviegoer (a kind of Declaration of Principles at the top of the year, for those just tuning in) is to escape – escape from today and into a narrative, preferably with some degree of spectacle. This isn’t to say that I require spectacle – Spotlight is definitely on my hypothetical Best-Of list for last year – but the project of escapism helps if something blows up. And boy, do things blow up in 13 Hours. The action sequences here don’t so much allow you to escape reality as grab you by your lapels and thrust you into an intense combat situation. Pair with that the film’s sense of unrelenting tension, the anxious attitude that the worst is just about to materialize, and you have a film that is very difficult to stop watching. I don’t imagine, for the home video crowd, that there are many good spots to get a refill or take a bathroom break.

To say that 13 Hours is compelling stuff is not, however, to say that it’s a new classic. There’s nothing particularly innovative in it, nothing really memorable beyond the memory of being engaged in the moment. It doesn’t demand a second viewing, doesn’t invite a critical rethinking of one’s premises. It is, in the most earnest sense of the phrase, a popcorn film, albeit one which is not lazily made. It is actually quite well-made, cogently directed but with little on either end of the lazy/ambitious spectrum.

This, then, is the film’s greatest surprise – that 13 Hours was directed by Michael Bay. It’s remarkable to realize that 13 Hours contains very little of the excess that made such a mess of the Transformers franchise. There is little inappropriate comic relief; one recognizes, though, that the translator Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) is the kind of character that would be played by John Turturro, dialed up to eleven, and/or be the focal point of a thousand gross stereotypes if this were a Transformers movie. More agreeably, 13 Hours contains none of the leery sexuality of Transformers, by which I mean there are no young women in skimpy clothing bending over cars. 13 Hours is, however, as hypermasculine and rah-rah patriotic, though it’s presented less in the form of an advertisement and more built into the narrative itself. That is, the entire movie is “the army saves the day” rather than relegate that moment to merely a montage set to the music of AC/DC. It is, dare I say it, a more restrained and perhaps even mature Michael Bay film (which is, admittedly, a short putt).

It’s evident that Bay has a tremendous respect for the Armed Forces, though it borders on canonization in a few moments. We’ve seen a turn in war films toward an emphasis on individual heroism and away from sweeping historical narratives; there’s little of overt political content in the film, though a few beats of narrative readily politicized by pundits and politicians alike. Bay is more interested in the human element than the currents of history, though the scriptwriting is so on-the-nose that a repeated quotation from Joseph Campbell – explicitly mythologizing the “secret soldiers” and deifying them with the subtlety of a Mack truck – falls flat because of both how out-of-place it feels and how carelessly overt it is. While the direction of the film is more discreet than Bay has delivered of late, the hagiography isn’t. (One could imagine a cut of the film which eliminates the Campbell altogether, allowing the audience to intuit Bay’s point, and I’d have to say I’d have preferred this version. Show, don’t tell.)

Not an instant classic, not a groundbreaker, nor the political bombshell the 2016 candidates might have wanted, 13 Hours is competent enough and compelling enough that it makes for a fine diversion at the start of the year. It bodes well enough for Bay’s maturity as a filmmaker as, at the very least, a step in the right direction, but then again Transformers 5 is due next year. So much for that idea.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is rated R for “strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.” The film is intensely violent, often graphically so, but comprised more of explosions and gunfire punctuated by moments of gore. There are a fair amount of F-words, though the context makes them seem less distasteful.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Revenant (2015)

2016 is shaping up to be the year of “Is it just me?” I’m closer to thirty now than I’ve ever been before, and I’m increasingly feeling out of touch with the critical community; I still love a good Marvel superhero flick, more inclined as I am to forgive/overlook their failings. Meanwhile, critical darlings are drifting past me in severely underwhelming fashion. I sniffed at Mad Max: Fury Road, which now has a Best Picture nomination to its name, and I couldn’t disagree more with those who said The Hateful Eight was the work of a mature Tarantino.

