Cynically Sentimental
Don’t worry, the Giant Carnivorous Snails aren’t dangerous…unless you FALL DOWN RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM.  (The Rover, 1941).

Don’t worry, the Giant Carnivorous Snails aren’t dangerous…unless you FALL DOWN RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM.  (The Rover, 1941).

"An idealistic romanticist who refuses to give up his dreams and adapt himself to reality!" (Popular Teen Agers, 1952).  Yeah, that’s the kind of people who “choose” to live in shabby apartments. Not me, though! I only lived in one for 20+ years!  Then I “gave up my dreams” and “adapted myself to reality” and bought a house.

"An idealistic romanticist who refuses to give up his dreams and adapt himself to reality!" (Popular Teen Agers, 1952).  Yeah, that’s the kind of people who “choose” to live in shabby apartments. Not me, though! I only lived in one for 20+ years!  Then I “gave up my dreams” and “adapted myself to reality” and bought a house.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) review

 Not great, but not bad.  Oh, I should write some more about this film?  Alright, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is (as usual) over-long but combines spectacular action sequences, a reasonably self-contained plot, and a soupçon of character development in an entertaining package.  Those with a prior disposition towards this sort of movie will probably enjoy it, but it may not convert the unconverted.

            Actually, if there are people who like “action films” but not “superhero movies,” Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be their cup of tea as well, since this is light on the costumed heroes and villains, and heavier on high-tech, international intrigue, and (mostly) guys in tactical outfits rushing around carrying (and shooting) automatic weapons.  Captain America only dons his colourful, traditional costume for the final sequence, otherwise wearing a black version that makes him look like “Captain SWAT Team.”  Cap shares heroic screen-time with Nick Fury (who has his own, extended action sequence in the first part of the movie), Natasha the Black Widow, and Sam Wilson (who at some point—and I must have blinked and missed it—becomes the mechanical-winged Falcon), a sort of Avengers-in-mufti. 

            [The real Avengers are nowhere to be seen, although Iron Man and the Hulk are name-checked.  Apparently they were occupied elsewhere, although one would think they might have been curious enough about the whole “Captain America is branded a traitor, Nick Fury is assassinated” thing to at least stop by Washington and take a look?]

            Steve Rogers, still trying to orient himself to life in the 21st century, participates in a mission to foil some pirates who’ve hijacked a SHIELD ship, noticing as he does that Natasha “the Black Widow” downloads some data onto a thumb-drive from the vessel’s computer.  Nick Fury explains that SHIELD is about to deploy three gigantic heli-carriers whose guns will preemptively eliminate threats to world peace.  Fury himself is fatally injured in an assault by mysterious assassins led by the Winter Soldier, a famed but mysterious assassin (whose outfit resembles Shredder from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”).  Eventually, Rogers, Natasha, Sam Wilson, and agent Hill learn SHIELD has been penetrated by elements of Hydra, who intend to use the heli-carriers to wipe out their enemies and take over the world.

            While I do feel something of the Captain America essence is lost by placing him in a (as others have noted) Mission Impossible-esque scenario, the film is generally quite good on its own terms.  There’s a modicum of closure, a refreshing novelty for a film that’s part of an amorphous, multi-character “series”—yes, there are plenty of loose ends and unresolved sub-plots that will undoubtedly feature in future movies, but at least the immediate threat is contained and wrapped up here, and we don’t entirely get the impression we’ve just seen the middle part of one big story.  

            Evil organisation Hydra, formerly a Nazi splinter group, is now portrayed as a kind of ultra-conservative secret society bent on world domination. But not, oddly enough, necessarily the “enslave everyone muahahahaha” sort of world domination.  Instead, Hydra front man Pierce trots out a slightly exaggerated variation on standard anti-terrorist rhetoric, about “stopping the bad guys before they strike, would you take steps to prevent your daughter from being murdered if you could,” and so on.  This plan does require the summary execution of 20 million potential trouble-makers in order to make the rest of the world a safer place to raise your kids, but hey, eggs must be broken before an omelet can be prepared, amirite?

            The method of this preemptive moral cleansing is super-accurate, computer-targeted guns from outer space (the heli-carriers in low Earth orbit), a mash-up of the old “Star Wars” missile defense system and the killer-drone concept currently in real-life operational use against terror suspects.  Captain America must be one of those much-maligned bleeding-heart liberals because he isn’t on board with such impersonal methods (even Nick Fury supports the high-flying assassination technology, although his targets would probably be a different bunch of perceived enemies than those identified by Hydra).  This spectrum of opinion is an interesting aspect of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s script: Hydra wants to pervert a system allegedly created for “good” to fulfill their world-domination aims (which, as noted above, are phrased in politician-speak so as not to sound quite so evil), Captain America objects to the whole concept on moral terms, and Nick Fury thinks such technology could be OK as long as it remains in the proper hands.  It’s all a moot point, however, because Captain America is this film’s hero, and he makes damn sure those giant heli-carriers go down (unfortunately, right over Washington DC, ouch). 

            Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very slick and exciting, with a number of really nifty action sequences even before the elaborate climax (which relies heavily on CGI, but I won’t complain too much because the rest of the movie mixes practical and computer-generated effects in a pleasing fashion).  Captain America appears to have gained additional powers I wasn’t aware of (and which weren’t in evidence in the first picture), such as the ability to survive falls from extreme heights without a scratch—I didn’t know he was that invulnerable (strong, agile, etc., yes, but virtually impervious to harm, no), but this isn’t a major problem.  He doesn’t have a lot of time for navel-gazing, but he’s got a personality, feelings, a sense of humour, and so on, and his character does evolve over the course of the film.  Cap’s relationships with Natasha and Sam are also believable and amusing (although why Natasha keeps trying to set him up with other women is puzzling, unless she realises she can’t have a relationship with him, for whatever secret reason).  The script contains a bit of banter, but not the annoyingly flippant kind, and a few of the lines actually elicited laughs, snickers, or at least smiles from me. 

            The performances are solid: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson all have their characters down pat, while Anthony Mackie is likeable as Sam Wilson and Robert Redford (once you get over the fact “that’s Robert Redford!”) is suitably smarmy and sinister as Hydra’s front-man at SHIELD.  Supporting roles are filled in a satisfactory manner, mostly a case of plugging in performers who look right and can emote enough to fill their relatively brief screen time without embarassing themselves.

            Final, trivial note: the title annoys me a bit.  Shouldn’t it be Captain America versus the Winter Soldier or Captain America and the Winter Soldier (assuming you have to shove “Winter Soldier” in there)?  Captain America isn’t the Winter Soldier, so an additional word of clarification would have been appreciated.    

            Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier didn’t disappoint me.  It’s different than many of its Marvel superhero movie predecessors, but that’s not a complaint.  Even the running time (over 2 hours) didn’t bother me, much.  Recommended for those who like such things.

"Just disgusted! Plain disgusted !” (First Romance 38, 1956). “How dare you talk that way to me? After I put this entire ping pong ball in my mouth, just for you!”  Or, possibly, she only has one enormous tooth. 

"Just disgusted! Plain disgusted !” (First Romance 38, 1956). “How dare you talk that way to me? After I put this entire ping pong ball in my mouth, just for you!”  Or, possibly, she only has one enormous tooth. 

Filth (2013) review

A well-executed dark (very dark) comedy/drama with surreal overtones, Filth is definitely not for all tastes, but I found it close to excellent: uncompromising, funny, sad, and shocking. 

            Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a Scots police detective with a few minor flaws: he abuses drugs and alcohol, is being treated for bi-polar disorder (but doesn’t take his meds), is a serial philanderer, thief, obscene phone-caller, homophobe, racist, sexist (and probably anti-Semitic, but doesn’t often get the chance to express this).  When a slot for a new detective inspector opens up, Bruce schemes to get the promotion, mostly by sowing dischord among his colleagues, spreading malicious rumours, and sabotaging their work.  Assigned to a politically-sensitive murder case—a Japanese student (tourist?) is stomped to death by some thugs—Bruce makes some progress, but is constantly distracted by other matters.  He’s also given the chore of discovering who’s been making obscene phone calls to Bunty, the wife of wealthy businessman Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), a member of a police-friendly lodge.  Ironically, Bruce can’t “solve” this case because he’s the one who’s calling Bunty.

            Filth, although it takes a while for the viewer to realise it fully, is told through the distorted perspective of the disturbed Bruce.  Director Jon S. Baird utilises an array of techniques—shock cuts, fantasy scenes that grow more elaborate as the film goes on, fish-eye shots, even (after the climax) full cartoon animation—to convey snippets of information about Bruce’s life and mental state.  Pay attention!

            It is difficult to discuss many of the various, entangled plot threads in detail without revealing any major spoilers, but a few of the mysteries presented to us include: where is Bruce’s wife, Carole? (And is her name “Carole?”)  She appears in fantasy scenes discussing her marriage, but is conspicuously absent from Bruce’s home; he hides this fact from his fellow workers, who frequently refer to her as if she and Bruce are still living together.  If she left him (and is, in fact, not buried in the garden), why did she leave?  In one shot, a young girl appears with Carole, presumably Bruce’s daughter. Where’d she go?  But then, who’s the dirty-faced young boy Bruce calls “Davey” who pops up a few times in the copper’s hallucinations?  Why is Bruce seeing psychiatrist Dr. Rossi?  Rossi gradually morphs from an urbane, benign but disinterested fellow (routinely prescribing medication Bruce doesn’t bother to take) into a manic, macrocephalic mad scientist who taunts his patient about his failures as a policeman, husband, father, brother, and man.

            Although an extremely troubled and not very likeable human being, Bruce retains a modicum of audience sympathy: he’s tormented, not evil, more to be pitied than censured.  He believes promotion to detective inspector will bring Carole back to him, so this hoped-for end justifies the reprehensible means (betraying his colleagues in a variety of inventive ways).  And he occasionally (very occasionally) does a decent, selfless thing.  In one scene, Bruce tries to revive a man who’s collapsed on the street of a heart attack: although he fails in his attempt, his heroic actions earn him the respect of the man’s attractive widow Mary (who, not coincidentally, somewhat resembles Carole) and young son.  Alas, this ready-made, substitute family is just out of reach for our protagonist…because he’s busy snorting cocaine, sleeping with other men’s wives, boozing to excess, slipping his friend Bladesey a drugged drink, and hallucinating about people with animal heads, having sex with Hitler, and David Soul as a cab driver—complete with a backup trio in the back seat—singing his 1977 hit “Silver Lady.”

            Filth is an incredibly complex, “layered” film, directed, shot, and edited in an intricate manner. Does everything on screen mean something?  Eh, maybe.  Is everything explained at the end?  Well, sort of.  Is it compelling and fascinating?  Heck yes.  Don’t leave for a bathroom break, because you’ll probably miss a good part. 

The film is carried by James McEvoy’s central performance, but benefits from superb support.   Eddie Marsan (Bladesey), Gary Lewis (dimwitted but amiable detective Gus), Shirley Henderson (Bunty), Jim Broadbent (Dr. Rossi), and Shauna MacDonald (Carole) stand out, but there’s not a weak performer in the cast (although the script gives some more to work with than others).  Production values are fine, and—in case you’re wondering—you don’t need sub-titles, everyone’s accents are toned down and intelligible, even for us Yanks.

            Filth is both quite funny and rather sad and touching.  It’s a portrait of a self-destructive, infuriating, guilt-stricken, substance-addicted, pitiful, cruel and manipulative individual.  Not exactly the recipe for an evening’s entertainment, and yet…Filth is not only a fine film (judged “objectively,” as a work of cinema), but a highly entertaining one.  I can’t recommend it to everyone, but I can recommend it to…a lot of people. 

The Vile Man Wouldn’t Stop! (Radiant Love 1954). She seems more concerned about her dress than her virtue, but as Mr. Sweaty Lecher says, “This is only the beginning!”

The Vile Man Wouldn’t Stop! (Radiant Love 1954). She seems more concerned about her dress than her virtue, but as Mr. Sweaty Lecher says, “This is only the beginning!”

Dom Hemingway (2013) review

Somehow I got this confused in my mind with Filth (which I’m also going to see): both films are character studies of dodgy guys from the UK, ex-con Dom (Jude Law) in this one, and corrupt cop Bruce (James McAvoy) in Filth. I’d wager Dom Hemingway is the lighter fare of the two, and that wasn’t a problem: although a little on the thin side, narratively, it’s considerable fun.

Released from prison after 12 years—during which time his wife divorced him, then died of cancer, and his daughter grew up without him—Dom, accompanied by his friend Dickie, travels to France so Dom can collect from his former employer, Mr. Fontaine. Confounding our expectations about how such things go down in crime films, Fontaine—a Russian gangster who lives in a lavish villa with his Romanian model girlfriend—doesn’t attempt to cheat Dom out of his just rewards for refusing to “grass” (snitch to us Yanks), and thus serving a much longer sentence. Fontaine even ignores Dom’s initial drunken, boorish behaviour, and gives him nearly 1 million pounds for his service. Unfortunately, Fontaine then dies in a drunken car accident and his girlfriend absconds with Dom’s money. This sends Dom back to England, where he unsuccessfully attempts to reconcile with his daughter (now a talented singer, with a Senegalese boyfriend and a young son) and, equally unsuccessfully, tries to hire on with Lestor, the son of Fontaine’s former rival (Lestor holds a grudge: more than a decade earlier, Dom had killed Lestor’s cat, Bernard). No fear, though, it all ends happily.

Dom Hemingway is almost always amusing, with a very slight touch of sentimentality in the latter sections (but nothing too treacly). There’s verbal humour, character-driven humour, even physical humour, and most of it works pretty well. A sample? Alright, you twisted my arm. While Dom was in prison, Dickie lost a hand, but Dom doesn’t notice until Fontaine mentions it. Dickie’s artificial hand is always covered by a black leather glove, and when he asks Dom, “Why do you think I’m wearing this black glove all the time?” Dom replies, “I thought it was a fashion statement or something.”

The film is unabashedly episodic, each section introduced by a pithy and/or ironic printed title, like “A man with no options suddenly has all the options in the world,” and “12 years is a long time.” Curiously, the film begins with two sequences that—while important in helping establish Dom’s character—give a somewhat misleading impression about the overall tenor of the movie. The first scene is essentially a boastful, long-take soliloquy by a nude Dom, as he’s receiving oral sex from another convict in prison. After being released, Dom seeks out the man who became his wife’s lover before her death, and savagely beats him for having the temerity to do so. “You were divorced and in jail!” the man protests. “She was still my wife!” Dom shouts.

Dom is thus introduced as a violent, proud, self-confident smart-ass, but with each passing moment more is revealed about his character, and he eventually turns out to be a much more likeable fellow, who finally comes to understand the difference between spending a dozen years in prison for stubbornly refusing to inform on his fellow criminals, and being a responsible and loyal husband, father, and (as it develops) grandfather.

Jude Law carries Dom Hemingway on his shoulders: beefed up (he reportedly gained 30 pounds for the role), mutton-chop whiskers, chesty attitude, working-class accent, Law is almost unrecognisable and extremely effective in the title role. His sidekick is aptly played by Richard E. Grant, who seems to have turned into Christopher Walken so gradually that no one noticed.  Excellent supporting work is done by Emilia Clarke as Dom’s bitter daughter Evelyn, Kelly Condon as a fey good-time girl, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Evelyn’s boyfriend, and Jumayn Hunter, who does a hilarious turn as gangster Lestor, still grieving over his dead cat. Demian Bichir fares a bit less well as Mr. Fontaine, with a “Russian” accent that comes and goes (sometimes he sounds like Bela Lugosi, sometimes like a generic “foreigner” speaking English), although his performance is satisfactory.