Now here I am at The Revenant, “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes and lauded with Oscar nominations and Golden Globes victories aplenty. And again I’m asking the question that seems poised to be on my lips for the rest of the year – did we all see the same movie? For my money, The Revenant was more than a little boring, containing as it does a few viscerally composed memorable moments punctuated by long reels of punishment that border closer to cinematic sadism than awards bait.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in the role which will likely win him his first Oscar (about which, more later), stars as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman left for dead by his comrades (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter). Amid an unremitting landscape and every possible way to die in the wilderness, Glass stumbles, bleeds, and inches his way back to civilization – and his revenge.

I’m a bit of a newcomer when it comes to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, but I thought Birdman was a masterpiece, brilliantly anchored by Michael Keaton’s commanding lead performance with a delightful ensemble cast backing him up. And after The Revenant, I was reminded just how good Birdman was, because The Revenant lacks most of what made Birdman so compelling. Instead of a snappy script with snappier performances and a directorial eye that knows to keep the film moving, The Revenant has one strong performance that plays out its one-note fairly quickly, while the supporting cast is given short shrift in favor of long – and I mean gruelingly long – wide takes of landscape, the likes of which perhaps more properly belonged in an ode to 70mm like The Hateful Eight.

“Belabored” is the word I’d use most for The Revenant. DiCaprio is bludgeoned by the weight of survival, and he does an adequate job portraying a man at the limits of his capacity to survive, but more than two and a half hours it’s excruciating only to a point, at which moment the viewer becomes dulled to the horror of the wilderness, moving instead in the “Well, what else did you expect? Of course [insert tragedy here] was bound to happen at this rate.” Ditto for the unforgiving landscape, which at first seems horrifyingly blank but soon becomes commonplace, painful to the retinas more than to the soul.

And speaking of souls, I sense that The Revenant is going for spiritual commentary in its dreamlike editing, but there is not the thickness of narrative needed to support such intuited depth. The motivations of all the protagonists are, frankly, still somewhat baffling, and the political climate of the time isn’t adequately fleshed out. All the time that could have been devoted to these plots is instead exhausted on calamity and bloodshed and struggling, leading the audience to feel that the point was more about punishment than any narrative arc. One must recognize that there is something much deeper in Hardy’s character than the film permits him to display, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see more of Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, or perhaps that’s just a reflection of how much I liked his understated sneer of a villain in The Force Awakens.

There are things enjoyable in the film, predominantly the most violent bits in which the plot moves forward and the languorous quality of the film pays off. The bear scene, about which much ado has been made, is brutal in a technically sound way, and the final confrontation between DiCaprio and Hardy does justice to the relationship between the two characters. At the end of the day, The Revenant tries to overwhelm but ends up underwhelming. Though DiCaprio is good enough in the film, he’s not overpoweringly commanding, leading this reviewer to suspect that his Oscar win next month (which is all but assured – or so I predicted about Keaton in Birdman last year) will be more a lifetime achievement award than a recognition that this is as good as it got this year. The same happened to Denzel Washington for Training Day, which was good but not his career best (that honor goes to Malcolm X or John Q).

Or maybe I’m just out of the loop. But I can’t say that I’d put The Revenant on my Top 10 of 2015.

The Revenant is rated R for “strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.” This thing is intense, as I’ve said, and Iñárritu is unapologetic in his depiction of blood. There’s a rape sequence in which nothing is shown, though in another scene a dead man is seen naked from a moderate distance.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Upon receiving word of his wife’s death and the army marching on his gates, Macbeth famously lamented that life itself was nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I return to this quotation every once in a while because it is, as so much of Shakespeare’s dialogue, incredibly poetic and deftly precise in expressing something ineffable about the human condition. And I can’t help feeling that Macbeth might have had a similar – if pronouncedly less fatalistic – reaction to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which has heretofore been hailed as one of the greatest action films of the past year, if not of all time.

To which I have to ask – did we all see the same movie? Because I didn’t see a movie that merits being labeled the #1 film of 2015, as more than a dozen critics have done. The movie I saw was a tale competently told by a very capable director, full of so much sound and fury they put it in the title and the name of a main character, ultimately signifying very little beyond its surface. It is far from distressingly poor, but it is certainly underwhelming after all of the hype.