Production values are fine, with some very nice cinematography and glossy settings. The pacing and direction are fine.

Overall, Dom Hemingway is quite a good film: nothing especially profound, but consistently entertaining throughout.

Be forewarned: going to medical school requires buying a microscope. (Exotic Romances 26, 1956).  You also have to provide your own scalpel, or at least have a very sharp pocket knife. 

Be forewarned: going to medical school requires buying a microscope. (Exotic Romances 26, 1956).  You also have to provide your own scalpel, or at least have a very sharp pocket knife. 

Bad Words (2013) review

I was rather disappointed by Bad Words.  Didn’t actually dislike it, but failed to find it more than occasionally (and even then, very mildly) amusing.  Perhaps I expected something different (I certainly expected something funnier, or I wouldn’t have watched it at all), or perhaps it simply is not that funny (although a number of reviewers liked it—still, evaluating comedy for the masses is extremely difficult, since a sense of humour is intensely personal).

            Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman, who also directed) enters a national spelling bee contest whose participants are otherwise young children (he takes advantage of a loophole in the rules which—illogically—doesn’t place an age limit on contestants, only on their level of formal education).  Despite the objections of the organisers and the universal opprobrium of the families of the children involved, Guy persists.  Accompanied by writer Jenny, whose online news service sponsors Guy in exchange for the “inside story” (which he has yet to reveal), Guy progresses to the national championship round.  Although horribly and irrationally abrasive to virtually everyone, Guy succumbs to the friendly overtures of the irrepressible Chaitanya, a 10-year-old competitor.  Or does he?

            Bad Words failed to elicit much in the way of laughter (or even a snicker or a snort or a smirk) from me. This is chiefly because the filmmakers’ idea of “humour” is “profane insults.”  That’s it.  Someone stands in front of Guy and he says “you’re a *****-ed *****-ing *****-hole who should take a ****** and shove it up your ******, you disgusting piece of smelly garbage-soaked *******.”  Ha  ha!  No, seriously.  That’s it.  Shock may occasionally = humour, but not always and not 87 times in a row.  This has nothing to do with being a prude, it’s just criticism of scriptwriter-laziness.  Want to write a “joke?”  Get a copy of “Mad Libs” and substitute profanities for all of the plug-in words and…you’re done!  At least if you’re writing this movie.  Excuse me, but I prefer a little wit from time to time in my verbal comedy (Bad Words has no physical comedy to speak of).  If you can’t write funny stuff, then…maybe…you shouldn’t write a comedy film? 

            The other major flaw in Bad Words is that the protagonist insults and abuses everyone, regardless of who they are and what they’re doing (or have done, or might do).  I get it, he’s an angry person, abandoned by his father and abused by his mother, and he’s on a mission to avenge past injustice.  It’s not unknown for a film—even a comedy—to feature a misanthropic jerk as a main character (As Good As It Gets, anyone?).  However, Guy Trilby is (a) glum and not very interesting, and (b) he verbally and psychologically abuses some people (including children) who don’t—even in the slimmest of contrived “movie-justifications”—deserve it. 

          For instance, not content to defeat his pre-teen opponents with his superior, adult intelligence, Guy humiliates two of them with cruel mind-games and props: this might have been mildly amusing had his targets been two adults (or even obnoxious children), but they’re simply unfortunate contestants who had the bad luck to be seated next to him during the competition.  I like dark humour, got no problem with it at all, and bad taste won’t get you marked down in my scorecard, but these segments are truly not only not funny, they make it extremely difficult to empathise with (or even tolerate) the film’s protagonist.  Guy’s last-minute, sort-of, change-of-heart, and the explanation for his pursuit of spelling bee fame don’t help much.  He’s still a mean-spirited jerk to almost everyone.  Jason Bateman is a likeable performer, but the script does him no favours here. 

            Bad Words is Bateman’s directorial debut, and the film is technically adequate, with no particularly noticeable style but no major directorial blunders, either.  The pacing is fine, and the performances are satisfactory, albeit—once you get past Bateman, Rohan Chand (as Chaitanya), and Kathryn Hahn (as Jenny)—pretty broad and cartoonish. 

            I was fairly well-disposed towards this film going into the cinema, having seen a trailer and read a very little bit about it.  I didn’t have great expectations, so the let-down wasn’t traumatic, but Bad Words left me a little…flat.

Divergent (2014) review

Although it is a decent film in many ways, I’d probably appreciate Divergent more if I were still a teenager, since the main themes would be more relevant to my world-view and (hopefully) the dumb parts wouldn’t matter as much.