Carrying a negligible connection to the Mel Gibson trilogy of yesteryear, the film finds the eponymous Max (Tom Hardy) along for the ride when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stages a breakout for the wives of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). What ensues is a chaotic, frenetic, and seemingly endless chase across the barren wasteland of the apocalypse.

First of all, I don’t mind that the film is an extended chase sequence. As I said at the top of the review, the action scenes are very competently directed, and I give Miller a tip of the hat for managing to do much of it with practical effects and to keep a suitable level of tension even when the scenes become a tad protracted. (Kudos also to Junkie XL, who wears his Hans Zimmer homage on his sleeve with a score that smacks of Man of Steel.) The problem I have with the action sequences is that there really are too many of them at the same level of intensity to the point where I became desensitized fairly quickly. I wasn’t bored, although I did feel a certain languorous sensation after seeing someone run over by enormous tires for the ninth time. Miller has a wonderful bag of tricks in the first few “episodes” of car chases, but as the film continues to do the same stunts Fury Road loses something of its original feeling.

The film has a very specific rhythm, episodic in its approach to narrative repetition but ultimately cyclical because, yes, at one point in the chase they do turn around and head back the way they came, which maybe feels more like a metaphor for the film than Miller intended. We’re driving and we’re stopping, then we’re driving and we’re stopping, and by about the third go-round of this pattern Fury Road felt a bit like its own greatest-hits compilation.

Two comparisons here, the first of which is to the superlative Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, particularly the tank chase sequence. The reason that sequence stands out is because it’s unique; it does a number of things that the film hadn’t done and wouldn’t do again, and it does them all particularly well with a fantastic sense of peril even though we know there’s really no chance that Indy will meet a crunchy fate. Imagine, though, a film comprised of four or five tank sequences, turned up way past eleven, and with Tom Hardy’s monosyllabic grunts in lieu of the charisma of Harrison Ford, and you have something approximately like Fury Road. Again, there’s something to enjoy there, but I’m flabbergasted at the number of critics who put this at #1 of all of 2015.

Next, Pacific Rim. Now I know what you’re going to say – “This again?” Well, yes, and Mad Max: Fury Road is decidedly not Pacific Rim, thank heavens. But it does many things in common with Pacific Rim, which I find problematic in terms of getting me engaged as an audience member. Fury Road’s characters are largely archetypical, compared to Pacific Rim’s gross stereotypical figures. You have Max, who’s the good guy because he’s the good guy; Furiosa, the Strong Female Character whose motivations are to do the right thing because It’s The Right Thing; and Immortan Joe, the evil one-percenter who’s bad because he’s Bad. (Compare to Pacific Rim’s cliché Mako Mori, a Japanese woman skilled in the art of war to avenge her family, or the pigeonholed effete British scientist with a limp.) What I think resonates with Fury Road more than Pacific Rim, though both are essentially onomatopoetic, is that primal storytelling which relies on archetypes (the same reason The Force Awakens struck a chord). It is, however, extremely thin archetypal storytelling.

Why is it, though, that I felt physically enervated at the end of Whiplash but otherwise emotionless when the credits rolled on Fury Road? Again, I wasn’t as invested in Max and Furiosa as some of my friends and fellow critics have become. It was very much a sense of, “Oh, that’s it?” Quite honestly, I got quantitatively the same emotional rush from the trailer for Fury Road as I did from the full film, in about a single percentage of the time. It left me feeling a bit empty, as if Miller had relied on my complicity in the mutually agreed-upon coolness of the film. Yes, things do blow up, and I’m as big a fan of explosions as the next guy (who happens to be my father, in this case), but the charm wears off after the fourteenth car explodes after flipping over an indecent amount of times.

It’s competently made, but let’s not fall over ourselves in praising Mad Max: Fury Road. There is something very alchemical when a movie works and when it doesn’t, and for me Fury Road just wasn’t the transcendent experience I’d been led to expect. If we can revise a phrase from Shakespeare once more, it’s not exactly much ado about nothing, but it strikes me that Fury Road is a very loud amount of ado about very little.