          Divergent really does have some positive attributes: I enjoyed it, to be honest. But it was an uphill battle throughout, my brain cells against the film’s four major flaws (in no particular order):

(1) it’s too damn long. 2 hours and 10+ minutes. First we get the set-up, including a long prologue in voice-over that introduces the basic premise (a lazy way to do it, if you ask me); then over an hour of Tris (the protagonist, well-played by Shailene Woodley) training and passing the tests to join a “faction” (more on this later); followed by a chunk of additional plot (that goes off in a completely different direction, as if part of the second film in the series accidentally strayed into the “origin story”). I can’t say I was horribly bored, but the middle section drags noticeably. There are also way too many fantasy-dream-hallucination sequences.

(2) there’s no proper closure, because Divergent is “part one” of yet one more attempt to generate a multi-film money machine.

(3) it’s predictable and wildly derivative. Who lives, who dies, and who does what to who when? You won’t be surprised.

(4) the central idea is so bizarre and unbelievable that it gives me a headache just thinking about everything that is so wrong and contrived and artificial about it. In the near future, after a terrible “war” (against who, why, and what sort of, all unspecified), society (represented by a large city—Chicago—surrounded by some sort of high-tech barrier) has been reorganised into five factions “to keep the peace.” Yeah, because arbitrarily dividing society into rigidly-enforced groups (plus the dirty, hungry, homeless, disenfranchised “faction-less,” who definitely will never cause trouble) won’t lead to any conflicts, I’m sure. Because everyone in this city has only one personality attribute each, they’re assigned to a faction based on that attribute: Erudite (smart), Amity (“happy” farmers), Candour (honest), Dauntless (brave), and Abnegation (helpful). Or I as I prefer to think of them, Nerds, Hicks, Jerks, Jocks, and Do-Gooders.

         This is all well and good, but it doesn’t explain how society operates. Amity are the farmers and Dauntless are the police/soldiers, and I suppose Abnegation are the social workers, but who… picks up the garbage? Who drives the trains? Who works in the clothing factories? Which faction supplies the Future-Starbucks baristas?

          At age 16, everyone takes an aptitude test which tells them which faction they should enter, but because teenagers are so good at making decisions that will permanently affect their future, the test is “for information purposes only,” and the teens are permitted to select their faction. There’s not even a Sorting Hat, for heaven’s sakes! So you could be dumb as a rock but choose Erudite. Or choose Amity, then discover you’re allergic to picking beans. And there are no do-overs: select a faction and flunk out, and ka-boom! You’re now “faction-less,” doomed to wandering the streets in rags, dirty-faced and sullen.

          It’s absolutely permissible for a film or novel to create its own world, with as many quirky rules and situations as the filmmaker or novelist wishes. It’s also permissible for the viewer or reader to balk and say “wait a minute, that makes no sense.”

          I understand the source novel was written by a young person and aimed at a “young adult” (= teenage) audience, and Divergent is consequently loaded with stuff that is a metaphor or allegory or somesuch thing for adolescent angst. Parents? Good parents, bad parents, absent parents, surrogate parents, the film’s got ‘em. A desire to fit in? Fears of failing in one’s future career? Social cliques? Bullies? Hunky guys? Mean girls? Semi-suicidal parkour? Mistrust of authority? Feeling of being oppressed and controlled? Tattoos? Piercings? Rejecting your birth name and choosing a cool one? Yes, yes, yes, yes, etc., etc.,

          Possibly this would all resonate much more profoundly if I were still a teenager. I got similar vibes at times from the “Harry Potter” books and films, but it wasn’t quite so bad, for some reason. Divergent made me feel as if I were peeking into the psyche of another generation: this can be instructive, fascinating, and even entertaining (a rough analogy is watching foreign films, which can reveal a lot about different cultures), but can also be frustrating.

          In post-war dystopian Chicago, Beatrice learns she doesn’t neatly fit into any of the five factions, and is in fact a “divergent” with attributes of several groups (as if being smart and truthful and kind is extremely rare—well, I suppose we must stipulate it is, in this film’s world). She chooses the tough-but-cool Dauntless faction (the polar opposite of her parents’ Abnegation tribe), changes her name to “Tris,” makes friends and enemies, manages to survive training and elimination (at least partly because she’s befriended by handsome coach Four, in a definite conflict of interest situation), and successfully hides her “divergence.” Although paramilitary Dauntless as a whole seems rather Nazi-like (they even dress in all-black uniforms), Tris seems pretty okay with the whole ruthless, violent thing until the sinister leader of the faction, Jeanine (dour Kate Winslet, joining Jodie Foster from Elysium and just about every other role Sigourney Weaver has done, post-Alien, as “sinister, tailored-suit-wearing corporate broads”), attempts to use Dauntless to eliminate not only the dangerously individualistic Divergents, but also the bleeding-heart liberal Abnegation clan. Because, you know, the subversives within must be neutralised before they can betray Chicago to the (unknown, unseen, unidentified) enemy outside the fence.

          As dopey as the overall idea is—bolstered by many, many dopey isolated sequences—Divergent still works as entertainment. Shailene Woodley and Theo James are appealing as Tris and Four, with Woodley in particular overcoming the script’s failings. She’s neither enfeebled by being an “emotional” teenager, nor unrealistically elevated to the role of super-woman, although her “divergent” brain does get her out of various sticky situations in a rather deus-ex-machina manner. It’s never made clear exactly what advantages Divergents possess, and if there are different levels or types of Divergents (I’m assuming we’ll get this in later entries in the series). Without debating the respective talent and attractiveness of either actress, I have to give Woodley as Tris the edge over Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games, in terms of being a likeable protagonist in the “teenage girl in an action-oriented dystopian film series based on popular Young Adult novels” category. This comparison isn’t completely objective, because many of the annoying things about The Hunger Games inflect the character of Katniss, whereas Tris exists in the illogical world of Divergent but seems less affected by it.