Mad Max: Fury Road is rated R for “intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.” Being that the film is essentially an extended post-apocalyptic car chase, there are numerous explosions and vehicular injuries, including people getting run over by tires. Several characters have what appear to be radiation burns and other deformities. While many of the women wear skimpy outfits throughout the film, one woman is seen fully naked, but from behind and at a great distance.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The name of the game in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is not race relations in America, nor is it the thoughtful interrogation of justice it thinks it is. It’s not a postwar state of the union, a snowbound Twelve Angry Men, or even a claustrophobic Django Unchained. No, the name of the game is exorbitance, an immoderate superfluity indulging in the most colorful – and overfull – version of the story. When the characters on screen play raconteur, it’s charming and engaging, but Tarantino’s intemperance in the same suggests a contempt for his audience which is, frankly, wearisome.

En route to deliver his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the hangman’s noose, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) finds his carriage occupied by fellow bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the sheriff (Walton Goggins) of Red Rock, the foursome’s destination. A blizzard, however, detours the carriage to Minnie’s Haberdashery, an insular cabin already populated by four quirky characters – a hangman (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a writer (Michael Madsen), and caretaker Señor Bob (Demián Bichir). As the snow falls, tensions rise when the occupants of Minnie’s find that not all of them are telling the full truth.

That’s a really keen premise. Armond White took the words right out of my mouth when he called The Hateful Eight a cross between Agatha Christie and John Ford (those are, however, the only words we have in common). It’s akin to an adaptation of And Then There Were None as filmed on the set of Bonanza with the profanity filter set to Deadwood. And in the hands of a screenwriter who could restrain himself in the way that he restricts the setting, The Hateful Eight could have been a masterclass in a lot of ways that would make Sidney Lumet smile with admiration.

Tarantino is not, however, that filmmaker. It’s very nearly accurate to refer to The Hateful Eight as his most narcissistic film, as in love with the sound of his own dialogue as he clearly is, but he’s equally enamored of the Wyoming landscape which must look a treat in 70mm (which I didn’t see) but otherwise come off as sideshow decoration, and there are only so many lingering shots of landscape one can bear before the weight of three hours feels a punishing burden. The fact is that The Hateful Eight might have been a much stronger film had it been pruned much more tightly. Of its six chapters, for example, one (the fifth) is entirely negligible, consisting as it does of yet another mindless slaughter whose particulars any thinking audience would rightly have inferred. Rendered in its full Technicolor glory (and gory), however, it’s one more note of excess in a film that is grossly (and I use the term advisedly) bloated.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to be enjoyed in The Hateful Eight. Jackson is, as ever, charismatic and a joy to watch; there’s a surprising chemistry between Jackson and Russell, poignant at both ends of the spectrum from their lukewarm greeting to the simmering disappointment between them. And there’s a knockout sequence at the beginning of Chapter Four where the tension is at fever pitch, recalling the tensest moments of Inglourious Basterds when the narrator – in a gimmick I usually loathe but here can’t imagine a better deployment – reveals that all is not as it seems because someone knows something the others in the room don’t. As Minnie’s descends into amateur sleuthing and chaotic distrust, we get glimpses of the dynamite that The Hateful Eight could have been.

Instead, we get a film that sags under its own weight. There are good performances in it, memorable moments, but what ought to be the standout feature – Tarantino’s dialogue – is utterly and disappointingly unmemorable. (I defy you to quote a line from it, the way you could after Django or Pulp Fiction.) Tarantino has said that he’s only going to direct two more films, and if that’s the case he may need a new editor (apologies to Fred Raskin, who did a good job on Django but didn’t nay-say enough here). Something’s gotta give, and at three hours with The Hateful Eight, this time it was me.

Is it some kind of perverse pattern that I’m destined not to enjoy fully the first film I review each year?

The Hateful Eight is rated R for “strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.” It’s a Tarantino movie, so you’ve got your usual (read: exorbitant) quantity of N-words, F-bombs, and strawberry-colored effluvium. A man is seen fully nude while another man narrates about sexually assaulting him, with colorful prose.