          Divergent is well-made overall. The mise-en-scene is satisfactory (again, if you don’t ask too many questions), the action scenes are staged and shot effectively, the visual effects are relatively limited and used judiciously. I’ve only seen one of Neil Burger’s previous films (Limitless—which wasn’t too bad), and I can’t fault his direction here: the underlying problems I have with the film seem to be rooted in the source novel and the screenplay (and, perhaps, in my own generationally-skewed perspective).

          Despite the myriad opportunities it provided for my snarky criticism, Divergent is surprisingly satisfactory entertainment. Maybe I wish the concept wasn’t so flawed and the execution so predictable, but…then I wouldn’t have had as much to write about, would I?

Strong Arms and Ruthless Masculine Insistance! (Romantic Confessions 2/2, 1951). Simply irresistible!  *cue Robert Palmer song*  (Yes, “insistence” is spelled wrong, but it’s only in her thought bubble, alright?) 

Strong Arms and Ruthless Masculine Insistance! (Romantic Confessions 2/2, 1951). Simply irresistible!  *cue Robert Palmer song*  (Yes, “insistence” is spelled wrong, but it’s only in her thought bubble, alright?) 

Blue Beetle has Mexican food for the first time. (Blue Beetle Comics 33, 1944).  

Blue Beetle has Mexican food for the first time. (Blue Beetle Comics 33, 1944).  

Need for Speed (2014) review

Watching Need for Speed is a bit like eating an entire container of ice cream: it’s enjoyable enough but you feel guilty because you know it’s foolish and potentially harmful to do so.

            Make no mistake, Need for Speed is a lazy, shallow, vaguely moronic and rather morally repugnant film, but the 2-hour running time passes swiftly and painlessly.  Dare we ask for more?  Strike that—of course we should ask for more in a film, but dare we expect more when going to the cinema to see a motion picture based on a video game about speeding cars?  Actually, Need for Speed borrows elements from a number of earlier movies—Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Cannonball Run, to name a few—some of which do deliver more intellectual substance…but this is 2014 and cinema audiences are a lot dumber now, thinks Hollywood.

            On the positive side, Need for Speed is technically rather good.  Lots of practical effects and not a huge amount of CGI. It also benefits from pleasant performers in the major roles.  Aaron Paul, a journeyman actor elevated to fame by television’s “Breaking Bad,” is fine as the hero.  It’s not his fault the script sketches his character so vaguely, but there are few isolated scenes (shots, even) where he exhibits a likeable roguishness that made me think of Jack Nicholson for some reason.  Imogen Poots, she of the hilarious last name (according to my middle-school-boy’s sensibility), is perky and attractive, and effectively treads a fine line between two stereotypes, the bubble-headed heroine and the excessively-competent heroine.  Villainy is handled by Dominic Cooper, who looks like the love child of Ray Liotta and Leonardo DiCaprio—although his role is as under-written as everyone else, he’s adequately hissable.

            So, a fast-paced, exciting film with decent actors in the lead roles?  Is there anything wrong with Need for Speed?  Ah, now you’ve gone and done it.  Release the Kraken!  And by “Kraken” I mean “everything I didn’t like about Need for Speed.” 

            I have no serious issues with a movie lifting plot points, themes, images, characters, and so forth, from earlier films: call this “paying tribute,” or an homage, or a “lack of original ideas,” I still don’t mind, much.  Some filmmakers (*cough* Tarantino *cough*) would be out of business if there were no previous movies from which to draw inspiration.  I actually like the fact that Need for Speed utilises several major motifs from the mostly-forgotten-although-a-minor-cult-film Vanishing Point (1971): a cross-country (well, in the earlier movie it’s just Colorado to San Francisco) car chase, overseen by an omniscient disc jockey (in Vanishing Point  this role is played by Cleavon Little—in Need for Speed it’s Michael Keaton, but African-American Scott Mescudi appears as a helpful deus ex machina pilot, performing some of the same hip/helpful “minority character befriends the white hero” functions as Little’s character did in the first movie).   Need for Speed also borrows aspects of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), another cult film about a cross-country “challenge” race, and the homage to Cannonball Run (1981)—yet one more illegal, cross-country street race story—is obvious. 

            What do irritate me are the lazy, predictable movie-tropes that litter Need for Speed.  Unlike homages, tropes don’t point to specific older films in a respectful manner, they’re simply short-cuts taken by filmmakers who don’t take the time or make the effort to write something original.  To cite two examples: Tobey (Paul) and rival Dino (Cooper) decide to settle a financial disagreement via a street race, using several fancy Euro sports cars belonging to Dino’s dad.  But there are three such cars, so Tobey’s friend “Little Pete” (described as “like a brother” to Tobey, and the literal younger brother of Toby’s ex-girlfriend) convinces Tobey to let him participate as well.  Hmmm….do you think something might happen to Little Pete during this race?  He may as well be wearing a shirt with a “Dead Man Walking” logo, because yes, there is a crash, and yes, Little Pete goes to that big auto wrecking yard in the sky, which lays a guilt trip on Tobey (and also sends him to prison for 2 years, Dino having sneaked off after the race, leaving Tobey to take the blame and pay the penalty).

            One more example of “Oh, I could totally see that coming”:  Tobey and his crew have restored a vintage Mustang car for Dino.  The car is put on display before being sold.  An attractive young woman (Julia, played by Imogen Poots) admires it.  Tobey’s pals, knowing that—because she’s a girl—she must be totally clueless when it comes to automobiles, flirt with her in a condescending way.  But wait!  Pop the hood, expose the car’s engine, and suddenly Julia reveals she is the world’s foremost female automotive expert (slight exaggeration), spouting technical jargon about carburetors and such.  What a surprise!  Except for anyone who’s ever seen My Cousin Vinnie or any other movie or TV show containing a similar “reverse stereotype” reveal.

            Not an over-used trope but annoying enough are the numerous logical flaws in the film’s plot.  Tobey has to drive the Mustang (now owned by Julia’s boss) across the continental United States in 45 hours to participate in the “De Leon” illegal street race in California.  Julia goes along, of course.  Why drive?  Couldn’t the car’s owner hire a cargo plane, which would not only guarantee it’ll arrive on the West Coast in time (so Tobey wouldn’t have to break speed laws in dozens of states on his way), but also remove any possibility of, oh, an accident on the road?  Also hard to swallow are Tobey’s pal Mustang’s ability to repeatedly steal multiple aircraft, and how Tobey’s other pals—driving a truck with a fuel tank, tools, etc.—manage to arrive in California only slightly later than Tobey does, having started from roughly the same place at the same time.  That’s one fast truck!  Maybe it should be in the race, too! 

            By the way, Tobey’s Mustang gets wrecked (told ya!) so he needs another car for the De Leon competition.  He’s tipped off to the location of the “third car” from the race in which Little Paul was killed, the car Dino was driving (and then, miraculously, managed to erase from the minds of the many witnesses to the fact that there were three cars driving through traffic in broad daylight).  This will “clear” Tobey of guilt, hooray!  Time to call the cops, right?  No, first Tobey will steal the car and drive it in the De Leon, because…well, because driving in this race is more important than proving he didn’t cause his best friend’s death?  Oh, and after breaking literally hundreds of laws across the entire country, Tobey serves less than six months in jail at film’s end? Get me his lawyer’s name, please.

            I won’t dwell on another point, even though it is something I’ve been thinking about for years when watching films with similar “restricted” settings (people trapped in a cave, a wrecked building, etc.): Tobey and Julia are speeding across the country, non-stop, so…what do they eat?  How do they get gasoline?  (We see their pit crew refuel them, once, as they are speeding down the highway) How do they go to the bathroom? (We see them stop one time)  I’d give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they stopped various times, except that the script makes a point of their urgency: having them refueled “on the go” in that one sequence, and later having Julia switch seats with Tobey—without stopping the car—so she can drive while he sleeps.  That seems to suggest there are some urine-filled bottles in that Shelby Mustang…yechh.

            Not to seem like an arch-conservative (which I’m clearly not), but Need for Speed bothered me a bit, morally.  I’m not opposed to films about lawbreakers, not even films with lawbreakers as the protagonists.  Got anti-heroes?  Bring ‘em on. (I mean, who among us hasn’t committed a serious crime in our lives? I know I have…er, forget I said that.) However, I’m not that comfortable with a film like Need for Speed, which is about illegal street racing (not legitimate auto racing on a track), portraying it as a fun, honourable activity which is engaged in for recreation and/or money.  Not “I’m doing this to pay for my grandmother’s heart operation” or “Gangsters are going to kill my daughter if I don’t win this race,” or any other sort of reason that would legitimise (or at least partially mitigate) such anti-social behaviour. 

            It’s one thing to depict lawless, selfish, dangerous behaviour in a comedic context—Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, et al.—or in a farce (Death Race 2000), or a “serious” movie about existential stuff (Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, etc.), but Need for Speed asks us to admire and enjoy reckless driving that results in the destruction of property, the mobilisation of enormous public resources (police, fire, rescue), and—undoubtedly—the death and/or serious injury of numerous people.  The only confirmed death is that of Little Paul, and that’s because it’s a major motivating plot point.  But do you really think everyone walked away unscathed from the many car crashes shown in the film—other racers, police cars, etc.?  In comedies, the filmmakers occasionally show the cops emerging from their wrecked vehicles unhurt, but even if they don’t, we sort of assume no one was harmed.  But Need for Speed is an orgy of fiery, explosive crashes, caused by self-centered individuals who put everyone at risk—remember, these are illegal street races, taking place on public roads accessible to everyone (a school bus even appears in one scene, as if the filmmakers were thumbing their nose at the audience—“See?  We’re endangering these children!  Isn’t it exciting?”). 

            I’m not calling for a boycott of the film and, truth be told, my moral dudgeon wasn’t especially aroused as I was watching Need for Speed—only in retrospect did I feel slightly offended that I’d been made somewhat complicit in the film’s sociopathic worldview.  Heaven help me, I actually enjoyed Need for Speed, at least moderately.

            [Allow me to defend myself against potential accusations of creeping Philistinism: consecutive reviews of 300: Rise of an Empire and Need for Speed ? Am I breathing through my mouth these days or what?  I would have preferred to see either Bad Words or The Grand Budapest Hotel, but neither of these films was readily accessible to me.  I’ll try to rectify this and rehabilitate my tarnished film-snob credentials, soon.]

Xenophobic much? “Americans don’t dress and talk like you. I hate you!” “Stop living!” (Romantic Confessions 1949 and Military Comics 1945). 

Xenophobic much? “Americans don’t dress and talk like you. I hate you!” “Stop living!” (Romantic Confessions 1949 and Military Comics 1945). 

300: Rise of an Empire (2014) review

 My initial interest in 300: Rise of an Empire, was purely academic. I didn’t see the original 300, and while my response to the question by Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane!—“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”—would be…”sometimes (and don’t call me Joey),” I’m not a true devotee of the sword-and-sandal, peplum, or whatever else one cares to call films set in the “ancient world” (aka “classical antiquity”). Many years ago, Channel 5 in Washington DC had a regular slot on Saturdays that showed “gladiator movies,” but that’s about the extent of my exposure to this genre, which is rather surprisingly still commercially viable (Clash of the Titans, Pompeii, The Legend of Hercules, etc.—some of these were box-office flops, but at least they were made).

I watched 300: Rise of an Empire more or less by default, in the absence of any other compelling new release. Not that I would have seen it if it had been completely unappealing—life’s too short for that and I’m not a paid film reviewer, thank goodness—but I was a bit curious about the “300 style,” and how it would be handled by a different director than Zack Snyder. (Noam Murro, to be precise. Wait, who?)

As far as I can tell, the “300 style” means excessive pictorialism: composing shots and sequences for their visual effect, to the exclusion of just about everything else. The look of the film is extremely dark, artificial, and mannered. Desaturated colours throughout. Heavy use of chiaoscuro. Not a second of footage appears to have been shot on an actual location (it may well have been, but it doesn’t look it). Each snippet of hand-to-hand combat (and there is a fair amount in the movie) is broken down into “normal speed” (thrust, parry, clang, clang of swords) and “slow motion” (killing stroke, blood sprays into the air), after which “normal speed” resumes once again. Minimalist plot and characterisation. Lots of shouting. Stylised but graphic violence (including: horse stomps man’s head flat, head chopped off, and so on).

Is it effective? In a purely aesthetic sense, perhaps. I think this is what audiences expected, given the franchise tag, and I grudgingly admire the formal rigour involved in the film’s creation. 300: Rise of an Empire is not un-entertaining, but I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this sort of excessive stylisation.

The plot is sketchy, mostly a framework upon which to hang the various battle set-pieces. The “300" reference in the title was necessary for marketing purposes, but has little significance in the film itself ("Rise of an Empire" is also misleading, since no empire really rises): "300" refers to the 300 Spartans of the first movie, who are occasionally mentioned in this one, but play no real part. It’s as if there was a film called Iron Man: A Hero Emerges, starring Hawkeye, who verbally references Iron Man three or four times.

Persian Xerxes sees his father killed by Athenian general Themistocles. After a vision quest in the desert, Xerxes takes a dip in a magic pool and emerges as a fully-accessorised, bald giant. He and eeevvvillll Artemisia—who commands the Persian fleet—set off to invade Greece, Xerxes by land and Artemisia by sea. Since the story of Xerxes and the 300 Spartans has already been told, 300: Rise of an Empire focuses on the naval campaign, pitting Artemisia against—surprise!—Themistocles, concluding with the battle of Salamis.

Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, who looks really familiar but is an Australian actor I’ve never seen or heard of) doesn’t have much personality (although the widespread critcism of Stapleton’s perfomance seems overkill), so Artemisia (Eva Green, very scary) gets the bulk of the back-story and does most of the scenery-chewing. The other characters are either only occasionally seen (Xerxes, Queen Gorgo of Sparta), or are more or less indistinguishable guys-with-beards (well, there is one younger guy without a beard, and one guy with a moustache and goatee), most of whom get killed off (Artemisia dispatches a fair number of them personally, including one who is so riddled with arrows that he looks like a St. Sebastian wall ornament). It’s slightly foolish to quibble about accents in a film where ancient Greeks and Persians are all speaking English, but it is amusing to hear the plummy British accents of most of the cast (I suppose this sounds “classy,” which could then be extrapolated to “classical”).

I don’t have a lot of say about 300: Rise of an Empire. It was never boring, and runs just a tad over an hour-and-a-half, so it didn’t waste my time unduly. The action is relatively non-stop, which is good, even if it’s arty “graphic novel”-style action (having just watched The Raid: Redemption last week on DVD, allow me to say I prefer that sort of on-screen fighting: it’s hardly “realistic” but it’s not buried under layers of optical effects). Eva Green is a bad-ass villain. As stated above, I wouldn’t want to watch a lot of films made in this particular style, but as a novelty, this one was…alright.